My lovely memories of Siena

Siena from the distance

Siena from the distance

We were in Tuscany three years ago and what a great time it was to spend two glorious weeks of summer in the almost magical Tuscan countryside.

I’ve blogged about this Tuscan holiday some months ago but not about the lovely city of Siena which my husband and I explored one hot summer day (without Francesca and my parents-in-law who opted for the soothing waters of the swimming pool back at our agriturismo apartment). I can fully understand them as a busy and touristic city is no place for a child and the grandparents on an extremely warm day, with the temperature soaring beyond 40 degrees Celsius.

Siena first came into my consciousness as a 9 year-old, not because of Geography lesson but religion because my parents transferred me and my brother and sister to a Catholic school run by the Dominican sisters of St. Catherine of Siena. I am not a very religious person but it was still mystifying to be in a city which I have always known to exist and more so, to pray inside the basilica right in front of relics of St. Catherine’s earthly existence.

My husband and I enjoyed the whole adventure. The drive to Sienna through a beautiful countryside was something straight out of a movie setting turned a.k.a. Reality — inviting sunflower fields, charming hilltop Medieval villages, vineyards and olive orchards, rolling hills turned golden by the ripening wheat fields dotted by sentinel-looking cypress trees.

It was fun to see and experience a bit of Siena. From the Basilica of St. Catherine, we proceeded to have lunch at a restaurant where we had a good vantage point to observe the city. The restaurant’s interior still boasts of those old days’ charm from the dried peppers hanging on the wall together with the ham, dried sausages, garlic, etc.

Lunch was excellent. I opted for beef carpaccio as a starter and risotto for main course. The carpaccio which was well chilled was simply perfect to have on a very warm day. My husband loved his pizza. Our dessert of an almost melt in the mouth chocolate cake was divine.

We headed next to the centre of Siena. I love the narrow streets, the well-preserved architecture, colorful flowers on pots suspended in the air and the lively atmosphere of the city. I wanted to see the inside of the Duomo but decided not to as there was a long queue and the entry tickets were being sold elsewhere, a typical Italian complexity that is baffling for visitors like me.

We checked some interesting shops — galleries featuring Tuscan landscapes, leather shops, ceramic shops and the most interesting was one whose alchemic practices date back to the Renaissance. This shop’s history even goes back to the time of Catherine de Medici whose use of perfumes and scented soaps was an influence she brought to France when she married Henri II. I couldn’t resist the urge to try some of their products and bought some scented lavender soaps and bath salts to share with my mom-in-law who loves these things a lot.

After a few more ins and outs to the shops, it was time to head back to our agriturismo. A dip in the pool was becoming too irresistible before starting the dinner preparation.

Siena is one city that I’d love to visit again in the future, albeit at a much more pleasant temperature than the 42 degrees Celsius that it was.

Sunflower fields and hilltop Medieval villages from afar

Sunflower fields and hilltop Medieval villages from afar

Sunflower visited by a buzzing friend

Sunflower visited by a buzzing friend

Hubby and me on our way to Siena

Hubby and me on our way to Siena

Tuscan countryside

Tuscan countryside

Rolling hillsides turned gold from the ripening wheat grains dotted by sentinel-looking cypress trees

Rolling hillsides turned gold from the ripening wheat grains dotted by sentinel-looking cypress trees

Olive orchards

Olive orchards

Tuscan countryside

Tuscan countryside

The Basilica of St. Catherine of Siena

The Basilica of St. Catherine of Siena

The Duomo

The Duomo

The restaurant where we had a very nice lunch

The restaurant where we had a very nice lunch

I always find this type of display very inviting

I always find this type of display very inviting

Beef carpaccio starter

Beef carpaccio starter

Pumpkin risotto

Pumpkin risotto

Monstrous pizza ordered by the hubby

Monstrous pizza ordered by the hubby

Melts in the mouth chocolate cake

Melts in the mouth chocolate cake

Cappuccino to keep us awake after the very nice lunch

Cappuccino to keep us awake after the very nice lunch

Can't resist getting a little refreshing relief under the 42 degree Celsius heat

Can’t resist getting a little refreshing relief under the 42 degree Celsius heat

Gallery featuring Tuscan countryside sceneries

Gallery featuring Tuscan countryside sceneries

Shop of leather goods

Shop of leather goods

Shop of religious goods

Shop of religious goods

Italian ceramics

Italian ceramics

Italian ceramics

Italian ceramics

Masks

Masks

Travel guides

Travel guides

Perfumes whose formulas date back to the Renaissance era

Perfumes whose formulas date back to the Renaissance era

Couldn't resist some of these perfumed soaps

Couldn’t resist some of these perfumed soaps

These perfumed bath salts smelled divine

These perfumed bath salts smelled divine

Soaps from the days of the Medicis

Soaps from the days of the Medicis

Dried Italian herbs

Dried Italian herbs

One of the many ancient narrow streets

One of the many ancient narrow streets

At the Piazza del Campo where the Palio de Siena is held twice a year

At the Piazza del Campo where the Palio de Siena is held twice a year

Siena and its famous Torre del Mangia

Siena and its famous Torre del Mangia

A street in Siena

A street in Siena

A street in Siena

A street in Siena

The Basilica of St. Catherine from Siena's city centre

The Basilica of St. Catherine from Siena’s city centre

Nature-tripping at Pelagaccio

Busy bee in action

Apologies for the long absence on my blog. Busy times on both the home and work fronts leave me with hardly any time to sit in front of the pc these days. My husband have to work a great deal of time these days in Belgium so I had to cope with many shared parenting duties single-handedly.

