This week is plummeting quickly away, and my emotions have decided to grab a seat on an emotional roller coaster. The sense of hanging on to the moment, of trying to squeeze out every morsel of “being” while here, present themselves strongly; yet also, that sense of joy and excitement of returning home to my wonderful husband and my two dear sons who will both be there when I arrive is equally great. The time alone brings a specialness to it – something I have only had once before when last year Marty so lovingly gifted me with time in Italy (and Germany). The gifts of discovery and wonderment and totally selfish decision-making are something novel to me, and priceless in many ways, but the effect probably most valuable is the certainty of what I have back home. The love and acceptance and value that my husband has for me, the life we have built and are building together, the home that is ours. Nothing is perfect, but how blessed I am to have all these things…these “unthings” that are not tangible, but are priceless. I will miss Italy and the friends made here, and I will yearn to return, but I also savor the thoughts of going home and the renewed appreciation we all find after passages like this. It only solidifies the assurance of what truly bountiful blessings I have so unmeritously been given in the last 12 years.
Another chilled overnight under skies that finally faded from rainy to starry. I slept soundly under my comforter and extra blanket, arising at a reasonable hour. Teetering down the terracotta tile stairs, I set a pot of water to boil for Italian style cowboy coffee and peered out the window to what looked to be partly sunny skies. Two and a half hours, two cups of coffee, a bite for breakfast, and a lot of writing later, the skies did indeed show concerted efforts at showing forth some warmth and sun. Deciding I’d better get out there and make hay while the sun was a’shining, I dressed and set out.
I’d mulled it over the night before and decided I’d head to the southwest and possibly revisit Colle di Val d’Elsa. First, however, a trip into to town was necessary, and since it was so close to lunch time, why not grab a pizza at Bar Italia? We’ve met more than one pizza traipsing through Tuscany, but not here on this particular trip…and as memory serves, theirs are worth meeting more than once! I set up shop at a table, ordered a “4 Stagioni” pizza (each ¼ has a topping…ham, olives, artichokes, and mushrooms…all my favs!...in each section). This was paired with an Italian beer, catch up on email and blog posting, and finished off with a caffe’. Fantastico! I’ve almost decided this pizza is possibly the best in town, and I tried to convey that sentiment in Italian at the counter when I paid my bill. The kindly barista/cook fellow seemed truly complimented, as he well should. A note on pizza in Italy: it ain’t what most Americans consider a pizza. There are no size choices other than “big”…probably a 12 or 16 inch? The crust is incredibly thin, but not cracker-crunchy like those Pizza Hut ones Marty likes (and I don’t). The crust is perfection, always cooked in a brick fire oven. The cheese and tomato sauce toppings are sparingly used, as well, making it actually possible for one person to eat a whole pizza with a normal appetite on hand. A knife and fork are used, and if you decide to go at it with your hands, which is totally acceptable, the pizza slice is folded over taco-style and shoved lovingly into your happy mouth. Bella mangia!
A prolonged lunch this day, but also a lot of catch up as it’d been 2-1/2 days since I’d checked in online or updated this blog. I learned of the Bologna earthquake and was saddened at this news. Kathleen and I had contemplated going there on her last day, then sending her on to Milan by train, but opted not to. Having spoken with Anna Rita this evening, who is from that area, I wish we had. She informed me that many churches and buildings had been lost, including the large duomo that was over 1,000 years old. This does not compare to the loss of human life, of course, and I’m not sure where that stands, but the loss is sad. It’s also a reminder that so much of what we view as “forever” is truly not. Only the spiritual is, and these type of events remind us somberly of that.
Packing up my wares and heading to the Punta, I decided that it was, indeed, a good day to head to Colle di Val d’Elsa…sunny but artistically placed clouds hinting of instability in the air, an almost warmish breeze blowing, and new things to discover. Andiamo! The drive down one of my favorite roads…the one leading to Castellina Scalo…didn’t disappoint me with its enticing views. I spontaneously found a spot to turn around and wound my way back to a small dirt road I’d noted that lead to a vineyard…and a perfect spot to take some photos of this view that never failed to awe me. I was not disappointed! My little camera will never relay the sights I beheld, but I’m hopeful they can at least allude to the vistas spanning the near and distant layering of hills, decorated with a plethora of cloud shapes, the eye being lead this way and that by the pull of the patterns the vineyards create. Lush greens, striking but soft blues, and gentle browns dominate the landscape at this spot, tumbled together in patterns, shapes, hues, shades, and designs that have an understated way of absolutely shouting aloud of their beauty if one will stop and listen. It defies description. Come and let me show you.
I finally arrived at my chosen destination and secured parking in what I thought was the centro storico. Wrong. However, as most mistakes seem to be in Italia, I was treated to an experience not otherwise had. Turns out the area I’d landed in was the lower town, a wee bit newer, I’d guess (probably 600 or 700 years old), than the ancient part of town up on a high crest…which was not visible from where I was at the time I’d made my wrong decision. This particular section was a middle class neighborhood/shopping area with a main square and streets lined with the typical style of old 4 -5 story buildings. It was interesting how very modern styled buildings were inserted in amidst the oh-so-old, and I even noted some sort of very old tower type ruin incorporated into the flow of a very modernistic structure. I got clued in to just where I was when I noted that I seemed to be the only non-local (not a bad thing at all!), and not one shop selling anything touristy. My realization made me smile, and I chose to just wander a bit while I had the chance. As always, I hoped I’d somehow just be mistaken as one of the neighborhood peeps. Why? I don’t know…kind of silly, probably…but it’s just something I find appealing! Just don’t ask or tell me something in standard mile a minute Italian, per favore.
I used a bit of GPS guidance and made my way up the wound-like-a-spring road to one of the entrances to the official old town. My delight was high in finding that Colle di Val d’Elsa is one of those Tuscan gems…a truly ancient city with history oozing out of its mortar, but also an every day town with its inhabitants living a life you and I would recognize. I wandered up sweetly uncrowded streets, each one offering probably some of the prettiest hilltop views I’ve seen, unadulterated by overloads of tourist trappings. And the altitude is great enough to offer amazing views to the north and east…stunning is a more accurate description.
I found my way to the main duomo and wandered inside. Stately, elegant, and old-world regal…and uninhabited for most of my visit. The area just outside the church also contains the civic building, a Medici “medicine ball” crest obtrusively stating their domain, and across the way, an ancient building that houses the school – complete with construction paper spring flowers and children’s drawings lining the windows! I arrived at what must’ve been right after school was out and was privy to watching parents walk their little ones home, or wait as they played a last game or two with friends on the outside area of the school. I even had to step aside into a charming ally as the scuolabus (school bus – and yes, they’re yellow here, too) squeezed through the pathway designed only for those on foot and maybe an occasional horse or cart. I entered another small chapel...I was unable to determine its name or reasoning, but it definitely had something to do with death based upon the skeleton motif that ringed the walls. It also contained the only example I'd come across of the crucified Christ reposed in a "see through" casket. Hmmmm....
Tourist traffic was light this day. I wondered if it was this way all the time; was this town truly a lightly discovered treasure? Each street I went down, including a lower road consisting only of dwellings, as well as an at-once creepy but awesome tunnel like road offering numbered doorways (most likely one of those roads that had been built over through the ages and had morphed to a tunnel), was incredibly beautiful and so much a slice of life-ancient and life-right this moment. I was also rewarded with other sensory treats…the sounds of a conversation through a window, someone blow-drying their hair, a TV program blaring, pigeons coo-cooing from window sills – the smells of pasta boiling, a cake or some kind of sweet baking, faint fragrance of spring growth. The doors along these vias were fascinating, seemingly more so than other places for some reason. They surely came from some movie set? But no, doors that had held their stance for who knows how long as lives passed through, standing guard as one generation faded and another took command. As I lingered, I heard thunder in the distance, no doubt accompanying the deep blue-grey sky I’d noted. Time to move along.
I crested at the city gate, most impressive, where I’d entered and decided I’d detour to the little park to my right. No doubt it offered some sort of view worth seeing. I was not disappointed as I took a temporary seat on the city wall, carefully so as the drop down was impressive, and watched the red brick tower to the north of where I sat become magnificently backlit by the distant storm. Enamored with the scene, I sat quietly undisturbed until a group of about 6 people, Brit accents flying about, parked right next to me. I was only a little annoyed at my solitude being interrupted, and began to enjoy listening to their regal sounding talk. Funny how this accent always sounds so formal and “royal” to us less prim Americans! I got especially tickled when one of the older gents stated to his wife who was eating chocolate gelato, “Lovely choc-y on your chin, dear.” Her response…”I’ve got a hanky.” Now imagine that in your best version of PBS English accent!
The rain was approaching, so off towards Castellina I went. I stopped off at the COOP in one of the small towns on the way, Staggia, and grabbed a few items – and I also wanted to see what another one was like. Small, yes, and funny how they didn’t have all the same items as my familiar one, including the TIM phone recharge card I needed. Oh well…in to town for that later.
