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.
Day One solo…or Giorno uno da sola. I’d returned to the bed upstairs the night before, having spent the prior 5 nights happily in my little cocoon downstairs. I must admit…a real bed felt good, but it’s funny how I tossed and turned much more than I did in my cocoon. Something to be said for that swaddling thing, possibly?
I made a slow morning of it, and decided to nix the idea of a separate breakfast and lunch -- packed a few snacks, and swung by for cappuccino and a sandwich at Simone’s. It was surprisingly quiet, but normal for a late Saturday morning I was told. I queried if Simone was from Castellina, and found out he actually lived in a small village closer to Firenze by the name of Montefiordelfi. He was born there and had lived there most all of his life. I commented on how unusual that is for our country, and how I found that a nice thing. He concurred, but said it also cannot be a good thing. Yes, the ying and yang, the two sides of everything. I suppose the secret is to be splendidly aware of that, and make the most of all angles.
Today presented itself as a spectacularly beautiful, even warmish, spring day! I even dared to put on a short sleeve dress…the staple of my ill-packed wardrobe. Setting out on an only partially predetermined course, I was thrilled with the idea of traveling on any road that struck my fancy. I’d hoped to swing back by Pornanino, the olive oil place, and maybe pick up a gift or two…placed a call, left a message…and decided what the heck, take the gravel road that way anyhow and see where I ended up. No return call from Matteo, but oh, what a drive. I stopped more than once, got out, gazed across the green, patterned hills and valleys, and listened to the quiet, punctuated only by happy birdsong. The small spring flowers seemed to boast extra loud today in the warm sunshine…the pinks, lavenders, reds, fushias, purples, yellows, and whites were so beautiful - sometimes integrated, other times wanting to be undisturbed in their color-scapes. As I made my way down the road, I noted any number of off roads, none terribly freshly worn, some looking as possibly a chariot were the last to lay tread there. These intrigue me…they must go somewhere, or at least did. Where do they lead now? I’ve not dared go down any unmarked ones for not wanting to trespass, but I do admit I’ve been terribly tempted.
On this first day alone, I was keenly aware of the beauty that solo travel can offer. Not that I don’t love traveling with Marty or friends – that is splendid in many ways and for many reasons – but being gifted with the chance to travel alone for brief periods has opened my being to what an experience it can be. Thank you, my extraordinarily generous husband and love, for gifting me in this way. This style of experiencing things allows, at least for me, a liberating of emoting that I wasn’t aware of until my first go at it last year. Not to say that I somehow suppress my emotions…maybe I do more than I realized?...but I find that when alone and unobserved, I find almost immediate, even surprising, risings of emotion that sweep over me like the yellow broom flower in full Tuscan bloom. It’s a freeing experience. I don’t want to convey that I am somehow suppressed when with others – totally untrue – nor do I wish to be any sort of hermit vagabond. It’s just that these slices of solo travel offer a new, reframed perspective. But I have also found that it would most likely be a short-lived thing if I extended it more than a week or two, most likely. Rich experiences, joy, emotion, food, and all of life’s other gifts are best shared with those you love.
One of the typical "thoroughfares" through a tiny village
Passing Pornanino and not having received a call back from Matteo or Francesca, I decided to go on to Gaiole in Chianti and follow some of the castle/village itineraries outlined in the pamphlets Kathleen and I had picked up a few days prior. The back roads and gravel paths were particularly empty this day, most likely due to the yearly road race of some sort that was going on. Folks will line the country roads, finding spots to view the spectacle, as well as take pictures. The short time I spent here and there on the more major Tuscan roads was filled with exciting moments as sporadic lines of Ferraris, Alpha Romeos, BMWs, Porsches, and other fast cars zoomed by me and my little Punto. It got especially adrenaline producing when a corner was rounded, and there was one of these speedsters…in my lane! Yep, a good day to stick to gravel roads.
I rattled along at a nice slow, country road pace, thankful for the chance to do this, as well as noting again just how free of cars or others these roads were today. Not that they’re ever busy by any sense of our definition of the word, but that they were notably free of the occasional passer by. I stopped at a small bridge crossing a stream. Hearing the burble of water, I had to get out and see what I could see. Below was a beautifully clear stream, rolling and tossing itself over rocks as it passed through a canopy of pine and other trees. It was a sweet sight and a soothing sound to behold. I watched for a bit, yearning to somehow wet my toes. As I thought on it, I marveled at the fact that so many had come to this same point for hundreds, probably thousands, of years, foraging it on foot or horseback, stopping to drink, rest, maybe bathe. I was here this day, just as someone else had been yesterday, 500 years ago, 1000 year ago, and beyond. And we were all somehow connected by our brief moment of appreciation of this small stream of clear, life-sustaining water.
I continued on gravel roads, some paved roads and found my way to places like Lecchi, a beautiful, small village with geranium graced windows and roads only one very small car could barely traverse. Mental note to come back here and explore some day. Other roads took me to Poggo San Polo, an ancient village with a church, closed this day, and Castello di Ama, the old castle turned winery in the hamlet of Ama.
