Tourists visiting Italy nowadays are rather like people attending one of those big society events, at which an ultra VIP, say Paris Hilton (if you're young and American), or Prince Charles (if you're old and British) is the guest of honour. What happens? Everyone pushes and gets pushed in the attempt to glimpse the star attraction. And then the party is over. Tourists visiting Italy head for the big-time cities – Venice, Florence and Rome – where they zero in on the big-time museums and churches. These are the star attractions, on everyone's 'must do' list. The tourists form endless lines waiting to get in, and once inside, they push and get pushed, struggling to see the masterpieces that everyone else 'has seen.' Then, as far as they're concerned, they’ve 'done' Italy.
But listen, dear tourist, Italy is made up of more than the Uffizi, the Accademia and St Peter's. And by 'more' I mean those 'other' museums and churches in smaller towns, where you'll glimpse and taste an Italy that you never even dreamt of. You're much more likely to have a genuine Italian experience there than in the ultra Very Important Places. Tourists of the past, who walked (!) or rode from town to town, knew this perfectly well. Of course, they dutifully visited the grand galleries and the magnificent churches, but they also sought the smaller, more obscure treasures, both man-made and natural. Does this way of seeing Italy sounds retro to you? Nothing wrong with that. The tourist of the past gained an appreciation of the land and people, which the present-day tourist can't possibly do, rushing in and rushing out, grabbing a few postcards and 'signature' souvenirs along the way.
Because few tourists read the charming travel books written in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, much of what lies off the beaten track is unknown to them. Don't worry. Italy is finally taking steps to rectify this imbalance between the major and minor sites. The Sienese have already made a good start. In 2003 the Provincial Administration established the Fondazione Musei Senesi, which promotes over 30 museums in the area devoted to art, archeology, natural sciences and ethnography. The website (http://www.museisenesi.org) provides information about the individual museums. It also groups the museums by location and subject, making it easy to plan a visit by either theme or trail. In this and a subsequent article I am going to put together some itineraries, from which you can pick and choose what you find most enticing.
Setting out from Florence, you can decide on one of three routes to head south: the Roman via Cassia, SS 2; the via Chiantigiana, SS 222; or the Superstrada Firenze-Siena. Take the Superstrada if you're in a rush, otherwise choose the more picturesque routes. On the via Chiantigiana you'll snake your way through rolling hills overgrown with vineyards and dotted with farmhouses. There are many attractive towns along the way, two of which – Castellina in Chianti and Castelnuovo Berardenga – have museums under the tutelage of the Fondazione Musei Senesi. In Castellina, the Museo Archeologico del Chianti Senese shows artefacts from the Chianti area, illustrating its history as far back as the eleventh century B.C. If it is lunchtime when you are in Castellina, my recommendation is to sniff the air. The moment you smell something delicious, investigate further. That was how, one Sunday many years ago, I found my way to the Antica Trattoria La Torre in Castellina. Time permitting make a detour to Rocca della Macěe, southwest of Castellina, which produces a superb Chianti. At Castelnuovo Berardenga, you'll find the Museo del Paesaggio, exhibiting images of the local landscape, inducing the visitor to reflect on transformations in the world and how we perceive them.
Should you opt for the via Cassia, you'll be coasting alongside the Superstrada for much of the time. Halfway between Florence and Siena is Poggibonsi, badly bombed in WWII and rebuilt as a modern industrial centre. Just south of Poggibonsi, on top of Poggio Imperiale, is the unfinished fortress begun in 1488 by Giuliano da Sangallo for Lorenzo the Magnificent. Lorenzo had wanted to lay out a new city of Poggibonsi and the fortress was to have been part of the city walls, but work stopped within a few decades. The fortress is one of the earliest examples of military architecture designed to withstand attacks from firearms, the deadly new weapons of the Renaissance. Recent excavations on Poggio Imperiale revealed the remains of the fortified settlement of Podium Bonizi, founded in 1155. The area is now the Parco Archeologico Poggibonsi, where you can marvel at several excavated cisterns and the traces of a spacious three-aisled church. Due west of Poggibonsi is San Gimignano, the city of medieval towers. A single day really isn't enough to savour all the town has to offer. In addition to its churches, there are several museums promoted by the Fondazione: the Palazzo del Popolo, the highest tower in town, which holds a gallery of paintings; the archeological museum with Etruscan, Roman and medieval artefacts; the modern art gallery, Raffaele De Grada; the Apothecary of Santa Fina - these last three all housed in ex-conservatory of S.Chiara. The ornithological museum has over 300 stuffed birds.
And that's just the beginning of the possibilities for traveling 'off the beaten track.' In part II of adventures in the Sienese, we will go to Siena by way of Colle Val d'Elsa, Casole d'Elsa, Radicondoli and Orgia - with quick stops in Stigliano, Villa Cetinale and Villa Le Volte.
This page last updated: March 29, 2009.