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Two Weeks in the Val d'Orcia

Discussion in 'Italy Trip Reports' started by Roz, Mar 3, 2017.

  1. Roz

    Roz 100+ Posts

    Location:
    Napa, CA
    April-May 2014

    Trip Description
    Two weeks staying in Montepulciano, with numerous day trips around this most beautiful region of Tuscany.

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    Page 1: Getting There - No Easy Task!

    Tuscany was the very first place we visited when we started traveling to Europe 20 years ago. That trip lasted only a week – four days in Florence and two in Rome – but it got us hooked. In the next couple of years we explored other parts of Tuscany in more depth, then branched out to other regions of Italy, and eventually to France. We have been lucky enough to be able to average at least one trip a year to Europe in those 20 years.

    This year we decided it was time to return to the lovely Val d'Orcia region of Tuscany. We had never actually stayed here, and wanted to base ourselves in what we think is the most beautiful landscape we've ever experienced. We'd also in the past 20 years discovered the joys of slow travel, and wanted to settle for two weeks in one place.

    Montepulciano was the perfect spot for a base. The medieval town is full of atmosphere, with a good selection of restaurants and shops, and offering an endlessly rewarding selection and variety of day trips nearby. Although it attracts plenty of tourists, it still feels like a real village, and (with the possible exception of market day) we never felt overwhelmed by crowds.

    The trip did not get off to an auspicious start. This was the first time we'd flown direct to Europe since moving to California a few years ago, and we weren't looking forward to a trans-Atlantic flight almost twice as long as what we'd been used to when we lived in Boston. We certainly were not anticipating that the first night of our vacation we'd never even get out of California. But our Air France flight ran into mechanical difficulties, and did not take off until over 24 hours late.

    On the plus side, the premium economy seats we had booked on Air France, in their new Airbus 380, were very comfortable, and we actually managed to sleep a bit on the way to Paris. That class also gave us priority in getting through security. Since Air France has a habit of cutting connections rather close, we were glad we could go to the head of the lines and made the connecting flight to Florence just in time.

    We picked up our rental car (Mike was very happy to get an Alfa Romeo for driving the twisty roads of Tuscany) and headed south to Montepulciano. We had pretty good directions from Giacomo, who owned the apartment where we were staying. But unfortunately arriving after dark made it really hard to figure out exactly where we were in the town with its steep and narrow streets, where GPS was worthless.

    So we spent an hour hopelessly lost, driving around and around and around, sure we had garnered at least three tickets by repeatedly blundering into the ZTL (resident-only traffic zones). It was a great relief when Giacomo told us the next day that Montepulciano has no ZTL cameras, only signs. He also told us that even if a policeman had noticed us, he was unlikely to ticket us if he could see that we were poor lost tourists.

    When we finally stumbled upon the Politian Apartments, the very charming Maria (Giacomo’s sister) and Gianna (the housekeeper) met us, and hustled our bags upstairs. I found myself actually conversing in Italian with Gianna, who spoke little English and just started chattering away to me in Italian. It was nice to know that all those days of practice with audio lessons, and our weekly Italian conversation group meetings had paid off.

    We had long ago missed the dinner reservation Maria had made for us, but she apparently had pull with Paolo, the manager at Osteria del Conte just up the street. The restaurant was full but he said he'd fit us in, and brought out an extra little table to squeeze into the crowded space. We enjoyed an excellent simple meal of typical Tuscan fare. I had a caprese salad and pici pasta with duck sauce. Mike started with grilled pecorino with prosciutto, followed by pasta with wild boar sauce, and treated himself to dessert of panna cotta with chocolate. We collapsed into bed around midnight.
     
  2. Roz

    Roz 100+ Posts

    Location:
    Napa, CA
    Page 2: Day One: A Poliziano Parade

    Our original plans for this Sunday, which was supposed to be our second full day in Montepulciano, had been to drive to Pisa to visit Carlo, an Italian friend we had first met in person on that original trip 20 years ago. Since then we'd seen Carlo and his wife Elena a few times on later trips to Italy, and had hoped to get together again this time around. But after losing a full day to an exhausting airline experience, we just didn't have the energy that first morning to make a long drive to Pisa and back. So we texted Carlo and said we'd have to try to do it another time.

    We were sorry not to make that reunion, but as it turned out, we were happy we'd stayed in town or we'd have missed a highlight of our visit. While having coffee in the morning, we saw a group of men, women, and children assembling in medieval costumes. We followed them up the hill to the Piazza Grande, where many other people in various brightly colored outfits were gathering, each group carrying a banner. It turned out to be a procession through town, marking the opening of the year's special events for the town contrade (or neighborhood districts).

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    Many Italian towns are divided into contrade. Each of the banners being carried in the parade was the flag of a different contrada. As we walked through town, we saw that each street was lined with banners on the buildings to show which contrada we were passing through.

