Author: eoinarmstrong

A Trip to Livorno, Volterra Comics and Fantasy Day 2 (22/05/2022)

A Trip to Livorno, Volterra Comics and Fantasy Day 2 (22/05/2022)

No walk today either… sorry!

We thought we had seen most of what the Volterra Comics and Fantasy had to offer on the first day. We were only a little wrong – we had the awards ceremony and further costumes to come – more on that later.

We had been intrigued by Livorno during our first visit there a couple of years ago, and wanted to go back to at least experience the food market. I remembered the humidity then, and my promise to wear shorts next time, but wussed-out over sun-cream maintenanced and went fully-trousered. This time parked in the Parcheggio Moderno, just a couple of blocks north of the market. We missed a couple of turns in the middle of town, but Livorno is strangely forgiving, and we just had an extra spin around a few blocks and the hippodrome-shaped Piazza della Repubblica. Not much fuss, only a little muss! It’s a storeyed car-park, and so the vehicle would be shaded. We found a spot quite handily just one floor up. Did I mention this was a Sunday?

Anyway, we got out of the car, and headed immediately towards the market. Again, did I mention this was a Sunday? Of course it was closed. Shrugging, as we weren’t hugely surprised, we instead went on an explore of the city. I have to say, Livorno is one of the most underrated cities in Tuscany. Yes, it has an air of dirt of grit about it, but it is also quite lovely in places and it is a genuine city – you are looking at Tuscans and work and play there. While the tourist count is increasing (lots of UK people, strangely), it’s still quite uncluttered. I think we are going to make it a must-visit for most of our stays in Tuscany.

I love Livorno’s ‘Venetian’ quarter – we hadn’t seen it the first time around, so the return trip had already paid us in gold, with or without the market. We skipped the fortezza, not knowing it could be entered. As we had left around the 11:00 mark, we had become a little hungry. We were still on our Asian food kick, and so looked out for whatever Chinese/Japanese/Thai food place we could find.

Google (eventually) led us to ZEN Livorno. We settled in and had what turned out to be pretty decend food.

What wasn’t photographed was some tasty (to us, we hadn’t had it before, but had seen YouTubers rave about it) okonomiyaki – a sort of omlette made with cabbage, flour and eggs. There might have been meat in this one; I can’t remember – but I do remember the dancing fish-flakes. It was all tasty enough and we left satisfied. I am still (even at the time of writing this – Sept 14th, 2022) on my quest to find a decent Cantonese-style food – but after having tried places in Florence, Siena, Poggibonsi, Colle di Val d’Elsa, Cecina, Pontedera and Empoli. We have drawn the conclusion that Cantonese food here is at very best about equivalent to your average takeaway (with far fewer choices of dish), at worst Godawful. But they do dumplings reasonably well (sold as ‘ravioli’ on their menus). If you know of any good Cantonese restaurants in Tuscany, or north Lazio/west Umbria please let us know! There could be a virtual cookie in it for you! 🙂

Anyway, food done satisfactorily, we continued our walk about the town. It wasn’t insufferably hot, so my choice of trouserware was adequate for the day!

We stopped off at a gelateria and sat down to eat our bounty. Literally! I had bounty gelato. It was nice enough. We then headed back to the car and high-tailed it back to Volterra. We decided to head back on a more scenic route, when we got closer to Volterra.

It was still remarkably green in May. Amazing to think how it changes in the hotter months!

After a brief chill at the apartment, we headed back out to see what the cosplayers were up to that afternoon. There were definitely some cool costumes on display. There was a guy there dressed as Sean Connery as Indiana Jones’ dad in The Last Crusade. He blew me away… looked so much like him… even had the same dimples when he smiled.

The talent spotting continued. We hit up Bar Priori for an aperitivo while we people-watched.

Later on we watched the awards ceremony. I didn’t know who most were dressing up as, but Wolverine was my standout, as he sprinted up to the stage to get his award. He had fabulous spirit, and looked pretty damn good too.

After the weekend we had been told by someone living in the town that it wasn’t nearly as well-attended as in previous years. That could have been down it being held 3 weeks or so earlier than usual, or that it was just post-pandemic – who can say? I hope it picks up again next year.

I have a youtube video of some of the festival down below. Take a look!

Later on in the day, I had a walk about to check out the sunset and grabbed a burger from L’Hamburgheria and ate it whole!

Screenwatching and bed! Not exactly detail-filled, but we enjoyed ourselves!

Bee Day Day 2, Volterra Comics and Fantasy Day 1 (21/05/2022)

Bee Day Day 2, Volterra Comics and Fantasy Day 1 (21/05/2022)

Another short one!

An unlikely clash of the International Bee Day celebration was with Volterra’s annual nerd-a-thon: Comics and Fantasy, which is more of a cosplay festival, than a full celebration of all things geek. Although it did feature a fantasy film festival for the first time this year (which I didn’t cover).

First things first, I did get up for a walk and although it was a shortish one, it did feature a climb of the stairs at Docciola, so I get brownie points for that! Although it was a downwards climb.

