Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Pienza, Montalcino and San Quirico d'Orcia: the Tuscan Dream Continues

Our exploration of Italy's thigh continued, as we enjoyed new areas of the Tuscan landscape and hilltop villages dotted across it. 
Pienza, Italy
As the agritourismo we were camping at was in very close proximity to Pienza, we ended up hunting for a bakery there in order to fill our stomachs with breakfast pastry treats. Once we had finished nomming on marmelata(jam)-filled cornettos, we were enticed into the centro storico by well-placed maps in the park. 
Though it's entirely ignored by Lonely Planet, Pienza is a World Heritage Site and actually has a rather intriguing history: originally a village called Corsignano, a child was born there who would one day become Pope Pious II. Once becoming papal, he decided to rebuild the village into an ideal Renaissance town, and Pienza was born. He consecrated the new duomo in 1462, and we can attest that it is a pretty great duomo. We were thwarted when trying to get a photo, though, as a truck driver edged his ill-timed camione right into our shot. The town hall, which lies across the piazza, had a bell tower built that was a little shorter than that of the duomo to symbolise the undaunted power of the church. Trust a Pope to orchestrate that. 

Montalcino
Our main stop was another hilltop town with a prized wine to its name. Brunello di Montalcino is a red wine that must be aged for five years before going to market. As such, any brunellos we found were way out of our price range. I'm talking around a minimum of twenty euro for a bottle here! The Rosso di Montalcino is made from the same grapes, but is only required to be aged one year, so it's more affordable (but still more than we were willing to spend as we had already purchased a Vino Nobile di Montepulciano). 
We wandered all over the old streets, seeing many churches and wine shops. When researching the town, I discovered that Montalcino had a boom in population in tenth century - this was because Saracen troops razed a nearby town of Roselle in 935 and the residents fled to neighbouring towns. Roselle had never been rebuilt because of a malaria outbreak (malarial swamps, anyone?) and is now an archaeological site. Having been occupied since Etruscan times, the site contains Etruscan as well as Roman ruins including tombs, villas, baths, temples and even a small amphitheatre. The town (referred to as 'Rusellae' to the Romans) was rediscovered during larger excavations of the area in the 1950's. I'm now a bit gutted I hadn't known about it at the time and could have visited!
It's unspeakably lovely to round a corner and see the golden Tuscan landscape spread out over the terracotta rooftops. Though we were only beginning our time in the region, I was already falling head over heels.

San Quirico d'Orcia
Another town that LP shunned was San Quirico d'Orcia (the valley that these towns sit in is called the Val d'Orcia). The only reason we stopped here was because when driving through, it looked interesting enough to warrant a trip, so we elected to take a look on the way back to our agritourismo for the evening. 
Having parked at a supermarket which quaintly closed for four hours in the middle of every day for lunch and siesta, we walked into the park which was between us and the centro storico. The park itself was pleasant, but there was an odd art installation which made it appear as though a small fleet of spaceships had crash-landed. 
We found a swell church with an even sweller well outside. Though there were a few tourists around, San Quirico was much quieter than the other Tuscan towns we had visited, yet seemed to be just as great! (For a random instance of how great it was, they have a trebuchet off the main square. Squeee!)
One large factor in its awesomeness was the fact that it was one of the main stopping points on the Via Francigena - the ancient central road that led from northern Italy and the rest of Europe down to Rome and southern Italy. This route was frequented by merchants and pilgrims, and the revenue from their stays allowed San Quirico to enjoy economic security (this is in contrast to many other Tuscan towns - even Montalcino was in financial hardship until Brunello came to popularity in the 1960's). 
Each of the towns were unique and wonderful in their own way, but there's one thing that is the same for all of them: you can trust that I will be comparing prices in their multitudes of wine shops!