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!
Our early-ish rises (by vacation standards) put aside, Kathleen and I opted to just sleep until we decided it was enough. That, of course, basically put a stamp on this morning, declaring it “slow travel” mode. But how nice to rise late, ease ourselves into the day with tea, nibbles, and lots more talk over the table.
We finally pulled ourselves away from the comforts of the table, dolled up, and hit town…first for a stop off at Ray’s office. Oh, I must insert here the experience – a good one – with the public toilet. The stories of toilettes/WC/bagno in Italy abound, and most are true. Being of the most creative nature, Italians have also designed any number of ways to flush a toilet, as well as configure a public restroom. However, the one in Castellina looks more like a huge, gun-metal grey can or space module with a panel of buttons and instructions that surely confound a non-native speaker. I was able to assist Kathleen a bit to figure enough of it out, the coin was inserted, and whoosh…the can door very StarTrek-ishly slid open. Kathleen stepped in, pushed a button, and the door began to slide closed. I hollered in my best female friend fashion, “Is there any paper??” A somewhat alarmed “No!!” could be heard through the metal, and I managed to last-minute abort the door closure as I dug for my tissue. Well, that lead to another round of coinage and such, but the door finally shut again with success. Exiting with a huge grin, Kathleen expounded on this wondrous invention that not only automatically dispensed the tissue, but also totally sprayed the area down with disinfectant once the user exited. We told Ray about our amazement at such toilet technology, and he commenced to tell us the story of how this device detects weight when you enter; a means to keep any toilet criminals from trying to get in 2 or 3 for the price of one. He then told us of how an unaware mother sent her 3 children in to use at the same time, and the first participant flushed…thus signaling the can that the job was finito. Well, the disinfectant sprayed down all 3 kiddos in a goopy mess, and there was a bit of upheaval in town over the merits of this high tech method of germ fighting!
Visiting done, we headed across the road to a local little spot called Il Re Gallo, recommended highly by Ray, as well as Matteo of Pornanino. We entered, were shown a table, and had the hardest time deciding what to order. Final answer was a beautiful plate of antipasto, followed by a shared dish of tagliatelle with the wild boar sauce. Mmmmm! And yes, the lunch Chianti. The food did not disappoint...bravissimo! It was wonderful to dine on these delights, looking out the window from our cozy table at what had become a gray, blustery, and very (very!) cold day.
Our path this day lead to Gaiole in Chianti, one of the 4 cornerstone towns in ancient Chianti. The drive didn’t disappoint (I don’t think that adjective is allowed, nor necessary, in this land) and we found the very quiet little town. The main area is rectangular in shape, and was the ancient market place for the entire area. Its origins are probably Etruscan, so many, many years of shopping have occurred on this spot. The kind lady at the little Tourist Info place gave us some good literature, and we decided to head out and visit the Castello de Meleto, a forceful looking structure dating back to end of the 12th century, built for the Ricasoli family. Their name pops up with many castles around here…they held some great real estate in the day!
We signed up for the tour, met the young lady who was our guide, and were then joined by two older gals from France, and a young Italian honeymoon couple.
The castello was converted to a villa somewhere in the mid 1700’s, and the popular French trompe d’oeil style of faux painting dominates the somewhat tired looking, yet still regal interior.
The gem of this structure is the little theatre, one of a kind in the castles of this land…and it was grand! I’m not clear on whether this was added in the earliest days…probably not…but it just reeks of glossy, gaudy 1700’s style and appeal. The stage and its well-worn wooden floor, original backdrops still in place, and all the side trappings intrigued me to no end. It was as if frozen in time, the wear of the years showing, but the majestic underpinnings still very evident. Having had my feet on what I thought were old stages, I was lost in time as I placed my hand on the stage floor and let the ghosts of theatre past come alive. How many rehearsals had taken place here -- how many shows that brought laughter and probably a few tears to the audience, tucked nicely into the small balcony, which was also coated in glamour. There were scratches and small chunks of wood missing on the stage floor. I could just envision the act that caused that…maybe some grand sword fight where the actor accidently gouged the floor, or a prop dragged quickly away by a hurried stage hand. The rest of the tour wandered out, but I managed to stay a few more minutes in the silence, totally surrounded by this almost “dream sequence” feeling/vision of a stage full of lively actors and a raucous audience taking it all in.
We ended our tour in the tasting room (all these places produce wine, and most of it is very nice), tasted some of their products, and enjoyed a little visiting with the tour guide and the young couple. I tried out a little Italian on the guide, and complimented her on her command of English. She’d apologized several times to us, saying this was only her 2nd week at this job, but she really was quite good. I also told her I have a new appreciation for learning a foreign language, and I’d come see her next year and we’d converse in Italian. Boy, why do I set my bar so high?? ;-)
Enough touring accomplished this day, we followed the road back to Castellina. A stop off at Bar Italia for a little refreshment and wifi time, then a visit to the COOP, and we were soon bumping down the beloved dusty road to Casamonti. I prepared a fresh bruschetta and salad, along with some delectable prosciutto paired with a nice glass of Chianti, and we dined at the little table until we were full to the brim. That “Eat, Love, Pray” thing really does fit this lovely country – can’t figure out why that character in the book ever decided it was time to leave Italy for other countries foreign.
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.