Italy, the Last Day: San Sano, Siena, and Life Changes

I’ve been putting off writing this post because it makes me sad. Sad to think our week in Italy is already THREE WEEKS AGO. At the time it didn’t feel like the week was moving fast, which Timmy and I commented on a number of times since we were so afraid the days were going to speed by without us knowing it. But each day passed normally and at an even tempo, allowing us to enjoy every minute of every day, but still, poof, it was over like that. Writing about our last day makes it crystal clear that this trip is ever so quickly becoming in the past.

Our last day in Italy was my second favorite day. After I’d gotten over the puking and drunkenness of the day before, we decided to take our time this day. Originally planning to go to Bologna and Prato, we decided earlier in the week to use our last day to sleep, relax, and take our time. We woke up, finally learned how to work the coffee maker in the villa (believe me, this was a freaking ordeal the entire week. I finally found the instructions, and it still took me a day to work it correctly), and sat outside to enjoy the beautiful morning.

San Sano, a town so small you can’t even find it on Google Maps, even when you zoom all the way in, is absolutely adorable. The town had a monastery that was converted into villas, with a small restaurant (that we only ate at once, unfortunately), a little store, a church, and vineyard. That was it. We were surrounded on all sides by grapes and olive trees. It was beautiful. We spent the morning walking around and enjoying this beautiful town. Warning: I tried to narrow down the pictures to include in this post, but I just couldn’t. The pictures don’t do this town justice; the views were unbelievable.

After touring the cuteness of San Sano, we took about a 15 minute drive to Castello di Brolio on a recommendation from the Muriccis. It was incredible, and we realized later, funnily enough, it ended up being a recommended spot in our guidebook for wine tastings! Apparently, the original owner of this castle, which overlooked miles and miles and miles of Tuscan hills, was the original creator of the Chianti wine recipe. Pretty cool huh? The property also had its own church, which was small but beautiful.

The castle itself was pretty, but the views…holy shit, I can’t even explain. These were the types of views you can only see in your mind’s eye. To see it in person was just unreal.

My favorite pictures came from this part of our day. Timmy wanted to recreate a picture he loved of his father, and I think it’s one of the best I’ve ever taken.

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I also snapped an excellent one of Timmy taking a selfie. :)

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After our trip to the Castle, we had a free wine tasting with our tour tickets, bought some wine, and headed to Siena, about 30 minutes away. My mom told me the Duomo in Siena was one of her favorite places in Italy she’d ever seen, so I was super excited to get there and see what she meant. The town itself is on a ginormous hill; Timmy and I took one look at the climb, and we almost decided HELL NO. But, cleverly enough, there were escalators that took you up the hill, so thank god for that transportation relief.

Once we got there, we were amazed. This small medieval town was so cute and so beautiful. We walked towards the Piazza del Duomo, with Santa Maria di Scala across from the entrance to the Duomo. The façade of the Duomo was unbelievable. The sun was starting to set, so we sat outside and took it all in.

We got tickets to see the major sites (Duomo, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, the Baptistry, and the Crypt). When we entered the Duomo, I don’t think I’ve ever been more overwhelmed at the beauty of something in my entire life. Timmy said later that he got emotional inside the Duomo as well. We totally got why my mom loved it so much.

I’ve never seen anything like it. It was constructed with black and white marble, there was art everywhere, including the floors, ceilings, and walls, with carved busts of all the popes lining the entire interior of the cathedral. It was enormous. They had planned on making this cathedral the largest in the world, but ran out of money, which was lucky because they realized after that the foundation could never have supported the additions anyway.

If you go to Siena, this had better be a stop for you. I can’t imagine trying to do this in the summer because of the crowds, so try to go when you have time to wander and not feel pressure or anxiety. It’s worth every second.

I tried to keep the photos to a minimum on this post, but believe me, they don’t do this Cathedral any justice.

Afterwards, we went to the Piazza del Campo, home of the famous Palazzo Publico, Torre del Mangia, and the Palio di Siena, a twice-annual horse race that gives me anxiety just thinking about it. The sun was about to set and cast the most incredible light on the Piazza, so we sat down for our last dinner in Italy at Alla Speranza, while a group of singers sang songs on the other side of the Piazza. It was magical.

The day, from start to finish, was perfect. So many memories from this week, I don’t think my heart can contain them all without bursting. This was truly the trip of a lifetime. Thank you to the Sacinos for donating your villa and being so generous. Without you, we would never have had an opportunity like this to make these experiences a part of our lives.

Oh, I almost forgot to share our life changing moment, in case you were wondering…

We got engaged at Castello Di Brolio. :)

More on that story later.

