I had signed up for Italy on a Budget’s Taste of Tuscany day trip after being offered a small discount while booking my wine tasting trip into Chianti. I spent the morning exploring Florence, but had caught most of the highlights and was ready to head back out into the Tuscan countryside for a few hours.
The drivers were the same as yesterday and I managed to snag a front seat this time, where Nico decided I needed to learn how to drive a standard. Hey, if you’re on a Tuscan day trip that includes wine tasting… why not learn how to drive a standard while you’re at it? I had asked about availability the night before because there are a couple of Australian women I had met on the Busabout trip that I felt would have wanted to come along, but the trip was sold out. When I arrived at the Italy on a Budget office, I was happy to see that they had found the tour on their own and were joining us.
Our first stop was in Monteriggioni, another small hill town. Well, maybe town isn’t the correct description. It’s a former medieval castle that contains a miniscule village that takes about five minutes to walk through. There were a few artists workshops, a small chapel, some wine shops and, of course, a gelateria. We could also spend €2 to climb the medieval wall and peer out into the countryside, but I opted against that. Nico told us about a decent scenic overlook and I could spend my €2 on a glass of wine later. Sold!
Finishing up in Monteriggioni, we stopped for a few scenic photos taken from a farmer’s field. We looked down and, confident we weren’t killing any freshly planted crops, we headed off to take some photos of the scenic castle-turned-village. I was the only person who had booked solo onto the trip but I spent most of the day hanging out with the Australians, which was perfect.
I had been promised some wine tasting and a visit to the Lornano winery was next on the agenda. We were met by the personable owner, who walked us through the production process – starting with when the grapes arrived for de-stemming. The garden surrounding the tasting room and the winery itself was beautiful, but there were no vines in sight. One of the girls asked where the vines were, which I think was lost in translation a bit, but the answer was apparently “across the street.”
One thing I noted was just how much I learned during wine school. I had, and still have, a few criticisms relating to the Algonquin program but there were a lot of questions being asked to the owner that I could answer with ease. I later helped to clarify a few things with some people and there were a few questions directed my way once people realized I knew a little bit about wine. I also enjoyed how, during the tasting, he didn’t tell people how to hold the glass like yesterday and that he focused more on the wine itself than the appearance. His tasting methodology was similar to my own, starting with a physical examination of the wine (colour, rim, viscosity, etc.) before moving onto the aromas.
We tasted three red wines, including a very drinkable table wine, before moving onto a Vin Santo. There were, unfortunately, no cookies served with this wine, but I still think I preferred it to yesterday’s. The one I had at Torciano reminded me a bit too much of sherry to be truly enjoyable and while the one at Lornano spent longer in oak, I found it less oxidized.
Another point of interest for me was that absolutely everything in Italy is under cork. I’ve had a couple of screw cap wines from France, usually in the lower price ranges, so I thought that there might be some of that in Italy as well. This assumption, or theory, proved to be incorrect. Nico told me, and I have yet to do additional research on this, that cork is necessary under many of the seemingly indecipherable Italian wine laws.
Our last touristic visit of the day was to Siena, probably one of Tuscany’s most famous towns. We had stopped outside of the city with Busabout while on en route to Florence, but we didn’t have a chance to explore or really see the town as their drop off was a campsite on the outskirts. The guides parked our vans in a parking lot just outside the main town and we trekked in on a mostly uphill route, going on a quick walking tour past many of the main sights. We finished off in Siena’s main square, home to the famous Palio race which is held on a Saturday in both July and August.
The Palio is a bareback horse race, traditionally held between the 17 different districts of Siena. Each district is represented by a distinct animal, either real or mythical, and there would be a horse from each district competing. The race, however, has changed with the times as there are now only 10 horses which compete (chosen randomly, if I understood correctly) and the horses now race on a track of sand that is laid down before each race. This is easier on the animals as some of the turns are quite tight and the cobblestone streets can be slippery. An interesting bit of trivia with respect to the race is that the horse wins, with or without its jockey.
