Timeline: October 11th – 13th
Having been to Italy and Siena once before, Lyndsay had a well-defined agenda for her short stay with us; drink wine and eat good food. Our objective for the Monday, plotted out the day before under the influence of a bottle of red wine, would be the two well-known cities of Montepulciano and Montalcino (having done Chianti the day before).
We loaded up the coordinates in the Garmin and set out for Montepulciano in the morning, driving for about 45 minutes through scenic countryside to a parking spot in one of the lots below the city walls.
We entered through one of the remaining city gates (Porta al Prato) and began a long steep walk up to the heart of town on streets lined with gift shops. These quaint cities, like many we’ve encountered on the road, absolutely require tourists to survive and yet, the inundation of the shops takes away from the charm of many of the places we’ve visited.
Our long steep climb was rewarded when we hit the top of town and the Piazza Grande with the Palazzo Comunale’s (town hall) dominating presence. It is patterned after the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence as Florence dominated Montepulciano in the 15th and 16th centuries.
We took a quick look inside the Duomo that shares the square and walked through the cellars of Contucci Cantina, which have been filled since the 1500s with huge barrels of wine. Each of the dozens of barrels of Croatian, Italian, and French oak (1,000-2,500 liters each) condition the wine through a two-year in-the-barrel aging process.
The long walk uphill and viewing the wine cellar made us realize that it was time for lunch. Acting on a suggestion from the Steve’s Guide, we entered Ai Quattro Venti, located right on the square adjacent to the Palazzo Comunale. What followed was a delicious lunch that included Ribollita, a thick white bean soup based bread soup with zucchini, carrots and kale, house made gnocchi with a tomato sauce, that great spinach and ricotta ravioli with sage and butter and a secondi of coarse ground spicy pork sausage with quite possibly the best roast potatoes ever tasted, crispy on the outside yet like a baked on the inside. Add in a liter of house wine and the bill comes to 51 Euros, a great way to spend part of an afternoon.
Sated from our meal, we walked back down to the car and took off for our next destination, Castello di Banfi near the town of Montalcino, home of Brunello wines. These wines are famous for their quality and being produced with 100% Sangiovese grape. The most widely planted grape in the Montalcino region, those in the Brunello wine are unique to the area and have adapted to its altitude and climate, where they ripen more fully and consistently than anywhere else in Tuscany.
Having spent a considerable time walking in Montepulciano, and with the afternoon rolling on, we went straight to the vineyard, bypassing Montalcino itself. Banfi is out in the country and it took us some time to locate it, even with the GPS. The winery is well known in the region, with expansive operations and has done well enough to enable them to purchase the castle and its grounds, which they now use as a tasting room, hotel, and conference center and which features a museum of glassware and bottles in the castle itself.
We spent an engaging hour or more in the tasting room chatting with the bartender, who having been certified as a sommelier was very knowledgeable about Banfi and wines in general. We each did a tasting that ran us between 15 and 20 Euros apiece, our only real opportunity to drink wines out of our price range. We finished up our tasting, toured the museum and drove back to camp, stopping at the COOP in Siena to pick up supplies for dinner.
Lyndsay had purchased a moderately priced bottle of wine at Banfi which was consumed, along with a Vernaccia di San Gimignano (white) and a inexpensive Montepulciano I’d picked up earlier (both for under 5 Euros) that complemented the vegetable sauce based pasta we’d perfected earlier in the trip. We stayed up late, eating, drinking and talking, planning our drive to Rome the next day, Lyndsay’s last in Italy.
Our plan was to leave mid morning and make a stop in the hill town of Orvieto on the drive down. The town sits one thousand feet above the valley floor on tufo (volcanic tuff) and became a regional power in the Middle Ages, and a few centuries before Christ was one of a dozen major Etruscan cities.
We parked below the main entrance to the city, across the street from some Etruscan ruins. Like at Montepulciano, getting to the center of town involved a long walk uphill, but this time it was a bit more rewarding in that Orvieto isn’t as dominated by souvenir shops as other towns have been.
At the main square we took pictures of the Duomo (Lyndsay and Joanna would visit it later) and then stopped in for a bite to eat at a recommended restaurant on the square, the Enoteca al Duomo. We split pasta with truffles, a selection of different styles of ham, and the winner for me, a roast pork Panini. This plainly dressed sandwich, just meat and bread, delighted the senses with a moist and delicately seasoned flavor, hinting of sage, which made it difficult to share with the others. But I did want to have some of the other dishes and so share I did.
The rest of the drive to Rome was uneventful, except for some confusion at the very end (we missed the turnoff for the campground) that would involve an interesting U-turn or two to get us back on track. We checked into our home for the next five nights at Camping Village Roma, a one-room bungalow, fairly new and nicely appointed. Our final meal with Lyndsay, after our long day, was dinner at the campground restaurant, a busy sprawling place with a large enough menu to offer numerous choices.
We initially ordered quite a bit of food, but when our first courses arrived and they were large enough to serve us and one quarter of the other diners there, we cancelled the rest of the order and worked our way through pedestrian, but serviceable pasta dishes. We headed back to the bungalow and tucked in early, tired from our busy few days together and Lyndsay’s flight first thing the next morning on our mind.
It had been a great three days, full of food, wine, and a touch of home, conversation with a good friend. After traveling together for so many days, it was refreshing for Joanna and I to have another presence there, to bounce us out of our comfort zones (eating those great lunches) and giving us the opportunity to play tour guides, something we’d become pretty good at. It was a fine way to begin the last couple of weeks of our journey, with memories we’d carry for many years.
Contucci Cantina: http://www.contucci.it/storia.en.php
Brunello di Montalcino: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brunello_di_Montalcino
Vernaccia di San Gimignano: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vernaccia_di_San_Gimignano
Camping Village Roma http://www.ecvacanze.it/it/camping/camping-in-town/roma-camping-village/