Porto Santo Stefano

Porto Santo Stefano is a beautiful little seaside resort town on the West coast of Italy.  Boats line the waterfront and condos rise up along the main street and spread up the hillside. The main street through town is narrow and crowded making it difficult to find parking for our oversized van but when we did manage to secure a spot we took full advantage and explored the town from one end to the other.

Porto Santo Stefano

After a light lunch at one of the many restaurants overlooking the harbor we drove to a small sandy beach on the outskirts of town where we plopped down on chaise lounges to soak up the sun and relax until closer to dinnertime. Paradise – the sea breeze, warm water and not a care in the world.

After our beach time we drove back to town in search of the restaurant owned by our host’s family but arrived before it was open.  Danilo’s mother greeted us in Italian, no English spoken and no one else was around.  So, with Google translate in hand we were able to tell her that we were staying in Danilo’s house in Pitigliano and that Tina worked with him in Seattle, that brought a smile to her face.  We managed to convey that we would like to have dinner at the restaurant and finally we figured out that she was inviting  us back but not until 6:30 p.m. when they opened.  We left and drove along the coast road to pass some time and then returned and met the rest of the family before enjoying a delicious dinner.

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Orvieto

I wanted to visit Orvieto to see the majestic Duomo; we did get a glimpse of it when we were looking for wine tasting opportunities a couple of days ago but too far away to really see the detail. The city of Orvieto sits atop another hill overlooking the vineyards and a cypress-dotted Umbrian valley with the Duomo rising about the city, it is quite impressive even from a distance but up close it is amazing.

The Duoma of Orvieto

The city is delightful, perfectly preserved and traffic free, perfect for a day of exploring. We parked at the train station and rode the funicular up to the city where a bus was waiting to take us right to the Cathedral. It did not disappoint, the façade is a colorful gleaming mass of mosaics, stained glass and sculpture.

Inside, windows of thin sliced alabaster bathe the interior in a soft light; brilliantly lit frescoes depict themes of resurrection and salvation, as well as the turbulent atmosphere of Italy in the late 1400s.

Orvieto was busy with tourists but the back streets were quiet, many people never leave the main square and if they do venture only a short distance. We loved wandering the narrow back lanes that seem to retain some of the mystery the Middle Ages but are now filled with upscale boutique shops and cafes.

Wine Shop

Olive Oil

Lingerie Shop . . . Looney Tunes?

Butcher Shop

We were to meet up with our friends late in the afternoon and as we walked down a side street toward the main square the sun cast an unbelievable light on the Duomo, it was breathtaking.

We returned home in time for sunset.

From our front porch in Pitigliano

Bolsena and the Wineries of Orvieto . . .

BOLSENA

The town of Bolsena dates back to the 3rd century B.C . On the hill above the main street is the “Castle Quarter” an intact medieval area dominated by the impressive Palazzo Farnese, once a meeting place for academics, nobles and musicians.

Entering the main square at the bottom of town

We climbed the very steep pathway to the top of the hill for stunning views out over the town and Lake Bolsena, the largest volcanic lake in Europe. At the top we entered the “Castle Quarter feeling as though we had stepped back in time or into a fairy tale. There were even a prince and princess . . . well, really a bride and groom but it added to the fairy tale feel. How would it feel to live in a castle?

Up and up and up to reach the castle

Alluring front door near the top

Still going up

Here comes the bride

Lake Bolsena from the Castle

Castle of Bolsena

The narrow lanes were lined with homes, boutique shops, artist workshops, restaurants and of course churches.

Walking through town we noticed La Carrareccia flags, banners and tee shirts were everywhere and finally learned “La Carrareccia” is a non-competitive road cycling event providing 5 different levels of difficulty from easy 54 km course with 530 m elevation change to an extremely difficult course of 160 km with 2,700 elevation change.  We had noticed a number of cyclists on the roads driving into Bolsena and likely they were part of this event.  There was an amazing amount of community support for this event, every shop was selling some type of memento related to the event.  We purchased tee shirts that are pretty cool, the cycle graphic included the names of all the participating towns and villages.

THE WINERIES OF ORVIETO

The day was young so we decided to drive on and visit a couple of wineries in Orvieto just 30 minutes away.  Orvieto was programmed into the Garmon and it proceeded to direct down what I would describe as a narrow one-way alley, definitely not the main road to Orvieto, we had missed a turn somewhere and were now locked into this narrow track without the ability to turn around.  So the 30-minute drive took over an hour.  Not happy.

