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Tuscan Rambles

Doug Phillips

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By Doug Phillips from Canada, Spring 2004
Two weeks in the hill towns of Tuscany, with a side trip to Elba and an unexpected encounter with the Giro d'Italia, May 1-15, 2004

This trip report was originally posted on SlowTrav.

Introduction and Planning

My beautiful wife (BW), photo below and I had been planning a trip to Tuscany for several months, beginning shortly after returning from a 16 day independent vacation in the Algarve, with a 4-day stopover in London on the way home. It had been by far our longest vacation ever. We had a great time and certainly enjoyed the freedom of having a rental car. We also discovered that we got along very well traveling together. This may sound a bit surprising since we’ve been married for 30 years, but our individual careers, combined with raising four children, meant that we never really did spend much time by ourselves. We learned that travel was good for our relationship as well as for us as individuals.

I had been to Italy three times in the 1970’s, twice backpacking in Europe in the summers as a young teacher, and once, newly married, on a Spring Break tour with a group of high school students. I remember looking out the window of a bus at the small towns up in the hills and wondering what they were like. I never got the chance then, most of the time was spent in Florence or Rome with a day trip to Naples & Pompeii. I did manage to get to Siena on my own and one summer I spent a few days on Capri. But the hill towns of Tuscany stuck in my mind. So after our trip to Portugal, we decided to visit Tuscany.

I was able to book our Air France flights and car rental quite early and easily, using a local travel agent who we had worked with before. But we were on our own as far as booking accommodations. This was before I was aware of the Slow Travel site. We knew we wanted to stay in one place for two weeks outside of a major population centre.

Using rental websites, we started looking at properties in the area around and to the north of Siena. The fact that there were only two of us limited our choice quite a bit. I also became wary of any location that was described as being “a short distance from a hard surface.” Plus, I became disenchanted with the draconian cancellation policies of almost all the properties. A chance meeting in Ottawa with a young woman who had spent a couple of days in the area around Montepulciano, about an hour south of Florence, made me aware of Villa Nottola – a recent addition to the agriturismo network.

It proved to be an ideal location and provided excellent accommodations for our stay. The price was right, the owners were friendly and helpful and the directions were great. It is in an attractive setting among vineyards and an olive grove. Villa Nottola includes a very good restaurant and cantina where you can purchase the excellent estate wines and olive oil. We enjoyed two excellent meals in the restaurant, on our first and last evenings.

We prepared our own breakfasts each day, were never around the apartment for lunch and prepared our own dinners a few evenings when we didn’t feel like going out. The kitchen was functional and well equipped for the two of us. Plus, our apartment had a balcony with an excellent view of Montepulciano, to be enjoyed while sharing a bottle of wine.

A few caveats about Villa Nottola. We were there in May. It is a working wine and olive oil producing estate. There wasn’t a lot of agricultural activity when we were there, but I would image it gets quite busy at certain times of the year. Also, while we were quite pleased with the location, it is not in a rustic spot, but near the junction (bivio in Italian) of two well-traveled roads. There was some traffic noise in the night – not a lot and it didn’t bother us, but I thought I should mention it. Finally, Villa Nottola is a few kilometers from any population centre. Walking anywhere is not practical.


Day One – Saturday, May 1: Arrival in Florence; Rental Car to Bivio Nottola

On Friday evening, my BW and I enjoyed the Air France flight from Toronto to Paris CDG, then transferred to a smaller Air France plane for the short flight to the Florence airport, northwest of the city. At the rental car counter I signed some papers, got the keys and received directions to the car rental lot. I went to the wrong parking lot. The rental lot is on the left as you exit the arrival terminal, but it is behind another building - not in plain view.

My difficulty locating the car was the biggest problem we had in Tuscany. In our two weeks, we visited some churches and a few museums, but mainly we drove throughout the stunningly beautiful countryside, explored many towns and smaller cities, visited several vineyards and enjoyed some wonderful food and wine. We had a great time. Like almost everyone who has been there, we are planning how often and for how long we can return. I stopped buying lottery tickets several years ago. Since returning from Tuscany, I have resumed the practice.

We left the airport and easily made our way onto the Autostrada – the A1, heading south in the direction of Roma. Several people had warned me about driving on the A1, but after a few minutes I relaxed and was never anxious behind the wheel the rest of the trip. We drove about an hour south on the A1, exited at Val di Chiana Bettole and made our way to our apartment at Villa Nottola, just down the hill from Montepulciano. Within a couple of minutes of leaving the A1, as we passed through a small village, my BW commented, "This is beautiful." We said that a lot over the next two weeks.

We arrived on Saturday May 1, May Day – a major European holiday. All the food stores were closed, as they are every Sunday. So we couldn’t do any grocery shopping until Monday. Luisa, from Villa Nottola, had alerted us to the situation by email, so we had packed a few supplies in our luggage.

There are a couple of food chains in the area. The more numerous in our part of Tuscany were the COOP stores. Some locations, such as the one in Pienza, are quite small. It may sound a bit strange, but my BW and I enjoyed our grocery shopping experiences. The best store we found for food shopping was the COOP in San Quirco d’Orcia.

