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02 Dec


A dip into Tuscan culture

December 2, 2014 | By |

In the back of our minds, over our 12 months of travel, we kept searching for a place where we might want to live. And while we both are drawn to return to a few special places, Italy’s Tuscany was the first place where everything felt… just… right. (Fortunately or unfortunately, the logistics of moving there seem to make it both unrealistic and undesirable.)

We had an amazing time during our weeklong stay at Casa Moricciani in Castelmuzio in Tuscany. In our last blog post, we talked about our stay there and some of the tours our hosts there led. But there was just too much to talk about all things Tuscany in one blog post… so here is everything else from our week there, including many of the activities organized by our hosts.

Nostra Vita Winery

We joined one of the organized activities for a tour and tasting at Nostra Vita Winery. The family there has 10,000 plants and produces 10,000 bottles. It was a super cold day, but still a beautiful place to walk around with gorgeous views all around. The wine wasn’t entirely my taste – all brunello and sangiovese and way too tanniny for my taste buds (says Jewels), although super good quality and delicious for others.

But the real highlight there is the father of the family, Annibale Parisi, is an artist. So all around the property, he has these amazing sculptures and interesting artistic furniture (some really cool tables), and there are tons of paintings inside the house. In one room, they showed us a project he created documenting all of the trees in the area in a really interesting way through these “books” showing the different aspects of each tree (leaves, seeds, scents, wood, etc.).  And, for extra kicks, each bottle of brunello sports a hand-painted label.

Gregorian Chanting

After the tour at the Nostra Vita winery, we went to the nearby Abbey of Sant’Antimo to hear their service and Gregorian chanting. It was super beautiful and quite enchanting, if not a bit too serious for our taste.

But the most interesting thing was that it struck both of us that it was totally the same thing as bhakti yoga. Granted, this was a bit more serious and centered on Jesus instead of Krishna… but from the robes, haircuts, brahmicharya practices, and down to the waving of frankincense here and other incenses in India, and the ritualized bowing practices before the altar/deity. Totally the same thing.

Sant’Anna Monastery

We went for dinner one night to the Sant’Anna Monastery in Camprena, now an agriturismo, as part of a group that our hosts had arranged. The dinner had been labeled as a “simple meal” but was four courses and decadent (and it turns out that the special “vegetarian option” they made for us was super delicious and totally excessive).

The monastery is really neat – it’s a beautiful building with gorgeous views, and is more recently notable as the site where the English Patient was filmed (ooh, ahh). Carlotta also showed us around the monastery a bit and talked about its frescoes, which were painted by the flamboyant (possibly gay) artist Giovanni Antonio Bazzi (or more commonly, “il Sodoma”). The Sodoma was apparently known for putting irreverent little jokes throughout his works, which Carlotta highlighted for us.

Wine Tasting Dinner at La Porta

We also went on an arranged meal to Osteria La Porta in Monticchiello. There, the food was exceptional, but (gasp!) not traditional Italian with French-inspired attitudes around sauces. The wine was stellar, all 6 types included with the tasting and unlimited refills. And the owner, Daria, was both interesting in her explanations about the wine and super lovely to talk with.

Truffle Hunting!!!

Few things deserve three exclamation marks more than truffle hunting, which we did on Amy’s (Mitch’s Mom) birthday. Because we were in Tuscany during white truffle season, we absolutely had to go. It turns out that there are three types of truffles here, each hunted at their own time of year. And truffles are common enough that it might be €8-10 for a regular pasta dish, but €12 for one with truffles (but when we got to Roma, the truffle prices skyrocketed to €60! Insanity!).

We went white truffle hunting with hunter Paolo, his dog Millie, and translator Kiara. Millie – clearly the star of the show – is 3 years old and has been training since she was 60 days, and Paolo has two other (older) dogs, and he explained the process of training them over many years. FAQ: Pigs are used in some areas and at different times in history, but there are issues with the pigs eating the truffles (dogs do too, but can be trained not to), so here and now it’s much more common to use dogs.

