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Tuscany Scotland to Tuscany in Caro’s Car


10+ Posts
By Caro from UK, Fall 2002
Car ferry from Scotland to Belgium, drive to Tuscany, 2 weeks in a villa and then 2 nights on the way back to the ferry.

This trip report was originally published on SlowTrav.com.

Scotland to Belgium

We took our own car over on the ferry from Rosyth in Scotland to Zeebrugge in Belgium and spent 2 days driving down through Belgium, France, Switzerland and Italy.

Unfortunately my husband Graham insisted on driving till he dropped so my carefully downloaded plans for hotels in Strasbourg and Bologna did not get used and I had no other hotel information at all. The first night we managed at last to find a Holiday Inn Express in Luzern after getting lost in Basel. I actually really appreciate the road signs back in this country a lot more now, having navigated our way through Europe and back for 2589 miles. I was eventually getting to grips with the fact that the roads over there have at LEAST two numbers each and that green or blue signs may or may not mean autostrada!

I had downloaded route plans from Viamichelin but could not follow them at all as most road signs did not give road numbers or distances and Graham had a tendency to go to places totally off our route when I was frantically searching through my book for hotels etc. (e.g. "Follow the green signs to Basel – remember green, basel, like the herb!!!"). He went to BERN; well the sign WAS green. And the place name began with B. so we had a few diversions onto A roads (orange) which were slower but much more interesting.

A Night in Montepulciano

The second night we stayed in Montepulciano at Meuble Evoe right in the centre and Graham managed to reverse into a wall while parking, almost depriving a house of its power supply cable which he squashed. Of course it was all my fault as he thought I was directing him in but I don’t see how I could have been as I was about 20 feet away on the opposite side of the car. We had a very Italian style row in the middle of the street until a laid-back local builder wandered over and said the wall was OK.

In Montepulciano we visited one of your recommendations, Ai Quattro Venti which had lovely pici with meat ragu, grilled chicken and tagliata of beef with balsamic vinegar and spinach and tarts of prune and fig.

We had breakfast the next morning on the Duomo square in a caffe which was invaded by very over-enthusiastic perma-tanned American cyclists all wearing those ‘jelly shorts’ which stop saddlesores and the special cycling shoes with metal soles which made them all sound like they were wearing stilettos. A middle aged lady at the next table then proceeded to light up and smoke a pipe after finishing her croissant.

To the Villa near Radicofani

We were staying in a villa called Podere L’Elmo which was very much off the beaten track on a road between Celle sul Rigo (where I understand Pauline and Steve stayed - we were on the other side of the valley with a beautiful view of Celle sul Rigo from the terrace) and Radicofani.

The villa was ENORMOUS; in fact it sleeps up to 16 and there were only 2 of us but as we booked so late smaller ones were not free. It was well equipped with a private pool (rescued local frog 3 times) which was on the terrace overlooking the valley, all bedrooms had en-suite bathrooms and there was TV, a pool table and table tennis outside – we found the ping-pong bats on the last day when I removed 50 packets of pasta I was packing to take home from a bench box seat and said ‘what’s in here then?’.

The kitchen is going to be re-done this winter but was OK. The road to the villa is 1.5 km of unfinished track but we were very secluded and only disturbed by the bells of the local sheep twice a day as they went to be milked (I think). The Radicofani Pecorino is excellent and I am especially fond of the Fresco.

Unfortunately Graham attracted something evil with wings and teeth and I counted 86 insect bites all over him in one day. We booked through Meon Villas but the villa is available out of season (Nov – April) direct from the owner; he also has another one on the far side of Radicofani facing Monte Amiata (which is a ski resort). We drove there and the hotels were all closed so it was like a ghost town, but the car park at the top featured people swaddled Eskimo-like against the cold with stalls selling sausage sandwiches and nuts and dried fruits and local cheeses! Franco, the villa owner, is a great guy who has another Agriturismo villa complex and vineyard near Montepulciano and he invited us over for a wine-tasting which unfortunately we could not go to as we were meeting friends in Siena that day.

