Thursday, April 8:  Assisi to Tuscany

We were promised a large breakfast and Hotel Ideale delivered. The grandfather of the clan made sure everybody got enough to eat and that children didn’t destroy the garden or lawn. Then Pat and Robert went off to participate in the cult of St. Francis, while David and I finished up last night’s algebra homework.

Homework concluded, David and I went to bag a couple of more churches (San Rufino and Saint Stephano) and do a short stint at an Internet access point in one of the bars. (I should explain that Italian “bars” are more akin to snack bars than to alcoholic bars.) Back at the hotel, we checked out and awaited Pat’s return. Robert and Pat back, the males hiked up to the high point of town to visit Rocca Maggiore, the main defensive castle above the town. We paid up, took a spiral staircase and entered a 200 meter long passageway about as wide as my shoulders and with only a few inches of headroom -- it was difficult (physically and culturally) for even slight Japanese tourists to pass in the opposite direction. Periodically, there were slits in the wall, which captivated Robert’s imagination. Finally, we hit a tight spiral staircase that led to the top of the Polygonal Tower. The view was tremendous and only then was it obvious that we had just passed through the interior of a long, long wall, culminating in the tower. Along the way into the castle, we made the acquaintance of Debbie (a maternity nurse at Tacoma General) and Dave (a retired family doc), so we played the “and do you know. . . ” game with our various physician friends. On the way down the hill, we had a history lesson about the economy of kings, princes, barons, knights, vassals and serfs (and I wished I had Dave Tinsley there to explain it all much better than I did).

For lunch we hit an “alimentari,” a small grocery store with a deli case where they made sandwiches to order. We carried them back to our hotel, to eat at the roadside tables, and then we departed town about 2 PM. The two hour drive was uneventful, except for one incident. There were many construction zones, posted at 50 km/hr, a limit that was routinely ignored. In many instances, we were shunted onto the other half of the road which was running one lane in each direction. In the one case, we were going a steady 50 km/hr behind a truck, and the car in front of me kept trying to pass, though from my position behind him, it seemed hopeless since there was a steady line of oncoming traffic. It did break once on a straight stretch and several of us got around the truck there. A few kilometeres later, there were police cars with lights on and we were shunted back onto the stretch of road that was newly repaved. Sure enough, it was a detour around an accident scene, where one car had its whole side ripped off and substantial parts of the body of the car strewn a ways down the road. Sobering.

Direction signs are very good here, at least until you hit the center of cities and we had no trouble finding Certaldo, despite three consecutive 270 degree spins around roundabouts, each within 200 meters of one another. We blew the final turn outside of Certaldo, but excellent directions allowed us to correct quickly.

Albergo Latini is a deviation from the Rick Steves’ program, acting on a recommendation from Andy Bernoff, a mathematics professor at Harvey Mudd and fellow Putnam grader. He implored me to stop by for at least a meal at their restaurant while going to or from Florence. As it was, we decided on an extended stay at the hotel, and when offered an excellent rate and a 15% Bernoff discount, we signed on for nine nights as our base in Tuscany. We were warmly welcomed and shown a spacious room with a balcony and four beds (the fourth being a trundle bed) and a well-equipped bathroom. As soon as we went to get our luggage, we were asked if we might be willing to use two rooms as it would help them out of some Easter-related scheduling jam. We checked out two different rooms and the kid-room was great, while the adult room instantly smelled of smoke. A second attempt at an adult room was perfecto, with no smells, lots of room and a balcony with a view toward the old town and a vineyard. (Photo 37)

We returned to the lobby where Chiara Latini offered us drinks in the empty restaurant. She is young, US-educated (North Carolina and Colorado), speaks impeccable English, Firenze-born and raised. Her brother is in the Ph.D. program in mathematics at Cal Tech, which may explain the circuitous route by which we found ourselves here. We met her father, a spark-plug of a man with a slight limp and a perpetual squint and smile. The boys had a Fanta and returned to their room. Pat had a large glass of Tuscan wine, while my request for a refreshing drink without alcohol or caffeine led to a Sanbitter, a 100 ml soda with a mildly bitter taste, served with an orange slice. It was perfect. This was followed by two other such drinks, one I can’t recall, and a Campari (at 5% alcohol). I prefered the Sanbitter the most. Pat and Chiara discussed strategy for our Firenze day trips at length, while I nibbled on biscotti. (Photo 35)

Chiara helped Pat with some reservations for sights in Florence, while we dug-in for an extended stay in our rooms. About 7:45 PM David finished his journal and we returned downstairs for dinner. The restaurant had begun to fill up, somewhat to our amazement, being located just outside town, next to an industrial site, and with a gasoline station out front. We were treated as special guests and shown a good table, seated, and immediately small glasses of champagne arrived for the adults, and similar glasses of orange juice for the bambini. We ordered mineral water and were asked about wine -- “vino della cassa, rosso” and we debated a half-liter or full-liter. I think we were told that the private-label house wine only came in full bottles, or something about “consumo.” It became clear that we were going to be fed and taken care of and we should just sit back and let it come. Giovanni Latini rushed over and asked if we wanted antipasti. Having stuck to just one or two courses so far for evening meals, we hesitated, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer and suggested that we try it for just tonight. Plates of salami and prosciutto appeared. Very nice. Then the turkey and liver pate bruschetta, the eggplant and ricotta cheese dish, and the fried potato dumplings. We managed to consume most of it, even if it wasn’t all to the boys liking. (Photo 38)

Pasta course. The boys split a spaghetti and sun-dried tomato dish that they enjoyed (much to my surprise) while Pat and I split ravioli in cheese sauce, with black truffles for filling.

Secondi. The boys were full, so we realized we could order them dessert and let them return to their room. Vanilla gelato for Robert, chocolate decadence for David (the sample I got was delicious!). Pat ordered piglet (the whole pig weighed just 15 pounds for starters), while I had grilled and sliced beef served with slices of parmesan cheese.

Dolce. No room left for dessert. Suddenly Giovanni, squinting happily, brought over two small glasses of muscato, a sweet, delicious, dessert wine. We asked Chiara if we should just charge the bill to our room, which she said was fine. We never saw a menu or a bill, so we joked and told her we’d find out tomorrow what we’d spent. It was unlike any meal I’ve ever had. Very memorable. And odds are, we’ll do it again in the next few days, as somebody has a birthday coming up.

Tomorrow, we’ll start hitting some of the hill towns of Tuscany, starting close by and working outwards, with some day trips by train into Firenze.