I didn’t feel like a walk the next day – which should have been my trigger to take one, but them’s the breaks. In fairness to me I didn’t want to tire myself out, as I knew I’d be driving to Montepulciano. It’s about an hour and three-quarters, but only a smaller portion of it would be on unfamiliar road. Still, I had two more people in the car I had to keep safe, so it adds to the pressure a little bit. We got in the car and fired up Mrs. Google. I prefer Google Maps to on-board GPS, as Google has a far better chance of being up-to-date, plus we know she does a bang-up job of keeping us out of ZTLs (Zona Traffico Limitato). We’ve never been fined whilst using our phones to navigate.
I was hoping the latter part of our drive would take us through the Crete Senesi, or maybe even part of the Val d’Orcia, but sadly this wasn’t the case. We had chosen to go on the highways, as to take the purely country route would have taken us at least 30 minutes more – no thanks! The result was that about half the journey was on dull, multi-lane roads. Still, these are first-world problems when you have a chance to spend some more time in a new (new to us) hilltown in Tuscany. The last 20 or so kilometers was by country route, but wasn’t terribly interesting until you began to see Montepulciano in the distance. In any event, I didn’t take photos of the journey, because I was driving. The only issue I had with driving was with a seriously stubborn 3rd gear… until we got to the very end of the journey.
The carpark. It was full. Literally. There was a market where my GPS target lay. Slightly panicked, I had to backtrack a little and follow the ‘P’ signs to another free carpark somewhat below the one I had chosen. This was handy – I didn’t see this carpark on Google (most likely my fault, not Google’s). It was a short climb back up to the market.
I can’t remember if Niamh’s sister bought anything (she’s a foodie and chef), but we wandered about at least. It looked like it was beginning to shut down, though. It was still busy with people buzzing about both here and the nearby bus station. This must have been where all the people were, because the town itself was very quiet!
We went past the bus station and spotted stairs leading up to the walls. There was a lift beside those stairs. A bundle of cigarette-smoking mid-teen girls sat on the first flight of steps, and informed us that the lift was broken. I find myself a little untrusting, but trudge upstairs nonetheless. When we reach the top and enter a park (Giardino di Poggiofanti), in which lies the top ‘floor’ of the elevator. I push the button, and am immediately remorseful as there is no electric whirring of the gears and pullies. The button doesn’t light up. Next time give the younger folks a little more credit, dude.
We walked past some lovely views of the surrounding countryside (photos later), and entered the old town via Porta al Prato. I know some people say that the hilltowns are very ‘samey’ and while I totally get why they say that, the need to look more beyond the superficial, past the bricks and flagstones on the road. Take a look into the shops, look at the local produce they’re selling. Often, the foods can be different, the stones of different hues, the surnames just that little bit more regional. Italy is so incredibly segmented that even a 30 minute jaunt in a car can find you looking at dishes you haven’t seen before, new histories and art to discover. It’s what makes Italy such a dream to explore. So, yes – hilltowns can look the same – but please inspect and observe, rather than just cast your eyes briefly from one pretty thing to the next.
Anyway, rant over. We were soon to also discover that we were at the lowest end of the old-town and had a heck of an uphill journey to reach the main square (Piazza Grande), where the Christmas market stalls were. I did at least take some pics on the way, but I will still filming a lot too.
All the while, I was looking for an open gelateria, but no joy.
About 15 minutes or so later, our epic uphill struggle was at an end! We heard the unmistakable tingling of Christmas music. We scouted the stalls briefly, as we were hungry.
In the square iteself we only found one team selling wurst. There were very few people about browsing, which was a little disappointing, but it was lunchtime on a Thursday.
The ladies were looking for a sitdown lunch, but Niamh’s brother-in-law and preferred I a dirty wurst! Ultimately, we settled on something of a compromise. We saw a sign for an open-air foodcourt and headed towards the Fortezza Medicea, but swung a left just at the gates which promised no ends of adventure in Santa Land. The food stalls had annexed another one of the carparks. The teams were lined around the edges, with partly-covered open-air bench-seating placed in the middle. We scouted around, and 3 of us were too tempted by a BBQ burger stall, while Niamh’s sister went for the fritto misto of fish and veg. Wine was had by three of us, the fourth would be driving.
Once we had our faces fed, we moved back to the square, with a couple of brief stops:
- A little walk around the garden of the Fortezza Medicea – and no, we didn’t either check out the wine seller’s there, nor pay the fee to go to Santa Land!
- We stopped at a stall where the ladies indulged themselves with cups of fabulously gloopy (and tasty) hot chocolate. I had a quick taste of Niamhs; it was delicious. But I still had gelato in mind.
