(** This post and all that follow are synopses of the full blogs found on and linked to the Cultural Routes - Blogging Europe website. I hope you'll find your way there and enjoy my tales and photos from this amazing adventure in Tuscany!)
23 May - Afternoon:
The journey continues after our hike on the Via Francigena from Abbadia Isola to Monteriggioni (see June 11, 2014 post)
Winding things up in delightfully medieval Monteriggioni, our Cultural Routes - Blogging Europe entourage feasted on a fine array of the best of Tuscany at a wonderful local trattoria by the name of Il Ceppo. I won't go into great depth here as it's all laid out in my newest EICR blog post blog.culture-routes.net/the-splendors-of-siena-and-the-end-of-our-journey/"The Splendors of Siena - and the End of Our Journey" -- but suffice to say, it was INCREDIBLE!
The next segment of this final day as a team took us to the ancient north gate, the Porto Camollia, of the enchanted town adored by so many...Siena. The entry portal to untold numbers of pilgrims over the ages, we stepped through as modern day pilgrims, ready to discover so much about the history and influence of the Via Francigena in this magnificent Tuscan town.
Follow along as we retrace the steps of the pellegrini on this urban section of the Via Francigena, then conclude with a fitting rustic meal at Orta de' Pecci, not only a fine, rustic trattoria, but also a spot entangled in dark history, yet holding an incredible modern twist of renewal and redemption.
(Full story via link above)
Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive,
and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born. ~ Anaïs Nin
As with everything in our mortal walk, there is a beginning...and there is an ending. And the evening of our time in Siena marked the culmination of four and half incredible, insightful, enriching, memory-making, intriguing days to remember.
But maybe more importantly, it also marked the beginning of new friendships, that human element that is such the gift.
I ponder sometimes at the beautiful notion of the friends I have that I've just not yet met. And this bloggers tour was one of those instances, but multiplied by 9 or more! How blessed I am to have serendipitously encountered this fun, intelligent, soulful, and wonderful group that "lived together" for those 4.5 days.
My desire, of course, is that we will see each again somehow, some way. And that could well happen. But it might not. However, that doesn't diminish, in my opinion, the beauty of the friendship, no matter how brief or how long. The interaction shared forever changes and molds and betters. Yes, such a gift.
Left to right/top to bottom:
Marlys Schuermann, me, Raffaela Caria, Michael Schuermann, Eleonora Berti, Grazia Grimaldi, Luca Bruschi, favorite pilgrim
Favorite Knight, Valentina Meloni, Costanza Giovannini, Mario Mele
Just when I thought it couldn't get any better... throw in yet another incredible, breath-taking, amazing experience - by bike!
The second half of 23 May found our EICR bloggers' tour troupe saddling up (well, at least 5 of us!) for an almost 25 km ride on the Via Francigena from San Gimignano into Colle di Val'delsa. It was challenging, fun, exhausting, wonderful, and an experience I feel SO fortunate to have had! We also had two amazing guides, Manuel and Ingo, who kept us from killing ourselves, so we'll check that off as a "plus".
The full story is now up on the official EICR website.
You'll also read of our stay at an beautifully restored ospedale , or way station for pilgrims along the Via Francigena, that is now a top-knotch resort called Relais La Costa. Tucked peacefully into the Tuscan countryside, its charms are many!
So come along and enjoy the ride with me...andiamo, y'all!
**And now for the tease: Next post - follow me as we trek the Via Francigena from Abbia di Isola to Monteriggioni; and oh, the characters we'll meet!
I've just posted my latest bloggers' tour post from 22 - 23 May featuring an ages-old Friars' village and San Gimignano!
As our European Institute of Cultural Routes/Council of Europe "Thermal Spa Towns and the Via Francigena" bloggers tour continued, we found ourselves on the road for the beloved Tuscan hill town of San Gimignano. Famous for its remaining 17 towers and strategically situated on the Via Francigena, this charming town is full of hidden gems awaiting your discovery!
As our tour focused more on the Via Francigena (see earlier post for some history on that), I had another dream-come-true experience staying overnight in an ancient borgo, or village, that was given to St. Augustine Friars in the 900's and served pilgrims and travelers along the Via Francigena! It was a hauntingly beautiful place.
Read the full blog on the official Cultural Routes webpage, but in the meantime enjoy a few more photos from the first part of this exciting day!
Most folks have a pretty solid "mind theatre" in place for the sights to behold in Tuscany: row after row of lush vineyards, silvery olive orchards clinging to hillsides, red clay rooftops covering antiquity, and so on.
All true, all lovely, all beloved. But I bet few have ever peeked under the soil of dear Toscana.
As part of the recent bloggers' tour organized and sponsored by The European Institute of Cultural Routes, we were fortunate to be welcomed guests of the Grotto Giusti, a renown above ground spa AND really awesome thermal cave where folks have gone since 1849 to find well-being and balance...and a lot of sweat.
The same day held other wonders, as well, such as a tour of the Montecatini Contemporary Art Museum, a fabulous lunch at Hotel Torretta, and a peek in the elegant old gal called Grand Hotel and La Pace Spa.