Italians certainly pay a lot more for their food than we are used to in North America. It was also where I got the most use of the Italian lessons I had taken over the winter. I was able to interpret many of the signs and product descriptions as well as communicate in Italian in the bakery, produce and meat areas, as well as at checkout. At other times and places, I found it most practical to listen closely to what was being said and try to frame a response or ask a question. In the COOP I had to initiate the conversation.

All of the towns and cities we visited had a market day, but we didn’t plan our days with them in mind.


Villa Nottola
Day Two - Sunday May 2: Montalcino, Sant'Antimo, Bagno Vignoni, Pienza

When I used to visit a lot of museums, I would go to the top floor first and work my way down. Now when I plan day trips, I go the most distant location first and make my way back. It seemed like a good plan for our first full day in Tuscany, but we almost didn’t make it to Montalcino. Every time we turned a corner in the road we felt like stopping and taking a picture, and you turn a lot of corners going anywhere in Tuscany.

We had breakfast in our apartment, drove up the hill to Montepulciano, which we bypassed, continued on past Pienza to San Quirco d’Orcia, turned north on SS2 almost to Buonconvento, where we turned left and made our way up another hill to Montalcino.

One issue that cropped up whenever we visited a town for the first time was parking. Do we take the first place we see or drive on a bit farther? We quickly learned to never try to park inside one of these hill towns. At Montalcino we had to backtrack a bit and park in a newer and expanding parking lot a few minutes walk from the town walls. We have seen scary photos of long lines of cars pulled off to the side of the road leading up to these hill towns. Parking is another reason to consider a trip to Tuscany in other than the peak times of July and August.

The most striking feature of Montalcino is the Fortezza, a 14th century castle at the southern edge of the town, very near the car park. The Fortezza contains a busy and expensive enoteca (wine bar). For a small fee we were able to climb to the battlements of the castle and enjoyed the spectacular views. After leaving the Fortezza we walked along the narrow and busy streets of the town, making our way up to Piazza Garibaldi where we had an al fresco lunch at the well-known Fiaschetteria Italiana.

Montalcino is most famous for its Brunello wines. We stopped at an enoteca for a degustazione (tasting). We were shown to a table at the back of the shop beside a large expanse of windows with an excellent view of part of the town and the countryside. Our tasting consisted of four Brunellos accompanied by an explanation of the location of the vineyard and the vintage of the wine. I learned that the expensive taste of my BW extends even to the area of wine. We purchased two bottles, which now sit in our wine rack at home waiting the appropriate occasion. The tasting experience was OK, but I decided that I would rather visit the actual vineyards, if possible. It is not something I would do again.

From Montalcino we drove to the abbey at Sant’Antimo in the beautiful countryside just 10km south of the town. Except for Florence, the abbey was the busiest place we visited in our two weeks. The small parking lot was full with cars and tour buses and we had to pull off beside the road a few minutes walk from the abbey. It is well worth a visit.

From Sant’Antimo we started back in the direction of San Quirco d’Orcia. When we saw a sign for Bagno Vignoni, my BW said she had read about it and wanted to stop and have a look around. Good choice. Bagno Vignoni is quite different from most other places we visited in Tuscany. The main attraction and reason for its existence is water – actually a natural hot spring known to the Romans and enjoyed by popes and saints and even the Medici. The main square, the Piazza delle Sorgenti, is actually not a square at all but a large pool of water. The warm water flows from the pool in natural channels through the village, cascading over a hill down to pools below. It was a Sunday afternoon and quite busy with Italians out for the day. The parking area for motorcycles was completely full - see photo. Bagno Vignoni has a couple of recommended restaurants, but the time was out of joint for a meal. Next time.

We arrived in the beautiful village of Pienza, “a tiny medieval and Renaissance jewel” in the late afternoon. We walked from one end of the village to the other and enjoyed the panoramic views from Pienza’s walls. My BW and I decide to stay in Pienza for dinner at a popular family-run trattoria, the Latte di Luna. Restaurants in Tuscany open for dinner at 7:30pm. While we waited for the restaurant to open we enjoyed a leisurely late afternoon drink at the other end of the small village.

Since we didn’t have a reservation, we were at the door of Latte di Luna right at 7:30pm and were shown to a table beside the kitchen. Within a couple of minutes, people without reservations were being turned away. By 8:00 o’clock the restaurant was full, the atmosphere was relaxed and friendly, and the food was wonderful.

We were fortunate enough to enjoy three meals at Latte di Luna during our holiday. It was our favorite restaurant. We usually started off with a plate of assorted crostini, followed by pici all'aglione or zuppa di pane, then cinghiale or bistecche, and finishing with a semifreddo. We also thoroughly enjoyed the experience of being there.

After our leisurely dinner, we had a twenty minute drive back over the Tuscan hills past Montepulciano to Villa Nottola.


Motorcycles in Bagno Vignoni on a Sunday Afternoon
Day Three – Monday May 3: Montepulciano and Cortona

After looking at and driving past Montepulciano several times in our first two days, my BW and I decided to start our day with a visit to the town. We parked outside the walls and entered the town via the Porta al Prato. We had a short conversation with two American couples traveling together, but in separate cars. They kept in touch with walkie- talkies – certainly made a lot of sense.

