Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Day 7: From Florence to Chianti: Car Rental Craziness, Tuscany, and Pringles

We overslept somewhat on Saturday, considering we wanted to fit in the Accademia in the morning before we departed for Greve in Chianti.  We awoke at 8:30 am, and I am sure people were already lined up outside the Accademia to see the statue of David.  However, our Firenze passes would get us in quickly with little to no wait.  

Our original plan was to head to the the Accademia, come back to the hotel and pack up, and then head to the train station to catch a bus to the airport where we would pick up our rental car by noon.  But considering our time crunch, we decided to go ahead and have breakfast at the hotel.  (By the way, we were now officially sick of eating prosciutto, cheese, and croissants everyday and were madly craving eggs.  They would have made them for us, but we didn't want to pay extra for it.)  We then packed up, checked out of the Hotel Hermitage, donning our backpacks, we walked up to the Accademia, risking security would let us through with our packs. Luckily they did, although Sam had to leave his bottle of lemoncino at the front door with security and pick it up on the way out.  No big deal.  We were just happy they let us in with our packs on.  

We immediately entered the museum and headed straight for the Michelangelo's David.  It was phenomenal!  It is so much bigger than I realized!  And beautiful!  One thing I noticed is that his hands are disproportionate to the rest of his body- they are huge!  Unfortunately, we were not able to take pictures in the museum, but I have included a replica of David where he originally stood outside the Palazzo Vecchio.  
Replica of David outside Palazzo Vecchio
We continued to wander around the museum, which contains mostly sculpture.  This was much more our cup of tea than the Uffizi!  The Accademia is fairly small and we were able to conquer it in about an hour or a little less. 

When we left the museum, we had a fairly quick jaunt back to the Santa Maria Novella train station of Florence.  We were not catching a train, but the "Volainbus" bus that would shuttle us to the Florence airport in about 20 minutes. The bus itself simply lists "aeroporto", and it departs from the train station every half hour. After much research, I learned that this bus is operated by ATAF, the city public bus system, which is supposed to be included in the price of our Firenze card.  However, the bus driver  simply looked confused when we showed him our cards and shrugged.  I seriously think he did not know if they were valid for use on this bus or not.  We both paid  6 each for the ride to the airport (He even gave us change, which they don't usually do!), we scanned our tickets to be validated, and off we went! It was a very bumpy cobblestone ride. 

After the twenty minute ride to Pertola/ Amerigo Vespucci Airport (which is surprisingly small for an international airport), we learned that we had to take yet another bus to get to the recently relocated rental car lot.  We waited for the small van and crammed on with several other people.  The drive took about 5 minutes, but it was crazy how many turns and lane-switching was taking place.  The car rental lot was hidden beneath a bridge- almost hidden. Here is the car we drove for three days- the tiny Fiat Panda! 
Yes- it WAS actually tinier than my Scion xB. 

Once we arrived at the rental car lot we quickly requested our much-anticipated GPS.  We were regretfully informed that there were no more cars with GPS available.  What?  Seriously?  We were counting on this.  Like a lot.  Everyone advised me to simply ask for a car with GPS when we arrived- that there was no need to reserve it in advance.  Yeah right.  Here is a word of advice:  When renting a car out of the country, RESERVE GPS IN ADVANCE.  No joke. So- it is what it is, and we continued with our reservation.  Upon departing, I asked for a map.  I was expecting a map of Florence- something that would at least direct us to the Autostrada (highway) where I could then follow directions to the farm house where we were staying in Chianti.  Riiiight.  When we got in the car, I learned that the map they gave us was an entire map of Italy!  That was just as good as giving us a map of the U.S. when you are navigating your way around L.A.  Sigh... and so the journey began. 

This was by FAR the most stressful hour and a half of our entire vacation. No joke. We did not know how to read Italian road signs.  We were in the middle of a large city with crazy roads- no perpendicular roads exist here.  People, as you may have heard, drive like bats out of hell in Italy so people were cutting us off left and right, driving between lanes. Motorcycles and scooters zipped around us at insane speeds while we tried to navigate out of the city, constantly merging form the far left lane to turn here and then to the far right lane to merge there.  I am not exaggerating. In fact, I am not sure how to even describe it accurately.  Meanwhile, we were trying desperately to avoid the ZTL (Limted Traffic Zones). These are areas that you can physically drive into if you don't know better, but are limited to residents only of downtown or historic areas.  They are avidly camera-enforced, and I have read many stories of drivers that received $1,000 of dollars in tickets months after their return to the states.  We are still crossing our fingers that we do not receive any mail from the City of Firenze... 

After about 8 turns and at least 10 near misses (no joke), to get our of the airport rental area, we were unsure of where to go next and were scared that we were headed toward the city center.  We stopped at a gas station where no one was working.  (Big surprise- it was in the middle of the afternoon.  No one works in the middle of the day in Italy.)  We asked someone getting gas how we get to the autostrada, and she didn't know.  Not a good sign.  Meanwhile, Sam's anxiety level continued to rise. 

