Whilst the majority of Tuscany’s larger towns can be easily visited in a day using the country’s reliable public transportation system, there are many more remote places in the Tuscan countryside that you either need to hire a car to visit, or book a tour.
Considering that I don’t have a car back home and haven’t driven for many years, and my mum is not even comfortable driving around parts of her home town that she’s not familiar with, hiring a car was simply not an option for us.
So we started researching tours in an attempt to find one that would introduce us to some beautiful parts of rural Tuscany, as well as allowing us the opportunity to sample some local food and wine, and to meet a few of the people involved in its production.
What I hadn’t accounted for is the fact that we were travelling in low season (March) and the majority of tours only run on certain days during the quieter periods of the year, if at all.
We initially had our hearts set on a full-day tour to Montepulciano and Pienza from Siena that included,
“lunch and a Pecorino cheese tasting on an organic dairy farm with spectacular views”
(it may have been the cheese tasting that swung it for me).
Unfortunately though the tour wasn’t running on any of the dates we had available, so we finally decided upon a half-day tour to Montalcino and Abbazia di Sant’Antimo, which included wine-tasting at a local winery.
When our guide greeted us at the meeting spot outside La Lizza Cafe in Siena, he informed us that we were the only two people on the tour that day. So, although we’d paid for a group tour, what we actually got was a private tour for the same price (proof that travelling off-season does have its benefits as well as its drawbacks).
One of the things I hate about tours is being herded around like sheep and struggling to hear or to digest the information imparted by the guide. But with only my mum and I there, we were able to listen intently, ask questions and request clarification when we didn’t understand. We were also able to complete the tour at our own pace rather than having to run with the wishes of the majority of the group.
Ok, so the Tuscan countryside is probably not best appreciated when the region is transitioning from Winter into Spring, before the trees and flowers have properly begun to bloom, and the fields take on the lush green hue that you see in all the photos, but that was a small price to pay.
We headed south from Siena, driving through the ancient village of Buonconvento (“happy place”). Completely walled in 1371 and with only two entrance gates, Buonconvento is located at the point where the rivers Arbia and Ombre converge, and was historically an important stop for travellers on the Via Francigena – a pilgrim route running from Calais (France) to Rome (Italy).
I actually would’ve loved to have gotten out of the car and had a quick look around Buonconvento, rather than simply admiring the village through the windows of our vehicle, but there was wine tasting to be done.
Abbadia Ardenga winery is housed inside a custard-yellow-painted building that’s surrounded by rolling hills, fertile farmland, and tall cypress trees. It’s located on the site of an ancient “stage station” on the Via Francigena: a place of transit of the goods exchanged between the Etruscan towns of Chiusi, Roselle, Arezzo and Volterra.
The Estate once belonged to the powerful Piccolomini family, who were responsible for the construction of the nearby Tuscan town of Pienza.
We had a quick wander around the grounds before we were greeted very enthusiastically by Abbadia Ardenga‘s current owner, 85-year-old Mario, who – in true Italian style – gave both my mum and I a kiss on each cheek before pulling us in for a warm embrace that lasted a little longer than I was comfortable with. We soon discovered that Mario’s passion for wine is equalled only by his passion for women.
The Abbadia Ardenga estate occupies a total of 650 hectares. Just 10 of these are reserved for vineyards, where the Ciacci family dedicate all their efforts to the cultivation of just one grape variety, Sangiovese. A massive 40,000 bottles of wine are produced here each year, subdivided into Brunello di Montalcino DOCG (Brunello di M. Vigna), Rosso di Montalcino DOC (Sangiovese Grosso) and Ardengo Rosso IGT (bright red Sangiovese).
Via our guide’s translation of Mario’s commentary we learnt that, in order to produce a bottle of Brunello di Montalcino DOCG (considered to be the cream of the wine crop in this region), the Sangiovese grapes are hand picked in early October and then fermented in stainless steel tanks for 18 days at a controlled temperature. After that they are aged for 36 months in Slavonian oak barrels, followed by 12 months in stainless steel tanks and a further 12 months in the bottle.
Once we’d been educated about the process of wine production and shown around the wine cellars, we were shown into the wine tasting room, where two long wooden tables awaited us, laid out with place mats and glasses, an information sheet, and (gulp) a price list. All over the walls were certificates for awards that Abbadia Ardenga had won for the wines they produce.
We sampled four wines on the day of our tour: a rosé, and the three reds mentioned above, accompanied by some bread, olive oil, pecorino cheese, and some smoked prosciutto (ham). Being non-meat eaters, we politely sent the ham back. It was subsequently replaced with more cheese, which was a rather successful result in my opinion.
Now the problem with wine tasting when you’re the only two guests in the room is that you feel incredibly conspicuous and very self-conscious. Neither my mum and I are wine connoisseurs, so we’ve actually no idea about the ‘correct’ way to taste the stuff. Mum started getting giggly after a couple of sips and felt embarrassed by the fact that her favourite of the four was actually the cheapest, whereas I just wanted to quietly tiptoe off with the most expensive bottle and a plate or two of pecorino cheese and enjoy them both later on when we weren’t being watched.