Here’s how it goes down… Millie, an enthusiastic poodly-type dog, starts wandering and running nose to the ground while we all run after her. When she finds a truffle, Paolo delicately removes the earth around it to keep it intact. We successfully hunted three white truffles while we were there! Plus a couple of near misses. It’s amazing that even the dirt and the air nearby has that gorgeous unmistakable perfumed scent. Paolo is a “new” hunter; he has only been doing it for 18 years!

After the hunt, we stopped by the nearby town of San Giovanni d’Osso, where there is a witty park called Bosco della Ragnaia, created by an American painter. The entry plaque says “Si non qui, dove?” – “If not here, then where?” Or, in other words, why not?! Then we had a lovely lunch in nearby Osteria delle Crete, where Paolo had dropped off (the day before) truffles found by Millie to make our meal.

Ancient towns, Catapults, Roman Pools, & Sulfuric Hot Springs… all in a Tuscan day!

One day we day-tripped around, loosely following advice and suggestions in the book from Isabella. We stopped first at San Quirico d’Orcia, a small old town which dates back to 712 AD (in the earliest written records, so it’s probably much older). We checked out the churches (as you do) and saw a giant catapult in the middle of a flea market (why not?). There were also public gardens, which we wandered through and saw both older and modern art, as well as some medieval ruins.

Then we stopped by the village of Vignoni, which is TINY and adorable. Even compared to the other tiny villages we went to, this one may have been even tinier. If it takes 8 minutes to cover all of Castelmuzio by foot, it takes 2 minutes to cover Vignoni, which is adorable but (understandably) felt like a bit of a ghost town.

Then onto the town of Bagno di Vignoni, where there is a heated Roman pool built over hot springs that dates back to 1200. There are some myths related to it as well about people who came here to be healed, etc.

Then we had lunch and wandered to check out Bagno di Vignoni’s old subterranean wheat mill, which used to run year-round thanks to the mineral rich hot spring that bubbled up from the ground here. Super neat.

From there we went to the town of Bagni San Filippo, with its Fosso Bianco sulfuric hot springs and huge mineral formations. It’s a magical spot that didn’t feel at all like our perception of Italy.

You wander through the woods to the hot springs, where you can see the giant sulfuric formations (hence the Fosso Bianco name), and then you can go into the water. We spent 45 minutes with a random Italian couple in one of the pools, enjoying the tepid water. The only funny effect is that we realized (through experience) that sulfur oxidizes silver, so even our tarnish-free wedding rings turned smoky black and required a bit of love afterwards.

Tour in Siena

Instead of going straight to Roma on our last day in Tuscany, we decided to join a tour of Siena (arranged by our hosts) in the morning and then drive down in the afternoon. The tour guide, Antonella Piredda, was fabulous and had a fun, down-to-earth yet lovably sarcastic personality and tons of great information.

Of course, the most important thing is that Firenze was Roman and Siena was Etruscan, so the two were (and still are) fierce enemies. The Etruscans were later conquered by the Romans, but in their heyday believed in enjoying life, gender equality, and some other good values. And apparently “Etruscan” is the linguistic word root of “Tuscan” – genius!

Siena itself was founded in 5th century BC but gained importance in 12/13 century AD because it was the last huge city for Christians on pilgrimage to Roma. In the 1350’s, the black plague killed half of Europe, but 80% of the Sienese people died; there was no river in the town. In 1555, Florentines took over the city for a while, causing mass change. And during World War II, Siena was luckily never bombed because of its rich artistic history. They somehow pleaded not to bomb anything older than 1800 so the entire city was spared. Now, the population of Siena is about 60K including suburbs.

Antonella talked a bit about old-school hygiene. People would throw their bed pan waste on the street, which is why we have seen these adorable sky bridges in many cities and towns around Italy – they were created so rich people could easily and cleanly cross from house to house. And apparently pre-Romans here seemed to have the same right-left division still used in Asia and India. The right hand was used for eating and the left was used for cleaning, which is why relics of saints are often said to be from the right side of the body.

The big thing here is the race (or il Palio di Siena), which is held twice each year (6/2 and 8/16) and is the longest living tradition in the world. The earliest records are from 1285 but it is theoretically much older. In it, the 17 districts of Siena compete (10 per race, chosen through a complex process) in a horse race of 3 laps around the city’s main piazza. It takes about 1 minute and 15 seconds and is watched live by 49,000 people, and both the horses and jockeys are chosen by lottery (but the jockeys are totally ancillary).

Here, everyone is born into their district, which has an animal, colors, flag, etc., and everyone is baptized into their district. This leads to a lot of adorable competition between districts, but also results in having virtually no safety or drug issues in Siena because the districts handle civic welfare.

The race takes place around the main piazza, which is super impressive in its size and interesting sloping formation. Antonella pointed out the “first logo” created (with the letters for Jesus in Greek), and a Medici family (from Firenze) coat of arms is respectfully left up but not cleaned by the Sienese.

The main cathedral in Siena is epic – more stunning than the Notre Dame or anything else we have seen. The roof was put on around 1200 but it was built slowly. For example, they apparently put in normal (beautiful) floors and then over 4 centuries replaced areas with these phenomenal marble inlay works depicting the testament and pagan virtues, with the idea that people need to walk on the heritage of the past to reach salvation.

The whole church message is apparently grounded in accepting and learning from other cultures. The church exterior borrows from the black and white Moorish mosque aesthetic, and there are 12 statues outside depicting Jews, philosophers, and scientists. The structure is really magnificent, the outside is grandiose, intricate, and absolutely glorious. And the inside, between the floors, the frescoes everywhere, and some 170 busts of popes, is breath-taking, all blending Romanesque and gothic elements from its long completion time.

In the cathedral, there is one area with a (or a few) Michelangelo sculpture/s (there is debate over which are done by him versus his students) and a John the Baptist sculpture by Donatello, who was the first person to capture perspective in sculpture. Apparently this sits with a relic of St. John the Baptist, his right arm, although apparently 6 of this right arms of his have been claimed around the world.

There is a room full of unrestored frescoes from 1509. This is particularly amazing because even totally unrestored, the colors are super rich and bright. The painter was apparently called “the bad painter” because he was lesser known but from the same studio and contemporary as Raphael.

There is also the pulpit, made in 1260 (after a 1250 edict to show Jesus dead on a cross) by sculptor Nicola Pisano. It is phenomenally beautiful in the depth and detail of its panels, and incredible that it predates the Renaissance in its artistic perfection.

Outside the church is a giant wall, which shows its intended expansion in approximately 1300. Unfortunately, construction was interrupted (and never resumed) both because of structural issues with building on a big hill, and with the timing of the black plague wrecking havoc on Europe and this city in particular.

On a closing note, Antonella gave us some etymological background on a few words that we (totally geekily) found super fascinating. First, the lion is the symbol of the church (maternal with kids, fierce with enemies). The symbol of Rome was the she-wolf with two babies (Remus and Romulus)… but apparently “she-wolf” is also the name for prostitutes.

Next – and I think we have heard this before. Taxes, wages, and entrance into city walls were always paid in salt (sale in Italian, similar to sal in Spanish), which is the root of the word salary. Brilliant.

And lastly, the word in Italian for nephew and niece is “nipote.” Back in the old days when the church acted as the ruling power and much less prominently about religion, popes and other leaders used to (secretly) have sexual relations, partners, and children. So, for example, Pope Pius 3rd is known as Pope Pius 2nd’s nephew, and power transferred accordingly between uncles and nephews within church leadership. And so the modern word nepotism was born.

Annnd that’s it for this lengthy blog post! Next and last stop before our return to the U.S. is Roma, coming soon. In the meanwhile, here’s the full set of photos from this post. Feel free to click through them as a slideshow… enjoy!