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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

An August Under the Tuscan Sun

For the full Italian musical accompaniment press play...
We rolled into our new home for the month just before dark. The home, an old farm in a modern day olive orchard and vineyard is located in a nice village called Ciggiano in the region of Arezzo situated south of Chianti and north of Montepulciano. Mounted on hilltops all around us are small, medieval fortified towns that will be our stopping points during our continued journey in the Italian countryside. From our second floor apartment you can see our pool and the two medieval towns of Monte San Savino and Gargonza. Staying in a farm to many may sound odd, but for Italians it is a popular, in style thing to do...similar to our B&Bs or our boutique hotels. These accommodations are called Agriturismos and offer a lot of charm and very friendly hospitality. Our Agriturismo is called "La Loccaia" and the owners Allessandro and his Dad Donato make their own wine, honey and olive oil. Once a week the hosting family offers a homemade dinner "family style" that is served on a big table al fresco. Check them out if you are ever in the area.


Our escape from the heat
The next day we toured around some of the towns and became familiar with our surroundings.  




Amy's sister Alicia made the journey with us to Tuscany and on one of her last days with us we went to   the town of Siena.  
Amy and Alicia in the main square of Siena.
...took in some Italian art
...strolled by some cheese, salami and Italian souvenir shops
Packed a wine and cheese lunch and sat in Siena's main piazza enjoying Mike's expensive 'Torta Rustica' purchase.  The torta was a heavy loaf of bread packed with chunks of meat and cheese.
After Siena we toured the medieval town of Monte San Savino that was close to where we were staying.  This old town offered us some great photo opportunities and the chance to enjoy some nice classical music.  While we were walking through the town we heard some beautiful tunes echoing off the sides of the ancient walls.  The sounds were coming down the narrow alley ways and bouncing back up at us off of the hot cobble stoned streets.  We approached the source of it all and read the poster others were looking at.  The poster hung outside of a grand courtyard with offices set up in the various rooms around the parameter.  I think the building must have been a municipal building, but for our pleasure tonight it was set up as a concert hall for which Amy, her sister and I needed to get tickets.  Luckily, at a second glance the poster informed us that the tickets were 'gratis' (free).  After a few minutes wait the concert began.  The concert turned out to be a week long series where music students performed their practiced works.  Amy and I came back multiple times to enjoy this free event, but on this night with her sister we settled down to the sounds of the piano, some opera singing and the oboe and the harpsichord (2 of Mike's favorite instruments).

The venue with the oboe and the piano practicing minutes before the concert began.
Mike (below) and I in the town gardens right outside of the concert venue. 

When we returned Mike cooked one of our new favorite dishes, gorgonzola and ham pasta with a fresh side salad which Amy picked from the garden.  We dined under the gazebo with the olive trees surrounding us.
The sunflowers "girasole" (meaning 'turn to the sun' in Italian) were up for about the first two weeks of our stay.  We were able to snap some of these shots to show proof of their beauty and abundance in Tuscany

Cortona is a town you may recognize from the movie Under the Tuscan Sun.  It was about a half hour drive from our place and was highly recommended to us.  Yes, the house that was in the movie 'Bramasole' is actually here, but we never ended up finding it.  Truth be told...we never attempted to look for it as we had heard it was out of the way and closed to the public.  

Once we arrived in town we were happy with what we saw.  Similar to many of the towns we visited during our stay in Tuscany, Cortona had old fortified walls dating back before this American mind can imagine and plenty of quaint shops to escape from the sun and to excite the droves of tourists.  Cortona was probably the most touristy town we visited in the Tuscan area aside from the cities of Siena and Florence.  We visited this town twice first with Amy's sister and again with Amy's friend James.  Both times we were happy roaming through the streets and taking in the sights and smells of the ristorantes.  Taking a look at these photos and you be the judge of this town's cuteness.  Do you recognize any of the photos from scenes in the movie?
The main piazza in town
People dining along the streets in town.
The view from Cortona 
One of the gates to the town.  Did I mention they are around 3000 years old?
Our lunch in an Osteria (like a ristorante, but has local specialities).  Amy had sage ravioli, her sister had a carbonara and I had the truffle ravioli.  
Amy and her sister liked some of the doorways in town and this is one of them.
One of the shops we stopped in.
Right outside of the gates and a short drive down a narrow road we found St. Francis of Assisi's sanctuary where he spent his final days.  Beautiful building and an awesome view.
The morning we took Amy's sister to the train station we spent it touring around Arezzo.
The main piazza in town.  Recognize it from Benigni's movie 'Life is Beautiful'?

Mike and Amy's Gotta Globe 'Gotta Wonder' Top 5 List of Italian Curiosities:

Mike's:
  1. Having to order 'Acqua naturale senza gas' (natural water without gas) when natural water doesn't come bubbly
  2. The use of headlights while driving is not only a safety precaution, but also a tool to signal "get over you, I am passing", "speed up you American,... my nonna can drive faster than you" and "go ahead and make the turn in front of me while my passenger snaps another shot of that castle over there"
  3. Water spickets in yards or on the sides of houses have a monument/statue like structure around them.  Next time in Italy take a look and you'll know what I mean.
  4. Why are the three-wheeled little truck/rickshaw vehicles that are driven about in Italy only driven by old men?
  5. Take a load off and forget about it!  Italian supermarket clerks get to sit down while checking you out in addition to airline employees checking your bags in.
...I got permission from Amy, so here is my unofficial number "5":  How can a man's haircut take 50 minutes?

