Saturday, June 21st:
My next stop was a weekend visit in Empoli (30 minutes outside of Florence) with my dear friends, Irene & Francesco.
Traveling from Santa Margherita Ligure to Empoli required three trains. The first train was from Santa Margherita Ligure to Rapallo. This train was a regional train. It was very crowded, with everyone traveling to the sea to try to escape the heat. The train departed and arrived on time.
My second train was an IC (InterCity) train. In 2003, reservations were optional on this train. Now, reservations are required. The InterCity trains also have been reconfigured. They no longer have compartments. Here’s a great website with current info & photos about the various trains in Italy.
From my old notes, I believe it cost 3 euros extra for this reservation. When I went to purchase my train tickets while in Parma, the woman told me that I did not need a reservation, but I insisted. From past experience, I knew the 3 euros would be worth it to have a guaranteed seat on the train.
When my IC train arrived, I noticed that the sign on the first car (carrozza) said it was out of order. The second and the third cars had signs saying carrozza 2 and carrozza 3. My reservation was on carrozza 2. I boarded between those two cars. I walked towards the 2nd car thinking that must be carrozza 2. All the individual compartments with the reservations said carrozza 3, so I turned back around.
Wearing a large backpack and pulling a small wheeled suitcase made turning around quite difficult. I was a terrible packer back then! Most people were trying to go one way, while a few of us were trying to go the opposite way. The 20 – 30 people just did not want to let the few of us get by first, so each person had to squeeze by me, which was a VERY TIGHT squeeze. Once I finally reached the car I now thought was carrozza 2, all the compartments in this car also said carrozza 3! Confused yet? I certainly was!
I asked someone in one of the compartments where carrozza due (car 2) was. the woman insisted it was the car I just came from. I tried to explain that those cars all said carrozza tre (car 3). Just then the capotreno, the person who checks the tickets, arrived. I asked him where carrozza due (car 2) was. He began going on and on about something in very rapid Italian and then finally told me to wait while he helped an older woman with a big suitcase, who also happened to have a reservation for a seat in carrozza 2.
As he helped this woman, we both waited in the very narrow hallway. People continued to try to squeeze by us. Finally he told me that I could have his seat or at least that was what I thought he said. I didn’t know that there was a compartment reserved just for the capotreni. I told him that I did not know where his seat was located. He spoke rapidly in Italian while moving his hands.
He finally told me to follow the other woman. The two of us slowly made our way down towards the front of the car. There I found another capotreno sitting with one other person. There were 4 more empty seats left in the compartment along with a bunch of “train stuff” like tickets, etc. on one of the seats.
Once seated, the ride was wonderful. It was air conditioned but not too cold. I had a lively conversation about Hawaii, the beaches, the sharks, etc with the capotreno, the woman, and the other man in the compartment. Eventually the first capotreno I spoke to brought two more people going to Napoli down to sit in our compartment.
At one point during the ride, I found out that the air conditioning was broken in the first car, which was actually called “carrozza due/car 2”. Since the windows did not open on the IC trains, the capotreno told me that this car was like an oven.
The older woman, who I originally waited with, asked the first capotreno when he stopped by (the more lively man who gave us our seats) if the car would be broken again when she returned in a week. She had a reservation in car 2 for her return trip. The capotreno again started talking rapidly with his hands going on an on about how he had no idea if the train she took in a week would have a car that was out of order. They went back and forth about this matter. Somehow she did not understand this concept of not knowing about the functioning of the air conditioning on a train a week away. It was a very amusing exchange. I just sat there and smiled. He thought it was pretty funny that I understood him and the situation.
My 2nd train from Rapallo to Pisa arrived with 5 minutes to spare for me to catch my 3rd train from Pisa to Empoli. Irene and Francesco were waiting for me at the train station when I arrived.
We drove to Vallombrosa to escape the heat. Vallombrosa is a little town up in the mountains about 45 minutes from Empoli. There is a very old abbey there along with a farmacia where they sell medicines with herbs and little bags of candy.
Here’s Francesco & Irene in front of the abbazia di Vallombrosa/abbey of Vallombrosa.
There is also a little zoo in Vallombrosa. When I heard zoo, my first thought was how crazy that there would be animals such as tigers, elephants, etc. in Vallombrosa, but this zoo was a zoo for forest animals. I did not see any animals roaming around while I was there. We sat at the park area for a while in the shade talking about things in Italy and the US, comparing how they are the same or different.
Once back in Empoli, we went for a short walk. We had dinner at a small restaurant in town. The restaurant was famous for their portobello mushrooms and their bistecca alla fiorentina (florentina steak), which is almost raw in the middle. I dislike mushrooms and I do not eat red meat. Fortunately, there were a few items on the menu without mushrooms.
Francesco ordered the bistecca alla fiorentina and the portobello mushrooms. Both Irene & I ordered the ravioli con burro e salvio (ravioli stuffed with ricotta & greens, with a sauce of butter & sage). This was the moment I discovered one of my all time favorite dishes in Italy! At the time, I said I thought it was the best ravioli meal I had ever had.
Francesco insisted that I try a portobello mushroom… so I did. I still don’t like mushrooms! Irene also ordered the portobello mushrooms. I ordered for a side dish, some fried zucchini. Yum! For dessert, we had delicious homemade tiramisu.
When we returned to their house, we watched a little TV. I mentioned that I have seen some good movies on channel 7. Francesco thought that was quite amusing and told me I am the only person in Italy that watches channel 7!
