The Trip – Part Three

On Saturday morning, awakening to pulsing, dry heat, we decided to enlist the help of the Unintentionally Camp owner of the local trattoria. We needed to find a supermarket. The previous day we had followed the instructions of the wife of the Unintentionally Camp trattoria owner but had ended up driving three towns on from where we were supposed to go. The Unintentionally Camp trattoria owner was planning to set off from the village at 10am, so I had to learn “May we follow you in your car please” in Italian immediately after breakfast, which did not sit well with my indigestion.

The heat is so relentless that the only way to sleep is naked and splayed, like a starfish, or like one of those butterflies that are dead and sellotaped inside frames before being hung on walls. On Saturday morning I woke up gasping for air and hydration, having knocked back three glasses of the local Sangiovese the night before. We had in fact been having a superb dinner at the trattoria owned by Unintentionally Camp man, a truly splendid fare, marked only by Mother Bluebird’s intense belief that Unintentionally Camp man is, at heart, a brute.

“Oh, I wouldn’t like to see him angry,” she says. (Oh she would, she would.) “I bet he’s a bully I can see it in his eyes,” she says sotto voce, as the man in question gently lays a bowl of ragu in front of a small dog. This appears an unshakable conviction throughout the holiday. Unintentionally Camp man said he’d meet us at 10am in front of our complex. When he doesn’t appear, Mother Bluebird decides he’s “back in the kitchen giving her what for”. Although perhaps it’s just a case of laid-back Italian timekeeping. By the time he turns up, forty minutes late, we have both melted in our tiny Fiat in boisterous heat and I am so desperate for the loo I can barely move.

“So sorry!” he zooms up, resplendent in shades and bright yellow trousers.

Down the hill we go, desperately keeping up with Unintentionally Camp Man / a.k.a. The Secret Brute. “Wheeee!” I say as we go round a corner on our way down the mountainous road. “Weeeeeeeeeeee”. I get told off and asked to stop. At the bottom of the hill we turn right and potter along white dust roads of a small town built mainly in the early 1960s, turn right and suddenly there it is – the enormous building we failed to spot the previous day. The one with a supermarket sign at the top of it.

By now I have self-diagnosed either appendicitis or a kidney injury. But I have to get things that I like at the supermarket otherwise there’ll be nothing that I like back at il appartamento. Italian supermarkets contain a whole range of eclectic items : tomatoes, fishing rods, nappies, barbecues, apples, water, dresses, plastic hula hoops, biscuits and beach balls. All of this is crammed into an area a quarter of the size of your local Tesco. Despite their unsurpassed reputation worldwide for the quality of their local produce and the grandeur of their cooking abilities, there is a huge amount of junk food in Italian supermarkets. Much of it is the kind you would never see in the UK : squares of pink ham in tins filled with a plastic-based cheese sauce, boil in the bag rhubarb flavour compote, and miniature, plastic brown cups called EspressoShot! that are essentially cold chocolate mixed with cold coffee to swallow when you’re on the go.

Unintentionally Camp man is on the go. “I have to find some food for my son,” he announces, sunglasses on his head just above his brow, standing with his hands on his hips and the stark midday sun catching the yellow trousers. He disappears into the bowels of the store. We don’t see him for the remainder of the day.

I have to find a loo. Halfway through explaining to Mother Bluebird how to ask for lettuce in Italian, I leave and walk the third of a mile back to the town in search of a loo. There are three bars in the town. The first one, bright and air-conditionned has a loo, which is locked and I decide I cannot wait. I go to the second bar. The bar is closed. Cross-legged, toxic and wilting in the sun, I go to the third bar, a dark, gloomy brown affair in the middle of the town that looks like the home of a serial killer.

“Il bagno?” I ask. I wonder how long it takes to poison your kidneys slowly, from the inside out.

“Si. Si. A li.” “Li” is Italian for “there.” “Li” in my urine-soaked mind is therefore Italian for “LOO”.

“Accendere la luce a sinistra,” he says, pointing at a dark space behind the bar. This means “Turn the light on on your left”, but before I get a chance to do so I stumble and fall over a mop and bucket which has been left in the dark, and all six of the octogenarians currently enjoying a morning spritzer from Mr Serial Killer turn and stare at me. The bathroom is very small, so small that I can only hold my handbag if I put it on my shoulder first. There are three doors, the first into a utility area which smells strangely of cat, the second into a small wash basin area and then finally FINALLY! the third. THE TOILET.

