Italy Days 4-6: Tuscany

On the fourth day of our vacation, we started off by catching a train from Rome to Florence.  The train ride itself was pretty uneventful, but Nick and I were both nervous about the adventure ahead: driving a car in Italy.  To be more specific, for Nick to drive a car in Italy.  This portion of our trip involved renting a car in Florence and driving to our villa in Tuscany.  It was explicitly stated that the car would be a manual (automatics are rare in Europe) and that the driver should be prepared to drive a manual for the entire three days.  Since I don’t know how to drive a manual, the full brunt of this fell to Nick.  He got his international driver’s lisence beforehand, which involved a trip to AAA.

This is the car we had reserved:

Cozy Little Fiat
Cozy Little Fiat

We had to carry our luggage from the train station in Florence to our rental car place, about half a mile.  I’m sure this was quite a sight, navigating the one-person wide, bumpy sidewalks with our rolly suitcases and me trying to balance my enormous travel bag/purse.  If I were to do it again, I’m not sure if I would get a cab or not.  I mean it was definitely inconvenient and stressful and I felt like we looked ridiculous.  But getting a cab to travel less than a mile does not resonate with my cheap soul.

When we got there we thought to ask if they had any automatic cars available.  The guy made a face and let us know that he did, but it was REALLY big and hard to drive around.  He pointed it out to us outside.

VW Van 001
Not an actual picture of our van

Haha, oh, um, yeah.  I think that van (that is roughly the size of Nick’s Honda Accord) will be just fine.  Just fine, in comparison to trying to drive a manual in a strange land.  We will take it.  As a bonus, there was no increase in cost and we had tons of extra room.

We got a GPS with our car, which was infinitely helpful.  Definitely recommended if you are going to be driving at all in a foreign country.  It was maybe 15 extra euros?  I would have paid three times that much.  We had map apps on our phone, but they tend to drain your battery pretty quickly and we wanted our phones to do other things throughout the day (finding restaurants, navigating while walking around, etc).  You could also try the paper map route, but….we saw how well that worked for me in Pompeii.

We were both pretty nervous while driving, Italian drivers have a less strict adherence to the rules of the roads than your typical Americans and we had seen that to an extreme in Rome.  Scooters will zip by you constantly (even while turning), and it’s not unusual to see a single lane road with three cars side by side.

italian driving

To add to that, roads are usually cobbled and narrow and we were in a major city.  I was the default navigator (this would not have been the case had any otehr person been available), and the combination of our nerves resulted in our shouting at each other, but also somehow in a calm, reassuring manner.

Nick: DO I TURN OR GO STRAIGHT??

Me: UMM OK HANG ON, LOOKS LIKE IT’S A RIGHT TURN!

Nick: A RIGHT TURN?

Me: YES THAT’S CORRECT!

Nick turns right.

Me: OK YES, GREAT JOB!

Nick: OK GREAT, WHAT NEXT?

and so on……

The drive was absolutely beautiful.  I didn’t take any pictures (due to above mentioned intense navigating) but seeing the rolling hills, Tuscan architecture and fields of olive trees and grape vines was really amazing.  We eventually found our villa, we stayed at Riserva di Fizzano, which was a perfectly lovely accomodation. The grounds were beautiful, our room was great, the wifi worked pretty well.  BUT, we came to find out that this agriturismo is actually associated with the Olive Garden.  This didn’t really matter for the accomodations and we only ate at the restaurant once, so this wasn’t a HUGE deal.  But I think in an ideal Tuscan vacation, you would stay at a place with a more unique and authentic restaurant.  It’s not like the restaurant was offering lasagna and the Tour of Italy with salad and breadsticks or anything….but there is just something NOT OK about being in Italy and eating/staying somewhere associated with the OG.

Our hostess set us up with a winery tour at the associated winey, Rocca delle Macie.  Sound familiar?  If you have ever been to an Olive Garden it should, because the wines are served there.  We were again, a little disappointed about participating in an Olive Garden associated activity in Tuscany Italy, but I have to say that we had a GREAT experience at the winery.  The woman giving us our tour was super knowledgeable and friendly, gave us great local tips of things to do in the area and even gave us extra samples of things that we liked or had never tried (like Sambuca).  I would definitely recommend this winery, and it tasted nothing like the wine I get at Olive Garden.

