Saturday, June 02, 2007

April 2007 - Tuscany, Italy - Hot Air Ballooning & Horseback Riding in Tuscany

For my birthday, Casandra bought me a hot air balloon ride in Southern Tuscany. The balloon departed from a small town just outside of Pienza called Montisi, so we stayed at Podere Spedalone, an agriturismo (working farm), just outside of town. This was one of the most special experiences of all our time in Italy.

Here we are in front of the farmhouse, which looks rustic on the outside but is amazingly modern inside.

When you buy land in Tuscany, if there is no structure on the land, you cannot build anything on it. Only if there is an existing structure or a portion thereof can you restore or rebuild it, but in strict compliance with an archaeologist's determination of what existed there in ancient Roman times or even earlier when the Etruscans inhabited the region (the name Tuscany or Toscana comes from Etrusca). Here's another shot of the farmhouse, the restoration of which had just been completed before we arrived.
It is a real working farm with olive groves, wild boars and an herb and vegetable garden, and it's surrounded by other working farms which primarily raise sheep, producing milk, cheeses and chops. Here's Casandra next to our farm's olive grove.

And here she is in the living room area of the farmhouse. It was a two story building with ancient Roman arches like this one supporting the second floor.

Upon arrival, Giancarlo, the owner of the farm, welcomed us with a glass of Proseco. Here he is with Casandra. Giancarlo is from Sardinia but worked and lived in the fast-paced northern city of Udine (in the Veneto region) for much of his life. Now, he enjoys a more tranquil existence entertaining guests on his wonderful Tuscan farm. After only a few minutes at the farm, we couldn't help but question the value of our fast-paced lives back home (relax Mom, we're still coming home in September).
We ate breakfast, lunch and dinner, prepared by Giancarlo, at this table just outside the state-of-the-art kitchen, equipped with stainless steel appliances and gadgets you'd find in kitchens run by the world's top chefs.

Giancarlo, very proud of his restoration efforts, shows Casandra the cellar where he stores wines, cheeses, cured meats and homemade preserves (we had a selection of 5 different preserves every morning). In the cellar you can see the late Roman/early Christian ruins from a religious building over which the farmhouse was built. This was a place where early Christians would stop over for a meal and to rest their weary feet before continuing their pilgrimage to various churches that were built on the hills of southern Tuscany.

This portion of the cellar, probably built by Romans to serve as a temple, was later used by the early Christians for prayer.
Giancarlo is a delightful person who enjoys every minute of his life and seems to live to make others feel welcome and relaxed. We were so greatful to have met him and shared a long weekend in his Tuscan home.

The contrast of the rolling green hills and the crisp blue sky was stunning. I took a hundred pictures just like this one, which was taken from behind the farmhouse, facing west. That poll that disrupts this otherwise perfect shot is an outer boundary of Giarcarlo's herb garden. We really liked his home-grown cooking so I left the poll in my shot.

Here we are on a bluff just above the farm, with part of Giancarlo's olive grove and the hills of varying shades of green that surround the farm. It was the classic Tuscan setting and exactly what I had pictured southern Tuscany would look like.
This is a shot of Sant'Anna in Caprenna sitting on the hill above our farmhouse. This is the church used in The English Patient during the scenes where the patient is being housed and cared for in the Tuscan hills.
Here is Sant'Anna up close. Just down this street is where they filmed the scene of the jeep explosion.
Here's the view of the countryside from our suite. Just rolling green hills as far as the eye can see.

