Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A Taste of Tuscany

  An idyllic Tuscan countryside
Upon arriving at the Florence airport on a sunny day in May, we picked up our rental car and, with GPS in hand, we immediately set off on our three-day driving adventure through Tuscany. Soon after leaving the airport we were away from the city traffic and driving through the beautiful Tuscan landscape of olive groves, grape vines and cypress trees on narrow winding roads under blue skies.

Piazza del Campo, Siena
Siena, our destination for the day, was only about a two-hour drive through the rolling hills. We quickly dropped our bags at our hotel for the night, a former Palazzo that still had the feeling of a Renaissance palace, and walked to the town square known as the Campo. It was the perfect place for people watching, as well as for lunch at one of the many outdoor restaurants ringing the huge square. Should you be there in the summertime, you might be lucky enough to see the colorful neighborhood rivalry of horseracing around the square, known as Il Palio. It is said that the horses the young men ride are taken into their neighborhood churches that morning to be blessed before the races! Leaving the campo after a delicious lunch of flatbread pizza, we strolled leisurely back to our hotel. Of course, we took time to stop in some of the many shops lining the streets along the way, to be tempted by beautiful scarves and Italian leather shoes and handbags. And, yes, I did come home with a new handbag and scarf!

Exploring the charming Renaissance town of Pienza

Regretting that we couldn’t linger another day in Siena, we were up bright and early the next morning and on the road again. Our mission this day was to visit one of the Montalcino wineries that produce the famous Brunello wines of the region. We had booked a tour at the Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona before leaving home and it didn’t disappoint. Our tour, led by a young local woman, began in the area where the wine is aging in the huge wooden casks, and it ended in the tasting room where we were invited to enjoy samples of the three varieties of Brunello wine that they produce at the winery. Back in the car, our next stop was in the charming town of Pienza. Pienza is known for their pecorino cheese that was for sale by the ounce at nearly every shop in town. Small wine shops were also in abundance along the cobblestone streets and the shop owners were happy to invite us to a sample, along with a taste of pecorino cheese. Since we hoped to reach our home for the evening before dark, we had to refuse all invitations and press on. Our destination was Montepulciano, another Tuscan town famous for its wineries, where we stopped for an early dinner before beginning our search for the farmhouse B&B we had reserved for the night.

A view from inside our Farmhouse B&B
Happily, the farmhouse B&B was not as far out of town as we had imagined it might be. As our GPS directed us off the main road and down a country lane though, we were glad that we had arrived in daylight. As we arrived at the farmhouse, Ferenzio, the proprietor, appeared to be watching for us from the window and quickly came out to greet us and give us a tour of the property. Whatever the rustic farmhouse lacked in luxury it more than made up for in its charm, along with the friendliness of the husband and wife proprietors. If you were traveling in the heat of summer, their outdoor swimming pool would provide a very welcome place to cool off and relax after a day of touring.

A sampling of the many wines grown in this region
It’s now Day Three, and our plan was to return to Florence by late afternoon, stopping en route to see San Gimignano, the very popular Tuscan town known for its 14 medieval towers still standing. Ferenzio had kindly mapped out a very scenic route for us, and we reached San Gimignano by lunchtime. Fortunately for us, it was not terribly crowded in May and we found a parking spot as well as a place to sit on the square, where we could again people watch while enjoying a tasty ham and cheese sandwich purchased at one of the shops. Back in the car, and only an hour or so away from Florence, everything was going according to schedule, that is, until we reached the perimeter of the airport at rush hour. Now, looking back, we can laugh about flying by the rental car return sign upwards of five times, with each miss causing us to circle around again! Eventually the car was returned and we were in a taxi on the way to our hotel.

Palazzo Vecchio, Florence
Having visited Florence before, we spent our last two days just strolling the city and revisiting some of our favorite sights; the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore, the Baptistery with Ghiberti’s bronze doors, Giotto’s Bell Tower, the Piazza della Signoria and the Ponte Vecchio. Late afternoons we would take a break from the crowds on the streets and refresh ourselves with a cool drink in the rooftop garden of our hotel near the Ponte Vecchio. Our evenings were spent enjoying homemade pasta or local specialties at the neighborhood trattorias recommended by our concierge. Afterward, we could always find room for a gelato or a cappuccino at a cafĂ© on the piazza, while the street vendors good-humoredly coaxed us to buy their latest neon toy.

Florence, I think, might be my favorite city in the world and works perfectly as a starting or ending point for a tour of Tuscany. If the fun and adventure of driving yourself isn’t your cup of tea, a tour or a car and driver can easily be arranged from Florence. You could also make Siena your base, if you wanted to spend more time in the wine country. However you do it, I highly recommend that you put Tuscany on your list of places not to be missed in your travels. When the time is right, I would love to help you plan your trip.

- JoAn Anderson, Travel Consultant

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