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  • Jennifer

Tuscany & Umbria, Italy: Wine, hill towns, and a little torture

After a few weeks apart, Joe met me in Bologna for a road trip through Tuscany. But before we got started, I wanted to show him around the city I'd enjoyed while attending gelato school.

After exploring Piazza Maggiore and the Duomo, we strolled over to the beautiful Fountain of Neptune, located in the Piazza del Nettuno, next to Piazza Maggiore. The fountain has 38 jets of water and includes all sorts of figures arranged around the serpentine figure of Neptune, including dolphins, sirens, heraldic coats of arms, and cherubs). Neptune is holding something that's become synonymous with another symbol of Italy, the trident that is the logo for Maserati.

Our first night together in Bologna we had an amazing dinner in the city center and then bar-hopped our way back to the hotel. Finally, at around 2am, we left an Irish bar near our hotel and headed back for the night, except... we passed a completely non-descript bar that was loud and crowded and seemed like fun. One last stop, we told each other. Chiosco Passaparola, or what we now call the Star Wars bar, was a blast, with people that were friendly and weird, loud and fun. [For those of you who don't remember, the cantina scene from the original Star Wars has all sorts of odd and weird aliens bellying up to the bar].

The next day, we explored Bologna in some drizzly weather (a theme that would follow us the entire week - apparently it was one of the rainiest Mays in Emilia Romagna history!). First, we stopped into a cozy family-run restaurant with a wonderful brick oven, which wasn't just pretty but warm as well (which helped, given the rain). We were surrounded by families gathering for Sunday lunch, and lots of kids running around, which made us feel like we were really in the middle of a very normal Sunday and family life in the city. We enjoyed amazing lasagna and handmade pasta. Then, we went to find a heralded gelato shop I'd learned about in school before embarking on a long walk to work it all off. We climbed the 3.8 kilometers up to the Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca, stepping uphill the entire way. All of the steps leading there are covered by a portico with 666 arches. Why 666? It's the number that symbolizes the devil, according to the Apocalypse and Saint John. Well, okay! When we reached the top, we had beautiful views down to the city center and the surrounding area. It was a fitting end to our time in Bologna, taking in the historic charm one last time before beginning our road trip through Tuscany and Umbria.

But before we made it there, we'd planned a few stops in Sant' Agata Bolognese and Modena. Because if Sunday was all about walking, Monday was all about driving. We were going to visit Lamborghini and Ferrari.

At Lamborghini we viewed vividly colored models and oohed and aaahed over the sexy cars, but Ferrari was truly awe inspiring, not just because of the collection of classic Enzo Ferrari designed cars but also the way in which they are presented and displayed. There's no way we could do it justice just describing the exhibit, but this Grand Tour video does a great job of giving you an idea of how beautiful both the cars and the museum are.

The coolest thing ever, though, was when the entire museum became a giant movie theater with a black and white film projected against the length of a soaring wall, from floor to ceiling. The film tells the story of Enzo Ferrari and how he brought his automotive dreams to life, with Pavarotti singing Nessun dorma, from Puccini's opera Turandot, in the background. It gives you goosebumps watching it, it is just that cool.

I wish we had a video to share but we were so mesmerized by what we were watching and hearing, our phones were the last things on our minds. There is also an engine room in an entirely separate building, which shows what's under the hood of these amazing cars. This was a totally worthwhile side trip on our way to Montepulciano.

Later in the day, our arrival in Montepulciano was soggy, to say the least. It was a bummer because our hotel, Villa Cicolina, has amazing views overlooking the hills of Tuscany, and the clouds were refusing to leave!

Once the country residence of a noble family until the 1800s, and with a history dating back to the late sixteenth century, the hotel has a gorgeous pool tucked between two centuries-old olive trees and stunning views of the rolling hills beneath. It wasn't exactly warm enough to enjoy the water, so we had to be happy with just the views that day. We dodged puddles and explored the property before sitting down to a meal of Tuscan cuisine in the hotel's restaurant. It was cozy and felt like we were eating in someone's country kitchen - if their kitchen happened to be gorgeous and filled with elegant flowers and aged stone walls. It was a perfect introduction to Montepulciano.

The next day we headed to the medieval hill town of Montepulciano, and right before the entry to the town we passed a... giant horse? Yes! This massive statue was left here after a 2017 exhibition on Leonardo da Vinci, which included this full-size reconstruction of the Equestrian Monument, which was intended to be the largest equestrian statue in the world. It was originally commissioned in 1482 by Duke of Milan Ludovico il Moroa to commemorate his father, Francesco Sforza, but it was never completed. Quite a striking introduction to the town!

We loved climbing the winding ancient stone streets to the top of Montepulciano, it's a picture-perfect Tuscan village. So, we were surprised to find a museum that felt a little out of place - the Museo della Torture or, the Torture Museum. If ever there was a place to view how twisted and evil people can be, this was the place! Each torture device was more unfathomable than the last, and it quickly became evident that, while men were subjected to some pretty horrific torturing, women got the worst of it. There had to be three times more torture devices devoted to ensuring that women endured the most painful and cruel punishment possible. The thing is, there was nothing bloody or violent about the museum, it was simply a display of instruments - from chairs with spikes to a coffin of nails and a spreader to tear a person in half, and so much more. There seemed to be no end to the human imagination to inflict pain and death, which was pretty sobering.

After that, we were ready for a drink and it coincided perfectly with our appointment at Icario, a local vineyard. That day we were the only people visiting, so we were fortunate enough to get a private tour of the facilities and enjoy several flights of Icario's wines. Vino Nobile di Montepulciano was given D.O.C. (Controlled Destination of Origin) status in 1966. This designation is only given to wines produced in the vineyards surrounding Montepulciano and those that are made primarily from Sangiovese, Canaiolo Nero and other local varieties of grapes.

They are then aged for two years, at least one of those in oak barrels. The wine was so good we couldn't resist ordering a case to be sent home so we could enjoy Icario's wines whenever we want.

The next day we decided to explore the area surrounding Montepulciano, and so we just got in the car and drove until we reached other little towns to explore. The first, Pienza, was halfway between Montepulciano and Montalcino. This adorable hill town was exactly what you'd expect, with ancient palazzos and a beautiful duomo inside the stone walls surrounding it. This place is old, dating back to the ninth century. It's also a UNESCO World Heritage site. And, of course, the views are stunning.

On our way back to Montepulciano we found signs for the Dairy Cugusi, so we decided it was time for a picnic. Not only has this dairy been producing cheese since 1962, but it also happens to have a perfect view across green rolling fields to Montepulciano. We purchased some wine, cheese, and bread and staked out a spot at one of their picnic tables. From there we just ate and stared up at the town hovering in the distance, the sound of mooing cows in the background. It was the perfect end to our time in the area, and, while we were looking forward to exploring more of Tuscany, we were pretty sure it would be tough to beat this first stop.

The next day we were off to find the town of Soriano nel Cimino. But first, another vineyard visit! We had a reservation at Madonna del Latte, located in the Umbrian hills between Orvieto and Lake Bolsena. We arrived a little early, so we decided to drive up to the town that seemed to sit atop almost-vertical faces of tuff cliffs, all of it surrounded by defensive walls. I don't know which invaders thought they could scale these cliffs to attack the ancient Etruscan city of Orvieto, but they must have been part brave, part delusional! This city sits on an impregnable rock, and it once controlled the road between Florence and Rome where it crossed the Chiana. We parked the car at the bottom and walked up to check it out until we were expected at Madonna del Latte.

The Duomo di Orvieto is beautiful from the front, but the side view is a little odd - it looks like a zebra! It actually has stripes of white travertine and greenish-black basalt in narrow bands. The cathedral has five bells, tuned in E flat, which date back to the renaissance. We're not musical people, so that doesn't really mean much to us, but it sure sounds pretty! Orvieto also has a labyrinth of caves and tunnels - more than 1200! - beneath the surface of the city. Noble families were to use these tunnels to safely exit the city if they came under siege. The exit point is some distance away from the city walls. Pretty smart!

After our unexpected visit to Orvieto we headed back down to Madonna del Latte, where our host, Leon was waiting for us.

We had no idea that we'd be met by the owner of this small family-owned winery, but he came out from the family home to greet us and show us around. The wines here are certified organic and produced without using herbicides, synthetic fertilizers or insecticides. This corner of Umbria has rich, sandy volcanic soil at an altitude of 450 meters, which is optimal for abundant sun and ventilation. It is also, apparently, good for lemons! This happy tree was enjoying its view of the vineyard. After touring the grounds, Leon invited us inside his home to taste the fruits of his labor. We sat at a large dining table and enjoyed glass after glass of wonderful wine. It was difficult to decide on our favorite - choosing between the Pinot Nero, Sucàno, Viognier, Orvieto Classico Superiore, Monte Landro Syrah or sparkling Rosé Brut was impossible. So, once again we ordered a mixed case to be sent home for us. This place should definitely be on your list if you're in the area.

When we finally reached the town of Soriano nel Cimino we learned what a small hill town is really like, and that it's nothing like Montepulciano or Orvieto. There was one main street with one pastry shop for breakfast. It's location in the Cimini mountains means it's removed from anything resembling tourism. We couldn't even figure out where to eat dinner! Our hotel, Palazzo Catalani, had a restaurant but we felt like this was a perfect opportunity to eat like a local. So, we went for a walk and found...a cave.

Rottezzia Osteria Birreria Di Famiani Emanuele is accessed by walking down, down, down into a cavernous rock walled dining room. It was both dungeon-like and sort of cool at the same time. In fact, we ate there twice during our stay!! Like I said, not much to choose from in this little town. Our first night, though, we were lucky enough to walk right into the start of a procession from the Chiesa della Misericordia (Church of Mercy) in the main piazza. It seemed like everyone in town had gathered for some sort of celebration. We watched as they formed a line and each person held a candle to light the way as they sang in unison and walked up the hill to another church, the street lined with large paper flowers and streamers hanging from windows and streetlamps. It was surreal and wonderful, and a highlight of our travels. You can read more about it and view the video in our Travel Serendipity blog post. What a great way to end our road trip.

We ended in Rome, which was quite the change from our week of hill towns and vineyards. We made our way to one of our favorite spots in Rome, an outdoor table facing the Pantheon, and celebrated. After navigating the highways and small side roads of Italy, we'd made it to the big city. We spent the rest of our time roaming the streets and enjoying the hustle and bustle around us. When we passed by Trevi Fountain we decided to give in to legend and superstition and toss a coin into the fountain to ensure another return to this amazing city (yes, it was super-hot, I needed a refreshment while doing so).

The coin must have worked, because we will be heading back there in a few months. Making it totally worth tossing 1 Euro into the fountain to make it happen.

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