Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Italy: La Dolce Vita - Tuscany

After four days in urban Italian environments, we were ready to head for the hills and soak up some relaxed country life. But to get there and do things at our own pace, we needed a car. While it's possible to see rural Tuscany by train or bus, it's a lot smoother with more options by driving. For example, trains and buses don't go to all the little towns you might want to visit, and of course there is a lot of waiting around at the station or stop for those vehicles to depart. No, for us driving in this part of our trip was the only way to go.

Photos for this portion of our trip now added to my Flickr Photostream HERE.

Also, I knew that once we got out of the city of Florence, driving would be pretty easy. Italian freeways are good. But, I was a bit nervous about how we would navigate the labyrinth of streets to find our way out of Florence. Luckily the kind people at the centrally located Hertz office in Florence gave us great directions, and after securing our vehicle we made our way out of the city just fine. Also helping the matter was that we had not just rented a car. No, ours was – basically – an SUV. Or what passes for one in Europe. So, with a size advantage we were more visible and more apt to have other drivers move out of our way. I was pleasantly surprised because I assumed we would be riding low in some super small Euro econo-hatch of one variety or another. (Left: Skyline of San Gimignano as seen from the restaurant we ate lunch at.)

Our end point for the day was south and east of Sienna, but instead of going directly there we decided to cut over to the beautiful town of San Gimignano for a visit and lunch. You may have seen this town on travel TV programs because not only is it a quintessential Italian medieval town, it also features tall, square towers that from afar look like skyscrapers. These structures are indeed 8-10 stories tall, but they were built by the town’s nobility as defense and safety structures. As in…if the bad guys came, they could retreat up into their towers and wait them out. And of course, over time how high one’s safety tower was became a measuring stick for how rich you were. So, the local rich big wigs built ever higher and higher towers to try and out do each other. In any case – makes for a good story and an odd visual.

The downside of visiting this town is that it is very well known – and there are loads of tourists there. It’s not so bad walking the streets, but parking is quite the ordeal, particularly if you don’t know where to look. My advice: save yourself a lot of time and frustration and park at the easier to find and more open lower lots and walk up the hill to the town. Note that it will cost you a few Euros no matter where you park, so make sure to have some on you when you’re done for the day so you can pay the machine to exit. (Right: Door knocker in San Gimignano.)

Once situated, we strolled through the streets – looking into the shops and happening upon an open air market in one of the ancient squares. But by now we were getting pretty hungry and we settled on a restaurant with an impressive view of the town and surrounding areas upstairs at the Hotel La Cisterna. Good food, nice local wine, spectacular view. Great!

More pictures, shopping and strolling after lunch.

Satisfied that we had seen the best of this burg, we hit the road with a mind to get to our villa hotel and sit at the pool on this sultry day.

Skipping Sienna
Now, at this point you might be wondering, “Didn’t you go to Sienna?” And your question makes sense because it's a beautiful town right near where we were. But, the answer is, no we did not. We had planned to, there were a few things that changed our minds:
  • Our already aggressive schedule – we knew we would be going, going, going for more than a week at this point in our trip and so we decided instead of taking in another city, we’d take a little “vacation from our vacation” and stay out in the country side at someplace really nice and relaxing.
  • Driving, parking, and tickets – we had heard and read that driving in, out and around Sienna is tricky; that you are likely to get a parking ticket; and that if you drove in certain zones (not well marked by signs) you get a expensive ticket.
  • Festival – we learned that there was a big horse festival going on in Sienna when we would have visited. Fun and all I am sure, but hotels were hard to find and, frankly, we didn’t want the hassle of trying to see the city with zillions of other people at the same time.
So, no – we didn’t go to Sienna.

Finding Tuscan Paradise
Where we did go was a hotel out in the country called Locanda d’Ammarosa. Stretching back in history, this place had been a fort, a monastery, a tiny little town and probably all those things at once – more than once. Today, it is a beautiful walled villa that has been renovated into an extremely nice hotel property. Featuring rustic facades, stony walkways, iron gates, arched corridors and pretty much all the Tuscan charm you could want, the hotel also has very modern rooms with excellent amenities. (Left: Courtyard view of the Locanda d'Ammarosa villa/hotel.)

Upon our mid-afternoon arrival and check in, we left our luggage in the room, grabbed a couple of the complimentary beers in our room’s refrigerator and made a beeline to the oasis of the pool. Overlooking a valley and a nearby village, this pool was the ticket – just the right place to be on this sunny afternoon.

