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Report 896: A Visit to Italy in Four Part Harmony: Southern Tuscany, Chianti, Liguria, and Piemonte

By B. DuPree from North Carolikna, Fall 2005

Trip Description: September 18-October 19, 2005

Destinations: Countries - Italy; Regions/Cities - Liguria, Piemonte, Tuscany

Categories: Hotels/B&Bs; Vacation Rentals; Foodie Trip; Garden Visits; Sightseeing; Independent Travel; 2 People

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Page 1 of 16: Montalcino September 19- 30

photo by B. DuPree

Parkkeeper in Montalcino with friend

A few years ago my husband, Jim, and I made a day-trip to Pienza and Montalcino from Siena. We went first to Pienza which we found to be clean, charming, scenic, and aromatic. We really enjoyed it. We had lunch there, then drove the beautiful winding Tuscan roads to Montalcino. As soon as we walked through the town to the Piazza del Popolo, we fell into a sort of spell. Jim said, "I love this village. Next time we'll have to stay here for at least a week". Last year we did just that - spent a week in which we left the walls of the town only twice. Between our first brief visit to Montalcino and our return week-long stay, both of us read Vanilla Beans and Brodo, Isabella Dusi's book detailing a year in the life of a Montalcino resident, but more importantly, describing the history of the town, its inhabitants, and its culture. Last year's experience of a week there only reinforced our need to spend more time. This year we scheduled twelve days of our month-long trip to Italy in Montalcino. I'm certain many people would think it insane to spend such an inordinate amount of a vacation trip in such a tiny village. It may well be, but in recalling just one day there, I think I'm figuring out just what makes me love Montalcino.

When I wake up early in the morning and slip out of the apartment quietly so as not to wake Jim, I walk only a few steps before I see the morning street cleaners sweeping the street with those long brush-brooms - such an old fashioned thing that works so well. I remember my grandmother sweeping her farmhouse yard with a brush-broom she had made herself.

Just around the corner in the tiny Piazza Cavour at the foot of Via Mazzini, a middle-aged gentleman dressed in a suit, tie and hat busily rakes the garden walkways in a garden designed by and maintained by the four quartieri of Montalcino. He's there every morning, raking, deadheading, watering and pruning, stopping only to chat with his friends.

I wave to the "alimentari lady" as I pass by her shop for the first of many times today. She's there seven days a week just as my Uncle Lloyd was there in his country store seven days a week for forty-five years. She remembers us from last year, and, despite the fact that Jim speaks almost no Italian, communicates with him somehow. Jim will be in later to select meats, cheeses, tomatoes and bread for our lunch.

Up at the top of Via Mazzini the street forks and I take the left for Bar alle Logge, our preferred breakfast bar. The smiling blonde lady whose name I never learn, but who remembers our order after the second morning hands me a cappuccino and a chocolate cornetto. Since the weather is a little brisk this morning, I head for the back room where the large window reveals the mist over the valley. Everything is in shades of gray. I attend to my breakfast and when I look up again I'm thrilled to see a hot air balloon floating over the hills.

Leaving the Bar I see Signor Ilio Raffaelli sitting at a table outside the Caffe Fiaschetteria. I met Signor Raffaelli who is described in Isabella's book, last year. Luckily I have brought with me a magazine I want to ask him about. In one of the National Geographic Traveler magazines earlier this year there was a picture of a man I had seen many times when we were in Montalcino last year. It was a terrific picture and I had saved the magazine to give to him. I approached Signor Raffaelli and showed him the picture. "Oh that's Bruno Cacelli," he said, "pensionato, eighty-three years old, and do you know what he's holding in his hands? Dolce. He loves dolce." Thank heavens for my Italian class in which I had worked so very hard.

On the way back to the apartment I meet Jim on his way to breakfast, so I join him for another cappuccino. The mist is beginning to dissipate. We talk about where we'll have dinner. Will we go back to L'Angolo (formerly Sciame) where I love the ravioli with butter and sage, the fried mixed veggies and most especially the panna cotta with berries? Jim really likes the cinghiale there and we like the smallness of the place, the "real" Italian atmosphere, and the friendliness of the frantically busy couple who run the place. Or will we return to Taverna Grappolo Blu where we both are crazy for the sausages with beans? We decide only that Jim will drop by the store at the near end of Piazza Garibaldi to buy the spiced olives we both crave to have with our lunch.

We separate and I browse the stores for a small backpack so I can carry glasses (quickly diminishing since I have already lost a pair of reading glasses), camera, and wallet all in one bag. At Si Stelli I find just the thing I'm looking for in a soft black leather with two outside zippers. I stop in to chat just a little with the lady at the scarf shop nearby with my limited Italian - just the weather, how I like the scarf I bought yesterday, etc.

