The last few days of our Italy journey we spend exploring the Tuscany region, away from the big towns. Inescapably, that exploration includes wine, as well.
We could continue our art journey for weeks more, with the towns of Pisa and Siena only an hour, or so, away from Florence. But there is a limit to touristic cities, souvenir and leather shops, must-see museums and frescoed churches we can handle. So we decide to focus the last few days of our trip on Tuscany, the rural area, away from the tourist infrastructure.
Forget it. What we did right is to book ourselves in a hotel in small town Poggibonsi, which indeed doesn’t have any touristic attractions, doesn’t even make it to our guide book. Which means that we are treated as normal people, not walking cash machines. We can wander through the small town centre, drink a glass of wine (or, in the case of my travel companion, some of that horribly looking and vile tasting Campari or Aperol) on a casual, informal terrace, and eat in a small family restaurant without immediately being presented with an English-language menu. So far, so good.
But wherever we go, Tuscany is touristic. Number one attraction is the wine, the Chianti, of which we are, to be honest, not the biggest fans. So we are also not so much attracted by the many tasting houses, who advertise along the road in Italian, English and German (not in French, funny enough – they know better). Or to the tasting tours that are everywhere being offered, for half or full days, and which generally offer a prescribed number of pre-selected wines in several wineries and lack any flexibility. Having said that, the countryside is spectacular, of course. Wine ranks everywhere, already harvested, but with raging autumn colours making this a fabulously vibrant spectacle. And trust me, the pictures don’t even come close to doing right to what it looks in real life.
The wine we do like, comes from the Bolgheri area, a little further south. Being familiar with the reds, we taste a white one, one day, which whets our appetite further, so we take a day to visit the Bolgheri village and some surrounding wine estates. The village is, again, disappointingly touristic – here we thought to discover a little known wine area, but how wrong we were! Many of the wine estates are closed, or only entertain tastings on pre-booked arrangements. But we do get enough opportunity to learn more about the Bolgheri wines, and about what we like and what we don’t like so much. And we learn that Bolgheri wines, the so-called Super-Tuscans, are pretty expensive – yet we don’t travel back entirely empty handed.
And then we spend a few days visiting the cute little towns for which Tuscany is also famous. San Gimignano is a beautifully preserved – or should I say restored? – Medieval hill-top town with a spectacularly frescoed Duomo (there we go again…) and lots of square towers, apparently a status symbol for families who built their homes here in the 12th and 13 Century. I imagine this town packed with tourists during a normal summer, but now there are really few people, our bet pays off. But the streets are still lined with souvenir and leather shops, and the terraces offer menu’s in four languages.
Nearby Ceralto is unremarkable, a little sombre even, except at the end of its funicular to Ceralto Alto, which is another, albeit miniature, hill-top fortification, much smaller – and less interesting, but thus less touristic – then San Gimignano. It earns its fame as the birthplace and residence of Boccaccio, who wrote the Decamerone, long ago. Everything in town refers to the great poet and writer.
And then there are the various small town in the Chianti area itself, Greve in Chianti, Castellina in Chianti, and a few more. Nice little towns, good for a stroll, but not particularly remarkable. Or Badia al Passignano, or Montefioralle, both touted as one of the nicest villages in the area, something that immediately attracts loads of tourist, in this case local tourists. Especially on Sunday so that local restaurants are all full for lunch. No, Tuscany is perhaps nicest as an area to drive through, and enjoy the many vistas of endless wine and olive plantations. Well, except for the weekends, when the roads, invariably too narrow, are populated with over-enthusiastic cyclists who struggle uphill, and need most of the road width for this, and with macho motor bikers who need to test their equipment with a maximum of noise and a minimum of regards for traffic conventions, like keep to your lane on winding roads with a poor view of what is coming from the other end. You know, maybe Tuscany is a little overrated.
Except Poggibonsi, of course, which is not rated at all – which makes it such a pleasant town.
Next: We head home again. At the end I look back briefly on our Northern Italy trip.