The road to Apalachicola

“Apala… what”??!! You wouldn’t even think that a town with a name like this exists but actually it does.

Apalachicola is a small fishing town in Franklin county, southwest of Tallahassee, Florida. Just over 2,000 souls live here. If you end up here (not many do, believe me), you might be on your way to the well renowned Gulf of Mexico beaches where the water is emerald and the sand is white. The road to Apalachicola is stunning, especially if you take a couple of detours on your way. We did it and got rewarded with stunning views and one of the most delicious blackened Tilapia burgers of our whole road trip in Florida.

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Tilapia burger

Very few Americans have ever heard of Apalachicola and you quickly understand why. It’s a rather sleepy town, with a few old fashion accommodation options and a handful of restaurants and it claims to be the real Old Florida. After spending many months touring America, being European you do realize that what’s old for an American is relatively new for us. But Americans do try hard to keep their old stuff at their best: a lot of buildings (both private and public) have been nicely and carefully restored but all has been done keeping an eye on the past and preserving the traditions.

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We ended up here on our way from St. Augustine, FL to New Orleans. And we went on a specific mission: try the famous oysters. More than 90% of Florida’s oysters production is harvested in this area. To me, this is more than a good reason to go!

We stayed at Coombs Inn & Suites (80 6th Street), since the season was pretty quiet and they had a good mid-week rate. It’s located in a tranquil residential neighbourhood and it’s walking distance from Apalachicola downtown. Our dinner choice for the evening was already sorted: Up the Creek Raw Bar (313 Water Street). It’s a pretty informal bar/restaurant, you order your food as soon as you arrive at the bar and they serve you at the table. Whatever you choose it’s going to be delicious…. we opted for Classic and Southern Style oysters and a rich Crab and Lobster Bisque. The oyster purists will probably say that oysters should be eaten raw but I can guarantee you that these baked ones are to die for!

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Classic Oysters: they look revolting but they are delicious!
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Southern Fella Oysters
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Crab & Lobster Bisque

We left with our bellies full (we left a bit of room for a huge dessert) and to my astonishing surprise before we left the bar we ended up meeting a bunch of Italians: they didn’t quite know how and why they ended up there…but, no matter what, they absolutely loved the oysters too!

Let’s put it in this way: you wouldn’t probably choose to go to Apalachicola to spend your holiday but if you happen to drive near this town, I would stop. It’s a “Florida” miles away of what we would expect Florida to be. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

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A day out in Whitstable

Whitstable is a small town not far from Canterbury (5 miles), well renowned for its oysters. If you are on your way to Canterbury and if you are an oyster fan, I suggest you plan a quick stop here.

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When we decided to visit, the weather was sunny but particularly cold and terribly windy so we couldn’t really enjoy our walk but what we did truly love was undoubtedly our meal at Wheelers Oyster Bar (8 High Street).

Menu is not particularly extensive (the one pictured below is the bar menu) but everything sounded absolutely delicious. Book well ahead (we didn’t, so we ended up at the entrance bar, which was absolutely fine since we were in for a quick lunch but the restaurant room would have been a better and more relaxed option)! Everything we had was very tasty, particularly the smoke haddock and cheese flan, the herrings and, of course, their oysters!

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Lobster Bisque

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Pickled Herring
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Can’t remember what it was…but it was delicious!
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Bar menu

If the weather is nice, plan a trip on the same day to Herne Bay, a nice seaside town not far from Whitstable.

If you are an oyster fan and you are planning a trip overseas, have a look at my post on Apalachicola, FL….possibly the best oysters I have ever had. 🙂

Una cerveza, por favor!

When the heat strikes hard, that’s all you need to know to survive in Barcelona. A good cold beer. Best enjoyed in one of the thousands terrazas that you will find at every corner and square througout the city.

If I had to choose between Madrid and Barcelona I wouldn’t have any doubt: I am madrileña inside, but I have to admit that Barcelona has got something that Madrid hasn’t (and unfortunately, despite the efforts to bring the Manzanares river back, will never have): the SEA. Not so much the sea itself, but all that comes with it: a wide and well kept beach walk starts almost from the very downtown and stretches further out to sun-blessed city beaches, lovely terrazas facing the sea offering amazing seafood and in general a far more relaxed atmosphere than Madrid. It must be the sea breeze. In summer (and even before and after) it does get hot and very humid but you have always got the sea handy for a dip, so BCN is a good bet for an all year round trip.

