Under the Tuscan sun

With beautiful landscapes and opulent architecture, Tuscany is no less than a paradise. Tanushree Podder explores the culture-rich wine country
Last Updated 25 May 2013, 14:06 IST

It was a desire to taste the good life that saw me at Tuscany that November morning. On agenda were food, wine, leisure, a wee bit of sights followed by shopping; in fact, everything that would make me sigh with satisfaction and exclaim, “Life is beautiful!”

Making a pit stop at Florence to gawk at the Renaissance art would make no sense, so I pended that for the return journey and proceeded to Siena, the city of Palio. Visitors who have been to Siena know that it is a place that combines the beautiful architecture and art of Renaissance era with a throbbing and pulsating passion for Palio, the bareback horse race that drives the town crazy. In the grip of Palio fever, the Sienese live, talk and dream of nothing else for weeks before the event. The venue, Piazza del Campo, is turned into a turf for a while, with earth laid on it, barricades put up, tickets sold and even the space of balconies in every building overlooking the square sold for a hefty price.

Of piazzas & plazas

On other days, the 13th century Piazza is a beautiful square ringed with medieval structures and an intricate marble fountain to sate the tourists’ penchant for photographs. A towering Torre del Mangia provides a spectacular view of the Tuscan countryside for those who have the stamina to brave the few hundred steps to the top.

Palazzo Pubblica, the Gothic Town Hall, has a treasure trove of Siena’s art. Frescoes by Simone Martini, Duccio and Lorezetti adorn the medieval walls. But the Piazza del Duomo, with the Duomo, Crypt, Baptistery and the Opera del Duomo Museum is my next stop. The Duomo, a Romanesque Gothic creation, is the pride of the town. Its striking black and white striped exterior is a pleasant deviation from the usual Renaissance facades. The crypt is covered with exquisite 13th century frescoes, which are reward enough for the effort of making the trip to Siena. One could spend an entire day inside the Duomo, enraptured by the work of Domenico di Bartolo, Beccafumi and Matteo di Giovanni.

The tiny octagonal Chigi Chapel, designed by Bernini, houses a painting of Madonna that left me breathless with its effect. The Libreria Piccolomini next to the Duomo is a repository of frescoes. Scattered amongst other statues are the ones sculpted by Michelangelo. One could spend over a week in the town, appreciating the art in The Baptistry and Museo dell’Opera del Duomo and other places, but I had miles to go.
The next morning saw me on my way to Montepulciano, a beautiful hilltop town, famed for its wine. Sitting atop a lofty ridge, the town is like an idyllic painting. Miles of vineyards dotted with stonewalled houses, olive groves, enchanting bucolic ambience and medieval structures brush it with a romantic touch. At the end of Central Corso, the central street, stands the Piazza Grande flanked by a medley of Renaissance Palazzos, souvenir shops, cafes and wine shops. On one side is the Palazzo Comunale, a crenellated Gothic structure topped by a tower and an ancient cistern that once quenched the thirst of the population.

The Duomo, with a rather plain exterior, boasts of fascinating art. There is a lovely creation of ‘Madonna with Child’ by Benedetto da Maiano and Taddeo di Bartolo’s triptych, ‘Assumption of the Virgin’, painted in 1401, that brighten up the interiors.

But my trip was about La Dolce Vita and there’s no better way to begin than by tasting the famous red wine of Montepulciano. Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, violet-flavoured and ruby red, is one of the oldest wines of Italy. An hour later, slightly flushed, I emerge from my wine-tasting trip, clutching a pair of Rosso di Montepulciano and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano bottles to make my way to a thermal spa.

Food fiesta

A banquet awaits me at my next halt. Rewarding myself after the therapy, I gorge on sumptuous Italian food. Starting with Bruschetta slathered with extra virgin olive oil, moving on to Ribollita, the appetising soup, to a main course of Pollo alla diavola, Chicken grilled with herbs, I forget all diet rules for a while. All this is downed with a reserve version of Chianti Classico. Burping delicately, I end the feast with some real nice dolce (sweet), panforte, which turns out to be a rich fruit, nut and spice cake.

A meal at an Italian restorante is a long process, which involves extended wait between each course, I realise. While it may be a good dining experience, it certainly throws the itinerary of a tourist into a spin. But that is a small price to pay for experiencing La Dolce Vita. Having done my bit at the spa, caught some sightseeing and gorged myself on local wine and cuisine, it was time to indulge in the ultimate experience in shopping, and I set off on an expedition. Keeping the conversion rate of euro in mind, I had to balance my greed and pocket. On the mind were brand names like Gucci, Ferragamo, Valentino, Cavalli and Armani. I looked at my size zero wallet and sighed.

Then I was told that located on the outskirts of Florence is a place known as The Mall, which retails major brands at high discounts. There were outlets of brands like Mui Mui, Valentino, Armani, Yves Saint Laurent, Bottega Veneta, Prada, Sergio Rossi, Burberry, Dior, Fendi, Ermengildo Zegna and Gucci. It was a shopper’s haven. With good discounts that suited my purse too.

Fortified by a quick lunch at the Dot.Com restaurant in the complex, I continued my rounds around the outlets. Busloads of Chinese and Russian tourists had queued up at the cash counter of Gucci and Prada with yard-long bills. A bit hesitantly I joined them with my miniscule one.

Later, I visit Florence, the cradle of Renaissance, where I spend the last few days of my trip. Sated after my brush with art, culture, food and shopping, I find myself day dreaming about my la dolce vita trip all through my flight back to India.

(Published 25 May 2013, 14:06 IST)

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