July 2004by Anne-Marie Caye and Glenn Ormiston
Tuscany... The hillside towns rooted in the rolling green countryside filled with red poppies and fields of wild mustard will forever come to mind on the rainy winter days in Newport when the skies are grey. Picturing the Italian sun shining on the ancient cypress trees, we’ll remember a satisfying meal in Lucca ending with the lingering tang of garlic and olive oil and taste the crisp, robust wine in Chianti.
While in Tuscany this spring we found ourselves driving down roads that we imagine no American has seen; we breezed through villages so small that if you blinked they'd disappear. We had a chance to explore the much-loved towns of Lucca and San Gimignano and visited the renowned cities of Siena and Florence. We found that May, when all the flowers are blooming and the summer crowds have yet to arrive, is a great time to visit Tuscany. When we left it was with a heavy heart, but with warm memories and with high hopes of returning.
After a ferry ride from Capri to Naples, followed by a train trip from Naples to Rome and a two-hour drive from Rome to Siena, we arrived in Siena late in the afternoon a bit flat from our day's travels. But the sight of the medieval walled city lifted our spirits.
After checking into our hotel just outside the walls, we walked through the winding streets to the main square. The Piazza del Campo, the pulsing heart of Siena, is lined with charming shops and sidewalk cafes and bustles with the foot traffic of locals and tourists. We settled down at a small, outdoor table to enjoy a little people watching and ordered a refreshing glass of Prosceco.
Siena enjoys the reputation of being one of Italy's prettiest medieval towns and for many years it rivaled Florence as the ancient capital of the region. The main square sits at the center of the city's 17 contrade, or neighborhoods, and flags displaying the symbolic animals of each neighborhood flutter over the streets. Competition between the districts is traditionally fierce, particularly during the Palio, the thrilling horse races that take place each summer. As we wound through the streets later that evening heading back to our hotel, we rounded a corner and were blessed with a stunning view of the expansive countryside around the city, courtesy of Siena's hilltop position.
The following day we got off to an early start heading north into the hills. A soft morning light filtered through the trees lining the roads, and on one stretch beautiful white blossoms created a snowy canopy over our path. Since it was Saturday, the pace on the roads was much less frantic, and we enjoyed the quiet of the countryside. In one small town we came upon a Saturday morning market with vendors selling flowers, pasta and jars of olive oil under a spray of colorful umbrellas.
When we arrived in Impruneta, we found we were a little disoriented and couldn't quite locate the villa we were in search of. We had just started to ask around for directions when the owners of the villa appeared and escorted us down a little dirt road to the house. The Villa Impruneta is a true Tuscan house, a16th century country house situated at the top of a hill with a panoramic view of the olive groves. Surrounded by flowering gardens, the house is blanketed by the smell of lavender and rosemary. There are three separate cottages that form a small hamlet on the grounds of the estate. Inside the main house we found a wonderful kitchen where we could just imagine a small group lingering over a homemade Tuscan feast.
On Sunday, after a lovely breakfast in the garden of our hotel, we decided to spend the day exploring the enchanting town of San Gimignano. It was a crystal clear day, and we poked around several of the fine paper shops, breezed through the shops of quality linens and lingered longingly at a store with gorgeous suede jackets.
After browsing around the food shops strung with salamis and sorting through the olive oils and ice creams, we decided to search for a tiny restaurant Anne-Marie had visited two years earlier. We found the charming café, Trattoria Chiribiri, near the town center, and the maitre’d squeezed us in at a table among the locals. One wall was lined with hardbound books and rows of wine and in one corner was a hutch-like cabinet filled with dried pastas and bottles of olive oil. Across from us we spotted two elderly, tailored Italian men and decided they must be professors. We ordered a carafe of local wine and the waiter brought us a small tray of black and green olives while we made our lunch selection. We decided on Oso Bucca and were rewarded with a delicious lamb shank served in a light broth on a wide platter covered with fresh peas.
After lunch we spent a little time engaging in our favorite town activity – people watching – before heading on to Pisa. We had just a short amount of time to see this famous city and its leaning tower but enjoyed our whirlwind tour.
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