Europe in Review

Considering I’ve been gone for four months and I’m leaving today, I figured a good ol’ farewell/review post should be in order.  Here are some of my favourite and/or most memorable part of Europe.

La Rambla, in Barcelona. On either side, cars and busses are whistling by.  In the middle, locals are dressed in all sorts of bizarre costumes to make a buck.  For some reason, street performers are really popular.  The first day or two, you’ll stare.  After, you totally ignore them.  But there are some weird costumes…

Cinque Terre.  The only bit of exercise I got in Europe!  While the five towns of the Cinque Terre were completely overrun by tourists, you could sometimes escape them on the trails.  Actually, the trails were favourite part of my four days there.  Invigorating and breathtaking, you can stop at any given town and take a dip to cool off.  Come in the shoulder season though.  While you may not notice a difference between shoulder and high season in the bigger cities, in smaller destinations like Cinque Terre, it gets annoying really fast.

Croatia was one highlight that stands out simply because I wasn’t in the city and I wasn’t in the country.  I  booked a week in Croatia because I thought I should at least step out of the EU for a little while, so it looks like I’m trying to reset my 90-day clock.  Whether it will work for me is still a mystery.  But what a way to do it!  Croatia was breathtaking to say the least, but sooo chilled out.  Because I didn’t speak Croatian and because there weren’t many English-speaking tourists, I was in the minority again.  No one hassles and everyone’s laid back.  The locals are so warm.  It was also great to share this someone else, MAdeline from White Rock, BC.

In Amsterdam. Amsterdam isn’t a complicated city, but when you’ve sampled the local specialities, it can turn into the Twilight Zone. Take riding in the country for example, we spent four hours just trying to locate ourselves so we could go home, which then took another two hours.  Didn’t help that the entire time I had Radiohead playing in my iPod.

While I’m firm believer in looking up local festivals and planning a trip around those festivals, I arrived in Paris (only for one day on my way back to Rome) on the last day of the Tour de France.  Best coincidence ever.

I had an amazing time in Paris. An absolutely magical day!  From left: Australia, South Africa, Irish, Canada and Australia.  Photo: Andy “Australia”.

On my way back to Croatia, I ran into four Australian boys.  After spending four hours in a French town between two trains, they had convinced me to join them in Rome for a few days.  But, who decides to join four strangers to a foreign city in a matter of a few hours?!  I figured, though, that if I didn’t go see Rome with them, I probably wouldn’t do it on my own.  What a way to see Rome, though.  I very fun few days!!

In Venice, a sign pointing to la Piazza San Marco.  Venice is lots of things.  It can be a seaside town, like Vancouver, with a boardwalk and waves splashing onto the sidewalk.  It can be a canal city, like Amsterdam, quiet and serene.  Or, it can be a corn maze.  Getting lost in Venice is an experience in itself. If you play safe and don’t wander off-course, you’ll see the postcard.  Take the alleyways and stray off a bit.  Hopefully, there are tiny signs like this to guide you when you’re totally lost.

Special shout out to Karen, Lee and Rohan Wood; Mike the Vancourite I met in Barcelona; Oscar from Barcelona; Phoebe and Ellie, the Irish wwoofers; Bernard; Bernard’s friend; my roommate in Genoa; that couple from San Diego I met in the Cinque Terre; Pierangelo and Cristina from Vetriceto; Mattia Marella; Jilly, the canadian chick who worked at the hostel in Split; Madeline from Croatia; Kevin Kennett; Emmett “Irish”, Julia “Australia”, Andy “Australia”, “Holland”, “South Africa”; Will, Simon, Tommy, Harry and Ed for an amazing time in Rome; Dario, Barbara and Rocco from Lolmaia; Dafne the Countess and Doughie from Certaldo; Warren and Dana, the Texans; and huge shout out to everyone from WWOOF#5: Yael Julie “YJ” Fischer; AnnaLisa; Sian; Sophie; Cris; Martina; Moris; Daviday and Louise; Mauro the chef; Patti the chef; Theodora; Lititsia; Benjamin; Pushpa; Beatrice; Benjamin; Tess; and Michael Moritz (I suppose). I know I’m forgetting people, so thanks to all those I met in Europe!

Most of all thanks to Mom, Dad, Hugo and Simon who all supported me doing this even though I was kind of a crazy idea… Can’t wait to get back home!!!

Signing out

🙂 Julie

two (last) days in Paris

PAris was first and is my one, true European lover.

