Tuscany - An Italian Delight
by William Condon, WTA President, Business
& Leisure Traveler
Sunflowers are a
familiar site in the Tuscan countryside.
Photo courtesy of Stephano Caporali
When traveling, the experience of sights, sounds, smells, accommodations
and of course the cuisine are the things that make a trip memorial
and worth repeating. The pleasures of traveling in Tuscany definitely
fall in the "worth repeating" category. Warm peaceful days with
languid skies and scented breezes wafting over olive groves, fields
of sunflowers and grape vineyards provide a setting that is very
hard to duplicate.
Some of the best memories are the sumptuous meals and wines that
abound throughout the region. The locals all have their favorite
wines and places to dine and we tried many of their recommendations.
We also dined at several roadside “restorante’s” and we were not
disappointed with any of them. Naturally, there were some exceptional
dining experiences that we will touch on later in the article.
A trip to Tuscany can be greatly enhanced by reading Frances
Mayes Under the Tuscan Sun and
also some of the many writings on the Medici family that can be
found in your local library. Frances Mayes puts you in the proper
mood to really enjoy what Tuscany has to offer and provides much
helpful information as well. We didn’t read Frances Mayes second
book, Bella Tuscany, but did have available
a well written article based on an adaptation of the book, from
the National Geographic Traveler. Also, Fodor’s has many guidebooks
including one on Tuscany that we recommend.
Traveling in Tuscany from our perspective is best by private
automobile. The roads are generally in good condition, although
considerably more narrow than Americans are accustomed too. Also,
for the adventurous there are many less well-marked by-ways that
lead to interesting and unusual places. Our approach was to have
one person as the driver and another acting as the navigator. Some
might like to switch off, but we found that by staying with the
same driver and navigator throughout our stay each acquired a very
workable knowledge of the roads and signs. Our navigator, John Hayes,
did an absolutely superb job in getting us to where we wanted to
go and also to some really out of the way places that only the locals
know about. His navigation skills allowed us to travel on some roads
that the less adventurous would not attempt.
We arrived in Tuscany after spending 10 days in France and 4
days in Venice. As a result, we were well acclimated to the time
change and had been driving in Europe most of the time. We departed
Venice mid-morning in a rental car, with an objective to arrive
at our Villa by late afternoon. The major highways are much the
same as the freeways in America after you adjust to the speed, signs
and spelling in Italian. We recommend that you have good maps, including
the Michelin 429 and 430 as well as maps of any cities that you
plan to visit. We also had a map of Chianti that had been provided
by a friend from Florence which we would like to have duplicated,
but could not find even at the tourist bureaus.
From Venice (Venezia) we followed the A-4 to Padova, then the
A-13 to Bologna. There we picked up the A-1 to Florence (Frienze)
and beyond to Valdarno. Once past Florence, we were entering Chianti
country with many fields of sunflowers as well as olive groves and
vineyards. We exited the motorway A-1 at Valdarno and took 408 toward
Siena. The traffic was relatively light, by Italian standards, as
it was a Saturday morning. The roadside rest areas were busy and
offered a variety of services including fuel, ATM, restrooms and
a well stocked small grocery store. Throughout Italy, the restrooms
require payment for use by the ladies and often for the men. Generally
it is .50 Euro so it is a good idea to keep a good supply of Euro
coins on hand for this purpose. Also, the restrooms are staffed,
which assures in most cases cleanliness, so tipping is expected.
The dollar goes a long way in Italy; so being generous was our motto
with regard to all service people.
Our destination “Villa La Selva” is near Montebenichi in the
Bucine area. Our route from Valdarno continued through wine, olive
and sunflower country and passed through Levane, Bucine and Ambra
before arriving at Villa La Selva. On the way, we stopped in Bucine
to visit the local grocery store and pick up some supplies. The
store was well stocked with the items we desired including mineral
water, paper supplies, wine, breakfast cereals, eggs, bread etc.
Including this and other stops, we managed to make the trip from
Venice to La Selva in less than seven hours.
La Selva, is a large estate dating from the early 1200’s that
once belonged to the powerful Medici family. It became the property
of the brothers, Riccardo and Sergio Carpini in the 1950’s. Each
of the brothers operates separate aspects of this large estate with
both offering villas and other accommodations. In addition, wine
making in the family dates to 1245 when friar Geovanni Carpini was
sent by Pope Innocent IV to the Emperor of Cathay bearing a gift
of rare Tuscan grape rootstock. The estate also features vast fields
of sunflowers and beautifully maintained olive groves.
