Category Archives: Italy 2015

Arriverderci, Italia

After six wonderful weeks in Italy, we are heading home tomorrow.  Today we left Siena to return to  Florence for our flight home.   We made a brief stop in the lovely town of Volterra.  Although it was raining and cold, we enjoyed exploring a little bit of the town.  We toured the Palazzo Viti, a beautiful home that is still occupied by Signora Viti (I think she sold us our tickets) and ate one last traditional Tuscan meal.


Paul and David were a great team navigating and driving through the many hill towns we visited this last week.


In addition to the wonderful memories I am taking home, I am leaving with vivid impressions and greater understanding of this beautiful area of Italy. Regional loyalty and distinction is strong.  Early in our trip an Italian told us he couldn’t understand Italian spoken by people from other parts of Italy because it was so different.  We experienced a little bit of this difference in Siena when a waitress explained to us how to pronounce “grazie” and it was not how we heard it pronounced in Firenza.

There is no such thing as Italian food; there is regional food.  At lunch today our waitress told us about dishes that were typical of Volterra, not Tuscany where Volterra is located.  Firenze and Siena are about an hour apart, but other than gelato, the deserts are very different.  I liked Siena desserts better.

Italian men will kiss your hand (at least chefs and restaurant owners do.)  Italian is easier to learn than I thought (wish I had spent more time on this.)  Tuscany really does look like all the paintings of it.  Italians live and work in buildings that are older than our country.

My final impression of our six weeks in Tuscany? Bellissimo!


Last Day in Siena

Paul took David, Julie and me on our final Siena walk-about this morning.  Looking up at the Duomo, I thought about how our morning hikes have been a great way to explore new areas.

Last Day duomoWe ate lunch at Zest, a great little place that is on such a steep hill all of the outside tables and chairs have slanted legs.  I felt like if I stood up too quickly, I would go flying into Paul’s lap.  The leek, Gorgonzola cheese and caramelized onion tart was amazing.

Last day-lunch

We had some sights left on our Opa Sci combo ticket, so we spent the afternoon at the Baptistry and the Duomo Museum.  The beautiful baptismal font is decorated with works by Ghiberti, Donatello and others.

Last day-babtistryThe Duomo Museum was our last stop.  The museum is housed in what was planned to be the expansion of Siena’s cathedral until the Black Death in 1348 took 4/5 of Siena’s population. The cathedral was never completed.

Last day viewSome of the artwork in the cathedral was moved to the museum and replaced with copies, giving museum visitors a chance to the see the artwork up close.  The beautiful stained-glass window that was above the altar is now at eye-level in the museum.

last day window

There were two 15th century paintings by Sano di Pietro that looked as if they had been painted more recently than 600 years ago.

Last day painting

There were a number of rooms filled with treasures, including some very ornate reliquaries.  One of them held the skull and some bones of St. Clement, the Martyr.

Last day-reliquary

We ate dinner in a building that is 900 years old.

Last day dinner



Monteriggione and the Via Francigena

Almost every Italian we asked about recommended villages to visit in Tuscany said, “Go to Monteriggione.”  Built in 1214-1219 by the Sienese as a defense against the Florentines, the little walled village sits almost totally intact on the side of a hill.


Walking through the village gate is like stepping back 800 years in time.

Monteregione gate

The simple Romanesque church sits on the Piazza Roma,

Monteregione church

It was fun to walk along parts of the wall and imagine sentries watching for threats.  Monteriggio is a little village and in less than an hour, we had seen all of it.

Monteregione tower

The Via Francigena passes through Monteriggioni, so we were able to combine hiking part of the trail to Siena with our trip to Monteriggioni.  Running from Cantebury to Rome, the ancient pilgrim route was first mentioned in a document in 876.  In ancient times, the route connected abbeys, not cities.

Monteregione Via sign

Designated a Cultural Route in 1994 by the Council of Europe, the routes are being more clearly identified to make hiking the trail easier.  The Region of Tuscany is leading the way to recover the Italian leg of the route.

