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McCann Travels: 11 Days In Italy - with Bruce Stockler, Global Director of Brand Community

McCann Travels: 11 Days In Italy - with Bruce Stockler, Global Director of Brand Community

DAY 1 -- ROME
When in Rome! Italian adventure with my college-age son began as we arrived early in Rome. Rome was packed with tourists, and you had to either wait in long lines to see the classic sites, or pay semi-sketchy local guides to take you in ahead of the lines and give you a "guided tour" of lackluster veracity. We spent several hours at the Colosseum, marveling at all of the historical dramas -- all of them violent and horrifying -- that unfolded there. We walked around Palatine Hill, which is full of important, early-Christian sites (and is one of the 7 hills of Rome). We stared up at the Arch of Titus, that monument to Roman depravity and the destruction of Jerusalem. We walked in and out of the Pantheon and did a fly-by the Trevi Fountain, which was more crowded than the East River promenade during the July 4th fireworks. We walked around our little neighborhood, finding local restaurants away from the tourist crowds.

DAY 2 -- PIENZA (Tuscany)
Left our B&B in the heart of Rome in the A.M. and drove 3 hours on local, scenic roads, north into Central Tuscany. First stop was our place to stay, Agriturismo Casa Picchiata, a beautiful and bucolic farmhouse B&B built 600 years ago for one of the Medieval Popes (Pope Pius II -- "Pope Pio" II). It's set in the ridiculously gorgeous countryside 6 km outside Pienza. We started in Pienza sharing (i.e.) scarfing down a 3-course lunch at a little, casual restaurant, La Buca di Enea: A 1/4-pound hunk of black sheep's milk cheese (pecorino -- the specialty of the Pienza region), with dips of honey, fruit compote + apricot jam); local wild boar (cinghiale) in a tomato ragu; and ravioli filled with ricotta and sage. We had local vino and a digestivo of Amaro. After walking off lunch in Pienza, which is so immaculately perfect a town it looks like a Hollywood set of a big-budget historical drama, we drove through more insanely beautiful countryside to Montepulciano, which is set high on a hill and involved steep walks up and down cobblestone streets. Leaving Montepulciano, we drove randomly and ended up in the even tinier and adorable Medieval village of Monticchiello, where we watched the sun set over the town walls and ended the day with espressos. I could spend a month in Italy every year.

DAY 3 -- VAL D'ORCIA region (Tuscany)
We spent the day traversing the Val D'Orcia region of Tuscany, where the rolling hills, fields of wheat, grape vines and olive trees offer one spectacular vista after another. We started driving on the SP146 west from Pienza toward San Quirico d'Orcia, which travel writers call one of the most breathtaking stretches of road in Italy, some say in all of Europe. (I think that's a little overkill.) My son showed me how to use the "Panorama" setting on my phone, but even then I couldn't get one single $%*& usable photo of the most famous book-cover image of Tuscany, the teeny little "Madonna di Vitaleta" Chapel sitting alone in the fields, which is way more difficult to find than you would imagine. I grabbed a decent photo of the farmhouse that served as the dreamscape-y home of Russell Crowe in "The Gladiator" -- most iconically the scene where, as he is dying, he returns home and walks between the cypress trees and past the tilting fields of wheat to reunite with his dead wife and child. (The fields are flat now, as wheat is harvested in the summer.) Our first stop was San Quirico d'Orcia, a very cute little town with lovely church gardens. We had a long lunch (and some Brunello de Montalcino) next to a piazza and then drove south to Bagni San Filippo, a tiny, tiny town whose main attraction is the geothermally-fed pool that occupies the entire town square--you can smell the sulfur on the way into town and if you know your way around you can find a hot spring outside to bathe in. From there we drove west to Montalcino, where I decided I was starting to have just about enough adorable Medieval towns for one vacation. After some chilling out time back at our farmhouse B&B -- where I took a short nap, lulled to sleep by the sound of the tractor tilling the fields, driven by the farmhouse owner's 81-year-old mamma -- we drove north to the small town of Asciano for dinner, just around sunset. We had our most decadent meal yet -- a potato and black truffle pie, pici (spaghetti) in ragu, a beef filet for me and terrine of rabbit for Jared, followed by a chocolate ganache.

