Touring Tuscany – April 2014
My wife and I are not oenophiles, by any stretch of the imagination. Sure, we’ve heard of Chianti, Siena, San Gimignano, Montepulciano, Montalcino…and we’ve sampled wines in Napa Valley…but we are a couple of lightweights when it comes to drinking and a glass of wine (we prefer not too dry white wines) is all it takes to make us “happy”. Although there is that isolated case where we drank a whole bottle of this amazing white wine during dinner in a Colorado Springs restaurant…but I digress. In any case, since we were in Italy for an extended period of time, we figured, why not explore Tuscany and the medieval hill towns dotting the Tuscan landscape.
We started our search for lodging and the idea of staying in a working farm in Tuscany appealed to us, so we went searching for an agriturismo close to San Gimignano in the province of Siena…a base of operations for our 5-day tour of Tuscany. After scouring the Internet for multiple agriturismos around San Gimignano (try the following site: http://www.agriturismo.it/en/) , we chose La Lucciolaia for its close proximity to and the breathtaking views of San Gimignano. I reserved the Albicocca room, as it appeared to be the biggest and had marvelous views of San Gimignano and its medieval towers. If you are interested in finding out more about La Lucciolaia, I wrote a review on Trip Advisor.
We drove to Tuscany from Vicenza, Italy (an hour west of Venice), and it took us just over 3 hours past Bologna and Florence. I’ve made it a habit to develop an itinerary when we travel, so armed with our itinerary (and a guidebook, Frommer’s or Lonely Planet, I can’t quite recall), we set out on our first day upon checking in to explore San Gimignano, dubbed the medieval Manhattan for its surviving towers. San Gimignano can be quite busy, even in still somewhat chilly mid-April (especially for someone used to Hawaiian weather), owing to its relatively close proximity to tourist hubs like Florence and Siena, where tourists arrive by the busloads. Founded in early 3rd century BC, San Gimignano flourished through the Middle Ages and Renaissance Era due to its favorable location along the medieval trading and pilgrimage route, Via Francigena. Unrest, rivalries, and conflicts between influential families resulted in multiple towers of varying heights being built in the town. At one point there were 72 towers erected in this small town. Today, only 14 of the towers survive. In 1990, San Gimignano’s historic center was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
On our second day, we set out for Volterra and Colle di Val d’Elsa. With our trusty GPS, we set our sights for Volterra, where the movie “The Twilight Saga: New Moon” was partly set and famous for its alabaster carvings. On our first route, we ended up turning around as the road was closed for some reason. We explored a second route with our GPS, only to find out that this one was also closed due to a massive mud slide which took off a huge chunk of the road with it. We were beginning to think that visiting Volterra was not in the cards, but our third attempt proved fruitful, and we were so glad we made it. We found Volterra to be more charming than San Gimignano (less the towers) and less crowded as well. It poured as we were arriving in Volterra, which was just fine since we waited it out having lunch at this charming trattoria.
After buying some alabaster carvings and pottery for souvenirs, we set out towards Colle di Val d’Elsa late in the afternoon. It was along the route heading back to our agriturismo via Poggibonsi and our guidebook suggested the often overlooked town is worth a visit. My impressions…the town really doesn’t have much to see, especially when compared to the major towns like San Gimignano, Volterra, and Siena. I can see why this place is not on the list of “must see” attractions. About the only thing notable that I remember from this place was the sight of a yellow Ferrari Testarossa that pulled up next to our car as we were getting gas at a local Agip gas station. After a rather quick tour of the town, we were headed back to the agriturismo in time for that night’s 4-course dinner (you can read my review of dinner from the Trip Advisor review with the link provided three paragraphs above).
Our third day was reserved for exploring Siena, and Monteriggioni along the way. Monteriggioni is a small walled town set on a hill that was also along the Via Francigena. Situated between Siena and Colle di Val d’Elsa and built between 1214 and 1219, Monteriggioni served as Siena’s northernmost defense. Monteriggioni is notable for inspiring the Tuscan poet, Dante Alighieri, who used the walled town’s turrets to evoke the image of the ring of giants encircling the Infernal abyss in “Divine Comedy.”
