Saturday, August 27, 2011

Beach-hopping on Elba Island

Before I started spending a lot of time in Tuscany I had heard bits and pieces about Elba Island but honestly it just went in one ear and out the other. I recalled from my college French classes that Napoleon I had been exiled there, and I had always pictured a desolate, barren and wind-swept stretch of sand with the feisty French emperor moping behind bars in a cement shack, gnawing stale bread and moldy cheese, vengefully plotting his escape route.

Then, one rainy day last June, a colleague of mine from Castello di Casole (a private estate near Siena where I sell luxury farmhomes) who has family in Elba was raving about the island and my curiosity was piqued.  I had been craving sunshine and salt air so I invited my friend Barbara to join me for a quick three-day getaway. Other than a few tips we’d been given from Italian friends, neither one of us knew a thing about the island nor did we have time to prepare, so we booked a random hotel in Porto Azzurro which someone said would be the best place for us to stay, and we took off.

Elba is surprisingly easy to reach. You can take the train to Piombino Marittima then a short bus ride to the ferry and then forty-five minutes later you are there. Barbara and I opted to drive two hours to Piombino and bring my car on the ferry so that we could explore as much of the island as possible.

As our ferry chugged across the Tyrrhenian Sea towards the largest port town, Portoferraio, I was immediately struck by the size of the island. Elba is the largest island  in the Tuscan archipelago and the third largest in all of Italy after Sardinia and Sicily. At 86 square miles or 150 kilometers around, it takes several hours to drive from one end to the other. The landscape is surprisingly lush and parts are heavily forested. Underneath lies what was once a treasure trove of minerals and semiprecious stones, though there are still a few active mines on the island today. The hilly interior is peppered with olive groves and vineyards and a cable car runs up the highest “mountain” Monte Capanne. Nestled in coves all along the coastline are more than fifty beaches. Those on the quieter west side are sandier though harder to reach while the more rugged east side has high cliffs and stony beaches.

Italians will shake their heads in disappointment when they read this, but since our ferry was arriving in Portoferraio anyways, Barbara and I decided to kick off our visit with a tour of Napoleon Bonaparte’s residence, Villa dei Mulini, in the city center. A far cry from a cement shack, the once grand two-story villa is now weathered and its gardens are sadly overgrown. Some exquisite furnishings, such as Napoleon’s desk and library, remain, and the views framing a lighthouse are stunning.

A quick tour of the villa gave me a chance to brush up on this obscure part of French history which I will impress you with now: When Napoleon was defeated in 1814 and the Treaty of Fontainebleau was signed, the allies shipped him off to Elba, made him governor of the island, handed him two million francs and a volunteer army of 400, built a plush villa for him in the main port town and another equally plush villa in the countryside for weekend getaways. And they let him keep his title “Emperor.” Not bad for a chap who conquered northern Italy, occupied Egypt, invaded Austria, Russia, Britain, Holland, Switzerland, Turkey, Spain and Portugal, killing thousands of people, demolishing historic buildings and pilfering priceless art along the way….
During his 300 days as sovereign, when he wasn’t masterminding his short-lived return to glory before being defeated once and for all at Waterloo, the kinder, gentler side of Napoleon carried out a number of economic and social reforms on Elba and added roads and other forms of infrastructure that remain to this day.  His stay on the island is the basis for the famous English palindrome (which I recall from high school English is a phrase that can be read the same way in either direction): "Able was I ere I saw Elba” whatever the #$*% that means…

But enough of the little French Emperor. Barbara and I had made it our mission to find the best stretches of sand on the island so we spent that afternoon and the whole next day beach hopping. One thing I love about the beaches on Elba is that there is so much variety. On a day in early June before the hoards of summer vacationers descend on the island in July and August, for example,  you can can opt for a beach like this:

