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Reveling in Tuscany

By Amy Lively Jensen

Who wouldn’t love staying in a fairy-tale castle, exploring top wineries and tastings, enjoying treasured art and savoring fantastic food?  This is what awaits you in the Tuscany region of Italy. Sharing our travel experiences for this article brings back phenomenal memories.

We began our Tuscany adventure in Florence, home to some of the greatest art and architecture in the world. Instead of racing from museums to galleries, I recommend that you focus on the “must-see” sights in Florence, then leaving plenty of time to soak in the ambience and wander around the city’s wonders.

Even if you’re not a devoted art lover, you must visit the Uffizi Gallery. It holds the greatest collection of Italian paintings on earth, spanning masters from the 12th through 17th centuries. Most note-worthy is Venus revered as the epitome of beauty. “The Birth of Venus” is a Sandro Botticelli painting from 1485 was unlike any other painting of its time. It was designed to be hung above the marital bed and was a daring celebration of human desire. The painting was so controversial that it was kept behind closed doors for half a century. It’s a surreal experience to see the room that’s got enormous Botticelli paintings all over the walls; you feel like you’re in the paintings. While at the Uffizi, be sure to seek out the nice rooftop café with views over the Piazza.

You can take a break from art and people-watch in the Piazza della Signoria. This gorgeous open-air plaza is in the “front yard” of what was once the ruling Medici family home: the Palazzo Vecchio with a life-size “David” replica regaling its entrance. To the right is a fantastic outdoor sculpture gallery. Nearby you can indulge in superb gelato. After tasting the creamy seasonal flavors such as fig and sour cherry, you may want to partake once (or maybe twice) a day. One of the oldest and best gelato shops in Florence is Vivoli Gelato (www.vivoli.it). The best gelato is handmade in small batches in covered tubs. But avoid food-dye offerings in vivid pinks or bright greens-which you will not find at Vivoli.

We joked that all roads lead to the Duomo, the centerpiece of the city. Its spectacular dome is taller than a football field and is the most stunning feature of the Florence Cathedral. If you don’t mind 463 steep steps plus some tight spaces, climbing to the top will reward you with incredible panoramic views. If you’re not out of breath, head to the adjacent bell tower for another spectacular view of the city and the Duomo itself. I had a goose bump moment when the bells were chiming as I contemplated the scenery below.

While there are many copies of Michelangelo’s “David” in Florence, only one is the original. The Accademia Gallery seems made specifically to show off this 12,000 pound, 17-foot tall masterpiece. Carved from a single abandoned block of marble 500 years ago, 26-year old Michelangelo captured remarkable details, for instance the intense expression in David’s eyes and veins in his muscles where it seems that his blood runs.

To get a perfect postcard view of Florence, head to the Piazzale Michelangelo. You gaze out over the crumbling city wall, the Duomo and Uffizi across the river. We went at sunset where the valley turns purple; it was an unforgettable panorama. Plan for ending another day with one more sunset at the Ponte Vecchio bridge. It looks over the Arno River and shows an incredibly sweet and romantic view of Florence. Known as the “old bridge,” the first bridge here was built in 966. It is characterized by three arches and wide arcades on each side that house famous, unusual and very expensive gold jewelry shops.

You must take a stroll through Florence’s famous leather markets. In the San Lorenzo market, you’ll see hundreds of jackets flapping in the breeze with the musky aroma of leather wafting into the air. The choices of leather gifts are nearly overwhelming, and the quality and prices vary greatly. If you are interested in a pricey purchase, it is worthwhile to research how to choose quality leather. I chose cashmere-lined leather gloves which made wonderful Christmas gifts.

After wandering through the gauntlet of leather stalls, you can take a turn through the fabulous Mercato Centrale. This indoor market has countless food vendors selling wine, fruit, meat, fish, cheese, olive oil and spices. It is frequented by locals as much as tourists. If you need a food souvenir to bring home, try the olive oil, dried pasta or shrink-wrapped cheese.

In addition to gelato, there are several “must-try” foods in Florence. Pick up a bag of Cantucci, tiny biscotti made with almonds. These twice-baked little gems are lovely dunked in your morning cappuccino, evening expresso or in the local dessert wine known as Vin Santo. Cinghiale, or wild boar is a local treasure. If you enjoy pig, you’ll definitely like this gamier version in a ragu. This boar-based sauce is most likely served over Pappardelle, a wide noodle common here. Olive oil here has a delicate taste from olive groves that are said to be 600 years old. In Tuscany, olive oil isn’t a luxury, but rather a necessity, present at every meal. For serious carnivores, try Bistecca alla Fiorentina. This is a T-bone steak that weighs in at well over a pound; it’s brought to diners with the meat hanging over the edges of the plate.

