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29 Nov


Tuscan paradise

November 29, 2014 | By |

One of the most adorable things Italians say is “why not?” Do you want to join for dinner? Pause… Why not?! We started to adopt that attitude in Tuscany, and it led to a completely amazing week. There was too much awesomeness for one blog post, so the second post on Tuscany will be following this one soon.

After our Bates-Motel-experience and changing our plans at the end of our time in Umbria, we decided to take the hint and go to a different area (why not?), and headed to the nearby region of Tuscany. We had frantically emailed several different hotels, self-sufficient apartments, and agriturismos (a trend of agricultural tourism accommodations throughout Italy) in Tuscany and hit an absolute stroke of luck.

Casa Moricciani & Cretaiole

It turns out that there was a last-minute cancellation at Casa Moricciani, and not only were we able to jump right in, but they were able to give us a discount for the last-minute booking. We were excited about the photos on their website, their rave reviews online, and their awesome and professional responses to our emails.

The Moricciani family owns and manages Casa Moricciani, (gorgeous self-sufficient apartments in the tiny village of Castelmuzio), Cretaiole (a more traditional agriturismo guesthouse nearby), and Podere San Gregorio (their active family farm). It’s all super lovely, and incredibly well-run, and we would recommend their properties in a heartbeat. Here are a couple of photos from the main agriturismo property at Cretaiole.

Their properties are owned and managed by Isabella and Carlo, who are an incredibly warm, lovely, and yet totally professional couple. Luciano, Carlo’s father, is also super involved, and lends a strong history to their operation. Their amazing sidekick on managing everything is Carlotta, who is knowledgeable, super amiable, and is still on top of everything. Somehow they have managed to ride the very fine line between managing everything as super-professionals but still maintaining the intimate family feel.

We totally lucked out that their two-bedroom unit in Casa Moricciani, called Primo Mobile on their website. It’s super gorgeous, has a huge kitchen (that we made plenty of use of), giant living room with fireplace, and two lovely bedrooms with their own bathrooms. Plus outside a lovely lawn with beautiful views over the valley, a fountain, and a picnic table with overhanging grapevines.

All in all, over-the-top decadence. Our shower had color changing LED lights… Why? Why not? And the preparation for our stay and daily maid service were exceptional – they did our laundry and brought it back tied with a bow and roses, and there were flowers in the toilet when we arrived.

The apartment was located in the village of Castelmuzio, which has 200 occupants and is superbly adorable. In about 8 minutes, you could walk the entirety of the village, and there is one bar/restaurant in the middle, which has remarkably good food.

And we had to take a photo of the rental car… which Mitch’s parents fell in love with.  Unfortunately, Renault doesn’t sell their cars in the U.S., so there have been some (only partially joking) conversations about buying one in Mexico and driving it up.  For added cuteness, the Italians pronounce the Renault Scenic as “Shanique!”

Obviously we need to pay tribute to the village cat. There is an elderly cat with a cataract (so we, of course, called her Cat-aract) who effectively lives on a park bench near the apartment. There were a few days where we wondered if she ever actually left the bench. But if you walk by, she wakes up to say hello, and if you sit down next to her, she gingerly crawls into your lap and starts purring. It seems that one of the ladies in the village feeds her, but she may just sleep outside. Poor little thing in the cold – we wanted to bring her into our bed, which would clearly have been frowned upon.

When we were registering, they recommended we sign up for their Dolce Vita package (literally, the sweet life, or the good life), which is absolutely worthwhile. It’s €100 per person for your entire stay – so it’s pricey, but just outrageous. When you arrive, they have an enormous, completely over-the-top spread of edibles… breads, cheeses, meats, eggs, jams, veggies, fruits, pastries, wine, etc., all from their farm, local and beautiful. I think the four of us ate about 3 or 4 meals just on what they left for us without having to purchase groceries.

Plus, every morning, Carlo would show up at our door with a breakfast treat. One of the best things that I have EVER eaten was a panna cotta with cooked grapes. Honestly, I have eaten a lot of amazing things in life, and my sense of enjoyment in life is very largely dictated by my taste buds… and this panna cotta was a home run.

The other great thing about their Dolce Vita package is that it allows you to join them (at no additional cost) for a ton of great activities that they set up and host for their guests. In addition, they have a bunch of activities that they set up that you can join in for an additional cost. We were really skeptical about joining group activities, but honestly, all of the ones that we joined were totally worthwhile. They were interesting, well-organized, gave us a great feeling for the area and the people, and didn’t feel like you were being shepherded along.

We would honestly suggest that anyone staying with them just do any and all activities that they recommend, which is extra easy since they do an orientation meeting each week where they run through the full list of the week’s activities. And if you want to do something that’s not listed, the chances are that it’s detailed in a super comprehensive book they leave in the guest rooms, which have daytrip itineraries, suggestions, and directions easily laid out for you. And if it’s not there (or even if it is), they will help you brainstorm and figure out so you can do exactly whatever you want. Just outrageously good service by the family.

Farm tour at Podere San Gregorio

Carlo follows in his father Luciano’s footsteps in running the family farm, San Gregorio, which is literally a 2-minute walk outside of the adorable town of Pienza. (Bonus, whenever you want to go into Pienza, you can just park your car at the farm.)

We did a morning tour of their farm, where they follow the Italian model of self-sufficiency… which means that in addition to producing fruits, veggies, and eggs, their farm also produces prosciutto, olive oil, wine, and cheese. Obviously.

The farm is relatively low-tech, and Carlotta explained to us that obsolete techniques were in use here just 30 years ago – and apparently electricity only reached this area 40-50 years ago. For example, there used to be an issue with harvesting on slopes because the slope tractor would actually roll out.

It was also interesting to hear their take on global warming (although they never said that specifically). Apparently the past several years the weather has been unpredictable for the first time in generations. Or, as Carlotta put it, “even Luciano couldn’t predict” the weather, which has led to a crisis in crops and harvests.

And there have been many different issues affecting the crops in the past few years. This year, as we mentioned in the Umbria blog post, there was a big issue with flies that caused most of the region to not harvest olives. And a year ago the winter was too warm to kill the mice, which consequently destroyed a lot of crops. And going back even farther (to when it was still predictable), in 1985 the olives died from the cold, which is why many of the trees in this region (as well as in Umbria, for example at Pianciano) are about 25 years old now.

On a more positive note, the farm tour ended with a tasting, which was great… olive oil, truffle oil, wine, cheese, and we even broke our vegetarianism to taste the prosciutto made here on the farm.

Also, it’s worth noting that the farmhouse is made of Pienza stone, which is apparently a thing. And some of the other stone walls that they showed us nearby are made of volcanic limestone from the area (and from nearby Siena) that has been exposed to volcanoes over the years. Have you ever wondered where the color name “Burnt Siena” comes from? Bob Ross and his happy little trees may have introduced it into daily vocabulary, but here you get to understand where it really comes from.

Pici Dinner

Each Thursday night, the family puts on a big dinner at Cretaiole for all of the guests. Isabella taught us all how to make pici, which is the local Tuscan pasta – when we were in Umbria, we were in the area known for strangozzi, here in this part of Tuscany, the important pasta is called pici.

We feasted on pici and pigs from the farm (the two of us just tasted a bit of the pig, but it was beautiful). Then Luciano shared his grappa and vin santo (a dessert wine from almost-raisins that is fermented anaerobically for 3 years) around the table. It was super fun and impressive that they put this on every single week!

Around Pienza and the Hermitage Tour

Carlo and Isabella own a piece of land with a really interesting old hermitage, so Carlotta leads a tour talking about the area, some of the different altars and churches, and the hermitage itself. Carlotta is super knowledgeable about art, history, and culture (all closely linked here).

As we walked there, Carlotta gave us a lot of interesting background on the Val d’Orcia (or Valdorcia), the part of Tuscany that we are in now. Looking out from the hillsides, we saw gorgeous views of the valley, mostly farmland dotted with some rocky or forested outcrops and villages up on the hills in the distance. Both the Val d’Orcia and Pienza are world heritage sites, so they cannot change much externally.

But looking back over time, the land was originally all forested and bouldered. But the rock floor was moved and cleared by hand centuries ago, resulting in the beautiful rolling agricultural hills that Tuscany is now known for. Each of the major crops of the area has very specific soil needs, and so Duram wheat, olives, and vineyards all grow close to each other, but only on the soil that is ideal for each crop. But until very recently, the land was still farmed by sharecroppers in the nouveau slavery style. It’s interesting when you think about this history combined with the fact that electricity was only introduced to this area 40-50 years ago.

But culture runs strong and traditions are hard to change here. The competition between towns, cities, and regions is fierce and generations-old. Carlotta told one story about how competition between towns resulted in one town calling the people from the other town “bean-eaters,” who then retaliate after football games by dumping truckloads of fava beans on roadways, consequently cutting off all through traffic.

