The Magic of Venice

This city is abundant with art and architecture.  Millions of people arrive daily to take in it’s atmosphere and wander its narrow streets. Hopefully, there will soon be a ban on those mega cruise ships that are destroying the lagoon!
Venice at night
The Grand Canal from The Rialto Bridge
Surprisingly, although there are no cars and everything is delivered via boat, there are surprisingly few accidents. How they navigate around is crazy!
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Venice
Venice
The Grand Canal at The Rialto Bridge
The gondoliers are a special bunch.  Did you know they must know the city’s history? They don’t just serenade you! Whether via gondola or vaporetto (water taxi) be sure to explore the city from the water.  You will see it from a completely different perspective than just walking around.
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Gondola rides
The city’s history is fascinating and the Grand Canal is lined with more than 170 13th – 18th centuries old Palazzos.  These buildings appear to sit on the water but their construction goes way back when they were constructed on pilings set into layers of sand and clay. (See my blog on Venice from 2017)
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The smaller side waterways are called Rio’s and are crossed by over 400 small bridges. Over time the canals were deepened and widened to accommodate traffic.
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There are only a few ‘Canals’ in the city: The Grand Canal- a giant “S” curve that winds its way through the center of the city; the Cannaragio Canal and Guidecca Canal.  The Grand Canal has four bridges that cross it: The Rialto Bridge; The Ponte degli Scalzi; the Ponte dell’ Accademia and the Ponte della Costituzione. Who can believe the Rialto bridge has stood for 400 years.
Rialto Bridge
The Rialto Bridge
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Ponte degli Scalzi
Accademia Bridge
Ponte dell’ Accademia
Venice is an amazing city in every way. Every piazza features another magnificent church. These are works of amazing art and extraordinary masterpieces of architecture.  We will explore these in another blog. Stay tuned!
Did you miss my recent trip to Asiago? As always, if you are traveling to Italy I am glad to recommend experienced Travel Agents who can make you trip memorable and tailored to your needs and desires. Of course, if you are traveling with a larger party and would like a photographer to document your adventures so you can just enjoy your trip, I’m your girl!

Carnevale di Venezia

Carnevale Di Venezia is probably one of the most famous carnivals in the world! Beautiful costumes and Venetian masks create a magical atmosphere.

The Venice Carnival is an annual festival like Mardi Gras held each year in Venice, Italy and is famous for the elaborate masks and costumes. The Carnival ends with the celebration of Lent, forty days before Easter, the day before Ash Wednesday.  This year it runs from Saturday, January 27th thru Tuesday, February 13th, 2018.

This tradition started way back in 1162 to celebrate a victory of the Venice Republic. It became an official celebration during the Renaissance.  After a long drought the Carnival was reborn in 1979.

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Carnevale masks

 

Masks were always an important part of the Venetian festival.  They vary greatly in design and can be made from porcelain, glass, leather, gesso and gold leaf.  Many are hand painted and employ feathers and jewels!

Venice at night
The Grand Canal from The Rialto Bridge

 

Did you miss the blog on Asiago located high in the mountains above Venice and Vicenza? Here is a link: Asiago

Val d’Orcia – Montichiello

The entrance to this village is through the Porta Sant’Agata (know as the ‘city gate’) and offers absolutely stunning views across the valley to Pienza from its perch high on a hill overlooking a magnificent valley. This extraordinarily beautiful region of Tuscany, the Val d’Orcia, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2004.

Pienza blog-3Montichiello is a perfectly restored village set among the 15th century landscape with its dotted cypress trees and farms and in the shadow of Pienza and Montepulciano.  It is a small village and easy to explore.

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The Church of Santi Leonardo and Christoforo, is Roman-Gothic in style and dates back to the 13th century and can be found in the center of Monticchiello and is the principal historic monument containing ancient frescoes.

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Pieve dei Santi Leonardo e Cristoforo

 

The remaining towers were originally fortifications to defend the village. As with many towns throughout the Val D’Orcia one can imagine these towns have changed very little over the years.

As you wander around you can’t help but notice the pride these towns’ people take in their homes. Lovely flowers overhang the balconies and surrounding the doorways.    Just like in Siena the laundry hanging overhead tells the story of the residents within and invites you to explore further.

 

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Montechiello

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The view from the Porta Sant’Agata looking over the Val d’Orcia toward Pienza.

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Pienza from Montechiello

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Did you miss Montepulciano, Pienza or Siena in the Val D’Orcia region of Tuscany?  Here are links to the those blogs.  From there you can also find Blogs not he Amalfi Coast, Venice, Florence, Lucca, Pisa and the Puglia region.  Next up is Montalcino.

