The morning view from the Capre apartment at Casamonti
Thursday arrived…Kathleen’s last full day here. We both marveled at how quickly it appeared, but doesn’t one always do this when things are so grand? It had been decided the night before that today would be one of slow mode – we’d sleep in, take our time, and make the day spread out locally with time spent in Castellina. Twist my arm.
The morning ritual of tea and talk had its rightful place, and once we found a good “the end” moment, we were dressed and out the door to Simone’s caffe’ counter for that amazing cappuccini he does so well. Feeling the need to do some connection to the world on the other side of the ocean, we decided we’d park at the Chianti Bar, make lunch of it, and enjoy their free wifi. The day was incredibly beautiful, practically spring like in this most unspring like May in Tuscany, so tables were set up outside. We opted, however, to hang with a couple of locals inside and make use of the tables and lack of glare. A sparse lunch, a lot of catching up via email and social media, and before we knew it an hour and a half had passed.
I’d hauled laundry with me, so I made my way to the neat little lavandaria (knowing how to use it this time) while Kathleen cut herself loose in Castellina with recommendations to see the very nicely done civic museum (some really cool Estruscan stuff), as well as the Rocca Comunale (the old fortress) and the view climbing its stairs affords. She took my advice and had one heckuva time up there!
I busied myself with a quick walk into the main street of town while the dirt was being scourged from my clothing and found many a tourist enjoying this great day. A couple of gifts scored, I hurried back to get the drying underway and sit for a bit. While I was waiting, I dug through a stack of magazines and came across a day minder book of sorts for 2011, totally empty…one of those advertisement type publications. I was thrilled…paper!...and a nice means to record each days notes for later expounding upon. One other bit of entertainment for my wait was a pair of ladies who came in buried under giant comforters. I had such fun watching them carry on in conversation spewed so fast I really couldn’t keep up with it, but with more than enough inflection, exclamation, and laughter that I could probably fill in the blanks on what was amusing them. An older, suspendered gent came in and added to the fun by asking questions that only caused the ladies to rise in levels of volume and exclamatory replies. Bella!
Clean clothes folded and tucked into the car, we reunited and found our way to the Via Volte for a stroll. This is Castellina’s quaint medieval walkway that morphed into a virtual tunnel over the ages. Originally an open-air merchant street along the east wall, it was eventually built over as buildings were added and stacked upon each other in grand Italian style. It’s amazing to see the various configurations of arches that support untold tons of bricks, rock, and humanness. Reaching the end, I told Kathleen she was forbidden to go back to Texas until she’d had some of the finest gelato I’ve ever met…found at the little gelateria that Roberta had referred Marty and I to last week. I’d venture to say that 1.) the walk was worth it, and 2.) she had to agree with me that it was worth every single calorie.
From there, we wandered back to the main street and found our way to the modern but very nice walkway that the town has added along the entire length of the east wall. The view from there overlooks a villa or two, vineyards, an orchard, olive groves, and the endless vista of beautiful Chianti. A wondrous sample of spring wildflowers lined the walkway, the crickets offered a fine concerto, and lulling birdcalls rounded out the spectacular-ness of this ethereal countryside amphitheatre.
Despite true hunger being a more remote than real experience, we decided to head on to Dei Dottore for a last meal of their wonderfully thin but tasty pizza. The view from the hilltop window rewarded us splendidly, as did the satisfying meal (which we somehow managed to find room for...).
Once back to the rabbit hole, we had enough daylight left for me to decide a walk was a good idea, so I tennis-shoed up and made my way down the welcoming dirt road. The late day here is always spectacular, always satisfying, always endearing. The sun bows out gracefully to the west over the soft and multiple layers of Chianti hills, to then make its final curtain call behind a rugged peak of far-away mountains of which I’m not sure the name. Beautiful hues fill the sky, and whether it’s of a simple monotone variety, or of a meshed palette of the most beautiful Michaelangelo-esce pastels, it is relentless in its mission to inspire and awe. The now familiar bird chorus accompanied my walk, as did the sight of the Cinta Senese pigs going about their late day pig business. I stopped more than once to try to absorb it, to somehow incorporate it as more than just a glancing moment on this particular day. I noted a very tangible sense of change as I reflected on Kathleen having to leave, and knowing I was just a mere week behind her. It was a juxtaposition of feelings and emotions…missing home and my husband, eager to reunite, but also sad at having to leave this magical place.
Our early-ish rises (by vacation standards) put aside, Kathleen and I opted to just sleep until we decided it was enough. That, of course, basically put a stamp on this morning, declaring it “slow travel” mode. But how nice to rise late, ease ourselves into the day with tea, nibbles, and lots more talk over the table.
We finally pulled ourselves away from the comforts of the table, dolled up, and hit town…first for a stop off at Ray’s office. Oh, I must insert here the experience – a good one – with the public toilet. The stories of toilettes/WC/bagno in Italy abound, and most are true. Being of the most creative nature, Italians have also designed any number of ways to flush a toilet, as well as configure a public restroom. However, the one in Castellina looks more like a huge, gun-metal grey can or space module with a panel of buttons and instructions that surely confound a non-native speaker. I was able to assist Kathleen a bit to figure enough of it out, the coin was inserted, and whoosh…the can door very StarTrek-ishly slid open. Kathleen stepped in, pushed a button, and the door began to slide closed. I hollered in my best female friend fashion, “Is there any paper??” A somewhat alarmed “No!!” could be heard through the metal, and I managed to last-minute abort the door closure as I dug for my tissue. Well, that lead to another round of coinage and such, but the door finally shut again with success. Exiting with a huge grin, Kathleen expounded on this wondrous invention that not only automatically dispensed the tissue, but also totally sprayed the area down with disinfectant once the user exited. We told Ray about our amazement at such toilet technology, and he commenced to tell us the story of how this device detects weight when you enter; a means to keep any toilet criminals from trying to get in 2 or 3 for the price of one. He then told us of how an unaware mother sent her 3 children in to use at the same time, and the first participant flushed…thus signaling the can that the job was finito. Well, the disinfectant sprayed down all 3 kiddos in a goopy mess, and there was a bit of upheaval in town over the merits of this high tech method of germ fighting!
