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Puglia Villas Travel

Puglia; Italy’s Best Kept Secret

Puglia has some of the brightest seas, most diverse art and architecture, most mouthwatering peasant cuisine and kindest people in all of Italy — including strangers who will go out of their way to lead you to one after another stunning beach on impossibly lapis-lazuli waters.

Puglia is the heel to Italy’s boot, and after two weeks spent touring the region, I felt grateful that charter airlines don’t disgorge hordes of tourists here. These are just some of the reasons:

Brilliant seas
“I said put it back, this is a natural park,” a stern father told his son. He was pointing to the octopus that sat with protruding eyes on the boy’s shoulders after being plucked from the crystalline waters at Natural Maritime Reserve of Torre Guaceto, just north of Brindisi.

With more than 500 miles of coast on two seas, the Adriatic and the Ionian, Puglia has all sorts of gorgeous beaches. For white limestone cliffs spotted with the deep green of gnarled pine trees, try the southernmost tip of Salento.

At opposite ends of this peninsula, I swam in the fingerlike cove of Porto Badisco, where legend has it that Italy’s mythological founder, Aeneas, landed, and I dove even deeper into history at Portoselvaggio, where remains of Neanderthal men were found.

A few miles north, it’s all about sandy expanses, like Punta della Suina, where the setting sun turns the transparent water pink.

But it’s Torre Guaceto that gets my gold medal — for the baby-powder white sand, the schools of silvery fish flitting from reef-like rock formations in pools of turquoise water, and the scent of pine needles drifting from the pristine forest that borders the beach.

Living history
No other image says Puglia better than the trullo, a rural home that’s essentially a whitewashed teepee of small limestone slabs stacked without mortar, with a cone surmounted by pagan or religious symbols. They are scattered among olive groves and huge prickly pear cacti in the Valle d’Itria, inland in a triangle between Bari, Taranto and Brindisi.

Of unknown origin and unique to Puglia, they date at least from the Middle Ages. Most are still inhabited and more than 1,400 huddle in Alberobello. The town might feel a bit too touristy for Puglia, with its souvenir shops exhibiting plastic trulli, but it only takes a look at the clotheslines in a trullo backyard to realize that real life goes on in this primitive fairytale place.

Ivan Tortorella / AP

A view of the typical “Trulli” constructions of southern Italy’s Puglia region, in downtown Alberobello, near Bari, Monday April 24, 2007. Puglia has the brightest sea, the most diverse art and architecture, the most mouthwatering peasant cuisine and the kindest people in all of Italy, including strangers who will stop their cars to direct you to their favorite secret beaches. (AP Photo/Ivan Tortorella)

Farther inland is the Murge, scorched highlands grooved by canyons where, in the Middle Ages, people built cave dwellings as homes and churches when they fled from pirates.

The most famous dwellings of all are the Sassi in Matera, which is just across the state line in the Basilicata region. Below the modern town and built on the side of a steep ravine, two whole neighborhoods of single-room cave dwellings and rock-hewn, frescoed churches were inhabited first by hermits and then by families until the 1960s. While some are now trendy hotels and restaurants, they still look so authentically ancient that Mel Gibson filmed scenes here for “The Passion of the Christ.”

Cities as art
Art is not a masterpiece in a museum but a whole downtown in Valle d’Itria cities like Locorotondo, or, by the coast, in Bari, Ostuni and Lecce.

Locorotondo is a round nest of a village where everything is white except for the bright splashes of red flowers that overtake its wrought-iron balconies. Ostuni is even more blinding, though a sea breeze caresses you as you hike up and down its steep inclines and marvel at the sculpted baroque portals on its whitewashed houses.

But you haven’t seen Baroque in all its theatrical, indulgent, luxuriant excess until you’ve spent an evening among the wreaths of fruit and the pinup women sculpted on the golden limestone churches and palaces of Lecce.

The busy port city is trying to overcome its dangerous reputation, but the only person that chased us in the narrow alleys was a grocery store clerk with a cold bottle of water, concerned that ours had become too warm as friends and I waited for another clerk to make our sandwiches.