I bring you back to Tuscany which I still remember with so much fondness. The days when we were not out sightseeing were spent lazily by the pool or in my case, indulging in nature-tripping. I love observing the many butterflies and bees out there which are busy hopping among the lavender blooms. The various flowers and ripening fruits also find their way into my camera as well as the simple sight of the Tuscan landscape.

I miss those days under the warm Tuscan sun and the simple pleasures of lunch with bruschettas downed with chilled Italian white wine to the dinner of grilled chicken and beef. The little girl misses the long days of playing under the sun and into the night together with her new friends.

Pale yellow Tuscan roses

Red Tuscan roses

Tangerine Tuscan rose

Butterfly on lavender blooms

Busy bee

Busy bee

Another sort of nectar sucker

A dragonfly

Butterfly on lavender blooms

Butterfly with wings wide open

Busy bee

Bare Tuscan hills after the wheat harvest

Bare Tuscan hills after the wheat harvest

Yellow blooms against the blue sky

Ripening fruits

Ripening fruits

Ripening fruits

Bruschettas

Bruschetta topping – chopped ripe tomatoes with olive oil, salt, pepper and parsley

Chilled white wine to down the lovely bruschettas = perfect lunch

The Grill Master

Grilling T-bone steak marinated in finely chopped garlic and rosemary together with salt, pepper and olive oil

Grilled chicken and T-bone steak

Fun on the swing

Fun with friends

The Leaning Tower of Pisa

The Duomo and the leaning tower of Pisa

After a lazy day yesterday of just being at the pool and not having anything else on the itinerary, we decided to do some sightseeing in Pisa, a place whose claim to fame is its leaning tower. It’s a case of “been there, done that” kind of thing that we can cross off our lists of what to see in Tuscany.

Pisa was about an hour’s drive from Pelagaccio (40+ kilometers with about 20 kilometers on secondary road and the rest was through the highway). The trip took us a bit longer because I got distracted by the sight of sunflower fields with the perfect backdrop and wanted to take some pictures. Unfortunately, the fields that I saw were not accessible, being barricaded by road blocks. Another time I’ll be lucky!

When we reached Pisa, the temperature was hitting the 40’s (Celsius) so it was not so pleasant to go around exploring an unfamiliar place with a very young child. My father-in-law Dad couldn’t stand crowds and busy places, my mom-in-law couldn’t stand the heat and was prone to hyperventilation.

We found a parking area which was pretty close, about 2 blocks away from the Torre Pendente (the Leaning Tower). I had mixed emotions in seeing the tower with my own eyes for the first time. It was like stepping into a dream because I never thought that I would even see this place for real. What came to mind was a story in my high school science class of Galileo conducting an experiment of dropping two objects of different mass from the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa to test his theory of gravity.

The tower was not as high as those other towers where I´ve been but the leaning was very obvious. What was striking about the place itself was the amazing contrast of all the elements – the tower and the duomo were all built from white marble that glistened against the blue sky creating an amazing picture.

Pisa was extremely busy with many people all wanting to execute poses of either holding off the tower from leaning further or of holding the tower from top to bottom in their hands. I tried to do the same but wasn´t very good at it as you can see from my pictures. My father-in-law won´t do that pose either but my mom-in-law did her own version.

After the photoshoot with the tower in the background, we decided to see the interior of the duomo. Unfortunately, we needed to first get entry tickets which were being sold at the museum about 100 meters away. Hubby went to get the tickets while we waited in the shade at the church entrance.

The interior of the duomo was impressive with those frescoes, paintings and murals that really told much of its history. Francesca loved it being inside the duomo although she also did naughty stuffs — jumping, talking too loud, pointing at things she found interesting and climbing the pews. It was very strict there when it came to the dress code – visitors who were deemed inappropriately dressed such as women in sleeveless blouses and plunging necklines were asked to put on the light blue blouses that can cover their naked arms and cleavages.

After the church visit, it was time for lunch. We found a restaurant nearby where we can rest our tired feet and chill out after the exasperating heat outside. The menu was simple and the prices were reasonable considering that the restaurant location was a typical tourist trap. Hubby and his mom opted for pizza, Dad for tuna sandwich, the little girl had her fries with fried eggs sunny side up and I settled for the grilled shrimps and squid on a bed of salad. I truly enjoyed my meal especially as I can dissect and suck the shrimp heads Pinoy style with gusto. Lunch was capped with some cappuccino and of course, tiramisu which was really yummy. The bottom was an ice cream, again a different version from the tiramisu that I´ve eaten before.

Then it was time to head back to Pelagaccio as the little girl needed her afternoon nap for we had an invite for the pasta party at Diacceroni in the afternoon.

The Baptistry, the Duomo and the Leaning Tower of Pisa

The Duomo and the Leaning Tower

My parents-in-law

My family minus me

Holding off the tower but missed! ;-)

Father and daughter

Our family

Holding off the tower from further leaning…

The leaning tower

Top of the tower

Details of the main door of the Duomo

Duomo interior

Duomo interior

Duomo interior

Duomo interior

Duomo interior

Duomo interior

Taking a break…

Intricate craftmanship

The confessional

Church ceiling

One of the altars — Madonna and child

The altar

Oma and Francesca

Couldn’t resist being a child inside the Duomo…

The little girl and her tricks…

Horsey encounter… ;-)

The little girl and the Baptistry behind

Part of the wall surrounding the Duomo

Detail of the wall inside the restaurant

Grilled seafood on a bed of salad

Pizza

Souvenir items

Fake designer bags being peddled by African immigrants — they almost took my camera because they don’t want this picture taken

Father and daughter making a purchase…

…wiggly spiky ball

Funny aprons ;-)

Funny aprons… ;-)

Trying a hat…

Laid-back life under the Tuscan sun

Misty morning

After a busy day in Florence and staying late for the pizza party and the subsequent football match, we took it easy the following day, just stayed at Pelagaccio, went for a dip at the pool and simply enjoyed the laid-back Tuscan life away from the pressures of work and the rigors of daily life.

I oftentimes had to be reminded to take it easy once in a while and as we were here for two weeks, there was plenty of time still for sightseeing. Francesca’s needs should also be given top consideration. Hers were different from our own and the trips to busy places were not her thing. She just loves it here choosing among several alternatives at her disposal – swimming at the pool, playing at the playground, cycling on her trike or assembling her lego blocks and puzzles.

It was again a very misty morning and I’ve been meaning since a few days ago to take some pictures of this phenomenon. It was always misty in the morning due to the temperature drop during the night and it was amazing to observe how the mist eventually disappeared as the fierce Tuscan sun made its way.

What a lovely sight to see when the hills were all covered in mist, even Pelagaccio was hardly visible from the pool which was but a few yards away. I found myself taking pictures not just of the landscape around me but of the flowers which after the routine morning watering looked like they had just been kissed by the rain.

After breakfast, it was time for a dip in the pool. I joined for a short while but did not linger because my left foot which has blister from previous day’s hike over the hills (I did not wear proper shoes in that hike) was irritated by the lightly salted pool water. I don’t know why but the pool water here was a bit salty. Francesca as usual, had a grand time especially when opa and oma later came and joined in on the fun.

I volunteered to instead prepare lunch, inspired by the meal I had in Florence the day before. We still had left over bread from which I could make the bruschetta. From the grocery this morning, I got some parsley and tomatoes. Wow, lunch turned out to be a great success!

To make the bruschetta, I sliced the bread to about half an inch thickness and sprinkled that with extra virgin olive oil and added a small amount of finely chopped garlic. In essence, bruschetta is garlic bread. I fried/roasted the bread in a flat-bellied Teflon pan till it was brown and crispy. For the toppings, I chopped some tomatoes, added some finely chopped garlic and parsley, extra virgin olive oil and seasoned that with salt and pepper. With some chilled white wine to down the bruschetta al pomodori with, we all had a great fill and then it was time for the afternoon siesta.

At about 5pm, hubby and Francesca were again back at the pool for that before dinner swim to create some appetite especially for the little girl who has all the time for playing but no time for food. She reminded me of my own childhood where when the opportunity to play arises, eating and other considerations would surely take a back seat. Oh well, we had to make the most of this opportunity which is not an every day thing. Having a pool at our disposal, a playground and to top it all, the time to unwind and forget the rigors of daily life are rare pleasures for which we should spare time to savor.

Dinner that night was hubby’s turf – pasta. He made used of penne and prepared a very yummy red sauce made from sautéing garlic, onions, tinned peeled tomatoes and some leftover salami. He got some dried mushrooms from the grocery this morning but did not use that because it required 20 minutes soaking in cold water for which he had no time. There was also no basil leaves from that small shop so he made use of parsley which was just as nice. On the side was the mozzarella cheese with fresh tomatoes sprinkled with olive oil, salt and pepper and topped with more chopped parsley. I made some more garlic bread from the leftovers. A bottle of chilled white wine proved to be an excellent companion to our splendid dinner under the trees.

Visibility of just a few meters — the mist shrouds the hills farther

Misty morning

The sun peering through the mist

Misty morning … hills in the distance not visible

View of the Tuscan countryside once the mist was gone

pink blooms

Pale yellow Tuscan rose

Pink Tuscan rose

Pink oleander

Courgette bloom

Orange daisy

Pale yellow Tuscan rose

Unripe grapes

Rosebud

Drops

A spider in its web

A yellow butterfly perched on lavender blooms

A white butterfly

White butterfly in transit

Busy bee

Busy bee

Father and daughter at the pool

Little girl and oma

Little girl and oma

Pool fun with the grandparents

Hubby on the inflatable dolphin

The dolphin flipped over ;-)

The little girl has more expertise on handling the dolphin than her father

Francesca with opa and oma

Bruschetta made from leftover bread

Hubby’s version of salade caprese

Penne with tomato sauce and salami

Pizza party at Diacceroni

Simple pizza with courgette toppings

City trip to Florence under the scorching heat was exhausting. It was great to escape and be back to the laid back countryside atmosphere at Pelagaccio and Diacceroni. We arrived at Pelagaccio after 4pm, just in time to freshen up for the 5pm pizza party at Diacceroni.

The pleasant surprise we had in staying here are the 3x per week free meals for all the guests with different themes. Saturday is for all sorts of Italian dishes – pasta, pizza, bread, tempura of aubergine, courgette and courgette blooms, bruschettas with toppings of tomatoes with olive oil and finely chopped parsley or anchovies with finely chopped garlic and mashed aubergine. As usual, we only have to pay for the drinks – beer for the guys and white wine for the ladies. Their white wine chilled to perfection is amazingly good that my mom-in-law and I always forget it has alcohol content. Cost about €6, I was early on our stay already contemplating if I would bring a couple of bottles back home. A great drink, I can taste the fruity and flowery elements in it.

The pizza party was a great experience. Everyone was there. The tables were all assembled in one long line between the olive trees forming like one continuous banquet table. We were seated at the end of the line which was perfect because we were also closest to the playground and therefore had an excellent oversight of Francesca. The little girl was in her element being among other children and at the playground. One thing that she loved about the playground here at Diacceroni was the “spring kussen” as it is called in Dutch or literally “jumping pillow” but which the Scots call “jumping castle”. She could jump to her heart’s content.

The pizzas were prepared in a special pizza hut on the grounds of Diacceroni. The hut has a wood-fired oven and the pizza was fed into it and the cooking process just took a few minutes. It was amazing how they prepare the pizza and was completely different from the way pizza has been conceptualized outside Italy. The “mamas” made the dough and just flattened them to the right thickness and then place them in rectangular trays. Toppings varied from just plain extra virgin olive oil then salt and pepper to thin slices of courgette, aubergine or red onions which were later drizzled with olive oil, salt and pepper. Other toppings were that of tomato sauce and capers with some bits of mozzarella cheese. Oh, I can tell you that the pizzas were the best even with just the plain dough which was airy and crispy.

One of the Italian “mamas” gave the children pieces of the pizza dough to fashion their own creations and later bake them as well in the oven. Great idea! Some kids created heart-shaped pizzas engraved with their initials. We had a great time from this pizza experience. Not being a big pizza fan, I had my initial misgivings that a pizza party can be fun. I was utterly and completely wrong!

Time flies when we are having so much fun. Soon it was time to head back to Pelagaccio as Francesca needed to go to bed. Oh well, we were in a huge dilemma to stay a bit longer because at 8.30pm, the semi-final World Cup game between Holland and Uruguay will be shown. There was no TV or internet connection at Pelagaccio.

The voice of reason prevailed so we headed back to Pelagaccio for Francesca. Opa and Oma were happy to bring her to bed (she has been sleeping with them since the start of our holiday and won’t sleep with us) so hubby and I returned to Diacceroni for the football match – on foot and with a flashlight, a must as there was no moonlight to lighten up our path nor light posts. Oh, so rural that I kept on being reminded of those early years of my childhood when there was no electricity yet and the night light came only from moonlight or those Molotov cocktails that people used then when there was a need to travel at night on foot or with the carabao-pulled carts.

To reach Diacceroni from Pelagaccio on foot was to traverse two hills and was actually a pleasant experience because we had such a splendid view of our own place silhouetted in the sunset complemented by the chirping of the crickets and the humming of the birds as they prepare to call it a day in their nests or favorite branches in the trees.

We arrived at 8.45pm, just in time for Holland’s first goal and those already there watching the games were cheering for Holland and jumping off their seats. The TV and the channel receiver were set up in the garden so it was a novel experience to watch football under the stars. I could not helped but get consumed by the raging orange fever just like everyone there of other nationalities who rooted for Holland too. At the first half of the match, it was time for more drinks. Hubby had another glass of beer while I settled for water having had half a bottle of wine already earlier.

Holland’s win over Uruguay was a great culmination to a wonderful day. Everyone had happy expression on their faces. Time to head back to Pelagaccio. Night has fallen and only the stars were there to guide us on our way back.

Pippo, the sweet dog which befriended Francesca and everyone at our place decided to come with us on our way back. He also patiently stayed with me the other day when I took a short walk to take sunset pictures of Pelagaccio. Very loyal and sweet dog on whom I’ve fallen in love too, just as Francesca and everyone have.

Walking back under the stars reminded me of one short story in my Philippine literature class, that of Manuel Arguilla’s “How my brother Leon brought home a wife”. It has been a long time since hubby and I had taken a walk together under the stars reminiscent of those days when we’ve just met each other on the beaches of El Nido in Palawan. Too romantic!

Life in the west as we call it has been about haste and expediency. It was nice to go back to the basics once in a while, to be away from the conveniences of modern life like the TV and internet, to do away with the car and instead take a hike through the hills. Without all these distractions, it was amazing to appreciate nature and life in all its simplicity – from the stars to the fireflies, to the music created by crickets, frogs and birds, the only sound that can be heard in the stillness of the night.

The hut with the wood-fired oven for baking the pizza

Francesca making her personalized pizza

Freshly-baked pizza taken out of the oven

Pizza with tomato sauce and capers

Pizzas

Trays of pizza waiting for their turn in the wood-fired oven

The pizza party guests

The little ones having fun at the “spring kussen”

The little ones at the mini-swing

The little one with oma

The little one lording it over at the slide

Hibiscus at Diacceroni

Pomegranate blooms which the kids love to pluck from the tree

A very young pomegranate fruit

Sunset at Pelagaccio

Pelagaccio as viewed from the next hill

We hiked through these hills at sunset and back late in the night

Sunset and Pelagaccio in the distance

Sunset

Tuscan sunset

Stopping for a bit of rest through our hike over the hills

Stopping for a bit of rest through our hike over the hills

Renaissance Florence

Florence

The nice thing about going on holiday together with my parents-in-law was that hubby and I could have our twosome day out especially to a busy city like Florence which would have been miserable to our little girl who has no interest yet in history.

A very busy city which was a far departure from the tranquil countryside that we’ve gotten so used to, we opted to take it easy as the sweltering heat of 40°C was not that pleasant for a very thorough sightseeing. Our exploration of the city started with an unplanned side trip to a market where I found an accessible toilet. We lingered a bit at the market as I was fascinated by the many things that can be found there. It was a pretty interesting exploration as the Italian just like the Spanish and Philippine markets also sell stuffs which can be very offensive to the Dutch sensibility – cow’s stomach lining (oftentimes used for dishes like callos), tongue (lengua stofado), intestine (“dinuguan” or bloody Mary), etc. There were also nice stuffs like those huge Italian cheeses, sausages, wines, pasta, dried mushrooms, and much more.

Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance has always fascinated me since high school when I had my world history subject. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever thought that one day I would be here. I would have loved to go inside the Duomo, visit the museums and really take my time to explore the city but the sweltering heat was just too much. Florence would be perfect for a pure city trip another time.

On the drive to Florence, I already told the hubby that I wanted to eat the famous “bistecca ala Florentina” which is a T-bone steak and is known to be the best in the country. Good choice but it was a huge piece of about half a kilo which he and I eventually shared. The resto where we had lunch was just in front of the Piazza de la Signorina so there was a bit of “highway robbery” for unsuspecting tourists like us.

At the very start, hubby was served a huge glass of about half a liter beer and looking at the other diners, I cannot help but wonder why every one was getting huge servings of drinks. Even children were getting big colas of half liters. Later it turned out that the beer cost almost €10, cappuccino at €5.80, etc….Well, a simple lunch for 2 can easily cost €100 if one is not conscious of the prices and why the servings are on the big/max side. Anyway, dessert was perfect – chocolate cake with layers of dark chocolates in between that melt in the mouth.

By the time that we were done with lunch, the sky has already darkened and there was the threatening downpour. We decided to just have a bit of a walk towards the Arno river which is a special feature of Florence. I’ve been charmed by the postcards and pictures I’ve seen of Florence with its enchanting bridges. Too bad that we could not linger a bit longer as we had to be back for the pizza party at Diacceroni at 5pm. It must be so enchanting to see Florence at sunset and at night time when the city basked in the evening lights. Another time, another season…then I’ll also explore the Duomo, the museums, the Medici villas and gardens.

Time to head back to the garage where we parked the car. Car parking was quite pricey at €5 an hour. It was valet parking so we have to leave the key with the garage owner. Again, something new and uncommon for us.

I loved the drive back to Pelagaccio. Who won’t be charmed by the beckoning sunflower fields?

Dried mushrooms — just soak it in cold water for 20 minutes and then it is a perfect meat replacement for pasta dishes

Dried sausages or “salamis”

Italian cheeses

Italian wines and spirits

Beef tripes used for stew dishes like “callos”

Leather bags everywhere

Busy open market scene

One of the many stalls for Italian souvenirs

Italian artworks

Medici Chapel

The Duomo behind me

The Duomo

The Mr. and me with the Duomo and Baptistry of St. John behind

A stall selling postcards and other souvenirs outside the Duomo

The Duomo which showcases intricate Gothic style was begun in 1296 and completed structurally in 1436. Amazing to see how it has stood the test of time to this day.