Not to miss while you are there:

  • Sagrada Familia, Park Güell, Casa Battló, La Pedrera…: basically, everything that the great Antoni Gaudí has designed. Visits to Gaudí’s houses are not cheap but are well worth a visit, at list once in a lifetime. Try to visit the Sagrada Familia early in the morning before dozens of buses (with hundreds of tourists) arrive.
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Sagrada Familia, interior
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Sagrada Familia, interior
  • The Cathedral (known as La Seu): this stunning Gothic cathedral built in 3 stages over 150 years absolutely deserves a long visit. Check out on its website since there are some time slots throughout the day when access is free of charge.
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Barcelona Cathedral, interior
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Barcelona Cathedral, interior
  • Eat out in a terrazaI love the Born area, with the Picasso and Textile museums and Santa Maria del Mar Church…so you could combine a delicious outdoor lunch with excellent sightseeing (great shopping with plenty of individual and original boutiques, too). All over the neighbourhood there is an excellent choice of terrazas where to sit, share a few tapas and people-watch. It’s a very good spot to hang out in the evening as well and it’s just a few steps from La Barceloneta beach.
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Tapas in the Born Area
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Tapas in the Born Area
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Santa Maria del Mar
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Santa Maria del Mar, interior
  • In Barcelona (as in almost every corner of Spain) from Monday to Friday restaurants and cafes generally offer a menu del dia (daily menu) where sometimes for less than 10 € you can get a starter, a main and a drink. Quality depends (as always) on the establishment you choose. Generally the menu is advertised on a board outside the restaurant and it should change daily, as the name suggests.
  • Spend a few hours in the Mercado de la Boqueríaon the Rambla. A bit touristy and pricey but still a good place to admire its colorful stalls offering a wide range of jamones, quesos, aceitunas y pescado for which Spain is famous for.
  • Get the underground to Barceloneta or Ciutadella/Villa Olimpic and start you long walk on the beach side. In theory you wouldn’t even need to get your feet sandy since the boardwalk is all paved. Just so you know, the beach side restaurants and bars get very busy at night time so if you are up to a nice dinner out and a bit of boogie boogie you know where to head to.
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Beach walk
  • If you like partying, factor in to have a big night out. Barcelona is a party city and you shouldn’t leave it without having experienced good fun. Time Out Barcelona is a good source to check the trendiest clubs in town. To me, even though many years have passed, La Terrraza still holds some of the best memories of my time in BCN. A magical open-air club with top quality house music (some of the world best DJs have played here), set in the charming replica village of Pueblo Español. I have visited plenty of times and had a blast every single time.
  • An evening stroll on Passeig de Gracia to admire the beautiful evening lights of Casa Battló and La Pedrera.
  • Watching the sunset at Museu Art Nacional de Catalunya and stay there to grab a good spot to enjoy the Magic Fountain show.
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Museu Art Nacional de Catalunya
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Magic Fountain Show

Safety wise, I have to say that my feelings towards Barcelona have always been very mixed. Its streets and alleys, particularly in the old barrio Chino (Raval) and barrio Gótico are very narrow and poorly lit. Both barrios are busy in the evenings (plenty of restaurants and bars to choose from) so just hang out where other people are and you will be fine. The Rambla is to be avoided in the night (again, plenty of other places to go in BCN unless you are particularly fond of pickpockets, drug-dealers and prostitutes) or if you go there exercise precaution. If you decide (I wouldn’t, but up to you!) to sit down in one of the cafés on the Rambla, keep your bag on your lap anytime.

I think my aversion for the Rambla comes from the fact that when I was 17 I decided (together with a group of 3 other girls) to travel from Lloret de Mar (one of those places that you shouldn’t visit under any circumstances and that I will not mention anymore) to Barcelona, without booking an hotel – of course. We thought we could have stayed out partying all night. But we didn’t take into account that 1) our budget was not unlimited and 2) clubs closed at a certain hours and at that time I was not ready for matinee sessions yet (it took me just a year more!!) so we ended up literally on the Rambla from 4 AM until probably 7 AM, when we finally entered a coffee bar and waiting to board our bus back to Lloret. And what we have seen on the Rambla, we would like to forget.

Having said this, during the last decade BCN town hall undertook several actions to try to clean up many of the areas where drug dealers, prostitutes and pick-pockets where moving around freely so a lot of previous no-go areas are now a lot safer and therefore busier with tourists. I lived in BCN for a few months back in 2000 and gone back almost every year since then and I have never experienced any issue so just keep your eyes open and enjoy this fascinating city!

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Barcelona views (Torre Agbar on the right and Sagrada Familia on the left)

 

Corazón Madrileño

If I could have chosen where to be born, I would have definitely picked Madrid.

