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, all right; 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. Inns such as La Querce. Tucked into a twist of road at the edge of the small town of Chiusi (about an hour south of Florence), hosts Paolo and Michela Bartolozzi, along with Paolo's brother, Guido, specialize in helping guests see a part of Tuscany that tourists usually blaze right past.
Their flag and flower bedecked pale-yellow farmhouse, the early part built in the 18th century, was part of a working farm raising wheat and cattle until 1972. Then it became a small hotel. The Bartolozzis bought it in 1995 and, after loving restoration, opened it as an 11-room bed and breakfast. The rooms, with their cool tile floors, heavy wooden shutters and whitewashed walls, each have a private bath and amenities rare in small inns, such as televisions and in-room phones. There's also an in-house restaurant under a brick archway that specializes in true Tuscan fare: rabbit-sauced pasta, an array of roasted meats and vegetables, wines and desserts of the region.
But the best part of staying at La Querce is having your own tour coordinator sitting with you at breakfast, maps spread out on the table, while he traces your route for the day. Fluent in five languages, including English (he teaches hotel management at the University of Rome), Paolo delights in sharing his corner of the world with guests.
The first place he will send you is into Chiusi, just minutes away. This small town 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 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, Paolo presents a menu of hill towns, some that attract a few tourists here and there and others reached by gravel roads, where tourists never go. Consider:
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: where 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. An 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.
Montefalco: an old military town. The wine bar in the square offers free tasting in their wine cellar, and you'll surely want to tuck a bottle or two of the local vintage into your luggage.
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.