I recently stayed in Montepulciano, a town in southern Tuscany, famous for its “Nobile” wine. On the drive there, looking out the window, I was hypnotized by the harmonious landscape: there was something almost spiritual about it, and it was easy to understand how and why the Renaissance was born in these parts.
Today, Tuscany a Unesco protected area, and looks untouched, like a landscape painting. It is situated on the tops of hills and seems almost mathematical in proportion.
Montepulciano itseld lies on a hilltop, offering panoramic views, surrounded by fortified walls. Once inside, I walked through the cobblestone streets uphill to my friend’s castle door; a large key was needed to let me in, it was the kind of key you never risk losing.
My friend Alex, who was also staying in the castle, was house-hunting in the region. A more appropriate term might be wreck-hunting, because he was looking for an old farmhouse to reconstruct with two other architect friends. There are many farmhouse wrecks for sale, because many of the farmers left to go to towns for financial reasons. Wreck-hunting can be the only option if one wants to have a house in Tuscany, because it’s against the law to construct new buildings.
Each morning, on the way to view various wrecks for sale, we drove across the picturesque landscape: huge wheat fields covered rolling hills with isolated cypress trees here and there, and then we glimpsed some promising house wreck appeared in the distance.
As we walked through various towns, Alex told me that each town’s center was marked by a church and a big market square with fresh produce for sale each week. Most towns were medieval in their structure, and had high walls surrounding them, in case of battle. The air felt amazingly clean and the visibility was amazing, it seems the horizon magically distanced itself farther and farther away.
At lunchtime we’d wonder through some town’s narrow cobblestones streets (cars can only park on the outside of these towns as there’s no space for them inside), towards some tavern, smelling the famous white truffles all the way in the street. It was best food I’ve ever tasted.
No tourists venture here on their summer package tours; luckily these parts are too hard to get to and hence are rarely included in “see Italy and its wonders in ten days” vacations.
This time of year, the towns are full of families and old timers. The red earth here is perfect for gardening and the sunflowers swaying in the breezes they seem as easygoing as some of the people.
Some of the excursions I took in the afternoon included visits to these places:
Often described as the ideal city. Check out the beautiful Duomo, and the Palazzo Piccololmini, and don’t forget to taste some Pecorino cheese which comes from this town.
The Piero della Francesca tour:
Start at the cathedral in Arezzo, where the famous fresco of the Maddalena is. Check out the Basilica of St.Frances while you’re here. Then drive to Monterchi, where the Madonna del Parto is, and finally go to Sansepolcro and visit the museum that has several of Piero della Francesca masterpieces. It’s in a modern, white-washed building so you can fully appreciate the paintings standing alone against an empty background. The paintings are amazing, there is a unique sense of stillness, and a sense of light. You could never confuse these with anyone else’s work. The style though is similar to Vermeer, in its freshness.
Church of St. Francis in Assisi:
We visited the basilica of St.Frances, which has beautiful frescoes of Simone Martini and Giotto. It was so interesting to be thrown back to the pre-Renaissance and see the less naturalistic figures.
A beautiful town. Check out the Gothic buildings, the Cathedral, the Palazzo Pubblico, and of course the Campo, one of the most beautiful squares in Italy where the most famous horse race in the world takes place – the Palio. While you’re in Siena, try the gelato.