    In the spirit of rivalry that dominates a lot of Italian culture, the contrade hold competitions at various points throughout the year. The most famous such competition is the Siena Palio – a horse race around Siena's central campo. But in Montepulciano, città di vino, the competitive event (as we discovered later) is called a Bravio and is appropriately a race to push heavy wine barrels (botti) uphill through town. The Bravio delle Botti is held in August.

    The procession we saw was not a competition, just a colorful parade through town for the contrade to show their colors. The procession started at the top of the town in the Piazza Grande, and wound downhill, finishing just outside the wall at the Church of St. Agnes. It was great fun to tag along with all the other spectators.
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    We later found out that the contrada where we are staying is the Cagnano – which is translated by Google as Nursing She-dog (only Google uses a more impolite term, starting with B). Its emblem is a dog with two puppies. Cagnano houses the birthplace of Poliziano, a poet in the 15th century who tutored the children of Lorenzo di Medici and was part of Il Magnifico’s literary circle. His real name was Angelo Ambrogini, but he adopted the name Poliziano, which is the term for a citizen of Montepulciano. We are staying on Via Poliziano in the Politian apartments.

    After the parade the weather was rapidly going downhill. We had no provisions in the apartment, so we went looking for someplace where we could go shopping – not an easy task in Italy, where most stores close up tight on Sunday. The only place we could locate was a shopping center some miles away in Chiusi, which claims to be open every day of the year except Christmas. There I was able to purchase a Vodafone SIM for my iPhone and a few staples for the pantry.

    We had dinner at Ai Quattro Venti at the Piazza Grande. There were a lot more tourists in this restaurant than we had seen the previous night at Osteria del Conte – probably because of its central location. We had crostini starters — Mike's topped with lardo di cinta senese (i.e., lardo from the region of Siena). It was good but didn't live up to our memories of the lardo colonnata we'd had in Liguria. I had funghi (mushrooms) on my crostini. For a main course, M ordered osso buco, and I had duck (anatra) in a sort of stew.

    Since we hadn't had time for lunch, we splurged on dessert. M had chocolate budino. I would not have figured out where that word came from, until saying it out loud, and realizing that must be an Italian rendition of “pudding”. I had coconut gelato, served in a coconut shell, and we shared tastes because we both love a chocolate coconut combination. Our verdict on Quattro Venti was that it was good Tuscan fare but not exceptional. Choosing between that and Osteria del Conte, where we’d eaten the night before, the Osteria would win hands down.
     
  3. Roz

    Roz 100+ Posts

    Location:
    Napa, CA
    Page 3: La Grotta: A Long Luscious Lunch

    The next day (Monday) was relentlessly chilly and rainy. I was beginning to think we had done something to offend the travel gods since our last three trips to Europe we have had very unseasonably chilly weather. At least the heat works well in the Politian Apartments. The previous two trips were to France, where the heat never really worked at either place we were staying.

    Anyway, it wasn't the kind of day that inspired a lot of outdoor activity, but it was a good day for a very long and leisurely lunch. We succeeded very well at Ristorante La Grotta, facing the lovely little Church of San Biagio. Fortunately we had seen the church on a previous visit to Montepulciano, as it was closed for restoration.

    Below: View of San Biagio from Montepulciano; La Grotta is across the street.
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    Seated by the fire (not what we had expected in late April!), we commented on how beautiful the restaurant is inside. I would describe the style as rustic elegance. The food is in the same vein – very elegant twists on typical Tuscan cuisine, with a great deal of subtlety and originality in the preparation. For example, crostini topped with chicken liver is a typical Tuscan dish. At La Grotta, they make it with duck liver and drizzle vin santo sauce on top – yum! I had the delectable five-course tasting menu (€50 euro) and M three courses of his own choice – the same crostini, pappardelle with rabbit sauce, and roast pork. We shared the dessert tasting plate that came with my menu. Everything was perfect with subtle flavors that lingered. A bottle of excellent vino nobile de Montepulciano (Dei) was €28; the whole bill €137, which I thought was outstanding value for the quality of the meal. If you come to Montepulciano, definitely try to eat at La Grotta.

    If you'd like to see our lunch (and other meals from this trip) in more detail, check out "Foodie Tuscany" in my Tuscany Photo Albums.

    Service was excellent, and we enjoyed chatting with one server who was English. She said that the restaurant had opened in 1996, and is now managed by the son of the original owners. Giacomo tells us that this is a very common theme among his friends. Montepulciano doesn't have much to offer young people, so they head out to explore the wide world. But after sowing their wild oats, many of them come back to Montepulciano to settle down, take over the family business and reconnect with childhood friends.
     
