Under a Tuscan Sun

Perfect weather and sights!

One of the things that we always expect to happen during our vacations is that the weather is perfect!  So far, Tuscany has delivered just that with gorgeous, sunny days that are not too hot and nights that are cool enough for comfortable sleeping.  With this weather, every road trip has been a pleasure and today’s was no exception, as we headed into the direction of Montepulciano.

Driving through the landscape, it is just a joy to behold all the gently rolling valleys and cross the hills that separate them.  The winding roads give a clear indication why Italians would love their supercars, as these roads are made for powerful, highly maneuverable vehicles.

Our first stop was in the small town of Pienza, which is simply gorgeous.  Its small, highly walkable center is filled with little restaurants, such as the one in an alley where we ate a  fantastic meal in an atmosphere where the owner enjoyed our presence.

Little streets and a beautiful church (go check the labyrinth) really show why Pienza is a world heritage site.  Among towns, this is a relatively new settlement, as the entire town was rebuilt as an ideal Renaissance city by Pope Pius II and named after him.

Montepulciano is the larger of the two towns that we visited today.  Sitting on a limestone ridge, this town is a hill climb in just about every direction, as streets are steep each and every way.  The medieval fortress is very much in evidence in many sections, as the heavy walls dominate any time one gets closer to the edge of town.  Wine merchants are everywhere and many indicate that they ship acorss the globe.

On our return trip, I stopped to get some landscape shots, such as the last image in the series; plenty of work to do in editing images when I get home, as these landscapes are just beautiful to see.

A Day in Siena

Hills, beauty and tourists!

As Siena is about 45 minutes by car from where we are staying in Colordesoli, it clearly is a must visit on our list of hill towns.  It is a well-known stop on most tourists’ travels throughout Tuscany, as it generates in excess of 160,000 visits per year.  Even during the pre-season, it was clearly very busy, as can be seen in the image of the Piazza del Campo.

We found a convenient parking lot near Santa Caterina; parking lots are well-indicated, if you come into Sienna from the west side with signage that shows how many spots are still open in the parking lot.  A short uphill trek from our parking lot, got us to the escalators into the center of town.  These escalators took us up about 9 floors to within a 100 meters or so from the Siena Cathedral.

This catedral is another example of the usage of black and white marble in construction, just like the one in Volterra.  Our first stop was the Piazza del Campo, famous for the Palio horse race, which is run twice a year (early July and mid August); I can only imagine what a madhouse it will be during those races.

Sauntering around the streets that surround the Piazza del Campo, it is easy to keep your bearings, as many of the streets have little alleys that lead back to the main square.  Lots of these streets have great shopping opportunities and fantastic leather products of excellent quality.

Siena is also well-known for its cuisine, and I have to say that it lived up to it, as lunch was truly outstanding!

Overall, I think that Siena was well worth the visit, particularly, as the crowds started thinning out after lunch.  A lovely city with great food and good places to visit!

A Day in Volterra

A quintessential hill town

During our vacation in Italy, one of our driving goals is to get some time to relax and not hurry from location to location in an effort to get as much viewed as possible.  Rather, spending some quality time in a smaller number of locations, which gives us a better feel for what these places are really like (and were like).  As we’re focusing on hill towns in Tuscany, that means we have to make some decisions about which ones we want to visit; one of these choices was between San Gimignano and Volterra, both of which are well known towns.

Volterra became our first choice, as it is eminently walkable in relaxed fashion and has a great variety of points of interest.  We parked in the free lot (#3), which does require a considerable number of steps to be ascended in order to get into town.  In town, there are lots of quaint little streets, each with their own character and occasional vehicular traffic (locals only!).

The Basilica on the main square is beautiful in its construction of alternating rows of black and white marble, and impressive to see form the inside.  It’s located next to the town hall, which is a rather lively piazza with lots of places to have an espresso or shop for alabaster ware.

After a delicious meal at Torre del Porcellino (I enjoyed my wild boar!), we sauntered over to visit the Etruscan excavation, which is an active archaeological site.  Pay to enter and you also will get access to the Roman amphitheater at the other side of town.  The excavation is of a site with several temples and surrounding houses, and also includes a descent (8 m) into a cistern from Roman times.

The Roman amphitheater is also very impressive, as it leans back against the old town walls and well worth the visit.

The atmosphere in Volterra was very relaxed and provided lots of great shopping for leather and alabaster carvings.  The gelato at Isola del Gusto was fantastic!

A lazy Sunday in Tuscany

Relaxing doesn’t have to be hard work

Sometimes, vacation is all about doing as little as possible, rather than visiting every possible point of interest in the area.  This Sunday, started with a wonderful time to relax during the morning, as we slept in and enjoy a leisurely breakfast on the back porch of our AirBnB place in Colordesoli.  As we didn’t have any firm plans, the decision was to find a gas station that was open and then get some lunch.

The little Fiat 500 was pretty low on fuel, so gas first!  As I wasn’t used to how gas stations are operated in Italy, I mistook no human presence for the station being closed.  As I stopped by a station that, according to Google, was open 24 hours a day, I was still somewhat befuddled by the machine set up.  Luckily, a friendly motorcyclist was helpful and showed me the basics and the tank was soon filled!  After that we stopped by a trattoria for some delicious lunch and were treated to some free dessert.

Roaming around, we stopped by the Abbey at San Galgano, which was a rather interesting locale to visit and photograph.

A trek up the hill next to the abbey got us to the Eremo of Montisiepi, which is a beautiful round structure that was built over the site of the hut where San Galgano spent the last year of his life.  In the center of the round, is San Galgano’s sword, which has been stuck in the rock for over 800 years.

After visiting the hermitage, we stopped by a lovely little wine bar down the path for a bit of sustenance after our trek uphill.

Il Castello di Giulio II

Warrior Pope at this best!

Saturday was our travel day from Ostia Antica to Colordesoli, up in Tuscany. Before we left Ostia Antica, we wanted to take the opportunity to visit the papal castle of Julius II, as it is open for visiting during the weekend.

I mentioned Julius II in a previous post; he was nicknamed ‘The Fearsome Pope’ or ‘The Warrior Pope’ likely due to his rather active foreign policy.  He was elected to the papacy unanimously in 1503, due to a bit of backroom dealing, in which he made the Borgias believe that they would get lots of money as a result of his election.

However, upon getting elected, he stated:

“I will not live in the same rooms as the Borgias lived. He [Alexander VI] desecrated the Holy Church as none before. He usurped the papal power by the devil’s aid, and I forbid under the pain of excommunication anyone to speak or think of Borgia again. His name and memory must be forgotten. It must be crossed out of every document and memorial. His reign must be obliterated. All paintings made of the Borgias or for them must be covered over with black crepe. All the tombs of the Borgias must be opened and their bodies sent back to where they belong—to Spain.”

He very much became his own Pope and was ambitious in building, as much as striking out into foreign lands.  His building projects included the destruction and rebuilding of the St. Peter Basilica (it wasn’t big enough before) and the commission of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo.

The castle in Ostia Antica is not huge by castle standards, but nonetheless very impressive.  It is clearly set up for battle, both inside the castle and taking on any siege that may be laid upon it.  Canon and gun ports are everywhere, and they even used the residual heat from gun fire to warm that water for bathing.  In its more recent past, the castle has also been used as a prison, as evidenced by prisoner’s markings on the walls of cells, counting down the days till their death.

The guided tour of the castle is full of information, and even though our tour was in Italian, a couple of our fellow tour participants were nice enough to provide us English translation of a number of tour highlights.  So, if you’re in Ostia Antica during a weekend, check out the Castello de Giulio II!

Travels in Italy – Roma

Colossal with a great forum

Today, we went to visit the Eternal City, and got caught doing the obligatory stop of the Colosseum.  When I say ‘got caught’, that is almost literal, as before you even get out of the subway station by the Colosseum, you get accosted by people trying to sell you tours of the iconic landmark.  On this non-high-season day, it was still a mob scene outside this building.

To me, the Colosseum was rather underwhelming, as it is filled with too many tour groups and not enough space to actually appreciate the building itself; the restoration is not exactly spot on in getting you the feel of what it may have been like during the days of its operation.  That was the mediocre part of the day…

Then there’s the Palatine Hill and Forum, which is part of the same tour ticket as the Colosseum; hint: go to the Palatine Hill box office, as the lines are much shorter and buy your ticket there.  Wandering through this area gives you a good impression of what it may have been like during the heyday of the Roman regime, whether republic or empre.  There are fantastic views and interesting discoveries.  Because of its size, you don’t feel overrun by tour groups and masses of people, as you do across the street.

Bonus discovery: if you take a wrong turn toward the Palatine Hill, don’t just turn back, but continue into the church of Saint Francisca, which is impressive and usually devoid of people.

Il Scavi de Ostia Antica

Life among the ruins…

On our first full day in Italia, we focused on the nearby opportunity of visiting Il Scavi de Ostia Antica (the excavations of Ostia Antica).  For the very reasonable price of 8 euros, you get more than a day’s worth of exploration at this amazing site.  To put it mildly, a single day is not enough to appreciate all the wonderful structures that have been excavated at this old harbor of Ancient Rome; the route of the Tiber was right by Ostia Antica 2,000 years ago.

We decided to explore on our own with the map that we purchased, and we were immediately astonished by the detail that has been preserved across the millennia.  Get off the main thoroughfares to look at the plaques that are sometimes hidden from direct view to get to the really good stuff!

After well over 5 hours of exploring on a beautiful Italian Spring day, we decided to call it a day and go for a gelato.  We didn’t see everything, but did unearth some rather cool items that definitely are not seen by everyone; most tour groups appear to focus on a shorter route than we took, and when we got to the further regions of this park, we were rewarded with quiet time and some hidden treasures.

Our decision to base ourselves in Ostia Antica first appears to have been solid thus far, particularly after a great meal at La Bussola, which I recommend highly with fresh, well-prepared food and friendly service!

Tomorrow, we strike out into Roma!

Arriving in Italy

A walk through Ostia Antica

After getting as much work done at the last moment, as possible, we were off on our next sizable vacation in several years, packed in our flight from Boston to Rome like a good harvest of sardines.  8 hours later, we landed at Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci airport, which is beginning to look very nice with all the renovations that are under way.

We picked up our rental car, a rather cute Fiat 500, which is pretty sporty for a little car, and were off to our first stop in Ostia Antica.  Despite traffic, we checked into our really nice AirBnB location here in Ostia Antica and decided to crash for a little bit and refresh ourselves after the flight.

After this, we decided to explore the center of Ostia Antica, where we went for a rather nice walk, through the Castello I’d Giulio II…

The papal castle of Julius II looks rather impressive with its heavily fortified walls.  Considering his nickname of the Warrior Pope that doesn’t surprise; this pope was an interesting character, if what history writes about him is correct (Wikipedia article).  We’re looking forward to seeing the inside of this museum on Saturday, before we’re off to Tuscany.

After this pleasant stroll, we enjoyed a gelato (#1) and found some simple, yet delicious pizza for an early dinner (dinner is typically served after 8, but we were a bit too tired to wait for that).  Overall a good start!

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