Monday, November 22, 2010

Montalcino Redux (What does 'redux' mean?)

Click on the photos to make ’em larger...

I'm gonna cheat here. I wanted to write more about Montalcino, but can't do better than this piece I wrote in about 1997 or so for the Austin American-Statesman (which now as a rather useless travel section, unfortunately...). It pretty well sums up my feelings about the place, or at least, if you read between the lines (or some of them), you should get a decent feel for my love of this town.

I may sneak a few more recent thoughts into my previous post about the food, but not sure what they might be that could better the following, of which, I am very proud....


Please don’t read this.
Montalcino from below

If you insist on continuing, please don't tell anyone about our little secret. When word gets out, the peaceful tranquillity of one of Tuscany's finest hilltop jewels will certainly be shattered. And Montalcino will never be the same. Please let me discourage you from visiting.

Montalcino is located, geographically speaking, in the Italian province of Siena, an hour south of Florence and three hours north of Rome. But in every other sense it is truly in another world.
The world's most photographed cypresses, near Montalcino
In Montalcino the concept of time disappears. The crowding, noise and bustle of other Italian cities vanish. Sorry, no Campari neon, no flashing Odeon theaters, no Benetton billboards. Not even a single taxi: the 10-minute walk across town makes them superfluous, and besides, there is only one street that runs Montalcino's full length. Sounds horrible, right?

Streets of Montalcino
In Montalcino you'll have to make do with a well-preserved example of a sixteenth century Italian città (city) where life adapts a different pose, not unlike a visit to the past.
Beyond the fact that the architecture has changed little in four hundred years – massive rough hewn stone walls of every building in this town of five thousand citizens, the classic Tuscan bell tower of the city hall, the imposing castle-like ramparts of La Fortezza (the Fortress)–the basic rhythm of daily living is not a particularly modern one.

When the day begins, the ancient bakery does its best to pollute.

The hot, sweet smell of bread and cookies baking wafts through the otherwise crisp, clean mountain air. And the chop chop chopping clatter of the biscotti-cutting machine echoes relentlessly along the cobblestones as another wicker basket fills with Tuscany’s unwitting contribution to the trendy accouterment of the caffè latte-obsessed in the United States.

Sant'Antimo Abbey, Montalcino
The morning also offers one of the best ways to melt into the timelessness of Montalcino. Five minutes down the road is the abbey church of Sant'Antimo where, at nine o’clock sharp, the six or seven Cistercian monks celebrate Mass sung in Gregorian chant. The building itself is sufficient for time transport, constructed of travertine in classic Romanesque style and adorned with whimsical animals carved from local alabaster.

But add the element of ancient music and ceremony and the atmosphere changes sufficiently to move even the most skeptical.

Interior, Sant'Antimo

This church was founded in 781 by Charlemagne as thanks for his troops being spared that year's raging plague. It was enlarged to its present state in the twelfth century when it was the center of one of Italy's richest and most influential monasteries.
Interior, Sant'Antimo, Montalcino

Stick around after Mass and, for a small tip, the caretaker will show you some of the church's highlights. If you increase the pay a bit, and you just come out and ask, he might let you go into the otherwise forbidden upstairs level that, on one side, was the Sienese bishop's home-away-from-home and, on the other, was the women's gallery; of course they were not allowed in the church proper.
From the sacristy fresco, Sant'Antimo
On the way up, pause to admire the original Carolingian chapel that now serves as the sacristy, and notice the fresco depicting the bucolic farm life of the old abbey, including a pair of copulating pigs.
From the sacristy fresco, Sant'Antimo

By all means, buy yourself the hypnotic recording of chants recorded in this awesome structure.

In the early afternoon, forget about making any stock market trades. The entire town shuts down for a three-hour lunch break.Walk through the twisting, cobbled lanes. They're deserted, almost spooky. Quiet is everywhere. Even the few cars allowed within the town walls are still. Maybe the silence makes you uneasy. Maybe you really miss the honking, belching traffic of the city.

