Tuscany & Umbria: Rustic Beauty in the Italian Heartland   10 comments

Tuscany & Umbria:  Rustic Beauty in the Italian Heartland

Lucca, Pisa, Carrara, Florence, San Galgano, Chiusdino, Collie de Val’Elsa, La Piazza, Monteriggioni, Siena, San Quirico d’Orcia, Val d’Orcia, Pienza, Abbadia, Montepulciano, Pitigliano, Sovana, Isola Maggiore, Assisi, Trevi, Norcia, Pettino, Bomarzo, Boccea

March 16 – 30, 2015


We booked “Tuscany & Umbria:  Rustic Beauty in the Italian Heartland” with Overseas Adventure Travel.  This two week adventure was our 34th trip with this company.  There was a very enjoyable group of fifteen travelers in our adventure through Tuscany & Umbria.  (This map of our itinerary is copied from the Overseas Adventure web site.)  Our wonderful tour director, Giovanna is pictured below.  She was a joy and made everyday of the trip a remarkable experience. 

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The more Jim & I travel, the less we like huge cities and the more we like small towns.  One of my favorite things in travel is seeing medieval hill top towns and cities and I’m always wishing I could see more.  This trip certainly fulfilled my wish list.  Among other things we visited lots and lots of hill town fortified towns.  Another highlight was the fact that we stayed in quaint little hotels in quaint little towns. 


Why do I love Tuscany?  I love experiencing the gently rolling stunningly beautiful hills, seeing the amazingly preserved medieval hill towns, and viewing the history of the medieval and Renaissance periods.  It is a joy to encounter the masterpieces of painters, sculptors and architects in the museums, galleries, churches and piazzas all across the region of Tuscany.  This is why I love Tuscany.  What is not to love about Umbria?  Nothing.  Umbria is second only to Tuscany in terms of historical hills towns and beautiful countryside.  The Umbria region is known for its landscapes, traditions, history and artistic legacy.  It is often called Italy’s green heart which is characterized by hills and historical towns.  The first part of our trip included the area of Tuscany with the latter part of the trip being in Umbria.  Loved all of it!  

SmileSave MoneyMoney:  If you decide you’d like to go on this or any Overseas Adventure or Grand Circle Travel trip, and you are a first time traveler with them, they will give you $100 off any trip if you mention the name of my travel blog and my customer #000561413.  New travelers instantly receive $100 off the cost of the trip, and I will receive $100 when you depart on your trip. 


Lucca, Italy:  It was founded by the Etruscans and became a Roman colony in 180 BC.  Lucca’s medieval city walls are of the best preserved ramparts in Italy.   They were built between 1544 and 1650,  They were erected to defend against Pisa and then Florence.  After they lost their military importance they were used for racing cars in the 20th century.  The walls remain intact, they are about 40 ft. above ground, fairly wide and extend almost 3 miles.  Today, they are a pedestrian promenade and a popular place to ride bicycles.  That is exactly what we did, we completed a full loop around the old city on our rented bicycles.


San Michele in Foro Church:  It’s located in the large square that was originally the Roman Forum in the center of Lucca.  Construction began in 1063.  It’s Roman a Catholic Cathedral dedicated to Saint Martin.  The columns of the façade are different.  The façade features busts of important men of the age rather than mythological or biblical people. 


Puccini House Museum & another pretty Piazza:  Puccini, the famous opera composer, was born in Lucca.  The second photo is one of Lucca’s many pretty piazzas. 


Lucca Cathedral:  It’s a Roman Catholic Cathedral dedicated to Saint Martin.  Construction was begun in 1063.


Piazza dell’Anfiteatro:  This oval shaped piazza, was the site of a Roman amphitheater.  Buildings and houses were built around the arena during the middle ages.  It was time for a coffee break in the cute piazza.


San Frediano Church:  The church was originally built in the 6th century, and remodeled in the 12th century.  The façade is decorated with 13th century Byzantine-style mosaic. 


Our quaint little hotel within the walls of Lucca, “San Luca Palace Hotel.”  We stayed here three nights.


Pisa, Italy:  Several in our group took a 40 minute local bus ride to Pisa to explore the town famous for what?  Yes, yes, the leaning Tower of Pisa.  It’s leaning 3.9 degrees off the vertical and was listing when it was unveiled in 1372.  The leaning tower is a USESCO World Heritage Site.  Let’s not forget to notice the Duomo with its striking tiered exterior which was consecrated in 1118.   In the foreground is The Baptistry of St. John.  Construction began in 1152.  It is the largest Baptistry in Italy and has amazing acoustics. 

