Glorious Tuscany!

May 8th, 2019, 09:55 AM
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Glorious Tuscany!

My husband and I traveled to Tuscany with my parent at the end of April and into the beginning of May. Although I studied abroad in Rome (many moons ago), I only made it to Florence for a quick day trip and no one else in our group had visited the region either. After eight nights (3 in Florence and 5 in the Val D’Orcia), we are true converts. The people, food, and scenery were all truly wonderful.

Where We Stayed in Florence:

I found this apartment on AirB&B: Maffei Apartment. It is the perfect set-up for two couples as each room has its own bathroom and one of the bedrooms is located on the main floor of the apartment while the other is located upstairs. It was very spacious and well-appointed. It was also located in the perfect location for our travel needs. It was an easy 10 minute walk from the train station (where we arrived) and another easy 10 minute walk to the Avis location from where we picked up our rental car when we left Florence. All of the main sights of Florence were within easy walking distance.

Overall Impressions of Florence:

So much to see and do! If I could reorganize the itinerary, I would have devoted one extra full day to Florence. We had two full days and it was not enough to see the sights I wanted to and build in some of the down time that, in my opinion, is essential to traveling, and especially, to traveling in Italy. What we did: visited the Basilica di Santa Croce using the self-guided tour in Rick Steven’s guidebook which was very helpful; visited the Palazzo Davanzatti; visited the Uffizi using pre-booked Skip the Line tickets; visited the Duomo using pre-booked Skip the Line tickets to climb the dome; and visited the Palazzo Vecchio. Somehow we even managed to find time to enjoy an Aperol Spritz (or two) during aperitivo time.

Some Notes About the Sights:

Duomo: we had tickets to climb the dome at 9:30. If I could do this over, I would have gotten to the Campanile at 8:15 when it opens to climb that first. By the time we got down to the ground after climbing the dome, the line to climb the campanile was really long. Instead, we got on the shorter line to enter the Baptistry. I can’t image what Florence is like in July. In the last week of April, the piazza was crowded with tourists. The climb to the dome took about 10 minutes. It can be dizzying at times with the spiral staircase, but I did not find it as claustrophobic as I read it could be. If you’re in good shape, the climb shouldn’t be an issue. Don’t miss out on the Duomo museum. It’s really well put together and gives you a great perspective on the construction and re-construction of the church.

Palazzo Vecchio: we had not pre-purchased tickets for entry and wound up waiting on line, until my husband wondered aloud if tickets could be purchased online. Sure enough, that was a possibility and while standing on the line that was not moving, I went online and purchased our tickets. We used the video guide to lead us through this enormous building, though I wish I had pre-booked the Hidden Passages tour. By the time we arrived in Italy, it was already sold out. It’s worth paying extra to go to the top of the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio. The views out over the city and the Piazza della Signoria are not to be missed from here.

Uffizi: give yourselves plenty of time and pick the rooms that you really want to see. It can be a bit overwhelming. In between floors, we regrouped with a café on the terrace and decided exactly what we wanted to see and what we could pass on.

The Arno with the Ponte Vecchio in the background:

The view of the Campanile from the top of the Duomo:

The view of the Duomo from the Ponte Vecchio:

Restaurants in Florence:

L’Osteria di Giovanni: wonderful restaurant where we were greeted with a warm welcome from the owner. He offered us a complimentary aperitivo to begin dinner along with fried bread. We enjoyed an excellent homemade salumi plater, our first bistecca Fiorentina of the trip, pici with sausage and kale ragout. At the end of the meal, the owner gifted us two bags of homemade cantucci cookies (similar to biscotti) to take with us.

Ristorante Il Ricettario: I chose this place because it was close to the Duomo where we had Skip the Line tickets for 2:30 pm. The staff here was very nice and they have a great salumi platter and vegetarian crostini platter. We all enjoyed homemade pastas for our main dishes.

Osteria dell’Enoteca: Located across the river, this place was wonderful. Delicious bistecca here served alongside white beans, swiss chard, and roasted potatoes in addition to braised lamb with artichokes, and homemade pastas. Definitely worth the walk through the Oltrarno.

