Last summer, I had the opportunity to travel alone in Europe for about two weeks. Traveling alone has many advantages: I was able to make all the decisions, my decisions only affected me, I had no schedule or agenda, I was free to roam wherever I wanted to in all of Western Europe. The drawback is that I had no one I knew, with which to share my travel experiences. I made the most of my time while driving in Europe and was able to cover a lot more ground than had I been with a group. I hope you enjoy this tale.
My first thought was, “This is odd.”
Normally I would not have thought much of it, but I was in Tuscany, the land of olive oil and vino! I was traveling the back roads from Rome to Assisi on a Sunday morning and was determined to keep off the autostrada! My macchina (car) and I were one as we zipped through towns, hills, and valleys. I had rented a Renault in Paris three weeks ago, so we were pretty well acquainted.
The morning was turning into afternoon as I zipped through a small village, I noticed the local church was letting out, and the town center was filling with people rushing home to Sunday dinner. Throughout the morning, I had passed through many of these look-a-like towns which seemed to pop up every 20 kilometers or so.
The hills of Tuscany are deceiving. From a distance they appear to be rolling gently. Wide valleys are filled with alternating fields of amber grain and rich green pastures. The vineyards take over as the valley blends into the hillside. A little higher on the hills the vineyards are replaced with the silvery patina of the olive trees.
Throughout Tuscany, this pattern is repeated time and time again, arranged according to which crop will grow best at an elevation. Once you climb a hill and venture beyond the soil which will produce a crop, the hillside begins to fill with an assortment of weeds, bushes, and conifers. From a distance this adds a rich green cap to the hilltops. In the valleys the farms are each accompanied by a villa. Each villa is guarded by dual rows of very tall cedar trees leading up the driveway. The villas are constructed of golden sandstone with rich red terra cotta tile roofs, which complements the color palette of the landscape.
Just up the hill from the village, I came upon two girls standing in the shade of a tree. Their rich coffee-colored skin stood out beautifully against the brightly colored (and tightly fitting) clothing they were wearing. What were these women, so obviously out of place, doing here in the middle of nowhere?
I put it out of my mind as I continued on my journey through the hills. The next village came into view, situated far below in the valley. In a matter of minutes I was in the village center, passing the local church and heading out of town. Then, it happened again!
There standing in the shade of an old cedar, puffing patiently on a cigarette, was another one of these finely-dressed, dark-skinned women. Now this really began to catch my attention! What was going on here?
I found out about five kilometers up ahead when I encountered a whole slew of these women up and down the road as I approached the next village. These women were HOOKERS! They had migrated from Northern Africa to Tuscany where, for a fee, they will provide “entertainment” for the men-folk, presumably while the rest of the family goes to Mass or takes a Sunday afternoon siesta!
I know what you’re thinking…so I’d better get out of this while I can. Later in the day, while visiting a bar I bought a bottle of wine and shared it with a local gentleman. As he and I solved the problems of “politics and religion” he confirmed my suspicions. He said, “There are many young men, known as momma’s boys, that sneak off on a Sunday afternoon to visit the ladies on the outskirts of town.” Everyone knows it, and it is expected of the young and virile Italian boys. There is no problem!
Of course that’s a man’s viewpoint! However, it just goes to show that getting off-the-beaten-path can open your eyes to a lot more of local life than what is expected.
Travel is more than seeing the sights. Get out and explore!