Toolin’ Around Tuscany

After returning to our room from our day in Cinque Terre, we were pleased to find that, true to her word, our laundry was waiting for us, clean and neatly folded or hung on hangers. The next morning, when it was time to settle up, the young lady who ran the place would not take payment for her mother’s work. OK. So, we left a tip that far exceeded what a laundromat would have cost, sneaked down the stairs, and we were out.

Thankfully, our car had no tickets waiting for us. We hopped in and made our way out of La Spezia. It was one of those places where, when you leave, you hope to return to some day.

Our next destination was the medieval city of Siena. Typically it would be about a 3 hour trip, if you knew where you were and what you were doing. Unfortunately, we often didn’t know either of these things for most of the trip. Accordingly, it took substantially longer. Here is our route as it may, or may not have been: The red line is to San Gimignano. The blue is from there to Siena.


At some point in the planning process for this trip I happened to see a Rick Steves video which talked up the romantic qualities of some of the historic Tuscan hill towns. Of these, the one that stood out above all others was the village of San Gimignano (pronounced gym-in-NYAN-o). What made it appealing is that many of the old towers associated with the powerful families of the area, were still visible. It looked like a beautiful place for a stroll, overlooking the Tuscan hillside. So, off we went.

Well, here is what I do know: We took the right exit off SS67 which heads back to Florence. But not long after taking said exit we found ourselves at various intersections that Google Maps had a hard time keeping up with. And, at many of these, decisions had to be made quickly. The net effect was, that we were generally headed in the right direction, South, but certain villages did not appear when they were supposed to. So, when a rare sign came up that would take us to a village we could find on Google, we followed the sign which soon had us winding our way down numerous dirt roads through a large provincial park.

Since we had plenty of time and since it was one beautiful pastoral scene after another we were perfectly happy to be where we were and spent some time slowly enjoying the countryside. Along the way we encountered hikers, bikers (of the bicycle persuasion) and various other outdoor types. Clearly many people were enjoying the first days of Spring. What we did not encounter in our journey was either gas stations or bathrooms. Just when the need for both was no longer amusing, we found a town. And, as it turned out, San Gimignano was not all that far away. Here is a look at some the countryside:




Now, those of you who have been over the good ol’ USA will recognize from your travels scenery that is just as beautiful. What sets Tuscany apart is the charming and picturesque Italian villas dotting the countryside, with the white stucco and the red-tiled roofs where the grounds are meticulously maintained and where peace and tranquility reign. And, of course, there is the wine.

Well, we continued happily along, once again on a secondary road, and then we came around a corner and there it was, off in the distance: San Gimignano


Not too hard on the eyes


San Gimignano has been occupied in one form or another since Roman days. In boom times there were as many as sixty towers like those you see here. Now there are only a dozen. For around a thousand years San Gimignano was a favorite stopping point for pilgrims on their way to Rome and it long flourished as a trade center as well. But, it is a walled city and here was a big problem with walled cities in those times: The Black Death. By the end of  1348 over half the city’s population was dead or dying. San Gimignano never recovered.

In time the town leaders gave themselves over to Florence for governance. To be accepted they were required to tear down their towers, which most did. But, Florence had other issues to deal with and San Gimignano was never developed. Instead, all but abandoned,  it remained in its medieval state until the 19th century when scholars began to realized what a treasure it was. Now, it is given over to the tourist trade.

We arrived there around noon and the first thing we discovered was that the place was packed with tourists. Parking lots are arranged in tiers going up the face of the hill to the outer walls of the city. The first tier, closest to the walls, was full. So was the second. And, the third, no wait, some guy is pulling out. He went out, we went in.

It was quite a hike getting up that hill. But, it was also pretty scenic:


As we looked out over the countryside, we couldn’t help but note that the sky was getting quite dark. And, the frequent thunder was another clue that there could be problems. We had rain gear in the car, but were in no mood to hike back down to get it. And, my meteorological savvy told me the storm was moving away.


We continued to the wall:


Thankfully, there is an elevator that takes you up to this level. From there it is a quick hike to the city, where the first order of business was lunch.


By this point in our travels we had become fond of meat and cheese plates for lunch. They are flavorful and light, except for the bazillion calories served with each dish.


We had just finished the last bite when the rains hit:


They started out light at first and we were able to pass by some nice shops:


Olive wood is all the rage in the tourist world, as are ceramics.


