Monday was all about getting outside of Florence for the day. This heat of the city + the crowds can be intense. There is stunning art and architecture everywhere you turn…as well as tourists. So it was nice to take a break and get out into the countryside.
When we were planning our trip, we knew we wanted to visit some Tuscan hillside towns and possibly visit a winery, but we didn’t want to book any tours that would alienate Lena from the fun (7 year olds typically don’t enjoy wine tastings). Luckily, we found a happy medium. The private tour (by Walks of Italy) would offer van service (air-conditioned) from Florence to Siena…a lunch and wine tasting at a Tuscan farm house and winery…a visit to another medieval hillside town called San Gimignano and then a stop at another winery before heading back to Florence. It all sounded perfect (and it was).
We started out the day pretty early. Before meeting our tour group, we grabbed a cappucino and a pastry. Since we were in a rush, we did as the Italians do and stood at the bar to eat our breakfast (not that it matters, but they do charge extra $ if you sit down and eat).
The tour group was the perfect size…it was ourselves, our tour guide Anna, two vans with two drivers, another family of three (a Mom with a teenage son and recent college grad daughter) and another middle aged couple from upstate New York (we got along with them very well). We divided ourselves in the vans and headed out to Siena.
According to Anna, our tour guide, the local legend is that Siena was founded by the two sons of Remus (as in Romulous and Remus, founders of Rome) Senius and Aschius. Apparently, the two boys fled Rome, one riding a white horse and the other a black horse, taking a statue of a She-wolf to Siena, which became a symbol of the town and the black & white colors becoming the colors of Siena’s coat of arms (and possibly an inspiration for the design of the cathedral??).
Regardless of its origins, Siena is a beautiful old town that is beyond picturesque. There was quite a presence of tourists and selfie-sticks…but there were enough locals to remind us that this was a real, working authentic Italian town and not just an attraction to check off our lists.
Their town square, the Piazzo del Campo, is dominated by the clock tower, the Torre del Mangia. Had we not been with a tour group, you can bet we would have climbed it!!
The Piazzo is the location of a famous horse race that is held twice a year…the Palio di Siena. They put out a layer of dirt on the piazzo and then ten jockeys, riding bareback, go around the track sort of wildly and insanely…often times jockeys are thrown off their horses as the race continues on…and it is all over in about a minute. Unfortunately (or fortunately) we were not there to see it!.
Next up was the stunning Siena cathedral, begun in the 12th century. It’s considered a masterpiece of Romanesque/Gothic architecture and it is known for it’s signature black and white striped, marble facade.
So let me get it out of the way. I have already betrayed the Milan Cathedral, which I have only recently declared as my favorite cathedral…but my new favorite cathedral of all time is now in Siena. Besides the very unique exterior with its bold black and white stripes…and beautiful statuary of prophets and animals jutting out…once you step in, you are in awe at the gorgeous night-themed ceiling that looks like a dark sky with stars. I definitely had an eye-gasm in this cathedral. So many beautiful things to see. I really don’t think any picture can capture the beauty of this church.
We were very lucky to get a chance to see the unique, hand carved marble floors, which are typically covered and only open to the public on rare occasion. Because of the Expo in Milano this year, they were open for us to see. The floors were crafted by about forty artists and artisans between the 14th and 16th centuries.
This beautiful cathedral also possesses some works by Michelangelo.
But above anything else, as much as this cathedral is about the glory to God…it is a showcase of artistry…there was literally nowhere you could turn without seeing wonderful artistry and intricate detail.
After finishing the cathedral, we were picked up just outside by our drivers (this was very first class tour– we just zipped by the other tourists who had to schlep all the way back to their tour buses). We then headed out into the Tuscan countryside to the Tenuta Casanova Vineyard & Sant’Agnes Farms where we would have the experience of a lifetime for our lunch.
The proprietor of the winery and farm is a retired veterinarian named Silvano, who operates the vineyard and farm with his wife Rita. Several years ago, he gave up his practice and bought a 50 acre vineyard and farm in the heart of Chianti. The farm is over 1000 years old and when Silvano took ownership, he found a grape variety dating to the 18th century that he decided to cultivate and eventually turn into his award winning Chianti wines.
Besides his wines, Silvio is passionate about balsamic vinegar and olive oil, all of which he makes at the farm. He has two or three types of balsamic, but his pride and joy is his 30 year balsamic that he sells in 3 gallon per year quantities! Yes, imagine 3 gallons of milk from the grocery store…that is his total yearly production from this farm (we were lucky enough to get a tiny little bottle of it–for a lot of $$$).
