Here we are for our special week in a villa under the Tuscan sun.
We picked up our rental cars from Avis in Venice last Saturday (a week ago’ -one snappy little Renault Megane and a rather beaten up Opel van. The previous renter of the van must have collided with a tree and a little old Italian grandmother at the same time as it had dents all around. We were a bit surprised that Avis would have rented it in such a condition, but at least we have a vehicle that is big enough for all eight of us. We piled most of the luggage into the van while Dennis drove the Renault with Rob (who had the map), Mary & Maureen.
Dennis took off in the Renault like a modern day Fangio. He was soon well out of site and we, in the lumbering beaten up van, just couldn’t keep up at all. We didn’t have a map and had no idea of how to get out of Venice and on to the Autostrada towards Florence. At one roundabout that we came to, we had a choice of three exits but fortunately we took the right one. With the help of a few frantic text messages asking the others to slow down, we finally caught up and settled in for the 350 km drive to our villa at Radda in Chianti. We were on the Autostrada for most of the way and the total toll was â‚¬10.
We arrived in Radda at about 4.30 and began the task of finding our villa. Although the villa was almost staring us in the face, the directions just didn’t seem to make sense to us. Eventually we found it and John, the owner, showed us around before we settled into our rooms. The house is a multi level Tuscan stone farm house, the main living area being originally built in the 12th Century.
On Saturday (May 8), our first evening we drove up the steep hill and explored the town – this didn’t take very long – and we ended up having dinner in a wine bar & restaurant near the little park in what would have been just outside the main gate in the medieval city wall. After dinner we collected a few basics for breakfast at one of the shops and headed home for the night.
I thought that the house in which we are staying is rather quaint. It is built of local stone and has four bedrooms (all on different levels), two (small) bathrooms and a large kitchen / living area with a large open fire place. It has brown shutters on each window and bright red doors. I haven’t slept in a room before with rough cut beams & rafters underneath terra cotta tiles that sag in different places. I also have never before slept in a place this old. Jill thought that the facilities were far too basic and she was quite vociferous in expressing her displeasure at having to share bathrooms.
The Sunday was a wet day and we decided on two sets of activities. As the van driver, I took everyone up to town to buy some ingredients for tonight’s dinner. Ken, Maureen & Junene had decided that it would be fun to cook some Italian meals at the villa. They had a plan of what they wanted to do so Dennis & I waited (for a very long time) while they carefully chose the ingredients that the ywanted at the little general store type of shop on the corner. While waiting, we found that the town is built on a high ridge with splendid views across the valley on both sides.
Our cooks decided that they needed the afternoon to prepare the meal and Dennis, Jill & I took the van for a little drive. We were hoping to find a little quaint village with a trattoria but we ended up in an an uninteresting provincial town called Montevachi. The scenery was interesting but because it was Sunday nothing was open and the only place that we could find that sold any type of food was an amusement parlour which had a few very plain rolls. Such high class eating – not what we want to become used to at all!
On the way, I pulled off the road at one point to take a photo and managed to run over a large rock (actually a distance marker) that was hidden in the grass on the road side verge. I managed to do a good job of bottoming the van and had the back wheels well off the ground. With a bit of lifting and heaving we eventually got the van off the rock and just hope that we can pass off any additional dents as part of the pre-existing damage to the van.
We got back home to find that the cooks had been having a wonderful time and were in the process off preparing a sumptuous meal for dinner. We had roast beef that we carefully seared on the BBQ, roast potatoes, asparagus and carrots, tomatoes. This was preceded by a Tuscan vegetable soup and anti pasto. What a feast!
On Monday morning we pottered around getting breakfast and by 10.30 we all piled into the van and headed off to Siena. (Everytime I hear this name I automatically seem to think of a convent). I tried to drive as sedately as possible around the twisting Tuscan roads because a few of the girls were a bit sensitive to car sickness. Mostly we were OK, although we did stop to change places at one time just to be sure.
Like most medieval towns, Siena has a series of parking areas where you leave your car and then walk into town. Siena’s Piazza il Campo is rated as one of the finest plazas in Italy. It is a fan shaped public area sloping towards the town hall. The square was completed in 1349 and consists of 9 segments representing the nine folds in the gown of the virgin Mary. (Apologies to any Catholics out there, but I never cease to be amazed at how the RC’s can create some form of symbolism out of every minor and almost insignificant thing. Perhaps that is why they were always referred to as ‘Rock Crushers’ during my old army days). The plaza gets packed with people on the two annual occasions on which a horse race is conducted around its perimeter. It wasn’t that busy while we were there and we enjoyed a nice pizza for lunch and a look at the medieval buildings around the square.
