It was the last day in Florence, but we were excited to be spending it outside of the city in the Tuscan countryside. The previous night was was a late one. Not only did we arrive home late, but we also needed to have our bags ready to go as there was an early morning ahead of us and we wouldn’t be returning to the apartment. Sarah and Malorie had even an earlier morning than me as they were going to get more cash for our Chianti Wine Tour. Thankfully, Sarah is an excellent friend and was covering my cost of the tour since my debit card had been stolen and payment was required in cash. The little cash I had was from Aurelio, and with 2 more weeks in Europe, I would need it – it wasn’t enough to cover the tour, anyway.
At 9:00am sharp, Sergio, owner of Wine Tours in Tuscany, had pulled his minivan into the small area in front of the door to the building. Dressed in slacks and a button-up shirt, he was a clean cut, short man with a shiny bald head and a brilliant smile. He greeted us: “Buon giorno!” and made us feel right at home in his “brand new van with wifi,” as he’d touted on his website. The van, in fact, was extremely clean and comfortable… and as advertised, was new and had a great wifi connection, which I’ve found is hard to come by in Italy.
With the narrow street and enormous size of his vehicle for European standards, he was required to pull so close to the buildings my backpack would barely fit through for him to put it in the back. Malorie’s and Sarah’s bags were even larger and they had to walk all the way around the front of the van to give them to Sergio. We all piled in, allowing Sarah to sit in the front as she is the most susceptible of we 3 to motion sickness. I’m a close second. In fact, as I write this riding backwards on a high speed train, I’m feeling rather green.
Seated and buckled, we were off to see what Tuscany had to offer. Concerned with typical Italian driving and hilly, curvy roads ahead of us, we were worried to say the least. Sergio drove slowly and steadily making us feel safe, and lessening the potential of motion sickness. He was a very good driver, and later in the tour bragged how he’d never been in any accidents, with the exception of the time he nearly drove his Jeep off a cliff. Afterward, we all agreed the comment made us a little nervous… the same way the spoken word “quiet” in the hospital makes us nervous. Fortunately, there were no mishaps and Sergio’s driving record stands!
As we weaved through hairpin curves further from the city center, we left the centuries old buildings behind us and encountered newer construction. Sergio began his history lesson about the Chianti region and wines.
Chianti wine is dry and acidic and is meant to be paired with food. As he put it:
New world wine is for drinking and socializing. Italian wine is for the table.
We learned that pairing salty foods with Chianti lowers the acidity, while fats affect the tannins in the wine.
Chianti Classico is made with specific rules. For example, it must be made with a minimum of 80% San Giovese grapes and must be aged a certain amount of time – I don’t recall exactly how long, but somewhere in the 2 year range. When the wine is completed, it must undergo testing and tasting to become Classico. If it is approved by the wine powers that be, it receives the logo of a black rooster on the neck. If it doesn’t “pass”, it can still be bottled and sold, just not as a Chianti Classico. One option is to be sold as a Super Tuscan, which is a term the American media came up with that stuck. Super Tuscans have far fewer rules to follow and allows wine makers increased creativity with their craft.
After driving out of the city some 20 or 30 minutes, we arrived to a quiet and remote intersection in the road. With Tuscan hillside in all directions, Sergio pulled over for our first photo opportunity. We got out of the van and admired the lush rolling hills with a small town atop a hill in the distance. As I stood taking photos, the aroma of a nearby flowering plant encompassed my nose and swept me away into a Tuscan paradise. Sergio interrupted my daydream and offered to take a group photo of us. We obliged. He gave us some instruction on where to stand, and then as he crouched down to get the best angle, exclaimed, “Going… going… gone!” We giggled, and then loaded back up in the van for our next destination.
After a bit more driving, Sergio pulled off the side of the road by a grove of olive trees. He then proceeded to give us our olive growing history lesson. Last year’s olive harvest was devastated by insects due to an abnormally warm winter that didn’t kill off the larvae. While olive oil was still made, it was a low percentage and was not of any quality. He also pointed out olive trees with one trunk and olive trees with 3 trunks. In 1985 there was a great frost that damaged the “lymphatic system” of the trunks. The farmers discovered the roots were still viable and they could cut into the the main trunk and grow saplings, thus salvaging their harvest. Consequently, many of the olive trees have multiple trunks now.
