Florence and the Three Davids

by Admin 01-Oct 2012

No, it’s not a rock band. It’s Michelangelo's famous miracle-in-marble sculpture, the David, and there happens to be three of them scattered about the city of Florence. Let us introduce you ...

The original, the hand-hewn Michelangelo, the prototype for millions of refrigerator magnets, plastic statuettes, snow-globes, and T-shirts (to mention just a few) stands in the Galleria dell’Accademia—the sighs, the wows, and tears of a thousand visitors a day creating a fitting soundtrack. (You will too, you’ll see.)   

In 1501 a 25-year-old Michelangelo was commissioned by the board of the Cathedral of Florence (the one with the big dome) to sculpt David from an abandoned giant block of stone with the intent of placing it in one of the exterior niches ...

HISTORY BREAK: In the early 1400s, Italy was divided into multiple city-states, each vying for power over the others. Florence was a republic, believing in the guaranteed freedom and rights of individuals. Milan, ruled by a succession of Dukes with absolute power, repeatedly tried to gain control of Florence, but was defeated for the last time in 1425, giving way to the flowering of the early Renaissance. From that point on, the city adopted the young hero David—who, through sheer faith in his Lord and belief in the cause, slay the enemy of his own birthplace—as their symbol and guardian.

... It took Michelangelo three years to sculpt the David, all of under the secret cover of scaffolding. He chose to create a contemplative lad, perhaps accepting the blessing of God before the slaying of the giant, rather than the victorious hero full of pride.

When the statue was finally revealed, the citizens and important artists of Florence agreed that it was too fine a work to be placed high up on a building. A base was constructed and the 14-foot-tall figure was brought to the Piazza della Signoria to stand in front of City Hall. Some 370 years later, due to weather effects, the marble masterpiece was moved to the Accademia. In 1882, a replica was placed back in the Piazza della Signoria.

Today, if you haven’t ordered your tickets in advance online (www.museumticket.it) you have to stand outside in long lines to visit THE David (always worth it, but unnecessary). If you somehow have to forego seeing the number one most famous statue in the history of sculpture in person, you can admire Dave II from a table at Caffe Rivoire, where the price of coffee might be what Michelangelo was paid for his work. The show is fun though, watching all the silly poses by tourists of every nationality under the sun (Tuscan and otherwise) ...

And, you’ll have another chance to meet, David—Davide III. This one perches high above the city in the Piazzale Michelangelo, where you can order a Negroni at a table (probably for the price of the Sistine Ceiling commission, but mostly worth it) and watch the magical descent of dusk over Florence while tour buses park around the statue.

There are, of course, many more David sculptures; perhaps the most famous three after Michelangelo are by Donatello (1408) and Verrocchio (1475), which are in Florence’s Bargello Museum; and Bernini’s Baroque piece (1624), which resides in the Borghese Gallery in Rome. But none comes close to capturing the spirit of the Old Testament story (see below) and a young’s man’s unquestioning devotion to his Lord as does Michelangelo’s breathtaking work. Don’t miss the real thing!

As the painter, architect and historian Giorgio Vasari wrote upon seeing the David:

…nor has there ever been seen a pose so easy, or any grace to equal that in this work, or feet, hands and head so well in accord, one member with another, in harmony, design, and excellence of artistry.
 
PARKER VILLAS – Vacation Rentals in Florence
For those seeking a true Florentine immersion, our Torre Uffizi Apartments (which comfortably house 2 to 6 guests) are located right in the heart of the city, a few minutes walk from the Uffizi and Accademia Galleries, and all the major sights and museums of the historic center.

October in Trevi—Life’s a Festival! (So go. Eat.)

by Admin 26-Sep 2012

What do black celery, sausages, truffles, chestnuts, and a medieval race through town have in common? For the charming town of Trevi, it means October—and a month-long series of festivals, celebrations, and competitions. Everyone gets involved. And people come from all around Umbria and beyond to, well... eat.

