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Report 881: A Slow Trip to Italy for a Mother and Daughter

By stella from Brooklyn, New York, Fall 2005

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Page 5 of 16: Are Those Hills or Mountains?

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The view from Vignamaggio

Raging insomniac that I am, I woke up at 2:30 am and could not fall back asleep. On top of that, my romantic rendezvous with the stars out the open window resulted in carnage from what must have been a very hungry mosquito; it snacked with abandon on my arms and legs. I finally fell back asleep, conveniently, at 6:30 am, and Mom shook me awake at 7:45. Not a lot of time to get ready, and four hours of sleep would make for a groggy day. I felt like I was back in New York.

We left the apartment a bit early and made a trip to the Bancomat to get some cash; by the time we got back, I spotted Luca and his van at the other end of the Piazza. He was as sweet as he sounded on the phone, and exuded a nice, warm vibe. We piled Mom into the van and off we went. Once again, the day started out with gray skies, but patches of blue broke through the clouds the sun would make an appearance any minute.

We crossed the Ponte alla Grazie and wound our way through the Oltrarno to the Porta San Frediano gate, exiting the heart of Florence. After passing through the outskirts of the city, we hit the highway for a brief moment and then turned onto a smaller, secondary road. Luca was taking us down the scenic 222, sometimes called the “cypress road,” into the heart of the Chianti region. On the way, he explained everything we were seeing and we discussed the recent grape harvest. He was utterly charming and very, very smart.

Our first stop was at the castle on the estate of Vignamaggio, the birthplace of Mona Lisa. A terraced courtyard overlooked a spectacular vista, with the sun breaking out of the clouds and hitting the hills, creating a play of shadows and light. The castle had a beautiful Italian garden that we wandered in, and even though the property is private, we were able to step into the inner courtyard; off to the side was the tiny and serene family chapel. Luca explained the differences between English, French and Italian gardens to Mom, who used to enjoy gardening in years past.

After that brief stop, we headed for the little picture-perfect medieval village of Montefioralle. This is the one place we visited that had a bit of a steep climb, Mom handled it well with some assistance, despite my initial concern. We wandered through the winding, cobbled streets with stone buildings that date back to the 13th century. It was so quiet, our voices echoed off the stones. The entire village was filled with flowering window boxes. It was sweet and so and teeny-tiny; not even a single store, yet people still live there.

Back onto the 222, I realized how lucky I was to be visiting this time of year. The grapes had been harvested, the vines turning vibrant shades of gold and red; the trees were turning as well, ambers, oranges and scarlet, all against a lush backdrop of green. The sun burned through the fog and the roads were relatively empty.

A side note about the hills: they seemed more like mountains. I cannot believe how high our minivan climbed, up steep, narrow, winding roads. If I had been driving, I would have been white-knuckled, paralyzed with fear. I was glad that Luca was behind the wheel.

Next we visited the famous Chianti Classico town of Greve in Chianti. Greve is in a valley rather than on top of a hill, and has a charming main square lined with enotecas and shops. We took a quick break to enjoy a cappuccino at a bar, and strolled around the square, window-shopping; Luca then piled us back into the van. The sun was now fully out, the sky was blue with a few drifting gray clouds, and the air was slightly nippy; it had turned into a perfect fall day.

The next stop was Radda in Chianti. Unlike Greve, Radda is a hill town, and we climbed another winding, narrow road to reach it. Mom decided to admire the view and visit a ceramics and antique shop, located in a former ice-house that was literally carved out of the hillside. Luca walked me into the center of Radda and showed me around briefly. We then met back up with Mom, and we both made a few purchases at the wonderful little shop.

Back into the van and down the winding hillside, through a valley and then back up a steep hill to Panzano in Chianti. I was excited to pass through Panzano, perched, high, high, high atop a hill overlooking a deep valley. We didn't stop, but I did catch a glimpse of the famous macelleria, or butcher shop of Dario Cecchini, the poet butcher of Panzano.

I didn’t think we could climb any higher, but we did, to reach the tiny hamlet and wine-producing estate of Volpaia. The entire village consists a few buildings, most of them are part of the Castello di Volpaia. The views were once again outstanding, and the village was nearly deserted.

Luca announced that we would have our lunch there at La Bottega, a restaurant housed in a former church. Inside was a series of small rooms with rustic tables and fireplaces; the sun shone through the old, shuttered windows. Our meal was just wonderful. I had to sample a carafina of Chianti Classico di Volpaia, of course. I started with radicchio tossed with cubes of soft, Tuscan pecorino, dressed with Tuscan olive oil and a drizzle of aceto balsamico. Mom had grilled eggplant, drenched in more of that delicious olive oil and fresh herbs. We both had fresh porcini next; Mom selected a hearty porcini soup and I had handmade tagliatelle with sautéed porcini. It was unbelievable how intensely flavored those mushrooms were; both dishes tasted like autumn in Italy. We ended with a crumbly, simple cake that would have been great with some Vin Santo, but since I was sleep-deprived, I decided against it, a decision I instantly regretted.

Our tour ended with a stop in Castellina in Chianti, another village perched high atop a hill. We stopped in La Castellina, the enoteca of the Squarcialupi estate, and I picked up some Chianti Classico Riserva, a bottle of olio nuovo, and a bottle of simple white Vino di Tavola. Mom stopped in the tiny frutta e verdura to get some vegetables for dinner, while Luca showed me the village’s castle. I think of all our stops, Castellina may just be my favorite. It had just enough little shops to take care of one's basic needs, and the houses and apartments seemed sweet and homey.

The ride back to Florence was quicker, since Luca took the autostrada. I was enchanted by what I saw today, and Luca felt more like a friend than a guide by the end of our time together. We promised to keep in touch and said our goodbyes. It had been a wonderful day, and well worth the time and effort. Chianti was nothing like I expected it to be, despite all of the trip reports and books I have read, and lunch at La Bottega was one of our best meals of the entire trip. I took a picture of my mother, smiling wide, in her new little hat, that I knew was destined for copies and frames for my brother and sister.

We made a quick dinner of pasta and some roasted sausages, and I literally passed out on my bed. It was quite possible that the blasting heat my mother requires for her comfort was making me loopy.

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