Discovering Tuscany – Certaldo & Mercantia Festival

Widely renowned throughout Italy for being the birthplace of Giovanni Boccaccio (one of the greatest Italian authors of the Renaissance period, buried in the town), Certaldo is not so famous among foreign tourists. Located just 25 minutes from the most famous San Gimignano, it enjoys relative quietness and peacefulness even during high season when hordes of tourists flock to San Gimignano. As other Tuscan villages, Certaldo is divided in two parts: the Certaldo Basso (literally “low Certaldo”), not particularly attractive but where all the services are located (including train station with direct links to Florence and Siena, banks, supermarkets, restaurants, gelaterie, caffetterie and a few shops) and the charming Certaldo Alto (“high Certaldo”), with definitely fewer services but much prettier, located on top of a hill and overlooking the neighboring countryside, including San Gimignano.

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Certaldo Alto (which can be reached from Certaldo Basso either by foot or by a funicular – Eur 1,50 each way) was badly damaged during the II World War (including the house of Giovanni Boccaccio) but it was fully reconstructed soon afterwards, as it was in the Medieval times.

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If you visit, you will find yourself wandering in a charming little old town, a couple of accommodation options, some delicious restaurants (some boasting gorgeous views), a few independent little shops and an overall sense of peacefulness. Definitely more sleepy and far less crowded than San Gimignano, the hill-top town deserves a couple of hours visit and can be easily combined with an half a day visit to San Gimignano. If you don’t want to walk up or take the funicular from Certaldo Basso, you can also drive and that will definitely ensure you some of the best opportunities for shots (just put in your Sat Nav “Via delle Mura” and follow the indication for car park); as in many old town, access inside the walls is restricted to residents only (stay away from any ZTL – Zona Traffico Limitato) but you can find a car park just right outside the old walls (if it’s full you will need to go back to Certaldo Basso and park in Piazza Boccaccio in the pay car park or try in the nearby roads – white lines only).

One of the best things of this little town is that, despite its relatively small size, it has got a good number of events organized throughout the year; one above all the Mercantia Festival, a international festival of street art performers, considered one of the best of its genre in Italy.

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For this reason, if you are planning a trip to Tuscany around mid-July/early August next summer (dates of the Festival are confirmed a few months in advance), Certaldo should definitely be included in your trip. For 5 days, Mercantia Festival takes over all the streets, palaces and gardens of the old town and people from the nearby towns flock here to enjoy the shows (very few foreign tourists around which gives a true sense of local festival). I have been this year for the first time after plenty of people from different areas recommended it (including people from Siena, which is 40 minutes away) and it is an absolute must do, particularly if you fancy acrobats, live performances, body paint artists, dancers and live music.

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The festival –  with performers coming from all over the world – is definitely well organized with plenty of activities for everyone at anytime and though thousands of people attend it never feels too overcrowded (it’s always easy to find a quieter corner). Prior to visit, we had been told that you should choose in advance what performance you want to see but the truth is that because there is so much going on (and we were being a bit lazy), we just wandered around for hours enjoying the shows we found ourselves in – and some of them were truly amazing!

If you are planning a trip in the area for next year during the Festival, bear in mind the following (unless things change from one year to the other):