The first Sunday in October is Palio dei Terziere, which means men, women, and children dressed in colorful medieval garb are pulling decked-out wooden carts and running chaotically all over the town. Why? Because since back in the 13th century, Trevi has been divided into three terziere, or neighborhoods (Castello, Matigggia, and Piano), and, like with any ‘hood, its residents have to prove that “mine is better than yours.” (The Italian prove-it gene has officially been tacked onto the regional genome map.)

During this annual Palio, the participants from each neighborhood begin the race by pulling a key out of the right hand of a statue of a Saracen figure. They race up and down the warren of streets to a tower to unlock its door, then race up the stairs to ring the bell, whose triumphant chimes announce the victor. Meanwhile, we lucky spectators take a seat at the long tables set up outside the little restaurants in each neighborhood—all of which are also, of course, vying for best terziere in the food category!—and cheer the competitors on, eating and drinking all the while, and celebrating both the winners and Trevi’s history carried forth by its proud citizens.

Another of Trevi’s claims to fame is its “black” celery, sedano nero, which reaches maturity in October. No, it’s not really black, just a darker hue than the pale varieties we’re used to ... The general belief is that it has something to do with the pure spring waters used in irrigation over the course of centuries. Whatever it is that distinguishes Trevi’s celery, its flavor is deliciously robust and local cooks have mastered a myriad ways to prepare it, incorporate it, and pair it, making it worthy indeed of its own festival (the Italian equivalent of sainthood for food), held the third Sunday in October. It comes with “expert” judging, ribbons and certificates, and even strolling minstrels.

Not to be outdone, local butchers also gather in the town square on this day to flaunt their sausages... made from the pigs who, as everyone knows, offer up their best meat in the first chill of the fall. Grills are fired up in the afternoon and the sausages roasted, a perfect prelude to the feasts (okay, pig-out) that await in the evening in the local taverne. And so, the Trevi Sausage Festival is now one with the Trevi Black Celery Festival (and probably mostly because sausages go really really well with a side of celery), making this day (la Sagra del Sedano e della Salsiccia) a memorably tasty treat for anyone lucky to be in Trevi on the third Sunday in October.

Finally, the last weekend of the month brings on the Trevi Medieval Festival, a photogenic dream, of costumed townsfolk celebrating old traditions, songs, dances, and, of course foods, which include everything mentioned above, plus pungent pecorinos from local sheep, and meats and pastas smothered in or tossed indolently with truffles and their miraculous oils. And then there are the chestnut desserts ... 

If you can’t be there for a festival weekend, weep not... Friday is market day in Trevi and in autumn (or any other time of year), you’ll find the bounty of the season overflowing the stalls of Piazza del Commune. In short, between the exuberant celebrations and the abbondanza of locally sourced foods, life in Trevi in the golden month of October is indeed a festival. Benvenuti a tavola!

These vacation rentals in Umbria, all located in Trevi, offer an ideal base for exploring the hidden wonders of the region and beyond:

The terrace of Fra Angelico, a 14th century Trevi townhouse, commands a spectacular view across rolling hills, olive graves, and other nearby hill towns. You can walk to the town’s medieval center in just a few minutes.

Charming Palio is perfect for a couple seeking the easy pleasures of village life and access to Umbria’s hidden gems.

Located in the pedestrian-only center of Trevi, cozy Terziere makes a perfect hideaway and base for Umbria discoveries.

The spacious two-bedroom San Francesco, furnished in 16th century heirlooms, was once a nobleman’s palace.

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Olive Oil: A Tasting Primer

by Admin 08-Sep 2012

 

Like wine (or diamonds), the quality rating usually involves a holy trinity. In the case of olive oil, it’s color, scent, and flavor. Amen. In the Umbrian region surrounding the hill town of Trevi, the olive branch represents both time-honored tradition and the liquid gold that has sustained families for centuries. Now that the world has recognized the mighty olive and its “juice” as a nutritional powerhouse, Italy’s producers have elevated the science of perfectly timed squeezing to a fine art, pitting its artisans against one another with secret alchemies that involve cold presses and virgins with a little extra extra something. 

But seriously ... Tasting the local oil “on location” is truly one of the pleasures of discovering the heart of Umbria. First, we highly recommend a visit to the Olive Oil Museum in Trevi, where you can learn about l’oliva and marvel at the 8th century Phoenician lamps, powered by the ancient fruit. Then, follow the winding roads through bucolic groves to one of the area producers and treat your palate to a tasting.

Following are ten cardinal tips from “the pros” on how to expertly determine the quality of olive oil. Don’t be surprised if, like so many Italian experiences, it all seems a bit over the top. And rest assured... your host will discreetly set you right should you drizzle. (Don't forget your camera; if it takes video, all the better.)

1: Holding the container of oil up into the light, shake the bottle to determine its consistency.
2: Pour a tablespoon (you know, like nonna’s soup spoon) of oil into a glass.
3: Smell the oil, taking in and evaluating both the pleasant and less-so sensations.
4: Warm the glass of oil in the palm of your hand. This releases inherent aromas.
5: Putting your nose close to the glass, inhale slowly, quietly, and deeply. According to our producer friend, this “vaporizes it in the oral cavity and puts it in contact with the taste buds.”
6: Now you are ready to command your tongue to dip into the oil and let it rest on your palate.
7: Again, inhale with your lips half-opened and put your tongue against your palate.
8: Repeat steps 4 through 7 three times in a row. Do not discard (i.e. spit out) the olive oil for at least 20 seconds.
9: Now you may “place” the olive oil into the communal bowl.
10: As you continue to move your tongue forward against your palate, the back olfactory sensations should (should) reveal the true quality of the oil.

Got that?

Congratulations—you’re an expert! And, since you’ll undoubtedly return home with several gallons of different oils from your favorite local artisans, it might be fun to invite your friends over for a tasting. Have the above list handy so you can guide them through the ten steps; we also recommend offering your victims a slice of fresh pear between taste-tests to cleanse the palate. Take photos and share them with us on our Facebook page!
 
These Parker villas in Umbria, all located in Trevi, offer an ideal base for exploring the hidden wonders of the province and beyond:

The terrace of Fra Angelico, a 14th century Trevi townhouse, commands a spectacular view across rolling hills, olive graves, and other nearby hill towns. You can walk to the town’s medieval center in just a few minutes.

Charming Palio is perfect for a couple seeking the easy pleasures of village life and access to Umbria’s hidden gems.

Located in the pedestrian-only center of Trevi, cozy Terziere makes a perfect hideaway and base for Umbria discoveries.

The spacious two-bedroom San Francesco, furnished in 16th century heirlooms, was once a nobleman’s palace.

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Italy How-To: Get Me to the Cruise Ship on Time!

by Mario 29-Aug 2012

 

 

Question:

This site was recommended to me to solve a problem with transportation from FCO Airport to Civitavecchia port to catch the Pacific Princess. Our travel agent booked us to arrive at 2:45pm on flight number 682 KLM. We need to get to the port between 2pm and 5 pm. What transportation can I access to achieve this goal? I understand that it is about 45 km. Thanks you for your help. (This is our first time to attempt such a transfer.)

-Ruth

ANSWER:

Dear Ruth,

You will be cutting it too close to take a nearly 90 minute train ride from the airport to Civitavecchia.

If you are coming directly from the States and connecting to Rome via Amsterdam (KLM?) you will be, in addition to waiting for your luggage, clearing customs in Italy. All of which, assuming the flight is on time, will easily take over one hour depending on how many other flights are coming in.  

Again, assuming you and your bags are finally clear and standing outside the airport door by 4:00 pm, the best solution is to have prearranged car and driver waiting for you. The drive, depending on traffic, is between 45 minutes to an hour. Rates will depend on the size vehicle needed to fit the number of people and bags. This cuts it close but gets you there with least amount of hassle.

