If Italy is a knee length boot, then Tuscany is the sexy flash of thigh at the front. It's got some of the most attractive parts, like Sienna and Florence, but lots of the lesser-known small towns and villages (Alberi, Castelfalfi, Iano, Le Mara, Santo Stefano and Tonda) are worth attention. Montaione is a small medieval town situated 341 metres above sea level, which makes it view-tastic and its location means it's a great base to explore the region from, which is exactly what we did, using the homely and friendly Una Palazzo Mannaioni hotel as our touchstone.
Seeing as the mayor's office is right across the road from the hotel, it seemed rude not to drop in and find out more about the town. Mayor Paola Rossetti gave us an impassioned and inspiring speech about the importance of the land to the people who live here. It's true; the land is worshipped almost as much as the Pope, and the locals are determined to preserve the landscape of the typical Tuscan peasant.
With a population of just 3,700 though, Montaione has struggled with mass exodus to the big cities, a story all too familiar in rural Ireland. Despite that, and laudably, they have said no to big industry and instead worked hard on developing tourism and green agriculture to revive the local economy. It's not the easiest route to recovery, but it's working, and lots of entrepreneurs are investing in what they call agricoltura biologica. Before we leave, I ask the mayor what one thing she would tell every tourist visiting Tuscany to do. "Take in the landscape," is her advice.
You don't want to argue with the mayor, and in any case, she's right – the Tuscan countryside is stunning, with the tumble and peak of green valleys and hills, silvery olive groves, clusters of pointy Mediterranean trees, neat rows of vineyards and the icing sugar tips of the Apennines ever present in the distance, looming like an enormous Baked Alaska spread across the horizon.
Olives, oil, wine, saffron, cheese and white truffles are what the region is famous for, and every year there is a tartufesta (truffle festival) in the town, held on the last Sunday in October. The Tuscans are very proud of their truffles as they are a sign of the health of the land, as well as truffles and truffle hunting excursions being valuable to the economy.
A truffle ignoramus, I paid a visit to local truffle shop Montaione Tartufi, where the owner helped brush up on my knowledge. Hence, I can now say with some authority that black truffles come from higher, colder altitudes while white truffles are found in plains and fields. White truffles are always eaten raw; the black can be eaten raw or peeled and cooked. They are hunted by dogs, and judged by their weight, size and smell (which is very, very bad). They look a bit potato like but, unlike a bag of spuds, a kilo of truffles costs €200-300.
God botherers staying in Montaione could be interested in visiting nearby San Vivaldo, home to the 'Jerusalem of Tuscany'. Built during the early 16th Century, it was originally a place for the pilgrims to visit when they couldn't make it all the way to Palestine. Now, I haven't been to the Holy Land, but I imagine it to be a land of spectacular ancient architecture, steeped in history and religious importance. This, however, is more like a collection of naff biblical statues. Fair enough, it's cheaper to get to than Jerusalem (a guided tour costs about €3.50 per person), but that's still more than most Irish people would pay to see what is basically The Stations of the Cross in 3D.
A drive up the ear-popping road to Voltera is most definitely recommended though. Parts of the town date back to 4th Century BC, when the arch-loving Etruscans made their way from other parts of Europe and the East, and settled in Tuscany because of the good conditions. It's not hard to see why when you get there, the view is spectacular and, on a good day, you can see Corsica. It's also pretty incredible to look down upon the ruins of a 1st Century AD Roman theatre, which was hidden beneath a dump until digging began in 1950 and uncovered the ruins.
The nearby hill town of San Gimignano is a more touristy spot. Once you see the 'Keep calm and drink Chianti' t-shirts in shop windows, you know you are on a well beaten trail, just like the one the pilgrims trod here centuries ago, but it's nonetheless beautiful for that. If you are visiting on a clear day in November or December, you will get the most insanely beautiful sunset if you time your visit for late afternoon. After a wander, scale to the top of the Torre Grossa in the town centre. At 54 metres high, it's a pig of a climb but worth it for the view. Entry to the tower costs about €4 and also allows access to the museum (the first and fourth floors are the best for art, with works by Filippino Lippi). One more tip, you'd have to be ridiculously unlucky to get bad ice cream here, but the very best is at Gelateria Dondoli.
After a day's sightseeing, the tasting menu served in the 500-year-old cellar at Restaurant Mannaioni is pretty special. The menu includes local fare like duck passatello with braised celery; Vin Santo paté and candied apple; ricotta cheese and spinach pasta with Gran Riserva cheese and truffle; homemade carbonara tortelli with Cinta Senese bacon and ham; Chianina beef fillet in a herb and gurnard crust with Sangiovese sauce and truffle; and warm Gran Cru chocolate pie with wild berry sauce, plus home-made pappardelle with vegetable ragu and artichoke cake with basil dressing for veggies. The staff here (and everywhere in Tuscany) are visibly passionate about their food, incredibly friendly and very happy to see tourism thriving (one waiter told me that they have nicknamed Chianti 'Chianti-shire' because of all the English blow-ins).
We were so well fed that by day two, I was ready to slip into a food coma and by the third, I felt less like a traditional Tuscan polenta-eating peasant and more like an obese daddy sea lion splayed on the rocks, but boy was it worth it.
I have moaned before about the harsh treatment of vegetarians while abroad (especially in France where, if you tell a waiter that you don't eat meat, you know they are secretly wishing they could strap you to a chair and force feed you foie gras), but the Italians, while still hugely passionate about their food, seem to have embraced non-meat eaters, with vegetarianism booming in big cities like Milan. Veggie friendly, incredible wine, warm people, unspoilt landscapes and the food, oh the food ... I still wouldn't call myself an Italophile (primarily because it sounds like some type of terrible stationery), but Tuscany definitely has my heart.
We flew from London direct to Firenze airport, but two other airports (Armerigo Vespucci and Pisa's Galileo Galilei) are both about 50km from Montaione.
Accommodation was at UNA Palazzo Mannaioni. High season is May to August, so after August 20 or before May 15 is a good time to visit. For info and bookings on accommodation or cookery classes, email firstname.lastname@example.org or see www.unahotels.it