Saturday-Friday, October 5-11, 2019
As Betsy trained it to Madrid for her return to Cincinnati we flew to Florence to meet two more pilgrims. However, this get-together involved a much more leisurely (and much less strenuous) pilgrimage than Betsy and Missie’s.
Having heard from our friends Traci and Smokey they’d be in Italy for a week, we arranged to rendez-vous in the middle of their travels.
Wanting a place in the countryside offering activities both on- and off-site the four of us decided on Spannocchia (https://www.spannocchia.com), a Tuscan farm owned and operated by the Cinelli family who purchased the estate in the early 1920s.
Located about 45 miles SW from Florence this estate has many ties to Maine, which is how we first learned of it via friends on Bailey Island who happen to be members. We later learned the Spannocchia Foundation’s headquarters is in Portland.
After a night near the Florence airport (so close we actually walked to our hotel, although I wouldn’t recommend it at night due to playing chicken with some highway traffic), we began heading towards Spannocchia with one stop along the way: Leonardo di Vinci’s home town.
Born 1452 near Vinci in the village of Anchiano Leonardo lived in a house owned by his father, believed to be the restored farmhouse we visited.
Paying a minor entrance fee we strolled through several rooms open to the public,
watched a short video of his life, and scruntinized a digital analysis of ‘The Last Supper’ (the latter being well-worth the price of admission). Walking in the (supposedly) footsteps of this renaissance genuis seemed the perfect introduction to spending a week in Italy.
As we began our drive down the hillside towards Spannocchia I looked back. Not surprisingly the landscape could be a scene found in one of Leonardo’s paintings.
As interesting as it was to visit that landmark the real excitement centered on the arrival of Traci and Smokey at Spannocchia.
Warmlly welcomed by Benedetta, a member of the staff, we settled into our casa (one of the many on the estate), uncorked a bottle of the farm’s red wines, awaited our friends’ arrival,
and, the fun began!
But, before I regale you with our adventures I have to say the hospitality shown to us by the owners, staff, and the interns enrolled in Spannocchia’s farm and agritourism program made our stay all the more amazing. You truly felt immersed in the farm’s workings, be it spontaneous conversations with interns or scheduled activities–all added a richness to being in Tuscany.
We opted for sharing dinner our first evening, which introduced us to some of the eight interns here for their three-month program. Several came from Maine, including one living in Brunswick. At another night’s meal we met several of those accepted into the butcher apprenticeship. In speaking with them it quickly became apparent the dedication each of them brought to their work.
Our first day we explored the estate starting with the activity room where we met one of the owners, Randall Stratton, married to Francesca Cinelli. He ushered us into the building where a panoramic mural greeted us. Encircled by this illustrative timeline we heard how our friend from Bailey’s, Jame Almeida, had painstakedly created it over ten years.
We also learned her husband, Paul, a photographer, is responsible for many of the photos gracing the estate’s marketing materials.
Randall pointed out a specific image, which Jane painted in memory of Midge Vreeland, a beloved Spannocchia member .
If you live in the Portland area you may recognize Midge’s name as she and her husband along with his brother and wife started the ad agency Vreeland & Company, one where I worked in the mid-1990s.
We exited that room and climbed a few steps to enter the estate’s medieval tower. Originally constructed in the 12th century this building now serves as a useful drying station for both grapes…
and a sighting platform for Traci’s photography from which I benefited for this post.
Wanting to see more of the actual workings of the farm we strolled down one of the roads leading to the famous heritage Cinta Senese pigs (so-called due to the black-and-white belt or cintura adorning their hides).
There we saw Eleanor, one of the interns we had met the night before,
who graciously explained how the pigs’ diet from foraging contributed to their good health and (close your eyes, vegetarians) quality of meat. These creatures have a good lifestyle, albeit a bit short (22-24 months) one but longer than other commercial piggies (under a year). After tasting some of Spannocchia’s award-winning salumi we realized those wild acorns definitely translate to tasty meat.
With half a day open for more exploring we hopped in the car to drive the 45 miles to the UNESCO World Heritage town of San Gimignano. Known for its towers, symbols of prosperity among the medieval residents. With15 out of the original 72 structures still in existance, this site translated into a merchant’s bonanza for it was packed. Busloads and carloads of tourists jammed the streets and main square causing us to rethink the timing of our visit.
