The Last Hill Town Exploration

As my journey and Italy dwindles  down to the last month, I have been very lucky to have an abundance of family visits to savor my remaining moments in Italy. For my Aunt Barbara’s trip,  I planned a four-day road trip through small hill towns in Chianti and the Val d’Arno. Our itinerary was derived from Eyewitness Travel’s “Back Roads of Northern and Central Italy.” My aunt rented a stick-shift Lancia which drove wonderfully on the windy roads across the countryside. Impressively, she had not driven stick shift in several decades but still managed to conquer the roads with finesse!

The Val d’Arno region (east of the Arno River) was our starting point, and the first stop on the itinerary was the Ponte Buriano, which apparently appears in the background of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Unfortunately, the riverbed was almost dried up, which detracted from the supposedly picturesque view. Luckily, we salvaged this disappointment with a lovely lunch at Fattoria La Vialla, which served Tuscan picnic fare in a garden setting. The working farm produced their own wine, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, as well as meats and produce. The meal was a delicious and quintessential Tuscan experience, especially for my aunt. I could have savored that meal for hours, but it was only a harbinger  of the Chianti wines we would experience later in our journey.

Our next stop was Borro, a tiny hamlet that was immaculately preserved and looked like a movie set. We soon found out it was owned by the Ferragamo family, who owned the fancy “Il Borro” resort next door. The town was filled with a few artisan shops designed for the the wealthy resort guests, but there did not appear to be any local Italians in the town. It actually reminded me of a stage Disney fairy tale. As we were walking, we were attracted to a small door on our right that led into a room of old television sets filled with scense of Pinocchio moving mechanically within them. Another room along the road had the same concept but with artisan workshops such as the tailor, the butcher, and the iron smith.  Despite the fact that Il Borro felt like a “contrived” village, we genuinely enjoyed a break in this little oasis.

Our accommodations for the evening were in a sweet bed and breakfast in the Val d’Arno hills. We were greeted by what we dubbed the “Italian Stallion,” a young man with long blonde hair, a charming demeanor, and an amorous girlfriend nearby. He didn’t speak a lick of English, which added to his Italian image. As we relaxed outside, JoJo could not stop barking while the stallion and his girlfriend kissed and embraced nearby.

The following morning, we took the historic Via Sette Ponte, an ancient road that took us across the Arno into the Chianti region. Along the road, we stopped in quiet villages including Loro Ciuffenna, where we enjoyed a coffee/tea break while overlooking a ravine. A few kilometers above Loro Ciuffenna was a little hamlet housing the Pieve di Gropina. We also briefly stopped in Piantravigne, which boasted views of Balze rock and was home to a brutal massacre involving the Florentines. There was not a tourist in sight.

We eventually reached our major destination for the day, Greve in Chianti. It is a typical medieval with a impressive triangular piazza. Greve is a large destination for wine aficionados and jumping point for tourists exploring the region. We dined at one of the oldest restaurants in the area called Mac Dario Macelleria, where we had a divine beef tartare, chicken pate, chickpea soup, and pappa al pomodoro. Other than the piazza, there did not appear much else to see in Greve

Our bed and breakfast, Al Poggio, was only 10 minutes from Greve and overlooked a vineyard. The rooms were built from an old Tuscan farmhouse, including large wooden beams and stone walls. The outdoor patio area was exquisite for a relaxing afternoon. However, we did run into a little by of trouble with the owner’s dog, who nearly attacked JoJo after a quick introductory sniffing! Despite a lunge at JoJo’s neck, the city dog came out unharmed. But that was not the end- two maremma sheepdogs from the winery next door meandered on to the patio and started to act territorial towards JoJo. Luckily, I inched myself and JoJo back inside the house and had the owners call the winery immediately to tie their dogs up, a breed which is known to be dangerous towards strangers.

Once the dogs were tied up, we made our way to the winery about a mile down the road. It was a family run business that discovered an abandoned vineyard in the 90’s and have been producing Chianti wine ever since. We tasted 4 different wines. The first three were variations of Chianti (80% or higher of the San Giovese grape), each getting progressively better in taste. The way the tasting was conducted enabled us to identify the slight variations between Chianti Classico and Chianti reserve. This was especially valuable for someone like me who is not a wine connoisseur!

Later that night we dined at the only restaurant in the walls of Montefioralle, a tiny hamlet situated above Greve in Chianti. Although we were just a walk in and did not research the restaurant before (which is risky!), we were lucky to split a sumptuous veal steak, a nice break from the typical Florentine bistecca.

We had a full day ahead of us on Day 3 of our trip. Feeling relaxed and revitalized, we were ready to take on three destinations on our itinerary, the first being Castellina in Chianti. We had visited the town back in December when our friends Dave and Karen were in town. It was almost a ghost town in the winter, but was pleasantly busy this spring morning. The town has an interesting covered pathway within the city walls called the Via delle Volte, but other than this, the town is quite ordinary.