But the time for window shopping soon passed:


Without the benefit of so much as an umbrella, we made a mad dash for one of the piazzas:


We, and about fifty other tourists were able to find shelter in the alcove below:


Not only was it pouring, it had turned quite cold. And, while we enjoyed the beautiful view, after about a half hour of this we were ready to abandon ship. One item of note: in the picture below, above the pointy hood of the lady in pink you will see a stone structure with steps on the piazza. It is a cistern. At one time, all the rain water from the roofs of the towers was collected here and provided drinking water for the whole town for a thousand years. See, I did learn something. Two things, actually. I also learned that I do, indeed, have enough sense to come in out of the rain.


Clearly this was not going to be the occasion for a romantic stroll through the towered city. When the rain let up we made a mad dash for the car. By the time we made it we were plenty damp, but not soaked.

To get out of San Gimignano, the parking tiers all empty out onto a two-lane road. There is a gate at the end of each lane where you pay to exit. I had both credit card and euros in hand, but as we approached the gate I noticed that a woman a few cars ahead, who was actually at the gate, suddenly opened her door and made a mad dash down the parking lot. She returned in a few minutes, fed the machine, the gate opened and off she went. Of course, my comment to Dianne was something to the effect of, what kind of dumbass would approach a gate, with cars backed up to Rome, and not have any change with her?

After what seemed like an eternity it was finally my turn. I approached the machine, rolled down my window, and quickly observed two things: there was not place to put money and there was no place to put a credit card. There was a little slot, so i tried to jamb my credit car into it, but I discerned  from the get-go that this was not going to work. I was absolutely baffled. And, there was no way to back up; no way to turn off.

Suddenly someone came to my window, probably the person behind me. She said, in very broken English, something to the effect of, “Buy ticket”. “Where!!!” She pointed down the parking lot from which my predecessor had made her panicked run. I was off like a shot. And, I must confess to the use of certain colorful language that required no translation whatsoever. Soon I found a bank of machines, slammed in some euro, and grabbed the ticket. Usain Bolt himself would have applauded. In a twinkling I was back in the car, the ticket was consumed by the monster and the gate opened up. Once again the question came to mind: Why did I rent a car?


Saint Mark’s Campanile


The original Campanile (Bell tower) was built in the ninth century. Originally it served more as a lighthouse and a watchtower. From the get-go it had big problems, namely, it kept getting hit by lightning. For that reason it underwent numerous reconstructions.  In 1388 it was virtually destroyed by lightning, in 1417 somebody set it on fire, in 1489 there was another fire that destroyed the wooden spire. Then, to make matters worse, in 1511 there was an earthquake. By 1513 it was rebuilt for the umpteenth time and took the form that you see today, complete with bells. Unfortunately, it was hit by lighting again in 1548, 1565, 1658 and 1745, when, this time, falling bricks killed several people. But it got hit by lighting again in 1761 and 1762. FINALLY, in the year of our independence, 1776, after yet another lightning strike, somebody came up with the bright idea to install a lightning rod!!! Problem solved!

Well, that problem was solved, but that was not the end of troubles for this poor tower. In July 1902 someone strolling along the piazza happened to notice a rather large crack in the tower’s north wall. Officials got everyone out and sealed it off. A few days later, on a bright, sunny morning, the whole damn thing fell over. Fortunately, it fell in the right direction, missing the cathedral and all the other nearby treasures.

To their credit, the town council met the very night of the collapse and ponied up 500,000 lira to build a new one. The new design was made to look exactly like the old one with two hugely important differences: it was properly reinforced from the inside, and, MOST IMPORTANTLY, they put in elevators!!! Hallelujah!!!

So, let’s ride up and take a look around!

Here is where you enter, after standing in a long, but steadily moving line,


Then up you go! As you might imagine, the view is breathtaking!


Looking back over the Piazza San Marco:


Looking over the cathedral and the Doge’s Palace:


And, along the harbor:


It is not hard to imagine a harbor full of sailing ships serving what was, then, the most powerful city in the world.

Across the harbor is the island and cathedral of San Giorgio Maggiore, which we did not have time to visit. You can take a vaporetto over there if you want. One thing you will notice as you look at the plaza in front of the cathedral. From time to time flooding could be an issue.


And, of course, we have the biggest gondola service in the city:


So, we were up there gawking around at all the sights, when, for some reason, I happened to look up:


It was only seconds later that this happened:

It was plenty loud, that’s for sure, but not bad enough to, say, drive one to madness. Our ears were ringing long after the bells stopped, though. During all this we expected to see Quasimodo come around the corner.

OK. Back down the tower we go! So here’s the plan: next we will visit the Doge’s Palace. Then we will hop onto one of those gondolas you just saw and go for a spin! OK one last look while were up here:


What a place!


