Category Archives: Travel

COME AND STAY AT MY PLACE!

I have not been posting very much lately because I have dedicated myself 100% to the big (or better said, massive) venture that my boyfriend and I have embarked on, that is…. setting up a bed and breakfast in the heart of Tuscany.

After having spent over two years looking for the right property and almost an year to buy it (it’s not as easy as it may sound!), we have finally started the building works to convert the “old” (and somewhat letdown) property  into a brand new Tuscan bed and breakfast, keeping the Tuscan tradition very much alive and mixing it with some modern touches.

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Not an easy task (and Italian bureaucracy doesn’t definitely help) but we are committed to get to the end….and we are almost there! Though the opening date is not set yet (we estimate before summer 2017), you can follow our progress on Villa San Michele Facebook page (give it a like too!) 🙂

So, whilst the builders dig hard, we do our best and we get on with all the paperwork, the training courses and the jobs that we can do by ourselves: gardening, jet-washing all the outside patios and paths, sanding and varnishing something like 40 wooden shutters (it does take a while) etc….physical work in the Tuscan sun doesn’t feel that hard, after all!

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Are thinking about visiting Tuscany and want to know where we are? We are located in a tiny hamlet called Vico d’Elsa, in the municipality of Barberino Val d’Elsa on the Tuscan hills in the Valdelsa area (Florence metropolitan area).

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Have a look at the map to find us!

https://www.google.it/maps/place/50021+Vico+D’elsa+Metropolitan+City+of+Florence/@43.5125041,10.8191206,10z/data=!4m5!3m4!1s0x132a3919548766d9:0x6e1371a5443feee7!8m2!3d43.5116661!4d11.1020977

And if you need any suggestions on what to visit near us, just scroll to the bottom of this post and you will get a full list of some of the most beautiful spots in the area (San Gimignano and Siena just to name a few) and their distance from our place! For more details and information on the region, just have a look at my Tuscan posts to get some inspiration.

 

If you think someone else might be interested in visiting Tuscany in the near future, share the post or visit our Facebook page! I will be extremely grateful 🙂

 

And….

COME AND VISIT!

 

 

 

 

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Marrakech: a place like no other.

The first time I visited Marrakech was in 2013, on a 2 weeks trip to Morocco and that was my second time in Northern Africa (the first one being Egypt in 2009). I have visited the city again a few days ago and I had the same exact feelings of 3 years ago: Marrakech is a place like no other and Morocco has been – up to now – the country that has surpassed by far any of my expectations: extremely diverse from North to South (at least the part I visited), you will definitely be captivated by the colourful local markets (including of course the Marrakech souks!), the beautiful imperial cities (Fez, above all), some of the most stunning landscapes I have ever seen (desert, gorges, mountains etc), delicious food, impressive riads or dar to sleep in and a buzzing atmosphere in all the medinas.

Whilst in order to properly visit Morocco you will definitely need at least a couple of weeks (and that would allow you to visit some of the major sites), Marrakech makes the perfect city break for a long weekend.

If you are planning a short trip there, worth considering a few things:

SLEEPING

Though offer is extremely vast and you will never be short of accomodation in Marrakech, if you have got something specific on your mind (and particularly in high season – October to March I would say) make sure you book well ahead since the best addresses fill up quickly. Where to sleep is totally down to you, even though a couple of nights in a restored riad (a typical Moroccan house with a courtyard or a garden in the centre) is definitely a great experience to switch off from the madness of the city and soak yourself in a oasis of relax.  

There are options for all budgets but just keep in mind that:

1) Unless you book a room with a terrace or at an upper floor, riad or dar rooms are generally quite dark since none of the windows (except the top floors – if there is any) opens on the outside (they generally overlook the internal courtyard). On the positive side, riads generally have a roof top terrace to enjoy breakfasts/meals or simply chill out, if the weather allows it. That itself is magical, particularly during sunrise and sunset.

Want a room with a balcony? I struggled to find one not overpriced but in the end I was truly satisfied with the one I booked at Riad Le Berbere: they offer a stunning and sun kissed room with a private little balcony overlooking the gorgeous internal garden. This time of the year (November) the room is blessed with sunshine from the early morning hours.

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Balcony room at Riad Le Berbere

They have a great roof top terrace too, where they serve breakfast and dinner – upon reservation.

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Rooftop terrace at Riad Le Berbere

2) Location in Marrakech is everything and which riad/hotel you choose depends a lot on what you plan to do during your stay. If you are on a girls weekend away and you plan to spend a long time wandering around the souks, I would definitely stay as close as possible to the Jemaa el-Fnna (the main square) and the souks to allow you to get in and out easily. Riad Le Berbere is a 10 min walk from the square but is very well located in respect with the Ben Youssef Madrasa (the Islamic college) and the Photography Museum.

