Let me start out this post by telling you that while I was excited about every part of this trip, my expectations of seeing the Tuscan countryside has been idealized over the years and I was holding this experience to a very high standard. I was sooo excited to see that amazing part of Italy! Due to our limited amount of time to spend there, logistics, and how many places I wanted to see - I decided it would warrant looking in to hiring a local private guide to drive us around the countryside. I spent a LOT of hours researching and reading up on reviews of tour guides, and I kept coming back to Alessandro. I began emailing him with questions and soon decided that he absolutely needed to be part of our experience in Italy. Now, Alessandro (Ale) is actually a driver, not a tour guide, but without giving you my full review of him here (you can find that on Trip Advisor), let me tell you that I can without hesitation recommend him to provide you with an unforgettable time touring that beautiful area of the country. He really thought of every detail to maximize the time we had there while helping things be stress free and enjoyable.
I ended up booking Ale for a day in Cinque Terre too (which will be my next post after this). We were supposed to do our day in C.T. first, and then our tour of Tuscany the next day ending with our transfer to our next hotel in Siena, but we ended up with rain on our C.T. day (which would have made hiking or boating the C.T. not an option). So, Alessandro suggested that we swap our itineraries and that he would drive us to Siena after our tour of Cinque Terre!
So! Let me re-cap our adventures in the Tuscan countryside! *sigh* Can you fall in love with views and landscapes? I think I did.
Alessandro picked us up right at the door of our hotel. Here is a quick clip of the cathedral bells from our window - and you can see Alessandro's vehicle parked right below us waiting.
First Ale whisked us a short ways away to a place where we could get a good view (and some photos) of Florence. Alessandro grew up in Florence itself, and we enjoyed hearing his story of how he was able to come back and become licensed to work there as a driver and be back in Florence near his family...and his soccer team of course. Here are the four of us at the start of our day with Florence in the background.
And one of just Mark and me. I love that you can even see Ponte Vecchio on the far left of this view of the city.
The city of Florence was founded by the Romans around 60 B.C. Here is a section of one of the ancient walls that fortified the city.
A quick video clip of the view from the same spot:
And then we just sat back and relaxed as Alessandro began driving us into the countryside. Vinyards spilled down hillsides, villages sat perched upon hills or tumbled down them. Some fields still boasted the bobbing, red poppies (spring flower) that I really love and Alessandro was kind enough to spot a good place to stop where I could grab a photo of them. I loved how the poppies were clustered around this fence post as if it was the happening place to be.
Of course, then when I turned around there were also beautiful vineyards. I loved the tiled roof farmhouses, the cypress trees, and of course the rows and rows of some of the grape vineyards famous the world-wide for producing the region's Chianti Classico wines.
Megan took this beautiful photo of the vineyards with the row capped by yellow roses (my favorite color of roses, as a side-note). I wondered if there was an agricultural component for having planted those there, so I looked it up. Apparently, roses are susceptible to the same types of fungal diseases as vineyards are. So, if the roses are affected they serve as an early warning sign that action needs to be taken immediately to prevent the vineyards from being affected next. Brilliant, right? Smart, and beautiful too.
I realized that I was kind of wandering around taking pictures in a euphoric dreamlike state (I was actually here!!!), so I looked back at the rest of my group and had to snap this picture. Mark enjoying the countryside, Tommy stealing a kiss from Megan, and Alessandro leaned up against his vehicle patiently waiting to let us soak things in.
After we were done at that impromptu stop, we headed to Alessandro's first planned stop. Castello Vicchiomaggio.
This photo of Castello Vicchiomaggio is courtesy of TripAdvisor
Castello Vicchiomaggio is a castle dating back to the 1400's which was essential during Florence's feuds with the city of Siena. Leonardo da Vinci stayed at this castle while painting his Mona Lisa. Alessandro showed us the area where she most likely posed for the painting, and you can still see the road on the hillside that he incorporated in to her portrait here...
Alessandro told us that his sister's wedding was held here. I can see why she chose this place - it's amazing! Not only the amazing old castle with its history, but the views were stunning. Here are Mark and I with a shot of the countryside in the background.
Just an orange tree by a cool old door...
Castello Vicchiomaggio was a rustically beautiful castle seeped in history that we wouldn't have known to even care about without Alessandro taking us there and I'm so glad we were able to visit there. Everything there begged you to slow down and appreciate it, and I can only imagine how amazing wedding photos would be in a setting like that! Just saying.
Our next stop was Greve in Chianti (known simply as Greve until about 40 years ago). Alessandro drove us into the main square and gave us some time to putter around and poke our heads in a few of the shops.
