Sep 072015
 

Writers, artists, and pilgrims have for centuries been inspired by the villages and hilltops of Tuscany. And no wonder. During our visit, I was constantly in awe of the historic towns with their turrets and towers atop the hills. Certaldo Alta and San Gimignano, two of the region’s most notable hilltop towns, exemplified the Tuscany of medieval times and the beauty of modern-day Tuscany. On our first full day in the region on our way to lunch at Casa Egle, a luxury villa owned by Egle Nossan and Claudia Coppini near Montespertoli, we got a glimpse of each town.

Towers of San Gimignano on a hilltop of Tuscany

Towers of San Gimignano on a hilltop of Tuscany

A short walk through history

San Gimignano

Egle and Claudia enthusiastically recommended that we see the historic center of San Gimignano, a key stop on the Via Francigena (the ancient road and pilgrimage route to and from Rome), even for just a short while to walk in the footsteps of history. It’s a very popular town for visitors who marvel at its famous towers, remnants of medieval times. As we made our way to the highest point of the town, along every street and in every piazza of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, there were enticing scenes and a bustle of activity.

Via San Giovanni (in background is Torre Grossa (left) and

Via San Giovanni (in background) is Torre Grossa (left) and Torre Becci (right)

The towers of San Gimignano form a striking skyline. Walking the narrow streets, you gaze up at these imposing sights as you would skyscrapers in a large city. The first towers were built by clans in the Middle Ages to watch for rival forces. Then throughout the centuries, additional towers were added to demonstrate power and wealth. At its peak, San Gimignano had 72 towers. Two of the remaining 14 towers can be seen partially in the photo above.

Scenes along Via Giovanni: Piazza della Madonna (left), ceramics and gift shops (right)

Stairs to Piazza della Madonna (left) and shops on Via Giovanni (right)

San Gimignano is famous for its hand-painted ceramics, and we saw several shops, especially along the main street Via San Giovanni which is also lined with restaurants, and galleries. We passed many places that beckoned me to get a closer look. With more time, I would have visited each one, turned down every alley, and leisurely people-watched in the piazzas of San Gimignano. But I was grateful just to see this beautiful town and soak up its medieval ambiance.

Arco dei Becci e Cugnanesi and Torre Becci

Torre Becci and archway on Via San Giovanni

Above is a closer look at Torre Becci as we were about to go through the archway beneath it.

Torre del Diavolo (Devil's Tower) on Piazza della Cisterna

Torre del Diavolo (Devil’s Tower) on Piazza della Cisterna

There’s an element of pleasant surprise when you pass through the arch as it opens onto beautiful Piazza della Cisterna. To the right, you see the ancient well (built in 1273) surrounded by homes, former palaces, and towers.

Piazza della Cisterna, Torri degli Ardinghelli (two towers facing the piazza)

Piazza della Cisterna, Torri degli Ardinghelli (two shorter towers facing Piazza della Cisterna) in front of Torre Grossa

Still climbing upward on Via San Giovanni along the left side of the square, we entered Piazza del Duomo, named for the basilica located there, Collegiata di Santa Maria Assunta (Collegiate Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary).

Piazza del Duomo and Basilica Collegiata di Santa Maria Assunta

Piazza del Duomo and Basilica Collegiata di Santa Maria Assunta

Torre Rognosa rising above the Palazzo Comunale on Piazza del Duomo with Torre Chigi, the lower tower on its left

Torre Rognosa rising above the Palazzo Comunale on Piazza del Duomo with Torre Chigi, the lower tower on its left

Caffè delle Erbe on Piazza delle Erbe, San Gimignano

Caffè delle Erbe on Piazza delle Erbe

Meandering still upward from the Duomo is Piazza delle Erbe. I liked the cozy appeal of this restaurant, Caffè delle Erbe, on the square beneath the trees.

Rocca di Montestaffoli, sculpture by Nic Jonk

Rocca di Montestaffoli, sculpture by Nic Jonk

Finally reaching Rocca di Montestaffoli, the castle built by the Florentines in 1353 for protection against potential attacks by rival Siena, we took in the panoramic views of the area from the highest point in San Gimignano.

The tree-shaded courtyard where people come to relax is a nice place to have lunch and enjoy the views. Located there is a “Sole e Acqua” (“Water and Sunshine”), a sculpture by Danish artist Nic Jonk. It’s one of several contemporary art works that have been installed around the town.

Certaldo

As we rounded a bend in the road on our way to Certaldo Alta, my first view of the town was a stunning sight.

Certaldo Alta

Certaldo Alta

The statue (below left) in the lower, newer part of Certaldo pays homage to the writer and poet Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) who lived and died in Certaldo. His greatest works were The Decameron and On Famous Women, and he is often credited with Petrarch as being a founder of Renaissance humanism.