I was first introduced to Paris on my sixteenth birthday.  My parents had arranged a house exchange with a family that lived in the 20th.  For two weeks, it dazzled me with les Champs Élysées, le Louvre, le Quartier LAtin, le Jardin du Luxembourg, and the list goes on.  When I got home, I fell into a deep depression.  I longed to see Paris again.

Change would have it: in my senior year of high school, the school board arranged a trip with my senior class and other senior classes from around the province.  I wasn’t as thrilled as the first trip; we were visiting all of the places I had already seen.  The exceptions being Versailles and la Normandie.  It wasn’t really a parisian experience, per say, like my first one.  This was more of a two-week long field trip.

I chose Paris as my landing-in and flying-out city for my European trip this summer mostly because it was the only European city I knew and because I spoke the language, a gift I would later be very thankful fort.  But when I landed, I wasn’t interested in seeing Paris.  I was going to be spending the next four months in Europe.  I had already seen Paris twice, now it was time for something new.  Besides, who has time for just one European lover.

Barcelona seduced me with its vivacity and colours.  In comparison, Paris seemed dead.  The French Riviera had me drooling and dreaming of summer vacations by the beach.  The water was so blue and clear, it reminded me of those blue ice-stick tubes you eat in the summer.  Genoa was an interesting lover.  It uninterested me at first.  I thought: this city has complexity problems.  But then, I let it in and genuinely began to like it.  Florence will be my Italian lover, for sure.  Unfortunately for Florence, I’m more of a French Baroque kind of girl, not a medieval kind of girl.  Rome was so popular, I felt like it had barely anytime for me at all.  I felt neglected, alone.  I learned I could love Rome, but only in the company of others.  But even then, Paris would never do that to me.  Croatia wasn’t particularly individual.  Croatia was a one-night-stand.  An amazing one-night-stand, but Croatia could’ve been anywhere.  There was nothing really croatian about Croatia.  Amsterdam was a trip, but I don’t think we could ever be.  Venice was everything Daviday, from WWOOF#5, told me it would be: brilliant and magical.

But still, nothing compares to Paris.  Paris may not be hot and sexy like Barcelona, but it sure is romantic.  Paris may not have sandy, pebble or rock beaches like the Riviera, but it has la Seine.  Paris may not have been the birthplace of the Renaissance like Florence, but it sure as hell was the birthplace or home of some of the most influential artists of the 19th and 20th Century.  Paris may be popular like Rome, but it’s modest for a big city.  It’s ashamed of its popularity and the fact that it exploits itself, which I find endearing.

But, there’s just something about Paris that makes me weak in the knees, that almost brings tears to my eyes when I walk through its streets, that gives me a little bit of a skip in my step.

Le Marché des Fleurs et des Oiseaux.  I stumbled on this by accident.  I first came here with my senior class a few years back.  I nice way to start the morning off.

Across la Seine, le Palais de Justice and la Conciergerie, where MArie Antoinette was kept captive during the last few months of her life.

La Pyramide at the Louvre.  Not really found of the pyramid itself.  I like the old parts of the palace.

Les Jardins des Tuileries. In the back, you see l’Obélisque.  And behind that, if you look closely, you’ll see l’Arc de Triomphe.

It’s only Paris if you see the Eiffel Tower!  …so some people say.  I will admit, though, that I get a little twinge, a good twinge, whenever I see it.  It’s like a little reminder that, hey: you’re in PAris!

La Place de la Sorbone. It reminded me of Sophie.  I sat on the steps in front of the Panthéon to eat lunch.  Super casual.  Paris has to be the only city in which it’s perfectly acceptable to people watch.  In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s the local pass-time.

Day two: Versailles

I was really excited about Versailles.  That is until I got there: the line-up was absurdly long! I waited in line for about 45 minutes until I decided to give-up and go back to Paris.  Right as I was leaving, they announced on the speakers that if you only want to go to the gardens, you can go straight to garden entrance.  YES!!  I wasn’t that interested in the castle part anyhow.  I pulled an “I’m a student” and got in for one euro less than regular.

Oh Versailles!  For some reason, I feel like it’s a guilty pleasure to enjoy going to Versailles, because, I thought, no parisian would willingly go to Versailles on their day off.

LOVE IT!!  I took my earphones out because I realized there was music playing.  I heard someone say it was Mozart because he was one of Marie-Antoinette’s favourites.

This part of Versailles actually doesn’t require a pass, which I thought was funny.  I desperately wanted to go somewhere where I was allowed to sit on the grass.  Turns out I didn’t need to pay for that at all.  I ended up taking a nice little nap here.

Magnificent!  Seriously, if there are people who live in castles like this, I’m marrying into that family.  No argument.  It’s been decided.