Visiting done, we headed across the road to a local little spot called Il Re Gallo, recommended highly by Ray, as well as Matteo of Pornanino. We entered, were shown a table, and had the hardest time deciding what to order. Final answer was a beautiful plate of antipasto, followed by a shared dish of tagliatelle with the wild boar sauce. Mmmmm! And yes, the lunch Chianti. The food did not disappoint...bravissimo! It was wonderful to dine on these delights, looking out the window from our cozy table at what had become a gray, blustery, and very (very!) cold day.
Our path this day lead to Gaiole in Chianti, one of the 4 cornerstone towns in ancient Chianti. The drive didn’t disappoint (I don’t think that adjective is allowed, nor necessary, in this land) and we found the very quiet little town. The main area is rectangular in shape, and was the ancient market place for the entire area. Its origins are probably Etruscan, so many, many years of shopping have occurred on this spot. The kind lady at the little Tourist Info place gave us some good literature, and we decided to head out and visit the Castello de Meleto, a forceful looking structure dating back to end of the 12th century, built for the Ricasoli family. Their name pops up with many castles around here…they held some great real estate in the day!
We signed up for the tour, met the young lady who was our guide, and were then joined by two older gals from France, and a young Italian honeymoon couple.
The castello was converted to a villa somewhere in the mid 1700’s, and the popular French trompe d’oeil style of faux painting dominates the somewhat tired looking, yet still regal interior.
The gem of this structure is the little theatre, one of a kind in the castles of this land…and it was grand! I’m not clear on whether this was added in the earliest days…probably not…but it just reeks of glossy, gaudy 1700’s style and appeal. The stage and its well-worn wooden floor, original backdrops still in place, and all the side trappings intrigued me to no end. It was as if frozen in time, the wear of the years showing, but the majestic underpinnings still very evident. Having had my feet on what I thought were old stages, I was lost in time as I placed my hand on the stage floor and let the ghosts of theatre past come alive. How many rehearsals had taken place here -- how many shows that brought laughter and probably a few tears to the audience, tucked nicely into the small balcony, which was also coated in glamour. There were scratches and small chunks of wood missing on the stage floor. I could just envision the act that caused that…maybe some grand sword fight where the actor accidently gouged the floor, or a prop dragged quickly away by a hurried stage hand. The rest of the tour wandered out, but I managed to stay a few more minutes in the silence, totally surrounded by this almost “dream sequence” feeling/vision of a stage full of lively actors and a raucous audience taking it all in.
We ended our tour in the tasting room (all these places produce wine, and most of it is very nice), tasted some of their products, and enjoyed a little visiting with the tour guide and the young couple. I tried out a little Italian on the guide, and complimented her on her command of English. She’d apologized several times to us, saying this was only her 2nd week at this job, but she really was quite good. I also told her I have a new appreciation for learning a foreign language, and I’d come see her next year and we’d converse in Italian. Boy, why do I set my bar so high?? ;-)
Enough touring accomplished this day, we followed the road back to Castellina. A stop off at Bar Italia for a little refreshment and wifi time, then a visit to the COOP, and we were soon bumping down the beloved dusty road to Casamonti. I prepared a fresh bruschetta and salad, along with some delectable prosciutto paired with a nice glass of Chianti, and we dined at the little table until we were full to the brim. That “Eat, Love, Pray” thing really does fit this lovely country – can’t figure out why that character in the book ever decided it was time to leave Italy for other countries foreign.
Proprietor of Pornanino, Matteo
Sleeping just a bit into the morning, Kathleen and I rustled ourselves awake and make some hot tea to kick start the day. We conjured plans for this morning to find our way to a family run olive oil operation outside of Radda in Chianti for a class on what makes a good oil. The GPS was programmed by coordinates the night before, and I felt quite assured we would find this place in plenty of time…thus the conversation lingered luxuriously over our little table in the rabbit hole.
Sure enough, we do find Pornanino, the olive oil and agriturismo operation. However, I will admit I questioned it as we bumped and bustled over one of the lovely unpaved back roads of Chianti….a new one for me, which is always exciting. We arrived with a few minutes to spare, which surprised Matteo, the owner, along with his wife Francesca. He told us it’s much more the norm for folks to get lost. Based on a year ago and my Tuscan adventures sans beloved GPS, I completely understand!
A tour group of about 12 folks show up, along with a couple from England, and we all take our seats to listen to Matteo’s interesting talk on what makes quality, but more importantly, healthy olive oil. I knew about 50% of what he shared, and it was great to learn more from one who truly knows. Basics to remember…Virgin olive oil, cold pressed, not from a variety of countries, and preferably from a producer you’re familiar with. And color doesn’t matter, believe it or not!
We sampled their oil on crostini, and yes…it was divine! We’re somewhat spoiled as we are privy to Casamonti’s fabulous oil (from all those gorgeous tress I love walking by), but it was great to learn more about the whole process. And as with most new experiences, it wasn’t only the knowledge and experience we received that were the morning’s gifts…oh no….there was also the fabulous unexpected that seems to pop up all over in this country! We’d met the English couple, Ian and Moira, before the seminar and had chatted a bit. Afterwards, we all visited a bit more, and they graciously invited us to join them for coffee at the apartment on the property that they were taking a holiday in.
A couple of purchases made, including the most beautiful sterling silver olive branch pin designed by Francesca’s mother, sweetly gifted to me by Kathleen, and we joined Ian and Moira under the partly cloudy sky, all of us seeking the solar warmth like Equatorial lizards.
We were given fresh pressed coffee and a plate of Moira’s homemade “flap jacks”. Now before you go envisioning a big ol’ stack of pancakes , hold your horses, pard’ner! This is the English version…a delightful, chewy, honey-sweetened concoction of oats, nuts, and seeds. It was delicious!! Moira told us it’s a staple in England…and comes in many varieties. It’s probably what we base our granola bars on, but oh wow…I’ve never met one that tasted this good! Moira promised to email me the recipe, so we’ll see if I can come close to this delicacy back on the shores of Texas. Our conversation was fun and lively, and we parted feeling the pleasure of having yet two more new friends on this small little orb we call earth.
Since we were so close to Radda in Chianti, we drove on in and parked on the outer street, then walked into the pedestrian area. The medieval streets were rather quiet as we wandered a bit, finding a shop to finish up some take-home affairs for Kathleen. Hunger pangs were starting to win us over, so we opted to leave the touristy streets and headed out of the town walls to a local bar. Great choice, as they always are, for a cheap panino, some water, and of course…that lunch time wine (note to self: you can’t continue this Italian tradition at home!). We picked up free Wifi, so it was a great opportunity to do some catch up with home, as well as a brief Skype show and tell with my parents. Fun!
A quick gelato in hand, we hopped back in the car and drove to the wonderful hilltop town of Monteriggioni, one of my favorites. It’s small, sits on a hilltop inside a wonderfully intact circular fortress wall that sports enough tower effect to give your imagination plenty of help to reverse course a thousand years or so. These towns are certainly tourist attractions, but I don’t want my readers to lose sight that residents and the doings of every day life still inhabit all these towns and villages.
Italy, and maybe particularly Tuscany, has done an incredible job of preserving the feel of this ancient land. It’s by tight and firmly enforced restrictions, but in the long run that’s probably a good thing. No new buildings are allowed, at least in Chianti. Old structures must be rebuilt to certain standards, and even the numbers of grape vines are controlled. Restrictive, yes…but I have no doubt it’s one of those great pay-off things as a whole.
A bit weary, the two of us meandered back to Casamonti to dine on the bean and prosciutto soup I’d prepared the night before. Prior to, I filled a pot to take to Anna Rita and Ray, and we intercepted a wine tasting as we made our way to the main kitchen. Kathleen got to meet Anna Rita, and we found ourselves at the inside table for a quick glass of Casamonti Chianti, shared with the two tour drivers, one being Paolo who was the fellow who brought me, along with friend Tammy, out to Casamonti for the very first time 3 years ago. A nice aperativo over a lively conversation was a perfect close to the adventures of the day.
Stomachs satisfied after our humble meal, we wound the night down with talk and tea, and it wasn’t long until sleep called loud enough to win us over.
Monday morning dawns beautiful in Chianti….and pretty darn cold…and windier than my hometown of Corpus Christi, Texas on one of its best “windy city” days. This most unusual for May cold front had certainly announced itself loudly here in Tuscany, as well as Lombardy (the region that Piacenza is in). However, as long as a warm sun is shining, all is well.
Kathleen and I convinced ourselves that an early-ish rise was the best plan, so up by around 8:00, we prepped for the day’s adventures. First stop was for cappuccino and Simone’s art work. We were gifted with a swan and a turkey (or is that a peacock??), both as lovely as ever. And so temporal…always a little painful to have to stir away the beautiful little creatures he creates. A breakfast panino, some friendly chat, and onward southerly towards Siena!
Ah, but I forget…we first made a stop at Ray’s office to introduce Kathleen, say hello, make a call to Wells Fargo to find out why a withdrawal wouldn’t work (easily solved, thank goodness), chat a bit, solve a few world problems, then…adiamo a Siena!
Having “ been there, done that” last week with Marty, following the GPS’s convoluted instructions into the town center to the stadio parking wasn’t near the challenge it was the first time. Yay! Like a soccer fan pro who’d done it a million times, I wound around each curve, coursed through each intersection, and whipped the little Punto into the parking area without a hitch. But lest I brag too brashly, I willingly admit having that satellite driven lighthouse of a GPS did make a big difference!
We entered the wondrous town of terra cotta tile hues and made our way to….a shop! Yes, it’s a little different traveling with a girlfriend. A few souvenirs were procured and tucked away, then it was off to San Dominica, the church I wrote of earlier that is dedicated to St. Catherine of Siena. Kathleen was extra thrilled about this visit due to the fact that she has used St. Catherine as a focus in her Mythology class, but didn't realize the connection to Siena! We also found our way to St. Catherine's home in Siena, not far from San Dominica, and visited it. One little side note that gave this Texas gal a thrill – I was waiting outside a shop for Kathleen, standing in the warm sun and passing a few minutes time. A foursome of tourists approached me, and in their best attempts at Rick Steve guidebook English asked, “Scuzi…dove’ e’ il San Dominica?” I smiled, and promptly said, “Oh…I speak English quite well!” And the neat part was, I could actually give them a little guidance! Funny thing, this same scenario had also happened as we were leaving the parking lot, and once more further into town. I must make a mental note of what my attire was that day because it obviously communicated la donna italiana. Hmmm….maybe, just maybe, a little of that so coveted way that Italians have with style is rubbing off just a teeny weeny itty bitty bit??
The beautiful Torre di Mangia watching over Il Campo in Siena
We made our way to the glorious Il Campo (the unusual triangular shaped center area or piazza), took in the views, marveled at the large number of visitors, and finally found our way for a revisit for me and a first time visit for Kathleen to the jovial (and delicious) Trattoria di Torre that Marty and I had dined at. We checked out the hanging menu at the entrance, made our decisions, then popped through the hanging greenish curtain things that remind me of those brushy, cylindrical aquarium plants. I noticed there were only a couple of tables inhabited, made eye contact with the cute waiter, and asked “Chiuso (closed)?” “Si…chiuso.” I let out an exaggerated gasp, put a hand to my forehead, and replied, “Noooo….sono Trieste! (I am sad), then rubbed my eyes to mimic crying. It actually created a smile on the otherwise stoic face of this fellow we’d encountered last week when there, but alas…it did not garner us any food.
Deciding to cut our losses, we walked a shop or two further away from Il Campo, and came upon a little bar…only a few locals inside with a not so friendly looking gal behind the counter. I used my basic Italian, ordered, and we sat to enjoy Panini, una biera, and a little local atmosphere. An older gent had assessed us, and invited us to sit with him, Kathleen told me…somehow I missed it as we made our way outdoors to a table there. The gent came up to us as he was leaving, though, and we had a brief, friendly little conversation in my limited Italian. Fun! The outside endeavor didn’t last long, however, due to the cold wind, so we retreated rather quickly, finished our meal, downed a “doppo pranzo” (after lunch) caffé, then took advantage of the place for a bathroom break. You’ve heard of those “European toilets” (wow…I could take advantage of that phrase for a really bad pun, but I shall resist…with great effort), the kind that are basically a porcelain hole in the ground with nifty little places for your feet? I’d met one of these before, a few years back, and I had the pleasure of introducing Kathleen to her first one here! Oh, and the not so friendly counter gal lightened up nicely as it became apparent, I think, that we maybe weren’t going to pull any snooty tourist acts for her. Attitude during travel can be the deal breaker or maker, no doubt.
