The memories of the four weeks we spent in the Val d'Orcia part of Tuscany on our honeymoon five years ago are strong, and returning to this area was like revisiting an old friend. It has brought back wonderful memories of the time we spent in Montalcino, and our photography workshop week based near Bagno Vignoni.
Leaving Orvieto we commenced our Italian driving experience in a Fiat 500L - a medium-sized four seater with diesel engine that has proved surprisingly roomy. Taking to the left hand drive on the "wrong" side of the road was much easier the second time around - AND - definitely helped by a significant change in road behaviour by the locals (at least through Umbria and the Val d'Orcia). Generally drivers seemed to be more likely to stay on their side of the road than five years ago - but that was before we got to Chianti.
Speed limits appear still to be optional.
Our accommodation in the Val d'Orcia was at the former monastery at Sant'Anna in Camprena, near Pienza, which is arguably the most beautiful of the hilltop towns in this region. Film lovers will recognise this as one of the main locations for the film The English Patient.
The accommodation was simple yet lovely, the hospitality special and the location peaceful and beautiful in a way that our cameras could not hope to capture. However there were lots of old, worn steps to trudge up with the luggage, seemingly a constant in this part of the world.
As a base to revisit the Val d'Orcia it was perfect. To illustrate this, we met a Danish couple who have been coming there twice a year for over ten years.
In many ways it was easy to visit the towns other where we had only been day trippers five years ago. Visiting Montalcino again was a bit stranger - being day trippers in a town that we had previously lived in for three weeks. It took two visits to really appreciate the present in line with our memories of five years ago.
Photographically we had an easier time after our workshop in Orvieto, and tried not to reproduce the same photos we took five years ago. However, there were one or two spots where the quality of light and the time to spend in one spot were better than five years ago, and camera club members will have to wait to see what that entails.
However, as we are enjoying the holiday aspects of the trip, early morning starts have been excluded so far. That does mean no new photographs of the Belvedere farmhouse at dawn.
San Antimo Abbey/Basilica di San Mageo, Montepulciano
This does not mean that the tradition we started here five years ago has not been revisited, we are still taking our dawn shots through the windows of our accommodation - which gives us vistas and perspective for detailed early light photographs. Sant'Anna in Camprena and our accommodation at Volpaia in Chianti both have offered this option - get up with the early light about 6 to 6.30, take photographs, go back to bed for a couple of hours before breakfast. Good planning, what!
Morning Views from Bedroom Windows - Sant'Anna in Camprena and Volpaia
The other aspect of returning to Tuscany has been the return to seriously good red wine territory. The food is still a wonderful mix of the traditional with lots of pasta options, meat sauces and fresh local seasonal ingredients, but the Rosso di Montalcino and other local vino rosso from Pienza and Montepulciano were palate pleasers. Not to mention the vin Santo and cantucci, an ideal way to conclude almost any meal.
Three days in the Val d'Orcia disappeared very quickly, meaning we were off to pastures new in the Chianti part of Tuscany - located between Siena and Florence for the geographically inclined. Driving into Chianti the landscape changed from the rolling hills of the Val d'Orcia that are most associated with Tuscany, to become both higher in altitude but also steeper. The scenery is very wooded - oak, chestnut and fir - with little land cleared for agriculture apart from vines and olives on steep slopes that were historically terraced. Pastures dedicated to wheat and hay are not particularly evident in this part of Chianti.
The roads consequently are incredibly narrow and windy. For South Australians, it means that travel is like continually driving on roads that are a combination of the Old Norton Summit Road and the Corkscrew Road, only steeper and higher. For Kiwis, the roads would be more familiar. Lots of curves, lots of climbing and dropping in altitude and average speeds of no more than 30 km/hr. Straight runs to get into top gear are very rare. Gear changing is constant - there being no such thing in Italy as a hire car with automatic transmission.
