Wonderful Italy

Exploring Italy via our travels — places, people, things…

A Walk in the Montagnola Senese

A Walk in the Montagnola Senese – Monteriggioni to Santa Colomba

Keith and Anne – 22 April 2007

On Sunday 22nd April, Anne and I had a great exploration in the countryside, the second thus far this spring of our longish (10mi or a bit more) walks following a guidebook written by some English walkers and using Club Alpino Italiano (CAI) hiking maps. Because there is restricted bus service to the little towns around Siena on Sundays, we caught the train to our start point, Monteriggioni station. Our only morning option was the 6:39am train from Siena, which we thought was a tad early, but of course ok. So, next day we rose at 5:45am, well before the San Domenico bells, walking the 20 minute route down to the station in the cool and quiet of a Siena not yet awake.

Our train was bound for Firenze but our destination was the first stop, making our trip just 12 minutes long. The small station serving Monteriggioni and Castellina in Chianti is bypassed by most trains going to and coming from Florence and only a few local runs serve this un-personed station. It was still quite chilly at 6:50 when we got off and began our two mile walk to the start of our hike. The small road was scenic and provided a nice bit of serendipity when we discovered that our route was right along the ancient trade and pilgrimage road, the Via Francigena, which was used widely from about 900 AD onward by northern Europeans going to Rome or the Holy Land. Dotted along it everywhere are small fortresses and castles, way points for travelers and defensible spots in the never ending wars between Siena and Florence. So, we were happy to find, only a half mile from the train station, an interpretive sign and small gravel road leading to a hill on which sat a ruined castle dating from about 1000, but partly built of cut stones salvaged from the Roman and Etruscan periods, so surely this hill with its 360 degree views was home to earlier defenses going back at least to 800BC. Another hill settlement just nearby (per interpretive signs in both Italian and English) was excavated by archaeologists some years ago – this was an Etruscan village, now no sign of which seems left. We managed to see this site a day after our forest walk, but other than some disturbed ground and tantalizing hints in the small oak undergrowth that humans lived here in the past, we could not really “see” the village. We felt its aura instead, eerily.

Our hike start point was the gem-like castle-town of Monteriggioni. This ring of cut grey stone walls with a symmetrically placed set of towers sits stark and like a diadem or crown on its own hill. Monteriggioni, captured on many postcards and calendars each year, commands a hilltop site with views in all directions, and particularly overlooking a broad plain to the west, through which any approaching groups or army would be likely to come. Just to the southwest is the wooded hill which was the site of the Etruscan village excavated recently. Our route today would pass near this site and tomorrow (when we returned to find Keith’s dropped pocket watch) we would have the chance to explore it a bit, though as noted, we could not find the traces of house foundations said to be there. We’d skipped breakfast today due to our early start, so the Bar dell’ Orso (Bar of the Bear) near the gravel road leading to Monteriggioni was our first destination. The cheerful barrista (female) made a creamy doppio caffe macchiato for me and cappuccino for Anne. I noticed that another bar customer downed her espresso in 40 seconds, more or less normal for coffee drinking while standing in Italian coffee establishments, though we lingered a bit longer, observing the scene and eating our pastries.

As we walked into the rear gate of Monteriggioni several tourist shops were just setting out their signs, and we passed a 4 star (and reportedly $250/night) hotel within the walls. This walled town-let was here in its present form from at least 1100 and is mentioned by name by Dante in his Divine Comedy (completed about 1300). We hoped to get a second coffee in the town, but its only bar was still closed since it was only 7:30a.m. by now. A sign by the main gate, said that this afternoon guides in medieval costume would lead tours of the town and the castle walls with their spectacular views. This would be enjoyable, but for another time.

We left by the eastern gate, the Porta Romana, our road curving down the back side of the hill, passing a campground with rented campers, just a flat field really. Soon we came to the gravel road that was our route, cutting to the right up towards the woods. We had noticed a group of four walkers with backpacks ahead of us, and in a few minutes, at the first trail branching, we caught up with these Dutch hikers, older folks like us, and hiking the Via Francigena to Siena today. We compared maps, as they were doubtful at the crossroads. They set off while we changed into shorts, and we did not see them again – not sure if they hiked the same route or not.

