On the way in to Florence we took a side trip to Greve in Chianti. We traveled some more scenic roads similar to the ones that marked our week in Arezzo. Misa knew of two good stores to buy souvenirs and so we took them in. There's a commercial center that is ringed by small shops and a handful of cafes and restaurants. Perhaps the most interesting was ameat shop called Macelleria Falorni, which had an amazing selection of cured meats from pancetta to wild boar salami. They also had a good selection of pecorino and parmesan.
After lightening our load of euros there, we headed over to Le Cantine di Greve in Chianti. A great enoteca with wines from all over Tuscany, of course wines from Chianti were heavily represented. They sell electronic cards (denominations from 10-25 euros) that allow you to sample many, if not all, of the wines (most prices @ .80 euros per sample). We didn't take advantage of it, because we hadn't eaten yet, but were sorely tempted.
While browsing and trying to decide a place to eat, we saw Danny McBride. Wasn't sure it was him until I heard his voice. The clincher was that he and his companion got into a chauffeured car. Actually saw them the next day at the Uffizi as well. Small, Apatowish world.
Even though the center is decidedly consumer-centered, it has a somewhat Bohemian feel, like Noho without the trust-fund panhandlers.
Prato is a city north of Firenze and is famous for textile manufacturing. Our main goal was to go to a cashmere factory store called Maglificio Denny. We found the store easily enough, but it seemed to be closed. We called the number and were lucky that Antonella, the manager, was there working, in spite of it being Sunday. She let us in and allowed the two of us the run of the place. She was incredibly warm and gracious.
She went so far as to suggest three different restaurants for us. We found one, but it was 満席. One was closed. We drove around Prato for a while and just stopped at a place where we found a large parking lot. Wandering around we decided on the first restaurant we came upon and had one of the best meals of our trip. The restaurant's called Lo Scoglio and specializes in seafood. We shared an appetizer of mussels and each had a pasta dish. All of it was amazing, including the house wine. Truly wonderful.
For the last part of our trip we're staying at La Volpaia. It's conveniently located about 45 minutes from Florence and is also spitting distance to San Gimignano. Since check-in wasn't until 3:30, we hit San Gimignano on the way. The town is similar to Siena in that it's large and very popular with tourists. It's a nice place to wander around and we were afforded some spectacular views of the surrounding countryside.
The rain continued today, but we had made last minute reservations to go to a winery in Montalcino so off we went. We headed for Biondi Santi, which is the winery that pioneered Brunello wines. Long story short we got there too late for the tour and they have a very strict policy about lateness. A rarity, based on our experience thus far, in Italy. Thwarted from the tour and subsequently the tasting, we bought an extremely expensive bottle of wine and then walked around the city of Montalcino. It was similar to Monte San Savino, yet on a larger scale.
The rain picked up after we left Montalcino, so no pictures from Pienza.
Tomorrow we head to our second hotel and that'll be the end of wifi 'til we get back.
We went in to Florence, and it being Monday, most of the museums were closed. We thought that it would be a good opportunity to get the lay of the city and to help us plan subsequent trips. The weather was perfect, if a little hot, and we walked in from our distant parking spot and caught sight immediately of the Ponte Vecchio and Uffizi Gallery.
Then, of course we headed for the Duomo.
After walking around the inside for a while, we went to the back and climbed the 500+ steps of the tower. There are a few cool views from windows along the way.
Not to mention what you can see from the top.
Thursday was a rainy day so we decided to check out Monte San Savino, which is just down the hill from us. It was a revelation. Our trip so far we had been passing by a number of medieval castle towns, but hadn't stopped at any (besides Montepulciano and Siena). Little did we know that on our doorstep was a gem of the first water.
I'm starting to get a bit tired, and yesterday was relatively uneventful.
Went to the outlet mall at Valdichiana, but it was, as the woman at reception told us, low- to medium quality goods and so we left after only about 20 minutes. We then made our way to Terme di Chianciana, a hot spring complex that boasts everything from mud baths to massages. They are closed until the 24th for maintenance. Since we were in the neighborhood, we figured to go to La Casina again for lunch... they're closed on Wednesdays. So we went back to the wine shop and had lunch: cured meats, cheese, and bread with olive oil and salt. We picked up some souvenirs for people and two more bottles of wine for ourselves: a Brunello (Vendemmia 2004 by Caparzo) for me and Misa, both of us having really liked the earlier one, got another Vino Nobile from Ercolani- this time a riserva and a bit older (2004).
Siena is meant to be one of the big highlights of Tuscany. The center of the city, like most of the historic towns in the area, is closed to most traffic. After a little trouble we found a spacious parking lot in the Porta Ovile section of town and, after receiving directions from an amiable green grocer and then the cook from a cafe, we rode a series of escalators to the fortified town proper. I could talk about our day there, but really the pictures will say it best. Suffice to say that we went to a large plaza called Piazza del Campo, the Duomo (cathedral), and the Fortezza Medicea, which is an old fort that is now a national wine repository called the Enoteca Italiana. The Duomo allows neither flash photography nor tripods, so most of my photos from inside didn't come out.
Heading down to the dining room, we are greeted by what we'll come to know as typical breakfast fare. Homemade bread, cured meat, cheese, and other light sundries.
We decide to forego our original plan of staying close to the hotel and instead decide to take a trip south to Montepulciano to visit a winery and then lunch at a restaurant from one of Misa's guidebooks. The previous night's hair-raising journey on the autostrada still fresh, local roads seem the best choice. Relying in equal measure on a map and our car navigation system, we head out. Directly we're rewarded for choosing the long cut. Post-harvest fields and stone and brick farmhouses appear with increasing frequency as the road, at first parallel to the autostrada, burrows farther into the hills. Soon we're passing Lucignano. It sits resolutely atop it's hill as it must have done for centuries. The scenery continues to breathtake and after an hour of successive vistas one as beautiful as the next, we arrive in Montepulciano.
Montepulciano is like the cities we've scene along the way, but on a grander scale. Large and imposing. For some reason the GPS won't accept the exact address of the vineyard, so we stop to ask for directions. An affable fellow at a hotel doesn't know the winery, but gives us directions to the area, Acquaviva, and tells us to ask someone there. The unlucky person works in a flower shop in what looks to be Acquaviva's city center and he manages with a few English words to direct us. A few kilometers later and we're pulling in to the winery property only to discover it closed. We hadn't anticipated that it might be closed on a Sunday. A little disappointed, we decide set out for the restaurant. This time we call ahead.
Again the GPS is less-than-helpful and so we head back to Montepulciano hoping to find another samaritan willing to point us in the right direction. Near the center I steer the car onto what I believe is the road where we spoke with the helpful hotel guy. A fortuitous mistake this turns out to be. We come upon a large wine store/ristorante with a bunch of cars in front and turn in. The rotund young woman near the door perceives immediately that we speak no Italian and switches to faintly accented English. She knows the restaurant and provides us with precise directions including landmarks and approximate driving time. Hitchless we pull into the parking lot of La Casina.
La Casina sits a bit back from the road and has a patio out front, which must be, with its view overlooking some beautiful scenery, an incredible place to dine in warmer seasons. Misa orders the seasonal menu and I the tasting. In the end we end up with an amalgam of the two, a recommendation from our affable waiter. Affability seems to be an italian trait. With our meal we order white wine and are brought one from San Gimignano (2006 Cusona 1933 from gucciardini strozzi). The waiter informs us that most wines from Tuscany are reds, but the one we're drinking is one of the few good local whites. It lives up to its billing. While intermittently chatting with an (you guessed it) affable older gentleman who is dining in the corner and seems completely unfazed by our not speaking Italian, we are served an inordinately large lunch. A meat and cheese plate with three pieces of cheese, roughly 3 sq. inches each, and five or six slices of cured meat. What our waiter claims is a half portion of soup, which, it should be known, we didn't order, but he just wanted us to try it. A pasta course with spinach and ricotta ravioli (awesome) and noodles with rabbit sauce (me) and porcini sauce (Misa). For our next course I had what must have been most of a rabbit, including a section of the torso that included the liver. Very, very tasty. Misa had a plate of assorted pork that included sausage and chops. After coffee and 68 euros lighter, we waddled out to the parking lot.
Retracing our path home we stopped at the wine store and picked up two bottles of Ercolani Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (2006).
That evening we ate at the hotel restaurant. It was an unremarkable meal aside from a jaunty waitress that speaks English, French and Spanish and both of the other couples in the room being from the US, one from Boston.
Before leaving Tokyo we sussed out a handful of places to do some shopping. Autostrada wounds healed from our trip to Monte San Savino from the airport, we braved a trip to The Mall. It has a lot of high level brands like Armani, Zegna and Bottega Veneta, but the shops are few and the prices unremarkable. In the end, perhaps the best part of it was the scenery.
It sits in a valley ringed by the mountains to the east and north of Florence. After circumambulating the shops to no avail, we set off for the Prada outlet in Montevarchi hoping that our desire for consumerism would find purchase.