After some swimming and basking, a fellow guest bearing a bucket of chilled white wine walked by and introduced himself…inviting us to join he and his wife for some of the wine. We thought, “what the Hell” and went over to talk with them. Turns out they are a couple from the Toronto area who come to this place almost annually. Very nice people and full of recommendations for what to do in the area and where to eat.

More relaxation followed at the pool, and then we rested up before our dinner at the highly regarded restaurant on site at the hotel. Sitting in a covered-but-outdoors patio, our meal was very good, but the service this night was for some reason very, very slow. This was annoying. But, whatever. In hindsight it was nice to sit out and take in the view. (Right: The pool at Locanda d'Ammarosa.)

The next morning, we had a leisurely breakfast set out in luxurious style in the hotel's bar/cafe. What a spread. With fresh eggs, cheese, bread, jam, honey and more, it reminded us of some of those wonderful Romanian breakfasts we'd had earlier in the trip.
Pienza and Montepulciano
The sunny skies and magnificent fields of sunflowers greeted us as we took to the road for the short drive to the nearby town of Pienza. Pienza is another spectacularly preserved old town, but it's far smaller that San Gimignano and nearly as touristy. This made for a nice strolling visit as we walked through the walled city gate and up the narrow main road lined with shops up to the primary piazza of the town. You can really see the main sites in Pienza just a few minutes. What's extra nice is to spend some time walking through the narrow little side streets and also making your way to the edge of the town where you will be rewarded with sweeping views of the Tuscan countryside. We did both and in between we stopped at a teeny tiny little cafe and had a glass of cool and refreshing Proseco. (Above left: Pienza street. Above right: Tuscan sunflowers.)
Our next stop was the town of Montepulciano. This is a bigger town than Pienza, but we'd heard that it was chock full of great restaurants and shopping. How could we say no?
Arriving at mid-day, we parked and walked up into the old city center, marveling at the walls, streets, passageways, etc. No matter how many of these medieval towns you go to, it never gets old...at least to us. Anyway, we arrived at the top at moment I would guess was the hottest of the day. We found some shade and got our bearings before exploring the church and surrounding streets. (Left: Main square in Montepulciano.)
Now it was lunchtime, and we found a place noted in the Lonely Planet guidebook called Enoteca a Gambe di Gatto. Situated on one of those narrow little streets, this is a small restaurant run by a husband and wife team. She's the chef and he's the service. Their "thing" is to travel the region annually to find suppliers of the freshest, best tasting and organic food for their menu. And wow, that effort pays off.
To start things off, we were presented with a fresh loaf of locally baked bread and a selection of olive oils from different areas around Italy. We were given a chance to taste each and then settle on the one we liked best for the table. Next, wine needed to be attended to. Similarly, several options of red were set up on our table - each local to Tuscany and one in particular from right nearby. We sampled and decided on the most local - a very nice 2007 red from Montepulciano.
Our entrees were to die for. Having loved this meal and service so much, we decided to buy some of the olive oil and perhaps a bottle of that wine. As were paying for our meal and those other items, out came the locally made Limoncello for a taste at the bar. We could not refuse. We tasted this lemony liqueur, loved it and decided to get a bottle of it as well. Sure, we were up sold, but it was worth it. For the entire package of food, service and setting, our visit to this restaurant has jumped onto our personal list of best meals ever.
Happy as could be, we decided to walk lunch off a bit by going back to the main piazza and doing a little shopping too. By now, heavy clouds had moved in and you got the feeling that it was going to rain. Before that could happen, we went to the tippy top of the town hall for a good view and then hit some shops where we bought some really cool shoes and bags. (Left: Local wine on our table as we celebrate one last evening in Tuscany.)
By the time we got back to our vehicle, it was starting to rain and it increased as we made our way back toward our hotel. The original plan was to sit at the pool in the late afternoon again, but it was looking like this was a no-go based on what was happening outside. Sure enough, when we got back it was still gray, cloudy and drizzly. Warm, but not pool weather. We opted to rest up in our sumptuous room instead.
To finish off this perfect day in Tuscany, we headed out to a small nearby town for dinner at a restaurant our new friends from by the poolside had told us about. By now, the weather had cleared and again we were looking at clear skies and a beautiful sunset - all the more delightful as we sat on an outdoor patio and enjoyed a meal of Tuscan specialties and wine as the sun slowly set before us.

Tomorrow we would make our way to Rome, but for this day we could not have envisioned such a wonderful experience.

NOTE: All pictures in this post taken by Marc Osborn. No use of any kind is authorized without prior written permission from Marc Osborn.

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