Our route was a north to south traverse of much of the wooded area west of Siena called the Montagnola Senese, the Sienese Mountain Woods. This mixed oak forest has probably been logged for thousands of years, albeit selectively, and feels quite wild and only slightly used. Our hike was on small cart tracks and sometimes trails, and provided an interestingly varied route. Incredible wildflowers, old walls, oak and mixed woods, meadows, ruined ancient farmsteads, tiny villages of 4-5 houses and churches dating to the crusades and earlier. Along the way there were many signs of rooting by wild pigs, cingiale. Not a bad choice today, thanks to Anne!

I was fascinated to notice, as we walked along, that the path itself was along old wagon roads for many miles. Though the path often felt narrow and overgrown, and was rugged and nothing like a road for carts, as I looked down over the miles I could see deep ruts into the rock itself, sometimes two of them, though often only one was visible. The cart wheels were spaced about 3 ½ to 4 feet apart. Some of the ruts were 8″ or more deep, cut into pure rock by metal tired wooden cart wheels over centuries. I tried to get photos of the ruts.

This silent echo of the ancient forest felt to me a bit like seeing wagon tracks still going down the sides of alluvial fans in Death Valley. But those tracks, archaic in the western United States, are only 150 years old, while those we walked along today I am sure were roads used at least from Etruscan times (800-500 BC) to cart produce, crops, animals and other goods back and forth between scattered hill town settlements. Given that human settlement in Europe dates back more than 100,000 years, it is virtually certain that these paths were used for a very long time, well before the “Johnny come lately” Etruscans gave their name to a small slice of the region’s history.

Our hike was about six hours in all, including our many photo and “ooh and aah” stops and a picnic lunch spread out beside Costa, an abandoned stone farmhouse near the village of Colli Ciupi. It was a great day of ups and downs, and with a lot of consulting of both map and pages copied from our guidebook, as there were lots of decoy trails and roads that one is not wanting to follow. The weather was perfect, shorts and tee shirts after it warmed up. By about 1:30 we came to our end destination, Santa Colomba (“Saint Dove” is a gloss, though not likely the right one), a small town with a church dating from at least 1100. Interesting that the history of all the little hamlets and places is only vaguely known – in this case, the church is first mentioned in tax records about 1100, the first recorded mention, though it was likely there much earlier, and of course the village was also.

Santa Colomba itself is just one street with houses, a social hall (noisy as we passed by but everyone was in the back room, perhaps playing cards), and a coffee bar. The latter was open, but with lights off to save power, and we chatted with the proprietress for a while, a kind woman who sold us a Fanta, and helpfully spoke in slow and clear Italian, telling us a little about the place.  Besides Italians, there are several retired folks from other parts of the world living up the hill, an area of new and expensive villetas (modern brick houses, most of two or more stories, some with swimming pools).  One of them, in his 80’s or 90’s, now speaks great Italian and still drives his car to town, she added.

Thanking her, and using the bathroom to wash up, we walked a half mile up the hill to the far end of the bus route where she assured us the bus would turn around and stop and we could sit in the shade. Along the way the houses were impressively big and modern, one or two of them with Mercedes parked in the drive – clearly a bedroom area for affluent Sienese or Florentines we suspected. At the top we spread out our hulus, sharing an orange, and reading in the shade of a big oak. A small deceased snake diverted me for a short photo opportunity, and we then passed a pleasant hour before the small orange bus arrived as scheduled. This being Sunday, there were only a couple running to Siena, one at 3:30pm, another at 8pm. We did not find the thought of waiting 5 more hours very appealing, one reason we’d walked fairly fast today. Our 30 minute ride back to Siena was over many interesting and bumpy back roads, the driver zooming along as if late and the bus badly in need of new shock absorbers. About 4 pm we were deposited at Piazza Gramsci just a couple minutes walk from our apartment near San Domenico.

