Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Under the Tuscan Clouds: Epilogue - Kevin vs. Gas Pump

January 4th: The Journey Home
Our time in Tuscany had come to an end, so off to Florence we went to drop off the rental car and train it back to Zürich. We arrived in Florence no problem, but before we could return the car we had to fill her up with gas. Sounds simple enough, but it turned out to be the most complicated and costly refill I've ever witnessed...

Unlike the US there isn't an individual credit card machine for each pump.  Instead there's only one machine that takes money for all the pumps.  I give you exhibit A:
To make a long story short, Kevin was unable to decipher the Italian instructions (I mean look at that thing...would you?).  As a result of his ignorance, he unknowingly "stole" another person's gas.  We're all reasonable adults here.  Can't we just talk this out?  Ummm no.  The victim didn't speak English, the gas station attendant didn't speak English, Kevin doesn't speak Italian so mass confusion ensued. Finally somehow through a game of charades and Google translate they got it all sorted, and Kevin paid the guy back for the 25 Euros of gas he stole.

Kevin 0 - Gas Pump 1
Tally: Cost to Fill a Tank in Tuscany

Kevin's mistake was now rectified, but he still had to finish the task at hand - filling up our tank. Flustered from the fiasco thus far, he accidentally grabbed the unleaded pump and proceeded to fill up our diesel tank with 75 Euros worth of unleaded fuel.  Well that's just awesome.

Kevin 0 - Gas Pump 2
Tally: Cost to Fill a Tank in Tuscany
25€ + 75€ = 100€

Fortunately the gas station had a mechanic shop attached to it (we'll throw Kev a bone here and give him a point for this rare stroke of luck).  A few hours and 100 Euros later, all the unleaded fuel had been siphoned out of our diesel tank.

Kevin 1 - Gas Pump 2
Tally: Cost to Fill a Tank in Tuscany
25€ + 75€ + 100€ = 200€

Alright, we back on track.  Round 2: let's fill her up for real this time.  A wise man once said, "Fool me once...shame on...shame on you...Fool me, you can't get fooled again."  Heeding Dubya's words, Kevin eliminated the risk for any further mistakes by letting the professionals handle this one at the full service pump.  For a mere 100 Euros the job was done right, and the tank was f'ing full (We catch dem boy!).

Kevin 2 - Gas Pump 2
Tally: Cost to Fill a Tank in Tuscany
25€ + 75€ + 100€ + 100€ = Grand Total 300€ (yet the memories are priceless)

Wallets emptied but tank finally full, we were able to return that Godforsaken rental car.  Yet our sad story doesn't end there.  After hours of screwing around at the gas station, we of course missed our train and now had to find a hotel for the night.  To turn the day around (and since we had already been on a massive spending spree) we decided to keep the money ball rollin' and chose to spend the night in luxury at the Westin Excelsior.  Best.  Decision. Ever.  Days like these have to end with alcohol, so we capped it off with rooftop cocktails and Florentine steak.  Actually quite a lovely ending to a not-so-lovely day. The following morning we trained it home to Zürich without a hitch.  Despite the costly gas debacle, our Tuscan vacay was a great success...and I assure you, we won't be making that mistake again.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Under the Tuscan Clouds: Part Cinque

January 3rd: Montepulciano & Pienza
The end of our trip was fast approaching, and we needed to stock up on more wine ASAP.  So we made the drive over to Montepulciano to visit some cellars, taste some wines, and make some purchases.  Montepulciano is yet another medieval walled hilltown, and you know what?, I never tire of them because they are just so dang charming and picturesque.  Even in crap weather.  We spent the cloudy/rainy day meandering the winding streets and escaped the elements by visiting three wine cellars.... 
City Walk

La Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta
Palazzo Communale

Our first wine stop was Fattoria della Talosa.  We toured their labyrinth of a cellar, which was quite cool, but for some reason we didn't taste any wine when we remerged into the store.  I guess we just weren't feeling the vibe; it was kinda crowded, the sales girls seemed was no Fattoria di Corsignano.  Nonetheless, we were still impressed with their wine caves.

Our second stop on the wine tour was Cantina de' Ricci.  Again the cellar was impressive, and their website even claims it has been dubbed "The most beautiful wine cellar in the world" by the Italian wine authority.  I found it a bit spooky with its candelabra chandeliers dimly illuminating the ancient vaulted ceilings and stone walls.  The tasting room, however, was much more inviting than Fattoria della Talosa's which led us to make our first purchases of the day.

Contucci Cantine
Our final stop, Contucci Cantine, was by far our favorite.  The Contucci family have been winemakers since the Renaissance, and are one of the founding fathers of Vino Nobile - a red wine with DOCG status (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita/controlled designation of origin guaranteed).
The wine was so delicious that we just had to buy some, bringing our Tuscan wine purchase grand total to 21 bottles (we had to buy another suitcase just to get them all home).

