Untouring Tuscany South - a Planning Guide:
Winter is planning time for our Untour trips. Since people have been asking me questions about what there is to see and do while on a Tuscany South Untour, I decided to try and answer with this blog. Instead of writing a triplog, I am simply going to try to tell you about some interesting places that we found in this area.
(Apartment Building of Poggiarellino - Famiglia and Coppia Apts Are Up the Stairs)
I always start planning my trips far before the Untours booklets arrive. When I first started trying to plan this vacation, I was overwhelmed by the information I was finding in Rick Steves books (which I love for planning), other tour books, and the internet. I just couldn’t get a hold on the locations of all these places in relationship to our “home town”. So I decided to start by making an outline of the area and plugging in towns approximately where they were located. This is what it looked like. With this, I was able to get perspective and started planning our ideas in directions. Each color shared similar routes.
(Tuscany South Town Planning Outline)
Since we were staying at Ana and Ludivico Ginotti’s apartments at Poggiarellino, our “hometown” was either Buonconvento or Montalcino. Frankly, we found Buonconvento the easiest to reach for everyday needs of ATM, groceries, bakeries, train station, and a lot of really good restaurants. Now if you are not staying here, it doesn’t matter because most of the towns are still in your areas and probably listed on my outline above. In my descriptions below, I will use Buonconvento and Montalcino as base points for directions.
(Buonconvento Train Station)
I am not going to focus on the two well known towns north of here, Siena and Florence, because they require another blog by themselves. I will mention a couple of notes here though. Both cities can easily be reached by an inexpensive train ticket from Buonconvento. I believe that it only took about 30 mins to Siena and about 1 hr to Florence. Believe me….don’t drive into these towns. It is soooo confusing!! Florence is best seen on an overnight trip if you can do it.
The town on top of the hill is a must. First stop is the Fortress as you enter town. You can walk along the wall if you wish. Inside is an Enoteca which is a good place for wine tasting. Some streets are peds only and there are some hills in the town. There are many shops and Enotecas throughout town as well as good restaurants. Montalcino is a great “hometown”.
(Our Friend Joe Wine Tasting At The Montalcino Fortress)
San Antimo Abbey:
Not far from Montalcino, this abbey is well worth a visit. Very picturesque.
(Abbey of San Antimo)
San Angelo d’Colle and Banfi Winery:
Continuing south of Montalcino you can visit one of the famous wineries of the area, Banfi. It has very pretty grounds and really fun wine tasting.
(Marlene Tasting Champagne at Banfi Winery)
Monte Oliveto Maggiore Abbey:
In the other direction and not far from Buonconvento is Abbey Monte Oliveto Maggiore. It is full of glorious frescoes of the life of St Benedict. In the museum, see the old Abbey Pharmacy. If you hit it right, you may be at the church in time for Gregorian chanting. This visit also teams well with the orientation when it is held at Pevi a Salti nearby.
(Fresco at Monte Oliveto Maggiore Abbey)
Along the back roads northwest of Buonconvento is the small town of Murlo. Although it is at its best in June when the town hosts a Medieval Festival, this is a town that seems to have perpetually remained in medieval times and is worth the visit.
(Murlo's Medieval Festival)
Monticiano and San Galgano:
Sometimes the Untours luncheon is held in Monticiano and this is the perfect time to visit the Abbey of San Galgano nearby. There are two parts to this Abbey. First are the extremely picturesque ruins of the old Abbey. Second is the chapel on the hill where you will see “the Sword in the Stone”.
(Ruins of San Galgano Abbey)
Going somewhat east of Montalcino is the walled town of Pienza. It is famous for its shops selling Pecorina cheese (sheep’s milk), meats, and also lovely ceramics. It’s easy to spend a day there or just a few hours.
(Pecorina Cheese Displayed in a Pienza Shop)
A visit to Montepulciano pairs well with your visit to Pienza since it is in a similar direction. This is another nice walled town to visit.
(Sweet Little Local Who Wanted Her Picture Taken)
Moving out further from your “hometowns” there are longer day trips that are worth the effort.
Going southeast and toward the coastal area, you can reach Assisi. This very famous town boasts of their patron saint, Saint Francis of Assisi. It is well worth the long drive through the Italian countryside just to visit the gorgeous Basilica of St Francis and sit and meditate in the chapel by his tomb. Although hilly, Assisi is an interesting city to stroll through and walk through the many shops along the way. Bet you have never seen so many carved statues of St Francis in your life.
