Asciano & Le Crete: Southern Tuscany Discovered

by Admin 22-Oct 2012

Ancient and otherworldly, central Italy’s Le Crete Senesi is among the country's most magical landscapes. Its name derives from the Siena clay, which hallmarks the rolling hillsides with a pale grey hue—echoes from a sea that covered the southern part of Tuscany some three million years ago. The area’s human history dates back, and probably beyond, the Etruscans in the 5th century B.C.; in medieval times its two principal cities, Siena and Florence, waged constant battles to win control of the villages and towns that thrived here.

Among them was Asciano, ultimately won by Siena. A jewel in the hills, the town and surrounding 14th century walls still stand in wonderful condition. For a description of its setting and cultural highlights, please read our earlier blog: The Other Tuscany, Part 2 – Asciano.

For visitors to le Crete, the rewards are multiple. This is where you’ll find the “classic” Tuscany ... the cluster of cypress trees rising from an otherwise stark hillside ... the silvery green of olives groves, producing some of Italy’s finest oils ... open roads that wind past tiny stone villages and lone farmhouses. It’s a magical, shape-shifting landscape in any season, at every time of day.

If you’re based in Asciano, your choice of day trips is almost inexhaustible. In addition to Siena, just 20 minutes away, don’t miss Buonconvento with its impressive Sacred Art Museum; San Quirico d’Orcia, renowned for its Romanesque and Gothic architecture and the Horti Leoni, the Italianate gardens. And then there’s Pienza, founded by Pope Pius II and today a splendid UNESCO World Heritage Site.

And lest we seem too lofty in our reasons to stay in the area, let’s get down to the simple basics: the food here is worth the trip alone. Time-honored culinary traditions showcase the unique bounty of the region—white truffles; impeccably cured meats (especially wild boar); and the unique wines, such as the distinctive dessert vintage, vinsanto.

No one will argue that Italy is a wonderland of memorable destinations... But we dare you to spend time in le Crete and deny that there is some serious magic going on here, and that you haven’t been utterly bewitched.

Planning to vacation in beautiful southern Tuscany?
Parker Villas property, "l'Affresco," offers 6 apartments (each sleeps 4) in a restored olive oil estate surrounded by 300 stunning acres of le Crete. Just 10 minutes from the town of Asciano, and an easy drive to Siena and Pienza, all of central Italy awaits your discovery.

Museo Ferragamo—Famous Footwear, Italian-Style

by Admin 17-Oct 2012

There is no limit to beauty, no saturation point in design, no end to the material.
                                                                       Salvatore Ferragamo

Shoes = Scarpe; footwear in general = calzature

Second only to the Catholic Church and probably tied with la mamma and spaghetti in national importance, shoes are to Italian cultural identity what designer jeans are to the Americans.

It’s not just the fashion statement a shoe makes, however ... it’s how the shoe fits that makes Italian shoes the gold standard in footwear. We have no doubt Cinderella’s glass slipper was “Made in Italy.”

After Rome’s sandal manufacturing business—for gladiators, senators, et al—tapered off, Florence rose to power as the shoe design capital of Europe. Generations of fine shoemakers have kept the fashion renaissance current and the styles in demand around the world. If one name stands out in recent history, it has to be Salvatore Ferragamo, creator of the cork wedge and purveyor of gorgeous footwear to Hollywood’s leading ladies of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, Greta Garbo, Audrey Hepburn , and Marilyn Monroe among them.

Salvatore’s interest in ladies shoes started as a young lad in Naples, where he apprenticed to a shoemaker at the age of 11. Two years later he had his own shop in nearby Bonito, and at 14 he set sail for America, joining his brother at a footwear company in Boston. Right away he saw that the modern, mass-producing machinery had its limitations and he moved to Santa Barbara, California to join another brother. With the rise of Hollywood and cinema, Salvatore began to design shoes for the industry while attending the university in Los Angeles and studying human anatomy and mathematics. His goal was to design a “shoe which fits perfectly.” In 1923 he opened the Hollywood Boot Shop and began “building” his made-to-measure shoes for individual movie stars. It launched him as an unparalleled designer. When the demand was so high that he couldn’t keep up, he returned to Italy, to Florence, where making shoes by hand was the tradition. From here, he exported his shoes to the U.S., personally supervising the handiwork of his skilled employees. The rest, of course, follows the heels of history, and even now, more than 50 years after his death, the Ferragamo shoe is legend.

The Palazzo Spini Feroni, which faces the Arno River on Via Tornabuoni, was built in 1289 by Geri Spini, a merchant and banker to Pope Boniface VIII. Ferragamo purchased the building in 1938, establishing company headquarters and his workshop here. The Italian flagship store, for both footwear and fashion, is also located in the palazzo. In 1995 the Ferragamo family opened the Museo Ferragamo, located on the basement level, to the public. The collection on display encompasses Salvatore’s designs from 1927, when he returned to Italy, until his death in 1960. Lovers of footwear and fashion in general—in fact, even all-occasion, no-nonsense athletic shoe wearers— are in for a real treat.