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Carrara Marble Quarries:  We boarded 4-wheel-drive vehicles and headed up the slopes of the Apuan Alps for a visit to the famous Carrara marble quarries.  Our quarry tour included explanation of both ancient and modern excavation methods, riding on narrow trails & meeting work trucks, driving right through the mining areas and seeing where Michelangelo selected the block of white marble to sculpt his David.  


We drove through three quarries.  This is the quarry where Michelangelo selected the block of white marble to sculpt his famous David.


Florence:  The birthplace of the Renaissance!  The historic city center of Florence is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  On this particular tour we began with one of the city’s lesser known gems, San Minato al Monte, a basilica that tops one the the highest points in the city.


From San Minato al Monte, we had a good overlook of the city of Florence, then we walked down through the gardens to the city center. 


Ponte Vecchio:  Until 1218 this was the only bridge that crossed the Arno River.  The bridge was rebuilt in 1565 during the reign of the Medici family when they wanted a route which would connect them directly between Uffizi and the Palazzo Pitti on the other side of the River, without even stepping foot outside.  So the covered corridor across the bridge was constructed on top of the bridge stores.  The bridge survived WWII when the German’s destroyed all of the city’s bridges except this one. 


Palazzo Vecchio & Piazza della Signoria:  The Romanesque fort-like palace was built in 1293.  In front of the building stands Michelangelo’s David together with Bandinelli’s Hercules and  Cacus.  The Piazza della Signoria is a beautiful square with lots and lots of fantastic artwork. 


Jim & I definitely had an Italian looking lunch at on outdoor café in Florence.  I would like to mention that this one dish was for both of us, a shared order dish. 


Villa Sabolini:  We packed up and left Lucca and our next hotel for three nights was in the Chianti countryside at the Villa Sabolini Hotel.  It was an enjoyable place.


Looking out our hotel window.


Chapel of Montesiepi:  On a hilltop overlooking a lovely valley sits the chapel of Montesiepi, which hosts the tomb of San Galgano.  In this chapel is the legendary sword of Saint Galgano embedded in a rock. According to tradition, in 1181 a man tried to remove the sword from the rock.  His arms were torn off by a wolf and put in this red box.



Abbey of San Galgano:  We left the chapel and hiked down the hillside and through Tuscan fields to find the Abbey of San Galgano.  Today the 13th-century Abbey church stands as majestic ruins in the countryside.  


The Abbey of San Galgano was built in the 13th century.  At the end of the 18th century the bell tower collapsed destroying a great part of the roof of the church.  The “ceiling” of sky makes the structure more striking.  While in the church our group sang “Amazing Grace.” 


Chiusdino:  A beautiful fortified hill town with the a population of approximately 1,900.


The restaurant where we had lunch.


Colle di Val D’Elsa:  The oldest part of the city is the “colle alta”, the higher part which has a well preserved medieval center.  We visited the old walled city.


We went for a fun hike through the Tuscan Hills.  It was part of the old Pilgrimage Road that eventually led to San Galgano (where we had visited earlier in the day).  We ended our little hike at our hotel, which used to be a hospital, and the pilgrims could seek sanctuary there.  Today it is a nice little hotel in the beautiful countryside of Tuscany.


In the first photo, our countryside tiny town with little hotel are visible in the distance.  On the right side of the same picture is our little “hiking” group.  Oops, I must have been behind!  The tiny town was as cute as it could be.  Last photo is the entrance gate to our hotel, “Villa Sabolini.” 


Pruneti Olive Oil Mill:  Have you ever done an olive oil tasting.  Now we have.  Much the same as wine tasting.  It was interesting seeing the process of producing extra virgin olive oil.  In the tasting, we went from the less expensive, less robust to the most expensive and perfect “everything” olive oil.  It is true the Italians used “extra virgin” olive oil in and on most everything. 

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Photos out the bus window of the pretty Chianti countryside.  We drove to a farm near La Piazza.  We had a most enjoyable afternoon at the “Masseto farmhouse”.  It is part of the Italian Agriturismo farmhouse of neat places one can book and stay in the Italian countryside. 

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Azienda Agricola Masseto, La Piazza:  Their website is (masseto.it) and I quote the following:  “They have maintained the traditions of these Chianti vineyards and olive groves for four centuries.  The buildings are the main house, and two farm houses which were formerly the homes of the share farmer families who lived in the land they cultivated.  Following the decline of share farming practices, the farmhouses fell into a period of disuse until the concept of agritourism was introduced and brought these beautiful buildings back to life. 

