Day 1: On the Wednesday morning 1st June 2016, the Tuscany Trio “Anna, Annelle and Sara Jane” left London for Rome, to walk the hills and hill towns of Tuscany, Italy, for 8 days. From Rome airport, we managed to secure a bus to the Rome Termi (central station). The bus trip, because of heavy traffic, took us about ¾hr to our destination, giving us an insight to the residential suburbs and city centre with its ancient, Roman architecture government, church buildings and gardens.
We found upon our arrival at the Termi, a little order but in chaos, the Termi was being upgraded. Here the demand for trains and services by people was frenetic yet tangible. I could only observe this with amusement and to keep my sanity as we were soon to be a part of this! Anna collared an American gentleman who helped her obtain tickets to Chiusi and thereafter to change trains to Montepulciano.
We had time for a quick McDonald Italian style veggie, salad burger and juice for lunch. Timing of our train was critical as the required platform number appeared on the information board a few minutes before it was due to leave. We raced to the appropriate platform, asking the way in our limited Italian. Finally an american/italian lady consoled us by informing us that we were at the right platform.
We hastily placed our tickets in the automative ticket box machine and boarded the train, minutes before it was due to leave! Finding the correct platform with a backpack and pulling a suitcase in haste was quite an exercise for the Tuscany Trio, preparing us for more haste in the future! We eventually arrived at Chiusi. Here we made the change to a quaint 4 coach train destined for Montepulciano. Anna did phone our hostess upon leaving Rome Termi to remind her to collect us.
The train eventually did arrive at a small and quiet station rather late in the afternoon and there Cinzia Caroli, our host, warmly welcomed her guests and drove us to the B&B L`Agnolo. After a welcome shower , we stepped out to see Montepulciano and a light supper, it was early evening. We walked downhill to an even square and eventually found a local Tattoria.
It was self run and owned by a female chef, large hearted and very Italian. Anna and Annelle thoroughly enjoyed the famous Montepulciano red wine on offer. Tonic water and lemon was to be my main drink throughout the trip! Of course the pizzas were delicious and generous. Since we were tired and night had fallen, we made our way up the cobbled and narrow streets to our lodgings. Before closing my eyes I remember running my eyes over the fresco ceiling, admiring the finess of the room, an experience to be later reflect upon.
Day 2 At 7.30am we breakfasted at the Caffe Poliziano, just up the road, in the usual buffet Italian style. A substantial breakfast was offered of in season fruits, boiled eggs, sweet jam tarts, numerous breads, cheese,yogurt, oats and coffee. The view from the dining room was expansive and from the window was spotted a small porch with blue latticed frame work, quite exquisite! There was a door which opened out onto the porch to take full advantage of the view.
Have u ever had that that feeling “I have been here before, it feels familiar”, well in Montepulciano I certainly did! We purchased fruit and pecoroni cheese for our lunch. Bread was taken from the ample breakfast table. Water bottles were filled and with our small rucksacks we set off. Time was limited in Montepulciano, it had so much to offer, as all these charming antique hill towns we were to visit.
We started our 15km walk to Pienza. On our way down from Montepulciano was the famous white Temple of Saint Biagio. Antonio Sangallo il Vecchio provided the plans for the church, built between 1518-1540 . The setting is rather isolated and does it justice, it imminants a serenity and peacefulness. It is an awe inspiring piece of architecture.
We visited this early pilgrim church with its ground plan shaped like a Greek cross, for a short time only, as persons of note were arriving for a ceremony and we needed to move on.
We progressed with our walk up and along ridges and into the groves of the area. Very few streams were observed, perhaps they wind their way underground! We passed small farms with tuscan styled dwellings. Summer with its abundance enlivened the senses.
The sights of blossoms, numerous wild red poppies, different flowering shrubs and wooded smells were exhilarating. It somehow seemed so familiar, perhaps it was just creation on another side of the world manifesting her brillance, if only we would remember to connect. The interludes of shade, because of the heat, were most welcome to the Tuscany Trio! I must confess that only photos taken of our trip can really portray the sights we saw of Tuscany, or one needs to go for oneself.
By midday we reached the walled town of Montichello for a light lunch, with a panoric view of the beginnings of the expansive d’ Orcia Valley before us. Here noble families enjoyed the patronage and successful rulership of Ferdinando di Medici of Florence who managed to defeat the secular Roman Catholic forces. We were soon on our way to Pienza.