Le Bassin du Miroir. One of my favourite places in Versailles.  There is classical music playing and the fountain is synced to it.  I have a video which better demonstrates what I mean, but I don’t know how to load it onto this blog.  To view the video on my youtube page, click here.

L’Orangerie.  I desperately wanted to pick an orange as a souvenir.  Pretty sure it’s been done before and that it’s sourly frowned upon.

LE Château.  In comparison to the gardens and all of Versailles itself, le château isn’t that big.  But then you see it and think: “well if this is small in comparison to the rest of Versailles, Versailles is HUGE!”

I had a marvellous two days in Paris.  And while Paris is my favourite European city, I’m not sad about leaving.  For some reason, I have a strange feeling I’ll be back in a few short years.

À la prochaine, mon amour, mon cher Paris!

🙂 Julie

Venezia

I skipped out on Lake Como to stay a little longer at WWOOF#5, but everyone at WWOOF#5  told me not to skip out on Venice.  And I’m glad I didn’t.

Alberto, one of the more permanent wwoofers at WWOOF#5, was heading to Vicenza, about an hour’s North-West of Venice.  He offered me a ride to Padova.  I usually like road trips, but MY GOD the highways in Italy ARE HORRIBLE.  Side note about Italian politics: most italians are communists on a local level, but nationalist on a federal level.  Consequently, no one takes care of the highways.  Pot holes everywhere.  Not a smooth ride.

Alberto dropped me off at the train station in Padova.  From there, it was a pretty straight forward.  Took the train to Santa Lucia Station, then a boat to Giudecca.  From the “boat”stop, it was only a 50m walk to the hostel.  Oh yeah: there aren’t any busses; only boats.  Seems pretty straightforward, but you won’t believe until you see it:  Venice is on water!

La Basilica di San Marco in the morning.  Crowded and beautiful!  The Venetians were crazy on details. I’m used to the simpleness of the Etruscan/Roman/Tuscan designs on Tuscany.  Amazing!

Canals everywhere!! The annoying thing is that unlike a street, you can’t cross a canal until you a reach a bridge.  Often, you hit dead ends.

Looking down the Grand Canal on il Ponte di Rialto.

Looking down along the side of Dorsoduro, the Southern-most island of Venice.  On the other side of the Canal, on the left, is Giudecca, where I was staying.

La Galleria dell’Academia. On the tip of the Dorsoduro island, facing Piazza San Marco.  Getting to Piazza San Marco is a totally different story.

Beautiful details!  And to think this was built on an island!

Looking North from Dorsoduro, to Piazza San Marco.  I sat on the steps on la Galleria dell’Acamedia to eat lunch and read a little.

Looking down the Grand Canal from il Ponte dell’Academia, the newest of the three main bridges on the Grand Canal.  Ohhhh Venice…. They should make a movie called Venezia, mi piace. I’d watch it…

Oh WHAT?!?  Piazza San Marco is flooded!! So gross!  Tourists were happily willing to walk barefoot and, at some points, knee-high in canal water.  Polluted and full of centuries worth of human excrements. EEEWWWW… I avoided the water as much as I could, until…

FFUuuudge...  should’ve seen this coming.  Great..  EEWWWWwww…. (I hate to admit it, but it was kind of refreshing…)

Beautiful Day!  Venice is such a tease because the sun is so hot, you just want to jump in the water, but you know you’d die out of disgust if you did…  too bad.

The quiet life on Giudecca, the largest island facing Piazza San Marco.  I really like that the hostel is on Giudecca.  It’s two boat stops away from la Piazza S.M., which makes it central in Venice and yet, because it’s on the other side of the canal, there are no tourists.  Quiet and serene… ahhhh…

Sadly, today marks the nineth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.  So sad.

Ho solo una notte in Venezia.  Domani, prendo il treno per Parigi per due notte.  Dopo prendo l’aeroplane per Seattle.

A dopo!

🙂 Julie

WWOOF#5 in Review

A lot has happened since my last post.

girls’ day morning out

Sophie, AnnaLisa, Martina and I all managed to pull off a free morning on Saturday.  AnnaLisa and I only work in the afternoon and at night.  Sophie had to book time off.  Martina just got really luck.

Hitchhiking (or autostop): the only way to get around Tuscany.  After about ten cars, a handsome young fellow stopped.  Not bad.  From left: me, Sophie and AnnaLisa.

