Touring Tuscany: The Val d'Orcia Valley

by Mario 21-Jun 2016

If you're planning a vacation to Italy, the region of Tuscany is a must-stop travel hot spot that you need to visit during your trip as it's known for its landscapes, traditions and rich history! While you search for Tuscany villas for rent to accommodate your stay, you might be wondering where to start your sight-seeing vacation once you get settled. While you could certainly traverse through the popular Tuscan cities of Florence or Pisa, you may want to take the road less traveled and start your adventure in the scenic valley area south of Montepulciano.

Most tourists know Montepulciano for its highly rated red wine, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, however, traveling through the beautiful hills of Montepulciano will truly take your Italian vacation to another level. This part of the Tuscan region, scattered with small, well-preserved medieval villages, enormous fortresses and ancient thermal springs, remains unaltered and mostly unaffected by mass tourism. On top of that, restaurant prices throughout the valley are consistently modest. With that said, it's worth spending the day in the area and Parker Villas has a great suggested itinerary you can follow starting in Montepulciano!

An Unforgettable Adventure

First, head toward the village of Pienza, which is the unforgettable pastoral setting for the film "The English Patient", by taking the SS146, known as one of the most scenic drives in Tuscany. The valley between Montepulciano and Pienza is scattered with herds of sheep and famed for its Pecorino cheese. For anyone visiting in the Fall, make sure to experience the Fiera del Cacio, a cheese festival, which takes place in Pienza on the first Sunday.

If you continue west to San Quirico d'Orcia you'll come across a lively pedestrian thoroughfare lined with restaurants, cafes, wine shops and boutiques. It's the perfect place to stop for lunch and pick up souvenirs of locally made herbal soaps and lotions. If you are there during the third weekend in June make sure to attend the Festa del Barbarossa, a festival with a medieval costume procession through the village ending at the Horti Leonini Italianate gardens, where neighborhoods compete in archery and flag throwing.

Arriving at the Thermal Spas & Hot Springs

A 10-minute drive south leads to the sleepy medieval gem of Bagno Vignoni and a Roman-era thermal bath occupying the main square that's bordered by a few small shops and restaurants. During the Renaissance, this became a popular resort thanks to Lorenzo il Magnifico who came here to bathe in the medicinal water as the thermal water rises up 3200 feet to reach the surface at a temperature of 125 degrees F. The parking area for the village, beside the ruins of a 12th century mill, has a phenomenal view across the entire valley. Be sure to stop and take pictures of the breathtaking scenery!

Our next recommended stop is a small village called Bagno San Filippo that features hot spring pools, waterfalls and calcified formations. This spot was frequented by the Etruscans and made into a resort area by the Romans. Visitors are able to swim under the waterfalls and in the natural spring pools, so bring your bathing suit if you want to take a dip. If you want get the most out of this little village, the "Terme San Filippo" is a hotel spa offering day passes, skincare treatments and products made from the springs' curative waters.

Continue the southern scenic loop across the valley toward the medieval village of Cetona, a perfect stop for a coffee or gelato at one of the cafes aligning the charming town square. Fun fact: Giorgio Armani has a summer residence in the area. When not searching for the elite, visit the Mount Cetona Archaeological Park (open July - September), home of the prehistoric Belvedere caves.

From Cetona, pick up the Chiusi exit on the A1 highway, which is a short 15-minute drive away, to head back home to your Tuscan villa in Montepulciano. If you don't get a chance to visit Tuscany this summer, you can still plan your trip for the fall because there's still plenty to see and do!

If you are traveling in late fall, don’t worry. There are plenty of the medieval festivals the area is known for:

  • The Sagra del Fungo e Castagna, is the feast of the mushroom and the chestnut, which takes place on the 2nd and 3rd weekends of October in Vivo d'Orcia. Food stands offer mushrooms dishes, roasted chestnuts and jams.
  • The Sagra del Marrone is the feast of the chestnut in Campligia d'Orcia, held on the last Sunday in October. The village's three neighborhoods compete against one another in decorating, performing arts and food. Visitors walk through each area to judge their favorites and cast a ballot to decide the winner, who is announced that evening.
  • The white truffle festival in San Giovanni d'Asso takes place on the 2nd and 3rd weekends in November, to highlight the truffle season, which runs from September through December. The town has an imposing castle that houses the Museo del Tartufo, which is open on weekends.

