“To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.”
Montepulciano was like waking up in a dream. This sleepy medieval hilltop town was in the middle of a glorious fall, with the trees and grape vines in the surrounding valley slowly turning into a medley of colours. It was to be our home for the next two weeks. While we didn’t realize it at the time, we had just missed the high tide in Venice, escaping what would be the worst flooding since 1979. As it was, we settled into Montepulciano excited by the possibilities that surrounded us on each little hilltop. We had been to Tuscany 4 years ago with my family and had enjoyed driving hilltop to hilltop exploring each little town. This time was no different. We had lots planned, from the medieval towns of Pienza and Gubbio and the cities of Siena and Pisa, to visiting a medieval festival in the heart of Monticello.
Arriving in Montepulciano
I almost destroyed our rental car on the first day. We made the long drive from Venice to Montepulciano with no difficulties. After driving in France, I wasn’t as nervous driving in Italy. We discovered as we got to the road leading to our apartment, that it was a steep climb. I have driven a standard before but I sometimes get surprised and don’t shift gears as smoothly as I should. Thus, we hit what seemed like the 95-degree incline slowly in second gear. I was willing to go along with that but the car protested quite vigorously resulting in the type of smell within your car which even I, as a non-car person, recognize as not being a good smell to have emanating from your air vents. We did get to the top and to our apartment only to be told that the tiny spot seemingly reserved for scooter and tricycle parking was in fact where we were to park our car. The spot was also on a raised tiled area. Backing into the tight space meant that you had to maneuver around the other parked cars, get yourself into position and slowly roll yourself up onto the raised tile with just enough power to get you over the hump but not with so much power that you hit the garage door immediately after getting over the hump. This did not successfully happen every time, apparently, as the garage door bore many dents. As our car had one of those beeping guides to tell you how close you were to objects, I did manage to not add more injury to the garage door or to the car, an event I take quite a lot of pride in.
Our apartment was very nice with a big kitchen and a living room containing the fold out couch. Deanne and I had our own room and we were very happy to see that the trend in very stiff, hard beds was to continue with our new place. We also got a bidet in our bathroom. The look on Liam’s face as we explained what a bidet was and how it was used, was quite comical but was pretty well the only use we got out of the bidet.
Market Day in Montepulciano
Having settled in, we headed out to explore Montepulciano, the old town being only about 10 mins walking from our rooms. Not realizing it, we found suddenly found ourselves in an outdoor market just outside the walls of the town. I always enjoy wandering through markets and this was no exception. I never buy anything but I enjoy the sights and sounds and watching the locals. As we entered the gates of the town, we saw a potter just within the walls, making little dishes, bowls and pitchers. The kids enjoyed watching him for a bit and were pleasantly surprised when he offered a little pitcher to Liam and a dish to Siena. Deanne gave the potter a little offering, which resulted in the potter making loud exclamations in Italian. I thought he was protesting that Deanne hadn’t given him enough (as we had experienced in Morocco), but instead he proceeded to give Deanne a plate. So, with three fragile dishes in our hands, we headed back to our apartment to store them somewhere safe before heading back to the town. We are not sure how we will get them home in one piece but if we do manage it, it will make a nice little souvenir of Montepulciano.
Having returned to Montepulciano, we continued up the main street. Like most of the hilltop towns in Tuscany, the old town was mostly car-free with only locals and buses allowed to drive inside the town walls. This was well known to us the last time we rented a car in Tuscany four years ago, but not always easy to follow when you are trying to find your way to the parking lot and discover yourself in a place you know you should not be. It’s a strange, visceral feeling but one you feel immediately. You know you should not be there and you know that everybody else, who are now staring at you, knows as well. And you know, one day the mail will arrive once you are home again and there will be a large sized fine to remind you of your moment of recklessness. On our last trip to Tuscany, as we were walking through the main square of San Gimignano, we stopped and stared as this car full of tourists rolled slowly through the main square, obviously lost. I felt a lot of sympathy for that car as we all knew what was going to happen when they got home. While it can be hard on the wallet, it certainly makes it nice for walking and we slowly climbed the hilly road to make our way to the main square at the top.