Art gems
Medieval masterpieces are everywhere on the eastern coast, beginning with the inscrutable Castel del Monte. We know the octagonal castle was built by Emperor Frederick II, one of the most powerful men in the Middle Ages, in the early 13th century. But nobody quite knows why.

Isolated on a small hill, it lacks both the architecture and the location for a military fort, and it’s way too imposing to be a pleasure palace. The most evocative hypothesis is that it was an intricate symbol, built around the magic intersection of astronomy, mathematics and the Christian faith.

Traveling south, the Romanesque cathedrals at Trani and Otranto seem to rise from the sea. The latter’s floor is covered by a mosaic from 1165 representing the tree of life, a hopeful message in the site of a massacre — a chapel houses the remains of the 800 citizens who were slaughtered in the church where they had fled an assault by Islamic armies in 1481.

Puglia, like most of southern Italy, has been conquered over and over by northern and Mediterranean armies since Greek colonizers established flourishing city-states on its coasts. More than 2,500 years later, their heirs still speak Griko, a dialect of archaic Greek, in the inland Grecia Salentina.

Octopus to figs
I’ll admit that the powerfully alcoholic red Salentine wine played a role in my dancing the pizzica pizzica, the local version of tarantella, one night in the streets of tiny Serrano.

Image: I Linguini del Pescatore

Ivan Tortorella / AP

“I Linguini del Pescatore” (Fisherman’s Linguini) is fresh pasta with seafood, a typical dish in southern Italy’s Puglia region, near Lecce.

But the food that went with it at the farmers’ fair was just as worthy of celebrating, including Puglia’s staple, orecchiette (ear-shaped pasta), as well as horse meat steaks, ciceri e tria (handmade tagliatelle with garbanzo beans), fave e cicoria (pureed fava beans and chicory), cakes spilling over with figs.

Meat, grilled or cured, reigns inland, nowhere more spectacularly than at Cisternino in trulli land. At night, the absurdly numerous butchers of this whitewashed village set up tiny tables on the sidewalks and cook to order whatever you select from their marble counters, preceded by minuscule black olives, homemade cheeses and salami.

 Seafood, including delicacies like octopus and sea urchins, rule the coast in hole-in-the-wall trattorie like Nonna Tetti in Lecce. I had a hard time finishing pignata di polpo there, when the whole octopus was brought to me in a clay pot — especially since I had already had mozzarella di bufala, fried vegetables, and linguine with mussels.

I needed similar endurance when gratitude compelled me to start my last dinner in Puglia with a humble pizza margherita. This must be the only region in Italy where the tomato-and-mozzarella staple of generations of students and workers still only costs about $2.50.

Puglia is Italy’s top olive oil producer, so, for 660 miles back to northern Italy, I carried a three-gallon tank of thick olive oil in front of my car seat, sheltering it from the sun that for two weeks hadn’t stopped blazing and that pervades every facet of life here.

I kept thinking about a verse from an Italian poem that was used on an old tourism ad for southern Italy. Roughly translated, it was something like this: “No earthly hope can give my heart peace as much as the certainty of sun that overflows from your sky.”

By Giovanna Dell’Orto

Source: http://www.nbcnews.com/id/18357722/ns/travel-destination_travel/t/puglia-italys-heel-has-it-all/

 

Puglia Travel

Winter Is Prime in Puglia

By DANIELLE PERGAMENT

Disappointment swept across the table. Daniela, our waitress, with tight jeans and dyed pink hair, hovered over our table, shaking her head. “I trying to warn you,” she scolded. There were dozens of bowls of antipasto unfinished, many of them untouched. She just shook her head some more. “I leaving and you eating. Now.” With a nod that smacked of finality, she turned and sashayed back to the kitchen.

I had been in Puglia for about an hour and a half. I was already full and, apparently, in trouble.

Here’s the image we Americans have been sold: For the past few thousand years, Puglia, the region encompassing the heel of Italy’s boot, has been the summer destination for young, happy, beautiful Italians, who enjoy pristine beaches, crystalline water, reliably perfect temperatures, fresh fish and midnight parties held in ancient seaside towns laid out in white stone.

