The Tuscany lists

As promised, my “Best/Worst of Tuscany” and “What Happened?” lists.

Best/Worst of Tuscany

Best drive: People, it’s all good, assuming you’re in the passenger seat. If not, count on pulling over a lot for photo sessions. No need to signal, just stomp on the brakes. The 12 Italians tailgating you will understand.
Worst drive: Trying to get anywhere but Rome when leaving Siena (honorable mention, any drive within the Livorno city limits)
Best view from a hotel room: Hands down, the Albergo Guastini in Pitigliano
pitigliano.jpg


Best Hostel: This was a tough choice, as there are only five (official) hostels in my territory of Tuscany (Eastern, Southern, Central and the Coast), ranging from so-so to biohazard. So I’m cheating and choosing La Casa sul Lago, a dozen kilometers outside my territory in northwest Umbria on the shores of Lake Trasimeno, Italy’s fourth largest lake. They have a second location on Polvese Island that’s so beautiful and agriturismo-licious that people have been known to become giddy with pleasure during their stay and (almost) propose marriage to whatever female is in their company.
Best hotel room (mid-range): The “Torre” room in Locanda Giglio in Sansepolcro, in-floor lighting, low comfy bed, pie-piece shaped bathroom and a cool view of the historic center (including a nearby tower, hence the name).
Best hotel room (high-end): L’Andana, just outside Castiglione della Pescaia. I didn’t actually stay here, because honestly, 332 euros a night? No matter, it’s an amazing property. Designed with the help of chef Alain Ducasse, this 5000 hectare estate, the former summer house of Duke Leopold, is dripping with luxury amenities and beguiling views. I don’t even know where to begin, but I’ll tell you this: Largest showers I have ever seen. I’ve stayed in single rooms smaller than those showers.
Worst hotel room: Albergo Giardino in Montalcino – I got bed bugs here and the owners (an otherwise lovely old couple) either didn’t understand the concept of bedbugs or they feigned not understanding the concept of bedbugs, because no amount of explaining could convince them that it wasn’t mosquitoes or an allergic reaction – To what? Beds? Despite my best pantomiming that they take the mattress out back and burn it, I’d wager the bed is still there, assaulting people night after night. Beware Room 11!!
Worst hotel room where I didn’t suffer physical harm: Piccolo Hotel Etruria in Siena – by far the loudest room I’ve ever had. Ever. Including that 80-person warehouse hostel room in Copenhagen. The concert hall acoustics in the hotel meant that every conversation, every clacking high-heel, every key jingle, every cough resonated in my room with alarming clarity. Equally, every sound from the immediate street area was also mine to enjoy, day and night. I only got about four and a half hours of sleep-worthy quiet both nights I stayed there.
Worst overall accommodations: Villa Morazzana, a hostel/hotel 12km outside Livorno – They’re hard to find when driving from Livorno city center. Signage starts out nonexistent and then improves to criminally inadequate. I pissed away almost two hours over three days just trying to find this effing place when returning from the city. Practice never improved the trip, as Livorno’s squiggle of unlabelled streets never spit me out on the same side of the city, meaning each trip out there was like the first time. I was attacked by bedbugs in one bed and some kind of mysterious skin irritant in another. They have a little known, villa-wide lock-out in the afternoon, whether you’re staying in the hostel or the hotel section, so let’s say you got a bad night’s sleep because of bedbugs and you return for an afternoon nap because you fear you may collapse on the street, you’re effed cause the whole place is locked and abandoned and you can’t even scale the outside wall if you want to (yes, I tried).
Best wine: Vernacia di San Gimignano – Yum.
Most over-rated wine: Brunello, it’s good mind you, but the price, even locally never mind abroad, is astonishing.
Best plate of pasta: The raviolone di pecorino delle crete con lingua stufata e carote e porri all’aneto (‘sheep’s milk cheese ravioli with stewed meat, carrots, and leeks’ and a bunch of other stuff they didn’t mention that I couldn’t identify with any certainty, price €14) eaten at Il Pino in San Gimignano. I’ve eaten a lot of pasta in my lazy-ass, bachelor-kitchen life, and then I doubled that amount while living on Sardinia last winter, but this was the craziest explosion of mouth-fucking-watering flavor I had in all of Tuscany and probably the second best plate of pasta I’ve had in my life (the first is still the unspeakably good thing that was served to me at that wellness center in Umbria.
Best meal: This was a tough one, but when I decided to factor in affordability, it was a cinch, Ristorante Logge Vasari, in Arezzo. Specifically, the €40 degustazione menu, which includes wine (molto wine).
Worst meal: Borgo Buio in Montepulciano, where I was food poisoned by a plate of breaded pasta, and it sucked even before that unpleasantness set in later that evening, because the pushy owner tried to manipulate and bribe me into putting him in the book (he didn’t know he was already in the previous edition… he was a new owner, presumably with a new cook with regrettable hygiene – regrettable to the tune of seven toilet visits in five sleepless hours that night)
Worst meal where I wasn’t food poisoned: Cane e Gatto in Siena – This meal cost me €89 (US$121.04). It was a five course set menu. The food was good, but not US$121.04 good. I have a theory that at a certain price threshold, the return in quality of food you get for the price diminishes spectacularly. The difference in food quality between a $20 meal and a $70 meal is tremendous. The difference in food quality between a $70 meal and a $121.04 meal is negligible. Furthermore, they never said wine wasn’t included in the base price (€75), which it damn well should be for that kind of money. Also, they’ve severely misinterpreted the Slow Food concept, as they had the slowest service in all of Tuscany. I’d had a long day. Walked about 19 miles in 10 hours. I was in the mood for some very good food and an early bedtime. I got there at 8pm and didn’t escape until 11:20pm. Three hours and 20 minutes. Alone. Bored senseless and barely awake, while waiting for each of my five courses. It wasn’t that they were busy (only three tables were occupied that night), they were just excruciatingly slow. Italians like it slow, but this was ridiculous. It was a €50 meal, gussied up and elegantified (by the utter slowness and pomp) to an €89, tourist scam.
Best Gelato: Gelateria di Piazza in San Gimignano – I sampled the goods about eight times in three days just to be sure.
Best town: This is a toughie, because there are so many really cool towns in Tuscany, it’s like a 12-way tie, but I’m gonna go with Cortona. It scored high on all my criteria: sort of off the beaten path, funky looking from a distance, old, not too crowded, decent food, good value accommodation and insane, twisty, hillside streets, flying off at mirthfully impossible angles. Invaders trying to conquer the place on foot centuries ago must have dropped dead from heart failure trying to charge up those streets with intent to pillage and the trash collectors today must have horse lungs.
Best big city: Siena – no contest
Best beach: OK, to be frank, my territory doesn’t have any spectacular beaches. There’re beaches, tons of them, but they’re either right next to an icky port city, or filthy or unbecoming in some other way. But if you need a beach visit in this area, you should take a ferry over to the island of Elba and make your way to one of the northwest or south beaches. They’re not big or especially picturesque, but they’re clean and they get the job done. If you time the trip right (just after Easter or the last week in September), the resorts around there have full board arrangements that are surprisingly affordable (for Tuscany).
Best monastery: The St Francis Sanctuary in Verna – There’s all kinds of crazy stuff in there (frescos, scattered chapels, the cave and slab of rock that he called a ‘bed’) and the place is so huge and poorly signed that you can literally get lost in there for a good hour, like I did. And there’s nice forest walks all around.
Best agriturismo: First, let me state that there’s something like 285,395 argriturismi in Tuscany. Obviously I didn’t visit them all. Through reliable referrals, reader letters and word of mouth I managed to visit a large spread, all with different themes (farming, olives, animals, leisure) and most of them were very cool in their own respect, but I was most won over by Agriturismo San Lorenzo, just 2km outside of Volterra. The owner speaks excellent English, they have solar-powered water heating, an olive farm, walking, biking and horse riding are all nearby, they have a wicked biological swimming pool with frogs and salamanders (they leave swimmers alone), they have first-rate cooking classes, all meals are served in the 13th-century chapel and maybe best of all, there’s no Vodafone signal out there, so no intrusions from the outside world. Furthermore, you easily can walk (or bus) into Volterra, another one of my favorite cities.

What Happened?

• Number of days on the road: 31
• Number of rest days in that time: 1.5
• Drove about 2,900 kilometers (about 1,800 miles)
• Percentage of time while driving that I was being tailgated by a deranged Italian, under the impression that he was racing for pole position: 70%
• Fastest speed at which I was passed by another vehicle on the autostrade: Some suicidal jackhole on a motorcycle – I don’t know exactly how fast he was going, but it was easily over 200 KPH (125MPH), cause I was going 130KPH (80MPH) at the time and he passed me like I was moving backwards
• Average temperature: 76 degrees Fahrenheit (25 Celcuis)
• Number of times I did laundry in 30 days: One
• Number of those stupid asphalt-loving, mini-lizards that I accidentally ran over and squished: 5
• Number of car accidents: Zero! In your face Romania!!!
• Number of times I was stopped and shaken down for bribes by police for imaginary offenses: Zero! In your face Moldova!!!
• Number of towns visited: 54, (not counting all the little resort-town, bumps in the road I visited on Elba), plus a variety of monasteries, parks, argiturismi and posh hotels/resorts in the middle of nowhere
• Number of cumulative hours spent lost: 1.8 billion squillion
• Number of times I cursed lazy/confusing/nonexistent Italian signage at lunatic volume until I became horse: five
• Number of bed bug bites: 12
• Number of days in a row that it rained right before departing on the trip: three
• Number of days in a row that it rained after finishing the trip: six (and counting)
• Number of cumulative minutes that it rained during the trip: 12
• Number of times I parked illegally: 76
• Number of parking tickets: zero
• Number of free WiFi clouds that I found: one, I got single bar of signal to someone’s unsecured WiFi hub when I sat in the doorway to my bathroom, in Albergo Cannon d’Oro in Siena
• Number of cavities acquired: One, though it may have been pre-existing…
• Number of cups of coffee consumed: 1,495,946 (it’s really good coffee)
• Number of people who told me that I had their dream job: 14
• Number of people that reconsidered after spending a day with me: two
• Number of times that I didn’t eat dinner alone: three
• Number of times that I had to resist the urge to kill the chef because whatever he made was so effing good that there was no improving on it: five
• Number of Polish waitresses that hit on me: one
• Number of Italian waitresses that hit on me: zero (see post below about me wearing shorts for details)

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