“Benvenuti, benvenuti! Che bella famiglia! I am so happy you are here! I have been waiting for you!” exuded Nadia, welcoming us to her home in Tuscany as though we were long lost family returned to the motherland. We arrived at the old restored mill, MulinMaria, just outside of Arezzo late in the afternoon, and the drive down the arcing dirt road, dotted with cypresses, foretold the long wait to get here would all be worthwhile. The sun illuminated the stone mill with a golden glow as warm and welcoming as Nadia. Showing their age, century-old olive trees bent like invalid sentinels guarding a castle: squat and craggy with thick skins and glinting silver leaves like the grey hairs of Lorenzo who tended to them daily throughout our stay. It was exactly as one imagines Tuscany might look and we could not have chosen a better place to begin our Italian experience.
As if it couldn’t have possibly gotten any better, we arrived just as a spring heat wave passed through and the days were sunny with crystal clear blue skies reaching the high 20s. We needed absolutely no plans or outings to fill our days. Taking long walks and exploring the surrounding fields provided endless pleasure, and drinking amazing wine and eating simple meals of cured meats, olives, bread and cheeses al fresco never grew tired.
One such afternoon, as we were transitioning from afternoon snack to evening dinner, we met Santina on our patio veranda. As we came out to set the table for dinner, we found Oscar and Stella looking up silently at her as she spoke freely in Italian to them. Squat and craggy herself, Santina lives at the top of the hill and makes a daily trek to the cemetery to pay respects to her husband. Upon seeing us, she began articulating and gesticulating her Italian toward us, to which we sheepishly admitted (in English) that we did not speak Italian. Undeterred, Santina continued apace, alternately bemused and sometimes disgusted that we did not speak her tongue. We shook our heads and looked as confused as we could to better convey our lack of the lingo, but Santina wasn’t having any of it. Realizing she was not to be stopped, we offered her a glass of wine (at least we spoke that language). She joined us at the table, holding the glass of wine by the stem whilst carrying on for another ten minutes, at which point she coiffed the glass down in one go and said, “Arrivederci!” Our everlasting regret is that we never got a photo.
Stella and Oscar were in paradise here, free to be kids again. They built a tent outside and spent hours playing in it and in the stream and the surrounding olive fields. Hearing their ecstatic voices as they made new discoveries was made even better as their volume was dulled by the breeze and the spacious surroundings. Children and open spaces, as always, are a perfect equation.
Spring in Italy is spectacular. Besides the obvious fact that you avoid the intense heat of the summer months, the wild poppy fields are reason enough to visit in April and May. Why have we never heard of ‘Poppyland’, as deemed by Oscar and Stella?
The Leaning Piazza of Arezzo
Pisa ain’t got nothing on Arezzo, with its charming, slanted piazza that continues to sink each year. It was one of the locations where ‘Life is Beautiful’ was filmed and it aptly matches the film’s title. Its monthly antique market fills the streets with incredible treasures making you wish you had empty suitcases worth of space to bring things home.
In the hills of Arezzo we experienced a brilliant private wine tour at Antico Podere di Pomaio. So successful in fact that we left with a selection of 18 bottles of their wines! As we sampled the wines, Oscar and Stella sampled the selections of honeys and were equally happy to take home several different varieties.
Greve in Chianti
From Arezzo we travelled into the heart of Chianti. Driving the snaking narrow roads edged by endless fields of flowering yellow rapeseed plants provided incredible vistas in every direction.
Another beautifully restored mill, Casa Carlotta, was home for the next two weeks and again magical. Warm and cosy, it was beaming with light and space and filled with quaint ‘antiques’ including cassette tapes, CD’s, and vinyl (almost all classical), VCR tapes, and a collection of tasteful art and books reflecting the owner’s best kept curation. All this made what was a beautiful house a home, which we thoroughly enjoyed. Surprises here included many english children’s books, including Roald Dahl’s ‘Matilda’ (which Oscar and Dad read twice in our stay), a visit from Jerry, and the flood gates opening (we assume it had to be more than just a night’s rain) transforming the trickling stream flowing underneath our rooms to a coursing waterfall.
Moving on to spend a week in Lucca, we were forced to drive our car into the centro storico of town to drop our bags off before returning it. Driving in an old quarter is like threading a needle, an endeavour the Italians do with surgical precision. They know their cars within an inch of every surface and it is insane how they maneuver so skillfully through what appears to be nowhere near enough space. Our precision tended more toward a pinball.
Lucca is an incredible Tuscan town surrounded by a massive 16th century wall atop which is now a walking, jogging and cycling path. The beautiful weather followed us and we spent days biking around in it — Pru strapped onto Mart in the Babybjorn and Oscar and Stella in tow on a caboose. Although we didn’t have the fields to run through, the lane ways and piazzas provided an equally fun arena for racing and playing about. Our apartment faced piazza dell’anfiteatro, the ancient gladiator amphitheater with stone columns and archways still visible — very cool. I’d never tire of strolling through Lucca’s picturesque streets or cycling its ramparts. Absolutely beautiful.
From Piazzas to Pizzas
Our quest for the perfect pizza is being enthusiastically perpetuated by all. To date we have not had one meal in a restaurant without pizza when it was an available option. Rating crusts, tomato sauces and toppings are providing endless opportunities for precise culinary articulation. The front runner is hotly debated. Mara Meo in Lucca and the only restaurant in Ponte Agli Stolli (not sure if it even has a name) are the front runners. Pru proves to be the least discerning critic and loves it all. Oscar, the harshest, will call the slightest amount of excess olive oil and won’t even consider deep dish as being in the pizza family. As for pasta, we had the best pasta of our lives at the first restaurant we ordered it, in between Arezzo and Cortona. The penne arrabiata, spaghetti bolognaise and ravioli with sage and butter sauce makes our mouths salivate just thinking about it. It makes the search for a worthy equivalent difficult indeed — a predicament none of us seem too upset to be in.
As the food tasting progresses so does the wine sampling. Chianti Rufinas and Montalcinos are our clear favourites. The brunellos are tempting us. What varieties await us in Venice?
From our bases near Arezzo and Greve in Chianti, we made several side trips to a variety of Tuscan towns:
Viva Italia – a phrase so clearly understood since arriving. There have been high expectations of Italy from the very start of our travels. Early in the trip on days with limited and lack luster food choices we’d salivate over the idea of pasta and pizza possibilities to be eaten in Italy. When space was cramped we described the open fields of Tuscany that we hoped the kids could run free in. When beer and wine could not be found we’d remind ourselves that exploring Chianti was in our future. Oh Italy, you have not failed us. It is as much and more than we ever imagined it might be. These nine weeks are sure to be heavenly.