Tuscan Treasures

Tuscan Treasures

Interested in a Music and Markets Tour? We’d love to hear from you!
We’re looking ahead to Spring – Aix en Provence for the Easter Festival.

Friday, 2 January 2015

How pleasant to be able to enjoy both sunset and sunrise views from our Monte San Savino perch in elegant Logge dei Mercanti! The garden to the right, behind the town hall, is filled with vibrant roses of every color when we stop here for our Taste of Tuscany after the Amalfi Coast Arts Festival Tour in July. Today it’s just resting quietly, awaiting its season of glory.01021501 a, rose garden in summerBefore we head out for today’s explorations Lorri and I stop by the pharmacy to pick up a few necessities. Isn’t it a vintage gem? I’m so glad they’ve kept the historic charm in this thriving enterprise – it’s as busy as ever, with a knowledgeable and helpful pharmacist,as  patient with our English medical requests as with the aches and pains of the locals lined up with us.01021501 pharmacyPienza is our first stop, with angels above the portal ushering us into the village,01021501 pienza angel welcomefragrant from the get-go with the scent of pecorino. This sheep cheese is a local specialty, and one shop after another is piled high with every imaginable iteration – fresh, semi-aged, robed in pepper or grape must or ashes, truffled, long-aged – take your pick!01021501 pienza pecorinoA lovely arched ceiling of a little chapel invites a moment of contemplation,01021502 chapel ceilingbefore a walk in the sun along the edge of the village, with views across iconic Tuscan countryside. 01021502 edge sunny strollVia del Amore is the perfect spot for an anniversary photo -op. Congrats, Russ & Lorri!01021502 corner for anniversaryThere’s our lunch destination – tiny hilltop Monticchiello.01021502 lunch spotAnd on the way we stop for a look back at Pienza, with Pope Pius I loggia-ed palazzo beside the church, tilting off the  edge of town. 01021502 stop for this vista on the wayIf we’re anywhere near Monticchiello, we won’t miss a meal at La Porta,01021504 always a delicious delight

where Daria’s welcome is as delicious as the meal that awaits us. 01021502 warm welcome from DariaOur feast begins with a truffle-topped parmiggiano flan,01021503 and feast beginsand continues with truffled pasta – fragrant and delicious.01021503 and more trufflesVino Nobile di Montepulciano, from Daria’s twin brother, Dario’s vineyard, is the perfect accompaniment. 01021503 darios wineWe’ve been telling Russ and Lorri that Bisteca Fiorentina is something you “gotta try at least once” so they and Kirk share a platter sized hunk of Chianina beef. 01021503 gotta try bistecaMy fried lamb chops are fabulous (of course EVERYTHING we’ve ever had here, over the years, is superb!) 01021503 lamb for meand the three meat-eaters have no trouble cleaning their plate. 01021503want to gnawLa Porta is right inside of the porta, gate, of Monticchiello,01021504 from la porta of villageand beyond is a view we could enjoy for hours…01021504 gaze for hoursbut Siena awaits – we’re filling the day with Tuscan treasures! By the time we arrive the passeggiata is in full swing, entire families strolling the city streets, stopping to chat with friends, greeting acquaintances, peeking in the shop windows. 01021504 walk slowThe majestic Duomo impresses with its size – even though it has never been finished. 01021504 majestic duomoWe pass elegant piazzas,01021504 piazza eleganttempting gelato,01021504 tempting gelatoand enter the Campo, where Kirk tells tales of the twice annual Palio, a no-holds-barred horse race around the fan-shaped piazza.01021505 campoAn hours drive, and we’re entering “our” porta, back to the Logge dei Mercanti in Monte San Savino. 01021505 porta of our hilltownWhat a bevy of Tuscan beauties we’ve packed into the day!

Hilltoppers from Umbria to Tuscany

Hilltoppers from Umbria to Tuscany

Interested in a Music and Markets Tour? We’d love to hear from you!
We’re looking ahead to Spring – Aix en Provence for the Easter Festival.