  • The festival takes place in Certaldo Alto from 9 PM to 1.30 AM (on Saturdays and Sundays it starts at 6 PM) and in order to attend (i.g. to enter the old town after 8 PM) you need to purchase a ticket. You can still enter Certaldo Alto until 5/5.30 PM but after a certain hour, access routes are closed and security staff check entrance tickets. I can’t tell what happens if you are in Certaldo Alto before they start closing the accesses. Festival dates will be disclosed a few months in advance.
  • Tickets can be purchased online or directly in Piazza Boccaccio (even on the same day), in front of the Town Hall located in Certaldo Basso which is also the place where they will give you a daily planner (shows vary daily) and all sorts of information on the event. Ticket prices vary depending on the day you want to assist: this year it was Eur 10 for Wednesday or Thursday, Eur 15 for Friday or Sunday and Eur 20 for Saturday. Discounts are available for kids between 7-14 years old. Ticket office generally opens in the afternoon around 3 / 4 PM. The best thing in order to avoid queuing for tickets is buying them in the afternoon as soon as the ticket office opens and then get back when the festival starts.
  • There are plenty of signposted car parks around Certaldo Basso. If you want to avoid any parking issue and want to get a space close to Piazza Boccaccio (the car park located in the square is closed during the festival since there are dozens of stalls in its place), I recommend that you get in town before 8 PM, since soon after the festival starts to get particularly busy and parking can be tricky. If you are lucky you might be able to find a free parking space close to Piazza Boccaccio (try Via Trieste or Via Alessandro Manzoni).
  • If you are planning to have a proper sit down meal in Certaldo Alto during the Festival (but there are plenty of delicious street food options too!), it’s definitely recommended to book in advance since there are not many restaurants and they fill up pretty quickly, particularly the best rated. We chose one L’Antica Fonte, where we had a great dinner (lovely pork with lardo) in the outdoor terrace overlooking San Gimignano while listening to some live music from the Festival (at the time of booking, ask for a table right at the end of the terrace, with views over the countryside).

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Are you about to visit Tuscany and have you found this post interesting? Have a look at my other posts on Tuscan foodSiena (with two full posts dedicated to the amazing Palio – next one scheduled on August 16th!) and San Gimignano!

Happy reading! 🙂

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Visiting Tuscany soon? Make sure you don’t miss any of these delicacies…

One of the biggest struggles I am encountering since I’ve moved to Tuscany is trying not to over eat. It’s proving to be a mission impossible since food is literally everywhere at anytime and it doesn’t matter if it’s 37 degrees and eating a plate of pappardelle with wild boar ragu’ sounds like suicide…

If you are a fan of fresh and tasty local produce, lovely al fresco restaurants with great views both in the city and in the countryside…well, Tuscany is the place to be!

If you are visiting for the first time, there is some food that – in my opinion – should be tried at least once before going back home, wherever your home is. As in any region, Tuscan food varies a lot depending on the areas you visit and on the season but in general the following recommendations can be found almost all year round.

Here is my top list:

Pappardelle con ragu’ di cinghiale (pappardelle with wild boar ragu’): if the pappardelle are home made and the wild boar ragu’ is fresh, it can truly be a star dish. I can’t count how many times I have eaten it throughout my visits to Tuscany but the rule number one – as with any local produce – is always to eat the product in season. Wild boar (normally hunted in Autumn/Winter) is currently such a big issue for Tuscany (their ever growing numbers have a major impact on the environment and agriculture) that a law has recently been approved to allow wild boar hunting all year round, in an effort to contain their numbers, so you may well be able to find it fresh throughout the year. If in doubt whether it’s fresh or frozen, ask your waiter!

Stracciatella: it’s both a cheese and an ice-cream flavor but in this case I would focus only on the cheese, a creamy and stringy artisanal full-fat delicacy. Though I know that the true stracciatella comes from Puglia region, to be fair I had some of my best here in Tuscany (more than once, just to make sure it was not an exception!) so I feel like recommending it, particularly because you will find it hard to buy this cheese outside of Italy so it’s worth indulging. The safest place to get it? Unless you can find a proper and well stocked cheese shop, go to any big chain supermarket, straight to the deli cheese counter and order a bit to take away (it’s sold by weight and they will serve it in a disposable box, ready to dip in). Then enjoy it with a couple of cherry tomatoes, a few basil leaves, some Tuscan bread and a glass of red wine….aperitivo, done! 🙂

Lardo di Colonnata: it’s the mix of two great Tuscan products: white marble and pig (make sure you don’t eat the former!) :-). Colonnata is the town in Tuscany where it comes from and where it is still produced following the old tradition: layers of lard seasoned with rosemary, sea salt, pepper and garlic are cured in local marble for at least 6 to 10 months giving it an unique flavor. Then it’s thinly sliced and ready to eat. It is a true delicacy – and terribly fattening as the word itself reminds you. Once again, if you can’t wait to be in a restaurant to order it, go to a local butcher or to the supermarket deli counter and ask for a few thin slices, slice up some Tuscan bread, get another glass of wine and again your aperitivo is done! 🙂 It’s sublime if you warm the bread beforehand since the lard will literally melt over it…While searching for some more information on Lardo di Colonnata, I stumbled across the wonderful blog of Emiko Davies, with mouthwatering recipes (and pics!) and a great post about Lardo di Colonnata, in case you want to find out more about it!

Pecorino: by saying Pecorino, you are opening in front of you an incredible variety of tasty and delicious of cheeses (made from sheep milk, “pecora”). Hopefully you are a cheese lover, in which case you are in the right region. Head to Pienza, in Val d’Orcia and just have a stroll downtown to get infused by the most amazing cheese smells. Since there are plenty of free tastings around, make sure to try some of the different flavors of Pecorino, including those cured in walnut leaves, in hay or infused with truffle. Not a cheese lover just yet..? I am pretty sure a trip to Pienza will quickly convert you!

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Pecorini selection (picture from Wikipedia)

Tartufo (truffle): the season is crucial but the good thing is that there is at least a variety of truffle for every season so, regardless when you visit, you can always taste some fresh one (if you pick the right restaurant). I still can’t decide between the white truffle or the black truffle but I definitely had one of my best truffle based meal in Radda in Chianti (La Terrazza), on a warm and sunny evening in November. Truffle was excellent (and in good quantity) in both the antipasti and primi and definitely recommended. Plus, they have got a lovely terrace, perfect to enjoy a warm autumn evening eating al fresco. If you are a fan of truffle and you are self catering and feel like using some of it while in Tuscany, read my full post on the little town of San Giovanni d’Asso, one of the best places to go in Tuscany to get some amazing fresh truffle.

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Delicious truffle and porcini tortino in La Terrazza – Radda

Bistecca alla Fiorentina (T-Bone Steak): I still have not developed an unconditional love for bistecca alla fiorentina simply because I can’t eat huge quantity of steak: no matter how delicious and buttery the meat is, I get “bored” easily (I suppose it’s due to the fact that generally after a steak I struggle to eat anything else :-). Having said this, if you are a meat lover, this should absolutely be on your list. The general rule is that the steak should come from a particularly cow (Chianina), bred in Valdichiana. Normally cooked on a wooden grill, it comes out rare (don’t even think of asking “well done” cause the waiter will frown at you) and, though prices for this cut varies depending on the restaurant (and its location!), generally a fair price would be around Eur 4 for 100 grams; the average portion is 1 kg so expect to pay around Eur 40. It comes without saying that it is highly recommended to share it – unless you are prepared to eat 1 Kg of almost VERY rare meat. It’s a pretty manly dish but I have seen women doing very well too (including me)! I haven’t had many fiorentina steaks but a very good one was at Trattoria Marione in Florence, just off Santa Maria Novella Square and a great one in a picture-perfect Tuscan Osteria called La Sosta di Pio VII, in Barberino Val d’Elsa (FI), definitely worth the drive in the Florentine countryside: amazing Tuscan food, lovely atmosphere, great service and an incredibly mouth watering Fiorentina (if you manage a dessert, try their mascarpone and Nutella one!). It’s open all year round and in summer time they have a gorgeous outdoor pergola….you will see, it doesn’t get any more Tuscan than this – booking is recommended!

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Picture from Pixabay

Tagliata ai funghi porcini: less manly and definitely my favourite meat dish in Tuscany since it allows me to leave a bit of room for an antipasti and potentially dessert! Literally “tagliata” means “sliced” and that’s what it is: a sliced medium-rare beef that if cooked properly is absolutely buttery and delicious. Put it on a couple of layers of porcini mushrooms and it’s absolute heaven! You can be sure that (if not always with porcini) it’s always present on any Tuscan menu – I haven’t found one that didn’t advertise it. Worth trying 🙂 As for the Fiorentina, I would definitely recommend the Osteria La Sosta di Pio VII: tagliata is beautifully cooked and it literally melts in your mouth! If you are in Siena, try Boccon del Prete, a great restaurant not far from Duomo: great primi and a very good tagliata (booking recommended!).

