A couple years ago I had the pleasure of biking through Tuscany with a group of friends. We enjoyed a guided tour of the wonderful countryside, small roads and lots of hills. In my opinion Tuscany is the “great equalizer” for bike riding as there are practically no flat roads, you are either going up or down. My husband was away at school so he was not able to participate in this lovely holiday. Olive Trees are a staple of Tuscany.
The moment we arrived at the beautiful bed and breakfast, located south of Florence, in the middle of a vineyard; I knew that my husband must visit Tuscany. Anyone who loves wine, history and beautiful countryside should visit, and fall in love with Tuscany in their lifetime.
Recently, we set-off from our temporary home in Provence for a week in Italy, a few days in Tuscany and a few days walking the Cinque Terre. Our exploration of Tuscany was also from a hotel based in a vineyard. We stayed at the beautiful Borgo San Felice. The vineyard has been in operation for centuries but in recent years was purchased and is now operated by Alliance.
The temperatures in early April were still cool. At this time of year the fields are only just starting to turn green and the gnarled grapevines are showing their first shoots. These are the early promises for the future harvest.
So what is Tuscany all about? Wine, History and Countryside
Wine is serious business in Italy, after France the Italians can boast that they have the second largest production (by volume) worldwide. Italians also love to drink wine, with the highest worldwide per capita consumption. Grapevines have been growing in Italy and parts of Europe for millennia, however organized cultivation started under the Greeks, with recorded viticulture in Sicily around 800BC. In modern-day Italy, there is a classification system with four categories, two for table wine and two for “Quality Wine Produced in a Specific Region”. The system from the low-end to top quality is as follows (similar to the U.S. appellation system):
- Vino Da Tavola (VdT)
- Indicazione di Geografica Tipica (IGT)
- Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC)
- Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG)
There are twenty (20) wine growing regions in Italy, among which thirteen (13) areas produce thirty-six (36) of the DOCG wines, these are the more sought-after and typically more expensive wines. It likely does not need to be said but we did sample and buy a few bottles during our brief visit.
The historical roots in Tuscany are very deep. With only a couple short days in the region we were able to visit Sienna, Montepulicano and San Gimignano, and even that was at a blistering pace. Sienna alone deserves a long visit; the historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The old town is not large and easily visited on foot. There is a very good system of shuttle buses available from outlying parking areas. The parking at some lots is free and the bus costs one (1) Euro.
In Sienna, every visitor must visit the Piazza dell Campo, this large shell-shaped public space dates from the 13th century and it is where the Palio (horse race) is held on two summer dates ever year. Il Campo is definitely one of the best-preserved public squares in Europe. The other key site of interest is the Duomo (Cathedral), this impressive large-scale 13th century church is well-preserved and the crowds of visitors are now controlled, as you must buy a combined ticket to gain access to the buildings and the panoramic viewpoint. The ten (10) Euro ticket is well worth the price and does seem to control the crowd flow in one of the most visited cities in Italy. We had to wait about twenty minutes to gain access to the panoramic viewpoint. I am not much for waiting in lines, however would highly recommend that your patience will be rewarded by the stunning views.
Sienna is a city of symbols; at every turn is a plaque or tile indicating the Contrada territories or districts. There remain seventeen Contrade today, formerly there were fifty-nine. The realities of the administration of mini-cities have forced consolidation over the years. The remaining Contrade are able to participate in the Palio horse race around the Piazza del Campo on July 2nd and August 16th according to the rules. Although, we have not been in Sienna for the Palio, we understand from locals that there is wild atmosphere surrounding the event and the associated celebrations.
Montepulicano and San Gimignano are both very well-preserved ancient towns. Montepulicano dates from 308 BC and requires a good pair of walking shoes to get to the top of the village. Stunning Tuscany countryside views will reward your walk to the top. San Gimignano is also UNESCO Architectural World Heritage site. The town once had seventy-two (72) towers, where eight (8) remain today. There was a settlement in the current site between 200-300BC. The town reached its pinnacle at about 1300 prior to the Black Plague. The town remains beautiful, although a shadow of its former glory. However, San Gimignano is really crowded (even in April) with tourists and almost unpleasant as a result.
The countryside is a series of rolling hills, covered in pine forests, vineyards and endless olive trees. The sun in Tuscany plays on the on the undulating landscape to provide an ever-changing marvelous feast for the eyes.
In the end a “Sample of Tuscany” was great for confirming much more time is required to soak up the sights, enjoy the wine and local specialties.