Toscana part 2

Apologies readers, I accidently hit the ‘publish’ button instead of the ‘save draft’ button on my last blog entry…so if it appeared half finished, that’s why!

We had a great time at Montepulciano.  We visited the gorgeous town twice – the first time I bought a lovely leather hand bag.  The second time I returned the lovely handbag with a broken strap. So sad!  But I couldn’t let a 50 euro handbag off the hook – the strap has to last more than 1 hour!

Montepulciano is simply beautiful. It is hilly and the centre is walled and medieval.  There are lots of enoteca or wine shops, leather shops selling shoes, bags, and jackets, and gourmet food shops selling all things truffles.   Yuuum, truffles…! 

One of the nicest things about Montepulciano is the agriturismo we stayed in.  Such a lovely family.   The pizza we ate in their pizzeria wins Zorba’s vote of best pizza in Italia!  Truly!  It was divine.  We made up our own pizza – tomato base cooked, then placed on top, fresh mozzarella, proscuito crudo, and rocket. The crust was thin and oh-so crispy and the quality of the toppings were first class. It was a delight to eat and we were wishing we didn’t have such a big lunch so we could eat more!!  Before sharing Italia’s best pizza, we shared a home made lasagne, and again, this was so beautiful. I won’t blaspheme and say it was better than Nonna’s, but it was equally as delicious. Fresh pasta, fresh home made béchamel sauce, home made ragu..yum!   We ate so well that it was hard to stop, despite our tummies getting full.

For desert we asked if they did a sweet pizza.  I got a puzzled look before I suggested a pizza with nutella.   I got a huge smile from the jolly round owner who said, ‘perche no?”’ or why not?  I finally had my nutella pizza and it was perfect!

We were sad to check out the next day and leave, but also excited with what was to come next.  We booked a 4-star villa in Valdarno called Villa Borghetta www.villaborgettahotel.com .  The photos on the internet looked amazing, but you just never know until you get there. 

Our approach to the villa was interesting.  The Tom Tom led us to an industrial park and onto a dirt road with power lines all around us before saying, ‘you have reached your destination’.  No we hadn’t.  We double checked the address, correct, and tried again.  It led us to the same place.  Grrrr, we were starting to get frustrated, then I saw a sign post with an arrow.  So we followed the sign out of the industrial park, up a winding road.  We were driving into green vegetation – a good sign, trees, and all in all, 1000 times nicer scenery than were the Tom Tom had led us to. 

Driving the little Fiat 500 up a hill, along twisty roads, and there it stood on top of the hill, like an oasis in the desert, Villa Borghetta.  It was beautiful.  The palatial lobby had a wide gilded marble staircase that faced the glass doors.  Our room was one of the smaller rooms on offer was huge – really beautiful.  We had white fluffy robes and slippers waiting for us and in the bathroom was a rain shower (love those) and L’Occitaine products – yay!  It was so posh and lovely, i was in heaven!

We went down to the infinity pool and spent a couple of hour relaxing in the sun, pinching ourselves at the view – the typical Tuscan view, lush green trees, rolling hills, vineyards… Ahh bliss!

Our room was 180 euro per night and included breakfast and dinner.  So not that bad really.   We got dressed up for dinner and sat on the terrace whilst being served by waiters with attitude wearing penguin suits.   The setting was spectacular, but nothing else was.  The food fell short and was not worthy of such beautiful surroundings.  The waiters were a bit snooty and as soon as it became dark, the mosquitoes came out.  Just as well a world cup game was on, we had the perfect excuse to cut dinner short and go back to our spacious loft room and watch the game.

The next day we spent the morning lazing around the pool, it was so nice, before driving 30 minutes to our next destination, Greve in Chianti.

