Fonteverde Thermal Spa in San Casciano Dei Bagni

September 17, 2017

What a lovely way to spend our last day in Tuscany…relaxing!  Today we visited the award-winning Fonteverde Thermal Spa.  Fonteverde was once a renaissance palace for the Grand Duke Ferdinando I de’ Medici.  Now it is a resort which overlooks the Val d’Orcia.  It is set atop a natural hot springs.  Visitors may enjoy the main pool, pay a premium to try additional pools of different temperatures, or select from a variety of treatments.

Most of our group paid extra to pick from a variety of pools, while a few of us hung out in the lower pool.  All pools had waterfalls and fountains which could be used to massage the body.  We arrived early and had most of the peaceful atmosphere to ourselves.

After our visit to the hot springs, we stopped in the nearby town, San Casciano Dei Bagni which owes its existence to the hot springs.  The village which offers lovely views of the countryside is also home to an excellent restaurant, Daniela.  We enjoyed the wonderful weather as we dined on the patio.  Our first course, a saccottino, was superb.  I can’t imagine the number of calories I consumed after digging into this crispy bag filled with potatoes, cheese, and ham and placed in a bowl of cream.  The presentation was fantastic!  Daniela served us a large salad with chicken for the second course…this was a welcome change from the normal foods.  Finally, we spooned pistachio and chocolate gelato into our mouths for dessert.  A diet is coming soon!

After our decadent lunch, we wandered around the small town.  A few ladies spotted some antique jewelry they liked through the window of a store that was closed, but a quick phone call summoned the owner to town within twenty minutes!  While they purchased their wares, a few of us checked out the church, Oratorio di Sant’Antonio and weaved through the back streets.  I love seeing the old walls, doors, windows, flower pots, and light posts.  What a nice day!  ETB

 

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A Day in Florence, Italy

September 16, 2017

Today we took a roadtrip from Fabro to Florence.  We were fortunate that our drivers could drop us off in Piazza della Repubblica which is centrally located between all the attractions.

The Piazza della Repubblica once served as the City’s main food market, but now is surrounded by nice cafés.  There is also a fun carousel for kids to ride.  We didn’t stay in the piazza long, as we had an agenda; for most people in the group it was shopping.  For me, I just wanted to see the sites.

First, our group headed toward the Duomo or Santa Maria del Fiora to see the City’s tallest and most famous building.  Its dome, designed by Brunelleschi and finished in 1463, was the largest of its time.  Its outer shell is supported by an inner shell.

We visited the inside of the cathedral a little later in day along with a steady line of tourists.  The line flowed quickly and soon, the cathedral cleared out so we could enjoy nice views of the nave and dome.  On the left-hand side of the church was a line to climb up the dome.  Outside the exit, was a line to climb the Campanile.  Had I realized these were options, I might have entered the Cathedral earlier as the crowd was much smaller when we were wandering around the outside upon arrival.

Next to the Duomo is the Baptistry with its distinguished bronze doors, dates back to the 4th century making it one of Florence’s oldest buildings.  The doors were commissioned to Ghiberti in 1401 after he won a competition against leading artists such as Donatello and Brunelleshci.  The panels were so different form Florentine art at the time, that the works are regarded as the beginning of the Renaissance.

From the Duomo we headed over to the leather market at Mercato Centrale, just past San Lorenzo Basilica.  Many of the ladies found purses for $25 and a variety of belts.  I almost got a purse, but of course the one I liked the most cost three times the majority of the handbags on the market.  I later learned, the quality of the $25 purses wasn’t great as the color began flaking off in a day!

I had enough of shopping so I talked Joy into visiting the Basilica di San Lorenzo and the connected Medici Chapels.  We only poked our head inside the Basilica as we entered a side door only for worshipers.  We went around the back, however, and paid the 8 euro entry fee to see the Medici Chapels.

The chapels were built in the 16th and 17th centuries as extensions to the church for the purpose of celebrating the Medicis, both parishioners of the church and Grand Dukes of Tuscany.  The octagonal chapel named Cappella dei Principi (or Chapel of Princes) is a mausoleum.  Tombs of six Medici Grand Dukes are spaced around the walls which are inlaid with semiprecious stone.