A fulfilling day full of adventures, history, great scenery, new wildflowers (including two types of orchid at the start of the walk). At home, after showers, we had the “tired but pleased with oneself feeling” — a good day’s adventure in the Sienese countryside along routes where the past is so layered and deep with history that most all of it is in fact utterly forgotten. All those dozens or likely hundreds of generations of “lives lived in obscurity” (but not obscure to those who lived them!) going all the way down.

Oh, and this bit of nature note: at Costa, the ruined ancient farmhouse where we had lunch, I was poking around in one of the stone and brick outbuildings and was surprised when I disturbed a snake just inside the threshold where I was about to put my foot. I had come upon a viper (vipera is the Italian name) about two and a half feet long, a poisonous snake related to our rattlesnakes and the asp of Cleopatra fame. Vipers are not too common and I felt fortunate to be able to watch it as it slithered along one rocky wall in the ruined barn trying to find a crack to escape into. I opted to watch instead of trying to take a photo in the shaded light, as I’d likely have not gotten it and not even seen it if I just fiddled with equipment. This viper was taupe color with light grey stripes, with an eerily triangular cross sectioned flat body, not unlike a sidewinder (which I’ve only seen in nature films though). Its triangular head, saying “poisonous,” was the stuff of bad dreams.

ksc 24 April 2007 — Siena

May 14, 2007 Posted by | About Tuscany, Walks and Hikes | 1 Comment

Discover these lesser known Italian Red Wines!!

Odds are you have not heard of Morellino di Scansano (a very drinkable red wine from the Maremma region of SW Tuscany) nor of Nero d’Avola (a great red from Sicily, particularly the western region around Trapani and Marsala). And I could win money betting you’ve not heard a peep about Nerello Mascalese (a characteristic red from Sicily). These are all comfortably drinkable red wines. None of these names are the popular types you’ll find in guides to Italian food and drink — not Chianti Riserva, Rosso di Montalcino, Brunello, etc.

Nope – these are just great local wines you can discover here, the first two in Siena. The Nerello I’ve only seen in Sicily. All have good color and body and have about 12.5 to 13% alcohol content. Prices can be as low as 5-6 Euros for a 1.5 liter bottle IN SICILY, but more likely 4.50 to 6.00 Euros a 750ml bottle here in Siena. With some looking around you should find the first two for sale at some specialty shops in north America. Try them — you are in for a treat.

A note on the grapes. The Morellino (“dark hair”) is a localized variety of the Sangiovese grape, the main grape used in Chianti wines. To my taste, Morellino is less astringent and easier on the palate than many Chiantis. The Nero’Avola is, I believe, an ancient local cultivar found only in Sicily. And the Nerello….well, that remains a Sicilian mystery for now, but if you can find it, it is a nice drinking wine.

April 18, 2007 Posted by | Food and Drink | 1 Comment

Table Wine, Vino da Tavola….

Italian wines imported to north America are not usually cheap, certainly not good ones. This is also true here in Italy. The high value of the Euro vs. the Dollar is one reason, but even without that, well-known wines can be quite costly here. There is not really a decent Brunello di Montalcino to be found in Siena for less than 24 Euros, about $30.00 US, and up (way up).  Lower cost Chiantis and generic Sangiovese reds can be much less, but quite variable in quality.  One little known option is to ask at the local deli for Vino da Tavola, table wine. Not all delis have this – but it is worth asking.  If they sell wine this way, the clerk will disappear into the back room and return a few moments later.  You will take home a liter of very drinkable red in a screw top bottle for about 3.00 Euros. “Una bottiglia di vino da tavola con tappo per favore….”

April 18, 2007 Posted by | Food and Drink | 6 Comments

Cookies, Italian style….

Italy is famous for its biscotti, cantucci and so many other delictables. However, the cookies in the supermarkets are not bad either. While browsing for just the right thing the other day we found what we wanted, a package of Galleti con granelli di zucchero (Mulino Bianco brand).  These are just shortbread type cookies sprinkled with large sugar crystals.  But they are pretty good ones, with less fat than is typical in cookies in north America.  What was pleasantly mind-boggling was this — on the side of the box, nicely written out for the customer, was a note to this effect: “like these cookies? Here is the recipe, you can make them at home…” and it gave the full recipe.  A great counter-capitalist touch. Grazie to Mulino Bianco!

