It was time to leave Sicily, vey reluctantly. Feeling more confident on the roads than when we arrived, we took the the little Panda car to the autostrada, heading back to the huge port city of Messina. When we returned the car safely, I could see relief written all over Peter’s face: a month of challenging driving in Sicily and no scratches or bingles caused by us or any of the mad drivers we saw. A miracle.
The rental car office was happy to mind our luggage, so we had a long day to fill in waiting for the night train, but we were at least unencumbered. Messina, however, is a huge port (with a row of cruise ships in dock) and I didn’t have energy in the heat to go too far, so we did what all good travellers do to fill in time- settle in at KFC for chicken and salad, and then Maccers for coffee and tiramisu. Food, coffee, toilets and wifi all helped to pass the day. In KFC we shared a table with two young men from Uzbekistan who are studying in Messina. They had perfect English and were very assured as we chatted. Both supported by their parents, clearly the new middle class.
Two things of note about MacDonalds: it was modern, clean and had service to the table, and, we were the oldest people there by a couple of decades!
We still had time to kill at the station for our 10.10pm train, but started to see and hear information that it was running an hour late. It was immediately clear that we would miss our connection in Rome to Florence the next morning and the trip was all downhill from there. For starters, we discovered that the toilets at the station were locked up at 10pm! We were relieved in every way when the train finally arrived.
Another rollicking night in our supposedly luxury cabin, and we arrived at the dreaded and most dangerous Rome Termini station. We had taken security precautions and had cash and cards stashed away in all sorts of places on our bodies, but nothing prepared us for the mayhem and crush of thousands of people milling there. We had hoped to make a quick transfer to minimise our vulnerability, but now we had to delay and exchange our tickets.
Why was everyone at the station trying to buy new tickets? Because apparently there had been a 4.2 earthquake in Naples and the whole rail system was down. Hours and queues moving glacially and Nutella croissants later, we waited for the platform number to come up for our new train. What happened after that varies according to which of us tells the story, but basically we lost each other completely in the milling throngs. Peter threw our luggage in the train, found me, dragged me down the platform and we sank into our seats thinking we had just made the train to Florence.
That was when I looked at the digital readout and realised that we were going the wrong way and back to Naples – from where we had just come… Bad travel moment. Nothing to do but enjoy the ride there and back, which we did for the rest of the day with more new tickets, managing to pick up our new car (an upgrade) in Florence with a few minutes left to our deadline.
We did not plan to be driving in the dark, but the sun set over Tuscany and the moon rose as we drove and finally found our isolated farm stay on an unmade, steep gravel road in the dark. Like children on Christmas morning, we woke the next day and threw open the shutters of our lovely apartment to a sunrise that made us gasp. With perfect weather thrown in every day, glowing sunsets and a super moon, we could just sit and gaze forever. We had two whole weeks to enjoy this paradise.
Mara, our host, was wonderful and much of the food she provided for us was homemade – jams, juices, bread, biscuits, yoghurt. Once again, Peter did a sketch of her (and her daughter) as a gift and she was pleased. We had many chats with her (her English was excellent, so that didn’t help our Italian) and nothing was too much trouble.
The apartment was one of three in a converted stable, and our upstairs one (seventeen marble steps) afforded the best views.
After a day to recover and do some loads of much needed laundry (I can’t tell you how delicious it is to put on clothes that are all clean) we started on our wish list of outings. We do our research at home and have a shortlist of destinations, and activities ready to choose from according to inclination and weather. The Val D’Orcia is rich with choices.
The only town we could see across the valley from our place was Montalcino on the nearby hill, so that was the first visit. The roads were so much gentler than in Sicily, but parking was still challenging in all hilltop towns. Montalcino is small and easier to get around, although the first ascent was very steep for me. It has a simple duomo and other churches, bells and towers, and some lovely shady gardens with stunning and long views across the stereotypical rolling Tuscan hills.
Unlike Sicily, which was rather brown and barren after their unprecedented heatwave), there are green fields and woods here, vineyards just about to turn and everywhere, the grey/green/silver of the olive trees. I guess they are olive green! And then the vertical counterpoint of iconic rows of pencil pines defining fields, driveways and properties. Many fields have been harvested, ploughed and are ready to plant when the rain starts. There seem to be very few animals. Our farm has olives, vines and fruit trees.
We found a museum of sacred art in Montalcino, with some amazing pieces from the 13th century onwards. I have now added to my art knowledge that the 14th century Siena art style usually had gold backgrounds and stylised figures. I am always drawn to sculpture and there were some well preserved carved crucifixes where the face of Jesus was very evocative.
