The Irresistible Hill Towns of Tuscany

Sunday, April 03, 2011 Road Junkies 0 Comments

When many people envision Italy, they picture just the sort of sight that lies around so many bends in Tuscany in central Italy...manicured hills, stately cypress trees, patchwork quilted landscapes of vineyards and olive groves, stone houses, and ancient towns clinging to the rolling hills.  Many of the hill towns date back to Etruscan times, even before the days of ancient Rome.
To secure their defense, these towns were built on hills and surrounded by walls when they were built centuries ago.  Because of their hilltop location and the thick walls surrounding them, of course the towns could not expand beyond their original confines.  So most have remained faithful to their original character as the growth occurred below them, sometimes even a mile or two away.
Those who continued to live in the hilltop town often improved the functioning of their homes by updating electricity and plumbing, but the building's exteriors were usually preserved, thus maintaining the quaint winding alleys, tile roofs, and authentic shutters that give these towns their charm.  Visiting these historic towns enables you to experience the sensation of walking into the past (except you can find a public toilet and a gelateria nearby).  We loved sampling these pages from Tuscan antiquity.
San Gimignano
San Gimignano is one of Tuscany's most popular hill towns and highly frequented by tourists.  The town's unique skyline features historic towers that once belonged to its wealthiest families.  Incorporated in the 10th century, San Gimignano became a center of commerce and trade due to its location on the road to Rome.  In the later middle ages, its wealth grew due to the cultivation of saffron.  Saffron merchants ordered the construction of some sixty towers, which they used for their personal defense, sometimes against each other.  Later Florence gained control of the town and required that most of the towers be torn down.  Only about 16 remain today.
Roman Theater, Volterra
Volterra is one of the oldest cities in Italy, serving as an Etruscan capital for centuries before Romans took over the town.  A Roman theater from the first century BC was excavated in the 1950s and is a popular sight in the town.  Many young Americans know the name Volterra because of its fictional role as home to an ancient coven of vampires in the popular Twilight series of books (although the movie was filmed in Montepulciano, another Tuscan hill town).  Volterra has an excellent museum devoted to the alabaster industry in the area with fascinating exhibits demonstrating how the mineral is used to create elaborate sculptures.
Pienza
Pienza represents the first model of Renaissance urban planning.  Pope Pius II decided to remodel his home town in the Renaissance fashion in the 1400s. Under the direction of architect Bernardo Rossellino, the town of Corsignano was transformed into the Renaissance model town of Pienza, named after the pope.  Today the town is famous for Pecorino cheese, a pungent sheep's cheese, popular in the area.
Siena's Il Campo

Once a rival to the now much larger Florence, Siena is known today for its art, food, medieval architecture, and for a horse race held twice annually in July and August in its main piazza, Il Campo.  The city is divided into 17 neighborhoods, or contradas, each of which has an animal symbol representing different virtues.  Each also has its own flag and colors.  For the race, the piazza is covered with a thick layer of dirt, and each contrada has a horse and rider in the race.  The competition rarely lasts more than 90 seconds, and jockeys, who are riding bareback, are often thrown off their mounts as they execute the curves around the square.  Usually the horses finish the race anyway, with or without their riders, and a rider is not required for a horse to win.  The race is the occasion for a great celebration with pageants and parades of locals in medieval costume.

Like many other visitors to Italy, we count Tuscany high on our list of favorite spots and one which is demanding a return trip.  So many hill towns yet to explore.

Tuscany Stats
Cypress trees:  18,093
Grapevines:  996,234
Olive trees:  562,198
Stone houses:  12,316
Curves in the road:  3,259
Grapes on the vine:  0 (too early)