Subject: Lost in Tuscany - A Travel Journal - Part 1
Hi! Ziners: Here is the beginning of my travel journal. This is the first five chapters of twelve. I have uploaded a few of my pictures to Webshots. If anyone would like to see them please go to www.webshots.com My ID is Missharon. You are welcome to look at any of the albums that I have posted there. Hope you enjoy our adventure! Best Wishes, Sharon and Bob in Houston, Texas

Lost in Tuscany - A Travel Journal

May 19-May 31, 2004

No words can describe how ready I was for this vacation! In addition to reading about Italy and going to or renting all the movies that were about the areas to which we were traveling, for the first time I had tried to learn the Italian language. With tapes and the help of friends, I had studied and practiced for three months. May 19th could not come soon enough for me.

Our flight started with a very testy flight attendant. She was being very rude to the passengers who could not get settled fast enough. I had never experienced anything like it.

We ended up sitting on the runway for almost an hour before take-off.

This would have an effect on our connecting flight in Amsterdam.

I was seated next to a handsome young Latin man. As he had the middle seat between Bob and me, he was gracious enough too offer to switch seats. Later in our conversation I learned that he is from Guatemala, but now living in Denmark. He will be representing Guatemala in the Olympics. His name is Erick Anguiano and his game is Badminton. Badminton is a favorite sport of many Danes. That is why Erick has been training in Denmark. We had a great conversation while Bob slept. I learned that Erick's parents are both architects in Guatemala City. He has just graduated college in Civil Engineering.

After the Olympics, he will join his parents firm. Before we landed in Amsterdam, Erick gave us his email address and told us to look him up if ever we come to Guatemala.

Schipol airport in Amsterdam is one of the largest airports I am acquainted with. And, we had to walk from one end to the other to get to the gate of our connecting flight. We were given a variety of reasons, but, we were not allowed to board our connecting flight and had to wait five hours to take the next flight to Milan Malpensa. This was not a good start to our trip. We arrived about 8:30 PM in Milan and picked up our rental car a Nissan station wagon. We all really liked this car. And, it was big enough to hold all of our luggage (just barely). We arrived at Hotel Cervo (a small family run hotel near the Malpensa airport). http://www.hotelcervo.it/

We highly recommend this hotel. The food here was some of the best we had in Italy.

Don and Carol had just finished eating, but they offered us some of their wonderful Chianti Classico and visited with us while we ate. The meal was just excellent! Then, we retired as we planned to get an early start in the morning. We were going to hit the road by 8 am. Our plan was to drive to Florence for the day, and, then to proceed to Siena for a night at the Hotel Santa Caterina. http://www.hscsiena.it/

After our breakfast we loaded up the Nissan and then paused to take some pictures by the lovely roses at the Hotel Cervo. We headed for the autostrata hoping to get to Florence by 11:30 AM, but that was not to be. There was an accident on the autostrata that delayed us by 3-31/2 hours. Needless to say, this had me terribly frustrated. As the hours passed (crawling on the highway) I realized that Florence was going to have to be scrapped. No Boboli Gardens, no Uffizi Gallery, no David. I could have just cried. The trip I worked so hard to plan down to the last detail was not going very well.

Carol suggested that we try to do Florence on another day. I thought that was a brilliant idea. Maybe we could see San Gimignano instead and then go to Florence on Sunday or Monday. So, we headed to San Gimignano. It wasn't long before we were driving in the Val di Pesa and being awed by the beauty of the acacia trees at the height of the blooming period. They scented the air with their sweet fragrance. My anger and frustration was melting away. Then we started to see one of the things I had dreamed about the fields of red poppies. Before long, we found a place to stop and take pictures of this incredible sight.

We stopped for lunch in San Casciano Val di Pesa at ristorante Antica Poste. It was serendipity. It was not a town that I had read anything about, but since my return home I have learned this about it.

San Casciano Val di Pesa is a pretty town perched on top of a hill to the south of Florence in the direction of Siena, was under Florentine rule from 1272; San Casciano Val di Pesa, on the northern edge of the Chianti Classico zone, is the first major town on the Chiantigiana route from Florence.

