About Elaine-iaK's Travels

As a graduate of Recreation Administration, from San Diego State University, I have made recreation and travels my career and life’s passion. After graduation, I traveled solo for one year throughout the South Pacific, doing travel photography in a wide variety of settings. Upon my return, many of my photographs became the subjects of my newly created line of handcrafted photographic greeting cards, "Exquisite! By, Elaine", a business I have had since 1986. Check them out at: http://ExquisiteCards.fototime.com . In 1983, I began teaming up with my mom, Goldie, teaching arts & crafts to cruise ship passengers, aboard Princess Cruises and Royal Caribbean. In addition, I lectured on travel photography, as well as Australia and New Zealand history, aboard Princess Cruises. In 2004, I formed a new teaching team with my recently retired husband, Bruce, who serves as my "humble assistant" until 2010 when the cruise lines shifted the arts and crafts program to mostly being taught by their own staff. Currently, our favorite mode of travel is by river boat. Along the way, we enjoy poking around small European towns, meeting the people, seeking out interesting photo subjects, and always stopping at every chocolatier to make a purchase. Adding to my chocolate label and wrapper collection is a bonus! And, as a U.S. Masters swimmer, if I can find a pool to get in a swim with the locals, all the better! Cheers! Elaine-iaK ~ Believing in your dreams can be far more rewarding than living by your limitations~ -Karla Peterson


No, I’m not talking about chocolate truffles!  Too bad, because I much prefer the chocolate kind, and I am always on the prowl for a good chocolatier.  (By the way, chocolate “truffles” got their name, because they look similar to the real deal.)

The truffle I’m talkin’ about is the ridiculously priced fungus prized by chefs for Italian, French and other national haute cuisines.  Because of their high price and strong aroma, truffles are used sparingly.  They are served raw and shaved over warm, simple foods where their flavor will be highlighted, such as buttered pasta and eggs.  Thinly sliced truffles are also inserted into meats or under the skins of roasted fowl.  Truffles are also used in foie gras, pates, stuffings, specialty cheeses, salt, honey, and oil.

A word to the wise if you are in the market for truffles:  Don’t buy truffle oil or truffles in jars.  Chemicals are added to the oil to intensify the flavor and to make it last longer.  Fresh truffles will only stay fresh for ten days. 

So, why do chefs use truffle oil on their dishes and brag about it in their menu descriptions?  Because customers expect it.  But, you’re getting olive oil with a bunch of chemicals in it.  Truffle oil is the biggest enemy of the truffle hunter.  The Chinese are the biggest exporters of truffles; however, their truffles are flavorless, and chemicals are added to olive oil, and then added to the truffles for flavor. 

And, another thing: size doesn’t matter.  Big or small; they all taste the same.

I’ll be honest.  There are several varieties of fungi I absolutely love, such as portabella and shiitake mushrooms; however, truffles aren’t one of them.  They’re lost on me; I guess it’s an acquired taste.  Perhaps it’s because they grow under the soil at the roots of trees.  A bit too earthy-tasting for me.

I love dogs, though, and watching them in action on a truffle hunt is a hoot!  Now, you probably thought pigs do that sort of work, right?  Nope!  It’s actually illegal to use pigs or hogs in Italy for truffle hunting, because they tear everything up!  Besides, they’ll eat the darn things when they find them.  It’s much easier to extract a truffle out of the jaws of a dog than a pig, since dogs won’t eat them anyway! 

The Umbria region of Italy is where the best truffles are found, so Overseas Adventure Travel included a truffle hunt in our itinerary.  When I first saw this, I was excited to see what it was all about.

We left Spoleto for a 45-minute twists-and-turns ride up to the mountain village of Pettino, located in the Apennine Mountains at an elevation of 3,300 feet.  Upon our arrival, we met Mac and Francesca at their home/ farm.  We gathered in their charming old-world kitchen to hear about the truffle industry from Mac, while we enjoyed (delicious) home-baked lemon cake.

(For all pictures, click on the image to see full screen view.)

We passed this walled little village on the way up to Pettino
We stopped on the way up to take in the views.
That walled village? It’s way down there!