I found Marrakech to be a safe city, both in 2013 when I visited with a girl friend of mine and on this last occasion with my boyfriend: no hassle (except from the sellers!) or problem at all. Despite this, keep in mind that some of the side alleys are very poorly lit, even just off the main square and the souks at night (after 10 PM, when they close) are deserted. Getting lost in the Medina is definitely part of the game but better doing it during daytime!

EATING AND DRINKING (mainly tea!)

The first time I visited Marrakech in 2013 I was truly impressed by the amount of cool and modern cafes and restaurants owned and managed by Europeans (mainly French). That has definitely increased in recent years and has resulted in a huge offer of mid to high level European-Moroccan product (both food and style), definitely interesting and delicious but sometimes overpriced, at least for Moroccan standards (sometimes even for European standards!). No wander why these cafes and restaurants are packed with Europeans only. Though they sometimes offer a good alternative to the local cuisine, eating in one of these cool and chic places (just to name a few: Cafe’ des Epices and Nomad etc), takes away a lot of the charme of Marrakech since you could be anywhere else in the world. Usually, next door there is always a Moroccan restaurant or cafe’ and generally with a great terrace offering the same stunning view of their overpriced neighbours.

That is the case of a couple of cafes/restaurant in Rue de la Kasbah, close to the Mosque Moulay El Yazid and the Saadian Tombs. Kasbah Cafe’ is definitely a cool and chill out restaurant with a great terrace but its prices can be compared to European ones. Try a few metres down on the same side of the road and you will find Casa Saada, a local restaurant with very good tagines, sandwiches, freshly squeezed juices and exactly the same views over the mosque. For a fraction of the price! 🙂

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View from the terrace of Casa Saada, in Rue de la Kasbah.

On Jemaa el-Fnna, Cafe’ de France is loved by locals and tourists alike and it’s definitely one of the best spot to catch the sunset over the main square, enjoying people watching and a mint tea! If you want to get a good spot with a good view over the square just make sure to arrive well before the sunset.

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View of Jemaa el-Fnna from the 2nd floor of Cafe’ de France.

Alcohol is widely served in restaurants and bars that cater mainly for tourists (at European prices) but generally not in Moroccan ones (and definitely not if there is a mosque nearby). I have to say that it makes a good change to sit down for a late afternoon mint tea, enjoying the buzz of Marrakech from either a terrace or escaping it by choosing a secluded riad.

If you need a break, try Dar Cherifa, one of the oldest mansions in Marrakech, wonderfully restored and converted into a literary cafe’, restaurant and guest rooms. Service is excellent and friendly and the amazing architecture is worth a visit by itself (just a few minutes walk from Jemaa el-Fnna).

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Aromatic tea ritual in Dar Cherifa, a stunning literary cafe’ and restaurant with rooms.

SHOPPING

First rule: if you are planning on doing some serious shopping and you are flying to Marrakech with a low cost airlines, it’s definitely worth putting a foldable bag in your hand luggage and pay for hold luggage for your inbound flight only. Trying to squeeze a massive straw bag (or carpet!) in your hand luggage can be a mission impossible!

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Straw bags in Place des Epices.
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Poufs, pillows and rugs for sale in Place des Epices.
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Spices and dried flowers in Place des Ferblantiers, near the Mellah.

Shopping in Marrakech is easier said than done and – even for me that I do love shopping – it can be a quite exhausting experience. Not only the offer in the souks and the outdoor markets is vast (I would say ENDLESS) but let’s face it: Moroccan selling techniques can be quite overwhelming for us Europeans 😉 For men shopping in Marrakech can be a daunting and definitely nerve-wracking experience so keep that in mind and make sure your other half is prepared. In this sense a girls-only weekend can be a great option! 🙂

If you are looking to buy some specific items and carpets in particular, I would definitely recommend reading the post of Maroc Mama (an American-Moroccan family living in Marrakech), with the 7 tips for buying a rug in Marrakech. Very useful, especially for first buyers.

What to buy is totally down to you but there is definitely a bit for everyone: Argan oil, spices, rugs, fabrics, throws, pillow cases, blankets, clothing, straw bags etc.

I only bought what I really wanted to get, that being:

  1. A couple of 250 ml bottles of Argan Oil, from Mishkat-Arom, a pharmacy next to Place des Epices: no bartering in here but if you buy a couple of bottles they give you a free small bottle of 100 ml Argan Oil. They have natural Argan Oil or mixed with natural essence (Orange Flower, Verveine, Jasmine, Grapefruit).
  2. A plain straw bag from a sweet Moroccan old man, working in an little alley behind Place des Epices; he didn’t speak a single word of English nor French and the 60 MAD for a handmade straw bag (just less than Eur 6) felt like the best money spent on the whole trip.

 

Coming next…..

What to do and visit in Marrakech in 3 days

 

The long and winding road to buy a property in Italy….

If a year ago someone had told me that it would have taken us (my boyfriend and I) a full year to buy a property in Italy, I think we would have probably walked away – and choose another country. A year. In the same period of time I had plenty of friends that got engaged and married, others planning children and actually giving birth to them.

But I suppose that – at the end of the day – buying a property in Italy is probably something like having a baby: painful and rewarding at the same time.

Now that we have finally completed, we don’t even have time to stop and think about the whole process itself but I am pretty sure we won’t never forget the experience: extremely slow, stressful and – for most of it – terribly frustrating. So, if you are thinking about buying down here, make sure you have plenty of patience and you are truly committed to get to the end. And in the not too distant future if you need a place to stay while looking around for the right property (which it can take a while!)…you can stay with us – keep reading! 🙂

Every single person that we met throughout the process (agents, consultants, builders etc) promptly reminded us “This is Italy!”, which basically means:

  • Bureaucracy is a nightmare. Sadly Italy lives up to its name and it doesn’t seem it will make procedures easier any time soon. From the very first moment you land in Italy you will soon realize that literally everything needs a stamp and someone’s signature in order to go ahead…Plenty more to be said on this topic!
  • If you don’t speak Italian, language is clearly an obstacle because you  will necessarily have to rely on someone else for the whole buying process. To find someone you can rely on it’s a whole different story (and that will deserve a separate post too!). Being an Italian speaker, I still had my difficulties throughout the whole process.
  • We have bought a property made up of an old farmhouse and a former hay-barn dated XVI century. Pretty old eh? Well, if you are looking to buy something similar just bear in mind that there is a huge number of countryside properties (at least in Tuscany, but I am pretty sure that the further south you go in Italy and the worse it will be) that to some extent does not comply with the current building/landscape regulations. I can easily say that out of the over 30 properties that we viewed in Tuscany before falling for this one, NONE was actually 100% compliant at the time of visiting. Again, plenty more to be said on this point but generally the bigger the house and the more likely it is there might something not fully legal or that needs to be fixed in order to be fully compliant. It can takes days or it can take months or – worst case scenario – it can’t be fixed. As long as you are prepared, no problem.
  • Plenty should be said on the quality of real estate agents – and we met quite a few in the last couple of year. Sorry to say that – and I am pretty sure it does not apply to everyone of course – but I don’t need a realtor to enter a kitchen and tell me “this is the kitchen” or to enter a bathroom and tell me “this is the bathroom” (YES, I am still frustrated about this). What about giving away some more basic but constructive information that can truly help the purchase? With the commissions they get (from both sides!), they should definitely provide a far better service.

Other than that, it has been definitely a fun ride with plenty of ups and downs, a lot of people that have crossed our path (some of them truly amazing that made and still make our days) and a whole bunch of new experiences that will definitely help us in the upcoming challenges – there will be plenty!

For us, completing on this property is just a step closer to the final goal that is not only converting it into our “home” but also into a bed and breakfast. Definitely a big challenge that will take a few more months of hard work but we are so looking forward to literally open our doors to our future guests and sharing with them our love for Tuscany, Italy, travels and plenty more that all the efforts will be absolutely worth it.

And the bottom line is: if you are planning a trip to Tuscany in the upcoming year(s), we would definitely love to host you! We expect to be up and running for the next season so, if you wish, follow us along this path: we will launch a webpage and an Instagram account so you can follow our progress (and give some advice too, why not?).

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In the meantime, before we disclose our location here are some of the most beautiful places in Tuscany that would deserve a visit and that are very close to where we live:

CERTALDO (10 minutes)

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Often overlooked but definitely worth a stop as one of the prettiest hill-top towns in the area. Every summer it hosts Mercantia, an amazing street-art festival that shouldn’t be missed. Another very well organized event is the Boccaccesca, a truly Italian food fair (with plenty of very good wine too!) in a lovely setting!

SAN GIMIGNANO (15 minutes)

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Possibly the most famous hill-top town in Tuscany, boasting gorgeous views of the surrounding countryside, stunning architecture and plenty of excellent restaurants. Get there early in the morning or late afternoon to beat the crowds and enjoy the town at its best.