All the details can be found on my latest post right here on the EICR official website.
Happy virtual touring....and andiamo, y'all!
Oh, the wonders of taking the cure, and that cure is found in the mineral laden waters of the famous crown jewel of Montecatini Terme, the Terme Tettuccio.
Modeled in the style of an elaborate Roman bath, this early 20th century marvel stands watch over the most famous springs of Tuscany. For a mere 6 euro or so, you can step into its portico and be wisked back to the grand aura of days gone by. And if the spirit moves you (or the Italian doc has written a prescription for you), the waters can be ingested for whatever gastric, respiratory, or skin affliction ails you.
Just up the hill by either a healthy walk or a ride on the oldest funicular in operation lies the historic town of Montecatini Alto, the mother of Montecatini Terme.
An often fought over hilltop fortress, Montecatini Alto is now more a retired dame who looks over all the goings-on at her feet as a result of the healing waters -- waters that also brought life and purpose to what might have become another forgotten hilltop town in Tuscany.
I've just uploaded my recent full blog on Terme Tettuccio and Montecatini Alto on the European Institute of Cultural Routes website, our main sponsor for the recent Thermal Spa Towns and Via Francigena bloggers tour . I hope you'll take a look and enjoy a bit more on the history and affairs found in these two delightful gems of northern Tuscany.
Ever wondered what I Tuscan spa town experience would be like?
I was lucky enough to dab my toes in the waters of healing and relaxation in Montecatini Terme recently, thanks to an invitation to travel with the European Institute of Cultural Routes and a team of bloggers and photographers.
Crossing Routes – Blogging Europe is an initiative of the Council of Europe Cultural Routes Programme and the European Institute of Cultural Routes, in the framework of the Council of Europe‐European Commission joint programme on European Cultural Routes (2013 2014). The initiative is carried out in co‐operation with the European Route of Historic Thermal Towns and the old pilgrimage route of the Via Francigena in partnership with Fondazione Sistema Toscana, regional tourism board of Tuscany and local and regional partners.
The groups of bloggers, photographers and videographers will explore the region of Tuscany in Italy from 21 to 25 May 2014, experiencing the atmosphere of the XIXth‐century thermal towns along the European Route of Historic Thermal Towns: Montecatini, Monsummano and walking along the ancient pilgrimage route of the Via Francigena – San Gimignano, Montereggioni, Colle Val d’Elsa and Siena. On their way, the bloggers will reveal the essence of Tuscany to visitors in a novel way.
The group of five bloggers have been asked to share their impressions and experiences along these routes, connecting the cultural, spiritual and historical heritage of Tuscany and its communities and landscapes, taking photos and diary notes, making videos and writing articles as they travel, to create lively, inspiring chronicles of their trips on the Crossing Routes – Blogging Europe platform:
taken from http://blog.culture‐routes.lu/
Everything's bigger in....Tuscany??
Now as y'all know, it's a certainty that Texas owns all braggin' rights to "bigger & better". After all, our founding renegades didn't design that flag with One. Big. Star. for no good reason. However, after today's impromptu back road adventure, I think a small portion of Tuscany is vying for a little recognition in the size department.
So we're all in agreement that Tuscany is drop-dead gorgeous...a land that entices and entangles all who dare to set foot within her seductive boundaries. But what they forgot to tell you is that Tuscany is more like Sybil from that cheesy 70's movie than she is the coy Mona Lisa. This portion of central Italy is divided into == regions, which are then subdivided into unique territories, each pushing and pulling and parading with utter decadence of delights to convince you it is, indeed, the best.
Except, in my opinion, the Crete Sinese -- that land south of Siena whose name is derived from the aged, sun baked clay that sustains and supports the voluptuous rolling hills and sparse forests resting here. Sister to the Chianti region and her famous vineyard laced hillsides flanked by countless silvery olive grooves and charming tiny villages that make her the rock starlet of central Italy, the Crete presents as the older, maybe even brooding, one; full of beauty, yet reserved and almost unwilling to give up her secrets. She is a land that is an artist's collection of seasonal hues...deep late spring green expanses of new wheat sprinkled with confetti of orange-red poppies that melds into early summer glistening gold ready for harvest; high summer and she bursts in an explosion of brilliant sunflower fields that tumble across the ancient landscape, dancing to appease the demanding sun. Hilltops are prickled with silent marching regiments of proud cypress, many leading the way to yet another aged brick farmhouse or villa that stand like oases in this ever-changing land-locked ocean. She seems to have no need to brandish her wares, but is quietly, even mysteriously, willing to allow the travelers to explore as she decides to give up...or not..her secrets to the curious.
I was lucky enough on this brilliant blue sky day literally exploding in glorious spring frenzy to find myself in a car transversing the Crete towards my destination of the Abby/Abbazia Monte Oliveto Maggiore. It's a minor miracle that I made it there and back in one piece -- one cannot look right/left/ahead/behind without having full-sense assault of indescribable beauty, never static in the changing light and winding bends, being thrown constantly in the 180 realm of vision. It was stunning to behold; almost too much for my head to wrap around. I wondered aloud if those exposed to this gloriousness daily maintained the deserved awe commanded by the Crete?
