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Trip Report Tuscany in August - Where We Crazy?

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My husband (DH) and I just returned from our trip to Italy, and it was absolutely, positively, FABULOUS!!!!

Ever since we returned from our 2003 trip to Italy, we have been talking about going back. 2010 marks the first year when both of our children went to camp for two weeks, and all the other stars and moons aligned, so we set off to Italy again! This time, we decided to forgo the wonderful city of Rome, and instead spent the majority of our trip in southern Tuscany, with two nights in Florence on the back end.

Before I get started, I need to thank all of the wonderful folks on Fodors for their advice on our trip – especially Henry, Elaine, StuDudley and JustRetired for their great files on Tuscany. I scoured prior trip reports and posts to make my restaurant lists, driving itineraries, etc. Basically, I completely overplanned – but that is part of the fun of taking a trip – all of the excitement leading up to it, and imagining what it will be like, what we’ll see, where we’ll go, etc.

Our trip started from Houston, where we flew Continental to Frankfurt. We were booked on the 4pm flight to Florence, but there was an 11:30am flight as well. Since we arrived in Frankfurt at 10am, we had time to make the earlier flight. I had considered booking it originally, but was worried we’d miss it… So, upon arrival in Frankfurt, after making it through passport control and customs much quicker than I had expected, we rushed through the airport, to see if we could get on the earlier flight. We found the proper place to ask, and were happy to hear that there was room on the flight. The ticket agent just said he’d have to wait and see what Continental’s fee for changing flights would be. When he told us it would be $250 per person we couldn’t believe it. What a complete rip off… So, we decided to keep our later flight, and find a place to crash for a couple of hours.

The Frankfurt airport was great – we found a little area at our gate that was hidden from the main concourse, and stretched out across several seats, and each of us took a nap. DH kept anyone else around us from sleeping with his snores – I think the chairs were all shaking every time he took a breath.

After a quick flight to Florence, we finally disembarked on Italian soil. We were in Italy – ready for the vacation of a lifetime. We stepped out of the plane, and breathed in the Italian air. Yes, it was hot, and yes, it was humid. But that was okay – we are from Houston, where hot and humid reach magnitudes unimaginable anywhere else, so this felt just fine to us.

The Florence airport is tiny. We stepped to our left, and found our rental car office. We rented our car via Kemwel, which is a broker. They gave me a better deal than the other brokers often recommended. The car was actually from Hertz, and was a little Alfa Romeo. We named him Alf (yes, we are incredibly original and creative, I know). The agent gave us our key, and told us to go to space #48. Being the kind of people who follow directions, we went to space #48. There sat a bright blue Alfa Romeo. We opened the trunk (the car was unlocked), put in our suitcases, and started to get in the car. Out of nowhere, an Italian came running up, shouting “what are you doing with my car?” DH and I looked at each other, looked at the space to ensure it was #48, and shrugged. “What do you mean your car? This is our car – we are at #48,” I said, holding up the key to the car. I should mention that I don’t think his half of the conversation was entirely in English. But I don’t entirely recall – I was tired… And then he held up the key to his car – it was also #48. Uhoh… Turns out we were at #48 for Avis – not #48 for Hertz. Oops. “Stupid Americans” I muttered to another man who had stopped to watch our conversation, and laughing, DH and I walked to the correct space #48, and put our luggage in the black Alfa Romeo that was parked there. We got in the car, DH put the car in reverse, and off we went – on our way to 5 days in Montepulciano at Locanda San Francesco.

...to be continued...

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    Out of nowhere, an Italian came running up, shouting “what are you doing with my car?” DH and I looked at each other, looked at the space to ensure it was #48, and shrugged. “What do you mean your car? This is our car – we are at #48,” I said, holding up the key to the car>>

    how lucky he turned up. He might still have been looking for that blue Alfa!

    keep it coming!

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    I am embarassed to say I can't spell - my title was meant to say "Tuscany in August - were we crazy?". I realized my mistake as soon as I hit the submit button. I promise to all you grammar fanatics out there, I do know the different b/ween where and were...

    This is shaping into a long and detailed report. I hope it contains enough useful information that people hang in there and read it all!

    We intended to take the quickest and easiest route to Montepulciano, which was on the A1. After sitting in terrible traffic for about 45 minutes, we decided to go the scenic route. This is south via Siena. With every minute of driving, we got more and more excited. After passing Siena, we knew we were close. We drove through Pienza and several other smaller towns. The scenery was incredible. Fields of hay, sunflowers, wine or olive trees. Mountains in the distance. Cute little houses with beautiful flowers everywhere. We stopped at a sunflower field and took some pictures.