MONTERIGGIONI (20 minutes)

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On route to Siena, this tiny little castle-town is definitely worth a stop – far less crowded than San Gimignano. It can make a great stop for a couple of hours to enjoy an aperitivo in its lovely square or a walk around its walls.

CHIANTI (from 20 minutes)

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We are literally on the doorstep to Chianti, the land of olives and vineyards. Take a full day to drive around the charming towns of Radda, Greve and Gaiole in Chianti, tasting some of the best wines in a stunning setting.

SIENA (30 minutes)

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Home to the most famous horse races in Italy (the Palio, held twice a year), there is plenty to visit and explore in Siena to keep you busy for a couple of days. Despite the number of tourists visiting (particularly during the summer months), it still retains a truly Italian atmosphere.  

FLORENCE (45 minutes)

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Does it really need an introduction? Florence is a “wow” for the eyes and the soul and every single corner, church, square, alley etc is worth a stop. If you are planning to visit, make sure to plan ahead what to do and see so you don’t miss anything: even  only 24 hours can be an absolute blast!

SAN MINIATO (45 minutes)

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Another one of those pretty hill-top towns that can make a perfect stop on the way to Pisa Airport (if that’s the airport you will use), particularly if you come here during November/December, when it hosts the Truffle Market Fair (check dates), definitely the best place to eat and buy white truffle!

CRETE SENESI (50 minutes)

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Rolling hills and some of the most stunning lunar landscape in Tuscany. Plus, home to a couple of stunning Abbeys (including Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore). Great for scenery and sunsets.

PISA (1,15 h minutes)

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Though it is definitely the Leaning Tower that made Pisa famous, the whole city deserves a visit. Crossed by the Arno river, there is plenty to discover on both banks. If you don’t plan to sleep in, it’s definitely worth spending a few hours in the city before flying back….wherever you are flying back to! 🙂

 

Plenty more to discover so keep following!

When it comes to Italian street food fairs, this is definitely a good one…

Apart from a few hours in the morning (dedicated to boring house stuff), I have basically spent my Sunday eating. Better said, tasting some delicious products from Tuscany and all over Italy at the Boccaccesca, a great street food fair organized in Certaldo (Firenze province) on October 7th, 8th and 9th. Unfortunately the weather has not been great on the two first days but today we have managed to get a few hours of beautiful sunshine (just before the afternoon storm), enjoying the open air stalls in both Certaldo Alto and Basso.

If you are planning to visit Tuscany next year about this time, it’s definitely worth to keep an eye on this food fair and put it on your agenda for a few good reasons:

  • It’s free.
  • It’s truly Italian and, even though there was a good number of tourists visiting, it has definitely got a very Italian feel and atmosphere.
  • Extremely reasonable prices in the great majority of the food stands (Eur 1 for a very decent glass of red wine is not bad…isn’t it?). If the price is not displayed, to avoid any unpleasant surprise always ask for the price (particularly on cheese and ham). Some hams can get up to Eur 90 per Kg so be prepared….!!
  • If you plan to take home some local Italian products, it’s a great opportunity to get a bit of everything and all of excellent quality.
  • You could almost eat for free since there is so much to taste around and the great majority of producers are interested in getting their products known. I’ve lost the count of how many food stalls I have tried today…

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That couldn’t be more Italian…
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This was delicious…expensive but delicious. 
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Caciocavallo Impiccato from Irpinia
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Not bad… 😉
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Truffle creams
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Always check the label and the truffle percentage!
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Not going to help you breath but definitely delicious! 🙂

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Worth getting a bit of this…Gorgonzola D.O.P. from Orsi e Fiori

 

Have you ever tried grape stomping?

I have always thought that the image of sipping red wine during an outdoor Sunday lunch in a dreamy Tuscan vineyard in Chianti filled with sun was kind of overrated.

I was wrong.

It turns out that even for an Italian like me – that has sat at plenty of outdoor tables, enjoying thousands of Sunday lunches and drinking litres of red/white wine (split over the course of those thousands of lunches, OF COURSE) – an experience on a Sunday 2 weeks ago was pretty amazing.

I attended a Wine Harvest Day at Fattoria Montefiridolfi in Chianti after reading about it through Travel Italian Style (that tailors small tours in some of the best regions throughout Italy for a true Italian Dolce Vita experience) and what I thought would have been a very intimate experience it turned out to be a truly deeply noisy Italian Sunday lunch, sitting next to absolute strangers all sharing the same passion for simple and tasty food, great wine, plenty of chat…basically…..Italy!

The event started at 10.30 AM (and since we take drinking very seriously, we were there at 10.20 AM…just in case!). While we waited for the others to join (over 60/70 people), we were invited to a small tasting area overlooking the vineyards to taste the Fattoria Montefiridolfi local wines (forget about the “tasting” measure though, since they are pretty generous here) and were given a good chat by Davide, explaining their products and giving a general overview of the area. That’s 10.30 AM and we kept drinking and chatting with the new arrivals for a good while.

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Then we all remembered that we were there for the wine harvest (!) so we were all given a pair of clippers and happily walked through the paths down to the vines in the blazing sunshine. My fellow harvesters spread through the vines started to work. My British boyfriend says that in the end there was a lot of talk and little work  😉 but hey, we are in Italy after all no? Can’t really work without a good chat!

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After that, since it was gone 12.30 AM and we hadn’t eaten YET, we (Italians) started to get a bit nervous. All very good this grape picking but we needed food, which came out soon afterwards and was simple, abundant and all home-made, and it went perfectly with the wine they offered.

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The atmosphere was very informal, friendly and perfect for both families (I was amazed that not one single child cried during the whole day – and there were a few!!), couples and single alike.

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For kids and adults alike, one of the best parts of the day was definitely the grape stomping. There is always a first time for everything in life and this was my first one. Quite a strange feeling the grapes in your toes….I would say a must-try 🙂 Plus, if you get to do that in good company and with a couple of glasses of their local white wine, that’s just a bonus! (that’s me with Patricia, fellow blogger)!

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Just before leaving, Daniela, the young manager, told me that it was the first time they organized an event like that and they were a bit overwhelmed by the number of people that attended. To me, it was an absolute success and hopefully they will organize a merenda for the new oil harvest too, in November.

Where, I am sure, wine won’t be missing!  😉

Just got 24 hours in Florence? Make the most of it!

Though it sounds like a mission impossible, 24 hours in Florence can be an absolute blast if properly planned. The city – its historic centre declared World Heritage Site by UNESCO – is definitely quite compact with some of the most interesting sites and landmarks concentrated in just a few blocks that makes it perfect to move around by foot only.

Since I have moved to Tuscany, I came through several people that – as part of a rather rushed holiday – had spent less than 24 hours in the main Tuscan city. Though it may sounds really not enough to fully appreciate it, sometimes tight schedules and travel plans don’t allow for much more so making the best of it is the end goal.

Here is a quick walk through Florence to make sure you will leave the city absolutely gobsmacked – no matter how much time you have on your side! Get your map ready…

1. If not flying, Santa Maria Novella train station is generally the arriving and starting point of the great majority of people visiting Florence, being connected with the other main Italian cities by fast trains (Frecciarossa and Italo). Start here, have a look from the outside at the Santa Maria Novella church (just opposite the train station); don’t miss to visit the stunning shop Officina Profumo Farmaceutica Santa Maria Novella (Via della Scala, 16 – open every day from 9.00 to 20.00), very close to the train station and definitely an institution in its kind in Florence.

2. Head back to the station square and head towards the neighbourhood of San Lorenzo. Visiting San Lorenzo and the Cappelle Medicee solely depends on how much time you have got and what you plan to do next. The area is also renowned for some of the most affordable leather stalls (be prepared to bargain!), selling anything from handbags, suitcases, jackets, shoes etc. Quality varies but you can definitely find a good deal here! Right in the middle of the leather market stalls, you can’t miss the modernly refurbished San Lorenzo market (that reminded me a lot of Mercado San Miguel in Madrid): on the top floor it hosts plenty of food stalls/restaurants (some a bit on the pricey side for Italian standards) and a kitchen school, on the ground floor is a thriving and affordable local food market (opened until 14.00) perfect for some goodies, not overpriced and full of locals doing their daily shopping. A delight for all senses!

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San Lorenzo Curch and Cappelle Medicee
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San Lorenzo Market – ground floor
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San Lorenzo Market – ground floor
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San Lorenzo Market – Cooking School

3. Leave Piazza San Lorenzo behind you, take Via De’ Gori, Via dei Pucci and then take Via Dei Servi on your left, heading north towards the stunning Piazza Santissima Annunziata and the Spedale degli Innocenti. I have visited the area on several occasions and it makes the perfect spot for a nice stroll just a few steps out of the madness of the centre.

