Essays about life in Italy, traveling in Italy, and more
12 Nights in Cetona - Week 1
Saturday afternoon drove on the Autostrada from Levanto to Cetona. Stopped at many Autogrills for coffee and snacks. We had some dark clouds and rain on the drive.
Saturday, September 7 - Arrival in Cetona
Sunny and warm, but some dark clouds and rain on the autostrada through northern Tuscany.
We arrived in Cetona around 6pm and used our cell phone to call Sacha from the main piazza. She walked down from the house, hopped in the car and directed us up the narrow streets, up a steep hill, to park in front of the house. We could only stop there a few minutes to unload the car, then Beppe turned the car around and took Steve back down to show him where to park. The road up to the house is very steep and does a zig zag in front of the house. This was the only time we drove the car up here - not many people drive up this street.
We had met Sacha the year before when she cooked our Slow Travelers lunch (October 2001). Sacha does catering and teaches cooking classes. We had not met her partner Beppe before. Sacha and Beppe bought Torre San Domenico and renovated it a couple of years ago. They lived in it, but are now fixing up another house in town and have turned Torre San Domenico into a vacation rental. Sacha and Beppe are wonderful and showed us all around the house, plus Sacha left detailed notes and phoned a couple of times to be sure all was okay.
Sacha and Beppe walked us down to the main piazza and pointed out their favorite caffe, the bakery they liked, the other good shops and introduced us to the owner of the local restaurant (Osteria Vecchia). It was a lovely introduction to the town were we would be for the next 1 1/2 weeks.
We did some quick grocery shopping before the stores all closed at 8pm.
We wanted to eat at Osteria Vecchia, but they were fully booked, so we went to another restaurant in town - Ristorante Sobborgo. Unfortunately we did not really like this place. It was a bit more upscale than we are used to, the service was rushed and they told us we could order fish, but neglected to mention that you had to order a dish for two (I don't eat fish), so Steve didn't get fish.
I have more details about the house on the next page, but let me say here that this is the nicest place we have ever rented. It was interesting because it is an ancient tower and the living space is on four floors. It was beautifully decorated and furnished. Our bedroom was lovely - spacious with a desk to work at (still doing some work) and a huge window looking out over the countryside. The kitchen was fabulous - so was the rest of the house.
Traveling with friends
This was the first trip to Italy where we had friends with us for part of the trip. Paula and Robert are from Santa Fe (where we live). Paula is an architect and Robert a natural home builder. Paula has wanted to come to Italy for years; Robert I think only went because of Paula. Originally it was only going to be Paula coming with us, but then Robert decided to come. We had to make some changes to our trip plan to have a larger place - we had planned to be near Lucca, but decided that Cetona would work better with the four of us because the house was larger, and it was in a town. Paula and Robert did not want to rent a car - so we thought a house in town would let them spend a day in town if they didn't want to go touring with us.
We tried to get together for a few evenings before we left, to talk about the trip - and we did - but Robert was out of town and it was just us and Paula. We talked about the trip, what it was going to be like, but one thing did not come up - Robert gets car sick. Paula had forgotten and Robert didn't realize we would be driving country roads. So around day 2 together, after a few drives, we realized that this was pretty much a disaster.
Because of a family death, Robert ended up leaving half way through the trip and Paula stayed on with us, so it did end up with us and Paula as we originally planned.
Our conclusions for traveling with friends is that both couples need to rent a car. It wasn't really practical on this trip - Paula and Robert were trying to do the trip cheaply and they don't know Italy, didn't want to drive and wanted us to show them things. It worked great when it was just Paula, but somehow with four people it gets more complicated - getting everyone ready in the morning, making decisions, etc.
The time in Cetona ended up being a bit more rushed than we are used to but part of this was because we had people we wanted to visit. Anyway, here are the details.
Sunday, September 8
Sunny and warm.
We slept late and hung around the house until it was time to pickup Paula and Robert at the train. Drove into Chiusi, but ran into a wine festival - many roads were blocked off. We got lost, then ended up driving almost back to Cetona to get a Chiusi from another angle. Got to the train station on time and found Paula and Robert. They had just spent 3 nights in Rome and had a wonderful time.
We toured Paula and Robert through the house and town. We found a lovely Enoteca just off the main piazza and sampled, and bought, cheese and olive oil. Then we all went out for a lovely dinner at Osteria Vecchia.
Monday, September 9
Sunny and warm.
Steve and I had breakfast at the caffe in town. Paula doesn't drink coffee, but did join us some mornings at the caffe. Robert doesn't drink coffee either and has a morning routine involving several hours of meditation and a protein drink.
We left Robert at his meditation and drove to San Casciano with Paula. We had spent two weeks near this town a couple of years ago and loved the area. We walked down to the public baths, to show them to Paula. Paula was searching for something from a drug store that is not available in the US (some protein something or other), so we started our week long search of every drug store, except the one in Cetona (which would have made the most sense). The drug store in San Casciano did not have what she wanted, but they ordered it.
Back to Cetona (only 15 minute drive) for lunch. In the late afternoon, we all drove to Montepulciano to see San Biagio, then to visit Pienza (shopped at coop), and afterwards to the Sutherlands for dinner.
Had a lovely evening at Bill and Patty Sutherland's house. It is a renovated farmhouse, surrounded by olive groves, on top of a hill with incredible views. Bill and Patty are just wonderful. Judy (DivinaCucina) and Ann (TuscanTraveler) were already there and cooking with Bill and Patty. Gary and Zak (TuscanHouse) arrived shortly after we did.
I am never any good cooking in a group, so Paula helped in the kitchen and Steve and I and Gary and Zak sat on the Sutherland's magnificent porch and chattered. Steve and I have met with Gary and Zak on a few different trips. It was our first time meeting Judy, Ann and the Sutherlands. We sat down to a wonderful dinner. It was great being with this group of people who knew each other online and offline.
Later in the evening, after dinner, Bill took us out to the porch and used a powerful flashlight to point out the different hill towns in the distance. It was incredible - you could see all of them - Pienza, Montepulciano, Montalcino, Bagno Vignoni and the other towns in that area.
It was a long and winding ride back home (45 minutes) and this was when we discovered the extent of Robert's car sickness problem (no hurling, but almost).
Tuesday, September 10
Sunny and warm - one rain shower.
We all headed out to San Casciano in the late morning to go to the pharmacy and pickup the stuff Paula ordered, but it wasn't what she wanted so she didn't get it.
Went to the public baths for a soak. Yesterday we had just walked down to them and looked around. This time we came with towels and bathing suits. We were the only ones there. The water was warm and lovely. You have to change in the bushes, but other than that, it is a nice outdoor hot springs.
Had coffee in the bar in San Casciano that we like so much - Bar Centrale, attached to Ristorante Daniela. They let me take photos of the menu so I can update the web site (and I still have to do that!!).
Drove to Bagno Vignoni for lunch. While we were driving, it poured rain for about 30 minutes. The restaurant we usually go to in Bagno Vignoni was closed so we had sandwiches in the bar. Then we walked up the white road that goes above town towards Ripa d'Orcia. It is a good steep climb and passes a semi-abandoned hamlet that was interesting to explore. From the top of the hill you can look over to Montalcino. We had done this same hike last year (but did a longer version) and liked it.
Stopped at another drug store. They didn't have the stuff Paula was looking for. Drove home and had dinner at home.
By now we are realizing the full extent of Robert's car sickness and that it was going to change the way we had planned the week. Originally they were going to stay with us for the 1 1/2 weeks in Cetona, then we were all going to Vetralla for 1 night, then we were taking them to the airport the next morning. Instead, they decided to spend the next few days with us (but not as much driving) and then they would head off to Florence and maybe Venice and then meet us a the end of our Cetona time. Paula started calling hotels to make bookings.
Wednesday, September 11
Sunny and warm - one rain shower.
We had breakfast at the caffe in town. This is one of the best things about staying in a town - walking out for morning coffee. Plus picking up groceries so easily. Cetona is a fabulous town.
In the morning Steve and I drove to Chiusi to look for the Etruscan tombs that outside of town. We found the tombs on a small road outside of town, but they were closed. You could only see them on certain days of the week and with a guide from the museum in Chiusi.
We drove into the historical center of Chiusi and parked (in a very small spot at the end of a dead-end street - the only spot we could find). We walked around town - Chiusi is a very nice town. We had been here a year or two before and saw the museum then, so we didn't go this time.
Home for lunch. Today was our day to do the La Foce garden tour. Paula and Robert were not interested in that but instead booked an afternoon at the spa in San Casciano. We drove them to the spa and then did an endless drive on slow back roads to La Foce. Sometimes it is hard to figure out what would be the fastest route to a place - this time we really chose wrong.
We were meeting Robert from Santa Monica at La Foce. He was staying there for two weeks with a group of friends - his friends Mary Claire and Mick and their two small children and their nanny and his friend Scuba. They had rented adjoining apartments in one of the La Foce buildings. This was our first time meeting Robert, but I knew him from the message board. Since then we have met him again in Los Angeles and he even got me a wonderful job doing the web site for the bookstore that he manages. But this was our first meeting.
We got to La Foce by 2:30 for the 3pm garden tour. Met Robert and most of the group, had a quick tour of the apartments (fabulous) and grounds (fabulous), then dashed off with Robert and Mick to do the garden tour. Mary Claire caught the next one (I think they are every hour on Wednesday afternoons). Scuba was out exploring the countryside.
The La Foce gardens are beautiful and there was a big crowd for the tour. We waited in a long line in the office to buy tickets, then joined the group. You can only see these gardens on a tour. The gardens are smaller than I expected. The tour took less than an hour. The gardens are in a few areas beside the villa and there are good views towards Monte Amiata and to the road of winding cypresses that the La Foce owners (Iris Origo) had planted to make a pretty view. It was interesting, but I don't know if I can really recommend the tour, unless you are really interested in gardens. But, if you are in the area, it is worth driving by La Foce to see the cypress-lined road and drive down the white road into the estate.
We went back to the apartments where Robert was staying. There are a few apartments in a large building around a central courtyard. You enter the apartments from this courtyard, but there are not tables to hang out at in the courtyard. There are tables in a huge, beautiful lawn area beside the building. At the end of this large lawn area is the swimming pool with views out over the Crete.
We went for a swim and it started to rain. A quick downpour and then the sun was back out. We hopped in our car and followed Robert and Scuba in another car up the dirt roads to a small town on top of a hill - Castiglioncello d. Trinoro. Scuba had "discovered" this town earlier that day when he was driving around the countryside and wanted to show it to us. It was miles from La Foce on a narrow dirt road. Scuba drove very fast - we kept far behind to avoid flying stones. Didn't want to scar our Mercedes!
We thought Scuba was driving way too fast - I even had a dream about it - and Robert told us that they got into an accident later that week on that very same road. Scuba going fast one way, a local person driving just as fast the other way, and they clipped each other.
Castiglioncello d. Trinoro is very small - just a few houses, a restaurant and a caffe perched on the very top of a hill. It turns out that this town was half way between Sarteano, the town next to Cetona, and La Foce. And that it has a very good restaurant that is on Zak's TuscanHouse list. We had coffee and enjoyed the view.
This was a great day. I had always wanted to see some of the La Foce estate. It was great meeting Robert and his group and we found a beautiful town that we would not have found otherwise.
From C. d. Trinoro we got to Sarteano quickly then drove down to San Casciano to get Paula and Robert from the spa. They had enjoyed their spa day. We went out for pizza at Nuova Bottega delle Piazze. The pizza was not as good as I had remembered from being there a couple of years before - which was disappointing - but it is a nice, small, family-run restaurant.
Thursday, September 12
Sunny and warm.
Breakfast at the caffe in town. Today our group was going to Siena. We left at 9:30am, drove to Chiusi and got on the A1 autostrada. There was heavy traffic because of accident. We stopped at the Autogrill and it was packed with people. Traffic was slow and heavy on the Bettole-Siena highway.
We arrived Siena around 11:30. The Il Campo parking lot was full. The parking around Siena gets better organized each year. Now they have huge signs for each lot telling you if it is full. We ended up driving halfway around Siena and parked at the San Francesco lot - the one Rachel recommends in our parking notes on the website. She is right - it is well situated and you take an escalator up into Siena. And there are restrooms by the escalator.
We walked to Il Campo. I still think this is one of the most magical and beautiful spots on the earth. We decided to split up for the afternoon. Steve and I went to our favorite bookstore, Liberia Sense, Via di Citta 62, just above Il Campo. Steve buys detective novels in Italian, I search for the latest self-published books about living in Italy and walking books. On Robert from Santa Monica's suggestion, we picked up "The Green Guide - Tuscany". He says it has much more complete descriptions of art than the Cadogan guide which I usually use (he was right).
We went for a nice lunch to a restaurant that we had loved in 1997, Ristorante Il Biondo, and had tried to go to on a more recent trip, but they had been fully booked. This time we got a nice table sitting outside and had a great lunch.
We have been to Siena many times, and wanted to do something new, so we did part of a city walk from the book "Walking in Italy" by Gillian & John Souter, Interlink Books, 2002. We did part of the walk and did it on the reverse route. We went from Il Campo, to Sant'Agostino (13th cent. church with a Sodoma fresco and Crucifixion by Perugino), to the Botanical Gardens (Orto Botanico - beautiful garden on a slope with views, very peaceful after all the stone and buildings of Siena), then to the Orti di Tolomei (open area with beautiful countryside views), then back to Il Campo. We met Paula and Robert at the Duomo, went into the Duomo to see the mosaic floors, a quick stop in the Piccolomini Library (in the Duomo) to see the Pintoricchio frescoes, then to the Opera Museum.
