July 30, 2017

A countryside Escapade - Tuscany and Umbria


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It is not just the architecture of Italy that captivates the hearts, the luscious greens spread across acres of countryside is equally alluring. After our tryst with Rome and the Vatican, we set out to Florence to explore the serenity of the country. 

This was the part we were really looking forward in our Italy trip. We had reservations on Frecciarossa - high speed trains that connects the provinces in Italy.
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We got a free upgrade and hence traveled business class to Florence.  You get free upgrades on the Trenitalia website during non peak hours if you book early.  On reaching Florence (Firenze SMN station) we first took a bus to the airport. Then from the airport we need to take a shuttle to car rental agency,  from where we rented the car. The car rental agency has counters for different car rental companies like Hertz, Europcar, etc etc. Shibin had pictured himself driving a quaint little Fiat in the countryside. After spending quite a bit of time with the paperworks, they handed over the keys for an Infinity Q30, which was our companion for the three days in the countryside. He was equally happy!

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Renting a car is the ideal way to explore the beauty of the region but equally important is knowing the traffic rules. Our fear was always the ZTL areas! Now, ZTL areas are the zones of limited traffic where there are restrictions on vehicle entry. Failure to comply results in huge fines and we did not want to be amongst those fine givers! We had our date with ZTL and narrowly missed paying a hefty fine (in detail later on in the post). Once you get a hang of the ZTL area, then it is easier to recognize one. Most of the tourist spots have designated parking areas that have free parking- keep a watch out for such areas than having to go into the paid parking zones. There are two areas where you can rent a car in Florence. One is in the downtown Florence(Via Borgognissanti) which has a ZTL nearby and another one near the Airport where there are no ZTLs. After reading all the horrors stories of ZTL(google up!), we did not want to be anywhere near one. We stuck to “Better Safe than Sorry” and  chose the car rental near airport, which was also easier to catch the road to Tuscany. 

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We began our journey to the farm house in Sinalunga which was to be our home for next few days exploring the countryside on the way. Having GPS was simply a bliss:) We took the scenic SR222 road and navigated our way to Sinalunga via the beautiful Chianti region. We drove by Strada in Chianti to Greve in Chianti where we stopped for our lunch of Calzone with salami and cheese and also a pizza with spicy salami, pomodore and mozzarella. They had on display in the piazza - a collection of vintage cars.

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After a stroll through the piazza, we resumed our journey briefly stopping by Radda in Chianti and Castellina in Chianti. Chianti is a popular wine producing region in Italy and if wine tasting is on your cards , then this place definitely deserves more of your time.
It was evening by the time we set foot at La Giuda Farm in Sinalunga nestled amidst some olive trees, wine yards and a few farm animals inhabiting the otherwise quiet area. Our hosts welcomed us and gave us time to settle in before joining them for the amazing spread at dinner table. Pecorino cheese with honey, salami, grilled sausages, pasta, liver cooked in some sort of leaf, shashlik and  grilled cabbage to name a few adorned our table. We got to know more about the hosts, their tradition and history while relishing their homemade Tuscan wine. We ate till we could eat no more! All we remember was crashing into bed that night to wake up to a new dawn.

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We kick started our next morning early exploring the farm and the animals - rabbits, hens, horse, donkeys , cats while the dog accompanied us only to settle down fascinated by the rabbits. After a small breakfast, we began our drive to locations that would have us spell bound and a weather that would enchant us. After cramming ourselves with enough information for the day from our dear host, off we went to Montepulciano - a renaissance hill town popular for cheese, pasta, wine among others. This was our first encounter with a ZTL area. We stopped the vehicle half way through a slope since we thought we had missed the way. Only when we turned around did we see the ZTL board. Now, our research before the travel had spoken of huge amount of fine being levied on crossing these zones and our hearts skipped several beats!! Parking a little away and after a cup of bitter coffee (was too strong that I had to gulp it down. Only after returning our mugs did we realise that we could take cream and sugar from the counter top. (We were a bit worried to think of that), we only breathed a sigh of relief when the guy at the nearby tourist centre told us that we did not cross the ZTL area and had stopped few meters away from it!

