Springtime in Tuscany

The buds are a soft lime-green on the trees, ready to burst forth and form a cool canopy over narrow roads. Rows of grape vines march arrow-straight up gentle hills that seem to roll right over the horizon. Poppies the colour of pomegranate seeds wave merrily from roadsides while lilacs and forsythias form blotches of colour like an artist’s palette against a backdrop of black-green cypress trees, sienna-slated farmhouses and moss-covered castles.

This is Tuscany. It’s spring. And I’m ecstatic to be here.

This was the last leg of a family trip to Italy I had been planning for a year. We had strolled the narrow archways along the canals of Venice, walked in the footsteps of Caesar in Rome, driven the autostrada from Rome to Pompeii matching the frenzied pace of the native drivers, and held our breath as we peered over the ledges of the Amalfi Coast.

My sister and I said goodbye to the rest of the family at the Rome airport, and the two of us embarked on our trip north to Tuscany for a few days of exploration, sun, good food and even better wine.

After negotiating Italy’s large and fascinating cities and busy highways, our plan was once in Tuscany, we wou seek out the smallest villages and the narrowest, least travelled roads possible.

Tuscany is best experienced by living as much like a Tuscanite as possible, and for visitors, that translates into renting a villa. We chose a small villa called Claire near Poggibonsi, close to the Firenze-Siena throughway.

Being the daughters of a man who always looked for a shortcut, we decide to cut across Chianti from the Roma-Firenze autostrada rather than go all the way up to Firenze and follow instructions to the villa from there. It was a beautiful drive through Gaiole, Radda and Castellina in Chianti, but our journey took us twice as long as the autostrada route via Firenze would have. Matching road signs to places on the map took up most of the travelling time.

We revisited part of the route later and enjoyed it at a more relaxed pace. Chianti with its hills clad in vineyards is a wine taster’s delight, especially given the origins of a wine that traces its beginnings back to the Etruscan era. But the hills are also dotted with oak and chestnut forests, handsome farmhouses and Romanesque parish churches. The beautiful hamlets are usually fortified towns, and it’s not difficult to imagine the ancient historical battles between the regions of Firenze and Sienna from these majestic hilltop towns.

From our villa, we mapped out various routes, planning to visit no more than three hill towns each day. Villa Claire is at the top of a hill at the end of a long, winding road. The view over rows of vineyards where horses graze quietly in the long spring days is enchanting. On a clear day, we can see from our windows the faint outline of the towers of San Gimignano far in the distance and at night, the twinkling lights of Poggibonsi. We are in the midst of farmland, and the solitude is disarming. The challenge at the end of the day, though, is dinner. Well-equipped villa or not, we don’t plan to turn on a stove until we return to Canada, but we also don’t want to venture back down the hill and drive twisting switchback roads in the dark to the nearest trattoria.

There’s a small stone hotel nearby, and we sheepishly walk over late in the afternoon of our second day to ask if we can join the hotel guests for dinner. The owner of Villa San Giorgio, a former country farmhouse, reluctantly agrees. The food is so good and so reasonable, we ask to come back the next night. By the end of our stay, the chef asks what we would like for the next night’s meal.

Next page: The hill towns of Tuscany

On our first day in Tuscany, we head to the western hill town of San Gimignano, whose stone turrets we can see from our villa. It turns out to be just as romantic up close as it appears from a distance. Standing 334 metres above sea level in the site of a small Etruscan settlement, San Gimignano had its beginning around the 10th century. We park outside the walls early in the morning and as we approach the Piazza Duomo, we realize we’re the first visitors of the day as vendors open their doors and arrange fruit and cheese, pasta and salami in cases along the street.

From there, we head to Volterra, which sits high on a rocky promontory about 540 metres above the valley, holding court over some of Tuscany’s best preserved Roman ruins. Here artisans carve translucent alabaster in shops along medieval alleys that threaten to drop right off the edge of the cliff. We stop in Volterra’s Piazza San Francesco for a glass of wine, a bowl of pasta fagioli and some crusty bruschetta.

On our way back to the Chianti region, we stop in Monteriggioni, one of the most perfectly preserved fortified villages in all of Italy, even though it’s full of postcard vendors. It’s worth stopping sometimes for photos of walled villages such as Colle di Val Elsa, but we’ve found that if we visit too many towns in one day, they start to run into one another in our memories.

Our confidence in reading the road signs has improved by our second full day, and we plan to visit San Polo in Chianti because there’s an iris festival happening in a few weeks, and we’ve already seen lots of irises in bloom. On the way, we stop in Panzano, where a few battles between Siena and Firenze were waged, and then on to Greve where Tuscany’s grandest wine fair is held every September where we eat pizzas at an outdoor pizzeria. It’s easy to tell the difference between tourists and locals: the tourists eat outdoors, the locals eat indoors.

Timing is important when driving in Tuscany because most shops close between noon and 3 p.m., providing a window to enjoy a leisurely lunch and travel between towns. There are few irises in bloom in San Polo, so we head south again, stopping at an estate where we taste a 2002 olive oil on the end of crunchy breadsticks. It’s 10 euros, and I buy a bottle but vow to use it only on salads.

We’ve driven past Castellini in Chianti several times, but today we drive in and poke around the alleys, into the shops. The drive from Castellini along route SS429 to our villa near Poggibonsi is the same one we drove on our first weary day. By today, we are almost Tuscanites in our knowledge of the roads, and we realize how spectacular the drive is.

Because our Alitalia flight back to Canada is an early morning one, we’ve decided to stay near Rome the night before our flight, so we wend our way through southern Tuscany on our last day. We arrive in Montalcino, famous for its wine and a town basically unchanged since the 16th century, in time to watch the town wake up, again a wonderful bonus as we sit in a café with a cappuccino and watch small trucks roll in with panne and cheese, fruit and honey.

Our next stop is Pienza, famous for pecorino cheese. Pienza turns out to be our favourite hill town. On a high bluff, with a pedestrian-only village inside the walls, it’s classic and dramatic with a stone promenade, a maze of crooked alleys spilling forth with stone baskets full of flowers. No wonder it was chosen as the perfect backdrop for the film Romeo and Juliet in 1968 as well as for some scenes in The English Patient.

I spot a sign in a real-estate office listing a small villa for sale a few miles south of Pienza. I do some mental math, calculating what my condo back in Canada might fetch in return for this piece of paradise. If Diane Lane can do it in Under the Tuscan Sun, so can I.

And I wonder how quickly I can learn to speak Italian.


Good deals:  Alitalia has a package called Duets, which offers return airfare and accommodation for six nights in a three-star hotel (three nights in each of two cities of choice), including breakfast and some city tours, starting at $1,278 a person, depending on the season (the flight to the second destination is included).
Why it’s a good deal: Flights alone to Italy can cost as much as $1,200 and more in high season.

For more information on Duets, check out www.italiatour.ca or call toll-free 1-888-515-5245.

Villa rentals: Prices vary according to season and the number of people. Ask about parking access, facilities included, upfront costs (a cash deposit is usually required) and arrangements for cleaning and heating. For information on the Villa Claire in Tuscany and other villa rentals in Europe, check out www.cuendet.com.