A walking tour of Tuscany

Ugo was hosting a walking tour in our area during our second week at Trove and we were invited to join in some of the walks, but only if his clients, an Australian couple, were in agreement.  Ugo and Barbara arranged for us to meet the clients one evening early in the week so that they could size us up to see if they could put up with our company for a few days.  Of course I’m joking, but seriously, it really was up to them whether or not they wanted our company.  We had our fingers crossed (and we were on our best behaviour for that initial meeting) because we were dying to join them.  We had nothing to worry about, as we felt an immediate connection with Jenny and Tony and they felt the same.

For the next four days, we toured the Tuscan countryside with Ugo, our faithful guide, and Jenny and Tony with whom we became fast friends.  We covered all the expenses we incurred during the tour, money that was well spent in our opinion.

Day 1:  After some local sightseeing, we began our first walk – two hours through the Tuscan countryside following the via Francigena, a pilgrim route that has been travelled upon since the Middle Ages.  We met one pilgrim while walking, a young fellow from Germany who was doing an 18 day pilgramage along this route.

A postcard-perfect scene unfolded everywhere you looked: rolling hills awash with wild flowers of all colours, fields of red poppies gently blowing in the wind, perfectly symmetrical vineyards and olive groves, and medieval homes along roads lined with majestic cypress trees.

We ended our walk at Poggio Al Vento where we ate lunch and enjoyed a wine tasting.  We were about 5 km from the medieval village of S. Quirico d’ Orcia. A picnic table was set up on a grassy terrace overlooking Monte Amiata and Montalcino’s hills which are speckled with Brunello vineyards.  Poggio al Vento has a vineyard and olive tree plantation where they produce delicious red wines which are Orcia Rosso DOC – I don’t remember what the DOC means exactly other than it indicates wine of a high quality. DOC does not mean Department of Control – but it was a good guess on Chris’ part.  Their oil, Extra Virgin Olive Oil Frantoio is produced from a special selection of olives picked earlier than normal which results in a uniquely aromatic and tasty product – the best olive oil I have ever tasted.

Once we were seated on the terrace, we met the owner, Roberto, a very friendly and engaging man who introduced us to his farm, in very good English I might add. We began our meal with small toasted pieces of white bread that had been drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt – how could something so simple be so unbelievably delicious! We tasted several types of wine and learned about the process of making wine on a small, multi-generational, family-run vineyard.  Everything we ate had been produced locally from the salamis (thanks to Rosalie the pig), pecorino cheese (a local speciality), bread, olive oil and lovely homemade desert prepared by Roberto’s grandmother.  If you’re looking for a unique place to stay in Tuscany (you will need a car), they also rent apartments on-site.  We didn’t see the accommodations, but based on everything else we experienced, I’d suspect you wouldn’t be disappointed.

After lunch we walked, or should I say staggered, back down the hill to Bagno Vinoni for a soak in the therapeutic thermal baths. Swimming in the warm thermal waters that have been used by the Etruscans and Romans for centuries was a wonderful way to spend the afternoon.  Imagine, we soaked in waters where eminent personalities of the past such as Pope Pius II, Santa Caterina da Siena, Lorenzo the Magnificent and many other artists had been before us.  A special bonus for Chris and I:  we enjoyed a real shower with warm, running water…ahh the simple pleasures!

Day 2: Again we began our day with a walk for a couple of hours, from Monte Follonico to the medieval and renaissance hill town of Montelpulciano.  The countryside was similar to the previous day offering one beautiful view after another.  The pretty town of Montelpulciano is renowned for its pork, cheese, pici pasta, lentils, and honey, and it is known world-wide for its wine. Connoisseurs consider its Vino Nobile, which should not be confused with varietal wine merely made from the Montepulciano grape, among Italy’s best.

We passed by several properties with For Sale signs and Chris and I briefly entertained the idea of picking up a fixer upper and then flipping it once we had restored it.  Chris and Tony even went to take a closer look at a property close to town.  Ugo swiftly dashed this idea when he mentioned the prices for these run down country estates could run into the millions of Euros even for properties without a roof and windows!  He conceded we might be able to pick up a bargain say for a million bucks given the current economic downturn in Italy.  That would still be way out of our league.  Ah well, so much for that fantasy!

We lingered for two and a half hours at a wonderful winery and restaurant, Gattavecchi  where we enjoyed good conversation, excellent wine and one of our best meals in Italy thus far.  Lunch began with tomatoes served with buffalo mozzarella and fresh basil, drizzled with olive oil.  We all had a good laugh when the waitress tried to remove the seemingly empty dish and we all dove in like a flock of vultures, each with a piece of bread to sop up the remaining olive oil.  If that isn’t a compliment to the food, I don’t know what is.  The waitress graciously and wisely left the plate on the table for us.  The rest of the meal included roasted potatoes with fresh herbs under melted pecorino cheese, duck lasagna, pork scallopini in cream sauce, and a garden fresh salad.  We sampled generously from the vineyard:  Rosso di Montepulciano DOC, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOC, and Riserva dei Padri Serviti.

