On Sunday morning we dragged ourselves out of bed to get to our favourite noleggio in Siena. Of course, being Sunday during a Palio, it was shut when we got there. Fortunately we didn't have to wait too long for someone to turn up and we left only 1/2 hour late, which was fine for us because it meant we could return the car at a sane hour the following day. So we scooted out of Siena (now old hands at navigating the outward journey) towards Abbazia di San Galgano.
Linda was very happy to find the fields of gira sole (sunflowers or, literally, 'sun turners') that she remembered from her first trip to Italy.
The 13th-century Abby is now just a ruined shell, but it is a very nice place to visit, being located in the middle of fields of vineyards and wheat and a cafe nearby for coffee and cake. These days the Abby is used to stage concerts in Summer.
Nearby is also a small church Cappella di Montesiepi built on the site an ex-soldier (San Galgano) lived as a hermit. Legend has it he drove his sword into a rock and this is located now under glass in the middle of the chapel. We had ourselves a little picnic and spent a very relaxing couple of hours exploring before deciding it was time to move on as we had a full day planned.
Next stop on our agenda was Pienza near Montepulciano. Unfortunately there is no direct route from Abbazia di San Galgano to Pienza and we ended up taking a very windy, but fortunately picturesque, route there.
Pienza is a very pretty little town, almost to a fault. The town itself was largely rebuilt on the orders of ex-resident Pope Pius II as a utopian new town. As a result it is hailed for its great Renaissance architecture but has a bit of a model-village feel about it. The haste with which it was built is particularly evident in the Duomo where cracks started to appear before it was even finished, and the nave now droops quite noticeably towards the back of the church. The town never lived up to grand plans of Pope Pius and remains a quiet little town, but not so quiet that we didn't manage to find ourselves some panini with Pecorino, a regional speciality, and some gelato to cool us down!
Next stop Montepulciano! But before we get there, we couldn't skip San Biagio on its outskirts. This was the second largest church project in the 16th century after St Peters in Rome, although of course it is no-where near that church in actual size. It certainly is a peaceful place to visit, perhaps too peaceful as Linda overheard the priest outside complaining no-one comes for mass any more.
And at last we are in Montepulciano which, at 600m, is the highest of all the Tuscan hill-towns. Turning up on a Sunday afternoon meant it was a quiet visit, although we did manage to sneak into the Duomo (with no facade it is quite plain on the outside, but very nice (and cool!) inside) for a quick look before it closed. The roads of Montepulciano are also quite steep, so we took a lesurely stroll from one end of town to the other.
As the day was coming toward an end we bought ourselves a little pizza to eat while we waited for the sun to set. The position of Montepulciano ensured us a spectacular view.
After sunset we made our way home so as to be ready for a big day to follow (Palio day!). This time we managed to navigate our way into town without quite resorting to pushing our car off a cliff and calling a taxi. Indeed we successfully double-parked it right outside the noleggio ready to be returned the following morning.