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a little road trip

March 22, 2009

Day 6 – Tuscany road trip

I probably looked forward to this day more than any other of the entire trip. The plan was to rent a car and drive through the Tuscan countryside and return the car to Florence before dark. It turned out to be one of the best and scariest days of my life all rolled into one.

rental-car1The car rental lady was 15 minutes late to open, but I was trying really hard to relax and not think about the clock. With only a few minor difficulties we climbed into the tiny blue manual transmission Kia Picanto and got on the road. We couldn’t figure out how to get the GPS set to where we wanted it to go, so we relied on my own map and directions from Google to get us out of the city. It was intimidating, but flawless so far. Within minutes we were driving down a windy road through olive groves and vineyard estates.

We finally got the GPS figured out and it navigated us fairly well through the beautiful countryside to our first destination – Monteriggioni. It is a medieval walled city, still functional, but in a highly tourist oriented fashion. I thought it was cute, but not quite as exciting to see as I had hoped.

monteriggioni1

From there we headed to Siena. Siena was a nice surprise. I expected it to be a lot like Florence, only smaller. In some ways it was similar, but so much less crowded, noisy, and smelly. Driving in the city is only permitted for residents. Everyone else has to park outside the walls. We found a spot and began to walk up the hill to the main part of town.

When we saw the buildings towering over our heads and noted the very steep climb to get up to them, we almost gave up on it. Then we spied signs directing us to an escalator. No, not one escalator, several. Maybe 8-10 long escalators carrying you to the top of the town. When we finally emerged at the top, we were pleasantly surprised at what we found. The town was beautiful and pristinely clean and quiet.

On our way to the cathedral we stopped in a little shop and bought some grapes and olive oil. We snacked on the grapes as we wandered through the streets. In many ways it reminded me of Venice, just without the water. The cathedral and the piazza were definitely beautiful, but I just loved the whole town. I would love to be able to come back and spend more time there. It would be a great base for a Tuscany trip.

We saw as much as we thought we could of Siena and then climbed back in the car and headed toward the final stop on our Tuscany drive, the Abbey of San Galgano. It is actually the ruins of an abbey about 40 minutes from Siena, out in the middle of nowhere. I can’t even begin to describe how beautiful it was. I sat in the grass outside this abbey, listening not to church bells this time, but to the cooing of dozens of pigeons who have made their home in its walls. I couldn’t help but pity the pigeons who wander so many dirty city streets around the world. If I were a pigeon, this is where I would be.

san-galgano-3san-galgano-2

san-galgano

swordAfter exploring the ruins, we headed up the hill to the current functioning abbey, Montisiepi. There we saw the “sword in the rock”. The legend says that Montisiepi flung his sword toward the rock to denounce his sinful life, but instead of breaking, the sword plunged into the rock. He took it as a sign of God’s acceptance of his vow and eventually became Saint Galgano Montisiepi. On the way back down the hill we stopped to buy some wine and olive oil from the monks.

It was getting late and though I could have stayed at San Galgano forever, the fear of driving through Florence in the dark was powerful enough to get us in the car and back on the road. Most of the drive back was uneventful. We set the GPS to home and got on the Autoastrade (freeway) and drove 100 km per hour toward Florence. It sounds fast, but it really isn’t.  Just outside of Florence we managed to find a place to get some gas, and since the tiny car got such great gas mileage it only cost about 10 euro to fill it up. Yay. Once again on the road to Florence, we started to get into some more congested traffic. None of the area seemed familiar and the GPS seemed to be directing us away from Florence and toward Pisa. Sure enough, I had assumed that “home” was the rental garage, but I was wrong. We were headed into the most crowded part of town, during rush hour, and the sun was setting quickly.

If you haven’t heard about driving in Italian cities, let me just say it is not something that any sane, normal person should ever try. There are no lanes. The city streets become a free for all. If there is 6 inches of space, there is a car in it. What would be one lane in the US is packed three cars wide in Florence. Cars change lanes constantly and unexpectedly without signals. The motorcycles weave in and out of the cars and into any space they can find. There appear to be no traffic rules whatsoever. The next 45 minutes or so of the night I have tried to block from my memory. There was a lot of me praying, a lot of me saying “oh God, oh God, oh God, we are going to die”, and a lot of Eric telling me to be quiet and calm down. We finally got the GPS programmed right, but it was apparently confused about which direction all the one way streets actually went. It kept telling us to turn the wrong way, then yelling at us to turn around when we didn’t do what it said. Then it directed us through a bus only lane (we’re still praying that some camera didn’t catch us and give us a ticket). Finally Eric gave up on the GPS and managed to maneuver us through the town and back the garage. When we finally parked the car I was shaking so bad I could hardly walk. Eric thought it was great. He blended in with the Italian drivers like a pro.

We will be home on Tuesday and I will post on the trip to Rome when we get back.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. March 22, 2009 10:50 am

    I am so enjoying your adventure!!!

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