Our next few days in the Tuscan region were spent mostly in San Gimignano and the Chianti region. We started off by getting lost, yet again, despite the fact that we had a Garmin. If I hear the words, “recalculating, recalculating” one more time, I might go mad!
However, once we found our room, we quickly unpacked and set off to see the sights of the city.
We started with the local town, San Gimignano, taking its name from the Holy Bishop of Modena, St. Gimignano, who is said to have saved the village from the barbarian hordes. The uniqueness of the village was its towers. The town is known for its ancient towers, dating from the 11th century, that clearly distinguish this village from all others in Tuscany. We enjoyed the views from atop one of them, where we could actually see the city which we planned to visit the next day; Volterra.
There were three things that distinctly stand out about Volterra.
First of all, it was the first time I actually had to pay for parking. All the other days, when visiting villages, we always hunted for little nooks or crannies in which to fit our tiny car. However, in Volterra, I could feel Megan getting frustrated as I continued to drive around and around the town. Finally, I reluctantly broke down and paid to park. It was a bit deflating to be honest…..but at least we were ready to explore the ancient city.
The next item that stands out about the town is the Parcheggio. We were looking for a unique enoteca that Rick Steve recommended, at the edge of town. When we finally found it, we were sorely disappointed that it was closed for the season. Not to be discouraged, I opened the map and noticed a structure that looked interesting; the Parcheggio. This village had Roman Ruins, rock formations and all sorts of unique history. So although I didn’t know what it was, it looked like a massive structure not too far away, so we headed off. A few minutes later, we left the walls of the city and came upon a half empty parking lot. Bewildered, I consulted the map again to make sure we didn’t wander astray on the curving streets. After I confirmed that we were at the exact spot that the map indicated, I became increasingly agitated until Megan looked at it and started to squint. She suddenly burst out laughing hysterically. Evidentially, I didn’t see the miniscule number “2” beside the Parcheggio. What I had hunted for was actually, “Parking Lot 2.” I was thoroughly embarrassed, and after a quick scan, also ticked off as I noticed that there were available spots…..I shouldn’t have paid for parking!!!!
The final item that stands out from Volterra was the state prison. As you walk along the scenic streets at the east end of the city, you enter a lovely park with a castle looking structure at the end of it. As it turns out, this is a tiny, but high maximum security prison that houses roughly 60 of the worst criminals in Italy. The rationale is that this village is in the middle of nowhere, hours from the nearest airport. If the mafia wanted to make a visit or break-out, it would be a long trek on tiny winding roads. It was an interesting addition to such a historic and now infamous city, due to the Twilight series.
The next day, we set off for a tour of the Castle Verrazzano. This came highly recommended for both its beauty and wine. We signed up for the complete tour and showed up just as it was starting. Luckily, there were only two other people on this Friday morning tour, and we were welcomed right in. Our guide was Gino, a passionate wine enthusiast. He spoke of wine as if it were the lifeblood of their existence. He explained with fervor how wine was an integral part of everyday existence; it isn’t about alcohol, it’s about life.
We then went into a room that had actual grapes hanging to dry, before being pressed into a liquid form. This is something that can only be seen in the fall. Gino went on to explain how the grapes were hung with such care and in a specific place so that they could continue to grow. He pointed out that the morning sun comes through the window and gently illuminates the grapes, revealing a slight outline of the seed within. He compared it to the first moment that he saw the sonogram of his child. It was at that point that the real significance of the wine hit home for me. This wasn’t simply a job; it was an infatuation that happened to provide an income. I wonder how many American could say the same about their profession.
After the tour, we headed down to restaurant to sample the fruits of their labors, and a little food. We had a raging fire that warmed us up as we tried the fantastic wines. In addition to the vines, the castle also had amazing oil and vinegar. Gino taught us how to make “real” bruchetta, which consisted of fire roasted bread, rubbed garlic, fresh olive oil and light salt. I can honestly say that it was some of the best bruchetta I’ve ever had……except for the piece that Megan rubbed excessive garlic on!
We wrapped up with 20 year old balsamic vinegar that was thicker and sweeter than any I’ve ever tasted. The Olive Garden should be shut down for what they pass off as vinegar. The difference is enormous.
As we enjoyed the tour and treats, we started to chat with the two girls who were privy to this experience we were on. It turns out that they were on “extended” travel as well….one was even from Minnesota! We discovered that they had taken a bus from Florence and were planning to walk all the way down the hill and wait for the next bus after the tour. We let them know that were planning to explore a few local wineries and they were welcome to tag along if they wanted? We were pleased when they readily accepted, and we packed up and headed off to search the region. Over the next seven hours, we hit four additional wineries, had a wonderful dinner and made two new friends. Meeting them was truly a highlight of our Tuscan experience. They are heading on a Mediterranean cruise a few days after we hop on ours……We hope to reconnect with them in the future!
On our final day in the Chianti region, we went to the oldest winery in Italy, Castle di Brolio. It was over a thousand years old, set atop another hill, overlooking the vineyards below. The walls were over 50 feet high, which were used to fend off centuries of attacks, as it was a constant battle ground between Florence and Sienna. The wine was as amazing as the scenery.
We next stopped at Castle di Meleto, which was probably the perfect blend between the ancient and modern world. It was a castle on the outside all 21 century on the inside…… definitely one of our favorites! From there we hit a few more wineries along our hour long scenic drive. It wasn’t until the final stop of the day that we found some oils that were worthy of buying. It was at a totally organic, small family run winery. There we found balsamic vinegar that was 30 years old and truffle oil that was so potent that three drops would flavor an entire dish. The owner let us sample the goods, and 70 Euros’s later we left happy…..and with a few new recipes!
The Tuscany experience has been the highlight of our trip. Maybe it’s because we had a car and could go at our own pace, or perhaps it’s because the wine region forced us to live at theirs……either way, we have found a new appreciation for wine, love and life…… In Vino Veritas!