Day 1 & 2 – Arriving in Tuscany
We flew out of Seattle at 7:00 am on a journey to connect in New York for our flight to Rome, and from there take a train from the airport to downtown, and from there a train to Florence, and from there a taxi to the airport to meet the group. It was just as long as that sentence felt. Our first flight made me realize that being in a middle section of a plane throws off my sense of being, and motion sickness kicks in. Both Katey and I had some issues and weren’t able to sleep, though poor Katey suffers from motion sickness more than I do. We were lucky we were in the last row of the plane, because she rarely could sit longer than five minutes without needing to get up and walk around to feel her feet on the floor.
Once we arrived in JFK, we thought two hours between fights would be enough that we wouldn’t need to stress. What we didn’t think about was that this was JFK and the airport’s vastness required us to take the air train, re-check in, go through a mile-long security line, and walk a ways before we got to the correct terminal, which had already started boarding while we were in security! Needless to say we were a bit uneasy.
The flight to Rome was better. We sat next to a lovely woman from Connecticut who was on her way to Cinque Terra with five of her friends for the week. We talked a lot about travel, and it seems like she had been everywhere. She told us the story of how she met a famous explorer who was the only survivor on an expedition to Antarctica, and how he invited her and others he met late in life on a cruise there. After mentioning my father was a coroner in conversation, she revealed that she also is friends with the famous forensic investigator for the OJ Simpson and John Benet Ramsey cases.
After getting possibly only an hour of sleep on the first five hour flight and the second seven hour flight combined, we entered Rome a bit disoriented. Luckily the customs process consisted of a man in a booth checking to see if we had a passport (not even opening it and looking to see if it was us) and letting us through instantly, so we were on our way pretty quickly.
Our transition from the train from the airport to the train to Florence in downtown Rome was pretty crazy. It was very difficult to figure out which platform to go to in order to meet the train. We were warned previously to be very careful, as there are many pickpockets at the station, as well as people who will attempt to help you with your bag onto the train and expect a tip. Unfortunately we were so lost we had to ask these people where to go. The first guy put us on the wrong train, which we figured out since people were in our seats. Luckily they spoke English and could tell us it was the wrong train. The second guy tried to grab Katey’s bag away from her to “help” her onto the train. At least that one was the right one.
By the time we got to Florence, grabbed a cab, and arrived at the airport, we were so exhausted that our stomachs were cramping and we couldn’t tell if we were starving or if we were going to puke.
The group was also pretty tired and ready to settle in at Podere Ciona, our Tuscan wine estate for the week located in Gaiole. We arrived and stepped out of our mini-bus into air that was fragrant with rosemary and all the other amazing plants and flowers that surrounded us. The ivy that covers the main house villa glowed in the evening sun. The Tuscan countryside is truly an amazingly peaceful place. On the plane, I began reading a book I picked up the day before we left called The Hills of Tuscany by Ferenc Máté. I fell in love with Tuscany by reading his words, before I even had a chance to experience it. He explained the sensation perfectly:
“…she told me to close my eyes and open my hand. I did. ‘Now close it,’ she said. I did that too. A sensuous, crumbling velvet rubbed against my palm. ‘Smell it,’ she said. I did. It was an odor so sad, so thrilling, so reassuring, so exquisitely complete, as if all flowerings and all history were in it. It was earth, from the forest floor.”
We walked through strands of ivy hanging from the awning to our adorable, authentic room in the main villa, decorated with antiques, and country-style bedding that reminds me of the cabin my family used to have. After a greatly-needed shower, we walked down the driveway to the owner’s house and wine cellar, where the owner’s son, Lorenzo, gave us a tour and informed us about their wine.
View of One of the Vineyards
Lorenzo Explaining the Cellar
At Podere Ciona is a family winery that grows three kinds of grapes: Sangiovese, Merlot, and Alicante Bouschet. They are best known for their Chianti Classico, the specialty of the region, and Supertuscan wines. On the 550-meter property, they produce approximately 22,000 bottles of wine per year. Of this they also produce a limited amount of Rosé, which they do not distribute, but keep 400 bottles for the family to drink, and 400 for the guests! This is in addition to their table wine, which is also not distributed, as it is made from pressing the skins for what is left over after fermentation.
Podere Ciona Property (not my photo)
Lorenzo and his mother, Franca, are very animated and such characters. During dinner (which was described as a “lite buffet”—ha) they described their wines and poured each one for us to taste, demonstrating the difference between a young Riserva (a few years old) and mature Riserva (about four years old) in its peak. We also got to drink the Rosé, which is incredibly dry and, if you were to close your eyes and sip, would taste exactly like a deep red.
Franca and the Food
As for the food, the lite buffet included different types of pasta, meat, stuffed zucchini, potatoes, and sweet onions. On top of that was a cream puff dessert, followed by a fig tart for someone’s birthday. It was quite a feast! I can’t imagine what a regular Tuscan dinner is like if this was lite. I guess I will find out later this week.
My Lite Dinner
After some much-needed sleep, Katey and I woke up and got ready for breakfast, which included fruit, meat, rolls, toast, cheese, a fresh fruit tart, espresso, soft-boiled eggs, coffee, and juice. Since I was still a bit full from the night before, I tried to resist trying everything on the first morning. One of the guests taught Katey and I how to eat our first soft-boiled egg, which was a bit disturbing, but enlightened us on the reasoning for egg cups.