Carlotta also talked about the role of the (Catholic) church in Italy and the region. The church still owns 30% of land in Italy, and there is a long history of preferential treatment for the priestly caste (for lack of a better word). White bread was originally made just for them, and the “priest bite” of the chicken is the best piece, and there is a history of – as Carlotta described it – priests with big bellies presiding over the funerals of children who died of starvation.

We went to a couple of “alternative” chapels and churches. There was a Plebeian church, built by common people (instead of artisans), which means that the craftsmanship is limited but it is super beautiful and endearing. The watch tower dates back to the 8th or 9th century (!) and the lintel (a word we learned in Myanmar for the stonework or woodwork over the doorway) and décor have imagery of mermaids, birthing women, and women dancing. Apparently the Etruscans were a much more joyful and gender-equal culture than the Romans, which led to many cultural differences even before the Romans took them over.

At one old privately-owned little shrine, we learned that in this area in particular there is a focus on the “milking Madonna,” a near-Pagan cult of the Virgin Mary that focuses on the role of the feminine through depictions of Mary breast-feeding baby Jesus. Apparently until a few years ago (when Carlo bought the land it’s on), it was literally piled chest-deep in trash – with this incredible super-old religious art buried underneath.

The hermitage itself was an incredible experience. Carlo had purchased th property when it was being used as a barn to store animals, and it has been his pet project to restore and excavate it (with no professional help), and he has given his findings to local museums and gotten some more scholarly perspective on what he’s seeing from visiting university groups.

It had theoretically been in use for some 4,000 years from cave men to the 1700s (according to some sources, abandoned in 1744), and there are stories that many people (from Pope Pius 2nd to many current older adults) used to come here to play as kids.

It seems there is a medieval level (during which time monks apparently had to apply for permits to become hermits) and an Etruscan level with Etruscan tombs under that. There is also a grave from Father Luca in the 1300s with an inscription telling people not to pray for him because one day you/we will be like me (the Buddhists would love that teaching of impermanence from the grave!), as well as a fascinating carving of a woman giving birth.

Artisan Tour in and around Pienza

They offered an “artisan tour” around Pienza, which we were a bit dubious about because – to be honest, artisan tours are usually a waste of time. This one was actually phenomenal. It was just a few stops, most of which were in walking distance.

It started with Linda Bai’s ceramic shop. Linda was super friendly, as an adorable personality, and she demo’ed the entire process and painted a dish while we watched.

In the back room of her shop is an 11th century Etruscan cave room that her grandfather or some such had bought for the family home… it’s kind of awesome and totally trippy. It has an 18m well in the cave, which Linda still uses for water for her plants, and a tunnel to the church, because apparently at some point in history, priests could pop up in different parts of the town and appear to have magical powers.

The next stop was a shoemaker, who was making shoes by hand and had some really neat products ranging from traditional to workboots to modern little booties. He makes custom beautiful leather shoes for €140. So tempting!

Then, a real highlight was seeing the shop of Emo Formichi, who is Luciano’s cousin, was born in 1928, and has worked as a truck driver, dredger, and mechanic. But more impressively, he is a maker of incredible found object sculpture, paintings, inlay wooden furniture, staircases, etc.

It made us think that many of the “artists” that we know and see in the States are really quite pretentious and lazy. And here was someone who is truly a fantastic artist, who will work hard, explore and truly master a very wide range of media, and truly sees and expresses magic in the mundane. He is humble and prolific, and his humility led him to statements like “I cannot work with clay because it has not been anything yet” (but there were a few clay pieces, and they were fantastic).

Yet with all of that, he doesn’t sell any of his work.

As a side note, while we were in Emo’s shop, he had a diorama considering World War II as well as some old photos from that era, which hits a very emotional tone for people in this area. There were several times that people brought up the War’s history of German occupation of Italy, when apparently Germans would kill entire Italian villages and 10 Italians died for every 1 German. And, with awful luck, Italy was apparently hit from the ground by Germany and from the air by the Allies.

The last stop on the artisan tour was at a blacksmith, Ferro Battuto Biagiotti. There, where the youngest in the family dynasty showed us the craftsmanship and process. In developing countries, a “blacksmith tour” shows a bunch of smoke-covered dudes banging and hammering away as an industrial-revolution type show. Here, it looks like a dance!

Here is the full set of photos from this post… enjoy clicking through! Next post on the rest of our time in Tuscany coming soon. =)