A quick visit with Anna Rita when I returned and we made plans for me to attend a Chianina dinner with a group Thursday night, my last night in Toscana, which meant no time available for a dinner with just her, Ray, and myself. Anna Rita is so sweet and apologized more than once for being so busy and not having as much time to spend as she’d like, but I assured her I completely understood…and was so glad their business was so healthy. Not all are here. She and Ray work relentlessly at what they do here on the farm, as well as with their rental management business, Tuscan Enterprises, and success is their reward. I would love, however, to zap them away to Texas for a time to relax and let someone else take care of them (and I know Marty and I would be thrilled to do that for them!!!). Mai dire mai – never say never!
I took advantage of the last rays of light and a pause in the rain to take another beloved walk down the roadway that connects Casamonti to the highway. Oh, how it never ceases to awe me with beauty, at once familiar, but always new and daring me to notice. I reluctantly made my way back as darkness won the race in the sky. Secreted away back in the Capre, I made a bite to eat and settled in for a quiet night under a gently falling rain.
May 20th, Sunday ~ Return to Pornanino, on to Livernano, Chiesa di Santa Maria, and an evening of cooking
One of those “I’ll sleep as late as I want” mornings, and that I did! It felt wonderful, and I relished the moments of slowness and none of that “I’ve got to get this or that done…!” hovering overhead. Which, admittedly, hasn’t been a huge problem here (I know…go ahead and hate me for a moment or two.). Probably this is what a true vacation is intended to include, but I seem to have a somewhat difficult time doing so. When I’m out of my own little fish tank, I have a sense of almost urgency to see and do and touch and taste and walk and smell and sit on anything and everything that can be squeezed in. Not that I find that a bad thing, mind you, but that the quiet, slow times are good, as well. After all, having this quaint, wonderful spot in the affectionately nicknamed rabbit hole (aka the Capre apartment, which I think I mentioned in an earlier post is the old stall area from the old farm days and beyond) at the gorgeous Casamonti is an amazingly grand place to practice some of that slow motion stuff. I’ve told Marty of how writing has become a renewed joy here, of how I love being able to sit and let it flow. My exclamation over the phone regarding this was met with a pregnant pause, then the reply, “So you’re telling me you’ll have to come for extended periods of time to Italy to write?”. Hmmmm….
After some home-cooked cowboy style coffee and a visit from Toya, I peered out to the gray skies threatening to open up, but also noted it seemed less chilly today. Seemed like a good day for getting back out there on the road, and my first stop was planned for Pornanino, the olive oil estate, for the gifts I wished to purchase since I’d received a call back from Matteo to come on out.
Taking that lovely, bumpy road as my thoroughfare the day before, absolutely washed in bright Italian sun, I was on the same path but with a completely different palette of colors, textures, and sights. I would probably prefer warm, sunny skies for 90% of my time here, but having been able to watch this pazzo maggio (crazy May) offer its variety of rain, clouds, and sun has held its own special charm. I’ve watched the gentle by appearance, but eternally feisty Miz Toscana change costumes and moods as the whim suits her fancy. Today, she felt a bit more somber and quiet, decorating the landscape with hues of steely grey and blue swirled together in that magical, winter sky way. And it was beautiful.
photo courtesy of oliveoil.chiantionline.com
Matteo was waiting for me at the olive production barn, and we entered into a wonderful conversation that spanned about an hour. What a gift these encounters are, always leaving me feeling so blessed to have the opportunity to not only be in this land, but to engage with the human element in such satisfying ways. We exchanged email information, I assured Matteo that they now had friends in Texas to visit if they ever ventured that way, and my purchase and I left Pornanino with a smile.
I ventured just a short ways down the gravel road, at Matteo’s suggestion, and rounded a sharp turn onto another unpaved roadway towards Livernano, a small, ancient village turned agriturismo. The drive, like so many, was breathtaking. I crossed a small, burbling stream presenting itself dark and mysterious under the leaden skies. I made note to return here if I was given a sunny day…my feet were aching to walk in this medieval spot. Onward up the steep path, winding through the vineyards, and I crested upon another magnificent hilltop, taking a brief drive through the lovingly restored Livernano. It was quiet, no one in sight, and I only lingered briefly. My efforts were well rewarded, though, as I made my way back down, stopping here and there to relentlessly try, in vain, to somehow absorb it all, knowing that my camera’s attempts were mere exercises in mediocrity. Even the best camera held in front of the best eye can capture only a fraction of this grandness.
I made my way back towards Castellina on the same gravel path, but took a turn off at the sign marked Chiesa di Santa Maria…the Church of St. Mary. The signage here, as I mentioned earlier, is very good…once one learns how to interpret the symbols (not hard, even for us Americans), and they are quite helpful in deciding to turn off or not. Only problem is that I want to turn off at every single one - gah! Anyhow, I drove in a light rain just a ways until I came upon what appeared to be a not-long abandoned farmhouse (oooo…a fixer-upper!! just need that pocketful of never-ending millions), with a small, neglected, simple stone block church. It intrigued me, and I noted two open doors along the side where a newer cement pad for some intended but forgotten purpose lay. Popping open the car door and umbrella, I gingerly found my way through the tall grass (assuring myself that there really are no poisonous snakes in Italy…right??) to the open doors, hoping they would lead me into the church. Swirling grayish clouds had enmeshed into solid pregnant gray as the rain picked up and the lighting grew dim, making it hard to see well inside. Alas, no passageway to the interior, but I was privy to two mysterious little dusty old rooms that appeared to be more stall-like for use in the past several hundred years, give or take. I wandered to the church door, tried to open it, but the lock was secure. A modern lock, so obviously I wasn’t the only seeker to have come this way. I took a few moments to look at the farm house, let my imagination run with just how I would restore it, including turning the fine cement pad adjacent to the church into an inviting, covered patio (the view was stellar from here)…maybe a little wine stop for travelers?...or a fantastic place for house concert type music!!....or just a private little paradise to invite our friends to. Dreaming is a fun thing and I left, as I seem to always do here, smiling.
Back on the rain coated main road, I chose to head to the north and explore a few of the turn offs I had noted but not been down. The day was quiet, not many people out due to the rain – a perfect day to continue my diesel driven expedition as a modern day explorer. I found myself going down paths to once-upon-a-time villages now redressed as rental rooms or wineries or restaurants with names such as Pietra Fitta (the largest of these run, and by appearance still inhabited by residents…beautiful old church at the crest – with a very tight turn around radius that I inched out of when I found the dead end!), Querceto, Casuccia, Carpineto, and Monestero. When I purchase Chianti back home in Texas, I always check to see where it was produced. I have a feeling I’ll be recognizing a lot more of these names!
Home again, the rabbit hole awaited my return like a little lighthouse in the dark of the drizzly evening. Time to decide what to prepare for an early dinner, so I rummaged to see what was available to use as my culinary puzzle pieces to hopefully create a nice product. Toya and Picina must’ve sensed this, as they both made an appearance about the time the package of prosciutto hit the table.
Feeling well-fitted with enough to create from, I embarked on the simple, yet joyous task of preparing food here in Tuscany. At one point, as I chopped away, I stopped, saying aloud, “Ha! I am IN TOSCANA, cooking real Italian food in Italian style…in an ancient place…under this Tuscan sky!!! Oh WOW!!!”
My creation for this night, now named
Pasta alla Capre
in honor of my abode:
Sliced leeks (I used 2 smallish ones)
chopped garlic (I always go heavy...3 or so large cloves for this)
Place in skillet with ample olive oil and sauté until softened but not mushy
Add a splash of red wine, balsamic, chopped tomato, fresh chopped rosemary, and fresh basil –
allow to simmer until reduced to a nice viscosity. Salt and pepper to taste.
Prepare fresh tortellini (I used spinach and ricotta tortellini) by boiling water, dumping pasta in, then turning fire off. About 4 minutes later, it will be perfect.
Drain tortellini, cover with the reduced veggie mixture, top with torn fresh basil and parmesan…pour a nice glass of Chianti, maybe add a few crispy breadsticks, and…Buon Appetitol!
I was able to have a long conversation with Marty while I ate, so it was almost like I could share the meal with him. Again, food by God’s design, is to be shared and enjoyed with others to receive its full function and joy. I told him I would attempt to recreate this for our first meal together when I returned home.
Day One solo…or Giorno uno da sola. I’d returned to the bed upstairs the night before, having spent the prior 5 nights happily in my little cocoon downstairs. I must admit…a real bed felt good, but it’s funny how I tossed and turned much more than I did in my cocoon. Something to be said for that swaddling thing, possibly?
