We’ve longed to visit Tuscany and we finally got our wish. It was everything that we’d hoped it would be and a perfect place for us to slow down, hang around and soak up. We started out in the north near Florence and ended up in the south in Siena. Florence has an unrivaled pedigree with lots of sculptures and museums and we enjoyed it but Siena won our hearts. It’s a little more intimate with a fascinating competitive culture that we’ll explain below. During our stay, we enjoyed delicious local foods and wines. We enjoyed it so much that we extended our stay twice. Enchanting is the word that best describes Tuscany for us.
We took a day to explore Florence and take in the sights. It’s an impressive city filled with sculptures and fine art museums. We queued up to get into the most popular museum named Galleria degli Uffiz. The amazing thing is the number of sculptures and paintings that they’ve been able to preserve for centuries. Unfortunately, photos are not allowed in the museum but we did somehow sneak one in.
Most of the wineries are closed on Sunday. So, we decided to make use of a rainy day and drove into the nearby Chianti region to visit a wine bar and a wine shop that offer tastings. We started out at Le Cantine di Greve in Chianti and got a great introduction to the wines of Tuscany. They use self-serve Enomatic wine dispensers that we’re big fans of. The shop is logically organized by sub-region and the manager walked us around and explained the progression of wines offered covering: Chianti Classico, Chianti Reserva, Super Tuscans, Bolgheri, Montepulciano and Montalcino (known for Brunello). We enjoyed a plate of Italian ham and cheese as we sampled the wines.We then moved on to the small town of Panzano to visit the Accademia del Buon Gusto wine shop. We had a very entertaining visit with the charming owner Stefano Salvadore who tasted us on at least a dozen different wines from the region. While we were hanging out in his shop a hailstorm erupted outside. The tasting included a 1997 Super Tuscan that was drinking so well that we splurged and bought a bottle along with a bottle of the Chianti Classico that we liked best.
We learned that the Florence American Cemetery and Memorial for American soldiers who’d lost their lives in Italy in World War II was in the vicinity of where we were staying. We’ve been learning a lot about World War II and its devastating impacts across the globe during our travels. So, we sought it out to pay our respects to the more than 4,400 soldiers buried there 70 years ago. We spent some time walking the meticulously maintained grounds and learned about the numerous battles fought to free Italy. Needless to say, it was a somber experience but we’re glad that we had the opportunity.
We stayed just outside the ancient city wall of Siena, which made it easy to explore the heart of the city on foot. The cool thing about Siena is that it’s divided into 17 Contrades (districts) and each has it’s own flag, museum, fountain and more. Each summer, they compete against each other in a bareback horse race called “Palio di Siena” that dates back to medieval times. It takes place around the main square named Piazza del Campo, which we visited. We stayed in the Chiocciola (Snail) Contrada. This was fitting for us in that our passage through Tuscany could best be described as a slow crawl. The last time they won the race was back in 1999. We’ll be rooting for them this summer.
We made a visit to il Molino di Grace in Panzano, which lies within the Chianti wine region. This organic winery is solely focused on making a few red wines exceptionally well based primarily on the indigenous Sangiovese grape varietal. We were provided with a tour and tasting that taught us about il Molino’s progression of wines and the Panzano region’s union of 20 wineries seeking to become the first district in Chianti to be classified as organic. Our favorite wine was the 2007 Il Margone Chianti Classico. When we attempted to purchase a bottle upon our departure, our host, Tiziano Vannoni, astounded us by gifting the bottle to us. Wow, what a treat. On our return to Siena, we were delayed by a flock of sheep blocking the road.
We made an outing to Tenuta Sette Ponti winery (http://www.tenutasetteponti.it/eng/default.asp), which is located on the eastern edge of Tuscany in Castiglion Fibocchi. We had the luxury of a tasting with Giovanna Moretti in her beautiful home on the property. They only produce 4 wines, 1 white and 3 reds and we enjoyed them all. They’re especially known for their 2 Super-Tuscans: Crognolo is predominantly Sangiovese while their flagship Oreno is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot. When Giovanna graciously offered us a bottle of our choice, we selected the Crognolo to take with us. Grazie Giovanna!