The first place I recall ducking our heads into was a bakery. I don't recall the name of the bakery, but I certainly do recall the allure of the smells wafting out of that bakery. In fact, I don't think we had any choice but to go in. It was like in the cartoons when they smell something amazing and their feet lift off the ground, their eyes close, and they are lifted away toward the source of the enticing scent. What a treat! Look at this place...
I have to add that we enjoyed watching (and listening to) an old woman buy her baked goods there. It was also interesting to watch bread come out of their oven and be sorted. We may not have spoken much Italian, but we had little trouble ordering a few goodies to enjoy as we walked the rest of the shops there in town. Point, hold up number of fingers with a smile and say "per favore"! Pay, and enjoy.
One of the must see shops there is a Tuscan butcher shop (Antica Macelleria Falorni) that has been in the same spot since 1729! It had a huge variety of cured meats and cheeses hanging on display everywhere, and you can go downstairs to view their cheese cave.
Our next stop was one of the highlights of our tour. Farmhouse Montagliari grows and produces a handful of different wines, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar. They also have a restaurant, offer cooking classes, and have 8 guest rooms for on site accommodation (for a reasonable price, I must add).
None of the four of us are wine drinkers (which we weren't ashamed of, but it did feel a bit culturally unfortunate to me)...but we were excited to try some of their olive oil and balsamic vinegars. First we were treated to a private explanation/demonstration of their balsamic vinegar production. We found it interesting that while their wine (between barrels and bottle) is aged anywhere up to 6 years, that their balsamic vinegar is aged either 20 or 28 years! Because of the significantly longer process of aging the vinegar, only a limited number of wineries also produce balsamic vinegar. It was very interesting to learn about the process, and to see (and smell) some of the balsamic barrels...
We weren't at all pressured to buy anything, but believe me we were anxious to! Here was their supply of various balsamic vinegars. We brought some of that and some of the olive oil home to enjoy.
Mark during our olive oil and balsamic tasting.
A picture of the 4 of us with David (the owner).
Besides this stop being interesting and delicious, everything really was beautiful. Everything felt like it was just begging you to stay and enjoy longer. Our hat off again to Alessandro for sharing this gem with us, and for making the arrangements with the owner to meet us there to open things up for us!
Next it was back in the vehicle for us, and I'm telling you - the drive itself was a huge part of the experience. We were able to just sit back and relax, taking in all the beauty of the Italian countryside, without worrying about navigation or roadsigns or logistics...or buying gas, or even keeping the car clean! It was wonderful.
Plus, Alessandro knew all the good photo spots along the way. Like this area...
Next it was on to one of our requested stops - San Gimignano!
(Image credit: http://theendangeredsartorialist.com)
I drooled over pictures of this walled hilltop town over the years and knew it was somewhere I had to visit. Before leaving on our trip I also enjoyed watching Tea With Mussolini - part of it is about (and filmed in) San Gimignano. Here are a few pictures we took as we approached the town.
I have to include this short video clip because this is what I spent a lot of our trip doing - admiring things through my camera lens! I have to admit that it's funny to watch this clip of how I looked on the outside at that time, because on the inside I'm pretty sure I thought that at the time I was spinning around with my arms outstretched and a big, goofy grin on my face. I was so happy to be there.
We didn't go all that way to just admire San Gimignano from afar, however! As we arrived, Megan captured this image of Bastione San Francesco. It was built in the 1500's.
Here we are taking a couple pictures just as we were entering San Gimignano.
And here are several pictures that either Megan or I took inside that cool, medieval city. (And, no, we didn't make stops at the criminal and torture museums that seem to fascinate so many tourists)
San Gimignano has been able to preserve 13 of their city's original 72 towers from the 14th century. Back then every well off family built a tower to tout their economical power. The higher the tower, the more influential the family.
Gelateria Dondoli doesn't mess around. Their gelato was delicious! Plus, they have competed in and won several national and international competitions...including winning the Gelato World Championship twice!
Speaking of not messing around...that's me chilling on the steps of the wishing well in the main piazza, doing nothing but enjoying every lick of my gelato. How cool are all the buildings surrounding that piazza too?
I have to mention one random tid-bit here...as you can see we managed to enjoy plenty of moments without rain on our tour that day, but the rain seemed to come and go unpredictably. The skies were clear when we arrived in San Gimignano so we left umbrellas in the car, but showers blew in and we hunkered down and waited it out before continuing on exploring the city. When we got back to the car Alessandro came trotting up looking discouraged...he had noticed we left the umbrellas and when it started raining he tried to take them to find us. How thoughtful, right? Not to mention that every time we got back in the car we could tell that he had tidied up and even cleaned up the floor mats. I'm not exaggerating when I say this guy's attention to detail is exceptional. And I don't care if I sound like an Alessandro commercial, I am so pleased with our time we spent with him I want everyone to know why!
