OK, not technically in Tuscany, but rather in Lazio, which is the Rome region. Still, we were driving north into Tuscany, so it gets filled into this post.
My Italian friend sent me a photo of him and his fiancé standing in front of this cliff top town. It looked beautiful, he said it was beautiful, so it we added it to our travel map. As it turned out, it was only a minor detour, so here we are.
It turned out to be a beautiful medieval town, which felt authentic and lived in, rather than a soul-less town catering to tourists. It was great to wander through the quiet alleys in town, saying hi to the street cats. It would have been even more enjoyable if it wasn’t so intolerably hot! The sun was roasting us, and the wind felt like someone had opened an oven door, so it was lucky that the narrow alleys provided lots of shade.
Lado di Bolsena
OK, so this area is still technically in Lazio, too. Our road north took us along some roads that gave us incredible glimpses of this topaz lake. It still amazed me that there weren’t dedicated viewing areas. We tried a few times, but it wasn’t possible to see it clear enough to photograph.
We were getting hungry, and had fallen into the trap of supermarkets being closed on a Sunday – OK, they were open in the morning, but we weren’t hungry in the morning, There is plenty of food in the car, but it just wasn’t what we wanted to eat.
It was still hot, and it felt like it was getting hotter. We were now in Bolsena, the town right beside the lake, so we stopped for a swim. I won’t lie, it was a shock to see that the topaz-hued lake was now slightly brown and loaded with floating sediment. It wasn’t the paradise that it looked from above, but it was still wet, and cool, so I had a quick float around.
There was also a large castle in town, but my photos were terrible. The drone made a quick flight, which gave a better view of the medieval town, which wasn’t quite as impressive as it had seemed from below.
OK, now we are actually in Tuscany! The transition wasn’t sudden, but now in this part of Tuscany, we were surrounded by endless rolling golden hills of wheat. It was 4PM and it felt even hotter and dryer than where we were this morning. It reminded me a little of countryside in Victoria, with these giant wheat farms, Cyprus pines, rolling hills, and hot dry weather – if I just pretended the villas/castles weren’t there.
We continued taking the smaller roads, and just enjoying the scenery. It eventually took us to one of the larger, and more popular, towns in the region, Pienza. No surprises, it was a hilltop town, with a medieval section. The town itself did little for me, but the views out of the countryside were worth the walk from the car park (motorhomes are accepted here). It was amazing that you could find the cheese shops with your eyes shut. We would get a whiff of strong cheese long before we saw the shops. We thought we’d give them a try, and grabbed some pecorino and some lovely soft sheep’s cheese.
I wanted to continue driving, to see more of the countryside with the long shadows and golden light from sunset. It was mostly in vain. The further east we drove, the less exciting the scenery became.
As with just about all popular cities, it’s a little difficult visiting with a motorhome. There was a dedicated camper parking location, however, the biggest problem (there were several) was it having a fixed daily price of €20. There was no option to pay by the hour. We took our chances, and 100m up the road found a free (yes, free) area to park during the day. It was still too far to walk (in the current heat), so a caught a quick trip on a public bus.
There was nothing special to begin with, until I caught my first glimpse of the stunning black and white dome of the Siena Cathedral. It was a little early, but I jumped out of the bus to be able to view it from afar. Risa stayed in the bus, which ended up veering off in a different direction, causing all sorts of problems (and her having to catch another bus back – and I had all the money).
I found this city beautiful right from the start, wandering through the back alleys towards the Cathedral. It’s certainly a tourist town, but it still feels strangely genuine.
Piazza del Campo
After a quick bite to eat from a small deli (it quickly became expensive, but it was delicious), we stopped in the Piazza del Campo – the main square in town. They have an annual horse race around the perimeter of this square and it sounds absolutely brutal – for both rider and horse. Tickets are crazy expensive, so even if the timing was right (it wasn’t), we couldn’t justify spending that much money for seats to watch a three lap horse race around a city square.