Are you ready to plan your vacation by finding the perfect Tuscany villa for rent so you can experience everything Italy has to offer? Search for villas or apartments in Tuscany with Parker Villas today!

Planning a Family Reunion at a Tuscan Villa

by Mario 19-May 2016

A reunion necessitates a lot of planning. Organizing the travel, accommodations, transportation, and activities while keeping everyone happy is always a challenge of the first order. Thankfully, with Parker Villas to help you out, a lot of the work won't really fall on your shoulders. In addition to renting beautiful, hand-picked villas to rent all over Italy and Tuscany we also arrange almost every aspect of your trip.

You know your family better than anyone, and most of these trips are multi-generational and include people with varying interests. It’s important to take a few of these key pointers into consideration when collaborating with us:

Consider the special and varying needs of all

·      • Accommodate grandparents - Take into consideration any guests who may need bedrooms on the ground level with fewer steps. They also may not be up for an aggressive touring schedule and wish to spend more time at the house relaxing. Living areas and kitchens should be easily accessible. Having a large patio or garden area with particularly scenic views of the surrounding countryside is a plus.

·      • Plan for little ones / kids – Younger family members need space to run around, such as a large lawn or garden. All rental homes have kitchens - allowing parents to prepare meals that will make picky kids happy. Many children are not adventurous eaters (no matter how good the cuisine), so having a kitchen to make grilled cheese, snacks and portable sandwiches for the day out can be a real lifesaver.

·       • Allow for some separation – Elders or those without kids may not be used to traveling with kids - a baby crying in the middle of the night impacts everyone’s vacation. By assigning family groups separate floors, renting a house with a detached cottage or opting for an estate with multiple housing units everyone gets a better night’s sleep.

·      • Choose a large space for dining and socializing together – If you feel your family is apt to spend time at your vacation house rather than sightseeing, the living and dining areas become more of a priority when selecting your home away from home.  

Don't overdo togetherness

Reconnecting with family that you haven't seen in years is a special occasion and a rarity. While you want to enjoy precious time on this memorable trip, you also want to be mindful of too much togetherness.  Everyone needs a little alone time, even on a family reunion trip, so don't plan out every minute of every day.

• On a weekly trip, plan 3 or 4 scheduled day trip activities – These could include a guided city tour, a cooking class, a wine tour, a shopping expedition, etc. Remember to include a variety of activities so that everyone has something to look forward to.

• Plan 2-3 group dinners at the villa, but not every night – Vacation rentals can arrange for a cook so that everyone can relax and socialize instead of worrying about cooking and cleaning. However, there will be some days when guests want to venture out on longer day trips and dine in the town they are visiting rather than rush back to the villa.

• Make Wednesday a free day – Mid week is always a great point to leave open as a free day. This allows Mary to go buy her shoes, Bob to go golfing, and Betty to relax by the pool. Time for pursuing individual interests, keeps everyone happier on the trip.

• Arrange for daily breakfast at a villa rental – This is a great way to get started before heading out on a tour or a short day trip to the coast. No one has to get up early to make breakfast or spend time doing the dishes when they could be out enjoying the Italian countryside.

• Suggest one week for the family reunion and a second week for your own family – A combo vacation is a great way to spend time with the entire gang and also a little bonding time with your own family – two great experiences in one vacation!

Transportation

• Consider renting a couple of smaller cars instead of a group van – A Partridge Family- style bus with sing-alongs sounds great, but what happens when the group wants to separate? Maybe one person wants to spend hours at the Roman ruins while another cannot leave Italy without buying a new Gucci bag. Families have diverse interests and you want everyone to enjoy the trip. Renting several smaller cars rather than a large van allows everyone to have some independence and no regrets about missed opportunities. Getting two smaller cars also costs less than getting a large van – and are easier to drive on curvy country roads!

• Rent a bus for a day – For an outing such as a winery tour or scenic drive through Italy's hill towns, it is possible to rent a bus with a driver for a day to make the logistics easier.

Bring a favorite babysitter along

• It will be worth it in the long run – The extra airline ticket is a good investment, since wine tours and museums are traditionally not kid favorites.

