Subject: Southern Tuscany report
Hi Ziners,

Earlier this summer, someone asked about sidetrips to the area south of Siena. We've just returned from an Untour of Southern Tuscany -- what a treat. This was a fairly last minute trip since we decided at the end of May to 'go somewhere' and this was our choice. Our apartment was on a vineyard on the hillside leading up to Montalcino, a delightful medieval walled village. Instead of zipping all over Italy as some other Untourists did, we just operated within about a one hr drive of Montalcino. There was plenty to keep us busy and I think the area has a lot to offer. We enjoyed Montalcino and its wines (Brunello and Rosso) but we especially enjoyed sitting at a cafe and just enjoying the village go by. I had read "Vanilla Beans and Brodo" by Isabella Dusi and that gave us a good background in the history of the village and its place in the history of Tuscany... and explained why they dislike the Medicis so much. We visited several enotecas and tasted at Castello de Banfi (huge winery with restaurant and a glass museum) and Biondi o Santi winery (reservations needed). They were interesting contrasts in style -- Banfi very modern and Biondi very traditional.

The abbeys, Monte Oliveto Maggiore and Sant' Antimo, are definitely worth a stop. We attended mass at Sant' Antimo which was Gregorian chant; just lovely. The ruined abbey, San Galgano, was another interesting stop -- the sky is the roof and the Italian 'sword in the stone' is on a hill above the abbey. Pienza and Montepulciano are charming small cities with city walls and medieval buildings; we found them to be less tourist-ed than San Gimignano. Pienza was a particular favorite; this is the city designed by Pius II as an 'ideal' city and also was the filming site for "Romeo and Juliet." One day we drove towards Grossetto and the coast, stopping at Roselle to walk through the Etruscan ruins on the hilltop. We continued on to Mt Argentario, a former island now attached to the coastline, and east to Pitigliano. The first sight of Pitigliano approached from the west is breath-taking with the city walls arising from the tufa.

We enjoyed exploring little Buonconvento which looks very unprepossessing at first viewing but has a lovely medieval heart and is a lively village with several good restaurants. The museum of sacred arts displays the works in an Art Deco palazzo -- quite unexpected. Nearby Murlo is worth a detour -- a tiny medieval walled town with a very nice Etruscan museum in the center. There are many small towns worth exploration in the area as well as hot springs near San Quirico d'Orcia.

We also spent a little time in Florence and Siena and while each has its art treasures and own beauty, the small villages won our hearts.