I made a slow morning of it, and decided to nix the idea of a separate breakfast and lunch -- packed a few snacks, and swung by for cappuccino and a sandwich at Simone’s. It was surprisingly quiet, but normal for a late Saturday morning I was told. I queried if Simone was from Castellina, and found out he actually lived in a small village closer to Firenze by the name of Montefiordelfi. He was born there and had lived there most all of his life. I commented on how unusual that is for our country, and how I found that a nice thing. He concurred, but said it also cannot be a good thing. Yes, the ying and yang, the two sides of everything. I suppose the secret is to be splendidly aware of that, and make the most of all angles.
Today presented itself as a spectacularly beautiful, even warmish, spring day! I even dared to put on a short sleeve dress…the staple of my ill-packed wardrobe. Setting out on an only partially predetermined course, I was thrilled with the idea of traveling on any road that struck my fancy. I’d hoped to swing back by Pornanino, the olive oil place, and maybe pick up a gift or two…placed a call, left a message…and decided what the heck, take the gravel road that way anyhow and see where I ended up. No return call from Matteo, but oh, what a drive. I stopped more than once, got out, gazed across the green, patterned hills and valleys, and listened to the quiet, punctuated only by happy birdsong. The small spring flowers seemed to boast extra loud today in the warm sunshine…the pinks, lavenders, reds, fushias, purples, yellows, and whites were so beautiful - sometimes integrated, other times wanting to be undisturbed in their color-scapes. As I made my way down the road, I noted any number of off roads, none terribly freshly worn, some looking as possibly a chariot were the last to lay tread there. These intrigue me…they must go somewhere, or at least did. Where do they lead now? I’ve not dared go down any unmarked ones for not wanting to trespass, but I do admit I’ve been terribly tempted.
On this first day alone, I was keenly aware of the beauty that solo travel can offer. Not that I don’t love traveling with Marty or friends – that is splendid in many ways and for many reasons – but being gifted with the chance to travel alone for brief periods has opened my being to what an experience it can be. Thank you, my extraordinarily generous husband and love, for gifting me in this way. This style of experiencing things allows, at least for me, a liberating of emoting that I wasn’t aware of until my first go at it last year. Not to say that I somehow suppress my emotions…maybe I do more than I realized?...but I find that when alone and unobserved, I find almost immediate, even surprising, risings of emotion that sweep over me like the yellow broom flower in full Tuscan bloom. It’s a freeing experience. I don’t want to convey that I am somehow suppressed when with others – totally untrue – nor do I wish to be any sort of hermit vagabond. It’s just that these slices of solo travel offer a new, reframed perspective. But I have also found that it would most likely be a short-lived thing if I extended it more than a week or two, most likely. Rich experiences, joy, emotion, food, and all of life’s other gifts are best shared with those you love.
One of the typical "thoroughfares" through a tiny village
Passing Pornanino and not having received a call back from Matteo or Francesca, I decided to go on to Gaiole in Chianti and follow some of the castle/village itineraries outlined in the pamphlets Kathleen and I had picked up a few days prior. The back roads and gravel paths were particularly empty this day, most likely due to the yearly road race of some sort that was going on. Folks will line the country roads, finding spots to view the spectacle, as well as take pictures. The short time I spent here and there on the more major Tuscan roads was filled with exciting moments as sporadic lines of Ferraris, Alpha Romeos, BMWs, Porsches, and other fast cars zoomed by me and my little Punto. It got especially adrenaline producing when a corner was rounded, and there was one of these speedsters…in my lane! Yep, a good day to stick to gravel roads.
I rattled along at a nice slow, country road pace, thankful for the chance to do this, as well as noting again just how free of cars or others these roads were today. Not that they’re ever busy by any sense of our definition of the word, but that they were notably free of the occasional passer by. I stopped at a small bridge crossing a stream. Hearing the burble of water, I had to get out and see what I could see. Below was a beautifully clear stream, rolling and tossing itself over rocks as it passed through a canopy of pine and other trees. It was a sweet sight and a soothing sound to behold. I watched for a bit, yearning to somehow wet my toes. As I thought on it, I marveled at the fact that so many had come to this same point for hundreds, probably thousands, of years, foraging it on foot or horseback, stopping to drink, rest, maybe bathe. I was here this day, just as someone else had been yesterday, 500 years ago, 1000 year ago, and beyond. And we were all somehow connected by our brief moment of appreciation of this small stream of clear, life-sustaining water.
I continued on gravel roads, some paved roads and found my way to places like Lecchi, a beautiful, small village with geranium graced windows and roads only one very small car could barely traverse. Mental note to come back here and explore some day. Other roads took me to Poggo San Polo, an ancient village with a church, closed this day, and Castello di Ama, the old castle turned winery in the hamlet of Ama.
Walking up to Catello di Tornano from the parking area
Back on a paved road, I saw the sign for Castello di Tornano, another castle noted in the literature, and made an abrupt turn to wind my way there. All of these castles and strategic villages are located on hilltops. Where else can you keep an eye on your enemies? For us modern day seekers, it sure affords a grand drive to the destination. Tornano didn’t disappoint as I wound up the steep hillside through countless, artistically laid out vineyards and was greeted by the imposing tower. However, as I discovered, imposing is no longer applicable to this ancient stronghold that originated sometime in the 1100’s. It’s been carefully restored and is now the most amazing get-away, something you’d expect to see in the travel publications or a Bride’s magazine ad. The interior is beautiful, decked out in enough antique, castle appropriate fittings to make one feel assured of truly being inside a castle, while the grounds boast of a gorgeous, organically shaped pool, shaded seating areas, and views to die for. I met the young fellow at the reception area, chatted a bit, and with his most gracious offer and accommodating attitude, I was invited to roam about all I wanted. I wandered inside the main area, first checking out the bathroom. The fittings were incredible…I even took photos as I envisioned something like this for a bathroom redo at home! The public rooms were warm, stately, and inviting, no doubt designed to provide an optimal holiday to the guests. As I climbed the tower, I noted several doors for rooms converted to suites. How cool of a stay would that be? The view at the top was grand, a panorama of 360 degrees of beauty. However, I paused to note that those who stood here 800 years ago certainly saw the view through a different lens as they were constantly on one side or the other of besieged.
Moving along, I noticed that just as Friday, the morning clear sky was being taken over by dark grey, and rain was moving in. Sure enough, a gentle shower began and the ambiance took on that mysterious air that such change brings. I headed towards Gaiole proper, determined to find the elusive Spaltenna church that Kathleen and I had given up on. Several turn arounds, a real good study of the map, and I thought I had it figured out. The GPS was of no help…no entries found…nor was signage anywhere that I could see. Following my instinct, I wound up a town street, turning in the direction that I had seen the tower from while coming towards town. At the final critical turn, lo and behold…a sign announcing this way to Spaltenna. Odd. Generally, the signage is pretty good for all these old sites. Anyhow, I found my way to the old Romanesque church, parked, and walked to its entrance. Open today…that’s good. I wandered in, again alone as most of this day had been no matter where I was. The church was not of anything notable, at least visually, and I think its import was more in its history, styling, and something along the lines as the mother church for Chianti. I was glad I had finally garnered a visit with this old dame. Back out in the drizzle, I headed downhill. (Note: I later learned this is actually a 10th century monastery that has been redone into a nice hotel and event center.)
The next leg of the pamphlet itinerary lent itself nicely to my position, so I continued on, up another lovely road to a hilltop village called Vertine. Small but imposing, its medieval wall greets your arrival in a way that is at once inviting, but also quite imposing. I pondered for a moment as to whether I should park and wander in, or just gaze. Rain and a late afternoon caused me to err on the side of just gazing, making note to come back again, and I continued on. A small cemetery just down the road caught my eye, so I stopped. Italian cemeteries, as I think I mentioned before, are walled just as the ancient towns were, and are often somewhat elaborate. This particular one was simple but elegant, and seemed almost forgotten, even if cared for. I looked upon it for a moment, wondering if its inhabitants were countless generations of the small village behind me, and thought on our very short walk here on this planet.
A beautiful and old fig tree stood just outside the cemetery walls and caught my eye. It was loaded with figs, not quite ripe. Its beauty and life were a poetic juxtaposition to the remains so close by, but also a lovely reminder that life is cyclical…we have our moment here, we produce fruit, we leave behind seeds, and we pass on to our spiritual lives to live again.
Bar Italia on the inside
I puttered on down the gravel road that was briefly mine this day, just as all the others had been, and eventually eased out onto the pavement towards Castellina. By the time I arrived, the gray had cleared, the sun was shining warm, and I enjoyed a bit of time on the steps of Bar Italia in the sun with a Diet Coke, the passer bys, and some internet catch up.
A quick trip to the COOP for lettuce, a phone charge card, and some prosciutto, and I was headed home to Casamonti. I put soup #2 on to warm, took a pot of it over to Anna Rita who was hosting a tour group tasting, poured a glass of Chianti, and sat in the sun a bit more with resident guest greeter pooch, Toya, and the lovely black and white kitty, Pepina. They were anticipating their treats from the Texas lady, of course, but we did enjoy time just sunning as they took their turns getting scratched. Not to neglect anyone, I told Toya and Pepina it was the fowls turn, and we fetched the rest of the corn tortillas in the fridge and commenced to feed the worrisome red hens, the stoic lone goose, and the always talking ducks. Little did all these creatures know the treats for them were an only thinly disguised ploy for the huge treat the experience was for me!
