CHAPTER 11 – ITALY – A SUMMER SPENT IN TUSCANY & BEYOND
In my earlier book of poetry, inspired by our visit to Greece, (please read in link on menu bar to http://collywolsmediterraneandreams.blogspot.com.au
so too did that magic Italian countryside and way of life, motivate my writing a book of poems, kindled by the beauty of the Tuscan surroundings, the sounds, and lazy earthy way of life.
We headed there in June 1998, with some delightful friends, to share in the ambiance of a few weeks spent in that most beautiful part of God’s world. I do not think, that the Italian people of that region really appreciate the majestic environs and total quietude in which they dwell. Also the life style, that they lead, in a most “lay back” epicurean manner, totally foreign to us, who “live in the fast lane” and allow our lives to be dictated by the second hand of the clock, and the demands of an ever increasing work-load placed upon us, most especially in the travel industry.
Before heading for Tuscany, friends Tom and Lola Bryant, John and I flew into Geneva, and spent our first week in Europe at Evian-les-Bains in France on Lake Geneva. This has to be one of the prettiest places in the world. We stayed at the charming old Continental Hotel built in 1868. Of an evening we would sit in the outdoor restaurant downstairs and be entertained by the restaurant owner’s son playing guitar and singing very loudly with much bravado.
We went there to follow our son Adam at the golf as Adam was caddying for English lady golfer Trish Johnson. It is a treat to walk around this golf course perched on the side of a huge mountain looking out to the lake. It is the greenest green there, very picturesque and the bird sounds are quite something, they are as crisp and clear as is the lakeside air.
Evian is a pretty little village perched on the lakeside. Please tell people they do not have to be golf pro’s to come here, but just to enjoy the scenery. There is ‘Evian’ water spilling out of the cliffs and roadsides for free, just fill up your containers.
From here we travelled across the lake to Lausanne where we caught the train down through the Italian border travelling by the glorious Swiss Alps, the scenery was magnificent to Lake Como where we stayed a few nights. This is a particularly beautiful part of the world.
We stayed at the Albergo Terminus Hotel right at the end of the lake and right at Lake Como town which is charming to walk around. It has a lovely Cathedral too the Duomo di Como. We were dining in the church forecourt when sung mass was heard from the loud speakers, so we went in to witness a lovely service, with beautiful singing and then they took the patron saint St. Abbondio with his red slippers, out of the Cathedral on a stand out into the streets as a processional. It was very entertaining.
We took a boat right up the Lake stopping at all the lovely villages along the way Menaggio, Bellano, Bellagio all picture book places on the deepest oily green water of the lake. The light on the lake is something else, almost indescribable, so soft a little like in Venice.
From Lake Como, back on the train again to Milano, where we visited that most glorious Cathedral, which when you go inside the pillars are so huge, bigger than grain silos, you just stand in awe at the magnitude and size of the place. It is the fifth largest cathedral in the world. I just stood with my mouth open going “Oh, myGod” over and over which I guess is not at all remiss considering where I was.
Then train from Milan to Santa Margherita station where John and I caught a taxi 20 metres to our hotel! We did not realize our hotel The Continental Santa Margherita was so close to the stazione. Santa Margherita is a gorgeou little seaside town and not far from Portofino where Lola and Tom stayed at the charming little boutique Piccolo Hotel.
A funny thing happened when we went to have dinner that night at a lovely Portofino restaurant, we sat down awaiting service from the well dressed waiters who just waved us away because they were watching Italy play in the World Soccer Cup match. So we had to sit and wait till the football match finished.
Then when we got to our Villa and Italy was playing in the quarter final against France, you could hear from out in our orchard garden whenever Italy scored a goal because loud yells of approval would erupt and echo from one tiny village to the next like a domino’s effect. Then when Italy was beaten by France in a penalty shoot-out, there really was an eruption. The Italians get so excited about their soccer especially World Cup.
We trained it from Santa Margherita to Florence, past the leaning tower of Pisa which you can just see from the train. When we got to Florence we picked up a hire car to drive down to our lovely Tuscan Villa and friends already there.
Deciding, on the right villa to stay in Tuscany, is no easy task, most especially for a Libran. But, luck was on our side, because all declared our “Villa La Forra” just heavenly. So the set was chosen, and if any film director was to have prepared a cast for the ensuing week, he could not have chosen better, than the two Austrians, one Spanish and six Australians.
