San Casciano and Impruneta are just a few miles south of Florence (14 miles and 9 miles respectively) and are the gateway to the world renowned Chianti Classico wine area. You won’t find much written about these two small towns because they are not really tourist destinations, but they are very pleasant normal Italian towns that we both like.
The Colli Fiorentini hills to the north and the Chianti hills to the south of them are full of every type of accommodation for visitors, from simple agriturismo lodgings, bed & breakfasts, small hotels, luxury resorts as well as various types of holiday apartments among the vineyards.
And it’s not just foreigners who dream of owning a simple Tuscan farmhouse in these hills because the Florentines too have always viewed this area as the ideal place to live away from the narrow confines of Florence itself. This idea first took shape centuries ago with the rise of the merchant classes and it persists today as this nearby countryside has always been associated with good wine and good olive oil.
There's no better example of the long historical connection between the country around San Casciano and Impruneta and Florence itself than the unique buchette (wine windows) that you can still see in the walls of many of the ancient buildings in the center of Florence. These strange, small windows with little wooden doors first appeared at street level on the houses of the nobility in the late 16th century. Their function was to sell to the public the wine they had just started to produce on their new country estates. You knocked on the door, handed over your flask and it was then filled and returned in exchange for payment.
And today vino sfuso is still bought every day all over Italy by taking your own bottles to be filled at individual wineries and co-operatives, but not through wine windows of course as these remain a unique part of the historical and architectural heritage of Florence.
Italians don’t think of themselves as commuters though Impruneta and San Casciano are both close enough to Florence for many people to drive there and back every day. But the Italian middle class loves the concept of a second home that they can use every weekend and these hills are also coveted for that purpose.
Over the years we’ve spent several weekends ourselves near these two towns so we could visit Chianti wine producers one day, spend the following day in Florence and retreat to this area each evening to enjoy a more relaxing atmosphere and a more local non-touristy dining experience in either of these two towns.
San Casciano Val di Pesa
San Casciano is forever associated with Niccolo Machiavelli whose name long ago became an adjective in English based on his famous work 'The Prince'. When the Medici family returned to power in 1512 Machiavelli was somewhat unfairly imprisoned, tortured and exiled to his farm just outside San Casciano in Sant’Andrea in Percussina, from where he could just about glimpse his beloved city of Florence in the distance and where his writing career subsequently flourished.
San Casciano is set quite high up above the valley of the Pesa river which allows for cooler evenings in the summer but for our recent visit in February it meant there was a light dusting of snow waiting for us, briefly transforming all of the olive trees into Christmas trees until the snow was quickly burned off by the sun. The Chianti hills are attractive in any season.
Another reason why we come to San Casciano occasionally is to pick up wine from Enoteca Carlo Lotti in the center of town. It has a good selection of Chianti from smaller producers and their prices are very competitive. Traveling through the Chianti wine area is a much longer and more time consuming process than most tourists realize so it's often a good idea to combine this with a visit to a good wine shop if there are specific bottles you are looking for. And if you happen to be in the San Casciano area the large and impressive Antinori estate is only about 3 miles away. We have not been there ourselves because the Antinori wines are not of much interest to us, but it may be a worthwhile excursion for some people and they offer a variety of tours of different lengths and prices.
Before entering Impruneta from the west on the SP69 you will pass the Poggi Ugo terracotta workshop. It is generally open for visitors to see the kilns and appreciate the 1,000 year history of terracotta in Impruneta and it has a store with some smaller items you can buy.
Many of the famous rooftops of Florence are made with tiles from here, including Brunelleschi’s famous dome, and the galestro clay of this area imparts some interesting characteristics to the finished tiles. They are quite light but resistant to extreme cold and the amount of iron oxide present in the clay gives them their recognizable burnt orange hue. This is the color of Tuscan rooftops, famous throughout the world and perhaps the single most distinguishing aspect of Tuscany to many people.
The ancient and famous dish of Impruneta, Peposo, was originally created by adding a pot of meat to the kiln and letting it cook slowly. It is a beef stew with garlic, pepper, a generous amount of red wine and often these days also a thick tomato sauce but in its original form it couldn’t possibly have included tomatoes because it wasn’t until the 16th century that tomatoes reached Italy from the New World. Today it is hard to imagine Italian food without tomatoes so perhaps the tomato should be viewed as the most important legacy of Columbus to his fellow Italians.
Impruneta itself is dominated by the large central piazza where markets and concerts are held and where life flows outside in the summer months and it’s a pleasant place to sit and relax and watch Italians being Italians.