After watching a little TV, we went next door to Francesco’s parents home. They were not back from the sea yet so we waited for them to return (this was now almost midnight). His parents just finished having two people from Australia stay with them and now I would be staying in Francesco’s old room. He told me that his mother’s house was like a bed and breakfast. His parents were very kind. I felt right at home when they arrived.
Sunday, June 22nd:
The next morning, I slept in a bit and then enjoyed a wonderful breakfast along with a cappuccino made by his mother. We had an interesting chat – half in English and half in Italian. His mother had taken a course in English and was trying to learn more so we both took turns correcting each other, learning more of each others language.
After breakfast, Irene and Francesco took me into the center of Empoli. We went to a museum, which had some very beautiful paintings. We also peeked into a church where a first communion just ended.
Here are some photos I took while visiting the center of Empoli.
After a short tour of the town, we went to Irene’s parents house to have lunch. Irene’s mother prepared a very delicious pasta with pesto, some little breaded chicken pieces on a skewer and 3 different types of roasted eggplant; one with basil leaves, one with jam inside, and one with cheese inside. Irene’s brother was also there.
Later on in the day, there would be a big celebration in the town, called Corpus Domini. For the Corpus Domini celebration, every family received a coupon in the mail for a free carton of gelato and so for dessert we had gelato.
After lunch, Irene’s father proceeded to tell me in great detail (all in Italian) that bull fighting was a good sport. This conversation started because of a wall hanging in his house with a picture of a bull and bullfighter. I mentioned that I thought it was a sad way for a bull to die. He became very animated as he told me step by step, with gestures and expressions, about bullfighting. Everyone was in tears laughing. Each time we thought he was finished, he would continue with more information. Somehow, and I have no idea how we got on the subject of the cartoon, Sylvester and Tweety Bird…BUT he insisted that the name was titi (tee tee) and NOT Tweety, even though it was an American cartoon. More laughter ensued. It was a very delicious and memorable lunch!
This is a view from or near Irene’s parents’ house. Wheat & sunflowers are rotated in this field every year. I always seem to be there during the wheat years!
After our wonderful lunch, we went back to Irene and Francesco’s house for the rest of the afternoon. Although it was very hot outside, the inside of their house was very cool. I was amazed as they had no air conditioning. Instead, because of how the house was built (with special bricks in the walls), the house remained nice and cool.
Irene showed me pictures from their trip to Nepal. Next, we somehow got into a conversation about the Bold and the Beautiful, which in Italy is called “The Beautiful”. I told him that I saw part of an episode while in Liguria that was about 6 months behind the episodes in the US. I showed him a website where he could read current updates. He was so excited that there was a website where he could find out everything that would happen. He joked, saying that he would sell the info to his friends, not telling them that it was on a website! Irene told me that she watches ER. Here in Italy, it was one year behind, so I showed her the website for ER to also find out what was happening. Then Francesco showed me a website about his calcio team.
Later in the afternoon, we went back to the center of the town to watch the religious procession for the Corpus Domini celebration. It was a parade, which took place in the center of town, with the priests, some church members (including his parents), and the children who just received first communion from each church in the town. At the end of the parade was a marching band.
After the procession, we drove to Montelupo to see the ceramic festival. There were little stands with ceramics or glass items, set up like a craft fair outside many of the shops. We also saw a glass blower making glass horses.
A few years later, Irene & Francesco sent me a green glass horse (green glass is famous in Empoli). One day I came home and somehow one of the legs on the glass horse broke. I could not figure out what happened. It was not anywhere near a spot where wind could have knocked the horse down and my windows were even closed at the time. I was pretty bummed.
That evening, we went back to Francesco’s parents’ house for dinner. His mother prepared ravioli stuffed with ricotta cheese and a tomato sauce, prosciutto & melon, authentic Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, pecorino cheese, lettuce for a salad, bread, wonderful fresh mozzarella cheese, tomatoes. Another very delicious meal! For dessert, we had more ice cream (from the free gelato weekend). This time the gelato was a gelato cake… also very delicious!
A while back I sent a CD to Irene & Francesco that I made with Hawaiian music. One of the songs was called Li Hing Hula. They wrote to me that they loved that song. I tried to explain what li hing mui was in an email, but it was too hard to explain. So, on this trip, I brought a little package of li hing mui with me. Those that have tasted li hing mui know that it has a very strong taste and you either love it or hate it. I personally do not like it.
It was amusing watching everyone try the li hing mui! We were all in tears, laughing, mostly because earlier, Francesco told me that he thought his father would not try it, but he ended up being the only one that liked it. He proceeded to eat two pieces and then said it was even better than the gelato! After dinner, his father began to tell me the history of Ferragosto, that it started 2 thousand years ago, and again we were all in tears laughing so hard.
Around 11 pm, we walked over to a field or park close by where the Corpus Domini celebration continued. It was a big fair or carnival with a ferris wheel, go carts, roller coasters, etc. and little games and food.
It was really amazing because for a moment you would think that you were at a fair in the US. It was so similar until you heard Italian being spoken. There were a few rides slightly different but basically it was identical.
We ran into some friends of Irene’s from work who were very nice. Then at 11:30, the firework display began.There were many of the same fireworks as in the US, but also some that started from the ground and then swirled up into the sky. It lasted quite a long time. I think it was one of the best firework displays I have ever seen. Maybe it was just that I was in Italy!
After the fireworks display ended, we went back home. I told Francesco to tell his mom not to worry about making me breakfast because she had to go to work in the morning. I could just get something at the train station. However, she insisted, saying it was not a problem, and then Francesco reminded me that is was a “bed and breakfast”!
I had a such a wonderful stay! Everyone was so kind! I was very sad to leave.
Next up – 3 nights in Ferrara