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.
May 23, Wednesday - Oleana, San Donato, Badia di Passignano, an Etruscan Tomb, Certaldo Alto, and dinner with friends
Fog. Thick as that pea soup simile we’re all so familiar with, but maybe here we should say zuppa fragoli?? A most foggy, drizzly, and Seattle-as-it-gets-in Tuscany morning greeted me as I peered through the bedroom window. Ah well, I am in Toscana, after all, and if it’s foggy, non problema! And as to stay in tune with the day’s anima, I, too, moved slowly, if not mysteriously, to ready for the doings of the day.
Easing down the road, I pulled into my little Agip station, scooted up the stairs, and greeted Simone. Cappuccino and a brioche this day, as is the typical Italian breakfast. Besides, it was rather late in the morning and I didn’t want to go for one of the pannino type bites I usually indulge in. This morning’s latte art was a cute little bunny…just what I needed to bring a quick smile and a hearty “Grazie…bravo!” for pleased Simone. We exchanged a few pleasantries, I finished up my lovely breakfast, and it was out the door towards….I wasn’t totally sure. Bella!
My original plans for the day were to go northwest to Bagni di Lucca to meet the Facebook friends who operate Villa Rosa Tuscany. I’d sent them a message the day before, but to my knowledge had not received a reply (side note: turns out they had left on holiday. Ah well…prosimmo volta – next time!). Deciding I might just go on to Lucca and call up another Facebook friend that Marty and I met last fall, the lovely Rosanna, I hit the road holding that itinerary mostly in mind. Well, as it goes when I travel da sola, I allow myself the luxury of taking the back door to the off the beaten path back door…and it’s always rewarding, if not totally productive as far as reaching a chosen destination goes. And as such, it wasn’t too far down the highway that I quickly halted, made a U-ie, and headed down an unknown gravel path. Oh…and this occurred after I’d decided to replace Lucca with Pisa as the day had already reached the half-way point and I hadn’t called Rosanna...and the idea of climbing that leaning tower seemed most enticing!
I’d noted one of those great little brown signs (brown denotes historical) stating Castello di Paneratta was somewhere down this particular gravel path, and anything that reeks of castle gets my quick attention. I’d also seen something castle-y looking as I rounded a corner before making the u-turn, so a beeline to it was certainly called for. The first sign directed me on down the somewhat paved road, twisting and curving through lovely Chianti forest. A peaceful and mysterious drive it was, and I just knew a fog-shrouded castle awaited my visit. Fork in the road…no sign directing which direction to take (yes, good signage…until a critical point and often one is left to gut instinct!), so I opted for “up” as all good castles perch on hilltops, si? Albeit a most scenic pathway, I never found, nor even caught another glimpse of a castle…and now we were going down. Not a good indication. The GPS had never heard of this particular castle, so I decided to back track and take the other direction back at the fork. That mission accomplished, I still had not seen a glimmer of anything castle-like…but I did see something interesting coming into view, as well as a sign informing me I was nearing Olena. And what a reward it was! I came upon the Italian version of a tiny little ghost town…anyone home??...and it was incredibly intriguing. I inched along, looking to and fro, trying to decide if this really was inhabited by Italian ghosts -- or possibly something more tangible. Of the 4 vehicles I saw, only one looked loosely operational. Noting some flowering plants and a few other articles that declared a living being was probably near by, I suddenly had visions of some hermit type moonshiner flying out, waving some medieval weapon at me, and I decided I’d make a nice little turn and inch my way out. But I did this slowly, savoring the sight and taking great glee in what I’d chanced upon. How many other tourists had been here, mind you? Never did find that castle.
