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Tuscan Hilltowns (10/29-31)

November 1st, 2006 · No Comments

Under the Tuscan Sun…we spent only four days exploring the hilltowns of Tuscany, but we are ready to come back and rent a villa soon! Anyone want to join us, let us know!

For photos, click here.

Tuscany

Kimberly

After spending three days running around Florence, we were ready for some relaxing time in Tuscany. We decided to drive through the Chianti region on our way south from Florence. We did not stop at any wineries, as we knew that we would be going to Montalcino later on, but admired the picturesque views along the way. We did stop at Castello di Brullio, an old castle and vineyard, but just for a quick visit (and not a tasting, as it was unfortunately a Sunday).

Rather than stay in a hotel or B&B, we opted for an Agriturismo–a concept widely spread throughout Italy. The concept was created in the 1980s as a way for small farmers to survive in a modern economy. By renting rooms to travelers, the farmers could remain on their land and continue to produce food. In order to call yourself an Agriturismo, a certain percentage of your income must still come from food produced on the land…which means staying at a place like this is guaranteed to be a highly authentic experience. We stayed at the very charming Agriturismo San Giorgio. It was only a fifteen minute drive from Siena, and we could see the towers of the Campo from the farm. We had a very large 1 bedroom apartment with our own patio and even a loft. Every morning, for breakfast, we were given an assortment of jams and jellies that were made from fruit on the property. And there were large lawns and a playground for Zookie to play on. (Check out our photos to see Zookie on the swings, slide, and teeter-totter…) It was a wonderful experience, and we are completely sold on the concept.

With Agriturismo San Giorgio as our homebase, we explored one or two of the nearby hilltowns each day. On our first day, we went to Volterra, a relatively undiscovered hilltown just east of Siena. We loved this town! More than 2000 years ago, it was a very important Etruscan city–and remarkably, one of the gates to the town remains from that time. (Even more impressive is that the Nazis had planned to blow it up during WWII, but the town residents wanted to badly to preserve their Etruscan historical landmark, that they tore up the street and blocked their own entryway to the city and convinced the Nazis general that there was no need to destroy it!)

As with many of the other Tuscan hilltowns, the eventual decline of the city is what has kept it so well preserved in its historical state. The alleyways are narrow, streets cobblestoned, and residents quiet and calm. Today the town is known for its quality artisan crafts, especially alabaster, historical charm, and truffle festivals. We were lucky to arrive at the beginning of the fall truffle season, and thus for the “Volterra Gusta” white truffle festival. This kicked off our Italian grocery shopping spree…for the next ten days, we bought 5 bottles of olive oil, 6 bottles of wine, 1 of balsamic vinegar, 12 packages of pasta, 16 jars of various sauces, and several other artisinal grocery items…

FYI, we had two great wining and dining experiences in Volterra. We had lunch at Ristorante Il Sacco Fiorentino (Piazza XX Settembre 18, tel 0588-88537), which included a special pasta with a white truffle sauce…just divine! And we tasted a few regional wines at La Vena di Vino (Via Don Minzoni 30, tel 0588-81491), including a Super-Tuscan–the latest phenomenon in the world of wine.

That night we visited the nearby hilltown of San Gimignano, famous for its medieval skyscrapers. Today only 14 of the original 60 medieval towers remain. In the 13th century, rich families built these towers as a refuge for when the town was attached and sacked by rival city-states. Even after the town walls were built, the towers continued to rise: feuding noble families would battle things out from the protection of their respective family towers. (Think Montegue and Capulet from Romeo and Juliet.)

It was nice to visit San Gimignano at night in late October, because we understand it gets quite touristy during the day–especially during high season. There was also something quite striking about viewing the towers illuminated against the night sky. Visiting at night also gave us the opportunity to enjoy a fabulous Tuscan dinner at Ristorante Bel Soggiorno (Via San Giovanni 91, tel 0577-940375). The menu featured primarily game, and this meal was a highlight of our entire trip.

On our second day in Tuscany, we drove around the Crete Senese region, appreciating the unique landscape. In the spring, the fields are painted in yellow and green with fava beans an broom, with red poppies on the fringes. In the autumn, it was almost a lunar lanscape of clay, with olive groves and stone farmhouses, punctuated by perfect lines and curves of trees.

That afternoon, we visited the largest town in the region, Siena. Once Florence’s archrival, today Siena is best known as the host for the annual Palio horserace, which turns its city-square (Il Campo) into a race course for the 17 neighborhoods of Siena to compete for the glory of the prize. However, there is much else to see in this jewel of the region. Most importantly, there is the Duomo, Siena’s 13th century Gothic cathedral. The interior is a “Renaissance riot of striped columns, intricate marble inlays, Michaelangelo statues, and Bernini sculptures.” And if that is not enough, the vividly colored and intricately detailed Piccolomini library features 15th century frescoes chronicalling the adventures of Siena’s philanderer-turned-pope Aeneas Piccolomini (Pope Pius II).

And Sienna turned out to be a good place for shopping too! In addition to the necessary olive oil and pasta, I managed to purchase not one, but two pairs of fabulous Italian leather boots! Such a deal!

On our last day in the region, we ventured south to the town of Montalcino, famous for its wine Brunello di Montalcino. In this hilltown, we explored quaint alleyways and Tuscan views. We also visited the Fortezza, where we indulged in some wine tasting and climbed to the top of the towers–all of us, including Zookie!! (Tower climbing, not wine tasting.)

9 kilometers south of Montalcino, we found the Abbey of Sant’Antimo, one of the most beautiful Romanesque churches in Italy. Legend has it that Emperor Charlemagne founded the Abbey after his soldiers were miraculously cured from the plague in a nearby field. We came not only to see the architecture, but more to hear the beautiful Gregorian chanting by the monks that still live and practice here. For a video of the chanting, click here.

Later that afternoon, we made our final Tuscan hilltown visit to Pienza–the home of Aeneas Piccolomini, later Pope Pius II. Yes, this is the person whose life was chronicled in the cathedral in Siena. And he made quite an impression on the town when he decided to completely remodel the city center in the Renaissance fashion in the 1500s. What was extra fun about our time in Pienza was that it was on Halloween, a recently adopted holiday by the Italians. As darkness began to fall, kids appears in the streets, popping f
rom cheese shop to artisinal store trick-or-treating…it was fabulous!

Our time in Tuscany was simply all too brief. We would love to go back and spend a week relaxing at an Agritursmo, taking cooking classes and horseback riding around the picturesque hills. And there is always more exquisite Tuscan food and wine…

Tags: Italy

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