The walk up to the abbey leads one through a beautiful forested trail canopied by the gentle overhung branches of pine, oak, and cypress. Age-weary brick paving provides a steady path, and one can't help but wonder what souls, both figurative and literally, have connected to this same terra.
I was also able to take in the beautifully adorned main chapel remodeled in the 18th century to Baroque standards, the somewhat stoic library -- albeit the richly frescoed hallway outside the library and the carved wooden doors leading in were most impressive -- and the refectory, or "mess hall" in colloquial terms, that glowed in a juxtaposition of ancient and modern as the low afternoon sun cast an ageless aura on rough hewn tables and chairs set with modern utensils and plates readied for an evening meal whose pleasant aroma wafted out to those stopping to view.
A quick perusal of the interesting gift shop offering a brood of all-too-typical souvenir type items interspersed with chant CD's, informative books, an impressive array of therapeutic oils and balms, honey, and other handiworks crafted by the monks, as well as the aforementioned "tonic" was my last adventure before departing Monte Oliveto Maggiore for the return through the Crete to Castellina in Chianti. ( there's a fascinating story of the connection to Monte Oliveto and our "home away from home", Casamonti ... to be continued!)
And the return was as rapturous as the journey there. The late day light draped a honey-coated warmth over the evolving wheat fields, and somehow the same vistas of undulating landscape I'd enjoyed a few hours prior had changed clothes and were now sporting an elegance that the high sun had not uncovered. Daring to divert my attention from the jealous road, I was plied with a beauty determined to yank me whole-heartedly into a dangerous gaze. More than once it required I give in and pull off the road to stare, to absorb, to try to assimilate the 360 degree theatre of God's glory that was an overwhelming realization of any and all photos, paintings, or reproductions ever produced of this classic land. And I did it willingly, thankfully, happily.
Monday , May 5
It's been a long time since I slept like a school girl... as in "Oh lord...I'm nervous about tomorrow!". And yes I was. Worried about the unknown, but also very excited to begin this adventure of la lingua italiano!
After what really was a pretty good night's sleep (thank you, exhaustion), I arose to an incredible blue Italian sky and the cooing of pigeons on my window sill. Deciding it was high time I figured out the little italian 2-tiered coffee pots, I produced a not half bad cup of caffe americano and got busy getting myself first-day-of-school dolled up.
Book bag in hand, I left the apartment, proudly locking "my door" and stepping out into a chilly but gorgeous morning. Activity was light on the rough hewn cobbled street, but this little hill town was coming to life. I entered the very near-by bar I'd noted the evening before and stepped in the small but inviting space. Immediately upon setting foot inside, I was greeted by the nice barista's "Buongiorno" hurriedly offered as he talked intensely to a lady finishing her cappuccino. Two well-seasoned women sat talking and having breakfast, while one other was at the bar finishing the throw back of her espresso.
"Vorrei un cappuccino, per favore", and it wasn't long before I was poured a lovely, creamy, perfetto cup of this Italian delight. Half way through this delightful morning ritual, another woman entered and asked for the same in a very American accent. Hmmmm....a fellow studentessa?
Nervously, I walked the few steps to the inconspicuous door of Il Sasso, took a deep breath, and stepped upon the old stone entry and through the door. It was quiet, but as I rounded the corner, a bit earlier than requested, I waited only briefly until the raven haired Sylvia with the warm smile greeted me.
"Ciao...come si chiama?"
"Sono Paula...e sono qui!"
Totally in Italian, albeit spoken at the rate and enunciation in the manner a native would speak to a 2 year old, I was given the first day drill, most of which I thankfully understood, and was taken to a room to wait for the entrance esame. Okay...here we go.
I sat alone for a short while, and then was joined by a couple from Australia, followed by a women from Virginia, and shortly thereafter a fellow from Switzerland. Nervous greetings were exchanged, and in came Alberto with our exams.
He briefly explained the expectations in Italian as the group...well, at least we three gals....forced smiles through palpable trepidation. We had 45 minutes. Begin!
Funny how exam anxiety causes one to forget so dang much. I hadn't felt this slimy feeling for quite some time - no love lost there. Okay...deep breath... you know some of this....just do it.
A few moments passed and I relaxed a wee bit, although I knew I didn't know as much as I'd hoped I knew. Yep.
Finally, I maxed out and offered up my mental sacrifice to Alberto.
"Grazie.... venga con me, Paola."
I was seated across a desk from the effervescent Roberta who carried the air of someone you'd want to hang out with over wine and laughs. She looked my work over and began to ask me questions in Italian. The were easy questions, by gosh, but why were my thought processes operating like a carnival whirly-gig ride?? I did my best to answer as I peppered each phrase with more "Uhhhhs" than a teenager late for curfew.
"Allora, Paola...vai a Classroom 5."
I entered and was nicely greeted by 5 or so other students waiting for class to begin. As I seated myself, the other 4 new students followed.
Sylvia was our instructor, and much to her credit she spent time asking each of us newbies easily answer questions before she began the first portion of the day's lesson. We did our best, but again the "uhhhhs" peppered the room in embarrassing numbers!