We chose the ristorante Antica Poste because it was near the parking lot that we found. We were seated at a table in a rather dark dining room. There was a family of Italians eating at another table. When I opened the menu, I immediately saw the entre "pappardelle con chingale". Translated this means pappardelle in wild boar sauce. This was one of the dishes that I had read so much about. I had to order it. Bob ordered "pici in ragu". We, also, ordered a bottle of the house red. It was a 2001 Chianti Classico from Fattoria Cigliano. It was a great wine!! We saved the bottle so that we could keep the label.

Part II

After our wonderful, leisurely lunch at the Antica Poste, we decided that considering the time we would not make it to SaGimignano that day either. We had dinner reservations in Siena at 7:30PM at the Osteria Nonna Gina. We still needed to get to Siena and check into our hotel. We found the autostrata and headed for Siena. The directions I had were excellent. They got us to the hotel perfectly. The Santa Caterina is just outside the Porta Romana in Siena and we were going to have parking behind the hotel. I had reserved the small double rooms (since we were only there for one night). When the bellman unlocked the door, it was obvious just how small the room was, but then he opened the double windows and the view from our room was magnificent! The garden of the hotel was below us, but the gorgeous tuscan hills were there for as far as the eye could see. Bob told me to sit on the window sill, he wanted to take a picture of me looking at the view. I think you can see from my expression how entranced I was.

We had time to rest for about an hour. Then we got ready to go to dinner. There is shuttle bus that runs into the center of Siena from our hotel. We had only about a ten minute wait for the bus and we were on our way into Siena and Piazza del Campo.

The Piazza is mighty impressive. This is where the Palio is held every year on July 2nd and August 16th. The Palio is a famous horserace that has been held in honor of the Virgin Mary since the 13th century. Victory is a matter of pride for the rival contrade. Siena has 17 contrade (or neighborhood wards). Each has its flag (usually an animal symbol). Allegiance to one's own contrada is an important element of Sienese life. We saw many of these flags proudly displayed around town.

We climbed very steep streets to reach to Via di Citta and finally found Osteria Nona Gina. It had been recommend by our friends in Houston, Dave and Rebecca. They traveled to Tuscany last March. Some of the highlights of the meal were the antipasta alla nonna and the gnocchi alla Nonna done with a wonderful sauce that had pine nuts in it. Also, we enjoyed the desserts very much. Then they brought a large bottle of a liquor called Lory. We liked it so much that we took pictures of the bottle. If anyone knows where we can buy it, please advise.

After our wonderful dinner, we strolled the streets of Siena window shopping and eventually found our way to the Duomo. I had read that you don't want to miss seeing it at night since it is so beautiful all lit up. It was a beautiful cool evening. Don said he felt he didn't want the evening to end. Here is a shot of the Duomo at night. It was hard to get a good picture since we didn't have a tripod etc. We would be seeing the Duomo the next morning on our = day tour of Siena with Donatella Grilli.

Part III

We awoke on Saturday morning to the sounds of birds chirping in the trees outside our window. After a lovely breakfast in the garden room of the hotel, we tried to get a cab to take us to Il Campo to meet with our tour guide at the Bar Il Palio. We had some difficulty getting a cab, but the concierge of the hotel had the cell phone number of our guide, so she called an explained the delay. We arrived ten minutes late. Donatella Grilli, our guide, and the other couple that were on our tour were waiting patiently. To our surprise, the other couple were from Houston. They live in the Heights. There names were Gil and Leslie Davidson. What a small world!

As we stood in the Piazza, Donatella told us much of the history of Siena. From the middle ages Siena has been an Italian banking center. Donatella explained that Sienese people do not like to show their wealth, however. On our way to the Duomo, we stopped in at the School of Music.

We sat in the courtyard and admired the beautiful ceilings. Students from all over the world come to study music at this school. There are busts of famous composers and musicians displayed all around the school. We then proceeded to the Spedale (Hospital) de Santa Maria della Scala which dates back to 1090. It was founded by the canons of the Cathedral of Siena as one of the centres that housed pilgrims and assisted the poor. It has a beautiful organ in the chapel, which is the oldest one in Europe. It has now become a museum with important collections on the history of art and medicine in Siena.

Our next stop was the Duomo, which was right in front of the hospital. I must say that we were all very impressed with this beautiful building. Its exterior is very dramatic with its alternating light and dark marble. There are statues of the apostles on the top front of the cathedral and many other Bible characters, including Michael the Archangel. Inside we admired the beautiful floors made of many different colors of marble in designs telling stories from the Bible and myth. We were able to visit the exquisite Piccolomini Library. The walls and ceilings have mosaics that have the most vibrant colors.

