Our Visit to Tuscany

John Bottelsen

© Copyright 2005 by John Bottelsen 

John Bottelsen currently lives in Green Bay Wisconsin with his wife and two daughters. He is a stay at home father who relishes the quality time he gets to spend with his family. He has been writing for several years now, after retiring from the police force.

 My wife and I have two daughters, ages 5 and 11. Two years ago we went to visit our friends, and their 5-year-old son, who live just outside of Frankfurt Germany. Being able to stay with them, and eat most of our meals in their apartment, really saved us a lot of money. We had a blast. So, recently, when they told us about the trip they took Italy, we asked them if they would mind going again, with us. They jumped at the chance! The plan was to meet our friends in Germany and drive to Italy by way of Switzerland. While they were in charge of the driving portion, renting a van and so forth, we needed to get tickets to Germany.

 Most of you are probably aware of all the web sites that help you find plane tickets, hotel rooms, even rental cars, at cheap prices. We used several of these sites and saw that the cheapest tickets available were through Iberia airlines. We had never heard of Iberia airlines, so we didn’t give it much thought. But, when their name continued to pop up as being up to $300.00 cheaper, we decided to check them out. We found their web site, and learned that Iberia’s main hub is in Madrid Spain, in fact all the flights to Germany would be stopping in Madrid, where we would have to change planes. We decided to take a gamble, and flew out of Chicago on Iberia airlines.

 The flight was great. On the way there the kids were able to see “The Pacifier” which they have been dying to see anyway, and managed to get a couple of hours sleep as well. Those of you that have ever flown to Europe will now the value of trying to catch even an hour of sleep on the plane. We left Chicago at 4:45 PM our time, and landed in Germany at 11:35 AM their time, which was more like 3:35 AM our time. We needed to get used to the new time, so we stayed up as long as we could. Since we landed at lunchtime, we ate lunch at a quaint German restaurant called Pizza Hut, and then went back to our friend’s apartment for a short nap.

 Our friends have been living in Bad Hamburg, which is just outside Frankfurt Germany, for a few years now. The have a 5-year-old son, who is best friends with our 5-year-old daughter, so we all felt extremely comfortable together. Now, cramming 4 adults and 3 children into a 2-bedroom apartment was a tight fit, but we managed. Plus, since we stayed with them, we didn’t have to spend any money on lodging.

 After spending 2 nights at their apartment to recover from the jet lag, we rented a Volkswagen Transporter, which is a full size van, that seats 9 comfortably, and drove to Switzerland.

 Having spent most of my life in Colorado, I was used to mountains. Really big mountains. That being said, there was still something magical about driving through the Alps.

 To get through the Alps, you have a choice. You can either drive through the Gotthard tunnel, which will take you from one side of the Alps to the other. Or, you can take a pass up and over the Alps. The tunnel can be a long wait, as they only let so many cars through it at a time for safety reasons. The pass can be a bit tricky, especially if there is a lot of fog (which our friends experienced on their last trip) and if you’re not used to winding roads through steep mountains. We chose the pass, and it was well worth it. It was like riding through a beautifully built model train set. The grass that stuck to the sides of the mountains was dark green, dotted with small farmhouses and the occasional sheep or goat while down in the valley old train tracks weaved through the peaks with a few boxcars sitting on them.

 We spent the night in the small town of Andermatt, which was a picturesque Swiss village. We stayed at the Hotel Aurora, where we learned that according to Switzerland law, only 3 people could occupy a hotel room. So, if you are unfortunate and have 2 children, like we do, you need to get 2 rooms. Luckily the hotel did have some adjoining rooms, so the kids had their room, and my wife and I had our own, which was well worth the added expense.

 After having dinner of sandwiches in our bedroom, we took a walk around the little town. As we walked through the town, I kept waiting for Heidi to come running around the corner at any minute. The streets were all cobblestone, and you could tell the houses had been there for a long time. There was also a light fog rolling over the Alps, which made it a picture perfect evening.

 Back at the hotel we saw that each bed consisted of 2 twin size mattresses that were pushed together. Lying on each mattress was a comforter that had been folded in half, which my girls thought made it look like a burrito. In fact, they both crawled into their comforters while it was folded to complete the burrito image. There were no sheets, and the pillows had been stuffed with down, so they were a little flatter than we were used to. All in all, we slept very comfortably. And outside our window we could see sheep grazing on the nearby hillside The next morning, after enjoying a complimentary breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant of meats, breads, eggs, cereal, and some of the best coffee we have ever had, we continued on our way to Italy.

