Our last morning in Florence: had to put the suitcases outside our door early. Boarded a large tour bus for the trip from Florence to Cortona, located in the southern most region of Tuscany. (Cortona was the town made famous by Francis Mayes’ “Under the Tuscan Sun”.) Our itinerary had us spending the day in Siena before arriving at our hotel in Cortona. Everyone in our group was eager to spend the remaining three nights of our trip in the beautiful Tuscan countryside.
Siena is described as “cinnamon colored” and that is a perfect description. It too is a hilltop medieval town that was one of the major stops for pilgrims on their way to or from Rome. Even in the rain, the warm colors of the buildings can be seen for miles as you approach. Our cooking lesson for the day was held at the home of Constanza, a noblewoman who is a descendant of Pope Pius. […..hmmm, ok, go ahead and wonder (as we did): “how can someone be descended from a pope”???…..]
One of the unique aspects of Classic Journeys Culinary Tours is that each of the cooking sessions is held in a different location. This is a great way to meet local people in their homes and see how they live. Constanza has a large, expensive, 13th century 3-story home in the heart of the city. It is filled with antiques and unique collections. Look at the photo of her kitchen below: tucked in among the many dishes is a 3 ft. tall marble horse head! In every direction we turned, there was an interesting display of items, many hundreds of years old. Even a trip to her bathroom yielded a display of antique hats and garments.
The kitchen table was loaded with beautiful produce, herbs and pasta waiting to be transformed into our lunch. By now, our favorite antipasti was tomato bruschetta and Constanza’s version did not disappoint. What surprised us is how much olive oil is used in Tuscan dishes: whereas we lightly drizzle our bruschetta in the U.S., they pour on a healthy amount. And it is so good! Next, she surprised us with raw Italian pork sausage mixed with some goat cheese spread on crostini. We were assured that the quality of the pork sausage was such that you could indeed eat it raw. Chick peas were used in the soup and also in the pasta dish. The main course was veal carpaccio, dredged in flour and lightly fried with an artichoke topping. Another surprise: Italian artichokes have no choke: you can cut up the whole thing.
The long table in her living room was set for 18, the yellow walls cast a warm glow in the gloomy rainy afternoon, and to add to the mellow atmosphere: Constanza’s own private label wine! Dessert was a lemony torte and nut biscuits, served with limoncello. Ahhh… was it nap time? NO – time to go walking around the city of Siena with a local resident who is an official tour guide of Siena. We donned our raincoats and ventured out.
The city is set around a large open central square called the Piezza del Campo. Usually, there would be hundreds of people sitting on the cobblestones and socializing, but the steady rain chased everyone under the awnings of the cafes that ring the square. The famous Palio horse race occurs annually in the square.
The crowning glory of Siena is the Duomo. It was built in the 12th and 13th centuries and has a striking facade of white, dark green (black), and red marble. The red marble comes from Siena. The statues on the lavish Italian Gothic style facade represent prophets, philosophers, and apostles. Almost all are copies: the originals are kept in the “crypt of the statues”. There is a very old man in town who is the sole restorationist for all of Siena’s ancient buildings (see him in his shop below). The cathedral tower, with its zebra striped appearance, is the highest structure in town and dominates Siena’s landscape. The same unusual black and white stripes repeat themselves on the columns inside the cathedral. It was a shame we didn’t see the interior: it is one of the most magnificent cathedrals in Tuscany with works by Donatello, Bernini and Michelangelo.
We boarded the bus in the late afternoon for the 1 1/2 hour ride to Cortona. With the rain still falling, and limited visibility, AND the effects of yet another amazing meal still with us, most folks opted for a little nap! When we neared our destination and the bus began a series of hairpin turns climbing up and up to the hilltop village, we began to realize what a FABULOUS view our hotel would afford us, as every room faces the valley and Lake Trasimeno. It was a little scary negotiating the narrow curves with the full sized tour bus, but our cheery driver Leonardo was a pro. He and Francesco kept up a non-stop animated dialogue for most of the trip, complete with hand gestures (yes; he was very good at one- handed driving )!
Happily, the rain stopped as we checked into our rooms at the lovely Villa Marsili. The hotel dates back to the 8th century and was recently restored with special attention paid to its original style and architectural characteristics. (There is still one original staircase!) Each window of the villa offers breathtaking views, and the guestrooms are filled with antique furniture. The view from our window almost caused me a little vertigo! As in most European hotels, our “king size” bed was 2 twin beds pushed together. See the photo below of the “angels” on our headboard 🙂
Dinner was on our own (for the only night of the tour). When we met in the lobby, a small “Italian style happy hour” was set up in the adjacent parlor: an alcoholic punch with assorted nibbles. Shortly after, Luciano walked us up the steep hill to the center of town and pointed out a few restaurants. Kathy, Alan, Sarah, and Mike and I opted for a little bar that had a cozy wine cave in the back. I was very content just ordering riboletta for dinner: a vegetable soup thickened with bread. It was delicious! Upon returning to the hotel, another late night treat awaited us. We sat in the parlor for about a half hour and enjoyed some biscotti and the traditional sweet wine to dip it in. Another perfect ending to a perfect day.
Day three photography notes: it rained much of this day. It wasn’t conducive to taking many photos. By this time, I’d truly decided another trip to Tuscany was warranted in the future. How I’d love to wander longer – in nicer weather – and photograph different views of Siena and also see the inside of the cathedral.