Cinque Terre

On Tuesday, we moved on for three nights in the Cinque Terre. We took the train from Firenze directly to La Spezia where we hopped on the Cinque Terre Express, a train that runs frequently between the five towns of the Cinque Terre, to our destination of Manarola.

Photo by Debbie Henning

We soon learned that hiking distances in the Cinque Terre are relative, as everything is almost straight up or straight down from where you are. Nothing is flat. The determination of the people who originally decided they could make a life in this spot defies imagination. Especially around Manarola, the surrounding hills are covered with terraces that have all been constructed by hand to grow their grapes. Today’s residents seem to possess that same grit and determinations to do what it takes to live in this spot.

Terraces of grape vines on the hills surrounding Manarola
Photo by Debbie Henning

Our Airbnb was near the top of town. There was actually a tiny winery on the narrow street/alley that led to our room. To get supplies to the winery, they used a hand truck on treads powered by a gas engine.

Moving winery supplies in the narrow streets of Manarola

On our first night, we hiked to the top of the hill above Manarola for some spectacular views of the town. In the process, we learned that the “trails” in the area were very often sets of steps either carved out or constructed with the native bluestone and schist rocks.

Trail up the hill in Manarola

Our second day in Manarola brought rain, and from what we had learned about the trails, we realized they would be slippery and unstable in the rain, so we took the train up to Vernazza, another of the Cinque Terre villages, to take a look around. Vernazza was beautiful, but we were glad to have chosen Manarola for our home base. Vernazza had as somewhat more tourist-oriented feel.


The rain let up for our third day in the Cinque Terre, so we made the three-mile hike up to the town of Volastra. After lunch, we found, with some effort, the trail down to the town of Groppo. The trails in the area are not always well identified and frequently take off from some random point in town without a trailhead being identified.

On the trail to Volastra
Photo by Debbie Henning

The headquarters of the Cooperativa Agricoltura Cinque Terre is in Groppo. This cooperative is one of the major wine producers in the Cinque Terre. We had a great afternoon tasting their wines and grappa (more on that in the next post.)

The wines of the Cinque Terre cooperative
Photo by Debbie Henning

Debbie and I took a bottle of their wine home and enjoyed it on the garden terrace outside our room while watching the sun set over Manarola. Life could be worse.

Sunset over Manarola
Photo by Debbie Henning

Three Germans and the Stripper in Firenze

Okay, it’s a long story…

On Monday, we packed up and moved on to Firenze to return our rental car and spend a night before moving on to the Cinque Terre. We needed to return the car in the heart of Firenze, near the Santa Maria Novella train station. Driving in an Italian city, even a small one such as Firenze, rivals driving in lower Manhattan. It’s an adventure that I don’t care to have too many times.

The Duomo in Firenze
Photo by Debbie Henning

We schlepped our much too large, much too heavy luggage to our Airbnb just a couple of blocks from the Duomo. Our Airbnb host is a student at Accademie di Belle Arti di Firenze, which is adjacent to the Galleria dell’ Accademia, the home of the David, where he makes masks and studies set design. Who knew there really was an art academy, and like everything else here, it’s been around since the 1500s.

Federico, our Airbnb host in Firenze with one of his masks:
Photo by Debbie Henning

We set out to explore Firenze on foot for the rest of the afternoon and evening. We walked across the Ponte Vecchio and through Oltrarno. Then we climbed up to Piazelle Michaelangelo to watch the sun set over Firenze.

A street, chalk-artist, on the way to the Ponte Vecchio
Photo by Debbie Henning
Ponte Vecchio, the “old bridge” over the Arno River between Firenze and Oltrarno
Photo by Debbie Henning

The title of the story really begins there. At Piazalle Michaelangelo, people congregate on a large group of stairs and await for the sunset. We happened to be next to a group of three young German men and struck up a conversation. They had been there for several hours (and consumed a few beers). It turns out two of them were pranking the third, convincing him that this was the bachelor party they planned for him. His real bachelor party would be the following weekend, but he didn’t know that, so they were in full, bachelor-party mode.

The view from Piazelle Michaelangelo
Photo by Debbie Henning
Sunset looking down the Arno River in Firenze
Photo by Debbie Henning

After a while, a young, American woman, Candace, joined us. It turns out that she is a singer/actor and has been working as an entertainer on cruise ship. Somehow, that translated into the possibility that she was a stripper (at least in German). The guys had a good time with that, and she grudgingly played along for a bit. After the sunset came and went, one of the guys got a taxi, and we all headed back into Firenze for drinks.

Debbie (l) with Candace and our German friends

Chianti Rufina Winery Visits

On a rainy Sunday morning, we hopped in the car and drove about 30 minutes over the winding roads through the hills of the eastern portion of Chianti, Chianti Rufina, to visit Castello del Trebbio.

Castello del Trebbio
Photo by Debbie Henning

The winery operations are housed in a 12th century castle built by the Pazzi family, rivals of the Medici family who ruled Firenze. The castle has been beautifully restored, including the Conspiracy Room where members of the Pazzi family hatched the Pazzi Conspiracy in 1478 to kill a few of the Medicis and take power in Firenze. Unfortunately for the Pazzis, the conspiracy failed and all their property was confiscated by the city-state of Firenze.

The Conspiracy Room at Castello del Trebbio
Photo by Debbie Henning

The property has been owned by the Baj Macario family since 1968. Today they are striving for the biodynamic, organic production of fine wine. Based on the wines we tasted, they are succeeding.

Debbie and Randy enjoying Castello del Trebbio’s Lastricata, their riserva chianti.
Castello del Trebbio is experimenting with fermenting some wines in amphorae.
Clouds hanging on the hillside near Castello del Trebbio
Photo by Debbie Henning

In the afternoon, we returned to tour the vineyards and winemaking operation of the farm where we stayed. Fattoria Lavacchio is an organic farm, working to be sustainable in every facet of their operation. They are experimenting with a wine made from Sangiovese grapes without sulfites. The wine, Puro, is fresh, light and fruity. Without the use of sulfites, they are not expecting the wine to be long lived, so they make it a style best enjoyed young.

Randy examining the new growth on Sangiovese vines at Fattoria Lavacchio
Photo by Debbie Henning

Our host for the tour, Katziko, masterfully took Debbie and me, along with a Japanese couple through the entire operation, explaining things one time in English and then a second time in Japanese. He was a treat.

Chianti aging at Fattoria Lavacchio
Photo by Debbie Henning
Fattoria Lavacchio’s lineup of Chianti and other wines
Photo by Debbie Henning

Two Tuscanies

We began Saturday with mixed emotions. It was bittersweet to see our time with Christiana at her farmhouse south of Siena come to an end. We had a magical experience there. But, that also marked the beginning of the next leg of our adventure.

I had always imagined Tuscany to be cut from the same cloth, ecologically very similar throughout. Driving through the region taught me differently. Tuscany, from Siena south, is an area of open valleys dominated by farmland and ancient towns on the hilltops. The natural vegetation seems to be lower and more shrub-like. This is the region of Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano in the wine world.

As we drove north from Siena, the valleys became narrower, the hills became a little steeper, water became more abundant, and the vegetation became densely forested. All in all, a very different feel from the area just to the south. This is now the land of Chianti Classico, one of the eight subzones of the Chianti region.

Along the way, we stopped for a visit to Castello di Fonterutoli in the small village of Fonterutoli, not far from the beautiful town of Castellina in Chianti where we tasted some wonderful Chianti Classico. Continuing on, we took a slight detour to visit Casa Brancaia, a much more modern winery south of Castellina in Chianti. Brancaia produces some much awarded super Tuscan wines, and it’s clear that’s where their focus is. Their Chianti Classico did not compare with Fonterutoli’s, but their super Tuscan Blu was outstanding.

A selection of the wines of Castello di Fonterutoli
The tasting room at Casa Brancaia
Photo by Debbie Henning

We continued driving to the organic farm east of Firenze, Fattoria Lavacchio, where would stay for the next two nights, just north of Pontassieve and Rufina, in the Chianti Rufina subregion. The farm is a multi-faceted, family-run operation that includes a number of rooms in a small, boutique-hotel-like setting, a bodega, a full restaurant, a winery and vineyards, as well as a garden to supply the restaurant. Shortly after our arrival, we were greeted by a beautiful double rainbow over the valley below the farm.

Our room was one of the windows on the upper floor. The pool was not heated and too chilly to use, but it was pretty.
Double rainbow from the grounds of the farm where we stayed with the town of Rufina in the valley below
Photo by Debbie Henning
Dinner at the restaurant on the property. Debbie had the gnocchi, while I had pappardelle with boar ragu and a bottle of the Chianti Rufina made on the property.

Cooking with Mama Nora

We spent Friday on the farm outside Siena. It was time for our cooking class with our Airbnb host Christiana and her mother, Nora. It could not have been a more perfect day. We learned Italian cooking the way it is done best, i.e., from the heart. Our day was filled with love, laughter, new friends and great food. The lessons included ravioli with a ricotta filling, mushroom ragu, a wonderful asparagus pie, an amazing fennel au gratin and tiramisu.

