July 20, 2008

With the keys to an Opel Zafira in hand we were free to leave Rome and head on to explore Italy's picturesque center. Gas and tolls notwithstanding, we had some reverse sticker shock at our first stop for lunch in Orvieto. A small restaurant just off the autostrada in this Umbrian town charged about as much as much for steak as a restaurant would in Rome, but it and our other entrees were huge -- about twice the size of what we would have received where we were.

We took a little detour into Siena, passing a little too deeply into the town's historic area before getting out and walking around. (We may have entered a ZTL, or Zona a Traffico Limitato, where unauthorized cars are photographed and get tickets in the mail. That assumes, of course, that the local authorities care.) Siena is best known for the Palio, a horse race in the main town square between the various wards of the town. We arrived just days before the July 2 race so preparations were in full swing. There were grandstands set up all around and colorful banners representing the wards were on display and for sale all over the place. Sadly, not only did we miss out on the race itself, but I had packed my camera away so I didn't get any photos of Siena.

My parents discovered Prato through a New York Times article about places off the beaten path in Italy. Still retaining all the charm of historic cities in Tuscany, Prato has far fewer tourist traps but enough shops and restaurants to keep us fed and happy for the few days we spent there. It also seems to attract tourists more from within Italy, so fewer restaurants had English-language menus or bilingual staff. I liked that; it felt a lot more immersive than where we had been.

About a half hour away by train from Prato is Florence, famous home of the Medici family. We spent a day there, our visit framed by our reservation at the Uffizi gallery, a remarkable collection of paintings and sculptures from the Renaissance. There's a lot to take in; we also took in some refreshments at a cafe inside midway through our visit. If you go in the summer, definitely make reservations ahead of time. The standby line was hours long.

We also visited Lucca, proud birthplace of composer Giacomo Puccini, whose 150th birthday was being celebrated all over town. We traveled toward the sea to meet up with our cousin Fabio and his family who live in Genoa. (The printed family tree linking my mom with Fabio is four pages wide.) On a Sunday morning we got to see how peaceful an Italian town could get as we walked around with Fabio, his sons Luigi and Filippo, and a few others. We walked to the top of a tower with trees atop it and snapped some great pictures of the town (including one house with an unusual English message on top) before sitting down to lunch at a restaurant which, bizarrely, employs a Scottish waitress who speaks both Italian and American-accented English.

Photos from Tuscany: June 28 (Florence) and June 29 (Lucca).