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Wagon Wheels in Southern Tuscany - Planning Your Days
Henry Schulte (Pat and Henry)
Being from the Midwest I am familiar with wagon wheels and use the idea for planning my trips in Italy. This is sometimes called the hub and spoke method of travel. I find a central spot for a base, the hub, and then go out each day in a different direction, the spokes, to visit the surrounding countryside.
In southern Tuscany my hub is La Crociona, an estate about three kilometers south of Montalcino. I have used La Crociona as the hub for this article, but my travel plans work for anywhere in the Pienza - Montepulciano - Montalcino belt of southern Tuscany. I provided links to pages on Slow Travel or to other websites that will give you information about each town. References are provided for restaurants in the area. My listed trips start with drives north of my hub, then east, then south.
Driving and Navigating
The main highway through southern Tuscany is the SS2 (also called Via Cassia or SR2) which runs north - south, from Siena to Rome. The main east - west road is N. 146 which runs from San Quirico d'Orcia to Chiusi.
Driving in Italy requires knowing the major towns between where you are and where you want to go. There are rarely signs for a highway by number, such as SS2, but signs indicate major cities and the next 'big' town. For example, from Siena, you will see signs for Rome, which means you are headed south, and for Buonconvento the first 'big' town on SS2 south of Siena. However, do not rely on my directions. Instead, get a map and plan a route from town to town. Driving in southern Tuscany is easy and almost every drive is picturesque if you stay off the Autostrada. For a rough estimate of driving times figure one kilometer will take one minute.
Montalcino and Sant'Antimo
I usually pickup my car in Siena and head south on SS2, the major spoke on my travel wheel. I follow the blue signs to Rome (the green signs to Rome take you on the A1 - Autostrada - you don't want to go that direction) then to Buonconvento, about 30 kilometers from Siena. Driving time from Siena to Montalcino takes less than hour, the first time. By the second time the drive will be about 45 minutes. I can do it in about 30 minutes after dozens of trips.
Between Siena and Buonconvento I pass the towns of Isola D'Arbia, Monteroni D'Arbia, and Ponte D'Arbia (a town name on a white sign means you are entering a town, a red slash through the name means you are leaving the town). I stay on SS2 through Buonconvento. About two kilometers after Buonconvento, I cross a very small bridge then take a right turn to Montalcino. This road is called Brunello Road (SP45). Brunello Road twists and turns up the hill. At the T intersection and stop sign I turn right, up the hill (SP14). The intersection is worth remembering. Keep trucking up the hill, as it twists and turns.
As I get close to Montalcino, I can see the town wall where I must keep to the right to avoid the serious mistake of driving through the town on narrow twisting streets. When I get to the opening in the wall, it looks like the street goes on into Montalcino, but it doesn't. I have to make a hairpin turn to the left to avoid going into Montalcino and I feel like I'm trying to drive up my own muffler. At the top of the hill is a rotary, a traffic circle. From here you can go to Sant'Antimo or to Montalcino.
I take the road about 350 degrees around the circle or immediately to my left as I enter the circle. Three kilometers down this road is the village of La Croce (where you will find La Crociona). Another kilometer is Fattoria dei Barbi. Another five kilometers is Sant'Antimo. This is the abbey that everyone falls in love with. I don't know if it is the simplicity of the abbey or the monks still performing Gregorian chants, but Sant'Antimo is special.
To go into Montalcino I have two choices at the rotary, if I'm coming up the hill from SS2 I take the first right at the rotary (almost directly across from me by the fortezza wall) then up the little drive through the arch will take me to a pay lot next to the fortezza (locals refer to it as the Rocca). Or at the rotary I take the second right down the hill and the first right into a free parking lot. There will be a lot of stairs to climb to the town but this is the best option on Friday morning.
Montalcino has a museum, the Museo Civico, which is interesting and not expensive. The museum has a collection of early Sienese art and wooden sculptures. The Rocca has an enoteca inside it offering samples of Brunello and snacks. They sell tickets to tour the castle. From the battlements you can see Siena, the Crete, and the Val d'Orcia. The views from the tower are said to have inspired Leonardo's drawing of a bird's eye view of the earth.