We were booked into an agriturismo lovely Lisa C recommended, Podere Torre http://www.greve-in-chianti.com/poderetorre.htm 

We had to drive along some pretty steep hills, the last few on dirt roads and our poor Fiat cinquecento struggled.  It took several attempts to get up the hill!  The agriturismo was a delight.  65 euro per night and only 3 rooms. It was a farm house run by Cecilia who was such a sweet woman.  Our room had it’s own entrance, a big high country style wrought iron bed, it was simple yet perfect.  For dinner we used the communal kitchen, which is only used by one other room, and bought supplies from Greve in Chianti – tomatoes, ricotta, olives, proscuito, bread, cheese, and sardines for the Greek and sat under the terrace looking out onto that million dollar view whilst sipping chianti we had bought from a local winery.   A perfect evening!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Toscana

After the disaster of Venice, we were glad to get back to the sanctuary of Tuscany, or Toscana as it’s called in Italian.  We checked back into our hotel and were allotted a different, less palatial room.  It was only for one night so we didn’t complain (to anyone but each other).  It was our last day / night in Florence and I nagged Zorba to death for us to have dinner back at the great little place the students recommended.  Of course he agreed :).  We also took one last walk along Ponte Vecchio and past Il Duomo. 

The next day, another driving adventure was about to begin.  We went to the car hire place and I was praying the whole time that our request for a Fiat 500, a cinquecento, my FAVOURITE car, was granted.  Zorba was delighted that we got a little black one and so was I.  Yay!!!  Sooooo much better than a Lancier Y (Epsilon), or a Fiat Punto.  The back seats were folded down, our luggage put in, and the GPS plugged in.  Off we went! 

Zorba did an ace job getting us out of Florence.   It was easy with a GPS and I just don’t know how anyone survived a driving holiday in Europe without a GPS.  Like email, how did we ever survive without email?? 

We followed the autostrada to Lucca, where Zorba exclaims, ‘this is like a race track, like coming out of pit lane!’.  Noooooooo no no no no – I told him in no uncertain terms that this was nothing like a race track, it was a road and he has a responsibility not to kill his future wife.

We got off the autostrada not far before Lucca and found a hotel just outside the city walls.  It was a 4-star hotel that looked pretty standard.  She offered a good price for cash, 100 per night, so we accepted.  Parking was free and it was close to the city centre.

Lucca is lovely.  I liked it more than Zorbs.  Maybe because there’s some lovely shops in Lucca! It was stinking hot, again, and the hotel receptionist recommended we walk along the top of the 7m wide city walls.  And it was a good recommendation. The walk is lovely, shaded by giant leafy trees, lots of park benches, and nice views of roof tops of Lucca.  We went inside the city walls and found out that Lucca is the world capital for comics.  It has produced some famous comic strips and comic authors.  There was a little comic festival going on inside the city walls which was a spin out – ancient city walls dating back to the 11th Century, decorated with modern comic displays.

There was also a big summer festival set up in the main piazza and featuring on that night was an Italian showman, a comedian.  That was no good for us, we wouldn’t be able to understand anything!   We used the trusty Lonely Planet to find a place for dinner and the best sounding restaurant was closed!  What a shame!  The second best sound restaurant didn’t really look very good, so we chose a place that looked busy but was tucked away from the main street.

Unfortunately, all the tables outside were full, so we were seated inside, in the airconditioning, so a blessing in disguise.

Dinner started off interestingly.  On our table was dumped by the busy waitress a little metal bucket and in it was a few chopped carrot sticks, celery sticks, some fresh radishes, and Zucchini sticks, raw fresh vegetables.  They were nice and felt healthy as I crunched most of them down.  Zorba’s favourite tomato dish, Pappa al Pomodoro was ok, but not as good as the one we had in Florence.  Dinner was ok.  Not cheap, not expensive, not good enough to write home about, but we did get a free grappa on the way out :)

The next day we jumped back into our lovely cinquecento and drove towards Montepulciano where we had booked into an agriturismo for two nights, I Chiari.  http://www.booking.com/hotel/it/i-chiari.en.html?sid=f8c765c990666b123ac8a7cd4a851141;origin=disamb;srhash=2759028613;srpos=1 