Mac is from New Zealand and was previously an artist before his passion for truffles drew him to Umbria.  He learned all about the truffle industry from Francesca’s father, which is how the two met.  Ultimately, they fell in love, had two children, and live on a farm in the tiny village where the traditional way of life has endured through generations.  The locals still grow crops, raise sheep, and gather truffles and mushrooms in the surrounding birch forest.  Francesca is the first female president of the tiny community that comprises just fifteen full-time residents, increasing to 80 in the summer.  The other residents are all descendants of the original family that settled in Pettino in 1486.

Mac, the Kiwi from New Zealand
Mac & Francesca’s home and farm
No, he doesn’t get to hunt for truffles; he would just eat them!

Only one person in each family is permitted by law to hunt truffles, and since they are so difficult to find, Mac and Francesca can’t survive on that income alone.  The income from their merino wool sales pays the bills.

Truffles are worth a bunch of money when you do find them; however, the finder isn’t the keeper of most of that money.  They can be worth anywhere from $30 per kg (2.2 pounds) to $5,000 per kg for prized white truffles.  The large white truffles are in demand by restaurants, because they look cool.  It gives them bragging rights.  (Sheesh; big deal!)

Here’s the rub:  The middlemen in the industry are the ones that make most of the money.  The mark-up can be more than 50 times higher in the U.S. from what the farmer back in Umbria got paid.  The price depends on the crop output; it’s supply and demand at work.  And, the best truffles go to wholesalers for export, so they can make a ton of money.  Later, I will show you a truffle that was found during our hunt.  I asked what it will fetch when sold: a whopping $5.  I can only imagine what it will be worth when it hits the U.S. market.

The truffle industry is also full of scandal; nighttime heists and sabotage are common, and there is a growing counterfeit trade stemming from Eastern Europe.  These truffles are marketed to international distributors as Italian, which reduces the value and demand of authentic Italian truffles.

When Francesca’s father got too old to run the farm and business, Mac and Francesca took over.  They now have 350 sheep (that were bred with rams) Mac’s cousin tends to, raised for the merino wool they sell and for milk to make their own pecorino cheese.  Everything they raise is sustainable; good on them for that!

As Mac explained, truffles only grow a few months out of the year and require specific conditions to flourish, such as cool winters, damp springs, and hot summers with moderate rain.  It can take up to seven years for a truffle to mature.  No wonder why they rely on their sheep for most of their income…

The night before we arrived, it had snowed at a slightly higher elevation, and the morning was cold and blustery—39 degrees with the wind-chill factor bringing it down to 30.  When we went on the hunt, we were invited to stay in the truck and keep warm if we preferred, but what fun would that have been?  I hadn’t gone all the way to Umbria and up a steep and (scarily) windy road to Pettino just to sit in a truck!  I bundled up in everything I had:  A long sleeve shirt, puffy vest, puffy down jacket, rain jacket, gloves, thick socks, and waterproof shoes.  The gloves didn’t cut it; I still got a Raynaud’s attack.  (Note to self:  Don’t forget the Hot Hands when I go to Iceland!)

Never mind the cold; the hunt was on!

Setters and Springer Spaniels are often used as truffle-hunting dogs.  I followed the Italian Pointer that was on this hunt.  Actually, mutts make better hunters, so the dogs were mixes.  They train the dogs by putting truffles in Kinder Surprise plastic eggs with holes poked in them.  This way, they can smell the truffles but won’t bite them. 

They couldn’t wait to hunt for truffles!

Purchasing a trained truffle hunting dog can run you as much as $6,000 (averaging $3-4,000), so they trained their 22 dogs themselves.  Ten of the dogs go with the sheep each day, and a couple of their dogs are just lazy and hang out around the property.

Since the working dogs are quite active, they need a high-protein diet.  Francesca gives them the whey from the cheese she makes, for that good protein hit.

Out on the hunt, it was wild watching the dogs in action.  It was a very hilly area, so trying to keep up with them was challenging, but it didn’t stop me!  I got a pretty good workout trying to follow the dogs, so I could capture them in action.  The funniest part was watching their excitement when they found a truffle, knowing that after they gave it up, they would get a treat.  Those dogs were ALL about the treats!  They live for a handout and a pat on the head.

Here they are in action:

He found one!
Do I get my treat?
And, a pat on the head, too?
Look what I found!
What do you think? Did I score big?
I deserve an extra treat for this one!
Weighing the score– actually, it will only net about $5 before it is marked up by the middlemen.

After the hunt, we returned to the farm for a delicious spread—everything homemade– of fresh-baked bread, prosciutto, pecorino cheese, eggs with shaved black truffles, wine, and then another delicious cake.  It was all prepared and served by Francesca and the truffle hunters, while we gathered around to nibble on whatever was ready and passed around.  Their dogs (the lazy ones) just loved getting in on the action, hoping for either a handout or to be petted.  One of them was a bit better behaved, though; he just watched from the doorway, hoping somebody would notice:

Pecorino cheese being aged in the adjacent room
May I have a bite of that cheese if I behave?
The Lagotto (curly haired dog) wanted to play.

As we said our goodbyes, I gave Mac some of my photo notecards, and Bruce gave Francesca a pair of his fused glass earrings, which she promptly put on and modeled:

Francesca and Bruce

This was a day to remember!  Upon reflection, this was one of the highlights of the entire trip.  It was an authentically Italian— specifically Umbrian—experience.  We left with what we knew would be fond memories for years to come.

On the way back to Spoleto, we stopped to visit Ben’s “friend” in Trevi, this 1,700-year-old olive tree named the Olive of Sant’ Emiliano.

Coming up next:  WHEN IN ROME…


We arrived in Spoleto late in the afternoon, leaving enough time to settle in at Hotel Clitunno, and then go with Ben for an orientation walk of the town.  A fabulous dinner at the hotel’s restaurant, Ristorante San Lorenzo, followed—one of the best (if not the best) dinner we had in Italy.  Just look at these beautiful first courses that Bruce and I enjoyed:

(For all pictures, click on the image to see full screen view.)

Now, about Spoleto!  Located on a steep hill in the Umbria region, the walled town is surrounded by the Apennine Mountains.  Inhabited since prehistoric times, history runs deep in this serene town of 40,000 residents.  In the 5th century BC, the original Umbri tribes built a wall around their settlement, and some of the original wall still stands today.

The stones at the bottom are from the origininal wall.

Spoleto was settled on such a steep hill that Rocca Albornoziana Fortress was built at the top in the 14th century, providing a birds-eye view of potential invaders below.  It was then used as a prison for 600 years until 1982.  Just below, there is a wide tree-lined walking/ biking path that encircles it.  The views to the town and hills below are spectacular!  To enter the fortress up above, there is an escalator to take sightseers up to the top.  The views just kept getting better!  From both the walking path and top of the fortress, we had a great view of 13th-century Ponte delle Torri aqueduct/ bridge, which unfortunately is now closed to pedestrians.

Before walking the path around the fortress, we stopped to enjoy this fountain from 1642.
We were able to access this escalator from the walking path. After a long ride up, we took an elevator the remainder of the way to the fortress.
The view from the walking path that surrounds the fortress.
This view was from the walking path below the backside of the fortress.
The view from the top of the fortress.
Ruins near the far side of the aquaduct
Another view out from the walking path
Looking down on a tiled rooftop from the walking path

The 11th-century Duomo di Spoleto, the Santa Maria Cathedral, is also a highlight of Spoleto.  Made from salvaged Roman stones, the interior is beautiful, and the history fascinating.  The gorgeous ceiling frescos were painted between 1467 – 1469.

A view of the top of the cathedral from the walking path
A procession into the cathedral for a service
The piazza of the cathedral. Below are close-ups of the wall of the first building.
These beautiful etchings were done 500 years ago.
Marble carvings depicting God
Stone floor of the cathedral

Bruce and I enjoyed exploring the town in depth, between our orientation walk, a guided walking tour the following day, and another walk with Ben to the top of the fortress during the late afternoon of our final day in Spoleto.  We also had free time during our second evening to explore Spoleto on our own.

Here, then, is my collection of photos taken during our time in Spoleto:

Which windows are fake (painted on the exterior) and which are real? Look closely.
Roman amphitheater
Notice the label on what is decidedly NOT a premium bottle of champagne. This artwork was commissioned by the hotel’s owner during COVID, when they were required to spray every surface down with sanitizer on a continuous basis. Remember how bad COVID was in Italy! After all that, he has quite a wicked sense of humor!



