18 November 2012

Casa Cappellino and the Tuscan Countryside

The virtues and pleasures of visiting Tuscany have been well documented since at least the early 19th century. In the Romantic Age, poets and writers, artists and hangers-on alike wandering the Tuscan countryside, prowled the narrow alleys of medieval villages, wiled away hours in the wide piazzas of Florence and Siena. Somewhere between drinking and frolicking, they sang and wrote and painted about the beauties and vicissitudes of Tuscany and the Tuscan people. The years have been kind and terrible to Tuscany. Two millennia of on-again/off-again warfare built cities and towers and bridges and castles, and then tore them down again, only to see them rise again in some fashion. Post the last devastating war, Italy, like much of Europe, experienced yet another assault: modernization. And, like everywhere, this has been a mixed blessing. Many of the smaller charms of Florence are subsumed under the crush of traffic, human and mechanized. Graffiti and fast food chains cheapen 500 year old strade and during the high season the lyrical beauty of Italian is lost amongst the babble of tourists. But, it IS still Tuscany: a place of wonderful food and wine, charming and unspoiled villages, friendly people, and unmatched historical, cultural and artistic treasures. It is a diverse land: beaches rising to the bright green Chianti hills and rising further still to the darker Apennine mountains, fount of both the Arno and Tiber Rivers. So, it is a place one must eventually go to. For us, it is a place of return.


Eleven plus years ago in a small café in Montalcino (tucked away in southern Tuscany) we watched the events of September 11, 2001 unfold on a small Italian TV. Though we completed our two week trip through Tuscany and Umbria, it and us had been changed, as indeed the world was. In the ensuring decade we continued our travels including Italian trips to Rome and Venice, the Lake regions and the Dolomites, Umbria, le Marche and far-south Sicily. In the back of my mind was always a return to Tuscany. We wanted to ‘do’ Florence at least semi-properly by staying in the city. We love Siena and a return there seemed a must. I wanted both to better photograph what I had seen before – San Gimignano, Monteriggione, Montepulciano – and see and shoot new Tuscan delights: Pisa, Lucca and Volterra. Perhaps we would even have a cup of espresso or a glass of Brunello in that little café in Montalcino, where we had spent several hours, or perhaps a lifetime.  

Our plans changed when fortune and Facebook intersected. We became re-connected with a friend from 20 years ago with whom we had long lost touch. Our friend Dennis had purchased a Tuscan villa and retired to it. After looking at villas in the Volterra area, I turned to Dennis’ Casa Cappellino (‘Little Hat House’ in Italian). What a beautiful piece of property (all 6 acres of it) with a small working vineyard, a natural spring fountain, ducks, chickens and rabbits bounding about, a reticent cat named Min and a friendly and loving sheepdog named Max. Of course, the real clincher for us was the beautifully restored 2-bedroom farmhouse that we would be staying in.


This would be a different trip than what I had originally envisioned. Casa Cappellino is nestled above in the little wooded hillside hamlet of Lama, about as far east of Florence as Pisa is west. With the borders of Emilia-Romagna, Le Marche and Umbria close by, the appealing destinations of Ravenna, Urbino and Perugia are about as accessible as Florence and Siena. Much closer to ‘home’ and seen from our bedroom window is the small hilltop birthplace of Michelangelo, Caprese Michelangelo. In the valley below Lama flows the Tiber, beginning its journey to distant Rome. The river passes by or through a number of historically and artistically-important towns such as Sansepolcro and Anghiari. Behind the villa the hills rise steeply through a mix of chestnut, maples, ash and oak woods to reach heights where spruce and other firs reign. High on the ridgeline sits the medieval Franciscan monastery of La Verna, where St. Francis was reported to have received his Stigmata. Hiking trails abound in this area and offer incredible views both eastward into the Lama Plain and westward into the Casentino Valley, which is studded with hilltop castles and where the Arno River flows.

Further south, but no more than 45-60 minutes away is the ancient city of Arezzo. Originally founded by the Etruscans, then conquered by the Romans, the core of the city has many wonderful buildings and a beautifully laid-out central piazza. Close by the border with Umbria is the hilltop sprawl of a town Cortona, made famous (and subsequently more touristy) by Frances Mayes book (and follow-on film) Under The Tuscan Sun


There is so much to see in this ‘little’ nook of Tuscany that out the proverbial window went our plans to re-visit much of what we had seen before or travel far to the west. And though we were going decidedly off-season – early November – the added bonus of touring this region is that it is definitely not on the typically well-beaten tourist trail. Hallelujah for that!   


The directions provided were superb – I don’t use GPS’ preferring to read maps – and though it was dark by the time we reached Casa Cappellino, Dennis and his girlfriend Kumiko were on hand to greet us with a bottle of vino from their first wine harvest. The following week was a time of getting re-acquainted, driving to and wandering through old villages and an older still countryside, exploring castles and monastic sites, gazing at unparalleled art and architecture, drinking tasty and inexpensive Tuscan wines, and eating at exceeding good restaurants (in little old Lama, Il Refugio has been Michelin rated for years…do not miss the traditional Tuscan fare!). Markets are relatively close by so we also cooked several meals. 


Subsequent posts will detail our explorations through this region of Tuscany (as well as our two days in Florence) but on our flight stateside I was already thinking of another return to Tuscany and our new ‘home’ of Casa Cappellino.