June 5, 2012: Montecatini Terme

I got up early this morning at about six and went down to the lobby with the laptop to attempt to do some work.  I had told Dominica last night that likely I would be down there working this morning so she was not surprised.

I probably got in an hour or more in the lobby before Dominica needed me to come back up to the room because the girls had woken up and it was time to bring them down to get breakfast.  I got a ton of pictures uploaded this morning which is a relief.  I actually got several hundred uploaded and have only about one hundred and two left to go before I am completely caught up.  Still a ton of videos though.   I am making those way faster than I can get around to uploading them.

I did a bit of real work this morning too.  Not much, just a little, but something.

We brought the girls down for breakfast at eight.  Breakfast is included with our room but we were not sure about that before.  Things are so different in Europe.  Getting used to when you get or don’t get breakfast is a big one.

Breakfast was quite good.  Very similar to the style of what we are used to across the continent.  Breads, cheeses, meats (not for us, of course), spreads, cereal, juice, coffee (Italian or American here.)  There are also scrambled eggs – we haven’t seen that in weeks.  If we do find eggs it is hard boiled eggs.

I took the laptop into breakfast with me and continued uploading from there which is how I managed to be so productive.  Just getting time for the uploads to run makes all of the difference.

After breakfast Dominica decided that she needed to lay down for a bit and Luciana was acting like she wanted a nap.  So Liesl and I went out for a walk around town.  Primarily we went down to the train station to deal with our seat reservations for the train tomorrow.  Italian trains needing seat reservations really makes train travel here a lot more difficult than we have grown accustomed to it being.

After dealing with our train reservations Liesl and I walked around town for a bit checking out some new areas.  Then back to our hotel.  It was probably eleven by the time that we got back.  While we were out one thing that struck me was that here in Montecatini Terme they have automats.  For those not familiar, it is like a store built out of vending machines.  These were common back in the earlier part of the twentieth century in larger cities.  They are rare today.  We hypothesized that because Italy has such a “shut down” lifestyle for much of the day that having automated facilities to dispense needed items would be pretty critical.  I am not sure that I have ever seen an automat in person before.  Very interesting.

By late morning we decided to go out for a walk and to get some lunch.  So we set out and headed east, it seemed like the way to go.  We did not go more than a few blocks when we found a place that looked really nice for an easy lunch.  So we picked a table out on the street and ate there.  We had a nice lunch of tuna sandwiches, pizza and gelato.  We also got a bag of cookies to take with us on our walk.

We headed north and ended up finding the city park right away.  It is very nice so we walked into the park and walked all around it.  We came across a very old man-made waterfall with ancient steps leading down to it, the remains of an old spa that has long been closed, a new fountain, the municipal tennis courts which are actual clay courts and a giant, beautiful carousel.  It was a really nice walk and we were out for quite a while.  Liesl walked, rather than rode in the stroller, for much of it.

We walked through the street shops for a bit and were just about to head to a playground for Liesl when she decided to be stubborn and got into really big trouble for refusing to take my hand when a car was coming.  So she ended up getting carried and not getting to go to the playground and we went straight back to the hotel.

We did some research and asked the hotel owner about getting to Montecatini Alto via the funiculari.  She said that it ran every half hour until midnight which is awesome.  After being in the German world for so long where everything shuts down super early and even getting food once the sun starts to set is difficult we were expecting the transportation to and from the top of town to stop at six or seven o’clock at the latest and assumed that we would be unable to go up there at all.  Italy is so different from northern Europe.  From a business standpoint this makes a lot of sense as this allows people to actually make use of the two parts of town and not to function like to distant towns with little associating them other than their views of each other.

So a little later on, after Luciana had taken a nap, we set out to walk back the way that we had been this morning and go a little further on to the funiculari which we took at around six to go up to the top of the village.  Liesl enjoyed the ride.  It cost fourteen Euros for the four of us to ride up and back down and there were some great views while riding it.  It is a small vehicle, apparently the tourist traffic going up and down the mountain never gets too crazy.  This really is not a tourist kind of town.  We’ve not met any English-speaking tourists while here and have seen very few tourists at all.  Those that we have seen are almost all elderly Europeans – mostly Italian with a good percentage of Germans.  Getting to the area from Germany, Switzerland and Austria is pretty easy to do.  So we feel good being in a place clearly a travel destination for the locals rather than for Americans.

