Last month we took a terrific, three-week trip to Italy. And, yes, this was somewhat self-indulgent since we had been here just fifteen months before, but the stars lined up and the opportunity was there, so we went.
Our first trip was pretty straightforward: Rome, Florence and Pisa. (You can read my posts about it here and here.) This time our itinerary included Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast, Tuscany, a four-night respite in Florence, a train to Lucca for a few days and, finally, another train to Rome before flying home. Our plan was to see a number of new sites and revisit Florence and Rome since they have so much to offer. Was this a lot to cover in three weeks? Probably.
It’s also too much for a single blog post.
I have been trying all week to write about it, but it just sounds like one of those long, boring slide shows your neighbor used to present about their 1964 trip to the Grand Canyon. I cannot do that to you. But I do want to share some fun bits and pieces, in separate posts. Consider this the first installment!
The heart of our trip was a stay in a rural B&B in Tuscany to explore the nearby hilltowns by car. Most Tuscan destinations are built on steep hilltops, the better to protect them from invading forces centuries ago. Part of the charm today is that they remain secluded, off the Autostrada, reachable by winding two-lane roads and/or a funicular. Tourist traffic is not allowed (and frankly, driving their tiny, twisting roads would be more than a little hazardous).
In Tuscany, we stayed at Borgo Argenina, a tiny hamlet of stone farm buildings dating to 998 and restored twenty years ago by owner/host Elena Nappa as a B&B. This was really an amazing destination itself, a little quirky, decidedly friendly, and a remarkable change from tourist-clogged sites.
Directions to Borgo Argenina instruct travelers to turn off the paved road onto the gravel one. Calling this gravel stretch a road requires a leap of faith. It’s a single lane, rutted and rocky, that passes first through some trees and brush and then vineyards. Eventually, the road dips down, then climbs up to the cluster of stone buildings that is Borgo Argenina.
The vistas are stunning (Elena knew what she was doing when she found it) and her hospitality is all you could ask for. Her welcome includes a history of the property, an introduction to the area, and an invitation to join a cooking class tomorrow night. Since we are checking in at the same time as a mother and adult son (from Pennsylvania and California, respectively) and just after a couple from Connecticut, Elena has made reservations for the six of us to eat that night in town at Locanda Del Tartufaio, known locally as Giorgio’s. Elena assures us it is easy to find since it will be the only place in town with lights on at that hour.
And so our adventure begins.
Steve and I settled into a two-room suite on the second floor of the original stable. The rooms feature massive ceiling beams, stone walls and 15th Century hardware on the doors. The plumbing is modern and the bed is comfortable.
Giorgio’s is everything Elena promised. Giorgio is owner and chef. He is also a truffle hunter and his menu will feature those delicacies (a bit of a challenge for a few members of the group who are not truffle enthusiasts). We are the first to arrive and, briefly, the only restaurant guests. It’s a little weird since Giorgio speaks no English, though he does have a server who, though far from fluent, is able to communicate with us. Soon, our fellow travelers arrive, as well as other diners. (All the tables will be full before the evening is over.)
Georgio only serves one menu per night, so there was no need to ponder choices. We just applauded them as they arrived: a selection of bruschetta and cheeses, many of them topped with delicately chopped truffles, a primo course of white lasagna made with homemade pasta and topped with truffles, a secondi of roast beef and roast pork topped by chopped truffles and herbs and served with fresh, roasted vegetables. We finished with a delicate cake topped by whipped cream and fresh fruit. (No truffles!) All of this was accompanied by a seemingly endless supply of wine and conversation. Three-plus hours passed in a flash!
The next day Steve & I drove to Assisi, one of the destinations on our Tuscany list. It was farther away than we realized, but a fairly direct route on the Autostrada.
First, Assisi struck me as pristine. Other Tuscan towns had similar hilltop locations and were essentially all stone, but none of them were as bright and white in Frances Mayes’ famous Tuscan sun. Assisi is not only the birthplace of St. Francis; it is also the birthplace of St. Clare, founder of the Poor Sisters, later the Order of Poor Clares. Despite the crush of tourists we experienced elsewhere, Assisi was surprisingly quiet. I don’t know if we should attribute that to visiting on Sunday or if it is simply the temper of the town.
