5 days in Tuscany (Florence, Siena, San Gimignano, Greve in Chianti)

Tuscany – Florence, Siena, San Gimignano, Greve in Chianti
{Restaurant and Wine Bar Suggestions at the end}

Thursday cont’d – Coming from 4 days in Rome, we arrived via train to the Renaissance capital. We jumped into Florence with our art history hats on as well as a discerning palate.   (Note: purchase tickets to the central Santa Maria Novella train station, just a 10 minute walk to the Duomo).  We arrived at Hotel Perseo Firenze in the late afternoon.  Our room was on the 4th floor and while some had views of the Duomo, ours had a view of the Florence rooftops – including a nearby beautiful belltower.  Delicious breakfast is included with the room, including pastries, meats, cheeses, Nutella, and cappuccinos.  The bedroom and bathroom were large and the WiFi worked in our room.  The hotel is steps from the Duomo and we found it convenient to walk everywhere.  It’s also located across the street from the BNP Paribas cash machine (affiliated with Bank of America, so no fees).

View from Firenze Hotel PerseoView from Hotel Perseo 2

After settling into the hotel, we took a stroll past the Duomo, across the Arno river, and up the very steep hill to Piazzale Michelangelo.  We watched the sunset from this magnificent vantage point surrounded by Americans studying abroad, reveling in drinking wine in public.  We chose to stop for a glass of wine at a wine bar before dinner instead.

Piazza Michelangelo, view

Friday – Siena and San Gimignano

We booked a bus trip to Siena and San Gimignano through Viator; neither are readily accessible by train.  Siena and Florence have a historic rivalry, but Florence always won.  Eventually, the Medici conquered Siena and fostered a competitive horse race among the neighborhoods “contrade” in Siena.  Citizens belong to a contrade based on where they are born; these range from a dragon to a fish to a caterpillar.  Here are the shields that each contrade use in the annual horse race in Piazza del Campo.

Contrada symbols, Siena

The Siena Duomo (Gothic) was begun in the 13th century, but construction changed significantly and the church is now an “L”.  The front façade is truly stunning with Byzantine, Romanesque and Gothic elements.  The interior columns are intricately sculpted, and the detailed marble floor took 200 years to complete.  Don’t miss the amazing side room with old books in great condition, gorgeous ceilings, and brilliant Pinturicchio frescoes (1450-1509).

Duomo, Siena (3) Duomo, Siena

We were also taken to the Opera Metropolitano (1308-1311) to view the masterpiece fresco by Duccio “Madonna and Child Enthroned” as well as 26 square panels, originally on the back of the fresco.  The faces are life-like, yet the artist used perspective limitedly.  This juxtaposition of artistic talent with the basic art we learned in 6th grade clearly demonstrates how art has changed over time.  Interestingly, the bookstore is covered with frescoes painted with oil – an unsuccessful endeavor.

For lunch, we ate on Piazza del Campo (the site of the horse races).  It is near impossible to visualize how a horse race could be held in this small plaza, let alone with thousands of spectators!  A chocolate festival was in town when we visited, allowing a delicious sampling of local artisans.

Piazza del Campo, Siena

San Gimignano is sometimes referred to as the Manhattan of Europe since it has some of the oldest standing “skyscrapers”.  However, the towers do not have windows.  The city is perfectly Tuscan-quaint; the streets are windy and the local stores are adorable.  It is quite easy to get lost. We spent an hour quietly wandering through the town in the afternoon (supposedly the majority of tourist buses from Florence come in the morning and visit Siena in the afternoon).

San Gimignano from park San Gimignano San Gimignano streetsSan Gimignano storeSant’Agostino church (15th century) was pleasant and felt like an authentic parish.  The Benozzo Gozzoli frescoes over the choir of the church (around the altar) detail St. Augustine’s life and one can get very close to the frescoes.

Saturday – Upon suggestion by the hotel, we had reserved entrance to the Uffizi for first thing in the morning and were able to get a jump start on viewing its masterpieces.  Having learned about the Medici Family before our visit to Florence helped me to appreciate the history of the building as well as the art contained within.  My favorites: 1) Giotto frescoes and paintings (life-like skin coloration, shading for the time), 2) Botticelli Birth of Venus and Primavera (breathtaking to see detail in person instead of an art book), 3) Raphael Madonna of Goldfinch. I was introduced to Zuccari and Correggio whose use of lighting and perspective were a treat.  The museum has some foreign painters that are worth a quick visit (particularly Greco, Rubens, Rembrandt, Bruegel).  We indulged in a 2nd cappuccino in a cafe on the roof of the Uffizi.

View from Uffizi, Firenze

After lunch we visited the Battistero and Duomo.  The Battistero has 4th century foundations, but its bronze doors were the result of a competition between Ghiberti and Brunelleschi.  The detail on the doors is exquisite.  The Duomo is the largest dome built before the 19th century and was completed by Brunelleschi after many others had unsuccessfully tried to close the dome.  The stripes of green and white marble on the outside are beautiful, yet look as if they are constantly being cleaned as some areas are more vibrant than others.  A very claustrophobic climb to the top is rewarded with a close viewing of the dome’s frescoes as well as stunning views of the city and beyond.

View from top of Duomo

Duomo, Firenze 2

Our evening stroll took us across the Ponte Vecchio, which was not as romantic as expected. It is swarming with jewelry stores like on 47th St. as has been the case since early 1600s.  We enjoyed leisurely glasses of wine at Pitti Gola e Cantina and then went to dinner at Coquinarius on a suggestion from the owner.

Pitti Wine Bar, Firenze

Sunday – We opened the day at the Bargello, which has the finest collection of sculptures in Florence.  The beautiful courtyard has a spectacular fountain scene within an arch; the first floor contains dozens of works by Michelangelo and his pupils, note the detail of the muscles and veins!  Upstairs, I was impressed with a painting of Mary and Jesus with cubist-like lines and robes by an unknown painter.  Very modern!  Donatello’s David (with helmet) shows his craftsmanship in bronze; David reflects a proudness in his stance.  Donatello is often the most overlooked of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but this work is a masterpiece.

Santa Croce has a 19th century façade, but the rest of the church dates earlier.  The church contains the beautiful tombs of Rossini, Machiavelli, Michelangelo, and Galileo.  Giotto’s frescoes of St. Francis are enormous yet show such emotion.  The stain glass windows inside are some of the earliest remaining pieces.Michaelangelo's Tomb, Firenze

Because we had extra time, we went to the Palazzo Pitti (1460, Medici in 1550).  I had heard mediocre reviews of the palace and was not expecting much.  The palace contains many paintings, sculptures, and varied interior decorating pieces.  The frescoed ceilings are painted with Roman mythology-themes and each apartment contains family photos, busts, and chiaroscuro/sepia paintings.

Monday – Major museums are closed on Mondays, so we took this day for our Chianti wine tour.  Before meeting our guide, we browsed the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo which contains pieces from the Duomo.  The sculptures inside by Michelangelo and Donatello are breathtaking (Mary with child has amazing glass eyes, Pieta is heart-wrenching, Mary Magdalene in bronze appears haggard and emotional).  One can also view the tools that Brunelleschi used to build the Duomo.

Angie (http://www.tuscanwinetours.net/) drove us from Florence to Greve in Chianti where we met another couple for our tour.  The first winery was Il Solatione where we learned about the wine-making process and viewed the production vats before the tasting.  We then drove to an 11th century town to have a Tuscan lunch consisting of bruschetta, meats, penne with black kale and bacon, and tagliattelle carbonara with ragu.  Beautiful views of the “golden valley” from outside the restaurant.  Our second stop was Renzo Marinai (renzomarinai.itVia Case Sparse 6, 50022 Greve In Chianti).  Thought to overlook where Leonardo’s Mona Lisa was born, this winery also has hotel accommodations.  The owner ages the wine in French barrels and plays classical music for the wine 24×7.  We tasted olive oil made on site as well as the wine.

Tuscany countryside

Tuesday – We used this day to explore Florence north of the Duomo.  The Cappelle Medici contains crypts with dozens of relics on display.  The highlight is the 2nd floor chapel with architecturally stunning porphyry, orange, and green marble.  The chapel was begun in 1605 but the marble floor was finished in 1962!  The side chapel for Gionni and Lorenzo has Michelangelo sculptures of Mary.  She seems peaceful in one (though the statue was not completed).  The highlight for me was finding the women’s room; it’s accessed via a door on one of the staircases.

Cappelle Medicee

We visited San Lorenzo and San Marco churches.  The first was designed by Brunelleschi and its marble floors create the effect of a vanishing point behind the altar.  The front chapel contains some gorgeous bronze decorations by Donatello.  San Marco church is located adjacent to the Museum.  The parish has a community feel to it, yet there is amazing art to be seen.  Its frescoes are very vibrant in the dark space and the front chapel’s sculptures have men “going” from the top to the bottom of the wall.  The Dominican convent houses the museum with numerous works by Fra Angelico.  His Last Judgment (1400s) is gruesome and his series of smaller paintings depicting the life of Jesus show his advanced artistic skills.  Upstairs, one can visit the cells of the friars that were decorated with art.  Don’t miss Savonarola’s cell; this friar is the one who in 1497 convinced followers to hurl their belongings into a fire at Piazza della Signoria “bonfire of the vanities”.

Accademia was our next stop after lunch.  I enjoyed the musical instruments section where you could view Stradivarius and hear its sound.  The highlight was without question Michelangelo’s David.  This enormous, majestic sculpture is an excellent representation of Michelangelo’s skill.  His eyes seem alive and the detail of his hands was awesome.  The other paintings/sculptures in the museum were a disappointment, but it was fun to view the molds/sculptures prepared for students to copy.

If you can, make a side visit to The Four Seasons Hotel, Borgo Pinti 99e.  This palace has been renovated into a luxury hotel with beautiful courtyard and gardens.  For our last evening in Florence, we strolled back up to the top of the city (Piazza Michelangelo) for sunset and enjoyed some local musicians, followed by a wine bar.  We dined at Il Latini on the suggestion of multiple friends who had visited Florence.  We shared a table with an Italian couple (who lives upstairs) and a French couple.  Neither of them spoke much English so I got to try my Italian.  Our similar passion for delicious food allowed the 6 of us to have a wonderful meal filled with laughter and wine.  They shared their food with us (including bistecca) and helped us order wine.

il Latini, Firenze

Florence Restaurants

1)      Santa Croce/Uffizi: Acqua al 2, Vigna Vecchia 40/R.  This restaurant has a delicious pasta sampler on its menu which was delightful.   Each pasta dish was unique and the progression of flavors was very well done (mushroom farfalle, gorgonzola macaroni, spinach fusilli, vegetable rigatoni, gnocchi arrabiata, cheesecake, fruit tart, tiramisu).  My sister-in-law recommended this restaurant from when she studied abroad here, so know it is popular with American tourists.  www.acquaal2.it/‎
PS. There are TVs that allow viewing of the kitchen!

2)      Santa Croce/Uffizi: All’Antico Vinaio, Via de’Neri 65.  Best local sandwich shop; we went there twice.  Lots of working Italians stopped for a sandwich.  We indulged with mortadella and porchetta sandwiches on crispy, flavorful bread.  https://www.facebook.com/AllAnticoVinaio

Firenze sandwiches

3)      Santa Croce: Trattoria Que Ganzi.  We dined here for lunch and it was possibly the best meal in Florence!  The pici with black kale, pesto, and bacon was a superb blend of flavors!  Salad with rocket, parmesan, pears, evoo; rigatoni with lamb ragu.  www.daqueiganzi.it/

IMG_3324 (600x800)

4)      San Lorenzo: Trattoria San Lorenzo, Piazza San Lorenzo 33/.  Delicious Tuscan food served in separate rustic-decorated dining rooms.  Ravioli with peaches and pecorino romano (surprisingly light), pici cinghale, cheese ravioli with mushroom and truffles, chicken with roast potatoes.  Superb house wine!

5)      San Lorenzo: Trattoria Mario, Via Rosina 2/r.  Genuine local restaurant; an older Italian gentleman was seated at the table with us.  We went here for lunch and the fare was acceptable but very oily.  http://trattoria-mario.com

6)      San Lorenzo: Trattoria Da Garibaldi.  We dined outside and enjoyed the simple dishes we ordered (ravioli with meat sauce, meat ragu).  Nice atmosphere and fast service for lunch! www.garibardi.it/‎

7)      Duomo: Coquinarius, Via delle Oche, 15R.  Recommended by the owner of a wine bar, this restaurant was perfectly romantic, intimate, and delicious.  The bruschetta sampler was delicious – chicken liver (fegatini), avocado, sundried tomato feta, sausage and cheese, tunafish, goat cheese apricot.  I had the ravioli with sea bass and orange sauce which was deliciously light and refreshing.  My husband enjoyed the piti with mushroom, spinach, and truffles. www.coquinarius.it/

8)      Duomo: Caffe Scudieri.  Tourist location near the Duomo with delightful pastries.  http://www.scudieri.eu/

9)      Oltrano: Il Santo Bevitore, Via Santo Spirito 64/66r.  This trendy restaurant was over-priced for the blandness of flavor delivered.  We had tomato and zucchini pasta, Tuscan “soup” bread, risotto with duck, pumpkin, and pecorino. www.ilsantobevitore.com/

10)   Oltrano: Café Pontevecchio (on the bridge).  Best gelato in Florence, which was a surprise considering its prime tourist location.  The perfect balance of cream and flavor.

11)   Santa Maria Novella: Il Latini, Via dei Palchetti 6/r. Unique Florentine experience.  We dined on meats, cheese, chicken liver bruschetta to start, delicious ribolitta with olive oil and pepper, ravioli with ragu, and 1 filet to share; our friendly neighbors let us sample their bistecca.  Arriving later on a weeknight can help you avoid the crowds at this tourist destination.  If you are lucky, the host Torello “little bull” may stop by to wish you well.  www.illatini.com/?lang=en

12)   San Lorenzo: Trattoria Zaza, Piazza Mercato Centrale, 26.  This restaurant was recommended by 3 different friends, but we were disappointed.  The service was poor and the food was very salty and bland.  We had a soup sampler (ribolitta, Tuscan bread soup, pasta fagioli), eggplant parmesan, and veal cutlet with potatoes. www.trattoriazaza.it/English/

13)   Santa Croce: Vivoli, Via Iola delle Stinche 7/r.  The gelato we had here was creamy and tasted like mousse.  Delicious consistency! www.vivoli.it/en

14)   Caffe Rivoire, Piazza della Signoria, Via Vacchereccia 4/r.  We had a cappuccino and dessert on the square and enjoyed watching Italians and tourists walk by.  Excellent service, great location, but overpriced for meals. http://www.rivoire.it/

Siena Restaurant

1)      Piazza del Campo: Il Bandierino.  Lunch Tuscan sampler included prosciutto, salami, fusilli with cinghale and pici with garlic tomato sauce.  Delicious pecorino romano for desert.  http://www.ristoranteilbandierino-siena.com/

il Bandiero, Siena

Florence Wine Bars

1)      Oltrano: Pitti Gola e Cantina (across from Pitti Palace). Delicious wine bar with wonderful suggestions by Edoardo.  Cozy tables surrounded by classic books with a trendy atmosphere.  We enjoyed a Chianti Classico, Sangiovese, Brunello di Montalcino, and Rosso di Montalcino.  http://pittigolaecantina.com/

2)      Oltrano: Le Volpi e Uva, Piazza de’ Rossi (near Piazza Santa Felicita).  Quaint wine bar with outdoor seating.  Friendly staff and nice atmosphere. www.levolpieluva.com/‎

3)      Santa Croce: Note Di Vino.  Nice selection of wines and meats/cheese for munching.  Indoor and outdoor seating is available.  Neighborhood feel. https://www.facebook.com/pages/Note-Di-Vino/160078547350806

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