    The approach to Montepulciano is breathtaking from this direction – the Temple of San Biagio is in the foreground, and the perched city is behind it. The sun was setting, and the entire town glowed. And then we tried to get to the town… DH loves to drive, and loves to drive fast. It is difficult to see and read street signs in a foreign language when you are driving past them at a high rate of speed. So, we missed the first turn to Montepulciano. Figured it out within about 50 yards, and then had to turn around. We didn’t figure out we missed the second turn until we drove through a parking garage and to a dead end. We knew we were close, as we had been driving up and around for quite some time into the buildings. So, we turned around again, and eventually found the next turn. And the next. We slowly drove by the main piazza – avoiding all the people milling around. We kept driving up, and ended up in a square with no signs in it. There was a church, and a wall with a beautiful view and a cute little restaurant / bar with a terrace full of flowers. We got out of the car, and looked around. DH whispered to me – “go ask someone at the restaurant if they know where the hotel is.” I whispered back – “let me look at the map one more time, I’m sure I can figure out where we are.” Just at this point, an Italian lady walked over to us, and asked if we were looking for the Locanda San Francesco, because if so, we were here. The restaurant / bar was connected to the hotel. With a huge sigh of relief, I gave Cinzia a huge hug! We were finally home!

    Coming up – the end (finally) of our very long Day 1…

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    Keep writing, and you can make your report as long as you like. I'll read every word!

    We were in that area in June, and I am HOMESICK for Southern Tuscany. Always happy to hear more about trips there!

    thanks for the memories.

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    After settling in with our luggage, we headed downstairs to the bar. Cinzia poured us each a glass of wine, and gave us some introductory information about the hotel, the town, etc. We decided to stay there for dinner. We sat on the terrace, enjoying the cool breeze. The dinner was the first of many good meals in Tuscany. We started out with a selection of pecorino cheeses, served with honey and onion chutney. We then had pasta – ravioli for DH and penne pasta with chiangale (wild boar) sauce for me. Delicious. We shared a yummy bottle of 2004 Vigna D’Alfiero Valdipiatta – a vino Nobile di Montepulciano. From there, we staggered upstairs to our hotel room, and collapsed into bed.

    A brief note about our hotel room. The Locanda has 4 rooms – we were in room number 4. The room has an outstanding view of south eastern Tuscany. There is a small loft in the room, with a cute little reading nook. The bathroom is huge – there are two sinks and a shower with one of those cool rain heads. The view from the bathroom overlooks north western Tuscany – also spectacular. The window is directly over the terrace of the restaurant, so at night there was sometimes noise from the people below. But if we closed the door to the bathroom, we couldn’t hear a thing from the bedroom. The room included a desktop computer with internet access. There was also wireless internet – Cinzia gave us the password when we asked. I can’t say enough about how happy we were with our stay here. The room was so comfortable, and a wonderful relaxing oasis to come home to every evening after we spent the day in southern Tuscany. The breakfast was nice – a typical spread of fresh fruit, yogurt, cheese and cold cuts, pastries, cereal, hard boiled eggs, a selection of juices, and coffee. There is another desktop computer in the hall outside the other rooms. Downstairs, where we ate breakfast, there was a nice library area with tour books of the area in multiple languages. There’s also a wide selection of DVDs and CDs which you can take to your room and use. Our room rate was 210€ per night, which we thought was a great rate for what we got.

    Day 2 – Siena and Montepulciano
    I woke up at the crack of dawn, ready to leap out of bed and explore. Well, really what happened is the sun shining through the drapes woke me up at 5:30am. Luckily, I was able to fall back asleep for a couple of hours. I will have to say that the sun worked wonders on helping me avoid any semblance of jet lag on this trip! There were no mornings wasted in slumber. DH and I both enjoy running, and have completed several half marathons in the last few years, so a short morning run seemed like a good idea. We would run through the town, get to know the streets, and maybe even get a bit of a workout. Well, what sounded like a good idea was great as we ran downhill through a maze of streets. The uphill part was a bit more challenging, particularly when we couldn’t find our way back to the hotel. Luckily, there were plenty of signs to the piazza grande. After locating the piazza, we huffed and puffed our way uphill back to the hotel.

    We showered and went down to breakfast, and then headed out to get on the road for our first day’s adventure in Siena. As we stepped out the door of the hotel, we noted that the road downhill was blocked by a few vans. Those vans were full of tables and tents and artisans’ wares. Apparently, today was the first day of a street fair - on the street leading up to our hotel. The already extremely narrow roads were now even narrower. So DH got in the car, and started the drive down, with me helping him navigate through the stalls. He took the first right, off the main road, I got in, and things got even more interesting. The road was downhill, through a tiny archway. I think we had about 6 inches of clearance on either side. Then we had to make a “right” turn that was basically a u-turn, and then a “left” turn which was another u-turn. Each street seemed to be progressively narrower. Fortunately, after the left turn, the road was straight, and widened as we continued downhill and out of the town. The road took us right by the Temple of San Biagio, and up the picturesque cedar lined road leading to the temple.

    There are two ways to get to Siena – we took the more “direct” way, following the A1 signs, through a few small towns, then hopping on an expressway to the town. Finding parking once we arrived was a challenge, but we had several tips from our online research. We parked by Porto Ovile – there’s a fairly large parking lot that is across the street from Siena’s centro storico. There’s a series of escalators that takes you up, and you end up on a side street about 5 minutes walk from Piazza Campo. Tip – take your parking ticket with you, b/c you pay in the building where the escalators are. We left ours in the car, and wandered around for several minutes trying to figure out where to pay…

    Siena is a beautiful town. We had been there twice on our last trip, and loved it. This time it was a bit more crowded, which took away from the overall charm of the town. But it was still beautiful, with interesting buildings and facades every corner you turned. We walked to the Piazza Campo, and saw that they were putting up the barricades for the Palio – the big race was the following week. We thought about climbing to the top of the bell tower, and even stood in line for a few minutes, but it didn’t move, so we decided to forgo that adventure. We spent a few hours just wandering around the town. We saw the duomo, and it was just as beautiful and awe inspiring as I remembered. We did some shopping, took lots of pictures, and soaked in everything.