I am off to Italy in January so stay tuned.  Headed back to Venice, Vicenza and Verona.

Greve in Chianti and Montefioralle

Greve in Chianti was our home base while in the Chianti region of Tuscany.  From here we travelled to Siena then to Montepulciano, Pienza, Montalcino, San Gimignano, Arezzo and Montichiello. As I detailed in a previous blog we were delighted to stay at Villa Bordoni for our time after we left Venice and Florence. The countryside around Chianti is very fertile and a patchwork of vineyards, ancient olive groves, dark cypress trees and the miles of hay fields. You see many small and ancient villages, magnificent Renaissance palazzos and churches.

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Villa Bordoni
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Vineyards

Greve in Chianti is a medieval town not far from Florence in the heart of Chianti Classico territory and has developed around a central Piazza over the last 500 years. . Piazza Matteotti, a triangular shaped square is surrounded by shops and restaurants and is home to the Saturday market.  In the center of the Piazza is a statue of Giovanni da Verranzano.  If you have ever been to NYC then you know of the Verranzano bridge.  He is credited with discovering NY harbor. At the far end is the church of Santa Croce.

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Piazza Matteotti and Giovanni da Verranzano
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Church of Santa Croce
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Wild Boars roam the countryside in Tuscany

Sangiovese grapes are the very soul of Tuscany. In fact, their fruity, aromatic fragrance is present in almost all of Tuscany’s top wines.

– Classic: is reserved for wines produced in the region where a particular type of wine has been produced “traditionally”. For the Chianti Classico, this “traditional region” is defined by a decree from 1932.

– Riserva: may be used only for wines that have been aged at least two years longer than normal for a particular type of wine.

“Chianti Classico, produced in the provinces of Firenze and Siena is characterized from the exclusive and compulsive “Gallo Nero” label. Chianti Classico and Riserva is made with 80-100% of Sangiovese grapes, and a max 20% of Canaiolo, Colorino, Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Merlot. ……also the Chianti Classico Gran Selezione (grapes must be grown by the winery itself and minimum aging requirement: 30 months, including 3 months of bottle aging).”

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The Rooster is the symbol of Chianti Classico

Since the 1970s, Tuscan wine producers have begun to experiment with foreign grape varietals, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. By combining these with the Sangiovese grape, they have created the Super Tuscan wines (an unofficial category of Tuscan wines, not recognized within the Italian wine classification system), which are high-quality wines that are popular in international markets. Some of the most famous names are: Tignanello and Sassicaia.

Montefioralle is a tiny hamlet set on a hilltop west of Greve in Chianti paved with stone houses and narrow cobblestone streets and is supposedly the ancestral home of Amerigo Vespucci, the mapmaker, navigator and explorer who named America. This town dates back to the 11th century and is exactly how you expect a Tuscan village to look with its medieval buildings still standing.  Widely considered one of the most beautiful villages in Italy and still enclosed by its original defensive walls. Charming!!!! It was absolutely magical and I felt transported back in time.

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We stopped by during the day when it was very quiet and then came back in the evening for a fabulous dinner including the infamous Bistecca Fiorentina!  Let me just say we had this steak everywhere! Steak is really not the right word to describe this thick slab of beef it is like a T-bone steak from a large oxen.  It is always seared on both sides and served rare.  As all the guide books suggest- don’t ask for it well done!

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Want to read more about Villa Bordoni? or Villa Vignamaggio in Greve? Here is a link also back to the beginning of this adventure which began in Venice.  From there you can continue with me or jump to Florence, Siena, Pienza…. well you get the idea! Stay tuned still to come are Montalcino and Montechiello.

Arezzo

Arezzo sits high on a hill on the western side of the Apennines toward the border with Umbria and is Tuscany’s third largest city and one of the wealthiest located in southeastern Tuscany and feels like a more modern city than some we have seen elsewhere in Tuscany founded in the 9th century and really caters to the locals.  It has high end shopping and the economy here has had a hand in gold and jewelry design worldwide since Etruscan times when it was a great town and a strategic Roman city. I have a sister in the jewelry business and she travels frequently to Arezzo.  I think I need to tag along!!

 

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There were Renaissance town palaces, Romanesque and Gothic churches and medieval squares in the upper town area of the Duomo. We started at the top of the city and worked our way back down to our car at the bottom. If you so chose you can do it in reverse! The upper part of the town is very medieval and is the site of the Cathedral and the Medici Fortress.

