May in Tuscany
Ahhh, May....the merry, merry month of May! And merry it was for main man Marty and I as we ventured off for a glorious journey through enchanted Toscana/Tuscany, but more specifically the Chianti Region.
For many, those monikers are unclear...Italy, okay, but Tuscany? Chianti? Are those towns or counties or just what?? True confession here in that I, too, was unclear on much of this at one point in time. So before I launch on the esapades of May in Tuscany, let's reveal a few of those mysteries of Italian geography!
Tuscany, or properly stated as Toscana, is an incredible region of central Italy that covers about 9,000 square miles and is home sweet home to some 3.75 million people. Ten different regions make up Toscana, and each is unique in its topography, culture, food, and just about everything else...including pride! Florence, or Firenze, is the capital of Tuscany, as well as a beautiful city cram-packed with many of the world's most precious works of art. Bella Toscana -- the seat of the Italian Renaissance, the birthplace of more great wines than you can shake a stick at, the cradle of exquisitely simple and fresh food, and the place that holds the ancestral linage of many of history's greatest thinkers, writers, artists, and inventors; Toscana effortlessly steals ones heart in a manner that is nigh to unescapable (but who would want to escape a love affair such as this??).
Our time in May was spent mainly in the Chianti region of Toscana...a smallish region that takes up about 42 square miles of undulating, green countryside laced with vineyards that produce the world-reknown Chianti wine and ancient olive groves that lovingly offer up the oil of the gods. Many of the "typical" pictures one associates with Italy and/or Tuscany are of the Chianti region, and believe me....it's as pretty as it looks, even prettier! Many quaint towns and villages take up residence in Chianti, and it was here that we decided to make camp and explore, slow travel style, the beauty and charms of la bella Chianti.
Having told many friends and family I was going to blog this trip, I felt a certain push (okay...incredible pressure!!) to live up to my threats and actually blog. I wanted to share the month I was going to spend there with those who were interested, but probably more selfishly, I wanted a record of my journey....my thoughts, the things we saw, the people we met, and the joy we experienced. One remembers such a small part of the experiences of this nature, or maybe I should say the "small things" that make such an impact but are soon buried in memories that coincide with photos or more major events. So thus I made a point to tap-tap away on the little laptop we brought, and even upload to a blog I'd hastily set up before we left. Needless to say, it was sloppy at best, but at least it was out there! Now, with this handy little website, I am taking the next step and adding my writings (with pictures...for you, Ray L. --- ha!) in a format that I hope will be much more pleasing and enjoyable to spend some time perusing. So... I truly hope you'll be able to reveal in the joy, ponder the richness, smell the aromas, and somehow feel like you're right along side us/me as the journey unfolds. Si...la gioia del viaggio é dolce!
(Due to some finesse that Weebly has not quite worked out yet, this page will hold all of the May posts in reverse order...latest to earliest dates. The journey itself begins in the April 2012 archives -- right column. :)
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.
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.
Today marks the long awaited cooking class with a delightful young lady named Guila Scarpaleggia, creator of Jul's Kitchen! GPS programmed for her country home, we set out with plenty of time to arrive, as well as make a stop at the gas station for an artistic cappuccino. This time, Simone the barista and latte artist, made one with a turkey and one with a bunny….awesome! He probably thinks I’m a little strange at my glee over this, but I also think he enjoys seeing his work appreciated. As I sat, he came over to the table and gave me a calendar that featured his creations, made for the gas station to give to customers, I presume. How thoughtful and sweet, and I will enjoy it so much! Note to self to take Simone something of our Texas gifts on the next visit.
Onward to the outer regions of Colle d’val Delsa where Guila’s family home is. At 31, she, like many young Italians, lives at home with her parents. Guilia obtained a degree in communications and marketing, found work unfulfilling and underpaid, and decided to turn her passion for cooking, writing, and photography into a food blog. This has opened incredible doors for her, and she is now conducting classes and even finding kitchenware sponsors. We choose to take one of her small classes…no more than 4 people, but just us 2 this day…at her family home in the countryside!