A quiet street in San Donato
Still thinking I had time to make Pisa before I needed to arrive at Lucio and Francesca’s home in Montespertoli for dinner, I veered back on solid pavement, leaning tower bound, but only for about 3 minutes. The town of San Donato in Poggia beckoned to my left. I’d driven by it any number of times, noted the old part of town, but never found the time to stop. Today was different, and I pulled quickly off the road and hoped I could find my way to the old town easily. Hope runs eternal--- I did not, but with a little look at the GPS map, I rather quickly scouted the right turn and found a neat little parking spot overlooking the old church and the valley beyond. San Donato is certainly not on the tourist map, but is another one of those lovely, clean, neat, and ancient towns that dot this region almost as prolifically as the vineyards. I walked from my parking spot to the first turn off that lead to the old centro storico of town. The small piazza was dominated, as all are, by the church, a civic building, and a communal well. This particular well was covered in the most beautiful metal lid, for lack of a better word, that joined sides in a peak, offering a most impressive sight. Standing along side it were 3 elderly ladies, donned in their uniform of practical, neutral colored skirt, sweater over a tidy blouse, and comfortable shoes. They chattered like chickens, all only half taking turns to interject something that must’ve been terribly important. As this scene unfolded, a fellow was cupping his hands under the ages-old water fountain, also found in all piazzas, and splashing his hair to coax it into a respectable do. No one but me around, watching a moment in time in the year 2012, that had played out how many times over the past 1000 plus years? What a lucky observer I was. I wandered the small streets for another 20 minutes, piu o meno (more or less), looking in shop windows, taking note of the typical architecture and fittings, and loving every moment of it. I think I saw maybe two other folks who were non-locals…what a lovely way to view the face of charming, rural Italy as the sun was just beginning to send the fog back to its hinterland.
As I pulled back out onto the small highway leading to the autostrada, I rethought my Pisa plans and determined a rushed drive that direction versus more leisurely road warrior wanderings was not the best of intentions at this point. And besides…how many little pull offs awaited me from this point forward until I arrived at Lucio and Francesca’s??
Checking the atlas and savoring that thrill that holding a map and making a choice can bring, I decided the next stop was towards the northwest to a spot I’d seen a photo of in one of the tourist brochures….Badia di Passignano. Other than knowing it was yet another oh-so-old church or monastery type complex, I was unsure of its story, but intrigued by its appearance. Even if the sight had left me disappointed (which it didn’t…just the fact that it was another private property type of set up where one can look but not touch…sigh), the drive up to the small village was enough to bring a wide-spread smile to my face as I took in the glorious sun-lit views while the little Punta and I winded, twisted, and undulated our way up.
Now I’m still not sure if I trespassed or not as I noticed the few other tourists all seemed to avoid going where I went (and they were Italians…guess I missed something!), and fortunately no one ran after me with a stick, but I managed to walk up a most inviting pathway lined with majestic cypress to what looked to be the old church complex. There was a sign or two clinging to the ancient wall, and while not able to decipher in full, I surmised that this is still an actively used structure, and no…tourists weren’t a part of the plan.
My consolation prize was to at least wander around this courtyard looking area that contained one parked car, gaze over the massive stone wall to the road below, sit on a wonderfully old stone bench (now just who all had sat there before me, I pondered!), and have a little fun with the timer on my tiny camera. Not a bad ending after all.
A glance at my watch revealed a morning that had somehow renamed itself as an afternoon, totally undetected by my negligent eye. What better excuse to declare it time for lunch, and I made my way back to a tidy little restaurant I’d noted on my short walk towards what qualified as town here. I was promptly greeted by the nice young waiter and shown a table in the still-enclosed garden area. How beautiful! A few others inhabited this space, and I was pleased with the anticipated glances of those wondering just why I was alone. Of course, you and I know it’s far from mysterious, but it’s a bit amusing to me to be the object of contemplation….real or imagined.
I opted for a Tuscan specialty I’d not yet tried….risotto con fiori de zucca, or rice with squash flowers. Battered and fried zucchini blossoms are practically a holy experience here, and I’d yet to savor those, so this was the next best thing. Throw in that nice glass of the local Chianti, a side of Tuscan bread, and bon appetito…down the hatch it went! Oh…and I must add that the entire passage was conducted in l’italiano…va bene!
