We awoke in Florence on our last day of vacation with mixed feelings. We were so sad to be leaving Florence, and even sadder to be leaving Europe in a day, but we were also excited for the final adventure of our trip. We were up early, packed and waiting for our taxi before most of the city was stirring. We’d spend our final day of the trip exploring the rest of Tuscany, so off we went to pick up our rental car and embark on the second road trip of our epic Ladycation, as we began to bid a sad farewell to Europe.
We arrived at Sicily By Car right on time, but ended up waiting over an hour for them to bring our car down. We had a reservation at a vineyard that afternoon, so the delay meant giving up one of the two towns we’d planned to explore in between. I was not pleased. The girls had been looking forward to seeing Volterra since I first told them we were going there, and I didn’t want to let them down, so I decided we would skip San Gimignano, which was on my bucket list, and was the primary reason I wanted to do a Tuscan road trip. Another reason I’ll just have to go back.
When we got to Volterra I received my first reality check about Tuscany’s “rolling hills.” They may look like gentle, mild slopes in pictures, but that is not the case when you’re trying to get up to a hilltop town. It was hot and humid and we were staring up at Volterra from the parking area halfway down the hill. By this time, my feet were so sore and swollen I was having a hard time walking and wearing shoes (this turned out to be due to a more serious medical problem than I knew at the time, but that’s another story, and it ends with, I’m fine now). The last thing on the planet that I wanted to do was to climb a goddamn hill, but fuck my feet, I went anyway, cause I’m a boss-ass bitch, not a whiny quitter.
Volterra was exactly as I’d imagined it would be. A medieval, walled town with a fortress, and every building dating back centuries. After the fall of the Republic of Florence in 1530 Volterra had come under Medici control. As we walked I realized I may have missed out on seeing San Gimignano, but I got one last taste of Medici history for the road. Grazie mille, Italia!
We needed lunch, so we found a place to grab a bite in the main piazza. The girls had been looking forward to Volterra not because of its Medici history or architecture, but because of its movie history. Volterra was basically vampire headquarters in the Twilight series, and both Liv and Carey grew up in the Team-Edward-or-Team-Jacob generation. As we waited for our food to arrive, the girls hilariously reenacted a scene from Twilight: New Moon, much to the confusion of everyone else in the piazza. Another bonus to picking Volterra as our one Tuscan town: watching my daughter gleefully nerd-out over sparkly vampire movies. Just as priceless as a check mark on my bucket list.
After we ate lunch, we bid Volterra farewell and hopped back in our rental car to continue on our Tuscan Road Trip. Tuscany, with the rolling hills dotted with cypress trees, olive groves, and row upon row of grapevine was even more stunning in person than the pictures would suggest. The hills and the atmosphere play with the light in such a way as to make the entire landscape almost look like it’s glowing.
We drove over, and around, up and down, to our next stop at the Montemercurio Winery just outside Montepulciano. Montemercurio is a family owned winery and vineyard with a very small, intimate staff, and exceptional wines, set on a hilltop overlooking the picturesque Tuscan countryside. Two cats formed the welcome committee when we arrived, and Olivia was instantly overjoyed. Across the hills I could see a rainstorm slowly making its way across the landscape, and as I stood there I just couldn’t fathom how we were supposed to walk away from someplace so spectacular in less than 24 hours.
We went inside and were greeted by the lovely Irene, who would guide us through our tasting. She was friendly, had a great sense of humor, and she knew her shit. We tried 7 varieties of wine, plus some Grapa, which is essentially Italian moonshine. Every single one was better than the last, and we were in absolute heaven.
Once we’d sampled each of their magnificent wines I stepped outside for a cigarette and to take a few more photos. Olivia and Carey stayed inside talking with Irene, and at one point I heard her say I didn’t look old enough to be Liv’s mom, which cemented her place in my heart as my very favorite Italian.
Everywhere I looked was postcard-perfect. The puffy clouds in the blue sky, the greens and tans of the rolling Tuscan hills, the table under the lights just begging a family to sit down for a meal, and the little old lady who appeared on a balcony as I was snapping pictures. I didn’t understand a word she said, but I felt certain it was along the lines of, “How can you leave this paradise, you stupid American?!” I don’t know, nonna. I don’t like it either.