May 18th, Friday ~ Kathleen departs, old & new Siena, Santa Maria delle Scala, an evening walk, and soup
Kathleen and I both greeting the morning with more “I can’t believe a week has passed.” comments as the morning sky dawned cheery turquoise blue, a fitting arrivederci of a Tuscan cielo. We made time, but less than the past two days, for our new morning ritual of tea, a crostini or two, and lots of talk. Reminded me of the days of my girlhood when my mother had a friend or neighbor “for coffee”. Ashamed we don’t have more of that in our modern lives.
Cutting things short, we amazed ourselves that we were out the door at precisely our preplanned time. One last swing by the gas station for a Simone cappuccino, a small bite, and Kathleen’s farewell. I also noted with subtle joy that the somewhat friendly, but you’re not quite sure type about of affect silver haired gent who runs the station actually saw us walk up, acknowledged us as less than strangers, and smiled. Love the little things such as this that insert more of the daily rhythms here into my Castellina routine.
A little caffeine under our belts and still running on schedule, we made a quick stop by Ray’s office to print out Kat’s ticket and check-in info, as well as say good byes there.
The drive to the train station in Siena was with GPS steerage - of course - and true to form, the little satellite brain took us precisely there. What a stress reliever that thing is (most of the time!). Still scratching my head on why I didn’t insist on one for last May’s European adventure. Anyway… We found parking quite easily, then I accompanied Kat in to give here the Italian Trains - 101 primer course with ticket purchase, finding your platform, etc. We enjoyed the irony found in Kathleen’s mention of a few farfalle (butterflies) in her stomach, despite the fact she’s taken a bus to the depths of Mexico numerous times. Everything was set, so we sat at the platform and visited for a few more minutes before I departed. Warm hugs exchanged, safe travel declarations made, and final waves procured, Kat headed to her platform and I headed out of the station…not certain of my first stop on this new and final leg of the month of May in Italy.
I walked a bit around the artistic fountains that create demarcation between the bus and trains stations, watching people come and go, most dragging one kind of a bag or another, as well a their personal story for travel this day. Finding myself, unbeknownst earlier, at the “Galleria” of Siena…a mall!...I figured it was worth a gander. Although of a smaller version and less glitz, this place qualified for a mall. I strolled about, just taking it in. Other than a Game Stop, I didn’t recognize any store names; however, I could’ve taken place names of our retailers in the states and easily slapped one on most every store to fit its expectations. American pop was piped in on the sound system…common here, we found. I also noted one of those penny spin gravity things designed to lure coins from Mom’s purses world over, I would guess. Here, one of those devices is called a Imbuto Gravitatzionale. Say that fast three times! There was also a bigger grocery store called PAM (wonder if those are initials like our HEB?), along with a smaller version of a Best Buy. The grocery store was too dangerous (for my purse, that is), so I opted to slip into a little accessory store – after all, I really did need a belt for those jeans that sag a bit, non e’ vero (“it’s not true?” - vernacular for our “Right?”)? Found a great little leather belt, not very expensive, made in Italy…success! Oh, and um…a couple of pairs of earrings – but on the sale rack. Unlike that totally awesome bracelet that came out with me, too. But I digress…
Marty had suggested I check out the international language school supposedly right across from the train stazione while I was there, but my best intentions could not locate it within something walkable, so I opted to cut my losses and head towards il stadio to park for a jaunt into old town Siena. Ms. GPS guided me, sure enough, but coming from the reverse direction, I managed to make enough premature or late turns to get things “recalculated” numerous times. Turned out fine, though, as we ended up coming in on a nice glide path from the angle I was familiar with. If one has never driven these convoluted roads in ancient cities, it’s hard to describe how intersections randomly come together at the oddest angles, and ya better not make a mistake if you’re responsible for the yield. There’s been a time or two that I’ve just greased through one of these on a wing and a prayer!
Got myself parked without a hitch and began down the now familiar path on foot into Siena. It was another busy day here with the usual hustle and bustle this city has, but at a comfortable, exciting level. I noted several new shops I hadn’t even seen before, despite walking past them how many times? One is an incredible market, I later found out, that has been around since about 1901. It’s kind of a farmer’s market type place, and my stroll through it was amazing. I refrained from buying anything, but again…great damage could’ve easily been done to my pocketbook…and my weight.
My first goal was to make my way to Il Campo, easily done by either going downward on most any major street, or by following the mainstream of the crowd. Being a “local” (lest you forget, I am the one asked for directions by tourists, after all - ha!), I found my way just by knowing where I was going. Which was soooo cool!! A bee line for the tower, and I found myself at the door, once again, to that little trattoria with the bushy aquarium plant curtains…and this time aperto (open)! Announcing to the bushy eyebrow owner I was “Sono da sola” (I’m alone…just me), I took a seat at the same table Marty and I had dined at, and answered the first question one is always asked…water and wine? Si, va bene…del’aqua frizzante e vino rosso alla casa, per favore.” I watched as the wine was poured from a straw wrapped bottle by way of a funnel into a smaller decanter, then to my glass. I imagined it was from their family stock, but regardless…it was wonderful. And yes, it’s true…wine is cheaper than water in most places in Italy. My meal was that wonderfully thick pici (pee-chee) pasta in a Bolognese sauce…because they’d run out of the cinghiale (wild boar) sauce. With cheese. I added an insalata mista and commenced to enjoy a wonderful meal in this quaint place once again. Oh, and topped off by my newest bad habit that will be hard to replicate back home…caffe’ doppo pranza (coffee – the strong, 2 tablespoons worth Italian version that I now love – after lunch).
Face mostly wiped of the delicious sauce enjoyed for lunch, I made my way along Il Campo, then through the narrow, up and down streets to the Duomo piazza and found the entrance to the Santa Maria della Scala. This structure was the old hospital, and when I say old, I mean old. Beginning its life as a place of healing, this ospitale was built and began serving the Sienese in the 1300’s. It’s a huge place and the first few cavernous rooms, including a sanctuary bigger than most village churches, are neck-bending, mouth-gaping wonders of arched ceilings sporting that medieval art that never ceases to thrill. The main ward certainly provided its inhabitants a nice upward view. I found myself entirely alone in the sanctuary and took advantage of such a precious gift. A group of noisy school children were somewhere in the building, but their raucous chatter faded soon. I sat and let my mind clear as I gazed at all the wonders before me. The feeling of the presences of so many over ages past seemed to swirl about me as I allowed myself to marinate in this place so old. The quietness was grand -- such a switch from the hurriedness of the streets. I gazed at the glazed brick floors, so old and worn that the ages seemed to have melted them together in places. The feet that had trod on this very spot, just as mine, had stood and looked at what I was beholding. The shared vision, although we can’t speak together of it, was experienced. I thought on so many who’d undoubtedly been here seeking a miracle…or seeking comfort….or just seeking. We all walk such a similar path, no matter the millennia we happen to be present in. I sat for a period and allowed the spiritual presence found there to wrap itself around me in a sweet way. Getting up to continue on was hard to do. I gazed up close at one of the confessionals, not sure just how old it was, but knowing it had seated countless hundreds of years of those seeking to repent and be forgiven. The wood was worn where hands had gripped in kneeling prayer. I know many a tear had seasoned this wood, seeking to find rest within. The priest’s seat was worn, as well, from the years upon years of being seated here, listening and hopefully offering wisdom and encouragement, as well as their brand of forgiveness.
I wandered from area to area, certain I was nigh upon the uscita (exit), but no…a whole ‘nuther section to behold met me each time. My estimated hour or so visit accumulated to something more akin to 3 or 4 hours, all of it marvelous. I wandered down countless stairways, finding myself down under incredible labyrinth type rooms, nooks, crannies, and spaces only the ghosts know the original uses for. It was ingeniously done with wooden floors to somewhat guide your path, but the creative minds behind this allowed the ability to twist and wind and turn where you think maybe you shouldn’t, but yes…it’s okay. The lighting was just right, as well….dark enough to lend a spooky feel, yet remain safe. I have to admit – the museum was very sparsely visited this day, and many, if not most, moments I was totally alone. The creepy factor got especially high when I entered the small, dark, ominous St. Catherine of the Night chapel. Glad my rational adult speak gray matter took over and kept the shivers down to a minimum!
The Santa Maria della Scala currently houses two major and incredible permanent exhibits, all creatively and wonderfully presented in the hinterlands under the main building. One is a massive collection of Etruscan artifacts and other early period items, all found within a short radius of Siena. I especially enjoy looking into the eyes of the figures atop the funerary urns and wondering about who they were, what their stories were, and really, how common their lives were to ours. Looking at the everyday scenes depicted on the graciously designed earns and pottery also brings such enjoyment…it’s just like a postcard from the past. One in particular made me giggle out loud – it was a young man showing his bicep muscle to a halfway impressed girl. Some things never change!
