Tuscany has one of the most alluring landscapes in the whole of Italy and its rolling hills covered in vineyards and olive groves continues to lure travellers from all around the world.
Tuscany, An Indulgent Combination Of Wine, Food And Scenic Landscapes
Tuscany has one of the most alluring landscapes in the whole of Italy and its rolling hills covered in vineyards and olive groves continues to lure travellers from all around the world. Fortress-topped peaks are scattered across the countryside reminding visitors of the past tussles that occurred throughout history between the region’s powerful city states.
The most significant locations are now protected as UNESCO World Heritage Sites and include central Florence, the historic centre of Siena, historic centre of San Gimignano, historic Pienza, the Medici villas and gardens, Piazza de Duomo in Pisa and the Val d’Orcia.
Visitors can explore these sites as well as enjoy the picturesque landscape, superb wines and wonderful food on a self-drive holiday with May being a perfect time of year with perfect Mediterranean weather and just before the European summer with its crowds and over-booked hotels.
Montalcino is a medieval hill town located in southern Tuscany that came under the influence of Florence in the mid 16th century after various conflicts between Siena and Florence. It is a less-visited Tuscan destination and a good base to explore the more popular cities of Siena (42km away) and Florence (110km away) to the north.
Wine is an important element of any visit to Tuscany with several iconic wines including Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino. The Etruscans started cultivating grapes in southern Tuscany many centuries ago with contemporary winemakers continually refining the technology to produce some of the world’s most acclaimed wines. Montalcino is famous for its Brunello di Montalcino red wine while in other parts of Tuscany, Chianti is king although both are made from the same grape variety of Sangiovese.
Montalcino is a great walking destination as it’s not too undulating and with steps in the steeper parts. Caution needs to be exercised while walking along the main thoroughfares as vehicles use the mostly one-way alleyways. Narrow cobblestone lanes dominate and the narrower pathways are pedestrian only. While maps are available of the town and its roads, Montalcino is a good place to wander with little chance of getting lost.
The 14th century fortress is the place to start exploring as it is located on the highest land in the town where it’s possible to view the various valleys below. There are several old churches within the walled town including the Duomo or cathedral near the main town plaza including a Friday market.Sant’ Antimo, just 5km from Montalcino, is another famous abbey where monks used to chant. However, they became a victim of their own success with tourists and the religious significance of the chanting became lost in translation with too many camera-bearing tourists and all that visitors can expect now is recorded chanting. However, the valley setting is very scenic making it well worth visiting.
Being an ancient walled town, space is limited and most of the accommodation in the town itself is in small hotels and bed and breakfast properties. Some of the district’s wineries also provide accommodation but this too is on a small scale.
In Montalcino, families should check into Residence Palazzo Saloni which is a quaint family-operated property with spacious rooms including some with self-catering facilities. Enjoy comfortable no-frills accommodation with an excellent buffet breakfast on the back terrace that affords panoramic views of the valley.
For grand estate living, stay on the Castello Banfi wine estate in the 18th century hamlet known as Il Borgo inside the stone walls and towers of the Castello. While wine lovers will be especially attracted to the estate, the accommodation has universal appeal. Luxurious accommodation is located either side of the sloping village street which is ideal for families and children to play. Beautiful residential hideaways have been sumptuously appointed by one of Italy’s leading interior designers to reflect Tuscan country style with all the comforts of a sophisticated house.
“THE TUSCANS HAVE THE FACULTY OF MAKING MUCH OF COMMON THINGS AND CONVERTING SMALL OCCASIONS INTO GREAT PLEASURES” – HENRY JAMES
Known in the 13th century as Poggio alle Mura, Castello Banfi is one of the most acclaimed winemakers in the region as well as producing a range of other agricultural products on the estate. These can all be sampled at the estate’s restaurants and purchased in its produce store where the locally-produced balsamic vinegar is not to be missed. While the wine cellar and restaurants are open year-round, its accommodation is only opened in 2017 from March 24 to November 12.
Probably the most exclusive address in this part of Tuscany is the Rosewood-managed Castiglion del Bosco which is basically a boutique resort in an 800 year old village that is part of a 2,000ha estate owned by Massimo and Chiara Ferragamo (of fashion house fame). The Borgo is a historic village that forms the heart of the estate which is also famous for producing wine. There are two restaurants and a cooking school but surprisingly, no Ferragamo boutique.
Golf is another great reason to stay here as hotel guests get a once in a lifetime opportunity to play on the exclusive 18-hole championship golf course. Designed by British Open winner Tom Weiskopf, the exclusive members’ only course, and there are only a handful of members in what is Italy’s only private course, allows hotel guests just two rounds of golf per annum regardless of how long they stay on the property.
Wining and Dining
Food and wine play a central role in a holiday to Tuscany with the main red wine focus being Brunello di Montalcino and Rosso di Montalcino. Serious wine lovers should visit the Consorzio Brunello di Montalcino offices in the centre of the town for details on over 200 of the finest wine producers in the region.
Ristorante Re di Macchia is located in the centre of Montalcino and serves dishes such as salad with roast rabbit, homemade ravioli with spinach and wild boar ragu and some of the biggest t-bone steaks in the region.
Another centrally located wine cellar and restaurant is Isadori do Montalcino where a light lunch of cold cuts and cheeses outside at the front of the restaurant is highly recommended.
Osteria di Porta al Cassero is an intimate, casual and popular restaurant in the town centre where risotto with porcini fungi and tripe stew with saffron are two signature dishes.
Trattoria Il Pozzo, 5km south of Montalcino in the village of Sant’ Angelo In Colle is another casual place to eat and ideal for children as there is plenty of space on the outside terrace. The ricotta ravioli here is highly recommended.
A fine dining experience not to miss is in the wine estate of Castello Banfi where regional cured meats, cheeses, olive oil, honey, artisanal pasta, and biscotti feature. For lunch, dine in La Taverna and for something more formal in the evening, Sala dei Grappoli is renowned for elegance and refinement plus award-winning estate wines.
Other wineries such as Caparzo, Fattoria dei Barbi, Col d’Orcia, and Bottega have restaurants attached to their cellar door.
Emirates (www.emirates.com) has daily flights from Singapore to Rome via Dubai with excellent connectivity and the opportunity to shop on the way back home.
Montalcino is a 2.5 hour drive from Rome Airport (200km) and a rental car is the best way to get around and see the sites of Tuscany. Alternatively, use the services of hire cars and vans with drivers. Bike hire is available within Montalcino although it’s possible to walk around the town.
Montalcino has comfortable small hotel accommodation with limited levels of service while intimate and luxurious boutique properties are available in the surrounding countryside. Check in to Castello Banfi Il Borgo (www.castellobanfiilborgo.com), Rosewood Castiglion del Bosco (www.castigliondelbosco.com), Residence Palazzo Saloni (www.palazzosaloni.it) or the centrally-located (on the plaza opposite the fort) Il Rifugio B&B (www.ilrifugiomontalcino.com).
© This article was first published in Aug-Sept 2017 edition of World Travel Magazine.
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