Tuscany A week in may 2017

Saturday

Left home at 2am to catch our 6am flight out of Gatwick. Why is it that some people think it's normal to carry their entire possessions with them on the plane. The man ahead of me at Gatwick had a medium sized suitcase as carry on, a giant bum bag, cargo jacket and pants and a back pack. I was fuming because it took him ages to unload at security, but we're now in Jamie Oliver's having breakfast.

The EasyJet flight into Pisa was straightforward and I slept most of the way except when woken by the incessant chatter from three American women in the row behind.

It took us a few minutes to find the sign for car rentals but we recognised where we were going when on the right track. We've been here many times.

The new FIAT 500 was waiting for us - the Hertz gold status makes just a little bit of difference. It started to rain and kept raining all the way over to Florence but not enough to be a problem.

We'd decided to call into a discount shopping centre we'd been to before to have a walk and lunch. As we approached it was clear where their market lies. The direction signs are in Japanese, Korean and Chinese. And there were a lot of Asians walking around. I think they prized the carrier bags as much as what they bought because the carriers had see through covers. Not seen that before.

Gucci for lunch.

Salad?

Just a sandwich and coffee.

Pink shoes

There are some wonderful designer stores here. And Jayne loved these Gucci loafers. They were half price but still €450. Lucky I'm well practiced at saying "no".

Next leg of the journey took us south of Arezzo and on to our hotel for the week.

Our hotel perched on a hill

The hotel propaganda says - the breathtaking landscape of the Val di Chiana hills is the setting for Borgo Tre Rose, a charming country hotel perched on the top of a hill and surrounded by the vineyards of a winemaking estate. Borgo Tre Rose is the perfect spot for an unforgettable holiday suffused with the aromas and flavours of the most authentic Tuscany, in the magical atmosphere of a medieval building. The fragrant landscape of the Tuscan countryside, where rolling hills bejewelled with vineyards and olive groves alternate with gentle slopes covered in flowers, is the scene that greets visitors to Borgo Tre Rose, a country hotel located in Montepulciano, a few minutes from Cortona, Pienza, Montalcino and Siena. The privileged position of the Borgo, nestled in the gorgeous Tre Rose Estate, provides you with an authentic wine experience; these vineyards spread over 5 hills yield Nobile di Montepulciano, a wine of the highest quality, which was the first in Italy to receive DOCG recognition. Staying in Borgo Tre Rose is an invitation to discover the wonders of Val di Chiana, Val d’Orcia and the Crete Senesi, starting from nearby Montepulciano and travelling to Cortona, Pienza, Montalcino and on to Siena.

This is going to be good. Oh, and there is a wedding taking place.

Climbed the hill of Montepulciano looking for somewhere to eat because the wedding party had taken over the hotel restaurant.

What a great view from our table. We had to bring half a bottle of wine back with us, we'd forgotten that Barrie and Marina weren't with us this time.

Sunday

Breakfast then a drive down to the lake for a walk. We stopped at a shore-side cafe and had two cappuccinos and they only charged €2.40. Love the price of the coffee.

Drove off to Cortona. Well actually it's up to Cortona because of it being on top of a hill.

We parked and walked into the town, luckily we had some change for the car parking meter. I was surprised by the number of Americans here. All of an age and no doubt doing a European tour. We had to call into the clothes store as you enter the main steet just as a reminder of the hour Marina spent there on our first trip to Cortona. Further along the street we walked down some side street steps into a paintings shop. Some lovely work on display but the piece we really liked was €1750 unframed. Ah well.

Further along and through the main square another art gallery was selling sculptures; all based on the tree of life.

Engineered patina on bronze with gold olives. The piece separates into two revealing a man and a woman. If Jayne had her credit card she'd have bought this.

Couldn't spend more than a couple of hours in Cortona because we didn't have any more coins for the parking meter. Decided to drive around the lake and stop for lunch somewhere. Lots of Lycra louts on bikes, must be a National sport. Stopped at Torricella. .

It couldn't have been better. We asked for a table outside because the sun was beaming down and it was quite warm - an English summers day. The other clients were wearing coats over thick sweaters over woolly tops. To the locals 20° is cold I suppose. Buffalo mozzarella, tomatoes, meats was a great reintroduction to Italian food.

Continued our trip around the lake and came across a cashmere factory with an outlet store but with it being Sunday it was closed. We have this marked for a trip during the week since it's only half an hour away from the hotel.

Dinner in the hotel tonight and we're going to try their house wine grown on the hillside. Montepulciano Nobile.

