I will confess that Tuscany was not a high interest destination for me. I am a bit of a contrarian when it comes to places and things that everyone else just can’t seem to live without. Maybe those places or things just don’t live up to my expectations, exposed to so much hype. I had also been in Tuscany, just a couple of years ago with friends following a walking tour of Umbria. That was hugely fun – but so were the people we were with. The people we were with this time were definitely fun, too, but we didn’t know them well enough to get into the raucous belly-laughing that accompanies get-togethers with friends from one’s childhood.
Another factor that may have contributed to my less than enthusiast embrace of Tuscany was the lingering problem with my back. It kept me out of commission the entire first day we were in Tuscany.
Tuesday, May 14
As I mentioned in the last sentence of the Abruzzo blog, on May 14th we drove from Abruzzo to Tuscany. Our destination was the Agriturismo Il Rigo just outside of San Quirico d’Orcia. I slept most of the way because of the back drugs. Once settled in our room, the group met for dinner in the hotel’s dining room. Like other agriturismi, you do not need to be a guest to eat here, but most of those in the dining room were.
This agriturismo was run by Eddie’s old friend Lorenza and her husband. They are now retired, and have given over the management of the hotel to their daughter and her husband. Lorenza still relishes her role as greeter of all the guests and the friendly face of the place. Her lively personality infuses everything with a joy that is palpable, but not cloyingly effusive.
Wednesday, May 15th
We had a meeting after breakfast and, this being our first day, we studied maps and talked over the attractions in the area and good places to go and take pictures. Gerry and I decided on Pienza.
I thought my back was okay.
We made it to to Pienza but I had to come back because of the pain. The day was cold and overcast. I was chilled and downcast. I spent the entire day with pills and a hot water bottle. Gerry brought dinner in.
Thursday, May 16th
Finally, I woke up with out pain. Yeah! Gerry and I left early to go to Pienza for a dentist appointment for Gerry. We were back in time to go to the cooking class with our group. Jean and Deborah rode with us.
Our class was conducted in Lorenza’s house in San Quirico d’Orcia. To call it a house is a gross understatement, because the building is a palazzo, in Lorenzo’s husband’s family for generations. For the class we worked in the kitchen and in a small dining room on the ground level. We prepared ravioli stuffed with ricotta cheese (nothing like the ricotta we buy in the supermarket in the US) mixed with tons of greens, basically wild field greens. Lorenza complained that they were bitter, too late in the season, but most of us found the taste perfect to offset the smooth, creaminess of the ricotta and the sauce which was made with walnuts, parmesan cheese, raw garlic, marjoram and bread soaked in milk. We also prepared rabbit, braised with onions and white wine. But, the first thing we tackled was dessert! Cucunate – like biscotti, but sweet. Ours were made with almonds. We learned that the name “biscotti” means “twice cooked.” We prepared the dough into long rolls and baked them for about 30-45 minutes until the outside was just a little hard. Then we removed them from the oven and cut them into slices. They acquire the half-moon shape because like most cookies they do spread out just a little. Sliced on the diagonal they went back onto the baking sheet on their sides for the second cooking – about 10 minutes. That is how they acquire their hardness – the quality that means they will keep for a very long time. We enjoyed them after our rabbit and mashed potatoes, with a glass of vin santo.
Once we had the meal prepared, we all sat down and ate together,. After lunch Lorenza gave us a tour of the palazzo. Upstairs from the kitchen where we worked was the real home of the house. Here, too, there was a small kitchen, a lovely dining room, and wonderful large living room, and a “sun” room. It was very grand and at the same time familiar. Lorenza showed us her “paradise” a lovely garden of potted trees and flowers. She commented that a house like theirs was nearly impossible to sell because the upkeep is never-ceasing and expensive.
Afterwards, we took short walk in the town of San Quirico d’Orcia, sleepy at this hour of the siesta. On the way back to the hotel, again with with Jean and Deborah, we detoured to find some poppies. As I reviewed my pictures of this part of my trip I realized what a large part of it was flower-focused. That is one of the big benefits of traveling in the spring. Be sure to keep it in mind when you plan your next trip. Here’s a plethora of flower images to enjoy!
Friday, May 17th
At 6 am I got up to go out and shoot with Eddie, Jean, Kate, Gerry and Jim. We had beautiful sunshine. We had sparkling dew. We had unbelievable light and colors. It was this shoot, that converted to me a Tuscany fan. I will never forget the colors of that morning (and the pictures will help). Just keep in mind that if you travel there with me, I may make you get up at the crack of dawn. It will be so worth it!
We stopped to have coffee in Pienza before we returned to the hotel for breakfast. We had to spend a little time with our images to submit for a slide show of everyone’s work for our last evening together.
Gerry and I went out and drove to the Abbey of Sant’Antimo, near Montalcino. The nice weather made the trip extremely pleasant. What a beautiful church and setting! The present day church dates to about 1118, but the Carolingian chapel (now the vestry) dates back to 813! This was a Benedictine monastery. It still functions as a church; mass is said here everyday except Saturday. But it also serves as a spiritual center, available for the occasional wedding, and retreats. There are also concerts as well as classes in Gregorian plainsong. Interestingly, visitors to the Abbey used to hear the monks chanting, but some kerfluffle between the monks and I am not sure who, put an end to that. We did not see any monks on our visit. There is music piped into the church, without the same effect live human voices would have had.
The Abbey also has guest rooms. If you are there just for contemplation, for classes in plainsong or medieval manuscript illuminations (yes, imagine trying your hand at that!), you can stay there in a little town adjacent called Castelnuovo dell’ Abate. Might be an interesting way to spend a week or two, don’t you agree?
From the Abbey we continued on to Castiglione d’Orcia. We had lunch at Il Cerchio delle Streghe (The Circle of Witches) right at the foot of the Rocca di Tentennano (also known as the Rocca d’Orcia) a ruined fortress and tower. After lunch, we climbed to the tower and inside. From there, the landscapes sweep side to side below you, long lush carpets of green, dotted with cypress. Finally we headed back, taking just a cursory glance at the baths nearby. There was nothing ancient to hold my interest, but they are functioning spas, and it definitely something tourists come here for.
We had our final group meeting before dinner to see everyone’s pictures. It is curious that we are all in the same places but our pictures and our styles are so different! For our final dinner, for once we actually had way too much food!
Saturday, May 18th
Our group disperses today. Off to the four corners we go. Gerry and I are driving to Bologna, where we will catch a flight to London. We have all day to do this, but Gerry likes to get there early, and six hours ahead is not too early for him. At breakfast, we said our goodbyes to those who were up, and, in the pouring rain we packed the car and left.
Here are some pictures of the place we stayed, Il Rigo.
From here the journal picks up in London.
But before I go, a couple of final comments about this portion of our trip. We saw four distinct and different areas of Italy. Without trying to see everything, we had just the right amount of time to get a really good look at the general area where we were staying. With the format of this trip, we were off on our own each day, focusing on the things that interested us the most. Though we did not have critiques, we could get help and advice from Eddie and our fellow photographers on how to get better pictures. Taking pictures with others is always fun, and this was no different. And even without the formal classroom and critique structure of most of the workshops we attend, there was still a huge incentive to use your skills critically and creatively. (Between workshops, I tend to get pretty lazy.) I was pleased with many of the images I made on this trip, and I thank Eddie for that inspiration.
I would love for you to post a comment on this portion of the blog, on the four parts that comprised this trip. If you would prefer to email me a private comment, you can do that here.
Now, you can go to London!