Tuscany, in short order, became the destination in Italy. In the spring of 1990, it was just the place we had to drive through to reach Rome. Venice to Rome is a haul, particularly in a bus.
A Proper Italian Meal?
Vineyards dominated the countryside. We passed traffic signs and saw a bit of Bologna from the highway. We stopped only twice between Venice and Rome. The first time was at a truck stop.
I had several European meals by this point, and my stomach grumbled at the amount of food (see Part Two). The truck stop had a cafeteria-style restaurant. I determined this meal would not lack in any way and got a lot of food…$20 worth, which seemed to be the amount the cashier decided upon, rather than ringing the actual price. He looked at my tray with some disgust and somehow rang up an even dollar amount.
It sounded expensive because $20.00, at the time, was L24,000 (L = Lire, the former Italian currency). In fact, adjusted for inflation, that $20 would be $36.25 today. So I’m sure the cashier purposely overcharged me, and it wasn’t good value to start. Don’t expect much in terms of flavor from cafeteria food in an Italian truck stop. It was a bad move on my part, but fairly harmless. It also made me a bit more wary for the rest of the trip.
My next decision wasn’t much better…maybe. Italy hosted the World Cup in 1990 and our trip was just a couple of months ahead of the event. Souvenirs were everywhere and it was in this truck stop that I bought a soccer ball emblazoned with the official logo and with official-looking packaging.
Let me be clear: this wasn’t a souvenir-sized ball with a keychain, but a full-size, take-to-practice soccer ball in its packaging. I could not tell you how, but I made room for it in my suitcase and the thing made it back across the Atlantic with no difficulty. The ball sits in my office today and it still has the original packaging. Say what you will, there is a big difference between ordering a soccer ball through the mail and carrying one back from Europe.
The Second-Best Meal I Had in Europe
The other stop we made was in Siena. The city is fairly well known today thanks to the popularity of Tuscany as a destination. In 1990, I had no idea there was a city in Italy named Siena until I saw it on our itinerary.
Siena is primarily known for the Palio di Siena, a horse race around the perimeter of the Piazza del Campo. The race is run twice each summer and pits the various wards (contrade) of the city against each other. Some say the passions the race inspires are the defining extreme of sports fanaticism. The photo at left gives some idea of the event. The gray stone area is the track and it is covered with dirt to give the horses better traction. The central area, which appears orange here, will be a solid mass of people. The race was shown in the James Bond film Quantum of Solace.
The Siena Cathedral (Duomo di Siena) is another notable tourism magnet. We observed the cathedral from afar while our guide talked about it, but did not have an opportunity to tour it. If you check out the link, you’ll see why it’s something not to miss. Instead, we simply made our way down to the Piazza del Campo after the brief lecture.
We were more or less on our own for about 45 minutes. The cafe where I took the photo (again, left) was about halfway around the plaza from where we entered. I heard an older couple in front of us struggle to make their order. It seemed the staff did not speak any English. The names of the menu items were on the wall and the pronunciation seemed pretty straightforward, so I nervously ordered ‘two (holding up two fingers) cheeseburgers and two patata frita (fries). Yes, it was a bold departure, but this was a greasy spoon cafe in a tourist center. We didn’t really have options for an authentic meal, nor did we have the time. Also, that cheeseburger was good (they put bacon on it).
A Local View in Siena
The rain made for a slow day. For the Sienese, it probably meant no crowd in the Piazza del Campo and they had an opportunity to stroll and visit with others during the midday hours. These were some of the easiest moments of the trip. The atmosphere felt small and local. I gather this is what many experience in Tuscany, in various places including Lucca.
We only ranged halfway around the piazza, but it was enough to get us away from our tour group and any others. No one else joined us, though two of the chaperones made a dash for the cathedral and were able to briefly tour it. In any case, it was an opportunity to simply absorb Italy. This was something I sought out two days later in Rome, and, after that, everywhere I’ve traveled since.
Off the beaten track is where you have the chance to truly learn and get a feel for things. True, we were just yards away from our group, but sometimes you don’t have to go far to get a completely different perspective. This is the lesson Siena taught me and another reason this trip made all the difference.