Our Tuscan hosts, Serena and Alessandro
Posted by David
You’ve heard about Tuscany before, people rave about the beautiful rolling hills, the vineyards, the long and sumptuous dinners with incredible wine and romantic sunsets. It’s chick flick and James Bond-cool rolled into one. It’s the Napa Valley of Italy and has been so since way before Napa was even napping. It’s gorgeous for sure and we wanted to experience every bit of it. We thought that at the two month point in our travels we would need a respite; a place to kick back, sleep, and enjoy a little peace and quiet after being on the go so many weeks in a row.
We had met a wonderful Italian family in England who were from Tuscany and they suggested that we book a stay at something called an agriturismo. They are working farms that have little houses for guests. They said it was a great and affordable way to see Tuscany. Sounded amazing and just what we needed.
I found several agriturismo spots and sent inquiries. We wanted something close enough to Florence so that we could make day trips, a place outside the hustle of the large city, and walking distance to a village. One called Podere Il Poggilio (owned by Serena and Alesandro) got back to me right away with incredible enthusiasm for their farm and some of the funniest use of the English language that I’d ever read. I was hooked and after showing it to Amy, we booked it for 10 days excited to pick grapes and olives and bake in the Tuscan sun.
After our stop in Casale Manferato to visit the Ottolenghis, we spent two wonderful nights in an incredible place near the town of Asti (also in Piedmonte) that was a centuries old church converted to top-notch hotel. On a Sunday morning, we left the comfort and ease of the hotel for our three-hour drive to Tuscany. In typical fashion, I had written down the address for the agriturismo and typed part of it into the GPS but never spoke directly to Serena, the owner, about the specifics of reaching her farm. The address was confusing as it had the postal area which was a town called Pontesieve but not a street number. We arrived near Pontesieve , the town we thought the farm was in, in the late afternoon. Italy is different about time on Sundays. They are basically shomer shabbos (observers of the Sabbath) and they take it more seriously than any hasid I’ve ever known. Stuff is closed, shut down, people are inside eating the Italian equivalent of chullent all day on Sunday. After sundown, people come out, shops open, and stuff comes alive. When we got to Pontesieve it was still Shabbos, and we were hopelessly lost. We had been on the road for more than three hours, the kids were hungry, we had no idea where we were going and the two or three people we found on the street spoke only Italian. You know the feeling. We passed the same signs no less than five times before stumbling on another agriturismo. I rang the bell and the woman spoke English. She thought she knew the place we were staying and pointed us in the general direction. We thought we were close but there weren’t any signs and we were losing hope. We saw a young couple with a baby on the street and asked one more time if they knew Podere Il Poggolio. The woman said she knew it and if we continued up the 8% grade for another 5KM along the snake-path-single-lane road on the edge of the mountain, we would see a small sign hidden behind a large tree pointing us to the farm. We climbed, and climbed and climbed some more. Clutch, brake, clutch, brake, clutch, brake. The kids were in the back throwing up, Amy was doubting we were going in the right direction when we saw the sign. It was about the size of a 3 x 5 index card, hand painted, black on black. We had finally arrived, it was late, we were exhausted and Serena, who was even more enthusiastic in person than she had been in the email, greeted us and showed us to our quarters. I was surprised that such an excitable woman wanted to hide her business from visitors.
Anyway, we woke up in the morning and went to breakfast in a common area that was beautifully positioned overlooking a valley and the town of Rufina. Serena and her husband were incredible people who, 15 years ago had “dropped out” of the fast lane, bought a farm and slowly turned it into a business producing wine, olive oil and providing accommodations for tourists. Serena often war a long white cotton dress that was classic Tuscan peasant. She spoke less with her mouth than with her entire body, arms in the air, torso back and forth, head bobbing up and down. The place was amazing but there were a few small things that made it a bit unusual.
First, we were at the top of an incredibly steep mountain with a single-track road that really required a 4 x4 and not the rental car we were driving. This was not a place to take a walk on a nice morning, for fear of a car or tractor coming up or down the mountain. There would literally be no place to stand to the side to let the traffic pass. And did I mention that like most rental cars in Europe, ours was a manual. Amy does not know how to drive a stick shift. This made Amy feel a bit trapped at the top of the mountain. Because we had requested a place to fit all of us, we were given an apartment that was a bit away from the other cabins on the farm. Our apartment was connected to two other apartments inhabited by true Tuscanos. Our next door neighbor, Paolo, Serena told us, was a true Tuscano farmer and that if we wanted to see ho w the Tuscans lived 150 years ago we should go inside his apartment. After seeing Paulo walking around with a Mussolini-era rifle slung over his naked shoulder going after some sort of white pheasant, I decided it was best to stay out of Paolo’s abode. Nonetheless, he was very pleasant and seemed un-phased by the loud North Americans constantly coming and going from the house with various Apple products in search of the perfect WiFi connection.
Next door to Paolo was an old Italian gal who enjoyed singing old Tuscan melodies while she hung her laundry out to dry. Between belting out these melodies, she called for her dog whom was fond of chasing two black cats up a large tree and then standing below the tree barking for hours on end.
In addition to being on top of the mountain and not knowing how to drive a car with a clutch, Amy and Rikki had terrible colds and felt miserable.
We had great excursions into Florence, Pisa, Lucca (the main supplier of toilet paper to Italy), and other great towns. We spent Erev Rosh Hashana at a beautiful baroque synagogue in Florence that was filled with Florentinian Jews and lots of travelers from all over the world, including a group of North American students that were studying abroad in Florence.
Serena and Alessandro were wonderful and their farm was amazing. In spite of being virtually unreachable by the majority of non-Tuscan tourists, it was a beautiful place. Our Tuscan summer was not as we had planned but we had fun and managed to stay alive driving up and down the mountain and staying next door to a rifle-wielding hunter.
Next stop, Rome!
Cannolis made by Rikki