A corridor leads from the Cappella dei Principi to the New Sacristy which features statues carved by Michelangelo between 1520 and 1534, including the Madonna and Child. Lorenzo the Magnificent is buried here along with his murdered brother, third son, and grandson.

After visiting the chapels, we met up with the group who found more scarves to buy at a vendor on the edge of Piazza della Repubblica to walk to lunch at I’Cche’ c’e’ c’e’.  The restaurant was absolutely spectacular!  I highly recommend it.  The chef won a competition among several others and was rewarded for recreating Renassiance food.

 

We began with truffles and lard on toast.  I LOVE truffles, so I was in heaven eating this dish though it was very rich, so only one piece of toast was probably enough.  Next came soup ribollita which was divine.  I may try to recreate this dish.  Our third course was pasta with radicchio.  I couldn’t imagine this would be good, but I was wrong!  The pasta was excellent.  Our main course included meat, potatoes, and greens.  The potatoes were amazing.  Of course we weren’t through yet.  We finished with a fig and apple tart…delicious!  After this feast, we certainly didn’t need dinner!

From lunch we headed to Ponte Vecchio and the Pitti Palace.  Along the way, we stopped at the Piazza della Signoria.  The piazza is popular among the locals and tourists and is filled with statues that commemorate historical events that took place in the city.

Michelangelo’s famous David statue (a copy replaces the original), represents triumph over tyranny.  The Rape of the Sabine Women by Giambologna was carved out of a single block of marble.

After admiring the statues, we continued to Ponte Vecchio, the oldest bridge in the city.  The bridge, constructed in 1345, is the only bridge in Florence to have survived the bombings in World War II.  Once home to blacksmiths, butchers, and tanners who used the river for waste, it now features jewelers and goldsmiths.  I just liked the fact there were vendors in buildings on a bridge!

From the bridge, I wandered over to the Pitti Palace which was originally built for banker Luca Pitti who wanted to out do the Medicis.  Ironically, the building costs bankrupted Pitti, and the Medicis purchased the palace!  Now it exhibits many of the Medici collections and includes the Boboli Gardens.  I had hoped to visit the gardens, but the line to purchase tickets looked about twenty to thirty minutes long which would have only left me about thirty minutes to explore.  While disappointed to miss, just sitting in front of the palace is a nice place to people watch.

Soon we had to return to Piazza dei Repubblica for pick up, but not before we made a quick stop at Il Porcellino to rub its snout to ensure a return trip to Florence!

One place I would have liked to have visited, but didn’t as I ran out of time was Santa Croce where Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli are buried.  They actually have more meaning to me than the Medicis so I probably would have liked it better than the Medici Chapels though the chapels were beautiful.  Had I cut out shopping and shortened lunch by one hour, I suspect I could have seen all the sites mentioned, but I would have been on a march rather than enjoying the company of all the girls.  Florence is wonderful and leaving a few unseen sites will be an excuse to return!  ETB

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Tuscan Towns

While staying on the Tuscany/Umbria border, we took day trips to many towns of different sizes.  I think Pienza may have stuck out as my favorite, though each had its own unique qualities and specialties.

PIENZA

Pienza, located in the Val d’Orcia, was previously named Corsignano, and first referenced in documents from the 9th Century.  Corsignano was the birthplace of Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini who later became Pope Pius II from 1458-1464.  Once Pope, Piccolomini rebuilt his home village into a Renaissance town and named it after himself…Pienza.

Pienza’s piazza is bordered by four buildings…Palazzo Piccolomini, The Duomo, Palazzo Vescovile, and Palazzo Comunale (the town hall).  The Palazzo Piccolomini currently operates as museum.  With only two hours in the town and beautiful weather, I didn’t go in, but little did I know it was home to a rooftop garden!  The 7 euro entry fee with a free audio guide might have worth the price of admission.

well in front of the Palazzo

Instead I picked to visit The Duomo, its Baptistry called the Church of San Giovanni, and its underground labyrinth.  The Duomo, also known as the Cathedral of Pienza, was built atop the old, crumbling Church of Santa Maria in Corsignano.  Fragments of the church are on display in the Baptistry across from the high altar designed by Bernardo Rosellini.