It was a relatively simple matter to find the outlet, in spite of taking local roads. The road we traveled took us through the center of a succession of small suburban towns. In contrast to the previous day's journey past late-Medieval buildings and fortifications, we seemed now to be passing through the early 20th century. Most of the buildings are still made of brick and stone, but with a decidedly modern complexion.
At the outlet I was able to pick up an overcoat and two pairs of pants. The place is hit or miss as there's not much variety and it's luck as to whether you can find something to suit in your size. One thing to note is that citizens of non-EU countries are entitled to a rebate of tax for purchases over 160 euros. After about an hour there listening to people talk among their packs or to distant fellows on cell phones in German, French, American English -- why did those ladies seem the most obnoxious and pretentious of the bunch? -- Korean, and a host of languages I couldn't make out, it was time to slake a thirst of a different order.
We had a good meal at a cafe across the road from the outlet. The place is called, no I'm not making this up, La Dolce Vita. The meal, with which we had obligatory wine, was as advertised.
Again we used the GPS and our maps to find our way back to Gargonza. After a brief respite we went and picked up pizza at a local joint called Lo Stroncopane (two pizzas 10 euros).
I found out that a couple of years ago, some law governing small and medium sized travel agencies changed. Now, apparently, many local travel agents have begun creating package tours to provincial areas.
A good source for finding these tours is tabi hakken. They offer search categories including: gathering fruits and vegetables, farmwork holidays, and zazen/monastery stays. You can, of course, search using keywords or just find accommodations.
White House blog post about high speed rail.
I just read June Thomas's fifth post in a series on Japanese craftsman. She describes talking with brush maker Yoshio Tanabe.
Matsuzo Tanabe, whose only schooling after the age of 7 had been his brush-making apprenticeship, pushed his son into the family business. Yoshio's rebellion was to insist that he be allowed to graduate from college before he moved into the workshop, but once installed, he never left. Nothing has changed in his five decades of brush-making. Is he bored, I asked. "Yes," he answered flatly, though he didn't seem to consider that such a terrible fate.
I haven't read the rest of them yet.
Amtrak is going to start randomly screening passengers. Here's what Bruce Schneier thinks.
I'm heading to the airport in a few hours. Mostly packed, mostly prepared.
See you on the other side.
It had been about 5 years since I went down there last, Todd having moved out of Shizuoka and my disdain for weekend train riding adding up to my only sampling the Baird goodies available through their e-store. But I'm going to the States in the Fall and the outlay of cash for that pretty much means no vacation this summer and so Misa and I were looking for something relatively inexpensive to do. Our little trip vastly exceeded my expectations and we had a blast and got a chance to unwind in unfamiliar environs.
For our transportation we used, as always, ekikara(Japanese). It's the first site that I go to when trying to figure out the best way to get someplace new and with little muss and fuss all of the different train options are displayed. Through this site we find out about a semi-express train called the Acty that leaves from Tokyo Station (we picked it up at Shinagawa) and arrives in Atami. Express speed at local train fare, win win. From Atami we took a local to Numazu and from there a taxi (@¥1000) to our hotel.
We arrived about an hour before check to find nobody at the front desk. Suihoen is a very small place and it seemed that the proprietors were off having lunch. Still encumbered with our weekend bags we walked to the Taproom. The party had only been on for a bit more than two hours, but it was in fullswing. Standing room only. There was a band playing Celtic music, a ¥1000 all-you-can-eat buffet, and all the beers on offer were ¥500/pint. We tried each of the beers and with a brief break to go and check into our room, stayed until about 10:00.
While I've known Bryan for some years, I've never really gotten the chance to talk to him much. Very interesting guy. Turns out that he went to prep school in New England and then on to Williams. Seems he knew, or knew someone that knew, my high school friend Dave Sprague. Small world, this. Also, his girls were in the house and stealing the show. He and Sayuri's oldest is 9 or 10 y.o. and the youngest about 3. They were really enjoying the party atmosphere and all of the people (old and new) that were heaping attention on them. They were all delights, but we were shocked at how different each of their personalities are. Bryan and Sayuri are in for an interesting ride.
Oh, and I met this guy. He's been living in Numazu for about 23 years and is an expert on Japanese pottery. Yellin claims that he wasn't a beer drinker until he had tried Baird Beer, and now he's a regular at the Taproom. And he has a blog.
And I met Lauren and (briefly) her husband Scott. They're two Aussies here teaching English and have a cool blog all about the haps in Numazu.
What esle? They were offering their 7-year-anniversary ale (link may expire) in bottles and we brought back 4 of those and two Wheat Kings. Hmmn. Somehow I just got thirsty.
...and you go here, you'll lose at least 20 minutes that you'll never get back. And I haven't even seen the caveman commercials.