Horse-drawn carriages at the Piazza del Duomo

Piazza della Signorina and Palazzo Vecchio

Piazza della Signorina and Palazzo Vecchio

A replica of Michaelangelo’s David

Every tourist wants to touch this beast but I did not feel like queuing for it.

bruschetta al pomodoro — after having this in Florence, it became our staple at Pelagaccio.
Easy to make: For the bread, just slice leftover bread to about 2 cm. of thickness, sprinkle it generously with extra virgin olive oil then fry in a flat-bellied pan until brown and crispy. For the toppings, chop the tomatoes coarsely then season it with salt, pepper, extra virgin olive oil and finely chopped parsley.

Bistecca a la Florentina

Chef’s salad consisting of tomatoes, mozarella, ham and olives. Pretty bland actually. I prefer the caprese salad.

The cappuccino that can almost break the bank at Eur 5.80

Melts in the mount chocolate cake

Intricate interior of a building at the Piazza

Terrace restaurants in Florence

Arno river running through Florence

Me with Ponte Vecchio (old bridge) behind. This bridge was built in 1345 and was Florence’s first bridge across the Arno River and is the only surviving bridge from medieval days.

Love locks

`The Mr. and Arno River

Me and the Arno River

Curious of what are housed on the covered Ponte Vecchio, it is lined with shops selling gold and silver jewelry.

The Mr. and me at Ponte Vecchio

Florence

Roadside scenery on the way back to our agriturismo – sunflower fields and quaint Italian farm houses

Tuscan sunset at Pelagaccio

Tuscan sunset

The nice thing about staying in an agriturismo was that it was possible to escape the madness of crowded places like the earlier part of the day we spent in Volterra and retreat to the tranquil of Pelagaccio. There was the pool for a dip to tame the scorching heat and then the simple beauty of the countryside to take us back to another place and time.

The little girl was just so happy to be back to Pelagaccio playing with Pippo (the sweet dog belonging to the agriturismo) and then with 2 other kids at the playground. Who won’t have fun in such a place, a playground with so much space?

Tuscan sunset never fails to amaze. That crimson ball in the horizon which would eventually disappear through the Tuscan hills and leaves behind a sky of various shades from purple, red, pink, and gold, eventually giving way to darkness and a night sky of millions of stars.

Before dinner, I just found myself taking a short walk on the dirt road leading to and from Pelagaccio and took more pictures. I wanted to take pictures of Pelagaccio from a distance and at sunset with the fading light giving it a different charm and glow. It was amazing to also take pictures of the village of Fabbricca close to nightfall as the many pictures I took of this village was at the height of the day. There was a different kind of wonder and amazement to see the silhouette of Tuscan hills in the fading light, to hear the birds and crickets even under pain of being bitten by some nasty flies.

On this little excursion, Pippo proved his loyalty by providing me excellent company which was very reassuring in such a very unfamiliar terrain.

Tuscan sunset

Tuscan vineyard at sunset

Tuscan sunset

Pelagaccio from the distance

Agriturismo Pelagaccio from the distance

Tuscan hills in late afternoon

Small vineyard close to the entrance of Pelagaccio

Vineyard and the village of Fabbricca up the hill

Agriturismo Pelagaccio at sunset

Francesca

Father and daughter

Children’s playground

Kids playing with Pippo

Sweet Pippo

Francesca and Pippo

The little girl and her favorite dog

Fun at the swing

Fun at the table football

Fun at the slide

Fun at the slide

Luscious fruits ripening under the the Tuscan sun

Unripe grapes

Yellow blooms

Red blooms

Tuscan roses

Little girl at sunset

Little girl and Pippo

Volterra

Volterra

After a relaxing day spent at the pool and not doing much after that, we were off to some sightseeing. Volterra is one town that we can see from the distance, perched on top of a hill. The strange thing about driving in Italy is that while we can see Volterra from our place and seems so nearby, to get there through those circuitous roads through the hills takes a lot longer. In a straight line, I guess Volterra is just about 7 kilometers.

Volterra is an Etruscan town and many artifacts from that period had survived to this day. The town was very nice but we took it easy because of Francesca. It was just fun to look at the shops and see Italian goodies. One thing that Volterra is known for is its alabaster so a lot of shops sell souvenir items made of it. I bought some small stuffs (a jewelry box and a pendant in the form of a lady bug for Francesca) and Mam Sil got for herself a small ash tray.

We went inside the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta which was pretty cool, a great respite from the sweltering Tuscan heat. Francesca wanted to linger there but the caretaker of the church has asked everyone to leave – the church was closing for the day. Francesca was furious!

It was then time for lunch. We found an Italian version of the Pinoy “turo-turo” where there was an incredible choice of Italian specialties. Me and my mom-in-law Mam opted for something vegetarian which turned out to be so yummy that I ended up asking for the recipe to give it a try back home. Aubergine and courgette hallowed and filled with carrots, peas, potatoes sautéed in olive oil, garlic, ginger and a bit of basil leaves topped with parmesan cheese and egg then baked in the oven. With bread on the side, the dish was just perfect.

