Friday 27 July 2012

Chianti Classico: Day 8 – Pisa & Home

Today was departure day, and should really have consisted of breakfast, pack and transfer to Pisa airport. In practice, we had a late evening flight that didn’t require us to be checking in until after 8.00pm. So we hatched a plan that involved going to the coast for lunch and exploring a little of Pisa in the afternoon.

After a leisurely breakfast, we loaded up the van and took the scenic drive via Volterra to the coast. I’m not quite sure where we were, but the wind was pretty strong and there were some large waves breaking on the beach. We headed to the harbour and had a nice lunch at a marina cafe, overlooked by millions of pounds worth of swish yachts.

In the afternoon we left the minibus (and our luggage) at the airport and went into central Pisa. We wandered the streets for a while then spent around an hour or so in the vicinity of the Leaning Tower. It was very busy, but we pottered along looking in the shops and stalls, and had two ice creams!

Finally, it was time to go back to the airport and check in.

All in all, we’d had a brilliant week. Anthony had been good company and ensured everything went smoothly. As for the others – Karen, Julia, Saidah and Camilla – well we’d all got along swimmingly.

Sure, we’d done more food and wine than we would normally do, and less walking, but it was a holiday we had always promised ourselves we’d do one day – and, when we’d booked it, is seemed just the right thing to do.

And, what’s more, we’d had a brilliant time! We’d walked some lovely paths, felt the sun on our backs, enjoyed some fantastic food, learned a bit about wine and drunk quite a lot of it. Oh, and got plenty of relaxation in, too.

I’ll drink to that.


Chianti Classico: Day 7 – Panzano to Greve in Chianti – 6.00 miles

And so to our final walking day: this time a ridge walk in the hills about one hour’s drive to the northwest of San Gimignano. Again it was a hot morning, and breakfast had only been picked over – except for the coffee and fruit juice! But we were away in good time and had arrived in Panzano in Chianti by around 10.00am.

We passed the church and picked up a tarmac road out of the village. The views over the valley were superb, and stayed with us for the first half of the walk.

Soon we left the road and headed along the ridge on a dusty track, pausing for the occasional wildlife stop.

There were also some beautiful villas and farmhouses to be seen – some with the most incredible views. It’s hard to imagine something like this once being tumbledown and unloved.

After a while, we turned right to take a track up and over the ridge. A new set of views opened up in front of us, including the hilltop hamlet of Montefioralle – our objective for lunch.

About half an hour later, having followed a dusty track down through groves of olive and apricot, we climbed the short hill up into Montefioralle. Off a quaint, stone-flagged street we found the Taverna del Guerrino, a small but renowned eatery with a terrace overlooking the valley we had just traversed. Nice food, great surroundings, cold drinks and good company – what more could you want!

It was hard to pull ourselves away from such idyllic surroundings, but we had to move on. By now we were in the full heat of the midday sun, so completed the walk down into Greve in Chianti with the minimum of fuss.

The Saturday market was just clearing as we arrived. While Anthony caught the service bus back to Panzano to fetch the minibus, we pottered round the square watching the clean up operation and enjoying cool drinks.

In the Chianti region, the symbol of the Black Rooster is never far away. The logo of a Black Rooster on a gold background in a pink surround is the official seal of the Chianti Classico wine. So we can certainly agree with this sentiment.

On the way back we had hoped to call in at Monteriggioni, another excellently preserved small, walled mediaeval town. Unfortunately some kind of festival was underway, and we didn’t feel we could warrant the €12 entrance fee for a quick look round. Never mind: we got to see it from the outside, and the walls are quite impressive.

Back at the Voltrona we had time for a swim before getting ready for dinner – tonight at another restaurant in San Gimignano, and officially our end-of-holiday group meal. In practice we had a long day on departure day (more of which later) but that didn’t spoil the evening.

In the confines of one of the smallest rooms ever to cater for twenty-odd people, we ate good food, drank beer and wine, and – in the form of Tiramisu and Panecotta – enjoyed the best desert of the week. Err ….. probably.

Afterwards, we headed back to the Voltrona. But the night was still young, and the Chianti was flowing. And, before we knew it, it was the wee small hours – and a very large quantity of Chianti had been consumed.

