The car we used for this road trip around Tuscany was our MINI JCW Coupé. He performed in sterling fashion and the Italians loved him. The owner of the castle where we stayed loved him and when we pulled up in roadside lay-bys for a drink at a roadside café they would admire him too. It added to the fun.
The castle at San Fabiano had a feeling of peace. Our hosts Beatrice and Andrea were simply lovely, so again we had no urge to dash off too soon. We made it down for breakfast at a quarter to ten and bumped into Andrea as we went down. He asked what our plans were for today so I explained that as we had explored north of the castle at San Fabiano yesterday, today we wanted to explore south and try to find the traditional Tuscan landscapes that you see on postcards. Andrea nodded gleefully and said he would prepare us a map while we had breakfast. He had a boyish excitement about him as he disappeared to do this, which was really endearing.
After breakfast he presented his map and explained a few things and then we were on our way. We drove first to Asciano taking some photos along the way of a landscape which was exactly what we hoped to find. From there we went to Chisure. The road to this was nothing more than a dirt track, the village then was small so we carried on heading for Pienza but not before we did another 4 kilometres along s dirt track. It was however a dirt track that traversed some idyllic Tuscan countryside. Be assured then, the Tuscany of the postcards is real!
Our first proper stop was Pienza where we had lunch. This was a beautiful little town with not many tourists about but we needed lunch before we explored. We spotted a cafe serving Taglieri, which literally translates to “cutting board” but meaning a tray of meats, cheese and bread to share, served on said cutting board! Simple but enjoyable. We washed this down with some lemonsoda and then explored the town.
We were intrigued by some large busts, such as the one in the first picture. Then we stumbled upon this one below.
A small hotel displayed a sign inviting you to explore their gardens for free. We stepped in walking through the beautiful courtyard above. Photographs were on display on the walls depicting the Tuscan landscapes. They were very good and I realised sadly that our photographs taken on our Fuji cameras will not match up to these. Still once home we will edit them and post up what we have.
The hotel gardens were very pretty and they served lunch in a very appealing setting and this doubtless was what they hoped you would do. However, the big meal we had the evening before meant we only wanted the light meal we had already enjoyed.
We wandered further about the small town. These days with the power of the Internet and television, you can explore the world from your armchair, never leave home. However, I feel that travel and exploring for yourself can’t be beaten. You taste the food of the region, you smell the fragrances of the flowers, you feel the wind. So… Walking down a narrow street our noses were suddenly overpowered by an incredibly strong smell of cheese.
What a fantastic little shop. Back home where we live in Malvern, we shop in Solihull, or Cheltenham or Worcester but the high streets are all full of the same chain shops. Independent shops are hard to seek out and for us Malvern probably does best for this. In Tuscany there are plenty of small shops to explore.
By now we had visited quite a few towns in Tuscany and I was struck by the quiet air of prosperity they all had. They were all very tidy – chocolate box photo tidy- they reminded me of San Marino which we visited two years ago. The graffiti you see in the bigger places such as Rome or Venice wasn’t there. Not all of Italy is like this, but Tuscany really is a beautiful landscape dotted by very attractive towns.
As the day wore on I was aware that I had been feeling increasingly queasy and by 7pm was really feeling quite ill. I think the heavy steak and wine the previous night were more than my body could take. I was feeling very sick indeed. Sadly shortly after Andrea started his story I had to retire to our room where I spent the rest of the evening, enjoying an intimate relationship with the toilet. We had also planned to have a meal on the first floor terrace on our last night there, so poor P had to eat her meal alone except for about ten minutes when she came and coaxed me out to join her. I sat with her while she enjoyed a mouth watering fresh fruit dessert. It was so beautiful up there in the warm evening air with just the stars and a full moon for company. It was very emotional, a tear escaped my eye, a moment of self pity as I cursed the cancer I fight, that had prevented me sharing this special moment with the lady I love.
I shall not dwell on it but the night got worse for me. Fortunately I managed not to disturb Peanut too much through the night so at least she was fit and well for our next day’s journeying to Venice.
It had been a lovely day, a special day, a day of memory making and I was glad I did enjoy the terrace with P as she finished her meal. Tomorrow is another day, another adventure and another set of smiles.
Breakfast was served on the terrace on the first floor. This was on the side of the castle and gave wonderful views of the surrounding Tuscan countryside. Two large awnings hung off the castle to provide welcome shade and simple bistro sets made up the tables with soft cushions on the seat. A simple heavenly oasis was created and breakfast promised to be a lazy pleasure. To access the terrace we had walked through a large room where centre stage was a large table atopped with most of the buffet breakfast. A large food cover of lace covered the hams and cheese. It was so pretty that it deserved a better word than “food cover”. In the garden it might be called a cloche. I kept thinking this cover needed such a word.
Beatrice appeared and explained the breakfast in detail. She pointed out the home made cake with jam from the castle, and the jams made at the castle, that you could buy pots of to take home. Three types of meat, from the breast, the belly and the thigh and a simple cheese cut into the finest slivers you could imagine. On a side table were four jugs of different fruit juices. Each jug had a simple cotton cover sitting on top. Such little details caused me such delight. The bread was a dark brown colour made at the castle from seven cereals and again wrapped in a cotton napkin that you unfolded to access the bread.
Once at our table a waitress that the castle employed appeared to take our tea and coffee order. She had a simple uniform on that seemed so apt for the setting we were in. We had stepped back in time to a past age the twenties or thirties perhaps where all the characters in an Agatha Christie movie were appearing for breakfast in a big country house. Breakfast then simply put was a wonderful way to start the day.
