The second week of my spring 2017 trip to Italy brought me back to Tuscany, to Siena, the beautiful Medieval city that has become my defacto home. I always try to see and do different things upon every visit. This time, I spent two wonderful days exploring the Tuscan countryside with my friend and author Dario Castagno.
On day one, we headed south of Siena, through the Crete Senesi, an area of lush rolling hills. “No matter what side of (Siena) you leave from, you’re in the countryside,” Dario said. “Not a lot of people live here.” And you see that by the few stone houses that dot the landscape. “You can go hours driving here without seeing any other people.”
But what you do see, from every angle and along every road, are rows of cypress trees, a town on a hill, olive groves and vineyards. And then you turn left down a dirt road and it starts all over again.
Our first stop was in a small community called Murlo to visit an Etruscan museum. The Etruscans were a wealthy civilization in ancient Italy, dating back to 700 B.C. The artifacts here come from an archeological dig, an area called Poggio Civitate. One piece, a man sitting in a chair wearing what appears to be a sombrero, has become the symbol of Murlo. There are other riches on display, likely from tombs, and panels that show horseracing.
After a visit to the Fattoria dei Barbi winery for a tour and lunch, we stopped to see the Abbey of Sant’Animo, a beautiful Romanesque church near Montalcino. Monks were singing chants there up until last year. The abbey was founded in the era of Charlemagne and the church was built in the 12th Century. I’m sorry to have missed the monks.
We ended the day in Montalcino, the charming hill town famous for its Brunello di Montalcino wine.
The last time I was in Montalcino was October 2003 with my mom. That trip was a celebration of her successful kidney transplant in March that year. My Uncle Charlie was already in Italy, in Cortona, and we met him there. He was the perfect guide. In one day, we visited Montepulciano, Pienza, Lucignano and Montalcino, all picture-perfect Tuscan towns. So when I returned that day in April, I remembered watching my mom walk up those streets with energy she hadn’t had for a year, during a really crappy run of dialysis.
Upon arrival at Montalcino, the first thing you see is the fortress at the entrance of the town, which now houses an enoteca. Concerts and festivals are also held in the courtyard.
Walking around Montalcino is a treat. There are small shops of Tuscan specialties, such as the afore-mentioned Brunello, cheeses, pastries and cantuccini cookies and plenty of wine bars and small restaurants. We walked around the perimeter and back through the center, with me snapping photos of side streets, windows, doors and anything else I passed. I loved being there again.
Day two was all about Chianti. There are four boroughs in Chianti: Greve, Radda, Gaiole and Castellina. The region is 80 percent woods. The rest is cultivated vineyards and, by law, it will stay that way. A quick refresher: Chianti is an area within Tuscany. If you drink a wine that has the black rooster on the label, it is a Chianti Classico and was produced within the Chianti region. The grapes are sangiovese.
We started the day at the beautiful Castle Brolio, the estate of the Barone Ricasoli family. Ricasoli is the largest winery in the Chianti Classico region. Barone Bettino Ricasoli invented the Chianti formula in 1872.
OK, so look at these photos. I think it’s an optical illusion. Is the point at the bottom of the column attached to the building or not?
Around the castle:
This was a treat. We stopped at the big double tree that was featured in the 1996 movie, “Stealing Beauty,” starring Liv Tyler, among other big names. In my opinion, the star of the movie is the Tuscan countryside.
We then stopped in Volpaia, a tiny village in Radda, hopefully to visit a friend of Dario’s who owns a restaurant. I knew her from Dario’s books and it would have been fun to meet her. But the restaurant was closed. So we ate at an osteria in Radda, passing a gorgeous trove of cypress trees, apparently the only place where they’re not transplanted and grow naturally.
We then visited an Etruscan tomb site in Castellina. This was really fascinating. The tombs are dug under a circular mound, have four entrances and inside each large tomb there are smaller rooms that branch off. This was the first time I’d done any real sightseeing about the Etruscans.
We ended the day on a perfect note: with gelato at a popular gelateria in Castellina.
Check out Dario’s books at www.dariocastagno.com. Need some fun summer reading about Tuscany? I recommend any of them.