The drive was, what else…so very beautiful, and we were rewarded with views of poppy fields unlike any we’d seen thus far. The brilliant red-orange of these flowers seems almost surreal, as if they’ve been lit from within. Alone in expanse of red, or intermingled with the whites and yellows of other spring flowers, the sights were pure delight.
Following the GPS with somewhat less faith than normal – how could all these odd turns and little roads lead to where we were headed? – we decided to push onward, and alas…it was correct! We came upon a conglomeration of lovely buildings, some ancient, others not quite so, that were knitted together in community like only Italian villages can do. Probably no more than 25 individual dwelling places marked by numbers, we wound through the little street until we arrived at the last building on the right….a lovely two story home that is Guila’s family’s. We greeted each other warmly, took in the spectacular view over the valley behind the home, and commenced to talk.
Guila shared that this home was built by her great-grandfather in the 1920’s, I believe, and what is now the kitchen was the barn. Their little village was filled with city dwellers during WWII when many escaped to the countryside to avoid danger. She told us of how people hid in the upper rooms and areas of the home when the French and German troops came through, and of how her grandmother tells of remembering when the American soldiers came through. It was sobering to think of standing right there where this had occurred, and to remember how the war is so much more “real” to most Italians. It was on their soil, in the towns and cities, and not so long ago.
Cooking! Ahhh, yes! We had a wonderful time listening, learning, doing, tasting, experiencing as Guilia took us through the rotations of Tiramisu, made first so the flavors could meld, then fresh pasta – tagliatelle and tagliatellini, fresh antipasto of pecorino, truffle jam, fava beans and salt. Next, preparing a stuffed turkey breast using sliced sautéed little artichokes with onion in a reduced sauce, soon to be seared in olive oil and butter, then roasted on the stovetop. A fresh, lovely lemon sauce and a heartier porcini mushroom sauce where prepared as Marty and I rolled out the rested pasta dough and cranked out beautiful golden strips of pasta using Guilia’s grandmother’s pasta maker. It came out paper thin after having been pressed and pressed through the maker until almost transparent and ready to dry ever so briefly.
A warm salad of fresh fava beans, thinly sliced artichokes, lightly sautéed asparagus, grilled pecorino cheese, dressed lovingly with fine olive oil, salt, and pepper was our antipasto for the meal, and dare I say it’s presentation of colors, flavors, and textures was indeed a Tuscan masterpiece. We commenced to dine together after several hours work, enjoying incredible food, wonderful wine, and the company of a very special and talented young artist named Guilia.
The tiramisu, along with a taste of a local sweet wine made with honey and water, was the crown of the beautiful day we shared with Guilia in her family kitchen. The talk went on until we realized it was 4:30 (we arrived at 10:00), and we felt somewhat bad at taking up so much of the day that surely held other matters to be addressed. Guilia assured us it was not a problem, and that she had truly enjoyed the day, as well. We departed with a warm hug, the day’s recipes, two Jul’s Kitchen aprons, and a lovely hardbound book titled “Le Ricette di mia Nonna…My Grandmother’s Recipes”, Guilia’s first cookbook. Having now had a little time to peruse the book, we both found it to be not only a cookbook holding a wealth of marvelous authentic recipes, but also a beautifully written book of prose that carefully and lovingly paints a picture of the story behind each recipe. Guilia had a true gift for finding the words to convey her thoughts, her joys, her passions….and to share them with you. Her photography is exquisite, as well. What a tangible treasure to take away from our day.
Hurrying home, we arrived and began to prepare for yet another delight to this day….a TexMex meal with Lucio and Francesca! I brought along taco seasoning, freeze dried beans, and Spanish rice….oh, and tortillas!...to see if I could recreate such a meal under this Tuscan sun. Tortillas fried, hamburger cooked and seasoned, beans done, and rice ready…we all gathered at our little table, poured the Corona, and Lucio and Francesca were given their first lesson in constructing a tostado. Much good talk, laughter, eating, and enjoyment pursued as the night wore on. They brought a lovely prosecco and little pastries that look like mini cream puffs for dessert. It was perfect! As the congeniality persued, we again looked at the time in sheer amazement that it was already 11:30pm. There is no doubt that we have stepped into some sort of medieval time warp as the hours slide by like mere minutes.