We began the day at 10:30 a.m. with coffee and tasty cakes made by Christiana. We soon moved over to well chosen local red, white and rose wines to accompany our lesson.

Christiana, our host, with her mother, Nora
Photo by Debbie Henning
Mama Nora teaching me how to make homemade ravioli. At 81, she could run circles around anyone half her age.
Photo by Debbie Henning
You don’t mess with Mama Nora; she rules the roost.
Photo by Debbie Henning
Christiana and Mama Nora show us how to fold the pasta over the ravioli filling.
Photo by Debbie Henning
Randy (r) with our new friends from the Los Angeles area, Michael (l) and Joe, a.k.a. Giovanni. At least, that’s what Mama Nora called him.
Photo by Debbie Henning
Debbie (l) loved Mama Nora, who reminded her of her own hard working Mom.

Day Trip to Firenze

On Thursday, we drove into Firenze for the day. We started at the Uffizi Gallery in the morning. The Uffizi is both an experience of incredible beauty and an amazing art history lesson. The halls are filled with Roman sculpture. You walk through time as you stroll from room to room, beginning with medieval art, moving on to Giotto and the pre-Renaissance through all the Renaissance masters in more or less chronological order. We spent about four hours there and really just scratched the surface.

Giotta’s Madonna
Photo by Debbie Henning
Raphael’s Madonna of the Goldfinch
Photo by Debbie Henning

We had tickets for the Galleria dell’Accademia later in the afternoon. On our walk from the Uffizi to the Galleria, we stopped for a glass of wine at a wonderful hole-in-the-wall restaurant called I Fratellini. They have no seating. You just grab your sandwich/panini and your glass of wine and find a seat on the curb. It’s perfect, The wines are incredibly well priced – I had a glass of Brunello di Montalcino for about 7 euros or about $8. This was a wine that retails for about $80/bottle in the U.S. It’s such a treat to see wine treated as food, so the prices are not overly inflated as they are in the U.S.

Randy at I Fratellini
Photo by Debbie Henning

Then it was on to the Galleria to see Michaelangelo’s David. While the Galleria has some wonderful art, the David is the show stopper. I’ve probably seen hundreds of photographs of the David, but nothing prepares you for the real thing.

After we came back to earth, we walked over to Mercato Centrale. The mercato occupies almost a full block. The bottom floor is primarily fresh food/vegetable/meat vendors who operate earlier in the day. The upper floor is an upscale food court, with vendors of just about any Italian food you could imagine, along with several wine bars.

Following dinner at the mercato, we headed to Santa Maria Novella Station to catch the tram to the outskirts of Firenze where we had parked for the one-hour drive back to our retreat in the Siena area.

Afternoon in Siena

Wednesday began with coffee on the patio surrounded by fog-shrouded hills and the cackles and crows of the chickens and roosters from the henhouse down the hill. After a peaceful, lazy morning, we drove into Siena for the afternoon.

A foggy Wednesday morning outside our door

Siena’s historic medieval center, or Centro Storico, is perched on a hilltop, as most Tuscan towns are. Even though it’s physically not possible, it feels like you have to walk uphill to get anywhere and then walk uphill again to get back.

Highlights of the day included seeing Siena’s Duomo and Il Campo. The Duomo, Siena’s main cathedral, provides a sense of everything Sienese – that is, over the top. The facade has so many decorative elements and different colors of marble, it’s hard to know where to focus your attention. If you normally think of a plaza or piazza as a large, flat square in the center of town, then Il Campo, the city’s main square comes as a surprise. It is large and beautiful, but slopes significantly toward the center to allow water to drain.

The fa├žade of Siena’s Duomo
Photo by Debbie Henning
The tower of the Duomo
Photo by Debbie Henning

On the recommendation of our host, we stopped for lunch at a small restaurant a few blocks from Il Campo, Osteria Da Trombicche. What a treat. Trombicche is owned by three, energetic young men with a commitment to great food. They have embraced the “head-to-tail” concept and making wonderful food while having a good time. It was a special pleasure to meet one of the owners, Lapo Pianigiani. I would never have imagined how good a dish of pasta with a ragu of chicken heart, chicken liver and rooster comb could be.

Randy with Lapo Pianigiani (right) and the chef at Osteria Da Trombicche
photo by Debbie Henning
A nice Brunello with dinner
Photo by Debbie Henning

A closing scene from the streets of Siena
Photo by Debbie Henning