A memorable lunch at Avignonesi

I submitted this post to the contest organized by the Great Wine Capitals Network and I was among the finalists!

– I think that this might be our exit but I’m not sure-, I said tentatively. I could never tell whether the signs indicated an exit or a service area. I’m not a very good navigator and Italian road signs got the better of me every time.

– What does the sign say?-, my husband Sean asked.

– Cortona. But it has a petrol pump next to the name so I don’t know if it’s a service area or an exit.

We drove past the sign, which turned out to be the exit we needed to take to get to Avignonesi winery in Montepulciano. The 138 kilometre drive south from our agriturismo in Montespertoli had not gone very smoothly; road works on the autostrada forced us to take many detours and our GPS did not work well, if at all. We had to rely on maps, unclear road signs and sheer good luck. Getting lost was an integral part of our trip. The beauty of the rolling Tuscan hills in early spring, however, didn’t do much to soothe our nerves. This was our honeymoon and, like many newlyweds, we bickered a bit. Except we’d been married for a while.

A spring storm rolling in on the valley
A spring storm rolling in on the valley

Naively, we thought that we could drive a bit farther, take an underpass and go back. That was not to be. We had to go on for at least another 25 kilometres and then take inner country roads all the way back to the Cortona exit. Only then did we find the winery.

We were 45 minutes late for the tour. A very sympathetic member of the winery’s staff said that even Italians got lost trying to get there too and that we were not to worry. She kindly offered to take us to the Vinsantaia, the Vin Santo cellar, where we could catch the tail end of the guided tour. We joined the tour party as they were walking into the cellar.

Vin Santo is a dessert wine typical of Tuscany made with Malvasia and Sangiovese grapes. We learned that at Le Capezzine estate, the grapes are carefully harvested, selected and laid out on reed mats. Then they are pressed and the fermented must is stored in 50 litre caratelli (Slavonian oak kegs.) Two litres of mother yeast are added to each caratello and left to age for ten years. This makes the Vin Santo sweet, dense and stable. The cellar smelled of oak, yeast and the love and devotion with which the wine is made.

A view of Le Capezzine estate at Montepulciano
A view of Le Capezzine estate at Montepulciano

Afterwards, we were shown to the Foresteria, the light and airy dining room with beautiful views of orchards and rows of vines down the valley. We sat by ourselves in a corner table, away from the slightly noisy German tour party. The waiters were very attentive and knowledgeable. I think they liked us: we got a second pour here and there. It could have been the fact that we were on our belated honeymoon eight years after our wedding that endeared us to them.

This memorable lunch started with un benvenuto dallo chef, the Chef’s welcome: a glass of Il Marzocco Chardonnay Cortona DOC 2013, which woke our taste buds and made them ready for what was to come. For primo, first course, I chose the gnocchi with fresh fava beans and cherry tomatoes. The gnocchi were light and airy and the fava beans provided the right amount of freshness and piquancy. Sean had the pasta with lamb and eggplant sauce. The flavours were simply perfect; the lamb ragú was flavoursome but not overpowering. We washed it all down with an opulent Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOGC 2010 (Sangiovese) and a spicy Grifi Toscana IGT 2010 (Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese).

Foresteria, a dining room with a view
Foresteria, a dining room with a view

The secondi were just as delicious and enjoyable as the primi: filet of beef, perfectly seared on the outside and rare on the inside, with a wine sauce and a silky chickpea mousse with pecorino cheese sauce. The wines paired with these delectable dishes were a 50&50 Toscana IGT 2006 (Merlot, Sangiovese) and a Riserva Grandi Annate Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG 2007 (phew, that’s a mouthful!) I couldn’t say which wine I enjoyed more.

The star of the meal was the dessert wines, the Vin Santo and the Occhio di Pernice. Each of us chose a different wine so we could try both. The waiter poured a small amount of slightly chilled Vin Santo in a big snifter and tilted it. He told us to roll the glass gently and let the wine coat the sides while the legs formed on the crystal like golden tendrils. The Vin Santo was sweet and dense as it should be. Every small sip was a like a punch of flavor in the face. I had fresh strawberries with whipped mascarpone with it.

Occhio di Pernice and the Tentazione dessert sampler
Occhio di Pernice and the Tentazione dessert sampler

The Occhio di Pernice was an experience in itself. The waiter poured what seemed like a few drops that got lost in the snifter. Very slowly, it began to gather at the side of the tilted glass. If the Vin Santo was sweet and dense, the Occhio was even sweeter and denser, almost like molasses, with an intense depth of flavour. A couple of drops were enough to coat my mouth. It was cleverly paired with an assorted platter called Provocazione: fried sage leaves (unexpectedly delicious,) fresh goat cheese with poppy seeds, dried blood orange slices, dark chocolate with ginger, a spoonful of homemade blackberry gelato, a rosemary and walnut biscotto. Every flavor either contrasted or complemented the wine perfectly.