We departed for Castellina, a charming village created in a once-used fortress. As we drove, our guide Pina told us about all the churches we will see all around us during our time here. There are so many because we are on the very path that people would walk on their pilgrimage to Rome long ago. The cities have decided to preserve the path to this day, and it is pretty well signed. We also caught our first glimpse of a 7th-century castle that sits on a hill nearby the property, and Katey and I vow that we will hike there one morning to explore.
Along the way we were driving along the route for L’Eroica, a favorite bike ride with a name that means “the heroes.” Journalist Serena Pousi describes the ride:
L’Eroica was first held in 1997 with the aim of saving Tuscan crushed gravel tracks from being replaced with asphalt. So the race was born for a “romantic” purpose strictly connected to the territory and today it is an example of appreciation of the environment, sustainable lifestyle and “clean” cycling. But there is more. L’Eroica has also a wine and food tradition, with lavish buffets of beef stew, jam tarts, other dishes of the Tuscan tradition and gallons of Chianti wine at the food stops.
People who participate in the two-day event must ride a vintage bicycle. The ride is so popular in the area that the Japanese copied the ride. My old Schwinn Tour de Luxe would be perfect! Later in Gaiole we saw a shop that sold vintage bikes just for the ride, and mine looked like their sibling! I may have to come back for it…
Vintage Bikes for L’Eroica
We also caught site of the black dog. A friend who had visited the property told us that, when given directions by Franca, she told him to eventually turn at the black dog. A real black dog. He was confused, but on his way, he saw the black dog! I made sure to keep my eyes open, and sure enough, we passed the black dog, who sits on a black mat in front the front door, every day, all day. If I lived in Tuscany, I’m sure I would be just as content with the view he has.
Once we arrived in Castellina, we walked Via della Volte, the tunnel where military used to stand guard when the cities of Siena and Florence used to battle. Castles in the area used to constantly change ownership, and it used to be the border between the two cities. Even to this day the two cities hold a grudge.
Via della Volte
We meandered up to the castle, where some of us decided to walk up the tower, and half of us walk through the town and enjoy the picturesque views around every corner. What would it be like to live in such a village? To have a little corner of a once-castle, flowers lining the steps up to a door with a golden knocker, views of vineyards for miles, church bells every hour? It’s something we dream about, but don’t think could ever become our reality. But it is here!
Katey decided to walk up into the castle and get some pictures of the fabulous countryside, while I wondered about by myself, in and out of shops, admiring the architecture of these small shops built into castle walls, listening to the sweet sound of Italian syllables, and watching as couples walked down the cobblestone street hand in hand on a quiet Sunday afternoon. I so wish I could share this experience with Matt!
Castellina Castle Tower
After Castellina, we visited another nearby town called Radda. We had some time to walk around, where Katey and I found a shoe factory where I couldn’t resist buying some amazing boots. After putting off lunch for a bit (we have both been getting a bit motion sick from the bus rides), we decided to settle into a quiet restaurant for some sandwiches. Our guide advised us to eat earlier, as we would miss the Italian rush around 1:00 pm, but we were glad to be in the restaurant when it was full to overhear the chatter and to be a part of the life. At first we thought we were leaving the restaurant late to meet the group, and it started pouring rain the instant we got outside! As soon as we got to the meeting point, we realized we still had a half hour, and so slipped into another café until it was time to leave.
Street in Radda
We enjoyed a nice break once we returned to the property, and I spent my time down in the common area writing, listening to the rain pound on the clay tile roof, and the thunder in the distance. I was perfectly OK with some rain (I think I’m a true Seattle girl at heart). It made me feel so cozy as I snuggled up on the old patterned, canvas couch next to the fireplace, surrounded by old musty foreign books, delicate ceramics, and other treasures.
Everyone else caught a nap before heading to Gaiole, our last hill town of the day. Gaiole was voted the most idyllic place to live in Forbes magazine. It was quite beautiful, but I can’t help thinking that Castellina shines brighter in my mind. But perhaps they take into account tourist activity? A few of us remembered something Franca said last night at dinner about a friend of hers who weaves fabric in Gaiole, and that she was sad because she didn’t think her shop would be open when we were there. However, we found it, and she was a few minutes from closing! Amidst the many scarves, sweaters, and panchos was the very loom she weaves on. Though pricey in my eyes, Franca had said she was very reasonable in the quality of what she makes. And I saw something I couldn’t possibly leave the store without, so there you go. I will be coming home with some Itialian style that is perfect for the Seattle weather to come.
Dinner took place in Il Papavero, a restaurant up a nearby hill. It was a very small restaurant, one that people wouldn’t know about unless by hearsay. It was a small stone structure with about six tables, probably as large as my apartment (which is not large in the least). Everyone had a wonderful meal, starting with small bits of different tasting things as an appetizer, such as an interesting pumpkin sauce, some sort of pate, and several others. Next was a delicious ricotta, followed by rabbit, and the most amazing chocolate brownie/fudge dessert that many at the table said was the best chocolate they had ever tasted. As one described, it was dreamy. And to make it even more amazing we were drinking the delicious red wine of our own estate. We felt like typical Tuscans. One woman, whose husband enlightened us that this trip was his idea, and that she wasn’t as enthused about the trip, said that her friends often talk about how they had to return to Italy after their first experience. She never understood until now, and said that Italy envelops you… and is filled with a lot of alcohol. I couldn’t have said it better. It is like you have been adopted by a warm, smiley, alcoholic family.
An excited buzz filled the bus on the way home, as everyone reflected on the day and began to feel comfortable with the group. No one wanted to go to sleep, would rather stay awake to savor the moment. And this was only the first full day! Oh, and to top it off, we saw a family of wild boar crossing the road on the way home!