Monteregione Via

Up hills and over very rocky paths, we passed beautiful stretches of Italian countryside unlike any we had experienced before.

Monteregione Via gate

We went by vineyards and olive trees.  As we walked by one farmhouse, an older woman sitting at the window waved to us.

Monteregione Via 1

Some day I hope to hike from village to village along this historic route.

Monteregiono Deb

On the way back to our apartment we stopped at the Church of San Domenico.  I had read about St. Catherine of Siena, one of the patron saints of Europe and learned that her head is displayed on an alter in the church.   It was hard to imagine how this would look.

Monteregiono head

We ended our lovely day on Il Campo, the town square of Siena.

Monteregione campo

Siena Duomo

Sitting atop Siena’s highest point, the Duomo is a beautiful white and green-marble delight.  As I often do here, I look at this 13th century structure in awe of what they accomplished with the available tools.  Recognized as one of the most fascinating facades in all of Italy, the cathedral is the most impressive building in Siena.

Siena duomo exterior

Unlike the Duomo in Firenze, the interior of Siena’s duomo is as ornate as its exterior.

Siena duomo interior

We felt so lucky to be able to see the inlaid artwork on the floor.  Most of the year it is covered to protect it, but in October it is uncovered.  This year it was also uncovered in September in honor of Expo 2015.

Siena duomo floor

I never realized how damaging soot from candles was until we saw the frescoes in the Piccolomini Library.  They have never been restored but still look bright because the large windows in the room made candles unnecessary.

siena duomo ceiling

Large, beautifully decorated sheets of music line the walls of the Piccolomini Library.  These were used before individual hymnals were available.

Siena duomo music

We started our day with a walk through a new part of Siena,

Siena duomo walk

a delightful mid-walk coffee break at our neighborhood coffeeshop,

Siena duomo treat

and a stroll through the huge, weekly market.

Siena duomo market


Today we headed off on an hour-long drive through the Tuscan countryside to the beautiful hill-top town of Montepulciano.IMG_3689

Starting at the Porta al Prato city gate, we began our walk into Montepulciano up the steep Via di Gracciano nel Corso.

IMG_1602Using a Rick Steves’ guided walk we noticed points of interest along the way.  Palazzo Bucelli has Etruscan and Roman fragments embedded into the outer wall.


A clock tower at the half-way point is topped with a statue of Pulcinella, a character from Italy’s commedia dell’arte.

Mont clock towerWe ate lunch at Ristrante al Quattro Venti, a wonderful little restaurant on the Piazza Grande that grows their own organic vegetables.  I had pappa al pomodoro, an amazing tomato soup made with bread.  The Italians use toasted bread during the long simmering of their soups with wonderful results.


During lunch we noticed people walking around in medieval garb.  Our waiter told us they were filming a movie.  One of the producers told me it was a series for Italian TV about the Medici family.


One of the actors, whose English was about as good as my Italian, asked me where we were from, and, I think, told me Dustin Hoffman was on the set somewhere.  We never saw him, and my conversation with her was a bit shaky, so I am not sure he is even in the show.  It was fun to talk with her, and she seemed so eager to communicate with us.

After lunch we went to Contucci Cantina for a wine tasting.  While in Firenze, I discovered Nobile wine from Montepulciano and was excited to go to the area where it is produced.  We explored the cellars where wine has been kept since the 1500s.  The Contucci family has lived here since the 11th century.


Known as the “Jewel of the 1500s”, Montepulciano is a beautiful town, and we all had a great day.Mont Dave and Julie

Mont Deb, Paul, David



Bravo, Siena

I awoke this morning at 6 AM to the sounds of chanting.  Standing by our window, I heard the chanting get louder and realized i was hearing a morning worship service at one of the nearby churches.  What a lovely way to start my day.

Exploring the city, we noticed the contrada flags and symbols that were still up from the Palio (horse race in Il Campo where 10 of the 17 Siena districts compete) winner celebration on Saturday night.  Contrade date back to the Middle Ages and are districts within Siena. Each contrada has its own flag and is named after an animal or symbol.


