This week we have taken full advantage of the rental car and racked up over 1,200kms making our way from Matera up to Tuscany. Having the car has given us so much flexibility in deciding where to go. Fortunately Greta is still providing us with excellent recommendations on what to see and where to stay, so the planning part is very easy for us… we just jump in the car and drive. The navigator app on my phone has taken us on some interesting routes, but I think that’s all part of the fun. Let’s just say I haven’t thrown my phone out of the window yet, so it can’t be too bad. Although today the voice changed from a female to a male without us touching any settings. Anna enjoys the sultry tones of the new man and has even nicknamed him Fabio. Perhaps I should be jealous! The little Citroën is great and I realised it’s actually a 1.0L, not a 1.2L as I reported last week. You have to work the gears a little on the hills (especially with the A/C switched on), but it uses 4L/100kms which is perfect for our backpacker budget. With so much ground covered this week, we thought a map would help put our movements into perspective.
One thing I forgot to mention last week is that Matera is where Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was filmed. Naturally we watched the movie this week and its easy to spot various parts of the old town. We left Matera and headed for Alberobello which was a very pleasant drive through the countryside. As we approached Alberobello we began to notice these funny looking buildings on the farms that line the backroad into town. They looked like a stone version of a Tipi with the top of the roof painted white, almost like it was snowcapped. Turns out that this is what the town is famous for and the centre of town is full of these buildings called Trulli. The funny thing is, the reason why they built these odd-shaped homes is because they don’t have any mortar in between the stones, therefore it wasn’t classed as a dwelling and no tax was payable. Doesn’t sound like the Italians does it???
With our dirty washing pile building, we decided that we’d splash out and stay in a modern loft apartment in Carovigno with a full kitchen and a washing machine. I say splash out because it was almost AU$100 per night, but it did allow us to make home cooked meals and avoid laundrette costs. Naturally we made a tomato based pasta with sausage and it was one of the best we’ve had on the trip, although perhaps thats because we’re missing home cooked meals. Come to think of it, the scrambled eggs for breakfast each morning were also wonderful, but that could be due to the fact that there was more cheese in it than eggs. Regardless the apartment was very flash, so we definitely enjoyed some downtime watching movies and relaxing.
Whilst staying in Carvigno we did day trips to Ostuni and Lecce to see the old towns. Lecce was interesting because it was the first town centre that wasn’t built up on a hill, but it still fitted the mould by having a big fort wall around it for protection. With evidence of inhabitance dating back to 3rd century BC, it has been through its fair share of attacks and defeats. One thing that continues to amaze me with all the towns we visit in Italy is the way they were designed for protection to prevent them being overthrown. It’s not really something you see in Australia I guess, so I find it very intriguing. Of course each town we visit includes an abundance of tight laneways and churches/cathedrals/duomos. We really are in the heart of Catholicism and Anna thought I was funny when I asked why the churches don’t put signs out the front to say which denomination of Christianity they are. Apparently there is no other denomination here.
One thing that blew me away about Italy were the expressways. Not just because they are an engineering feat with a continuous stream of bridges and tunnels due to the mountainous landscape, but because the tolls are so expensive. For our journey to Tuscany it worked out to almost AU$60!!! We decided that we’d prefer to avoid the toll roads and make the journey over 2 days which allowed for a more scenic drive and the opportunity to have rest breaks in towns rather than service stations (although we’re definitely going to stop at an Autogrill soon). What we didn’t realise was that we would drive down a secondary highway that appeared to be infamous with the truck drivers because the roadside was lined with call girls waiting for business. So not only was the drive slow with all of the trucks but you had to be wary that one of the trucks would abruptly stop for a “rest”. It was sad to see so many girls out there but there was obviously a market for it.
Our 1 night stop at Giulianova has been our best value accommodation so far in Italy. We stayed in a modern beachside B&B for only AU$44 including breakfast. The reason it was so cheap is because it’s the low season, but it looks like they do very well in the summer months. The B&B is on a small seaside vegetable farm and they’ve essentially built a long shed that is divided up into 8 rooms and a restaurant. Since we stayed there we’ve talked for hours about where you could replicate that sort of thing in Australia. Down on the South Coast around Jervis Bay is our front runner but I guess we can worry about being grown ups later.
