Ah, the weekend. What everyone looks forward to. This weekend was especially exciting though - for our last excursion, API took us to Siena and Perugia for a weekend of thorough relaxation. I would have to say this mission was most certainly accomplished.
We boarded the bus on Saturday morning [for once not at the butt crack of dawn!] and headed to Siena, an idyllic Tuscan town a bit south of Florence. It is world-renowned for its natural beauty; in fact, if you google Tuscan landscapes, there's a pretty good chance that one of the first pictures to pop up will be in Siena. I gave Frida a firm talking to before we left - this was not the trip to be without a camera, and her best behavior was mandatory. She grudgingly complied.
Fun fact: The word 'duomo' has nothing to do with domes! It was taken from the German word for house and in Italy a "Duomo" is the "house of God", meaning it is the most important church in its city.
Siena and Florence were HUGE rivals, and Siena began constructing their Duomo with plans to make it greater than Brunelleschi's creation for Florence. They didn't succeed, but this is nevertheless an immensely impressive structure. Just look at the detail!
Main piazza - can you see the seashell shape?
Siena is also known for its horse race, a tradition dating waaaaaay back that draws thousands upon thousands of people into this small city. Siena is divided into sections called contrade, and each contrada has its own symbol and horse. Most of the symbols represent strength, including a rhinoceros, a griffin, and the tower on top of the elephant that you see above^. A horse representing each contrada gathers in the main piazza and in 75 seconds, it's over and done with. The prize is pretty much the ability to say "hey, we won!", but the loyalty to one's contrada is fierce and quite endearing. Being the good little tourists that we are, we each bought a banner with the symbol of a different contrada on each.
I got the porcupine. Duh.
After our walking tour we went on a lunch-hunt. After a failed search for a recommended restaurant, we settled for another one, which turned out to be slightly mediocre, but fit the bill.
I was feelin the veggies today, and definitely made the right choices!
Melanzane alla griglia fatte in casa - Grilled eggplant made in-house
This was quite amazing, I will say. Very garlickly and tender. Perfect for this veggie-loving soul.
Certainly not the best I've had, but when in Italy it's hard to find "bad" bruschetta. Olive oil, bread, fresh basil + tomatoes. Simply amazing...or amazingly simple?
After doing some souvenir shopping, we made sure to get some of the Sienese specialty called panforte, a kind of sweet whose recipe dates back to the Middle Ages when it was eaten as a kind of "trail mix" for the Crusaders.
Panforte al cioccolato
It's a very dense mix of dried fruit, nuts (mostly almonds and pistachios), honey, and various spices. It was heavy on the cinnamon and cocoa - which I loved, and also on the orange rind - which I was not so much a fan of.Overall though, the cakey texture mixed with the variety of other textures and the complex flavors made this a very enjoyable treat for my tastebuds - those Crusaders had good taste!
Now, prepare to be jealous. The main event of the day was a trip to a thermal spa, located in the Rapolano area just outside of Siena. This area is located above thermal waters that have been enriched by the minerals of the soil deep within the earth. The Etruscans discovered that the minerals in the water were amazingly beneficial for the body both inside and out, helping everything from smoothing skin to cleansing the internal organs. There are many spas in this area that have tapped into the thermal waters and constructed pools for people to sit in and soak up the minerals to receive their many health benefits.
Oh man, this was incredible. The water was like a warm, comforting bath, and it was so relaxing to just sit and soak and chat for a couple hours. I left feeling refreshed, rejuvenated, and all-around happy.
Rough weekend so far, no?
After our perfectly lovely afternoon at the spa, we went to our hotel - the Grand Hotel Boston! They must have known I was coming (well, me and the hundred other kids with API from Mass...). In case we hadn't been pampered enough just yet, API had planned a four-course dinner for us at the hotel. It was nothing more than your average hotel food, but we were excited for a free meal and to be waited on regardless!
They even had menus on the table for us:
The obligatory bread and wine:
First antipasto: CHEESE!
The upper one was tomino, a very soft creamy cheese that is exactly like brie in its consistency but has none of brie's pungency. I enjoyed it, but it paled in comparison to this guy:
Maybe I was just starving, maybe I don't eat fresh mozzarella plain often enough, but this tasted absolutely incredible. Soft, milky, with a rich mouth-feel but a light flavor. This was the most delicious bite of the entire meal.
Second antipasto: Fritture
This was an assortment of fried veggies and rice balls. I took a taste, but nothing more. When I was on my weight-loss diet, I completely cut out all things fried and ever since then, I can't eat it without getting horribly sick. I can't ever taste what has actually been fried, it all tastes like the same cheap, greasy lump to me. I also think I've developed a conditioned taste aversion - I immediately connect the taste of deep-fried food to the unbearable nausea that I'm always stuck with after, and I just can't do it. Alas and alack, I simply cannot appreciate it. Perhaps some day...
First primi: Zuppa di verdure - Vegetable soup
Well, the name pretty much says it all. Soup of vegetables. It was a bit too salty, and not much more impressive than something that I can get out of a can. But, I'm always happy to have some fresh vegetables, and it was perfectly edible - just nothing more.
Second primi: Lasagna vegetariana
Apparently this hotel defines 'vegetarian lasagna' as regular ol' lasagna without the ground meat; the only vegetables in here were the tomatoes in the sauce. It had a hint of what I thought was nutmeg, and I did appreciate that surprisingly little tough of sweetness. The crunchy outer noodles were also a nice contrast to the soft, melty middle. Not bad, just unremarkable. I probably ate about 3/4 of it.
Secondi: Roasted Chicken
This was actually pretty decent. Very simple salt+pepper+rosemary seasoning (although a little too heavy on the salt). Too much dark meat for my taste, and I will admit for the amount of work that goes into picking the meat of the bone, the acutal amount of edible chicken I was left with was not worth it. But, I enjoyed the few bites I had. Again, nothing special. It did get me excited for summer at home though - my dad makes a mean lemon-pepper bbq chicken!
You know me; this was what I was waiting for. Unfortunately, it followed suite with the previous courses in its overwhelming mediocrity. It was kind of like a tiramisu cake; something like angel food cake with a whipped topping drizzled with a coffee-chocolate sauce and a light chocolate cream layer. The cake was only slightly better than tasteless, and the filling was more like a pastry cream with a hint of cocoa than a chocolate filling which I found disappointing. The whipped topping was like Cool Whip in texture (thankfully without the artificial chemically taste) with a coffee-cocoa drizzle that was clearly trying to imitate tiramisu, My main complaint is WHY did they not just make tiramisu (very hard to screw up) instead of producing this subpar impostor? But, it was dessert, and I of course had no problem lapping it up within minutes.
Ok, I kind of bashed the dinner a little bit; but I promise, it was a truly wonderful evening! It was the perfect end to a long, luxurious day and the company of my sweet roommates made the dinner a success. We had laughter, wine, and plenty to talk about - luckily for me, they like talking about food, so we discussed the dinner as we ate!
Morning brings my favorite part of staying in hotels: the free breakfast. Most important meal of day, right?
Tea, yogurt, muesli, a roll [which went uneaten], and MELON! If you had only seen my face when I saw that platter piled with infinite melon...like a kid on Christmas morning. I am a full-on melon addict, and could (and when I'm at school, do) eat it every day and never get sick of it. I must have gone back 4 or five times, probably at least half a melon's worth! It was exactly what I wanted after that heavy meal the night before. I'm so excited for summer fruits!!!
After breakfast we boarded the bus and zoomed off to...
We entered the city through what was the residential area of the city in the Middle Ages. It was a huge labyrinth of arches where people used to live under one big roof, and was really cool to see.
I was too amused with this scene: the escalator leading down into the medieval residences. I am endlessly fascinated by past-meets-present collisions! *NERDALERT*
Perugia is located in the region of Umbria, just under Tuscany, known as the "Green Heart of Italy."
Give you one guess why:
Those Etruscans looooved their aqueducts!
There were these little yellow flowers sprouting up out of the most random spots! Frida thought it was poetic.
If 'Perugia' sounds familiar to you, it might be because it is the birthplace of the chocolate company Perugina. They produce Bacio (literally, 'kiss' - we have Hershey's, Italy has Perugina!). A Bacio is a dark chocolate shell with a chocolate truffle filling dotted with chopped hazelnut and one whole hazelnut in the middle! Don't worry, I have pictures coming tomorrow...patience, grasshopper.
This was our non-negotiable first stop.
Perugia is also home to one of the world's most famous chocolate festivals! Every October, thousands of people flood the streets - they say you can smell chocolate everywhere! Fall Break trip to Italy, anyone?
LOOK at the Hedgehog cakes!!! Iwantonenow.
You may have noticed a key element missing from our trip so far...
GELATO! We quickly made up for its absence.
Raspberry + Bacio, because, well, when in
After a walking tour and an espresso in the sun, we were off to today's main event: a wine tasting in Chianti!
Like I said...rough weekend.
It took place at Castillo di Verrazzano, as in the Verrazzano who discovered New York. I guess it's not too surprising that his family has a castle, huh? We were welcomed by the owner, who was a very charming Italian man. He may have been a little too charming, because I couldn't even dislike him despite the fact that I was absolutely green with jealousy over his "house":
And I thought I had it rough.
He talked for a while about how wonderful it is to walk around a vineyard and take in every sight and smell it has to offer, because then when you taste its wine, you can appreciate it all the more. You can taste the cherries from the cherry tree, and the lemons growing on the lemon trees. Wine is not for "getting drunk"; as he said, a baby could get drunk! Wine is about respect. AMEN! To be honest, I only really like wine when I sip it slowly and only have a couple small glasses; I find I get bored with the flavor and forget to really 'taste' it if I just mindlessly pour and drink. And that takes all the fun away!
We proceeded with a tour of the castle & its cellars:
Their reserve bottles - check out that layer of dust!
We were all ushered in to a big room for the sit-down tasting. Just as I had hoped, the owner walked us through the first sip, explaining how to hold the glass, look at the color, check the alcohol content, and even how to smell it correctly! What I learned in Italy...
We started with a simple table wine, red of course:
Then proceeded to the Chianti Classico - this was my favorite:
What a fox, that Verrazzano.
Just like the other tastings, we were served lots of "snacks" with the wine that turned into a perfect dinner! Tuscan bread, olive oil, toasted garlic bread (my favorite), salami and prosciutto, pecorino (my love!), salad, white beans...the works. Oh, but I was happy.
We also got to taste one of the Reserve wines; I could definitely taste the difference in its age and quality, but to be honest, it wasn't my favorite. It was too strong for my underdeveloped palate ;) But it was such a fun experience!
We ended with the traditional cantucci (Tuscan biscotti) to dip in Vin Santo, the classic dessert wine.
Mmmmmmmmmmmmm. I liked this vin santo better than the last I had - less strong/bitter. I really like the two together! Really, I just love cantucci. A lot.
Before we left this beautiful trip behind and traveled back to the semi-reality of Florence, I took some pics of the castle's "back yard":
Now that's rough.