Category Archives: Food

In love with Siena

Although it goes against the grain, I am far more in love with Siena than Florence. Even though I have visited Florence on many more occasions than Siena, the feeling in Florence is always the same: am I in a real city or am I just another tourist in a big tourist attraction? Florence is a must and it should be on everyone’s top list of places to visit when in Italy but for me the true Italian charm is in Siena. You could easily spent a few days visiting the Cathedral and the several churches dotted around town, discovering the narrow streets and the alleys. Hours will fly sitting on the main square Piazza al Campo, sipping a Spritz (Italian aperitivo made with Aperol, soda and prosecco – normally served with a small nibble and crisps) and people watch. And you will notice that even though there are many tourists around, Siena is of its inhabitants. It’s deeply Italian land and you will love it.

IMG_6847
Via Camollia, Siena
CIMG9361
Siena Cathedral

Siena is a very friendly walking city (large pedestrian areas car free); if you are not staying downtown, leave your car outside the walls (plenty of car parks available and generally free after 8 PM) and take a pleasant stroll to the centre. It’s very difficult to say what to do, where to go and where to stay in Siena so I will just go for the not to miss check list:

  • Siena is a pleasure for the eyes and for the camera. Every corner, every old palace lobby, every single street has something new to discover every day. Do not leave Siena without visiting the majestic Cathedral, the Crypt, the Piccolomini Library, the façade of the incomplete Duomo, the Torre del Mangia and Piazza del Campo. You will need a few days to visit all the main sites and the different neighbourhoods; leave a bit of time to enjoy the city itself at the relaxed Italian pace.
  • Have an aperitivo in Piazza del Campo; it’s always busy but the best time would be just before dinner (5 PM onwards) there are many options and many of them not overpriced but you have to look for them. Italians are world renowned for being fashionable but as far as food and drinks we like to go simple so choose a bar with no white table cloth and busy with Italians. Climb up the Torre del Mangia to enjoy the breathtaking views of Siena from the very top. I haven’t been able to get my boyfriend up yet (damn vertigo!) but I have been myself a few times and on a clear day it’s absolutely stunning.
IMG_6948
Aperitivo time in Piazza del Campo
CIMG9384
View of Piazza del Campo from Torre del Mangia
  • Siena has got plenty of amazing restaurants for all budgets (personally I found that the restaurants in Via Camollia where a good choice, Osteria Titti, for example). We had been recommended Boccon del Prete but we couldn’t find it (not sure whose fault was it); reviews were excellent so I’d definitely try it on my next visit. One evening we were running a bit late and at 10.00 we hadn’t eaten yet; in a bit of a rush, we chose Vivace and were pleasantly surprised: the food was good (nothing mind-blowing though) but the views and the idyllic setting were the true highlight of the meal. If you go, ask for a table at the end of the terrace where you can enjoy a beautiful and romantic view. No matter which restaurant you choose, always remember that you are in Tuscany and as throughout all over Italy we do it in a simple way: basic ingredients, great fresh produce and hand made pasta. Wild boar and hare will always be on (almost) any Tuscan menu but obviously it will be fresh only when hunting season it’s open (Autumn/Winter). The same goes for the white truffle (Tuber Magnatum Pico): best to enjoy it fresh when it’s picked up (from September to December). For those that can read a bit of Italian, Tuscany Region issued a very good and exhaustive guide on truffles. For more information on where to buy fresh truffles at a decent price, have a look at my post on San Giovanni d’Asso. If you are staying in a self catering accomodation and are tempted to buy some local products downtown to cook your own food, Consorzio Agrario (Via Pianigiani, 5) is probably the most comprehensive shop in the centre of Siena. It’s a cooperative of local farmers and producers that offer an excellent variety of high quality local delicacies: fresh pasta, freshly baked pizza and bread, panforte, cantucci, local wines and oil etc. Careful: it’s not cheap (not many Italians do their daily shop here!) and I found some of their products in the more affordable supermarkets like PAM and COOP for less money but still it’s a good option if you are a foodie looking for some good Tuscan product.
  • After dinner, have a late evening stroll down its streets, get lost (it’s completely safe) and enjoys the amazing views and the evening lights. Best of all: it’s absolutely free! Depending on the areas, some streets/squares might be completely empty and you will be the only one admiring such gorgeous masterpieces.
IMG_7003
Piazza Salimbeni by night
IMG_6963
Colours projection on the incomplete Duomo Nuovo
  • Go to Nannini (Via Banchi di Sopra, 24) for the best panforte (traditional Italian dessert with fruits and nuts) and ricciarelli (traditional soft Italian biscuits), two local delicacies. It might be a bit overrated but it’s a tradition and worth the little investment!
  • Looking for a nice and unusual present to take home (that it’s not food :-)? Have a look at La Fabbrica delle Candele (Via dei Pellegrini, 11). Gorgeous homemade candles that last for ages with great designs.