Now, we may have had dessert first in San Gimignano, but we were still hungry for some real food too. We asked Alessandro to take us somewhere simple, traditional, and non-touristy. Deliver, he did. The place was casual with shared tables, and there were no English speakers around. The restaurant was Bar dell'Orso in Monteriggioni. Um...yum! Don't let the non-fanciness of these plates fool you. This was one of our favorite meals from our trip! Seriously. We each ordered a plate of Pici noodles, Mark's with red sauce, mine with pecorini cheese and pepper.
Like I said...it may not look like anything fancy, but it was so fresh and delicious. My mouth is seriously watering just looking at these pictures and remembering how yummy it was.
Moving on. Oh, Siena. It's funny how I can romanticize things when something has years to marinade in my mind. I cannot tell you how anxious I was to see this walled city. Before we had to cancel our 26-day trip to Italy that we had booked (10 years ago), we were planning to spend a few days in this city. I had bike rentals arranged, a cooking class booked, and a hot air balloon ride over the city planned on our anniversary. At the time I even thought that I wanted to name our daughter Siena someday.
(Photo credit: http://hayleyraegibson.wordpress.com/tag/siena/)
Anyway! On our trip this time we were supposed to end our day Tuscany tour here in Siena and stay for one night, but because we swapped our Cinque Terre and Tuscany days (due to the rain) we would return back for our night stay in Siena after our day on the coast the next day. However, here are some pictures from our short excursion in Siena during the daytime on that day!
Ok, this won't probably even be funny to anyone except the four of us, but I had to include this video primarily due to Tommy's "prego" at the end. We became amused with the frequency that we heard this word on our trip, and its variety of usages. So, we began using the word all the time. For everything. Even when we knew it didn't make sense. Yup, we found ourselves amusing and I wouldn't want to forget that...
The shell shaped piazza is Piazza del Campo. I loved all the red brick! Have you ever seen the color 'burnt Siena' or 'Siena red'? Well there you go. And it was amusing to see how people lounged all about the piazza as if at the beach - not something you usually see. Usually in a piazza people are sitting around on fountains or spilling down steps, but not just scattered all around on the ground. Somehow it seems to fit here though.
I wanted to include an aerial view of the piazza so I could show its 9 sections representing the Noveschi that ruled Siena in the height of its splendor. Also, around the edges of the piazza is where the famous twice a year horse race Palio is held! There are 17 districts in Siena. Each time Palio is held, the ring around Il Campo is covered in dirt and 10 horses with bareback riders in colors representing their district race (7 race by right, 3 are drawn by lots). While this is certainly an event tourists attend, it's a tradition that has been going on since medieval times and the locals are passionate about it. Imagine that - Italians passionate about something? *wink*
(Photo credit: http://www.hdwallpapers.in)
I loved the herringbone pattern the bricks were laid in for the ground (it was a recurring pattern we saw). Megan decided that she must have Italian blood in her somewhere because she has loved that pattern for some time now and was in the process of installing flooring in that pattern in their home at the time during the renovations!
Me with the Palazzo Pubblico (city hall) behind me.
Here is the beautiful Duomo di Siena (built in the 13th century)!
(Photo credit: Alessandro Antonelli via Wikipedia Commons)
As we approached the cathedral, we were greeted by Alessandro who had already purchased entrance tickets for us while we enjoyed the piazza! We felt so spoiled - and appreciative of him streamlining everything so we could relax and still see so much in this one day.
Now, I have to say, of all the cathedrals we saw on our trip this one was my favorite. The detail was so intricate...
...and I loved how different the interior was too! The white and greenish-black marble stripes were stunning, and one can see Michelangelo and Bernini sculptures inside as well.
(Photo credit: Tyler Close via www.studyabroadphoto.org)
The pope's faces were so lifelike and seemed to be looking down on us with judgement or disapproval of some sort. About 1,000 years of popes are up there (172 or them to be exact), from Peter down through the 12th century. Apparently though, if you look carefully it is the same 4 faces repeated over and over (info per Rick Steves).
Duccio's amazing stained glass window.
(Photo credit: sailko via Wikipedia Commons)
Notice the beautiful inlaid-marble flooring those handsome gentlemen are standing on.
Alessandro was parked steps away from the cathedral as we exited. Megan snapped this cool image of his vehicle as we all loaded back in to leave.
Now at this point I have to add that we decided ahead of time to pay extra to add some time to Alessandro's typical Tuscany tour in order to also see some locations from Val d'Orcia/Crete Senese (otherwise our tour would have been done at this point). I realized that many of the countryside images I wanted to see were actually in this area. For example, La Foce! I was reading a book called "War in Val D'Orcia" and La Foce is where it took place, including this iconic road nearby. This photo of that road was my computer's screen saver at the time...