The destination we were most looking forward to was the Chianti Sculpture Park. It was hidden in the Chianti hills after twenty minutes of driving on windy dirt roads. We were one of two groups that afternoon so we essentially had the park to ourselves. There were over three dozen sculptures situated along a path in the woods. The artists were asked to choose a place in the wooded area that would compliment their artwork. Viewing the sculptures among the natural world provides a new dimension to artwork compared to viewing works in a museum or gallery. Some of the works interact with nature- such as those that become grown over with moss or even one that asks you to lie down and view the treetops. The layout of the park allowed you to meditate and self-reflect as a means to understand the artist’s inspiration.

After a brief lunch, we headed to the Castello Brolio, one of the most impressive castles in Italy. The castle was originally a Florentine stronghold that was destroyed by the Sienese. It was then owned by Bettino Ricasoli, who refurbished the castle. Now it is a private residence, and has beautiful gardens and a chapel for visitors to wander. It also had bucolic views of the Chianti countryside and the estates’s private wineries.

Our last night in Chianti was spent at a country resort literally in the middle of nowhere. We had to drive several miles on a dirt road past the last town to reach it. The driveway looked perilously steep on the descent and  that we honestly thought our Lancia stick shift would struggle getting back up it again. But alas, we did finally make our way to the charming “resort.” It was an ancient farmhouse that was refurbished into a small country resort with a few rooms, a restaurant, winery, spa, and even a tennis court and lake. The property was immense and each area required walking along a path in the woods. Our room’s decor was dated but characteristic of Tuscan charm, such as a wine barrel being situated on a bed post. Even the restaurant was delicious and intimate (it was located in an old wine cellar!). Despite only ordering an exquisite vegetable flan , we were jealous of our table mates devouring rare Florentine steak. We easily could have stayed there for several days!

We only had one incident at our country resor due to to the fact that the room was quite spacious. Too spacious actually. There was a massive walk-in closet that JoJo claimed for himself upon arrival. Sneakily, he took off with my aunt’s sneaker and munched on it in his closet cavern while she was sitting in the other room. She quickly learned that when  JoJo is quiet he is up to no good!

The last leg of the journey consisted of a stop in Radda in Chianti. Of all the more substantial towns we visited, this one illustrated the most charm and character of all the Chianti towns on this journey.

A few miles up the road is the village of Volpaia- essentially a tiny hamlet with an adorable piazza and a scenic setting to enjoy a mid-morning coffee and tea. It was also used as a strategic position during the wars between the Florentines and the Sienese.

This next portion of our trip was not apart of the original Chianti/Val d’Arno itinerary, but was an extra side trip we took the day after we arrived back home in Pietrasanta. I mentioned before that my aunt is very fond of sculpture gardens. About a month prior to her visit, I read about a sculpture collection called the Gori Collection located on a private estate outside of Pistoia. We had to reserve weeks in advance for a tour, which made me think it was going to be either very crowded or formal. The instructions to get there were nondescript, and the GPS could not find the right address on the map. There is no phone number on their website, and we nearly thought we were going to miss our tour after wandering around for 25 minutes. After asking for some help, we finally found a gate hidden from the main road with a small sign inscribed with “Gori.” Looking back, we had seen a giant large sculpture in the center of a roundabout, but there no signage to the naked eye stating the entrance to the estate was nearby!

From the entrance, we had to drive up a winding road to a carpark among olive groves. There was not another visitor in sight. We soon discovered we were the only participants in the tour group and our guide was a sweet college intern from University of Virginia. Not only were we getting a private tour, it was going to be the opposite of “stiff.” We only signed up for the 2.5 hour tour, which covered a little over a half of the entire collection. We couldn’t believe that other people toured for over 5 hours!

Essentially, the Gori Collection is owned by Mr. Gori, a now elderly man who bought the estate and started commissioning international artists for site specific works in the early 80’s. The estate was an ancient farmhouse and later renovated and turned into an English style estate. Many parts of the estate were in disrepair when Mr. Gori bought the estate. The over 70 works of art portrayed were immense in scale and were built to compliment the natural surroundings. Some of the sculptures looked futuristic, other rudimentary and ancient. A few were interactive, including one where you had to walk inside a labyrinth sloped on a hill, or walking in an underground tunnel. Others were emotional, such as a sculpture that portrayed positive words on one side and negative words on the other to evoke different reactions. The most powerful was an open pasture of distorted stick-like figures that were hollowed out on one side using a carving knife. This violet and forceful method of carving was supposed to depict the artist’s pain from watching her mother’s hands getting cut off during the Holocaust. The pictures below are only a portion of the pieces we viewed, but they cannot come close to recreating the same effect as seeing them in person.

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3 thoughts on “The Last Hill Town Exploration

  1. What a wonderful description of our Chianti road trip! Your memory of all the locations is impressive. Better than mine. I’m so glad we did it and I’m glad you’ve made this record of our travels. Thank you!

    Love Aunt B >

    Like

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