Us at the winery, looking only slightly harried from the day of travel.
Us at the winery, looking only slightly harried from the day of travel.
Our offerings
Our offerings
Our view for the tasting.  Doesn't get much better than that.
Our view for the tasting. Doesn’t get much better than that.
Fin.
Fin.

We finished our tour and headed back to the villa for dinner.  At the Olive Garden.  We tried to keep an open mind and were mostly excited to try some Tuscan specialties.  We got excited when we saw the menu.  BURRATTA was one of the offerings and we excitedly blurted that to our waiter first thing.  We also decided to split a Tuscan T-bone.

Burratta? Not so much. This version was more of a mozzarella chopped up with cream over it and was served with salted pork. It was good in its own right, but no Da Enzo burratta.
Burratta? Not so much. This version was more of a mozzarella chopped up with cream over it and was served with salted pork. It was good in its own right, but no Da Enzo burratta.
Tuscan T-bone! We really enjoyed this.
Tuscan T-bone! We really enjoyed this.

The food was far and away better than Olive Garden, don’t get me wrong.  But we also weren’t blown away by it.  Ultimately, I’d say steer clear of this particular agriturismo in your Tuscany travels.

The next day we got up and decided to explore around the Tuscany area in our hip van.  The hostess of our villas and the wine tour hostess gave us some great recommendations of nearby towns.  We started with San Gimignano and then made our way to Siena.  San Gimignano was a cool town and had your standard churches, shops and restaurants to see.  If you are close by, I’d say it’s a great stop, but I wouldn’t travel TOO far to see it. However; Siena is a must do if you are in the Tuscan region.  Siena used to be a rival town to Florence and is large and has beautiful architecture in its own right.  My favorite church of the whole trip was in Siena and it had great food, shopping and a unique town square.

Walking around the medieval walls of Sam Gimignano
Walking around the medieval walls of Sam Gimignano
The main church in San Gimignano, beautiful inside.
The main church in San Gimignano, beautiful inside.
View from inside the walls of San Gimignano
View from inside the walls of San Gimignano
Main square of Siena
Main square of Siena
My fav church, Cattedrale Metropolitana di Santa Maria Assunta
My fav church, Cattedrale Metropolitana di Santa Maria Assunta
That gold, those stripes, gah!
That gold, those stripes, gah!
We climbed to the top, natch. Climbing tall things turned out to be one of our favorite activities.
We climbed to the top, natch. Climbing tall things turned out to be one of our favorite activities.
View of Siena
View of Siena
View of Nick staying low and bravely conquering his fear of heights.
View of Nick staying low and bravely conquering his fear of heights.
Flooring inside the church depicting the divisions of Tuscany
Flooring inside the church depicting the provinces of Tuscany

We had lunch in Siena, but I unfortunately can’t remember the name of the place.  Our meal was excellent though.

Wild boar with wilted greens
Wild boar with wilted greens
Saffron Lobster pasta
Saffron Lobster pasta

After a full day of traveling around, we headed back to our villa and got ready for dinner.  We decided to explore the town where we were staying, Castellina in Chianti.  The town was very small and quaint, but had a surprisingly decent number of restaurants to choose from.  We picked one, put it in our GPS and went on our way.  When we got there, we realized it was closed for the season.  Uh-oh.  We wandered around a little more and encountered closed restaurant after closed restaurant.  Yikes.  We started to get a little frustrated, but then happened upon an absolute gem.  We walked by a place that was open, and Nick said “Well, we might just get stuck going to this place.”  When I looked at the name, I recognized it and realized I had seen it on one of the top 10 restaurant lists for Castellina!

This was Antica Trattoria “La Torre”.  The waiter and owner here were extremely friendly and talkative.  I will be the first to admit that I’m a little anti-social and don’t LOVE having conversations with strangers, but this didn’t feel intrusive at all.  We felt very welcomed and the place overall felt very warm and authentic.  We got wine to start and two pastas.  I got the truffle ravioli (side note: It was truffle season while we were there and it was basically the most amazing thing every.  I ordered truffles at almost every opportunity.  Can’t get enough truffles).  Nick couldn’t decide between wild boar or beef pasta and the waiter offered to prepare him half of each so that he could try more.

