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Report 508: Small Town Couple Takes Small Towns Trip, May 1-31

By B. Dupree from North Carolina, Spring 2004

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Page 7 of 7: May 22-31, Montalcino, Monte Oliveto Maggiore, back to Germany and home

May 22, Saturday It's hard to say goodbye to the Poggio, but we're excited about our week in Montalcino. We left around 10, took a short detour to see Citta delle Pieve. What a charming town. You wind around an umbrella pine-lined drive as you approach the village. The view to the valley below is spectacular. It was market day, so the village was quite crowded. There is such a contrast between French markets which are nine-tenths food and Italian markets which are primarily clothing. I confess to a preference for the French markets. There the produce is the star and is arranged like works of art. The presentation itself is beautiful as well as the fruits and vegetables. Here, the local farmers just put their stuff in boxes and put it out for you to buy - much more down to earth and real, but not as pleasing to the eye.

We saw two Perugino paintings in the main church, but missed the Adoration of the Magi because, after going to the TI and getting a map showing where his works were, we walked for some distance to the Oratorio only to discover that you could enter only with a ticket and that ticket could only be bought at the TI. No one told us!

Our second stop was for lunch in Pienza where we ate panini, bought cheese and took off for our home for the next week - Montalcino!

Arrived about 3:45, met Luigi, who is delightful, and were thrilled to find that our apartment is on the Via Mazzini, very close to the Piazza del Popolo.

For some reason, it seems that all of our packing, walking, driving, riding, unpacking, etc. had exhausted us, so we took ourselves to Il Moro, the little restaurant next door, expecting mediocre food, but finding to our delight, an exceptional meal.

We started with bean soup which was just touched with tomatoes, herbs and olive oil and served with a piece of bread in the bottom of the bowl, somewhat like a ribollita, but with fewer ingredients. Jim continued his attempt to eat rabbit in every form, this time cooked in Brunella. He swore it was remarkably good, but to me it looked like pieces of charcoal. I opted for a simple roast chicken, so succulent and juicy I sopped up the sauce with my bread.

May 23, Sunday After a night's sleep we felt as good as ever. Although the furniture is not as nice as the Poggio's, the apartment is large and has beautiful views. The kitchen window overlooks the tile rooftops of the lower village while the bed room window overlooks the beautiful valley below. We can see Pienza on a not so distant hilltop and Monte Amiata to the south. Our living room windows (we are on the 2nd floor) overlook Via Mazzini, the main street which leads up to the Piazza del Popolo.

We took a short walk then met Isabella and Luigi for coffee at the Bar Fiaschetteria. She is as passionate about Montalcino as she seemed in her book. It's obvious that everyone in the village knows and respects them, for many people greeted them fondly. Another American couple who are renting from them joined us - Jim and Kathleen from Austin, TX.

Today is a big football day and when the team gathered in the piazza to have lunch together, Luigi jumped up to offer his encouragement. Today is a very big game. If Montalcino wins this game, they will move up to the professional level, a remarkable achievement for such a small village. There was excitement in the air which suddenly grew as a long parade of antique automobiles appeared in the piazza. The proud drivers maneuvered ever so slowly through the crowds of people - village people, tourists, and football fans. To add to the crowd, today is a big market day which is held annually, so the piazza next to the fortezza and the surrounding streets were filled with tents and trucks and tourists milling around.

We ate lunch at La Taverna del Grappola Blu. We shared the ravioli with fresh tomato sauce, to my sorrow. Once I tasted it, I wanted it all. Jim followed with "stinca", beef shank braised in Brunella, and I had cinghiale with polenta. The food was excellent. Again, the Brunello braise made the meat very dark, but tasty. We shared a very good mixed salad. I find for the most part salads have improved in Italy although they don't do the fancy, trendy things we do in the States.

Even the rain which began half an hour before the game failed to dampen the enthusiasm of the spectators. The stand was completely filled and spectators stood along the low wall surrounding the field. Jim and I were determined to participate in this wonderful spectacle, so we braved the rain and cheered Montalcino until halftime when our weary legs and backs would no longer permit standing still. The game was exciting and the level of play was beyond anything we had previously seen. Montalcino scored first. The crowd went wild. Then, halfway through the half, the other team scored. We found later that the gamed ended in a 1-1 tie and will be replayed next Sunday.

