Buenos Aires, by Noelia Diaco. Photo is not visible, used only for sharing on social networks.

Europe 2015: Tuscany

November 9, 2015
tuscany hills countryside
Our Tuscany itinerary: Rent a car in Florence, spend one night in Siena and one night in Montalcino, pass through Pienza and drop the car off in Orvieto (see map at bottom). We were excited — a road trip through vineyards and medieval hill towns sounded perfect for us.

Of course, a road trip through Tuscany requires a car. It's never fun to rent a car in the U.S., so it was hardly surprising that renting a car in Italy was a nightmare. It took more than an hour for the Hertz agency in Florence to sort out our pre-booked reservation, and though we had requested the smallest car available, we instead received a monstrous Fiat 500L. With the manual transmission, Ben earned the role of designated driver. Many tourists opt to pick up their rental car at the airport because Florence limits where cars can drive within city limits and the fine totals hundreds of dollars for mistakenly driving in those zones. That meant we couldn't afford to take a wrong turn out of Florence, but aided by Google, Ben handled the traffic flawlessly and we successfully picked up the scenic road to Siena.

siena old city walls siena Palazzo Pubblico
Left: View from our hotel room of Siena's old city. Right: Siena's Palazzo Pubblico

One of Tuscany's largest medieval cities, Siena was originally established as a Roman colony by Augustus. It dominated southern Tuscany in the 12th and 13th centuries, controlling trade routes between France and Rome and maintaining Italy’s richest pre-Medici banks. But the Black Death struck in 1348, killing 50%-80% of the population. The city never fully recovered, and in 1557 it became part of Cosimo’s Grand Duchy of Tuscany. Much of medieval Siena still stands today because after its incorporation into the Florentine monarchy, little was built and little demolished. [1]

Siena is divided into 17 contrade, or areas of the city. Originally there were about 59 contrade; only 17 remain today. Each contrada has its own emblems, colors and flags, which are displayed prominently throughout Siena. Every person in Siena is born into a contrada. After dinner, we walked to il campo, the huge brick courtyard that hosts Siena's bi-annual bareback horse race. Known as the Palio, the race features a horse and rider from 10 of Siena's contrade (there's a system for figuring out who gets to compete each year). A thick layer of dirt is laid on the campo, and the horses race around the track three times. Normally the race lasts no more than 90 seconds and the horses commonly throw their jockeys from their backs. [2]

cathedral duomo siena

duomo siena gothic architecture duomo gothic architecture italy
duomo siena exterior facade
Duomo di Siena

The next morning, we toured Siena's Duomo. Built between 1215 and 1263, the Duomo is one of Italy's finest examples of Gothic architecture. The initial architects dreamed of building a church that would dwarf even St. Peter's in Rome. But the Black Death dashed those ambitions, the giant cathedral was never completed and the half-finished walls of the Duomo Nuovo survive as a monument to Siena's former ambition and lost prosperity. [3]

romulus remus statue
Statue of Romulus and Remus outside the Duomo di Siena

We then hopped back in our car for the 25-mile south to Montalcino, a hill town that dates back to Etruscan times. We ate simple sandwiches for lunch at a park overlooking the Tuscan hills.

montalcino southern tuscany
View from Montalcino

After lunch, we checked in to our agriturismo. This place was quite the departure from our normal lodgings — bath robes, tons of pillows, a gourmet breakfast with our own personal espresso pot and best of all, a beautiful pool overlooking vineyards. For the first time all trip, we relaxed for a few hours, swimming, reading and drinking the Vermentino we had bought in town.

Agriturismo Le Ragnaie
In general, we were a bit disappointed by the food in Tuscany and our dinner at Il Giglio in Montalcino was no exception. Plus the atmosphere was a little too stuffy for us. But it probably didn't help that Ben had a cold and couldn't taste anything (poor Ben). On the way home, we stopped briefly to listen to a "music circus," with a band playing 1970s rock hits.

This area of southern Tuscany is famous for its Brunello, a red wine made from Sangiovese grapes grown on the slopes around Montalcino. In hopes of protecting the quality and authenticity of its wine, Italy began developing wine classifications in the 1960s, modeled on the French appellation system. It first created the DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata), which created protected zones where vintners must adhere to strict regulations. However, fearing that the DOC certification had grown too lax, Italy introduced a new classification: DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita). In 1980, Brunello di Montalcino was awarded the first DOCG designation. [4]

We visited Il Palazzone, a Brunello-producing vineyard in Montalcino. Il Palazzone has to follow the strict rules that govern the production of Brunello. Those rules include: [5]
  • Grape variety: 100% Sangiovese Grosso
  • Maximum yield: 80 quintals per hectare
  • Yield of wine into grapes: 68%
  • Required aging: 2 years in oak, 4 months in bottle
  • Minimum alcohol content: 12.5%
  • Bottling: Can only be performed in the production zone
  • Market release: 5 years after the year of harvest
  • Color: intense ruby red, tending toward garnet with aging
  • Aroma: characteristic fragrance and intense
  • Flavor: dry, warm, a little tannic, robust, and harmonious

brunello montalcino wine
Cellar at Il Palazzone

After our tour and tasting, we stopped for lunch in the town of Pienza and walked around the central square created by the humanist Pope Pius II to demonstrate urban planning concepts and the principles of perfect design.

italy tuscany olive oil

Our tour of Tuscany complete, it was time to drive to Orvieto and drop off the car. We had two options: the autostrada or a state highway, both of which were supposed to take the same amount of time. We chose the more scenic state highway and were enjoying the drive until ... the road ended. There was no warning, nothing. It appears as if they failed to build the final mile connecting the two halves of the road. Of course it's possible that we missed a sign in Italian, but the whole time, we kept seeing signs that said we were headed to Rome, even though the road to Rome hadn't been built yet.

orvieto cable car
Cable car in Orvieto

The detour took a solid two hours, causing us to miss our train. Luckily, we had allocated plenty of time, dropped off our car, and took the cable car in Orvieto up to the old city to grab a bite.

