A Blending of Ancient History and Culture ~ Tuscany, Italy (Part 2)

Our little farmhouse was well positioned for trips into the Tuscan countryside to explore quaint hill towns, as well as a day trip into Florence.  I had read about the Crete Senesi, which refers to the clay soil containing sediments that date back 2.5 million years.  The landscape within the Crete Senesi has been described as lunar-like, which fascinated me, so I knew a drive through that area was going to be on the agenda.  And it just so happened that a Benedictine monastery I had read about, the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiorewas a stone’s throw away, so you know the expression “two birds with one stone”, and our day was planned.

I found the starkness of the landscape, with only a single villa, a few cypress, and a spot of green among rolling hills of clay quite beautiful.

In contrast, the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, although still considered part of the Crete Senesi, sat tucked within a forested area.  After parking our vehicle in the lot above, we took a 10-minute wooded walk  down a long line of cypress to a medieval palace of red brick, the abbey.  In the courtyard a large statue of Saint Bernard Tolomei greeted us, holding the book of rules for the notably strict order to which he belonged.

In the year 1272, Bernard Tolomei, founder of the abbey, was born to an aristocratic family in Siena.  He had a distinguished career as a lawyer until he was called here to become a hermit monk at the age of 40.  He founded the Olivetan order of the Benedictines and in 2009 was made a saint.  This complex is the order’s mother abbey.

The beauty of the abbey and the simplicity of the Benedictine lifestyle is seen in the paintings, murals, and statues displayed throughout the monastery.

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We had spoken to those who enjoyed Florence more than Rome, but since we were flying back to the states through Rome, we decided to explore her in detail and give Florence more of a passing nod – a quick day trip.  So on another rainy day Terry and I drove to the hill town of Poggibonsi and caught the train to Florence.  With limited time to visit, we made the most of our day and tested our patience as we maneuvered through the hordes of tourists at the Duomo, then moved on to the Accademia and Uffizi Galleries.  Luckily I had made reservations for the galleries before our visit (truly a must) so didn’t have to stand in the longest of lines, but once inside, there was no escaping the crowds.  We just had to jump in and start swimming!

A shot of the Duomo from afar as we braced for the crowds.
A shot of the Duomo from afar as we braced for the crowds.

Florence is Europe’s cultural capital, so culturally rich that it has more artistic masterpieces per square mile than anywhere else.  It is the birthplace of the Renaissance and the modern world, and produced the likes of Michelangelo, Leonardo, Brunelleschi, Dante, and Florence Nightingale, just to name a few.  As I write this I’m thinking we should have spent more time here, then I remember the mob of tourists, which outnumber the locals from April to October, and I shudder.

All sights in Florence diverge out from the Duomo.  The exterior is extravagant, covered in white, pink, and green marble, and in need of a good scrubbing. Brunelleschi’s lavish dome was the model for those that followed, including St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and the U.S. Capitol building.  The inside, which I’m not sure yet how we managed to enter given the crowds, is underwhelming and felt empty to me.

If one must brave the Florence crowds it would be a tragedy to miss Michelangelo’s David, the shepherd boy with the perfect physique, armed with only a slingshot and five stones, who took on the giant Goliath.  All 17 feet of him is standing in naked glory at the Accademia Gallery, in a halo-like dome.  For me, seeing  David was worth the price of admission and the train ride to Florence.  Some of Michelangelo’s unfinished work, which looks to be trying to free itself from the slabs of unworked marble, line the hallway leading to the Renaissance man.

From here we headed to the Uffizi Gallery, which houses the greatest collection of Italian paintings anywhere, one of Europe’s five top art galleries.  This is where the famous Botticelli’s Birth of Venus can be found.

From a window in the Uffizi Gallery you get your best views of the Arno River, second only to the Tiber River in importance in the Tuscany area.  Spanning the narrowest part of the river, the Ponte Vecchio can be seen, Florence’s most famous bridge, lined with shops since Roman times.

It seems famous statues can be seen in every plaza in Florence, and although I could regale you with so much more, I will stop here as I feel my head is about to explode!  I am not an art aficionado but it was thrilling to see works of art I had only seen in books or online.