Salvatore’s technical achievements in the business and his dedication to fitting the foot properly are exemplary, not to mention the attention to fabrics and materials chosen for the aesthetic component: silver, gold, and bejeweled leather straps; brilliantly colored, embroidered silks; studded heels; and the famous cork wedge, which made yet another return to international foot fashion just this past year. There are the practical styles, or, in the case of Salvatore, the stylishly practical ... the flamboyant, which seem more appropriate to characters from far-eastern folktales ... and there are even shoes made from candy wrapper paper during material shortages during World War II. The exhibits rotate and draw from the 10,000-plus models housed in the archives.

There is almost always something special going on at Museo Ferragamo, too. Now through January 28, 2013, a major exhibition titled simply, “Marilyn,” pays tribute to the diva 50 years after her death. A series of iconic portraits, taken by numerous famous photographers, are juxtaposed to famous works of art—where Marilyn's poses and expressions reflect those such as Botticelli’s Venus, for example.

Museo Ferragamo
Palazzo Spini Feroni, Florence
(Entrance at 5 Piazza Santa Trinita)

Hours: Wednesday through Mondays 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Closed Tuesdays and December 25, January 1, May 1, and August 15.

5 €. All Museum admission proceeds are donated annually to finance scholarships for young footwear designers.

Planning a vacation in Florence?
Parker Villas' "Casa della Santa" apartment, located in the historic heart of Florence, is perfect for one couple, and comfortably cozy for two. Save on your stay by sharing and treat yourself to some fabulous shopping (located right around the corner)!


The Art of Tipping: When, How, and How Much

by Admin 11-Oct 2012

Tipping is the exception and not the rule in Italy. The Italians who perform a service, whether it’s waiting tables, driving a taxi, or being a porter take pride in their chosen profession. Unlike in the U.S., they are paid a respectable wage, earn full benefits and enjoy an average of six to eight weeks paid vacation a year. A small token of appreciation and sincere grazie for a job well done is really all that is required. If you look around you’ll notice that’s exactly the cultural behavior of the Italians; it’s an acknowledgment, an extra little thank you, but never an obligation. 

So what should you do in a restaurant?

You’ll notice your bill will say either il coperto or servizio incluso (and often both). Il coperto is a cover charge for bread and a glass of water. Servizio incluso indicates that service—in the form of a “tip”—has been included. That amount is generally about 15 percent of the total bill. If you’ve enjoyed good service, leaving an additional 10 percent is the norm. When paying with a credit card, don’t leave a tip on the card, leave it in cash, on the table, discreetly under a dish or glass. Look around the restaurant; you’ll see that’s what the Italian clientele is doing. “When in Rome” ... right?

Here’s a short list of When and How Much to tip:

• In a caffè, a coin (5 to 15 Euro cents) on the counter is customary.
• For hotel maids, a Euro per night is appropriate. Porters are generally tipped one Euro per bag. Room Service: 2 Euros.
• For taxi drivers, a tip is not common. If you received help with luggage or a friendly narration en route to your destination, you can round up with a friendly “keep the change”– tenga il resto
• Men seldom tip in barbershops; women usually give a small tip of one or two Euros to the person who washed her hair.
• In public restrooms (WC) where a fee is not published, you may see a lady collecting coins; leaving 10-20 Euro cents in the coin dish is appreciated.

Enjoy yourselves in Italy, and enjoy the good services provided by the Italians. Avoid over-tipping, which can be seen as disparaging and snobby. Your modest tokens of appreciation — especially your smile and "tante grazie!"— are what will ultimately make for a bella figura: the socially important act of looking good that all Italians strive for!


Where to Espresso Yourself in Rome

by Admin 08-Oct 2012

You’re not in Seattle anymore, Dorothy. Italians take their caffè seriously. Seriously strong. Seriously frothy. Seriously sweet. And really seriously: if you want to appear as if you know what you’re doing in a caffè, only order a cappuccino for breakfast (never after 10 a.m.) and an espresso after a meal or as quick afternoon pick-me-up. Oh, and one more thing... don’t order a latte unless you want a glass of milk. Seriously.

While everyone in Italy has their favorite local caffè-bar, the small, venerable establishment of Sant’Eustachio Il Caffè, around the corner from the Pantheon in Rome, is considered to have the best coffee in the city, and some claim in the country. Which is saying a lot, given that there are probably two caffès to every shoe store on every block. And which, therefore, makes it worthy of pilgrimage.

Sant’Eustachio Il Caffè is famous for its artisanal, wood-roasted Arabica beans and beloved for its crema, the ethereal top layer of an espresso. And the foam—spuma—that caps the cappuccinos here is almost like meringue; experts have determined that when you add a teaspoon of sugar to it, it should take precisely three seconds for the sugar to disappear beneath the foam. You might be too busy licking the spoon to time it. If you’re there in the summer, order a shakerato... a creamy, icy concoction that’s absolutely worth the time it takes to make it.

