Essays about life in Italy, traveling in Italy, and more
Summer 1999 - Italy
Argiano Week 1
I am writing this at the start of our second week at Argiano, but with no access to a telephone, so no hope of sending it for another week. Still, thought I would write it now.
We were very sad to leave Panicale. By the end of our time there we felt pretty comfortable in the house and in the town. Gallo, the man who runs the coffee shop/bar where we frequently had coffee, asked us to send him a postcard when we got home because he needed a New Mexico card for his collection. He even gave us complimentary seconds on our coffee the day we were leaving. I was almost crying as we drove the steep switchback roads that take you down from Panicale to the valley.
Argiano, our next tourist rental, is near an area we know somewhat. On the last trip we spent 2 weeks near Panzano in Chianti - about 20 minutes drive north of Siena. On the trip before that we spent 2 weeks near Sovicille - about 20 minutes drive west of Siena. Argiano is about a 20 minute drive north-east of Siena. On the next trip we should stay 20 minutes south of Siena and we would have "done" Siena!
Argiano is an old farming estate (the stone buildings are 13th century) on about 250 acres with vineyards (they make and bottle their own Chianti wine), 1000 olive trees (they bottle their own olive oil) and woodlands. They estate consists of the big main house (where the owners live) and beside that a group of old farm buildings that they have converted into 7 holiday apartments. A caretaker and his family live beside these apartments. The apartments are all 1 or 2 bedroom apartments with small kitchens. Each has its own outdoor terrace. The courtyard area between the buildings is all bricked and full of potted plants, including several lemon trees.
It is traditional in Italy to grow small lemon trees in pots and to move them inside to a special lemon house for the winter. You sometimes see tourist rentals called Il Limone - these are the estate lemon house converted into a holiday apartment. They probably have a nice way of saying "The Hen House" too.
Our terrace, which is a nice size and had a good table and chairs, leads to the main grass lawns. These are planted with lots of herb bushes (wonderful lavender) and lots of olive trees. The swimming pool is at the end of the lawn.
This is the most beautiful place we have ever stayed. The apartment is small and the kitchen is just a 6 foot counter-unit in the corner of the main room which serves as kitchen, dining area and living room. The bedroom and bathroom are upstairs. But the walls are over 3 feet thick, the ceilings have the original old wooden beams and the floors are tiled. The furniture is comfortable and the apartment is relatively well lit. This last thing is rare in Italy because electricity is so expensive. At Panicale I had to do all our supper preparation while it was still light out, because I couldn't see well enough after dark. The kitchen is a little sparse - 2 plates, 2 of each utensil, 2 glasses, etc. - but has a good set of pots and pans (also unusual in tourist rentals - we travel with our own good pot just in case). But the grounds are the prettiest of any place we have stayed. We even have flowers in the window ledge on our terrace.
I am very fussy about tourist rentals and am always looking for the perfect one (where we can come to stay for several months). This isn't the one, but it is pretty good - perfect for a 1 or 2 week stay. We would stay in Panicale for a couple of months.
Our first week in Argiano we didn't really get beyond smiling and nodding to our neighbors. Mostly everyone was German. There was one American group of four, but being Americans, they were out most of the time, so we never even spoke to them. They probably assumed we were German.
In Italy, American are always busy, seeing many towns each day. I imagine they are here for their 2 week vacation and it will be their only trip to Italy, so they are going to see everything! Just like in that hilarious Chevy Chase movie "European Vacation" where they ran around looking at the sights and ticking them off on a check list. Steve loves to say "check" when we have seen a big tourist site. The Frommer travel guides call them "must sees".
Shall I continue my stereotyping? The British tourists are very serious and explore all the corners of Tuscany. They have been here before and they will be here again and they will see it all. But at a more relaxed pace than the Americans. And in a more detailed way. They can be seen carrying guide books and wearing hiking boots.
