Italy Day 12: Bagno Vignoni (Spa Town), Pienza, and Montepulciano ~ Southern Tuscany

In CategoryTravels

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Tuscan Countryside

We departed Chianciano early for the day’s exploration.  The Tuscan countryside was a delight for the senses.  The crisp, fresh, air, beautiful golden wheat fields waving in the gentle breeze, peaceful quiet, and the texture of nature, are the images forever imprinted in my mind.  I absolutely love Tuscany!

famous image of zig zag cypress trees in Tuscany

Even the smallest of cypress trees are very expensive, so to have this splendid lined driveway full of them is surely a sign of great wealth.

Bagno Vignoni – Spa Town

Our first stop was in Bagno Vignoni, which is a spa town that has natural hot springs.

Bagno Vignoni

Our group got to soak our feet in this very hot water bath that ran through canals, while enjoying the surrounding views. Other than that, there really wasn’t a whole lot to do in this very small town. It was quite peaceful however.


Pienza
On the road to Pienza, we stopped and took some more photos of the gorgeous countryside.

famous photo op

The one particular place that generated a lot of interest, especially amongst the men, was this gated home, with two prominent rows of cypress trees in the wheat fields below.  It is the location of a legendary, running-through-the-wheat-fields scenes in the movie,  “Gladiator”.   Molto Bella!

Gladiator scene


Pienza is known as the “perfect renaissance town”, and is quaint and quiet. It also is known for Pius II Pope’s summer palace, built in 1459.  He was one of 18 children … wow!  (Sounds like the Duggers.)

Since photos weren’t allowed inside on the tour, I only got photos of the outer gardens and views.  His palace had beautiful carved wood, but felt depressing. There was a weapon room that the boys would of loved. It was filled with a great collection of torture items.

view from the palace

After a quick lunch in a corner cafe … I ate a ham, mozzarella and tomato sandwich and Dave ate a porcetta (spicy pork) sandwich, we departed at 1:30 to go to the next town.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot … I had my first experience with a squat toilet. Eww! For those of you who don’t know (I didn’t) it is simply a hole in the ground, in which you try your very best to take good aim and go. It was very, very, unsanitary, which is something I can’t stand. I tried to wash off my shoes in the sink, but there was no soap, so I felt slimy and wanted a Clorox wipe desperately! (For my shoes, not for me you know!) Yuck!

Montepulciano

Montepulciano is one of Tuscany’s highest hill towns, and its fortifications offered broad views over Umbria and Southern Tuscany (from tour guide).  This town is famous for its wine.  It is believed in Italy that all foods should come from the same soil.  They don’t cross wine from another region with their food from their own region.  Chianti wines make this region famous.  There are 70,000 acres of vineyards between Florence and Siena that grow the grapes for this wine.

lovely door and flowers

Since this was the highest hill town, it boasted splendid views of the countryside below.

There was a scene in the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun,” where the young Polish man performed the flag throwing in the Piazza Grande. Here is a photo of that area.

Piazza Grande ~ Montepulciano

We went on a self-tour of a wine cellar. I can’t believe how many stairs we had to go down in order to get to the huge wine barrels. It was kinda creepy down there and really quite dark too.

This wine is “Noble Wine,” and is considered to be quite good. I tasted it and thought … meh! Of course this is only because I wouldn’t be able to tell an exquisite wine from a cheapo one, and I’m not a big fan of wine drinking.

You may have noticed that I have a great fondness for the glorious flowers all over the many Italian towns we visited. Aren’t they just so refreshing, set against the old plastered walls? Love, love, love!

Italian friends knitting, and embroidering

Truly one of my most memorable experiences happened when Dave and I were wandering down quaint little cobbled streets in Montepulciano.  We stumbled upon three little old Italian ladies enjoying their needlework while chattering away.  Of course I had to stop and admire their work since needle arts are one of my passions.  The one woman on the right was very wary of me, but once she saw my joy and admiration of their work, she began to smile.  They only spoke Italian and I only could say a few key phrases like “Molto Bella” – very beautiful.  Through gestures and smiles, we began to understand one another perfectly.  I hope someday, when I reach their ages, I’ll be able to pass the afternoon with my best friends while knitting something I adore.  I absolutely loved the glimpses of the day to day life of Italians.

mosaic tile art

We happened upon this man who was sitting in his studio creating these amazing mosaic pieces of art.  He had a huge spread of tiny tile pieces and was selecting and placing them one at time, with a pair of tweezers.  He had the patience of a saint.  I wish I could afford this particular piece of art since irises are dear to me because they were my deceased Grandmother’s  favorite flowers.

It was back to the hotel after a long day in Tuscany.  We had dinner at the hotel and once again sat with Troy, Leigh and their parents for dinner.  The conversation was entertaining as usual, and then it was back to the room to get some rest for our trip into Rome the next day.

Buonanotte ~ Goodnight!

Italy Day 11: Southern Tuscany – San Gimignano – Siena – Chianciano Terme

In CategoryTravels

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

San Gimignano

fragrant flowers everywhere

outer wall

Ciao!

Today we started off with an hour and a half bus ride through the tranquil region of Tuscany.  Our first destination was San Gimignano ~ a smallish village, where we admired the Salucci Towers, Chigi Towers and Cathedral.  This town had an outer wall, which seemed to be rather common in this region.


Photographing these beautiful small Italian towns was amazing.  There was beauty everywhere!


Yup, it's a real boar!

Somehow this guy doesn’t make that scrumptious-looking ribbon pasta look more appetizing!

There is so much texture in these Italian villages, with the cobblestone roads, and old plastered walls. You definitely know you’re not in the States anymore.

view from the look-out

We took a short, but very steep hike up “La Rocca” (steep stairs) to get the most magnificent views of the Tuscan countryside. Our views were as far as the eye could see from the top of this stone look-out. Well worth it!

Is that tower growing out of Dave's head?


Exploring on our own was one of our favorite things to do. We always found very interesting shops and evidence of daily life in each place that we visited.

Although there weren’t many large grassy areas in these villages, there always were beautiful displays of flowers and greenery. So, so pretty!

laundry day~ I love the simplicity of this

Apparently each town is well-known for something, and in San Gimignano they’re famous for their gelato. They were world champions for multiple years. We can proudly say that we devoured the most creamy and tasty gelato on the planet. With our experience as our evidence, we strongly agree in the town’s reason for fame.

world's best gelato (thanks Vanna aka Dave)

too many choices

My choice was berries of the forest (much prettier in Italian – frutta de rosca … I think), which included strawberries, raspberries and blackberries. Very refreshing on this hot day.  Isn’t this display absolutely luscious?

Siena

When you hear Siena, you think of the earthy, reddish color … huh?  Well that is the covenant color, and is in abundance in the medieval hill town of Siena.  The emblem that can be seen all over town is the “She Wolf” suckling two infants.  There is historical significance to this dating way, way back.


In the center of town is the medieval public square, Piazza del Campo, which is shell shaped. The population here is about 50,000.

Campos Square - Siena

Twice a year the “Palio”, a medieval horse race, happens in Campos Square. Each of the 17 “contrade,” or neighborhoods, participate. Prior to the race itself, horses are led into church to be blessed. If the horse relieves itself while there, it is considered a sign of good luck … gross! The racers ride bareback around the square, while the audience is packed in the center like sardines. It can be quite dangerous for both riders and the audience, as you can imagine.

only a poster of the "Palio" horse race

The trophy for winning is a banner of the Virgin Mary. Huh?


We were spoiled by this scenery as we meandered through the streets while enjoying a slice of one of Italy’s tastiest pizza pies. YUM!
A local guide named Nicky took us on a tour through the zebra striped Cathedral of Siena.