We decided to drive off the autostrada and it was the best move we made. We were in for a scenic treat – the sort of Tuscany countryside you imagine – rolling hills, rows of vines, lush green forests.  Che BELLA!!  Zorba loved the twisty roads of the countryside and so did the cinquecento, so it seemed.  We turned off the GPS route and found this very cute little town that had one pizzeria, one bar, and a few gorgeous stone built houses sporting colourful flower gardens.  We stopped to take in the view and decided to check out the pizzeria.  They were open and it seemed to be run by Ma and Pa Kettle – a lovely looking old couple.   We sat down and ordered home made pasta with wild boar ragu for Zorba, and home made pasta with duck ragu for me.  Both dishes delicious and we were both feeling really good about being in Tuscany.

We drove to the pretty as a picture town of San Gimignano.  We found free parking outside of the town’s city walls and Zorba was loving driving such a small car, parking was a cinch.  As expected, San Gimignano was busy with tourists, but nothing like Venice, so we weren’t too affected by it.  Great little wine shops, gourmet food shops, and leather shops predominated in the medieval town.  Not gelaterias which is what we needed on such a stinking hot day.  Only one in the centre of town and that gelato shop had a massive queue out the door.

 

After a walk around San Gimignano, we went back to our bambino car and high tailed it to Montepulciano.  Our accommodation at I Chiari was nice.  Set in the middle of the country side with nothing near by, the views from our first floor terrazza was the typical Tuscan vista, just lovely.  When we booked, we didn’t know that the agriturismo was also a pizzeria, which is why we stopped on the way and bought supplies for dinner: tomatoes, olives, proscuito crudo, bread, cheese, boar salami (YUM!!), some fresh fennel, healthy carrots,  and a jar of black truffle paste for the bread, as well as two bottles of wine, a chianti classico and a brunello that helped wash down a Tuscan date and nut cake.  It was a lovely night.

Toscana 171 Toscana 177

 

What made I Chiari agriturismo so lovely was the owners.  Such a warm and lovely couple with two young children.  They were so welcoming and accommodating. 

On our second and last night there, we asked if it was possible to watch a world cup game – all other restaurant guests were seated outside under the pagola.  We wanted to be in front of the TV. I felt terrible asking

Vrrroooooomm!! Vespa riding in Tuscany

In our first five minutes in Firenze, Florence, in the crappy cheap hotel that had foam beds, we found a brochure for a day trip Vespa riding in Tuscany.  We decided to do it!  Zorba really wanted to ride at least one Vespa in Italy (as opposed to a normal scooter).  We met our tour guide at the front of McDonalds near the train station and jumped in a 9-seater van with 5 other Aussies.  We were taken about an hour out of Florence to a small country town where we picked up our Vespas.  They only had one Vespa – so I let Zorba ride it, after doing a practice lap on the gravel road and deciding that the Vespa was made for style, not performance.  On the gravel that little 50cc Vespa with small wheels felt like it was sliding all over the place.  I  chose a Piaggio Liberty 50cc with bigger wheels. Mine was speedy! 

Florence (and Tuscany Vespa trip) 115Florence (and Tuscany Vespa trip) 134Florence (and Tuscany Vespa trip) 136

The tour is designed for those who have never ridden before, so we had to be a little bit patient while each individual did practice laps and asked the guide questions he had already answered about how to ride…. Zorba was the most impatient and kept taking a different scooter and zooming around the little practice circuit.  He even took the guide’s scooter!  That was funny!  The guide starts stressing out – “no no noooo you caaarnt huva my scooterrrrr…!” Zorba explained he was just practising, having a go, with a big smile, and all was ok.

We started the ride about 10km from Sienna and rode to Monteriggioni – a tiny walled cute medieval town.  It was baking hot, melting hot, so we only stopped there for about 30 minutes, enough time to have a granita limone and look at the swords for sale in the medieval shop.  We then rode to Castellina in Chianti, stopping along the way to take photos, take in the view, and make sure everyone (else) was ok.

