Monday, May 15, 2006

Day 12: Castellina in Chianti

When we unpacked last night, I noticed that my phone charger was missing so I call the hotel in San Quirico d'Orcia to see if they had found it in our room. Since it is only about an hour drive, we decide to drive south today through back roads of Chianti and perhaps go to Sant'Antimo and Montalcino while in the area.

After breakfast (okay but can't compare to Palazzo del Capitano), we sit for a while on the back terrace, overlooking the vineyards and the pool . Then we take off down the gravel road towards Vagliagli. We are using the Chianti Classico consortium map of the area and it is very useful for this "back country" navigating. The scenery is beautiful--lots of trees and steep hills covered with vines and olive trees and the landscape dotted with traditional Tuscan stone houses.....many of which are now agriturismi or bed and breakfasts. We have the inevitable discussion--which is more beautiful...Chianti or southern Tuscany? But we end up agreeing that both are beautiful but somewhat different. And if we happen to prefer the gentler landscape in the Val d'Orcia, it is just a personal preference.

Every once in a while, a short patch of the road inexplicably is paved and then abruptly it changes back to gravel. On the road to Pievesciata, we pass a sign for the Parco Sculture di Chianti which I had read about but somehow had forgotten while compiling my list of things that we might do in Chianti. There is a barrier across the entrance and printed sign directing us to the Art Gallery which we find across the road. The art gallery is housed in an old pottery kiln/factory which is also the house and office of the man who started the Sculpture Park. There are large floor to ceiling windows on two sides of the building with views of the countryside that you might think only existed in movies and paintings.

The owner of the park and gallery had seen outdoor installations of modern sculpture around the world (we are very familiar with the Storm King Art Gallery in upstate New York) and he thought his land in Chianti would be a perfect setting this kind of art "gallery".

We buy tickets from the young German woman who works there and she drives us up to the entrance to the park in a golf cart. During the busy season, they have a ticket booth and parking lot right at the entrance but when there are few tourists, it is closed. We take our map and start the walk through the garden. The garden is set on a wooded hillside and there are pieces of modern art installed at intervals along the 1 kilometer path through the woods.

We are completely blown away by the sculpture park...even if we don't like (or understand) all of the works, the combination of the natural settings and the art is very striking. Every turn in the path brings you to another piece of art set in a place of natural beauty. We really enjoy our walk in the woods here at the Sculpture is also one of those unplanned surprises that make a drive in the Italian countryside doubly memorable.

Here is the link to the Parco Sculture's web site where you can see all the sculptures and get some idea about the setting.

Chianti Sculpture Park

Once you cross over into southern Tuscany, the soft rolling hills return. The drive from Asciano to Trequanda is one of the most interesting in the area.....the road runs along the top of a ridge so you have the endless views stretching off in both directions and you get good upclose views of "le crete"--the dramatic erosion pattern that is common in the area. The ground cover has slipped away on the hillsides, leaving large scars of soil exposed.

Back in San Quirico d'Orcia, we retrieve the charger and have another meal at Il Tinaio.....sitting at an outside table on the quiet main street. A pleasant, relaxed meal with some white wine--prosciutto and melon, the pici with tomato and garlic, and strawberries for Diana, a dish of chickpeas splashed with olive oil and parpardelle with a deer ragu for me--all very good. We get a chance to say goodbye to the waiter and the owner who say that they hope to see us next year.

I take the long way around to Sant'Antimo and the scenery is--again--impossibly beautiful. Sant'Antimo is covered with scaffolding, which detracts somewhat from its appearance, but inside it is as we remembered it--cool and restrained and even spiritual. We sit in the church and read about the history and the design in our guidebooks (the Rough Guide is clearly superior for this church). By this time, it is after 4 pm and we decide to skip Montalcino. We pick up a couple who are hitchhiking back to Montalcino after walking to Sant'Antimo, drop them off in town and head for Chianti.

My navigation plan is to try and avoid the main road to Siena and the congestion that we hit yesterday so we take the very slow route to the west. The plan works well in terms of scenery--this area of Tuscany near Murlo is, of course, beautiful and seems less populated and remote--but it doesn't save much time. We pick up the superstrada just north of Siena and are back in Castellina about 6:30.

We sit outside near the pool in the sunshine for a while and decide to eat in the dining room at the hotel. It turns out that we have the place to ourselves--no other guests are eating there tonight. While sometimes eating in an empty restaurant--especially in such a grand room as this --can be depressing, this dinner worked out fine. The staff were friendly and the food was good and we were glad not to be off driving any more. I had a pasta dish--maccheroncelli with sundried tomatoes and guanciale followed by a plate of salume and crostini (untraditional to have this typical antipasto for a secondo but it saves me from all the roast meat second courses) and a salad while Diana has a fettuccine with shrimp followed by involintini of veal stuffed with prosciutto and asparagus. The wine was a local Chianti that was very pleasant. A very nice meal that required only a walk up a flight of stairs to get back to the room.

Tomorrow, off to Siena to see the Duomo..and do a laundry.


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