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We helped prepare a delicious lunch in the beautiful farmhouse.


Some people (won’t mention names) look like they are eating instead of helping cook.


One last look at the scenery and the dog wanting to play before we leave the farmhouse.


Monteriggioni:  It’s a small medieval walled town.  The town withstood conflicts between Siena and Florence in the Middle Ages.  The walls built between 1213 & 1219, total a length of about 2,000 ft. and follow the natural contours of the hill.  We walked along the top of the well preserved walls.  Loved the little town.


You couldn’t go all the way around on the walls.  First one end, then walk through the tiny town, then you can walk on the walls at the other end.


Siena:  Siena is said to be one of Italy’s loveliest medieval cities, and one of the most popular destinations for travelers to Tuscany.   The historic center of Siena is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Siena is built on three hills, surrounded by well preserved walls, and is filled with Gothic architecture.

Siena has one of the world’s most unique piazzas….Piazza del Campo which is shaped like a shell with scalloped edges.  The twice a year horse race on July 2 & Aug. 16 takes place here.  It is called Palio de Siena.  During this special occasion, the main square in Siena, the Piazza del Campo, is prepared for the race as the ring around the square is covered with tuff clay.  It is a huge, popular event.  This is the piazza where the horse races are held.  Can you imagine the horses going ‘round & round’ the outer edges? 


Contrade:  Siena has a unique districting system.  Siena’s seventeen districts, or Contrade, were originally divided by the city’s buildings and their owners, rather than by roads or other geographical markers.  Each is named after an animal or symbol.  Every year each Contrade competes in the famous horse race, the Palio.  We met with members of the “Elephant Contrade.”  They have an awesome meeting hall, church and museum. 


Siena Cathedral:  A medieval church which was originally designed and completed between 1215 and 1263.  In my opinion it is a “must-see.”  The exterior and interiors are decorated in white and greenish-black marble in alternating stripes.  You need to purchase tickets to get in. 


Siena Cathedral Interior:  It is an impressive and beautiful church.  You hardly know where to look first.  My eyes were first drawn to the white/black marble striped columns.  However, perhaps the most impressive and beautiful of the treasures the cathedral hold are on the floor,  the 56 etched and inlaid marble panels were designed by 40 leading artists between 1369 and 1547.


The Piccolomini Library:  Adjoining the cathedral is this beautiful library.  It contains very colorful and stunning frescoes which were painted by Pinturicchio between 1502 and 1507. 


A few photos as we strolled around Siena:


San Quirico d’Orcia:  We stopped at this cute hillside town for a coffee break.  Had to share a few pictures.


Val d’Orcia:  A region which extends from south of Siena to Pienza.  It is characterized by gentle hills, gullies and picturesque towns and villages.  This area is on the list of UNESCO world heritage sites.


Pienza: Our next three nights lodging was in the delightful little town of Pienza.  Pope Pius II was born here in 1405, and in 1458 he had the entire village rebuilt as an ideal Renaissance town.  It was intended as a retreat from Rome.  He renamed the village Pienza (Pius).  The old town is a UNESCO World Heritiage Site.  Loved this village!

These photos are taken of our hotel and from our terrace at the Piccolo Hotel La Valle.  The breakfast room and terrace of the little hotel all overlooked the beautiful valley of Val D’Orcia, as mentioned above.  


Jim & I walked along a terrace of the town and the views of Val D’Orcia were outstanding:


The Duomo:  Dominates the center of the main piazza has a façade that is one of the earliest designed in the Renaissance manner. 


Various photos around this fascinating village of Pienza: 


A fun evening of pizza in Pienza, Italy:


Villa Sant’ Anna Winery, Abbadia, Italy:  (villasantanna.it)  For about 200 years the family of Simona Ruggeri Fabroni has owned this property.  It is located on the hills around the town of Montepulciano and is renowned for its fine wines. We toured the wine cellars, learned the steps of producing wine, and then enjoyed lunch and wine tasting around dining tables in the beautifully decorated tasting room. 

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Montepulciano:  Standing high atop a hill in southern Tuscany is this medieval town of beauty and well worth visiting.  A walk through Montepulciano provides one stunning view after another, from beautiful landmarks to the outstanding views of the surrounding countryside.