And here's a great shot of the sun setting behind the distant green hills.
That wasn't photoshopped!!
The sunset looked like this every night. It was very hard to say goodbye to Podere Spedalone. We will definitely return.
On Saturday morning we woke up at dawn and drove over to Robert Etherington's farmhouse for our hot air balloon ride. He takes off right from his backyard. After 20 years of flying his balloon in Southern England, Robert is always grateful for the mild Tuscan breeze and the clear, warm mornings.
Everyone gets involved in the set up of the balloon, even the family dog who is barking loudly to keep all birds out of our air space. Somehow Casandra managed to get away with just taking pictures.
Meanwhile, I held the balloon open while Robert shot 5 foot flames into it.
And lift-off begins.
Now we're vertically and ready for everyone to jump in the basket.
We say our prayers while Robert gives us a quick run down on the safety procedures, and we hop in.
The balloon sails upward more smoothly than an elevator. It is amazingly still inside the basket.
And before we knew it, the gorgeous Tuscan hillside appeared under us.
Robert changed altitude several times, allowing us to get a close up look at the hills and rooftops and then sailing upward again.

As we flew over our farmhouse we took as many pictures as we could. You can really see the size of the olive grove surrounding it from up here.

You can see the shadow of the balloon cast by the sun just beyond the farmhouse in this shot.

And here's the money shot - the shadow of our balloon cast on the farmhouse with the olive grove in the foreground, the rolling hills in the background, and the horizon line separating them from the perfect blue sky, oh, and the sun shining perfectly on Casandra's pretty face.

Here's a closeup of the farmhouse and the pool amid the olive grove.

Another perfect shot of the balloon's shadow and the countryside.

Here we are suspended in mid-air and still marveling at how smoothly the balloon glides through the crisp air.

No, those aren't ants, it's Tuscany so of course it's a herd of sheep grazing.

Here you can see the Apennine mountains in the distance.

Casandra couldn't stop smiling at the fields of wild flowers. The vibrant yellow below is characteristic of this part of Tuscany which is covered in wheat and flowers rather than vineyards.
Here is a shot of the most photographed building in southern Tuscany. This is a small white chapel built of white stone and surrounded by cypress pines.

Robert decides we're pretty low on fuel (after a 2-hour flight) and we pick a pretty farm to land on and have our brunch. International law allows Robert to land his balloon wherever necessary except military compounds and highways. So he takes advantage and seeks out some vacant farm land. His wife, who follows him on the ground pulling the balloon's trailer, scores his landings based on their proximity to a road which allows access of the truck and trailer, a shady spot for brunch, views of a castle, and, of course, overall smoothness on touch down.

This landing gets a perfect score.
We climb out onto the field of wild flowers just next to a local farmer's small vineyard.

We had brunch right where we landed. How did we do this on someone else's property? Robert's wife always brings gifts of food and wine to bribe the local farmer.
Here we are thanking the farmer for his hospitality in letting us trespass on his property. He was easy going about it and invited us to taste last year's wine which is ready for bottling.

We had a great time playing with the farm's friendly watch dog who was more than happy to watch us land.
Here is a view from our landing spot - now you can see the small castle in the distance and understand how this landing got it's 10.
On the way home in Robert's jeep, we passed this clump of cypress pines which seem to sprout out of nowhere and are the most photographed nature-made site in southern Tuscany.
There's Casandra admiring the countryside from the back of the jeep. Who says she doesn't know how to rough it????
We also made a stop in San Quinico which has a beautiful medieval stone church in the town center. This was a stop on early Christian pilgrimages who visited this church's predecessor.

On Sunday morning, we headed out to a local horse farm for a ride through the countryside.

Casandra works on her riding form.

Nothing like taking a self photo while turning your horse in circles.
The guide helps us out with our picture taking. Now you can see our respective male and female horses who got along quite well and always insisted on being close to each other.
Our guide rode a beautiful but slightly wild horse ahead of us. And leading the pack is his 7-month old pup who walked the whole 2 1/2-hour ride.

We ran into some wild Arabian horses along the way. What a sight!!!

As we rode on narrow unpaved country roads and through a couple of farms we enjoyed the perfectly manicured hills and the peace and quiet. (except at one point when a farmer accused us of trespassing and threatened to call the police - very un-Italian of him).

We returned from our long ride with sore bottoms and tired horses, but oh so eager to do it again.

After a quick break next to the natural hot springs, we headed to Poded Spedalone for our last lunch cooked by Giancarlo and then off to San Gimigniano.

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