TUSCANY, ITALY – My friend in Rome would suggest visiting fantastic historical sights in and out of the city, which is how I finally made it to Tivoli, Hadrian’s Villa and Villa d’Este. They would take me to artisan gelaterias that were too expensive to afford but had too pure of flavors not to spend for. A trip to Florence meant wandering through museums, both world famous ones like the Uffizi and smaller, relatively unknown such ones as the Museum of Anthropology. Sitting around at home meant artisan pastries, mozzarella di bufala made fresh that morning and brought in from Campania, jazz on the loudspeakers and a game of Scopa on the table.
When they suggested an extended weekend visiting hill towns in Tuscany and relaxing at the thermal baths near Chianciano Terme, I did not hesitate. I had been to Tuscany before on visits to Florence and Siena, but had seen the countryside only through the window of a train. I had long heard of the beauty of the province and, familiar with Italy as I was, did not doubt that it would be lovely.
We played an old Beatles tape they found in their car as we drove up from Rome. I called out “stop!” over and over, endlessly spotting vistas that might be turned into a beautiful picture. They were patient, as many of my friends are with me, and pulled to the side of the road each time I called out.
It was late October and autumn had turned Tuscany fiery orange, red, yellow. The green grass and blue sky remained as always to clash with the vibrant colors. I snapped villas perched on velvety green land, wide open spaces whose only decorations were the clouds in the sky, distant towns perched on distant hills. I knew we were coming for them.
Our home base was the modern section of Chianciano Terme, at a little hotel right on the edge of the town. It was sleepy and quiet. Not many people strolled the streets, not many shops opened during the days. There were a few large roads, many small ones, and most of the excitement could be found in the compact historic part of town, surrounded by ancient walls, five minutes drive away. The only time we explored the historic center was Halloween night, as they strung up decorations throughout the avenues and piazzas which the children would later come out in costume to enjoy. We were surprised that they were doing anything for the holiday, Halloween not being traditionally celebrated in Italy.
During our days, we would drive out to different hill towns in the region. Pienza sat perfectly atop it’s hill and offered us a tranquil, open white-stone walkway along the edge of the town, the valley spread below us. We stepped into the middle of a Medieval festival (Sagra del Tordo) in Montalcino and joined the rest of the town in the grounds behind the castle to watch an archery competition. San Quirico d’Orcia we explored at night, and strolled along its brokenly lit streets practically alone. We had lunch in Bagno Vignoni, walked among the ruins found there, gazed up at the tower crowning the neighboring hill.
It was Montepulciano that most captivated me. I couldn’t imagine living in a place of such incredible beauty. We explored churches and found wonder in their sunlit illumination. We ate caprese salads and fresh bread for lunch, overlooking the subtle rolling hills and changing colors of Tuscany. We strolled along the edge of the town, and this was our view.
That weekend was purple, pink, orange, green, red, blue, yellow, white. It ended perfectly, and I have thought differently of Italy since. I had always loved it. Rome felt like my true home, but I didn’t know enough about the rest of the country. Arguably my favorite vacation in the past five years of traveling across the world was visiting a handful of small towns in central Italy – what else might this country hold?
I’m devoting a lot of my life to finding out.