After this memorable experience, I was feeling lethargic and mesmerized by the spectacle of low storm clouds rolling in from above the valley. An espresso put an end to my wine and food induced stupor and gave me the energy I needed to continue exploring the Tuscan countryside. What a wonderful way to celebrate our marriage.
I am not affiliated with the company in any way whatsoever. This is an account of our experience.

Certaldo, hometown of Boccaccio in the Tuscan hills

On the drive back from San Gimignano to Montespertoli, where we were staying, we spotted a medieval fortified town (borgo medioevale in Italian) on top of a distant hill. We immediately decided to have a look. The name of that village was Certaldo and was touted as the hometown of Renaissance poet and humanist Giovanni Boccaccio. The author of the Decameron (b. 1313- d.1375) spent his life between Certaldo and Florence.

Certaldo Alto
Certaldo Alto

We were GPS-impaired at the time so we had to rely on street signs to find our way up the hill.  We had previously found out that Italian street signs are not totally reliable, if at all. We drove in circles around the town of Certaldo Basso (Lower Certaldo, an uninspiring modern town) until we were about to give up. At the last minute we saw an inconspicuous sign that pointed towards Certaldo Alto (Higher Certaldo.) The village was giving us a last chance.

We followed the arrow, which led us along a narrow country road that curved uphill among small farms and vineyards to the borgo medioevale. We left the car at the municipal parcheggio (parking lot) outside the walls and crossed the arch into the town.

My husband decided he’d done enough sightseeing for the day and settled in the mild spring sunshine to read and wait for me to do my thing. I went straight to the Casa Boccaccio museum.

The dark bricks are the original ones
The dark bricks are the original ones

The museum is located in the house where Giovanni Boccaccio lived at various times. It sustained heavy damage after a bombing during World War II and was faithfully restored since.  The museum is also the headquarters of the National Giovanni Boccaccio Society and houses a library dedicated exclusively to the poet’s life and work. Other than that, a fresco and some medieval shoes that Boccaccio may or may not have worn, the museum is devoid of original or even interesting objects.

The view from the top of the tower, however, is magnificent. The 360 degree view of Certaldo and the surrounding Tuscan countryside is well worth the 3 euro admission and the steep climb up and down.

Heavenly view
Heavenly view

Later, once my legs stopped cramping, I wandered up the street. A few dozen yards from where Boccaccio lived is his final resting place, the church of St. Jacopo and St. Filippo. The chunky, solid building dates back to the 12 and 13 centuries and is rather dark inside.

creepy creaky eerie
creepy creaky eerie

I pushed the creaky wood door open and adjusted to the semi-darkness and eerie silence. Although there was nobody else, I felt I wasn’t alone. I turned my head to my right and saw her. The sight made my hair stand on end: the Blessed Giulia lying in the crystal coffin, still wearing her 14th century nun habit, her empty sockets staring back. Just then the door creaked shut. I yelped and leaped to the door, yanked it open and went out into the sunlit street.

I cursed the Italian custom of displaying saints’ skeletons or relics inside churches. Whatever for? At least, give me fair warning.

A delicious chocolate gelato worked wonders with my frazzled nerves.

ceraldo

Certaldo is located in the hills of Tuscany (Italy) about an hour’s drive south of Florence. It is accessible by train as well as it’s on the Florence-Empoli-Siena line.

Postcards from Pisa

I’m trying to figure out how to operate the parking meter but my Italian isn’t good enough to understand the instructions. A young African street vendor comes up to me to try and help. I instinctively raise my hand to stop him. It makes me nervous when a stranger offers unsolicited help; I can’t help but think they’re going to rob me. I feel guilty as soon as he turns his back. A middle aged woman tells me, in English, that I need to enter the number plate.

I want to win the war on prejudice but I sometimes lose battles.

pisa

We walk toward the Campo dei Miracoli, the Field of Miracles, to see the famous leaning tower. The neighbourhood is rather touristy, with hotels, restaurants and tourist tat. I’m not sure I like Pisa. It’s small and squat (the Leaning Tower can be seen from the autostrada and it’s only 17 feet tall.) The outskirts are definitely ugly. Ugly buildings, houses, shops, signs, streets. To my mind, the place lacks the gilded glamour La Dolce Vita.

The sun sets over the Campo, the brisk breeze blows away the last of the clouds. There are quite a lot of people around, walking, looking around, chatting, photo bombing.  A few have their photos taken trying to “prop up” the tower. I think I’ll pass, thank you very much.

pisa

We stay long enough to visit the Duomo and sit down for coffee and delicious orange cream cannoli. This is the Italy I came for!

You need a ticket to visit each of the historic places: the cathedral, the cemetery, the baptistery and the tower. For some unknown reason, admission is free today. I’m not going to complain. The Duomo is imposing; however, I find that the interior is not quite so awe-inspiring except for the altar and apse. They are beautiful.

pisa

Later, we buy stamps from a newsagents and mail postcards to our families. In this day and age when everything is virtual and electronic, it’s nice to go old school and send handwritten postcards. The older generation of my family certainly appreciates this and it’s good to show the young’uns how people used to communicate.