The labyrinth, below the Baptistry, was creepy!  Narrow corridors and many, many flights of stairs led in multiple directions.  Fortunately, much of the area was closed off as the long hallways weaving in different ways did give me the sense I could get lost! In the labyrinth was also a neat photography exhibition.

From the piazza, I followed the main street past a variety of shops to the end of the walled city where I turned right on the last small street which took me to a beautiful view of Val d’Orcia.  A path paralleled the valley and the outer part of the town which I followed back to the Piazza.

After this, I zig-zagged around the charming side streets.  I strolled past cute residences, cool doors, lovely flower pots, decorative windows, religious shrines and through small squares as I admired this quaint, Renaissance town.  While I wandered around the side streets, most of the rest of the group shopped.  Pienza is known for its cheese, but the seasoned shoppers in our group found deals on scarves, dish towels, jewelry, and ceramics.

Doors

Windows

Other

MONTICCHIELLO

We finished our scheduled itinerary early one day, so we made an extra stop to Monticchiello, an unspoiled, ancient village in the heart of Tuscany.  The village is tucked behind its old towers and walls that kept enemies at bay.  The town is best known for its lovely views of the Tuscan hillside and its summer theater productions performed by the townspeople themselves!  The village is home to a church, charming balconies, archways and just a few shops that the avid shoppers in our group didn’t miss!

ORVIETO (an Umbrian town, not Tuscan)

Orvieto sits atop a cliff of tufo and is home to a spectacular cathedral, Duomo di Orvieto or the Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta.  Our drivers drove us all the way to the Piazza alongside the Cathedral, though most visitors start at the bottom of the volcanic hill and take an escalator up to the medieval town.

This 14th-century, Gothic style church, commissioned by Pope Nicholas IV is absolutely magnificent.  The outside of the church is carved in figurines which represent different sections of the Bible.  This way illiterates of the time were still able to read.  The first panel on the far left explains the Book of Genesis.  The second panel displays stories from the Bible.  The third panel depicts the Life of Christ, and the fourth panel shows the Final Judgment.

Inside the church is just as spectacular and is worth the nominal entry fee.  While the main part of the church is lovely, the frescoes found in the Chapel of San Brizio to the right of the nave are the most special.  These frescoes were painted by Luca Signorelli whose works were an inspiration to Michelangelo.

After visiting the church, we ventured Via Duomo and Corso Cavour to shop.  The shoppers in the group didn’t want to risk missing any stores as they sometimes close after lunch.  The shoppers picked out scarves, jackets, and jewelry among other things.  In the meantime, Joy and I window shopped, zig-zagged through side streets, stopped for lunch and walked all the way to Fortezza Albornoz to enjoy the views of the hills below.

Soon we backtracked to explore the other end of Corso Cavour as we headed to Pozzo della Cava, a well built in Etruscan caves at the behest of Pope Clement VII.  The self-guided tour took us through nine caves past Estruscan artifacts and the well, but I think I would have rather taken the guided tour of Orvieto’s underground, offered at the Piazza Duomo.  It seemed more extensive, approximately an hour rather than ten minutes, but the tour was only at certain times which didn’t work well for the whole group.  Under a time constraint, however, we got to see the Etruscan underground!

While most of the shops were open, a particular jewelry store closed for a few hours, so we asked to stay in Orvieto a little longer than the planned 3pm departure.  While we waited, we hung out at Enoteca al Duomo in the lovely weather.  Orvieto is a wonderful mid-sized town, and I believe a favorite for many on the trip!  ETB

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Tuscan Towns

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Scenes at the Villa

September 10-17, 2017

We spent most late afternoons and evenings enjoying the villa.  Many trails rain through the nearby hills.  Some trails remained relatively flat and followed a canal while others climbed through the shade of trees past vacant homes being renovated with cash.  Sunflowers and wildflowers we common sites.  When we weren’t walking, we were likely playing tennis, sitting by the pool, cooking, petting the friendly cats or enjoying apertivos and dining.

Morning and Afternoon Walks

Fun, Food, and Friends

Around the House

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Culinary Classes in Umbria, Italy

September 10-15, 2017

I came to Italy a Sous-chef and left Italy a Master chef!  Just kidding.  I’m neither a chef nor a baker, but with the amount of cooking we did at Il Colombaio, I’m certain I can get around the kitchen a little better now!

Bruschetta

Our first night at the Villa, we learned the Bruschetta making traditions in Italy, as well as how to properly pronounce the name of this tasty appetizer.

In Italy, bruschetta is grilled bread rubbed with garlic and topped with olive oil.  It is also commonly served with hummus or chickpeas, rosemary and cheese.  A third variation may be served with tomato, but this is not the primary way it is served like it is in the USA.

Pizza

In Umbria, pizza is generally made without cheese!  We had a lesson with Antonietta. After she prepared the dough, we each patted a large handful into blobs, let them rise and then hand pressed them into a rectangular pans.

Then different toppings were added to each pan which included just red sauce; just tomatoes and olive oil; onion, olive oil and rosemary; grilled vegetables; and red sauce with chunks of fresh mozzarella.

We probably threw Antonietta for a loop when we wanted to add some meat for protein, but she only spoke Italian, so whatever she thought didn’t get translated to us!

Pasta

Another day…another cooking lesson with Antonietta.  This time we made pasta. Antonietta made a big hole in a pile of flour and started adding eggs for the dough. She kneaded the dough mixture until she felt the right consistency.  Once it reached the correct consistency we rolled it out with a rolling pin.  Antonietta could make a perfect circle.  Ours weren’t quite as picturesque, but Kristi and Diana did a nice job.

With our dough, we made several types of pasta.  First, tortellini!  Antonietta had already made the pork filling (no cheese in tortellini in Italy).  Next, she cut circles of dough for us that we folded in half with filling, wrapped the half circle around our finger, pinched the ends together and then folded over the cap.  It was easier to make than I thought!

Then came crescent shaped ravioli that we closed together with the tongs of our fork. We already had good practice with filling the tortellini, so this was a quick success.

Antonietta continued with cannelloni.  She cut rectangles out of the dough and flash boiled it for ten seconds or less.  Only salt is added to water to boil pasta in Italy…no oil!  Also, the pasta is generally scooped out of the boiling water and is never rinsed. Antonietta scooped the rectangles out of the water.  We patted them dry, added ricotta cheese, and rolled them into a cylinder to make the cannelloni.

After cannelloni, we made tagliatelle.  Tagliare means to cut in Italian.  As such, tagliatelle is hand cut.  It is not run through a pasta cutting machine.  A circle of dough is folded on top of itself from two “sides” if circles have sides, so the result is a long, rectangle of folds.  Then, the dough is sliced thinly, lifted from the middle, and swung into a round cluster.  Antonietta could do this in seconds.  We took minutes! Regardless, it was fun, and it was a tasty dinner.

Crostata

Paola has a special recipe for cherry crostata.  She taught us how to make it.  The secret ingredient was cinnamon.  Once she made the dough, we pressed it into individual pans, added cherry preserves, marked our desserts with a distinguishing deocration, and brought them upstairs to be baked. Guess which one is mine!

Tiramisu

Irma is one of the folks who owns and runs Il Colombaio.  We got to learn from her mother, Anna, how to make Tiramisu.  What surprised me the most was to learn the meaning of Tiramisu…”lift me up” or “pull it up”.  It was served to clients in brothels to invigorate them!  I didn’t know that, but it was fun to hear as we learned how to make the dessert.

First we made mascrapone cream by hand stirring in the same direction mascarpone, egg yolks and sugar.  Then we carefully folded in stiffened egg whites.  Next we spread a little mascarpone cream on the bottom of the pan.  On top of the cream, we layered lady finger wafers briefly dipped in coffee.  On top of the wafers, we added more cream and a sprinkle of cocoa.  After three layers of lady fingers, we finished off our tiramisu with distinguishing decorations to tell which dessert belong to each person. Because of the meaning of tiramisu, I put lady fingers in a form of penis!  ETB

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Tastings in Tuscany!

September 12-15, 2017

all we do is EAT in Italy

Well, it’s diet time…For American’s I think Tuscany translates to indulgent dining.  And when we weren’t savoring three course meals, we were tasting truffles, olive oil, cheese, and wine!

Truffle Tasting

Truffles…YUM!  I LOVE them, so I was very excited to visit Doriana, a truffle expert in the region.  Doriana, who has a store full of everything truffle, including sliced, diced, spread and mixed with other vegetables, buys her truffles by the pound from regional farmers who bring them to her store.

The farmers use dogs, generally mutts who have a good nose to hunt for these treasures which can be found a few inches or a foot underground during the spring and the fall.  The white truffles are more rare than the black truffles as they only grow in October.  While the farmers are always out searching with their dogs which can be worth thousands of dollars, many times the best time to find the truffles are during a full moon!

Doriana greeted our group of ten graciously.  A table was already set with plates of breads with a variety of spreads including plain truffles, truffles with asparagus, and truffles with olives just to name a few.  We learned which spreads or sauces would taste best with pasta or topped on a ribeye.  Of course, in typical Italian fashion, we washed down our nibbles with wine and expresso!

At the end of the tasting, none of left empty handed.  We all had a few jars of rich, tasty truffles to savor back in the States.

Olive Oil Tasting

It’s amazing how inexpensive olive oil is in Italy!  Too bad Rita didn’t ship, or our group of ten may have bought her out of the varietal olive oil gift pack.

Generally, olive oil is made with a blend of different olives; black, green and red.  Rita had an idea to make varietal olive oil in order to taste the flavor of each type of olive. She planted her olive trees fifteen years ago, and is the only one our tour guide knows of who produces both a blend and varietal olive oil.

We got to enjoy the afternoon at Rita’s operation.  We wandered through her olive groves, picked perfectly ripe figs right off the trees to eat with our picnic lunch, and admired the lovely views while also learning about her olive oil endeavor.

Cheese Tasting

Our sheep farm visit was very interesting!  Sheep in Italian in pecora, as such today were learned how to make pecorino cheese.

The sheep farmer we visited owns 1,000 sheep.  There are two seasons…breeding season and milking season.  The milking season lasts for five months.  Each female sheep produces a 1/2 liter of milk twice day.

To make the cheese, a 100 liter vat is filled with milk that is mixed with enzymes, bacteria, and any flavor like truffle or pepper.  The mixture is squirted into baskets which are placed on a tray which is moved into a warming storage room where the cheese ferments.  After about twelve hours, the cheese is moved to a cold storage room to stop the fermenting process.

The following day, the aging process begins.  The cheese may be aged for months or over a year.  Some of it is packed in walnut leaves or grasses to add different flavors.

After learning about the process, we were invited into a tasting room where we tried a fresh cheese, eight different aged cheeses, and ricotta mixed with sugar for dessert. Most of us ended up liking a six month old aged cheese.  It was quite a tasty and fun lunch!

Wine Tasting

Cantina Murogrosso was just a quarter mile down the road from our villa, so we walked to the winery for a lovely tasting with Paola, the sommelier but also an assistant to our tour guide.

The grapes were just harvested (early due to the drought), and we arrived just in time to see them working with the giant tanks of grape juice, soon to be wine!  The winery is expecting a good year.  With the drought, the grapes weren’t plentiful, but the quality of the grape was excellent.

After wandering through the vineyard, we made it to the tasting room.  We tasted two whites, a rosé, and two reds with breads, cheese, and meats.  Paola advised us to save the rich cheese for the rich red wine.  We also learned that it is important to hold the stem of the wine glass as not only do our hands warm the wine, but the oils from our hands can transfer through glass which can change the flavor of the wine.  She is not a fan of stemless wine ware!

