It is easy to explore the cute towns that dot the Tuscan countryside from Gaiole, where we have made home base for a couple of nights. I love the sense of freedom being in Europe evokes in me – I feel like a bird with beautiful wings and my heart is light, I can dance along the cobblestone rues like nobody, or everybody is watching. Discovering the wine region around us is best done by simply driving around, exploring whatever vineyards catch our fancy and popping into the lil towns along the way with the help of “Jane”, our trusty Tom Tom! Renting a car was easy enough through EuropCar online, and we picked up our nippy Audi in Florence and drove out into the Tuscan countryside to start this adventure. The thought of exploring hidden alleyways, popping into little shops selling all sorts of beautiful trinkets and artisan products, and just steeping in the view of the gorgeous sweeping vistas of the countryside around has me so excited! I love the fact that all these picturesque, almost fairy tale like towns are never more than a couple of miles drive away from each other. Stay with me as I show you my favourites!
Gaiole in Chianti
Low rolling hills studded with vines, olive groves, rustic hamlets and vineyards make up this part of the Chianti countryside, which is so idyllic and truly takes your breath away. There’s loads of agriturismo vineyards where you can pop in for some wine tasting or rent a room and partake in activities around the farms, and lots of hidden culinary gems dotting the Gaiole countryside as well as restored castles, and osterias where nonna does the cooking. Of all the areas we could have chosen to stay in while exploring this region I am glad we chose Gaiole – it truly did satiate my Tuscan wanderlust. Staying here and simply driving around soaking in the vistas around would be top of my list in the Chianti wine region.
Radda in Chianti
Almost all the towns in the Tuscan countryside have preserved some of their medieval heritage and most are enclosed in large defensive walls, and set up high on the hills and surrounded by valleys. Radda in Chianti, the once capital city of the Chianti region is one of the towns where you are surrounded by city walls although not completely ensconced in them like some of the others that I will tell you about. The city is best appreciated from afar, its imposing structure visible as you approach it from deep within the valleys, giving you a deeper perspective when you explore the town juxtaposing the two images together. If you are like me and a sucker for quirky paraphernalia, especially memorabilia, culinary and foodie items then you can shop to your heart’s content in Radda for beautiful trinkets and artisan products. There are also cute benches set up in strategic places for you to sit in and soak in the view, or enjoy an ice cold gelato on a hot summer’s day – though we were graced with a light misty rain which also lent an air of romance to this stunning area. Popping in and out of shops, walking along the cobblestone roads and glancing now and then towards the valleys below in the gossamer like rain had its own charm!
The little village of Volpaia is even more charming than Radda because it is tucked away in the hills and so far away from all the touristy chaos that is quite inevitable in all the well-known towns. This village is the stuff that Tuscan DREAMS are made of, with its quaint stone buildings draped with green creepers and adorned with beautiful flowers adding a splash of colour and a pop of brightness. There isn’t much to do here except amble around the village, immerse yourself into an idyllic countryside mood and smell the beautiful blossoms, but it is a great place for having a Tuscan photo-shoot without hoardes of “other” people in your shots! And it is totally worth the scenic drive up to sample some home-made Tuscan gastronomic fare at the picturesque restaurant La Bottegga. Ask for a table outside, so that you can soak in the panoramic vistas around you as you enjoy thick crusty slices of bread dipped in fresh olive oil and tart balsamic vinegar, and a crisp glass of vino before indulging in some rustic Tuscan cuisine.
Castello di Meleto
This is another one of Chianti’s REAL castles set on a wine estate, in the heart of the wine region just outside of Gaiole. Perched high up on a hill, Castello di Meleto is straight out of a fairy tale with its watchtowers and large doors with arched stoneways adorned with roses. It makes for a charming pit stop in our adventures along the back roads of Tuscany. Here you can sample wine that is made from grapes grown in the vineyards within the estate in a custom built tasting room with sweeping views of the vineyards, and also get a tour of the interior of the castle where you can ponder on the lavish frescoes that adorn the walls and ceilings, and imagine what it felt like to be royalty back in the day of knights and kings by seeing the furniture and heavily laden dining table!
You also get to walk through the wine cellars which lead you towards a baroque theatre which dates back to the mid 1700’s and is still in perfect condition and used to put on shows to date. I would recommend checking their website or requesting your hotel to call them to reserve a time for you to do this combo wine tasting and discovery tour, and I promise you it is well worth it to be transported back in time for a few hours! There are also other great activities offered like cooking classes, being a wine maker for a day and exploring a pig breeding farm if that catches your fancy. You can also have a similar experience at Brolio Castle but we skipped this because we were pretty wined and castled out by the time we got to Meleto!
Castellina in Chianti
Of all the medieval towns in Chianti, Castellina tops my list. Think small town Europe tucked away in the green hills, with cobbled streets winding through its core and a fully restored castle and you could be forgiven for thinking you have stepped back in time into a Hans Christian Anderson folk tale. It really is the romanticised Italy that you daydream of when you let your imagination run wild and envision what Tuscany is like. The scenic drive through its panoramic roads that wind through the valleys of Pesa and Arbia is what you see in movies like Under the Tuscan Sun. Exploring the town’s vaulted passageway carved underneath its medieval walls which have shops on the one side and tiny slats on the other, that served as windows centuries ago, looking out towards the surrounding countryside is something that I really enjoyed doing, and just letting my imagination do what it does best – run amok!
To rent a villa, stay a while and wake up to the gorgeousness of the Tuscan countryside for weeks on end is something that is still on my Wanderlist. I haven’t had enough and yet I haven’t explored so many other hidden gems in the Chianti region which are probably equally if not more stunning and picturesque than the ones I have written about. That’s the problem with having what I call Wanderlustitis and being a romantic at heart: everything is a fairy tale and when you have experienced living the dream, then ordinary life is so mundane and dull in comparison! I will be exploring some more towns in a different region of Tuscany in another post in this series which I am sure you will love, so stay tuned for more of my adventures! Thank you for stopping in and spending some time with me in my lil corner of the interwebs and see you again soon dear Wanderlusters! Xoxo.
– On renting a car:
M and I rented our car from EuropCar online while we were still back home in Nairobi and it was pretty painless. All you need is an International Driving Licence which is easily obtained at AA in Hurlingham. Of course, there are the costs of rental, deposits and insurance payments as well, and the logistics of pick up and drop off which I would be happy to share if you want to know: drop me a comment below and I will get back to you.
– On driving around:
Tuscany is a region best explored on your own, in a car. Italians drive left hand cars but you can easily adapt to this within a few minutes of being on the road. Driving around the little country lanes, soaking the vistas around you, stopping to take breath taking pictures and popping into vineyards that catch your fancy is something you can only do privately. It is easy to explore and there are a number of routes you can follow, all easily navigable if you have a Tom Tom or even with Google Maps. I have a number of routes and will incorporate these into a Harpreet’s Wanderlust Itinerary with the road numbers at the end of this series.
– On exploring:
This post contains two days’ worth of driving and exploring around. We would usually head out after breakfast, after plotting out the day’s route on a map, explore the towns, do some wine tasting, have some lunch and then head back to home base in the late afternoon for some down time before heading out for dinner. If this is your ideal exploration method, then look out for a Harpreet’s Wanderlust Itinerary once this series is complete!