La Bella Toscana: Exploring Cultural Italy
by SUSAN KOSTRZEWA
We descend into the darkened depths of the crypt, where legions of 8th century columns cast eerie shadows across a stone floor. A hush envelops the room, compounding its otherworldliness.
A whispering monk approaches, his delicate demeanor harmonizing with the serenity of the ancient chamber. While pious parishioners shuffle to their seats in the church above, he asks from whence we've come. A smile lights his face when we tell him America, as he recently studied there. We wait politely for his impressions.
On a Roll
The demure brother then launches into a series of one-liners slick enough to put Seinfeld out of business, whether it's imitating the sheepish nuns with whom he studied or repeating the salty results of botched Italian-English translations. Suddenly, the dimly-lit crypt feels like a New York nightclub. Our stifled laughter is further fueled by his periodic exclamations of distress. "I have to go play the organ," he sighs. "But just one more!"
Tuscany has surprised us again.
Traveling on a recent, 11-day journey through the hill towns of the idyllic region, my husband, in-laws and I willingly received tutelage in how to live and laugh well, whether it was gazing at cypress-lined palazzi in the countryside, or sharing quips in trattorie with sassy servers. Always attentive, the Tuscans were presented a daunting task: how to teach a group of Americans to joyfully savor the small things in life.
Facets of Florence
Our exploration began in Florence, renowned for its 13th -15th century art as well as the myriad eccentrics who have thrived there throughout the ages. Though nearly six centuries have passed since Michelangelo strolled its winding streets and Lorenzo di Medici commissioned masterpieces with the wave of a manicured hand, Florence is still a city where past and present create an amazingly pleasant duet.
As we set out each day through the Oltrarno neighborhood in which we were lodged, an almost operatic humanity filled the air. Here, a sculptor whistled cheerfully as he put the finishing touch on his latest piece; there, a pair of young lovers cooed lustily over their morning cappuccino. Ahead, a gaggle of purposeful nuns loaded into a minivan, en route to save some souls. This sense of symmetry and balance, of equal parts laughter and reserve, pervaded throughout our trip.
Exploring the expansive piazzi and treasure-laden museums of the golden city, it was clear why Florentines have such a spring in their step. In a city where artists from Dante to Donatello are as routine as pasta and Pavarotti, beauty is a way of life. Though dignified, Florentines must silently exult over their luck; in fact, there's a good chance that Mona Lisa's smirk was her way of thumbing her nose at those who weren't born Italian.
Though reluctant to leave Florence, we were also eager to experience the rural Chianti and Val D'Orcia regions. The frenzied pace of life melted away as we passed peaceful farmhouses flanked with vineyards, and fields glowing yellow with blossoming mustard. Though decades shy of retirement age, I found myself desperately searching for a way to retreat to Chianti within moments of seeing it. That impulse, our guide Mariaelena laughingly explained, was typical of every tourist who visited the region.
A Tuscan Tableau
As we strolled through the ancient, cobblestoned streets of villages like Montalcino and Trequanda, we reveled in the relaxed pace for which Italy is famous. In tiny towns twisting up rock-strewn hillsides, age-old traditions continue impervious to time. The rich scent of prosciutto and pecorino cheese beckoned from shops at every turn, while nearby, the elderly town patriarchs admired pretty girls navigating the market. Were Roberto Benigni to coast by on a bicycle, his arms filled with flowers as he belted Puccini, we wouldn't have blinked an eye.
Despite its charmed veneer, Tuscany has seen hardship, too. Its centuries of achievement have been punctuated by the devastation of events from the plague to World War II. This created a fascinating backdrop for our exploration, as well.
Shadows of the Past
This heaven/heartbreak dichotomy was especially evident in cites like Siena, where 13th century buildings outnumber modern structures. With its narrow, sloped alleys ducking beneath weathered arches, and emblazoned flags of various contrada (neighborhoods) flapping above, the romance and danger of the medieval era is dramatically felt. Even the annual Palio horse race, a colorful festival where food and fun reign, doubles as a chance to settle centuries-old neighborhood scores.