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As far as Tuscan food, there is plenty more to taste and experience, particularly as far as salumi (cold meats) and cheeses. If you are self catering and want to try several of them without getting ripped off, just keep in mind some easy rules:

  1. Avoid the “deli” shops located in the most touristy towns (particularly San Gimignano); Italians generally don’t buy in them for being overpriced and catering mainly to tourists.
  2. Check if in or near the town you are staying there is a weekly market. Apart from the fact that it’s an experience on itself, it’s worth going in the morning and wandering around the food stalls and get something to eat on the spot or take away. It’s cheap, it’s yummy and above all it’s truly Italian with plenty of grandmas chatting and local vendors shouting their best deals!
  3. If you are tight with time and can’t visit a local market, head to one of the big supermarket chains (COOP and PAM, for example). Since markets are generally held during the week days, the great majority of people do their shopping at the supermarket. No doubt it hasn’t got the same market atmosphere but it’s definitely a great opportunity to buy some local produce. Salumi prices shown at the deli counter are always per 100 grams but if you are not sure how much you want, you can just ask for slices.

Not self-catering? Then just order a tagliere di salumi e formaggi (literally a board for cold meats and cheeses) and you can’t go wrong.

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Tagliere di salumi e formaggi at Enoteca di Piazza, Montepulciano

 

Getting hungry already….? 🙂 I am!

 

 

An unexpected Palio experience…

Siena Palio is over. All the stress, anxiety and excitement of the Palio days (or better to say of the year, for the Senesi) was over in just a couple of minutes last Saturday evening. La Lupa contrada won, after 27 years. At the moment, for as much I try hard I can’t think of any other sport or event that lasts so short and that profoundly marks a part of a city in a matter of seconds.

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The fact that la Lupa contrada won is undoubtedly important (particularly for la Lupa contrada itself, of course) but that meant a true catastrophe for the contrada of the Istrice, its forever rival. The two contrada horses were next to each other at the starting line and the animosity was clear. As I wrote in my previous post, for a contrada that races in the Palio, winning is as equally important as making sure that its rival doesn’t win. That happened on July 2nd and I suppose that was the worst nightmare for the Istrice contrada and all its contradaioli. I was watching the Palio in a bar in the Istrice contrada and the fact that la Lupa won completely changed the mood of the evening, at least for this part of the city: minutes after the result, flocks of people abandoned Siena streets, head down with tears in their eyes, walking back fast pace towards Istrice contrada headquarter. A funeral would be the best way I could describe the atmosphere, and I am absolutely serious. When I say proper tears, I mean that I have never seen so much distress in such a vast group of people of all ages: from kids up to elderly people, the distress was patent and widespread and I felt a bit intrusive in being in the Istrice contrada in such a moment since, for much you would like to show empathy with people crying, you will never be able to fully understand the desperation of the contradaioli.

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Horse and jockey of Istrice contrada

But let’s get back from the beginning…

Though the race itself starts at 7.45 PM, it is absolutely worth to be in Siena in the early afternoon of July 2nd (the same applies to August 16th) to attend the multitude of events collateral to the Palio that help to build up the whole atmosphere.

For various reasons, we had previously decided to not watch Palio inside Piazza del Campo but we still wanted to enjoy half a day in Siena, wandering down the streets packed with locals and foreigners alike.

If you are planning on watching the Palio inside Piazza del Campo, bear in mind that:

  • If you want to get a good spot, i.e. next to the Mossa (where the horses start) or at the finishing line, people will start arriving to secure a space next to the fence in the early afternoon. We entered the square around 4 PM and the best spots on the fence where already taken, so probably around 1 or 2 PM would be recommended.
  • At the time we arrived, almost all the square except a tiny part on the west corner was in the full sun. If you are planning on arriving early, come prepared: water, a hat or even a small umbrella to shade yourself and plenty of sun cream are an absolute must. The are a few stalls in Piazza del Campo that sell water (or there is a potable fountain, if you don’t mind the queue in the baking sun).
  • All the accesses to the square start to close around 4.30/5 PM, before the historical parade enters Piazza del Campo. The last access to be closed (at 6.45 PM) is in Via Dupre’ (from the contrada Onda).
  • In the square there are no toilets, so be prepared.
  • Once the last access to the square is closed, you can’t leave Piazza del Campo until the Palio is finished and nobody can’t really predict when that will be: lining up all the horses and starting can take a while and the Mossa can be repeated several times and, above all, it takes a while to empty a packed square.

