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Under the Tuscan Clouds



This May, nine of us descended upon, or should I say ascended to, or should I say stampeded into a lovely villa in the hilly Tuscan countryside. My sister Sheila and brother-in-law John had snagged, at a silent auction, a week’s stay in the environs of Arezzo, and had invited us to share that little slice of heaven at their expense.

 

Ours was a merry band that included John’s sisters Christine and Cara, Cara’s two daughters Franki and Toni, Sheil and John’s daughter Victoria and her significant other Paul, and me.


BREAKING NEWS We interrupt this Tuscan narrative for a dispatch from Rome:

Sis Sheila gave the second reading at 10:30 mass from the podium of the pantheon this past Sunday! An English speaker was needed and there she was, volunteering from the first row. Being the second reading, it was almost surely a letter from antiquity’s windiest blowhard epistolarian, St. Paul (ne' Saul of Tarsus, of road to Damascus fame) to the long-suffering Ephesians or Colossians. I can only hope Sheilz declaimed Paul's harangue with conviction and dramatic flair, then dropped the mic as she left the podium and returned to her seat. Top that, Christian pilgrims to Rome!

Here she is with her aforementioned podium behind her. Photos weren’t allowed during the mass itself.


Returning to our intended Tuscan narrative...

Let's start with a photo orientation. The six-bedroom villa with a pool and outdoor court was set on a vineyard with expansive grounds and stunning views. The verdant rolling hills by daylight possibly were eclipsed by the evening sunsets and moody cloud formations.



Of course, we had a breakfast guest each morning...


It was, to my surprise, a little chilly to take much advantage of the pool, so it was good that we’d planned several special events and excursions.

  

Excursion: Siena


I've probably said this before, but it's worth reiterating that places scorned as "touristy" sometimes have really great food. Such was the case in Siena. We stopped for lunch at one of those outdoor spots on the main piazza and the pizza enthusiasts among us said it was one of the best -- if not the best -- pizzas they'd ever had. Theirs was not to be confused with the largest pizzas we'd ever seen, which caught our attention from the street. I, meanwhile, had something called a caponata of vegetables, which was a new one on me. A cross between the familiar eggplant caponata and ratatouille, it was quite tasty.



Other highlights of our few hours in Siena included the building that housed and still houses Europe's oldest still-extant bank, Banca Monte dei Paschi; and the Church of St. Catherine of Siena, a popular Catholic mystic from the 14th Century. The plethora of gold used in this monument to Catherine's holiness contrasts incongruously with her austere lifestyle, but such is the paradox of the Catholic Church. I'll admit that the way the gilt caught the light was pretty impressive. I suppose it could be argued that the gold was necessary for the light of Christ metaphor.



I wish I'd read about Catherine before our visit to Siena. She was a striking character who began having visions at a very young age and continued to have them throughout her life. Among those visions was one of becoming the bride of Christ with a wedding band made of the baby Jesus' foreskin. (Gulp.) To whet your appetite to learn about her before your own visit to Siena, I'll just say that she was so revered that everybody wanted a piece of her. Literally. Her head is in a reliquary at the Basilica San Domenico in Siena, one finger is in Venice, and the rest of her body is in Rome.


To whet another kind of appetite, I'll give a visual moment to the pastry below, which intrigued me because I'd never seen it before. Plus, the sight of it kinda made my mouth water. I'm not a huge fan of raisins, but I do love a walnut. I have to say this treat was quite good -- a little like pecan pie but less cloyingly sweet. I didn't catch the name of it, which was very long, but you'll know it when you see it.



Excursion: Florence

Speaking of pastries, our little group collected an inordinate number of photos of David’s buns. I had broken away from the gaggle, so I take no responsibility. Sheila and I did opt for a ride on what seems to be the now-permanent carousel in Piazza della Repubblica.



Excursion: Cortona

Cortona is a picturesque town you can pretty much cover in a day. There's a nice little museum there and the shopping is pretty great.



