Monday, June 27, 2016

Honeymoon, Day 3, May 25th: Exploring more of the Chianti Region.

Another gorgeous day with none of the forecasted rain. We decided to visit some of the other towns in Chianti. The rooster is the symbol of the region and its wine, and there were often statues in its honor.
On our way into Gaiole, we stopped at a gas station and I was struck by how pretty it was, complete with railing planters filled with flowers.
Gaiole hosts a couple of bicycle races and we stopped to look in this bike shop. One of their races requires the use of vintage bicycles and clothing.
I was very taken with the Piaggio Apes, three wheeled vehicles often used for maintenance. This was the Ape Cinquanta, and we also saw the newer Ape Ottanta models around. I want one.
We took a break mid-morning from all that difficult leisurely strolling to have a snack at La Cantinetta del Chianti, a little outdoor cafe.
We had a couple of glasses each of spumante brut and a plate with three kinds of local cheese, bread and fig and apple-cinnamon preserves.
At first when I noticed one of these door knockers in another town, I wondered why someone was decorating with Egyptians. In Gaiole I saw them again and realized the figures must be Etruscans, the ancient civilization of the region until they were absorbed by the Roman Empire by 100 B.C. The name "Tuscany" comes from "Etruscan."
A word about our clothing: We had read that Italians are particularly put off by the American penchant of wearing bright colors, slogan t-shirts, sports clothing and flip flops or sneakers while traveling. In an effort not to stand out, we packed only clothes in neutral colors and leather shoes. Did it make a difference in how we were treated? Who knows, but we were universally treated very well. And we enjoyed not being obvious tourists.
We picked up a brochure of wineries and castles in the area and headed to Rocca di Castagnoli, where the Etruscans first cultivated the farmland. A thousand years later, in the tenth century, vineyards began producing wines here.
The host was busy and let us roam on our own through the enormous labyrinthine wine cellar, with barrel after barrel of aging wines. The cellar was formerly the castle stables and maintains a year-round constant temperature without the need for any cooling.
I loved these glass airlocks on the barrels, which allow carbon dioxide to escape during fermentation.
Francesco, the host, gave us samples of five wines along with the history of the wines and the castle. Although the area is famous for their red wines, we also liked their Chardonnay which was, according to him, "not hoakey" because it was aged part of the time in steel and part in oak. Oddly, neither of us cared for the most expensive wine that we tasted, largely because the smell was off-putting. We also tasted their peppery olive oil, which Francesco said should only be used for flavor on food, not for cooking. In the end, we ordered a mixed case to be shipped home to us - four bottles of the Chardonnay, 4 bottles of a good Chianti Classico, one bottle of a very good Chianti Classico, one bottle of a Gran Selezione, and three bottles of the spicy olive oil.
From there we drove to Barbrischio, stopping briefly to walk around the outside of the ruins of a 11th century castle.
On our drive we passed this garage and I was again struck by how even a garage here managed to look elegant.
Next was Vertine, another medieval walled city with a castle, and we spent a good bit of time exploring there.
The cats were everywhere, lounging in the sun and cuddling up to be petted. I think they are still reaping the reward for their forebears' assistance during the time of the Black Death, when they killed many rats carrying the plague.
This fierce dog could not be bothered to do more than turn his eyes toward me and thump his tail on the tiles.
Vertine includes an 11th century church, guarded by stone lions with columns on their backs.
The inside of San Bartolomeo's Church was partially reconstructed but still contains ornate artwork, some of which date back many centuries.
We decided Vertine was the town of exceedingly friendly cats. When I would try to stop petting this one, it would grab my hand with its front paws and drag it back to its head for more.
And then it was time to wind our way past vineyards to Radda, for dinner. But that's another post.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Honeymoon, Day 2, May 24: Quick trip to the shore.