Ristorante Daniela in San Casciano dei Bagni

San Casciano dei Bagni was quite close to the villa. The caffe was great, English newspapers and the elderly Mama of the house selling superb pizzas etc. in the back.

We had 2 meals in Ristorante Daniela; a lunch when we shared the antipasto della casa, Graham had the bean soup with spelt then the agnello. Daniela and I had the ribollita (superb), followed by the pappardelle col lepre. Finished off with the home-made ice-cream (amarena, stracciatella and pistachio). They also have 2 types of ‘tasting menu’ for the whole table which looked very interesting if you weren’t sure what to order.

The owners are so nice and I showed the lady the pages from the Slow Travelers website, she took down the address and was most pleased!

We also had dinner there the last night of our hols and it was exceptional. Again we shared the antipasto – mixed wild boar ham, sausage and salami. Graham had the home-made ravioli stuffed with pigeon which he said was the best pasta he had ever tasted. I had gnocchi verdi with savoy cabbage and truffle sauce (unbelievable). For secondi Graham had roasted pork fillet with lentil puree and I had baked pate-stuffed rabbit with the most beautiful baby roast potatoes. Finally I had the panacotta with caramel and Graham had ‘After Eight’ ice-cream (huge scoops of chocolate and mint).

A Day in Siena

I think Siena was my favourite city as it is compact and full of immaculately dressed Italian men strutting the streets with posh dogs on leads (in England we call them ‘right posers’) and lots of noisy locals eating gelati in the afternoons.

We stopped for coffee on the Campo where a guy in a red beret was entertaining the crowds. At first we thought he was just the local nutter but he was performing (i.e. tickling walkers-by with a fluffy brush and pretending it was a fly, squirting them on the head with water and when they turned round gesturing at the sky as if it had been a pigeon). He also measured various bits of peoples’ anatomy with a ruler and blew a whistle and pretended the pavement was a no-go area. He was very funny and entertaining and he passed around his hat for tips at the end, luckily no-one decked him. He then moved on to the next caffe and is probably a millionaire.

We also visited Osteria Le Logge in Siena, which I later read in a Gourmet guide to be the best place to eat! For lunch we shared a crostatina with porcini, both had polenta with pork ragu (never to be forgotten - Graham keeps saying "You should be able to make that" - I laugh hysterically and reply "in my dreams") then Graham had grilled sea bass, I had roast duck with potatoes and we shared mixed grilled vegetables. Unfortunately we were too stuffed to eat any more but the puddings looked lovely, including fresh figs and a chocolate tart.

We ate upstairs where around the walls are wonderful paintings done especially for the restaurant and all depicting some sort of food or speciality of the house (e.g. stuffed guinea-fowl and asparagus risotto – they have to be seen to be believed). I asked a waitress if copies were available and she sent me to a bookshop called Feltrinelli on Via Banchi Sopra where I bought a brilliant cookbook called OSTERIA LE LOGGE - La Cucina Toscana by Gianni Brunelli and Christoph M.Mann (pub.Frasnelli-Keitsch) with the paintings as illustrations to the recipes. The book is available in Italian and German so I got the Italian version which I find I can understand quite well as I cook Italian at home a lot. I am now determined to learn enough to read it all!! Unfortunately the recipe for the polenta not in it so I may get in touch with them for it.

Dinner at the Local Restaurant in Radicofani

Radicofani was the nearest village to the villa and I had trouble finding out much about it on the internet. However, it is a super medieval hilltop village with the Rocca towering over the neighbouring countryside. There are about four alimentari (a great one called Pane e Companatico is run by a lady called Silvana who is really friendly and helpful), a bakery (wood-fired oven) that also does super cakes and tarts, two butchers, caffes etc.

The main restaurant is a no-frills place called Il Pama run by Marcello. We went for Saturday night dinner and it was very quiet, until ALL the locals (we recognised many from the shops) arrived for a seafood fix. We watched in awe as a couple (quite slim - maybe they only eat once a week) worked their way through … one after the other and full-sized portions as well:

Crostini A large mixed seafood dish of mussels, clams etc. Seafood risotto Penne with clams Tagiatelle with mussels A HUGE platter of fritto misto (big prawns, squid and whitebait) with fries 2 large helpings of pudding loaded with whipped cream Everyone was served with plates which were divided into 3 and they just moved the plate around for the next course; saves on washing up!

