Month: November 2021

Not very expensive drinks at Terra di Mezzo (17/08/2021)

Not very expensive drinks at Terra di Mezzo (17/08/2021)

We had another relatively light day today. No travel at all, apart from the morning walk. I dragged my brother all over town! Check out the shots.

If I recall correctly, I actively sought hills on the inside of the walls we could go up and down for a cardiovascular challenge. There are no shortage of those in Volterra!

And although our coverage of kilometers was light, we got a good workout!

We even took in the park, before heading back to the apartment, via the fountain and panoramic view.

We stayed in and vegged. My brother and I were brave enough to venture out for the team later to grab some lunch at La Sosta del Priore. I introduced my brother to Ilenia and had reasonable success conversing in Italian. I still have a long way to go, though!

We didn’t eat the sandwiches in the street, but took them back to the apartment to have outside on the terrace. Then we did what we do best: vegitate.

That evening we hit Terra di Mezzo for a bite to eat. I love this place. The food is good, and we have good rapport with the owner, Robbi, and the waitress, Aurora. Most of the time something memorable happens – and tonight was no exception.

I got the Zuppa alla Volterrana, and a steak. Sadly, I can’t remember what the others had. However, what I *do* remember is what we drank. Niamh and I each had 500ml (un mezzo) of white and red, respectively. My brother isn’t a wine drinker, and the restaurant only had craft beers available, so he opted for one of those.

It came out in a pretty fancy bottle, and had a slightly citrusy tang, the kind you might expect of a wheat beer. It was really nice. Because he liked the drink, and that the prices weren’t on the bespoke menu, my brother looked it up on the web. He found that the brewers were selling it for €48. Our jaws dropped, and I just kept thinking there’s no way Robbi would let us order one of those without telling us first! And to be honest, a little of my anxiety kicked in. I looked up the site, but it was a little poorly laid out and seemed to confirm that was the price. Anyway, we enjoyed the meal and had a bit of a laugh at my brother’s expense. So much of a laugh, in fact, that he ordered another one halfway through the food!

I couldn’t believe it. He was thinking ‘In for a penny, in for a pound!’

I stopped eating to have a look at the shopping page again. I climbed back up, from that page and saw that the main shopping site indicated that 6 bottles came in a crate, and the crate was €48. To be sure, I called Robbi over, and asked him for the price of the beet. If I recall correctly, he said it was €8.50. Expensive for a beer, but not the kingly price we had originally thought. I explained to Robbi what happened in my broken Italian, but he must have understood me, because he cracked-up laughing.

At the end of the meal, Robbi came out to us when we had paid the bill, and told us to wait. He came back out a couple of minutes later with a little cube of a parcel. We thanked him and got home, and then opened it.

Of all the things we could have guessed was in it, I would never have guessed this in the middle of a stinking-hot August: it was a snow-globe. Then I remembered that we had told him of our plans to return for Christmas, so it was actually quite a thoughtful little gift – and it is the first Christmas decoration we owned for our apartment!

We went to bed soon after, as we had a cool day of travelling planned ahead for tomorrow: the Crete Senese and the Val d’Orcia.

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Of Borghe and San Gimignano (16/08/2021)

Of Borghe and San Gimignano (16/08/2021)

My brother and I got up, left the trash out (bio waste and plastic/metal), and turned right to head towards the square. From there, we toddled down towards Porta San Francesco and headed down Santo Stefano and San Giusto to explore there, and check out the Balze.

Then we hit Borgo San Giusto, with its huge church.

Towards the Balze the town begins to look somewhat old again. The original Etruscan walls which once surrounded Volterra actually stretched this far north. The walls contracted in later years to make the town more manageable to defend. We’re still on a butte, so there are some wonderful views to be had along the Balze walk.

We walked back past the Balze Camping grounds, the Witches rock and Conad supermarket, and we must have gone to get pastries… why else take a photo of the 200 Docciola steps?

