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Montalcino, a Charming Hilltown in Southern Tuscany

B. DuPree from NC (B. DuPree)

The road leading up to Montalcino winds through the vineyards and open fields of the producers of one of Italy's most exquisite (and expensive) wines, the preeminent Brunello di Montalcino. In mid September the deep purple Sangiovese Grosso grapes, almost ready to harvest, hang heavy on the vines. The rolling hills of southern Tuscany spread before you and the light is just as so many writers have described it - golden and warming, bathing everything in its glow. As you round each turn you can see in the distance the fortezza standing tall on the southern edge of the town.

At last, in the middle of a spectacularly sharp hairpin turn you see an entrance through a gate to the village. Don't take it or you'll soon find yourself in the midst of a no cars zone! Instead, continue around the curve and when you come to the roundabout with the modern Baccus in the middle, continue along the outside the fortezza wall. Just past the gas station you'll see a new parking lot with a stone wall. Park there.

Montalcino

Our favorite little village is a dichotomy; a hot Tuscan tourist spot and an introverted community where some of its citizens rarely venture outside the walls. Tourists, often in large groups, come in busses throughout the day to see the quaint hilltop village with its fortezza and to taste the wines at the many enotecchi. Most of the day tourists begin their tour of Montalcino with a visit to the fortezza, perhaps stopping for a wine tasting there or climbing to the battlements for the view across the valley. Then they walk down the hill, stop to admire the beautiful and stately commune building in Piazza del Popolo, and sit at an outside table for an expensive glass of wine at the charming old Caffe Fiaschetteria. Most of them do not venture much further into Montalcino.

Like many small towns in Tuscany, Montalcino lives and dies by vineyards and tourists. So, despite the small size of the village, most shops carry goods with direct appeal to tourists: exquisite linens and fabrics, lovely hand-woven jackets and shawls, ceramics, crystal, leather goods, smart clothing, kitchen goods and, of course, wine.

Meanwhile, the Montalcinesi go about their daily lives as they have always done. Unless you are in the retail business in Montalcino, you are not likely to interact with tourists. In front of number 40, Via Mazzini, in a straight-back chair an old man sits for the entire day, every day, greeting villagers who pass and sometimes stop to talk, but merely glancing at the strangers who invade his town.

Bruno Cacelli, Montalcino

At the table between the two doors of the Fiaschetteria, the same old men gather every morning and, presumably, have the same discussions about politics, wine, and weather. Ilio Raffaelli, a former mayor in the 1960's, waves his arms excitedly and leans in close to his companions when he talks. Bruno Cacelli, now 84 years old, sits at the table for a brief respite from his two daily walks around the village. He rarely speaks but merely nods at appropriate times in the conversation.

 

If you are fortunate enough to be staying in Montalcino for a few days, you can see it at its best, early in the morning and late in the afternoon, that is pre and post the daily tourist invasion. Each morning a charming Italian gentleman works in the little garden in Piazza Cavour at the end of Via Mazzini raking, snipping the faded flower heads, watering the plants, mulching, and just tidying up. Despite the nature of his work, he dresses in a suit and tie and wears a hat. Only if the weather is very warm in the early hours does he remove his jacket. The flowers are spectacular for such a tiny space.

When the garden was begun in 2004 it was divided into fourths, one for each of the quartieri (neighborhoods) of Montalcino. Each quarter was planted in the colors of the appropriate quartiere and competition was fierce for the best looking slice of the pie. By the fall of 2005 it seems that competition had lost to cooperation and the entire garden was color coordinated and no quartieri signs were to be seen.

The best spot for breakfast is Bar alle Logge, where the very fragrance of the coffee makes you swoon and the cornetto al cioccolato is to die for. Tamara will greet you with a smile and will remember your order after the first or second morning. The view from the window in alle Logge is breathtaking, especially in the early morning mist. As you sip your cappuccino the mist lifts and houses and vineyards gradually come into view.

After breakfast is a good time to walk through the streets of Montalcino. Walk slowly (you'll have to anyway because most of the streets are so steep) and enjoy the little things along the way - the streetlights of the quartieri, special doorknockers, Madonnina shrines high up on some houses, flowerboxes and cats in windows.