Apart from the Palio race itself, the afternoon starts at 3.00/3.30 PM with the benediction of the horse and the jockey in each contrada church, a truly solemn moment. After the benediction, each contrada parades in its full costumes and flags down the street of Siena, stopping in Piazza Salimbeni, Casino dei Nobili, Chigi Saracini Palace and in Piazza del Duomo, waving flags and drumming. Choose one of these stops, and secure a space to have a good view (we choose Piazza Salimbeni standing on the steps of the central statue and we had a very good view).

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Then, at around 4.30 PM the procession leaves the Piazza del Duomo and heads for Piazza del Campo. By pure chance we went up the tiny Via del Castoro and at the end of this street, just before the arch, it’s where the parades gather before entering Piazza del Duomo so you can get a few nice shots before entering the square.

Choosing to follow the parade means that you will not be able to secure a good place in Piazza del Campo but that’s a choice, of course; we found the parade in the streets absolutely fascinating and worth watching. The streets were busy but if you feel too congested just take a side road and it will be almost empty. We followed the parade, took our time in the streets and then head down to Piazza del Campo. As expected, all the accesses (it was gone 6 PM) were already closed. We heard that the last access to be open was Via Dupre’ and we headed there. Surprisingly, there was almost no queue and we were able to easily enter the access and in a matter of seconds we found ourselves right in Piazza del Campo with definitely a great view to take a couple of pictures!

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We stayed a while in the square, enjoyed the historical parade and then, right before they closed the access at 6:45 PM, we sneaked out and headed to the contrada dell’Istrice, in a bar where we had booked a table to watch the Palio. We are still learning about Palio and having someone (in our case, the bar owner) explaining you what’s exactly going on is absolutely essential, otherwise you will probably miss the most of it. In this sense, hiring a guide for the Palio is definitely a great idea and highly recommended if you want to have some proper background and detailed notions on the Palio tradition.

As I said, the fact that la Lupa won caused a massive meltdown in the people of the Istrice contrada. In a matter of seconds, Via Camollia (the hearth of Istrice contrada) got exceptionally quiet and silent, and you could distinguish from afar a steady and almost compact flow of people coming up the street heading towards Porta Camollia. By that time we were standing outside the bar finishing our drinks and as soon as the Istrice contradaioli (all clearly recognizable by their scarf with the contrada colours) were coming closer it became obvious that a lot of them were in tears. I suppose we were not expecting anything like that and the bar owner must have seen our puzzled faces and promptly explained us that for the Istrice contrada it was an absolute travesty that their rival had won, not so much that they didn’t win the Palio.

Since I have been in Tuscany I have always liked people from Siena: from the experiences we had, they are generally very chilled out, relaxed and friendly with tourists/outsiders but the Palio definitely changes people and on Saturday in Siena there was a weird atmosphere: people were obviously getting ready for the big event with families and group of friends alike gathering in and around Piazza del Campo but throughout the day we approached 5/6 different groups of people and every time answers to our questions were very quickly dismissed and cut short or answered in bad manners. At a certain point, I had the feeling that tension was becoming almost rudeness (not all of the Senesi, but I am sure it was not a case).

With the end of the Palio days, it was absolutely clear one thing to me: the Palio belongs to Siena and the Senesi. That’s it. Of course you/we can attend the event and watch it, either in the square or paying hundreds of Euros to watch it more comfortably from a palco or balcony seat but at the end of the day that doesn’t mean anything: for us (not Senesi) Palio is a mere festival, a celebration. For them, it’s a completely different story: tradition, passion and pride.

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Nevertheless, it has to be experienced, at least once in a lifetime.

 

Heading to Siena this summer? The Palio days will take place again from August 13th to August 16th (Palio race), with the same schedule. If you are visiting, have a look at my other post to find out the most interesting facts about the Palio and the trials.