• Bringing someone you trust allows for worry-free vacationing – Rather than trying to engage a stranger for the job, bring someone you feel comfortable entrusting with your children's safety and well-being. This allows you to enjoy your time at a wine tour or late dinner without wondering if your kids are ok, have gotten to bed on time, etc.

• Your kids will be less anxious – Many kids can be unsettled in unfamiliar surroundings, especially if their parents leave to go sightseeing. Having someone they know and trust helps them settle into their new environment and enjoy their time too.

When it's time to start the planning, everyone says "count me in," but how do you get the ball rolling?

• Select a group leader – Group e-mails are fun when initial ideas are being tossed around, but you'll need a leader to move things along and make some final decisions.

• Collect a deposit by a given deadline – Setting a firm deadline for payments is a great way to see who is serious about the trip and who is content to dream. This is important because, whether you rent a house, book a tour, reserve hotels, etc., establishing the number of people involved is often the first thing you have to do.

• Include travel insurance in the budget – While some people debate the value of travel insurance for smaller trips, it is invaluable in an endeavor as large as a family reunion. But should you purchase a group policy? Individual insurance? Actually, the best option is to have each family buy their own policy. This means that if one family group has a mishap and cannot make the trip, said family can get a refund and the trip continues on.

• Start planning at least a year in advance to find available space – Since most large groups rent in June, July, and September, be sure to book well ahead of time to find accommodations during these months. If you are planning a trip at the last minute, searching for shoulder or off-season months may be your best option for availability. Prices can be pleasantly lower as well.

At Parker Villas, we've helped  thousands of people plan their family reunions and know the questions to ask to help you consider everyone's needs. All of our large villas offer the option of breakfast and dinner service, cooking classes, and additional cleaning. We also arrange for hotels, rental cars, day tours – our one-stop arrangements help make it easy to keep a large group trip organized. Contact us for more information today!

Why May is a Great Time to Visit Italy

by Mario 06-Apr 2016

At Parker Villas, we've noticed an odd trend: not as many people seem to be visiting Italy in May. For the life of us, we can't figure out why that would be. Could it be that Americans just don't travel before Memorial Day? Or perhaps people aren't aware of how great a time it is to visit? Whatever the case, we're here to let people in on the secret and explain why May might actually be the best month to come to central Italy.

Beautiful Weather

If you are looking for comfortable temperatures, late spring is a great time to visit areas like Tuscany and Umbria. While May in the past was considered strictly a shoulder season, recently the temperatures have been heating up during this month, making it warm, but not blistering. Since outdoor activities are an essential part of any trip to Italy, this will make your time here much more enjoyable. Rent a villa in Tuscany and enjoy spending time on the terrace, or take advantage of the many cafes that will just be opening their outdoor seating.

Of course, it can still be a little cool out during this month and some rain is possible, so check the forecast right before you go to see what type of clothing you might need and bring a jacket for evenings in any case. For the most part, however, expect sunshine and blissfully mild weather.

Flowers

Speaking of outdoor activities, May is one of the best times to catch all of the blooming flowers in the central Italian towns and countryside. The month actually sees the transition of the landscape from the vibrant green of spring to the dusky golds of summer. Bright red poppies and purple wildflowers dot the hills, and gardens fill with blooming roses, azaleas, and jasmine. You may even be able to smell some of these scents wafting across the fields.

More particularly, Florence's Giardino dell'Iris is a must-see for any flora lover. This garden almost exclusively features a fabulous array of Irises, and is only open from May 2nd-20th each year. This is a rare treat that many people who go in August will never get to experience!

Festivals & Holidays

When travelling to Italy, enjoying the unique culture is just part of the fun, and one of the best ways to do that is to attend one of the many festivals. Different towns hold events throughout the year, and May is no exception. You could attend one of the crossbow competitions (there are several, usually performed in late medieval garb), head to one of the many product-related festivals (often dedicated to wine, nuts, cheese, or other goods of the region), or enjoy one of the religious or historically-based affairs.

The Calendimaggio celebrations are held in Assisi, Umbria, on the first Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday in May (not including the 1st of May). It portrays the drama between two separate groups who clashed with one another in the streets of the city during the 14th century with vibrant costumes, parades, contests, and ceremonies. You may need tickets for some parts of this festival, so get them ahead of time!