Chianti Classico: Day 6 – Volterra & Palagetto Winery

Another ‘non-walking’ day today, with a visit to the hilltop town of Volterra scheduled. First settled in Neolithic times, the town has flourished in Etruscan and Roman times before becoming an important bishopric and falling under the control of the Medici family in the C16th.

Nowadays the C12th city walls encompass the predominantly mediaeval old town. Issued with a tourist map, we were left to discover this little gem for ourselves, rootling around the narrow streets and alleys (edged by an assortment of boutique shops, restaurants, cafes, museums and galleries) that occasionally blossomed into handsome piazzas.

There is much to do for a relatively small place, including the Etruscan Museum, the cathedral, Art Galleries, alabaster workshops, a Roman amphitheatre – and the Museum of Torture. Judging by the number of these we encountered – there seems to have been at least one (if not more) in every town or city we have visited – torture must have been a thriving business (indeed art form) in mediaeval times. And, for those not aware, Volterra’s bloody history continues thanks to its association with the ‘Twilight’ series of vampire tales.

However, despite the lure of such attractions, our wont was to wander the streets and see what we could find. So far our city visits had revealed little of Roman origin, so we headed first towards the amphitheatre located just beyond the city walls on the northern edge of town – this orientation to provide as much shade as possible for spectators, given that performances were open-air. Clever, eh?

The history of Volterra is inextricably linked with that of alabaster, and Tuscany is still the centre of the European alabaster trade. This fine-grained mineral is quarried in the Volterra area, and – being soft and easily worked (for example compared to marble) – it is ideal for statuary and other works of art. Walking back into town we passed one of the workshops and popped in for a look. Sadly, we were unable to take any photographs of the many beautiful pieces, but we did buy a small souvenir as a reminder.

After a coffee in the main Piazza dei Priori, we strolled the labyrinth of narrow streets and alleys to the south of the piazza before finding ourselves at the cathedral. We took a look inside, relishing the cool. Whatever your thoughts on the validity of such an edifice, its hard not to be impressed by the grandeur of the art and architecture on display, the sheer effort that has gone into realising this place of worship, and the sense of calm and awe it engenders even today.

Having been spiritually refreshed, it was now time for some bodily sustenance too. So we took lunch at a small café huddled in a nook of the cathedral walls – simple pasta with a ragu of Wild Boar and baked cheese-filled crepes, plus a glass of chilled Vernaccia. Wonderful!

So, spiritually and culinarily fortified, we set off into the streets once more, making our way up to the park. A shady bench provided the excuse we needed to sit for a while, resting and reading.

Then it was back into town. A little shopping was undertaken, and the ice creams proved irresistible, then we made our way back to the mid-afternoon rendezvous in the Piazza XX Settembre. Despite the kudos and profile of (the undoubtedly magnificent cities of) Siena and San Gimignano, the general feeling was that this trip to Volterra proved the most enjoyable.

However our day was not yet done, as we had another wine tasting to look forward to at the Palagetto winery. After a quick look at the vines and an explanation on how growing conditions affected the grapes (and hence the wine) we went inside to be shown the production plant – a curious mix of old and new technologies. This winery produces some 300,000 bottles of wine per year – a lot, perhaps, but nowhere near enough to be supplying any of the main UK supermarkets or off-licence chains.

Then on to the tasting: we tried several wines, both red and white, and got a good feel again for how aging affects the quality of the wine. We also got a chance to try three different sorts of Pecorino cheese (almost as worthwhile as the wine itself!) again demonstrating how the aging process affects the product.

Finally, we got a chance to try the famous Brunello di Montalcino wine, considered to be one of the finest wines in the world. I can’t vouch for the vintage, and I am obviously no expert in these matters, but whilst it was undoubtedly a fine example of the art and craft of Tuscan winemaking, our preferred tipple on the day was the far more modestly priced 2007 Sottobosco Rosso – so we bought a bottle!

We were slightly too late back for a swim, so it was more-or-less straight down to dinner – once more on the terrace at Voltona – after which a quantity of Chianti was consumed.

Thursday 26 July 2012

Chianti Classico: Day 5 – Castelvecchio Walk – 7.00 miles

Thanks to a combination of free day today and late night last night, breakfast was a sparsely populated affair – at least by our group. Undaunted, though, we made it down in reasonable time as we had a plan for the day, and that plan involved ……. walking!

