We had such a great day the day before, that when we didn’t arrive home till 9 pm and dinner wasn’t ready till 10 pm, we happily embraced the culture of eating late in Italy and went with it. We had del vino and tiramisu, and kept talking till midnight. Pedro and I went to our room and talked about our day, our impression of Italy, and didn’t sleep till 2 am. About that time, the dogs in the neighborhood began barking. It sounded as though some bestia was in the area, because one, and then another, and another, of the dogs nearby (not our hosts’ dog!) was barking their dog brains out. We clearly did not sleep enough by morning – due much to our own carelessness of going to bed so late – that we struggled against sleep all day.
Luckily, Manja had another fabulous idea for us. She wanted to take us to the top of Monte Amiato. On the way is a small town called Santa Fiora, which Manja knew had a large water feature in the center of town, which is uncommon in small Italian cities, apparently.
After Manja taught me the day before to use Marco’s coffee maker, this morning I made our Italian coffee all by myself with confidence. When Pedro came out, I poured a tiny bit of rich black coffee into his tiny cup and a tiny bit into mine. I will not get used to this. I already miss my mug of black Sulawesi and the thermos ready to fill and refill my mug. Understand me: the coffee in Italy is delicious. I embrace each opportunity to order an espresso when I can. There’s just not enough of it to be satisfying. And yes, I could add water and make an Americano but I am stubborn about food and drink when I travel: I want to do it the way the locals do it, not try to re-create what I have at home. I’ll have to adjust my anticipation.
After coffee and fruit and a slice of salted bread, Pedro and I were invited to join Manja and her bestia on their routine morning walk around the condominiums. Then we were off on our next adventure.
It was going to be an hour and a half drive, so we stopped for gas which was our first adventure. Manja pulled up and realized there was no way to pay at the pump. She tried to translate the handwritten sign, which said something about speed and paying inside, which we thought was not speedy at all. When she used the pump, it clicked off right away. We thought something had broken on the pump. But no, in only 90 seconds or so, it had filled the tank. Speedy indeed. I ran inside and paid.
In Santa Fiora it was not obvious where to go to find the water feature she knew only vaguely about. I love Manja’s spirit of adventure. She was not deterred longer than a moment, then on instinct, took the little car around a hairpin turn and down, down a steep narrow road. At an intersection while she tried to decide what turn to make next, I noticed a map on the wall next to us. It was a map of the water feature. It showed the general shape of it, and that it was surrounded by a wall. On our right, I saw a wall. “Maybe this is it!”
We couldn’t see anything at first, then Pedro noticed a metal grate from which water was pouring through. Through the grate he could see there was a pond. That is all Manja needed, and we went around the corner and down the road till we found free parking. We walked back and tried to find a way to get to the water, or to at least see it! Pedro walked all the way to the opposite side and found a bench to stand on and look over the wall. “This is it!” He confirmed for us.
When I caught up with him, I noticed the bench was in front of a church. Manja and the dog caught up and we all stood on tiptoes to see the water, and tried to guess how to get to it. We noticed a green area on the other side of the water that looked liked a park. We were ready to continue circling the water in an attempt to enter the park, but before we did, I went into the church to investigate. It is the Church of the Madonna della Neve. The floor has glass panels that allowed us to look through the floor to the rocks and ferns below. Under the sections of glass, one can see the headwaters of the Fiora River flowing. On the wall was a note that said for a couple Euros we could turn on the lights, and we chose not to do it, which is a shame. I later discovered that the glass floor reveals archaeological remains of a medieval road, the foundations of a bridge, and some of the remaining hydraulic structures that were used for controlling the spring water.
Outside the church again, we walked up the steep road beside it. Sooner than expected, we found the entrance to the garden, which is through the back of the church. The cost was one Euro and payment was on an honor system. Manja dropped in three coins and we put on masks and walked through a stone room open on both sides, into the garden. It was large and lovely and there were so many beautiful views of the pond, which turned out to be a fish hatchery, a peschiera, that is filled by the Fiora River.
We walked shaded paths through a blooming garden and admired all the birds in and near the water. We found a sign that explained details of fish farming, the steps required to collect and fertilize eggs, and to raise the baby fish. There is a canal section that pushes air into the water in an explosion of bubbles, to make sure the fish who live there have plenty. We circled through the small park and returned to the pond. It was cool, green and colorful, filled with wildlife, and twice as delightful because it was all a surprise to us.
The Peschiera Sforzcesca was built in the Middle Ages to address the village’s need for food during fasting periods, in which Catholics are not supposed to eat the meat of warm-blooded animals. The pond collects waters from the river, and the overspill continues on its way to the Tyrrhenian Sea. The garden has been around since at least the 16th century. In 1464, Pope Pius II visited this peschiera and admired the very large fish. Those very large fish are still here. Up close, we could see fish inside the pond. Huge fish! Pedro and I thought some were trout and some were carp. One ginormous one had a shark-shaped tail. Seems like sharks would eat the trout, though. Hmmm.
Santa Fiora is on the slopes of Monte Amiata, but it would be another half an hour yet to reach the mountaintop. It was noon and we were all hungry. We decided to try and find food in Santa Fiora rather than leave ourselves at the mercy of whatever was available on top of the mountain. Manja did a quick search on her phone and chose the nearest place. Il Barilotto is now my favorite Italian restaurant.