 This was our friend’s second visit to Tuscany, having gone there a year ago with their parents. So, we took their lead, and stayed in the same farmhouse that they had stayed in earlier, the Tenuta di Mensanello. They had found it on the Internet, and as I did my own searches, I saw that there were several other farms, or vineyards, that also offered lodging. They had a minimum stay of seven days, Saturday to Saturday, which worked out perfectly for us. Total cost was 800 Euros, or 400 Euros for each family. When we made our trip that was about $500, or $71 a night for all 4 of us.

 The Tenuta di Mensanello, is a working vineyard specializing in Chianti wine grapes as well as olives. There are 6 houses to chose from, each varying in size and accommodation. The farmhouse also has a private swimming pool, to help cool off on those hot summer days. The pool was set on the back of the property, beautifully landscaped, and provided a wonderful view of the Tuscany region.

 Just as we arrived we met with Carla, one of the caretakers. She spoke English very well, which was good as none of us spoke Italian very well. The house we had reserved was one of their biggest, having 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms. The front door to the house was a huge wooden double door that opened to a large balcony, which overlooked some of the other houses, as well as another perfect view of the countryside. This was also where the younger children liked to play while we were taking a break from sightseeing. Once we got inside, we were delighted that we would be eating in a real Italian kitchen, just as you would expect it to look. Wooden beams were visible on the tall vaulted ceiling, where a huge iron chandelier hung down to the center of the room. There was a full size refrigerator, a four-burner gas stove with oven, and a large dining table, big enough for all of us to sit at comfortable. Sitting on the table welcoming us as we entered were a bottle of Chianti and olive oil, both which were made at the farm.

 As we explored the house we saw that the kitchen cabinets were already stocked with silverware and dinnerware, as well as several pots and pans. The coffee maker was the style that sat on top of the stove, which took some getting used to, but brewed 2 nice cups of coffee. The adjacent family room had 2 large couches facing the large fireplace, and a small color television sat in the corner. There was no phone, computer, or video game system, which was also a nice blessing.

 We put the 3 kids in one of the bedrooms, giving each set of parents a room of their own. We flipped a coin to see which set got to stay in the room with the balcony. My wife and I won, and it was a pleasure having coffee on it the following morning, while we enjoyed the view of the Tuscan countryside and a few neighboring vineyards. The coffee maker was the stovetop kind. Those not used to it, it’s shaped similar to an hourglass, that screws apart in the middle. The water goes in the bottom, and there is a strainer that you fill with coffee grounds that goes into that. You then screw on the empty top portion, which is a metal carafe, and put it on the stove. The water boils, and steams up to the carafe, and voila you have coffee. I managed to get the hang of it rather quickly, if I do say so myself.

 The farm was a short drive to the nearest town of Colle di Val d’Elsa, where there were 2 supermarkets to chose from. Once we arrived, we went to the store and stocked the refrigerator, making sure we had plenty to eat. One of the benefits of staying at a farmhouse, as apposed to a hotel is we had our own kitchen, and saved money by cooking many of our meals. Although we did have to eat lunch out occasionally. It was Italy after all. During our last night in Italy we had dinner at a restaurant in Colle diVal d’Elsa that our friends had gone to the last time we were there, and had a wonderful meal. The two youngest children either ate spaghetti or cheese pizza while we ate out, while our 11 year old loved to try something different every time, which included a specialty of the house pizza consisting of potatoes, sausage, calamari, crab, and a few other things we could not recognize. She ate everything except for the egg that they put in the center, and loved it.

 Each day was spent exploring a city, beginning with Pisa, which was about 45 minutes away. After seeing the leaning tower, which was magnificent, we had some lunch in a restaurant in the square. Now, the entire area where the Tower is housed is considered a Church. So, be mindful of what you wear, and be sure to keep your voices down if you ever enter any of the buildings. While walking around the Tower we saw two other people, both Americans, get kicked out of the entire area because the man was walking around shirtless, and the woman was wearing a pair of shorts and a bikini top. Most of the churches that we visited won’t allow you to enter if your top is sleeveless. They do have some paper gowns that you can wear to cover your bear shoulders, so don’t worry about buying a new wardrobe.

 After seeing all that Pisa had to offer, it was off to the Versilia, which is a long line of beaches to the northwest of Pisa and is also referred to as the Tuscan Riviera. There was parking in various areas as we approached the beaches, and we had to pay a Euro or two to be able to park for a few hours. The beaches are public, and there are several establishments set up for you to get refreshments, use the restrooms, and to change into your bathing suits. We were able to use a changing room at no charge.

 While on the subject of restrooms, my family and I were in a bit of a shock. Several of the restrooms we encountered while in Italy, including at the beaches, were standing only. Meaning, there was recessed area, with a big hole in the middle, and two metal railings to hold onto. And, don’t worry if you miss the hole, as when you flush, it goes around the entire recessed area, and thankfully everything goes down the hole. Everyone in my family managed all right, except my 5-year-old daughter. Next time, the pants come off!

