Volterra (Tuscany), Italy – Feb 2018

Yesterday was to some extent a write off. The weather was awful but that’s to be expected when you journey into the hills in winter and I’m not complaining. Today was about travelling 150 miles further north to Sestri Levante which is on the Med coast in the Italian province of Liguria but; I also wanted to visit the town of Volterra and I tailored my route accordingly. Both the journey and Volterra were enthralling.

My route was made up of two parts. The first was along a series of good country roads that wound through delightful Tuscan countryside and took me through the town of Casole d’Elsa to Volterra (and then on to Pisa). The second, from Pisa, was mostly motorway (the A12) which took me past Massa (famous for it’s Marble) and La Spezia (the port city and naval base). I will reflect only on the first part.

I didn’t intended stopping at Casole d’Elsa. From a distance it looked just like any another Tuscan hilltop walled town and I simply don’t have time to view them all. However, this place stopped me in my tracks.

… the roads were fine; the countryside beautiful (and the weather was doing it’s best to brighten up)

… Casole d’Elsa looked just like any other small hilltop town

As I drove through the town I noticed some tree sculptures by the side of the road and I stopped to look:

     

… hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil. Well, they make a change from carved squirrels and rabbits and the like (which are commonplace around Cheshire)

There were various other carvings but this place wasn’t just about wood sculptures:

   

… the above was entitled “Immigrants” (particularly apt given the increasing number of Syrian refugees making for Italy at the moment) but, at the risk of appearing a bit of a Philistine (sorry, I shouldn’t have said that), I think “Zombies” would have been a more appropriate title. Imagine bumping into them on a dark night on the way back from the pub?  Worse than wild boar.

   

… difficult to photograph but this was my favourite. I prefer the sideview. Simple but effective. This work was created by Giampiero Muzzi and there was an accompanying poem some of which I reproduce below:-

“Crystal pure spermatozoons are flying high in the sky….. A rain of miniature shining seeds will fall on Earth. From then onward the men who who will come into the world will be better than their predecessors. Better than us”

I subsequently discovered that Casole d’Elsa is home to the (world-renowned) Verrocchio Art Centre. Perhaps these pieces were produced by students of the VAC? Who knows?

Not long after leaving Casole d’Elsa I arrived at Volterra. Wow! But, I’ll let the photos do the talking:

  

… the gate on the left is the one I used to enter this old Etruscan city. The gate on the right, the Porta All’Alco  is one of two out of seven gates into Volterra that can be traced back to Etruscan times (400 BC). I understand the large blocks are Etruscan

  

… my gate took me up a few steps and past another sculpture about which there is a story but that is for another time

   

   

… I excluded people from these photos but the lanes are lived in. There was a butcher’s shop, a baker’s, a fishmonger, a flower shop and an ironmonger’s and the people I passed were … well, they were doing normal things – walking dogs and dragging disobedient children around the shops and; older people were limping home with shopping bags that were far too heavy and; it seemed everyone knew everybody else and they stopped and talked to each other and…  there wasn’t a tourist in sight (except me and; I was doing my best to look normal). It was real life.

And then I arrived at the Piazza dei Priori and found the Palazzo dei Priori (that’s it on the right):

   

… it seems the Palazzo was the setting for the “Twilight” books and TV series by Stephenie Meyer and where the elite vampires, the Volturi, live. Sod’s law, this place is fast becoming a mecca for teenage vampire fans. No comment

Back to reality. Volterra has a castle known as the Fortezza Medicea but, as spectacular as it looks, it is not one that I want to enter:

  

… the Fortezza Medicea has been converted into a maximum security state prison. The prison operates a rehabilitation restaurant and, periodically, serves gourmet meals to the public

Then there was the Amphitheatre:

 

… the first thought that crossed my mind when I saw this was as to whether or not the rows of seats in the theatre were originally grass as opposed to stone (methinks grass would have been more comfortable to sit on). 

