Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Under the Tuscan Sun

At the risk of sounding cliché, I spent a glorious day last Friday under the Tuscan sun.   Truly.

Perfect day to get out of Rome.   I was definitely overdue for an escape to the countryside.    My alarm went off at the completely uncivilized hour of 5am and I stumbled through my morning routine and was out the door by 6.   Walked an hour in the pouring rain through a sketchy part of town to arrive at my pick up spot.  I normally do not like to do the organized tour thing but I was in the mood for some mindless travel and looking forward to meeting some English speaking citizens.   Besides, traveling into Tuscany really requires a car and there is no way that was ever going to happen.   I am brave, but not that brave.

We left town in our little mini van.    About 20 of us in total.    The group didn’t look too promising in the beginning but I held out hope that maybe with a little wine tasting later, they might loosen up a bit.   

Our itinerary for the day included a drive through Umbria region into Tuscany.  In Tuscany, we planned to visit the towns of Cortona and Montepulciano with an additional stop at Lake Trasimeno. 

An hour or two of travel through the country side in an overly air conditioned environment.    I was the only solo traveler on board (as usual) and had two seats to myself.   Would have liked a nap, but was absolutely freezing.   It continued to rain as we left Rome.   At some point an hour or so in, the sun started peaking out through the clouds and the day began to look slightly more promising.

We stopped for a half hour (total waste of time) at the autogrill so the tourists could load up on snacks, coffee and use the facilities.    This is the stuff that gets to me.    Anyway.   Just a note on the autogrill, while I didn’t buy anything, I was very impressed with the quality of the products and services they offered (for rest area stop).   Someone should import these to the U.S.  

Drove further and left the highway, entering the winding roads of Tuscany, through absolutely stunning countryside and into the hills.     There were bright red poppies and yellow flowers covering the fields.    Cypress trees reaching up to the sky.   Farmhouses surrounded by vineyards.    Like everything you envision.   I love Tuscany for the countryside alone.    It is not hard to see why so many artists are inspired by this region.   The light here is also fantastic which helps.




Arrived in Cortona.   Some of you may be familiar with Cortona from the book and film, Under the Tuscan Sun.    The author, Frances Mayes, wrote the book based on her life and experiences near here in Tuscany while renovating her home.  Part of the film was shot in Cortona and there is also an annual festival each August called “Under the Tuscan Sun” featuring art and music.     What I didn’t know was that part of one of my all time favorite films, Life is Beautiful, was also filmed in Cortona.   If you haven’t seen it, I highly encourage you to check it out.   

Cortona is a small town located high on a hill, overlooking the surrounding countryside and Lake Trasimeno, one of the largest lakes in Italy.    We were left with an hour of free time to explore.   Of course, the recommendation was to browse all of the local shops.   Wasn’t looking to buy anything, so wandered around the twisting narrow streets on my own.     Impossible to get lost here, although you can grow very tired of walking up and down all of the stairs.  Since the town is on the hill, everything is either up or down.    The views from all of the side walls surrounding the center were unbelievably beautiful.   All of the locals were very friendly.  I suspect they see a massive amount of tourists.  















From Cortona, back on the bus and headed down the hill to Lake Trasimeno for a stop at an agritourismo for lunch.   Agritourismo is pretty much what it sounds like.   A combination of agriculture and tourism.  Many Italians, and Europeans, will travel to the countryside to spend vacations on local farms where all of your food is produced and prepared locally.    Like anything, these can range from the full rustic experience to all out luxury.    I like this concept.  




Lake Trasimeno is a large but very shallow lake, the largest non-Alpine lake in Italy.  It is located within the Umbrian region, just near the border of Tuscany.    Of historical interest, the battle of Lake Tresimene was fought here on June 24, 217 B.C.    This was a battle between the Carthaginians under Hannibal and the Romans.    Rome was crushed.   About 15,000 lost their lives.   Amazing to envision as the area now just looks like a large flat lake surrounded by farmhouses. 

Enough history for now.    Back in the farmhouse, we had a little tasting of three different kinds of bruschetta followed by a Dixie cup of local red wine.  The bruschetta was horrendous, although I may have been the only one that thought this.     My bruschetta is award winning in comparison.     Anyway, followed by a hard sell on their spice mixes and olive oil.   I declined.    On to lunch.   We sat in a nice greenhouse room at long wooden tables.    Lunch quality was also pretty poor, but the company was surprisingly nice which made up from it.   The group was warming up at this point (I knew the wine would help), and it turned out to be a lot of fun.    As the token solo traveler, newly engaged and enjoying a two month sabbatical in Europe, I continue to be a prime topic of conversation.   Everyone thinks I am cute and oh, so brave.   So funny. 

Quick description of lunch.   Tiny serving of penne in tomato sauce with bacon.   Crappy version of what I think was supposed to be amatriciana.    Followed by a plate with three cut up bites of “meat” doused in olive oil served with romaine lettuce.    So many questions and comments on this one but I will refrain and just state the obvious.   If someone can’t tell you what meat they are serving, and just refer to it upon question as "meat", this really can’t be a good sign.



Post lunch, a semi-drizzling drive back through the country  to the town of Montepulciano.   While Cortona is known for the movie, Montepulicano is known for the wine.   Red wine specifically.  It is actually one of my favorites back at home and I was kind of excited to visit and see where it is made.     Upon arrival, we had a few minutes to wander around and take pictures prior to the stop at Cantina Contucci, one of the oldest producers of Montepulciano.     I didn’t like the town as much as I did Cortona.   It seems slightly larger, more spread out and a little less charming.    If it sounds like a negative, it is truly not.   By all accounts, still an amazing place to visit, especially if you are a wine lover.  I should also mention, if you are a lover of all things Twilight, which I am not, supposedly one of the main scenes was filmed on the piazza in center of town.




Time for wine now.     A lovely tour of the cellars.   I have been on many wine cellar visits like this in the past.  This was not my favorite, but honestly, I don’t know how many on this specific trip were truly interested in the cellars and the process.   There is a reason why the tour comes before the tasting.  The wine tasting was led by the main wine guy who is a fantastic showman, flirt and all around fun guy.   He’s been photographed in many magazines and was very proud to show off his photo with Rick Steves.   We tasted 5 or 6 different red wines and one white.   The white was a horrendous version of grape juice.    The reds were okay.  One standout which was very good.   At the end, obligatory purchasing of wine to take home and then on the way back out of town.   Note, I still didn’t buy anything here.    Wine is just too heavy.




Back at home by 7:30pm.    All in all, a fabulous day in Tuscany.     Escaped the city, admired the countryside, learned a little history, had a little wine and met some nice fellow travelers.     It really was a perfect day.  

Stay tuned for future installments on my attempt to make a really great carbonara at home and my most fabulous trip to the Amalfi Coast and Pompei.   

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Under the Tuscan Sun
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