Tuscany’s Timeless Treasures

Part Due: The riches of the Montepulciano Region

In vino veritas. (In wine there is truth.) – Pliny, the Elder, 23-79 A.D.

     Italy, though smaller in size than France or California, is actually the world’s largest wine-producing country and one of the oldest, dating back to Etruscan times (from which the name ‘Tuscany’ is derived). With 20 wine regions stretching from its north to south end, Italy also offers the most variety of wines. Looking closely at the center of the map below, you will notice the large pale blue area (Tuscany) that makes up a good portion of Italy’s central wine-producing region. Within that area, many of the most notable wines come from the world-renowned Chianti and Montepulciano regions, where the climate and soil conditions seem to be ideally suited to growing the Montepulciano and Sangiovese grapes for which the region is lauded.

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     If you read Part One of this post, you will recall that our 12-day tour of Italy was broken down into 3 distinct regions. The first, the Chianti region, is located in the northernmost part of Tuscany, just south of Florence. (If you missed that post and would like to read more about the beautiful Chianti region, including Radda, Volpaia, San Gimignano and more, please click here.) For Part Two, we travel slightly south to the famous Montepulciano region, another of Italy’s renowned wine-producing territories.
     Rising early on day 4, we were anxious to begin the second leg of our journey, starting with the hilltop town of Montepulciano — from which the surrounding wine region takes its name — and then on to our second lodging — a private medieval tower in the tiny hamlet of Monticchiello.
     The drive to Montepulciano from Radda in Chianti is a quick hour and a quarter on the autostrade.  A couple of important things to note about driving in Italy: 1) a good GPS is a must — preload it with maps of Italy before you go; and 2) Italian drivers are quite a bit more aggressive than American drivers. They drive faster, and they have a tendency to tailgate…a lot. 3) The unspoken rule about driving on the autostrade is that you never linger in the fast lane, as drivers tend to do in America. The left lane is for passing only. Once you have overtaken the car ahead of you, you must return to the right lane immediately to allow others to pass. And if you don’t comply, other drivers aren’t afraid to remind you by attaching themselves to your back bumper (refer to tip #2). Take my word for it, and just stick to the right lane unless you are passing.
     After exiting the autostrade, we arrived at the outskirts of Montepulciano to find traffic backed up for at least a mile from the centro vecchio (old center) and the polizia turning cars away. It wasn’t clear why traffic was being rerouted, but we opted to follow the other cars that were veering off the main road and parking along the side streets. We  were quite a distance from the old town center, but we had comfortable shoes and embraced the opportunity to walk off a tiny bit of the food that we had been storing up in our ever-increasing bellies, like camels amassing water for a long desert journey.
     As we approached the city gates, we realized that the traffic was the result of a large festival with dozens of vendors selling a variety of wares and food items along the streets and piazzas. Little did we know that May 1st is a national holiday, “Festa dei Lavoratori” (Italian Labor Day), so locals from all around the region had come to Montepulciano for a day of eating, drinking and festivities. Aside from the inconvenience of the expanded crowds and traffic, it was wonderful to see local families out in full force, celebrating their much-deserved day off.
     On any given day, Montepulciano is a must-see destination. A beautifully preserved medieval city, it is much larger than others we had visited on this trip, but no less charming as a result of its grander scale. In fact, with its winding cobblestone streets, narrow passageways and grand piazzas, it oozes old world charm. And because it caters to locals as well as tourists, it has many shops of substance selling lovely local products, as well as innumerable restaurants and cafes.
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     With all of the festivities and extra foot traffic, we were extremely glad that we had an advance reservation for lunch at L’Altro Cantuccio Ristorante. The entrance to L’Altro Cantuccio is hidden down a tiny alley off of the main artery, Via di Gracciano del Corso. It’s easy to miss, but you won’t want to. This was one of the best meals we had during our 10 days in Tuscany. If the artichoke flan (bottom left) is on the menu, grab it. It’s light, airy and simply packed with flavor, especially when paired with the local white wine, Papeo Vermentino Reserva, which is creamy and well-balanced. When in Tuscany, Mike always likes to order the pici whenever he gets the chance, and this was no exception. Pici, similar to bucatini but without the hole, is a regional pasta variation and typically found only in Tuscany. Featuring a delicious wild boar ragu and fresh fava beans (in season in May), his pasta was quite impressive. But the winning dish was without question the hand-made tonnarelli, a regional hand-pulled pasta, flavored with local Nobile de Montepulciano wine and paired with bacon, zucchini and pecorino (below).