Coquinarius – this restaurant got very good reviews online, but I have to say that I was disappointed. It was dark and noisy and the food was just okay. The service was pretty indifferent.

Bistrot 3 Tavoli – Located across the river, we were the only non-Italian speakers in the restaurant which I loved. Everyone seemed to be local and the fact that the owner only spoke Italian challenged me to use my Italian, which was great. Because I booked the restaurant on The Fork, we also got 20% off our bill which resulted in this being the cheapest meal of our time in Florence.

Gelato – recommended to us by the owner of our AirB&B and located just on the other side of the river from our apartment – Gelateria La Carraia was fantastic. So many delicious flavors and there’s nothing better than sitting on the bridge and enjoying the view of the Arno and its banks while enjoying wonderful gelato.

After Florence:

Chianti: I knew that I wanted to see some of the Chianti region so we began by departing from Florence for Antinori nel Chianti Classico where I had booked tickets for one of their tours. The winery is simply stunning. Built directly into the hillside, it is impossible to describe and worth the visit even if you don’t like/drink wine (you do need a reservation to enter, though). We’ve visited many of the world’s famous wine regions and have never seen anything like this before. The tour itself was great, giving us the chance to see the stunning cellars and leading us on the journey that the grapes take once they are picked. The tour concluded with a tasting of three wines and from there we went to have lunch at the winery’s restaurant, Rinuccio 1180. We sat outside under a beautiful trellis overlooking the vines and the hills beyond. This meal is definitely not one that we will forget. The food and wine were wonderful and the service was so attentive and nice. The setting can’t be beat. From Antinori we drove southeast through the Chianti region to Castello di Ama where a member of the staff led us through a tasting of some of their wines. The wines were really nice and we enjoyed this visit. If we had more time, we could have stayed to explore the various contemporary art installations that dot the property.

Antinori nel Chianti Classico Winery

Rinuccio 1180 Restaurant at Antinori nel Chianti Classico

Val D’Orcia: based on comments from folks on this forum, I chose the Val D’Orcia as our home base for the remaining five nights of our trip. The selection of where to stay in the valley, though, was daunting. There were so many places with fantastic reviews and Fonte Bertusi, particularly based on reviews from this forum, was one of the top contenders. Ultimately, though, I chose Podere Spedalone because I wanted the true farm experience and wanted the ability to dine on premises as often as we wanted for dinner. The Trip Advisor reviews did not disappoint and I can’t say enough wonderful things about this place. We were welcomed by Alessandro like we were family and were treated that way throughout our stay. Each night, aperitivo hour starts at 7:30 with prosecco and still wines offered with a selection of small bites. One night, Alessandro freshly sliced his own prosciutto, on another night it was homemade pizza. Following aperitivo hour, everyone gathers in the dining room (or under the terrace, depending on the weather) and enjoys a four course meal at communal tables. The food was outstanding, featuring homemade pastas, roast pork, venison, and much more. The meals were different each night and were always followed by dessert and then an offering of limoncello, grappa, or homemade brandy. Breakfasts were similarly wonderful and kept us well satisfied until lunch rolled around. The communal atmosphere at meal time gave us the chance to talk to people from all over the world and to share travel tips. We met Alessandro’s livestock, including a pig named Rocco and a cow named Brunella, and marveled at his vegetable garden. The rooms at Podere Spedalone are comfortable and well-appointed. I could have happily stayed here for a month and hope to return when I’m next back in Tuscany. A returning guest to Spedalone who runs retreats there several times a year said it best: there are other places in Tuscany that are more luxurious than Spedalone and others that are more historic, but nowhere are you treated the way you are at Spedalone.

Alessandro Slicing the Prosciutto

Sunset at Spedalone

Dusk at Spedalone

On our first full day in the countryside, I arranged for a wine tour with Ciao Fabry Tours. Fabrizio, who was born and raised in Tuscany, moved to the U.S. for about twenty years, before returning home to start this business and to help Alessandro with the running of Podere Spedalone. We had a private tour that began with a visit to a very small winery producing wines for the fairly new DOC category of "Orcia". The winery, Podere Albiano, is run by a husband and wife team who warmly welcomed us into their home to taste about 4 wines paired with salami and a selection of pecorino. We saw their vines, their cellar, and their bottling equipment. Next, Fabrizio took us to his mother's house in Montepulciano for lunch. This was a fantastic experience. His mother prepared homemade pici with tomato sauce and a homemade tiramisu that was unlike anything we ever had. She particularly enjoyed feeding my husband seconds and thirds, reminding me of my Italian grandmother who always insisted that one could never be full. She even gifted us with her own cookbook. From there, Fabrizio led us on a guided tour of Montepulciano before we ultimately ended up at Innocenti, a winery that produces Brunello di Montalcino among other wines. Here again, we tasted about five wines that were paired with pecorino and prosciutto. At all of the wineries we visited, both in the Val d’Orcia and the Chianti region, we were able to purchase wines and have them shipped back to New York. I can’t wait for the arrival of these “souvenirs.”

Our second day was devoted to a day trip to Siena. A note about parking – we never had trouble finding parking, both in large towns like Siena and the smaller hill towns of the Val d’Orcia. Just outside the historic centers are parking lots and parking spaces and we never encountered a problem finding an available spot. Siena is just as beautiful as everyone says. It’s awe inspiring to enter the Campo and to think about the history that the “square” has seen. Here again, we used Rick Steve’s self-guided tour to take us through the city. Of course, a visit to Siena is not complete without visiting the Duomo and I would highly recommend purchasing the tickets that include “The Gates of Heaven/La Porta del Cielo” in which you’re able to do a short climb to the top to view the inside of the cathedral from above and to also have wonderful views of Siena and the surrounding countryside. We ended our day here with an aperitivo overlooking the campo, just enjoying the people watching. From Siena, we drove to Montichiello for sunset which was wonderful. The views from the town were incredible. I made dinner reservations for this night just to change things up a bit, although we could have happily dined at Podere Spedalone all five nights. A short walk from the entrance to the old town is Restaurant Daria, a beautiful restaurant. Here, the meal began with a complimentary aperitivo and an amuse bouche. We enjoyed rabbit and bistecca Fiorentina in addition to great pastas. The desserts here were also fantastic. Daria even gifted us with a bottle of wine as we parted ways. She was a warm and welcoming host.

View from Above in Siena's Duomo

Sunset in Montichiello

Our third day was spent exploring San Quirico, Bagno Vignoni, the Abbey of Sant’Antimo, and finally Montalcino. Some things of note: (1) in San Quirico, we visited Birrificio San Quirico to satisfy my husband’s love of craft beers. They bottle their beers in wine bottles and their shop and small brewery is a very nice stop as you’re exploring the town; (2) Bagno Vignoni is a magical little place, particularly with the art installation of ballet dancers set up over thermal springs in the center of town. We enjoyed a wonderful lunch at Osteria del Leone there, eating outside to enjoy the people watching. The food was fantastic. (3) The Abbey of Sant’Antimo: we visited using the abbey’s video guides. For an extra 3 euro, a guide will bring you upstairs to enjoy views of the church from the second floor and to see some additional spaces, like the bishop’s chambers and the sacristy. I thought it was worth the extra money. The abbey has a pharmacy set up where you can buy wares made by the monks. (4) Montalcino was beautiful, particularly at sunset time as everyone seemed to be enjoying the passegiata.

Beautiful Bagno Vignoni

Abbey of Sant'Antimo from afar

We began our fourth day with a visit to Podere Il Casale for their Pecorino Cheese Tour. This was a wonderful experience led by Sandra, one of the owners of the farm. She and her husband moved from Switzerland to become sheep farmers in Tuscany. They produce a wide range of sheep and goat cheeses. We got to meet the animals, saw the dairy, and then had a delicious tasting. The setting can’t be beat with beautiful views of the valley and Pienza perched on the hill above. I regret not having made lunch reservations here as it would have been nice to sample more of the farm’s products during the meal. Instead, we dined at La Fonte Agriristuro. I selected this place based on the good Trip Advisor reviews and also because they produce a number of beers onsite. Unfortunately the tap room was closed for the May 1 holiday, but we were still able to try the beers as we enjoyed a delicious lunch. The portions here were very large. I had some of the best pici with ragout of the whole trip and a delicious roasted rabbit. The wild boar stew was also very good. Vintners and farmers have a major problem with wild boar and deer in the region and, although, it’s prohibited to hunt them, they seem to appear on a lot of menus!