Satiated in more ways than one should deserve at only half day (Italy certainly has that effect), I found my way back to the car, pulled out the atlas, and determined my plotted course would take me along the back roads as I meandered towards the next destination, at least planned one, of the town of Certaldo. Marty and I had not been there, and I recalled hearing it was a great place to visit. But as a Point A to Point B trajectory does not exist for this solo lady traveler, I found my self bumping and bustling over a few nicely challenging roads, exchanging pleasing glances with many a small borgo or village. Some of these “villages” are truly nothing more than a largish building or two, stuck together in beautiful Italian fashion, and providing maybe 6 to 10 dwellings. It’s always so sweet to be gifted with even just a moment of the everyday lives of these folks…tending the garden, hanging some laundry out the window, shaking a rug of the day’s dust, or catching a whiff of something delicious cooking on a hidden stove.
Delighted at each new discovery, my next find was coming upon a tiny place called La Collina. I’m sure it was once something more substantial, but today seemed to consist of several modest homes, one which looked to have been the old church whose narthex now housed a motorcycle and its owner working on repairs, and a couple of stately repurposed villas. However, what grabbed my attention in a rabid way was the small brown sign reading “Tombe Etrusca” --- Eureka! Another shot at setting foot in an Etruscan tomb!
Off to the tombs!
I pulled off the road, assessed my surroundings, and quickly figured out it was just me and the locals…again. Deciding my choice of roadside parking was not in anyone’s way, I stepped out into the warm (finally!) sun and followed the first arrow directing me towards the tomb. Now I should’ve figured out this would be a great adventure as soon as my steps lead me right through what appeared to be someone’s yard. The dog was behind a fence, fortunately, and the cat was rather unimpressed with my hello, so I ventured on, following what I guessed must be the path to the tomb. A beautiful walk, I looked out over olive groves and yet another Tuscan vista that cannot be coaxed to confine itself to words. I paused under cherry trees, branches bending with an almost-ripe explosion of little red orbs. It crossed my mind that the Etruscans most probably walked these same paths, as well, as they made their way to the tombs of their loved ones. Did they stop for a snack of sun-warmed cherries? As I wandered down what I thought must be the wrong path…am I trespassing on someone’s land?...I had to be!...I decided to retrace my steps and see if I could make sense of which way I should turn. There, not too far in front of me but on the ground out of view, was a weathered, tired sign pointing to the tombe. Well, okay…I was still within legal limits and plowed onward. v
Taking a little different route this time, I noted one more old sign, still upright, that pointed to a straight-away through the gnarled, massive olive trees-- first down a bit, then up…up a small hill to a crest. Yes…to the tomb! Excited to have found this, yet also more than thrilled just to be totally alone, wandering through a gorgeous and very old grove, I slowed my pace and tried to relish each moment. The warm caress of the sun soothed me, the bird songs serenaded me, and even the chirp-chirp of the crickets seemed to play magic in my mind. And I marveled that my feet were traversing a path ancient where many a procession had occurred – 3, even 4 or 5 thousand years ago – as those called Etruscans proceeded up the same hill to lay the ashes of their beloved to rest amongst the beauty of this place. I need not even say, but will, that there was a quiet reverence to this place and the beauty found here on this day in the 21st century.
I crested the hilltop and took in my first sight of the tomb, now open to the sky but originally enclosed with a dome covered in earth. How easily, though, I could see and imagine this place in its completeness – how I could see the intricately carved urns we had viewed in the museums carefully placed in these stone slab and brick parlors, along with riches for the afterlife. I stood in awe, truly astonished that I was here, alone, not another tourist for how many miles?...and laying my hands on the cool, grey rock that had been carefully hewn and placed by another human hand on a day no different than this day, by a person no different than you or I.
