Date of Trip: August 2001
Not all plans go according to plan!!! The original plan was for my wife and I to rent a house in Tuscany for the month of August and to have our eldest son, his wife and our grandson (along with a friend’s daughter as baby sitter) join us for the second ten days … our daughter and her husband join us for the first ten days and our youngest son join us for the last ten days, each with a few days of overlap. Due to my grandsons getting sick just before we left we knew that that crew would not be joining us — bummer!
We arrived in Rome on what had to be the hottest day of the century (August is not the best month for Italy, but the timing was dictated by the kids’ work schedules). The Hotel Condotti (found through charming hotels of Europe) picked us up and sped us into Rome with no hassles or delays. The Hotel was convenient (right behind P. de Spagna) and was very charming albeit small.
We cleaned up and went out to explore the neighborhood. We had a pre-arranged private tour through Odyssey Tours at 3:00 and so we meandered our way to their offices seeing all the sights along the way. I had met the owner of this new agency online while trying to arrange for a crib for the baby (who now isn’t coming) and it was a blessing in disguise. Marianne De Reuitter knows Rome and knows her history and we had a most marvelous tour of ancient Rome. She had tickets in hand, knew her way around all the crowds and lines, and was most considerate in keeping us out of the sun and heat and ended with her own performance of “Friends Romans and Countrymen” … just a great time. She and her staff get my highest praise!
We cabbed back to the hotel, showered and went around the corner to Ristorante Re degli Amici for what turned out to be a great dinner, and the owner is a lot of fun and kept the entire room in stitches with his antics. The next day we did our own tour (using Jeanne Oelerich’s Pocket Walking Guide) and had a lovely dinner at La Terrazza del Eden (top of the Hotel Eden) with a view of Rome at our feet.
The highlight of the day was a visit to the Galleria Borghese (get reservations online before you leave) and do not miss the “Apollo & Daphne” by Berninni. We live in New York and have access to great museums … my wife sculpts … this is a treat to see!!!
Planning to leave the next day. I was up early for a run. The breakfast at the hotel was great. We wandered a bit and off I went to find the Hertz office in the Borghese Gardens. We were on the road by 2PM … found the A1 and arrived in Buonconvento at 4PM (we were due at the house by 6PM) so we grabbed a Paninni in town and went on up to Siena to scout out the train station. We walked through the city and made it back to the house at 6 on the button.
The homeowners (just wonderful, wonderful people) gave us an indoctrination tour, had a drink with us and left for England. Because the agency (HomebaseAbroad) had misquoted the availability of a cook and housekeeper (only one of many errors on their part), the owner had pre-prepared two delicious meals for us. We ate and slept. The house (3 bdrm 2.5 bath) is actually in Bibbiano (10 minutes from Buonconvento) and is large, airy and very comfortable with a pool that overlooks a valley of sunflowers.
I had planned our days around day trips to each of the main cities in southern Tuscany, along with routes from my maps. Today was a trip to Montalcino … on a white road … at first they will scare you but after your second or third experience you’ll start looking for more. Follow everyone’s advice and keep a supply of 500L coins in your car for parking!! Here’s a trick to remember. The Coop (local supermercatos) in each town has a change machine at the entrance (you need a 500L coin to get a shopping cart, which is returned when you replace it) so a quick stop at the Coop gets you your parking stash of coins!!
Montalcino is a great little town. We came back and had dinner at Da Mario in Buonconvento (I will say no more than Da Mario is a gem of a local ristorante with great ambiance — mangiare a fuori — and dynamite food and is considered a secret find by the local inhabitants of this working village, one of the few non “waltdisneyized” in southern Tuscany). Our neighbors in the house are local architects (they are redoing a local castle and its town for a wealthy American) and gave us the scoop on all the local hot spots … this is one of them!
Just a quick note here: I will leave out activities in each town, unless there is something spectacular since most of the information is available either on Slowtrav or in various guide books … but Montalcino is a gem. Today, after breakfast under the pergola (the aroma of Welch’s comes to mind, and we ate grapes right off the vine) we drove up to the Abbazia de Monte Oliveto Maggiore and happened to catch a local wedding in the chapel. Had a wonderful lunch on the terrace at the Ristorante La Torre on the grounds and went on into Asciano, then on into Siena on SS 451 to 326 to 73 (meaningless until you get there … then you will know these roads like the back of your hand). Even though these are paved roads, this is an adventurous drive.
Here’s how a predictable day in Italy goes. We left the house in time to meet my daughter and son-in-law in Siena at 1PM. On the way out of Buonconvento my telephonino rang … they missed their connection and so instead of a left we made a right and headed to Chiusi (otherwise they would have had to wait till 6PM for the next train to Siena). Dinner that night was great … went into Merlo, the smallest walled city? village? I’ve seen — consists of an Etruscan museum, a pizzeria, a restaurant and a lot of apartments. Ate at Pizzeria Dell’Arco on the terrace … food was great!!
