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.

A Day in Florence

Our full day trip to Florence started with a 3 hour guided tour of the main sights such as the Ponte Vecchio, passing by the Uffizi Museum, Piazza della Signoria, the amazing Duomo, the Central Market with endless food stands, and ending with the viewing of Michelangelo’s David in the Accademia. Our guide Elisa was very informative and like so many other local guides, her passion for the history of her home town comes through loud and clear as she tries to explain 1000 years of history in 2.5 hours! She appropriately gave us all a few moments in silence to admire David in all his grandeur. It was just the right amount of time and information for our group.

We all went our own way after the tour to discover our personal view of Florence. Some went shopping in the grand Straw Market, some went back to the Central Food Market and a few went to walk through the wonderful Boboli Gardens. I personally found a little trattoria on a quiet side street where I enjoyed delicious Tuscan fagioli (white beans drizzled with olive oil – simple and delicious) along with grilled vegetable calzone. Right on queue, an elderly gentleman came by my table with his old accordion to serenade me with what sounded like a polka in hopes of receiving a few coins for his efforts. But before I could respond, the waiter came out to shoo him onward protecting my tranquil setting . I will certainly return to this restaurant next time I am in Florence!

A bustling city alive with thousands of tourists, artists, and all types of business people, we were all trying to leave the city at the same time causing some major congestion. It took us about 1 hour to go 1 kilometer as we inched our way slowly to cross the Arno River trying hard to always leave only a 2 inch gap with the car in front so as not to lose your place in what could be considered a line. It’s a stretch calling this a line. Italians are not very good at lining up and following any kind of order, but it is a way of life here and it seemed no one was getting upset at the traffic – we just inched our way out of town back to our country estate of Il Borgo still buzzing with the energy of Florence.

Saturday, June 7, 2008


Volterra is an ancient Etruscan hill town situated between Siena and the west coast which is a little off the more heavily traveled path which we guessed would not have so many visitors. Upon arrival with no available parking spaces, we figured the secret was out. However, when we entered the city, there was a unique quaintness to this town – it did not seemed tainted by tourism in the least – mostly artists and residents filled the parking spaces outside the ancient city walls.

This town preserves its historical charm in a major way dating back almost 3000 years. Its magnificent Porta all’Arco is still one of the main entrances to the city since almost 300 BC made up of massive stones and the remnants of three heads that are believed to be Gods of Greek Origin. The Roman Amphitheatre is one of the best in all of Italy for acoustics built in 10 BC, buried in the 13 century to finally be revealed again in the 1950’s. The sightseeing and shopping were plentiful.

The symbol of Volterra is Alabaster and the month of June was a celebration of the local art of Alabaster sculpting. We happened upon a group of artists carving this soft white rock just outside the Duomo.
An afternoon rainstorm moved us into one of the many beautiful cafes where we joined in on a “happy gelato” festa. Hats, balloons, noisemakers and wonderful gelato – There is always a good reason to celebrate here!

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Wine Tour of Chianti

Certainly popular – a tour of a few vineyards of Chianti is on most to-do lists while in Tuscany. This region consists of over 180 wineries just in the Chianti Classico region – Chianti (these days) is made up of at least 80% Sangiovese grapes which must be grown in this region in order to print the name on the label. These wines are heavily controlled by the DOC and DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata and Garantita) – which tightly regulate the quality of wines that are produced here. The official seal at the cork signifies that the wine has passed inspection. Since the recent regulations, these wines have continued to earn world class status – no longer just for spaghetti night and a pretty candle holder! The recent releases of IGT’s or Super Tuscans (a nick name that stuck given by one journalist) has allowed for the creativity of the wine maker to blend other grapes such as cabernet and merlot and without the restrictions producing some very fine wines which are also recognized world-wide. The competition between all these winemakers is fierce and fun as most everyone knows of each family and their secrets!

We all stopped for lunch in the charming town of Radda in Chianti in the heart of the Chianti Classico Region denoted by the Black Rooster. Here we sampled typical Tuscan cuisine such as crostini, various cured meats, pecorino cheeses served with marmalade, rich tomato and bread soups, risotto salad, and pasta. With meals such as these, it is no wonder the afternoon siestas are an important part of the day!