In Montalcino, there are many little piazze for the simple pleasures of slow traveling: a gelato, a glass of wine and people watching. Montalcino also offers all the amenities a traveler might need: a supermarket, tourist office, hospital, bank, and cleaners, as well as artisan shops, wine bars, food shops, a bakery, bars, take out pizza, churches and enough restaurants to eat out every night for several weeks and not repeat yourself.
www.moveaboutitaly.com/toscana/montalcino_en.html: Information on Montalcino
Market day in Montalcino is Friday. The market is small and does not cater to tourists but my wife always finds something to buy. She likes the tablecloths and dish towels and occasionally finds a purse she must have. There is no produce at this market. On a Friday morning I've learned to park in the lot beneath the town, the free lot, where it is easier to find a parking spot.
Wine is one of Italy's delights, but wine tours and tastings in Italy are not like those in California. Very few wineries are open and awaiting visitors' arrival. Many do not offer tours and most of those that do require appointments. Barbara or Roberto, who own La Crociona, know the local wine producers and can make appointments for their guests.
Banfi is an exception, they are open and awaiting your arrival. I liked the tasting and glass museum at Banfi. I have not eaten at the tavern but it has a reputation for good food and wine. I know you need reservations and lots of euro to eat there.
www.consorziobrunellodimontalcino.it: If you want to make appointments on your own, see this site for a list of producers. Click on the detailer box for phone numbers, web addresses, and a map of the area.
www.castellobanfi.com/tour/: Castello Banfi, see the website for their hours.
Nearby is Fattoria dei Barbi which has a restaurant that has good food and moderate prices.
www.fattoriadeibarbi.it: Fattoria dei Barbi, see the website for their hours.
From La Crociona I drive to the traffic circle (about three minutes) and then go completely around the circle (about 370 degrees) because the road I want (SP14) is immediately to my right but I cannot make the turn. I drive down the hill until the T intersection (I said it was worth remembering), sign for Siena SP45 and take the left and continue down the hill to SS2 and take a left. I am now going north on SS2.
I drive through Buonconvento, Ponte D'Arbia, Monteroni D'Arbia, and Isola D'Arbia. At Cerchia I turn left on strada Massetana Romana. This is a big T intersection with a stoplight and there are signs for Firenze; I follow them. This road goes down a small hill and leads to the on ramp of SI-FI (Raccordo Autostrada Siena - Firenze) to Florence (Firenze); I do not get on the on-ramp (unless I am going to Monteriggioni - about 12 kilometers) but continue straight. After about a minute past the on-ramp entrance is a sign for Campo parking. I follow the road up the hill and in about three minutes come to the wall around Siena, go through the porta and about 50 feet past the wall will be the entrance, on my right, for the Campo parking. This is a pay lot but it is reasonable and close to the Campo.
Walking out of the multi-storied parking lot I follow the path (only one way to go) to the gate and turn right, fifty feet later there is nowhere to go but left, I do it. Two blocks later I am in the Campo.
The drive from Montalcino to Siena is about 45 kilometers and takes about 45 minutes.
The restaurants around the Campo are not the best and are over priced but when I get to the Campo I cannot resist sitting and ordering a Prosecco and watching the activity in the Campo. The Sienese say that if you sit in the Campo you will eventually see everyone you know walk by.
Siena, what's there to do?
But with all there is to do, don't miss just strolling through a real town that looks like it hasn't changed in hundreds of years.
Monte Oliveto Maggiore, Buonconvento, Murlo
Going north on SS2, I drive almost through Buonconvento and turn right on SS451 and follow it for about 9 kilometers and see signs for Monte Oliveto Maggiore on my right. I follow the signs up the hill and when I get to the drawbridge go left into a small parking lot. The total driving time from Montalcino is about 25 minutes.
Slow Travel Italy - Travel Notes - Tuscany - Monte Oliveto: More information about the abbey.