We walked through the beautiful Il Campo, the town square of Siena.  The buildings are the same color as the soil, known to artists as “Burnt Siena.”


On one side of Il Campo is the City Hall.


 Sloping upward from the City Hall on the other side of Il Campo is the beautiful 15th century  Fountain of Joy.


We had an amazing lunch at Dolceforte.  After seeing another beautiful display of porcini mushrooms at the market, I had to order the tagliatelle with fresh porcini mushrooms.

IMG_3652 IMG_2909

Paul had pici all’aglione (pasta with garlic tomato sauce.)  Chef David talked with us after lunch and shared how to make his amazing sauce.  The secret is getting the right tomatoes.


Our landlord’s sister brought us fresh pesto she had made that morning.  She also told us about the best bakery to visit and recommended that we try pan co’ santi (bread of the saints) that is made with olive oil and no eggs or butter.  It is a special bread made only at this time of the year.


Using Antonella’s pesto sauce, we made a wonderful dinner of fresh pasta with pesto, rucola salad, Brunello from our wine tour and panforte, the classic dessert of Siena.

Siena Julie and Deb

Siena salad IMG_3659




Brunello is one of our favorite red wines, so a return trip to Montalcino, the only area in the world that produces this special wine, was a must. First stop was lunch at Enoteca Osteria Osticcio, a wonderful restaurant with great food and a great view.


Paul had meatballs with roasted grapes, David had Tuscan vegetable soup that we all agreed was the best soup we had ever tasted, Julie had roast pork and beans and I had home-made spaghetti with bacon, tomatoes and pecorino cheese. And we all had grilled vegetables, which are on almost all Tuscan menus.

Montalcino-meatballs Montalcino-spag

Montalcino-veg Montalcino pork

Montalcino-Dave's soup From Montalcino to Torrenieri, a small town near Montalcino, and up a narrow gravel road and we arrived at the Santa Giulia winery. This small, family-run winery has been in the Terzuoli family for three generations. As soon as we got out of our car, we knew we were in for a special experience. Gonlucca welcomed us to his winery and introduced us to his family. After a tour of the small cellar beneath his home, we tasted two Brunellos and one Rosso di Montalcino along with home-made salami, capocollo, prosciutto and pecorino cheese from Pianza.

Montalcino house


Gonlucca sat with us, and we all enjoyed the wonderful wine, great food and interesting company. He talked about how he grew up learning about farming grapes and making wine and thinks of himself as a farmer, not a wine maker.  “Wine is made in the field, not in the cellar.”

We enjoyed one last view of the beautiful farm and said good-bye to this charming Italian family and their idyllic life.

Montalcino wine field Montalcino-wine family



Goodbye, Firenze (For Now)

After five glorious weeks in Firenze, we left for Siena this morning.  Waiting for the taxi to take us to our rental car, I took one last look down our street.

Good bye street

With David driving and Paul navigating, we made our way to Siena with a lovely little stop in San Gimignano.  Rick Steves calls San Gimignano a tourist trap, but I must say it is the most adorable tourist trap I have ever visited. I had an amazing dish called crespelles, a type of Italian crepe made with chestnut flour, for lunch.

good bye lunch

The view of the hillside looked like a painting.

good by deb

Galateria Dondoli, owned by a member of the Italian team that won the official Gelato World Cup is in San Gimignano, so of course, we had to try it.

good bye gelato

We arrived in Siena, found a place to park our car and walked to our apartment.  Our apartment is right in the heart of the city, and we have an amazing view out our living room window.

good by room view

Tonight on the way to dinner we saw the celebration of the winners of the Palio, Twice a year in the summer ten of Siena’s seventeen neighborhoods compete against each other in a horse race.  It is a huge event, and the celebration tonight filled Il Campo.  The winning horse even made an appearance.

good by palio

We went to Taverna San Giuseppe for dinner and visited the wine-and-cheese cellar which was created from an Etruscan tomb.  The Etruscans preceded the Romans.

good by dinner

good by chef

Palazzo Vecchio

Only in Firenze is the Town Hall an amazing palace and former home of the Medici family.  We took a guided tour of Palazzo Vecchio today and learned a lot about the building and the Medici family.  The map room was lined with maps of the world as they knew it in 1550.  There was a map that showed Florida.  Although Florida was shorter and fatter than it really is, it was hard to believe that a little less than sixty years after Christopher Columbus landed on America the Italians were able to construct a map of the country.