Or one like this:
The closest beaches to Portoferraio are around Capo Enfola just 20 minutes north so we headed there first. The one we liked the most, Sansone, doesn't have a grain of sand on it. Its shore is a deep, sprawling mass of white, silky-smooth rocks and lying on them is like getting a hot stone massage, only a lot cheaper. The water is the clearest I have ever seen and since you have to hike fifteen minutes down a fairly steep footpath, it is not too crowded. Parking along the street is limited so my advice is to arrive early, and bring walking shoes, water, snacks and an umbrella. Also don’t forget your bathing suit like I did. (I wanted to shoot myself, and bikini-clad Barbara, when I realized my oversight.)
Driving along the windy roads around the island between beaches is exhilarating. You never know what surprise lies around the next bend. Panoramic views of emerald green meadows and the azure blue sea alternate with bouquets of yellow scotch broom, purple thistle and red poppies in full bloom in June.
Heading southeast to the Golfo (gulf) Stella near the town of Capoliveri, we discovered two lovely beaches adjacent to one another, Barabarca and Zuccaro. Both have simple little bars with terraces where you can have a nice lunch looking out at the sea. Barabarca has an approach so gorgeous it literally stops you in your tracks. 

Norsi beach, a local’s secret covered in tiny pebbles, has a fun bar in a thatched-roof hut right out of the Bahamas.
The sandy, longer beaches, like Lido, where you can windsurf, rent a rubber dinghy or a pedal boat, and splash around with screaming kids, really draw the crowds. They are ideal for families and not ideal for two single gals searching for a little peace and quiet.  We were at Lido beach for a matter of seconds, just long enough for me to leave my cell phone on the seat of a motorbike while dusting the sand off my feet. Thirty minutes later, after searching the car, my beach bag and the parking lot several times, Barbara had the bright idea of calling my phone and we heard its feeble ring in the distance ….(That time it was Barbara who wanted to shoot me.)

Had we been there for more than 48 hours we would have ventured to the wilder, quieter west side of the island, or we would have parked it somewhere for a few hours and really relaxed, but we were on a mission and so we persevered, visiting more than ten beaches in two days. It was exhausting. However rather than waste precious time recovering that first afternoon with a nap, we decided to head to Porto Azzuro for a little pick me up after quickly checking in at our random hotel that was so terrible I wanted to jump out the window the minute we entered our room. I had been warned that moderately priced hotels on Elba have “lower standards” than their counterparts elsewhere in Tuscany but this was ridiculous. (I have heard good things about Villa Ottone which is among the island's few luxury hotels.) Fortunately we had driven by another cheerful, inviting hotel called Cala di Mola with a huge swimming pool and great views of the picturesque harbor that, praise God, had a room for us. I would recommend Cala di Mola to anyone visiting Elba on a moderate budget who doesn’t mind the color orange. 

And after a long day at the beach you can also partake in a rigorous exercise class in the pool...

In serious need of a calming elixir, we drove into Porto Azzurro and discovered an inviting bar fittingly named El Curando (“the doctor” in Spanish) in a postcard-perfect piazza. Within minutes I was sipping the best margarita I have had in all of Tuscany listening to Van Morrison and recapping the day’s adventures with Barbara and my friend Daniela who had joined us for the evening. Had we not had a dinner reservation I could have sat there all night.
However, Daniela who always manages to find the best restaurants everywhere we go, had reserved a table at a seafood place just steps from our hotel, run by an, er, slightly attractive friend of hers named Stefano.

There are certain vistas along the Pacifica Coast Highway in California so stunning they can literally bring me to my knees. I had that same sensation when I descended the stairs down to La Caletta and laid eyes on Stefano. No sorry.  I meant I had that same sensation when I descended the stairs and landed on the terrace of La Caletta. 

The setting for this restaurant is so perfect it actually felt fake. I was spellbound by the views of the serene harbor below, sailboats swaying gently in the breeze. The raw fish on the platter I started off with was so fresh it could have leapt out of the sea right onto my plate. My second course, the Zuppa di Mare, was a heaping, steaming mass of shrimp, mussels, clams and fish floating in a rich, spicy, broth begging for a wedge of crusty fresh bread.

On our second night, following another day of rigorous beach hopping, Barbara and I took our sun-soaked selves up to the little medieval hilltop town of Capoliveri. As we joined the locals for their evening passeggiatta (stroll) through winding cobbled streets and alleys, sultry lounge music drifted out from the bars and beckoned us into shops. 