We headed south to Montalcino, the home of Brunello, to pay a visit to Castello Banfi. This is the largest winery that we’ve visited in Italy with annual production of over 10 million bottles. The setting upon a hilltop with panoramic views in every direction was as beautiful as any we had seen in Tuscany. We strolled the vineyards and wine museum before sitting down to an amazing 5-course gourmet lunch in their excellent restaurant. Each course was paired with one of Banfi’s fine wines. Michela Dominici, whom we’d met a few weeks earlier at the wine and food expo in Venice, then gave us a tour of their winery and cellars. We were impressed by their advanced approach to winemaking such as their unique, patented fermentation tanks that combine both steel and oak. Special thanks go to George Spicchiali with Allied Beverage Group and Elliott Kaplan and Barbara DeVos of Banfi for making the arrangements for our marvelous visit.
We spent 4 nights at Country Relais Villa L’Olmo in Impruneta close to Florence. The site is also home to the Diadema/D’Amare winery. It is located on a hilltop with a great view of the area. We had a very comfortable suite with a kitchen and living room. We were pleased that the kitchen had a microwave allowing us to buy prepared foods at the market and then easily reheat them (our favorite kind of cooking). They had good wifi and a basic fitness room that helped us try to keep the weight off from all of the delicious food and wine we’d been enjoying. We liked the place so much that we inquired if we could extend our stay for 2 more nights. They said that our suite was booked but they could put us into a private villa for a similar rate if we didn’t mind switching. Sold!
We settled in for a full week in an apartment in Siena that we found on “Home Away”. Rhoda Lardner, the owner, couldn’t have been more gracious and helpful. She upgraded us to a nicer apartment than what we had arranged. She accompanied us to the local market and escorted us to a local dentist when the need arose. She also helped us gain an insider’s feel for Siena by inviting us to an invitation-only dinner prepared by a local chef and to the Chiocciola Contrada’s pizza night in their clubhouse. The wifi was good. The kitchen was well equipped and we had the added bonus of a washing machine. Even a week wasn’t long enough here as we extended our stay an extra night. All in all, it was a wonderful stay.
Food and Drink:
We decided to start eating in again to save some money. There are lots of great ingredients available in the local supermarkets. So, we cooked up various pasta dishes with ingredients such as cannelloni beans, cauliflower, broccoli, zucchini, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic and olive oil. We paired these dishes with local wines such as Chianti and Super-Tuscans. We even found a shop in Siena where we could buy good wine on the cheap drawn from pressurized steel tanks.
We extended our car rental so that we could explore Tuscany but Florence has restrictions on cars with hefty fines for offenders. So, we opted for a bus from Impruneta, where we were staying and it worked out well.
We extend our gratitude once again to both Vince Triggiani from Allied Beverage Group and David Bentley from Empson for recommending and connecting us with il Molino di Grace winery; to Tiziano Vannoni for guiding us through the winery, and Michela Dominici for spoiling us with an incredible tour at Banfi. We must also thank our wonderful host Rhoda Lardner for shepherding us around Siena. Grazie Mille to each of you!!!
For Your Amusement:
We did some shopping in a market in Florence and bought some sun-dried tomatoes. We were quite impressed when they pulled out a sign with cooking instructions in English and suggested that we take a photo of it.
Here’s Rich modeling a robe he discovered in our Siena apartment and later getting a Ricciarelli cookie fix in town.
Elizabeth tried to match Rich for style points when she bought a much needed new pair of running shoes in the color of “Neon Pink/Lightning/Neon Orange”.
We found a shop in Siena where we could buy good wine on the cheap drawn from pressurized steel tanks. Here’s a bottle of Rosso di Montepulciano for about $3 US.
Highlights: The Tuscan State of Mind that enchanted us while we were there.
Next Up: It’s time to break free from our Tuscan Trance as we venture further south to Rome.