I shot some video of the walk, which you can see on YouTube!

Regrettably, I don’t recall much of what we did during the day, apart from upload the source videos to my laptop, so I assume it was a restful screenwatching/writing/gaming one. I can’t even remember what we had to eat. That’s a bad sign for me indeed. I am assuming it was light enough, as we wanted to take my brother to San Gimignano that night for a dinner and a bit of an explore.

Guess what mistake we made again? Yes, that’s right – we didn’t book any table. And if there was one place more difficult in the locale to get a table than Volterra, it was San Gimignano. The visit started off well. We had to park all the way back in P4, but got a spot anyway. On the way to look for a place to eat, we took a few snaps.

We tried a few restauarants along the way, including La Mangatoia, Olivieri and one a little way off the main throroughfare: Perucà. Sadly, we couldn’t secure a table, but had to opt (once again) for a restaurant which never fails to break my heart whenever we’re in San Gimignano. I won’t name it. It’s in a prime location, but the service is so-so and the food quite below average. Just look at Google ratings before going anywhere.

They didn’t disappoint this time either, in that they *did* disappoint. It took us ages to attract the attention of a waiter to ask if there were any free tables within, and eventually we were shown to one (thanks to the assistance of a tourist group whose Italian was better than mine). Alarm bells were immediately rung, in that although San Gimignano was reasonably busy (I’ve seen it way busier!), and there were no tables in any other place, this restaurant was half-empty. We had so-so pasta and Niamh and I a so-so steak and then we ran out of the place.

I know I like to beat up on San Jimmy as a bit of a medieval Tuscan Disneyland, but in fairness to the place it is the town that really made Niamh and I fall in love with Tuscany back in 2008. It gave me the dream of living in a Tuscan hill town. I mean, look at it!

There are two ‘best in the world’ gelaterie there. And both that night had ‘best in the world’ queues, so we skipped having gelato there, sadly, so we looked at some more pretty, and then headed home.

We missed the turn for heading back home via the most expedient route (via Castel San Gimignano), and were taken home via the much more lonely, and therefore darker, SP62. That’s the second time that happened. I was driving, so Niamh could have a drink, and I can’t say it’s the most pleasant route in the dark. I’m sure it has some spectacular sights in daylight though – I must give it a go sometime.

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Miniatures at the Theatre (15/08/2021)

Miniatures at the Theatre (15/08/2021)

Buon Ferragosto! Or so it was. Ferragosto is a national holiday in Italy, which is held the same day as the Assumption of Mary. It has Roman roots, in that it is thought that the holiday is dervived from one celebrating Caesar Augustus. Who knows?

What we did know, is that we weren’t going to leave town and brave the usually crazy traffic that day. So we had a nice day pottering about in Volterra instead.

We started off with the morning walk. This time, my brother came with me, as he is an avid hiker, and weathers the hills and steps of Volterra very well. Some snaps ensued!

Then we screen-watched, gamed, wrote until lunch time. Then we wandered out to the flea market. Niamh subsequently went back there later and might a coupld of sets of drinking glasses (I broke one later that week – d’oh). I spotted this little piece of art, but we didn’t go for it in the end – it was a bit mismatched with most of the other pieces we had in the apartment.

Getting a table without a booking was proving tricky in Volterra again this year. It wasn’t in 2019, but since the pandemic Volterra’s tourist numbers have risen. Fortunately, we were able to find a table for three in La Vecchia Lira at a pinch… it was the second-last table in the place.

Niamh and I had been there a couple of times, and remembered enjoying the food, and that the owner was really enthusiastic. But it was this visit for me that really caused its star to shine. It leapt up mightily in our estimation.

I went for ravioli stuffed with cod and leek in a seafood bisque, while Niamh had cinghiale (wild boar) stew with grilled veggies and my brother a plate of pappardelle al cinghiale. We were all astounded by the quality and taste of our dishes – everything was simply amazing. As it was lunch, our plan was just for one course, but we had tirimasu afterwards, and it was superb too. Put La Vecchia Lira on your map.

