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Jamikins and Bikerscott hit Tuscany for New Years

Jamikins and Bikerscott hit Tuscany for New Years

Old Jan 2nd, 2014, 01:19 PM
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Days Five and Six – Driving, and Backache

Not surprisingly, we slept in quite late the morning after the night before. Jamie got up sometime after 11am, but let me sleep in until nearly noon. Neither of us were hungover (at least I wasn’t, Jamie didn’t complain of it at any rate) but both of us were a bit worn out from the festivities. We didn’t really have anything planned for the day, which was probably a good thing.

We decided that a trip to Bagno Vignoni was a good idea – it would get us out of the cottage, but wasn’t really all that strenuous. We’d been there a few years ago with family, but wanted to go back to get some pictures if nothing else.

It hadn’t changed much, and was about as busy in the winter as it had been back then. The only real adventure was in the parking lot. For the second time, a parking spot was stolen from me as I waited for someone to pull out, sitting with my blinker on. The guy pulled out, and as soon as he did, a total ******* pulled in at full speed. What a ****. On the other hand, a few seconds later, a car two spots up pulled out, leaving a much better parking spot available for me.

We walked around the baths, and then found the same little restaurant we’d eaten at the last time we were there. It had pizza on the menu, and as we were still full from last night, that sounded about right. Unfortunately, they didn’t start the pizza oven up for lunch, so we were forced to share some pecorino with truffles and honey, followed by plates of pasta each, and then cantucci and vin santo for afters. It’s a rough life we lead.

Next on the agenda was the nearby but difficult to get to Sant Antimo – a working monastery where they still do Gregorian chants a few times a day. We knew we’d missed the 2:45pm service, but thought there might be one later in the afternoon we could catch, or at least take advantage of the last of the afternoon light for photos. It turned out that despite being only a few miles away on a map, it took about 30 minutes to get there by car. We nearly missed the light, only managing a few shots before the sun dropped below the hills surrounding the monastery. In addition to that, the next services weren’t until 6pm; we weren’t willing to wait that long.

We drove back to Montepulciano to have a drink at our favourite little wine bar, and possibly some dinner as well. We walked up the hill to La Dolce Vita, only to find that it was closed. The sign on the door said that they’d only be closed for an hour, but looking inside it appeared that there was some sort of kitchen plumbing emergency going on. We decided to go to another wine bar and check back in later – la Dolce Vita has burgers on the menu, and they’d looked pretty good – a few days of pasta and boar and we were ready for a hamburger.

We found what appears to be a locals hangout, in the winter at least. We had a tasting flight of 3 wines and watched families come in, greet the people behind the bar, and settle in for a coffee or glass of wine. I think in the summer it must be incredibly busy, but it was nice to see the people from Montepulciano supporting it in the winter. We also decided that it must be incredibly frustrating to live in a town that survives in the summer on tourists – the crowds must get to you after a while.

We checked back in at La Dolce Vita after our wine – the sign on the door had gone, but the gates in front of them had been closed. There were loads of staff inside, but no customers. None of this looked like a good sign. We decided that pizza was the way forward. There was a little pizzeria on the way back to the parking lot that looked like it had a wood oven – if nothing else, the Italians know how to make a good pizza, so we figured it was worth a try.

We had another quiet night in eating pizza and drinking wine in front of the fire. I’d found an internet radio station which specializes in Big Band Swing, which added a certain flair to the proceedings. We had an early night to bed in comparison to last night, hitting the sack just after midnight.

This morning was another late one for us – Jamie woke up at 9:30 but decided that again we didn’t have much on the agenda for the day, so went back to sleep – we didn’t get up until 11am! I’m not sure what’s happening on this trip, but I’m certainly feeling more rested than I have in a long time.

The day today was going to be another driving day. We’d been to Montalcino years ago on the infamous family vacation, but hadn’t really had a chance to sample the wines on offer. We thought we’d rectify that today. I felt like making a bit of an effort, and as it had been a few days since I’d last shaved, I thought I’d clean up for the occasion.

I’ve always had a bit of a dodgy back, and last year actually managed to rupture two of the disks in my lower back. I’ve been careful ever since, and it’s been ages since it’s gone out – nearly two years. It picked today to go again – this time as I was bending down to pick up the facecloth to wipe the last of the shaving crème off my face. Not badly this time fortunately, but bad enough to hurt quite a bit.

