Italy – Montepulciano and Montalcino

Saturday 1 September

Orvietto has been wonderful. But we must keep moving.

The Abbizia di San Biagio is in the countryside just outside the walls of Montepulcian. Outside it has a simple stone exterior with a terrace above the area where the altar will be inside. It is one of the most beautiful Romanesque churches I have seen. It is highly decorated  around the altar, but well proportioned. There is a large dome above the area in front of the altar. The Dome is of simple construction, using bricks with windows surrounding the top to let lots of light in. There is a barrel arch over the altar, covered in bright colourful elaborate frescoes. The altar is tall and made of a creamy white stone (this stone is used inside and out, but has yellowed outside.) There are Statues either side of altar, and an elegant organ on one side, toward the front.

We park outside the bottom gate of Montepulciano. The  Porta pronto is low and simple, but deep. I  walk/wheel up the hill past tasteful shops, selling leather, clothing, and produce of the area, including wine (enoteca) . We stop at Sant’Agostina. It’s style of decor is quietly Rococo, with white plaster and light green stucco shapes on ceilings. The walls are also plastered white. It is very light and airy. The altar is tall with gold trim. A wedding is taking place. (I wonder if locals get so used to tourists that they no longer see us in out thousands). A very young couple is seated in front of the priest and in front of the altar. There are a few people in the pews behind. The small ceremony is dwarfed by the very large church.

It’s a long steep climb up the main street but we finally arrive in the town square. The facade of the  Duomo is rustic. It is made of an orange/creamy brick and has lines of protruding brick. Its simplicity is beautiful. However, the interior of the duomo is a real mish mash of styles and shows how a seventeenth century renovation can just about destroy the simple beauty of twelfth century romanesque. Some art remains from the original church … The Assumption, and a marble relief, both of which are very beautiful.
The Town hall is in the style of the Florentine della signoria, but smaller. I want to climb to its terrace to see the views. We take a lift to the second floor, walking through a room containing the town records! There are two steps up to terrace, and then … Brilliant views! 

Peter decides to visit an enoteca that is also the Cantucci producer. He tastes and buys some local reds, vino nobile. Then we’re off back  down the hill. We take a wrong turn to the Fortezza, which is now a weird art gallery, then roll on down the hill, out to the car park, and on to the next town.

Montalcino is all about the wine. We drive straight to the top and park near the Fortezza where there is only one enoteca but it offers sampling of all locally produced wines. Peter tries seven, buys twelve. There are quite a few people managing the wine tasting and as soon as one realises that Peter only speaks English, he quickly organises someone to help him exclusively. Peter has a ball talking wines with the guy, as well as cars. He is there nearly an hour talking wines. I look at the wines displayed in glass cupboards. In one cupboard no bottle is less than 800 euro, one is 2500 euro and another 1200 euro! In another cabinet the wines range from 200 euro to 600 euro. They are all Brunello wines, wines special to Montalcino. Peter is tasting and buying Brunello wines …

I have read that Abbizza sant’Antimo is worth visiting. It’s near Montalcino, set in the middle of fields. It was Built in the twelfth century, and restored in the sixteenth, but without changing any of the original features. It is made of simple stone blocks, with some nice friezes. The column capitals are decorated, and one has a particularly detailed carving of Daniel in the lion’s den. The church has a very high vault with wooden beams below a brick ceiling. There are Radiating side chapels, with simple marble altars. Like the church we had seen in the morning, there is a Chapel  below the altar. It has a low arched ceiling, and is also linked to the main altar, this time by a cleanly cut rectangular shaft leading to a grate in front of the altar. The face of the shaft would be about 40cm x 40cm. I don’t know the purpose of these shafts but they clearly link the chapels with the main altars. Mass would undoubtedly have been said in these chapels …

On the recommendation of the enoteca we continue to drive through local wine country and stop at a thermal town, bagno vignoni. It has the Roman remains of thermal baths which were built on top of in the fifteenth century to build a mill, then again in the seventeenth to build thermal baths. Little remains except channels of warm water into which people dangle their feet.

On to Siena!

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