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Postcard - The Road to Volpaia, and Beyond

Nancy L

My road to Volpaia began as a desire to explore the heart of Tuscany in a land filled with contrasts. Deep inside, I wanted to meander graceful hillsides, sprinkled with small towns and country estates in a place famed for its wine and olive oil production. After all, I was planning a trip from Texas to Tuscany. I wanted to sample life just as the Tuscans do, not run busy freeways at breathtaking speeds.

Right off, Volpaia sounded like an interesting stopover on the road from Florence to Siena. It had been described as an out-of-the-way fortress tucked into the Tuscan hills. The place reportedly had a good restaurant, so to me, it represented a great stopover for an outdoor lunch and a step back into medieval times.

From my reading, though, getting there could be a challenge. The place was secluded and the roads poorly marked, yet my sense of adventure told me that the challenge might be worth the effort. So eventually, with the help of Ann Reavis (an accomplished Tuscan Traveler), I began a journey that took me away from the hectic pace of an everyday world to a medieval culture only now beginning to awaken to modern times.

Volpaia

Volpaia

I departed Florence on a Saturday with my husband and a group of friends. Our plan was to be on the road by ten o'clock in the morning. However, because of the hassles of a van rental, international driver's licenses, and a vehicle too small for six people, I came face to face with my first lesson of the day: Plan on the unexpected, especially when it comes to transportation in Italy.

Once on the road and away from the bustle of Florence, we settled back to enjoy tree-lined thoroughfares and rolling countryside. Our first stop was at the American Memorial Cemetery on Via Cassia only a few kilometers south of Bottai. Reflecting back, the beauty and serenity of orderly, white crosses set on a gently sloping, seventy acre war memorial served to remind me that real people died fighting for liberty and freedom, a thought that made our car rental problems seem miniscule compared to their sacrifice.

From the cemetery, we cut to the east passing through Tavermuzze, Bagnolo, and Impruneta toward S222, the Chianti road to Siena. Impruneta, from what I knew, was known for its fine pottery, so from my perspective, a stop was in order. Unfortunately, lesson number two was presented. Simply stated: Allow time for unscheduled stops.

The guys wanted to press on, the women were worried that it would be too hard to ship pottery back to the States, so I missed the town, knowing that it's not often one gets to mingle with the very craftsmen that sculpted and sold their own wares.

At S222, we turned toward the town of Strada in Chianti, anticipating the twisting roads with sharp curves known to cross the Chianti area. Much to our surprise, the highway, a "white road" on the map, was an easy drive. Other than an occasional sports car breezing past with its horn blaring, the traffic was light and the sights nonstop. We saw farmland with fields tilled to the contours of the land. We passed hilltop estates surrounded by rows of grapes glistening in the sun, standing at the ready. And, yes, cypress trees stood over the land, just as they had for centuries.

Further south, we came to Greve in Chianti. It was a Saturday and a market day, so we stopped to stroll the square, our senses awakening to the sights and smells of fresh artichokes, tomatoes and roasted cinghiale (wild boar). We also saw local crafts and the people who had crafted them. We were surprised by the preponderance of household items, clothing, and even blooming plants. I actually purchased a box of detergent for the laundry that had accumulated in my suitcase. At least, I thought it was laundry detergent, as I again realized that my Italian was not as fluent as I had thought.

Just as I was becoming immersed in the activity though, my companions pointed me back to the van and we were again on the road, and I began to anxiously wonder if I could skillfully direct them to Volpaia. Had Ann remembered all the turns on those unmarked roads? And more importantly, would I be able to find them?

My directions were to continue south on S222 to Panzano and Castellina in Chianti. Once past Panzano, we were to take a left toward Radda and follow the road until we spotted a sign on the left pointing in the direction of a side road, designated "Volpaia". As one would expect, the sign was small. It was situated on the opposite side of the van from where I sat, and it came into view just as we were rounding an abrupt curve.

The road to Volpaia

The road to Volpaia

With brakes shuddering, we made the turn and started up a narrow tree-lined road that followed the side of a hill. My fellow travelers were grumbling, but a few minutes later, as the entry to Volpaia came into view, I became aware of lesson number four: Don't worry about getting lost because no one is ever truly lost in Italy. It's only the momentary distractions from the history and the culture, added to the sights and sounds emanating from a vibrant landscape, that frequently overwhelm the senses and cause one to merely, "think" they are lost.