Before I learned what makes my favorite Italian restaurant, we had to get there, and it seemed to be directly above us. We walked up a steep hill, and took two steep switchbacks, including what we really hoped would be a shortcut and not a dead end. After all that climbing in the sun, we arrived at a castle-type building with a condom dispensary mounted on a side wall that cracked up me and Pedro. Not sure how to get around the building, we decided to walk right through it, since the door was open.
On the other side of the stone entrance was a beautiful medieval stone piazza with some tables out in front of restaurants and a couple of shops, a church, and a mining museum. A medieval tower is prominent there. We left the piazza and entered a narrow stone street that tipped down the hill again.
We came almost immediately to a sign proclaiming “Il Barilotto Ristorante Storico Dal 1927.” Manja explained that it’s a historical restaurant that has occupied that location since 1927. Wonderful. We stopped a waiter in the outdoor seating area and asked if there was room for three and a half (the bestia) without a reservation. He showed us the only seat available, which was crammed into a corner against a wall, behind other diners. “I have room inside,” he said, and gestured for us to follow him down the street a little. We stepped down into a beautiful, cozy, and tasteful dining room next to a full bar with restaurant staff bustling back and forth. We sat and had to prove our vaccination status first thing. Soon we had menus and water and wine and bread.
Manja was kind enough to translate the menu for us. Pedro ordered the wild boar. I asked for chestnut tortellini (the pasta was made with nuts!) filled with porcini mushrooms. Manja had white ragù with pork and pici noodles. I asked for insalata verde. I’m finding I have to ask for my fresh veggies around here. The food was amazing. It was so delicious I can’t even describe how good it all was. We all tasted each others’ meals. All the while, the staff made us feel welcome and showed a genuine pride in their work and their product. We felt appreciated and taken care of. The longer we sat and ate and drank, the more the staff and our eclectic table talked with each other. Manja the Slovenian, did most of the talking in Italian. Pedro, American from Mexico, and me, white Cherokee American, both trying our best to use as many Italian words as we could with the staff. We were all enjoying each other by the time the waiter quickly and easily talked us into dessert. We shared two plates of goat ricotta topped with a chestnut chutney.
Full and happy, we called arrivederci to everyone and climbed the stone street up to the piazza again, then down another narrow stone street and down, down to the parked car again. Off we went to find the mountain.
The winding, narrow drive up to the mountaintop made its way through a beautiful forest. The outside temperature dropped and we pulled over to let the dog out and enjoy the shade. Pedro slept.
At the top of the drive we found free parking and headed toward the slope and what was clearly a ski path in wintertime. There was a fence blocking the stone path to the top of the mountain, and a sign pointing to the left, and a price of one Euro to use a weird-looking ramp. Manja said nuts to that, and turned right, looking for the alternate path. Many before us had done the same, and a path formed and wound through the trees and beneath the chair lift.
I did not know this till I looked at it from the top, but the “ramp” is actually a conveyor belt! Visitors stand on it and are carried to the top. It’s a little ridiculous that the conveyor belt is the only option. Why fence off the stone path when many people would choose to be carried anyway? In any case, our bestia would have flat refused to ride the contraption and we would have been forced to give up the climb if not for Manja who was determined to do it her way, and found a path through the forest.
It was quite a steep hill. We were not sure if it would truly take us to the top, as we couldn’t see. We sent Pedro on ahead, and he found some new construction on what looked like a cabin that might be private property. He wasn’t sure we should continue into the area and risk being where we shouldn’t be. We were close to the top then, and I decided that I refused to return to the bottom of the hill, and climbed past Pedro and the construction. The path we were on crossed right in front of the building under construction and finally reconnected to the top of the stone path that had been blocked at the bottom. We made it! And for zero Euros.
Manja had thoughtfully chosen to take us to a dormant volcano – 5,700 feet (1738 m) – the highest in southern Tuscany. She knows I have a love affair with volcanoes.
Right away we spotted the huge iron cross that we had been calling the Italian Eiffel Tower. You can see why.
Beside the tower is a magnificent view of the countryside below. It is very beautiful here in Tuscany, even in the yellows and browns of September. I suppose that’s redundant. Yes? “It’s beautiful in Tuscany.”
We left the mountain and headed for our next destination. On the way, we stopped a couple of times for more photos.
Our next stop was Terme di Saturnia, a hot springs and mineral baths which I had seen on Manja’s blog before. It is a very popular tourist destination and there are signs for it all over the region. Pedro and I both had our suits with us, and climbed in. The water was cooler at the outer edges, and warmer as we got closer to the waterfall at the top of the hill. The mineral springs spills downhill forming many pools on its way. All the pools are wide and shallow, allowing very easy bathing and the place was packed with people. It is a beautiful spot, with the white mineral deposits and aqua waters and colourful people. We didn’t stay long as it was getting to be late in the day.
We changed back into dry clothes in the parking lot, and then went back home to the grocery store and picked up some lunch items before our big journey the next day. Pedro and I mostly wandered around and marveled at pastas and beer displays. To our surprise, the dried pastas on the shelf are exactly the same brands that we find here at Safeway and Fred Meyer.
As we left the store, the sky was turning colours in the sunset. Manja told us which direction to hurry and spot the sunset over the water. Pedro and I scurried across the parking lot, crossed a road, burrowed through tall weeds, and emerged on the water. I was so happy to see the lagoon that is featured often in Manja’s blog. The scene was familiar to me.
That night, Marco fed us chicken, which was predictably delicious. We were so tired from our lack of sleep the previous night that this night we left the table early and packed up for our long trip the next day and managed to get to sleep at a decent time.