La Colombaia Vecchia , which has been our home for the month of November, seems to grow organically out of the hillside on which it stands, a fairly typical tall Tuscan farmhouse, three stories of brown stone pierced by small windows flanked with shutters, in one corner a small loggia framing a perfect view of the valley below. Inside, the house is deceptively large; there are six bedrooms, a cozy living room, a rather grand dining room with seating for twelve, and a big kitchen, equipped with every pot, pan and utensil known to man, plus, extravagance of extravagances, no less than two coffee machines. This is the real heart of the house, the focal point around which everything else is arranged. Outside, behind the main building, is a broad platform, home to a fishpond and no doubt the site of many a summer lunchtime gathering under the trees that provide shelter from sun and wind, though it’s a little unkempt in late autumn.
The view from the loggia is spectacular. Immediately in front of the house, a country road loops lazily down the hill through newly ploughed pastures that were a chalky light brown in colour when we arrived, but which are now covered in a fine coat of green, disappearing into a copse of trees at the bottom of the valley. Beyond, rising to a peak in the distance, is the Berignone state forest, a carpet of green shot through with the orange and russet shades of autumn. The forest is a popular haunt for the local hunters, and from sun up until mid morning, the pop of rifle shots can be heard as they hunt bird game and probably the occasional wild boar that also inhabit the forest. Further away to the southwest, plumes of steam are visible from the complex of geothermal power stations that tap the energy of underground hot springs.
The many moods of the countryside
Apart from the ploughed fields and fences, the only other signs of habitation that we can see are a few farmhouses dotting the landscape, and, perched high on a hill above us, the tiny hamlet of Mazzolla. Like many such places all over Italy, this borgo was built high on the hill mostly for defence; the farmers worked the fields and olive groves during the day, returning to their houses, safe against marauders, at the end of the working day. The place consists of just a cluster of houses, a church, a restaurant, a couple of B&B’s, and a small palazzo that these days serves as a wedding venue. The restaurant, Trattoria Albana, owned and run by Giuseppe and his wife Mary, serves a fine menu of local Tuscan dishes, beautifully rendered, in an old fashioned atmosphere enlivened by the presence of an open fire, which is very welcoming at this season.
But our nearest serious urban centre is Volterra, some 7.5km by road. Volterra hugs the top of a long ridge, 530 metres above sea level, and has the distinction of being one of the oldest continuously occupied sites in Italy, there having been a settlement here as far back as the 8th century BC. It was an important Etruscan centre, and thereafter a Roman town; vestiges of both civilisations can be seen in the old Etruscan acropolis, and the ruins of the Roman Theatre and baths. Subsequently, it had the history common to towns in Tuscany – first a period of independence, then falling under the sway of Florence as a client state, and finally being absorbed into the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. It has survived all that – and the ravages of the modern world – very much intact, an almost perfect medieval walled town whose cobbled streets and piazza have barely changed since the 16th century.
On our first foray into town, we discovered that, far from having buttoned itself up for winter as we had expected, the place was buzzing with activity. Emerging from the car park, the first sign that something was up was the presence of a number of huge trailers of the type used by film companies; sure enough, Volterra has become 16th century Florence for the filming of the second season of the TV series The Medici: Masters of Florence. The main square, the Piazza Dei Priori, normally pristine, now had the untidy look that it would have had in the 15th century, complete with wooden market stalls (including fake sides of meat – made of wood! – hanging from their frames), a kind of stage on which simple theatrical performances of the commedia del arte type might have been staged, long wooden galleries along the front of the main buildings, lots of straw everywhere on the cobbles, very realistic-looking carts and carriages, and a dozen or so horses, who made their distinctive contribution to the atmosphere in the form of horse-piss and poo. In amongst all this, the actors and extras, dressed of course in Renaissance costume, wandered around smoking and talking on mobile phones while they waited for the next take. We stood around in the cold and joined the locals watching a couple of scenes being filmed, but filming is a long and tedious business, and before long we wandered off and left them to it, retreating to the comfort and warmth of the most popular cafe in town, L’Incontro, for a cappuccino and a cornetto (the Italian equivalent of the French croissant). This went on for pretty well the whole month, and eventually became vaguely annoying.
Despite the make-believe going on in the Piazza dei Priori, Volterra is in fact a real town where real people live, a fact that is more apparent when the tide of tourists has departed. Many restaurants have closed and won’t reopen until spring, but those that stay open are frequented by locals, who arrive en-masse from their various jobs around the town at between 1.00 pm and 1.30 pm, spend an hour or so enjoying lunch, and then disappear between 2:30 pm and 3:00 pm to go back to work. Though there are two good supermarkets just outside the walls, deep in the old town the alimentari (fruit and vegetable shop) and the macelleria (butcher) are still the shopping mainstay for residents of the city. And if you need a haircut (as we did) there is an excellent barber whose shop seems to be something of a drop-in centre for the older men of the city, who turn up, have a flick through the newspaper, chat with the barber, and then wander off, none of which disturbs his concentration in the least.