April 18, 2007 Posted by | Food and Drink | Leave a comment

Why Italy?

Hill towns in Tuscany, ribollita soup, great wines….I’m convinced already and we are just getting started!

January 9, 2007 Posted by | About Tuscany | 2 Comments

The language, bella lingua

As the joke goes: if you speak three languages you are trilingual, two languages, you are bilingual, one language, you are an American.

With dedication you can change this and to get the most out of a visit to Italy, some ability in Italian can be quite rewarding.  Of course, learning Italian or any language well takes years.  But learning enough to be able to travel freely, including non-touristy areas, is nicely liberating.   There are classes and self-study groups in almost every north American community and in many other parts of the world. Italian speakers and language-learners are the largest non-English language group in Australia, for instance. Argentina, Venezuela and even Brazil have very sizable Italian speaking populations.

In my town in Oregon the Parks and Recreation department sponsors non-credit Italian classes which are very popular.   You can also find cd’s and self-teaching books in any bookstore or library.   To make progress, though, it is best to get together with a group (and ideally at least one native speaker).  Here’s what has worked for Anne and me:  First, find a group or some like-minded learners. If you cannot find an ongoing class, locate a teacher or at least a native speaker willing to help. Begin work on simple vocabulary and everyday expressions. Start learning basic verbs, present tense of course. Enlarge that to the simple past and then the “ongoing” or imperfect past.  You can put yellow stickies on the wall next to things whose name you are learning — by our aprons hung on the side of the fridge is a sticky saying “grembiule” — but now I remember the word for apron!

Repetition — you need lots and lots of it. Speak aloud and work on correcting your accent and intonation pattern by mimicking your teacher, your native speaker helper, or your cds or tapes. Gradually, a few weeks to a month or two, you will be able to converse on basic topics. Talk to yourself in Italian as you drive, or work in the yard, or take walks. Have lunch once a week with a couple of fellow-learners and speak only Italian. You are on your way!! Of course you have to go to Italy to put all this to use — more about that in other posts and in some of the links I’ll post.

There are dozens of books and audio sets. Of these, my personal favorites are:
Teach Yourself series (UK originally, US dist. McGraw-Hill) Improve your Italian — 2 cd set with book of same title (by Sylvia Lymbery) ISBN 0-07-143085-7. Book alone: ISBN 0-07-143084-9. There is also a beginning set in this series.

The same Teach Yourself paperback series has two other v. good titles: Italian Verbs (Maria Bonacina, ISBN 0-340-86698-5) and Italian Grammar (Anna Proudfoot, ISBN 0-07-141993-4).

Michele Thomas has a self-teaching set of cds that make getting started quite easy. His manner is a bit off-putting to me, but his additive method (start with one verb and a noun or two, and add to this) works. Don’t have title or ISBN but a Google search will find this quickly.

For a small travel-sized dictionary I like Langenscheidt’s Pocket Dictionary — Italian. It has a durable yellow plastic cover, and really fits in jacket pocket or small bag.

A great monolingual dictionary (for when you have progressed a bit in the language) is Lo Zingarelli Minore published by Zanichelli (ISBN 88-08-09026-4). This has thousands of illustrations to help clarify things, and even colored squares showing common and obscure color names. Not pocket sized, needs to sit on your bookshelf.

Perhaps you’ve learned some, or speak, Spanish? Having a bit of Spanish will appear to be helpful initially, but I’ve found you have to suppress Spanish and basically submerge and forget it — otherwise it hinders you. The verbs that are similar are different enough that they will throw your Italian off, and there is so much in Italian that is just not like Spanish at all. Remember, Italian came first and Spanish is the language that developed in one of Rome’s far-flung outposts!

In boca al lupo!

January 9, 2007 Posted by | Language and Culture | Leave a comment