Palazzo V map FL

Because we were on a guided tour, we had access to the secret rooms behind one of the map-room panels.  Our guide opened a hidden door and we walked through a dark passageway and entered a charming little room.

palazzo V map room door Palazzo V-Deb

The decor was amazing.  The Hall of Justice and the Hall of Lilies had ceilings that were totally covered with gold leaf and lapis lazuli.

palazzo V ceiling

The great hall is a reflection of Cosimo I de Medici’s confidence and power.  The painting in the center of the building shows him being crowned by an angel.

Palazzo V great room ceiling

Large frescoes on the wall depict his victories over neighboring towns such as Pisa and Sienna.

Palazzo V great room

One of the statues, “Winged Boy with Dolphin” in the palazzo is by Andrea del Verrocchio, the teacher of Leonardo da Vinci.

Palazzo V-Pluto

Earlier in the day we took David on one of our favorite walks up a gazillion steps to San Mineato, a beautiful Medieval church.

Palazzo V-walk 2

This time we were able to walk around the cemetery that surrounds the church.

Palazzo V-cemetery

When we went inside, a monk was near one of the alters.  I thought her was preparing for a service, but then he pulled out a vacuum cleaner and started cleaning.

Palazzo V-monk

In the evening we took David and Julie to our favorite opera find, Love Duets at St. Mark’s Church.  There were about fifty people there, a few more than when we went earlier.  A couple we know from Bemidji, our northern MN home of thirty years, was in the same audience.

Tomorrow we leave for Sienna, and I am feeling sad to say good-bye to Firenze.  i was starting to feel like I lived here.  The owner of my favorite gelato place remembers what I like and gets it ready when I enter. In the last two days, a waiter we have gotten to know stopped his car and called out to us as he drove by that we still hadn’t met for a coffee.  Then a few blocks later the owner of another restaurant we like was out with friends and recognized us and greeted us as we walked by.

Santa Croce, Galileo and the Medicis

After a month of living two blocks from the beautiful Basilica of Santa Croce, we finally visited it today.  Built in the 13th and 14th centuries, it has sixteen chapels, many of them decorated with beautiful frescoes.  Although it was a rainy day and major sites in Firenze are usually crowded, there were few visitors the morning we were there.  We felt so lucky to have a serene experience in this special place.

santa croce

santa croce-frescoes Santa croce-interior

The largest Franciscan church in the world, Santa Croce is the burial place of many famous Italians, including Michelangelo, Galileo and Dante.  The monuments along the walls are beautiful.

Tomb of Michelangelo

Tomb of Michelangelo

Tomb of Dante

Tomb of Dante

Tomb of Galileo

Tomb of Galileo

In the afternoon we went to the Galileo Museum, a beautiful museum that showcases artifacts from Galileo and other scientists from the 15th through the 18th century.

Santa croce-Paul galileo

All of the information is in both Italian and English and most rooms have monitors displaying how the instruments worked.  There was an amazing display of early telescopes.

santa croce galileo telescopes

I was impressed with both the beauty and scientific sophistication of these early instruments.  As we were leaving the museum, there was an additional display of early instruments, including this beautiful planetary clock.

santa croce galaleo clock

In the evening we went to the Medici Dynasty Show, a one-hour theater and multi-media show summarizing 300 years of Firenze history and the contributions and influence of the Medici family.    The Medicis support of the arts and humanities in the 13th and 14th centuries is responsible for Firenze being the cradle of the Renaissance.  After the show we talked with Giuseppe Arone, the writer/producer of the show

santa croce-medici

Thanks to a great recommendation from Giuseppe, we had dinner at Le Mossacce,, a tiny little trattoria.