The Green Heart of Italy
*This is the 5th and final post in my Adventures in Italy blog series. Click here to read part 1, “Livin’ Like a Local.” Part 2, “When in Rome… Literally,” can be found here. To read part 3, “The Canals (and Crowds) of Venice,” click here. Part 4, “Italy’s Hidden Gem,” is here.
[dc]W[/dc]e’re sad to say goodbye to Vernazza and Cinque Terre. The lovely people of this quaint village have welcomed us with such open arms, and the vibe has been exactly what we needed after all of our traveling, racing, and rushing. It’s so relaxing here and the spectacular natural beauty forces you to be present in every moment. However, we’re also really excited to have the freedom of a car, the adventure of navigating the Italian roadways (yikes!), and the pleasure of stopping in Tuscany on our way to Umbria. And we’re eager we are to meet our next CouchSurfing hosts!
We catch a train to La Spezia, where we’ll be picking up our rental car. Unfortunately, the car company isn’t located at the train station, so we’ll have to figure that out once we arrive. Once there, we easily find a TI (tourist information) stand and show the worker the address for the rental agency. She hands us a map and says we can either take a taxi (pricey), or a bus, which stops right outside the door of the train station. Well, that’s a no brainer. Bus it is!
Before boarding, we confirm with the driver that this bus is going where we need it to by pointing at the street on the map. He nods his head, and off we go. Another couple steps on the bus right behind us and mentions they’re going to the same place. They’re visiting from Australia. “Great!” I say. “We’ll find it together.”
As we maneuver through the city, I’m trying my hardest to find where we are on the map in relation to where we want to go. Just when I think I’ve found it, some landmark tells me I’m wrong. As it usually goes, I become the one leading the charge — Missy and the other couple are looking at me as if I know what I’m doing. Boy, do I have them fooled.
The bus comes to a red light, and as I finally look up from my map, I see the kind face of an elderly woman sitting in the seat near me. She gives me a gentle smile. “Inglese?” I ask. “No,” she says. Darnit! Here come the charades again. I show her the map and point to the street we’re looking for. “St. Bartholomew’s?” I say as I point back and forth at the traffic light intersection where the bus is currently. She shakes her head and says a bunch of things in Italian. “Mi dispiace. Non capisco,” I respond. She becomes my charades partner.
She says something while pointing forward repeatedly. “Oh, keep going,” I say pointing in a similar fashion. “Si.” The couple from Australia looks at me with a smile. “Wow, you know some Italian. That’s great!” Ha! Hardly. I’m just really good at this game by now. When we arrive at the street, the nice woman taps me. “Si. Si. Si.” “St. Bartholomew’s?” The bus is now a chorus of helpful people all nodding and chanting, “Si. Si. Si!” The woman then stands, tugs the stop cord, and the driver pulls over. “Let’s go get a car,” I say to Missy and the Aussies. “Grazie mille, grazie mille,” I wave to everyone on my way out. (I’ve learned that Italians repeat themselves a lot, and I now find myself doing it).
We find a street number on a house, compare that to the number of the rental agency, and start trekking down the street, luggage in tow. Fortunately, we only have a couple of blocks to go. We get our car (a cute, zippy, little Fiat), and we’re off! A direct drive from La Spezia to Corciano, Umbria, (our next destination) would take us about three hours, but we decide to stop for a bit in Lucca, Tuscany, on our way, as we’ve heard from several people about its beauty. It takes us just over an hour to arrive in Lucca, and although our hearts are still in our throats from the frenetic pace of Italian drivers, we’re excited to let its beauty ground us.
An Ancient Walled City
Lucca is a beautiful, little city in Tuscany protected by 16th century walls. It’s a hidden treasure, for sure, as most tourists head off to Florence or Pisa when in the general area. Filled with beautiful villas and gardens, we’re immediately taken back in time upon entering.
It feels very very old-world Italian here, and it totally aligns with our mission on this trip to live like a local. Although we feel like we’re someplace we shouldn’t be, as if we’re intruding in a private city, the residents simply go about their business, smiling as they pass.
