Monday, September 1, 2014

San Gimignano


I started the 4th week of class today and have to say that I am surprised by the rate at which you can begin to learn a language when you are immersed and your teachers speak only italian.  

Reading and listening comprehension are coming along but to say I speak Italian like a caveman would be offensive to cavemen.  As usual, speaking trails far behind reading and listening because coming up with vocabulary and then correctly conjugating it on the spot requires a quicker and more agile mind than mine.  I do like the style of learning in which we spend more time on speaking, reading and listening than learning grammar rules.  It can however become overwhelming, exhausting, and completely frustrating at times until I remember that I have studied Italian for exactly 3 weeks in my life.  Total.  The school has new people weekly so it's a constant rotation and I met two new people in my level class today that have been studying Italian for at least a year in the traditional method.  That's a pretty good commentary on both Lucca Italian School and immersion learning if at three weeks I can have a similar reading and listening comprehension as them.  

We all speak caveman speak though and I asked my teacher last week if my Italian pronunciation sounds like nails on chalkboard to her.  It does to me.  It sounds really awesome in my head and then when I read the words out loud, it sounds like a 5 year old sounding out the words of a Dr. Seuss book for the first time. 

San Gimignano is one of those that I stutter across every. single. time.  It's actually not difficult to say but I think through all of the pronunciation rules as I'm saying it and it comes out sounding like something Brooklyn threw up.  

Luckily, San Gimignano is much, much more beautiful than I make it sound.  Like other medieval hill towns, it's filled with old stone buildings, long narrow roads and small passageways still used by its citizens to go to the market and visit friends. 


We were lucky enough to see a bride leaving the church to hop into her sweet ride.  




I have a thing for these Tuscan doors if you haven't noticed. 


San Gimignano is known for its many towers, one of which is open for climbing.  I'm a bit embarrassed to admit (and quite sad) that the allure and delicious smell of Italian leather handbags won out over climbing a tower.  San Gimignano is definitely a shoppers town, full of leather goods, olive wood dishes, pottery and wine shops as well as numerous gelato places that claim to have the world's best gelato.  There's been some contests and they've earned the right to make these claims.





More wild boar love.  This was quite a popular shop and I have to admit that the wild boar salami with either pine nuts or truffle sounded intriguing enough to make a girl wish she liked sausages and salami. 




I haven't seen a clothes dryer yet.  My clothes go out on a line here which isn't all that different from home except at home they're hung up on a rack in the cold damp basement, and here it's the clean smelling, warm italian air.  Kind of the same.   

Stupid HOAs and their clothesline restrictions. 




Chianti wine is huge here, specifically the Chianti Classico wine produced in the region between Florence and Siena... look for the pink DOC label around the neck along with a little black rooster. If it doesn't have the label, definitely drink it anyway because it's important to be open-minded.



This place is definitely more charming and lovely than my pronunciation of its name. 


Sunday, August 31, 2014

Siena


Oh, a three day weekend.  I was so excited when I heard it was Labor Day this weekend even though I am not home to celebrate.   To those that are taking a weekend away, throwing a BBQ or just hanging out at home, enjoy, enjoy, enjoy. Happy Labor Day my friends!!!

What's staying in Tuscany without some visits to a few hill towns?  I love planning a little adventure for the weekends.  I was up and out the door by 4:30 am to catch the train to Florence to catch the bus to Siena.  As it turns out, riding your bike at 4:30am is the easy part, it's coming home at 11:30pm that is troublesome....for other people near me. For some reason, I couldn't steer that bike to save my life and almost ran over just about any person that walked by me. There was no joy in their voices when they screamed at the drunken looking, but oh so sober, bike rider.  I was almost the girl you knew who got beat up for running people over in a seemingly innocuous little cruiser in the middle of the night.  


Some Italians take their horse racing seriously.  I met a new friend with tickets to Siena's centuries old Palio horse race a couple of weekends ago.  Seeing a horse race is one of the things that can instantly brings tears to my eyes so I declined.  I've had Siena on the brain ever since and this weekend Siena was calm, quiet and almost tranquil, a huge change from 2 weeks ago. 






I'm starting to develop a crush on all Italian street performers.  You can hear them playing their violins and cellos in the Uffizi courtyard at dusk, or find one on many a street corner strumming out some classic Italian folk music.