(Photo credit: www.flickriver.com)
My photos (as usual) don't do the sight justice, but it was amazing to go there! Alessandro was so kind to take us there, especially since it included some dirt roads and was somewhere he had never been before. Once we found it we grabbed a few of those bucket-list photos.
Here is the front gate of the actual villa (built in the late 1400's) where Iris Origo (author of the aforementioned book) and her husband eventually lived while she wrote her WWII war diary of their experiences there.
Another angle of the winding, cypress lined road. Alessandro even delighted us by driving to the road and letting us ride all the way up to the top!
Here is a quick shot I took as we headed back down the road. I felt like that part of our excursion (actually driving on that road I'd looked at in pictures so many times) was such a fun, unexpected part of our adventure. Perhaps partially because of that, I really like this picture.
The last village on our Tuscany tour was Montepulciano where we enjoyed views, Pecorino cheese and salami. And apparently, if we were wine snobs we would have been freaking out at the opportunity to try their Vino Nobile, which connoisseurs consider among Italy's best. This charming hilltop town has been around since 3-4 B.C.
By upload by Adrian Michael (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), via Wikimedia Commons
My photo as we approached Montepulciano is of much lower caliber, but here it is nonetheless. I'm so glad I was there in person to see it, and take the photo! Someday I'll learn how to edit all my photos and improve the way the look quite a bit.
We were running short on time, so Alessandro took us right to the door of Cantina Ercolani (cantina means cellar in Italian) where we tasted (and bought!) cheese and salami. I wish now that we would have picked up some of their honey that they are known for too. We were also able to take a look at where they age their cheese and at their extensive underground wine cellars. Look at all this beautiful cheese!
Heading into the underground area...
After we were done touring the ancient wine cellar and buying our delicious meat and cheese, Ale directed us to an area with one last overlook. It didn't look like much until we got to the edge of the wall. Yet another treat that Alessandro handed us on a silver platter.
This is just a quick clip Mark shot at the overlook, but I have to include it mostly so I can remember how we jokingly began calling Montepulciano "multiple channel" because it sounded like that...and was much easier to say and not mess up.
One last shot from that awesome overlook.
(Photo credit: www.tuscanypass.com)
Now. I did not have the time, talent, know-how, position/angle, or equipment to catch a National Geographic shot like this of the Crete Senese, but this is a beautiful picture of the same pockmarked earth that we drove through at the very end of our tour.
A photo from the area that I had hoped to have time to try and replicate...
(Photo credit: www.holidayhomestuscany.com)
...and this is my photo snapped out the window from our moving car. It isn't quite the same, but at least I was there and I saw those rolling hills as the shadows and fog began to rise up around them.
I have to say, this post is starting to look like one of those where people post what their pinterest pins look like...and then how their own attempt at the said pin turned out. Really though, while I won't deny that I would love to get years of landscape photography knowledge under my belt and go back someday solely for the purpose of taking pictures...when I look at my own pictures, they still tap into the way I felt at the time being there. The wonder that I was actually there experiencing it all, and how grateful I was to Mark for making it really happen. Plenty of people dream for years of going somewhere, but never actually go. I finally got to see it, hear it, smell it, feel it, and taste it. Not bad. Not bad at all.
Alessandro was all too aware of how much a part of this tour the photo opportunities were to me, and he delighted us with one last roadside pit-stop to see (ahem...and photograph) this common postcard sight.
We started early that morning and went late into that evening (thanks, Ale!). I quickly shot this last picture of our long evening shadows at our last pit-stop. Smooch!
During our tour Alessandro was kind enough to call and see if we could move our dinner reservations a bit later at Ristorante del Fagioli (back in Florence). He also confirmed what the reviews I read touted - that it is very traditional (and good) Florentine food. We had been able to enjoy some yummy, foodie places, but wanted to try something a little less fussy. I don't believe the restaurant has a website, but I found this 2 minute video on you tube. You can also find plenty of reviews online (almost all glowing), but here is just one that I enjoyed reading. It is supposedly the oldest restaurant in Florence that serves regional cuisine. We figured it was a good sign that the menu was all in Italian, but now (because I didn't write down what we ordered) I cannot figure out what we ate!...but I have pictures, and I can tell you that it was tasty!
I had planned on ordering the Bistecca alla Florentina as that is a very region specific dish and I heard they prepare it very well there, but I chickened out when I heard how rare it is served. So, if you find yourself in Florence and aren't bothered by a rare steak I hear you are in for a real treat to find a place that serves up a good Bistecca. Just saying.
Back to hotel. Crashed with blissful exhaustion.