Hot! Hot! Hot!
8/19/12 - 8/20/12 104 °F
After leaving Florence, we headed to the hills of Tuscany. We debated which towns we should see and how many: Sienna, San Gimagnano, Volterra, Montelcino, Montepulciano, Cortona, or even on into Umbria with cities like Orvieto or Assissi? Too much to see and too little time. We decided that we had been on the go and tried to squeeze so much into so little time, that we would pick just one quintessential Tuscan hill town. It had to have vineyards and wineries and a hotel with a pool. The town of Montelcino fit the bill perfectly. The home to the famous wine: Brunello de Montelcino, it is surrounded by vineyards and situated neatly within old city walls atop a Tuscan hill.
On our way there, we drove on little two lane roads up and down the hills of Tuscany. I had always pictured these hills as covered with green and lush farmland dotted with farm houses and villas punctuated with tall cypress(?) trees, but it was the middle of August, a blistering 104 F, and they hadn't had rain there since March. The once proudly waving fields of hay had recently been harvested, leaving little more than golden nubs. And the patchwork fields had recently been tilled, leaving clods of taupe colored dirt. "Under the Tuscan Sun" took on new meaning as we surveyed the cracked, sun-baked earth. Still, the hills did have a certain beauty to them, even in their late summer livery of gold and taupe. We could easily imagine how vibrant this area must look in spring, when things are growing and blooming. As we continued further south, vineyards started to appear, and more trees, giving the hills a much greener look. And, of course, the typical tall, skinny trees lined the long driveways to the farmhouses and hilltop villas.
Approaching Montelcino, the vineyards started in earnest, with almost every hill covered in vines, until the little town appeared on top of a hill ensconced within its surrounding town walls. After parking, we walked down into the town, and found it to be a ghost town. After the hordes in Florence, it was a bit of a shock to find nobody about. It took us a little while to find the town center square, where we did encounter some people, but it was still eerily, but nicely, quiet. The pool at the hotel was wonderfully chilly and refreshing. It was the first time we actually felt cool/cold on pretty much the whole trip.
Side note: Air conditioning, while present in every hotel and most museums we went to, simply does not work like we are used to in Florida. In most hotels, there is a thermostat in your room, but it must be there just for looks, because it's setting bears no resemblance to the actual temperature, you set it to anywhere from 14-21 C, it never gets cooler than 28.4 C (83 F) during the day and 24.8 C (77 F) at night. Once, we went to complain that it wasn't working at all, and the front desk woman checked a console and said, oh I'm showing that you must have opened a window. We said we had just for a brief look out. She said we mustn't have closed it properly. So we went up, and sure enough the latch was not closed just right. Once closed, the A/C came on. While ensuring energy efficiency, it was a little disconcerting that they can monitor your window and door usage from the front desk, and obvious that they certainly control your thermostat centrally as well. We found these window and door sensors present everywhere. Once, a curtain got caught at the top of the door, blocking the sensor. Sure enough, no A/C. Oh, and they have these little boxes just inside the hotel room door. When you enter you have to put your key card into a slot on the box to turn the lights and A/C on. When you leave, you take your key and the electric goes out. This can be terribly irritating when you get back later and realize that the room is unbearably hot and that all of your electronic devices that you left to recharge are in fact not charged at all. We quickly learned to ask for two key cards, leaving one in the electric nanny box while we were out.
Also, museums are a little perplexing as well. They have these great, centuries-old, priceless masterpieces, and quite often, the windows are wide open allowing the heat and humidity in. That can't be good for the art.
In Montelcino, we went to the town fortress, not for the fortress itself, but for the wine tasting they have there. But we got much more than wine. We got an education about the history of Brunello, how it had grown from one vintner, Bondi Santi, in about 1880 to about 70 vintners when the giant, Banfi, came in 1976, and now has over 200 vintners just in the hills surrounding this little town. We learned the importance of "terroir", which side of the hill the vines are in, how much sun it gets, the different soils now filled with seashells from a great sea that covered this area millennia ago, how close to a nearby volcano the vines are, imparting a more mineral rich soil, etc. Just as important, are the traditions or intentions of the vintner. There are strict rules for this area as to how a vintner can craft his wine. For example, Brunello must be made from 100% Sangiovese grapes, and aged for at least 4 1/2 years. But the combination of French Oak barrels, the size of the barrels, steel tanks, or bottle aging is up to the vintner. Tasting various samples, we were surprised at the differences location, vintage and aging made in the wines. We tended to like wines from closer to the volcano, and with a more modern approach to winemaking. We were becoming wine snobs!
The next day we went to the giant vintner of the area, Banfi, and learned more and sampled more. We liked their "Super Tuscans" best, a blend of various grape varietals, including Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, etc. Banfi has a few thousand acres, compared to some other wineries that have maybe a hundred acres. They have a beautiful old restored castle, hence their label: Castello Banfi.
It was nice to get out of the hub-bub of big cities like Florence, and experience small town Italian life. It felt more authentic. I would love to spend more time in Tuscany, perhaps in the spring, and enjoy more food and wine, and a more relaxing pace. But for now, it was time to get back into our time machine and zip back to the period of 500BC to 500AD and into the Eternal City, Roma!