Each of the hill towns in Tuscany is distinct. Montepulciano has a very particular layout as it has been built on a high geological ridge. There is a very long main street leading from Porta al Prato which climbs approximately 1.5km and 60 meters in elevation to Piazza Grande. The town is organized around the main street, the Corso - see photo, in a series of very steep, short narrow lanes.

Montepulciano is the most commercial of the hill towns we visited, but it is still worth a visit for the spectacular views from the town walls and the experience of walking up the main street. There are also several shops to sample and buy salumi and a wide variety of wines.

After a couple of hours, we drove east through Acquaviva and Pozzuolo, turned north on the N71 and headed to Cortona. The road approaching Cortona provides several attractive views of the city before it begins to wind up the hill. We parked outside the walls in a large tree-lined lot. When we were in Tuscany in early May parking was usually not a problem. Plus, it was inexpensive or often free, depending on the time of day and location. The most we paid for parking was €4,00 at Montalcino. At other hill towns the most we paid was €1,00. I think in the busier seasons, parking is very likely more problematic and expensive.

We walked into Cortona up the Via Guelfa to the Piazza della Repubblica where enjoyed a cappucino al fresco before spending the next few hours exploring the town. Cortona’s chief beauties are its magnificent views – its hilltop site provides a vast panorama over swathes of Tuscany and Umbria – and its picture-perfect medieval streets. Late in the afternoon we enjoyed another cappuccino outside the Teatro Signorelli, in a setting identical to one from Under The Tuscan Sun. During our wanderings we came upon the highly recommended Osteria del Teatro, which seats only 30 people. We decided to extend our visit to include dining at the restaurant.

Again, at 7:30pm and without reservations, we showed up at the door and were fortunate enough to be seated. We shared our table and a very good meal with an American mother and daughter, whom we had met earlier in the day. They were traveling through Italy by train – Cortona was on their “must see” list. We were able to recommend a familiar wine for our dinner, a Vino Nobile from Villa Nottola.

After dinner we had about a 30-minute drive back to Villa Nottola. While many of the east-west roads in our area of Tuscany were fairly busy during the day, they were almost deserted in the evening.


Day 4 – Tuesday May 4: Outlet Shopping

We had mediocre weather during our two weeks. It was cooler than normal and it rained part of many days. On Tuesday, it was raining when we woke up, the sky was black and the clouds weren’t moving very fast. So we decided, that is my BW decided and I agreed, to use the day to visit the outlet stores south of Florence.

After a late breakfast we headed north on the A1 and proceeded to the Prada store on SS69. Following are some very good directions, which I followed to get to the nondescript building. “Take the A1 Autostrada - Exit 'Valdarno', Out of the toll turn right and follow signs for ‘Montevarchi’ or ‘Centro’. At the big round about that has an IPER - COOP supermarket exit left. Then continue towards Arezzo. Pass through Montevarchi and 'Località levanella' after the village pass a gas station and then follow signs for I PELLETTIERI D'ITALIA in the 'Zona Industriale' on the left. The sign for the outlet is at a traffic light. On your left is a huge grey factory that is all Prada and the outlet is in the back of the main factory complex.”

We entered by a door in the back with a number dispenser on the side. I assume it’s for controlling the numbers in the store when it gets busy. It was hard work but my BW managed to buy a couple of purses. She wasn’t thrilled with the choice available, and I was amazed at the prices. There was a rather good selection of shoes and clothes, but the available small sizes made it impossible for me to even consider a purchase. I didn’t spend much time even looking at shoes or clothes during our trip. My BW is not able to make the same claim.

After a couple of hours at the Prada outlet, we returned to the A1 and drove north toward Florence, exiting at Incisa. Our goal was the multi-store shopping complex known as THE MALL. Directions from Incisa are as follows - Stay on the right towards Pontassieve until reaching Leccio. Soon after passing the center of Leccio, The Mall is on the left. The Mall includes several different outlets, a large parking lot and a nearby café. In May 2004, The Mall included the following retail outlets; Gucci, Giorgio Armani, Bottega Veneta, Sergio Rossi, Yves Saint Laurent, Loro Piana, Giorgio Armani, Emanuel Ungaro, Valentino, Ferragamo, Ermenegildo Zegna, La Perla, Tod's, Hogan, Pinco Pallino, Marni, Agnona.

The Fendi and Dolce and Gabbana outlets are in the same general area as The Mall on SS69, but I cannot remember the exact location. Look for a brown and yellow sign for Fendi and/or D&G on the left.

Back to Villa Nottola in the late afternoon, dinner in the apartment, and an early evening.

The photo on this page is of one of the three-wheeled vehicles found throughtout Tuscany, except on the Autostrade. The most common make is the "Ape".


The Ape, found everywhere in Tuscany except the Autostrade
Wednesday May 5: Siena and Montepulciano

We were on the road to Siena by 8:30am. Instead of taking the Autostrada, we drove west over to San Quirico d’Orcia and took the SS2 up through Buoncenvento, approaching Siena from the south. As we approached the city, heavy traffic and road repair work moved us along like a cork in a stream. We spotted the train station on our right, turned off and luckily found a parking spot.

From there it was a ten-minute uphill walk to inside the medieval walls of the city. We made our way to the Campo where we enjoyed the view and toured the interesting Civic Museum. The weather was cool and wet, not suitable to enjoying the Campo from one of the many restaurants.