Certaldo called me onward, and I reluctantly left my quiet sanctuary, bidding the scene farewell with thanks. The road did not disappoint as it laid itself out like a grey river, flowing and free falling around hairpin turns more like Grand Canyon donkey trails than roads for automobiles. I did finally figure out one type of road signage, however. I noted a sign that read “4 Tornati” above the Z-shaped arrow symbol. Four extreme hairpin turns later, it occurred to me that I had, indeed, been warned, and a self-deprecating laugh ensued. But what a thrill, what a treat, what an experience as I made my way westward, taking in all the sweet trappings of this Tuscan landscape that had become so dear, so pleasing, and so much fun to entwine myself with as I traveled freely along.
As I continued onward towards Certaldo, my path took me forward through many a hamlet, borgo, or almost-village…all charming and forthright in their proclamation of import. As much as I would’ve loved to jot the name of each and every one, I would surely have made headway of about 5 kilometers each hour. However, one small place I passed through offered up a scene that caught my eye and enticed me to take note of the name – Pancrazio. Nothing grand or out of “the ordinary”, but as I slowed to the mandatory 50 km per hour, I took a sideways glance at a lovely garden being tenderly cared for by a couple that appeared to be almost as ancient as the building that watched over their labors. So many thoughts raced through my mind: How old were they? How long had they been married? Had they lived in this spot all their married lives? Were they possibly born here, as well? I’ll never know, but my imagination can certainly fill in the blanks. What I do know, though, is that it was touching to see them working along side each other, tending to the fresh growth that would sustain them over the summer…and tending to the other growth that had kept them together so many untold years.
I finally arrived at my declared destination and wound a rather unproductive course finding my way to what I hoped would be the centro storico. It beckoned to me from a far; a grand looking walled city perched on a craggy hillside. But I was stumbling around in this newer area and getting somewhat frustrated. You see, Miz GPS will happily find place names for her master of the wheel, but not more general areas. I had learned, though, that going to the “Local Attractions” button could usually get one at least close to the desired location.
Soon enough, I found a nice parking lot in the center of new town and noted a sign to “Certaldo Alto”, along with a road that appeared to lead up. Good enough. However, I had one item on my agenda that I had to attend to before more touristing was allowed.
I was to be the guest for dinner at our friends Lucio and Francesca’s home in Montespertoli that evening, and as is customary for “us Italians”, the guest is to bring the dolce and an after dinner beverage. I noted a very handy Pasticerria (pastry shop) right across from the parking lot and decided that was my first target. Crossing the busy street with the nerve of a local, I walked in and found a grandmotherly looking figure talking rapidly with a somewhat younger woman and a cute girl of about 8 years. I smiled, offered my politest “Buona sera”, and made my way to the beautiful array of goodies. What seemed like a long time passed, and the grandmotherly gal found her way behind the counter. Taking my very best shot at informing her I was attending dinner with friends and needed to take dessert, we went back and forth a few times, each of us not quite sure what the other needed. As her eyes seemed to finally convey understanding at what I was telling her, she pulled out a paper and asked me how many persone there would be. I told her tre, and thought “Okay…we’re getting somewhere!”. She then asked me my name and what time…was dinner? Or maybe what time did I need them? Or I would pick them up at what time?? A bit puzzled, I chalked it up to another custom I didn’t know and decided she must need a bit of time to get the little goodie tray prepared. We both smiled at our accomplishment, and I headed towards the door as I thanked her. An urgent “Aspetto!” (wait) caused me to halt in my tracks…and the nonna walked to the other side of the room and give me a business card, or a bigletto (ticket) as she labeled it. “Oh”, I thought to myself… “she wants to be sure I know the name of this cute little place!” I thanked her and made note of the hour so I would be certain to return at our agreed upon pick up time of 6:30.
