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ITALY Winter 2001 - Tuscany (1)
We took No. 75 highway from Malvarina toward Perugia and continued on it west toward Siena. It was a sunny, perfect day to enjoy the pretty Lago Trasimeno as we crossed its northern side. At the northwest tip of the lake, we passed into Tuscany.
Our destination was La Casalta in Lucignano (Arezzo). After passing the autostrada (A1), we followed the directions, heading toward Lucignano, given to us by Francesca Tomasini, owner of the villa where we would spend four wonderful days.
A short, winding dirt road surrounded by lovely villas and gently rolling hills brought us to the green metal gate, signifying that we had arrived. Francesca and her adorable two year old granddaughter were quick to respond when they heard us drive up. It was natural to greet this warm and charming woman with a hug and kiss on each cheek. She just explodes with happy energy. La Casalta is home to the Tomasini family and Francesca is host to her guests.
There are three wonderful apartments available for rent, self-contained, very comfortable and fitted with all conveniences except telephones. They are ideal for couples, families or groups of four.
Since it was off-season and we would be the only guests, Francesca showed us to the largest apartment (C). It was like walking into a Tuscan dream. The combination of old woodwork and beams, stone, stucco, red Tuscan tiles and beautiful period pieces made us wonder if we would ever leave. The main floor is comprised of a large living/dining room and a fully equipped kitchen. An open wooden staircase leads to two large bedrooms, each with an ensuite bathroom with stall shower. The bedrooms are nicely separated for privacy and comfort.
At the entrance is a lovely covered patio furnished with a large picnic table and benches, made by Francesca, a woman of many talents. In fine weather, this is a good place to enjoy a meal and the relaxing views of the villa grounds and the village of Lucignano, surrounded by cypresses and perched on a hilltop about four kilometers away. The same attention to detail and consideration of the comfort of her guests is evident in all three suites. Apartments A and B vary only in shape and size.
Our kitchen came stocked with fruit juices, milk, coffee and tea. Miraculously a bowl of fresh fruit, a plate of fried dough sprinkled with powdered sugar, a freshly baked cake, a jar of local honey (the best ever), two bottles of homemade red wine and a wedge of luscious, local pecorino cheese appeared on the kitchen counter while we were out. All the fixings for breakfast - and then some!
The setting and the grounds of the villa are spectacular, atop a hilly landscape covering some 40,000 square meters. There's an English wood area of ancient holms and oak trees, a vineyard and rich greenery surrounding a large swimming pool. Relax at the pool, stroll the grounds, sit on your patio, as we said, who wants to leave? Oh, yes, if you want real exercise there's a volleyball court and table tennis plus Francesca will arrange any outdoor activity you desire.
However, the villages and towns of Tuscany beckoned us. After consulting with Francesca, we decided to go to Cortona. We found that our host was not only a wealth of information about each potential destination but a serious mapmaker, guiding us not only to the town but to the most strategically located parking area.
At Cortona, after finding our designated parking lot, we entered the main gate and proceeded to walk up up up up! It was easy not to feel fatigued because we felt so drawn into the beauty of the medieval streets, alleyways and piazzas, to say nothing of the outstanding Tuscan views revealed along the way. As we drew closer to the summit, the homes seemed to get larger and to have had major restoration. The area appeared to be quite prosperous.
At the top is the church S. Margherita. The parking lot (for those not wishing to burn calories) and church were filled for Sunday services. It is quite beautiful inside. The basilica was started in the 13th century and completed in 1897. It is in the care of Friars Minor.
On the way down, we passed the adorable 15th century Chiesa di San Nicola, which sits back from the street in the middle of trees, shrubs and flowers. Unfortunately it was closed but we enjoyed the picture-perfect setting.
Turning into one of the main piazzas, we saw a long line in front of Gelateria Snoopy, a tiny hole in the wall. We figured if the entire town was standing in line, it must be good. In fact the throngs all around with cone in hand seemed quite pleased. It wasn't too long before we were licking away on chocolate, bacio and caramel.
We decided to take a break from eating. After spending three nights in Malvarina feasting on the best of the best, this was a perfect opportunity to catch our breath. It wasn't as though we would starve. We had all the goodies that Francesca left in our apartment and with CNN on the TV, we were looking forward to catching up on the news.