  4. Roz

    Roz 100+ Posts

    Location:
    Napa, CA
    Page 4: Pienza and Sant'Antimo

    The next day dawned cloudy and cool. We decided to drive over to Pienza for lunch, since many people had recommended Trattoria da Fiorella there. In typical tourist style we were the first ones in the restaurant because we hoped to make it to the abbey of Sant'Antimo that afternoon in time for the monks' chanting. The food at Da Fiorella was good and the service very friendly. I had a salad of arugula and grilled vegetables, topped with thin slices of pecorino, followed by gnocchi with pesto. The salad was delicious, but I think I should have stuck closer to Tuscan specialties for my pasta, which was only okay.

    Mike ordered the tomato bruschetta and pasta with duck sauce. The best thing we sampled was a contorno (side dish) of Tuscan white beans, so flavorful, with a green onion topping giving them some extra zing. We weren't blown away by the food at Da Fiorella, but it may have been because we had such an over-the-top experience at La Grotta the day before that it was a long way down to a good-enough typical Tuscan meal.

    We had been to Pienza before, so shouldn't have spent as much time as we did after lunch wandering around town. Since we took a couple of wrong turns en route to Sant'Antimo, we unfortunately arrived just about 10 minutes too late for the chanting. And I guess we've missed our chance forever now, since I understand the chants are no longer done at the abbey. (See story here.)

    But we did get some good pictures of that beautiful setting — the kind of views you see on so many Tuscan-themed calendars.
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    Back in town, we had a nice light supper at La Dolce Vita enoteca. They bill themselves as a bruschetteria, but actually we thought the bruschetta we'd had with our son at B Street and Vine in San Mateo while waiting for our rebooked flight out of SFO was quite a bit better. But La Dolce Vita did have excellent ribollita, and I also enjoyed a caprese salad with grilled eggplant. The place is mainly a wine bar, and has a huge and excellent selection of local wines.
     
    Last edited: Mar 4, 2017
  5. Roz

    Roz 100+ Posts

    Location:
    Napa, CA
    Page 5: A Day Around Town

    Finally, we woke to a beautiful sunny morning.

    Mike retrieved our car from a parking lot around the corner and got a space closer to the apartment. Giacomo had advised us to find a good parking place today and not move the car until after the big May Day festa tomorrow. He said on that day the town and roads in and out would be jammed and parking nonexistent. So we were happy to spend the day getting to know Montepulciano a bit better.

    We walked just down the hill to Via Filosofi which is a great spot for photos across the beautiful green valley, with San Biagio in the foreground. We snapped quite a few in the lovely morning light.

    Next up the street to Caffe Poliziano for our usual morning cappuccino. We both thought the coffee was better today and speculated that perhaps we'd been getting a second-rate brew until it became evident that we were going to be “regulars.”
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    After breakfast we walked back just past our apartment to Santa Maria dei Servi, which is the oldest church in town. It was established by an order of monks devoted to serving the Virgin Mary (Padri Serviti) in 1355. We hadn't managed to hear the chanting of the monks yesterday, but we did pop into the local church just in time to catch a little choir practice.

    The original church was apparently destroyed by a mad count in a sacrilegious rage. The only thing saved was a painting of the Virgin on stone. Some time later the townspeople saw a vision of this Virgin wrapped in light and pointing to the spot where they should construct another church. They dutifully followed instructions and the new baroque church was ready by 1702.

    The miraculous painting of the Virgin.
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    In addition to this miraculous painting on stone, the church has a notable Madonna and Child by Duccio (circa 1255 to 1319), which is one of the few remaining works by this leading painter of early Renaissance Siena.

    Like most monks, the fathers who founded this church produced wine. Their wine cellars are now used by the nearby Gattavecchi winery. We stopped in, where we were greeted by the matriarch of the Gattavecchi family. She appeared to be well past 80, and very friendly and chatty, although she definitely tested my Italian skills. She handed us a flashlight and directed us to the cellar. Once there, we peered down the tunnel which supposedly leads to an Etruscan tomb. It had been hard enough for me to make my way down that first steep decline to the unlighted wine cellar, so we took her word for it that the tomb was there rather than attempt another dark descent. M. got a laugh out of an Italian couple who had come down to the cellar behind us when he peered down the deep dark hole and called out “Ciao Etruschi.”

    Descent toward the Etruscan tomb
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    We had a very good lunch in the Gattavecchi restaurant. The son of the family married a Brazilian woman who is the chef and produces some interesting twists on Tuscan food. We both had cinghiale (wild boar), which was deliciously spiced in a way that was not typically Tuscan.

    Near Gattavecchi is Montepulciano’s Fortezza, which is mostly in ruins. But it is being restored by the Kennesaw State University near Atlanta, Georgia, for use in its study abroad program. We thought that was a nice way of encouraging international study while helping to keep ancient historic monuments from crumbling into decay. The Fortezza backs up against the garden of the apartment where we are staying. The owner, Giacomo, is working to spruce up the garden and incorporate lighting that will highlight the fortress.

    After lunch we went on a quest for what Giacomo had told us was the best gelato in town – at Caffe Stella. We couldn’t find an address for the cafe, except that it was on Viale Primo Maggio, which is a very long road running around the outside of the town, and near the Porta Gozzano, at the other end of town from our apartment. We finally found it after a couple of detours and a lot of up and down hill walking. Fortunately, the gelato was worth the hunt – really delicious.

