Thermal Springs in Tuscany

Tuscany has many naturally occurring hot springs across the region. Most are now part of a spa center, but there are a few that are absolutely free to the public. Looking at the map, we realized that one of the thermal baths would be on our way home from Siena. We left Siena mid-afternoon so we could enjoy an hour or two at Bagni San Filippo. With the help of our GPS and many road signs pointing the way, we didn’t even get lost! We were starting to get the hang of this rental-car-in-Italy thing.

Bagni San Filipo wasn’t hard to find once we saw the sign. You’ll probably see the lines of cars before you see the sign. Park your car on the side of the road and don’t forget to grab your towel! From the road, there’s a nice trail so you can hike down the side of the hill.

When we reached the bottom, I was surprised to see how many people were there. Some were laying out on their towels, while others were in the natural pools. The water in the pools was a little cooler than bath tub water, but it was still relaxing. We had plenty of empty pools to choose from so we found one near the top. Always get near the top of the hill because the water runs down the hill and cools off as it goes. So the pools at the top are warmer than the pools at the bottom of the hill.

Legend has it that the water has healing powers due to all of the minerals in it. There are some massive formations of calcium deposits along the trail, and the largest one is known as the “White Whale.” Even if you don’t plan on lazing away in the hot spring pools, hiking the trail is such a beautiful way to spend an afternoon outdoors. And since the water is always warm, you can go any time of year!

A Day in Siena

When we were planning our trip, Matt didn’t really have a preference for what we did or where we went. The only place he said he really wanted to see was the “striped church” in Siena. Since Siena was only about an hour drive from Montepulciano, we knew we’d be able to drive there just for the day. Of course, we got lost. Several times.

Type A Tidbit:

Italy has very strange rules about where cars can and cannot go in cities. In fact, drivers are fined for violating the “no driving zones.” The zones are marked by street signs, but it’s very easy to miss (especially if you’re lost!). The safest bet is to park in a parking garage or parking lot outside of the city walls and then walk in. When using your GPS, enter your end destination as “Siena parking garage” or “Siena parking lot” so you can drive straight there and avoid any fines.

Matt definitely knew what he was talking about when he said he wanted to see the Siena Cathedral! It was the most beautiful church we saw in Italy by far. The outside might not be as impressive as the Duomo in Florence, but the inside was extraordinary. The church gets its nickname, the “striped church,” from the different colored marble that decorates the columns. While we were there, we also visited the baptistry, museum, crypt, and climbed to the top of the tower for a panoramic view.

The night before we were going to Siena, Matt read online that Saint Catherine’s head and her thumb were on display there at Dominica Church. I mean, what?!? He got so excited about the possibility of seeing a human head in a box, that I redid our entire itinerary last minute and squeezed in enough time for us to visit the church. And, he was right. Saint Catherine’s head and thumb were each in their own glass case for everyone to see. Even though this seems so barbaric to me, it’s actually quite common across Italy. While most items are more discreetly displayed, it’s not unusual to see corpses covered in wax. We asked one of our tour guides about this, and he said most of the churches have either a body, a body part, or an ancient relic that puts them on the map. This serves as a type of tourism, if you will. People will travel to a city to pay their respects to Saint Matthew’s remains or to see a piece of Jesus’ manger. It worked for us… we had no plans of visiting Dominica Church until we found out part of Saint Catherine was there! Oh, and sorry, pictures were strictly forbidden.

Type A Tidbit:

Whenever we travel, I always try to be conscious of the photography rules. Most places won’t allow flash, and other places won’t allow photography at all. Try to be respectful of their rules. It’s part of being a good tourist!

After we recovered from the sight of the remains of Saint Catherine, we headed to lunch at Antica Osteria da Divo. I read that this restaurant was literally carved out of the soft volcanic rock that Siena is built on. There are even little cafe-like rooms that you can have lunch in! Not to mention, the food was much more refined than I was anticipating. I had a fantastic, creamy risotto, and Matt ordered fresh pappardelle pasta with a wild boar ragu.

Needing to walk off all of our food, we headed in the direction of the main square, Piazza del Campo. Siena is famous for their horse races, and the piazza is where the races are held. The piazza is shaped like a seashell to better accommodate the races. Many souvenir shops and cafes can be found around the piazza as well as locals enjoying the afternoon sun.

Type A Tidbit:

Siena is a very hilly town! If something looks close on the map, remember to account for all of the hills you’ll be climbing! Wear comfortable shoes, and taxis are available if you need one.

Since navigating through Tuscany had proven to be so difficult for us, we wanted to head back to Montepulciano before it got dark! Siena would be a great town to stay in if you don’t have a lot of time in Tuscany. It’s definitely worth a day trip for the church alone… and the thumb!

