Why Barolo? A Drill Down on Piedmont’s Leading Wine Region

June 6 – 9, 2016

What’s Nebbiolo?

Italians might be prone to exaggerate, but when it comes to wine they have every right to brag — after all this is a land with 20 wine regions and 350 wine varieties. While Veneto and Tuscany are world famous regardless of their wines, Piedmont in Italy’s northwest corner, without some big time tourist attractions, receives relatively little foreigners. But fans of this region start to drool when they hear this name — it is home to the white truffle, hazelnut, and arguably the most famous wines in Italy — Barolo and Barbaresco.

In today’s globalized world where almost every wine growing country is hopping on the Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon bandwagons, seasoned palates are increasingly looking for local varieties that differentiate from the mainstream. Piedmont’s Langhe region is home to one such type of grape — the Nebbiolo — a brittle indigenous variety that has yet found commercial success outside of its homeland and a few tiny pockets in Northern Italy.

The calcareous marls in hilly Langhe is too impoverished to grow any kind of crops besides grapes; Nebbiolo in particular thrives here. Its name, derived from the Italian word for fog, signals the strong tie between the grape and the local microclimate — a dense fog descends upon the Langhe’s steep slopes around the period of annual harvest in October. To prevent the late-ripening Nebbiolo from being stunted by the autumn fog, most vines are planted on south or southwest facing slopes at an altitude between 250 and 450 m to ensure the grapes receive an adequate amount of sunshine. (More flexible varieties like Barbera take up the rest.) Along this line, the best vintages are usually those with dry weather in September and October.

Why Barolo?

Barolo_large

The world’s most renowned Nebbiolo wines are produced in Barolo and Barbaresco, two areas in the heart of the Langhe. Distinguished by their high tannin, acidity and earthiness, these are not your typical easy-to-drink happy hour wines, and their premium price tags show they command legions of fans who can never get enough.

The difference between Barolo and Barbaresco is slight — the former ages for one more year (3 vs 2) and is generally regarded as the more powerful because of its steeper slopes. Both areas mostly grow two Nebbiolo subvarieties — Lampia is more popular and reliable while Michet is believed to provide more structure and power.

Despite the similarity, Barolo is in my opinion the more interesting area because of an array of factors. First of all, Barolo’s 1984 hectares of vineyards (as of 2013) are three times the size of Barbaresco’s. This has two major implications — more producers and a larger geographic variance. The latter is especially notable; wines produced from grapes grown in the central section of La Morra can have a surprisingly large difference to Monforte to the south, for example. Barolo is also more accessible — its communes and crus are generally more well-known and more information is available both online and in print.

“Barolo War”

Anyone with a faint interest in Barolo would have heard of the so-called “Barolo War” in the 1980s, when a group of producers including Elio Altare and Paolo Scavino introduced an international style to Barolo that’s less tannic by shortening the time frame for maceration and fermentation and aging the wine in smaller French barriques. Some, including Mauro Mascarello and Bruno Giacosa, fiercely opposed these foreign elements and believed the resulting wine shouldn’t be labeled as Barolo. To these traditionalists, two decades of aging is a minimum prerequisite; anyone who catered to foreign tastes was betraying the essence of Barolo.

The battle line is not so cut and dry anymore. The debate rages on, but the process of winemaking is constantly evolvin; nowadays most wineries prefer the middle ground, incorporating some modernist elements while preserving traditional winemaking methods like aging in large oak casks. Almost everyone has introduced green harvest and cellar temperature control to their process.

Which communes to visit?

Although not a large area, Barolo has 11 communes, including the entirety of Barolo, Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d’Alba and parts of Cherasco, Diano d’Alba, Grinzane Cavour, La Morra, Monforte d’Alba, Novello, Roddi and Verduno. Knowing where and who to visit is quite a daunting task.

Before the 1970s, Barolo was produced with a mixture of grapes grown across the zone and consumers attached their loyalty almost strictly to the producers. But since then the prevalence of single-cru Barolo has elevated the understanding of each parcel of land into an imperative — there are now publicly available maps and geological findings which allow both producers and wine lovers to have a deeper knowledge of the soil formation and how this might interplay with the vines.

Another factor in play is Barolo’s rapid expansion; the total area of vineyard has grown more than threefold since 1967. Much of these new parcels are not suitable for Nebbiolo — their elevation are often too low or they do not receive enough sunshine year-round. Simply slapping a Barolo label on a bottle of wine doesn’t ensure its quality and it is up to the consumers to drill deeper to understand more about the producers and their vineyards.

To complicate matters further, like many other wine regions, global warming has a huge impact on Barolo and generations of winemaking practices. The communes of Barolo and La Morra, the zone’s classic core, are home to prestigious crus like Cannubi and Brunate, traditionally viewed as the best the area has to offer. The reason why they are so highly regarded, besides their soil composition, is because in the cold Piedmont climate these crus are able to receive a stable amount of sunlight year in, year out. Temperature has risen sharply since the turn of the millennium and in warmer years these best vineyards can give birth to wine that’s uncharacteristically jammy. Understanding the land takes on an even greater importance.

During my few days in Barolo I visited the following wineries: Giovanni Rosso, Aldo Conterno, Pio Cesare, Ceretta, Pablo Manzone and Paolo Scavino. None is based in Barolo or La Morra. In fact I didn’t even step foot in those two communes as I mostly spent my time in Serralunga, Monforte and Castiglione Falletto. Located in the Serralunga Valley on the zone’s eastern side, these communes share a soil mixture of loose calcareous marl and red sandstone from the Helvetian epoch. High in iron and phosphorus, these are generally the area’s most powerful and full-bodied wines, and offer what I believe is the most compelling path into the intricate world of Barolo.

Spello’s Infiorate: Before, During and After

May 28 – 29, 2016

In much of Catholic Europe and Latin America, Corpus Christi is a public holiday that honors the Holy Eucharist. On the ninth Sunday after Easter, infiorates (flower festivals) are held throughout Italy and Spello’s, first documented in 1831, is one of the most popular.

Unlike other infiorates like Genzano’s and Noto’s, Spello’s forbids the use of woods and any kind of synthetic materials; only fresh and dried petals and the occasional leaves and berries are allowed. The collection and preservation of these 1.5 million flowers required a three-month commitment from two thousand flower tapestry artists, a quarter of which are children.

May 28

22:00

We arrived Spello around 20:00. Finding a parking spot proved to be a Herculean task, and after 20 minutes I finally succeeded in finding one off Via Centrale Umbra. After fighting past throng of tourists we located our apartment in the lower part of town near Via San Angelo.

At 21:30 we reemerged outside and even more people had descended to this tiny town — at several junctures there were even security personnel directing the incessant flow of human traffic. An assembly line of volunteers were removing petals from peduncles. Tents were set up across towns and artists plus many more volunteers were focusing on laying petals of all colors on top of large sheets of paper — sort of like filling a coloring book, only with flowers.

For a festival involving flowers, a not insignificant portion of the crowd was drunk and rowdy. Most of the flower carpets were only around 10 – 20% completed when we called it a night at 23:00.

May 29

5:30

Organizers and volunteers had worked throughout the night, but most of the floral displays were only about 70% completed when we surveyed the ground in this chilly early morning.

More than 100 flower carpets were under preparation, falling roughly under three categories: religious, secular and under 18 years old. On the religious side, inspirations included famous paintings such as Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo or lots and lots of closeups of Jesus. The largest display of the day was a map showing where Paul the Apostle preached before his death in Rome.

My favorite composition was a snail representing time crawling across a meadow under a giant overarching rainbow. At this very moment I was witnessing a particular point in time, a beautiful creation possible because of a combination of nature and human wit; yet in a few hours its entirety would be literally swept away like most things that stood in time’s unrelenting advance towards perpetuity.

After 90 minutes we strolled through the town of 8,500 residents once. Some tents were coming down and day trippers were arriving in droves, signaling it was time for us to get back to our apartment for a breather.

11:00

The highlight of the festival was an hour-long procession that began at the Santa Maria Maggiore, Spello’s main church. We found a spot near our apartment and locals in costumes slowly marched by. The floral displays survived until they were stomped over at the very end.

13:00

The carnage was difficult to look at. Some were fortunate — a few Marys or Jesuses were intact — but many were turned into random mashes of colors.

For an event that required such an extraordinary amount of time and energy, Spello’s Infiorate has a remarkably short shelf life. That’s the fact with all flowers — and to a larger extent all existence. You can only treasure what you have in the present.

As most people started heading to lunch, a young girl remained to repair her display. For everyone else the festival might be over, but oblivious to her surroundings she was committed to leave behind her best effort possible.

Winery Visit: Pio Cesare

June 8, 2016

“Ah, the masters. You are fortunate.”

Such was Giacomo Conterno’s response when I mentioned Pio Cesare was up next. Founded in 1881 and the only winery still based in central Alba, it is not a stretch to suggest Pio Cesare is a pillar to Barolo’s winemaking tradition with an established track record that’s unrivaled in the area. Now run by the fifth generation, Pio, as it is commonly known, isn’t opened to public but somehow I managed to secure an invitation after a few email exchanges with David, who was in charge of business development.

Pio is obviously proud of its heritage. Certificates of competitions won a century ago decorated the walls of its meeting room. “We do have the history here. What we don’t have is a systematic approach of showcasing our heritage like the French,” explained David, “When Bordeaux came up with its classification system Italy was not even a country yet. Slowly we are storing our older vintages but we are still decades away.”

