A small hillside village that is NOT a vampire attraction or beckoning people in with lures of the world’s best ice cream, instead one that has a great fort, clean streets, some tourists but not so many that you feel you are in France or Germany, a helpful tourist office and PARKING!
Having lived abroad, I always look at places we go to as potential homes. Ridiculous I know, but it’s obviously part of my survival instinct: “Could I live here?” is always my first thought on a town. I have odd pockets of places all over where I have imaginary flats or homes – various parts of France, Lama Island in Hong Kong, San Francisco etc. Montalcino is the first place since arriving here where I thought ‘maybe’, however, with much of the Italian rural areas rather like ghost towns apart from the towns invaded by the grockles during August, I’m not sure I could rock with this way of life so much, there is laid back and there is bloody horizontal ten feet under!
We really enjoyed Montalcino despite it sounding like something you might order in a coffee house. The sat nav took us through the Brunello wine region which is lovely and sprawling, past many hill towns and up to the parking for Montalcino. Our draw to this place, apart from the fort was the fact that Friday was market day. When we lived in Brussels we always took visitors to the market on a Sunday if they were with us. It was a HUGE expanse of market selling everything from the ordinary socks and fuses to the bizarre and amazing; palm trees and colourful Moroccan tagines. Montalcino had some lovely fruit and veg stalls, lorries full of loose tomatoes delivered the goods up to the village (we know as we were stuck behind one and, if you’re stuck behind a loose tomato lorry on a vertical serpentine climb, you’re pretty glad it’s carrying tomatoes and not rubble or garbage!).
We spent a good three hours exploring, buying a picnic lunch at the Coop and dining in one of the parks, supping coffees and limonsoda in a street café and buying some goodies to take home. Master Beehive has departed childhood altogether it seems, as I promised each small a souvenir to take home, along the lines of a t-shirt or something and he chose a small Italian leather wallet. Now this may say something about his love of good quality, his ability to know how to barter the best out of a deal, his love of cash, or just that he felt he’d outgrown funny t-shirts that mentioned Tuscan Wild Boars or Pinnochio?
One thing that Montalcino does that our village does not, is visitor tours. ‘Ah…here come the tourists…’ (sorry, that was actually another reference to Twilight!) There is a daily ‘wine bus’ that takes car-less or not tourists out to the various winerys with which they have struck a deal (the bus company that is, not the tourists, just in case you had a vision of a £1 fish man but with wine!) This tour is likely to set you back around 28 euros per person. Given we had a car and three non drinking children and one non drinking driver (oh ho ho, how I love these hairpin bends - I couldn’t ‘possibly drive’ the tank around them!!!) 140 euros for a maximum of 2 bottles bought (weight restriction issues) did seem a little excessive – rather like car insurance methinks. So, being those stoic Brits (I think you know where this is going!) we decided to do it ourselves.
Okay, so remember we are in Italy and bear with me: Italians have siestas, you remember that bit right? They also shut during parts of August – did you know that bit? I know, peak season, how bloody stupid, no wonder the country is running out of dough! They also don’t like to signpost anything clearly and don’t seem to be able to afford signs that tell you any opening hours – or maybe they don’t keep opening hours.
So armed with a map of the wine bus route, we decided to try two of the vineyards that were on our route back home. The first was a ‘family run’ farm that looked appealing. We saw a sign that took us along a rubbly track and pulled onto it. My first fears with these ‘tracks’ is that we won’t get the bus out again, but as Mr Beehive pointed out, if they’re taking tour buses here, there’s got to be a turning point somewhere. We drove along and came to the first house – a small place with a sign for olive oil sales, this wasn’t it. We drove further, the second, enormous house, had its gates firmly shut and locked, that can’t have been it. We drove on, and on and eventually, finding nothing else, decided that perhaps house number two was it and they were now shut as the tour bus had run today. Skillfully manoevering a 47 point turn, we headed back to the main road. About a kilometre further down there was another vineyard, well signed, sales direct to the public and tasting. The gates were open, we were in luck. We drove down their driveway to the house to be met by closed doors, closed shutters, no signs, no bells, nothing. All five of us walked across their lawn to see if it was open anywhere, nada. So we all piled back in the mystery tour bus and Scooby doo-ed it back out of there. As we were pulling back down their drive a woman twitched her curtains back. So maybe it was open, maybe it wasn’t but they obviously weren’t too keen to cater for l’Ingelese, particularly if their arrival was between the hours of 12.30 and 4.30. Off we went again. Our last choice was a huge manor house estate, we decided this was the last stop saloon and if this was closed we’d give it up as a bad job and convert to Californian wines in protest!
Driving up their kilometre drive we met a small car with two women where, Master Beehive the elder assured us, the passenger was holding wine. I, on the otherhand felt sure she gesticulated something a little rude to us either because we were a large car on a small drive or maybe she was telling us to turn around you stupid Brits because it’s siesta time in August! Either way, we carried on.
At the top of the hill we nervously looked at the Enoteca from the car. It says Aperto I mumbled. We decided to risk it. Piling out again, we set foot on the soil and as we did we were greeted by a smiley face from the Enoteca door. “Welcome, Buen giorno” (notice dear reader, how she immediately assumed dumb foreigners before her own kin!).
We were treated to three fantastic wines, two Brunellos and a French mix grape, this resulted in a purchase of two rather more extravagant than we would normally pay, wine. But we’re planning on a Christmas at our house this year where we DON’T flood so are putting them aside. A sniff of the grappa (not a taste – jeez, fire water is exactly what it is!) and we were back on the road with much of the cursing of the Italians missing a trick yadda yadda, put behind us.
Today is Saturday again, one week since our arrival. We’re having a day close to the village today. We intend to visit the mining museum this morning, San Silvestro, and then a trip to Gonads for a food top up (it’s not really called Gonads, it’s true name is Conads, but seriously, when there’s humour in a name like that, you think we should miss out?).
Tomorrow we will be starting early. We’ve decided both from a financial perspective, a driving perspective and a parking perspective that we will take the train to both Pisa and Siena (not in the same day, obviously!). It’s always hard when you’re on holiday to know where to go to make the most of your limited time in an area. I really, really wanted to go to Florence, it was part of the reason for going to Tuscany in the first place, however, on arriving here and discovering how much further away we really were than we first assumed (and discovering how long it takes to go anywhere due to having to spiral round mountain after mountain. Seriously, you can be driving for over an hour and still see your apartment!), we chose to do Pisa and Siena as they were more manageable in a day and far closer on the train. We have tickets to climb the tower tomorrow afternoon, so hopefully this will compensate for not seeing David or the Uffici this time.