During my 9 month sabbatical in Europe in 2015, I spent a total of two months with family in Tuscany. About a 10 minute drive south of Siena, Monteroni D’Arbia became my home. If I couldn’t live in Australia, I think I would want to be living in Tuscany. The wide open spaces and picturesque landscape captured my heart years ago, it is a region I never get tired of seeing again and again.
I’ve decided to focus on the ‘borgo’ or villages that were a highlight for me on this trip for various reasons. In the past I have visited mostly the northern region of Tuscany, the famous Chianti region and San Gimignano, Florence, Siena etc. However, this time I had more time and my Tuscan family were very proud to show me their local hangouts and not the over commercialised and busier touristy destinations like we did in past visits. I wanted to experience Tuscany like a local.
A TUSCAN WEDDING
It started with a week of wedding celebrations. My second cousin was tying the knot and that was the only excuse I needed to be there! With the customary Tuscan humour, the wedding day was a hit. This time around, the bride arrived on a tractor, a reflection of our farming roots. However, the wrong bride showed up to church first. Nothing like a little tension for the groom before the formalities could proceed.
A gorgeous reception was experienced at Castello di San Fabiano in Monteroni D’Arbia celebrating with family from all over the world. Such a precious day!
A collage of various shots from a Tuscan wedding. Clockwise from top left, the bell tower, bride and groom , table setting, pretend bride, outdoor reception and guest list per table stuck on bottles.
GETTING BACK TO MY ROOTS
We visited the original town, Murlo, where my mum’s aunt and uncle first settled with their 4 young children when they migrated north to Tuscany from Cerreto Sannita in Campania. We found some old photos to compare, and we spent the afternoon at a Christening reminiscing on all the hardship and progress the family made over the years. Just the history lesson I cherished hearing and came to Tuscany to discover… so proud of my family roots.
THE BEST WAY TO DISCOVER A BORGO!
One of my highlights was exploring the village of Montisi with Canadian friends who met me in Tuscany. We walked the streets taking photos, competing for the best shot of the day! Gavin and I had already gone out the night before, at sunset, to capture some picturesque shots of the local area. Our photography tour of Montisi ended with a delicious lunch at Da Roberto’s Taverna. I recommend discovering a town via the lens of your camera. It slows you down and lets you notice the little things, the details that capture the essence of the town.
A collage of images from Montisi. From top left, picture of a wine barrel with plants growing out of it in front of two tuscan doors, Roberto the waiter at local restaurant, close up of pink petunia, small closup inset hot of purple and white petunia, red petunia plant, 4 old wine bottles on a shelf, espresso cup on wall with Montisi town in background, glass of red wine with dried red chilli table decorations in background.
THE FAMOUS MAD GUBBIAN CAKE!
On our way back from a road trip to the Frasassi Caves in Genga, we stopped in Gubbio. This village is set against a hillside and the streets are very steep. My uncle was adamant that I needed to explore this unique village, famous for its ‘madness’. The story goes that the town folk approached the ruling Pope of the day to ask if they could get a mental institution built. The town had 19 hospitals at the time but no mental institution. The Pope jokingly stated that the town just needed to close its doors and it would instantly have a mental institution. The town folk had brought with them a delicious cake that the Pope repeatedly asked for after they made their request – it became known as the Mad Gubbian Cake.
In the photos below you will get an indication of how steep these streets were, my uncle pushed me up these streets so that I could see the view from the top. He was on a mission that day and any indication from me that it would be too difficult was completely ignored. We had so many exciting adventures together whilst I was there. I would not have seen half as much without my family’s enthusiasm and energy!
SOMETIMES YOU NEED TO SEE WATER!
After another road trip, to beloved Assisi this time, (this town warrants its own blog post!), we stopped at Castiglione del Lago. I was so excited to discover such a large body of water in the middle of the countryside. One thing I did realise during my time in Europe last year was that I need to get close to water frequently, it calms me and rejunivates me just by seeing it!
