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Tuscan Byways

Anne Robichaud

November entered grandly with a 4-day week-end this year as an Italian national holiday, November 1st (All Saints' Day) landed on exactly the right spot: a Thursday. Many an Italian created a self-made "bridge" (ponte) and planned 4 days of vacation. Pino decided to use his time "off" from his various restoration projects on Assisi area homes to work on the restoration of our own farmhouse. We did manage to squeeze in just a brief intervallo as Pino packed up his tools late Saturday afternoon and we headed off. Destination: the area of Buonconvento in nearby southern Tuscany.

Sylvia and her restored B&B

Skirting Lake Trasimeno and then entering Tuscany on the southern border, we took the road past Pienza, then S. Quirico D'Orcia, and on to Buonconvento. Dark forms visible from the window, but little else, as darkness was creeping in. We arrived at our destination, a Tuscan farmhouse and now B&B. Its owners, Silvia (pictured at right) and Paolo, welcomed us warmly, giving us a brief tour of the exquisitely-restored (Pino didn't miss a detail!) farm buildings and then showing us to our spacious room - once an old cantina (wine cellar). Silvia booked us dinner at a nearby Buonconvento restaurant and sent us off with ample material on the area to read at dinner.

The next morning, we opened our door to vast expanses of the creti senesi (typical gray soil tracts of the area) rolling off the hills. Dark cypress trees - paintbrushes reaching skyward - lined the summit of the surrounding hills like sentinels. Here and there, patches of oranges, rusts, mauves stained the landscape: the fall colors of the vineyards climbing the slopes. Pino said, "pienamente toscano" ("fully Tuscan" - our Umbrian landscapes are stunning but completely different: more wooded and wild).

We left our room and rounded the corner, entering Silvia and Paolo's own kitchen in the main part of the farmhouse. Here, we were treated to THEIR "B&B" formula: not "bed and breakfast", but a buffet "bed and BRUNCH". Nedda, who lives in the village of Buonconvento, was helping out, serving her freshly-baked peach tart as well as her yogurt/fruit cake and leek sformato (flan). A huge glass bowl of freshly-cut fruits occupied center space on the counter. Who could choose the cereals faced with those delights!?

I couldn't resist the tastes of local sheep's milk cheeses with their homemade fig and peach jams. Pino succumbed to country bread toasted and drizzled with the "new" olive oil which Paolo had just brought back from the mill and Nedda won him over with a Tuscan culinary treasure: lardo colonnato.

Gradually, the other few guests left and Paolo wished us "buon viaggio" as he headed off for a day of cycling. Silvia, Pino and I chatted in the kitchen as Nedda buzzed around us cleaning up.

Fall colors in Southern Tuscany

We talked about the golden colors of the vineyards all around, vineyards of Montepulciano grosso grapes which give birth to the great Brunellos. Never had any of us seen such an array of fall colors here in Italy, such a marked predominance of the yellows and golds - the follow-up to a torrid and dry summer. Additional result of the extreme summer heat: excellent wines and excellent olive oils this year but the production is down nearly 20%. We chatted about Tuscany and Umbria, how Silvia and Paolo had wrapped up life in Milano for the Tuscan countryside and how Pino, too, had closed a chapter in Milano years ago when we chose the Umbrian countryside.

We left knowing we had found new friends.

St. Antimo Romaneque Church

Next stop: Sant'Antimo, for the Gregorian chants of the Benedictines. Only a handful of people sat in the pews of the 12th-century Romanesque church. Light filtered through the medieval windows creating a filmy haze in the midst of the nave. Seven white-clad Benedictines with arms folded entered this almost mystical light from the side and moved slowly into the pews, praying in low, muted voices. Younger ones, older ones and an elderly monk so bent over that he could not raise his head in prayer. The hazy white light blendžing with the ivory-colored habits of the Benedictines and the travertine walls of the medieval church diffused a sense of calm and serenity. And then the chanting began ...

Outdoors, the whites gave way to a kaleidescope of colors: the amber colors of the afternoon November sky, the mauve and copper-colored leaves of the surrounding vineyards bordered with the silver green olive trees.

