See: Montepulciano and Pienza
We left Florence in haste. We practically ran through the water pouring on our shoulders to the Avis rental agency on the outskirts of town. The Avis representatives seemed to know that we were in a hurry because we entered the agency and left with a car in no more than 15 minutes. And, then we were moving forward, away from the crowds, the rain, the gray of Florence. It turned out, though, that we were only going to move forward . . . and that wasn't necessarily a good thing.
The thing is that I don't know how to drive a stick shift. For years, we had a Mazda 360, a stick shift, which I refused to drive or ride in because the car literally rusted from the inside out; in the back seat; I could drop pennies through the holes in the carpet into the road below. But, in Italy, we couldn't swallow spending an extra $200 just so I could avoid remedying my ignorance in the ways of manual transmission. I was a little worried about Patrick driving stick shift alone since we sold his Mazda five years before.
Despite our concerns, our little Fiat Panda, bright blue and full of character, seemed to fit us perfectly. After leaving Florence, Patrick zipped through hills and fields of Tuscany on the A1 as he reminisced about his old Mazda. He told me that driving a stick "just felt right." That is, until we passed the road to Pienza and needed to turn the car around and realized that he did not know how to put the car in reverse. We were outside a run-down restaurant, with no one in sight, and our only option was to move the car forward into the restaurant. I pulled out the manual for the car and realized that my minimal skills in Italian and Spanish would not help me decipher how to turn the car around. So, Patrick got out of the car, pushed it backward, and yelled instructions to me on how to move the stick shift.
We parked a good mile away from Pienza, knowing that even with Patrick's excellent parallel parking skills, we wouldn't be able to get into a spot near the city without going in reverse. I pulled the manual out of the glove box to take it into town with us but Patrick decided, at the last moment, to try fiddling with the stick shift again. And, then, ta da! It worked. The trick was to push down on the stick while pressing the clutch and then, and only then, pull it into reverse.
Everything about Pienza---from the cobblestones to the overhanging lemon and olive trees to the pots of flowers and bottles of wine sitting on windowsills---evoked love and beauty. We held hands like newlyweds and watched the couples walking under the vines of sweet white flowers. We drove to Montepulciano, certain that the city would not be as cute and charming as Pienza. And, it wasn't --- but, then again, it was. Montepulciano was larger, slanting on the hill, with stunning views from every direction, but it still had the character of a small village. We had been in the Val D'Orcia for mere hours and knew that we were going in the right direction.
Montorio , set on the outskirts of Montepulciano, is one of the most beautiful hotels we have ever stayed in. The views of Montepulciano and the Sanctuary of San Biagio are unparalleled.
Our apartment, the S. Agnese Segni, was a little gem with a lovely kitchen and a large, comfortable bed. The terrace had stunning 360 degree views and we plucked rosemary from the bushes lining the property. Our sitting area with a television and small library kept us entertained on quiet evenings while we did the laundry in the laundry room. The only negative to this hotel was that the water temperature frequently fluctuated. Highly, highly recommended. A jewel in the Val d' Orcia.
Eat: Buca del Fatte, Vineria Bistrot Spazio Arte
We tried to have lunch at Latte de Luna in Pienza but it was fully booked. We then wandered to Buca del Fatte further in the city of Pienza. I started with a bruschetta with fresh tomatoes and slivered basil and Patrick had a good selection of cured meats. My gnocchi with pomodoro was okay but Patrick's pici with ragu was good and made with a thick homemade pasta. At the end of the meal, they brought out a huge cart of desserts and we shared a lovely amaretto cake. Inexpensive and reasonable food.
Our first priority in Tuscany was experiencing the wine. Montepulciano was empty in the evening and we wandered through the silent, dark city until we found Vineria Bistrot Spazio Arte at the edge of town. We shared the vineria with a few other locals speaking Italian in their lilting tones. We drank a Camigiano 2002 Brunello di Montalcino, a Podere Sanvinego 2003 Nobile Riserva, a La Ciarmama 2004 Nobile, a 2004 Chianti Classico, and a Valdipiatta 2003 Nobile. All of the wines were excellent, but we enjoyed it all too much of it to take notes. We shared a giant plate of cheese, cured meats, and salad. We laughed, talked, and shared wine and thoughts with the wonderful wait staff. Great find in Montepulciano.