Volterra

For our last day in Tuscany we debated between Cortona (e.g. Frances Mayes – Under the Tuscan Sun) and Volterra (another of the primary Etruscan cities). Volterra won. It was closer, it had fewer tourists.

We enjoyed it a lot. Not as much as Sienna, but more than Montepulciano. It was certainly classically Tuscan with its forbidding walls and gates.

Here is a shot of the city as you approach. It would seem forbidding if you were planning a raid.

Secondly, you’d have to make it through one of three gates (all over two thousand years old).

Once inside, you see a lot of more modern things, like a Roman theater from the first century,

Or a renaissance baptistery from the 1500’s.

And there are even newer additions, most not as good as the originals.


Montalcino

The second stop of the day on our wine excursion was Montalcino, Home of Brunello di Montalcino – one of our favorite Italian wines.

After having been to Siena, Monteriggioni, or even Certaldo Alto, if you came here for the architecture you were not going to get wowed. Here is the Duomo from the side.

The front view is almost forboding. I am not sure if these trees are dying or have just dropped their foliage prematurely. It was a bit creepy looking. The clouds didn’t help.

Fortunately I found a nice Tuscan Door at a nearby church – Saint Augustino. I liked this one a lot.

As always the sidewalks were nicely appointed with colorful flowers, making the town all the more inviting.

And last but not least, it was the wine. I didn’t mention much about the wine we had in Montepulciano because once we tried the Brunellos here, we forgot about them. These were out of this world. We got a bit of a wine lesson from a local oenophile (who was also a good salesman).

We purchased a small tasting (three labels, 30ml each). I think they charge for the tasting more as a way to determine their target audience because as we oohed and aahed, more wines were poured for no additional cost.

We fell in love with a small production (8000 bottles a year) grower called Conti Costanti 2003. It was outstanding. We bought two bottles that we’ll save for an anniversary or birthday. There was only one downer. We tasted these wines against our standby favorite Banfi Brunello di Montalcino. The Banfi lost, hands down. Turns out it is a very high production, very well-marketed wine. It just isn’t as good as some of the others we tasted. The Costanti vineyard has been in the family since 1550. Banfi was started by two Americans in the 1970s. Not that the Banfi isn’t good – it is. It just means that we’ll be more deliberate in our Brunello purchases in the future.


Montepulciano

There were really two reasons for us to visit this city. One was Rosso di Montalcino, the other Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Both are hearty Italian reds. We were interested in taking in the old Etruscan and Roman history and architecture along the way.

We enjoyed the city and had a glass of Vino di Nobile with a simple salad and Margherita Pizza at lunch at a small little shop in the Piazza Grande. It was a tasty, enjoyable lunch. Fortunately we were under an awning because we were treated to a brief cloud burst which cleaned the cobblestone. It also made it a bit slippery.

We were right next to Palazzo Communale shown here. It looks like others in Florence because Florence dominated the city (and the area) for a couple of hundred years. The crenellations on the roof facade are normally built to hide soldiers. In this case they were just to symbolize power.

From our table we looked at the Duomo (they ran out of money before they could finish the facade).

Here is another, really small non-descript church – Chiesa Gesu. It was as drab as this picture seems. We almost passed it by completely.

But then we walked inside. It was beautiful. It just reinforces – it is what is on the inside that counts. It was certainly darker inside than this photo suggests (ASA 6400) but quite glorious nonetheless.


Finding one’s way

About fourteen years ago we visited northern Italy (Genoa, Pisa, Firenze) and southern France (Aix en Provence, Bonnieux, St. Paul de Vence, Chateauneuf du Pape). Finding your way through an old town like Aix with a spouse navigating with a map can be a real test of a marriage. I do not recommend it. The turn you needed is always the one you just passed. Worse, once you miss the turn, you really don’t know what to do next.

When you’re on the road, things happen pretty quickly. Especially as you prepare to get on to the autostrade via one of the roundabouts.