After our tour with Donatella, we did a little shopping in Siena and then had lunch at a cafi in the Piazza del Campo. Here is a picture of a store in Siena with fruit on display.

Our next adventure was to go grocery shopping in the COOP in Siena. We needed to buy our food and supplies for the next four days. We would be staying in our own apartment in the agritourismo call Le Trappoline near Gaiole in Chianti. We followed the instructions to the COOP. It is a gigantic, very modern grocery store on the order of a giant Whole Foods. The produce was magnificent and they provide latex gloves for you to wear before you handle the fruit and vegetables. We bought strawberries, tuscan melons, zucchini, tomatoes, lettuce, and meats from the deli for lunch. I got to use my Italian with the ladies in the deli and the butcher in the meat department. We also bought wine for dinner and our first bottle of Vin Santo to have with cantucci for dessert. After loading up the car with our groceries, we headed for our home in Tuscany for the next four nights at Malvasia al Forno. That was the name of our apartment.

The name of this apartment comes from the old bread oven (the forno) that was housed here. Completely renovated in 1998, it has an original sitting room with local brick arches and stone walls. This apartment is enriched with the typical outdoor porch.

It was about four-thirty in the afternoon, when we turned into Le Trappoline. http://www.letrappoline.it/

The farm house Le Trappoline lies among the green Chianti hills (Gaiole in Chianti Mountains), in a wonderful panoramic position (in the background one can see the Castle of Brolio) and not very far from Siena.

We were greeted by one of the owners of the estate Danieli Casini, a most hospitable gentlemen, and the vintner of the I Sodi estate. The estate makes wonderful Chianti Classico, and Riserva, grappa, vin santo, and, also, olive oil. Danieli showed us around the apartment and visited with us for quite a while.

He spoke broken English, but he is such a kind, warm, gentleman. He invited us to come to his home on the I Sodi estate to his tasting room to taste their products (which we did a few days later). http://www.agrisodi.com/azienda/azienda_en.html

The Farmhouse "I Sodi" is situated in the heart of the Chianti Classico among its wooded hills halfway between the village of "Monti" and the Castle of "Brolio" in a hamlet called "S. Marcellino". It was built in 1893. Its name "I Sodi" "Hard soil" probably derives from the fact that the house stands on a stony ground which is not tilled. The house is built in the typical local architecture with a "loggia" with arches and a loft or dove-cot from here you can enjoy a beautiful view of the "Crete Senesi" and further on the "Monte Amiata".

Part IV

Bob, Carol and I cooked dinner on Saturday night. We had pollo al limone, capellini, insalata, etc. We enjoyed one of the bottles of wine that we purchased at the COOP. It was from Villa Antinori-Toscana 2001. We also opened a bottle of white wine from San Gimignano- Vernaccia.

After dinner we tasted our first Vin Santo.

Vin Santo Toscano is a lively aromatic wine, usually made from semi-dried Malvasia or Trebbiano grapes, sealed in small casks for at least three years. The resulting wine may range from dry to sweet, and is usually served for dessert.

We all gave it a thumbs up! It was the perfect ending to the meal. We sat and talked til after 10 and then retired looking forward to San Gimignano the next day.

I slept well and was awakened by the sound of a cuckoo. At first I was thinking, "who in the world would put a cuckoo clock in these apartments"? When the cuckoo sound continued for the next 10 or 15 minutes I realized that I must be hearing a cuckoo bird. The cuckoo would be my alarm clock for the next few days. We learned later that when you hear the cuckoo in the morning, it is supposed to be a beautiful day. This would prove to be true for the time that we were in Tuscany and Umbria. Carol really wanted to see a cuckoo while we were there, but we never did see one. Bob got up early and started a load of wash. Le Trappoline had a washing machine but no dryer. They did provide a clothes line, however.

After a good breakfast on the patio, Don and Carol took to exploring our surroundings. Don found a beautiful stream down from our apartment.

This was Sunday. Most Italian towns are very quiet on Sunday.