Then we visited the Cathedral of Venice – a superb building with an elaborate marble facade that was added in the 19th Century. The church itself was commenced in 1215. It contains a wealth of artwork and sculptures including some early works by Michelangelo. You know, you can go for days without getting a phone call while you are away and sure as eggs, I got a call from David just after we had gone inside the cathedral. I had to switch my phone of quickly and call him back after.
We were home by 6.00pm after stops in Castellini and Radda for a few more ingredients for another home cooked dinner.
On Tuesday we pottered around the villa in the morning. I went & checked out our financial status at the Internet Cafe and am pleased to say that we haven’t yet exhausted our finances. Rob had received some pictures of their new house emailed to them so they were busy at another Internet terminal. Maureen & Dennis were writing postcards, while Jill & Mary were looking around town.
I went for a walk along the dirt track along the creek behind our villa which came out onto a made road and eventually ended up at a little church that was originally built in 1028. A couple of hundred years later it was converted into a basilica style of church with a rounded back and two naves. All up I walked about 3 km each way and I enjoyed it a lot.
By lunch time we all ended up in the town square and had lunch in the little wine bar. We then set off for an afternoon drive to look at a local winery and olive mill. In true form we got lost, as is half the fun of this sort of trip, and found ourselves having a tour of some of the local villages – even a drive up Mont St Michel which gave us a splendid view to the west, We finally found the Castello Di Volpaia in the little medieval town called Volpaia (Town of the Fox). This little town, again on a hill, has only44 inhabitants and a stack of old stone buildings. Most of these are now disguising a very modern wine making plant. We had a nice cup of coffee with assorted cakes before doing a tour of the winery and a tasting of the local produce. This winery harvests 10 hectares of olives and 42 hectares of grapes for making both Chianti wine & vinegar (not simultaneously!). We drove on to another village – Gaiole in Chianti for a good and inexpensive dinner at a recommended cafe.
On Wednesday we were up early to get away to Tabarnelle, a town 30 km away where Ken & Junene had a half-day cooking class at a local restaurant. We dropped them of a little before 9.30 when their lesson was about to begin and then headed off to the old medieval town of San Gimignano.
This is a beautiful town – all of which is a world heritage site. We had been advised to get there before the tourist buses arrived. This was a very wise recommendation because by the time we were leaving at midday, the streets were becoming very crowded.
San Gimignano is probably the most celebrated village in Tuscany. It is a great example of a fortified medieval town built in the 1300’s. The fifteen towers that remain were symbols of the wealth and power of influential families (as we previously knew from our time in Lucca). The most significant buildings are the Collegiata (cathedral) and the Museum.
We returned to the restaurant where Junene & Ken were cooking for lunch and thoroughly enjoyed a long leisurely meal from the food that they had learned to cook. It was after 4.30 in the afternoon before we finished.
Lunch started out with a description of the local wines and then bread with garlic, salt & olive oil. I particularly liked having a type of matured cheese on bread with honey drizzled over it and black pepper. Our first course was a fresh pasta with a duck sauce – delicious! The main course was slow cooked beef with a beautiful sauce of tomato, carrot, onion, celery & parsley. This sauce had been rendered down to a beautiful smooth texture. We finished with a biscotti and a desert wine. Since I was the van driver I had to be satisfied with a small taste of each wine although Jill was making well & truly sure that I didn’t over step the mark. We left very full and very satisfied.
On the way home we stopped off in Radda to buy some food for breakfast but found ourselves thwarted by the local custom of different types of shops closing on different days. We already knew from Lucca that clothing shops closed on Mondays and today we found that food shops are closed on Wednesdays. This gave us a real problem as we don’t have enough for breakfast tomorrow. Fortunately we found that a neighboring town was in a different region and that its supermarkets would be open. This involved a 15km drive and a late dinner. After our long late lunch this was hardly a problem so we preferred the extra drive rather than the thought of going hungry tomorrow. Dinner was again at home using assorted left overs and some spectacular sausages that Rob had cooked on the BBQ.
On Thursday Ken, Junene, Dennis & Maureen went to see Pisa and the leaning tower. They left before we were up and didn’t get home until midnight. They all had a good full fun packed day but needless to say, we didn’t see most of them until quite late on the next day.
We others had decided on a quiet day and after getting up and about we posted some letters in the village and had a look in the little church. It used to have a fresco above the front door but that had faded long ago. I think that this is the only church in Italy without some contribution by Michelangelo (even an early one).