Once I’d returned, breakfasted and showered and had a little chill time, we left the apartment and had a look at what the Comics and Fantasy had to say for itself. Initially, not a lot. I thought I’d read that an opening ceremony was going to take place in Piazza dei Priori at 10:30, but the square was quite a little emptier than I thought it was going to be. Although there was one work of greatness on display – but more on that later. For now, we wandered from the square, up Via Roma and into Piazza San Giovanni to check out the various stalls.

We also bought a verrrry long piece of art, which we have not yet hung up – but are threatening to do so some time in late August. Once done, we brought the artwork back to the apartment and then decided to do lunch. Possibly the greatest thing for me about the festival, and maybe on of the greatest things ever to happen in Volterra, was the arrival of a Katsu Curry food truck into the main square. We got a bowl each and it was quite tasty! In fact, it was wonderful to be able to experience a different type of food in Volterra.

Whilst enjoying the curry, we people-watched the cosplayers!

We walked about the town, then, looking for people in costume.

After chilling for a little bit of the afternoon, it was time for dinner. We chose Terra di Mezzo as we had a hankering to try someone else’s Florentine Steak after our fab experience at Del Duca. We had ‘smaller’ steaks and veggies before at Terra and they were nice so we figured that all-out t-bone steak would be a good choice here too. After a little aperitivo at L’Incontro, we headed there.

The staff was busy, so there wasn’t too much interaction. Still, we enjoyed the food and had fun looking at the people going about the town in their costumes.

We walked back to the apartment full and happy!

Thanks for reading… I hope you enjoyed it – let me know what you think!

International Bee Day, Day 1 (20/05/2022)

International Bee Day, Day 1 (20/05/2022)

A short one!

I got up early before I had to give my time to other tasks and went out for a walk. What else is new. I am glad that I’ve gotten into the habit of doing this again, though.

You can find the full-sized version of it here.

I had some stuff to do during the morning, but when it was done, it was time to check out what was happening for International Bee Day in Volterra. This day (or 2 days, really) is to celebrate all things apian, with a view to promoting both the produce and the conservation of our buzzing little friends! There were some decorations about town, entertainment for kids and shops were promoting produce made using honey.

We headed out to check out Via Gramsci, as most of the action was taking place there. I don’t have too many photos as I was filimg instead. But we got a good look at some stalls and a little bee colony they had on the main stand.

But hunger quickly overtook us, and we did something we haven’t done too often, which was go to Del Duca for lunch! It was a gloriously sunny day, and had refreshing starters followed by pasta dishes.

The food was wonderful, and while it isn’t the cheapest lunch you’ll have in Volterra, it is worth spoiling yourself for sure! We skipped dessert as we had a fair feeling that we would head out later that evening. Plus I had to be back in the apartment to do stuff for the rest of the afternoon.

When I was free again, we headed out for food. First, we made a stop at L’Antica Velathri CafĂ©, as Pietro had a special honey-based cocktail that day. He was kind and allowed me to shoot the making of it. My anxiety was peeking at me, and it sometimes makes me a little clutzy. I made a damn nuisance of myself by getting in the way of waiters as they came back and forth with orders and emptied trays. The worst was when I accidentally knocked a wooden tray to the ground – it contained a stack of cards advertising the cafĂ©. Pietro’s dad had to come and pick them up and restack them while I filmed. I felt a proper idiot.

Anyway, once the humilating part was over Niamh and I enjoyed our cocktails.

Here’s a video of the day – note that some of it was shot the next day.

We headed around to La Mangiatoia, who were by now recognising us freely! I don’t think they have a booking system – you rock up and either you get seated or you queue (or you leave!). Anyway we just had the one pizza each. Yes, I have to say this is probably the greediest we’ve ever been in Volterra on holidays. Next time we have a long-haul here, we’ll have to rein in the restaurant visits and remember what it’s really like to actually live here, as ‘normal’ people.

We tried Forst lager for the first time this holiday and can’t recommend it enough. It’s from the north of Italy, and it seems to have invaded Volterra. So now I have a choice between it and Moretti – happy days. Still no cider though.

I hope you enjoyed this blog. Please leave a like and a comment – I’d love to hear from you!

That was the (food of the) week that was – Photolog (16-19/05/2022)

That was the (food of the) week that was – Photolog (16-19/05/2022)

This week saw me have little in the way of daytime free time, so in lieu of a verbose blog, here is a collection of photos with commentary for the above dates.

Monday 16th May

Some food today from La Terra di Mezzo.

Tuesday 17th May

Firstly a little walk down by the archaeological digsite.

Lunch from La Sosta del Priore – always tasty. We then met another ex-pat friend – John – for an aperitivo or three, before heading to Porgi l’Altra Pancia for dinner.

Wednesday 18th May

I went on some walks! First a morning one:

Followed by an afternoon one during lunch:

A rare trip to lunch to La Carabaccia. This is a cute place in Piazza XX Settembre (and to be honest, the only place worth eating there – the rest are rather touristy, but in fairness to them have fine outdoor seating). They have a tiny menu (2 primi, 2 secondi), and some desserts. They will also knock up an antipasti plate for you on demand. The cooking is nonna-style and tasty.

And we had a homecooked pasta meal from Niamh that evening:

Thursday 19th May

No walk today… had… not the most nutritious lunch, but it was tasty, then had a walk about the town to burn off some calories afterwards.

During the evening we had a severe hankering for some Asian style food. I’ve gone on the record before as loving SE Asian flavours, even over Italian – so after several weeks of the latter, we were gumming for something different. We’d noted the place in Poggibonsi and contemplated it, but instead opted for a place in Colle di Val d’Elsa – Ristorante Sugoi.

We got there and parked in the supermarket carpark just down the road. Turns out we didn’t read the signs properly and only got away with it by the skin of our teeth. But first the place. We walked into a narrow place that looked small and intimate. Then we were ushered into a much larger side room, and from there into a pretty big semi-covered outdoor space. Wow! This place could cater for 150! And the food:

Look, I am seriously considering paying someone cash money if they can show us a good Chinese/Japanese place that does decent stir-fry sauce-based dishes. All the ones we’ve had in Italy are so insipid. It’s the same pattern: the starters are pretty good, but the mains are chronic. Halp! Ok, the curry here wasn’t too bad, but the other dish was decidely ‘blah’. The quality of Asian restaurants in Italy seems to be no better than a mediocre takeaway back home. Bit of a shame. We had an ok one in Livorno (more another time) and a nicely flavoured Katsu curry from a truck the visited Volterra during the Volterra Comics and Fantasy festival (again, more another time).

In fairness to the restaurant, the service was nice, the food was ok and the setting was great. We left and headed back to the car, and only then spotted the carpark was about to close and we were one of the last people to go. Phew!

Next blog will be slightly more normal!

Fun Lunch at a Flowery Vicopisano and Dinnner at Del Duca (15/05/2022)

Fun Lunch at a Flowery Vicopisano and Dinnner at Del Duca (15/05/2022)

I had no walk this Sunday – sure even God rested on the seventh day, so cut me some slack! We were to head to Vicopisano to attend their flower festival, and film it a little. It’s funny how car journeys seem to shorten the more often you do them, especially when you know you’re going to enjoy the destination. It’s only a little over an hour (if even) from Volterra, and we got parking in the massive overflow field they had opened for the event.

I got out and started filming/papping.

It didn’t take us long to bump into Marie and Lorenzo of Authentic Tuscany (Instagram, website), who offer some wonderful accomodation options throughout the town. They work really hard and giving their guests an opportunity to experience life in small-town and rural Tuscany. They offer guided hikes and experiences of produce-tasting (wine, cheese, olive-oil, truffles) with locals, with whom they have established a fun relationship.

Met Marie and Lorenzo soon after. Amazing couple. Even though it comes naturally to them, they work so hard at keeping people happy. Not many jobs are better.

So we were led by Marie and Lorenzo to a restaurant called 30metriquadri (because it’s the area of the indoor space!), and is run by a couple of Roman lads. 

We settled down and slowly, but our group began to grow, from the 4 of us, then to 6 as a couple Marie and Lorenzo knew joined us.  The man was a retired pilot and knew Marie from when she was an air Stewardess with British Airways. The lovely lady was a wonderful abstract artist (Instagram). Then three more came, including Chef Celine, who you might know from Nicki Positano’s content if you watch her.  She’s a private Chef in the Lucca region, so if you’re in the area and are in the need of one, look her up (Instagram).  Celine was joined by another British ex-pat couple.  Everyone knew each other, so it was a little overwhelming at first for Niamh and me – and we remained relatively quiet (improving our listening skills, as I imagine it!), but everyone was so lovely, that their manner (plus a glass or three of wine) put us at our ease. 

We then proceeded to have one of those wonderful Tuscan lunches that was about 1.5 courses of food, but lasted almost 4 hours.  If a few people in the party hadn’t been short on time it would have been a little more relaxing, but Niamh and I weren’t in a hurry!  We had little veggie balls of goodness, bread and pasta to accompany our wine – all very delish.  A couple had desserts after, but we held back as we were heading out to dinner that evening. 

Halfway through the wait/food, Marie had to meet up with a couple of ladies from Cork, who she introduced to the table. They looked to be enjoying the hell out of themselves. More happy clients for Marie and Lorenzo!

To be honest, I had always been worried about meeting more ex-pats and being enveloped in an ex-pat ‘bubble’, as we had wanted to try to integrate with locals primarily, but after this encounter we felt no more worries about that. Most of their Italian is fantastic, and it has just given me further impetus to learn and integrate more. On top of that, we met a bunch more interesting people we would never have met otherwise. More people equals more stories!

Once done, we headed out to explore the flower festival a little more.

It was a fun little festival. They combined it with their collectors market, and so there were a lot of people. A little brass-based marching band were playing throughout the town adding to the fun. The fact that the weather was pleantly warm and clear was just the icing on the cake.

You can watch a video of our trip to Vicopisano here:

We had a nice drive home, and were a bit naughty at L’Isola del Gusto (it was beginning to get busy), and sat out with our ill-gotten gains by the Church of the Archangel Michael.

We rested at home for a while, urging on our digestive systems to allow more food to be crammed in. Thankfully, they complied.

What else can I say about Ristorante Enoteca Del Duca that I haven’t already said? It’s not just the food, it’s the welcome, the service, the sense of belonging. I think that sums it up.

We were granted another lovely welcome, and as always the food flipping rocked!

We were plied with offers of after-dinner drinks, but we had to turn them down, as we had to be compos mentis for the next day. The next 5 days, in fact. No more on that, I’m afraid. We were also offered the use of the pool at Marcampo. I had every intention of taking them up on the offer, but I never actually did. We still intend this again in August when we return. A day out by the pool may be just the thing. Despite my hydrophobia and creamy whiteness.

We said our goodbyes, took the shot below and headed home.

Strolling Days (13 and 14/05/2022)

Strolling Days (13 and 14/05/2022)

Friday, 13th (dun-dun-dunnnn!)

I had a shorter walk this morning, up Gramsci, bumping into Robbi, the owner of Terra di Mezzo, towards the end of it. We exchanged pleasanteries and I carried on. Only a few shots today:

My time wasn’t my own for most of the day, so I had to stay in. Niamh got to ‘enjoy’ the outdoors a little more on the terrace while she repainted the terrace railings and that lovely terracotta orange on the outside walls. Honestly, I dread almost anything DIY, so I was somewhat happy to have been stuck indoors while Niamh carried out this task. Thanks, hon!

We grabbed a quick mid-morning mindful walk around the park with a gelato. On the way back, we waved hello to Massimo, the owner of La Vecchia Lira. Our lives, you might have noticed, seems to revolve around food.

For lunch, Niamh made penne with an aubergine and tomato sauce she had cooked up previously and frozen. It was toothsome and rich. I usually shirk tomato-based sauces (which is why I enjoy Tuscan cooking so much – yes, that’s right, Stanley Tucci! Tomatoes are NOT actually a major staple ingredient in Tuscan cuisine), but this sauce was tasty indeed! I went to the framers to finally pick up the drawing I bought from Fabrizio, but discovered he only works half days. D’oh! I’ll guess I’d have to wait another day.

That evening, after I became a free man again, we had to choose between the two men I met earlier in the day. We chose over aperitivi in L’Incontro. We chose La Vecchia Lira as Massimo had seen us again from his restaurant and waved. Also, in the end, we over-ate.

We had a short walk to burn off calories and to catch the sunset, before heading home to screen-watch.

Saturday, 14th

I had another walk this morning. I’m so proud of myself, to be honest. I had shirked somewhat on my previous few stays, so I’m glad to be back in the saddle, so to speak. This time, I walked a little longer than I had intended, but kept it mostly within the walls of the town.

After breakfasting and tidying myself up, I FINALLY managed to get Fabrizio’s drawing. We hung it up in the kitchen.

We just lazed about all morning, and then had lunch in Ristorante Etruria, in Piazza dei Priori. It’s a bit touristy, and is one of the few places that insists on limited table time during busy periods, which is rare. But there’s something for everyone here, and the food isn’t bad. In addition, they recognise us and treat us well – often presenting us with a half-bottle of Chianti to take home when our meal is over. If you’re ever there, and have someone who is a little picky with food with you, you should try it. Also, the inside seating area is lushly decorated and worth a quick view!

We then, rather unusually, spent some time walking about town. I say ‘rather unusually’ as (a) we know better than to walk around town during the hottest part of the say, and (b) we spent a couple of hours doing it! I took some snaps, sure – but most of the time was spent going from one part of town to another, and people-watching as the sun began to dip in the cloudless sky. It may not be the only way to enjoy Tuscany, but it’s one of the best: just sit back and enjoy the present.

I think I began to doze a little while sitting in the bench at Piazza XX Settembre! We had a gelato at L’Isola del… no, wait. We actually had it at Enjoy CafĂ©! I think they’ve upped their gelato-game in a the last year or so – it was actually quite good!

We rested back at the apartment, and when hungry again headed out to La Mangiatoia. I love the pizza at Pizzeria l’Ombra della Sera, but it just isn’t as lively as La Mangiatoia. To be honest, I don’t think I could have put a pizza away after the lunch I had. And you can’t share pizza in Italy. It’s a mortal sin. Although in La Mangiatoia, they actually make massive, family-sized pizzas, with multiple sections similar to a Quattro Stagioni (the family at the table next to ours was chomping on one). Anyway, I wasn’t up for it. Niamh was, but I had a burger instead. For those reading in Ireland, the burger here is the closest you can get to a chipper-style burger in terms of taste, if you fancy that!

Once re-stuffed, we headed back to the apartment for audio-listening and screen-watching.

Lunch in the Middle of Nowhere and Exploring Poggibonsi (12/05/2022)

Lunch in the Middle of Nowhere and Exploring Poggibonsi (12/05/2022)

I stayed in bed a little while longer this morning, but still got up and did my walk. I could have been a lazy so-and-so, but I did it, so yay me! I had a short walk in mind, just around the block to walk up the stairs at Docciola. Short, but challenging. However, from there I just went on and on, past Piazza XX Settembre, up to the park, and from there to the panoramic viewpoint. The photos speak for themselves. I was in need of a wash at the end of it, so that’s good enough for me!

I also busted out my macro lens and took some nice floral shots.

After eating and making ourselves beautiful, we refreshed some toiletries and bought some cleaning and painting supplies, as there were a few jobs Niamh wanted to do before we headed home. We didn’t quite find the paint we wanted – so we thought we’d head out to Navacchio or Pontadera to grab some. We changed our minds later on, though – more below.

I thought I’d check in on the framers to see how he was getting on with the drawing we bought. It wouldn’t be ready until the next day. No worries – we’d pick it up then.

Once done, Niamh went to a Bancomat (ATM) got some money out, while I grabbed the goodies and brought them upstairs. Three quarters of the way down, I realised I’d forgotten to bring the bag Niamh asked me not to forget, so back up I went. At least I was getting some exercise in.

We’d driven the SP4 road a bunch of times before, especially to go to Florence, Florence and Florence, and that time when we checked out Gambassi Terme and Montaione. We passed by a couple of restaurants that were in the middle of nowhere. We’d pass them by and swear that one day we’d try them. I think you can guess what’s coming next. We decided to do lunch at one of them, called Osteria del Castagno, especially since it had a large, easily accessible carpark. It was only 30 mins away, so we walked slowly to the car to build up a hunger.

When we got to the carpark, we saw that it would be closed tomorrow, so we’d have to park elsewhere overnight tonight. Bummer. Small price to live in paradise, though.

I drove to the restaurant. As promised, it had plenty of parking and lovely surroundings. We decided to sit outside, but in shade. It had lots of lovely outdoor nooks and crannies where you could enjoy your meal.

The food was nice and the service very friendly. We played a guessing game with the waitress while she guessed what nationality we were. We even threw in a few random languages to throw her off the scent. In the end, she was pleasantly surprised to discover we were Irish. A subsequent conversation saw her recommending us places to visit, and being amazed again at how we had visited not only all her recommendations (“Have you heard of San Gimignano?” we had a chuckle at that one), but tons of other less well-known towns besides all over central, west and south-west Tuscany. We had a small chats with one of the male waiters too. Everyone was disarmingly lovely.

The food was very nice, but we felt that the prices were extraordinarily high. Here are the food pics:

I think the tortellini may have cost €24 (please correct me if I’m wrong, if anyone from the restuarant ends up reading this). I have had pasta dishes with truffle for 2/3 of that price. I would recommend the place, though, if you’re flush. The food is good and the service is friendly. I imagine that the setting in the evening would be amazing; very romantic – so maybe try it then.

As we were so far from Navacchio, and the route would be a little annoying, we decided to check out Poggibonsi for the first time. We knew it had a huge shopping/industrial area to its north, and we were sure we could pick up the paint and odds and ends we needed there. So off we went. Little did we know, this is also a route to San Gimignano, and on the way we had a jaw-trolley moment when we saw said Tuscan Manhattan in the distance, the centre-point of one of those Tuscany-in-a-bottle scenes that you have to pull over for. We did just that, and took a few snaps.

We skirted around San Gimignano, and were then taken along an unfamiliar road into Poggibonsi. We got some easy and free parking at Parcheggio Vallone – some Saturdays it’s closed though, so be careful. The old town was quiet, but we both really liked it. It has a few really chill piazze, and we sat a while after our explore to wait for the shops to reopen after riposo.

There were curious little sculptures of figures made of cuboids scattered throughout some of the piazzas. We made friends with them.

We wandered some more and I kinda fell a little in love with old Poggibonsi. It was very sleepy when we visited it, but there were places to eat and drink and I’d say it turns into a lively enough place during the evening. We found more alleys, another cubic friend and then a lovely circular piazza. All the benches in the shade were taken, and at one stage we had a little race with a local to grab a recently vacated seat – we lost; probably for the best.

We got back to the car, and drove north to the ‘Industrial Zone’ which is a large series of mini-malls and strip-malls in which you can find just about anything. It’s not the most salubrious of areas, so I didn’t take shots, but from a practical standpoint it will be a fabulous place to source holdhold and hardware stuff, and get food shopping into the bargain, should we be lacking in that department too. We also noted what could be a cool Sushi place to go to should we have a mind – we’ll go there some day. We stopped off in Casa and Brico and got what we wanted – terracotta paint for Niamh’s little job, and then got back in the car for home. I really enjoyed driving that day. We avoided a mini sports-car rally at a roundabout coming out of the town, and noticed a big frantoio, should we ever decide to grow olives!

Upon getting home, we screenwatched, edited, wrote a bit, and we had a rare moment of not going out to eat again! Niamh cooked up a pork-chop dinner (yum!) and after that we headed out for gelato!

I hope you enjoyed reading this. Let me know what you think. Have you ever visited Poggibonsi?

The Devil’s Bridge and Bagni di Lucca (11/05/2022)

The Devil’s Bridge and Bagni di Lucca (11/05/2022)

Plans! Sometimes they fall apart, and sometimes they not only come to fruition, but you find yourself adding to them as the day progresses. I am pleased to say that it was the latter for us – it was a good day!

I think that you can’t beat a good walk to start the day off, especially in a hilltown. I usually wait ’til mid-morning for a walk when I’m back home in Kilcullen, but early walks are best when the weather is going to be stinking hot!

I kept it within the walls at first, but then had a quick exit as I decided to batter myself with a walk out of the town through Porta San Felice and down past the CoOp and schools, finally entering by Portal all’Arco. It’s not too punishing a walk, but is still fab for cardio vascular. I was at first rewarded with views of colline islands and cloud lakes.

I approached and went through Felici, and didn’t take many photos until I hit the old Etruscan gate again.