The Germans are here to kick back. At Argiano they head to the pool in the morning and stay there all day, only leaving to get ready to head out for a sumptuous 3 hour dinner. It is wonderful to see them so relaxed; Germans, in their homeland, can be a little intense. It is very easy for Germans to drive down to Italy. There are so many German tourists in Chianti that you are more likely to see menus in Italian and German than in Italian and English. They invaded Italy in the 40s and they are invading it again now. But this time they are visiting the castles, not looting them. By the way, is it only me who thinks that the Germans are trying to take over Europe again, but this time under the guise of the EU (European Union)? The only thing holding them back is the bad effect on their economy of taking on that whole eastern Germany thing. America must stay strong!
We travel like the Brits.
The Germans made for a pretty relaxed atmosphere at Argiano. There are only 7 apartments, and they are all private, but you see the other people out on their terraces or making their way down to the pool. You can tell by the number of cars in the parking lot when you head out, how many people are spending the day at the pool. The weather continued to be hot and sunny, and we spent a few afternoons at the pool too. I like this kind of tourist rental. The language difference makes for a nice kind of privacy. Everyone nods hello, but you don't go on from there because who knows what language you have in common, if any. The last trip we stayed at a place with all Americans (it is booked through an American agency) and everyone was chatting with everyone, having drinks together, then going out for dinner together. Another week and they would have formed a baseball team.
The language thing makes it different being here. You hardly ever strike up a conversation with someone you meet in a village or at a restaurant. Sometimes you have the situation where two Americans meet on a path and both say "Buon Giorno" to each other. Two Americans speaking Italian. And most of the tourists here are like Steve - their Italian is good enough to get by, but it is hard to have a detailed conversation.
Speaking of which, I can now say three complete sentences: Sono una vegetariana ("I am a Vegetarian" - essential in restaurants; not much use anywhere else), Dove il gabineto ("Where is the bathroom?" - you can see that this is a useful phrase), and Quando una porchetta vola di mia uscita (a cute version that we made up of "When a pig flies out of my butt" where instead of the Italian word for butt, we use the word "uscita" that means "exit" and you see on road signs all the time - but I can only say this to Steve).
Anyway, most everyone left on Saturday. These tourist rentals always go by the week, from Saturday to Saturday; even in other countries. On Saturdays in Europe it is like musical chairs, except that the chairs stay the same and instead of moving a chair you remove one set of tourists and replace them with another and everyone gets a tourist rental (unless they screw up your reservation - this has never happened to us, but every time we are heading to a new place I think about it).
So, what have we been doing? We've been into Siena a few times. We love Siena. It is a beautiful city (population 50,000) with a large perfectly preserved historical center, the best piazza in Italy (Il Campo) and an incredible church (Duomo). The piazza today is almost exactly as it was in the 1200s. Most of the historical center is blocked off from cars and, in the evening passagiata, the streets are so full of young people that you can hardly walk down them.
We have spent several days exploring our area. We are near a great little town called Gaiole in Chianti. All the guide books say it is not exceptional, but I think it is the best of the major Chianti towns. On the last trip we stayed near Panzano in Chianti and Greve in Chianti was our favorite town. We hated Castellina in Chianti because it was too touristy. (Are you getting the pattern of how they name towns in Chianti?) We went to Radda in Chianti, but didn't spend enough time there to have an opinion. These are all the major southern Chianti towns (that is the part of Chianti near Siena, not the northern part near Florence), except for Gaiole in Chianti. So, one day we decided to go see Gaiole. It was an overcast day, the drive to Gaiole seemed very long, the area around Gaiole is all woods and we didn't see many other towns. Gaiole looked so bleak from the road that we didn't even bother to stop - just decided we wouldn't like it.
Well this time it was sunny and the woods are very pretty and there are lots of little towns down dirt roads in the woods and Gaiole has a great piazza with no cars and a fabulous cafe and deli and now Gaiole is our favorite town. It is enough off the beaten path that it isn't flooded with tourists, but enough on the beaten path that they are used to visitors and have a great deli and are very helpful at the deli and have the International Herald Tribune and most of the British papers and it is small enough that they actually remember who we are at the deli and cafe. Did I mention their homemade gelato?
This area is full of castles from a thousand years ago. This was a big area for fighting between Florence and Siena. We visited two castles. Mildly interesting.