 Eventually we wound our way to Il Chiasso, (which means “narrow lane”), a fantastic restaurant housed in what used to be donkey stables cleverly renovated with tables filling every nook and cranny inside and out. Luciano, the chef and proprietor since the restaurant opened in 1973, dances his way around his guests all the while entertaining them with jokes and smiles. We were fortunate to get a table outside where a three-piece band was playing live jazz and Luciano just kept bringing plates of food to our table. My favorite dish was a local fish called “ricciola,” served raw and finely chopped with champignons and raspberry vinaigrette. It was close to midnight when we reluctantly bid farewell to Luciano and as we made our way back to the car there were even more locals of all ages out chatting in the piazzas, eating gelato, little kids scampering around. Every one seemed happy, relaxed and not wanting that beautiful summer night to end.

During that long weekend, I was so struck by the lush natural beauty of the island, its crystal clear waters, and welcoming people, that I found myself thinking longingly about Elba all winter long and returned again with another friend, Beth, this past June for three more blissful days. This time we rented motorbikes and discovered some new treasures on the island. I’ll save that story for another day. 

Friday, January 28, 2011

A Ski Adventure in Abetone

“Skiing in Tuscany? Are you kidding???” For the past year that was my standard response when any of my friends would suggest we check out the local slopes for a day. Having lived in Aspen for a decade during some of the best ski seasons on record, I had visions of bunny hills covered in icy, man-made snow with a few Poma lifts, a rickety old chair lift, and maybe even a towrope.

Nonetheless, I was mildly curious about a small ski resort in the Apennine Mountains just an hour and a half north of Florence called Abetone. I mentioned it several times to my friend Marco, who brought me to the Dolomites for my first Italian skiing experience last year, but he always grimaced whenever I brought it up, so I assumed it wasn’t worth the time or the effort. Then in December, while my ski boots were collecting dust on a shelf in my closet and my friends back in Aspen were posting photos of epic powder days on Facebook, I decided to write an article about Abetone for The Florentine, a newspaper for English speakers in Tuscany, leaving me no choice but to check it out.

A friend of mine graciously gave me the keys to her condo so I could spend a full two days exploring the resort. Fortunately, my dear friend Chloe, who grew up in Florence and spent her winters with her family skiing in Abetone, skied the first day with me. She knew exactly where to park, rent ski equipment, which trails to ski, the best place for lunch and where to have a coffee before heading home. After a day of hard, fast skiing on soft terrain under a cloudless, periwinkle sky with my friend, simply put, I fell in love with the place.

Abetone means “large fir “ and as Chloe and I drove up a windy, well-maintained road from Pistoia through the foothills of the Apennines, there were forests of fir trees as far as the eye can see. Along the way Chloe told me stories of learning to ski in these mountains when she was a small child, her family often staying for a week at a time. Now she is teaching her own children how to ski on the very same slopes. Not much has changed in the past thirty years, which is one of Abetone’s most appealing features.

When we arrived in Abetone that Thursday morning, we literally drove right into the resort. Ski shops, restaurants, bars, hotels and markets line both sides of the road. I was delighted to discover that the parking is free, and since it was a weekday, we had no problem finding a space in the lot next to the Total gas station on the right. In fact, the lot was almost empty.
We were immediately welcomed by a cheerful man who carried my boots across the street and into Bibi Sports (who said chivalry is dead?) which is owned by the affable, engaging Senor Bibi. It took only a few minutes to rent a nice pair of Rossignol skis, and Bibi even gave us a little discount.  When he asked where I was from and I told him Aspen, he became quite animated, pulling out a tattered old ski-racing book and pointing to page with a black and white photo of Zeno, who it turns out was one of the greatest Italian skiers ever and was born in Abetone in 1920. At the 1950 World Championships in Aspen, Zeno won the gold medal in both the downhill and giant slalom. Two years later, he won the gold in the downhill at the Olympics in Oslo, Three trails at Abetone are named in his honor- Zeno 1,2 and 3,  #1 being the only black diamond run on the mountain.

Just a short walk down the street and up a steep little hill is the ticket office where we paid a mere €34 euro for a day pass with a €5 refund at the day’s end for returning the electronic pass. Admittedly, I was a little nervous when I sat down on the weathered, red plastic seat on the first chairlift, 
and even more so when the second lift was a Poma...
...but when we arrived at the top and took in the expansive, snowcapped mountain range all around us, I finally understood what all the fuss was about.
Abetone is a real, honest to goodness ski resort, and though the skiers and snowboarders are fashionably dressed as one would expect in Italy, there is not an ounce of pretention. With more than forty trails, twenty-two chairlifts and a gondola with bright blue cable cars, there is quite a bit of terrain to cover. Both the length and quality of the trails, comprised of mostly beginner (blue) and intermediate (red) runs that are slightly steeper than their counterparts in the Alps, far exceeded my expectations. Plus you can ski all over the mountain without worrying about ending up in another country.

