Sunday, April 18, 2010

under the tuscan clouds (and the umbrian sun).

API really outdid themselves this weekend. We all agreed that this excursion was the best of the three overnight trips we went on, full of languid relaxation, wine, and enough chocolate to chill out even the most stressed out college student (though it is difficult to be stressed when you are living in one of the most beautiful cities in one of the most beautiful countries in the world).

We departed at 8:30 AM on Saturday, headed for the city of Siena, located smack in the middle of the Chianti region of Italy, obviously well known for its wine and oil production. We started the day, as usual, with a two hour tour.
Siena is a part of the UNESCO Heritage project, meaning that all buildings must be built in the medeival style (on the outside; of course, the insides are allowed modern amenities). This means that the entire city retains a realistically ancient look.

Our tour guide was incredibly energetic and funny. She explained to us about the contrade, or "quarters" of Siena. The different neighborhoods are like teams, which compete in a horse race that takes place twice every year, on July 2 and August 16, called the palio. The contrada that wins essentially just gets bragging rights, but they take the whole team thing very seriously. You are inducted into a contrada at birth, and you can never change, unless you want to switch to your husband's contrada when you marry.

Siena's baptistery, which actually looks a lot like Florence's, as far as colors go.

The cathedral.

Here, you can see how the cathedral was actually built, by covering a plain brick facade with the beautiful marble. Building the entire thing of marble would be incredibly difficult because of the weight of the material as well as the cost.

Wells were a sign of wealth in the old days, not because they were expensive to build, but because only the wealthy had the connetions to get a permit from the government to build them.

The main square, Piazza di Campo, where the palio race is actually held. They do three laps around the piazza in about 75 seconds.

The "square" is actually seashell shaped, which our guide said had something to do with the immigrants that came to Siena, washing up on the shore like seashells.

After the tour, we had some free time for lunch. We got a recommendation from the guide, but after wandering around and looking for it, we gave up and settled for the first place that looked decent.

I wasn't super impressed with my picci all'amatriciana. I have been making the amatriciana in my kitchen for the past couple weeks and I personally thing mine is much better. Plus, the restaurant charged a 15% gratuity on top of the cover charge! WHAT?

I bought the banner of one of the contrada, the lupa, or she-wolf, which is also the symbol of the entire city of Siena. It was also the contrada of our tour guide, and she spoke so passionately about it, I couldn't help but be sucked in.

Siena is also known for a treat known as panforte, which literally translates to "strong bread." It has been around since the Crusades, when it was made as a kind of trail mix for the soldiers.

It's a kind of mixture of nuts, honey, different spices, and dried fruits all crammed together to make a kind of ancient, chewy granola bar. I got a grassato al cioccolato (or something like that) which had a layer of chocolate ganoche on the outside. Yummyyy. I snacked on it while we rode the bus to and from the thermal baths that afternoon.

More from Piazza di Campo.

After lunch, we boarded the buses and headed to one of Italy's famous thermal baths. These are actually fueled by heated water that comes from a kind of spring that results from all of the volcanic activity in the area. The water is infused with all kinds of awesome minerals that are good for different systems of your body, depending on what baths you go to. The ones we visited smelled very strongly of sulphur (reminded me of home!), and were supposed to be excellent for your skin, liver, and kidneys.

We spent the afternoon lounging in these heated pools, which were like a warm bath more than hot tub, like I was expecting. It was so relaxing and it brought back all of my desires for a nice hot bath (or hot tub)....

The outside of the spa.

Our hotel for the night was actually not located in Siena, but in a small town called Chiancino, where I shared my room with Marissa and Gillian, while Sam was put in a different room because she signed up a bit late for the trip. We were served a four course meal at the hotel! While the food know, hotel food, it was really nice to be waited on (for free!).

Obviously, we started with bread...

And the always-nececssary water and wine...

We were STARVING by the time our antipasto came out, so we may have overindulged a little at this point.

Cheese! And bread. We think the spreadable cheese was tomino, and then a hunk of mozzarella.

Followed by fried vegetables and rice balls...

Primi piatti was a vegetable soup, which I didn't like so much. Now that I've been spoiled by Mario's and Sergio's thick, delicious soups, brothy just doesn't do it for me anymore.

Vegetable lasagna (I didn't eat all of that...whoa). It was flavored with cheese sauce and nutmeg, which was an interesting combination. I wished I had foregone the soup so that I could have finished this.

Roasted chicken was our main course, or secondi piatti. They also served french fries, but I told them not to give me any. I was getting incredibly full by this point and needed to save room for dessert.

Tiramisu cake! It was good, but not astounding.

After dinner, we were all STUFFED and exhausted, so we pretty much just went back to our room and talked for awhile before passing out until morning. We boarded the buses at 9 AM, headed for the Umbrian city of Perugia.

The mandatory two-hour tour included some pretty spectacular views.

Perugia is also known as the "Green Heart of Italy." Pretty!

The city was originally founded by the Etruscans, but was later taken over by the Romans, who built the aqueduct you see here.

Etruscan arch.

More beautiful views.

Unfortunately, the city which is well known for its chocolate-making as well as its beauty, is also now famous for the Amanda Knox case. For those of you who don't know, she was the American study abroad student who murdered her British roommate in what she claimed was an accident during a weird sexual game. U-S-A!

A stop at the chocolate store was necessary.

After hanging in Perugia until around 2 PM, we boarded a bus bound for the Chianti region of Italy, much closer to Florence than Perugia. The ride was about 2 hours, and full of twists and turns...I felt bad for anyone who gets carsick, because that was an intense bus ride. And the driver seemed to have very little respect for the laws of physics.

We went to the Castle Verrazzano, which was owned at some point in the past by the man who actually discovered New York. The vineyard has been owned by the same family since the 7th century...and let me tell you, what a life this family has lived.

The entire property was gorgeous. When we arrived, we were greeted by the vineyard owner, who gave us a little talk about the history of the castle, as well as respecting the wine for its flavors and history, and not just thinking of it as alcohol to get you drunk because, as he put it, "even a baby can get drunk"...but not everyone can appreciate the subtleties of a good glass of wine.

We also took a quick walk through the wine cellar...

The oak of the barrels gives the wine an "oak-y" flavor.

Finally, the wine tasting began. We started with an inexpensive bottle of "table wine," after the owner explaned to us a bit about how to hold the glass and experience the wine with senses other than taste. I'm certainly no wine connoisseur, but I have learned a thing or two here in Italy.

They served us enough food throughout the tasting to constitute an entire meal, starting with salami, prosciutto, and Tuscan bread...and olive oil, of course.

Later, we sampled some pecorino cheese and salad...

The waiters poured us a second glass of wine, a Chianti Classico, which is one of the post popular wines in the world, even if it's not necessarily the best or most expensive. This was my favorite of the three we tried, and I ended up buying a bottle.

Finally, we sampled a sweet dessert wine, which was served with these little cookies...whose name I am blanking on at the moment. You are supposed to dip them in the wine, but after one bite of that, I was done with that little experiment, and enjoyed them separately.

Roommates and I enjoying our wine-tasting experience!

We boarded the bus one last time, full of wine and cheese, our skin softened, and our muscles relaxed. A fully successful weekend, capped by a quick and beautiful drive back to our home who could ask for more?


  1. haha, i love how all of our faces are rosy...mmm vino.

  2. It does appear that wine is great for your complexion. Beautiful travelouge again I wish I was in Italy......I will be sooooooon!!! <3 mom