Travel Diaries: Three days in Tuscany
For our one year wedding anniversary, I convinced my husband to take a 12-day trip to Italy. Tuscany was at the top of my bucket list so we decided to start the trip there. Because of our love of the famous Brunello wine (of Montalcino), and the amazing scenery of the Val D’Orcia, we decided to focus on what I consider “southern” Tuscany for this trip.
Checking in to our hotel: Poggio Piglia
After arriving at Rome airport on an overnight flight from New York City, we headed to Avis to pick up our rental car and set out toward our hotel, Poggio Piglia, located just outside Chiusi (about a two hour drive from Rome airport). The hotel, a restored farmhouse with just 9 rooms and a ground-floor restaurant, is set on a secluded vineyard estate. The grounds include a pool area, beautiful gardens (olive oil and wine are produced on-site) and a cozy outdoor deck and lounging area – which we took advantage of each night to watch the sunset over a bottle (or two) of wine. The hotel restaurant serves breakfast (included in your stay and quite delicious), as well as lunch and dinner if you let them know in advance (which we didn’t get a chance to try). The rooms were clean, spacious and air-conditioned. My favorite part about the hotel was the peaceful setting and amazing views. The only (minor) downsides were the level of service (neither 5-Star nor 24/7) and lack of attention from the hotel staff. The rooms didn’t have phones to call the front desk and the front desk attendant was away from her desk often. When we asked for restaurant recommendations, she pointed us to the brochures sitting in the lobby rather than offering personal advice. That being said, we thought the hotel was beautiful, offered great value (we booked it a few weeks in advance for about 235 euro per night) and the location was a perfect home-base for exploring all the small towns of southern Tuscany.
Lunch at Tuscany Divine
After checking in to our hotel, we were hungry and eager to explore so I began looking for a place to have lunch. I came across Tuscany Divine on Yelp: only a 5-minute drive from our hotel. While the name sounded kind of touristy, the reviews were amazing and I’m glad we tried it anyway. We sat in the courtyard and the owner was thrilled when we agreed to try the 5-course tasting lunch. The food was amazing: everything was fresh, locally-sourced and handmade on-site. After being served enough food to easily feed a family of five, we were pleasantly surprised that the bill was only 20 euro/pp. We also split a bottle of the house red wine (obviously) that was only an additional 4 euro (!).
Despite being tempted to give in to our jet-lag and head back to the hotel for some food-coma-fueled sleep, we headed to the town of Montepulciano – about a 25 minute drive. We parked at the bottom edge of town and began climbing the narrow streets to the center of town.
The town of Montepulciano was charming and surprisingly quiet. We felt like we had it to ourselves as we wandered down cobblestone roads and past ancient stone churches. The architecture was fascinating. Before heading back to our hotel, we stopped at a small café for an afternoon expresso and a few scoops of gelato (a must when in Italy!).
Our First Tuscan Sunset
Back at our hotel, we freshened up in our room and headed to the outdoor lounge area for our first Tuscan sunset. We ordered a bottle of wine from the restaurant server (and then another) and eventually a plate of cheese, meats & olive-oil-soaked bread, which ended up being our dinner that night as we were still full from lunch. Overall, a perfect first day in Tuscany.
Tasting Brunello in Montalcino
In order to fully immerse ourselves in the wine culture of the region (i.e. the wine-tasting opportunities), we decided to hire a private driver for our second day in Tuscany. Our driver Mario, a native of Montalcino who spoke great English, picked us up around 9am after a quick breakfast at our hotel. When we had initially contacted Mario he had offered to arrange a full day itinerary for us but since we already had a few spots in mind, he helped fill in the blanks instead. As we drove around in his Mercedes sedan (very comfortable and luxurious!), Mario gave us interesting background on the region and showed us his favorite local spots; He was the perfect private guide. The cost (for 8 hours or so) was about 400 euros but it was well worth it and I’m glad we splurged. (Contact: Mario Bovini, email@example.com, Mob: +393482824961)
Our first stop of the day was Castiglion del Bosco for a tour and tasting (arranged ahead of time via email for approx. 20 euro/pp). The massive estate was impressive: it included a 5-Star resort with its own golf course and private villas, all set on a hill on the edge of the town of Montalcino. According to our guide, the estate was purchased in 2003 by Massimo Ferragamo (yes, as in THE Ferragamo family) and underwent a huge renovation and expansion. Our tour guide brought us through the production area and cellar which was new and modern (i.e. commercialized) following by a private tasting. While we were doing the tasting, our driver Mario learned that a former U.S. President (Obama!) was on-site playing golf during his family vacation.