As we walked out along a corridor we saw some pictures on a side table close to the castle office. Beatrice our host was passing and stopped to explain them. This is my Mother in Law and her friend skiing with Ernest Hemingway when she was very young. And this is my Father in Law with your Queen. In this picture though she is but a beautiful Princess. The Queen loved Italy and came often as a young Princess. Our hosts clearly knew people.
We talked more with Beatrice and she offered to help us plan our day. We stepped into the castle office. An electrician was on site hanging lights in the garden for a wedding next weekend and the power had tripped. Beatrice powered up the Mac. I looked around the office. It was real, a working place. To the left of the door an old wooden coat stand, hung with an eclectic mix of hats. A Panama caught my eye. At the foot of the stand green welling tons stood, splashed with mud. On the wall to the left of the desk we sat in front of hung an old map and on my right a tall bookcase full of books and maps in a haphazard fashion and clearly used regularly.
Beatrice went to great trouble to help us and then her husband Andrea appeared. He had been cleaning the pool. A very heavy storm a few nights before we arrived had wreaked havoc at the castle. The rainwater in the pool had pushed the salt and cleaning agents to the bottom of the pool, turning it green. Normally the pool is a 45 minute clean but today he had worked on the pool for two hours in the morning Tuscan sun. He stood before us in a check shirt drenched in sweat on his back and chest. One black protective glove on his left hand.
Andrea too wanted to help with our day and he quickly added polish to the plan Beatrice had sketched for us. He loved our car – SilverBeast our JCW MINI – and Beatrice had explained to him that we had driven straight from St Tropez to Siena and this seemed to impress him greatly. He identified us as keen drivers and refined our day to include some great driving roads. This couple had a huge castle to run. Jobs would queuing for their attention. Yet here they were both keen to ensure we had a great day and full of help. Staying at Castello San Fabiano is not like staying in a hotel. You are driving down to the country to stay with old friends. It’s that special.
We packed our cars and got our day underway. First stop was San Gimignano, which Beatrice felt was a bit touristy. I remember Bryan Ferry playing through the HiFi. It was Back to Black his jazz version of the Amy Whinehouse hit. To me it was the right sort of cool for the drive we were doing.
San Gimignano proved to be as touristy as Beatrice had said! The car parks were full and after two laps of the walled town, which included a few miles on dirt tracks, we gave up. By then though we had seen too many coaches, cars and people and really didn’t mind giving it a miss. On the plus side the scenery and roads on the way there had been fantastic.
We headed to our next stop Volterra famous for its alabaster. Diana Krall’s version of Besame Mucho played in the car and I felt that the shuffle on my music sensed where we were and the landscape we were driving through and was selecting the perfect tracks. We had no parking issues at Volterra and exhilarated after another great drive with sport mode engaged all the way we walked through a huge gated entrance into the town.
This place had a touristy feel but nonetheless felt real. We had a light and frankly indifferent lunch of toasted ham and cheese in the main square and then had a walk round. We thought we might like an alabaster souvenir and explored a few shops, but while their were some beautiful works to be seen, we saw nothing that we thought we could take home and enjoy.
We passed a paper shop and I loved the array of magazines they had hung on the wall outside the shop. A wall of colour that to me created a work of art fit to be compared with Jackson Pollock’s finest!
From Volterra we were headed to Monteriggioni, a medieval walled town built between 1214 and 1219. The town is referenced in Dante’s Divine Comedy. It is one of the most beautiful and intact walled towns in Tuscany and we were looking forward to exploring the town and having dinner in a restaurant that Andrea had recommended. The town promised so much, a perfect medieval setting and with the heat beating down on the hot landscape blurring the distant hills, Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez seemed not out of place on the HiFi. This music evokes the perfect image of Spain like nothing else. A classical guitar comes face to face with a full orchestra in this piece and as if representing and fighting for the heritage of Spain, the guitar refuses to be overwhelmed by the orchestra. To listen to this piece and be immersed by this music is to cry with emotion as it draws so much from your soul as it washes over you.
Andreas had suggested we go via Poggibonsi and Castellina in Chianti as this would avoid the motorways and give us a much better drive. He was only right and the scenery was stunning emphasised by the music we were playing.
We stopped in Castellini in Chianti for an ice cream. This was a beautiful town and we loved meandering through its streets. An English wedding was taking place and it amused me to see my fellow English men dressed in their finest tight fitting suits with a nod to the continentals as much linen was sported. The suave Italians must have loved the spectacle and I felt sad to see just how bad us Brits (myself included) are at following fashion but always at the expense of style.
I was pondering this while sitting on a bench outside a Gellateria enjoying my caramel and tiramisu ice cream. This was by the way as fine an ice cream as I have ever tasted. After demolishing it I felt compelled to go back into the shop and tell the young, rather attractive girl behind the counter just that! In my mind this girl wanted me, but then in my mind I am also James Bond, so we cannot hold too much store by that.
Back on the road seeking our walled town and dinner we once more went through some beautiful scenery on great driving roads. The eagerness of the engine on the Coupe was irresistible and from time to time I was compelled to open the throttle to be rewarded by a glorious cacophony of pops and bangs from the exhaust once I let off the throttle again. To my ears this was music on a par with all that had gone before on the car’s stereo! Roads like this were what this car was made for.
We reached Monteriggioni just after 6. It was indeed the stuff of computer games. The perfect walled town referenced in The Assassin’s Creed series of computer games. Fairy tale stuff. We explored its walled boundary and the small shops selling expensive Chianti and then sat at a cafe drinking lemon soda watching the people pass by. Rested we crossed Piazza Roma its main square to the restaurant there, Restorante il Pozzo which Andreas had recommended. I had a beef fillet and Peanut had pork steak with porcini mushrooms. We shared spinach and small cubed roast potatoes. It was delicious. I washed my steak down with a glass of Borghera, which meant that Peanut copped for the drive home in the dark.