Montepulciano is an ancient town with its origins harking back to “ancient Etruscan and Roman settlements – according to legend it was founded by King Porsena- , was long disputed between Florence and Siena. From the fifteenth to the sixteenth century, the town was the centre of a great cultural and artistic fervour.” Now it’s just a pretty hill town and a great central location for visiting other places nearby. We explored the old hillside church as well as the main square which also has a church. While the inside was quite beautiful the outside has never been finished. We spent lots of time ambling around the little streets stopping to admire the views to the valleys that surround the town before heading back to our apartment.
A Magnificent Steak!
On another day, we braved the storms to wander back into Montepulciano to a little restaurant called Osteria Acquacheta. We visited this little hole in the wall on our last visit here on the recommendation of Rick Steves, who raved about the steak here. I had been looking forward to this stop since we had started planning this trip and I was not disappointed. We actually ended up going to this restaurant twice during our stay. As it is so tiny, you end up sharing a table with lots of different people, which ends up being a neat experience. The restaurant only has seatings so you can’t just wander in and ask for a table. We ended up getting the 2:30 seating both times so we planned ahead and only had a small snack at lunch time so we weren’t full. After the meal, we were usually so stuffed that we would only have a light supper at night.
This place is known for it’s steak and it is amazing. After getting seated, you order some sides. Then the owner wanders by and asks you about what size of steak you want and whether you want a t-bone or sirloin. After he goes and personally chops your steak off this big side of beef, he brings it over to you for your approval. Never really being sure as to what a raw t-bone steak is supposed to really look like, I just nod my approval and he takes it off to charbroil. It arrives back perfectly done and lightly salted. It’s amazing and probably the best steak I have ever had. The sides are very good as well. We also got a dish of melted pecorino cheese and pear, as well as some bruschetta and two dishes of homemade pasta. While you would never be able to go more than once or twice a visit, it was definitely a highlight for us. It was also fun to see the owner eating with his family at the end table. We noticed on our first visit, that his (grand)son(?) was colouring a pumpkin. As it was around Halloween, we asked the owner whether they celebrated Halloween in the area. We had a nice little conversation about it where he said that there is a little trick or treating but mostly only with the older kids if any. We really enjoyed this restaurant and will certainly return.
Visiting Siena with Siena
When we visited Italy 11 years ago and came to Siena, we immediately though that Siena would make a very good name for a little girl. Fast forward many years (it seems), and we had the chance to bring our little girl for her first visit to visit her namesake. She was very excited then and she was very excited to visit Siena again. To prepare this time, we showed both the kids parts of a documentary on Netflix which showed the Palio, which is a medieval horse which takes place twice a year in the main square in Siena. It’s quite the event and something we would like to see someday. When we visited the square this time, the kids realized how small the square actually is and how crazy the riders are. The corners are sharp and horses constantly slide on the sand into the walls along the sides of the square. The crazy thing is that if a horse crosses the finish line without its rider, the neighbourhood it belongs to still wins the event. The event is huge for the neighbourhoods that participate, much like the Superbowl or Stanley Cup at a neighbourhood level. There is bribery and fighting and all sorts of things that go on to make this a unique event. With that in mind, we wandered around the main square and headed to the main city tower which Liam wanted to go up. It had great views of the city though unfortunately, we couldn’t stay long as there was a time limit.
Heading away from the square, we ended up at the main cathedral which is huge but actually remains unfinished. It was supposed to encompass a massive area of the local area but ran out of funds. You can still climb to the top of an archway that was supposed to be one of the endpoints/entrances to the cathedral. Now, you can wander around the square that was supposed to be a part of the cathedral and see the various museums, baptistry and the actual cathedral that were completed. One of the neat things about the cathedral is that you can go into the baptistry and crypt and see the layers upon layers of ground that resulted in the final cathedral. Underground are the remains of previous versions of the final church and it was quite astounding to see how far underground it extends. We also had the chance to see this very strange light show in the bowels of the church. We weren’t sure where we were going or what we were going to see but shrugged our shoulders and followed the guide. The resulting light show that we saw was quite interesting as they displayed images over the existing walls. It reminded me of the light shows in Beaune which displayed beautifully rendered graphics on top of the buildings. However, this light show also had a historical/word poem narrative to go along with the light show that I am not sure would have made sense even if it hadn’t been garbled in the translation into English. Still, it was an interesting experience and we headed out quite baffled but very entertained.
In our visits to the various churches in Siena, Liam was very confused as to why there were so many dead people on display in the churches. Siena, of course, boasts the remains of its patron saint, St. Catherine with various body parts on display in one of the other main cathedrals in Siena. He was quite astounded by the fact that a church would display the very skeletal head and finger of a person and that people would find this of interest. We had great delight in reminding Siena that her middle name comes partly from St. Catherine.
