The Tuscan countryside in the springtime is nothing short of breathtaking. The undulating hillsides — a patchwork of dramatic greens and yellows so vibrant that they could give the Emerald City a run for its money — appear to be made of soft, silky velvet. Are you sure this is Italy and not the verdant highlands of Ireland? A quick check of Google Maps concurs — definitely Italy.
From the bedroom of our private medieval tower in the tiny enclave of Montecchiello in central Tuscany, we have a bird’s-eye view of the lush, sun-dappled terrain — as well as the spires and towers of the opposing hilltop town of Pienza, once the feudal enemy of Montecchiello — and for miles and miles beyond.
We’ve recently returned from 12 unforgettable days in the Tuscan and Umbrian countryside, starting in Florence, ending in Rome and eating our way through everything in between. Having previously lived in London, Mike and I have been to Italy many times before and have explored many different regions, but our hearts are always pulled back to the incomparable natural beauty and culinary delight of Tuscany. For this trip, Mike planned an itinerary that included some areas and towns that we had not previously visited, as well as a couple in which we simply wanted to spend a little more time. He broke it down into three distinct regions — Chianti, Montepulciano and Umbria — three nights in each and one final night in Rome. In each, he chose a centrally located village to serve as a jumping off point for that region. For brevity sake, I will cover each region in three different posts.
One thing to keep in mind when planning a trip to Italy, as with any travel destination, is the weather and the best time of year to visit. Italy is a long country that spans from the mountainous northern regions abutting Switzerland and Austria, all the way down to the rocky coast of Sicily at the southern tip of the “boot.” The weather patterns and temperatures vary dramatically from one end of the country to the other. Tuscany finds itself conveniently located in central Italy between Florence and Rome, and the weather might be comparable to Virginia or the North Carolina mountains — fairly temperate, yet cool in the winter and hot in the summer. Apparently, that makes for the perfect grape-growing conditions because Tuscany is abundant with vineyards and famous for creating some of the world’s great wines. For travelers, the very best time to visit is late May/early June — when it’s starting to explode with color but before the heart of the European tourist season begins — or alternately mid-September — after the bulk of the summer tourists have left and the vines are laden with grapes just prior to the harvest.
If you have never visited Tuscany before, you will want to start with the tried-and-true favorites — Florence, Sienna, Assisi, Lucca, and so on. All are beautiful, historic cities that must not be missed. But since Mike and I had already had the opportunity to visit those unforgettable destinations, he looked for some slightly less traveled locales, specifically focusing on the wine regions of Chianti and Montepulciano because, hey, who doesn’t like good wine and good food?!
Mike researched this trip for weeks to create a varied, yet tight itinerary. He exactingly planned out each day’s route, factoring in the distances between destinations and how long we would need to fully appreciate each town or village. He spent all that time doing the research, so you don’t have to.
But despite all of the time and effort put into the preparations, no trip is without its unique challenges. That’s just part of the inherent complexity of travel. Nothing – no matter how much you try to plan and prepare — is fool-proof.
Our first challenge came on day one, as we attempted to land in Florence. The Florence airport is located in a valley shaped like a bowl and suffers from unusually short runways. As such, it’s impossible for huge, long-haul jets (747s and the like) to land there. Therefore, we planned to fly direct from Chicago to Amsterdam, where we would switch to a smaller jet that could land in Florence. All went as planned until we prepared for our final approach into the Florence airport. Very anxious to finally be at our destination and start our vacation, we noticed that we weren’t getting any closer to the ground. Soon enough, our suspicions were confirmed when the pilot announced that the winds were too high to be able to land safely in Florence. It was then that Mike told me that he had experienced the same situation on a previous flight into Florence. Ultimately, the flight was rerouted to the neighboring city of Bologna, where we were met by hundreds of passengers from other airlines whose flights also had been rerouted to Bologna. As this is obviously a recurring problem, the Bologna airport was well-versed in this exercise and managed the crowds and all their luggage adeptly. Before too long, we were placed on a bus and transported back to the Florence airport (an hour-and-a-half journey), where our rental car was awaiting our arrival. Moral of the story: think twice about flying into Florence. In hindsight, had we realized, we might have done this itinerary in the inverse, flying into Rome and out of Florence. Something to keep in mind for next time.
Although we had unfortunately missed our lunch reservation at Il Vescovino, promising “a fantastic view over the vineyards of Panzano,” we were finally on the road and anxious to reach our first destination: Radda in Chianti. A short drive south of Florence, the Chianti region is the northernmost of the Tuscan wine districts.
Made primarily from the Sangiovese grape, Chianti has been produced in this region for over 300 years. Today, it is most often associated with its distinctive straw-bound bottle (below) and made infamous by Anthony Hopkins in “Silence of the Lambs.” As a result, Chianti wines tend to have the undeserved reputation for being a bit less refined than their neighbors to the south, but, in fact, there are many excellent, highly respected Chiantis, such as the Ruffino Reserva Ducale and the Fontodi Chianti Classico. Chiantis tend to have medium-high acidity and medium tannins (which is especially nice if tannins give you a headache, as they do me). When purchasing Chianti, always look for the trademark Black Rooster seal on every bottle to ensure that you are getting a wine produced in the Chianti region and containing at least 80% Sangiovese grapes.