To really get the feel of the city, we decide to rent bikes at one of the many rental spots around. For a surprisingly low cost, we’re on our way. First order of business? The three-mile loop along the top of Lucca’s walls. Many think, as I did, that the path is a very narrow strip; however, it’s very wide — in fact, it was once used as a racetrack!
This is so Italian; biking along, passing horse-drawn carriages, and ringing our bells to warn pedestrians that we’re coming. The views from up here are gorgeous! The lavish landscape, the ancient architecture, and the slow-paced living of the locals below do just as we had hoped. No residual stress is left from our drive here!
After we’ve finished the loop, we keep the bikes for a bit longer to do some more geocaching. While we’re unsuccessful at finding the treasures, it’s still fun to bike through all the small streets and search. Oh wait! We do find a couple of treasures. Just not the kinds we had imagined.
We stumble onto a large, outdoor market where vendors are selling all sorts of items from trinkets to pottery to food. We also come upon the Cathedral of San Martino. At the doorway is a beautiful-in-its-simplicity, small (18-inch diameter), labyrinth on the pillar, dating back to the 6th century. Worshipers are invited to trace it with their finger to leave their worries before entering.
We finish off our day with another great meal at a restaurant in Lucca (yay! Something other than pasta or pizza! I have the pork), and off we go to drive the rest of the way to Corciano, Umbria, to meet Massimo and Isis.
Meeting Our CouchSurfing Hosts
By the time we get in the area, it’s dusk. Hopefully, their place isn’t too tricky to find. As we follow the GPS, we find ourselves climbing higher and higher toward a quaint neighborhood. Funny. When Massimo sent me Google maps to show where their house is and where the parking options are, I thought they lived on a cul-de-sac. How very American of me.
After several hairpin turns and travel down roads that look like private driveways, we find ourselves hundreds of feet up, stopped in the middle of a medieval village, not sure where to turn next. According to our GPS, we’re in the right place, but since I was expecting a “neighborhood” as I know it, we stop, confused.
We pull over, get out of our little car, and stretch our legs. As we take in the breathtaking view (even at night), I call Massimo to let him know we think we’ve arrived. With my lack of Italian and his broken English, we struggle to communicate, but I’m able to decipher that he’s sending Isis out to find us and that we are, in fact, in the right place. Phew.
We look around, stunned at the quaintness and the beauty of this village. It’s like its own little town. Come to find out, it is. This village is Corciano, not a village within Corciano.
As we walk around a bit, careful not to stray too far from our car, my phone rings, and it’s Isis. “Where are you?” she asks.
“Um, near your house?” I say unsurely.
“Describe what’s around you.”
I do my best to comply, which ends up being successful because she finds us. We see a young woman walking briskly toward us, phone still against her ear. “I think I see you!” she says and begins waving.
“Yes! It’s us!”
We hug hello, and she shows us where to park (there are no “driveways” for the houses. Picture a townhouse-like complex, only much cooler, much more beautiful, and way older). We find a spot for our car and follow Isis to her house.
It’s about 8 PM and we arrive to find dinner being made for us. What a lovely, unexpected surprise! If you’re unfamiliar with the CouchSurfing concept, this is not expected or required. Offering a free place to stay is more than generous.
They show us where we’ll be staying — a beautiful guest room with a queen-size bed, gorgeous furnishings, and shuttered windows that open up to a lovely garden. We drop our bags and say we’d like to freshen up a bit before dinner.
“Right next door to your room is your bathroom. Make yourself at home,” Isis says. They head back downstairs to the kitchen.
Mis and I step out of the bedroom and into the bathroom — a large, four-piece bathroom that is ours exclusively during our stay! Oh, this is just too much! Again, with CouchSurfing, you may find yourself on someone’s floor, couch, cot in a living room, or a guest room. While you do know what you’re agreeing to before asking someone to host you (whether you’ll have private sleeping quarters or not), you can’t be certain what the guest room and other accommodations will look like. We have totally lucked out on our trip to Italy, both with Luca and Ilaria, and now with Massimo and Isis. A private bedroom and our own adjacent bathroom? Some of the loveliest people we’ve ever met? Total score. Check out the view from our room!