A meeting place of Rome’s celebrities and elite since the caffè opened in 1938, Sant’Eustachio also happens to sit smugly across from the palazzo of the Senate of the Republic and snugly between the Pantheon and Piazza Navona. The place is well seasoned, old Roma at its finest; the mosaic tile floor is respectably worn, the stainless steel bar pock-marked from decades of cups hastily set down by customers headed into their busy day. It smells good in here, rich and sophisticated, and there is always a contingent of dapper professionals among the tourists. There isn’t much of a counter culture as in most other caffès... you order, drink quickly, or take it outside to one of the tables facing the lovely little piazza.

Benevolently looking down at the surrounding street scene is a large marble stag’s head from atop the thousand-year-old Basilica di Sant’Eustachio—a symbol of the conversion of the pagan Roman soldier, Eustachio, who was visited by a stag in the forest, the crucified Christ illuminated between its antlers. The caffè also chose the stag as its emblem and it decorates the mustard-yellow tins that house the shiny espresso beans (along with chocolate-covered ones and coffee-infused caramels) you’re sure to purchase following your own conversion to the delicious brew.

Oh, and by the way, for those of you who have “fear of espresso syndrome” ... we suggest you commit this mantra to memory: “The darker the bean the less caffeine.” Which means that those teeny little cups of espresso, made with dark, shiny roasted beans, will give you a friendly energy boost for the next hour or so, but won’t linger in your system and keep you awake half the night like our drip coffee will. Enjoy!

Sant’Eustachio Il Caffè
Piazza Sant’Eustachio, Roma

HOURS: Sunday through Thursday, 8:30 a.m to 1 a.m.
Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 a.m.; Saturday, 8:30a.m.  to 2 a.m.
CLOSED: December 25 and August 15

Planning a vacation in Rome?
Parker Villas’ Roman Holiday apartment sleeps 4-5 guests and is located near beautiful Piazza Navona (and an easy walk to Sant’Eustachio Il Caffè!)

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 ( 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.

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

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

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

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... 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.

The Other Tuscany — Rally in Buonconvento part3

by Mario 05-Sep 2010

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Map 1 — Start to finish from Siena

As we move to the next leg of our Tuscan adventure let's examine the entire route. In parts 1 & 2 we visited the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore and Asciano. Since both posts went up, we've gotten calls and emails from travelers requesting a route suggestion for this corner of Tuscany.

Good itineraries will avoid retracing steps. Visitors coming from the north, the Chianti area, Florence or Siena should pick up the S408 in Siena towards Asciano. The entire route outlined in Map 1 uses Siena as the starting point. The total excursion is 115 miles long. According to Google's, overly cautious driving estimate, driving non-stop takes four hours from start to finish. That's no fun. We are going to take our time and hopefully more than double the estimated time to completion. This entails getting on the road early or limiting stops based on your interests and the time you can allot.

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Map 2 — Starting from either Cortona (north) or Umbria (south)

Those coming from the east, Cortona, Arezzo or Lake Trasimeno and other parts of Umbria consult Map 2. On the way back come home use the A1 highway to close the loop by either heading north or south back towards your starting point at either the Chiusi or Sinalunga-Bettolle exit.

Our jaunt begins in Asciano 18 miles south of Siena. Drive time from Siena is around 30 minutes. The next stop is l'Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore — 15 minutes south of Asciano. Plan on spending 90 minutes getting to know Asciano and 90 minutes exploring the abbey. From the abbey, a scenic 15 minute drive leads to the walls of Buonconvento.

Bounconvento's charming historic center remains protected by impressive 13th-century walls. The sight of the walls alone are worth the stop. A stroll down via Soccini (above), the old town's main street is mandatory. If you are getting hungry check out the menus along the way for La Via Dimezzo (closed Mondays), Ristorante da Mario, pictured above and Osteria da Duccio (both closed Wednesdays). Prices are honest and the food is downright good. Upon your return, please share your favorite places and flavors of Buonconvento.

For wines, try the local Orcia reds and whites or the Val d'Arbia white. Treat yourself to the local Chianina beef grilled Florentine style or homemade antipasti and pasta dishes infused with white truffles from the surrounding Le Crete. Adventurous palates will champ at the bit for pappardelle with heavenly hare or boar sauce.

If you are truly blessed arrive on the third Saturday in June as Buonconvento celebrates the Summer Moon festival. Tables are set along via Soccini for outdoor dining, music and mayhem all for the price of a song — typically under 20E per person.

One last word about Buonconvento, aside from being eye candy, Buonconvento is a stop along the world's most beautiful car rally. The Mille Miglia is a 1000 mile race that begins in Brescia near Lake Garda and reaches Rome before boomeranging back to Brescia. Many drivers try to make Buonconvento by lunch. For 2011 the race is scheduled to take place from May 12 to the 15th. Visit the Mille Miglia official site. Register to get detailed itinerary information and updates. Registration is free and who knows, you may be tempted to have lunch in Buonconvento behind the wheel of your own roadster or feasting on a picnic from a special vantage point along the route.

Next: Savoring Tuscany's Best Wine & Cheese part 4

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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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