Everybody loves Tuscany. Sweet hills caressed by the golden light at sunset, fields covered with sunflowers, vineyards, little shops, Medieval towns with stone towers and ancient traditions, form a unique landscape, a heavenly world. Everything is green, golden brown and yellow. You can drive for miles up and down the hills, looking for secret villages and elegant “casali”, the typical Tuscan villas. And in the heart of Tuscany lies Siena, the lovely town on the hills build around the famous Piazza del Campo, known for the Palio, a horse race around the square.
A walk in the streets of Siena can take just a few hours, but beauty is everywhere you look. Every building tells a story, every church hides a painting of some famous Renaissance artist. I could write about all the things you should see in Siena – from Palazzo Piccolomini to Piazza Salimbeni, from the Baptistery to Santa Maria della Scala – and in the surrounding area, but you can read travel guides for that. Here you’ll find ten places you wouldn’t want to miss in and around Siena, ten cups of beauty for those who visit Tuscany.
PIAZZA DEL CAMPO, SIENA
Sit down and watch. Simply watch. People walk slowly, nobody seems to be in a hurry. They are relaxed. Everyone. Some might be eating ice cream, others might be bathing in the sun. You might see tourists climbing up the high tower (Torre del Mangia) to get a spectacular view, or sitting like you, breathing in the atmosphere of one of the most charming towns in Italy.
THE DUOMO OF SIENA
The Duomo, an imposing Gothic Cathedral with a stunning, black and white façade, is filled with treasures by Pisano, Donatello and Michelangelo as well as frescoes by Pinturicchio. If you get a chance to be there at sunset, you’ll see the marble decorations shine in the golden light.
Siena has its food traditions, too. Panforte is a cake traditionally made of dried fruits, almonds, spices and honey, whereas ricciarelli are cookies made with almond flour and covered with icing sugar, the origin of which dates back to the fifteenth century. You can taste them, along with a good cup of coffee, at Pasticceria Nannini. They serve the finest panforte and ricciarelli in town, and they are open from 7.30am to 11pm.
AROUND TUSCANY: SAN GIMIGNANO
UNESCO has declared it a World Heritage Site. In fact, San Gimignano, not far from Siena, is a place easy to love. The old town, enclosed with 13th century walls, develops around two piazzas. Piazza della Cisterna was once a marketplace. Piazza del Duomo, the political and religious heart of the city, is surrounded by the towers that belonged to the old merchants and aristocrats. Wander in the narrow lanes. Find beautiful sightseeing points, explore the small shops selling typical products. And relax in the panoramic garden where artists still come to paint. You’ll get an idea of what life could be in Tuscany. The temptation to stay is almost irresistible.
This temptation becomes even stronger when you continue your journey to Valdorcia, among lavender fields, olive trees, and quiet villages. Montalcino, famous for its wine, is actually a Medieval town filled with little things to discover. The “borgo” has not changed much since the 16th century. The narrow lanes lead to the main square, dominated by the high tower of Palazzo dei Priori. Take your time to walk in the Medieval streets, admire the landscape and stop to buy a jar of honey, especially strawberry tree honey, considered the best here.
Bagno Vignoni is different from all the others villages in Valdorcia. Instead of a main square, Bagno Vignoni has a pool, from the bottom of which bubble up a number of hot springs with renowned therapeutic quality. And – surprising enough – on the square there’s a charming little bookshop. It sells mostly art books, books on Tuscany and Valdorcia, cookbooks, but also classics and children’s books. Visitors can sit on the pistachio green armchairs of Librorcia and leaf through the volumes, learning more about art and history in Tuscany while having a cup of coffee and some delicious cookies.
SAN QUIRICO D’ORCIA
In the Middle Age there was a road connecting Canterbury and Rome, that passed through England, France, Switzerland and Italy. Its name was “via Francigena” and there were little towns along this road where travelers could rest, eat and pray before continuing their trip. San Quirico d’Orcia is one of these places. A village protected by walls, with cherry and peach trees in the well-kept gardens, the Horti Leonini, built in the sixteenth century. Time seems to go by slowly here, as if a fairy had cast a spell all over the place – the old houses, the narrow lanes the stone fountains and San Francesco Church with its gothic features.
In Val di Chiana, within easy reach from Valdorcia, lies Montepulciano. This small town is below the radar enough to keep all its charm. Its historic centre is intact and architecturally unified, with a big piazza surrounded by solemn Renaissance palazzos, the Gothic town hall and the brick façade of the Duomo. Its cafés and restaurants are quiet, welcoming, but almost hidden. While looking for the perfect café for a perfect day, I found Caffè Poliziano, an elegant example of Art Nouveau design with balconies, flowers in the main room, and a great view of Valdichiana. I simply loved it. Prices are a little high, but it’s worth having a cup of tea with a slice of plumcake.
When the sky is grey, the town fills with mystery and a certain gothic atmosphere. When it’s sunny, the panoramic terrace outside the church of San Francesco offers a view that stretches across vineyards, fields of corn and sunflowers and distant hills.
BORGO TRE ROSE
I didn’t expect to find it. We were driving up to Montepulciano, when I saw a line of cypresses leading to what looked like a castle. I was bewitched by the place, so we stopped and had a look. There was silence all around, except from the birds chirping and the leaves softly moving in the summer breeze. Had I just jumped into a fairytale? Yes, Borgo Tre Rose is a sort of fairytale place. It’s a Medieval village restored and transformed into a charming hotel, with a romantic atmosphere and Tuscan style rooms. If I should think of a place where to go and forget everything else, it would be this.
I saved Monteriggioni for last because this is a place that means a lot to me. Located on a top of a hill, the walled Medieval town has retained its ancient roots and picturesque lanes. First, it’s not easy to get there without a car. Then there’s a walk among lavender and rosemary bushes, leading to the main entrance. Then you reach the main square, Piazza Roma, surrounded by historical buildings. A museum is dedicated to the “via Franchigena”, since Monteriggioni was one of the places where travelers would stop and rest. And it still is. If you dream to escape the modern world, you don’t need to go to India, or climb the Everest. Spending the night in the beautiful Monteriggioni Hotel, waking up in a silent room, having breakfast with a view… well, it’s a good way to experience pure beauty.