May 2 – continued….
Oh dear, typing something two days later can be quite the challenge for this vagabond of middle age status! I think I shall skip ahead to yesterday (!), Thursday the 3rd, then I’ll take a little time to recap Wednesday, May 2nd . Most likely a strong hit of espresso will assist in that endeavor. J
So…allora….Thursday, May 3rd, presented itself as yet another gloriously sunny day with temps on the cool side. Highs have been in the mid, maybe upper, 60’s with lows in the 40’s at night. Here, the government mandates when heating and cooling can be used, and I believe it’s the end of March when heating is a no-no. I have acclimated, though, and also found it a lovely excuse to buy the cute little black Italian sweater.
Despite our very best…honestly…intentions, we didn’t make it on the highway until late morning. We have vowed to change that habit…tomorrow. Anyway, the road awaited and we took the Autostrada a portion of the way to pick up a little time. The autostrada here is a nicely divided 4 lane highway, easily marked once you figure a few of the signs and protocol out. This is my 3rd time to drive in Italy, and it feels “normal” once I get my Italy goggles on. Marty’s enjoying his first round of it, and has only nearly killed us a couple of times (wink-wink). The main thing to remember is 1.) stay right unless you plan to go 30+ miles faster than the speed limit, and 2.) keep ALERT! There is no such thing as a shoulder, either on the Autostrada, the country roads, or anywhere else…at least that I’ve encountered. I’d dare to say that the wreck stats here for reasons of distraction are dramatically lower unless one has a death wish.
Andiamo (Let’s go)...! We found our way to the beautiful hilltop town of Montepulciano, famous for the exquisite nobile (NOH-be-lay) wine. Again, the scenes along the way were dramatically spectacular. One can look any direction and be instantly rewarded with seemingly endless vistas of rolling emerald green punctuated with lighter and darker hues, seas of the spring yellow flowers, and the soldier lines of cypress marching up and down the hill crests, usually leading the way to and from a hilltop villa. There were enough clouds of puffy white to add interest, and it seems the wheat (the majority of the green fields) were just beginning to show the first kisses of gold along their tops when the sun shone just right on them. Sheer beauty.
At the top of the windy, twisty road that lead us upward, we crested at the town of Montalpuciano and found the free parking area (thanks again, Rick Steves), then wandering up into the centro storico. Another gorgeous example of antiquity, this town offered all the rewards aforementioned. And a plus…seemingly relatively few tourists. Now I hesitate to glory in that because I hope it’s not an indication of the downturn facing Italy, as in so many economies these days. We’re all in the same boat, but I think Italy may be a bit ahead of the US. However, this isn’t the big tourist season yet, so it may be the norm, of sorts. We decided to hit the desired restaurant early, and it was a good thing. This spot (name eludes me at the moment) was incredible, both in food and ambiance. Tiny and intimate, it was secluded in yet one of hundreds of little spots that make up the inner spaces of these marvelous, medieval buildings. The walls were old stone, the ceilings terracotta tile with rough hewn timbers holding them up, the staff efficient yet attentive, and in the back within view, the tiny kitchen and the roaring brick oven that seemed to contain enough flame to be the entrance gate to hades. The flame, however, was merely the vehicle to sear the absolutely HUGE slabs of beef they famously serve here.
We choose the vino della casa (the house wine), a rich and pleasing nobile, a dish of panzanella ( rustic Tuscan bread salad with tomato and basil) and pici pasta con cinghiale ( a pasta that reminds me of giant worms covered in a rich, meaty wild boar sauce) to share, followed by a stuffed, roasted chicken dish. This was probably our best meal yet! Everything was subtly powerful in flavor, texture, and delight…just right. We added a dessert of tartufi gelato (truffle ice cream..yep!) …oh, and some limone gelato (lemon ice cream), too. All told, the food and ambiance alone would equal a memory to behold, but then…a French couple were seated at our table (this place is small, so all seats are used). We exchanged a smile or two, then he asked if my meal was good…in English. We started talking, and lo & behold…our talk lead to discovering we have mutual friends in Texas! Can we say small world?? Turns out this fellow is a long-time blues music promoter, and thus knows a few of our fellow music friends. Our talk lead to much exclamation over such things, much laughter over other things, and even the kind sharing of the Mrs. of her meal…a plate of what looked like empty bones, but were actually goat ribs. That lead to a lot of joking and laughing amongst our table and the one near by. She even insisted we sample her dessert…a biscotti type small cookie called cantucci dipped in vin santo, a lovely sweet wine. How sweet and wonderful to meet friends you never knew you had! We parted, Facebook info exchanged, then headed out to explore the town.
