Tuesday, October 23, and Wednesday, October 24
Our Untour to southern Tuscany began on Tuesday, October 23, 2007. Seven good friends traveled together for this memorable trip—Deb and Stan Graczyk of Farmington Hills, Michigan; Sherri Masson of Milford, Michigan; Jill and Scott McKinney of Rochester Hills, Michigan; and Jean and Kurt Struckmeyer of Geneva, Illinois. Except for Jean and me, all of the others had been to Europe at least once before. This was our first trip and we were very excited.
We flew from Chicago to Milan on a direct flight, while the Michigan contingent flew from Detroit to New York and then to Milan. We met in the Milan airport on the morning of Wednesday, October 24, tired and sleepless.
After a shuttle flight to Florence, we were met by Harriet Gussoni, transported by bus to Siena, and then traveled by rental car about 25 minutes south to Buonconvento, a medieval walled town of about 3,000 people.
On the final stage, we were guided to our apartments at the Poggio alla Rose agritourismo outside of Buonconvento by our landlady, Elisabetta Cresti. Six of us stayed in apartment Poggio Rose 1 and the seventh in Poggio Rose 3. The apartments were charming, cozy and comfortable, and the setting was simply outstanding.
We settled into our rooms and then shared a dinner of wine, prosciutto, salami, cheese, bread, apples and almonds around a cheerful fire in the fireplace.
Thursday, October 25
Our adventures began on Thursday morning. We met Harriet Gussoni for an orientation and lunch at the Fattoria Pieve a Salti, which is a working organic farm, agriturismo and restaurant. The afternoon on Thursday was quiet—shopping for groceries at the Buonconvento Coop supermarket, walking the roads in the area around our agriturismo, and napping for jet-lag. We had dinner at the Osteria da Ducca in Buonconvento. I tried pasta with wild boar sauce followed by a pork dish translated as “drunken piglet.”
Friday, October 26
On Friday morning we drove to the town of Montepulciano. The day was misty and overcast, but it didn’t dampen our spirits. This was our first exposure to a Tuscan hill town and we loved it.
After a brief tour of the town, we had lunch at La Dolce Vita, a combination enoteca (wine store) and restaurant, enjoying a simple meal of bruschetta, ribolitta (a Tuscan bean soup) and the famous wine of Montepulciano—Vino Nobile. Later, we returned to the main plaza at the top of the town to tour the winery at Cantina Contucci. In the tasting room, we met the proprietor, Adamo, who was featured in Rick Steve’s guide to Tuscany. He was very charming, autographing our guidebook, posing for pictures, and offering samples of his wines. We bought a bottle of his best Vino Nobile, a 2001 Reserve.
Then we headed back to Buonconvento for a light dinner at our apartment.
Saturday, October 27
The day began with a visit to the open air market which is held each Saturday in Buonconvento. The weather was sunny and pleasant. At the meat market in town, we purchased some prepared pork loin for dinner. Then we walked to Ristorante I Poggioli where we had lunch on the terrace. (This was soon to become our favorite restaurant in Buonconvento.)
In the afternoon, we drove to Pienza, the ideal Renaissance city of Pope Pius II. We toured the town and its shops, and had coffee at Caffé la Posta across from the church. From Pienza, we went on an uneventful hunt for the local hot springs. We drove to the town of Bagno Vignoni, but found that the mineral springs there—at least the ones that we could access—were cool, not warm. We heard that a bit farther south in Bagni San Filippo we could find hot springs, but on arrival we found only a private spa. Somewhere nearby was supposed to be a path to free natural hot water pools, but we could not locate it. As it was getting late, we gave up our search and returned to our apartments for a candlelit dinner on the terrace.
We dined on pasta with tomato and basil, sautéed peppers, and pork loin. Then we shared our bottle of Vino Nobile from Montepulciano in memory of a dear friend who had recently passed away.
Sunday, October 28
On Sunday, we drove to Montalcino for the Sagra del Tordo (the Festival of the Thrush). Every year for centuries, the four quarters of the town compete in an archery contest. Each neighborhood is represented by distinctive colors—Pianelle (blue and white), Ruga (blue and yellow), Borghette (red and white), and Travaglio (red and yellow).
The town was crowded and parking was scarce. We managed to find parking spaces about a mile uphill from the town. After exploring part of the town, we joined the locals for roasted chestnuts and lunch at a tent set up in the Ruga quarter. There we had a simple, but delicious meal of brace mista (a plate of mixed grilled meats) and a glass of the excellent local wine, Rosso di Montalcino. Then we strolled through the other charming quarters of the town. In mid-afternoon we heard the sound of drums and saw processions of citizens dressed in 14th century medieval costumes winding through the streets from different quarters, all headed to the plaza at the top of the town.