But according to my Italian friends (the kind who live in Italy), we had it all wrong. Puglia, they told me, is far better in the winter. Granted, it’s too cold to swim, but the food is tastier, the shops are emptier and the prices are lower. And the lack of attachment to the beach encourages exploration of the area’s inland charms. It’s like discovering an entirely new Italy — or at least an Italy that is only populated by Italians. If you are planning your summer trip now, here’s my advice: wait. The off-season, October through April, is the time to go.

During my February trip, I found myself in the small Pugliese town of Casalini, in a small restaurant called Locanda del Ristoro. Ghigo, my friend and travel companion (born and raised not far from there), suggested we try to eat some more before Daniela returned from the kitchen with another reprimand.

It seemed an impossible feat. Our table was covered in terra-cotta bowls filled with balls of burrata cheese the size of golf balls; more balls of burrata the size of tennis balls; fried meatballs; eggplant Parmesan; saucy, stewy dishes; unidentifiable fried things; faro bean salad with oil and herbs; puréed fava beans with laces of sautéed chicory on top; and cold fennel wedges for cleansing the palate. This is what happens in Puglia when you order the antipasti. And we had foolishly ordered pasta as well. On the upside, we were apparently not the first patrons to run into this problem: Locanda del Ristoro has take-home boxes.

This was Lesson No. 1: In winter, no one goes hungry in Puglia. It’s not just that prices are lower and seats more plentiful — the food is actually better. “People come to Puglia for the fish, but the truth is that it’s fresher in the winter,” said Luca Montinaro, owner of Acquarossa, a small, rustic hotel in the area. “Pugliese eat better in the winter.”

What Locanda del Ristoro is to authentic dining, Acquarossa, named after the groundwater that turns red in the clay soil, is to authentic lodging. The hotel is small — Mr. Montinaro has nine apartments, in 26 trulli, the famous conical stone houses that date back centuries and are indigenous to Puglia. “My idea was to create a country house, not a hotel,” said Mr. Montinaro, a handsome man with a dark complexion and shaved head.

We sat in the dining room next to a warming fire, drinking coffee (me, not him) and rolling cigarettes (him, not me). The hotel, which Mr. Montinaro bought in 2003, is still a work in progress. “I’m building a pool,” he said. “Italians are happy to go in the sea, but the Americans and the British guests always ask about a pool. It’s hard to imagine now, but in the summer it gets very, very hot.”

This is Lesson No. 2: You may be in southern Italy, a mere ferry ride from Greece, but you will be cold. Puglia in the off-season is damp, rainy and bone-chillingly cold. But sitting fireside, sipping an Americano, it was easy to enjoy the slower, cozier side of the region.

If Acquarossa is about authenticity, then Casa Della Scrittrice is about living like a local. In fact, it’s like living with locals — ideal for experiencing that coziness. Francesco Pitrelli and his civil partner, David Capon, left their lives in London a few months ago, bought a trullo just outside of Ostuni, about 20 minutes inland from the coast, and opened a one-room bed-and-breakfast, complete with a pool, olive grove and very happy dog named Jack. “The winters are lovely because it’s so quiet here,” Mr. Capon said. “In the summer, you can barely walk through a piazza in Ostuni because there are so many people. And forget about parking.”

If, on the other hand, you’re looking for luxury and lots of it, try Borgo Egnazia, a masseria, or fortified farmhouse. The resort — consisting of a 63-room main building, a 92-room “village” of apartment buildings and 28 private villas — is a sprawl of giant, stacked white blocks, sitting right on the water. Pools (plural), a golf course, a bar scene worthy of South Beach, and bed linens with astronomically high thread counts — this is where you might go if you were a Hollywood celebrity, like, say, Justin Timberlake or Jessica Biel, who were married here last fall.

