Flower farms

Saturday morning, Jim, Ilene, and I headed to Massarosa, a small town about 30 minutes from Lucca. Once a year the farms of Massarosa open up to visitors. We visited a farm growing lotus flowers, one for saffron (but the flowers were not blooming currently), and one for lavender. Yes, these are farms for flowers!

Lotuses at “I Campi di Ninfa”

Next stop – a lavender field

And other beautiful flowers too!

Sunflowers – no, then yes!

We had a wonderful visit to Massarosa but were disappointed that the sunflower fields were not in bloom. So we headed back to Lucca on the Autostrada. Ilene saw two fields of bright yellow sunflowers and I jokily asked Jim if we could go find them. He said yes and we were off on another adventure… trying to find fields of sunflowers that we had seen 10 minutes ago on the Autostrada. Ilene and I were overjoyed to be completed surrounded by sunflowers – more than either of us had ever seen. Thank you Jim for being so very patient on our pursuit of all of these flowers. Ti amo!

Thanks to Ilene for the great “people” pictures in this post and for going with us on this adventure. You can read more about Ilene and Gary, her husband, on their blog called “Our Italian Journey“.

La Foce, Etruscans, birding, and more for my Birthday trip

In 2015, I was planning our next trip to Italy and discovered La Foce, a beautiful villa and garden set in the valley called Val d’Orcia. I added it to our list of things to do, but we never made it there. The garden was opened only certain days and hours, and we just couldn’t squeeze it in. The next year, I tried again with a similar result. I’m not sure how many times I tried, but the logistics always got in the way. So as my birthday was approaching this year, I decided that we would visit La Foce. There is a Bed & Breakfast on site with a two-night stay required and a tour of that fabulous garden included. I booked it!

First stop: A very unique wine tasting

We left Lucca early on my birthday and drove 1.5 hours to our first stop – a winery called Podere Il Carnasciale. This is a very small “cult” winery that makes a thousand cases per year, using a very interesting grape called the Caberlot, a natural crossing between Cabernet Franc and Merlot. We met the winemaker at a nearby cemetery (you can’t make this stuff up!), and he led us on multiple gravel and dirt roads up the mountain. He showed us their oldest vines (planted in 1985) then led us to the barrel room. We didn’t do a traditional tour and tasting, but instead had our first ever barrel tasting. Their 2020 vintage is ready for bottling, so we tasting wine directly from 4 out of 6 barrels of their different vineyards of Caberlot. Although they were all Caberlot from the same year, it was interesting to smell and taste the differences that comes from different locations. What a cool experience! You can read more here.

Pienza, hilltop town of Tuscany

Pienza was a modest village until one of the villagers became Pope Pius II. He transformed his village into the “ideal city of the Renaissance” and we saw many tourists enjoying the atmosphere, sites, and panoramic views. In three years a central square was rebuilt with the Town Hall, the Papal Palace (Palazzo), and the Cathedral (Duomo).

La Foce – finally!

“La Foce is a large estate in the Southern Tuscan region of Val d’Orcia, midway between Florence and Rome. La Foce lies on the Via Francigena, the ancient road and pilgrim route running from France to Rome. It has been inhabited continuously for many centuries. The Villa was built in the late 15th century as a hospice for pilgrims and merchants traveling on the Via Francigena.

In 1924, Antonio and Iris Origo bought the dilapidated estate. The villa was restored by the Origos in the 1920s. The fine gardens were designed by the English architect Cecil Pinsent. The Origos employed 25 families and started a school to teach and ensure the well-being of some 50 local children. They also built 35 dwellings in the 1920s to 1930s for tenant farmers.

The book War in Val d’Orcia by Iris Origo is set at this estate, which at the time contained 57 farms on 7,000 acres. [The book is based on Origo’s diary during World War II and tells of the day-to-day experiences and struggles that occurred as the war was fought all around them. I read this book a few months ago.]

Descendants of the family still own the property today and operate it as a resort.” [excerpts from Wikipedia]

The Cypress Tree is a common feature of the Tuscan landscape.  These very tall evergreen trees produce leaves that are dark green in color, and maintain this color throughout the year.  They are also a symbol of the Italian landscape. A typical element of a Renaissance painting is a landscape in the background; if you look closely, you’ll notice that the landscapes look remarkable like today’s Tuscan landscape including the ubiquitous cypress trees.  Today you will find many photographs taken of the landscape, including a few of the S-shaped streets lined with cypress trees. One of the best examples is on the La Foce estate and was part of the landscape directly outside of our room! I took pictures several times throughout the day to see how the light impacted the scene. The yellowish color is from the spring wheat that was ready for harvest. I’d like to return when the wheat is brilliant green.

