Americanos Stupido

Today was a relatively low-key day. We went to one place, Siena, then returned to Loro Ciuffenna. We didn’t plan it that way. Then again, we didn’t make any definite plans. That’s how we wanted it.

Siena is an hour’s drive from Loro Ciuffenna, about the same distance going south as Firenze was going north yesterday. Loro Ciuffenna is centrally located in Tuscany. With our intention for the week of exploring the greater Tuscany region, I’m not sure we could have selected a better base city.

In fact, Siena was only the first of several towns we considered as possible destinations for today. But, having no schedule to follow, we were carefree and unhurried. After almost getting lost on the side roads from Firenze last night, today we stuck to the Autostrade, A1/E35, into Siena.

We got off A1 at Uscita Siena, the Siena exit, and followed E78 for another 45 kilometers, passing grape orchards scattered on both sides of the road and homes made of cement and bricks.

As we rounded a corner into Lucignano, we saw a woman uncovering olive trees that she had protected the night before from a frost scare.

The road was as bumpy as any we’ve seen in Italy, a patchwork of blacktop repairs, not nearly as well maintained as the Autostrade. Emily said, “It looks as cheesy here as in the U.S. The funds aren’t going here.” Still, there were no potholes on E78, or construction delays anywhere. In the United States, drivers begin seeing orange cones ten, fifteen miles before repairs actually begin, as if their purpose is more decorative than functional. They’re annoying, they’re dangerous, and they cause traffic to slow down for miles at a time going both ways because of closed lanes on one side of the road and gawkers on the other. In Italy, the cones are strictly functional, surrounding the areas being repaired but no more. We can count the number of delays we’ve seen on one hand since we left Rome.

During the growing season, crops grow up and down the hillside. Now, growing season is done. The ground in the fields has been aerated and appeared as clumps of dirt.

Harrie said years ago there were fewer forests than there are now because goats and sheep ate the natural growth. Since the 1800s, woods have been planted. Straight lines of trees attest to the planned vegetation.

The history of Siena is one of religious autocracies, power struggles between the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy, rivalry with neighboring Florence, plagues, dynasties, and schools of art and Sienese-Gothic architecture that give it its style today and mark it still as a major tour center. The air is as crisp as the countryside, a tribute to Siena’s distinction as the first city in Europe to ban driving in the inner city.

We entered the old city through the brick archway and climbed a steep brick road past the tabacchi shop. Emily stopped to admire a potted pomegranate plant. We noted its alkalinity, a feature we have dropped from our daily diet since we left home in favor of the Italian diet of pizza, pasta, cappuccino, and wine. The apartment buildings are three stories or four, depending on where each building is on the hill. On every floor, laundry could be seen hanging on pulleys outside the windows. Emily compared the challenging hill to San Francisco. At the top of the first leg, before turning to the right and continuing, we stopped to catch our breath. I noticed a religious painting on the building facing us. “A church,” I noted to Emily. “Either that or we’ve died and met our maker,” she said.

In the center of Siena, surrounded by restaurants, bars, stores, gelato stands, and souvenir shops, is il Campo, the city’s oval-shaped, red-brick track where folks from all over Europe come twice a year to watch the horse race known as the Palio. Today was not one of those race days. Still, townsfolk, tourists, and students from the University of Siena lay on the grass or sat picnic-style in the center as others strolled around the periphery or enjoyed a bite to eat.

We found a seat at Caffe Nannuni and ordered pizza and cappuccino, and a slice of apricot cake for Sonja. By the time we were almost done, a clock showed the time to be 2:30 p.m. We estimated two more hours of pure daylight. I wondered how close the next destination city was from where we were now. Emily said, “I’m okay if we just walk around Siena and then go back.” Sonja nodded agreement. I said, “I’m okay with that.” Harrie added, “Whatever you want.”

And so it became official: Today was a burnout day.

Emily slipped her hand into mine. “Tonight we’ll have the Prosecco. But first we get the gelato.” At a stand just outside the track area, we stopped for what turned out to be the best gelato we’ve had in Italy so far. I went with four scoops: mint chocolate, chocolate chip, milk chocolate, and coconut. Emily got the same, only substituting dark chocolate for the milk chocolate. Harrie and Sonja went for cones but we showed restraint and ate ours out of dishes, the low-cal version of gluttony. The cost came to five Euros apiece, the equivalent, according to our estimated conversion formula, of $7.50 for four scoops. Harrie fed cone crumbs to the pigeons as Emily recalled a gelato place in Ann Arbor that charged $3.50 per scoop. It lasted less than a year.

Renting a car was the best decision we’ve made on this trip, besides inviting Harrie and Sonja to join us. There was no way, in fact, that we could have done this vacation without a car unless we chose to confine our visit to big cities and tourist traps, and always follow a strict schedule.

We took an alternate route to get back to Loro Ciuffenna, heading first toward Firenze, then through Poggibonsi and east to Castellina. Leaving Siena, we saw townsfolk shaking olive trees and picking up whatever fell. Emily reminded me that olives taste chalky off the trees so they have to be marinated. She wondered who discovered the necessity of salting them to realize the taste that we know today.

As we cruised the back roads, we passed more olive trees and wine gardens, thick forests of pine trees, century-old houses enclosed in brick walls, some hidden in secluded groves, others poised majestically on distant mountaintops. We watched the sun set over the mountains in the west and give way to a crescent moon as we wound our way through the upward trail to Castellina. Every turn was a jigsaw moment.

At Castellina we headed briefly toward Greve, then modified our direction toward Montevarchi and into Valderno. As we approached a bridge on a one-way road, we stopped for a red light and waited as five cars and a truck passed us from the other direction. The light changed to green, our turn to move forward. We passed one waiting car on the other side. An impatient local driver behind us zipped past us with no regard to solid lines. We passed Luxurious Lap Dance Restaurant. There are no euphemisms in Italy.

Our final stop before Loro Ciuffenna was at the local food coop to buy dinner for tonight and breakfast for tomorrow. Included in the portion that Emily and I bought were grapes and oranges. We didn’t know local custom required us to weigh them before getting in line. The cashier looked confused holding the two bags. Meanwhile, a line gathered behind us. Sensing the cashier’s embarrassment, we started gathering up our food items so we wouldn’t hold up the line, until another cashier answered the first cashier’s distress call. He took our two bags and went to weigh them while our cashier rang up our other items. The line behind us grew longer. I said to the guy behind me, “Turistas,” and pointed condescendingly at Emily and me. Emily added, “Americanos stupido.” He smiled and started a ripple effect that made it to the back of the line.

Back at the room, we opened up a bottle of Prosecco Collebrigo Brut and toasted to another successful day. Emily prepared four fillets of Branzino, a fish recommended to us by Emily’s childhood friend whose roots are in Italy, and Sonja sautéd potatoes in olive oil and prepared a salad, collaborating in a feast that we all enjoyed and Harrie and I cleaned up. After one more drink, Emily broke out in song. We crashed early tonight. Tomorrow begins early with a three-hour ride to Venice through Bologna.