Exhausted and back aching, I dressed for bed and stretched out to read when we returned to the apartment. Around 8:30 Jim went down to the Pizzeria a couple of doors down and got a couple of slices of pizza. I slept like a log.

May 24, Monday Work up refreshed and ready to go. The sun was shining brightly, but the wind streamed through the narrow streets making us shiver to the bone. I went back to the apartment for our fleece jackets. We walked all around the Pianello Quartiere and found that the little church directly below our apartment in the back is San Pietro, home of the Pianello Quartiere. I took a picture of Jim standing there with our laundry waving from the second story window. From there we walked back up to the Piazza del Popolo and then to the fortezza where we browsed through the huge racks of Brunello.

I was delighted to find an Internet Point just a few doors from our apartment, so I stole a few moments to e-mail the girls.

We lunched again at Grappolo Blu. This time I had the ravioli all to myself. It was as good as yesterday. Jim had gnocchi with pesto and then cinghiale. I had a surprisingly extraordinary dish - sausage and beans - fragrant homemade sausages and the most delicious beans I've ever tasted. The sauce had a hint of tomatoes, oil, herbs, and a piquant spice that brightened it. I remarked to Maria Pia that her dishes were both bellisimo and buonissimo. She offered her recipes if I would email her. Then we talked about the busy weekend - the market, the big game, the antique car parade, and she added the weekend teatro performances for which she had made the costumes. Between my Italian and her English we had a good conversation. I'm becoming a little more confident despite all of my mistakes. One thing I really like about Italians is that they will correct you. I appreciate that.

After lunch, Jim again went looking at wine while I walked to the end of via Mazzini and up to Madonna del Soccorso. What a wonderful view of the valley! I sat on a bench for quite some time thinking about this remarkable village that modern man (despite the Internet Point) has not yet put his mark upon.

Jim shopped at the alimentari for our dinner supplies. He's developing quite a rapport with the woman who runs it despite his lack of Italian. This time he supplemented the caprese, salumi and bread with a bottle of Brunello (Primo Pacenti's) which we drank with the respect it is due.

May 25, Tuesday We began the day with a long morning walk along the walls. Jim was astonished at the view from Madonna del Soccorso. We looked at the vines and the olive trees and the branches which have been pruned, cut, and stacked around the trees to dry.

This time we had our caprese at lunch, napped briefly, walked again, this time through the Travaglia Quartiere, and stopped in the the Caffe Fiaschetteria for grappa (Jim) and beer(me). We were becoming known to the owners and they teased us because I said Jim shouldn't drink grappa in the afternoon.

Although longing to return to Grappolo Blu , we decided to eat at Porta di Cassera, a restaurant Luigi recommended for rabbit and cinghiale. Both were good, but the hit of the day was the pinci with fresh tomatoes -subtle, but spicy.

A slow walk down via Mazzini which is almost deserted, and to bed.

May 26, Wednesday Although it was difficult for us to leave the village, we decided to go to Monte Oliveto Maggiore, a Benedictine Abbey about twenty-five kilometers away to see the frescoes of the life of St. Benedict. The abbey is in a beautiful setting and the frescoes are remarkable, not only for their beauty , but also because they are on the cloister walls, open to the natural light rather than in a dark church. I was devastated when shortly after we had begun our tour of the frescoes, we were informed that they were closing for siesta and would reopen in a few hours. Poor me, with all of my fixation on planning I had missed this.

So we reluctantly returned to Montalcino and our lunch at Boccon di Vino, a lovely restaurant just outside the walls overlooking the valley. The meal was excellent, but upscale and "fixed", not what I wanted when I've become so fond of the relaxed, casual food preparations in Montalcino. We had an appetizer of a stack of home made "crackers" with cheese between, baked and topped with tomato coulis. This was followed by delicious pureed bean soup flavored with wine and topped with mozzarella. The primi was tiny gnocchi on a truffle sauce, the secondo was cinghiale in a spicy wine sauce served over toast points. And dolce was a ricotta mousse with strawberry sauce.

We finished just in time to get to Sant' Antimo for Gregorian chants, or so we thought. We arrived to find that the monks had just finished. Foiled again. So we came back to Montalcino and retired to Caffe Fiaschetteria for grappa and wine.

