Tuscany part two

17-20 August 2012

We fondly remember the first time we were in Florence – amazing food, lots of wine – though we didn’t really took a liking to Chianti wine, the most famous wine of the region. And because we missed the food, we booked for a long weekend in Florence hoping to see more of Tuscany.

Flight landed in the early afternoon in Pisa (easyjet from Gatwick). Went straight to the Terravision booking office near the exit and waited in the shade outside (turn right at the arrivals exit, and they should be in the parking lot). It was sweltering under the sun with highs of 39C (konting humidity pa, kasing-init na sa Manila!). Took an hour to  get  to Florence’s Sta Maria Novella train station and we walked from there to the hotel.

We were booked at a different hotel this time, Hotel Pierre, a few blocks from the Duomo. Made a much needed stop for caffe freddo in front of the Duomo (Caffe Scudieri). Most cafes and restaurants here have water mists at their outdoor tables to keep their customers cool (we hoped the water is clean). The cakes we had were really good – torta nonna and cioccolato.

Hotel Pierre has an old world feel to it. Small but immaculate reception. Our room has parquet floors and marbled bathroom. Sadly, no tub and no view. But we did ask for a quiet room, and we got a room in the top floor and a good distance from the lift. Next time, I’ll ask for a street view, people don’t get rowdy in the streets of Florence even though there is a restaurant opposite.

Florence Duomo

We walked outside for a bit after settling in our room. The Duomo, a view of Ponte Vecchio and the Arno river. It was almost dinner and we settled for an unassuming restaurant on the streets off the Arno river (Bar Due Ponti). Dinner was Bistecca Fiorentina and Chianti Classico for the start to our Tuscan weekend. I still didn’t like the Chianti. And the Bistecca, even though it was good, wasn’t as great as I remembered.

Early start on Saturday, trying to make it at 9am to the tourist office in front of the Sta. Maria Novella Station. Got there at 9:30 and it was too late anyway to book any tour for the day. So we booked for Sunday and will spend the day exploring Florence.

Lunch was across the river at Piazza S. Spirito (Borgo Antico) after walking around the artisan district, peering at antiques and arts in windows as most are closed. It was refreshing to see restaurants buying vegetables from the market just outside. This is one of the few places where you can still watch (some) locals as they go about their business. Food was really good and white wine is better in this heat.

at Palazzo Pitti

We went towards Palazzo Pitti and the Boboli Gardens, but didn’t go in as we were there the last time. Took a seat in the concrete hilly sprawl in front of the Palazzo and watched the world go by (at least I did, Al was reading). We headed for the village of Arcetri as described in a Guardian article as a 20-minute amble out of town. Costa San Giorgio to Via de San Leonardo are as far as Florence maps will go, so we had no idea what’s in Arcetri. The streets of Costa San Giorgio is a steep climb, not for the faint hearted especially in this heat. Al was telling me to chase the bottled water down the streets in case he dropped it – so i took the bottle from him as i was doing no chasing 🙂 It is a lovely route between the walls of the Palazzo and some pretty houses. We passed by the church in Arcetri but there was no sign of a piazza or cafes where we can get some respite. I asked a family returning back, looking all exhausted, what is there to see at the end – and with some hand signals, we were told there was a tower. We had a bit of a view of the tower after walking for some more – it looked like about half an hour away from where we were standing (I think we have been walking for more than half an hour already – so much for that 20-minute amble description from the Guardian).

en route to Arcetri

When we reached the crossing, we had no idea which direction to take. The tower was out of view and there were no more other tourists to follow. We walked for a bit parallel to the road, but turned back because we were quite sure that that isn’t the way. So we crossed the road and settled for the hilltop view of Florence as our reward after failing to get to the tower and headed back. (looking at google, it was the Torre del Gallo and still unsure where the entrance is on Via Torre del Gallo – we were still quite far from it when we gave up). For today at least, life for us is a series of worthless pursuits.

We settled at the first bar we saw as soon as we reached the Arno – drank almost 1 litre of water each and  a mango lassi.

A late afternoon nap was in order. Dinner was at Francesco Vini served by the owner’s American daughter-in-law. It was a lovely family-run restaurant, as much of the restaurants here are. We had a dry white wine – Vernaccia Panizzi, from San Gimignano as recommended and even though I had an osso bucco (veal), the taste did not conflict at all. Probably the best restaurant we’ve tried and even after having a shared dessert, it was still the cheapest (proper) meal we’ve had in Florence.

somewhere in Chianti. Tuscan countryside

Sunday was an earlier start, with the tour starting at 8:45am. We booked for myTour’s San Gimignano, Siena and Chianti tour (Euro55/person). Seeing the town was overrun with tourists, I was expecting this to be a big group (but still hoping otherwise). The group filled a bus. The tour guide was chirpy and runs the tour in English and Spanish. Sad thing about the big group is making sure you’re not the last ones to board as you might end up not seating together.

San Gimignano was the first stop. A beautiful, walled city that is a major stop for pilgrims in medieval times. Also a UNESCO World heritage site. Filled with towers built by rival families competing for power and littered with some of Gormley’s statues (not that the town needed a modern British sculptor to make people go there). We only had an hour of free time here and that certainly is not enough to get lost in the streets.

Next stop was lunch at Siena and we decided to lunch with the group for an extra Euro10. A few cured meats, bread and tomato pasta, cheese, tomato salad, bad Italian red and white wines – should have settled for a sandwich elsewhere as it was bad – edible but an Italian should be ashamed of serving them! Lots of people went hungry (but there was still food left) as you don’t have fixed portions – bowls were passed around and you’d be ashamed of taking too much.

There was another tour guide to take us around Siena. It was impersonal and hurried and not much information. But we had some free time to get to know the town on our own. It was sweltering and found that we were not alone when we decided to just sit it out in a cafe in the Piazza del Campo. We missed the Palio (horse race held twice a year) by just a few days, but still the town is heaving with tourists.

Monteriggioni. slippery route to the other gate

We passed by the Monteriggioni fortress, a fortress to protect Siena from Florentine invasions. another lovely village with great Tuscan landscape views from the other gate – stone streets were very slippery and there were raised stones at the other gate to stop you slipping. I tried walking barefoot which was much better if only the stones weren’t too hot!

wine and food tasting at Chianti

The highlight of the tour was the wine tasting at the organic farm, Casanova Sant’Agnese. We toured the wine and balsamic vinegar cellars. The estate boasts of a rare grape variety that they’ve made into ‘Easy to fall in love’, a sweet white wine with unique tastes (like a lighter madeira). We’ve been taught to make sure our balsamic vinegars only contains vinegar and grape juice – as most sold contains preservatives and caramel (high sugar content). We’ve tasted their balsamic vinegar with stewed veges and another variety with vanilla ice cream and sampled 3 varieties of wines. I’ve learned to appreciate the heady taste of  white truffles in olive oil and realised why it’s so highly prized. We’ll make sure to order online as we can’t take any on our flight back.

A chance to sleep in on Monday morning as we lazily prepare to head back. A hurried lunch at Cafe Scudieri and our last bottle of wine in Italy and we head off to catch the bus at the station.

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