Warm good byes and thanks exchanged, Lucio and Francesca headed out towards their home in Montesperutoli and we began the TexMex round up of dishes, feeling full, happy, and satisfied in only the way that food and friends can offer.
The view from Montelcino
Catch up for Wednesday’s brain fugue & the dying battery….
After our bodily fueling, the high on the hill town of Montelcino was our destination! The road straightens into a linear path once off the Autostrada at Buonconvento, and it’s not long before an intriguing looking cluster of ancient buildings hugging a steep hilltop announce themselves…terra cottas, ambers, goldenrod blending from afar stand out like a cache of Homer’s sirens. Excitement always mounts when I see “castle-ige” – anything castle looking sticking up -- , and Montelcino offers a nice dose of that with its impressive fortessa and several clock tower/church tower structures. I had visited Montelcino when I was traveling solo a year ago, so it was extra special to share my wee bit of familiarity with Main Man Marty. This town is also the home of the coveted and famous Brunello wine…a mere mention of the name will bring a swoon to the stance of most Italians I’ve met!
Car parked (finally), we entered the town walls (all these towns of any size have impressive walls around them…had to keep out the bad guys, or at least try!) and didn’t walk too far before we found our desired restaurant…a tiny little place secreted inside an ancient building and run by the couple Roberta and Antonio. She cooks, he waits the tables. We had to wait a bit, and barely slipped in before the 2:00 close. Grateful, we thanked Antonio and decided to go with the “Roberta’s Suggestion”, a full course meal featuring a lovely antipasto of typical Tuscan pleasures of uber thin prosciutto, pancetta, and salume, along with a sampling of crostini. One plate would’ve been enough for 3 people, and Antonio gave me a little grief over not finishing. I assured him it was wonderful, but was “abastansa” – enough – or I would never finish the rest of my meal! And before I forget, we absolutely had to add a small (pricey stuff!) bottle of Brunello to our table – very lovely, indeed! The primi was a delicately baked cheese and mushroom dish with pasta sheets thinner than the skin of the hautiest diva. It was exquisite. Didn’t think I could finish, but Antonio gave me “the eye”…so I happily found room! Our secundi was a butter-tender slice of beef cooked in a red wine sauce that I’m still trying to figure out. It was mouthwatering delicious…oh my. We were full to the brim, but still found space, of course, for the dessert offerings. We had a beautifully presented dish of panna cotta, an elegantly simple cream custard, all dolled up in a snazzy mixed berry sauce, and another of tiramisu, that lovely, iconic lady finger, espresso, and custard union. They were indeed as tasty as they were pretty to gaze upon. Roberta is a genius, and we asked Antonio to please share our bravas and gratitude with her. Oh, and this place was yet another delightful medieval space of two rooms entered through a tiny door, with a surprisingly large lower floor where the bathrooms were situated. We’re finding that all these spaces come fitted with the same lower level bathrooms (the architect in 1165 surely couldn’t have known to plan ahead for space upstairs)…and who knows – they may even connect under the streets just as the myriad of alleys and walkways so angularly and efficiently connect the world above them.
Full and satisfied, we set out and explored a bit more of Montelcino …and hopefully burned off a handful of those calories we so enjoyed by way of our climb up onto the ramparts of the fortessa. The views found there were expansive and grand. Clouds had formed a bit by afternoon, but this was a mere bonus as the shadows and lighting added such texture and interest to the vistas before us. As far as the eye can see, one is gifted with that ever changing, yet so constant Tuscan landscape. I truly hope some of Marty’s really-good-camera photos catch the essence of what the eye and soul view...to share it would be a joyful thing.