There is no toilet. There is only a hole in the floor. I have to take off my trousers, socks and shoes in order to go to the loo. Already by hellish intuition, my bladder has determined how close it is to the source of release and appears to be making a break for the border. As a child I was always taught never to sit down on a public loo. Never, never, never. But the European innovation of the piss-hole-on-the-floor model has obliterated any temptation to sit down. There isn’t a seat, so instead, I hover, half slack-kneed, like a sumo wrestler.

By the time I walk back to the supermarket, avoiding treating on razor thin lizards that are scurrying through dry grass in the sun, Mother Bluebird has bought half of the town’s supermarket stock and is reversing the Fiat out of the car park. We return to the cafe with the locked toilet door, the one I had been unable to use. It is the cleanest and freshest in town and we had the most delicious espressos there, sitting in the grateful aircon and reading Italian coverage of the opening ceremony of London 2012. I catch the occasional word: “Londra e il Regno Unito hanno messo tutto quello che avevano : da Shakespeare a Mary Poppins, fino a Mr Bean.” (“London and the UK have put everything they had into this : Shakespeare, Mary Poppins and Mr Bean”.) Is this what we are to the rest of the world? A cruel collage of Mr Bean and a made up Edwardian nanny, with a little bit of Oh-there-goes-Queenie-flirting-with-Bond sifted on the top? Come to think of it, that’s not half bad! It could be worse. We could be French.

Exhausted and slightly frazzled we return to the boiling car and from there back to the apartment where we prepare for yet another fight with the Belgian lesbians over the 4 precious umbrellas around the pool.

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The Trip – Part Two

On the first evening we walk up to the small, local square which is three minutes away and where old stone walls give way to a hugely impressive ululating valley. The local hotel supper is ok, not brilliant, but we are too tired and hungry to complain. An inquisitive looking bloodhound and his equally inquisitive owner arrive, the latter chomping on a cigar during his evening passeggiata, the former sniffing in distaste at the large citronella candles that sit on the top of the wall overlooking the twinkling lights of the valley. One glass of the local Sangiovese finishes us off. My legs become incredibly heavy and we can barely walk home. The great disappointment of dinner was the anti-climactic local cheese, Fosso, which seems to sit drily in the pasta. By ten o clock we are both asleep, dozing amidst the hum of the air con.

I’m awake at 7am the next morning, which is usual for me, desperate for coffee. Just a slight turn of the head on the pillow grants me a spectacular view of Emilia Romagna countryside. It is weepingly beautiful in the early mornings and evenings here but the harsh daytime sun reduces you to a bright red, sweating madman within half an hour. There is still nothing in the apartment and on Thursday afternoon the concierge had to spend about an hour explaining to us how the hob worked. All we have is a small saucepan and some stolen tea bags from the cafe round the corner. There is nothing in the living room except the vast plastic covers we had ripped off the new mattresses in a fit of tiredness the previous evening, and we head out for breakfast at the local trattoria, which I am assured by Mother Bluebird, does splendid suppers, and I have a perfect cappuccino and local bread, jam and cheese. This morning we have to venture forth in search of food and a bank, and we are both nervous about locating either.

The car is perfect for these hills and swift corners – a small, manual Fiat. But the air con doesn’t seem to want to pump out cold air at all and instead it feels like a very hot hair dryer is being blasted into your face in a branch of Toni & Guy. Eventually we give up and open the windows. Our search for the fruit and fish market in a particular town yields nothing so we drive on and on until we find a grocery store where we fall upon the plastic bottles of water, cheese, milk and prosciutto supplies. We buy six delicious peaches from an ancient lady for 3 Euro, and then head back down the same road toward the apartment, then veer off in the opposite direction so Mother Bluebird can visit her new Italian bank in a small town called Calcinelli.

Like all small Italian towns, Calcinelli has five things : 2 shoe shops, both selling slingbacks at exorbitant prices, a grubby bar so dark that you can see nothing upon entering as the Adriatic sun has temporarily blinded you, at least 9 hairdressers per resident, an old shapeless lady shopping with a string bag and a pharmacy which for reasons that are not clear, sells Mars bars. We find the bank only after asking directions. Italians tend not to describe directions using road names, but instead sharply and quickly tell you “3rd road in the right, turn left at 4th crossroads, then 500 metres to the right….” Eventually we find the bank, and everyone who works there is wearing shorts. It’s terribly European, you know. Last time my mother was here a woman ran in screaming. Mum, assuming she was in the middle of a hold-up, dived for cover. The other customers, mainly comprised of long distance lorry drivers in flip flops, took no notice. It turns out the woman was going nuts because someone had taken her car parking space outside the pet shop.

Proud of ourselves for successfully locating the bank and depositing money, we repair to the main street in Calcinelli where I treat myself to a double espresso so gloriously strong my eyelashes start twitching and I am rendered extremely excitable for the remainder of the afternoon. We think about London, as it gears up for its huge spectacle, and then retire to the apartment where we gorge ourselves on stolen restaurant grissini sticks and local honey and toast the 30th Olympic games with a cup of English Breakfast tea, made by slowly boiling a small saucepan of water on the confusing stovetop.

The Trip – Part One

A 5.50am the early morning alarm call was a welcome diversion from the fact we had hardly slept at all during the sultry and overheated London night. Also, my mother lives slap bang in the middle of town. This means that throughout the night the noise is constant – bottles being emptied into those massive trucks and smashed into a million pieces, drunk men having a boisterous conversation outside in the street at 2am, people sneezing, people screaming, motorbikes squealing up towards Piccadilly Circus, dogs yelping and -I think – the sound of Marco Pierre White coughing that month’s Benson & Hedges up from outside his restaurant downstairs which no one ever seems to eat in. Who’d have thought it would have been a relief to get to Stansted to catch a Horrid Air flight?

Outside, the Olympic lanes are already in use at 6.30am, long BMW estate cars coloured pink and white, and half of London gears up for 12 day gridlock. I feel that I don’t need to describe Stansted to you, dear reader, as you are a distinguished, worldly, travelling sort of lovely person, but suffice to say, 1pm found us baking in 35 degree heat at the tiny Ancona airport which is stationed so close to the dreamy blue Adriatic that for a moment I thought we were going to land in the sea. The best thing about Italy is the smell on landing here in the summer; it’s a dry, Deisel-infused smell. The worst thing is trying to calm a lady down who is driving a manual car for the first time since 1972 on the Italian autostrada in a vehicle where the air con doesn’t work. We drive northbound, following the route of the Adriatic, for 30km or so, before turning off for Fano, being disturbed by the nature of the roundabouts and then slipping up to the left for a 5km, hair-raising hillside drive so steep our ears popped. At the top, as if from a Merchant Ivory film set in turn of the century Italy, is a set of grey gates giving access to the breezy apartment complex, which is a good thing as Mother Bluebird is a nervous wreck and yours truly is dehydrated and her cheeks are hollow and sucked in like a dry corpse.

Hot, dry and humid, we wake up the concierge, who finally arrives at the door of his room, blinking, his wiry hair only partly concealing the table full of empty beer bottles behind him. Friendly and helpful, he suddenly explains everything in quick, brutal Italian which I have no hope of understanding. He whisks us through to show us the garage (where the key does not work) and we turn up through terracotta pathways lined with rosemary and lavender, up 41 stairs to the converted house which is divided into 3 flats. “La cucina c’e!” he says celebrating, as we open the door to the flat and find the kitchen is in. Phew. We have made it. The floor is cool, the air con is ramped up and we can hear nothing beyond the countryside around us, save the constant crowing of a bird and the distant clip clip of the flip flops of the two elderly lesbians from the apartment downstairs walking back from the pool. Only then do we realise that there is nothing in the apartment whatsoever, especially not any toilet paper, which we both need. The drive down the hill and the necessary 7km trek to the town can’t be faced. Instead we plan a walk three minutes up the hillside to the local B&B where we plan to beg for water, wine and hope to use some English words and be understood.