 

     The complexity and originality of this dish was beyond words. There are many things that Tuscans do extremely well — the obvious pasta, wine and cheese, come quickly to mind — but right up there at the top of the list is the production of top-quality pork products, especially cured meats such as prosciutto, salami, and bacon. I don’t know what they do to make their bacon so darn good, but it was by and far the best I’ve ever had. So good, in fact, that it warranted its own photo (below) to illustrate its inherent beauty. Look at that perfect marbleization and the seductively translucent ribbon of fat.
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     After a truly inspired meal at L’Altro Cantuccio, we wandered around Montepulciano, casually enjoying the sights and some shopping. You could easily spend an entire day in Montepulciano, so plan accordingly. But be warned that the streets are extremely steep, so it’s not for the faint of heart. On a hot summer day, the trek up to the main piazza atop town (below) can be pretty grueling, especially if you’re traveling with small children.

 

     Before we knew it, it was time to work our way back to our car (this time thankfully downhill!) and head off for the neighboring village of Monticchiello, just a 10-minute drive, where we would find our lodging for the next three nights — our own private medieval tower (‘torre’) nestled into the ancient stone wall that surrounds the town.
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La Torre di Carlo (center) at the very top of the village of Monticchiello.
    We were met in the parking lot just outside of the main entrance to the village by Giusi, the charming son of the owner of La Torre di Carlo. Since visitors are not allowed to drive into the village, Guisi graciously transferred all of our belongings into his car and drove us up through frightfully narrow cobblestone streets to the highest point in the village, where La Torre affords a spectacular 360-degree view of the surrounding countryside.
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La Torre di Carlo, Monticchiello
     The unabashedly enchanting, La Torre di Carlo is the perfect nest for two guests. Despite being centuries old and part of the town’s medieval fortifications, it has been aptly updated with all the modern conveniences and very attractive decor. A soaring spiral staircase starts in the compact, but sufficient ground floor kitchen and leads first to the second floor sitting area with expansive views of the village and valley below. One more flight up and you find the snug but inviting bedroom (bottom left), also with panoramic views, and then on to the top floor and the remarkably modern bathroom, featuring a stunning view of the neighboring town of Pienza from the peek-a-boo window in the shower.

 

     From the bedroom’s massive picture window, we soaked up the bird’s-eye view of the lush, sun-dappled terrain — as well as the spires and towers of the opposing hilltop town of Pienza, once the feudal enemy of Montecchiello — and for miles and miles beyond.
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View from La Torre di Carlo
     Even on a rainy day, the view of the countryside from the tower is astoundingly beautiful…
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     The sun setting behind Pienza illuminates the velvety fields, creates long, imposing shadows from the region’s indigenous cypress trees…
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     Torre di Carlo’s vine-covered terrace is the perfect place to take in the sunset with a bottle of local Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.

 

     Among the innumerable charms of Monticchiello, and really all of the Tuscan villages, is the peaceful aura that settles over the town after the last of the tour buses has departed at the end of the day.  Suddenly, as if all at once, you experience a distinct sense of calm and feel incredibly lucky to be left behind as evening casts its shadows over the village. You become mesmerized by the precious silence, broken only by the sound of chirping birds or the toll of the village bell tower. That’s when I really like to explore a town and capture the nuances of its innate beauty with my camera. Of course, I do realize that Mike and I ourselves are also tourists, covetously infiltrating the centuries-old town that others are lucky enough to call home, but as we are comfortably settled on the inviting terrace of our private medieval tower, we feel a tranquil sense of belonging.

 

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[Side note: From my experiences, the most unforgettable place to be after hours is the town of Assisi. After all of the tourists have left for the day, the town fills with the ethereal sound of the monks’ low, droning chants as they make their way to evening prayers. If you choose to visit Assisi, I highly recommend you plan to stay overnight. It is a completely different, and utterly magical experience than the one you will find if you visit during the day alongside thousands of other tourists.]

