As I finally found some sanity to schedule a train ride for the late morning, we managed to squeeze some time to visit the REAL Rialto market before heading to the train station. Entering the Grand Canal, we were greeted by the awesome San Giorgio Maggiore. It had looked beautiful from our hotel balcony but up close, it was even more majestic with it pristine white walls. I hate to admit that this cathedral looks even more impressive than San Marco.
The Grand Canal is lined with palatial like residences with its exquisite external façade and carvings. We were dismayed to see that the ground level of some buildings are no longer accessible as it is now submerged under water. In fact, St Mark’s Square is flooded about 100 days a year as Venice is slowly being drowned by rising waters. The authorities are looking into using modern architectural technologies to sustain these authentic structures and control the waters.
The old heart of Venice was famous for its money changers in the beginning of 1000 AD, followed by its stock of fresh fish, fruits and vegetables. The fish comes from the Adriatic Sea and within the Venetian lagoon while the fruits and vegetables are harvested from the mainland surrounding the lagoon.
One of my favourite image of Italy before this trip was that of a fresh produce market in Florence which I saw on television so I was definitely going to witness this in person. The pescharia was particularly cool although it cannot be compared to the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. After satisfying my visual senses, we tried to find out way to the nearest vaporetto stop but even Theo who prides himself with excellent navigation skills was severely put to test. We wandered around a few narrow alleys and backtracked quite a bit before the Grand Canal loomed into view.
On board the train I was quite surprised to find many English speaking travelers for a change. A Hong Kong couple sat across the aisle from us and were locked in conversation with another American couple about their travel experiences. I was super cheesed off by the arrogant display of their travel experiences and knowledge. I guess we should have expected this when we decided to join the common tourist routes. Prior to this, we had met mainly locals and it was not exactly a welcome relief to meet fellow travelers or tourists.
Once in Florence, Theo led the way through the unkempt streets to our car rental outlet. While Theo took care of the paperwork, I ventured to the nearby grocer to buy some mineral water. I was surprised to find out that a 1.5 liter bottle cost me 1 euro while a half dozen bottle of the same mineral water costs only 2.80 euros. I couldn’t help but to blurt out how ridiculous the pricing methodology was but the Indian shopkeeper simply shrugged his shoulders and told me I could always buy the half dozen. I shook my head in disbelief.
Back at the car rental, the lady who processed our paperwork was pretty clueless. I guess she wasn’t used to handling customers who didn’t speak a word of Italian and we could barely understand her chattering. She photocopied Theo’s visa to Cambodia and wrote in the form that his nationality was Cambodian. (On hindsight, because of her error we somehow managed to escape the fines meted out by the Italian police for crossing into the Limited Traffic Zone.)
Later she retrieved our car from the garage and stopped it right in the middle of a one way street. Before we had time to orient ourselves to the new car or even to check it, we were shooed into the vehicle with our luggage as a long queue was building up behind us with impatient honks blaring at us. We didn’t even realize that the car had a dent and a broken headlight. Traffic in Florence is a nightmare and the road directions haphazard.
We completely lost our way in the city three times over the next two days even with the help of a map, each time taking us more than an hour to get to our destination. I will NEVER drive in Florence ever again. We finally got out of the city after several detours and then onto the autostrada RACC heading to Siena. The Italian’s version of highway is a two-lane bumpy road. We exited at Tavernelle and started ascending the countryside hills.
After clearing a few turns, we emerged into the famous Tuscan hills. Nothing prepared me for what laid before my eyes. I was expecting perhaps flat agricultural landscape similar to Provence or perhaps a mountainous backdrop but Tuscany is characterised by a multitude of gentle sloping hills covered by plots of agricultural land undulating up and down according to the shape of the land. Because of the lay of the land, it is possible to see quite a distance away from any vantage point.
The evening sun rays diffused off the fields and the different shades of stone baked houses created a multicolored landscape which was quite a sight to behold. Every single turn of the eye was met by a picturesque landscape like out of some Hallmark calendar. For once I decided not to waste my time snapping my camera away as it was useless. Nothing could justify the experience of seeing it for yourself.
It took us two hours to locate Renai & Monte agriturismo after several wrong turns and even having to stop for directions in broken Italian. Apparently the 20km away from Florence which was the deciding factor in choosing this location was turning out to be quite the sham. I had assumed that 20km meant a smooth 20 minutes of flat highway cruising and not closer to 100 km of uphill windy bumpy one-way roads through the countryside which I hope wasn’t taking its toll on our little 1.4 liter Citroen C3.
Our host Alessandro greeted us warmly and showed us our accommodation. It was the second level of a nice brown brick house which came complete with its own living room, fully equipped kitchen, bedroom with three beds and a separate bathroom plus a bottle of complimentary red wine and olive oil produced right on the farm! All this for just 62 euros a night. Considering all the other places we had stayed this was a steal. The furnishings were simple countryside style although it was a bit old and run down.
By then it was 5pm, we had not taken our lunch and everyone was feeling cranky after being subject to crazy traffic in Florence and bumpy hilly roads. We immediately set about to boil water and cook up another instant meal. Under the setting sun, we ventured into the small village of Gambassi Terme to buy some groceries from the local store. We did not realize that it was already close to 8pm and apparently all the shops were closing.
The nice grocer offered me a huge loaf of bread for only 1 Euro which I bought without any hesitation. It was only when I got back to the car that I found out that the bread was hard like a rock. Up here in the Tuscan countryside, nothing is actually located side by side. You could drive for 10 minutes on the lonely road and not see any signs of civilisation. Lighting is also pretty limited so we had to drive really carefully.
We found a local ristorante to dine and finally understood my Italian colleague’s definition of hearty Tuscan cuisine. Servings were really large and the food was delicious although it was too salty for my palate. On our way back to the agriturismo, we were treated to beautiful skies litted bright with stars.