    We settled in for a quiet evening at home – punctuated by violent thunderstorms and ending with a beautiful rainbow over the valley. Hope it is a good omen for the rest of this trip!
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  6. Roz

    Roz 100+ Posts

    Location:
    Napa, CA
    Page 6: May Day in Montepulciano

    The promise of the rainbow held, and today was beautiful and sunny, the best so far of the trip.

    In honor of the May Day holiday, Montepulciano hosted a huge market. It started partway up the main street of the town, and spilled out through the gates into the St. Agnes parking lot and beyond. People seemed to come from miles around, as the town was jam packed. But we decided the main attraction was not to buy stuff, which really was for the most part junk — ugly clothes and cheap household goods. We saw two not-very-enticing produce stands, one pretty good looking cheese stand, and a couple of porchetta sellers. Rather than a shopping opportunity, this seemed to be one of those meet-and-greet events so popular with the sociable Italians. We saw very few people making purchases, but lots of chatting going on. The streets would have been crowded enough if everyone had kept moving, but when every few feet someone stopped to chat with friends they’d just encountered, it was almost impossible to move.
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    Mike and I both really do hate crowds, so this was not a great experience for us.

    We got out of there as fast as we could and headed back into a quieter part of town with no market stalls. I stopped at the Aliseda Laboratorio, where Alessandro was working on jewelry based on Etruscan designs. I thought his work was beautiful and bought a couple of pairs of silver earrings for gifts.

    We had an excellent lunch at our contrada trattoria, the Cagnano. My salad of pear carpaccio with pecorino was as delicious as it was beautiful.
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    The pizzas were also very good, although way too big. We each ordered one, thinking that since they only cost €6, they’d be on the small side. But they were so huge that neither of us could finish even half of one. And of course, no doggie bags in Italy.

    After some digestive naps, we returned to the Caffe Stella for more of their excellent gelato. At least all the hills in Montepulciano, and the fact that the gelateria is on the other end of town, lets us rationalize that we’re burning lots of calories before and after our treat!

    The pizza and gelato had pretty well filled us up for the day. So we skipped dinner to catch up on emails and trip diaries. A light snack of a little cheese and cinghiale salame plus some nice Montepulciano rosso from the Crociano cantina just up the street topped off the day nicely.
     
  7. Roz

    Roz 100+ Posts

    Location:
    Napa, CA
    Page 7: Our Own Meet and Greet Occasion
    Several years ago when I was working as a tour guide at the Louisa May Alcott house museum near Boston, I met a young Italian woman who lived outside Rome and was completing her doctorate in American literature. Sabrina was a delightful person, and we enjoyed chatting after the tour. We exchanged emails and arranged to get together again in Rome, where we had planned a trip later in the year. We have seen her several times since then on visits to Italy, but not since just after her little boy (now five) was born.

    Sabrina and her husband Paolo had never been to this part of Italy, and since this was a long holiday weekend, they decided to make an excursion to see us in Tuscany. They booked a hotel room in Montepulciano, and arrived just in time for lunch on Friday, with Edoardo, their little boy, a real charmer.
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    As an aside here, it is interesting how seldom Italians tend to travel in their own country. They may plan a holiday at the seaside or the mountains, but in general they seem to stick pretty close to their own campanile. We have met several Italians in our travels, and none of them have been to nearly as many places in Italy as we have visited.

    And no matter where they live, all Italians are convinced that their own region has the best food, and they know best how to cook it. Sabrina, for example, was disappointed in the ribollita (Tuscan vegetable soup) she ordered for lunch because she thought it should have been topped with parmigiano cheese — not something that is part of the Tuscan tradition. But little Edoardo saved the day. When he heard her express that wish, he popped up out of his chair, marched up to the waiter, and demanded formaggio for his mamma, which of course was promptly delivered!
     
  8. Roz

    Roz 100+ Posts

    Location:
    Napa, CA
    Page 8: A Special Winery Visit
    Paolo is in the wine business and had arranged a visit for us to a winery, the Corte alla Flora, just outside Montepulciano, where he knew the owner.

    View of Corte alla Flora
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    An interesting comparison between Italy and America is the difference between the way wine is marketed. Wineries in Napa (where we live) tend to be almost as much about attracting tourism as producing wine. Most wineries in Italy are not set up at all to entertain visitors. Here in Montepulciano, there are many cantinas in the town, where you can go to taste and buy the local wine, but the wineries themselves are production facilities, not tour and tasting places. So we were unusually fortunate to get this “insiders’ look” at Montepulciano wine production on the excursion Paolo arranged.

