Deciding to take a trip to Italy is easy; deciding where to visit in a country so rich and diverse, is where the challenge arises. Feeling nostalgic for the rolling hillsides and soft golden hues of the classic Tuscan landscape, I plumped for the hill-top town of Montepulciano as the location for my week-long study vacation last month. I envisaged spending my days in a little town with rustic charm and easy access to nature, and persuaded by its relatively isolated location and spectacular backdrop, it was a no brainer that paid off in every respect. A medieval and Renaissance hill town in the province of Siena in southern Tuscany, Montepulciano boasts the most incredible panoramic views and with short of 15,000 inhabitants, its small enough for you to get familiar with the locals even in the shortest of stays. Famed for being an exceptional producer of red wine, the town is surrounded by undulating hills of rich green vineyards immersed amongst the beautiful rural landscape.
This was to be my third study-vacation in Italy – “study vacation” essentially being a holiday in which you spend some of the time studying (Italian in this instance) and the rest of the time relaxing in atypical holiday fashion. I love this way of experiencing the country as it gives you a privileged insight into the culture and people, whilst enabling you to spend as much time as possible perfecting your Italian and just generally living like a local.
It took exactly 12 hours door-to to reach my homestay in an apartment located in Montepulciano’s old town. It’s fair to say that by the time I arrived, battling fatigue, the heat and having spoken no Italian for almost two years, I struggled to string two sentences together as my gregacious, friendly and hyper-gestilating Italian “mamma” for the week spoke non-stop, demanding to know what I would like to eat (nothing, I repeat nothing, is of greater importance in the house of Fiorella). An extremely hospitable lady in her 60s, Fiorella is a widow and phenomenal cook who lets two rooms in her house to female students, and by the time I’d woken for breakfast the next day she’d filled the kitchen with my favourite foods!
Montepulciano is, quite simply, to die for. Within an hour of arriving I walked up to the town’s main square, Piazza Grande, and wandering off onto a side street was greeted with the most breathtaking view looking the rooftops into the surrounding countryside. It was during that golden hour before the sun begins to set, and at that moment I knew I had made the right decision for my Italian vacation. I firmly believe that there is no better quality of life than that experienced in this impossibly-picturesque small Tuscan community. Every moment, every view, every sunset, every meal, every conversation – was lived in a whirl of heightened joy and intensity (and no, I didn’t even touch the wine!) My mornings were spent in Italian class whilst the afternoons were left to my leisure. I chose to visit in June as I’d planned to go trekking in the countryside after class – making the most of the lush green landscapes and long daylight hours. However, it transpired I had visited during a heatwave year with June temperatues mimicking those of July or August. With the seriously hot climate I had to sidetrack the hiking, settling for late afternoon/early evening walks through the local vineyards and olive groves instead (ah, it’s a hard life in Tuscany!) Still, this retreat did in no way disappoint, and here are some of the shots I took during my one week stay. My photographs are mostly of the countryside surrounding Montepulciano. With such strong and intense daylight, it was at times difficult to get shots that do the place justice, so many of these pictures were taken during the evening.
The main square, Piazza Grande, sits on the top of a hill overlooking the town
A door is not simply a door in Montepulciano – rather an elegant display of craftsmanship
Knew I’d come to the right place when I came across THIS view. I spent many an evening watching the sun go down here before returning to a culinary feast at my homestay.
View of the city from the tower in Il Palazzo Comunale
Walking in the Tuscan countryside
Chickens and rabbits roam freely in the Tuscan countryside
So many delicious summer fruits – felt like heaven walking through the fields and vineyards!
I encountered many a handy ladder for easy access to fruit picking. A thoughtful touch – thank you very much!
I’d honestly never seen a peach tree in my life before. The excitement on spotting this bountiful one was quite overwhelming!
Practising the art of the middle-of-nowhere selfie
Walking through the olive groves one evening
My Italian homestay
I can’t rave about my homestay experience enough! My ‘family’ was comprised of Fiorella, her beloved dog Gnuaff and a fellow student, Irene, from Slovenia. Every evening we sat down to the most incredible home cooked food and the most hilarious conversation covering everything from Italian politics to romantic disappointments. Most nights Irene and I walked Gnauff round the town afterwards (it seems that when you walk a dog once, you’ve unwittingly established a routine for every consecutive night!) which was a great way of getting chatting to the locals. The school I stayed at, Il Sasso, is small, friendly and has exceptional teachers. I’d recommend this study-vacation experience to anyone wishing to learn the Italian language.
Fatto in casa – one of Fiorella’s home cooked meals – comprising Pici (Tuscan pasta speciality), bruschetta, fried fish and salad. Despite munching my way through a huge plate of food every night, Fiorella still insisted that ‘mangio poco’ (i eat very little)!
View from Montepulciano looking down to the Tempio di San Biagio just before sunset. The church is located 10-15 minutes walk downhill from the town. It’s an easy stroll though, as with all hill-towns, after the walk down, is the (longer, more ardous) walk back up…
Sunset overlooking the countryside beyond the town – incredibly beautiful and in no way well-captured in the photograph below.
Around Montepulciano – Pienza
The hilltop town of Pienza is one of the few places you can reach from Montepulciano by public transport (hurrah!). It’s a pretty little town with a wall you can navigate overlooking the spectacular surrounding countryside.
I’d planned to hike from Montepulciano to Monticicchiello but due to the intense heat we hired a taxi to take us there instead (no public transport).
Gatti di Montepulciano
And yes, frankly no blog post is complete without taking a little peek at the local feline community. I’m pleased to report that there are lots to choose from in Montepulciano!
I had a truly amazing time in Montepulciano and was very sad to leave (I confess to even crying on the bus back to the rail station at Chiusi). I hope to be back soon – still so much beauty to explore. Just need some cooler weather and/or some refresher driving lessons next time round!
If you have any tips on places to visit in Tuscany I would love to hear from you.