Tuscany. It has been depicted in so many paintings and stories. What is it about this place that feels so good? Is it the exclamation marks of cypresses all over the landscape? Or the musky smell of freshly crushed grapes as we walk by a vineyard? Surely it is not the monotonous smoked ham and cheese bread… Oh the bread. It is just like Italian marble, solid as a rock. In the bakery, chunks of off-white bread are all thrown together in a bin. The Italian ladies point and the clerk picks and holds up a chunk. “No, not that one. Thát one!” They sort and pick. It resembles a bin full of bricks. I don’t understand it because the croissants here are divine – flaky and just perfect. But the bread, you could kill someone with it if you threw a piece.
But somehow these ancient hill towns invite you to settle down and live here. I would drive a tiny Fiat, like a maniac, to the patisserie each morning (for the pastries, not the bread). I love seeing the old women hang out their windows to see what’s happening on the street below, peeking through geraniums and lines full of laundry.
On the Via Francigena, the historic trail we hike, we made it to San Gimignano – nicknamed the Manhattan of Tuscany. Only 14 of the original 72 towers remain but those make for a pretty impressive skyline in this UNESCO World Heritage Site. As I huff and puff up hill toward the medieval centre, I wonder how they got all of those stones up there to build the towers in the 1200’s. No dump trucks back then.
Of course, no Tuscan town is complete without pizzerias and ristorantes offering wild boar and truffles. But also not without tourist traps selling fake leather purses, Pinocchio keychains and fifty flavours of gelato. After a decent meal, we walk back through the narrow medieval streets and long staircases, under a full moon. The room we booked showed “traditional Tuscan” ceilings in the photos but has a normal white ceiling in reality. But we sleep with our eyes closed anyway.
Early the next morning, we leave town and drink in the sight. The valley below shrugs off its foggy night clothes. We walk along rows of dewy grape vines. I keep wondering if I’m traipsing through Andrea Bocelli’s vineyard yet….
We’ve been walking for hours and still have not spotted any place that might offer coffee to a wary pilgrim. I am tempted to knock on doors. Twice I ask but no, there’s no coffee in these hamlets. Until finally we come to a medieval huddle of homes on a hill top with a sign ‘ristorante’ pointing vaguely between the houses. The place is deserted. I’m not sure whose underwear adorns all the clothes lines hanging along the streets because no one seems to be home. Finally we find what might be a hotel and we sit down in the deserted court yard where a startled cleaning lady finds us and sends over someone who actually produces coffee. Life is good again.
Along the way we marvel at the fact that Tuscany is full of tourists but we don’t see any signs of modern, urban development. No high rises. No ugly factories. The landscape seems to be untouched for centuries. How did they do that? Some city planners must have had incredible foresight about a hundred years ago. And that is extra impressive considering how laid back and, well, unorganized things can be in Italy. I think that Salt Spring Island can learn a lot from Tuscany when it comes to preserving the landscape.
We reach Colle di Valle d’Elsa where we have a great room, a view on the medieval city wall and a good meal outside on the square, where a posse of old men congregate on a bench at night. The local CNN.
The next medieval place is Monteriggioni. Before we went, I researched these places and studied maps. I always pictured this place as a small village, surrounded by green fields. You know, some houses here and there. In my mind, the town was always in a flat field. But no. Monteriggioni was built for mountain goats. A walled castle on yet another hill top. Of course, up we go. The coarse gravel makes you slip backward but we make it. Once we get inside the ancient walls, we’re in for a surprise. Whole tour groups of British and Chinese visitors follow their leaders holding a little flag. You can buy souvenirs and expensive wines. Everyone’s taking selfies with the pub or the church in the background. It’s Disneyland surrounded by ancient walls. Deflated, we buy a gelato before heading back down. We sit down at the tables of the gelato shop but get chased away. “Only sit if you get served!” the stern owner tells us. “Well, then serve me this ice cream I just bought,” Kees says but to no avail. We leave this tourist trap. Walking the quiet Via Francigena is much better.