The script was ad lib, art direction from cinematographer John, setting magnifico and “Much ado about nothing” turned into “Much ado about Something”, and with the back drop of the Valdarno valley, we were “Stealing Beauty” and we turned Fellini’s 8 1/2 into a 10. This score of 10 carried through to the bellisimo Italian women, whom all of our menfolk declared head-turners, with their bella figura and flare and distinctive features, and just fine the way they promenade around the piazzas of a summer evening.
The cuisine was really special too, with the help of our delightful Tuscan cook Nada, although we did delve into some Italian specialities ourselves, having stocked up suitably with pastas, and pane, and burro, and uovo, latte, caffe, suchero, herbs, pomodoro, prosciutto, mozzarella etc. There is nothing elementary about an Italian “Alimentari” where you can purchase the best selection of produce possible. The fruit and vegetables are so fresh and flavoursome, not like our artificially ripened counterparts in Australia.
One evening Tom decided he would cook pork chops for our dinner at the Villa, so having purchased a decanter of Chianti Classico wine lunchtime and consuming it all he disappeared to the kitchen to cook them, put them in the oven and sat watching them cook (supposedly). John came in a few hours later and asked Tom how was dinner going, Tom replied ” bloody beautiful, smells great”, John looked in the oven and said funny that Tom you haven’t even turned the oven on yet!
We partook in late, lazy brunches on the patio which was surrounded by the lushest greens, and overgrown with an ancient wisteria. This was approached through red-louvred doors leading off the bedrooms. Long walks were taken along deserted country roads, dodging Brier bushes with magnificent views of the valley, and charming little villages to explore. The village of Montogonzi nearby, just delightful with its central square and church and bell tower pronouncing every hour to the inhabitants of the surrounding area.
To write poetry there, one just needed to sit quietly and listen to the surrounding sounds that emitted from the peaceful countryside, thereto issues forth inspiration. The very olive trees have a tale to tell, as do the darting fire flies that flit from vine to vine of a balmy evening, as do the ancient walls and stones that once saw Italian armies march by these Etruscan cities.
One delightful evening spent, was, when asked to attend a wedding in the Fattoria’s ristorante as villa guests, thus appropriately attired, and quite resplendent in dark suits and suitable outfits, all descended to the designated spot at the designated hour, completely bewildered by the lack of sposa e sposo and confetti and other wedding effects.
It was only after a seemingly precocious young man in a white robe cut and distributed pieces of the “wedding cake” that we realized it was a “first communion” cake and celebration, not a wedding. We made conversation with relations, not understanding one word of their vocabulary, they not understanding one word of ours, but all got on very well with much body language being offered, and total understanding.
If you ever thought stuffed zucchini flowers would present a beautiful meal, you have to dine at Ristorante Vignale at Radda in Chianti to believe the succulence of this and other dishes presented there, all of course highlighted with fine Chianti wines, truffles. Tuscan food, quite sumptuous and appealing is an integral part of a visit to Tuscany.
We visited Umbria, and witnessed flag throwing in the lovely village pageant and jousting tournament at Arezzo, then on to lovely Gubbio.
“OUR VILLA “LA FORRA”
Our Tuscan Villa is unique,
‘Has glorious views from peak to peak.
Across a valley wide and blue,
Boasting a most glorious view.
It’s smoky hazy, every morn,
Heralding a brilliant orange dawn,
Then as the sun rises to the summit
Glorious shadows under trees plummet.
Each lazy afternoon recalls,
The joys of morning, as locals pause
For siesta, to rest and ponder,
Sun, now starts to sink o’er yonder
Now back to dusk and toil,
Cutting hay and tilling soil,
Sunset lights the air with hues,
Translucent mauve and hazy blues.
All of this behind closed shutter,
Cool, cool air, leaves a flutter.
Thoughts of love, of summer’s past,
Hearts together, alone at last.
Then as stars and lights appear,
A moon arises, bright and clear,
Darting lights all through the vast,
Endearing fire-flies evening cast.
Endearing fire-flies indeed, a nice way to end our Villa La Forra stay, on our last night, after consuming quite a bit of Chianti Classico we headed for the swimming pool via the vineyard, and could not believe our eyes as our white slacks and clothing were flashing on and off white-yellow lights, we thought we had been invaded by tiny Martians or some horrible phenomenon, until one ‘bright spark’ determined they were fireflies up our pants legs as were all through the vineyard too. Very funny. None of us had ever seen these little beetles spreading their bioluminescence before, which is evidentally all part of their mating game…… and up my slacks legs too, indeed. Anyway they are quite magical and special little beings, a bit like angels.
Next morning it was very sad to break up such a beautiful party and fun week by everyone going different directions. John and I stayed on for a week on our own missing everyone, but enjoying at the same time the special solitude of the place, perfect for composing poetry.