We had been pointed in the direction of Castelvecchio, a tumbledown fortified tower perched on a rocky promontory a couple of miles or so beyond San Donato that seemed to be an ideal objective for a modest hike. We set off up the lane at a steady pace, as it was already quite warm and sunny. If we were in any doubt, this fellow served as a reminder.

From San Donato we followed signs on to a dusty track climbing the low, wooded hillside. It turned out the whole area is a nature reserve and home to a wide range of flora and fauna, particularly birdlife. The vegetation cover was a combination of mixed oak woodland on the shallow slopes, with typical Mediterranean scrub on the rockier outcrops.

After a short stretch, the track entered the woods. At a fork we took the left branch, and dropped steeply down into a gully to cross a narrow river. Conditions underfoot had changed too – from the original dusty track to a loose, stony path (more like a packhorse route) that made for rougher going.

A short, steep climb brought us up onto the next ridge. In the woods to our left stood the ruins of Castelvecchio. Our Italian isn’t great (in fact little more than a bit of bastardised Latin helped by the odd Corsican word we have learned) but a sign at the junction seemed to be telling us to keep out. So we obliged, and instead followed an inviting track heading westwards through further woodland. Oddly enough it reminded me a little bit of Guiting Wood in the Cotswolds.

Sometime around noon, we found a shady bank and pulled over for a break. In contrast to the rest of the week, we had a fairly Spartan lunch – an apple, a cereal bar and some dried Apricots – washed down with rehydration salts.

Although this and other paths wound their way through the reserve, we decided to head back. It would have been great to carry on, but we had no map and no extra food. So we retraced our steps past the turn for the castle, down the ravine and back to the dusty track. On the way we met up with a young family who were also staying at the Voltrona, and exchanged a few pleasantries with them before they headed to the air-conditioned sanctuary of their car.

The final mile from San Donato was easily covered. It had been a good little walk – peaceful and great for shade, but because of the scrub and woodland somewhat restricted in terms of views. In the end I took few photographs, but it was an enjoyable trip (well suited to a hot day) and we reckoned the whole area of the nature reserve probably warranted more detailed exploration – which we might have done given more food, less heat and a map.

The remainder of the afternoon was spent reading by the pool, alternately mixed with the occasional swim and a nap.

Dinner this evening was at a super little restaurant by the walls of San Gimignano, with stunning views out over the Tuscan countryside. I had Spinach and Ricotta Ravioli with a Truffle Sauce, Osso Bucco and a wicked Tiramisu – for me, the best meal of the week. Oh, and just for a change, an ice cold beer.

Wednesday 25 July 2012

Chianti Classico: Day 4 – Ridge Walk & San Donato – 7.50 miles

Back to the walking again today, with another outing planned from Fattoria Voltrona round the local countryside – this time taking in the long, low ridge on the far side of the valley.

Needless to say it was another burning hot morning, so we took it easy as we headed out. The first stretch followed the same route as we took on the walk to San Gimignano, through the vineyards and olive groves to Montauto.

From here we turned south to cross the valley. The stream at the bottom was bone dry: interesting considering that in wine production there are strict rules governing the irrigation of vines. At one junction we took a slight detour, testing all the options before hitting on the right one. As we began to climb on to the ridge the views back to Voltrona and Montauto began to open up.

Following the crest of the ridge was easy enough, with clear tracks pretty much all the way – sometimes out in the open, and sometimes in the cool beneath the trees.

The shady woodlands had another use besides cooling overheated walkers. Local wine producers would dig into the earth to create an impromptu wine cellar, and in some cases these have become quite elaborate.

Out in the open the views continued to be extensive, with San Gimignano visible in the distance.

Another thing we noticed here was the presence of a significant crop other than vines or olive trees.

We passed through the tiny hamlet of Cluciano. With a bit of imagination and a healthy budget this fixer-up could be gorgeous.

Shortly afterwards we dropped downhill, crossed the busy Route 47 road and picked up a path through dense, scrubby woodland. Without the breeze it was hot and humid and, with no views to alleviate the discomfort, it was not the most pleasant half-mile. Then we burst out into the open by an olive grove. Sitting in the shade beneath their branches, Anthony produced a copious picnic from his rucksack. Sliced ham and Wild Boar salami, chunks of Pecorino cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, stuffed olives and fresh fruit – wonderful!