Chloe’s plan of attack was to spend the morning in the Val di Luce area where the light is best (hence the name, Valley of Light) and then follow the sun back towards Abetone in the afternoon. Far above the tree line with panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and little villages below, Val di Luce quickly became my favorite spot on the mountain. We carved turns down the wide open, gentle slopes all morning then stopped for lunch at the chalet where the three lifts converge at the base. The spacious terrace was the perfect place to catch rays and people watch.

Within minutes we were chatting it up with two tall, attractive Florentine men, both avid skiers who know the mountain well.

We ended up skiing a few fast runs with them after lunch. At one point, when we got off the chairlift at the summit, we all dropped our skis and hiked up a short, steep hill. When we arrived at the top Chloe and I both gasped. Below us, smoky blue mountaintops basking in golden rays of sunlight rose above a sea of white, bubbly clouds that stretched all the way to the Mediterranean. It was of one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen.

As we skied our way back to Abetone, we explored other parts of the mountain where the runs are lower and lined with trees. The trails were all enjoyable and there was enough variety to keep us wanting more when the last lift closed at 4:45.

After returning our skis to Bibo, we met the guys and another American friend of mine, Beth, for a coffee down the street at La Casina, famous for its torta di ricotta and handmade chocolates. The red and white Tyrolean-style chalet, which opened in 1948, is adorable, and we had a nice conversation over tea and pastries by a wood-burning fire.

Chloe and I happened to visit Abetone on a warm, sunny weekday when the snow was delightfully soft and, at times, not another soul was in sight. The following day skiing with Beth was a completely different story. The temperature had dropped considerably overnight and the slopes were hard-packed and icy. Overlooking the fact that Beth had not been on skis in two years and taking her word for it that she was an experienced, intermediate skier, I made the mistake of taking her down what I was later to find out was the only black diamond run on the mountain right off the bat. Beth was petrified and rightly so. The trail was a solid sheet of ice. She sidestepped her way down the slope and the next thing I knew she was careening headfirst, skis flailing behind her, gathering speed while I stood below watching helplessly. Thank god a ski patroller arrived just in time and stopped her hurtling body by sliding right into her. She got up laughing but it was a nerve-wracking experience for all of us. 

 We tried to find slopes that the sun had softened but each one had it shady, icy patches that Beth had to inch her way down. We skied four runs in four hours and we were exhausted when we finally made it back to Abetone. It was an important lesson learned for both of us. At least we had a killer sunset to cap off that harrowing experience...
Having spent two dramatically different days in Abetone, here are a few tips for first-timers:
1) Go on a weekday if at all possible. Parking is easy and you will have the mountain to yourselves. Weekends are mob scenes.
2) If you go on a weekend, arrive early and be ready for an interesting experience at the gondola and chairlifts. This is Italy, not Switzerland.
3) Watch the weather and ski conditions. There is not much natural snowfall and though there are 100 canons blowing tons of artificial snow each night, the slopes can be icy, even treacherous.
4) Grab a map from the ticket office. The trails are not well marked and the signage, where it exists at all, is small.

Abetone offers private and group ski and snowboard lessons for adults and children. Group lessons require a minimum of three days, weekdays only, and start at €95. See For hotels and apartment rentals, weather and other details, is great resource. Call the tourist office for ski conditions at +39 1573 60231.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Castles of the Casentino

In addition to my work as an ownership representative for Castello di Casole, I am a journalist for a newspaper in Florence for English speakers called The Florentine. As their Travel & Leisure writer, each month I spotlight a special Tuscan town, beach, island, ski resort, terme, abbey, whatever strikes my fancy really, and I try to go a level deeper than a guide book. My first two articles featured Volterra and Arezzo. For my November piece I was searching for something completely off the beaten path, so Daniela suggested we visit a mountainous region between Florence and Arezzo called the Casentino and offered to be my tour guide one Sunday in October. 

