Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Travels in Tuscany

 Eighteen days in Tuscany compensated for last year’s dearth of European travel. Our UK friends at On Foot in Salisbury reprised what they did for us in Dorset and Garrotxa two and three years ago: they provided a diverting walking route, arranged the nightly roofs over our heads and looked after transporting our bags from flop to flop. They did a good job of it all. The On Foot walk is billed as ‘Renaissance Hilltop Towns of Tuscany’, a label both evocative and apt. We walked up to 19 km a day, had the world between towns much to ourselves and were given much to see.

Perhaps it was the time of year: Tuscany was a palette of green – myriad greens – rather than the dry browns I had expected of this land of vineyards, olive groves and sun. Apropos birds and wildflowers I had arrived in Italy with muted expectations but May in Tuscany proved a revelation: we had plenty of both. On the first day in the hiking boots we spotted the remarkable bee-eater – several of them – dressed in most of the hues of the rainbow.

The outlandish hoopoe has been a grail bird in our European walks for years. This time Europe delivered: at Pieve a Salti in the early morning after our first night on the trail, we spotted our lifer hoopoe. Jan literally jumped for joy but being a good Canadian she did so silently so as not to disturb our sleeping fellow guests. 

All of the hilltop towns along our way – Montalcino, Bagno Vignoni, San Quirico, Pienza, Monticchiello, Montepulciano – are old, particularly by North American standards: narrow streets, many-centuries-old churches, cathedrals and basilicas. Amazement at the art and architecture we chanced to see became altogether routine. 

I have been pretty much a teetotaller since the summer of 2014 when my arrhythmic heart decided it didn’t like the volume of beer, wine and scotch I was taking on board. A world-class beer-swiller at age 27, I slowly discovered that a body is somehow less robust, less tolerant at 67. Nowadays the heart is much better behaved given that I substitute acqua frizzante – ‘fizz water’ – for cold beer and too many glasses of red wine. For all that, friends still gasped when I suggested that, well no, I wouldn’t be indulging in the world class wines of Tuscany. 

Fortunately, Tuscan food is also highly regarded and no constraints applied to our enjoyment of that. We ate well, plentifully and in good variety. One Italian confection I regard as world-best is gelati, Italian ice cream. Often made on site fresh daily, the gelati of Tuscany were invariably smooth and chockablock with flavour. 

The older I get the more convinced I am that walking – plenty of it – is one of life’s essentials, equally beneficial to body, mind and soul. We continued to wear out shoe leather after the official walking portion of our time in Tuscany was done. We went to Lucca, another ancient Renaissance town, walked the pathways of the city’s old rampart walls, saw many more chiese and cattedrali – churches and cathedrals – and exploited the happy fact that Lucca is where Giacamo Puccini happens to have been born. Jan likes opera and has managed to infect me with a measure of the same inclination. We visited the worthy Puccini museum at Lucca then enjoyed a night at the opera with a soprano and tenor who sounded to my highly untutored ear as good as Callas or Pavarotti.

Our weather was mostly blithe. On the first day of the walk an electrical storm had briefly delivered torrential rain, then it was mostly blue sky and sunshine that characterized our days.  The rain returned with a vengeance on the Sunday we arranged to travel to Carrara. Heritage House is publishing Remembered in Bronze and Stone, my book about Canadian war memorials this fall. Since the marble quarries in the mountains of Carrara were the source of about a hundred stone soldiers gracing Canadian monuments, I was keen to go there. Despite the rain I am glad we did. The Carrara quarries still supply huge volumes of marble to the whole wide world. We saw just a few of the 180 currently in operation. Each of them is enormous.

We had spent a day and a half in Siena prior to the walk. There we had joined the multitude of other tourists ogling Il Campo, the public square Montaigne claimed was the world’s most beautiful, and the remarkable Duomo, its facade as remarkably, ornately beautiful as the trove of art treasures displayed in its interior.

On the Carrara day we carried on to Pisa where the famous leaning tower, cathedral and baptistery drew thousands of turisti, many of whom seemed to think nothing is more fun than to be photographed leaning at the same angle as the tower.  Torrential rain returned, scattering the tourists. Jan and I took shelter under the canopy of an outdoor cafe and ate pizza – what else should a foreign tourist eat on a rainy Sunday in Pisa?

We wrapped up our eighteen days where we had begun: Florence, or as the locals prefer, Firenze. Before we left home I had searched and found that a British war cemetery is nearby. War cemeteries are irresistible; the Florence War Cemetery at Girone is as beautiful and evocative as any I have seen – and just as effective at inspiring contemplation.

The art of Florence – much of it out in the open on public display – and the city’s architecture are as remarkable as all the brochures boast. We gawped at the Duomo and Brunelleschi’s impossible dome. We spent a gobsmacked half-day at the Palazzo Pitti where you can take up-close looks at half-a-millennium-old treasures by Raphael, Titian, Rubens, Caravaggio, Take-your-pick. The narrow streets and sidewalks of old Florence seem perpetually crowded. I took a few hundred pictures of landmark sites, the foreground always jammed with people. We sought relief in green spaces and found what we looked for in the Fabbricotti and Stibbert parks where I was happy to find more birds than people – blackcaps, redstarts, chaffinches, goldfinches, treecreepers, blackbirds and herons.

Eighteen days seems just about the right amount of time to have spent in Tuscany. Our time on the trail and in the old towns was a delight when it was live – and looks good in the rear-view too. We reveled in the unfamiliar and the contrasts from our everyday world but – perhaps this is as good as it gets – we are grateful to be home and freshly alive to the allure of our own little corner of the planet.

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