In Volterra, we strolled through the market, stopped for cappuccini (that’s many cappuccino), and biscotti, and did a little shopping.  Soooo refreshing to get out of WWOOF#5 for a little and to have some good old fashioned girl time.  Sophie was especially happy: she had just finished a 4000-word essay on Becket’s works, was free of Rumi (a two-year-old devil of a child) and other au pair duties.

Big purchase of the day: green Ray-Ban knock-offs.  Cost me 5€, they did.  Photo: Sophie.

Empty Villa

Having the villa totally rented out sucks. Everything is off-limits and you can’t even go near it if you’re not working.  So when the guests finally left, the villa was completely empty (free of guests!) for two nights.  It felt like we were little kids running around in a giant masion, all to ourselves.  We watched Star Trek in the theatre room, soaked up the sun by the pool, explored the “forbidden” parts of WWOOF#5 (including a secret costume room up on the top floor) , skimmed through books in the library, went fig and blackberry picking, ate dinner in the backyard at sunset.  We were even contemplating playing sardines at night.

Sian on the look-out. Sian, the last wwoofer to arrive during my stay at WWOOF#5, and I got bored one day and explored the villa.  We took off our sandals and tip-toed up to the top floors of the villa.  Up there, we found these stairs leading to a look-out room, no bigger than a single bed.  There are two balconies on either side of the look-out room.  The view from up there has been tattooed in my brain; it was breathtaking.

Lunch in the courtyard. Another bonus of having the villa completely empty was that we could eat in the courtyard.  Kids running everywhere.  Every lunch felt like one big family gathering.

Me in the pool. I’m pretty sure my age drops 15 years when I go swimming.  Every time I went down to the pool, I looked for something to toss in so I could go dive and get it…

Chillin’ by the pool. It killed me how impossible it was for me to figure out the time travel-ness in Star Trek.  Sian and I spent our out-of-the-water time coming up with possible theories.  We came to the conclusion that there exist two parallel realities, existing 50 years apart, and Nero effs it up.

Dinner with a view. Sophie, left, and AnnaLisa, right, enjoying dinner and wine on the backyard terrace.

Girls’ (and Daviday’s) Night Out in Florence

On my second to last night in WWOOF#5, Daviday and Louise invited AnnaLisa, Sian, Sophie and I to come out with them in Florence.  They were meeting friends for dinner.  With Daviday driving and Louise in the passenger seat, the four of us squished in the back for almost two hours.  Good thing Louise has amazing taste in music.

Sophie and I in front of the Duomo.  Sian and Sophie had never been to Florence.  “Better see it drunk first; everything looks bigger,”  we advised to them.

Sophie and me.  One thing I will miss about Europe is the public drinking.  Bars overflow, so city regulations allow patrons to hang-out in a nearby park or in the streets.

Later that night, we went to this club called “the Blob”.  Weird name, but sick tunes!!! They played 1920’s/1930’s gypsy jazz.  SOO MUCH FUN!!!  When they switched to “newer” music, like James Brown and other 70’s or even 80’s, we requested the DJ go back and play the older stuff.  Also, Louise and I got our a***s handed to us when we got wipped playing fuzeball.

I had the most amazing time at WWOOF#5.  I skipped out on Lake Como to stay a little while longer.  If Venice weren’t a must-see in Italy, I would’ve stayed a little longer even.

Hopefully one day, I’ll come back to WWOOF#5.  Thanks to everyone for an amazing three weeks!!!

🙂 Julie

Volterra

According to schedule, I should’ve had my day-off on Sunday, but AnnaLisa made the good point that buses don’t run on Sunday.  So, I pushed my day-off to Monday.  I wandered around for a bit and then took the bus back to WWOOF#5.

Volterra is like every other Tuscan province capital.  That isn’t to say it isn’t impressive, but I’m beginning to notice repeating patterns.

For starters, it’s on a hill, at least the old part is.  Tuscany’s glory days really took place during the 13th and even 14th Century, during the Middle Ages.  This is why Arezzo, Siena, Volterra and probably Grossetto too are all Medieval towns: walled cities (the ones mentioned are capital cities of the provinces) built way up on a hilltop, completely surrounded by Tuscan countryside.  This was done for defensive reasons, not aesthetic, obviously.  In the middle of the old town, the City Hall with its bell tower and clock overlook the main square around which most of the tourist life is centred.

il Teatro Romano. Like Arezzo, there are some traces of the Romans’ rule that remain.   Also like Arezzo, when they were building the walled city during the Middle Ages, they didn’t bother to include the Roman ruins in the walled city.

Volterra is great little city to get lost in.  Plug in your iPod, play some Grizzly Bear and go for a stroll.

