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Under the Tuscan Sun

Two hours of highway driving and half an hour on winding country roads delivered us from Rome to Montepulciano in the Tuscan countryside. A family in our town in Virginia owns a villa here and rents it for a week at a time. When one of our neighbors got wind of this, we roped in two other families from our street for a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Villa Nobile (No-bee-lay) at the base of the medieval city pronounced Mon-te-pool-cha-no.

Originally, the Villa was a tower house built in the 1500s and consisted of a foyer, a couple of bedrooms, and a kitchen. Over the next five centuries, it has undergone multiple renovations and extensions to become the five bedroom house it is today with a swimming pool, hot tub, gourmet kitchen, and well appointed bedrooms and bathrooms. Villa Nobile is nestled in the rolling hills of Tuscany with Lake Montepulciano in the distance on one side and the old city on the other side.

Tuscany is known for wines and Renaissance art. The viticulture in Montepulciano dates back to the Etruscan era, that's 8th to 2nd century BCE. Between Montalcino and Montepulciano, lie acres and acres of vineyards of Sangiovese grapes. The wines produced in this region have the DOCG designation which brings together the wineries into a single economic umbrella and validates the appropriate use of grape mixes and wine-making processes. Today Vino Nobile de Montepulciano, the premier wine of this region, is world-famous and uses the ancient clonal variant of the Sangiovese grape called Prugnolo Gentile.

The wine alone is enough reason for a visit; the views are mesmerizing.

Montepulciano is a medieval town built high above the valley Val d'Orcia. Anchored by the Orcia river, this is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Within a two hour radius of Montepulciano lie Pienza, Montalcino, Siena, and Firenze. Each day we traveled an hour or two to explore the grandeur of Tuscany and the history of the nearby towns.

On day one in Montepulciano, we walked from the lower, modern town to the upper, medieval town and nearly died! We hoofed through multiple inclines, panting and dragging ourselves to the top. Once we got there, the views simply took my breath away. In the rolling hills we saw unending rows of grape vines, country roads, stately and small homes, and a stillness to soothe the soul.

In contrast, the hustle and bustle of the medieval town brought unexpected excitement. The roads in the old city connect numerous churches, piazzas, hotels, and alleys full of shops and restaurants. There's no doubt that without Google Maps and stable cellular signal, we would be utterly lost here.

On day two, we drove to Pienza. This town is straight out of a picture postcard. It's a fraction of the size of Montepulciano but the unanimous opinion among our neighbors is that Pienza is delightful. The church in the center of town anchors alleys dotted with shops selling lavender oils, souvenirs, locally made clothes, and leather bags. Window shopping hasn't been this fun in years!

From Pienza we made our way to Montalcino. The drive to the top of the town was treacherous, but the views of the valley did not seem to be as breathtaking as in Pienza. Plus, we weren't able to find parking, and so, after meandering through town for a bit, we headed downhill and towards Siena.

Siena has a massive central square, gelato to die for, and historic churches. It reminded us somewhat of Milan. The city is home to the University of Siena and boasts of the oldest bank in the world which has operated continuously since 1472. Due to its proximity to Florence, Siena was a seat of Renaissance art and architecture. This is evident in the look at feel of the town.

Even though Siena was beautiful, it did not top Pienza on the cute quotient!

We reserved the most exciting excursion for day three. We were prepared to be blown away in Firenze or Florence.

Upon arriving, I had to divest the history of the old city (stunning) from its modern avatar (blah). This is hard to do because the two are inextricably intertwined.

We were enthralled by Michaelangelo's divine talent, the statue of David, the imposing churches, piazzas, museums, and City Hall. The thought that the little Arno river has flooded the city on multiple occasions was a bit jarring. The presence of the House of Medici is felt throughout Florence. This multi-generational family produced four popes and two queens and had enormous political clout. The Medici Bank was the largest in Europe in the 15th century and the family's patronage enabled Renaissance art and architecture to thrive in Florence.

Before we toured the well-known sites of Florence, our guide took us to a mosaic laboratory. where master artisans were at work producing mind-boggling art. We saw walls full of stones from Italy, Greece, Africa, and petrified wood from California. The artists take slivers of these stones to create works like the one below, with each color being a different piece of stone. From a distance, the end result looks like a painting, but when you get close, you see the mosaic effect and the fine lines between the stones.

We were tempted to buy, but this is serious art. These workshops produce world-class mosaics commissioned at exorbitant prices.

I was pleased to learn that the first Allied troops into the Florence in World War II belonged to an Indian regiment that was part of the British army. Strange are the ways in which the world gets smaller every time I travel!

After admiring the buildings, frescoes, and lingering at the statue of David for quite a while, we left Florence, awestruck at how the Renaissance artists produced this magnitude of beauty long before modern machinery and how Michaelangelo produced David just from his imagination.

Florence, the seat of Renaissance art, is absolutely worth visiting for the great artists who made this their home and redefined western art, and whose works survive to this day due to the conservation efforts constantly underway.

Florence, the city, left me underwhelmed. It lacked the vibrant colors of Venice and the valley and heights of Pienza. It has massive crowds and panhandlers to boot. Graffiti is also common in the old city, which made me sad that centuries later we are no longer respectful of the artists and builders who enable us to sustain our shared history.

We reserved day four for exploring Montepulciano and to visit an agritourismo restaurant called Ristorante d'Oliveto. This type of tourism enables visitors to live in or dine at a farm. Oliveto is run by Andrea and his family. They manage a vineyard, a bunch of apartments for tourists, and this amazing restaurant that has only five-star reviews on Tripadvisor. We sat in a tent in an olive grove and thoroughly enjoyed the mouthwatering courses and family-produced Montepulciano wines.

Chilling at Villa Nobile and biking, swimming, and soaking in Italian culture under the Tuscan sun has rejuvenated us completely. In a subtle way, Tuscany has encouraged us to slow down and enjoy nature and to take deep breaths instead of combating the frenetic forces of life.

For that, grazie to Montepulciano and finché non ci rincontreremo....until we meet again!

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