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♥, VB

Italy Day 6: The Cooking Class

Oh man, this day might have been my favorite day of the week (you’ll read about the other favorite day soon). I had been looking forward to this day for weeks, and finally, we got to check it off my life bucket list.

A cooking class in Italy. It was as amazing as it sounds.

We started out the day with no food in our bellies and espresso when we arrived at Ristorante Malborghetto around 9 AM. Owned and run by the incredibly talented Chef Simone Muricci and his wife Alessia, he is a true Tuscan chef, teaching us true Tuscan recipes. ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!?!

We began by receiving our own embroidered aprons, with our names and the date of our cooking class. They were quite possibly the cutest gifts I’ve ever received with purchase. :)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe restaurant itself is mighty small, but it felt so homey. We absolutely loved this place, and I think we’re still going through withdrawals from having been away from it for so long now.

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We were led to the back of the house and promptly began assembling dessert, tiramisu. Holy cow this was an easy recipe, and the lack of an overwhelming coffee taste made this my favorite tiramisu ever. We prepared it first so that it could have time to set in the fridge while we created the rest of the menu.

Next up was my favorite dish of all time, pasta with bolognese sauce (also known as ragù alla bolognese in Italy). If I could bathe in it, I would. We started by grinding the vegetables (red onion, celery, and carrots) in the grinder, which Chef said he liked best because of the high water content that came out of grinding vs. dicing. Then we sauteed those down, and added the rest of the ingredients: ground beef, pureed tomatoes, red wine, and then salt and pepper at the end. The most incredible cooking tip I may have ever received came from Chef Simone: in order to continue simmering any type of food without destroying the moisture in the food or adding a different taste, add water. Keep adding water a little bit at a time until you’re ready to take it off the stove. Genius!

Next was making the pasta from scratch. I have attempted this in the past to dismal results for a variety of reasons: 1) I definitely wasn’t using the right flour (semolina my friends, semolina); 2) I have a manual pasta maker, which you technically need three hands for (one to feed the pasta into the machine, one to catch the pasta as it goes through the machine, and one to crank the machine!); and 3) I’m an extremely visual and kinesthetic learner. I need to see someone doing something (usually only once) and I can do it immediately; however, for things that require a certain consistency to work, I need to be able to touch it to learn how it should be done. This was one of the most valuable lessons of the day. Once we made the dough, we set it aside for about 20 minutes with a damp towel over it to keep the dough from creating a crust.

We let the sauce simmer for a least another hour before we even thought to cook the pasta (which took like 3 minutes since fresh cooks faster than dried). We started on the secondi (second course), wild boar sausage with cannellini beans (salsiccia e fagioli). I for one love cannellini beans because of their creaminess, but I’ve never attempted to make beans from their dried versions. Good thing we didn’t have to this day either! In fact, we used leftover cannellini beans from a previous recipe! Chef Simone explained that many Tuscan recipes try to use and reuse leftovers in as many ways as possible to save money. This was actually the third version of cannellini beans used in this particular recipe, and it did not disappoint!

*At this point in the cooking, I think our lack of sugar intake led to an inability to really retain the information. Thank god he gave us a laminated copy of the recipes!

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We left that to simmer, and we cut the pasta and laid it to dry a little. We also made parmigiano reggiano bowls for the pasta! I could’ve stood there and eaten all of the bowls myself, but I decided to exercise some self-control and wait for the actual meal. We heated up grated parmesan in a sauce pan, and waited for the edges to turn a golden brown. Once that happened, we took it off the stove and, with the help of a long skewer, pulled the cheese off the pan onto an overturned bowl. A few seconds later, it hardened, and voila, you have an edible bowl!

Finally, we prepared the appetizer, porcini crostini with shaved truffles. Truffles are also super common in Tuscany, and when heated (by shaving it onto warm food), the aroma they release….JEEZY CREEZY, THE STUFF OF GODS I TELL YOU. This was also a super easy recipe: just grill the porcini, add a mixture of extra virgin olive oil and chopped rosemary and garlic to both sides and grill, grill the bread, assemble, and voila, deliciousness!

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And now, our favorite part…THE EATING AND DRINKING! We sat down in the restaurant and began to eat the fruit of our labor. Everything was incredible. My mouth is still watering thinking about it. We also enjoyed the paired wine with each course, and let me tell you a secret: it’s always never a good idea to stuff your face with food and wine after not eating anything for close to 5 hours. I got greedy and paid the price.

Yes, we polished off all of those bottles. Yes, we ate all that food. And yes, I promptly threw up everything we ate because I was a pig, drunk, and unable to monitor my body’s internal full-meter.

It didn’t ruin the time we had, so no pity. We booked a 3-hour cooking class that turned into 7 hours because of our lively conversations with Chef Simone and Alessia. The stories he had about living in Tuscany, running his own restaurant (in the middle of nowhere), and becoming successful at his trade…these moments, my friends, are what traveling is all about.