The villas at La Selva range from a one bedroom honeymoon suite
“Libreria” to an eleven bedroom, eleven bath farmhouse “Villa Felciaci”
which also boasts it’s own private pool. Our accommodations were
in a two-bedroom two-bath villa, “Terrazza” with a large terrace.
While the other accommodations at Villa La Selva especially those
offered by Sergio were in good condition, “Terrazza” was very much
in need of renovations, especially the bathrooms and kitchen. While
this was a disappointment to us, we didn’t let it affect our Tuscan
When we arrived at Terrazza, by prior arrangement our hostess,
Sherry Carpini, had arranged for a cook to prepare our first meal
in Tuscany. What a treat this was! We enjoyed an absolutely delicious
dinner, prepared in the Tuscan country style, by Maria, a lovely
young lady who’s English was limited to only a few words. Never
mind, it didn’t affect her excellent culinary skills or our ability
to enjoy what she prepared.
Accompanying our meal was a local Chianti in plain unlabeled
bottles that had been provided by our host Riccardo. It was from
a local vineyard that does not sell commercially and you bring your
own bottles to be refilled. While touching on local wines, Riccardo’s
brother Sergio operates the vineyards and winemaking at La Selva
along with his superb winemaker Stefano Chiocciali. Among the excellent
wines they produce are “Selvamaggio IGT” a very deep and powerful
Cabernet Sauvignon and “Felciaia IGT” another full-bodied yet soft
red that has been described as “Tuscany in a glass”.
Although the pleasures of dining are a significant draw to the
Tuscany region, the people, the history, architecture and natural
beauty thoroughly round out the experience. Each day we ventured
out to visit a different town or special attraction. We began the
week by attending church in the small town of Montebenichi. While
there we were treated to a tour of the hotel “Castelletto Di Montebenichi”
and discovered a very fine little restaurant “L’Oreciaia”.
The hotel is a non-smoking four-star hotel with only nine rooms.
It has most of the amenities of a large city hotel situated in an
ancient town of only a few hundred people. It sits high over the
olive groves and vineyards of what is considered “Chianti Classico”.
The hotel has been fully renovated and features large double rooms
for $230 to $280 per day including a buffet breakfast and drinks
from the in room mini-bar and at the “bar corner”. Drinks poolside
The restaurant, “L’Oreciaia” is not part of the hotel and sits
adjacent to the hotel and church, across the town square. It is
very small and reservations are definitely a must. The food and
service are excellent in a warm and cozy atmosphere. The name means
the place where olive oil is stored in terracotta jars.
The winding roads of the Chianti region pass through many old
and charming towns and by many wineries, castles and pottery shops.
Most of the latter offer tours and the wineries often have tasting.
Many also produce and offer olive oil for sale as well. One of the
towns that we found quite charming was the hill town of Radda. Along
with much of Tuscany, Radda was strongly influenced during the 13th
century by the Medici family. It is situated on a hill that separates
the Pesa valley from the Arbia valley. In the 1400’s it was made
into a Florentine fortress and became the major town in the Chianti
region. The ruins of the ancient defensive walls and lookout towers
are all that remain of the fortress.
Driving east and then south from Radda it is a very short distance
to Gaiole in Chianti. This town, surrounded by large estates was
an important agricultural marketplace during the middle ages. The
many castles in the area evidence the prosperity of the region.
By far the most impressive of these is the “Castello Di Brolio”,
which is just five miles south of Gaiole. This 12th century
castle underwent major reconstruction during the last century and
has been well maintained to the present day. There is a nominal
admission to tour the grounds. The self-guided tour is worthwhile
affording a commanding view of the countryside from the walkway
atop the massive walls. It is part of a 2000 acres wine making estate.
Interestingly for those who would like a country holiday, two very
large fully restored apartments in the Castle and nine others elsewhere
on the grounds of the estate, are offered for rent on a weekly basis.
The rental depends on the season and the apartment selected and
ranges from $1,300 to $4,000 per week.
Our most memorial dining experiences in Tuscany took place adjacent
to the Castello Di Brolio at “Osteria Del Brolio”. The owner-chef,
Seamus de Pentheny O’Kelly is an absolute delight. He not only overseas
the restaurant operation, but also prepares and serves each person’s
main course. He also operates on the premises a “Tuscan” cooking
school on Tuesdays and Fridays from 10AM until 12:30PM for groups
from 5 to 20. The cost is approximately $70 per person and includes
the course, lunch, all beverages and Chef O’Kelly’s recipes.
We didn’t take the course because of time constraints, but did
choose “Osteria Del Castello” as the place for our last Tuscan dinner
before departing. It was a wonderful and fitting way to end our
The next day, we drove to Florence and from there we traveled
to Paris and then Boston via Air France. Florence was another wonderful
experience as was Assisi.
