For the second leg of our Mediterranean vacation, we started in Venice, took a train to Florence, and drove from there through the hills and valleys of Tuscany. Here are a few pictures and thoughts.
Venice’s entire raison d’etre is tourists, which makes it feel a bit odd. It exports a bit of glass, lace, and shipbuilding, but otherwise its economy is dominated by tourism. It’s still a real city, though, not a centrally planned resort or theme park, which makes for a strange combination of “living museum,” self-conscious voyeurism, and awkward city government serving a constituency of foreigners constantly just passing through.
The tourists themselves comprised the groups you’d expect: Italians, Americans, Brits, Japanese, and Koreans, with people from everywhere else filling in the gaps.
It’s striking how few people actually live on the island proper. We walked the streets at night and saw building after building with dozens of windows but only a handful lit up. Apart from the occasional lost tourist, even the residential areas are deserted. We heard the buildings are expensive to maintain; among other things, there’s strong demand for local businesses that regularly shovel silt out of the ground floors. Wow.
Venice’s overall population has dropped by 50% between 1980 and 2009, to just 60,000, and I’m sure that trend has continued. One bartender told us that most people commute from outside the city. The big picture in Italy isn’t much better; the fertility rate is only 1.4, far enough below the replacement rate of 2.3 that the government now offers free housing and other benefits if you immigrate and work there. Add that to an already shaky economy and banking system, and the future looks grim.
The Grand Canal is fascinating. By normal waterway rules it’s unrecognizable, but if you think of it like any other large city street, it starts to make sense. There are taxis, cars, pickup trucks, bicycles (gondolas) for hire, and buses (the Vaporetto). Only the pedestrians are confined to the sidewalks.
Beyond the well-known architecture and art, I was surprised and delighted by the masquerade masks for Carnival. Venetian mask designers are world renowned, and it shows.
Florence felt more like the average western European city. Narrow streets, cobblestones, historic brick and stone buildings, and sprawling new developments outside the cramped inner city. We saw this pattern repeated in many other towns we visited, including Siena, San Gimignano, and Montepulciano.
Florence also gave us our first memorable Italian food: white beans and fried veal brains (!) at Trattoria Camillo and great sauces at the otherwise unassuming O Sole Mio. Sadly, like Venice, Florence failed me in my quest for an affogato. It may be an Italian word, but that didn’t make it easy to find.
Americans continued to dominate the tourist demographics. I’m not sure if Europeans were sparse due to the relatively worse economy, or different holiday schedules, or something else entirely.
After Florence, we rented a car and drove south through the hillside towns, castles, and wineries of Tuscany. The driving and scenery was great, just as picturesque and romantic as you’ve heard. It also drove home just how good we have it in San Francisco. Napa and Sonoma are just as beautiful, if not as historic, and we also have beaches, forests, skiing, and all sorts of scenery and activities within driving distance. We can definitely count our blessings.
Tuscany’s history mirrors that of the rest of the world: lots of fighting punctuated by intermittent, brief truces. The stone towers, turrets, and fortified walls reflected this. I enjoyed following the architecture through the centuries as first the houses, then larger buildings, then whole towns joined together to defend themselves against outsiders like the insatiable Florentine Medicis.
Monteriggioni was our first stop on the road trip. It’s a classic, pretty little Tuscan town, originally founded as part of the Via Francigena route from Rome to Canterbury.
Siena felt smaller than Florence, but otherwise it was very similar. Evidently they fought and feuded for centuries, thanks to the stubborn Carpuccis and Medicis, but that didn’t stop them from building in the same way.
We climbed the Torre del Mangia to check out the view, and the sprawl of rooftops and plazas and vaulted arches reminded me of Assassin’s Creed, of all things. Its development team is known for meticulous research and attention to detail, and it shows. I’d only seen Siena in the game, but my virtual memories were more vivid than those of other places I’d visited in real life.
We spent a few nights in San Gimignano, a scenic fortified hillside town that’s now overrun with tourists just like us. Our hotel looked directly out onto the main square, which gave us both a good view and a serenade by the classical guitarist who played each night.
San Gimignano also fortified us with more great Italian food, notably the wild boar tagliatelle and pesto gnocchi at Antica Trattoria Maceliera and the zuppa di farro and braised boar and deer at Le Vecchie Mura.
San Galgano is a medieval monastery famous for its own sword in a stone. As the legend goes, Saint Galgano foreswore his knighthood, took up a monk’s robes, and built a new chapel on a hilltop. When he realized he had no cross, he drove his sword deep into a rock to serve as a substitute, and it remains there to this day.
Montepulciano, another classic hillside town, was our last stay in Tuscany.