As autumn advances, the sunflowers fall, the golden soil is turned for the winter. Grapes, too, are ready for harvest. People celebrate.
Tuscany's poetry is packed in the fields, the hills, the history, the food, and the people who make it all possible.
Earlier this month, we returned to Italy's Tuscany region ten years after we were married there in September 2000. Time can do funny things to one’s perceptions: we wondered if our memories had been unfairly overcome with nostalgia.
When we were married in Tuscany, it couldn't have been that beautiful, could it?
So we returned to investigate. And this is what we found.
Although the Val d’Orcia is itself a UNESCO site and many of the towns throughout are quite touristy, the region's focus on agriculture remains authentic. Tuscan farmers — the easily forgotten foundation of Tuscany's culinary depth — wave when you pull to the side of the road to admire their craft and to capture another image of the profoundly beautiful soil. Not to be outdone by the Tuscan earth, the sky dazzles, too — particularly as late afternoon autumn light fights to break through rolling thunderstorms.
Tuscan Hill Towns
If you look up every few kilometers while driving across Tuscany, you find yet another medieval hill town revealing itself perched cliffside or atop a patch of soft volcanic rock. Pinch yourself, this is no fairy tale. It's all very real, and has been so for hundreds of years.
Should you choose to take the climb to your hill town of choice, steep, winding cobbled streets will challenge your heart and reward you by depositing you somewhere within reach of a main plaza, cathedral and town hall.
Small towns may even feel abandoned, what with all the shutters drawn. But as lunchtime approaches, the symphony of dishes and pots and pans begins, and the aroma of garlic, tomatoes, and aged cheese wafts from kitchens and fills the narrow streets of old towns. Families gather to eat in the opening act of their afternoon pause.
We do want to mention our soft spot for Pienza. This was the scene of the crime: our wedding, ten years ago, in this UNESCO World Heritage Tuscan hilltown.
When we arrived, we picked up our uphill pace and turned the corner to enter Pienza's main piazza, the scene was that of the Tuscan hill town we remembered. Heads up, Renaissance stone, echoes of Pope Pius II's vision of a perfect town, delis stacked with wheels of pecorino (the local sheep cheese), hunks of wild boar salami, and piles of dried porcini mushroom slices.
But we felt like we owned a little piece of the place. Ten years ago, we ran across the plaza under a shared umbrella while locals chanted “Sposa bagnata! Sposa fortunata!” (a wet bride is a lucky bride). The entire event — from start to finish with all of its twists and turns, shared with friends and family — was wickedly magical and perfect in its own imperfect way.
Tuscan hill towns have this effect on you, whether you get married there or not.
Tuscany Weekly Markets
If you'd like a chance to rub shoulders (literally) with locals and join in animated discussions regarding the differences between Tuscan and Parma prosciutto, stop by one of the dozens of weekly markets. These Tuscan fresh markets are not fancy affairs. In fact, they usually consist of a lineup of delis-on-wheels pulled into a parking lot on the edge of town. Looks can be deceiving. These trucks are chock full of fresh Italian product to fashion your wildest of your gourmet Tuscan picnic dreams.
And the vendors? Friendly and passionate. They focus, they laugh, gesticulating ferociously about who knows what. They enjoy the company of their customers, most of whom they've probably known for years. Tuscan vendors — their pride in product, palpable; their love of food, infectious. Free samples flow, just to ensure you choose the right cheese or smoked meat.
In the course of a week we traveled over 1,300 km (800 miles) through Montepulciano, Pienza, Montefellonico, Torrita di Siena, Montalcino, Cortona, Cinigiano, Manciano, Pitigliano, and Sorano. Even in this context, we barely covered a fraction of Tuscany. The region is vast and deep in geography, life and leisure.
This distance may not sound like much. However, the roads are windy and driving times are often double or triple initial expectations. In other words, if it's “an hour away,” it should take about two hours to get there.
Our advice: don't attempt to tackle the entire region in one visit, but choose a few areas to enjoy more deeply.
Special thanks goes to Alexandra from the social media team of the Region of Tuscany for answering a raft of questions and providing us with information about the region and its markets, festivals and art scene.
Note: In this post, we focus on northern Tuscany, the Valdichiana and Val d'Orcia regions in and around the towns of Montpulciano and Pienza, the setting of our wedding in 2000. We also spent a few days in the Maremma area of southern Tuscany, which we'll cover in a separate piece.