Truffle ravioli. Look at those shavings. This would be my other top two dish of the trip.
Truffle ravioli. Look at those shavings. This would be my other top two dish of the trip.
Nick's pastas. We both really enjoyed these as well.
Nick’s pastas. We both really enjoyed these as well.

For our main dishes I got the wild boar and polenta and Nick got a braised beef.  These tasted amazing and rustic.  They are not much to look at, unfortunately, but we were thrilled with these dishes.

IMG_0271IMG_0269

After we finished, our waiter asked about dessert and named off a few things that he recommended.  One of those things was Torta della Nonna.  When he saw our puzzled faces, he gestured over to the case and showed us this beauty. This cake was mildly sweet and custardy.  It’s flavored with pine nuts and powdered sugar, which results in a lightly sweet delicious little dessert.  After we paid, the owner encouraged us to hang out and use the wifi (guess he saw those not so discreet checks of our phone while trying to plan out tomorrow’s events haha) and we did just that.  I also got a decaf espresso to sip on.

IMG_0272IMG_0273
In my Tuscany research I kept stumbling across mentions of Terme di Saturnia (Saturnia Hot Springs).  We kept this on the list as a secondary thing to do.  Not one of our MUST DO’s, but something that would be cool to experience if we have some extra time.  On our third day we found ourselves with just such time available.  We decided that the Terme di Saturnia was too far away (two hours) and we didn’t want to spend half of our last day driving.  We eventually found Terme di Petriolo that wasn’t too far away (45 mins).  There is an associated spa with this Terme where you can go inside and pay for access, but we went the cheap natural route and just dove into the public hot springs.

DSC00818

It was a cool experience and we enjoyed our time.  I think we ended up staying an hour before deciding to pack up and head to the last village we wanted to see.  I would say this activity is in its rightful place on a “secondary” list of things to do.  We enjoyed it, but would have fine if we had not experienced it also.

Our next stop was Monteriggioni, another medieval walled town.  Monteriggioni was much smaller than San Gimignano, and only has two main entries/exits.  It was really charming, we enjoyed walking around and decided to have lunch here.  We went to Il Pozzo and got a meat plate and pici.  Pici is a very thick spaghetti that originated in Tuscany.  I got Pici with “traditional pesto”, which includes capers, almonds and sun-dried tomatoes maybe?  This dish was so unique, I loved it.  I could be biased, I’m obsessed with capers and will eat them on almost anything.  I’ve been unsuccessfully trying to recreate it since the day we got back.  Nick got pici with bread crumbs, but he didn’t love it.  It was pretty heavy on the bread crumbs and was a little dry.

BIG MEAT (Anne Burrell anyone?)
BIG MEAT (Anne Burrell anyone?)
Old Style Pici
Blurry Old Style Pici
Pici with bread crumbs.
Pici with bread crumbs.

By the time we were finished with lunch, it was well into the afternoon.  Knowing that we were getting up fairly early to make our way back to Florence in the morning we decided to keep the evening casual and relaxed.  We picked up some meats, and cheeses from a little shop in Monteriggioni and headed home.

Novello wine. This is the first press from the year's grapes, typically only available in November and usually not exported. It's not considered
Novello wine. This is the first press from the year’s grapes, typically only available in November and usually not exported. It’s not considered “good” wine but is a Tuscan tradition.
Wild boar sausage, smoked sausage, and truffle cheese. Among a few other things, of which I do not remember the name.
Wild boar sausage, smoked sausage, and truffle cheese. Among a few other things, of which I do not remember the name.

Overall I really enjoyed our time in Tuscany.  I definitely recommend carving out some time for this region, whether you stay here or take day trips to small towns  and wineries from Florence.  One of the things we really wanted to do is take a cooking class, but as we were there in November, a lot of the “regular” activities were not available.  Our villa hostess told us that most of the locals take their vacations in November after the main influx of tourists are gone.  I still felt that there was enough to do, but if I were to go back I would choose an in-season month.

Up next: Firenze! (aka Florence)

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