Sunflower fields forever….the sunflowers are in full bloom in Italy. Fields and fields of huge sunflowers. They use them mainly for the oil. They are so beautiful…we can’t stop taking pictures of them!
Today we are visiting San Gimignano and Volterra (home of the vampires). Our first stop in San Gimignano was for lunch at a place called, Osteria del Carcere (I don’t think they have a website). It had about 4 tables downstairs and 4 tables upstairs. We ordered a scrumptious salad made with mixed greens, sliced apples, nuts and goat cheese, then a variety of pate, a saffron goat cheese bruschetta and a side of classic Tuscany white beans. We also ordered a local bottle of wine and when it arrived at our table, it had a glass oval-shaped bubble on top of it. The waiter turned the bottle sideways and wine decanted into the bubble…then he poured the bubble of wine into our glass. It was very cool. In fact, we thought it was so cool that we ended up buying one before we left. We had fun pouring our wine using this new tuscan toy as we ate and chatted with some people at the table next to us.
After lunch, we walked through the major squares of the town…there were quite a few tourists around. We took pictures, ate gelato and weaved our way through the back streets. We also did a lot of window shopping as there were boutiques lining the streets with various food, hand stitched aprons, kitchen towels, soaps, leather goods, paintings etc.
We spent a little more time than planned in San Gimignano which meant less time in Volterra. By the time we arrived in Volterra it was getting dark…so we rushed into the major square to take pictures. We briefly walked around the area and then looked for dinner. It seemed like there were a lot less tourists…and this town was smaller. We picked a restaurant with a table outside, perfect for people watching. We ordered a house pizza, a homemade pasta, salad. When we asked the waiter about which of two wines to order, he brought out a whole different bottle…we ended up loving it. It was a local bottle called Vallino delle Conche-it also had the glass decanter attached to it. Oh and we also indulged in a chocolate cake for dessert…
After dinner, we took a few more pictures and got back in the car for a long drive to the B&B. We did not run into any vampires but did see an ad on one of the bulletin boards that sure looked like a female vampire. When we got back, Giff was sitting on the bed and saw a black scorpion on the wall!!! Ummm….aren’t those things lethal? Giff managed to trap it in a glass and then wanted me to take pictures of it…I wanted that thing out of our room ASAP. We could see its venom being released from the stinger in the glass…it was not so happy to be caught. We went outside and threw it out of the glass…this was quite an episode being it was about 1AM.
We went to sleep with one eye open hoping that was the only scorpion in the room…
The rolling hills, miles of vineyards, wine villages and small curvy roads were abundant in the Chianti region. The black rooster (or Gallo Nero as it is said in Italy) was also very prevalent in Chianti. It is the official symbol of Chianti and we saw the rooster all over the place from signs to flags and of course the label on the Chianti Classico wine bottles. Our first stop in the Chianti region was the village of Castellina…one of the original Chianti towns. It was fairly small but had one long cobblestone street to walk down and visit the wine tasting shops and boutiques. The wine shop we stopped in was one of the first storefronts in the village, so we of course stopped in for a taste. We tasted a few different Chianti wines…noting the difference between typical Chianti Classico and French Bordeaux wines. We like our wines big and full-bodied (like Bordeaux – Saint Emilion wine) and the Chianti Classico seemed lighter and a bit acidic. We will have to keep tasting in the region to find a good Chianti.
We walked down the main street and then found a restaurant down a set of stairs in a cellar-like setting. We sat and ordered lasagna, pasta with sauce from wild boar (or Cinghiale in Italy) and a mixed salad. As we were eating…the sky began to darken and that smell of rain was starting to surface. Sure enough, just as we were paying the bill, the sky opened and started down-pouring on us. This did not appear to be a small shower passing through the area. We ran through the rain into a store and then into the car of the couple we had just talked with at lunch…they drove us the 100 feet to our car.
We debated on going back to our place or continuing forward but thought maybe by the time we drove to the next town…the rain would stop and sure enough…it did. We pulled into Greve, which is another one of the four original Chianti villages. The main area of this town was a very large square lined with tons of little shops from wine to bakeries, olive wood, pottery etc. There were also other little streets to follow outside of the square and one of them lead us to a huge wine tasting shop, “Le Cantine di Greve in Chianti” (http://www.lecantine.it). This place had more than 140 wines available to taste from all over Italy with a focus on Tuscan wines. The room was filled with wine bottles to purchase against all the walls and in the center were machines keeping the air out of the wine. Each customer purchases a set amount on a card (looks like a gift card) then inserts the card into the slot on each machine and pushes the button to the wine of preference for a one ounce pour. The wines are all priced differently…from as cheap as 60 euro cents to several dollars per pour (see our video below).
We purchased our prepaid card of 10 euros each, picked up the binder which listed each wine and its vineyard and started our tasting adventure. This is one of the largest wine shops in Italy and is so fun to be able to taste wine from all these different regions in one place. Needless to say…Giff and I had a great time in there! At first we started a rating system, as we tasted each wine, wrote the name of it and a number 1-5 to rate it. The rating system lasted pretty long but eventually after several tastings and a pretty heavy buzz…our ratings went out the window. This was a great time…don’t miss it if you travel to Greve in Chianti.