Your agent should have booked such a service. If not, a Parker Villas Travel Advisor may be able to help. We generally only offer such services to our villa rental clients, but it may be worth calling the 800 number soon if all else fails.

Have a great trip,

Mario

Firenze Card — Access to the Best Museums in Florence, Italy

by Mario 30-Mar 2011

The city of Florence finally released the long awaited Firenze Card that allows access to the 33 most important museums, chapels and art galleries in the city. It also provides free passage on the city's public transit system. Priced at 50 Euro, the Florence card may be purchased online and picked up at one of five collection points in the city.

While the card is a great deal for passionate lovers of art, it may not be ideal for everyone. The moment you swipe your Florence Card at the first museum turnstile the countdown begins. The Florence Cards will expire in 72 hours and the chase is on. Remember, most museums in Florence are closed on Mondays and some are closed Sundays as well. There must be some connection between Italian museums, barber shops and this Monday closing thing that eludes me.

The Firenze Card site is easy to navigate and you will discover that the card also allows access to special exhibitions and events. In some cases you may even be able to bypass lines. A silly benefit that comes with the Florence Card is free admission, when accompanied by a valid cardholder, to a European Citizen aged 18 or under — maybe it's an inducement for adoption?

The greatest benefit will go to those who can carefully plot their entire course and slide into the last museum two minutes before the card gives up the ghost. It's kind of like fasting for days before attending the all you can eat buffet. Unfortunately, museums are not open 24 hours a day, that would be fun. If on average, museums are open nine hours a day, what you are buying is roughly 36 hours. Factor in meals, rest breaks and transit time from one to the other and the most intrepid adventurers might get to briefly visit half the places listed — that's a great deal. Then again, you can always buy another card.

My Favorite Italy Headlines

by Mario 05-Jan 2011

                                            Italy's Freccia Rossa Trains Offer Free WiFi

Easy Access Italy Internet Finally a Reality

As of January 1st, 2011 registration is no longer required to access a WiFi hotspot in Italy. While internet access was widely available, the old anti-terrorism Pisanu law required users to list an Italian  phone number, passport information, etc. as a condition of access. That law was repealed. From now on visitors to Italy will find free access to the Web unencumbered. For a guide to free WiFi Hot Spots check this link. Use the drop down named Città, to pick the city you want; under Tipologia you may narrow down the type of establishments that offer WiFi or just choose ALL for a complete list; I'd also use ALL in the Provider field. Make sure to click the GRATIS (free) button before hitting the search key. Skype users with a an IPhone or similar can even make free video phone calls back home from over the Web!

 

Italy Paper or Plastic? — Nonna's Gotta Brand New Bag

As of January 1, 2011 existing stocks of plastic bags are being phased out and plastic bags will no longer be produced or available in Italy. Choices will be confined to recycled paper or bioplastic material that's made from renewable, biodegradable sources such as corn starch. The concerns that lead Italy to enact this law were threefold: over one trillion plastic bags are produced annually in the world that can remain in the environment for up to 1000 years; countless animals including whales, tortoises and marine birds suffer needless deaths, some to the point of extinction and third, the toxic danger to humans from carcinogenic dyes, metals and other chemicals used in the manufacturing process. When polled, a majority of Italians chose reusable cloth sacks and wicker baskets over any other alternative. Who would have thought that nonna's sack would become modern day Italy's eco-friendly alternative? Pretending to know Italy and the Italians just a bit, I will wager that Prada, Gucci, Furla will shortly unleash the most stylish, must-have, market bags designed to consume just one renewable resource: your money.