We had an enjoyable lunch at the Antica Trattoria Papei in the market square behind the Campo. The service was very casual and entertaining. We wanted some wine with our lunch, but thought a full bottle was too much, so we asked for a half bottle. The waiter brought a full bottle to the table and indicated how much we should drink by pointing to an imaginary line.

After lunch, we toured the Duomo and walked around the busy shopping district in the streets surrounding the Campo. Our first purchase on entering the city earlier in the morning was an umbrella. On entering any store in Siena, and likely most other cites, there is an umbrella stand. You leave your umbrella at the door and retrieve it on the way out. A small indication of the civility of everyday life in Tuscany.

We returned from Siena in the late afternoon. Once away from the city we again enjoyed the drive through the small towns and beautiful countryside.

For our evening meal, we drove up the hill to Montepulciano - see photo, parked within a few steps of the Porta al Prato and walked up the rain-slicked Corso to the restaurant in the Caffé Poliziano. There was only one other couple in the restaurant, and we had an enjoyable meal with very attentive service. I asked the waiter to recommend some nearby vineyards. He gave us a short list of the highly regarded properties. I checked out his recommendations in Carla Capalbo’s The Food and Wine Lover’s Companion to Tuscany and decided to visit some before we left.

Brunello wines from the area around Montalcino enjoy a very good reputation. The better ones can be quite expensive. Vino Nobile wines from the area around Montepulciano are just as good, to my untrained palate, and are much more affordable.

I was a bit surprised to learn that there are more than fifty wine-producing properties in the area around Montepulciano. The wines at Villa Nottola are reasonably priced and very good. We purchased several bottles in the cantina below our apartment, one bottle of Vino Nobile even made its way back to Canada. We also bought two litres of olive oil at the cantina, used up one while there and saved the second for Canada. If you have never been to Italy, you might find olive oil a rather odd item to be mentioning, but you’ll understand when you get there.


Montepulciano, from our balcony at Villa Nottola
Day 6 – Thursday May 6: Florence – Train from Chiusi

We left our apartment before 8:00am and drove to the train station at Chiusi, about 20 minutes away. From my reading, I had concluded that driving to Florence was not the best means of transportation. At the train station the only available parking spots were for a maximum of two hours – all the daylong places were taken, I think mostly by commuters. I sought advice inside the station. One of the ticket agents directed me a few blocks away to the centre of the town, to an empty lot in the commercial area. It worked out fine and the price was right (free), but I doubt it will be empty for long.

We took the hour-long train ride into Florence and arrived at the central Santa Maria Novella station. I wanted to check on return journey before we left the station. There are several scheduled trains, but some are what we used to call “milk runs”, making several stops along the way, increasing the travel time. The ticket agent was extremely helpful, even printing out the schedule of the trains back to Chiusi.

On leaving the train station we visited the church of Santa Maria Novella then went into to the nearby Medici Chapel with its trio of outstanding sculptures by Michelangelo. From there we walked over to the area of the Baptistry and Duomo and stopped for lunch in a small restaurant.

In our earlier visit to Florence back in the 1970’s we had visited the Uffizi, the Duomo, the Boboli Gardens and the statue of David in the Accademia. We were considering another visit to the Uffizi, but the long lines quickly changed our minds. It made sense for my BW and I to split up for a few hours to pursue individual interests.

If you want to do some serious window-shopping in Florence, head to the Via de' Tornabuoni, with its designer stores and ridiculous prices. Here you’ll find Louis Vuitton, Trussardi, Cartier, Beltrami, Yves St Laurent, Lotti, Bulgari, Prada and others. At Yves St. Laurent for example, the store is divided into many very small rooms with only a very few items on display in each. We were accompanied on our trip by one of the staff wherever we went. I brought back a souvenir, a small booklet of their spring show.

Even in this off-season period there were crowds of people wherever we went. We decided that one day in Florence was enough for us.

We arrived back in Chiusi about 8:00pm. Apparently, we departed the railway station by a different way than we entered since we drove through unfamiliar territory and eventually came upon the spa resort town of Chianciano Terme. In a few minutes we were back at Villa Nottola.


Tuscan villa
Day 7 – Friday May 7: Arezzo

I wanted to visit Arezzo because of John Mortimer. His fictional Summer’s Lease captures the look and feel of Tuscany as well as any first person account I have read. Unlike the setting for the novel, I wasn’t in Tuscany in the hottest period of the year and our visit didn’t coincide with the Palio in Siena, but at least I could visit Arezzo and try to see the fresco cycle of Piero della Francesca in the church of San Francesco.

We left Villa Nottola at 8:00am in our Fiat Stilo - see photo, drove to the A1 & turned north in the direction of Firenze. After about 20 minutes we took the Arezzo exit and approached the busy and modern edge of the city, turning onto the Via Fiorentina. We found a parking spot on the street near a McDonald’s – only the 2nd one we saw in Tuscany. From there it was a short walk to one of the gates into the old city.