Worth noting also is the Italian Labour Day on the first of May. In many places, there are special events and concerts to commemorate the institution of workers' rights, and you can attend some of these if you so choose. One of the other ways that many locals celebrate is by taking short trips to the countryside to relax and picnic, which is never a bad way to spend time in Italy. There will be some businesses that close for the holiday, however, so plan accordingly.

The Giro d'Italia

If you've ever thought you would love to catch some of the Tour de France, the Giro d'Italia is a great alternative. This is considered one of the top cycling races in the world, and is one of three European races that constitute the Grand Tours (these include the Tour de France, the Giro d'Italia, and the Vuelta a España).

The route for this year's race has already been determined, with one leg of the competition traversing the Chianti region vineyards for 40 kilometers (about 25 miles) in an individual time trial. This means that you won't have to go far out of your way to experience this exciting event firsthand. The Giro d'Italia would be an incredible thing to get some pictures of and tell people about at home, so check out the schedule and plan ahead.

On the other hand, if bike racing isn't your thing, keeping this event in mind will help you to avoid a major road delay while on your trip. 

Fewer Crowds

Did we mention how perplexed were that there weren't more people here in May? That's all to the good for you, if you decide to book during the month. Many people who are looking to avoid the mid-summer heat and the crowds come in September, which, though a beautiful month in central Italy, often ends up just as crowded as June or July. But, possibly because kids aren't off of school or people simply haven't accrued much vacation time, May is often neglected. This will make everything from taking a wine tour to visiting the Uffizi less chaotic, more personal, and more pleasant. You'll feel a bit less like a tourist, and more like you actually live here, which is always the goal of a great vacation!

While we think coming to central Italy is worth it at any time of year, May is a highly underappreciated month. Take advantage of it by booking a villa or apartment with us at Parker Villas today!

Unveiling the Secrets of Rome's Past

by Mario 09-Aug 2013

With all the renewed attention Rome is enjoying with Pope Francis, James Papandrea's most recent outing "Rome  — A Pilgrim's Guide to the Eternal City" comes at a providentially opportune time. The guide is indispensable for unveiling many of Rome's ancient secrets — especially those that go unnoticed in plain sight. In an easy, colloquial style, yet packed with detail, Jim probes behind (and often beneath) the most famous and sometimes long forgotten facades and artworks on a journey of unique discovery. Those in need of a mere lodging & good eats guide should read no further.

While Jim uncovers tangible evidence of Rome's early church, the book reveals so much more. Regardless of one's belief system, this guide is a bag of pearls. Each find is a glimpse into a hidden Rome. Catholics and other ecumenical denominations will appreciate age-old invocations and devotions to a panoply of early saints. However, students of history be they peoples of the Book, followers of the Way, agnostics or adherents of any faith will be fascinated with how Babel's pantheism morfed into the Roman Catholic rite.

One interesting tidbit regarding Julius Caesar's coronation required his becoming Pontifex Maximus — the empire's chief priest. However, this was in BC (before Christ). The church Julius headed, with all the familiar trappings of today's pontiffs, originated long before Christ in ancient Mesopotamia. The question one begs is whether all this evidence points to Catholicism donning a pagan mask to survive or was it the other way around?

"Rome  — A Pilgrim's Guide to the Eternal City" opens a doorway into a hall of mirrors encompassing masterpieces of art and architecture, traditions and doctrines and reveals an origin far older than Rome. You needn't visit the city to enjoy this read or its photos, but the sheer number of insights and curiosities will likely make your eventual appearance inevitable and rewarding.

Eager forensic detectives may even choose to personally accompany Dr. Papandrea on future explorations of the Eternal City. For more information preview the book, read about the author and ckeck his 2014 travel schedule or just simply visit him at www.JimPapandrea.com. You may also purchase a copy directly from the publishers: Wipf and Stock Publishers or from Amazon in either print or e-version.

