Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Art of Chianti

During the week of August 17th - 24th, while many Italians were still on holiday for Ferragosto - a few artists from Phoenix took in the Chianti Countryside with their eyes, with their paints, pastels and with their hearts. We spent a wonderful week once again at Il Borgo Villa di Bossi Pucci located just south of Florence near the town of Montespertoli. Pastel artist Liz Kenyon created this trip to allow fellow artists to join her while she worked on her own series.

On the day we arrived, we all checked into our simple but elegant apartments just prior to a huge downpour which drenched the land and, as quickly as it came, the skies opened back up to bright sunshine and puffy white clouds. We all enjoyed a wonderful welcome antipasti - which is typically appetizers but always turns into a full blown meal at Il Borgo. We enjoyed fresh tomatoes picked from the garden, Il Borgo's own wine and olive oil from their nearby castle estate, hand-made pasta and bread made by Alessandro's 8 year old son Francesco and much more. Above, Liz helps set the tone for the joyful week ahead. Ahhhh Chianti!

After a much needed siesta and time to unpack and get settled - we hopped into the van to take a good look at the surrounding beauty which would make it's way onto the canvas over the next few days. At left is Barb's wonderful interpretation of Il Borgo's grand front yard.

That evening we all walked over to the community park where we enjoyed a delicious seafood dinner. Our reservations were drawn clearly on the butcher paper which lined the table! Even our guests who arrived from the U.S. that day were such troopers ignoring the time change and long flight to stay and enjoy this typical local summer dinner - the typical dinner which starts long after what we consider dinnertime to be! There were great cheers when the three-wheeled vehicles showed up with the giant pots of linguini and clam sauce and delicious fish stew!

The next day, the artists found their places around Il Borgo to begin their "field sketches" and record their interpretations of the Chianti countryside. The artists would create several paintings over the next few days of various sites in and around Il Borgo and the surrounding towns. The property itself lent many opportunities for artists with its fiascos and courtyards, cypress lined drive, charming chapel and sprawling valley views.

With Florence only 20 minutes away, we always make sure to include a full day visit during our stays at Il Borgo. Our artists opted to visit the Uffizi Gallery and Academia to view some of Florence's most treasured works of art including Michelangelo's David and Botticelli's Birth of Venus. We strolled along the River Arno and spent some time on the infamous Ponte Vecchio. Piazza Signori is always a focus of attention while in Florence with its grand statues and fountains. We also made some time to view the amazing Duomo and Baptistry as well as enjoy some gelato, of course!

Another wonderful field trip was to the small town of Volpaia just north of Radda in Chianti. This little gem of a town has a small cafe in the central piazza and a wonderful restaurant called La Bottega both owned by two sisters who have lived in Volpaia for over 70 years. We had incredible views of the valley from our table and enjoyed a variety of wonderful dishes from the country kitchen such as handmade ravioli and tagliatelle with mushrooms. In Volpaia, there are no gift shops, markets or tobacco stores and best of all, there is no traffic! Streets and doorways are lined with flower pots bursting with colorful plants and herbs. Here the artists set up their easels in town to capture some of the beauty this town offers. A small tour group of American students came through on foot admiring Liz's work and the aspiring artists among them longed to join us!

To view more of Liz Kenyon's Art, please visit

Poppiano was another very special place just minutes from Il Borgo and her grand castle was always in view from our rooms. The sunflowers in the foreground had since passed with the exception of a few late bloomers, however, the scene was no less magnificent. We set up along the cypress line road in front of vineyards, peach, pear, and olive trees with the castle in the distance and Puccini playing in the background courtesy of our laptop. The sun was hot and bright - the colors brilliant. The clouds moved in giving the artists a bit of shade and offered new hues and puffy clouds for their skies. The interpretation of the scene was varied and interesting. It was another lovely day in the Chianti countryside.

Our visit to Chianti through artist's eyes has opened my eyes even more to the marvelous beauty, the brilliant colors, patterns, and patchwork this land beholds all which has been created by the fine hands of the agricultural artists of Tuscany and dutifully and respectfully preserved by the creative and talented hands of our artists Liz, Barb, Alicia and Barbara from Phoenix, Arizona.