San Gimignano is a great tourist attraction, however, so we set out to see what we could see in San Gimignano. On the way, we went to Colle Val D'Elsa. It's the town where they make fine crystal. As we drove thru the more modern part of the town, we noticed that all the crystal shops were closed. But, Bob kept climbing up the hill. We were trying to find the older part of the city, hoping to find some stores open. What we ended up doing was getting into extremely narrow streets and when we turned a corner, Carol almost had a heart attack. The street we had been on took a rapid descent. It looked pretty scary!! Carol closed her eyes. I prayed that Bob would not wreck the Nissan station wagon.

So, we headed to San Gimignano and our next adventure.

San Gimignano rises on a hill (334m high) dominating the Elsa Valley with its towers. Once the seat of a small Etruscan village of the Hellenistic period (200-300 BC) it began its life as a town in the 10th century taking its name from the Holy Bishop of Modena, St. Gimignano, who is said to have saved the village from the barbarian hordes. The town increased in wealth and developed greatly during the Middle Ages thanks to the "Via Francigena" the trading and pilgrim's route that crossed it. Such prosperity lead to the flourishing of works of art to adorn the churches and monasteries. San Gimignano is still famous today for the beautiful textiles and alabaster products that it produces.

The winding drive up the hill to San Gimignano was beautiful and exciting. We could see the many towers that still survive.

There are twelve or thirteen towers still today. At one time, there were 72 or more towers. A great sign of the wealth of this city.

The parking lots at the main entrance of the city were full, so we continued circling and found a parking lot that had some spaces. Most of us needed to use the facilities since we had been driving for some time. We were happy to see a pay toilet not far from the parking lot. This was to be an adventure in itself. We were all short on change and the toilet did not give change, so we had to put in a euro. When we did, the door slid open and Bob was the first to go in. Since it cost so much to use this facility, when the door opened, Don stepped in thinking that he could use it too! This set off a loud alarm. We were all laughing our heads off. Finally, Don stepped out and the alarm stopped. Bob explained how wet everything was inside. We figured out that after every use, the inside of the toilet was completely washed down. This was a smart toilet, though. No one gets to use it for free!

We proceeded up some stone steps to an entrance in the wall around San Gimignano. The area of the town we were in was near the Biblioteca, but it was not open. So we kept walking til we found the town center. There were many shops still open.

We wandered in and out of art galleries, gift shops, linen shops etc. I made some purchases at this linen shop. The shop owner's dog reminded us of Zach, so we had to take a picture.

We also stopped in a bakery and purchased panforte ( after sampling many different kinds). We also got a some cantucci and another macaroon type cookie. We went to the Piazza with the well (Cisterna) and ate at a great cafe.

After lunch, we had our first gelato for this trip. It was so good! It started to rain a little after lunch, but not for long. We just stepped into some shops to see the alabaster items. I was not interested in the more affordable small pieces and the larger items (like light fixtures) were way too expensive.

It was about four in the afternoon and we had about an hour or more to drive back to our apartment, so we headed for our little piece of paradise in Tuscany. Here are some of the roses that grew along the road in front of our apartment.

I had purchased some steaks at the COOP. So, we went home to prepare our steak dinner.

Part V

Bobby started us off with wonderful Eggs Benedict today! Then we spent some time exploring the estate. Bob and I went to try to see the stream that Don had already found. It was a gloriously beautiful day, crisp and clear. I went walking down the hill noticing the beautiful wildflowers and taking pictures of a number of them. The hill was quite steep and I wasn't in hiking boots, so I only went down half way. When Bob came up from the stream he took some pictures of me. I told him I felt like singing "the hills are alive" etc. It was a moment of such joy being around so much beauty. Bob walked down the road toward the vineyard. There was a man working in the vineyard. Bob went to watch him tying the vines. I saw a little pony in a fenced off area. I called to the pony and he came to me and let me pet him.

As we walked further toward the entrance to the estate, we saw artichokes growing in the field. These would be the same type of artichoke that our chef, Laura, would use tonight in the risotto she would make.

This day we were not planning to venture off too far from home since we needed to be back early (5PM) for our first cooking lesson. I had arranged the lesson thru Roberto and Patti Bechi. They were recommended by Rick Steves. We had arranged our tour of Siena thru them. Besides tours, they also arranged cooking classes. Patti had emailed the menu to me for my approval ahead of time.