    We were shown around by Signor Sergio Cragnotti, the owner of the winery. Paolo knew him through various contacts related to the Lazio soccer team. I later Googled Sergio Cragnotti, and discovered that he was a wealthy titan of Italian industry, and had been the owner of the Lazio team during its most successful period (1992-2002). I would certainly have had no idea that he was such a high-profile individual; he was extremely gracious and unprepossessing with us. He took us through the production facility, which is in a beautiful setting. Corte alla Flora (named for his wife) produces 300,000 bottles a year, much of it for export. You may very well find it in the US, especially in the East, since they ship a lot of wine to America. He gave Paolo a case of six bottles of wine as a parting gift, and Paolo very kindly split the case with us.

    Paolo (left) with Signor Cragnotti in the winery.
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  9. Roz

    Roz 100+ Posts

    Location:
    Napa, CA
    Page 9: Gelato, Dinner, Unusual Tea and Coffee

    Heading back from the winery to Montepulciano, at the urging of Edoardo, we stopped for gelato at Caffe Stella. Sabrina ordered tea, which was served in the most unusual packaging I’ve ever seen. Instead of teabags, they used “teasticks.”
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    I would love to find a source for these teasticks, but even when I asked Giacomo, who is such a tea fanatic that he named his apartments after teas (we are in the Red Tea), he had never heard of Bistro Tea. I did buy a few at the gelateria, but at €2 each, I wasn't going to pack home large amounts!

    That evening we all went out to dinner at Le Logge del Vignola in town. I had a potato flan with cheese, and a very delicious risotto topped with generous slices of truffles; it was truly divine. M had insalata verde and pici (hand rolled pasta) with duck sauce. Paolo ordered a Corte alla Flora wine (the winery we had visited together), and we all agreed it was excellent.

    It was a long night for Edoardo, but he was very good despite being very tired. In fact, an American group at the next table complimented his parents on his good behavior. Sabrina had mentioned earlier that she had been rather shocked to hear from someone that Americans often don’t allow children in nicer restaurants, since all Italian restaurants welcome bambini. We told her that unfortunately too many American children were not nearly so pleasant dining companions as Edoardo.

    We’d had a new tea experience that afternoon, and tonight it was the coffee. They brought the espresso in little cups with caps — a great idea for keeping it hot. And along with the sugar tray, came a spray bottle that looked like perfume but was actually grappa to “correct” the coffee. I didn’t take any photos of the dinner, because I thought my Roman friends might consider that brutta figura. But I couldn’t resist documenting that spray bottle of grappa.
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    Sabrina and Paolo had planned to stay through Saturday, and we were going to take excursions to Pienza and Montalcino. But the rain had moved in relentlessly on Friday night, and Saturday looked like a total washout. None of us wanted to slog about getting soaked, so they decided to head home. We met for breakfast cappuccino at Caffe Poliziano and said good-bye.
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    We then had a lazy day at home, just catching up on laundry and travel diaries. We couldn’t even use the Internet much of the day, since the rain seems to play havoc with network services around here. A nice thing about slow travel is that we never feel pressured to pack our days full of items to check off a list. If we have a day of bad weather, we have time to adjust our plans and just take a day off.

    We did brave the rain to venture out for a very good lunch at La Pentolaccia just up the street. It’s unusual for this area, in that its specialty is seafood. The place is tiny — only eight tables — and the food is wonderful. We had salmon with strips of flaky pastry on top — amazingly fresh and delicious, and a nice change from pasta and cinghiale.
     
  10. Roz

    Roz 100+ Posts

    Location:
    Napa, CA
    Page 10: Checkered Church and Chocolate Cinghiale in Trequanda

    Today we ventured out for our first day trip since our one excursion to Sant’Antimo. We drove a bit north to the charming little town of Trequanda. Its main feature is a checkerboard church, dating from 1327.
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    The church contains a fresco by one of our favorite painters, Sodoma, and the relics of the local saint, the blessed Bonizella. We had seen banners of Beata Bonizella around town, and wondered why she was holding a cup with insects around it.
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    We looked her up later and discovered that on May 6, 1554, so the legend goes, people noticed bees swarming around a wall of the church. They removed a stone, thinking they’d find a cache of honey, only to discover the miraculously preserved body of Bonizella, holding a chalice of beeswax. Supposedly each year on the May 6 anniversary, a swarm of bees appears at that spot. But we were two days too early to see for ourselves whether they put in an appearance this year.

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    Our main destination in Trequanda was the restaurant, Il Conte Matto. There we lunched supremely well on Tuscan specialities. My favorite dish was the cinghiale (wild boar) stew in a sweet and sour sauce of pine nuts, chocolate, and red wine vinegar. The writer Beth Elon, who had recommended this restaurant, noted that chocolate is a traditional addition to stews especially at this time of year as a thrifty way to use up leftover Easter candy.
     