But here’s the really beautiful part: Throw in a little cold weather, and all the hotels in the area drop their rates significantly. Borgo Egnazia is one of a handful of five-star masseria along the coast that swells to capacity in the summer, but in the winter, a double room drops to 220 euros, or about $278 at $1.26 to the euro; it’s more than twice that in August. And service in the winter may be even better (the waiters seem genuinely grateful to have something to do).

The beaches — Puglia’s primary draw, according to the summertime postcards — are deserted in the off-season. The lounge chairs are stacked up, the seaside restaurants are closed, and the only creatures along the shore are the sea gulls. Lesson No. 3: In the off-season, head inland to the mountains. Drive into the hills, and a whole new world opens up. Ghigo and I made our way to the small, nontouristy town of Cisternino — a town you could walk, end to end, in about 10 minutes.

A perfect day in Cisternino would start at a pasticceria called Cremeria History Vignola for a glass of prosecco and a plate of mandorle atterrate, or “landed almonds,” a local treat of almonds flavored with sugar, lemon and anise. Before one glass of prosecco becomes two, walk down the block to Baol, a small shop full of handmade dresses, scarves, jewelry, housewares and a few local, gossiping women. Chat up the owner, Barbara, who will invite you to sit on the balcony and enjoy the view of what seems to be all of Puglia. You will entertain her offer for a minute before remembering the blustery conditions outside.

Instead, walk up the street to Osteria Bell’Italia for an order of purea di fave, whipped fava bean purée served with pickled red onions and chicory (you could eat this all winter and you just might), followed by whole wheat pasta served with bread crumbs, olive oil, diced tomatoes and broccoli rabe. Once you’ve polished off a bottle of the house red wine, sit back and wait for the rain to stop. It might take a while so go ahead and order a coffee.

Lesson No. 4 unveils itself in short order: Winter is the time to visit a farm in Puglia. All those specialty items you’ll find in local shops — marmalade, nuts, olive oil — most likely were grown, harvested and packaged a few miles away. This quest will lead you directly to the Masseria Il Frantoio — part restaurant, part hotel and part organic orchard, primarily producing olive oil from 4,200 olive trees, some dating back over 2,000 years. It’s not exactly undiscovered — in fact, the owner, Armando Balestrazzi, will happily show off his book of press clippings — but because of the time of year, Ghigo and I had our own private olive oil tasting and lesson on the process.

Deeper into the hills — and therefore deeper into local wintertime culture — is Pomona, an organic fruit farm owned and run by Paolo Belloni, a Milanese fashion photographer who moved to Puglia in 2004. Mr. Belloni’s mission is to save nearly extinct species of fruits, primarily figs. “Figs can feed the world,” he said, revealing what might be his real mission. Mr. Belloni has over 900 kinds of fruit trees (including more than 300 kinds of fig trees); he sells cherries, apricots, prunes and nuts in the summer and various marmalades in the winter. Though Pomona is technically open to the public Thursday afternoons and Sunday mornings by appointment, I got the feeling that Mr. Belloni would rather tend to his orchards than entertain tourists.

“I have a symbiotic life with the plants,” he said, as we sloshed through a muddy field of fig trees. “In the winter, we are quiet, the plants are getting ready. In the winter, the life here is more accessible and the food tastes better. This is maximum authenticity.”

“This,” he gestured to the drizzly, green fields all around us, “is Puglia.”

IF YOU GO

The easiest — and pretty much only — way to get to Puglia is to fly into Brindisi or Bari (Alitalia has regular flights from major Italian cities).

Locanda del Ristoro, Via Brindisi, 39/41, Casalini; (39-080) 444-9149; lalocandadelristoro.com.

Acquarossa, C. da Acquarossa 2, Casalini; (39-080) 444-4093; acqua-rossa.de/it. Rates start at 45 euros per person, about $57 at $1.26 to the euro.

Casa Della Scrittrice, Sessana Grande, Ostuni; (39-327) 359-9532; casadellascrittrice.com. Rates start at 80 euros.

Borgo Egnazia, Savelletri di Fasano, Brindisi; (39-080) 225-5000; borgoegnazia.com. Double rooms start at 220 euros.

