I’m in Kelly’s spacious and sunny room, reclining in my favorite spot on the chaise lounge next to the wide double window that looks southeast. The windows are wide open and the light breeze is relaxing, almost hypnotic. The bell tower of the old village church is just below me. The bells ring every half hour, even through the night. Four bells, a pause, then two peals of a different bell. It’s 4:30 in the afternoon, and we’re halfway through our laid-back month in the Tuscan countryside.
Our little house… an apartment really… is one of several built into the old castle walls in the tiny hilltop village of Chiusure in an area of Tuscany south of Siena called the “Crete”. (Chiusure is pronounced “key-zur-ray,” which I never seem to get right, much to Kelly’s frustration.) Our neighbor Gary told us that Chiusure was likely an ancient village founded by the Etruscans, a pre-Roman civilization that dominated central Italy from about the 8th century BC until the 1st century BC. He said our building probably dates back to the 10th century, which means it’s over a thousand years old. The 10th century… that’s 900-something. The three of us can hardly comprehend this thought. In Knoxville I worked in a 100-year-old “historic” building that I proudly considered old. But in the 900’s—five centuries before Christopher Columbus sailed across the sea—America was undeveloped, a vast wilderness inhabited by primitive Indians. Meanwhile here in Chiusure there was a castle and someone was living inside these same walls where we’re spending our month, cooking their meals on the huge stone fireplace, perhaps even daydreaming by this same window looking out across a view that has changed little in 1000 years. Once America was discovered, progress came quickly. But here in this part of Tuscany, the modern age has developed more slowly. Life is simple on our Tuscan hilltop.
In our 1000-year old building, we do have some 21st century conveniences—electricity, hot and cold running water, a refrigerator, a small gas range, a washing machine with a two-hour cycle, a telephone, two tiny showers, two toilets, two bidets, two electric fans and a CD player—but our place is rustic, a deliberate choice on our part. Here—like most of our temporary homes this past year—we’ve learned to do without many of the conveniences we took for granted at home in America: a garbage disposal, a dishwasher, a microwave, a clothes dryer, a toaster, an electric coffee maker, a television, a DVD player, high-speed internet, an ice maker, air conditioning, a large hot water supply, trash pick-up, a two-car garage attached to our home, wall-to-wall carpeting. We miss these things—some of them terribly—but we’ve adjusted to the simpler life. We haven’t watched television since mid-April.
We’re comfortable here in this apartment, intrigued by its location and its unique configuration. The place is called La Porta (The Door) and is no longer available for weekly rentals... just longer-term people like us. We have a small front terrace with a big umbrella and a couple of chairs, ideal for sunning, observing village life, and hanging out our laundry. Our massive front door opens to an entrance room… a bonus room of sorts. It’s more than a hallway, but not really a room with a functional purpose other than a repository for our stuff as we come and go. Our main family area (combination sitting/dining/cooking room) is to the left of this entrance, a narrow room dominated by the big fireplace in one corner. The cooking space—including a very old stone sink—huddles in what’s left of that end of the room. A long wooden table with benches on either side takes up about half the floor space in this main room. We could easily seat ten for dinner, though we’d have to be creative about our menu since there’s little space for preparation and cooking.
Charley and I have the bedroom off the entrance room, a large room with a queen bed, thick walls and a stone floor. An archway on one side of the room was apparently once part of the castle structure. When the shutters are closed, our room is totally dark and also very cool. A few nights ago, Charley got out of bed in the middle of the night. I heard him stumbling around the room, disoriented, lost in this still-unfamiliar place. He crashed into a small closet door and then into the alcove beneath the archway where we’ve stored our large duffle bags, finally finding the steps that lead up to our bathroom. The next morning he had no recollection of his nighttime wanderings.
Kelly’s room is quite literally “across the street”… reached by yet another bonus-type room that extends in an arch up and across the small street below that was once an entranceway into the castle. Kelly’s wonderful room is about a third of our total living space… big windows to the left and right… sunny and bright… with spectacular views in either direction. Even her bathroom has a great view. I’m wildly envious, though the two twin beds naturally made it her room. Fortunately, she prefers to relax in the shady living room and isn’t too territorial about her space… so the sunny spot by the window is my personal hideaway on lazy afternoons.