Robert also needed the services of a dentist, which we found down an alley off one of the main streets of the old town. Though none of the staff spoke any English at all, and the dentist himself only had a few words, as is almost always the case with Italians, everyone worked hard to overcome the linguistic challenges, and eventually the nature of Rob’s complaint was successfully diagnosed and treated, with lots of smiles and good humour all round.
Staying in a country house is a completely new experience for us; we are city boys at heart, and we found the deep silence of the country both beguiling and a little unnerving. Not being able to hear any traffic or the noise of passing people chatting in the street felt odd until we got used to it, and began to enjoy things like the quiet of the morning, broken only by distant twittering of a few birds and the occasional pop of a hunter’s rifle. At night, the darkness is almost complete, as there are no street lights on the road, and in the absence of moonlight the landscape just disappears into inky blackness, pierced here and there by the light from farmhouse windows. The upside of this is that one has only to take a few steps out away from the house to be confronted with the wonder of the heavens, more stars than I have ever seen.
Throughout our trip, we have made a point of eating at least lunch or dinner at home, and our stay at Mazzolla was no different, with the exception that where we had the luxury in the city of trotting down to the local shops to buy ingredients for the meals we wanted to make, here we had to plan a little more ahead, since the nearest supermarket is a 10 or 15 minute drive away. But having purchased the ingredients, cooking in the fabulously well equipped country kitchen was a joy, and with the weather continuing to be benign, we had lots of fine meals out on the loggia. In between cooking and eating, we were happy reading, doing a little more work on my novel, and sitting around the open fire in the evenings.
Beyond cooking, we didn’t have to lift a finger to do anything else. Every week, the two cleaners, Roberta and Piera, turned up to clean the whole house and change the linen, which was taken away by the other member of the team, an odd-job man named Luca, to be returned at the end of the week. Though all three were perfectly charming, none of them speak any English, so there were the usual comic moments as we tried to talk to them. Self interest, though, is a powerful motivator in these things. For example, it transpired that Roberta also runs an Agriturismo (a working farm with tourist accommodation) nearby, and she managed to make absolutely sure that we understood that, leaving us with a USB containing a video about it to entice us to stay next time we are in the area.
Luca, apart from doing odd jobs for the owners of La Colombaia Vecchia, and probably for other houses in the area for all I know, is also a hunter, and one morning as we were about to get into the car to drive off into town, he appeared at the top of the road, gun slung over his shoulder, and accompanied by a pair of excitable hunting dogs. Naturally, we stopped and had a bit of a chat, as best we could with our limited Italian, and we asked him whether he was off down the hill to go shooting. No, he said, not at all, he had already got his bag for the day; reaching into one pocket he produced, with an air of triumph, a small, very dead bird. Robert nearly jumped three feet backwards, and was even less impressed when Luca reached into another pocket and hauled out an equally dead wood pigeon of some kind. Presumably this was going to be his supper.
We didn’t spend all of our time at the house – though Volterra is itself a little off the beaten track, it is nonetheless very handy to the most famous towns of this part of Tuscany – San Gimignano and Siena, both of which we visited a couple of times. San Gimignano is famous, of course, for its towers, the remnants of an orgy of tower building in the medieval period that resulted in some 72 tower houses being built. These tower houses were not that uncommon in medieval times, as a defence against internecine conflict between powerful families, but where most cities tore them down as the civil environment settled, San Gimignano retained many, and there are today 14 of them, giving the place a mini-Manhattan sort of air. Siena is a larger town than San Gimignano, the home of a university, the site of the annual Palio horse race, and a generally prosperous looking hill town. Just having a wander through the central piazza, the campo, is a joy, as is the marvellous cathedral. We also managed visits to Livorno (an interesting if a bit gritty port town with a lively history), Colle val d’Elsa (a fairytale setting on the top of a ridge), and Cecina (a modern coastal centre with a big weekly market).
And so our month in the country passed, pleasant and for the most part uneventful. I don’t think either of us are about to abandon our urban lifestyle for the country, here or in Australia (though famous last words and all that …), but we really relished the opportunity to try it out for a month. For which we have to thank the house’s various owners, John and Judith Wregg, who originally bought the house and did a marvellous job of restoring was was then pretty much a shell, Peter Reeve and Jaycen Fletcher, our friends who are now part owners of the house and whom offered us the opportunity in the first place, and Eva Hucker, the other member of the consortium, who we have never met but who we also thank for allowing us the use of the house. Collectively, folks, you have a treasure here, and we very much appreciated sharing it for a bit.
And finally, I’d also like to thank the marvellous Siobhan and David, longtime residents of Tuscany, who act as a collective general factotum and contact point should we have needed any help. In the event we didn’t have too many crises requiring their intervention, but they were most helpful and became good friends over the month we were there; we hope we will see them again before too long.
From here, we move on to Genoa for a couple of days, and then we join a cruise ship, the MSC Splendida, for a 17 night/ 18 day cruise through the Mediterranean, down the Suez Canal and the Red Sea, ending up in Dubai, from where we fly home. This is therefore the last entry specifically related to the Two Gents adventure in Italy for 2017.
But stay tuned for further developments ….