Off we went – sitting in the car actually helped a bit for the hour drive to Montalcino. One of the bonuses of visiting Tuscany in the winter is that there are more parking spots available, all free, the hordes of tourists not taking them up. We found a spot fairly quickly and walked into town – the hills and steps weren’t doing good things to my back, but it was manageable. By this time, we were both a bit hungry, so we decided to stop for a bite to eat and possibly a glass of wine.

We found a nice restaurant with an incredible view, and the highest prices we’ve seen so far on this trip. We split a very nice antipasta platter to start, and then a plate of spaghetti with bacon and tomato sauce – nothing with bacon in it is ever a bad idea. Jamie had a few glasses of very nice brunello, and I enjoyed a coke – the muscle relaxants I took don’t mix well with alcohol (or driving cars really, but that’s okay, I’m a train professional).

As we finished, I stood up and picked up my camera backpack. I guess I leaned over at the wrong angle, because I tweaked my back again, this time a bit worse than before. Oh well. We managed to find the castle at the top of the hill – how we’d missed it the first time, I have no idea; it’s a giant fortification at the top of the town. There is a wine bar and store in the fortifications that Jamie had wanted to try the last time we were here, but prices were too high for the rest of the family, so we had to skip it – we were going to make up for lost time now.

We ordered two tasting flights – two of the regular brunellos, and two of the riserva varieties. We chatted for quite a long time with the guy serving us, who I think liked us – at any rate, he brought us two other glasses to try on the house, as he thought they were an interesting contrast to the ones we’d already had, and were his favourites. All 6 in the end were delicious – there’s no downside to any type of wine of this quality, and it’s hard to find quality higher than Brunello from Montalcino.

After buying a bottle, and some cantucci for good measure, we walked back down the hill to the car. I managed to do a hill start on wet dirt and gravel, which is a major accomplishment for me (I don’t drive often anymore, not having a car, and have never actually owned a car with a manual transmission – hill starts aren’t my best thing, and one of the worst I’ve ever done was on a gravel slope with my father sitting disapprovingly in the passenger seat as I stalled 3 times before getting it right – it’s bizarre how the disapproval of my father makes me nervous, even though I’m in my late 30’s).

We stopped at the Coop in Pienza for supplies for dinner. We’d originally planned on going to a place called “La Grotto” for a six course menu, but my back was really sore, and I thought a night in resting would probably be better for me. We picked up some pasta sauce and some pici and made our way back to the cottage.

We had one last surprise on our arrival at home. There are a few cottages and rooms here, and someone who has just arrived had decided that the best place to park their car for the evening wasn’t in the covered parking area, or even pulled off to the side of the road, but better directly and exactly in the middle of the driveway, between two trees, on a hill, thus increasing the level of difficulty in getting past them. Fortunately our car is very small, as I managed to sneak it between the parked car and the tree with mere centimetres to spare – I was also quite impressed with my hill start again, having to feather the clutch during this entire manoeuvre. It’s a good thing I got the car past, as Jamie was ready to start knocking on doors, and that wouldn’t have been a pretty sight.

We’ve had another quiet night in with the fire, some big band jazz, and a couple bottles of wine. The back is still quite sore, but I’m hoping the night in and a good rest will mean I can enjoy the day tomorrow. If not, prescription-strength muscle relaxants should help…
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Old Jan 2nd, 2014, 01:33 PM
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irst plates were delivered, and we had a sinking realization that were weren’t meant to choose from the huge list, it would all be delivered in order, and had to be consumed with enthusiasm. >>

bet you were glad you'd had such a good lunch!

I've no idea how they consume so much, either. On the language course I went on in Tuscany, we were invited to the home of the couple who were hosting one of the other class members, and in the course of the evening we were offered bruschetta with home made chicken liver pate, spahgetti with some sort of ragu sauce, salad, a roasted fish, rabbit stew, cheese and fruit, and a chocolate dessert. All washed down with various wines and vin santo at the end. Unbelievable. Obviously they don't eat like that every day, but even at Christmas, we don't put away anything like that amount of food.

I'm not surprised that you need a quiet night in.