We had some postcards to mail so we stopped in a small shop that sold stamps just outside the city walls. Instead of selling us the stamps and sending us on our way, the two women behind the counter took our postcards and very carefully made sure the stamps were fixed on the cards before handing them back to us and telling us the location of the nearest mailbox. A small act of courtesy, which we encountered wherever we went in Tuscany.

On passing into the old part of Arezzo, we walked uphill along narrow and busy streets, making our way to the attractive Piazza Grande, the setting for several scenes in Life is Beautiful. Many antique shops encircle the Piazza.

After visiting several stores and stopping for a cappuccino, we continued walking uphill until we came to Fortezza Medicea, which is very gradually being restored. The Fortezza is a pentagonal castle built by Arezzo’s Medici rulers (the town fell to Florence in the 14th century). The Fortezza provides very good views of much of Arezzo and looks over on a very large above ground cemetery.

We made our way to the church of San Francesco, hoping to get in to see the fresco cycle. While the church is open to all visitors, the frescoes are in a small room behind the altar with controlled and timed entry. One guidebook warned us that you had to book well ahead for tickets. We showed up near the afternoon opening time, fully expecting to have to wait a couple of hours before seeing the frescoes, if we were able to see them at all. The lady at the ticket counter asked if we were with the tour. Of course we said yes, paid for our tickets and joined a tour group engrossed in a guide’s description of the frescoes - entirely in German. My BW and I sheepishly made our way back to the ticket counter, where we were given English audio guides with headphones. The frescoes portray the Legend of the True Cross, a very complicated story based on the 13th century Golden Legend.

We enjoyed a late lunch in the nearby Buca di San Francesco in a large Art Deco style building. After lunch we walked down to the Piazza Monaco, the attractive and busy commercial “centro” of Arezzo. My BW visited a number of stores in the area, while I was content to buy a gelato and sit on a bench under a portico supported by large pillars and take in the busy life of the city.

Our drive out of Arezzo and back to Villa Nottola in the late afternoon at rush hour went smoothly.


Fiat Stilo, ideal for 2 people exploring Tuscany
Day 8 – Saturday May 8: Valdipiatta, San Gimignano, Monteriggioni, Latte di Luna

Today we intended to spend the day in the area northwest of Siena, but we got waylaid a short distance from our apartment. As we were going up the hill to Montepulciano, we noticed, not for the first time, a sign for Tenuta Valdipiatta, one of the recommended vineyards on our list. We decided on a short detour, turned left onto an unpaved road and drove for about a kilometer until we came to a small group of buildings. We entered one, were shown into a tasting room and were introduced to Tomas, a marketing agent for the vineyard.

We enjoyed a tasting of several different wines, all of which were very good. Then Tomas offered to show us around the property. I don’t know if everybody gets the same reception at Valdipiatta, but ours was a very pleasant and amiable experience. Tomas showed us all areas of production, unlocked the heavy wooden doors and took us into the caves in the side of a hill where the wines were stored in large oak casks - see photo. Tomas was friendly, informative and accommodating. We were at Valdipiatta for about an hour and a half. We bought two bottles of excellent Vino Nobile, including a Riserva, both of which we brought back with us. Later in our holiday, we saw Tomas walking with friends on the Corso in Montepulciano. He stopped and we chatted for a couple of minutes. Nice guy.

So there we were, back on the winding hills of central Tuscany after a mid-morning wine tasting, trying to make our way to San Gimignano. We headed over to San Quirico d’Orcia, turned north on the SS2 and drove in the direction of Siena. On the outskirts of Siena, we took the Poggibonsi Nord exit, drove several kilometers on SS429 until we reached Poggibonsi; and then followed the signs to San Gimignano.

Even in early May, San Gimignano was busy with tourists like ourselves, especially since it was a weekend. I have read somewhere that the best time to visit San Gimignano is in the late afternoon or early evening when most day-trippers (like us!!) have left but that wasn’t an option. The most striking features of the town are the medieval towers, which survived partly due to the onset of the Black Death in the 14th century.

We found a spot in the busy parking lot, entered the town via the Porta San Giovanni, walked up the Via San Giovanni to the pair of linked central squares: Piazza della Cisterna and Piazza del Duomo. The village is tiny, around 750 metres from end to end, and everything worth seeing is within easy walking distance. We toured the Civic Museum and enjoyed a pleasant lunch at Osteria delle Catene.

In the late afternoon we departed San Gimignano and headed back in the direction of Siena. We stopped at the tiny walled hamlet of Monteriggioni, famous for its perfect ring of tower-studded walls that earned it a mention in Dante’s Inferno. There cannot be many smaller places in Tuscany than Monteriggioni, but it is well worth a visit.

Our morning dalliance at Valdipiatta cut into our visit to this area. I also had wanted to visit Volterra. Next time.

It was after 6:30pm when we left Monteriggioni. We had no plans for dinner, but on the drive back, we decided to press our luck and try to get into Latte di Luna in Pienza for a second time without reservations. We parked in the now-familiar parking lot outside the walls and hurried to the restaurant, making it for the 7:30 opening. Our luck held and just as we were seated others were being turned away at the door. This time our table was beside a pillar.

After another excellent meal, we decided to return to Latte di Luna a third time. Before we left, we made reservations for 8:00pm the following Thursday.


