Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Day 13: Castellina in Chianti

It is a beautiful sunny day this morning, but after breakfast, we pack up our dirty laundry and drive to Siena to find the Onda Blu laundromat. I also want to check out the parking area in Siena that is close to the escalator that takes you up to the center of Siena. The drive into Siena on the "main" road--S.S. 222 (the Strada Chiantigiana) is striking....lots of climbing and descending, curves in the road, vineyards and olive groves, restaurants, hotels and agriturismi. The parking lot we are headed for--I think it is the Porta Ovile in on the east side of Siena where we have never driven. We pass the train station and get a first hand view of why the train to Siena is not the preferred way to get to the center of town....it is nowhere the Campo or Duomo. We pass the escalator to the "centro" but don't pass any parking called Porta Ovile. The parking lot we do pass is called San Francesco so we do a couple of u-turns and find a space.

The entrance to the escalator is about 100 yards from the lot entrance and the escalators---there are five sections--let you out just behind the San Francesco church. Once we get oriented, we realize that we are not all that close to the Campo, where the laundromat is located. So we have a good 15-20 minute walk--up some hills, pulling our carry-on suitcase filled with laundry--until we find our destination...just a half block off the Campo. The laundromat is empty and we are now very familiar with the Onda Blu system, so we have no problem getting started. While we wait, I open my laptop with the hope that I will find a wi-fi signal that I can use (the dialup at the Villa Casalecchi is painfully slow). I do find several signals but all of them disappear as I try to use them.....very tantalizing but ultimately disappointing.

Before we leave, we explain how the system works to a couple of confused Americans and they are very appreciative. When we are finished, Diana stays in the Campo having a drink, while I take the laundry back to the car in the parking lot. As I walk back to the car and return to the Campo, I have the same feeling that I had on our previous stay in Siena....I find Siena oppressive--tall dark buildings and very little green. (D: The narrow, forbidding streets are in great contrast to the Campo - this wonderful, open, perfect piazza.) But I do find a store that sells porchetta sandwiches and I buy two for us to have for lunch before we visit the Duomo.

We find an open spot on the bench just across from the Duomo and eat our sandwiches, which are delicious--the rolls are fresh and crusty and the meat is flavorful and juicy. The front of the Duomo is covered with scaffolding but as they usually do, the Italians have draped the scaffolding with a full size picture of the Duomo facade. There is a short line to buy admission tickets (Euro 3.00) and enter the Duomo. Once inside, the whole scene is sort of overwhelming. The first things we are looking at are the amazing floor paintings that are scattered all around the cathedral. Many of them (in the front center of the building) are covered for most of the year, but they have left quite a few uncovered, surrounded by guard ropes. The inlaid pavements portray various Biblical scenes and a series of portraits of the Sibyls who supposedly foretold the coming of Jesus Christ; the scenes are very modern and expressive.

As sometimes happens, our guidebooks are not up to the task of orienting us sufficiently so that we are sure of what we are seeing. I go into the bookstore and buy their guidebook and--using it conjunction with the Rough Guide and Cadogan--we do a pretty good job of navigating the vast space. The other highlights in the Duomo include the 13th century carved pulpit by Pisani, Donatello's scupture of St. John and a young Michelangelo's sculptures for the Piccolomini chapel. But most impressive of all are the frescoes in the Piccolomini Chapel done by Pinturicchio detailing ten scenes from the life of Pius II--from his youth to just before his death. The frescoes are detailed and colorful....bright and vibrant and--according to the guidebooks--have never been restored. They have wonderful portraits of people and beautiful landscapes that look just like the countryside just outside of Siena.

We spend more than an hour inside the building and when we come out, we are not ready to tackle any more serious tourism--because we feel we have taken so much in and also we want to take advantage of our hotel in the countryside on this hot sunny day. So we make our way back to the escalator--stopping for a quick and delicious gelato at a shop next to the place where I bought the sandwiches. The parking cost Euro 8.00....pretty expensive I think...but we did avoid most of the walk up to Siena. However, I am not sure it is as easy as parking at the Fortezza or the stadium at the top of the town. We will have to try that again on our next visit.

We spend a few hours relaxing in the sun next to the pool....until it is time for dinner. The place I have decided on is a few kilometers north of town but when we get there, it turns out that it is closed for vacation. I have violated one of my rules--always call ahead to check. Next on the list is a more upscale place called Albergaccio, just to the west of the center of Castellina, but the menu just doesn't appeal to me so we start to look for another recommended place, Il Pestello, somewhere on the road from Castellina to Poggibonsi. After about ten minutes on the very curvy road, we give up and head back to town. The next candidate is Al Gallopapa, located in a passageway just under the main street of town. I had read that it was a lively restaurant, popular with locals and it is written up in a number of guidebooks. It is open and we walk in without looking at the menu.

We are seated in the back room of the restaurant--the larger front room is almost full and we don't have reservations. The place is indeed very stylish and attractive but it doesn't look fancy or formal. They offer us a glass of spumante when we sit down and then we are left alone (ignored?) for a while. We are seated in front of bookshelves with lots of food and wine magazines and books as well as their supply of liquor and grappa. The wines are displayed on shelves scattered around the room and the tables have runners across the middle rather than tablecloths. The flatware--which almost identical to ours at home--is set upside down. A tray of small "snacks" arrives and the waiter/owner (who speaks excellent, colloquial English) asks if he want English or Italian menus.

We ask for Italian menus (we should have asked for one of each). When they come, we are very surprised--the restaurant turns out to be very "nouvelle cuisine" with lots of untraditional and complicated preparations. In addition, it is very expensive. (NOTE: Don't forget to look at the menu before sitting down--even if it is the fourth place you have been that evening.) But, at this point (almost 9 pm), we are not going to leave and find another restaurant, so we decide to enjoy the experience.

In fact, it is a very nice restaurant and the food--for the most part--is excellent, despite some over-the-top combinations. The owner/waiter is very charming and jokes with us throughout the meal. After we order--we are going to share a risotto called "aquarello (watercolor)" and I chose ossobuco and Diana picks a roast lamb dish and we will drink a Chianti classico riserva called Vanto--we get two rectangular glass plates with six small very trendy portions of food. This "on the house" dish is in the style of the Spanish chef--Ferran Adria--and the Washington DC restaurant called Minibar. On the plate, is a thimble sized glass with minestrone soup topped with a rice foam, a cucumber jelly "egg", a parmigiano-reggiano eggplant "sandwich", etc. It was all very good and inventive and I was relieved when the rest of the meal--while creative and untraditional--wasn't as playful.

The risotto--made with some special "riserva" rice variety--was beautifully presented with three colors--green (basil), yellow (saffron) and a white foam of mozzarella di bufala covering a strip of the mozzarella cheese and it was very good, although not as spectacular as the description may have promised. My ossobuco was a bit more refined than most.....I would have liked more sauce. It was served with a small patch of cous-cous flavored with chianti. Diana's excellent lamb was even more intricate--layers of flavors and spices and served with delicious artichokes. The breads were freshly baked and came right out of the oven--small foccacias and crusty rolls and breads; they were wonderful. The three kinds of chocolate dessert were beautifully presented and also tasted good.

So the evening worked out although it was completely unexpected and a lot more expensive than we are used to spending for meals. I don't think we are likely to go back to the restaurant or recommend it to clients, but it was certainly a memorable evening in Castellina in Chianti.

Tomorrow we will check out an agriturismo horse farm near Certaldo for some clients and have lunch with our friends Rita and Lino who live near Greve.

PS: I wanted to say a few more words about the Sant'Antimo Abbey that we visited yesterday. It is a beautiful 13th century Romanesque church in a impossibly attractive setting (it is much better when there is no scaffolding.). As you drive down from the road and park in the lot, the church building fills up your vision. It is very famous for the Gregorian chants that the Benedictine monks sing at some of the masses. The contrast between cool and restrained Sant'Antimo and grand, treasure-filled cathedrals like the Siena Duomo is striking.

Pictures of Sant'Antimo


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