Note that the abbey is closed between about 12:00 and 15:15 and it is a ten-minute hike down a hill to the abbey. There is a restaurant next to the parking lot that is good with reasonable prices.
Next to the abbey is a gift shop where the monks sell religious items and 30 proof cures for an assortment of illnesses. There is also a road leading to a small chapel and cemetery.
I go back the way I came to Buonconvento. It has a very small historical center but I like it and it has quite a few good restaurants. There is also a museum but I haven't been in it since it is only open a couple hours in the morning and a couple of hours in the late afternoon. I park on the south side of the center and walk into the old town. Market day is Saturday and produce is available.
www.abctuscany.com/siena/buonconvento/: Information on Buonconvento.
Continuing on SP34 to Murlo, about 5 kilometers outside of Buonconvento, SP34 makes a sweeping right hand turn. At the turn there is a sign for La Befa which has a very nice Osteria but not much else. Murlo is about 12 kilometers from Buonconvento on SP34. There is a small parking lot on the right before the entrance gate.
www.murlo.info: Information on Murlo.
Murlo is very small; you can walk from one end to the other in less than two minutes. The Etruscan museum is closed for about a three-hour lunch but there is a pizzeria in Murlo to use this time. The museum is not crowded; I have had to ask them to turn on the lights, as my family were the only visitors.
About 35 minutes farther on is San Galgano, a large roofless 12th century church, and Monte Siepi, built around the sword in the stone.
www.italiantourism.com/news03.html: Information on San Galgano and the sword in the stone.
Montepulciano, Pienza, Monticchiello
From La Crociona I drive to the traffic circle (about three minutes) and then go completely around the circle (about 370 degrees) because the road I want (SP14) is immediately to my right but I cannot make the turn. I drive down the hill past the T intersection until the on ramp for SS2 to Rome. I am now going south on SS2.
After I cross a very long bridge I see signs for Pienza and San Quirico d'Orcia. Following the signs through the cloverleaf and up to the wall of San Quirico I go left towards Pienza (SS146) and on to Montepulciano. About a kilometer before the city I see signs directing me up a hill to Montepulciano, I go straight, it leads to a different gate (porta). I usually park next to the wall and walk up the hill and through the park to the porta. There is parking right before the porta but it is usually full. Whichever porta I use I try and park outside of the wall.
Be aware that this is a very hilly town with few flat spots. Sampling the local Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, one of the top wines in Italy, makes the hill climb less noticeable. It takes about 40 minutes to reach Montepulciano. Market day in Montepulciano is Thursday.
www.montepulciano.com/montepulciano_centrostorico.eng.php: Information on Montepulciano.
italianfood.about.com/library/weekly/aa090597.htm: Information on Montepulciano.
www.initaly.com/regions/tuscany/michael.htm: Information on San Biagio.
Backtracking on SS146 I stop at Pienza. Pienza is a flat and small town so it is easy to walk. The Piccolomini Palace with its courtyard and garden are well worth the time and money required for a tour. Pienza is not just a place to shop for cheese but is a nice compact, attractive town. The views on the south side of the walls are what you see on postcards. Market day in Pienza is Friday.
www.ic.ucsc.edu/~langdale/arth80i/Pienza.htm: Information on Pienza.
Monticchiello is only about five minutes from Pienza. There is a sign for Monticchiello and the street is Strada Comunale Pienza - Monticchiello. Monticchiello is very small and can be walked in a few minutes.
San Quirico d'Orcia, Bagno Vignoni
Going south on SS2 I cross a very long bridge and see signs for Pienza and San Quirico d'Orcia. I follow the signs through the cloverleaf and up to the wall of San Quirico (about 14 kilometers from La Crocina).
San Quirico seems to be off the tourist map so I never see crowds here. A quiet town with several nice churches and a garden make this an enjoyable town. Market day in San Quirico is the first and fourth Tuesday.
www.nautilus-mp.com/tuscany/presentazione/sanquirico/: Information on San Quirico.
