Tuscany 2016

5th June 2016 - Radda Wine Festival

Our first full day in the Chianti region of Tuscany and we hear of a wine festival in the next village, sounded like a good way to get acquainted with Chianti's most famous product.

No public transport on a Sunday so we decided to walk; two and a half hours later we finally see Radda in the distance across the vineyards.

The black cock is the symbol of Chianti wine and as this year is their 600th anniversary Chianti Classico statues are everywhere.

The village is tiny but has over 30 wineries. 24 have stands in the old centre. We pay our 10 Euros to get a glass and start sampling.

Each winery wants to tell us about the winery and the grapes, we just want them to keep pouring samples into our glasses. Each winery has at least 3 wines and we sampled the wines from 12 of the 24 wineries on offer. The wine is OK, not a style I'd choose but drinkable. They do vary quite a lot though and some are much better than others.

After a few hours drinking in the sun we decide to head off and hitch-hiked home; we didn't fancy the walk :-) A great start to the holiday.

We are staying in a family home on the edge of Castellina in Chianti. It's surrounded by countryside and our host is a lovely lady who provides a fantastic sweet breakfast which we negotiate in Italian as she speaks very little English.

6th June 2016 - Siena

A must do on any visit to Tuscany is Siena. Siena is a step back in time with its gorgeous gothic architecture. Siena is effectively a giant, open-air museum to all things Gothic, beautiful buildings on beautiful squares, many filled with collections of Sienese art. This really is a tourist town though, every third door is a restaurant, enoteca (wine shop) or deli.

We wander the narrow streets looking into ant shops which look interesting. Many have free samples of their wares so we try so bread, cheese, chocolate and truffles.

Siena is lovely but after a few hours we'd seen enough. I'm sure if you went into all the churches and galleries you could spend days here but that's not for us. So we have a lovely lunch of a pannini (the standard sandwich in these parts) and some gelato and head back to the football stadium where we're parked.

6th June 2016 - San Grimignano

We drive up to San Grimignano through a torrential down-pour, a proper summer storm. But when we arrive in San Grimignano it's completely dry which is fortunate because this beautiful walled town allows no vehicles inside and it's a bit of a walk up.

From the Discover Tuscany website: "San Gimignano, a small walled village about halfway between Florence and Siena, is famous for its fascinating medieval architecture and towers that rise above of all the other buildings offering an impressive view of the city from the surrounding valley. At the height of its glory, San Gimignano's patrician families had built around 72 tower-houses as symbols of their wealth and power. Although only 14 have survived, San Gimignano still retains its feudal atmosphere and appearance. Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1990, San Gimignano offers visitors the chance to step back in time while enjoying its local products including saffron and its white wine, the Vernaccia di San Gimignano.

We climb one of the towers for a great 360 degree view of the surrounding area. A patchwork of vineyards and olive groves. Wide open space, Tuscany is quite sparsely populated, dotted with villages connected by windy roads.

Today is a two gelato day, but we have a good excuse. In San Grimignano is the award-winning Gelateria Dondoli. Dondoli was part of a Italy's Ice Cream World Championship winning teams in 2006/07 and 2008/09. There are lots of interesting flavours to choose from: pink grapefruit and sparkling wine, saffron and pine nut cream, chocolate and grand marnier.

7th June 2016 - Val d'Orcia

Again from Discover Tuscany "Medieval castles, sunny rolling hills, isolated hilltop towns, charming farmhouses and isolated rural homes, avenues of cypresses, rows of vineyards, olive groves, and golden wheat fields are just some of the elements of the fantastic and harmonious landscapes of Valdorcia!" The impressive views of Val d'Orcia, which inspired so many Renaissance painters, is dotted with many little villages, castles, abbeys and hamlets, each telling a fascinating ancient history. Time here can still pass slowly and you can enjoy every second of it. You'll discover villages like Pienza, a real jewel known as the "Ideal City": a unique Renaissance monument designed by the great humanist Pope Pius II, with its narrow winding streets and the beautiful Palazzo Piccolomini.

First up Montepulciano. A ribbon town sitting on a ridge above the Val d'Orcia. Perfectly preserved as everywhere seems to be in Tuscany. Big square, old church, windy streets, artist's studios, enoteca, gelateria, everything I'm coming to expect. And again surrounded by beautiful scenery.

Next up Pienza. From Discover Tuscany "This charming village is widely known as the "ideal city of the Renaissance", the creation of the great humanist 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. Thus, Pienza became the realization of a dream!

The project was designed by the architect Bernardo "il Rossellino" under the guidance of the great humanist Leon Battista Alberti. In only 3 years, a group of amazing and harmonious 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 upon.