Statue of Giovanni Boccaccio and funicular railway

Statue of Giovanni Boccaccio and funicular railway

The ancient treasures of Certaldo are in its upper historic center, Certaldo Alta. To begin our stroll there, we opted to take the funicular railway to reach Via Giovanni Boccaccio in just a couple of minutes. It is also reachable on foot (about a 10 minute walk), but there’s something fun about riding funiculars.

View of hills and countryside from Certaldo Alta

View of hills and countryside from Certaldo Alta

Once at the top, I felt like I had gone back in time to the early Renaissance as much of the upper town is well preserved. In the distance in the photo above, you can see the towers of San Gimignano through a slight morning haze.

Wouldn’t it be lovely to have lunch at the cozy spot pictured below?

Restaurant and old buildings of Certaldo Alta, Italy

Restaurant and old buildings of Certaldo Alta

I enjoyed walking along the vicolos (alleys) and narrow streets with ivy-covered buildings while catching glimpses of the countryside and hills beyond. Notice the circular covers on the wall in the photo on the left below? Since buildings in medieval times didn’t have foundations, supports were put through walls to reinforce them.

Left: A vicolo in Certaldo with potted plants on the ledge of the left wall Right: Views of the Tuscan countryside between two buildings

Left: A vicolo in Certaldo with potted plants on the ledge of the left wall Right: Views of the Tuscan countryside between two buildings

Egle and I in front of the Palazzo Pretorio

Egle and I in front of the Palazzo Pretorio

A peek inside the Palazzo Pretorio of murals on the ceilings and walls

A peek inside the Palazzo Pretorio and murals on the ceilings and walls

The Palazzo Pretorio, originally a castle complete with a chapel and dungeons, is at the top of Via Boccaccio. Unfortunately, it was not open for visitors when we arrived, but we peeked over the gate to get a look at the archway to the courtyard to see the murals.

On the terrace of Palazzo Pretorio, typical Certaldo Alta buildings in the background

On the terrace of Palazzo Pretorio, typical Certaldo Alta buildings in the background

Standing on the terrace of the palazzo, we enjoyed a nice view of neighboring buildings with Certaldo’s signature red bricks and adorned with flower pots and classic Tuscan shutters.

The good life at Casa Egle

After our brief explorations of the two towns, we drove to Casa Egle for lunch and a visit. Although the structure of Casa Egle was originally built around 1100 A.D. and would have centuries of its own stories to tell, the villa and the surrounding property most quickly brings to mind a blissful image of the Tuscan good life which we enjoyed while having lunch under the Tuscan sun with Egle and Claudia.

Enjoying the good life at Casa Egle on a hilltop in Montespertoli

Enjoying the good life at Casa Egle on a hilltop in Montespertoli

On this typically mild and sunny day in May with the vast vineyard and hill views, Casa Egle seemed to capture the essence of tranquility. In its serene location in the Tuscan hills and with plenty of privacy, the villa seemed a great place to enjoy a family gathering or getaway with friends. The villa also provides a location from which to easily explore the sights and attractions of the region.

Views of the Tuscan hills, vineyards and olive groves from Casa Egle

Views of the Tuscan hills, vineyards and olive groves from Casa Egle

With Egle Oon the walkway to Casa Egle

With Egle Oon the walkway to Casa Egle

The exterior is very welcoming with trees and flowers everywhere. The roses were in bloom during our visit and the sight and smell was intoxicating. The saltwater pool and its private cabana looked so inviting that I’m sure at least one pool party would be part of any getaway with family and friends.

The villa, grounds, and saltwater pool of Casa Egle

The villa, grounds, and saltwater pool of Casa Egle

Before lunch, we toured the interior of the stylishly-restored and beautifully-maintained villa which was ready accept its first guests for the summer.

As Egle showed us around, I began to envy the guests who would be arriving soon. Blended with modern features were touches of traditional Tuscan terra cotta tiles and wooden beamed ceilings. The following photos show only a few of the rooms.

Living and reading rooms, dining room of Casa Egle

Living and reading rooms, dining room of Casa Egle

Mr. TWS and I loved the warm character of each individually-decorated room with tasteful colors and fixtures, including the master suite, two additional double bedrooms, a bedroom with two single beds, and four full bright and pleasant baths with quality amenities.

Three of the four bedroom and one of the four bathrooms

Three of the four bedroom and one of the four bathrooms

Although it’s not a secret that I’m not one for doing a lot of cooking or baking, the bright airy kitchen at Casa Egle made me almost want to don an apron and get cooking. Fortunately, lunch was beautifully prepared by Claudia and Egle instead.

On such a lovely day, we had lunch on the patio where we savored a delicious pasta with walnut sauce for which I still have cravings and fond memories. We also had homemade unsalted bread, a traditional Florentine recipe that legend says originated when Pisa withheld salt shipments to Florence during the frequent wars between the two rivals. While relaxing in the quiet setting with our hosts, we also got our first, but not last, taste of a silky and smooth Italian dessert wine, Vin Santo. Tradition dictates that biscotti is dipped in the wine.

