The Chianti area of Tuscany is probably the region's most famous landscape, the one people are familiar with from glossy magazines. The rolling hills of silvery olive groves, fields of sunflowers, and ordered vineyards spotted with stone farmhouses make up the classic postcard scenery that is so engrained in our minds as Tucany's quintessential countryside. It is what vacation tour companies depict, and movies show as perfect, peaceful sets!

Located in the so-called "golden triangle" between Siena, Florence and Arezzo, it's the very heart of Tuscany, and its primary wine region. Scattered about the hills are time-aged towns, storybook castles, historic abbeys, and charming churches. Terra cotta tiled roofs highlight the old world atmosphere of these medieval villages cradled among the miles of grape vines.

Chianti, of course, is the famous wine produced here, one of the best-known vintages in the world. To be designated as Chianti Classico, it must be produced within the confines of this area and must contain a minimum of 80% sangiovese with the remaining 20% coming from grapes like the local heritage varietal canaiolo, or international varieties such as cabernet sauvignon or merlot. The symbol of the wine derives from the region's historic root in the Chianti League, a military alliance of towns whose emblem was the black rooster. Gone are hokey straw-wrapped jugs that exported Chianti wine was famous for years ago; today's wine is perfected to a smooth and distinguished level, many vintners producing it in sleek, modern wineries.

Touring the Chianti zone will give you a glimpse of the best of Tuscany - a veritable feast for the eyes, and the palate as you savor the region's ruby drink and famous cuisine. All the towns have cafes, gelaterias, restaurants and wine bars along with artisan shops, grocers, and other services.

Badia a Passignano. Once the headquarters of the Chianti League, which was the Florentine Republic's military league in Chianti, during the Middle Ages. The compact village was an abbey and its perfectly preserved buildings with towers and crenellated roof lines encircled by cypress trees is an almost mystical sight. Don't miss the frescoes by Ghirlandaio.

Greve in Chianti. Often referred to as the Gateway to Chianti, Greve was historically the market town for the entire area, and still boasts a robust Saturday morning market. The triangular-shaped piazza is decked with porticoes and there is a lively feel to the place. The statue in the middle is of Giovanni da Verrazzano (as in, NY's famous Verrazzano Bridge). The Renaissance style church of Santa Croce has a beautiful triptych by Di Lorenzo and there is a wine museum (Museo del Vino) to get you started on the history and information of the grape nectar. The Antica Macelleria Falorini is billed as a "risto-bottega" where you can buy locally produced cold cuts, cheese, and artisan food products, or can get sandwiches, soups, and other goodies to eat there or take away. For those who don't fancy wine, Greve has a birroteca where you can sample craft beers!

Panzano in Chianti. Just a couple kilometers south of Greve, Panzano was the defensive city for the league. Its castle still stands guard above, built in the 12th century by the Florentine Republic. The streets wind up to Panzano Alto (upper town) with pretty scenery along the way. The Torre del Cassero is one of the medieval towers that kept watch for invaders, while the Romanesque basilica, Pieve di San Leolino, was built in 982. Panzano has gained some modern fame thanks to its colorful Dante-quoting butcher, who has become a sort of celebrity. Dario Cecchini serves the region's best meat and has two homey casual restaurants where you can sample them, perfectly prepared by the maestro.

Castellina in Chianti. Named for its castle, called the Rocca, which still dominates the hilltop, Castellina is often considered the prettiest of the towns (hard to choose which of the gorgeous towns is a degree prettier, though!) It is in the center of the region, and has the distinction of keeping the ancient flame of history alive with its archeological park and museum, that testify to the Etruscan presence here several millennia ago. Don't miss the fascinating Via delle Volte (Vaulted Street), a passage within the old walls of the city that offers romantic glimpses of the dreamy countryside from its armament slits. The town has a wealth of noble palaces and buildings built by Florentine and Sienese nobles. Outdoor tables in the piazza beckon for a leisurely coffee or drink. A 17-acre sculpture park is placed in a beautiful setting of woods and fields with views, and even has a labyrinth to explore.

Radda in Chianti. The power seat of the Chianti League when it transferred the Chief Magistrates here, this town is dripping in atmosphere and charm. The Palazzo del Podesta' on the piazza was the magistrates' hall with their coats of arms still affixed to the walls to attest to it. The Franciscan monastery of Santa Maria in Prato is a Romanesque church from the 1100s and has a lovely cloister. The perfect Castle Volpaia and its surrounding borgo (hamlet) stands out from other castles in the area because of its sandstone construction and massive town. It looks like a movie set. Country walks among the vines and woods are a pleasant way to pass a day.

Gaiole in Chianti. Gaiole is practically hemmed in by castles! There are so many in the area that they start to look "commonplace" after a while! The most famous is Castello Brolio, built in the 1100s and still standing with its ordered Renaissance garden surrounding it. The storied castle is a truly impressive sight, and is still in the hands of the Ricasoli family - as it has been since 1141! The family is considered the founders of the Chianti vintage. There is a museum and tasting room in the castle. The Badia (abbey) of Coltibuono is a historic monastery where monks starting making wine in the 1100s, and is still produced here. The old hamlet still stands, with a modern winery that blends into the landscape of oak and chestnut woods. The hills are sprinkled with villas and stone farmhouses.

Lecchi in Chianti. The least-known of the Chianti towns, this tiny village is worth noting because it's so darn cute! It is unchanged by the centuries, with tidy streets adorned with flower boxes and a warm, welcoming air to the place. It sits at the foot of the hill below the castle of Monteluco.

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