Hill towns

On Monday, we picked up our car, an automatic because of the HILL towns we were planning to visit.  A bit molto grosso, but that’s what you get when you ask for the exotic automatic transmission in Europe, and it served us quite well.  (We had to take its picture so we could find it again in the parking lot.)We were equipped with an atlas of Tuscany, a map of Siena from the B&B, another map of Siena from the Avis office, and Alison’s map of Tuscany, plus some Google maps directions that I sent to Alison’s phone.  Even so, we found that the route numbers on the maps rarely matched the route numbers on the roads.  The best way to navigate was to determine the next town and look for signs.  We asked directions a few times, too, and people were quite helpful.  You need to know sinestra (left), destra (right) and diritto (straight ahead), and you’ll manage just fine.

Once we got out of town, always interesting in a foreign city, we were soon on a boring but safe divided highway and made our way to Volterra (Monday), Cortona (Tuesday) and Montalcino (Wednesday).  Since hill towns are all unique but all share the same elements, I’m combining them here.

First, the approach:

You wend your way along the valley floor, looking at the bare hills (did they just harvest sunflowers??), grapevines, and olive trees.  As you approach your destination, you see it looming ahead of you, like this view of Cortona.  You can see why the feuding Tuscans chose hills for their cities.

Then you navigate up hairpin turns, of which I have no pictures because it was all I could do to keep my hands on the wheel and avoid the cars barreling down the hills at a great rate of speed.  Some of the approaches were just a bit scary, but if you don’t look over the guard rail you don’t have to know that it’s a sheer drop to the valley floor.

Next you find a parking place (easy) in a nearby lot and take another picture so you can remember where you parked.  Then you climb the steep stairs to the town itself.These were the 200 steps up the hill to Volterra.  On the other hand, if you visit Cortona, you can take the escalators!Much easier…

Then you find your way through the narrow streets to one of the several main piazzas in town.This is the Piazza Pubblico in Cortona, with its imposing town hall.  As in Siena, these often include a civic museum.

There is also usually a Baptistery, octagonal of course, often faced with marble like this one in Volterra.  And, of course, a cathedral.  The one in Montalcino had a small tree growing in its campanile (bell tower).  We were still in search of ART, and we saw some great things in Volterra and Cortona.  I must confess that, by Montalcino, we were all wore out and didn’t set foot in a single museum or religious institution.  But first, we saw this thirteenth century deposition of Christ in Volterra.  We paid 50p to have the light turned on so we could see it clearly for three minutes.  The Diocesan Museum in Cortona is known for its art by local Luca Signorelli, whom Frances Mayes adores but we found a bit melodramatic.  Both of us much preferred Fran Angelico’s Annunciation, also here.Then, of course, there is lunch.  In Volterra, we went to a hole in the wall recommended by  Rick Steves and enjoyed it mightily.  La Vena di Vino had a nice red wine and delicious zuppe de pane, the local equivalent of ribbolitta.  In Cortona,  we had delicious melone e prosciutto, so perfectly ripe and delicious that it must be the food of the gods, followed by thin crust pizzas.  Mine had rocket (arugula) and stracchino.In a fit of snobbery, we were somewhat appalled when a group of loud Americans plopped down and proceeded to order cheeseburgers, French fries and diet Coke.  IN ITALY!  What is the point??  And in Montalcino, which is all about wine, we had indifferent salads and antipasto accompanied by a glass of quite good Brunello.  Next: the Etruscans.

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