Under the Tuscan Influence

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To celebrate our 20th anniversary, my husband and I headed off on a road trip throughout Tuscany armed with healthy appetites, friends’ recommendations of wineries and restaurants to visit, a GPS, and no kids. It was our first road trip in about 18 years, Russia not really being conducive to road trips and the jaunts between Chicago and my hometown in central IL in the years BR not really counting.

(In my book a road trip is defined as a trip where the process of getting to one’s destination is as enjoyable as the destination itself. One doesn’t exactly mechanically meander down Route 88, stopping to smell the corn stalks with two – often screaming – toddlers in the car.)

(Speaking of those toddlers, those now teens were thrilled to be “on their own” for an entire week…although they did try to pretend that they would miss us. I saw right through them, though.)

(And they were not “on their own.” Ha! As if I don’t have enough gray hair as it is. We had our trusted babysitter stay with them. Granted, she probably has a few more gray hairs after the week.)

First treat: A FREE upgrade to Business Class on our flight to Rome. Champagne before takeoff. Seriously good airplane food, I kid you not. Even the turbulence felt better in Business Class.

(Of course, ignorance is bliss; it doesn’t always pay to know what life is like in the cabin up front when one’s normal reality is the cabin in back.)

We arrived to Rome, and even if I had been deaf to the Italian being spoken around me, the Mozzarella Bar in the airport would’ve given away our location.

(And if that hadn’t clued us in, then the cappuccinos we had in a roadside gas station on the way from Rome to Florence would have. Better than most I have had in nice restaurants. The rich, frothy milk topping was probably an inch high. Yum.)

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Luggage and rental car were acquired without too much drama. Of course, the car Thrifty assigned us wasn’t exactly what we had pictured when we envisioned cruising throughout the Tuscan countryside.

Meet our French Ferrari:

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Just as well since our slow speed would have brought shame to a real Ferrari, had we been so lucky to have one.

(In a fit of delusion, when we were planning our trip, we did check rental prices for a Ferrari. $1500/day. Riiiiggghhht.)

Based on our 4-hour journey from Rome to Florence, I will give you one driving tip if you ever come to Italy: Do NOT linger in the left lane. Not unless you want to be able to count the hairs on the middle finger that is being waved at you by the driver in your rearview mirror.

(Having counted a few hairy fingers during the trip, I was very ready for the Chianti that met us upon our arrival at the first of the two hotels we had booked for the week.)

The hotel we stayed at the first four nights was Castello de Nero. Oh. My. We arrived at night and seeing the “castle” and its steep stones walls lit up with lights, Cypress trees standing like sentinels around the grounds, and smelling the hedge of Sage that led to the massive front door, brought to mind one word: Majestic.

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The view in the morning was no less astonishing. I’ll leave it to the pictures to tell the story. However, let me just say this: if you take all that you have seen of Tuscany in films, pictures from travel guides, add in your highest expectations, and conjure up an image of what you think Tuscany would look like, the reality would be even more beautiful.

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(By the way, the photos were, again, taken by my iPhone. Yes, I left the camera at home. Yes, maybe that was silly. Yes, I had this conversation with my husband.)

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Day 1:
Late wake up (Well, I really tried my hardest to wake up late. Normally if I sleep in until 7AM on a weekend, that’s late. Blame it on the 7AM school bus routine. I did manage to extend my lie-in until 8:15 Istanbul time – 7:15 local time – which was pretty good. Except we went to bed at 1AM.) Ran to the small neighboring village of Tignano. Not where I had planned to go, but it didn’t matter; the view was breathtaking at every turn. A leisurely breakfast, including another yummy cappuccino creation. Leisurely road trip and lunch in Castellana in Chianti (Antico Trattoria La Torre: bruschetta; guinea fowl with porcini mushrooms and shaved truffles; Brolio wine; espresso). Leisurely nap. Leisurely dinner at Osteria di Passignano, owned by the Antinori family and housed in an old monastery*.