The tasting table
Kevin with our Montepulciano purchases
Me keepin' it classy as always

We complemented our Montepulciano wine day with an evening of cheeses in the city of Pienza. Pienza was the smallest of the Tuscan towns we visited (excluding Brenna of course), and like the rest of Tuscany it oozed charm and quaintness.  Pienza is famous for its Pecorino cheeses made from sheep's milk.  Just as the streets of Montepulciano were lined with wine cellars, the streets of Pienza were lined with cheese shops.  After a short stroll around town we settled upon a little hole in the wall bistro called La Buca di Enea to savor a plate of Pienza's finest cheeses.
Views from City Wall

City Walk

WWJD?  Buy cheese.

Cheese Tasting

Friday, January 24, 2014

Under the Tuscan Clouds: Part Quattro

January 2nd: Cooking Class
I've always wanted to take a cooking class, and what better place to do it than in Tuscany with a real life Italian granny?  A short drive from Brenna lies a charming farmhouse, Le Pietre Vive di Montaperti, where Nonna Ciana welcomed us into her kitchen to teach us the tricks of the trade.  Her English was limited (granted way better than our Italian), so her friend Valeria stood in as translator.  The highlight of the class was learning how to make pasta from scratch (no machine, just a rolling pin, a knife, and pure upper body strength) - a tricky and laborious process.  After all our hard work we were able to sit down to our beautiful meal.  Here was the menu:

Bruschetta with garlic, tomato, and basil

Bruschetta with caramelized sweet peppers

Bruschetta with Stracchino cheese, fresh pork sausage, and black pepper

Handmade tagliatelle with pumpkin and sausage


The farmhouse Le Pietre Vive di Montaperti
Dicing up some pumpkin

Kneading the dough
Rolling the dough out into a "circle"...ours looked more like Australia

Left: Nonna Ciana, Right: Valeria
Enjoying our trio of bruschetta
The remnants of our hard earned pumpkin pasta

A combo of rainy weather & stuffed bellies caused us to retreat back to Villa Agostino and succumb to the second food coma of our trip.  The evening was spent by the fire with a bottle of Chianti and The Walking Dead.  Romance people.  There's only one more episode of Under The Tuscan Clouds left featuring our adventures in Montepulciano & Pienza, along with our misadventures in the journey home to Zürich ...

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Under the Tuscan Clouds: Part Tre

New Year's Day: Siena
On January 1st we awoke not only to a New Year, but to a sunshiny day!  Taking advantage of the lighting Kevin got some great shots of our villa.  Behold Villa Agostino in all its glory...
It's the building on the left
Our fishbowl living room
The fireplace 
The terrace
Mya sunning herself on the terrace

Not wanting to let the sunny day go to waste we decided to ditch the puppy in Brenna and explore the ancient city of Siena.  Similar to Volterra, Siena also sits among the Tuscan hills and is lined by imposing medieval walls, and although the city is much bigger than Volterra it is not any less alluring. While in Siena we wandered the cobblestone streets, people watched in Piazza del Campo, discovered the divine beauty of the cathedral's museum complex, and ate to our hearts content at two enchanting restaurants....

City Walk
One of the Portas leading into the city

Piazza del Campo
As we descended down an alleyway leading to the Piazza del Campo, we were astonished by the vastness that lay before us.  Unique to other European main squares the open space isn't actually square, but rounded in a shell-like shape.  The piazza is lined by outdoor cafes, the town hall (Palazzo Pubblico) with its bell tower (Torre del Mangia), and the Fonte Gaia "Fountain of Joy".  Fun fact: twice a year on July 2nd and August 16th, the Piazza transforms into a horse racing track.  The event is called Palio di Siena, and consists of 10 jockeys riding bareback around the track three times, with many being thrown off their horse in this 90 second race.
Palazzo Pubblico (the town hall) and its bell tower, Torre del Mangia

Fonte Gaia

Lunch at Antica Osteria da Divo
My favorite meal of the trip was lunch at Antica Osteria da Divo.  We dined in their ancient grotto, dating back to Etruscan times (~700 B.C.),  and could not stop gazing at the the interior walls carved from tufa stone.  It was so cool.  And the food, my God the food...they had both a black and white truffle menu.  Damn it was good.  Check out the photos...
The grotto
Our meal: white truffle risotto for me, lamb for Kev, and of course a bottle of Chianti.
One of the many vaulted nooks 

 Complesso Museale del Duomo (Museum Complex of the Cathedral)
Unlike Florence, we were able to ditch Mya at home, allowing us to do the touristy thing and visit the Complessso Museale del Duomo.  We were able to see the Baptistery of San Giovanni, the crypt (no pictures allowed...Kevin got scolded by the elderly security guard just for holding up his iPhone), the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo (museum of the work of the cathedral), and the cathedral itself.
Baptistery of San Giovanni

The Cathedral

 Dinner at La Taverna di San Giuseppe
We capped off our New Year's Day with another great meal, this time at La Taverna di San Giuseppe; a yummy end to a great day.  Look out for the next installment of Under the Tuscan Clouds: Part Quattro, when we take an authentic Tuscan cooking class.