Nearly next door to Sant'Antimo is Castelnuovo dell'Abate - certainly once a feudal castle and now a quiet Tuscan town of brick buildings, narrow streets and few inhabitants. After a short wander here, we took the road towards Montalcino, famous for its Brunello wines - and also artistic treasures (but knowing Montalcino to be a tourist ponte destination, we deliberately chose to stop in less-visited sites this trip and bypassed it). We ate in the countryside at a small ristorante on the road from Sant' Antimo to Montalcino. The weather was warm, so we ate outside. Families filled the tables. Golden vineyards surrounded us. Robert and Ergon served us with style and class. You might mistake both for Italians. They are Albanians. I had to choose the risotto al Brunello and it lived up to my expectations!

Then, on to Murlo with a stop along the way to photograph an abandoned farm house complex - brick ruins carrying the weight of past labors, the heritage of the rural past. For sale. Although all the buildings were abandoned, oddly enough there was a dog in a pen who barked excitedly when we pulled in. We called out, "c'ť nessuno?" and yes, there was someone there: a woman in kerchief with walking stick, sturdy shoes and apron around the waist appeared from behind a hedge. Rosaria, we soon learned. Originally from a farm family in Calabria, she had married a Tuscan and moved "north". She, her husband and three sons live in Buonconvento - but Rosaria still needs to keep her hands in the earth and put fresh foods on the family table. She walks three kilometers from the village in the morning - and back out again in the evening - to feed her fowl, work in the garden, and pick wild greens for the family dinner. We talked with her about the move from the land to the towns, so pervasive in Italy during the last three decades or so. Brick ruins like these farm buildings are the relics.

Brilliant sunset on the road to Murlo

The road wound towards Murlo and at the crest of a hill, we stopped to watch the most brilliant sunset we had ever seen. Burning scarlets streaked through layers of aquamarine. No words can decribe it. e.e. cummings said it best "if day has to become night, this is a most beautiful way".

Though moving towards the end of day, I had to see tiny Murlo based on a recent newspaper "scoop": the DNA of the Murlo residents matches that of the people of Anatolia Turkey; thus, an affirmation, it seems, of the prevailing theory that the mysterious Etruscans did indeed migrate into this peninsula (Murlo is in the heart of the ancient "Etruria") in about the 5th or 6th century BC from Asia Minor.

I wanted to see an "Etruscan" face but no luck in Murlo: shutters were pulled tight against the chilly November air so very little light filtered from the homes, giving the sense of an abandoned village. Not a soul walked the narrow streets and not even a cat crossed the piazza. We wandered the alleyways on our own and then headed for Asciano, seeking out the sagra (local food festival) which Paolo and Silvia had recommended to us that morning.

One main street cuts through Asciano and the museum banner hanging on a 17th century palazzo announced Sienese minor master treasures inside - which will have to wait for another visit. We asked a woman near the palazzo for the sagra location and she directed us to an even smaller medieval village nearby, Chiusure.

Chiusure, too, was probably once a fortified castle - perhaps built on Roman foundations - as the town walls and municipal layout give that indication: a few narrow streets radiate out from a small main piazza (following a Roman street plan?).

Gianpiero and Pino discuss small town life

A bonfire was crackling in that piazza as chestnuts roasted. We bought a brown paper cone of roasted chestnuts and talked to Gianpiero (from Genoa- with a house in Chiusure) and Enzo, a "local". They had combined efforts with other villagers for their 2-day "artichoke tip" festival which was just concluding. Local woman had prepared the carducci, those tender shoots of the artichoke plant, by dipping them in batter, then frying them. Brown paper cones of carducci, the ubiquitous (present at every sagra!) porchetta and polenta, too, warmed the villagers as they shared food, wine and stories of the past and present.

With paper cones of roasted chestnuts in one hand and red wine in another, Pino and I moved closer to the fire, talking with Gianpiero as he roasted the chestnuts. We talked about his acceptance in Chiusure -- as he is a "foreigner" (ah, Italy, so very regional always!) from "the north" - and about the differences in customs, foods, and lifestyles in bustling Genoa and in quiet Chiusure (population now of about 50 people - and most of them, elderly). We moved on to "analyze" the differences between the Tuscans and the Umbrians. We were just about 1-1/4 miles from our home in Assisi, Umbria. But we were in a different world.

Anne Robichaud lives near Assisi and gives lectures and tours. www.annesitaly.com

© Anne Robichaud, 2008. Do not republish without permission.

This essay was first published on Anne's website www.annesitaly.com. Edited by Slow Travel.

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