Another facet of Tuscan history comes to light in the numerous Etruscan sites unearthed in recent years. Though historians have disputed the origin of the mysterious Etruscans for centuries, it is commonly accepted that they were a Mediterranean people who mixed with the resident Italic population in the 10th century B.C. Their technically and culturally advanced society remained distinct from the prevailing Greek and Roman cultures, but the Romans eventually wiped them out in the 3rd century B.C.
Interestingly, many believe the Etruscans, with their sophisticated lingual, medical and political capabilities, had more impact on modern culture than the Greeks or Romans did.
Our visits to spiritually-charged towns like Sovana and Sorano, situated near an Etruscan acropolis from the 3rd century B.C., seemed to validate this idea. A medieval village carved into a cliff, Sorano is slowly crumbling into the valley below, its nearly abandoned streets silent but for the sound of a howling, buffeting wind. Though residents of the town remain, nature is slowly reclaiming the rocky plateau. Below, Etruscan caves hollowed into the hill seem eternal, unchanging as the town goes through cycles of demise and rebirth.
While opulent cathedrals and ancient ruins fueled our intellect, Man and Woman cannot live on aesthetics alone. We also tasted the many celebrated wines of the region, such as Brunello di Montalcino, Nobile di Montepulciano, and Chianti Classico. Progressing from the days when Tuscany was known for its ubiquitous table reds, area vintners are experimenting with new varietals and methods, meshing their own traditions with those of France, Spain and the U.S. Once limited to the Sangiovese grape, Italian winemakers are now dabbling in blends including Cabernet sauvignon and Syrah. Tasting at Il Palagio and Fattoria del Colle wineries, we indulged in the triumphant fruits of their labor.
We were equally energized by the cuisine of the region, and our trip was as much defined by gastronomy as it was art. Food is a serious business in Tuscany, and there was no guilt associated with digging into a four- or five-course meal. Sumptuous desserts like tiramisu followed dishes like handmade gnocchi drenched in truffle-infused olive oil.
The Joy of La Cucina
Like a cheerleader, our guide would coax us on to the next dish, seducing us with a delicacy we hadn't tried, like crostini with liver paste or wild boar. According to her, nearly everything was a "digestive," including suspect liqueurs like grappa and vin santo (holy wine). Somehow, indulging in the divinely sweet vin santo seemed more sinful than sensible, but we nonetheless enjoyed the excess.
Obviously, the co-existence of decadence and divinity is nothing new to the Tuscans. Steeped in Catholicism, local life is anchored by piety and worship at every turn. Citizens learn the importance of family and church from an early age, and take their religion seriously. This is evidenced in the countless enshrined relics and images of Madonna and Child seen throughout the region.
The atmosphere was especially charged during our visit, which happened to be the two weeks before Easter. In Abbadia San Salvatore, we watched a religious procession re-enacting Christ's crucifixion shuffle down the town's main street. While children held colored lanterns and townspeople craned for a view, men dressed as ancient Romans led a laden and weary Jesus through the crowds, a somber drumbeat echoing in the silent night.
Of course, in typical Tuscan style, there were comedic interludes to our spiritual endeavors. This included characters such as the stand-up comic monk in Abbadia San Salvatore, and the reflective, chanting brothers of the St. Antimo Cistercian Abbey, who did a bang-up business of selling their CD's in the back of the church.
Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini once said, "There is no end. There is no beginning. There is only the infinite passion of life." For those who've experienced the joyful rhythms of Tuscany, it's easy to see why that romance translates into a lifelong affair.
The guided "Tuscan Hill Towns" tour also includes a cooking class at Antica Tenuta le Casacce, and an afternoon at the Bagni San Filippo thermal baths. Small groups travel by mini-van throughout the region, but a fair amount of walking is required. For more information, contact Overseas Adventure Travel; 800-955-1925; www.oattravel.com
Photo courtesy of Cristopher Crisp.