The other collection is really amazing in the world of religious artifacts…well, okay – relics. Yes, the body parts thing once again. This collection was procured in the 1300’s from Constantinople and brought to Siena. I read a lengthy history on this, and it was fascinating but too long to include here. Basically, some really rich dude figured he’d garner Siena some power, as well as secure his afterlife (in his mind) by the purchase. This brought some serious high-fiving to Siena, and the popes used it to sway the populace in different ways until a more secular vibe took over the area. Interesting reading easily found on the internet, I’m sure. But on to the macabre…there were any number of bones, fingers, and things I couldn’t identify (probably for the best, although I swear one was someone’s thyroid) encased in the most amazing gold & jeweled jars and boxes. The artwork was splendid and almost allowed one to forget what they were encircling. I’m really kind of thankful the Methodists decided somewhere back when that this was a tradition best left behind. (see this link for the whole story)
At the end of my time in this incredible place, and still in the darkish vault-like hallways, I began to look for a way out. No luck. Try this way again. Hmmmm. Starting to feel like I was in some Hitchcock-ish novella, I retraced my tracks to an Uscita sign I’d seen, then towards some large old wooden doors…but no sign on them, no indication that one could indeed exit here. I noted a thread of daylight between the doors that sliced the dimness, and decided this would be my exit, official or not…and found my self in the back lot of the museum, but in daylight and ready to make my way in the vibrancy of the Sienese streets once again.
The drive back was sweet, as always, bringing a transition from the harried streets of the city to the curving, sensuous roads and views of Tuscan Chianti. It’s a wicked gentleness driving these roads, much like the land. Wild, rocky, steep, treacherous….but gently sloped and cultivated over the ages, offering the greatness of oil and wine and wheat. The roads are the same, offering a satisfaction found through their ability to challenge yet nurture, albeit with an investment great…as the people who’ve tamed this land know so well.
Back “home”, I quickly dropped my day’s accoutrements, changed shoes, and headed out to walk the entire length from the roadway to Tremonti, the farm adjacent to Casamonti. I have no idea if the road ends there, but it was calling me to walk at least that far. The sky had cleared to that Tuscan blue, and it was a glorious dusk. I walked past more olive groves, assured that they were of the oldest kind due to the thickness of the trunks. I observed the withering culled branches tossed aside after the spring pruning. A luscious spider web caught my eye, and I thought how wonderful a part of Creation that this small creature had found the useless and made it entirely useful and important in the system of life. The birdsong accompanying me was grand, as always. The cuckoo joined the chorus this night, as well.
The turn off to Casamonti and Tremonti also notes that this road/strada is part of the via Romea…the road to Rome. I want to know more on this!! I thought much on my walk this evening…my feet were treading the same dusty path that how many had trod before? The pilgrims that traversed this same spot – did they gaze upon these same olive trees? Did they hear the same birdsong? And I thought on the olive trees as they seemed to personify before me…I was just one of so many they’d watched pass by, a brief encounter in the extraordinarily short walk we humans are given on this terre firma.
An old rock wall borders parts of this road, veering off in directions on less traveled paths that wind into the olive groves. The old original roads, I presume? I’ve noted that some of the roads I’ve traveled…well, many, actually…are bordered this way. I’d imagine these denote the oldest roads, but I don’t know. I wandered off my gravel road walk to one of these and followed the crumbling wall a bit. Wouldn’t you?
At Tremonti, I reversed course and walked back to Casamonti and on down my familiar, tree lined, beautiful road to the highway. The sunset was again of the brand further up than spectacular as it eased beneath the higher hills and mountains to the west, cloaking itself with the precious hues of purples, pinks, and blues. This moves one, as most sunsets do, but how so more? I’m sure there’s a healthy dose of romanticism with this particular setting, but being alone here now twice, I am overcome with these moments of saturated emotion, sensory overload that is at once precious, overwhelming, joyful, and painful. On my way back, I noted that the same critter-startle sounds in the flora along the path I walk are all in the same spot, and that they no longer make me jump even if the little creature living there can’t say the same. Patterns. Predictability. It makes me smile.
Back to the cozy rabbit hole in this night that’s taken back its chill, I commence to prepare another soup to share with Anna Rita and Ray for the weekend. A nice bag of legumes, a jar of tomato sauce (Italian style, of course!), sautéed onions and garlic, some thin sliced ham, and freshly chopped carrots and zucchini meet up in the pot and begin to dance to the flame. I add fresh rosemary picked outside my door, along with some peperoncini, dried oregano, a few bay leaves that traveled with me from Rockport, sea salt, and pepper….and yeah, some more of the taco seasoning I brought! While it simmers, I tidy things up, do a little writing, and randomly try out some Italian radio stations on this great little 1980’s radio. The night is tidy and sweet.
Proprietor of Pornanino, Matteo
Sleeping just a bit into the morning, Kathleen and I rustled ourselves awake and make some hot tea to kick start the day. We conjured plans for this morning to find our way to a family run olive oil operation outside of Radda in Chianti for a class on what makes a good oil. The GPS was programmed by coordinates the night before, and I felt quite assured we would find this place in plenty of time…thus the conversation lingered luxuriously over our little table in the rabbit hole.
Sure enough, we do find Pornanino, the olive oil and agriturismo operation. However, I will admit I questioned it as we bumped and bustled over one of the lovely unpaved back roads of Chianti….a new one for me, which is always exciting. We arrived with a few minutes to spare, which surprised Matteo, the owner, along with his wife Francesca. He told us it’s much more the norm for folks to get lost. Based on a year ago and my Tuscan adventures sans beloved GPS, I completely understand!
A tour group of about 12 folks show up, along with a couple from England, and we all take our seats to listen to Matteo’s interesting talk on what makes quality, but more importantly, healthy olive oil. I knew about 50% of what he shared, and it was great to learn more from one who truly knows. Basics to remember…Virgin olive oil, cold pressed, not from a variety of countries, and preferably from a producer you’re familiar with. And color doesn’t matter, believe it or not!
We sampled their oil on crostini, and yes…it was divine! We’re somewhat spoiled as we are privy to Casamonti’s fabulous oil (from all those gorgeous tress I love walking by), but it was great to learn more about the whole process. And as with most new experiences, it wasn’t only the knowledge and experience we received that were the morning’s gifts…oh no….there was also the fabulous unexpected that seems to pop up all over in this country! We’d met the English couple, Ian and Moira, before the seminar and had chatted a bit. Afterwards, we all visited a bit more, and they graciously invited us to join them for coffee at the apartment on the property that they were taking a holiday in.
A couple of purchases made, including the most beautiful sterling silver olive branch pin designed by Francesca’s mother, sweetly gifted to me by Kathleen, and we joined Ian and Moira under the partly cloudy sky, all of us seeking the solar warmth like Equatorial lizards.
We were given fresh pressed coffee and a plate of Moira’s homemade “flap jacks”. Now before you go envisioning a big ol’ stack of pancakes , hold your horses, pard’ner! This is the English version…a delightful, chewy, honey-sweetened concoction of oats, nuts, and seeds. It was delicious!! Moira told us it’s a staple in England…and comes in many varieties. It’s probably what we base our granola bars on, but oh wow…I’ve never met one that tasted this good! Moira promised to email me the recipe, so we’ll see if I can come close to this delicacy back on the shores of Texas. Our conversation was fun and lively, and we parted feeling the pleasure of having yet two more new friends on this small little orb we call earth.
Since we were so close to Radda in Chianti, we drove on in and parked on the outer street, then walked into the pedestrian area. The medieval streets were rather quiet as we wandered a bit, finding a shop to finish up some take-home affairs for Kathleen. Hunger pangs were starting to win us over, so we opted to leave the touristy streets and headed out of the town walls to a local bar. Great choice, as they always are, for a cheap panino, some water, and of course…that lunch time wine (note to self: you can’t continue this Italian tradition at home!). We picked up free Wifi, so it was a great opportunity to do some catch up with home, as well as a brief Skype show and tell with my parents. Fun!
A quick gelato in hand, we hopped back in the car and drove to the wonderful hilltop town of Monteriggioni, one of my favorites. It’s small, sits on a hilltop inside a wonderfully intact circular fortress wall that sports enough tower effect to give your imagination plenty of help to reverse course a thousand years or so. These towns are certainly tourist attractions, but I don’t want my readers to lose sight that residents and the doings of every day life still inhabit all these towns and villages.
Italy, and maybe particularly Tuscany, has done an incredible job of preserving the feel of this ancient land. It’s by tight and firmly enforced restrictions, but in the long run that’s probably a good thing. No new buildings are allowed, at least in Chianti. Old structures must be rebuilt to certain standards, and even the numbers of grape vines are controlled. Restrictive, yes…but I have no doubt it’s one of those great pay-off things as a whole.
