My days in bella Italia were winding down as I greeted the late morning of this Thursday. I purposefully slept in to try to make up for the late night before, as well as to fortify myself for the upcoming weekend of no-sleep travel. It was a glorious day – sun in full swing, puffy white benign clouds for accent, and a new warmth in the air that was certainly declaring it was time for the chill to retreat.
My agenda was to pack as much as I could so I would not be stressing over it later in the evening. Feelings of “not that much” were quickly segueing into “Ohhh no, I think this will be over the weight limit!” Making mental notes of just what I’d ditch first if need be, I worked on until I felt I had reached the manageable-for-now point. My little visitor and Casamonti ambassador, Toya the mop dog, came by and stayed awhile which always adds a little sparkle to the current events. I suppose Pepina the cat had better things to do on this particular morning.
The plan for today, after tackling the packing, was to spend a leisurely day in Castellina….strolling, dining, observing the rhythms of this beloved little town that had become even more of our Italian home away from home. I made a quick stop at the Agip station for my shot of caffe, deciding it was a bit late for cappuccino. Simone was a constant blur of busy-ness as he managed to not only keep the caffeine coming for his extremely robust noon time crowd, but to also wait the tables, deliver the food, and clean up! Might be the prime spot for a part-time job some day! Never did manage to try the food there, but it looked quite good. Altra volta….next time!
I determined another trip to Il Re Gallo for lunch would suit my fancy this day, and following our greeting, I announced “Sono da sola oggi” – I’m alone today. I was shown to the exact table Kathleen and I had dined at and was pleased to have the great view out onto the small piazza. However, this day was exploding with sun and warmth in comparison to last week’s view of biting cold, bone-chilling wind, and rain! This final noon meal surrounded by Castellina was a wonderful plate of bruschetta followed by an Insalata de Mainoia – the salad of a sailor. Oh..yeah…and wine!
As I lingered over the last crumbs of bread and swilled the last drops of my Chianti, I noted the ongoing construction of a stage out in the square. Just like last year at this time, the preparations were under way for the big Chianti festival that would begin Saturday…the day I was flying away from Milan to Texas. I was a bit frustrated at my timing, but had to snicker as I thought on my conversation with Lucio and Francesca regarding festivals and events in Toscana. Yep, they all begin the last weekend of May and really get into full swing in June and July. Note to Marty and I: let's plan on being here for part of June and hit some of those festivals!!
I made a circuitous path through and around Castellina, first wandering from the restaurant through the quiet upper piazza, then down to the main street that was bustling with more tourists and sun than I’d seen on this via in the past month. I decided to make a visit to the truly impressive little museum housed in the old civic/castle building (it has a wonderful collection of Etruscan items, all very nicely displayed), as well as climb the tower whose outline I love so dearly…the simple yet stately castle silhouette that is always first to greet us/me as Castellina comes into sight. And what a view it offers to those who commit to climb their way to the crest. A few interesting notes while perusing the museum: a die made of stone and marked with holes to represent numbers exactly as ours are today; evidence of grape vines in the Chianti/Castellina area that date back to the 6th-5th centuries B.C.; a representation of clay shingle roof construction from 4,000 years ago is exactly how roofs are constructed in Italy to this day; amazing, intricate, whimsical artwork depicting life not so different at all from ours today.
After taking my time in the museum and enjoying the castle rooms and tower to myself for the most part, I wandered back to the main thoroughfare and made a few last minute purchases, then strolled towards the east end of town to walk along the outer path that shadows the old city wall. It’s a wonderful stroll and I was rewarded with the expected but not taken for granted views of the groves to the east and the town wall to the west, all the while taking in the serenades of the birds and newly awakening summer bug choruses. Peaceful, serene, utter beauty that speaks to the core of anyone who dares to listen, and I tried to be the best of students for these short moments as I walked.
The reward at the other end of town was one last gelato…the dark chocolate fondant, of course, and the other half filled with caffé flavor. I was not disappointed. Savoring each little bite that slid easily from the tiny bright spoon into my happy mouth, I decided to walk north just a ways and check out the Etruscan tomb that was right up a hill, yet had never been explored. Why never? I’m not sure. Maybe as we tend to do in our “routine” surroundings…”it’ll always be there”…had ruled the previous trips to Castellina, but oh – what an oversight!!
The walk up the hill to the tomb was beautiful; an incline up a dirt road with regiments of towering trees holding service on each side. And not another soul around even though this is not more than possibly 100 feet from the main road in town. As always, I reveled in it.
