Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Touring Tuscany

The famously pretty Tuscan countryside was lush and green in its spring-time glory.  As we drove out of Florence, we saw undulating landscapes dotted with Tuscany's signature cypress tress, vineyards and olive trees stretched out all around us.  We spent most of our time in the Chianti area, home to the famous Italian wine, that is dotted with small farms producing dairy, meat and wines.

Our first stop was in Siena.  A city with an interesting past!  First settled by the Etruscans who brought in advanced irrigation skills to previously 'unfarmable' lands, this city went through a downturn during Roman rule.  It came to prominence only much later as a trading post in the pilgrims' path that connected northern Europe to the major Christian pilgrimage locations in Rome and further south.  Two very interesting sights to behold were that of the world's oldest functioning bank and the hospital, both of which served the thousands of pilgrims that passed through this city during those times.

Siena also has a quirky side exemplified by the Palio horse races and the concept of Contrades, where one owes lifelong allegiance to one of seventeen groups that have names like Goose and Caterpillar!  There are elaborate signs, banners, etc. and of course the annual race for honor during the Palio.

What I will remember most though is the unique texture and taste of the Ricciarelli, a unique Sienese biscuit made of flour, egg white, sugar, honey and powdered almond.   If you ever visit Siena, make sure you get a box of these.  The best place to get them is at Pasticcerie Sinatti which is located near the tower in the main square.

Our next stop was at a Chianti vineyard and farm.  After a short tour of the wine-making process and the farm animals (that included a rather foul-tempered cow!), we sat down for a community lunch and wine-tasting session.  We loved the food and drinks so much, we came back home with bottles of their wines, olive oil, pasta and cantuccini.  Yes, cantuccini, the fabulous Italian biscotti that makes for the most pleasing dessert when dunked into glasses of the sweet Vin Santo wine.

We were then off to San Gimignano, one of the best preserved small medieval hill-towns of Tuscany. Known as the Medieval Manhattan because of its many tower-houses, this quaint little town reminded me of my trip to Brugge in Belgium a few years back.  Those days, people build their houses vertically not only for security reasons but also to show off their social status. I certainly don't envy their daily routine up and down those steep stairs!

At San Gimignano, we discovered ..., which had won the prize for Italy's best gelateria. The long line to get to one turned out to be worth every bit the effort.  The texture, the flavors and the taste were impeccable.

Finally, we made a brief halt at Pisa - of the leaning tower fame.  Pisa was not on our itinerary initially, but we ended up going there.  The surprise for me was the fact that the leaning tower is one among a group of several co-located buildings that are as much (or more) significant historically.  However, the engineering error made this tower more famous than its neighbors!

Next in this series: Dining in Florence
Previously in this series: Home of the Medici

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