Mind you I had never heard the word “casentino” before. It sounded a bit dull, and frankly, my arm needed a little twisting. Little did I know I was about experience some of the most amazing scenery in all of Italy, turreted castles right out of a fairytale book, undiscovered churches adorned with precious art by Renaissance masters, and a massive national park with endless hiking trails. That day in the Casentino hit me deep in my soul, and I am still quivering at the memory of it all.
The easiest and most beautiful way to reach the Casentino from Florence is to drive east through Pontassieve, then climb the Passo della Consuma, a mountain pass that winds through a glowing green countryside sprinkled with enchanted forests and tiny villages with curious names like Omomorto “dead man”.

I had a feeling the drive up the Passo di Consuma was going to be particularly beautiful that fall morning, so I handed the keys over to Daniela who happily took the wheel. The views as we climbed the pass were simply stunning. About halfway up we came across a small log cabin right out of Vermont that looked like the perfect place to stop for a cappuccino. I couldn’t resist sampling the schiachatta con l’uva, a sweet, dense cake baked with overripe grapes on top, which I normally don’t like because the grapes have seeds. It was divine.

About ten minutes further up the pass we made a left-hand turn towards the town of Stia, historically one of the most important wool-making centers in Italy. We parked in the town’s main lot then headed up the lane along the river to Tessilnova,  a delightful shop teeming with vibrantly colored coats, hats, scarves, purses, slippers and other apparel made of the famous, nubbed “casentino” wool. During our visit one of the helpful salespeople explained how the nubs were originally formed by rubbing the fabric along rows of dried thistles.
At the end of the lane, I ventured into the Museo della Lana, a museum dedicated to preserving the history of wool-making in Stia. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the self-guided tour through the museum, open mornings 10AM-1PM and afternoons 4PM-7PM, has descriptions in English.

Of course we were starving after all that driving so we stopped for an early lunch at Ristorante Falterona “Gliaccantiti” in Piazza Tanucci, (the only piazza in the small town). My thinly sliced fresh porcini with arugula and pecorino was delicately accentuated with pink peppercorns. Daniela savored every bit of her beef carpaccio, which after living in Italy for two years still gives me the willies. Also on the menu is a bottled water produced by Pierre Cardin from the spring in Stia. Apparently the French fashion designer used to vacation here and loved the ultra-fresh water so much he bought the spring and sells the bottles at his restaurant Maxim’s in Paris and a few other select locales.

During our lunch, Marco, the owner, revealed one of the best-kept secrets of the Casentino- the Chiesa delle Santa Maria de Grazie, a sweet little church just down the road from Stia. On the way to the church we stopped off at the Castello di Porciano, also on the outskirts of Stia. I was completely charmed by this 11th-century castle, its walls, well and tower cloaked in lush, red ivy. It is there that I took one of my favorite photographs of Daniela.

When we arrived at Chiesa delle Santa Maria de Grazie, the sprightly, elderly caretaker, Antonietta, graciously opened the door to this wondrous shrine built in the 1430s. Inside five beautifully preserved ceramic reliefs from the famous 15th-century della Robbia school exude purity and grace in their signature colors of pale blue and white. I was also amazed to find a fresco by Florentine Renaissance painter Domenico Ghirlandaio I actually studied in an art history class in college.

Our next top was the fairytale-like Castello di Romena, complete with a drawbridge and a prison tower that was allegedly the inspiration for the circles of hell in Dante’s Inferno. Built back in the 10th-century by the Counts of Guidi, the castle had fourteen towers and was the most powerful in the region. The little museum inside is moderately interesting but for me the views from the dramatic Cypress-bordered grounds alone were worth the €3 entry fee.

A few kilometers below Castello lies one of the most beautiful Romanesque churches in all of Tuscany-the Pieve della Romena. As we descended the hill and rounded a bend in the narrow road, seemingly out of nowhere this gently rounded, neatly columned church emerged in shades of soft grey. The locals speak with great affection for the priest, Don Luigi, whose Sunday sermons draw more than a hundred people from the Casentino and beyond. When we entered the church’s bare, graceful interior it became immediately apparent to me why people from all over the world venture to this scared place for either a brief visit or to attend one of Don Luigi’s weekend spiritual retreats.