Dinner again at Grappolo Blu. Jim had pinci aliogli and sausage with beans. I had contadini zuppa ( delicious chick peas, cannolini, lentils, escarole, zucchini, all in a strong broth which could have been cinghiale broth) and guinea fowl with lemon and thyme - another winner. Maria Pia told us they sometimes cook fish for friends on Friday and that she would order some for us if we liked. We liked! We were stuffed from eating two large meals today and will limit ourselves to one as we usually do.

May 27, Thursday We decided to redo our efforts to see the frescoes at Monte Oliveto Maggiore and to hear the chanting as Sant' Antimo. This time we had the schedule in hand - straight from the TI here.

We had a leisurely coffee at the Caffe Fiaschetteria, then emailed the girls. Quick panini at Bar Maurizzio and we were off to repeat our route of yesterday.

We didn't mind repeating because just riding through this entrancing countryside is a joy. All shades and shapes of green covered the undulating hillsides. Tall Lebanon cedars in their deep , almost black green stood next to the pale dusty gray-green of olive trees while the new bright green leaves of chestnuts planted in rows lined the roadsides. The solid green of the wheat fields vied with the intermittent rows of vines, stretched tautly along the wires and reaching for the sun. Looking across the hills, we saw an elegant patchwork of monochromatic shades. Occasionally we would find a proud umbrella tree standing sentinel upon a small hill or maybe his trailing soldiers marching along the rim of the next hill. An ever fascinating sight, this country.

It was certainly worth our return. Yesterday I bought a book about the abbey that details the frescoes. Although I was able to translate some of the passages beneath the frescoes, the book really helped us understand the stories from his life. There are thirty-six frescoes, nine of which are by Signorelli and the rest by Il Sodoma. All are beautiful. This was one of the best art experiences from this trip.

We returned to Sant' Antimo as well and were rewarded with the voices of four monks whose music reverberated throughout that great stone church like a hundred angels. Another plus for repetition, we met up with the Belgian couple we'd enjoyed so much in Bevagna, caught up with our respective adventures since then and departed once again.

It's such a pleasure to sit under the big umbrellas of the Caffe Fiaschetteria during the afternoon passeggiata. Groups of women walk a few steps, stop to talk, then move on a few steps, meet someone else, stop to talk. They ebb and flow, group and regroup, young and old as the bambini smile in their perambulators or ride round and round their mother's legs on their tiny bicycles. I marvel that children can learn to ride at all here in this citta' of so few flat places. The older women still dress properly with hose and sensible heels, skirts and sweaters in subtle colors while the children and youth are riotous in their colors if not in their behavior. Small dramas play out all around us.

We met a young couple from Detroit, Jennifer and Tom DeMay who have fallen in love with Montalcino. We told them about Isabella's book and she is eager to begin reading it while she is here. From here they are going to Sorrento, another place I'm sure they'll fall in love with. As we were returning to the apartment we met Ilio Raffaelli and I was determined to thank him for his contributions to Montalcino. Without him Montalcino could have become a modern industrialized town like others around us. In my halting Italian I expressed my appreciation to him for his terms as mayor when he stood up for preserving the traditions of Montalcino. He was surprised by my approach, but seemed pleased.

Unable to resist a final night of ravioli and cinghiale, we returned again to Grappolo Blu. This time Jim tried the spicy pasta and loved it.

After dinner we walked up to Madonna del Soccorso to enjoy the view at night. We're a little sad because we know that tomorrow is our last day in Montalcino and we aren't ready to leave. There is still so much to soak in.

May 28, Friday Today was a day just to enjoy being in Montalcino. We practiced packing our bags with our nine bottles of wine. It works, just barely. We walked to the market just to enjoy the poeple who were enjoying each other. Mothers and grandmothers with babies in strollers and carriages - ooh 's and ah's and coo's emerged from all the females. The men gathered in groups and gesticulated wildly as they talked.

We met Kathy and Jim Thompson and decided to have our last lunch together at the Fiaschetteria. The tuna on foccacia was so good I had two! We walked up the street with them to look at their apartment. It was very nice - one and a half baths and best of all a balcony. We like our place very much, but the furniture is a bit low and soft for us. And the lighting is not good for reading. Maybe next time we'll change to their apartment, the Matteoti.