After lunch, we had another stroll about the town. It was (unsurprisingly) a warm day. Our stroll took us to the ‘modern’ theatre (Teatro Persio Flacco), a whippersnapper with a birth-year of 1820, as opposed to the older Roman Theatre, which was in the 70’s AD.

Apparently Niamh had already been inside the theatre with her sister on an earlier day, and so opted not to go in.

Once inside, we gave a decent donation and proceeded to the first exhibit. It seemed to be a modern art show. A man was sitting down, and he seemed to perk up when I showed an interest, so I asked him if he was the artist. I guess my Italian was so broken, that he immediately sought help, which arrived in the guise of one of the museum’s volunteers. I thought it a little comedic at the time that we proceeded to completely skip the modern art exhibition, and continued onto the next two. The first of these was an alabaster exhibition, the highlight being band instruments made from alabaster (Volterra being very famous for its alabaster works) which were arrayed in front of the proscenium. Escepcially impressive was the complete drumkit forged in that delicate medium.

The next exhibition was the one I wanted to see: a series of perfectly-made sculptures of Volterran buildings and ruins by Mauro Parenti. We were led along by the guide with whom I conversed in my awful Italian (it’s getting better, though, I swear!). He was kind to give us his time, and he definitely gave us some useful information, but like many things imparted verbally, much of it is lost to me now.

The miniatures looked so perfect, that afterwards my brother and I searched for broken stones in the real versions to see if they matched the miniatures. They didn’t but the sculptures were a marvel, nonetheless.

The real-deals:

Later that evening we went to La Mangatoia, and had pizzas. I like the pizzas there, and wolfed-down a lovely 4-cheese! And yes, it included Gorgonzola… if there isn’t blue cheese on your 4-cheese pizza, then you’re doing it wrong.

Finally, to walk off the essentials carbs and fats we had a walk around town.

Once home, I took a couple of shots from our upper and lower terraces – one featuring a fun bit of shadow-play by my brother. Then it was beer, screen and bed.

Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed it. Please leave a comment and I’ll answer any (sane) question you send my way.

Goodbye, Hello, Pink Floyd and Montecatini (14/08/2021)

Goodbye, Hello, Pink Floyd and Montecatini (14/08/2021)

Lots of photos in this loooong blog!

Today was the day when we said goodbye to one guest and hello to another. But before we had our trip to Pisa airport, I had time to get up and have a nice walk that morning. Unsurprisingly, I took some photos!

Near Porta San Francesco, there’s a small square, Piazza Marcello Inghirami. Tucked inside one of its corners there’s a modern-looking covered laneway, which leads to Viale Franco Poretti, where the main residents carpark and the Roman theatre ruins lie. It used to be covered in graffiti, but it looks like they coated over most of it. I’m conflicted by this, as some street art can be amazing, but I don’t have any strong memories of anything jumping out at me. But I hope they allow controlled access to the more serious street artists this time around.

I didn’t go through the lane, but continued past the piazza up Via San Lino, and onwards into the Piazza dei Priori before heading back to the apartment.

We dropped Niamh’s sister off at Pisa Airport. I silently marvelled that we might get away without having to visit the Cathedral and tower this trip! Don’t get me wrong, it’s wonderful, but we’ve done it a bunch of times over the past few years.

My brother was arriving in later that evening, so we had a fair few hours to burn. We didn’t want to go back to Volterra and make the trip all over again, so we decided to head off to Montecatini Terme.

Now comes the hazy part. I *think* we needed to go to Navacchio to buy something or other – I think I was looking for a gorilla grip for the phone I could leave over in Tuscany, so I didn’t have to carry it through security again. I didn’t find one there. I think we ended up eating in Old Wild West again…. a burger each, and then I offered to drive us to Montecatini.

