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.
Mid week in Toscana and the beauties of spring, la primavera, have blossomed around us even more than in previous days. Having been here almost two weeks, it’s been interesting to see the season unfold. The yellow broom, a high-ish bush with spindly leaves, was barely putting forth a bud, and now it’s starting to explode in brilliant saffron yellow blossoms along country roadsides and in the hills. The poppies have taken note of the warmer sun and are preparing for their decline. The delicate lavender irises are stalwart in their attempts to remain regal, but they, too, are showing the signs of giving passage to new colors. Roses, so incredible in their ability to thrive here, are budding and blooming out for a truly grand late spring/early summer parade, and the spring light greens are beginning to take on the darker, comfortable tones of summer green. Tuscany is a tapestry, and she is weaving new threads.
We chose to make this day relaxed and somewhat unplanned. What unfolded were country drives, first through nearby Lilliano – a tiny area that maintains an active vineyard and wine production, a grand villa from the 1600’s (maybe 1700), and a few farmhouses. However, the drive down the gravely road to Lilliano is worth the effort. It is a picturesque little jaunt down a brilliantly tree lined strada that is an overhang of vibrant greens. Sky is hidden, and the heavens become a ceiling of glowing tomato-stem green that causes one to instinctively slow and gaze. From there, we drove on through wonderful little villages, some made up of no more than a few buildings, others not much larger…place names like Bibiano, LaGruccia, San Fabiano – all so fun to roll off the tip of ones tongue.
Everywhere we traveled, there seemed to be workers in the vineyards. One person on a row…leaned over clipping, possibly, or working some other kind of magic those of us peering in from the outside are not privy to. What we are privy to is the joy of tasting the fruits of these efforts – the rich, complex Chiantis of this area, the subtler Nobile of Montepulciano, the grand Brunello of Montelcino, and the practically worshipped sweetness of Vin Santo. An analogy came to me at one point in taking all the activities of the vineyards in: as we savor and drink the wines of Italy, or of any region, we are not just enjoying a beverage that is more akin to an art. It is the act, too, of ingesting the land – the soil, the sun at just this certain angle, the artisanal care of certain human hands, and the air that envelopes and surrounds it all. It is taking in the entity of a place, even its culture and history, in a mere sip.
As we made our way, another classically beautiful vista came into closer view; the boxed tower of a castle, positioned with another tower of some sort, sitting serenely on a hilltop. As we continued, it became evident that the road we were traveling would lead us to the to the turn off for the castle! Of course, I immediately pleaded to make the detour, and up we went. Italy, being the land of many small castles, doesn’t find it as necessary to make them available to the curious public as we seem to do in America with anything older than about 75 years. This particular castle…and a very cool one at that…was private property, someones home, and of course, a gawking tourist isn’t on the guest list. The church/abby with the castle-looking spire was the same…something that was no longer serving a community, but a place that now was someones everyday abode. I was disappointed at not getting to roam about these buildings, but I was also very charmed by the fact that I was not welcome in someone’s “Home Sweet Home” ala Italia.
Ah well....back on the road to further adventures!
As we meandered along Chianti paths, we continued on the "slow" approach...taking our time enjoying the nature scape, as well as slowing to try to take in the intricacies of each small village or borgo (actually means a small village outside the protected walls of a city...thank you, Wikipedia!) we found ourselves as brief guests of. One small place - name escapes me - consisted of not much more than what looked to be a few dwellings, along with a nice looking little caffe bar and small ristorante. A little creek ran right through this place, so undoubtedly it was at one time an important waypoint for travelers along this same path. What a great thought imagining all who had passed this same way before us.
We noted a small, quite run down little place right off the road across the street from the bar. "Let's stop!" escaped from my mouth, and before you knew it --- we were poking our noses into the building, all the while permitting ourselves a quite fun "What if??" conversation of buying and restoring. However, after having already viewed a number of window fronts of Italian real estate offices, even a fixer-upper such as this comes at a steep price. Want to take that journey? Be sure your pockets are deep and even better, bottomless!
Nonetheless, it was a fun diversion, and as in many little villages mid-day, we seemed to be the only ones about, save for a nice assortment of butterflies.
Continuing to the west, we wound our way up one of the prettiest drives in the region to a small community called Lamole. We’d come across this last trip, thanks to Ray's once-again swell advice, and were instantly taken. It’s the sight where we were able to sit on the veranda of the only ristorante in town, sip wine, and watch the little tractors haul the abundant harvest of the deepest purplely red grapes we’d ever seen towards the press to begin the process of the year’s wine. There’s a charming little chiusa (church), and 4 or 5 friendly cats. We seated ourselves at a small table with a view – not hard to find being the only folks there at the moment – and ordered wine. The young waitress entered conversation with us, and we enjoyed about 45 minutes of solving the world’s problems with her.