Three sheep cheeses with honey to start. Linguine with mushrooms followed by beef then a rather German coffee cake with cream. All washed down with a bottle of Montepulciano Nobile made here at the vineyard.

It was nice not driving. and we were treated to a marvellous sunset. That said, the restaurant is great for breakfast but a bit stark for a romantic dinner with the missus. Quite light and echoey and the waitress was clearly bored with only three tables to look after but that didn't stop us having a nice time.

Monday
Breakfast?

Started the day with a continental breakfast of cheese ham eggs and pastries. Should keep me going till lunch time.

We're following a tour today of Val d'Orcia today. I downloaded the area from GOOGLE maps and whilst I know I have a thing against GOOGLE, they do a good job with maps. I'd created the route at home and mailed it myself so it was easy just retrieving it. An awful lot better that arguing about which way we should go based on a paper map. That said, one of my first tasks today was apologising to Jayne because I was somewhat short when we used the map from Pisa airport. Ah well.

The first stop was Buonconvento, a small medieval walled town considered among one of the most beautiful villages in Italy. It was a stop for travelers along the ancient Via Francigena but was also an important center for trade in the area. Time seems to have stopped inside the walls with its historical, red brick buildings standing tall. Like many of these medieval towns, you get to it through surrounding modern buildings.

After Buonconvento you enter into the Val d'Orcia area: there are few other places that are able to impress the traveler so deeply. It is almost a surreal and suspended land, which is home to the most precious and appreciated Italian wines: the Brunello di Montalcino, the Nobile di Montepulciano, the Rosso Orcia, and other superb and fine wines with the protective DOCG denomination. We've not been here before and the scenery is stunning.

Our second stop is Montalcino, the city of Brunello. You arrive into town right by the old fortress, or Rocca, from the 14th century. We didn't climb the ramparts and enjoy the incredible view of the surroundings since we had a great view from the ground level without paying a fee. We walked though the town and stoped for coffee. Well I had coffee and Jayne tried the local wine. It's a nuisance when there are so many to choose from and all created locally. Decided on a lighter red that was perfect for a sunny morning.

Next stop was San Quirico, but the guide says to be prepared to stop shortly before you arrive in town: a perfect photo opportunity of the classic Val d'Orcia landscape presents itself along the Via Cassia road. You're likelyto see the most-photographed copse of cypress trees in all of Tuscany right along the road as well as many other cars stopped off the road - make sure to stop yourself!

We certainly saw the cypress trees and stoped along with a tour bus of Japanese. They didn't spoil the view. Stunning.

We parked the car near the walls of the medieval town of San Quirico, another town along the Via Francigena. We walked into the town past the beautiful Collegiata of the Saints Quirico and Giulitta, the Horti Leonini gardens and along the main street . The place was closed and deserted so we decided to find somewhere for lunch. A small cafe by the main street looked to have a garden so that's where we went. It was huge and absolutely packed. Most of the town must have been there. We just had salad - too much as per usual - but the man on the next table was having a florentine steak. It looked amazing and something to try later in the week.

As we headed toward Pienza we found another photo-opportunity of classic Tuscany.

The small hilltop village of Pienza is a real jewel known as the "Ideal City": a unique Renaissance monument designed by the great Pope Pius II, with its narrow winding streets and the beautiful Palazzo Piccolomini which belonged to the pope's family. The palazzo itself merits a visit, as well as the cathedral and town hall that surround the main square, all built to represent how man could build the ideal city around himself. One of the main attractions of this small town is the pecorino cheese. The Pecorino of Pienza is a tasty cheese made from sheep's milk, renowned worldwide and delicious, which can go from a delicate flavor to a decisive one based on how aged it is. The town streets are full of small charming shops selling a large quantity of various types of pecorino, from fresh to aged pecorico, that you can taste together with a number of other typical local products, such as fine wines, spices, pici (handmade pasta). We called into one of the stores and bought a couple of cheeses to take home. We walked around the walls behind the cathedral to enjoy amazing views of the Val d'Orcia as far away as Monte Amiata. This is somewhere we'll be coming again.

Monday is not a good night for restaurants so we went to the lake and a local cantina. Pizza for me. Linguine for Jayne.

Tuesday

The plan for today is a little light shopping so we're off the Valdichiana shopping outlet.

Turns out that it's just like other outlet malls but a tad more expensive than usual. The best stop was at StickHouse (stickhousesrl.com) where they served amazing ice creams. Jayne had an ice cream lolly coated in strawberry ice then dipped in chocolate and covered with crushed pistachios but we could have shared an ice cream pizza.