I think I must have walked every lane of Volterra at least 3 times and I stopped both for brunch (a great slice of pizza just off Piazza dei Priori) and a late afternoon tea (apple pie on the Piazza XX Settembre). This latter Piazza is worth a couple of photos:

   

… the first photo is of a non partisan war memorial; the second is of my route back down to the Van; both taken from the Piazza XX Settembre

A thoroughly enjoyable visit. I was intending to finish with some photos of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta. The outside of the cathedral does not look much but the nave and altar are very impressive. However, if you have been following this blog you will, of late, been “churched” out. So, given that we started with a little culture in Casole d’Elsa, I’ll finish with the same from Volterra:

   

… this is a bronze by Andrea Roggi simply termed “We Are Part Of The World – Tree of Life”. Okay, it’s a bit of a mouthful but I like the bronze

 

 

 

 

 

 

Montalcino & San Quirico d’Orcia (Tuscany), Italy – Feb 2018

Okay, the itinerary for today was a little ambitious. Four Toscano villages? Impossible if you want to do them all justice. Three was okay and I nearly made it, actually parking up in Pienza, but I had spent longer than anticipated in both Montalcino and San Quirico and the weather turned foul so I gave up on both Pienza and Montelpuciano. Two’s fine. There’s always tomorrow.

Montalcino is a small hill town in Tuscany with a population of about 5,000 and amazing views over the Asso, Ombrone and Arbia valleys. It is reputed to have the warmest and driest climate in the whole of Tuscany (although today it was neither warm nor dry) and it is home to the famous Brunello Montalcino wine. Tuscany is well known for Chianti but it’s best wines are the Brunello and the Vino Nobile from respectively Montalcino and Montelpuciano. That is why this area of Italy was always going to be of interest to me. I planned to visit an Enoteca or two to sample the local wines, especially the Brunello. Enotecas are wine tasting shops not unlike the Austrian “heurige” mentioned in one of the Austrian blogs but they stock a wider selection.

The drive to Montalcino was beautiful and I took it slow. This is a pretty part of Italy even in winter with quite decent country roads which curve around an undulating landscape that is mostly cultivated but part wild (witness last nights boar!) and the tops of many hills are crowned with spectacular stone castles, churches and monasteries.

Montalcino clings to one of the larger hills in the Val d’Orcia National Park. The town is surrounded by walls and topped by a fortress known as the Rocca. Most tourists at this time of the year are concerned only to visit Tuscany’s cities (Florence, Pisa, Siena, etc) and parking in the centre of Montalcino was easy. I left the Van in the car park alongside the Rocca and went to explore the fortress.

  

Above – the outer gate to the Rocca and an inner entrance that happens to be…

… an Enoteca – the Fortress Wineshop. Result!!

I was soon deep into a wine tasting session and enjoyed sampling a variety of Brunello which are made using only the Sangiovese grape and are aged for a minimum 5 years (2 of which must be in oak barrels). The really good vintages improve with age and are left for between 10 and 20 years before drinking

   

My favourites were a 2011 Banfi and a 2012 Lisini (both still young but smooth) and, best of all, a 2001 Sezzana. I bought some 2012 Banfi which Wine Spectator rates as “an outstanding vintage” and “a textbook Brunello that will be at it’s best between 2020 and 2033”.  Looking forward to tasting them.

After the wine tasting it was time to explore Montalcino and get some fresh air and exercise before heading off to San Quirico d’Orcia. One point worth noting about this fortress however is that a Jazz & Wine Festival is held here every July. Now that would be great.

… the views inside and outside of the Rocca were fine (it cost 4 euros to walk the fortress) but, although the rain held off, it was very cold

The main street from the fortress into the predominantly pedestrianised town centre contained many more Enoteca but I resisted the urge.

  

… the main street from the fortress into the town led to the Cathedral di San Salvatore. 

   

… the above photos show how steep some of Montalcino’s lanes are. The town quite literally clings to the side of the hill

  

… carrying on along the town’s principal lane, past the cathedral, is the Church of the Madonna del Soccorso. The outside was being renovated and covered in scaffolding but the inside of the church was special

It was gone lunchtime as I left Montalcino. I hadn’t intended staying quite so long but I figured it wouldn’t take much more than 20 minutes to drive to San Quirico d’Orcia and that proved to be the case.

SQ’O straddles the Via Francigena (a primary route in the Middle Ages for pilgrims travelling the 1,100 miles from Canterbury to Rome) but it is not as well known nor is it as frequently visited as Montalcino, Pienza, Montepulciano and many other small towns in the area. It was recommended to me as a place to visit by someone from Tuscany and right he was.