As you start to make your way through the region, you can’t help but notice that there are grape vines everywhere…and I mean everywhere — in back yards, behind restaurants and on every possible hillside. No matter how small the tract of land, every square inch is planted with grapes.
After exiting the autostrade and working our way up the narrow and windy mountain road, we arrived in the medieval hilltop town of Radda to find our charming hotel, Relais Vignale. Knackered from the overnight flight, we were anxious to check in and stay put for a few nights. The front-desk staff was extremely friendly and accommodating, even upgrading us to a lovely deluxe room (another benefit of traveling before the main tourist season). Relais Vignale consists of two buildings – the original inn (below left) and a newer annex located across the street. We had requested to be in the main hotel, and we were rewarded with a charming second-floor room (#42) which featured beamed ceilings and a private patio overlooking the scenic countryside.
Relais Vignale, Radda
View from room #42
View from room #42
The room and en suite bathroom were both charming and very well-appointed, although I will admit that the mattress and pillows were a little too firm for my taste and the Wi-Fi, while free, was very weak. But the breakfast spread, served either in the brick-ceilinged lower-level cellar or on the lovely grape-laden terrace, depending on weather, was quite impressive and included a variety of made-to-order egg dishes upon request (included in the room price).
The town of Radda itself is a quaint, little village boasting impressive views of the surrounding farms and vineyards from every vantage point. It is made up of just two streets – one pedestrian and the other the main auto route through town. Relais Vignale is located right on the main street, so you will want to request a room on the back side overlooking the valley below. The entire town of Radda consists of just a few shops and restaurants and a pretty church which is curiously situated above the small piazza. We happened to be there on a Sunday and enjoyed hearing the peeling church bells and seeing the locals in their Sunday finery.
Due to its central location, Radda is well-positioned to be a good jumping off point for day tours of the Chianti region, hence why Mike chose it as our home base for the first three days of our Tuscany experience.
After a good night’s sleep and a much-needed wake-up call by a neighboring rooster, we flung open the shutters to soak up the Tuscan sunshine and the ridiculously lovely view of the countryside. Strengthened by a breakfast of meats, cheeses and pastries, we made a bee-line to the nearby town of Greve to catch their Saturday morning market. Just a short 30-minute drive from Radda, we reached Greve to find it bustling with activity. The market was easy enough to find by simply following the people carrying market baskets and the signs for “Centro” indicating the city center — it’s a good bet to assume that a market will be situated in the main piazza. There we found a maze of vendors selling everything from locally grown veggies (right), regional cheeses and dried fruits to clothing, table linens and nail clippers. It was a feast for the eyes to be sure, but the real gem of Greve is the centuries old macelleria (butcher shop), Antica Macelleria Falorni (below), which is known throughout Tuscany as the very best in the region and was recently recognized by Food & Wine as such. Located adjacent to the main square, you can’t miss it…and shouldn’t miss it, if you have any appreciation for an old-world shop selling quality meats. Founded in 1806, Falorni has been producing world-class salumi, proscuitto, bresaola, and any other cured meat you can think of for generations, all of which you can sample in their tasting room. Our favorite is the finocchiona which takes its name from the fragrant fennel seed sprinkled throughout. Make sure you pack some ziplock baggies to take any piquant acquisitions such as this home in your suitcase…and maybe an extra suitcase as well, like we did.
Antica Macelleria Falorni in Greve
After procuring all the booty we needed from the Greve market and Antica Macellaria Falorni, we were off to one of our favorite Tuscan towns, San Gimignano. Just a quick 50 minutes away, we arrived in San Gimignano around 10:30 and found parking in one of the designated lots just outside of town. Almost all of the Tuscan towns are pedestrian-only, so parking can be tricky, especially during the high season. Yet another reason to travel slightly off-season.
But regardless of when you visit, San Gimignano is bound to be populated by tourists because it is included in basically every Tuscan tour book ever written, and for good reason. The mid-sized town of San Gimignano once boasted as many as 72 towers at its heyday during the Middle Ages. It was an text book example of the proverbial “keeping up with the Joneses” effect, as each family attempted to outdo the others with a bigger, better and taller tower than their neighbors. Today, San Gimignano only has 14 remaining towers, but that’s about 10 more than any of the other Tuscan villages, so it’s a sight to behold as you see it perched on the hilltop, towers reaching for the sky.
You will enter the walled city through one of two gates and immediately be met by shopkeepers peddling their wares to multitudes of gaping tourists. Most all of the shops in San Gimignano are geared towards tourism, so unfortunately there’s not a lot of substance. I suggest moving right on past the souvenir shops and working your way to the main piazza where you will find people relaxing in the cafes, enjoying the sunshine and a coffee or wine, depending on the time of day. There’s plenty to do and see in San Gimignano, so consult your guide book and plan your visit accordingly. I would, however, suggest a stop at Osteria Del Carcere for lunch. Located just off the main piazza and just far enough away from the maddening crowds, Osteria Del Carcere is a tiny wine bar that serves simple, yet expertly prepared Tuscan fare. The menu posted outside is written only in Italian which tends to keep apprehensive tourists at bay, but don’t let that stop you. As is typical of an osteria, they don’t have a broad menu, and they don’t serve pizzas or pastas. But they do serve beautiful antipasti platters, homemade soups and salads and plenty of wine!