After that walk, I was intending being a good boy, breakfast-wise, but Niamh had already kindly bought me a massive, cream-filled donut, not unlike a Roman maritozzi. I didn’t complain as I yummied it down. Once I had stuffed myself, we headed out to the carpark.

Tuscany’s landscape is so incredibly varied that at times it almost beggars belief. Vineyards and olive groves, crest along smooth rolling hills, flirting with ancient hilltowns and hamlets. You have other-wordly terrains like you would find in the Val d’Orcia, the Crete Senesi and Volterra’s own Balze area. Hills and mountains transform into plains and deltas on the coast where sea meets sand that varies is colour from black to yellow to pure honest-to-God white. There are islands with tropical-style waters. There are forests, mini-desert like regions, geothermal areas and, of course, alpine mountains in the north. You can ski in the Winter, and sunbathe in the summer. All within one region (for Irish readers, Tuscany is only about 90% of the area of Munster). Today, we would be heading northwards towards the more mountainous areas, and I would experience my first taste of ‘environment envy’ – once you get past the more heavily populated belt north of the FI-PI-LI highway (so-called, as it is the main free transportation artery that joins FIrenze (Florence), PIsa and LIvorno on one route). For a while you’ll find yourself drving in areas where one town merges into another.

The last time we drove to the Lucca province, back in December 2018 (before I started blogging), the drive was somewhat spoiled by us getting stuck behind trucks the whole time on the approach roads to Lucca. No such ill luck this time, we got to our first destination in good time – a little over an hour and a half. The Devil’s Bridge (aka in Italian as Ponte del Diavolo or Ponte della Maddalena – very poor form to associate Mary Magdalene with the devil, but there it is) spans the River Serchio, near the town of Mozzano. Mountainsides, lushly carpeted with forest and bushland, surround the whole area, making you wonder if you’re actually still in the same country, let alone the same region. The bridge itself is a bit of a jaw-dropper, with a larger arch towards one end of the bridge, giving the construction something of a lopsided appearance. It also makes it viciously sloped too. Nonetheless, it’s something of an engineering marvel, as well as an aesthetic masterpiece – and a practical boon to those needing to cross the river cenuries ago whilst on the Via Francigenca pilgrimage. It began life in the late 11th century, and has reuquired renovation throughout the centuries. Have a look at it!

The road from which the best shots can be taken is somewhat busy, so be careful, as on the one edge there is no footpath, and trucks power by. We spent about 20 minutes there and then drew the conclusion that we were both hungry. Now, there are a couple of places at the bridge, but we didn’t try them – they just seemed like tourist traps, and the Google review scores seem to indicate that too. We head back the way we came, and went over the more modern bridge into Mozzano.

We pulled into a supermarket carpark (second time of asking), and did a little shopping there at first. Seeing no warnings about being towed or needing a pay-and-display ticket, we left the car there and had a quick walkabout to see if there was somewhere we could have a sitdown lunch.

Sadly, one promising Osteria wasn’t open for lunch (remember this was in mid-May, on a Wednesday), and we couldn’t find anywhere else. We walked back to the car, and found another restaurant called Ristorante La Lanternina in a town about 6 or 7 minutes away called Fornoli, and Google proudly declared that it was open for lunch! We hopped in the car and got a parking spot immediately opposite the restaurant. It was getting quite warm at this stage – maybe pushing 27 or 28. We went to the restaurant and found it closed. I guess the owners hadn’t updated the times in Google – what a pity. We had a walk about the town.

We found Bar La Ruota Di Riccardo Franchi, which was one of those rare places where you could get drinks, sandwiches, salads, pizzas and gelato.  During our meal there, I grew a strange fondness for Fornoli.  It’s a modern town, and so you could argue that many of the buildings have little intrinsic charm-value, but it has a kickass bridge that looks like something off a steampunk movie set.  I can’t put my finger on it – I just really liked the place.  Maybe being at the bar and being treated so well helped. Sometimes you can’t explain the vibes you get. Niamh ordered a Caprese salad, and I got a speck and mascarpone pizza – both were tasty.

When we got back to the car, we had a decision ahead of us: go home, or head on to the town of Bagni di Lucca. We chose the latter, and had a lovely drive along the river, past Fornoli’s kickass bridge (why didn’t we stop there?!) and we hit the town maybe 10 minutes later. It seems to be in two parts. The first part is at Ponte a Serraglio, at one end of which is a cute piazzetta where a bar gives you a great view of the nearby bridge – we didn’t stop there, but headed on to the ‘main’ part of town.

Then there’s something of a lull in structures, before the town begins again around an elongated bend a couple of minutes later. We parked in the nearly-empty Conad carpark, prayed to the gods of free parking that we wouldn’t be clamped, and had an explore of the main part of town. But it was in the first part where I began to get my first bout of ‘environment envy’. I thought the place beautiful, and if there is one thing I miss ing Volterra it’s being able to be by running water (the fonts don’t count!). The second part sealed the deal. I would strongly recommend this place for a visit. We didn’t do a thorough explore, as we had blown a lot of the day, and still had a longish drive ahead of us.

We still enjoyed a lovely riverside walk, an explore of the town, we hit the communal park, and found a viewing point which gave us a vista over the rooves of the town. Below, you could hear the sounds of screaming schoolchildren as they enjoyed an afternoon break. Niamh was stopped by a couple of Austrian tourists as they were looking for a panoramic viewpoint from a supposedly nearby church. But she had to apologise, saying we were in the same boat – new to the area.

We headed back to the car after our walk, and drove home. We covered the other side of the river, and parts of it were equally nice. We got home in good time, though. We will definitely do this trip again!

Here’s a video of some of our day:

Once back in Volterra, we immediately took to a mini bar-crawl, which is rare. Firstly, we had a beer in Brasseria del Grifone. We rarely eat in Piazza XX Settembre, as it’s tourist-central, but you can’t argue against a cool drink there under the shade provided by the trees there. My ginger-infused white beer was fab, but we got no nibbles. We headed then to enjoy a spritz/prosecco at Enjoy Cafe (Cafe Etruria was closed, sadly – we’ve never been there and we’re practically neighbours!). Not bad, but also no nibbles! On to Volaterra… could we strike out on snacks? No! We had nice wine and a spritz, and champion aperitivi food too – well done, gang! Finally, we had primo and dessert with wine at another of our neighbours: Porgi l’Altra Pancia.

We just about manged to haul ourselves upstairs for screen-watching a music-listening – anything to ensure digestion had begun before we headed to bed!

Thanks for reading this… if you have any questions or comments, please let me know! I’d love to hear from you.

Getting Stuffed at La Pace (10/05/2022)

Getting Stuffed at La Pace (10/05/2022)

This will be a short one, as we stayed in Volterra all day.

One of the things I like most about my morning walks outside of the summer season are the clouds that form lakes between the colline (hills) in the surrounding countryside. They burn off in the mid-morning enough, so you have to get up early enough to catch them. I caught some!

I generally stuck to inside the walls and leisurely papped what ticked my fancy.

I got home a cleaned myself up, and we both had to wait for visitors. We had a ring at the door, and let in the apartment building superintendent and our (very much out of breath) geometra. Think of a gemoetra as a cross between an architect and building inspector. You have to engage one when you need work done on your property. They had a look at our damp patch on the kitchen wall, and again at the neighbour’s balcony where the problem originates. They drew the conclusion that they will have to get in touch with the owner of the apartment – he rarely lives there. At the time of writing this (July 119th 2022), they have gotten in touch, but it remains to be seen what the next step is. I’m not too worried right now, but we’ll need it fixed before it gets cold and rainy.

We probably were a little lazy in deciding that too much of the morning had gone for us to travel out of the town, so we stayed in for a while, and then treated ourselves to lunch (what else is new?) at Osteria La Pace down the other end of town, by Pota a Selci (the gate beside the fortress). But first, we had a bit of a stroll around the town centre to work up an appetite!

La Pace do lovely homemade pasta there, with a boar and black olive stew that is outstanding. But we made the mistake of ordering two courses. You see, their pasta dishes are incredibly filling. But we gave it our best shot!

Although they do a killer tiramisu there (served in a huge coffee cup), I just wanted a little gelato as dessert.

We lazed about it bit – we couldn’t do much else with full bellies. For a while now I had wanted to go on one of Annie Adair‘s tours of the town. She does them a couple of times a day, a few times a week. I waited outside her usual spot at the alabaster and artisinal goods store opposite the leather good shops at Piazza Martiri della LibertĂ . What Annie doesn’t know about Volterra probably isn’t worth knowing. Ordinarily, I would have been excited, but for some reason my anxiety had kicked in and I unfortunately didn’t have the wherewithal to reframe it. Them’s the breaks. So, Annie, if you’re reading this and were wonding why I was a litte quiet – that’s the reason. Nothing to do with you (or me, directly), it just rears its head from time to time. Anyway, it turns out I was the only one there today, so I excused her the tour.

But we did chat for a good 20-30 minutes instead about the new Roman amphitheatre, the sad and slow demise of alabaster craftsmastery (I thought the seams of alabaster were running out, as well as the youth not particularly wanting to do ‘manual’ labour). She corrected me on the former point, but confirm the latter. Also she said that a lot of the alabaster also comes from Spain (if I recall correctly), as that stone is easier to work. We chatted about San Gimignano (wondering why the more genuine Volterra was often overlooked in favour of San Gimignano). We found out we both have the same fear/wanting relationship with Volterra potentially becoming a UNESCO site. I think I used the phrase “But you can’t wipe your bum without contacting the UN if you’re UNESCO.” She agreed. It might be best if Volterra was left independent of UNESCO, but if it happens, it happens. It was a nice chat, and it helped me with my stupid cortisol.

I had mentioned that Niamh and I had met with David McGuffin, and told her that she, David and a guy called Denis Callan featured in videos about Volterra, which helped us make up our minds where to buy. When we were saying our goodbyes, she indicated that she could ask David if Niamh and I could one of his group’s tours with her – the fee was flat for the group, so there would be no charge. Nice! We made a date, with me having to ok it with David later on. It would be the latter 2 hour tour, which would take us into Alab’Arte – one of the chief alabaster workshops in town. Yay!!

Met Annie Adair for a tour at 18:00. Sadly I was the only one to turn up, but we had a good chat for 30 mins or so, before suggesting I join David McGuffin’s group on May 21st for a good 2 hour tour that would take us into Alab’Arte – one of the premier alabaster workshops in the town.

