Sunday, July 5, 2009

Under the Tuscan Sun - Montalcino, Montepulciano, Pienza, Volterra & Siena


Destination: Tuscany

Number of Days Spent: 3 days

Where we stayed: We stayed in a couple of places...Oliviera Camere in Pienza (40 Euros with a simple breakfast - the owner Nello was super friendly), ??? in Siena (65 Euros no breakfast or Internet) and in Volterra Seminario Vescovile San Andrea (the monastery recommended by Rick Steves - 28 Euros no breakfast or Internet)

Best restaurant: Does a picnic with aged pecorino from Pienza, salami, a fresh baguette, cherries from the farmer's market and a bottle of wine count?

Best of: Beautiful scenery & amazing wine, it was fantastic!

Worst of: Siena was a major disappointment for us.

Most Memorable: Picnic lunch in front of the Abbey, staying in the monastery where Christopher Columbus supposedly stayed

Useful tip: Renting a car is really the best way to see Tuscany - public transport is limited and does not stop to let you take pictures of the real star of the area - the views!

Ok, so renting a car in Italy is NOT cheap but Tuscany is one of those places where it makes sense. Flower fields exploding into colors, medieval castles and towns dotting the countryside, vineyards and abbeys all take turns tantalizing the senses. Here, the journey is the star of the show and the destinations allow breaks and time to savor the moments.

Our gateway into the heart of Tuscany was the town of Montepulciano. Noted for its Vino Nobile, we stopped and had a glass...or Contucci Cantina. Our favorite Vino Nobile was the Valdipiatta 2000 (24 Euro per bottle). By law, the Nobile must be aged for at least 18 months in a barrel and then another year in a bottle before it can be sold so the youngest is nearly three years old! We also enjoyed lunch in town overlooking the valley, an excellent homemade gnocci and that great bottle of wine mentioned above! They were "sprucing up" the main square by painting the fountain; which we thought was a but cheesy until we later heard that they were filming the next Twilight series movie, New Moon here. The book actually takes place in Volterra (below) but apparently the producers felt this was a more scenic place. After visiting both, we tend to disagree, but they are not paying us to make the movie!

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After Montepulciano, we headed over to Pienza. In route, we passed, and could not pass up, the pecorino cheese factory. This area is home to the fantastic cheese and after muddling through the ordering process, we emerged with 1/8th of a kilo (1/4lb)...hardly the standard factory direct purchase; but they didn't seem to mind...too much. We probably ate that much in samples before our purchase!

Expecting Pienza to be somewhat of a larger town, we were pleasantly surprised to find the town very manageable and far smaller than it's more famous neighbors - Montepulciano and Montalcino. As with most of these towns, the old part is completely surrounded by a medieval wall. The interior is all cobblestone streets, a handful of shops, restaurants and hotels and loads of charm. Once again, with bottle of wine in hand, we sat on a bench overlooking the valley enjoying the evening air by the old city walls. What can we say, everything is better with a bottle of wine in hand!

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In the morning we hit the weekly market - not quite what we expected but we managed to get together some meat, our leftover pecorino from the day before, along with some fresh berries and...of course...vino for our picnic later that day.

We left Pienza and were on our way to the next hill town of Montalcino. Much like Montepulciano, this town is also known for it wine - the Brunello. We opted to go for the 5 glass sampler in the old Fort at Enoteca La Fortezza di Montalcino. At 19 euros it was a bit spendy, but where else can you drink wine in a medieval fort?!? The winner...Castiglion del Bosco's Brunello di Montalcino 2004 - only 95 Euros per bottle...lets just say we didn't take one home with us.

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Just south of Montalcino lies the picturesque Sant' Antimo Abbey. We spread out our blanket here and had our afore mentioned picnic set to the scene below. Not a bad place to have lunch heh?

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The rest of the day we spent in the car leisurely (a little too leisurely so we would find out) driving through the countryside stopping along the way for photo ops. Our last stop was at a working monastery where we poked our heads in to listen to the Gregorian chants.

Hoping to arrive in Siena around 7pm, we ended up getting lost in the sprawl that is Siena and not finding the free parking lot until after 8. By the time we had got our bags, trekked across town to where the hotel was, they had given away our room! Since we were not there "on time" they sold it out from under us and were of little help finding somewhere else to stay (this apparently happens in Italy, so when they ask for a time of arrival, make sure you adhere to it!). Fortunately, the friendly man in the hotel next door knew a lady down the street with a room, so we trekked a little further and found her place...a little overpriced for what it was but a room we had.

Siena itself was once a charming hill town but is now overtaken by bus loads of tourists and overpriced accommodations to go along with its inflating population. In comparison to it's rival to the north, Florence (upcoming post), we had thought that Siena was going to be the cheaper and more atmospheric town. We were certainly surprised. Not to be spoiled, the main square is truly one of the better squares in Italy. In the shape of a clamshell, the main town hall sits at one end of the square ringed with bars and restaurants. It's a great place to people watch at any time of the day or night. The square is also home to the annual horse race. The fourteen neighborhoods of Siena all field a rider and a horse and for two fast and furious minutes in the Spring, the square is turned into a horse track with a mob of people on to watch from any square inch they can possibly fit. Pride and glory are at stake and the winner gets both along with the trophy and their flag flown over the town square.

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Siena's Duomo is also a spectacular sight. The massive church is only half the size of what it was planned to be and that's saying a lot. After visiting the Duomo, we decided it was time to leave Siena for quieter environs so we hopped back in the car and headed for San Gimigiano.

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WIth its multiple towers soaring into the Tuscan sky, it's no wonder San Gimigiano is popular. The towers and surrounding tiled buildings make a picture perfect setting. With one main entrance and street, the town has a bit of Disneyland feel to it. After spending an hour fighting the crowds and avoiding the tourist trap shops, we hightailed it out of there to our last stop...Volterra.

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Volterra ended up being our second favorite hill town (behind Pienza) in Tuscany. Although it was full of visitors, it still had its charm intact. Down some of the side streets the women congregated talking no doubt about the men, and the men congregated on a separate street no doubt talking about football...err...the women. There is also a chapter in New Moon where Bella comes to Edwards rescue (without giving away too much) in this town. The Tourist Info has a fun map you can follow, retracing the steps in the book...well the parts that are "real" any ways. Last but not least there is a little enoteca where you can sample the region's SuperTuscan wines for 5 euro per glass (including cover with bread & cheese - quite nice). Naturally we ended our last evening there before retiring to the monastery for the night (apparently we slept in the same hall that Christopher Columbus once slept in!

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As we said earlier, the journey was the star of this post so we finish it with scenes from the Tuscan countryside. After dropping our car off in Pisa, we hopped on the train for the Italian Riviera!

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To see more photos of Tuscany click on the city!




Tuscany Countryside

San Gimigiano



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