A final note — Jim is a Parker Villas client and I'm always thrilled to share our guests' deepening love affair with Italy. While I am neither a writer nor a critic, I do profess to know Italy very well. Having lived in Rome and visited the city countless times, Jim's book left me happily humbled by how little I knew and by how much more I look forward to returning to my favorite corner of Rome. This review was not prescreened by the author.
mario

Help Bring Marilyn Monroe Home To The USA From Italy

by Mario 13-Mar 2013

This appeal is going to sound a bit odd from someone who is neither an avid museum goer, a fashion flower nor celebrity buff. Perhaps it's all the more interesting. A few months ago I was taken on an afternoon conference break, with a slew of other foreign travel buyers to see the Marilyn exhibit at the Ferragamo Shoe Museum in Florence. It was designed as an hour to kill after lunch.

Sixty minutes later, with tears running down my cheeks, I approached the woman who was acting as the guide — but who possesed far more passion than any ordinary guide — and in my abrupt American fashion blurted out: "Who are you? Are you the person who sells this dream?" The answer was: "Yes, but we are not done yet. Please, follow me." The grand finale was a jaw dropper. When everyone left, I lingered behind to ask the "guide", a director level official: "When is Marilyn coming to the United States?" She sadly replied: "She's not". The exhibit in Florence ends at the beginning of April and opens in Prague from May through August 2013. Then, that's it. After Prague, once all the pieces go back to their respective museums and private collections, it's a lot harder to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Let's back up. Aside from the shoes, clothes, pictures, sound, film and writings of Marilyn, masterfully presented in a Fellini dreamlike sequence, the genius is in how it's all done. Here's Marilyn in an all too familiar pose next to an even more famous painting or sculpture hundreds or thousands of years older in the exact same position. This is art, universal and timeless. A tragic American icon and an ephemeral Greek, Roman or Renaissance nymph, goddess and madonna become indistinguishable, nearly interchangeable! The presentation is nonetheless filled with drama and controversy. It's an emotional roller coaster. No matter the forewarning, jaws will drop aplenty.

The Ferragamo Museum is a true accredited museum and separate from the Ferragamo brand. Once a stateside museum does get involved, the brand may surely want to sponsor a great deal of things. But until then it does not get involved.

So, if you want to help:
Step 1. Get infected. Visit Marilyn in Florence this month (March 2013) or in Prague in May.
Step 2. Once you see it, you'll agree that wherever Marilyn lands in the USA there will be day-long lines for blocks.
Step 3. Six degrees of separation. What's needed are introductions between interested museums here and Marilyn's mentors there.

I have returned to Florence three times in as many months, with more trips to come, on Parker business. Each time, I try to move the dream along. We have already established some contacts on Marilyn's behalf from ambassadorial levels on down. With your added help we maybe can get her home soon. If you are serious and have the right contacts, I'm quite easy to reach and can open the doors there.

Italy How-To: Get Me to the Cruise Ship on Time!

by Mario 29-Aug 2012

 

 

Question:

This site was recommended to me to solve a problem with transportation from FCO Airport to Civitavecchia port to catch the Pacific Princess. Our travel agent booked us to arrive at 2:45pm on flight number 682 KLM. We need to get to the port between 2pm and 5 pm. What transportation can I access to achieve this goal? I understand that it is about 45 km. Thanks you for your help. (This is our first time to attempt such a transfer.)

-Ruth

ANSWER:

Dear Ruth,

You will be cutting it too close to take a nearly 90 minute train ride from the airport to Civitavecchia.

If you are coming directly from the States and connecting to Rome via Amsterdam (KLM?) you will be, in addition to waiting for your luggage, clearing customs in Italy. All of which, assuming the flight is on time, will easily take over one hour depending on how many other flights are coming in.  

Again, assuming you and your bags are finally clear and standing outside the airport door by 4:00 pm, the best solution is to have prearranged car and driver waiting for you. The drive, depending on traffic, is between 45 minutes to an hour. Rates will depend on the size vehicle needed to fit the number of people and bags. This cuts it close but gets you there with least amount of hassle.

Your agent should have booked such a service. If not, a Parker Villas Travel Advisor may be able to help. We generally only offer such services to our villa rental clients, but it may be worth calling the 800 number soon if all else fails.