Don't let any snooty Europeans tell you that Americans are vulgar. Some of us are, of course, but it's not a distinction peculiar to Yanks.


We had lunch in Cortona at a pretty place near the theater aptly named Osteria del Teatro. I'd recommend it, though Sheila wasn't at all pleased with the rose' on offer.



If you’re suffering from travel-related regularity issues, you might want to make a pilgrimage to this osteria just to use the facilities. The doll-themed ladies' room is creepy enough to scare the problem right out of you. These are just a few shots to give you the idea. We couldn't imagine what kind of fever dream had spawned such a bizarre decor.






I passed on two events. The first was a local wine tasting (during which wine o'clock came at about 11 a.m.and after which several cartons of pricey rose' and reds began to wing their way across the Atlantic). The winery visit included a round of bocce ball.












The second was a cooking class that wasn't particularly vegan-friendly and that was headed up by a rather humorless chef. I did, however, volunteer to serve as photographer. The gang made a pasta ragu, eggplant parm, focaccia, and cantucci (what most of us Americans know as biscotti, which just means cookies).


Chrissy got stuck frying a seemingly bottomless supply of eggplant until she was drenched in sweat and tattooed with grease burns.


Paul took on the pasta and did a damned good job of it.



John, who's already an accomplished pasta maker, volunteered to work the cantucci.



Everyone else was relegated to chopping vegetables, which is one reason I don't like cooking classes.

Looks like Franki got onion eyes.


Mid-stay, we had dinner prepared for us by a local chef, courtesy of Sheil and John, and he accommodated me with a very nice vegan menu that included a mousse of potatoes and vegetables that was quite good, pinzimonio (basically a crudite with dressing), and mushroom risotto.

Johnny G gave a teary-eyed, moving toast about how it had long been his dream to gather his family in Italy for just such an occasion.



Victoria's significant other, the lovely Paul, gave a similar teary-eyed toast a few nights later about how happy he was to be here with us and to feel so welcomed into such a great family.


While the token menfolk sobbed into their spritzes, the distaff side of the family amused ourselves by making faces inspired by wine labels, posing with David's penis, doing party tricks, and playing charades.





Sheila's birthday dinner at beautiful Logge Asari in Arezzo was memorable for both ambience and food.

I took a closeup of the wall treatment in hopes of perhaps replicating it at a later date. I won't give everybody else's Tuscan beef dishes any play, but I will note that my beet gnocchi dish was as flavorful as it was well-presented.



We weren't able to schedule a countryside tour on e-bikes or vespas because we'd dallied too long, but that's an option I'd recommend considering. 

Likewise, a trip to the terme to take the curative waters was an option but, alas, one we couldn't squeeze in. Terme Bagno Vignoni is one nearby that has full spa services if you stay at the hotel, but also offers access to the baths alone for day-trippers for about 35 euro per person per day.

 

If you do a villa in Tuscany, which is a really wonderful family experience -- provided you’re not the Medici:

-Rent a car or two because these villas, while beautiful, can be quite remote and it costs a fortune to hire drivers to take you anywhere.

-If you do plan to hire drivers, note that they charge by the person. We were nine people, so always needed either a large van or two small ones. Daytrips.com is a reliable resource for both short and long excursions. And if you’re near Arezzo, you can call Gianni Driver, who is like the mayor of the place. He knows everybody in town and makes great recommendations. He doesn't speak much English, but I think he understands more than he lets on.


On our last full day, the sun was strong enough for a few of us to relax at the pool. Here I am catching some rays in my usual poolside attitude.


On Saturday, the last of us left for Rome in a clown car packed with people and luggage. The driver couldn't see anything in the rearview. Little did we know that Sheilz was about to find international celebrity and willl probably never again be able to enjoy a solitary moment like the one below.



Thank you, Sheila and John, for your generosity in treating us to a once-in-a-lifetime experience.




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