The bedding was firm and comfy and we had a great night's sleep. Francesca dropped by with fresh eggs. Linda squeezed the blood oranges, which make the most sensational juice, fried the eggs and with a slice of cake and pecorino cheese, we had a delightful breakfast.
Francesca suggested that instead of taking the highway to Siena, we detour a little south to enjoy the countryside and visit L'Abbaye de Monte Oliveto Maggiore. And what a gorgeous route - rich hills and valleys dotted with olive trees, vineyards, farmland and tall trees.
About 33 kilometers southeast of Siena is Monte Oliveto Maggiore, the cradle of the Olivetan Order of Monks. The majestic abbey is situated on a hill in the geographical center of the Sienese Crete, within an area of about 215 acres. A forest of cypress, pines, oaks and olive trees forms a superb park. On three sides ravines and cliffs surround the abbey like a great wall. The site is solitary and wild in its natural setting. It's a triumph of artistic beauty and spiritual peace.
The Grand Gothic Abbey built in the shape of a Latin cross, was rebuilt inside at the end of the 18th century. Around the abbey are grouped smaller churches, chapels and cloisters. The main gateway is surrounded by a square watch tower. Along the shady paths are several chapels built in memory of the saints.
Works of art are everywhere but particularly in the loggia that surrounds the largest cloister. From the earliest times to the present, Monte Oliveto Maggiore has held a foremost position in the fields of science and art. A school for the recovery of old books has been founded where qualified Monks carry out skillful and amazing work.
Within its tall walls, Siena is a medieval delight of twisted streets, the mindless strolling of which is the best take of the town. There is, of course, the huge gathering spot, Piazza Del Campo, enclosed by curved fourteenth century buildings, the most notable being the town hall. The impressive Gothic Cathedral sits on top of a hill in Piazza del Duomo across from the Museo del Opera, which houses remains from the never-finished, new duomo and other fine sculptures and art.
We searched for a reasonably priced restaurant and were about to give up in this town of unreasonable prices, when we found Ristorante Da Renzo. This cute, unpretentious trattoria has been in business for a very long time, with the present owner having taken over in 1986. Since the menu was fairly extensive, we asked our friendly waiter to choose a modest size lunch for us that would best represent the cucina. We were served pici (thick, homemade spaghetti that we were to have many times), ragu e funghi di bosco, and ribollita alla Senese. Both were excellent versions of these Tuscan favorites. We then shared an order of delectable roast chicken and potatoes and between things munched on olives and dense bread. The meal was exactly what we had hoped for and at a fair price.
It was raining heavily in the morning so we decided to just wait it out. It cleared a bit late morning and we took some time to wander the property and enjoy the smells and sounds of the countryside and we got a few lessons from Francesca about wood working and winemaking. After a light lunch, we were off to Arezzo.
It's hard to find new words to describe the beautiful Tuscan land and the cities that sit on its hillsides. Arezzo is no exception with its park at the top and the bold Gothic cathedral, the City Palace and the Medici Fortress nearby. The main square is the Piazza Grand with a mix of architectural styles from Romanesque to Gothic, Renaissance and baroque. Just behind the square is the largest and most beautiful church in the Arezzo region, Santa Maria della Pieve. It's Tower of a Hundred Holes is one of the emblems of Arezzo.
We were very impressed with Piero della Francesca's extraordinary frescoes depicting The Legend of the True Cross in Basilica di San Francesco in Piazza S. Francesco. Across the way is the legendary Caffe die Costanti, with its glittering mirrors, red marble tables and wood furnishings. The smell of good coffee lures you inside, the pastries and ice creams grab your attention and patrons enjoying the antipasto bar and panini seals your fate. We had other plans so we just used the washrooms but had the best laugh of the day when we spotted the library of telephone books on the way.