Apparently, among the Italians, there are more than a few jokes about Bellagio and its location on the anatomy of the stick figure some see in the shape of Lake Como.


Tasteless, no doubt, but now I REALLY wished I’d learned some Italian. I suppose those jokes  were on a par with the ones we used to tell about the old Y-Inn south of Millersburg. Sophomoric at best. But hilarious when you’re about 12 years old.

Well, as charming as Varenna is, there were plenty of people trying to get out.


And onto one of these:


The ferry runs to Bellagio about every half-hour to hour, depending on the season and it takes about 10 minutes to get over there. One bonus is the opportunity to see your home town from the water.


Soon we were all boarded, an in no time we were approaching our destination. Bellagio only has 200 permanent residents and lodging for another 900. Needless to say, tourism is the name of the game.

From our B&B this is the view.


The town center is to the right with numerous shacks spread out along the shore. Places like this:


There are three docks and the crew likes to surprise you by keeping secret the one at which they will pick you up when it’s time to go home. But, we soon were making our way toward one of them to get off and see the sights. DSCF9355

When you land you find yourself on the hotel-and-shop-lined main street.


To the left, where you see the shades, is an endless series of cafe’s and small shops and then much larger shops down the way. This is the high-rent district in a high-rent town. We stopped at one of the cafe’s for coffee, then took an amusing stroll down this street, peering into various windows, as so on. Then we promptly got the hell out. Instead, we decided to follow the riff-raff up the hill.



And, quite the hill it was! Also shop-lined but slightly less likely to require the mortgaging of your US home to make a purchase. At the top of the hill is another street and, thankfully, even more shops!

DSCF9387As you can see, Dianne observed admirable, almost saintly, restraint!

One thing that was somewhat challenging was that, even though, this street is clearly occupied by pedestrians, the very life-blood of the city, the locals don’t mind seeing a little of that blood spilled so they can move their crappy cars down the boulevard. For example:




As the street narrows ever further, one thing you learn in a hurry is to twist your piggies parallel to the wall of the shop you are currently pinned up against.




Well, there are beautiful things in these shops that even I could appreciate. The only reason I have not had to pawn the very computer I’m writing this on is that we could not fit any of this stuff in our luggage and mailing made things even more cost-prohibitive with delivery not promised in ones lifetime. Bummer!

George Clooney’s villa is somewhere around here, a little farther south we were told. But apparently from time to time he will ride his motorcycle up here and putz around. The locals don’t pester him though. They understand the need to have a sanctuary. Especially since the release of the Panama Papers. Besides, just having him around is good for business.

This is as close as we got to his house:


We got back to Varenna in time to head out for dinner. I’ll give you a brief rundown of our culinary experience in this town.

The first night we walked along the shore and made our way to a very nice open air restaurant by the ferry dock. They were cultivating wisteria on the ceiling, which, by now, I imagine, is much greener.


They bought a bag of bread sticks. Most of the restaurants we visited across Italy served bread in bags of one form or another, so we bought a bread bag to bring home.

This was my first official meal in Italy, Lake Como perch on risotto. It was quite yummy, but a couple days ago I had the Lake Erie version. No contest.


The next night we decided on pizza, which is only natural. So, here’s another confession: I love anchovies. I know, I know. Well, since this is the actual home of the anchovy, I thought what better way to enjoy them than in the home of the pizza! Viola!


You will note that Dianne declined to join me in this adventure and chose a much more sensible alternative. I was surprised to find that my poor little fishies had been subject to the same abuse over here that they were at the hands of King Oscar back home, flattened and salted to death. But they still were quite tasty, so all was well.

On our last night we consulted TripAdvisor to locate the number one restaurant in Varenna. We settled for #2, Al Prato, since  it was right across from the gate of our B&B.  As the tour books will tell you, Italians like the dinner experience go start late and go well into the night. To make that happen, you begin with the antipasti, (which never once in our time in Italy, included the antipasto salad we know so well in the US), then the primi piatti, or first course, then the secondi piatti, the second course, then dessert. Well, that is a boat load of food. Mostly we picked two or three of the options. So here was Al Prato:


I know, I know. Now people, you would normally never get me near an octopus except in an aquarium, but I read SO many comments from people who thought it was the best thing ever! And, believe me, I could easily have gotten more adventurous in this country where routine options include horse meat and brains. Smoked octopus was as far down that road as I was willing to go. And, it was pretty darn good. Dianne didn’t care for it at all. She favored the meat sampler, which we shared:


I had a beef dish, which was excellent.IMG_3065

Dianne went for the chicken, which she also liked very much.IMG_3064

Then we shared our first, but by no means last, tiramisu. IMG_3066

By the time dinner was over the sun had set which made a walk along the lake the perfect way to work off a billion calories.




