Where the sunrise lifts swirling rounds of swallows skyward over ancient terra-cotta to announce the day, and cobbled streets host the daily walk of shop-keepers, artisans, and townsfolk as they have for over 1,500 years. Where ancient church towers sing bell songs to declare the gifts of life and time, and lush vineyards stitch and lace together green hillsides that cradle the protective city walls. Where Piazza Grande serves as the heartbeat of rule, celebration, and her people, and soft rays of sundown caress the proud dome of the Church of San Biagio marking the close of another day.
Sunset in Montepulciano. Photo: siviaggia.files.wordpress.com
This is Montepulciano – the medieval Tuscan hilltop gem of a town that stole my heart some 5 years ago, when I made her my home for a week.
There’s no argument that the more well-known hill towns of Tuscany hold high rank in hedonistic, as well as intrinsic, rewards. But for the traveler seeking a more authentic experience -- the ability to become intimately acquainted with the lifeblood of a town in short order and the opportunity to savor the delights of food, wine, art, history, and local interaction in bite-size pieces -- Montepulciano is a custom-fit.
Situated in the southeast corner of Tuscany less than an hour’s drive from Siena, Montepulciano crowns a hilltop that dominates the lush valleys of Val d’Orcia -- a celebrity for its summer sunflowers, hearty wheat, and prized vineyards -- and Val di Chiana -- motherland to fine olive oil, Chianina beef, and thermal spas. No wonder Siena and Florence were constantly bickering over this little town: the panoramic views alone would be worth a skirmish or two.
Although Montepulciano can’t claim the title of “undiscovered,” especially after being featured in a portion of the Twilight series “New Moon” film, her charms retain their fresh appeal and easy access. Unlike the nearby smaller neighbors of beautiful San Gimignano with her ethereal towers, or Cortona and her over-night fame after the success of Frances May’s “Under the Tuscan Sun,” Montepulciano is just large enough (pop. 14,000) to gracefully accommodate the accolades of new-found popularity, yet not suffer the effects of excess tourism.
The Summer Festivals of Montepulciano
If having Vino Nobile at your disposal on a daily basis weren’t enough, the picturesque medieval hamlet of Montepulciano offers up an almost monthly array of festivals and celebrations, both time-honored and new. Summer presents some of the best, however, with delights that have thrilled throughout the ages.
Early May brings the Fiera di Sant’Agnese to Montepulciano, festival dedicated to the town’s patron saint, Saint Agnes. A historic procession with townsfolk sporting medieval costume commences from the Chiesa di Sant’ Agnese, making its way to the Piazza Grande where flag throwing demonstrations and a rest-of-the-day medieval fair and market take place.
Debuting in 1993, this weekend dedicated to wine conjoins with the national Movimento Turismo Del Vino nonprofit organization, and establishes opportunities for wine enthusiasts to visit numerous cellars. Foto: italysbestrome.com
Not so old, but ever-so-popular is the Cantine Aperte (Open Cellars) event held in late May. Debuting in 1993, this weekend dedicated to wine conjoins with the national Movimento Turismo Del Vino nonprofit organization, and establishes opportunities for wine enthusiasts to visit numerous cellars, discover the styles and secrets of the winemakers, and taste any number of incredible local wines. And they’ll even let you buy them!
Just down the hillside from Montepulciano-proper rests the iconic and beautiful Temple of San Biagio. This glorious structure was built in the 1500s, and is not only noteworthy for its picturesque addition to a wide-angle shot of the Montepulciano skyline, but also for providing the backdrop to the Giostra del Saracino, a festival heralding the days of fighting off Saracen invasions. Although a somewhat smaller rendition of nearby Arezzo’s jousting festival, Montepulciano’s version features food and fun, along with equine displays during the day, followed by jousting exhibitions under the (k)night sky.
The Bravio delle botti (Bravio of the barrels) is an annual race held in the Italian town of Montepulciano since 1974, replacing an equivalent horserace dating back to 1373. Photo: metina.it. Foto: braviodellebotti.com
July brings a fine arts spotlight to Montepulciano with the prestigious Cantiere Internazionale d’Arte, a month-long feast for the senses. International professionals intermingle with young talents and express the creative process through workshops and performances in music, art, theatre, and dance. Initiated in 1976 by Hans W. Henze, the platform is designed to foster new creativity amongst the generations, as well as fresh exploration of the classics. With the European Academy for Music and Performing Arts located in the medieval Palazzo Ricci in the heart of Montepulciano, this festival affirms the poliziani (citizens of Montepulciano) love affair with the arts.
August is hot, so what better way to escape the heat than by rolling extremely heavy wine barrels up the steeply inclined streets of Montepulciano! As with many Tuscan towns, a palio is a must – some sort of race between the neighborhood “contrade” that merits bragging rights for the next year. Montepulciano’s version, the Bravio delle Botti, pits the 8 contrade in an arduous uphill race through the historic center into Piazza Grande on the last Sunday in August. Two well-proportioned “spingitori” push a 176 pound “botte” (barrel) upwards through the narrow streets with hopes to grab the coveted prize, a painted cloth called Bravio, for their contrada. Medieval magic comes to life as the town celebrates in full period regalia, including the various brilliantly colored contrade flags proudly flying from ancient walls. Numerous neighborhood feasts also take place offering traditional food and drink. What better reason to dust off your armor and take part in this 600 year old festival!
Another not-so-ancient gala with roots that run deep is the Bruscello Poliziano, a theatrical spectacle that tells the stories and history of the poliziani. The Bruscello tradition of popular theatre acted by peasants in the Tuscan countryside is kept alive and well in this yearly production. Played entirely by non-professional actors or “bruscellanti,” the annual event takes place on an outdoor stage in Piazza Grande. A full-scale musical unfolds as stories, either farcical or dramatic, of the past and present Montepulciano are told. This year’s event will take place on August 15th, Ferragosto Day, and will herald the life of Sant’Agnese Segni, Montepulciano’s beloved hometown saint.
Come for one, come for all –Montepulciano’s summer festivals await!