Tomas and BW in the hillside cave at Tenuta Valdipiatta
Day 9 – Sunday May 9: Montepulciano, Abbazia di Monte Olivieto Maggiore

Following a late breakfast we drove up the hill, parked outside the walls and joined the weekend throng on the Corso of Montepulciano. It was an enjoyable experience, partially because it was not just a tourist crowd. After doing some shopping along the Corso, mainly for food products to take with us home to Canada, we lunched at Caffé Poliziano.

Following lunch, we drove west on 146 passing Pienza, and turned right onto a secondary road to make our way to the Abbazia di Monte Olivieto Maggiore by a less-traveled road. We enjoyed more of the beautiful Tuscan countryside while driving on an almost deserted roadway.

The main attraction of the abbey is a great work of art, a Renaissance fresco cycle on the life of St. Benedict by Sodoma and Luca Signorelli. The fresco is on the four walls of a covered portico surrounding an interior garden area - see photo. Almost equally attractive is the setting of the abbey itself, sitting in splendid isolation on a wooded hillside. We also purchased some of the wonderful honey produced at the abbey. We brought the honey back with us. The distinctive taste and aroma was a reminder of our time at the abbey for several weeks. The abbey closes at noon for more than 3 hours so it is best to time your visit accordingly.


Fresco at Monte Olivieto Maggiore
Day 10 – Monday May 10: Pitigliano, Sovana

Today we decided to drive to the southernmost part of Tuscany and explore a different landscape. While we didn’t like to spend much time on the Autostrada, we decided it was the most practical way of getting as far south as we needed to go in a reasonable time frame. We actually drove out of Tuscany, into Lazio, before leaving the A1 at the Orvieto exit & traveling overland back into Tuscany on our way to the spectacular cliffside town of Pitigliano.

Many Tuscan towns are similar in appearance, but Pitigliano is unique, with the main buildings crowded on a ridge of volcanic rock that rises sheer from the surrounding countryside. Parking is problematic; we squeezed into a spot on a narrow street and prepared to enter the main part of the town. We discovered that we had to climb a flight of stairs and cross over the main road that skirts the town before entering the medieval section. There are a few interesting buildings and artwork, but for the most part the main rewards of a visit to Pitigliano are wandering along its narrow serpentine streets and visiting some of its small shops. We had a simple lunch in a modest corner sandwich bar, topped off by excellent gelati – (Is there any other kind in Italy?)

In early afternoon we left Pitigliano and drove over some flat (!!!) countryside to the small Etruscan village of Sovana. No problem parking here; the large car park was almost empty. Sovana is really not much more than one main street, the Via di Mezzo, featuring one of Tuscany’s most beautiful parish churches, the 13th century Santa Maria. The simple interior was the most inspiring of all the churches we visited. At one end of the village is the imposing Cathedrale di SS Pietro e Paolo, which presence is due to a connection to medieval nobility. After touring the cathedral, we returned by a small path and came upon an artisan, forming various objects out of the porous volcanic rock, interesting, but we decided not very practical to be carting home. The area around Sovana has several Etruscan remains, some of which can be viewed from the road.

From Sovana we drove along secondary roads over to Sorano where the typical Tuscan hills returned. We made our way over to Acquapendente and turned north on the SS2. We were intent on visiting the third of the three main abbeys in Tuscany, the Abbadia San Salvadore in the hilltop town of the same name. We drove up the long and winding road going into the modern town and drove right by the abbey in the older town centre without realizing it. By the time we realized out mistake we were heading out of the town. We backtracked into the busy older part of the town, could not find a parking space after several minutes, and made a decision to pass on this abbey.

We headed back to the SS2 continued north, turned right at San Quirco d’Orcia and made our way past Pienza and Montepulciano back to Villa Nottola over the now familiar roads.

I would recommend a day in southern Tuscany. The landscape is different; Pitigliano and Sovana are unique; the Etruscan influence is more noticeable than in many other parts of Tuscany.


Day 11 – Tuesday May 11: Lucca

We originally had planned on visiting Lucca on Monday, but my BW noticed that most businesses were closed on Monday, so we put it off until today. It’s quite common in most Tuscan towns for many businesses, including restaurants, to be closed one day, usually early in the week. Avoid these days, can make for a disappointing visit. Later in our trip we met a couple who had gone to Lucca on a Monday. They didn’t like the city at all. We had a great time, certainly enjoyed the unique aspects of the community.

From our apartment we drove to the A1 at Val di Chiana Bettole & turned north in the direction of Firenze. We bypassed Florence and headed west towards Pisa and the coast on the A11. Lucca is a fairly large community, apparently over 80,000, but there are no signs announcing its presence until you are almost there. We exited the A11 and almost immediately found a parking lot just outside the walls of the old city.

We parked our car and entered Lucca via Porta San Pietro, one of six gates into the city. One guidebook describes Lucca as “the most intimate and charming of Tuscany’s cities, a civilized and untroubled backwater.” My BW and I agree. Most people walk or bicycle around the city. The few cars and trucks seem to be service vehicles. We strolled down busy pedestrian streets entering several interesting and varied shops; visited the empty home church of a 20th century saint; dropped in on a municipal building where we learned a bit of the history of the city, including its’ Napoleonic connections; enjoyed a cappuccino in the Piazza Anfiteatro, the oval shape corresponding to the outline of the Roman Amphitheatre which once stood there; and had a pizza lunch al fresco in the Piazza San Michele.