 

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La Cantina de la Porta, Monticchiello

Despite being such a tiny enclave, Monticchiello has a few surprisingly impressive restaurants, two of which — La Cantina de la Porta and Osteria La Porta — are run by the same owners, yet maintain very distinct personas in ambiance and menu offerings. The first night we arrived in Monticchiello, despite the rain, we decided to amble down the hill to La Cantina de la Porta (everything in Monticchiello is no more than a 5-minute walk). The more contemporary of the two, the newly renovated La Cantina (right) is refreshing and light-filled, accented with pale wood furniture and a giant clock face displayed on a multi-hued egg crate-covered wall. Their antipasti platter — all sourced locally — was divine, especially the finocchiona (salami with fennel seed), as was the house-made ravioli. Their extensive wine list proved to be too tempting for our indecisive sensibilities, so we ultimately ordered two bottles — one of the region’s renowned Brunellos for Mike and the Antinori “Bramito” chardonnay for me. After dinner, our server graciously re-corked what remained of the wines to ease transport back to La Torre for a later date.

     In the morning, we anxiously awoke and threw open the floor-to-ceiling drapes to discover that the rains had moved on and had been replaced with low misty wisps of clouds dipping down between the rolling, green hills — a magical scene to be sure. With a full day ahead of us, we were quick to rise and set off to begin our circular tour of southern Tuscany.
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View from La Torre di Carlo, Monticchiello
     In advance of our Italian journey, Mike had completed extensive research to determine the very best route that would allow us to see as much as possible without spending extended amounts of time in the car. Let me reiterate that a good GPS is essential when navigating these country roads where a missed turn can get you way off track and off schedule. Here is the itinerary he created (red route, counterclockwise starting and ending in Monticchiello):
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     First stop, Pienza — the opposing hilltop village that we could see from La Torre — where we would find a cafe to grab a quick breakfast and review our route for the day.
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Village of Pienza, in Tuscany, Italy

Arriving early in Pienza, we found convenient parking just outside of town (like most Tuscan towns, Pienza is pedestrian only) and walked directly to the piazza centrale by the town’s main church to seek out a coffee shop. We soon discovered that we were not the only ones with that idea; however, we were the only tourists among many locals. In Italy, everyone sits and enjoys their coffee over conversation with friends or opts to stand at the coffee bar to sip and chat, but no one…repeat no one…takes their coffee to go. In fact, the American practice of walking around with coffee in hand is considered gauche, uncivilized and, well, American. So, when in Italy, Mike and I fully embrace their custom of sitting, sipping coffee and enjoying the parade of passers-by…and the piazza centrale in Pienza is a perfect locale for people-watching. Stylish ladies with high heels and colorful hair (Italian ladies seem to love rainbow hues) walked their dogs, while their husbands ventured inside to order cappuccinos and croissants. Back out on the sun-warmed terrace facing the cathedral, they passed the morning with coffee and chiacchierare (chatting).

     After our very satisfying morning repast (why, why, why is Italian coffee so darn good?!!), we wandered through the town of Pienza, a truly charming enclave which still brandishes its medieval past with aplomb. Pienza is not a large town and can be covered in less than an hour, but be sure not to miss the lovely pedestrian pathway behind the cathedral which offers remarkable views of the surrounding countryside (bottom).

 

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View from the town of Pienza, Italy
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     In order to complete our circular route by late afternoon, it was time to get on the road towards our next stop: San Quirico d’Orcia. A mere 15-minute drive from Pienza, San Quirico d’Orcia is another small Tuscan town worth a stop, if you have the time. Spend a half hour or so wandering around the town, stopping at the lovely Romanesque church, below (where you may find a painting class in progress, as we did), and plan to browse a bit on the colorful shopping and dining street, Via Diomede Leoni (right). As we departed, Mike and I both agreed that San Quirico is the type of town that we could actually live in, should we ever be lucky enough to relocate to Italy — it’s large enough to possess the fundamental infrastructural elements one needs, yet still small enough, and utterly charming enough, to make you feel every bit of its centuries-old history.
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     Back on the road, we were heading to our third stop, the historic, fortress-guarded town of Montalcino, most notable for its world-famous wine, Brunello di Montalcino. We started with a brief visit to the 14th-century fortress which is, naturally, entered through the rustic wine shop and enoteca (wine bar). Purchase your tickets at the bar, and they will pull back the velvet rope to allow you access to the steep wooden staircase leading to the fortress anterooms. Look for a niche carved into the stone wall of the back room to locate the hidden staircase (very narrow!) up to the parapets. From there, you are rewarded for your efforts with an outstanding view over the distinctive red tiled rooftops of the town and the vast surrounding region (below).

