We decide to rent a car for a couple of days to get to some of the places we can’t access by train (or foot, as ambitious as we are). The nearest car rental place is in Castel Nuevo, so we take a train. Francesca has called and made the arrangements for us; all we have to do is call the place when we arrive at the train station, and someone will pick us up. This someone is Gino, a dark-haired man of about 40 who speaks English with a strong Scottish accent. His parents were from
Italy, and he returned after many years in . I ask
him how he likes living here, and he shrugs. His wife and kids are here; he’s settled. It’s
like anywhere – life is what you make of it. He travels somewhere every year,
choosing to see the world rather than save a lot of money. Life is short. Scotland
We are grateful for Gino, as neither of the other employees speak English. We fill out the necessary paperwork and our on our way. The car is a standard (a manual, as they say here) so Judith’s in the driver’s seat (at some point in my life, I will learn to drive a standard). I am appointed the navigator, a role I take on only out of necessity (maps are not my forte, you may recall, and fall under Judith’s normal area of responsibility. The pressure is on).
We are headed to Vente del Grotto to tour the caves there. We get there successfully, me pointing the way and Judith skillfully handling the many twists and turns of rural Italian roads. We do a one-hour tour of the caves. It is my first exposure to stalagmites and stalactites in real life, my previous experience (in books) through Mr. Burton’s grade 8 science class (until now, the only time I’d used that knowledge was in Trivial Pursuit). Not surprisingly, the real thing proves much more impressive; we are looking at thousands of years of nature’s work in perfect formation. It is 10.7 degrees in the cave today, as it is every day (every moment, in fact) of the year, no matter what the outside temperature.
I confess to having a few fleeting moments of wondering what would happen if we were to be caught in here in an earthquake (a fate that is unlikely, but I imagine unpleasant). As if reading my thoughts, our guide says that the formations in the cave serve as a sort of cement holding the rock in place – it is anti-seismic, she says. In 1985, there was an earthquake in the area while a tour was taking place in the cave. The people outside were panicked. When the tour was over and the people emerged from the cave, they wondered what all of the fuss was about. They hadn’t felt a thing.
After Vente del Grotto, we drive to the nearby Calomini Hermitage, a monastery. It is quite and serene (no surprise there, I guess. Good choice, 7th century monks).
From there we seek out somewhere to eat. We are still mastering Italian mealtimes. Generally, restaurants do not open until 7 p.m. unless they are pizzerias or cafés. Having come upon several closed restaurants, we decide to drive into nearby Barga to find somewhere to eat. We manage to find a small pizzeria/store, so grab a couple of slices to keep us going.
As we’re standing on the sidewalk trying to decide where to go next, I hear someone calling “Margaret! Margaret!” I barely register my name since I know no one here. “Margaret! Margaret!” the call comes again from a nearby car. I turn to see Mark, Michelle, Lizzie and Steven (our British friends from yesterday) in a passing car. “Wait right there!” says Mark, as they park the car. Funnily, they had not planned on coming to Barga, nor had we.
“We were out looking at houses,” says Lizzie, handing us a brochure for a house they saw this afternoon.
“Are you planning to buy?” asks Judith.
“Oh no,” says Lizzie. “It’s a rental. We picked it up for you.” She hands us the brochure (which likely falls significantly outside of our price range, but looks lovely, and how better to spend a summer than in Tuscany?).
We go our separate ways and explore the city, which is, like many we’ve visited here, built on a mountain. We have spent lots of time on this trip walking and climbing stairs, which is likely fortuitous given our diet of bread, cheese, pasta and gelato (one a day, which is actually quite restrained, if you consider the allure of gelato).
Finally, we head back to the car, wanting to return home before dark. Once again, I am in the navigator’s seat, and once again, I navigate us to our destination without a single wrong turn (no small feat around here). Perhaps I underestimated my abilities. All the same, I am turning the responsibility for map-reading back to Judith as soon as we return the car.