Since you're a resident for now, why not take a daytrip to one or more of the other beautiful Tuscan villages while the tourists have taken over your town? San Quirico d'Orcia, Pienza, Buonconvento, Montechiello and Montepulciano are all within thirty minutes of Montalcino. Bagno Vignoni is a wonder with a mineral pool in the main piazza. And you certainly shouldn't miss the monks chanting at Sant'Antimo, just a few kilometers away. Some of the most beautiful frescoes in Italy are in the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore about thirty minutes away. It's best to do your day trips in the morning because almost everything (except for restaurants) is closed in the early afternoon. Browse the shops, then have lunch and return to Montalcino in time for the best time of day - passaggiata - the time when everyone comes out for a walk.

It's fun to have a glass of wine at a sidewalk cafe and watch the people pass. Moms with young babies have a hard time moving along because everyone wants to ooh and aah and even hold the baby. Older women walk slowly, arm in arm down Via Mazzini. In the park a group of men and women stop to talk, mostly to gossip, I think, and then there are those who walk along the western wall to see the sun set. The benches on the park near the Madonna del Soccorso which overlook the valley are always filled. When the crowds begin to thin, you can return to your apartment to have a light supper or, if you haven't eaten a large lunch, you can have a great dinner at one of the excellent restaurants in the village.

A Tour of Montalcino

Even if you can't stay overnight in Montalcino, don't be satisfied just to see the fortezza and the Piazza del Popolo. Here are a few things to see and do in just a few hours:

  • Start your tour at the fortezza. Climb to the top of the tower and take in the fabulous view over the town and the valley. Then go downstairs and enjoy a tasting of Brunello.
  • Proceed from the fortezza to Piazza Garibaldi, just down the hill, where you'll find the Tourist Information Center and a map of the village. Be sure to look at the ceramic tiles along the outside wall of the Tourist Information Center. The tiles are commissioned to artists each year to commemorate the rating of Brunello every February.
  • Visit the Diocesan and Civic Museum. Although small, the museum has a number of excellent works including paintings from the Sienese School, wood statues, and an illuminated Bible and a crucifix from the 12th century. Last year, the museum was displaying a wonderful collection of contemporary statues.
  • Climb the hill to the church of Madonna del Soccorso and step inside the doors. Turn around and look up at the stained glass windows above the doors. The windows depict the end of the Siege of 1553 when it is said that the Madonna appeared at the top of the walls and the horse of the Commander of the Spanish troops kneeled in homage to the Virgin. You'll also see stained glass portrayals of the flags of the four quartieri (neighborhoods) of the village.

Stained glass windows at Madonna del Soccorso

Stained glass windows at Madonna del Soccorso

  • As you leave the church, walk to your left to the wall over looking the valley. Perhaps you can see Siena from there, but certainly you will have such a breathtaking view that you may find it hard to leave.
  • Continue down the hill to enjoy the beautiful little garden in Piazza Cavour at the bottom of the hill. Begin the stroll up Via Mazzini to Piazza del Popolo, but take the long way by descending one of the stepped streets either to the left (down) or right (up) and walking a parallel street for a ways. This way you can enjoy the homes, gardens and orchards of the townspeople.
  • When you arrive back at Piazza del Popolo, have a second glass of wine at the Caffe Fiaschetteria and contemplate the meaning of life in a medieval hilltop village today.

Have a wonderful time in Tuscany and I hope you enjoy your visit to Montalcino!

Books

Isabella Dusi, Vanilla Beans & Brodo: Real Life in the Hills of Tuscany, Simon & Schuster UK, 2002

Isabella Dusi and her Italian husband moved to Montalcino from Australia. This book is a detailed account of life in Montalcino, a beautiful village in the Tuscan countryside.

Order from Amazon

Isabella Dusi, Bel Vino: A Year of Sundrenched Pleasure among the Vines of Tuscany, Simon & Schuster, 2006

A sequel to Vanilla Beans & Brodo about life in Montalcino and Tuscany by Isabella Dusi.

Order from Amazon

Resources

Montalcino Travel Guide: Another guide to this town.

Monte Oliveto Travel Guide: Monte Oliveto abbey near Montalcino, descriptions of frescoes.

Sant'Antimo Travel Guide: San'Antimo abbey near Montalcino, hours of chanting.

Wagon Wheels in Southern Tuscany: Day trips in southern Tuscany using Montalcino as your base.

Southern Tuscany Travel Guide: Areas surrounding Montalcino.

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