Finished with more than our share of wine tasting for the day, we walked into the main square to do a little shopping. We saw a meat store which had all kinds of dried meats…legs of animals hanging from the ceiling, etc. Giff was like a kid in a candy store in there. We purchased some meat and cheese for our picnic dinner and a few doors down picked up some bread and little cookies. Walking out of the square, we saw a small wine shop and went in to see what kind of prices they had in comparison to the last place. We ended up chatting with one of the guys working there and he helped find a few bottles of Chianti that were more fitting to our taste.
We had our food, tasted plenty of wine and had gotten a good feel for Greve in Chianti, it was getting late so we headed home for dinner.
Siena was extremely busy today! We spent more time than usual looking for parking and the city itself was full of locals and tourists. This week is the Palio delle Contrade- a horse race held twice a year dating back to 13C, it is one of the most famous in Italy. 10 contrades which are sub-divisions of a district, (there are only 17 left from 59) compete in the race. Each Contrade has its own flag, its own museum and social life. They spend all year preparing for this race. The race is held in the Piazza del Campo which is Siena’s main square…bigger than most typical squares but still a very small area used as a race track. In fact, due to the horses needing to turn so sharply, they line the corners with mattresses. The race is 3 times around the track.
As we walked through the busy streets, we could see the city was in preparation for the race. Flags, each with a different symbol representing the various contrades were hung up high everywhere we turned. The square, usually nice to walk through had bleacher seats along the edge and dirt brought in to create the track. Locals were walking around wearing their flag colors. It was fun to see the festivities building up to this historic event, but we decided to not attend the race itself. From what we heard it is jam-packed with people and once you are in the square you are not allowed out…no bathrooms, extreme heat and lots of people.
We squeezed our way into a restaurant down one of the alleys for lunch. It is extremely challenging not to order pasta for both lunch and dinner here in Italy…chewy fresh handmade noodles tossed in garden fresh vibrantly red tomatoes…add the basil and a bit of that Parmesan cheese? Anyway, we ordered a pasta and a salad as well as some bruschetta with a half bottle of wine. After taking our time, we continued meandering through the streets and immediately ran into the bakery, Nannini. It was in the Michelin book as the most famous cafe in all of Siena. The book said to indulge in a cake or ice cream…who are we to argue with that recommendation. We had literally just eaten lunch but we both managed to fit a scoop of gelato in as well.
We walked and ate our ice cream while stopping to look at buildings and take pictures. The last time we were here was for our honeymoon in 2005. We didn’t spend too much time here so it was familiar but still new. As we left the square, we saw a hair salon and Giff had been wanting a haircut…they could fit him in right away, so I left to walk around for a bit while he got his trim. I came back and was trying to get a picture of him from outside…his hair looked a little different. I walked in and there were about 4 stylists all standing around him. I took his picture and then sat down next to a very upset Giff. Now, let’s keep in mind…getting a haircut where there is a language translation challenge is always risky. They basically gave him a buzz cut on the sides…they went in with the buzzer and in one swipe, his hair was shorter than ever! He of course let them know right away how upset he was…they had no other choice but to buzz the rest on the sides and back to make it even. We walked out of that place and Giff could not stop cussing the lady that chopped his hair. He called himself a carrot top because the sides were so short and the top was long. Of course Giff is super cute no matter what, but it was kinda funny to see him dramatize this whole experience.
With an extremely pouty Giff…we went to see the Siena Duomo (Cathedral) before leaving the city. This cathedral was beautiful! The steps and floor made of marble, the bronze door was a massive entrance and the intricate detail of the statues and design was extraordinary. We took a lot of pictures and enjoyed getting to see this site.
We left the city…we were going to dinner tonight with our B&B hosts and wanted to have a little bit of downtime before going back out. Back at our place we only had about a half hour before we were in the car heading to what Ben and Martha (B&B hosts) called a sagra. The sagra was being held in a small local town…it is a small festival held every year for a couple of weeks and is a kind of charity to help raise money for a cause (this one was to raise money for the sports fields of the kids). We went upstairs and sat at a long table outside. Ben and Martha had invited some of their friends who invited some of their friends so we had a group of about 10. A piece of paper was given to each person…we filled out the quantity of what we wanted, for example…1 bottle of water, 1 pasta with red sauce, 1 pasta with mushrooms etc. The staff were all volunteers and brought out the food being cooked by other volunteers. We thought it was very nice to be invited to something like this where it is truly a local scene, the food however was not up to par for the amount that was being charged. It was very basic food, the wine offered was not good and the price was about $65 for the two of us. For $65 in a restaurant where a chef is cooking you can get some amazing pastas with great wine and dessert. We understood it was charity though so at least the high prices went to a good cause.
We drove home with Martha and Ben and got a good night sleep from our long day.