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View from the fortress in Montalcino, Italy
     Return down the same way you came up and consider pausing for a glass of wine at the outdoor cafe, attractively situated within the fortress walls. Or continue on to the center of town where you will find many good wine bars, tasting rooms and restaurants from which to choose. To pinpoint the center of Montalcino’s main shopping and dining area, just look up to locate the tall bell tower (below and above) which will lead you to the bustling Piazza del Popolo.
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Piazza del Popolo, Montalcino, Italy
     If you’re particularly hungry, you can select from one of the many restaurants on the piazza that offers outdoor seating (some also offer valley views from their interior restaurant areas). But my suggestion would be to wait for lunch (see below) and simply sit, sip one of the region’s wonderful wines and take in the picture-perfect scenery. As you work your way back to your car, stock up at one of the many wine shops or stop into the leather goods store on Via Panfilo dell’Oca for fine leather products — purses, belts, jackets, etc. — at reasonable prices. (Note: many shops close by 1:00 pm.)
     For lunch, I recommend one of two options: 1) You might consider a stopover at the Fattoria dei Barbi winery on your way out of town. They offer free winery tours and have a wonderful restaurant and cantina. OR 2) Procure picnic food items (wine, cheeses, salumi, bread) in one of the many shops in Montalcino and head straight for Abbazia di Sant’Antimo, the next stop on our circular tour, and just 9 km (5.5 miles) away.
     Situated in a tranquil valley surrounded by terraced vineyards and rolling hills, Abbazia di Sant’Antimo is the perfect picnic destination. The idyllic, protected site was originally occupied by a Benedictine monastery, said to date back to Charlemagne’s time in the 9th century. The existing Romanesque Abbey can be documented back to 1118, a date that can be found inscribed into the altar step. “This was the period of greatest power of the abbey, which had authority over 38 churches, from Pisa to Grosseto, and control of about 1000 mansi, or farm estates, throughout Tuscany. The most important possession of the abbey was the castle of Montalcino, which was the residence of the abbot.” [Wikipedia] Over time, Sant’Antimo lost power to Montalcino and the abbey was abandoned and eventually fell into a state of disrepair. In the 1870s, the Italian state restored it to its original grandeur, and today you can once again hear the melodious chants echoing throughout the imposing stone walls, as the current monks in residence recite their daily canons.
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Abbazia di Sant’Antimo
     The sprawling grounds of the Abbey make the perfect location for a picnic or an afternoon siesta in the sun. Be sure to walk around and admire the towering Cyprus trees and the gnarly, centuries-old olive trees scattered around the grounds.
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Ancient olive tree on the grounds of Abbazia de Sant’Antimo

 

     After enjoying a little down time at Abbazia di Sant’Antimo’s serene surroundings, it’s time to head out once again for the 5th and final stop on our tour. (Note: there are many other worthwhile villages to see on this circular route, including Castelnuovo dell’Abate and Castiglione d’Orcia, but for time’s sake, Mike selected only five stops so that we could make the most of each visit.) And be sure to factor in time to stop along the way to capture the astounding beauty of the region, such as this stunning golden carpet of flowering rape seed (used to make canola oil):
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Field of flowering rape seed, Tuscany
     Continue south and east, approximately 14 miles from the Abbey, towards Poggio and Castiglione d’Orcia, until you reach Bagno Vignoni. As the name suggests, this was, and still is, the site of volcanically warmed thermal baths which date back to Roman times. Located along the main route that pilgrims traversed to reach Rome, weary travelers and those who suffered from a variety of ailments, would stop to take advantage of the restorative waters. Today, you can still see the ruins of the early Roman baths and saunas. Don’t miss the unique village square which is dominated by a large pool (below) that contains the source of the underground volcanic aquifer that feeds the baths.
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Bagno Vignoni