Our plan this morning was to visit Montepulciano and Montalcino – two towns that mean Vino to us. More about that later. Usually we’ve been taking the local roads but today we decided to take the autostrade down. It is a toll road. After collecting our time-stamped ticket (so they know how much to charge), we were off. Unfortunately the verbal instructions from the GPS came right before the ticketing station and now were a bit of a fog. Trying to read signage real time while avoiding fifty criss-crossing cars and trucks wasn’t in the cards. We ended up going north instead of south. Now what?

Fortunately, the GPS did get us turned around correctly. I wouldn’t have wanted to figure out that 15 step process without it. So far, that has been the only hiccup. I am very impressed, I trust it more than the signs.

TomTom GPS navigator from Best Buy: $119.00

Downloaded map of Italy from the web: $49.00

Saving 19 years of marriage: Priceless


Le Torri Dinner

Wednesday night was the night of the traditional Le Torri dinner.

The Cantini family (papa Paolo, mama Maria Pia and our host, son Gabriele) not only welcomed us with a beautiful buffet on Saturday when we arrived, but also offered a dinner mid-week that we happily did not pass up!



We don’t have photos of the welcome buffet, but here is a just sampling of a few of the dishes we enjoyed. There were many other dishes – almost too many to remember!

A quartet of crostini misti: fresh tomato, garlic and chili pepper, sauteed bell peppers and onions, chicken liver pate, and a cooked tomato topping – Penne with fresh pesto sauce – Beef cooked with potatoes – Beef cooked with carmelized onions – Fried tidbits of mozzarella, zucchini, tomatoes, and coniglio (rabbit) – Potato salad with tuna and green beans – Mixed arugula salad with pine nuts – Skewers of cherry tomato, fresh mozzarella (bocconcini) and black olives – Caprese salad (tomatoes, mozzarella, basil dressed with olive oil) – Two kinds of pizza (cheese and sausage) – Fresh fruit salad – and a torte with fresh plums and pears. All this was washed down with house wine, sparkling water and sodas and followed by Vin Santo – a sweet dessert wine. We also had a chance to taste the Cantini olive oil and of course, we HAD to purchase a small bottle, along with a bottle of the house Chianti we were served.

The Wednesday dinner was a more formal affair. Nineteen of us sat down to Maria Pia’s spectacular Tuscan dinner.



The menu looked great.


We started with antipasti, including crostini mista, similar to what we had at the welcome buffet, along with Maria’s home-pickled artichokes and a Tuscan olive assortment. In addition to the crostini, we enjoyed prosciutto-wrapped breadsticks and salume (salami). The first primi piatti (first course) was home-made Tagliatelle all’ Amatriciana – wide noodles with tomato-bacon sauce. The second primi piatti was Crespelle (crepes) stuffed with a fantastic ricotta e spinaci mixture with a white cream sauce. The secondi was mixed grill including steak, pork, chicken skewers (spedini), and sausages, all prepared by Paolo in his outdoor wood-burning oven.


The contorni (side dishes) were grilled eggplant and bell peppers, mixed vegetables and a combo of home-made onion rings, french fries (almost like hot potato chips) and deep-fried zucchini. Needless to say, there were multiple bottles of house Chianti, water and sodas to wash everything down. Yet to come was a fantastic tiramisu, accompanied by Vin Santo and Cantuccini (tiny almond biscotti). The traditional Tuscan way to eat the Cantuccini is to dip it into the Vin Santo until it almost dissolves and then spoon it out of the glass. We finished off dinner with Paolo’s special Limoncello, made from his home-grown lemons, and Grappa.


Siena

Wow!

We’ve heard so much about Siena for so many years that I was convinced that when we actually arrived it would be a let-down. So far, it is my favorite spot. It was amazing. You can see the Il Campo tower when you first arrive.

It looks great. But when you turn the corner into the Piazza, the whole scene takes your breath away.

The piazza is shaped like a giant clam shell where everything runs downhill to the City Hall (Palazzo Pubblico).

Even when you start to walk away, it calls you to take another look and does not disappoint.

The Duomo at the other end of the city center seems to want to challenge one for attention. It is also amazing. It is a 13th century Gothic cathedral with a six story striped bell tower. It has one of the most extravagant facades in all of Europe. Breathtaking.

Siena is high on our list of places to visit again when we return.


Poppiano

Our apartment is on Via Poppiano. It gets its name from the local castle. We were a tad road-weary and decided not to make today a travel day but we wanted to explore – even just a bit. We decided to visit the Poppiano castle just two kilometers down the road.

We had a chance to hike around, sample some wine, buy some wine and olive oil, without all of the hairpin turns. You can see part of their high tech wine-making operation here. We highly recommend the Castello Poppiano Chianti Riserva!

Here is another Tuscan door. This is certainly the highlight of this side of the house. However, it works. In fact, it seems to be an important part of greeting visitors. “You are welcome here.” Whether humble or regal, welcome.

When we got back from the castle we sat on our butts by the pool, just cooling it. I started watching what I thought was a hummingbird. Apparently most people think it’s a hummingbird, but it is actually an Italian Hawk Moth. Here is an interesting sequence of shots.

It is almost like a jet fighter docking mid-air for aviation fuel. Amazing how his proboscis uncurls.


Monteriggioni

Monteriggioni was another stop based on advice from a friend (thanks Doug!).


Monteriggioni is in the province of Siena in Tuscany. The town played a vital role in the on-going conflicts between Siena and Florence during the Middle Ages. Based on the height of the towers and the thickness of the slot in the entrance for the main gates I am not surprised its fortifications held more often than not. In fact the last time the Medicis from Florence took control was in 1554 from Giovannino Zeti. This is often referred to as “The Great Betrayal.” I wonder if it involved a giant wooden rabbit?

Except for some work done in the 16th century, very little work has been done to Monteriggioni’s walls or buildings since they were first erected. Its walls and the buildings are among the best preserved example of their kind.

This is Santa Maria Assunta in the main piazza. It was in amazing condition with an intact campanile (bell tower).

You can’t even see the door here (it is covered by the cloth to protect it from the sun), but I still found the composition intriguing. Maybe I should rename these posts “Tuscan entryways?”


Greve in Chianti

Greve was our first stop on our swing through the heart of Chianti. There seem to be more grapes per square mile in this part of Chianti than anywhere I’ve been. I know that some of the best wine grows in the worst soil and conditions. With that, I am expecting this stuff to be good. Wherever they haven’t planted grapes, there are olive trees. These are the two staples of Chianti.

The main piazza was bustling. Shopping, eating, and drinking abounded. We visited a meat market that specialized in Parma Tuscan Hams and Wild Boar salami. The Wild Boar is quite tasty I might add.

We stayed for lunch and Mary had her favorite meal of the trip so far. It was spaghetti with olive oil, tomatoes, spicy red pepper, garlic and basil. Sounds basic, and it was, but just perfect. Plate licking perfect (and no we didn’t – we used the bread).

Could this be a second floor Tuscan door?


San Gimignano

Next stop, San Gimignano. It takes its name from the Bishop of Modena, St. Gimignano. In 1348 San Gimignano’s population was drastically reduced by the Black Death Plague. The construction of their towers dates back to the 11th and 13th centuries. The architecture of the city was influenced by Pisa, Siena and Florence. Wikipedia has a very good summary.

The main drag is tourist trap central. It was packed but still quite impressive.

We really enjoyed the Piazza il Duomo.

And on the other side of the main church, there is a piazza where the original cistern was located (aptly named Piazza della Cisterna). As you can see, it is all about the towers (I wonder if Freud was Italian). There used to be over sixty towers, today only fourteen are left. Every powerful family had one. They used them to defend their position and attack others (think a local version of Montague and Capulet).

When we got back, we cleaned up and walked to the local (or at least we thought it was local) restaurant – Buzzanca. Mary had the Penne alla Buzzanca (penne with a meat ragu, cream and herbs) and I had Tagliatelle con Funghi (pasta, porcini, olive oil, parsley and of course the dreaded garlic). Both were great and the carbs fueled our 2+ km walk back up the hill (and I mean uphill) to the apartment.