A bit weary, the two of us meandered back to Casamonti to dine on the bean and prosciutto soup I’d prepared the night before. Prior to, I filled a pot to take to Anna Rita and Ray, and we intercepted a wine tasting as we made our way to the main kitchen. Kathleen got to meet Anna Rita, and we found ourselves at the inside table for a quick glass of Casamonti Chianti, shared with the two tour drivers, one being Paolo who was the fellow who brought me, along with friend Tammy, out to Casamonti for the very first time 3 years ago. A nice aperativo over a lively conversation was a perfect close to the adventures of the day.
Stomachs satisfied after our humble meal, we wound the night down with talk and tea, and it wasn’t long until sleep called loud enough to win us over.
I failed to mention in the last couple of blogs of just how warm it had gotten…finally. It was downright hot Saturday, and we had the shiny sheen of sweat to prove it! However, during the night an anticipated cold front blew in with a vengeance that would make a Texas weather man proud. The wind howled like a tropical storm, and I would’ve sworn I was on a sailboat as it whipped and groaned through the open window of our once-balmy room. Add in the flapflapflap of the wind-beaten curtains and some lone rope out of view but banging in the wind, and it truly did feel like a nautical experience! The temperature dropped something like 25 degrees with this frontal passage, which is quite unusual for Italy in general. This May “cold” weather is another unusual thing, and there is more predicted for the month. Brrrrrr, and I sure wish I’d have packed more weather- appropriate!!
I let Kathleen sleep in a bit, and once ready, we hit the road south to Castellina in hurricane force winds, light rain, and intermittent fog. The drive met us with patches of misty fog, heavy rain, and more wind. However, it also afforded us a look at the Italian countryside dressed in a different fashion….the grays and blues of clouds, rain, and fog.
We made a stop at the Florence American Cemetery and quietly made note of the incredible sacrifice of our solders in WW II. This sacred site is incredibly beautiful, and immediately has a profound effect on the visitor. There were few, if any other than us, on this cold, blustery day, but we were grateful and humble to be guests at this resting place of over 4,000 American solders who perished in WWII. The grounds here are immaculately cared for, and all the land, upkeep, and facilities are granted and paid for by the Italian government. (The images I've posted are from my visit there in May 2011...a very sunny, warm day!)
Pulling into Castellina with the last gray rays of daylight to lead us, we were finally greeted by the glowing porch light at Casamonti/Capre. Wearily, we unloaded our belongings, then found our way to the often-visited Dei Dottore for a pizza and ensalata mista dinner. Oh, and let’s not forget the Chianti! Cin cin to a another beautiful day in lovely Italia!
Outside the "rabbit hole"
Our last morning together in the Capre apartment, our “Rabbit Hole” as Anna Rita humorously calls it, was a bit bittersweet. We’d both felt an oncoming sense of not so much an easily described sadness, but more a poignant acceptance of the fact that Marty’s time in this paradise was drawing to a close, and that his return to Texas would be “da solo”. We awoke with a little bit of a gnawing sense of urgency to get things organized for his departure, as well as hit the road early enough for a cappuccino and leisurely travel north. We were rewarded with a predeparture visit by Anna Rita to bid Marty farewell (and have a quick tour of the upstairs “Karen” apartment I’d inhabited last year), and her kind words meant more than she knew. Hugs exchanged, we loaded up the little Punto and headed towards town for cappuccino and a light breakfast at the gas station with our new friend Simone. I presented him with a Texas magnet and a small package of flavored Texas coffee in reciprocation for his kind regalo, or gift. I do believe he was as delighted with them as I was with the coffee art calendar! We were able to enjoy our pleasures outside this day…it was finally a warm day full of bright Tuscan sun and the gentlest hint of a breeze. The view south/southwest was spectacular, and San Gimingnano rose up in the distance to salute the sky with her proud remaining towers.
Zipping from the whirl-a-gig Toscana roads onto the much straighter A1 strada, we began the journey north. The drive takes one through wondrous views of Tuscany that begin to fade into flatter lands towards Florence. Then, the mountains begin to build in size until tunnel in and outs become as common as the right-left-right-left gyrations of our now familiar country roads. After crossing the mountains, the land becomes dramatically flat as such familiar place names like Bologna, Modena, and Parma come into view. We stopped for a bite of lunch at a My Chef on the outskirts of Parma…similar to the AutoGrille but a notch or two less enticing…and found our way to the cafeteria style lunch selections. It’s always such fun to be a part of the hub-bub of the road tripping others, mostly Italian. Truck drivers, families, business men, and tourists all pile in for a quick meal, a bathroom break, maybe a snack or two, a hit of caffé as well as gassing up the car before departure. All the major roadways in Italy have exits for towns, then sporadically placed “Servicio” stops. Most all have at least a bar and quick food, and then all the way up to full scale self-serve dining. And the nice part is they are place precisely on the strada with easy off/easy on access. We enjoyed our little lunch, as well as the people watching.
The precious Caterina and her beautiful Mommy, Lucia
As we exited the Parma area and came closer to Cremona, we contacted our new friends-to-be, Lucia and Emanuele. Marty had met Lucia through Conversation Exchange, we all had said hello on Skype, and after one conversation, Lucia kindly invited us to visit if we were in their area. It worked out well to do so on our way to Milan on this day.
With the beloved help of the GPS, we found our way to their apartment style home in the newer neighborhoods of Cremona. We were surprised to find their building came into being in the 1960’s. It appeared much newer. We were warmly greeted by Lucia and Emanuele, as well as their absolutely precious 6 month old daughter, Catarina. As with any freshly launched friendship, the chat was at first superficial and edged with a tiny bit of unease; however, it wasn’t long before a wonderful level of comfort was found.
Lucia teaches English to high school age students and her command of the language is good. Not so by her standards, but we begged to differ. Emanuele apologized upfront for his lack of English, but again…we found it to be quite good; much better than our Italian, for sure!!
We were seated at their dining table and offered spumonti and a beautiful spread of antipasto that included several kinds of meats from the area, and two delicious cheeses..one being parmasean and the other pecorino, I believe. Having thought we’d communicated we would eat before our 2:30 arrival, we were somewhat surprised to be treated to this, but figured it was like an appetizer type snack to go with our drinks. That is….until the beautiful plates of pasta were served! Come to find out much later in the day when Marty brought it up, Lucia had misunderstood and thought we would arrive and have lunch together with them. We were all somewhat embarrassed, but found the humor in the miscommunication. Lucia told us they thought it rather strange we would eat lunch so late, but well, you know those Americans - ha! The pasta was wonderful, all cooked by Emanuele, and it was topped off with a wonderful fresh strawberry bowl and caffé. We managed to eat it all, and were- needless to say – stuffed! How kind and generous, though, of these busy young people to treat virtual strangers to such personal hospitality in their home. And need I mention that the addition of the company of the adorable little Catarina put things over the top!
Lunch dishes put away, we loaded up the car and headed towards the centro storico of Cremona, another ancient city possessing wonder upon wonder. We parked and walked a little ways together into the main piazza, a wonderful antique rectangular plaza surrounded by the most amazing medieval buildings, a beautiful duomo and baptistery, and a huge bell tower…the tallest in the world! As we headed towards the baptistery, Emanuele went ahead and spoke with an older man at the door. Next thing you know, we ushered in…no ticket needed…and find ourselves as the only guests there, marveling at the works of art, the sheer size and workmanship of the building, and the massively and beautiful brick dome. They even turned on the Gregorian chant music for us! We found out that this dome predated the one in Florence…truly a marvel then and now. It was a magnificent building.
As we exited and wandered towards the duomo, a long time friend of Emanuele’s met us and we exchanged warm greetings. He had heard about our visit, and was able to come join us. His expectant wife was resting at home, so we didn’t have that pleasure. I am embarrassed that I can’t remember this very friendly young man’s name! As we entered the duomo, impressive from the outside but not even beginning to belay the magnificent sight inside, it took a moment for our eyes to adjust to the sights. Massive and dark, the interior held a different persona that other duomos I’ve been in. All of the major cities’ have been incredibly impressive, but now and then one is hit with a different reaction, and I found this here. It wasn’t long before the phenomenon, and there is a word for it in Italian, of feeling an inner rush of emotion and awe that is non-definable with words, but with tears, swept over me. We marveled at huge masterpieces of painting, one being famous for its perspective of Christ, just removed from the cross and laying with his feet towards the viewer at an angle, being cradled by Mary and the others. As you move from one viewing point to another, Christ’s body appears to take on entirely different perspectives from laying almost side to side, to appearing to be draped over the edge of the area he is laying on, to being at a crossways angle. It is truly amazing. We enjoyed taking in all the beauty and workmanship of this duomo, and were so grateful for having it shared by those who’ve grown up in its shadow. And once again, having sweet Caterina along was such joy! She is so happy and content, and not once complained. I had such a time with her, and by mutual decree became her Texas Nonna. Yee haw!