My husband opted for the simple spaghetti with fresh tomato sauce and basil leaves. So simple yet very delish! For Francesca we ordered a pasta with white sauce (she doesn’t like the red sauce) but she did not have the appetite for it, spoiled by the Italian gelato which she had earlier. My father-in-law had his fried quartered potatoes and sautéed string beans to be on the safe side (no garlic please!) yet there was plenty of finely chopped garlic in those beans! It tasted so well that he finished it nonetheless. We were so hungry though that I forgot to take pictures of those lovely dishes. ;-)

For dessert, we went to a small patisserie and had the typical Italian tiramisu and some cake.

Volterra

Facade of an old church

Town square of Volterra

Palazzo dei Priori

Palazzo dei Priori

A closer look at the walls of the Palazzo show these emblems

Palazzo dei Priori

Old buildings

A street name that gives men the creeps ;-)

Souvenir shops

Outside a souvenir shop

Inside a souvenir shop

Home-made soaps

Inside the souvenir shop

Italian delis – wine, olive oil, bread, pasta, etc.

Italian delis

Open air restaurants

Amazing choices of gelato at a typical Gelateria or “ice cream parlor”

The little girl enjoying her strawberry gelato

Inside the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta

Lighted candles inside the cathedral

An altar inside the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta

A gallery selling Tuscan landscape paintings

Torture museum ;-)

Museum

Narrow medieval street

Old door

Green door

The way to the Palazzo

A small chapel

Volterra

Italian tiramisu

Piece of cake

Relaxing under the Tuscan sun and skies

Tuscan countryside early in the morning

While sitting under the tree and enjoying the cool breeze blowing off the 40°C heat, I can’t help but wonder why we’ve never gone to Tuscany before. Our next door neighbor in Holland has been going to Tuscany year after year, staying in the same place over the last 10 years and I used to wonder why they never go elsewhere when there are simply hundreds if not thousands of amazing destination in Europe.

The place is simply stunning and now I can understand why there has always been so much buzz about Tuscany and life under the Tuscan sun, why the place has been gloriously immortalized and romanticized in many books and movies (the recent and pretty popular one being “Under the Tuscan Sun” by Frances Mayes and its movie version starred Diane Lane).

At 360° around me and under clear blue skies, my vista consisted of rolling hills lined with cypress trees, blooms of various kind (geraniums, oleanders, roses, lavender, jasmines, etc.), which charm butterflies of incredible colors, bees and other flies, quaint old villages on which time seemed to have stood still, vineyards, olive groves and wheat fields gone gold.

We’re pretty far from the highway, the only sound that can be heard of are the birds and crickets, occasional cars in the dirt road and the churning of the combined harvesters harvesting the wheat.

Is this life under the Tuscan sun? Pretty laid back and the only thing we can do is sit down and relax, dip in the pool to cool down the Tuscan heat and let time pass by over glasses of chilled prosecco with those delish Italian cheeses on the side.

The place we are staying is an apartment in Agriturismo Pelagaccio. It is a typical Tuscan farmhouse with a small annex building divided into a total of 8 apartments on a 200-hectare property. There is enough privacy just as there is enough company, a perfect balance. (I remember staying on a Centre Parcs holiday home in Germany which I found to be extremely busy and on an isolated holiday home in Normandy which at Francesca’s age now, she would have found too lonesome as she loves the company of other kids).

The place is just ideal with a playground that meets Francesca’s approval and the perfectly situated swimming pool that I’ve ever seen – on top of a hill with a 360° panorama of the Tuscan landscape.

Everyone except me had already tried the pool this morning. I just had fun taking snapshots of everyone and everything – from Francesca, Siefko, Opa and Oma to the Tuscan landscape and those amazing butterflies which cast their spell on me and my cam.

After swimming, Siefko and I headed to Volterra for the groceries (Italian supermarkets are open on Sunday from 8-13 hrs) plus we needed to gas up because our car was running short on petrol. Good that in another village before Volterra (La Sperza) there was a petrol station where we can gas up but it was self-service and the machine would only accept small Euro bills and not bank or credit cards.

We reached the Coop supermarket in Volterra just in the nick of time. It was kind of weird to shop in another country given the language barrier. Doing the self-service thing on those veggies (weighing but the names are in Italian and most times there are no pictures on the weighing scale for the stuff) is like solving a riddle.

Dinner was such a very anticipated affair as the idea of barbeque became a foregone conclusion – grilled pork Pinoy style (in short, “inihaw na baboy” which were thick slices of pork belly marinated in garlic, vinegar, salt, pepper and a bit of soy sauce), grilled aubergine and paprika which I seasoned with olive oil, salt and pepper, fresh salad of lettuce, tomatoes and cucumber with the simple dressing of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper — served with steamed rice, beer for the guys and ice-cold white wine for the ladies. That was at almost 10pm as we forgot the passing of time under the Tuscan skies.

