Monday, March 23, 2009

Figline Val D'Arno qui veniamo - Figline on the Arno here we come!

In the end it was fairly easy to decide between Tuscany and the Amalfi Coast. Comparing apples to apples: the cost, hotel and activities were about the same. The double connection (Detroit to Frankfurt, Frankfurt to Milan, Milan to Naples) was the nail in coffin for the Amalfi Coast.
So, we're returning to the small village of Figline Val D'Arno and the lovely Villa Casagrande (This is our second visit to the villa).

Figline is a bedroom community of Florence, 20 minutes equally by train or car. It consists of one main square with a church on one end and shops/restaurants/banks on the other three. Figline like many Tuscan towns still recognizes siesta. From 1:00pm to about 5:00pm most of the businesses shut down. The shops reopen around 5 and remain open to 9:00pm. This schedule works well for us, since we like to eat dinner at 7pm, we never have to make a reservation.

Staying outside of Florence has its definite benefits, no traffic to speak of, prices for food and lodging are usually 1/3 to 1/2 less and the opportunity to really connect with the residents of your host country are so much greater. A great example would be when we dine in Figline. After we are seated, the staff tends to gather in a corner whispering and nodding or pointing towards us. The person who is the most fluent in English (or drew the short straw I suspect) timidly approaches our table and always begins with "Pardon me, but I have not had English since high school....". Of course their English is 1000% better than our Italian, so we are always bemused/ashamed at how carefully and correctly they explain their written in Italian, menu.

I had another 'up close and personal' experience at the village laundry mat. It was completely self serve. I had put my clothes, soap and money in the machine, but no matter what I did it wouldn't start. Two elderly gnomelike gentlemen were in a corner folding a quilt. My Italian quit after Boun Giorgno and I had to pantomime my problem. They walked over to my machine, stroked their chins, discussed my problem and then calmly closed the washing machine door all the way.

On another morning, I went to the local bank to exchange some currency. As I wait in the line to visit the teller I notice many persons talking quietly to one another as is the case in a small town a the local business. A few of the people glance my way as if to say, "who is this - definitely not from our town"? As I stood there I so wished I knew someone. However, to my surprise just then Danella from the last night's cooking class walked into the bank. I exclaimed, "Bonjourno Danella" and she came over to me with a hug. The bank line quieted and the people were now stunned as to how does this guy know someone? One of the morals of this story is to get to know the people in the town whenever possible an take part in the everyday life of the local citizens. The teller and even the bank manager came over once I came to the window to work in completing my transaction. What a great feeling to have known someone and to have had such a pleasant experience in conducting everyday business.

Figline Val D'Arno here we come!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

It's Not as Random as it Looks - Part II

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

When discussing independent travel, I've sometimes been asked, "How did you get the idea to visit....?" Or "What made you want to go ......?" I am embarrassed to admit in the beginning it started as 'path of least resistance'. I had decided at the end of our Western Med/ Rome tour, I would like to test myself and try to plan a trip on my own. Based purely on no language barrier, I suggested London and England to the group for 2002. I booked the flights, hotels and excursions to Stonehenge and Bath. It's an awesome responsibility to make choices for a group - I was on pins and needles the entire time. We had a wonderful time. It gave me the courage to continue to act as 'Julie McCoy' for our annual vacations.Here is the inspiration for our other vacations.

2003 - Hawaii - George Bush had just invaded Iraq, we decided we wouldn't be very well received in the EU.

2004 - Rome and London- As much as I liked Hawaii, my heart was in Europe. I decided it was time to revisit my two favorite European cities on my own.

2005 - Ireland and Edinburgh - The Quiet Man and Going My Way. I bawl everytime Leo McCarey's 90 year old Irish mother toddles into screen, and Bing Crosby singing Irish Eyes, I'm a gonner. But, it's the scene out of the Quiet Man when Sean slams open the cottage door and the storm rages over Innispree that made me want to visit the Emerald Isle. Edinburgh? We were originally booked to visit London. The summer 2005 London subway bombings caused us to quickly punt and change our destination to Edinburgh.

2006 - Tuscany and Rome - World capital for foodies and wine aficionados.

2007 - Athens and Venice - We wanted to compare the Athens of our 2000 visit with the post 2004 Olympics Athens. Venice, pardon the pun, is an island onto itself. We hadn't been able to coordinate Venice with any other visit, so we added it to this trip.

2008 - Danube Cruise and Prague - We've vacationed the same week each year since 2004. No matter the country, Europe decks itself out for the holiday. In 2008, we decided we'd like to check out the beautiful Christmas markets of Bavaria and Bohemia.

Preparation for a trip and vacation is not as random as it looks either. First, some months out I make the pilgrimage to Barnes and Noble. It is at this Mecca of literature and such that I find the perfect tour book and map of the region. After a double espresso and some quality time in the cozy coffee house, I find the perfect book and map. In the electronic age, it only stands that cords must be organized and gadgets must be packed. A few weeks ahead of departure, I clear off all SD cards for cameras, collect new batteries and back-up batteries, collect movies, download Tivo'ed programs (we like to have recorded programs to view in the late evenings just in the background while we reflect on the day and plan for the new one ahead and it seems so much more relaxing then a steady diet of BBC World), find the power and sync cords for the PDA, download maps, test maps and establish push pins (I-Phone users reading this probably are laughing as they have the directional piece in their phones more easily), and stuff all the above into the "carry-on" luggage - my man purse.

Another aspect of the planning is the navigation piece of the vacation. Having been mildly interested all through my life in maps and directions I have to admit I did not often follow them and often found myself lost. I decided when we began to travel find ways of keeping directions and maps without looking so "touristy". To this end, enter the Dell PDA and handy Microsoft Pocket Streets software. The PDA has the illusion of a newer phone/planning device that so many people on European streets have their faces buried in as they walk. The Pocket Streets software allows me to download detailed maps of most European cities and plan our days one by one and turn by turn. However, the idea of turn by turn is much easier than actual turn by turn standing in the cities.

All in all the message in this entry, is that much planning goes into traveling. The truly experienced traveler makes it look easy and effortless. When you incorporate the many tips from experience the travel and memories become front and center and the details are less the star of the trip. With practice comes comfort and with comfort comes the ability to relax and embrace the moments.