We Didn’t Drink All The Vino: 2005 Italia Uncensored!
Day Eight – Why Didn’t You Tell Me The Church Was Closed, Will That Rock Fall On Us, Which Way Are You Going, Tufa Time, Towns Built Into Rocks, Cheap Wine And The Dinner That Never Ended
I feel it’s safe to say that most people who visit Italy do not usually include any (or at least all) of the five towns we traveled to on this day. First, we filled up on the Palazzo del Capitano breakfast (did I tell you much we loved this hotel), because we had a big day of driving ahead of us, and I am a rugged task master. Mary enjoyed a cappuccino outside, while I mapped out our circuitous route.
In planning our Italy trip, I compiled reams of information on various towns we could visit in Tuscany and Umbria. Today would be the day we would travel to five hill towns that don’t receive much coverage in the guidebooks.
Even with the car incident, Kim had decided that I should start Tuscan Tom’s Tours, because of the details I had in my pre-planning, which included information on restaurants, history, shopping and sites to see in all the towns we had been to and were about to visit (probably should have included a section on gas and other rental car intricacies, too). He thought I should take groups on these adventures. It might be fun, but a group with a negative attitude could make that kind of job pretty miserable.
We walked through the beautiful (and relatively flat) town of San Quirico d’Orcia to reach our car. The church around the corner would have to be a place to stop tomorrow on our last day here.
We passed through beautiful countryside along the way.
This quaint hill town (and really, aren’t they all) in the Monte Amiata area (a region known for its mystics and seers throughout history) was home of the mystical 19th century prophet, Davide Lazzaretti, who, in a Jim Jones moment, proclaimed “he would be King and would reign over a kingdom of justice in the final age of the world.” Unfortunately for him, the Carabineiri (Federal troops) shot him to death before he could reach that lofty goal.
The view was great, and from our vantage point we spotted a church in the distance. “Hey, let’s go there,” I said, so after coming down we all made the trek over to the Madonna Incoronata, supposedly a neat church to visit. It’s probably a lot neater when it’s open. I got my first “Triple Look” of the trip. At least the walk over wasn’t a complete bust, since Tracy made a quick friend as we walked back to the car.
Arcidosso is also host to a large Buddhist community, but this was no time for meditation. We had more hill towns to explore on Tom’s Tuscan Tours.
Our next village was about an hour’s drive away. There was more incredible scenery along the route, and finally, there in the distance, lay our next stop, Roccalbegna. I don’t know how many of you are Harry Chapin fans, but he had a song called “The Rock,” which told the story of a rock (hence the name) which hung precariously over a town.
Well, Roccalbegna has just such a huge rock that dominates the town. Roccalbegnans have a saying, “Se il sasso scrocca, addio la Rocca.” Translated it means, “If the rock crumbles, goodbye to the village (and I assumed, any California tourists in the general vicinity).”
Tracy was giving me the “evil eye” when I said we were going to climb to the top of the rocca on the rock. I told her that Tom’s Tuscan Tours does not back down when it comes to climbing, so off we went.
For anyone who wants to do this, it’s simple. Starting at Piazza IV Novembre, go to Salito Sassa (to the front of you and on the right). Turn left at Salito Sassa (look for the yellow sign); go past the Bar-Tabacchi (unless you need a drink or a smoke) on your left, meander along a winding lane and, in about ten minutes, you are at the town fortress.
The climb up to the top of the Rocca once you get there is steep, and we almost had our first casualty of the trip (well, first human casualty). As Tracy neared the top, there was a snap. Unfortunately, it was not a tree branch, but Tracy’s ankle. Thankfully, the injury did not turn out to be serious, but I started getting “the look” a little more from this time on.
If you come to Roccalbegna in November, you could become a part of the famed Focarazza Festival, which commemorates the martyrdom of the saint for which the town is named. The Focarazza is a fire festival held in Santa Caterina di Roccalbegna. The ceremony goes something like this: An oak trunk, called a Stollo, with garlands of ivy, is raised. The next day the Stollo is the object of a contest among all the districts of Roccalbegna. The team that catches the Stollo burns it and spreads its ashes to ensure a good harvest. I don’t know exactly how this contest is staged, but needless to say, the fire departments of Tuscany are on high alert that day.
Since Roccalbegna is off the beaten path, we saw no tourists. I went to the nearby TI to get directions to our next stop, and it was obvious he had seen no tourists for a while, either. This guy was really nice, and I think he would have chatted with me all day. He gave me maps of the wine-making areas nearby, a book about the area, and everyone in the office thought it was cool we were from California. “We don’t get many people from California,“ he said. “How did you find us?” As usual, I had no good answer, but it was fun to talk to him and the others in the office.
The rest of my group had sat patiently wondering (hoping) if I’d been abducted. I said I had perfect directions to our next town, so I promptly drove three kilometers in the wrong direction (Tracy might be right…I am not a good listener). My miscue turned out great for us (as driving miscues often do), because driving back toward Roccalbegna provided a sensational photographic opportunity.
Our next stop on this day was Sovana, located on the Pitigliano, Sorano, Sovana “Sunken Etruscan Road”, which gives away the names of our final two hill towns. Some people believed these roads were sunken as a defensive measure so people could move unseen from town to town.
Well, about nine kilometers or so away is Pitigliano, a town that has spectacular views of it from various vantage points.
We bought some local wine at ridiculously cheap prices and some soup mix for friends and soon we were headed back to San Quirico.
Although we made a wrong turn somewhere (I guess that would be “I made a wrong turn”), navigator Tracy took things in her own hands. We finally saw Radicofani on the right, so we knew we were headed home to San Quirico d’Orcia.
It had been a long satisfying day exploring these five “undiscovered” gems, so we were all pretty hungry, and the hotel’s restaurant, Trattoria Al Vecchio Forno beckoned us for dinner. It has two rooms on two floors and is absolutely charming, not to mention serves good food. Kim’s pesto pasta was deemed best dish of the night while Tracy renewed her three week love affair with everything arugula, this time in a salad with Pecorino and walnuts.
We were having such a good time that as we finished our dessert and some coffee, we noticed that we were the only four patrons left in the restaurant. We tried to get one of the waiters’ attention, but they did not even look at us. Finally, one came and got us our check. “You had fun?” he asked, giving the answer back to us with a knowing smile.
Some say it’s crazy to drive in Europe. Today’s journey proved just how inaccurate and plain ignorant that comment happens to be. Had we not had a car, we would not have been able to visit any of these places.
This day was our most scenic driving day of the entire trip and exceeded even my most detailed pre-planning preparation expectations. The signage on the roads was great. The directions the gentleman in Roccalbegna gave us were perfect, and even though I started out in the wrong direction, that mistake gave us that unexpected great view of the town. The memories of the day will last a lifetime.
I can’t repeat my mantra enough. “Enjoy the Journey! Attitude is Everything!”