Everyone tried the traditional Italian apertivo, a drink that I have spotted in more than a few afternoon glasses. You had two choices, Aperol or Campari, with the latter being the most bitter, but the base of gin, soda water and ice was the same. I opted for the Aperol as I really am not a fan of either gin or bitter things, and I definitely made the right choice. The Australians opted for the Campari apertivo and it was supposed to have an orange flavour but it was really much more like a particularly sour grapefruit.
We had some free time to wander Siena but didn’t venture too far away, instead taking a look through some of the shops. This town is also famous for its fruitcake like desserts, which proved to be quite different than we had expected. Pieces were served by weight and priced by the kilogram – it was €29.90 per kilo of cake and even though they appeared to be dense, I think that anyone who purchased a kilogram of this cake would be remorseful the next day. The cake was much chewier than expected, almost as if it wasn’t baked all the way through. We were in a locally famous bakery, so I’m confident that they had the preparation of this particular treat mastered, therefore we could only conclude that the cake was supposed to be doughy. Not necessarily something I would either recommend or purchase again.
After a bit of trouble getting out of the parking lot, we were en route towards the Tuscan farmhouse where we were promised a local meal. Our would-be host, Johnny, apparently spoke little to no English and therefore we were all assigned Italian names that were close enough to our real names that we wouldn’t forget. It was hilarious and Johnny took a shine one of the Australian women, calling out her Italian name and bringing her a heaping plate of seconds. Nico and Fanfa had warned us that we had to eat everything put in front of us as, otherwise, Johnny would be offended. This included drinking his homemade wine, sampling the grappa and limoncello and digging into the vat of pasta he had prepared. Challenge accepted!
Italian menus are often a bit confusing to travellers as they have appetizers, first plates, second plates and then the desserts. If an Italian is going to have a big meal, it will happen at lunch. Once we sat down to dinner it was after 9pm and I was a bit concerned that we would be loaded with food, plied with wine and stuffed to the gills – and I would be on the road in less than twelve hours! Nico explained that we would be having a heaping first course, move onto the pasta and then finish off with espresso, grappa or limoncello – or a combination thereof.
Johnny was a true gem, enthusiastically greeting everyone and ensuring that our wine glasses were always full. Our first course consisted of many Italian favourites – cured meats, cheese, a salad with homemade croutons, some bread with olive oil and bruschette. Cleaning this plate was not an issue as everything – and I mean everything – was delicious. I even ate the red onions which were cut into small, manageable pieces. He cleared our plates, with some assistance from the guides, before re-emerging in an apron proudly adorned with some Canadian, New Zealand and Australian flag pins.
Our second course was going to be a spaghetti with some homemade tomato sauce. The sauce had already been prepared, but Johnny had to boil the noodles for us and during the short wait he circulated in the group, filling glasses and checking on Maria – the Australian woman he seemed to have his eye on.
Johnny came out with one of the largest stockpots I have ever seen, obviously eager to prove his mettle as a host. Heaping plates of spaghetti and tomato sauce were handed out, with portion size differing based on boys and girls, and we were promised – threatened? – that there was much more where it came from. We were told to wait for a few seconds before eating and were not cheated – Johnny came out with a huge hunk of parmesan cheese, generously grating it onto our plates before we were given leave to dig in.
The meal finished – with no leftovers, as per orders – and the plates were cleared away. It was time for the after dinner treats, starting with freshly made espresso and moving onto grappa and limoncello, both made by Johnny and available for €5/bottle, if we were so inclined. I tried both, starting with the grappa which is basically just a hard liquor made with leftovers from the vinification process. Limoncello was, in my opinion, the better choice and was much easier to sip.
Late in the evening, later than our expected return, we all piled into the vans and headed back to Florence. I had to be up bright and early in the morning, ready to join up with Busabout at 8am, but was convinced to join our guides and a large group to visit their local bar which was going to be permanently closing… and was located very close to both their office and my hostel. Prices were very flexible and I asked the bartender/owner to make me whatever he recommended as I chatted with some other travellers, our guides and their friends.
I made it back to the hostel much, much later than planned. Good thing I had a few hours on the bus the next morning – I would definitely have to catch up on some sleep!