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Montepulciano like most other towns in the area welcomes you with an arch with shops and eateries on either side of the cobbled roads. It is a car free path and you can walk along musing the architecture, feasting and exploring the town.

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We then drove to Pienza, another beautiful town in the province of Siena. There is always a church to explore in every town. 
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It was quite cold and windy and sometimes I tried to find shelter to shield myself whereas Shibin enjoyed clicking away the fascinating towns and the landscapes. 

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The photographer in him found a yellow scooter which he could simply not resist clicking!

We simply have no words to describe the landscape of Val d'Orcia. Photos do no justice to this place. You need to be in the place to feel it which why UNESCO has classified this area as a World Heritage site signifying its importance the development of landscape thinking today. 

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A vast spread of cultivated green plains, occasionally broken off by a farm house is Val d'Orcia for you.

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Bagno Vignoni, a small village situated atop a hill was our final destination for the day. The uniqueness of this place is a thermal spring right at the center of village. The artistic, apparition like human creations out of net around the rectangular tank enclosing the spring is also equally captivating.

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Shibin had enough of touristy places and decided to try one of those non- touristy villages. We decided to stop by the next town that we pass by.  Soon after we saw the board to Petroio and decided to go for it. The place looked like a loop of forts on top of the hill. It was getting dark by the time we stopped at Petroio. We parked at the designated parking area and walked up the steps. It was very silent and deserted with sounds of men talking from far off. Combined with the cold and dusk, the place had an eerie feel. We took one peek and retraced our steps.

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 It felt haunted and I could not wait to get back into the safety of the car.

After a long drive back to Sinalunga, we had pizzas at a popular joint in Sinalunga. Those were by far the best pizza and the biggest pizzas we ever had. 

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We ordered two regular pizzas and we had tons of it leftover for breakfast the next day!!

Umbria was our target destination for the third day. Perugia and Assisi being our intended stops. The sky was overcast in the morning and sure enough droplets of water began pelting down the windows soon. It got all the more cold and it all added to the excitement to hit the countryside once again. 

Perugia is a medieval city covering a hilltop and few adjacent valleys. The roads here are quite narrow and even more harder was it to find parking spot. 

We managed to find one and up we walked to the hill. 
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To satiate the hunger that surfaced from the walk, we snacked on Arancini ( stuffed rice and cheese balls coated in bread crumbs and deep fried) 

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and a cold cut panini!
The look of Perugia is different from that of Tuscany towns owing to its medieval architecture. The arch that welcomes us leads to a path bordered by eateries and then to steps that lead to the piazza. It is a good walk along and mind you, you have an equally good walk back down the hill to the car!

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As we drove to Assisi, the clouds got thicker and darker. And soon it started to rain heavily, I had small butterflies in my stomach. My apprehensions proved baseless as we made our way easily across slippery roads. 

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The Basilica of St Francis of Assisi looked beautiful with the grey clouds lining the sky giving it an aura that precedes anything we have seen.  
There is lower Basilica that hosts the tomb of St Francis and an upper Basilica. No photos are allowed inside the Basilica. Every church in Italy is beautiful and has so much artistical and architectural value. This Basilica is no less with friars sitting at corners and praying which offers such a sanctified, blessed feeling to the place. 

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After a tour through the Basilica, we walked by the town of Assisi - an ideal place to shop for religious souvenirs.

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It was time to call it a day and return to our farm house to join our host in cooking Italian food. I learnt to roll out pasta from scratch, bake cantucci - recipe already on the blog and make pretty edible baskets out of Parmesan cheese. After all the cooking, we took a walk in the nearby woods to make appetite for the dinner that awaited us. This was our last night in the farm and over dinner we spoke about India and Dubai while they entertained us with their life in Italy.

The next day morning after bidding good bye to our hosts, we set out to Florence to return the car and take the train to Pisa. Enroute, we had plans to stop by Siena, another scenic destination. We reached Siena and I simply refused to set foot out of the car. It was raining and the temperatures had hit 6 degree centigrade. The moment I opened the door, my teeth began chattering and my feet went numb that I closed the door right back. We had to abandon our plans and head back to Florence.

We returned the car and made it to the station to take the train to the next destination pondering over what is awaiting us in the final leg of our journey.

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