This place holds a special place in Niamh’s and my hearts. In 2008, we went on a Travel Department tour to Tuscany: I think this was our first visit to Italy. The Travel Department had been occasionally scoffed at by people of our own age (as old as we were at the time), as being a holiday agent for crocks and fuddy-duddies. Well, we met some wonderful people on that tour, and another subsequent one to China, so don’t believe everything you hear – if you think you’ll fancy it, go on and do it. They offer taster day-trips from a central base, and it gives you a good idea of the place you’re visiting, and instills a longing to return (or it did for us, anyway). If I had one complaint about such tours, is that the food included is often sub-par.

Anyway, our home base for the 2008 tour was a hotel in the northern part of Montecatini Terme called The Grand Hotel Panoramic. It lies in the leafy ‘burbs of town, but the best thing about it was that it was just a couple of hundred metres away from the funicular that took up to the old town: Montecatini Alto.

I drove from Navacchio, through several towns, bypassing the lovely looking Vicopisano (which I have since visited in October), and we parked at the free ‘L’-shaped carpark directly opposite the hotel where we stayed. Funnily, I don’t remember the carpark having been there, but I remember the trees that provided much needed shade in near-40 degree heat. It was as hot today as it was then, and I was actually wearing shorts that day as a result. Shorts-wearing is something of a rarity for me, but it’s a habit I’ll have to break.

Anyway, we got out of the car and headed directly towards the funicular. We were hoping that the Funi Bar would be open, as we were in dire need of refreshment. Sadly, it was closed for riposo (Italian siesta), but we managed to grab a couple of bottles of water from a vending machine instead.

We bought our return tickets, and then had a 10-15 minute wait for the next funicular. Once on, I began filming. And here’s the unfortunate part. When I was done with the day’s filming I transferred the Pink Floyd tribute act movies (see later) to my laptop so I could edit the movie for YouTube. Then I purged my phone to ‘free up space’, which I really didn’t need to do. Unfortunately, that meant I ended up deleting all the Montecatini footage, and I was back home in Ireland when I discovered this. I cursed myself for a fool. On the other hand, it means I very much have a valid reason to return someday soon!

I at least grabbed some photos while filming.

The funicular finally thundered and groaned its way to its destination. We got out and marvelled at the views looking back over the plains, and the new town.

While there, we were accosted by a small, older gentleman who was selling his artwork by the railings. He was full of chat, both Italian and broken English, and had a typcially Tuscan charm about him. He was retired and was painting scenes of villages in the area on flat, smooth pieces of wood, and framing them in wood too. I asked him if he was a salesman before retiring, which he had a good laugh at, and declared that selling yourself is an important skill in life. I had to agree, and then bought a piece from him for €30. I think he was selling it for €20, but it was too low a price for a unique piece of work. Stupidly, I don’t have a photo of it, but will take one and post it next time I’m over.

With my art packed away, we headed up to the main square, and were immediately reminded of the first ‘real’ slow Italian food experience we had there. It was during one evening, and we’d had enough of the prescribed food at the hotel. We had been given a brief tour by Laura, our young Italian tourguide, whose shrill calling of our room number during roll-call we still remember and mimic to this day (“TWO TWO THREEEEEEE!”). I can’t remember if we made a booking through the tour, or if we just headed up and got lucky in finding a table. I think it was the latter. Anyway, 4 courses and 3 hours later, and I was pretty sure I could live happily in Tuscany. Actually, it wasn’t until we visited San Gimignano for the first time (on the same tour), that the deal was fully sealed. I was mesmerised.