DAY 4 -- CORTONA (Tuscany)
We left Pienza and drove through small backroads to Cortona, which is on the eastern edge of Tuscany near the border with Umbria (and has been overrun by tourists since "Under The Tuscan Sun" was published.) We enjoyed Cortona, which mixes the whole walled-Medieval-town vibe with a more modern sensibility. We arrived at our agriturismo (Casa Bellavista) in the farming countryside outside Cortona from the wrong direction, driving the last 1-1/2 miles on a dirt path used by farm tractors. Our agriturismo was idyllic, rustic and private; the main building is hundreds of years old (the property goes back 1000 years), filled with antiques and run by a wonderful couple, Simonetta + Guido. Jared and I put on aprons and started our cooking lesson--Simonetta guided us through the full preparations for a four-course dinner. Appetizer: "Piccole Seppie Ripiene," or cuttlefish stuffed with breadcrumbs, black olives, capers, and herbs and spices. Primi course: "Ragu" with gnocchi. We made meat ragu from fresh chicken liver, veal and pork, with tomatoes, herbs and spices; and then we made the gnocchi from scratch, using boiled potatoes to make the base for the dough, which we hand-rolled and shaped. The secondi course: "Anatra al Finocchio Selvatico," or duck with wild fennel flowers. We chopped fresh sage, rosemary, wild fennel and garlic, combined with spices, and stuffed and rubbed a local whole duck with the mixture. It was then cooked for 2 hours until crispy. Dessert: A "Bonet". It's a chocolate cake in a tin made from crushed Amaretto cookies, cocoa, rum, sugar, eggs and milk. We were served our own dinner by our hosts, along with a bright Chianti, and we are now lounging about, food-drunk, in our beautiful room that makes my own apartment look like temporary housing for hurricane refugees.

DAYS 5 + 6 -- FLORENCE
Florence! Florence. Florence? After 2 days & nights in Florence, my third visit, I was left with mixed feelings. The city is as timeless and enchanting as ever, but the experience, even during the late September off-season, is, for me, exhausting and stressful. The streets in the main part of the old city are as clogged with tourists as a summer Saturday afternoon in Times Square. Not tourists behaving badly, really, just -- a squall of humanity, the very reason I look forward to leaving NYC at the end of a work day. My enjoyment came from seeing the city through my son's eyes -- his sense of wonder and, oddly, his desire to simply walk the city with no destination in mind, no plans afoot, no museum tickets in hand. Wandering down a deserted street, seeing a group of Italian natives arguing or laughing -- that was a pleasure. Of course, we passed by all of the famous treasures -- The Uffizi Gallery, the Duomo, the Ponte Vecchio. Our hotel was located just 50 feet from the Piazza della Signoria, which was an awesome location.

DAYS 7 + 8 -- CHIANTI REGION (Tuscany)
We drove to Chianti on the "via Chiantigiana," or SR 222, the Chianti road. Amazing. We wound our way through olive groves and vineyards stretching into the distance, first through Greve in Chianti, then Panzano, where hundreds of bicycle riders were grinding up and down the hills and the town was engaged in all-out road-race celebration, then into the adorable town of Castellina in Chianti, where we enjoyed an incredible lunch at Taverna Squarcialupi, a restaurant that of course owns vineyards and produces well-known wines. Two miles out of town, a mile down a dirt road, we arrived at out farmhouse B&B, Fattoria Tregole, which dates to 1580. The grounds offer views in all directions and the family offers free pours of its own Chianti vintages. We enjoyed an insane 5-course tasting menu (in our own dining area!) that included beef tongue, duck, porcini risotto, saffron pici, creamed cod in chickpea paste, banana mousse pie. We visited a famous butcher shop in Greve, had dinner at a quirky, cave-like trattoria in the exotic town of Siena, and drove south from Siena through the Crete in Senesi, the incredible region where the rich soil suddenly turns to white clay and resembles a desert landscape. We hiked up to an art installation outside a castle turned into a resort and we continue to eat and drink with Falstaffian abandon.

DAY 9  -- PITIGLIANO (Tuscany)
If you go to Tuscany, I suggest making a stop in Pitigliano, 2-1/2 hours out of Rome. It is not on any tourist itinerary. It is real "Game of Thrones" territory -- check out the photos. The tiny little town is built into -- and overhangs -- the sides of a hill about 1000 feet up. We had an amazing time wandering the streets and exploring the ancient synagogue, built in 1598. Jews + Christians lived easily together in the 16th century under Count Niccolo Orsini IV, who ruled Pitigliano and believed Jews were hard workers, good artisans and a boon to Pitigliano’s economy. The city was known as "La Piccola Gerusalemme," Little Jerusalem. Later, under the Medici, the Jews were confined to a ghetto, but were treated well fairly well. In 1773, the liberal Catholic Grand Duke of Tuscany officially recognized the Jews of Pitigliano, giving them the same freedoms as everyone else. Over time, Jews moved to larger cities or out of Italy, but they had a huge impact on the local cuisine, which still reflects their influence. We toured the synagogue and the Medieval caverns beneath, which include: The ritual bath ("mikvah"); two ovens for baking bread and matzoh; a textile-dyeing room; a wine cellar and a kosher butcher — all of which are dug into the ancient tufa stone. Everything in + around Pitigliano, including our B&B, has the word "Tufo" in the name -- because everything is carved out of, or the soil fed by, volcanic "tufo" rock.

DAY 10 -- ROME
We finished up Italy with a bang -- literally -- with fireworks for a minor Catholic holiday (with a parade earlier in the day) exploding in the same square as our hotel, in the Trastevere district of Rome. We loved the Trastevere -- it used to be the Jewish ghetto and is now the Williamsburg of Rome. It is full of restaurants and bars and shops, but the buildings are only beginning to be gentrified. I would definitely stay here again; you can walk into the old city or take a trolley car or a bus.

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