  11. Roz

    Roz 100+ Posts

    Location:
    Napa, CA
    Page 11: Sant'Anna in Camprena
    On one of our first trips to Tuscany we had been introduced to the works of Sodoma at the Abbey of Monte Oliveto, where he painted a superb series of frescoes of the life of St. Benedict. Over the years every time we visited this part of Italy we had tried to gain admission to the former monastery of Sant’Anna in Camprena, where Sodoma had painted another group of frescoes. We would check guidebooks and try to arrive during hours it was listed as open, only to find it locked up tight.

    This time, we finally managed to hit it right. Sant’Anna is now an agriturismo and art school. They don’t really promote the frescoes, and we had to wander around inside until we stumbled across the refectory with the marvelous paintings adorning the walls. Although Sodoma painted them over 500 years ago, the colors are remarkably vivid in these depictions of the life of St. Anne, the miracle of the loaves and fishes, and other religious subjects. We especially love the individuality in the faces of the people in the paintings – they are the faces you can still see on any street in these small Tuscan towns.
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    The abbey is also in a very beautiful setting, at the end of a drive lined with cypresses, providing luscious photo-ops stretching across the green valley to the Crete Senese.

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  12. Roz

    Roz 100+ Posts

    Location:
    Napa, CA
    Page 12: Day Trip Around Mount Amiata
    There is a saying in this part of Tuscany: “When Monte Amiata wears a cap, get out your umbrella.” We had seen quite a few cloudy caps on the mountain in the previous rainy week, but today was a beautiful blue-sky day, perfect weather for a drive around the mountain that dominates the skyline.
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    We had selected a few destinations from Beth Elon’s A Culinary Traveller in Tuscany, the book that has been my bible for excursions through this area and has never disappointed. The plan was to start by driving to the abbey of San Salvatore, the oldest church in the area (dating from the 8th century). Somehow after our prior visits to a couple of abbeys in beautiful green settings, I had gotten the idea that San Salvatore would also be out in the countryside. We drove around for quite a while, taking several wrong turns, with the local signage and our GPS cooperating to confuse us. Finally we realized that the abbey was actually in the middle of the town, in a little square next to an office building.

    This placement was quite fortuitous as it turned out. We were by that time in dire need of a restroom, something that religious buildings rarely offer the tourist. Mike pulled off a nice trick after we parked the car. He just walked into the office building next to the abbey and strode down the hall, giving the impression that he knew exactly where he was going, until he encountered the needed facility.

    Inside the abbey, I wasn’t as impressed as I had expected, although I guess I’d been spoiled by the beautiful frescoes and art works adorning so many other churches we’d visited. San Salvatore by comparison was rather plain inside, and of course did not have the beautiful vistas of a place like Sant’Anna or Sant’Antimo. We only stayed there for a few minutes before continuing on to our selected lunch spot, Ristorante Aiuole just outside Arcidosso.

    The main thing I love about the Beth Elon book is her wonderful recommendations for little local restaurants. I’m going to quote from her section about Aiuole, as it was one of the major hits of the trip. She describes the owner, Ugo Quattrini, very aptly as:

    a large graceful man with a Mark Twain moustache bursting from his gentle face, and eyes that twinkle when he talks about the food he serves in his restaurant. He is a man determined to maintain – and recreate – the culinary traditions of the Maremma mountains.​

    Among these culinary traditions are chestnut-based dishes, as the region’s many chestnut trees have long provided a free source of nutrition in this traditionally poor area. The chestnut polenta that Ugo serves, garnished with stewed fruit and fresh ricotta on the side, was like nothing I’ve had before, and it was wonderful. The next course was another version of the wild boar stew with chocolate sauce that I’d first sampled a few days ago at Il Conte Matto. Today’s recipe was quite different – no vinegar, and the chocolate flavor came through more strongly, like a Tuscan version of mole. Delicious! Finally a delectable pastry called torta ricciolina, which Ugo told us had been created by the monks of San Salvatore.

    Fully sated on the local cuisine, we drove on to the little town of Santa Fiore. It had a nice feature for the visitor whose knees might be a little worn out from up-and-down hill-town walking. An elevator from the parking lot just outside town takes you up to the piazza at the summit, dominated by the Aldobrandeschi castle. Another road into the town (by which we exited later) was cut right through the walls of a second castle, with the street actually passing in front of a fireplace.
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    In Santa Fiore the little parish church of Saints Fiora and Lucilla boasts some of the most beautiful Della Robbia reliefs I’ve ever encountered. One of the delights of exploring Italy is how many small churches in out-of-the-way places have such artistic treasures. I love seeing these remarkable works of art in the surroundings where they were created to convey religious stories to the devout, rather than out of context lined up on the walls in a museum.
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    Our final stop of the day was another true highlight: the sculpture garden of Swiss artist Daniel Spoerri, outside the village of Seggiano. It was somewhat reminiscent of another favorite spot of mine in Tuscany: the Niki de St Phalle Tarot garden farther south near the coast. Both are in beautiful settings, but whereas Niki’s works are bold bright splashes of color and mosaic against the landscape, the Spoerri sculptures are more harmoniously integrated into the surroundings – sometimes to the extent that you don’t even know the art is there until you look closely. It’s a marvelous place to walk and wander, letting your eyes roam near and far as you happen upon the next fantastic sight. The garden spreads out over about 40 acres, and you would need longer than the couple of hours we gave it to see everything.

    Below: Two examples from the Spoerri sculpture garden.

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  13. Roz

    Roz 100+ Posts

    Location:
    Napa, CA
    Page 13: La Foce: A Very Special Place

    Before we left on this trip, my son asked me what I was most looking forward to. I told him it was visiting Iris Origo’s estate, La Foce, just south of Montepulciano. Iris was a truly remarkable Anglo-American woman who married an Italian and had a huge impact on this little piece of Tuscany. She and her husband transformed a barren piece of land into a productive farm and place of beauty. Along the way, they educated the children on the estate, and instituted reforms to the ancient system of sharecropping (mezzadria).

    Iris was also a wonderful writer. Her diary, War in Val d'Orcia, chronicles, in elegantly simple and moving prose, how she sheltered refugee children and clandestinely aided anti-Fascist partisans, along with escaped Allied prisoners. Iris is one of my heroines, and the garden she left at La Foce was at the top of my list of places I most wanted to see. It did not disappoint, and will long remain in my memory as a very special place.

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    The garden is only open on Wednesday afternoons and weekends, with both English and Italian tours available. Before our visit we had a nice lunch at Dopolavoro, the restaurant on the estate. It is housed in the building where the farm workers used to gather after work (the literal translation of its name). And if you ever try go there, don’t trust your GPS. For some reason both of the navigation programs we were using thought Dopolavoro was miles away from Iris’ home, when it was really just up the road. It was a good thing we’ve gotten used to the idea of leaving plenty of time for getting lost on these excursions, or we might have missed lunch.

    The La Foce gardens are in the classical English style, with many carefully trimmed hedges and cypress trees lining the paths and creating a harmonious geometric order to the whole. Spring blossoms, including a beautiful wisteria arbor, added colorful touches.
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    And from the garden the views of the green countryside with the winding rows of cypress trees and Monte Amiata on the horizon were spectacular. The guide did an excellent job of weaving the story of Iris’ life into the narration for the tour.
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    Another nice feature of the day was that Slow Travelers Marcia and David were on the same tour. We enjoyed catching up with them, and sharing a glass of wine afterward at La Cantina Medicee, just outside the walls of Montepulciano.
     
  14. Roz

    Roz 100+ Posts

    Location:
    Napa, CA
    Page 14: A Spectacular Day in Siena

    We’d set aside one day for an excursion to Siena, which we last visited before digital cameras. Since we like to keep a rotating travel photo show on our TV set, we wanted to get some good pictures of this beautiful city to add to our collection. We were exceptionally lucky in the weather, which was just perfect for capturing some wonderful views.

    After walking through town a bit, we had lunch just off the Campo at Osteria Le Logge. We were very happy to find that it was just as good as we remembered from our first visit in 1998. The rabbit stuffed with blueberries was one of the best dishes of the trip.

    We bought the combination museum ticket at the OPA (Museum of the Duomo), where I was especially impressed by the beautiful Duccio Madonna. Then we made it up the 131 spiral steps to the viewing platform on the top level. It wasn’t an easy climb for these old legs, but it was worth it! The visibility was unlimited and the views in every direction were truly spectacular. Photographic mission definitely accomplished!
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    We spent some time inside the Duomo, perhaps the most distinctive church in Italy with its black-and-white striped exterior, lavish Gothic facade, and gorgeous mosaic floor. The recently restored frescoes of the Piccolomini Library were a real treat for the eyes. Every inch of the walls and ceilings are covered with gold and brilliantly colored designs, framing the series of elaborately detailed scenes from the life of Pope Pius II.
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    All that art and stair climbing put us in the mood for gelato, and we found perhaps the best gelateria of our trip at Kopakabana. It was a bit of a hike from the campo, but definitely worth the walk. My favorite flavor is very dark chocolate. The “nero modicano” gelato was made from the famous Sicilian modica chocolate, generally considered among the world’s top chocolates. Outstanding!
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  15. Roz

    Roz 100+ Posts

    Location:
    Napa, CA
    Page 15: Farewell to Montepulciano

    Our last full day in town, we searched out a place for lunch where we could eat outside with nice views. We ended up at a restaurant called Godimento diVino, which had a pleasant patio and good service, but just an okay view and not particularly great food. But the staff was very nice and we enjoyed chatting with the waiter wearing a "SloWine" apron.

    For our last bit of shopping, we had the idea that we’d like to bring home as a souvenir a memento of “our” contrada, the Cagnano. But we hadn’t seen anything like that in the shops. We asked Giacomo for suggestions, and he said we'd have to contact the contrada headquarters directly. His sister Maria, he said, was active in the contrada organization, and she was able to arrange for us to buy a large scarf with the contrada emblem on it. We’re planning to hang it on our patio, where we already have Italian and French flags on display.