This must be THE place to get seafood for the locals as many tables did this and seemed to have pre-booked the meal as the starters were laid out in advance of their arrival and no menus were on show. Many folk also had pizzas and we enjoyed a shared prosciutto/salami antipasto, porcini risotto, penne amatriciana, grilled scampi and prawns and a super pud of a slice of a massive chocolate covered volcano over a custard filled sponge topped with whipped cream. The price was very reasonable and the quality very good.

Overnight in Florence

We stayed overnight and ate at Ruth’s kosher vegetarian restaurant. A free basket of toast and humus was put on the table then we had a starter of smoked salmon with thick, hot pita bread (bagels not available) followed by fish couscous (big chunk of grilled sea bass, grilled vegetables, huge mound of couscous served with a vegetable broth to ladle over) which was unusual and light and Graham had crispy fish kefte.

We tried sightseeing but were crowded out by thousands of people on tours and gave up after managing to get into the Medici Chapels, however we were quite happy wandering around and stopping off for coffee every so often. The shops are great and we found a super gallery called Ducci on the riverside near Ponte Vecchio which featured wonderful wooden sculptures of shoes, handbags, hats and belts etc. We bought some incredibly lifelike marble fruits-peach, pear, apple, plum, banana for our daughter and two watercolour prints.

Italy Conclusions

This web site is quite right, the quality of restaurants starts off at good and works up to outstanding. We had a wonderful time on our first visit to Tuscany and want to go back, tomorrow if it were only possible. We are quite tempted to hire a camper van in Ostend and drive down more slowly now we have got the idea. Certainly we now know we can always find a good restaurant, food shop, bakery and caffe in almost all Italian villages and we spent nearly every day driving around anyway.

Last Night in Brugge, Belgium

I feel I should not leave out Brugge, where we stayed for one night before catching the ferry from Zeebrugge back to Scotland and we had never been to Belgium before.

I picked out a hotel totally at random from a Holiday Inn brochure, which turned out to be a 4 star Crowne Plaza right on the Burg in the Centrum (you can’t get any more central!) which had underground parking. I asked for a special weekend rate and the price was halved, included breakfast and we had a room with 2 double beds.

We had no idea Brugge was so special (though impossible to find a way in to by car - we drove around twice, not realising it was an island surrounded by canals, before finding a local to ask). The hotel recommended a seafood restaurant across the square called Breydel which was excellent – shrimp croquettes, scampi with butter and big vats of mussels in many sauces (I had white wine, cream, celery and onion – yum) not to mention the famous frites with offers of more when we ate the first dishful, the menu also included oysters and lobster. Too full for puds but coffee came with complimentary biscuits and a tiny shot glass of ice-cream and sorbet.

The next morning we walked for miles while Graham took photos of the superb tiny and tall houses bordering the canals, I had a much longed for waffle from a street stall and we spent a fortune on Belgian Chocs to take home for everyone. All the restaurants looked good with mussels and seafood featuring everywhere but we were not there very long and it obviously needs a return visit too.

There were literally dozens of choccy shops so I jotted down the names of some likely looking ones and asked our extremely helpful and lovely hotel receptionist, Karolien, and she was able to narrow it down for us. Some chocs only apparently have an expiry date of 1 week so I avoided those even though they were probably the most luscious. I went to Godiva which is a chain of stores throughout Belgium (dates up to 4 months) which I had read about before (mainly mentioned in bonkbuster novels like Jackie Collins so the name was familiar as being desirable) and van Ost (6 weeks) which were privately owned and had some spectacular boxes and china containers for the chocolates. (I got one with a parrot on it for my daughter as she has a parrot called Jake and is devoted to him - the lid of the box was actually an oil painting on a frame which came out and could be kept). I got myself a box of Godiva which I keep in the fridge so they are not in full sight and this limits my greedy comsumption a bit.
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