Next we decided, perhaps against out better judgment, to take a rather perilous, winding road through the Parco Nationale delle Forreste Casentinesito to the hermitage at the Benedictine monastery at Camaldoli. As we drove deeper into the eerie forest, the fog around us thickened and the temperature plummeted and when we finally arrived at the hermitage we felt as though we were smack in the middle of a dark, snow-filled cloud.  At the hermitage, 125 or vegetarian monks who grow their own food live in silence in a cluster of small cottages. 

When we opened the doors to the plain white church, we both gasped. Inside, every square inch of the walls and ceilings, decorated by Vasari, are brilliantly frescoed and whatever isn’t frescoed is gilded. The entire space is a joyous symphony of color and light. As we walked around in stunned silence, we discovered a tiny chapel with an exquisite ceramic relief by Andrea della Robbia. The church at the 11th-century monastery a few kilometers down the hill has three oil paintings by Vasari and a little farmacia where you can buy honey, soaps and other products made by the monks.

During a subsequent visit to the Casentino, this time with our dear friend Karen, we visited the picturesque town of Poppi, the most important historical center in the Casentino and my new favorite town in the region. As we climbed the road leading into its city center, a grand gazebo beckoned us to take in the views of the countryside under its elegant dome. In the main piazza, an inviting little six-sided chapel is lavishly frescoed. The abbey of San Fidele at the end of the porticoed lane in front of the chapel features a crucifix by Taddeo Gaddi, a prize student of Giotto.

Atop the hill, the commanding and remarkably well-preserved Castello di Conti Guidi looked vaguely familiar to me. Later I learned that its right half was designed by Florentine architect Arnolfo di Cambio, architect of the Palazzo Vecchio, my favorite building in Florence. Inside the 13th-century castle opposite five ceramic coats of arms from the della Robbia school, an exquisite stone staircase curves up to a striking dark wooden balcony. At its top a stands a statue of one of the Guidi counts who is said to haunt castle’s halls. I caught my breath as I entered the castle’s small chapel and found myself surrounded by a series of faded frescoes on its vaulted ceiling and walls recounting the “Story of the Gospel” and painted by Taddeo Gaddi.

That day we lingered over a long, delightful lunch at L’Antica Cantina Ristorante on via Lapucci in Poppi. Cozy and refined with 14th-century barrel-vaulted ceilings, L’Antica Cantina is the perfect spot to spend a crisp fall afternoon indulging in great food and wine with friends. I ordered the “Autumn Fantasy Salad” but I was particularly tempted by the chestnut flour tagliatelle with bacon, walnuts, pine nuts and raisins, and the savory veal filet with figs and gorgonzola. Daniela loaded up on porcini mushrooms while Karen opted for the melted tomino cheese wrapped in thinly sliced speck. All of this paired quite nicely with a bottle of Crognolo from the Tenuto di Setteponti winery down the road in Arezzo.

I fell in love with the Casentino after my first visit. The raw, intense beauty of its landscape and the kindness and generosity of its people have been calling to me ever since. I can’t wait to return in the spring, after the snow has melted and the roads are accessible, to visit to the La Verna, a thriving monastic community where St. Francis is said to have received the stigmata in a nearby cave.

Getting There: From Florence, head east along the Arno to via Arentino, which eventually becomes the SP70. After Pontassieve, where the road merges with a larger highway, veer right following the sign to Pontassieve (even though you already passed through it) not straight towards Ruffina. A few kilometers later turn left onto Passo della Consuma.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Appreciating Arezzo

My first visit to Arezzo was with a colleague of mine at Castello di Casole a few summers ago. The town was only an hour and a half away and neither of us had ever been, so we grabbed a guidebook, jumped in her convertible and headed east. Upon arriving we walked around the city center, poked our heads into a few churches and shops and admired the main piazza. Then we had a nice lunch and left. It was a pleasant enough experience but I wasn’t feeling the urge to return anytime soon.

