I use the word perfect often to describe things here. Not to exaggerate, but there are so many things that fit into my definition of perfect. At the top of the list is the scenery. It’s a post card at every turn and we never cease to be amazed at the beauty of it.
We have been blessed with the most wonderful weather recently. After the volatile weather we had in November and December, we didn’t know what to expect in 2022. It started out iffy, but the past couple of weeks have been almost perfect. Crisp and cool with clear blue skies. Weather that makes you want to get outside and do something.
On one exceptionally gorgeous day, we decided to take a drive down to Montalcino, which is about an hour and a half drive southwest of us. It’s in the part of Tuscany that has the most amazing landscape, changing from lush and rolling to barren and craggy depending on which side of the car you’re on. Montalcino is near both the Crete Sinese and the Val d’Orcia areas of Tuscany. Technically in the Val di’Orcia (which is the lush, cypress lined hills we associate with Tuscany) getting there from where we are you go through some dramatic landscape changes.
The Crete Sinese, which means clays of Siena, is characterized by the sediments of a long ago sea. Millions of years ago, this area was under water and the influence of that remains. I think it’s remarkable that after three or so million years, that mark is still there. This silty, hilly terrain has eroded over the years to the point that we now see badlands. It’s a surreal experience to go from beautiful vineyard covered hills to a ghostly, rutted carving of a landscape. It is often described as lunar and that’s an apt characterization. It is certainly dramatic and unexpected and well worth a visit.
The small village of Montalcino is renowned for the powerful Brunello di Montalcino wine. It’s one of the best reds of Tuscany and that’s saying something. It’s 100% Sangiovese, but the variety is very particular to this area. The skins of these grapes are typically thicker than other Sangiovese grapes, giving it a bolder, more tannic, taste. Because of the high tannins, it’s a wine for keeping. It’s well worth the wait, although that’s something I have a hard time doing. I’m all about instant gratification.
We didn’t get to visit any wineries on this trip, but will make a point to have a wine tour soon. This time of year is tough because many businesses are taking a little hiatus to get ready for the big spring and summer tourist season. We did, however, purchase a bottle or two which we will try to keep the recommended decade.
The town of Montalcino is defined by its fortezza (fortress), a massive 14th century structure designed to keep out the invading enemies (mostly Siena and Florence). That it’s still intact is amazing. You can stroll through it and it even has an enoteca selling any kind of Brunello, and other wine, you can imagine. You can get a glass and imagine life in the 14th century when the primary concern was self-preservation. For four euro extra, you can climb the ramparts and walk around the very top of the walls with a bird’s eye view of what was coming at you. Taking in that view I can see where it would have been very difficult for anyone to sneak up on you.
We can’t go to Florence enough. We’re only about an hour and a half from our doorstep to the Duomo and it’s just too tempting not to go every few weeks. Going this time of year is perfect (there’s that word again). On these gorgeous winter days with bright sunshine and temps in the high 50s, you almost have the town to yourself. We went recently and noted that most of the people walking around were American college students. I guess study abroad is alive and well in Florence.
We visited the Medici chapel on this trip. This was the neighborhood church of the Medicis and is better known in Florence as San Lorenzo. The facade of the church was never finished. Its rough brick front has sat through the centuries waiting on its dressing of white marble. Michelangelo was commissioned to design and build it, but he only got as far as designing a wooden model before the money ran out and the project was put on a centuries long hold. Lucky for us, Michelangelo was freed up to work on another little project in Rome – the Sistine Chapel.
There was an exhibit there featuring items from the Medici collection of natural history. It included many wax models of various plants which were just beautiful. I’m not sure what kind of wax they used that has lasted all these centuries, but they looked like they were just made yesterday. There were also wax models of the innards of the human body. The vascular system on one, the muscular system on another, major organs on another. A little macabre, but I’m sure a great teaching tool way back when.
We had a quick lunch at the Central Market, a place we could stay in for hours. Read more details about it here. Then we walked to the Ospedale degli Innocenti, The Hospital of the Innocents. This is an important building both from architectural and social standpoints. In the 1420s, the hospital was commissioned by the Silk Guild, one of the major trade associations that influenced Florence’s government. It was designed by Brunelleschi (who also designed the famous Duomo dome) and was used as an orphanage. Mothers who couldn’t care for their babies would deposit them into a window designed so that they couldn’t see in and the nuns inside couldn’t see out, assuring anonymity. Today it is a museum, but, it was closed during our visit. Another reason to come back to Florence.
We ended our day by visiting Santa Maria Novella Profumo-Farmaceutica. This is a luxury shop selling soaps, lotions, and potions. You can find more information about them here. It dates back to the 1200s when the monks of Santa Maria Novella church started making herbal remedies. Some of the products follow those ancient recipes, although today it has become a very high end shop catering to wealthy tourists. That’s not us, but I do love to go in there.