 

The Arezzo Cathedral with its splendid stained glass windows sits high on a hill in the Piazza Duomo San Donato with views over the countryside on the site of an earlier Benedictine chapel begun in 1277. The bell tower of the Duomo has been visible from all over since 1337. This church dates from the 14th century and sits in a square with medieval towers and a white marble statue. Even the side entrance is very elaborate and is from the original medieval building.  The door in the center is a 14th century portal in the Florentine style with 2 columns taken from an ancient temple.

Santa Maria della Pieve found in the Piazza Grande was constructed over the remains of a Roman temple. The facade is from the 13th century and has a Romanesque exterior with granite Roman columns and a Gothic interior. It has a massive bell tower built in the 12th century with a nave and two aisles and a Hundred Holes with 40 double arched mullioned windows. It sits almost 60 meters high! Both the front and back facades contain a mix of columns and is one of the best known examples of Romanesque architecture in Tuscany.

The Piazza Grande, a medieval square has an irregular shape and assorted buildings constructed over time and is reminiscent of Siena’s Il Campo. Originally, it was the city’s marketplace. The main street is Corso Italia where we found some great shopping, restaurants and it takes you up to the top of the town and backdown.

About halfway down the street is the Loggia designed by Vasari with high arches and antique doors that now has several cafes and restaurants and is a fun spot to people watch over the sloping Piazza Grande. The slope was obviously designed to funnel rain water out of the square. It is said that this Piazza was built on top of the Roman forum.

The Basilica of San Francesco is a late medieval church dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi.  This is another church built by the Franciscans.  The design is very simple and the decoration of the facade was never completed.

A walk up through the gardens surrounding the Medici Fortress reveals striking views of the city and countryside and also of the cemetery which we found fascinating. The fortress was in the form of a 5 point star built by Cosimo I . It was one of three fortresses built to defend the city and the  most important because this is where the city’s ancient center was situated.

Walking along the exterior wall thru the French styled park affords some great panoramic views towards the Casentino Valley, surrounding vineyards and olive groves. (see Featured photo at beginning)

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My advice:  When in all these lovely towns in Tuscany try to plan some time to just relax and enjoy the place, the people and the food.  Do not be in a hurry to cross each site off your bucket list or you’ll miss the very essence of Tuscany! Did you miss Lucca or Pienza? You can search the blogs by category so if you are looking for something in particular just search for it there.

Lucca- Walled Historic Center

Lucca is known for its Renaissance walls that encircle the historic center of this city lined with cobblestone streets and mostly closed to car traffic. This is the former home of Giacomo Puccini the famous opera composer. We loved this town and you can totally picture living here.  (Do you see a theme here? I think I said that in Ravello , then again in Positano, then again in Florence. My heart is in Italy no matter where I am.) We did not get to venture out of the historic walled center to the rest of the city however.  Next time!

Lucca is surrounded by high mountains and is a short drive from Pisa and located southwest of Florence. The walls were finished in the 17th century and remain intact. The city was built along the rectangular Roman grid formation seen elsewhere in Italy. Lucca became a Roman colony in 180 BC.

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Some of the fun sights are the Cathedral, the Guinigi Tower, the Piazza dell’ Anfiteatro, San Michele in Foro and of course walking, running, biking or just sitting and people watching on the wall. However, the best thing was just to wander the streets, get gelato, watch people and if you are lucky be here for the Lucca Music Festival. We missed Imagine Dragons by 3 days and at the end of the Festival the Rolling Stones! Bummer!

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The Cathedral di San Martino is a Roman Catholic cathedral dedicated to Saint Martin is located in a secluded area of the old city center. The Cathedral is Gothic and Romanesque style with a marble facade like the one found in Pisa. The front facade has 3 arches where pilgrims on their destination route to Rome traded. The marble inlay floor is a mix of religious themes like the floor we saw in Siena dating back to 1233. Next to the Duomo is the crenellated bell-tower finished in the 13th century.  Inside you see the famous crucifix bearing an image of Christ wearing a long sleeved garment. The Cathedral is found when walking on the main street called Via Fillungo filled with shops and restaurants.

Cathedral di San Martino

Piazza San Michele which including a statue of Puccini and the Church of San Michele in Foro is a Roman Catholic church built over the ancient Roman forum. What a fancy exterior on this church. There is a winged Archangel Michael standing at the top and there are also busts of Italian patriots. Built between the 11th and 14th centuries with its twisted columns, each different and carved marble details.  It is a very extravagant example of the Pisan-Romanesque style. There is an obvious lack of Christian detailing except the larger figure of St. Michael.