Without an itinerary of any particular sort, I convinced Kathleen (“I’ve seen a lot of cathedrals and the likes; I really don’t have any burning desire to see more”) that a visit to Siena’s duomo was a must. Tickets procured, we entered the duomo…it wasn’t more than a mere minute or two that the “I’ve seen…” was replaced with ongoing remarks of wonder, awe, and marvel at this grand structure and it’s treasures! Being able to revisit and share these kinds of things is a joy, and I’m really hopeful my little group of girlfriends who are working towards a spring trip all together (you know who you are!) are able to make it happen and allow me the chance to share this again!
photo courtesy secretplacesitaly.net
Not to be missed while in Siena, we found a gelatria/pastacieria and bought two slices of the Siense treat, pan forte – one hunk of the lighter version called margherita, another hunk of the darker version called nero. I do believe I’ve eaten enough of this now to quantifiably state that I prefer the nero. It’s infused with rich, heavy spices I’ve probably only just heard of before…and it is heavenly--a chewy, decadent concoction of nuts, candied fruits, and other things mysterious and medieval. We took an ancient seat on the marble benches so often incorporated into these old, old cities…wonderful spots for the populace to sit and gather, watch, be seen, contemplate – or eat pan forte. The grand duomo façade was our fore view, along with the people watching.
photo courtesy of flickr.com
Now at the risk of being hated just for a brief moment or two, I must tell what happened to Kathleen. We were sitting, chewing on the delights aforementioned, and when Kathleen picked up the small bag the pan forte had been in, she realized it’d been placed on a “present” some pesky pigeon left. We kept the bag there, figuring it’d be a good defense until we left. I made a casual comment or two, and then noticed that Kathleen popped up rather quickly from her seat and made a bee line to the trash can. Only slightly curious, I waited, then asked what was up. She gave one of those “You’ve never going to believe this.” looks, and proceeded to tell me she’d thought there was some of the pan forte stuck on her hand, and she’d, naturally, just licked it off. <<pregnant pause>> Nope, it wasn’t pan forte. She smiled and stoically stated that she was in this beautiful place, life was good, and she was not going to get sick, nor let this freak her out…too much. Being the kind, comforting friend that I am, I burst in to shrieks of laughter, offering sympathy between gasps. Needless to say, we had any number of laughs over this as the day wore down.
Kathleen at the door of "The Rabbit Hole" at Casamonti
Back in Castellina and into the wonderful little COOP grocery store for some goods! Just like at home, I always manage to come out with a lot more than I went in for. It was a little too late to head home to cook, so we secured the goods in the car and headed down the quaint little main street to the little café that does a pretty mean pizza. Throw in a little wine, a warm building (sun down = coooold!), and some good conversation, and thus makes a great close to a wonderful day.
Back home, we found a few more things in need of discussion before completely calling it a night, then Kathleen retired upstairs. Since I sleep better “da sola”, I’ve made me a little cocoon in the lower level with the love seat cushions, and it’s worked out quite nicely…comfy, cozy, and warm! With the ability to exercise my night owl bio-rhythms, I stayed up prepping a fragoli zuppa (bean soup) with a package of mixed beans, a can of tomatoes, onion, garlic, a little salume, Tuscan seasoning that Guila gave us, and salt and pepper. While this simmered into the late night, I found the chance to pour a little Chianti and write…and write….as I did catch up on about 3 days of blogging. It was a joyful experience…late night in the Tuscan “rabbit hole” - cooking and writing. I let the zuppa cool as I prepared for bed, then secreted myself into my cocoon and wandered into sleep under a Tuscan roof, under a Tuscan starry night.
I failed to mention in the last couple of blogs of just how warm it had gotten…finally. It was downright hot Saturday, and we had the shiny sheen of sweat to prove it! However, during the night an anticipated cold front blew in with a vengeance that would make a Texas weather man proud. The wind howled like a tropical storm, and I would’ve sworn I was on a sailboat as it whipped and groaned through the open window of our once-balmy room. Add in the flapflapflap of the wind-beaten curtains and some lone rope out of view but banging in the wind, and it truly did feel like a nautical experience! The temperature dropped something like 25 degrees with this frontal passage, which is quite unusual for Italy in general. This May “cold” weather is another unusual thing, and there is more predicted for the month. Brrrrrr, and I sure wish I’d have packed more weather- appropriate!!
I let Kathleen sleep in a bit, and once ready, we hit the road south to Castellina in hurricane force winds, light rain, and intermittent fog. The drive met us with patches of misty fog, heavy rain, and more wind. However, it also afforded us a look at the Italian countryside dressed in a different fashion….the grays and blues of clouds, rain, and fog.
We made a stop at the Florence American Cemetery and quietly made note of the incredible sacrifice of our solders in WW II. This sacred site is incredibly beautiful, and immediately has a profound effect on the visitor. There were few, if any other than us, on this cold, blustery day, but we were grateful and humble to be guests at this resting place of over 4,000 American solders who perished in WWII. The grounds here are immaculately cared for, and all the land, upkeep, and facilities are granted and paid for by the Italian government. (The images I've posted are from my visit there in May 2011...a very sunny, warm day!)
Pulling into Castellina with the last gray rays of daylight to lead us, we were finally greeted by the glowing porch light at Casamonti/Capre. Wearily, we unloaded our belongings, then found our way to the often-visited Dei Dottore for a pizza and ensalata mista dinner. Oh, and let’s not forget the Chianti! Cin cin to a another beautiful day in lovely Italia!
(photo courtesy of bergamo2000.blogspot.com)
No late sleeping in as Marty had a plane to catch and my friend Kathleen Hudson was due to arrive on the early side. We hurried to gather things up, and just as we were readying to head downstairs for breakfast, the phone rang…Kathleen was in the lobby! Instructions given to come on up, we all exchanged greetings and proceeded to throw back a little coffee and a bite or two.
I pensively waited outside the hotel with Marty for the arrival of the hotel shuttle. Hard to believe that two weeks had flown by so quickly and were now at the moment of closure. It was a bittersweet wait, knowing that it would be two weeks before we were reunited, and that Marty was returning to the "real life" of Kerrville alone. We exchanged endearments, and being gifted with a husband who values life’s experiences, I was given his blessing to continue this Tuscan journey – one week with a friend, one week on my own. I know this is a rare commodity in a man, in a husband, and I try to never, ever take a second of his extreme generosity and love for granted. Temporary goodbyes and hugs procured, Marty departed for the airport and his return to the work-a-day rhythms of our other life in Texas.