Wednesday, 1 January 2015
Orvieto, Italy to Tuscany

A lazy start to 2015 after our late night…we wander down to breakfast, through Palazzo Piccolomini’s simply elegant sitting room,01011501 am lazyand join a few late-rising musicians for coffee in the vaulted basement. Look through those alcoves in the wall to earlier centuries, remnants of Etruscan civilization over which the papal palace (Piccolomini was Pius II) was built.01011501 breakfastWe’ll squeeze in one more concert, Davell Crawford, whom we heard a couple of nights ago in duet with Jon Batiste. Today it’s just him on the billing, but he calls up several friends throughout the hour – one guy on a harmonica, a seasoned gospel sister on vocals – as he keeps our toes tapping with classic jazz, rhythm and blues, pop and funk. In exuberant style, he mixes the music with heartfelt tales – of last night’s New Year’s phone call from godmother Roberta Flack, before sharing his memorable take on “The First Time”. What a superb way to kick off the New Year!01011501 concert Davell and friends and Flack godmother talked last nightBefore packing up and getting on the road we stop for a quick lunch at Cantina Foresi, beside the Duomo. Alessandro carries on the fine family tradition (the cantina was started by his grandfather in the ’50s) with a warm welcome and platters of delicious Umbrian salumi to go with steaming bowls of minestrone.01011501 light lunch at cantina foresi by duomoAs we walk back to the hotel, jazz drifts through the doors of one café after another,01011501 music spills outand we stop at Bartolomei’s shop for our olive oil – yes, we can fit a bit more in our suitcases!01011501 oo from bartWe arrive at our next hilltown, Monte San Savino, with time to check in to lovely little Logge dei Mercanti, settle into our rooms, and take in the sunset from our windows.01011502 next hilltownDinner takes us through the impressive portal of another tiny hill town, Lucignano. 01011503 lucignano another hill townWe explore a bit, wandering the steep streets of this snail-shaped charmer,01011504 explore a bitand then continue our Italian feasting at Il Goccino. A WOW of a meal, from the smoked goose breast and foie gras,01011504 fab dinner foie gras smoked goose breast appleto a “Chocolate Pearl” that melts when our waiter pours on the hot raspberry soup. 01011504 raspberry soup on chocolate pearlOh we eat SO well out in the Tuscan and Umbrian countryside!
Back to “our” hilltown – 01011505 goodnight to our hilltownBuona Notte Monte San Savino, it’s nice to be back!



A Village, a Hamlet, and a Town in Tuscany

A Village, a Hamlet, and a Town in Tuscany

January 2, 2013
Pienza, Monticchiello and Siena, Italy

Interested in a Music and Markets Tour? We’d love to hear from you!  Next on the itinerary: Our spring tours in Barcelona, Venice or Prague

A good breakfast in the ancient vaulted cellar of Logge dei Mercanti,
and we’re ready for a day full of Tuscany.

First stop, the delightful village of Pienza, perched precariously on a hilltop,
site of a Pope-designed ensemble of buildings heralded as “the first perfect Renaissance square”,

and also ground zero for pecorino production and ageing.
That’s immediately evident by the scent of ripe sheep cheese that wafts from the little shops lining Pienza’s one main street.

From young and fresh to old and aged, whether in straw, ash, leaves or a pit, take your choice after nibbling on a sample or two.

Even the Christmas decorations in this town are designed around cheese!

And here’s that perfect square, ordained by an early 15th century pope who was born in the village, Pius II, Piccolomini (his name comes up alot this week  – first in Palazzo Piccolimini, where we stayed in Orvieto). He wanted his palace (yes, another Palazzo Piccolomini) on the right, placed just so to enjoy valley views from the rear loggia and gardens, then the church in the center, the Archibishop’s Palace on the left, and a loggia across the street.

A yule log sizzles with welcoming warmth in the square during the holidays.



Architect Rossellino did his best to discourage the pope from his plan, which would place the church on an unstable surface, but Piccolomini had his way, and the light-filled, graceful church has an obvious tilt at the apse,

with visible cracks in the walls and floor that are monitored in hopes of keeping the structure from slipping further off the cliff.

The vistas from the center street are some of the best in Tuscany, overlooking rolling green hills and valleys, fertile fields, and an occasional picturesque hilltown, such as this one, where we’re going for lunch!