Then we hopped on the next train to our final destination: Rome.

- Steph

[1] Rough Guide Italy
[2] Discovery Tuscany, "The Palio in Siena"
[3] Sacred Destinations, "Siena Duomo" 
[4] The Kitchn, "What's the Difference? DOCG, DOC, and IGT Italian Wines"
[5] Montalcino Report, "Brunello di Montalcino production regulations"

Europe 2015: Florence

November 5, 2015
Atop the Duomo in Florence

My mother's family is Italian, and my whole life, whenever anyone asked me where I most wanted to go in the world, I said Italy. Luckily, I finally got the chance in 2011 when my sister and I spent 10 days touring Venice, Florence and Rome. When Ben and I started planning this trip, one of the biggest challenges was deciding where to go in Italy. I didn't want to re-do the same trip again; instead, I wanted to see southern Italy. Ben wanted to visit places connected with the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, which meant Florence and Rome. That put us in a bind, until we figured out the perfect compromise — skip Venice, spend a day in Florence, drive through the Tuscan countryside and end the trip in Rome.

arno river florence boat ride
Arno River in Florence

We flew direct from Berlin to Florence, then spent the afternoon seeing the sights, including the Ponte Vecchio, where we spent most of our time dodging selfie sticks. When my sister and I were in Florence, we ate at a restaurant with the most amazing pear and cheese ravioli. We raved about it to everyone for years. I wasn't even sure I remembered the name correctly, but after some internet searching, we took a chance and voilĂ . I recognized the decor right away and the pear and cheese ravioli was still on the menu! Our waiter was thrilled to have repeat guests and gave us a free crostini with fig, goat cheese and mint and free limoncello. Best of all, the ravioli was as good as I remembered. On the way home, we stopped at Piazza della Signoria to listen to a free concert in honor of Italy's Republic Day.

Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore

duomo florence frescoes

The next morning, we ate breakfast il banco like real Italians (banco is the cheaper option if you stand at the bar; tavolo is for sitting). With only one day in Florence, we decided to prioritize seeing Michelangelo's David. The David had been one of my favorite sights on my last trip, and it was just as enchanting the second time around.

statues Piazza della Signoria
Statues on the Piazza della Signoria

For lunch, we headed the the Mercado Centrale, which reopened last year, 140 years after the original glass and steel structure was built. We bought prosciutto, salami, fresh mozzarella, Pugliese bread, dates and strawberries and had a feast.

santa maria novella florence

We were both more interested in Florence's architectural history than its artistic masterpieces, so we bypassed the Uffizi in favor of exploring the Duomo, Florence's central cathedral. Officially called the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, it's the the third largest church in the world (after St. Peter's in Rome and St. Paul's in London) and was the largest church in Europe when it was completed in the 15th century. Atop the cathedral sits the largest masonry dome ever built. Designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, the dome spans a 45-meter diameter. Instead of using scaffolding, Brunelleschi built a double shell with space in between. The inner self-supporting shell is made of light bricks set in a herringbone pattern. The outer dome serves as a heavier, wind-resistant covering.

view duomo florence

florence duomo campanile

See more photos of the Duomo

Because we're crazy people, we hiked to the top of both the Duomo and the Campanile, which totaled about 1,800 steps. We then wandered back through town, admiring the replica statues at the Piazza della Signoria, before picking up our rental car to continue to Tuscany.

- Steph

Photos: Florence from above

- Steph

Photos: City, travel, family, food

October 8, 2015
We recently sorted through our photos and discovered that some good ones never made it onto the blog. We've compiled those photos in this post, broken down into city photos, travel photos, family photos and food photos.


Street art in the Mission

View from Coit Tower

Yerba Buena Gardens

Yerba Buena Gardens

San Francisco city hall

Market Street, near our old apartment
Slanted Door Vietnamese restaurant

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in Golden Gate Park

Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe
Driving to Kirkwood
Camping in Big Sur

Camping in Big Sur

Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge

Camping in El Dorado National Forest after the Amador Four Fires wine festival
Cabin at Hendy Woods in Anderson Valley for my birthday

Route 128 through Anderson Valley

Motorcycling in Marin
October trip to Healdsburg

Winter trip to the beach




Doug's college graduation

Doug's college graduation
Kim on Christmas Eve

Ben and I cooked Christmas dinner
Christmas dinner: lettuce, red onion, mandarins and orange vinaigrette

Christmas dinner: Green beans in red wine and dijon vinaigrette

Christmas dinner: tenderloin

Christmas dinner

Ben's first Bruins game

Ben's first Bruins game


Alex and our snowman

Rosemary lemonade, with lemons from our tree

Raspberry-blackberry ice cream
Fig compote
Coffee and fig ice cream

Homemade sushi

Homemade artichoke ravioli


French toast for our anniversary

- Steph