We've been doing some hiking. This area has lots of trails (but don't hike in the woods on Sundays, because hunting season has started with Sundays only for now) and lots of dirt roads that are great for walking. We had one very rainy day and I got totally bored and frustrated. Steve didn't.
We have had a few meals out, but not as many as when we were in Panicale. We just couldn't keep up that pace of eating and drinking! We went out for a hike today (Sunday). We drove to a very small town - just a few old stone houses along a dirt road (Lecchi in Chianti). I recently read a book by an American who has a house in this village ("In a Tuscan Castle"). She said she wasn't going to name her village, but then it was there by mistake in one chapter (no one proof reads well these days). We found her house and explored the village. It had a small restaurant that looked interesting (from the menu displayed outside). But it was only 12:00, too early for lunch. You must arrive at a restaurant for lunch between 1:00 and 2:00 (some places give you until 2:30, but that is unusual). So we hiked up the road to another village, then walked back, then had one of the best meals of the trip.
The restaurant was small. The waiter (who is the owner I think) was very friendly. We sat outside on the terrace which was beside the town church - every half hour very loud bells ring. We started with vegetable crostini (pieces of bread with toppings: one spinach, one cooked beans, one porcini mushrooms). Then we had soup. I had Pappa alla Pomodoro and Steve had Aquacotta. I have read about Pappa alla Pomodoro in several books about Italian food, but had never seen it in a restaurant. The waiter said they are both considered to be "peasant food" and are not always served because of that. He said he had both of these soups cooked by his grandmother all the time while growing up. We had Aquacotta only once before at that fabulous meal in Saturnia. Both soups were incredible. Small portions so you don't get full on them and ruin the rest of the meal, incredibly flavorful. Then we had pasta. Me with porcini mushrooms (they are in season right now) and Steve with vegetables. We also had Chianti wine. To finish we shared a tiramisu. I have never ordered this in Italy. We usually don't have dessert because the meals are so big. The tiramisu was great - not as rich as you get at home. Not so sweet. The meal was perfect. We started at 1:00 and left at 3:30. And we didn't even have a second course (the meat course) that most Italians would have!
Well, it is official, everyone in Italy is now very friendly. Or so it seems to us. Maybe on the last two trips, we just didn't speak enough Italian to make ourselves really understood, so now everyone understands us and we understand them and everyone is friendly. Or maybe their team is winning in the world cup, so the whole country is happy. I don't know. But even here in Chianti (where they must tire of the tourists) everyone is helpful and friendly. After our last trip, I vowed that if I saw an Italian tourist on the streets of New York or Santa Fe, I would not help them. Let them see how it is! But this time, we are just in love with the Italians! Funny how perceptions change.
And, guess what? There is a laundry in Pianella, the town just a mile from us! No more spending a day drying clothes in the sun and then ironing. Now we just take in the laundry, wait two days, and then pay about $50 for a couple of shirts, a couple of pairs of pants and a week's worth of t-shirts and underwear. But perfectly ironed and folded and it is worth it. The way to become a millionaire in Italy - open a laundry.
Actually it isn't hard to be a millionaire here - 1 million lira is about $600. That will change with the euro. I am actually an Italian millionaire right now!
Argiano Week 2
I am writing this last email from the plane and will send it from home. We couldn't figure out the phone system at our hotel in Rome, so haven't been on email for the last week. Either that or my modem card is broken - all will be revealed soon!
The trip was great. The weather kept sunny and hot (in the 80's) until we got to Rome. Then it just got a bit colder. Which is perfect for Rome because it can be unbearable in the heat. The last week at Argiano was great. We did one long day trip to Volterra, but mostly kept close by visiting the small towns near us.
The grape harvest was going on all around us during that last week. The grapes are still picked manually. Pickers line the rows of vines, cut the grapes and put them in to plastic boxes. These are then dumped into small open trucks. You see trucks full of grapes driving slowly along the country roads. You can smell the start of the fermenting. It is very festive. People come from all over Italy to help pick the grapes. They started the harvest at Argiano on the Friday before we left.
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