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12 kveten (may)
I met Nadine in Guatemala, of all places. She had done a house trade vacation with my friend the music teacher, finding each other over the Internet. Originally from Belgium, she now manages a hotel in Tuscany, northern Italy. The villa, Hotel Sant Uberto, is nestled in those lush green hills between charming Tuscan villages, just outside of Roccastrada. Unable to get a direct flight to anywhere closer, I flew into Rome, rented a car and drove north. Nadine came running out to the car as I got out, kisses on both cheeks, and showed me around the handful of lovingly restored old buildings, pool not yet ready for summer, three healthy horses grazing who cautiously kept their distance. The hotel had been packed last weekend for May Day, but empty this weekend except for her parents who were here visiting and another Belgian couple. It was a good call to travel this weekend – it was only a holiday in the Czech Republic, the end of World War II in that country. She gave me a choice of the single I had requested or a larger room with a king size bed and a lovely view of countryside. Not a hard decision! She took my dinner order, scheduled me for a massage, and laid out a plan for three day trips to hit the essential sights saying “You really need three weeks, but these are the most important.”

Saturday morning it was pouring rain. No sign of Tuscan sun. After breakfast, I grabbed my maps and sloshed back to the restaurant to review my itinerary with Nadine. On the way, the thunder cracked so loud that I shrieked. I had a hooded raincoat and many layers underneath in case it warmed up and dried out. “You are dressed like an onion,” she laughed, using a local expression to describe my layers. She marked two more places to include in my already full day. “Try to do it all,” she added with a determined look, no doubt intended to inspire me.

And I did - from 9am to 7pm I scurried along the serpentine mountain roads from one ancient site to the next, hungrily tasting each delicacy, each one beautiful and fascinating in its own way: Montalcino’s castle on the hill, the narrow stone city streets of Buonconvento and Pienza, the beautiful frescos in the Abbey of Mt. Oliveto Maggiore, the larger medieval city of Montepulciano perched on a mountain top including a wine tasting, and the natural springs and old village of Bagno Vignoni with an open air, thermal bath in the center. Church bells marked my arrival at many of the towns, I seemed to hit the hour often; it helped to welcome me and pace my journey. I only got seriously turned around and headed in the wrong direction twice – once by car after the Abbey and once on foot, coming down from Montepulciano the wrong side and having to walk around it to find my car. Of course, now that I had learned these roads, I would be off in a totally different direction the next morning.

Dinners, served around 8:30 or 9pm, were in the classic Italian style: appetizer, pasta course, meat course or variation, and a sumptuous dessert. I had to try the popular local dish, wild boar, served with carrots and olives. My favorite desert was the peach tiramisu, a delightful light tasting surprise. Evenings were all in French, and my Francais was rusty, although I had studied for five years in my younger days. I could keep up with some of the conversation but inevitably dropped out after a few glasses of an excellent, mellow red wine from a local vineyard, and took a walk before turning in to say goodnight to the horses and assuage my guilt a bit for eating too much.

Day two took me north to the well photographed ruin of the abbey at San Galgano, a short stop in the steep, small village at Monteriggioni, and longer promenades in the larger, antiquated but living cities of San Gimignano and the lovely Siena. I discovered little treasures in the angular, hidden piazzas of Siena: arches, wells, statues. The Duomo cathedral houses some astonishing artwork, etched and tiled into the floor. The illuminated manuscripts and painted frescos in the library blazed with color. While I was there, drummers came in waving colorful flags, marched to a prayer room and chanted to the virgin ceremoniously. Large green flags bearing a regal white duck waved from shuttered windows over the streets of Siena. I drove back into Roccastrada under a Tuscan rainbow, and when I reached my final destination for the day, it perfectly framed the hotel.

The Tuscan sun finally found me on Monday, as I headed to the sea. On my hostess’ recommendation, I turned down a narrow dirt road, drove 3km, then hiked 1.5km through forest to be rewarded with a peaceful, pristine beach, Cala Violina. Bird footprints were the only other ones there that morning. I took off my sandals and strolled along the water’s edge. The high medieval city of Castiglione Della Pescaia was one of my favorites. Balanced on cliffs over the Mediterranean, it was one of the few places where there were no souvenir shops and cafes lining the streets – they were in the port below. It was a quiet town, residents hanging out their laundry, watering flowers. I felt as if I was intruding on the lives of those good people whose families must have lived on this stoney perch for ages. The Castiglione church bells tolled noon, a sound that seemed to follow me from town to town. Two more stops at the small villages of Vetulonia and Roccaderighi and a drive through the valley of Chianti vineyards brought me back to the hotel. That evening, after a grueling massage, I walked the historic streets of Massa Marattima in the waning light of sunset.

Early Tuesday morning, I made a last drive around the resort ridden roads of Porto Santo Stefano and Porto Ercole on the way to the airport. The church bells at my local square, Jiriho z Podebrad, greeted me as I climbed the stairs from the metro at 6pm.


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