From my perch near the top of Chiusure (1323 feet), I can see almost thirty miles on this clear day… across undulating hills and fields of varying shades of green and gold and brown, broken by just a few drifts of trees. Now I understand why two of the colors in my childhood box of 64 Crayola crayons were called Burnt Siena and Burnt Umber… named for the colors so prevalent in this beautiful part of central Italy. At this time of year—mid June—the color palate seems to change slightly every few days. The real Tuscany truly is like the photos from a calendar’s pages: the lonely farmhouses with the red tile roofs, the fields of grain with the rolled bales of hay, the fading masses of red poppies, the bright yellow broom bushes, the little lanes lined by cypress trees, and (just beginning to emerge in the last few days) the fields of happy sunflowers.
I can only see seven or eight farmhouses in the distance, most of them sitting alone on rounded hills, often near a straight line of tall, slender cypress trees or surrounded by umbrella pines. There are a few villages and towns visible on hilltops in the distance… Montepulciano, Castelmuzio and Pienza. A big church sits on an isolated hilltop near Castelmuzio: the 12th century Sant’Anna in Camprena, now famous as one of the filming locations of “The English Patient”. If I lean around the corner of the windowsill I can see Mount Amiata, an extinct volcano 5649 feet high and the highest point in Tuscany. Sheep are grazing in one bright green field a few miles away, clustered closely together… so unlike the English sheep who wander much more independently. When we first arrived in Tuscany, I thought the sheep were white rocks in the distant fields. Their milk is used to make a wonderful cheese called pecorino. Kelly still prefers just swiss and cheddar cheese, but Charley and I really like the pecorino cheese from nearby Pienza… especially with honey.
Our village of Chiusure is a small refuge in an unusual and almost desolate part of southern Tuscany called the Crete. Millions of years ago this area was covered by the sea, resulting in a high clay content in the soil. Over the years, erosion from rain and wind has created a pattern of bare round domes and deep cliffs, particularly in the area surrounding Chiusure. Although the area is also dotted with rippling fields of grains, it’s desert-like and almost haunting in some lonely places where farming must surely be impossible. We can spot Chiusure from several miles away when we make the drive up the hill from Buonconvento, the medieval town where we shop for groceries and use a small and very strange internet café. Our hilltop village seems suspended just above the steep clay cliffs.
We were anxious to visit this fabled part of Italy that holds such an allure for many Americans. We were especially interested to see how it compares to Provence, an area we now consider almost our second home. Charley and I were a bit apprehensive about the comparison, hoping we would not find it more beautiful or perhaps even like it better. Kelly is always on alert, ready to pounce if we make any comment that might appear to favor Tuscany—she is fiercely loyal to her much-loved Provence. There are many similarities between these two idyllic agricultural regions: ancient histories, Roman ruins, strong traditions, hilltop villages, fields dotted with vineyards and olive trees, spectacular scenery. But there are also very distinct differences in the Tuscan landscape (not as mountainous, rocky or rugged), the cuisine (more hearty and—we think—not as varied or precise), and the people (perhaps more laid-back and open to strangers). We like Tuscany a lot and definitely understand why some people prefer it, but we’re still in love with Provence.
I had expected Tuscany somehow to be more populated, but it’s surprisingly rural. There is one big city (Florence with 376,000 residents) and several large towns (like Siena, Pisa, Livorno, and Grosseto), but most of Tuscany is very agricultural…. miles and miles of farmland, vineyards and olive groves… and hills and more hills. Every several miles there’s a village, and here and there a large villa, castle or monastery. The roads meander along the tops of the hills where the views are fine, in no hurry to get to the next destination. “Find a place to pull over,” I tell Charley several times each day. Sometimes we stop to take pictures, but sometimes we just stop to look, to savor the living calendar pages.
