Text and photo: Jesper Storgaard Jensen
If all roads lead to Rome, it’s also true that many of the same roads head out of the chaotic Italian capital in the direction of new adventures. Because if it's true what the famous poet H.C. Andersen once said - "to travel is to live" - it's equally true that to travel is also to move from one place to another, from point A to point B. In my case point A is Rome and my point B is Pisa.
My escape route is the road called Via Cassia that heads north. I make my first stop at Trevignano, a tiny town situated on Lake Bracciano with a history to rival Rome’s dating back to the Etruscan era.
Today it’s a relaxed, lakeside community where locals seem to have abandoned work for a life of strolling along the lake promenade while licking gelato cones and greeting neighbours.
Don’t just gaze at the sparkling water. Head off-shore for a tranquil tour on the Sabazia II ferry that makes stops at the two other lake towns, Anguillara Sabazia and Bracciano. The ferry trip takes less than a day, allowing you to return to Trevignano in time for a laid-back aperitif at the trendy bar, La Vela, followed by dinner at one of the restaurants offering lake views.
Heading for a ghost town
I leave behind the lively lake towns for the northern reaches of the Lazio region and the nearly abandoned town of Civita di Bagnoregio. This town is precariously situated in splendid solitude on the top of a clay-covered hill that appears to be washing away. At first glance, it seems to be a vision from a fairy tale with a dramatic history to match of landslides, earthquakes and collapsed bridges. Only about ten people live here. Today a 300-meter footbridge is their only connection to the wider world.
Go there, have a meal in one of the cosy small restaurants and get the incredible feeling of being projected many years back in time.
Shortly after Civita, I cross the border into Tuscany and into what appears to be a painting. Softly undulating hills with rows of cypresses spread out before me. Gigantic sunflowers seem to greet me from the fields, and I’m tempted to stop the car every ten minutes to soak up all this natural beauty.
Rows of charming towns
In Tuscany you’ll not only see rows of cypresses, but also many charming towns that string along like the colourful gems on the necklace of a Renaissance countess. My first stop is the elegant and enchanting Montepulciano. Joining the locals, I have a shot of espresso at the historic Caffe’ Poliziano that dates back to 1868 and head to Piazza Grande in the town’s centre. From the tower of Palazzo Comunale, I can almost see my next destination.
Because Pienza is only about ten kilometres away. Go to the spectacular Piazza Pio II where you’ll find town’s two most important attractions, Palazzo Piccolomini and the cathedral. Let your eyes take in these architectural wonders and you’ll quickly understand why Pienza is a UNESCO world heritage site. And don’t deny Pienza’s pleasures from another sense.
Romantic souls could kiss they way through Via dell’Amore or Via del Bacio (Love Street and Kissing Street) to enjoy a panoramic view at the Casello Bar.
But don’t forget to taste Pienza’s famous mouth-watering goat cheese, il Pecorino. That’s what I did, but only to realize that something was missing. The Pecorino needed to be paired with the perfect red wine. No problema because my next destination is Montalcino, a half-hour’s drive away.
This is the hometown of Italy’s famous and full-bodied wine, Brunello di Montalcino. In this small village considered one of Tuscany’s most attractive I find the main square and sit down at the famous Fiaschetteria Wine Bar, which opened in 1888. The Brunello is a bewitching nectar that tickles my both my taste buds and curiosity. Where is this drink of the Gods actually made? I get an answer to this question shortly after at the Banfi vineyard, one of the most renowned Brunello producers in the Montalcino area. Hundred of Brunello bottles surround me, as I take part in a wine tasting after enjoying lunch in the vineyard’s restaurant.
Going towards Siena
It only takes me an hour to reach Siena, where I immediately get lost in the town’s spider web of narrow streets. Fortunately, nearly all of them lead to one of Tuscany’s most enchanting squares, Piazza del Campo. I sit down and listen to visitors speaking languages from all over the world.
Siena and Tuscany offer more than a feast for the eyes. The region is a dining destination. The following day I visit Siena’s popular market, La Lizza. Here I find piles of infinite types of cheeses, local salami, bread, fruit, vegetables and even pigs’ heads that seem to look directly at you. Everything to satiate the desire of any foodie.
Meandering along medieval streets I suddenly find myself in front of the impressive duomo completed at the end of the 14th century.
Leaving Siena is not a easy but fortunately I am heading toward another gem. The name is San Gimignano with the nickname of Tuscany’s Manhattan, due to its many towers. This enchanting town used to have 72 towers, all built by local influential families. Today only 15 are standing. Climb the highest of them, Torre Grossa. From the top, 54 meters above street level, you have a wonderful view of the surrounding valley Val d’Elsa.
It is not easy to leave San Gimignano, but my timetable is a bit tight. I point my compass north again driving another 75 kilometres to Pisa, my final stop. But before leaving Pisa and Italy, of course I need to check out if the Leaning Tower is still standing. There are many tourists, but still the experience is never banal - the Piazza dei Miracoli where the Leaning Tower stands and sways, is always magnificent - with or without tourists.
After a week on the road I’m starting to feel a little dizzy. Too much driving? Well, probably not, but perhaps too much beauty, too many stunning sights in such a short time, too much history, too much good wine and food.
That’s what happens when you take your senses on a safari.