  Florence (and Tuscany Vespa trip) 135  Florence (and Tuscany Vespa trip) 118 Florence (and Tuscany Vespa trip) 126 Florence (and Tuscany Vespa trip) 129 

Because Zorba and I were the only ones that had riding experience, the guides didn’t bother us too much.  And we had a ball.  We would hang back and be the last ones to leave a place where we’d stopped, then zoom up, overtaking the single file of novice scooter riders and slot in behind the guide. 

Riding in Tuscany was so beautiful.  Rolling green hills carpeted with lines of vineyards, cute stone villas and farmhouses almost punctuating the scenery.  It was truly gorgeous.   Different to riding along the Amalfi coast where we had ocean views almost the entire time.  But just as pretty.  We are both really looking forward to having a car and driving through Tuscany and spending some more time there.

Florence (and Tuscany Vespa trip) 137Florence (and Tuscany Vespa trip) 143 Florence (and Tuscany Vespa trip) 145

By 2pm our riding time was over, sadly, and our guide took us to a really cool place in the countryside for lunch followed by a swim.  Lunch consisted of three kinds of bruschetta –porcini mushrooms, cheese, and tomato, white bread with ricotta or salmon, a Tuscan bread salad with tomatoes and celery, pasta salad with pesto (which i didn’t rate), and taglioni pasta with ragu – like huge macceroni or cannoli pasta tubes cut in half.  It was mostly delicious and the local red and white wines very quaffable. 

It was still stinking hot after lunch and the pool at the lunch stop was calling.  The pool was very refreshing and just what we needed. Then it was time to head back to our palatial hotel in Florence.  A great fun day that we will both remember forever.

   

 

Firenze = Florence, it’s fantastical

Florence, Florence, oh how I’ve neglected you over these years…

The last few trips I have made to Italia have not included Florence and I can’t remember why…It’s so close to Rome, less than two hours by train.

Travelling with the Greek who has never been to Italy before means we are doing a lot of touristy things that I have already done, one, twice, or more times.  He wanted to see Florence, I want to explore Toscana, or Tuscany.  We booked a cheap hotel on the internet after finding the hotel my work mate Sam recommended too expensive at 130 euro per night.  The cheap Hotel Toscana was in an excellent central location and was cheap for 59 euro per night. It included breakfast and wifi.  Yay!  It was a different story when we arrived there though.  The room was shabby, which I can tolerate.  The bathroom was the size of a cupboard, which is not ideal, but I can tolerate that too. The internet was not working (grrrr) and the bed was not a proper bed, rather two fold up beds put together with foam mattresses.  You have got to be joking.  With both of us not having the best backs, there was no way we were going to spend two nights here. Zorba hated it and wanted to move.

We set off out the hotel and called into a near by 4-star hotel around the corner.  The room we were shown was beautiful, like a palace, but the cheapest rate he could give us was 130 euro per night – a bit more than we wanted to pay.  The next hotel we called into, a 3-star hotel on via Tornabuoni, 8 (tel 055 218684) called Hotel La Residenza, was perfect.  Big spacious palatial style rooms, big bathroom with decent shower over a full size bath, internet that worked, breakfast included, huge solid proper bed, and on the same street at Roberto Cavalli and across the road from Prada.  Ahhh, yes.  We couldn’t get out of the scuzzy cheap hotel immediately and had to stay one night there, before checking into our new Florence home the next morning. 

We were both delighted with Florence.  It really is a beautiful city with interesting churches, great shopping, good food and importantly great wine too! And it was hot.  OMG Italia was going through a heat wave with Florence reaching 35 degrees, with no wind or relief, Rome was even hotter.  We walked for ever.  Duomo, Piazza Maria Novella, Piazza Maria Santa Croce, Ponte Vechhio, Central Markets, everywhere. 