[Side note: for those of you who continue to think that America is becoming socialist, or Obama is socialist, or whatever, keep this in mind: Simone told us they weren’t allowed to turn the heat on (neither at home nor the restaurant) until November 1 because it was ILLEGAL to do so otherwise. Our villa was only tile, so we froze our asses off every night when the temperature dipped to 40 degrees. Yeah, we don’t live like that in the States, so shut it.]

These people were the salt of the earth. Hard-working, fun-loving, decent people with a successful restaurant, doing what they love. It was an honor to learn from him, and a joy to hang out with him and his wife for an afternoon. We probably could’ve hung out with them all week; in fact, we went back that night for dinner (because let’s face it, I had no food in my system), and it was again, incredible.

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unreal…ravioli with melted pecorino cheese and pears

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The dream for Timmy for the week: bistec a la fiorentina, served on a hot stone

Thank you to the Muriccis for not only showing us a good time, teaching us how to cook, and making us feel welcome, but for also giving Timmy the recommendation for our next adventure. It was a doozy.

♥, VB

Italy Day 5: Pisa

This is a short post because we had a short day. We woke up late (again) and made our way to our scheduled city late (again). This day we had planned on Pisa and Lucca, but decided just to hit the major tourist site because we were beginning to reach our limit of touring and walking. We set out on the 2 hour drive to the home of the famous Leaning Tower.

Pisa was, well, small. Pretty, yes. Chock full of things to do? Not so much. The main field known as Piazza dei Miracoli (Square of Miracles) was pretty much the only thing there (I know that’s probably a gross generalization but it’s my blog, so yeah). It was pretty, absolutely, but that was about all there was in Pisa. It’s also a college town, with again, a lot of English speakers, so the novelty of learning about true Italian culture didn’t really shine through.

We spent a short afternoon there, taking pictures and doing our own spin of trying to hold up the tower, and then headed home. I know we’re glad we went so we could check it off the life bucket list, but return to Pisa? Probably not. Hindsight, but we definitely should’ve made time to go to Lucca while the sun was still out.

We stopped for some food at a highway gas station (Italian gas stations, by the way, are unreal. America should really take note of these places), and I promptly lost my credit card that I just gotten in the mail with the microchip necessary for international purchases. Awesome.

When we got home, we watched Beverly Hills Cop on DVD (in English, although Italian dubbing would have been much more hilarious), and called it a night. We needed to rest up for our last two days, and believe me when I tell you, you’ll want to hear those stories. Stay tuned!

♥, VB

Italy Day 4: Florence

I remember the first time I went to Florence…it was summer 2004, and my friends and I were in the middle of a 6-week study abroad course in London. We took a four day weekend trip to Italy, flying into Rome, doing the whole stay in hostels thing (which looking back now, GAH-ROSS). We were taking a train to Florence, then to Milan, but once we got to the train station in Rome, we couldn’t find Florence on the schedules. We searched and searched, and panicked because the last train heading out to any city starting with an “F” was about to leave. We said eff it, let’s just get on this train and hope it ends up in Florence. We ended up in…

Firenze. Which is Italian for Florence. Oh, and we were idiots.

We got there, immediately boarded a bus to who knows where, forties of Heineken in our hands (yes, we were those Americans), and got off at our stop, in the middle of nowhere. No street lamps, pure darkness. We linked hands and attempted to walk up the hill to our hostel but completely chickened out. So we hightailed back into town, dropped big bucks on a Holiday Inn, and packed ourselves into our wonderfully comfortable hotel room.

The breakfast was pretty yummy too.

But this time was a 180 degree experience. First of all, I knew which train to take this time, so a million bonus points to me. And we got there around 10 AM and made a day of it. We only went to to the Uffizi and the Galleria dell’Accademia at the perfect times with light tourist traffic (and I bought tickets online for the Uffizi so we didn’t have to wait in the line, which was still ridiculous in October), so we spent the rest of the day walking. And walking. And walking some more.

Florence isn’t my favorite city in Italy. It’s really tourist-dense, even at the end of October (worse in summer), and very English-speaking, which takes away some of the magic of being in Italy. It’s still unbelievably gorgeous and history-rich, so I can’t hate on Firenze too much. It really is worth it to visit.

Tip: there was a crazy line waiting to climb to the top of the Duomo at 10 AM on a Tuesday in October. Imagine it in summer. We took the tip from our guidebook to climb to the top of the Campanile instead as there’s a way shorter line and pretty much the same view. I think the Duomo is 467 steps, the Campanile is 414 steps. Pretty even. It’s 10 euros, and you need stamina. We were huffing it up, and I think my legs almost gave out about 4 times, but it was completely worth it.