See for more information on this workshop.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Ferragosto in the Val d'Orcia

The Fairs of August - celebrating the end of hard labor in the fields and marking the beginning of the harvest. August 15th is the actual holiday, however, generally the entire month of August recognizes this holiday. Before the Roman Catholic Church came into existence, this holiday was celebrated in the Roman Empire to honor the Gods and the cycle of fertility and ripening. The name of the holiday derives from its original Latin name Feriae Augusti - Fairs of August. In time, the Roman Church adopted this date to commemorate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary - the real physical elevation of her sinless soul and uncorrupt body into Heaven. Whichever, it is a time for relaxing by the sea or in the mountains, enjoying fabulous feasts with family and friends and being thankful for the magnificent land of Italy and all that she provides... and we did just that!

We spent a week in Pienza - from August 10th - 17th. A lovely Renaissance town created by Pope Pius II. Originally named Corsignano, where he was born in 1405, and returned as Pope in 1459 transforming the peasant village into the ideal Renaissance town - an early example of urban planning at its finest. Streets named for love, fortune and hugs and kisses. Still to this day, 550 years later, the town continues to retain its charm evident in its structures as well as its residents.

Arriving on Sunday - we checked into the Albergo Rutiliano - a lovely B&B walking distance to town with large rooms and a sparkling pool which came in quite handy on a few occasions!. The best part about this place is Silvia - our warm and attentive front desk manager... and the breakfast is pretty good too!

The Internet was not working and because it was Ferragosto - it was not about to get fixed anytime soon. Everyone was on holiday. So that left more time for me to be out and enjoy - dancing to the rhythm that is Italy.

Our first full day - we all took part in a walking tour of Pienza - Our guide Anna - was so thin, the slightest breeze we were afraid would take her away from us - so we paid close attention as not to lose her! She gave us the grand tour of the Duomo - the Piazza - the transformation of the town form Corsignano to Pienza - Pointed out the Palaces - each architects work - and then we strolled down the street of new houses - new in 1462 that is...

Following the tour tour - we stopped for lunch at the Latte di Luna - Milk of the Moon - a favorite restaurant of many visiting this town. We had handmade pasta and crostinis - and of course, the local salamis and pecorino cheese made from sheep's milk. By day 3 we would be praying the next meal would not be including more cheese!
This was the first of many fantastic dining experiences we continued to enjoy during the days ahead.

Our week included things that you typically would not visit as an American tourist - One in particular is the Teatro Povero in nearby Monticchiello, mainly because it is entirely in Italian, of course. Every summer for three weeks, the entire town square of this medieval village is transformed into a grand stage and the residents become actors - amazingly good actors! Created in the 60's as a way to express the hardship of living in the Italian countryside during the industrial revolution, the Teatro Povero (Poor Theater) has become extremely popular with Italians and theater goers worldwide as a unique and memorable experience.
It can be however, one of those evenings where you wondered why you were there at the time and spoke eagerly about it to others upon your return home...

One of our favorite afternoons was spent at Casale Farm. We were given a brief tour of the grounds, introduced to the donkeys, pigs, goats and peacocks and Sandra, the elegant caretaker carefully explained proudly the unique process of making organic pecorino cheeses by hand. Afterwards, we sat down to what was to be one of our favorite meals of the week... all organic foods, fresh tomatoes drizzled with homemade olive oil and fresh basil, spelt (barley) salad, handmade wheat pasta salad, grilled veggies including zucchini, eggplant and peppers, and cheeses - lots of glorious cheeses...

Now, you may have already heard this, and I am here to tell you that it is all true - the most important part of almost any trip to Italy is the visit to the gelateria! The selection process is not taken lightly... many of the choices are typically between strawberry or melon, chocolate and cream, banana, hazelnut and pistachio - and even saffron if you are lucky (a Sicilian favorite). But which goes best with which? And in a cone or in a cup? Surely you will get two flavors.... I recommend ordering your favorite as a base and pair that flavor with every other flavor offered every chance you get! Al loves strawberry and lemon! Fragole e Limone!