 

At this stage, I haven’t mentioned anything about accomodation in Siena and the simple reason is that every time I visited I stayed out of town. I know that there are plenty of options for all budgets downtown Siena but I prefer to wake up in the morning and have a view of Tuscan countryside rather than a city view (even though Siena is a stunning city!). The options listed below were all around Euro 50/60 per night and they are all outside Siena. On 2 separate occasions we stayed at La Loggia Villa Glorialocated in Quercegrossa, a tiny hamlet less than 15 minutes drive from Siena downtown. They do offer both rooms and self catered studio/apartments. We chose the studio option since we wanted to keep an eye on the budget by cooking our meals and we were absolutely happy with it; it was quite old fashion with a relatively small kitchenette area and in need of an overall refresh but it served the purpose for a very good price. Their location just a few Km from Siena is perfect, the reception staff is very nice and helpful (book directly with them for a better rate) and they have a gorgeous swimming pool overlooking the olive trees that couldn’t be a more Tuscan picture. Having said this, they could do a lot more with the structure, improving some of the studios and prettying up the pool area but I suppose they would then charge a lot more money! If you are thinking about booking, ask for a studio in the 2 story stone building near the pool with outdoor space since some of their studios in the red building next to the main one are pretty horrible (I’ve tried them as well!).

An excellent option is Agriturismo Olivera, a self catered accomodation in Vagliagli. It’s a bit further out than La Loggia Villa Gloria and it will take you around 25 minutes to Siena but it was really good value: perfectly stocked kitchen, big bathroom, good size bedroom, outdoor seating area, lovely setting and the morning drive to Siena overlooking the hills was truly stunning. On top of that, Sandro the owner is a friendly young guy that works hard (he produces and sells his own wine) always up for a chat. If you don’t mind a bit of drive (no white road), it’s an excellent option. We chose to cook our own food during the evenings except one night that we tried the nearby restaurant Casa Lucia (a few minutes from the Agriturismo towards Siena) and it was delicious so if you don’t fancy cooking that’s dinner sorted!

Our last accomodation during our tour in Tuscany was at the Agriturismo Tenuta di Monaciano. It’s a massive estate made up of a main villa and different buildings (some quite apart from each others) that have being very nicely restored to accomodate several apartments on the hills near Siena (7 km). The views are absolutely superb and animals are abundant (driving back at night we saw plenty of roes, wild boards, hares etc) but be prepared for quite a long drive on a steep unpaved road (strada bianca, literally “white road”) not all in good condition (not ideal for very low setting cars). I suppose that’s the (small) price to pay if you want to stay in such an idyllic setting surrounded by colourful vineyards and olive trees.

IMG_8091.JPG
View from our bedroom, Tenuta di Monaciano
IMG_8114.JPG
Tenuta di Monaciano

On the positive side, the apartments here were probably the best that we found out of all the previous accomodations. Leaving the Tenuta and turning right at the end of the white road just before crossing the road that goes to Siena, there are a couple of restaurants; we tried La Piccarda: good size portion of yummy and reasonably priced food, excellent pizza and good house wine. We ate there on 3 occasions and it was always busy; it’s a good option if you don’t want to drive back downtown Siena for a bite to eat.

Where to stay? Not an easy choice with such a vast offer. If you are thinking about staying in a self catered accomodation out of town, take into account the following:

  • Strada bianca (unpaved road): agriturismo or self catered units are generally located in the countryside so don’t expect a perfectly flat paved road up to the door of your room. Unless you plan to hire a 4×4, always ask how long the unpaved road is and its condition. Take into account that if you plan to come and go several times a day it can be a nuisance if it’s particularly long and bumpy.
  • Heating: usually in self catered accomodation heating is not included. If you are visiting in cold months and looking to keep the apartment warm throughout the day, it can have a significant impact on your final bill (we always had it included but we had been told to calculate roughly Euro 1,50/2,00 per hour but it can be more). This is due to the fact that in general agriturismo are not connected to the mains therefore they rely exclusively on (expensive) liquid gas provision and sometimes in order to not lose money they have no other choice other than charge it back to the customer.
  • Apartment: if you are planning to stay a few days and do most of the cooking, before doing the food shopping check if the kitchen is already stocked since some basics might be provided (oil, vinegar, coffee, sugar etc). Giving the fact that Tuscany is generally blessed with nice weather in the warm season, I would always try to look for an apartment with an outdoor seating/eating area. You will spend a lot of time just eating and enjoying the wonderful views!
  • Restaurant: most agriturismo have a restaurant and do offer home made meals (in most cases prepared using their own produce) upon reservation. If your agriturismo has a restaurant and it’s open when you are visiting, it is an excellent option to try some local food in an informal atmosphere just outside your door.

 

 

 

San Gimignano: views, wine and gelato!

San Gimignano is a cute little town just over half an hour from Florence and Siena. Locals will always complain that is far too touristy for them (and that’s reflected in some establishments’ prices) but nevertheless, everyone fully agrees on one thing: it’s an absolute gem.