It is 35 degrees. “The hot weather comes tomorrow!” the concierge says, obligingly. Perhaps we shall all be melted away over the weekend. We open the doors onto the narrow terrace, amazed by the splendid view and basking in the strong hot sun like two happy cats…

Bring on the sheep

They’re bringing on the sheep amidst a scene of pastoral spectacle and creating a cricket match.  It’s going to rain from fake clouds.  And then Boris is going to appear, fresh from his newly-minted role as the constant voiceover artist on London’s transport network telling us to plan ahead, dressed as an 18th century gallant Tory grandee and lead us all in a round of “Land of Hope and Glory”.  Or not.  Or maybe there will be turkeys from Norfolk (another rumour) or pigs from Lincolnshire.  Either way, if the Stratford stadium isn’t covered in 23 different kinds of animal excrement by 9.30pm I’ll eat my 2012 sunhat.

I am bereft to announce that, despite my role as city observer, chronicler and writer, I will be absent from Britain for the opening ceremony.  I have to go to Italy and see what Mother Bluebird has purchased in way of an apartment in a hillside town.  I am being asked to do the driving, which will be interesting because the last time I did any driving I smashed up my car on the A1 during a disagreement with a bollard. I will be sipping regional vino rosso in the hateful, hateful, horrid pink-skied evening sun.  I will be travelling to and from Perugia’s answer to IKEA in thirty seven degree heat.  I will be forced to eat proscuitto, formaggio, great hunks of rustic bread dipped in local olive oil.  It’s going to be hell, darlings.  Mr Bluebird is under instruction to record the opening ceremony for my dramatic criticism and for posterity.  I don’t doubt that it will be impossible to find a television that works in rural Italy and even if it did work I would have to gaze at Blighty whilst being sandwiched between a short, fat, grandmother and a hairy armpit of a construction worker with flatulence problems in a tinny bar last painted in the 1950s.

We are delighted about the kitchen.  There wasn’t one in the Italian apartment until yesterday but there is one today.  This is progress.  What isn’t progress is the fact that I haven’t managed to book liposuction to prepare for my first performance in a bikini in three years, but I’m hoping the locals will feel generous and resist the temptation to point at my cellulite.  My plan this week is to update regularly (if I can find Wifi) and tell you all about the region and our experiences within it, if that is, I recover from the 6am wake up call to fly Horrid Air from London Stansted.  Sorry to be missing London’s party this week – I depend on my spies and my readers to tell me how it is.  I’m off to Bar Italia to brush up on my future tense with the waiters.  Meanwhile, I shall be telephoning Danny Boyle to oversee the delivery of livestock to E15 first thing tomorrow morning. 

For those of you who read the last entries in “The Italian Job” (see topic list opposite) you’ll know what to expect : I list all the foodstuffs I eat, explain my attempts to speak Italian to the locals, tell you about the sites I see and attempt to post ice cream home.  I usually get lost down dark, winding city streets and drink enough Montepulciano to see me through for the next year.  I usually drive haphazardly through Umbrian plains in manual cinquecentos.   There is always fun to be had.  Please stay tuned for updates throughout the week. 

Arrevederci!

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is usually updated every Thursday but due to travels this week I will be updating regularly, if, that is I can locate Wifi in the Ancona region.  Thank you!

The Italian Job – Part 4

I wake up in Pienza with a Dissertation – based nightmare.    A quick shower later and it’s down to the usual peculiar 3 star Italian breakfast, in which we are the only people dining.  We decide to go for another coffee at a local bar where you are supposed to buy tickets for the bus.  The coffee is good but the bar for bus tickets is closed on Tuesdays.  We head to another bar, purchase our tickets for Montepulciano and return to our B&B to collect our luggage.  “How do you ask,’I have forgotten to unplug my i-Phone charger?’ in Italian”, Mr Bluebird asks of me.  Clearly, the mountain air has got to him, as my Italian could get to “How do you…?” but would then fade away in linguistic incompetence.  Fortunately his charger is retrieved and we are bang on time for the 1205 bus.  It starts to rain.

