La Prodaia

La Prodaia agriturismo

La Prodaia agriturismo

A truly beautiful place

La Prodaia has to be one of the loveliest places we’ve ever stayed at. We have been to Italy a number of times before but never Tuscany until this May. I suggested to my wife that we should try an Agriturismo, as they are very popular in Italy and offer a variety of things on a self-catering basis. Previously we had stayed at some beautiful hotels on half-board but were generally limited without having a car or making extensive use of the local public transport services. So we decided that a car would be essential.

Our original plan was to explore more of Italy, taking a month to do it and to take our own car. However various things happened that prevented us from doing this on this trip. So we booked a flight and hired a car at Pisa. We chose to drive only so far on the motorways and then to take a state road via Poggibonsi (the SR2). The drive took us around 2h 30mins (strangely the return journey took half the time) as we didn’t need to rush and at the same time, we were absorbing our new surroundings, admiring the changing landscape that we were passing through. Initially the area around Pisa is fairly flat but it wasn’t long before our little Punto hire car was starting to struggle with the hilly roads. The final part of our drive down to Siena was back on a faster road (Fi-Si) that runs between Florence (Firenze) and Siena.

We came off at Siena West (Ouest) and then followed the signs to Costafabbri which was easier than we had thought and then it started to became even hillier and we found ourselves experiencing some twisty roads that were full of surprises. Some of the bends don’t look too sharp as you approach but then you realise they are! I certainly made heavy use of the gearbox but it was fun! Soon I started driving like an Italian!

We found La Prodaia really easily, there were a number of turnings to negotiate, some really tight, roads rising sharply and then plunging as quickly again. The directions were spot-on. We gingerly drove down the drive to the farm and spotted a lady waving at us. She turned out to be Elena Rosati and gave us a warm welcome, directing us to a parking place a little further down the lane. Giancarlo Rosati was pruning some olives, gave us a broad smile, putting down his tools, brushed off his hands and welcomed us too. We were pretty weary from our travels (our flight was delayed and a general nightmare), so were very pleased to have made it there safely and that the place was utterly beautiful. “Great choice Mr Lewis, it’s stunning”, my wife exclaimed.

I had done a lot of research beforehand, plenty of chin rubbing, head scratching browsing through http://www.argriturismo.com trying to work out where to stay. We had never set foot on Tuscan soil before, it was an unknown to us and nobody we know had been there in recent years. I had chosen Siena as a good base since it’s central and from there we could explore quite a lot of places without having to spend too many hours in the car if we could help it. I found La Prodaia and the website really sold the place to me, nice photos, great information about it’s locale and more importantly quality photos about what you get for your money, how the rooms are laid out and what they look like. Very few other places presented this kind of information, one of my big bugbears when it comes to finding holiday homes and something I’d love to focus my business on one of these days!! So that was that I made some enquiries and the Rosati family responded that very same evening. Booked!

The Location

The photograph at the top of this article is a great illustration of how La Prodaia is laid out. The big building in the background is a monastery and as far as I understand it, the farmhouse buildings either belong to it or used to. In either case the building styles are identical, using local materials for their brickwork. A new building was being constructed whilst we were there and isn’t far off being completed at the time of writing. It will be a new apartment and we were given a sneak preview by the owners. Giancarlo pointing out the incredible view from the bedroom of the landscape beyond it, “Great for photography”, he said. We will be going back and trying out the new apartment!

The farmhouse is surrounded by farmland comprising of olive groves, vineyards, fruit trees (cherry, fig and lemon) and some arable crops. Throughout the farmland there are a network of footpaths that lead into woodland at the foot of the hill, so there is plenty to explore at any time of the day.

Olive Tree

The old olive tree

The Rosati family

We liked them from the first moment we met them and they were excellent hosts throughout our two week stay with them. Giancarlo (sorry for getting your name mixed up with Matteo your son!) is passionate about his work as a farmer and owner of the Agriturismo business that they’ve been developing since 2003. He told us all about some terrible problems that they had with their olive plantation, a series of harsh winters had devastated the trees, many of them having to be cut back in order to encourage them to recover, a process that can take many years. Farmers though are amongst the World’s greatest businessmen, they adapt, they find other ways of keeping the business going despite the hardships they face. It would seem that many parts of Europe are now experiencing harsher winters and it does snow in Tuscany.

The Farmhouse

The Farmhouse – beautiful roses

Giancarlo and Elena are both above all else very passionate about where they live. They love Tuscany and Italy as a whole but especially La Prodaia. It is very close to the large city of Siena but at the same time seems like a million miles from it. It is only 3km away and you can see it from the gardens of La Prodaia, the bells ringing out from the beautiful Duomo can clearly be heard across the valley that separates the farm from the city. Siena is a short 5 minute drive from there, a journey we made a lot during our stay, as Siena has a lot to offer. We felt as if we had only scratched the surface, possibly missing big chunks of the city entirely.

