In May of 1996, I went to Tuscany and Umbria with a friend, a vintner friend at that. Needless to say, vineyards and wine were big on our indulgence list while traveling there. I flew to Milan to meet him, we rented a car and drove to Tuscany. For the next two weeks, we toodled up and down the wonderful, windy roads throughout the countryside. It was a feast for the eye and soul. The light, the colors, the settings along with the wine and food were spectacular.
We had made no real, solid plans of where to go nor places to stay. It was a spontaneous affair at its best. Every morning we would consult the map, and decide where to go. We would stop at every vineyard that looked inviting, stop at every beautiful setting that commanded a photograph for a future painting and stop when we got hungry, and thirsty, at whatever little place looked promising for a good meal and good local wine. Of course, it is hard to have a bad meal in Italy.
At every little restaurant where we stopped for lunch along our route, the waitress would walk over to our table with carafes of the local white, red and rose wine, place them on the table with several short, bistro glasses along with the menus, welcome us and start reeling off the specials of the day. That was soon followed by a basket of warm Italian bread accompanied by olive oil, balsamic vinegar and herbs. I was in heaven.
Around 4 pm each day, we would start to look for a place to stay the night. Some places were quaint, little hotels in villages, and on several occasions we found real gems, two of which I recall vividly. It was late in the day when we stumbled across the first one. A big, orange, glowing Tuscan sun was setting behind us when we passed a sign on the left of the road that said “La Saracina.” It appeared to be a B & B so we turned round, and headed up a long, tree lined driveway to an exquisite setting. Big willow trees were turning shades of lime green, and irises in every color decorated the landscape in every direction. We successfully secured a room as well as an incredible meal in an old renovated barn, where we dined and conversed with fellow travelers.
We headed to Umbria, specifically to the village of Durata, a well known town for its pottery. The streets were lined with nothing but signs for pottery shops, and it was overwhelming. We spent an entire day here, putting together pottery collections to ship back to the states. At one point, I was sitting on the floor in a shop surrounded by stacks and stacks of plates trying to decide which ones I wanted from all the piles. We asked one of the pottery shop owners about a place to stay the night, and she referred us to the village of Armenzano. She gave us directions to a B & B she described as magical, tucked away in the hills outside this old, medieval village. And magical it was, so much so, that we stayed for three days there enjoying long walks in the olive groves, vineyards and consuming bowls of raspberry risotto.
Everything in Italy is old, from the churches to the medieval villages situated on hillsides to the traditions.
The sense of ancient endurance is both impressive and mysterious. But what I loved most about Italy, besides the wine, food, vineyards and pottery, was the subtle embodiment in the hearts of the people for the “dulce vita“, the sweet life. Their language and conversations were full of expressions supporting the true art of life, their love for ” l’arte d’arrangiarsi“, the art of making something out of nothing. Unlike most Americans, driven by success and victims of stress, the Italians savored “bel far niente“, the beauty of doing nothing. It was common for an Italian to stop whatever work they were doing, and drop right in to a conversation with you over a glass of wine. The moment, and living it, was important and had meaning.