Pitigliano:  Pitigliano and this area was inhabited in Etruscan times.  The first written mention of Pitigliano is in 1061.  Today,it is a well preserved old town perched high on a ledge overlooking two rivers.   It has a rich Jewish heritage.  Jews began settling in Pitigliano in the 15th century.    During WWII, the town’s few remaining Jews escaped the Nazis with the aid of their mostly Catholic neighbors. 


And the rains came to Pitigliano.


The parts of the ancient Jewish Quarter of Pitigliano open to visitors includes a small museum,  ritual baths, dye works, the Kosher butchering area, bread ovens, and the restored synagogue from 1598.


The Etruscan Necropolis of Sovana:  The Etruscan’s were ancient people of central Italy. whose civilizations flourished from about 700-400 B.C.  They were subsequently dominated and absorbed by the Romans.  This Etruscan necropolis is noteworthy for the many different types of tombs it contains. 


Ildebranda Tomb:  Discovered in 1924, most important tomb in the necropolis is the “Ildebranda Tomb” dating from the 3rd-2nd century BC.  The tomb, which has the form of a temple, is dug in the tufa and is finely decorated.


Vie Cave of Sovana:  This Etruscan cave road connects between Sorano and Pitigliano.  Origninally used as roads to reach areas of burial, but became the roads of communication.


We bid farewell to Tuscany and turned our eyes toward Umbria on this day.  Considered the green heart of Italy, Umbria is rich with agriculture, olive oil making and verdant forests.  We drove to Lake Trasimeno which is one of the biggest lakes of Italy at 50 square miles. 

Isola Maggiore:  We boarded a small boat to go to Isola Maggiore which is a tranquil island in the middle of the lake.  It used to be a bustling fishing village centuries, but is now home to just 17 permanent residents.  There is a church and cemetery on top of the hill.  There is a castle on the hillside but it has fallen into disrepair and it sealed off tight behind a gate.  

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We enjoyed a nature hike around and over the top of the island.  The statue is in honor of St. Francis of Assisi who lived 40 days on this island as a hermit during Lent in 1211.  Once you have hiked to the top of the island you see lots and lots of olive groves that belong to the church.   The church has no membership so the olives go unattended. 


Back to the tiny town and lunch at this restaurant.


Assisi:  The town is best known for the legacy of Saint Francis and his followers who practiced humility and compassion in the face of poverty.  We visited the 13th century Basilica.  No photos were allowed inside.  The church was begun immediately after St. Francis canonization in 1228, and completed in 1253. 

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Oh my, we experienced rain & hail we were leaving the Church.  We took shelter under these porticos.


Trevi:  We transferred from Pienza to Trevi to stay for the next three nights right in the heart of this charming little hillside town.    Most of the medieval town lies on sharply sloping terrain, with only the very center being more or less flat.  Again, I loved the hilltop village.


Antica Dimora alla Rocca:  Our hotel for three nights in Trevi.  The rooms and suites located in the 17th century palace are splendid.  The hotel was restored in 2003 to its previous splendor. 


Norcia:  Guess what?  Another town surrounded by defensive walls, but it’s not on a hilltop.  It a small town in the Nera Valley in Umbria and it’s renowned for its salami and prosciutto.  We sampled the various goodies.  


The main piazza of Norcia and the Church of St. Benedict was built in the 13th century.


Pianciano:  While in the rural Umbria area we went to a local farm located in the olive groves.  The estate was beautiful.  Some rode in style in the rain to the estate.  While there we saw their herd of Chianina cattle, toured the winery and enjoyed the wine they produce at the estate. 


Pettino:  Today we departed for a small mountain village nestled in a high plateau in the heart of the Appenines.  We met the members of a family in a small mountain community that have been living here for generations.  They grow crops, tend sheep, and gather truffles and mushrooms from the surrounding birch forests.  Upon arrival we were welcomed into their home for coffee and cake.


Truffle Hunting:  Truffles are related to mushrooms and are known as hypogenous fungi.  They have a root-like structure but never emerge from the surface, but stay close to the tree’s root systems.  Pigs can be used to hunt truffles, but they also like to eat them.  So trained truffle hunting dogs are a key to successfully hunting the expensive truffles. 

  So along with a member of the family and his truffle hunting dogs, we set off on 4-wheel-drive vehicles to go higher up in the mountain to hunt for truffles.  It was a beautiful sunny day and the hike and truffle hunting was a fun experience.   And yes the dogs found truffles.

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A hunting we will go.


After finding just enough truffles they made fresh scrambled eggs with grated truffles over the top.  It was pretty tasty.  Oh, yes, and wine of course. 

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Then here came the sheep, the shepherd and the Great Pyrenees dogs.  While up in the mountains their sheep will have have a shepherd and the Great Pyrenees with them.


This family also also owns Chianina cattle.  Coming down the mountain from truffle hunting we could see the family farm compound where we’d spend the rest of the afternoon. 


Back to the farm.  Time for a little wine…again.


The grandmother of the family has been making pasta since she was five years old.  She showed us everything there is to know about making pasta.  Later we ate it for lunch. 


We bid farewell to Umbria and began our overland transfer to the Roman countryside.  We stopped at a little town and they were having a Sunday market. 


 Parco dei Mostri, Bomarzo:  Park of the Monsters was a fun place for a morning stroll.  Begun in 1552, the garden features a series of bizarre and fascinating stone sculptures meant to shock.


Boccea:  The last night of our trip was spent at the “Borgo di Tragliata”, an agriturismo lodging located outside of Rome.  We had another splendid meal, more great wine, and music and a djay.  It was the perfect ending of a fantastic trip with a group of tremendous travelers. 

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Thus ends another memorable meander of the Farmer’s.  Happy trails!


Posted April 22, 2015 by marilynfarmer in Travel

10 responses to “Tuscany & Umbria: Rustic Beauty in the Italian Heartland

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  1. I think you missed your calling! Well written!

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. I just love your “The Famers Meanderings” site. I have been on 3 Grand Circle Trips, all of which have been a fabulous adventure. You do such a fantastic job of creating a word and picture story recounting all your adventures. Wish I would do better. Lots of pics but do not get down to the business of documenting them and my trips very well. Thank you so much for sharing. Tuscany and the Amalfi Coast and The Rhine and Mosel river cruise were such fun and so full of history. Also have made some good friends traveling with Grand Circle.

    • Thank you Sharon I am glad you enjoy my travel blogs. You have seen some beautiful places with Grand Circle also. Isn’t it a wonderful world out there? Keep on traveling, meeting friends and enjoying the world.

  3. I really enjoyed this blog that I found on the OAT web site. I leave on this trip in two days. I am pretty excited and happy to get your “preview”. Thanks.

    • Sharon, you will absolutely love this trip! I’m so excited for you. What’s not to love about seeing all these wonderful hilltop towns in Tuscany and Umbria. Enjoy every minute of your trip!

  4. We are excited to be able to travel to Italy with OAT. Do you recommend hiking poles? Did most people dress casual (blue jeans) or a bit more dressy? Did you have a special place to eat? Do you have a special souvenir or something you wish you would have purchased…but did not? We signed up for this trip more than 13 months ago..so you can imagine how excited I am getting!!!!

  5. HI! I have really enjoyed your pictures and descriptions of your trip to Tuscany and Umbria! We are going on this trip soon!! We hike 3-5 miles almost everyday in a forest…do you think we should bring our hiking poles? Do most travelers dress casually (blue jeans) or a bit more dressy? Do you have a special memory of a place to eat? Do you have a special souvenir or something you wish you would have purchased..but did not? We have been planning this trip for over 13 months! We are really excited!

    • Hi Linda, you will love this trip. It is amazing. We absolutely loved the medieval hill towns and the scenery everything was breathtaking. If you are hiking 3-5 miles almost daily and you probably be able to sprint right up the hills. haha You are probably so fit that I doubt you need to bother bringing your hiking poles unless you feel a lot more comfortable with them. Some in the group did have and use them and one time our tour director cut a hiking stick from a tree for Jim and he used it. We didn’t hike up any dangerous trails or anything like that but since almost every town is located on a hill top there is lots of uphill walking. You do not need to dress up, jeans, slacks and capri’s are perfectly acceptable. Since we aren’t much for purchasing souvenirs I don’t feel like I missed out on not buying anything. Food: OAT provides lots of interesting meals located in memorable places and we were fortunate that our tour director was always willing to tell us good places to eat and usually went with us. So much fun. You enjoy every minute of your trip and gather memories to last a life time.

  6. Thank you for your help! I just saw your lasts post that Jim received his Crown of Life. I am so very sorry for your loss. I have tears, even though I have never met you. I feel like I know you through your pictures. I pray that you are comforted know that you will meet Jim again. You have created so many memories through your amazing travels. God wrap His loving arms around you and give you peace through these difficult days. Linda

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