Tuscany and Umbria

Tuesday: Arrival at La Montalla

It was a long drive (over 500 km/300 miles) to La Montalla, our agriturismo in Tuscany. Since most of it was on the autostrada, we got to experience sticker shock at Italian tolls–over 30 Euros due when we got off. We arrived around 3 pm, only to encounter a note that seemed to say (it was in Italian) that someone would be back at 3:30. So we decided to check out Contignano, the town nearby. In truth, there wasn’t too much to check out–a small village with narrow streets, a church, and very little open. It did have an ATM and, down the street, a combined piscina (swimming pool)/bar with no water in the pool. We finished our explorations and when we got back, Alphonso, the owner’s son had arrived to check us in.

We hadn’t eaten much for lunch, so after getting settled we decided to head to Montepulciano, about 10 miles away, for dinner. Forty scenic minutes (15 of them on a gravel road) later, we had gotten our first lesson in Tuscan geography, that every trip takes at least twice as long as you would think.

Montepulciano, like many Tuscan towns, is a walled medieval city located on top of a hill. “On top of a hill” perhaps gives the wrong impression because it implies that once you’ve arrived there, you too are on top of a hill. In reality, Montepulciano encompasses the top of the hill. This distinction turns out to be important.

We parked just outside one of the gates and walked in and up. We walked up and browsed some shops. We walked up some more and Anne found a geocache. By now it was after 6 and we were getting pretty hungry. We walked back down to near the gate where we had entered to a restaurant that Alphonso at our hotel had recommended. Unfortunately, it wasn’t open yet. Somewhere on our drive south we had re-entered the part of Italy where restaurants don’t open until 7:30 pm (and only tourists eat for at least an hour after that).

So we walked up again (everything was uphill from that gate) eventually ending up at the main square at the real top of the hill. There we found a Rick Steves recommended restaurant, Osteria Del Conte where, once 7:30 rolled around, we had a great dinner. After dinner, we walked (all downhill) back to the car and then home to bed.

Wednesday: Orvieto

Wednesday morning we decided to head to Orvieto. Taking the more scenic route along route SR2 seemed to be only a few minutes longer than taking the autostrada, so we opted for that. After driving a half hour or so, we came to a barrier–the highways was closed. There was no obvious indication of for how long, or of alternate routes. Google Maps offered a route up into the hills that rejoined the highway further down, but we were reluctant to take it without knowing how far the closed section extended. So we turned around and drove back to the autostrada, turning what what supposed to be a one hour trip into two-plus hours.

Once we got there Orvieto was very nice. We really liked the colorful exterior of the cathedral as well as Luca Signorelli’s frescoes in the Chapel of San Brizio. The museum behind the cathedral also had some nice pieces, including the marble Mary and Child you see in the pictures below. All in all it was a nice day. While there were tourists around, nothing was crowded, with the most obvious groups being Italian schoolkids, apparently on field trips.

We ended up eating dinner at Dopolavoro La Foce a nice ristorante not far from our hotel, after first trying an even closer one in Contignano, but finding it closed.

Thursday: Assisi

Anne put out an Assisi versus Siena call on Facebook. While there were votes for both, we ended up choosing Assisi. Before we left we did a load of laundry in La Montalla’s (free!) washing machine and Anne hung it out.

We tried the scenic, non-highway route today as well, with somewhat better luck (no detours), but the route wasn’t actually all that scenic. We parked in an underground garage at the top of the town, so it was literally all downhill from there. We had a Rick Steves audio tour that took us through many sights in the town. We saw people preparing for some sort of festival, which turned out to be Calendimaggio, a Spring festival. As we ate lunch, they were setting up stands outside the Temple of Minerva and we considered staying to watch the festivities, but it sounded like you needed tickets, plus Anne really wanted to see the Basilica of St. Francis. So we finished our afternoon there following another audio tour.

At this point we were about a mile and several hundred feet of elevation from the car. So we sprang for a cab back up the hill before making our way back to Contignano where Anne took in the laundry before we headed out to the local restaurant (the one that was closed last night) for a good dinner.

Friday: Tuscany

We had been staying in Tuscany for two days, but both of our destinations (Orvieto and Assisi) had been in the neighboring province of Umbria. So we decided to make Friday our Tuscany day, following a loop around the Val d’Orcia, the scenic region we were staying in.

We started out be heading to Rocca d’Orcia a hilltop fortress with great 360 degree views. From there we headed a few kilometers north to Bagno Vinoni a village with hot springs that have been used as baths since Roman times. Besides wandering through the town, we ate lunch and searched for a geocache at the ruins of a grist mill at the edge of town that had been powered by the overflow from the springs.

Next stop was San Quirico d’Orcia, another scenic walled hilltop town with a couple of nice churches and a geocache! From there we headed to Pienza, which was designed to be the ideal Renaissance city, at the behest of Pope Pius II. We enjoyed the piazza and Duomo, as well as artichoke-and-ginger gelato at BuonGusto.

We decided to finish our day in Montepulciano, seeing a bit more of the town and getting dinner there. We were ready for the hills and enjoyed touring the cellars at Contucci Cantina, and seeing the late-afternoon views of the countryside. Anne wanted one more Tuscan steak before we left Tuscany. We had neglected to get a reservation at the place we wanted to go, but ended up having a good one at another restaurant.

Conclusion

We left Saturday morning for Cinque Terre. We had thought about stopping in Lucca on the way, but decided that we’d rather have the afternoon in Cinque Terre.

I grossly underestimated how long it takes to get from place to place in rural Tuscany. The distances on the map aren’t large, but the roads (other than the autostrada) are narrow and windy, to the point that the village you see on the next hilltop is often half an hour or more away. While I liked the rural setting and scenery at La Montalla, it compounded the problem, because everything was a drive from there. The end results was that while we enjoyed everything we did, we didn’t get to many of the places we would have liked to see because they were just too far away.

While I liked staying in one place for four nights, if/when we go to Tuscany again, I think I’d plan to stay two or three nights in a few strategically located towns with side trips into the nearby countryside. An agriturismo that offered dinner or an apartment with kitchen facilities might be another option.

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