The two day stay in Siena was just enough time to tour the local sites and take a bit of a break to recharge for our next cycling ride to Montalcino.
Looking over our off-line digital map and planning the cycling route with its elevation profile in advance of the trip made us a little nervous; we would be setting new personal records with our climbs. Again being mentally prepared for the trip helped. The ride turned out to be not as difficult as we had anticipated – even though we ultimately climbed to an altitude of 610 meters by the time we arrived in the town of Montalcino itself, we managed to avoid steep inclines for the most part.
We had a very steady climb on the way out of Siena for about an hour and a half. We then took a break at the crest of the climb to nourish ourselves with a nice lunch that we had purchased and packed from an alimenteria before leaving Siena – fresh pane rondecon sale, local Italian pomodoros, soft formaggio and some proscuitto. For desert we had lots of fruit – pechi novi and apricots.
After lunch and a couple more hours of riding, we arrived at the base of Montalcino. When we saw the road that we had originally selected for our ride up into town, we quickly decided to remap our route. The road was gravel with an incline of between 15 and 20%; too difficult and treacherous to try to climb with loaded bikes. We weren’t really up to walking our loaded bikes a kilometre up a steep hill, especially not after having had a taste of doing that up a similar grade for 200 meters at Monteriggioni. We decided instead to ride the extra 5 kilometres up the main road which gradually wound its way around the hill up and into town. Slow and steady gets the job done.
We were still hot, sweaty and dirty by the time we arrived in the town proper, and so we followed our ritual of quickly checking-in to our hotel, rejuvenating ourselves with hot showers and changing into some clean clothes before doing a quick tour of the town and seeking out a place to enjoy dinner.
The hotel room
Since it wasn’t quite dinner and the restaurants weren’t serving yet, we enjoyed some aperativi in a patio on town square. The “Tuscan Rewind” car race was under-way as we enjoyed our drinks, and the cars were revving and preparing to start their race in the square. An hour later, we began walking the town in search of a restaurant, and got to see a little more of the beautiful town and the race cars as we searched.After passing down a few side streets, we settled uponthe relatively innocuous-looking Albergo Il Giglio restaurant for dinner.
Tuscan Rewind racer, rolling into the town square
What a treat that was! By all measures the Albergo was a fantastic dining experience, with a really nice atmosphere and run by a wonderful family. We had veal served with vegetables in brunello wine sauce, with a decanter of brunello on the side – the bread plate that came with the meal was so fresh that it almost outshone then entrée itself. The best meal of the trip — if you ever visit Montalcino, we wholly recommend you have a meal at Albergo Il Giglio.
The following day, we woke up early and prepared to finish sight-seeing, and do some wine-tasting; this *was* the location of the famous Brunello di Montalcino, after all.
A very large number of wines ready to taste, in Montalcino!
The town’s fort/castle of Montalcino stands out prominently on the edge of the town, overlooking the fields below the hilltop. We visited the fort, and deciding that we couldn’t pass up the tower-top view, paid the 5 euro fee and walked up the keep’s staircase to the top of the walls, where we were able to see the entire valley and a few distant towns.
Inside the fort
On the fort walls
Road into town, view from fort walls
Part of the town, from fort walls
Located inside the keep was a wine shop, which we visited on the way back down. Steve and I (Ryan) had a few samples of the varieties of Nobile and Brunello, and bargaining for a good price, ordered a few to be sent home.
Not too tipsy to ride, we returned to the hotel and packed up for our ride out. Against our better judgement, we decided to try the gravel hill out of town, only to find it washed out near the bottom, and being so steep that Steve had a wipe-out – ouch (he was OK, though)! We begrudgingly walked the bikes back to the city gate, and began to follow the road out of town and onward to Montepulciano.
Just outside town gate, ready to roll down gravel road
Since we arrived late in Volterra the previous day, we had a quick walk around the town before we packed up and hit the road to Siena. Starting with a height advantage helped, but the overall trip was still long, and it was a brutally hot day at times.
We stopped for a break at the medieval fort of Monteriggioni halfway along the route to Siena. The road up and through the town gate was so steep that it had ridges created by interleaving the paving stones to give extra traction!
One of the gates into Monteriggioni.
The fort/town is one of Siena’s defensive structures built around the 13th century to protect trade routes against attacks from their rival Florence. In fact, this is where the Dante Alleghieri hid out after he had angered some powerful Florentines with his caricatures of them in his Inferno. It still has all of its tall walls and 13 turrets intact.
Main square of Monteriggioni
Siena is possibly a challenger to Florence, in terms of having impressive structures. Siena has wide streets line with 4, 5 and often times 6 story stone buildings, whereas Florentine streets are smaller and jam-packed with shorter buildings (which rarely surpass 3 stories), and aesthetically are less pleasing.
A square lined with the former homes of the Sienese elite.
Conversely, while Florence’s grand cathedral is monstrously sized, the smaller Sienese counterpart is far more refined, with very accurate stonework and an ornate floor – complete with tricolour stone engravings of saints and some scenes from the life of Jesus. One can only imagine the time and resources put into such art work.
Interior – Siena Cathedral
Exterior – Siena cathedral
Surely one of the highlights of our two days in Siena was the town square, il campo, which is a huge semi-circular piazza with a concave brick centre. We ate dinner in one of the trattoiri of the square on our first night.
Town hall and the surrounding Il Campo piazza.
In Siena, we were lucky to have our hotel right beside a camping store and a grocery store. We bought a gas cartridge for my camp stove and then some pasta, and made our own dinner the second night.
We (*Steve*) accidently bought some bad beer for our dinner aperitives; it had a gross after-taste! If you look carefully at the bottle, the monk seems to be holding his stomach in protest:
Here are some more pics of our stay:
Cathedral from nearby wall.
Old city gate.
In the bapistry.
Medieval songbook from cathedral library.
The sienese tried to copy (and best) Florence’s city hall with theirs.
The Italian cycling trip has changed quite significantly in the second rendition. Now, we will be avoiding the western oceanfront and heading through the heartland of Italy: Central Tuscany. The stops include Firenze (Florence), where we’ll be flying in, followed by cycling through the great Italian hill towns of San Gimignano, Volterra, Siena, Montalcino, Montepulciano, Orvieto and Viterbo. From Viterbo, the rest of the inter-city transit will be done by train; we head to Rome through the Ferrovie Regionale (regional railway), then Pompei and Napoli (Naples).