BTW so far we have had the vino rosso de la casa with every meal and have not been disappointed yet! Having a lot of fun shopping at the Coop daily to keep the house stocked. Just stand off to the side and watch the action … in no time you’ll know the routine and start to pick up enough Italian to get you by.
Went into Montepulciano today. Advice: I know everyone seems to say take the first parking lot you see, but we had no trouble driving right up into every village (as far as we could go … follow the signs to centro storico) and either parking on the street or in a remote lot. Just read the signs carefully … just like New York!!!
In town (at the main piazza) there is a tourist info center. They sell you access to the top floor of the town hall for a spectacular view of the valley. Don’t do it … keep walking down the street, turn left into the music school (you’ll hear them practicing), walk to the back and you’ll get a better view from the terrace!!!
OK, so we were in the centro storico on streets so narrow we had to fold the mirrors in and couldn’t find our way out because the car was too wide to turn where is said “tutto di direzione” (this is what you follow to find main arteries). Found a nice kid on a vespa who led us out of town on streets that were even narrower!!! OK, maybe you should park outside of town, but if you speak Italian and you’re adventuresome you’ll have a ball doing it my way … we laughed all the way to Chianciano Termi.
If you get hungry, carry food. This was one of many occasions when we ran into the afternoon closings, and we were starved. In Chianciano we managed to find the Bar Pasticceria Centro Storico open and had a great lunch on the terrace (three tables on a fire escape) with nothing below us for 300 feet but the town. Our daughter only wanted to find the thermal springs so we went off to Bagno San Fillipo. After a hike in the woods we found the waterfalls and springs (look it up somewhere … another good adventure!!) From there we hit Bagno Vignoni, more civilized and docile but thermal nonetheless. The four of us cooked in and had cocktails (the excellent wine we got in a winery outside of Montepulciano) at the pool and planned our trip to Florence the next day.
The drive to Florence was a typical autostrada adventure: keep to the right, signal, pull out and pass and get back to the right. It’s a pleasure … it is so routine and predictable that you can make better time on a two lane Autostrada than any four lane highway in the states!! Of course doing 140 to 180 K helps immensely!!!
Got to Florence and checked into the Hotel Basilica (from charming hotels of Italy), very nice, very charming and very clean. Walked the day away seeing all the sights (my daughter spent a year of college here and was in heaven to be back and showed us all her old haunts.) August is very HOT!!! Did a lot of shopping in the San Lorenzo Market — great buys and great fun. If you are looking for gifts to bring home for friends and family, this is the place to shop … everything from trinkets and souvenirs to great leather etc etc.
Dinner was a standout. Had a reservation (from the States) at La Posta Ristorante via Lamberti. This is a fine restaurant and while not inexpensive (it’s no Da Mario) is worth every penny. Four of us: water,antipasto, firsts, seconds, two contorni, two bottles of Badia e Coltebuno classico 95, grappa all around, cafe and dolce 320.000L (about $150.00) — can’t do that in NY!
Woke early to get to the Synagogue by nine, too bad it opened at ten!! It was a long walk, but really nothing in Florence is a very long walk. Unless it’s August!! It was hot! Toured the Synagogue and ran to pick up our Uffizzi tickets (again reservations from the States are recommended) and did all but two rooms. Then off to Piti Palace and Boboli Gardens. A long hike up to the top in this heat but the view is worth it.
Dinner (after scoping out two restaurants recommended by the Hotel) was at Za-Za Piazza del Mercato Centrale. This 40 year old institution is great fun and always busy — great spot to watch the action and night life of Florence. Dined on Salami misti, ribolita and pasta. Tried to fix up our waitress with our son who arrives in a few days. Great fun, then off to Perche no for gelato the best in Florence, bar none.
I’ll ignore the next day’s adventure, except to caution that one moment’s inattention to your surroundings is all it takes for even a cautious person to be taken. After lunch in Lucca we drove to Pisa, saw the tower and went to the train station to drop the kids off for their side trip to Cinque Terre. While my daughter and I were off in the station someone helped themselves to my daypack from the car window while my wife and son-in-law were distracted. Thankfully it contained no identification (passport etc), tickets or money, and while I lost a digital camera it did not cause a cessation of the trip. Be careful at stations and major attractions!
Two days later my wife and I go into Pienza & I was enthralled by the aroma of Pecorino. Had lunch at Osteria Sette Di Vino in Piazza di Spagna & to make a long story short if you don’t go there and have the grilled pecorino con lardo you will have missed one of the great gastronomic experiences of Tuscany. All the food is great and we went back for two more lunches and even drove there for dinner one night but this dish (and the faggiola con cippola) is outstanding. It only has three tables inside and five outside … even if there is a wait, it is worth it!! Be sure to tell Luciano that Stephano from New York sent you We’re now fast friends.
