Speed-Dating the Italian Countryside, Kids in Tow

We’re settling in at Ovile. By that I mean I’ve unpacked, and the days are beginning to have a bit of rhythm:

Sleep in (7:30-8 am), get up, open the doors, breakfast on the terrace, field trip or pool, lunch in or out, gelato, pool, Campari, sometimes more pool, dinner, reading, writing, bed.

Dinner on the terrace

I’m getting better and better at navigating the steep stone drive in the Mireva (the kids say to me, “mommy, that was your best one” when I back down the driveway). The sharp stone turns on the switchbacks to the house remind me of my fifteen year old self, surreptitiously driving my best friend’s dune buggy out in the Texas countryside. I hit a bank of gravel on a turn and skidded through a barbed-wire fence and into a cow field. Those were some times (sorry, Dr. Sumerlin). And yet, times I’d rather not repeat here with a drop-off into the olive grove.

I have managed not to hit any of the deer (so far), which are smaller and prettier than we have at home, but no more brainy. By the way, the deer bark. Our host, (and grandmother) Mimma, told me that and she doesn’t seem like she’d lie to anyone. Though if she’s lying to me, I’m buying it, as long as she keeps saying “Ciao cara!” every time she sees me.

Back to the rhythm. Here’s the thing: “Let’s go to the market in Panzano!” doesn’t elicit, “great mom, do you think we can find that butcher again?” from the kids. There is some coaxing to be done.

So we’re working it out. We’re taking shorter field trips, working in gelato where we can (so far only once a day but I can see a time in the future where we hit twice in 24 hours), and spending a good chunk of the day in or at the pool. We haven’t quite hit the sweet spot on this arrangement, but I’m confident we’ll get there.

The great equalizer

Art? No, we’re not really seeing it. Nor are we doing thorough tours of any place we visit. We are speed-dating our destinations, all of which are within an easy 10-60 minutes from our house, and allowing for the idea that we might want to return to explore further. And so the sunny days here have a slow, lazy pace all their own.

Our first outing last Sunday took us to a market in Panzano, a gorgeous small town perched between two valleys and surrounded by spectacular views of the countryside. This is one of Melisa’s and my favorite out-of-town (or in-town, for that matter) pastimes: wandering a market, picking up local produce and prepared foods, dreaming up meals to cook back at home.

Another day, another view

The Panzano market takes place in a small piazza beneath the old city. A fountain, a large gnarled old tree and some benches mark the square, which is surrounded by a bustling locanda, a fancy hotel, and a bank. The requisite characters for the scene are all here: old men and women—the older the woman, the more shapeless her shift—sitting on the benches, talking. The old men are neatly dressed in button-down short sleeve shirts, their faces tan and wizened. If you are a middle-aged man, you seem to gravitate towards orange pants. Yes, orange.

Younger Italian women walk the stalls in high heels, holding a basket for their spoils, usually with a small child or two trailing behind.

All dressed for market day

Tourists wander through consulting each other, a bit uncertain. Bikers are stopped by the side of the road, grabbing an espresso for fortification against the dizzying hills and heat.

We park on the side of the road, between two trees. The “space” is very uneven, and when I feel one wheel leave the ground, I ask Melisa to get out of the car and help me back in. The Mireva is a rental, after all. The kids, of course, love it, and point out that the car next to us is also on three wheels. Adventures in driving!

We decide to see the old town first, a decision which we pay for later. A steep road takes us to the top of the hill where tiny streets meander past the church—isn’t it pretty from the outside?—and castle.


The castle, with its giant doors, two towers overlooking the hills and gate topped with a crown, is deemed legit by the kids.

Fit for a prince or princess

And that’s enough tourism for the day. Time to wander back down to the market. We’ve already exhausted the kids good-will (“I can’t take this walking!” “No, not another hill!” “Mommy pick me up” “I want to go to the pool”) so this shopping trip is a shorty. Rotisserie chicken (recommended by Mimma) and a quick look around while the kids sit among the seniors under the trees. We’ll be back next week for a more thorough visit.