The Pool

Pool with a stunning view

Giancarlo and Elena took a great interest in my photography and as it happens, I later took some new photos of the grounds for him which involved step ladders and some early starts!

Olive Oil & Wine

Olive Oil & Wine (mobile shot)

Olive Oil & Wine

I must tell you about their olive oil and wine products. Well the wine went down very well, we were given a bottle upon arrival and no sooner had we unpacked, we uncorked! Giolito is an organic red wine with a full bodied flavour made from the grapes harvested from the vineyard on-site, although I think the wine itself is made elsewhere by Giancarlo’s son Matteo. Very much a family affair! Having had a couple of glasses of wine we then put the olive oil to goo use too and it has a very full flavoured taste, quite unlike some of the oils we buy here in the UK…

La Prodaia vineyard

La Prodaia vineyard

…and they do travel well, the photograph above was taken in our kitchen at home! We have been using the oil as you can see but note the wine bottle is empty, we drank that a week ago!

Make your booking and go there!

To find out more about La Prodaia or better still, make a booking, go to http://laprodaia.com I can guarantee that you’ll enjoy it!

Coming up on the blog

I have some other photos to share and some other tales to tell, so keep an eye out.

The changing landscape

A classic Tuscany landscape close to val d'Orcia

A classic Tuscany landscape close to val d'Orcia

As a follow-up to my previous post, I mentioned a scene where we stopped to take in the beauty of the landscape, this is the one. We simply pulled up in a lay-by and I took this shot from beside the car. I didn’t use a tripod or any other kit other than the 10-20mm lens on my Nikon D7000. I later tweaked the image slightly in Photoshop to add a graduated filter effect to the sky and middle ground. Since we were lost, I am not entirely sure where we were either!

Sunset drive

Tuscan sunset

Tuscan sunset

This shot was taken from just outside the Fort in Montalcino, Tuscany and I never could have thought I’d bag something like this. We had planned for a shot of some kind from this location the week before, as we visited the town in the height of the day looking for handbags and wallets made out of the beautiful leather products made here. We also discovered some of the finest salami we had ever eaten in our lives, made from Wild Boar (Cinghiale) , served with prosciutto (also delicious), sweet tomatoes and bread as fluffy as the mountain air. We didn’t buy any Brunello wine but one elderly shop owner tried to persuade us to do so. 20 Euros per bottle at the cheapest, it is very expensive but I’m happy enough with a nice (and a great deal cheaper) glass of Chianti and if you read my article on La Prodaia, you’ll see why we weren’t short of wine for our trip.

…and so we decided that 7pm would be a good time to revisit and that I could capture a great shot of some kind across the rolling hills and mountains that stretched out for some miles beyond. The light would be beautiful and if we were too early, I’d have enough time to pick my composition.

Fast forward one week…

I had been studying the map, thinking that there must be a quicker way of getting to Montalcino than we’d taken in our first week. I found that there was a shortcut on our map, we could avoid having to drive via Siena which can be very busy during the late afternoon. So we set off with camera gear and looking forward to rounding off the shoot with a nice meal in Montalcino. However I hadn’t realised that the shortcut involved a network of unsurfaced roads which would take us up a perilous route around a mountain or two or was it four?? I can’t recall…

So I kept on driving thinking that maybe it was just a short stretch of road that was like it, it had signs after all and it was only 20km to Montalcino. It was clearly signposted, what a great shortcut! My wife fell silent and I was beginning to realise she wasn’t too happy with me and for that matter I wasn’t too happy with myself for assuming that the shortcut would consist of normal surfaced roads. I was thinking this as I watched the dust cloud behind me shroud the view in my main mirror. Then a giant cement mixer came towards us, complete with his own dust cloud and left me fumbling along the road as if someone had pinched my glasses. We did find a normal road eventually and once again, Montalcino had vanished from the signposts and we found ourselves on a road that wasn’t shown on the map. Taking an educated guess we turned left and found a sign for Montalcino, right on top of the turning, I executed a hand break turn, Tina was getting increasingly more annoyed with me and told me not to drive like someone out of the Italian job. I apologised but the schoolboy inside me was loving it and so we pressed on, discovering a beautiful rolling landscape (which will feature in the next post).

Now this was just the beginning because what was to come, was crazier. We took another turning, a brown sign pointing us in the direction of Montalcino, once again 20km (???) and I later made a note in my head not to follow brown signs in Italy ever again. The smooth road was leading us into some stunning farmland, dotted with beautiful buildings that looked like small castles. It was idyllic and then the road turned to dust again. I fell silent this time before Tina did but it was a beautiful dusty road, nice and flat plus nobody to be seen anywhere, meaning no tailgating Italians waiting to overtake me on a triple hairpin bend as normal. I could relax a little and we had found a reliable set of signs guiding us along the way, we could even see Montalcino perched up on the mountain top, not too far then. We spotted some great wildlife along the way including a Hare but were concious that time was slipping by very fast, 7pm had in fact been and gone, we had been on the road for two hours or so already.

