Tuscany. Just the whisper of its name sends us into a state of instant daydreaming … crisp blue skies as the warm the sun heats your skin; tall ancient cedars lining twisting empty roads that twist, that meander rolling green hills and golden valleys; the scent of fresh tilled earth and ripe grape vines, plump with fruit bursting to be picked, and the taste of a rich warm Chianti caressing your tongue as you sit beside an ancient stone house looking out over a view that’s been in place for thousands of years. Welcome to heaven.
For years, PBS style travelogue movies like ‘Room with a View,’ ‘Stealing Beauty,’ ‘Under a Tuscan Sun’ and ‘Letters to Juliet,’ have offered us a glimpse of this unchartered countryside’s beauty that is the true heart of Italy and its people. The regions small town that appear out of thin air and you tour the area, offer visitors a quixotic glimpse into a way of life still operating as it has for the last fifty to one-hundred years; all against the foundations of aging buildings and traditions begun thousands of years ago. To truly fall in love and understand Italy and her people is to discover these small towns.
San Gimignano. When you first glimpse this walled hill town, your first reaction is to believe you’re witnessing a mirage, or Cinderella’s castlehas leaped from the pages of your favorite book of fairy tales. Known as ‘The Town of Fine Towers’, San Gimignano is famous for its medieval architecture, unique because of the preservation of its last dozen tower houses, built by the town’s once wealthy inhabitants. It’s said that as many seventy or more of these towers once stood and as each family lost their fortunes, their tower was torn down. Today all that is left to these riches is what we see today. With its hilltop setting and encircling walls, visitors are introduced to an unforgettable skyline.
Located on one of the original main Roman roads connecting France and Rome, it was during the Middle Ages and Renaissance eras that the town grew, by becoming a well used stopping point for Catholic pilgrims traveling to Rome and the Vatican. With the city’s development, its wealth and prestige also improved by trading agricultural products such as saffron, used in both cooking and dyeing cloth and for its white wine, ‘Vernaccia di San Gimignano.’ The wine is still produced today from an ancient variety of Vernaccia grape said to inspire popes and poets.
Within the walls of the city, its well-preserved buildings include notable examples of both Romanesque and Gothic architecture, and its churches possess gorgeous frescos dating from the 14th and 15th centuries. The ‘Historic Centre of San Gimignano’ is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and well worth a stop over as you travel around Tuscany.
Orvieto. This lovely little town located an hour’s train ride north of Rome, sits on the flat summit of a large butte of volcanic tuff. Considered one of the most dramatic locations in Europe, Orvieto rises above an almost vertical face of cliffs still guarded by its ancient defensive walls built of the same stone. To reach the town, visitors must take a century oldcable car that connects the train station and car parks at the base of the hill to its entrance.
As you walk the town’s ancient winding streets and alleys, there is a great sense of character and history. This town dates back to the Etruscan times, and visitors can see part of this ancient history by taking one of the underground tours. Tour guides offer a look at the Etruscan and medieval caves under the city where you can view the ancient remains of an olive press, two 130-feet-deep Etruscan well shafts, and a primitive cement quarry. Visitors can also witness the engineering marvel, ‘Pozzo di San Patrizio,’ Saint Patrick’s well. This well designed in the 16th century has double spiral stairs allowing for efficient one-way traffic flow in and out to the water source at its base.
In the political history of the papacy, Orvieto served as a papal palace and refuge for five popes during the 13th century. It was during this timefor political and strategic reasons, the current Pope moved around frequently. ‘Palazzo Soliano’ still sits adjacent to Orvieto’s glorious cathedral, which is the main focus of the town. Considered one of the must-see churches in Italy due to its stunning gold and mosaic Gothic façade and magnificent frescoes by Luca Signorell, (who had a great influence on Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel), a tour of this cathedral is a must on your list.
So after a visiting either of both of these glorious Tuscan towns, I have only one spot that is mandatory while visiting the region. As the sun sets, grab yourself a table, signal your waiter and order a bottle of Chianti and just relax. Can you think of a better way to end a perfect day in heaven … Salute!
[St Giminano(1)] © Shok
[St Giminano(2)] © Avital Pinnick
[Orvieto(3)] © ashleyhex 66 (church)
[Orvieto(4)] © PassionLecia (ceramics)
[Orvieto(5)] © J Donohoe (City Orvieto)
Juliet Martini is an aspiring romance writer in the contemporary and romantic suspense genres, seeking fame and publication (hopefully), in the near future. Currently, she is working on her second book, the first in a three book series centered on passion, wine and Italy. By day, she hides out as Margaret Hren, a marketing and fundraising consultant, and when time permits, she is building her author website and planning her next exotic travel get away. She also hopes to also launch her travel blog, The Travel Savvy Chick, later this year focusing on travel tips and personally acquired destination information.