Our Tuscan Winter started in Milan, but after a day that was hard to top, we were ready to head to our destination for the week — the Hotel Puccini, in the Tuscan town of Montecatini Terme.
The plan was to zip down the AutoStrada, stop for lunch and a quick spin around Parma — famed for its Parmesan cheese and Parma Ham — then get to our hotel in time for exploration and a late dinner. But as I learned, you don’t “zip” anywhere in Italy. For one thing, there’s too much to see, do and EAT. And then, there’s the fog.
Forget the imagined horrors of the Autostrada — Ferraris driving up your behind, tiny Fiats doing the “Italian Straddle” between lanes. I’m an L.A. driver, this was just another freeway — and because it’s a toll road, a really nice one at that. But pull a gauzy cotton curtain over it all and suddenly, a zoom turns into a 40 MPH crawl.
We didn’t arrive in Parma until 2pm, with mere hours of daylight left to explore, and miles to go before we slept.
We parked on a residential street just outside the city center, planning to eat at the first restaurant that looked like it had Parmesan Cheese.
Of course, as happened more often than not in our trip, our choice of restaurant was dictated by just how badly we needed to use a bathroom. We ducked into the first restaurant we came upon, the lovely Al Bacio. It was a refreshingly healthy, which we appreciated, but sadly, light on the cheese.
Still, we were rested and nourished as we set off in search of the Parma Cathedral and Baptistery, renowned examples of Medieval Italian Romanesque architecture.
Wanting to enjoy the delights of discovery, rather than the blind awkwardness of walking with one’s face buried in Google Maps, we pointed our noses towards the nearest campanile, the church bell towers so prevalent in Italy.
We wandered the town’s graceful cobbled streets as some of the older folks were setting out for their “Passeggiata” — the traditional early evening stroll. Our willingness to ignore the map led us to the gorgeously-frescoed 17th-century Church of Santa Cristina, on the Strada della Repubblica.
A few streets away, we came upon the lovely Baroque-style Church of San Giovanni Evangelista, which was just to the rear of the Parma Cathedral and its Piazza.
The afternoon was waning by the time we arrived at the Parma Cathedral, an Italian Romanesque structure dating from 1059, and its pink Veronese marble Baptistery.
Both bear stunning examples of the artistry of architect and sculptor Benedetto Antelami and Giambono Bissone, who created the cathedral’s iconic lions.
If it weren’t for the fog and fatigue that lay between us and our hotel, still hours away, we would have spent the rest of the afternoon soaking in the interiors of every church we’d visited.
Dragging ourselves away from an Italian town we’d fallen in love with was about to become the theme of our trip.
Montecatini Terme is known for its spas and waffles — so obviously we were anxious to get there — but we didn’t arrive until 8pm, happy to have a bed and our HQ for the week.
The town’s hot springs and historic spas have been enjoyed by the likes of Giuseppe Verdi and our hotel’s namesake, Giacomo Puccini, but it would be days before we had the chance to properly explore.
We ventured out in search of a meal, with conditions — the restaurant had to be comfortable enough for itinerary-planning. We found the family-friendly ristorante-pizzeria Corsaro Verde, cracked open our Tuscan guide book and uncorked our first bottle of Chianti, all the better to prepare for the next day’s visit to the famed wine region.
Our dessert was a treat from the evening Christmas market — three layers of melted chocolate in a cup — which we sipped while strolling through light-sparkled streets.
The next morning, we left after our hotel breakfast for Chianti Classico, quite literally in the heart of Tuscany.
The origins of the “Classico” region of Chianti date from 1716, when the Grand Duke of Tuscany decided on the provenance and recipe to make all future Chianti wine, in order to protect the region’s “brand.”
Our destination was the family winery, Podere Ciona, for a tasting and tour with one of the founders, Franca Gatteschi. We found the winery in the hills above the Tuscan town of Gaiole in Chianti, near the ancient Tuscan village of Montegrossi. Its GPS coordinates are somewhere between paradise and heaven.
Our introduction to Ciona came by way of dear friends who import wines from small European wineries. In fact, it was over dinner with the Gatteschi family, undoubtedly sipping a delicious Chianti Classico, that they came up with the idea for their company, Small Vineyards.
