This is the fourth in a series of monthly travel articles inspired by a New York Times article on 31 places to see in 2010. All of the towns on my list are in Italy, most are small, rich in history and art and for the most part off the beaten track which, for me, makes them all the more interesting.
LUCCA, Italy - On a late Friday afternoon in April the big blue Lazzi bus pulls into the old walled city of Lucca and stops. Through the window I can see Sam leaning up against his car, waiting for me. He waves. Making his way through the crowd of middle aged signoras and backpack toting students who shared the hour long bus ride with me from Florence, he pulls my bag from the belly of the bus and puts it in the car.
Lucca: Piazza dell'Anfiteatro
"Nice to see you kiddo," he says as he puts the car in gear and circles Piazza Verdi. He drives through Porta Santa Anna, and once outside the city wall he heads home. He tells me Becky has made lunch reservations for the next day at a country restaurant that specializes in truffles. "You do like truffles?" he asks. I nod. Twenty minutes later we are driving up the bumpy unpaved road that leads to the 300 year old farmhouse where Sam and Becky live.
The next morning Becky and I take our coffee out to the garden. We duck under the tight bunches of acid green grapes and sit down at an old marble topped table under the grape arbor. The morning air is filled with the sweet scent of flowers and fat bumblebees who must think they have died and gone to heaven. But the tranquility of the morning is broken by the unrelenting howl coming from the dogs penned up in the backyard of the villa, directly across the shallow valley formed by the soft Tuscan hills.
View from Becky and Sam's backyard
Putting her hand to her forehead Becky sighs and says the barking drives her nuts. And the worse part is that there doesn't seem to be a solution. The owner turns a deaf ear to their complaints and the local authorities say their only recourse is to get a lawyer and sue the dog owner. But given the speed of the Italian justice system, they'll all be in nursing homes, dogs included, before the case is heard, she says. She wishes one of the neighbors would go over and talk to him, maybe the message would be more effective if delivered without an accent. With that she stands and says we'd better get dressed as Sam will be coming in soon.
Sam has been up for hours. He is busy pruning the 170 gnarly olive trees that grow behind their house. It takes about 45 minutes to an hour to prune each tree and he is behind schedule. The pruning needs to be done soon otherwise there won’t be enough olives to make olive oil, and that would be a shame.
By mid-morning the tree pruning has been put on hold and we are on the road heading south toward the FiPiLi (FeePeeLee) the Firenze-Pisa-Livorno highway. We are in the Lower Arno Valley, halfway between Florence and Pisa. The countryside is lush and green, the fields systematically marked off by rows of trees, a practice developed by the Romans. Many of the towns we pass are built over the ruins of old Etruscan and Roman colonies and you can almost feel the essence of all those thousands of years of civilizations past hanging in the air.
The next thing I know we are in a town called Bientina and Sam is looking for a place to park the car. Bientina is small and quiet, and the main piazza is deserted even on this warm and sunny Saturday morning.
Becky and I head for the closest bar for a second breakfast of frothy cappuccino and brioche. Sam heads in the opposite direction mumbling something about having to go to the hardware store. Just as we are wiping brioche crumbs from our mouths, he rushes into the bar and motions for us to come with him to an antique dealer across the piazza. They have been looking for a small table to put next to the sofa in their library for a couple of years now and he wants Becky to take a look at something he's just found.
Bientina is well known in the area as an antique center and the shop Sam leads us to is stacked with rustic furniture, sturdy, practical furniture, sawed, sanded and put together by hand. For the next twenty minutes I stand by as they talk price and appear to be interested in a 200 year old wooden chest. Then, with a "we'll measure the space and call you" we leave the shop and get back on the road. Direction: San Miniato al Tedesco.
Sam takes a narrow two lane road out of town. He knows the territory well. This is the pure heart of Tuscany, the territory of olive farmers, wine producers and truffle merchants. About one-third of Italy's prestigious white Tuber Magnatum truffle crop come from this area and every November the town of San Miniato al Tedesco hosts an important international truffle fair.
Overview of San Miniato
My stomach is starting to make growling noises but lunch seems to be the last thing on Sam’s mind. Instead, like a shark on a blood trail, he hones in on a small antique shop directly across the street from one of San Miniato's best known landmarks, the 16th century Palazzo del Seminario.
