Siena one last time

We just had to go back one more time to Siena, where prices are the lowest and selection of gifts is highest.  Strangely, some of the shops were gone, their tents removed and stored – for the winter?  The good food was still there though – one more wild boar dish, one more eggplant dish, and OH, the best pears and pecorino drizzled with Tuscan honey.  We ate on the campo and watched the children play with the pigeons there.

It was a day to wander off alone and get lost in Siena.  Since it rained off and on while we were there, we probably all have a souvenir umbrella to remind us of our last day together in Tuscany.

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About 45 minutes away, even allowing  for getting a bit lost, is Montepulciano, another Tuscan hill town with really steep streets and very old buildings dating back to the 1400s or before. If you lived here you’d have to drive a tiny car with a very good transmission and then walk up steep stairs to get to your apartment. It’s a totally charming town though. We ate in what turned out to be our fanciest restaurant of all. Deep red walls, gold brocade table linens, and an owner that sang opera. Nancy had a risotto she loved, possibly her favorite meal other than those prepared by our own Muricce cook. The view was spectacular too.  The main industry seems to be tourism,  but there aren’t that many tourists at this time of year and the shop owners are ready to bargain. I found a completely renovated apartment with fireplace and “spectacular view” – 1 bedroom, 1 bath with all furnishings included – for 125K Euros.  And oh yes, visitors would have to stay at a nearby hotel, of which there are many.

 We all loved this town!

Thanks to Sally and Margaret for some of these photos.

The first photo is the view from our restaurant.

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Food.  The tales about Tuscan food are NOT overblown.  Last night was grilled red and yellow pepper strips with garlic, capers and parsley; Tuscan bread topped with cheese and walnuts; pasta with black cabbage and beans; roast beef with Tuscan herbs; green salad; chocolate cake with pears.  Our Italian cook is very proud of her work, and she should be.  Every meal she has cooked us (all from local organic sources) has been exquisite.  She doesn’t speak a word of English, but when we oooh and aaah she covers her heart with her hands and beams.  The quantity of food, especially the first course (pasta) and the dessert is always enough to feed us for two meals, plus a dessert breakfast for Jim.

Our food in restaurants has been equally good.  I’ve had three versions of my personal favorite, marrow bone – a braised veal shank with marrow intact – and all were excellent.  We’ve discovered that wild boar is best served as part of a sauce over pasta, also excellent.  We like the fat spaghetti (pici) that is often served with a tomato sauce, but all the pasta seems to be home made and extremely fresh.  And of course Bonell’s favorite, eggplant, comes smothered in cheese, or with a light tomato sauce, or packed tightly into a baking cup and turned out onto a plate when done, or sliced and marinated in oil and balsamic vinegar.  Margaret (a questioning soul) always orders the strange and unusual.  She has had braised rabbit (“quite delicious”) and truffles (she said the truffles did not quite live up to their hype).

The Tuscans like to combine chocolate with pears.  Big slices of fresh pears are baked inside chocolate cake, or folded with chocolate syrup inside flaky pastry before baking.

And hot news: we have discovered that the thick balsamic vinegar which pours like syrup – brand name Fini Glassa – is available from Amazon online, and it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.

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Castellari in Castellina in Chianti and beyond

We toured a winery yesterday – oh how beautifiul!  Bonell liked all the wines we tasted, but he has hardly ever met a wine he doesn’t like.  I’ll leave it at that.  Of course the countryside was exquisite and continues to amaze with each turn in the road – and there are lots of turns.  We drove to Castellina in Chianti – a lovely town – where we had lunch in a little piazza.  From there we went to the winery, having gotten directions from a shop keeper.

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Today we went to Firenze by train from Siena.  Yes, we saw the David.  Yes, we saw the doors of the Baptistry.  Yes, we went into the Duomo.  And yes, it was crowded and chaotic.  We can’t imagine what it would have been like in July.

Thanks to Sally and Joyce for the pictures below of David and the doors to the Baptistry.  The real doors are being restored and have been replaced by these fake ones.  Since we are “of an age,” none of us will see the real doors in our lifetime.

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The near neighborhood

We spent a relaxing day, doing laundry, reading, and being domestic godesses (and gods).  We replenished wine and food. Margaret, bless her name forever, did not lift a finger!! Yay!

We took walks down the road, we laid in the sun, we took a short drive to the estate of Basciano (a few houses).  We took pictures of the valley that was spectacularly beautiful, and we attended  the twilight of the sun with wine.  We dined on the fabulous leftovers of last night’s dinner, much better than a restaurant menu.

Bonell says, “Wish you all were here.”  Especially Russell and Christopher – and David and Scott.

Here are pictures of our home and close environs.

