You’ll find part I of my Italy trip journal here.
Ancient stones beckon.
After a much shorter thrill ride into the Parma countryside, we arrived safely at their agriturismo. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, the Italian government encourages farmers to open their homes to tourists as hotels along with their normal farming operations (they have to keep working the land to keep their permit). The farmers get a nice tax break and travelers experience life in the country. Some are nothing more than finished barns, but this one has six small suites. As it is November, I am the only traveler, so have the whole guest area to myself.
The main house would most accurately be called a mansion. It is a large three-story stone building, the inside awash with brightly painted blue doors and vibrant art, along with weathered window frames and worn stone floors giving testimony of many who had passed through. Colorful pots line the stairways to the upper levels as they wind their way to the guest areas. My temporary home was built over 150 years ago and though damaged during the war, it has been extensively remodeled and is full of old charm. Looking down the hillside towards Quattro Castella, the vista opens to rolling meadows flecked with grey stones and ancient vines.
I barely had time to collapse on the bed for a few minutes before I was summoned to the kitchen to meet the grand matriarch of the family. She must be in her late 80s but spends most of her afternoons in a big commercial kitchen with huge wood counters, putting together the daily meals. Everything is done by hand, and I spent hours watching Nonna make pasta orecchiette as her daughter translated back and forth. There was something about sitting in that old kitchen with the afternoon sun streaming through the windows, puffs of warm air from the ovens, and two generations loving and cooking together, that suddenly made me forget all the troubles of the world. Soon I was up to my wrists in pasta dough, trying to duplicate the orecchiette “little ears,” managing to do a single, rather misshapen one in the amount of time it took Nonna to do five. She assures me that at my current rate, I’ll be just as good as she is by the time I am 90.
The home feels like a museum. One of the daughters, Allecra, gave me a tour and casually handed me little religious carvings to inspect that were hundreds of years old. We wandered into the main dining area with its huge stone fireplace, which seemed to be the main heat for the downstairs. A sturdy old wooden table stretches across the room, marked by a hundred years of gatherings, by my count it would easily hold 22 people. The room is lined with all kinds of memorabilia; dusty wine bottles, a large number of old corkscrews, medals, and citations. Eighty-pound wheels of Reggiano are stacked in a butler’s pantry; all stamped with the family crest and the official government seal. I am engulfed in gustatory heaven, and am being called to dinner!
The whole family gathered at the table. I don’t think this is an every-night thing and I’m not quite sure what the occasion is, except for my presence. Introductions were a blur, but I manage to remember the most important names. These generous people put food away like no one I have ever seen. Overflowing platters are carried out of the kitchen by the women, steaming with tigelle e gnocco fritto, pasta, pork, wild boar, and chicken. The scent of fennel hangs in the air with rosemary smoke. And the wine… good god, the wine… it never stops flowing. The flood started with a Lambrusco and went on and on. Everyone was drinking toasts to me, to their son in Sonoma Valley, to pregnancies, a new marriage, to life… Every time a toast is made we all drank and glasses were immediately refilled. I am still hung over from the day before, I am beginning to feel like I’ve stepped into the middle of a Fellini movie. I speak a little bit of Spanish and Italian, some Greek, and a small amount of French, and somehow my mind was mixing them all into one sentence. They kept looking at me like I’m some poor, addled American until I finally got too hammered to talk, and just sat there with a stupid grin. We finished with lovely old balsamic vinegar drizzled over aged prosciutto. At one point I strongly considered whether I could get away with crawling under the table and taking a short nap without anyone noticing.
The rest of the evening was a smear of time. Much of it was spent with the family seemingly arguing back and forth over what I should see while I am here; obviously, I will have no say in this and don’t dare to open my mouth. These lovely people are big on dramatic gestures, like overacting players, so I was happy just sitting, watching, and wondering what the next day would bring. Finally, the decisions were made. One day at the agriturismo, the next heading south: Montalcino to taste wine, Montepulciano to lunch with family members, and finally Cortona to the Museo Diocesano to see a work by Fra Angelico. As I understand it, the following day we will head west to Ferrara, Maranello, and the Duomo of Modena.
