With more hill towns to explore, we grabbed our Rick Steves guidebook and drove to Montepulciano. Known worldwide for its wines, Montepulciano gave us our first glimpse into a wine cellar, right off the main town square. But first we had to get up to the main square. More climbing. At least we weren’t pushing wine barrels, Rick Steves reminded us.
Just as Siena has its famous horse race, the Palio, Montepulciano has the Bravio delle Botti, an annual race of teams from its own contrades, that sees men pushing wine barrels up the steep hills. We were just a few days early for that race, but the town was getting ready.
Next up was Pienza, a smaller town, slightly less touristy but with the requisite duomo, palazzos and piazza. We were getting pretty good at spotting the main sights, even without Rick Steves as our guide. We did find something unique about this town. Pienza is well known for its pecorino cheese, but what they do with it is what makes it special. Imagine taking a perfectly aged pecorino wheel, kneeling down on the bricks of the main square, and rolling the cheese right down the street.
As we were strolling along, we glanced down a side street and saw a small group of boys waiting their turn to roll a cheese wheel toward a spindle that had been jammed in between the bricks of the path. A man standing near the spindle (giving pointers?) picked up the cheese, brought it back, and the process started again. What appeared to be a silly street game at the time, I found out, (after a bit of Googling “rolling cheese in Pienza”) is a tradition called Cacio al Fuso, or “cheese to the spindle”, and there is a town celebration and competition on the first Sunday in September (we just missed everything) that has been going on for centuries.
Centuries of cheese throwing, wine barrel rolling, bareback horse riding… how can you not love Tuscany?
The following morning we left Siena behind and drove to Florence, but first let me mention the tour groups. Tours can be taken in most every larger Tuscan city and we encountered them everywhere. Huge groups following behind a guide waving either a tiny flag or a huge umbrella, each member wearing headphones in their ears and a transmitter around their neck. A great way to get abundant information about a city, I’m sure. However! These groups seem to feel superior to your regular, everyday tourist, or so it seems. “I’m in a tour, that I paid for, and my guide said stand here, or sit here, or look here and you and your Rick
Steves guidebook are less important so I have no intention of letting you get by or see that interesting thing over there or even watch where I’m going so look out or I’ll hit you with my selfie stick”, is what I can only assume goes through their minds.
Ahem. So, we went to Florence.
While the hill towns and Siena are considered medieval towns, Florence is all about Renaissance art and architecture. And the thing is, when you travel without children, you are allowed to stop and appreciate art. Even walk into a museum, which we did.
The Uffizi Gallery is one of those places that people reserve tickets for when they book their plane tickets to Italy, months in advance, yet somehow, we strolled right in. Rembrandt, Botticelli, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Ben and me, all in the same place. As we’ve never made it into the Louvre, the Uffizi Gallery has the most important collection of art that I’ve ever been near. And, I’ll tell you that if you are a fan of any representation of “Madonna and child”, this is the place to be. Every time you turn around, there they are.
Maybe it’s because we had just spent days touring cities and towns, maybe it was the extreme heat, maybe it was the hordes of people illegally selling junk on the streets, but Florence didn’t appeal to me. Even the enormous cathedral and its historic dome were just too somber after the fun of the duomo in Siena.
Pisa was a different story. We had heard that, if you see the leaning tower, you’ve seen all Pisa has to offer, but we disagree. Pisa is a nice city. Very small, by city standards, making it very manageable and easily walkable. Pisa has its own university making the city feel young. Restaurants, stores and the “Field of Miracles”, the green space with the duomo, the baptistery and the leaning tower gave us plenty to see.
And then it was time to go home and plan our next big trip. I’ll guess we’ll take the kids on that one. Thanks for having us, Tuscany!