Orvieto in the distance

The Duomo

The beautiful Duomo of Orvieto dominates the skyline and announces that you have arrived, however, we just wanted to visit a tasting room or two today so again programmed the name of one into the Garmon and went off on another wild goose chase that ended up on what I can only describe as a donkey road in the middle of a vineyard with no tasting room in sight.  The path was rocky, rugged, rutted and too narrow to even think about turning around without rolling down the hill so we just kept going – we were driving a VW van.

Donkey path through the vineyard

Finally we found a wide spot and turned around, happy to be on our way down the mountain;  the view was beautiful across the vineyards was beautiful.

Across the vineyards

Safely back on pavement we followed signs this time to another tasting room and actually found it, a lovely building up on the side of the hill.  We parked and went inside.  The door was open, good sign, but no one was around, it looked like the main reception room.  We walked around the building, found the tasting room but again the door was open, lights were out and not a soul in sight.  We took our time exploring the building and grounds hoping someone would show up, there were a few other cars in the parking lot but no one ever came.

Laconia Palazzine Winery

It was a strange afternoon and we headed home to open our own bottle of  wine and wash away the road dust.

Clouds

Sovana & Saturnia

In this strange land of little villages perched atop hills and built into the tufa rock we took advantage of the proximity of two more villages today, Sovana and Saturnia.

Sovana

Sovana’s town walls date to the Renaissance and are visible upon entering the village. It is a sweet little town with a charming but plain main square, a few artisan shops, a couple of restaurants and churches. The first thing you see as you enter the main square, is the Chiesa di Santa Maria and the Palazzo Bourbon del Monte, once property of a bishop and now a music and theatre venue.

Main Square of Sovana with the Chiesa di Santa Maria on the left.

The large clock of the impressive 12th century Palazzo dell’Archivio towers over the main square; the building now serves as the Town Hall.

Palazzo dell’Archivio

Several emblems of ancient captains ornament the facade of the Palazzo Pretorio on the square.

Pretorio Palace

Flowers and plants adorn the stone houses seeming to welcome visitors.

On the edge of the town, the Rocca Aldobrandesca, a castle, built around the year 1000 by the Adolbrandeschi family, stands as a sentinel overseeing the hamlet. Nowadays only some ruins remain of this building.

Remains of the Aldobrandesca Castle

Saturnia

The area around Saturnia is well known for the numerous mineral hot springs that lace the region, some with fancy hotels and resorts that bring high prices and others, like the one we visited, are free natural wonders bubbling up here and there. “Cascate del Mulino”, consists of a series of cascades where the warm water flows over a waterfall and down a series of natural pools etched into the travertine rock to create a natural spa with a view to die for. It reminded me of Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park.

Cascate del Mulino

Actually, the word warm doesn’t really do this water justice. It is a constant 98.6F and comes from a source underground brimming with sulphur and other minerals and it is these minerals that been curing minor ailments since the time of the Romans.

The approach is not easy. From the parking lot you can either go through the bushes and down a steep bank or back out on the road and into an empty lot to follow the stream that feeds the pools. The stream was filled with people soaking in the warm water, some covered in mud from the banks, others just relaxing in the warm water. After walking across a field you access the pools down a steep, sometimes muddy dirt path. There are no changing rooms so be ready to plunge in before you arrive unless you fancy changing in your car or in the bushes. It would have looked more appealing to me on a cold day but I was already struggling to stay cool so hot water just did not appeal to me on this day. The pools were very crowded so obviously the hot day did not stop most of the bathers.

Wine Festival in Pitigliano

Each year, many of Maremma’s towns, villages and hamlets celebrate the important grape harvest and first wine production, but only a few open their cellars for a rare glimpse of below a town, often three or more levels deep, with wine thrown in!

Welcome to the Wine Festival

We ventured back into Pitigliano late in the day, for the first day of the wine festival, not really knowing what to expect.   There didn’t seem to be much happening at 5 p.m.  no real signs of a festival at all but we were told yes indeed it would start at 7 p.m. on all of the streets.  While we ate dinner a transformation took place on the main street and the back streets of this delightful hill town.

Pitigliano sits atop a whole hidden city of interconnecting chambers. The upper levels used today for the pressing of the grapes and the even cooler levels for storing the wine.   We went down into one cellar and on this 95 degree day it was a refreshing 20 degrees cooler in the cellar, didn’t want to leave.

Entrance to a wine cellar deep underground

A little after 6 p.m. on a back street we found groups of young people  beginning to set up tables; barbecues were fired up, flags and decorations began to appear over the narrow side streets and the aroma of grilled meats filled the air.  Each block or two seemed to belong to a different group, everyone dressed in matching tee-shirts and themes began to emerge.  I am still not exactly sure if the areas were sponsored by clubs, businesses, church groups or just families but there was definitely an air of competition.