Our first dinner was an awesome experience.  The trusty Lonely Planet came good and we picked a restaurant it recommended that was over the other side of the Arno River called All’Antico Ristorio di Cambi on via S. Onofrio, 1 (tel 055217134).  It was renowned for it’s bistecca fiorentina, or florentine steak, which is a big t-bone steak, super thick, about 1kg to 1.5kg, cooked for carnivores, with a crusty outer and rare inner, served on a big board and sliced.  Don’t worry – we didn’t have one each! We shared one.  We had our bistecca fiorentino served with white beans, one of Zorba’s favourites.  The steak was so tasty and so so so tender. Oh my God, I was in a meat lovers paradise and I have to say it felt really good to eat red meat again after eating loads of Sicilian food consisting of fish, pasta, pizza..the only meat we ate in Sicily was what we cooked at the apartment, one meal of chicken (Palermo) and one meal where I had rabbit (Noto).  Every mouthful was a delight as the succulent steak melted in my mouth.  Zorba and I both wanted to pick up the bone and chew at it, but you couldn’t do that!  We did though use our knife and fork to cut every last bit of meat off the bone! 

That delicious meal was kicked off with two delicious starters.  Zorba had one of his all time favourites, Pappa al pomodoro, a Tuscan bread and tomato soup – so nice, and I had mixed antipasti with proscuito, finocchino salami, salami, mixed vegetables, and lardo, or a very thin slice of cured lard.  Sounds off, but it was very tasty and paper thin, so it just melted onto your tongue.  The Florentines famously love offal – tripe is sold at the markets and served in sandwiches from roadside vans.  I couldn’t go there…not my thing… Dinner was washed down with a litre of house wine that cost 8 euro and was a chianti.  Perfecto!  Full and happy – that meal kept me smiling for two days.  One of the best I’ve had in Italia.

Florence (and Tuscany Vespa trip) 034 Florence (and Tuscany Vespa trip) 038 Florence (and Tuscany Vespa trip) 039 Florence (and Tuscany Vespa trip) 044

The next great meal we had was a recommendation some Australian students gave us. I was sceptical since they are young and I wasn’t sure their palates would be developed nor experienced in what really is good food.  I was glad to find that my scepticism was unfounded.  The Trattoria l’Raddi via dell’ardiglione 47 (tel. 055 211072), again, on the other side of the Arno River from the main centre was easy to find – look at the river, take the second bridge on the right after Ponte Vecchio, and keep walking straight for a few blocks until you see a big ‘Foto’ neon sign in yellow on the right hand side of the road, take the next right and it’s there.

At 8.30pm, the place was half full and we had no problems getting a beautifully set table for two.  Long stemmed wine glasses, cloth napkins, posh looking fizzy water, candles – they did it well.  The building and room were quite plain, but the table settings looked just lovely.  The students recommended the home made ravioli and the tuna.   The menu was both modern and traditional which featured under headings of ‘Traditional’, ‘My cooking’, ‘Sweets’.  The My Cooking menu looked really interested and not your stock standard Florentine fare.  Good!  I was really up for something different.  By 9.15pm the restaurant was packed and had to turn away a couple of people.  Not bad for a Thursday night…

My starter was faultless, round zucchini stuffed with caponata and served with balsamic and tomato jam.  Perfection and so prettily presented on the plate.  Zorba’s traditional tomato and bread soup was not much good though, which was a shame…  His main however was a different story – tuna cooked in a crusty sesame seed pasty served on a bed of caramelised red onions and beetroot.  Heavenly.  At 15euro, it was great value.  My homemade giant ravioli stuffed with velvety smooth cheese and roasted cherry tomatoes were a taste sensation and went so well with the red house wine, a Brunello from Montepulciano which was only 4 euro for a half litre.  Limoncello made by the restaurant capped up a really fantastic dining experience, that only cost 48 euro!  That’s about A$65.  Where in Perth would you get that quality including drinks at that price for a two course meal?  No where.  Perth restaurants have a lot to learn….

Florence (and Tuscany Vespa trip) 160 Florence (and Tuscany Vespa trip) 161 Florence (and Tuscany Vespa trip) 162

Our fab hotel agreed that we could leave some luggage there so we can take just small bags with us for an overnight in Venezia. 

More to come! Ciao ciao!