They gathered inside the city hall and then, as a group, processed back through the town to the soccer field outside of the fortress walls. We followed the procession and the crowds to the field. Teams of archers from each quarter competed by shooting at targets shaped like wild boars. In the end, the archers from Quartiere Ruga won the competition and the partying began, lasting late into the night. As the sun descended, we found a bar in a secluded courtyard for another glass of Rosso di Montalcino. Then we headed back up the hill to our cars and returned to Buonconvento for dinner at Ristorante I Poggioli.
Monday, October 29
In the morning we drove to Siena, parked at the Porte Tufi garage, and walked to the Piazza del Campo for cappuccino and brioche at a café on the plaza.
We walked through the town, checked out the many shops, and toured the magnificent Duomo. Lunch was at a small Pizzaria Ristorante. In the late afternoon, we returned to Buonconvento, shopped for groceries, and then grilled sausages and sautéed peppers for dinner. We sampled two Montalcino wines—a Rosso and a Brunella.
Tuesday, October 30
In the morning, the four women in our group took a cooking class arranged by Lesley Smith of Taste Tuscany in her house in the tiny town of La Befa.
They learned to make bruschetta with garlic and cherry tomatoes, crostini with radicchio and gorgonzola, a sweet onion tart, handmade pici pasta with pesto and tomatoes, saltimbocca, peas and pancetta, and tiramisu. At the same time the three men in our group drove to Montalcino to shop for more wine. We joined the women in time to sample their excellent 5-course lunch, accompanied by Rosso di Montalcino and Brunella di Montalcino wines and a Vin Santo with dessert. We then spent the afternoon and evening back at our apartments with a light dinner of snacks and wine.
Wednesday, October 31
On Halloween day, we toured the Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore, the motherhouse of the Oliveto Benedictine order. This was an event sponsored by Untours and was coordinated by our contact person, Harriet Gussoni.
Harriet arranged for a tour guide—a charming young man named Lucca—who helped us appreciate and enjoy the wonderful frescoes (circa 1500) on the life of St. Benedict which were begun by Luca Signorelli and completed by Giovanni Bazzi, known as Il Sodoma. Lunch was onsite at the Ristorante La Torre di Monte Oliveto in the abbey’s gatehouse tower. We returned to our apartments and, in the afternoon, some members of our group hiked the roads surrounding our agriturismo. At a graveyard at the nearby Pieve a Piana—a 1,000 year-old church—they found that each grave had been decorated with fresh flowers to prepare for Ognissanti (All Saints Day) on November 1st.
In the evening, we drove to the Tabacchi in Buonconvento to purchase train tickets to Florence for the following day. In the early evening darkness, small children were walking the streets in Halloween costumes, dressed as witches and vampires. Halloween is now becoming increasingly popular in Italy. We had a fine dinner at Ristorante Da Mario, where our host asked us, “What means this Halloween?”
Thursday, November 1
In the morning, we took the train from Buonconvento to Florence, about a two-hour, 130-kilometer ride. Florence was bustling with people because Ognissanti is a national holiday. We walked to the Galleria d’Accademi to see Michelangelo’s David, but thought the lines were too long. So, we purchased admission tickets for the following Wednesday, when we would be returning to Florence for our last night in Tuscany. Then we walked to the Duomo and Baptistry before heading to the Ponte Vecchio.
At 1:30, we arrived at the Uffizi, our scheduled time for admission, having purchased tickets weeks in advance. After a 90-minute tour we slowly walked back in the direction of the train station, window-shopping, and stopping for sandwiches at a bar along the way. When we arrived back in Buonconvento about 7:00 PM that evening, we walked from the train station to nearby Ristorante I Poggioli for dinner.
Friday, November 2
After a breakfast of omelets at Poggio alla Rose, we drove to the little town of Montisi which was holding its annual Primo Olio e Altro Ancora (First Oil and More) festival. Some of Italy's most highly prized olive oil producers are based in Montisi and the nearby villages. We sampled various oils—light and dark—and purchased bottles from three different vendors. Lunch was at another festival stand, this one indoors, set up by the residents of the Castello quarter. I sampled their crostini, bistecca di maiele (pork chop), table wine and assorted desserts.
