Jan 31

Mountain towns in the Chianti region

Category: Italy,Travel

Instead of using a tour operator, we’d decided to rent a car and go where we pleased – a great idea.  We did do a lot of driving though – and It’s true what they say about Italian drivers.  For the most part they seemed in control of their vehicles – not necessarily talking on the phone like Americans; but they drove with abandon.  I imagine that a typical Italian driver thinks something fatalistic like “If I’m going to die, I’ll die; but if my number hasn’t come up, I’ll be fine.”  This is true of drivers and pedestrians.  And somehow, because everyone is in tiny little cars, zooming around feels almost cute, like we were all driving clown cars.

Anyway, although we did use trains to get to Florence, we drove everywhere else.  This was great not only because we made our own schedule, but because we got to see the true face of Tuscany – not just the tourist places, but the good, the bad, and the ugly.  I liked it.

Leaving our base at Monticatini Terme, we drove northeast and spent a day exploring the northern mountains a little.  Then we drove south, passed through San Miniato, stayed in Siena, and continued to points south and east: San Gimignano, Volterra, Montalcino, and some other places we passed through but I can’t remember.  The place is lousy with mountaintop walled towns that look like something out of “Lord of the Rings.”  In between is beautiful agricultural land, small chunks of forest, and occasionally, an unremarkable ordinary town that for one reason or the other, has modernized completely.

Here’s Rachel at Montalcino, where we did some great wine tasting.  I promise that’s not just a backdrop!

It’s hard to believe that the US fought the Nazis here.  In San Miniato, where we went to find truffle-laden food, we learned that the Germans had blown up the large old tower of the town because of its usefulness as an artillery direction position.  The people of San Miniato have rebuilt it and it looks perfect.

San Miniato is the site of an annual truffle festival.  We were a week early, but figured that there had to be some truffles there anyway.  We arrived late, maybe 9, but dinner was just getting started.  It is a tiny place and there were only two restaurants.  We looked at the menu; some have English but this did not.  For some reason I thought I’d know the word for truffle when I saw it, but that was not the case.  Instead, the thing was full of Tartufo dishes.  Tartufo this, tartufo that.  No truffles though.  We walked away.  Then it occurred to me… Rachel looked it up in her book: of course, tartufo = truffle (duh!).  We went back and had a memorable meal.  I had tartufo brasceola di cavallo (horse salami with truffles, new olive oil, and really nasty parmesian).  It was fantastic in a pungent way.  Truffles impart a fungal overtone, but they make up for it with a wonderful buttery, subtle base of flavor that cannot be described; it is partially nasal in experience. Rachel had something sublime, but I cannot recall what it was.  The house wine was excellent (that was always the case in Tuscany).

So – back to Montalcino, famous for its Brunello and Rosso wine varieties.  We went to two places and tried probably 25 wines.  In one high-tech place, the bottles were held in machines which dispensed a couple of tablespoons after receiving your credit card.  You simply carried a glass around with you from machine to machine while chatting with one of the wine shop workers.  The one we spoke with was in his early 20s but had lived there all his life, and had a sophistication (about wines) like that of the most seasoned sommelier in Manhattan, yet because he had grown into it, there wasn’t an air of snobbery; it was just the way he was.  In most cases, he knew the people who made the wine, and what made one year’s crop different from another’s, in an intimate and detailed way.  Here is the view from that place:

Here’s what I learned about Brunello and Rosso wine: I don’t like it.  But I did like finding that out in this way!

Montalcino is another one of those places with a castle (well, really a fortezza, to be technical) at the end of the street.

We ate at this restaurant, lie most, tucked away in an unassuming alley.  The food and house wine was fantastic; I had boar in risotto and Rachel had, I believe, some sort of gnocchi.  When the waiter came to pour our wine, he used a beautiful glass aerator, which looks like a piece of laboratory glassware, perhaps a condenser of some sort.  A cluster of 20 Japanese women sitting nearby exclaied “ooooooooh!” in unison, and began taking pictures; we were immortalized.

Here I am looking spiffy in the leather jacket mentioned in an earlier post.

Ah, Tuscany in the fall… most of the gold and red colors in those fields is due to grape vines turning.

Volterra was one of the most beautiful and interesting towns; not too touristy, and it hads a little but of everything.  It has the same kind of medieval feel that Siena does, and it also has a truly ancient Estruscan archway that pre-dates the Romans.  There are 3 heads on this arch but they have been completely eroded away (I wonder if that happened recently, because of acid rain, or if it was vandalized in the last 2000 years).

This spectacular castle is now a prison – a modern prison.  No boring cinder block camp for Tuscans; it’s “into the dungeon with him!”  You can really be locked up in a tower here.  It seems like there was a certain utilitarian lack of imagination involved in taking this beautiful castle and making it into a prison, but what do I know?  There’s something to be said for continuity of purpose.  Like everything else here, even the prison is beautiful.  You could hold weddings here!

The gate on the other end of the street with the Etruscan arch.  I think this one is merely from 1200.

Roman ruins just outside that gate – an amphitheater and bath complex.

Here’s San Gimignano from a couple of miles away.  In bewteen the farm fire and the town is… a prison.  The density of prisons seems pretty high here!

As you enter the gate you see the famous towers.  During the middle ages, towers were prestigious and every family wanted to have the largest.  The contest is comical, like the barber chair scene in Chaplain’s “The great dictator.”

From these tower’s tops, the 360-degree view is astonishing.  The architecture frames the countryside, glowing with fall colors on the vines and trees.



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1 Comment so far

  1. Rachel Stankey January 31st, 2012 8:20 AM

    Some of my favorite places! For the record, I LOVED Brunello and Montalcino Rosso:)

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