The next morning I was awakened early with breakfast in bed (served with a little bit too much attention by one of the sons whom I am starting to wonder about). Food? I haven’t even dried out enough to be hungover, and the eggs baked with a pearly grating of Parmigiana and home-cured bacon curled my toes as I lay on the four-poster looking at the early morning sun painting the fields in dappled beige. The room spinning, out of bed and showered, five of us squeezed into the little car and headed into the countryside.
I can now make a pretty good guess as to what time of year a block of Reggiano was started, simply by taste and texture. Maybe not every time, but I’m getting good at it. Some are much sweeter or more buttery than others, some slightly sharp. I think this is a fascinating example of terroir, but I’m told that the Italians are trying to standardize it, so the flavors will be consistent, which seems sad. The city of Parma is known for Parmigiano Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma. My kidnappers have made cheese for centuries and we spent the day at the beautiful family facility which uses a mixture of modern and centuries-old techniques. They have taken me through the process of making Reggiano from start to finish. One room is filled with copper vats that are almost the size of our car, the air hot and milky. I helped move heavy blocks of cheese from one bath to another as they were being processed and scrubbed and brined. The sons easily swing aging wheels from rack to rack and laugh when I suggest it would be easier to roll them like tires. A knock on the rind sings an aria to them, the music playing a tale of aging. I want to crawl into one of the troughs used to float the cheese and soak out last night’s wine from my body, but they have other plans. Later in the afternoon, we taste multiple Parmigiano-Reggiano, matching it with different wines, and of course some very old balsamic vinegar – we are after all just outside of Modena, where the world’s finest is made. I am a fan – known for sipping it right out of the bottle, so to me, this is heaven. Fortunately, the evening closed with a simple meal of fall greens, prosciutto, more cheese, and leftovers packed along from the previous night’s dinner.
Most of these small towns are fairly close together, at least the way Italians drive. My hosts seem to know everyone wherever they go, so I am constantly introduced to more people – and I’m still trying to remember the names of this family! Now I just point, smile, and try to keep up. I find my Italian is getting better and I’m now able to understand everyone fairly well. Just don’t ask me to speak it back, as they all laugh, mouths hidden behind clasped hands.
Montepulciano is a medieval and Renaissance hill town, high on a hill in Tuscany.
It is encircled by walls and fortifications; a wonderful place to explore with lots of tiny medieval alleyways and Renaissance churches and I’d like to spend more time here. Today the town was quiet; they tell me I timed my trip well; that November is the only time of year to visit without being overwhelmed by tourists. A cousin has a little restaurant on the square, and when he heard I like to cook, gave me a tour of a tiny kitchen and then served steaming plates of food warming us from inside out. We started with the local vino nobile di Montepulciano, or “the king of all wines.” Multiple courses followed: pork, winter greens, custard… there is a huge black truffle of which I cannot imagine the cost, as it is the size of a child’s fist. Everyone keeps grating it onto things – wonderful on the yellow eggy pasta. I’ve had so much fine food I’m starting to crave a burger. We zoomed past a Mcdonald’s today and I found myself having inappropriate fantasies about French fries.
After lunch, we walked around the town. Long and skinny, it stretches lazily across a ridge, with lots of chilly clambering up a long winding street called the Corso. The stones lead us up into the main square, or Piazza Grande, at the top of the hill. In July there is Cantiere Internazionale d’Arte, an arts festival created by the German composer Hans Werner Henze. In August there are two festivals: the Bruscello, when hordes of actors reenact scenes from the town’s turbulent history, and the Bravio delle Botti, on the last Sunday in August, when there is a parade through the streets followed by a barrel race and a banquet to end the day.
Our explorations were followed by a visit to a great enoteca inside a 14th-century Fortezza at the edge of town, where more wine was consumed, fortunately, followed by more walking. This area reminds me of California wine country: very hilly, and the locals of Poliziani are obsessed with wine and food. It seems everyone has bottles of vino nobile under their stairs. The only problem with these hilltop towns is they catch the full brunt of the wind and it was quite cool and showery. Still, I thought I’m in love and would like to spend more time here, but this has become my “cruise ship” version of Italy; I am told we must keep moving. Soon we are whizzing down more winding roads to Montalcino. I can’t keep the people straight, and now they are throwing in all these towns with similar names! Wine, cheese, food, Fiat, Italian, woosh, zoom – my mind is mush, and it will take me months to recover.