Wednesday was a full day tour of the surrounding area... Our trusty driver Ilario ensured us of the highlights and hidden gems of his neighborhood. We drove through the center of neighboring San Quirico - only vehicles with special taxi licenses afford this benefit... then we visited the beautiful town of Montalcino where the famed Brunello wine is produced. We strolled through the quiet streets stopping for pictures or shopping... The residents, even during the late summer after months of seeing their streets lined with tourists, still offer a warm smile...

And the landscape continued to be simply stunning.

After Montalcino - we enjoyed a tour of the Fattoria dei Barbi situated just south of the town - one of the oldest wineries in the region producing fine Brunello wines for 5 generations... Bottles on display dated back to 1895! Our tasting including samplings of their wines as well as their salamis and of course - cheese!

We also stopped at Sant'Antimo Monastery arriving in time for the 2:45 mass and chanting. These days it is a bit different as most pews are filled with tourists instead of townspeople - however, the chanting continues to stir our souls...

One of our days, a few of our guests partook in an early morning balloon flight with Ballooning in Tuscany - Englishman and veteran pilot Robert Etherington was at the burners launching from his home in nearby Montisi. As they ascended into the sky for a bird's eye view of Tuscany- we headed back to gather up the others to head out on our half day tour visiting San Anna Comprena (made famous in the U.S. as the setting for the English Patient), Il Casale farm and the artist studio of Aleardo and Enrico Paolucci - a father and son artist studio producing some very important and magnificent artwork from the Pienza region. Aleardo is explaining his work above and son Enrico's studio is below. The passion of artwork transcends much of our language barriers. Absolutely wonderful.

So much more to see and say.... and of course then there is Siena - and the Palio... next up.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Siena during Palio

July 2nd and August 16th each year the town of Siena is transformed into a grand arena where one can experience what the Sienese life evolves around all year long - The Palio. A tradition dating back as early as the 14th century, the Palio has retained its importance in daily life today.
To the visitor, the Palio is an anything-goes, bareback horse race between 10 horses which race around a track 3 times and the winner gets the Palio - a beautiful silk banner designed by local artists which is proudly displayed in the town hall of the winning neighborhood or Contrada. The track is made with truckloads of earth laid down around the Piazza del Campo, one of the most beautiful piazzas in all of Italy. The days leading up to the event are filled with trial races and fanfare , flag waiving and general pageantry.
To the Sienese, the dedication and conviction to their heritage, to their religion, to their community, and to their entire existence is based around the Palio. Only the Sienese can truly understand the importance of this race - It is indeed the true pulse of Siena.

The Palio of August 16, 2008, it was also a very special day as it was a big birthday of one of our very dear friends Al and the reason for our trip. Our group had fun selecting our favorite contrada , purchased flags denoting their emblems and colors and watched the race from a small bar outside of town - far from the madding crowds. This year Il Bruco won - the caterpillar - it was the neighborhood I stayed in while attending language school in Siena. It was good to see Il Bruco win. Just 4 years prior on the Palio of August 16th, 2004, Il Bruco's horse fell and was badly trampled and died of its injuries. A very sad sacrifice. Long live Siena and the Palio.

For more information on the Palio in Siena - please visit
Here you can view videos and more