The Palace.  As per uze, I can’t seem to fit the whole thing in one shot.  Still impressive though.

What almost killed Volterra for me was the fact that Stephanie Meyer refers to Volterra as the vampiric epicentre of the world in her Twilight series.  I’m guessing Meyer has been to Volterra; the way she described Volterra was waaaayy off.  Take the Da Vinci Code for example: the details are extremely specific, so some churches in Paris are either trying to cash in on the fame or avoid it.   Fans of the Code also know exactly where to go and what to look for.  For Twilight, this isn’t the case.  Souvenir shops and the city of Volterra aren’t trying to cash in on the publicity or marketing opportunity because there isn’t one.  Meyer  only mentioned Volterra without actually knowing it all.   Consequently, Volterra ignores this opportunity to shamefully exploit itself.  Instead, Volterra embraces its Medieval and Etruscan roots which I find are far more fascinating.  Still though, you see tourists taking pictures of each other biting one another.  As the Italians would say: “bo.”

Walking down one of the main streets in Volterra.  Pedestrians only.  YES!  The gelato lady screwed up my order and didn’t want to take responsibility for who screwed up…totally ruined my afternoon.  Mint and chocolate makes way more sense than hazelnut and chocolate.  I mean, come on!

And then it started to rain…a lot.  This is the main cathedral.  I wish I knew more about the different periods in Italy’s history so I could talk about the architecture.   It isn’t of the gothic style, though; I can tell you that!

And then it was sunny again!  Looking outwards from the old Volterra down onto the new Volterra and the Tuscan countryside. Like in Croatia, taking the bus to Volterra is part of the experience because you see what the landscape is like.  And like Croatia, it’s absolutely stunning.

Walking from the bus stop back to WWOOF#5.  Again, beautiful countryside.

LOVE IT!

Tonight, there are no guests in the villa so we’re going to have a pool party!  So excited!!! Most of the rules enforced at WWOOF#5 only apply when guests are eating or staying in the villa.  When no one’s around, everyone gives in to their inner-hippie.  Woooo!

🙂 Julie

WWOOF #5

Writer’s note: To protect the privacy of those living and working at the fifth farm on which I wwoofed, I will not use the name of either the farm or the owner in this blog.  Instead, I will simply refer to the farm as “WWOOF #5”.

There’s an episode of Sex and the City that perfectly describes how I felt when I first arrived at WWOOF#5, my current and final woof farm.  In the episode, Miranda gets asked out by an amazingly gorgeous man, one she deems out of her league.  She can only justify it as “cosmic karma”: she’s been handed so many bad dates in the past that the stars dealt her a good card for a change, like karma.

Before WWOOF#5, I was wwoofing on a tiny soya production farm called Lolmaia.  There, I worked 7.5 hours a day, minimum.  I was bunking in a cave with no room for my gear.  We were eating crap food.

WWOOF#5 is the wwoofing equivalent of Brad Pitt.

I don’t really know how to describe WWOOF#5, because it isn’t like any of the other farms I’ve wwoofed on this summer.  It started as a project, a farm and, slowly, transformed itself into a five-star villa resort community.  Most of the residents, people who live and work on WWOOF#5, have been with WWOOF#5 since the very beginning, ten years ago.

La Fonte. This is where most of the wwoofers stay.  It’s hidden about 400m down the road from the villa.  The inside felt very familiar for some reason.  A few days later, it hit me that la Fonte came straight out of Trainspotting;  it looks like a crackhouse.  Spiders and mosquitoes everywhere, mattresses on the floor, paint chipping off the walls, etc.  It doesn’t bother me, though.  I’ve stayed in worse places.

For 15€ an hour, guests or residences can “rent” a horse.  Alberto, a wwoofer who is staying all summer, will guide you and your horse through the woods by the villa.  I’m too broke, but I’ve been considering going for an hour or two on my day off.

The entrance. NO WHERE in the wwoof host list did it mention that the farm is part of a five-star luxury villa.  I imagine that was a precautionary step to avoid getting bombarded with wwoofing requests.  So you can imagine how awed I was when the Fiat pulled up to this.  I was expecting another small, family-run farm that grows just enough produce to sell at the local farm.  Far from it, baby.  Far from it.

The villa. The right (brick) part of the villa is public.  The first floor is the guest living room (off-limits).  The second is the library.  The third floor is the music room.  The left part of the villa are the rooms.  To stay in the cheapest room will set you back 320€ a person.

Guest living room.  No one is ever in here.

Pool table! There is also a ping pong table room, but Annalisa tells me it’s haunted.

