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Return from Paradise

And the Spring Break holidays came to the end. We are home, in excellent spirits and feeling perfectly rested after a week in Tuscany. I am quite sure that that feeling will not survive through Wednesday…

But allow me to dwell on this pleasant week, and talk about Tuscany a little.

Outside of the countries that we have resided in (former USSR, USA, UK – it just hit me that union/united is clearly a common theme here 🙂 ), there are only a couple of places – Paris, Vienna – that we visited more than once in our travels. We normally opt for sights unseen when selecting a destination, primarily for reasons of wanting to see as much as possible in our lifetime, while being limited in how much time we can allocate to travels. Yet, we already have a list of destinations that we want to come back to, and Tuscany always topped that list.

Let me tell you: Despite its new status as a rare place that we visited more than once, it still tops that list. This is a place where gorgeous vistas, amiable people, history-laden and visually astounding sights, good wine and indescribably delectable food all come together for us to form an unforgettable experience. There is no doubt that we will come back again and again.

We rented a villa several kilometers away from a small town called Montespertoli. The villa might not have been entirely authentic, located within a gated “development” that was built no more than 25-30 years ago, if that, but it was sitting amid vineyards high atop a hill. The view across the valley, to the towns, vineyards and castelli, went for miles and was utterly breathtaking. The villa also has a pool and a better satellite TV system than the one I have in London. From a certain standpoint, going to the local supermarket is the only reason to ever leave it during a stay.

We had all breakfasts, and a few lunches, in our private gazebo, taking in the view, drinking inexpensive Chianti and munching on local ingredients. The weather was magnificent, if not yet warm enough for the pool to be opened. Despite that, on a couple of days, we completely eschewed any sightseeing and contented ourselves with lounging in the sun coupled with uneventful drives to Montespertoli for a stroll around the town square and a time out for the kids on a playground.

The restaurants that we went to were all family run and all situated in locales so small as to barely warrant a village designation. Michelin does not even begin to guess that these places exist. The food was fantastic in every one of them, the service very friendly (there is always at least one person who understands a bit of English, although I find ordering in Italian to be infinitely more poetic), and the prices rather reasonable.

Separately, on our walks in various places, the girls tried a few dozen different flavors of gelato, as well as various local pastries.

The local residents at the development kept shocking us with unwarranted buongiorno‘s every morning. One family had girls the same age as ours, and Natasha tried to initiate contact, which went swimmingly through the stage of exchanging names. After that, the only common language was that of signs, with very limited success…

We did a bit of sightseeing as well, of course, mostly returning to the places that we’ve been to before.

Firenze is attractive in many aspects, and very walkable, but hundreds of annoying street vendors with makeshift stands make it quite bothersome at times. The palaces, churches and especially the Duomo with Giotto’s Campanile do make it one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.

Pisa’s Campo dei Miracoli is a majestic sight, with the Duomo, the Baptistery and the leaning tower, but there is hardly anything else to do there. Thousands of tourists are taking turns propping the tower up for snapshots, vending stalls are positioned all along the wall, and you cannot climb the tower unless you reserve tickets well in advance. Depending on your photographic inclinations, you may need as little as 45 minutes to tour the place.

Siena, by contract, is a town where one can spend quite a lot of time, walking its medieval streets and taking in the atmosphere. There are many grand palaces lining those streets, and the fashion boutiques and tourist shops are mingled with traditional gastronomic and wine establishments. The Duomo is very ornate and attractive both from the outside and on the inside. And the famous Piazza del Campo is truly one of the most striking places that I have ever seen.

Siena is a living city, with local residents going about their business – and to and from work – right in the midst of tourist hordes. San Gimignano is somewhat the opposite, a very well preserved medieval town that obviously lives for tourists only. It is still wonderful – and quite possibly, our Tuscan favorite, – but even on quiet side streets one rarely catches a glimpse of locals. In any case, architecturally it is very authentic, completely devoid of those annoying sellers of useless trinkets, and instead full of curious and quirky shops, which sell imaginative souvenirs amongst kitsch and/or local foodstuffs, and always in an appealing way.

One other medieval hill town that we went to, Certaldo, is off the beaten path. In this early season, only us and three German families were wandering its centuries-old streets. Do you know that Germans are by far the most well-travelled nation in Europe?

Anyway, we had a wonderful time, and when our New York cousins joined us for the last couple of days, it got even better. The villa owners, who produce their own wine, have probably never had so much demand for their product…

On our way home – we flew to/from Rome and drove the rental car the rest of the way – we managed to gallop around a few major sights in the Eternal City (Fontana de Trevi, Spanish Steps, Piazza Navona, Pantheon) for about an hour and a half. You should clearly recognize by now that it’s gotten to be a pet peeve of mine, but the trinket-sellers in Rome are insufferably in-your-face, so much so that I actually stopped being annoyed with tourist mobs…

Well, back to the grind tomorrow – the school is back and the people in the office are undoubtedly counting seconds to my return. What makes the thought bearable is the fact that in only three weeks we will be off to a long (May Day) weekend in Paris.

Ciao, bambini! A presto.

P.S. We have taken a large number of pictures on this trip, which hopefully will be posted within a couple of weeks. Our travelog notes on Tuscany can be found here.