This was a tough day as it was hot and humid, light rains in the afternoon, bringing a freshness and sharpness of the natural vegetation to the scenery of Tuscany. In one travel book it is said that not many English/Americans visit these small hillside towns, what a pity!
Late afternoon we arrived through the portal of Pienza. Within minutes we hit upon an ice cream shop, twas our first introduction to Italian lemon sorbet ice cream! Its effect was almost immediate, delicious, cool and the sensation of heat dispersing. We passed through a shaded park near the entrance known as the Piazzo Danto Alighieri on our way to a very modern hotel known as the Hotel Corsignano, where we were to be accommodated.
Pienza apparently is a jewel among the archetypal Tuscan landscapes. Historically during the Rennaissance period a great family of the Piccolomini exiled itself temporarily in the village of Corsignano. The son Aneas Silvius Piccolomini was born and later as Pope Pius II he helped design the town, with the pennies of the faithful! The Piazzo Pio (square) displays the chief buildings of the town.
He named the hilltop town after himself, Pienza.
Day 3 After an excellent buffet breakfast and such good Italian coffee we started on our way to Bagno Vignoni, a 15km walk. For the trio we experienced the Tuscany landscape of gorgeous, dense and tall, sweet smelling cypress trees and olive trees.
Our walk took us along white tracks known as “strade” paths and small roads. The ridges took us up into the airy elements of light breezes, hot sun and such an feeling of elevation, a constant relief to the groves where the humidity seem to be more pressing! Following the waymarks took us past many small farms. Wheat and barley were growing well on the farm lands with the abundance of rain and sunshine.
This walk was a chance to again experience the d`Orcia Valley with its small heavily wooded forests and open spaces with huge flocks of sheep seen roaming across the hills occassionally. The openess of the Tuscany landscape lent itself to feeling one`s soul to sing, as space was abundant and buildings rare in the open landscape.
San Quirico d’ Orcia: The journey between Pienza and Bagno Vignoni took us through this hill town.
Sieste time is from 2.00- 4.00pm. It is recognised as a medieval looking town (the cobbled pizza and fountain are from the 1600s ) with small ancient churches, open to the public. Some time before the modern SS2 (Main Road) was built, the old Via Francigenia route used by the monks previously traversed the valley of the d`Orcia and passed through this town. It was endowed with special lodgings, hospices and hospitals to accommodate these monks en route to Rome.
I believe St Catharina was responsible for supporting these residences. There is a huge garden of hedges, a place of stillness and quietness bringing rest and peace to the weary, known as “Horti Lenonini” designed in the 15th century as resting place for pilgrims and current tourists!. Its uncluttered and simplicity of style created an atmosphere. This was the experience!
There are several ancient wells in this town. The monks pilgrimed from Canterbury, England to Rome, Italy and visa versa. This town enthralled us with its antiquity. We lunched at a small inn in the ancient style of a medieval building with 3 small tortoises moving at our feet! We were soon on our way to Bagno Vignoni. There is an extension of the town just outside these walls which is more modern. Here most San Quirico d’Orcia residents live in this humble agricultural centre.
After our day’s walk of 15km we arrived at Bagno Vignoni quite exhausted. We were booked in at Hotel Terme in the centre of the town, right next to the main hot water pool. However our experience of hot spa waters was to be inside the hotel. So we donned costumes, gowns and off to the thermal waters! Hotel Terme has its own private thermal spa with 2 warm sprays falling into the small inner pools.
The warm spray was therapeutic to my stiff neck muscles and tendons. Being a water baby I was in my element, it was my first time in thermal waters! After 40mins I felt like a new person, happy and quite elated. There is a continuing legend of healthy waters one finds in the ancient construction notes of Rossellino that this residence known as Le Terme was home to Pope Pius II Piccolomina. Alternatively perhaps Lorenza di Medici financed the building, as he also enjoyed the thermal waters.
At dinner, with local red wine and pizzas The Tuscany Trio decided to explore the town of Bagno Vignoni the next day. We would accompany Beppe (who always transferred our luggage to our next residence) to the church St Antimo church at 11.00am till 3.00pm and then he would collect us at 3.00pm for Montalcino.
Day 4 It was refreshing to walk in the town and view the open pools and areas available for bathing. The sulpher rock face water falls enlightened us as to the supposed therapy one receives from these warm springs. There were plenty of causeways taking the waters down to the cliffs.