I return to the apartment to read for a bit and have lunch. Sliced bread, prosciutto, fresh basil and buffalo mozzarella. We decide to eat at Grappolo Blu tonight and at L'Angolo tomorrow night.

While Jim naps (he still hasn't caught up on sleep lost on the journey) I take a walk. My goal is to walk every street of Montalcino this year. I walk slowly, not only because the streets are steep, but also to savor the views of the valley, the intricacies of the painted houses, a striking doorknocker, a sweet Madonna and Child high up on the corner of a house, a black and white cat staring out at the world from a barred window. I'm very lucky today: Borghetto quartiere is dedicating their new sede this weekend and they're working inside to prepare it so the doors are open. I peer inside and snap a quick photo of the flags they're hanging. Later in the week I will again have good fortune at the sede. The doors are open and no one is there! I quickly step inside the door and take a few pictures of the red and white costumes hanging in the display cases. They're beautiful.

Just as I get back to Via Mazzini I see Jim. He's delighted because he has just run into Mustafa, our friend from last year who waited tables at Caffe Fiaschetteria but who left when the Caffe ownership changed hands. Mustafa is now working at the Taverna dei Barbi on the Barbi wine estate a couple of kilometers from town. Jim assures him we'll be out there for lunch in a couple of days. We do go a few days later and enjoy our meal so much that we return for another lunch before we leave Montalcino.

I get back to the apartment in time to read and rest a little before the evening passeggiata, my favorite time of day in Montalcino. We stroll first to Bar alle Logge and sit at a table outside to watch the parade of Montalcinesi - young mothers with babies and toddlers in strollers hardly able to move down the street because passers-by are constantly stopping them to "ooh" and "aah" over the little ones; young boys playing hide and seek in the loggia of the commune building; older women strolling arm in arm, stopping to chat with other women or to oggle the babies, and always the woman who is so patiently escorting her elderly father down the street, step by tiny step. We chat with the old lady at the table next door. She speaks rapidly, but I am able to understand that she lives in Milan but has an apartment in Montalcino. Her Paraguayan nursemaid/companion is with her. She tells us she loves the quiet of this little town. We're startled by blaring horns and a police car leading two antique cars into the piazza. I have my camera handy and quickly snap a shot of one of them, a yellow convertible.

On other evenings we'll take the passeggiata by walking down to the garden at Piazza Cavour where the young girls play and their mothers and some fathers gossip on the benches. Then we walk up the hill along the wall behind Madonna del Soccorso where we see the same people each night sitting on the benches overlooking the valley or strolling along the western wall to see the sunset. Grandparents are pushing young children in the swings at the church playground. It seems everyone has his own favorite place at this special time of day.

Our dining companions at the table beside us at Grappolo Blu are a couple of men who are cycling through southern Tuscany to celebrate the 50th birthday of one of them. They're from San Francisco, so they're used to hills, but they are shocked by the difficulty of cycling for extended periods in the hills here. They are charmed by all of the small towns they've seen. Tomorrow they're going on to Siena to turn in their bikes, then train to Florence and home to San Francisco. They're interesting travelers and fine dining companions. We trade restaurant and wine suggestions. Tonight I have Maria Pia's lovely and delicious ravioli with tomatoes and basil and those fabulous sausages with white beans. Jim is thrilled with the pasta with the spicy sauce and his old favorite, cinghiale stew. We decide to drink Rosso since we've had a couple of glasses of Brunello earlier.

We've had a long day and a big dinner - too big even to go by Why Not, the best gelato shop in Montalcino for just one scoop of nocciola. The short walk to the apartment seems longer tonight and the bed enticing.

Favorite things in Montalcino: The Passeggiata - We enjoy it sitting in a sidewalk cafe or joining in on the walk. The Museum - a neat combination of medieval and modern art in a well designed display.

Stained Glass Windows in the Madonna del Soccorso - portraying the legend of the Madonna during the seige.

Walking - looking at the little things like arches over the street, elaborately painted houses like the one at the end of Piazza Garibaldi and of course enjoying the view of the valley.

Gelato - "Why Not" is the best and nocciola is the best at "Why Not".

Restaurants - not a nouvelle cuisine one inside the walls. All of them are authentic Italian.

Taverna del Grappolo Blu - very busy, very good. More "uptown" than L'Angolo.

L'Angolo - busy, tiny (9 tables) many dishes very good. Mom and Dad run it all sometimes with their four year old hanging on.

Il Moro - working man's cafe. few tourists. Great fun on the "boys night out" when a table of 10-men get together for dinner and laughter.

Il Grifo - the new boy on the block. Very attractive decor, good food, but poor service. Maybe they'll work the kinks out with time.

Fattoria dei Barbi - great atmosphere, very good food, excellent service - a couple of kilometers outside the walls.

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