The most distinctive and enjoyable feature of Lucca is the broad tree-lined 4.2km wall, built during the 16th & 17th centuries to counter the threat from Florence. We walked around most of the wall, enjoying the perspective provided of the city. At several points we walked down from the wall, explored part of the city and then walked back up onto the wall at a different spot.

In the Amphitheatre we met some British travelers on a bus tour. They were staying near Massa Marittima, which they highly recommended. Next time.


Streetscape in Sovana
Day 12 – Wednesday May 12: Isola d’Elba

Around 7:00am, we set out on the long cross-country drive to the port of Piombino to catch the ferry to Elba. We passed through more beautiful landscape until we made it to the SS1 near Montepescali, where we turned north. We encountered a detour, which took us into uncharted map territory, but no problems, on the way to Piombino. As we drove into and through Piombino, we saw several signs announcing ferry tickets to Elba, but we proceeded to the ferry terminal. There are two private companies that operate a ferry service to Elba. We bought our return ticket to Portoferraio from MOBY. The one-hour ferry ride departs from Piombino on most hours during the day and return from Portoferraio on the half-hour. If you plan on going to Elba, check the schedule to make sure and give yourself plenty of time to get to Piombino.

Elba is a popular Italian holiday destination in the summer, but there were very few visitors on the island when we were there. The main attraction of the island for me, an ex-history teacher, is the connection to Napoleon. I was unprepared for the extreme terrain of the volcanic island.

Once out of Portoferraio, we followed a road down to a deserted beach, then turned inland and started driving up and up. We stopped and enjoyed a very expensive lunch at the Ristorante Publius in Poggio. Publius is a restaurant with a view! From its perch, it offers a breathtaking panorama of Elba’s mountainous seascape. An airy glassed-in dining terrace makes the most of the location. There was only one other couple in the restaurant when we were there. The food was very good, but I was reluctant to have even a glass of wine because of the steep, winding roads. It was “agua con gaz” for me.

From Poggio we drove back down the steep hill, cut across the island to La Pila and made our way back to Portoferraio along the southern side, stopping a few times along the way. Elba is very mountainous and heavily forested with several small towns, at many different elevations. It is obviously very dependent on summer tourism. We enjoyed the paucity of traffic on the roads. Apparently there is excellent honey produced on the island, but we didn’t manage to get any. We did buy back a couple of bottles of Elba wine, intending to bring at least one home, but they only made it as far as Villa Nottola.

When we made it back to Piombino, we exited the city by a different road. It took us a few extra minutes to get back to the SS1, from where we tried to retrace our morning route. However, the morning detour caused some problems. We couldn’t find the exit going east, so we ended up on the SS1 going south toward Grosseto. We switched over to the northbound lanes and came upon the detour exit in a few minutes. From there we made our way back to our apartment by 8:30pm. We had dinner, along with one of the bottles of wine from Elba, in the apartment.

A long day in the car, but worth it to me. Perhaps not everyone’s idea of a good time.


BW at Publius Restaurant on Elba - note the bottle of water for me
Day 13 – Thursday May 13: Cortona, Giro d’Italia, Latte di Luna

With two days left in our holiday, my BW suggested that we revisit Cortona and Siena, both choices worked out very well.

We came upon a market in a small town below Cortona. We stopped and spent some time walking around the large number of vendors offering a wide variety of household and personal items as well as the expected food products.

We parked in the now familiar lot just outside Cortona. On our way towards the Piazza della Republica, we stopped at Margherita (Via Guelfa, 73), a store offering “prodotti tipici”. The very friendly and inquisitive owner offered us tastings and samples of a wide variety of products. There are many such stores wherever you go in Tuscany, but we enjoyed our time at Margherita.

My BW’s purpose in returning to Cortona was to re-visit some of the stores. I occupied my time in less costly pursuits. We lunched at a restaurant on the Piazza della Repubblica, where we enjoyed a conversation with an American couple on a bus tour, think Cortona was the smallest place they were going to be visiting.

After lunch, we felt privileged to witness a wedding party posing for photographs on the impressive steps of the civic building in the Piazza.

We returned to our car and started down the hill, but we soon came to a roadblock. We were unable to cross the main road. We weren’t sure what was happening, but were told by a policeman that the road would be closed for a couple of hours. Mystified, we tried to navigate around the roadblock. We drove along a secondary road for a few kilometers, passed though a small village, Ossaia, and followed a sign that took us in the direction we were trying to go. A short drive out of the village, cars were lined up along the sides of the road, and were even stopped in the driving lanes. With no options, we also stopped, got out of the car and tried to figure out what was happening. An older man who had stopped behind us approached, muttering about the “Giro d’Italia”. We finally realized that the road was closed for the multi-day national bicycle race of Italy. We had a great time waiting for the race to pass. We bought souvenirs from the advance-vans and made quick acquaintance with a couple from California. As the race neared, the four of us moved to a bend in the roadway. We could have reached out and touched the racers as they quickly passed in a period of about thirty seconds. Of course, my camera was back at the villa. The photo on this page is courtesy of “Hutch” from San Francisco.