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We left the city for the Chianti Classico Wine Region. Less than an hour’s drive from Florence, we came to an area that has miles and miles of hill-topped medieval villages and valleys covered in vines and olive groves. I realized a childhood dream of living in a castle when we stayed at Castello Di Gabbiano (www.castellogabbiano.it) in San Casciano. Set amidst miles of vineyards, the imposing structure with turrets on each corner was just what I had imagined. Established in 1124, it was graced with spacious rooms, serene lawns and a pool with a panoramic view. Our room was decorated with antiques and beautiful art. Even the bathroom was special; the walls and ceiling were a towering brick turret. Their 4-star restaurant, Il Cavaliere was outstanding. It featured lighter versions of traditional Tuscan recipes. Our entertainment was a talented opera singer; I’ll never forget that evening under the stars. While there, we took a cooking class where I volunteered to assist the very patient chef in making pasta and gnocchi. Their newest brand of wine is Cavaliere d’ Oro, which we enjoyed poolside.

This castle was a perfect location for visiting nearby cities. We had wanted to take an electric bike to tour wineries. I researched thoroughly and found “On the Road in Chianti” (www.ontheroadinchianti.com) which had the best price and reviews. While booking it, I asked owners Simona Merlini and her husband Alessio many questions about sightseeing without a car. I learned that there were no taxis, buses or trains that conveniently went to towns we wanted to see. Unbelievably, she offered to drive us and show us “her Tuscany.”  As their company offered bike tours and rentals (which was so much fun), she hadn’t been a tour guide to towns outside the area. She was the best guide we could have imagined!

One of Simona’s favorite spots was Siena, a Tuscan hill town that transports you back to the Middle Ages. We strolled through the gorgeous Piazza del Campo with its fish tale design of red brick surrounded by stores, restaurants, the town hall and civic museum. We admired the Fonte Gala, a splendid marble fountain in the heart of the city. We were stunned by Siena’s most magnificent treasure, the unbelievable Duomo (cathedral). Its ornate façade of white and greenish-black marble in alternating stripes is one of the most incredible churches I’ve ever seen. The complex houses a museum, Crypt and Baptistry with stunning mosaic tile floors. We strolled through the pedestrian-only Old Town of Siena with its tiny, winding streets lined with flags and wonderful shops, bars and restaurants. Being a truffle lover, I was ecstatic to go to Siena Truffles (www.sienatartufi.com); the aroma greeted me even before we went in. A small but lovely shop, I swooned over samples of truffle creams, oils, pastas, cheeses, mustard, salt, and sauces. I loaded up with truffle everything, even truffle cheese to sprinkle over popcorn.

We drove through the picturesque countryside to several little towns. Radda, which dates back to 2000 BC, had a peaceful atmosphere. Following the medieval cobblestone walkways, we explored this well-restored village with tunnels filled with shops. Greve is the gateway to Chianti. Its famous triangular-shaped square has arched walkways with numerous stores selling wine, ceramics, artisan products and all kinds of local food.

 

Panzano in Chianti is a quiet village surrounded by city walls that are almost totally intact. It was here that we had the most unique dinner. Antica Macelleria Cechini (www.dariocecchini.com) is a butcher shop and restaurant passed down through eight generations for over 250 years. As they say, it is not recommended for people of little appetite. There is a spirit of celebration as you sit at communal tables and are served course after course of beef. The placemat shows you which of the six parts of the cow you are eating, served with flavorful Tuscan beans (I had 3 servings), baked potato, Tuscan bread and ever-flowing casks of red wine.

There is a certain magic surrounding the legendary owner Dario Cechini. What a character! He picked one diner up under his huge arm, leaving his feet dangling and prompting hoots of laughter. He is one of the most famous butchers in the world with an appearance on the Netflix show “No Reservations” and a book. His infectious enthusiasm inspires his staff to entertain diners with hilarious antics. Our waiter wore goggles and pink Crocs, and a server cooking over an open pit wore a t-shirt saying “Carne diem.”

The wineries in Chianti are world famous. In the midst of an area of Renaissance architecture, Antinori Winery (www.antinori.it) was a striking contrast. Its futuristic-looking building has a stupendous spiral staircase made of 105 tons of steel. The Antinori Winery is known as an architectural monument to wine. The wines are first rate which we loved with lunch on their beautiful patio.

Villa Machiavelli Winery (www.villamachiavelli.it) and luxury hotel is a revitalized 15th century home decorated with Renaissance frescoes and offers views of the Duomo in Florence which is eight miles away. Captivating wines accompanied our delectable lunch on a flower-filled patio and the guitar music was a delight.

Castello Vicchiomaggio (www.vicchiomaggio.it) is a winery, hotel and restaurant located inside a beautiful Renaissance castle on a hill overlooking the valley of the Greve river. Dating back to the 14th century, Leonardo da Vinci was a guest here while painting the Mona Lisa. Tasting top notch Chianti Classicos, Riservas and Super Tuscans when touring the impressive wine cellars was exceptional.

 

We only visited a sliver of Tuscany, which fuels our desire to return. The experience was magical; I wish for you to experience it, too.

Chicago Wine Press