Have a great trip,

Mario

Firenze Card — Access to the Best Museums in Florence, Italy

by Mario 30-Mar 2011

The city of Florence finally released the long awaited Firenze Card that allows access to the 33 most important museums, chapels and art galleries in the city. It also provides free passage on the city's public transit system. Priced at 50 Euro, the Florence card may be purchased online and picked up at one of five collection points in the city.

While the card is a great deal for passionate lovers of art, it may not be ideal for everyone. The moment you swipe your Florence Card at the first museum turnstile the countdown begins. The Florence Cards will expire in 72 hours and the chase is on. Remember, most museums in Florence are closed on Mondays and some are closed Sundays as well. There must be some connection between Italian museums, barber shops and this Monday closing thing that eludes me.

The Firenze Card site is easy to navigate and you will discover that the card also allows access to special exhibitions and events. In some cases you may even be able to bypass lines. A silly benefit that comes with the Florence Card is free admission, when accompanied by a valid cardholder, to a European Citizen aged 18 or under — maybe it's an inducement for adoption?

The greatest benefit will go to those who can carefully plot their entire course and slide into the last museum two minutes before the card gives up the ghost. It's kind of like fasting for days before attending the all you can eat buffet. Unfortunately, museums are not open 24 hours a day, that would be fun. If on average, museums are open nine hours a day, what you are buying is roughly 36 hours. Factor in meals, rest breaks and transit time from one to the other and the most intrepid adventurers might get to briefly visit half the places listed — that's a great deal. Then again, you can always buy another card.

My Favorite Italy Headlines

by Mario 05-Jan 2011

                                            Italy's Freccia Rossa Trains Offer Free WiFi

Easy Access Italy Internet Finally a Reality

As of January 1st, 2011 registration is no longer required to access a WiFi hotspot in Italy. While internet access was widely available, the old anti-terrorism Pisanu law required users to list an Italian  phone number, passport information, etc. as a condition of access. That law was repealed. From now on visitors to Italy will find free access to the Web unencumbered. For a guide to free WiFi Hot Spots check this link. Use the drop down named Città, to pick the city you want; under Tipologia you may narrow down the type of establishments that offer WiFi or just choose ALL for a complete list; I'd also use ALL in the Provider field. Make sure to click the GRATIS (free) button before hitting the search key. Skype users with a an IPhone or similar can even make free video phone calls back home from over the Web!

 

Italy Paper or Plastic? — Nonna's Gotta Brand New Bag

As of January 1, 2011 existing stocks of plastic bags are being phased out and plastic bags will no longer be produced or available in Italy. Choices will be confined to recycled paper or bioplastic material that's made from renewable, biodegradable sources such as corn starch. The concerns that lead Italy to enact this law were threefold: over one trillion plastic bags are produced annually in the world that can remain in the environment for up to 1000 years; countless animals including whales, tortoises and marine birds suffer needless deaths, some to the point of extinction and third, the toxic danger to humans from carcinogenic dyes, metals and other chemicals used in the manufacturing process. When polled, a majority of Italians chose reusable cloth sacks and wicker baskets over any other alternative. Who would have thought that nonna's sack would become modern day Italy's eco-friendly alternative? Pretending to know Italy and the Italians just a bit, I will wager that Prada, Gucci, Furla will shortly unleash the most stylish, must-have, market bags designed to consume just one renewable resource: your money.

 

                          Italian poppy fields are pretty to look at — the real money comes from olive oil

TOP SECRET: Not Yet Coming to a Store Near You

Of all the documents and communiques released by Wikileaks one interesting Italy related tidbit managed to escape most everyone's attention. Back on February 8th, 2010 U.S. Defense Secretary Gates met in Rome with Franco Frattini, Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs. Mr. Frattini, eager to assist the U.S.A's efforts in Afghanistan offered Italy's unique help: convert the opium producing poppy fields to the production of olives and olive oil. While at first blush the offer may elicit a chuckle, olive oil, especially the good stuff, is extremely expensive, quite profitable and possibly the only legal crop that could compel Afghani farmers to make the switch. It's been nearly a year and still no word on Italy's offer.

The Other Tuscany — Montalcino, Pienza & Montepulciano part 4

by Mario 27-Oct 2010

So far we have briefly explored Asciano, the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, and Bounconvento. Our final leg takes us towards a fabulous finish where each stop tops the last.

