Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Art Viva—San Gimignano, Monteriggioni, Siena

We were up early and off without breakfast, as we needed to be at the Art Viva offices no later than 8:15 AM for our tour. As is not unusual in Florence, we walked around the building housing Art Viva a couple of times before we found the entrance to get to the second floor office of Art Viva; most businesses don't have really large signs at the street, which can make finding them difficult, but does make for a lovelier city. We were early enough that we checked in for the Best of Tuscany Tour tour, and then nipped back out and around the corner, to grab a quick cappuccino before popping back to board the small bus.

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 Gimignano

We 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?)
San Gimignano is a walled city, known as the Medieval Manhattan, because of its many tall towers. Only 13 of the original 72 remain, but they still make for an impressive view, especially from a distance, as we would eventually see. The city is almost entirely built of red sandstone, and in the early morning light, it was absolutely lovely and cool. As a group, we walked the Via San Giovanni to the Piazza della Cisterna, in the center of town.The walk takes you down a street that is filled with shops targeting the tourists, but as they are in these lovely medieval buildings and offer mostly handmade artisanal pieces—San Gimignano is known for its pottery—it's not like being in an American tourist trap like Gatlinburg.

I can't mention a piazza with a cisterna and not show it to you, right? (photo by Shawn)
San Gimignano's Piazza del Duomo is just around the corner.

San Gimignano's Duomo, photo by Shawn. One regret is that we didn't have time to get inside...
We only had about an hour in San Gimignano, but it was long enough for us to decide that we could happily spend a week or two exploring it more fully—we loved it. Once we were on our own, we skipped the famous gelato, as there was a line, and instead walked up to the Rocca di Montestaffoli, a fortress built by the Florentines in 1353, when Florence took San Gimignano under its protection, ostensibly to prevent Siena from seizing it. Adrienne had suggested that the views of the countryside from the fortress were lovely...

View of countryside from Rocca di Montestaffoli, photo by Shawn
We wandered back through the quiet, tiny residential streets and imagined what it would be like to stay there for several days.

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
We wandered back down to the Via San Giovanni, to Leoncini, the pottery shop that Adrienne had recommended as we walked in. All of the pottery is handmade and hand-painted by local artisans, some with unbelievably intricate designs. After some dithering on my part (which pattern do I like the best?), we bought a lovely, transportable plate, in the pattern they describe as "'cafaggiolo blu' coat of arms with florentine lily." We also learned that their wares can be purchased online, and the online prices include shipping costs. It turns out that buying while one is there is a considerable bargain, though I did have some anxiety about getting that plate home.

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 Winery

Our 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
After our tour, we were served a lovely 'light' lunch: pasta in a simple tomato sauce, followed by a plate of pecorino cheeses of various ages, accompanied by sliced pears, pear jam, a lovely tomato and cheese sandwich on a brioche (croissant) flavored with fennel, and bruschetta with olive tapenade or chopped tomato. We sat near Adrienne, and learned that she was the other participant who had requested a vegetarian meal; she seemed quite happy to find that she wasn't the only one, and to learn that we have been vegetarian since the early 1990s (which is probably about when she was born). We liked Adrienne very much. We learned that she had studied art history, worked for an auction house, and there learned about wine.

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...)


Next 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.)
We had only 20 minutes to look about. We climbed the walls (well, modern metal stairs, as they are working to restore the original access) to look at the countryside and back over the village.

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
When we climbed down, we looked in a handweaver's shop with many lovely things; I wish that I had purchased something, but we had so little time there.


We 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
Siena is a much, much larger walled medieval city than either Monteriggioni or San Gimignano. We parked outside the fortress, and had a long walk into the city, to the Piazza del Campo, where the Palio di Siena, the famous medieval horse race is held twice a year.

Piazza del Campo (photo from "Siena5" by Ricardo André Frantz (User:Tetraktys) - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
Because of the delays in travel, we really only had about 20 minutes to look about in Siena, which was a major disappointment. We only had a quick look at the outside of the fantastical Duomo di Siena, the inside of which we'd really love to see.
Duomo di Siena, photo by Shawn
The city buildings feel very tall and the streets very narrow after Florence; it definitely isn't as inviting as Florence. We did see several markers for the different contradas, but didn't get to try any panforte at the source. On our way back out to the bus, Shawn and I were able to poke our heads into the Basilica of San Domenico aka Basilica Cateriniana, and see the lovely stained glass windows, as well as the preserved head of St. Catherine of Siena, which was a bit gruesome.
Basilica of San Domenico
(photo from "San Domenico Siena Apr 2008 (10)" by Gryffindor - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
On the way back into Florence, Adrienne pointed out the American cemetery from WWI and WWII, which is a bit south and west of Florence. We drove back in on Via Maggio and could see the Porta Romana (the Florentine one, not the one in Monteriggioni).

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment