The Odyssey Revisited – Karpenisi to Kalambaka

The Odyssey Revisited – Karpenisi to Kalambaka

Hard to imagine but the landscape keeps getting more dramatic as we zigzag up and down the dirt roads of the Agrafa, deep in the Evrytania region toward Lake Kremaston, the largest artificial lake in Greece. And I find it easier to enjoy the view now that my car mate Mary Bailey has asked about the tiny roadside shrines standing at the very edge of the most precipitous drops. They are getting more frequent as we go deeper into the wilderness. Since Mary is by now doing all of the driving, I understand her concern. They are kandilakia, and yes, they sometime commemorate fatal accidents, but they are just as likely to give thanks for catastrophes avoided, Yoav Barashi, the leader of our Tripology Adventures caravan, assures us. Or they can simply mark a spot for an instant of private devotion as people go about their daily business.

Of Olympian Gods and Judas Trees

Greece - Pindus. Lake Kremaston

Lake Kremaston and Episkopi Bridge.

Under a robin’s egg blue sky, the scenery is a riot of colors. When first revealed from high on a ridge, Lake Kremaston is a palette of greens from pale jade to emerald, turning to teal whenever the sun hides behind a cluster of puffy white clouds. The Judas trees are in full bloom, splashing the mountainside with random hot pink patches. This is a photographer’s paradise and every few minutes someone gets on the radio to announce an impromptu photo stop, until Yoav ends the chaos by telling us the best vantage point is just ahead. Once we are back in our cars, he finds a sure way to keep our unruly lot going. He entertains us with a story. Yoah is an Olympic-class storyteller. Whenever driving conditions allow, he takes to the radio and weaves mythological tales for us (with voices) with such an irreverent humor he has us all asking for more. Who knew that Greek mythology was all about testosterone-laden Zeus, all these demi-gods birthed from his various body parts and his wife Hera’s dim view of his shenanigans!

Greece - Pindus. Trikerotis River.

We stop of a break on the sandy shore of the Trikeriotis River.

By now we have crossed the Episkopi Bridge to the far size of the lake. We follow the tree-shaded shore of the Trikeriotis River where we reach a sandy beach and find Izhar Gamlieli, co-founder of Tripology Adventures, putting finishing touches to our morning break. The river looks like liquid rock crystal as it rushes toward the lake.

Greece - Pindus. Agrafa village.

We reach of small village high in the Agrafa.

It’s a long, steep climb out of this idyllic place. At times the road seems little more than a ledge not much wider than our cars and with lots of sharp turns. I wonder idly what would happen if we were to come face to face with an incoming car? Mercifully, I don’t have to find out. All we see are goats that bounce up the mountain at the sight of us. Eventually the road widens and flattens a bit and we come to a village. Yaov tells us to walk down to the platia while Nikos, our lead driver, takes the cars down. I pause to snap a few shots of the valley below, and almost get knocked of my feet by jet engine thunder. The culprits are already vanishing behind the next ridge before I grasp what just happened. Here I am in a remote village that has been clinging to its mountainside since the days of the Ottoman invasion, and I am getting buzzed by the Greek air force!

Into Monastery Country

The footpath down is so precipitous it could have been traced by the goats. Although well kept, the village looks deserted. I don’t see a soul until I reach the platia and find Izhar once again on catering duty setting up a buffet lunch.

Greece - Pindus. Proussos Monastery,

The Proussos Monastery is home to a sacred icon said to have healing powers.

Back on the road, and there actually is a proper road here, albeit narrow and hewed into the rock high above the Karpenisiotis River, we head to the Panaghia Prousiotissa (or Proussos Monastery). According to tradition this monastery partially overhanging the edge of a chasm traces its roots back to the discovery by local shepherds of a miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary. Originally from Proussa (in Asia Minor) the icon is said to have found its way to a shallow cave here during the reign of the iconoclast Byzantine Emperor Theophilus (829-842 AD). Believed to have healing powers, it has remained to this day in its shelter within the monastery that was built around it starting in the twelfth century. It is a place of pilgrimage for faithful from all over Greece. In addition to the icon, the chapel that surrounds the cave also includes thirteenth and sixteenth century frescoes. With Karpenisi only 30 kilometers (18.5 miles) away, we are back at the Hotel Spa Montana in plenty of time for me to enjoy a water massage in the spa’s elegant glassed-in pool before dinner. Tonight we discover another of Izhar and Yoav’s favorite restaurants in a nearby village. That’s one of the pleasures of traveling with them; they know all the best places and have friends everywhere. This gets us invited to visit the kitchen and witness the unveiling of a delicious lamb and potato stew that has been simmering for hours cocooned in charcoals in an ancient oven.

One More Mountain Pass, or Two

Greece - Pindus, Niala Peak

From Niala Peak’s Kamaria Pass the view reaches the vast expanse of Lake Plastiras and the plain of Thessaly.

Although I have been happily loosing track of time recently, it’s clear than we are now bound for the end point of our expedition, the medieval monastery complex and UNESCO World Heritage Site of Meteora. But before we reach it, there is still an exciting day ahead. We start with a morning climb from the Karpenisiotis Valley to a mountaintop café for our morning break, followed by a steep drive down into a gorge of the Agrafiotis River where we enjoy a waterside lunch of freshly grilled trout at a local trout farm before the climb to the Niala Peak’s Kamaria Pass. At an altitude of 1,657 meters (5,436 feet) the pass is one of the highest in Greece and well above the tree line. Then it’s down again to the northwestern edge of the plain of Thessaly and our first jaw-dropping sight of the famed monasteries of Meteora atop their colossal sandstone pinnacles.

Greece - Pindus. Kalambaka Dusk.

In Kalambaka, our al fresco dinner comes with a glorious view the night falling over the Pindus Mountains

We settle at the four-star Famissi Eden Hotel in Kalambaka where my room has a large balcony with a straight up view of the monasteries. It is the start of the long May-Day Weekend in Greece and when we go for dinner at a lovely Main Street restaurant terrace, the town is lively with tourists, the first we have seen all week. An omen of what awaits us tomorrow when we visit the Meteora complex… to be continued.

Good to Know

Tripology Adventures is an Israel-based road travel company that has been leading 4WD self-drive caravan across remote, culturally rich areas of Europe, Africa and Asia for over two decades. Tripology Adventures, www.tripologyadventures.com, email:info@tripologyadventures.com, or call 888-975-7080.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Monastery of Proussos, Evrytania.

Karpenisi

Kalambaka

The Odyssey Revisited – Delphi to Karpenisi

The Odyssey Revisited – Delphi to Karpenisi

It’s Day Two of my Tripology off-road adventure through the mountains of Central Greece. We congregate in the parking lot of the Amelia Hotel in Delphi to carry on our departure routine. Yoav Barashi, the leader of our Tripology Adventures caravan, reviews the day’s itinerary, we eagerly pile our luggage and ourselves with into our designated cars (mine is # 3 and Tim Campbell is at the wheel today) and proceed with an all around radio check. The morning sun is dissipating the last of the early mist as we meander down a country road toward the sea. I marvel at the serenity of the bucolic setting, until Nikos Manolis, our lead driver (and a noted figure in the Greek rally racing community) leads us onto a narrow gravel road.

From Breathtaking to Hair-raising

Greece - Pindus - Lake Mormos

A first glance at Lake Mormos

This is Bauxite Way, Yoav explains, named for the aluminum ore mine on our right. And by the way, we are now on one of the best-known stages of the famous Acropolis Rally, which is part of the European Rally Championship schedule. The best time recorded on this 24 kilometer (15 mile) uphill, tightly winding trail is 13 minutes (that’s 110 kilometers-or 70 miles- per hour!). Mercifully, Tim takes it considerably slower but we are still stirring impressive clouds of red dust in our wake. Back on paved road high on the Giona Ridge, we catch our first sight of the turquoise waters of the Mormos Reservoir far below. We unanimously call for a photo op stop.

Greece. Pindus, Lidoriki wisteria.

In Lidoriki, main street balconies vanish under a riot of wisteria blooms.

The road snakes steeply downhill toward Lidoriki, a postcard perfect little village with just a few shops along a main street not much wider than our Jeep and lined with stone facades overwhelmed by riotous wisteria in full bloom. We stop for refreshments on the platia, the village square that is the heart of every Greek village before resuming our roller-coaster ride, uphill once more. The narrow rocky trail hugs the rock face to the right. The scenery goes from breathtaking to hair-raising as I consider the precipitous drop to our left and the conspicuous absence of guardrail. This is the wild, off-the-beaten-paths Greece I wanted to experience, but right now I wish for something a bit tamer.

Bonding with boulders

Greece - Pindus.Boulder.

Jessica telling the boulder who’s boss.

Greece - Pindus. Ridge view.

Picnic view at the top of the ridge.

A jarring rock-against-metal grinding sound interrupts my musings as our car comes to a decisive stop. The lead vehicle and Cars # 1 and 2 are already out of sight, Car # 4 has not yet caught up. I reach for the radio (as the non-driver in our car, I am the designated radio operator) searching for the appropriate words to admit that we have just bonded with a boulder. Deep breath. “Number Three to Lead. Do you read me?”. “Go-ahead,” Yaov prompts. “We have … hit a rock,” I squeak. Jessica, the unflappable Coloradoan in Car # 4 takes over with a businesslike “Getting out to assess and will report.” Within minutes Nikos’ big Land Rover comes to nose to nose halt with our Jeep (How did he manage to turn around and go past two cars so quickly?). The rock in question is firmly embedded into our front right wheel-well. Nikos and Yaov spring into action. A winch materializes from the front bumper of the land cruiser, the rock is lassoed with the capable assistance of Jessica and just as it is being dragged out of the way a nimble rally emergency vehicle zips to a stop behind us to offer a hand.

Greece - Pindus. Bee-hives

Tending hives under the Judas Trees.

We are off again in short order. When we reach the top of the ridge, we are greeted by Izhar, co-founder of Tripology Adventures, a copious picnic already laid-out and jaw-dropping mountain vistas to the horizon. An hour later, the camping stoves, plastic stools and assorted remains of our picnic stowed into his 4WD, Izhar zooms down the trail with a “see you tonight” wave. We start our descent at a much more sedate pace. Other than lots of goats, the occasional herd of shaggy sheep and now a pair of beekeepers tending to their hives in a roadside orchard, we have barely come across anyone on these remote roads.

Greece - Pindus. Sheep.

On these mountain roads, sheep have the right of way.

But by now I’ve realized that we are never left to our own devices. In addition to our leaders Yoav and Nikos, Izhar is always one step ahead of us, test driving our itinerary to make sure it is still passable (between weather and rock slides, conditions can change fast in these mountains), catering the occasional al fresco meal and checking that hotels and restaurants are ready for us. And there is road support at our back, ready to intervene in case of mishap. How else could the blue mosquito with its crew of two and the spare wheel strapped to its roof have found us so quickly? We didn’t need them this time, but it’s good to know they are here.

We dine and stay at the Elatou that night, a cozy country hotel in the mountain village Ano Chora surrounded by dense forests of fir and chestnut trees.

Into the clouds

Greece - Pindus. Agrafa

These remote mountains kept the Moors invasion at bay for four centuries.

The weather is drab and chilly as we leave Ano Chora the next morning, and even more so when we stop for coffee in Arachova, a village precariously perched on a mountainside. We are in the Evrytania now, a pristine region of steep, thickly forested slopes and rushing streams that have earned it a reputation for splendid scenery and the moniker of “the Switzerland of Greece”. But for now, clouds are blotting out the landscape and the going is slow. Yoav seizes the moment to tell us of the harsh history of the area and the fiercely independent people who left the cities to take refuge in these mountains; and succeeded in maintaining their autonomy and culture through the 400 year Ottoman occupation of Greece.

Greece - Pindus. Lake Evinos.

Lake Evinos fills a series of deep canyons.

The clouds finally part and we are treated to a bird’s-eye view of the brilliant green waters of Lake Evinos meandering at the bottom of deep canyons, and hills dotted with the bright fuchsia Judas trees in bloom. Our next stop is Krikelo, where after lunch at the cheerful Tavern Antigoni, there is time for walk across the platia to the village church. Behind its humble exterior of pale local stone, it is a treasure trove of gilded byzantine-style icons and dripping crystal chandeliers.

Greece - Pindus. Krikelo church.

Crystal chandeliers and rich icons light up the village church.

One more stop in Megalo Horio, a exceptionally picturesque village clinging so closely to the mountain that it appears to rise in layers from the platia, before heading for Karpenisi, a small town (population 13,000) best known for its popular ski resort. After two days spent exploring remote wilderness, there is something a bit incongruous to being greeted with welcome drinks at check-in and bellman service at the five-star Montana Hotel and Spa. But one look at my room with its king-size canopy bed and spacious seating area opening onto a large deck with a panoramic view of the mountains (plus an oversized whirlpool bath in my bathroom) and I am quite happy to re-enter the lap of twenty first century luxury. We have dinner in a tiny nearby village in a family-run restaurant where Izhar and Yoav are greeted like longtime friends. I never caught the name of the place, but I will long remember the warmth of the welcome and the freshly caught brook trout grilled to perfection.

The Tripology Fairies

We find our vehicles freshly washed and lined in formation when we leave the restaurant. It reminds me that we haven’t once had to stop to refuel since we left Athens. Tripology fairies must be servicing the cars while we eat or sleep. All this seamless planning and attention to details make our expedition feel so easy I would travel anywhere with these guys.

Tripology Adventures is an Israel-based road travel company that has been leading 4WD self-drive caravans across remote, culturally rich regions of Europe, Africa and Asia for over two decades. Tripology Adventures, www.tripologyadventures.com, email:info@tripologyadventures.com, or call 888-975-7080.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Karpenisi, Greece

Delphi

The Odyssey Revisited – Athens to Delphi

The Odyssey Revisited – Athens to Delphi

Blame it on Homer, my impression that Greece was all about the sea. Even before I ever set foot in the country I knew of its myriad islands and endless coastline. Accordingly, the Greece of my prior visits had mainly consisted of sun baked islands rising from aquamarine waters, warm sand beaches and gleaming white cubist villages punctuated by indigo domes. Add a plethora of archeological treasures in various stages of restoration, bountiful dinners of taverna fare and soulful rebetika music. I felt I had Greece covered.

An irresistible proposition

Greece - Pindus Mountains.

We are headed into the Pindus Mountains, the spine of the Greek mainland.

Greece - Triplogy Adventures driving.

Our itinerary wends up and down steep slopes on roads that are little more than dirt trails.

That was before I came across Tripology Adventures, an off-road travel company that has been leading self-drive caravans of four-wheel drive vehicles through Central Greece and other remote, history-rich areas of the planet for over two decades. The eight-day itinerary went from Athens to the Pindus Mountains, the southeast to northwest labyrinth of high ridges and deep valleys that forms the spine of the Greek mainland. The impenetrable forests of its central region, the Agrafa (Greek for unchartered), allowed it to maintain its autonomy throughout the four centuries of Ottoman occupation. During World War II it became a center of resistance against Italian and then German invaders. This wild, sparsely inhabited region remains relatively unspoiled to this day. And the roads that wind their way up and down its steep slopes are still little more than dirt trails.

This, combined with the self-drive bit causes me to pause. I am a highway driver, an erstwhile soccer mom. Although no stranger to off-road adventure travel, from the African bush to the Himalaya, I have always left the driving to local experts. But an opportunity to discover this other Greece I hadn’t known to still exists is hard to pass. Fortunately Tripology assures me that, while the driving on their itineraries is challenging, many participants actually want to drive. They’ll get no argument from me! There remains one last nagging doubt before I reach for my passport. We are talking group travel, my least favorite way to go. But this trip is so far off the beaten tracks that I could never undertake it on my own. Count me in!

In the beginning…

Greece - Athens. Ezvone changing of the guard,

Evzone Honor Guard march to Parliament building on Syntagma Square for the ceremonial changing of the guard.

Greece - Athens. The Acropolis.

The Acropolis glows against the Athens night sky.

We meet at our Athens hotel, the Alexandros, on the afternoon prior to our departure, fourteen of us ranging in age from thirty-something to twice that, three couples, the rest of us solo. After a short get-acquainted briefing led by Izhar Gamlieli, co-founder of Tripology, he shepherds us into the metro for an evening on the town. It’s just a couple of stops to Syntagma Square (Constitution Square), the modern heart of the city. We catch the ceremonial changing of the Evzones, the white-skirted honor guard in front of the Parliament building. Then, after a leisurely walk through the vibrant center of town and past the entrance of the ancient Agora, we settle at the terrace of Diodos, a popular Lower Adrianou Street taverna. Our reserved family-style tables are immediately piled high with the entire gamut of traditional dishes, salad topped with slabs of sweet fresh feta, hummus, melitzanosalata (eggplant dip), tzatziki (cucumber with yogurt and dill), calamari, tiropita (cheese pie), spanakopita (spinach pie). It’s all just freshly prepared and delicious. But it’s only the beginning. Next come platters of grilled chicken, sausage and lamb chops. Our group is starting to connect. It’s impossible to remain strangers for long while tucking into succulent Greek mezedes washed down with hearty local wine, with the Acropolis glowing against the night sky in the background.

The level of camaraderie goes up another notch the next morning as we pile our luggage into our assigned vehicle, one of four shiny late model Jeep Patriots lined up in the hotel’s driveway behind the lead car, a massive land cruiser. I meet my Car # 3 traveling companions: Mary Bailey, a cookbook author, editor of The Tomato Food and Drink and all around foodie from Edmonton, Canada, and Tim Campbell, a travel writer from the U.K.

Lead car, do you read me?

Greece - Delphi, The Archeological site.

The archeological of Delphi sits on the Western face of Mount Parnassus

Delphi's Temple of Apollo overlooks the valley of Phocis.

Delphi’s Temple of Apollo overlooks the valley of Phocis.

Our cars have two-way radios with a frequency dedicated for our convoy. Yoav Barashi, our tour leader and a passionate grecophile who has been guiding here for a decade and our lead driver Niko Manolis (who turns out to be a national champion rally racer) give us a brief primer on the use of the radio and the protocol for convoy travel and we are off. The instructions are simple enough: follow the car ahead, keep your assigned place in the convoy and above all follow the directions Yoav is giving over the radio. Also, when you make a turn wait until the car behind you starts its turn before continuing on. That one is a real challenge with traffic lights, determined drivers and motorcyclists buzzing all around us. But somehow we all fall into formation again at the tollgate to Highway #1. We can relax now and congratulate Mary for seeing us this far. Nothing could have us bond faster than a narrow escape from the Athens morning commuter traffic.

Greece - Delphi. Archeological Museum.

The museum at the archeological site of Delphi.

The hills are getting more rugged, especially once we turn onto a country road toward our midday destination, a lovely seaside restaurant tucked in a secluded cove of the Gulf of Corinth. After another Greek specialties extravaganza we continue on to the archeological site of Delphi. Perched high on the southwestern spur of Mount Parnassus, it was decreed the Navel of the Earth by Zeus himself. Yaov has begun sharing tidbits of mythological lore over the radio during the quieter moments of the drive with such an irresistible blend of wit and erudition that we will soon be begging for more at every opportunity. But for now, we are getting our first taste of off-road driving, on a rough trail that is getting rockier and narrower as we zigzag toward the top of the ridge. There is a modern paved road of course, for the busloads of visitors to the site. But not for us the road more traveled, that would deprive us of the ever-changing panorama of hills fading into of the distant sea and our first glance at Delphi and the temple of Apollo from a unique vantage point high across the valley.

The Navel of the Earth

Greece - Delphi Archeological Site.

Guide Penny Kolomvotsou eplains the overall site.

Dedicated during classical time to the god Apollo, an overachieving multi-tasker variously recognized as the god of truth and prophecy, healing, plague, music, poetry and more, Delphi was a seat of the Pythia. This priestess was believed to channel the pronouncements of the Oracle (itself the intermediary to Apollo) that would then be interpreted by the priests.

Yaov introduces us to Penny Kolomvotsou, a licensed local guide and perfect English speaker, who makes the site and the adjoining archeological museum come alive for us. Tripology Adventures has arranged private visits with her for almost two decades. To book a visit, Penny may be contacted at +30 6944 644427 or kpagona@hotmail.com

We spend the night in modern Delphi at the Amalia Hotel, a smart contemporary four-star property with glorious vistas of the mountains and the Ionian Sea. Gazing from my balcony at the valley below, covered with olive groves all the way down to the sea, I reflect that, off-road travel notwithstanding, this Greece still feels quite familiar. Little do I know the adventure of traveling Tripology-style has barely begun…

Good to Know

Tripology Adventures is an Israel-based road travel company that has been leading 4WD self-drive caravan across remote, culturally rich areas of Europe, Africa and Asia for over two decades. Tripology Adventures, www.tripologyadventures.com, email:info@tripologyadventures.com, or call 888-975-7080.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Delphi, Greece.

Athens

The back roads of Tuscany – Casentino

The back roads of Tuscany – Casentino

Hard to imagine that any corner of Tuscany could ever escape attention of tourists but the Casentino Valley, a rural area a mere 50 kilometers (30 miles) east of Florence has managed to remain mainly ignored by visitors. Wedged into the densely forested foothills of the Appenine Mountains, the valley rose to prominence in the Middle Ages when it remained for 500 years the private fiefdom the Guidi Counts. They built a number of great fortresses to guard their domain before they were finally annexed by Florence in 1440. Three of these Castellos, in Poppi, Porciano and Romena still dominate the valley, although the later has been for centuries merely a foreboding ruin chiseled against the misty Castentino sky.

Poppi

Tuscany - Casentino, Poppy

Main street of medieval village of Poppi.

The ancestral seat of the Guidi Counts, the medieval village of Poppi is considered one of the best-preserved fortified villages in Italy. It is dominated by its majestic castle by Arnolfo di Cambio, which is regarded as the prototype for his latter design of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. The entire castle is open to visitors, from the prison cells to the bell tower. The chapel contains well preserved frescoes attributed to Giotto’s star pupil Taddeo Gaddi, and the library holds one of the richest collections of medieval manuscripts and scrolls in the country.

Porciano

Tuscany - Casentino, Porciano

The hilltop hamlet of Porciano is a quaint rural retreat.

Surrounded by a hamlet of picturesque stone cottages build into the original fortification walls, the privately owned Castello di Porciano has been painstakingly restored starting the 1960’s. Its imposing six story (35 meter/115 foot) high keep has retained its battlement. The tower now includes a small museum. The top three stories are a private residence. The residence as well as some of the cottages are available for short-term rental and offer a unique opportunity to experience rural Tuscany at its relaxing best. The entire village is blessed with commanding views of Casentino Valley.

Arezzo

Tuscany - Casentino, Arezzo Piazza Grande.

Arezzo Piazza Grande and Vasari Loggia.

Tuscany - Casentino. Arezzo Basillica.

Piero della Francesca’s msasterpiece in the San Francesco Basilica.

Another under-visited bit of Tuscany, just 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of Poppi is Arezzo. One of the main settlements of the Etruscan League (circa sixth century B.C.), it flourished well into the middle ages before falling to the Florentine hegemony in 1384. Consequently its historic center is mainly medieval, with its sloping Piazza Grande edged on the north side by the flat Mannerist façade of the Vasari Loggia (yes, by native son Giorgio Vasari of Ponte Vecchio Vasari Corridor fame) and fine view of the elaborate Romanesque apse of Santa Maria della Pieve. Arezzo’s most notable artistic treasure is La Leggenda della Vera Croce (Legend of the True Cross) by Piero della Francesca is in the chancel of the San Francesco Basilica.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Arezzo, Italy.

The back roads of Tuscany – Val d’Orcia

The back roads of Tuscany – Val d’Orcia

Today I leave behind Florence and its inestimable wealth of Renaissance treasures to take to the back roads of Tuscany. The region abounds with medieval hill towns with their own important cultural heritage. Among them my favorite of Tuscan cities, Siena and her Piazza del Campo, regarded as one of the greatest medieval squares in Europe. Just south of it lays the picture-perfect Val d’Orcia where vineyards and olive groves climb up sun-baked hills toward ancient fortified villages and country lanes lined with dark arrow-straight cypresses meander across rolling meadows toward apricot-colored farmsteads. This is a land that had me smitten at first sight, long before UNESCO recognized it a World Heritage Site for “its exceptional reflection of the way the landscape was re-written in Renaissance time to reflect the ideals of good governance” and credited it for its profound influence the development of landscape thinking.

Siena

Tuscany - Siena Piazza del Campo

Piazza del Campo is regarded as one of the greatest medieval squares in Europe

Tuscany - Siena Duomo.

Pinturicchio frescoes at the Siena Duomo Piccolomini Library

This classic medieval hill town is best known for its unique shell-shaped Piazza del Campo dominated by its Gothic town hall, the imposing fourteenth century Palazzo Publico. Beautifully preserved reminders of its thirteenth century grandeur, when it was one of the wealthiest cities in Europe, can be found everywhere along its steep, narrow streets. Perched high on a hill, the Siena Duomo is a superb gothic cathedral with an intricately carved marble façade. The interior walls and the high pillars of the nave are clad in black and white marble stripes that soar to a vaulted ceiling of golden stars against an indigo sky. The adjoining Piccolomini Library is filled with lavishly illuminated choir manuscripts, its walls and ceiling are covered with striking frescoes by Pinturicchio. In the popular Fontebranda neighborhood (named after the most popular fountain in Siena, still in existence), the house of Caterina Benincasa, who became Santa Caterina, the patron saint of Italy, is well worth a visit. Although it had undergone many modifications since her death in 1380, it remains a serene retreat with a lovely Renaissance loggia and brick-lined courtyard.

Bagno Vignoni

Tuscany - Bagno Vignoni sulphurous springs,

Bagno Vignoni’s hot sulfurous springs have been a popular spa since Roman times.

Known since Roman times for its thermal waters, Bagno Vignoni is a tiny medieval hamlet clustered around a large rectangular pool fed from an underground aquifer of volcanic origins. The spa is said to have been attended by many eminent Renaissance personalities, among them Pope Pius II, the afore-mentioned Santa Caterina da Siena and Lorenzo the Magnificent. Although modern spas have sprouted in the vicinity to take advantage of the hot sulfurous springs, this charming Val d’Orcia hamlet appears mainly unchanged since then.

San’ Antimo Abbey

Tuscany - San’ Antimo Abbey

San’Antimo is considered one of the most beautiful Romanesque churches in Italy.

Another Val d’Orcia jewel, San’ Antimo was built in early the early twelfth century in a remote pastoral setting of ancient cypress and olive trees. It is reputed to be one of the most beautiful Romanesque churches in Italy. It certainly is one of the most beautiful and best-preserved ones I have ever seen.

 

 

Montalcino

Tuscany - Montalcino, Altesino Vineyard.

Montalcino produces some be the most prestigious red wines in Italy,

Altesino Winery in Montalcino.

Altesino Winery in Montalcino.

While Chianti may be synonymous with Tuscan wines in the mind of many and some of the area’s wineries are worth a visit, for me the ultimate Tuscan oenology experience is Montalcino, a delightful hilltop village that traces its winemaking tradition to the fourteenth century. It offers a commending view of the Val d’Orcia and rolling hills streaked to the horizon with the vineyards that produce some of Italy’s most esteemed reds, the Brunello di Montalcino and Rosso di Montalcino. I have the good fortune to visit Altesino, a leading local estate, where I am treated to a tour of the entire production cycle from the neat rows of vines, each punctuated with a thriving rose bush for pest control, to the state-of-the-art aging cellars and bottling operation. A memorable tasting of Altesino’s prized vintages conclude the visit. Salut!

Visits of the Altesino Winery are by appointment only.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Siena, Italy

The Oltrarno – where ancient Florence lives on

The Oltrarno – where ancient Florence lives on

No visit to Florence feels complete without at least one foray into the narrow alleys of the Oltrarno. This area, located outside the city’s walls, on the oltr’Arno (literally the other side of the Arno), was from the start a working class neighborhood home to the manual trades, especially the fullers, dyers and tanners that needed water from the river. Other artisans followed, pushed outward by the expansion of the medieval city. Today their artistic legacy lives on in myriad small shops where the last of traditional Florentine craftspeople carry on their trade. They are the picture framers, gilders, engravers, enamelers and restorers of fine antiques. They still bind books, make marbled paper and fine hand-made leather goods.

An embarrassment of bridges

Tuscany - Florence. Oltrarno San Frediano Church.

The Baroque cupola of San Frediano refects in the Arno.

Three of the six bridges of Florence directly link the centro storico to the heart of the Oltrarno. The famed Ponte Vecchio, built at the narrowest point of the river. is now a pedestrian passage jammed with tourists. As was common a millennium ago, it is still lined on both sides with small shops. In keeping with a sixteenth century edict from the then Grand Duke of Tuscany Cosimo I, the entire bridge is dedicated to the jewelry trade, but the gold and silversmiths are long gone. These days it has become a garish strip mall of brightly lit storefronts dripping with gold items manufactured around the world. I avoid it in favor of the next two down river bridges. I occasionally I use the Ponte della Carraia about 500 meters (a third of a mile) downstream, for a close look at the Baroque cupola. of the Frediano church in the river. But most often, I take the Ponte Santa Trinita, located halfway between the two others. From there, I can enjoy the Ponte Vecchio and the ancient architecture of the Oltrarno riverfront at their photogenic best.

Tuscany - Florence. Oltrarno fountain.

Bernardo Buontalenti’s Fontana dello Sprone stands guard in corner of Piazza Frescobaldi.

Besides its spectacular views, the Ponte Santa Trinita has the added attraction of leading me straight to Gelato Santa Trinita, one of my favorite gelateria in the city for its wide choice of decadently rich, freshly made ice creams and its reasonable prices. It is located at the corner Ponte Santa Trinita and Piazza Frescobaldi. Then, just a few steps away, the far left corner of the tiny piazza is guarded by a favorite Oltrarno landmarks, the striking sixteenth century fountain by Bernardo Buontalenti where water spouts from a grotesque marble mask into an elaborately carved inverted cone basin. Commonly known as la Fontana dello Sprone (the fountain at the corner) it sits at the sharp corner where two ancient streets, Borgo San Jacopo and Via dello Sprone intersect. High on the wall above it, the unmistakable oval white marble shield adorned with six balls reminds passers-by that even this working class neighborhood is Medici country.

The ultimate Medici repository

Tuscany - Florence. Palazzo Pitti Boboli Gardens.

Palazzo Pitti Boboli Gardens.

Tuscany - Florence. Palazzo Pitti Boboli Gardens.

The Palazzo Pitti’s Boboli Gardens.

Palazzo Pitti. Follow either of these streets, and a ten-minute walk later this is extravagantly confirmed when they open onto the rambling Palazzo Pitti, originally built in the mid-fifteenth century as the residence of the powerful banker Luca Pitti, friend of Cosimo de’ Medici (or Cosimo the Elder, 1389-1464). A century later his descendent Cosimo I de’ Medici purchased the palace from the Pitti family and expended it into the grand 32,000 square meter (eight acre) residence that we know today. His wife Eleonora do Toledo oversaw the addition of the sumptuous amphitheatre-shaped Boboli Gardens at the rear of the palace.

For the next two centuries, the palace was the primary residence of the Grand Dukes of Tuscany. It became an unimaginable treasure trove as the family accumulated a wealth of artworks, jewels, china and furniture. Today is it the largest museum complex in Florence, with a rich collection spanning six centuries and including dedicated silver, porcelain, costume and carriage museums as well as painting and sculptures galleries. The gardens, enlarged in the seventeenth century to their present 45,000 square meter (11 acre) size have become an outdoor sculpture museum that includes roman antiquities as well as Renaissance works. It’s an ideal place for a serene al fresco escape from the crowds of the city on a sunny afternoon.

The Masaccio legacy

Tuscany - Oltrarno's Santa Maria del Carmine cloister.

The Brunelleschi cloister at Santa Maria del Carmine.

Tuscany - Oltrarno Masaccio frescoes.

Early Renaissance Masaccio frescoes at the Brancacci Chapel.

Brancacci Chapel. The grandeur of the Palazzo Pitti and the charms of Boboli Gardens notwithstanding, my favorite Oltrarno destination lays a ten-minute walk north through the narrow alleys of the artisans quarters to the Piazza del Camine. At the edge of this quiet square stands the unassuming, semi-deserted church of Santa Maria del Carmine, part of a Carmelite convent with a graceful cloister designed by Brunelleschi. But mainly is it home to the Brancacci Chapel, built in 1386 for a wealthy local merchant, Pietro Brancacci. In 1425 his descendant Felice Brancacci commissioned frescoes depicting a cycle from the life of Saint Peter (the patron saint of the original owner of the chapel) from Early Renaissance master Masolino and his brilliant pupil Masaccio.

Their work marked a radical break from the medieval tradition of hierarchical representation (where the most important figures stood largest and most prominently placed) to embrace the nascent Renaissance use of perspective and light to create a realistic human dimension. Here the artists depicted biblical scenes that used the setting and likeness of their contemporaries. Theses magnificent frescoes are widely regarded as some of the most important work to come out of the Early Renaissance period. Many Renaissance artists, including the young Michelangelo, are known to have copied Masaccio’s works in the chapel as part of their artistic training.

Lo Sprone. No visit to the Oltrarno is considered complete until I have stopped for a meal at tiny Lo Sprone, predictably located on Via dello Sprone. An open kitchen area and seven wooden tables are shoehorned in this friendly hole-in-the-wall storefront where the two friendly owners alternate in the kitchen and dining area to dish out simple, delicious local fare against a background of Opera arias. The pasta dishes of the day and seasonal salads are prepared on demand as is the only constant on the limited menu, a generous meat and cheese board. Good Tuscan wine is served by the glass. And best of all, the prices too are tiny.

Next I am setting out beyond Florence and explore the back roads of Tuscany. Until then, Ciao!

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Oltrarno, florence, Tuscany