Next Up:  A little less culture, a lot more sun…the Amalfi Coast

A Story of Cypress-Lined Drives and Hill Towns ~ Tuscany, Italy (Part 1)

Tuscany was our next destination, and like others who have read the book Under the Tuscan Sun, I too had romanticized a visit to the land of manicured vineyards, cypress-lined drives, rustic farms, and hill towns studded with towers and medieval castles.

Our little agriturismo for the week
Our little agriturismo for the week

I was determined to stay in an agriturismo and found one in the Chianti region, just outside the village of Castellina in Chianti, where Mama Daniele warmly greeted us.  Although she spoke little  English she was still able to communicate how all things functioned in this charming little farmhouse.  I think all four of us were looking forward to a slower pace while here, and that’s exactly what we got, some more than others, as Margee succumbed to a cold, which grabbed Terry a  few days later, and then Frank to a lesser degree.  It’s a wonder I avoided it while living in a sick ward so I became chief cook and bottle washer while they got their rest.

View from the terrace off our bedroom
View from the terrace off our bedroom

The weather gods had certainly blessed us up to this point in our travels so we knew our days were numbered before lower temps and cloudy days moved in, and they did while here.  It seemed to be apt for those a bit “under the weather”.  Other than one day of rain and a couple of others with drizzles, it wasn’t a wash-out.  And when the infirm felt up to it, we took to the road for some exploring.

With such profuse landscape changes, from pastoral in the Crete Senesi, to the rocky Chianti region, to vineyards clinging to hillsides and winding, narrow country roads, Tuscany is a feast for the senses, and her wines and local fare are a threat to waistlines.  I hear the gym calling my name. 😦

With countless hill towns to choose from, each with their own unique beauty and rich history, it was difficult to choose.  Since many can trace their lineage to Etruscan times, long before ancient Rome, we knew we would be experiencing quaint villages with medieval charm, no matter which we visited. Here is what we managed to cross off of our very long list:

1)  Volterra

We visited Volterra twice, with our first stop being a “wash-out”.  Its name means “land that floats” and in the winter she is blanketed by heavy clouds.  We saw a bit of this during our first visit, yet we were drawn back and it became one of our favorite hill towns.  It has managed to escape the rush of tourists, given its out-of-the-way location, and we were drawn to its sense of purity and otherworldly charm.  Twilight fans will remember that this is where the powerful Volturi vampire clan resided.

Volterra is more than 2,000 years old and is one of the most important Etruscan cities.  Impressive walls encircle the town, topped with an imposing fortress.  The Etruscan Arch, built of massive stone in the 4th century B.C., welcomed her 20,000 residents.

I read a story that on June 30, 1944, Nazi forces were planning to blow up the Arch to slow the Allied forces. Locals pulled down the stones, secured the gate, and managed to convince the Nazis to leave the Arch alone.  The blocks were put back into place and today you can walk through the oldest standing gate.

2)  Pienza

A tidy village with Renaissance-planned streets, it is where Pope Pius II was born.  This little village is great to explore with a camera, then stop for wine tastings and pecorino cheese sampling.

3)  Siena

This town that sits atop three hills, with her cozy squares and grand cathedral, once rivaled medieval Florence. In the 13th century Siena had a population of about 50,000 and was a major banking and trade center.  Then Black Death hit, the bubonic plague, wiping out a third of her people, and Siena has never recovered.

Siena is where the famous Palio horse races are held twice each summer.  Ten horse and riders, riding bareback and dressed in specific colors, represent 10 of the 17 city wards.  The first race is run early in summer to honor the Madonna of Provenzano and the second in August in honor of the Assumption of Mary.

A thick layer of dirt is laid over the bricks in the Il Campo Square and the race is run three times around the piazza, lasting no more than 90 seconds.  Often unmounted horses finish the race without their riders.  A medieval pageant paves the way, attracting spectators from around the globe.

Siena’s 13th-century Gothic cathedral and it’s 6-story striped bell tower, unlike others, was built and paid for by the people and the republic of Siena as a tribute to the Virgin Mary.

4)  San Gimignano

Some say this is Tuscany’s glamour girl, a town adorned by her remaining 14 medieval towers, of which there were once 72.  San Gimignano today is best known for cinghiale (cheen-GAH-lay), wild boar and saffron, and boasts of having won the award for gelato world champion.  Of course we had to taste for ourselves.  It was pretty yummy, even at 10:00 in the morning. 🙂

Next Up:  An Abbey and Day Trippin’ to Florence