Italy has always been a special place for me – it was the first European country we visited back in 2012 – this is where I fell in love with Europe and travel in general. I remember being awestruck by the beautiful churches and monuments in Rome, the Renaissance art in the Uffizi and the Venetian canals with gondolas floating on them. I discovered my thirst for travel here- the need to see new places, taste new foods and experience new cultures.
Since then, we have travelled to so many places but Italy occupies a special place in our hearts. This year , we celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary and we both knew we wanted to go back to Italy to mark this milestone in our life together – this time with our kiddo in tow.
So I put together an itinerary for a week in Tuscany , knowing fully well that in August it was going to be 1) hot 2) overrun with tourists 3) expensive. Did we care though ? Obviously not!
On our first visit to Italy, we saw 3 cities in 10 days and our itinerary was packed with things to do. This time, I wanted to embrace slow travel. The best way to experience Italy is to kick back and relax – people watch in the town piazza, linger over a delicious lunch while the shops close for the midday riposa, take an evening stroll in a village , share a glass of wine over dinner. ”La dolce vita’ or ‘the sweet life’ is all about slowing down and enjoying every moment.
So I came up with a plan like this for our week:
1)Fly to Pisa , see the Leaning Tower , rent a car and drive to an agriturismo in the Chianti region
2)Visit San Gimignano, Siena, Florence
3)Tour a vineyard
4)Drive down to Val d’Orcia and visit Pienza, Montalcino and San Quirico d’Orcia
5)Visit a Benedectine monastery – Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore or the Abbey of Sant’Antimo
6)Do an olive oil tasing and buy lots of olive oil to take back home!
7)Fly back home from Pisa.
We began our Tuscan journey here – Pisa and Florence being the major airports most airlines fly into. The Leaning Tower of Pisa is arguably one of the most famous monuments in Italy. Made of white Carrara marble, this remarkable bell tower stands in the grassy Piazza dei Miracoli, adjacent to the Pisa Cathedral. Other than the tower though, we did not particularly find the city worth visiting. Half a day is plenty of time to see the tower and the adjacent cathedral.
The Agriturismo experience:
We left Pisa to make our way to Podere Casanova , an agriturismo near the small town of Montespertoli. Agriturismos are working farms which also provide accomodation for tourists. There are all kinds of agirturismos – right from the uber-luxurious to the ultra rustic. Podere Casanova is somewhere in the middle range – it has all the basic necessities including a pool with a view but at the same time, it has the rustic feel of a country farmhouse. You will not find egyptian cotton sheets or Netflix here.
The lady behind the agriturismo is Lisa Lorenzo. She runs it with such passion and is so likeable that you will forgive any minor flaw that you may find during your stay. We had a pizza party one night and her whole family turned up to make pizzas for us in a traditional wood fired oven. The kids got to wear chef hats and aprons while rolling out the dough and adding toppings before proudly chucking them into the oven with Lisa’s help. As we sat chatting and eating pizzas late into the warm Tuscan night, I felt a contentment i had never felt before whilst on holiday. This was indeed the good life.
Visit https://www.podere-casanova.it/ to book your apartment and enjoy Lisa’s fabulous hospitality.
It was time now for us to explore Tuscany’s hilltop towns. A half hour away from Podere Casanova, San G was our stop for the day. Old brick walls, a maze of cobblestone streets, incredibly beautiful and touristy at the same time – that is San G for you. Though you will have to make your way through hordes of other tourists and though there is a souvenir shop at every street corner, San G will still take your breath away.
The best thing to do here is to wander aimlessly through its small alleys and peek into any shop that takes your fancy. Hand painted ceramics, cheese and dry pasta, wine and olive oils – you can buy all this and more.
Take a break from all the walking to try some pici all’Aglione -thick handmade sphagetti with spicy garlic tomato sauce. With a glass of the excellent white wine of San G on the side of course!
Michelangelo’s David, the Uffizi gallery, Ponte Vecchio, the Duomo Cathedral, the Palazzo Vecchio and Piti Palace.. the list is endless. Suffice to say then that this Tuscan city is a must do on your Italian holiday. Since we had already been before , we just walked around and fell in love with Firenze all over again!
