We travelled from Rome through Tuscany to Modena, then on to the Veneto, Venice, and back to Rome. When we planned the trip, we had no idea that it would be the last time we’d see Italy before a world health pandemic closed borders and sent us all home for an extended time out...
Tuscany gets a lot of attention. Most of it is well deserved. Often, it starts to sound all the same. I’m going to switch it up a bit. Of course, there were cypress trees, fertile vistas, and good wine. But, I’ll share some things I didn’t think about when I thought about Tuscany. And I’m guessing maybe you haven’t either.
I’ll start at the beginning. Both of my journey, and of what we now know as Italy.
About 3,000 years ago, Tuscany and the surrounding areas were known as Etruria. It was the cultural heart of the peninsula during the Iron Age. Then came the Romans. In 27 BC, after centuries of battle, Etruria was incorporated into the Roman Empire. Roman antics all but erased their history. Today, the Etruscan culture remains at the heart of much of this region and is well worth exploring. In all of these towns you’ll find Etruscan influences and exhibits that honor their contributions.
A bit of trivia: it’s believed that the Etruscans invented lasagna. For that alone, I’m grateful.
Terme di Saturnia
The town of Saturnia pre-dates the Etruscans. It has steep narrow streets where ruins of both Etruscan and Roman tombs are accessible. Although the town is a great place to wander, that’s not why we’re here.
We are in search of the thermal river that formed when the god Jupiter threw a lightning bolt at the god Saturn. He missed. But, that lightning bolt, according to ancient lore, released a spring of 105F/37.5C sulfurous water that flows to this day. It created a river of gently billowing steam that snakes through the valley. It also forms a couple of different waterfalls and pools.
Terme di Saturnia is the name given to that series of sulfur hot springs. It’s also the name of the private spa in town. Don’t get confused by that. Especially if you’re on a budget (learn from my experience). The dramatic (and often Instagrammed) Cascate del Mulino is free to the public (or was when we visited). It’s similar to a public beach, just more picturesque.
The Terme di Saturnia Natural Destination is a private spa that collects the water from the river into a luxurious series of pools. It was the perfect place to soak the jetlag out of my body and enjoy my first spritz of the vacation. If you’re going to spend the day, it’s worth splurging for the upgraded package. It includes lunch, a private locker and shower area, and a cozy robe.
A prehistoric village turned modern town. Carved into ancient volcanic rock (tufo) atop a steep hill. This town predates the Etruscans. It’s a visit worth the detour through the winding narrow roads of Maremma (warning to the easily carsick).
The first thing you’ll notice: a graceful seventeenth century aqueduct, the engineering feat of its time. Something to look for: Pitigliano is known as Little Jerusalem. In 1622 the Medici family designated Pitigliano as a Jewish ghetto. You’ll find many small relics visible as you stroll through the town. You’ll also find a beautiful synagogue, a museum dedicated to the Jewish history of the region, and an underground city.
A distinctly non-Jewish highlight of our visit was a stop at the macelleria and salumeria Polidori Enrico. A must for salumi di cinghiale – wild boar salami. This, some bread, and some local cheese make a heavenly snack.
Chances are, if you’re driving around Tuscany, you’ll want to visit the Val d’Orcia. Pay homage to UNESCO for declaring the entire valley a World Cultural Landscape. And, if you’re in the Val d’Orcia, you will certainly want to visit Pienza – the town that started the whole thing. Pienza was declared a World Heritage Site in 1996. That’s 8 years earlier than its valley home. But, why Pienza?
Well, it involves a Renaissance-era pope and a tenth century village that became the first example of “humanist urban planning concepts”. It’s the model by which many other European towns and cities were built.
Corsignano became Pienza – “the city of Pius” in the mid-fifteenth century. Named after a local, Enea Silvio Piccolomini, who became Pope Pius II. You can visit his palazzo while in town. It has breathtaking views of the famous valley.
Another reason to visit Pienza? Pecorino di Pienza (aka cacio di Pienza or Pecorino della Val d’Orcia). Like many other wonderful things in this region, this cheese dates to the Etruscans. It’s one of the most sought-after cheeses in Tuscany. For very good reason. In two weeks, we ate at least half a wheel. I wish I had more.
Pecorino di Pienza is a semi-hard to hard (depending on age) sheep milk cheese. It is said that the pastures of the Val d’Orcia, with their unique wild herbs, give the milk distinct aromatics. To preserve the aromatics, the cheese is made from the raw milk (not pasteurized).
Flavor has many influences. Some cheeses have additions like walnuts or truffles. Regulations allow a range of ages for Pecorino di Pienza. This affects the texture as well as the flavor. Also, during the aging process, the exterior is rubbed with olive oil or other liquids like wine. Lastly, there’s what it’s aged in. For that, I highly recommend the cheeses aged in hay or in walnut leaves.
Just writing this, it’s killing me that I don’t have more of this cheese right now!
My only regret from this grand adventure: we never went into the actual town of Montepulciano. I was determined to go to one winery that was recommended to me, and we still had a long day of driving ahead of us. We settled for a view from the valley. And were rewarded with an exceptional tasting experience and a vineyard to ourselves.
The Salcheto estate has all you need for a visit to Montepulciano. Its 13th century farmhouse was converted to six guest suites. You’ll be close to town and still enjoy an experience far removed from the ordinary. It has expansive views of the region that were just as beautiful in cold grey February as I’m sure they are in warmer times.
Along with the organic and biodynamic vineyards and winery, there is also an enoteca. It serves as a restaurant and as the tasting room for the wines. There is also a large patio to take in the inspiring views and melt into the dreamy Tuscan landscape in more hospitable seasons.
The food alone is worth the bumpy drive down the steep winding dirt road. But it’s the wine that we’re here for. All wines are organic, biodynamic, unfiltered/unfined, have no added sulfites, and are made with indigenous yeasts. Salcheto is dedicated to sustainability. They regularly assess their carbon footprint, water footprint, and biodiversity of their property. This extends beyond the vineyards. They were the first Italian winery to establish a welfare plan for all employees.
But, back to the wines. They make many. Their Obvius label offers a little of everything. Red, white, rosato, even a dessert wine. Under the Salcheto label, you’ll find the traditional Sangiovese-based wines the region is known for. We tasted almost all of them. I wrote about the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano earlier this summer. Here’s that review.
For the rest, these are some of my tasting notes (unedited, including emojis):
- Obvius rosato 2018: Mostly Sangiovese. Cherry, black pepper, wild berry, 🌹. The young pecorino brings out fresh strawberry.
- Obvius rosso 2018: Sangiovese. Dusty black or amarena 🍒.
- Vino Nobile 2017: Fennel, amarena or Bing cherry, spice, jasmine.
- Salco Vino Nobile 2015: 2 years barrel 3 years bottle. Oak, rich full jammy, Mission fig.
- Riserva 2015: Floral peppery cherry, licorice, red apple. Tannins: soft, still tight but very pleasing. Depth. Double fermented with dried berries.
Note to the Wine Geeks: The Riserva is made using an old Tuscan method that dates back to the 14th century. The Governo Toscano method involves holding back some of the harvest and drying the fruit on straw mats before pressing and fermenting. It was originally used to stabilize the wines by assuring the alcohol, tannins, and body of the final product. From my notes, memory, and a little online research, I tried to piece together what I was told. I believe Salcheto ferments then blends the fruit fresh and some dried. It then ages for 24 months in mixed sizes of barrels, followed by 12 months in bottle. If anyone knows otherwise or can add to this, please comment or message me – I want to know more!
Not the End of the Adventure
There was one more stop in Tuscany before we headed north. Panzano. You’ll soon learn about the larger-than-life personality who requires his own post!
What are your favorite places to visit, eat, and drink in Tuscany? Please share in the comments below – I’m always looking for my next adventure!