Cremeria History Vignola, Via San Quirico, 28, Cisternino; (39-080) 444-1055.

Baol, Via Martina Franca, 3, Cisternino; (39-348) 859-5551.

Osteria Bell’Italia, Via Duca D’Aosta, 29, Cisternino; (39-080) 444-9036.

In the summer, it’s virtually impossible to get a table at the charming Taverna della Gelosia (Via Andriola, 26, Ostuni; 39-0831-334-736; tavernadellagelosia.it), but off-season you and a handful of locals will have the place all to yourselves. The antipasti are hearty — flans, mousses, Parmesan puffs — yet all prepared with local delicacies. Just save room for the homemade pasta.

Masseria Il Frantoio, S.S. 16, km 874, Ostuni; (39-0831) 330-276; trecolline.it.

Pomona, C. da Figazzano, 114, Cisternino; (39-333) 367-0653.

Source: https://mobile.nytimes.com/2013/03/24/travel/winter-not-summer-is-prime-in-puglia.html

Tuscany Location

Tuscany Without the Crowds

By DANIELLE PERGAMENT

IT was a cold, foggy morning in Tuscany, and La Foce, a 15th-century villa that sits on 2,000 acres of rolling fields overlooking the storied Montepulciano vineyards, was eerily quiet.

I walked the stone pathways in the manicured garden. Around me, cypress trees creaked, ripe persimmons swayed soundlessly from bare branches and a scattering of white flowers clung to a stone wall for warmth. Far below, a miniature Fiat truck made its way up the hillside, chugging along the empty, winding road.

The last time I was in Tuscany, it was July. Fields were ablaze in that golden yellow you see on postcards, bikers in neon Lycra were swarming the roads, and tour buses jammed the medieval piazzas. And I’d had the brilliant idea of inviting 120 non-Italian-speaking friends to the tiny village of Pienza for my wedding. “Beautiful, hot and full of Americans” was how one ungracious guest had put it.

But now, the temperature had dropped to 40 degrees and the color palette had shifted to the shockingly bright green that appears in these hills only in the winter and early spring. Steely gray fog rolled slowly across the valley, and a blanket of silence suggested a landscape that had gone into hibernation.

Forget the magazine covers that promise “The Undiscovered Tuscany!” “The Hidden Tuscany!” “The Secret Tuscany!” When a place has been attracting admirers for more than a thousand years, no square inch is undiscovered. The real Tuscany, as locals have been telling me over the years, is found in the dead of winter, when the crowds are thinner and the rooms, flights and restaurants are pleasantly cheaper.

That’s what brought me — along with my husband and our new baby — back to the Val d’Orcia in December. We came to visit friends who live here and to experience a Tuscany populated only by Tuscans.

Bordered to the north by the hills of Siena and to the south by the imposing arc of Monte Amiata, the valley is known for a few things: the cypress trees that line its winding roads (no calendar of Italy is complete without a picture of them), the creamy saltiness of its pecorino cheese, and Brunello di Montalcino, a king of Italian wines. Basically everything I care about in life.

The Val d’Orcia is also a Unesco World Heritage Site (take that, Chianti). “I love the Val d’Orcia in the winter — you get a much truer Tuscany,” said Benedetta Origo, who, along with her sister, Donata Origo, owns the La Foce estate, where their family used to live. Their mother, Iris Origo, wrote “War in Val d’Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943-1944” — the de facto textbook of the area.

“This time of year, the clay turns to mud,” Ms. Origo said. “I put on my boots and go for long walks along the quiet paths in the forest. It’s rather poetic. And you can always expect to see a family of wild boar.”

In fact, the wildlife is a big part of the charm of the area. “The landscape is lush and full of boar, hares and pheasants, whereas in the summer, you don’t see animals, and fields are plowed and brown.” This is John Voigtmann, an American expat who turned a crumbling stone barn into La Bandita, an eight-room boutique hotel that sits atop the most-photographed of those cypress-lined roads. With its sleek four-poster beds and infinity-edge pool, it is one of the rare modern-design hotels in the area. “This is the time of year you see real Tuscans sitting in a cafe, drinking a grappa,” Ms. Origo added. “Maybe people are a little friendlier. The Val d’Orcia comes back to its own life.”