The  open cellar weekends are whole town affairs with many opportunities to try  local non-vintage family wines as well as the more famous local Super Tuscan IGT,  ideal for the whole family: with street music, costumed parades, artisan and handicraft markets, brick-a-brac, sweet stalls, traditional food stalls selling fried sweet pastries or salty schiacciata breads and the queues at some of the home-cooked food stalls are long.

The first wine we tasted as undrinkable, I admit it was really inexpensive but it was still undrinkable, we just looked at each other in disbelief, still not fully understanding how everything worked we upped our game and ordered a more expensive wine and when I say more expensive it was maybe $3 a glass.  This one was much more palatable and we began our tour of the town.

It became more and more crowded, and as the wine flowed it got louder and louder.  There was music, games and lots of drinking, a fun evening that could have gone on much later but some of the group was tired so sadly we retreated back to the house early, leaving the revelry to the younger folks.

by the end of the evening

 

Pitigliano basking in the glow

Sorano and Montorio

Sorano

About a 15 minute drive from Pitigliano is Sorano, a well-kept and preserved hill town where you feel that  you have taken a step back centuries in time except for the satellite dishes.  It is  a sister village of Pitigliano  approached by roads cut through solid walls of tufa (volcanic rock) and fringed by hundreds of Etruscan tombs many of which are now used as garages and workshops.

The townscape is dominated by the imposing Orsini fortress and the village itself is a maze of narrow steep passageways and steps, the only way to navigate the near vertical village. Residents, many of them quite elderly,  climb these steep paths everyday with groceries, furniture, you name it, all brought in by hand.  I’m not quite sure how they manage, there must some form of mechanical delivery but not that we saw.

It is a nearly vertical town and I marvel at how the mostly elderly residents seem to negotiate the steep walkways with relative ease, they may be slow but they manage to go up and down these walkways everyday.

At the top of the town and many, many steps, we saw a wonderful art exhibit in the old fortress, beautiful pieces of ceramics presented in a stunning venue.

While waiting for the group to come back together I sat on a bench between two older women, sitting in the shade talking and from their expressions I would guess they were complaining about the intense heat and perhaps the tourists who had invaded their town.  I pulled out my fan and one of them actually smiled at me, opened her fan, we had found common ground in the insufferable heat and it made me smile.

Outside of Sorano we noticed a sign pointing down a long beautiful drive, intrigues we found a place to turn around and go back to check it out.  Montorio was the name on the sign.  We parked in a large parking area and on exiting the car heard the loud braying of a donkey but couldn’t see it.  Below the parking lot, where the braying was coming from there 6 or 7 bird cages lined up on each side with large birds and we could hear peacocks in the same area.

Walking from the parking lot into what looked like it might have been a convent with a beautiful large manor house, no one in sight, it was eerily quiet.

I was so quiet and eerie we really weren’t sure if we should be walking around but we’re curious.  There were three long side-by-side buildings with a street separating them spread out from the main entry street with a few vehicles parked but not a soul around.  At the end of the first street was a small church.

We have no idea what this place was but these were for sale signs so assume these were condos or apartments in an old complex.  There were also building that looked like stables and a Barbie doll forgotten on one of the benches but where were the people?

Stables?

This is all I could find on the internet on Montorio, it stands in the middle of the Stridolone river valley. There are the remains of a small Medieval castle which in 1356 became a protectorate of the Republic of Siena. Once its strategic function was no longer necessary, it was transformed in the modern era into a large agricultural estate and underwent various renovations.  It was a beautiful community but we felt very strange wandering around with the palpable quiet and not a soul in sight.  Eerie.

Pitigliano 

 

Approaching Pitigliano

With the temperature at 96 degrees, we began our exploration of Pitigliano, The village is dramatically situated on a steep-sided tufa crag interlaced with Etruscan caves many of which are now wine cellars, workshops or garages and a comfortable 20-25 degrees cooler than the street temperature.

The village is long and narrow with alleyways connecting the 2 or 3 main thoroughfares, laundry hangs from the windows, bright flower boxes adorn the windows, colorful store displays and green shutters liven up the stone buildings . 

We walked as much as we could but the heat eventually took its toll zapping our energy. Tina found us a beautiful little restaurant that was a garden oasis, not crowded the food was delicious; It was a good place to linger over our meal before heading to the grocery store then home, exhausted from the heat. Naps all around.

 

Lunch Spot