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Tuscany, Italy

Under a Tuscan rain cloud.

That’s how we spent most of our time during our stay in Tuscany. But a rainy day in Italy’s wine country is still better than a sunny day in most places.

Taking the bus from Siena (with a simple change in the hilltop town, Colle di Val d’Elsa), we enjoyed a beautiful ride through the Tuscan countryside. The prettiest scenery since the La Mancha region in Spain en route to Nice, France.

Volterra, the “City of Wind and Rock,” is a typical Tuscan hill town dating back to before 7th century BC.

An important Etruscan city of ancient Italy, it was eventually absorbed into the Roman Empire. In the Middle Ages, the city fought bitterly against Florentines, losing its independence in 1472.

Our Rick Steves’ guidebook recommended staying at the Seminario Vescovile di Sant’Andrea. This working seminary and guest house has been training priests for over 500 years. Our room was clean and spacious with vaulted ceilings and Italian-made furniture – a refreshing change from the typical hostel. Best of all, it was only 14 euros a night (!)

Unlike some of the tourist-driven towns in Tuscany, Volterra feels real — oblivious to the allure of the tourist dollar.

Spending a few days here truly offers a slice of Tuscan village life. It only takes an afternoon to cover the town’s main historical sights: the Porta all’Arco (the 4th century BC Etruscan Gate); the Pisan Romanesque Baptistery and Duomo Cathedral, and the ancient Roman Theater. Rossi Alabastri, a local shop featuring alabaster products, is a popular landmark. Alabaster, a white mineral rock used for carving, is the region’s mainstay. As early as 3rd century BC, Etruscans used it to craft detailed funeral urns.

With obligatory sights out of the way, we set out to explore Tuscany’s other draw: wine. At La Vena di Vino, owners Bruno and Lucio treated us to ribbolita soup. We had first tasted this hearty porridge-like soup in Florence. We also got sampling of different Tuscan wines:

One morning, we headed out to San Gimignano, the most popular of the Tuscan hill towns.

Despite the rain, tourists were everywhere. The closest we got to a local experience was taking shelter with elderly Italian men under a covered walkway in the Piazza della Cisterna. When the rain let up, we took a brief tour through the city. A highlight was the frescoes of St. Augustine’s life painted by Benozzo Gozzoli in the Sant’Agostino Church. The only thing to keep us in the town longer was the wine museum which, sadly, was closed. So we took the next bus back to Colle di Val d’Elsa, arriving in Volterra by late afternoon.

During that bus ride, I realized the journey was just as amazing, if not more so, than San Gimignano itself. While an appearance by the sun probably would’ve helped, the tourists would’ve still be there (if not more.) Among the crowds, it was difficult to capture an authentic experience. But sitting back and watching the landscape unfold along the curvy roads was pure Tuscan magic.

Lush green hills. Endless rows of vineyards. Wide open spaces. This was the Tuscany we’d always envisioned.

The sky, big and vast, seemed to go on forever. As we rounded a corner, a hilltop town would appear out in the distance like a mirage. Heading in a different direction, it would then fade into the horizon. When we crested one hill, San Gimignano came into view. The sun finally came out and was shining brightly on it. We laughed at the irony. From far away, we couldn’t see the throngs of tourists – only the beauty of the sun rays hitting the skyline of its 14 medieval towers. The countryside, amazingly undeveloped, offered a glimpse at this peaceful existence. What a way to spend your days on earth.

Back in Volterra, we headed out to La Vena di Vino again. Lucio warmly greeted us and introduced us to some of his friends sitting at the bar as la coppia dagli Stati Uniti (the couple from the United States.) We joined them as Lucio brought out complimentary Pecorino cheese with black truffles for everyone to enjoy.

Outside, the rain started up again. But in our little corner of the world, we had everything needed for the quintessential Tuscany experience. Good food, good wine and good company. Rain or shine.

Lodging: Seminario Vescovile di Sant’Andrea  |  Food & Wine: La Vena di Vino  |  Shop: Rossi Alabastri

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