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Piazza Santissima Annunziata

4. Head back down on Via dei Servi to the hearth of Florence: Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral (“Il Duomo”, as it’s usually called) and the Baptistery. The closer you get and the more you realize the magnificence of the whole compound. At the moment it’s available a cumulative ticket of Eur 15 that includes access to the Cathedral, Dome, Bell tower and Baptistery among others. If you are short on time and have to choose what to visit in Florence, Eur 15 and a couple of hours spent here will be totally worth it. Plus, if you are a bit tight with time you can also book the slot to visit – once you have purchased the ticket – so planning ahead it’s definitely easier.

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View of the Campanile and the Dome
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Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral, detail

For lunch, don’t loose too much time in a long meal and get something quick and filling (and truly local) at the Fiaschetteria Nuvoli (Piazza dell’Olio 15/r), a tiny little place with an amazing selection of wine and a very reasonable food menu.

5. Follow Via del Proconsolo, leaving behind the Cathedral and heading south. Once in Piazza Firenze, turn left in Via dell’Anguillara and head straight down until you reach Santa Maria della Croce. Possibly my favourite church in Florence after the Cathedral, the square itself is simply beautiful, with plenty of food options in case you have not eaten before and plenty of back streets to not feel overwhelmed by the crowds – trust me, at the end of the day you will want to escape them!

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Santa Maria della Croce

6. Unless you want to visit Santa Maria della Croce, take Borgo dei Greci and head back to the core of the city, walking by Palazzo Vecchio and Piazza della Signoria, where there is a copy of possibly the most famous Italian nude man in the world (David by Michelangelo) – that was long before Italy became famous for its porn-actors! 🙂 The square deserves a long stroll around, without missing out on the Loggia della Signoria and on the Uffizi (if you are short with time, you will have to leave them for another time since you may need a full day here) from where you will be able to easily get to the Arno River. On your left, you will get a great view of Ponte Vecchio, possibly one of the most famous landmarks of Florence.

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Ponte Vecchio (picture taken from Ponte della Trinita’)

 

7. Use Ponte Vecchio to cross over the Arno: now you are officially in Oltrarno, that is literally “the other side of the Arno river”, a buzzing neighbourhood with plenty of charm, unique antique shops, vast selections of restaurants for all budgets and overall a much more relaxed and authentic atmosphere than “the other side” – that’s my opinion, of course. 😉

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Oltrarno pictured from Ponte Vecchio
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View of Florence from Oltrarno
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Antique shop in Oltrarno

Though you might be pretty tired at this stage, the ultimate effort will definitely be compensated: a steep climb up to Piazzale Michelangelo will undoubtedly ensure you some of the most amazing views of Florence. If you are here by the sunset, grab a couple of beers and a few nibbles from a local bakery and sit down (with plenty of other people) to enjoy the daily free show. Another option to reward yourself of a long day walking is to get a proper Italian aperitivo in Flo Lounge Bar, just next to Piazzale Michelangelo. For the price of a drink (if I am not wrong it was Eur 10 when I last visited…and their mojito was totally worth it!), you get to enjoy a tasty and well assorted aperitivo (including BBQ meat!) in a great stylish outdoor terrace overlooking Florence (just a note for the boys: even though dress code is not particularly enforced during aperitivo hours, long trousers would be recommended).

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Flo Lounge bar terrace

If you have still got a few hours to spend in Florence and you can wait until it gets dark, the evening lights from the top will be totally worth the wait.

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Heading to Tuscany and need any ideas? Have a look at my other posts on Siena (plenty of insight on the Palio events, perfect if you are planning to visit next summer), San Gimignano, Certaldo and the best tips to travel around the region (including not-to-miss food!).

 

A 90-second horse race that lasts forever

There are events that we experience and we are able to describe and explain, trying to convey feelings and emotions so people that have not attended them can get as close as they can to the situation.

And then there is Palio.

I thought I could actually describe Palio (and I tried, with my two previous posts) but the reality is that, for much details and information you provide, no one can really explain the essence of Palio.

I am not from Siena and I have moved to the area very recently so I definitely have no presumption on this subject but I know one thing: as soon as you step in Piazza del Campo on the Palio race day and you lift your eyes to the balconies, the windows, the roofs or any other opening, jammed with people flagging the contrada colours, you cannot feel anything else than tension. Multiply that for a thousand times and I think you can get a rough idea of what contradaioli experience during the Palio days – better said, throughout the whole year.

One the day of the Palio (July 2nd and August 16th) the historical parade goes on for a time that feels almost interminable, just adding more suspense and expectation to the race itself.

