Thursday, January 28, 2010

Italy Day 5: Pisa, wine-tasting, Montecatini

This is a repost of my 2007 trip to Italy with my mom, brother, sister and Aunt.

Another wake up, buffet breakfast (as I'm writing this, I'm realizing that I did not appreciate fully the delicious pastries laid out for me every morning), and long drive.

We paused for a while on the bridge nearby our hotel overlooking the Grand Canal before heading out of Venice ... on foot, if you can believe it. I didn't know it could be done, but there you go. On the way out of the city, we passed a public park that looked like it belonged in London or New York (two places I've only seen in Julia Roberts movies, to be honest). It was walled and gated, but with beautiful pathways, trees and benches ... not to mention a playground or two. If only we had more time!

But we were off to Pisa. Another long, long drive, another Autogrill lunch. I came to love these half-pizza sandwiches called Rustichella, with tomato sauce, cheese and usually a kind of meat. But I also enjoyed a sandwich called Icairo, or something like that, which was ham, spinach and a creamy cheese.

Pisa is one of those places that can't help but live up to expectations. Everything you see in pictures, it is. It's the Leaning Tower of Pisa, one of the seven wonders of the world, and it is just as striking in person as you'd think. It's on this beautiful green lawn that you're supposed to stay off of, but nobody does until the police make a half-hearted effort ever quarter hour or so. In front of it is a cathedral, one of the very few that I didn't see, and in front of that is the baptistry, one of the random stops I did want to make.

So we took the requisite cheesy Pisa pictures, holdng it up, leaning against it, etc. There was much frusteration trying to get these shots, a lot of snapping and shouting at each other, but you'd never know it from the photos! Hundreds of people are on the lawn all trying to get the same shot, and it cracked me up that everyone got it!

Then, of course, we had to make a bathroom stop. After that, I noticed we had about 10 minutes before the event at the Baptistry, the one I really wanted to see. The Baptistry in Pisa was built for real baptisms, the full-body immersion in rainwater, types. It's a circular marble building that just happens to be twice as tall as it is wide. The roof is built half out of iron, and then (because of cost cutting measures) half out of terra cotta tiles. There's a hole in the center of the roof for rainwater to come through and fill the marble basin in the center of the floor. And just by sheer coincidence, it is one of few buildings in the world with acoustics perfect enough for a 15-second echo. And every half hour, a guard sings. Because of the echo, the notes blend together and it sounds like an entire chorus. Definitely something not to come halfway around the world to miss.

Or so I thought. But my family decided it wasn't worth five euro, so I dashed into the ticket office and paid for my entrance. Sugar followed me, and we ran inside just in time. After a minute to marvel at the all-marble building, the guard came to the center, clapped for attention and effect, and started to sing. No words, just notes, and that made it all the more haunting. It lasted less than five minutes, and Katherine smugly informed me that they heard it sitting outside, but it was totally worth it. If you're ever in Pisa, just consider it a once-in-a-lifetime experience, pay the 5 E, and do it.

Then it was cheesy souviener shopping, time for some gelato (my favorite combination was pistachio, coconut and pineapple), and then back to the bus. I bought Matt a bottle of olive oil shaped like the tower, and it's one of my favorite souviners of the entire trip. It's way cheesy, but adorable.

We drove on to Montecatini (a sort of suburb of Florence, for lack of a better geographical description), where we were immediately taken to the evening's optional excursion: wine tasting at an agritourismo. It was a little farm, and we had a LOT of wine. Three reds, three whites, with the promise of grappa (80 proof alcohol!) and a dessert wine to follow.

While we drank (tasting is such a wrong word to use for the number of bottles we had at our table!), they brought us appetizers: bread, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, meats, cheeses ... so delicious, and a perfect dinner! As the bottles were finished, everyone got pretty rowdy, and there was one gent in particular who cracked me up. His name was John, or Jack, and he and his wife were just the nicest couple. I'd been helping her with her digital camera the whole time, and found her a disposable one when her batteries died.

Anyway, knee-deep into bottle no. 8, I'm sure, Jack started to get social. We started to hear "Let's hear it for California!" about every 10 minutes (we were just about the only ones from California). It was hilarious! He toasted the waitress, Vincenzo, Italy ... but not as many times as California!

After the wine, Mom and I went to the gift shop for some agri-shopping (olive oil, olive spread, limoncello), and when we came back out it was time for the grappa. Now, grappa and other liquers are digestives in Italy. You take just a little after eating, and it aids in digestion. But we were warned that it would also put hair on our elbows, because it was so strong. I looked at mine for a few minutes (never being great at taking shots) and almost dropped it when my very non-alcoholic mother slammed hers back, gave a shout and pounded the glass, upside-down of course, on the table. I was in such disbelief that I drank mine without even really noticing it. Then we egged everyone else on, clapping and cheering as shot after shot went down.

After the grappa, they brought out the Vin Santo, a very syrupy, sweet delicious apricot-tasting wine usually reserved for priests (or at least it was, I just remember that that was part of it). You drank it by the glassful, like scotch or something, than dipped almond biscotti into it. I could had spent days eating that happily. I think it's what dessert is like in heaven. I wanted to run back into the store to buy the biscotti, but knew it'd be gone before nightfall.

After that, I decided it would be much better to sleep than to be drunk and have the spins, so I started wolfing down bread and water like it was going out of style, and was appropriately sobered up. Anthony, however, did not take such precautions, and got drunker and drunker as the night went on, even hours after we left. That grappa is powerful stuff, not to be messed with! We finally had to put him to bed in order to keep him from propositioning the waitresses and keeping the other guests awake by playing Ding Dong Ditch.

I tried to eat dinner that night, but was overstuffed from the wine tasting. I even skipped the ice-cream cake dessert. I just hoped that I'd have my appetite back for the next day in Florence, where I'd heard they'd perfected the art of gelato.

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