Bagno Vignoni is about another 5 kilometers south on SS2; there is a sign for Bagno Vignoni, Rocca d' Orcia and Castiglione d' Orcia. The town square in Bagno Vignoni is a Roman pool and its claim to fame is the healing sulphurous waters.
www.cretedisiena.com/paesi/Bagno_Vignonienglish.htm: Information on Bagno Vignoni.
Market day in Castiglione is Saturday.
www.abctuscany.com/siena/castiglione-dorcia/: Information on Castiglione d'Orcia.
Slow Travel Italy - Travel Notes - Tuscany - Monte Amiata: For other possibilities in this area.
Sorano, Sovana, Pitigliano, Saturnia
Going south on SS2 after about 45 minutes I take a right on SP18 then a minute later a left on SP20. The road changes to SP134 (Strada Provinciale Pitiglianese) and SP95; after about ten minutes I turn left on SP4, which will takes me into Sorano. Total driving time about an hour and ten minutes.
Slow Travel Italy - Travel Notes - Tuscany - Pitigliano, Sovana and Sorano: Information on all four towns.
www.moveaboutitaly.com/toscana/pitigliano_en.html: Information on all four towns.
Market day in Sorano is Tuesday. Parts of Sorano are crumbling away but the rest is like a movie set, too clean and perfect shops with friendly owners. Hard to believe it is where people live. Had a great meal that was very cheap at a pizzeria above the castle, about 300 meters from the look out point. I don't know the name but while it looked like a dump on the outside the inside was bright and cheerful and the food was delicious.
I have eaten at the Trattoria Eutruscan in Sovana and it is good but a little expensive for the area. There are two churches in town that are worth the visit. With basically one street this town can be toured quickly.
Market day in Pitigliano is Wednesday. I liked this town but may have been influenced by my travel companions who were Jewish and thought this was a great find (because of its Jewish history). Great views, both from the town and the drive there, are part of Pitigliano's charm. Lunch at the Paradiso was very good.
If Etruscan sights are of interest to you there are plenty in this area.
Slow Travel Italy - Travel Notes - Tuscany - Etruscan Pathways near Pitigliano: Some easy and interesting walks.
Saturnia is famous for the thermal baths but if this is not your thing and time is slipping away you can skip this one.
Each of these towns is only about 10 kilometers from each other. Just follow the signs to get from one to the other.
Orvieto, Civita di Bagnoregio
Going south on SS2 after about an hour (I have gone through Acquapendente) I turn left on SS74 and after about ten minutes right on SS71 then a couple minutes later a left on SP54 then a couple minutes after that a right on SP135. This takes me into Bagnoregio. I can park within sight of the pedestrian bridge to Civita. Total driving time is about an hour and a half.
Civita is very small and can be done in about an hour. Don't miss the pathway down the cliff with hidden grottoes dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
www.ricksteves.com/plan/destinations/italy/civitabd.htm: Information on Civita.
From Civita to Orvieto is about 20 kilometers. SP6 to a left on SP55, turn right on SP111 and stay on it through about three right turns then turn left on SS71, it changes to SP43, to Orvieto. Market day in Orvieto is Thursday.
Tickets for the underground tour can be purchased at the tourist office located directly across from the Duomo. While the Duomo and the underground tour seem to be the tourist highlights, Orvieto is a fairly large town with interesting churches a good restaurants and I like to walk around away from the main sights. The views from the town wall, just to the right as I come out of the funicular are spectacular.
Yes, I know this is not Tuscany (it is Umbria) but I really like this town and I am picking the trips.
I know that people familiar with this area are going to scream that I left out their favorite places, but with only seven days what could I do? Tell everyone to come back? Actually, that is what I've done. I have stayed at La Crociona many times and always find more things to do.
La Crociona: Estate with vacation rentals near Montalcino
Restaurant Reviews for this Area
Slow Travel Italy - Restaurant Reviews - Tuscany South: Restaurant reviews
Slow Travel Italy - Restaurant Reviews - Siena: Restaurant reviews
Slow Travel Italy - Restaurant Reviews - Umbria: Restaurant reviews
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