Quite by accident, we discovered the home and studio of painter Elizabeth Cochrane. Elizabeth had moved to Tuscany from Great Britain in 1997 and now lives and works in Montisi. She invited us in and showed us her collection of watercolor and oil paintings of the Tuscan landscape. Unable to afford her original artwork, we left with several posters from her exhibits. On our way out of town, we stopped at Terrecotte Artistiche Senesi, a large ceramics factory, where several members of our group purchased small terra cotta tiles and plaques from its charming proprietor Giuseppe Lorenzetti. We then drove to the town of San Quirico d’Orcia, arriving near sundown. After a brief look and a bit of shopping, we returned to our apartment for another dinner of sausages grilled over a wood fire.
Saturday, November 3
On Saturday, we drove north to the famed town of San Gimignano, with its many towers, which we explored for about four hours. We had been warned about a glut of tour buses and tourists, but did not experience that. We had lunch in town at the Ristorante La Griglia. In the late afternoon, we returned to Buonconvento and had a glass of wine at our apartment at Poggio alla Rose. Then we headed into town for dinner. However, because this was a holiday weekend, neither Ristorante I Poggioli nor Osteria la Via de Mezzo could accommodate us without reservations. So we tried Charlie’s Pub, a sports bar, where we had beer and pizza in a warm and cheerful atmosphere.
Sunday, November 4
In the morning, we drove into Buonconvento and visited their excellent Museo della Mezzadria (Museum of Sharecropping) which gives a detailed picture of the lives of Tuscan peasants in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the Italian system of sharecropping, wealthy landowners provided housing for peasant families in return for 50% of the crops that were grown on the owner’s land. Leaving the museum, we walked through the town and stopped to make reservations at the Osteria la Via de Mezzo for dinner later that night. We also visited a nearby gellateria and pasticceria to purchase pastries. We then headed to the tiny town of Murlo, an ancient Etruscan center with a fabulous restaurant—the Ristorante Pizzaria dell Arco. After lunch we drove over mountainous roads to the Abbazia di San Galgano, a ruined Cistercian abbey, built at the beginning of the 13th century and abandoned by the 18th century when the bell tower and roof collapsed.
Returning home in the evening, we encountered a spectacular sunset along the mountain road. Dinner was at the Osteria la Via de Mezzo in Buonconvento.
Monday, November 5
On Monday, we returned to Montepulciano. This was the first hill town we had visited in Tuscany, but our previous visit had been marred somewhat by rainy weather. After touring the town and its many shops, with breaks for espresso and wine (Vino Nobile), we headed back to the town of San Quirico d’Orcia. We had previously visited San Quirico near the end of the day and wanted more time in this town also. At the Trattoria Bar Osenna, we all shared plates of antipasti and the house wine for lunch.
In the evening, we returned to Buonconvento, shopped for groceries at the Coop, and then prepared a dinner of grilled beef and sausage kabobs, roasted potatoes, and sautéed peppers. And of course, we drank wine. This led to an impromptu sing-along with recordings of Andrea Bocelli and Giuseppe Verdi.
Tuesday, November 6
This was our packing and cleaning day. On Wednesday we were heading to a hotel in Florence. We had to figure out how to carry all of our purchases home on the plane with minimal damage. That evening, we had a final dinner in the evening at Ristorante I Poggioli in Buonconvento.
Wednesday, November 7
In the morning, we met our landlady, Elisabetta Cresti, at the apartment for a final farewell, and then drove north to Florence.
We tried to find our way to the Hotel Pendini where we mistakenly believed we had reservations. However, the one-way streets of Florence frustrated our progress. We finally parked the cars and walked about 6 blocks to the hotel. We then discovered that our reservations were actually at Hotel Basilea, which the management of Hotel Pendini also owned. They gave us good driving directions and we arrived at the correct hotel. After checking into our rooms, the men in our group returned the rental cars to the Avis garage. The directions provided by the hotel personnel led us to a dead end street, but we eventually found our way, and then walked backed to the hotel. We split up for lunch and afternoon sightseeing, meeting at the Galleria d’Accademi at 3:00 PM, to see Michelangelo’s David. We split up again, meeting back at the hotel in the evening to go to a nearby restaurant for dinner.
Thursday, November 8
We arose early in the morning and took cabs to the airport at 5:15 AM. After cappuccino and brioche at the airport, we flew to Milan on a 7:40 flight. Then Jean and I boarded a flight to Chicago, while the rest of our group flew to New York and then on to Detroit. We all arrived home exhausted, but filled with memories of our wonderful trip to Tuscany.