I walked the steep uphill road to Certaldo Alto, enjoying the physical exertion after my mostly seated day thus far. The weather was actually warm and I’d produced a worthy spring sweat by the time I crested the hill. Other than a lady walking her dog, I was the only one on this uphill path. The view was stellar…a clear blue sky and just the slightest dusting of afternoon haze framed a gorgeous west/northwest view that featured the skyline of San Gimignano as its crown jewel. I lingered over this for a few moments while I caught my breath and wiped the sweat from my brow.
Moving along, mindful of my pastry time limit, I turned a corner and found myself on one of the main streets leading into the centro. Of course, no traffic allowed up here, and I was again amazed at the lack of tourists. They were there, but light in number for a larger town like this. Feeling the toll of the warm sun, I decided it was beer-thirty and a cold brew was just the afternoon aperitif I needed. I noted an interesting little shop offering local specialties, as well as beverages, so I made a footed u-turn and planted myself at the counter. Mind you, the very attractive Italian man with the gorgeous flowing curls and mysterious dark eyes had nothing to do with my decision for a rest stop at this particular place! I ordered my brew in somewhat botched Italian, and then enjoyed a cooling off while the cold liquid found its way down quite nicely.
Photo courtesy of blogsiena.com
A number of things were for sale in this shop, so I picked out a nice little bottle of the heavenly Vin Santo and purchased it to go along with my pastry tray that was, no doubt, being lovingly put together at that very moment. Thanking the beautiful man, I headed back out on the street and towards the centro. How delightful to happen upon the ending of a wedding! A lovely English bride and her handsome groom were chatting with the small gathering of guests and family, then made their way with the photographer for photos. I stayed just on the periphery of too close and took great pleasure in watching the festivities, secretly wishing them a long life together and marveling at the beauty of the place they choose to begin life together. As the wedding party faded into vehicles towards their undisclosed celebration, I happily wandered off the main road and lingered as I found one incredible view after another at this altitude.
Each of the towns I’ve been so fortunate to visit has a special personality and charm of their own, but Certaldo Alto
seemed to be a wee bit gifted in that department.
I was smitten, and quickly sent Marty a text that
read “You have to see this place!” The narrow
passages, old as the ages buildings, and quiet pace
here were mesmerizing. I stopped and cupped roses
in my hands that were colored so vibrant they
seemed not real. Their fragrances were unlike
any I’d ever smelled – perfumed with oils that
certainly have had centuries to perfect themselves
into something that caused me to not want to
And finally…finalmente!!!....jasmine. Sweet, creamy white, heavenly perfumed, glorious jasmine was here, on the ancient
walls of Certaldo Alto! Due to the
cold and rainy spring, this luscious
flora had held off its spring exhibition
and was just beginning to think about
changing into its finery in most all areas
we/I’d been in, which admittedly
disappointed me. May of last year
was colored and flavored in jasmine…
it was “the fragrance” of the Italian spring
in my mind, and so missing this year.
I was satiated now. The luxurious, royal perfume filled my nostrils…as the
church bells rang. Spring in Italy
Thank you, dear Certaldo Alto.
A check of the time and it was clear I needed to head downhill rather soon. I took in a view towards the city as I crested the rise where one of the old gates to the city sat. Yep, I could see the pasticerria, as well as the little tram that hauled people up and down from the new town to the old. I’ll walk, thank you! A good bye to this wonderful place and I was soon trotting down to the shop, ready to pick up the goodies.