I raced to the Laboratorio del Cioccolato, as I’d heard they also sell gelato there, but sadly a lady was literally locking up as I approached the entrance. It was time for her riposo, I guess. Oh well. I sulkily trudged back to the square. (It turns out they seem to only sell ice-pops/ice-lollies/popsicles anyway, so I didn’t really miss out.) There were a few more people wandering about than before, which was nice to see. The first stall I saw there was selling chocolate truffles. I was given a sample of a pistacchio one (samples!), and to compensate for the gelato absence I bought eight of those, and four each of milk chocolate and white chocolate. They were big truffles! And tasty too.
Niamh was looking for me in the main square, as she wanted me to sample(!) some cheese at one of the stalls there. We ended up getting a chunks of parmigiano, and a sort of grana padano from Sardinia. Both of these went back to Ireland with us. You can get parmigiano reggiano at a pinch in Irish supermarkets, but the quality isn’t the same as is in Italy. The good stuff doesn’t make it beyond the border, unless you wish to scour the countryside looking for specialist cheese shops.
Remembering we had failing light and lengthy journey home ahead of us, we decided to go back to car. We hadn’t really gotten out of the piazza proper, before we saw the cellars of Cantina Contucci were open to outside visits. We had our temperatures taken, and scrubbed our hands, and dived in.
At the end of the self-guided tour, the inevitable selling occurred, but once again successful due to us having a couple of samples. I bought a Rosso di Montepulciano, and discovered that that there are a bundle of names for the sangiovese grape variety. When people say that there are 1,000 varieties of grape in Italy, do they take these synonyms into account, I wonder? Niamh’s sister bought both a red and a white, but I don’t remember the variety I’m afraid. Once done we wandered back (downhill at least!) to get to the car.
I was still looking for a gelateria, but still had no luck, and sadly let the grumps get the better of me for a short while. The ladies stopped in a fancy haberdashery/accessory store (down on Google maps as ‘af luxury‘) for 20 or so minutes. I headed down on my own to see if there was a gelateria (nope), and to get some cash out (Bancomat out of order). My mood sadly detiorated while we waited for the ladies to be done. They seemed happy – which ultimately is the most important thing!
Once outside the town we entered a bar which proclaimed itself to be a gelateria, but left when we saw it’s just pre-packaged factory-made stuff. On a dime, I ashamedly told myself to cop on, and by the time we reached the car, I was back to being my contented self!
Below is the video of our trip!
The car journey home was a little stress-inducing – it got rainy and foggy, and when you’re unfamiliar with the road you find yourself tensing up, but thankfully it only was dark for us during the last quarter of the trip when we could see Volterra cresting on its butte. Niamh’s brother-in-law doesn’t seem to have been too stressed – he even noticed the headlight feature in the car where the lights light up the direction you’re aiming on corners, bends etc.
We were turning onto the road on which our resident’s carpark lies, when I did something unfortunate. I sneezed. I’ve been told I’m a loud sneezer sometimes (like a cross between a shout and a cough), and our unfortunate driver jumped when one leapt out of me. He didn’t know if I was shouting a warning or if he’d just run over something. Niamh was in tears laughing. I guess he was a little tense after all!
We rested back at the apartment for a few hours, before heading out to L’Incontro for an aperitivo – thankfully a table was found at the back for us. Some minor nibbles of bread a chips/crisps were had. Sometimes they do cooked nibbles, but not today. Probably just as well, as we were going to splash out on a dinner in Del Duca!
We arrived, and were greeted warmly by the matriarch of the family, Ivana – especially after we gave them a little present of Bailey’s truffles! If I recall correctly Claudia, the daughter and wine-making somilier, was out with friends that evening (she texted us to thank us for the chocolates the next day).
We ate well at Del Duca (what else is new?!). Niamh’s sister was so enamoured of the artichoke pasta dish she had, that we had to ask for the recipe. We got it a few weeks later, and it was pretty detailed! Alessandro not only covered the artichoke preparation, but covered the sauce and pasta-making too – what a gent! To say nothing of Claudia, who translated it for us. They really went out of their way to make us feel special. I got permission to post it, so I’ll post it separately for you.
Our poor guests had to put up me taking the obligatory photos!
We did something then I don’t think I had ever done before: a cheeseboard after dessert. It was mostly varieties of pecorino in varying stages of maturity. All of it so lovely.
Afterwards, some of us had their homemade limoncello. It is thick and tasty, and also the most uncommonly strong limoncello I’ve ever had, but I’d had it before and enjoyed it! Once done, we were just fit for our walk back, screen-watching and finally our bed.
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