I’m sharing a week in Tuscany at a farmhouse, helping to celebrate the 20th anniversary of dear friends. There are ten of us: eight family members, a girlfriend, and me. We represent the UK and both coasts of the US, and our ages range from 11 to 89. We arrive on different days from different parts of the world, and although I’m the last to join the party, they’ve saved me a great bedroom. Set atop a hill on a working farm, the farmhouse offers wide views of the Tuscan landscape. Together, our gang explores a different Tuscan town each day in our two-car caravan.
Day 1 is our local town, Chianciano Terme, which is a spa town where people come for the healing qualities of the mineral water. Today is market day. Each town in the area has market day on alternative days, so no matter where you are in the region, chances are there’s a market day within a few-town radius. We’re disappointed with how much of the market is cut-rate clothing rather than the fresh produce we’re after, but we settle Grandma in the shade and break into groups to forage. When we reconvene we’ve pulled together some grapes, apricots, tomatoes and two wheels of flavored local pecorino cheese. It’s a nice, mellow start to my trip, which is welcome since I just arrived from San Francisco last night and have to trek back to the airport this afternoon to pick up my lost luggage (elite status on United be damned – baggage claims are handled by the local airport and it will take two days for them to deliver it – and that’s if I’m lucky.)
Tuscany is hill country and wine country, and it’s beautiful – which makes it almost bearable when I make the four hour round-trip drive to Florence, only to get lost for another two hours trying to wind my way through the final 15 kilometers to the farmhouse. It’s an interesting way to learn that my Italian is as bad as I remember from the last time I used it in 2008. I’m great at asking for directions, but not good enough to actually understand the rapid-fire responses.
Next day we pile back into the cars for a lake day. Our first stop is Lake Chiusi, a 20-minute ride through winding roads from the farmhouse, but it’s a bust. There’s no beach other than dead grass, and there’s algae growing in the water. Back to the cars and off to Lake Trasimeno, where we hit paydirt. Located across the Umbrian border from Tuscany, Lake Trasimeno is Italy’s fourth-largest lake. Just outside the town of Castiglione del Lago we find Parco del Colfiorito, with grass and sand beaches, trees for shade, peddle boats and my personal favorite, an open-air bar. We park Grandma and her book on a bench under a tree, rent umbrellas and beach chairs for 4€ each for the day, and next thing you know, everyone’s happy. Many hours later we explore the town.
The town of Castiglione del Lago is darling, with a castle and a fortress offering great views of the lake and surrounding countryside. At 4:00 it’s the hottest part of the day, so we stick to the shadows as we walk the town’s one main street and poke into its little shops. For a tiny fraction of what we’d pay in the US, we come away with a wedge of truffle pecorino that won’t live to see morning. The bowl of the fortress is set up as a theater, and we find a poster announcing that tomorrow is movie night. We make a date to come back tomorrow, but as with the best vacations, nothing goes as planned.
We set our sights on Sienna, an hour away, the next day. Most of the sunflower fields have already been harvested in the late-July drought, and the remaining ones are listless and sad. We are fortunate to find one vibrant, healthy field, and we pull over for a half-hour of romping and photobombing among the bees and flowers. Shuttling two cars and herding ten people is a major production in a city with limited parking, so we’re amazed when we actually manage to meet up with the other half of our group. They’ve had Grandma, who has bravely climbed the hill that leads to the Duomo (literally “dome” in Italian, but in most cases it refers to the major church or cathedral in town). The entire building is spectacular, but what’s especially impressive is the mosaic marble floor, one of the most intricate and beautiful in the world. We’ve gotten lucky: usually the floor is covered for protection, but they’ve opened it up for two months this summer. Sienna also boasts the famous Palio di Sienna, a twice-annual horse race that promises bragging rights to the district whose horse wins the race. We’ve missed the Palio by three weeks, which is just fine with me. Siena is loaded with enough tourists as it is. It’s long past time for my siesta when we leave Sienna and the way home takes much longer than an hour (“we’re not lost, we’re just taking the scenic route”), but the beauty of having your own farmhouse is you can whip up dinner for ten at your own pace, so in no time we’re all happy and relaxed again.
On Sunday we’re off to hear the monks chant, or so I thought. We head across winding roads lined with iconic Tuscan cypress trees, past Montalcino’s wine country to Abbey Sant’Antimo, tucked away in a valley. It’s a lovely spot, and after a few thousand photos we find spots on the pews. Angelic singing begins from the front of the Abbey, and I rise along with everyone else. One song leads into another and we’re still standing. Bored, I look around and notice that most of the crowd are locals out for Sunday Mass. Wait, what? I’m at Mass? That’s not what I signed up for! Or is it? Now I’m wishing I at least wore a dress. I feel hoodwinked, but I settle in for the duration and amuse myself by trying to follow the Latin service with the Italian translation in the hymn book. Soon I hear a soothing, mellifluous voice begin to speak in Italian. “Cinque panni, cinque pesce, cinque mil personae,” he says. “Questa é il miracolo di Cristo.” Five loaves, five fishes, five thousand people. This is the miracle of Christ. I’m amazed to find that I can follow along with his Italian, and suddenly I’m paying attention raptly. The sermon ends too soon (words I never thought I’d say) and the singing begins again. We duck out quietly as the Communion begins, and I realize this has been one of my favorite experiences so far. The others feel the same and it starts a dialog about how we wish we could take all the pompous hellfire/brimstone “thou shalt follow my doctrine” judgements out of religion and just leave behind the sense of peace and community we feel when we participate. It’s good to have meaningful conversations like this that we can all connect with.
Back up to Montalcino we go, although most of the shops are closed because it’s Sunday. We stumble upon Gianluca Turchi at Wine & Passion, and Jim and I spend the next half hour learning about Tuscan wines. Actually, Jim learns while I just taste and point out what I like and don’t like. I do learn that wines from Montalcino use the Brunelli grape. Jim repeats all the Italian words using an exaggerated accent and his hands for emphasis, and it actually helps his pronunciation – much to his kids’ embarrassment. I buy two bottles that we both like and ask the shopkeeper where he likes to eat lunch. He directs us three doors down to Osteria di Porta Al Cassero, which is packed to the gills and offers us the best, cheapest meal we have in all of Tuscany. Full and happy, we roll on home, but our car first stops in Montepulciano.
Jim wants to stop in Pienza, but I opt for Montepulciano because I prefer the way it sounds. We should have gone with Pienza. Aside from the pretty San Biagi church outside of town, there’s really not much to see in Montepulciano, and the wines, which use the Nobile grape, aren’t nearly as flavorful as Montalcino’s Brunellis. Tired and cranky we head on home to the pool and my final Tuscan sunset.
Have you been to Tuscany? What are some of your favorite towns?