We had the chance to wander around Siena twice and had fun finding some souvenirs with Siena’s name on them.
Montalcino and Festival
One of the unique things we got to do during our stay in Tuscany is visit Montalcino to see the “Festival of the Thrush”. This medieval festival has been around in various degrees, first starting as a celebration of the beginning of the hunting season. As the title suggests, the hunting was centered around the thrush and the festival was used to honour the best archer/hunter of the town. Like the Palio, the neighbourhoods all compete against each other though the archer actually comes from the neighbourhood unlike the Palio, where the jockeys get selected independent of whether they are from the neighbourhood. The festival culminates in an archery contest. However, we were only able to visit the first of the two day festival.
Fortunately, there was still a lot to see. Upon arriving, we headed to the main square and watched the procession of the dancers. These dancers did a number of traditional dances to the accompaniment of an accordion and were all dressed in 18th Century costumes. After the dancers had completed their dances, each of the neighbourhoods paraded to the main square from their respective neighbourhoods accompanied by drums and trumpets. This meant the crowds in the main square increased dramatically as all the excited locals from each neighbourhood, all singing their local neighbourhood “war cry”, descended upon the main square, each coming from a different direction. We quickly found ourselves surrounded and engulfed by one of these neighbourhoods.
The kids were stuck in middle of a large group of local kids, much to their bemusement. Once the neighbourhoods had all arrived, with their representatives, wearing the traditional medieval finery, the names of the archers were chosen from the box. While we heard some cheers and gasps from the audience, we weren’t quite sure if everyone got the selection they were hoping for but it was still fun to see. After the archers were chosen, we all headed to the food tents.
As part of the festivities, each neighbourhood runs a food tent selling local delicacies including local wine. It was a lot of fun going from tent to tent trying to decipher which foods each of the tents were selling. As it was all in Italian, it wasn’t easy though we had learned long ago that “trippo” was Italian for tripe. We wanted to avoid this at all costs. In the end, we found some tagliatelle with meat sauce and some noodles with mushroom sauce from one of the neighbourhoods, along with fried chicken nuggets. It was very tasty and all made right in front of us from scratch. It wasn’t until about half way through that Deanne told Siena and Liam that the meat sauce contained rabbit. Liam and Siena couldn’t believe that we had just made them eat cute bunnies! After that first round, we headed to another tent and got some fried polenta and ravioli with meat sauce. We sat outside at long tables with the other locals and enjoyed the beautiful fall day, windy as it was.
What Would They Call the Leaning Tower of Pisa if They Fixed it?
This was the question the kids talked about as we made our way to Pisa. This was quite a long journey but was high on Liam’s bucket list of places to visit. He is in a bit of a tower phase right now and wants to go up every single tower we see. The Eiffel Tower of course, is his favorite but the Leaning Tower of Pisa was quite high on his list.
One of the nice things about travelling at this time, is that the crowds are more manageable. Yes, there are still tour groups but not nearly as suffocating as during the summer months. When we got to Pisa, we were easily able to make our way around the area. We first stopped at the main basilica and learned that the tower was originally built as a church bell tower for the cathedral. However, only the first two levels were built before construction was halted for 100 years due to wars. This was a good thing as it was already starting to lean due to it having been built on soft, marshy land. The pause in building actually allowed the building to settle before building continued. Had the building continued without the pause, it would have collapsed. However, several years ago, visits to the tower were halted while engineers firmed up the structure to avoid it collapsing. Thankfully, the tower had been reopened and we were able to go up. It’s quite an amazing building and Liam was suitably impressed. We stayed at the top looking at the view for quite awhile before heading out. As it was a 2 hour car drive, we had to head back so we didn’t have time to wander the rest of Pisa which was unfortunate as Deanne and I have fond memories of our first visit.
We had been wandering around when we came across large groups of people dressed in medieval garb getting ready for some kind of festival. In asking around, we discovered that we had just chanced upon the day where they have this huge competition across the main bridge. The neighbourhoods compete in this large tug of war which re-enacts this battle that happened at the bridge. As we are always up for a good festival we found some good spots and waited to see what happened. This is when we discovered that the festivals in Italy are not actually for the tourists. The towns take these events quite seriously and the locals get quite invested in these competitions. As such, we found our selves be moved further and further away from the action as the locals started filling up the sections and the viewpoints closest to the event started to be cordoned off. Luckily, we were taken pity upon by some locals from one of the neighbourhoods and we got to sit up in the stands. It was a lot of fun and something we will always remember. We were very thankful at that point, that the children had been able to experience at least one local festival while in Tuscany.
