By Katherine Bielawa Stamper
“If Provence is heaven, than Tuscany is heaven squared,” my husband wrote in our travel journal.
My reflections, penned in our shared notebook, reflect similar awe from that trip years ago: “We passed vineyards with vines heavy with luscious purple grapes. We wandered narrow cobbled streets, taking in the aromas of locals’ cooking. We sought quiet in deep, dark, cavernous churches.” We did these things with our 15-month-old toddler in tow.
Pitching our tent at the Colleverde Campground, we made the short walk to the stunning piazza of Siena, a Tuscan hill town. Camping and preparing our own meals from foods purchased at farmers’ markets made the trip affordable.
“Simple food” in Tuscany is fabulous food. Artisan breads, mellow mozzarella, fagiolia bianchi (white beans) and local olives found their way into dishes we prepared tent-side as we sipped Chianti from tea mugs. Fresh currants and strawberries were in season, imbuing our daughter’s cheeks and hands with deep, red hues. Walks into town for gelato or other treats satisfied our sweet tooths. Brutti ma buoni, a light, powdered sugar-nut-egg concoction which means “ugly, but good” proved my favorite.
Michelangelo’s city of Florence, despite its beauty, was not particularly stroller friendly, even in shoulder season. Everywhere you turned there was something beautiful to look at—sculptures, fountains, arcades, gilded this and gilded that. But, everywhere you turned there were wall-to-wall tourists, noisy scooters and scant green space. Green space in playgrounds and parks provided respite for our daughter following strapped-in sessions as we wheeled her around.
Florence taught us to target places away from the throngs of tourists. Smaller, interesting towns with museums, churches to explore and most importantly, a slower pace, better suited the needs of our young family.
Archeological sites also proved kid-friendly. A particularly memorable day was spent in Volterra, a gorgeous hill town overlooking a valley of olive groves. We selected Volterra for its Etruscan history, pedestrian friendliness and dramatic scenery.
We entered the city on foot via the massive Porta Fiorentina gate, revealing a medieval architectural core. Our first stop was the Museo Guarnacci, one of Italy’s most significant archeological collections. Intricately carved Etruscan burial earns from the fourth to first centuries B.C. captured our daughter’s attention with their remarkably familiar domestic scenes. Roman mosaic patterns created the opportunity to point out the ancient origins of contemporary quilts we stitch at home. Our daughter played with Tomaso, an Italian-speaking toddler in the architectural gardens. Language was never a barrier where smiles pervaded.
The narrow, winding streets of Volterra led us to the St. Giusto Church, which dates back to 1171. Our daughter generated small, quiet echoes that bounced along the arcaded brick ceiling. We paused in a pew to take in the beauty and quiet.
We packed up and drove to Umbria for our second week. The Monteluco Campground in Spoleto fit the bill for the equivalent of $12 a night. We pitched our tent under fig trees and walked to town via a 12th-century viaduct.
Stopping in the 7th-century St. Pietro Church, we happened upon an Italian tenor rehearsing for a concert.
I enjoyed the vibe of the Italian life we observed. Families gathered for loud, late dinners. Children ran around the tables, playing. People parked kitchen chairs outside their dwellings to chat with passersby taking evening strolls. Men did play Bocce in the parks, some with cigarettes clenched in their teeth. The darker-complected Italians we passed, including teenagers, would sometimes smile at our daughter and say, “bimba bellissima” which translates to “beautiful girl.” Being blond had its advantages.
We no longer pack a tent on our jaunts. We’re more likely to rent a room, apartment or cottage—access to a kitchen remains key as we aspire to cook like the locals. I treasure the sweet and sometimes humorous memories, hanging on to lessons learned to inform the next journey, be it near or far.
Katherine Bielawa Stamper, a Williston resident, was a 2013 finalist for the Coolidge Prize for Journalism. Reader comments are welcome at Editor@willistonobserver.com or LittleDetailsCol@yahoo.com