Then we set off for a drive to some of the nearby villages. We were aiming for the village of Greve in Chianti which meant going the same way as we had gone to get the groceries yesterday. On the way we saw one little town built around a castle but found ourselves going up a one-way road the wrong way trying to get there. After negotiating our way past a number of other confused and angry drivers and doing a U-turn in a very tight litte spot, we lost interest in seeing the rest of the town and headed off to our originally planned lunch place at Greve. I reckon that since this is the only time in a week that we have made this type of mistake, we are really doing very well.
Greve is a relatively large town and we left the car in the car park and then walked into the city square. I really can’t work out the pattern of shop closures in Italy because here everything seemed to be open. I had expected at least that funeral parlours or travel agents would be closed at sometime. Because we arrived after12 noon, most of the shops were closed for their midday siesta (reopening again at 4.00pm). We found a trattoria in the main square that sold a wide variety of Bruschetta which we enjoyed for lunch. We were a bit surprised to hear a number of other Australian accents while we were in the town but it wasn’t really unusual as we have picked up Aussie accents in many places that we have visited. Even the young lady in the Gelateria in San Gimignano originally came from Sydney and is now living here after marrying an Italian who she met while working on a cruise ship.
We finished the day with a drive through some of the nearby countryside. We didn’t really have much of an idea .where to go so we just followed a couple of interesting roads. Mary thought that some of the country was like what she could remember from England. The greens of the spring shoots and the new growth on the deciduous trees was a dappled grass green and different from the colours that we are used to. At one place we found an old mill and little house in the trees by a stream. It looked like the mill might have been lived in and that the house was empty. It looked very picturesque although it was probably once the scene of a lot of hard work.
We were back at Radda by 5 pm and we finished the day with a glass of wine at the wine bar along with a number of other temporary locals and watched the world go by for a half hour. Then we had a delightful dinner at the restaurant attached to the main hotel in town. The waitress could speak about as much English as we could speak Italian but its always amazing how with a bit of sign language and guesswork you can get something pretty close to what you want. Even if its different, its still generally pretty good. We all had vegetable & bread soup which seems to be a local specialty and then the girls had pork chops while Rob & I shared a Florentine steak accompanied by a delightful Chianti Classico wine. I guess that the steak weighed almost 3/4 of a kilo and it was just so tender and delicious.
We have decided to have a really easy day on this our last day at the villa Friday (May 14). I drove up to the Internet Cafe early in the morning to check on the status of our credit card and was pleased to find that we are still solvent. Ken went to buy some bread & cheese for lunch.
The last few days have been grey & overcast but today is bright and sunny. It feels as if we are really under the Tuscan sun at last. I’m sitting at the outside table near the BBQ as Rob & Ken are walking up the hill by the vineyard to take some photos.
When we first arrived here, the vines were just budding up but in only a week they have sprouted leaves and are now spreading a green tinge across the landscape. Apart from the oppressive heat, it would be splendid to be here in summer to see the golden colors and sunflowers that are present in all the postcards. I guess that the trade-off is that it is now not as crowded and much easier to find a parking space. We are instead getting all the spring flowers – red poppies, Queen Anne’s Lace, Buttercups and some other little purple flowers in the long uncut grass by the roads and in the fields.
By the way, a quick survey shows that only two of the girls have so far used the Bidet which we men just regard as a trip hazard in each of the bathrooms that we have had. Either half of the girls are very conservative or haven’t yet the instruction manual.
Lunch was a simple meal of bread, cheese, proscuitto and tomato with a glass of wine (or two or three) outside in the sun.
We continued the theme of a quiet day with a short drive to a local winery – Castella Di Albola. Like everywhere else in this area, the winery was in a 12th Century castle. Friday. They had some nice wine which is sold in Australia through Woolworths of all places. I think that I have to significantly revise my impression of them and their choice of wines.
On the way, we stopped at a little Romanesque church that was originally dedicated in 1012. With a stroke of luck we found the caretaker there and we were able to have a look through it. The church is no longer in use for worship but is frequently used for weddings. It has painted ceilings (not done by Michelangelo) and a very ornate alter screen.
Finally, here we are back at the villa to pack up and clean up ready for an early departure tomorrow. Our time here has been relaxed and very interesting. I was thinking as I drove home from the winery just how spectacular a place this is. Each corner presents another panorama of vineyards and olive groves on a hill dotted with the occasional villa or small town. It is a place that would be very hard to tire of.
However, we must move on and I’ll keep you up to date of our time in Provence in my next newsletter.