 The beaches are public, but you must rents the chairs if you plan to sit down. They have several beach chairs, all very comfortable, and we paid 7 Euros to use two chairs for the rest of the day. This seemed reasonable since we didn’t bring any ourselves, and we only rented two since most of us would be playing with the kids in the sand and water.

 It took my 11-year-old daughter a bit to get used to the fact that Europeans react differently to the nude body. My wife and her had a talk about the fact that a few of the children, all around 5 years old, were running around naked. I had also spoken with her about how in many European countries, women are allowed to sunbathe topless. My daughter looked around, and was a bit shocked to see a few women walking around with their bare breasts exposed. My daughter said, “I’m glad they don’t allow that in the states.” Apart from that, it didn’t stop her from having a great day at the beach.

 The following day we went to San Gimignano, which is a walled medieval city. There were several cities that we visited, where the city walls were still standing. Most of these were built on top of hills, and there were winding roads leading up to them. Now, living in Colorado most of my life, I was used to winding roads, so I offered to drive to the city.

 Now, let’s talk driving in Italy. During our trips to Europe, which now includes Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, we have seen that most people opt to drive smaller vehicles. In the states, the cars are all getting bigger, while over there, most of them are getting smaller. Italy was no different, and our VW van was usually the largest on the road. In Italy, especially within the cities, the most common mode of transportation was the Vespa. For those that are unfamiliar with the term, it’s a motor scooter, and they’re huge in Italy. As we drove through narrow city streets in our van, the Vespa's went around us constantly. They drove down white and yellow lines alike, and made turns right along side our van as if it was a two-lane road. I think the only traffic law I saw them obey were stop signs and traffic lights, but other than that, it was fare game. All the drivers also wore their helmets, which I believe is a requirement in Italy, and I’m thankful to say we never hit any of them, which I am very surprised at.

 So, back on the road to San Gimagano. The roads, while they were winding, and went up at a rather steep angle at times, were quite narrow. Once we got to the top, we managed to find a parking lot on the other side of the mountain, which not only sloped down at a 45 degree angle at least, but I also had to turn our very large full size van around a corner at the same time. Once in the parking lot, we had to find a place to park, which meant driving through the lot, and going up another 45 degree angle, while making a 90 degree turn, not to mention it was a standard transmission, which I hadn’t driven in years. So yes, I crashed the side of the van into a hand railing.

 The damage to the van was slight, although it would it would need some bodywork, and the railing was undamaged. Our car was easily the largest in the lot, and when we returned at the end of the day, we saw that someone had hit it while making the turn I failed to make. It only scuffed the front a bit, so it was no big deal.

 Even thought it took some time to shake off what I had done, the city was breathtaking. I was expecting it to be a sort of ghost town, but it was not. It was a fully functioning city. The cobblestone roads were all narrow, which is why parking was limited to outside the walls, but there were a few cars that made it in. The buildings on either side of the roads rose up several stories, and occasionally you could see laundry hanging out of a few windows’ drying in the warm sun.

 The stores, mostly of the gift shop variety, were all small and very quaint. Every other store sold wine, all very inexpensive, and all very tasty. We brought back 6 bottles, all from different areas that we visited. This was our friend’s second visit to the city, so they took us to a small restaurant that they had found. The house wine there was better than some more expensive wines we have had in the states.

 When it was time to leave, I chose to drive back to the farmhouse, hoping to prove myself again. I managed to get back to the farmhouse without hitting anyone else, although more narrow winding roads, up and down mountains while it was dark did prove to be a bit harrowing. I’m sure one old man we narrowly missed on the way home is wishing he looked both ways before getting ready to cross the street, but no harm done. Besides, what’s a vacation without a little excitement?

 The next day we went to Siena, where a large portion of it is still walled. Our friend decided to drive, or perhaps everyone took a vote while I wasn’t there and forced him to drive, but anyway, I was a passenger once more. The walled portion of Siena, where we wanted to visit, was on top of another steep hill, and the parking lots were on the bottom. Of course, since I was not driving, we managed to find a practically empty parking lot, used for busses and motor homes, so my friend had more room than he knew what to do with. Some guys have all the luck.

 The walk up to the walled city was a bit steep, and it did take some time. Once at the top we all needed to stop and catch our breath, and then it was time to find a place to eat. Finding places to eat in Italy was never much of a problem. Most of the restaurants had menus outside, so you could see what they had and compare prices.

 After our meal we toured the city, and went into several of the shops. In the center of the city is the Piazza Del Campo, where the town hall is. The hall has a bell tower, which is 300 feet tall, which me and my 2 friends climbed, while my wife and oldest daughter went had had cake and coffee in a nearby café. The view from the tower was breathtaking, but the stairs on the way up did take its toll on us.