Sunday, August 10, 2008

A Few Days in Rome

Rome is one of those cities that you fall in love with but cannot actually pinpoint exactly why. It could be the incredible evidence of the past centuries where current day Rome still flourishes. It could be globalness of it all; dozens of languages spoken on every corner and bar. It could be the sacredness of this eternal city with its hundreds of churches and sculptures of worship. Whatever floats your boat on the Tiber, you are among the masses that come each year. Most come just for a few days to catch a glimpse of the Coliseum, or Pantheon, to throw a coin in the Trevi to ensure a future return trip and/or spend the day in the amazing Vatican City. And no one seems to leave disappointed with however they spend their time here. We spent 3 nights in Rome prior to our Val d'Orcia Tuscany program. I personally spent most of my Rome time taking in the atmosphere around the Pantheon. For me, this area pulsates with the ancient roots of the city. The mighty and resounding Pantheon surviving over 1800 years in the center of this empire is stark proof of the city's resilience and stalwartness. And you do not need to know much about this large domed temple to feel her magnificence... even through the hundreds of cameras clicking, horses drawing tourists, and crowds of on lookers... there she is - majestically maintaining her center-of- the-universe stature she justly deserves. Rome is worth the visit, if even only for a few days...

Friday, August 8, 2008

Agosto in Italia

It's no secret that Italians go on holiday in August either to the beach or to the mountains. This August, more Italians are coming to the U.S. taking advantage of their favorable exchange rate. Americans too, are still enjoying visits to Italy in more creative ways in response to our not so favorable exchange rate. We look more now for smaller family-owned places to stay in the country instead of larger hotels in the heart of the cities. Places where we can cook a few meals for ourselves instead of dining out every night allowing us visits to the local markets where we interact more with the residents. Travel itineraries include more walking and cycling than driving. We tend to enjoy more educational programs versus general sight-seeing vacations. The result? A richer experience that is still affordable where we bring home so much more in addition to our photos and souvenirs.

And traveling in August is warm, yes. And many places such as stores are closed for the month, yes. But the traffic is lighter, the museum lines are shorter, and there is still much to see and do in Italy in August. Besides, with the dollar as it is, we do less shopping anyway! And we enjoy more just being in Italy in the summertime.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Ciao for Now Il Borgo

I am sitting on the plane en route back to the U.S. after another absolutely wonderful stay in Tuscany thinking to myself “how can I be so lucky”? I believe a large part of my good fortune can be accredited to learning about Il Borgo Villa di Bossi Pucci. Since I first entered through the grand gates last year, I (and everyone I bring here) have been treated with such good care. The apartments are simple and elegantly furnished with full living rooms and breakfast kitchens. Each building is restored to reveal its original typical Tuscan architecture. The views from the terraces in the 2 bedroom villas are stunning. I must admit I spent a great deal of time here admiring it all during my stay. The fog rolling down into the valley in the morning, the late afternoon cloud burst and thunderstorms, and the sunset (after 9pm in June) turning the valley to a gold and green paradise is as much a part of the holiday as is the trips to all the charming hill towns and restaurants.

The owner of the estate is a former CEO of Hilton International and American Express which helps to explain the top notch service and quality accommodations. Daily management of the property is under the capable hands of Alessandro Guerrieri. He, his wife Julia and their two sons all live on the estate. On a quiet afternoon in the summer, you can catch a glimpse of the boys playing soccer in one of the many grassy fields surrounding the estate. On special occasions, the large central courtyard plays host to classical concerts with local musicians and other such venues. The pool boasts the same fantastic views as the 2 bedroom villas with Poppiano Castle to the left and Montespertoli in the direct distance just past the vineyards and olive groves. Walking paths and quiet country roads lead in all directions from here taking you further into a Tuscan dream.

The landscaping is abound with rosemary and roses, terra cotta pots brimming with blossoms and of course, lots of olive trees and cypress. There is a little ancient chapel on property tucked away in a small wooded area just past the pool. It was very common for larger estates to all have their own chapel centuries ago. Just below the pool, a grassy pathway leads to the small town of Montagnana. Here there is the general store, (alimentari) a wonderful pizzeria, un ristorante, café, hair salon, gas station, post office, and real estate office. I could not resist taking a look at the few homes and apartments for sale, after all, this is a slice of paradise. Many of the apartments in Il Borgo are for sale as well if you are like me and would like this to be a more permanent holiday. In the meantime, staying at Il Borgo and participating in the Lessons of Tuscany program is the next best way to experience all the splendors of Tuscany.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A Local Ceramics Shop

