It’s summer, which means holidays (theoretically). I just spent a week back in beautiful Tuscany, still working on my PhD, but in a more beautiful surrounding. I had been to Tuscany some years ago (read about it here), and decided to stay at the same place again as it is not only stunning, but also conveniently located near Florence. This time I did a few other activities and cooked a lot of food using local ingredients, so I thought I’d write you another post about Tuscany.
The accommodation was the same as last time, the charming agritourism Castiglionchio near the town of Pontassieve, a 20 min drive outside of Florence. I told you quite a bit about the place in the old blog post, and it is still well-maintained and a joy to stay at. We had a different holiday flat this time, not in the main castle, but in one of the old farm houses below. I came with a balcony off the bedroom and a patio in front of the living area, both overlooking the vineyard, and the flat again had a lovely Tuscan kitchen with a massive fireplace (which we didn’t use this time as it was 30+°C every day). This stay, since this spring and summer had been exceptionally hot so far, the pool of the estate had already been open for a few weeks in the beginning of June, so this was a welcome refreshment after a day of writing or sightseeing.
Apart from being a pretty office, Castiglionchio makes for a great place to explore Tuscany, either in the immediate surroundings or as day trips. You can walk/hike through the vineyards that cover the rolling hills embracing the castle, surprising you with views of the little valleys or of the houses dotted around. We drove a little further up the road into the mountains behind Castiglionchio, towards a monastery that is set on top of a mountain there, overlooking Florence. There are various signed hiking trails that you can explore, and the view of Florence is beautiful. You can even see the cathedral (duomo) with your bare eyes from there (and I am short-sighted). Trees and bushes provide some much needed shade and coolness on hot summer days. We also ended up exploring an abandoned chicken/egg farm in those mountains, which was interesting and cool. I imagine some of the agriculture there is not viable to run anymore, so the farms are either abandoned or turned into agritourism. However, there seems to be an oversupply of tourism accommodation now which leads to some of the businesses often not making enough money to upkeep the vast country estates. So please go and visit Tuscany and stay at an agritourism to support the rural communities!
And fear not, you will not be bored! The town of Pontassieve is a short 5 minute drive down the hill, and there you can find cafés, shopping and a massive Coop supermarket that has an amazing offer of fresh produce, pasta (of course) and also lots of vegan stuff that is well marked. I bought three different kind of vegan cheeses: a soft cheese and a ricotta from Valsoia, and a mozzarella from Italian producer Verys who uses rice instead of soya. I also bought a few burgers and steaks from different Italian companies as I wanted to try what they taste like (delicious, btw). My best buy was a pre-prepared porcini mushroom sauce by Biffy Milano that I had with some pasta one day. O!M!G! I just added a little garlic and a healthy gulp of white wine, and it was one of the best things I ate the whole week. Paired with a nice fresh salad that is dressed with the olive oil from Castiglionchio’s farm – heavenly. Just have a look at some of the easy yet flavoursome dishes I prepared over the week.
Ah, food… You know where else I had nice food? Florence! Even though I went for a visit last time I was here, there is so much to see and do, I had to go back. Again, I did not do any of the art museums as it was hot and really really busy with tourists (think standing in line for an hour in 35°C). However, instead of driving into Florence, we left the car at the free car park at Pontassieve train station and took a train into the city (about 25 min, 7 € return per adult). Stress-free arrival into the heart of the city, and the train station is conveniently near the Mercato Centrale, the main market hall of Florence. It might be a wee touristy, but I loved it nevertheless. On the ground floor you can stroll through the market stalls, and there are also some fast food options Italian style (think fresh pasta with 5 different sauces , eaten at a high table, or the sandwich with cooked tribe – cow’s stomach – that Florence is famous for). As the typical Tuscan pasta is made with egg, we ventured to the second floor for lunch, where there are many food stalls serving up pizza, pasta, meat, seafood, and burgers. You can grab your food from the stalls and just sit at the massive communal tables in the middle of the hall. While there is a vegan/vegetarian food stall, they only serve burgers which I found a little uninspired. However, I went to the pizza place (longest queue, of course), and got a kick-ass marinara pizza with tomato sauce, olives, capers and basil. Was one of the best pizzas I had in Italy. I had another pizza later that night at another restaurant in Florence (because, why not…), and it was nowhere near as good as that one, even though it had more veg on top.
While strolling through the compact old town, behind the impressive Duomo in a side street you can find delicious ice cream from GROM to cool down. After checking out Palazzo Vecchio (the town hall) and learning about the world most famous statue, David (of which a copy is in front of the town hall), we then spend two or three enjoyable hours in the excellent Museo Galileo by the river Arno. If you are interested in science, math, astronomy and old science equipment, you’ll be as excited as I was. The artefacts are well-labeled and you can download a virtual guide onto your phone for free (they also provide the free Wifi). On the ground floor there is an interactive area with some science projects that you can do yourself, and some animations that are quite cool. After our museum fix, during golden hour, we strolled across the river through the neighbourhoods there. I had initially been wanting to climb up to the Boboli Gardens, but there is only so much you can do without stressing yourself. We finished the day with more pizza and wine by the duomo before hopping back on the train to Pontassieve.
Another lovely day trip brought us further South into Tuscany, to Siena and then driving back through the Chianti region (think red wine). Siena is a beautiful city with a well-preserved old town. As the Florentines had a rivalry going on with the people from Siena (which apparently also involved catapulting donkeys over their city walls, according to the Lonely Planet), once the Florentine Medici family ruled over Siena in the 14th century, they did everything possible to help the economic downfall of Siena. Sounds sad, but is lucky for us nowadays, as Siena’s architecture is still medieval, having not have any money during the renaissance to rebuilt their houses. And it’s a stunner! The cathedral is impressive, the main square Piazza del Campo an eye sight, and you can get yourself lost in the little streets easily (not in the literal sense, more metaphorically). Soak up some history while eating ice cream, and don’t miss to go over to the Basilica of San Francesco to enjoy a beautiful view of the old town.
One the way back, towards the late afternoon, we made our drive through the Chianti region, a major wine growing region and your picture-perfect Tuscany. You will be tempted to stop around every bend to soak up the incredible vistas that lay before you. From soft rolling hills covered in grapevines to small villages perched on mountain tops, this area is a sight to behold. And if you enjoy driving, the bends are a lot of fun too! If you are not driving or are the passenger, make sure to pop into some wineries to taste the local produce and to stock up on a few bottles.
Again, Tuscany has been very good to me (but not to my waistline). It is such as beautiful and inspiring surrounding, yet so pleasantly laid-back (except for some tourist hordes in Florence – but hey-ho). You can have lazy days with short hikes and occasional swims, followed by a home-cooked meal and a wine tasting at Castiglionchio or other nearby vineyards, or go full on sight-seeing crazy in the many beautiful cities, towns and villages all around. There is much to be explored and much dolce vita to be enjoyed. I will surely be back!