Kathleen and I spent a little time in the room, allowing her to clean up and rest a bit after the long journey that flings one 7 hours into the future. With a somewhat short drive ahead and friends awaiting us for lunch, we loaded up and steered south to Piacenza. This town is mid-size and claims the same title of antiquity as most all Italian towns. It was a very strategic location in the middle ages due to its location on tributaries of the Po River, it’s nearness to the Ligurian Sea, and it’s position on the north-south route traversing Italy. The land is flat, although portions on the outskirts quickly become rolling, and the large Dolomites are visible on the near horizon. Much of the land is farmed, and for the first time I noted dairy farms. There are also some horse operations about, purpose being for racing. One doesn’t see many horses in Italy: they are too expensive to care for and owning open land that is not cultivated is an issue.
We wound our way through the streets of Piacenza, following Ms. GPS’s directions somewhat skeptically, but once again the mission was accomplished as we pulled into the Park Hotel, a modern, efficient hotel kindly reserved for us by friend Ettore Sola. The room was so nice and the beds comfortable…ahhhh! Once situated, Ettore met us at the hotel and we headed off to collect our other Piacenzan friend, Francesco Paladino. Ettore and Francesco became friends on Texan soil when they accompanied our acclaimed blues musician friend, Fabrizio Poggi, and his band to Texas in late 2010 to film a documentary. Francesco is a filmmaker and boasts several American awards, and Ettore is a professional photographer/videographer. Both offered open invitations at that time, and I’ve been able to visit them twice now in my travels.
Francesco had arranged a lunch for us in the most authentic location possible…a rustic old farm house turned fattoria out in the countryside! What was perfectly awesome in its own right was made even better by the sight that greeted us when we entered: a huge table that spanned the length of the bottom floor eating area, enthusiastically filled with family members from young toddler to silver haired matriarch. The room was lively, loud, full of wonderful smells, and we were now a part of it all.
We began the meal with water and a bottle of the local well-known wine, Gutturno. It's a wonderful red, rich and full-bodied, but less complex than a Chianti. Francesco took care of all the ordering, assuring the most authentic experience for us. We dined on plates of antipasto containing local meats, a potato salad type dish, and something else cold that was delicious. The primi was the local tortellini type egg pasta filled with spinach and ricotta, along with a pot of what looked to be large cannelli beans and a smaller bean-shaped object made of bread crumbs. Needless to say, both were incredible! We had to top things off with some dessert, so I chose a chocolate type torta or cake made from lady fingers dipped in amaretto and ramped up to amazing heights with some kind of chocolate infusion. Oh, wow!
After as much grand food as we could stand and wonderful conversation, we were invited to Francesco’s for a “digestive”…code word for some sort of yummy liquor, this particular time a banana one (that was reeeally good). He lives on the top floor off what was once upon a time a grand villa looking more like it should be sitting somewhere in France. I believe he said it was built in the 1700’s. We enjoyed 30 minutes or so of viewing Francesco’s art collection, as well as his music collection, which is the largest I’ve ever seen. Exchanging thanks and hugs with Francesco who had work to attend to, we departed for an afternoon of castle viewing in the Piacenzan countryside.
I will have to fill in castle names later, but the first one made for a beautiful drive to reach its walls, and a quick impressive view of high walls and corner towers. (*Ah ha...the photo divulges the name: Rocca Anguissola Scotti! - doh!) However, despite the sign indicating it should be open, it was most certainly not. Ah well, one finds that open/close times are prone to the whims of those who hold the keys! The outside view was pleasant, but oh to have gone inside! We walked part of the perimeter, and viewing as much as possible it was apparent this would be a location to make a return visit to some day!
Taking our chances we headed a bit further north to Castello di Rezzanello, one of the most well-preserved in the region and claiming the largest grounds in Italy. Well, as fate would have it, no ingresso (entrance) today, y’all. I asked if this was normal, and Ettore said this castle was privately owned and used for occasions, so they were open at random times. We viewed from afar through the gate, but decided to drive around to another entrance. All appearances would indicate no chance, but about the time we decided to turn around, a car appeared and the gates opened to allow them access. Ettore asked if we might come in for a tour, an elderly gent appeared, and we were given the thumb’s up!
View of the castle from the first gate
Car parked inside the gate, we were shown the courtyard area and lower floor by the same gentleman, and also learned that this site was used as a prisoner of war camp during WWII, housing U.S. and other allied nationalities. The lady of the castle, the current owner herself, greeted us in the courtyard. She was a picture of flamboyance…wildly painted nails, fly-away bleached hair up in an unruly knot, rhinestone sandals, a brightly colored flowing pant suit, and plenty of jewelry. She was most welcoming and kind, talked a mile a minute (I could understand random words here and there), and bid us to follow her into a room to see a bag full of photos taken at events at the castle. I think she was inspired to do this when she learned Ettore was a photographer. What a fun little addition to this private tour!
Another employee took over and we followed her about as she led us from room to room. It was amazing and wonderful, this still elegant but aging structure. Like a grand dame slightly past her prime, the rooms still offered incredible views of painted ceilings, ornate carved furniture that every castle should contain, scrumptiously ripe window coverings, and even a grand collection in the lowest floor (ex-dungeon?) of all things knight – crossbows, lances, shields, swords, helmets, whole suits of armor, and other weaponry I am clueless on name of. It was really amazing, all these things hanging here and there on the walls.
After the tour, we viewed part of the grounds. It’s a beautiful expanse of partly manicured lawn, part natural forest growth living in the boundaries of tameness. A certain type of tree in northern Italy puts out a plethora of little “fairy” flying seeds…probably some form of cottonwood …and they danced like snow in the lower light of the afternoon. We’d seen many in Cremona, and named them summer snow. They also bring to mind an invasion of little Italian faeries, skittering about on the wind as they look for the just-right spot to land and let the magic begin. A castle yard is a most befitting place to do just that!
