If you are looking for a European tourist destination, consider visiting the Chianti area of the famous Tuscany region in central Italy. Depending on your interests, this beautiful area might be an ideal vacation spot. You can get classic Italian food, and wash it down with fine local wine. Many tourist sites are very popular, in particular during high season, but are well worth the visit. Make sure to read the companion articles in this series that present eastern Tuscany and western Tuscany.
Our tour of the Chianti area of Tuscany starts at Greve in Chianti about 17 miles (27 kilometers) south of Florence. We proceed south to Radda in Chianti and then south to Siena. Then we head northwest to San Gimignano, and finally go southwest to Volterra.
Chianti is famous for wine, wine that has improved substantially over the decades. It is also the name of a central Tuscany area south of Florence. Greve in Chianti, named for the river running through it, is a market town and the area’s unofficial capital. Start at the Piazza Matteotti an arcade with a centuries-old bustling Saturday morning market. The Franciscan monastery is at the heart of the old city. The Eleventh Century Chiesa Santa Croce was rebuilt in 1325 after the entire town was burned to the ground by the Duke of Lucca. The village of Montefioralle is home to the Church of Santo Stefano, which boasts a Thirteenth Century Madonna with Child and a Fifteenth Century Trinity and Saints. You’ll find the house that tradition says belonged to the famous explorer Amerigo Vespucci. Nearby is the hilltop Verrazzano castle now restored to its historic splendor.
Radda in Chianti sits on a hill dividing two valleys, Val di Pesa and Val d’Arbia. Check out the beautiful Castello di Brolio that includes an enormous wine estate (230 hectares - more than 500 acres) that has been producing wine for nearly one thousand years. The castle has been the seat of a local noble family for over 800 years that includes a Nineteenth Century Italian premier. It includes two apartments that can be rented by the week. To the east is the Badia a Coltibuono (Abbey of the Good Harvest) sitting in another millennial (or close to it) wine-producing area. A Romanesque church is surrounded by 2000 acres of woods crossed by walking paths.
Siena has been called Italy’s best-preserved medieval city, and believe me, the competition is tough. The city is divided into neighborhoods known as contrade, named for animals such as Oca (goose). Twice a year (July 2 and August 16) its Piazza del Campo hosts the centuries-old Palio, a horse race pitting neighborhood against neighborhood. Even if you miss the Palio, don’t miss this beautiful public square. Its central point is the Gothic Palazzo Pubblico, the town hall for centuries. You might want to climb the 400 narrow steps of the bell tower (Torre del Mangia) for a fantastic view of the city and environs.
The Siena Duomo is one of the finest Gothic cathedrals in all Italy and contains the oldest stained glass in the country. Its marble-inlaid floors took almost 200 years to complete. Time your visit properly, the floors are uncovered only in September and October. Under the ground floor is the Cripta (Crypt) which was hidden from the world for seven hundred years. It was discovered during routine excavations and opened to the public in 2003. Take a look at the exceptional frescoes. Next door is the Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana that includes 26 panels depicting episodes from the Passion of the Christ. Two great museums are the Pinacoteca Nazionale (National Art Gallery) focusing on local masterpieces and the Spedale di Santa Maria della Scala, a former hospital whose old emergency room displays Fifteenth Century frescoes. Down below is the archeological section.
San Gimignano is a UNESCO World Architectural Heritage site. It once boasted 70 towers, medieval skyscrapers, that served to defend the city against ever-present invaders. Only 14 are left, which is 14 more than in most cities. Its two main churches are the Romanesque Collegiata with a Fourteenth Century fresco cycle of Old Testament scenes and Sant’Agostino displaying many masterpieces of the Italian renaissance artists. Unlike so many Italian churches, its façade is modest, very modest. But it hosts many fine works of art such as Fifteenth Century frescoes representing the life of Saint Augustine. The town center contains four squares, the Piazza della Cisterna, the Piazza Duomo where the Collegiata is located, the Piazza Pecori, and the Piazza delle Erbe. Its main streets are Via San Matteo and Via San Giovanni, which cross the city from north to south. You’ll want to see the People’s Palace with a hall named for a famous visitor, Dante, the Museum of Sacred Art, the Archeological Museum, and the Raffaele De Grade Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art. For a change of pace visit the medieval wash houses that were used for drawing water and washing clothes.
Volterra is surrounded by bleak industrial terrain. This is mining country (alabaster) and has been since time immemorial, or more precisely since Etruscan times. You can see all the Etruscan artifacts you want at the Museo Etrusco Guarnacci. The Pinacoteca e Museo Civico specializes in medieval religious art. If you are into ancient ruins you can choose between the Etruscan Porta all’Arco from the Fourth Century B. C. and the First Century Teatro Romano and adjoining terme (baths). Why not see both?
Levi Reiss has authored or co-authored ten books on computers and the Internet, but to be honest, he would rather just drink fine Italian or other wine, accompanied by the right foods. He teaches classes in computers at an Ontario French-language community college. Visit his website www.travelitalytravel.com devoted to Italian travel with an accent on fine Italian wine and food. Visit his central wine website www.theworldwidewine.com with weekly reviews of $10 wine and columns devoted to various aspects of wine including wine and food, humor, trivia, organic and kosher wine and lots more.
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