Varenna was the perfect first stop for us. Relaxing, but interesting at the same time. When we left, it was a sad goodbye. Well, as sad as you can be when you know what’s coming next.



Up The Lazy River

Our destination was the Mawamba Lodge in Tortuguero National Park. And we were a long way from our destination. On the trip from Puerto Viejo to Limon our driver, a young man in his twenties, told us story after story of his life in Costa Rica. He grew up in Bribri near the border with Panama. He said that in his younger days he and his friends liked to slip across the border, where booze is cheap,  and sneak it back home to sell for a tidy profit. He was full of adventure.

So, we are chatting away about all kinds of things. Eventually we enter Limon, which has done nothing to become more appealing in the three days since we last were here. Our driver took us by the docks and we were still telling tales when all of a sudden he pulls up to this place:


And, guess what? It is still pouring rain. No matter. it was time to head north. We said goodbye to our driver and threw our luggage on board. A nice day for a cruise. As luck would have it, the two front seats were available. The crew stuck our luggage into plastic bags and gave us rain ponchos.



About fifteen other people climbed on board and off we went. Here is where we were going:

Map to Tortuguero

You will notice a nice road leading out of Limon heading west. Well that’s the wrong direction. You will notice no roads connecting Limon to Tortuguero. That’s because there aren’t any. Instead there is a series of canals connecting to rivers for the entire fifty miles of coastline. We settled in for a mighty long boat ride.


Although the rain did little for our respective complexions, we remained otherwise dry. And for the early part our captain, another young man, stopped to point out wild life. But we couldn’t do that all day. In time the rain let up and the captain poured on the coal.

At first gradually:

The first part of our trip was along a canal. Here is a typical view:


Often, as you will see, they were much narrower. Now the captain picked up the pace:

Frequently the canal would empty onto rivers large and small. Here is a typical river view:



About ten miles in, we suddenly found ourselves at the mouth of a very large river, the Rio Matina, as I later learned. It had plenty of wild life:


But it also emptied out into a very unwelcoming Caribbean:


Here is how it looks from space:

Rio Matina

Well, we, of course, knew nothing about these canals; rivers, or any of this. We had been expecting a bus ride. My first thought, after casting eyes on the pounding surf was that this dude wanted to put out to sea. In which case I, and I’m sure others would happily and heartily  have broken into a loud chorus of Zevon’s “Mutineer” as we threw the captain overboard.

Fortunately, such action was not required. The captain bore hard to port and took us up the river for a while till he found another canal entrance.


From here we crossed the River of the Mother of God, who fortunately, we did not meet, a few canals and finally a very large river, the Parismina.

The Parismina is a big river:


There are a number of resorts in the area, and lots of boat traffic:


Now the captain felt it necessary to show these nimrods what we could do:

We would have preferred to just tell them. Now, about two hours in, the captain decided it was time for a break. We tied up at a little, I don’t know, dance hall? Anyway, they were serving cold beer and I was more than ready for one.

Here is the captain, re-securing the ship:


Here is our vessel, nicely moored:


During our stop, the captain came up to me and said, “My job is to take you to Tortuguero Village. For an extra 20 USD’s I will take you directly to the lodge.” Well, Anywhere Costa Rica had warned us about just this kind of thing, where vendors already paid would try to earn themselves a bonus. I told him that I had paid to get to the lodge and I was going to get what I paid for.” He did not argue. Later I saw a couple women hand him cash for something, but I wasn’t close enough to hear what it was.

After we got to the village, he came up to me and said we were close to the lodge. He would just go ahead and take us over.

Otherwise,  our stop was very welcome indeed. For one thing, they had bathrooms.


We were glad to see a couple local boys heading out to fish. One had fishing gear, the other a machete. That seemed odd.


Eventually it was time to board again. Not far from our stop we met this guy:


Makes you wish you had a machete.

The Parismina river has a number of resorts like this one:


And, while we loved highballin’ up the river, we soon were back in the canals. But getting into them was not always easy. We actually ran aground and our captain, to his credit, did the heavy lifting himself.


Soon we were in canals that were very narrow indeed:

Yet, there were always reminders of why we keep our piggies in the boat:


Finally, Tortuguera Village hove into view:


And just up the river, after just under four hours at sea,  our destination, Mawanda Lodge: