Vineyards and Castles on Horseback

Horseback Riding in Tuscany
Horseback Riding in Tuscany

” ‘Andiamo,’ let’s go, the sound comes out at a gallop.”  Frances Mayes

Imagine riding horses under cypress shadows that fall in wide bands across a sunlit pathway that meander over the hillsides of Tuscany. Endless blue skies blown clean of clouds frame medieval villages and vineyards. Birdsong and breezes gently caress your senses and nature is suddenly all around you. 

Have any of you, like myself, ever dreamed of riding from castle to castle on horseback? Recently, I have fallen in love with a similar idea. Riding from winery to winery on horseback. But the very best is to combine the two of them together and ride to castles and wineries on horseback! And what better place to journey through than Tuscany.

Tuscany is a primeval land full of history, legends, and ancient peoples. Pathways wind through meadows and forests that pilgrims walked many centuries ago. Olive groves, vineyards and cypress trees embellish the landscape in the most striking tones, giving a balance of beauty that soothes and refreshes the soul.

Chianti is a region in Tuscany located between Florence and Siena. Steeped in ancient history, the land has grown wealthy from wine. Today the vineyards produce an excellent quality. This was not always the case. Many of us remember the cheap Chianti  encased in a wicker bottom with a candle sticking out of it, displayed in Italian restaurants years ago. However, the wine has changed with time and today has become some of the best in the world. Classico is a term used which means that the wine is grown in the oldest zone of origin. The map below shows the area.

Map of Chianti in Tuscany
Map of Chianti in Tuscany

Chianti wine was first mentioned in a document from 1398. The above outlined Chianti area boundaries have been fixed since 1932 and have stayed the same.  But not all are Chianti Classico. Divided into 8 sub-zones, each one produces its own Chianti wine. As you ride through the region, you will find many farms and wineries along the road offering wine tasting.

There is no better way to experience the sights, smells, and tastes of Tuscany than on horseback. Enjoy a day under the Tuscan sun and experience the ambience close up and personal. Below I have listed a few recommended riding experiences that offer wonderful horses that anyone can ride. Click on the titles to open the websites. I have provided a brief description after each title.

Horseback Riding in Chianti

After riding for two hours through the Chianti hillsides, you will return to the stables and enjoy a robust Tuscan lunch of salamis, cheeses, meats, fresh vegetables and wines from the same vineyards you just rode through.

Horses and Vineyards 

Beginning with a one hour ride through vineyards, olive groves, and medieval villages to a 17th century Villa’s estate, you will be taken on a guided tour of the ancient cellar. The unique process of making olive oil and wine will be discussed, followed by tasting the olive oil and several wines. A Tuscan lunch, consisting of bruschetta and pasta, or dinner for the pm ride, will be served afterward.

Seven Castles of Chianti on Horseback

For those who are up for a week-long excursion, this is the one. This rides takes you on a wide loop through the Chianti Classico wine region north of Siena.

Discover-Tuscany_7-548x373

Heads up, heels down and enjoy the ride!

It’s Palio Time in Ferrara

Palio in Ferrara

The last weekend of May is big for the small town of Ferrara in northern Italy. The Il Palio di Ferrara consumes the residents with gala flag throwing, dancing, music, dames, knights, and sleek Arabian horses. Celebrated since 1279, to be exact, the townspeople show their true team spirit by taking part in the myriad of events. Majestic processions, games and competition are the order of the day. The fast-action Palio races are the culminating event on the last day, held in Piazze Ariostea.  Mud and dirt fling across the track as horse and rider fearlessly pound the turf.

Medieval dancing in Ferrara
Medieval dancing in Ferrara

What attracts me to small towns in Italy is the spirit of pride harbored by the people. Traditions and customs from ages past remain imbedded deeply in their culture, respected and loved through re-enactments of annual festivals. I love the marching, the colorful costumes and banners, hats with plumes and dancers tossing their contrade flags. The town’s participants don costumes from the Renaissance era. They are a proud people.

What is a Palio? Most people think it is a horse race, but the palio is actually a banner or cloth cherished by the winner of a competition. They keep this banner until the next years race, where it is relinquished to the new champion. Like Siena’s seventeen contrade, or neighborhoods, Ferrara has eight districts that compete in the races, all with a true spirit of camaraderie.

Flag Throwers
Flag Throwers

Ferrara, in the Emilia-Romagna Region, is noted for its exquisitely maintained Renaissance buildings. Many of the Renaissance artists were either born here or lived here for some time. The town is completely surrounded by a medieval wall that is 9 km long and  has stood the test of time very well. In fact, like Lucca, there is a pathway all along the top that is perfect for walking or bicycling. Being the home of a famous university, students and bicycles are everywhere. Go follow their bliss and rent a bike at the train station.

Every region in Italy has several Palio’s happening throughout the year. So what makes Ferrara special? For one, their palio is said to be the oldest one in Italy. For another, Ferrara is simply delightful to hang out in. With medieval walls to bicycle on top of, fantastic Renaissance architecture to walk through and admire, and artwork by famous artists to gaze upon, how can you lose?

 

Ferrara Archways
Ferrara Archways

Related Articles:

*Il Palio di Ferrara youtube short video

*Il Palio di Ferrara Official Site

Siena-A Day at the “Beach”

Enjoying a quiet moment in siena
Beginning of a Perfect Day! Enjoying a quiet moment in Siena

“Traveling is the ruin of all happiness! There’s no looking at a building after seeing Italy.”  Samuel Johnson

Like seals on a rock, people lounge across the floor of the Piazza del Campo. The bricks of the scallop-shaped piazza are still warm, adding to the sensation of sitting on the beach. Pure bliss is lazing in the sun, soaking up its last rays of the day, steeped in good conversation. The only thing missing is the ocean. What’s not to love?

Piazza del Campo, Siena
Piazza del Campo is Siena’s “Living Room.”

The late afternoon sunlight is ebbing away as shadows begin to creep across the Piazza. Children in sandals scamper after pigeons. People stroll through, a dog leash in one hand and gelato in the other. Friends and lovers sit together enjoying each others company. Siena’s social zone picks up its pace.Capri, Cefalu, Orvietto, Florence, Genoa, Bolsena, Lecci, Napoli 1385

Along the edge of the piazza is the promenade with many cafes and restaurants. There is a myriad of tables and chairs for diners and coffee drinkers set out in groups. Street musicians play their music while an entertainer in a red hat teases passersby to the delight of the crowd. The Campo truly is the physical and cultural heart of the city.

Carlos outside Ristorante Fonte Gaia
Carlos outside Ristorante Fonte Gaia

Our new friend, Carlos, runs the Ristorante Fonte Gaia. There he is in his white shirt and vest. One morning we helped him set out chairs before opening shop, and since then he has treated us to complimentary cappuccino and treats! What a sweetie…..see what can happen when you rub elbows with the locals?

Capri, Cefalu, Orvietto, Florence, Genoa, Bolsena, Lecci, Napoli 1369

The red-brick fan of the piazza radiates out from the facade of the Palazzo Pubblico. Spoke-like paving patterns were commissioned in 1349 by Siena’s then ruling committee, the Council of Nine, to symbolize power and the folds of the Madonna’s Cloak. Since then, it has remained the site for most of Siena’s public events, such as bullfights, executions, festivals, and the famous Palio.

Once the site of a Roman Forum and later the central market place, the Campo is surrounded by buildings that haven’t changed since medieval times. The facade of the Palazzo Pubblico, built in 1288, concave’s inward to accommodate the curve of the Campo. Originally the town hall, today it still houses the town administration.

The Torre del Mangia (tower) was built to rival the tower of the neighboring town of Florence. When the Torre del Mangia was built around 1325, it was the tallest structure in Italy at over 290 ft.

The entire urban center is extremely well-preserved.

Capri, Cefalu, Orvietto, Florence, Genoa, Bolsena, Lecci, Napoli 1380

The Palio, a breakneck, bareback 90 second horserace, occurs twice a year. Originating from medieval times to represent each of the 17 Contrade of Siena (neighborhoods), it still remains highly competitive. Siena’s pride and joy, it draws a huge crowd every year. During this time, the Campo is transformed into a racetrack and turns into a dynamic swirl of activity.

Capri, Cefalu, Orvietto, Florence, Genoa, Bolsena, Lecci, Napoli 1386

Seated on a tiny balcony outside a third story pub with the best view of the Campo….

siena casino royale
James Bond….here he comes…filming the movie “Quantum of Solace”

Watch out for James Bond! He could be jumping out a window and scrambling across the awnings at any moment. He has done this in the Campo before, you know! Remember the movie “Quantum of Solace?”

Quantan of Solace

Well done, James.

Capri, Cefalu, Orvietto, Florence, Genoa, Bolsena, Lecci, Napoli 1387
“Memories, pressed between the pages of my mind…….