The tomb was amazing. Fascinating. What a thrill to see it, enter it. How had I overlooked this?? It’s partially reconstructed in that the ceiling has been rebuilt and covered in earth as it originally was. This particular tomb is one of three of the most important finds in the Tuscany area, I believe, due to its outlay and size. There are four separate entrances that each contain two small side rooms and one larger end room. They radiate out like spokes on a wheel to the four cardinal directions, but do not interconnect under the ground.
This day they were a bit muddy from the recent rain, and even in the bright sunlight, the inner reaches were dark and downright spooky. I was totally alone up here on the hilltop and paused, as I had to decide to venture into the dark…or not. I tried to use my phone to light things up a bit, but to no avail. Well, I had come this far and wasn’t about to wimp out now. I took a deep breath and stepped forward, feeling like I was crossing into an Indiana Jones movie. Certainly something or someone was going to jump out at any second! Thankfully, maybe, only a few spiders scurried as I let my eyes adjust to the dark. How incredible to be there, to stand where the ancients had stood as they first built these places, then laid their beloveds to rest. They say Leonard di Vinci was a tourist here, as well, and found great inspiration for some of his designs from this very spot. How incredible to share this same awe as he had.
I wandered to each of the four entrances and made my way over the mud and puddles to peer into the inner chambers. The rooms were so emptily quiet, so wistfully cool…yet so full of some sense of immensity, of time past. I felt more like an honored guest this day, alone yet not so alone, as I stood in amazement and revere. It was hard to pull myself away, still no other visitor here amazingly, and I weaned myself by taking time to crest the tomb and sit in the cool, green clover with its delicate white flowers that blanketed the hilltop. I had a beautiful view of Castellina from here, as well, and savored the passing minutes as the day wore down.
My final path for this May of 2012 in Castellina in Chianti took me back down the main road as I savored one last gaze at my familiar haunts – the COOP, Bar Italia, the storefronts I’d grown to be so familiar with, even familiar faces both in the shops and on the street. As I came towards the end and was preparing to turn for the area I’d parked, I heard a close by “Ciao!” Noting no one else in proximity, I turned to my left and saw a man and woman seated on a bench. It took a second or two, but I then recognized the kind face as the fellow, most likely owner, at Il Re Gallo! He said something I couldn’t quite decipher, but motioned eye to eye, indicating we’d just seen each other again earlier that day. I made a hearty “Ahhhh, si…Ciao!” reply, smiled widely and waved, and continued on my way, savoring a satisfied feeling at this very common, yet very special slice of interaction on the streets of Castellina.
The last of my walk included a phone visit with Marty as we talked on the close of this adventure, as well as our excitement at being reunited back in Texas. The end/beginning of anything is an odd mix of feelings, yet it’s always – always a blessing and joy to return home, and especially to the arms of the dearest.
I returned to Casamonti in time to freshen up a bit, then join Anna Rita and Ray, along with a group of visitors, for the grand Chianina meal. This is always begun with a tour of the grounds and meat production facility, and I always learn something new each time I’ve been so lucky to be part of one. The crowning event is, of course, the scrumptious dinner made on site that includes each of the wines produced at Casamonti. The antipasto is a grand selection of the meats produced there, along with crostini of one type or another, but always including the delicious mixture of what we would call an egg salad that is the family recipe of Anna Rita’s mother. Delish! The centerpiece of this dinner is a huge serving of the meat indigenous to Chianti…the Chianina beef. Traditionally, these huge bovine/oxen animals were used not only for food, but for labor, as well. Ray told us he well remembers his Grandfather’s Chianina right there on the farm, and they were stabled in what is now the Capre apartment (or our rabbit hole, as Anna Rita always refers to it). The meat is correctly served after a brief grilling on an outdoor flame, perfectly executed by either Sandro or Massimo, and served quite rare. I am not necessarily a fan of rare, but when in Rome…or Tuscany! I must admit it truly is quite delicious this way, and I don’t get that “rare” or bloody taste from this meat that seems to permeate other rare steaks I’ve dared to tangle with. Our sides were absolutely delicious roasted potatoes dressed skillfully in generous amounts of the fine Casamonti olive oil, rosemary, and sage, and a gorgeous green salad of the freshest lettuce elegantly donned in olive oil and sea salt. Perfection! Our dolci choices were tiramisu or fresh fruit…and in grand style, our loveliest of hostesses, Anna Rita, declared we would indulge and have both!
My sweet assistant
A grand meal, indeed, and good company – what a wonderful way to savor my last night in Chianti. I lingered just a little after the guests had left, and said my good byes to Ray and Anna Rita, not knowing if we’d cross paths in the morning. Goodbyes are always laced with a little sadness, but these goodbyes have become less a farewell and more alla prossima – until next time. With the assistance of Pepina, I prepped for the remainder of the unpleasant packing process....swearing to buy a luggage scale next time....and settled in for my late night tea and writing as I tried to ease the complex feelings that come with transitions.