We had time to visit a couple of recommended vineyards a short distance from our villa. The first one was Poliziano. There was a lot of construction going on when we were there. The wines may be very good but, in contrast to Valdipiatta, we weren’t impressed by our welcome. It appears that they are geared to much larger groups; everything is on a fairly large scale, including the parking lot. We sampled a couple of wines, bought one and were on our way.

Our next vineyard was Poderi Boscarelli. It is very difficult to find without exact directions. Ours included “From the centre of Acquaviva, across from the tobacconist, take the small Via delle Vecchie Mura toward Cervognano.” The small road looks like a laneway and if the tobacconist ever moves, Good Luck! I asked the young woman who greeted us if they had many visitors. “No,” she replied, “we are a bit difficult to find.” Excellent wines.

We never made it to Avignonesi, the other tenuta on our list. Next time.

In the evening we returned to Latte di Luna for our third and final dinner. This time we arrived at 8:00pm and were shown to a nice table in a quiet room on the left, no pillar and no kitchen traffic. The staff greeted us as regulars and we had a pleasant conversation with two ladies at the next table, one of whom had that day closed her business in Rome after 35 years and was moving to her “small house” in Pienza.


Giro d'Italia
Day 14 – Friday May 14: Siena, Caseificio Cugusi

We returned to Siena on our final full day in Tuscany. The warm sunny weather provided a much different experience from our first visit. As before, we approached the city from the south, but drove closer to the city and parked in a covered lot. We had a short uphill walk into the city in the university area. Groups of students had decorated various automobiles and drove them through the narrow streets of the city – obviously some sort of graduation ritual. My BW had some last minute shopping. In general, she found the quality, styling and prices of silver and gold jewelry to be better than in Florence.

We had lunch in one of the Campo restaurants see photo, certainly one place in Tuscany where Italian is seldom heard. Everybody there is a tourist. We had conversations with honeymooners from Toronto, ex-pat Brits living in the US over for a holiday, and several Americans. The British ex-pats had booked their trip with Citalia, a well-known British travel company.

On our way back we stopped at Caseificio Cugusi between Pienza and Montepulciano and sampled their delicious Pecorino di Pienza cheeses. We brought back two wheels, one of which we managed to save for several months.

We had our final dinner in the very good restaurant at Villa Nottola.


Restaurants on the Campo in Siena
Day 15 – Saturday May 15: Depart Florence, Return to Toronto via Paris CDG

Our flight from Florence departed at 7:15am. We got a few hours sleep the night before, but were wide awake at 3:00am, so we decided to drive to the airport then and spend a couple of hours relaxing and reading in the departure area. It seemed like a good plan until we arrived at the airport, dropped off our car at the rental lot and made our way to the terminal with our luggage. The airport at Florence is quite small. It doesn’t open until 6:00am. Along with one other early bird from the U.S. we cooled our heels (literally) for a couple of hours, watching the service people arrive and slowly bring the airport to life for the day.

At the Florence airport, we had to check one of our carry-on bags, since the in-cabin storage area was quite small. Our flight to Paris was a bit late in arriving at CDG and we had a short time frame to catch our flight home to Canada. We actually had to run part of the way to make sure we caught our plane. Unfortunately, our luggage didn’t catch up with us. When we arrived back in Toronto, we saw our name on a board at the bottom of an escalator. We went to the indicated location where were learned that our luggage was spending an extra day in Paris.

While Air France would have arranged to have our bags delivered to our home about 45 minutes from Ottawa, we drove to the Ottawa Airport the following day (Sunday) and retrieved our luggage as it arrived on two separate Air Canada flights from Toronto.

All’s well that end’s well.

The photo on this page is the exterior of Latte di Luna in Pienza, our favourite trattoria in Tuscany.


Latte di Luna trattoria in Pienza
Summary and Suggestions

This was our first trip to Italy since the mid 1970’s when we spent several days in Florence and Rome. Would we do anything differently if we could? We don’t think so. We drove a lot, partly because the weather wasn’t very good. If we had warmer, sunnier days, we might have lingered around the pool at Villa Nottola or spent a few lazier days closer to Montepulciano, but then we likely wouldn’t have made it to Elba or Lucca. One day was enough for us in Florence, although if you have never been there, you should definitely plan on several. We know that Florence is the centre of almost everything in Tuscany, but we preferred to spend our time in Siena and the smaller towns and villages.

There are a lot of items on our “Next time” list. When we go again, and we have begun to make plans, we would like to stay longer (four or five weeks), in a different season (September or October), in a small village, only have a car for part of the time, perhaps include a week in Rome at the end. I’ll let you know how it works out.

A Very Few Suggestions
There are more extensive lists elsewhere :
  • Notify your credit card company that you are going to be out of the country. We were unable to use one of our cards for a few days until our family in Canada confirmed that we were traveling in Italy.
  • Check for opening and closing times or days before you set out on a day trip.
  • You can easily schedule two of the smaller hill towns in one day, if they are in the same general area.
  • Be sure to apply for a refund of the VAT tax before leaving the EU. This is most easily done at an airport prior to departure. Arrive at the airport early to allow time to do this. Some stores, but not many, will provide an on-site refund if your purchase qualifies.


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