Fortunately, my dear friend Daniela is from Arezzo and after several trips there with her over the past year I now have a whole new appreciation for it. We always stay at her parents’ house where she grew up which is a real treat for me, especially when I am feeling homesick. Her mother, Giuliana, dotes all over me and she even hems my pants. She is an excellent cook (are there any Italian mothers who aren’t?!), and she looks visibly crestfallen every time Daniela and I go out for lunch or dinner during our visits. As for Daniela’s father, Pietro, you name it, he can fix it. Last time he welded the handle back onto a sterling silver purse a friend got for me in Thailand. Another time he washed my Ford Focus wagon, which is always caked in inches of dust, and buffed it to a sparkling shine with a hand towel.  

Last month, on the first Sunday in September, Daniela invited me to join her for the Giostra del Saracino, a spirited medieval jousting festival that has been entertaining crowds in Arezzo since the mid 1500s.  The Fiera Antiquaria, an antique fair of more than 500 vendors that descend upon the Piazza Grande the first weekend of every month, was happening as well so it was an ideal weekend to visit.

On Sunday morning, in order to be sure we could park, we rode into the city centre on her father’s motorbike. We thought we looked pretty hot in our little dresses and helmets until we saw this photo ...

Daniela has to start and end each day in Arezzo with a stop at Coffee O’Clock (on the main shopping street called Corso Italia), one of the most interesting and inviting cafes in Tuscany. You can plug into its wireless Internet, view the abstract art on exhibit and catch up on the latest news in the International Herald Tribune. The owner Massimo has a booming coffee roasting business and distributes his beans all over Italy and the cafĂ© has an unusually wide and creative selection of coffee drinks. 

My favorite is the Espresso Shakerato- a martini-style espresso, shaken not stirred, and poured into a thick glass made of solid ice. Catering to its international clientele, there is also a nice selection of infused and loose leaf teas which are almost impossible to find in Italy. That morning I opted for the memory-enhancing blend of yerba mate, orange rind, ginseng, cinnamon, cloves, pepper and rose to be extra sure I would remember the exciting events of the day.

After fueling up we did some window-shopping along Corso Italia, which has several stylish high-end boutiques- L’Albero for shoes and handbags and Sugar with the latest apparel from Prada, Dolce & Gabbana and other Italian designers. Along the way we ran into Daniela’s friend Roberto, the owner of Viaggiando, an upscale sporting goods store right out of Boulder, Colorado. Roberto is an avid outdoorsman who leads hiking expeditions all over the world and upstairs his guidebook and map-reading room beckons adventure seekers with an inviting, weathered brown leather chair.

Continuing up Corso Italia, we ventured into Arezzo’s largest and most beautiful church – the 12th-century Santa Maria della Pieve. Inside and definitely worth seeing is the famous gilded Virgin with Child and Saints painted by Pietro Lorenzetti in 1320, and the glimmering gold and silver bejeweled bust of San Donato, patron saint of Arezzo. Above, the wooden beams are adorned with the Stemma- the white horse symbol of Arezzo. Even more stunning is the church’s crumbling exterior with its striking square tower and its exquisite rounded and columned backside that faces the Piazza Grande.

In the Piazza Grande, where the famous antique fair, the Festa Antiquaria, is held the first Sunday of every month, colorful coats of arms decorating the facades of the buildings and the dark wooden balconies set this piazza apart from all others in Tuscany. 

We crossed the piazza and walked under the famous Loggia del Vasari designed by Giorgio Vasari. After the second restaurant on the right there is a hidden staircase that leads up to the Passeggio del Prato, a lovely, English-style park with lots of shady trees and panoramic views of the valleys below. Since on that particular day the Piazza Grande was being set up for the jousting festival, the vendors at the Fiera Antiquaria were sprawled all over the park displaying their wares. We wandered around the fair for awhile and it really is quite impressive, but you can only look at so many armoires and pocket watches... 

At the top of the park is Arezzo’s lurking sandstone Cathedral of San Donato. Inside the Duomo’s famous 16th-century stained glass windows and under its vibrantly-colored ceiling lie two tombs worth taking a look at- one houses the remains of Pope Gregory X, record holder for pope who took the longest to be elected by his fellow cardinals (three years). The other tomb of Bishop Guido Tarlati, which some believe was designed by Giotto, is decorated with reliefs depicting stories of his life and one featuring a miniature theatre. Next to this tomb is a famous fresco by Piero della Francesca of Mary Magdalene holding a crystal pot of ointment.