Bright and airy kitchen; lunch of pasta with walnut sauce followed by biscotti and Vin Santo

Bright and airy kitchen; lunch of pasta with walnut sauce followed by biscotti and Vin Santo

From the fruit of their fig trees, Egle and Claudia make their own jams, and with unripe green walnuts , they make Nocino, a dark brown sweet liqueur. The season to pick the walnuts is during May and June, and the following fermentation takes several months. Nocino is often used for dessert ingredients and toppings. Egle and Claudia also sell their extra virgin olive oil under their “Poggio Rosemary” brand.

Making Nicino: fermenting of the figs and home-made jams Photos courtesy of Poggio Rosemary

Above: Fermenting of the walnuts and other ingredients for Nocino (left) and white figs for jams (right); Below: the finished products  (Photos courtesy of Poggio Rosemary)

Foodie tip: We passed many acacia trees with white buds floating in the air (in California, ours are yellow) as we drove along country roads to the villa. Did you know that acacia flowers can be eaten? Egle told us about a basic recipe for acacia flower fritters which includes mixing flour, beer, and salt, and then cooking the flowers with the mixture in hot oil, but there are many variations of the recipe.

Roses in bloom on the grounds of Casa Egle; the wishing well; and "Green House" in the background where bikes for guests are stored

Roses in bloom on the grounds of Casa Egle; the wishing well; and “Green House” in the background where bikes for guests are stored

Bicycles for exploring the area are stored in the “Green House”, the small shed beyond the well that Egle was showing me in the photo above. Besides biking, there are a number of recreational and cultural activities such as winery visits, cooking classes, hot-air ballooning, golfing, excursions to Florence (20 miles) and Siena (30 miles), and visits to Certaldo, San Gimigano and other Tuscan towns. Egle and Claudia are clearly committed to providing their villa guests with customized experiences from peaceful retreats to active vacations. Among many other reasons I’d like to come back to Tuscany would be to go cycling through villages and countryside. I should have made a wish for that at the wishing well before we left.

In just our short time with Egle and Claudia, their warmth brought us to quickly feel welcome and relaxed in their company. Many thanks to them for their lovely hospitality and letting us share in the good life on their Tuscan hilltop.

Take a look at the EsteVillas website for details and booking information for Casa Egle and other properties in their collection. Mention “Traveling with Sweeney” and you’ll get a discount based on the length and location of your stay.

  21 Responses to “On the Hilltops of Tuscany”

  1. What beautiful photography that captures the essence of Tuscany! It’s not surprising that this region has captured the hearts of so many tourists.

  2. We loved this part of Tuscany when we’ve visited Italy; your post brought back many happy memories, particularly of San Gimignano! Beautiful photos~

  3. That Tuscany post is really packed- it’s about three posts worth of info! Tuscany is at the top of our list. We love old buildings, panoramic vistas and good food- so it’s a place with our name on it. Casa Egle looks like our kind of place. What a wonderful trip you had here.

  4. I have very fond memories of a trip to San Gimigniano as a child. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Wonderful pictures, as always! You’re literally taking us with you wherever you go! I’m dreaming about walking Via Francigena one day and I just wonder to what extent it reminds the Spanish Camino. Tuscany has something very special and I simply can’t wait to go back to Italy in just 10 days!

  6. It’s a rainy day here in Toronto, and reading this has just made me homesick for Italy! I’ve been to San Gimignano, but not Certaldo, and since I’m always looking for a good excuse to head to Italy, this might just be it!

  7. Thanks for the graet story I am planning to visit tuscany in the summer and I find your post very useful

  8. I love everything about this, but OH THAT POOL. It calls to me…

  9. Casa Egle looks incredible, and I love that there are bicycles for you to use. Nothing like a bicycle ride through Tuscany!

  10. Loved San Gimignano: the wine, the gelato shop on the square, the quirky corners… so lovely!

  11. I always love going back to the the town of San Gimignano and its towers, even if only by photograph. I was there long ago and remember well a picnic enjoyed in the shady interior of one of the towers. I think my souvenir was a yellow marble jar. I love that floral plate your pasta is on!

  12. What gorgeous images! You’ve made Tuscany sing.

  13. Oh hilltops of Tuscany! Thanks for taking me on such a beautiful walk down memory lane…San Gimignano is one of my faves. Would love to plonk down for a few days at Casa Egle, it looks splendid.

  14. Ahh! I feel relaxed and happy just looking at these photos! I need to make it to Tuscany…

  15. Brings back memories. Love your photos.

  16. This looks all so very enticing. I’m at present short of ideas where to go in winter (no, no skiing!) and I wonder what it would be like to do the unusual and visit Tuscany in that season. What do you think?

  17. It’s me again. Forgot to ask what Christmas will be like.

  18. Tuscany is an amazing place to visit and enjoy their beauty and gastronomy.
    Casa Egle looks amazing

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