As a result the wine tasting session felt a little awkward. Being the only two guests I also felt a sense of responsibility to make a purchase following all the free food and expensive wine we’d just consumed. The problem with that was that, unlike mum, my favourite was the Brunello di Montalcino “Riserva” DOCG 2010. But even if I could have afforded it, there was absolutely no way I could justify spending €45 on a bottle of wine. Especially since I can pick up a very decent bottle of Merlot or Malbec in my local Tesco for just £5 (€5.82).
I didn’t particularly like the rosé or the first red we tried, which left me with the Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 2012 for €22. Easily the most I’ve ever spent on a bottle of wine (or rather, mum spent; she insisted on paying for it as a thank you for taking her to Tuscany), particularly as I couldn’t even bring it home with me to open on a special occasion (stupid 100ml liquid rules in hand luggage!). As a result
we I polished it off in our hotel room in Pisa, on the final night of our holiday. Hey, I never said I had class.
Mario, of course, would not let us leave without one final dance with each of us in turn. Getting tipsy and waltzing around a wine cellar with an 85-year old Italian was certainly not what my mum expected to be doing with her day when she woke up that morning. But it did make the rest of the afternoon seem rather tame in comparison.
We continued our tour by driving on to the Abbazia di Sant’Antimo, a former Benedictine monastery that’s located in an isolated valley just below the village of Castelnuovo dell’Abate. Although the foundations date back to 781, the current monastery is believed to have been built around 1100.
Until a couple of years ago monks would still perform Gregorian chants here during the daily services.
By the time we arrived at the church at just gone 3pm, the sun was shining brighter than ever.
It was only the second time we’d properly seen the sunshine since arriving in Tuscany (the first was the day we spent in the medieval hill town of San Gimignano) so we had a very quick look around the interior and then headed outside into the attractive gardens, where I spent the majority of my time attempting to get the perfect shot of a lizard my mum had spotted basking in the sunshine on one of the old stone walls.
My mum, on the other hand (like mother, like daughter), was completely content with fussing over a beautiful fluffy white cat who roamed the grounds.
Good to know: Although the church is open all day, not all parts are accessible at all times. You can visit the entire church from 10:30-12:30 and from 15:00-18:30.
In spite of the fact that we could easily have looked around the entire church and grounds in around 15 minutes, the Abbazia di Sant’Antimo was a lovely little spot that we chose to linger at a little while longer. Had we been part of a larger tour group, that choice may not have been ours to make.
When we finally dragged ourselves away from our little sun drenched pocket of tranquility in the Tuscan countryside, we hopped back in the car to continue on to our final stop: the charming medieval hill town of Montalcino.
As well as being known globally as the home of one of the world’s great wines, Brunello di Montalcino, Montalcino is also a very important place historically. The town was the last stronghold in the battle against Florence, holding out for a further four years once Siena had fallen.
Montalcino’s historical centre is dominated by the mighty and imposing Rocca (fortress), built in 1361 to mark the passage of Montalcino under the domination of Siena. You’ll want to visit for the views alone; from the ramparts it’s possible to see Monte Amiata, Siena, and the entire Val d’Orcia region as far as the hills of Maremma.
Our guide dropped us at the entrance and arranged to collect us at an agreed meeting point exactly one hour later. Now, once you’ve seen the size of Montalcino you’d think it was easily possible to explore the best of what the town has to offer in 60 minutes. And I’m sure that yes, it usually is.
However that 60 minutes is not accounting for the time it takes you to find the meeting point, especially when your guide has given you the wrong name of the piazza at which you’re supposed to be meeting.
Still, we made the most of the little time we had, and wandered through the town’s delightful cobbled streets, resisting the temptation to have a nosey inside the any one of the numerous enoteches (wine bars) to see how much a bottle of the wine we’d just bought for €22 would set us back. I was curious to know whether we actually did get the best deal by buying direct from the winery itself.
Montalcino looks and feels like somewhere with a very relaxed pace of life, somewhere where it’s ok to take your time. However the reality of our visit was very different.
I stopped for milliseconds at a time to snap photographs before continuing on at a faster pace than most cars in the area, I left mum sitting on stone steps while I ran up countless hills to discover what lay at the top or around the next bend, and I walked past so many shops, cafes, and art galleries that I would’ve loved to have had the time to go into.
Just an extra hour in Montalcino would have made all the difference.
We booked our half-day tour with Viator for a cost of £32.99 per person. The plus points were that our guide was very knowledgeable about the area we explored, spoke excellent English, and was both professional and friendly throughout the tour. We also loved the combination of sights and activities included. However, whilst the tour on the whole did not feel rushed, the amount of time we had in Montalcino definitely did.
But that said, I completely get that it is not possible to please all of the people all of the time. Perhaps some tourists feel that there’s not much to do in Montalcino and therefore agree that one hour is a sufficient amount of time there.
If you decide you love Montalcino so much you’d like to stay for a couple of days, there are some beautiful accommodation options in town. Unlike Tuscany’s larger towns and cities, the majority of tourists visit Montalcino on a day trip from Siena (like we did), so once the sun sets it’s entirely possible you’ll be the only foreign tourist in town.
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