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Historical parade

Then the Palio (a silk hand painted drape, dedicated to the Madonna di Provenzano in July or the Assumption of Mary in August) enters, greeted and waved by thousands; at the end of the day that is why everyone is gathering in Piazza del Campo twice a year.

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Palio entering Piazza del Campo

When the last access to the square from Via Dupre’ is closed (usually half an hour before the race starts), that’s it: you are locked in.

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View of Piazza del Campo

At that point the square is still noisy and constantly moving, people trying to gain a good spot for a better view particularly of the Mossa area, where fate is decided.

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Palio of August 16th, 2016 hanging next to the Mossa

As soon as the white envelope containing the starting order appears and goes from the Mossa down to the hands of the Mossiere, the square suddenly fells to a surreal silence. If there is still someone chatting, people will immediately shout for silence.

The starting order is called out by the Mossiere, accompanied with the usual cheers or boos from the crowd (and plenty of swearing too), depending on whether their contrada is next to an ally one or a rival.

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Mossiere

At this point, the die is cast. Being a good jockey and having a good horse is not enough. Strategies, silent agreements, threats and bribes play an equally important part (have a look at my previous post for more details).

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Horses and jockeys aligned at the Mossa, between the canapi (ropes)

The run-in horse gives the start to the other 9 and, unless the Mossa (the start) has to be repeated for irregularities (which happens often, and more than once), 90 seconds is all the race lasts.

Imagine a whole year condensed in these 90 seconds and you might be able to understand what follows….

What happens next is even more striking. The winning horse (and the jockey) gets literally sucked in a flow of people that, with the horses still running, climb over the fences, frenzied and I would say almost possessed. The winning horse is kissed and profusely hugged and the jockey is lifted above the crowd and he will stay there for few hours, carried around the city and brought up to the Duomo (in August).

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In the meantime in the square you will see a bit of everything: people screaming and throwing themselves to the ground being literally dragged out by their friends (because their rival contrada won), people crying of joy and restlessly hugging other contradaioli around because their contrada won two Palio in a year (La Lupa, this year), people rushing to the fences, falling down and pushing as fast as they possibly can to reach the winning horse/jockey….

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And the Palio? Those that have not rushed to get the jockey up in the air have literally climbed up the Mossa to get the Palio down. The Palio is then taken on a procession (with the jockey) to the Duomo, through the streets of Siena and then to the tiny church of the winning contrada where its contradaioli (and not only them) pay respect. Pictures, selfies, smiles and plenty of tears, again.

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Church of contrada La Lupa with the Palio won in July and August 2016
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Palio of August 16th, 2016

 

Still think that this is just a 90-second horse race…?

How to hire a car without the feeling of being ripped off (and a few more tips!)

Anywhere in the world, hiring a car (or a moped or anything else that moves) is definitely one of the best ways to get around and know the country you are visiting. Though I can see many positives in exploring a country by public transport (one above all: getting more in contact with local people by using their same means of transport), there are some places where hiring a car is definitely the best decision: you are completely flexible and able to reach quiet and unspoiled spots. Tuscany is definitely one of those places. Whilst Florence, Siena, Pisa and are easy to reach by using public transport, for many destinations, a car is almost a must: Val d’Orcia, San Gimignano, Monteriggioni etc. Though doable, visiting Tuscany by train and bus can be a bit challenging and sometimes frustrating. Not impossible, but definitely a bit more hard work especially if you want to get off the beaten track.

For this reason, I feel like hiring a car is the best option if you are planning to spend some time in Tuscany. I have been hiring cars both for business trips and during holidays for many years now in Italy, Spain, UK and USA and luckily (fingers crossed) I only had a couple of unpleasant situations but on plenty of occasions I have found myself struggling to get a decent car without feeling to be ripped off at the counter. 😦

What to keep in mind:

  • Discounts, Avios etc: check if with your airline you are entitled to some discounts or if, for being a customer of a specific airline, you have some additional benefits (you may be entitled to use them even though you have not flown with them when hiring a car). An example: Iberia was offering a free additional driver to any Iberia Plus member which is definitely a big saving since generally an additional driver is around Eur 10 per day (I used Easyjet to fly to Pisa and then hired with Avis, using the promotion). On top of that, airlines generally offer very good reward programs if using their partner hire company (Iberia/British Airways partner with Avis). Sometimes, paying a bit more for your rental definitely gives you more benefits 🙂