The town is named after San Quirico (St Cyricus, St Cyriac or St Cyr to you and me) and the principal church is the Collegiate of the Saints Quirico and (his mother) Julitta. Most of the legends surrounding the martyrdom of the Saints Cyriac and Julitta are particularly bloodthirsty and not for repeating in this (when it suits me, family orientated) blog. However, there is one account (the English version as recorded in prints held at St Cyriac’s Church, Leacock, Wiltshire) that I don’t mind repeating because by any standards it is patently absurd. This English version claims that in 304 AD, at the height of Diocletian’s reign over the Roman Empire, St Cyriac and his mother were martyred as a result of the 3 year old St Cyriac having boxed the ears of the Roman Governor of Tarsus because he blasphemed. Only the English.

   

… lots of lived in lanes (see the washing hanging out on the left); this one leads to the Collegiate of the Saints Quirico and Julitta

Another splendid looking church in San Quirico d’Orcia is the Chiesa di San Francesco on the main square (the Piazza della Liberta) but, my favourite is the little Church of Santa Maria Assunta:

   

… the gate into the Piazza della Liberta and the Chiesa di San Francesco. The wooden structure in front of the gate looks like an Onager (siege engine) but there was nothing around to explain its relevance to the town

   

… and the small but exquisite Church of Santa Maria Assunta

Despite being perched on a hilltop (where else?) the wholly pedestrianised town centre is mostly flat and provides for easy walking through some lovely lanes where I discovered at least two boutique hotels, some fine looking restaurants and even a Birrificio Artigianale (an artisan brewery) – the place is worth another trip to properly experience the food and drink alone. Everything about the town is so very clean and tidy (unlike so many other places in Italy which country must rank amongst the most dirty and litter infested I have seen on this tour) and the local people are so very welcoming.

   

   

One final surprise in SQ’O, I stumbled across a bronze statue of Tazio Nuvolare, otherwise known as the Flying Mantuan and the most famous racing driver of his time, who in 1930 and 1933 won the Mille Miglia (a thousand mile motor endurance race between Brescia and Rome and back). It seems the route of the race took it through SQ’O:

… the Flying Mantuan, winner of the Mille Miglia in 1930 and 1933. The last Mille Miglia was run in in 1957 with Stirling Moss and his co-driver Denis Jenkinson winning it in 1955 

Seems a good note to end this blog on. From San Quirico d’Orcia I raced eastwards towards Pienze, arriving just in time to experience the heaviest rain since I crossed the Albanian border into Greece. I hung about for an hour or so to see if the rain would stop and then called it a day and returned to Casciano di Murlo.

 

 

Casciano di Murlo (Tuscany), Italy – Feb 2018

My original plan, after leaving Rome, was to head for Grosseto (117 miles to the north) and then Siena (a further 48 miles, north north east) and to stay over in both places. I no longer have the time for that (I have to get back to the UK within the next 2 weeks) and since I couldn’t choose between the two towns, I elected to stop somewhere between them and explore a few of the local villages instead. This would mean one stop instead of two and it would be in keeping with my expressed wish to go somewhere quieter after Rome.

So, I drove about 130 miles north to the quiet and fairly remote village of Casciano di Murlo in Tuscany. Nestled amongst densely wooded and hilly terrain it is very quiet but also very well placed for me to visit a couple of interesting Tuscan villages tomorrow – Montalcino and Montepulciano (more about them in the morning). To give you an idea as to how quiet and remote this place is:-

I set off from Rome late in the day and didn’t arrive in Casciano di Murlo until well after dark. I parked up just outside the village and walked a kilometre or so back to a local store to buy bread and milk. I stopped also to check out the local tavern but, just one glass of the local red wine and a slice of pizza (such that I didn’t have to cook). Returning to the Van with a small torch in hand I received the shock of my life. A “sounder” of wild boar (I had to look “sounder” up on the internet – it is the collective noun for a dozen or more boar) charged out of the woods and across the road directly in front of me. I really thought they were heading for me and to say they made me jump is an understatement. They frightened the bloody life out of me!

… dense woodland one side of the Van and…

… terraces of olive trees on the other side (both photos taken the next day)

It didn’t altogether end there. I awoke the next morning to noise outside the Van. I thought it might be the boar again but no, this time it was a small herd of deer. They disappeared as I exited the Van.

The weather was cold but dry (4 degrees and windchill compared to the 22 degrees and sun I enjoyed down at Gallipoli) and the weather forecast was for rain later in the day but there was time enough to take a quick walk around Casciano before setting off for Montalcino and Montepulciano:-

   

    

A very quiet village. Time enough to plot the day’s itinerary. I think 4 more villages in total unless the rain proves too heavy – Montalcino, San Quirico d’Orcia, Pienza and Montepulciano