Silvio explained that we should all go to our cabinets and just dump our balsamic vinegar because 99.9% of what we buy in stores, despite the price, is crap. Shockingly, he said that in the average bottle of balsamic vinegar, 1/4 of the bottle is just caramelized sugar to create the brown color. And as far as ingredients…his vinegar contains only two ingredients: grapes and vinegar. Check out the ingredient list on your balsamic the next time you are shopping. We also tasted his honey that he harvests on the farm…and we smelled the lavender and rosemary that he grows for essential oils and body creams.
But it was time to move on to lunch. We walked up to the farmhouse terrace which was all set up for lunch…and we had the most incredible view out to the Tuscan countryside.
When we sat down, there was a single white plate laid out before each of us. It had a slice of tuscan bread with farm-harvested olive oil, a single clove of garlic for a palette cleanser (this garlic, grown on the property, was tasteless and odorless and utterly amazing)…two bruchetta one with homemade mayonnaise & red onion and the other with mayonnaise & green olives (the mayo made from locally farmed eggs and farm-grown onions and the olives were harvested on site), a local cheese with farm harvested honey and a house made tomato spread. Silvio then came around and gave us our first wine tasting…a young sangiovese.
The rest of our lunch is almost a blur as it was so delicious. Silvio’s wife was in the kitchen preparing all of this for us, while we sipped wine and looked out over the Tuscan landscape. At some point, we were brought locally made salami and a plate of mozzarella & tomato salad drizzled with the farm harvested olive oil.
And there was a delicious side dish made with farro, garbanzo beans, carrot and then the signature 30 year balsamic vinegar was drizzled on top.
Soon, we were given some very thinly sliced wild boar (grown on the farm) and scrambled eggs right from the farm. It all sounds very simple, but that is true Tuscan cuisine…and when the source of the food is so good…it is extra delicious. Oh, and I forgot to mention that Silvio came around and dribbled his house made olive oil with truffle essence on the eggs. Yes, he has truffles on his property and two dogs that specialize in hunting the truffles. He doesn’t make “truffle oil”…he makes bottles of olive oil with truffle shavings…so it is a different approach. The taste is sort of indescribably good.
As if that were not enough….next came more wine (a better vintage) and his wife’s signature house made lasagna. Home made pasta, local cheese, farm raised beef…it was one of the best lasagnas I’ve ever tasted.
We finished with Silvio’s “Super Chianti” wine…the best vintage he makes…and a very unique dessert. A dollop of vanilla gelato with his signature 30 year old balsamic vinegar. It may seem odd, but it was out of this world good.
This lunch was one of the best meals that I have ever had. The food was incredible and the setting could not be beat. But a food coma was definitely settling in. We had to say goodbye to the farm and move on to San Gimignano.
Our next stop was San Gimignano, a tiny hilltop town that took shape as early as 450 A.C. According to Anna, our guide, the city grew in wealth and power as it was on the religious pilgrimage route from Rome to Canterbury, England. Pilgrims stopped here for food and shelter and eventually the townsfolk grew rich by providing services to travellers. What we see these days are the remnants from the medieval period. San Gimignano is famous for its towers (remember my post from Bologna when we climbed one of these towers) which were used for lookouts as well as for domestic abodes. The higher your tower, the more powerful and wealthy you were. At one point, San Gimignano had more than 72 towers dotting the hillside. Today, there are 14. Despite the rather rampant and unattractive touristy nature of the main street, there is still a great deal of charm about the place.
As if this were not enough for one day of sightseeing (this was a really great tour we booked)…we had one more vineyard to visit…Poggio Alloro vineyards and farm, an all organic vineyard which produce a Chianti and merlot wine, as well as a very local white wine called Vermacchia. We were given a tour of the production and then we had a wine and cheese tasting on the veranda. Once again, a first rate view of the Tuscan hillsides and San Gimignano in the distance.
Luckily for us, it was so hot and we looked so miserable our tour guide took pity on us and had the van drivers come down and bring us up to our wine tasting so that we didn’t have to climb back up the hill.
To our delight….we got a very RARE treat in Italy…the servers brought us bowls of ICE to put in our water. You have never seen 8 Americans so happy. We were like children on Christmas day. Wine? Cheese? Tuscan views? Who cares. We had ice. Delicious, cold, icey ice. It reminded me of when Oprah used to have her free give away days on her show, and audience members would jump up and down with delight and/or pass out. That was us.
After our wine tasting…with full stomachs and general delight from a beautiful day, we got back in the vans and headed back to Florence after a long day. Tomorrow is our last day in Florence and we are making a mad dash to see everything we have missed.