We head to the kitchen to join them for dinner. Isis has made an unbelievably delicious chicken dish. We haven’t had chicken in over a week, so we’re psyched! The conversation flows as we all share things about our lives. Massimo, a physician in nuclear medicine, is a proud native of Italy with lots of love for his city of Perugia (the capital of Umbria). Isis, an International Relations specialist, is originally from Mexico, but her love for Massimo has made Italy her home. The wine flows as easily as the conversation, and there seems to be an endless supply of both.
As we sit at their kitchen table, we once again find ourselves experiencing exactly the type of situation we were shooting for in our Living Like a Local European trip. No cold, standard hotel room with a stale continental breakfast for us. In someone’s home, you feel the energy not only of the family but of the town, province, and country. We get to bear witness to a “day in the life” and get recommendations to places we’d never find in a guidebook.
Unfortunately, Massimo has broken his foot and is in a cast. He was hoping to take us out and show us some of his favorite sights, but his injury prevents him from doing so. However, with his tips, maps, and brochures, he is, in fact, our tour guide, just minus the accompaniment.
We give him an idea of what we’re looking to do and experience while in the area, and he offers suggestions for cities (Siena, Perugia, Orvieto, Todi), vineyards, beautiful scenic drives, and more. He also gives us an Italian cell phone to use during our stay, as well as a key to their home! We continue to be blown away by their generosity. We draft out an itinerary for the next few days, and then head off to bed.
The next morning, we venture downstairs to the kitchen. Isis and Massimo are already gone — she’s his temporary chauffeur as his foot heals — but they leave an assortment of breakfast options on the table. Again, offerings like this are way above and beyond what is typical with CouchSurfing.
Today we are off to Siena. Interesting, little tidbit — did you know the Crayola crayon color “burnt sienna” is named after the buildings here? Now go impress your friends. You’re welcome.
Siena is a beautiful city — simple and elegant. All of these cities are situated so high up. It takes more than five escalator rides to get to this one! During our visit, we take our time roaming around, popping into shops and enjoying the architecture. It’s so nice to be moving at this leisurely pace, which is very different from our time in Rome.
And Mangiare Some More!
After our day in the city, we head back to Corciano in time for another unexpected and delicious dinner made by Isis. As customary, we start with a variety of fresh cheeses, bread, and wine, and then we move on to the main course: a simple dish of pasta, yet it’s the best we’ve ever had. “How is it that a bowl of pasta is so delicious here?” I ask. Isis tells us that the most important thing in their meal preparation is the quality of the ingredients. Instead of loading the dish with all sorts of this and that, they keep things very simple, with few ingredients, making sure to use top-notch quality. And boy, what a difference it makes!
After dinner, we’re treated to more wine, shortbread cookies, and fruit. Then, the taste test comes — Isis and Massimo each prepare bresaola in their own way, and they want us to taste each and tell us which is better. We don’t even know what bresaola is! Come to findout, it’s an air-dried, salted beef that’s been aged for several months and is very dark red in color. Massimo prepares it very traditionally — sliced (yes, they have a deli slicer as part of their normal kitchen appliances!) with olive oil drizzled on top — again, in an effort to have you enjoy the flavor of the main ingredient rather than dousing it with all sorts of toppings. Isis, on the other hand, prepares hers sliced, with balsamic vinegar and cheese on it.
“That’s not fair,” Massimo says. “Of course Americans are going to like it with all those toppings!” And he’s right — Isis’s bresaola wins!
You’d never know that only a couple days ago, we were complete strangers. We’re chatting, laughing, and totally at ease with our hosts. And we’re feeling blessed.
We find out that Massimo is a huge soccer fan, and he and Isis have tickets to a game the next night in nearby Perugia. “We love soccer, too,” Missy says. “We both play and were hoping to catch a game while in Rome, but it didn’t work out.” And away we go, on and on about soccer.
Finally, we wrap up the night and turn in. Tomorrow’s agenda is a vineyard tour and a visit to the city of Orvieto.