The 1205 bus doesn’t come.  The rain, on the other hand, does.  I hide under my jacket under a tree.  A nearby American couple, delirious with happiness that we are English speakers, would like our help in dicyphering the bus timetable.   I can, but have misunderstood that the summer timetable has ended, and that as it is now October 5th, it is the winter timetable.  Thank goodness.  That meant we were delayed by two hours.  And if it had been summer, and the 1205 bus had turned up we would have missed the delights of La Trattoria da Fiorella.  This restaurant doesn’t have its own website for me to big it up, but TripAdvisor’s reviews are here : www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g644280-d1451273-Reviews-Trattoria_Fiorella-Pienza_Tuscany.html.  The very, very best pici with tagiolini of our entire trip was eaten here, with fabulous house wine (“A litre?!” asked our innocent waiter, disbelievingly.  “Oh yes please,” chirruped Mr and Mrs Bluebird).  A gorgeous table on the balcony of this family-run trattoria gave us the benefit of staring at everyone else’s plates and analysing what they were eating.  So jammed was La Trattoria da Fiorella that they had to start turning away diners at 2.15pm, who were pushed out in the heavy rain.  A double espresso (you gotta love that caffeine, kids) spirited us out of the door, through the rain and onto the 1425 bus for Montepulciano, which dropped us off by 3pm.

At Montepulciano you have a choice.  You can either push yourself uphill for the 15 minute walk to the top of the town, where the Piazza Grande crowns the town, or you can take the little orange bus that delivers you there in a quarter of the time and runs with remarkable efficiency every 15 minutes from the bus station. Of course, we did the latter, rolling up the beautiful streets of Montepulciano, until we emerged, blinking and gasping at the views, in the Piazza Grande, close to our apartment.  If I could only work out how to upload pictures from my husband’s I-phone I could show you the splendours of it, but it still wouldn’t do the city justice.  It’s perched on a great slab of volcanic rock, sitting pretty over Chianti and blissfully peaceful in early October.  Our apartment was in the lovely www.palazzobellarmino.com, a splendid house now converted into affordable apartments right off the Piazza Grande.   It enables you to feel quite the resident, although rattling about in a large flat with nothing but a suitcase full of crumpled dresses and a battered EM Forster made the whole place seem empty.  We tripped out for an evening stroll amidst grand hill and blush pink skies, rolling down roads between rotund American tourists.  A supper of the best vongole my husband said he had ever tasted was preceded by a visit to a little bit of Vienna in Montepulciano, the alarmingly belle epoque www.caffepoliziano.it  which had a vast, high-ceiled tea room covered with velvet brown booths and huge gilt mirrors, as if stuck in a Edwardian time warp.  Espressos can be supped on a precarious balcony overlooking the Val D’Orcia and you can feel like you’re in a film.  Coo.   Even the pre-dinner spritzer that Mr Bluebird ordered arrived filled with James Bond joie de vivre in a classic martini glass, a change from the usual Italian tumbler. 

Getting pissed is fine because you’re going to struggle to find your way home to the apartment anyway.  High black alleyways crawl up to pedestrianized streets, lit by dark yellow lamps, and if you feel that the road is bending up and around in front of you because you are drunk, it actually is  bending up and around in front of you.  You must climb up until you collapse in a fuggy, sweaty heat on the steps of the cathedral.   The Chianti table wine kills the pain in the calves.  At the top, we would sit outside the cathedral, finding ourselves the only people in the square at 11pm; Montepulciano seems to close for business early.

In the morning Mr Bluebird couldn’t locate spoons and had no option but to stir the Lavazza coffee in the cafetiere using the wrong end of his toothbrush.  Then he tried to ‘plunge’ only he forgot how espresso coffee is as fine as fairy dust.  The whole lot exploded over our pretty apartment.  Eventually he manoeuvred it into the diddy, tiny dollshouse espresso cups.  Everything in Italy is either tiny-weeny, or enormous.  This is not a country for the moderate, my friends.

The Italian Job – Part 3

Of course I couldn’t read a word of that farking book.  What was I thinking?  So, after we got up and dressed on Monday morning, bought double espressos and sat right in the  middle of the slanting, brick red pavement of the Piazza del Campo eating lovely prosciutto and formaggio sandwiches and had been waved off by Daniela, it was back to the international bookshop.  I bought a travel-sized Inglese/Italiano dictionary.  Unsure about the famously complex Italian bus network, we wandered up to Piazza Gramsci to find out which bus would take us to Siena’s railway station and, from there, out to Pienza on the 112 route.  The entire system is deisgned to aggravate and upset tourists.  In the UK there are bus timetables pasted up at every bus stop, and it is easily understood when the next bus is – or isn’t – coming.  In Italy, there are few timetables and no maps of the routes, which means you cannot check where you are going, you then get on what you think is the right bus, and end up in Poland.  We thought, after staring at the inscrutable timetables for a bit, we should get the Bus Nos 3 or 4.  We asked a couple of drivers.  They suggested 7 or 10.  Another trip to the bus office proved they were in fact wrong, and we should get 4 or 7. 

