Travel: ITALY

Travel Italy, Montechiello 2016

 Our hostess at Villa Mazzi in Montepulciano recommended we visit the ancient village of Montechiello a short drive away, so we set off through the countryside to explore. The scenery is amazing, and the just-baled hay made for even more picturesque photo ops. The ancient village of Montechiello is 850-1,000 years old, and perched atop a hill, the view towards Monte Amiata is awesome. We parked at the bottom of the hill in the free parking lot, and walked the path up to the main gate. Here’s a link to the history and good visitor information on Montechiello: http://www.seeyouintuscany.com/tuscany_travel_guide/siena_area/monticchiello/monticchiello.html

It’s a small village, so it doesn’t take long to explore. They have a few restaurants, a museum, churches, some retail shops, and an outdoor art exhibit above the hill. There were cool wire people figures scattered about the village.

We walked around the outside perimeter of the village walls, where there are gardens and amazing views. The lavender was abuzz with honeybees and butterflies.

Just inside the gate is a highly recommended restaurant, Osteria La Porta. It was mid-morning, so too early for lunch. Another day we visited they were closed, so be sure and check their hours. http://www.osterialaporta.it/en/

There was an interesting art exhibit in an olive grove above the village, and I was drawn toward a crumbling tower. Hot and hungry, we made out way back through the village to the gate, where a little cafe was open just outside. Gelato seemed like a refreshing choice, so we admired the view as we ate it.

Cool wire figures were atop the main entrance gate.

We returned to Montepulciano a different way, making a loop through the countryside. We passed bikers and hikers trekking along the dusty gravel road.

And that was our visit to Montechiello!

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Travel Italy 2016, Chiusi & National Etruscan Museum

We decided to go check out the Chiusi Lake area on yet another beautiful day from our base at Villa Mazzi in Montepulciano. We passed vineyards and sunflower fields along the way, and the farmers were combining wheat and rolling hay. img_6626img_6630We stumbled upon Etruscan tombs as we were driving to the lake and stopped to see them.

The lake was absolutely flat, quiet, hot and deserted so we didn’t linger. img_6634

We arrived in Chiusi and the first thing I spotted was the National Etruscan Museum. I had read about the Etruscans but didn’t really know about their culture, so wanted to learn more. Their culture lasted from the 8th Century BC to the 3rd and 2nd BC. After touring the museum, we were astounded at how advanced their culture was! I encourage all visitors in the area to tour this museum.

http://www.prolocochiusi.it/en/

http://www.prolocochiusi.it/en/museo-nazionale-etrusco-e-tombe/

Their sculpture, pottery, and jewelry were amazing!

img_6773We wandered around the town for a bit, and then circled back to a restaurant just down the street from the museum for lunch that had outdoor seating.

We arrived at Osteria Etrusca just as they opened for lunch. Our steak and potato entree and pizza with house red wine were delicious, and after lunch we headed home for a nap. http://www.osteriaetrusca.it/

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Travel Italy, Caseificio Cugusi, Pecorino Cheese, Montepulciano 2016

While staying at Villa Mazzi just outside of Montepulciano, we loved seeing and hearing the flock of sheep that moved from pasture to pasture as the day passed. They had an accompanying shepherd, and their sheep bells would ring melodiously like a gentle song. They were the neighbor’s flock that makes the famous pecorino sheep cheese, and their farm shop is a delight to visit.

They are a “direct sales” farm, where you can stop in and purchase their products. The Cugusi’s offer a “picnic” special where you can fill up a picnic basket with their cheese and other local products including jams, honey, wine, beer, etc., and then enjoy the magnificent sweeping views from their dining tables towards Montepulciano and the surrounding countryside. This is an awesome view at sunset! Take a cooler if you want some of their fresh cheese or yogurt, which was delicious. Here’s a link to their website: http://www.caseificiocugusi.it/index.php/en/

The farm is located at the end of a gravel access road just past Agriturismo Villa Mazzi on the road between Montepulciano and Pienza.

So many tastes and flavors to sample and eat… We purchased several, and had the ones we wanted to take back to the U.S. vacuum sealed so they would pass customs. I loved their fresh-made yogurt, adding a bit of local honey and jam to it each morning for breakfast.

The picnic views are amazing with the town of Montepulciano perched on the opposite hill from the farm.

Our yummy pecorino purchases… img_6108###

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Travel Italy, Montefollonico, July 2016

While staying in Montepulciano, we ventured out on driving excursions to visit the small villages in the area. Montefollonico is a picturesque hilltop village located across the valley and a rustic hiking trail connects the towns for trekkers.

Note I said “rustic trail,” and I’m not sure of the distance and details, so do your research. The trail head starts just below the church on the edge of the hill and there is a sign and map.

We walked around the small village and only saw a few people. Cleanly swept with flowers everywhere, it looks like a movie set.

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Podere Il Casale, Pienza, Italy 2016

On one of our drives from Montepulciano, we discovered an organic farm that gives farm tours, sells their products to the public, has cooking classes, and serves lunch and dinner. Podere Il Casale is located just a few minutes outside of Pienza, down a gravel country road. You drive up a hill and park, and when you see the vista from their hilltop farm, you are floored. It is an amazing panoramic view across the Val d’Orcia (valley) towards Monte Amiata, an ancient volcano that rises to 1738 meters tall. The ancient road to Rome, Cassia, winds across the valley and past Monte Amiata. http://podereilcasale.com/en/

img_4773Sandra and Ulisse, both from Switzerland, are the driving force and founders of the organic farm, which began in 1991. They produce sheep and goat cheese, olive oil, pasta, sugo, pesto and spreads, wine and honey. We stopped by during the day to check it out, and then made reservations for dinner and farm tour on the next evening. img_4775

On our farm tour, Sandra showed us their animals – they make cheese from the goats and sheep’s milk.

She showed us their cheese-making facility and gave an overview of the process. Some of the cheese rounds are stored in tubs with the grape hulls to make “drunken” cheese, some have walnut leaves wrapped around them, and they use other additions as well. The mold on the cheese rounds is rinsed, and they continue to age from a soft mild fresh cheese to a harder, richer flavor of the aged cheese.

It was time for our dinner reservation, so we drifted back to their panoramic outdoor dining area for our sunset meal and their house red wine.

And it was delicious!

After dinner we selected a few of their wines to enjoy over the next few days. Their farm store has a great assortment of their products, and they also sell boxed wine. We highly recommend a visit to Il Podere Casale if you are in the area. Check out their website for more information!

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Italy 2016 ~ Agriturismo Villa Mazzi, Montepulciano

We had visited Italy the last three years in the fall, and always missed seeing the sunflower fields in bloom. After researching airfare in July, we found fairly reasonable rates and decided to go back to spend time in Tuscany and Rome. We like the area around Montepulciano, so began looking for an apartment. We liked the view of Agriturismo Villa Mazzi and emailed an inquiry. They had an opening for a one-bedroom apartment available, so after looking around a bit more, decided to go ahead and book it. They do not have a swimming pool, but that wasn’t important to us. They do have an amazing view and it was very convenient to town. http://www.villamazzi.it/en/

The farm shop and reception is open to the public, and they sell Villa Mazzi wine, along with a few other local choices, Loredana’s jams, preserves and bruschetta spreads, honey, olive oil, cheeses, meats, pasta and more.

The two farmhouses have several apartments, and each have a nice private patio.

The view across the valley was amazing and changed every day. IMG_6819IMG_6601IMG_6602I loved all the flowers and antique farm accents around Villa Mazzi

Our first afternoon, we heard bells ringing and started looking around for the source. I was delighted to spot a flock of sheep and their shepherd moving around the valley! I had sheep growing up, so this was so nostalgic for me. Each morning they were in one field above us, and they moved around until late afternoon, like clockwork, when they poured across the valley in front of us. These are Sardinia milk sheep, and the family a few farms down produces their famous Pecorino sheep cheese. Loredana sells it in her shop or you can go and buy it direct from Cugusi family farm where they offer a “picnic” with a view. http://www.caseificiocugusi.it/index.php/it/

Loredana makes jams and preserves from their farm fruits.

Their honeybees

Leo and cat

More beauty…

IMG_6016IMG_6202IMG_6011IMG_6045Breakfast with a view…

Our last afternoon was stormy, but the sun came out long enough for a rainbow to arch over Montepulciano.

What a gorgeous place! We would definitely return to this slice of heaven in Tuscany! The beauty, warm hospitality, amazing food and wine have kept us returning to Italy year after year.

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Italy 2015 ~ The Vatican

For our last day in Italy, we had tickets for the Vatican Museums. But first, breakfast and a whirlwind walk to see the Pantheon and a few last minute sites for the girls to tick off their list. We had noticed Il Fornaio on the way to Campo di Fiori on Via dei Baullari and all of their yummy looking pastries reeled us inside. We emerged with hot coffee and bags of pastries to fuel us, and sped through the drizzle first to see Piazza Farnese, and then towards the Pantheon. http://www.ifornaidiroma.it/item/il-fornaio/

 They did a quick tour of Basilica Santa Maria sopra Minerva, and then entered the Pantheon for a quick tour. I did an extensive blog featuring the Basilica and Pantheon from a previous trip, so won’t repeat those here, but here’s links if you are interested. https://busybeetraveler.wordpress.com/2013/11/22/rome-basilica-santa-maria-sopra-minerva/

https://busybeetraveler.wordpress.com/2013/11/28/spanish-steps-and-tour-of-pantheon-rome/

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 Time to get ready for our visit to the Vatican … we took a cab and arrived in minutes. Our tickets were for the Vatican Museums only. If you wish to see St. Peter’s Cathedral interior,  you have to get a ticket that includes that. The line was very long for St. Peters! http://mv.vatican.va/3_EN/pages/MV_Home.html

The Gallery of Tapestries – note the size of them compared to Monica, Wally and Denise.

IMG_1430IMG_1456The Gallery of Maps was awesome! We loved the charmingly depicted maps from the various regions in Italy.

IMG_1455IMG_1441Below is TuscanyIMG_1452The Campania map below features Naples and the Amalfi Coast, which we had just left.

IMG_1448IMG_1450Looking out the window you can see how the galleries wrap around a big parking area.

IMG_0436We then entered into the various halls and chapels adorned by renowned artists and they are amazing in their detail and vibrant colors. You could look for hours and still see something new in each panel. They include Raphael’s Rooms and more.

IMG_1461IMG_1465IMG_1424IMG_1423IMG_1460IMG_1457IMG_1458IMG_1444IMG_1421IMG_1467

IMG_1469IMG_1470There was a modern arts collection next that included Henry Matisse.

Then came the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo… they funnel you through the Sistine Chapel calling for no photos and silence. We were silent…. Wow! Absolutely boggling!

IMG_0449IMG_1476IMG_1474IMG_1475I mentioned this in an earlier blog on Florence, but its worth re-mentioning – if you have any interest in architecture or art, read these two books before, during or after your visit to Italy to learn the background and evolution of these masterpieces.

IMG_1488We exited through a hall filled with small treasures and the girls shopped the gift store for gifts and souvenirs. We walked out and around the Vatican walls until we reached St. Peter’s Square and the line for those waiting to get inside St. Peter’s Basilica was verrry long.

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IMG_0483We decided to walk back to our apartment after stopping to check how much a cab was and they were charging four times more than what we had paid on the way over. Luckily it didn’t take long to get home and the rain held off for us.

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IMG_0508IMG_0504Back on our street, Via del Governo Vecchio, and it was time to eat again. Pictured below is our apartment entry and balcony above.

IMG_0519We decided we would eat at Mimi and Coco Wine Bar, which was located right below our balcony for our last dinner in Italy. IMG_0512Our last pizza in Italy for a while. And our server kindly treated us to a round of after-meal Limoncellos. Grazie! http://www.mimiecoco.com/en/index.html

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Sadly, it was time to pack up for our morning departure back to the U.S.A. We walked down to the Frigidarium for one last gelato cone to use up our Euro coins, and finished off our last bottle of wine.

Another amazing trip to Italy! Ciao! Grazie mille!

IMG_1385We’ll be back!

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Italy 2015 ~ The Colosseum & Around Rome

 It was another beautiful day and we started our morning with a stop in Campo de’ Fiori for breakfast and some quick shopping.

Breakfast at Baccanale Campo de’ Fiori Roma

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IMG_0096Monica and Denise loved the leather goods vendor’s products right as you entered the market, and had decided to pick up a few things to take home. He offered purses, wallets, men’s bags and more.

IMG_0099IMG_0375There was a hat and scarf vendor next to him, and I picked out a black felt hat and black scarf for myself before shopping the leather. I like small cross body purses, and picked out the black and brown purse I have on in the picture below. IMG_0102Happy shoppers : ) Happy vendor! IMG_0103We had purchased tickets for the Colosseum, Forum and Roman Palatine ahead of time so we could “skip the line”, and we were very happy we had. Here’s some of the sights along the way to the Colosseum.

Arriving at the Colosseum we “skipped the line” and went right in with our printouts. To get your tickets online, here’s the official site: http://www.coopculture.it/en/colosseo-e-shop.cfm

The architecture is amazing to see, and to imagine how it was during the Roman reign almost 2,000 years ago! Here’s a site with some history information about it: http://www.ancient.eu/Colosseum/

I recommend keeping a water bottle with you while traveling in Rome. You can refill at their public water spigots for clean, cold water.As you can see from Wally’s photo below, we did not bring our water bottle on this day!