Fairly soon into my trip, the travel arrangements started to become erratic. Circumstances outside of my control (aren’t they always) meant that my travel plans were being updated by the minute. Often via email, I was receiving updates from work about where I might be needed in the next 8 to 12 hours. Quite abruptly I was sent a train ticket and instructions: Go to Pisa, wait there for more information.
What do I know about Pisa? There is the well-known Leaning Tower of Pisa, thronging with tourists and people posing awkwardly in an attempt to hold up the tower. Not exactly Katy’s idea of a deep cultural experience. Pisa central is fairly small, and armed with a map I head out of the hotel and, for the first time in a very long while, I just wander. With Naples at least 5 hours to the south, I’m beginning to feel slightly less threatened by every person I meet on the street. I pass a few working-men’s bars and a couple of traditional restaurants. Nothing took my interest until I come across La Grotto Osteria overflowing with guests, and buzzing with dinner time conversation. The hospitality is, after Naples, a shocking welcoming warm smile. What a revelation! Immediately, I realise I’ve found the ‘real Italy’.
The outside seating area is jammed packed on this warm summer’s evening, so I take the only chair inside the dining room, which as you may have guessed has a warm cave feeling, with the chalky walls hugging around you as you take your seat. Now, we are in Tuscany. This is Food and Wine. This is Dining with Style. There is no question about it, but unlike just 24 hours previously in the south, the food and the culture and the atmosphere are more viscous. More olive oil than balsamic vinegar. More luxury than necessity. I love it. This is my table.
Yes, I know about wine, and I could talk for a strenuously long time on oak barrels, varietals and bottle closures. But give me a wine in a language that is not in English and I’m a fumbling virgin. I have no idea what goes where and who does what. I just know I want some. So I smile at the waiter, and look sheepishly foreign and ask for a glass of red wine. This is Tuscany, after all. The red wine arrives and I go in for the swirl and sniff, trying to recover some dignity as a vinophile (is that even a word?). Oh, its promising. Then, the big sip, the first kiss. Bam, she kicks me in the teeth! The ambient temperature must be at least 30 degrees, and this Tuscan beauty can’t be far from room temperature. The temperature has completed altered the character of this anonymous lady: she’s brassy and bold, and almost evaporating with heavy alcoholic fumes. It’s amazing, if this is what they do with the wine, what are they going to do with the food?
I am just so overcome with the sounds and smells of this room, that I just have to write something down immediately. This is not my usual style; I like to write my reflections after a few days once the hangover and the giddiness has passed and I’m able to communication coherently again. But this – this can’t wait. Suddenly, pen in hand, I’m scribbling all over my brown paper place setting. If only I had black eyeliner and Rooney Mara hair I would look so trendy making notes for my Food Blog. Because I am a Serious. Food. Writer. Not really. It just looks a bit weird. And I am having so much fun.
The menu. Again I’m faced with the main problem of dining alone as a Food Writer. If we were a table of two, I could potentially sample 6 dishes. Alas, I am solo again, so it’s a maximum of 3 dishes tonight and I’m going to have to choose carefully. I employ Dad’s old maxim – look what everyone else is eating, they’re the locals after all. I see a lot of beef. Grilled steaks gleaming with a decadent denseness, juicy redness served on crisp crunchy salad leaves. I’ve seen at least 5 of these main courses pass me by in the past 10 minutes or so, and every patron immediately reaches for the olive oil and dresses their main meal generously. Oh the civilisation! I’m seriously tempted by Tomatoes Pudding with Sweet Garlic Sauce and I’m dying to know more about this beef. However, I settle on Parmesan Ice Cream with Caramelised Onions followed by Steamed Cod Fish with grilled vegetables. ( I just had to try the cod, after reading Mark Kurlansky’s book Cod only just last week. More about this later on Katy’s Table).
There is a calming vibrancy in the dining room, and I recognise an atmosphere I’ve experienced before but never really pinpointed. Suddenly in La Grotto, I piece it all together. There are two kind of tourists that travel the world and whom we encounter. There are the camera-around-the-neck, tour bus, Contiki tourists who have flown in from Austin or Pretoria or Melbourne, to Europe (not necessarily) in the search of Culture and History. These are the Box-Tickers. Eiffel Tower check. Robben Island check. Berlin Wall check. Swimming with dolphins/sharks/turtles check. Piccadilly Circus check. Time Square check. Big Five (and nothing else) check. These are the ruthless culture hunters, armed with zoom lenses, day travel cards and sharp elbows. These people are on an itinerary, they have sights to see and audio guides to listen to, and nothing, nobody, not you, is going to get in their way. As if they’re ever going to meet you again? Not likely, they’ll be out of here before the sun sets.
Then there is the other kind of tourist, the local tourist who speaks the language and understands the humour. The tourist who probably drove here, or maybe took a train. These are the people who take Staycations or Minibreaks. They understand just enough not to be offensive, and yet, this being their country they remain warm and welcoming and informative. They are not cutthroat and competitive, as if I might get to Buckingham Palace first and see it all away before they do. Sitting in La Grotta, I realised that there was a real chance that I was the only foreigner in the room. And although everyone else there were visitors, almost none of them were tourists. This familiarity and friendliness is what we are all looking for when we travel, an underlying recognition, something that we are all trying to relate to. I realise now, that on my travels, to really experience the people and the culture I’m going to have to seek out these places where everyone is still treated like a person, and not like another Tripadvisor Rater.