The Library. Luckily, it isn’t off-limits because it is my favourite room in the villa.  I come up here everyday for at least an hour or two to read or to nap.  In all the time I’ve spent up in the library, I haven’t seen a single guest or resident in it.

My favourite place in the villa.  Right here.

La Sala Musica.  Another really cool room that no one ever goes into.  It’s on the third (or fourth) floor and it has its own set of stairs.  Most of the time it’s locked, but when it isn’t, I’ll go up for a little nap.  The walls may look a little bare, but they’re planning on redecorating it.  Even its bathroom is ridiculously fancy.  It is off-limits, though, but I’ve been up here a few times.

Indian Night. Pushpa, one of the “higher-ups” at WWOOF#5, organized an Indian Night to celebrate the Full Moon.

Indian Night. I was asked to help wait on the tables, to which I happily obliged…until I found out I was supposed to wear a “traditional” Indian outfit.  Pushpa lent me this “Indian” dress.   I’m obviously stoked on it…

The pool at sunset. During high season, it’s strictly off-limits for woofers, au pairs, residences and anyone else who isn’t a paying guest.  If you want to go for a swim, it has be when the guests aren’t around, so early in the morning, during lunch or dinner, or late at night.  If there are few guests in the villa, it is really easy to sneak in a swim.  Any resident or wwoofer or au pair who stays on WWOOF#5 in March, April, May, June, September and October have the chance of going swimming whenever because guests are few.

The only times I’ve gone swimming are during sunset, when the guests are in the dining room eating and the pool is empty; and at night, when the guests have gone to bed.  It is sooooo nice.

You can’t see it in this picture, but with good eyes, you can see Volterra in this distance.

I’m not going to lie: this doesn’t feel like a wwoof at all.  I work in the (professional) kitchen about three hours a day.  I’ve only worked in the garden two hours since I arrived six days ago.  It feels more like a summer job working at a resort, but I wouldn’t pass it up for anything else.

The people here are so laid-back.  It’s such a bizarre set-up: a five-star luxury villa resort run and maintained by hippies and green activists.  I love it!

🙂 Julie

Fattoria Bassetto

When you’re travelling on a budget, you’ll sleep just about anywhere.  Because I’ve been wwoofing this summer, my array of accommodations is a little more varied than most travellers.  I’ve slept in a camper, in a airport, on the lawn next to a parking lot, in a brick cave, in a private guesthouse, in a few one-star hotels, and in a handful of hostels.

Last week, I stayed at Fattoria Bassetto in Certaldo.  Fattoria Basseto used to be a monastery when it was first built, back in sometime during the 12th Century.  It was bought by some royal family or other and recently made into a hostel and villa.

Colours!  I love Tuscany!  This was taken right front of the villa.

The herb garden. It is maintained by the gardener.  You can pick some rosemary or basil or whatever you need for your dinner.  It’s organic and free!

The villa. Rooms are 70€ a night, which is cheaper than I can say about some shitty two-star hotels in Rome.  Inside is beautiful.

The villa balcony. One night, Dana and Warren from Austin, TX invited us for dinner when they were staying in the villa.  It was very grown-up.  It was nice.

The villa library. There are farm records dating back to 1824, when Bassetto was once a farm producing olive oil and wine.  There are also boxes and boxes of old postcards from the early 1900’s.  There’s a photo of the Duke who once owned this villa sitting next to Lyndon Johnson in the Oval House.

The villa kitchen at night.  Usually, villa guests have cars and drive into old Certaldo for dinner so this kitchen is empty at night.  The guesthouse kitchen is always busy because it’s full of 20-somethings on a budget who can only afford to cook their own dinner.  You have to wait at least thirty minutes to use the guesthouse kitchen.  On my last night, Rocco used the oven in this kitchen to make pizza.

In the basement of the villa, an old basin to make olive oil.

In the basement of the villa. These bottles are about forty years old.  Rocco reckons they probably aren’t very good, though.

The reception area. The potatoes and tomatoes in the basket on the table are organic and from the garden.  Everyday, the gardener puts more into the basket.  They’re free for the guests to eat and enjoy.

Rocco managed to convince Doughie, the Aussie who manages the guesthouse and villa, to let us work at Bassetto for a week in exchange for room and (no) board.  Must have been a convincing argument because we got to stay at Bassetto for three nights free.

Stuffed tomatoes Dafne, the countess, made for us.  She wants me to help her with her computer, to which I happily obliged.  She’s such a character!  I absolutely love her.  Photo: Rocco.

A sparrow that flew into the communal kitchen one day.  Rocco caught it and set it free outside.  Poor thing!

