Above: Piazza Pio II in Pienza Vito Arcomano/Italian National Tourist Board photo
Below: Pecorino, ewes’ milk cheese, complements a salad and pairs well with a red Tuscan wine. Fotolia.com
In a small stone and glass house next to the swimming pool, we began our Tuscan days with luscious melons, slices of juicy pineapples, glistening berries, an assortment of breads and daily specials, such as chopped fresh tomatoes on toast. We were at Dionora, a six-room inn located in the countryside two miles from Montepulciano.
As we lingered over a second cappuccino, our amiable innkeeper, Giulio D’Antonio, introduced us to the area.
“Tuscany has always been a special place to visit,” he said. “You can find extraordinary art in the middle of a breathtaking countryside. And the wine. Oh, the wine!”
Inspired, we set off on a quest for both in Montepulciano, discovering other lovely villages along the way.
A hillside hideaway
Not only is Montepulciano the largest of this area’s hill towns, it is the steepest. We trekked past the many wine shops and numerous palazzi along Via di Gracciano nel Corso. Less than halfway to Piazza Grande, Montepulciano’s highest point, we stopped for a mid-morning espresso and creamy chocolate gelato at the 19th-century Caffe Poliziano. Its elegant art nouveau interior has fine fabrics and dark woodwork.
Refueled, we continued on the uphill climb to Piazza Grande, where the Duomo’s rough, unfinished brick façade belies a treasure inside: Taddeo di Bartolo’s massive triptych, “Assumption of the Virgin Mary,” considered one of the 13th century’s finest Sienese paintings.
We’d seen Montepulciano’s art; now we wanted to taste the wine. On the considerably easier downhill walk, we bought a bottle of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Like many of the town’s wine shops, this one was a maze of underground rooms, ideal storage conditions for the many fine Tuscan wines.
Montepulciano’s historical center is a pedestrian-only zone. So it was another uphill hike to Il Grifon d’Oro for dinner. We sat on the balcony watching the sunset morphing from pink to lavender to dark blue over the serene Valdichiana (Chiana Valley). We savored pasta with a light cream sauce, chopped tomatoes, basil and slices of pecorino, a cheese that’s made from ewes’ milk in the nearby town of Pienza. Before allowing us to taste the Vino Nobile, the server swirled a bit of wine in our glasses then dumped it into a bucket. This rinsing, she explained, rids the glasses of any other tastes and “shows respect for the wine.”
At the base of Montepulciano’s hill, an avenue of cypress trees leads to the church of San Biagio, a masterpiece of Renaissance architecture. Antonio da Sangallo the Elder built the creamy travertine church on a Greek cross plan. Marble and fine stone decorate the symmetrical interior.
Driving through the picture-perfect Tuscan countryside, travelers see rolling fields of wheat, vineyards and red poppies along the road, stately cypress marching up the hills to stone houses and, always, the walled towns perched high above the valleys. It was time to discover a few more of these towns.
Visiting the Val d’Orcia
Tuscany’s less visited villages are little jewels. The tiny town, Montichiello, has stone buildings, most with scarlet geraniums flowing from pots on steps and balconies. We stopped by the open doors of the 13th-century church, listening to the beautiful choir, watching priests slowly distributing incense.
An eastbound route landed us in San Quirico d’Orcia, a delightful medieval village between Pienza and Montalcino on the northern edge of the Val d’Orcia. After snacking on some slices of pecorino, we walked through Horti Leonini. This cool, peaceful 16th-century Renaissance garden with its perfectly clipped hedges was once a stop for pilgrims on the road to Rome. Collegiata, San Quirico’s beautiful 12th-century Romanesque church, has three elaborate medieval portals with carvings of lions, animal heads and stone columns sculpted into twisted knot designs.
Just south of San Quirico, the medieval buildings of Bagno Vignoni’s surround a unique piazza. Instead of the usual stone, Bagno Vignoni’s Piazza delle Sorgenti is an outdoor thermal pool. The Medici built it to hold the natural hot sulphur springs bubbling from the ground. They also built the lovely arcaded loggia by the pool. Bathing is not allowed in the pool, but a nearby hotel offers a soak in thermal waters.
Thanks to the extraordinarily large ego and ambitions of Pope Pius II, Pienza’s Piazza Pio II is considered one of the best examples of Renaissance architecture. When local boy Enea Silvio Piccolomini rose from cardinal to pope in 1458, he enlisted architect Bernardo Rossellino to transform the village of his birth into an ideal Renaissance town. In the process, Pope Pius II also changed the name of his hometown from Corsignano to Pienza (“Pio’s town”) and bestowed his name on the new piazza. Palazzo Piccolomini, two other palazzi and the Duomo harmoniously surround the piazza.
While visiting Pienza, we enjoyed more pecorino. We had the strong, slightly salty cheese in salads and sauces. We had it for snacks. One appetizer fabulously combined juniper berries, local honey and pecorino. Many shops offer samples of pecorino, which is classified according to age, from fresco to stagionnato, suitable for grating. We bought a small wheel of vacuum-packed semistagionnato (partially aged) to take home.
The end of an adventure
The city walls that once protected the hill towns from invaders now provide panoramic views of the countryside. Montalcino’s 14th-century fortress goes even further, hosting tastings of Brunello di Montalcino at a wine bar, Enoteca La Fortezza. Brunello is one of Italy’s most powerful red wines. It’s an ideal match for rare Florentine-style steak. And because two of the town’s sightseeing stops–the Duomo and the Museo Civico–were closed on our visit, we poked around the central Piazza del Popolo, visited a couple of very high grade wine stores and bought a bottle of Brunello for afternoon sipping under our inn’s grape arbor.
Following our tradition of dining at a city’s grand café, we had lunch at the 19th-century Caffe Fiaschetteria Italiana. Sitting under the Tuscan sun, the most memorable meal of our trip also was the simplest, proof that sometimes all you need for fine dining is the finest ingredients. We relished pecorino sandwiches on fat rolls accompanied by glasses of a superb, deep ruby 1998 Brunello di Montalcino.
I still crave that perfect pairing, and Italy’s remarkable Tuscany region.
Mary Ann Hemphill is a new contributor from Newport Beach, Calif.