It was (sadly!) time to leave Tuscany behind and explore the Umbria region, so Perugia was our first destination.  Located high on a hilltop in central Italy, Perugia is north of Rome, and southeast of Florence.  We were dropped off at the bottom of the hill and took an escalator up through Rocca Paolina, an ancient fortress that was built in the 1540’s. 

(For all pictures, click on the image to see full screen view.)

Does the name “Perugia” sound familiar to you?  Even if you aren’t familiar with the city, the name might sound similar to something you are familiar with:  Perugina, the chocolate company that makes Baci chocolates.  Originating in Perugia, Perugina dates back to 1907; however, Nestle bought the company in 1988.

Perugina chocolates were first introduced to the United States at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, and they opened a retail store on Fifth Avenue the same year.

I would have loved touring the factory (as chocolate and touring chocolate factories is one of my passions; just check out my “CHOCOLATE!” tab on this blog!); however, it wasn’t included on our itinerary.  Instead, we had a walking tour of Perugia and visited Turan Cafe, a small boutique chocolatier and café located on the Piazza IV Novembre. After learning how chocolate bars are made, we made our own chocolate bar, and then had lunch in the cafe. 

On our way to Piazza IV Novembre and Turan Cafe, straight ahead.
Piazza IV Novembre
This fountain dates back to the 1200’s.

Although Turan’s chocolates are of excellent quality, they are not a bean-to-bar chocolatier.  They source their (already processed) cocoa from South America rather than buying the cacao beans and handling the entire process, from beginning to the end product.

During our free time, we stopped in to see the Palazzo die Priori, a beautiful municipal building located on the piazza across from the café.

We also wandered the streets of the city center to explore a little bit on our own. Later in the afternoon, our group stopped at a fabulous gelato cafe, and then continued our walking tour.  As you can see in all of the outdoor photos from the day, the weather was quite dynamic, constantly changing from cloudy to sunny.

A delicious looking dessert at the gelato cafe!

Assisi was our final stop before heading to our hotel in Spoleto. Unfortunately, photos (even without flash) were not permitted at the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, because it was gorgeous inside. Built in the 1200’s, it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000. People come from all over to visit the basilica, because this is where Saint Francis was born, died, and his remains are interred. It is one of the most important places of Christian pilgrimage in Italy.

The view from the basilica
The town of Assisi

We continued on to Spoleto, our home base for the next three nights, and the subject of my next post.

Coming up next:  Serene Spoleto


After learning about the Etruscans the previous day, I was curious to see where the artifacts had been discovered.  A guided walk around the Etruscan necropolis of Sovana added another piece to the mysterious puzzle of Etruscan society.  A hike through a wooded area and along a sunken road carved into volcanic rock took us to an ancient burial site at Citta del Tufo.

This area has been populated by man since the Stone Age, and it was fascinating to see the 3,000-year-old Etruscan tombs in the park.

(For all pictures, click on the image to see full screen view.)

The town of Sovana
This sunken road was cut into volcanic rock.

Pitigliano, our next stop, was originally settled by the Etruscans and was once home to a thriving Jewish population that had settled there in the early part of the 16th century.  Although they were in Italy long before the Christians, they were persecuted in the 1500’s because of their beliefs, and forced to move from their homes into a designated area.  They weren’t free until the unification of Italy in 1861; however, over the years that followed, many left the area for larger cities, mainly for economic reasons.  By World War II, there were only about 60 Jews left in Pitigliano.  When the Nazis came, those who remained hid with five families in their homes.  They were then moved to caves for safety, and the community worked together to bring them supplies and food.  All of them survived; however, the 22 Jews who left town before the Nazis arrived were captured and killed.

After the war, only 30 Jews returned, and the families who protected and hid the Jews were given medals.  Today, there are only three Jews left, including a lady in her 90’s who has worked diligently to preserve the Jewish history of the town of 4,000 people.

During our walking tour, we visited the Jewish synagogue and caves where the Jews had been hidden.  It now serves as a museum.

