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Posted on: September 30, 2008 at 7:56PMThe Essence of Italy I am, sad to say, one of those people who never seems to get lost. Once my feet have touched the soul of a city, it is forever embedded in my memory. Envious of tales of travelers who have stumbled, quite by accident, onto some quaint seaside village or quiet country inn, I set out to get myself lost. Not by accident, I chose Italy for this quest. My Italy is not the one popularized by Frances Mayes in "Under The Tuscan Sun," but one familiarized by stories of my grandparents' youth. A warm blend of family and a zest for life that is still embraced by those who are fortunate to still call Italy home. It is a spirit that one leaves with that keeps them returning time and again to this spectacular country and a tempting lure for those who have never been. A relatively quick six hour flight out of Boston on Alitalia Airlines, one gets the feeling that they are already in Italy when greeted by the flight crew with a happy, "buon giorno!" followed by flight instructions and information in Italian. I find myself in Milan through customs, then back on Alitalia Express to Pisa. I am always amazed when flying over Italy just how mountainous it is. As I stare out the window, that overwhelming feeling that makes my heart swell and tears come to my eyes whenever landing back in this country, a feeling of home. In the spirit of Italy, the rental car is an Alfa. Without difficulty, it is out of the airport and onto the Autostrada, the user-friendly motorway that gets you anywhere in Italy without pains. For those of you intimidated by driving in a foreign country, I will put your mind at ease. The steering wheel of your auto is as it is in the States, you are on the right side of the road heading south and the exits are large and given way in advance. The Autostrada runs on the outskirts of most of the major cities, so traffic is minimal anytime of day or night. Italy has something to offer just about everyone, young and old. It is a mecca for history buffs, art lovers, wine connoisseurs and gastronomes. The cities of Siena, Florence and Rome, to name but a few, offer wonderous displays of architecture and sights beyond one's own imagination. The people are friendly, helpful and patient with those bent on desecrating the language of love. You need not be fluent, or anywhere near to make your way. My destination on this trip is to Sant' Andrea di Sorbello, Mercatale di Cortona, a small town that lies on the border of Tuscany and Umbria. La Torre de Palazzina is a 15th century watchtower that sits on a lovely estate owned by David and Salina Lloyd-Edwards, my hosts for the week. They have painstakingly restored the place to prestine conditions. The tower sits nestled on the Tuscan hillside with panoramic views of the Umbrian countryside on the opposite side of the valley and sits below. With it's ancient wooden beams, terracotta floors and sparkling pool, it makes for more than perfect home base for my daily outings. David, who is a retired British Army officer, offers a wonderful array of day trips through Tuscany depending on your interests. There is nothing this man cannot find or no trip that he cannot plan for you to see. If your interests is wines, he will arrange tours of local wineries. If you desire to experience the local history, you will not be disappointed. If you desire an authentic, home-cooked Italian meal, he will wrestle up chefs to come right to the villa. The possibilities are endless. Getting to Mercatale proves to be quite a feat in itself. It was only knowing what great digs I was held up in that forced me to make the daily sojourn to parts unknown. From the Autostrada, one winds up a hillside to the wonderful town of Tuoro. This is the easy part, for continuing on the road turns into an "E" ticket ride at the amusement park. From Tuoro, winding "S" curves, screaming, bonzai, suicide motorcyclists in bright Italian leather armor on their shiny, high-powered steeds pass on blind curves as they make their way to La Cima, a restaurant at the very pinnacle of the hill. It is no doubt that the rumors that it serves the best espresso around are true. It is peace at the pinnacle, when like a mother duck, I stop to count the fledgings one and all and am relieved that their somewhat reckless journey has ended on a good note. It is only when stopping to take in the view from the top that one can appreciate the dangerous lengths that one goes for to half a slice a heaven. The panoramic view of Lago Trasimeno is spectacular. For a moment, you feel small when you take in the grandeur of this sight and you feel blessed to be given this day. As everyone knows, what goes up, well, it must come down. Your best bet on the backside is to coast as you find yourself on the brake more times than not. A sense of gratitude passes over you that once again you have "climbed the mountain and then turned around" to paraphrase Fleetwood Mac. The foot of the hill dumps you onto the road lined with tobacco and sunflower fields that quite literally splits Tuscany and Umbria and leads you directly into Mercatale di Cortona. The small town of Mercatale is a quiet example of an idealic Italian village where clusters of elders sit on benches outside the local grocer and just watch life. Along with the grocer with his fresh product and most staples one might need, there is a meat market and baker close by to fill all other possible needs. There is also a store which carries many items that you might find at a local hardware and if they do not have it, you just do not need it. There is a fantastic restaurant, Mimmi's, in town and like any good Italian household, you eat what is put in front of you with no disappointments here. I was surprised to find that an art gallery at the center of town, "Piazza del Mercato," housed a very talented ceramic artist, Andrew Wood, formerly of Gloucestershire, England and formerly still of my old stomping ground in Venice, California. After catching up, I managed to leave with one of his pieces from his "Head