 

                          Italian poppy fields are pretty to look at — the real money comes from olive oil

TOP SECRET: Not Yet Coming to a Store Near You

Of all the documents and communiques released by Wikileaks one interesting Italy related tidbit managed to escape most everyone's attention. Back on February 8th, 2010 U.S. Defense Secretary Gates met in Rome with Franco Frattini, Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs. Mr. Frattini, eager to assist the U.S.A's efforts in Afghanistan offered Italy's unique help: convert the opium producing poppy fields to the production of olives and olive oil. While at first blush the offer may elicit a chuckle, olive oil, especially the good stuff, is extremely expensive, quite profitable and possibly the only legal crop that could compel Afghani farmers to make the switch. It's been nearly a year and still no word on Italy's offer.

Le Cinque Terre — A Slightly Different Ending part 3

by Admin 09-Nov 2010

As we approach Monterosso, I’m more than happy or at least my feet are to see the entrance to this village is not up a steep cliff like the last. The town is divided into two sections. The medieval hamlet on one side and what is called New Town on the other. A pedestrian tunnel connects the two as well as Monterosso’s Fegina beach which is the largest stretch of sandy beach in the Cinque Terre and one of the biggest tourist draws in the summer/fall months. Walking along the promenade circling the harbor we head into the older part of town for lunch. Piazza Garibaldi, the main square of the village is lined with shops, cafes and restaurants, all jam packed with tourists. An array of festive pastel colored houses with little, rod iron balconies and matching shutter and window boxes seem to tower wistfully above the raucous square. 

Wandering up a narrow lane leading out from the square we find a smaller piazza several blocks away and a restaurant called Il Pozzo. With its charming patio filled with flowers and wooden tables covered with different colored checkered table cloths, Il Pozzo turns out to be an ideal spot to sip a glass of sciachetrà, a sweet white wine this region is known for and to people watch. The food is good, although I notice the specialty is pretty much the same specialty of every Cinque Terre restaurant we pass. I try it anyway and have no complaints. It’s called Spaghetti Al Vulo (Spaghetti with Clams). The wait staff is friendly and of course speaks English.

After lunch we skirt by the crowds wedged into each shop and head for the beach and another gelato. Large and sandy, Fegina beach is dotted with umbrellas and lounge chairs for rent by the hour. The water is almost as warm as the sun. A small warning, be careful you don’t doze off and miss the boat, the train station is quite a hike.

Vernazza — Photo courtesy of our friends Paulo & Giovanni at Maranatha.it

According to the ferry guide, Vernazza, our last stop, is the most characteristic and charming Cinque Terre village. The lively harbor where we dock is the size of a postage stamp, the piazza is lined with restaurants and shops. The now familiar crayon colored houses rise above the square. Crowds of tourists swarm the streets, ebbing in and out of the same trinket stores as in the earlier towns. The village is very pretty, the explosion of color between the houses and the flowers can’t help but to make you smile and take lots of pictures. But from what I see these villages are fairly interchangeable and at least at this time of year they are overrun with mostly American tourists. After a last sip of sciachetrà we brave the crowds, pick up our share of take home trinkets, board the ferry and head off into a magnificent sunset on the way back to Rapallo.

The Ligurian Sea — Photo courtesy of our friends Paulo & Giovanni at Maranatha.it

When I first mentioned my intention to spend a day in the Cinque Terre I was immediately barraged by friends, fellow travelers and well wishers with advice on how one day in the Cinque Terre would never be enough. We should plan at least two full days, three even better. As picturesque as the Cinque Terre villages indeed are, they are far too commercial for my liking. Mobbed with tourists, the largest contingent being from the United States, I can vividly recall hearing far more English than Italian as we shuffled in herds oohing, sometimes in unison, at whatever pretty sight drew the eye of a lucky individual at the outer edges of the throng. 

I’m glad I saw the Cinque Terre and happier that we spent the majority of our time exploring the rest of the Ligurian coast. In retrospect, with so many tourists concentrated in the Cinque Terre, the rest of Liguria seemed far less crowded. Spending just one day in the Cinque Terre turned out to be the right amount of time for me.