But, we managed to find a place for lunch right on the Piazza della Cisterna and later treat ed ourselves to what some of the interns told us was the best gelato EVER at Gelateria Dondoli. Spotting the expanding line-up outside its door (see left-hand signage) we wondered if we should join it.
But it moved quickly enough in spite of the chaotic ordering scene experienced once inside; and, the four of us enjoyed a variety of flavors ranging from exotic combinations of grapefruit-and-champagne to sedate, but delectable, chocolate. I don’t think any of us sampled the gorgonzzola-and-waltnuts but some did a tomato mixture and declared it delicious.
Fully sated we made our way out of the crowds back to the car for our next town: Volterra.
Here we breathed a sigh of relief for no masses of people interrupted our view of the sites, one being the recently installed ‘Boogey Man’, a startling sculpture by Daniele Basso.
A plaque under it proposes “We are as strong as our greatest fear” and, yet, (to paraphrase) the courage of knowledge can cause our fears to subside. An interesting piece of work juxtaposed against the backdrop of a medieval square. And, timely, too, in light of the current state of the world.
Continuing our stroll into a park as twilight approached we discovered ruins from the early Estrucan settlers. Unfortunately, the exhibit was closed for the day but Traci and I managed to entertain ourselves with some other attractions…
Circling back to where we first entered the town we found evidence of those who followed the Etruscans as we gazed down upon an impressive Roman theater.
We all said we wish we had traveled here first as opposed to San Gimignano. If we had done so, we would have had more time to explore this less-touristy Tuscan town, especially with regards to its early history.
The next day Max and I roamed around the grounds of Spannochia, which are located within the Alto Merse Natural Reserve, Merse being the river flowing through it. An easy hike up a dirt road led to Castiglion Baizaretti known as “The Castle known only by God” due to its isolated perch atop a hill with the sounds of mating deers echoing throughout the forest.
While we explored our home grounds Traci and Smokey visited Sienna and returned energized from that city’s magnificent architecture and history. (Although we would have enjoyed touring Siena with them we had been there for several days on a previous trip and opted for a more pastoral setting.)
Wednesday’s activities proved to be one of the several highlights of our time together. We had signed up for a cooking class to learn the art of making ravioli. Not really knowing what to expect we ended up totally floored by a most awesome experience.
A 9:00 a.m. garden tour given by Silvia educated us on the techniques Spannocchia employs to grow its organic produce. To say I could have listened to this joyful presence all day wouldn’t be an exaggeration. Her knowledge imparted both professionally and playfully gave us a sense of what was to follow. Which Traci captured in two wonderful photos :)
Which led directly to four hours of creating and consuming a feast worthy of Italian nobles.
Sylvia led us to the kitchen where we met our two instructors: chef extradinaire Loredana, whom Smokey aptly named ‘chef Michaelangela’, with Daniela (who happens to be Sylvia’s mom), also an excellent cook, serving as translator.
Presented with our menu for lunch (shown below)
at each of our prepping stations
we discovered our ravioli served as only one of the courses we’d be preparing.
Loredana began our instruction with tiramisu, the dish requiring the most lead time prior to lunch. (photo from Traci :)
We proceeded to the orange pork loin and baked fennel,
took a break to make and enjoy our crostone al pomodoro
enjoyed with Randall and a bottle of prosecco,
then completed the course with the pezzo di resistenza (aka pièce de résistance) and food star of the show: ravioli.
And, inbetween taking notes, videoing key steps, and actually making the recipes, we snapped shots of one another in full garb.
Miraculously we four felt we actually could recreate the meal back home, which means a redo is in our future :)
The grand finale ended with a feast, one none of us will ever forget thanks to our delightful instructors, the setting, and, of course, the food. All made immensely more enjoyable by sharing it with good friends.
Happily lethargic we stumbled back to our casa only to ready ourselves for an informative tour on Spannocchia’s history given by Randall. There we learned how the estate evolved from the feudal sharecropping system of mezzadria to the current offering of a Tuscan Farm experience. A tale definitely worth hearing.
