Back in September, my good friend Mike Pattenden joined The Chain Gang in Italy for a month to help out with, well, with everything. By profession Mike’s a journalist, so inevitably he wrote a short piece for us about an adventurous afternoon that he took on his own, that might have ended slightly less well! (As ever, click on the images to enlarge them – and if you’re going to enlarge just one, click on Roberto’s photo of Montalcino).
There is a celebrated exchange between former US President Bill Clinton and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in which they discuss the relative merits of English and American castles. Clinton notes that America can only really call on Disneyland which he refers to as a ‘beer crate’.
Italy, however, has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to historic castles perched atop pretty medieval towns. Take a week-long Chain Gang tour in Tuscany or Umbria and you will journey from one remarkable fortress commune to another.
Montalcino is just one, a charming, picture book town high above the Arbia and Ombrone valleys. At its very top stands an imposing and perfectly intact 14th Century fortress keeping watch over acres of vines and olive trees.
In my role as Head Of Logistics (which I prefer to baggage handler) I arrived there in the van on Day Six. With the tour group’s bags safely installed in the plush lobby of the Hotel Giglio I retreated to my room. There I examined a local map, swiftly identifying a loop. Giving it as little thought as that I changed into some cycling gear, grabbed a bike from the van and headed out into the sunshine.
My route took me on slick black tarmac but as I turned off the main road I quickly found myself rumbling along strada bianche – white road, the raw, dusty tracks that make up a large proportion of Tuscany’s backroads. First time you come across one it’s a shock, then you realise they’re everywhere. If you cut cross country, expect some strada bianchi.
I scrambled on down the valley for a few miles without seeing anyone. The road became ridiculously wide at one point, like an unsurfaced white motorway. Eventually a car overtook me sending plumes of dust into the air, leaving a choking mist in its wake. Just as I began to wonder where my turn-off was I was surprised by a large castellated house, the home of the Banfi estate, one of the major vineyards around Montalcino. It stood austerely among acres of vines, isolated and haughty, a conscious echo of one of the great city states so typical of the region. I cycled past, slightly awestruck and nearly missed the turn.
On reaching the main road I realised I’d descended further than I’d expected to and it was all uphill back, at least seven or eight miles. There was nothing to be done but start climbing. Like the Grand Old Duke Of York, you’re either up or down in these parts. It was mid-afternoon and as warm as any day in early September with temperatures easily into the mid-20s. I tried to eke out my water but it was soon depleted. I hadn’t bothered to eat since breakfast either. Unwise, because energy drains out of my skinny body faster than an old phone battery. Five miles on and I was bonking – flatlining.
Eventually I gave in and hauled myself off the bike for a little time out. What was needed was water and some carbs but where that was going to come from I wasn’t sure. Except it was staring me in the face. Vines. Row upon row of vines. The same vines that line the side of roads all over Tuscany. I laid the bike down and yanked a fat bunch of grapes from a branch and fed them in my mouth, slightly guiltily. Needs must. They were small, like large raisins – typical Sangiovese – and intensely sweet at this time of year. I spat out pips, plucked another bunch and crammed them in. And another. And another. Then I sat down for ten minutes to rest before setting off again. Soon I had a good rhythm going and made it back to Montalcino comfortably.
Later that night we ate out in a smart trattoria towards the top of the town. Scanning down the wine list there was no shortage of bottles from the Banfi estate, especially the local superstar, the Brunello. I chose one – it only seemed right. It was fabulous, of course, but not quite as intense or invigorating as the grapes I’d consumed at the roadside a few hours earlier.
As Chain Gang tours go this was a slightly off-grid experience but only because I was alone, taking advantage of a free afternoon. The company’s Tuscany tour takes its groups past miles and miles of olive trees and vines every day. It’s not like the Parthenon, where if you grab a chunk of masonry there eventually won’t be any left. There’s acres of them hanging in fat clusters. On the way into Montalcino there’s a modern vineyard called Val Di Suga that produces a handful of excellent wines where you’ll do a tasting.
Montalcino is splendid, but it’s actually no less or more splendid than Montepulciano or San Gimignano. Actually Siena probably tops them all but the entire region is littered with fairytale hillside towns. You could afford to be blase about them if you were fortunate enough to live there, though hopefully you’d have the grace not to be.
Obviously Bill saw Disneyland for what it was. Fake news – OK, fake history. Montalcino, Montepulciano, Siena and San Gimignano are the real thing and so are the vines.