Hope the back improves, Scott.
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Old Jan 2nd, 2014, 01:37 PM
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Forgot to add I am also loving your pictures.
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Old Jan 2nd, 2014, 01:43 PM
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I have been known to eat a big Christmas dinner, but like you say annhig, its unreal how they can down that much food. With such enthusiasm! It deserves some respect hahaha

Thanks socaltraveler! Glad you are enjoying the pics!!!! I added the ones from today from Montalcino.
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Old Jan 2nd, 2014, 06:41 PM
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Epic tale of New Year's Eve. Boggling. Fun.

Love the new photos, too. Beauty everywhere. Guido, the one who's not the car, brandishing his freshly hacked steaks.
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Old Jan 3rd, 2014, 12:06 AM
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What a relaxing time you are having eating and sleeping...sounds perfect.
I try and go to Paris in December but after your report Tuscany might be a new choice.
This past summer I stayed near Pienza at La Fonte agritourismo.
It is about 10 min outside of Pienza on the road to Montalcino with a great restaurant if you need another place to eat. The chocolate cake with hot fudge and vanilla ice cream is to die for.
And if you get back to Pienza we ate a couple times at Trattoria de Firoella-good food in a charming little place.
We loved La Dolce Vita-great spot for a drink.
Here's hoping that your back is good for the rest of your trip and you can continue enjoying your eating, drinking and sleeping holiday pain free.
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Old Jan 3rd, 2014, 10:08 AM
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oh I really wish that i were in Tuscany with you at the moment, the weather here in the UK is frightful.

You have chosen a great time for a trip abroad.
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Old Jan 3rd, 2014, 10:12 AM
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Well we stopped off today to make reservations at the meat place again for our final night tomorrow - we are suckers for punishment! Turns out the owners name is Guilio - not Guido! Hopefully the 2nd time around is as good as the first...perhaps a few less courses this time hahaha!!

FabulousFrance - if you like winter travel Tuscany is amazing. We love Le Marche and tend to dislike crowds of tourists etc. We have said so many times that Tuscany in the winter reminds us of Le Marche in the summer. There are barely any English speaking tourists right now. Great food, lots of Roman tourists apparently. Easy parking (free), and gorgeous views. Perfect for us.

annhig - oh no, not looking forward to returning on Sunday - a week is not enough!!!!
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Old Jan 3rd, 2014, 10:33 AM
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jamikins - the forecast is for the bad weather to persist into the middle of next week.

you'd be pretty unlucky to be flooded by the sea in London though.
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Old Jan 3rd, 2014, 10:35 AM
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Yuck - Happy New Year us hahaha!

I guess we cant complain too much
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Old Jan 3rd, 2014, 10:47 AM
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could be worse, jamikins, it could be snow!
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Old Jan 3rd, 2014, 11:51 PM
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So nice to come home from a quick holiday and find a great tr from you both. Photos are awesome as usual.

Record breaking heat wave in Brisbane today reached <red>42</red> it's 7pm and <b>still</b> 30degrees!!!
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Old Jan 4th, 2014, 12:42 AM
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Thanks aussiedreamer....42???? That's crazy!! I think we are averaging about 10 degrees here in Tuscany.
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Old Jan 4th, 2014, 02:17 AM
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Record breaking heat wave in Brisbane today reached 42 it's 7pm and still 30degrees!!!>>

good grief. hate to say it but so glad we're not in Brisbane now - we could just about cope with the temps we had there in November, which were at least 10C lower.

hope your a/c is effective, aussie!
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Old Jan 4th, 2014, 07:08 AM
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We're expecting - 21 C tomorrow night, and our daughter will try to start her car in - 26 C Monday morning. (not counting wind chill) Tuscany does sound pretty durn good.
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Old Jan 4th, 2014, 07:31 AM
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- 21C????

I think that the only time I have come across those sorts of temps was whilst skiing in France; they decided to close the chair lifts as they were afraid that the passengers would freeze to death.

keep warm, stoke. it's a balmy 10C here in Cornwall, so never mind about Tuscany, if you don't mind a bit of rain and wind, it might suit you here too!
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Old Jan 4th, 2014, 01:00 PM
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Days Seven and Ate – The End

The back hasn’t gotten much better – I’ve spent most of my time either sitting down or hobbling around. Jamie has been incredibly understanding, letting me sleep in and not doing too much for the last few days, not that we were really doing all that much before.