Cathedral facade - Siena

Isn’t the outside of this Cathedral stunning?  I still can’t get over how ornate and intricate many of Italy’s churches are!  This cathedral’s interior boasts the fine art work of Donatello, Bernini and Michelangelo himself.

zebra striped stone, Gothic style Cathedral

The day was scorching hot, and dipping into the interior of this gorgeous Cathedral offered cool relief.  We were able to lean up against the cool marble striped pillars, and admire her beauty.  There were lovely frescoes, statues, brilliant mosaic art and stained glass, as well as pretty inlaid tile floors.


The ceiling was so lovely. The Piccolominis were a noble family who had their own chapel inside the cathedral, with paintings made by Raphael’s students. Their alter had four sculptures done by Michelangelo. The details were unbelievable!

Michelangelo's sculptures on the Piccolomini alter

Look at the intricate mosaic work on the ceiling of the Piccolomini’s library ceiling.  Can you imagine reading or studying in there? There were so many stories that were told through this gorgeous art.  Beautiful indeed!

overload of beauty

There were so many pieces of art work everywhere you looked.  The stained glass depicts the last supper.


After enjoying this Cathedral, we were able to snap a few photos of some points of interest: a Ferrari … (for the boys), and children playing … (for me).

We left Siena via bus and arrived at our hotel, the Grande Albergo Fortuna, in the spa town of Chianciano Terme. The grounds were very nicely landscaped with lovely views of the “old town” nestled on the hillside across the road. There was a refreshing pool, but there was no air conditioning in our hot, hot, room … again! What a drag! After voicing a a complaint to our tour guide, she was able to upgrade us to a suite with two bathrooms and a living room. SCORE! … especially since there was air conditioning (not great) in there.

This visual will forever be etched upon my mind. I can’t believe this was the view from our hotel room. Whoa!

view from hotel

After a little time on our own to relax, we boarded the bus for a dinner excursion at a Tuscany farmhouse ~ Ristorante Casale.

view from Ristorante Casale

We dined with our favorite Australian family – Norris, Faye, Leigh and Troy. Whenever we were with them, there was nothing but hilarious laughing and fun. Tonight was no different. When we were eating a delicious pasta dish, Troy reminded us that there was a duck sauce on it. Remember that Troy and I thought we saw a duck’s foot on the platter of food at the monastery the night before? It came back to haunt us! A few minutes later, I noticed a little, black hard thing on my plate, and Troy and I thought it was a duck’s eye. We all broke out in hilarious, uncontrollable laughter, which got the attention of our fellow (not as fun) diners. Troy then saw two more “duck eyes” on her plate, which only fueled the hysterical roar. Then, her mother Faye, started coughing and Troy said it was likely due to a duck feather stuck in her throat. We all burst out laughing again, and that was enough to spin us out of control with the giggles. I’m surprised we didn’t get kicked out of there! There is one thing for sure … whenever we dined with the Aussie’s, we were the table having the very most fun!

There was dancing tonight too, but it was to the horrid music of a lounge lizard singer. He was so very awful! We made the best of that inferior music and had a good time anyway.

We arrived back at the hotel at 10:30 ish and then we heard a knock on our door. It was Leigh inviting us to have drinks on the patio overlooking the pool. Of course we had to say yes! After all, we were the coolest bunch of people on our tour. Only Andie (tour guide), Maria (cool USA Italian from the East coast) and Troy and Leigh (awesome Aussie sisters) were privy to the after party. We talked about the culture of Italian men and their mistresses, drugs, and lots of other interesting Italian cultural conversations. We were having such a good time, and were so loud with our laughter that the hotel management basically kicked us out, due to noise complaints from the other guests. Ooops!  We finally got to bed around 1:00 a.m. and we needed to be up for breakfast at 6:30. Short night sleep, but very worth it!

Today’s events were many and very tiring. What wonderful, memorable experiences.

Ciao bellas!

Tomorrow is the hot baths of Bagno Vignoni, and Pienza.