Since we had arrived at La Trappoline, we had been seeing the Castle Brolio in the distance. So, we decided to visit the Castle and the wine shop. On the way to Brolio we noticed a lady with a flat tire on her Jeep. She was an attractive, blond, nicely dressed woman in her fifties, so we decided to stop and help her. Carol's shoulder was bothering her that day, so she stayed in the car. The guys helped her to change the tire. The lady told us that she was on the way to pick up her new vehicle when this flat happened. She was very gracious and most appreciative. She kissed the guys on both of their cheeks and called them her "angels". She told us that she lived just up the road. This was her country home. She also had a home in Siena. When we told her that we were on our way to see the Castle Brolio, she recommended that we also see Castle Meleto. To her it was a jewel, and not that many tourists go to see it.

She invited us to come by for coffee later. I would have loved to take her up on the invitation. Later by putting two and two together, I realized that the name of the estate that she had mentioned was her home was marked by a brown road sign (indicating that it was an historical sight). She, most likely, was a baroness or something like that. Time, however, never did permit us to visit her.

We continued up the road to Brolio. It is a magnificent estate with vast vineyards.

The first parking lot that we found was near the enoteca for the estate. All the tour buses were parking there. There was a small road that led up thru the manicured forest to the estate. There were various signs indicating the kinds of vehicles that were not allowed on the road. I assumed that we would not be able to drive any farther, so we began our climb up the hill to castle.

We climbed and climbed and climbed some more. It was quite steep too. Imagine my dismay when we reached the castle and there was a parking lot right next to it. It had taken us over 30 minutes to walk up too! Let me tell you a little about the Castle Brolio and its history now. Here are two synopses - one is more about the wine and the other about the estate.

This is an estate with a strong historical legacy: Barone Ricasoli was largely responsible for creating the Chianti Classico demarcation in the 19th century, as well as serving as Prime Minister of Italy for a spell. The wine production on the 1200 ha property has been revitalized since 1993, when Francesco Ricasoli, the 32nd Barone, took the helm. With some 227 ha of vineyards (a large area by any standards), there is a range of terroirs represented by the different vineyards, and the majority of the vines are Sangiovese (150 ha). Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Canaiolo make up the rest of the red grapes, and small amounts of the white grapes Malvasia and Chardonnay are also grown.

The Castle Brolio is one of the most important and powerful fortifications of Chianti. It was built in the nintheenth century. Situated on a hilltop, it has an octagonal shape with 15 meter high walls surrounding its perimeter of 450 meters. The view from the castle is magnificent. Brolio was an important defensive fortification of Florence. It was completely rebuilt after the Aragonese army had destroyed it in 1478. Bettino Ricasoli, the new owner, restored it completely.

We entered the estate and visited the chapel. We, also, saw some men working to repair some chairs, but everything else was locked up. The Italians do what comes naturally - they eat and then they take a nap. Everything shuts down. So, we decided to walk in the garden and along the ramparts of the Castle to take some pictures. The view was stunning!

Bob had started to feel a tightness in his calfs and his back, so he did not go up on the ramparts with us. He sat for a while and then went into the formal gardens. After visiting the castle, we walked down (much easier) to the wine bar (enoteca) and sample some of the Brolio wines.

Later that afternoon, we went to visit our host, Danieli, at his farm "I Sodi". Danieli invited us into his tasting room. There we were able to taste the Vin Santo, Chianti Classico, grappa, and even the olive oil that was produced on the estate. We all purchased a number of bottles of each of their products, some we consumed in Italy and some we brought home as gifts.

We made it back to the apartment in time for our cooking class. The name of the chef was Laura. She is from Siena, but her work as a chef has brought her all over the world. When she travels she brings a number of her tools of the trade with her in a briefcase.

After introductions, we got down to cooking. The first dish we would start to prepare was the artichoke risotto. The full menu was artichoke risotto, pork loin stuffed with sun-dried tomato and basil pesto, insalata, and strawberry crepes for dessert. What a great meal it was. We were stuffed!!

Oh! I need to mention how wonderful the strawberries in Italy were (along with all the other produce). They were like bursts of sweetness in the mouth. I really just can't describe how wonderful they were.

We retired to get some rest for our long day tomorrow - Monte Oliveto, the Siense Crete, Montalcino, and Montepulciano were all on the itinerary.