We wandered from the duomo out into the piazza and found ourselves surrounded in a joyful, buzzing hub of pedestrians and bike riders, all ages and combinations out enjoying an incredibly beautiful and warm spring late afternoon. Cremona has a university, so there were many young people, along with the variety of citizens of every age. Many were out strolling and watching…participating in a beautiful tradition of passiagata. We stolled along slowly, immersed as a part of this delightful energy and commonality. I’m sure there were tourists here and there, but we never picked them out. What joy to feel assimilated into this! Friends would stop now and then and say hello and chat a moment, waves were exchanged from afar…a sweet part of the Italian culture that we felt so blessed to be allowed to share. Oh…and how these gorgeous Italian women manage to wear skirts or dresses, AND 4 inch heels while riding a bike is beyond me, but they do it with incredible ease and style!
Emanuele had to depart for an event in Milan, along with his friend, so Lucia,
Caterina, Marty and I walked a slow walk back to the apartment. It was another great treat to stroll through more streets and neighborhoods just taking in the life of Cremona. Back in the apartment, we chatted a bit more before realizing it was…yes….much later than we’d realized – 8:00! It’s that time warp at work again. Saying our warm thanks and goodbyes, and holding Caterina one last time, we closed the literal door to the newly opened figurative door of yet another sweet friendship in Italy. The invitation to all our Italian friends to visit us in Texas is always laid forth, and what a joy it would be to be able to return some of this incredibly hospitality.
Off to Milan, we wound our way with GPS at the helm. However, as technology is certainly not perfect, the little data brain got a little confused and lead us some 25 km past our intended destination. With it being dark and us being tired, we didn’t quite catch on to this little wild goose chase until a bit late, and after numerous “recalculating” and rebooting, plus one phone call to the hotel, we finally found ourselves checking in at about 10:30, tired and ready for a glass of wine. Unpack a few things, head downstairs – no one tending the little bar even though they were there when we came in and things looked opened. Okay….back upstairs, “Marty, maybe just splurge and call room service.” An affirmative response, but about a ten minute delay to try to get the internet to work…phone call made. They closed five minutes ago. The two little beers in the mini bar didn’t stand a chance as the dwarf size fridge door creaked open.
Mid week in Toscana and the beauties of spring, la primavera, have blossomed around us even more than in previous days. Having been here almost two weeks, it’s been interesting to see the season unfold. The yellow broom, a high-ish bush with spindly leaves, was barely putting forth a bud, and now it’s starting to explode in brilliant saffron yellow blossoms along country roadsides and in the hills. The poppies have taken note of the warmer sun and are preparing for their decline. The delicate lavender irises are stalwart in their attempts to remain regal, but they, too, are showing the signs of giving passage to new colors. Roses, so incredible in their ability to thrive here, are budding and blooming out for a truly grand late spring/early summer parade, and the spring light greens are beginning to take on the darker, comfortable tones of summer green. Tuscany is a tapestry, and she is weaving new threads.
We chose to make this day relaxed and somewhat unplanned. What unfolded were country drives, first through nearby Lilliano – a tiny area that maintains an active vineyard and wine production, a grand villa from the 1600’s (maybe 1700), and a few farmhouses. However, the drive down the gravely road to Lilliano is worth the effort. It is a picturesque little jaunt down a brilliantly tree lined strada that is an overhang of vibrant greens. Sky is hidden, and the heavens become a ceiling of glowing tomato-stem green that causes one to instinctively slow and gaze. From there, we drove on through wonderful little villages, some made up of no more than a few buildings, others not much larger…place names like Bibiano, LaGruccia, San Fabiano – all so fun to roll off the tip of ones tongue.
Everywhere we traveled, there seemed to be workers in the vineyards. One person on a row…leaned over clipping, possibly, or working some other kind of magic those of us peering in from the outside are not privy to. What we are privy to is the joy of tasting the fruits of these efforts – the rich, complex Chiantis of this area, the subtler Nobile of Montepulciano, the grand Brunello of Montelcino, and the practically worshipped sweetness of Vin Santo. An analogy came to me at one point in taking all the activities of the vineyards in: as we savor and drink the wines of Italy, or of any region, we are not just enjoying a beverage that is more akin to an art. It is the act, too, of ingesting the land – the soil, the sun at just this certain angle, the artisanal care of certain human hands, and the air that envelopes and surrounds it all. It is taking in the entity of a place, even its culture and history, in a mere sip.
As we made our way, another classically beautiful vista came into closer view; the boxed tower of a castle, positioned with another tower of some sort, sitting serenely on a hilltop. As we continued, it became evident that the road we were traveling would lead us to the to the turn off for the castle! Of course, I immediately pleaded to make the detour, and up we went. Italy, being the land of many small castles, doesn’t find it as necessary to make them available to the curious public as we seem to do in America with anything older than about 75 years. This particular castle…and a very cool one at that…was private property, someones home, and of course, a gawking tourist isn’t on the guest list. The church/abby with the castle-looking spire was the same…something that was no longer serving a community, but a place that now was someones everyday abode. I was disappointed at not getting to roam about these buildings, but I was also very charmed by the fact that I was not welcome in someone’s “Home Sweet Home” ala Italia.
Ah well....back on the road to further adventures!
As we meandered along Chianti paths, we continued on the "slow" approach...taking our time enjoying the nature scape, as well as slowing to try to take in the intricacies of each small village or borgo (actually means a small village outside the protected walls of a city...thank you, Wikipedia!) we found ourselves as brief guests of. One small place - name escapes me - consisted of not much more than what looked to be a few dwellings, along with a nice looking little caffe bar and small ristorante. A little creek ran right through this place, so undoubtedly it was at one time an important waypoint for travelers along this same path. What a great thought imagining all who had passed this same way before us.
We noted a small, quite run down little place right off the road across the street from the bar. "Let's stop!" escaped from my mouth, and before you knew it --- we were poking our noses into the building, all the while permitting ourselves a quite fun "What if??" conversation of buying and restoring. However, after having already viewed a number of window fronts of Italian real estate offices, even a fixer-upper such as this comes at a steep price. Want to take that journey? Be sure your pockets are deep and even better, bottomless!
Nonetheless, it was a fun diversion, and as in many little villages mid-day, we seemed to be the only ones about, save for a nice assortment of butterflies.
Continuing to the west, we wound our way up one of the prettiest drives in the region to a small community called Lamole. We’d come across this last trip, thanks to Ray's once-again swell advice, and were instantly taken. It’s the sight where we were able to sit on the veranda of the only ristorante in town, sip wine, and watch the little tractors haul the abundant harvest of the deepest purplely red grapes we’d ever seen towards the press to begin the process of the year’s wine. There’s a charming little chiusa (church), and 4 or 5 friendly cats. We seated ourselves at a small table with a view – not hard to find being the only folks there at the moment – and ordered wine. The young waitress entered conversation with us, and we enjoyed about 45 minutes of solving the world’s problems with her.
It was time to head back to Castellina for dinner with Anna Rita and Ray at probably our most frequented restaurant here, Fattoria dei Dottorie. We hopped in Ray’s Land Cruiser and began our way out. Needless to say, the conversation and laughter on the way were a grand aperativo for our meal. The owner knew Anna Rita and Ray quite well, of course, and we were warmly greeted and shown to a table. Drinks served, he sent a lovely (huge!) platter of antipasto to our table, courtesy of the house. How kind! Pizzas and almost 3 hours of talk and laughter, and we found ourselves the last folks in the restaurant. Feeling somewhat guilty, we downed the last drops of limoncello and headed home. It’s a delightfully sweet thing to have friends in this beautiful place that, although you’ve known them a relatively short time, feel like life long friends. Anna Rita made a statement later in the week that truly humbled and touched both of us…she told us we are family to them. One of those things more precious than gold.
Monday, April 30th, Tuesday, May 1st, part of Wednesday, May 2nd: Castelnuovo Berardenga; Volterra; Country drive
Looking out on the beautiful Tuscan landscape
Three for the Price of One…
…days of notations, that is! I'm having quite a time getting this little laptop to cooperate (couldn't be me and my, ummm, skills...of course not!), then finding time to write/get online equates to sporadic posting. Oh, and of course…there’s that little issue of seeing as much of this gorgeous place as one can each day, which takes a little time! So...excuses lined up like ducks in a row, shall we...?
Monday, April 30 – We awoke feeling pretty rested, actually, after getting a good night’s sleep. Being totally exhausted helps, mind you, but we really did sleep well. Ran into town to say hello to Ray at his office and had the great pleasure of finding Anna Rita there, as well! As always, it was more than wonderful to see them both. We chatted for about 45 minutes, catching up on life. Ah, but I forget! We hit the bar first for cappuccino and brioche (more of a French type breakfast croissant, but the "go to" breakfast in Italy), then the COOP, the fabulous little grocery store chain that dots central Italy, before our pop-in at the office. I could spend hours (and buy waaay too much) in that compact yet amazing store!
