Word to the wise *LONG* post ahead mostly for my own memory’s sake – feel free to skip on down to the pictures!
Ah – Toscana…how you so easily capture the hearts of millions with your gently rolling hills and promises of fine dining and even finer views. Our time with you was brief, but full of happy memories.
Our journey to this point had been filled with train travel only. Tuscany however, nearly requires that one have a car as hill towns aren’t accessed by train, and you really would miss out on so much doing it any other way. So we picked up our car in Pisa (and did not see the leaning tower – a tad too cliche for us) and off we went. We soon noticed an obnoxious dinging in our Mercedes something or other and could not figure out what it wanted us to do! Lights were on, seatbelts were on, doors were closed…..WHAT did this car want from us? Awhile back Brandon had mumbled something in German but I ignored it thinking he was reading a sign. Then an hour into our trip he says again, “deaktivieren parkbremse”
…Which we now feel roughly translates into “Deactivate your parking brake you American idiots.” Poor Mercedes, how we mistreated you.
We arrive in Siena to Agriturismo Marciano which is a picture of Tuscan beauty. It’s about a 45 minute walk to the historic center of Siena, which of course we do right away, on our perpetually empty stomachs (we had such a hard time finding places to eat in Italy – and no this isn’t a joke. The language barrier kept us on a steady diet of to-go pizza at first) It’s a beautiful place, but the sensation of near-fainting from hunger took a little of the joy away – that and the 10,000 kids in the Piazza del Campo. This was the only time we actually went into the city as we spent the rest of our days driving the hills and towing other little Italian cars on our bumper. Really, we figured out that there’s likely some law out there stating that you cannot follow further than .003 inches from the car in front of you. And passing on blind corners is a must.
Our favorite hilltowns, in order of favoritism from least to most:
San Gimignano – we didn’t even get out of the car for this one. Horrible rainy day and it was still PACKED with multi-colored umbrella-toting tourists.
Montalcino – we visited here on a windy and somewhat chilly day (it’s way up ontop a hill though, so understandable) It really is beautiful though and deserves a much higher place on my list because it was the only place where; when I smiled at a local….they actually smiled back!! Made my day. Most of my smiles were ignored although if I lived in a place as beautiful as they do and was inundated with mostly obnoxious tourists, I would have the exact same attitude. We had a great lunch here and fabulous hazelnut gelato.
Siena – Really I think I would love this place so much if we had gone back and visited in the evening and gone to the duomo. I’m so sad that we didn’t so don’t take my word on it being “3rd worst” It’s not at all, merely my weakened state putting it here. I loved the zucchini pizza!
Volterra – It’s fairly off the beaten path, and that’s why it’s so fantastic. We visited under the absolute WORST of conditions. Pouring rain, heavy fog all the way on the tiny winding roads, but we still thoroughly enjoyed it. There’s a great little restaurant to try right off the main square towards the back of it, Etruscia or something like that.
Radda in Chianti -cutest little tiny town. The scenery in the Chianti region is so very different from the rest of Tuscany in it’s woodedness and of course – vineyards! They were bare when we were there in April, but I’m sure by now they’re full of beautiful grape vines…
Pienza – We visited here on our first night as a full day of rain was looming ahead the next day. We arrived at around 5:00 – just as the tourists were clearing out and found it absolutely charming. We came back on our last day and it was MUCH more crowded, but we still liked it just as much. We found a little walking path behind the village that takes you down into an olive grove and back. (Taking the wrong road leads to vicious barking dogs – which we ran into on literally EVERY walk or bike ride we tried to take. I have never seen angrier dogs!) Amazing gelato here as well. They’re famous for their pecorino (sheep) cheese which you will see in literally every shop window. PLUS the road they used in a scene of Gladiator is right outside this town, so you really can’t go wrong.
I salute those who “bike Tuscany” We gave it a noble attempt with the bikes available at our agriturismo and failed miserably. Between huge, Cujo-like dogs at every corner and hills that go up but don’t come down, it was incredibly exhausting.
Our favorite Tuscan experience by far though was dinner at the agriturismo. Guests would gather around the rustic but beautiful kitchen table and we were served the most amazing food we had on the whole trip. Artichoke ham and Parmesan, homemade pasta with asparagus, spinach and beans, a local beef, and sheep’s cheese with a green tomato/ginger sauce. Of course as we were staying at a winery, each course had an accompanying wine, of which I only finished 1/2 of the first glass (much to the amusement of the other guests) What made it so fun though was the conversation with folks from all over the world – we sat and talked for 4 hours and really learned so much from everyone.
OH! I forgot. Our official least favorite town. San Q’uirico d’Orcia. Our GPS served us beautifully in every single situation EXCEPT in this town. It’s like it didn’t exist on it’s map. Which ended with us turning around in an itty bitty driveway, and cracking the bumper of our not so itty bitty Mercedes on a not so itty bitty boulder. Thank you insurance!
If you’re ever in Tuscany, which if you’ve read this far I’ll assume is your plan, you must take the road SP438. It’s has the prettiest “typical Tuscan” scenery of anywhere we saw. And take it in the early early morning – right as the sun’s coming up to catch the morning mist settling in the valleys.
Also – excuse the motion blur in the foreground of many of these images – there are virtually no places to pull off on the side of the road when on a winding country road, so most of these were captured with my head and camera hanging out the window and my arm losing circulation from the strap.
To truly travel successfully, all of one’s speculations and presumptions of a place must be left at home, leaving room for the simple beauty and richness of the destination to soak in.