In that spirit, we set out on a brisk Wednesday morning for the medieval town of Sant’Angelo in Colle for lunch. As we drove to the tiny hilltop village, it started to drizzle, then pour. Winter in Tuscany is damp and pleasantly cool, with temperatures dipping as low as 30 degrees, though it rarely snows in the valley. And the landscape turns to a vibrant shade of jungle-y emerald — the only place I know that gets more colorful in the winter.

The village — sand-colored stone palazzi and worn cobblestone paths, all drenched in mist and rain — sat like a slumbering animal on top of the hill. I tried to remember if I had been there before. After a dozen trips to the area, I still have trouble telling one beautiful medieval mountaintop village from the next.

There wasn’t a soul in sight. We parked our car on the road (there was no shortage of spaces) and dashed into Il Leccio, a restaurant and wine bar.

Il Leccio is a trattoria, meaning a casual, pasta kind of place, but the starched tablecloths, crystal wineglasses and armor mounted on the wall made me feel as if I should have been summoned to the table by a man in white gloves. The menu is full of Tuscan fare, but Il Leccio is best known for its wine cellar (4,000 bottles deep) and as the unofficial cantina of Tuscany’s legendary wine producers.

On any given winter day, you might sit next to the man who made the vintage on your table. Winemakers flock here to talk about the harvest, complain about rain and order a bottle — of their own, naturally. In fact, as we were digging into our spinach and ricotta ravioli in a butter and sage sauce, we noticed that Gianfranco Soldera, the superstar producer behind the cult Soldera Brunello, was seated across from us.

Inspired by all the talk of vintages and varietals, we decided to drop by a nearby winery after lunch, the Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona, a family-run vineyard that produces Tuscan mainstays: rosso, brunello and a supertuscan. In the summer, this would have been vacation suicide. The region’s top vineyards are often impossible to get into from June to September, clogged with busloads of tipsy tourists. But after a 15-minute drive down a deserted muddy track that trundled through the forest, we found ourselves walking alongside gargantuan oak casks, alone except for a young tour guide, Martina Frullanti, our footsteps echoing off the vaulted stone ceilings.

We had the whole place to ourselves. It was all very “Welcome to my own private Tuscan estate, please tie up your horse outside.” After Il Leccio, I could hardly try any more wine, but we bought two bottles of the estate’s 2003 brunello. “This is a big wine,” explained Ms. Frullanti. “It’s best in the winter.”

So goes a common refrain: the flavors of Tuscany actually taste better this time of year. First, Tuscan cuisine is winter fare: big red wines, lots of porcini mushrooms, black truffles, chestnuts, and hearty pastas with meat sauce. In addition, Tuscans eat what’s in season, and the best stuff ripens between October and March.

November has the olive harvest. Once they’re picked, the olives are pressed immediately, giving the oil a green, spicy flavor unique to those first few weeks. Pecorino cheese is creamier in the fall and winter, when the sheep eat grass, not hay (a local secret). Winter also coincides with hunting season, so even the cinghiale (wild boar) is fresh, not frozen as it is the rest of the year.

Winter, in other words, is eating season in Tuscany. To test this out, we visited Il Casale, a strange and almost fantastical farm near Pienza, run by perhaps the most eccentric family in the valley. To get there, we drove down a long dirt road overgrown with brush until we saw what looked like a typically lovely stone villa. But as soon as we stepped out of the car, we were greeted by shaggy dogs, peacock squawks and the unmistakable smell of farm. The source of the odor was an open barn, just behind the villa, humming with shuffling sheep.

Everything produced at Il Casale is organic; the animals roam freely around the grounds, and they create almost no waste (pigs eat the whey left over from the cheese). Even “our veterinarian is homeopathic,” said Ulisse Brandli, a charming if curmudgeonly Swiss expat who moved to Tuscany in 1991 with his wife, Sandra, and has since raised five sons and hundreds of animals.

