EUROPEAN CAPITAL OF CULTURE 2019 IN ITALY

Italy hasn’t gotten much of a good rep recently with its economic and political stagnation and the brain drain of the country’s talented youth. But not just Matteo Renzi is out there to change this.

In rough times like these it's encouraging to hear that an unexpectedly high number of Italian cities joined the European Capital of Culture competition last year. The ECoC title is awarded each year to two cities from two different European countries – Umea in Sweden and Riga in Latvia are the European Capital of Cultures 2014. Italy’s turn is up again in 2019 and a fierce competition is going on right now between the participating Italian cities to secure the title.

Past European capitals have proved that ECoC cities with a thought-through program receive major investments, speed up local development, and secure a long-lasting influx of culturally interested travelers - the welcome species of tourists, who prefer quality of experience to number of sights seen in a day. 




Made in China souvenir stall in front of Siena's cathedral
Less Cinghiale store, more contemporary art please

No surprise then that a total of 21 Italian cities had handed in bid books to join the competition last September; never before had there been so many competitors for the title in a European country. No doubt a clear sign for the ailing economy and the need for profound change all through Italy. Last November the jury assessed the bid books and six cities made it into the second round (again a surprisingly high number).

Still in the race are Cagliari, Lecce-Brindisi, Matera, Perugia-Assisi, Ravenna and Siena (see map of Italian ECoC bidding cities) . The winner will be announced in autumn 2014 and having made my home in Southern Tuscany, I’m obviously cheering - if not praying! - for Siena to win (see my short review of the Siena 2019 program here). But whoever brings back home the ECoC 2019 title, the five defeated cities still have reason to rejoice. Considering the intellectual and financial resources invested into the project, these forward thinking Italian cities haven't been waiting for Renzi to ring in a cultural awakening of a country no longer resting on its laurels.



A TABLE IN THE OLIVE GROVE: WINTER 2014

If my Tuscan native is going to leave me one day, you'll know why. Nobody could for ever put up with my never-ending ideas for a change in interior design. Or rather exterior design. 

We must have about five tables around our house. One for every time of the day and amount of sunshine. I would have been happy to move them around according to the season, but my brother-in-law preferred to cement them into the ground for eternity. Hence, my need for another one. To enjoy the winter view from our olive grove. 

Trial table in the olive grove
A trial meditation last December with the table I normally use on our terrace (the only movable one left)

It was just before Christmas that I realized that I couldn't possibly get through another winter without a table in the midst of our olive trees. Not just for picking breaks, but for quiet contemplation and morning meditation. Which, no need to say, is all about coffee in Italy. 

FONTEMORSI: ORGANIC WINE TASTING ON THE ETRUSCAN COAST

In the wine world the Tuscan coast equals Bolgheri and Sassicaia. No other wine has done as much to turn the lay-back beach side paradise south of Livorno into a famous wine growing region as the prestigious Sassicaia from Tenuta San Guido.

But whilst the rise of Supertuscans blended from French grape varieties may resemble a fairy tale story, it shouldn't keep you fro
m drinking Sangiovese wines in the smaller and lesser known wineries along the Tuscan shore. 



Wine cases at the tasting room of the Fontemorsi winery


MEET MY TUSCAN VILLAGE AND ITS WINE: CINIGIANO AND MONTECUCCO DOCG

Over a decade ago a group of Italian tourists from the Veneto quickly stopped at Cinigiano's bar Cherubini to ask for directions to Montalcino. 

They left three days later. 

The historic center of my Tuscan town may not be much of a sightbut the village bars have a certain reputation. In fact the aforementioned group has been coming back every year. And rumors have it that they still haven't gotten around to make the drive to Montalcino. 



wine harvest at the Basile winery


WHAT TO SEE

A stroll through Cinigiano's tiny town center will make it obvious - the views towards Mount Amiata and over the Maremma countryside are the town's main attraction. For more of them hop into your car and drive to one of the hamlets or villages which belong to Cinigiano's territory.

Medieval looking Monticello Amiata is up on 734 meters and with that perfect for a cool breeze on a hot summer day (and for freezing winds in the winter). Porrona is a medieval castle which has been turned into a hotel (which is never open), but the few locals manage to keep the place in great shape. Castiglioncello Bandini's castle is no beauty but the views from the tiny town make more than up for it. Have a drink at the Circolo, the little bar at the bottom end of the hamlet, and watch the isles of Montecristo and Corsica raise out of the Mediterranean sea at sunset. 



Cinigiano seen from the Podernuovo Vineyard
Not much going on...

TUSCANY'S BEST HOT SPRINGS: A MAP OF SULFUROUS SOAKING AND WILDERNESS DIPS

A quick round up of my favorite wild hot springs and historic bath towns in Tuscany (more detailed information on spas and rock pool bathing can be found in the single articles the links will lead you to). 



The rock pools of the natural hot springs at Saturnia


WILDERNESS POOLS 


  • PETRIOLO half an hour to the south of Siena. With its steaming hot water in the upper row of pools a favorite of mine on icy cold winter mornings. The Farma river passes right next to the hot springs. So be courageous and have a splash to try the benefits of kneipping.  
  • SATURNIA the biggest, most southern and also Italy's best known (and loved!) wilderness pools. The closest option for a soak if you arrive from Rome. To be avoided on weekends. 
  • FOSSO BIANCO in the Val d'Orcia is a spectacular sight hidden away in the woods below Bagni San Filippo. The shady surroundings make of these natural springs a nice location in the summer. 
  • BAGNI VIGNONI has a lovely pool below the small waterfall. However, the water arrives from the medieval thermal pool in the village square and looses most of its heat on its way down into the valley, which makes it warm enough for a swim only in summer. 

The locations of Southern Tuscany's natural rock pools (see map below) are no longer a secret. So try to get the timing right. Early morning often works well if you're after a quiet dip and assures for a perfect ambiance and great photo opportunities with the steam raising in the first sun light. Or come for dinner time; from after 7.30 pm a lot of Italians are on their way back home for a plate of pasta. Night swims are normally a quiet alternative; unless you happen to find yourself surrounded by a young group of party crazy Italians. The Petriolo and Saturnia natural hot springs are also popular meeting places for the local gay scene. 

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