Tuscany’s Dolce Vita
Tuscany offers a dolce vita mix of hearty cuisine, fascinating history, and gentle beauty. First we'll learn about the original Tuscans — the ancient Etruscans — at Volterra's Etruscan Museum, then we'll tour a hill town that was important to both the Etruscans and the Romans, head into the woods for a truffle hunt, eat slow food Italian-style during Sunday lunch in Chiusure, and finish in Montepulciano, where we'll get passionate about the local wine.
Filled top to bottom with rare Etruscan artifacts, this museum — even with few English explanations and its dusty, old-school style — makes it easy to appreciate how advanced this pre-Roman culture was.
American Annie Adair is an excellent guide for private, in-depth tours of Volterra. Her husband Francesco, an easy-going sommelier and wine critic, leads a "Wine Tasting 101" crash course in sampling Tuscan wines. For a more in-depth wine experience, Annie and Francesco offer excursions into the heart of Chianti and can even organize Tuscan weddings for Americans.
Alab'Arte offers a fun peek into the art of alabaster. At their powdery workshop you can watch Roberto Chiti and Giorgio Finazzo at work, and they're delighted to share their art with visitors. (Everything — including Roberto and Giorgio — is covered in a fine white dust.) Lighting shows off the translucent quality of the stone and the expertise of these artists. This is not a touristy guided visit, but something far more special: the chance to see busy artisans practicing their craft.
La Vena di Vino, also just across from the Etruscan Museum, is a fun enoteca where two guys who have devoted themselves to the wonders of wine share it with a fun-loving passion. Each day Bruno and Lucio open six or eight bottles, serve your choice by the glass, pair it with characteristic munchies, and offer fine music (guitars available for patrons) and an unusual decor (the place is strewn with bras). Hang out here with the local characters. This is your chance to try the Super Tuscan wine — a creative mix of international grapes grown in Tuscany. According to Bruno, the Brunello is just right with wild boar, and the Super Tuscan is perfect for meditation. Although Volterra is famously quiet late at night, this place is full of action.
Roberto, a great guide who lives in the Crete Senesi, runs all-day minibus tours with a passion for local culture, hands-on experiences, and offbeat sights. The price is reasonable, since he assembles groups of up to eight people to share the experience...and the cost. Roberto also arranges Siena city walks. Roberto's passions are Sienese culture, Tuscan history, and local cuisine.
Montepulciano's most popular attraction isn't made of stone — it's the famous wine, Vino Nobile. This robust red can be tasted in any of the cantinas lining Via Ricci and Via di Gracciano nel Corso, but the cantina in the basement of Palazzo Contucci is both historic and fun. Skip the palace's formal wine-tasting showroom facing the square, and instead head down the lane on the right to the actual cellars, where you'll meet lively Adamo, who has been making wine here since 1961 and welcomes tourists into his cellar. While at the palace, you may meet Andrea or Ginevra Contucci, whose family has lived here since the 11th century. They love to share their family's products with the public. Adamo and the Contuccis usually have a half-dozen bottles open, and at busy times, other members of their staff are likely to speak English.
Mueblè il Riccio ("The Hedgehog") is medieval-elegant, with 10 modern and spotless rooms, an awesome roof terrace, and friendly owners. Five are new “superior” rooms with grand views across the Tuscan valleys.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi I'm Rick Steves, exploring more of the best of Europe. This time we're in Italy and it's all about la dolce vita. It's the sweet life in Tuscany. Thanks for joining us.
When travel dreams take people to Italy, Tuscany is often their first stop. There's something charming...almost seductively charming about this region and its rustic good living.
Tuscany offers a dolce vita mix of hearty cuisine, fascinating history and gentle beauty. First we'll learn about the original Tuscans — the ancient Etruscans — then we'll tour a hill town that was important to both the Etruscans and the Romans, head into the woods for a truffle hunt, we'll eat slow food Italian style during Sunday lunch and finish in another hilltown where we'll get passionate about the local wine.
Italy is the size of California and the region of Tuscany grabs the center. We'll visit Volterra before checking out Pienza and Montepulciano.
Tuscany is named after the Etruscan people who lived here centuries before this region was conquered by ancient Rome. Over 2,500 years ago, long before anyone had heard of Julius Caesar, back when Rome was still just a small town, the Etruscan civilization flourished in this part of Italy.
Etruscan tombs are scattered all over the countryside — located both on good maps and on signposts. We're dropping in on a farm to visit the tomb of the Hescanas family.
This tomb — cut out of solid tufa rock — was discovered by the farmer's grandfather. What little we know about the Etruscans we've learned mostly from their fresco-covered tombs.
