The second in a series of ‘Reasons to visit …’ the places I’ve chosen for our bike tours. In our brochure, or on our website, I try to tell you why I think you will enjoy cycling in Tuscany. This is my chance to explain the three things that I enjoy the most, my personal highlights. Which you may or may not like!
There’s a lot to choose from in Tuscany, it’s famous for a reason. But my three are:
1. The Abbey at Monte Olivetto di Maggiore.
2. The cantine in Greve in Chianti
3. The piazza del Campo in Siena.
There are lots of photos of the Chain Gang in Tuscany on a new Flickr gallery, but here’s why I like these three places in particular. As usual, click on any image to enlarge the photo.
This is my favourite place in Tuscany. Maybe not the most spectacular, or the most historically significant, or even the most beautiful. But it is the site that I most look forward to going back to.
It’s a red-brick abbey, dating from the 14th century, built on the top of a hill between Asciano and Montalcino. It was named for the Mount of Olives, and Maggiore just means ‘major’, which in this case means this was the head Abbey of the Olivetan Order, part of the Benedictine Order.
It’s a large, pretty building, but the main attraction for me is the frescoes, a series of 36 large scenes depicting the life of Saint Benedict by Luca Signorelli, and Il Sodoma (originally Giovanni Antonio Bazzi).
Normally frescoes are not really my thing, and the lives of catholic saints certainly aren’t. But Benedict lived an interesting life and really did some stuff. The Basilica of St Francis at Assisi has frescoes that illustrate the life of St Francis, but basically they’re just a series of stories about how pious and holy Francis was. Benedict was much more interesting.
One of my favourites shows a servant sent to take two amphorae of wine to Benedict. Reasoning that Benedict didn’t know how many amphorae his master had sent, and that Benedict would be equally delighted with a single amphora, the servant hid one under a hedge. Benedict expresses his delight at the gift, but warns the servant to be careful when he recovers his stolen wine. Heeding Benedict’s warning, the servant looks carefully into the amphora, and so avoids being bitten by a snake that has crept inside. All this is depicted in a single painting, albeit quite a big painting, and it’s great.
Another frame shows Benedict meeting Totila, the Barbarian leader. Totila had asked to meet Benedict, but before the meeting he swapped places with one of his servants. The fresco shows the servant in all the splendour of the Ostrogoth Emperor, but Benedict sees through the subterfuge, addresses the real Totila, in poor servant garb, and makes a prophesy. Needless to say the prophesy turns out to be correct, but I daresay it helps if you make the prophesy years after the event.
Il Sodoma in particular leaves little quirks in his paintings. Often, through a window you’ll be able to see a distant hill, and if you look very carefully there will be Lowry-style matchstick men being hung from gibbets. Several of the frescoes have little animals depicted at the bottom of the scene, nothing to do with the story, a dog and cat fighting over food, another dog biting the leg of a child, a badger on a leash.
We visit the Abbey on Thursday morning of our Tuscany tour. It’s about 10Km out of Asciano, mostly up hill, before a fantastic descent into Buonconvento for lunch. It’s still a working Abbey – indeed, if you hang around until 12.30 it’s Monks that will throw you out. It’s always a talking point, I don’t think people believe me when I say how interesting a bunch of paintings about St Benedict will be, so it’s always very gratifying to see people absorbed in these fascinating frescoes, just as I always am.
2. The Cantine in Greve in Chianti.
In France a feature of many of our tours is that we visit family-owned vineyards where we get to see the wine-making process close-up and personal. Preparing for our first tour of Tuscany, I asked a favour of Tim Syrad of Tim Syrad Wines, who among other things runs the Chiswick Wine Society. Tim recommended a local wine producer in Chianti, and with Tim’s introduction we arranged to visit on the Monday morning of our first tour. On the Sunday, Lorenzo (our guide) received a phone call cancelling the visit.
I know I worry about these things too much, but I was panicking as I asked Lorenzo to see if he could fix up another visit. He arranged for us to visit the Cantine in Greve-in-Chianti, so I relaxed – I didn’t know what a Cantine was, I assumed we were visitng a vineyard. When we first went down the steps into the Cantine in Greve, my heart sank.
It’s basically a very large wine showroom-cum-shop. Dotted throughout the shop are display stands, on each of which are 16 upside-down wine bottles, and each bottle has a spout and a button you can press. As a visitor you buy a pre-paid card, credit-card style, and are issued with a glass. You insert the card into a card-reader on a display stand and press a button to receive a tasting measure of your chosen wine. I was horrified. Unnecessarily, as it turned out.
The manager of the Cantine, Marco, gathered us together and began to tell us about Tuscan wines, about Chianti, and Chianti Classico, about the ‘Super Tuscans’, the Brunello di Montalcino and the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. His ‘lecture’ was regularly interrupted by tastings of various wines from the display stands.
It was an absolutely fascinating introduction to Tuscan wines, delivered by an enthusiastic expert (the Italian equivalent of Tim Syrad, come to think of it). It’s always a dilemma, I try to persuade people that they should sample the difference between a Chianti Classico, a Brunello and a Vino Nobile. I hope people get interested enough to start exploring these wines, knowing that when we’re on the Brunello stand, 12 of us queuing to try Marco’s latest suggestion, I’ll very shortly be paying 5€, 6€, 8€ a shot – the better I do my job, the more money it costs me. But I can honestly say I’ve never resented a Euro cent of it. I’ve never experienced a better introduction to the wines of a region, and for the remainder of the week, as we’re on our way to Montalcino and Montepulciano, everybody knows what’s coming.
If you’d have told me that first time I walked into the Cantine that this would soon become my favourite wine experience of any Chain Gang tour, well, I can’t imagine what my response would have been!
I imagine most people have heard of the Campo, it’s the scallop-shaped piazza at the centre of Siena, where twice a year they hold the Palio, the bare-back horse race that attracts people from all over the world and transfixes the citizens of Siena.
Back in the 15th Century Siena was a rich and important City with 100,000 inhabitants – 60% more than today. When Siena finally lost their long-running war against Florence, the winners turned Siena into a backwater, which it remained until the late 20th century. But 500 years ago Siena was a thriving and wealthy centre of commerce, home to the oldest bank in the world, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena.
Siena is divided into 17 Contrade, or wards. Each Contrada has a fountain, and Sienese are traditionally baptised both in Church and at their Contrada fountain. In the Campo, though, is the municipal fountain, drinking water available for everybody, 24 hours a day. I always try to fill my water bottle here to commune with a little bit of history.
The campo is built in fishbone-patterned red brick divided by ten lines of stone which divide the piazza into nine sections, radiating from the mouth of the central water drain at the lowest point. The number of divisions represents the nine-man council that governed Siena at the height of its power in the 14th Century. It’s the centre of life in Siena, not only beautiful but vibrant and lively. It’s lined with bars, restaurants and pizzerias, people gather in the Campo, sitting in groups, studying, or talking, reading. There’s lots of room, even on a busy day, to find your own piece of the Campo and just do nothing except soak up the Campo.
It’s a wonderful atmosphere, and I’ve often said that at 5 o’clock on a summer’s day evening there is nowhere I would rather be than sat in the Piazza del Campo. Not watching the world go by, necessarily. Just letting it go by while I sit in the Campo.
The Palazzo Pubblico is lovely, with its iconic Torre del Mangia, and the Duomo is stunning, but my favourite thing to do in Siena is just to sit in the Campo.