In addition, the rich red wine needed to breathe for at least two hours!  I really enjoyed the full-bodied red wine that included the same type grapes and blend of a Brunello though it could not bear the name as the vineyard did not fall in the specific region.

Cantina Murogrosso is small winery and produces only about 8,000 bottles a year. They hand pick all their grapes which means humans are choosing the best grapes and pruning them before they are placed in the bucket.  Large wineries which use machines, mix together all the grapes, mold, bugs and more!  By hand picking the grapes, they don’t have to add as many chemicals to kill all the bugs, bacteria, and mold either.  In addition, since they don’t commercially ship to the USA, they aren’t subject to all the sulfite requirements.  As such, I could drink a whole glass without getting a headache.  What a fun evening!

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A Day in Montepulciano, Italy

September 11, 2017

A Girls Trip to Tuscany

My tennis partner Ann organized a girls trip to Tuscany.  Ten of us came from near and far.  Some arrived in Italy early; others arrived the day we were transported to Tuscany from Rome.  With the exception of Mary, most of us enjoyed a smooth arrival to Rome not counting the deluge of water falling from the sky!

We took two vans to Il Colombaio, our villa on the border of Tuscany and Umbria. We settled in for a lovely evening of food and drinks and prepared for our first full day in Tuscany in Montepulciano.

Montepulciano is a medieval and Renaissance town that sits atop a 2,000 foot limestone ridge in southern Tuscany.  It is renowned for its pici pasta and Vino Nobile wine.  Our drivers delivered us directly to its Piazza Grande formed in the typical medieval fashion with a church, the city hall, and a wealthy man’s residence with a portico below for socializing and doing business.  On a side note, the FREE public bathrooms were nearby (a nice change from the Amalfi Coast).

The church which borders the square is called the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta and is also known as the Duomo of Montepulciano as it is the most important church in the town.  Here is a link to an interesting article discussing the difference in Italian Church names:  chiesa, basilica, catedrale, and duomo: Is it a church or a cathedral?

After looking around the square, we visited Rameria Cesare Mazzetti.  Rameria means copper smith, and Cesare is a famous one.  He hand makes a variety of copper kitchen ware and decorations.  His craft has been passed down through his family for generations.  He still uses his grandfather’s stamps and tools today which are over 100 years old.

Cesare buys his copper from Chile.  It is certified in London and is then sent to Italy. He receives it in forms of rough globs and thin sheets.  He hand pounds the copper into the appropriate shape and depending on its function adds pure tin.

While copper requires a little more attention in the kitchen, it offers distinct advantages and professional chefs from around the world commission work with Cesare.  Both the shape and the thickness of the copper is very important for the pots to transmit both high and uniform heat for cooking.  In order to withstand the heat, the pots require the correct number of beats with the hammer!

In addition to being excellent heat conductors, copper also adds iron to water, so those who are anemic can add cold water to a copper pitcher and eventually get the iron they need without taking medicine.

Cesare was quite the character and a rather horny old man.  He wanted a kiss from every lady after he pretend branded everyone’s buttox before we left his laboratory to see his store up the street. As a parting gift, we made a copper decoration with flower petals, our initials, and the date. It was nice and creative!

After visiting his store, we wandered the streets of Montepulciano.  The views of the rolling Tuscan hills covered in olive groves and vineyards were lovely.  I wandered around the town looking for interesting photos, while the shoppers in the group visited the row of stores to find some nice leather, jewelry, and olive wood cutting boards just to name a few items purchased.

Many of us also explored the Città Sotterranea.  Here we weaved through passage ways filled with giant barrels of Vino Nobile produced by Ercolani.  The underground city included a crypt, the well of love, old olive crushing equipment and combs used for sheeps’ wool.  I loved wandering through the maze of rooms.

After the morning in the walled town, our drivers provided a short ride to Ristorante la Grotta, a Michelin Star restaurant located at the base of the town across from the Chiesa di San Biagio.  Courtesy of Ann, we enjoyed a long, savory lunch before heading back to the villa where we took an afternoon walk through the Tuscan hillsides before we ate and drank the night away.  ETB

At the Villa

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A Day in Montepulciano, Italy

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