On the way back home, I stopped off for a couple of smallish arancine (stuffed rice balls), as I knew Niamh was going to have some cold cuts and cheeses as a light evening meal.

Back home, we ate, drank and screenwatched. Niamh went to bed earlier than I, so I streamed ‘Joker’ on Netflix. My third time seeing it – a great movie! Zzzzzzzz.

Thanks for reading – please send any questions and comments my way!

We Climbed a Tower in San Gimignano (09/05/2022)

We Climbed a Tower in San Gimignano (09/05/2022)

Now here’s a thing: we both hopped out of the bed, left down the trash and took a walk. She was intrigued by my little diversion by the bus station, and I was more than happy to have a hiking partner.

The route wasn’t too brutal. We went to the panoramic vewpoint, and took Viale dei Ponti, down past the fountain, past the Garibaldi and war monuments and straight to the bus station. I didn’t take any more shots around there.

From there, we took a road we’d never taken. It led to a quiet residential area, which had cul-de-sacs everywhere, but which eventually led to the sports stadium. During our second ever visit to Volterra, we stayed in Park Hotel le Fonti near the stadium, which has a swimming pool, but also has a fairly savage uphill walk to the walled town. We took that route, up to Porta all’Arco and up again towards the centre of town.

We were a bit socially bold: instead of going home to tidy ourseleves up, we headed straight for L’Incontro for a cornetto con crema and a cappuccino (Niamh)/hot chocolate (me). Delish!

We went home and showered and beautified ourselves, and did a little screenwatching. What to do for the day, though? We settled on going to San Gimignano. I am sometimes a little down on SG, but really if it weren’t for our visit to that town years ago, plans to buy a property in Tuscany may never have germinated. We have over-visited it, but there was one major thing we still hadn’t done there: climb one of the towers for which the town is famed.

We hoped for a plum parking spot in P2, but had to settle once again for P4. The town was busy, but there were a lot of spots in P4. First order of the visit? Lunch! We had wanted to try La Mangiatoia (unrelated to the restaurant of the same name in Volterra!), but it was closed, and we settled for Osteria Delle Catene instead. ‘Settled’ is probably an unfair word. There were a couple of older gentlemen waiting on us, and they were so nice. An English family near us had a baby with them, and they doted on it. They served us up some rural Tuscan food, and very nice it was too!

Once done, we stopped off in two places before we hit the famous Piazza della Cisterna. Firstly, we stopped at a gelateria. It was priced highly and not bad… the lady serving had great English, and kindly offered us samples. Certainly no L’Isola del Gusto, but it was ok. The second stop was at a perfume store, in which a man was selling his artisinal perfumes and eaus de toilettes. We must have tried about a half a dozen mixes before settling on a 100ml bottle of his black pepper unisex scent. We both liked it, but Niamh has since worn it a great deal more than I have, lest we become Mr. and Mrs. Stinksthesame.

Onwards:

We found where you head up to buy tickets to climb the tower. The tickets doubled as an entry fee for a small museum too. We climbed the tower first. American travel guide, Rick Steves, had said it was 400 steps, but when we asked the guide, she said it was 217. So maybe Rick mean 200 up and 200 down. Anyway, the climb was interesting:

They never tell you, but frequently you have to contort yourself in some way, shape or form to actually get outside to the top of a tower. In this case, you have to climb a ladder, and watch your head and arms as you make your way through the opening. The hassle is worth it, but if you had issues with flexibility you might find the ladder a bit of a pain. And it’s a little awkward coming down, especially if you’re carrying stuff; you really have to watch your head, shoulders and arms. Anyway, back to the pretty of the topside:

You have to squat underneath a bit of structure to enjoy all sides of the tower. When we were done, we braved the ladder (glad nobody was filming me!), and had a mosey around the museum there. It may have been the old town council building. Not sure why I have no photos of it, but heck the whole experience is worth a visit.

Our mission complete, we headed back to the car (after a quick bio-break), via San Gimignano’s charming main square (the aforementioned Piazza della Cisterna), and saw parts of the town we hadn’t seen before.

We drove back in the rain to Volterra. Instead of going directly to the apartment, however, we stopped off at Antica Velathri CafĂ© for cocktails and nibbles. Pietro (the owner-mixologist) brought us our drinks, then gasped. He told us not to even take a sip, and then ran back downstairs. He came back up seconds later with the sexy garnishes he had forgotten to add! We had a good laugh at that. It’s all about the bella figura!

Later on, after watching our respective screens, we had a small hunger on us. We didn’t want to go out for a full meal, so I suggested L’Hamburgeria for burgers and fries. I headed out, and grabbed order forms. You ticky-box what you want (type of bun, meat, salads, cheeses, sauces, fries, other nibbles) and hand the chits back over and wait. There were a bunch of U.S. kids there creating lively noise while I waited. It was good seeing people being normal, and helping us to reshape this post-pandemic world.

I brought them home and we gobbled them down. Very nice. And for those reading in Ireland, the fries are like chipper chips! Just a little skinnier. Yum.

More screen-watching, music-listening and bed!

Thanks for reading. Let me know what you think!