View from our Bed and Breakfast

Our garden tour was scheduled for 11:30am on Thursday and it was already very hot. Although I had seen many pictures of the gardens, I was surprised at the impact of the combination of the formal gardens with the gorgeous landscape of Val d’Orcia. It was simply spectacular!

Thursday afternoon we drove 30 minutes to Lago di Montepulciano, a nearby lake with park. They even had birdwatching tours available and I had booked a tour for 4pm. Why they would have such a tour at 4pm is beyond me… To date, our birdwatching experiences in Italy have not been nearly as productive as those in America; there are simply fewer birds here. So with tempered expectations, we made the drive. We met a lovely young woman who is continuing her studies in Environmental Science and she took us on a personal tour of the lake, including quite a large hide. Cost of the tour was €5 each! And here are my best pictures:

Last stop: Chiusi, Tuscan town with rich Etruscan history

Before the Roman times, the Etruscan people lived in Italy (Tuscany and a bit beyond) from roughly 750BC to 90BC. The Etruscans were an advanced civilization with rich mineral resources and as a major Mediterranean trading power. Archaeologists have discovered a lot of artifacts from the civilization, mostly where they buried their dead. Jim and I started getting interested in learning more about the civilization and can’t resist visiting archaeological sites and museums. While in Chiusi, Jim went on a tour of some tunnels underneath the Cathedral. The Etruscans had created this series of tunnels to collect rainwater, which, filtering through the layered sandstones and sediments of the hillside was channeled into wells and then drawn for domestic use. The Romans also used the tunnels, but skipped the filtering aspect, so many people got sick. [I skipped this activity because it involved lots of steps and I’m still very slow on steps.]

After Chiusi, we headed home to Lucca. It was a great birthday adventure! Thanks for reading this lengthy post, and I hope that you enjoyed learning about some of the smaller, less touristy locations of Italy.

Our first visitors from America!

At the end of September 2021, Derek, our son, and Dani, his girlfriend, came to visit. It’s been 18 months since we’ve seen Derek or any family member, so you can imagine that we were quite thrilled to see them. We had a wonderful time with them and visited some new sites and some familiar ones.

Pickup in Rome. Derek and Dani flew into Rome and were set to arrive early in the morning. So Jim and I drove down the day before and stopped at Tarquinia, an hour north of Rome on the coast. The city is known for their Etruscan tombs and Etruscan Museum. I’ve seen a lot of Etruscan stuff, but I was surprised at the beauty and quantity of these tombs! In this necropolis there are 22 different underground tombs that you can look into with beautiful painted walls. Each tomb has a modern building covering the tomb with steps going down. Lighting was not good (to protect the paintings), so I’ve included one from the town’s museum, which was moved for accessibility and protection. I’ve also included a picture of a decoration from one of their temples. Keep in mind that these are from the 4-6th centuries BC!

The next morning Derek and Dani arrived on time. After more than a few hugs we were off to Sorrento where we planned to spend 5 nights.

Sorrento, Amalfi Coast, and Capri. None of us had ever been to this region so we were excited to explore the cities, the views, and the sites. While approaching Sorrento Jim stopped for a view of the city… the view was a great first impression, the traffic not so much!

We headed to Capri Island the next day… joining a boat trip from Sorrento, went around Capri, a short swim break and then a stop at one of the marinas. We visited the town of Capri, filled with shops selling beautiful (and overpriced!) souvenirs. Jim and I enjoyed wandering through the small streets while Derek and Dani headed to another marina to check out some of the boats. The wait to see the famous Blue Grotto was over an hour, so everyone on our boat agreed to skip it. Instead the captain stopped at two of the lesser known, but equally beautiful grottos, and Derek, Dani and many of the others jumped into the water to check them out.

The next day we headed to Pompeii where we spent hours wandering through the city. “Pompeii is a vast archaeological site in southern Italy’s Campania region, near the coast of the Bay of Naples. Once a thriving and sophisticated Roman city, Pompeii was buried under meters of ash and pumice after the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. The preserved site features excavated ruins of streets and houses that visitors can freely explore.” (from Google) I was struck by the size of the city and how well preserved everything is. There were so many details here and there that really gave you a sense for life in an early Roman city. I definitely want to spend more time here.

