Radda in Chianti, Italy
In this matter of the heart, it was time to get to the heart of the matter or at least the heart of region – Chianti. We left the cities behind us and rode the Panda off into the sunset and into the Tuscan countryside. The very name Tuscany evokes romantic images of vineyards, sunsets and endless days & nights spent doing nothing but living la dolce vita. More than a place, Tuscany is an ideal, an aspiration and a very heady men’s fragrance by Aramis created in the midst of the hedonistic 1980’s (which I sold more than my fair share of back in my perfume peddling days, when fragrance was still a cherished luxury item rather than a cheap chemist commodity. Ah Gino, do you remember those halcyon days – see, even selling the stuff had a certain romance to it!)
We couldn’t quite afford to rent our own villa but we got the next best thing – a self contained rustic apartment attached to an old stone farmhouse in the middle of a 24 acre vineyard and olive grove with spectacular views over the Pratomania Mountains, along the Arno Valley. Finding it wasn’t easy though. We’d booked through http://www.airbnb.com and arranged with the owners to call from the petrol station in the closest village. The village itself wasn’t marked on the map we’d picked up en route but by some miracle, we managed to find it… closed. Luckily, the local cafe was open and the owner generously lent us his phone and language skills and a meeting was arranged. We waited back at the petrol station until a car honked and waived at us – we took that as our cue to follow him a long and winding way to the middle of nowhere… we hoped we took the right cue and weren’t just following a friendly stranger way off track.
Luckily our hunch was right. We pulled up behind the lead car at the gates of Podere La Pruneta which displayed a rather menacing picture of a Rottweiler with appropriate warnings – the gate opened to reveal a live version of the warning bounding towards us. It was with great trepidation that I opened the car door to be introduced to the first member of our host family – Shona – perhaps the most placid dog on the planet! A moment later Massimo whose family vineyard this was introduced himself and his British wife, Rebecca who just happens to be a classically trained opera singer and their children Lucrezzia (age 7) and Romeo (age 3).
We were shown to our picture perfect apartment which was fully stocked with all the food supplies we’d need for our stay, including generous provisions of wine, olive oil and honey produced on site. We wasted no time, opening the authentically Chiantian Chianti before our bags even hit the ground. We decided to take a stroll around the property and found Rebecca on the patio overlooking their postcard perfect vineyard. We struck up a conversation and ended up whiling away a couple of hours over tea and then more wine, hearing all about the history of the property and how she came to living there. I think she appreciated the english conversation as much as we appreciated the insight and her generosity. She went to rally the children (Lucrezzia being more of an English rose, especially compared to the very Italian little Romeo already wilfully defiant and passionate) and we continued with our stroll through the vines.
It’s relevant to point out that at the moment, Ryan is considering supplementing his studies in horticulture to gain qualifications as a viticulturist. That made it all the more side-splitting when he, in ernest, pointed out the giant grapes… or plums as the rest of us call them! In fairness, he was surprised that they weren’t growing in bunches like ordinary grapes! I’m sorry Ryan – that story is too good not to tell! I’m sure everyone reading wishes you luck in your studies!
We moseyed back to find Massimo at work in his cellar. He invited us in to have a look around and took the time to talk us through the whole process. He then showed us his latest hobby – honey and the different flavours he was working with – chestnut was a unanimous favourite. We even got a show bag to take away from our mini tour – a 3 litre silver one with a tap filled directly from the barrel for our drinking pleasure and what a pleasure it was!
As night fell and our goon bag deflated, we decided to take another stroll through the vines. Although the moon was shining brightly, we still relied heavily of the scent of the wild mint trodden underfoot to guide us back.
The following day we took a drive to nearby San Gimignano (which is really ************ounce), a medieval village famed for its markets. We took the insanely scenic route with views at every turn more ‘Tuscan’ than the last. There was even a llama crossing a road at one point – not that that’s particularly Tuscan but it was surprising!
San Gimignano wasn’t quite what we expected, though beautiful and well stocked with gelato, it was also beset upon by a young born-again-Christian convention that saw the streets overrun with singing and happy-clapping which, quite frankly, was a bit of a buzz kill! We continued onto to Siena but it was too late in the day to make the visit worthwhile. None the less, we stayed within its walls long enough to have dinner before turning the Panda’s tail and heading home.
Again, the moonlight was glorious but not ideal as the only source of light on unfamiliar country roads. It’s hard to say at what point we got lost, but without even the scent of wild mint to guide us, we were in a bit of a pickle. We seemed to get lost in a loop around Arezzo for almost an hour and the streets were very quickly running out of people we couldn’t understand anyway. As a passenger, I felt utterly useless. Had I been driving I would have been furious with frustration and taking it out on anyone I could. Ryan on the other hand remained calm, rational and in control, even when the petrol light came on. I don’t know how he did it, but at 2am, in pitch blackness, he pulled us up to our little cottage. I was so impressed that I started to wonder if perhaps those plums were in fact giant grapes after all!
The day after we played it safe and stayed at the vineyard. We’d arranged to do a cooking class with Massimo which was more of a cooking demonstration really. It’s fair to say it was quite a casual affair with him coming and going throughout the day to tend to various matters while we kept topping up our wine glasses. Ostensibly, he was teaching us to make torteloni (big tortellini) and pappardelle but was also preparing wild boar that he’d killed himself! By the end of the day, we’d prepared quite a feast which we were happy to share with the family and the Argentinean couple who were staying in the other apartment. We ate, drank and were merry – especially little Lucrezzia who had developed quite the crush on Ryan and hung on his every word. It wasn’t hard to recognise the scene for what it was – the essence of Tuscany – the place and the ideal.