    For lunch, we went to Hosteria L’Osteria. This is a cute little restaurant on the street leading back to where we were parked. The tables outside were full, so we sat inside at the back, on a tiny little table. The service was sparse, and we waited quite some time for someone to take our order, so DH left and went down the street to a small grocery store to get a coke light. The food was good – just basic Tuscan fare. We had bruschetta to start, with pasta as the main course. Very hearty stuff, and after some food in our bellies (and caffeine, too!), we felt refreshed.

    Coming up – an amazing dinner in Montichiello, and Day 3 – exploring the small hill towns of Val d’Orcia.

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    Susawhite - I am sorry you weren't able to get a room at Locanda San Francesco. We also looked at Palazzo del Capitano in San Quirico d'Orcia, Villa Poggiano just outside Montepulciano, Il Chiostro di Pienza in Pienza and Locanda dell Amorosa in Sinalunga. In the end, Montepulciano won out.

    Another place that looks really neat is La Bandita, but it was a bit out of our price range.

    Bobthenavigator has a list of hotels in the area that he often posts. try doing a search on his name to find more hotels.

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    We headed back to Montepulciano after lunch. Rather than take a nap, we decided to take in a little of the town. We walked down from our hotel to the piazza grande, stopping to peruse some of the booths at the street fair. From the piazza grande, we headed down towards the main shopping street. We wandered down down down. All downhill. There were tons of shops, selling anything you could imagine that a tourist would want. Many wine shops for my DH to peruse, art galleries, clothing stores, etc. The road seemed to go on forever. We finally made it to the bottom, dreading the turnaround, as we knew it would be uphill from there. Well, at least we would be working off all the great food we would be eating! We finally made it back to the hotel, ready for a well deserved nap.

    Dinner tonight was at Osteria La Porta in Montichiello. On the map, the town was only a couple of miles away. However, maps in Tuscany can be deceiving – the drive took about 15 minutes, and was very windy. We finally arrived at the town, and were amazed at all the people who had parked their cars and were walking uphill. There must be some event in the town we were unaware of? As we drove up the steep uphill towards town, I started to wonder where we would park. Sure enough, we reached the top, and a police officer was directing traffic. We said we had reservations at La Porta. He pointed downhill, and directed us to park and walk. So we turned around, drove downhill, searching for a parking space. We found one fairly easily, and then started the hike back uphill. Luckily, La Porta is right at the front of the town, so it didn’t take us too long to arrive. We were immediately seated in a cute table on the terrace. The sun was just setting – and the view was gorgeous. We sat down, took a deep breath, and marveled that we were sitting on a terrace in Italy. It was wonderful! As soon as we were seated, we were served two glasses of prosecco. We ordered a nice bottle of brunello with dinner. Dinner was amazing. We started with an order of bruchetta and a special of the day – salmon tartare. I then had the gnocchi and DH had risotto with shaved truffles on top. We shared the delicious rack of lamb, and finished off the dinner with a chocolate torta and vin santo. Looking back, I’m not sure how we ate all that – it was a lot of food. But it was so yummy. We really loved this restaurant – the ambience could not be beat, the food was outstanding, and the service was great.

    Day 3 – Driving through Val d’Orcia
    Sunday was our hill town day, so I got out our map and my printout of Stu Dudley’s “One Day Drive through the Val d'Orcia in southern Tuscany”, and off we went. Note that we didn’t follow the itinerary exactly, as we were planning to visit Montalcino and the S’Antimo Abbey the following day.

    Our first stop was Pienza, which is a small town know for pecorino cheese. We had no trouble finding parking just outside the historical center of the town, as it was still fairly early. We could smell the cheese before we even got to the center. Yum! Pienza is a tiny little town, full of charming side streets with beautiful flowers outside every doorway and window. The main street has many shops, selling (of course) cheese, as well as wine, dried herbs, and other traditional food items. In the center of the town is a large cathedral, surrounded by several huge palazzos. The cathedral was built on the side of a hill, and the view of the surrounding countryside is gorgeous. We did a bit of shopping, and took lots of pictures. And then, we turned down a side street, and were stunned to see “our” shop. As a little background, about five years ago, we bought a large picture for our living room. We found it at an art festival, and the artist told us he’d taken the picture in Tuscany. Well, the shop was in Pienza, and this was it. Of course, we had to take many more pictures, and we tried to explain to the proprietor of the shop that we had a picture of their shop in our living room.