And the next day we had another boat trip planned – leaving from Sorrento and going along the Amalfi Coast. My knee was too sore at this point, so Jim and I opted to stay in Sorrento while Derek and Dani headed back to the boat. They had a great time, seeing several small towns and popping into the water at a few swimming spots. Each evening of our trip, we had dinner at one of the restaurants that featured local delicacies and a good wine list.

Chianti. We had planned for one more day in the Sorrento area, but we were all ready to move along. So we headed towards home, stopping for a night in Castellini in Chianti. This small town holds special meaning for Jim and me. In 2016 we stayed here and used it as a base to explore this part of Tuscany. One evening after dinner as we wandered through the town, we paused to look at the available real estate in one of the realtor’s window. That was the evening that we realized that living in Italy would be affordable for us and planted the seed to “retire in Italy someday”. At the time, we expected that to be a decade or so away, but why wait???

We were in Chianti, so naturally we visited a winery and some of the nearby towns.

Next stop, Lucca! Derek and Dani were likely tired of hearing us talk about what a wonderful city Lucca is to live in and they now had an opportunity to check it out. They stayed in Lucca for a week… we spent quite a bit of time in town, but also used it as a base for day trips. I’ve included some photos of our time with them, but they also visited a nearby cave in the mountains, took a cooking class, and visited the Irish Pub (in Lucca???) multiple times. You’ll need to ask them if Lucca lived up to the hype from Jim and me…

Derek and Dani then left Lucca and wandered around Europe for another two weeks, visiting Prague, a small German town, a few places in Switzerland, Chamonix, and Milan.

It was wonderful to spend time with Derek, to really get to know Dani, and to show them some of the aspects of Italy that we enjoy so much. We are looking forward to future visits from our family and friends!

“Val d’Orcia”, the Southern Tuscan Countryside

A month or so ago Jim told me that him and Pasquale would be heading to Montalcino for “Benvenuto Brunello” on 21 November and asked if I’d like to go with them. Pasquale owns a local restaurant and is a wine sommelier. Jim and Pasquale love to talk about wine, shop for wine, and drink wine. At this event they would be tasting the recent releases of Brunello di Montalcino, considered to be amongst the best wine of Italy. Nope… no interest in a 2.5-hour drive there, tasting a bunch of wine, then a 2.5-hour drive back all in the same day.

Two days before the big event, Jim asked again. He suggested that it would be helpful to have a “designated driver” but I protested – they don’t actually drink the wine; they taste it then spit it out. (Hence my lack of interest in attending.) But then Jim said that they would still be absorbing some of the alcohol into their system and they planned to taste a lot of wine. So, I agreed to go. And I started planning some places where I could drive to see some of the beautiful scenery of southern Tuscany known as “Val d’Orcia”.

At 5:45am Pasquale came to our house, I got into the backseat and tried to make a bed in the back of a Mini Cooper. 2.5 hours later I woke up as we were close to Montalcino and was excited to see fog (oh, cool pictures!). Then realized that there was A LOT of fog. Perhaps I would get some cool pictures later in the morning?

We had breakfast and coffee, they headed to their wine tasting which started at 9am (another reason for my lack of interest in attending) and I took off for a leisurely morning of driving around the countryside to look for beautiful scenery. I stopped about 3 minutes later and took my first pictures – with the edge of Montalcino on a hill top and layers of fog. Perhaps it was going to be a good day after all!

Montalcino with layers of fog

And a few minutes later, I took a picture of showing all of Montalcino with some wispy fog.

Montalcino, famous hilltop Tuscan town

In the meantime, Jim and Pasquale stopped for another coffee and had the opportunity to enjoy the foggy valley.

My first destination was Cappella della Madonna di Vitaleta, a small chapel in the countryside. This is one of the locations that photographers love and I was inspired from pictures like this and this and this. Although it was longish walk to get there (which sounded painful with my bad right knee), one of the pages showed a great spot where a photographer with a long lens could get great views. Not happening with this fog, so I prepared myself for the 15-minute walk and was “welcomed” by a gate that made it clear that you were to walk and not drive to the peaceful chapel.

Within a few minutes I found myself on a dirt “road” with plowed fields on both sides covered in fog. And no people anywhere to be seen. It was a little eerie…

And then I finally reached my destination, but it did not look like the pristine “inspiration” photos that I saw. We are talking major constructions!