This has to be one of my favourite accommodations in Europe I’ve stayed in.  If you’re in Tuscany and you have the time, check out la Fattoria Bassetto in Certaldo.  Because you’re out of the city and in the country, it’s a little like a summer cottage. It’s very reasonably priced so don’t dismiss it so quickly.

Until next time,

🙂 Julie

Certaldo Alto

Thursday, I took a short trip to Certaldo Alto, which translates to Upper Certaldo.  It refers to the part of Certaldo that is high up on a hill and that overlooks Lower Certaldo.  The difference between the two is that Certaldo Alto is the older, more medieval part of town.  Some of the buildings in Certaldo Alto date back to the 12th Century.

The old road connecting Certaldo Basso to Certaldo Alto.

An old castle, now covered in moss. It reminds me of Hatley Castle at Royal Roads.

The big thing in Certaldo: the old castle, now a museum.  They have a jazz fest going on and some musicians play in front of the castle.

The West side of the Certaldo Alto from the East side.

Italians.  Gotta love ’em.

Anyhow, I’m off to farm in Volterra tomorrow.

🙂 Julie

San Gimignano

Wednesday, I rode a bike from Certaldo to San Gimignano.  San Gimignano is a tourist hot spot.  Busses from Firenze, Siena and Pisa come every hour and dump tourists.  An Irish, Greg, and the two Texans, Dana and Warren, had gone the day before.  All said that San Gimignano itself wasn’t anything special, but the walk/bike ride was very scenic.  San Gimignano is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Greg the Irish took a bike to get there, while the Texans decided to walk.  It’s 9km from Certaldo, mostly uphill.  In the end, I decided to take the bike… with no suspension.

When I first passed through the large stone doors onto la Via San Matteo, there was a funeral procession taking place.  Once they had passed, along came the mob of tourists.  In Italy, there are no shortages of nuns.

Before the black plague, San Gimignano was powerhouse to be reckoned with.  To show off its wealth, 72 towers were built.  Once the plague wiped out most of its population, it plummeted, economically speaking.  There only 14 towers that remain in San Gimignano.

Looking down la Via San Matteo.  Via San Matteo is the main street in San Gimignano.  It is lined with tourist boutiques selling “I (heart) Italia” t-shirts and other random, useless souvenirs.

On my way back to Certaldo, I passed this castle.  I think it’s a hotel.

From afar, San Gimignano and its towers look Manhattan with its skyscrapers.

The bike ride to and from San Gimignano was a well-needed work-out, but also a very beautiful bike ride.  The city itself is jam-packed with tourists and I personally don’t see anything interesting about it.  I only stayed in San Gimignano long enough to buy postcards and eat a slice of pizza.  The most beautiful part of San Gimignano is looking at it from 10km out.

Until next time,

🙂 Julie

il Palio di Siena

What I write in this blog and the pictures I post will not do justice to what I witnessed August 16th in Siena.

Il Palio di Siena is a tradition that dates back to the 12th Century.  In the Piazza del Campo in Siena, a large 400m long dirt race track traces a ring inside the piazza, with barricades lining either side of the track.  At 19h00, for no more than two minutes, ten jockeys, from ten regions in Siena, on ten horses, barebacked, will race around the ring three times for a shot at the title, the Palio.

When I found out I’d be in Tuscany during the Palio, I had been looking forward to it like Christmas.  I expected the Palio to be one thing.  Not only were my expectations totally off the mark, but I’m still in shock and in awe of what I witnessed that day.

Passing under the bleachers to get into la Piazza del Campo around 13h00.  The donut hole is still empty.  Eager spectators have already staked their spot out.

Il Duomo.  Crazy how many people there are, considering this isn’t where the race will take place.  Little did we know, this is where they have the parade of each of the contrades.

Each contrade (region/team) has a drummer who leads the flag throwers and other costumed folk into the piazza.  In front of il Duomo, each contrade takes their turn to show off their flag and their flag throwers’ skills.  Everyone is in costume.

Two flags being tossed.  The more original and the more coordinated the toss, the better!

While waiting for Rocco to arrive, we were waiting on a deserted street corner.  Out of nowhere, the mounted police showed up.  Not impressive now, but wait ’til you hear what they did later…

Tiny details, like stars shaved on the horses’ butts, aren’t spared.  Photo: Dana.

Me, in the donut hole of the Piazza.  If you want a spot on the bleachers or on someone’s porch, you have to pay a hefty price.  The middle of the Piazza, inside the ring, is free, but it’s first-come-first-serve.