 

     “Do as the Romans,” they say, so I didn’t waste the opportunity to soak my tired feet in the naturally warmed spring that runs through the village, a welcome respite at the end of a long day of touring. Temporarily revived, it was time to head back to Monticchiello and our cozy tower for a well-earned cocktail on the terrace.
Screen Shot 2017-06-29 at 3.46.35 PM     Our second night in Monticchiello, we decided to try the Cantina’s sister restaurant, Osteria La Porta, which had come highly recommended for the excellent quality of both its food and service. Located immediately inside the village’s main entry gate (right), the restaurant maintains an enviable position for attracting both tourists and locals. We had hoped to sit on the outdoor terrace, but the weather proved to be too cool that evening, so the terrace was closed. But not a problem, as the interior of the restaurant exudes coziness with its quintessentially Italian decor. High beamed ceilings give a sense of openness to an otherwise snug space, while walls covered with wine- and produce-laden cupboards add warmth and charm.
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Interior of Osteria La Porta, Monticchiello
Asparagus Flan, Osteria La Porta, Monticchiello
Asparagus Flan, Osteria La Porta

Tables are close enough to strike up a conversation with your neighbor, which we did eagerly, comparing notes on photography with the couple on one side, while learning quite a bit of useful information about the University of Wisconsin from the very affable mother-daughter duo on the other. The amiable owner, Daria, even joined in for much of the friendly chit chat, and all were happy to discuss the highlights of the menu, of which there were many. Mike and I started with the Insalata di Lingua (beef tongue salad) and a deliciously light and flavorful asparagus flan (right). The restaurant, and the region as a whole, is known for the characteristically Tuscan Bistecca alla Fiorentina, a plentiful T-bone or porterhouse steak, simply rubbed with salt and pepper, and grilled rare (don’t ask for it otherwise). Unless you have an extremely hardy American appetite, it is intended to be shared between two people. We ordered it in the traditional Tuscan way, accompanied by a side of lemon-infused cannellini (white) beans and an arugula salad. As usual, the cut was so plentiful that the two of us together barely made a dent. Daria graciously prepared a “doggie bag’ for us which we gladly took back to La Torre for the following night’s dinner alla casa.

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Bistecca alla fiorentina, Osteria La Porta
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Amaretti Bagnati nel Caffe, Osteria La Porta

Normally, if I can’t finish my dinner, I pass on dessert, but in this case, I’m very glad I didn’t follow my own doctrine. I love a good tiramisu — who doesn’t?! — and I didn’t think that that sublime combination of flavors could ever be improved upon, BUT…that was before I met Osteria La Porta’s Amaretti Bagnati nel Caffe (right). This blissful blend of amaretti biscotti dipped in coffee and served with marscapone and chantilly cream is sheer perfection. Daria described the concoction’s simple preparation which I am determined to try next time I have guests over (and I will certainly share the results with you then).

     If you are lucky enough to visit Monticchiello during the warmer months, be sure to book ahead so you can secure a seat on their lovely outdoor terrace which is atop the town’s medieval wall and enjoys a spectacular view of the Val d’Orcia landscape below.

 

