Tuesday, 16 March 2010

All roads lead to Rome

Written 13th march

Of course I had momentarily forgotten that the overriding characteristic of perched villages is their perched-ness, aka high-ness, aka cold-ness...

Having finally escaped Florence - we have come to the conclusion that the only way anyone in italy navigates from one place to another is by already knowing where they are going because the signs all seem to be after the point on the road or roundabout when you have already had to make an uninformed, spur-of-the-moment decision and are irrevocably committed to being in the wrong lane, and that's assuming you can take your eyes off the traffic chaos long enough to look for the signs in the first place... - we arrived much later at San Gimignano in snow. 

But the aire de service was unexpectedly free and we settled in, having double-glazed all the windows with a combination of sun-shades, foam sheet and our fold flat seats - they are so versatile! - snug as bugs in rugs.  It was quite hard persuading Will out of his cocoon for breakfast though...

San Gimignano is the most typical of typical tuscan villages.  Built in the 12th and 13th centuries, and once a major stop over on the Via Francigena pilgrim route to Rome, it is a walled fortress of a town complete with square towered tuscan noble's houses, of which only 13 of the original 72 have survived as back then, when the two major families weren't fighting each other they were joined together in fighting the neighouring town - well they didn't have tvs or interweb in those days so I suppose you have to fill the days somehow...

Today, after the decline of the religious pilgrim business then the rise of the wine and history seeking pilgrim business

even in the cold and damp, the town is very pretty - a bit Obidos-like in feel - surrounded by walls and full of little streets,

viewpoints from the walls out over the undulating hills of the tuscan wine growing region, markets in squares

and world famous award-winning icecream (awards won in the worldwide gelato championships - calling them gelato championships, surely gives Italians an advantage...), apparently the best in tuscany (they stopped entering the championships after a while as kept winning!) so of course we had to try!

We also went into the church, a marvel with Cordoba-style stripey arches down the central nave and every inch of wall covered in frescos depicting old testament scenes on one side and the life of christ on the other - fabulous.

Onwards once more through the rolling hills to Montalcino, in the 1001 places book and chosen somewhat at random on the map from any number of others, which was perched way up on a solitary hill surrounded by rolling vineyards. 

The satnav, in its wisdom, directed us up some near vertical single lane back entrance track, which was fun! but popped us out, as we later found, by the only free carpark in town so not so bad. 

Montalcino is pretty enough

but, like St Emilion in france, its only function is to sell very very expensive local wines (Brunello) to rich tourists and there isn't much else there. 

We found the wine shop in the castle

and the most expensive wine I have ever been near (was behind glass, so couldn't get close enough to touch) €2,500 for one bottle???  really???

So we headed on again, through some beautiful landscape scenery - couldn't stop for a picture so you have to imagine; from top to bottom, pale blue sky over head, white, rolling clouds in the distance, dropping down to the snow covered hills of the higher ground, cris-crossed with the darker horizontals of the terraces, and in front, lush green vineyards rising and falling, with a single, solitary square building topping each small rise, sailing majestically past against the backdrop as we drove by - beautiful.

here is a different bit of road instead

We arrived a Pitigliano just as dusk was falling, and wished we'd got there earlier. 

Built out onto a rocky promotory over a depp valley, the town rises up from the sheer cliff face as if the buildings are morphing directly from the rocks on which they are planted - looked a bit like the city in that film, I think it is calld Dark City, where it is actually an island floating through space (you know, the one where all the houses and streets change every night and his memory gets reset, someone is murdered and they are always looking for a beach called Happyland or sunnyland or some such thing but it turns out to be just a billboard (a darker version of the truman show!) I know what I mean!).  It is a 'real' town not a tourist town with properly little streets and dark windy steps disappearing into the atmospheric gloom, which looked like something straight out of a Tim Burton film.  There were meat curing shops with sunglass-wearing, stuffed boar's heads in the window and strips and chunks of all sorts of bits of pig hanging up behind, and some sort of workshop, down some steps in a cellar, which was full of old machines and wierd mechanical objects, covered in a think layer of dust and complete with the flickering silhouette of an iron gate cast by some sort of flarey, firey light - properly spooky.

too cold to stop here though so warming coffee in a bar full of locals drinking their apperitifs of fizzy prosecco - looked lovely but we had to drive so couldnt' join in :( - then onwards hoping that the coast would be lower and therefore warmer.  Which it was. 

A night in the middle of nowhere town of Albinia then a longish, uneventful drive down the less than inspriring coast. 

But at least it was sunny, t-shirt weather and I got to drive! hurrah! and I think I did quite well - even survived a town or two - go me!

Next stop: Rome...

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