Bobbie Lerman, Parker Villas Senior Travel Advisor

Le Cinque Terre — The Perfect Approach part 2

by Admin 02-Nov 2010

The double edged jewel of Sestri Levante — Photo courtesy of our friends Paulo & Giovanni at Maranatha.it

By Bobbie Lerman, Parker Villas Senior Travel Advisor

Twenty minutes later we pull into the picture perfect harbor of Sestri Levante to pick up half a dozen more passengers. Surrounded by a gorgeous landscape of sea and mountains, the original part of this ancient fishing village is actually on a peninsula, with the beautiful Baia del Silenzio (Bay of Silence) favored by Percy Bysshe Shelley on one side and the Baia delle Favole (Bay of Fairy Tales) aptly named by Hans Christian Anderson on the other. We are definitely coming back here.

As we chug along the coast the ferry guide announces our arrival at the first of the three Terre villages approachable by sea in 40 minutes. Riomaggiore, the furthest away being the first stop. My first glimpse of Riomaggiore is of a small horseshoe shaped harbor with a tiny dock. Several other ferries loaded with tourists were lining up ahead of us like airplanes taxiing for take off. Looking up I spot yellow and rust colored houses rising from the black jagged coastline. The buildings sit atop each other with nary a hairs breadth of space between them. At the pinnacle are the ruins of what appears to be an old castle. My first thought is how pretty. As I glimpse the more than 100 steps I need to climb to the village...

...my next thoughts are I’m glad I quit smoking and I should have worked out more before attempting this.

At the top of the winding stone stairway we pass beneath Riomaggiore’s archway into a small half-moon shaped piazza with streets snaking out and upwards into the village. The houses and storefronts are as vivid and colorful as they appeared from below. Adding to the riot of color, window boxes and pots filled with flowers are set on ledges and postage sized patios fill every open space available.  However, wall to wall tourists fill the narrow cobblestone lanes in front of me. The going slows to a crawl. I wonder: “How we will be able to move through this crowd?”

Lined with shops displaying an dizzying array of touristy glitz we thread our way through the maze of streets following a sign nailed to the corner of the nectarine colored house. The arrow points up to the Church of Saint Giovanni Battista. Since it’s too early for lunch and the throng of people and the din thinning the higher up we walk we decide the hike up a connecting labyrinth of alleyways and staircases might be worth it. It is. The old Gothic church is lovely. A short distance away we spy the ruins of the castle. Here we enjoy the heart stopping panorama over the Gulf of Genoa before making our way back down to the gelato shop on our way back to the ferry.

Within moments of re-boarding we are off to the village of Monterosso, 20 minutes away for a three hour stopover. That’s enough time to do some exploring, have some lunch (my stomach’s growling) and maybe get in some sun and beach time. I’ve been told the beach is what this village was known for.

Coming up: Le Cinque Terre — A Slightly Different Ending part 3 (conclusion)

A Cinque Terre Journey — Part 1

by Admin 02-Nov 2010

By Bobbie Lerman, Parker Villas Senior Travel Advisor

This past August I spent a week on the Italian Riviera, a region of Italy I had not visited. Apart from the abundance of gorgeous seas, charming villages, pastel colored houses and outstanding seafood, one of the main reasons I chose the region of Liguria was to visit the Cinque Terre. I had heard about this heralded attraction on the eastern corner of the Ligurian coastline from fellow travelers and clients for years. The five villages always garner rave reviews as one of the most quaint, picturesque and romantic spots in Italy. Authentic, charming, a wonderful place to kick back and relax while watching the world go by was the consensus I most often heard. All of the characteristics I look for when choosing a travel destination, a perfect choice to spend at least one full day, maybe two or three I thought ...

Our home base in the small town of Bogliasco turned out to be all of the above and more. Perched on the Ligurian coast 12 kilometers east of Genoa, this enchanting village with a pretty cobblestone promenade winding its way past rainbow colored houses and pebbly beach coves is a spot I highly recommend. That is, if you seek the more authentic and decidedly non-hectic rhythm of Italian village life. I thought if the Terre villages turn out to be anything like Bogliasco, I might seriously need to relocate.

