Gamble - Angry Nun - Lucky Oil - Club Feast -Tuscan Light Speed - Guido Hospitality - Fattoria Tour
05.29.2008 0 °F
Tuscany is thick with Spring, nose on smell overload. The scenery is so beautiful it makes me laugh as Bonnie and I flow through the serpentine roads. We opt for S222, the alternative to the motorway. 70km straight south from Florence is Siena. Upon arrival, weave through tourists buses in line to park along the city walls. There's a swarm of people inside, 80 percent have cameras and city maps. I pick Siena's Gothic Cathedral which holds a bronze statue of St. John the Baptist by Donatello, on its ceiling is a painted starry sky over a deep blue. Lunched at La Chiacchera while sitting outside on the steep narrow street, two of the four legs on tables and chairs longer to compensate for slope. Feeling adventurous, asked my Polish waitress to bring me her favorite first and second courses, insisting a blind order. A simple but flawless penne with ragu sauce was followed by a hearty four stewed beef ribs and potatoes. The gamble paid off.
In Trequanta, 30 km east of Siena, a local who spoke English with a perfect British accent gave Bonnie a compliment. Told him I was headed to Cortona, another 30km east. "Most beautiful town in Tuscany" he assures me. In route a speedy front comes through and Bonnie and I duck under an abandoned gas station to get out of the HAIL. Ten minutes later we're climbing the switchback, (every town I've seen in Tuscany is up high above a valley) pushing through the wall into the town's tight stone streets. Cortona is known for its staggered, irregularly shaped squares, the view of Lake Trasimeno, and for its publicity from Frances Mayes' book, "Under the Tuscan Sun". In the local theater I happen to catch a "Best of Famous Opera Songs" concert, starring a chubby Italian woman with an animated face and a bald-headed tenor who you could tell loved his job. I found it interesting how the older Italian men sitting in front of me only applauded after certain songs. I take it that they clapped only when they were impressed - a very genuine method. Stayed in a convent that night, being the cheapest accommodation. Next morning had to explain to a nun that I couldn't pay at the moment due to local Bancomat problems. Based on the "Nun Scale" she was pretty angry. When I returned with the money she perked up showing her true nun side. In a strange mix of Italian and Spanish we somehow spoke for twenty minutes about adventure, movies, how fast she learned Italian after she came over from Brazil, and other convent lodging spots.
wrong turn leaving Cortona
Throughout the Euro-Moto-Expedition, navigation strategy has been based around major waypoints: Beaches of Normandy, Madrid Co-Pilot Pick-up, Barcelona etc. The fill in-between this simple structure is manipulated by local advice and last minute decisions. I owe providence and this "spontaneous fill" method for three special days in the Tuscan town of Montepulciano.
This is how it came about: Storm front coming through while pushing west from Castiglione d. Lago, maybe I should find a campground in this next town, don't want to be driving in the rain, this gas station has a canopy...perfect, oh wow they have Mobil One motorcycle oil on display, hmm maybe I can change my oil here instead of in crazy Rome as planned, go inside ask Alex at the counter - no sorry can't change it here, minutes pass and the buzz is out - I'm from NY, Sure you can change it here is that alright Paulo?, Sure..., During change ask Paulo about local camping - throw in the word discotheque (european dance club) to show I'm looking to get into some culture. Paulo says no but...HIS MOTORCYCLE CLUB IS HAVING A DINNER TONIGHT...YOU COME? I hold back my excitement worried I could change his mind if I acted strange at all. He's not direct with "the plan" (I've found Italians always wing it) tells me to "Esperta," wait.
garage life, Montepulciano
So it begins because of oil and good timing. While I'm hanging out at the station, Bonnie draws attention. A clean-cut older mafia man in a grey suit comes into the garage and stares her down for a few minutes before I spur him to say something. I was mistaken, he's a banker, wife is an English teacher, he takes interest because he once drove his car from Italy north to the Arctic Circle in Sweden. A kid in a bucketed forklift drives up to get his tire changed. This is Italian garage life. Some locals gather around a plastic table behind the pumps. We snap a group photo before I leave. Paulo tells me to meet back in two hours. He has to clean up before we go to the dinner.
Paulo arrives. We pick up Mierco who lives in a house on a soft ridge overlooking two valleys, front and back yard, views on both sides. Green fields, vineyards, cypress trees all in sight...impressive real estate. Dinner is held in a recreational building adjacent to soccer fields. Four guys in mid 20's are outside lounging in lawn chairs around the huge pot boiling for the pasta. The club members flow in. Mingling, introduction, name exchange, smiling faces. When we're settled at the four long tables to dine I realize I'm smack in the middle of the "cool," "happening" group. The girl to my right speaks the best English but everyone is giving it a shot. Friends translate adjacent conversations for me. From another table a new acquaintance shouts to me in twisted English: "James...Are you O.K.?" (His version of "how's it going") The hospitality and interest warms me up, the wine just adds to the fire...bottles of local red are all over the table, when they run out there's jugs of red from a club member's vineyard. It's loud - conversations are voice battling. There's fights over the fresh parmaagione, one table is hogging. First plate is the thick spaghetti (local type) with ragu meat sauce. I'm reprimanded for cutting the pasta - "are you crazy?"- only twirling allowed. Italian echoes off the concrete walls. Second plate, Venison chops which seem to have been born in olive oil. The kid across from me left only two large bones on his plate. "Did he eat the small bones?" I think to myself - "this is the most local thing I'll ever do." I don't have room for the third course, a block of cheese being passed around. The dinner turns into a party. I'm introduced to "Grappa" a liquor made from the skin of the grapes. It's got a bite comparable to the Polish liquor my coworkers from back home dub "rocket fuel." The group splits towards a late night cafe/bar. Espressos are downed, then more Grappa. Henry, who apparently loves Grappa, wants me to love it just as much. Head back to the Moto Club Nico Martinelli headquarters, regroup, and assemble a tailored crew for the late night. Up a stone street leading to the top of town is our new hangout. There's a clock tower and a ledge, the gathering place of the region's younger population. The almost full moon lights up the lower part of town and the valley below. Not allowed to open my wallet. I sleep for free in Paulo's extra family apartment. My good fortune in Montepulciano is just beginning.
