After a week each in Rome and Florence we were ready to shift gears and enjoy some time in the country. We had booked a room in a villa in the small town of Strove, not far from Siena. We rented a car in Florence (which itself is in Tuscany) for the drive into the countryside. Now driving in Italy is an experience. Signs are at best confusing, often contradictory. Even with the best of maps you're going to spend a lot of time scratching your head. And don't rely on asking the "polizia" for directions; they don't know where they are either. The best advice I can offer is to rely on your own internal compass and hope for the best. Our wandering started with trying to get out of Florence. Wow! Somehow we just went in the general direction of south and wound up on the "auto strada" headed for Siena. In due time we found our exit and after some wandering found the little "settlement" of Strove, more a group of houses and villas around a church than a town. There was no town, at least by my understanding of such. The lady who ran the "house" knew just a little more English than I knew Italian, but we managed. But the place met my idea of what classical Tuscan villa should look like, red stone, red tiled roofs, and lots of flowers. The restaurant attached to the complex served excellent Italian cuisine.
Tuscany is one of the world's major producers of wine and olive oil. If you like those things you're in the right place. Vineyards and orchards are everywhere. When you're not in cities like Florence, Siena, or San Gimignano you're in the country. The countryside is largely green rolling hills, and the cities, more often than not, are walled and sit atop the hills. This is a carryover from feudal times when line of sight and walls were essential for defense. The entrance into the city is through a narrow gate that can be shut by heavy wooden doors. The whole city then becomes one big castle. Vineyards and olive orchards surround the city and extend as far as the eye can see, which may not be far...more on that in a moment. Californians familiar with the Napa/Sonoma wine country will feel at home here; except for the walled cities it looks much the same...almost. This is not surprising. Many of California's wine making families originated in Tuscany. When they first saw Napa they must have felt right at home.
But there is a difference. Tuscany does not share our environmental ethic. I was appalled by trash that lined the roads, refuge dumps scattered everywhere seemingly by individual caprice. I said above it was hard to see too far because by midday smoke filled the air. That was because farmers burned trash at will. There was obviously no burn regulation. Those things just don't happen today in California; we are keenly aware of trash proliferation and air quality. Environmental quality was obviously given no thought in Italy. It's a shame because Tuscany by any other measure is a treasure. These were big issues for me as a photographer. Landscapes were difficult because of smoke, and getting a foreground without trash in it next to impossible. There were few places too to get safely off the road when a particularly good landscape presented itself; many times I just had to let the opportunity simply pass.
But, that said, it's still a photographer's paradise. Few places offer pastoral scenes to equal it provided one shoots early and late, before it gets smoky, or after the air has cleared. Few places offer equal opportunity for architectural photography. So with some careful planning I was able to get much of what I hoped to get, and many of those images now populate this site. And the wandering? Well, I remember years ago when in Dublin we were frustrated because street names seemed to change every two/three blocks. I wondered how anyone ever knew where he was? The locals just smiled and explained that was just part of the "charm" of Dublin. Well, maybe the same was true in Tuscany. We never really knew for sure where we were but we had a great time getting lost. We found Montalcino and Montepulciano quite by accident; in fact on that particular day I don't recall ever knowing exactly where I was except when we drove into those towns, and both were gems. Perhaps the fact that we found our way back to our villa was a miracle.
So, would I go back? In a heart beat!