Italy guide books make my head hurt. At least most of them do.
That’s because most are over-loaded with information (historical facts, dates, etc.), and the suggested walking itineraries for Italy’s charming hill towns often sound more like to-do lists: Stop here and take in the view. Turn there and walk inside the cathedral. Make a u-turn and go inside the museum. Eat food here. Drink coffee there.
Checking things off a list is no way to experience Italy, so over the years I’ve developed my own 3 part “recipe” for taking in the personality and beauty of Italy’s marvelous hill towns and medieval villages. Although you can use this 3-part approach when visiting any town in Italy, My husband, Luigi, and I recently spent a lovely day and night in Tuscany in the oh-so-charming town of Pienza. (click here to see where we stayed.) So let’s use Pienza as an example …
Recipe for Visiting an Italian Hill Town – Ingredient #1: The Story
Although Luigi and I have been to Pienza many times, we started our day with a cup of caffè and some breakfast, and then headed right out onto Pienza’s main street.
“The story” of a town – the first ingredient in our recipe for exploring hill towns – can be discovered in a town’s centro storico, historic center. The churches, government buildings, museums, castles and palazzi (palaces) that occupy the streets and piazze of centro storico are all places that reveal the ancient story of the town.
That morning in Pienza we strolled through the main piazza, took pictures of inscriptions on the walls of the town hall, gazed at artwork inside the beautiful duomo (cathedral) and sat for a while on the enormous steps of Pope Piccolomini’s palace (built in the 15th century). There’s a story behind everything! And I find that gathering a few historic facts and visiting some important buildings or landmarks is a great way to sense a town’s unique character.
But to truly experience an Italian hill town we need more than facts, dates and historical accounts. We need ingredient #2 …
Recipe for Visiting an Italian Hill Town – Ingredient #2: The Life
What is it like to live in a medieval village? Where do residents shop and eat? Where do they socialize?
I’ve always loved wandering through neighborhoods and side streets in hill towns, because that’s where you find “the life”. In ancient towns, residents live simultaneously with the very old and the very new. Satellites for digital televisions might perch on top of ancient roof tiles, but the traditions, customs and regional dishes of these ancient towns have remained the same for centuries. Wandering through side streets and alleyways, and checking out shops and restaurants, is a great way to get a feel for the life of an Italian hill town.
When Luigi and I leisurely explored Pienza’s side streets and alleyways, we took note of the restaurants that cater to tourists and the restaurants attract locals (those are always the places we head for!), and we also wandered into some of the shops. In Pienza, pecorino (sheep’s milk cheese) is wildly popular and there are lots of shops selling countless varieties, including walnut, rosemary and truffle – yum! Nearly every hill town has its own tradition food or wine – all a part of “the life”.
Once we’ve immersed ourselves in a town’s story and its life it’s time to add ingredient #3 to our recipe for exploring hill towns …
Recipe for Visiting an Italian Hill Town – Ingredient #3: The Walk
Ingredient #3 – the walk – adds richness to the hill town recipe, and it’s exactly what it sounds like – it’s a walk! Specifically the walk is all about exploring beyond a hill town’s centro storico, and in medieval villages this often means going outside of the town’s fortressed walls. Sometimes there are trails, pathways or adjacent strade to a town that can give you a whole different perspective on things.
When we stayed in Pienza, for example, we decided to take a pathway dubbed “la passeggiata” that runs along the hillside, just outside of Pienza’s walled historic center. This fabulously wide pathway, with expansive views of the Val d’Orcia below, continues right on into the countryside. We discovered a beautiful old church, a lane with gigantic cypress trees and a peaceful, centuries-old olive grove. And the views! They took our breath away!
Sometimes for me, the walk is the most important part of visiting a hill town because it ends up being on a road less traveled. Love that! Plus, few tourists venture beyond what’s mentioned in guide books, so when you find a winding pathway or hiking trail that skirts a village, you might just have it all to yourself. That’s the joy of traveling off the beaten strada.
The story, the life and the walk … when combined they make an ideal recipe for experiencing Italy’s gorgeous hill towns!
Pamela Haack is an Italy travel consultant and author of Off the Beaten Strada: Top 10 Favorite Etruscan Sites. She specializes in creating group trips and personalized experiences for travelers who enjoy active vacations in Italy – off the beaten strada.
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