The journey back to Tuscany from Umbria was seamless, as always. The two regions are very similar. We decided to avoid the autostrada and stay on the smaller roads; meandering is a much better way to see the land—those rolling green hills dotted with farmhouses, agriturismi, and the odd castle, all guarded by sentinel cypresses. It was easy to see the shades of solitary monks en route from one monastery to another, walking or swaying on an old bray, nibbling on panforte for sustenance.
Ah, the good ol’ days.
John and I made the journey in much more comfort, but with a lot more traffic. It was April 25, Liberation Day in Italy, and most Italians were on the move back to their homes to ready themselves for what remained of the work and school week. Our attempts to stop in Pienza or San Quirico D’Orcia were thwarted by the crowds and lack of parking so we pressed on to our agriturismo, about 30 km. south of Siena, where we would spend five days.
Unfortunately, it was not the best of times. . . The weather had changed and we were re-immersed in the depths of winter: dark, cold, rainy. Not the weather we’d hoped for to enjoy the iconic ‘rolling hills of Tuscany’. Our agriturismo was a typical Italian farmhouse whose thick walls and few windows ensured shelter from the extreme heat of summer and the bitter cold of winter. The dark lodgings did not help to lighten our mood brought on by the current, depressing weather conditions and by John’s cold—both unexpected hiccups which forced me to stay indoors more than we had planned. I looked longingly at the outside pool as the rain poured and the thunder cracked in the distance; I could see myself, under more benevolent skies, lounging poolside with my giallo (mystery novel) and, when tired, letting the Tuscan sun, filtered by the trees around us, lightly dance on my closed eye lids. . . But no. That idyllic scene was not to be. We were also surrounded by cultivated fields that were meant to be enjoyed only by sight; the one path available to us, less than 5 min. in length, led to the busy highway on which we had arrived. There was no place to walk! Being A Walker, I felt frustrated and hemmed in. Claustrophobic.
Abbey of San Galgano
In the mornings, when John had more energy and good will, we would don our winter coats and hop in our Punto to explore the nearby areas and enjoy the Tuscan hills under sullen, menacing skies. The day we made our way to the Abbey of San Galgano was one of these. In retrospect, it was the highlight of our time in the area. I say “in retrospect” . . . The heavens threatened rain or worse, but we persevered up the winding, winding. . . winding road, flanked by a mixture of conifers and deciduous trees and bushes which were highly—and suspiciously—reminiscent of the vegetation on any backroad of Vancouver Island, our home on the West Coast. So much for the velvet green of the Tuscan hills.
When the winding-road nausea became too unpredictable, we stopped for respite along the side of the road and communed with chickens and a prideful rooster behind the fence of a small farmhouse.
Eventually we left the twisting and turning through West Coast vegetation and arrived at a series of wide pastures. There in the an open field was the skeleton of the 12th century Gothic abbey of San Galgano, the first Gothic cathedral built in Tuscany.
It was an impressive building but seemed so out-of-place here. It felt as though we were in France or England—not my homeland! Still, we enjoyed wandering through it and wondering what it must have been like before its bell tower fell onto it in 1786 and took the roof with it. It is now open to visitors and used for weddings. It is also used as a film set.
A short walk from the abbey is the Eremo or Rotonda di Montesiepi, the hermitage where Galgano Giudotti — later to become San Galgano — spent much of his short life (1148-1181) as a hermit. The Rotonda is also where visitors will find the “sword in the stone.” When Galgano renounced his life of debauchery and violence (thanks to the intercession of the Archangel Michael), he ‘miraculously’ embedded his sword in a rock. Some scholars believe it is the Sword in the Stone of Arthurian legend. There are compelling arguments in favour of this theory and, for those with an interest in the subject, a number of articles and at least one book have been written on the topic.
After visiting the abbey and the hermitage, we wandered down to the ‘wine bar’ to have a cool beverage (non-alcoholic. . . it was still morning!). We found a sweet little caffè offering typical snacks, coffee, and wine from a local winery, as well as a selection of locally-produced jams, honey and condiments. Again, we found ourselves immersed in West Coast: the tiny edifice was nestled amongst non-Tuscan trees and bushes; there were dream-catchers of all shapes and sizes hanging from the branches, and from rafters and windows inside; outside, tables and chairs were set out under the shade of the trees and, on the periphery, a most curious, open structure with a hand-written sign (Zona Relax per adulti) indicating that it was for the purpose of ‘Adult Relaxation’. We didn’t ask.
Pienza, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, was another morning outing that we enjoyed despite the biting wind, rain, and cold. It was not our first visit to this charming, tiny hill town in the Val d’Orcia area of Southern Tuscany, the postcard-typical Tuscan countryside south of Siena. Nestled between Montepulciano and Montalcino (think vino. . . ), this perfect Renaissance gem was the pet project of humanist Ennea Silvio Piccolomini, who, upon becoming Pope Pius II (1458), decided to transform his unassuming birth town of Corsignano into a perfectly harmonious, utopian urban center, built on classical principles and philosophy. Piccolomini, in his role as pope, not only had the power to fulfill his dream, but also the money: the Duomo, the Palazzo Piccolomini, the Town Hall and the central square were all built in a very short period of time. Voilà: a perfect Renaissance city in only three years!
On this stunningly cold Spring day, and with only a few hours to spare, we decided to visit the Duomo, the Cattedrale dell’Assunta—with its disconcerting crack running along the floor and up the left wall. The cathedral, built in the 15th century, is situated at the edge of a cliff, overlooking those lush, rolling hills, so as to allow sunlight to stream into the tall church windows. Unfortunately, building such a structure so close to an eroding hillside has its, er, down side — as evidenced by the very visible crack seemingly held together by tape! (In reality, special glass plates…)
The town itself is very small—tiny streets, minuscule shops—and only around 2000 people call it home. Its claim to fame, apart from its picturesque setting and irresistible quaintness, is its pecorino cheese (cheese made of sheep’s milk). In Pienza you will find a mind-boggling variety of pecorino, ranging from fresh, which is rather bland, to aged, sporting a piquant taste, more akin to what we think of as Pecorino in standard North American supermarkets. We bought two small rounds to share with Antonella and the girls in Florence (our next and last stop before leaving Italy) as well as a salame al cinghiale, salami made of wild boar meat. This latter was, by far, the biggest hit amongst all of us — even me, who is not partial to cured meats. It was delicious!
Among the many tiny but well-appointed stores carrying various types of cheeses, cured meats, and local delicacies, I found a gem of a shop reflecting the resurgence of macramé, a craft I myself dabbled in as a young mom. Necklaces, bracelets, dresses, household items. . . all macraméd to whimsical perfection. It was an unexpected and delightful find—and an impetus to resurrect my own creations from almost 40 years ago.
Who knew? And yet it is so typical in Italy, or indeed anywhere we travel: Regardless of what a place is famous for, there is always something else unexpected and fascinating to appreciate about it and its people. Whimsical. . .? Kinky . . ? Legendary. . .? It’s all there to discover and enjoy.
Ahh. . . the inspiration of travel!