Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A New Friend and a New Appreciation for Buonconvento

Last Thursday I drove south to Buonconvento, about 45 minutes from Castello di Casole. I had driven by Buonconvento several times and I had always looked curiously at that imposing stone wall wondering what lies behind it. But I was always rushing to get somewhere else and, quite frankly, it seemed a bit ho-hum compared with all of the intriguing castles, abbeys and churches dotting the hills of the beautiful valley south of Siena called the Val d’Orcia. This time, however, I was on my way to meet a friend of a friend I had connected with via email a few days earlier.

So when Anna Lisa Tempestini led me to the wall, through the gate and down a few lanes, I was pleasantly surprised to discover an adorable little village buzzing with activity. We stopped for an espresso and poked our heads into a few nice clothing and leather shops and everywhere we went the townspeople greeted Anna Lisa warmly. She pointed out her favorite restaurant, Osteria di Mario, and we agreed that during a future visit we would enjoy a long, leisurely lunch on the patio.

Anna Lisa and her husband and children live in an old monastery complete with its own centuries-old chapel and a breathtaking view of Montalcino. She has her own little vineyard where she grows mainly Sangiovese grapes for her boutique wine called Martin del Nero, producing only about 4,000 bottles of each year. Anna Lisa has built a business around the things she loves most- wine, food, and introducing people to the treasures of the Val d’Orcia. The joy she finds in her work comes through in her blog,
http://www.fattoriaresta.blogspot.com/ which she keeps for clients and friends.

She and her husband have a deep appreciation for the origins and history of their home. In the cellar there is an inscription that was chiseled by the builder, Martin del Nero, in 1573 in which he asks god to bless the part of the cellar where the wine is stored and expresses his hope that he has done a good job building the monastery. They chose to honor this humble man with a fondness for wine who created their beautiful home by naming Anna Lisa’s wine after him.

Anna Lisa also has a passion for cooking and picks organic vegetables from a neighbor’s garden whenever she wants so lunch was quite a treat. We started with a light chicken salad and layers of eggplant and tomatoes that had been slowly cooking on the stovetop, followed by homemade ricotta cheese with a delicious wholegrain bread we dipped in olive oil pressed from olives grown on her land. We shared stories over lunch and a few glasses of a light and fruity Laura Aschero Vermentino from the Ligurian coast. Then we made a brief stop at the Altesino winery where Anna Lisa's latest release of Martin del Nero is finishing it fermentation in a big stainless steel tank and paused for a photo on their lovely grounds.

After lunch, I retraced our steps back to the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore. The trip was worth it for the drive alone which winds around vineyard-speckled, tree-topped hills that seem to bubble right out of the land. The stunning Benedictine abbey perched atop a cliff was founded in 1319 by three Senese noblemen who apparently decided to give up their wealth in favor of living according to the rule of St. Benedict. It was built from 1393 to 1526 and you enter the grounds over a drawbridge. The gothic church is wondrous but the highlight is the series of 36 beautifully preserved frescoes by Luca Signorelli and Sodoma depicting the life of St. Benedict that decorate the four walls of the main cloisters. The abbey still produces honey and distilled herbal spirits made according to ancient recipes that are sold in a little shop. Monks live on the premises and they hold masses with Gregorian chanting daily. The best view of the abbey is from the town of Chiusura where there is also a great restaurant Anna Lisa recommended called Il Pozzo di Chiusura.

I think a perfect daytrip from Castello di Casole would start with a visit to Buonconvento in the late morning while the museum and shops are open, followed by a leisurely lunch at Osteria di Mario. Then a drive through the countryside, maybe stopping in medieval San Quirico d’Orcia and Bagno Vignoni and with its 11th-century castle famous for its thermal springs frequented by Romans, ending up at the Abbey at around 4pm or 5pm. If you really want the full experience, evening mass and chanting starts at 6:15pm.

Monday, March 9, 2009

San Galgano: Inspiration for King Arthur?

God bless Italy. I just love their legends! Today I drove to the Abbey of San Galgano at the recommendation of Joyce Falcone, a friend of mine from Aspen who leads food, wine and walking tours throughout Italy with her company The Italian Concierge. She knows all sorts of little off-the-beaten-path gems in Tuscany so every time I plan a trip I send her a quick email to get ideas beforehand and she always comes through for me. I was particulaly appreciative of this tip becase the abbey is only a 20-minute drive from Castello di Casole.

Sir Galgano, the son of a nobleman in Tuscany, according to one website I came across, was “vicious and full of lust.” Then one day he had a vision involving an archangel and he fled from his family and friends and became a hermit. His family was quite distraught, as one would expect, and they finally convinced him to pay a visit to his fiancée. On the way, his horse threw him and he had yet another vision involving another archangel who guided him to a hilltop and told him to give up all of his material possessions.

Galgano objected, admitting that though giving up worldly pleasures sounded good, doing so would be as easy as using his sword to split rocks. So he drew his weapon and thrust at a stone, fully expecting the blade to snap. The stone split like butter and the sword penetrated to hilt, and Galgano never left the hill again.

Apparently San Galgano kept company with wolves and other wild animals. One day he faced the Devil, who sent an evil man disguised as a monk. The wolves that lived with Galgano killed the would-be assassin and gnawed at his bones. One year later, Galgano died and a chapel was built that still houses his sword in the stone.

It gets better. After the Saint's death his scalp continued to grow blond curls for a long time, and the miraculous head was placed in one side of the chapel, and the chewed bones of the arms of the evil man in another (which are still in the chapel). You can imagine the number of pilgrims these relics attracted. So in order to accommodate them, one of the most beautiful Gothic abbeys in all of Italy was erected in San Galgano's honor.
The abbey was quite a force to be reckoned with in the late 1200s and early 1300s but then the Black Plague hit and the abbey rapidly disintegrated. Parts of it, including the lead roof, were eventually sold off. So now it sits there empty, beautiful, roofless and overgrown. (In the summertime, there is a series of nighttime
opera performances on the lawn of the abbey.)

A study by the medieval historian Mario Moiraghi suggests that the story of San Galgano and his sword was the origin of the myth of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, embellished by medieval troubadours as it spread from Tuscany throughout Europe.

Friday, March 6, 2009

A Drizzly Day at the Designer Outlets

This week my fashionista friend, Lisa Johnson, hosted the first-ever Aspen Fashion Week in my hometown of Aspen, Colorado. From what I understand, it was a raging success. Valentino himself attended the screening of “Valentino: The Last Emporer” only to receive a standing ovation in the packed theater at the close of the documentary.

So to get my own dose of fashion this week, I decided to make the rounds of the designer outlets south of Florence on a very rainy Wednesday. My primary goal was to find a stylish pair of black flat shoes that wouldn’t fall apart trouncing around the very dusty, often muddy "sacred white Tuscan roads" at
Castello di Casole this spring. The entire trip took about six hours including lunch at a café and quite a few wrong turns but it was well worth it.

My first stop was a little outlet just south of Florence called D&D (with the first D drawn backwards). I never would have known about this place had it not been for the ever resourceful Silvia Anchini, Program Director of Castello di Casole’s Vintners Club and longtime resident of Florence. She told me about this little gem when I was in the market for inexpensive, colorful cashmere sweaters and jeans last fall. D&D has a hip, Soho warehousy feel representing a hodge-podge of Italian designers. The highlight was a new spring line from Roberto Cavalli in bright florals. [To get there from Castello di Casole, head north on the Firenze-Siena highway until it dead ends at the roundabout in Firenze-Certosa. Take the first exit towards Florence and turn left at the Relais Hotel Certosa then follow the signs for D&D around to the left. There is a great little wine shop called Vinoteca Chianti on the corner across from the hotel which is worth a stop on the way out].

Then I jumped on the A1 towards Roma and got off about 20 minutes later at Incisa in search of the Dolce & Gabbana outlet I had read about in a town called Rignano. After circling around for awhile, I finally gave up and pulled into the Troussardi outlet. I am not all that familiar with this designer but the handbags and leather clothing were exquisite works of art. I found a greyish white leather dress with beads that might be the most beautiful article of clothing I have ever held in my hands. I caused a little scene when I pulled out my camera to take a few shots, which is apparently forbidden at all of the designer shops, so I cut my visit short and got directions to D&G which was just 1 kilometer down the road.

