Thursday, April 12, 2012

A Tuscan Weekend

                Click here or at the end of the text for more photos.

"Andiamo nelle belle colline toscane," said Fabrizio as he, Roberta, JR and I left Pisa for a weekend trip.  While I was waiting for our friends to arrive, I had glanced at the day's newspaper headlines about reductions in Italian pensions, the general economic crisis and gas prices that are hovering at about 1.89 euros a liter (that translates to about $9.00 a gallon! Yes, $9.00 a gallon).

For the moment, however, we were leaving all that behind as we headed for "the beautiful Tuscan hills." The plan was to spend Saturday in Siena, stopping first in Monteriggioni, where I had reserved rooms in the Bed and Breakfast in Piazza. It's about an hour and a half drive from Pisa to Siena on the autoroute. We opted, however, for the slower back roads that wind up and down the Tuscan hills. The entire route was a post card come to life as we passed by or through the picturesque towns of Peccioli, Volterra, San Gimignano and Colle di Val d'Elsa. 

We stopped at a cafe in the small, hillside town of Montaione. There, to my surprise, we found a luxury resort, complete with a 27-hole golf course. With the opening of the European Union, foreign development is evident all over Tuscany. Half of Montaione seemed to be covered in scaffolding, turning decaying dwellings into pristine rental units. Some towns, like nearby Tonda - which was abandoned after the Second World War - have been bought up by foreign development companies, closed off to the public and turned into stage-set resorts. 

Monteriggioni, on the other hand, is a place where many movies and commercials have been filmed, but it's as authentic as they come. It was built by the Republic of Siena as a defensive outpost in 1214 and Dante, himself, in the Divine Comedy, talks about the menacing power of Monteriggioni's towers. 

After checking into our Bed and Breakfast - which was located, like everything else in town, in an beautiful, old building - we set out for Siena. We had hoped to bike there on the Via Francigena - an important Medieval pilgrimage route - but bike rental wasn't available this early in the season. So, we hopped in the car and 20 minutes later, we were in Siena.

Siena, was bursting with tourists, including, it seemed, every high school student in Italy. They filled the Piazza del Campo, laughing, eating and, of course, talking. We joined them with our picnic lunch (JR's now-famous panini) and stretched out, enjoying the noonday sun.

It's not surprising that tourists flock to Siena. It has a beautifully-harmonious center filled with churches, museums and palaces. In 1995, Siena was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We visited the museum in the Palazzo Pubblico with its famous 14th-century frescoes and magnificent early 15th-century altar stalls. The rest of the afternoon we spent walking the hilly, winding streets of the town, taking in its medieval atmosphere and seeing its magnificent cathedral complex.

We got back to Monteriggioni in time to put our feet up before heading out to il Pozzo, a restaurant on the town square. After an excellent dinner of local specialities, such as wild boar and pork with porcini mushrooms, we decided a walk was in order. To take a little stroll in Italian is fare quattro passi  - to take four steps. In Monteriggioni, you don't need much more than that to cover the entire town since there are only three streets inside the walls. We walked them all in just a few minutes, so we took a second turn around the town, this time in the opposite direction. The towers were bathed in moonlight and I don't think even Dante would have called them menacing.   

The next day after breakfast we went to see the ruins of the Cistercian Abbey of San Galgano, located about 20 miles south of Siena. The abbey sits in the middle of a flower-strewn plain, but when it was built in 1324, its location was an important crossroads for two ancient routes. Above it on a nearby hill is the Chapel of Montesiepi with its famous Sword in the Rock. San Galgano, then known as Galgano Guidotti, is said to have thrust his sword into the rock in 1180 when he gave up his warring ways and turned to a peaceful hermit's life. Studies on the sword's age were not conclusive, but analysis did show that its chemical content is not inconsistent with medieval metal. Whether it's authentic or not, giving up war in favor of peace is a worthwhile pursuit in all ages. 

Judging from the place names in the region, peace was not the norm in Medieval times. Every town that isn't named after a saint seems to have some form of the word fortress or castle in its name, such as Castele, Castello, Castelletto, Castiglione, Rocca, Massa or Forte. Most of these fortified towns are located on the tops of hills, not only for defensive purposes, but also because in medieval times, much of the lower ground was covered with marshland. 

In the afternoon, we visited three of these towns - Roccastrada, Roccatederighi and Massa Marrittima. None of them are on the heavily-traveled tourist route and all are beautiful. Roccastrada has extensive remains of the Montemassi Castle. In Roccatederighi, you walk up through narrow, dark streets only to burst into the light at the top. There the church of San Sebastian is built right into the rock and the view stretches all the way to the sea 30 or 40 miles away. The biggest surprise of all was Massa Marrittima, a sizable town that we had never visited. Probably of Etruscan origins, it was a rich and important mineral center well into the Middle Ages and it is full of beautiful public and private buildings. The view into the piazza from the steps of its graceful cathedral, looks much as it must have looked in the 13th and 14th centuries. 

It was too late to visit any of the town's museums or public buildings, so we bought an ice cream and walked about the city. As we stopped to look at one of the town gates, a man sitting in front of his house told me to be sure to continue up the hill to see the town walls and the view of the countryside from the walkway. I thanked him and told him he lived in a beautiful town. He smiled and said: "Signora, you're in Italy." 

For more photos, click here.

A presto,

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor