by Kathleen Winkler
Tour buses nose up to the ancient city wall, side by side like cattle in a pen. The doors whoosh open spilling a stream of tourists who gallop for the medieval gate. Inside they'll find a warren of narrow streets filled with shops selling Coach bags, Hermes scarves, and the ubiquitous tee shirts emblazoned with "Siena" in gold lame. Several hours later the tourists emerge to climb aboard the busses again, convinced they've "done" an Italian hill town.
But they haven't. They've seen the Epcot version of a hill town. A stage set. A pretty picture airbrushed for tourists. Oh, it's medieval alright; Siena is very old. Its square and cathedral are worth seeing. But the medieval is so overlayed with the modern, it's in danger of being lost.There is another way to see Italian hill towns - the real ones, that is. Do it on your own.
Of course, you'll need a little guidance. Otherwise it's easy to get lost wondering among the twisting back roads and lanes that honeycomb the Italian hills. The answer? The many bed and breakfasts or small charming inns that dot the landscape in Tuscany, where the owners who have spent their whole lives in the area are happy to devise a tour just for you.
Many places which are not on the "usual" guide books will be the first places where they will be sending you to. For instance, a little town such as Chiusi boasts one of the most complete Etruscan museums in Tuscany (the Etruscans inhabited Italy before the Romans and were absorbed into Roman culture, but not before leaving behind a huge number of tombs filled with statue-crowned sarcophagi and dark brown painted pottery). Your ticket includes a visit to two Etruscan tombs hollowed out of a grassy hillside. Visit Ristorante Zaira in town and the father of the tomb (now the wine cellar) his restaurant is built on; dusty wine bottles pyramid on black-and-white mosaic floors dating from 650 B.C. After Chusi, there is a menu of hill towns, some that attract a few tourists here and there and others you reach by gravel road where tourists never go.
Bagno Vignoni, the town of the hot springs. The centerpiece of this tiny village is a large, square hot water pool built in ancient times and visited by such notables as Pope Pius II Piccolomini, Saint Catherine of Siena, and Lorenzo "the Magnificent" de Medici, along with anyone else who wanted an arthritis cure. You can't bathe in the pool anymore, but you can dangle your feet in the hot water stream flowing at the edge of town.
Rocca D'Orcia, were a forbidding tower on a strategic hilltop broods. You can climb the tower, peek through the arrow slots and imagine yourself part of a medieval army holding off the enemy.
Castiglioncello Del Trinoro, a village so tiny it's barely a crossroads. Gravel lanes wind around sleepy stone houses, dozing in the warm Italian sun.
Monticchiello, the town of flowers. Dooryard gardens grace the cobbled streets, spills of flowers overflow clay pots and wrought iron balconies. A outdoor restaurant with colorful umbrellas tucks into the corner of the ancient wall commanding a spectacular view of the rolling green countryside.
Radicofani, the town you can see from 20 miles away. Its crenelated-tower crowned castle is enthroned on a high hill looking like a monarch gazing solemnly over his domain. Hike the narrow streets, lick a gelato in the charming square, and revel in castle romance.
These, of course, are just a few of the hill towns you can visit in Tuscany and nearby Umbria - there are literally hundreds. From Chiusi you can easily drive to the more well known towns such as Montepulciano, San Gimignano, and Assisi. Siena and Florence are but an hour and a half away by train and you'll avoid the driving and parking hassles the influx of tourists has created. When visiting Tuscany, don't be satisfied with just the tourist hill towns written up in your guidebook. Get off the beaten track and see the true old Italy; you'll take home memories that go far beyond shops and postcard stands. You'll taste the quiet life that still exists tucked into central Italy's grape-terraced hillsides.