We didn’t have anything planned for yesterday – Jamie wanted to have lunch at a winery in Montepulciano, so we drove in after yet another late morning. We found a new parking lot that came very close to breaking our inviolate rules of driving in Italy (previous readers will recognize these – I’ll try to include them at the bottom of this report) as it was both up a hill into the town and extremely steep, however we didn’t pass through any sort of ancient gate or drive onto cobblestones, so I let it pass. It turned out to be just below the winery, which was convenient.

The winery turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. There wasn’t really anyone around when we got there other than an old woman who didn’t speak any English. There was a restaurant looking area, but no one was there, and it didn’t look like it was actually set up. She spoke to us in rapidfire Italian, and to my shock and surprise I understood enough of it to get the gist of what she was saying, I think. From what I could understand, she told us that the area we were in was the monastery attached to the church above and beside us. Below us, where they stored and aged the wine was an Etruscan tomb or cave. I think she was as surprised as I was that I understood any of it.

We went down into the cellars, but other than some huge wine barrels, there wasn’t much to see. A cave is a cave, Etruscan or otherwise. Once you’ve seen a great big hole in the ground, you’ve more or less seen them all (exceptions being made obviously if someone has done something clever like carve an entire church inside the hole, such as in St Emilion).

It was pretty painful to walk, so we sort of gave up on doing much for the day, choosing instead to spend the afternoon at La Dolce Vita. It seemed like a good plan. Plus, they had hamburgers on the menu, and after six consecutive days of boar ragu on pici (the local pasta), I was ready for a change.

We made a crucial first mistake – we had a starter. The second mistake was choosing a starter that consisted of a huge bit of cheese and quite a lot of bacon on a little tiny bit of bread. It was meant to be a crostini, but it missed that boat by quite a ways in terms of the normal bread to topping ratios you would expect to find on a crostini – not that we complained, two of the best things in life are cheese and bacon…

Next were the burgers. Holy carp they were huge. Massive bits of top quality chianina beef (the local breed, what steak fiorentina is made from) mixed with bacon fat. Mine came with cheese and a truffle cream sauce, and a side of beans. Jamie had bacon and cheese, and chose a rather sad looking green salad as her side. I did myself proud, finishing pretty much all of mine; however Jamie gave up about halfway through hers. I tell you, the Italians know their pasta and certainly can teach the world a thing or two about pizza, however North America has always had the crown in the burger wars – this place, would give the best in the States a run for their money.

Several hours later, we called it quits. Jamie had had her fill of wine (for the moment at least) and after three cans of coke, I was on a sugar rush of epic proportions (I don’t drink when I have a car – usually won’t even have a single glass of wine or a beer). My back was pretty much done, so we drove back to the cottage, stopping briefly at the worst grocery store in the world for some cantucci and snacks to get us through the rest of the evening.

This morning, my back was a little better. Jamie had insisted on setting an alarm for the ungodly hour of 10am, and actually got up when it went off. I fell back to sleep when she was having her shower, and because she’s a lovely girl, she let me keep sleeping, sitting in the other room reading her book for an hour until I got up. We had a hot tip that the famous “dancing cypresses” were actually somewhere near La Foce, and Jamie wanted to take the famous photo. The drizzle was pretty steady, and the clouds were low on the horizon and black. Not ideal photo conditions, however we set out optimistically.

We drove around quite a bit, not seeing anything that looked remotely like the dancing cypresses. Up and down hills, around winding roads and through villages. We finally gave up – the bumps and twists where hurting my back, and I think Jamie was starting to get a bit car sick. We set the satnav for home and started on our way. Not ten minutes later, we passed the famous trees. Unfortunately, it was still raining and there wasn’t anywhere convenient to pull over, so we kept driving. Jamie was a bit disappointed I think, but it gives us an excuse to come back.

We drove back to Montepulciano, and parked at our new favourite parking spot. We had a few hours to kill before our dinner reservation at Osteria Acquacheta – we’d enjoyed it so much for New Year’s that we had to go back one last time before we left. An hour or so in La Dolce Vita again, followed by a quick stop at another wine bar further down the hill was enough to get us to 7:30. We walked back up to the restaurant and the feast began.

We sat at the same seats we’d had the previous night, at the communal table. A couple sat next to us, and we got to enjoy a bizarre little drama for the rest of the evening. Giulio and his wife remembered us from the other night and I think were happy to see us again. We order a few bruschetta to start, and then the main event, a traditional fiorentina steak. Giulio hacked off a slab and brought it over for us to inspect – 1.65 kilos of wholesome beefy goodness.