Amy's:
  1. You toucha my fruit and veggies I breaka you face!  Italian supermarkets and their grocerymen do not like anyone touching their produce.  You must put a bag on your hand before fondling the goods.  
  2. Where have all the women gone?  Italian men love their man to man time and we often found many of the outside seating in bars/gelaterias filled to the wee hours of the night with old Italian men.
  3. Bicyclist on the Tuscan roadways must have 1, a helmut, 2, a tight matching cycle shirt and shorts and any other appropriate bicycling apparel one could find.  Otherwise you are not allowed!  We didn't see one person without the "gear" during our days in Italy.
  4. Anything goes...women and men changing in public beaches and women of any age shape/size going topless on the beach
  5. Dogs on vespas!

Our Tuscan adventures continued with the welcomed arrival of Amy's friend James from Colorado.  This traveling trio covered a lot of ground and did our part in putting a dent in the Chianti and Montepulciano wine barrels.  After the wine tasting concluded we visited other towns like Assisi, Radda, Gaiole in Chianti and Lucignano.
James and Amy on the streets of Radda in Chianti
Wine tasting after a tour underground of the wine cellars at Redi Winery in Montepulciano.
James, Amy and Adamo Contucci the friendly owner of the Contucci Winery in Montepulciano.  Luckily James brought a Rick Steves' guide that told us about this place.  We told Adamo he was famous and showed him his photo in the guide book and he laughed, smiled and said, "you can also see me on TV...PBS".  We laughed and said ciao, although I think he was quite fond of Amy.  
Took in some scenery around Montepulciano.
Enjoyed a nice view over the valley in Montepulciano and drank some really expensive Limoncello (5.50 Euro a shot)
One of many breathtaking views of Chianti.
Amy in the main piazza in the town of Assisi.
Amy's entourage in Assisi.
Eating pizza at a favorite dinner spot.  Thanks for  visit James.

My 78 year old Dad's trip to the fatherland started from San Francisco and brought him to Newark.  In Newark he experienced a major delay and was rebooked for his final leg to Rome approximately 13 hours after his expected departure.  Unfortunately, this got him in at 12:30am our time in Italy.  Aside from his age and getting in so late (early) coupled with the worry about him making his way through Rome and on his connections to arrive in Arezzo to see us he is recovering from major shoulder surgery 2 months prior and is limited in lifting.  With all that worry upon us and with visions of an old man getting mugged by some Romans, being swarmed by a ring of gypsies and zonking out on a non stop train to Budapest we decided to...take the 2 hour trip to Rome, spend the day seeing the sights, have a nice dinner in Trastervere and pick the old fart up in the wee hours of the morning.  

After an hour of driving towards Rome we decided to stop off in a beautiful little fortified town named Orvieto.  You see Amy was so excited that she dressed to match this huge cathedral.

After walking around we had lunch.  I had a traditional pasta called "pici" with truffles and sausage.

Took in some sights...

...and settled down after a long day at a delicious restaurant in Trastervere named 'Il Ponentino'.
My Dad didn't know to expect us when he arrived in Rome, so he was quite happy and we were very relieved that we were now with him.  He explained to us that after his canceled flight he stayed in the airport and didn't bother getting a hotel.  My Dad doesn't sleep on flights either and his plan when he arrived in Rome was to find the train station and stay there until it opened in the morning and then take the 3 hour train trip to meet us.  After hearing that I was much happier that we met him.  I think he was taking the "when in Rome" thing to an extreme.

After some some rest he was good to go and excited to see the Tuscan sights with us.  We took him to see some towns in the Chianti region, watched a traditional horse race and festival in the center of Siena, dodged lots of flags being waved and thrown, waited in the rain for a wine barrel race, saw a bridge that inspired Da Vinci and enjoyed a lot of bocce on a nice court we found in the hillside town of Gargonza.
Gelato with Dad before the 'Palio' (Italian horse race festival) and the parade begins in Siena.
No... not at the Italian version of Spamalot...much better.  The Palio parade has just begun.  The various communities in town are represented by their own flags, colors and adorned period people in tights.
Drummers drummed, colorful flags flying, no pipers, but many medieval costumes on parade.


We made it through the mass on the narrow streets to the Palio track in the main piazza in Siena.  Soon thousands will comfortably be surrounding us on all ends for a hot 5 hours of standing for a 90second..., yes...90 second horse race where each town horse is represented.
The thousands have pretty much all filled in and Amy is putting on a smiley face.



We surprised my Dad with a nice bocce ball court we found in Gargonza.  We played 3 different days during his visit which made him quite happy.



Bocce and the Italian lifestyle we became accustomed to worked up a big thirst.  To cure that thirst we took Dad to Chianti, Montepulciano, Montalcino and Pienza.

Along our drive near Pienza
Relaxed in a nearby town with natural hot springs.
Kids playing what appeared to be a common, Italian street game.  Look closely,...the thing that they are rolling to the pin in the center is a round of pecorino cheese.
Our dinner overlooking the valley in Pienza.
In Montepulciano we tried to see the annual barrel rolling race up the main street in town.  Unfortunately a 1/2 hour before the race it started to rain.  We did see the parade beforehand though.




Enjoying a lunch before the race and before the rain started.
Buriano Bridge was about a half an hour away.  Take a look at the bottom right side of the Mona Lisa and there it is.
No longer a full vegetarian, but far from a meat lover.  
a Chianti vineyard
Amy and I celebrated our anniversary with a night on the town of Lucignano.
Our two months in beautiful Italy came to an end.  We put my Dad on a train to visit his friends in Germany and Amy and I drove back up to Lake Garda to return the car and to head to Milan to catch our overnight train to Paris.  We are now headed to Limousine, France to try our hand at our first job through a work abroad program called workaway (www.workaway.info).  
The cathedral in Milan
Boarding the overnight train to Paris
Our accommodations for the night.  We had the two top bunks.


                                              Arrivederci Italia and Bon Jour France!