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Church of San Michele in Foro

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Guinigi Tower (Torre Guinigi) a Romanesque Gothic structure built in the 1300’s and one of the few remaining towers within the city walls is unique for the holm oak trees planted at the top to symbolize rebirth and renewal. It is the only remaining tower of the original four. From here take in the magnificent view of the entire city!

Guinigi Tower

Santa Maria Bianca is a Romanesque-style Roman Catholic church.  Each church has its own unique personality.

Church of San Frediano is a Romanesque church that dominates one end of the Piazza San Frediano.  It has a stunning 13th century mosaic that glows brilliantly with gold, blue and pale pinks and pastels.  It was begun in the 6th century and originally dedicated to St.Vincent.  The mosaic is of The Ascension of Christ the Saviour.

Basilica di San Frediano

The Piazza dell’ Anfiteatro is now a public square in the walled center. The square is elliptical shaped with four gateways and reveals the old structure of the Roman amphitheatre. This Ampitheatre originally held 10,000 spectators and was created for gladiator games and other events. Today it is surrounded by open air restaurants and shops and is a real lively spot in the evenings.

Piazza dell’ Anfiteatro

Palazzo Pfanner goes back to 1660 originally commissioned by the Moriconi family who when forced into bankruptcy in 1680 sold the building to the Controni family of silk merchants. They were responsible for the building of the grand staircase and upgrading the gardens. The Pfanner family became involved in the middle of the 19th century. This was the site of the historic Pfanner Brewery until 1929. They are responsible for the restoration of this property that is now open to the public. The gardens have extraordinary 18th century statues depicting the deities of Greek Olympus and the Four Seasons.  The baroque garden is visible from the city walls and the grand staircase and is right near the Basilica di San Frediano.

Palazzo Pfanner

Even I managed to have my share of gelato here in Lucca! I highly suggest Gelateria Veneta!

Have you missed any of the other towns? Pienza was the last town we visited but you can search the blogs by town if you are looking for one in particular.

Pienza – Val d’ Orcia

Pienza is a small town located in the Val D’Orcia, (2004 UNESCO World Cultural Landscapes) in the southeastern area of Tuscany. Situated between Montepulciano and Montalcino and South of Siena it is an easy day trip if your home base is anywhere in Tuscany. In 1996, UNESCO made the center of Pienza a World Heritage Site. I recently learned exactly what this means: “considering that the site is of outstanding universal value as it represents the first application of the Renaissance Humanist concept of urban design, and as such occupies a seminal position in the development of the planned “ideal town” which was to play a significant role in subsequent urban development in Italy and beyond” (source: VisitTuscany.com) 

Pienza is one of the best examples of a Renaissance planned town that has survived relatively intact from ancient times. The streets have such romantic names like Via dell’ Amore (love street)!

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It was the home of Pope Pius II who was born here. Pienza means “the city of Pius”. Construction began approximately in 1459 on top of the ancient hamlet that existed and lasted about 4 years. Check out the old well in the Piazza Pio II main square named for Bernardo Rossellino, the architect who had previously worked with Alberti on the facade of Santa Maria Novella in Florence.

This town was the first to be constructed using urban planning techniques and was planned around the Piazza and all the town’s main monuments are located on this square; the cathedral and three other palaces: Palazzo Piccolomini, Palazzo Borgia, and Palazzo Comunale.

Palazzo Piccolomini

The Roman Catholic Cathedral [Chiesa di Santa Maria Assunta) built on the remains of a Romanesque church stands in the main square and includes many works of art including five altar paintings from the Sienese school. The facade is typical of Renaissance architecture. Supposedly the Pope wanted the cathedral to tower over the other buildings as a sign of faith. The Duomo is one of the first Renaissance cathedrals with stained glass windows and a classical interior.

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Palazzo Borgia is another important building on the square and now home to a museum.


Palazzo Comunale is the town hall and has a loggia and a facade decorated with a scratched plaster technique and a brick bell tower.

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This town is so beautiful as is the countryside surrounding it dotted with cypress trees, hayfields and winding roads.

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Pienza is the capital of pecorino cheese “sheep’s milk cheese” and has a distinctive sharp and salty taste acquired from a particularly aromatic milk courtesy of the sheep pastures in the Val D’Orcia region. You can be sure we brought some home!

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Be sure to walk around the views are amazing!

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Historical Sources: Wikipedia, Fodor’s and VisitTuscany.com

 

Did you miss Pisa?  Here is a link: Pisa

Pisa- more than just the Leaning Tower!