Case" collection, a ceramic head of a man looking like someone from "The Blue Man Group" in an old, wooden Cuban cigar box frame. I try to leave home with one particular item in mind to search for that will memorize my trip, this was that item. It is funny the small touch that can make someone feel right out home. For me, it came in the form of Millie, David and Salina's dog. Millie is a combination of two, very annoying, small dogs that know one likes, but rolled into one, she is just great. The very minute your car hits the gravel drive, Millie can hear you coming. Mind you, the drive is about one quarter of a mile from the road, but pulling through the gates, she can be seen in a fierce attack mode, head down, hind-end up in the air, then catapulting at the speed of sound this tail-wagging bundle of drool. Each morning upon waking, Millie would make her way over to the terrace where I sipped very strong coffee and tried desperately to get some writing accomplished before setting out for the day. All is quiet and on most mornings, a dense fog fills the valley below like a frothy cup of of hot cappuccino. At the first sliver of Tuscan sun, the fog dissipates to once again reveal the wonderous view from the villa. Castles sit high atop the hillsides while workers harvest tobacco that carpets the floor of the valley below, a sight to behold. Please keep in mind that this section of Italy is very rural and there are wild critters and bugs about the hillsides. There are lots of creepy things that crawl and I highly suggest tucking your sheets up off the floor at night. An occasional scorpion will want to join you now and then and although their stings are particularly unpleasant, not live-threatening, at least not in my case, thank God. All in all, I will beg you to not let this detour you from the trip of a lifetime. One of things I especially love about Tuscany is it's central location and easy access to most of Italy. Trains run from small towns to all major cities and at very reasonable fares, you can relax and take in the sites while also avoiding the headache and frazzled nerves of driving into a heavily populated area. Keep in mind, a good majority of all cities and towns in Italy are located on hilltops. The streets can be very steep and quite narrow, so if you have roaming in mind, be sure to pack some comfortable walking shoes, as sandals and heels just will not make the grade. If you hunger for the culture and nightlife that Italy has to offer, I strongly recommend hopping a train from one of many trainspots that dot the Autostrada. There are car parks that are safe and you can leave your vehicle at no charge. Tickets are purchased inside the station and I recommend that you grab a schedule as to not miss the last train of the evening. Rest assured there are plenty of places to lay your head if you decide to shut down one of the nightclubs. On this trip, I opt for a quick train ride to Florence where I meet up with my delightful and brilliant friend, Elaine, who teaches at the University in Florence. In her spare time, which is very little with a small child at home, she gives the best walking tours of Florence. She has delightful stories of taking the Supreme Court Justices on a tour through Florence and her knowledge of the Medici is staggering. This is a fantastic way to learn about the rich history of this country without the confines of a group tour. My stay in Italy this time is brief, but I will return again soon. I highly recommend you experience Italy outside the box. Move about amongst the locals and embrace the culture. It is my guess that you will be planning your next adventure to Italy before you even touch back down in the States. report a problem
Posted on: August 20, 2009 at 9:29PMI am one who gets lost going two blocks from my house, yet put my feet in Florence, and i can walk blindfolded, i know every tiny street that leads to every piazza, strange how i never get lost in Italy. I have been there twice in as many years and already making plans for next year. What is it that makes a person travel so far from home to feel at home? I just know that as i pull up to the villa and the people who welcome me with open arms so wide and embrace me with true emotion, we cry as we greet and even harder as i Leave. This i have heard from so many people no matter where they have traveled in Italy . The museums are beautiful, as are the sights and smells of the tuscan countryside, but the people are what brings me back, into their fold. My advice is never think you cant afford a trip to Italy.... never... there is a way for everyone. Do no overlook a villa because of the price listed, call and ask if there is something that can be worked out .And renting by the month is always cheaper. If meals are offered in the price, tell them you can prepare your own meals if that would make the cost lower.the co-ops in the towns have great foods to prepare and are so reasonable, it is one of my favorite trips to the local supermarket.or coop. The chicken cooked in the coops, are delicious, with a salad and loaf of fresh bread, dinner for four is under twenty euros.with wine and dessert too!! Here the Wines and liquors are much less expensive than the specialty stores in the tourist areas ( also agree not to use the heaters if it is in the early fall, as a down comforter is always enough to keep you warm. The utilities is what makes renting cost more money, agree to use the air conditioner at the bare minimum. (I have yet to use the air ,as the mountain air is always cooler than in the crowded cities) most of the owners in the countryside would rather have some business than no business. Most are always flexible in the price. there is a place for you in Italy..my place, Dicomano, with my friends Roberto and his beautiful wife, Illaria. Tfheir property is surrounded by olive trees, and vineyards, both of which are superb... wine, and olive oil flow freely here . They are the best hosts, with service that beats out any five star hotel////// i love these people.... ciao and remember, Their is a place for everyone in Italy. just find yours....