     The following morning, we set off on another adventure of sorts. Truly, every day spent in Tuscany is an adventure — you never know what you will discover around the next bend or what surprises may lie ahead in the next town. But in this case, we really didn’t know what we would find when we arrived for our 10:00 am appointment at the curiosity known as La Scarzuola, located an hour and twenty minutes from Monticchiello, just beyond the town of Montegabbione in Umbria.
     About a week before leaving for Tuscany, I had thrown a figurative wrench in Mike’s tightly organized itinerary by telling him about a bizarre compound, a fantastical villa of sorts, that I had stumbled upon unexpectedly through social media. With some slight modifications, we were able to rearrange the plan to include a morning boondoggle to La Scarzuola (below).
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La Scarzuola, Montegabbione, Italy
     Originally a Franciscan convent, founded by St. Francis of Assisi himself in 1218, the property is set in an isolated and serene landscape in the rolling Umbrian hills. From Monticchiello, we followed the autostrade south to the town of Fabro, where we began the windy route up towards the tiny hamlet of Montegabbione. Just past Montegabbione, we saw signage for La Scarzuola and followed the narrow, unpaved road for a couple of miles before reaching the compound’s imposing gates.
     Possibly because of its remote location, or perhaps due to a shift in religious power, the original monastery eventually fell out of favor and into ruin. In 1956, the remaining deteriorating structures and accompanying property were purchased by an eccentric Milan architect named Tomaso Buzzi. For two decades, Buzzi set out to carefully reconstruct the existing church, as well as create his own Utopian “city” on the sprawling grounds.
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La Scarzuola
     Buzzi took inspiration from some of history’s most significant architects, artists and notable structures — from the Acropolis in Athens to the Coliseum in Rome, the Parthenon, the Pantheon, Villa d’Este and much more. His resulting “citta ideale” (ideal city) is an intriguing, yet inexplicable mash-up of famous facades (all empty inside) in miniature form, jumbled together as if one rambling assemblage of follies.  Somehow, from his semi-controlled madness arose a kind of disorderly Wonderland-esque order.
     Upon Buzzi’s death in 1981, the property was passed down to his nephew, Marco, who leads the Italian-speaking tours with great pomp and flair (his British partner, Brian, leads the English-speaking tours). We arrived a few minutes past our reservation time and found the gates already closed, so we tugged the pull-rope which clanged the old monastery bell, and eventually Brian arrived to allow us entry. After hearing our distinctly American accents, he informed us that the morning’s tour would be offered in Italian only (apparently my email correspondence in Italian was so convincing, they thought we were Italian). But since we had come such a long way, we agreed to follow the Italian-speaking tour regardless.
     With my limited Italian, I was able to understand only bits and pieces of Marco’s speed-talking dialogue, but it was apparent that he very much enjoyed the sound of his voice and was quite entertained by his own sense of humor, much more so than his guests, evidently, who at times appeared disinterested and a bit restless. However, despite the long-winded verbal accompaniment, Buzzi’s structures are most curious and amusing. The cacophany of architectural styles and designs are cleverly juxtaposed one next to another — an amphitheater, 6 additional theaters, a myriad of stairs leading to nowhere, a whimsical numberless clock, several Dali-esque decorative features and a larger-than-life nude, to name a few — which together create a surreal and slightly bizarre, yet fascinating, composite.

 

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La Scarzuola

 