After a great night’s sleep, we meet up with Isis and Massimo in the kitchen. Massimo suggests a vineyard owned by a friend’s family, which is near Orvieto. Perfect! “Also,” he says, “how would you two like to join us at the soccer match this evening?” Hell, yeah! Italy doesn’t make it easy to get tickets to their games, which is why most people just watch them on TV. We have to give him all the information on our passports in order for him to get us our tickets at the stadium, and at the game, show up with the ticket and a photo ID in case they want to check. We’re so excited! He refuses to take any money for the tickets and insists on treating us. They have already gone so far out of their way to make us feel welcome, this feels like way too much, but he will not hear of anything different. We plan on meeting them in Perugia at the stadium that night.
For now, we’re off to Antonelli vineyards for a tour and wine tasting, or so we thought. We arrive at the vineyard at the same time as a thunderstorm. No tour for us. We can’t complain as this is our 10th day in the country and the first time we’ve seen rain. Fortunately, the wine tasting is inside, so that’s still a go. And really, isn’t that the best part of a vineyard visit anyway? We get to try six different delicious wines.
After our tasting, we continue into Orvieto. We park at the train station and find out we get to take a funicular up to the city! Before seeing it on The Amazing Race a few seasons ago (a show we hope to be on in the future, by the way), we didn’t know what a funicular was (it’s a cable railway that brings you up a steep hill). This particular funicular was first built in 1888 and used until 1970. It was then suspended and not used for 20 years. The technology was upgraded in 1990, and it has been in use since. Cool stuff.
Orvieto is another gorgeous, quaint, smaller city with some of the most beautiful doors we’ve ever seen. Yes, doors. Missy becomes fascinated and takes a ton of photos of them. Every place we visit, we’re amazed by the ancient architecture. Truly breathtaking.
Soccer with a Wonderfully Raucous Crowd
Next, we’re off to Perugia for sightseeing and the soccer game. This time, we’re treated to a brand new form of transportation here — the MiniMetro. These adorable, small, subway-type cars run on their own (no driver) and take you right into the city. They remind us of the monorail in Disney World, only much smaller and brand-spankin’ new. When we arrive in Perugia, we’re on a mission to find Missy some pants — the temperature has dropped considerably and she’ll freeze at the soccer game. We had no idea how difficult this search would be. Being a very fashion-forward country, it’s hard to find a simple pair of sweatpants, and you’re not going to find Missy in a pair of runway-style, blinged-out jeans! We eventually come across the only sports store in town, and, because she’s desperate, we buy a $45 pair of Nike sweatpants.
After a few hours in Perugia, we’re off to meet Isis and Massimo for the soccer game. So exciting! We meet up outside the stadium and head into our seats. Looking around, we see there’s a lot more men at the game than women, and these guys are passionate! Arms flailing, comments flying at the players and referees, and jumping and cheering. It’s fantastic to be in a country that really appreciates the sport of soccer. This picture shows some dedicated fans sitting in the shape of a heart in support of their team.
Their energy is infectious, and before we know it, we find ourselves up, barking at the ref, and waving our arms around. Although we don’t understanding each others’ language, that doesn’t stop us and the guys around us from celebrating and commiserating together. What a blast! The only thing we could’ve done without was the unbelievably excessive amount of smoking. *Cough*
It’s a close, tense game, but Massimo’s team pulls out the win. “You’re our lucky charms,” he says to us. “You have to come back for every game!” Sounds good to us.
We get home around 11 PM, and despite the late hour, Massimo encourages Isis to make us dinner. We’ve learned not to argue. Another fantastic meal to end another wonderful day.
The next day, we must leave Isis and Massimo and head back to Rome to go home. While we’re sad to say goodbye to our new friends, we’re more excited to have met and started a life-long friendship. We can’t possibly thank them enough as we bid them farewell, and then we’re on our way.
Our Final Stops in Italy
On our drive back to Rome, we make a stop in beautiful Todi (a final recommendation from Massimo) and then head back to our original hotel room in Rome. When we arrive, we’re sure the older man working the desk must be impressed with our improved Italian since we were last here two weeks ago. Oh yes, I’m sure he’s blown away by our ability to say, “thank you very much.”