After our experiences in Rome, Venice, Florence and on the Amalfi Coast where we felt surrounded… actually invaded… by other tourists, I had expected there to be many more tourists swarming over the southern Tuscan countryside, but it’s mostly quiet and peaceful… an oasis of calm for us after our weeks in the popular cities. The tourists are here, but they’re not quite as evident… more dispersed or perhaps more focused on the most famous hilltowns where there are places for visitors to eat and drink wine and shop.
Bicycles are popular here in the countryside, and driving can be tricky on the narrow curvy roads as cars maneuver around each other and then around the cyclists. Some of the cyclists are “hard bodies”… the ultra physically fit becoming even more physically fit… sometimes alone and sometimes in a small pack. They travel almost as fast as a car, making steady progress up the hills, wearing colorful spandex suits and matching helmets. They seem to barely break a sweat. Some of the cyclists are on a tour, strung out along the road, often burdened by large matching saddlebags on either side of their rear wheels. Some of the cyclists are local—an older man or woman using the bike as transportation, sitting erect while they make their way home with a basket of vegetables or a few loaves of bread… hardly a cyclist. Some of the cyclists are totally unprepared and miserable… usually a middle-aged man and woman (not in spandex suits) pushing their bikes up a steep hill in the hot June sun. (This is the cyclist I personally most identify with… also hardly a cyclist.) I’m sure the idea of a biking holiday in Tuscany looked like fun when they were studying the brochures in Hometown USA last winter. And then there were the two cyclists I know best—the middle aged man and his eleven-year-old daughter. Kelly and Charley rented bikes a few days ago and spent a few hours exploring the area near Buonconvento. They were among the miserable, reporting back that the hills were challenging—some of them impossible—and of course that it was very hot. Once she walked her bike up, Kelly did enjoy riding down the hills.
The little three-wheeled utility vehicles called “Apes” also present a challenge on our drives through the Tuscan countryside. An Ape is a miniature truck that seats only one person, though we’ve occasionally seen two people crammed into the tiny cab. They seem to be primarily used on farms or on tiny villages streets, but many Ape drivers end up on the main roads, puttering along at 25 miles per hour, sometimes with a line of ten cars creeping along the curvy road behind them and waiting for an opportunity to pass. Many of the Italian drivers are very aggressive and obviously late to get somewhere very important—they pass the Apes and slower vehicles like us even on the curves. Charley sometimes pulls to the side of the road to let the tailgaters pass. The motorcyclists are even more aggressive and make me very nervous. Charley will often pass an Ape or other slow driver. I know he’s cautious, but I’m frightened all the same… frightened mainly of the motorcyclist who may fly out of nowhere on our side of the road.
But we don’t worry about traffic in our village of Chiusure… it’s off the main road with only two or three streets that can even accommodate the width of a car. Just a handful of more adventurous tourists—often on foot, bicycle or motorcycle—seem to find their way here. The smart ones—or perhaps the lucky ones—climb the short and very steep cobblestone street past our house to the little park at the very top of the village, across from the castle ruins that have been restored into a small senior citizen’s home (a Casa di Riposa or rest home). From the park the view expands beyond what we can see from Kelly’s room—one of the best views in this part of Tuscany, we think—including a clear view of Mount Amiata some 30 miles south and—much closer in the same direction—the famous hilltop wine town of Montalcino. Just beneath the park, in a valley surrounded by clay pits and shaded by a mass of large cypresses, is the beautiful Mount Oliveto Maggiore, a 14th century Benedictine monastery and one of the biggest tourist draws in this area. The monastery cloisters feature a wonderful series of 36 frescoes portraying the life of St. Benedict, painted by two different artists between 1495 and 1508.