Finishing up Friday, May 4th ….
Ok…let’s see…when we last checked in on the two wandering Reynolds, they were having an exciting time at the lavanda (laundry mat)!! Actually, the day of no plans and hanging loose turned into a really fine one! We decided to load up and head out only with a vague idea of where to go. After a cardinal direction was decided upon, we steered towards the small town of Panzano. We’d been through there last October, but didn’t stop. My recollection of that almost-visit was of finding myself driving up a steep, veeery narrow cobbled street with an end that looked like we’d have to drive straight through the chiusa (church)! It was much more fun to wander up the same street on foot. We didn’t get far, however, before we entered conversation with the amusing, warm, and jovial Stefano, owner of the Academia del Buon Gusto, a whimsically decorated shop offering many local delicacies. A Bocelli song playing in the background is what made us take pause initially, and when Stefano noticed, he stepped out to say hello…with his wonderful medieval style hat and apron on, but more noticeable – his bright smile and twinkling eyes. After a bit of conversation…Stefano being very kind in helping us along in Italian…I commented on how beautiful his eyes were. They were a soft jade green…maybe a shade or two lighter than an olive leaf. He told us his mother was Croatian; thus, his eyes. Ah…va bene! After some fun chat and exchanging of contact info (Stefano told us he learned of the Terlingua chili cookoff and wanted to go some day…he has our number for when that day comes!) we had to quickly walk through the rest of the tiny center, or centro (“chin-tro”), and head towards our next unexpected pleasure of the day—meeting our newest Italian friends, Lucio and Francesca, in Greve in Chianti!
I "met" Lucio when Marty and I signed up on Conversation Exchange as a means to help/receive help with native Italian speakers either over Skype or just through email. Lucio and I traded periodic emails, and both being teachers, we agreed to “grade” the other's typing of mistakes. It worked well, and when this trip was planned, we decided we all needed to meet. It didn’t hurt, either, that their town is only about 15 miles as the crow flies from Castellina in Chianti.
We found our way to each other in Greve, and commenced to talk and get to know one another as we strolled the unusual triangular shaped main piazza in Greve. It was then decided we’d find some nice vino, and with the info gleaned on the street by Francesca, we found our way to an amazing tasting room a street or two off the centro. It operated via a card system; purchase a debit card of sorts, find the wine you’d like to taste (from literally thousands, I’d guess), pop the card in, push the button….salute! It was really quite fun as we got to taste some wines we’d never have done otherwise. The dessert was getting to sit and visit more with Lucio and Francesco – a truly warm and likeable couple.
What a beautiful couple!
They both are way (way!) ahead of us in language acquisition, but seemed to genuinely appreciate our attempts, as well as agree that Italian is a difficult language to master. I’ll just be glad when I’m a little past the stage of an 18 month old! We parted, but agreed to find an evening to have that TexMex meal I’d promised them via an email. How? Well, I packed some corn tortillas, those Taco Bell style freeze-dried frijoles, taco seasoning, and packaged Spanish rice. Add a little Italian beef, lettuce, and tomatoes, and I’m hoping we’ll produce some decent tostados – ole!
Home on the late side, we opted for a quick dinner in town (I really must start writing down these restaurant names!), gobbled it up, then came back to get ourselves to sleep at an hour conducive to an early rise…finally.
May 2 – continued….
Oh dear, typing something two days later can be quite the challenge for this vagabond of middle age status! I think I shall skip ahead to yesterday (!), Thursday the 3rd, then I’ll take a little time to recap Wednesday, May 2nd . Most likely a strong hit of espresso will assist in that endeavor. J
So…allora….Thursday, May 3rd, presented itself as yet another gloriously sunny day with temps on the cool side. Highs have been in the mid, maybe upper, 60’s with lows in the 40’s at night. Here, the government mandates when heating and cooling can be used, and I believe it’s the end of March when heating is a no-no. I have acclimated, though, and also found it a lovely excuse to buy the cute little black Italian sweater.