By break time, it was discussed that the three of us women might be candidates for demotion. The Australian, Anita, had already been pegged, but the Virginian, Toni, and I had a brief discussion in English and decided we'd prefer to back up and be solid in our verb conjugation at the beginning level versus take on the challenge of hoping we know enough to keep up with the original placement. Good decision, it turns out!
After a brief break, a slug of espresso, and some whews, we joined a younger couple from Australia in Insegnate Sara's class. By the end of the second lesson, we had all relaxed considerably and weren't quite as concerned we'd wasted our time and money on this adventure.
Sara, a most kind and effective teacher, was patient and took her time in allowing our toddler level of Italian to flow amidst quiet corrections. By the end of the lesson, we all felt an immense sense of relief, as well as a solidifying of what we kinda-sorta knew but needed reinforcements on. The visual/written/spoken aspect of the approach made an incredible difference for me!
Sara suggested a nearby restaurant for lunch, and Toni left to fetch her husband Jim to meet me there. Some time passed, and as I waited basking in the warming sun, I noted the friendly lady who worked in the restaurant I'd dined in the night before was pausing on this slow moving day and watching the passerbys. I decided to go over and visit a bit, telling her how wonderful last night's meal was. We chatted about 15 minutes, partly in Italian, and I truly enjoyed the interaction. This angle of single travel is definitely a plus; with singular focus, one is either enveloped in self (which is okay, too) or steps out and gets involved. I'm a people person, but have always had a strong lacing of shyness that makes it an effort to initiate interaction. And funny, but Marty, who exudes a sense of shyness to many, is the social butterfly when we travel!
Joined by Toni and Jim, we enjoyed a leisurely lunch over pasta tipici. I ordered a dolce of Vin Santo e cantucci and introduced these two to this lovely dessert just as I had been in this very town a couple of years ago. Buon appetito!
I returned to my apartment, unloaded the day's new acquisition of books and papers, and took off to explore Montepulciano. I forgot how small this hilltop gem actually is as I followed the main vias up and down, noting the beautiful flags proudly announcing each contrato or neighborhood. Big, bold, and colorful, these flags rest in ancient metal flag holders secured for eternity in the depths of the equally ancient stone of building facades.
The panoramic views I was offered at unexpected turns elicited a gasp each time I encountered one. Placed high on a hill and fortified by an ancient buttress of wall, Montepulciano is like many Tuscan hill towns in its strategic placement for safety and security. After all, when either Siena or Florence were constantly sending out the troops, these places had to do all they could to fend off the bad guy of the moment!
Needing a few supplies, I found a tiny grocer and filled a sack with a few items for breakfast, some fresh pici and sauce for a make-shift dinner if needed, a chocolate bar, a few pieces of fruit, some soap, and a bierra just in case the urge struck. The quick transaction was conducted all in Italiano, and I felt quite the satisfied ragazza as I made my way home, carrying my little sack of groceries not unlike any other lucky fool living here.
Goods unloaded, I decided I was not hungry enough for dinner, but a gelato would go down nicely. Not far down the street, I found a little gelateria and ordered up a piccola copetta of caffe flavored gelato, and set out to wander some more. The daylight was low, casting a protective shadow on the warm colored walls composed of brick, stone, and stucco that joined and fought an endless battle of patterns announcing the remake of how many generations. The ghosts of windows and openings-past reside in these walls, no longer functional but insisting daily that they are noted for what they once were. Often, new windows have been inserted in the same opening with the medieval arch now filled in by brick. Who looked out, who looked in, who looked up at these same openings? What stories reside in these passageways of old Italy!
As I slowly made my way back, I was serenaded intermittently by church bells....always bells in Italy, ringing and reminding of what one needs reminded of...., as well as the calls of the swallows that harken a shrill but pleasing doggy squeak toy shriek. The occasional softly muted coo-coo of a pigeon joined the late day chorus, and I smiled.
As I neared "my neighborhood", I heard drums. A chorus of drums. What was this?? Of course, when one hears drums or music in Italy, it is imperative that the sound be followed. And this sound seemed to be just up the via from my turn off! As I rounded the corner, I came upon a group of possibly 7 or 8 young boys sitting on the steps of a church pounding in earnest to a communal beat led by a young man conductor. I had to stop and watch. Immediately I thought that this must be a drum corp that participates in the wonderful medieval festivals and events these hill towns are known for! Oh, to see one of these. I indulged in a few moments of this, then turned to leave, passing a mother and her young daughter who was carrying a striking blue and white contrata flag. Yes, the passing on of traditions and pride is alive and well!
Time to study a bit and do my homework while I munched on a few items from today's shopping. I'm thrilled to have the study materials I received today! Such a visual learner I am, and this might just get some things stuck in the grey matter once and for all!
