Travel Journal: Italy – Part 1, Tuscany Activities

Welcome to Travel Tuesdays!  I’m not sure this will always be a thing, but I have a lot of travel content coming up so I figured why not try to make it a recurring series?!

The first 4 days of of our honeymoon were spent in the Tuscan countryside.  It may have been my favorite part of the whole trip!  Warning: this post will be JAM PACKED because we stuffed more sights/attractions into this portion of our trip than most other destinations on our honeymoon.  Note: in this post, I’ll share all of our activities but don’t worry; up next will be a post covering all the food we ate!

Siena (nights of July 1 and July 2)

We flew into Florence and drove directly to Siena – we really hit the ground running!

Fun Fact: we packed for all 16 days in carry-ons because we we had plans in Siena at 8:30, our flight landed at 5:30, and it’s an hour and a half from the airport – no time to wait for luggage at baggage claim!  I’m actually quite proud of myself for packing everything in the one bag.  See this post to learn how I did it.

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View from the front door of our Siena hotel

The reason we were so rushed to get to Siena was because we had planned to go to the Palio.  When I found out about this crazy awesome thing, I actually planned the order of our trip around it.  Basically, the Palio is an annual horse race in Siena that’s a pretty huge deal.  Let’s back up.  The coolest thing about Siena is that the walled city is still pretty medieval.  The city is divided into neighborhoods, or contrada, that operate as clans that you’re born into.  Each contrada has a mascot and colors and traditional enemy contrada.  Yes, for real.  Every year, 10 of the 17 contrada compete in a horse race (some receive automatic entry, others by lottery) and the entire city goes NUTS.

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Sporting the colors of our contrada

In the days leading up to the main event, there are dinners and celebrations, the biggest being the dinner the night before – that’s what we were rushing in for.  Each contrada hosts a massive dinner in the middle of their neighborhood with food and all the wine you can drink.  We were staying in the Onda neighborhood and went to their dinner, making friends at the long tables that took over a cobblestone alleyway.  There were about 700 people there – and that was only our contrada!  The excitement, especially as the jockey walked in to take his spot at the head table was electric.  Getting spots at the dinner was not cheap, but it was such a unique experience – totally worth it.  We were swept up in the event and fully adopted the contrada as our own.  I was happy we landed in one that seemed to be pretty cool – good flag, fun neighborhood – so we decided to support them in the race the following day.

Before the race, however, we had several hours to explore the city.  We walked in an out of cobblestone alleys, hiked up to a panorama, checked out the duomo, and walked to the edge of the city so we could take in the immensity of the gates.

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Siena is a city inside a fortress, and this is one of the imposing entrances

I’m so happy we took some time to check out the duomo – it was probably my favorite duomo of the entire trip (and we saw a LOT of cathedrals in 2+ weeks, believe me).  It wasn’t the biggest, but it was absolutely stunning with the black and white marble in a striped pattern.

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The spectacular duomo
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This duomo was a show stopper
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Albert had a very Catholic upbringing – I’m not sure if he was struck by the country’s deep roots in the religion, but it was nice to see him in that element.  Note: he did not intentionally dress to match the duomo.

After walking  around the city and having lunch, it was time to head to the Piazza del Campo for the main event.  That’s what’s insane – this horse race is held around the main square in the center of the city.  You can choose to watch in a pit in the middle of the piazza (free or inexpensive, I think), in the grandstands (what we did – several hundred dollars but a great view and well worth it), or in an apartment above the square (even more expensive).  The apartment affords you a bathroom and comfort, but you’re not in the middle of the action – I’m very happy with our choice.

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View of the piazza as the festivities commenced

The event begins with a parade of all the contrada in their colors with flag throwers and armor.  We were living in a Renaissance fair…except it wasn’t fake.  The parade takes at least an hour and a half and then it’s time for the race to begin.  We ran into some trouble here as one horse refused to get into starting position, delaying us for over an hour and almost cancelling the whole thing (turns out the horse was hurt and eventually disqualified – this is not something that happens often and apparently people were watching it on tv all over the region).

And then they were off!  The three laps around the track take no time and was thrilling to watch.  Sadly, we didn’t win (the Giraffa contrada did and stormed the square), but it was very fun to watch just the same.  After the race we grabbed supper and had a few drinks before going to bed.  Though invited to a big Giraffa celebration, we declined as we were waking up early for a wine tour, but I bet it was an epic party.

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Siena Details:

  • Accomodations: We stayed at Villa del Sole, a relatively new hotel.  The rooms were not opulent, but very nice (big shower) and clean.  The views were amazing, location seemed to be in one of the best parts of Siena (though it was tough to find), and they had the best breakfast spread of the whole trip.
  • Bottom Line: If you’re planning to go to Tuscany, I recommend hitting up Siena since it’s gorgeous, has a unique culture, and lots to do, more so than most other towns in the region.  And if you’re planning to go to this part of Italy during the summer, I HIGHLY recommend planning your trip around the Palio.  It was kind of a once in a lifetime experience – like saying you got to go to the Super Bowl.  And the best part is that while there were tourists there, it felt like a locals thing that tourists were lucky to experience with them, almost like flies on the wall.

Panzano (nights of July 3 and July 4)

From Siena, we went to Chianti for some serious vino action.  We had a big activity planned for our second day in the area and through them, we found our hotel and driver.  Our driver, Daniele, picked us up from our Siena hotel at 9 AM on the 3rd and took us on a full day wine tour of the Chianti area.  We learned all about the type of wine and what makes something Chianti Classico vs. Supertuscan vs. table wine, etc.  Daniele, who is our age, was amazing.  He is from Panzano (a small town in Chianti) so he knew the area very well.  He took us to 3 wineries:

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View of the vineyards at winery #1
  • Caparsa – owner Paulo, who runs this vineyard with his family, showed us around the cellar and gave us a nice tasting where we were able to see how the 2011 wine flavor was affected by how hot the season was.

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  • Riseccoli – Daniele’s girlfriend works at this one as does the girlfriend of his cousin, and they set up a lovely lunch for us while we had our tasting.  The main building used to be the summer home of sculptor Romanelli Romano; now it’s a place for us to taste delicious wine.  This was probably the smallest vineyard we went to, producing just 10,000 bottles per year and selling only locally.
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Heading into vineyard #2
  • Vallione di Cecione – our final winery stop was in Panzano, the town where we were staying.  This one had a really different backstory since the owners started as sharecroppers on the land.  There were some really interesting stories behind the labels on the bottles and the wine itself had a unique story.  They have one that’s made of 100% canaiolo and aged only in concrete.  It’s very rare and only 3,000 bottles were made.  We also tasted a great one from 2014, whose taste was affected by how wet the season was.

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  • Pit Stops – along the way we stopped at Castellina in Chianti, Radda, Volpaia, and Greve.  Castellina in Chianti was the cutest and probably largest (a good option if you’re looking for a town to stay in), Volpaia was beautiful and so tiny no one really lives there, and Greve had a great butcher shop.
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Pit stop in Greve

After a full day of wining, Daniele dropped us off at our B&B, where we relaxed a bit before heading out to supper.  We didn’t mind just hanging in the room for a few hours because we were exhausted from all the wine and we could tell there wasn’t soooo much to do in the town – it’s not like we were missing out.  That said, the town was quaint and picturesque so we enjoyed the views on our walks to supper.

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A nice vignette right by our bed and breakfast that we passed on our daily walks.  It reminded me of the man with the flowers in “Under the Tuscan Sun”.

The next day was spent as butchers.  Yes, butchers.  A friend had told us about the Butcher for a Day experience at Dario Cecchini maccheleria.  Basically, we spent all day behind the scenes at Cecchini’s shop, learning how everything works.  We first went to see the cows and small vineyard and then went to the warehouse/refrigeration building where we watched a highly skilled butcher work on a leg, learning all about the different cuts.

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Cheesin at the Cecchini vineyards

After touring the grounds, we made some sausage, then we cooked a little, and finally we had about a 10 course lunch.  It was incredible.  It was 200 euros per person but was one of the coolest things we did all trip.  In fact, I would say it was tied with the Palio as our two favorite experiences of our entire honeymoon.  Pretty crazy that both of them happened within the first 4 days of the trip – it made Tuscany a favorite spot.

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The master at work – teaching us how to season the sausage
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You know that phrase “getting to see how the sausage gets made”?
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We made that!

Panzano Details:

  • Accommodations: We spent two nights at B&B Piazzeta in Panzano.  There was no air conditioning (a fan and open windows worked for us) and the pillows were pretty bad, but it was a cute place with a lovely balcony overlooking the gorgeous countryside, and it was in a great location right near the center of town.
  • Tips: 
    • I highly recommend getting a driver for a wine tour and building that wine tour into your transportation from one Tuscan town to the next so you can kill two birds with one stone.  The roads are windy (scary even when sober) and you’ll want to fully enjoy that wine so it’s good to have a designated driver.  Plus, it’s nice to have someone that can give you local insight.
    • Antinori is the most well known winery in Chianti.  It’s a massive, gorgeous building (we drove by), but I actually recommend going to smaller places that your driver chooses.  The places we went to were far more intimate and local.  ALL the wine in the area is truly amazing – you don’t need to go someplace famous for good vino.
    • Since the towns in Tuscany are small, see if you can get a hotel or B&B with a pool.  It’s a nice activity if you’re staying for 3 days and run out of things to do.
  • Bottom Line: In Chianti, a wine tour is a MUST.  Also, go to Dario Cecchini.  The food was absolutely phenomenal.  The full, private Butcher for a Day experience was a splurge that was important to us because that’s our kinda thing, but if you’re not a die-hard food geek, just go for lunch.  It was some of the best food of the entire trip.  Apparently Dario is quite famous.  We were joined for the second half of our lunch by people who had come from all over to see the place.  Apparently Cecchini has been on an episode of Anthony Bourdain and has famous buds like Mario Battali so he was one of the folks at the star-studded final evening at the Four Seasons restaurant.  Keep an eye out for him on an upcoming episode of Chef’s Table (a really big deal in the foodie world).