There was a constant smell of sulphur. We checked the bookshops for the history of Etruscan peoples without success. All literature was in Italian. After our purchases of gifts at a tourist shop we met Beppe at La Terme to shuttle us across to the Sant`Antimo church.
At the Sant’Antimo church we decided upon an hours walk through the natural vegetation, red poppies, vibrant in the summer seaon . Twas one of those hot & muggy days. Thereafter we visited the church where a recording of the Gregorian chants was playing, which did create a sacred reverential atmosphere. The church has regular services but the presiding priest was ill and therefore unavailable.
However the church was open to visitors. The church’s history is of the Benedictine order of Cluny France, 12th century when it first started out as a monastry. The church gave us shelter from a thunderstorm with heavy rain, it was a gracious sanctuary during that downpour. Our next port of call was Montalcino. Beppe arrived at 3.00pm to collect us.
We arrived at Hotel Dei Capitani, Montalcino. Historical note: There is reason to believe that the building may have been used for the Sienese people fleeing from the Florentine Army. The terrace from our room gave us a breathtaking view of the Val d’Orcia hills and valleys. It gave a perfect180 degree vista, unusual experience. The hotel is furnished in the Arte Poverna style with a small swimming pool in the grounds.
A rather steep climb on route to the Baroque style Church of the Madonna del Soccorso. On the right was a narrow park with a stupendous view of the hills of Orcia area. We walked into the shopping centre, purchased sandals for Annelle who was having trouble with her closed shoes. In the pouring rain, fitted with gagooles we visited the wine and chocolate shops respectively. Anna purchased the famous Brunello wine produced in the vineyards surrounding the town of Montalcino. Annelle and myself went for the chocolate and biscuits. Again I had the feeling that I had been to this town and hotel, rather odd!
That evening we enjoyed a vegetarian Italian dish with a plate of chunks of white bread and a bowl of olive oil. Delicious! It was part of the meal, besides the local Brunello wine.
Day 5 The next morning we resumed our walk, 22km to Buonconvento with all Mac Adventurers, all 5 of us! We ventured through the portal to walk the hills, ridges, valleys and glens of Tuscany. The group took turns in leading the party. There was plenty of farmland to observe, natural ponds with croaking frogs, olive tree orchards. We passed several friendly horses, though not too well looked after! Walking through shades glens, porcupine quills were spotted and also droppings from wild boar. At one time we passed a family on well groomed horses enjoying an afternoon ride!
Eventually about 5.00pm we reached our farm residence Fattoria Pieve a Salti in the Buonconvento area. It is a agriturisimo which has been converted from a farm into a sprawling farmlike hotel with pool and health centre. The rooms were spacious and the restaurant offered tuscan cuisine with organic grown produce from the farm. Anna and I celebrated our birthday with the famous Brunello wine and our colleagues of Mac Adventurers.
Day 6 After a most sumptuous buffet breakfast of fruit, various breads, cakes, egges, bacon from (wild pork) cheese and cuppuchinos we began our walk with the help of first being shuttled to the famous monastry Monte Olivieto Maggiore. It is the mother house of the Olivetians or White Benedictines , an order of monks founded in 1313 by the Blessed Bernado Tolomei of Siena.
Its 14th century brick building lies on the 2nd ridge line to the north of the agriturisimo, about a 3hr walk away. Its total ascent is 526ft (160m). We discovered the abbey to be well designed, spacious and practical. There were 36 large frecoes within the cloisters depicting stages of the building of the abbey, the life of Saint Benedict, acts of charity, a few frescoes showed the dark and light forces portrayed in weird forms, typical of the thinking in that period of time. Such bondage to fear!
They were painted between 1497 and 1508 by Luca Signorello and Antonio Bazzi, (they have recently been renovated). There is a tourist shop where the purchase of postcards etc and a cafe outside of the abbey which has a large outdoor patio to enjoy a meal. We noted the cypress trees were in abundance. They provided a restful atmosphere for quietness and reflection or prayer for the public. We all felt it was a vibrant and well run, thriving abbey which was shared with the public most happily within the fixed hours allowed.
To return to Buonconvento we walkers passed through a drawbridge and followed a road signposted Chiusure Village. Eventually the route directed us up a steep hill, with breathtaking views, eventually leaving behind the uppermost ridge of the exquisite views of the Abbey below. Upon reaching Chiusure we rested at a local cafe, to cool ourselves with our favourite drinks, taking in the charm of the small village with colourful potted plants from the window sills and on the sides of the front doors.