As I wandered back in, there sat nonna, replaced behind the counter by a man who looked to be about my age, and a pretty teenage girl. I greeted them, nonna acknowledged me -- the senora --, and said a word or two to the man. I was feeling self-assured she had relayed to him that I was here, on time, to pick up my little tray of yummies. He finished helping another customer, then smiled my way. I went to the counter then hesitated, thinking he’d be pulling out a scrumptious tray to hand me, and we’d be finito. The three seconds too long pause accompanied by his “Yes?” look caused me to rapidly shift to “start over” mode, as puzzled as I was, and I repeated my story of dinner with friends, need a dessert, etc. Well, he seemed to know exactly what I was saying, thankfully, and took out a pretty little gold colored plastic tray. “Va bene?”, he asked. “Perfetto!”, I replied, and he commenced to fill it up with a beautiful assortment of lovely little cookies and such. As most of these purchases are for gifting, they are beautifully wrapped in nice paper and secured with a ribbon, this particular one being black paper with gold writing and a gold ribbon. Wonderful! I was now properly prepared to be an appropriate guest.
I thanked him profusely, exchanged smiles and expressive buona sera’s with seated nonna as I left, and felt a warm feeling of satisfaction in my very local transaction now completed. I was, however, still pondering over the earlier event, chalking it up to yet another vague protocol I wasn’t aware of.
A beautiful drive out of Certaldo took me to the town of Montespertoli, just to the west/southwest of Florence, where Lucio and Francesca make their home. It’s a mid size town and seemed more new than old, at least the parts I was privy to see. I’d come in from a different way than planned (that being from Pisa!), and a phone call to Lucio lead him to find me rather far away from their apartment. He very nicely queried as to why I came in that way….had I gotten lost?....and I told him of my day, apologizing for making him take a 15 trip each way to fetch me. You know you have a good friend when they’ll do that for you….and still greet you with a huge smile and a warm hug.
I was heartily greeted with another warm hug by Francesca when we entered their lovely apartment, and it occurred to me once again at just how special these events in life are. Total strangers a mere few months ago, over 5000 miles apart, and now we were greeting each other like old friends, sharing a wonderful meal together yet again.
Francesca had prepared a scrumptious ceno (dinner) that started with a homemade lasagna for our primi. I asked Francesca about the recipe and she laughed…something like lasagna usually wasn’t made with a recipe. You just made it like your mother made it…and her mother….and her mother…and so on. Ahhhh, how wonderful! And yes…it was delicious! The primi was followed by a fantastic spread of local cheeses from a producer just mere miles away (they were incredible!), hearty Tuscan bread, a wonderful green salad, and sautéed zucchini. Everything was fresh, delicious, and thoroughly enjoyed…a feast intertwined with much conversation and laughter. We even included Marty for a few minutes by way of Skype while he was at the hospital. Fun, indeed!
We finally wound things down about 11:30 as I had about a 45 minute drive ahead of me back to Casamonti. Stories of crazed wild boars peppered my imagination as Lucio and Francesca suggested I take the main autostrada home in the dark. It didn’t require much arm-twisting, but let’s just say that my path took a number of odd turns through dark country roads as Miz GPS was hell-bent on back roads versus the auto strada. Ahh well, more adventure capped with a safe, if late, arrival. What a glorious day, yes indeed!
And one other note: As I shifted through some items and began to notate a few things in my journal, the card/bigletto from the pasticerria slipped out. “Now just what was the name of that place?”, I pondered as I picked it up to read. “La Saletta – osteria, enoteca” greeted my eyes. After a pregnant pause, I burst into laughter as it all suddenly came clear to me. My little nonna back at the shop had decided I must be asking to make dinner reservations; thus, the number of persone, my name, and what time! Well, too late now, and I could only hope she found as much humor in our misguided conversation as I had once it was clear this senora was a no-show. At least I bought a tray of pastries from them!
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.
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.
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.
Monday morning dawns beautiful in Chianti….and pretty darn cold…and windier than my hometown of Corpus Christi, Texas on one of its best “windy city” days. This most unusual for May cold front had certainly announced itself loudly here in Tuscany, as well as Lombardy (the region that Piacenza is in). However, as long as a warm sun is shining, all is well.
