Thursday, November 1, 2012

Una passeggiata splendida attraverso la campagna Toscana (A gorgeous walk through the Tuscan countryside)

So I have to start off by apologizing for being so behind on posts, it's been really busy here lately with midterms.

To preface this story, my friend, Alex, who is studying in Florence inspired me to go on this trip. About a month or more ago, he went on a walking journey through Tuscany from Florence to Abruzzo and had an awesome experience traveling the Via Francigena, which is an ancient path that pilgrims have been taking for centuries, traveling all the way from Northern Europe to Rome, to go to the Vatican.

This trip really made me excited to do some sort of walking journey, so I did some research and came across this wonderful gem of a book known as "Walking and Eating in Tuscany and Umbria." This book is very streamlined, with no nonsense. It offers a few key things: 1) Step-by-step directions through the countrysides of Tuscany and Umbria, between key points of beauty (landscapes, churches, wonderful towns, medieval structures, castles, anything Italian and wonderful you can think of really) 2) Good places to stay, including phone number of the local Tourist Office 3) Good places to eat (their suggestions are top-notch) 4) Any other logistical information you may need on you're journey. This book really takes the worry and difficulty out of doing a wonderful hiking journey in Tuscany.

I had been thinking about doing a trip for awhile, but wasn't sure exactly which one or if I was going to go by myself or with a friend. I had thought about going to the South Tuscany Region (Montalcino, Montepulciano, etc) or perhaps the West Siena Region (Monteriggioni), but nothing was certain.

Then Friday morning, with no particular plans for the weekend, my roommate, Eric, and I started chatting about maybe doing a day trip, and then completely out of the blue he brought up Monteriggioni, so I told him about the walks and he loved the idea. The next morning, we were on a train headed for Monteriggioni, with the book saved as a pdf document on my iPhone, for ease of use. We had no reservations, and were ready for an Italian adventure!

Upon arrival, we were about 3 kilometers from the little castle town of Monteriggioni, and this is where my walking journey began!

Come on, let's take a walk
As we walked the 3km, Monteriggioni suddenly appeared from behind the trees, treating us to our first views of the wonderful little village.

Makin' my way downtown, walkin' fast, faces pass, and I'm castle bound
This town is particularly famous, immortalized in pen by Dante Alighieri! Read for yourself.

Here is a wonderful up-front shot of the castle.

The wine grows right up to the edge of the castle
And once we got to the top of the hike up, we had to stop to take a photo.

Country Bumpkin
Monteriggioni is a particularly small place, with one single piazza, several shops, a couple restaurants, and one hotel. Check out the piazza!

The Piazza of Monteriggioni
Walking around a bit, I got this shot of the walls.

Beautiful day
We even were able to go up onto the walls! Here is the north-facing wall.

The view of the countryside; absolutely spectacular!
And a shot of the only church in town, from the south-facing wall. This church is the reason that pilgrims travel through Monteriggioni on their pilgrimmages.

The church
These next two photos really define Monteriggioni, and are utterly gorgeous. Take a look.

Here's a photo of me hanging out on the castle walls.

 Walking around in the shops, we found this hilarious pair of extremely potent alcohols!

Trolls n Booze
Finally, after having thoroughly walked around the tiny village several times, we began our first walk, a ring walk in the regions surrounding Monteriggioni. This land is set in a storied history of pilgrimmages, fascist violence, defense of the walls of Monteriggioni, farming, and wonderful food and wine! Remember the Via Francigena? Well it turns out that my book almost exclusively took us along the the well-trodded path of the pilgrims. It was a really enjoyable experience to think about the massive number of people over hundreds or thousands of years that have walked along the same road that I was taking.

The beginning of the walk
It was an absolutely perfect day for this! I was very excited to be starting!

The country bumpkin begins his hike...
And what beautiful beginnings they were!

Monteriggioni is known for being a rather well-forested region of Tuscany, and we certainly got to enjoy a great balance between sunny fields and shaded forests.

After going through the forest for a time, we appeared out in a wonderful little field. I said hi to the local farmers, and then we kept walking.

And after another little bit, we finally came out into a 2 kilometer stretch of farmland, taking the dirt road straight down the middle!

We even encountered some piggies!

Oink oink!
Continuing further along the road...

Even though Eric and I were on vacation, the locals weren't! They were running tractors by this cool little old tower right in the middle of the farmland!

And here is a beautiful couple of shots back towards Monteriggioni from where we had walked to so far.

Artsy, with Monteriggioni in the upper left middle
Unbeknownst to us, the book took us along a walk up to the peak of Monte Maggio, a particularly large hill in the area. It was an hour's walk steep uphill (approximately 3 kilometers), but it was worth it.