Like many producers in the area Pio is a family business; daily operation is run by four people while harvest is outsourced to a contractor that mainly hires Eastern Europeans. Under Pio’s control are more than 50 hectares of vineyards in Barolo, represented by Ornato and Colombaro in Serralunga d’Alba, Gustava in Grinzane Cavour,  Roncaglie in La Morra and Ravera in Barolo- Novello. It also owns Treiso’s Il Bricco and San Stefanetto crus in Barbaresco. Pio grows 90% of the grapes used for its wine production. 80% of its wines are exported mainly to the United States, Great Britain and Switzerland.

Cellar

A century-old heritage could be both a blessing and a burden, as David repeatedly pointed out while leading us around the maze-like cellar which he labeled “a logistical nightmare.” The cellar was composed of two parts — the original building, constructed during the Napoleon era, retained sections of a wall that dated back to the Romans. An extension that handled fermentation was built in the early 2000s.

The unfinished wine is constantly on the move; fermentation in the new section; aging is spread across the entire estate depending on which barrels and barriques are used; at last bottling and storage take place in the new wing. For Barolo the maceration lasts between 15 – 20 days. The wine ages in both large casks and new barriques, both made with mildly toasted French oak.

Towards the end of our tour we came across a cabinet full bottles of wine that were decades-old. None was drinkable anymore. Without much branding value they sat in the darkest corner of the cellar, any drawing the rarest of attention when the occasional outsiders like us gave them a curious glance.

Wine tasting

We began our tasting with the 2014 L’Altro Chardonnay, a blend from crus in Treiso, Serralunga d’Alba and Trezzo Tinella. 75% of the wine was fermented in stainless steel tanks and the remaining 25% in new French oak barriques. Lees were kept for 5 months until bottling.

A classic Burgundian style Chardonnay, the wine had a clean palate with a touch of oak and lees. A simple and light wine good as a pre-dinner drink.

“There is no such thing as a basic Barolo,” David shook his head while pouring the 2012 Barolo into our glasses. “Those who label their Barolos as basic are disrespecting the standard of this premium wine. Would Prada ever release a line of bag calls basic?”

With a cold spring followed by hailstorms in summer, the 2012 vintage was a challenging one that varied greatly depending on the producers. This Barolo was fermented with skin in stainless steel tanks for 20 days then aged for 3 years with 70% in casks and 30% in barriques.

Not yet its peak, this medium-bodied Barolo had high tannin and medium-plus in red fruit with a medium-plus finish. I found it fruiter than expected and could be consumed within a decade.

Seeing we were not exactly in awe by the Barolo, David revealed his trump card and came back with the 2012 Ornato Barolo. The namesake cru is located in Serralunga d’Alba and is considered one of the top vineyards in the area. Maceration lasts 15 days, then follows by the mandatory 3 year aging in casks and barriques, 30% and 70% respectively.

The Ornato Barolo cost about 50% higher than the Barolo in retail, but the difference was substantial. The palate included a sweet dose of cherry, along with a minerality and an earthiness that distinguished Barolo. This wine was far from its peak and could age for a long time.

Winery Visit: Poderi Aldo Conterno

June 7, 2016

Good wine, interesting company, beautiful setting — I should be enjoying myself, but the questions kept coming and I felt almost like interviewing for a job.

“So tell me, why are you interested in visiting us?”

“Who are the traditionists? Modernists?”

“What differentiates Nebbiolo?”

“Who do you get your Piedmont news from? Not James Suckling right?”

The person sitting at the end of the dining table bombarding me with questions was Giacomo Conterno, one of the three sons of the late Aldo Conterno. In charge of the vineyards, he along with his two brothers Franco (sales and marketing) and Stefano (wine making) have taken up his influential father’s namesake winery.

Giacomo was extremely welcoming. Since his cellar was under renovation, he invited us to his dining room and started opening bottle after bottle of wine while opening up about his philosophy on wine and hospitality.

“You have done the hard part coming all the way here. It is only fitting for me to open my door and show you some of my wines,” he said while popping open a bottle of Nebbiolo. “Only because I am the producer doesn’t mean I can’t learn from you.”

And there began his string of questions.

“Setting the record straight”

“Why did your dad leave Giacomo Conterno?” After surviving his onslaught without embarrassing myself, it was my turn to throw one at his direction.

We were now onto our fourth bottle of the afternoon, the Barolo Colonnello, and his eyes lit up after hearing what I said. A generic question, I thought, but perhaps not given how keen he was to pounce on it.

“I know the word on the street is my father voluntarily left Giacomo Conterno because he wanted to create his own thing, but the truth was he got pushed out by his sister-in-law. After my father went to the States, my uncle Giovanni and his wife never expected him to come back. When he did return, they felt uncomfortable about what might happen so my aunt forced him out.”

“I just want to set the record straight. I am glad my father did what he did and left us with this great estate, but there was no way he would have left Giacomo Conterno if given a choice. All the publications cling to one side of the story that strangely wasn’t originated from my father. He was hurt about how it turned out and he never wanted to talk about it publicly. When he ventured out he barely had any money and he had no winemaker with him. It was an impossible situation.”

Asked if he personally had any ill feeling towards Giacomo Conterno, he took the high road and commented his cousin’s wines were some of the best in the area but they had no personal relationship.