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  • Go safe: Hertz, Europecar, Avis etc….they are all big names and generally they are synonymous of good service (and generally they charge more!). More staff at their desks (you don’t want to queue for ages after a flight!), more cars available in their parking lots and more offices around the country in case you are planning to pick up a car and drop it off somewhere else. On one occasion where I rented with a smaller company (Locauto), I had to change the car I was hiring and, though I gave 4 days notices to the company, they couldn’t find me any another car in any of their other offices located in 3 different airports so I had to stick with the one I had.
  • Credit card: when it comes to hire a car, companies always ask for a credit card. They may accept a debit card  but always check in advance in order to avoid last minute surprises. In both debit or credit card, they will “block” a considerable amount on your account until the car is returned (“deposit”). Amount varies according to the class of vehicle rented. Take that into account since the money they put on hold won’t be available for you to spent until they release it (which generally is a few days after the rental contract is concluded). Also, in case of presenting a debit card, they might “force” you to take their own insurance – see next point.
  • Insurance: this is a difficult point and I can only tell my personal experience. I am fully recommending insurance4carhire (Car Hire Excess Insurance) that I have been using for over 3 years because 1) I had a claim for a car hire in Spain and the full sum was promptly refunded, 2) it’s a huge saving compare to the full insurance that the rental company offer and above all 3) I feel definitely much safer than going without insurance. For the newbies: when you hire a car, it always come with an excess that means the amount of money that – in case of accident/damage etc – you will have to pay to the car rental company (each company has its own excess amounts). With insurance4carhire, in case of accident/damage, you will pay upfront the excess stated in you rental agreement to the car hire company but the amount will be reimbursed by your insurance soon afterwards (you will have to fill in some forms and submit pictures). If you hire a car a couple of times a year, the saving is impressive since their current insurance for 1 year in Europe is £39,99 (unlimited number of rentals for a max of 60 days each, up to £6,500 excess on damage and theft plus plenty more cover). Definitely worth having a look at the website – especially if you compare it with the insurance offered by any rental company! Claiming is pretty easy and straightforward and their customer assistance was extremely helpful. Note: at the moment, to purchase this policy you must be resident of the UK, The Netherlands, France, Spain, Italy or Germany. I am sure that for residents of other countries there will be similar insurance company.

Just a couple of final rules to keep in mind before setting off – valid with any car rental, regardless of their name/reputation…

1) It is widely known that, as with everything (restaurants, hotels etc), car rental companies try to get rid first of the less appealing cars or that have got some issues (as small as the issue may be). So, if you are not happy with the car you have been given, politely complain; I am not a pain but I believe that if I pay for something (and sometimes car hire is a fortune!), it needs to be in good condition – it doesn’t matter if I am hiring a Fiat Panda or a Mercedes (the former is more likely!). On several occasions, I have been offered cars not cleaned, with seat belt broken, external fuel cap missing etc. I have learnt to polite refuse the car and try to get another one; it takes minutes and it saves you some hassle later, particularly if you plan to rent the car for more than just a couple of days.

2) Check the car extremely carefully, no matter if the car rental guy is packed with other customers waiting after you. Take your time and check everything, particularly wheels, bumpers, extra wheel and fuel (ask for full and bring it back full). Rushing may cost you money if you miss any existing damage. If there is any existing damage when you pick up the car, check that the car rental staff notes it in your contract and always take pictures of the damage.

3) Always keep the car hire contract in the car!

4) For as much a Fiat 500 looks extremely Italian and cool to hire, remember a couple of things:

a) many Tuscan roads (particularly to reach agriturismo or remote locations) are called “strada bianca” (white road, which basically means unpaved). A Fiat 500 is perfect for the city but not so much for driving off-road and on particularly winding roads (also not great if you are planning long driving throughout the region). 2) the boot is minimal so make sure you can fit your luggage in it before setting off, leaving nothing on display (see next point).

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Fancy a drive off-road and uphill? Make sure you hire the right car! (image from Pixabay)

5) This has always been my first rule since I had a car and even though I am perfectly aware that Tuscany countryside is not Milan (at all!!) or any other big city, it’s always worth remembering an Italian saying that goes “L’occasione fa l’uomo ladro” (that is more or less “opportunity makes the thief”). So, avoid leaving anything on display inside the car and – even worse – open the boot full of luggage in public spaces and then leave the car unattended (this to be particularly avoided in service areas on the motorway). When you leave the car, even though you have locked it remotely, double check the doors to make sure it’s properly closed (thieves do inhibit the transmission of your car remote control and when you think you have closed it,  in reality it’s still open…and it’s not a metropolitan legend, promise!). It literally takes a second and saves more pain later and, as always, better safe than sorry!

 

Other than that…get your Sat Nav set on your next destination and safe travels! 🙂

 

 

(Featured image from expedia.com)

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! 🙂

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!