Mr. Brandli speaks emphatically and at great, great length about the virtues of small farms. Once you see firsthand how the food is made, he said, “it will taste different to you.” As we were talking, half a dozen pigs, muddy and playful, came trotting up. These were the renowned cinta senese pigs, indigenous to Tuscany, named for the white belt around their bellies, and famously flavorful. Not that I could imagine eating one, once I saw how cute they were.

Before we left, we loaded up our car with honey, olive oil and a small wheel of Mr. Brandli’s freshest batch of pecorino. We sliced into the cheese later that day over a simple lunch of crusty bread, foggy green olive oil and a bottle of rosso di Montalcino. The cheese was decidedly creamier, akin to the difference between Greek yogurt and the nonfat kind.
Amazingly, there are things to do in Tuscany that don’t involve food or wine. The following morning, my husband and baby stayed behind at the hotel as I drove to Bagno Vignoni, a medieval village built on thermal waters from an aquifer and popular since the Roman empire. The town square is a giant pool fed by volcanically heated water bubbling from the depths, steaming in the winter air, and the village has its share of day spas that use the water. A hot bath isn’t so appealing during an August heat wave, but on a blustery day in December, it was perfect.

After paying 28 euros (about $37), I wrapped myself in a plush robe and walked up to the rooftop pools at the newly opened Le Terme Wellness & Spa. I settled in a lounge chair next to a few elderly Tuscan ladies with painted nails and weathered faces. Unversed in Tuscan spa etiquette, I followed their lead: when they helped themselves to hot lavender tea from the silver tray, I did, too. When they dunked in the steaming bath, I dunked. And when it came time for them to wrap themselves in their towels and start gossiping, I took out my book, but then closed my eyes and let the chatty voices lull me to sleep.

On another day, relaxed and recharged, it was time to visit Montepulciano, the medieval fortress town that was recently infiltrated by the cast and crew of “The Twilight Saga: New Moon.” For some, the town is synonymous with Tuscany, a nostalgic vision of wine shops that date back to the first Pope Benedict and old crinkly men playing bocce in 14th-century sandstone courtyards.

Of course, Montepulciano long ago became a tourist magnet. But on this heavy winter day, you could almost glimpse what the town was like before it became a cliché — schoolchildren running through piazzas, the smell of wood-burning fires, and a handful of those crinkly old men, their collars upturned, bracing against the chill.

Joined by some Tuscan friends, we wandered down a narrow street to Osteria dell’Acquacheta, a cozy restaurant known for its steaks. During the high season, seats can be booked up to a month in advance. Today, the dark, stone dining room was crowded but it looked as if we actually had a shot at a table.

After a five-minute wait, we were seated next to the open kitchen, surrounded by teenagers, young families and Tuscan businessmen, and watched as Giulio Ciolfi, the gregarious owner with a long, gray ponytail, two leather belts slung on his hips and wildly bushy eyebrows, carved into a side of beef with a machete-like knife.
We ordered a steak and it arrived a few minutes later — two inches thick, seasoned simply with olive oil, salt and pepper, and grilled so rare it was still cold in the center. Don’t ask for well-done; this is how steak is served here.

All the beef comes from the hormone-free Chianina cows that graze in nearby Val di Chiana. The cows are such a source of pride and raised so humanely, our table agreed, that you could eat the steak and still call yourself a vegetarian (at least my husband did). While everyone at my table talked about how buttery and juicy the steak was, I dug into a bowl of homemade fettuccine, drizzled with olive oil and topped with a small mountain of freshly shaved truffles. We also ordered (yes, there’s more) a skillet of baked pear with melted pecorino and a Tuscan onion soup served with a crust of pecorino-smothered toast. At the chef’s suggestion, we finished with the seasonal dessert: air-light mascarpone cheese covered with slivers of yet more truffle. By the time we finished lunch, it was dark outside.

The next day was our last in the Val d’Orcia, and there was one more place to visit. Monte Amiata, the ancient volcano that dominates every view, is the one part of Tuscany that is meant only for winter, but few make the trek up there. If there really is an undiscovered Tuscany, Monte Amiata is it.