As I sat and worked, the last warmth of sunlight was easing itself out of the street canyon beyond my window. I sipped on a warm cup of tea to try and take the chill out of this old room as I cozied up wrapped in a summer weight bedspread now beckoned to duty as a make-shift robe. Another medley of church bells rang out, cheerful voices from the street below wafted to my second floor windows, and the shrill swallows announced the end of their day. I was taken aback at that moment -- awestruck. I looked up and felt that sensation of deep gratitude, almost disbelief, a welling in the soul, as I tried to wholly grasp where I was and what I was doing. Blessed...oh yes, blessed.
A hot shower, a glass of Rosso di Montepulciano, and a bit more studying wrapped up this first day as a nuova studentessa at Il Sasso. I think I'm going to like it.
Tuesday, 6 maggio
Another glorious blue sky met my first peep out the window on this Tuscan Tuesday morning. Although I wasn't afforded a solid sleep, it didn't take long for the little coffee brewer and the joy of waking up in Montepulciano to put a spring in my non-morning person step.
I dressed as Italian flavored as I could manage without looking like I was trying too hard, making a quick stop at the nearby bar for a caffe' normale class began.
Our morning consisted of continuing lessons on passita prosimma (or good ol' past tense) conjugation, regular and irregular, as well as some work on the ever-frustrating articles that, although breve in length, carry a lot of weight in la lingua! Sara left us halfway, and the equally kind and effective Elinora carried us through the rest of the day's curriculum.
I have to say that my two days thus far at Il Sasso have shown me a manner of teaching that I find very effective both from the point of view of a studentessa, as well as a former insegnante. In general, the modalities are varied: conversation/interaction between student-teacher and student-student, written exercises, lectures, games, and follow-up homework. The atmosphere is conducive, as well, for making one feel relaxed and able to ask a question or make a mistake (did my share of those, thank you) without feeling that sense of shame I remember so well from 8th grade algebra.
Lunch rolled around and I spent a short while catching up on the technological world while I had internet. And what a surprise awaited me!! I found the email from the European Council of Cultural Routes offering me a place as a blogger on their upcoming trip on the Via Francigena with a focus on thermal baths found along the Tuscan portion of this historic trail. Pinch me! However, the email dated today's date of 6 May requested a reply/commitment by 8 May with the trip to begin 21 May. Ooooookay! But more on that later....
Back to Il Sasso at 3:00 for the "Vinogustando" mini-course I'd signed up for with hopes to interact a bit more educationally with il vino di Italia than previously done. Our mini-class consisted of myself, a lovely young Russian lady, another lovely young Chinese lass, and our instructor, the jovial Italian Alberto. All conducted in l'italiano, of course....tutto in l'italiano!
My initial thought was "Reeeeally?", but I quickly replaced that semi-cultural centric thinking with a better attitude of "Cool...immersion!", and buckled down for a two hour ride.
We reviewed the basics of wine particular to this region, the foremost being Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, along the designations granted and the process from planting to bottling. Even though I probably comprehended about 5/8's of the actual lecture, thanks to Alberto's fine enunciation, slow speech, and charades, I was able to truly get the gist of the information offered. The course continues with one other day of class time, then a visit to an enoteca here in Montepulciano for getting down to business.
Class dismissed and I set out for my long-awaited passegiatta in town. Sure, call it a nice form of exercise going up and down these steep rocked streets, but the purest joy is just being connected to the heartbeat of old Italy. Having my feet on the ground, walking under the ancient watch of walls, windows, doors, ornament, stone plaques, terra cotta tiles, and statuary that have witnessed multitudes of generations with feet to the same ground...there is something special to be found there.
I had already decided this late afternoon walk would also include the indulgence of purchasing a pair of boots. Sure, having some pretty nice Italian leather boots would be a definite "check" on the cool list, but more importantly...my feet wouldn't be constantly, always, never-endingly, ice cube cold!
I traversed downhill from Il Sasso with a trajectory of the Pratesi store I'd seen yesterday. Nice leather, but a wee bit cheaper as they're considered factory outlet type stores. On my way, I went by the beautiful old church resting on this via, and as I dodged the soccer ball of a inky dark haired boy's errant kick, I noticed the charity store (read: RESALE SHOP!!) run by the church was open. No hesitation, and up the beautiful old church steps I went.
Overseen by a spectacled nonna who was kindly wanting to help, I pulled myself away from the entrance decorated with lovely leather borsette/handbags (reeled in a great one for 10 euro) and looked left to see....boots. Lovely leather Italian boots. Score!
After we determined, all in Italian, that I was about a size 37, I tried on a few pair, feeling all the more like Cinderella. Finally... a beautiful pair of dark brown classic leather boots embellished with a stylish x-buckle to control fit on the calf were tried on for fit...and not taken off until about time for a shower. What was that? How much for extraordinarily smooth, soft as a baby's butt, high quality Italian leather boots, you ask? 25 euro. Yep. Yeee haw!
Needing to break in my new treasure, I commenced to walk another hour as I enjoyed seeing repeats of the evening prior: the same group of gray haired gents discussing who knows what, the two young girls chatting at rocket's pace as they waited to close the shop, a bored middle aged clerk straightening and straightening again the sidewalk wares hoping the new arrangement would catch a tourist's eye, and the other strollers blessed to be a part of this particular here and now as they shopped, talked, ate, and gazed.