Not to linger on this note, soon our conversation returned to topics like winemaking and vineyard maintenance.

Bussia

Before I get to the wine, here is some background on Poderi Aldo Conterno. When Aldo Conterno acquired Favot in 1969, the farm included a significant portion of Bussia, Monforte d’Alba’s most important cru. The 300-hectare Bussia contains vineyards of all qualities, from inarguable superstars such as Colonnello to many mediocre ones. Aldo Conterno’s three crus — Colonnello, Cicala and Romirasco are belonged to the Bussia Soprana subzone and along with Pianpolvere are generally considered the best in Bussia.

Facing southwest and rich in calcium carbonate and iron, Aldo Conterno’s share of Bussia Soprana totals to about 25 hectares at an average altitude of 400 m. The winery grows both Michet and Lampia varieties of Nebbiolo and has converted to wholly organic since the early 2000s. Annual production is 80,000 bottles, down from 200,000 in 2000.

Wine tasting

Aldo Conterno

Giacomo was eager to begin with a bottle of the 2013 Bussiador Chardonnay. Since both Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo emphasize on expression of the terroir, Chardonnay is understandably a favorite white wine variety for Langhe growers.

The Chardonnay is harvested about one month earlier than the Nebbiolo in early September. After fermenting in stainless steel tanks the wine is aged in new wood barriques for one year. Good structure and intensity with a hint of honey, this white wine rivals some of the better offerings from Burgundy and can age for a few more years.

Leading off the Nebbiolo lineup was the 2013 Il Favot Langhe Nebbiolo. Except for a bout of peronospera in early spring which didn’t impact Aldo Conterno much, the 2013 season was ideal for the late-harvesting Nebbiolo — one with a warm summer and cool autumn.

The Il Favot contained grapes from vines averaging 15 years of age from across Aldo Conterno’s estate. Maceration last for only 6 – 8 days, then was aged first in stainless steel tanks for 5 months then 1.5 year in new wood barriques. The resulting wine was light ruby in color but bursting with aroma of black fruit. The tannin and structure of Nebbiolo were slightly toned down but still apparent, which allowed for a relatively easy drink even when young.

Next up was the 2012 Barolo Colonnello. This wine was a little darker than the Il Favot, revealing Barolo’s longer period of maceration (30 vs 8 days). Following the Barolo tradition, the Colonnello is aged in large Slavonia oak casks for 28 months. The soil in Colonnello is rich in magnesium and manganese. Nebbiolo Michet around 45 – 50 years old are grown at this cru. With a cold spring followed by hailstorms in summer, 2012 was a challenging year that required Giacomo to prune more than half of his crops.

The Colonnello, even at this young age, was surprisingly approachable, with flavors of dark cherries and ripe strawberries and hints of mint, licorice and tar. Strong notes of floral. Obviously with longer aging it would reveal more complexity — which applies to most less-than-two-decades-old Barolo.

The 2007 Barolo Cicala followed. The winemaking is identical to the Colonnello. The Cicala cru has the poorest soil of the three, with vines mainly of the Nebbiolo Lampia variety that average 45 – 50 years old. As for the vintage, 2007 was a season of reliable weather, resulting in what most agreed as an exceptional vintage, especially in the southern part of Barolo such as Serralunga and Monforte.  

The Cicala was quite a contrast to the Colonnello. The additional five years of aging hadn’t soften the Cicala much — the high concentration of iron in Cicala’s soil gives birth to a wine that’s very tannic and powerful. Less fruity and floral than the Colonello, it had a strong expression of minerality and earthiness. At least another decade of aging would be beneficial.

2006 Barolo Romirasco — our last bottle of the afternoon. Compares to the other two this Barolo is aged for two additional months in oak casks. This cru consists mainly of Nebbiolo Lampia at an average age of 50 – 55 years old. 2006 began with some serious hail which devastated many places and especially La Morra, but fortunately the rest of the year was blessed with well-balanced weather and cool nights during the harvest. With the notable exception of Bruno Giacosa the general consensus of 2006 is above average.

The Romirasco cru features the uniqueness of both Colonnello’s floral note and Cicala’s structure, but what really set the Barolo Romirasco apart is its spiciness. A rich aroma of spices, menthol and plums filled the nose, and the palate was full of vanilla and spices. My favorite of the day — both drinkable now and still had much aging potential.

Tuscany Beyond Florence

June 2016
Photo set on Flickr

One can easily spend weeks in Tuscany and not see everything, a region blessed with historic hilltop villages, iconic landmarks, world-class vineyards and mesmeric landscapes. We had a week split between Montefollonico and a farm near San Gimignano and managed to visit (and in some cases revisit) the following places.

Siena

For those who doesn’t plan to hire a car, Siena makes a good home base for Tuscany. Granted, Siena does not process nearly the same amount of attractions as Florence, but this medieval hilltop town has a more inviting atmosphere. It is touristy though not nearly on its more famous neighbor’s level. And since most of them are day-trippers, Siena begins to quiet down by late afternoon.