Montalcino — From Buonconvento a 30 minute panoramic drive leads up to the fortified medieval hill town of Montalcino. This famous wine capital is a fair sized town of about 6,000 souls perched on a vine laden hill. Exquisitely wine, dine and view the panorama from a table at Poggio Antico. If pressed for time you may purchase wines, oil and Grappa from the restaurant's little shop. As with most wine purveyors shipping your finds back home can usually be arranged. A far less expensive option is Osteria Porta al Cassero, a few steps from the town's imposing fortress. The peasant cooking is magnificent, the pasta is homemade and its plain Jane ambiance is sought out by both residents and visitors alike. This casual trattoria on Via della Libertà opens for lunch and dinner and closes on Wednesdays.

While Piedmont's Barolo may be known as the king of wines and the wine of kings, Montalcino's Brunello is often referred to as Italy's best vintage. Produced in relatively limited quantities from San Giovese varietals, Brunello has an intense ruby red color and aroma. It is at once warm, dry, robust and harmonious with a persistently lingering flavor. if your taste buds overrule your pocket book, seek the added refinements of a Riserva. Inversely, the much younger, less expensive Rosso di Montalcino employs the same grapes as the more costly aged Brunello's — aged one year as opposed to a minimum of four.

Wine buffs will want to sip and shop their way through both Enoteca la Fortezza and the historic Caffè Fiaschetteria Italiana for a complete wine roundup. With time on your side, a visit to Montalcino's Glass Museum will reveal far more than ancient flûtes, goblets and bottles. A collection of Venetian blown glass and works by Picasso, Dalì and Jean Cocteau are well worth a stop.

Strong Detour Suggestion - If by some reason you either missed the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore or went gaga over its austere beauty, then take a wander six miles south from Montalcino on SP55 to the Abbey of Sant'Antimo — Italy's most tranquil and picturesque abbey.

Pienza — A half hour drive east of Montalcino's vineyards leads to the small, enchanting Tuscan town of Pienza. For anyone with mobility issues, Pienza is an ideal place to get out and roam about as this hill town is as flat as a pancake. Pienza is the birthplace of Pope Pius ll who transformed the village into a planned Renaissance city. If Siena is Florence without the traffic jams then Pienza is Siena without the crowds. While Pienza has only a couple of thousand inhabitants it offers a number of architectural similarities to its far larger cousins such as Palazzo Piccolomeni which uncannily resembles Palazzo Rucellai in Florence. While the draw of Pienza is clearly the architecture a gelato break at Dolce Sosta is mandatory. If you have time, take a quick stroll about the grounds of Il Chiostro di Pienza hotel, if only for the views.

Another reason to visit Pienza is to pick up some exquisite cheese. You will find caseifici (cheese makers) everywhere along the routes heading in or out of town. Tuscan Pecorino now better known as Pecorino di Pienza typically comes in 8 to 10" wide wheels — perfect dimensions for stuffing them in suitcases. The incomparable taste of a Tuscan Pecorino may be due to a couple of factors: a) the amazing properties of the le Crete area and its peculiar effect on local sheep and b) the age-old traditions of Sardinian shepards that helped transform this part of Tuscany. Whatever the reason, there's a Pecorino suited to your taste buds. Pecorino can be sweet and semi soft, stronger and semi aged or extra aged and unforgettably piquant. It may be cast plain or infused with truffles or black peppercorn. It's flavors may be enhanced by aging wheels in ash, wine must or walnut leaves. Eat it fresh. Drizzle it with honey or marmalade or grate the very aged ones over a favorite dish. Our favorite cheesemaker is Caseificio Cugusi. The holy grail of Tuscan cheese is Pienza and you will find this caseificio roughly half way from Pienza on the way towards Montepulciano.