Bar at Osteria del Carcere
Shaved pear and hazlenut salad
There are only 10 or so tables on the two levels and only one server, so plan your time accordingly so that you can relax and linger over your meal, as the Italians do. You will likely notice a variety of handcuffs and other prison-related decorative accents and that is because ‘carcere’ in Italian means prison which may be an indication that the building at one time was a prison or possibly it’s a reference to the torture museum which is located next door (yes, there’s actually a museum dedicated to various means of torture. How medieval is that?!)
After we had had our fill of the sights and flavors of San Gimignano, we headed back to the comfort of our quaint room at Relais Vignale for some R&R. It always takes at least a day to fully recover from the stresses of travel and to adjust to the new time zone, so it’s wise to plan some down time into your first day (see photo right). After a casual dinner at a local osteria, featuring a very memorable goose carpaccio (see below), we returned to the hotel for a nightcap in their charming bar area and then turned in early.
The following morning, being Sunday, Mike didn’t plan anything into the itinerary until lunchtime, so we spent a relaxing morning wandering through town, taking in the sights and sounds of Radda on a peaceful Sunday morning. All of these Tuscan villages are best enjoyed before the tour buses arrive and after they leave in the evening.
For lunch, Mike selected Osteria Le Panzanelle in the valley just below the town of Radda. We had hoped to enjoy their outdoor terrace, but it was still a bit too cool, so they seated us in the upstairs beamed-ceiling dining room. Since it was a Sunday, the place was filled with local families sharing a post-church mid-day meal. We were the only non-Italians, but the staff was welcoming and attentive. My knowledge of Italian, as limited as it may be, did come in handy a few times, although they made every attempt to speak English whenever possible. After a delightful lunch of pecorino and fava bean salad (below left), eggplant involtini (below right), spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams) and pasta with boar ragu, we set off with full bellies for Castello di Volpaia and our 3:00 reservation to tour their wine and olive oil facilities.
I’m not sure what I was expecting, maybe something similar to the wineries I had visited in Napa or South Africa, but this was definitely nothing like that! First of all, Volpaia isn’t as much a vineyard as it is a tiny medieval town perched on a hilltop surrounded by vineyards in every direction. And when I say tiny, I mean tiny – as in, the whole town consists of less than a dozen stone buildings — 2 of which are churches, as well as a small inn and a darling family-run cafe. I was a little sorry we hadn’t known about the cafe, with its outdoor terrace in the main square, as it appeared to be a very pleasant environment, bustling with activity and patrons enjoying an afternoon of sunshine and plenty of good food and local wines.
Almost all of Volpaia’s ancient structures have been transformed into facilities for the production of their wines and olive oils. From the exterior, the buildings appear to be charming, centuries-old 2-story stone houses, but upon entering, you’re surprised to find the huge steel vats in which the grapes are pressed, strained, fermented and converted into the Chianti for which the area is famous. In another room, you find the giant granite grinding stone used to pulverize the olives for olive oil production (below). Hidden on the second floor is a large room, previously a series of bedrooms in generations past, where the grapes are hung from the beamed ceiling to mature after being harvested from the vineyards. The windows provide natural climate control, and rain is welcome, as it adds just the right amount of humidity to encourage the mold that is necessary to aid in the fermentation process. You may wonder where they store the wine for aging, as we did. Well…under the church, of course! Where else would you expect to find wine storage? We were brought around to the back side of the church and through a nondescript door (photo left below), where we found barrel after barrel after barrel of wine tucked into the dark caverns of the church cellar, unceremoniously awaiting their bottling date.
Oak barrel for aging the Chianti wines
Grinding stone for olive oil production
Our tour guide, a young woman from Sienna who prefers the countryside to the city, was knowledgeable, friendly and had an impressive command of the English language. I suggest you call ahead for a reservation if you’re interested in a tour, as the groups are very small and intimate (www.volpaia.com). After a substantial wine tasting, complete with bruschetta and samplings of their olive oils and flavored vinegars, we left sated and entranced by our afternoon in the tiny enclave of Castello di Volpaia. (There are many other wineries also worth a visit in Chianti — including Castello d’Albola, Castello di Meleto and Castello di Broglio — so if that interests you, make sure to call ahead to schedule tours and tastings.)
Rising early the next morning (day 4), we were giddy with anticipation of the day’s journey to Montepulciano and then on to our next lodging — a medieval tower! — in Monticchiello.
Please check back for part two of my post detailing the Montepulciano wine region and the towns of Monticchiello, Pienza, Montalcino, Castiglione del Lago, Orvieto, Abbazia di Sant’Antimo and Bagno Vignoni.