This is my view of Pitigliano:

The symbol of Pitigliano
Entering the Jewish Ghetto
Another entrance to the Jewish Ghetto
Caves where the Jews were hidden from the Nazis
Our group
A Jewish wedding in Pitigliano. The young girl to the left of the wine bottle is the oldest remaining Jew in Pitigliano, now in her 90’s.
This photo in the museum shows a woman making matzo for Passover.
A look down from the museum to the Jewish cemetery below.
Our luck finally ran out when we had our first rain of the trip during the day. It was the only time we needed our umbrellas– and, only for a short time.
The store owner wraps up our only souvenir (besides chocolate!) of the trip: an olive oil dispenser that looks like a small flower watering can.
A scene of the Tuscan countryside captured from the bus window.
Another scene captured from the bus window on our way back to Pienza.
Our group went out for a pizza dinner, and we laughed at the way this pizza was made. All of the toppings were separated, and the olives were whole!

Next up: Poking Around Perugia


On our way to Montepulciano, we stopped to visit the Museo Civico Archeologico Di Sarteano, an Etruscan museum.  The Etruscans were ancient people dating back 3,000 years and lived between Florence and Rome.  Women were equal to men in their society, something I could get behind!  It was also a hedonistic society; they enjoyed life to the fullest!

(For all pictures, click on the image to see full screen view.)

The museum, housed in a former 1700’s wine cellar, had a fantastic collection of ceramics, jewelry, weapons, and other artifacts collected by archaeologists.  In most cases, the ceramic bowls and vases had been found in pieces, and then meticulously pieced back together with clay by a team of ten volunteers, over a 25-year period.  If two broken pots were found together, the tiny pieces had to be matched by color and texture, and then put back together like a jigsaw puzzle. 

Following our tour of the museum, we watched these artists in action, piecing together the latest treasures acquired in archaeological digs.  First, however, we got to play with some clay and design our own “treasures” (which we all left behind…).  Not wanting to keep unfired clay (which was sure to end up a mess), I took photos instead.  Coincidentally, when the staff passed out clay stamps to create our works of “art,” the woman handed me one of a dolphin.  How did she know???  It was a perfect match for this dolphin-loving swimmer!

Bruce added his name at the bottom using the alphabet guide,.

Observing the pottery being pieced back together and touring the museum was fascinating, because these artifacts are all the experts have to go on to understand the Entruscan people.  There is no literature, so the history of their civilization is shrouded in mystery.  The only clues are the weapons, cooking implements, building tools, and other treasures they left behind.

The immaculately preserved medieval town of Montepulciano was our next stop, where we walked the historic street of Via San Gallo and visited Cantina Fattoria della Talosa, a beautiful winery.  Located in the old town, the wine is aged in an underground cellar between two of the oldest buildings of Montepulciano, dating back to the 16th century.  Sixty steps down, we arrived at the cellar 90 feet below the street where we enjoyed tasting five different wines paired with foods of the region.

As with each day on an Overseas Adventure Travels tour, there was time to explore on our own; so, I poked around the streets to take a few photographs.

On our way back down the hill to Pienza, we stopped to see San Biagio, overlooking the Tuscan countryside below.  Built in the early 1500’s the domed church was designed by Antonio da Sangallo the Elder, an Italian architect.

We bid Arrivederci to our wonderful driver, Cesare, and took on another driver the following day. Cesare and our tour leader, Ben, were a fabulous team!

Coming up next:  SOVANA & PITIGLIANO


(For all pictures, click on the image to see full screen view.)

Following our day in Siena, we traveled 32 miles southeast to the Tuscan town of Pienza, our base for three nights.  A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this quaint town of 3,500 residents is located on the crest of a hill overlooking the beautiful Val d’Orcia.

Our first view of Pienza from the bus

Established during the medieval period as Corsignano, the town was redesigned and renamed in the late 15th century by Pope Pius II.  He enlisted the architect Bernardo Rossellino to transform the town to a blend of Renaissance and Gothic styles, and renamed it Pienza, which translates to “city of Pius.”

It was love at first sight!  During our short orientation walking tour before dinner, Bruce and I were charmed by Pienza’s historic city center and were in awe of the breathtaking views of the valley below.  We looked forward to exploring it further the following day, upon our return from Montepulciano.