Then my wariness was eased as we spotted a stunning new golf course being constructed. They had made use of the natural rolling landscape to construct it, the light was looking amazing, everything looked breathtaking wherever we looked. Though we had a feeling that we shouldn’t be where we were and above all else, we feared we’d get lost, very badly lost. Our fears were allayed when we spotted another brown Montalcino sign…. 18km this time. Our fears were then restored when we realised that the only other vehicles around were people working on the golf course development. They seemed to be surprised by our presence.

The road then became more interesting, the grit on the surface became looser and I found myself fighting with the car to keep it going up the hill, it simply didn’t have the power for it, first gear just about got me up the first incline. Turning a bend, it became steeper and bendier and wilder and scarier (too many ands there). We were now on our own, in a mountainside forest, on a road that would make a world class rally driver very happy indeed, except I’m not one. I feared we’d get a puncture and die and be eaten by wild boar, possibly bears. We reached an apex in the road and I was thinking, well, what next, what is on the other side of that, a sheer drop?Brown sign to Montalcino 10km. I felt relieved for a second, driving in the middle of the road at what felt like a 100mph (really 5mph as the Punto couldn’t do much), my wife very unhappy with me. It was a 1 in 10 incline, pretty steep. Madness. Why the hell had I chosen this route? What in God’s name had made me think this was a bright idea? I also recalled the scene from the Italian job where the car topples off the road (in fact there were quite a few scenes like that).

We eventually came across some other people, who looked bemused at the once black Fiat Punto being driven by a wild looking englishman (they can tell this very easily) caked in dust and with a palid looking passenger. They were driving a very clean looking Mercedes. They also looked lost and I hope my look of fear made them change their minds and turn around. We then found a road and then thankfully Montalcino and finally my wife spoke to me again, our marriage intact… The car had changed colour and was caked in mountain dust.

All’s well that ends well

…Well as you can imagine we were delighted to find Montalcino but were less than happy to find most places had closed for the day, as it had just turned 8pm. Luckily my location was looking good! I took my camera out of the bag, hands still shaking from our Top Gear/Indiana Jones/Italian Job experience earlier. Fitted some filters and exposed away.

We then took the normal route back and finished the night off at our favourite restaurant in Costafabbri with some nice local Chianti….

Red Kites

Red Kite (by Crowning, www.crestock.com)

Thanks to everyone who has submitted comments on an old post of mine (http://www.nicklewis.net/2007/10/18/red-kites-in-hampshire/comment-page-1/#comment-3569) about the Red Kite and its gradual spread into the county of Hampshire. The post was the shortest ever posted on this blog way back in 2007 and it has received over 27 comments. I also wrote another post that has received 105 comments which you can read at http://www.nicklewis.net/2008/05/22/red-kites-in-hampshire-follow-up/ Continue reading →

Dusk falls upon Piazza del Campo, Siena, Italy

Piazza del campo at dusk

Piazza del campo at dusk

“Piazza del Campo” is the hub of Siena, most streets lead there, pinpointed by it’s very own marker, “Torre del Mangia” which can be seen from various corners of the city. The Piazza offers an infinite range of possibilities as a photographic subject and from the start of my stay in the area, I felt that it would be worth capturing a twilight scene. So one night we had dinner early at the apartment and set off armed with a full kit bag and my sturdy Manfrotto.

I thought it quite fitting carrying my Italian made tripod around with me, although my back wasn’t happy about it. We arrived with bags of time spare, so I did take a number of shots prior to this one which are also worthy of showing at some point.

One thing was bugging me about the scene was that there was crane right next to the Torre. “What crane?”, I hear you ask, well thank heavens for Photoshop, I cloned it out, was a bit fiddly mind you. It didn’t fill up much the scene thanks to the wide-angle lens

This shot was taken at around 9pm but I had taken up my position about half an hour beforehand. Tina wasn’t too pleased about this, as it was a chilly evening compared to how hot it had been earlier in the day. If you look at the ghost-like figures in this shot (due to the long exposure), she is one of them, she had to keep walking around to stay warm.

I find it helps to set these sort of shots up carefully before actually taking them and with lots of time to spare. It is harder to focus on subjects when the light drops to lower levels than it is when you still have plenty of it. Once you have focused and composed that’s pretty much it with the exception of tweaking the exposure for the period of time that follows. It does mean waiting around for awhile but it is interesting watching the scene change. Check your histogram on the camera,  you see it levelling out over the course of time.

I was worried that the floodlights wouldn’t come on. In fact I wasn’t sure there were any! Luckily they did come on shortly before 9pm.

In total there are some twenty frames for this shoot, that sort of make up a time-lapse which I could create as a video if you are interested.

Technical details – Nikon D7000, Sigma 10-20 lens, ISO 100, f22 at 25 seconds – No filters, just a tripod and a shutter release – patient wife.