And the tiny lanes threading off main street? Well there’s Via del Amore, or Via del Bacio (the kiss), always good for a pause 😉

Winding our way across the valley, we have to pause again for this perfect view of Pienza – see that gracious loggia, placed just where Piccolomini desired? No surprise – I’d love to lounge right there too!

Our lunch destination is don’t- miss La Porta, right by the main entry (porta) of that tiny hilltop hamlet, Monticchiello.

With a warm welcome from dear Daria, we’re all seated and ready to choose from the menu,

beginning with seasonal delights such as mushrooms on polenta, drifting in a puddle of creamy taleggio cheese.

Then on to a plateful of perfectly roasted beef, or duck breast with pear, each beautifully presented.

We all look through the dessert menu, but decide we can’t fit in another morsel. However, I’ve been eyeing the selection of house-made chocolates and cookies in the display by the front door – how about just a couple of each of those with our coffee? When the overflowing plates arrive, we all groan – “Oh we’ll never eat all of that…” but as I’m sure you’ve guessed, every delicious tidbit disappears!

Before getting in the car and heading for our next destination, we wander the few lanes of this tiny hamlet, stepping by the gents gathered by the front door, catching up on the latest gossip.

Garlanded with fruits and greenery for the holidays,

a narrow path inviting discovery, Monticchiello’s  a beautifully kept little jewel.

From village, to hamlet, to the medieval wonder of Siena. It’s just about sunset time so Bruce heads off to find the best view, and the rest of us walk ahead “Meet us at the Campo-

we’ll wait for you by the fountain.” Kirk tells tales of Siena – its twice-a- summer raucous horserace around this fan-shaped piazza, the 17 fiercely loyal contrade, or neighborhoods, the age long rivalry with Florence…

Then on we stroll together to the Duomo, dramatically lit,

zebra- striped in and out.

Following the papal trail, we spend time in the exquisitely frescoed Piccolomini library – an intricately painted ceiling above,

precious illustrated manuscripts displayed beneath colorful tales of the pope’s life, each figure in elegant Renaissance dress.
It’s been a wow of a day – filled with delights for the senses, from the tastes at La Porta, to the scents and sights of Pienza and Siena. We never tire of the charms of Tuscany!

Welcoming the New Year in Italy

Welcoming the New Year in Italy

New Year’s Day, 2013
Orvieto, Monte San Savino and Lucignano, Italy

Interested in a Music and Markets Tour? We’d love to hear from you!  Next on the itinerary: Our spring tours in Barcelona, Venice or Prague

Photographer Bruce has been up before the sun morning after morning, and this first sunrise of 2013 is a magnificent reward for his early risings.

Thank you, Bruce Margolis, for sharing this beauty with us!

The rest of us sleep late after our New Year’s Eve revels, greeting the day more leisurely. We make sure to get up and about in time for one of our favorite Umbria Jazz traditions – the Funk Off gang marching through the streets.
Like the pied piper, the white tuba leads the throngs through Orvieto’s cobbled lanes,

pausing at a little piazza for a lively mini concert.

Palazzo Piccolomini, as usual  has been home for quite a few musicians once again this year, such as the band leader, a cool sax player who joined us in the ancient vaulted cellar of the hotel for our late breakfast this morning.


We complete our Umbria Jazz concerts with another special treat, the Giovanni Tommaso reunion quintet. Giovanni, the bassist, and the other four played together for the very first time on this stage in the Palazzo Popolo twenty years ago, for the first Umbria Jazz Winter. They seem to enjoy their reunion as much, if not more, as we in the audience do.

When the sax player, so very cool in his red glasses, says that it feels like they’ve been playing together forever, we all clap in agreement – a terrific ensemble!

Kirk, in his Umbria Jazz Winter shirt, leads us in our own little parade, Funk Off amplified from his iPhone as we strut to lunch.

Cantina Foresi is a tiny fun place beside the cathedral, with a few tables made of stumps,

We grab the last two, and they’re quickly loaded with warming Umbrian delights,

so many that we have to use our laps and legs in addition to the tree stumps.