In Volpaia, we headed directly to La Botega, a shaded, outdoor restaurant overlooking a valley. We gave no names, yet it seemed as if we were expected. Once seated, we were presented with a menu filled with just the right things to appease the grumbling in our stomachs.

The prix fixe menu was 10 euro and included an entree, a dessert, and a basket of homemade bread. The choices included ribollita, pasta with basil pesto, tagliatelli with walnuts, Gorgonzola and cream, and a pasta al ragu. Our selections were exactly what we needed. I rated them excellent based on my sampling from everyone's plate. For dessert, we were offered panna cotta with raspberries. Naturally, we ordered a bottle of the vino dela casa - no, I think that was two bottles.

After lunch, we walked as a group to the town store and purchased the last loaf of bread, as well as a round of the local pecorino cheese, a jar of peach marmalade, and a bottle of Volpaian olive oil. Little did I know that, with a bag of biscotti purchased in Florence, we had just purchased breakfast for the following morning!

We toured the winery at 15 euro per person and tasted several wines. Trays of bread and pecorino were offered between each serving - the progression beginning with a white then going from good to excellent through the reds. We purchased two bottles, one red and one white, to add to our stash. Both were molto bene, but surprisingly, the oil was my favorite. I should have bought more.

The tour also included a visit to the olive mill, the underground wine cellars as well as a tour of their production facilities, a room brimming with stainless steel equipment. Outside, a purple trail led us to another storage structure where we discovered a cart covered with spent vines that were still sprinkled with a few clusters of fruit, escapees of the crushing process.

Olive press

Olive press

By strolling the warren of narrow stone streets and quiet alcoves, I felt as if I was being drawn back in time to sense the sights and sounds of a distant past, just as an inhabitant would have experienced in a small medieval fortress hundreds of years ago.

Volpaia lacked souvenir shops, tabacchi stores, and best of all, traffic. Colorful pots of hydrangeas greeted us at almost every corner - charming doorways beckoned us to explore further. And finally, the aroma of basil and rosemary drew us to the town's herb garden to breathe that glorious mingling of scents so common in Italy.

From Volpaia, we backtracked to the S222, and then headed to the SR408, another road to Siena. And, as anyone acquainted with Siena would expect, our first experience was to come face to face with the infamous Siena Triangle, a land-based confluence of strange anomalies somewhat similar to the Bermuda Triangle in the Caribbean where maps become useless.

Truth be told, we actually bypassed the road to our villa several times, as it was hidden behind a well-situated, bramble of bushes away from the highway. In desperation, we retraced our steps, returning to the outskirts of Siena along the "Road to Montevarchi", the SR408.

Our first stop was at a bar near Ponte A Bozzone (on the SR408) to ask for directions. While I was inside inquiring about Villa Strega (our rental for the week), my companions strolled past a nearby row of shops and discovered a charming little restaurant named, Vecchia Osteria. The menu looked interesting.

The place fronted the SR408, and sat at a lower elevation than the highway so it would have been easy to miss under normal circumstances. Yet over the following week, we returned twice to this delightful little setting of only eight tables and continued to be thrilled by the wonderful selection of local wines, sublime food, and reasonable prices. And, best of all, it was located only a few miles from our villa. (Vecchia Osteria, SR 408 Ponte A Bozzone (Siena), tel: 0577-356809.) See my restaurant review.

Perhaps, it was serendipity that led us to the osteria. But, getting lost in Italy, I learned, frequently introduces one to something new and wonderful at every turn.

Impressions: Italians were always most tolerant, sometimes humorous, of our language skills, and I was grateful for the time I had spent learning a little of the language. I wished we had allowed more time for the unexpected because Italy is not just about the big three, Rome, Florence, and Venice. It's also the secluded memorials, the spur of the moment stops, and the small villages such as Greve and Volpaia - places where the real taste of Italy come to life, and the past truly does meet the present.

Next year, I am going to Sicily to spend entire days wandering about in hopes of finding more surprises just around the next turn. Serendipity, I truly believe, can strike twice!

Resources

www.volpaia.com: Since the time of my visit, Volpaia has opened a website with several short-term rental apartments and villas, all beautifully restored. From what I understand, a new restaurant has located near the square.

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