Here is a shot back down, along the hike up.

Along the way we really got to see signs of the fascist violence that the area is known for. Here are a couple of little memorials.

2 men gunned down in their sleep
The story goes that a wave of fascist violence, from whose regime I don't quite remember, swept over the countryside, with many of the local hard-working farmers and merchants retreating to Monteriggioni for safety. Unfortunately, not everyone was so lucky. Some of the bloodiest and most merciless events occured on Monte Maggio. The bottom photo of the 3 is of two men who were gunned down while they slept, in their house, Casa Giubileo, at the top of Monte Maggio.

Here is Casa Giubileo.

Casa Giubileo
After coming down from Monte Maggio, it was starting to get dark, and we got a little bit lost. Fortunately, speaking to a local farmer in Italian led us to a path that would return us to Monteriggioni. This trip really developed my Italian speaking and listening skills and helped me so much more than anything else I have done while in Italy. Being forced to figure stuff out, getting directions, etc, really helps you speak and understand more fluently.

Along our walk back, we passed the local village of Abbadia a Isola. Here is a nice sunset shot of it.

Abbadia a Isola
Now, here comes the story! So as I mentioned before, we came in with no bookings of any sort for lodging. Thus, it was a little bit worrisome to try and find somewhere to stay, as the sun had completely set by the time we returned to town. Additionally, there is only one hotel in town and very little other options given the size. Just so you know, the hotel would have cost us 170 euro for the two of us for one night, so clearly we were not going to stay there.

This is another point where my Italian really came in handy. We saw a little ad for cheap rooms for rent in town on a wall, with nothing but a phone number and a price (only 50 euro for the both of us). So, given no other option, I called up the guy. Entirely in Italian, we discussed the booking, then he informed me that I was to go walk to the just outside the walls of the city to meet a woman dressed in medieval garments and receive the key from her. After getting lost for a little bit, we found the lady, and she then handed us the keys, telling us where the building was, and then letting us on our merry way.

So we walked over to the building, and it happened to be even more centrally located to the piazza than even the only hotel! It was literally next door to the church, because it was a pilgrim house! This is the primary location that traveling pilgrims (yes, even modern ones) will stop for the night. The entire place had supportive poems and information helpful for pilgrims traveling all over the walls. Additionally, it was very clean and nice, and they offered huge discounts to pilgrims. It was really wonderful to get to stay in this little pilgrim house, since we had been traveling as pilgrims along the Via Francigena all day, and would be continuing to do so the next day.

After waiting in our room for about an hour, the guy who I spoke to over the phone showed up and we paid for the night. I have to say, this was the strangest, but most interesting place I have ever ended up staying in for a night!

Moving on... Eric and I were starving at this point, so we went to one of the few restaurants in town: Enoteca il Feudo. This was an amazing restaurant, simple service, but quality wine and just absolutely delicious food. In their menu, they had a geographical portrayal of where the grapes for the famous wines of the area were grown.

Additionally, they sold the wine of the house in a bottle whose label is merely a drawing of Monteriggioni. How cool!

Take a close look at the label
Also, I had heard tell of the wonderful delights of truffles, so I was naturally drawn to ordering the Truffle-stuffed pasta in a black truffle sauce. Wow it was amazing!

Truffle dish
Unfortunately, I didn't get a photo of it, but Eric ordered an even better item, pasta stuffed with sheep-milk cheese and pear, in a pistacchio sauce. WOW that was amazing, and made of many typical local Tuscan products. You can really taste the difference, eating out in the country where the food is made within 5 kilometers. The food in Rome that I have had so far does not even compare to the food I enjoyed out in Tuscany.

After dinner, Eric and I were just hanging out outside in the piazza, when this goofy little cat came up to us. He was such a cute, playful little guy, and I had a great time with him until he ditched us after awhile.

Playful kittie!
There ends the first of an awesome two-day trip into Tuscany!

The next morning, we decided to get up bright and early, so that we wouldn't be rushed for time to try to get the only bus from Santa Colomba back to Siena. Here is a gorgeous morning shot from our bedroom window of the piazza. Like I said, centrally located!

Buongiorno, Monteriggioni!
We actually were up so early that nothing was even open! Fortunately one lady was moving boxes in and out of her cafe, so she let us enter and grab a coffee and a couple pastries before we began our long hike. Take a look at the countryside as the sun burns off the morning dew.

Our journey took us through a little farmhouse, where they had geese. However, these geese were no ordinary geese. They were ANGRY!!!!!