A few years back we were sad to learn that our friend Robert that we shared such a wonderful time in Tuscany with had died of pancriatic cancer, and so I think it fitting that we have a Dedication to him see below
DEDICATION TO ROBERT LOESCH
Our friend Roberto lived life to the very fullest. He was such a bright personality, and I can still see him in his Jag cap, on our Tuscan villa holiday.
He lived every day to its very fullest. Had a wonderful work ethic, and knew how to enjoy the niceties of life. And even in the last few months of his life, thanks to his darling wife Marie caring for him with such dignity, love and care, he died in their own home surrounded by love within the walls of their lovely Elizabeth Bay apartment that Rob loved so much.
Marie, we admire you so much for the way you cared for Rob to the end. Also what a wonderful “send-off” you gave him. One he would have smiled down on and appreciated. It was so thoughtfully, and tastefully arranged in that wonderful Darlinghurst Road church, with the music he loved.
We know Rob’s spirit lives on, and we all hold many fabulous memories of him, always with a smile on his face and enjoying what he was doing. He really did have ‘joie de vivre’
RED LOUVRED DOORS
This poem dedicated to the memory of Robert Loesch and written in the room that Rob and Marie shared at Villa La Forra after they had left to go home, so their spirits were still swirling around the villa.
Behind red louvered doors in Tuscany,
Creative juices flowed,
Memorable time spent uncanny,
As fireflys at evening glowed.
Bon friends joined now, forever,
Sharing food and wine,
Amongst the greenest greens, greener,
In the midst of fruit filled vine.
Partaking in languid repasts
Of Chianti’s bountiful fare,
Tasting different breakfasts
Titivating palates, alive aware.
Missing missing, loved ones missing,
Tears the soul apart,
Sweet ecstasy of lips a-kissing,
Affairs of the heart.
Colleen Woodward ©
And so then it was off to another adventure, we headed to the train station at Firenze to pick up our next Tuscan guests Peter and Sue Davidson.
Villa Paradiso was our next Villa experience where we spent a delightful week with Sue and Peter after Villa La Forra. From the swimming pool here we looked up at the tall towers of San Gimignano which was within walking distance to this splendid walled medieval city. On arrival at this Villa we were pleasantly surprised to find the larder stocked with local wines for our consumption.
We were told by the owner just to drink the wine and put the empties outside the Villa and at the end of the week they would then be tallied up and accounted for. All of the wine was grown and made and bottle on this Agriturismo property by the owner a local Doctor at the San Gimignano hospital. Our Peter also a GP one morning spent it at the hospital with the owner which was a fantastic opportunity for him to see how things operated in rural Italy.
San Gimignano is one of the quaintest, magic places I have ever been to. Its cobbled streets winding through the tall towers leading to beautiful places and courtyards and churches. One of the most moving churches I have been in there ‘The Collegiate church of San Gimignano” quite stark on the outside, but inside embellished with the most fantastic paintings and frescoes. I did so want to attend a mass there which on attempting to enter the church I was turned back because my arms were not covered!
Another day we went up to the walled city to find them filming “Tea with Mussolini” starring Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Cher, Lily Tomlin, Joan Plowright, all right there in San Gimignano, film about life of director Franco Zeffirelli in the World War II years when the British had to leave their idealistic way of life in Italy because of the German occupation. The Piazza was strewn with sawdust and large boulders and all sorts of props for the filming. So that was interesting.
Each day we visited another portion of the Tuscan region, We discovered many lovely little villages like Certaldo. Spent a full day in Florence visiting Accadamia Statue of David, Uffizzi gallery, Duomo, Santa Croce church, and dinning.
We timed it just right to be in Sienna for the start of the annual Palio, and as we had arrived early had a front row position to view the horse race. Each horse draws straws from the different ‘Contrades’ in the vicinity of Siena, there is much pageantry and flag throwing and cheering. The winner scores a banner.
One day Peter decided he would like to take a swim in the Mediterranean as he had not previously done this, so off we drove to a seaside place called Cecina which was quite quaint, with little changing sheds on the stony beach.
After our swim John drove us up the coast to Pisa to see the leaning tower on the way back to our villa through Lucca and Montecatini Terme.
I think poor John was exhausted (see right snoozing in the Accademia) after all that driving around Tuscany, but he did not mind driving ‘on the wrong side of the road’ at all, but of course he had a very good navigator, although I nearly got ‘the sack’ a few times for a late call to take a right or left turn.
