Saturday, October 31, 2015


About an hour’s drive from Montepulciano, Montalcino is the center of one of the best red wine regions in the world. Brunello, the best of which is 100% Sangiovese grapes, comes in three varieties just like the Montepulciano wines we have been drinking in our ‘home’ town. The lowest level is Sant’Antimo. This wine is meant to be drunk as soon as it is purchased, is usually rather fruity. Aged for only one year, the wine may include 15% grapes other than Sangiovese. This is the wine that will most often be the table wine offered in local restaurants. A carafe will often sell for less than €6.

Not many shoppers, but the wine shops are ready. All offer tasting, often free.
The midlevel wine, Rosso di Montalcino DOC is 100% Sangiovese grapes and will be aged at least one year of which six months must be in oak. This wine will still have some fruitiness, but will also be more lively and somewhat tannic. These wines sell for €7-15 in the bottle. The best of the Brunellos are labeled Brunello di Montalcino DOCG or Brunello di Montalcino DOCG Riserva, will also be 100% Sangiovese grapes and must be aged 5 or 6 years before release. They must spend at least two years in oak. The preferred barrels are large Slavonian casks because they impart little flavor to the wine. Selling for as much as €200 per bottle and more, these wines will easily age 15-30 years. In fact, some wines from the late 19th century are still in excellent condition.

There was an entire wall of these ceramics on the town hall. I think it may have been a contest to design something to promote the local wine. These were our favorites.

 These DOC/DOCG rules were established by the Italian government in 1963 to assure the origin and quality of wine and cheeses produced in Italy. They have been modified somewhat in the years since to conform with EU laws. The G for guaranteed was added later because some wine makers were concerned that the DOC designation was being applied to liberally. DOCG wines must age at least one year beyond those that only receive the DOC designation.

We started our visit to Montalcino with a visit to the Fortezza on the highest point in the town. After a quick look inside, we decided to check out the rest of the town before returning to taste some of the wines at the wine bar in the old chapel inside the fort. We walked past the closed Duomo on the other end of town where we spent some time in the Sanctuary of the Madonna del Soccorso built in the 16th century with a façade that was added in the 19th century. Once our eyes adjusted to the darkness we were treated to an outstanding baroque alter and a beautiful stained glass which was more of a town scene than the typical religious motif. We also enjoyed the great views of the surrounding countryside and an interesting sculpture on the lawn. The sculpture had a wind chime in the middle.  Of course, we tried it but the sound was not like a typical “free form” chime.  It was actually rather tinny and unpleasant. 

It is nice to see that these towns are still supporting art.
It is a religious scene, but with the look of the Montalcino and its people.

We then headed back to the center of town where another church beckoned us. The Church of Sant’Egido also known as the Church of the Sinese, built in the 1300s, was the official church of the Republic of Siena in exile in the 1550s. Siena had lost the war with Florence, but the leaders escaped and were able to hold out in the well-defended Montalcino for another three years before France and Spain (Siena’s and Florence’s allies respectively) came to terms essentially ending the war.

A modern look to this baptismal font
The town square shows its history with this statue on a pedestal highlighting the link to ancient Roma. Tradition has it that the town was founded by the sons of Remus who fled after he was killed by Romulus, the mythical founder of Rome. The flags show the winner of the neighborhoods competition that had just been completed the day before we arrived. The weekend was very busy with lots of food, wine, and archery competitions. The winning neighborhood gets bragging rights for the next year. It seems that most larger towns in this area have such competitions. In Siena, it culminates in a horse race. In Montepulciano, teams of two men roll an 80kg wine barrel up to the Piazza Grande at the top of the town. The route is approximately 1 mile long with some hills of at least a 10% grade. It is a decent walk, never mind having to push this barrel in front of you. 

After a lunch at the Café Fiaschetteria Italia which was founded by the creator of Brunello wines in the 1880s, we headed back to the Fortezza’s wine bar to taste some of the famous Brunellos. We were not disappointed, nor would we expect to be when paying €38 to taste five wines and one additional provided by our waiter. For once Linda and I agreed on the best of the six which surprisingly turned out to be the least expensive at €75. We will save that one to have on Linda’s birthday when we arrive in Rome.