    On the way back from the shopping excursion, we stopped for a final gelato at Caffe Stella. By a lucky chance, Marcia and David had also had the same idea, so we got to chat with them one more time.

    The rest of the afternoon was spent in packing and organizing. A final prosecco in the garden, then dinner by sunset up at E Lucevan Le Stelle in Piazza San Francesco. The sunset views from the patio were stunning, but the wind was whipping around so hard that we had to move inside after I snapped my fill of photos.
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    At dinner we met and chatted with a very nice couple who lived in Watertown, MA, a town quite near our prior home in the Boston area.

    Walking back from dinner, we had a funny encounter with a local young man who had overindulged in grappa. (We knew that because he kept repeating “F***ing grappa!” as he staggered down the street.) He was harmless though and entertained us with tales of having worked for a time at the Marriott in Pittsburgh.
     
  16. Roz

    Roz 100+ Posts

    Location:
    Napa, CA
    Page 16: Return through Florence

    The only return flight we could get with enough time for a transfer in Paris left Florence at 7am. So we decided we’d best spend our last night in Florence to be sure of making the plane. We booked a hotel room at Palazzo Guadagni on the Oltrarno in Florence, right at Piazza Santo Sprito. The hotel was quite nice, with large rooms, and a great loggia with wonderful views across the city.
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    We decided to have lunch at the Cinghiale Bianco nearby, which was one of the places we had eaten on our very first trip to Italy 20 years earlier. Unlike the restaurant in Siena, it didn’t quite live up to our memories, since I think it has turned into a bit more of a tourist trap in the meantime. The food was okay, but we could have done better.

    We walked around the neighborhood for a bit, but didn’t venture across the Arno at all. Florence seemed very crowded and made me long for the clean and friendly streets of Montepulciano. At this point in my life, I realize that I am really not a city person and generally am much happier in small towns.

    We ended the day with a glass of prosecco on the loggia and a nice chat with a couple from Berkeley.
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    Finally to bed for a much-too-early wake-up call the next morning. The taxi came at 5am for a 7am departure to Paris on Air France. I was so groggy and half-asleep that I forgot to pick up my laptop at security. I’m not sure how Air France knew that it was ours since my name was not on it (something I should rectify before a future trip!). But they fortunately did page us while we were having a cup of coffee at the airport bar and we retrieved it quickly.

    Our bad luck with flights continued as the Air France flight to SFO was delayed for some kind of “technical problem” and finally took off three hours late. The rest of the flight was uneventful and reasonably comfortable.

    But I couldn’t make it all the way home without just one mishap. Leaving the airport, in a very jet-lagged state, I didn’t step far enough out of the way of the automatic revolving door, which sideswiped me and knocked me to the ground. Fortunately I landed on the most padded part of my anatomy, and no real harm was done. But my last souvenir of a mostly terrific trip was a very colorful bruise on my hip, and a lot of stiffness walking for some days afterward. I’m glad, though, if I had to fall, it was after our excursions through Tuscany, which left us with many, many wonderful memories that linger long after the bruises faded.
     
  17. Roz

    Roz 100+ Posts

    Location:
    Napa, CA
  18. PokeyMindy

    PokeyMindy 100+ Posts

    Oh Roz, I loved reading your trip report this morning with my coffee. I will be staying in Siena for 1 week in Sept. Montepulciano is on my list of places to visit on a day we will venture outside of Siena. I wrote down KopaKabana gelato in my notes.
    I'm sorry you fell but at least, as you say, it was at the end of your trip...not at the beginning like when you fell and broke your humerus or shoulder??? When was that?

    I'll have to remember Mike's trick for the bathroom...just walk in like you own the place! haha.

    I laughed out loud at the photo of Mike in the sculpture garden.

    It was wonderful seeing you both in Lompoc!

    ciao for now,

    Mindy
     
  19. Pauline

    Pauline Forums Admin

    Location:
    Dorset, UK
    I haven't read the report yet, but am looking forward to. That first photo with the sheep is fabulous!!
     
  20. Roz

    Roz 100+ Posts

    Location:
    Napa, CA
    Hi, Mindy,

    Thanks for your nice comments. We were so happy to see you, too, at Slow Bowl.

    You have a very good memory to recall my mishap in Italy so many years ago. In fact, it was just about exactly 10 years ago, in 2007, when I fell and broke my arm on our second day, and had to cancel the rest of the trip. That was actually a trip planned around one of the Slow Trav prizes that Pauline put together in those days, when I'd won a week at a villa in Perdifumo in the Cilento. Fortunately the owners (Summer in Italy) were so nice, and let us take the prize the following year.

    Hope you have a wonderful trip to Siena in September -- it is such a beautiful place.

    - Roz
     
    PokeyMindy likes this.

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