June 3, 2015

My Two Weeks in Tuscany

While Washington sweltered in the warmest May ever, here's where I was based for a delightfully cool two weeks. Truth alert: I didn't take this photo. It comes from an online travelogue.

My son, his partner, and I have traveled in Europe for the past two years, and we travel well together. A favorite stop from an earlier trip was the hill town of Asola, near Venice. When we decided to return to Europe this May, I immediately thought of Tuscany.

Asia -- especially Nepal -- has dominated my travels since 2001. Before that, I traveled in Europe almost every year. Florence is one of my favorite cities, and I always enjoyed the hill towns of Tuscany. Here's how Rick Steve's describes these towns:
The hill towns of central Italy hold their crumbling heads proudly above the noisy flood of the 21st century and offer a peaceful taste of what eludes so many tourists. Sitting on a timeless rampart high above the traffic and trains, hearing only children in the market as the rustling wind ages the weary red-tile patchwork that surrounds me, I find the essence of Italy.
Given my age (86 on May 26) and my Parkinson's, I didn't want to travel the way I used to -- two nights here and three nights there. I wanted to stay in one place and use it as a base for explorations. But which town?

Two of my dearest friends, Daniel and Marione Ingram, had lived in Tuscany for years. So I turned to them for advice. I said I wanted to stay in a Tuscan town that wasn't overrun by tourists. Another requirement: a town that didn't require climbing up and down hills. They immediately suggested Cortona.
Never heard of Cortona? Neither had I. Here's where it is:

From there, it's easy to get around, The train from Cortona to Florence takes an hour and a half, about the same time we needed to drive to Siena.                                                                                                  
Apartment Better than a Hotel
At the Ingram's suggestion, we used airbnb.com to rent an apartment in Cortona. That choice proved much more enjoyable than staying in a hotel. The apartment -- two bedrooms, two baths -- occupied the first two floors of the rowhouse. Nobody was in the two floors above us, so it was like having a whole house to ourselves. The apartment cost about $135 a night, much less than two rooms in a hotel.

Our house was the only one on the street that didn't have another house directly across from it, so we got this view from our kitchen window:

Here I am outside the house with our landlady Liliana and her nephew:

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A Tuscan Surprise: I Can Climb Hills!
The Ingrams had assured me that the historic town center of Cortona was level, and wouldn't require any climbing up and down. This was true of the town center... but not of our apartment, in the last house on the left side of the street below:

Here's our starting place: #47. The open window is in our kitchen. Note how sharply the road rises from right to left. THAT'S the route to "town."

Here's the view from across the street. At left, you can see the gap in the rowhouses that gave us our countryside views:

When we  first arrived, I thought I'd have to take a room in the hotel at the top of the hill. But I decided to try the climb and found that I could do it... with two or three stops along the way. After a rest at the top, I could take long (for me) walks through the town... a reminder that I need to challenge myself more with walks at home.

Halfway up Mt. Everest on the walk into town, I take a break, pretending I'm just stopping to take a picture:

Finally, I can see the summit!

Here's the entrance to the main street. As with most Tuscan towns, it's mainly pedestrian, with only a few cars and service vehicles permitted.

Cortona's Old Town
Sitting in Cortona's town square one evening, I got to chatting with a retired couple from Manhattan. They rent an apartment in Cortona for two weeks every year. I can see why. It's definitely a change from New York, New York.

Let's take a look around. Here are two views of the main plaza. Times Square it is not.

There was a nice grocery store on the main square. Like many shops, it closes for several hours in mid-afternoon for riposo, the Italian siesta. But the Italians are more likely to use the free time for a good home-cooked meal... instead of a nap.

Maybe it was riposo when I walked back to the apartment from the main square. It is definitely not Broadway:

Several outdoor cafés gave me a chance to engage in my favorite sports -- sitting, eating, and people watching. Our favorite café had a vegetarian pizza... probably the best pizza I ever had. As these schoolkids pass by, it looks like I'm about to knock my glass of tea off the table:

And here are a few stairs I never climbed:

Other Tuscan Towns
We took day trips from Cortona to other medieval hill towns. Here are a few of them:
  1. San Gimignano.  This is probably the most famous and well-known Tuscan town. It is said to be the best preserved medieval town in all of Italy. The 15 scenic towers are unique, though I captured only a few of them in this shot:

Here is a professional photographer's photo of the skyline:

In addition to the towers, San Gimignano is known for its crowds. Even in mid-May, the tourist hordes made us cut short our visit.

2. Siena.  Regarded as Italy's best medieval town. I stayed here for several days over 20 years ago. I remember enjoying just strolling around and getting to know the town. But on this return visit, I realized you need to be relatively young and healthy to enjoy walking its steeply inclined streets. Just getting to and from our parking place exhausted me. So while my travel mates did the sightseeing, I spent a couple hours sitting in cafés around the Campo, Siena's huge central piazza.

After a couple coffees and a fruit tart, I regained enough strength to lift the camera for these shots:

3. The smaller towns: We particularly enjoyed going to the smaller, less-known towns. One of our favorites was Lucignano on market day. The streets were filled with stalls of produce, clothing, handicrafts, and other products. The patrons were mostly locals. Here's one small corner of the market:

And here's one of those locals:

On another day we visited Montepulciano, where we did little more than enjoy a long, leisurely, and fabulous lunch sitting on the terrace.

You can see my travel mates Todd and Jill in the foreground. With them is Terry Munyard, one of my nearest and dearest pals. Terry flew over from London and joined us for the three-day weekend in the middle of our holiday.

Here you see the two of us in a photo that can be added to the Schappi/Munyard vacation album. Through the past 35 years, we've visited many places together, including Denmark, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Cuba, New York City, Washington, DC, and many places in the U.K. 

It's strange that Terry has gained three inches in height over the past few years. Or could it be that....

"So John, What Did You Like Most About Tuscany?"

My travel mates and I agreed: We never had a mediocre or bad meal the entire time we were in Tuscany... and we ate out for almost every lunch and dinner.

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