Saturday, November 17, 2012

And Tuscany

Part 3 of 3.

I'll say it up front: I'm not much for the country, or the mountains, for that matter. I like cities, and I like the ocean.  It's no accident that I live in San Francisco, which gives me both. Being far from the ocean makes me feel squirrelly. But you can't go to the Italian countryside and not fall in love with it. It's crazy beautiful.

We stayed at a place called Vignamaggio, an agriturismo in Chianti. It looked like this:

It belonged to Lord Vignamaggio, who had a daughter named Mona Lisa, who supposedly inspired some sort of art project by a guy named Da Vinci. I'm not sure I buy this--but it was a fun urban rural legend to read about.

On the property, they make wine and olive oil and some delicious food. On our first day, we arrived in time for lunch. Here was our view:

We drank wine, of course.

Alongside we devoured this incredible crespelle, or crepe, stuffed with a cauliflower puree. This was one of the best things I ate on the entire trip. It sounds weird. Hell, I don't even like crepes that much, but I sure liked this one. Could have had something to do with the creamy sauce that I mopped up without even asking what was in it.

The husband had delicious ravioli stuffed with spinach and ricotta...served in a nice little puddle of oil and butter. 

While I had lasagnette, a small, self-contained lasagne stuffed with porcinis and burrata.

I'll give you a moment to think about that. PORCINIS AND BURRATA.

We only had two full days in Tuscany so on our first full one we drove to Siena. It was a pain in the ass to get into the city--we had to park our rental car (a Fiat Panda!) outside the city and take a shuttle bus in.  This is on account of the city being super old (as in medieval) and cars not being allowed in lots of places. We were a couple of morons trying to figure out which was the right parking lot to park in where we wouldn't get towed and then frantically trying to figure out how to buy bus tickets from the tiny vending machine as the bus, which only ran once every 30 minutes, roared toward us. Neither of us is good managing small moments of stress but we do have minds like dry erase boards so once we got on the bus and got to Siena, the previous moments of crabbiness and chaos were history.

Siena has 17 districts that are associated with forces of nature and/or animals (which, incidentally, are not all magnificent creatures like you might expect--tigers and lions and such. Among the districts, or contrades, are the caterpillar, snail, and crested porcupine). We hopped off the bus in the dragon district, along the alleys of which we noticed these groovy dragon streetlights. Not exactly medieval, but cool, right?

We stopped for lunch at La Taverna di San Giuseppe, outside of which there was a big wooden wild boar, bearing a cloth? cape? t-shirt? reading Tuscan to the bone.

This lunch turned out to be yet another highlight of our trip. We were there on a Saturday and the place, which was dark and cozy and crowded, seemed to be full of Italian families settling in for a leisurely weekend lunch. Being no strangers to the leisurely lunch, either at home or abroad, we settled in as well for mixed bruschetta; triangalletti (like spanakopita but filled with spinach, ricotta, and truffles); gemelli with smoked mozzarella, sausage, and broccoli; and papparadelle in venison, zucchini, and chianti sauce. It was one of the most memorable meals of my life--not fancy, but delicious,  comfortable, and welcoming-- the type of place I'd love to live near.

After lunch, we stumbled back into the daylight to check out the town. Siena's history goes back to the Etruscans, who settled there around 900 BC. You might find it interesting to read about the city's history here. In the meantime, you can look at some of our pictures. This was one of the main squares.

Here's a view of the city.

 I think this was a convent, but I can't be sure. Don't forget I'd drunk half a bottle of wine before this.

Siena has its own Duomo, which is beautiful and scary. I'm often a little afraid of churches and this did not help matters.

There was a storm brewing as I took this...literally. We got drenched.

In front of the church they had this statue of Romulus and Remus and their wolf mama. That's another story you may find interesting if you haven't read about it, or, like me, needed a refresher from your Latin 101 class (yes, I took Latin).

The only thing about Siena that we didn't love was that it was really touristy. I know that sounds stupid, since we're tourists too. But, as anyone who lives in a place that draws tourists knows: tourists don't see the real place. Between the vendors hawking cheap junk on the street and all the restaurants and shops that clearly cater to foreign visitors (easily identified as the ones who skipped names and instead put up big signs that said: "Pizza! Pasta! Burgers!"), it can be difficult to navigate your way around the fake stuff. I often feel bad for tourists coming to San Francisco who end up at Fisherman's Wharf. I have lived here for more than 16 years and I have been there exactly once, by mistake.