Here the Arno River continues from Florence dividing the city into 4 distinct areas as it flows to the sea. There is much to see in this city beyond just The Leaning Tower of Pisa!

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The area of Santa Maria is one of the most ancient districts and during the Roman Empire was a flourishing city. Surrounded by the 12th century wall the Piazza del Duomo consisting of the Cathedral, the Baptistry and the Tower complex is one of the most dramatic settings in Italy.

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The Piazza is also known as the ‘Field of Miracles’ or Campo deli Miracoli with its magnificent lawn.

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Pisa heralds from as early as the Bronze Age and was populated by Etruscans and eventually became part of the Roman Empire. It was an economic powerhouse in the Middle Ages and was a mighty Maritime city along with Amalfi, Genoa and Venice. The city was heavily damaged during WWII but thankfully the Duomo and the Tower were spared as well as some other Romanesque structures.

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This is also a city to explore on foot like many other Tuscan cities.  Be sure to explore the area around the Arno River after visiting the Field of Miracles and taking your kitschy picture trying to hold up the Leaning Tower.  You know you will!!!

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We only had a few hours to explore Pisa so our journey will have to continue on our next adventure.  The Gothic Baptistry is directly across from the Duomo and is known for the pulpit carved by Nicola Pisano in 1260. In a not to be missed event every half hour an employee will close the doors and chant demonstrating the remarkable, unbelievable acoustics in this amazing place. It was amazing!!!!!!!  Video below!

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The cathedral employs horizontal striped marble, a technique borrowed from Moorish architecture which is found in other Tuscan cathedrals. It is renown for the Romanesque panels depicting the life of Christ on the transept door facing the tower. Note the beautiful carved pulpit done in the 14th century by Giovanni Pisano.

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Look at this ceiling!!!!
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Striped marble facade

 

The Leaning Tower or the Torre Pendente rises high above the Field. Supposedly Galileo conducted experiments on gravity from the 187′ tower. Historians disagree- go figure! The story goes that the tower started settling when construction reached the third story. There was an attempt to compensate by making the remaining floors slightly taller than the leaning side but- alas- it didn’t work and only made the problem worse. You must have reservations to climb to the top.  Sadly, we didn’t know that so we couldn’t get up there but I understand the views are crazy!

Did you miss Montepulciano?

Montepulciano – Val d’Orcia

 

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Now we are seriously in the heart of wine country!  Montepulciano is reknown for 2 wines in this region: Rosso di Montepulciano and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.  These are some of the very best wines in the world. Sitting high on a hilltop with steep narrow streets it is like many of the other towns in the region with a main piazza. Did you know this town is built on a narrow limestone ridge about 600 meters above sea level!  The streets are lined with Renaissance-style palazzos and churches.

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The medieval town hall Palazzo Comunale was built between the end of the 1300’s and the middle of the 1400’s.  The original front design of the building in travertine resembles the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence which is not surprising since 500 years ago this town allied itself with Florence. The cornel on the left side of the main entrance bears a ‘griffin’ the symbol of the town of Montepulciano. Contucci Palace on the right.

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Climb to the top for amazing views
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Palazzo Ricci
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Duomo of Montepulciano

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On the top of the tower which you can climb that raises about 50 meters above the Renaissance Piazza grande provides amazing views of the countryside from Val D’Orcia to Val di Chiana.  To the west is Pienza and Montalcino. The tower was a keen lookout position although it was never meant to hide soldiers.

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The people’s spirit here is very independent and they show that with colorful rituals in the Piazza.

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Piazza Communale of Montepulciano and the Well which supports two lions – the Medici coat-of-arms

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Chiesa di Sant’Agostino

 

The Montepulciano area is famous for producing Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG, a fine wine that is among the oldest in Italy and is from the Sangiovese vines. In 1980 it became the first Italian wine to display the neck-strip of the Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (D.O.C.G.). http://www.consorziovinonobile.it/main.php

The town is built on a honeycomb of wine cellars with gigantic barrels.  It takes about 3 years and the tanins must be just right.  They have been making wine here for 700 years.

Red meat is king at local osterias like Bistecca Fiorentina: T-bone seared over embers and always served rare! You can’t help but love this area of Italy.  The people are friendly, the wine is outstanding and the food is divine!

Do you love La Dolce Vita?  I have many blogs on various areas all over Italy.  You can search by area.  Enjoy and share! If you missed the last one on San Gimignano here is a link.

 

 

 

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