The more mobile residents of the Casa di Riposa make their way up and down the steep hill beside our house several times a day. Actually about half the people in our village of 150 people seem to be elderly. Although about 20 people live at the rest home, many of the older people live in the red-brick houses that line the little streets of our village. They care for their geraniums and roses, planted in big terracotta pots outside their doorways. Or they tend to their vegetables in small plots tucked here and there on the hillside…tomatoes, artichokes, herbs, lettuce. Each afternoon many of the older residents sit together outside their houses, each one in a white plastic chair. They place their chairs right up against their houses along the narrow street, leaving just enough room for a car to pass by. They perk up to watch as the occasional tourists come and go.
We haven’t learned enough Italian to exchange more than smiles and social pleasantries. We greet our neighbors as we pass them in the village, and everyone is always friendly in return. We must seem more familiar now that our stay has extended beyond a normal one-week rental. “Buon giorno, signora” we say in the morning, nodding our heads politely to the little white haired woman in the flowered housedress. After lunch the greeting changes. “Buono sera,” we say to the group in the white chairs, or sometimes just “Sera.”
Our village has just a few small service businesses: a post office, a hair salon, a bar, a pizzeria, a little general store. You can buy stamps at this post office, but you must go to a larger town to mail a package. One Friday afternoon we saw a fruit and vegetable truck set up in the square. The osteria in the tiny main square is apparently new, several outdoor tables arranged around the old cistern. We’ve eaten there twice—we liked the environment but our meals were expensive and the limited menu didn’t really interest us.
The real heart of Chiusure is just up from the square and less than a minute from our front door—the village tabacchi, a small general store that’s open in the morning, closes for much of the afternoon and then opens again till 10 pm. Every evening a group of villagers gathers outside the tabacchi door, sitting in their plastic white chairs or on the brick wall nearby, a pleasant respite from their small, hot houses. One evening Kelly even noticed one of the women shelling peas while she visited with her neighbors. Their voices and laughter carry up to our windows above, making us feel connected to the rhythm of village life. Although it’s not a restaurant, the husband and wife who run the tabacchi somehow seem to cater meals a few times a week. We’ve seen groups of 20 people eating at tables set up outside on the pavement, one afternoon a group of Germans who emerged from a tour bus and streamed through the village. A few evenings after we arrived, a group brought out songbooks and sang in beautiful harmony for an hour after their meal. How strange it was to hear the song “Yesterday” in Italian-accented English coming in the open windows of our 1000-year old house.
Kelly goes down to the tabacchi almost daily to buy an ice cream or soft drink. The man who runs the tabacchi likes her… he has a big smile and always pats her on the head or shoulder or sometimes pinches her cheek, even if we’re just passing by. A village this small is a comfortable and safe place for a child.
We like the little ristorante/pizzeria (Le Crete) at the bottom of the village, also run by a husband and wife team who don’t speak any English. The first time we tried to eat there on a Sunday afternoon, it was jam-packed and we left after we waited 20 minutes and never got a menu. The second time—surprising to us for a Friday night—we were the only ones there. The next time there were a few other tables of diners. Kelly loves their pizza, pronouncing it the best pizza she’s had in Italy. I think she must also like the attention she gets from the man and woman. Yesterday the wife raved about Kelly’s Italian when she ordered her pizza. “Ah, bella Italiano,” the woman said, kissing her fingertips in the air.
We arrived in Chiusure after six-and-a-half weeks of serious sightseeing in seven different locations, relieved to be settled in one place for an extended time again and definitely glad to be away from busy and crowded cities for a while. During our stay here we’re also meeting up with several Slow Travel friends who are visiting Tuscany. We’re also glad to be around other people and have some social interactions again. We’ve really missed having friends these last several weeks.
With the luxury of a full month here, each day doesn’t seem to matter quite as much. We have a list of things we want to do and places we want to visit in Tuscany, but some days we’re happy to read at home in the morning, go for a drive in the afternoon, and have a simple dinner at our big wooden table. Despite the reminders of the church bells every half hour, we’re much less sensitive to time again. Our surroundings—or maybe it’s the hot Tuscan sun and stomachs full of wine, pasta and pizza—lull us into contentment. Like the villagers on this Tuscan hilltop, we’re more laid-back and friendly here… more relaxed… and happier again.