Picnic time! We staked our place out at 16h30.  We didn’t have to stand until 18h30, when it really started to get packed.  From left: Dana and Warren from Austin, TX and Rocco.

Inside the Ring.  There are about 30 000 people that can fit in the ring. Photo: Rocco.

The beginning of the procession.  The mounted police trotted around the piazza while everyone waved and cheered.  And then out of nowhere, the leader pulls out his sword and charges, full speed ahead. When he passed our area, you could see his face, clear as day.  He looked like he was charging the enemy who was burning his house down with his wife and kids inside.  And they went fast! Because they were on saddles, they probably went faster than the jockeys in the race.  This picture was taken right before they took off.

The blessing of the horses. Each contrade takes its turn to march around the race track.  It starts at 17h00 and goes on for two hours.  At the end, the mayor is seated on a thrown, the trumpeters take their place on the moving platform.  They are pulled by four ox around the ring.  We had no idea, but there are designated areas for each contrade in the donut hole.  When the mayor passes each section, everyone waved their flags.  It was like a silk rainbow.

Beautiful day!

The last of the flag throwers.  Before, each team went out individually with a drummer and various other ornaments.  Now, it’s just one flag thrower from each team.  At the very end, they throw their flags and make a grand finale catch and pose.  Unfortunately, one of the flags landed in the crowd and badly injured one of the spectators.  She was pulled out from the crowd, which had now gone silent, and put on a sketcher.  She was taken away in the ambulance.  Photo: Rocco.

Very shortly after the ambulance pulled out of the piazza, the faniti (jockeys) entered the ring. Everyone cheered.  There were 17 contrades (teams/regions) that entered the ring, but only ten will race.  They choose the ten teams by pulling names from a hat.  Once the 17 horses entered into the starting area, the entire piazza fell silent: they were about to draw the first name.

The starting. The ten chosen horses must line up at the starting line.  Once most of the horses are somewhat at the starting line, ready, the rope is dropped and the race begins.   Sounds simple, right?  Except one thing: there are no rules. But while it may appear disorganized, there is strategy involved. There is one favourite contrade who waits calmly, undisturbed, far back from the starting line.  One of the favourite’s allies will provoke the rival teams to get all of the starting line confused and disorganized.  Hopefully, right before the rope is dropped the whole front line is messed up so the favourite from the back can get a clear start.  This palio only had about six or seven false starts, which meant the race was backed up by only twenty minutes.  Usually, it’s backed up by at least an hour.

And they’re off! They only go around the piazza three times, but MY GOD WHAT A THRILL.  While the mounted police went around earlier, to everyone’s surprise, the race itself was intense.  One jockey even fell off his horse, but his horse kept going.  According to the rules, if the horse, sans jockey, wins the race, it counts as a valid win.

Around the corner.  I told you they went fast!

Once the winning contrade crossed the finish line, the shit really hit the fan. People were cheering because they won.  People were crying because they lost.  People were calling fouls on other teams.  From all corners of the piazza, spectators starting spilling onto the race tracks, from inside the ring and from the outside.  Horses were running around without jockeys and without anyone to guide them.  Police officers weren’t around to move the crowds.  Everyone was pushing, pulling, almost falling.  We weren’t sure if there was a celebration going on or a riot.  It was total mayhem.

We didn’t stay any longer than a minute after the race was over.  When we saw that chaos had taken over from all corners of the Piazza, we decided to not waste another minute and get the f*** out.

We managed to cross the race track, dodge a horse or two, and cling onto each other and some other tourists who also wanted to get the hell out of there.  By some miracle, we didn’t lose anyone.

“What the f*** just happened?!”

None of us were quite sure.  None of us were expecting that to happen.

Turns out: the Palio is a HUGE DEAL in Siena. This isn’t for the amusement of tourists.  A lot of money is put on the table.  Rivalries go back centuries.  Pride and respect are what are at stake.  I now understand why Shakespeare based Romeo & Juliet in Italy of all places…

In the end, it was the turtle who brought home the victory.  This isn’t a reference to La Fontaine’s the Tortous and the Hare. The turtle is the symbol animal for the winning team.  I think the female wolf, la louvra, was the favourite at the start.

The Palio is an experience like nothing I have ever experienced in my life.  There are moments of awe, quickly followed by moments of extreme intensity.  From a tourist standpoint, I don’t think I’ll ever understand how important this is to the Sienese people.  It’s in the blood and it’s in the heart.

If you’re in Tuscany around July 2nd or August 16th, make the effort to see the Palio.  You won’t regret it.  It is absolutely mind-blowing.

🙂 Julie