It was a slightly overstuffed bunch who trundled into the tiny hamlet of San Donato sometime later, location of the second wine tasting of the trip at the Fattoria San Donato. In contrast to the Tuscan wine school, this was organic wine and olive oil production on an artisan scale. Despite the rustic situation, the produce was top notch – as the subsequent tasting proved. In the heat of the day, the chilled Vernaccia was just bliss!

Having been tempted to stock up but limited in luggage capacity (we settled for a business card instead!) all that remained was the last mile back to Voltrona. A decent swim went some way towards subtracting a few of the day’s calories, then it was dinner on the terrace again at the Voltrona. As the following day was our free day a late night was had, and a large quantity of Chianti was consumed.

Tuesday 24 July 2012

Chianti Classico: Day 3 – Siena

Siena is another UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of Tuscany’s most visited cities. Originally founded in Etruscan (pre-Roman, c 900 - 400BC) times, it is today famed for its art, cuisine, wine, mediaeval architecture and the Palio – a twice-yearly horse race drawing crowds of thousands.

It’s about a one-hour drive from the Fattoria Voltrona, so the first thing we did on arrival was go for a coffee at the café Lupo (meaning “wolf”). Legend has it that the city was originally founded by Senius, son of Remus. Remus and his brother Romulus (after whom Rome was named) are supposed to have been abandoned as infants and subsequently suckled by a she-wolf before being adopted by a shepherd and his wife and growing up to fulfil their destinies. Because of this there are many statues around the city depicting Romulus and Remus being suckled by the she-wolf.

Today was a non-walking day. That’s ‘non-walking’ as in sightseeing not walking-free, because we still clocked up a few miles pottering round the city. After coffee we walked to the Campo, the famous scallop-shaped square in the centre of the city where the renowned Palio horse race takes place twice a year. Packed with spectators and thrumming with the exhilaration of the race it must a thrilling sight.

From the Campo we all went our separate ways for the morning. There is much to do in Siena but, faced with too many options, we chose to do little. We walked round the Duomo and sat a while on a shady step to admire the black and white of its Romanesque-Gothic architecture.

We wandered a little further, exploring the narrow streets. After the relative open of the square outside the Duomo, these alleys appeared dark and cramped. At one point we watched a car squeeze its way through a seemingly too-narrow gap. How it will get out, I don’t know – but presumably it does.

Soon our thoughts turned to lunch, and we found ourselves drawn to an inconspicuous-looking doorway beyond which culinary delights were being created. With so little experience it would be hard to say whether it was the best lunch available in Siena, but it was certainly more than adequate – a simple fare of pasta, salad and ice-cold sparkling water really ticking all the boxes.

Come early afternoon, it was time to reconvene in the Campo ready for our scheduled visit to the Tuscan Wine School for a wine tasting. Our host, Marialuisa, told us about the different types of grapes grown in the Chianti/San Gimignano area (predominantly Vernaccia and Sangiovese grapes), what wines were produced from them, how the aging process affects them and adds to their complexity, and what rules govern wine production in the Chianti region. We also got to taste some great wine, from fresh, young whites to aged, complex reds, and we ended up with a bottle of white Cesani Vernaccia produced, not incidentally, by Marialuisa’s family!

Afterwards, the group went its separate ways again. We spent some time wandering round the perimeter of the old city before spotting a shaded bench with a view overlooking the town.

On a hot day, chilling – rather than exploration of the Renaissance delights of one of the world’s most beautiful cities – seemed to fit the vibe, and it was an opportunity too good to miss. So we settled down to read a while and soak up a little of the atmosphere.

From our vantage point above the rooftops, we could see how history old and new had been woven into the city walls.

We wandered back to the Campo again, this time for an ice cream. Well, you can’t come to Italy and not have an ice cream, can you? Then it was more wandering through the streets.

Finally we up with the rest of our group again, and headed down more narrow streets to the simple restaurant where we had dinner. Sitting on the terrace with a view of the Sienese skyline, we swapped stories of our day and tucked into freshly baked pizza, a shared salad and a chilled beer. Perfect!