 

Wine Tasting in Tuscany

I know nothing about wine. I know if it’s red or white, but that’s about it. But if you’re going to Tuscany how can you not go wine tasting? That’s what this region is known all over the world for!

I had no idea where to start. In Montalcino alone there are a few hundred wineries! How do you choose? Fortunately, we booked a tour with Anna at Cool Tours! Y’all, Anna is fantastic. She’s so funny, bubbly, and knowledgable! She served as our tour guide, personal sommelier (yes, a real sommelier!), driver, and overall wine enthusiast. I am so glad we had her! Since we didn’t know much about wine, she educated us about the different colors, light bodied vs full bodied, why you smell the cork when you open the bottle, the proper swirling technique, and what to look for when you take your first sip. You know when people say they taste oak or floral or cherry notes in the wine? Not me. I just taste wine. But, with Anna’s guidance we really did start to pick up on the points she was telling us. Without her we would have been so lost… in more ways than one. Since she was our driver too, we didn’t have to worry about navigating anymore of the Tuscan countryside… thank goodness! We were able to sit back and relax and enjoy the gorgeous day!

Anna picked us up at our bed and breakfast in Montepulciano that morning. We had three wineries on our itinerary so we had to get an early start! This tour specifically featured Brunello wine from the Montalcino region. The town was about 45 minutes from where we stayed so Anna gave us a lot of information and history as we drove to the first winery. I really appreciated that Anna chose small, family run wineries for our tour because it gave us a much more intimate setting. We were the only ones on the tour!

Capanna

Our first winery of the day, Capanna, had a family villa overlooking picturesque hills full of grapevines. The farm was started in 1957, and they began bottling their own wine in the 1960’s. Anna introduced us to one of the family members, and he gave us a tour of the grounds and the cellar. He explained a lot about their farming techniques and also the aging process of the wine. After our tour, Anna joined us again for the tasting. We’d never tried Brunello before so she took some time to explain the different types of grapes and what we’d be tasting in this particular Brunello. We purchased two bottles of the Rosso di Montalcino, and they bubble wrapped it and boxed it up for us so traveling with it wouldn’t be an issue.

Poggio Rubino

Our second winery had the most beautiful location of all three. It sat high up on a hill overlooking the rolling hills, and the tasting room had floor to ceiling windows so we could look out. We were given a tour of the production area and we got to see their labeling and shipping room. After the short tour, we rejoined Anna for the tasting portion of the tour. This time, the winery provided salami, pecorino cheese, and traditional Tuscan bread for us to sample during the wine tasting. This opened up a whole new world to me because Anna instructed us on what food to eat with which wine, and it completely changed the flavor of the wine! It was fun for her to explain the food pairing aspect because I never would have figured that out on my own.

Cordella

Anna saved the best winery for last! We loved visiting Cordella! We were given a tour of the new cellar and bottling area by one of the owners, and then we met back up with Anna. Not only did we have a wine tasting here, but one of the owners (who is also a chef) prepared us the most amazing lunch! The wine was fantastic… in fact, we ordered half a case and had them shipped to the States! The lunch was one of the best meals we had. Everything was prepared with such detail, and the ingredients were so fresh and light. We ate several courses, but I never felt too full. For appetizers he had prepared fresh ricotta on toasted bread, thinly sliced zucchini with ricotta and tomatoes, and a spelt salad that I didn’t think I was going to like, but I loved it. For entrees we were served creamy pasta carbonara with crispy pancetta and a risotto MADE WITH THEIR WINE. It was so creative and, obviously, delicious. After complimenting the chef and asking what his secret was, he invited us into the kitchen to watch him prepare our deconstructed tiramisu for dessert. Oh, and all of this food is being served in between the wine tastings!

After a long day of eating and drinking, we couldn’t wait to crash back in Montepulciano. The wine tour was designed especially for us, and we couldn’t have been happier. Anna pointing out the differences in each wine and each vineyard was so helpful. I can’t imagine going on a tour without an expert guide of some kind. I’m desperately waiting for her to come to the States and do some tours through Napa… we’ll be her first clients! After touring through Tuscany, I’m prepared to say that I’ve gone from knowing nothing about wine, to being a wine snob! Just kidding… kind of.

Travel Guide for Montepulciano

Montepulciano is the quintessential Tuscan town… narrow streets your car barely fits through, great wine everywhere you go, and beautiful sunsets. We used Montepulciano as our “home base” for our Tuscan day trips since it was never more than an hour and a half from everywhere we wanted to visit (more on that later!). Even if you aren’t planning any day trips, this is the perfect place to stay for a quiet, relaxing Tuscan experience.

Montepulciano doesn’t offer very much as far as activities go, but the church is worth exploring. The church is still unfinished on the outside. It has a brick exterior, but the marble facade was never installed. Other than the church and square, there are some small shops. Don’t miss your chance to buy locally made olive oil!

Where to Stay

La Locanda di San Francesco is a bed and breakfast in Montepulciano that only has four rooms! It’s located at the end of a dead-end street right across from the city’s best viewpoint, and to make things even better, it’s attached to an amazing wine bar! The owner of the bed and breakfast also owns the wine bar, and she is the friendliest person! One of my favorite things about La Locanda di San Francesco is their wine selection, and that they will ship whatever you buy back to the States! The only negative we experienced here was how difficult it was to find it. GPS doesn’t take you to the right place so you have to rely on written directions that they email you. Even with the written directions, we still got lost several times, but we finally made it!

Where to Eat

Osteria del Conti is a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that serves fresh, homemade pastas and traditional Tuscan cuisine. The weather was perfect so we ate outside on the small patio. For an appetizer, we tried grilled pecorino cheese with prosciutto. I can’t get over how good the cheese was in Italy! We each had the tagliatelle pasta with a wild boar ragu. The fresh pasta was perfect, and I was pleasantly surprised by the sauce. I expected it to taste very “gamey,” but it didn’t. This was one of our favorite finds in Montepulciano!

Osteria Acquacheta is a must-do in Montepulciano! We had the BEST Florentine steak here! The steak is what they’re known for, and it’s pretty much all they serve. There are no individual tables in this extremely crowded restaurant so be prepared to sit very closely to strangers! The kitchen is open so you can see them butchering the meat and preparing your meal. When you place your order for the steak, the owner comes around with the meat he has just cut so you can choose which size you want. Definitely plan to share because all of the steaks are huge. We ordered some pici to share as well. Pici is the regional pasta made simply from flour and water, and we loved it! The steak is only prepared rare (as is all Florentine steaks), and it was delicious!

Osteria del Borgo is a restaurant we chose mainly for the view. They have a small outdoor terrace that overlooks the rolling hills. We shared a potato and cauliflower flan with pecorino fondu. I ordered fresh tagliatelle pasta with wild rabbit and porcini mushrooms, and Matt had pici with ragu. Both pastas were hearty and definitely hit the spot after a long day of sightseeing!

La Locanda Del Cardinale was a last minute decision on our part. We didn’t have any plans for dinner so we wanted to go back to Osteria del Conte, but it turns out they were closed that night! Walking back to our hotel, we stumbled on this place next door, and it had an outdoor courtyard that looked perfect for dinner. Unfortunately, this restaurant did not live up to our expectations. Our food wasn’t very good, the eggplant wasn’t prepared correctly, and we were served the wrong drinks. We shared stuffed eggplant for an appetizer, and we ordered lasagna and tagliatelle with zucchini pesto. Matt also ordered lamb with mashed potatoes, but overall everything was underwhelming.

Caffe Poliziano is a historical cafe in Montepulciano with wonderful terrace seating. Grab an afternoon coffee or wine and enjoy the view!

While Montepulciano might not be on your top 3 must-see list, it was one of our favorites. It’s nice to relax and get away from the busy atmosphere of the city. If you’re wanting to take some time to explore Tuscany, there’s no better place to stay than Montepulciano!

Driving through Tuscany

The only way, and I repeat, the ONLY way to see Tuscany is to rent a car. Public transportation throughout Italy is very reliable, but it’s another story when it comes to the countryside of Tuscany.

The idea of renting and driving a car in a foreign country was horrifying to me… so I nominated Matt to drive. That left me in charge of directions and the GPS. Before we left, I printed out maps and typed directions just in case our phone’s GPS didn’t work like we had planned. Despite all the preparation, map studying, and route preparation, we still got lost multiple times. Our road trip was the most stressful part of our vacation, and we couldn’t wait to turn our rental car back in, but it gave us so much freedom to explore and a real sense of adventure!

We stayed in a wonderful bed and breakfast in Montepulciano (more on that later), and we couldn’t have asked for a better place to stay. It was in the heart of Tuscany, but also centrally located to all the towns we had planned day trips to (more on that later too). For this post, I just wanted to feature the beautiful scenery we were able to take in. None of these pictures are specific to any city or attraction, but they deserve to be featured.

Take a minute to slow down and enjoy the colorful wildflowers, the native Tuscan cypress tress, the gorgeous poppies in bloom, and the bright blue skies.

Thanks for reading! Next week I’ll post about our time in Montepulciano!