After another shared dinner, our second of our stay, we fell into bed so we could leave early enough Thursday morning to explore two more Tuscan locales.
Several folks had raved about Pienza, one being Ellen who visited with her husband last year and another, Alan, who was just there with his wife. Armed with that advice we drove the 30+ minutes for a morning stroll in this Tuscan hill town .
Let me say Pienza did not disappoint.
The size of the old town makes for a leisurely exploration with one of the key sites being the Palazzo Piccolomini. We discovered that Franco Zeffirelli (1923-2019) filmed his movie ‘Romeo and Juliet’ here in 1967. We didn’t pay the admission fee but seeing the young star Olivia Hussey’s face promoting the film set brought back all the innocent beauty of that tragedy. Definitely on the list for a re-watch.
But, Pienza also featured the second of our joint ‘best moments’ of our trip (our cooking class being the first).
As we reached one end of the town some lovely notes drew us closer to a small courtyard. Nearing the backside of a building we all stood in silence marveling at the voice producing the operatic song.
Max decided to investigate by circling around to the front. The three of us followed and found ourselves in the entrance of the town’s library. An official young woman appeared out of a small office. Initially I thought she was asking us to leave but then she smiled and handed us leaflets giving us permission to follow Max who had darted upstairs.
There we joined a small group of listeners seated behind a row of 8 judges, one we later were told had been married to Pavarotti (1935-2007).
They were assessing and grading the contestants in the 10th annual Pienza international opera competition with a field comprised primarily of up and coming singers. The competition ran for three days with the first day eliminating all but 25 and the second day whittling it further to 15. Contestants (a large number but it made for a more interesting night for attendees of the grand finale). All stages were free and open to the public. Those who win awards receive a small monetary prize with the more valuable rewards being entrées to influential conections in the world of opera.
We found the above out thanks to a retired Canadian PR agent whose clients had been involved in this field. She and her husband had retired here some years ago,and now she volunteered to assist in this event.
For an hour we listened to several of the 60 contestants, a mix of male and female singing ranges from bass to soprano.
Every time we made a move to leave another singer captivated us pushing us right back onto our seats. But, we did manage to extract ourselves, although with difficulty.
Outside Traci and I posed next to the promotional poster
with Max joining in during our walk around town.
The town and day provided plenty of photo ops, from landscapes
to portraits… can you tell from our expressions how wonderful it felt to be there? :)
Increasing the magic of the day we later met one of the opera contestants, Mariangela Santoro, who was seated nearby.
The four of us had sat at the designated ‘Shared Table’ joining two couples from Luxembourg.
Mariangela happened to see Max sharing a video of the contest with our table mates. She leaned over from her nearby table to introduce herself as one of the contestants.
We then told her how wonderful and special it was for us to hear such beautiful voices. And, before she left we got her autograph.
(FYI: We later tracked her progress through the second and then the third day of competition only to discover she won! If you’d like to hear a sample of her singing, here’s her aria as one of the finalists in a 2018 competition. And, in case you’re wondering, there’s no evidence of photoshopping in her PR photo–she IS that lovely :)
We left Pienza agreeing it was definitely our favorite small hill town after Siena.
So when we reached the more urban and larger Montepulciano this town had a high bar to reach compared to Pienza.
We tried some libations at a wine bar where you use a card to self-pour either a sample or a full glass, a great way to try different wines without purchasing a full bottle. We took our samples outside to enjoy the view and the warmth of the sun. But, we didn’t stay long. With a long ride in front of us and the driver (Max) only having an occasional sip we left to head back to the car, but first we posed (again :)
and walked by one site sure to attract my MDT seeker.
But, don’t think we missed an opportunity to indulge in some of this Montepulchiano wine. Earlier in the week Traci and Smokey had purchased a bottle along with a Chianti, which we all enjoyed back in our casa during our stay.
Friday morning arrived, which meant leaving Spannocchia, and our friends. Their destination was Florence for a few days prior to returning home via Rome. We were fortunate our schedules meshed with theirs these six days before we all headed back to the states.
We had a fabulous Tuscan tour, one not to be forgotten.