Mara provided a home cooked Tuscan dinner for us that night – hand-rolled pasta with home made tomato sauce, Tuscan sausages, more fried potatoes than we could eat and chocolate mousse for dessert. Generous and tasty.
Sunrise, sunset – all spectacular in any direction. We unwound as the days merged in a blur of vistas and Peter did some paintings.
It would be tempting to think that all hill towns in the D’Orcia valley are similar, but we never became tired of them. Each has its own ambience and specialties.
San Quirico is small and accessible, contained by its ancient wall. We arrived in the late afternoon, did the usual wander and exploration, then found a spot to watch the sun set across the valley. A delightful outing somewhat spoilt by a parking fine for overstaying and then getting totally lost in the dark due to highway closures. Thank goodness for Google offline maps! In the end we were driving down narrow, unmade back roads that were signed as the ancient pilgrim way, the Francigena.
Bagno Vignoni is an even tinier village which is the site of warm mineral springs that have been running for hundreds of years. Still on the old pilgrim trail, it was a refreshing stop for weary travellers. So we did what they did and soaked our feet in the healing mineral water running in channels. That was a free actitivity, but one hotel had a swimming pool which we could have used for about $70!
A particularly delicious ice cream sundae and tiramisu were a great counterpoint to our cheese and Vegemite sandwiches. Italians would think their cheese had been desecrated! The day was a special anniversary that we remember each year – 52 years since we fell in love. I know, that’s mushy, but it was a great place to celebrate.
Next was Penzia, recommended by many. Charming, parking available for a price, not so steep and the views we never tired of. We went into the cathedral after a wedding finished there and saw soaring columns like we have not seen before. A little souvenir shopping and ravioli for an early lunch – perfect. We were starting to take in our stride the extra charges in every eating place for bread and service. Everywhere was the pervasive smell of pecorino, their local cheese made from sheep’s milk. And we joined the couples were lining up for a photo under the famous street sign ‘Via dell’Amore’ with amazing views.
Amusingly juxtaposed was the laundry hanging out the window, complete with underwear, right above the head of some fashionable wine-drinking ladies sitting below. Why not?
Torrenieri was the closest town to us, and conveniently had a Coop supermarket (with parking, hallelujah) for options to cook our own dinners. One whole aisle was stocked with alcohol, and in the freezer section there was a whole, frozen octopus. We popped into Torrenieri a few times, knocking off jobs like a haircut, paying the parking fine and sending postcards to the grandkids. Peter, ever bold, managed to barter a portrait of the hairdresser for the price of the haircut! We could get there without a map in the end and enjoyed feeling like locals. We had to remember that everything shut between one and four in the afternoons.
Montepulciano is very popular, so we made an early start, determined to find parking – preferably legal. Paying the fine had made us determined not to waste money on parking mistakes. We triumphantly slid into a car space in the best area, and then set off to explore. We had beaten those pesky tourists! 😂
The road through the centre of the ancient town is more than two kilometres long, and relentlessly uphill, but I made it up. The town is rich in artisan products, like mosaics, art, charcuterie, olive oil, cheese, Tuscan leather goods (I may have succumbed finally to a handbag in my favourite colour and Peter replaced his ageing wallet), scarves, hats, linen weaving, wooden toys and lots more. And everywhere the enoteca, wine shops, promising to ship expensive wines worldwide.
It was a rich and enjoyable visit, with the regular morning tea stop for fruit tarts and drinks, punctuated with old and older churches. Hill towns have hidden views- from the main street one has to venture either up or down steep lanes off to the side to get to the edges of town where the vistas hide and reveal themselves suddenly. Grandeur through the stone slits at every turn. I always think of it as God’s creation seen through man’s creativity.
One highlight was a wonderful exhibition of glass paintings of local scenes, done by an artist of international repute. We couldn’t afford to buy one, but I have commissioned Peter to do his own versions when we get home. Stunning, vibrant and bold pieces around Tuscan iconic scenery., with some homage to Kandinsky.
I wished I could have used a scooter for the long downhill walk back – at least it uses different muscles! Just one more stop on this trip, the spectacular San Biagio tempio (the word used to indicate a church built in Greek style) outside the town. Built on the site of a supposed miracle in the 16th century, it is the shape of a Greek cross and has a pleasing sense of worship in the round.
it was a wonderful building, but the surprise inside was the exhibition of icon paintings by Marta Perugini of Siena, who was there to tell us about her 26 years of experience in this specialised art, which uses gouache gilding. Truly stunning work using 24 carat gold leaf and long hours of work; she combines iconography with Tuscan primitive style. Her semi-precious pigments are mixed with white wine and egg yolk. Peter was able to chat with Google translate and that was a special touch at the end of our big day. I am so glad we went to Montepulciano.