I have lived there on 2 separate occasions, the last one being from 2007 until 2010 and I have to say I still deeply miss it. If you have already been there, it’s not difficult to see why: amazing architecture, beautiful wide and tree-lined boulevards, stunning parks, great shopping, delicious (and cheap!) food and a great night life. The latino charme apparently adds something more to this wonderful city 😉

My rule since I moved out is that, at least once a year, I have to go back and I think I have accomplished that so far.

Here are some tips for a great long weekend in Madrid!

  1. Hotel: I am not going to suggest any in particular but the location will depend a lot on what you are planning to do and what your budget is. I lived in Almagro, near the embassies area in a “spacious” 27 sqm flat. It is undoubtedly one of the wealthiest parts of Madrid and it’s perfectly located for going out, shopping, visiting and anything else you could possibly be looking to do in Madrid. Almagro, Recoletos and Goya barrios generally offer a more upmarket accomodation. La Latina and Malasaña are closer to the action (plenty of bars, restaurants, shops etc). For party-goers, Chueca is the best bet (gay oriented but open to absolutely everyone up to great fun!). Wherever you decide to stay and whatever your budget is, I would avoid anywhere near Puerta del Sol and Gran Vía (areas well renowned for pickpockets and petty crimes). You want to be near the action, not necessarily in it!
  2. Food: Since I left Madrid in 2010, many new posh and stylish markets have opened (or being restored) giving a more international feel to a city that up to a few years ago was profoundly Spanish. Nothing wrong with them but be prepared to pay a bit more for anything you would order in there and be surrounded by a lot of fellow tourists (Mercado San Antón, Mercado San Miguel, Mercado San Ildefonso etc).

    If you are looking for something more local and the sun is shining, go for any restaurant with terrace on Plaza de Olavide or Plaza Dos de Mayo: patatas bravas, berenjenas con miel, pulpo a la gallega, ración de tortilla, plato de jamón y queso should be on your list. You may have to wait a while to get a table but the buzzing atmosphere is well worth the wait. No matter where you choose to have your meal, please do not eat in Plaza Mayor: over priced and over touristy. Food may be decent but that’s not where locals would eat. Don’t leave Madrid without trying a chocolate con churros (long fried donuts to dip in thick hot chocolate) at Casa Ginés near to Plaza Mayor (it’s open 365 days a year, 24h/24h so you have no excuse not to go!) nor a croquetas de bacalao (cod croquettes, but they have got plenty of other options) at Casa Labra next to Puerta del Sol. La Mallorquina in Puerta del Sol is the place where to get your morning pastry (or an afternoon one). Don’t be put off by the queues: they move fast.

  3. Shopping: One for the ladies. Madrid is shopping land. I would suggest to try to keep your boyfriend/husband at home (if you have one!) and go there for a girls-only getaway (try to arrange it on a sport event if your partner is hooked on one). If your other half still decides to follow you to the Spanish capital, make sure you have at least one full day of shopping on your own. Assuming you may like what I like (individual and unique shops, local designers etc) Calle Fuencarral, Calle Malasaña, Calle Hortaleza, Calle Corredera Baja de San Pablo are a good starting point.

    You can’t leave Spain without a pair (or more) of shoes. No matter what your taste is, Calle Figueroa in Chueca should be the first place to go. It’s the so-called shoe-outlet street and you’ll know what I mean once you get there. Go for the local brands: Pura Lopez, Paco Gil, UNISA and Malababa (amazing leather boots). Again, a boyfriend or husband, would be completely unnecessary, don’t you think?  Are you a fan of fans 🙂 (abanicos)? Get one at Casa Diego in Puerta del Sol on the corner with Calle Montera. For trendy outfits that require a bit more investment, Calle Barquillo is a safe option: nice and unique shops are lined along both sides of the street and the surrounding side streets. For more upmarket shopping, Calle Serrano and in general Salamanca barrio is the place to go if you are prepared to spend some serious money (Amaya Arzuaga, Angela Schlesser, Pedro del Hierro, Purificación García would be my choices if I had that sort of money to spend). For something more casual and boho, that requires a lot less €€€, head to El Rastro; it’s the Spanish version of Portobello Market in London and it takes place every Sunday in La Latina district. I think, as many things, it used to be a good market for good finds and bargains…now it has probably lost a bit of its soul.

