Most of our fellow tour-takers were North Americans, most from the States, though there were several Canadians, too. It was a full group; this particular tour accepts up to 18 people. Our tour guide was Adrienne, a young Austrian-Italian woman, and we had a bus driver who only spoke Italian, and who I believe was named Fabrizio; my Italian wasn't good enough to converse with him.
The traffic getting out of Florence was pretty much bumper-to-bumper, an aspect of the city that you get to miss entirely if you stay mostly in Centro Storico, as we did on our last trip. Even in some of the closest outlying areas, if you are walking, you don't really notice the traffic. But it took 40 minutes just to get out of Florence, and on the road to San Gimignano. It was a lovely, slightly cooler, but sunny day, perfect to be starting out on a tour to see the Tuscan countryside and explore three medieval cities. On the way, Adrienne told us about our itinerary for the day, and then about the countryside through which we were passing. She spoke about the history of both the provinces of Tuscany and Siena and their longstanding rivalry. She described the different levels denominazione di origine controllata, the controlled designation of origin, that rules wine and cheese making in Italy.
San GimignanoWe could only glimpse San Gimignano imperfectly as we arrived. Since it is a medieval city, the streets are not really sized for motor vehicles, and like many historic areas of Italy, mostly you cannot drive within the city itself. So the bus parked and we walked into town, and on the way, began to fall in love with it and the surrounding countryside. Tuscany is every bit as beautiful as you've heard, and the sunshine really is unlike that anywhere else we have ever been.
|The view of the countryside seen as we walked into San Gimignano, photo by Shawn|
|Porta San Giovanni, San Gimignano, photo by Shawn (See what I mean about that blue sky?)|
|I can't mention a piazza with a cisterna and not show it to you, right? (photo by Shawn)|
|San Gimignano's Duomo, photo by Shawn. One regret is that we didn't have time to get inside...|
|View of countryside from Rocca di Montestaffoli, photo by Shawn|
|A lovely quiet corner, photo by Shawn|
|We thought we might feel right at home... (photo by Shawn)|
|That's a street, lined with homes... (photo by Shawn)|
|Several of the famed towers, photo by Shawn|
Next we got back on the bus for a short ride to winery, where we were to have a tour and some lunch. Along the way, we made a quick stop to look back at San Gimignano.
|San Gimignano from a scenic overlook, photo by Shawn|
Tenuta Niccolai Palagetto WineryOur next stop was the Tenuta Niccolai Palagetto winery, owned by Sabrina Niccolai, a woman just a few years younger than we are. (I'm a technical writer, she inherited her father's winery. At least I get to drink the wine.) We were given tour of some of the vineyard, as well as the wine-making facilities by an Englishwoman who said she had been in Italy for about 20 years.
|Before the wine is put into barrels or bottles, it goes here (photo from http://www.agriturismoniccolai.it/torrepalagetto/en/agriturismo_farm_wine_cellar.php)|
With our meal (made for us as a nice perk, since they do not have a restaurant), we were served 'samples' of the winery's Vernacchia, a white wine made only in the vicinity of San Gimignano, as well as their Chianti and Chianti Riserva. In Italy, a sample is a glass; in this, as in so much, they get it right. Bottles of the Vernacchia and Chianti Riserva came home from the tour with us, as did a small container of the olive oil made on the estate. (The Vernacchia did not make it out of Italy...)
MonteriggioniNext we went to Monteriggioni, which was quite different than in Assassin's Creed II. (Lest you think we only know about it from a video game, it also gets a mention in Inferno). The real-life village is even smaller than in the game, so small that when you stand in the Piazza Roma, the central piazza, you can easily see both the Porta Romana and the Porta Fiorentina. We parked outside the village again, since there is very limited motor traffic inside, and walked up a steep path to Porta Romana to enter the village, which is perhaps the most perfectly preserved medieval walled city in all of Italy.
|Porta Romana, Monteriggioni (photo by Shawn)|
(from "Monteriggioni-panorama1" by Vignaccia76 - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)
|The view across Monteriggioni from atop the walls (photo by Shawn)|
|A section of the walls at Monteriggioni, photo by Shawn|
|The church on Piazza Roma, looking very much as it does in the game (photo by Shawn)|
|A quiet Montereggioni street, photo by Shawn|
SienaWe headed off to Siena, furthest in distance and feeling from Florence of all places visited today. On the way, Adrienne told us about the contrade of Siena, city wards that each have their own distinct identities, strict boundaries and their own animal or mascot. Each contrada competes with the others in the twice annual Palio.
|Siena (photo from http://www.thereareplaces.com/newguidebook/images/pgpx2/it/siena5.jpg)|
Duomo di Siena, the inside of which we'd really love to see.
|Duomo di Siena, photo by Shawn|
Once back in Florence, we walked the couple from Tennessee from our tour, down to Gabriella Zolfanelli's leather shop, as I had told several of the women on the tour about the shop, as a lovely small place to buy quality leather goods at reasonable prices. (We discovered the shop on our last trip and had already been back on this one.) We also showed Tennessee where to turn to get to Trattoria 4 Leone, as Adrienne had recommended it to them for dinner. It's right across from Caffe degli Artigiani, a student place we had eaten in 2012. When we arrived at Zolfanelli's, Jason and Jennifer, the couple from Texas who had also been on our tour were already there, shopping. So we hope that we helped Gabriella and her sons have a good week for sales! Outside the shop, we ran into Adrienne, on her way home. She recommended Il SantoBevitore, on Via Santo Spirito, to us for dinner, saying it was a great place to try wine with good food accompaniments. We weren't able to get in this evening, but will try again later, as it looked a cool kind of place, and was filled with locals. Adrienne also told us to get in touch with her if we came back to Florence; I think that she appreciated our enthusiasm for wine, food and embracing the moment. In Italy, live la dolce vita, else why come?
We walked the couple of blocks back to La Scaletta and had a grappa (or two, for Shawn) on the terrace. Shawn sent another American couple from California up top, in part to hear their exclamations; that view is always a stunner for those who have not yet seen it. After failing to get in at Il Santo Bevitore, we walked to Trattoria da Ginone for dinner. We were recognized by the older gentleman who has served us in 2012 and the other day at lunch and were given 'our' table in the back. The Pici con le Briciole was delicious, as was Shawn's pasta with 'nduja sauce (which we later discovered included a very creamy and spicy sausage—so much for the assurance that it was all vegetables). Our secondi were not as good. Shawn's parmigiana melanzane was a bit overcooked, and my stuffed vegetables were so stuffed that the stuffing overwhelmed the vegetables, though the accompanying grilled scamorza was very good. I could not finish it, though Shawn could and did. We enjoyed a half liter of the house red, and then Shawn had an espresso. The house bought us each one of their amaro and our waiter gave us a bag of cantucchini to take away, too.
We walked back to La Scaletta, very tired and perhaps a little drunk, but it was a lovely cool evening with many people out walking. Piazza Santo Spirito was full of people enjoying the day as we walked to dinner, and the evening as we walked home. Firenze is welcoming in a way that most cities are not; when you see people on the street, they do not look through you. It's easy to feel a part of things here. But perhaps that's in part because so many of those in Florence, even those who live here, are really from some place else.
It was a really wonderful day.