The second day of our drive to Tuscany was very scenic as we crossed the mountains to get to the west coast. Even though we weren’t on the toll roads we still had our fair share of bridges and tunnels. The longest tunnel was almost 6kms which continuously ran downhill. It felt like we were driving to the centre of the earth. Google maps and the navigator program wouldn’t agree on the same route so Anna was continuously jumping from one to the other cross referencing the routes, but it worked because we made it through the mountains without any issues. We decided to stop in Assisi which is most famous for being the birth place of St Francis and therefore the key sight is the Basilica of San Francesco. This is the most impressive church I’ve seen so far with a lower and upper basilica both as impressive as each other. Anna went to Assisi when she was 14 so she was glad to come back and visit. Assisi was so religious I felt that it was like a secondary Vatican City. We also visited Cortona that afternoon which fits the standard formula for Italy: 1. Old, 2. Up on a hill, 3. Centre point of town is a church. My parents visited a few years ago and said it was a beautiful town and we have to agree. One thing that continues to amuse us is when you arrive at an Italian town between 1pm-4pm it feels like a ghost town because all the shops are closed and everyone is at home.
Our drive into Tuscany was exactly how we pictured it, rolling hills with scattered plantations of Olive trees and grape vines. The landscape really steals the show here. We arrived at the B&B we booked for 4 nights to discover that the whole B&B is actually a 2 bedroom unit that we’re sharing with the host Alberto. It wasn’t quite what we were expecting but it’s worked out well because his English is very good so we’ve been able to ask lots of questions about Italy and seek recommendations. It takes us back to the home stays that we had in Sri Lanka.
The first full day we had in Tuscany was cool and overcast with some scattered showers which was a bit disappointing, however after some googling around we discovered that there are several towns in the area that have thermal baths. We researched around and picked an area that popes and cardinals used to go to for relaxation. All up we spent about 5 hours there going in various pools of different temperature with 2 indoor and 9 outdoor pools. It was the perfect way to unwind and relax after some long driving days.
Yesterday we were lucky enough to have a beautiful sunny day so we jumped on the opportunity to go to Greta’s favourite place in Tuscany… San Gimignano. Whilst fitting the standard Italian formula this town has the backdrop of the beautiful Tuscan landscape and the unique feature of brick towers piercing the skyline. This is because there was a period where prominent families would flaunt their wealth by building the tallest tower. At one point there was over 70 towers but now only 16 remain. Naturally we visited the wine museum which covered the wine production in the area. I was surprised to learn that over 50% of the wineries are less than 5 hectares in size, not quite the large rural enterprises I’m used to assessing at work. The museum was interesting but realistically there’s only one way to get to know a wine region… taste testing! So far the Chianti is my favourite, but I have to try some more whites.
Other recommendations to visit were Certaldo and Monteriggioni so we went yesterday afternoon. Both towns fit the standard formula, but Certaldo had a funicular up to the old town which was something different. So far we haven’t paid for parking because we typically park in the new town and then walk up the hill to the old town. Monteriggioni was also unique because the fortress is almost a perfect circle on top of the hill and the town centre was quite small. The best part of our visit to Monteriggioni was the sunset though. We walked through the vineyards taking a bunch of photos, and I even had a play with my little Sony camera. Not quite on the same level as Anna’s Canon DSLR but still fun to try some different things.
One thing you may have noticed about my post this week is that there’s much less talk about the meals that we’re eating. The food is great with perfect pizza crusts and awesome gnocchi coming to mind, but one thing we’ve noticed is that the Italians don’t really seem to embrace other cuisines. For instance we’ve only seen 2 Chinese restaurants and 1 Sushi restaurant in our travels but that’s keeping in mind that we’ve only been to small towns. When you’re used to Sydney with every type of restaurant available, the lack of variety is a bit strange, but fortunately we love Italian food. I’ve heard that there’s good Mexican in Milan so I’m looking forward to that!
Next week’s post should be from Milan. Until then…
Fail of the Week
Before we left Australia we opened a joint account that we both transfer money into. It makes splitting costs easier and we picked an account with no atm fees and no foreign exchange fee. So far it has worked really well. This week were caught out by the ANZAC day public holiday back at home which meant that our top up transfers took 4 days to arrive in our account. We had to pay for our accommodation in cash and we cut it pretty fine… we only had AU$10.94 left in our account after withdrawing the money we needed. We even had to go cheap on lunch to make sure we’d make it until the money arrived… lesson learned.