Here is our first look at Pienza, the evening we arrived:

Entering the historic city center
Huge stone walls surround the city center

Several of us joined Ben on an optional walk after we returned from Montepulciano.  The path we took bordered the town on the edge of the hill overlooking Val D’Orcia.  The views were spectacular, and we came across an interesting cemetery along the way.  I was intrigued by the effort loved ones made to keep each plot well-maintained and full of beautiful potted or planted flowers.

Following our group walk, Bruce and I continued to explore the historic city center on our own, walking literally every street within the walls.  As Yogi Berra once said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”  And, that we did.  Every. Single. One.  So much pride and charm; from the doorsteps of homes to the adorable shops, it was quintessential Tuscany at its best!

PIenza is known for its excellent pecorino cheese



I’m back, after stepping away from my blog to tour Utah’s Grand Circle of National Parks and a few state parks—the topic of my next blog series.

Meanwhile, there is so much more to write about Italy, so I will continue where I left off: Siena.  What a special and unique place this is!  If you have ever been to New Orleans and learned about its unique history, culture, and traditions; you would have to agree there is no other place like it.  The same can be said for Siena, especially its Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Paved with cobblestones, the city is built over five hills and has a unique districting system.  Each of its 17 districts, or contrade, is named after an animal or symbol, such as a rhinoceros, goose, snail, or giraffe.

(For all pictures, click on the image to see full screen view.)

The rhinoceros is the symbol of Contrada Della Selva

These contrade were originally set up during the Middle Ages for military purposes when Siena fought to preserve its independence from Florence.  Over the years, they became a source of civic pride and patriotism. Within the contrada, everybody looks out for each other as an extended family.  Each contrada has their own symbol, colors, flags, motto, museum, church, fountain, and festivals; and, most importantly, a horse entered in the all-important and most-celebrated festival of all, the Palio.  These people live for the summer Palio, an approximately 70-90-second bareback horse race of three laps of mayhem around the dirt-filled Piazza del Campo that takes place on July 2 and August 16.  The turns are sharp, and it’s typical to see jockeys thrown off their horses.  No worries; it’s the horse that wins, not the jockey, and riderless horses have won on several occasions. 

Green and orange are the colors of Contrada Della Selva as shown in their museum display.
Contrada Della Selva displays green and orange flags in their church.
Contrada Della Selva’s baptisms are conducted in this fountain.

Anything goes during these races, including trying to knock a rival jockey off his horse.  It’s chaos, and the celebration afterward is as crazy as the race itself.  The winning contrada hosts a very festive banquet in their streets, and the alcohol flows.  They are awarded with a banner that gets displayed in their museum.  Local artists compete for the honor of designing the winners’ banner for the July race, and international artists compete for the August race banner.

This banner was won in the 1611 Palio.

What’s even crazier than the actual race is the shenanigans (“legal corruption”) that takes place before each Palio.  District members donate money to help buy a good jockey, and the jockeys negotiate (bribe?) to get a better pole position or conspire to block another horse.

Piazaa del Campo, home of the Palio horse race

Check out 2022’s Palio here.  You have to see it to believe it.

As we walked through a few of the contrade during our walking tour, I got a sense of team spirit and community.  Homes displayed their contrada’s flag and symbol; and, there was a palpable pride within each district, especially if they had won a past Palio.

Visiting the Siena Cathedral was another memory that stood out for me.  Dating back to the 1200’s, it was an amazing work of art—especially the inlayed stone floors that were created in the 1300’s.  There were entire scenes and stories depicted in large rectangular areas of the floor that were stunning—and something usually created as painted murals on cathedral ceilings.

On the way to Siena Cathedral
Looking through an opening of the facade of the unfinished section of the cathedral
Inside the cathedral
Inlayed stone floors of the cathedral

During our morning walking tour, we toured Basilica di San Domenico
Inside Basilica di San Domenico
This used to be a church, but it now houses stables for their contrada’s Palio horses!

One thing I especially appreciated about touring with Overseas Adventure Travel was the free time allotted in each place for independent exploration.  We took advantage of this in Siena, opting to grab a pizza slice on the go rather than dine in a restaurant, so we could visit the cathedral and roam through a few contrade.  There was even time at the end to enjoy a gelato and watch the dogs walking their owners in the Piazza del Campo.