For four centuries until 1555, Siena was an independent republic and a prominent rival to Florence until it was defeated by an alliance of Medici’s Florence and Spain in the Italian War of 1551–1559. The main plaza, Piazza Del Campo, is very photogenic, and I find Siena’s Duomo to be as impressive as Florence’s. Surrounded by centuries-old buildings, getting lost in Siena’s narrow alleys was more enjoyable than anything we did in Florence where the inescapable crowd made a simple walk a tiring and unsatisfying experience.

A local festival took place when we were at the top of Torre del Mangia, the clock tower at the main plaza. Drumbeats echoed through the entire town and the surrounding hills. When we got back to the ground, we followed the drumbeats and reached a gathering of paraders, each dressed in traditional clothing and holding either a flag or a drum. The drumbeats were deafening at such close range. We trailed the parade crowd and without prior planning reached the plaza where the bus from Florence dropped us off earlier in the day. The sky was getting dark, yet the parade showed no sign of slowing down.

San Gimignano

Many hilltop villages dot the landscape around Siena. We only had time for one and we went with San Gimignano because of the simple fact that it was the closest to where we were staying. Famous for its fourteen well-preserved medieval towers, San Gimignano was once a thriving stop along the Via Francigena pilgrimage route to Rome until Black Death wiped out half of its population. Neglected as backwater, San Gimignano saw little development over the next five centuries, which was the main reason why its towers remain intact while those in Florence and other cities were destroyed by war or urban renewal. After the unification of Italy, the town reemerged as a resort and artistic haven thanked to its unscathed historic core.

Besides its towers, San Gimignano is also renowned for its saffron and white wine Vernaccia di San Gimignano. We had our best meal in Tuscany at Ristorante Dorando, a member of Slow Food, and some decent gelato at Gelateria Dondoli. The town is quite touristy as it almost completely depends on tourism, but with plenty of decent restaurants it makes a fine if nonessential half-day stop.

I only took one photo — on Via Giacomo Matteotti close to the main car park where the entire town can be captured in one frame.

Pisa

Pisa is mass tourism at its worst. Alright maybe that’s a little much — nothing can actually beat cruises — but it is right there near the bottom along with the likes of Time Square, Hollywood and Madame Tussauds. The real pity is, unlike those other tourist traps, Pisa’s Piazza dei Miracoli is an architectural gem that deserves anyone’s focus and time, but two factors make any visit a frustrating experience.

Without a doubt, Pisa was by far the ugliest town we came across in Tuscany and Umbria. The Leaning Tower is the only attraction in town and nothing else is there to divert the crowd. No matter your method of travel, whether you are traveling on your own or joining a tour, your impression of Pisa will invariably be the same as everyone else’s.

The majority of people has one goal in mind in Pisa — take a generic photo where they appear to be propping up the tower from collapsing. They leave. Then a new wave of people show up to do the exact same thing. Soon your perception will change — what’s standing in front of you is no longer a seven-century-old medieval masterpiece but one of the world’s tackiest photo background.

Even if you want to leave the scene as soon as you have taken your mandatory photo, at least go visit the Romanesque baptistery, the largest in Italy celebrated for its excellent acoustics.

Bistecca alla Fiorentina

Forget about pasta and pizza — in Tuscany Bistecca alla Fiorentina rules. This local variation of porterhouse uses one of the oldest, tallest and heaviest breeds of cattle — the Chianina, one of two indigenous beef breeds of Italy. Haven’t heard of it? While the Chianina breed is exported to other countries, unlike Angus or Wagyu there is very little marketing around Chianina that’s not raised in Italy, and there are only less than 50,000 registered heads in its native country, the majority of them in Tuscany and Umbria. They are fed on grass, slaughtered at 16-18 months once they reach 650–700 kg and almost all consumed locally.

While there are restaurants in most towns that serve this dish, it is generally cheaper outside of Florence or Siena. We chose La Taverna di Vagliagli in Vagliagli, 30 min north of Siena in the heart of Chianti. Served at cold rare traditionally, the thickly cut steak was grilled over wood for about 4 min on each side and 5 min on its bone. Seasoning was kept to a little salt and pepper along with a generous dose of olive oil. The flavor was subtle because the meat was so raw, but the texture was firmer than the typical grain-fed beef. Cold rare was too raw for me — I learned about the local culinary culture more than how much I really enjoyed the meal. The bill for four was €100 including 16 oz of beef, some starters and a glass of Chianti.

Crete Senesi

South of Siena along SS 438 from Taverne D’arbia to San Giovanni d’Asso is a hilly area referred as Crete Senesi. The soil in this area is heavy in clay and gives the landscape a distinguished grey and brown tone compared to the greenery of Chianti or Val d’Orcia. Along with the latter this is where most of the classic Tuscan landscape photos are taken.