The bruschetta took a few minutes bring out, and the steak was ready a few minutes after the plates from our starter were cleared away, cooked to rare as we like it and simply seasoned with some salt and pepper. An odd moment occurred between our starter and main – we’d been warned that wine and water both are served in regular tumblers. A single glass each was on the table when we arrived, and extras were not brought when we ordered both water and wine. Jamie stole two from the seats next to us, and we had a glass each of water and wine. This apparently is not done. Our water was almost finished in each glass, and a waiter swooped by and took them, telling us to use the same glass for water and wine. Apparently this is the way it’s done in this restaurant. Odd, but who am I to argue with a guy that has a meat cleaver the size of my car and can clearly use it?

Meanwhile, the drama at the rest of the table continued. Our table seated six – us, and four Italians sat down at about the same time. The end two were an older couple, and the two between we’d assumed were their son and daughter. It later became clear that the two younger people were engaged, and I can tell you that kid did very well for himself – definitely batting well above his average, especially once he started eating.

Now, I’m a fairly picky eater. My father was quite strict about table manners, and combined with my low-level OCD has resulted in a bit of a thing that I have about other people eating. I used to sit next to a slurper and slopper at work – I’d have to schedule my lunch breaks around his, as I couldn’t stand to stay sitting next to him as he slobbered his way through his food, especially soup.

This kid though, was a prize. He ordered an entire fiorentina to himself, and then attacked it like he hadn’t eaten for a week when it arrived. He managed to eat the entire thing with his mouth open (part of my thing about other people eating is the sound – I don’t even like being able to hear myself eat, completely grosses me out). Not only that, he had braces, and a thick steak dinner is not something that goes well with braces. At one point, he shoved a HUGE bit of meat into his mouth, tried to chew it, and then decided it was a bit too big. He let it fall out of his mouth onto his plate (literally just that – he opened his mouth a bit wider, gave it a push with his tongue, and out it fell – I had a ring-side seat to the whole thing), cut it in half, and kept going. It was all I could do to keep my own steak down. I know what you’re thinking right now, and I’m thinking it too – EWWWW!

We finished dinner, paid, and drove the short distance home. I’ve lit our last fire of the trip, and we’re enjoying our last bottle of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano while listening to Super Hits of the 70’s. We’ve had a wonderful New Year’s trip this year – Tuscany in the winter has gone down as one of our favourite New Years destinations. We’re going to miss the countryside, and the quiet nights in, although both my back and I are really looking forward to our memory foam mattress back in London.

Tomorrow is an early drive to Pisa to drop off the car and catch our flight back to Heathrow. We should be home in time for a proper London curry for dinner, in the British drizzle.

Jamie has uploaded the last of the photos to her link here
http://www.flickr.com/photos/pug_gir...7639164500734/
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Old Jan 4th, 2014, 01:58 PM
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Bikerscott and Jamikins Rules of Driving in Italy

1. Speed limits are suggestions only, to be observed only by tourists

2. Parking only in parking lots is for tourists and the weak-minded. If there is space to wedge the front of your car in, it is a parking spot (the back of the car does not count, it is acceptable for this to partially block traffic).

3. Stop signs are for tourists

4. Anything that happens behind you isn’t your problem, drive on good man, drive on

5. Crosswalks are for pedestrians, and therefore of no concern to someone in a car. Stopping for a pedestrian at a crosswalk indicates a weakness of character and upbringing

6. If the person in front of you is driving on the same road in the same direction at roughly the same speed, there is no reason not to drive more than three feet from his rear bumper. If he is driving slower than you would prefer to, pass him at your earliest convenience. Don’t let a blind corner in the dark on a hill deter you from passing, this would also indicate a weakness of character and upbringing

7. Never drive through a roman (or other) arch into a town, or onto cobblestones. If you find yourself driving through an arch onto cobblestones in a town, stop the car at your earliest opportunity, lock it, phone your car hire company to tell them where they can collect it, and walk away.
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Old Jan 4th, 2014, 06:08 PM
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Old Jan 4th, 2014, 10:06 PM
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I have absolutely LOVED this trip report - thank you! It has transported me from the rain and the wind in the UK. The photo are beautiful too.
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