Gubbio and Pienza
Most afternoons (with school having been completed in the morning), we tried to find someplace to visit for a “fieldtrip”. One afternoon, we headed to Pienza, one of the closer hilltop towns. This town is distinctive as it is the only town actually planned by a Pope. It was much smaller than Montepulciano and there wasn’t a lot to see other than the view from the town walls and the main church. Both were beautiful and the town was very picturesque. The fall day was quite windy with a little nip in the air, which was our first reminder of how close to winter we were. It was also a reminder of how long we had been travelling for already!
The other town we visited on one of our fieldtrips was Gubbio. Gubbio is a lovely little town which has two distinctive features, a Roman Amphitheatre and a funicula. Liam and I have been reading a book set in the Roman era, so he was very excited about the visit to a real Roman amphitheatre albeit quite a bit smaller than the colosseum mentioned in his book. He was still very impressed though as we climbed around the ancient Roman walls and sat on the grass lined seats. They had a lot of fun imagining what the building would have looked like with the animals and gladiators in the pits below!
As Gubbio is built on the side of a hill, it is not a true hilltop town. However, there is a church and shrine at the top of the hill that made Gubbio an important place of pilgrimage. There are two ways to get up the hill. True pilgrims take the path and stop at each of the little shrines along the way to do penance or ask for prayers. The rest of us take the metal cage! Using the metal cage is a lot of fun. It’s almost like a ski lift except you stand inside these metal contraptions. As there were two of us going in each cage, the attendant had one of stand on one of these outlined circles painted on the ground, while the other person stood one another dot just a few meters further down. As the cage comes around, the attendant opens the gate. As it is moving, the first person jumps in and moves to the side to give the next person room to jump inside. The attendant then closes and latches the gate and you’re off! At the top, the attendant opens the gate and you both take turns jumping out. The kids really enjoyed this and wanted to both be in the first circle so they could jump in first.
For true pilgrims (and for the locals) the big thing is reaching the church at the top of the hill which holds the remains of St. Ubaldo. This church solidified Liam’s belief that the churches here are very strange as this church holds the remains of the saint himself and displays it quite prominently at the front of the church. All I have to say is that considering how old he is, he looks surprisingly good. Following our visit to the church, we headed out in search of sustenance and encountered a very strange little eatery. We were looking for something cheap but most places seemed to be closed being the off-season. This place seemed to have pizza and was by far the cheapest of the places we had visited. So we headed in and the owner ushered us to a table. We mentioned that we wanted some pizza. The way he looked at us and responded, it was like he was saying, “Of course you want pizza. That’s why you are here!”. He didn’t give us menus or anything. It was just assumed that we wanted pizza and that we were going to start with one slice each. He went away without asking if we wanted anything to drink and I had to chase him down to order some drinks from him. When the pizza came, it not only came in slices but also individual pizzas. So we ended up with four slices of pizzas and two additional small sized pizzas. A few minutes later, he returned with another slice of pizza on a plate. We began to wonder if we had ended up in an all you can eat pizza situation. We were worried he was going to come out with more pizza. As it turned out, he didn’t come out with any more slices. We were relieved that he hadn’t brought us more and he was probably relieved that we hadn’t eaten more. So, we both won especially as the lunch was quite reasonable for what we ordered.
As we ended our time in Tuscany, we were not only thankful for the time we had had there and all the unique experiences we had had, but also for the timing. Late October/early November was a beautiful time to visit. The crowds were much smaller and the landscape with the changing colours was beautiful to wander through. As our time ended, the weather started to turn and we had some really bad weather hit us including the storm that you probably read about in the news, especially with the flooding in Venice. For the most part though, we had beautiful weather. I think we would have run into issues with the weather if we had arrived any later so we were fortunate to have picked this time to visit. Our next stop is to Rome for two days and then off to our cruise across the Atlantic! Storms have already interfered with our plans there with our itinerary having been changed to a more southerly course but we will still enjoy our time on the ship!
Just as a note, this will probably be our last posting for the next 12 days as we will not have any internet access on the ship. So we will be back when we hit Puerto Rico!