The road wound through olive groves, and before we reached the town, we parked our car in Castelnuovo dell’Abate and walked down to the abbey of Sant’Antimo, a local’s trick to save the hefty parking fee. The abbey was built in 1118, and you don’t have to be a catholic to remain spellbound by the wonderful Romanesque temple; one of the finest in all of Tuscany. We walked through and listened to the French monks, a Gregorian chant bouncing off the walls and floating into the corners. Light streamed in through the windows, setting one of the alabaster carvings of Daniel in the Lion’s Den aglow. It was hauntingly beautiful, and I had to wander off for a few minutes to collect myself, once again running my hands across the travertine, thinking of all the people that had done the same in the last 889 years; the love, the happiness, the sorrow… history under my fingertips. I wished my feet were bare.
The next stop, Montalcino, is a walled town, high on a hill. As you approach on a dusty twisting road through the vineyards and a large fortress dominates the southern end. Spires of medieval towers sprout from the middle. Stone buildings hanging off the cliff make it look even more imposing. This is a no-cars city, so you park in a lot outside the walls – a fantastic idea that plunges you back in time. Entering, the city feels less intimidating and even older than Montepulciano. We ignored the touristy La Fortezza and instead wandered deeper into the city, following twisting stairs and alleyways until we arrived at the house of yet more cousins.
It seems every city in Italy has a signature wine, and here it is Brunello, which I really enjoy. This town is talking to my soul. Maybe I was just overwhelmed, but sitting in this tiny, incredibly old house, surrounded by happy people, the vino seemed fantastic. I could never be a wine buyer, as I’d get swept up in the spirit of things and end up importing bottles that were much less impressive at home in a Portland condominium. If it weren’t for all the walking, I would truly be nervous about getting back into the car, but I take some solace in knowing that I am well-padded by the ladies in the rear seat.
A bit more food and it was time for another cold walk. They took us up onto the walls for an unforgettable view of the valley below, lit in a patchwork of moving light from passing clouds. Standing in the wind, another memory was forged, a mental photo for future meditations.
The next day everyone was working and Nonna decided we didn’t have enough time to go to Cortona – I’m not sure I could have taken any more of the whirlwind tour, and am sure she wasn’t up to it. Instead, with a series of gestures and the lure of freshly baked bread and lumps of cheese, she talked me into driving – in Italy. I wasn’t even sure what side of the road I was supposed to be on, as it seemed like everyone just drove down the middle, so I prayed my way towards Firenze and the American Cemetery and Memorial just south of the city: 4,400 crisp white headstones laid out in perfect rows.
There were endless, perfectly maintained white marble crosses on that slope. Plaques, obviously written with great respect by the Italian people, about the heroism of young Americans so far from home. How many could have guessed they would end up here? All these men gave their lives for countries they had never seen, back in the days when Italy was truly foreign. I love exploring cemeteries, but here, so far from home, the enormity crashed down on me. We sat until dusk taking it all in, and I listened to her stories about when the war came to Italy, realizing how easy my life has been, how I’ve been gifted by the year I was born. She wanted to know if I had family who had fought in the war and thanks to my grandfather’s journals I was able to say yes, he was here but made it home. I didn’t get the full story but came to understand that at some point during the conflict, a group of American soldiers had saved her mother and helped evacuate the family, but were then killed themselves. Now Nonna comes every year to lay flowers; she says she will until she dies. I held her tight and as we walked along she placed seven pebbles on the top of headstones. “Are these the soldiers?” I asked. Her arms spread wide and I’m pretty sure she said that if she kept coming with her little white stones, eventually she’d hit the right ones. I stood quietly, gazing at row after row of marble, realizing perhaps, the reason this lovely woman had brought me into her home.