We have also had a mix of cloudy and rainy weather with a few sunny days in Chianti - adding to the challenge of photographing a predominantly wooded hilly landscape - after all grey days and hazy skies are the bane of the photographer and tourist alike.
Volpaia, our home for 12 days, sits at over 700 metres above sea level, compare that with Mt Lofty at just over 500 metres. It has a population of just 54! It also has two restaurants and a bar and a cellar door, but no other shops apart from a twice weekly visit from a local artisan silver jewellery maker. The village survives on tourism and the local industries - wine and olive oil. The main function of the town, where the current buildings date back to the 13th century, is as a winery (Castello di Volpaia). It is a peaceful and beautiful place to spend our longest stay of this trip.
Since the 1960's 2/3rds of the buildings and the surrounding vineyards have been consolidated into an amazingly modern operation housed within the medieval structures that make up the village. To see modern, stainless steel fermentation tanks (3 stories high) housed within 13thC buildings is simply mind boggling - and the story of how the tanks arrived at the top of the hill and were installed by the crane driver from the village piazza (square) would be unbelievable if we had not seen the results. Having sampled the results we can attest to the value of the investment through the quality of the wine produced.
Restaurant door to accommodation is less than 2 minutes walk
The morning coffee is less than 2 minutes away
Locals are warm and friendly, moreso once they see you for more than two days
The disadvantages of staying in a small hilltop village are as follows:
Steps, everywhere - really old, worn, steep steps
No general shops, just the restaurants, bar and cellar door (maybe this belongs above?)
Really poor phone and wifi coverage (not taking account of the 60+ cm thick walls)
The local wine is Chianti Classico (and Riserva). These are predominantly Sangiovese-based wines with strict origin controls, aging requirements and specifications for the grape varieties that comprise the Chianti wines. For example, Chianti Classico requires a minimum of 80% Sangiovese. The wines that use modern techniques and international varieties (Cab Sav, Merlot, Shiraz) and techniques are marketed either as relatively inexpensive local blends or as Super Tuscan wines - the latter with high prices to match the international reviews.
Generally speaking wine is relatively inexpensive compared to the Australian experience. We had an experience here in Chianti where a cellar door manager practically apologised for the expensive price for an aged (1998) vin Santo dessert wine that at less than 25 Euro ($A40) was actually inexpensive for the aged quality, and we have actually purchased wines that in Australia would have been marked up as Cellar Reserve or Museum Release, but here were discounted to 14Euro for four wines from 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 - three being Sangiovese (inc 1 Chianti Classico Riserva) and one a Syrah(Shiraz) - all of which were incredibly inexpensive for the quality of a appropriately aged red wine.
For the serious wine aficionado, the wine in Chianti is generally less expensive than in Val d'Orcia and the wine lists at trattoria, osteria etc. are far less parochial.
In Chianti we have toured many of the local hill towns, where the history continues to amaze with the Etruscan influence still strong and well represented in local museums. It remains totally mind-blowing to consider a built history of several thousand years with so much of the fundamental urban design and locality based on pre-Roman civilisations - the essentials of which survived millennia of wars, takeovers and religious upheaval long before we got to the mass destruction of the 20thC and particularly the influence of WW2 on what remains and now exists.
On this trip we are more aware of the impact of WW2 on some of the hilltop villages we visit - the damage in many cases either patched up or just left as it was.
The villages most affected are visually obvious - by the lack of old buildings in the historic town centre and the presence of obviously post war reconstruction of housing within and beyond the old town walls.
Italy shares its national day with our Anzac Day, and throughout our trip we have noticed the wreaths and flags at war memorials in each village, much as we would see at home - the sobering difference is the identification of both military and civilian casualties on all memorials - a reminder of how lucky we really are.
At the time of writing we have two more days in Chianti - we are off to Florence for a day trip and have more coffee to drink and have the time to consider ourselves lucky to have stayed in an area that is beautiful, yet not easy to photograph for any purpose other than memories - and maybe that is not such a bad thing.