Cheese Tasting at Podere Il Casale

We spent the afternoon exploring Pienza which really is a beautiful place. I highly recommend the pedestrian walking path that affords wonderful views of the valley. We were able to watch as a storm rolled into the valley and then onto us, escaping into a cocktail bar called Idyllium that I had researched before arriving. Warning: the cocktails are almost too delicious that you forget your drinking.

And following a wonderful last dinner at Spedalone and then a wonderful final breakfast, we hopped in the car and drove to Rome to catch our flight back home to NY. We definitely could have devoted the full eight nights just to the Val D’Orcia – the small hill towns are so pleasurable to walk through and to take life easy and it is difficult not to keep marveling at the outstanding scenery. With very friendly people and terrific food, this area is certainly one that we hope to return to, again and again.

Some Food Pics Below

Fresh Baked Bread at Spedalone

Ribollita at La Fonte

Pici at La Fonte

Rabbit at Restaurant Daria in Montichiello

Bistecca Fiorentina at Restaurant Daria in Montichiello

Pici with Lamb Ragout at Osteria del Leone in Bagno Vignoni

northfork280 is offline  
May 8th, 2019, 10:23 AM
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Thanks for your detailed report! The photos are a great addition.
Leely2 is offline  
May 8th, 2019, 11:47 AM
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Excellent!!!! I never tire of Italy reports.

maitaitom is online now  
May 8th, 2019, 02:21 PM
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Brava! Sighing for Italy.
TDudette is offline  
May 8th, 2019, 02:41 PM
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Wow, just beautiful. It was SO hot in Florence and Siena on our trip, I look at your photos and think I need to return in cooler weather.
What a lovely experience you had.
Adelaidean is offline  
May 8th, 2019, 04:28 PM
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Very nice trip, very enjoyable report and spectacular pictures of some of my favorite places in the world. Thanks for posting.
john183 is offline  
May 8th, 2019, 04:46 PM
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Thank you for the wonderful photographs.
travelhorizons is offline  
May 8th, 2019, 06:23 PM
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A really lovely report!
shouldbewriting is online now  
May 8th, 2019, 07:02 PM
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Your report and pictures really make me want to return to Tuscany.
pgtraveler is offline  
May 8th, 2019, 08:30 PM
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Great report. Just in time as we leave tomorrow for Italy.
Paqngo is online now  
May 9th, 2019, 05:48 AM
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Thanks! And apologies for the few typos I just noticed, including one in the first sentence. I can't understand why we're not able to edit these posts without e-mailing Fodors.
northfork280 is offline  
May 9th, 2019, 09:54 AM
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Breathtaking (and mouth-watering) pictures! Thanks for such a detailed and dreamy report.
fanshawe is offline  
May 9th, 2019, 07:16 PM
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Thank you for the wonderful review and beautiful pictures!
pamalam is offline  
May 10th, 2019, 01:37 PM
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I'm drooling! What a great trip and trip report. I've been to Florence twice on much-too-short visits and a Florence repeat with time in Tuscany generally is on my bucket list. Can't wait to come back to your report for future planning!
bakerstreet is offline  
May 10th, 2019, 02:47 PM
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Wonderful report and photos. Thank you so much.
tuscanlifeedit is offline  
May 11th, 2019, 04:50 AM
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Gorgeous photos! Might be time to hop across the border and revisit that part of the world.
StCirq is online now  
May 12th, 2019, 12:29 PM
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Great report, thanks for posting it.

And lovely photos.

How right you are that you need to factor down time into traveling; I don't think this applies only to Italy!
annhig is offline  
May 12th, 2019, 02:09 PM
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What a lovely report! I enjoyed the detail and your photos as well.

Lee Ann
ElendilPickle is offline  
May 14th, 2019, 05:38 AM
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Thanks everyone!
northfork280 is offline  
May 14th, 2019, 12:29 PM
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