Back outside, we headed left out of the church and down via Cesalpino, stopping at Galleria Cesalpino, a cooperative featuring local products from the province of Arezzo, including the extra-warm, nubbed wool jackets, ponchos, handbags and hats from the Casentino (a mountainous region between Florence and Siena) in bold, cheerful colors.
Just up ahead in its own piazza on the right we entered the most important church in Arezzo- the Basilica of San Francesco. It was inside this simple Franciscan edifice in the 1450s in honor of a treasured wooden crucifix by Cimabue that early Renaissance master Piero della Francesca was commissioned to paint The Legend of the True Cross (based on stories of how the timber relics of the cross on which Jesus was crucified came to exist and how the cross helped the Christians win battles after his death).

Happily, it was lunchtime, which is always a highlight for Daniela and me. After briefly contemplating trying something new, once again we ended up at our favorite spot for a mid-day meal, La Formagierra, which specializes in gourmet cheeses from Italy and France. I happen to love cheese more than any other food on the planet so this place, tucked in an alley between Corso Italia and Via Cesalpino, is pure heaven for me. Depending on how decadent I feel, I either go with the mixed greens with fresh and aged sheep and goat’s milk cheeses, or I forgo the greens entirely and sink into the heaping platter of hard and soft cheeses served with a basket of fresh-baked bread. The last time I was there Daniela, who sadly for me does not eat cheese, ordered what looked like pulled pork with white beans and relished every bite.

Now it was time for the procession of the Giostra del Saracino, the famous contest which reenacts the jousts between the Crusaders and the Moors from Africa in the Middle Ages. Throngs of Aretines were lined up and down the streets cheering on representatives from their four neighborhoods proudly marching in medieval garb and leading the knights on horseback up to the Piazza Grande for the big competition. 
I happen to have a bit of a problem with crowds and long parades are a form of torture for me. However I must say that the flag-bearers of Arezzo, which are among the most famous in the world, were incredible.
Daniela and I didn’t have tickets to watch the tournament in the stands, thank god, so we gathered around a television outside a bar to watch the spectacle in the piazza. You would think that the knights would be racing towards one other trying to knock each other off their horses, right?   

Not so. Basically there is a dirt path of a few hundred yards and on the far end is an oversized Moorish man made of black metal holding a sort of bulls-eye. There are two knights for each neighborhood, and one at a time the knights race at high speed with their long, smudge-tipped lance pointed directly at the bulls-eye. Depending on where the lance hits they are awarded points, and if the lance breaks they get double points. This year the neighborhood from the city centre, which none of the other neighborhoods particularly like, beat the underdog when the knight broke his lance. 

After the rather raucous crowd in front of the television eventually dispersed, Daniela and I decided it was time for an apperitivo at Terra di Peiro in Piazza San Francesco.  This quaint little enoteca has an impressive list of wines by the glass and delicious snacks. We sat at a little table outside watching (depending on which neighborhood they were from) the gleeful or dejected faces of the passers-by.

With a bit of time to kill before dinner and knowing how much I love to shop, especially when a good deal is involved, Daniela brought me to a fabulous women's clothing boutique close to the train station on Via Niccolo Arentino called G-Loft. The owner, Giulio, has an eye for elegant, fashionable, one-of-a-kind pieces. He carries only Italian designers and the prices range from moderate to high. I was pleasantly surprised to find several special pieces still on the sale rack from July.

For dinner that night, Daniela chose Saffron, a Japanese trattoria serving sushi, sashimi and “international creative” cuisine.  Opened in 2004 by a young woman from Arezzo who was attracted to the Japanese mentality and worked at a sushi restaurant in Florence, Saffron is a welcome break from the bruschetta, pasta, and wild boar dominating the menus in Tuscany. As I eagerly blended my soy sauce and wasabi, preparing for my first bite of raw tuna in six months and taking occasional sips from my glass of cold sake, Daniela whipped up her own concoction of olive oil and Balsamic vinegar into which she dipped each piece of raw fish followed by a taste of Chardonnay. I winced at the travesty but let it pass. Arguing over what constitutes “good food” with an Italian is one battle that will never be won.

Daniela, who happens to love the desserts at Saffron, was visibly dismayed when I told her I wasn’t in the mood for “dolce.” But I didn’t need any more sugar. Our day in Arezzo had already been filled with plenty of sweetness.