The cathedral is stunningly simple, inside and out, honoring the beliefs of St. Francis. Unfortunately, no photos are allowed inside. Although I would have been happy to wander the lanes of Assisi for a few more hours, we really had to head back to the B&B for our cooking lesson with Elena and the rest of her guests.
Elena began her class by walking all eleven of her “students” out to her garden to harvest some herbs, taste some grapes and talk a little more about creating the garden out of the rubble that was there when she acquired the property. Once we were back in her kitchen, she set us to work, washing and trimming basil for pesto, stringing beans, and browning chicken. The real treat of course was learning to make fresh pasta, mixing flour and eggs by hand on her wooden pasta board, then kneading the dough before letting it rest under a damp towel.
As we cooked we shared our travels, drank wine, and took turns with the actual pasta-making. Here’s the finished meal, below, just before serving it around the massive farm table in Elena’s kitchen. It was as fun and festive as Giorgio’s, perhaps more so since there were more of us.
During our 2016 trip to Florence we took a day-trip that included a drive through the Clay Hills, a tour of the Abbazia de Monte Oliveto Maggiore and lunch and wine-tasting in Tuscany. It was a perfect blend of history and culture. So we contacted Roberto Becchi of Tours by Roberto again. (Roberto is a guide recommended by Rick Steves; you may have seen him on one of Rick’s shows on Italy.) Roberto is passionate about history, Italian winemaking, and Siena’s superiority over Florence. (We also found Borgo Argenina via Roberto’s website.) He is fun, knows the best winemakers and the tiniest towns. His tours are limited to eight travelers. A day with Roberto is a personal tutorial rather than a tour.
We started out in Montepulciano, with a short walk thru some of the town’s oldest streets. Although the earliest settlement here dates to Etruscan times, the town was essentially Medieval, then given a Renaissance facelift as evidenced by the more elegant facades added to the medieval structures. (Renovation is hardly a new concept!) Montepulciano was both an ally and a possession of Florence. (Before we checked into Borgo Argenina, we spent one night just outside Montepulciano. We had a delicious dinner at Restaurante Al Quattro Venti on the same square, right.)
Montepulciano is home to the famous Nobile wines, made by individual vintners according to the parameters established by a consortium. While we were in town we visited the centuries-old caves (and tasted the wines) of the De’Ricci winery. The six-story building, whose oldest caves date to the Etruscans, is supported by a huge network of vaults and arches. This construction and the size of the barrels were all astonishing. Roberto pointed out this is Renaissance construction on top of Medieval buildngs.
Next we traveled to the Tornesi winery in Montalcino. Tornesi has been in the same family since 1865. In 1967 Gino Tornesi registered his vines as Brunello, becoming one of the first members of that consortium as a producer. His son Maurizio started the production and business side in 1993 with his first Rosso di Montalcino and his first Brunello di Montalcino. Maurizio showed us around, his daughter led the tasting and we met his mother! This is truly a family business, and I was struck once again by the hard work and commitment to a quality product that the best wineries embody. Wineries are so much fun for us to visit, but some much work and commitment for the growers and winemakers.
Tuscany takes time. It’s easy to start with a list of hilltowns, plot them on a map, and start driving. But if you rush thru the towns too fast, you run the risk of missing the essence of the Tuscan way of life and the people. We had several other towns on our “list” — San Gimignano, Volterra, and Pienza to name just a few, but along the way, we tossed them aside in favor of enjoying where we were at the time. For example, we skipped San Gimignano last year and wanted to get there this time, but then we turned the wrong way and ended up in Rada. It’s tiny and scenic and there were just a handful of other tourists there. We loved exploring its cobbled streets, window shopping, and had a wonderful lunch. In addition to the usual leather and cashmere shops, Rada is home to a handful of artisans whose galleries show and sell one-of-a-kind ceramics, sculptures and even clothing.
We left Tuscany assuming we will return to see more another time, which is pretty much our travel philosophy. After Tuscany, we made stops in Florence and Rome. (Look for future blog posts on those destinations.) We had visited both before, but really thought there was much more to see and we were so right! There’s a lot to be said for returning to a destination when you are even just a little familiar with it.
Tanks for stopping by! See you next time.