I attempted to take some food recommendations into account, but because October was insane, I added the recs (to the itinerary I posted earlier) but printed out an earlier version that didn’t have those recs on them. Good job Victoria.

We did take a recommendation from our Fodor’s Italy guide book and ate at La Casalinga in the Santo Spirito area. It ended up being the meal that lasted us into the following morning because we’re American and we totally went overboard. Even our waiter’s eyes bulged as we kept rattling off menu items to order.

I think the best and only way to see a city is to wander through it. I made sure that as we wandered, we would stumble upon the major sites. But people watching, taking our time, connecting with each other and the city, it’s an amazing feeling. Enjoy the pictures.

While at the Galleria dell’Academie, wandering around and around the David statue, we accidentally stumbled upon the greatest Long Island stereotypes ever. Two couples had hired a tour guide to take them around Florence, and as they were viewing the David, one of the women said, “I can’t believe it’s still standing after all (think awl) this time. I can’t believe it hasn’t fallen (think fawlen) over!” Her husband replied, “Babe, it’s physics, see the stump, it balances it so that it doesn’t fall (think fawl) over.”

So that was amusing obviously because accents are great. However, the best part was them viewing a painting where the main figure was holding a picture of Moses. But they misheard the guide and thought the painting was of Moses. This is the conversation that ensued:

Man (imagine with thick accent and spoken fast): “So uh, that’s not Moses?”

Tour guide: “No, no, see, he’s holding a picture of Moses.”

Man: “So that’s not Moses saying, ‘Uh hey, let my people go’?”

No sir, considering Moses wasn’t riding a horse while he gave that speech and wasn’t alive during the 1400s.

But even better was the other couple’s reactions to pre-Renaissance art. He said, “Yea, I like Renaissance art better. They painted a lot better then.”

Yes, that’s why it’s called the Renaissance sir. Americans always come through when you need them to.

The last two days were probably my favorite days ever so stay tuned.

♥, VB

Italy Day 3: Reggio Emilia and Modena

When I originally planned out our trip, I had cities to visit every single day. Once we landed, the fatigue from flying, the semester, my certification program, everything, came crashing down on me so I asked Timmy if Friday, would he rather wake up a bit later, tour our village, maybe go to Siena, and in general, really relax? Of course his answer was yes.

So that changed our other traveling days a little bit. The ambitious nature in me thought we could do 3 cities in one day. Why not? They were all located in a straight line, nearly 30-45 minutes away from each other, and all we had to do was start at the farthest city and then stop by each one on our way home.

Yeah that didn’t happen. Sleep happened.

So we shortened our plans (which it turned out we didn’t shorten them enough), and headed to Reggio Emilia, home of parmigiano reggiano.

(Everytime I say or write that, I immediately think of Giada DeLaurentis and her over-exaggerated way of pronouncing Italian words. Love it.)

This trip was not well-timed. In addition to leaving the house late, we arrived in Reggio Emilia, a super cute, tiny little town during the Italian version of siesta. Everything was closed. No one was out. We suck.

But hey, we drove almost 2.5 hours to the Emilia-Romagna region, so we decided just to make the best of it and take a stroll around the town. And it was adorable.

So tiny and so different from the Tuscan mountain cities we had seen up until now. We left Reggio Emilia and headed about 45 minutes east to Modena, home of the greatest balsamic vinegar in the world. The original plan was to visit a balsamic vinegar company for a tour and tastings, but they never responded confirming our tour, and besides, the whole day was off from the moment we woke up.

Modena was such a surprise to us; we loved it. I made the mistake of driving into the historical part of the city, and tried for a good 10 minutes to parallel park our little Fiat, only to realize that we were probably going to get ticketed for even bringing our car there (since there are cameras on the perimeter of the historical section). Silly tourists.

This town…wow. It was gorgeous. We walked and walked and walked some more as the town woke up from siesta and came alive. We were there until the sun set, and it was definitely worth it.

We tried to hit Bologna, home of bolognese sauce (which is undoubtedly my favorite thing ever), but it was dark, we were tired, hungry, and the traffic, oh the traffic! It took us an hour to get into the city, a city maybe the size of Athens, GA. We tried forever to find parking only to find that the one spot we pulled into was about 3 miles away from the restaurant we wanted to eat at. I was DONE. Enough driving, enough walking, enough tourist-ing (not a word). Plus, thanks to Daylight Saving, it was completely dark so we couldn’t really see anything in the first place. Bummer, but one day, we’ll come back and plan better.

Our next day was Florence, and that my friends, was a super successful trip. Stay tuned.

♥, VB