Tucked back in the cozy space called "mine" for this week, I made a small batch of fresh pici with a nice little canned sauce, poured a glass of wine, and sat to relish this simple and satisfying end to the day.
Wednesday, 7 May
The morning rhythms of my little corner in Montepulciano are becoming familiar, expected. The grumbling roar of the street cleaner is heard about 7:45 as it squeezes through the tiny turn by the fountain and grinds upwards under my window to the main corsa; the same pigeon seems to appear on the left window sill somewhere around 8:00 as it surveys the street below; I see the business man in deep thought at quick pace moving towards a place unknown; I light the stovetop to brew my cup of espresso as I shake of the night.
"Buongiorno!" greets me from the barista and I return a smile and "Buongiorno!" as I find a place to light at the bar.
"Un caffe, si?"
Yet another routine established on this third day of small town life. I can't help but smile to myself.
A shot size slug of pure caffeine is thrown back with pleasure as I observe the quick chatter of three le donne who've entered and are eyeing the pastry display. By appearance they're not much younger than I, quite slim, and chomping down on huge pastries. However, I suppose if I walked the ski slope streets of Montepulciano daily, I could eat in a similar manner with no worries!
Class begins as Eleanora initiates a brief conversation, then has us take out yesterday's homework assignment. Funny how a 55 year old woman can still feel performance anxiety when asked to read a passage and provide the answers!
We continued on, focusing a bit more on conjugating past tense with regular and irregular verbs. It's making a bit more sense, but I've about concluded my aim for conversational fluency" might be realized about the time I'm lighting 75 or so candles on my cake. Ah well... I suppose being able to acquire food, drink, and a bathroom fluently are a good start, nonetheless.
The owner of Il Sasso, Alberto, took a bride last weekend - the lovely Patrizia - and a celebratory lunch was held at the school with participants being staff and students. How nice! And what a spread.... an array of finger foods that previously only lived in my dreams were presented like the finest mosaic handiwork of color and texture. But all edible!
And yes, there was wine: Rosso di Montepulciano, certamente!
We dined and visited as an hour or more passed. Alberto and Patrizia were presented with gifts from staff and what appeared to be a few local friends that dropped by. Oh, how I wished my level of confidence and ability would've allowed participation in the gleeful chatter! My best offering as we entered the line to dine was a warm smile and a hearty "Auguri!"
And did I mention the luscious view out the two large windows of the emerald green Tuscan valley and sultry hills that served as our backdrop during this festa? Santo cielo!
Day Two of the wine mini-course was a bit less trying on my saturated brain. I'm loving how, even though I have quite limited word-for-word understanding, my ability to get the gist of slowly delivered speech is coming along. Following Alberto's presentation of the Vino di Montepulciano and Vin Santo was quite comprehendible for the most part, and when I didn't understand he was kind to help if requested.
Our "homework" today was to stay and sample a 2011 Vino Nobile accompanied by some lovely Tuscan bread and local pecorini cheese. Nice.
After some internet catch up before departing Il Sasso, I met with Tony and Anita for a lovely apertivo of Vino Nobile and a small offering of salume, pecorino, and bread, all enjoyed on the petite wooden tables of the tiny Sax bar. The pedestrian traffic was almost nonexistent by this hour, and the view of the ancient buildings outlined by a gray sky once again left me wondering at my grand luck to be sitting there.... yet another pinch-me moment.
Toni and Jim joined us and lively conversation was enjoyed until our need to part was strong enough to overrule good drink and friends.
I took a walk to enjoy the last muted rays of the day's light and serendipitously ended up at a western wall as the last orange-red of the setting sun sat atop a hill. As I paused, I couldn't help but be overwhelmed with the almost unreal appearance of this classic Tuscan scene. The beauty was of the finest sort as vineyards, olive groves, newest green wheat fields, scattered stone buildings, and sensuous hill vistas wove a joyous tapestry of late spring celebration. I was honored to be a guest at the party.
THURSDAY, MAY 8
When the words to an Italian rap song are discernible, it might be a pretty good clue that this partial immersion life is working a little rewiring on my middle aged brain. Comprehend each word? Maybe not...but hear and recognize the majority, yes! I remain hopeful.
My bread crumb deposits on the window sill the night before brought the morning company I'd hoped for as I peered out to a deep blue morning sky. As the pigeons pushed and shoved for eating rights, I hurriedly got my tired self ready for my next to last class day at Il Sasso.
Just enough time to make the dash for espresso, then into Room 1 to start the morning.
Sara began in the usual fun fashion of asking each of us relevant questions about the activities of our previous day, and as always it was fun to exchange stories in the preschool level functioning that we could manage. I truly enjoy this safe dialog; Sara creates an air of confidence and acceptance like any good teacher would and should.
Our morning lesson on pronomi and pronomi diretti ended a bit early when Eleanora joined us for our "field trip" to the Thursday morning mercado. We marched out like good school ragazzi and made our way downhill from the school and onto the perimeter where old town meets new town.