We drove along SS 438 to Asciano, onward to SP 451 to Monte Oliveto Maggiore, then back north to Siena on the same route. I personally find Crete Senesi’s scenery to be a little more diverse than Val d’Orcia’s due to its wider range of colors.

Val d’Orcia

Travelers are always at nature’s mercy and our luck ran out during our two days in Val d’Orcia. Rain poured incessantly aside from a brief respite of morning sunshine on the first day. Not only did the weather fail to cooperate, nothing much went according to plan. The Benedictine monks at Sant’Antimo Abbey were AWOL. Restaurants closed their doors because of heavy rain. Supermarkets ran out of stock on basically everything. We even experienced an afternoon of hail that might have damaged some of the prized Sangiovese vines in the area.

The landscape, especially the stretch between San Quirico d’Orcia and Montalcino, was photogenic, though not demonstrably superior to Crete Senesi’s. I am definitely biased from what I had endured, but unless you are a big Brunello di Montalcino fan I would suggest sticking to the area around Siena for more choices of activities and sights.

Pienza

Not many people had heard of the little town of Corsignano, located in the middle of Val d’Orcia, before a certain poet with a particular interest in erotica was elected pope in 1458. Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, born in this humble town in 1405, ruled as Pius II for six years. His reign resulted in only two accomplishments — the only autobiography ever written by a reigning pope and completely rebuilding his hometown into his papal summer retreat and renaming it Pienza. He sure did spend most of his energy on securing his own legacy, but he would always be known first and foremost for his passion of pornographic poetry.

Enlisted the help of the Florentine architect Bernardo Gambarelli, Pius II’s vision of his “ideal town” incorporated Renaissance humanist elements like civic engagement and the revival of arts and philosophy of classic antiquity. What looks like a typical Italian Renaissance town to us was in fact a pioneering attempt back in Pius II’s days. After enduring the Middle Ages’ centuries of chaos, urban planning was a novel concept at the time and it quickly spread to other parts of Italy and subsequently much of Europe.

Pienza’s main sights such as the Duomo and Piccolomini Palace congregate at Piazza Pio II. We didn’t go inside of any of the sights, but we found Pienza to be a pleasant town to stock up on food and take a casual stroll along its one main road where all the shops were located.

How to Manage Florence in 10 Hours

June 3, 2016

Disclaimer: I am not a fan of Florence. I much prefer taking day trips to the Tuscan capital from Siena or a rental house in the countryside, which was what we did this time. We did this day trip with friends who had never been to Florence, and they had followed my suggested itinerary of some of the greatest hits with a few lesser known sights. A little rush, a little tiring by the end, but entirely doable for those who don’t want to pay the Florentine price for food and accommodation.

9:00 – Piazzale Michelangelo

The best view of Florence is located on the other side of Arno River from the town center at Piazzale Michelangelo, and this is where we began our day. A little known fact about Florence — for six years from 1865 – 1871 it was the capital of the recently united Italy and the city underwent a period of urban renewal to match its newfound status. One of the creation of this period was Piazzale Michelangelo, designed by Giuseppe Poggi to commemorate the legendary artist.

9:30 – Boboli Garden

On the way from Piazzale Michelangelo to town center you will come across the Palazzo Pitti, the former residence of the House of Medici, whom between the 15th – 18th century ruled Florence and bankrolled much of the Renaissance movement.

Behind the palace is the Medici’s former private garden, a lavish 11 acre of green space with an expansive view of the city. Its name Boboli is actually a corruption of the word “Bogoli”, the original owner of the land before being purchased by the Medicis. What looks like a simple garden from our modern perspective is in fact a groundbreaking creation back in the 16th century, starting from the fact that the location had no natural water source and required the construction of an intricate irrigation system to carry water from the nearby Arno River. Many elements that defined the 16th-century Italian garden style, such as wide gravel avenues, a heavy use of stone, the employment of statuary and fountains, and the garden’s general spaciousness, were first introduced here.

The Boboli Garden might not merit a detour and the €15 entrance fee is steep, but acting as an along-the-way stop it does offer a glimpse of the Medici’s former influence over Florence. This is also your last chance of some open space before crossing the Arno into the city’s tourist heart.

10:30 – Uffizi

Don’t say I haven’t warned you — the area surrounding Florence’s three principal sights of Ponte Vecchio, Uffizi and Duomo is one of the most congested places in Europe. 16 million tourists descend upon this city of 350,000 annually and most of them never venture away from the Uffizi or Duomo.

One month in advance you should have ordered the tickets for both the Uffizi and Accademia. These two world-class museums completely justify this slight hassle. Don’t be spontaneous and arrive without an online reservation — the queue easily lasts for more than an hour and sometimes tickets are even sold out. The Uffizi’s online ticket costs €23 each. Or if you intend to follow all the stops on this itinerary you can purchase the €50 Florence card that will cover most of the city’s attractions and public transport for three days. The queue is shorter for Florence Card holder but not as seamless as reserved ticket holders.

Constructed in 1581, the Uffizi Gallery was initially designed to be the offices of the Florentine magistrate, administration and state archive. Display of the Medici’s prominent art collection was designated to the main floor and a room called the Tribuna degli Uffizi. Eventually the building served solely as the Medici’s art gallery and after the fall of the family it became one of the world’s first public museum in 1765.

Just like the Rijksmuseum is to Dutch art and the Museum of Cairo is to Egyptian antiquities, Renaissance paintings equals the Uffizi. After enduring centuries of stagnation during the Middle Ages in which art was not viewed as a creative expression but rather a monotonous devotion to the faith, artists in 15th century Florence reevaluated how art should be defined. What emerged was the Florentine School, led by the likes of Filippo Lippi, Sandro Botticelli and Michelangelo, which emphasized on depicting subjects in a naturalistic manner with realistic proportion, lighting, space and form. Bankrolled by the banking family of the Medici, art was expanded beyond the religious realm and included subjects like human portraits and Classical antiquities. What resulted was an artistic movement that transformed the western world to this day.

Allow two hours for a greatest-hit tour highlighted by Luppi’s Madonna and Child (c.~1450) and Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (1480s), onward to Raphael’s Madonna of the Goldfinch (1506) and The Doni Tondo by Michelangelo (1507), and conclude with Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538) and Caravaggio’s Medusa (1596).

13:15 – lunch at Trattoria Sostanz

Florence has a few iconic dishes — tripe sandwich, Bistecca Alla Fiorentina and butter chicken. I find most of the sandwich joints to taste about the same. As for the t-bone steak, you should head to Chianti or Siena. So that leaves us with one choice — Trattoria Sostanz’s butter chicken.

Located on Via del Porcellana a few blocks from the Duomo, this unassuming eatery has been serving simple local dishes for decades. Patrons are crammed to every remaining space of the tiny interior sharing the few available tables with strangers. Despite some raving this is where locals eat, during our visit we only came across other fellow tourists. Let not kid ourselves — it is impossible to get off the beaten path in Florence.

One order came with two pieces of chicken breast (€20) that was served in a small metal pan. The chicken was first deep fried then put into an oven with a generous portion of butter. The meat was tender and not as oily as expected. Seasoning was kept to a minimum and the flavor that stood out was the chicken itself. A good experience but one that I am not eager to try again — the butter, while not a negative, doesn’t do much to the overall taste of the dish.

15:00 – St. Marco

An underrated aspect of Florence is its huge wealth of Renaissance arts. If you can tolerant the crowd you can easily spend days here without seeing everything. People from all around the planet come to see the works of Michelangelo or Botticelli, but how many have even heard of Fra Angelico, one of the best celebrated artists during the Early Renaissance?

In most other cities, St. Marco, a former convent and home to the largest collection of Angelico’s frescoes, would be a top draw, but in Florence it is a relatively obscure afterthought. Which is the perfect place for a post-lunch stroll without bumping shoulder to shoulder with other tourists. Its €4 ticket is also lighter for your wallet than the hefty fees you have paid at other attractions thus far.

Angelico’s works are scattered around the convent with frescoes dotting its many rooms and halls. His style was simple and direct, fit for a setting like a convent and revealed the artist’s own humility and piety.

16:15 – Accademia 

Enjoy St Marco’s tranquility? Good, but now is time to rejoin the crowd and pick up your second reserved ticket at the Accademia, home to Michelangelo’s David (c.1504) since 1873. Initially planned as a museum dedicated to the Renaissance artist, the Accademia only manages to secure a small collection by Michelangelo, yet its single drawing card is so famous the gallery is one of Florence’s most visited sites.

Many people wonder, as there is a replica of David next to the Uffizi in the Piazza della Signoria, why pay €16.5 for ticket to see the exact same thing? I am not an art expert who can point out the differences between the two, but the 17 ft tall marble original, squeaky clean and free from erosion, appears to stand prouder than its outdoor counterpart. €16.5 is a small price to pay to marvel at mankind’s closest attempt to a perfect sculpture.

17:15 – Giotto’s Campanile

You won’t be able to see everything on this day trip, and one of the things you will miss is going inside the Duomo to glance at Federico Zuccari’s magnificent frescoes. Unfortunately the Duomo doesn’t have an online ticketing system and queuing lasts for hours on average.

Although you won’t be going inside, you can climb the 414 steps at the adjacent bell tower for a sweeping view of the cathedral. Completed in 1436 after more than 140 years of construction, the Duomo’s most striking feature is no doubt its brick dome, the largest ever built and an engineering breakthrough at a period when Gothic buttresses were the norm.

The €15 combined ticket also includes entry to the Museum Opera del Duomo and the dome but it is highly unlikely you will have time for them.

19:00 – Ponte Vecchio

On a bridge along the Arno River facing the Ponte Vecchio, Florence’s oldest bridge, is an unexpectedly peaceful spot on top of a stone support over the fence. If you are lucky you will find it unoccupied and for once you can enjoy an iconic Florentine view without being surrounded by others.