Our wanderings took us to the main piazza, a climb up the clock tower (and some joking in Italian with the ticket fellow…he actually seemed to appreciate Marty’s attempts at humor, all spoken correctly!), then on to the renowned Contucci wine cellar off the main square.
We met the “famous” Adamo Contucci and did a tasting. He spoke no English, and we managed quite well. At 75, this fellow was warm, lively, friendly, and much fun. He is a Contucci, the family that over 800 years ago created the famed nobile wine. The cellar, underneath the family home (built in the 1200’s), was amazing. Dark, chilly, with huge oak casks lining the walls, it was all it should be. This nobile created by the Contucci’s was revered by ancient popes….one was said to have bathed in it. We tasted 4 or 5 (surprised we could walk out…the servings were generous), and commenced to purchase for taking and shipping. Our new friend Adamo wouldn’t let us pay for the opener we wanted to buy…un regalo da il nostra amico (a gift from our friend)! We took some photos with Adamo, hugged and kissed, and left with our rich wine and our even richer experience.
A bit more walking around town, the purchase of my sweater (all conducted in Italian…yeeee!), then off to find the car. The drive home was splendid….more country roads through small villages, tiny almost/or were villages, and scenery to die for. We came across the famous “This is Tuscany” scene most all of you have seen…the little chapel with a cypress on either side, sitting on a hilltop. Had to stop for photos, of course, and a waxing moon was pinned just high enough above to add the final touch to what will be some amazing shots. Bella, bella!
We decided to revisit the pizza trattoria right outside of Castellina for a bite, then headed home…late again….to undo the day.
May 4th – Friday: Since I have a few more minutes here, I’ll keep going!! We slept in really late today, by decision, got up and headed into town to wash clothes. A very nice do-it-yourself lavanda was found, and after finally noticing the “How to” in English, in huge letters, on the wall…we got some washing done. Really wish I’d brought more than one pair of jeans to fend off the chill, but ah well. I’m currently sitting in our favorite little spot, Bar Italia, sipping a Corona (it’s Italy…why not have an early afternoon nip…of Mexican beer?? LOL!), and working on media catch up. Castellina is at its day pace of locals going about business, the cute old people sitting and watching or strolling the street (always dressed to look nice), the intermittent tourists (or big groups when a bus comes through), and life in general at business. This bar is more local than not. And all “bars” here mean for coffee, although you can always find the stronger stuff, too! They truly are the social center of town. We always find the older gents sitting watching a game or reading the paper together, the working folks coming in for a bite or espresso, and the tourists, like us, popping in now and then. Nice rhythm to the place, and it feels good. The workers here are the same 2 or 3…they probably get amused at us.
Our plan after leaving here is to stay more local…a slower paced day…and see a few spots not far from town. AND… we have vowed to go to bed early and get up early (sounds familiar, doesn’t it??) !!! Cortona is on the map tomorrow, and we’d love to get our little car on the road before 8 or 9 nel domain mattina (in the morning tomorrow)!
A couple of notes of random nature: we bought some cherry tomatoes at the COOP, from Sicily, that were like nothing we’ve ever tasted. The brightest red globes attached to green stars linked to stems that looked to be made of green velvet. Almost hard to believe they were real. The first bite presents a crunch/pop/ burst of flavor that is startling. Needless to say, they didn’t last long.
Another thing that is pervasive and always amazing to me is the antiquity beneath our feet, at our hands, everywhere. To walk the same stones that people walked a thousand or more years ago, to touch the same wall or brick or seat. To look upon the same views, gaze at the same painting, rest myself on the same stone bench in the piazza that others did for so many years…it’s an experience that is incredible for lack of better words. And you know, people are so much the same. The Etruscan museum in Volterra illustrated that so finely….people are, well – people. J
Time to finish my Corona, then hit the road with il mio marito (my husband)…adventure awaits (and something pretty good for lunch, too, I imagine!).
Paula A. Reynolds
Traveler or Tourist?
All photos used in this blog were taken by the author, the author's husband or friends, or found by way of images.google.com. Photo credit is given when possible.