Friday, January 27, 2012

Day Trip To Montalcino

  It's been a couple of weeks since I've posted something new. As we get closer to our travel date, I've been busy doing the checklists. Between work, walks, laundry, shopping, bills, etc., we are finding moments to get all giddy about being back in Italy soon. 
  What we love to do, of course, is go over what we did last year, and what we want to do this year. One of our day trips last year was to Montalcino, in Tuscany. We wanted to do some Brunello tasting, and maybe even buy some to send home. We did, and it was a fab day. I love a good day trip. Get up early, grab a cappuccino at Bar Gallo, and head out. 
  We had been to Montalcino before, but really wanted to go back. The day we chose was a beauty, with just enough clouds to make the sky magic. To get there, we went by Montepulciano, Pienza, and San Quirico d'Orcia. This would be along the SS146 to the SR2, two of the most classic and beautiful roads you will ever want to drive. Stunning scenery through out, with rows of Italian Cypress, Umbrella Pines, ruins of old farmhouses to die for, and hill towns perched in the distance. If you have a calendar of Tuscany, you have at least one picture from this area.

A perfect Umbrella Pine

Tuscan Landscape in all it's glory. Well, at least it's late winter glory!
(I do love me some good cloud shadows.)
  We like to stop at the little turn outs along the way, just to breathe in the air and see what we can see. Poor Johnny always drives, so he needs to get a break to look around.  Sometimes these stops will turn into a painting session, and I'll take a walk along the road, scoping out wild flowers, or taking photos. Or both.

Little wild euphorbias I spied on one of our breaks along the road. Once I started looking,
 I saw that they were everywhere. So sweet!

The much photographed Capella di Vitaletta, a scene along the SS146.

  We mosey along to Montalcino, tummies beginning to growl for lunch. Parking was a breeze, being off season and all. We parked below the Fortezza, in a big lot with a machine that took coins for a ticket. No problem. Once we hiked it up the hill, we were at the backside of the impressive Fortezza. The views from the ramparts are spectacular, giving you the birds eye of town. Also, great wine tasting in the cantina.

Fun to climb up the rickety wooden stairs to get to the top of the ramparts.

Town views from the ramparts. I love the colors of all the tile roofs.

Another view of the roof tops. I like the "tumbling down the hill" look of it.
  After our first trip to Italy, when we spent time there with my folks, I couldn't get enough of the "travel memoir" books that featured Italy. Two of my favorites take place in Montalcino. They are both by expat Isabella Dusi. She writes about the trials and tribulations of becoming part of a small Italian community. She also does much public outreach and education on restoration projects in Montalcino.
  What I really enjoy about her books is the attention she places on the history of the region, and the generations of families that have worked the land. She respects the reality that most locals have roots that go back hundreds of years. There isn't a lot of sugar coating... it was hard for her and her husband to be accepted into everyday village life. She gives the reader a nice look at day to day life in a small Italian that swells with thousands of tourists at certain times of the year.  I also got a much deeper understanding of the pride that these villages have for their "contrade". Most towns have several completely separate contrade, or neighborhoods, each with it's own church, flag, and community gathering space. You can see flags flying the colors in each different contrada. It's a big deal, and there are age old rivalries that become paramount during festivals featuring various contests.
  If you love to read about this sort of thing, check these books out. The books can be found on Amazon, for sure. I actually bought them both in Siena one year. ("Vanilla Beans & Brodo" is the first, "Bel Vino" is the second)

Nice view that really lets you know you are in a "hill town".

Flying the colors of this particular "contrada". There are four in Montalcino.
   We had a wonderful lunch at Grappolo Blu, unfortunately the pictures came out less than appetizing.
I can tell you that I had a wonderful, rich pasta "cacio e' pepe" (pecorino cheese and lots of black pepper) and Johnny had polenta topped with a vegetable stew. We also enjoyed a mixed green salad, and a salad with apples and pecorino. We splurged on a half bottle of local Brunello. A perfect lunch.
  After lunch, it was off to taste Brunello to decide what we wanted to ship home. We chose a mixed case of three different varieties and vintages. Luxury? Yes, for sure. But we are so frugal most of the time, and I don't buy clothes or shoes..... I refuse to feel guilty! Anyway, it was a really fun experience, and isn't that what traveling is all about?
Brunello, here we come. I love the couple on the bench.

  After all that, we ended the afternoon driving down the way to the awesome Abbey of Sant'Antimo, a place I have wanted to visit for years. It was everything I hoped for, and will be featured soon in another post, I promise.
 Until then, so much to still get ready, though many things have been done. I'm very excited to see what Johnny paints this year. He keeps talking about "finding a new language", which sounds inspiring. We will have to wait and see.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Clouds In Spring

  As we look forward to soon being in Umbria again, I pour over photos, remembering days spent like they were yesterday. We spent many, many days just driving in the countryside, no place in particular to be going to. Other days, we would know just where we were headed. Funny, we don't ever do that here. Of course we aren't on vacation much here. Our days of leisure are generally not full of much leisure. Always, there are chores.... That's ok. We live in an area of divine beauty, and there are no complaints. Just not much time to do "nothing".
  I totally get it... this is a huge component of vacations, and why we love them so. The ever elusive leisure time. Sigh.
  We have been lucky to have had more gorgeous days than not on most of our trips. Sure, it was only 22 degrees last time we were in Paris, but man, was it beautiful... the dusting of snow on everything, and the hot drinks all the more delightful. Plus getting to wear our "Big Coats", and really meaning it. We've had rain, snow, wind, and hot, hot, hot days. But only in little bits, and it's all good.
  While in Umbria last spring, we were stunned by the clouds some days. I snapped shots from the car, driving along, or would have Johnny pull over to get even better shots. As the perpetual passenger, I am spoiled by all I get to see and enjoy. It's my job to make sure Johnny at least gets to enjoy the photos, if he's missed it all while behind the wheel. Thankfully the roads are mostly empty, and we can putt-putt along, at....  dare I say, our leisure?

I love the color of the hilltown against the blue sky.
Pretty sure that is Pienza, in Tuscany.

A classic drive-by shot. Near Porto.

Just a moment later...

No one around but us.

  We do love to take our little day trips, with the radio cranking out Italian Top 40, and the windows open just enough to let in all the smells of early spring. This can be anything from olive branches burning, to sweet grass, briny lake smell, or piggy stench. The warmth you only feel when driving in a car on a sunny day.... 

Fields planted with fave, to dig under later for extra nitrogen goodness in the soil.

Blue,White, Green, Grey. It works.

I'll take the house, and the car, too.

 The vibrant colors of both the sky and the hills knock me out. We had arrived when there wasn't much grass yet, and still snow on the far hills. As our trip went on, so did spring, and the electric green of the new grass. The deciduous trees didn't quite leaf out while we were there, but they had just started to. We did get to enjoy "Primavera", the first day of Spring. It coincided with all the wild red tulips going off in the olive groves. I had seen the red poppies before, but had not known about the tulips. A beautiful thing.

Fields starting to bust out in glorious green. 

Softness of the hills undulating.
  Living near the coast, we have a different take on late winter/early spring. The waves crash bigger, the smell of the dune plants are so herby and sweet. Not so much of the feel of farmland and fields. Though they are close by. I like it all, and hope I don't take any of it for granted. Watching the seasons change is one of life's best treats. Whether here, or there.

A parting shot of Heaven right here on Earth.