Unlike the shop in Bientina, the furniture here is a mélange of rural simplicity and European sophistication. The owner, Signora Bellini, tells us she often scouts the antique markets in France, and if we don't see anything we like she has another storeroom nearby that is full of other treasures. I believe her.
Sam circles the shop once, twice. Then, without a word he leaps up on a dusty landing and pulls out a small table partially hidden in the dark nook. Signora Bellini is visibly disappointed. She tells him the table is from one of the town's government offices and isn't very old, probably no more than a hundred years or so. No doubt visions of dollars have been dancing in her head listening to our American accented Italian, and the table is a small fish compared to other pieces in the shop. Sam jumps down, brushes the dust off his slacks and begins turning the table this way and that.
"How much," he asks.
She hesitates. "125 euros."
"One hundred," he says.
Before she finishes nodding her head yes, he is out the door with the table tucked under his arm. Becky and I can hear him chortling with glee as we head for the car finally on our way to lunch. Apparently he’s bagged a bargain.
The restaurant, La Giocanda, is in the tiny borgo of La Serra, a couple of miles southeast of San Miniato and 5 miles south of the prestigious leather tanning district of Santa Croce sull'Arno. Becky and Sam are regular customers and when Vittorio, the owner, sees them he greets them with open arms. Hearing their voices, his wife Valeria pokes her head out the kitchen door to say that she has just gotten in a fresh supply of white Marzoli truffles. Becky, who is somewhat of a truffle expert, tells me Marzoli are spring truffles.
“These are not the mythical, white Tuber Magnatum truffles that sell for $1,500 a kilo (and up) at the annual San Miniato truffle fair,” she says, “but they are delicious nonetheless.”
We sit down. I open the menu. Within seconds Vittorio is at the table putting down bottles of mineral water and wine. Then he begins to recite the daily specials. I look over at Becky and then at Sam. "Ravioli filled with cheese, herbs and shaved truffles", says Becky picking up a piece of thin, crispy Schiacciata bread.
"Gnocchi with sweet gorgonzola, butter and shaved truffles,” says Sam.
I'm uncertain, torn between wanting what they've ordered and wanting something different.
"The fettucine with cream sauce and truffles is nice,” says Becky.
Sam nods his head in agreement. They want me to make up my mind so we can eat.
"Okay,” I say. "The fettucine it is."
Sensing my uncertainty Vittorio comes to the rescue. He suggests putting a bit of all three on each plate. It's a good idea. The offered tris will also prevent us from squabbling later over who's primo was best.
The pastas are so exquisite we practically lick our platters clean. Then Vittorio brings on the main course. A succulent, juicy Florentine steak that has been seared over a wood burning grill, sliced, sprinkled with olive oil and herbs and blanketed with a cloud of truffle shavings. And just to round things out Valeria sends out a bowl of white Tuscan beans topped with, you guessed it, more truffles and their own home made extra-virgin olive oil.
Desert? Mmmm, oh my, well . . . only if you insist.
As we waddle out the door my cholesterol count on its way to the moon, Vittorio presses two bottles of red wine into Sam's hands. "For tomorrow," he says. And all for less than $30 a head. Satiated, I seriously question the wisdom of my decision to live in Milan.
Ice Cream HeavenWith the sun getting low in the sky we start back to the farmhouse. Sam makes one more stop, this time at Torri, a gelateria in Lucca. Once home we make sandwiches with the left-over steak we doggy-bagged and then sit out in the garden savoring spoonfuls of Torri’s heavenly gelato, marveling at how we can still eat after our massive mid-day feast at La Giocanda.
Sunday starts full of bright sunshine and after a leisurely lunch Becky and Sam drive me to Florence just in time to catch the late afternoon train to Milan. Through the train window I watch the Tuscan landscape roll by. As the train travels north the country side starts to flatten out, the hilly Tuscan panorama diminishing with every tunnel we go through, the light fading by degrees. All too soon I arrive in Bologna. Next stop, Milan.
Via San Regolo, 84 - La Serra 56020
San Miniato (PI) Tel. +39 0571.460318