 

 Pisa trivia

  • Construction of the tower began in 1173. Due to sandy subsoil and shallow foundations, it started to lean as early as the third story was built. Nonetheless, it was finished in 1350. It is called il Campanile, Italian for belfry.
  • The cathedral is clad in Carrara marble (the quarries are close by) and has Moorish and Lombard decorative elements.
  • The guy at the ticket office was in a foul mood (sucks to be him nah nah nah nah) . Be prepared to be ill-treated.

An afternoon in Siena

The brightly coloured prints lure me into the shop. The handmade postcards, cards and scrolls hark back to a past era. The artisan kindly allows me to have a peek in his studio, where I see how he works. He carries on the age-old tradition of illumination, which originated in medieval monasteries where monks copied and illustrated books by hand. I buy a few cards to keep as mementos.

The illuminator's studio
The illuminator’s studio

Walking along narrow winding streets, we finally manage to find the Duomo –cathedral-, not an easy feat when following unreliable street signs.

I look at the lines at the ticket kiosks. Is there a time of the year when there are not any crowds in Italy, I wonder? Four euros grant us access to the cathedral only, not including the museums. Fine by me, my brain is unable to absorb any more information and visual stimuli.

The magnificent cathedral of Siena
The magnificent cathedral of Siena

The interior of the cathedral is awesome in the true sense of the word. The black and white columns seem to soar towards heaven. Actually, it’s the ceiling, and a magnificent one at that. The mosaic floor deserves special attention too: scenes of the Bible, allegories and the like are represented using the graffito technique and marble intarsia (inlaid pieces of marble that make a figure).  Many mosaics are covered for most of the year and a few are on display, cordoned off to prevent wear.

Unlike the floor, we are worn out already with looking up at the ceilings, the works of art on the walls and the mosaics on the floor. We stop for lunch at the Taverna del Capitano (Via del Capitano 6/8). It’s housed in an ancient building and its stone vaulted ceilings, however pretty, do nothing to dampen the din. The pasta was very good, though.

The cathedral's main nave
The cathedral’s main nave

The backdrop of many a film scene, the Piazza del Campo is where the annual Palio is held, in July and in August. It is a horse race and festival that dates back to at least the 13th century. Each jockey represents one of the seventeen contrade (districts). We saw a small group of young men practicing their flag-throwing skills in the street. They seem to be very serious about the festival.

siena

There are quite a few people at the Piazza del Campo snapping pictures, eating ice-cream, even napping on the cobbled semicircular piazza. The piazza is surrounded by elegant buildings which saw their prime before the Black Death descended upon the city. I wonder what the city’s elders would think if they saw tourists strewn about the place. Would these inert bodies remind them of the times of the plague? Who knows. The city’s elders are long gone but their legacy is still here for us to enjoy.

Piazza del Campo (English) from Ana Astri-O’Reilly on Vimeo.

Genoa, our gateway to Italy

My impressions of Genoa in pictures

My most vivid memory of Genoa is the mopeds. They are everywhere: in front of your car, behind your car, around your car. They are like swarms of bees on steroids.
My most vivid memory of Genoa is the mopeds. They are everywhere: in front of your car, behind your car, around your car. They are like swarms of bees on steroids.
breakdown
Our GPS had a hiccup and sent us straight into a traffic jam created by a broken-down bus. The temperature of the engine kept going up and we had no choice but to pop the bonnet open and wait for it to col down. Passers-by stopped to snap photos or ask about the car’s make and model and many did a double-take, like “What’s that yellow thing over there?”
I tried to communicate with a traffic warden in a mixture of Italian, English and hand gestures. We managed to convey our message: me, how long it would take for this mes to clear up, him, to wait. OK!
calle angosta
We drove round and round trying to find our hotel, located in the historic centre. The worst bit was getting caught in the hellish one-way system a few times. We missed our turning (OK, my fault) because it didn’t look so much like a street you could drive in but a space between buildings. And once we turned into that street, Via al Ponte Calvi, we had to negotiate our way round restaurant tables and pedestrian, who scowled at us. What were we supposed to do???
calle angosta genova
Most streets in the ancient quarter were narrow (and some, even narrower) and the buildings seemed to close in on us.
trattoria
We had an excellent dinner at this trattoria called Le Maschere: melt-in-your-mouth prosciutto, delicious salami, a simple but wonderful dish of spaghetti in tomato sauce and vitello tonnato (veal in tuna sauce). Via al Ponte Calvi, 2
via lomellini
Via Lomellini was declared UNESCO’s World Heritage for its 16th and 17th century palazzi
ss annunziata
The gold leaf and frescoed ceiling of the basilica of Santa Annunziata del Vastato made a huge impression on me, it was magnificent.
Some parts were painted white and I though it was unfinished. As it turns out, the church sustained heavy damage during WW II air raids and those bits had been restored.
genoa
Some buildings were very beautiful. However, most were in need of a lick of paint or were so grimy that sandblasting was the only option. There was graffiti everywhere. Such a pity.