Anyway, it's a reality of being a tourist. You depend on books, which, even when they're good, often don't get you to the places you don't know you want to go.

On our next day, we ventured to Chianti in Radda, where we found this spot for lunch.

We ate this: doesn't get any better.

I'm sorry to say this is the last picture I took in Tuscany. But as you know, I don't take pictures at night. So the wine bar where we went, which was also a centuries-old butcher shop, is something you'll have to imagine. And our last dinner there, at Mangiando Mangiando, will also have to live in your mind. At this mom-n-pop joint, we had some of the most delicious food of the trip: ribollita again, paparadelle with wild boar ragout, tagliatelli with pork sauce, and a side of cavalo nero. One of the best parts of the evening was surreptitiously observing the elderly couple next to us, who, as we sat down were enjoying an elaborate charcuterie plate with their wine. I didn't realize until they left that they had been at the end of their meal. Post starters, pastas, and dessert. Pork to finish a meal!  I wanted to run after them to see if they would adopt me. Those people knew how to live!

That's the thing, though. Italians all know how to enjoy life. Among the many things I brought back with me from the trip was the feeling that we, or I, waste a great deal of time just getting through things--making it through the work week for two precious weekend days. Hoping the weeks fly by until our next vacation. I suppose that's natural, particularly in America. But, I think it's something I'd like to change. Life is what's happening now.

And of course, at the end of the trip, no matter how tired we were of shlepping our suitcases and wearing the same clothes, and--dare I say it?--eating in restaurants, we started to dream about our next trip. Stay tuned...


  1. Samantha: A delightful ending to your Italian adventure. All three of these vignettes of Italian living and eating were delightful, and, of course, the natural beauty, both rustic and urban permeated your pictures. Plus, the writing is captivating with all your observations, appreciation and the "oh-so-you" asides. You and Danny are the perfect traveling companions -- fortunate indeed! Love,

  2. Now I want a BIG plate of Italian food & a LITTLE Italian car! I'm with you that, despite its name, antipasti can be served at any time. It can even be the entire meal itself! - Pete

  3. Mom: Thank you! I hope you make it to Italy one day, you would truly enjoy it.

    Pete: Yes, it can absolutely be an entire meal!

  4. You're killing me with these posts! Boring old California just doesn't stack up.

  5. you guys are too cute. i'm thinking americanized italian food is going to be a complete disappointment now. :)

  6. Sue: Tell me about it.

    grace: Yes, a little bit...

  7. Awesome journey! The moments of chaos and stress, well that is part of the journey too.
    Something you wrote at the end was a wake-up call for me...While traveling in Germany I was struck by the ability of people to really relax, enjoy a good meal. I had the same thoughts as you. Since my return, a few years ago, I ask for real vacation leave not a long weekend. I still struggle the work week waiting for the weekend but, I have learned to really vacation.

    Happy Holidays to you.


  8. Velva: Long weekends are nice, but to really feel you've escaped your routine, I think a week is necessary. Hope you have some solid time off to look forward to!

  9. Awww, what a nice cap to what sounded like a glorious trip. Siena sounds like a weird trip but at least you can say you experienced it. I love all the night-time food you got to enjoy, I can just imagine everything. Curious what's a agriturismo? Is it similar to renting a villa, or more like a big winery with rooms for rent? Either way, sounded like a nice way to experience the valley.

  10. Ben: An agriturismo is like a working farm, basically, where you can stay as a guest. Some of them are super rustic and you can pitch in and help. This one was on the fancier side, but they do make their own olive oils and wines on the premises.

    1. Oooh, never heard of them but sounds like a fun and unique experience. I'd totally do it as long as I didn't have to milk the cow for my meals. ;-)

  11. Lovely descriptions and photos. I laughed out loud when you said you and your husband have minds like dry erase boards. Great image!

  12. Zoom: Glad I made you laugh! Unfortunately, it's trues.

  13. Wow! HD, sounds like a perfect trip. I must know .....the lasagna ingredients were encased in the pasta wrap? I will be tortured by this until I figure it out......

  14. Hi Pam! Nice to see you here! Yes, the lasagne filling was wrapped up in the little sheets, like a pouch. Actually, I think there were little layers inside, but the whole thing was wrapped up in a sheet of pasta. It was divine--I'm sure you could recreate it with your excellent skills!