A month in Tuscany
December 18, 2006
On a sunny cool day in early October, my wife and I battled our way out of Florence’s horrendous traffic in our downsized Italian sedan. Chugging deep into the Tuscan countryside, we had trouble keeping our eyes on the twisting road, for we were passing through classic Tuscan countryside – hilly woodlands, vineyards, olive groves, slim cypress trees and weathered stone farmhouses with tiled roofs. Our goal was a villa that we’d rented in the district of Chianti, the very heartland of Tuscany.This trip was going to be different, we’d decided. We’d grown tired of rushing around Europe on tight schedules – three crowded days in Brussels, seven hectic days in Paris, etc. In that kind of travel you only get to know hotels, churches and museums; you don’t fraternize with the locals or get the feel of a different way of life. This time we’d planned to settle down for a full month in our villa and soak up the ambiance, the scenery, the food, the wine and the history. We’d meet locals and take leisurely day trips around the Tuscan countryside. We expected some guests, too.
We’d only made one firm appointment: On Oct. 16 we’d booked a private tour of Florence’s world-renowned Uffizi art gallery, arranged by the Contessa Simonetta Brandolini d’Adda, no less.Meanwhile, I was driving with Anneliese navigating. Now deep in the countryside, we left the two-lane asphalt road, turned by the long stone walls of a gated estate and drove down a steep gravel path so narrow it barely accommodated our tiny car. We passed vineyards loaded with clusters of ripe grapes, a grove of young silver-green olive trees and there, with a great sigh of relief, we found our villa.It was a sizable stone house with wooden-shuttered windows and a terra-cotta tile roof. It was framed on both sides by blackish-green pencil-slim tall cypresses – very Tuscan in style. We unlocked the big, wooden, double front doors and entered a large dining room with dark antique-looking furniture, a big fireplace and a dining table big enough to seat 12. The living room had another fireplace, two comfortable-looking brown leather sofas and several small tables and chairs. Looking quickly around, Anneliese said, “The kitchen is small, but all-in-all our villa is much better than I had ever hoped for.”At the far end, French doors opened onto a stone-paved terrace with a wrought-iron dining table and chairs. Looking down, a lower stone terrace held a sizable swimming pool. Even further down, I saw a densely wooded valley, and in the distance forested green hills with vineyards, olive groves and stone farmhouses. On the horizon, the misty blue ranges of the Apennine mountains loomed up. “What a view, what a view!” I said to Anneliese, still inside. “This is just great!”
Florence was about an hour to our north, and the city of Siena was roughly a half-hour to our south. The nearest small town where we could find supplies was called Castellina in Chianti, only seven kilometers away but over a rocky and dusty back road. Castellina’s main street, Via Ferruccio, was a narrow cobbled lane, bordered by ancient three-story stuccoed buildings. Like all the Tuscan streets we were to see, it was clean and free of trash, odors and graffiti. Seated on chairs outside their front doors, old men and women watched the passing street parade. Locals and tourists strolled the streets and stopped to sip coffee and wine at outdoor café tables. The bars sold sandwiches, wine and brandy, mostly to the locals. We saw several trattorias (family restaurants) and many shops, some with tourist junk but most with good merchandise. An impressive old palazzo (palace) on the main street had been converted into a winery and retail shop for wine and olive oil. Two small groceries displayed their fruit and vegetables on the street, but looked much like luxury delis inside. All the shops closed from noon to 4 p.m., time for a big Italian lunch and then a siesta. In a piazza (town square) off the main street, we found Il Torre, an upscale restaurant next to an old fortified tower. Back in the 14th century, Castellina was a fortified hill town, an outpost of Florence in its endless wars with Siena for the control of Tuscany. Much of Castellina’s old fortified wall was still standing. In a few days Signor Giovanni Curcio, our landlord, stopped by. We were most fortunate in our landlord, a congenial Italian gentleman in his 60s, gray-haired, muscular, of medium height and heavily tanned. In rough but understandable English, he said to please call him if we needed anything. Signor Giovanni was a retired banker and lived in Siena with his wife. Thirty years ago, he and his wife built the villa and bought the surrounding vineyard too.Giovanni was going to harvest his grapes this Sunday. “Could I join in the harvest?” I asked. “Of course,” he said.
Our only appointment was in Florence, where we were to be escorted by the Contessa Simonetta Brandolini to the incomparable Galleria Degli Uffizi. How did this happen? Back in Aspen, our friend Fred Venrick had suggested that we contribute to a nonprofit called the Friends of Florence (www.friendsofflorence.org), which helps fund the restoration of Florence’s crumbling cultural legacy. They’ll open doors for us, Fred said. We made a donation and via e-mail I asked the Friends if we might take a private tour of the Uffizi, when it would be free from the usual elbow-to-elbow crowds. They replied that this could be arranged on Monday, Oct. 16, at 11:30 a.m. when the gallery would be closed to the public. This e-mail invitation was signed by the Countess Simonetta, who wrote that she would escort us personally.