Walking up to Catello di Tornano from the parking area
Back on a paved road, I saw the sign for Castello di Tornano, another castle noted in the literature, and made an abrupt turn to wind my way there. All of these castles and strategic villages are located on hilltops. Where else can you keep an eye on your enemies? For us modern day seekers, it sure affords a grand drive to the destination. Tornano didn’t disappoint as I wound up the steep hillside through countless, artistically laid out vineyards and was greeted by the imposing tower. However, as I discovered, imposing is no longer applicable to this ancient stronghold that originated sometime in the 1100’s. It’s been carefully restored and is now the most amazing get-away, something you’d expect to see in the travel publications or a Bride’s magazine ad. The interior is beautiful, decked out in enough antique, castle appropriate fittings to make one feel assured of truly being inside a castle, while the grounds boast of a gorgeous, organically shaped pool, shaded seating areas, and views to die for. I met the young fellow at the reception area, chatted a bit, and with his most gracious offer and accommodating attitude, I was invited to roam about all I wanted. I wandered inside the main area, first checking out the bathroom. The fittings were incredible…I even took photos as I envisioned something like this for a bathroom redo at home! The public rooms were warm, stately, and inviting, no doubt designed to provide an optimal holiday to the guests. As I climbed the tower, I noted several doors for rooms converted to suites. How cool of a stay would that be? The view at the top was grand, a panorama of 360 degrees of beauty. However, I paused to note that those who stood here 800 years ago certainly saw the view through a different lens as they were constantly on one side or the other of besieged.
Moving along, I noticed that just as Friday, the morning clear sky was being taken over by dark grey, and rain was moving in. Sure enough, a gentle shower began and the ambiance took on that mysterious air that such change brings. I headed towards Gaiole proper, determined to find the elusive Spaltenna church that Kathleen and I had given up on. Several turn arounds, a real good study of the map, and I thought I had it figured out. The GPS was of no help…no entries found…nor was signage anywhere that I could see. Following my instinct, I wound up a town street, turning in the direction that I had seen the tower from while coming towards town. At the final critical turn, lo and behold…a sign announcing this way to Spaltenna. Odd. Generally, the signage is pretty good for all these old sites. Anyhow, I found my way to the old Romanesque church, parked, and walked to its entrance. Open today…that’s good. I wandered in, again alone as most of this day had been no matter where I was. The church was not of anything notable, at least visually, and I think its import was more in its history, styling, and something along the lines as the mother church for Chianti. I was glad I had finally garnered a visit with this old dame. Back out in the drizzle, I headed downhill. (Note: I later learned this is actually a 10th century monastery that has been redone into a nice hotel and event center.)
The next leg of the pamphlet itinerary lent itself nicely to my position, so I continued on, up another lovely road to a hilltop village called Vertine. Small but imposing, its medieval wall greets your arrival in a way that is at once inviting, but also quite imposing. I pondered for a moment as to whether I should park and wander in, or just gaze. Rain and a late afternoon caused me to err on the side of just gazing, making note to come back again, and I continued on. A small cemetery just down the road caught my eye, so I stopped. Italian cemeteries, as I think I mentioned before, are walled just as the ancient towns were, and are often somewhat elaborate. This particular one was simple but elegant, and seemed almost forgotten, even if cared for. I looked upon it for a moment, wondering if its inhabitants were countless generations of the small village behind me, and thought on our very short walk here on this planet.
A beautiful and old fig tree stood just outside the cemetery walls and caught my eye. It was loaded with figs, not quite ripe. Its beauty and life were a poetic juxtaposition to the remains so close by, but also a lovely reminder that life is cyclical…we have our moment here, we produce fruit, we leave behind seeds, and we pass on to our spiritual lives to live again.
Bar Italia on the inside
I puttered on down the gravel road that was briefly mine this day, just as all the others had been, and eventually eased out onto the pavement towards Castellina. By the time I arrived, the gray had cleared, the sun was shining warm, and I enjoyed a bit of time on the steps of Bar Italia in the sun with a Diet Coke, the passer bys, and some internet catch up.
A quick trip to the COOP for lettuce, a phone charge card, and some prosciutto, and I was headed home to Casamonti. I put soup #2 on to warm, took a pot of it over to Anna Rita who was hosting a tour group tasting, poured a glass of Chianti, and sat in the sun a bit more with resident guest greeter pooch, Toya, and the lovely black and white kitty, Pepina. They were anticipating their treats from the Texas lady, of course, but we did enjoy time just sunning as they took their turns getting scratched. Not to neglect anyone, I told Toya and Pepina it was the fowls turn, and we fetched the rest of the corn tortillas in the fridge and commenced to feed the worrisome red hens, the stoic lone goose, and the always talking ducks. Little did all these creatures know the treats for them were an only thinly disguised ploy for the huge treat the experience was for me!
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.