The farmer tells me that this tomb dates back to about 350 BC...
The entire family was buried in several sarcophagi in this tomb.
We can read the family name...spelled what we would call backwards...HESCANAS. The faint but still readable frescos take us back to the funeral ritual.
Senor Hescanas rides the chariot into the afterlife. It's a pre-Christian judgment day as a divine magistrate deliberates his case. A heavenly chamber orchestra provides music as women in fine gowns and jewelry dance. The motion and realism captured by the 4th century BC artist is impressive
Looking at this evidence of such an advanced civilization it's amazing that these earliest Tuscans are still largely a mystery.
With the rise of Rome, the Etruscan civilization vanished — steamrolled and absorbed into that mighty empire. Now, with each tomb excavated, archeologists are piecing together the mysterious puzzle of Etruscan culture.
Like many popular Tuscan towns, Volterra sits on an Etruscan foundation. Twenty-five hundred years ago, Volterra was one of the most important Etruscan cities. It was a key trading center protected by a four mile long wall.
Its mighty Etruscan gate — built of massive tufa stones — survives. The three seriously eroded heads date from the 2nd century BC and show what can happen when you leave something outside for 2000 years. The smaller stones are part of the medieval city wall which incorporated parts of the much older Etruscan wall.
Unlike other famous towns in Tuscany, Volterra feels not cutesy and touristic...but real, vibrant, and almost oblivious to the alure of the tourist dollar. A refreshing break from its more commercial neighbors, it's my favorite small town in Tuscany.
Volterra's Etruscan Museum is filled top to bottom with precious artifacts from centuries before Christ.
The artifacts were mostly excavated from tombs. You'll see etched mirrors, stylized bronze buckles, intricately decorated pot handles, and exquisitely crafted jewelry. The exhibit helps us appreciate the sophistication of this pre-Roman society.
The forte of this museum is its many finely carved funerary urns — stone boxes containing ashes of the dead. They suggest the Etruscans were influenced by their ancient Greek contemporaries.
But while Greek artists focused on the idealized human form, the Etruscans represented people as unique individuals — portrayed realistically, with wrinkles, crooked noses, and funny haircuts. The museum's extensive collection of urns—with subjects lounging as if munching grapes with the gods at some heavenly banquet—is a reminder that the Etruscans believed you'd have fun in the afterlife.
Volterra's 700 year old city hall claims to be the oldest in Tuscany. Civic palaces like these were emblems of an era when city states were strong. They were architectural exclamation points declaring that townspeople, rather than popes and emperors, were calling the shots.
Towns like Volterra were truly city states — proudly independent and relatively democratic. They had their own armies, taxes, even their own system of weights and measures.
A challenge for me in my guidebook writing is to take a slice of a town — like Volterra's main drag — and, with help from local guides, give travelers a peek into the culture. There's so much to see and learn...if you know where to look.
Annie Adair — an American who fell in love with Volterra...and one of its men — works as a guide here and she's joining us to help out.
Annie: So every Saturday morning when the town market is held, this little corner is where all the farmers meet to discuss...how they're going to sell their wheat, what fertilizer they are going to use or whatever they need.
Rick: So it's a tradition.
Annie: It's a tradition. Every Saturday morning you can see the farmers, usually with a wool vest, a nice old hat...
Rick: How are your fava beans doing?
Annie: Exactly...So Tuscan towns are filled with these little specialty stores where you can find meats and cheeses and...
Rick: So there you've got?...
Annie: it's the king of the Tuscan forest. the wild boar...it's made into great sausages and ham hocks. And this is it's leg. Hairy on the outside, but prosciutto in the inside.
Annie: So if the city seems crowed today imagine it in the middle ages when there were four times as many people living within the city walls...they would have to build wooden additions and balcony's hanging over the streets so it was a tangled mess of balcony's' and roofs
Rick: So these little nubs supported wooden add-ons basically?
Rick: Now, that's one stout tower
Annie: It was actually the house tower or home of a noble family in the 13th century
Rick: So it was a private home
Annie: It was a private home, but it also served a defensive function. You can see on the ground floor. This is where they would have had a store, but there was no interior staircase, so to get inside the house they'd have to use a ladder up to that door above that very narrow
Rick: so that's the front door of the house?
Annie: Yes, that was the front door of the house and they made it so narrow so you couldn't possibly get inside wearing armor.
It turns out that quaint little Volterra was a significant player in both ancient Etruscan and Roman times.
Annie: By ancient standards, Volterra was huge. Under the Etruscans 25,000 people lived here in Etruscan. About five centuries later, under the Romans there were just as many people and they built this theater down here to seat up to 2000 spectators.
Rick: So under all of this there's' Roman ruins?
Annie: So just about anywhere you dig you can find something that's Roman
Alabaster has traditionally been a specialty here. Fine galleries show off the expertise of local artists. To see sculptors in action, drop by the powdery Alab Arte workshop where Roberto and Giorgio turn rock into art. Alabaster, quarried nearby, has long been a big industry here in Volterra. Alabaster is softer and easier to work than marble. Long appreciated for its translucent quality, it was sliced thin to provide windows for Italy's medieval churches.
Just up the street, at La Vena di Vino wine bar, Bruno and Lucio devote themselves to the wonders of wine. They share their vino and their love of music with a fun-loving passion. Each day this wine-sipping duo open 6 or 8 bottles of the best local wine and serve it to the local gang with a charismatic flair.
This is your chance to compare two favorite Tuscan reds: Brunello di Montelcino and Super Tuscan with the help of a good teacher.
Brunello di Montelcino is traditional wine in Tuscany. It's made with Sangiovese grapes, it's only Sangiovese grapes. Sangiovese grosso from Montelcino- traditional – aged 5 years
Rick: So the Brunello is all Sangiovese?
Bruno: Only Sangiovese
Rick: So explain to me the Super Tuscan
Bruno: Super Tuscan is Tuscan wine but with international grapes; cabenet, merlot, syrah. It's possible with Sangiovese grapes
Rick: So it's open for creativity; a little Tuscan, a little French, a little Spainish. Who knows?
Tuscan wines are some of the tastiest and most famous in Italy. Wines are particular to their village. The characteristics of the soil, temperature, and exposure to sun make each wine — even if made from the same San Giovese grape — unique.
To connect with the rural charm that is so much a part of our image of Tuscany, we're exploring by car and staying not in towns but in farm houses...like the Agriturismo Terrapille.
This relaxing hideaway crowns a bluff just below the hilltown of Pienza. Surrounded by 360 degrees of dreamy Tuscan scenery, it's private and rustic yet comfy and romantic.
In the spring, the fertile Tuscan countryside becomes a green mosaic of farms. Many of these are Agriturismos, offering good value accommodations to travelers.
Some are luxurious, with plush rooms and offering amenities such as riding stables and swimming pools. Others are simple and rustic offering casual farmhouse hospitality and the smell of whatever is being produced. A peaceful home base for exploring the region, these rural Italian B&Bs are family-friendly and ideal for those traveling by car.
Agriturismos are subsidized — part of a government effort to help small, family-run farms survive in this age of large scale corporate farming. To qualify officially as an agriturismo, the farm must still be a working farm. If this sounds good to you, choose a place that advertises itself specifically as an agriturismo.
When in Tuscany, I team up with my friend and fellow tour guide, Roberto Bechi. He always has some creative ways to get off the beaten path and closer to the culture...this time it's truffles.
We're meeting Fabio and his prized dogs Nik and Suzy to hunt the beloved truffles — one of this region's specialties.
Rick: So basically, what are truffles?
Roberto: Truffles are mushrooms that live underground
Rick: OK and where do you find them?
Roberto: You find them near the oak trees.
Rick: like here?
Roberto: Yeah, a perfect environment
Rick: So, what sort of environment do they like?
Roberto: They like a lot of moisture
Rick: Tell me about these dogs
Roberto: These dogs are trained for years before they can find the mushroom
Rick: They smell it out?
Roberto: They smell it
The dogs are given two commands: "Dové," meaning where is it? And "c'è": Is there one?
Rick: Did he find something?
....now this tool here....
Roberto: it's called a vanghino. It's to did out the truffles....I see one! I see it!
Rick: So this is the precious truffle?
Roberto: yes the truffle
Rick: people pay a lot of money for this?
Roberto: $100 a pound
Rick: Ah, smell that...
Roberto: it's wonderful...with pasta
Just down the road, the village of Chiusure is celebrating its annual artichoke festival. People from all around gather to celebrate the peak of the artichoke season. Young and old gather to prepare these bristly treats.
Rick: Ah they love their artichokes here. I can see why. It's tasty. What is it about these archichokes?
Roberto: Well, this community brought back this artichoke from extinction
Rick: this particular species?....
Roberto: This species here.
Rick: Tell me about this slow food. This is related to the slow food movement right?
Roberto: Absolutely, the idea that you must eat quality and not quantity. And that you have to preserve the variety of foods
Rick: So not chemicals?
Roberto: No chemicals first, but also the varieties. More varieties – better.