It was easy to get to the funiculari and we did not have to wait long at all before us and just two or three other passengers were ferried up the mountain side.  Arriving in Montecatini Alto was, quite simply, breathtaking.  So far this is second only to the Alpine Lakes in Austria for beauty.  An amazing medieval fortified hill town, still intact, on top of a high mountain in the Apennines overlooking a Tuscan valley with Montecatini Terme down below.  Awesome.  This is what Tuscany is all about.

We walked around the hill town for a while working our way higher and higher wandering down one side street and then another.  Mostly our route was governed by where the stroller was able to proceed as many of the streets were heavily cobbled and very inclined making the stroller very difficult to propel.  There were several historic sites to see such as the old church and fortifications at the top of the hill.  It was really beautiful and quite interesting.

After strolling for a while we decided that we should eat at around seven thirty so we headed to the main piazza where the restaurants were just setting up.  There were a handful of people already eating but it was very few.  We are not at all used to this aspect of Italian life.  Being from the States where dinner is generally done pretty early, especially in Texas where we are used to the main dinner rush being around six, and then traveling in the UK and the northern European mainland countries where dinner is often earlier still we are pretty surprised when a restaurant opening at seven thirty is considered to be an early opening restaurant.  Now this is great for my own lifestyle but something that really takes getting used to.  That eight or nine o’clock is normal dinner time for people arriving at a restaurant and that a normal dinner takes two hours or more is very unusual.  The country club has acclimated us to the slow, multi-hour eating lifestyle but not the time.  The country clubs in Dallas, which are the types of establishments that one would expect to have later than usual dining hours, start dinner officially around five and often close between nine and nine thirty.

So we stopped by and looked at the menu at the restaurant at the “top” of the piazza – that is, the restaurant with the highest elevation as the piazza is on a pretty dramatic incline.  The menu looked quite interesting and the waitresses setting up both stopped by and said good evening to us.  As Americans, this pretty much makes us feel compelled to eat at a place as we are not at all used to the idea of wandering by a series of restaurants before choosing one.  To us, driving up and looking at a menu is a pretty big commitment.  So rather than wandering through the piazza and checking out the other menus we decided to just go with this one.  We are pretty much guessing at which one is going to be best anyway so it works fine.  This was definitely the last of the restaurants to open tonight.  Later I did walk through and discovered that we ate at the most expensive of the restaurants on the piazza and by far the most formal so likely the price and late opening go together as this was not a cafe or anything like that but a very nice restaurant.

We opted for an outside table, the weather is great tonight.  If anything it is on the chilly side but not by much.  We were the first patrons at the restaurant and the only ones for at least half an hour if not more.  By the end of the night only three tables were filled wit a total of ten diners, with us being counted as four.  We were the only ones to eat outside.  The inside seating was a large, cavernous room with a large opening onto the piazza so it felt mostly like being outside itself but not quite as cold.  None of the restaurants on the piazza were busy but this was the slowest of them.  I assume that that is because it is more formal and more expensive.  I did see someone stop in and pick up about five pizzas to go, though, so maybe they do some about of local take-away business too.  I imagine that people who live in Montecatini Alto are very likely to use take-out a lot.

Dinner was excellent.  We started with bruchetta that Dominica and I shared and we eat got a salad as we are always a bit low on vegetables while traveling.  Our diets have way too much bread and way too few veggies.  Dominica’s first course was a penne-like pasta in a pumpkin sauce that was quite good.  Mine first course was a simple cheese-filled ravioli with a butter sage sauce, very light.  Both were very good.  The girls shared a type of flat spaghetti in a vegetarian sauce that was really excellent.  We were pretty jealous of their pasta tonight.