small club outing
Meet the club at the cafe the next day for what seems an easy Saturday afternoon motorcycle tour. Bonnie's not expecting the workout - I didn't see it coming either but thinking back i should have known. Six Italians +spaceship - like sport bikes + club turf + their rules =... My blood circulates in 30min as much as it has the whole morning. When we stopped at a cafe 40km from where we started, I am the last to show up as I have refused to pass cars on the 8 back to back blind curves. I don't think they could comprehend the fact that someone couldn't keep up. I blamed it on Bonnie and they humored me.
Guido and his sweet song
Guido, a consultant for wine corking and bottling machinery, is one of the veterans of the club. He drives a mid-eighties red Ducati two stroke that is the best sounding machine I've ever heard. I managed to see a few of many heads that turned at it during the Saturday time trial. Guido feels bad I missed the scenery. On Sunday, his 45th birthday, he takes me driving the same route in his Jeep. Our friendship grows exponentially regardless of his flakey English. When he mixes up "he" and "she" he takes his palm and slaps it against his head a few times. I eat three separate occasions in his home. His wife, Nela, cooks with classic Italian ingredients with a slight Sardinian flair. A week later, I can still recall the dishes from memory: ragu with bacon, tuna steaks in olive oil, Minestrone, broad beans and ham local spices, meatloaf w/ bits of sausage. The fresh "braid" of Mozzarella always caps the two plates before the dessert.
A vineyard/olive grove/cantina (wine cellar) tour presents itself on Sunday. Giacamo, another friendly club member, invites me to check out his "Fattoria," a local word for farm (but I think It means more - family farm without specialization or major commercial purpose). He explains his family's been tied to Tuscany for ages. You wouldn't doubt it if you saw him. He speaks English well, in a gentle tone but with confidence so that he is able to explain in detail the why's and how's. With the help of two translating dictionaries, no details are lost. Some notes to highlight: Optimally you want to grow 8 bunches of grapes per root - any more, quality bad - any less, not economical; Parasite proof American roots are seamed with Italian branches in his vineyard; rows are run east to west so the sun doesn't favor one side of the vine; best wine is produced around 400m altitude, bottle older than 4 years needs to sit open for 3-4 hours before drinking; wine breaths in oak barrels but "sleeps" when in capped bottle but still "lives" with a cork; Vin Santo "Saint Wine" is a fortified white that gets its name from the providing reward during the hard times in Italy - Its made from jelly left at the bottom of the first press of wine; Olive oil once bottled has 3 years shelf time; Greener the oil the better for taste and for having "healthy grease"; Extra Virgin status is achieved with an acidity level less than .4%.
Giacomo and his cantina
I learn that a Medici law dating back to the 1400's required Tuscan land owners to plant a set number of olive trees, cypresses, oaks, vines. Giacamo says simply "You see the country, you see a garden." I experience a true, "Mama Mia" when he describes the richness of an early 1970's frattoria wine he opened on a recent New Years Day. He explains modesty is the key ingredient in the farming profession. "Just walk straight, don't stop" as we skirt down the path, five feet away from the run of his honey bees. He takes me to the largest oak on his property (Medici probably) growing almost perpendicularly out of a small hill, removes some ivy, revealing a small stone well filled with water - builder unknown. His mother used to fetch drinking water from here when she was a kid. She was born in the old stone house in the middle of the olive grove. Inside, Giacamo shows me an old stone seal he found when digging the foundation for his new eco-tourist B&B. The date reads 1588. In his pickup truck we head to the family's "Cantina," or wine cellar. I'm surprised to learn it's in the center of the old town. A "first door ever made" old oak double door opens, we walk through a stone wall thick, maybe three feet. The temperature fluctuates throughout the year 3 degrees celsius at most. The pressing and fermentation processes are explained in detail, a wine tasting session with a siphon and dusty cup replace the luxuries of a typical wine tasting - napkin covered bottle, crystal wine glass, the fancy done up host. Giacamo shows a passion for his work and his life, both tightly knit. He's a self proclaimed "Utopian Man", stuck on using what the Earth has given him naturally, simple rain water collection system, organic fertilizer, the words chemical and pesticides aren't in his vocabulary. "As soon as you taste the oil you can taste the chemicals." Money corrupts other vineyards. In his cool, easy voice (a metaphor for his character), I catch a statement worth noting "If we go on this way...I think we are at the end." The words come from a man who's tied to the land. The view deserves more attention now.
At 9pm I dine with Giacamo and his parents. The lasagna is perfect, Mama was rolling the pasta dough out this morning. I compliment with words and by the number of times I accept another slab. I don't doubt the fact that Lasagna takes the place of two plates. I'm wrong. Pork chops follow, the classic potato omelets, pears and cheese (eaten in the same bite) finish the courses before the two cakes. I am - unbutton the pants - full.
As Bonnie and I head out from whatever town we've been, we usually pullover right outside for a quick check to make sure things are strapped down and nothing is left behind. The way out of Montepulciano was no different. As we're running through the motions a town bus pulls up alongside. The driver is leaning over the steering wheel looking down on us, waving with a big smile. I recognize his long curly hair. I don't know his name and vaguely remembered meeting him. I take it as if the town of Montepulciano was herself wishing us goodbye.
A road out of Montepulciano