(I won’t bore you with the intricate details of all menus, but this one is worth repeating:

  • Duck “cube” with a terrine of duck liver and a carpaccio of duck breast with a berry-flavoured polenta wafer – Wine: Conte della Vipera 2011
  • Porcini mushroom crepes parcels on a cream of potatoes with parmesan cheese droplets – Wine: Noble Riserva S.Pia 2007
  • Beef tagliata with a zucchini flan and a light bell pepper and balsamic vinegar sauce – Wine: Badia a Passignano Riserva 2008
  • Juniper-scented roast pigeon breast, on wild mint-flavoured potatoes, and its crunchy drumstick accompanied by a dried fruit tartlet – Wine: Tignanello 2010
  • Selection of cheeses with various honeys and brioche bread – Wine: Brunello Pian delle Vigne 2008

In a word? Scrumptious. The food, too.

A grappa before bed was needed to help digest all of that.

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Day 2:
Slept until 8:30AM! Leisurely breakfast. Leisurely walk around the grounds (the hotel grounds is approximately 400 acres…combination of forest, olive groves, old stone buildings; wild flowers). After our walk, we drove to Greve where we were surprised by a lively, local festival. We enjoyed another lovely lunch (Ristorante da Verrazzano: antipasto; ravioli stuffed with chestnuts; gnocchi in wild boar sauce; fresh bread; wine) amidst the bustling activity in the piazza. Went back to the hotel and napped for two hours (!). Then up for a run among the olive trees. Then dinner at lovely local osteria (La Gramola: polenta with porcini mushrooms; antipasto; veal stew with white beans; roasted saddle with grapes; grilled vegetables; Poggio al chiuso Chianti 2010).

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(I apologize for the lack of food photos up to this point. I kept tucking in before I remembered to take photos!)

Day 3:
Another lie-in (9:00AM!). Another leisurely breakfast. Long, leisurely run on forest trails meandering across the property. Drove to Siena using the country roads (more breathtaking scenery). Parked (finally) and made the long, steep climb up to the centro of Siena. Before you reach the prize, you have no idea of the Italian Brigadoon awaiting you, excluding the impressive cathedrals that flank the village on different sides. You climb, climb, climb and then, all of a sudden, behind the tall stone walls, you are met by a teeming village, full of small, quaint pottery shops, high fashion stores, cafes, ristorantes, large piazza, wine shops, and gelatto stands, all peppered along the winding, cobblestone streets.

Of course, after that long climb up, we had to treat ourselves to a gelatto. I apologize now for all the times I have said that I wasn’t impressed by Italian ice cream. Mea culpa. I had three flavors: cherry, dark chocolate and stracciatella. Don’t let my plain descriptions fool you. It was pure gastronomic delight. After strolling (yes, leisurely) through Siena, we made our way back to Castello de Nero and a relaxing dinner at the hotel.

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(Are you picking up on the theme here? Relaxing…leisurely…no deadlines or schedules…no complaints…)

Day 4:
Waking up at 8AM seemed almost sinful but blame it on the noon checkout time. However, we took advantage of the few hours remaining in our Tuscan fortress to go running in the forest, have breakfast (leisurely, of course, with newspaper and coffee to top it off), and pack. Tomtom led us slowly to our next hotel in Castagneto Corducci, guiding us along meandering roads vs. the highway.

Just before reaching CC, we stopped for lunch at a “typical” roadside restaurant that turned out to be a Tuscan treat (another one). Owned and run by an older couple, the food was lovingly made by nonna’s own hands and served by nonno’s with a toothless smile. A Bruschetta mix (tomatoes; olives; pate; olive oil and garlic; and fat…I was inhaling the latter until my husband identified what it was…no, I am not counting calories – or fat grams – on this trip, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to finish the lard slathered crispy bread, no matter how good it tasted…and it tasted mighty fine, let me tell you).

(I left two bites. And drank more red wine. It assuaged my guilt, somewhat, at what I was putting my arteries through.)

Then, spaghetti with frutti de mare for my hubby and sliced beef served on rucola with olive oil and parmesan that reminded me of what olive oil and parmesan should actually taste like. A double espresso gave us a big enough jolt to finish the remainder of our trip.