The Abbey of Sant'Antimo (Abbazia di Sant'Antimo) is a beautiful Romanesque church, in a picture-perfect setting just south of Montalcino in southern Tuscany. It sits in a large valley with views of the hill town Castelnuovo dell'Abate, rolling hills covered in olive groves and vineyards, and wild forests. Monks still live in buildings nearby and chant prayers at scheduled times during the day, unfortunately the day we were there they weren't chanting due to illness.

In the evening we went to the restaurant just 5 minutes walk from where we're staying. As always I chose one of the more adventurous things on the menu, rolled rabbit. Had no idea what to expect but it was good and a nice change from the pizza and pasta we ate for the rest of the week.

In Chianti wine is definitely the main thing. In the restaurant they had obviously over-filled their cellars and there was wine stored everywhere.

8th June 2016 - Lucca

Lucca is a charming town/city; the old town is encircled by 15th century city walls, criss-crossed by narrow cobblestone streets and houses many piazzas. It is the home of Giacomo Puccini and less famously Tagetik the software provider I do daily battle with at work.

We wandered and got a little lost in the narrow streets and squares, had a lovely lunch of cold cuts at a local deli and checked out a couple of churches.

Above is a panoramic shot of Piazza dell'Anfiteatro. This was a Roman era amphitheater and is now one of Lucca's main piazzas. It's oval shape is ringed with medieval houses, shops and cafes. Despite it looking great, we didn't hang around long due to the peace being spoilt by street performers.

For a panoramic view of Lucca and the Apennine mountains we climbed the stairs of the 15th century Guinigi tower. Built of red brick and topped by roof garden containing several ancient Holm oaks, the 125 foot high Guinigi tower house is one of the few remaining tower houses in Lucca. It was built in or around 1384 by wealthy silk merchants. This gave us great views of the red tiled roofs and the hills beyond.

The Holm oaks on the roof give shade from the sun and make for a lovely bit of foreground for the more arty photos.

Below is the L'Istituto Superiore di Studi Musicali where Giovanni Pacini was once musical director. We sat outside for a while and listened to the music coming out through the windows.

8th June 2016 - Pisa

Pisa, tower what more is there to say. I was surprised to see the tower stuck down one end of a huge open area and frankly dominated by the amazing buildings around it. If it didn't lean it would be ignored by tourists in favour of the surrounding grandeur.

Pisa wasn't as busy as I feared and looked far nicer than I expected. If we had more time it would've been nice to check out more of the city.

9th June 2016 - Wine Tasting

We stayed in Castellina in Chianti, a small hill-top town surrounded by wineries and today we toured one and then tasted some more wine back in town.

We booked a tour at Castellare di Castellina.

We were talked through the history of the winery, the processes involved in making their wine and what makes Chianti Classico special. The grapes, the pressing, the fermentation and the storage. Huge concrete tanks and barrels too big to move whilst full.

Then it was time to taste some of their wine. First up their basic wine, then the Chiani Classico and finally their Reserva.

A lovely tour of a lovely winery in a lovely setting.

Their Classico was the best we tasted on the trip so we brought a few bottles back with us, although it would've taken us a while to get through it all if we'd bought the whole pallet.

We got back into town just in time before a torrential downpour. No wonder the grapes grow so well they get all the rain and sun they need most days. We sat ourselves outside a restaurant under a giant umbrella and ordered a big plate of cold cuts and a bottle of wine.

We ended up in Enoteca Le Volte Wine Shop for a little more wine tasting and to order some wine to send home.

10th June 2016 - Florence

Florence, The Cradle of the Renaissance, the Athens of the Middle Ages. Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Botticelli. Florence was a centre of medieval European trade and finance and one of the wealthiest cities of the time.

One of the most famous images of Florence is the Ponte Vecchio. A bridge across the Arno River lined with shops. Butchers initially occupied the shops; the present tenants are jewelers, art dealers and souvenir sellers. The bridge looks pretty tired from the side but once you're on the bridge itself it is quite impressive.

Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli an Italian Renaissance historian, politician, diplomat, philosopher, humanist, and writer.

Next up the Uffizi Gallery which is meant to be one of the finest art museums in the world. But I was under whelmed. The building itself is great but the art not to my taste. I guess it is all a little too old. 15th and 16th century, before people 'learnt to paint properly'. I'm more a 17th and 18th century man myself.

But out of one of the upper windows it did give a great view down the river to the Ponte Vecchio.

This is one of the better pictures. Adoration of the Magi by Domenico Bigordi.

I love the squarede off brick buildings you find everywhere in Tuscany.

Michelangelo's David or at least a copy the original is in a museum up the road.

Florence's Cathedral, the Duomo.

11th June 2016 - Castellina in Chianti

Time to say good-bye to Tuscany and it has been a great holiday. Not my usual style but I could get used to good wine and good food in great scenery.