We continued on to a vineyard with farm houses in the background and Sergio explained that years ago those who lived in farm houses lived in the poorest of conditions. There were no luxuries and they worked hard. In modern times the farm house is now a great place to live. As he discussed this concept, I noticed the farmhouse ahead had a gigantic in-ground pool in the back yard. He offered another photo opportunity… “Going… going… gone!”
We stopped at one more location for photos before going to our first winery, Monterinaldo. We were greeted by a very cheerful woman by the name of Azzurra, which according to her meant “blue – the color of Italy’s calcio (futbol team)!” I was thinking Kansas City Royals… but to each her own. 🙂
We then had a wonderful tasting, starting with a Rosé, then a Chianti Classico, next a Chianti Reserve and ending with a dessert wine. We were given foccacia bread and pecorino cheese for tasting, and true to Sergio’s lesson, it made a huge difference in the taste: bitter and acidic to divine with a simple bite of cheese. We were all very impressed with the wine and decided to split a case. I’m looking forward to having a bit of Italy home with me.
Azzurra did a wonderful job presenting the wine, and we learned a little about her in the process. She used to design patterns for a top designer but became discouraged with her work being sent to China to be constructed and the poor quality that resulted. She decided to return to her roots and would perhaps, someday, like to have her own winery. She was a delightful woman and we made sure we got a photo with her before we left… “Going… going… gone!”
A little tipsy, (Azzurra was generous with the tastings), we walked back to the van to be taken to Panzano in Chianti where we would enjoy a greatly needed lunch. Most Italian breakfasts consist of a croissant or like pastry, which aside from being small, has no protein and doesn’t hold me over at all. Add wine to the mix and a healthy lunch is welcomed. After a short 10 minute drive, we arrived at Oltre il Giardino. We walked down a narrow sidewalk to the entrance and followed the server under a wisteria and grape vine covered terrace. It was one of the most picturesque sites I’ve ever seen. Seated next to a rock wall beneath this canopy of green, we looked out on the beauty of Tuscany. What a fantastic way to spend any time at all, and even better with food, wine and good friends.
Browsing the many options on the menu, I knew one thing I would not be ordering: seafood. Suddenly, I found pappardelle! I should’ve had it the night before, and I knew I absoultely had to order it this time around. The servers spoke excellent English, which I was suprised as they are an isolated small town in a rural area. In addition to the ease of communication, the service was one of the best experiences yet. The food was fabulous.
The view was unbeatable. The company was precious. The only thing that could make such an amazing experience better, was gelato, and they did not disappoint. Sarah and I decided to share the lemon gelato on the menu. We both agreed that lemon was the best flavor we’d tried to date, and thought it would be a refreshing palate cleanser. When it was served, I couldn’t believe my eyes (or tastebuds). Situated on a small white plate was the frozen “shell” of a lemon, stuffed with lemon gelato and topped with the end “cap.” We were so impressed with the lunch from the moment we arrived until we stepped back into the van. Sergio did a great job with this one!
We circled the town and came to the edge where we hopped out for another set of photos. You guessed it… “Going… going… gone!”
On we went to the next winery, Fattoria Casaloste, a small family-run winery seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Sergio prepped us before-hand, letting us know the pleasant woman who normally does the tastings is away on maternity leave and there is now a “dry Dutch woman” doing them. Indeed, Sergio was right. The woman was very nice, but very matter-of-fact and without much personality. The tasting room was in a very small, old farmhouse and offered no room for sitting. No foods were offered with the wine, so the acidity was almost too much to bear. I routinely do not pour out wine at tastings – it pains me. In this case, I ended up pouring out my glass on every wine offered. The other difference between this winery and the last was that they age their wine in French barrels, which tend to give wine a distinct taste that I prefer less than others. Overall, the winery was charming, and it was interesting learning about it, but I did not like the wine.
I felt bad about not purchasing anything, but I’m not going to spend my money on something I simply don’t like. The winery also made for a lovely photo opportunity with our star guide!
Sergio then took us to another small Tuscan town where we were free to roam about and explore for a while. I surveyed some stores for any necessary souvenir purchases, and then felt the need to sample the gelato from this small community. I stand by my mantra that one can never have too much gelato.
