Monday, April 2, 2012


Milan to Montepulciano - Day 3 - Sunday

My train to Montepulciano left at the civilized hour of 10:45 AM, so I had plenty of time to eat breakfast, pack and make my way the two blocks to the train station.  The platform numbers are not posted until the trains actually arrive, so everyone hovers around the departures board.  There was a crazy woman feeding popcorn to the pigeons sitting next to me, so I had to keep shooing them away.

The trains really do run on time in Italy.  So far, I have found Italy to be much more orderly than I expected.  I had a seat in a first class compartment of six seats.  Unfortunately, there are no floor level luggage racks, so I had to dead lift my 50 lb. suitcase over my head to stow it.  I suspect I will get good at this by the time I have been here two months.  This should discourage me from shopping.

From Milan to Bologna, the countryside was fairly level. Between Bologna and Florence, the trains passed through a range of rugged hills.  Everything was vividly green and many trees were blossoming in shades of pink and white.  The view was frequently interrupted by tunnels, however.  The lights in our coach stopped switching on when it got dark after a while, which made it impossible to do anything but gaze out the window.  I shared the compartment with five elderly Italians toting huge suitcases and shouting into their cellphones.  I feigned ignorance of the Italian language.

Florence lies in a valley between two ranges of hills.  I couldn't see much of the city from the train, but the train station was a large outdoor affair.  Once we left Florence, our path ascended another range of high hills (more tunnels) and then descended into the rolling hills of Tuscany.  Tuscany is so beautiful it almost brought tears to my eyes.  I cannot imagine a more fabulous time of year to be here than now in the spring.  It is emerald green and everything is in bloom.  It resembles the Napa Valley except for the medieval villages on the hilltops.  I can't wait to explore.

Partial View of Montepulciano
I left the train at Chiusi, which is the main Tuscan transfer point for intercity trains.  Usually, there is a bus that runs from the train station outside of town to the bus station in the center, but it doesn't run on Sundays. I decided to splurge and spend 50 Euros to take a taxi all the way to Montepulciano since I was traveling with all my luggage and was running a bit late and didn't want to keep my landlady waiting.  Montepulciano is about 16 km from Chiusi over country roads.  Everything is fabulously green and blooming.  Like most towns in Tuscany, Montepulciano sprawls across the top of a ridge.  The town is walled and entered through gates that make you want to hold your breath as you drive through them.

My Room

My landlady is named Fiorella Cioli.  She is a single lady in her 60s who lives in a flat above a restaurant a short distance from my school here in Montepulciano.  The house is ancient, but the interior has be redone in recent times.  It is very rustic and looks just the way you would imagine a house in Tuscany should look.  My room is small, but comfortable and I have my own bathroom and a sort of foyer between the two.  I thought I had seen every imaginable plumbing arrangement between my travels in Turkey and my trip to Russia.  My own bathroom is so small that I have to step over the toilet to get out of the shower, but this is the first time I have ever encountered a bathroom where the toilet is actually IN the shower.  I suspect this is the result of installing modern plumbing in a centuries old building.

I arrived about 4:00, had a nice chat with my landlady (who either speaks no English or isn't letting on that she does), unpacked and went over to the school for a welcome drink to meet the staff and other students.  We are a group of mostly middle aged and retired people, primarily from the United States and Germany.  When I returned, Fiorella made me an excellent dinner of pasta shells with a ragout and amazingly tender medallions of beef, spinach and salad which we washed down with red wine out of a bottle with no label.  Montepulciano is cooler than Milan, so I slept comfortably under a down comforter.

Il Sasso Scuola di Italiano
Montepulciano and San Quirico - Day 4 - Monday, the First Day of School

I am still waking up at 5:30 AM.  I have no idea why I wake up at that time, since it is 8:30 in the evening at home.  I lie there for an hour or so, formulating sentences in Italian and trying vainly to go back to sleep.  I finally got up at 7:00 and Fiorella served breakfast at 8:00 so that I would have time to get to school.  

The school is in another ancient building near the city gate, with a fantastic view from the terrace.  School starts at 8:45 and runs until 13:10.  I started my day with a placement test and an interview (in Italian) with the director of the school. I was placed in the second of the five levels offered by the school.  I had been studying on my own before I left with the goal of bypassing the first level, so this was gratifying.  There are three of us in my class.  A woman from Pennsylvania named Linda and a gentleman from Washington state named Hunter.  Our teacher is a young woman named Costanza.  She speaks almost entirely in Italian.  Today, we worked with the past tense and passed our time recounting what we had done over the weekend and where we had gone on past vacations.
Chapel on the Cover of "Under the Tuscan Sun"

I made friends with Judy and Savannah from Connecticut who have a car.  After school, we had lunch in the main plaza of Montepulciano and then went for a drive through Pienza to San Quirico.  I find it disorienting to drive around here because one moment I feel like I am on the way to my old job in Napa and the next moment we are passing through some 13th century village.

City Gate of San Quirico D' Oscia
Church of San Quirico
                                    San Quirico d' Oscia is one of those ancient villages.  It is 800 years old, but people live and work there today.  It was siesta time when we arrived and the place appeared deserted.  It was a little creepy.  We stopped at a small cafe and had something to drink while we basked in the sun on the plaza.  This is Savannah's fourth trip to this area, so she acted as tour guide and driver.

View from San Biagio
We stopped at the church of San Biagio to take a look around and enjoy the view of the surrounding countryside.  San Biagio sits part of the way down the hill from Montepulciano.  Everything here is stacked so close together that it is hard to get far enough away from a building to take a decent picture.  One day, I will determine how to photograph the church.

Savannah dropped me off at the city gate and I walked home, arriving just in time to read my email before dinner.  Fiorella cooked a wonderful linguini arrabiata and some kebabs with beef, chicken, pork and sausage, accompanied by crispy potatoes and salad.  We have come to agreement whereby she will stop cooking a two course dinner every night and will alternate pasta dishes with meat dishes.  Hopefully, this will allow me to do justice to her cooking without growing big as a house.

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