Picked the kids up at the Buonconvento station … on time!!! And went to the TNT Pub in Bibbiano for wine pizza and rock & roll!! It’s the local hangout for young and old alike. The Italians keep their kids up late and take them everywhere. Figuring that Siena would be a madhouse (Palio is on Thurs) we took the train into Siena (a bus goes right up the hill into town) and watched them prepare the grandstands and lay down the sand track for the race. we had decided to stay home and watch the actual race on TV (the house had Italian TV and English Satelite TV as well) Went to La Compagnia in Torrenieri for dinner. Zak from Tuscan house has this on his favorite list and our hosts recommended it highly. Best pizza in Tuscany … had a great dinner. I started with pizza and then Picci alla porcini (a regional thick pasta) and maille a frutta that was outstanding! Four of us wined dined and grappa’ed for 125.000L (abt $60.00).
This was supposed to be our time with the baby and his parents so we had a few days in the house alone. The kids went to Rome. Our youngest son flew into Florence. Trained to Rome and spent two days with his sister and brother-in-law and then drove up to meet us at the house. We went back to Siena & now the day after Palio and the Campo was back in business. We ate lunch and shopped away the day & just as we were headed back to the car I stop short because I hear drums. We follow the sound. After Palio, the winning Contrada marches around Siena behind the winning horse twice a day in their medieval outfits & it is quite a sight.
From this point on the trip took on a new flavor. Our son became a white road freak, and at every turn (no pun intended) he would take the white road turn. we discovered some wonderful castili vintners and towns, some with a population that made Murlo look like Chicago. We took him back to San Antimo Abby to hear the monks chant a service. Back to Pienza to meet Luciano & back to La Compagnia in Torrenieri for dinner (where we met the cashier from our Coop in Buonconvento and her friends) at which point our son said “this must be the hot spot if this is were the locals come to eat.” I for one, believe him. We became regular habitues of the TNT pub in Bibbiano and stopped in every night after dinner for cafe and lemoncello & they got to know us by name!
On the road to Murlo is a sign for La Befa a town with a population of 22 but surprisingly the most beautiful B&B I have ever seen. It is called Il Palazzotto and is run by an Italian artist & it is in the middle of nowhere but might just be worth a trip. We hit San Gimignano (very crowded and touristy), kind of like Coney Island in Tuscany. We hit Cole val d’Elsa and then sat at Bar Il Palio in Siena to finish off the afternoon and wait for the rain to stop(our first day of rain).
Dinner was at La Logge in Siena. Another outstanding dining experience. My son is in the restaurant business and a friend (note to Pauline: he owns your favorite in NY Da Vittorio) recommended this among others. The meal would take a report of its own! Suffice it to say with two bottles of an Argiano-Brunello 95 it was a meal to remember. We had a two day adventure into Chianti country with two outstanding highlights. One was at a winery on SS 408 just south of Gaiole & Rocca Di Montegrossi the proprietor and the facility are fantastic and worth a trip (email me for directions etc) & yes, we bought a bunch to take home & the Osteria del Castello (recommended by the vintner) at the Castello Brolio was closed so we drove like crazy to find food again! We found Lo Sfizio di Bianchi in Gaiole by chance. It is run by the nicest lady in Italy and we had a great lunch before heading back south.
To put an end to this novel … our last few days were spent back in Florence. A lovely suite at the Hotel Grand more than made up for the bad dining experience at Osteria Cingiale Bianco. Long story short, we arrived for our reservation and were seated in an alcove. It was warm … we ordered … it got hot. We started eating … it became unbearable. We complained, they ignored us & we walked out (yes we paid for what we ate). The concierge at the Grand was very surprised and also upset. He had made the reservation.
We left our son in Florence after showing him around and shopping some more at the San Lorenzo market. BTW, at the end of the market is the Food Market a wonderful two story affair not to be missed. My wife and I had a farewell dinner at Da Mario the night before we left and said our goodbyes to all the wonderful people who recognized us daily in this super little town.
On our last day in Tuscany we were on the road at 7AM for a 1PM flight out of Rome. Got to the airport in plenty of time, returned the car to Hertz and checked in only to find out (at 1PM) that the flight would be delayed nine hours. Lunch was on Alitalia, and then they sent us to the Hilton & we showered and rested awaiting a call. I got nervous so we went back to the airport (6PM) to find out that the flight would leave at 7PM (no call from Alitalia). We left at 8PM. It was a long day when we finally got back to NY. After 32 wonderful days in Tuscany I am certain that I have left out a lot, but this gives you a small taste of what we experienced and loved. We will be going back soon. Any questions?