Next we headed into the town of Montalcino where Mario showed us his favorite viewing spot. We had a few minutes to explore before heading to our next winery visit: La Fornace (which Mario had arranged). This winery was the opposite of the first in every way except that they both had great wine. La Fornace was small and family-run. We were immediately greeted by the family dog (which may have been the highlight of the day for my husband Will) and the owner gave us a quick tour and answered our questions in a heavy Italian accent. Before sitting down for a tasting, we met the cutest Italian grandmother. Though she spoke no English, she quickly convinced us (i.e. didn’t take no for an answer) to take a full bag of freshly hand-picked cherries from their own cherry trees. To say we were thankful for Mario’s introduction to this special place would be an understatement.
Lunch in Montechiello
Next we headed toward the sleepy town of Monticchiello for a late lunch. A friend had strongly recommended Osteria La Porta and so we had made a reservation well in advance and requested a table outside (the views are as amazing as the food). The restaurant seemed to be the most bustling part of this small town with its crowded patio full of both locals and tourists. After a long lunch we walked around the winding narrow roads and up the hill through town to soak up some views before Mario arrived to pick us up.
The Val D’Orcia (and the house from Gladiator!)
At this point, we were exhausted (and a little tipsy) and decided against another winery visit. Mario suggested a quick drive through the town of Pienza, which he described as a “city for lovers”, followed by two additional stops: First, atop a hill with the most quintessential backdrop: a winding road amidst the beautiful Val d’Orcia of Tuscany; And second, outside the famous Tuscan estate from the movie Gladiator (which my husband appreciated). We took advantage of these photo ops before heading back to our hotel.
Back at Poggio Piglia, we spent an hour or two relaxing by the hotel pool, which we had to ourselves. We considered having dinner on-site but opted to return to Tuscany Divine, which was just as good as the first time.
Visiting Fonteverde Spa
For our last full day in Tuscany, we planned a visit to Fonteverde Resort & Spa in San Casciano dei Bagni (about a 40-minute drive from our hotel). We had made an appointment in the morning for a couples massage (95 euro/pp for a 50-min deep tissue massage) and planned on staying to enjoy the spa’s thermal pools and “circuits” following our massages. Despite the great reviews of this place, we found that the staff were rude and the massages were nothing special. After a quick self-tour of the spa following our massages, we were unimpressed and so we decided against paying the hefty 78 euro/pp extra for the ‘daily pass’ to use the thermal pools (the pass was included in some packages but not if you wanted a deep tissue massage, which was strange). I would not recommend this spa while in Tuscany. If anyone has a different spa recommendation, please let me know.
San Casciano dei Bagni
After leaving Fonteverde, we stopped in the town of San Casciano dei Bagni briefly and explored the small, quiet town. We saw only a few local Italians in the streets, and watched an Italian grandmother hang her laundry to dry while a few small children played by her feet in their backyard. While there was not much going on in this town we found it to be peaceful and charming in its authenticity.
Cheese-Tasting & Lunch in Pienza
After our too-short visit to Pienza the previous day, we decided to return to explore. Pienza is famous for its production of Pecorino (i.e. mild sheep’s milk cheese) and the streets of town are lined with shops selling various types of Pecorino. The cheese is inexpensive (we bought a small block for a few euros) and the shop owners were happy to let us taste the cheese before we bought it (there are so many to choose from!).
After wandering around the town a bit, we settled on a late lunch at Pizzeria Pummaro, which had a cute and shaded outdoor patio. We ordered a calzone (which was huge) and a pizza to share – both were delicious. Before leaving Pienza, we made sure to buy cheese and meats for a picnic we planned on having later that evening.
On the way back to the hotel, we decided to stop at another winery I had read about: Salcheto. The road to the winery was winding and bumpy and we almost turned around but I’m glad we didn’t. The view of Montepulciano from their outdoor terrace was worth the trip. We did a quick tasting after admiring the views and purchased a bottle of wine to bring back with us to the hotel.
Dinner at I Salotti
For our final night in Tuscany, and to celebrate our one-year wedding anniversary, we decided to eat at I Salotti, a Michelin starred restaurant in the breathtaking Villa Il Patriarca in Chiusi, about 5 minutes from our hotel. The inside dining room was divided into several smaller rooms; We shared our room with only one other couple. There were several waiters attending to us at any given time offering us wine pairings and tasting options galore. The room was so quiet that we felt obligated to whisper to each other at first, but luckily we loosened up a little bit after a glass of champagne. We ordered one of our favorite wines (Tignanello 2010) and ordered several dishes To share instead of doing the tasting. To be honest, the restaurant was a little too formal for us so I am not sure we will be back. But if you are a real foodie and undeterred by the price tag, it is worth a visit. The food was beautifully presented and delicious (albeit small portions). We headed back to the hotel to get a good night sleep before heading to Rome in the morning (Our Rome Itinerary will be featured in another post – coming soon!).