(Basilica of St Francis in Assisi)
If you drive northwest of Buonconvento past Siena along the country roads, you will reach the walled town of San Gimignano. It is the town of towers with 13 towers surviving since the medieval times. This is definitely a town that you can spend a lot of time in and is a great shopping place. It has very unique stores here. While there I bought a beautiful tapestry runner for my buffet.
(Towers of San Gimignano)
Exploring farther northwest will take you to Pisa, Carrara, and the Cinque Terre, all seen much better with at least one overnight. Since we really wanted to “taste” this area, we made it in one overnight and two long days. If possible I would suggest a two night stay to really enjoy yourself.
Pisa could be a day’s destination in itself. There is much to see and enjoy here besides the famous Leaning Tower. Both the Duomo and the Baptistry call for touring. When we arrived in Pisa, we parked in the PAM (large grocery store) parking lot. It’s free to customers. We parked, went into the store and bought a small item we needed. We left and walked to the Campo dei Miracles, Field of Miracles, where these famous buildings are located. When we finished, we returned to the PAM store and purchased some snacks for the rest of our trip. Yes, free parking with our receipts plus snacks for the rest of the trip.
(Duomo, Baptistry, and Leaning Tower in Pisa)
After hearing that Michelangelo selected his marble from these quarries, we just had to stop here. It was on the way to La Spezia and the Cinque Terre. As we approached the town, we thought there was snow on the mountains (in June??), then we discovered we were viewing the marble quarries in the mountains. This is a interesting place to stop at some of the quarry shops and buy some beautiful carved pieces at reasonable prices. Don’t forget to drive up into the mountains for a closer look at the quarries and the marble slabs.
(Marble Mountains of Carrara)
Following some advice we read online, we decided to stay in the town of La Spezia, location of the train station that would take us to the Cinque Terre towns. We booked a room thru expedia.com at a hotel across the street from the train station before leaving the States. Good choice.
Starting out early again the next morning we hopped on the train and alighted at the first town on the Cinque Terre, Riomaggiore. Here there is a paved trail that follows the coast to the next town, Manarola. It is referred to as the “Trail of Love” or the “Kissing Trail”. The views are extraordinary and very romantic! Just makes a couple want to hold hands as they stroll along. It’s an easy trail so don’t be scared off. Highly recommended! Even I made it.
(Marlene on the Manarola Walk at Cinque Terre)
If you didn’t walk, the train also stops here. Manarola is a small fishing village that begs exploration..
(Fishing Village of Manarola at Cinque Terre)
I really can’t tell you much about this town. It is reached by train and then a 15 min walk up to town. The day we were there the trail to it was closed, so we continued on the train to the next town of Vernazza.
Vernazza is a really fun town and we were told that we must have “anchovies” here, not the salty little fish that we Americans find in Caesar Salads or on Pizza, but little fish of delicious taste. Of course, we happened to be there during the time that the restaurants were closed so only had a taste of fried anchovies in a take-out place. There are many shops here as well as a great beach. I just had to wade in the Mediterranean while I was there.
(Beach at Vernazza at Cinque Terre)
Monterosso al Mare:
We took the train to the last town, Monterosso. This town has a beautiful beach with bathhouses, umbrellas, and cabanas. It would be a great place to stay for a few days if we were on a different trip. There is actually a boat that we could have taken from Monterosso back to the first town of Riomaggiore; however, the information we had been given while planning our trip gave wrong times and we had just missed the last boat. Since we really wanted a boat ride, we were able to take another “commuter” boat back to Vernazza.
(Beach at Monterosso at Cinque Terre)
From Vernazza we took the train back to La Spezia where we retrieved our car and drove back to our “home”. Okay, if we hadn’t gotten lost on the autostrades (freeways), we would have arrived home at a decent time.
One thing for sure no matter which town you are visiting, you are sure to find a gelateria with many flavors of gelato and that’s all that counts. Our motto: “A Gelato a day is all we ask.”
(A Gelato a Day Is All We Ask!)
A word about the highways and freeways……the directions are given by town name. We found out how the saying “All roads lead to Rome” came about. No matter which direction you are driving in, you will see a sign directing you to Rome or Grosseto. Seems really silly to see when you are going north toward Florence or Cinque Terre. Don’t be fooled. Also, a recommendation, if you have a portable GPS, get a chip or download for Europe. It would have been very helpful especially trying to bypass the cities of Florence and Siena.
Another note: if you decide to do an overnight somewhere while on your Untour, it is a good idea to let the landlord know you will be gone. Otherwise, when they don’t see your car at the apartment, they will begin worrying about you.
Interested in seeing more of Tuscany and Rome photos? Then click here mhench's photos.
Happy Untouring in Tuscany South.