Despite our very best…honestly…intentions, we didn’t make it on the highway until late morning. We have vowed to change that habit…tomorrow. Anyway, the road awaited and we took the Autostrada a portion of the way to pick up a little time. The autostrada here is a nicely divided 4 lane highway, easily marked once you figure a few of the signs and protocol out. This is my 3rd time to drive in Italy, and it feels “normal” once I get my Italy goggles on. Marty’s enjoying his first round of it, and has only nearly killed us a couple of times (wink-wink). The main thing to remember is 1.) stay right unless you plan to go 30+ miles faster than the speed limit, and 2.) keep ALERT! There is no such thing as a shoulder, either on the Autostrada, the country roads, or anywhere else…at least that I’ve encountered. I’d dare to say that the wreck stats here for reasons of distraction are dramatically lower unless one has a death wish.
Andiamo (Let’s go)...! We found our way to the beautiful hilltop town of Montepulciano, famous for the exquisite nobile (NOH-be-lay) wine. Again, the scenes along the way were dramatically spectacular. One can look any direction and be instantly rewarded with seemingly endless vistas of rolling emerald green punctuated with lighter and darker hues, seas of the spring yellow flowers, and the soldier lines of cypress marching up and down the hill crests, usually leading the way to and from a hilltop villa. There were enough clouds of puffy white to add interest, and it seems the wheat (the majority of the green fields) were just beginning to show the first kisses of gold along their tops when the sun shone just right on them. Sheer beauty.
At the top of the windy, twisty road that lead us upward, we crested at the town of Montalpuciano and found the free parking area (thanks again, Rick Steves), then wandering up into the centro storico. Another gorgeous example of antiquity, this town offered all the rewards aforementioned. And a plus…seemingly relatively few tourists. Now I hesitate to glory in that because I hope it’s not an indication of the downturn facing Italy, as in so many economies these days. We’re all in the same boat, but I think Italy may be a bit ahead of the US. However, this isn’t the big tourist season yet, so it may be the norm, of sorts. We decided to hit the desired restaurant early, and it was a good thing. This spot (name eludes me at the moment) was incredible, both in food and ambiance. Tiny and intimate, it was secluded in yet one of hundreds of little spots that make up the inner spaces of these marvelous, medieval buildings. The walls were old stone, the ceilings terracotta tile with rough hewn timbers holding them up, the staff efficient yet attentive, and in the back within view, the tiny kitchen and the roaring brick oven that seemed to contain enough flame to be the entrance gate to hades. The flame, however, was merely the vehicle to sear the absolutely HUGE slabs of beef they famously serve here.
We choose the vino della casa (the house wine), a rich and pleasing nobile, a dish of panzanella ( rustic Tuscan bread salad with tomato and basil) and pici pasta con cinghiale ( a pasta that reminds me of giant worms covered in a rich, meaty wild boar sauce) to share, followed by a stuffed, roasted chicken dish. This was probably our best meal yet! Everything was subtly powerful in flavor, texture, and delight…just right. We added a dessert of tartufi gelato (truffle ice cream..yep!) …oh, and some limone gelato (lemon ice cream), too. All told, the food and ambiance alone would equal a memory to behold, but then…a French couple were seated at our table (this place is small, so all seats are used). We exchanged a smile or two, then he asked if my meal was good…in English. We started talking, and lo & behold…our talk lead to discovering we have mutual friends in Texas! Can we say small world?? Turns out this fellow is a long-time blues music promoter, and thus knows a few of our fellow music friends. Our talk lead to much exclamation over such things, much laughter over other things, and even the kind sharing of the Mrs. of her meal…a plate of what looked like empty bones, but were actually goat ribs. That lead to a lot of joking and laughing amongst our table and the one near by. She even insisted we sample her dessert…a biscotti type small cookie called cantucci dipped in vin santo, a lovely sweet wine. How sweet and wonderful to meet friends you never knew you had! We parted, Facebook info exchanged, then headed out to explore the town.