After lunch we walked along the main street of Montepulciano that stretches for 1.5 kilometers from the Porta al Prato to the Piazza Grande at the top of the hill. The city core is car free which makes it very walkable.  The streets are lined with touristy shops selling all the specialities from the area such as wine and cheese.  Local artists are showcased in several galleries.  Later, we sipped coffee and ate dessert on a terrace overlooking the valley far below. It just doesn’t get much better than this!

Day 3:  This was the day for the cooking lesson at Trove.  Chris and I were recruited first thing in the morning to help with the preparations.  It reminded us of preparing for one of our family get-togethers back home. Marizza, an 82-year old local woman from Pienza would teach us how to make Peci, a type of pasta that was a local speciality.  Everyone participated and agreed it was harder than it looked.  Marizza made it look so easy.

Video:  Making Pici in Tuscany

Under a clear blue sky, lunch was served on the concimaia (literal translation: shit heap).  This was the area where hundreds of years ago the animal and human waste was discarded but today it is the location of a lovely patio.  Lunch consisted of a typical Tuscan menu: Peci (that we had made earlier) with tomato sauce, pan cooked chicken and rabbit, roasted potatoes and salad.  We enjoyed “corrected dessert” a phrase cleverly coined by Chris.  We had heard of “corrected coffee” which consists of a shot of espresso and a shot of grappa.  Well, we dipped our cantucci (similar to biscotti) into glasses of vino santo (dessert wine) and voila, corrected dessert.

After lunch, we all retired to the lounge chairs in the shade (Ugo went for a nap in the house) and Chris brought out his cigars and the grappa we had bought the other day at Roberto’s.  It was a very relaxing way to spend a couple of hours before heading off to Petroia to visit the terracotta museum, after which we brought Jenny and Tony back to Pienza where they were staying.  Back at Trove, we helped Barbara with some of the tidy up – but we didn’t have to do the dishes!

Day 4:  By now we had spent three full days with Jenny and Tony and the more we spent time with them, the more we liked them and I think (hope) the feeling was mutual.  There was an easiness between all of us that doesn’t usually come until years into a friendship, if it comes at all.  Jenny and I are almost the same age (just 18 months apart) and I felt a kindred spirit from the start.  We talked about all kinds of things and found we had a lot in common.  Conversation came easily between all of us, as did the laughter.  We laughed so much during those days together, it was so much fun.  Meeting this couple and having the opportunity to develop a friendship with them was an unexpected gift we received in Tuscany. We hope to see them again when we reach Sydney, Australia (their home city) later this year.

Back to our last day in Tuscany with Jenny and Tony and Ugo of course.  We did our longest walk that day – 10 km from Montalcino to Sant’ Antimo. Ugo wasn’t feeling well and we were all concerned for him, but he was determined to keep going.  It turned out to be the most interesting and challenging hike.  Not only was the distance longer, but the terrain was more rugged as we traversed several rather steep hills.  We passed through forests which offered us a respite from the relentless heat and sunshine (it was close to 30C) where we observed the tracks of wild boar.  The views were stunning.  We ended in Sant’ Antimo where we lingered in the coolness of the abbey where the monks sing Gregorian chants during mass.  Unfortunately, no service was underway while we were there; maybe we’ll have a chance to go back before our time is up.

We took the bus back to Montalcino where we enjoyed another wine tasting before we said our final good byes.  Jenny and Tony were heading to the town of Chuisi from where they would catch a train the next day to Nice (well actually, it would take four trains to get there, but who’s counting).  They still had another month of vacation to enjoy and they were planning to spend it doing similar walking tours in the wine regions of Southern France.  I was tempted to drop our plans and join them, but we were committed to Barbara and Ugo for the next two weeks, and the Camino was beckoning as well.  We’ll just have to wait until Sydney to enjoy their company again.

After experiencing four days of walking tours with Ugo, I would highly recommend this form of travel to anyone who wants to get off the tourist track in exchange for a more authentic Tuscan experience.  Ugo is very organized and experienced and knows the region like the back of his hand, and everyone knows him too.  He adapts the tours based on the needs and interests of the clients (more walking, less walking), and of course the weather.  Speaking of the weather, we enjoyed warm, sunny days without so much as a hint of rain for the entire week.  It felt more like summer than spring  On Sunday, when Tony and Jenny left for Nice, the weather turned and we had a ferocious storm that night followed by much cooler, wetter conditions.

Travel Tip:  If you want to see fields of poppies (as depicted in so many photos and paintings), visit Tuscany in the springtime (May is best in my opinion as it can still be quite cold and wet in April).  At this time of year, the fields have been planted and are just starting to sprout.  The vineyards have been pruned and are also budding new growth.  There are so many shades of green, it is dazzling to behold.

Travel Tip:  If you really want to explore Tuscany, join a walking tour such as those offered by Ugo and Barbara’s company, Tuscany Under the Skin or rent a car and do it independently. Buses and trains connect you to the larger towns, but there is really no other way to see the charming medieval hill towns and gorgeous countryside.

