Sunday, 10 May 2015

Italy – The Tuscan Countryside

Driving through the Tuscan countryside…

I’m not sure there is much I can say about this that the pictures don’t show…

Except that it’s more picture perfect in person…

The mountains in the background are a surprise for me because I hadn’t realized there were mountains so close to Tuscany….

But for the most part, the landscape is exactly as I had expected it to be – and probably exactly as you’ve pictured it to be as well, if you’ve never been here.  A home sitting on top of a hill, surrounded by the family's vineyard and olive groves.  Yes, that really exists here.

But the towns that dot the region were a bit of a surprise to me as well.  Ancient walled cities sitting high up on the hills, sometimes you could see two or three in different directions at the same time.  This I was not expecting, but it makes perfect sense – walls for protection back when it was needed, and high on a hill you can see for miles and miles in any direction.  Spotting any approaching danger would have been easy from these hilltop towns. 

Now there are no worries about invaders (except for the odd tourist), and instead, these romantic Italian towns surrounded by vineyards and olive groves decorate the landscape, luring visitors to come closer to explore inside their stone walls. 

We rented a car on Friday and headed out of Siena and into the hills of Tuscany.  Pienza - this is the town we chose to explore first.   Pienza set the bar high - very, very high!

I am reluctant to say I have a favorite place in Italy, but the small town of Pienza – well, let’s just say it left a mark on my heart and if I ever find myself back in Tuscany, it is here that I will stay. 

Why did Pienza have such a powerful pull on me?  Maybe it was the setting.   

Sitting high on a hill, you can walk along the top of the outside wall with simply stunning views of the Val d’Orcia, the picturesque region of Tuscany that surrounds Pienza and is included on the list of UNESCO’s World Cultural Landscapes.  Even viewing it in person, it’s hard to believe such a place can exist.  It looks too perfect to be real. 

Or maybe it’s the enchanting narrow and winding stone streets of the little town.  You can’t get lost because the town is too small for that, so you just wander without a care.  It doesn’t take long to get from one end to the other, except that you stop every five feet to take a picture.   

Is this place for real?  Are there really people that are lucky enough to live here? 

Or maybe the attraction is the small postcard perfect shops selling cheeses, olive oil, wine and an array of other gourmet treats.   Look at this gorgeous display?  Are you kidding me?

We walked the little streets, ducking into this shop and then that.  We tasted olive oil and purchased a small can to take back to England with us.  We bought slices of delicious pizza and found a place to sit on the outside wall to eat while gazing out over the Tuscan landscape.  I bought a beautifully painted pasta bowl made right there in Siena and I don't even remember exactly what it looks like now as we had it sent right from the shop to Eric's parents house in Wisconsin (easier to get it back to the states that way).  What a fun surprise it will be when we travel home and see it again!

I could have stayed in this village for the entire day but there was more of Tuscany to see. Reluctantly, we headed back towards the car, but before we got there we were drawn off course by a little gravel road that headed out of town through an olive grove.  We followed it for awhile wanting to see what was around the next bend, and then the next, and the next after that.  There was a man out with his dog slowly walking the same road in front of us, in no hurry to get anywhere.  

He was clearly a local.  I wonder how many times a day he strolls up and down this path, painting a quintessential picture of the slow way of life here in Italy.  Finally, we forced ourselves to turn around and headed back to the car.

From Pienza we drove to another walled hilltop town called Montepulciano.  Now is that a fun name or what!  We all kept saying it over and over again as we headed there, giggling at ourselves as we let each syllable roll off the tongue in our best over-exaggerated imitation of an Italian accent.  Try it.  I'm serious - go ahead.  You'll see what I mean.  Isn't it fun to say?

Montepulciano, while similar is some respects to Pienza with narrow stone streets lined with shops selling all variety of wonderful Italian goodies, it was very different as well.  It's larger for one, and the streets are very hilly.  As you wind your way through them heading up, up and up towards the Piazza Grande, the square that sits at the top of the town, you have no idea if you are really heading in the right direction or how much farther there is to go.  This town has a very medieval feel to it, a lot like Siena does, only it seems more mysterious, maybe even a little dark.  

We kept trudging uphill until finally we came to the Piazza.  It's funny, because there is just something about the architecture in Montepulciano - while beautiful, it also has sort of a sinister feeling about it.  

The girls and I sat down on some stairs as Eric wandered around the piazza taking photos.  When he came back to join us, he said he had just overheard a girl telling her friends that this is the square where they shot scenes for the Twilight series movie New Moon.  Even though I hadn't realized it before then, I knew immediately which scenes they were.  It was through the streets of Montepulciano that Bella ran trying to reach Edward before he revealed himself in the sunlight, and it was this square she raced across trying to reach him in time.  Those of you who are Twilight fans will know what I am talking about.  While there is a town not far from here called Volterra and is the home of the Volturi in the books, it was Montepulciano that was used in the movie, and I'm not surprised.  For those of you who are not familiar with the Twilight books, they are about vampires.  

Sitting in the piazza in Montepulciano in person it was not hard to imagine dark mythical creatures lurking inside these buildings.   

We retraced our steps back down through the twisting and turning streets of the town, every now and then finding ourselves on the outer wall where we were greeted with a spectacular view of the Tuscan countryside.

While in Italy, the hardest decision we had to make each day was usually what to do for dinner.  Pretty rough, huh?  And we found that often, the best dinner option wasn't always a restaurant.  It was late in the afternoon as we made our way out of Montepulciano and we were all a bit hungry but we didn't feel like heading back to Siena just yet.  The sun would be setting soon and what a sight that would be to see here in Tuscany.  We had the perfect solution.  A picnic dinner back in Pienza where we could watch the sun slowly sinking in the sky over this beautiful landscape while enjoying some delicious local food and a glass of wine.  

We popped into a little grocery store and filled our basket with cheese, crackers, prosciutto, a couple of juicy and perfectly ripe Italian oranges, and a bottle of Italian wine.  For dessert, we found a cafe back in Pienza selling an assortment of sweet Italian treats.  We made our way back to a spot we had passed earlier while in Pienza where there was the perfect bench for us to spread out on.  

Is there a restaurant in the area with a better view than this?  I'm not sure there is.

Eric set up the tripod and started snapping photos.  

The girls drew pictures in the gravel and ran along the stone wall while we waited for the sun to set.  Some clouds had rolled in, but every now and then we would get a peak of the sun as it made it's descent.  What a perfect way to end our day in Tuscany. 

But wait - as we drove back towards Siena, Tuscany had one more surprise in store for us - the small hilltop towns at night with yellow lights twinkling in the windows and high up above, a full moon. Now that was the perfect end to a perfect day.  Thank you Tuscany!



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