Kathleen and I convinced ourselves that an early-ish rise was the best plan, so up by around 8:00, we prepped for the day’s adventures. First stop was for cappuccino and Simone’s art work. We were gifted with a swan and a turkey (or is that a peacock??), both as lovely as ever. And so temporal…always a little painful to have to stir away the beautiful little creatures he creates. A breakfast panino, some friendly chat, and onward southerly towards Siena!
Ah, but I forget…we first made a stop at Ray’s office to introduce Kathleen, say hello, make a call to Wells Fargo to find out why a withdrawal wouldn’t work (easily solved, thank goodness), chat a bit, solve a few world problems, then…adiamo a Siena!
Having “ been there, done that” last week with Marty, following the GPS’s convoluted instructions into the town center to the stadio parking wasn’t near the challenge it was the first time. Yay! Like a soccer fan pro who’d done it a million times, I wound around each curve, coursed through each intersection, and whipped the little Punto into the parking area without a hitch. But lest I brag too brashly, I willingly admit having that satellite driven lighthouse of a GPS did make a big difference!
We entered the wondrous town of terra cotta tile hues and made our way to….a shop! Yes, it’s a little different traveling with a girlfriend. A few souvenirs were procured and tucked away, then it was off to San Dominica, the church I wrote of earlier that is dedicated to St. Catherine of Siena. Kathleen was extra thrilled about this visit due to the fact that she has used St. Catherine as a focus in her Mythology class, but didn't realize the connection to Siena! We also found our way to St. Catherine's home in Siena, not far from San Dominica, and visited it. One little side note that gave this Texas gal a thrill – I was waiting outside a shop for Kathleen, standing in the warm sun and passing a few minutes time. A foursome of tourists approached me, and in their best attempts at Rick Steve guidebook English asked, “Scuzi…dove’ e’ il San Dominica?” I smiled, and promptly said, “Oh…I speak English quite well!” And the neat part was, I could actually give them a little guidance! Funny thing, this same scenario had also happened as we were leaving the parking lot, and once more further into town. I must make a mental note of what my attire was that day because it obviously communicated la donna italiana. Hmmm….maybe, just maybe, a little of that so coveted way that Italians have with style is rubbing off just a teeny weeny itty bitty bit??
The beautiful Torre di Mangia watching over Il Campo in Siena
We made our way to the glorious Il Campo (the unusual triangular shaped center area or piazza), took in the views, marveled at the large number of visitors, and finally found our way for a revisit for me and a first time visit for Kathleen to the jovial (and delicious) Trattoria di Torre that Marty and I had dined at. We checked out the hanging menu at the entrance, made our decisions, then popped through the hanging greenish curtain things that remind me of those brushy, cylindrical aquarium plants. I noticed there were only a couple of tables inhabited, made eye contact with the cute waiter, and asked “Chiuso (closed)?” “Si…chiuso.” I let out an exaggerated gasp, put a hand to my forehead, and replied, “Noooo….sono Trieste! (I am sad), then rubbed my eyes to mimic crying. It actually created a smile on the otherwise stoic face of this fellow we’d encountered last week when there, but alas…it did not garner us any food.
Deciding to cut our losses, we walked a shop or two further away from Il Campo, and came upon a little bar…only a few locals inside with a not so friendly looking gal behind the counter. I used my basic Italian, ordered, and we sat to enjoy Panini, una biera, and a little local atmosphere. An older gent had assessed us, and invited us to sit with him, Kathleen told me…somehow I missed it as we made our way outdoors to a table there. The gent came up to us as he was leaving, though, and we had a brief, friendly little conversation in my limited Italian. Fun! The outside endeavor didn’t last long, however, due to the cold wind, so we retreated rather quickly, finished our meal, downed a “doppo pranzo” (after lunch) caffé, then took advantage of the place for a bathroom break. You’ve heard of those “European toilets” (wow…I could take advantage of that phrase for a really bad pun, but I shall resist…with great effort), the kind that are basically a porcelain hole in the ground with nifty little places for your feet? I’d met one of these before, a few years back, and I had the pleasure of introducing Kathleen to her first one here! Oh, and the not so friendly counter gal lightened up nicely as it became apparent, I think, that we maybe weren’t going to pull any snooty tourist acts for her. Attitude during travel can be the deal breaker or maker, no doubt.