Then we load up the van, and head north to Monte San Savino, where we’re greeted with a glorious sunset out of our window at the Logge dei Mercanti hotel. What beauty we’ve enjoyed from start to finish of the day!
But there’s more to enjoy, as we wind down from one hilltop town and head for the one next door, Lucignano, still surrounded by a massive stone wall.
Inside the streets spiral upward, connected with lamplit stone arches, to a sweet little church, but what we’re here for is yet one more great dinner, at il Goccino,

and we’re welcomed into a private room, where we begin to peruse the menu.

From one treat to another the meal unfolds – an unusual risotto with foie gras and artichokes is a fabulous combination of tastes and textures,
and even though we’re all already full, we can’t resist the desserts, such as this molten chocolate cake.
Oh my, it’s a good thing we’ll be doing a lot of walking tomorrow!

Hilltowns and Fireworks

Hilltowns and Fireworks

Saturday, December 31, 2011
Orvieto, Lucignano & Florence, Italy

Interested in a Music and Markets Tour? We’d love to hear from you!
Next on the itinerary: Visions of Venice

Piazza del Popolo looks quite different this morning. Rather than cars, jazz and revelers, it’s filled with market booths and shoppers. Plans today are for a special lunch on the way to Florence, where we’ve rented an apartment, and a delicious dinner chez nous (can I use that phrase in Italy??) So we’ve got a simple menu planned and are on the prowl for fresh and tasty Italian ingredients…. some 2011 olive oil, just pressed in November, arugula, artichokes in olive oil and some smoked goose breast and aged balsamic vinegar so we can recreate last night’s salad. A chunk of aged Parmiggiano from the cheese man, fresh pasta filled with zucca (pumpkin) from the pasta shop, a slab of butter and a few sage leaves to dress the pasta.
We get a few staples at the little grocery shop, where Kirk waits in line for at least half an hour – EVERYBODY’S shopping before places are closed for the holiday. I return to the pasta shop to pick up the tortelli which they’ve prepared for us… and on the way run into smiling Marlena de Blasi and Fernando and we chat a bit. Kirk and I so enjoyed reading “The Lady in the Palazzo” together – describing the ups and downs of their life in Orvieto.
We’ve already got some Vin Santo (sweet “holy wine”) from Siena, so we add some ricciarelli (almond cookies) and hazelnut cookies from the pastry shop and we’re set for dinner – it’ll keep cold in the car on this chilly day.
Arrivederci, Orvieto – that Italian goodbye actually means we’ll see you again, and it’s easy to depart when we WILL be back soon – for a Wine Tourism Workshop in early February. We’ve chosen the Umbria post-tour, and our last night of the trip will be in our own favorite Palazzo Piccolomini in Orvieto! It will be fun to be led around the city on a tour – we’re hoping to learn some new secrets!
Now we’re off to Lucignano, which is rather off the international tourist track, but is an Italian favorite, and has easily become one of ours too.

Tucked into the wall is little Oste Matto (Crazy Host), a highly rated restaurant that we’re eager to try. And what a treat it is! Quirky design – such as this web of light fixtures, some bulbs brighter than others, emerging from a twist on the wall,

mismatched water glasses, and fragments of ’20’s ads peeking through the distressed paint on the walls.

The cuisine carries on the playful theme, with new twists on typical Italian flavors, such as tempura battered balls of parmiggiano with pear conserve and dried fruits and nuts ( a don’t- miss appetizer for sure!) , or a sunny side up egg on melted peccorino cheese topped with shaved black truffle.

This pear/ gorgonzola/ walnut risotto was superb – hmmmm, can I make this at home?

We control ourselves today, sharing a main course of duck breast with fennel and orange, and just one dessert – a fabulous gianduja mousse garnished with caramel créme.

Loved these cool little coffee cups – they’re ceramic, but look like old-fashioned tinware.

We ask if we can take the rest of our bottle of wine with us – “Certo!” (certainly!) and the waiter whisks the bottle away, corks it, and brings it back in a little shoulder sling – cool!

We take a few minutes to walk around the hamlet, which circles like a snail, rising to the church-topped center, where people are arriving for a wedding

in the white rose adorned sanctuary.

This has got to be one of the most gorgeous 31 December’s we’ve ever experienced – can you believe this sky??