For our day planned in the Cinque Terre, the first matter we needed to figure out was how to get there. At this time of year there are four options open to us: we can go by car, train, a combination of train and hiking or by boat. I’m not much of a hiker and with a canopy of cloudless blue skies, an equally clear and calm turquoise sea and temperatures in the mid-eighties by day, my husband and I decide a boat ride would be the most enjoyable.

There are a variety of seasonal boats and tours operating from various villages along the Riviera through mid-September. We chose the Tigullio-Super Cinque Terre tour which leaves Rapallo every weekday morning. The dock is located along Via Lungomare Vittoria. You’ll find their little white booth in the center of Rapallo’s seaside promenade. If you get lost, look for the tourist office across the street. The boat leaves precisely at 9 AM. Plan to be gone all day, not returning to Rapallo until close to 5 PM. The price of a ticket is €30.50 per person.

We quickly snag a topside spot where we are able to enjoy the fresh sea air and the spectacular views as the ferry heads into the Ligurian Sea. Clean, spacious, with comfortable seating and a well stocked bar serving good espresso, tea (Earl Grey), homemade snacks, and much to my husband’s joy, a variety of gelato. Anticipating our first look at the Cinque Terre we settled back to enjoy a relaxing cruise down the coast.

Our first stop is the small fishing village of Lavagna. Pulling up to the dock to pick up a few more people, we are immediately drawn by the picturesque harbor. Ringed by mountains the town rises from a thick ledge of ebony black stones. Colorful homes in bright canary yellow, tangerine and sparkling white reach up to the sky. From the ferry guide we learn this marble-like stone is the town’s main export used nowadays for making high end billiard tables. From a friendly Italian couple sitting in front, we learn that Lavagna has remained an undiscovered haven well worth a trip on its own merit.

Leaving Lavagna, the ferry hugs the rocky coast and within minutes we pass an array of blue and white striped umbrellas set on what I discover is the longest uninterrupted sandy beach in the region. 

Stay tuned for: Le Cinque Terre — the Perfect Approach Part 2

The Other Tuscany — Montalcino, Pienza & Montepulciano part 4

by Mario 27-Oct 2010

So far we have briefly explored Asciano, the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, and Bounconvento. Our final leg takes us towards a fabulous finish where each stop tops the last.

Montalcino — From Buonconvento a 30 minute panoramic drive leads up to the fortified medieval hill town of Montalcino. This famous wine capital is a fair sized town of about 6,000 souls perched on a vine laden hill. Exquisitely wine, dine and view the panorama from a table at Poggio Antico. If pressed for time you may purchase wines, oil and Grappa from the restaurant's little shop. As with most wine purveyors shipping your finds back home can usually be arranged. A far less expensive option is Osteria Porta al Cassero, a few steps from the town's imposing fortress. The peasant cooking is magnificent, the pasta is homemade and its plain Jane ambiance is sought out by both residents and visitors alike. This casual trattoria on Via della Libertà opens for lunch and dinner and closes on Wednesdays.

While Piedmont's Barolo may be known as the king of wines and the wine of kings, Montalcino's Brunello is often referred to as Italy's best vintage. Produced in relatively limited quantities from San Giovese varietals, Brunello has an intense ruby red color and aroma. It is at once warm, dry, robust and harmonious with a persistently lingering flavor. if your taste buds overrule your pocket book, seek the added refinements of a Riserva. Inversely, the much younger, less expensive Rosso di Montalcino employs the same grapes as the more costly aged Brunello's — aged one year as opposed to a minimum of four.

Wine buffs will want to sip and shop their way through both Enoteca la Fortezza and the historic Caffè Fiaschetteria Italiana for a complete wine roundup. With time on your side, a visit to Montalcino's Glass Museum will reveal far more than ancient flûtes, goblets and bottles. A collection of Venetian blown glass and works by Picasso, Dalì and Jean Cocteau are well worth a stop.

