Everyone tells me that they simply love touring Italy. I do too. The food, the wine, the undulating roads lined with emblematic cypress trees. Beginning with the Etruscans millennia ago up to today’s Republic, it’s rich history and beauty have earned a place in my top 3 global destinations. However, my style of travel typically allows me to remain in one place for only a day, maybe two. So I wanted, make that needed, a change. This trip I would find it.
This time I decided to change my travel habits. I did some Googling to check out luxury villas in Italy with private pool. I was looking for an omphalos, a navel for my Italian experience from which to enjoy La Dolce Vita and regain my center of being. I chose a villa located in a fortified medieval hill town, deep in the heart of picture perfect Tuscany.
This villa has survived since times past within the walled village of Castelmuzio. Built to give comfort to elite families during medieval times, today it boasts all the modern amenities I expect – furnished digs with a modern fully equipped kitchen, en-suite bathrooms, air conditioning, and complete communication and entertainment options (Sat TV, DVD, CD, iPod, books, movie selections).
Road Trip Opportunities
Along with a name inherited from its Etruscan past, Tuscany is steeped in the traditions of democracy and fierce self-reliance, making it the perfect venue for independent road trip travel. Because Castelnuzio is so central to so much, many day trips are possible.
Take Le Crete Senesi lying across rolling hills to the northwest. Since the Middle Ages, this area has been called the Desert of Accona, a part of Italy often captured in paintings and photographs. I choose the area partly for the beauty of hills that color-morph with the seasons, for roads lined with emblematic cypress trees that pass by olive groves tumbling down hills topped with ruins, and for the food and the festivals that celebrate it.
An example is the festival at San Giovanni d’Asso known for local truffles and fresh pecarino cheese. With a long tradition of showcasing the specialty of each town or village – be it boar, truffles, or wine – today harvest festivals during late September, October, and early November weekends celebrate the “slow food” movement. This philosophy promotes locally grown food and embodies the slower pace of life that is the Italian lifestyle.
Another road trip dips into the UNESCO World Heritage site of Val d’Orcia. Tranquil now, for centuries medieval families feuded for control of this fertile valley. Settlements began to appear in the 11th century, but it flourished during the 14th and 15th centuries when the powerful city-state of Siena absorbed it.
The valley’s level chalk plains give way to a drive through nearly conical hills crowned with fortified hilltop settlements. Initially on main highways, soon I’m driving on roads that cut through hills dissected by streams rich in clay and tufa soil. Originally just Etruscan paths, these evolved into official Roman roads, then the roads of today.
Although some segments are on modern highways, commonly these are soon left behind and only a handful of cars (and farm equipment) share them with you. Remember, these are rural roads so during early fall expect to end up behind slow-moving farm equipment.
By far my favorite though, is a driving trip to walk a medieval hill town and spelunk the famous wine cellars of Montepulciano.
Montepulciano, A Vertical Town
In 1805, Thomas Jefferson visited and wrote in his diary “I confine myself to the physical want of some good Montepulciano, this being a very favorite wine”.
Celebrated since Etruscan times, the grapes that make up Vino di Nobile grow only in vineyards surrounding the hill town. Pressed from the Sangiovese grape varietal, with the inception of a stricter set of laws and regulations, 50 years ago the wine was officially classified and rebranded Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
That makes a wine-bar crawl my favorite activity. It gives the opportunity to taste the variety grown in many different terriors – or the soil, topography, and microclimate where the wine’s produced. As a pedestrian, it’s also a good thing – driving in town isn’t possible for travelers. In Italy the permissible blood alcohol level while driving is less than .5%, or one glass of wine, and the legal system has evolved from one that presumes guilt until proven innocent.
Fortunately I don’t need to walk too far to sample the many different vintages available – I just visit Consorzio del Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and do it all in one spot. This enoteca is located inside the historic Palazzo del Capitano building in Piazza Grande, and offers products from more than 70 local producers.
When you go to Montepulciano
While the town is traffic free and walkable, it works best for those with strong legs – the topography here emphasizes the “hill” portion of hill town. As a way to preserve your strength take a city bus to the top and walk down. Along the main street take time to visit the many medieval churches and palazzos you see on the surface. However, realize that the pavement is layered on a foundation of ancient Etruscan ruins – be sure to visit a wine cellar below to spelunk this subterranean world.
The map below displays one driving route between these two towns. The walking tour is on the right – zoom into the Monepulciano section to find it …
Written by: Steve Smith
Steve inherited the wanderlust and has always needed to see what’s around the next corner. In his college years he enjoyed many memorable (and cheap) forays into Mexico sleeping under the stars, but today that’s all changed. Since 2006 he’s contributed stories and photographs to In The Know Traveler, and in 2014 he assumed an editor role with the same. Published both in digital and print formats, his international assignments have taken him to the Middle East, Asia, North/Latin/South America, Europe, and the Caribbean. Follow his Facebook page Steve’s Roadtrippin’ Travels that spotlights both his photography and how his road travels intersect with digital storytelling using dynamic space-age mapping technology.
Castelmuzio – Montepulciano map built by Steve Smith