I went back inside as the girls were finalizing their purchase, and purchased a couple bottles to take home, myself. Irene was even more horrified than we were to learn we only had one day in Tuscany. We talked a little bit about what it was like to work there, and she ended up offering me a job. I’m sure she jokingly offers jobs to all the tourists who gush over how badly they want to stay, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t give me pause. Yes, yes I would like to move to Tuscany and handle the administrative work for this little hilltop vineyard with the friendly cats, charming employees, stunning views, and endless supply of bomb-ass wine, but I have to get back to my responsibilities in ‘Merica. I wanted to cry… Again…
As if we didn’t love her enough already, Irene asked where we were staying and suggested a restaurant. She even called the restaurant and made us a reservation, so all we had to do was show up. Irene was the embodiment of the warmth and charm of Tuscany. She was fantastica. Grazie mille, Irene and Montemercurio!
We were settling into our AirBnb as the sun began to set. The actual apartment is something of a blur. We spent less than 12 hours physically inside it, most of which were spent sleeping. What I do remember is that it was a very old, charming building in a tiny town, it was decorated nicely, had a large patio, snacks, and lots of barking dogs in the neighboring yard. It wasn’t fancy, but it was clean and comfortable and so very Italian.
Driving in the dark on the twisting, turning roads of Tuscany is not exactly my favorite thing. The locals, who are used to those narrow, winding roads, fly around the corners like they’re playing Mario Kart, and I was still struggling to figure out which gear I needed to be in. By the time we hit the switchbacks leading up to Montepulciano where our restaurant awaited I was actively fighting off a full-blown panic attack. When we finally parked the car I was shaking so badly I could hardly open the car door, and I immediately burst into tears. “Mom, it’s okay, you did it! We made it! We’re alive!” Olivia reassured me as we started walking towards the restaurant.
Once again, everything was delicious. Since it was our last real meal in Europe, we did it right. Wine, dessert, the whole thing. Were it not so chilly outside we may have stayed longer, but ultimately we decided to head back to the AirBnb, as we had to get an early start in the morning.
When we woke up none of us had the spark of joy and energy we’d had each previous day. We showered and got dressed, did a final check to ensure we weren’t forgetting anything, loaded up the rental car, and started driving towards Rome. It was a couple hours until we reached Leonardo da Vinci Airport, and I’d smoked my last cigarette early that morning. By the time we got there I was already craving one, but still had about 12 hours of traveling to do before I’d be able to satisfy that urge (though I did save a couple butts that I smoked in the smoking lounge at the airport, cause desperate times and all that…).
We’d purchased the cheapest airfare available, and we paid for it on the way home when we were all separated, each of us in a different middle seat. I spent 8 hours sandwiched between two enormous men, both of whom hogged the armrests to the point they were elbowing me in the side, and I spent 7 of those hours trying to control my nicotine-withdrawal-fueled rage with my arms folded across my chest. The last hour I’d had it and I aggressively pushed their elbows off the armrests and claimed both for myself, cause fuck those guys. I was, by this point, ready to be home, though I still wished my home were in Italy.
We ultimately landed safely in Cleveland, and although I was strangely surprised the gas station attendant by my house spoke such excellent English, I got my cigarettes and was sufficiently nicotined and snuggling my lonely cats in no time. It felt weird to be home, familiarity itself felt unfamiliar. It would take a few days to get used to, but eventually we settled back into our American routines. A year and a half later, we’ve all even eaten at Olive Garden again, something we swore we’d never do again while actually in Italy. I’d be ashamed, but damn that Alfredo sauce and breadsticks are delicious. Not Italian, but fucking delicious.
Thank you for joining us on our first International Ladycation! I hope you enjoyed following along with our journey, and that you’ll come back to see where we go next! One thing’s for sure, this wasn’t our last overseas trip. Our epic European Ladycation might have created Euro-travel junkies out of all three of us.
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