Tuscany – Charming Certaldo, not on “the list”
You may find it interesting that after talking about all the towns in Tuscany that are “on the list” (whose list is it anyway?) our first excursion was to a town that is not, not “on the list” that is.
We set off one morning for a three day excursion to Certaldo, about an hour and a half east from here inland, to meet Simone and his parents Luigi and Giuseppina. Luigi and Simone were taking us on a truffle hunt in a Tuscany forest and Giuseppina was staying behind to prepare a truffle lunch for after the hunt.
Certaldo (pronounced “cher-tal-do”) is a quiet town not far from the more famous San Gimignano and gets by with a fraction of the tourism that hits San Gimignano every year. This is a good thing, in case you wonder.
Certaldo is divided in two: locals call these Certaldo baja (lower Certaldo), the new town below the hill, and Certaldo Alto or upper Certaldo, the magnificent old medieval town on top of the hill. The formal name of Certaldo Alto is Rione Castello. Certaldo is so small it has only one piazza and one short main street. Everybody knows everybody else and the scene is so typical of small town Italy that it takes you breath away. It is yet unspoiled by us tourists. Old men sit on the bench in the square chatting and examining the going on. Two old women put their heads together in some discussion about, who knows what. Maybe they are exchanging pasta secrets.
There are only a few restaurants around and they strictly adhere to an 8:00 pm opening for dinner. At lunch time everything is shuts down and the streets are literally deserted, residents having their lunch and siesta until 5:00.
Certaldo is known for its old medieval town but what really makes it inetersting is that it is home to Giovanni Boccaccio, a poet and author who, among other works, wrote the famous Decameron. He is one of the three 14th century “kings” of Italian literature, the others being Dante (Inferno) and Petrarch. This is a prestigious assembly. Boccaccio is considered one of the earliest humanists. You can visit the home where he was born up in the medieval village where some of his works are on display. The main piazza is named after him and a sculpture of him was erected there in 1878.
“To have compassion for those who suffer is a human quality which everyone should possess, especially those who have required comfort themselves in the past and have managed to find it in others. ”
― Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron
We stayed at the edge of downtown at Hotel Certaldo, a restored 16th century water mill set over a river. The water are still gushing below in a spectacular sound. We loved the hotel. Everything was oversized. The rooms were large and sparsly decorated. Huge double windows opened in every room right over the river. The high arched lobby stretched in front as you enter the hotel, leading to the wonderful park behind. Breakfast was included and served in the lobby every morning. It was especially nice not have to move the car. We could walk everywhere.
In late afternoon we walked into town, strolled up the main street and took the funicular from the main square up the hill to see the medieval town on top. I have seen many old towns in our travels and this was among the most enchanting and best preserved. Narrow streets, secret gardens, beautiful architecture mostly of red brick, two palaces and spectacular views, it is one of those places you don’t want to leave. Locals actually live there, in those ancient structures some dating back to the 1100s. If the walls could only talk.
The old town has several restaurants, cafes and even a hotel (Albergo Castello) run by a Swiss owner whose family has owned the building for over 150 years. You can take the funicular up or hike 10 minutes up a trail beginning on a side street off the piazza. We went up to the old town a few times during our stay, taking the funicular up and walking down. Sunset is a wonderful time to visit the old town. The red colours of the sun setting reflected in the red brick it quite memorable.
For dinner that night we had to wait until 8:00 pm when dinner service begins. To hold us off I picked up sweet rice fritters at a take out place on the pizza and we sat on the bench in front of the church listening to the church bells ring at 7:00 pm, only to be outdone by other church bells that sounded like they came from the top of the hill. It was an authentic, memorable scene.
After inquiry we chose the Trattoria La Saletta, an institution beloved by the locals who proudly tell you that Niccolini Giampiero’s 85 years old mother Eda still works in the kitchen preparing the gnocchi and gnudi for dinner. The restaurant, set on a corner just off the piazza, had about 8 tables on the main floor but in season has a room upstairs as well as a few tables outside. If anyone wonders why we travel out of season, this is why. You experience everything in a much more local manner. The restaurant is very much owner operated. Giampiero works the tables and I was just fascinated by the going ons. Italians do not just order off the menu. They discuss the food and they love it. Where is the pecorino from? Pienza? Do you have the chestnut honey to go with it? Did you get that prosciutto from that farm? how is the meat cooked? is it grilled before it is stewed with the mushrooms? What pasta shape is better with this sauce? This is how my mother cooks it. How is your mother feeling? I was hypnotized by this scene, eavesdropping shamelessly (small space, it wasn’t hard) and had just enough understanding of the language to know what was going on. To think that in some restaurants in North America you order from the menu by the number.
We did our best to fit in but we are not Italians, so the discussion was not as long. Giampeiro who is used to tourists explained everything to us in english and made recommendations. He even asked if we wanted our salads before or after the meal (we said after). We ended up with one of the best dinners yet on this trip, and food has been great overall. We went back there the following night just because we loved the authentic scene and feel of the place. We tried their onion soup, an almost melted heap of slowly caramelized onions mixed with bread and pecorino and no broth, I had Eda’s silky hand made spinach gnuddi with ricotta sauce, the perfectly cooked taglionini with quail and porcini, risotto cooked with flavourful broth and topped with aromatic white truffles that was on special that day, my husband had a grilled then simmered meat with wild mushrooms that he said was very special. We also tried the pecorino cut in wedges, each topped with a condiment: grapes, onion, white truffles, orange and pepper, respectively. We were asked to begin with the grape and end with pepperoncini for obvious reasons. All that with great Chianti and salty foccacia. My only complaint is where were the vegetables? There were none on the menu.
We ended another memorable day in Tuscany by walking back to our restored water mill hotel and fell asleep to the sound of the river running below our windows. Tomorrow is breakfast at the hotel and then a truffle hunt and truffle lunch.
Stay tuned for that report.
Breakfast at Hotel Certaldo