Exhausted from all of our travels, we crash early, sad to be ending our unforgettable trip but also excited to be going home.
We wake up refreshed and relieved that our flight isn’t until the afternoon. This way, we can have a leisurely breakfast and have plenty of time to find the airport — shouldn’t be difficult as the GPS says it’s only 20 minutes away.
We load up our luggage and hit the road. An hour later (yes an HOUR later!), we finally find the airport. The signage on the way is total crap and we found ourselves going ’round in circles, tracking the same routes while trying to follow the GPS to get there. We zip in to the rental car return, grab our bags and go! Now, we’re really late. Fingers crossed that we’ll make our flight…
We get our boarding passes, check our bags, and run — literally run — to the security line. Talk about practice for our future appearance on The Amazing Race! Missy’s running ahead with her backpack on, and I’m falling behind with mine weighing me down. Missy yells, “C’mon, Kerri. We gotta haul ass!” “I can’t run anymore…” I say. Oh no, I’m THAT team member.
We get to the security line and it is H.U.G.E. I know, if we have to wait in this line, I know we’ll never make our flight. I ask Missy to watch our bags, and I head up to the front. “Inglese? Inglese?” I plea. A couple, second in line, speaks English. I explain our situation and beg them to let us cut in line. They are more than willing to help. “C’mon, Missy, get up here.” Missy stands still, looking puzzled. “C’mon, these nice people are going to let us go in front of them.” This is not Missy’s comfort zone. She feels funny cutting the hundred or so people in line. I, too, am usually much more courteous, but desperate times call for desperate measures. I keep waving her up, and she begrudgingly comes.
We then run to our gate, which, of course, is the furthest away. They’ve already started boarding the plane, but we make it on. Phew! The flight ends up leaving about 10 minutes late, which isn’t a big deal normally, except we have a tight connection in London. Uh oh.
We arrive at Heathrow, and the race is back on. We would’ve been able to make our connection if we hadn’t foolishly booked the flights as two separate legs. As a result, we had to get our checked baggage from baggage claim and re-check it. Stupid, stupid, stupid. We literally had to get our bags, leave the airport and come back in as new passengers to get to where we needed to go. By the time we get to the desk to check in and re-check our bags, the guy behind the counter looks at our tickets, smiles and shakes his head. “You’ll never make it. Sorry. However, there’s another flight in three hours, and it’s pretty empty, so I can give you each your own row.”
With all the running and rushing we’ve been doing today, we’re actually relieved to have an unexpected three-hour break in the mayhem. And the flight we are supposed to be on is booked solid, so we’d much rather have rows to ourselves. Done!
We check in for that flight, give our bags and head off to get something to eat. A cocktail is definitely in my future. So, after a good meal and a yummy cosmo, we head to our gate with plenty of time to spare. We sit back and watch as people are randomly selected for an additional security search right at the British Airways gate — Missy included. Most people take it just fine. One guy did not.
After refusing and complaining for about 20 minutes, he finally gave in and then was very thoroughly checked. I’m impressed how professional and calm the British Airways folks remain, given the passenger’s cursing and complaining. With only a little concern that this guy is on our flight, we finally get to board and we’re off; eager to be home at this point!
Home, Sweet Home
We finally land in Boston and board the bus to ride the final hour home. My sister and her husband are a sight for sore eyes at the bus station, and we can’t wait to see our kitties, scrub off the travel filth, and sleep in our own bed.
After sharing some stories from our trip, we say goodbye to Cheryl and Michael and crash. Waking the next morning — alright, afternoon — I think back to the great experiences we had, the wonderful people we met, and how we truly were able to live a lot like locals. This adventure, a gift to ourselves for our 40th birthdays, is one we will never forget.
Thank you, Italy, for your warmth and beauty. Thanks Luca and Ilaria for your hospitality, and thanks Max and Isis for all of your generosity as well. We look forward to hosting you all here in the U.S. someday soon.
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