Sadly, it’s my last night in Siena….I stand with all my senses working overtime. I don’t want to ever forget the magic of this place. I am polarized between two worlds, the medieval architecture and atmosphere so rare to find, and the culmination of modern-day Italy evidenced by the tourists. The sights, smells, tastes, sounds, and feel of this medieval city soak into my being, flooding my mind with colorful memories.  Siena will remain with me always.

Ristorante Fonte Gaia, Piazza II Campo 121, 53100, Siena,Italy, Phone: 39 0577 281628

St. Catherine and Me

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Catherine and I outside the Basilica of San Domenico in Siena

“Be all God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.”  St. Catherine

I knew we would be good friends from the start. Catherine has that presence that compels you to be close to her, to hug her. I was instantly drawn to her simple humbleness, as if she were nothing but a small brown bird. So I approached her, wrapped my arms around her, and squeezed tight.

During our stay in Siena, I couldn’t escape the urge to visit her whenever I could. She made such an impression on me. Diminutive yet mighty, Catherine was a woman able to influence the greatest powers within her own country.

Basilica San Domenico
Basilica San Domenico

Who was this tiny Dominican nun who collected such a large group of followers, including me? Where did her charisma come from? How did she gain the respect of the most powerful?

Catherine was Siena’s Mother Terese. She reached out to the poor, the sick, and the homeless. She worked tirelessly helping others through the Black Plague, bringing salvation to many. People were drawn to her radiantly joyful nature and spiritual wisdom. She was someone people wanted to be around. In short, Catherine was a saint!

St. Catherine of Siena
St. Catherine holding a White Lily as an Emblem of her Purity

The painting above is the most accurate likeness of St. Catherine known to exist. It was painted by a contemporary friend, Andrea Vanni, and is housed in the Basilica of San Domenico.

"Be all God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire."  Catherine
Looming Statue of St. Catherine in her Sanctuary

I must confess, while passing through her sanctuary, this statue of her stopped me in my tracks. She stands looming with outstretched arms, clutching a crucifix and lilies, and she is huge. At night, lights are positioned to shine up on her, casting ominous shadows on the wall. Very intimidating. Although she tirelessly fought corruption within the church, the impression of fire and brimstone is so far from whom I believe she really was.

Born Catherine Benincasa in Siena during the late middle ages in 1347, the 23rd child out of 25, Catherine lived amazingly during her short 33 years. Striving for peace in Italy, she acted as liaison between the two great powers, the Holy Roman Emperor and the Papacy. Two supporting parties resulted from these two powerhouses. The Ghibellines comprised the imperial party, and the Guelphs supported the papacy.

The people of Florence, traditionally a Geulph city, were upset with the pope and his lingering in Avignon, France. They wanted him back in Rome as he had promised them. Little Catherine, through her works and letters, so impressed Pope Gregory XI that he did eventually return the papacy to Rome. As a result, she established peace between the Pope and Florence. She became known as “the mystic of politics.”

St. Catherine's Home located close to San Domenico
St. Catherine’s Home located close to Basilica San Domenico
St. Catherines Sanctuary
St. Catherines Sanctuary

Basilica San Domenico, built in 1226, kept a cell in which St. Catherine spent much of her time. In fact, she hasn’t entirely left. Today her head can be seen inside an urn on a gilded tabernacle in the chapel dedicated to her. Her finger as well. The rest of her is kept in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome, where she died in 1380. Her bodily remnants are called relics, and those of the saints were highly prized in every Italian city during this time. It was believed that housing a saints body part would protect that city from harm.

Basilica San Domenico
Basilica San Domenico
St. Catherine resting at home.
St. Catherine resting at home.

Sadly, Catherine struggled with anorexia. She ate very little and, as a result, her life ended early. This mindset of extreme neglect for the body was prevalent among the saints. They were convince this act brought them closer to God.

An author, humanitarian and servant, Catherine possessed a great passion for her faith, for the welfare of others, and for her country. She was greatly respected for her spiritual writings and her political boldness to speak the truth to those with the highest power in the country. It was exceptional for a woman in her time to have such influence on politics and world history. She was illiterate, yet managed to sway the greatest powers and minds of her age.

Address: Basilica San Domenico, Piazza San Domenico, Siena,Italy Contact: 0577/280893, Hours: Apr-Oct 7am-12:55pm and 3-6pm, Nov-March 9am-12:55pm and 3-6pm  Cost: Free