Back at the hotel, Kathleen and I cleaned up and prepared to head out to hear our Italian blues musician friends perform that night. I don’t recall the name of the town, but it was somewhere south of Piacenza and Pavia, and the venue was a little grill type place that just as easily could’ve been in Texas as Italy. Upon our arrival, excited greetings were exchanged with Stefano, Roberto, and “French”/Giancarlo, wonderful veteran blues musicians who are part of a newly formed band called Chemako, along with new friend and band member, Marcello Milanese. We also had the added pleasure of meeting French’s wife, Francesca, as well as Marcello’s bride, Lorena. Excited chatter was exchanged among all of us as we tried to catch up on life with the time available, but it wasn’t long before it was time for the music began. These guys were terrific, and what a joy to hear them on Italian soil once again. I dined on my first hamburger in Italy for a late dinner as the first set played, and even if it wasn’t a Kerrville “Classics” burger, it wasn’t half bad. The accompanying glass of nice Italian beer went down pretty good, as well!
The band played on until late, and the whole evening was a wonderful time in every way. And of course, once the music is over, talk commences and it wasn’t until something like 1:30am that Kathleen, Ettore, and I finally hit the road back to Piacenza. Un bella notte con i miei amici!
Outside the "rabbit hole"
Our last morning together in the Capre apartment, our “Rabbit Hole” as Anna Rita humorously calls it, was a bit bittersweet. We’d both felt an oncoming sense of not so much an easily described sadness, but more a poignant acceptance of the fact that Marty’s time in this paradise was drawing to a close, and that his return to Texas would be “da solo”. We awoke with a little bit of a gnawing sense of urgency to get things organized for his departure, as well as hit the road early enough for a cappuccino and leisurely travel north. We were rewarded with a predeparture visit by Anna Rita to bid Marty farewell (and have a quick tour of the upstairs “Karen” apartment I’d inhabited last year), and her kind words meant more than she knew. Hugs exchanged, we loaded up the little Punto and headed towards town for cappuccino and a light breakfast at the gas station with our new friend Simone. I presented him with a Texas magnet and a small package of flavored Texas coffee in reciprocation for his kind regalo, or gift. I do believe he was as delighted with them as I was with the coffee art calendar! We were able to enjoy our pleasures outside this day…it was finally a warm day full of bright Tuscan sun and the gentlest hint of a breeze. The view south/southwest was spectacular, and San Gimingnano rose up in the distance to salute the sky with her proud remaining towers.
Zipping from the whirl-a-gig Toscana roads onto the much straighter A1 strada, we began the journey north. The drive takes one through wondrous views of Tuscany that begin to fade into flatter lands towards Florence. Then, the mountains begin to build in size until tunnel in and outs become as common as the right-left-right-left gyrations of our now familiar country roads. After crossing the mountains, the land becomes dramatically flat as such familiar place names like Bologna, Modena, and Parma come into view. We stopped for a bite of lunch at a My Chef on the outskirts of Parma…similar to the AutoGrille but a notch or two less enticing…and found our way to the cafeteria style lunch selections. It’s always such fun to be a part of the hub-bub of the road tripping others, mostly Italian. Truck drivers, families, business men, and tourists all pile in for a quick meal, a bathroom break, maybe a snack or two, a hit of caffé as well as gassing up the car before departure. All the major roadways in Italy have exits for towns, then sporadically placed “Servicio” stops. Most all have at least a bar and quick food, and then all the way up to full scale self-serve dining. And the nice part is they are place precisely on the strada with easy off/easy on access. We enjoyed our little lunch, as well as the people watching.
The precious Caterina and her beautiful Mommy, Lucia
As we exited the Parma area and came closer to Cremona, we contacted our new friends-to-be, Lucia and Emanuele. Marty had met Lucia through Conversation Exchange, we all had said hello on Skype, and after one conversation, Lucia kindly invited us to visit if we were in their area. It worked out well to do so on our way to Milan on this day.
With the beloved help of the GPS, we found our way to their apartment style home in the newer neighborhoods of Cremona. We were surprised to find their building came into being in the 1960’s. It appeared much newer. We were warmly greeted by Lucia and Emanuele, as well as their absolutely precious 6 month old daughter, Catarina. As with any freshly launched friendship, the chat was at first superficial and edged with a tiny bit of unease; however, it wasn’t long before a wonderful level of comfort was found.
Lucia teaches English to high school age students and her command of the language is good. Not so by her standards, but we begged to differ. Emanuele apologized upfront for his lack of English, but again…we found it to be quite good; much better than our Italian, for sure!!
We were seated at their dining table and offered spumonti and a beautiful spread of antipasto that included several kinds of meats from the area, and two delicious cheeses..one being parmasean and the other pecorino, I believe. Having thought we’d communicated we would eat before our 2:30 arrival, we were somewhat surprised to be treated to this, but figured it was like an appetizer type snack to go with our drinks. That is….until the beautiful plates of pasta were served! Come to find out much later in the day when Marty brought it up, Lucia had misunderstood and thought we would arrive and have lunch together with them. We were all somewhat embarrassed, but found the humor in the miscommunication. Lucia told us they thought it rather strange we would eat lunch so late, but well, you know those Americans - ha! The pasta was wonderful, all cooked by Emanuele, and it was topped off with a wonderful fresh strawberry bowl and caffé. We managed to eat it all, and were- needless to say – stuffed! How kind and generous, though, of these busy young people to treat virtual strangers to such personal hospitality in their home. And need I mention that the addition of the company of the adorable little Catarina put things over the top!
Lunch dishes put away, we loaded up the car and headed towards the centro storico of Cremona, another ancient city possessing wonder upon wonder. We parked and walked a little ways together into the main piazza, a wonderful antique rectangular plaza surrounded by the most amazing medieval buildings, a beautiful duomo and baptistery, and a huge bell tower…the tallest in the world! As we headed towards the baptistery, Emanuele went ahead and spoke with an older man at the door. Next thing you know, we ushered in…no ticket needed…and find ourselves as the only guests there, marveling at the works of art, the sheer size and workmanship of the building, and the massively and beautiful brick dome. They even turned on the Gregorian chant music for us! We found out that this dome predated the one in Florence…truly a marvel then and now. It was a magnificent building.