This happened frequently during our trip.  We would ask drivers/flight attendants/ train ticket inspectors and pedestrians where they were and where they were going and strangely, they hadn’t a clue.  Totally exacerbated and, my original insistence on independently negotiating the bus transport wilting, we found our bus that would take us to the station, and it was one of the ones with “taxi” written on the front of it in fat, comforting letters. 

At the station, further confusion of the tourist travel variety ensues.  The automated machine deals in what appears to be a pre-Etruscan latinate dialect, and demands something that looked like drachma for payment.  The ladies behind the grotty perspex window looked like frightening PE teachers.  The queue was 17 people long.   If it wasn’t for a kindly Australian girl who helped us operate the machine and then showed us that our bus timetable was concealed behind some tarpaulin sheeting that had been placed outside the station by a construction company, we would still be walking in circles around the forecourt of Siena station weeping and crying about going back to England.  She had learned the hard way several days earlier about bussing it down to Chianti.  She had missed the 7.25am bus by four minutes, and there wasn’t another for 6 hours.  Then, between 1.25pm and 1.35pm they send four of them, full to bursting with adolscent school children.

Our bus, once we eventually got on it, ran smoothly and beautifully out of Siena and through the lush countryside towards Montepulciano.  It was overcast and cloudy, so Chianti didn’t look as chipper as usual, but it was still divine to watch it slide by out of the bus window.  One hour and twenty five minutes later, having passed tons of agriculturismos, farms, small towns, outlaying cottages, picked up Italian housewives and deposited aged husbands, we rolled into Pienza.  It was exquisite.  A teeny, Renaissance masterpiece, it was constructed in almost its entirety between 1459 and 1462, boasts stunning churches and beautiful stone houses.   I should remind you that round about this point the English were still trying to work out how to spell “wattle and daub” and were building houses specifically designed to burn down quickly in fires.  Pienza was utterly beautiful, with breathtaking views of the Val D’Orcia.  The view from behind the church by the city walls over the valley looked too perfect to be real, but rather like a tourist postcard:

Not bad, eh?  I mean, it’s better than Watford High Street. Just about.  The first (and only, it turned out) drops of rain of our holiday fell down as we searched for our hotel, through the streets with tiny shops groaning with pecorino, Pienza’s most fabulous invention.  Fortunately, it was off-season, which mean the drone of loud Americans was reduced to nothing more than a slightly irritating hum. Our hotel was the lovely http://www.arcadipienza.it/ run by the fabulous and helpful Gloria, who proved to be the most patient person we encountered on the trip when it came to my Italian grammar.  Our room was so delightful that we suddenly passed out in it on arrival due to exhaustion.  Pienza is tiny, but it was no doubt the most charming destination of our entire trip to me.  Meandering through back streets brings you only to another low, city wall and another devastating view.  We took a brief tour around the main church, which was inviting and full of light, although I preferred the darker one next door.  My brother texted for another brother’s postal address to send a birthday card.  I said I was away, I didn’t have it and was about to eat wild boar in Tuscany.  He replied that he was in the West End, it was raining, there was a tube strike, the Tories had gone and abolished child benefit for men like him, and to top it all off, the X Factor was back on TV.    For once, it seemed, the London Bluebird was better off overseas and away from blighty. 

