A tour guide's personal experiences in Italy
The Tastes and Traditions of Tuscany tour for Spring 2016 has just concluded. We spent ten joyful days of gastronomical and visual delights in this incredibly beautiful region of Italy. The flavors and aromas of the traditional foods and extraordinary wines, the picturesque villages, the jaw dropping views and the palette of colors in the gardens and landscapes made this trip a veritable feast for the senses.
On the first afternoon Rimigio, our lively driver, and I greeted our group at the station. When all the luggage and bodies were piled into the van we headed for the town of Contignano. The short ride was filled with accounts of experiences just past and those anticipated. We were a varied and entertaining collection of personalities. Included among us were wine producers (Palouse Winery) and a cheese maker all eager to learn about the growing and production techniques of these products at the farms and vineyards we would visit. Four of the group were from Vashon Island, WA but had never met until they stepped off the same train in Chiusi, Italy!
Our host and my good friend, Giuseppe Muziarelli, greeted us warmly when we arrived at La Montalla, the farmhouse where we would stay for the next ten days. A talented, local cook, Eufemia, prepared a delicious traditional meal for us and then, when full and drowsy, we all slipped into our cozy rooms for a quiet night of much needed sleep.
Our first full day began with a tour of one of the five wineries we would visit during the trip, Fattoria dei Barbi. This vineyard and cellar, as well as the Casanova di Neri winery, are in the wine zone known for Brunello di Montalcino. We also would visit the Romeo winery in the zone of the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and two wineries in the Chianti Classico zone, Rocca delle Macie and Terre di Melazzano. We met the owners and wine makers and were guided through their cellars and given explanations of the procedures involved in the growing, harvesting, ageing and production processes. All had special tastings for us and provided lovely spreads of foods to accompany their wines.
Between the winery visits we explored hill towns such as Pienza, Siena, Montepulciano, San Querico, Montalcino, Radicofani and Castiglione d’Orcia. Our itinerary also included the La Foce estate of Iris Origo where the fragrance of the wisteria in full bloom accompanied us as we meandered with our guide, Sybilla.
Always a treat, Giuseppe conducted a tour for us of the cellars below the “castle” where he and his family live in Contignano. This structure has been in his family for many generations and Giuseppe is always willing to share his vast knowledge of the history of the town and the region.
Something new this year was a guided tour of the Fortezza of Radicofani by Giovanni who told us the legend of Il Tacco, the Robin Hood style brigand who lived in the fortress during his life. The views of the region from this vantage point are phenomenal! Those of us who were able to cope with the dizzying height climbed to the pinnacle of the tower. After our tour a luncheon was prepared for us by Giovanni and his son and included two types of pasta and pork ribs cooked in a wood fired oven. Meraviglioso!
Whether breakfast at the farmhouse, an afternoon gelato or a more complicated meal, the food we consumed was incredible! We toured the cheese making facilities of the family-run pecorino cheese farm, Fattoria Pianporcino. After the tour we sat down to a beautiful luncheon and tasted the different cheeses and luscious yogurt. One evening we had a delightful dinner at the hilltop, all-natural farm and restaurant of Podere di Casale, where cooking and cheese making classes are also given. More than once we found ourselves returning to the local restaurant of La Fattoria Bellandi in Contignano for a delicious meal prepared by the owner and chef, Enza. Every meal we had was wonderful but our favorite had to be the second dinner prepared by Eufemia where we acted as her assistants as she taught us how to make her famous spinach ravioli with ragu sauce and afterwards we ate the results!
On our final day we had a guided tour of the fifth to second century BC Etruscan tombs near Chiusi and then explored the beautiful Museo Archeologico Nazionale in the historic center of Chiusi. Our last meal together was the traditional Tuscan dish of Bistecca Fiorentina at a small restaurant in the village of Bagni Vignoni, where just a few days earlier we had soaked in the thermal pools.
The following morning we said our heartfelt goodbyes to new and old friends and went our separate ways, a few had additional travel plans and others returned home. I was off to Sicily for a scouting trip to prepare for the Fall tour.
P.S. More info about the Tastes and Traditions tour or the Sicily-Amalfi Coast tour can be found at www.travelinitalia.com