On our way home to Montepulciano, we took a short detour to the Abbey of Sant’Antimo. The abbey was founded by the Lombards in 770 and received a seal from Charlemagne in 781. Over the next 400 years the abbey grew tremendously owning 96 castles and 85 monasteries. After reaching that high point, they lost their main castle in Montalcino to Siena in 1200. The decline continued until 1462 when it was suppressed by Pius II. The abbey fell into disrepair until it was revived as an abbey in 1992. The most interesting elements of the abbey are the Deambulatory, something rare in Italy, a walkway behind the alter built to allow pilgrims to circle the relics of the 4th century martyr Sant’Antimo. His remains may be buried in the small crypt under the alter. 

Finally, there is the capital sculpture of Daniel in the lions’ den carved by the Master of Cabestany in the 12th century. Details of his life are unknown, but his works can be seen throughout Spain, France, and Tuscany.  The abbey was far different from the churches we have visited, much more stark.  Adding to the ambience, they play nuns chanting.  First time we heard any type of music in a church.  

A few final scenery pictures from the drive and proof that some people don't know when it's time to quit. This lady is pruning the olive trees with a hand saw. 

Sunday, October 25, 2015

A Drive in the Tuscan Countryside

This scene is not as green when winter approaches
A view of Pienza
We are staying in Moltepulciano in Tuscan for two weeks. Rick Steves was nice enough to include a drive through the Heart of Tuscany in his guidebook for the region. We were more than pleased to follow it and get some great views of the countryside along with visits to several of the small Tuscan hill towns.

Our first stop was La Foce Gardens. They only open on certain days which did not include Friday so we just made a quick stop and a short drive on a dirt road around the garden. Rick would have been pleased as we discovered a lovely small cemetery where we turned around.

Spedaletto Castle
Spedaletto Castle
From there we drove to the spa town of Bagno Vignoni. We did make a short stop at Spedaletto Castle which has long been a hostel for pilgrims walking the Via Francigena to Roma.

Wool in an old mill building
Beautiful spa waters
We found a parking space in Bagno Vignoni so we could wander the town. We expected to see some shops and a bath utilizing the hot spring water since the spa has been used since Roman times. And we did. The surprise was that this was also a mill town utilizing the spring water to turn the mill’s wheels. The mills, which were used into the 1950s are now gone, but the water paths remain and we could see the amazing series of runways leading the water to the millstones. It is always amazing to see the resourcefulness of those who came before.

The old mill site
Water coursing everywhere

Ingenious ditching to get the water to the right place
Our next stop was the papal city of Pienza. Pope Pius II was born here and when he became Pope in the 1400s, he decided to remake his home town into a city fit to be the birthplace of a Pope. We walked the main street through town, spent a few minutes watching workers transforming the square into something from the time of the Medicis for the upcoming TV series starring Dustin Hoffman. Perhaps next week we will get to see them filming. We had lunch and then spent some time on the walkway overlooking the valley listening to a pair of musicians (guitar and flute). Steve purchased their CD.
Pienza Cathedral altar
Ancient stone carvings in the Cathedral
This interior is typical
Watch for this coming to a television near you.
Dustin Hoffman starring in a series about the Medici family.

Small Courtyard in Pienza
Tie up your horsecart here
Enjoying the music and the view of the countryside
On our way out of town we stopped at the old church where Pius was baptized. It was also of interest because some of the decorations hark back to pagan times and the early years of the church when it was still dealing with its pagan roots.

The old church door
Ancient carvings above the door
Baptismal Font
From there we made one more stop on our way back to Montepulciano. Monticchiello is off the main road so is less visited making it a bit more rustic Italian. We had to park below town and make the walk up to see this lovely village with its typically narrow, curvy streets, shops, town square, and large church. We also noted a couple of excellent-looking restaurants one of which offered incredible views of the valley.
A more modern work of art in the church in Monticchiello.
Wine tasting in Monticchiello.
The entrance to Monticchiello with a fine restaurant just beyond the gate.
A welcoming minstrel

The only notable event on the ride back to our apartment in Montepulciano was the fact that we had to find our way through these narrow, winding streets of town without a guide. Our method to keep climbing when a choice was offered eventually led us to the Piazza Grande just above our apartment. After some discussion with a neighbor who wasn’t at all sure we were allowed to park in this restricted area, we parked anyway and took to a rest before heading out to another fine dinner and conversation. Three hours over a meal with friends is a good way to end any day. 

Some updates on the film set as we visited again four days later with my brother Kent and his wife Jina.

Final look to the set
Covering the paving stones with clay and straw
We saw a dozen wagons
Extras waiting for the next scene to be shot
If anyone knows the story this fresco references I would be happy to know.