We sat down for a pre-supper glass of wine.  Despite the fact there was a chill in the air, it was still glorious to sit looking out at a Renaissance square in front of you, the drop-dead gorgeous view of the Chianti valley to your left and, to your right, the generous proportions of the large-bottomed American lady speaking loudly about the stress of looking after her aged mother.  Oh well, you can’t have everything.  We popped back to the hotel before going out again to our pre-booked table at Dal Falco, which I cannot rate highly enough. http://www.ristorantedalfalco.it/  There’s a lot of poncing around going on in Tuscany.  A lot of smug-looking English-ers poncing about ordering over-rated expensive wines whilst missing out on the delectable local vino, a lot of pretentious lip-smacking goes on, particularly about boar.  Dal Falco was refreshing in that it was a real restaurant, frequented by large families, and run by another large family.  At the table next to us, about 12 members of one family came and went from the restaurant in the space of two hours, headed by a grandmother who spent an hour and a half with the television remote control in one hand and her fork in the other, listening very loudly to a TV movie set in 1920s Italy whilst she sat directly underneath it ignoring most of her fellow diners.  The food was, of course, perfect.  Mr Bluebird opted for pici pasta with porcini, following by lamb chops and spinach, and I went for a wild boar stew – delicious, simple, local wine of the house at €8,00 a litre.  My husband always leaves room for pudding, and usually makes sure that pudding is a tiramisu.  This was all delightful, and we stayed there for three hours in the end, watching the various members of the family that ran the restaurant pile in, chat to each other and pile out again.  It must have been the post-dinner double espressos that meant I got the outrageous giggles back in our hotel room, where drunkenness and sheer joy of being in Pienza meant that I ended up laughing at nothing in particular until I wanted to be sick.

The Italian Job – Part 2

I woke up to what sounded like someone blowing their nose in a corner of my brain.  Once fully awake I realised that the shower to the room opposite was directly behind the wall which was directly behind my head.  Someone was coughing up phlegm.  The most romantic of early Sunday morning sounds in this radiant little tributary of Tuscany.  It was a chilly morning and we made the quest out to look for what the Italians don’t have; breakfast.  Perhaps it’s our cooler climes, but in England, and any European country further north, breakfast is what stops you getting bronchitis and flu.  Strapping lumps of meat, fat, eggs, bread, butter, more eggs, a sausage and another round of bread doused in marmalade is basically what keeps us alive in the winter.  For the Italians this does not happen.  So unimportant is breakfast, that they don’t even eat it sitting down.  They stand up, chins raised, in small cafes and gulp down a quick slug of expresso and a teeny weeny pastry dusted with icing sugar.

We found a delightful couple of tramezzini proscuitti (that’s ham sandwiches to you and me) and ate them propped up at a sticky bar with a couple of cappucinos.  Most of the Italians around us were seeking the hairs of dogs that had bitten them in the night, gulping down Camparis and beers before going to church.  We decided to be good tourists and headed off for the cathedral, where the trestle tables had been cleared from the night before and where tourists filled the piazza, which was now decidedly hot.  The weather was schizophrenic throughout our stay in Siena, chilly enough to have coats on one minute and blazing sun the next.

A Museum dell’Opera!  I’d like some of that!  Our €10,00 ticket for the Cathedral (boring, church-y stuff with religious things in it.  No cafe) included this Museum dell’Opera.  Fantastic, I thought.  There’ll be fancy dresses for fat ladies and things like that, and paintings of Puccini chortling heartily.  Only it wasn’t like that at all.  It was a series of 13th and 14th century stone sculptures of religious people (YAWN) like Moses and John the Baptist.  I was perplexed that there wasn’t an aria in sight.  Perhaps they’d got the signage wrong.    Upstairs there was a rash of adoring magi, a collection of Latin manuscripts (interesting from a calligraphic point of view) and a collection of bibles on the third floor.  Entirely disappointed by the absence of showbiz stuff, I realised that I was in fact wrong, and that in the late medieval ages the church was showbiz.  Music, bells, great costumes, theatrical hats, what’s not to be impressed by?    In fact the cardinals had a lot of bling.  We saw a gold display that the Pope gave Siena in the 15th century and it was well chavvy.  It looked like a large gold hat with sprigs and springs coming off it topped with gold roses.  It looked like the kind of hat Cilla Black would wear to Kerry Katona’s next wedding.