Breakfast was included at Il Borgo. In addition to the fruits, juices and other foods I posted earlier, there was a spread of fresh breads and local cheeses, and another table with yogurt and granola. The waitress would greet us each morning with, "Buon giorno. Cappucino o espresso?" I could get used to having cappuccino every morning.
We'd decided we wanted to visit the seaside once on the trip and with rain forecasted in the days ahead, we took the opportunity of this sunny day to drive to Vada, on the western coast.  We knew we were close when we started seeing palm trees, and stopped to take a picture of this little shrine.
There were few people on the beach as it was still a little before the season started. Which meant plenty of space for us to walk.
I make a point of wading in every ocean and sea I visit for the first time, so I was able to add the Ligurian Sea to my list. You can tell from my face that it was a wee bit chilly!
It almost doesn't feel like a summer vacation unless you can walk barefoot on the sand at some point.
Scattered around on the white sand were these curious blue creatures. We weren't sure if they stung, so we avoided them. However, we did a little research later and discovered that they are velella. Also called "by-the-wind sailors," they have a transparent chitinous sail that helps them skim along the ocean's surface, until an unkind wind blows them ashore to die. They are related to jellyfish but do not sting. The article I read said they have a neurotoxin that could be irritating if you touch your eyes or face after handling them.
After our walk we headed back to find a place to eat, passing this old stone water tower.
We ate by the marina at the Hotel Bagni Lido, where we sat over-looking the water.
I had linguine with baby clams and my husband had pasta with a seafood assortment - octopus, squid, mussels and a weirdly huge prawn. I'm not sure why I mention who had what - we always split whatever we order. Both were delicious. We got a bottle of local white wine to go with it.
After lunch, we headed back through Tuscany toward the Chianti region.
We stopped in Volterra, a bronze age settlement that has been inhabited for almost three thousand years. Stretches of the walls in this city were built in the 4th century B.C.
The Fortezza Medici was a fortress built on the highest point of the hillside, completed in the 1400's. It now houses a maximum security prison. I can't even imagine what it would be liked to be locked up with so little natural light.
We did a little shopping at some of the crafts stores to bring home gifts for the kids. Volterra exports a lot of alabaster and since I'd bought a pair of silver Celtic knot earrings in Galway, I decided to make that a tradition and bought a pair of alabaster earrings. I also picked out an alabaster and metal pendant to use as a Christmas tree ornament, another travel tradition. We got a gelatto violetta to eat as we strolled around.
Next we drove toward San Gimignano, which had been recommended to us by a coworker of my husband. We took one look at all the tour buses and milling hordes of people and kept driving. Which was serendipitous, because we were getting hungry and stopped instead at Castellina in Chianti. It is another charming Etruscan-era walled city and probably our favorite. I loved that there were kids casually kicking a ball around in front of this 16th century church, San Salvatore.
The friendly shopkeeper at the wine store helped us pick a bottle of wine to take back to the hotel and we asked him for a recommendation on a place to eat and also where we might buy some chocolate for later. He walked us across the street to a little store and introduced us to the shop owner there. We tasted samples and ended up with two blocks of dark chocolate, one with cherries and one with pear, walnuts and cinnamon.
We walked around for quite awhile before dinner, though the Via delle Volte, a stone tunnel along the outer wall of the city.
It was originally a pomerium, a sacred and military boundary. There were windows in the tunnel that looked out over the hillside.
Originally the Via delle Volte was open-air, but later enclosed as homes were built against the outer defense wall.
As it grew dark, we walked back to the suggested restaurant, Il Cantuccio. We settled into a table in this cozy little place and watched a young man who worked in the kitchen take a few minutes to sit down at a table and enjoy a plate of pasta and a glass of wine. It seemed like a good omen. Our waiter was a friendly guy who sang as he worked and kept a glass of wine for himself on the bar.
We had ravioli l'arancia and crespella primavera with zucchini and a cream sauce and a bottle of Chianti.  Again, everything was delicious. You might be noticing a theme here.
Then back to Il Borgo for the night. We could not resist the fluffy robes provided for us, and settled in with our wine and chocolates.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Honeymoon, Modern Life in an Ancient Village

I decided to do a little aside post, not about a particular day but about the place we stayed the first four nights. Because look at it! It sits up on a hillside in the Chianti region, about 600 meters above sea level.
Vèscine was a thirteenth century Etruscan village that had fallen into disrepair over the years. It  was bought by the owners of a couple of wineries in Tuscany and turned into a hotel property.
All the original structures were preserved, keeping the medieval architecture intact. The buildings are connected by bricked alleys, following the old roadways.
I was particularly taken with the tile rooftops with multicolored fungi.
Lots of small flowering succulents grow in patches in the crevices.
At one end of the old village is the restaurant where we had breakfast every morning. You can see the deep-set widows in the very thick walls.
The other end has the pool. Okay, not medieval, but the view from it!
This angled walkway lead up to our building, which housed two suites. Can't you just picture these tiny roads in use hundreds of years ago?
Our room was this half of the building, with its own little balcony. We had the room farthest from the main buildings.
Our room was light and airy during the day and cozy at night. We kept the French doors open during the daytime because we were surrounded by a wooded area on two side.
Looking out from our windows we could see some of the other buildings and the green hillside.
This turned out to be one of those lodging choices that far exceeded our expectations. Which is especially sweet on a honeymoon.