Angry Mr. Goose
No joke, anytime we tried to go by these geese, they would charge headlong at us in an utter bloodlust. It was actually rather frightening. So, instead we outsmarted the geese. I hopped over the wall to the lower ledge, and then Eric drew them out. They would slowly walk towards him like zombies. Then once he pulled them out far enough, he hopped over, and we booked it to the end of the wall and climbed up, getting away from the crazy birds as quickly as possible!

Zombie Geese, hunting Eric
After continuing along for quite some time into the forest, we were rewarded with a beautiful panorama, giving us our final glimpse back down upon the castle town.

Here's another photo of happy Jason, enjoying his hike.

And some more beautiful landscape.

Spending quite some time in the forest and farmlands of the region, we ended up in another cute little town.

Finally, after 4 or so hours of hiking, we got our first glimpses of our destination: Santa Colomba!

Santa Colomba
So, the town has 1 road, 1 small church, and a thousand years of history! That church has stood since around 1100. So simple, yet so old. It was really cool to take a look inside a less embellished church.

I don't actually know what it is, but this is the only other real building in town. As we walked by it, we were really hoping for somewhere to eat. We had been walking all morning with the plan of eating upon arrival in Santa Colomba, but given the size of the village, we were worried that there might not be anything available. 

As we continued walking down the street, we started hearing a lot of voices coming from one building. It turns out that there was a restaurant open!!

Apparently this restaurant is only open for 3 meals a week: dinner Friday and Saturday, and lunch on Sunday. 

Wow we were lucky!
We went inside, only to discover that all the voices were in fact caused by a massive 30-40 person birthday celebration going on at the restaurant. Hoping to be in a less chaotic environment, we chose to sit outside.

Outdoor seating
Just as at the restaurant that we went to dinner the night before, the food was just utterly spectacular because of the proximity to where it was grown and the incomparable freshness and quality of it. Please gaze upon my delicious lunch!

Il Pranzo
I actually enjoyed a nice conversation with our friendly young waiter, telling him that I was from California. He told me that I was crazy for being so far from home and particularly in such a non-touristy location. He also gave me his thoughts on people from San Francisco: absolutely insane!! I shared a laugh with him and went on enjoying my meal. However, when the check came, he actually gave me my glass of wine and all our water for free. 

Also, he came out and offered me some Montenegro grappa, which was absolutely the best grappa I have tasted, a step above all others. Very drinkable!

Free Montenegro (plus ad placement)
I really appreciated the very personal and friendly dining experience presented by my waiter, particularly enjoying his generosity. As a result, I gave him a tip of a couple euro, and he wished us good travels!

Just after this whole transaction ended, the only bus for the next 5 hours to go back to Siena arrived -- perfect timing!

Since it was only around 4pm when we arrived in Siena, we decided to hang around for a bit and explore. We were greeted by a wonderful surprise! It was the Autumn Festival for Siena, meaning that there were hundreds of vendors selling their wares in the streets, thousands of Italians out and about, and lots of other cool things going on.

Autumn Festival in Siena
One of the tables in the streets had a LOT of pumpkins. Take your pick!

Pumpkins galore!
Eric and I continued exploring Siena, when all of a sudden, the tiny alleyways opened up into this amazing piazza!

Piazza del Campo
The tower just completely dominates this very open, slanted piazza. Here is another shot of the piazza, so you can get a feel for the way it looks. It was really cool seeing all the Italians just hanging out, layin on the ground, kickin soccer balls around, etc..

I got a couple really cool shots from inside the building that is attached to the tower!

Tracing the city back to the Medieval Times
Different angles providing different perspectives on life
For our last stop in Siena, we found this really awesome outdoor antiques market, where they sold all sorts of wares!

They sold such a vast variety of items, from tools to jewelry to knives to paintings to china to random trinkets.

Antiques Market
I bought a really cool little bronze owl-shaped bottle opener that has red eyes. I love it!

Now, on our way out of town, we got the opportunity to see a marching band just completely rocking out straight through the little sidestreets that make up most of Siena. It was a wonderful way to end our time at this Autumn Festival in Siena!

This little weekend trip into the Tuscan countryside is really the sort of thing that I have been desiring to do since I came to Italy. It gave me a wonderful opportunity to learn a lot more of the history and culture of Italy, as well as speak and listen to lots of Italian, taking me out of my comfort zone. This trip was one of the most rewarding experiences that I have had since coming to Italy. A truly beautiful experience. Una esperienza bellissima!


  1. dont you know that geese are well known for being angry and on the verge of violent?

  2. I was unaware :( never again will I allow the evil geese of the world to inspire fear and darkness in my heart, as I have grown and learned from this frightful experience. Their insidious ferocity will no longer cause the poison of terror to seep into my soul! NO MORE GEESE, NO MORE!