Our lunch was a celebratory lunch that Mr Bluebird was buying me to say well done over finishing my MA and it was simply splendid.  After we’d had our fill of gaudy glittery things with a bit of religion attached, we hopped off to http://www.osteriadadivo.it/eng/chi-siamo.htm.  This is Siena’s smartest restaurant, where you get to dine amidst Etruscan tombs, and where I had booked for a table from London.   It was, needless to say, absolutely marvellous.  Mr Bluebird opted for a starter involving gnocchi and scallops whilst I destroyed an antipasti plate groaning with chicken liver crostini.  At one point the risotto trolley wheeled past us.  It served the next table, where dollops of risotto were served from an entire, enormous, hollowed parmesan.  I got to know pici pasta for the first time, Siena’s slant on spaghetti, which is slightly thicker, handrolled, and which I had with a wild boar sauce.   Mr Bluebird opted for something fabulous involving seabass and porcini mushrooms, all of which was merrily washed down with a vat of chianti.  Marvellous. 

We staggered back to our hotel, our starters and mains settling down heavily in our stomachs, and woozily contemplated what to do about dinner.  I was aghast at my ability for consumption.  We decided to book dinner on the way home, to get into a nearby trattoria which had been booked the night before when we had tried to get in.  We booked a table for 7.30pm, but we had yet to learn the fatal mistake.  A 2pm lunch of the type we had had would not even begin to touch the outer rim of the colon until about 6pm on the following Wednesday week.  We had literally bitten off more than we could chew.  During the afternoon, yours truly had somewhat ambitiously (sounds better than drunkenly) purchased an Italian version of A Room With A View  (Camera con Vista) to read, thinking that my Italian was up to it.    That way, I could experience the piquant pleasure, I thought of reading in Italian about an English writer writing about English people in Italy.  Wow, was that a mistake.  I could barely understand a word of it.    I spent 25 minutes attempting to dicypher the first page of it before joining my husband for a snooze, waking ourselves up, outrageously for another meal.

The trattoria was not quite something we were ready for.  Exhausted, sleepy, full of wine and food, the idea of another heavy meal was beginning to make me feel downcast.  The walls of the trattoria were luminous green and peppered with the occasional framed photo of the owner’s prize dog and its winning rosettes.  The Sienese love their dogs.  I half-heartedly demolished some excellent bruschette (on top of which was a long, slow-cooking tomato paste, red kidney beans and a wafer thin curl of lard – yes, my friends, you read correctly – lard).  Then I ordered a veal stew, too robust and hearty for me at this point in the day.  At this point a tidal wave of tiredness hit me and I failed to dodge it.  The stress of my Dissertation, the disgust of shorthaul travel with HorridAir, the vast and incorrigible train tracks, the endless fucking torpor of travel all built up it seemed.  I announced I was ready for bed, but Mr Bluebird said it was only 8.15pm.

Then a posh couple came and sat next to us where they chatted only occasionally to each other, on the negligent state of the lamb.  But after I had woken myself up enough to go to the loo, I returned to find Mr Bluebird deep in conversation with them regarding our pensione.  They couldn’t find anywhere inside the city walls to stay so were green with jealousy.  They were typical of the kind of English one finds in neat and thrilling Siena; the kind of well-heeled, upper middle-class traveller to whom “lunch” is a verb rather than a noun, and who spend their retirement culturally overdosing on frescos between popping in to the villas of old friends on the continent.  We got rather chatty. “Our tomatoes aren’t like this atallllll!” said the radiant wife, giddy after I’d passed over the chestnut grappa which expressed itself in two round red patches on her cheeks like fine English braeburns. And we talked about how wonderful the food was here and how at home it doesn’t just have the knack and how lovely the landscape is here and it’s not a bit like home, you know, and how good the chestnut liquer was here and Haw Haw Haw Haw she laughed. 

They tottered off to the taxi, John Lewis scarves a-flying as they poured their good selves into a waiting cab.  Strangely, the chestnut liquor had reawakened my brain who, if not quite up to partying, was certainly in the mood for a chocolate ice-cream which I ate following our trip to the gelateria.  We returned to the hotel at 10pm where Mr Bluebird tried to find Italian football on the Italian telly as he was missing his Match of the Day dreadfully.  You see.  They may produce better qualities of life, tomatoes, frescos, wines, food, climate and language but HA! their television coverage of football is still absolutely bollocks.

Tune in tomorrow for a trip to the countryside, a disagreeable encounter with the Italian bus network and the delights of Pienza…..