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We pulled into our B&B on the edge of CC, overlooking the valley, with view to the sea, and we were met by a friendly labrador/Rottweiler mix by the name of Rocko and an Italian-only speaking housekeeper. Despite our lack of a common language, we managed to understand each other perfectly. After unpacking, we headed out to explore the village. Lovely. Charming. Quaint. Let me put it to you this way: I am pretty sure one could spend a lifetime exploring all of the beautiful, charming, quaint villages of Italy. We picked a pizzeria for dinner, and, despite not feeling a bit hungry, the wine from Bolgheri and the freshly baked pizza revitalized our appetites. The pizza didn’t stand a chance.

Day 5:
We were the only inhabitants of the B&B (Villa le Luci), housed in a hundred-year-old villa and operated by the owner, a son who inherited the property. High ceilings. Crown moldings. Artwork that probably should be in a museum. We had the privilege of being served breakfast in the kitchen: homemade cake made with Ricotta cheese, baked while we were dreaming; large croissants, crispy on the outside, steaming hot and soft in the inside and served with homemade preserves and local honey; an array of ripe, fresh fruit; and strong coffee served up in a silver pot. We passed on the cereals, hams, and cheeses also offered. (After all, despite our best attempts, we really must not break the seams of our clothes.) After breakfast, we drove an hour to Pisa to see the leaning tower, cathedral and baptistry; although, honestly, just strolling the medieval cobblestone streets was the real highlight.

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Despite it being mid-October, the streets were still full of tourists. Exploring small side streets away from the packed tourist areas, we stumbled upon (you already know what I am going to say) an amazing restaurant. Worthy of a Trip Advisor review, which I’ll get to after I clean out my inbox. The menu changes regularly according to what’s in season. We had autumn salad with beets, goat cheese, pumpkin seeds and fruit reduction dressing served over fresh spinach; beef tartare that was so fresh, you could almost hear the lingering moo (sorry, vegetarian friends); beetroot risotto; gnocchi with pumpkin and squid; and biscotti dipped in sweet, Tuscan wine. (The menu asks the guests to please be patient since all dishes are made fresh after they are ordered.)

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We waddled back to our car and to CC (well, the car didn’t waddle, but it probably sat a few inches lower to the ground) and a glass of wine on our room’s balcony where we could see the valley and the sea. Despite our large lunch, we managed to choke down dinner and enjoyed a nice stroll through the streets softly lit by the old-fashioned lampposts before heading to bed.

Day 6
Bright sun and clear skies greeted us when we awoke, as did more freshly baked pastries, fresh fruit salad, salami, cheese, bread and homemade jams. A frothy cappuccino delivered enough caffeine to our systems to propel us towards the beach, our destination of the day. The beach stretched out before us, wide and longer than our eyes could see, and almost deserted. We walked for a while, then ran, and then walked again, stopping along the way back for a light lunch. The restaurant, unlike the beach, was not deserted; and as the afternoon wore on, more and more sand walkers and shell seekers appeared.

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After lunch, back to the hotel for a short nap (one hour…we are on Italian time, after all) and then off to a local recommended restaurant for more yummy food made by nonna and served by her son.

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(See? It only took a week before I started pausing to take pictures before inhaling the food.)

Day 7
Final day before heading back to Istanbul. We repeated our run on the beach, then headed to the winery Argentiera for a tour and wine tasting. Beautiful, sprawling estate, enhanced by its closeness to the sea. On a clear day, you can see the island of Corsica.

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After the tasting, we stopped off at a local grocery store to buy some rare pork goodies to take back to Turkey and our ham-loving offspring. Our final dinner was spent in medieval village of Bolgheri, also a famous wine district.

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Needless to say, we had a wonderful time.

(And, yes, we did miss the boys.)

(And, no, I won’t be hopping onto the scale for quite a while…denial is the best defense!)

In summary, if you like good food, good wine, charming folk, and lovely, lovely vistas, head to Tuscany.

You might just even find some romance. ; )

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More information at:
* http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q2Ur2ewMlyw

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