 The next day we visited Volterra, which was really close to the farmhouse. This walled city was smaller than some of the other ones we visited, but still worth the trip. Because it was so close, we were able to get back to the farmhouse for a swim in the pool, before cooking some ravioli that we bought at one of the nearby markets.

 The last 2 days in Italy were spent in Florence, which is actually called Firenze in Italy. We found a large parking lot outside the city called Piazzale Michelangelo, which has a large replica of Michelangelo’s David right in the middle. It was also above the city, so you had a terrific view, which we also got to see at night as the sun was setting.

 The reason we did two days in Florence was we really wanted to visit the Uffizi, which is a huge art gallery, that houses Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus painting. Our friends, during their last visit, had gone to the Galleria dell’ Accademia where they saw Michelangelo’s David, but they didn’t see the Birth of Venus. So, since we have seen neither, we decided to let them see the painting, which was on out list as well. But, the line to get into the Uffizi was extremely long, and according to the sign indicating how long the wait was, would have taken 3 hours. Meaning, if we saw it, we would see nothing else.

 We then went to the Galleria del’ Accademia to see if we could get into see David, but, that line was also a few hours long, so we decided to skip that one as well. Instead, we walked around the city, saw the Duomo, which was beautiful, had a nice lunch, and went back to the farmhouse.

 The next day, we went back to Florence and got in line at the Uffizi early in the morning. The wait was only about an hour long, and was well worth the wait. My wife and I shared a headset, and listened to the descriptions of various painting throughout the gallery. Our friends taught us a great tip to use with the kids, to help keep them occupied while we looked at the paintings. Our first stop was the gift shop, where each child was allowed to purchase one or two postcards, depicting paintings that could be found in the gallery. Then, while we were enjoying the artwork, the kids spent their time looking at each painting, trying to find the ones that matched the postcards. A truly wonderful idea.

 After touring the gallery, which was fantastic, we still had the rest of the day to tour Florence, which we did by bus. There are two tour bus lines that go everywhere in and around the city. It cost us 20 euros a piece for adults, while kids 5 and under were 10 euros. We were able to rind all day long, and we could get off, and get on the bus, whenever we wanted. It was a double decker bus, with the top portion uncovered. We each received a headset, which we plugged into the seat and could, listed to a tour, in several different languages, telling us about the city. During the trip our oldest daughter made the comment that she had never seen so many paintings, and statues, of naked people. Indeed, it seemed there were statues of naked men around every corner, but of course, it’s all very artistic and tastefully done.

 Once we rode one bus the entire length, we had some dinner, and rode the other bus all the way to our parking lot. A truly wonderful way to see the city.

 The next day we had to leave Italy, and head back through the Alps, choosing to go over the pass again. We stayed in the same hotel as we did before, and had a terrific dinner in their restaurant that evening. The next day, as we were leaving Switzerland, our friends pretended like they were arguing about which way to go. Eventually we ended up on a highway, where instead of taking us into Germany, we were going more westward, and heading into France. They put up this charade for a few minutes, but they were too excited and admitted that they had planned it all along. In fact, they had done it on their last trip where apparently they had fooled the friends they were driving with at the time.

 We spent a few hours in Alsace, which is a small region just across the border into France, and had a wonderful lunch. One of our friends spoke a little French, so we managed to order what we wanted. We then toured the surrounding area, we found ourselves in Strasbourg, which is the capital of the Alsace region. There we were able to visit La Cathedrale de Strasburg, which was breathtaking. The children enjoyed riding an old fashioned carousel, which was in the square nearby.

 After buying a few bottles of wine, from the Alsace region (hey, it’s France after all) we drove back to Germany, without any sidetracks this time. After resting with our friends for a couple of days, it was time to head home. Our flight left at 7:55 AM, so we needed to be at the airport pretty early that morning. The flight home was uneventful, and very pleasant. Getting through Customs was a lot easier than we remembered. They opened up more terminals due to the rush of passengers, and got all of us through very quickly. After getting our luggage, and getting back to our car, we decided to spend the night in a hotel in Chicago, before driving back to Green Bay where we live. Even though we were sitting most of the way, flying can be tiring. We’re already planning our next trip abroad, which may not happened for another 2 years. I was thinking, since we know a good airline that goes to Madrid, perhaps that could be on our list of places to visit. We also wouldn’t mind getting back to Italy again. In fact, my wife and I agree that we could conceivably see ourselves living there. Perhaps some day.

John is a retired police officer, who quit to become a full time father of his two children. Since that time he has started writing, and has written several short stories, for children and adult, and one short novel, none of which are published at this time. He has had one of his stories published in a college newsletter relating to writing fiction, and another in an upcoming newsletter for the Girl Scouts Association.

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