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Volterra – sweet and high

Volterra is truly a mountain town. Not touristy and very charming, and parking is easy.  Just the right amount of shopping for Sally and me, and a nice museum for the Dentons, Joyce and Margaret.  It has two specialties – first, it is the site of Etruscan artifacts and ruins, and second, local artisans create and export beautiful alabaster bowls, plates, statues, and anything else they can think of.  We had a nice lunch on the relatively unpopulated and simple town square, and I must say the food has been excellent everywhere in Tuscany.  Bonell indulged his happy travel hobby of introducing himself to strangers and asking them about themselves.  I continued my travel hobby of photographing everything and everyone.  Sally loves shopping for purses and found one in Volterra.  She says she may buy another one before we’re done.

The drive up to the town offered spectacular scenery.  We kept saying “Ooooo, look there!” and “Aaaah, pull over Margaret!”  And she did, bless her.  There were lots of windy roads and hairpin turns, but M. is a very good driver!!

Today we slept late and drove around to see the local towns.  Our lunch in Quercegrossa (this is the first day any of us has been able to pronounce that one) was excellent – way beyond our expectations.  Sally had fried potatoes a la grandma (yes, the real name) that were out of this world, and if I’d had the nerve I’d have licked the peccorino cheese which covered my spinach ravioli right off my plate.  We’ve been having our big meal at mid-day and mostly snacking at night, with the addition of hearty salads.  Sally discovered an excellent sweet biscotti with peppers, loved by all but Joyce, and we have a good supply of Italian sausages and cheeses.

We are all happy with the accommodations at the villa – a complex of old stone buildings.  Sally and Jim are in the restored barn.  Margaret is in the guest house with a tower lookout bedroom from which she can view the sunrise.  The Dentons are in one second floor bedroom of the main house, and Joyce is in the other.  I am on the third floor in a lovely room with three beds.  The other good part of that is lots of stair exercise.  Thirty-seven steps up to bed and down in the morning, half those back and forth to use the john in the night.  Less huffing and puffing now than when we first arrived.  Yay!

Tonight we are not snacking.  We have ordered another dinner from our cook:  crostini with tomatoes, grilled zucchini, pici with meat sauce, chicken cacciatori, grilled zucchini, and tiramisu.  In our experience, that meal will feed us all for two days.

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Siena again: The backways, up and down, and getting lost on foot

IMG_5153  We are arguing about which cab driver was the best – the bigger Mercedes today, or the littler car two days ago that took us on a fun-house ride better than Disney could provide. In any case, we have the way into Siena down pat.  From the train station we take a taxi into the old part of the city (the cathedral or the campo).  Rustling up a cab to get back after 4 pm is a little trickier, but we managed it both days.

Our new experience today was getting lost on foot.  You really can’t count on Italian road signs or guideposts to say the right thing.  You are going towards the Duomo, and you meet someone coming back your way who says, “I can’t find the Duomo.”  Uh-oh.  Soo, we took a tour of Siena on foot we wouldn’t have taken otherwise.  We saw teenagers pracIMG_5172ticing their flag-waving (the rhinocerouses and the mollusks (Jim says he hates the mollusks but really likes the turtles). There are 17 districts in Siena, each with a different mascot.

We also fell in love with a Sienese waitress today.  Both men were drooling, and possibly a woman or two. Bonell was able to get his favorite dish again – aubergine parmesan – and I was able to get pasta with a wild boar sauce – delicious.

We were all impressed with the art in the Baptistry and the Crypt.  No photos allowed in the Crypt, but you’ll see some photos of the Baptistry below.  Did you know, people IMG_5168 - Copycouldn’t attend Mass in the Cathedral until they had been baptized?  They went to a prayer service in the Baptistry instead.

We spend most of our evenings cooking, talking, eating, laughing and drinking wine.  Tonight was a delicious salad.

We do have some “out-takes” for private review, but I have not had enough wine to include them here.


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IMG_5008Ah, serendipity.  We were on our way to Volterra, when our Driver (Margaret) said “Hell with it, let’s go to Monteriggioni,” and turned off the road.  We thought it would be a two-hour detour at most.  Turns out this is the most charming little town, apparently undiscovered by Rick Steves, that we could possibly have imagined.  Excellent lunch with exotic wild boar and the worst wine so far (white was good though).  The osso bucco (marrow bone) was totally as good as I remembered.

In contrast to Siena, the Romanesque church is small and simple, just beautiful.  Nancy calls it “the city of cats.”  A bonus: we discovered the resident cat sleeping under a sign that said in two languages, “Do not touch. I am having some rest.  Thank you.”  No the cat was not dead.  We saw it flick an ear, and Margaret saw it get up and stretch.  It is cared for by the entire village.  Possibly it eats pigeons too – there are lots of those.  Anyway, he was not the lean and hungry type.

We loved the view from the hilltop and city walls.  We stayed the rest of the day.

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