Thursday, October 1, 2009

A trip through Tuscany

Now that Helen has gone home we plan to slow down for a few days. The last five weeks has been pretty tiring for everyone, but we really did want her to see as much as she could with a good variety of experiences thrown in.
We have ten days before we meet up with Donna in Zagreb and so have been pouring over Earth Google and through the Lonely Planet guides trying to decide which way to head. In the end, we have decided to stay a little longer in Italy and try to see some more of the interior.

On where we make many of our accommodation bookings, we have found a traditional family run working farmhouse, offering bed & breakfast. Azienda Agrituristica Il Sarale in Montone is near Perugia and Assisi and supposedly ideally situated to explore the beatiful landscape and hilltop towns of Umbria. And to cap it all off, there are lots of great comments about the authentic homegrown Umbrian food cooked by the owners Sarah and Alessandro. So we have made a booking for 2 nights and will head off via two really intriguing looking little towns to the south of us - San Gimignano and Colle di Val D'Elsa.

It never fails to amaze me how resourceful people can be. I mean just look at how the washing is hung out in the apartment blocks behind ourhotel. Leaving Florence was easy - the Vivahotel Fleming Novoli was close to the airport and the motorway - just two turns and we were headed south east back past Perugia again and into the hills of Umbria.

The colours of autumn are shining through the trees everywhere now. Even though it is still unseasonally warm (so everyone says) it has cooled off enough for the leaves to turn. We come upon Colle di Val D'Elsa first - travelling through the floor of a narrow valley that is heavily treed with groves of olives - and yet the soil looks thin and lacking. Up on the ridges are the towns and villages that we all have a picture of, in our heads - these are the towns of Tuscany and Umbria and if you have ever seen the movie 'Under the Tuscan Sun' then you will know exactly what I am referring to.

As we come up the hill to the town, we get our first glimpse of San Gimignano a couple of hills away and we know that we were right to come this way! Colle di Val D'Elsa on the other hand seems a much larger town. We enter it through quite a bit of new housing developments that include some large residences with all the trimmings, multi-car garages, pools etc. Hmm, some money here we think. And then we round a bend towards Il Centro and see the outer walls of the old town. Can't turn down this road, but its not long until I find one I can take. Heaps of traffic rushing - away from the Centre?? Gosh, its lunch time - again! Everything seems to be locked up as tight as a drum including the couple of crystal shops we see (the town is known for its crystal) - that is everything except the restaurants - and we are not hungry yet. So we take a drive through the back streets to get a bit of a feel for the place. We won't stop now though as we don't have time to wait for things to re-open.

So we head back down the road to the turnoff for San Gimignano. Siuated in the Siena ara of Tuscany, this is certainly one memorable town. It is visible for miles due to its towers that loom above the rest of the town, and over the surrounding landscape. It has something of a magical draw, pulling the curious tourist closer and closer. Parking is a premium and this shold have been fair warning to us that there were plenty of people there today. In the end, Michael takes the car to park it and I alight at the middle of the ancient gates. There is no way that I want to add any more of an uphill walk to the day - we already know that inside the town walls that there is a climb to the top!

And yes, there are plenty of tourists wandering the streets. There is a storm brewing and true to form, as soon as we are up in the main square, waiting for the tourist office to re-open at 3 pm (its now 1:40 pm), that storm hits. We have to feel some pity for the poor market vendors who are in the middle of packing up when the rain arrives. The two main squares are emptying of traders and are now quite filled with rubbish. Its not long before they are all gone and the council workers arrive to clean up after them - in the rain, and in their little trucks and sweepers - although there is one fellow with a twig broom studiously sweeping everything into the path of the mechanical sweeper. Michael goes to the City Hall to climb the Torre Grande - the tallest tower in town. He reports that the tower is filled with the remnants of painted walls and that the views over the town and the surrounding countryside are marvelous - marred only by the rain. While he is up there the storm hits with all its might. No lightening, but plenty of thunder bellowing around the ridge and echoing off the stone buildings like a ball thrown by some petulant child. It feels trapped, and those of us waiting it out in the lee of the small building overhangs feel just as trapped!

Given that we have to wait and decide now is as good a time as any to have some lunch. So we walk through to the Piazza and stop at the Bar La Cisterna which looks out across the square with its covered well. We browse through the menu that is very reasonably priced and finally settle on:
Zuppa Toscana (Vegetable soup with bread [in the soup]) Michael
Mediterranea Insalatone - insalate miste, pomodoro, uovo sode, tonno, acciughe, olive nera (Mediterranean Salad - mix of salad, tomato, eggs, tuna, anchovies and olives) Michael
Panini Boscaiolo - speck e provola (Robusto bread roll with speck and provolone cheese) Maria
Matched with hot coffee it was the perfect lunch on a dampish day.

Lunch done, the rain has eased a bit but not before it has chased a good number of the tourists off. So we figure that its a good time to go and have a look at the church. We had not originally planned to do this, but I was looking through the local book while Michael was climbing the tower and it really looks like something else. We pay the entry fee and walk into a space that is fully covered in frescoes of the Old and New Testaments. These churches are few and far between and were painted so as to educate the masses as to the messages of the Bible. It includes (behind a sneezing Michael) frescoes depicting the horrors of hell.

That done, we venture back into the main Piazza to find that the storm has completed its venting and left in its wake a crystal clear afternoon with no hint of the haze that had been apparent that morning. Michael goes back to the Tower and begs another climb - the same sentry is on duty and he winks and ushers Michael back inside without him having to buy another ticket - thank goodness for common sense and decency!

Back down he comes for the second time and it is now time for us to head over to Città di Castello in the Umbria region where we are spending the next two nights (we might even extend it if we like what we find!) The drive is about 2 hours 15 minutes and as there is no exact address we have Kate programmed with the latitude and longitude coordinates. We pass quite close to Perugia again (where we stayed en-route to Assisi a week or so ago) and to Siena. We pass lots more of the walled towns on ridges and castles and other strongholds. Seems like there has been a bit on conflict in this region over time!

Just after 6 pm we turn off the motorway and on to the back roads travelling along rich crop areas with lots of decaying sunflowers (god how they stink) and believe it or not - hectare after hectare of tobacco! We climb ever higher into the hills around Lake Trasimeno until finally Kate directs us in to the middle of a field. Well, at least that is where she thinks the coordinates I have input are. We just continue up the road following the signs for Azienda Agrituristica Il Sarale. At first we actually go passed it and on turning around, find ourselves tapped momentarily by a shepherd moving his flock of sheep. There is a lame one at the rear - don't rush girl, I know just how you feel!

We wave as we pass them on the run back to the farm. Sarah and Alessandro and their two young sons greet us warmly and Sarah offers a glass of wine on the patio at the back of the house as we watch the last of the suns rays setting. We are shown to a ground floor family room, just off the dining room. Lovely, no stairs!
Dinner is served at 8:30 pm - an antipasti plate of local cheeses and home cured meats folowed by a primo plati of Maltagliati pasta with heted vine ripened tomatoes, then a secondi plati of thick slices of roast pork served with spinach. Dessert was a rich chocolate cake served with coffee and liquers (grappa). And yes, the reports on and their claims on their website ring very true - great provincial food! We share our meal with other guests who are staying for as little as one night right up to ten nights. And yes, we have booked for another two days!

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