The bells peal softly each morning, echoing across ancient hills – dawn blue sky, the birds circling the forests and fields in the valley below. As the sun crests the far Appenine mountains, the stone walls of the highest bell towers begin to glow warm tones of umber and siena – a painters palette box, named for the very communities scattered across these valleys.
Montepulciano is in the heart of Tuscany – almost equidistant between Rome and Florence, it doesn’t have a convenient train stop and it’s frequently overlooked by many casual travelers. We were traveling with a 9 month old and an 18 month old. We were looking for a quiet village that offered plenty of distractions and explorations for the parents. Given both mom’s love of wine, settling ourselves in the heart of a world-renowned grape seemed like an excellent choice! Our journey through Montepulciano with kids began.
We picked Montepulciano as a home base while touring Italy with kids for a number of reasons: since we were driving, we could easily access most locations; Montepulciano was large enough to offer a few days worth of wandering and close enough to other towns that day trips would be easy; and it’s quite easy on the eyes.
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Extensive research for the perfect apartment during our Italy with kids trip planning landed us at the Residenza Fabroni, inside the ancient city walls on one of the main shopping streets. The Residenza is a former family apartment converted into rentable suites. Run by two sisters, Angela and Ombretta, it’s warm and welcoming, with every request attended to; they had sourced 2 cribs for our children without batting an eye. With true effortless Tuscan artistry, they have brought a marvelously curated touch to the renaissance palazzo home (“Totally pinterestable!” claimed one of our companions.).
From the main street, we ascended three floors on gracious stone steps, arriving at the top level a little breathless but increasingly charmed. The Residenza offers 3 different color-themed suites: the Blue suite, with 2 bedrooms, a wide hallway and a huge bathroom featuring a bathtub; the Green Suite, 2 rooms overlooking the main street with an attached bathroom, and the Red Suite – a spectacular nest perched the next floor up, with endless views to the north, east and south.
The Salon is the communal living room, with a variety of plush seating, and the most artful breakfast is served every morning in the dining room, morning light streaming in. The rooftop deck is another small flight of steps up, and offers stunning views, whether you’re seeking sunrise inspiration, an evening aperitivo or late night stargazing while in Italy with kids.
Every room in the Palazzo is delightful: medieval and renaissance plasterwork has been carefully restored, and ceiling beams are painted in elaborate detail. The large windows of the Blue Suite, Green Suite and Salon offer lovely views of the lively shopping street below, while one of the Blue Suite bedrooms and the dining room overlook the green valley to the east. Filled with comfortable, well-loved antique furniture, the Residenza feels like a family home, welcoming to travelers of all ages; the great scale of the rooms means kids have plenty of space to stretch their legs, and the adults can keep an eye on them while enjoying the pleasures of the place.
Walking down the steps in a sweeping skirt and leather soled flats, gazing out at valley-view windows at dawn, I couldn’t help but think of the history of the building: rustling silks and clattering heels, renaissance nobility gathering at the palazzo for business and pleasure, 19th century Grand Tour travelers pausing here on their way from Florence to Rome, and us: modern travelers, three women and our children traveling through Italy, enjoying a break from our urban reality.
Montepulciano with kids
The village of Montepulciano is at the heart of the farming life of Tuscany. Known for it’s “pici” pasta, cheese, pork, lentils and honey, every restaurant offers local delicacies and an extensive list of hyper local wines. The Vino Nobile de Montepulciano is a highly-regulated DOCG wine crafted in the shadow of the village, mostly from sangiovese grapes, with a couple other varietals. By law, the wines must be aged 2 years, with at least one year in oak barrels; “riserva” is aged for 3 years.
There is one winemaker that is actually centered inside the city walls: the Contucci family has been making wine in Montepulciano for over 1000 years; their importance in city history is evidenced by their splendid renaissance palazzo, located on the main piazza. The Contucci Cantine are the cellaring operations, featuring a tasting room that is open to the public – it’s well worth a visit just to wander the three levels of wine cellars. Kids of all ages will be enchanted by the arched stone walkways, giant oak barrels and overall atmosphere of the cantine.
Montepulciano is centered on only a few streets, each leading up up up to the Piazza Grande at the top of the hill. The town is very compact, but not very stroller friendly: extraordinarily steep streets can be a challenge to walk up, let alone push a buggy.
“Shortcuts” involve flights of steps connecting different streets; as you climb past walled gardens and above rooftops, the views are progressively more breathtaking – quite literally, as it’s a workout! However, all these hills and steps are perfect for little legs just beginning to get the hang of stairs: walking with my daughter, I counted steps endlessly: first in English, then in Italian.
After 3 days, my daughter Avi was at least saying numbers – not necessarily in order, mind you, but hey – it’s a start! There is also a bus service, with routes that traverse the village.
There are a few notable sights, including the Catedrale Santa Maria Assunta in the Piazza Grande, dedicated to the patron saint; the seemingly unfinished facade stands in stark contrast to the elaborate and refined Palazzo Communale adjacent to it. On the Via Gracciano Corso, the main street leading up from the Porta Prato on the north side of town, the Torre di Pulcinella is unusual: a bell that is struck by a clown, Pulcinella, a stock character from the commedia dell’arte. At 81 Via Gracciano, the Palazzo Bucelli displays an array of medieval plaques and Etruscan funerary urns. Kids will enjoy finding common elements such as lions, bees and birds carved in to the panels.