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La Scarzuola
perugia     If you plan to be in the region and don’t mind veering off the beaten path, I would say that La Scarzuola is definitely worth a visit (and I hear that Brian leads a witty and engaging English-speaking tour). However, being unable to sufficiently follow Marco’s rambling Italian discourse (and possibly being a bit distracted by the rumbling of our stomachs), we stealthily peeled away from the group and followed our imaginary breadcrumbs back to the entrance where we found our trusty car ready to transport us to our next destination: Lago Trasimeno in the province of Perugia (most notably associated with the world-famous Perugina brand of confections, including the familiar Baci “kisses,” which are prevalent everywhere from coffee shops to gas stations).
[Side note: If a visit to La Scarzuola seems too remote or simply doesn’t appeal, you might consider an alternate day trip to the province of Perugia that would include visits to Lago Trasimeno, the city of Perugia (tour the chocolate factory or take a confectionery class, perugina.com), and the unmistakably beautiful medieval town of Assisi.]
     A pretty little lake, slightly smaller in size than its fashionable cousin, Lake Como, to the north, Lago Trasimeno is far less famous but not without its alluring qualities.
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Lago Trasimeno
     We arrived at the charming, lakefront town of Castiglione del Lago just in time for lunch at the tiny enoteca L’Angelo del Buon Gustaio. Located right on the town’s main pedestrian thoroughfare, Via Vittorio Emanuele, it could easily be mistaken for a storefront, which it is, but it also serves admirable antipasti platters and fine wines.
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     Owned by a congenial, young Italian couple, L’Angolo del Buon Gustaio (“The corner of good taste”) offers a very limited menu, but that doesn’t detract from its exceptional appeal one bit. Simply order the sharing plate and let Ricardo make the selections for you from their vast inventory of locally sourced meats and cheeses. Our masterpiece including a wide selection of outstanding and exotic cured meats — assorted salamis (including duck and deer), prosciutto, Parma ham, bresaola, etc. — a variety of aged pecorinos, a homemade quince paste and lovely fresh bread. A veritable feast for the eyes and the stomach!
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Antipasti at L’Angolo del Buon Gustaio, Castiglione del Lago
     Before departing their company, we did a little shopping inside their pocket-sized store, where we picked up some local pici and a gorgeous prosciutto to bring home to our girls back in Chicago. With full bellies and delectable goodies in hand, we bid farewell to our lovely hosts and wandered through town to the fortress overlooking the lake. From there, we decided to head down to the lakefront park for a little siesta in the sun.
     Lake Trasimeno has three islands but only one — Isola Maggiore — that is inhabited. If you have the time, catch the ferry from Castiglione del Lago to Isola Maggiore and visit the tiny fishing village that dates back to the 14th century, as well as the 19th-century Guglielmi castle (currently closed for restoration but still a place of interest).
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Lago Trasimeno
    With a 45-minute drive still ahead of us, in addition to a grocery stop to procure the necessary provisions for our evening meal alla casa, it was time to begin our return trip to Monticchiello. By the way, if you want to get a real taste for any foreign location, just visit a local grocery store. Mike and I always try to walk through a grocery, even if we don’t need to buy anything, just to see what interesting items we can find and what local shoppers are buying. Throughout our travels, we have discovered some good markets, some not-so-good ones, and some truly memorable ones; but regardless, I always find something of interest, and in this case, I unearthed gorgeous, hand-picked arugula and vibrant, fresh-from-the-vine fava beans.
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     Once we were back at La Torre, we got right to work preparing our meal. Mike prepped the tomatoes, garlic and basil for the pici, while I started in on the fava beans. Shucking fava beans can be a time-consuming endeavor but made all the more palatable with a glass of wine and a stunning view (right). Fava beans have two shells that need to be removed in order to get to the bright green inner legume. First you must split open the soft outer pod to reach the interior beans, each of which is encased in a tightly sealed skin. It’s a labor of love to be sure, but completely worth it. Frozen fava beans are sometimes available, but I find that they don’t compare to fresh, so when in season, I gladly grab them and start shucking!
     Mike and I always love to work in the kitchen together, and this endeavor was no exception. Cooking in someone else’s kitchen with limited resources is not without its challenges, but complications aside, we had a ball whipping up our Tuscan meal in our Tuscan cucina!
    Inspired by the exquisite lunch we enjoyed two days prior at L’Altro Cantuccio in Montepulciano, we quickly blanched the fava beans and tossed them with some aged pecorino, a hefty squeeze of lemon and a drizzle of good EVOO to create a delicious salad for the spicy arugula. We topped the homemade pici with blistered cherry tomatoes to accompany the Bistecca alla Fiorentino that we had brought home from the previous night’s meal at Osteria La Porta. I’m not sure if it was the exceptional quality of the ingredients, the delicious local wine, the captivating company or the sublime ambience, but that was one truly enchanted evening!

 

     As with any home-cooked meal, however, there’s always some clean-up to do, so we tackled the dishes and turned in early to get a good night’s sleep — sadly our last at La Torre di Carlo — before setting off for Umbria first thing in the morning.
     I hope you have enjoyed this second installment and will stay tuned for Part Tre of our tour of central Italy. Next stop, the beautiful mountainous region of Umbria — from Orvieto to Spoleto — and then on to Rome. Hope to see you there…Ciao!
 This timeless travel post brought to you http://www.2peasinapod.online.

One thought on “Tuscany’s Timeless Treasures

  1. Stacey, great work! It brought back great memories of trips to the town’s you mentioned. Makes me want to go again soon! I am passing it on to some of my fellow Tuscan Travelers as well as some of my Tuscan friends whom I met on my visits and who remain in contact with me now.

    Like

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