Trattoria il Pozzo, San Angelo in Colle (Montalcino)
The best way to escape such quiet is to avoid it. Find a family-run trattoria and do as the Montalcinesi do. Linger a couple of hours over some of the area’s rustic cuisine and world-famous wines (more on which later). Chances are, you'll stumble into conversation with a fellow traveler, or with one of the friendly locals. And, in no time, you've wasted an entire afternoon, wasted it savoring good food and good company, the way mealtime used to be in the United States, a long, long time ago, before advanced technology gave us so much extra leisure time.

By the time lunch is over, the city will have sprung back to life.

But be careful back on the street. In Montalcino, strangers sometimes approach visitors on the street. They approach, and then—and then—they say hello! Buona sera, indeed. The nerve! So,go forewarned: This will happen to you in Montalcino.

On the afternoon stroll, forget the local museum. It's closed for renovation. But do admire some of the backyard gardens full of grapes, olive trees and artichokes. Compared to Florence or Siena, Montalcino offers little in the way of grand displays of Renaissance art anyway (actually, all of Montalcino is a living monument to the Renaissance).

Sputnik image, San Pietro Church, Montalcino
But there are some gems if you look. For something completely different, visit the church of San Pietro, just a short walk from the main drag. Inside this charming edifice is one of the most amazing paintings in all of Italy. It features the usual iconography of the period with one exception. At the feet of Christ is what appears to be a metal sphere, and the metal sphere appears to have several antennae sprouting from it. This is not an object we normally associate with the Italy of the year 1600, when this work was painted. No wonder some refer to this place as the Church of the Holy Sputnik.
Town Hall, Montalcino

The late afternoon sun, except during summer, casts long shadows down Montalcino's steep, narrow streets. (Referring to the web of medieval alleys and stairways that connect the various sections and levels of this mountain-perched town as "streets" might be stretching the truth; but their meandering design keeps the auto population under control.) Anyway, those shadows signal a time to sit down at a caffè on the main square, the Piazza del Popolo, and have an espresso, a bottle of mineral water, or another glass of the area's world-famous wines (more on which later).

The sun's last rays always paint the Tuscan sky as majestically as the finest fresco in nearby Florence, and that purple-pink cloak sweeps an even greater calm over the city. A quick walk through town offers a glimpse of the last few market transactions of the day: a wedge of local sheep's cheese, some brilliantly colored long-stemmed artichokes, a basket full of wild mushrooms. Then the night takes over.
Sundown, Montalcino

Dinner mirrors lunch, and by ten the city buttons up tight once more, tucking you in for the best night's sleep you've ever had. If you like that sort of thing.


Like the valley below on many early mornings, the origins of Montalcino are obscured by a fog. Though Etruscan and Roman artifacts have been found in the area, the site of the current city was probably not established until the ninth or tenth century. But once underway, the growth was fast and furious, so much so that Montalcino has grown little since the 1300s.
Montalcino as seen from La Fortezza

Its strategic position on a hilltop overlooking the all-important route between Rome and Paris, the Via Francigena, placed Montalcino in the middle of much intrigue and warfare involving at one time or another Siena, Florence, several popes, the Medici, Spain and others. Finally, in the 1550s, the town surrendered to the powerful Medici of Florence and disappeared into that ubiquitous fog of time once again.

But the soil and climate of this fortuitous spot have provided another renaissance for Montalcino, a rebirth brought about by the international discovery of Montalcino's legendary ruby gold: the wine known as Brunello di Montalcino.
Brunello vines in Fall, Montalcino

Hailed as one of the world's best reds and quickly becoming one of the most expensive, Brunello is bringing new wealth to this formerly sleepy hamlet. By law, Brunello can only be produced within a very small region surrounding the town, thus controlling the quality and the price. In Montalcino the price for a bottle is roughly half that in the U.S.A., so if you enjoy wine, stock up. It will last. Brunello from 1888 is still being consumed, though not often!
Brunello on display, Montalcino

Also try the “baby Brunello”, Rosso di Montalcino, made from the same grapes, but without the four years of aging required for its big brother. For a wine redolent of flowers and honeysuckle, try the other wine exclusive to Montalcino, Moscadello. It comes in two varieties: a slightly frizzy young treat enjoyed before dinner, and a slightly more "tangy" dessert-style wine (termed licoroso).

La Fortezza, Montalcino
La Fortezza, Montalcino

Honey on display, Montalcino
A good place to sample these is in the enoteca of the Fortezza. This incredible structure was built to protect the populace during times of siege, and the walls make for a great morning of sightseeing.On a clear day you can see much of Tuscany. Siena, thirty miles to the north, is that reddish smudge on the horizon. The friendly staff will allow you to sample the wines they have open, and will be happy to answer questions about the wine, pecorino cheese, olive oil and other local products they sell.

With these samples as an appetizer, head straight to one of the fine local restaurants for some delicious country cooking. This area is well known for its cured meats, its sheep's milk pecorino, the hand-rolled rustic spaghetti known as pinci, and dishes made from wild boar and other game, as well as a heavenly, hearty soup made from beans and local produce and drizzled with some of Italy's best olive oil.

Some other goodies to look out for are local specialties from the bakery including biscotti (called cantucci) and the crisp meringue almond cookie, ossi di morto (dead man's bones!). Dip either in a glass of Moscadello after dinner for a traditional and delightful dessert.

Honey is another of the area's principal products, and every store in town features at least 10 varieties, each flavored by a specific type of blossom; the beekeepers move their hives from place to place to capture the essence of particular flowers for these honeys. Don't forget to grab some ceramics, olive oil and dried porcini mushrooms before you pack your bags!

Clearly, the problem with a visit to Montalcino is the tendency to eat too much, sleep too much, relax too much, walk too much,breathe too much clean air. Obviously, this is not a vacation.Vacations are supposed to provide a difficult and tense week or two so that returning to work will be a relief. Why on earth would anyone want to spend any time in such a place as Montalcino?

If you go:

Tourist Information: Montalcino Tourist Office: 011-39 (577) 849 331

Arriving: Because Montalcino is not well served by public transportation, the best way to see the area is to rent a car in any major city: Rome (three hours), Florence (one hour) or Siena (30 minutes) are some logical choices. There is much to see within a short driving distance of the city, and a car allows for such side trips. Otherwise, there are regular buses from Siena, an hour's bus ride away.

Lodging: Reservations are a good idea, especially in the summer. Lodging in Montalcino is wonderfully comfortable and homey. The Tourist Office can send a complete list.

Here are a few choices:

Hotel Il Giglio [011 39 (577) 848 167] is run by members of a friendly family who restored this 13-room gem; they also rent rooms in a private residence which are immaculate, replete with fresh flowers and a complementary bottle of local wine.

Food: In town there are many options. These are just a few: Osteria di Porta al Cassero (Via Libertà, 9) offers great home-style cooking and stays open late.

Taverna dei Barbi (Part of the Barbi Winery, four kilometers south of Montalcino on the road to Sant’ Antimo) features some of the most traditional food around, including hand-rolled pinci; the manager, Giovanni is a hoot.
Trattoria il Pozzo, San Angelo in Colle
Trattoria Il Pozzo (10 minutes away in the small town of San Angelo in Colle) offers a changing menu of unusual but traditional dishes, and the respected winery Il Poggione is next door, so try their wines at bargain prices.

When to go:

Any time is a good time because the weather is always nice. Winter offers few tourists, cool temperatures and clear skies, lots of mushrooms, truffles, new olive oil and other fall/winter delights. Summer temperatures are mild, the sky is hazy and the tourist load is heavy, but the hills are straight out of the Mona Lisa. The Festival of the Thrush featuring Renaissance costumes, music, spectacle and an archery contest is celebrated during the last weekend of October.

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