My sisters, Elaine Steinger and Mary Jane Liebman, now visiting us from the States, were eager to join in. Unfortunately, Anneliese had twisted her ankle the day before and couldn’t go, so my sisters and I met the countess outside the Savoy Hotel in Florence. She seemed quite pleased to meet us. She had a quiet, self-assured manner and was neatly and informally dressed in a jacket and denim skirt. We chatted pleasantly as we walked together to the Uffizi. A charming and lovely lady, she had lived in Florence with her husband for 30 years, but was originally from Washington, D.C. “Some like to say that the preponderance of the world’s greatest art is in Italy,” she said, “and that the best of the Italy’s artworks are in Florence. Unfortunately the Italian government can’t take care of everything, so we created the Friends.”Professor Jane Zaloga, an attractive young woman, joined us to be our guide. At the back entrance of the Uffizi, we parted cordially with the countess, and professor Zaloga led us past several tight security checks. On past visits each of us had struggled through long delays and swarming Uffizi crowds, but this time we found empty, peaceful galleries. The professor held us completely rapt through a tour of Italy’s art history. She talked about the Uffizi artworks, their artists and their social settings, pointing out enlightening details that we never would have noticed by ourselves. We also saw Uffizi restoration projects sponsored by the Friends, such as the Niobe group of statues. We concluded at the Uffizi with paintings by Leonardo and Michelangelo, then took a taxi to the Academia Gallery for a private viewing of Michelangelo’s David, also a Friends’ restoration project. Afterward, Elaine told me that this tour was worth the trip to Italy all by itself. Many thanks, I said, to the Friends of Florence.
Our villa was not only near Florence and Siena, but was surrounded by old and beautiful Tuscan towns, just easy day trips away. A typical day for us began with an Italian-style breakfast of coffee, toast and fruit while we discussed the day’s plans with our guests. When Hannah and Fredi, Anneliese’s sister and brother-in-law from Vienna, came to visit, the four of us decided to visit the town of Greve.We set out in our crowded mini-car, Fredi driving with great caution, for Italian drivers were a serious problem. Nearly all Italians that we met were easygoing and good-natured, but they became aggressive and nasty behind the wheel. They tailgated just inches behind us, and whenever we slowed down to check travel signs, they leaned on their horns and zoomed passed us, honking disdainfully even on curves or hills. Strangely, we never saw an accident or a dented car.Driving to Greve, we passed innumerable vineyards, olive groves and wineries with great pleasure – for the Chianti district allows no billboards or neon signs. Greve, at the heart of the Chianti wine district, was a pleasant blend of modern and Renaissance style. Lunching in the old piazza, we sat outdoors under an awning with glasses of wine. Lunch in Italy was a serious and leisurely affair, often with five courses and wine. Our American-Italian restaurants are but a pale reflection of the real thing. A full Italian lunch started with antipasto, the second course of pasta or risotto, the third of meat or fish with vegetables, the fourth salad, and the fifth dessert and coffee. Strangely, we never saw an obese Italian; they walk a lot, they have only one big (and healthy) meal a day and they avoid junk food. Returning from Greve, we visited a couple of wineries and finished at home with a light dinner fixed by Anneliese.San Gimignano, Poggibonsi, Greve, Radda in Chianti, Panzano, Vagliagli, Siena – each Tuscan town was fascinating and different. Each was a combination of the Medieval and Renaissance, which were often mixed with modern development and industry, making Tuscany perhaps the best merging of ancient and modern anywhere in the world.
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In October, hundreds of Tuscan vineyards are laden with bulging purple clusters of grapes, ripe for harvest. I had forgotten about Giovanni’s vineyard until one Sunday morning the noisy chugging of a tractor announced that his harvest had begun. He brought a crew of two women and a man, and an antiquated, borrowed tractor with its trailer piled high with empty crates. I asked if I could join in the harvest, and they handed me a small pair of pruning shears.Tuscan vineyards are laid out in long rows, with the vines trained flat against post-and-wire trellises. Picking these wine grapes proved to be pretty simple; I only had to remember not to cut off my own fingers. Watching the others, I cut off the clusters and tossed them into small plastic baskets, which we emptied into the big crates that the harvest crew had dropped along the rows.
In the next step, Giovanni’s tractor traveled along the rows while we heaved the full, heavy crates of grapes onto the trailer. Next, Giovanni and crew emptied the crates into a white-enameled bin on wheels, 8-by-4 feet, that had a huge spiral screw on the bottom. The full bin was pulled by the tractor to a cooperative winery, where the grapes were crushed by the rotating screw and dumped into the winery’s tanks. Giovanni still owes me 75 cents euro for my morning’s harvest work, and I must remember to write him.A few days later, Giovanni knocked on our villa door, bearing bottles of his own Chianti. The San Giovese grapes from his vineyard, he said, were small producers but were the proper grapes for Chianti Classico, a special grade of high-quality wine made only in Tuscany. Anneliese and I then toasted Giovanni in his own vintage.Arrivederci ToscanaIt was a melancholy day when Anneliese and I had to pack for our departure. We felt we were just beginning to know our way around our Tuscany, just beginning to make local friends, and just beginning to appreciate the cultured and leisurely Tuscan way of life.
We decided that those who drink Chianti wine on its native grounds risk getting hooked for life. We certainly were. So we’ll be back – same time, same place – next year.Larry Ladin, a past president of the Aspen Writers Foundation, has lived in Aspen/Snowmass since 1986.