Anyway, back to that night in 2008. We were sitting on the edge of outdoor seating of a restaurant on one side on the square. Behind us, not 10 yards away, was a large group of ladies seated at another restaurant. Without warning, they all stood up and began singing. Niamh and I looked at each other, doubly surprised. There were definitely Celtic undertones to what was being sung, and it was done with such perfectly layered harmonies, time seemed to stop. At the end of it, everyone in the piazza stood up and applauded. To me it was a perfect slice of life; like it was hand-crafted for a movie. It turned out that they were a choral group from Galway! They weren’t on our tour, so it was completely serendipitous.

The heat was crippling, so the first thing we did was head for a gelateria I remembered being in one of the corners of the piazza. I seem to have a memory for gelato and good food generally! I had lemon sorbet – just the thing to cool you down on a day where you feel like you’ve just opened a hot oven’s door.

When done, we filmed about the town, heading into a church, and to a nearby park. I could kick myself for losing the footage, as the only photo I took was inside the church itself.

It’s a lovely place, so please go there if you ever find yourself in Montecatini Terme. Once done, we headed back to the piazza, where I grabbed a couple of bottles of frosty water from the gelateria – having to coax the owner back inside so I could pay. He was nice about it… I just wouldn’t have been comfortable to just leave the €2 on the counter and scoot out.

We were still parched, however, and so went to the bar on the other side of the piazza, and asked for a table (always ask for a table, don’t just sit randomly!). It was so baking, I think we each had two drinks: me, two lemon sodas (probably the greatest soft drink in the world), and Niamh a Coke Zero and a shakerato – an ice-cold coffee, served in a martini glass. I had a taste of it; it nearly made me want to take up the habit. The barman was super-friendly too.

We just missed the funicular back down, but were happy to wait the 15 minutes for the next one. Lovely views, and it was great to see families, three generations, all out and being normal during this crisis. We headed back down, opting to stand outside the hindmost carriage.

The next stop was the neo-Romanesque spa in the new part of town which gives it the monicker ‘Terme’. We were blown away by it the first time we were there, and it didn’t disappoint 13 years later. I think it was €6 per person in, but you could have as much spa water as you wanted. There are several types, but the one most people were taking has an acquired sulpurous taste – no thanks. Instead, we had a mooch and went ‘oooh’ and ‘aaah’ a lot at the spotlessly clean architecture.

There is a classy bar within, and once again we were succumbing to the heat of the day and grabbed a couple of drinks. We sat inside for about 30 seconds, before grabbing our gear and going for a table in the shade.

Once done, we had another quick mosey aroud a couple of other parts of the

The hours passed pleasantly, but it was time to head back to Pisa to pick up my brother from the airport. All went according to plan, except that there was an adult taking care of a bunch of kids – one of whom left his rucksack behind customs. He tried to go get it anyway and set off all sorts of alarms. No sign of customs police, so he tried it again, before the ‘responsible’ adult decided to ring the door to engage with the authorities. Unattended baggage at an airport tends to be frowned upon. Anyway, we didn’t witness the outcome, because my brother arrived and we headed home!

The powers that be were kind enough to welcome my brother back to the town with an imprompu show. Playing were Magic Regoli’s Band were playing a Pink Floyd tribute show in the main piazza. We thought that (a) we’d be too late for the beginning, and (b) there was no chance of tickets.

Fortunately, (a) proved false as the band began fashionably late, but (b) was bang-on. Fortunately, Ristorante Etruria had some seating outside, and while the view to thre stage wasn’t epic, the sound certainly was! The Piazza dei Priori really acts as a fantastic natural theatre. We grabbed a table, and enjoyed some pizzas (Niamh had pasta)… then after dessert, Niamh left us, and my brother and I held onto the table, guzzled down some Moretti and enjoyed the show. They really were fantastic, especially the female vocalist who blasted Great Gig in the Sky out of the park. Well done, that lady!

At the end of the gig, there was a minute-long firework display, and after that we were off to bed!

That was the end of one of my favourite days in Italy to date. I captured some of the music act on video, and you can catch it below.

Thanks for reading this. I hope it wasn’t too long. Please leave a like, and a comment!