Montepulciano — Of all the towns along the route, Montepulciano offers me the most perfectly balanced Tuscan experience. The town is gorgeous to look at both from inside and seen from afar. The shops, cafes, piazze and sights that line its steep lanes are intriguing and not overly commercial. Some of my fascination with Montepulciano comes from its size. Being as large as all the previous towns combined, Montepulciano simply offers visitors more attractions. While large, with nearly 15,000 inhabitants, it feels remarkably small and personal. The sensation I get is one that's unhurried, friendly and brimming with low keyed enthusiasm — my favorite kind of place. Another worthy attraction is the wine. Unlike Brunello and Barolo, Montepulciano's vintages do not scream: "I am the best", they are just simply good — very good indeed. Again, in my mind, its all about that quiet confidence I sense all around that seems to whisper: come, try me and you will not be disappointed. Even San Biagio, its most beautiful church, sits quietly by itself at the foot of the town awaiting your visit.

Osteria Acquacheta, tucked away in a small neighborhood near the center, is one of my favorite steakhouses anywhere. The Fiorentina steaks are carved in front of your eyes and grilled to perfection. From mouthwatering pasta to simple veggies everything is beyond delicious and quite reasonably priced. For something truly out of this world, try the Pecorino baked with pears.

Heading home from Montepulciano a 30 minute drive will have you back at the junction of the A1 and the Siena/Bettole highway whisking you back to your point of origin. Happy touring.

Coming up next: A veteran Parker staffer experiences the Cinque Terre for the first time.

The Other Tuscany — Rally in Buonconvento part3

by Mario 05-Sep 2010

Enlarge map
Map 1 — Start to finish from Siena

As we move to the next leg of our Tuscan adventure let's examine the entire route. In parts 1 & 2 we visited the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore and Asciano. Since both posts went up, we've gotten calls and emails from travelers requesting a route suggestion for this corner of Tuscany.

Good itineraries will avoid retracing steps. Visitors coming from the north, the Chianti area, Florence or Siena should pick up the S408 in Siena towards Asciano. The entire route outlined in Map 1 uses Siena as the starting point. The total excursion is 115 miles long. According to Google's, overly cautious driving estimate, driving non-stop takes four hours from start to finish. That's no fun. We are going to take our time and hopefully more than double the estimated time to completion. This entails getting on the road early or limiting stops based on your interests and the time you can allot.


Enlarge map

Map 2 — Starting from either Cortona (north) or Umbria (south)

Those coming from the east, Cortona, Arezzo or Lake Trasimeno and other parts of Umbria consult Map 2. On the way back come home use the A1 highway to close the loop by either heading north or south back towards your starting point at either the Chiusi or Sinalunga-Bettolle exit.

Our jaunt begins in Asciano 18 miles south of Siena. Drive time from Siena is around 30 minutes. The next stop is l'Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore — 15 minutes south of Asciano. Plan on spending 90 minutes getting to know Asciano and 90 minutes exploring the abbey. From the abbey, a scenic 15 minute drive leads to the walls of Buonconvento.

Bounconvento's charming historic center remains protected by impressive 13th-century walls. The sight of the walls alone are worth the stop. A stroll down via Soccini (above), the old town's main street is mandatory. If you are getting hungry check out the menus along the way for La Via Dimezzo (closed Mondays), Ristorante da Mario, pictured above and Osteria da Duccio (both closed Wednesdays). Prices are honest and the food is downright good. Upon your return, please share your favorite places and flavors of Buonconvento.

For wines, try the local Orcia reds and whites or the Val d'Arbia white. Treat yourself to the local Chianina beef grilled Florentine style or homemade antipasti and pasta dishes infused with white truffles from the surrounding Le Crete. Adventurous palates will champ at the bit for pappardelle with heavenly hare or boar sauce.

If you are truly blessed arrive on the third Saturday in June as Buonconvento celebrates the Summer Moon festival. Tables are set along via Soccini for outdoor dining, music and mayhem all for the price of a song — typically under 20E per person.

One last word about Buonconvento, aside from being eye candy, Buonconvento is a stop along the world's most beautiful car rally. The Mille Miglia is a 1000 mile race that begins in Brescia near Lake Garda and reaches Rome before boomeranging back to Brescia. Many drivers try to make Buonconvento by lunch. For 2011 the race is scheduled to take place from May 12 to the 15th. Visit the Mille Miglia official site. Register to get detailed itinerary information and updates. Registration is free and who knows, you may be tempted to have lunch in Buonconvento behind the wheel of your own roadster or feasting on a picnic from a special vantage point along the route.

Next: Savoring Tuscany's Best Wine & Cheese part 4

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