22 years ago I packed a small tent, blow-up mattress, road map and Lonely Planet guidebook into my 'macchina rossa' and left Veneto for Tuscany.
Long before Google Maps and phone photography, today's blog post is a collection of printed pics, golden moments and a slow drive down memory lane.
With not much planned, I left Treviso on a Saturday in June, 2001 with a month free, a tight budget and my driver's window jammed open ten centimeters. The night before somebody had unsuccessfully tried to break into my red Corsa Sport, La Macchina Rossa, so paying the autostrada meant jumping out of the car at a toll barrier. Heading south on Italy's longest motorway - the A1 'Strada del Sole', I remember the exact moment I impulsively left the speeding frenzy to take an exit somewhere north of Florence. Suddenly, the roads became shady, rural and quiet and I was alone. In the leafy, midday light, I stopped at the first building on my right - an 'alimentari' shop about to close for lunch.
'Alimentari' translates as 'food' but it's so much more than that. These tiny shops are emblems in every community of Italy. Like stepping into the Mercato Centrale (Central Market) of Florence but scaled down to only a few square metres, they stock the best of the area - affettati, cheeses, breads, wines, olives, fruits and artisan produce. It's here that you find the essence of regional food within the smallest and most rustic of spaces. The 'alimentari' of Tuscany are as joyfully abundant as all - salami and sopresse hang from the ceiling, cheese rounds pile up in the banco and behind the shopkeeper loaves of Tuscan breads are stacked, usually sold out by lunchtime. I contentedly lived on these little shops for a month where with minimal Italian, you could point and they'd cut you some cheese and slice of wild boar salami (and whatever else they thought best), put it on fresh bread and hand it to you for 'tre mille lire' with a beaming smile - £1.50. Taste has no relation whatsoever to price in Tuscany where the food makes you stop in your tracks. From finocchiona to Fiorentina, it's Tuscany that left me with the most memorable of all Italian food experiences from the simplest of ingredients.
In those days we used the 'vecchia Lira' - a currency as nonsensical to me as the paperwork required to accomplish absolutely everything in Italy. Italian offices love a timbro (rubber stamp) and a signature, on every page of every document, especially back then before the world went digital. 1000 lire was merely 50c so there were a lot of zeros. Having moved to Italy only six months before embarking on this road trip, my Italian was incredibly patchy. Italian is a gesticular language meaning they use their hands to talk, for this reason I could get by with pointing for a very long time although phone conversations were always a challenge. Although there's something else to be said for Italians in general - they're a warm, loving population who adore the spoken voice - to hear a foreigner attempt their beautiful language brings only happiness. There's all the time in the world to listen to a young lady endeavour to ask if there is 'space for one' in broken Italian on the phone. And there was all the time in the world to drive from campsite to campsite and ask in person with a point and a smile if the phone signal was down.
With a strict budget of 90 mille lire per day: 20 euros for accommodation, 15 euros for food and 10 for petrol, if I stayed in basic campsites I could save quite a bit, the wilder the better! My days were spent perusing the road map and deciding where to visit or randomly taking roads I loved the look of. I'd drive to hilltop towns like Montalcino, park outside the city walls and go explore. I'd blow my day's food budget on red wine and plates of pasta, sit on sunny piazzas and smile at how grand life was. I'd pick a 'budget hotel' from Lonely Planet, call them and ask for a room or turn down a side street towards a 'CAMPING' sign ready to pitch my tent for the night with a stash of pecorino, Chianti and a good book. Tuscany was my oyster and the word 'freedom' hardly came close.
One of the best wild experiences was at a tiny campsite near Sienna which had opened two weeks prior. The couple who ran the campsite were so enthusiastic to have any guests in their extended garden and slightly disappointed when I pitched my tent facing out towards the fields. When night fell, I looked up from my book to the undergrowth illuminated in a show of dancing fireflies, seconds later a family of wild boar piglets walked straight past my open tent!
One of the hardest things about travelling alone is the absence of someone to share your immediate joys with.
I say 'alone' but wasn't always - my gorgeous bestie, Alberto, met up in Florence to catch a ferry to Corsica where we spent a week driving the rugged coastline and swimming in the cobalt sea. I joined our family friend, Johannes, in Umbria and we took his family's VW Kombi to Orvieto, Terni and Assisi and then there was always friendly company offered along the way. But dining in restaurants alone was something I'd never done - it felt awfully strange and uncomfortable. Luckily the waiters were chatty so I kept practicing 'un quarto di vino, per favore' - 'A quarter litre of wine please', tucking into some of the most glorious food I'd ever tasted.
The best had to be a bruschetta in Volterra.
When I think of Tuscany, golden wheat fields and warm, yellow sun spring to mind; dirt tracks, shrill cicada song, ancient stones and Volterra.
That's where I left my heart.
Volterra happened by chance. I remember the dramatically reverent monastery was listed in my Lonely Planet Guide as a 'budget' night's stay. Loving the silent, arched rooms and empty, marble corridors, one night soon turned to five.
It was yet another celeste-sky day when I parked La Macchina Rossa outside the hill-top city walls and walked through one of the ancient Etruscan city gates. About to have a wander, the first thing that happened was lunch. And here was the stop-in-your-tracks moment - lunch was bruschetta and a glass of red wine at a wobbly, osteria table on winding stone road. A garlic clove rubbed onto warm, toasted Tuscan bread, topped with chopped, ripe tomatoes and a drizzle of local olive oil with local wine 'the stuff of gods'. There are few meals that burn a memory into your brain, I'm sure you can think of some too. But how does the simplest combination of garlic, unsalted bread and tomatoes manage that?
We always talk about simple foods in Italy being sublime - if your ingredients are beautiful, your food is beautiful. In Tuscany 22 years ago one could easily get by on 30 mille lire and eat like a king.
Volterra was one of the twelve Etruscan hotspots in 4BC. Remnants of a bygone age echo in the narrow, paved streets imbued in thick, city walls where tradition is kept alive with Volterra AD 1398 every August when the towns folk celebrate their heritage in period costume and the city transforms. Go visit the Roman amphitheatre, the Medici Fortress, dine on white-truffled delicacies and admire the alabaster they're famous for. There's quite a bit to going on up here but more than things to see and do, for me, Volterra was a deep, earthy feeling of stability and ancient warmth I found hard to shift. It's beautiful just to soak up the atmosphere.
Swim in the thermal pools at the Bagni di Saturnia where locals flock for a therapeutic dip, sate your cravings for art in Florence and intricate design in Pisa, admire the lonely ruins at Abbazia di San Galgano, catch Palio preparations in Sienna and go get lost in cypress-lined avenues as the sun dips low for golden-hour like none other.
Tuscany may seem a cliché - an overly popular tourist trap and bucket-list destination perhaps, but find a way to get stuck into this golden region because while capital Rome may claim the centre of Italy, Tuscany undoubtedly claims the heart.
Sienna's side streets.
Campo dei Miracoli, Pisa.
Mercato Centrale of Florence.
Bagni di Pulciano in Saturnia's thermal pools.
Wheat fields near Volterra.
Abbazia di San Galgano.
Gates of Paradise, Duomo di Firenze.
Cimitero di Pisa.
Monte S.Maria, Tiberna.
Battistero di S Giovanni, Pisa.