It was time to head back to Castellina for dinner with Anna Rita and Ray at probably our most frequented restaurant here, Fattoria dei Dottorie. We hopped in Ray’s Land Cruiser and began our way out. Needless to say, the conversation and laughter on the way were a grand aperativo for our meal. The owner knew Anna Rita and Ray quite well, of course, and we were warmly greeted and shown to a table. Drinks served, he sent a lovely (huge!) platter of antipasto to our table, courtesy of the house. How kind! Pizzas and almost 3 hours of talk and laughter, and we found ourselves the last folks in the restaurant. Feeling somewhat guilty, we downed the last drops of limoncello and headed home. It’s a delightfully sweet thing to have friends in this beautiful place that, although you’ve known them a relatively short time, feel like life long friends. Anna Rita made a statement later in the week that truly humbled and touched both of us…she told us we are family to them. One of those things more precious than gold.
The courtyard outside our apartment
Well, needless to say, I've not blogged daily as planned! However, my excuse is fairly valid...lack of internet connection for any length of time - so there! Actually, the wonderful little cafe where I do connect is a lovely local spot in Castellina in Chianti by the name of Bar Italia. It's a simple place where mostly the locals gather for the quick cup of caffé, a brioche for breakfast, or a chance to sit with i vuoi amici and watch the game. I "discovered" it a year ago when I visited Castellina with friends Donnie and Julie, and it's been the spot for morning cappuccino ever since. I digress...
Our flight over was pretty uneventful, which is always a blessing. We did the "normal routine" of Tylenol PM and melatonin, slept as much as one can when contorted like a pretzel …in a sardine can. Arrival at Milan Malpensa Aerporto was on time, and other than the last 20 minutes or so of the flight being akin to bouncing down a West Texas ranch road, we made touch down with no complaints. Baggage picked up, rental car secured, GPS up and running…and south we drove! The GPS was a lovely addition to my earlier driving experiences in Italy, but I have to say…the robotic Mr. GPS's accent when trying to speak the names of Italian roads was pretty hilarious – which soon segued to annoyance. It was not long before our “Jack the GPS” underwent a gender alteration to become “Silvia the Italian ragazza GPS”.
The drive south was grand. Although the weather was cloudy with intermittent showers…we were in Italy!! After an aborted attempt to find a place to park in the Centro Storico (historic center) of Parma (mmm...cheese!) for a bite for lunch, we gave up and opted for the next AutoGrill on the autostrada. If you’ve never been to one of these, just imagine an Italian Bucky’s. Yeah, pretty awesome. We had to laugh at the décor of the eating area in this particular one…”The Wild West”! There were any number of burger choices, as well as….a Cavallo Pazzo (Crazy Horse) burger! Hmmm…wonder if it was made out of….ummm…nawww!!!
*Addendum: Want to more about Castellina in Chianti? Click here!
Want to know more about Casamonti and Tuscan Enterprises? Click here!
As we drove further south with familiar waypoints like Modena (mmm...balsamic!) and Bologna (mmm...sauce!) announcing themselves, the scenery began to take on the beauty that Tuscany is so well known for….rolling green hills punctuated by freshly turned earth surrounding the new growth in the vineyards, untold multitudes of spring yellow and white flowers splashed across the up and downs of the hillsides, and the silvery green splendor of the ancient olive trees seeming to greet us like old friends. Bella terra! Other spring flowers were evident, as well, and incredibly grand….the reddish orange poppies that seem to be plugged in to a a socket somewhere they’re so bright, elegant wisteria, and other blossoming trees I couldn’t begin to name. Indeed, Tuscany knows how to put on one fine spring show!
We arrived at Casamonti, the fantastically beautiful Tuscan farm belonging to our friends Ray and Anna Rita (who also own and operate Tuscan Enterprises), by late afternoon, turned off the S222 onto the beautiful and welcoming dirt road that leads to the farm, and wound our way around to park in the back area where we were promptly greeted by the 3 dogs that reside in that area. Bags unpacked, a little freshening up, then into town….Castellina in Chianti. A good walk up and down the main street felt wonderful, followed by a bit of pasta and wine in a local diner to cap off giorno uno in Italia. Tired, happy, full….la dolce vita.
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.