As we exited and wandered towards the duomo, a long time friend of Emanuele’s met us and we exchanged warm greetings. He had heard about our visit, and was able to come join us. His expectant wife was resting at home, so we didn’t have that pleasure. I am embarrassed that I can’t remember this very friendly young man’s name! As we entered the duomo, impressive from the outside but not even beginning to belay the magnificent sight inside, it took a moment for our eyes to adjust to the sights. Massive and dark, the interior held a different persona that other duomos I’ve been in. All of the major cities’ have been incredibly impressive, but now and then one is hit with a different reaction, and I found this here. It wasn’t long before the phenomenon, and there is a word for it in Italian, of feeling an inner rush of emotion and awe that is non-definable with words, but with tears, swept over me. We marveled at huge masterpieces of painting, one being famous for its perspective of Christ, just removed from the cross and laying with his feet towards the viewer at an angle, being cradled by Mary and the others. As you move from one viewing point to another, Christ’s body appears to take on entirely different perspectives from laying almost side to side, to appearing to be draped over the edge of the area he is laying on, to being at a crossways angle. It is truly amazing. We enjoyed taking in all the beauty and workmanship of this duomo, and were so grateful for having it shared by those who’ve grown up in its shadow. And once again, having sweet Caterina along was such joy! She is so happy and content, and not once complained. I had such a time with her, and by mutual decree became her Texas Nonna. Yee haw!
We wandered from the duomo out into the piazza and found ourselves surrounded in a joyful, buzzing hub of pedestrians and bike riders, all ages and combinations out enjoying an incredibly beautiful and warm spring late afternoon. Cremona has a university, so there were many young people, along with the variety of citizens of every age. Many were out strolling and watching…participating in a beautiful tradition of passiagata. We stolled along slowly, immersed as a part of this delightful energy and commonality. I’m sure there were tourists here and there, but we never picked them out. What joy to feel assimilated into this! Friends would stop now and then and say hello and chat a moment, waves were exchanged from afar…a sweet part of the Italian culture that we felt so blessed to be allowed to share. Oh…and how these gorgeous Italian women manage to wear skirts or dresses, AND 4 inch heels while riding a bike is beyond me, but they do it with incredible ease and style!
Emanuele had to depart for an event in Milan, along with his friend, so Lucia,
Caterina, Marty and I walked a slow walk back to the apartment. It was another great treat to stroll through more streets and neighborhoods just taking in the life of Cremona. Back in the apartment, we chatted a bit more before realizing it was…yes….much later than we’d realized – 8:00! It’s that time warp at work again. Saying our warm thanks and goodbyes, and holding Caterina one last time, we closed the literal door to the newly opened figurative door of yet another sweet friendship in Italy. The invitation to all our Italian friends to visit us in Texas is always laid forth, and what a joy it would be to be able to return some of this incredibly hospitality.
Off to Milan, we wound our way with GPS at the helm. However, as technology is certainly not perfect, the little data brain got a little confused and lead us some 25 km past our intended destination. With it being dark and us being tired, we didn’t quite catch on to this little wild goose chase until a bit late, and after numerous “recalculating” and rebooting, plus one phone call to the hotel, we finally found ourselves checking in at about 10:30, tired and ready for a glass of wine. Unpack a few things, head downstairs – no one tending the little bar even though they were there when we came in and things looked opened. Okay….back upstairs, “Marty, maybe just splurge and call room service.” An affirmative response, but about a ten minute delay to try to get the internet to work…phone call made. They closed five minutes ago. The two little beers in the mini bar didn’t stand a chance as the dwarf size fridge door creaked open.
Abbazia di San Galgano
We are both feeling a little tinge of sadness. This is Marty’s last full day here at Casamonti and in Toscana. Where did two weeks go, and so very quickly? I’ve mentioned earlier the time warp we’ve lived in here….no doubt it exists.
We chose to sleep in a bit, then leisurely prepared for the day. Departure took us southerly towards the Abbazia di San Galgano, the Monastery of St. Galgano. We stopped off in Costal Pino for a lunch at a medium sized trattoria and had one of our less exceptional meals. It was good, but obviously priced for the tourist pocket. Full, we felt some satisfaction at having bolstered the town economy in small way.
This day was stellar in beauty. How can each successive day be more gorgeous? Or maybe not…just another overexposure to extreme beauty in every direction and no human ability to fully ingest and describe it. Our drive took us through small hamlets and some of the winding-est roads yet….Sovicille, Rosia, Frosini, and more. San Galgano is an abby built in the 1200’s by a following of Cinestercian monks who honored their mentor, an ex-knight by the name of Galgano. Galgano had had enough of the knightly way of doing things, and renounced his former life to become a hermit in the mountains of this area. I’m not quite clear if he did anything good for co-humanity or just hung out, but he did plunge his knight sword into a rock where it was fully buried up to the hilt – his version of creating a cross since he did not have one. The sword in the stone is displayed in the Chapel of San Galgano near the abby, and has actually been dated to show origin in the 1200’s. It was pretty cool to see. And if all this holds up, this "sword in the stone" predates King Arthur's tale and is said to be the inspiration of the well-known myth. (See the second slide show for images of the chapel and sword)
The abby ruins are impressive, and enough remains to allow ones imagination to take full charge and fill in the missing mortar and accoutrements. For a short period of time, we were the only ones there save for the singing birds and warm sun, and it was memorable. Again, the ghosts of monks past seemed almost tangible as I slowly took it all in.
We walked up the rather steep incline to the Montesiepi Chapel, marveled at the sword, as well as the building. Its dome is of geometric brick and amazes one at how this was accomplished so long ago in the 12th century. We wandered into the small “gift shop” next to the chapel, and were met by a most strange odor and an even stranger little old woman who busied herself straightening shelves and having an animated conversation with…herself. Not sure if she was just having a good time, or if something more serious lurked, we nosed around as we tried to off-handedly listen and watch. Choosing a licorice stick to purchase, Marty approached her and began to engage her in conversation…in Italian, of course. Despite first impressions, she was quite lucid and fun and we were able to understand most all of what she said. Somehow our conversation went to how school children are over stressed these days, and feeling strongly about it, she repeated her views enough to where we truly did get every word! She told us, too, that she had been married in the chapel, and that she had lived most all her life there. Divorced at this point, she lived in the area just adjacent but attached to the chapel. She was quite a classic little gal!
