A week in Tuscany

Italy

A house in Tuscany was one of the few things we had actually booked before we left home. It sounded glamorous, but it was set to be one of our cheapest accommodation weeks, having chosen the start of ‘off-season’ at the end of September and getting a two person discount.
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We knew very little about the area, but had decided we wanted to be near Siena, having heard good things. The house was a little tricky to find, being un-google-mappable and basically completely in the middle of nowhere. By our generation’s terms, that means no mobile coverage whatsoever, no shops and only one other person sighting (who didn’t speak a word of English). Whilst this sounds blissful to some, we had hoped to spend some quiet time booking our itinerary for France during this week, but it wasn’t to be with no service on the trusty iPad. We were also without reading material and needed to track down a book shop asap. Nevertheless, we knew we could make it work.
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The house was built in 1800 and was ‘rustic’. Rustic was also a little creepy at times, not helped by the resident pigs and their odd noises at night. The one day during the week which we decided to spend at the house, said pigs decided to make an escape. We were sitting having breakfast in the field beside the house, when mummy pig trotted out onto the grass from the driveway. We stared at each other for a minute, before she made herself busy munching grass. Not seeing any harm, we stayed put whilst keeping one eye on her activities. When we heard more trotting on the stones, we looked up to see a considerably larger pig had also escaped, accompanied by two piglets. It became quickly apparent that larger pig was in fact boar with tusks, and he was stomping, snorting and erratic. I had promptly sized up a large terracotta pot next to us and decided I could definitely get inside it if he charged. The moment I glimpsed trepidation in Alex’s eyes (he says he wasn’t scared but I beg to differ: there was real fear in his pupils) I was up and ready to make my move. Agro boar made his charge, as Alex instructed me to sit down…luckily changing his direction to circle to the side of us and resume his stomping. As soon as the path was clear to reach the house without coming too close to the piglets we busted a move, watching in humor once on the safety of the porch.

Our seemingly ridiculous encounter was validated that evening, when the non-English speaking farm dude appeared and huffed somewhat reluctantly at the escapees, who were still making themselves at home around the pool. We had ventured outside again when there hadn’t been any sign of angry boar, though closer to the house this time. He gestured in Italian towards the pigs and towards the house, which we gathered meant we needed to go inside. We watched from up the stairs as he enticed them back with food, angry boar still stomping and kicking up the stones as he demo’d his way back towards his home paddock. Farm dude pointed to angry boar and said “maniaco”…which loosely translates to ‘mad’. I took that as justification of my fear. Alex was still just laughing about my pot-hiding plan.
20120929-164517.jpgPig vs Panda (not angry boar)

We used our Solvicille base to visit the surrounding hill towns in our Fiat Panda (the Italian rental car of choice). Alex will confirm that he did in fact state during this week that my navigating was “amazing”, and that we had not a single argument regarding directions or driving as some may expect. Maybe it’s some kind of post-engagement bliss period, or maybe we’re just *that* compatible (ha!). This was even after I confidently took him through a narrow forest road in the dark, a couple of dirt roads in avoidance of highways, and our one non-road (which can be blamed entirely on google maps).

Our first experience with Siena was the night we arrived, when we attempted to navigate its busy roads in search of a supermarket. Apart from a brief departure into some confusing residential streets, we managed to find a decent sized store with free carpark. We ventured back there the day after to take in the sights of the city centre. We found a reasonable sized bookshop, enjoyed some ‘pici’ (the Tuscan pasta), and sat and admired the Duomo. We probably should have gone inside but, unlike the one in Florence, there was a queue to pay a charge to enter, and we were starting to lose track of the differences between all of the cathedrals we had been to. We thought we’d save the money for the Sistine Chapel.
20120929-170515.jpgSiena’s Duomo – a black & white Romanesque cathedral
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San Gimignano (we never called it by its name, so I think this is how it’s spelt!) was a neat place. There had already been ridiculous amounts of gelato consumed thus far in Italy, but discovering the good stuff or a unique flavour still made for a treat. In SG Alex had the great taste experience of rosemary & raspberry gelato – which was surprisingly delicious. We found a great spot on a balcony overlooking the countryside for some antipasti and managed to soak up some Tuscan rays.
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Volterra was really windy and fairly quiet the day we went. We climbed the (narrow ancient stairs of the) 1208AD tower of the town hall to take in the view, though we could barely keep our eyes open into the wind. (The town hall has a similar look to that of Montepulciano, but the scale of Monte’s, positioned at the front of its larger square would make it more impressive.) The views out over the countryside are always something to take in. The novelty of all these towns perched above everything and surrounded by their immense walls didn’t really wear off. After wandering the cobbled lanes and a large grassy park, we ended up finding a spot with coffee and wifi and sorted out some pressing bookings for when the week was over. The ‘admin’ sorting can be a mission but has to be done of course. We headed home in the dark for dinner – we made the most of having a kitchen this week and cooked up a big bolognese, which fed us two nights, omelette, and an attempt at recreating pici with pesto, a la the Cinque Terre.
20121021-205551.jpgLooking through to Volterra’s town hall

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From the first lane we walked onto from the carpark, it became apparent that Montepulciano would likely be our favorite of the
hill towns. We started the morning at a real coffee shop, returning after they’d kindly changed my notes into coins for the parking machine minutes earlier. We ‘took our coffee’ as the Italians do – standing at the bar for cheaper than the seated price. It was good, and meant a good start for Monte’ in my book. The biggest difference here were the shops and restaurants. There weren’t dozens of places selling the same tourist-targeted product and tourist-targeted restaurants. Instead we found amazing original leather brands, clothes boutiques and great wine shops (of course). I think if our travels ended after Italy, then Alex and I both would have left there with a bag and/or wallet and perhaps a case of wine.
20121021-201612.jpgUltimate hill town

We climbed Monte’s ‘Palazzo Comunale’ (town hall) as well, which has a terrace along the top. The square (Piazza Grande)which it overlooked was very cool, with a great old well and a cathedral with an awesome exposed brick facade. For lunch we found a unique little restaurant (Osteria Acquacheta) overflowing with locals and enjoyed one of our best Italian lunches of wood fired crostini with pate, pecorino cheese laced with truffle and duck ragu pici. Alex was desperate to have the local Bistecca alla Florentina t-bone steak, but at $70NZ I had to draw the line. Yes, to answer your thoughts, we have done nothing this trip but eat (but it’s been a long time since red meat!) All in all a great day!
20121021-202001.jpgMontepulciano Palazzo Comunale

Unfortunately it was a bit overcast during the week, so we didn’t catch much of the famed ‘Tuscan sun’. The farm house wasn’t quite the Tuscany we imagined, but it was great to experience the hill towns and have the freedom of a car without lugging around our bags on trains. We decided if we were ever lucky enough to make it to the area again some day, Montepulciano or its surrounds would be the pick of places to stay.
20121021-203555.jpgTuscan countryside

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