A marvelous thing - so like Montalcino. Late this afternoon our landlord, Signore Mulinari, knocked on our door, holding a 1992 Holiday magazine which he proffered to me explaining the Signore Rafaelli wanted me to see it because there was an article about Montalcino which included him. Now, there are two wonders about this. First, that he would trust a complete stranger with something that was obviously so precious to him and second, how in the world did he know who I was and how to find me? Only in Montalcino.

I rushed down to the newstand and photocopied the article then met Jim for our regular afternoon grappa and wine which turned into 1995 reserva grappa and 1997 reserva Brunello for which we were charged a paltry sum. I am amazed at how wonderfully we are treated by Italians.

We sat down expectantly at our reserved table at Grappolo Blu, eager for our special dinner. Luciano brought a wine menu but said that our meal was chosen by Maria Pia. We began with antipasto of marinated octopus and squid along with the tiniest clams I've ever seen - marvelous. This was followed by the most delicious spaghetti with clam sauce in the world. Those same tiny clams, the most delicately flavored sauce of olive oil, butter, and parsley. It shames my efforts for our Christmas clam sauce. Finally Luciano brought a white fish baked in olive oil and herbs and a potato gratin. Since we are so ignorant about white wine, he chose one for us. To my surprise I really enjoyed it, but failed to get the name from the label because I was so engrossed in the meal.

A last walk down via Mazzini and then to bed.

May 29, Saturday Up early, returned the magazine to Signore Mulinari and he gifted us with a bottle of olive oil made by his family. Coffee and pastries at Fiaschetteria then off to drive as far as we could before exhaustion set in.

Our second serendipitous event occurred when traffic came to a standstill just before the Gotthard Tunnel. For twenty minutes our tires barely rolled over, making less than a kilometer. It was evident there was a crash or a breakdown in the tunnel. Since the tunnel is so long, we knew it could be hours, so when we realized we were at the exit for Gotthard Pass, we exited and drove up, up, up a corkscrew road to the most thrilling landscape yet. We felt as if we were on top of the world. Snow was piled up beside the road as high as 30 feet! We stopped at the crest to gaze at the magnificence of the Alps and also to peek at the traffic standstill down below. In about forty minutes we were back on the highway on our way again.

On and on we drove through all of Switzerland and into Germany. We were beginning to lose sight of the fact that we were in Montalcino just this morning. By the time we passed Freiberg some ten hours from Montalcino, we were bleary-eyed and realizing we should stop.

Thus our third serendipitous event. We exited toward a little town named Teningen, know nothing except that it was the nearest town to the autobahn. A large, old-fashioned restaurant loomed on the left at the town's only stoplight, so we stopped for beer and information. The helpful barkeep drew us beers and directed us to the Gastehaus Sonne, just around the corner. The Sonne was a gem - clean room, sparkling linens, firm beds, solace to our tired bones.

After checking, in we walked back to the Gasthous Krone for dinner - a massive treat. Mixed grill of lamb, beef and pork served with great fries and best of all, haricots beans and brussel sprouts barely bigger than a pea. We complimented the cook extensively and he insisted that we have a strange sweet red liqueur with his compliments. When Jim demurred, the barkeep brought him a brandy. Somehow we were able to waddle back to our room and to bed.

May 30, Sunday After a stupendous buffet breakfast we were on the road again. An uneventful roadtrip brought us to Frankfurt by noon and, wonder of wonders, we had to make only one circle around the airport before we were able to find a hotel, the Steigenbergen, just 2-3 minutes from the terminal. Turned in Harry Houdini and returned to the hotel bar for a beer and a sandwich.

Rather than go into Frankfort since it was raining again, we shuttled over to the terminal and walked around to get our exercise.

Dinner was at the traditional German restaurant right outside the hote, very good. At dinner, we met a young man from Charlotte, Steve Bosley, over there on business. He took the same flight home as us.

May 31, Monday Easiest transatlantic flight we've had. Don't know why, exactly. We didn't have bulkhead seats, but we were seated together on a two seater row. Arrived in Charlotte on time to find Paige and Mark waiting for us.

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