We bid adieu to our friends, then headed east through Radda in Chianti (and numerous other tiny villages) to Castelnouvo Berardenga at Anna Rita’s suggestion for a lunch of tartufi, or truffles over pasta in a luscious, buttery sauce. This time of year marks the tail-end of truffle season, but Anna Rita thought we might get lucky and still find it on the menu. Score! The town itself was charming, and despite the rain that had picked up, we enjoyed a grand lunch. It was fun trying our very limited Italian on the young waiter who played along gamingly. We’d probably be given a B+ for the effort, and at least he didn’t roll his eyes or break into hysterical laughter anywhere along the way! We noted that service in most cafes and restaurants in Italy is good; the staff never seem to feel a need to rush you, nor do they push this special or that drink. Why? There is a copertta or persone charge that is basically a service charge for a seated meal, but it is a set rate clearly noted on your check. Tipping is not expected, nor the norm. Kinda nice!
The truffles we dined on were like nothing either of us had experienced…uber thin translucent slices of a small, beautifully tan and white marbled funghi delicately placed over tagliatelli pasta that's been generously tossed with shimmery melted burro…or butter, as we know it! Anna Rita said to tell them to add more butter, but we thought the amount presented was enough to make even Paula Deen think twice. The aggregate aroma teetered between something pleasing, then aversive, then back again. The taste was kinder – a memorable one that announced periodic bursts of TARTUFI!, but quickly retreated at just the right moment to softer tones of gentle wheat laced with the familiar calm of butter . Once introduced, you’ll know a truffle anywhere you meet one. But not to be forgotten amidst the grandeur of the elegant truffle is the insalata mista, the incredibly fresh mixed salads one encounters throughout Italy. A few here and there have been disappointing, but it seems when eating rural, the garden goodness was surely picked just hours earlier. Coated with a nice splash of olive oil, maybe some vinegar, then a bit of salt....simple, utter perfection!
The remainder of the day was spent driving through the countryside taking in more of the undulating beauty. Softened by gray, sometimes rainy skies, the shadows created on the hillsides were soft and almost mysterious. The occasional break of sun and light left us almost breathless as we took in the views marked by swaths of yellow flowers that seemed intent on taking over the land.
Tuesday, May 1 – Prima di Maggio! The first day of May in Tuscany greeted us with more intermittent rain and temps that this Texan calls just a step above cold! The weather has been cooler than I planned on (what was I thinking??), so my over-packing was with items intended for a Sicilian May. Ah well, it’ll warm up sooner or later!
We had our morning cappuccino and breakfast at the bar, then went by Ray’s office to visit for about an hour. After solving all of the US and Italy’s problems, we departed to the west/southwest for the hill town of Volterra. I haven’t read nor seen anything of the Twilight genre (gasp!!), but those of you who have, hold this town special for reasons other than its obvious beauty and awe. The rain picked up by the time we go there, but the little umbrella on hand managed to keep us from total saturation. Volterra is, to me, such a wonderfully “typical” medieval town…tall, ancient buildings lining narrow cobbled streets that twist and turn with almost mindless mission, narrow alleyways calling from inside a low arch, piazzas with practically visible ghosts strolling about in regality, and duomos still as grand as the day they were completed. Having arrived at the usual time…later than planned….we found a recommended spot to eat (thank you, Rick Steves) and commenced to enjoy a fab lunch of pizza and pasta, along with local vino bianco. We both noted that American tourists seem to be the minority right now. There were any number of Italian tourists (it was their Memorial Day holiday, after all), as well as Germans and French. Pretty cool, though, to be the only English speaking folks you’re aware of within earshot.
After lunch we ventured into the local Etruscan museo. Wow! It’s actually the largest collection of Etruscan items in the world, and it was fascinating. I didn’t realize what an advanced civilization they were, setting themselves up nicely to be emulated by the Greeks a bit later on. I’m not up on my Estruscan history, but I believe this highly advanced civilization more or less vanished, and is to this day a mystery in many ways. They must not’ve had a set system, sadly (and surprisingly) so, for writing or we’d know more about them. We floated about inside for some time, trying to take in all the antiquity that was resting within the walls of this smallish place. I was especially amazed with the jewelry. I dare one to find gold work as intricate and beautiful as what I saw.
By the time we were on the streets again, the rain had stopped, so we celebrated with our first scoop of gelato. I know….hard to believe it took us that long!! The wait was worth it….mmmm, mmm good!! Gelato in hand (and mouth), we wandered the streets for another hour just taking in the sights, sounds, smells, and ambiance.
The evening was capped off with a meal in a restaurant that was the home/estate of a local dottore…and known to have the best pizza in Castellina. Well, one must test such acclamations for accuracy, and I will say…it was darn good! The wine wasn’t too bad, either...
Wednesday, May 2nd – Mission not accomplished: we got up later than planned, and thus our start was delayed. Oh well! However, the sun was shining gloriously…what an incredible day!!! We stopped for cappuccino at the gas station bar this morning – can one find a bad cappuccino here? I say not. On the road south, we twisted and turned through a Tuscany that all but shouted “Am I not GLORIOUS??”. And it was!!! I lost count of how many photo stops we made, but each was well worth it. The roads throughout this region rarely claim a straight mile/kilometer….they snake and twist and undulate as much as the hills. Sometimes the land is wide open and one can see green wheat fields, vineyards, olive groves, villas, marching cypress, and distant towers forever. Other times it’s wooded and dark and mysterious and dreamlike. No matter, it’s stunningly beautiful. Today, it was in overdrive. (to be continued….battery is about to die!!)
The courtyard outside our apartment
Well, needless to say, I've not blogged daily as planned! However, my excuse is fairly valid...lack of internet connection for any length of time - so there! Actually, the wonderful little cafe where I do connect is a lovely local spot in Castellina in Chianti by the name of Bar Italia. It's a simple place where mostly the locals gather for the quick cup of caffé, a brioche for breakfast, or a chance to sit with i vuoi amici and watch the game. I "discovered" it a year ago when I visited Castellina with friends Donnie and Julie, and it's been the spot for morning cappuccino ever since. I digress...
Our flight over was pretty uneventful, which is always a blessing. We did the "normal routine" of Tylenol PM and melatonin, slept as much as one can when contorted like a pretzel …in a sardine can. Arrival at Milan Malpensa Aerporto was on time, and other than the last 20 minutes or so of the flight being akin to bouncing down a West Texas ranch road, we made touch down with no complaints. Baggage picked up, rental car secured, GPS up and running…and south we drove! The GPS was a lovely addition to my earlier driving experiences in Italy, but I have to say…the robotic Mr. GPS's accent when trying to speak the names of Italian roads was pretty hilarious – which soon segued to annoyance. It was not long before our “Jack the GPS” underwent a gender alteration to become “Silvia the Italian ragazza GPS”.
The drive south was grand. Although the weather was cloudy with intermittent showers…we were in Italy!! After an aborted attempt to find a place to park in the Centro Storico (historic center) of Parma (mmm...cheese!) for a bite for lunch, we gave up and opted for the next AutoGrill on the autostrada. If you’ve never been to one of these, just imagine an Italian Bucky’s. Yeah, pretty awesome. We had to laugh at the décor of the eating area in this particular one…”The Wild West”! There were any number of burger choices, as well as….a Cavallo Pazzo (Crazy Horse) burger! Hmmm…wonder if it was made out of….ummm…nawww!!!
*Addendum: Want to more about Castellina in Chianti? Click here!
Want to know more about Casamonti and Tuscan Enterprises? Click here!
As we drove further south with familiar waypoints like Modena (mmm...balsamic!) and Bologna (mmm...sauce!) announcing themselves, the scenery began to take on the beauty that Tuscany is so well known for….rolling green hills punctuated by freshly turned earth surrounding the new growth in the vineyards, untold multitudes of spring yellow and white flowers splashed across the up and downs of the hillsides, and the silvery green splendor of the ancient olive trees seeming to greet us like old friends. Bella terra! Other spring flowers were evident, as well, and incredibly grand….the reddish orange poppies that seem to be plugged in to a a socket somewhere they’re so bright, elegant wisteria, and other blossoming trees I couldn’t begin to name. Indeed, Tuscany knows how to put on one fine spring show!
We arrived at Casamonti, the fantastically beautiful Tuscan farm belonging to our friends Ray and Anna Rita (who also own and operate Tuscan Enterprises), by late afternoon, turned off the S222 onto the beautiful and welcoming dirt road that leads to the farm, and wound our way around to park in the back area where we were promptly greeted by the 3 dogs that reside in that area. Bags unpacked, a little freshening up, then into town….Castellina in Chianti. A good walk up and down the main street felt wonderful, followed by a bit of pasta and wine in a local diner to cap off giorno uno in Italia. Tired, happy, full….la dolce vita.
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.