Attention to all our readers:  First we are assuming there are still a few people out there who are reading our blog.  Did anybody notice anything unusual about our Rome posting? And what about the naked photo of Chris bathing in a bucket – did anybody notice that one?  We thought for sure these photos would have prompted a comment or two, but nada, not a word.   So what’s it going to take? Do we need to post pictures of Chris bending over to pick up the soap? Let us know while we’re still in Tuscany :)

Category: Europe, Italy, Travel Tips
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8 Responses
  1. Kathy says:

    Hi Christina,
    Just wanted to let you know that I am still thoroughly enjoying living vicariously through your travel adventures! I really appreciate the travel tips in Europe as Fred and I are considering going there for a month – hopefully sometime in the not too distant future… Hope everything continues to go well for both of you.
    Cheers,
    Kathy

    • christina says:

      Hi Kathy
      If you want any more detailed information about Italy feel free to send me an email separately. I would definitely recommend a visit to Tuscany. I have heard the Amalfi Coast and Sicily are beautiful too – we’re saving that for our next visit. The major tourist route – Rome, Florence, Venice – are definitely worth doing, but you should also get out into the countryside.
      Thanks for keeping in touch. Hope retirement or semi-retirement is treating you well!
      Christina

  2. Marc says:

    Hi Christina,

    Hey nice job on the billboard, I didn’t notice it at first!

    I still love to read your chronicles and see the terrific pictures! I make sure to check your blog every day to see if there is a new post to discover.

    I’m glad Chris will have a new hat! It reminded me of my son when we were in Riviera Maya in 2007 and he went cliff jumping (about 20 feet above the water) he lost is baseball cap when he hit the water. It never came back up. The jump picture we have is ”last proof” as he likes to call it of the existance of that hat. He went through the same phases Chris did…

    Did you guys feel the earthquake this week in Italy of was it to far away from your location?

    P.S. Keep posting your wine discoveries, i’d like to know if they are available in Canada! Maybe a new section on the blog? Wines around the world? ;-)

    Safe journey!
    Marc

    • christina says:

      Hey Marc, your’e the first (and so far only) person to notice or at least mention the custom billboard (credit goes to Chris). Looks like Chris’ friend in Ottawa has tracked down another hat for him and is going to ship it to England so Chris will have it by July. It’s funny how we get attached to things. We’ve been drinking so much wine in Italy I can’t believe it. I’m really enjoying the wines we tasted during our wine tasting excursions with Ugo and Jenny and Tony. Now that we’ve enjoyed some of the better wines, the stuff we were buying in the grocery store just doesn’t quite cut it :)

      Interesting idea about a new wine section in the blog….hadn’t thought about that…..but it’s a really good idea to showcase the wine we’ve been enjoying (although a little late in the game now that we’ve left South America!). Anyways, will give it some thought.

      We didn’t feel a thing when the earthquake hit and it wasn’t that far away from us. We’ve been so lucky in our travels, averting natural disasters wherever we go.

      I’m glad you’re still enjoying the blog. I like getting your comments and you have been a very loyal commenter since day 1, one of our best :) It’s nice to get the feedback now and then to know someone is still reading the blog.

      take care
      Christina

  3. Jurgen says:

    Hi Christina and Chris,

    I’m still very much enjoying your regular posts and I’m sure everybody else is too. Nice to see the spectrum of experiences you guys have (from very fancy accomodations to roughing it). Enjoy Europe and say hi to good ole Germany when you get there.

    Prost!

    Jurgen

    • christina says:

      Hi Jurgen
      It’s been awhile since I heard from you. Glad you’re still following our travels. We certainly are mixing things up these days and having a blast while we’re at it. We’re finishing up at Trove Farm in Tuscany, in fact we fly to Spain tomorrow and if all goes as planned, we will begin the Camino de Santiago early next week. That will be a unique experience for both of us. I think we’ll be in Germany in August – any recommendations of where we should go and what are “must see” places to visit? I’ll be visiting my cousin who lives in Jena which is in the East but I think I’d like to spend a week or two travelling around Germany before then. After that, we’ll be heading south towards Egypt and Africa – lots more interesting adventures to come!
      Salute!
      Christina

  4. Jurgen says:

    Hi Christina,

    Since I’m from Bavaria I’d certainly recommend that you go check out Munich which is beautiful and has nice proximity to the Alps. In regards to Camino de Santiago, I’ve got friends here in Ottawa who did that back in 2000/2001. Check out their site at http://walkingforpeace.com/ (they also worked all the way to Jerusalem from Rome!).
    Cheers,

    Jurgen

  5. Angus says:

    Hi Guys,

    Loving all the posts but did get behind in my reading and now catching up is taking some time but I’m really enjoying it. I love the pictures you took in Rome and have one of them as my new background pic.

    Been very busy here lately with work and Laura and Raf coming home between semesters.

    The weather in Ottawa has been fantastic and we’re starting to get a few camping trips in although it looks like our camping is less rustic than your stay in Tuscany.

    Cheers

    Angus