From the culture and art of Florence to the fine wines of the Chianti region, as far back as the Etruscans and the Romans, Tuscany has been a long time in the making. Toscana in Italian, regarded by many as the birthplace of the Renaissance, it is a region in central Italy with a population of close to 4 million. With a western coastline on the Tyrrhenian Sea it consists of nearly 9,000 square miles of primarily hilly countryside. We had wanted to spend time there since a whirlwind tour on a Mediterranean cruise introduced us to the wonder of Tuscany many years ago.
We have had great success finding the best places when left to our own devices, no reservations. It’s always paid off for us but as 4 PM approached we began to worry because nothing had yet piqued our interest. Deciding to drive up the next laneway we found our gold mine. Casafrassi – how could we resist a name like that? It is an albergo agriturisma azienda agricola. Huh??! In a nutshell, it is an 18th century country residence on a working vineyard and you can’t help but be taken back in time as you walk the peaceful grounds. I was totally in awe as I realized that I was in Chianti where some of the best wine in the world was made.
This place was so wonderful that we found it quite easy to ignore that the woman who greeted us was a bit of a snot. She led us up a few stairs and showed us a tiny room, likely a servant’s quarters on the original estate. We have learned through many years of travelling that you should not accept the first room shown to you because they often believe (and rightly so) that people will accept the first thing they’re shown so they can dump the lower class rooms early and charge a higher price as people come in and are shown the nicer rooms later. Speaking politely to Madame Snoticus got us a beautiful room with a huge terrace overlooking the panoramic Tuscan valley.
Casafrassi is a photographer’s dream come true. An ancient villa dating back to early 900 it is set against a landscape of gardens and surrounded by vineyards and olive groves. The exposed beams and terracotta floors in the room made us feel like we had indeed achieved our own little piece of paradise. It was at Casafrassi that I learned the Chianti wine I had been drinking for years, thinking it a good one, was merely table wine and if you wanted the true Chianti you must look for the black rooster emblem. Anyone can use the name Chianti but only the black rooster identifies Chianti Classico. I have never considered myself even close to a connoisseur – guess this pretty much proves it.
The following day driving in Tuscany was a pure joy. The local people seemed to be exceedingly tolerant of annoying tourists such as myself stopping without warning to take photo after photo. It was difficult to control as we headed through rolling hills, hair pin turns and miles upon miles of vineyards. In a never ending search for the perfect picture of Tuscany I failed. All I wanted was a hill with vineyards from top to bottom (found that), a lane lined with tall cypresses (found that), and a rustic Tuscan dwelling (found that); I just didn’t find them all in one shot.
The hills got bigger, the turns got hairier and our perfect Tuscan day continued. We were navigating with a combination of maps, GPS and our common sense – yeah, that’s gonna help for sure. Even with all this we still needed to stop and ask directions. As we neared Nusenna we passed a road that seemed to me to be the one we wanted. I’m not sure if we had the GPS on at the time or not, we turned it off occasionally when it told us to make two consecutive u turns or to turn in a direction that I disagreed with. Please note, the GPS is usually right. Well, we arrived at Nusenna which I knew from the map was too far, so back to where I thought we should have turned. Deep in the heart of Tuscany is not where you will find people who speak and understand English, so when Karen asked for directions to Pienza I guess that sounded enough like Siena to – well you can guess what happened.
That meant another stop for directions so Karen walked toward a bar to ask. A man stepped out of a car and spoke to her. Karen indicated “No capice Italiano.”
A second man in another car chimed in with a British accent, “I speak English.”
“Great, do you know how to get to Pienza?”
We did figure it out and arrived in Pienza around 4:30 PM. A Renaissance town in central Italy, Pienza was rebuilt from a village called Corsignano, the birthplace of Pope Pius II. I found it very odd that with the exception of a few people no one spoke any English; hotels, stores, restaurants, nothing. The guide book I had warned that Pienza’s nightlife was almost non-existent. We took a walk to the Duomo after dinner, around 9 PM, and I kind of wondered how the term “almost” fit in. The alleys were deserted and we were the only ones walking. It was totally dark but adequately lit so we felt reasonably safe.
It never ceases to amaze me what I learn when I travel. Who would have ever believed it would be difficult to find a corkscrew in Italy? Amazing given that we were in the country that pretty much invented wine. We had fortunately been tipped off by our waitress at breakfast, the only English speaking person in all of Pienza, where to look which turned out to be a very good thing because our pantomiming “Aperto Vino” wasn’t getting us anywhere. When all else fails the holiday pantomime will work and I soon cradled my treasure in my hands, stored it in my carry-on luggage and immediately had it confiscated as we boarded the flight home.
Much more by this author – and links to buy his book – on his own website.
Copyright © 2015 Eric Whitehead