Robert from Santa Monica had recommended that we see one work in the Opera Museum - The Maesta (Virgin Mary in Majesty) by Duccio, a painting of the Virgin Mary painted in the 1300s. Originally there was a narrative panel on the back, but parts are missing. What remains are also displayed in the room. We bought the Green Guide because it had a good description of these pieces. We looked at a few other things in the museum, but spent most of our time in the room with the Maesta. The narrative panel really is spectacular, with small panels depicting the last days of Christ's life.
After all this, we all went to the Antica Drogheria Manganelli, Via di Citta 71/73 to get some delicacies to bring home (truffled butter, truffled honey, cookies), the caffe/bakery Nannini for coffee, then to the deli Morbidi to get things for supper at home (ravioli, pesto, olives, baked onions, spinach - all good!). We left Siena around 7pm and had our dinner at home. Parking for the day was 9.10 euro.
Siena is a beautiful town, full of great art and architecture. We only see a bit of it on each trip. Someday we will spend a week in Siena and get to know it a bit better.
Friday, September 13
Sunny and warm.
After our big day out yesterday, we slept late today. We had breakfast at the caffe in town - we seemed to do this most days. In places in the countryside, we always have coffee and bread at the house, then head out for the day. In Cetona, we started most days by walking to the caffe, then back to the house.
By now things were beginning to deteriorate with us a group traveling together. Paula was interested in everything, but I think Robert would rather have been at home working. It was either this day or the day before that they got word that Robert's father was in the hospital and perhaps was dying. One night there was a long, loud phone call in the middle of the night (things seemed to echo a bit in the tower) about the situation and we all lost hours of sleep. Paula had booked them into two hotels in Florence (1 night in one, then 2 nights in another - it was all she could find at such short notice), but now it was looking like Robert might have to fly to Canada to be with his family.
Me, Steve and Paula headed out at 11pm to do some exploring. Robert stayed home to avoid the hours in the car. We drove to San Quirico to go to a restaurant that was recommended by people on the message board - Trattoria Al Vecchio Forno. The restaurant is deep into the historic center of San Quirico, but you can follows signs pointing to it. Tables are set up in a large garden where you sit under trees and vines. A few turtles live in the garden! We saw two of them moving about - one was quite large. We had a lovely lunch.
For our lunch, for three mostly vegetarians, we had a great bruschetta, spaghetti with tomato and basil, soup, gnocchi with truffles, contorni (potatoes, spinach), tagliatelli with porcini, grilled vegetables, panna cotta, coffee. No wine. 67 euro for the three of us.
The people who run this restaurant also own the hotel Palazzo del Capitano. They had emailed me a few months earlier, asking to be listed on SlowTrav and inviting me to visit them. So I asked our waiter if he could tell the owner we were here. After lunch, the owner came over to our table and chatted then took us to see the hotel. It is a couple of blocks from the restaurant in a newly restored historic building. We could not see in the rooms because they were fully booked, but the lobby and the garden area were beautiful. We are staying there for two nights on our September 2003 trip.
We walked around San Quirico, found a beautiful church and took some photos. There was a great linen store on the main piazza and they were open even though it was only 4pm!! I rewarded them for their longer than usual shopping hours by buying many linens - kitchen towels, aprons and a beautiful wool throw. You have to spend 154 Euros to qualify for "tax back" - I managed that.
San Quirico is a lovely town. The historic center is beautiful and fully renovated. There is a nice caffe on the main piazza. Many nice stores on the main street and two beautiful old churches. We bought some olive oil at an enotecca. There is a small modern area outside the city walls.
We found the drug store and Paula and Steve went in on Paula's quest for whatever this stuff was (she never did find it, but eventually got it in the US). Paula doesn't speak Italian, so Steve always had to go in with her to translate. This store didn't carry it either, but they spent 30 minutes waiting before they found out.
Drove to Sant'Antimo. Paula loved the abbey and the location. The abbey is 12th century Romanesque Cistercian architecture. I have no idea what that means - but it is a beautiful building. We have been here many times and have heard the monks chanting twice (I have their chanting schedule on the web site). It is situated in a large valley surrounded by hillsides of vines and olive trees.
Drove home by La Foce and the back roads. Robert has dinner waiting for us. He had spent his day exploring Cetona.
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