Our wine tour was over and it was time to return to Florence. Sergio was kind enough to take us directly to the train station, eliminating a commute with luggage in tow. As we neared the city center, the sky became increasingly dark. We approached the main shopping area and the floodgates opened. Some people were fortunate enough to have an umbrella or poncho, but many people were taking refuge in nearby store doorways. The raindrops were large and heavy and the wind was vicious. Having been in a similar situation in Sorrento, I couldn’t help but laugh (with empathy, of course) at all of those unforunate tourists stuck in the downpour. We became even more thankful for Sergio’s willingness to take us to the train station. He dropped us off at the door and was on his way to return 50 minutes home to his Columbian wife of one year and his mother who is afflicted with Alzheimers. He works long days and his wife stays home and cares for his mother as it is too expensive (nearly €4000/month) to place her in a home. Sergio is a kind man who has his own battles, as we all do. It was nice for all of us to leave those behind and enjoy the day together.
We entered the train station and Malorie and I waited while Sarah obtained our regional tickets. We first took a regional train from Florence to Pisa, and then another (nicer) train from Pisa to La Spezia, near Cinque Terre. The regional train was hot and miserable, and thankfully only a 50 minute ride… a long, crowded and sweaty 50 minutes. We arrived in Pisa and quickly made the transition to our connecting train. We took our seats, 3 of 4 surrounding a table, with the 4th seat vacant. Our own little pod for our ride to La Spezia! We joked and laughed about our day, sang “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” and imagined how our meeting would go with our Airbnb host, Elisabetta. She and her property have received rave reviews from everyone who has stayed there. We couldn’t wait to have our own experience with this apparently amazing woman. We looked out the window to see if we could see the Leaning Tower of Pisa as we whizzed through the city. Soon there was less city, and more countryside with mountains in the background.
About 15 minutes later we stopped at the first of many stops on our route, Viarregio. People got off, and people got on. We sat. An quiet, muffled announcement in Italian came over the speaker and several people got off the train and went to the platform. Some smoked a cigarette. The conductor was outside on his phone. We, in our little pod, were completely clueless as to what was happening. A few more announcements came over the speaker but I could only make out occasional words and not enough context to discern what was going on. Finally, with some people grabbing their luggage and leaving the train completely, we became concerned the train would not continue to La Spezia. There were two gentlemen in front us who’d gotten off and on a few times, so in my very best Italian…. I asked if they spoke English! Indeed, they did, and they advised us there was an accident on the track ahead. We waited a little longer and Sarah, sitting on the aisle, decided to go outside and speak to the conductor to make sure the train would be continuing on. Malorie and I watched from the window as Sarah had a very lengthy discussion with the conductor, with lots of hand gestures and head nods and shakes. Soon she returned and told me I should’ve been the one who went out to speak with him as she had been lectured for coming to a foreign country not speaking any of the language. She says he lectured her in a joking manner, but nonetheless, I was elected as primary communicator for the rest of the trip together! She informed us in their discussion that a man fell or was pushed onto the tracks under the train and perished. Consequently, the police were summoned for an investigation. We would continue to La Spezia, but only at the conclusion of removal of the body and completion of the investigation.
Wow… what a buzzkill.
Starving, Malorie and Sarah piled their snacks onto the table and we had our most lavish meal yet: salted almonds, trail mix, peanut butter crackers, and Jelly Belly jelly beans for dessert. I had saved the last half of my protein bar from my first day in Rome and I was thankful once again for holding out eating it!
Nearly three hours later, the train began to move forward. What should’ve been an 8:30pm arrival, was closer to 11:30pm. After a long day of traveling by car and train, and no significant meal for 12 hours, we were exhausted and hungry. Thanks to my pocket wifi, we were able to keep in contact with Elisabetta and keep her updated on our delay. We arrived to the train station and spent €15 for a 5 minute taxi ride to our accomodation. The driver let us out and we walked another 50 meters or so to her gated property. We rang the intercom and she buzzed us in, meeting us at the top of the stairs. Behind her was a beautiful home five times larger than the typical Italian dwelling. Though clearly old construction and architecture, it had been modernized with large windows along the front. Inside was a very modern decor. We quickly walked by and made our way to their estate guest house, also quite large. She let us in and showed us the welcome basket she’d prepared for us – pasta, stewed tomatoes, garlic, basil and sage. Next to that was a bottle of chilled white wine and a basket of what I believe were cherries. They were yellowish-pink in color, and had a pit similar to that of a cherry.
Too tired to prepare a meal, we nibbled on some cherries and then I took a shower. There’s nothing I hate more than putting my dirty body into a nice, clean bed. I don’t care how tired I am!
Following my shower I was quite refreshed and laid my head down. Up and away from the city center, it was quiet. No dance clubs. No mosquitos. No one talking. Just 3 weary travelers lying their heads to rest in complete peace. Going… going… gone…