After spending some alone time in Rome, my husband & I met up with a group of 12 friends in Tuscany to celebrate our 25th anniversary! We thought a few couples might join us, but very few people turned us down. We were happy to have such a big group, but that meant we needed reservations for everything!
We traveled from Rome to Siena with another couple from our group, and we decided to take the bus. It was so easy – the luggage was loaded under the bus and we had a relaxing 3 hour ride to Siena. We got the discounted tickets from SENA, but they only offer 2 tickets at 10 Euro, then 2 tickets at 15 Euro, then the rest are full price at 30 Euro. The 4 of us managed to get the discount tickets, so we were happy. The bus ride was uneventful. We got a taxi at the train station in Siena and rode to Castellina in Chianti where we would stay for the next week. It took about 20 minutes and was a very pretty drive.
Finding our hotel, the Palazzo Squarchialupi was no problem since it’s on the pedestrian street in Castellina. The hotel is gorgeous! Every room was a little different. We had the room with the balcony overlooking the valley, and we spent a lot of time on that balcony just taking in the view. The staff there was wonderful. They set up the terrace for our group when it was nice out, and set up the lounge off the bar area when it was chilly. We truly felt like family while staying here. We'd love to go back!
The rest of the group arrived later that day. Since some of them had just arrived from the US we had a quiet evening that night. On Easter Sunday we stayed in Castellina and went to church and then had a nice dinner together.
Our group is from the King George chapter of the American Wine Society, so we were very excited about trying Italian wines on this trip. Since nobody wanted to be the designated driver we hired a driver and a small shuttle bus to take us on daily excursions that week. We used Charming Italy, they had the best price by far. Our driver was Giovanni and he was wonderful. His English was good and he was a very safe driver. If you want a driver and not a tour guide, this was the perfect setup. We were all chatting amongst ourselves on the drives, so we wouldn’t have heard the guide anyway!
On Monday we went to Greve for the Easter Monday antiques market. There were a lot of things we weren’t interested in, but most of the group managed to find a treasure or two. After Greve we went to Vignomaggio for a wine tasting. This was our favorite tasting for the entire week! Sandro, our guide, was wonderful. Even though many in our group volunteer at local wineries in Virginia, he managed to explain the winemaking process to the others while still keeping our attention. We had lunch there, and it was also the best lunch we had that week! We are trying to duplicate some of the food we had there since Sandro was kind enough to share some recipes. After lunch we were off to Montefioralle for a tasting and a tour of the town. We had an outdoor tasting at Montefioralle Winery which was within sight of the village. What a great first day of touring!
Tuesday was our 25th anniversary! We stopped at Gaiole for a quick visit, then it was off to Castello do Brolio for a tasting. Since Chianti Classico is our favorite wine, it made sense to spend our anniversary at the vineyard who created the recipe for Chianti Classico! We liked this winery, but it was too big and too commercial for our tastes. Their wine was good, though. After Castello di Brolio we stopped for lunch and then went to Volpaia. Volpaia is a walled hilltown that is basically winery. Everything in the town is somehow related to wine. We also saw the only olive crusher of the trip here - that was very interesting. Each evening we would return to Castellina, and most nights we were so full from our tastings that we didn’t have dinner! Most nights we just had snacks – and more wine, of course.
Wednesday we were off to Siena, which is now one of my favorite Tuscan towns! We visited the marketplace, the Duomo (WOW, I would love to go back and see it again), had lunch and wandered around the city loving the different neighborhoods and their representative animals. We bought flags and scarves of our favorites (the giraffe was our choice since our daughter loves giraffes). We decided that we like the contradas and that we should have them in our neighborhood at home, since most of our group lives in the same neighborhood. After a stop at Il Campo for pictures and gelato we were back on the shuttle and headed for Brancaia, just outside of Castellina. Brancaia was a small winery with very good wines. We plan on telling our local wine store who specializes in small wineries about their wines.
On Thursday we discovered Volterra, our favorite small hilltown. We saw the Roman Theater ruins, the church & baptistery, and wandered around again. We had lunch at the “bra bar” recommended in Rick Steves’ books, what a hoot! That one was my husband’s pick and we had a lot of laughs there. After Volterra we were off to a winery just outside of San Gimignano, I think it was Marronaia. After visiting the winery we visited their store in San G for a tasting. Their wines were also very good. I don’t know what it is about the Italian air, but it makes wine taste great! We only stayed in San G for a short while, which was OK with us since we all preferred Volterra to the touristy San G.
Friday was our last excursion day, and it came much too quickly. Our driver Giovanni dropped us off at our hotel in Florence, since we would spend the night there before flying out the next morning. He was wonderful all week and we were sad to have him leave us one last time. Once we tossed our stuff in the rooms we were off for our Accademia reservations. We stopped for lunch along the way at a random café that had 14 seats together outside, and the meal was good. We never had a bad meal in Italy – either we’re not very picky or we were lucky. The Accademia was underwhelming for most of us. Next was the Duomo, then a trip down to Ponto Vecchio. We tried to visit a wine bar when it started sprinkling and they seated us in a “special” area since we didn’t want food. Guess what? The wine was 5 times the price if you didn’t want food. Their 10 Euro wine was 58 Euro in the “special” section. We didn’t order, we just got up and walked out. That was one of the few negative things that happened that week, but it wasn’t a big deal since we just left without ordering and found another enoteca that didn’t inflate their prices if you just wanted a glass of wine and not a full meal. After some shopping we all met for dinner at Frescobaldi and had a wonderful meal. After dinner it was back to the hotel, where we prepared to leave the next morning.
What a great trip we had! So much good food, so much good wine – and with 12 of our best friends. We’ve all agreed we need to come back. The Virginia countryside just doesn’t compare to Tuscany!