Strong Detour Suggestion - If by some reason you either missed the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore or went gaga over its austere beauty, then take a wander six miles south from Montalcino on SP55 to the Abbey of Sant'Antimo — Italy's most tranquil and picturesque abbey.

Pienza — A half hour drive east of Montalcino's vineyards leads to the small, enchanting Tuscan town of Pienza. For anyone with mobility issues, Pienza is an ideal place to get out and roam about as this hill town is as flat as a pancake. Pienza is the birthplace of Pope Pius ll who transformed the village into a planned Renaissance city. If Siena is Florence without the traffic jams then Pienza is Siena without the crowds. While Pienza has only a couple of thousand inhabitants it offers a number of architectural similarities to its far larger cousins such as Palazzo Piccolomeni which uncannily resembles Palazzo Rucellai in Florence. While the draw of Pienza is clearly the architecture a gelato break at Dolce Sosta is mandatory. If you have time, take a quick stroll about the grounds of Il Chiostro di Pienza hotel, if only for the views.

Another reason to visit Pienza is to pick up some exquisite cheese. You will find caseifici (cheese makers) everywhere along the routes heading in or out of town. Tuscan Pecorino now better known as Pecorino di Pienza typically comes in 8 to 10" wide wheels — perfect dimensions for stuffing them in suitcases. The incomparable taste of a Tuscan Pecorino may be due to a couple of factors: a) the amazing properties of the le Crete area and its peculiar effect on local sheep and b) the age-old traditions of Sardinian shepards that helped transform this part of Tuscany. Whatever the reason, there's a Pecorino suited to your taste buds. Pecorino can be sweet and semi soft, stronger and semi aged or extra aged and unforgettably piquant. It may be cast plain or infused with truffles or black peppercorn. It's flavors may be enhanced by aging wheels in ash, wine must or walnut leaves. Eat it fresh. Drizzle it with honey or marmalade or grate the very aged ones over a favorite dish. Our favorite cheesemaker is Caseificio Cugusi. The holy grail of Tuscan cheese is Pienza and you will find this caseificio roughly half way from Pienza on the way towards Montepulciano.

Montepulciano — Of all the towns along the route, Montepulciano offers me the most perfectly balanced Tuscan experience. The town is gorgeous to look at both from inside and seen from afar. The shops, cafes, piazze and sights that line its steep lanes are intriguing and not overly commercial. Some of my fascination with Montepulciano comes from its size. Being as large as all the previous towns combined, Montepulciano simply offers visitors more attractions. While large, with nearly 15,000 inhabitants, it feels remarkably small and personal. The sensation I get is one that's unhurried, friendly and brimming with low keyed enthusiasm — my favorite kind of place. Another worthy attraction is the wine. Unlike Brunello and Barolo, Montepulciano's vintages do not scream: "I am the best", they are just simply good — very good indeed. Again, in my mind, its all about that quiet confidence I sense all around that seems to whisper: come, try me and you will not be disappointed. Even San Biagio, its most beautiful church, sits quietly by itself at the foot of the town awaiting your visit.

Osteria Acquacheta, tucked away in a small neighborhood near the center, is one of my favorite steakhouses anywhere. The Fiorentina steaks are carved in front of your eyes and grilled to perfection. From mouthwatering pasta to simple veggies everything is beyond delicious and quite reasonably priced. For something truly out of this world, try the Pecorino baked with pears.

Heading home from Montepulciano a 30 minute drive will have you back at the junction of the A1 and the Siena/Bettole highway whisking you back to your point of origin. Happy touring.

Coming up next: A veteran Parker staffer experiences the Cinque Terre for the first time.

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Welcome to our Access Italy blog, a mosaic of eclectic, but practical, information; fascinating cultural insights; and unique commentary on a wonderful way of life only the Italians could have designed.  more....

 

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