Castiglione del Lago was such a picturesque village and so easy to navigate the cobblestone paving with the wheelchair. Most of these towns allow cars with wheelchair parking stickers (even those from Australia) to park inside the town or just outside the town gates which then makes it easier to access the area. On this particular afternoon, we strolled through the town and stopped in to the various shops selling edible delicacies from cheeses to truffle infused items, polentas of all types and good old ‘Vin Santo’, a dessert wine best had with ‘Cantucci’, a delicious almond biscuit local to the Tuscan region which gets dunked in the Vin Santo before devouring.
A GIRLY AFTERNOON
One lovely afternoon, my cousins organised for a girl’s afternoon out. Their children were either babysat by their grandparents or were still at school. Pienza was the destination, a town known for its pecorino cheeses ‘cacio’, you can smell it as you lose yourself in all the beautifully named streets such as Via del Bacio (Kiss Street), Via della Fortuna (Lucky Street) and Via dell’Amore (Love Street).
Some retail therapy allowed us to get out of the windy autumn weather and hand over some Euros in exchange for cashmere items to remember this romantic town. We warmed up with some hot coffees and dark chocolate with nuts before returning home, past the famous Cypress tree cluster, to the domestic duties of motherhood.
CAN’T GO WITHOUT MENTIONING THE FOOD!
My culinary taste buds were dancing whilst I was in Tuscany! To my uncle’s delight, there is virtually nothing I don’t like to eat and out came all the traditional Tuscan dishes to educate my senses. With a view from my room in the picture below, I was ready for a spiritual journey through one of Italy’s most soulful regions.
I learned about pinzimonio – oil, salt and pepper served with raw vegetables such as fennel and artichoke hearts. The art of choosing the right extra virgin olive oil is a science unto itself, I was in awe at the taste testing involved and the refined evaluations made by the most experienced family members in choosing which supplier to buy the oil from. This year is not an issue, my uncle planted his own olive trees and the oil was made in-house.
I also tasted the most incredible prosciutto. You see in Italy it is cured for 18 months before it is served, the flavours are intense and rich in comparison to the often times 6 month curation when sold commercially in Australia.
Most of my Tuscan sojourn occurred during autumn, perfect time for ‘Cinghiale’ (wild pork) polenta and roasted meats on the open fireplace. Rustic all the way and delicious to boot! As the farm work toned down and the season of hibernation approached, each meal was becoming more and more delectable. My waistline was starting to show it too after months of no exercise and limited movement around farmland and cobbled streets.
A collage of various Tuscany pictures. From top left, landscape view of harvested field with timber fence in foreground, pinzimonio (oil, salt and pepper) with fennel on a plate, prosciuttos hanging, 'cinghiale' (wild pig) polenta, meats on a metal grill ready for cooking on open fire, open shed with stacked hay barrels, pinzimonio with raw artichoke hearts, traditional Tuscan antipasto.
TECHNICALLY SPEAKING I WOULD SAY THAT MUCH OF TUSCANY IS NOT WHEELCHAIR FRIENDLY, HOWEVER, THE SPIRIT OF THE PEOPLE AND THEIR WILLINGNESS TO NAVIGATE THE OBSTACLES SO THAT I COULD EXPERIENCE THE AUTHENTICITY OF THESE TOWNS STILL BLOWS ME AWAY TODAY.
Some towns did have public disabled toilets, many had disabled parking very close to the town fortress doors or their central streets. Access is ad-hoc, you can’t expect consistency in Italy but with a flexible attitude and some prepared thinking, not much is impossible. Sage Travelling is also an expert in Europe for guided accessible tours and if you want an authentic tour of the southern region of Tuscany, then visit Tuscany Untouched Tours and Matteo and Laura will take you there and show you their home town and authentic village life.
I will forever cherish my family and friends in Tuscany for the experience of a lifetime. I will be back!