I forgot to mention that he is driving because he actually has the skill set to drive a stick, unlike me.  To get an automatic was several hundreds of dollars more since they are so uncommon in Italy due to their inefficiency. Gas is very expensive here! So far in 2012, gas is at an average of 1.82 euros per liter, or $9.17 per gallon.  This is why Italians drive small cars! In the end, we only filled up once before we returned the car after driving all over Tuscany three days and only paid about €35. 

So we continued down the street to yet another gas station where someone was working.  We bought a map of Tuscany (Florence and the surrounding region) and then asked her how to get to the autostrada.  Fortunately, she was able to give us directions and we weren't that far off.  

However, once on the autostrada, we were once again a little overwhelmed.  Cars buzzed by at ferocious speeds, we weren't sure if we were even headed in the right direction or if we were even on the right highway.  (The A1 and A11 are merged here and then split at some point outside Florence.)  Once we determined that we were going the correct direction, we learned that the A1 is a toll road.  Ooops. Did not know that.  So we got our ticket, not really knowing how much we would owe at the end of this adventure.  After driving for almost 25 minutes or so, I realized that we still had not found our exit according to the directions from the owners of the agriturismo we were staying.  I had been looking avidly, but never saw it. I eventually recognized that we had now driven too far, adding to Sam's overall frustration.  But we continued to drive south of Florence and got off at another exit, east of our destination and followed the directions to the farm house as if we had come north from Rome.  We ended up going way out of our way, but eventually found it in about double the time than should be expected.  

I would recommend renting a car somewhere outside of a big city such as Pisa or even smaller if possible.  That way you could take the train out of the city and pick up the car in a more manageable place. 

We rolled into Greve in Chianti around 3:00 pm (15:00) or so.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, an agriturismo is basically a working farm that receives subsidies from the Italian government, enabling it to work as a bed and breakfast.  This encourages farming, as well as aids in tourism.  The agriturismo we chose is called Casa Nova La Ripintura.  They own two farms and offer rooms for rent in a bed and breakfast and have a private house for rent for bigger groups, but also work as a small winery and have olive oil production, which is common in the area. Read my review here. Here are pictures of our gorgeous room in the very old farm house: 

A terrace we shared with the room next to us. 

Great, roomy bathroom! 

Door to terrace
The first thing we did after checking in with the French owner, was buy a bottle of their house wine for  €5. It was delicious, and the price could not be beat! We sat out on our terrace, relaxed, and drank the bottle of wine. 

Around 4:30 pm (16:30) we decided to walk into the town of Greve in Chianti, which was only about a 10 minute walk down the hill.  We wandered along a beautiful dirt road, littered with vineyards and then an easy sidewalk led us along a stream into town.  

We were hungry since we had not eaten since breakfast. In Italy, restaurants and even many stores are closed between the hours of 2:30 and 7:00.  Many Italians eat dinner between 7:00 and 10:00 pm (19:00- 22:00). We discovered that the owner's wife managed a restaurant in town and we decided to venture there with hopes that we could find something to tide us over. The restaurant is called La Bottega del Moro.  See the review here. It is not in the main Piazza Matteotti  in town, but rather directly on the SR 222- the winding road leading through the wine country ofTuscany. We arrived at an odd time, but they were indeed open.  We stopped in and the current cook/server told us what she had available.  Everything was recently bought at the market and was being prepared fresh.  We decided to split a 1/2 carafe of the house white wine for €2.50 (Everything was much cheaper out here in the country!) and split a piece of lasagna since that it was she had available this early.  IT WAS THE BEST LASAGNA I HAVE EVER EATEN. I am not a big lasagna person, but this was awesome! Simply divine! 
La Bottega del Moro

Divine lasagna
After we relaxed in the shade of the patio at del Moro, we decided to wander about town.  We walked around the piazza and eventually stopped at an enoteca, or wine bar.  Since we were still hungry we shared some mediocre bruschetta with roasted vegetables and the house white wine. 
We then found the local coop grocery store and did a little shopping. We accidentally bought 2 large bottles of mineral water- oops.  We also purchased a bottle of local wine and Kit Kat bars- they looked good.  We also bought another can of Pringles.  After being to several grocery stores, we found that Pringles work well for travel.  Since they are in a can, they do not crumble as easily and they can be stored in your backpack or bag, eaten on the train or in your hotel room when you get the munchies.  This was the first of several cans of Pringles on our trip. And they have different flavors over there- like Paprika and Sea Salt and Pepper!  As for the Kit Kat, we were a bit overwhelmed after just a few bites, when we realized it was not made with milk chocolate.  Evidently, this is common over there?  We ended up throwing the rest away, as it was just too rich. 

I took a cool shower to help relieve the stifling heat and lack of air conditioning in this very old house. We planned our routes for the following day and then watched the stars from our terrace. 

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