  4. Keep safe: I lived on my own and used to walk back home many times at night (or early morning) and Madrid is a overall a safe city (it was probably safer before the big 2008 crisis, though). As with any big city, you have to pay more attention in certain areas at certain times as petty crimes are not uncommon. Pickpockets are magicians, avoid railway stations areas in the evening and pay particular attention when on undergrounds and trains (keeping your belongings next to you). Public transport is generally packed all day long so special care should be exercised. As (white) taxis are way lot cheaper than anywhere else I have been in Europe, I suggest you use them if you plan to get back very late. All the times I have been there (both living and lately for business and pleasure), they have always used the meter and never had any issue but make sure they use it.
  5. Going out: Malasaña, La Latina, Chueca, Salamanca…you can’t go wrong. Don’t forget that generally madrileños do not eat before 10 PM and some clubs will be absolutely empty before 1 AM (some locals might still be eating at that time!) so you may need to factor in a siesta to keep you going all night long. I used to get a nap before going out dancing at 2 AM!!

Madrileños are lovely people. They genuinely love their city and they are generally helpful with tourists. The city is exceptionally quiet on Sunday morning (they party hard!) so don’t expect to see many people walking around in residential-only areas. Try to visit the city with the frame of mind of a local: don’t wake up unnecessarily early, have lunch not earlier than 2 PM and dinner not earlier than 9.30 PM. Shops/galleries/museums stay open until late and you don’t want to sit at a restaurant on your own. Be prepared to walk long distances and don’t forget to pay a visit to the most stunning museums (Reina Sofia, El Prado, Thyssen Bornemisza) and check any other temporary collections or exhibition. If you are planning to stay more than a weekend, get yourself a Guia del Ocio from a local kiosk (kind of “What’s On Guide”), to see what’s on during your stay.

And don’t forget: flamenco is not Madrid so please save it for when you will visit Andalucía (which you should do!).

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Mini sandwiches and claras at Cien Montaditos, Plaza Santa Barbara
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Palacio Real
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Plaza de Oriente, Teatro Real
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Almudena Cathedral
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Sunset from the Almudena Cathedral
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Palacio de Cristal, Parque del Retiro
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Palacio de Comunicaciones (also called Palacio Cibeles or Correos)
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Metropolis Building by night
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Parque del Retiro on a Sunday afternoon
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Gran Via
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Sunrise in Plaza Santa Ana (Hotel ME)

 

 

 

San Giovanni d’Asso…..welcome to truffleland!

San Giovanni d’Asso is not a particularly pretty town but it should be on your top list if you come to Tuscany in November or in March and if you are a truffle lover.

Truffles in the UK (where I live) are far far too expensive and unless you are prepared to pay serious money generally what you get is only truffle-flavored or with a tiny percentage of truffle. Therefore, I have decided that I will only get/eat truffle when in Italy (Tuscany or Piedmont) and in large quantities (i.e. daily!).

I have to say that my best truffle based meal was in Radda in Chianti (La Terrazza, Via Pianigiani, 9), possibly one of the most touristy town in Chianti and that’s probably why I was so pleasantly surprised at the amazing quality (and portion!) of truffle dishes. To be fair, I went slightly out of the main touristy season, and that could have helped. 🙂

But if you are in Tuscany and if you are staying in an agriturismo or small bed and breakfast with a full kitchen you can use, it’s well worth trying to buy your own truffles. And that’s enough reason to drive to San Giovanni d’Asso (maybe on your way to Montepulciano). Get a packet of fresh pici (thick, long Italian pasta), a couple of fresh Porcini and you have got dinner sorted. And a bottle of local red wine, of course!

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Fresh Porcini and truffles!
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You don’t need a lot more than this to prepare a delicious dinner…
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Pici with home made sauce of fresh Porcini, truffles and Parmesan shaves. 

San Giovanni d’Asso is well renowned for its truffle. When I stopped there, in the middle of a miserable and rainy wet day, buying fresh truffle absolutely made my day. I bought them at the Cooperativa Il Tartufo delle Crete Senesi, directly from those that hunt truffles for a living. A small door in San Giovanni d’Asso (Via XX Settembre, 15/A) with a tiny plate outside opens up to a dark room where two young men, in their full military/hunting outfit, welcomed us. The truffle scent that came out from that room is something I will never forget. It looked like they bathe in truffle, and I immediately loved them. And that’s where we bought it. Prices vary according to the truffle quality and size, of course, but for 45 Euro we came out with a couple of medium size truffles and crema con tartufo bianco (with 20% fresh truffle) that was absolutely delicious. Fresh truffle doesn’t last long but with the truffle cream you can do delicious dishes back at home!

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Crema con tartufo bianco (white truffle cream), 20% fresh white truffle!

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.

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Via Camollia, Siena
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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.
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Aperitivo time in Piazza del Campo
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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.
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Piazza Salimbeni by night
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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.

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View from our bedroom, Tenuta di Monaciano
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Old sign La Cisterna Hotel
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Piazza della Cisterna
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Enjoying the sunset
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San Gimignano towers in the sunset