Romans had first built a bridge across this narrowest section of the Arno, and after a few incarnations the current structure was rebuilt in 1345. It was the only intact bridge in Florence after German retreated from Italy during World War II and today it is lined up with gold merchants.

That concludes the day trip. If you find yourself wanting more of Florence, you might be one of millions who call the Tuscan capital their favorite city in the world. I, on the other hand, only want to get out of town after seeing its main sights and have a reasonably priced dinner in Chianti.

Seoul’s Traditional Side

Recently I have found myself in Seoul at least once a year for work. Much destroyed during the first half of the 20th century, contemporary Seoul is a concrete jungle mostly indistinguishable from other East Asian metropolises and lacks appeal to anyone who isn’t a hardcore K-pop fan, gambler, shopaholic or prospective face job recipient.

Even after several visits I have yet to warm up to Seoul, but the one thing besides its eating scene I admire about the city is its frenetic energy, most visible at midnight in Dongdaemun when the entire district is abuzz with engrossed buyers trying to get some stock of the latest fast fashion. The fabled Korean work ethic is on full display here — most stalls are opened 10 am – 5 am, 365 days a year. Taking a walk here reveals a glimpse of the good and bad of modern Korea; the collective effort that drives the country into a global economic power in only a few decades’ time and the tremendously high social cost which follows.

Behind Seoul’s breakneck pace of modernization is a city that remains fiercely proud of its past and has painstakingly rebuilt some of its physical heritage that was razed during the Japanese occupation and Korean War. Today within day trip distance from the city are five World Heritage Sites, a majority of them from the Neo-Confucian Joseon Dynasty (1392 – 1897). Confucianism, one of the great ancient Chinese schools of thought and in Mao’s mind the leading cause of China’s decline, inexplicably finds a home in contemporary South Korea and manages to influence every trace of South Korean life. This traditional side of Seoul, a mixture of Confucianism, Buddhism and folk culture, is easy to discover, even during a short visit.

Gyeongbokgung

Five palaces were built when the Joseon established Seoul as its capital in the late 14th century – Changdeokgung, Changgyeonggung, Deoksugung, Gyeongbokgung and Gyeonghuigung, all of which were recently rebuilt after suffering severe damages during the Japanese occupation. Gyeongbokgung, the main royal residence and the most important of all the palaces, also is the most popular tourist draw due to its daily changing of the guards ceremonies.

The 40-hectare complex houses some of South Korea’s most important buildings, including Geunjeongjeon (Imperial Throne Hall), Gyeonghoeru (Royal Banquet Hall), National Folk Museum of Korea and the National Palace Museum of Korea.

Changdeokgung

The only of the five royal palaces bestowed with the honour of World Heritage Site, the 45-hectare Changdeokgung was long a favorite of Joseon princes and differentiated itself by, according to UNESCO, “integrated into and harmonized with the natural setting” and adapted “to the topography and retaining indigenous tree cover.” Heavily damaged in the last century, today only 30% of its current buildings precede the 20th century.

Housing notable buildings such as Donhwamun (Main Gate) and Injeongjeon (Throne Hall), the palace’s real highlight is its Huwon (Rear Garden), a 32-hectare garden reserved for the royal family and concubines. This area in particular expresses the blending of architecture with the natural topography.

Jongmyo

After the wholesale calamity that was the Cultural Revolution which uprooted millennia of Chinese heritage, it is often said Confucianism is today best preserved in South Korea. One prime example is Jongmyo, located next to Changdeokgung and according to UNESCO is the oldest royal Confucian shrine and annual ritual ceremonies have continued since the 14th century.

I missed the annual Royal Shrine Ritual by a few days. Alas, I have a difficult time understanding how Jongmyo, even taken into account its status as one of the longest wooden shrines in the world, belongs on the WHS list. You will be hard-pressed to tell Jongmyo apart from thousands of temples and shrines all over East Asia. Beyond its Confucian heritage, also in full display at this park is one of the dark secrets of modern Korean society — elderly poverty.

Insa-dong

If you are tired of shopping in Myeong-dong, Dongdaemun, Sinsa-dong or Sinchon-dong, try dropping by Insa-dong, a district famous for its traditional craft shops, bookstores, gallery, tea houses and flea markets. Like most of central Seoul this district is quickly gentrifying but you can still find some traditional elements that have already disappeared elsewhere.

Occasionally on weekends there are performances of Nongak, a form of folk dancing that revolves around drums.

Hwaseong Fortress

Located an hour south by train in the city of Suwon, Hwaseong is a 18th century-built wall that completely surrounds the city centre. Long been obsolete, the wall is a rarity in modern Asia which prizes urban development space as a premium. Nowadays instead of the wall protecting its city, it is a sprawling mass of skyscrapers and low-rises that stretches out to the end of the horizon.

Slot five hours to reach and walk around this World Heritage Site.