Sunday, July 31, 2011

Road Trip Day 10: Home Again, Home Again, Jiggity Jig

This morning we met our fellow weary travelers on the top floor of the hotel where we ate yet another round of the traditional Italian breakfast -- cereal, bread, cornetti, fruit, yogurt and coffee. (I'm starting to have dreams of making egg, sausage, and pancake breakfasts once we're back in the States...followed by a trip to Starbucks, naturally!)

Once we'd consumed enough carbs and caffeine, we headed down to our room for a quick session of Open & Shut for Jackson at our bedroom window.Then we were packed up, buckled up, and zooming Southbound on the autostrada faster than you can say "Home again, home again, jiggity jig." We had the homestretch in our sights.

There's nothing like spending 10 days on the road to give you an appreciation for your "home" away from home. It felt good to get back to our apartment in Grottaglie and put our suitcases away for awhile.

We'll have to take them out again soon enough though...we're already planning a few more Blankenship adventures!

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Road Trip Day 9: A Leaning Tower & The City On a Hill

Day 9 would be our last sight-seeing day and we started the morning by hitting the "snooze button" on the Jackson alarm clock by pulling him into bed with us and coaxing him to go back to sleep so we could get a few more minutes of shut-eye before heading down all those stairs to breakfast.Pretty soon we were packing up our things and carting them down the stairs in preparation for our departure. Dan and I didn't really want to leave the slow tempo of the Cinque Terre...and Jackson didn't want to leave the stairs...but we did have a few more things on our hit list and so off we went.On our way out of town, we pulled the Volvo over to snap a pretty amazing aerial shot of Riomaggiore.First stop was Pisa. We followed our trusty Rick Steves guidebook to a bus parking lot where we caught a shuttle ride that dumped us out just outside the old city walls that enclose the infamous leaning tower. The shuttle bus was a real bargain at 1 Euro per person for a round-trip, especially considering the fact that we missed our exit the first trip and had to make 2 full loops just to get to our stop.

Once we were finally off the shuttle, we made our way past aggressive vendors and their carts packed full of wooden Pinocchio marionettes, miniature plaster leaning tower statues, and a myriad of other touristy chachkies including cans of Homer Simpson's favorite brew, Duff Beer (which apparently the Italians think is a real product on the shelves in American grocery stores) and finally found ourselves inside Pisa's medieval-looking city walls to behold La Torre up close and personal. It really is pretty crazy to see the tower leaning like that!Satisfied with a decent family photo (our broken auto-focus always makes for interesting results when we ask a stranger to take our picture) and the signature "holding up the tower" tourist photos... ...we re-boarded our shuttle bus and made it back to the car -- without a double loop this time.

From Pisa, we drove away from Italy's Western coast, steered around the city limits of Firenze (Florence), and drove straight into the heart of the hilltowns of the Chianti region. Now this is the part of Italy that looks like the Italy you see in the movies! Rolling green hills, vineyard after vineyard, sunflower fields as far as the eye can see, and ancient cities surrounded by medieval city walls.

While there were plenty of walled cities to choose from, we chose Rick Steves' favorite hilltown destination -- Civita di Bagnoregio. And we were very happy that we did!

Perched high on a hill, the Civita literally clings to the edge of cliffs and offers sweeping views in every direction of the canyon that surrounds the medieval town. An earthquake that shook the "city on a hill" back in 1695 sent residents scurrying in a fearful frenzy to relocate to Bagnoregio below and today Civita is considered "the dead city" with few remaining inhabitants.

On our way into Civita, we stopped at neighboring Lubriano to get a grand view of the cliff-clinging city and its surrounding gorge in all its glory.Civita di Bagnoregio is understandably a pedestrian-only space. Aside from a Vespa or two, you won't see any wheels in this city which makes it an even more ideal location for letting Jackson loose. To get there, we had to park our car and take the the steep, "new" footbridge (this one was built in 1966 after a WWII bomb destroyed the original) across the canyon and through a 12th century Roman arch into the city (pictured below).
Here you see Dan and Jackson in front of all that remains of a Renaissance palace. While now only blue sky lies behind these doors and windows, this was once the site of one of five palaces in Civita. Today, however, the front facade of the palace is all that remains, the rest of it having long since taken the no-return plunge off the edge of the ever-eroding cliff. Yikes!We had no agenda in Civita other than to explore and enjoy, which we did. Jackson especially had a great time playing with the pebbles on the ground and making friends with just about anyone on the scene. Musicians outside one of the cafes filled the air with the sounds of jazz while we perused the piazza and the centuries-old church which houses statues from "the school of Donatello."We hunted for awhile before we found Maria's Giardino (Maria's Garden), mentioned in our guidebook. Perched on the edge of the cliff, the garden has an incredible view that is openly shared with the public.Maria and her now-deceased husband Peppone used to carry goods on a donkey back and forth 40 times a day between the old Civita and new Bagnoregio. Her beautiful garden is not only home to many plants and flowers but also to a vast collection of antiques, including some Roman armor.While the guidebook mentioned that Maria is now too old and frail to live in Civita any longer, we had the pleasure of meeting her on our way out of the garden. We felt pretty honored to have met the last native Civita resident still living.Jackson was pretty excited to meet her!
Dinner was served at Antonio's Bruschette con Prodotti Locali by one of his daughters. From my seat in the cave-like cafe, I watched her cook the meal over an open fire while we sipped some of Antonio's hand-crafted wine that was served in a hand-painted pitcher.Bruschetta and the most amazing grilled vegetables were followed by a local fruit-filled cake. After our meal, Antonio showed us his wine cellar carved into the rock beneath the restaurant.As a memento of this unique experience, we bought a bottle of vino rosso tapped from a wine barrel that was covered in dust and cobwebs.Finally we said goodbye to Civita di Bagnoregio and made our way across the bridge and back to our car.
On the road again, Dan pulled over to satisfy my need to take some sunflower pictures. We stopped at one of the sprawling fields just as the sun was getting low on the horizon. I really have never seen so many sunflowers in my life! It was gorgeous!Hopeful for a tour of an actual winery, we had booked a room for the night at a vineyard outside of Rome...but when we arrived the reception staff had already left for the day (in Italy, it seems that things close on a whim sometimes) and the remaining staff didn't know what to do with us. I got the impression that they'd given our room away to someone else. A phone call later and they were sending us on our way to a nearby 3-star hotel for a much-reduced rate but not before one of the Italian staff-members had gifted Jackson with his very own Ferrari. It's made of plastic but it's a Ferrari and he likes it!We had to wake the night guard at the hotel to gain entrance but finally made our way in and and brought a close to an incredible day full of adventure.