Tonight we had reserved at Osteria delle Grotte in Sinalunga (Tel: 0577-630269). As directed, we parked across the street from this delightfully picturesque restaurant, which is built into the side of a mountain. A stairway leads up to an outdoor patio with greenery and the door opens into a wine cave. The room is long and narrow with an arcaded brick ceiling and stone wall adorned with art, local artifacts, hanging crude hams and dried herbs. We were seated halfway down the room in front of the stone fireplace. The personable Michel made us comfortable and explained the menu to us. While there are extensive offerings, the way to go here is to order the daily house menu - unless you want to eat less. The house red and the warmth and smell of the burning logs certainly got us in the right frame of mind to enjoy the feast.
To start, liver, funghi and eggplant crostini, local luscious prosciutto and fried dumplings. Each one was perfection. Michele made sure we were satisfied each step of the way and paced the service so that we had ample time to relax between courses. Pasta time and a first for us, large tender ravioli filled with meat in an orange sauce sprinkled with blood orange zest. It was the kind of comfort food that made you crave more but the bowl of pici with a rich wholesome ragu was an able substitute. It bothered us to leave some pici in the serving dish, but thanks to Francesca, we knew what awaited us so we were cautious. Michel was called to the phone and it was she, calling from her car on her way back from a day on the east coast, to make sure that we got there okay and were enjoying ourselves. What a doll!
It was game bird night and the roasted pheasant and duck did not disappoint. The delicate juicy meat, carefully seasoned with ultra fresh herbs, just melted in our mouths and the side of spinach soufflé was just heaven. A sweet apple liqueur was a neat palate cleanser. At this point Linda declared the meal awesome and that was before the dessert plate appeared. On the beautifully decorated plate placed before us were three delights worthy of royalty - boiled cream pie, blood orange marmalade torte and a chocolate brownie. Iced limoncello was the finishing touch. For superb food, service and environment, this place is not to be missed.
We had been looking at Lucignano from afar for three days and even drove around it on the way to Arezzo. It was now time to get acquainted. We parked outside the town walls and entered through the lower gate, Porta S. Giovanni, built of stone with brick supports and a round stone arch. The striking town walls go around the old city, with the streets in concentric circles as they rise to the summit. We were probably the only tourists in town and as we wound and twisted our way through the streets and up stairways, people stopped sweeping and washing in front of their homes long enough to say hello and be friendly.
The town museum is located on the ground floor of the town hall and houses some very nice pieces of art and frescoes. The highlight is the gold plated copper, silver and enamel Lucignano Tree, 2.60 meters high, sitting on a base the shape of a Gothic template. The leaves, with miniature parchments on one side and translucent enamel on the other, are a glittering colorful sight. Between the main branches are six smaller branches of red coral. A nesting bird pecking at its breast sits on a cross at the very top.
The church of San Francesco is an outstanding example of Franciscan Gothic architecture (1248-1289) and is part of a large complex of buildings that includes the oratory of Corpus Domini, the Palazzo Comunale, the Monastery of San Francesco, the Monastery of Sta. Margherita, the Church of the Crucifix and the Tower of Nuns and nearby is the Palazzo Pretorio with its beautiful bell tower.
This town was a total delight as were the panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. We thought about how fortunate we were to have kept Lucignano for last, leaving us with fond memories of this special part of Tuscany.
Of course the final test would be dinner at Albergo Osteria Da Toto. We were enthusiastically welcomed by the owner's son, who seated us in a typical Tuscan style room with the added touch of several stuffed boars heads staring down at us from the walls. The magic here is a tasting menu with many courses of local products and recipes. Lorenzo Toto is a well-known chef who has written cookbooks and does TV appearances. He dropped by our table in the course of the evening to say hello and make sure all was well. The other diners were all locals or guests in the albergo. The Totos seemed to know them all and serve them well.
There was a bottle each of red and white wine open on the table and included in the cost of the menu. We stayed with the fruity red, which was delicious. Our dinner started with liver crostini and soup of herbs, green vegetables and hot oil. Ricotta ravioli with tomato and herb sauce and snail-shaped pasta with funghi and pesto sauce were perfect. The main course was stewed wild boar with vegetables and bread in a delicious hot sauce. Homemade cantuccini (biscotti) which, with a sweet liqueur, ended a fine meal. Test passed.
In the morning we found Francesca getting ready to put the finish on some furniture she had recently completed building. Lots of hugs and kisses until next time and we were on our way.
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