Did you know: The Medici family of Florence commisioned famous painters and sculptors during the Renaissance era , thus influencing the art and architecture of the city as it stands today. The Netflix show ‘Medici- Masters of Florence ‘ is very interesting if you want to know more about this powerful family that shaped Florence as we know it today.
Just a hour south of Florence, this medieval city is quintessential Tuscany. The Piazza del Campo seeks to impress with its distinctive shell shape and its towering Torre del Mangia.
The cathedral, built with alternating stripes of black and white marble, is worth paying the entrance fee for as the interior is as stunning as the exterior.
Siena truly deserves at least one full day, if not more. All we had was a few hours. But hey, that’s another reason to come back to Italy!
A few miles from Siena is Castelnuovo Berardenga which is home to the Tolaini Winery. We booked a tour here by simply ringing them on the day of the visit, based on their excellent TripAdvisor ratings. Our guide spoke excellent English and showed us around the vineyard, before taking us down to the cellars for a tasting of 5 different wines.
We learnt about the soil characteristics, different grape varieties and how much hard work goes into making that bottle of wine we buy off the shelves without a second thought. The wines we tasted were all lovely and we had to buy some! The tasting included some cheese, bread and their own olive oil. Their extra virgin olive oil was superlative and we ended up buying some of that too.
If you had to visit just one vineyard , I would suggest this winery.
For bookings and more details: http://www.tolaini.it/en/
To the south of Siena is the Tuscany of postcards. A gently undulating landscape with tall cypress trees, vast golden fields of wheat and breathtaking mountain-top towns – it is what Tuscan dreams are made of.
We stayed in the small town of San Qurico d’Orcia. Perfectly positioned to visit Pienza and Montalcino, this ancient walled town is the perfect base for visiting the Val d’Orcia. On our first evening here, we walked around and chanced upon a tiny playground just outside the town walls. My 6 year old’s happiness knew no bounds – after all swings and slides are more exciting than vineyards and dreamy vistas!
The next day we set off for the Abbey Sant’Antimo near Montalcino. The Abbey is a former Benedectine monastery set in the middle of some spectacular scenery. It is peaceful inside with simply adorned stone carvings and Gregorian chants played in the background ( there are no monks living here so the music is recorded).
Montalcino, home of the famous Brunello wine, is just 10 km from the Abbey. Though most of the hill-towns may be similar on the surface – stone walls, small streets and narrow alleys – each has a characteristic that sets it apart from the rest. For Montalcino , this is in the form of various enotecas offering Brunello wine tastings. Try some of Italy’s finest red wines here and then end your visit with a decadent lunch at one of the various osterias scattered around town.
We then drove on to Pienza , the town built by Pope Pius II . This is also the home of pecorino cheese made from sheep milk. As we strolled through its streets , we were lucky to witness a parade of some sort. Complete with drummers and flag throwers, the parade went up and down the main street of Pienza with the locals cheering them on.
Olive oil tasting
We cook a lot of Italian food at home and olive oil is an essential part of the cuisine. While in Italy, we wanted to try the extra-virgin olive oil made by the Tuscan producers. Dievole Winery near Siena offers olive oil tastings at 3 pm everyday.
5 different oils were poured into small cups for the tasting – some with tomato undertones and a few which were quite spicy. Extra-virgin olive oil here was of a light green colour, though we learnt that colour is not an indication of purity. Liquid gold is how I describe it. The oil is sold in dark glass bottles and as light changes the taste, we have now stored them in a dark cupboard in our dining room. And no , don’t keep the bottle near the stove on the kitchen counter!
You can book tastings online at https://tours.dievole.it/en/chianti-classico-area/olive-oil-tasting-dievole/.
1)Most airlines fly into Pisa or Florence – so this will naturally be your first destination. Rome is less convenient, it is at least 2.5 hours away from Siena by road.
2)It is difficult to reach most smaller towns by public transport so renting a car is necessary. Be sure to read up on Italian driving laws and beware of the dreaded ZTLs!
3)It is very hot in August, pack sunscreen and a sunhat. Best time to go is usually May/June and September/October.
4)Slow down and enjoy Italy rather than rushing from place to place. Linger over your meals, take frequent gelato breaks and soak in the atmosphere that is Tuscany!