It’s an easy drive to the Florence airport, where we’ve arranged to drop off the car since it’s so very difficult to avoid any ZTL (limited traffic zone) fine in Florence city… there have been WAY too many times that we’ve gotten a multi-100 euro bill from the car rental company as much as a year after a rental, much as we try to avoid any “forbidden” street. Well this rental return turns out to be a fiasco …. the car drop off is no longer at the airport, but off site. Did anyone tell us that this just changed earlier this month? When we arranged the rental or picked up the car? No. So we drive around and around, calling Europcar to find out where to go, calling the apartment owner to let her know why we’re late. We have to get there soon to check in since she has a New Year’s Eve party of her own to attend! Finally we find the off site lot, poorly signposted and not official looking at all, gladly hand off the car, and taxi to the apartment – whew!
Rachel of Florentine Flats smilingly greets us and shows us around her darling one bedroom flat close to the Uffizzi – we love it! We’re eager to get out and see where the celebrations are tonight – just around the corner at Piazza Signoria is one.

Florence has gotten creative with the lights this year – love these fleur-de- lis on Corso

and these old- fashioned lanterns on Calzaiuoli. These shop- filled streets are more enticing than ever!

We whip up our yummy dinner at the apartment – here’s our version of the smoked goose breast/ arugula salad – and it’s as good as the restaurant’s!

And now it’s time to party!
We dance to the tunes of a jazz band on Piazza Republica,

sway to a Viennese waltz by the Ukranian Symphony on Piazza Signoria,

then stop by the apartment to pick up our bottle of Prosecco and join the crowds by the Arno to toast the New Year while fireworks shoot up from Piazzale Michelangelo.

Lots of families have brought their own – we’re surrounded by booms and sparkles!

Welcome, Duemilladodici – 2012 is so much fun to say in Italian!

South from Siena

South from Siena

Friday, December 30, 2011
Siena, Montepulciano & Monticchiello, Italy

Interested in a Music and Markets Tour? We’d love to hear from you!
Next on the itinerary: Visions of Venice

Last night Kirk googled a walk to a restaurant on the outskirts of Siena for us, through quiet neighborhoods, down deserted lanes, with the majestic Duomo shimmering above like a mirage.

After dinner we walked by the sanctuary of St. Catherine of Siena, ascending the steep lanes above the Fontebranda – what a fountain! Looks more like a fortified stronghold.

This morning we’re off to see what’s behind those imposing walls across the street from our hotel – its the vast Fortezza Medicea, built in the 1500’s. Well there’s not much inside – just a lot of unused open space. It would be a nice place for a botanical garden, we think.

We bid goodbye to Siena from atop the fortress walls – the Torre del Mangia (on the Campo) on the left, then the bulk of the Basilica di San Domenica, just around the corner from the Fortezza, and the Duomo complex on the right.

Where shall we meander today, on our way to Orvieto? How about another hilltop Tuscan beauty, Montepulciano?

Enter through the ancient portal, and the knee- shrieking climb up the Corso begins…. past Palazzo Bucelli, studded with Roman and Etruscan marble plaques gathered by Pietro Bucelli, an avid antiquities collector in the 1700′s.

I like these vintage signs on an old latteria, which now sells more than milk, butter and oil.

High atop the clock tower on Piazza Michelozzo is a clock-ringer you wouldn’t expect in Tuscany – a Pulcinella , beloved figure typical of Neapolitan Commedia dell’ Arte. Turns out that a priest from Naples, a long time resident of Montepulciano, gave it to the town generations ago.

Take a deep breath – the higher you go, the steeper it gets!

Have you seen the movie New Moon? We haven’t, but perhaps we will when longing for a Tuscan view – it was filmed in Montepulciano, and they have the tee shirts to prove it!

Although we hadn’t originally planned a stop here, we can’t resist a meal at beloved La Porta, just inside the town gate in tiny Montichiello.

Daria greets us with her lovely smile – it’s always such a pleasure to see her –

and feeds us fabulously (succulent beef cheek and grilled polenta, here), sending us off with a bottle of her brother Dario’s Luna d’Oro Vino Nobile as always.

How many times have we taken a photo of this same view? It’s a stop- in- your- tracks vista every time!

And over there on the left is that distinctive hillock of Radicofani – now we finally know what’s up there!