    After leaving Pienza, we headed towards San Quirico. We stopped for the obligatory pictures of the small church amongst the cypress trees, as well as several other times for other can’t miss pictures. San Quirico is another small, quaint Tuscan town. We parked at the back, and walked through the narrow streets to the main piazza. Unfortunately, it was a Sunday afternoon, so many of the shops were closed. We had a small picnic of some cheese and bread we had bought in Pienza, and then moved on to the next town – Bagno Vignoni. This is a tiny little town, where there was a large pool that is fed by thermal springs. We found a small self service restaurant (La Bottega di Cacio) here that was packed. We decided if it was that busy, it was probably worth visiting. So we got in line and watched everyone order at the counter. When it was our turn, we asked for a selection of cheese and salami. We got a plate of several different kinds of cheeses, another plate of different types of salami, a plate with a variety of marmalades and honeys, and several large slices of bread. All this plus a large bottle of water was 13€. And it was delicious!

    After our meal, we continued our drive – we drove through Castiglione d’Orcia, and found a gelato shop at the top of a hill. From there, we headed back to Montepulciano, and took a well deserved nap.

    Dinner was at Osteria dell’ Acquacheta tonight. They have two sittings – one at 7:30 and the next at 9. The seating is very informal – there are long tables that you share with other groups of people. I think we were the only Americans in the restaurant. A teenager and her father were sitting on one side of us, and a large family gathering was on the other side. DH asked for a wine list, and the owner pointed to several bottles of wine displayed on shelves with a flourish – “this is my wine list!” he said. We had a bottle of Vino Nobile de Montepulciano, which was very good. We started with some bruschetta and some pecorino cheese with honey and walnuts. We both had gnocchi – mine was delicious, with zucchini blossoms and ricotta cheese. DH’s was also very good, with pomodoro (tomato) sauce and garlic. As a side order, we couldn’t resist the pears and baked pecorino cheese. We finished our dinner with a torta and some grappa. The food was all great, and the conversations around us were entertaining (even though we didn’t understand them at all). We got to know the father and daughter at our table, as they spoke some English. By the end of the meal, we were all sharing wine and having a great time! After dinner, we took a long walk through the town, enjoying the cool night breeze.

    Coming up – Day 4 – Exploring the Hills and Roads with Luca!

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    Wonderful report!!!! Don't stop, please. My mouth is watering, and I can picture all of that lovely scenery, as I've been in this part of Italy several times. Thank you for the details about the FOOD and WINE and CHEESE!!

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    Very nice report. But you haven't answered your own question yet. Were you crazy to go to Italy in August? You've mentioned a few times about crowds or trouble parking, but it doesn't sound really horrible. What other months have you been to Italy and did you notice much difference in August. Have you ever been in July? I always go to Europe in July, scarred off by the tales of massive crowds in August and would like to know if it's really that bad.

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    Isabel - in short, the answer to my question is no, we weren't crazy to go in August (to southern Tuscany at least. I feel a little differently about Florence, as I'll try to explain when I get to that part in my trip). There are three things I was worried about - the heat, the tourists and everything being closed.

    Yes, the weather was hot during the day, but we live in Houston, so the weather felt cool to us. During the day, we generally wore shorts and short sleeved shirts, and were hot in the sun, but comfortable in the shade. The evenings were wonderful. It cooled down quite a bit. Since we were in hill towns, there was always a nice breeze. I was often chilly at night, and made sure to bring a scarf to wrap around my shoulders. At La Porta, they actually had fleece blankets available for those of us sitting on the terrace, as they knew it could get cool after the sun set. We made sure that both of our hotels had a/c, and our car had a/c, also.

    The tourists weren't that overwhelming either. Sure there were other people around, but only in Florence did I truly feel like things were crowded. Often, parking issues were related to us not knowing where to go, and not so much b/c of an influx of tourists. During the day, Montepulciano got a bit full, but by mid afternoon, it thinned out. Since we tended to take day trips, this worked out great. The other interesting thing was that we rarely saw American tourists. We heard lots of foreign languages, but it seemed that people were from all over. We met people from France, Holland, Germany, Japan, Australia, England, other parts of Italy, etc. One of the games we would play was to try and guess where people were from - we'd try and figure out what language they were speaking and things like that.

    Finally, the only place we ran into places being closed in August was Florence - one day at lunch we tried three different recommended restaurants, and all were closed. Other than that, we never had problems with things being closed. In fact, in Montepulciano, as you'll see when I get a few more days written up, there was a big summer festival, and the city was full of local Italians watching musicians, flag competitions, etc. It was a great environment to be in, and we really felt like we were experiencing something that was very "local" in spirit, and not geared to tourists at all.

    We went to Italy in 2003 in late September / early October, and I would probably recommend that timing if you have a choice in when you can travel, b/c the weather was nicer, and things were maybe a little less crowded. But, if you don't have a choice, I wouldn't hesitate to go in August - if you plan ahead and know what to expect, you will still have a fabulous time!

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    Your comment about Florence and things being closed reminds me of a conversation, just a couple of days ago, w/an Italian friend who owns a small business in Rome. He said much of Rome was "closed" because of the Italians going on vacation. I have heard, time and time again, about August being a not-so-good time to visit Europe because of the locals being on vacation. But, if one's schedule only permits August travel, go for it. Just be aware of the possible situations you may face. So glad it worked out for you, CStone. And please, keep the report coming.
    Carol

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    Day 4

    Today we spent 8 hours with Luca Garappa, a local tour guide/driver. While not inexpensive, this was a fabulous way to see things we wouldn’t otherwise see and go places we wouldn’t otherwise go. Luca is native to the area, and lives just outside Siena. He speaks English well, and is so flexible about planning the trip around your interests.

    He picked us up at our hotel at 9:30am, just as we had planned via email. He had maneuvered his small van up the tight streets of Montepulciano, and parked a couple of blocks away. DH took the front seat, so he could enjoy the views that up until today I had been enjoying as the passenger. Our first stop was just a few minutes away at a small winery – Palazza Massaini. The winery, which is housed in a charming old castle which probably dates back 500 years, produces chianti and orcia red wine, as well as olive oil and grappa. We spent a few minutes wandering through their gardens, noticing some very old buildings a short distance away that seemed to be falling apart. Luca mentioned that you see that throughout Tuscany – often it’s property that the land owner doesn’t want to sell, but doesn’t have the funds to restore. Such a waste, as these are beautiful, historical buildings that will fall apart without proper care. We tried each of the wines, as well as the olive oil. All were very good, so we decided to buy a couple of bottles. We were charged 9€ for a bottle of orcia and a bottle of olive oil. I couldn’t believe it – so inexpensive.

    After leaving Palazza Massaini, Luca left the main road between Montepulciano and Pienza, and took us on a tiny rural road. We drove past fields of hay, sunflowers, olive trees, etc. We saw from a distance large estates, which were likely summer homes for rich Italians. We stopped at a small cheese farm, Azienda Agricola San Polo. We watched an employee making ricotta cheese, and sampled several types of pecorino cheese – from the young, soft cheese to the dark rinded mature cheese. The darker the rind, the longer the cheese has been aged. There was some wonderful cheese that was wrapped in walnut leaves, imparting a unique flavor. Since we couldn’t buy it all, we bought ½ a round of two of the older cheeses, and had those vacuum sealed to bring back with us. Apparently they will keep for a long time in a cool and dark spot, so we have set them aside – a great excuse for an Italian-themed wine and cheese tasting party in a few weeks.

    We then headed to Montalcino, with a few stops along the way for the obligatory pictures. Luca knew the best places to stop for the scenic views. As we drove, he told us about his current endeavor to become an olive oil sommelier. It was fascinating to hear him tell us about olive trees, how the best olives are grown, the process of making olive oil, etc. He actually has a few olive trees, and makes his own olive oil. He only makes a few bottles, but someday would like to do much more.

    In Montalcino, we split up and did a bit of shopping. DH stopped at a couple of the huge enotecas there. You can sample brunello from numerous wineries – a credit card keeps track of all that you’ve tasted, and you’re charged at the end of the tasting. I wandered through the gift shops, and also took pictures of this lovely little town. It was Monday, so many of the stores were closed, but that meant the town had a quiet and tranquil air about it. Nothing like the tourist inundated scene I was expecting. We met up at the bottom of the main street in a small park, and took a scenic walk up to the fortezza. This side of Montalcino overlooked miles and miles of vineyards and forests.

    We ate lunch at Osteria di Porta al Cassero. This is a small restaurant close to the fortezza. Very casual and rustic atmosphere. I suspect Luca eats here often, as he seemed to know the folks well. We started with some bruschetta and white beans. I had pici with tomatoes and garlic as my main meal, and DH had a delicious chianghiale stew with white beans. We had a glass of the house rosso and brunello, which were both quite good.

    Our next stop was Sant’ Antimo Abbey. The Abbey dates back hundreds of years, and has seen many different uses over those years. It now houses eight monks, and also serves as host to numerous tourists! Before approaching the Abbey, Luca took us up a steep road, where we had a beautiful view of the Abbey and the surrounding area. Vineyards, cypress trees, a small town were spread in front of us. After taking many pictures, including some close-ups of the nearby vineyard and the ripening grapes, we drove down to the Abbey. We arrived just before 2:15, which is when the monks enter the Abbey for their afternoon chants. We are not Catholic, and the chanting was in Latin, but the experience was still incredibly spiritual and moving. After they completed their chants, we were able to explore the interior of the Abbey. Luca described to us how the Abbey was used 500 years ago, as a way station for pilgrims’ trips. Very interesting to imagine what the Abbey was like back then.

    Luca drove back towards Montalcino, stopping in another scenic overlook. He must know them all! We had a beautiful view of the town, of which we took many more pictures, of course!

    One more stop to this amazing day – just past Montalcino, Luca pulled off onto a side road and entered the Fornacella Winery. Fornacella is a tiny place, producing just 18,000 bottles of wine per year. About 4,500 – 6,000 of those bottles are Brunello. The rest are Rosso and a table wine. A lovely lady took us around the small property. She spoke very little English, but her passion for the winery was abundantly clear. She and Luca would have a conversation, and then Luca would translate for us. She showed us the vines, and explained how they had just thinned out the grapes. They only like a few bunches of grapes per vine, so they cut off any others during the growing season. After exploring a bit, she took us to the area where they age the wine. There were several large barrels of different vintages and types of wine. After all of this, we finally got to try some of the wine. She opened the door to another building, and inside was the nicest little tasting room. And the best part was that she had prepared a feast for us to munch on while we tasted the wine. There was bread, pecorino cheese, another type of cheese, and bruschetta. All of this was served with their olive oil, which had a delicious spiciness to it. Yum! We started with the table wine, which sells for 1.50€ per bottle. Delicious. I would serve this at a party with no qualms at all. We then moved on to the rosso, which was wonderful, and only 9€. The brunello was outstanding, and again a steal at 20€ per bottle. We wanted to buy lots of everything, but shipping wine to Texas in August is not a good idea. So, we settled on three bottles of olive oil, three bottles of rosso and three bottles of brunello, which we carried back to Houston in our luggage. Plus an email address so we can contact her in the fall and have some shipped in the cooler weather!

    Luca drove us home, and we sadly said goodbye. I cannot overemphasize what a wonderful day this was – we packed so much into those 8 hours!

    Coming up – Dinner and a day of relaxation

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    Lovely memories are floating by as I read your enthusiastic report. I can picture all the towns you went to with Luca, and I can taste that lovely Rosso di Montalcino. (I wish!)

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    CStone,

    I am really enjoying your report. It does bring back lots of wonderful memories, as well as our own driving in Montepulciano experience. I think we found that same little, steep street through the arch!

    Do continue!

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    Dinner and a day of relaxation

    After such a busy day, we decided on a casual dinner. As we walked through Piazza Grande to the restaurant, we happened upon a competition. Several sets of boys were performing with flags and drums, dressed in the typical medieval costumes. The performances were very entertaining. We really enjoyed watching local children perform the traditional events of the area.

    Trattoria di Cagnano didn’t open until 7:30, which was typical for restaurants in Montepulciano. So, we wandered around the main shopping area a bit, and returned to the restaurant at 7:30 on the dot. We had a small table on the outside patio, which overlooks a small piazza. It was a very nice setting on the main street of the town. The dinner itself was good – we started with prosciutto and melone, as well as a beef carpaccio. DH was in a pasta kind of mood, and wanted to try a couple of things, so we got a pici with tartuga (truffles) and a risotto with saffron and arugala. I wanted to try a pizza, so we also ordered a pizza. Everything was good, though the waitress chastised me when I asked for parmesan cheese for the pizza. “That is not how Italians do it,” she said, but then quickly backtracked and offered to bring out the cheese if I wanted it. However, I was in Italy, so chose to eat it the Italian way. And it really was very good.

    Day 5 – A Day of Relaxation
    When flushing out an itinerary for the trip, I had struggled with what to do on this day. There were numerous options, including visiting the beaches of Tuscany, exploring Cortona and Arezzo, travelling to the Chianti region of Tuscany, driving down to Orvieto or returning to some of our favorite spots from the previous few days. However, in the end, we decided that we wanted to stay put and enjoy our time in Montepulciano. What a great decision this was!

    I started the day with another try at a morning run. I ran downhill for 1 ½ miles, ending up well below the town. I then turned around, and attempted to run the same route uphill. I made it to the Porta al Prato, and had to stop. After catching my breath and walking/running back to the hotel, I showered and ate breakfast. In the meantime, DH found a local laundromat (just 1 block from the hotel), and did a couple of loads of laundry. It took a while to figure out the machines, but once that was done, the washing and drying was quick.

    We then headed out to do some shopping, and really explore the town. The main street in Montepulciano seems to go on forever, and there are great shops of every variety to be found. We bought olive wood spoons and cutting boards, calendars, herbs and spices, and ceramic wine stoppers. Our favorite store was not on the main street, but instead close to the Piazza Grande. Creazione d’Arte is a huge store filled to the brim with ceramics. Every style and color imaginable is available. The most interesting thing about the store is how big it is – it actually extends down and under the street. When the owner was expanding, he discovered Etruscan ruins, and has arranged the pottery to highlight these. We spent quite some time here, as we decided what pieces we wanted, what colors would work best, etc. Everything was beautiful, and it was tempting to buy much more than we eventually did. While we wandered through the town, I did my best to impart some history and architecture lessons on DH, educating him on the various buildings we were seeing, when they were built, and why they were significant.

    For lunch, we ate at Ristorante Ai Quattro Venti, a small restaurant right at the edge of the Piazza Grande. We started with Mozarella Caprese and Bread soup. Then had ravioli with butter and sage, and gnocchi with tomato sauce. Good, hearty food.

    We spent most of the afternoon relaxing, and packing for our departure to Florence in the morning. Packing up was bittersweet – we had enjoyed our stay so much, and were very sad to leave Montepulciano. However, we were excited about seeing and experiencing Florence. Even though we were close to the end, Montepulciano still had a couple of surprises in store for us…

    For dinner, we had reservations at La Grotta, a beautiful restaurant nestled up against the Temple of San Biagio. The restaurant was about a ten minute walk from our hotel, down a very steep road. As we slowly walked downhill, we observed cars coming uphill, trying to find a parking place. We would find out why they were coming into town shortly. Before settling in for dinner, we wandered around the exterior of the Temple. It is a huge building, with amazing views of the Tuscan countryside. The sun was setting, so of course we had to stop for a few pictures.

    Our dinner at La Grotta was lovely. We sat in the garden outside, and were greeted with two glasses of prosecco. We each started out with an amuse bouche of a spinach and ricotta tart. We then split the parmesan soufflé. This was divine – it melted in our mouths. For our main course, I had gnocchi with rabbit and green peas, and DH had a steak served with a small salad. We drank a bottle of vino nobile de Montepulciano with dinner. It was a slow and relaxing dinner, and fit perfectly into our slow paced day.

    After dinner, we made the long uphill walk back to the hotel, noting that there were many more cars than before parked on the side of the road. Apparently Calici di Stele, which occurs on August 10, is the main summer event in Montepulciano. And what an event it was! There were different musicians set up all over the town. There were also numerous wine tastings, with tables set up in different parts of the town. We first headed to the Piazza Grande, where there was a huge flag and drummer demonstration. These included significantly more participants and spectators than what we had seen the day before. The performance was enthralling, and we found a perfect spot to view it all. After the demonstration ended, the performers marched out of Piazza Grande and down the main street, with all the spectators following. We were pulled along with everyone else. We followed the crowd for quite some time, past a performer playing a guitar, many Italians talking and laughing as they sampled different wine, groups of teenagers flirting with each other, and so much more. The people watching was amazing.

    We eventually headed back to the hotel, but first took a short detour to a side street where some teenagers had set up huge speakers and a DJ was spinning some trance music. About a dozen teenagers were dancing around the area, pulling in folks as they walked by. We watched for a few minutes, enjoying the dancing and laughing of the kids. When we returned to the hotel, it had been transformed. The terrace of our hotel had been overtaken by a Jamiroquai cover band, complete with a large screen playing Jamiroquai videos. We could actually lean out the window from the bathroom in our room, and see the top of the performers’ heads. Luckily, we weren’t too tired, so we stayed outside and watched the band for a while. This was such a neat experience – a local festival that was geared to the locals. We couldn’t understand a word anyone was saying, but we felt like we were a part of everything. It was a great way to end our stay in Montepulciano…

    Coming up – off to Florence

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    What treasures you are laying up for future memories. I love that you found unexpected pleasures, and local celebrations.

    We had some similar experiences on our recent trip to Umbria and Tuscany, and I remember buying a gorgeous piece of pottery, at the same place you describe, on an earlier trip to Montepulciano.

    Your report is a continuing pleasure....

    Looking forward to Florence.

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    I'm in the midst of trying to decide what to do in Tuscany next summer. Reading this makes me want to do exactly what you did! I'm sure whatever we decide, we'll love it like you did. Thanks for all your info - it's wonderful!

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    Day 6 – Off to Florence
    My initial plan was to take a scenic route to Florence, via Siena, and then detouring to visit San Gimignano. However, we decided to just go straight to Florence, so we took the most direct route, via the A1. We followed the signs to the airport, and had no problem returning our rental car. We had chosen to return the car with a full tank of gas, so filled it up a few miles before we got to the airport. Interestingly, when I received the final bill from the rental car company, they had charged us €14 for gas, plus a €15 fee for not returning it full. I called the rental car company, mentioned that we had filled up just before arriving at the airport, and they reversed the charges, no questions asked. I found that rather strange – it was as if this was a common occurrence. If I hadn’t checked the itemized bill, I never would have known they had tried to charge me an extra $40.

    Anyhow, we hopped in a cab at the airport, and it was a 15 minute ride to our hotel, the Antica Torre di Via Tornabuoni. We arrived around noon, and luckily our room was ready. We had reserved room 502 because of its view of the duomo, based on exhaustive research on Trip Advisor. However, instead of taking us to room 502, we ended up in another room, with a huge terrace. It turns out that this room is right next door to room 502, and shares a terrace with 502. This room gets the majority of the terrace, and a spectacular view of Florence and the duomo. Once we realized this, we chose not to complain, and kept the better room .

    We were ready for lunch, so we left the hotel and headed out into the streets of the city. Our first impressions of Florence were that it was hot. Very hot, unless you were in the shade. And crowded. There were people everywhere. A huge crowd of people was congregated on the Ponte Vechio, trying to get the obligatory picture of themselves on the bridge with the Arno behind them. We avoided that crowd, and wandered into the Piazza della Signoria. After a quick break, we headed towards the duomo. We eventually found a street market around the church of San Lorenzo. I was finally able to pry DH away from the street vendors, for a lunch nearby at Trattoria Osteria Cipolla Rossa. This is a nice casual trattoria, and we had a lunch of bruschetta with white beans, pasta with tomato sauce and some roasted potatoes. After lunch, we ventured back into the street market, and made some obligatory purchases – a leather purse for our daughter, some beautiful silk scarves, and a lovely oil painting of the duomo.

    Now was nap time – we returned to our hotel, pulled the curtains closed, and collapsed. The room was great – we couldn’t hear any of the sounds of the town below, the curtains kept it nice and dark and the a/c worked wonderfully. We awoke feeling refreshed and ready to attempt our Florence run. I found a great route on slowtrav.com, from Robert Rainey. It takes you up quiet, shaded streets south of the Arno to the Piazza Michelangelo, where there are fantastic views of the city. We didn’t do the whole run, which was 6 miles, but cut it short and ended up running about 4.5 miles. It was a great way to see a different part of Florence than we had seen before, plus get a little exercise in to make up for all the food we had been consuming!

    We had dinner at La Decima Musa, a small restaurant just down the street from the hotel. We really enjoyed our dinner – the food was good and the service was attentive. We were seated next to a couple from Florence, the man owned a wine store nearby. Given DH’s passion for wine, we had some interesting conversations about wine and Italy. We started our meal with a glass of prosecco, and an amuse bouche of melone y prosciutto and bread with a cheesy spread. We had appetizers of salumi y formagi, and seafood risotto. For our main course, we had monkfish and duck breast. We enjoyed a 2005 Banfi Brunello di Montalcino with our meal.

    After dinner, we walked back to the historic center of Florence, in search of gelato. There was a nice breeze in the air, and the city seemed calmer and less busy. We both agreed that we preferred Florence at night, when the majority of the tourists had departed.

    Coming up - our final day

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    I called the rental car company, mentioned that we had filled up just before arriving at the airport, and they reversed the charges, no questions asked. I found that rather strange – it was as if this was a common occurrence. >>

    for this reason I always check restaurant bills for rogue orange juices, items ordered but not received etc. as you say, it's amazing how often these little discrepancies crop up and how quickly they are reversed with so little fuss. I always choose to think that they were an innocent mistake and treat them as such.

    BTW, great report. good decision not to complain about getting the wrong room!

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    Day 7 – Florence
    It was our last day in Italy, so we were up early to make the most of it. Our plan for the day was to visit as many historic sites as possible without completely burning out. We started by walking from the hotel to the Ponte Vechio, which was much less crowded than the day before. We took a few pictures, then headed to Santa Croce. After admiring the exterior of the Church of Santa Croce, we headed over to the Bargello Museum. This museum is well worth a visit, both to admire the sculptures within, as well as to examine the building itself. From the Bargello, we wandered towards the Duomo. We admired all the buildings, but chose to forgo going inside, given the extremely long lines everywhere. We skirted around the Church of San Lorenzo to visit the Medici Chapels. There was an exhibition showing, so the admission price was a bit higher than usual. The last chapel, which Michelangelo designed for various members of the Medici family, was particularly interesting.

    We were getting hungry, so we decided to try and find a place to eat lunch. Before we left, I put together a map on communitywalk.com of recommended restaurants in Florence. We decided to try Cantinetta di Verazzano. However, when we arrived, we found it was closed for the month of August. Our next try was Il Pennello – again, it was closed. We figured that our third try would be the charm, but we were wrong. Trattoria Le Mossacce was also closed. We ended up finding a small bar called Amadeus. We has some bruschetta, then pasta ragu and pasta chinghiale. It was nothing spectacular, but it was food, and we were famished!

    After lunch and a nap, we headed across the river to explore the Oltrarno area. We did some shopping, walked a lot, and checked out a few places for dinner. We had an early dinner at Trattoria Quattro Leoni. This was a really nice little restaurant, set in a quiet square. We sat outside, and were joined by several groups of Americans. The food was great – we started with a mixed cheese plate and an insalata melone (great salad, with greens, goat cheese, cantelope, etc.). DH had a pasta with truffles – taglierini al tartufo nero di stagiene – and I had the famous pear ravioli – fiocchetti di pera in salsa di taleggio e esparagi. The pear ravioli was outstanding! We had a bottle of 2004 Pian delle Vigne Antinori Brunello with our meal. After the meal, we went to the gelato store across the square for desert. We wandered back to the hotel, to pack up for our trip home.

    Day 8 – Back to Houston
    Our flight from Florence to Frankfurt departed at 6:30am, so the hotel arranged for a taxi to pick us up at 5am. Although we didn’t check any luggage on the way over, we checked both of our bags on the way back, as we had accumulated numerous bottles of wine over the course of our trip. We packed these in the new 3M Wine Skins, then stuffed them in the cardboard wine carriers, and surrounded them with clothes. Each bag had about 6 bottles of wine or olive oil, and there was no issue with weight. I also had a bag of souvenirs which we carried on with us, along with my purse and DH’s backpack.

    The flight to Frankfurt was uneventful, and we arrived around 8am. We had a long layover, and some Euros to spend, so we visited the duty free store and bought chocolate and wine. We then found a place to lie down, and each of us took a short nap. Our flight ended up being delayed by almost 2 hours, so we didn’t leave Frankfurt until after 3pm. Luckily, once we were in the air, we made up some time, and arrived in Houston just an hour late. I declared all our purchases, but didn’t have to pay any duties on the wine. We then picked up our car and headed out to the Texas hill country to pick up the kids from camp.

    Coming up - just a few final thoughts...

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