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.