The morning view from the Capre apartment at Casamonti
Thursday arrived…Kathleen’s last full day here. We both marveled at how quickly it appeared, but doesn’t one always do this when things are so grand? It had been decided the night before that today would be one of slow mode – we’d sleep in, take our time, and make the day spread out locally with time spent in Castellina. Twist my arm.
The morning ritual of tea and talk had its rightful place, and once we found a good “the end” moment, we were dressed and out the door to Simone’s caffe’ counter for that amazing cappuccini he does so well. Feeling the need to do some connection to the world on the other side of the ocean, we decided we’d park at the Chianti Bar, make lunch of it, and enjoy their free wifi. The day was incredibly beautiful, practically spring like in this most unspring like May in Tuscany, so tables were set up outside. We opted, however, to hang with a couple of locals inside and make use of the tables and lack of glare. A sparse lunch, a lot of catching up via email and social media, and before we knew it an hour and a half had passed.
I’d hauled laundry with me, so I made my way to the neat little lavandaria (knowing how to use it this time) while Kathleen cut herself loose in Castellina with recommendations to see the very nicely done civic museum (some really cool Estruscan stuff), as well as the Rocca Comunale (the old fortress) and the view climbing its stairs affords. She took my advice and had one heckuva time up there!
I busied myself with a quick walk into the main street of town while the dirt was being scourged from my clothing and found many a tourist enjoying this great day. A couple of gifts scored, I hurried back to get the drying underway and sit for a bit. While I was waiting, I dug through a stack of magazines and came across a day minder book of sorts for 2011, totally empty…one of those advertisement type publications. I was thrilled…paper!...and a nice means to record each days notes for later expounding upon. One other bit of entertainment for my wait was a pair of ladies who came in buried under giant comforters. I had such fun watching them carry on in conversation spewed so fast I really couldn’t keep up with it, but with more than enough inflection, exclamation, and laughter that I could probably fill in the blanks on what was amusing them. An older, suspendered gent came in and added to the fun by asking questions that only caused the ladies to rise in levels of volume and exclamatory replies. Bella!
Clean clothes folded and tucked into the car, we reunited and found our way to the Via Volte for a stroll. This is Castellina’s quaint medieval walkway that morphed into a virtual tunnel over the ages. Originally an open-air merchant street along the east wall, it was eventually built over as buildings were added and stacked upon each other in grand Italian style. It’s amazing to see the various configurations of arches that support untold tons of bricks, rock, and humanness. Reaching the end, I told Kathleen she was forbidden to go back to Texas until she’d had some of the finest gelato I’ve ever met…found at the little gelateria that Roberta had referred Marty and I to last week. I’d venture to say that 1.) the walk was worth it, and 2.) she had to agree with me that it was worth every single calorie.
From there, we wandered back to the main street and found our way to the modern but very nice walkway that the town has added along the entire length of the east wall. The view from there overlooks a villa or two, vineyards, an orchard, olive groves, and the endless vista of beautiful Chianti. A wondrous sample of spring wildflowers lined the walkway, the crickets offered a fine concerto, and lulling birdcalls rounded out the spectacular-ness of this ethereal countryside amphitheatre.
Despite true hunger being a more remote than real experience, we decided to head on to Dei Dottore for a last meal of their wonderfully thin but tasty pizza. The view from the hilltop window rewarded us splendidly, as did the satisfying meal (which we somehow managed to find room for...).
Once back to the rabbit hole, we had enough daylight left for me to decide a walk was a good idea, so I tennis-shoed up and made my way down the welcoming dirt road. The late day here is always spectacular, always satisfying, always endearing. The sun bows out gracefully to the west over the soft and multiple layers of Chianti hills, to then make its final curtain call behind a rugged peak of far-away mountains of which I’m not sure the name. Beautiful hues fill the sky, and whether it’s of a simple monotone variety, or of a meshed palette of the most beautiful Michaelangelo-esce pastels, it is relentless in its mission to inspire and awe. The now familiar bird chorus accompanied my walk, as did the sight of the Cinta Senese pigs going about their late day pig business. I stopped more than once to try to absorb it, to somehow incorporate it as more than just a glancing moment on this particular day. I noted a very tangible sense of change as I reflected on Kathleen having to leave, and knowing I was just a mere week behind her. It was a juxtaposition of feelings and emotions…missing home and my husband, eager to reunite, but also sad at having to leave this magical place.
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.