So, I spent some time, played with some different compositions, and came up with a few nice pictures of the chapel with a foggy, dreamy feeling. On the way back, I did see two different couples who were likely envisioning the perfect Instagram shot. I just gave them an update on how much further and let them discover the construction on their own.

Cappella della Madonna di Vitaleta (rear)
Cappella della Madonna di Vitaleta (front)

I then proceeded to drive around the countryside stopping often to take pictures of the beautiful landscape. There were so many beautiful scenes… it really was so lovely to just take them all in. Here are a few more shots that I took – click for full size.

I planned to head to the Abbey of Sant’Antimo. Jim and I had seen it twice before, even attending one of the services where the monks chant throughout the mass. But this morning I had made too many stops, so I needed to head back to Montalcino to meet Jim and Pasquale. Here are a few pictures from those prior trips.

Abbey of Sant’Antimo in 2014, another foggy day
Abbey of Sant’Antimo in 2015, on a sunny day

I headed back to Montalcino and found Jim and Pasquale. They had tasting 60 wines! We started the long drive home and they chatted about this wine and that wine. Until they fell quiet and rested. The day was a success – they enjoyed many of their old favorites, each discovered a few new ones, and noted those that they did not like.

We look forward to more visits to Montalcino, hopefully for a longer stay next time!

Dinner in a vineyard!

Ilene and Gary were invited to a dinner in a vineyard and asked if would like to come along. Of course! The winery is located outside San Miniato, a small town about an hour from Lucca, so we decided to spend the night there so that we could enjoy the dinner without the concerns of a longish drive home. The town is long, narrow, and perched on a hill. We enjoyed lunch then wandered through the town. I usually research towns before heading there, but I focused mostly on the winery, so was pleasantly surprised to find a beautiful seminary, cathedral, and tower. And the views of the Tuscan landscape!

The seminary was started in 1650 and continually expanded until 1713. The exterior has beautiful fresco, including 30 sets of religious “mottos” (not quite scripture quotes). I was particularly pleased to find a sign that had the translations of these mottos in four languages, including English. I can imagine that the students spent time outside memorizing each and contemplating the meaning of them.

The Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta e San Genesio required quite a climb, but was well worth it. The exterior is quite plain but the interior art, architecture, and marble are beautiful – and the ceiling is gorgeous! While inside the Cathedral, we realized that the walls were fake marble (or should I say “Faux Finish”) but while reading about the Cathedral I learned that the columns are also fake. I also read “On the 22 July 1944, an artillery shell from the United States military went through the church via the rose window on the southern side of the transept, and exploded in the right aisle, killing 55 people. The cathedral was full of citizens who had been gathered in the churchyard by the Germans.” So sad! Next time, I’ll remember to research the towns properly BEFORE heading there…

The Cathedral was quite a climb, so I skipped the next climb up to the Rocca di Federico II. Jim took my camera with him and took some beautiful pictures of the tower and the countryside. This tower served as a lookout to watch those moving between Florence and Pisa. During World War II German soldiers detonated charges inside and it was destroyed. It was rebuilt in 1958.

Time for the dinner that we had traveled here for! The vineyard is called Pietro Beconcini Agricola. They grow several types of traditional Tuscan grapes but also Tempranillo, a Spanish grape. After owning the property for about 7 years, the owner still couldn’t identify some of the grapes on his property. A DNA analysis showed that it was Tempranillo. The thinking is that a pilgrim from Spain left some seeds on the property as they traveled the nearby via Francigena path. Because the grapes were growing nicely on his property, he decided to plant additional Tempranillo vines. They now sell three wines made from Tempranillo – Fresco Di Nero (an Early Harvest wine), IXE (their mid-priced wine) and Vigna Le Nicchie (their Prephylloxera wine). Jim is always hunting for Prephylloxera wine, so this made him very happy!

The Festa Del Tempranillo was held for three nights, with some of the tables set up within the vineyards. We each received a glass of the three Tempranillo wines and typical Tuscan food, including some some slices of Bistecca alla Fiorentina. The wine, food, live music and beautiful setting made for an exceptional evening.

Special thanks to Jim and Ilene Modica for sharing some of their pictures with me for this blog post. I suggest that you check out Ilene and Gary’s blog at Our Italian Journey. She’ll be posting about our trip to San Miniato and the dinner… and I’m sure that you’d enjoy reading a different version of the same story!