Our second adventure (Monday) takes us to Radda in Chianti. Radda is a well-preserved small city surrounded by ancient walls. It’s quite pretty, but a bit well-to-do; more of a grown-up place with lovely shops and restaurants. The kids are impressed by the ramparts but even more impressed by the excellent playground in the park just outside the city walls. Twenty minutes exploring the city and 20 minutes in the playground…and that’s it! Pool time! As Radda is only about 10 minutes away, we don’t feel bad about making such a brief stop there. We’ll be back (for the playground).

We follow a winding road up to Volpaia, a tiny village that’s home to about fifty people. The drive is gorgeous; I’m not sure I’d ever tire of the sun shining down on the vineyards and silvery olive groves. We’re really here not for the sights but for lunch. Bar Uchio, presided over by Paola, is a taverna where we can get a simple sandwich or salad. Unfortunately, it’s closed. The sign on the door directs us to the fancy-looking restaurant across the street. Seems to be the only game in town, so we try it.

Sometimes the best things happen by accident. The restaurant is gorgeous. We sit on a terrace, under shady fig trees and large white umbrellas. It’s a family operation, and Paola seems to be the matriarch here as well. She wanders around greeting her diners.

Melisa and I decide a selection of antipasti is enough for us. We order pasta (hers with butter, his with pomodoro) for the kids.

The antipasti easily makes the best Italian meal we’ve had so far. Eggplant and mint in delicate olive oil, three kinds of crostini (tomato, liver, mushroom), radicchio and pecorino salad, tomatoes, mozzeralla and basil.

Shady terrace, amazing food

Everything fresh from the garden over the low wall we are sitting against. Another meal where I think I could linger forever, and quite frankly, no one seems anxious for us to go. Getting the check here, as in France, is a challenge, but a happy one. We leave sated and sleepy.

Tuesday, we switch things up to match our preferred pattern in Martha’s Vineyard: swimming in the morning and driving in the afternoon. The beauty of this plan is that the kids usually fall to sleep on the road. Ideally, we’d all be napping in the heat at home from 1-4 pm when Italy closes down. Since we’ve not been able to pitch this scenario successfully (not EVER, not ONE TIME) to Jasper and Magnolia, this is the next best thing.

And so, after a morning at the pool and a lunch on the terrace, we set off for the “Manhattan of Tuscany”: San Gimignano. Sleep success with one child, but the other needed a longer drive.

We’ve generally thought that the more dramatic the site (the Eiffel Tower! Leaning Tower of Pisa! Coliseum!), the more the kids will enjoy it and remember. So far this is mostly true, the metro being a big exception.

San Gimignano fits the bill. Yet another city perched on a hill, this one is notable for its medieval towers—14 still remain of the original 70—that rise up over the tiny streets. It’s universally accepted as a major tourist trap and a must-see in Tuscany.

High city walls and an imposing gate mark the approach. “Wow that is some fortress!” we say to the kids. They remain unconvinced and grumpy. “Can we go back to the pool?” We stop at the first place we see and buy them lollipops to sweeten the deal. It’s an effective bait and switch.

The streets and towers are impressive, but it’s 97 degrees in the shade. We are all wilting.

San Gimignano

What is the equivalent of a lollipop for the adults? Gelato. That’s the only thing keeping Melisa and I walking. Well, that and the Campari waiting for us at 6 pm. It’s a beautiful day, and the town is memorable. But is every American here? Along with every Australian and Brit? It sure seems that way. And so, after a loop of the city, bypassing shop after shop selling souvenirs and postcards, we decide we’ve seen what we came to see and head back to the Mireva and drive towards gelato.

Gelato deserves a post all its own, but I’ll say this for now: deciding what flavor to try each day is a very enjoyable way to spend your time. That, and twilight at the pool.


3 Responses to “Speed-Dating the Italian Countryside, Kids in Tow”

  1. 1 PAT PARKINSON July 14, 2011 at 6:05 pm

    So beautiful!! As I have my Cointreau, I am thinking……. I wish I was in Tuscany!! The antipasti looked wonderful! But, since I am not there, I am so glad to know you are all having such a fabulous time!

  2. 2 Erinn July 14, 2011 at 6:10 pm

    Robin and I say liz gilbert has nothing on you guys! Baci!

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