Siena is the capital of Siena province and is considered one of the most visited cities in Italy. Famous for its medieval architecture and the Palio (a horse race ran in Piazza del Campo twice a year in July and August), Siena’s city center is dominated by Palazzo Pubblico and the Torre del Mangia (seen on the opening scene of James Bond’s “Quantum of Solace” while the Palio was being ran), as well as the Duomo or Cathedral. In 1995, its historic center was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Our fourth day in Tuscany was for exploring Florence, the region’s main city. We drove to Poggibonsi and took the bus from there to Florence, or Firenze in Italian, since parking is scarce and expensive in Florence. A one-way bus ticket costs just €5.20 and takes just under an hour. Incidentally, Poggibonsi, although not as scenic as San Gimignano or Siena, is a viable location to stay in for your Tuscany visit as it is centrally located and has buses and trains connecting it to the main tourist sites…and lodging at Poggibonsi would undoubtedly be cheaper than the main tourist areas.
Florence was beautiful, and we probably could’ve stayed overnight to maximize our experience. Upon our arrival, we walked from the bus station (right next to the Firenze Santa Maria Novella train station) to Accademia Gallery to see Michelangelo’s statue of David. It was a good thing we booked tickets online as there was a long line of people waiting to get into the Accademia. The statue itself was awe-inspiring, although visitors are not allowed to take pictures inside the Accademia (but did this American let that stop me?). Standing 14 or 17 feet tall (depending on your sources), Michelangelo, at age 26, sculpted David out of Carrara marble between 1501 and 1504. He was the first to depict David preparing to fling his slingshot rather than having already vanquished Goliath. Aside from the statue of David, however, the rest of the artwork and sculptures in the Accademia were merely fluff. Makes me question if it was worth the €15 per person to get into the Accademia. Uffizi is another renowned museum in Florence but our interests didn’t lead us into the museum.
There was a long line heading into the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral or the Duomo so we just admired its majestic dome, considered to this day an architectural and engineering marvel. If you want to know more about how Filippo Brunelleschi came to build the dome over the cathedral some 600 years ago and still remains the largest masonry dome on earth, check out PBS’s Nova. We then made our way to the Piazza della Signoria, considered one of the most striking piazzas in Florence, and where Michelangelo’s statue of David originally stood. Numerous statues can be seen in the square, none more famous than the replica of Michelangelo’s David placed there in 1910 after the original was relocated in the Accademia for its protection in 1873. After crossing Ponte Vecchio, we made our way up towards Piazzale Michelangelo for stunning views of Florence, the Arno River, and the surrounding areas. If you are going to visit Florence, you owe it to yourself to make it up to Piazzale Michelangelo.
On our last day, we headed back to Vicenza via Chianti…Greve, Chianti. We figured what better way to top this Tuscan vacation off than having “Greve” over it. Braving narrow and winding roads, our GPS eventually led us up to Greve where we stopped and tasted Chianti wines as well as extra virgin olive oil from Castello di Verrazzano. They do wine tours but we opted to walk the grounds and taste the wines at their gift shop instead, as we didn’t have much time to spare.
There were other places we wanted to check out during our Tuscan tour, but we ran out of time. We wanted to check out Pisa, Lucca, Montalcino, Montepulciano (where part of the movie “The Twilight Saga: The New Moon” was filmed), Val d’Orcia (where the scene of Maximus’ house in the movie “Gladiator” is filmed), Pienza (where scenes from the movie “The English Patient” was filmed), and Cortona (made famous by the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun”)…but a quick visit will probably not do those places any justice. Maybe next time.
Prior to our trip to Tuscany, I had visions of us driving back to Vicenza on our Toyota Yaris sedan, loaded with cases of Tuscan wines and spirits like Vernaccia di San Gimignano, Vin Santo, Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and Rosso di Montepulciano to name a few. Well, we bought a bottle of Rosso di Montepulciano prior to our visit, as reviews indicated it is the “fruitier” cousin of the bolder Vino Nobile…but we thought it was plenty bold and it was relegated to being used as cooking wine after sampling less than a glass for my wife and I. We tried Vernaccia di San Gimignano and actually thought it was pretty good, not too dry. Vin Santo, on the other hand, was stronger than what we were expecting even when we consumed it by dipping a biscotti in it after dinner as we were told is customary in Tuscany. In the end, we bought a bottle of Vernaccia di San Gimignano, a bottle of Vin Santo, and a bottle of Chianti Classico and Chianti Riserva. Not quite the rolling winery on four wheels we had envisioned returning from a memorable visit of Tuscany. There’s always a next time.