Back to the hotel/trattoria near the abbey, we enjoyed a cool beverage and sat to enjoy the beauty of a warm day. Easy to do. Time to go, though, and we retraced our steps towards Castellina. Going through the small community of Forsini, I’d seen another very awesome looking castle type building. A “Can we?” on the way predetermined the attempt to go to this castle on the way home. Well, lo and behold….same story! Another lucky soul’s private home, and nothing more than gazing from afar allowed. Ah, well.
We made our way back to lovely Lamole for our last dinner together in Toscana, and it might have been the best yet. Watching a beautiful sunset, we relished Lamole’s excellent wine and savored food above a rustic description, but true to its origins…and absolutely amazing. We closed out the evening there with a panna cotta that was indescribably good, along with two limoncelli for buona fortuna. Arriveaderci, and buona notte…
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.
Today marks the long awaited cooking class with a delightful young lady named Guila Scarpaleggia, creator of Jul's Kitchen! GPS programmed for her country home, we set out with plenty of time to arrive, as well as make a stop at the gas station for an artistic cappuccino. This time, Simone the barista and latte artist, made one with a turkey and one with a bunny….awesome! He probably thinks I’m a little strange at my glee over this, but I also think he enjoys seeing his work appreciated. As I sat, he came over to the table and gave me a calendar that featured his creations, made for the gas station to give to customers, I presume. How thoughtful and sweet, and I will enjoy it so much! Note to self to take Simone something of our Texas gifts on the next visit.
Onward to the outer regions of Colle d’val Delsa where Guila’s family home is. At 31, she, like many young Italians, lives at home with her parents. Guilia obtained a degree in communications and marketing, found work unfulfilling and underpaid, and decided to turn her passion for cooking, writing, and photography into a food blog. This has opened incredible doors for her, and she is now conducting classes and even finding kitchenware sponsors. We choose to take one of her small classes…no more than 4 people, but just us 2 this day…at her family home in the countryside!
The drive was, what else…so very beautiful, and we were rewarded with views of poppy fields unlike any we’d seen thus far. The brilliant red-orange of these flowers seems almost surreal, as if they’ve been lit from within. Alone in expanse of red, or intermingled with the whites and yellows of other spring flowers, the sights were pure delight.
Following the GPS with somewhat less faith than normal – how could all these odd turns and little roads lead to where we were headed? – we decided to push onward, and alas…it was correct! We came upon a conglomeration of lovely buildings, some ancient, others not quite so, that were knitted together in community like only Italian villages can do. Probably no more than 25 individual dwelling places marked by numbers, we wound through the little street until we arrived at the last building on the right….a lovely two story home that is Guila’s family’s. We greeted each other warmly, took in the spectacular view over the valley behind the home, and commenced to talk.
Guila shared that this home was built by her great-grandfather in the 1920’s, I believe, and what is now the kitchen was the barn. Their little village was filled with city dwellers during WWII when many escaped to the countryside to avoid danger. She told us of how people hid in the upper rooms and areas of the home when the French and German troops came through, and of how her grandmother tells of remembering when the American soldiers came through. It was sobering to think of standing right there where this had occurred, and to remember how the war is so much more “real” to most Italians. It was on their soil, in the towns and cities, and not so long ago.
Cooking! Ahhh, yes! We had a wonderful time listening, learning, doing, tasting, experiencing as Guilia took us through the rotations of Tiramisu, made first so the flavors could meld, then fresh pasta – tagliatelle and tagliatellini, fresh antipasto of pecorino, truffle jam, fava beans and salt. Next, preparing a stuffed turkey breast using sliced sautéed little artichokes with onion in a reduced sauce, soon to be seared in olive oil and butter, then roasted on the stovetop. A fresh, lovely lemon sauce and a heartier porcini mushroom sauce where prepared as Marty and I rolled out the rested pasta dough and cranked out beautiful golden strips of pasta using Guilia’s grandmother’s pasta maker. It came out paper thin after having been pressed and pressed through the maker until almost transparent and ready to dry ever so briefly.
A warm salad of fresh fava beans, thinly sliced artichokes, lightly sautéed asparagus, grilled pecorino cheese, dressed lovingly with fine olive oil, salt, and pepper was our antipasto for the meal, and dare I say it’s presentation of colors, flavors, and textures was indeed a Tuscan masterpiece. We commenced to dine together after several hours work, enjoying incredible food, wonderful wine, and the company of a very special and talented young artist named Guilia.
The tiramisu, along with a taste of a local sweet wine made with honey and water, was the crown of the beautiful day we shared with Guilia in her family kitchen. The talk went on until we realized it was 4:30 (we arrived at 10:00), and we felt somewhat bad at taking up so much of the day that surely held other matters to be addressed. Guilia assured us it was not a problem, and that she had truly enjoyed the day, as well. We departed with a warm hug, the day’s recipes, two Jul’s Kitchen aprons, and a lovely hardbound book titled “Le Ricette di mia Nonna…My Grandmother’s Recipes”, Guilia’s first cookbook. Having now had a little time to peruse the book, we both found it to be not only a cookbook holding a wealth of marvelous authentic recipes, but also a beautifully written book of prose that carefully and lovingly paints a picture of the story behind each recipe. Guilia had a true gift for finding the words to convey her thoughts, her joys, her passions….and to share them with you. Her photography is exquisite, as well. What a tangible treasure to take away from our day.
Hurrying home, we arrived and began to prepare for yet another delight to this day….a TexMex meal with Lucio and Francesca! I brought along taco seasoning, freeze dried beans, and Spanish rice….oh, and tortillas!...to see if I could recreate such a meal under this Tuscan sun. Tortillas fried, hamburger cooked and seasoned, beans done, and rice ready…we all gathered at our little table, poured the Corona, and Lucio and Francesca were given their first lesson in constructing a tostado. Much good talk, laughter, eating, and enjoyment pursued as the night wore on. They brought a lovely prosecco and little pastries that look like mini cream puffs for dessert. It was perfect! As the congeniality persued, we again looked at the time in sheer amazement that it was already 11:30pm. There is no doubt that we have stepped into some sort of medieval time warp as the hours slide by like mere minutes.
Warm good byes and thanks exchanged, Lucio and Francesca headed out towards their home in Montesperutoli and we began the TexMex round up of dishes, feeling full, happy, and satisfied in only the way that food and friends can offer.
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.