Our wanderings took us to the main piazza, a climb up the clock tower (and some joking in Italian with the ticket fellow…he actually seemed to appreciate Marty’s attempts at humor, all spoken correctly!), then on to the renowned Contucci wine cellar off the main square.
We met the “famous” Adamo Contucci and did a tasting. He spoke no English, and we managed quite well. At 75, this fellow was warm, lively, friendly, and much fun. He is a Contucci, the family that over 800 years ago created the famed nobile wine. The cellar, underneath the family home (built in the 1200’s), was amazing. Dark, chilly, with huge oak casks lining the walls, it was all it should be. This nobile created by the Contucci’s was revered by ancient popes….one was said to have bathed in it. We tasted 4 or 5 (surprised we could walk out…the servings were generous), and commenced to purchase for taking and shipping. Our new friend Adamo wouldn’t let us pay for the opener we wanted to buy…un regalo da il nostra amico (a gift from our friend)! We took some photos with Adamo, hugged and kissed, and left with our rich wine and our even richer experience.
A bit more walking around town, the purchase of my sweater (all conducted in Italian…yeeee!), then off to find the car. The drive home was splendid….more country roads through small villages, tiny almost/or were villages, and scenery to die for. We came across the famous “This is Tuscany” scene most all of you have seen…the little chapel with a cypress on either side, sitting on a hilltop. Had to stop for photos, of course, and a waxing moon was pinned just high enough above to add the final touch to what will be some amazing shots. Bella, bella!
We decided to revisit the pizza trattoria right outside of Castellina for a bite, then headed home…late again….to undo the day.
May 4th – Friday: Since I have a few more minutes here, I’ll keep going!! We slept in really late today, by decision, got up and headed into town to wash clothes. A very nice do-it-yourself lavanda was found, and after finally noticing the “How to” in English, in huge letters, on the wall…we got some washing done. Really wish I’d brought more than one pair of jeans to fend off the chill, but ah well. I’m currently sitting in our favorite little spot, Bar Italia, sipping a Corona (it’s Italy…why not have an early afternoon nip…of Mexican beer?? LOL!), and working on media catch up. Castellina is at its day pace of locals going about business, the cute old people sitting and watching or strolling the street (always dressed to look nice), the intermittent tourists (or big groups when a bus comes through), and life in general at business. This bar is more local than not. And all “bars” here mean for coffee, although you can always find the stronger stuff, too! They truly are the social center of town. We always find the older gents sitting watching a game or reading the paper together, the working folks coming in for a bite or espresso, and the tourists, like us, popping in now and then. Nice rhythm to the place, and it feels good. The workers here are the same 2 or 3…they probably get amused at us.
Our plan after leaving here is to stay more local…a slower paced day…and see a few spots not far from town. AND… we have vowed to go to bed early and get up early (sounds familiar, doesn’t it??) !!! Cortona is on the map tomorrow, and we’d love to get our little car on the road before 8 or 9 nel domain mattina (in the morning tomorrow)!
A couple of notes of random nature: we bought some cherry tomatoes at the COOP, from Sicily, that were like nothing we’ve ever tasted. The brightest red globes attached to green stars linked to stems that looked to be made of green velvet. Almost hard to believe they were real. The first bite presents a crunch/pop/ burst of flavor that is startling. Needless to say, they didn’t last long.
Another thing that is pervasive and always amazing to me is the antiquity beneath our feet, at our hands, everywhere. To walk the same stones that people walked a thousand or more years ago, to touch the same wall or brick or seat. To look upon the same views, gaze at the same painting, rest myself on the same stone bench in the piazza that others did for so many years…it’s an experience that is incredible for lack of better words. And you know, people are so much the same. The Etruscan museum in Volterra illustrated that so finely….people are, well – people. J
Time to finish my Corona, then hit the road with il mio marito (my husband)…adventure awaits (and something pretty good for lunch, too, I imagine!).
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!!)
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.