I’ve been lucky enough to visit San Gimignano both in summer and in autumn and it’s difficult to choose which is the best season to visit but, price and color-wise, autumn would definitely be my choice; weather should still be sunny and warm, the biggest hordes of tourists have gone (you will still get plenty of day buses, though) and you can get an excellent double room with views right on Piazza della Cisterna for less than 80 Euro at Al Pozzo dei Desideri (we didn’t stay here but we saw all the rooms and they were absolutely lovely!). We stayed in their sister accomodation A Spasso nel Tempo in Via Matteotti, 37. Excellent price, walking distance from the centre of San Gimignano, lovely young and helpful lady at the check in: it was absolutely perfect! They do not offer breakfast but they are walking distance from a couple of cafes/bakery.

Parking in San Gimignano can be expensive and can be an issue, particularly in peak season. Personally, we have never paid car park once there. A few tips where to leave your car for free (if you don’t mind a bit of walking):

  • If you are coming from Poggibonsi and following COOP supermarket sign, you can try to find a space on the big roundabout and on the roads that goes to San Gimignano.
  • Coming from Poggibonsi, after the roundabout turn the first road on your left into Via G. Matteotti and go till the end. It’s a residential area and there are always some spaces.
  • Coming from the SP1, there are some free spaces near a bus stops between Via Martiri di Citerna and Via di Fugnano.

In any case, always check the signs before parking, in case something has changed!

Food-wise, San Gimignano offers plenty of options for all budget. Being such a famous destination, it can get a bit pricey so be careful where you choose if you are not in the mood of splashing out! Eating in the main square (Piazza della Cisterna) is pricey all year round so I would avoid it but, if you’re trying to catch the last autumn rays, it’s a good spot to get them. There or at Enoteca di Vinorum.

image
Enoteca Vinorum…not very busy out of season!

Not many places can boasts this stunning view: get a glass of Vernaccia white wine, share a bruschetta (grilled bread with varied toppings) and relax in the sunshine with lovely views on the surrounding countryside. It’s a WOW place, you’ll see what I mean 🙂 For a more substantial meal, head to Ristorante Il Pino: we were recommended this place and it was a great choice. They had a 35 Euro tasting menu lunch that included welcome bubbles, antipasti, local soup ribollita, pappardelle with wild board, tagliata and dessert. We hardly managed to finish it all and we “had” to skip dinner.

IMG_8138.JPG
Antipasti at Ristorante Il Pino

On another occasion, we tried Perucá and were not disappointed; their fagottini del contadino (home made pasta filled in with pecorino and pear) and their gnocchi truffle and porcini were to die for. The restaurant is lovely and cosy in a narrow alley in San Gimignano downtown. We tried Osteria I Quattro Gatti (Via Quercecchio, 9) as well for a bowl of pasta and it was a good choice; it’s a nice restaurant with a lovely outdoor romantic area. Recommended for couples.

If you find yourself in San Gimignano on a Friday during summertime, head to Il Museo del Vino (Via della Rocca) for the sunset;  for a very small price they offer a tasting of local wines and cheese (what Italians would call aperitivo) on a lovely outdoor terrace. Possibly one of the few things not overpriced in San Gimignano and surprisingly quiet. A walk up to the walls of the city is one of the best free things you can do while in town.

Echoes (Vicolo Mainardi, 10) is another good bet for a good glass of wine and a delicious bruschetta (no outdoor seating though). They may look a bit pricey (for Italians) but believe me they are massive and one could be perfectly shared for lunch. They have over 60 types of toppings so take your time….The owner is a Pink Floyd lover (Echoes…) so with your meal you will get a nice playlist too.

Do not leave San Gimignano without trying the “best gelato in the world” (as they claim) at Gelateria Dondoli in Piazza della Cisterna. Being Italian and having eaten my body weight in gelato, I can truly say it’s one of the best I’ve ever tried! Go for the unsual flavours such as champelmo (champagne and grapefruit), rasperry and rosmary and check out their seasonal new entries. Don’t worry: all gelato flavours are translated in English, so you can’t go wrong but, if you do, it will be still delicious.

image
Gelateria Dondoli

When it comes to arrange a visit to San Gimignano, the rule n. 1 is of course to try to visit the town before the hordes of buses and minivans arrive (or just after they leave); a walk in the evening down the narrow alleys that open to beautiful secluded squares is breathless.

As far as shopping is concerned, I have to say I would avoid any San Gimignano shop any time (overpriced and all selling exactly the same items) but if you are looking for something a bit different…have a look at J Gallery: 2 young artists (brothers from Belgium) manage 2 galleries/shops in town where they display and sell their works (and some other pieces). Amazing hand made and unique design jewellery and art pieces. I’ve dragged my boyfriend in a couple of times, hope he got the message!

IMG_6774
Old sign La Cisterna Hotel
IMG_6771
Piazza della Cisterna
IMG_6816
Enjoying the sunset
IMG_6812
San Gimignano towers in the sunset