After spending 3 days in Florence looking at Botticelli’s capolavori (look it up), Michelangelo’s sculptures (David, of course) and Brunelleschi’s architecture (most of Florence) ......a couple of days touring around Tuscany puts everything into perspective. That is.....nothing else matters. So what’s the best way to do it? There is only one way: bite the bullet and rent a car. The best way to meander through the rolling hills and valleys of the most beautiful stretch of olive trees and vineyards on earth is with a little Fiat Cinquecento (automatic, or else tendinitis of the right arm is imminent). Of course, for the less adventurous, there are taxi’s (impersonal), private drivers ($$$$), or tour buses (God-forbid!)....but I’m not talking to you in this blog. Sorry.
The two big stops outside Florence for the first-time traveler are always Siena and San Gimignano, but I am going to assume this is for the second time traveler or the tourist who wants to avoid the bus loads of Iphone snappers. So with that in mind......when leaving Florence, head for the hills of Chianti (to places with names like Radda-in-Chianti, Castellina-in-Chianti, Gaiole-in-Chianti.). The scenery is breath-taking and all the villages are quaint and worth a stop for a photo or a cappuccino.
But for taking a passeggiata , having lunch, and buying Chianti-ish souvenirs .....there is only one place: Greve-in-Chianti. The main piazza is surrounded by medieval buildings and boasts a formidable (and rather spooky) statue of Giovanni da Verrazano. (BTW rumor has it that Americo Vespucci had a little house in Greve so I guess it was an inspirational place for explorers). There are lots of little shops to buy trinkets and gadgets that will impress your friends who will in turn never use them.....but, hey, that’s their problem. Time for lunch? There is only one place ......Antica Macelleria Falorni!! Opened over two centuries ago in Greve, the Farloni family continues to serve the most outrageously delicious Italian cold cuts (for lack of a better word) and cheeses.
The shop is a museum, albeit not particularly for vegetarians or vegans, but if you are neither, get yourself a plateful of the amazing salamis and cheeses with a glass of chianti, find a seat in the piazza and try to imagine how life could possibly get any better!!
If you are planning to spend a couple of nights in Tuscany, my suggestion would be to finish lunch and drive straight to Pienza, a tiny village in the Val d’Orcia, and where, if you take my advice, you will be staying a night....or two. If Praiano is my place of choice in the Amalfi Coast, Pienza is where I always leave my heart in Tuscany.
There are several places to stay, but my choice is, and always has been, Il Chiostro di Pienza. The old Monastery-turned-hotel gives a whole new meaning to the term ‘shabby chic’. Sitting in the garden at sunset overlooking the valley with a prosecco in hand will become one of your greatest memories. Trust me.
There are many wonderful things about Pienza. For example, the 15th Century church which hangs precariously over a cliff. The fact that no cars are allowed and there is only one main cobblestone street (takes about 5 minutes to walk from one end to the other). The adorable maze of little lanes which have romantic names like Via del Amore or Via del Bacio. Last but not least, it is the home of one of my favorite trattorias in the world: Latte di Luna. Roberto and his family have been running this gastronomic little paradise for decades. His mama is in the kitchen with his wife making the local pasta — Pici. His daughters are waiting on tables. Roberto is rushing around checking reservations, moving chairs, and joking with (and insulting at times) the diners. It is a wonderful family affair and the Pici al Pomodoro followed by the Roast Porchetta is what I constantly crave when I am hungry and miles from Pienza! (Attenzione: Roberto closes Latte di Luna for the entire month of July.....just because he can!!)
Next morning....wake up and do what most people in Pienza do....go over to the little Tabacchi for a cappuccino and newspaper. Try to grab one of the two tables outside facing the church and you will feel like you are in an Italian movie.
Now it’s time for a bit of exploring. Montalcino — which is only 45 minutes away —would be my choice, with a quick stop on the way at the magnificent 12th century Abbey of Sant' Antimo, one of the most important Romanesque buildings in Italy. Very spiritually uplifting....even for non-believers.
After a walk around the shops of Montalcino (most of which feature the local wine), a visit to the fortress and lunch in one of the towns many trattorias (with a glass of Brunello, of course) head back toward Pienza.....this time stopping for a soak in the ancient Roman springs of Bagno Vignoni outside San Quirico D’Orcia. The waters heal just about anything and revive even the most exhausted and/or hungover tourist! Dinner for me would be back at Latte di Luna....but there are other trattorias in Pienza for Pici a Porchetta.
Assuming this is your second (and last) day in the area, drive over to the medieval hilltop town of Montepulciano, which is approx 8 miles from Pienza and has plenty of interesting little corners to explore and a cathedral full of beautiful art. (Word to the wise, pay attention to the tedious one-way system, or you will see more of the same part of the town than you need to). For lovers of vampire movies, a famous scene in The Twilight Saga: New Moon was actually shot in the Piazza Grande of Montepulciano. There are many restaurants to choose from for lunch, but why not take a short drive to Montefollonico (very sleepy little village) and have lunch at the Osteria La Botte Piena. It never disappoints and you can tick off another Tuscan village.
Now you should be ready for the drive back to Florence. (Good luck figuring out how to fill the car up with petrol on the way back....which is always a challenge). Once you are back in Florence at a trattoria in a noisy piazza cutting into your Bistecca alla Fiorentina while fighting off independent flower vendors, you will no doubt be wondering if the past 3 days were just a beautiful chianti-infused dream!