Last Saturday, Mike Yardley discussed some fresh takes on Tuscany and self-driving the region, on Newstalk ZB’s Jacks Tame Show.
Here is the transcript from the radio show. ( A more comprehensive article will be available on the For the Love of Travel website in the coming weeks. http://www.fortheloveoftravel.net.nz)
I hear you’ve just put self-driving Tuscany to the test. How did it go? Was it crazy?
It was certainly an adventure and my pre-conceptions about Italian driving were wrong. I thought they would drive like they talk. Fast, fevered and frenetic. But even though they drive assertively, they are courteous. So it was great fun to cruise around the countryside.
Would you recommend the rental car approach? What emerged as the key benefits?
I’ve previously explored Tuscany by train and coach tour. But to really unleash your inner explorer, and dive into Tuscany’s hidden pockets of unmolested gorgeousness, the car is king. It gives you so much freedom to roam and revel in the scenery. I didn’t have any problem with car parking. Fuel is cheap, compared to New Zealand. And the roads are great.
Tell us about exploring the Elsa Valley. ( Val d’Elsa.)
This really is quintessential Tuscany. A vast sprawling and undulating valley, fanning out south west of Florence, neighbouring the Chianti hills, festooned with hill-top towns and the finest landscapes. They are Renaissance landscapes, whereby all the plantings were done in symmetrical harmony with nature. So you’ve got perfectly laid out olive groves, interspersed with sloping vineyards and millions of cypress trees and umbrella pines, that follow the contours of the hills. It’s artwork on a spectacular scale. One of the great pilgrim routes for over a thousand years, the Via Francigena carves its way through the valley, ending up in Rome. Its easy to sample a section of it, to get a flavour for it.
What about living like a monk for a few days, and staying in a monastery?
Well, yes, I stepped out of my comfort zone and checked into Monastero San Girolamo, in San Gimignano, which is home to cloistered Benedictine nuns. The Mother Superior who checked us in was a fearsome, frozen-in-time looking character, straight out of central casting for a medieval movie. Although she did sing Yellow Submarine out the window, while I was admiring the Knights Templar church across the road, that was built by the crusaders after returning home from Jerusalem. Accommodation is Spartan. It’s designed to be reflective. But it’s a great way to see inside this monastery, which has been operating for over 700 years.
You came across some great Castellos?
You are spoilt for choice, but the best one I came across is Castello Banfi, not far from Siena, which was built in the 13th century. It ‘s a major producer of Chianti wine. And amazing balsamic vinegar. The cellar door is open for daily tastings. Or if you want to splurge, you can stay the night and live out your medieval fantasises in luxury. The castle itself is a trove of history. The side of it was recently restored after being blown up by the Allies, to block the Germans who were frantically retreating out of Tuscany in World War Two. You can still see the huge gash in the castle façade, where the stones were detonated, to block the road and trap the Germans. Another excellent Castello to wine, dine and/or stay at is Castello Di Casole, in Val d’Elsa.
What about Francis Mayes and her Cortona home of Bramasole?
Yes, just finally, a lot of people are motivated to visit the region because of Frances Mayes and her book, and movie, Under the Tuscan Sun. You can see her villa, Bramasole, and the roadside shrine where the elderly man delivers fresh flowers every day in memory of his late wife.
To find it, head to Cortona. And then two minutes up the hill is the village of Torreone. Follow the cypress-lined lane down the hill from the café, and a five minute walk will bring you to the villa. It’s a must see.
For further travel tips, insights and inspiration, head to New Zealand’s premier travel magazine website, For the Love of Travel. http://www.fortheloveoftravel.net.nz