Just a few kilometers from Il Borgo is a ceramics shop … well, more like a ceramics production facility, or even a ceramics warehouse. Simply put, it's a large building housing many beautiful ceramics, a grand showroom and stations where the artist paint. The driveway was quite difficult to find – there was no sign. Anselmo, the town it is in is not even on most maps. We entered through the garage door. Immediately upon entering, we were in front of large shelves full of every kind of ceramics you can imagine - Large platters, plates and pitchers of every shape, size and design. Whichever pattern you liked, you could get every piece to match – and if you don't see it, just tell them what you would like and they will gladly make it for you. The upstairs showroom features their most requested designs. From up here I could look down on the rear of the storeroom below for a bird’s eye view of endless rows of white and terracotta forms waiting to be put into the hands of the local artists who were sitting quietly in the midst diligently bringing a life of color and design to each three dimensional blank palette.

The art of ceramics dates back almost 1000 years here. This area in the Tuscan hills is known as Montelupo Fiornetino and has been an epicenter for this handicraft peaking during the Renaissance era between the 12th and 15th centuries and still thrives today. Proprietor and gracious host Gabrielle gave us a unique inside look into the process of creating the colorful pieces that grace almost every Italian home from tiles and bowls to giant urns and planters. He pointed out the large vats for glazing and their massive furnace for firing. Many rows of shelving were filled with orders waiting to be shipped to addresses all over the globe – we were at the source. And when we visited the many ceramics stores in the surroundng towns and saw the price differences – we knew we were in on a good secret. And right here in our neighborhood.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


Lucca is a town that is so easy to reach - just off the main highway between Florence and the sea. But once you arrive, you feel worlds away from everything. This perfectly sized walled city is not considered a hill town – the hills are surrounding the town just past the River Serchio. It is primarily flat which is why bicycles are by far the preferred mode of transportation here. One can also easily walk on top of the massive sixteenth century walls around the town for a lovely stroll or taking a bicycle around the outer loop is also very popular.

Inside the walls is everything you would want your favorite medieval city to have; a grand piazza where everyone meets and local musicians play, lots of local markets and fine shops, an antiques market, many fabulous restaurants, great bakeries, fruit markets, wine stores, gelaterias , museums, theaters, incredible churches and lovely hotels. It also happens to be the birthplace of the famous Giacomo Puccini and this year marks the 150th anniversary of his birth. There were banners hanging from every lamppost in honor of remembering this great author of some of the world’s most famous operas.

We had the good fortune to be shown around this town by local resident and tour operator Silvia from Tamitaly Tours. Born and raised in Lucca, she knows the intimate details and history of many of the magnificent structures. One tower which she pointed out to us had large, beautiful trees growing on top (see photo top right). The height of a tower she told us was a sign of power and wealth. When a neighboring tower was built of similar height, these trees were planted to rise above and keep its tallest structure status! A medieval and Renaissance way to keep up with the Jones’!

There are many ways in which to visit Lucca – One way is to come for a Tuscan Cooking Program with local chef and culinary teacher Giuseppe Mazzocchi (who also helped to show us around this beautiful town). He was born on a small olive farm not far from Lucca and has spent many years enjoying and teaching the fine art of Tuscan cooking. He shows students how to create wonderful and simple meals which can easily be recreated upon return home. The classroom is in the heart of old Lucca and the program includes visits to the surrounding small markets to collect the freshest of ingredients as well as journeys outside of the walls to the local farms, vineyards and olive oil production facilities. A stay at the 4 star San Luca Palace Hotel also helps to make this program unforgettable. And, visiting for a day in Lucca as we did still made our trip unforgettable. A presto Lucca!