Oh what a sight! Specially designed trucks had a plethora of goods and wares laid out tempting all who passed. The space that generally performed as a parking lot was transformed into a sea of colors, smells, textures, patterns, and fun. How hard it was not to linger and interact with each merchant! Fruit and vegetable vendors presented a display that put the finest patch work quilt to shame with its vivid colors and shapes: richly veined and contrasted Tuscan melons, bell peppers the size of pineapples, artistically decorated in swirls of yellow, gold, red, and green, purple jewels of artichokes that seemed too perfect to be real, onions of every shape and size, Irish green rods of proud asparagus huddling in teams, tomatoes -- ohhhh, the tomatoes - ruby red, luscious shapes as enticing as any siren of Homer's.
And the spectacle went on and on: fish trucks with half the sea to offer; cheeses that promoted sheep to rock star status; typical Italian meats such as pancetta, salumi, proscuitto, crudutto and other items I've yet to lay on my palatte all displayed in "taste me" style.
Clothes, socks, toys, aprons, linens, shoes, boots, kitchen wares, dishes, cleaning products, chain saws, candy, jellies.... what do you need? Most likely the weekly market can leave you satisfied!
We had a small amount of free time after touring a bit with Eleanora, and I managed to get in a purchase of stagoni, the longest aged pecorino, a porcetta panino, a package of socks, and 4 adorable kitchen aprons to give as gifts, not to mention the freebie of a whole lot of visual fun.
We finished up lessons at the usual time of 1:15, and I busied myself with eating the panino while I tried to do a bit of catch up while internet was available.
By 2:45, it was time to join Alberto and the two young women for our trip to Piazza Grande to visit and have a tasting at the Consorzio di Vino di Montepulciano. Diana was our hostess, and her animated presentation was quite fun even if I managed to digest only about 1/4 of the actual context. Ah well...maybe some day I'll up it to 1/2. However, I understood the taste bud language of the Rosso, Nobile, and Nobile Riserva we were offered, not to mention the angelic chorus that went off in my head when I sipped the amber gold of a fine Vin Santo.
We exchanged "Grazies" and parted ways, and my saturated head needed a bit of airing to allow all the Italian intake sediment to settle and hopefully lodge somewhere in a memory cell for later use. I decided to walk the 20 minutes or so down to the end of old town and make a visit to the modern Conad market. Unbeknownst to me, this shop was also a mini-clothing store, as well.
I had fun buying a bit of produce, some note pads, a chocolate bar (yes, another one) and a couple of souvenir shopping bags to cart home. The walk back filled my need for the daily work out as it was a nice uphill grade the whole way back, but oh my.... what a spectacle each and every time I walk these incredibly gorgeous and endearing age-old streets.
Late day aperitivo was had in Piazza Grande with Tony and Anita, myself, and Norelle as we sipped Bierre and spritz under a relaxing evening sky. Could there be a more fantastic setting as the tiring sun cast soft yellow rays on the civic building tower and facade of the doumo. Birds called out and zoomed low as they finished up the day's chores, while a young child ran through the center of the uncrowded piazza pulling a willing kite behind him. Small groups had also gathered to share the evening over drink and story. The old walls surrounding us must've watched in contentment as they observed yet another generation of people doing what people do, despite the era, the home country, or any other factors we so easily allow to shape our opinions, good or bad.
Jim and Toni joined us late, and the three of us departed on a search, unfruitful at first, for a late dinner repose. After striking out on the first three attempts, we found ourselves back near Il Sasso and seated in the dramatically elegant Gli Archi Ristorante. Run by the larger than life Pier, 3rd generation owner, this place was not only grand to take a seat in, it was also gold mine of incredibly delicious food!
I enjoyed a delightful bruschetta full of fine flavored tomatoes, just ripe enough, bedded on toasted Tuscan bread dressed in a rich, peppery olive oil. The primi that followed was a creamy onion soup whose name escapes me but whose flavor and pleasure will go with me to the grave. It was blanketed in a fine cloak of thinly baked sheets of parmesan. Incredible. The grand finale was roasted cinghiale cooked in a rich gravy exuding red wine nuances with a medley of spices I'll probably never be privy to. It was meal to remember, but just when we thought it couldn't get any better, the Virginia gentlemen we'd been introduced to earlier by friendly Pier sat at the piano and commenced to play a recital of beautifully free flowing soft jazz that left most of us in silent awe. He was followed by another impromptu concerto by a Brazilian gent who sat with a large group adjacent to our table. How's that for a great dessert??
We bid our farewells with Pier, who by the way takes the time to visit and interact in such personal ways with each guest making sure all feel special and welcome, and began the late night walk home. Tired beyond measure with much to do upon return, I couldn't have felt more satisfied at the delights of yet another day in Tuscan paradise. As I pulled the keys from my purse, I felt yet again that thrill at carrying keys to open a door to my home, temporary though it be, in the heart of Montepulciano.
FRIDAY, MAY 9
Really? Friday already? And of course the weather is beyond stellar on this little lighthouse hilltop of a Tuscan town. In the past day or two, a decidedly different feel has permeated the air. That chill that crawls through the skin into the bones seems to have taken leave, maybe for good, and a calming warm is easing into the days and nights. It's quite perfect, I'd say.