Just outside of town on the road to Chianico, the self-contained Tempio di San Biagio represents High Renaissance architectural perfection. Designed by Sangallo the Elder and finished in 1545, it is a small church built on a Greek cross plan, perfectly proportioned and seemingly like a jewel, beautiful from every direction. It’s approached via a well manicured road lined with sculpted cypress trees. If you’re lucky, a priest in flowing black cassock will cross the road in front of you, and you’ll believe that the whole thing is endlessly staged.
Slowing down to Montepulciano time
We appreciated the gentle pace of the town, which basically shuts down by 10pm. Quiet nights ease into day; the Caffe Poliziano opens around 7am, just as the first church bells of the day begin to peal; the streets grow progressively busier and busier as the day proceeds. Gourmet shops, a pecorino ageing cave, wine cellars and salumerie line the streets, peppered with artisan outposts: the mosaic studio, a jeweler working in ancient Etruscan tradition, shoe cobblers making gorgeous summer sandals by hand, and everyone smiles, waves hello and stops to chat if you have a baby.
As with most Tuscan towns with medieval history, Montepulciano’s annual summer festival is a sight to behold. Held on the last Sunday of August, the Bravio delle Botti (race of the barrels) dates back to the 14th century, when mounted riders representing the eight neighborhoods, or contrade, would race their horses through the impossibly narrow streets, attempting to reach the Piazza Grande first; then and now, the winning team receives the Bravio, a banner painted with the patron saint of Montepulciano.
Today, the race is run by teams of two pushing an 80kg wine barrel up the road. Unwieldy barrels combined with steep and narrow streets often lead to collisions, and the race is preceded by days of pageantry: drummers and flag bearers competitively displaying their techniques, teams processing in full medieval clothing. Though we were there in September, one morning shortly after breakfast, we heard the rumble of drums reverberating across the buildings, and were delighted to catch a small procession of the Gracciano contrada. The kids cheered as the flag bearers passed, and gleefully chased the procession up the hill a little way.
Overall, Montepulciano is an excellent town for a quiet but robust Tuscan experience. Layered in history, and the heart of a land proud of its vinicultural and culinary traditions, the town doesn’t have blockbuster “must see” museums or sights – which leaves you blessedly free to wander and enjoy the serenity of the land itself, dallying over long lunches, caffe breaks, and wine. There are plenty of opportunities to dive into the local scenes as well: cooking, arts and language classes vie with regional day trips, and the archaeologically interested can immerse themselves in the Etruscan history of the town and region. The location is excellent for day trips throughout the area. And as always, the Italians are incredibly accommodating to children – they are received with smiles and open arms. We enjoyed the quiet pace, and would welcome any opportunity to return.
Know Before You Go
Where to Stay
Ideally located in the center of the old walled city, the Residenza Fabroni offers three suites and plenty of atmosphere for your Tuscan visit. Free parking is available with advance notice. Angela and Ombretta are native Montepluciano residents (“Poliziani”) and will do everything to make your stay comfortable. The kitchen is not for the use of guests but can be used to hold milk/formula for babies.
Where to Eat
Caffe Poliziano: A beautiful example of fine Art Nouveau design, the spacious Cafe Poliziano, is open from 7am to midnight and offers caffe, breakfast treats, gorgeous views over the Val di Chianti, and a welcoming place to pause, day or night. In the afternoon, consider an apertivo on the miniscule balcony; small finger foods are complimentary from about 4-6pm. The name comes from the celebrated Renaissance poet Angelo Ambrogini – his nickname was Poliziano, and is used to this day to refer to those from Montepulciano.
Borgo Buio: The finest meal to be had in Montepulciano is at Borgo Buio, down a small street and in the arched cellars of the palazzo above. Local classics are contrasted with creative chef inventions, including a remarkable cappelletti pasta with sharp peconzola cheese, pork loin, balsamic vinegar and essence of vino nobile. The English translations on the menu are a bit poetic but the food is stunning; the wine list is expansive as well. Gluten free options available. Lunch service is very family friendly; dinner is a bit more formal, and parents may want to enjoy an evening without children, if babysitters are an option.
Trattoria di Cagnano: This is a wonderful trattoria offering lunch and dinner service, very welcoming to families, with covered outdoor seating area in addition to ample indoor seating. the menu offers typical Tuscan dining, with some delightful surprises: the carpaccio di pera features artfully shaved pears with Parmesan cheese and walnuts, and the seafood risotto is a gluten-free option.
What not to do
Surprisingly, nobody seems to offer an afternoon aperitivo or wine with a sunset view – dinner service doesn’t open in most restaurants until 7pm, and there are no cafes overlooking the west. We enjoyed aperitivi at Cafe Poliziano, and sampled a variety of wines at la Bottega del Nobile, which offers dozens of wines by the glass, sidewalk seating and a lovely selection of antipasti for late afternoon snacking. this is also your best option if you’d like to ship some vino Nobile home – they have a fantastic deal if you purchase 12 or more bottles.