Located in a nondescript office building, the Dolce & Gabbana outlet is spacious, light and contemporary with the shoes and clothing perfectly presented. I strolled through the aisles admiring the women’s collection and tried on a few trench coats. Then I found a gorgeous dress that looked like it had been hand-painted by Jackson Pollock. I am still thinking about it a day later and wishing it was hanging in my closet right now. There were no black shoes with less than a four-inch heel, however, so I focused more on sneaking a few photographs than actually shopping. The prices were better than I thought they would be. I plan to return someday when I am feeling a lot more flush.

Just a five-minute from D&G, The Mall, located in Leccio, is a discount designer shopper's paradise. The list of designers represented here is awe-inspiring: Agnona, Bottega Veneta, Emmanuel Ungaro, Ermenegildo Zegna, Fendi, Giorgio Armani, Gucci, Hogan, La Perla, Loro Piana, Salvatore Ferragamo, Sergio Rossi, Tod's, Valentino and Yves Saint Laurent. The Mall is the real deal, like the outlets in the States were before the designers started manufacturing cheap clothes specifically for the outlets. My first stop was Burberry. I often fantasize, especially on rainy days like this, about owning a black Burberry trench coat and it seems that whenever I visit this store they have loads of trench coats but none in black, which was the case today. They have a very nice selection of coats, scarves, sweaters, shirts and belts and not just in the smallest and largest sizes.

I saw a sale sign in the window of Pucci and slipped in to try on a dress hanging in the window that was half off the already discounted price. One thing I have noticed about The Mall is that the salespeople are always chatting among themselves and they seem rather disenchanted with the whole sales process. I actually felt more comfortable asking the security guard what he thought of the dress than the young lady who put me in a fitting room.

I had experienced a vision while driving down the A1 that the perfect pair of black flat shoes were waiting for me at the Tod’s/Hogan shop and my heart started to race as I approached the doors. I scanned a wall of shoes finding one or two possibilities but none in my size, and then, there they were, calling to me. Black patent leather flats, a cross between a loafer and a ballet slipper, but with more style and that signature nubby Tod’s sole. The shoes fit perfectly. I was, needless to say, ecstatic.

Before heading to lunch at the café, I cruised through the Gucci shop which is always worth a cruise through, and tried on a black leather biker jacket that was heavily discounted. Had I not found the shoes at Tod’s, I might have splurged on the jacket but I felt happy and satisfied as I enjoyed a crunchy salad in the café at The Mall, a great spot to people watch and catch runway shows on the flat screen TVs above the bar.

Having achieved my goal for the day, I could have headed home, but I really wanted to hit all of the designer outlets just to see if I could do it all in one day. So I jumped back on the A1 heading towards Roma, got off in Montevarchi about twenty minutes later, and after several wrong turns I found myself at SPACE, a massive, ominous grey building with no windows and rows of triangular turrets on the top. Inside this intimidating structure is the Designer Outlet to End All Designer Outlets- Prada, Miu Miu and Jil Sander. Oh, to have loads of cash in this place! I stayed there for almost an hour and spent about $100,000 in my mind. Thankfully none of the black flat shoes I liked were in my size or I might have come home with a second pair that I didn’t really need but couldn’t pass up because they were Prada, for god’s sake, and they were on sale. At least I managed to sneak a few photos.

Just for kicks I stopped at the Pratesi outlet on my way home, a great source of unique, inexpensive, well-made shoes and handbags. (There is also a tiny Pratesi outlet in Monteriggioni, my favorite little walled city just 20 minutes from Castello di Casole). Apparently the drive from Montevarchi to Poggibonsi is one of the most beautiful stretches of road in this part of Tuscany but it was raining and getting dark so I took the fastest route towards Siena. I really just wanted to get home to admire my new Tod’s shoes.