Tuscan countryside — view from the pool

View of Pelagaccio from the pool

Tuscan countryside

Tuscan countryside

Tuscan countryside

The medieval village of Fabbricca as viewed from the pool — we go there each morning for bread and other supplies

Cypress trees

Tuscan countryside

The path leading to the swimming pool

Location-wise, no pool can be far better than this…on top of a hill with an unobstructed view of the Tuscan countryside

Perfect place to cool down the 40-degree Celsius heat

Fun in the pool for everyone

Father and daughter

Oma joined in the fun

Opa, Papa and the little girl

Enjoying the cool waters

Father and daughter

Father and daughter

The family

Finally I joined in the pool party

Tuscan roses

Tuscan rose

Fiery red roses

Yellow blooms

Pink oleanders

Tuscan roses

Butterfly

Butterfly

White butterfly among the lavenders

Butterfly

Butterfly

Butterfly

Butterfly

Unripe grapes

Tuscan horses

Pelagaccio

The barbeque man

Grilled pork belly

Tuscany

Tuscan countryside

Time to think of warm sunny days especially as the dismal Dutch spring this year is already making not just me but a lot of people edgy. Spring is already mid-way but the nice days we had so far can be counted on my fingers with the single best one being last 30 April when we celebrated Queen’s Day.

On this blog and the few more to come, I will take you to Tuscany, to those warm days that me and my family enjoyed under the Tuscan sun charmed by its amazing countryside and picturesque medieval towns and cities.

It was almost two years ago (early July 2010) when went to Tuscany for a two-week holiday. We stayed at an agriturismo (these are actually farmhouses converted into apartments). Staying in these farmhouses is the best way to experience Tuscany because we really had a good feel of the Tuscan/Italian way of life.

We made the trip from Holland to Italy in two days because my husband did all the driving (1,400 kms) and Francesca being still very young then needed more frequent stops for diaper change, feeding and drinks. My parents-in-law also joined us on this holiday which was also great — we had so much fun on the road. We spent the night in Lucerne, Switzerland staying in a Hilton Express Hotel not so far from the highway.

Weather was unbelievably warm so I really enjoyed the drive through and short stay in Switzerland. Hubby and I holidayed in Switzerland in the past and really loved it there except for the unpredictable weather which can simply dampen the country’s charm. To see this picturesque country under blue skies and with the alps glimmering in the distance was just amazing.

We finally arrived in Tuscany at around 5pm, with some confusion at finding our agriturismo because we realized then that even with the recently upgraded navigation system information, it was hard to find the place because the dirt road leading to it was not on the map (holiday makers staying at agriturismos in Italy can always be recognized through their dusty cars compared to those staying in hotels). There were 3 agriturismo locations that belong to the chain that we booked and the reception/registration was at Diacceroni (we were booked at Pelagaccio). We had to wait for about an hour to get our registration sorted out, the caretaker of Pelagaccio took some time to come over and lead us to our apartment.

I was happy to take some pictures while waiting. The vista around me was amazing — Tuscan hills carpeted with wheat turned gold and ready to be harvested, vineyards, olive groves, distant hilltop villages from Medieval times, cypress trees lining up dirt roads leading to Tuscan hamlets.

Francesca found an instant playmate in an English boy whom she was able to convince that stone-throwing was a fun game.

We were told that there was a free Italian party that night at 7pm for all the guests. We only have to pay for the drinks. What a great surprise! We followed the caretaker to Pelagaccio and the drive took about 15 minutes. We took out our stuffs from the car and headed back again to Diacceroni. There was a very festive atmosphere and guests of various nationalities (Europeans as I was the only exotic-looking creature there) were engaged in friendly getting-to-know chitchat.

Food was great consisting of Italian dishes which were surprisingly vegetarian — pasta in tomato sauce, breads, bruschettas with toppings of fresh tomatoes, anchovies with mushroom and garlic, omelets with vegetables, and tempuras of aubergine, courgette and courgette blooms.

Tables were scattered at Diacceroni grounds planted with olive trees, hibiscus, pomegranates, lavenders, oleanders, cypress, figs, etc.

The kids had a great time running around and playing at the playground. Francesca’s fave was the “spring kussen” or the jumping castle as the Scots’ acquaintance of ours call them.

Diaccerroni agriturismo

Tuscan countryside

Tuscan countryside – view from Diacceroni

Tuscan countryside

artichoke

Pink oleanders

Peach colored oleanders

Red oleanders

White gardenias

Pink Tuscan rose

Pink hibiscus

Pomegranate bloom

Francesca and a new friend

Stone-throwing game

Adventurous girl looking out at the pigs down the hill

A black bird in the olive tree

Dinner under the Tuscan sky

Tuscan food

Courgette (zuccini) omelet

thinly sliced bread topped with fresh tomatoes mashed with olive oil, salt and pepper

Potato omelet

thinly sliced bread topped with anchovies, olives, basil leaves

Courgette tempura

Eggplant omelet

freshly made pasta with tomato sauce and basil leaves

thinly sliced bread with olive oil, salt and pepper

Tuscan sunset

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