Portas, piazzas, palazzos - oh my!
20.06.2010 - 23.06.2010 20 °C
Montepulciano, another medieval hill town, has great atmosphere - no wonder they brought in those teen vampires. Just spooky enough (in a good way) to imagine strange things happening here at night, when the town felt almost deserted. We stayed three nights in a top floor apartment in an old palazzo near the main square. A comfy change from 'cozy' European hotels.
It was still raining when we arrived but did clear briefly for the evening so we could explore and find someplace for dinner. The 'main street' is a long and fairly steep road with leather shops, markets, clothing boutiques and wine stores - some of which were already closed that night. Add in several churches and some preserved city gates and it ticked all the boxes for Tuscan charm.
Montepulciano's claim to fame is 'vino nobile' red wine, but there were also many younger 'rosso di Montepulciano' wines that were lighter and more affordable. We did a few tastings, but what stays with me is the most delicious olive oil - I never knew it could taste so good.
On the other hand, we had our strangest Italian dining experience in Montepulciano. We found a grotto-style restaurant just off the main road through town that seemed sort of quaint at first. But the crazy, arrogant restaurant owner ("I serve the best food in Italy") was too preoccupied with singing along to his blaring Pavarotti and Friends DVD in an attempt to entertain the patrons. He left us waiting nearly 45 minutes for the cheque - then tried to serenade us in apology as we finally escaped. The next night we had much better food and service at a little place called Trattoria di Cagnano right on the main road - friendly, tasty and no tenor wannabes!
Just below the town sits a lovely church called San Biagio, built on a Greek rather than Latin cross plan in the mid 1500s.
Our first day out from Montepulciano, we drove southeast to Assisi in the next province, Umbria. The rain was back with a vengeance but we spent a few hours exploring the Basilica of St. Francis. This is really two churches, built one on top of the other in the 13th century.
The remains of St. Francis are on display in a crypt below the lower part, drawing pilgrims from around the world. I was a little surprised at the extensive (and popular) gift shop, though - it carries any St. Francis merchandise you could ever imagine, including movies of his life including one starring Mickey Rourke from the same year he did Wild Orchid! Talk about range.
Next stop on the way back was Perugia, a major city with a historic centre up at the very highest point. We had learned to watch for the bullseye symbol on town signage indicating the centro storico of each place so we found our way there, but parking was another matter and we were suddenly within the town walls and heading down narrow one-ways meant for in-the-know locals, not tourists. I had visions of getting us wedged into an impossible position on a steep cobblestone street, but we managed to weave through safely and find a parking lot outside the outer medieval gate.
Heading back in on foot, we found it very foggy and wet, but impressive - especially the main square and fountain. We also found some of the famous Baci candies of Perugia then had lunch in a basement pizzeria while watching Portugal embarass North Korea including this nutty goal.
Next day, we were happy to see the weather had improved and we toured the Val D'Orcia towns of Pienzo, San Quirico D'Orcia and Montalcino. Along the way we admired the quintessential Tuscan views including the famous little church that graces so many postcards, calendars and guidebooks (and found on many stock photo sites, of course) - it sits just west of Pienza.
For the drive back to Siena to drop off our rental car, we took the old Roman route called the Via Lauretana - first climbing up through forest and some tiny towns, then back down and across hilly plains. Once the car was sorted, we caught a train and headed to Florence for a few days. Driving in Tuscany had been a great adventure, but I was ready to just be a passenger again.