Without an itinerary of any particular sort, I convinced Kathleen (“I’ve seen a lot of cathedrals and the likes; I really don’t have any burning desire to see more”) that a visit to Siena’s duomo was a must. Tickets procured, we entered the duomo…it wasn’t more than a mere minute or two that the “I’ve seen…” was replaced with ongoing remarks of wonder, awe, and marvel at this grand structure and it’s treasures! Being able to revisit and share these kinds of things is a joy, and I’m really hopeful my little group of girlfriends who are working towards a spring trip all together (you know who you are!) are able to make it happen and allow me the chance to share this again!
photo courtesy secretplacesitaly.net
Not to be missed while in Siena, we found a gelatria/pastacieria and bought two slices of the Siense treat, pan forte – one hunk of the lighter version called margherita, another hunk of the darker version called nero. I do believe I’ve eaten enough of this now to quantifiably state that I prefer the nero. It’s infused with rich, heavy spices I’ve probably only just heard of before…and it is heavenly--a chewy, decadent concoction of nuts, candied fruits, and other things mysterious and medieval. We took an ancient seat on the marble benches so often incorporated into these old, old cities…wonderful spots for the populace to sit and gather, watch, be seen, contemplate – or eat pan forte. The grand duomo façade was our fore view, along with the people watching.
photo courtesy of flickr.com
Now at the risk of being hated just for a brief moment or two, I must tell what happened to Kathleen. We were sitting, chewing on the delights aforementioned, and when Kathleen picked up the small bag the pan forte had been in, she realized it’d been placed on a “present” some pesky pigeon left. We kept the bag there, figuring it’d be a good defense until we left. I made a casual comment or two, and then noticed that Kathleen popped up rather quickly from her seat and made a bee line to the trash can. Only slightly curious, I waited, then asked what was up. She gave one of those “You’ve never going to believe this.” looks, and proceeded to tell me she’d thought there was some of the pan forte stuck on her hand, and she’d, naturally, just licked it off. <<pregnant pause>> Nope, it wasn’t pan forte. She smiled and stoically stated that she was in this beautiful place, life was good, and she was not going to get sick, nor let this freak her out…too much. Being the kind, comforting friend that I am, I burst in to shrieks of laughter, offering sympathy between gasps. Needless to say, we had any number of laughs over this as the day wore down.
Kathleen at the door of "The Rabbit Hole" at Casamonti
Back in Castellina and into the wonderful little COOP grocery store for some goods! Just like at home, I always manage to come out with a lot more than I went in for. It was a little too late to head home to cook, so we secured the goods in the car and headed down the quaint little main street to the little café that does a pretty mean pizza. Throw in a little wine, a warm building (sun down = coooold!), and some good conversation, and thus makes a great close to a wonderful day.
Back home, we found a few more things in need of discussion before completely calling it a night, then Kathleen retired upstairs. Since I sleep better “da sola”, I’ve made me a little cocoon in the lower level with the love seat cushions, and it’s worked out quite nicely…comfy, cozy, and warm! With the ability to exercise my night owl bio-rhythms, I stayed up prepping a fragoli zuppa (bean soup) with a package of mixed beans, a can of tomatoes, onion, garlic, a little salume, Tuscan seasoning that Guila gave us, and salt and pepper. While this simmered into the late night, I found the chance to pour a little Chianti and write…and write….as I did catch up on about 3 days of blogging. It was a joyful experience…late night in the Tuscan “rabbit hole” - cooking and writing. I let the zuppa cool as I prepared for bed, then secreted myself into my cocoon and wandered into sleep under a Tuscan roof, under a Tuscan starry night.
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.
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.