To assist you in planning your Tuscan holiday, we are including
some helpful information and further details.
Foreign exchange, ATM, Credit Cards and telephones:
Italy is part of the EU and is now using the Euro as its currency.
At press time the exchange was 1.05 Euro to the dollar. The best
exchange rates are obtained by using your ATM card.
- ATM Cards - Machines are available
in all large cities and towns and in most small villages. Also,
the Motorway service areas have ATM’S. Plus and Cirrus are almost
always accessible so check to see if your card is supported
by one or both.
- Credit Cards - Most businesses accept
credit cards except for the small shops and some shops in small
towns. Visa and MasterCard are accepted at all establishments
that accept credit cards. When making large purchases, it is
best to use a credit card to gain the best exchange rate and
also to provide proof of purchase when applying for your VAT
refund and the end of your trip.
- Telephones - When dialing an Italian
telephone from the United States, you must first dial the international
code of 011, then the country code for Italy of 39, then the
city or region code say for Siena 0577, then the six digit telephone
number. If you are in Italy, you only dial the region or city
code if you are not in that region. For example if you are in
the Siena region making a call to a restaurant in the same region
you only dial the six digit number omitting the city/region
Places To Stay:
When looking at addresses for restaurants and accommodations,
it is important to understand that the address will have the name
of the region as well as the name of the town. The region name is
often the same as the largest city in the region, such as Florence
or Siena. The postal code in our addresses precedes the name of
the town and the region precedes Italy. Also the number of the street
address follows the name of the street.
- Frattoria La Loggia
Via Collina, 40 – 50020 Montefiridolfi, Florence, Italy
Phone: 39 0558 244288; Fax: 39 0558 244283
- Podere Casato
Strada Chiantigiana, 12 – 53019 Castelnuovo Berardenga, Siena,
Phone: 39 0577 352002; Fax: 39 0577 352900
- Castello Di Brolio
Brolio, - 53013 Gaiole in Chianti, Siena, Italy
This lovely castle books through several web sites and does
not list a telephone for booking.
- Castelletto Di Montebenichi
52021 Montebenichi, Bucine (Arezzo), Italy
There is no street address because this is a very small town.
Phone: 39 0559 910110; Fax: 39 0559 910113
- Borgo Monastero
Monastero d’Ombrone, 19 – 53019 Castelnuovo Berardenga, Siena,
Phone: 39 0290 960931; Fax: 39 0290 969365
- La Selva
Ambra Buchine, 35 – 52021 Montebenichi, Arezzo, Italy
Phone: 39 055 998056; Fax: 39 055 998198
Again, we caution that in all cases with these restaurants the region
name is not the town that the restaurant is located in.
- Osteria Del Castello Di Brolio (Our
Brolio, - 53013 Gaiole in Chianti, Siena, Italy
Phone/Fax: 39 0577 747277
- L’Orciaia (No street address, a
very small town)
52021 Montebenichi, Buchine (Arezzo), Italy
Phone: 39 0559 910067
No email or web address, but if you are booking room reservations
at Castelletto Di Montebenichi, they will make dinner reservations
- Ristorante Podere Casato
Strada Chiantigrana, 12 – 53019 Castelnuovo Berardenga, Siena,
Phone: 39 0577 352002; Fax: 39 0577 352900
- Ristorante La Mencia
Corso G. Matteotti, 85 – 53041 Asciano, Siena, Italy
Phone: 39 0577 718227; Fax: 39 0577 718206
- Ristorante del Pellegrina
Via del Paradiso, 1 – 53019 Castelnuovo Berardenga, Siena, Italy
Phone: 39 0577 355286
- Ristorante da Antonio
Via Firorita, 38 – 53019 Castelnuovo Berardenga, Siena, Italy
Phone: 39 0577 355321
- Caffe Enoteca IL Vecchio Granaio
Vicolo Degli Innocenti, 21 –53037 San Gimignano, Siena, Italy
Phone/Fax: 39 0577 941919
Many of the wines listed are available in wine shops throughout
the United States. One of our sources for good wines in the region
was Paul Mann, Wine World, Troy, MI. They
are importers and distributors of fine wines.
Ruffino Chianti Classico Riserva
Barone Ricasoli - Castello di Brolio Chianti Classico, Brolio Chianti
Villa La Selva - Selvamaggio IGT, Felciaia IGT
Terrabianca - Campaccio IGT, Campaccio Riserva IGT, Chianti Classico
Riserva “Croce” DOCG, Ceppate IGT
Toscolo - Chianti Classico DOCG