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!
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.