With the baby asleep in her car seat, we drove to the foot of the mountain and snaked our way up — passing Fascist-era chalets from the 1930s and working-class villages. The terrain grew increasingly rocky, the forest became denser, and the light dusting of snow at the base had turned into a thick white blanket by the time we reached the top.

It was a completely different world — people milling about in furry boots, a restaurant selling hot chocolate, and a creaky old metal ski lift that had just started running for the season. We tramped around in the snow and felt totally displaced. A ski resort in the middle of Tuscany is somewhat surreal. Like a vineyard in Jackson Hole, Wyo.

We wandered into Osteria Primo Rifugio, a restaurant in one of those chalets, and found a group of men speaking an unrecognizable dialect and enjoying glasses of grappa by the fireside. “We like to think we have our own secret world up here,” said Damiano Pizzetti, the owner. “You should come back — we actually don’t get many visitors.”

IF YOU GO

From the United States, the easiest way to get to the Val d’Orcia is to fly to Rome and rent a car for the two-hour drive. Continental, Delta, American, Alitalia and others fly nonstop from New York. A recent Web search found an Alitalia flight from Newark starting at about $625 for travel in March. Rental cars (mostly manual transmission) are available at the Rome airport from Avis, Hertz and Europcar.

WHERE TO STAY

Rates below are for the low season.

Piccolo Hotel La Valle (Via Circonvallazione 7, Pienza; 39-057-874-9402; www.piccolohotellavalle.it), which means the “small hotel in the valley,” is a modest but comfortable hotel within walking distance of some of the area’s best restaurants. Doubles (without a view) from 95 euros, or $126 at $1.32 to the euro.

La Bandita (Podere La Bandita, Pienza; 39-333-404-6704; www.la-bandita.com) has eight guest rooms, an infinity pool, jaw-dropping views and nightly tasting menus. It closes from December through February but will open for parties of six or more. Doubles from 250 euros.

La Foce (Via della Vittoria, 63, Chianciano Terme; 39-057-869-101; lafoce.com) has an assortment of villas, apartments and cottages that make you feel as if you’re the guest of an Italian aristocrat. Rooms from 120 euros, while apartments start at 500 euros a week.

WHERE TO EAT

Il Leccio (Piazza Castellare, 1/3-5; Sant’Angelo in Colle; 39-0577-844-175; trattoriailleccio.it; closed Wednesdays).

Osteria dell’Acquacheta (Via del Teatro, 22; Montepulciano; 39-0578-758-443; acquacheta.eu; closed Tuesdays and mid-January to mid-March).

Osteria Primo Rifugio (Primo Rifugio, Monte Amiata; 39-0577-789-705; closed Mondays and Tuesdays).

Osteria La Porta (Via del Piano, 1, Monticchiello; 39-0578-755-163; www.osterialaporta.it) is one of the few trattorias in the area that serves homemade pasta. The specialty is pici all’aglione, pasta in a light tomato sauce with enough garlic to ward off a coven of vampires.

WHERE TO DRINK AND RELAX

Wineries in Tuscany are typically down long dirt roads, with no address. Call ahead for directions.

Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona (Molinello, Montalcino; 39-0577-835-616; www.ciaccipiccolomini.com).

Il Casale, between Pienza and Montepulciano (39-0578-755-109; podereilcasale.com).

Poggio di Sotto (Castelnuovo dell’Abate; 39-0577-835-502; poggiodisotto.com).

Uccelliera (Castelnuovo dell’Abate; 39-0577-835-729; www.uccelliera-montalcino.it).

Le Terme Wellness & Spa (Piazza delle Sorgenti, 13; Bagno Vignoni; 39-0577-887-150; www.termedibagnovignoni.it).

Correction: March 21, 2010

The cover article on March 7, about Tuscany in winter, misidentified the type of fruit that was seen on the bare branches of trees in the garden at La Foce, a 15th-century villa there. They were persimmons, not oranges.