Shields representing each of the 17 contrade
The plate on the right depicts the 17 contrade
Italy is known for making beautiful paper.



As you have probably noticed throughout my past thirteen posts about Italy, food and wine has been prominently present in our Italian experience.  This day was no different; it was all about olive oil and pasta.

The day began with a visit to Pruneti, an award-winning producer of organic extra-virgin olive oil.  Before tasting their olive oils, we were given a tour and shown how the olives are processed.

(For all pictures, click on the image to see full screen view.)

Some of the finest extra virgin olive oil in the world come from the Chianti region of Tuscany where Pruneti is located.  Having been in business for the past 150 years, they have figured out how to produce the best.  They are the only producer in the Chianti region that controls the entire olive-to-bottle process.  Their 3,500 trees produce about 70,000 liters of olive oil each fall. 

When you are shopping for olive oil, don’t be fooled by “Extra Virgin” on the label by assuming its good quality.  As our guide explained, labels do not indicate quality, because there is no industry regulation of label information.  Poor-quality olive oil has solvents in it, and unfiltered oil will age quicker.

If the label has “DOP” and “ICG” stamps on it, the oil has been inspected and certified that it is not a fake and comes from the Chianti region.  It still, however, does not indicate the taste quality.  The only way to make that determination is to smell and taste it.

For the best quality, the oil should not be kept any longer than eighteen months from when it was bottled, and it should not be stored in the refrigerator.  Store it in a dark, cool place instead. 

The oil should also smell fresh of vegetation and cut grass; and, not taste bitter.  If the oil tastes spicy, like black pepper, it is good quality oil and good for cooking.  Spiciness indicates the best quality; use the spiciest oil for heavier food, such as red meat, and lighter oil for lighter food, such as seafood.

Our guide also added that we shouldn’t waste good-quality oil by mixing it with balsamic vinegar for dipping in bread or on salads.  As a former bartender (years ago!), I would compare that to mixing top-shelf liquor with Coke or Sprite! 

A suggestion:  Use an affordable basic extra virgin olive oil for cooking, and a better-quality olive oil as a finishing oil to drizzle on top of your prepared dish.  Keep smaller bottles on hand to match with different types of food.  (In the U.S.A., a liter of olive oil priced around $25 is one, we were told, you can trust to be good quality.)

Back to that term, “Extra Virgin,” that means it’s the first pressing of olives with no added chemicals, usually cold pressed.  Pruneti picks their olives by hand, and then presses them within four hours of picking.  (Poor-quality oil is pressed 2-4 weeks after picking.)  The entire olive is pressed, and a centrifuge is used to separate the liquids from solids.  Another centrifuge then separates the oil from water and filters it—an important step, because unfiltered oil can ferment due to the sugars in water.

In earlier years, stone presses were used, but not any longer.  Over the past 50 years, the production process has changed dramatically.  Only machines are used now, because stone presses produce poor-quality oil.

The total process from beginning to end only takes about 35 minutes.  Quickness is the key to the best-quality oil.

Following our olive oil tasting, the group visited Cristina and her husband’s beautiful 1,000-year-old home in the Chianti countryside, for a cooking class and lunch. We first gathered on the terrace for a glass of Prosecco and bruschetta before moving to the kitchen to prepare lunch and learn how to make pasta.  To be perfectly honest, Bruce jumped right in while I just watched and took pictures. 

Lunch was fabulous, and the experience was a lot of fun!

Later in the afternoon, we visited the town of Greve, headquarters of the Chianti region for wine festivals.  On the day we were there, antiques and crafts were the feature of the day’s festival, instead.

We enjoyed exploring the town center, and it was wonderful being surrounded by locals—or at least Italians—rather than tourists, as we were in Florence.  Being in Greve was an authentically Italian experience, which I appreciated!

Coming up (later in the month): The Scenic Streets of Sienna


Chianti is a mountainous area of Tuscany known for its world-class wine production, cured meats, cheeses, and fine cuisine.  Florence, where we spent much of the day (shown in my previous post, Italy #12), is located in Chianti.  After we departed Florence, we headed out into the countryside towards our home for the next three nights, Villa Il Leccio

The Chianti countryside is beautiful—rolling green hills, vineyards, and scenic vistas around every turn.  When we arrived at Villa Il Leccio, we were delighted to see that the views were stunning, and the villa was gorgeous.