When we walked into Borgo Buio (http://www.borgobuio.it) for lunch in Montepulciano…we had no idea we were in one of the best restaurants in all of Italy…according to the owner Pier! Today we are focusing on the town of Montepulciano which is a very well-known name around the world…specifically for it’s vino.
Lunch definitely wasn’t fat-free. We ordered the homemade pastas, one with a truffle cream sauce and the other with a bolognese sauce. We were happily scarfing down our food and enjoying the cave like interior of the restaurant when a big Italian man sat down at a table nearby and started talking to us.
It was Pier, the owner and he was extremely friendly…chatting with us while we ate, and then insisting we follow him to the kitchen to meet his wife whom took a picture with us. After our delicious lunch and meeting of the family we walked around town which was filled with little wine shops selling the local wine…vino nobile. As we walked around and up the hills to each shop, we realized Montepulciano was high on the mountain and had beautiful views from all sides of town.
We toured the wine cellar of Cantina Contucci (http://www.contucci.it). We walked through their old barrels and tanks on our own, and tasted the family wine…we purchased one bottle which we both really liked.
We visited a couple other wine shops, asking questions and tasting our way through town. We bought wine from Poliziano (http://www.carlettipoliziano.com) and Gattavecchi (http://www.gattavecchi.it) and had fun seeing some of the other caves with extremely old huge barrels.
After our wine and food journey through town we drove towards Pienza stopping first at a small hilltop town full of residential homes and one small square with a church. Pienza was enclosed by a fortress wall so we parked outside in the parking lot.
As soon as we were through the archway and walking down the cobblestone street, we saw a small leather shop with a man hard at work engraving one of his leather goods. We walked in and saw a small leather-bound book with a beautiful countryside scene burned by hand into the leather. Included in the price, he engraved the back with our names, our website and the year. This book will be where we keep important notes from this trip.
Pienza was nice…we took pictures of the familiar clock tower, and church in the main square, and walked through some of the many boutiques before going back to our place in Monte San Savino.
We got take out from the pizza place we had the other night but were a little disappointed…they are much better hot out of the oven.
The restaurant we went to in Arezzo for lunch today was so adorable. It held about seven tables and the colors were a brick-red and white. The menus were hand written in Italian. We ordered the antipasti to start which consisted of different meats, a bread salad, a couple crostini’s and a piece of ham…we followed that with a salad and a pasta served with wild boar sauce. The salad was fine and the pasta was very good…you could tell the noodles were homemade.
We walked around just a bit through Arezzo, seeing the main square and some of its boutiques. The city seemed much bigger than the other small town villages but not a large city either. We got back in our car thankful we didn’t have a parking ticket and left for a town called, La Verna. We really didn’t know much about La Verna but reading the Michelin guide…it sounded like it had a really nice viewpoint and we wanted to see some of the Arezzo region.
We drove for about an hour and noticed the elevation was increasing and the small narrow roads were extremely curvy, as in if you get car sick…do not take this road. As we got closer to the town, we saw a huge monastery on a cliff high above where we were…we assumed the road would take us to the top but then saw a big hiking sign. We parked and walked over to see what kind of hike there was…we found out we were in a national forest. We took the steep hike uphill through the woods, huffing and puffing our way to the top. When we arrived and walked onto the large open area of the monastery…we saw breathtaking panoramic views. There were monks walking around and just a couple other people enjoying the scenery. Absorbed in the serenity, we enjoyed the moment…we could feel the peacefulness of this special place. Leaving the monastery for our hike back down, we soon realized we were surrounded by beautiful tall slender trees and were all by ourselves in the forest.
Sweaty and out of breath, we returned to our car and continued driving up the mountain to Camaldoli, another small town centered around a monastery. It had about six or seven buildings within the town and was surrounded by tall trees…a definite hiking and mountain biking area. We walked through some of the monastery and stopped at a cafe for a fresh squeezed OJ with blueberry ricotta pastry. We were so hungry and the restaurant we planned on going to was supposed to be in this tiny town but we couldn’t find it. We showed the name of the restaurant to the women working behind the counter and she told us the restaurant was only a few kilometers away and was her uncle’s restaurant! Small town…
Sure enough 3-4 kilometers later, we arrived in a tiny town called Moggiona near the village of Poppi at the restaurant we were looking for, Il Cedro. As soon as we walked in…we felt like we were at our grandparents house. The furniture and the decor just felt like we were in grandpa’s dining room. We found out this was a family business and the restaurant was added onto the family house. The women who took our order was also part of the family. She took out one of the family photo albums and pointed to herself when she was younger. She said the restaurant opened over 30 years ago. She gave us a warm welcome and instead of handing us menus…she verbally told us what our options were. She named multiple homemade pastas and various meats. Giff had homemade noodles with hare ragu and I started with a typical local pasta dish (we can’t remember the name) which is basically homemade ravioli stuffed with potato in a bolognese sauce. Both pastas were very delicious. We followed it with a dish of slow roasted wild boar served with white beans which was also very good. I would give the link to this family run restaurant because you should eat there if in this area…but I don’t think they have one.
Tired from our long day, we headed back to our place.