There is no denying that in general, the Tuscan landscape is very picturesque. We thought the most beautiful area of all was the Orcia valley, surrounding Montalcino.
The valley is filled with rolling hills and dales, fruit laden vineyards, farming land and plenty of those lovely tall cypress trees which line driveways and circle homesteads.
Fondest memory: The loveliest time of day was sunrise, when we gazed out of our hotel room window in awe - a lovely pink sunrise was developing, casting a beautiful light across the valley which was shrouded in mist - just magical.
Later in the day we followed the winding roads through the valley, stopping along the way to take photos of this beautiful part of Tuscany.
Favorite thing: Montalcino is best known for its wine, Brunello. Brunello has been rated the # 1 red wine by wine magazines - not that I knew this at the time of my trip here. I'm no wine connoisseur, but I really enjoyed our tour of a winery anyway. It was a beautiful place, it was interesting learning about the vineyards, and we got to taste one of the wines. We toured Costanti Winery, one of the smaller, family-run wineries (as opposed to Castello Banfi), and I think that made the experience more intimate and personal. Be sure to make an appointment at whichever winery you want to tour, otherwise you might find them too busy working to be able to show you around.
Even if you don't have time to visit a winery, at least buy a bottle of this excellent wine, or have some with dinner while you're here. Brunello is made from Sangiovese grapes and is aged for four years total, longer than most wines. It's very full-bodied. Also it's on the expensive side, so it's a splurge for me. We were told that Italians would never drink a glass of Brunello by itself, but only with a meal. The Rosso wine is made from the same grape but only aged for a year, so is somewhat lighter, as well as less expensive. I liked that, too.
Tip from our guide at the winery - 1997 was an excellent year for Brunello : )
Favorite thing: "Mount of the Olive Grove" stands in the beautiful countryside of hills and cypress trees between Montalcino, Pienza, and Siena. The Benedictine Abbey on top of the hill dates back to the 1300's. Numerous small chapels and other buildings surround the main Gothic Abbey. Besides milling olives, the monks here have restored & maintained a library of old books.
My fondest memory of this whole trip is, without a doubt, Don Celso, the monk in charge of the monastery's olive mill. He didn't speak any English, but our guide translated for us as he explained their traditional methods of harvesting the olives and then pressing them into oil. We were lucky to be here right at the end of November, during the olive harvest season, and I think our guide worked quite hard to set up this appointment with him. He was featured in a wonderful article on olive oil in National Geographic magazine in September, 1999.
We were lucky enough to be able to buy two bottles of fresh olive oil from him, which he bottled by hand right in front of our eyes. It was quite a revelation to us how different fresh olive oil tastes compared to older olive oil - here in the U.S. they don't even put the date on olive oil, and most of it is many months old by the time someone buys it. We're missing out on all the best flavor this way! Now we seek out shops that import the oil seasonally each year, so we know it's from the most recent harvest. It's a whole different taste from the lifeless stuff that's been sitting around on shelves for a year or more : )
Tuscan wines are world famous, especially the region of Montalcino. There are many wine shops (enoteca) on every corner, including the little town of Montalcino itself. But I'd rather recommend one of the little winaries along the road... For instance, this one:
Enoteca FonTe PeTri
Loc. Fontepetri 46, 53024 Montalcino (SI)
++39 0577 806241
Favorite thing: Montalcino is a small town with a fortress, and lies on a hill surrounded by vineyards. These vineyards produce the most expensive wine of Italy "Brunello".
Favorite thing: We enjoyed walking in the small town of Montalcino where you will find narrow steep alleys towards the Duomo.