OUR GROUP ESCORTED TOUR TO ITALY
We took a lovely group to Italy. See above with our delightful Italian Tour guide BarBara who I quite by coincidence bumped into on a later trip to Rome escorting a friend Janet Sprigge, and Barbara gave me a free ride in Trafalgar coach to the airport to catch my flight, so we had a lovely catch-up.
In the group l. to r. Antero our Driver, Barbara, front Colleen, Viv and John Lowther, Ron and Gloria Campie, middle row McMonigals, Bennetts, Bev and her two daughters Luisa Simms, Gail Blowes (our most faithful group person, on all our groups, (thankyou Gail) John, back rowe two lovely ladies from Adelaide Jan and Sue friends of my friend Doone from Zonta (who should have come along but could not make it) Georgie & Col Ron & Ada Finnimore
John left a week earlier than me and stayed with 10 other people at a villa near Firenze visiting places in the area before the remainder total 22 joined them back in Rome where we did all the sites such as Spanish Steps, the brilliant circular Pantheon, We threw 3 coins in the fountain. Visited Piazza Navona with its ‘Fountain of the Four Rivers’, (I love the atmosphere in Piazza Navona, and have loved it since I first went there in early 1990 with my friend Deb from Insight Tours on my first educational to Europe.
We visited St. Peters Basilica with its magnificent sculpture, the Piêta, which is now behind bullet proof glass as a tourist had attempted to take a hammer to the Michelangelo sculpture, we also saw the Sistine chapel painted by Michelangelo, the Vatican Museums are always a must on any itinerary to Rome, as the wealth and splendour of the art collections here have to be seen to be believed.
On my Insight tour we travelled down the ancient Appian way to climb down into the Christian Catacombs, not to be taken by the faint hearted as the tunnels are very claustrophobic, and skulls and bones of early Christians are scattered all over the place.
We drove past the Roman baths, visited the Colosseum (where I pinched a little piece of the wall, wondering if only that piece could talk, what had it seen back in the days of early Christians being down-trodden and chastised and put to death in most horrific means by the Roman soldiers, for their faith in Christ.
We took a full day trip to the outskirts of Rome over the Seven Hills to Tivoli gardens which were vast and superb. The planning of these gardens is simply phenomenal, and means of reticulating water and waterfalls throughout the property throughout centuries is one of the wonders of the world.
We then headed for the Amalfi coast, and scenic drive on to Positano, where we stayed at the weirdest hotel ever experienced at Sorrento called the Grand Hotel La Sonrisa overly ornate, it has to be seen to be believed.
All that glitters really is gold, see the bathroom photo (right). The hotel is a renovated villa dating back to the 1700s in the Campania region near the town of Sant’Antonio Abate at the foot of the Lattari mountains. The brochure says it was designed to cater for the elite, well that is great because it means we are now elite! It has a heliport, in fact a couple were flown in to be married whilst there. So if ever you want a holiday with a real difference, go stay there.
We were taken on a visit for lunch to a local lemon farm. Well it was not just lemons they had every conceivable thing growing there under foot and overhead on trellises. Our lunch consisted of home made Mozzarella (see below photo of Maria in the making) bread, home grown tomatoes, egg fruit, etc, salami, olive oil grown and pressed on their small farm, and followed by a very potent limoncello also made at the farm.
We caught a ferry to lovely Capri from the port at Naples for the day to see the famous blue caves. There is a very pretty little village perched right at the top of Capri with exclusive shopping, you take an escalator ride from the bottom to the top.
Then to Pompei, where our guide pointed out all the points of interest at length. Romans took control of Pompeii around 200 BC and on August 24, 79 AD, Vesuvius erupted, burying the town of Pompeii in ash and soot, killing 20,000 people, and preserving the city in its state from that fateful day. My photo below looks like Vesuvius is erupting again!
The roadways fascinated me with their speed bumps in the sunken roads to slow down carriages and also doubly used as stepping stones for pedestrians to cross the waterways which doubled as drains for water and for waste.
Trust the Romans to have the water problems all solved. There are also smooth tracks for the carriages to follow for a smoother ride, and also our guide told us all the local carriages had standard size wheels, so if invaders were to come in with wider wheels they would not get down these ruts in the streets. Amazing. The pavements are higher than the drains for a good reason. Early Romans thought of it all.
We then turned north to stay at Assisi a most beautiful place perched on the slopes of Mt. Subasio to take in the Cathedral and ambiance accordingly revering St. Francis. This is the pilgrimage place for many Christians. The Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi is magnificent, started in the year 1228. It comprises two churches the upper in Gothic style and lower and a crypt where St. Francis remains are interred. Both the upper and lower churches are beautifully decorated with frescoes mainly by Giotto, that are outstandingly vivid and beautiful, especially those pertaining to Francis love of nature. My photo below shows very clearly the upper entrance and lower entrance.
