Intimate Italy Like You've Never Seen It!
How one Budget Travel writer turned a dream—experiencing Italy like an Italian—into a reality with an affordable, completely doable walking tour of Tuscany.
In truth, our appreciation for these towns was heightened because of the effort it took to get to them. Which is another way of saying that touring Tuscany by foot wasn't always a walk in il parco. Take, for example, our march to Montepulciano; the hike took longer than expected, and after five hours without food, we could hear one another's stomachs growling. We were so hot and tired that when we skirted an olive orchard and the Temple of San Biagio suddenly rose above us, we thought we were seeing a mirage, conjured up to give strength to hungry passersby. Glowing golden in the sunlight, drawing us in, its dome looked like something out of a Renaissance masterpiece.
And yet, despite our grumbling bellies, it was impossible not to stop. Inside, the church's cool air and silent beauty seemed to cure our weariness. A diffuse light fell from the dome in a perfect circle, and we were surrounded by arches and rosettes and Greek columns, all carved out of the same linen-colored stone. As our eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw an automated tour guide called an ArtPhone. I dropped a 1 Euro coin into the slot and learned that in 1518, a fresco of the Virgin painted on this spot suddenly seemed to smile. Many people witnessed the miracle, and public funds were collected to build a commemorative temple. San Biagio, one of the world's finest examples of Renaissance architecture, has been providing refuge for religious pilgrims-and weary hikers-ever since.
When we headed back outside, our empty stomachs were filled thanks to another miracle. Directly across from the church, far from the city center, where we least expected to find a restaurant, I spotted La Grotta, reportedly home to the best food in Montepulciano. We weren't exactly dressed for a fancy lunch. Yet when the maitre'd, impeccable in his tailored navy suit, heard that we'd walked all the way from Monticchiello-five miles, uphill all the way-his eyes widened and he ushered us (shorts, hiking boots, and all) to a prime table in the back garden. He brought an extra chair for our hiking gear, recommended a bottle of the house red, and let us order dessert long after the restaurant had closed. We were several paces down the road when he came running after us with a half-empty bottle of water we'd left behind. "You will need it for your walk!" he said, sending us on our way with a wave and a "Ciao!"
Bustling Montepulciano was full of trattorias and wine shops, but our favorite town was the emptiest: Rocca d'Orcia. There we found a crumbling castle looming over stone streets barely wide enough for cars (not that we cared about that!). When we arrived, an elderly man, navigating rocky steps worn smooth by the footfalls of several centuries, greeted us with a "Buon giorno." Otherwise, all was silent. We were staying at Cisterna nel Borgo, a three-room hotel above the town's only restaurant, where owner Marta Catani also gives cooking lessons, though she herself has no formal training. "Italians don't go to cooking school," she explained. "You just watch your grandmother." At dinner, we stuffed ourselves with tender, tangy wild boar cooked in yogurt and sauteed pork in a honey sauce that was salty and just a bit sweet. Since we were the only guests, we each got our own room; mine had a wood-beamed ceiling and windows overlooking the town square, which was dominated by a massive well. Marta told us that until the late 1950s, the city gates were locked against intruders every night, and today just 26 souls live within the town's walls. For two glorious nights, we were happy to push the population to 29.
On our last morning, we were feeling lazy and not up to the challenge of a nine-mile walk. When Giacomo's father, Paolo, came to collect our luggage in the morning, we asked if he would drop us off at the halfway point. "Si, si," he said. That morning, instead of huffing up hills, we strolled through Monticchiello, a beautifully preserved walled town. We craned our necks to get a look at the top of the thick defensive tower at the town's entrance, then passed beneath a stone archway and into the winding medieval streets, flanked by the high walls of houses made of uniformly honey-colored stone. We walked down lanes no wider than a horse, took photos of laundry hanging from shuttered windows, admired a vintage red Fiat parked by a church with a vaulted interior covered in flaking frescoes, and read the plaque on an obelisk-shaped World War I memorial. On the way out of town, we encountered a crew of maintenance men. They waved. We waved back. "Ciao bella!" they exclaimed. Yes, we thought. It was beautiful.