Franca greeted us with her lovely, lilting English, and delighted in touring us through their cellars, vineyards and finally, to the tasting room for a lingering sample of the winery’s wares.
Franca and her husband, Franco, bought the property 25 years ago as a “little retirement project,” and now produce some of the finest small-batch Chiantis and IGT wines on their 80 acre farm.
We learned how, in Chianti, both the region and the winemaking are very regulated. The grapes for Chianti Classico — wines made under the DOGC government guarantee and control — must be at least 80% Sangiovese, and from vines at least four years old. The remainder may be made up of other red grapes (they use Merlot and a French-Spanish hybrid, Alicante Bouchet), to balance the wine and bring it to an alcohol level of 12%.
In order to stand out in the company of so many great regional wines, the Gatteschis developed a niche by focusing on low yields — thinning out the berries in August (called a green harvest) so that the final yield equals one bottle per vine. They hand-pick and sort the grapes, then age the wine in French Oak barrels.
In the tasting room, we agreed that the result was worth the work.
Franca had laid out bottles of their finest, ranging from a Rose’ through Merlots to their Chianti Classico Riserva, which must be blind-tasted and approved by a qualified panel before it can bear the “reserve” label.
Each wine I tasted became my favorite (it ended up being a tossup between their flagship Le Diacce and the Riserva).
The grapes, their harvesting, blending and aging, are all paramount. But it’s the soil that gives Chianti Classico wines their distinctive flavor.
“You are only allowed to water if the vines will suffer, Franca tells us, “This way, the roots go down very deep and pick up the flavor of the minerals.”
Franca loves the winemaking and the work, and says she doesn’t mind to “…come and explain” about it. “Since we love to make wine very much, we like to have people appreciate it.”
She laments the horrors of marketing — for instance, what happpened to the Merlot market after the movie “Sideways” (it killed Merlot sales by 30%). “Taste it before you judge!” she says.
While I feel we’ve really scored with Franca as our hostess, it’s her husband and their son Lorenzo who are the winemakers. Franca’s favorite job is to cook and look after the farmhouses they rent. She and her sister, Mimma (who lives nearby on a farm that produces olive oil) run a Tuscan cooking school — Tutti a Tavola — holding classes at the winery.
To Franca, it is a passion (for me, it’s DEFINITELY a future blog.) “We like to transmit the value of good food — this is very important.” And, as Mimma says (and what we come to learn in our week there), food in Italy not only sustains life but is a reason for living.
Out on the sunny patio, Franca points out the towers of Siena in the distance — our destination for the afternoon. She tells us we must visit the ancient Farmacia when we go to Florence, and makes a lunch reservation for us at a restaurant in the nearby village.
We have known Franca for an hour, and she has enchanted us with her warmth and hospitality.
“You must love people,” to do this, she says, and “How can you judge a country if you don’t know the people?”
This is what will touch us most about Italy, in the week to come — the belle vita, the sweet warmth of family, the embrace of sustenance and the sharing of it with strangers.
As we leave, we turn down another driveway so that we can visit the restored farmhouses that the family rents as an “agriturismo.” We step over the wire in the driveway which protects the property against the naughty wild boars (“Oooh, they are a DISASTER!”).
The guest houses, set on a hillside overlooking vineyards and valleys, are overlaid with a lace of leafless vines and framed by blooming hydrangeas, a kiss of color in this gray/green winter landscape.
There, in the quiet stillness, with the dry, warm fragrance of lavender and the towers of Siena gleaming in the distance, I felt more connected to the earth, and my own history than I’ve felt anywhere. I could have grown there like a vine, my roots probing deep into the soil to pull out minerals and memories.
If heaven doesn’t look like Tuscany, I’m going to be pissed.
A glimpse of medieval frescoes, a nibble of salty cheese, a sip of rich, red wine. So far, Italy had touched and tantalized my soul.
By the end of the week, it would be 10 more churches, several pounds of cheese and many bottles of wine.
And when we would finally, reluctantly leave, I would feel like I was leaving my home.