Travel slowly, staying in vacation rentals (villas, farms, cottages, apartments)
Report 1734: Some Lesser Visited Sites in Toscana
By Tessmar from California, Fall 2009
Trip Description: 12 September through 10 October, 2009. Living in Montepulciano, driving through Siena and Arezzo provinces as well as visits to Venezia and Campania.
Destinations: Countries - Italy; Regions/Cities - Campania, Tuscany, Venice
Categories: Vacation Rentals; Art Trip; Sightseeing; Independent Travel; 2 People
Page 1 of 17: Off the Tourist Trail
The View From Our Apartment
It is difficult for me to know where to begin. This was my third trip to Italy. At four weeks it was the longest by seven days, and included in-depth explorations of places I had been to previously and sojourns into new and interesting settings. It reinforced my previous impressions of the rich tapestry that defines each location, requiring continuous focus to avoid skimming the surface and rushing on to the next equally intense venue and overpowering the concept of “slow travel.”
In 2007 I stumbled onto Montepulciano almost by accident, but found it an ideal “headquarters” for exploration of the Toscana and Umbria provinces, while allowing easy access to more wide reaching journeys if I so chose. Thus when I found a reasonably priced apartment that was down the main street from my previous 2007 visit I was pretty excited.
I’ve continued to learn Italian, but my wife has not thus far shown interest in learning her ancestral language. She also tends to “glaze over” after hours in museums or churches, so I spent a lot of time investigating and documenting other things we could do and see when art, architecture, and history put her into “overload.” I knew there were far more things on my list than we could possibly do, and while I intended to choose only a few of the options in it, I was still disappointed that we could not do or see more than we did, reinforcing my feelings that no matter how long we stayed in Italy, it would not be long enough.
There are plenty of reviews in Slow Travel and other places about many Italian towns and cities, so I decided to focus this report on places not quite as well-known. However, even though it is a well-known destination and the location for many movie shoots, I’ve got to start with the place that has become almost as second home.
Montepulciano is an attractive destination for many reasons. It’s the sales center of one of the most respected red wines in Toscana; Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. The town features a number of direct sales stores, and most are located in the cantine of palazzi that were built with the mercantile wealth of wine and other production during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. These twenty or so buildings are of great architectural beauty and importance.
Like many Tuscan hill towns, each neighborhood has its own church, and those in Montepulciano contain a wealth of beautiful art work. Compared with many other towns they are in a very good state of restoration, and the church interiors have a cleanliness of line, classic simplicity, and an abundance of light that I find particularly appealing. For me the crown jewel is San Agostino, in the center of town on the main street (Il Corso), and featuring a facade and terra cotta above the front door by Michelozzo, as well as some paintings and sculptures that are quite lovely even if not done by the “household names” of the Renaissance. The church also has wonderful acoustic properties and concerts here are a special treat.
Outside and below the town is the masterpiece of Antonio da Sangallo the Elder; Chiesa di San Biagio, thought by many to be the most perfect execution of Renaissance church architecture in Italy.
There are many other interesting places to see in town, making it easy to stay and explore when we didn’t feel like driving. In addition, there is a full supermarket, two meat markets, several small neighborhood groceries, several banks with ATMs, a dozen or more restaurants including two or three that are exceptional, a couple of drug stores, many other places to shop, a very good Italian language school, and views of both the Val d’Orcia and the Val di Chiana along with a very spacious open main piazza. All this is in a compact space that can be walked (albeit with some very steep hills) in less than 20 minutes from one end to the other. No wonder many movie scenes, even ones portraying other cities like Cortona and Volterra, were actually filmed here (Under the Tuscan Sun, The English Patient, New Moon, for example).
Lest this become a travelogue for Montepulciano let me move on to other interesting places visited. Without ever feeling rushed we wandered through one or more villages a day during our four week stay, and still spent several days “at home” without going anyplace at all. A lesson I thought I had learned about Italy but at times seemed to have forgotten is that driving there is all about travel time and not about mileage. That is, except for the auto and superstrade the roads are winding and narrow and with the inevitable Ape or truck that often must be followed for some time the “driving time” listed in places like viaMichelin or on various maps is quite deceptive and often severely understated relative to the actual event. The good news is this helps enforce a “Slow Travel” type of journey; the bad is that it is easy to over-estimate what can be reasonably done in a single day or on a particular route.
As there are likely many trip reports posted with useful information about major towns such as Siena or Arezzo, with very few exceptions I’ll confine my effort to some places that may be less well-trod but have at least one point that I found very interesting. The first of these is Sarteano and Radicofani.
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