If you think you know Tuscany, think again...
I have always loved Italy and I have been fortunate to travel to both Rome and Venice, beautiful destinations in their own right. However, when I visit Tuscany I feel I see the real Italy, it may also be because my mother in law is Italian and comes from this region. I am sharing my first-hand experience of my visits in the Val d'Orcia region in the south of Tuscany.
To reach Tuscany I flew into Pisa (you can also fly to Rome) and picked up a hire car. Of course before heading out of the city I had to visit the Tower of Pisa. It was surprisingly hard to find as it's in the heart of the city surrounded by houses and roads and I thought you would be able to see it on the skyline. However, to my surprise it is not tall, so by chance I saw a glimpse of it though the entrance gates to this attraction. Yes, it is very touristy and yes, I took the picture of me holding up the tower, personally I will not rush to go back.
I then headed south, passing the city of Siena and onto Campiglia d'Orcia (my mother in law's home village), which is a further two hour drive. It is true the Italian drivers have their own rules of the road which seemed to rub off on my husband, there were a few moments where I held my breath!
So on arrival, I had the most breathtaking view of Campiglia d'Orcia as it is located on a hill with a small tower at the top that used to have a much larger fortress tower which belonged to the powerful Aldobrandeschi family. I did climb up the steep steps to reach the tower and I rang the bell (amazing sound across the valley), it was worth it for the magnificent views. The German tourist's love this region and village and many stay for months.
This village is not on the mainstream tourist route, but is close to known towns like Montalcino, Pienza, Montepulciano (lovely wine) and San Quirico d'Orcia which are all worth a visit.
On entering the village, it is very small with only 430 Inhabitants and has a hotel/restaurant and a few shops and bars. My mother in law still has the family house here which is located a short walk from the village. A very unique fact about her home, is it has its very own small church in the grounds and is one of ONLY three churches in Italy that belong to private owners.
I stayed in self-catering accommodation, which had the most beautiful views of the olive tree fields and valley (picture above shows the view) offered the most amazing night skies of the stars as there is no light pollution. The accommodation was very Italian with basic kitchen facilities, lounge with traditional furniture, two bedrooms and an outside pool, which I used every day as it is so hot in August in this region.
A true story that when the pool was filled with water overnight it left the whole village without water for a few days!
Of course I met my husband's relatives, and yes the Grappa (Italian Brandy) did come out to celebrate our arrival, not my favourite Italian drink but they love it. They always made me feel very welcome and even the language barrier did not seem to matter as you always find a way to communicate. It's also the Italian way that I had to give presents every time I saw them. They would reciprocate and I received mainly food and wine, but some gifts were a bit random like 5 pairs of sunglasses!
I attended many family gatherings which always entailed sitting around a very large table eating lots of home cooked food and local wine, very happy memories.
I also ate in the local restaurant Tre Tioni, located in the heart of the village that served local Italian cuisine. After starters, I was given a palette cleanser which was a local delicacy of Pecorino cheese, toasted chestnut coated in honey, it was delicious.
This area holds a Festa Del Marrone (chestnut festival) in several villages including Campiglia d'Orcia from 1- 31 October every year to celebrate this local delicacy. The most common Tuscan dessert Castagnaccio, a flat cake is made from chestnut flour, olive oil rosemary, pine nuts and walnuts. The locals enjoy this cake whilst enjoying a glass of Vinsanto, Tuscany's sweet dessert wine. Very easy to make: https://www.recipesfromitaly.com/castagnaccio-recipe
When I thought of Tuscany I imagined fields of sunflowers, olive groves, vineyards and small pretty villages and towns, which is very much the case. However, I did not imagine there to be a mountain in the south of Tuscany. I travelled to the top of Mount Amiata (1738 meters high - the highest mountain and the second tallest volcano in Tuscany) which is a popular destination all year round for walking and skiing.
I walked to the top along paths that wind through beech forest which led to the most spectacular panoramic views of Tuscany. On the way down (by car) I stopped at a "local restaurant" which all they served was pizzas. However, they were not any ordinary Pizza I had never seen anything quite like it. You order one and to best describe the size it was as large as a lorry wheel which was shared among many people, one slice was enough!
The beach can be reached by a 1 1/2 hour drive (which I did and it was worth it as I was the only person on the beach!) however the local community drive to Lake Bolsena as it is much closer.
This is the largest volcanic lake in Europe, which has two Islands, located in the south of the lake. It is beautiful with many sandy beaches, due to the volcanic nature the sand is dark and pebbly. I took an excursion on a sailboat to see the two volcanic islands (they are privately owned so I was not allowed on them) which have seven chapels/churches and spectacular volcanic cliffs and an abundance of wildlife.
When in Tuscany I had to visit the capital city Siena, a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
A lovely medieval city, where no auto vehicles are allowed to drive into the walls of the old city, I had to park outside and walk in. The central Piazza known as IL Campo (known for its famous Palio horse race that is held twice each year) is beautiful with Palazzo Pubblico (palace and tower) and lots of cafes and restaurants. It also has lots of pretty side streets which a relative showed me around followed by lunch in his flat that offered views across to the beautiful Duomo di Siena (church), my very own local tour!
Sustainability within Tuscany is already at the heart of Italian's daily lives as they all consume either their own or local produce (nothing goes to waste) and have always taken a bag to the store. When you are sitting in a local restaurant anywhere in the country the ingredients will not have travelled far to the table.
On a more national level, rural Tuscany is leading the charge on sustainability by implementing natural wastewater treatment systems.
Interestingly, I have read, that Italy has made climate change a compulsory part of education since September with one hour a week dedicated to this subject.
I always enjoy going back to Tuscany as the above is just a small snapshot of what this beautiful area has to offer the traveller. If you would like to learn more about this area take a look here: https://www.visittuscany.com/en/areas/val-dorcia/