However, today left little time to bask lizard-like in the sun. I chose to forgo the morning visit to the tiny bar, and instead savor 30 extra minutes sleep and make do with my somewhat sorry Bialetti brewed Americano. My timing was spot on as I slid into my seat in Classroom 1 at precisely 8:45 (and a half).
Eleanor began our lesson with conversation, probably not realizing Toni and I would be as talkative as we could manage in telling all about our incredible evening iera sera. However, I must say that these chat sessions have been so helpful in easing my paura about speaking in Italian. If I gained nothing more than that this week (which isn't the case as I've gained quite a bit overall), that aspect alone was worth the experience. For example, today I had to find time to run by the Tabacchi in Piazza Grande to add minutes to my phone. I didn't hesitate as I'd always done previously in nervous anticipation of finding words that didn't sound funny, but rather walked right in feeling quite Italian ragazza-ish in my boots, scarf, and sunglasses and confidently stated, "Vorrei una carta ricchariche per il mio telefonini."
A few questions asked and answered, and before you know it, my phone had 20 euro of minutes added. It felt great to make what for me was a huge accomplishment completing this quite simple transaction. Brava per me! Now I have to get that delightful musical lilt going so I can really fool myself into thinking that an Italian thinks I'm Italian.
At the conclusion of class, Sara presented me with an Il Sasso Certificate of Participation that I think is as awesome as the one I got in 4th grade for having a piece of my art work shown in the library!
The Australian military couple, Michael and Norell, said their goodbyes as today was ciao-ciao for them. Of course, we'd all made sure to exchange contact info, and who knows...maybe we'll meet one day on Australian soil. The rest of us milled about a bit before departing for lunch, which for me was a trip "home" to whip up some pasta and a salad, and pre-prepare for tomorrow's vacating of my cozy roost here in Montepulciano.
I headed back to Il Sasso dopo pranzo and spent the next 2 or so hours torturing myself with the device of excruciatingly slow internet. My attempts to set up a new Facebook Page, a Twitter account, and revive my Instagram account in preparation for my writing assignment were about 12% successful in production and 100% successful in producing a headache. I finally said "Basta!" and returned to the apartment to drop off heavier items, freshen up a bit, and get a nice walk in (and some gelato, of course) before meeting Tony & Anita and Jim & Toni for our trip to Pagnano for dinner at the recommended Trattoria del Pescatore followed by the concert my musician friend and guitar player extraordinare, Dario Napoli, was taking part in in a town called Tuoro sul Trasimeno.
The drive out was picture perfect gorgeous. Traversing the deep rolling greens of Val d'Orcia, we viewed adolescent wheat fields flaunting their youthful vigor as ancient farm houses patiently looked on. The last remains of butter yellow rapeseed flowers canvased the green here and there, while the bolder golds of the broom flowers were bursting atop their stalks like bits of sunshine proclaiming "Summer's on the way!" The trees were sporting their new crop of leaves making sure to lower branches sultrily over roadways to be sure we noted. As the shores of Lake Trasimeno came into view, I gasped at the panorama of calm steely blue waters suddenly appearing in the midst of this Tuscan postcard. Belllissima!
Our dinner was not a disappointment, and the fine proprietor made sure we were afforded fast service when he discovered we had plans for the concert. I ordered a filletta of grilled lake perch, and I must say it exceeded my expectations. Being a Texas girl, any fish with the name "perch" immediately equates to little bony trash fish used for cut bait, but I decided to take a chance and follow the recommendation given when I inquired. The pure white meat was delicate in flavor with a soft yet firm texture, and grilled to perfection. Yum!
Out the door and back on the road just about 4 km to lovely little Tuoro sul Trasimeno where my friend and guitar maestro Dario Napoli was filling in for a Big Band concert. After a stop for directions to the Teatro del Accademia, offered nicely by some youth on a street corner, we arrived 5 minutes past the communicated start time of 9:00; however, this is Italy, mind you, and we couldn't help but chuckle when the curtain rose at about 9:26 to a full house of Italiani, 4 Americans, and 2 Australians!
A full ensemble, this local group played a fine selection of mostly American big band era music. Their execution of this rather challenging brand of music would've made Benny Goodman proud... "Va Bene Goodman"?? (Sorry...)
The setting was quite a treat, as well. It was difficult to guess the age of this 200 seat, give or take, unassuming theatre with its fresh coat of soft yellow paint and modern seating. The simple gold and glass wall fixtures seemed out of place with their 1980's Sears catalog nuance, but despite the lack of glamour, this comfortable space carried a quiet elegance and warmth easily sensed. As I gently swayed in my seat to the romantic strains of "Stardust", it was easy to rewind 70's years and envision American GI's in this very spot, escaping the agonies of war as they were briefly transported home with images of holding a loved one close.
I later read on a wall plaque that the theatre was built in 1908 and had served this rural area as a venue for plays, vaudeville, events, and cinema. The ghosts lurking about continued to make us all feel welcome on this spring evening along Lago Trasimano.
Paula A. Reynolds
Traveler or Tourist?