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Siena and San Gimignano

Without question, Siena is my favorite town. Maybe because I spent a few summers here trying to learn Italian and got to know it better. Or, maybe because one of my favorite friends lives here. Or, maybe because the city is small, beautiful, friendly, safe and well grounded with its heritage. The central focus of the town geographically and culturally is its Piazza del Campo. A large shell shaped piazza surrounded by medieval palaces. Quaint restaurants spill out onto the walkway which outlines the piazza – Until Palio; the central focus of the town in every other way including geographically and culturally. Seventeen neighborhoods designated by their distinct identity such as Giraffe, Rhino, Tower, Unicorns, Wave, Goose, Silkworm, Dragon and more make up this city. Every July 2nd and August 16th, ten of these neighborhoods (or contrade) compete against each other via an astounding 3 minute bareback horse race. Then the entire Piazza is transformed into a race track where an anything goes competition in the fiercest style takes place. The horse which crosses the finish line first (with or without rider) captures the holy grail – the flag known as the Palio. From then on it is proudly displayed in its local community center. Moreover, a win of this race signifies a much greater importance of gaining acceptance into the almighty kingdom – a rebirth, if you will. To fully understand this is to be born and raised in Siena. The rest of us watch in awe of the emotion and dedication to these major events which make up the true pulse of this city.

However, this time we did not come during Palio – so our group arrived at San Domenico Church where the somewhat preserved head of Saint Catherine is actually on display. Saint Catherine of Siena is still alive and well here just the same. Then we strolled along the main streets shopping and visiting the magnificent Duomo which no visit should go without. We all enjoyed lunch in and around the Piazza all agreeing this was a very special place. I do it no justice touching so lightly on the magnificent sightseeing here. Viva Siena.

Another gem of a town on the same day? Why not? We left Siena and journeyed up to San Gimignano stopping at a small winery along the way to sample the well known Vernaccia, a white wine which is only produced in and around Siena. Arriving in San Gimignano is like arriving on a movie set which transports you into medieval times. The streets are long and narrow and now lined with art galleries, shops, enotecas and cafes all of which could easily be a beautiful postcard image. At one time, there were over 70 towers gracing the skyline of this town. Now 14 still stand proudly making its profile very unique. For the average visitor, the two things to see in San Gimignano besides all of its amazing historical structures and artwork are the ceramics shops and gelaterias. Of course we all visited both! Per a recommendation for the best gelato by our trusty driver Daniele, we enjoyed a combination of Pistachio and Zafarano (saffron) – Indeed a heavenly delicious choice. A special place for just a few hours, for all day or for a few days – The nighttime is even a better time to see these towns when all of the day visitors have gone – leaving the more serious visitor to stroll along the now quiet streets of these two very special hill towns.

The Castle Dinner

A stay at Il Borgo would not be complete without dinner at their sister property – Castello di Santa Maria Novella. This 11th century structure which was destroyed and rebuilt in 1313 has significant importance to the surrounding area between Florence and Siena. Sitting atop one of the highest points in the area, the castle boasts spectacular views. Upon arrival, we received a warm welcome and a grand tour from Fernando, the director of the estate who eloquently gave us the condensed history of this stately property and graciously paused often to allow for the many photos being taken. The castle is meticulously restored to its original splendor sporting a grand courtyard where the local residents would gather. This night it is where we enjoyed a nice aperitif – a carafe of white wine with a sprig of Rosemary giving it a wonderful earthy aroma and flavor. We enjoyed lightly fried zucchini flowers and sage leaves and Tuscan pecorino cheese served with fig marmalade. Yummy.

Afterwards, our group of fourteen went into one of the many main dining rooms to enjoy a feast fit for Noble Italian families. The table was beautifully decorated with candles and fresh flowers. We started with the house wine, Chianti of course, and then enjoyed antipasti of perfectly ripe cantaloupe and local prosciutto, followed by handmade ravioli stuffed with spinach and fresh ricotta cheese. Our second plate or meat course was mildly seasoned thinly sliced beef served on a bed of arugula served with a delicious cherry tomato salad. Our servers were attentive and charming coming around and offering seconds of every dish. We topped the meal off with a light white cake layered with a delicate custard served with frutti di bosco – the fruit of the forest – flavorful tart and juicy berries handpicked from around the property. We all gave a well-deserved round of applause to Chef Claudio who gratefully accepted and was clearly pleased to see how much we all enjoyed his creations. Dinner at the Castle is always one of the highlights of a stay at Il Borgo.