Chianti continues to allure pleasure seekers, wine enthusiasts, cyclists and general back country travelers with its stunning views along winding roads over looking fields peppered with wineries and traditions which date back centuries - A Benedictine monk once wrote over 1000 years ago that the red wine of Badia a Coltibuono in Gaiole in Chianti (the Abbey of Good Culture) is of high quality and the white is quite good too!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Chianti Festival

It was simply fantastic luck that our stay near Montespertoli coincided with the annual Chianti Wine Festival. Now I must admit, many of the festivals tend to be geared towards tourists – but here, our group was practically the only people sporting cameras. We arranged our visit to arrive just prior to the parade complete with the local marching band and gigantic oxen pulling carts of wine bottles and local children throwing flower petals. There were no Sponge Bobs or Caspers here – just the local townspeople dressing in country farmers attire joining together to celebrate their agricultural heritage.

There were several wine booths where we could sample the local Chianti and keep the souvenir glass and holder. Endless food booths lined the streets selling sweets, nuts, olives and a variety of other local goodies. Our good friends came down from Bologna to join us along with their two dogs Bebe and Rocky. It was such a great treat to have them along and a bonus to have them translate some of the happenings for us.

We all went into dinner – with Bebe and Rocky too (Italians love animals) and had a magnificent five-course dinner in a beautiful restaurant in the heart of town – 16 of us at one long table just like the pizza dinner the night before. Dinner Italian style! How fun! We poured ourselves out of the restaurant a few hours later only to find that the party was getting bigger as the night progressed… We wobbled back to our vans passing many families making their way to the Carnival rides and grabbing prime spots from which to watch the midnight fireworks – Many of our group stayed up and watched from the comfort of the balconies of Il Borgo which overlooked the Festival Town of Montespertoli only 8 kilometers away. Location and timing!

Arrival Dinner

Our group arrived on Saturday - some from Rome, some from Venice, some from the states and a few from the coast. So for this reason, we kept first night’s dinner low key and all walked down to the local pizzeria after getting settled. Coming from the larger cities, everyone was pleasantly surprised at the low cost and good quality of the pizza, the large fresh salads from local gardens, overflowing bowls of pasta of course, and carafes of locally produced wine and Italian beer. Our young waitress Barbara seemed genuinely enthused to take our order and tried her best to speak English to make sure she understood our wishes. She like many young Italians love America and hope to visit someday.
We all sat at one long table out on the patio enjoying the fresh Tuscan country air. Only an occasional scooter screamed by keeping us alert to the contrasts of the old and new and slow and fast co-existing and intertwined in daily life - all part of the rhythm of the land.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The British Lady in My Dashboard . . .

The best way to guarantee that you have a GPS loaded in your rental car in Italy is to rent one before you arrive. Then when you pick up your car, it will most likely have one, as well. I took the advice of many people to use a GPS – life is so much easier supposedly.

Because I didn’t want any extra wires or risk losing my rented GPS, I reconfigured the one on the dash to English – a very proper British English Female Voice – and She and I got along just fine in the beginning only speaking when an upcoming turn was approaching, until she missed a very important one. She may have fallen asleep during the long ride up from Montalcino to Montagnana, I am not sure. Good thing I had my trusty Michelin map and more so, my trusty eyes not missing the sign to get to the small town where Il borgo is located. So I forgave her and we moved on.

The next day, I programmed in my trip to Badia a Passignano – one of the estates where the well known and fabulous Antinori Wines are produced. Not wanting to be directed to the Strada or highway – I selected the “shortest route” instead of the “fastest route” which I imagined would take me through the secondary roads. The secondary road was more like secondary roads to secondary roads. She took me through a back road so steep and so narrow that I had to twice use the button that automatically brings in the side view mirrors to pass through large stone walls on either side of me. Shortly after, as I was being grateful that no one was coming the other way, along came a pickup truck where I then had to back up a steep hill to let it pass. Five kilometers of this does not sound like much, but it felt good loosening my stuck grip from the wheel when I arrived back onto the main secondary road.

As for Badia a Passignano, it is a marvelous estate complete with a castle and small village – a cooking school – and the excellent Osteria di Passignano where you will be greeted by the gracious host Marcello Crini and enjoy one of the best dining experiences in Chianti paired with the excellent Chiantis of Antinori. Bravo.

As for the British Lady in my dashboard – like the rest of us, she is far from perfect and I am still glad to have her along.