But, the square itself was strikingly attractive, even with the sparseness. The sun was uncomfortable, so we eventually retreated to the comforts of the shade – which was at a premium in the plaza.
Duomo di Siena
I’d had a distant peak of this stunning building, but I couldn’t have guessed just how beautiful it was going to be up close. I’ve lost count of the number of cathedrals that we’ve visited in the past two months, all of which are billed as breath-taking, or a ‘must-see’, or exemplary for so-and-so a period. I’d pretty much reached ‘peak church’, and it was going to take a bit to impress me now.
Well, I wasn’t just impressed, I was honestly amazed. There was something so fresh and unique about it (other than the black/white stripes). Actually, maybe it was just the black/white stripes.
The front façade was also truly a work of art, with stunning golden mosaics, excessive carvings and multi-coloured marble. It’s been a while since I just stared at the exterior of a building, but that’s exactly what we did here – it helped that we found some shade.
It was €4 to enter the cathedral. There was an absolute assortment of ticket options available, allowing you to enter museums, bell towers, crypts, etc. I only wanted to see the cathedral and the view from the bell tower, but that was a €15 combined ticket, with every other attraction. I would have loved to have seen Siena from above (I wasn’t going to fly the drone somewhere so busy), but it was just a little too expensive for me to justify.
Anyway, the view inside the cathedral was every bit as amazing as the exterior. The same black/white stripe theme continued, which honestly made the giant columns look like a work of art. It was even slightly reminiscent of the striped arches in the mosque-come-cathedral in Cordoba.
As with the exterior, there was more to the interior of the cathedral than the stripes. The roof was decorated with hundreds of gilded stars, and a central dome that reminded me of the Pantheon in Rome.
Plus, there were the beautiful rose stained glass windows at either end of the cathedral, and the exceptional marble flooring – which is probably the most decorative floor I’ve seen. Some sections of the floor looked like an un-coloured comic book, with bold lines showing scenes with stunning detail.
Then, when you’ve relaxed into a stupor from all the detail competing for your attention, you see the entrance to the small library, and your mind is blown further. There were ancient books on display, and the intricacy of the artwork was hard to believe. But, the real star of the show is the artwork that covers the walls and ceiling of this mid-sized room. I wasn’t so impressed with the Sistine chapel, nor with the other galleries in the Vatican, but this was amazing for me. Maybe it was something to with it being a surprise, and not super-hyped up like the Vatican Museum.
Out of nowhere, Siena had amazed me, and re-invigorated my interest in Italian towns, which was starting to wane.
It was pure co-incidence, but a very old friend of mine was in Tuscany with his family. We hadn’t caught up in a while – something something life gets in the way – but, we were both in the same place, at the same time. We’d narrowly missed each other in Rome (they were on a cruise). They also happened to have an amazing Tuscan villa for the week, with space for us to join them, so we invited ourselves over to catch up! Also, did I mention pool!?
Not long after we’d greeted, and introduced Risa (that’s how long it’s been since we last caught up – I’m now married), we received the best offer we could have received – “Would you like to do some washing?”
I had been having pizza withdrawals after our time in Naples, so I was beyond happy to hear that they were going to cook pizza in their wood fired pizza oven tonight. While it might not have quite been on-par with the life-changing pizzas of Naples (I’ve been forever spoilt), they were exactly what I needed to scratch that itch and get the pizza monkey off my back.
The drone made a quick flight, which was a hit with the kids – 2017 Christmas present idea.
And, this is about where the fun times reach their apogee. My friend’s dad had brought some amazing red wine from their touring around during the week. It was exceptional, and I loved every drop. The second bottle wasn’t quite up to the first, but still very easy to drink. Then, the third bottle, a Chianti I picked up from a wine shop in Siena, was the nail in my coffin. Either that, or the beers/prosecco that went between glasses of red. I’m slightly ashamed to say that the delicious food didn’t get to complete it’s usual life-cycle, and instead went down the drain of our bathroom sink. I’m 35, and I still haven’t learnt my limits with alcohol.