The rest of the day was spent walking en route to Buonconvento. Taking wrong directions was a feature with the group but eventually working together, sensible direction was set in place, it is amazing when unity comes about within a group, harmony and acceptance of the situation. The route took us through small forests, hills to climb and farms to pass through. In the afternoon we endured a heavy downpour and of course experienced the mud and loamy clay which stuck to our shoes, it certainly did delay our progress!
The thought was considered perhaps Autumn would have been a better time to walk! Eventually we reached Buonconvento area with a rather damp washing line of clothes awaiting us which we had left earlier that morning!
Day 7 The next morning our car shuttle took the MacAdventure 4 to the Grancia di Cuna, a large medieval farm building which was covered in scaffolding and being renovated. It was not worth a visit so we started on our 16 km walk to Siena.
Annelle our 5th Mac Adventurer continued with our luggage to the Sienna hotel where we would meet up later. We started the walk in the lowlands, eventually ascending the steep hills to Siena. Our English MacAdv companions had moved on. By midday we had made progress and climbed the main road to Sienna. We eventually made our way along the quiet residential roads of Sienna.
We noted that there were plenty of Mac Adventure and Francigena waymarks directing us up and onto Siena. By midday we had walked along the main but very steep road! Eventually reaching an urban road and still ascending, passed lemon trees, startling pheasants (in overgrown plots) and chirping birdlife, the rarified air exhilerated us, but the sun was relentlessly hot and uncomfortabe. A small “Tom Thumb” bus designed to get around the small streets, passed us.
Upon its return we hailed it down, as the ascent and heat was just to much for the 2 old ducks! Gratefully we sunk onto the soft seat, and watched as we were motored through the portal to a bus stop, advised to wait for the next bus which would take us to the Campo (centre of Siena, the city built on 7 hills). To add to our welcome in Siena, we enjoyed pistachio flavoured ice creams at an open restaurant in the Campo and then onto our Hotel Chiusarelli to meet up with Annelle. Later in the afternoon we took a walk to buy our return train tickets to Rome. Walking through the narrow cobbled street of Siena, I was touched by the ancient characteristics of this town as being so quaint of character, the architecture, colour and fluidity as to what I was used to back home. We passed the Opera theatre where arias are performed 2x weekly in the evening.
What I loved about Siena was the elevation, fresh air and not so crowded towns/cities as back home. To reach the station, an older part of Siena, we had to exit another portal of the inner city onto a subsidiary road. This eventually took us to the station entrance, down 9 lengths of escalators, quite a feat of Italian engineering, which winds its way down from the hilltop, taking us to the station below, where we purchased train tickets in our limited Italian. On route back we noticed a dignified gentleman dressed in a black suit taking his wirehead terrier for a walk! The following day I observed a elderley female pedestrian in the narrow street, with a rubbish removal truck behind her.
The young man drove slowly, not hooting or being impatient. Eventually she became aware of the truck’s presence and gratiously moved to the sidewall of the narrow street. Consideration for our fellow creatures, human and animal, was witnessed as an admirable trait of the Italian culture and humanity in general.
P.S. I have referred to a book Tuscany by Dana Facaros & Michael Pauls for supporting information. P.P.S Secondly Iris M Origa wrote a diary during the World War II, 1945. Her observation of the Italian peoples during that period under such trying conditions left me considering what morality is in practice. Perhaps peoples all cultures unwittingly have similar instincts and feelings when placed in such a situation. “Is it possible to move a country to war against its historical traditions, against it natural instincts and character of the majority of its inhabitants. In a people so profoundly individualistic and sceptical as the Italians, 18yrs of fascism have not destroyed the critical spirit, this being allied to an inborn fluditiy and adaptability which causes them to always interpret all general statements and theories in the light of the particular occasion and thus attach no undue importance in the field of politics to abstract formulas or absolute doctrines.
The Catholic Italians in the last 20 years have not allowed themselves to be unduly dismayed by the abstract claims of the Fascist doctrine that the right of the State should prevail over the Church, but are content to accept this fact in practice it is easier in the last 20 years of fascism than in 50 years of intense anticlericalism after 1870 to bring up children in a catholic atmosphere in the home. They were prepared to yield to principle, where they can gain in practice. Hence the Germans moved in through this slot to gain power.”