Rick: And you eat in the season
Roberto: Absolutely, always eat in season
Rick: Wow, I'll be back next year for the artichoke festival
And food doesn't get much slower than cheese making. In the nearby hills, a flock of free range sheep and a few noble goats head back to munch spring grass after being milked. Victoria, with a little help hauls their fresh milk into her cheese workshop. She starts by pouring the milk into a big kettle to warm. When it gets to the right temperature she mixes in a thistle flower solution instead of rennet to get it to curdle
....then when it reaches the right consistency she stirs it and separates the curds and whey, (or liquid) she presses the curds into forms made of beech wood gently squeezing the moisture out.
Afterward Victoria lovingly tends to her aging rounds of cheese. Farms like this are part of Italy's growing 'Slow Food' movement where producers maintain the labor intensive traditions and consumers are willing to pay extra for the quality.
Meanwhile, back at the agriturismo, the cattle — oblivious to their fate — are raised in free range bliss. These Chianina cows, are celebrated throughout Tuscany for their lean and tasty beef.
It's Sunday and Roberto's Slow Food group is enjoying a convivial lunch on the farm. Our meal couldn't be more fresh — local wine, Victoria's cheese, today's crunchy bread. We're grating some of those exquisitely pungent truffles on our pasta. The artichokes are gobbled down raw by young and old — a leafy delicacy. And our Florentine-cut steak is cooked just the way locals like it...rare...and sliced thin...good enough for a Medici prince. Lunch is the main event on this timeless Tuscan Sunday.
Our next stop, Pienza, is a small town that packs a lot of Renaissance punch. In the 1400s, Pope Pius II of the Piccolomini family decided to remodel his hometown in a style that was all the rage: Renaissance.
With construction fast-tracked by papal clout, the town was transformed—in only four years—from a medieval jumble into a jewel of Renaissance architecture. And the town that was named Corsignano was renamed Pienza, after Pope Pius II.
Pienza's classic main square is famous for its elegance and artistic unity: the City Hall, two palaces and the cathedral. With its bold Renaissance façade—and the Piccolomini family coat of arms immodestly front and center — the church dominates Piazza.
Pope Pius II's palace, which welcomes the public, remained the home of the Piccolomini family until 1962.
Pienza, while plenty touristy is a delight to explore....It doesn't take long to walk each lane in the tiny town.
Views from the terrace include the Tuscan countryside, and somewhere in the distance...on another hilltop...stands Montepulciano.
Crowning yet another ridge, Montepulciano welcomes visitors with views, villas and vino. Streets are lined with noble palazzos because Florentine nobility favored Montepulciano as a breezy and relaxed place for a summer residence. Aristocratic egos meant each palace was built to outdo its neighbor.
Piazza Grande is dominated by the city hall. It looks like the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence because it was built under Florentine dominance five centuries ago. The crenellations along the roof were never intended to hide soldiers just to symbolize power. The unfinished Duomo glumly looks on, wishing the city hadn't run out of money for its facade.
It's not uncommon to find churches that were built until they were functional inside and then, for various reasons, the facades were never finished. This intentionally rough brick work is waiting patiently for its final marble veneer...which will likely never arrive.
Also facing the main square is the Contucci Palace, where the Contucci family still lives, produces and sells their wine. In their cantina they welcome visitors to appreciate their wine and how it's made...and since 1953 your wine tasting host and very passionate tour guide has been...Adamo.
And you don't have to speak Italian to understand that Adamo believes they make excellent Nobile di Montepulciano right here.
Adamo tells me that their wine ages from 2 to 4 years in oak from France, Slovenia and Italy and each wood has its own distinctive characteristics
If he gets this excited about wood, I can hardly wait for the tasting.
Adamo explains that this Nobile has only aged two of its required four years and is perfect. To go beyond perfection we'll try some from a bottle in their tasting room.
With Adamos passion and guidance wine can be enjoyed by anybody visiting Montepulciano
We have an appropriately aristocratic guesthouse to call home in town and thankfully it's just around the corner. Mueble il Riccio comes with medieval-elegance, comfy rooms — mine has a view, and an expansive and memorable breakfast room. The owner, Giorgio is happy to help his guests with sightseeing tips.
...and even better, he's taking me for a spin in one of his classic Italian cars.
Tuscany looks great with the top down. The many charms of this region reward the traveler with a fascinating insight into a land that makes living well a time honored art.
Life can be oh so sweet, especially here in Tuscany. And especially if you have Giorgio for your driver. Thanks for joining us for a little dolce vita. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on traveling. Avanti Georgio.