A combination of my gluttony with the pizza, and my forgetfulness of the potency of red wine made for a sleepless night. I gave up not long after sunset, still feeling slightly drunk, which I thought was amazing, as I thought I’d well and truly emptied my stomach before bed.
It was a slow start, as none of us were feeling particularly fresh. Thankfully the sun was shining, and the pool was just as enjoyable as it had been last night. We shared a quick lunch, and took off while they enjoyed an afternoon siesta. Hopefully not as long until the next time – wherever that is.
My original plans had been to leave early-ish, and rent a small scooter to go explore the Chianti area. A combination of enjoying the company of my friends, the comfort of their villa, the lethargy of the heat – and of course the remnants of the hangover – meant that it was nearly 3PM when we left their place near Cortona.
We agreed that driving through the Chianti area would be a good enough substitution. Risa slept, and I did my best to stay awake, which was hard with the hot dry air, and the straight sections of road.
I don’t know if we just missed the spectacular regions, but I didn’t find the area to be too visually appealing. Maybe its allure is more to do with the wine – which with this hangover was even less appealing than it would have normally been. There were certainly no shortages of vineyards, which were starting to fatten up nicely.
Had Chianti been our last stop, it would have been a slightly sad way to end our time in the hyped-up Tuscany. But, we’d both saved one small town in our maps. I thought it was a bit of an unknown, and was expecting to find another small Tuscan hilltop village.
From distance looked, San Gimignano looked like a modern city, with sky-scrapers filling the skyline. Of course, my mind knew they weren’t sky-scrapers out in this tiny town, but my eyes tried to make sense of it. Cutting to the chase, this town is on the tourist trail due to these seven enormous towers in this small town, each tower attempting to outdo the other in height.
We drove in to town, and quickly realised that this was not an unknown village. The car parks were over flowing, as were the streets. It was a nightmare trying to find a park with a motorhome, with the central car parks restricting access to anything over 2.2m. There were signs for a motorhome car park, which we followed – until we realised that it was nearly 2km outside of town, and I’d still have to pay a premium to park there. With no public transport options, and mid-30 degree heat, we were ready to right it off, and be happy with the distant views we’d already had. I found a small section of old highway just off the new highway, a little over 1km outside of town. I dropped Risa in town, while I went and parked, and did my best to not get hit by the cars that raced back down the shoulder-less road.
My first impression was like an Italian version of Carcassonne. There was an imposing outer wall, and some beautiful old streets with medieval-looking flags hanging across the arches and from the walls. And, much like Carcassonne, it was crammed with souvenir shops and other tourists. It too had that medieval-fantasy-land theme park feel about the place. The town might be authentic and original, but it felt devoid of any personality – at least at a casual glance. We accepted that it for what it was – a pretty place to walk around and take photographs.
Once we let go, and accepted, it really was a pretty town to walk around for an hour or two. It was really only the lower floor of the main streets that were commercialised, and once you stepped away from them, the advertising and goods vanished, making for much more relaxing walking – it just wasn’t as pretty though.
As with many cities, the best view is from slightly further away. Up close it was hard to see all of the towers – unless you have a drone. We managed to find a quite space on the edge of town to take off and get a birds-eye view of the towers and the walled town.
Equally impressive were the views out of the Tuscan countryside from the outer walls, especially with the sun sinking low on the horizon, stretching shadows from the olive groves and vineyards that cover the rolling hills.
It might cool down at night, but the van manages to trap a lot of this heat inside, making for slightly uncomfortable night’s sleep. We’re waking weary, and right back into the heat again in the rapidly rising sun, dreading spending another day sweating.
We’d parked underneath another interesting looking medieval hilltop town, but they’re starting to feel the same, so we decided to save our energy for Florence.
We were finally going to visit Florence, which was something I’d been eagerly waiting for. It’s a pretty big place, and it gets its own post here – Euro Road Trip – Florence.