Drove up to Arezzo to see the city life. It's always difficult when you don't know where your going except for instructions from the phone so here I am driving at 50 in a 60 limit and the woman behind who was on the phone was honking her horn and gesticulating that I should get a move on. I almost slammed on my brakes to see how she reacted but I didn't. Salad for lunch outside the basilica watching the super smooth locals. We called into a coffee bar for an espresso and the guy at the bar was dressed like Bryan except on full volume. His jeans were short revealing silk socks, highly polished brogues with blue laces. His jacked and double breasted waistcoat was in a light grey linen. Cool. I couldn't get a proper photo of him.

On the way home we called into the PAM store, the first supermarket we visited on our first ever trip to Tuscany. Great memories. Cheese, bread and cured meats bought for lunch tomorrow as well as a bottle of Prosecco.

Montepulciano for supper. We're definitely ahead of the season because many of the restaurants were closed. We persisted and climbed to the top of the town checking out the places that were open deciding which we'd choose. Came across a wine seller with a menu so gave it a try.

Chose a burger but not just an ordinary one. This was fresh ground beef cooked to order and served with pecorino cheese and truffles. Personal mini bottles of ketchup and mayo. Washed it down with a glass of Montalcino served at 19° - I checked the dispenser. Superb.

Not McDonalds

We were almost the only people walking through the town as we headed back to the car. It felt a bit like Autumn, slightly cool and the smell of wood fires in the air.

Wednesday

The plan for the day is to relax by the pool after visiting the cashmere factory. The staff are out pruning the vines. It must take days to get through the acres of plantation.

Off to the Fioroni cashmere store. I know that this is marvellous cashmere but €200 to €300 for a sweater is beyond my budget.

Coffee by Del Lago. A macchiato, cappuccino and a chocolate twist for €3.30 is what I'd call good value.

Back to the hotel pool for a rest. On the way we came across an olive grove and adjoining field that were covered in poppies. The next time we drove by they'd gone.

The water is very cold, too cold to swim I think - maybe not. We've just had an invasion of Japanese tourists photographing everything. We'll be in their holiday snaps.

It must be time for lunch. We bought cheese, ham and bread ( and prosecco) at the PAM store in Arezzo. Jayne stayed by the pool whilst I arranged lunch. Well I opened a few packets and a bottle so no real effort on my part. Sat on the veranda watching the swifts (or swallows) catch flies. Heavenly. .

By the pool again this afternoon then a little painting. Drove to Cortona to look at the sculptures again, buy a cashmere wrap and have supper. Wrap bought. Art gallery closed. Sat in the square watching the world go by drinking Aperol spritzers.

It was still early to eat for the Italians, it was 7pm so walked the town exploring more local rather than tourist areas. Came across a completely different car park that you would have to know was there and a vegetable market. Headed back into the town trying to decide which restaurant to pick. It turns out we picked one owned by a local celebrity chef, Silvia Barrachi. Oh my, what a good choice. Started with local meats, the fennel Finocchiona was amazing but the others were pretty good. I had spaghetti vongole and Jayne had a porchetta based ragu with linguine.

Coffee in a local bar where they served Illy coffee in "collectors" cups and had a display of the sculptures we'd seen earlier. 

Thursday

Back to Pienza and San Quirico today. First stop Pienza a tiny village high on a hill, dominating all the Orcia Valley with extraordinary views. This charming village is widely known as the "ideal city of the Renaissance", the creation of Enea Silvio Piccolomini who later became Pope Pius II. Piccolomini had the money and influence to transform his birthplace village, the humble Corsignano, into what he considered the Utopian city should be, exemplifying the principles and philosophy of classical times and of the great Italian Renaissance.

The project was designed by the architect Bernardo "il Rossellino" under the guidance of Leon Battista Alberti. In only 3 years, a group of amazing buildings were completed: the Cathedral, the Papal or Piccolomini Palace, the Town Hall, and the lovely central square onto which all of these buildings look. No end to what you can do if you have money and power like senior catholic clergy had, Piazza Pio II has a perfect shape which gives great dignity and solemnity to all of the surrounding buildings built in bright travertine stone. On one side of the square, you can admire a beautiful well, known as the "well of the dogs". The Duomo or Cattedrale dell'Assunta hosts very fine paintings by the most renowned artists. As you walk through the church you will notice the uneven floors, the unsettling cracks making their way across the paviment and little glass plates (like lab slides) glued to the walls. Actually, these have been replaced by modern technology sensors. The architects didn't calculate the effect of the weight of the cathedral and its impact on the foundation of the church and now the hilllside that it is built on is starting to "give way". The imposing Palazzo Piccolomini to the right of the Duomo has a fantastic Loggia with a delightful hanging garden from which you can enjoy unique and breathtaking views.

Of special note, the town also has numerous jewellery stores some selling tourist junk but many selling rather up market merchandise. Jayne kept saying things like "look at this David" and I started running out of excuses. It's not the right colour, a bit big isn't it, could be daintier, the other one was better.

What the guide books don't tell you is how many tourists and school parties there are in the town. Had to stop for coffee and cakes to calm the nerves. Typical of course, the coffee and cake was €8 rather than the €3 we spent the other day away from the tourists.

In one of the stores we saw they were selling salamis and had the special one - Finocchiona - from last evening. Something else for the suitcase. Lucky we came with capacity because I'd hate to pay excess baggage.

Off to San Quirico to avoid the tourists. It's just as pretty as Pienza but maybe not so busy. Walked the street before deciding It was time for lunch. Called into Trattoria Osenna and were given a delightful table under a canopy of wisteria. The guide says that the best of both worlds is mixing the pici (handmade spaghetti like pasta - with the cheese in the famous dish pici con cacio e pepe. So we shared a bruschetta then shared a pici con caio e pepe then pushed the boat out with a steak florentine. Oh my word. Like a Sunday joint on the bone.

A superb lunch but it would have been nicer with a glass of red wine. Unfortunately I was driving but that didn't stop Jayne. The sommelier had a novel device for pouring wine. Not seen one of these before.

Not wanting to be grumpy, but there should be a suitability test before you get a passport - are you going to be an embarrassment to your country. At the restaurant there was a mid 20's couple. Other than being borderline anorexic she was fine, actually she was almost silent thinking about it except when she ordered a green salad for lunch. He on the other hand he was a loud and brash New Yorker. Why did he think wearing a polo shirt, padded jacket, Lycra shorts and those trainers that look like gloves or gorilla feet, was a good idea. The waiter came over and he said loudly "no goddam bread" then "can I get a vegetable soup". No should have been the reply, you can't get a soup, that's my job, I get things, you politely order them. May I have a vegetable soup would have been acceptable. He could have looked up the Italian on his phone but he was more interested in an inflatable hammock. He was going to pay a cover charge whether he ate the bread or not. Can you believe it.

Friday

We decided to spend the morning relaxing rather than visiting somewhere that will only make me fatter. Jayne sat on the veranda reading whilst I messed with my photos then took a walk through the vineyard. 20° at 10am and rising by a degree every quarter of an hour. Maybe I should have set off earlier because I seem to be leaking.

Much of the hillside is cultivated but where it's not for vines it seems to be natural pasture that they harvest, perhaps to feed the pigs for the salami.

We're off to the local village shop to buy lunch/fetch some wine. The local store had everything you need. If they didn't have it you didn't need it. Really interesting to see what looked like lots of local produce and not a lot of packaging. Bought odd shaped big tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, aubergines in oil, a chunk of bread, salami slices - enough for lunch.

Didn't buy the rabbit because we didn't feel like cooking. Pool this afternoon.

Since it was our last night we went back to Montepulciano to see if the restaurant we ate in 6 years ago was open. It wasn't. We decided on an aperol spritzer at the Caffe Poliziano overlooking the valley.

On the way up the hill Jayne had seen a restaurant she thought looked quirky so that's where we headed. Ordered a glass of Montalcino for me and a Montepulciano for Jayne whilst we read the menu. In the background we heard the "waiter" (actually the owner Pier) singing to a table so we realised we'd found the restaurant we had been looking for but it had moved. Pier came to our table and started singing opera to Jayne and I showed him a photo from 6 years ago. We became his best friends. It's amazing what technology allows you to do.

The food was excellent. We've got wise and over the past 3 or 4 days ordered courses we shared. Tonight was the meat and cheese board again followed by mushroom and truffle gnocchi with wild boar and polenta as a main. The wild boar had been marinated in Montepulciano wine for a day and then slowly cooked for 5 hours. Our best friend brought a bottle of vincanto sweet wine as desert.

We will be back.

Fly home tomorrow so it's an early start.Just as advice to fellow traveller, there must be something in the air. All my clothes seem to have shrunk.

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