For our main course Dominica and I decided to split the rare, ancient Tuscan pizza-like dish called schiacciata which is the specialty of this particular restaurant.  I took some pictures of the menu so that we could figure out what exactly it was later.  There was a wide variety of schiacciata available at the restaurant that we had chosen so we decided to try the one called Schiacciata Francesca for obvious reasons.  My mother would be really proud since Schiacciata Francesca is a form of Tuscan asparagus pizza.

All of our dinner was quite excellent and we were very happy that we chose this restaurant.  The waitresses were great too and spent quite a bit of time hanging out with the girls.  They even got their picture taken with them.  Liesl was sure to give each of them a sticker.  The stickers continue to go over really well, both with Liesl and with the people who receive them.  Dominica gets extra marks for coming up with the sticker idea and executing it and special thanks to my cousin Sara for making the design which so perfectly captures the spirit of our Liesl.

After dinner we got dessert.   Dominica got something called a gondolino which was most like a chocolate mousse with coffee on a cookie base.  I, again, did the Tuscan thing and got biscotti with sweet wine for dunking.  I just love the cookies and sweet wine thing.  I’m addicted.

With dinner, Dominica and I split a bottle of excellent red wine from the local region.  Ah, wine in Italy, sitting on a piazza in a hill town.  This is la dolce vita.

After dinner, which took a surprising three hours, we walked around town just a little bit more and managed to find a spot with phenomenal views from the “back side” of town out over the local olive groves and vineyards.  The main approach to the hill town faces the city so the view is dominated by the lights and buildings of the city, but this new view that we found is much like you imagine seeing in Tuscany.  Amazing.

We didn’t walk for long as it was getting late and we knew that we had a bit of walking yet to do before we get back to our hotel.  So we walked back to the funiculari where we had to wait about twenty minutes before the next run.  Now we got to see the view of the city in the dark with all of the twinkling lights.  Not what I expected from this region of Tuscany but quite nice.  The mountains to the south are really tall.

The funiculari filled up quite quickly and it was standing room only with everyone crammed in to get people down to Montecatini Terme.  This might be a tour group or it might just be the end of the first dinner crowd.  Way more people than we expected.

Once down in Montecatini Terme we were completely shocked to discover that now, at a quarter after ten at night, that town was far, and I mean far, more alive than we had ever seen it during the day.  Tons of restaurants and cafes were open, shops, including outdoor shops, were alive and quite busy.  The streets were packed with locals out for a stroll.  Everyone was dressed up for the evening “promenade” through the city.  I have never seen anything like it.  This is the Italian culture that we always hear about but seeing it really drives home just how dramatically different Italian culture can be than in neighbouring countries.  There were thousands of people out dressed up, shopping, walking, chatting, meeting, people watching, being seen, eating dinner…. this is the life of Montecatini Terme.

We walked through much of town and it was actually hard to get through the streets due to the crowds.  So odd to see.  I love this, though.  This is how it should be – go out late for food and end with a nice walk through town and you get to hang out with everyone.  And this is a Tuesday night too!  If this was the weekend it would not be nearly so shocking.

We got back to the hotel and Dominica and I put the girls to bed and Dominica started packing.  After everyone was down for the night and Dominica went to bed, which was a little after midnight, I went down to the lobby for another two hours to do uploads to Flickr and write some SGL updates.  Tomorrow we head off to Piedmont and while we expect to have Internet access there, we don’t really know what the situation will be so I want to get as much done today as possible so that we are not so backed up.

A lot of the Columbia basketball players who are in the hotel were down in the lobby attempting to use the Internet access with me.  There were some of them still there when I headed off to bed around two or two thirty in the morning.  Tomorrow is a very long and likely very stressful travel day as we have a lot of train and bus changes to make and some of our journey is not known yet so we have to figure it out as we go.  We will definitely be sad to leave Montecatini Terme, this was a great town.  We are very encouraged about Italy after this.  This was not at all where we thought that we would like to live and, so far, this is ranking as the best, or nearly the best, place that we have found in our European travels.  Of places that we have stopped, Boppard is really great for actually living there day to day but I think that we both feel that the Italian lifestyle suits us better.

We are very interested to see what Piedmont has to offer us.

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