Boar is very popular in this region.  A classmate was telling me that she asked to be surprised at a restaurant only to find out after the fact that she'd eaten boar's head--not the kind at the Target deli counter.   They successfully surprised her.  I haven't quite embraced the sausage phenomenon here in Italy but it's very popular amongst locals and visitors.  I've been told that the mortadella, salamis and sausages are out of this world. 


I do not know why the sky sometimes smiles down with big blue everywhere but I'll take it.   Florence and Siena had an itty bitty rivalry to see who could build the more impressive cathedral.  Siena held her own don't you think?



I think the reason I like wandering so much is because when you stumble on a little surprise view like this, you feel like you've won the lottery.  


Siena is split into districts that date back to the middle ages (which is partially what drives the frenzy around the Palio horse race within Siena). Each district has its own church, baptistry and museum.   They fly their flags throughout each district and refer to themselves by district association.  One woman explained that while she was an owl  like her husband, her two sons had been born snails.  I would have been born a she wolf I'm sure. Yes, someone did ask the question, and no, each district does not select tributes annually (unless you count the horses). 


Siena has the oldest surviving bank in the world, Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, which was founded in 1472.  Even more fascinating than the bank itself are the heads of some of Siena's most illustrious past citizens peering down and watching you while you look at the bank.








Siena--not a bad place to spend a day.  I'll share that motto with the she wolf district if they want to use it. 


Thursday, August 28, 2014

Montecatini Alto


You probably won't find Montecatini Alto in a guide book or all over Pinterest.  This little town was a find through searches for small local activities and discussions with those in class who have been in town longer than I have.

Montecatini Alto is the hilltop town that sits right above Montecatini Terme.  It's medieval, relatively untouristed, quiet--everything I am looking for on a lazy Sunday.  Even more awesome is that instead of driving up, you can take the 19th century funicolare for some phenomenal views on the ride up.  



While you can drive up to Montecatini Alto if you have a car, I'd recommend taking the funicolare anyway. It's only 7€ for a round trip ticket (andato e ritorno), runs every half hour during Mar-Nov and the views are pretty phenomenal along the way.  It's a pretty quick 5-8 minute ride up so if your legs can handle it, stand in the front or back for the best views. 




Montecatini Terme below.  I'm beginning to see a pattern with my need to see everything from up high.




Montecatini Alto is the type of town in which you just spend your time wandering aimlessly about.  If you like museums and activities, this might not be your speed.  If you need a day of quiet tranquility, roaming empty streets and alleys, viewing (and accidentally roaming into) olive and fruit groves and sitting in a cafe with a glass of wine, then Montecatini Alto is just the place.  There were times when I didn't run into anyone else for ages while wandering around this town.







The best part about Montecatini Terme and Alto is that they are just a short 30ish minute train ride from Lucca or Florence so easily an afternoon trip or just a quick break from the crowds of Florence if you happen to need it. Montecatini Terme is on the Florence --> Viareggio line.   If you haven't taken the train in Italy, just a hint that it always helps to know the first and last station to know which train to look for on the departure and/or arrival boards. The Trenitalia app or station ticket kiosks tell you the train number as well if you think to look, but I found that those numbers can't always be counted on.  Trains are pretty easy now between using  the app and kiosks at the train stations--just make sure you have your EMV chip credit card in hand.  Mine's just chip and sig which had me convinced I would be left stranded at train stations all over Italy but it's worked at all the train kiosks thus far.  

Small side note--there have been some brief moments when I've wondered if maybe I don't miss the pace of working a little bit.   It's a little masochistic yes, but I can't help feeling completely unproductive at times with all this bizarre me time.  Then someone asked me at dinner why the US hasn't fully converted over to EMV chip yet and all thoughts about being ready to get back into the workforce flew right out of my head.  Quickly and thoroughly.  

Montecatini has two trains stations that are just minutes apart.  While Montecatini Terme is the main station, Montecatini Centro is more central to the Montecatini spas and funicolare.  It's pretty easy wandering through the beauty of spa town of Montecatine Terme (another post dear ones) to get the to the funicolare.  It's a nice surprise to find an easily accessible quiet little hill town in Italy.

Why on earth would I even consider going back to work when I now drink wine at all hours of the day apparently?