It has to be one of the most beautifully decorated anywhere in the world apart from the Cathedral at Ravenna and Church at San Gimignano. Both churches are very spiritually moving, and when we went down into the crypt there was a mass being said which was also very moving.
Assisi itself is a charming little town to walk around. We also went into the Basilica of St. Clare, a follower of St. Francis, who started her mission to the poor ladies, the interior of the church was being restored. I purchased a little booklet there pertinent to St. Francis, his “Canticles to the Sun” which I personally love as a form of praise summing up everything necessary to life and existence.
ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI CANTICLES TO THE SUN
Most High, all-powerful, good Lord,
Yours are the praises, the glory, and the honor, and all blessing,
To You alone, Most High, do they belong,
and no human is worthy to mention Your name.
Praised be You, my Lord, with all Your creatures,
especially Sir Brother Sun,
Who is the day and through whom You give us light.
And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendor;
and bears a likeness of You, Most High One.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars,
in heaven You formed them clear and precious and beautiful.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
and through the air, cloudy and serene, and every kind of weather,
through whom You give sustenance to Your creatures.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water,
who is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom You light the night,
and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong.
Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Mother Earth,
who sustains and governs us,
and who produces various fruit with colored flowers and herbs.
Praised be You, my Lord, through those who give pardon for Your love,
and bear infirmity and tribulation.
Blessed are those who endure in peace
for by You, Most High, shall they be crowned.
Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whom no one living can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin.
Blessed are those whom death will find in Your most holy will,
for the second death shall do them no harm.
Praise and bless my Lord and give Him thanks
and serve Him with great humility.
When in Assisi, 4kms away, it is imperative you visit Patriachal Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels which houses within it the ornate Chapel of the Porziuncola , This was the Church that Francis and devotees repaired, and virtually lived in. Legend says Francis loved this spot more than any other in the world. It was here that he began his religious life in a very small way, and it was here that he died. Also at this place is a rose garden, where the roses have no thorns (still centuries on) because it was said that when St. Francis wanted to punish himself for temptation he would throw himself onto a thorny brier, which changed miraculously into a thorn less rose bush.
From there to Ravenna, visiting the cathedral, the Basilica Di S.Apollinare in Classe. When a tour guide says we have to stop to see this Cathedral, you hear all the sighs and “not agains” from the back of the bus, but once the complainers got inside this amazing church to see the mosaics is just ‘mind blowing’. You cannot begin to imagine how much work has gone into the laying of these millions of mosaics in the most startling bright and true to life colours.
Then not much distance to Venice, for one night, this time staying over at the Lido which was really different. Whilst in Venice we walked around St Mark’s square, visited the Cathedral, saw the Bridge of Sighs and Doge’s Palace, of course all did a gondola cruise up the grand canal. a day trip to Murano to see them making the vivid colours of Murano glass and then to Burano where we had a memorable lunch, Burano with its pastel coloured houses a must when in Venice.
The photo (above) of the spectacular octagonal shaped Basilica Santa Maria della Salute is one of the most photographed churches in Venice, including mine. The Baroque church, built in 17th century in thanks for the end of the plague, sits on the Grand Canal in the Dorsoduro neighborhood and is visible from the entrance to Piazza San Marco. The steps leading to the entrance are made of white Istrian stone and more than 100 figures adorn the church’s buttresses. There is a festival held on November 21, each year, and a temporary bridge is built across the Grand Canal and Venetians walk across it to the church. That would be a buzz to do.
From Venice we travelled to Verona, the home of Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers, to admire the Roman arena and Juliet’s balcony. Cross the plains of Lombardy to Milan for a walking tour of this fashionable city with your Local Guide. We saw the Gothic Duomo, with its columns as big as grain silos, walked through the Galleria to the famous La Scala Opera house.
We stayed at Baveno Lake Maggiore for a night right on the lake and partaking of a very well presented meal in elegant surroundings. Next morning we took a scenic boat ride on the lake to a strange island called Isola Bella with its stunning Baroque Palace owned by the Borromeo family, surrounded by lavish Italian gardens and statues and buildings of unimaginable splendour. Just a little over the top you might say.
Then down to Montecatini Terme a spa region near Florence seeing the leaning tower of Pisa before returning to Rome. We had a full day in Florence to see Duomo, Baptistry gates, Signoria Square, Ponte Vecchio, Statue of David etc.
We had been to Italy several other times on visits so ended up covering just about every square inch of that beautiful country.