Giada, the owner, and her nephew, welcomed us warmly.  After we settled in, we were gathered on the terrace for a champagne reception, followed by a guided tour.

The villa has been in Giada’s family for 300 years; however, the building dates back to the 1200’s.  When the Landi family purchased the villa in the eighteenth century, they used it as a country residence where the family gathered in the summer.

In the 1800’s, the land was cultivated into a prosperous farm.  The villa was then converted by Giada’s mother into a country resort in 1998.

Villa Il Leccio is the most charming place we have ever stayed, and meals there were memorable. Breakfasts and dinners were prepared by Giada and served by her nephew.  In the morning, there was a beautiful display of a variety of breads and cakes, along with hot dishes, fruit, cereals, and fresh juices.  Dinner was a three-course meal, accompanied by Villa Il Leccio private label wine.  The dining room was beautiful at night and the table décor included fresh cuttings from the garden where they grow all their own flowers, herbs, and vegetables. 

My pictures don’t do it justice, but these are the photos I shot during our stay:

(For all pictures, click on the image to see full screen view.)

This room was added on in the 1700’s, and these frescoes were painted at that time.
The frescoes in the breakfast room date back to the 1500’s.
Original kitchen
The original kitchen is where a breakfast buffet was set up each morning.
To get to our room, we entered the piano room, went through the sitting room with the frescoes, turned into the breakfast room, made another turn into the original kitchen, and ended up here. We continued up the stairs, and finally arrived to our room. I’m not complaining; I was happy to be able to wander through the sprawling villa each time, so I could enjoy the beauty of each room!
This is the back of the villa.
Giada and her nephew
The formal dining room where we gathered each evening for a lovely meal.

The following morning, we drove through the Chianti Valley to visit Li’Apicorno, Martha and Petro’s goat and bee farm.  Martha showed us how goat cheese is made and what life is like raising goats.  We got to meet the goats, which were quite friendly!

It was chaos when Petro let the babies out to find their mom’s for a feeding!
Petro fed the goats chestnuts, a big treat for them!

Not far from the goat farm was Buondonno, the family winery run by Martha’s father.  We enjoyed a wonderful lunch served with Chianti Classico wine, while enjoying views from the terrace overlooking the Chianti Valley. It was such a classically exquisite Italian experience! 

Risotto with goat cheese
Our tour leader, Ben, with Deb and Cesare, our driver
Their dog made the rounds to each of us to get petted– and for (hopeful!) hand-out.
Bruce gave Martha a pair of his fused glass earrings as a gift. It just so happened that blue was her favorite color!

Later in the afternoon, Oscar led us on a walk across the valley from Villa Il Leccio, so we could enjoy views of the villa and the countryside.

A zoomed-in view of Villa Il Leccio off in the distance

What a beautiful place!



It would take months—maybe years— to really see Florence.  We only had a day.  Our walking tour began in the best possible place, though, because the view from Pizzale Michelangiolo was spectacular!  We were so fortunate to have a sunny day, because we put in a lot of walking miles and shot a lot of photos—neither of which would have been much fun in the rain!

Following the tour, we had a couple of hours to see more of this beautiful city on our own, so we wasted no time.  Rather than spend it dining in a restaurant, we passed on lunch and walked the streets of the city with our heads on a swivel, taking in all there was to see.

The streets were very crowded; that’s just how it is in big cities anywhere you go these days.  The crowds get to both of us, so there were times we just needed to seek out a quieter area for a respite.

Here, then, is our day in Florence:

(For all pictures, click on the image to see full screen view.)

The Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) was built in 1350 and is full of goldsmiths and jewelry shops that have been a feature of Ponte Vecchio since the beginning.
Florence Cathedral
Clement “Clet” Abraham is a wildly popular local artist who became famous by adding stickers to existing road signs and turning them into art. He has done this all around Florence.
Clet has become so popular, he opened up a shop at his gallery where you can purchase all sorts of collectibles and gifts that depict his creative road sign alterations.
Clet was chosen to create a sculpture for this bridge.
The line to get into the museum was horrendous!
“Gates of Paradise” date back to the 1400’s
A rowing competition in the river