Fogged in

We awakened to a gray morning in the valley with fog just outside the window so thick you could see it hanging in clumps. Cheryl turned to me and said “Come stai oggi, how are you today?” “Sto male, I’m not well,” I said with a coarseness in my voice. It seemed that my sinus condition had worsened in the night and had reached a critical point. It was clearly time to see Francesco, our local pharmacist to ask what could be done for my deteriorating condition. 

We got dressed and went downstairs, and as was our custom, we flipped through the Italian dictionary to make sure that we had all of the words we needed to get right to the point. This was not the time for a miscue in communication—say it right one time, get some medicine, and then back home into bed.

Feeling well-prepared for the conversation, we got in the car and Cheryl drove us to Fiesole, the nearest town, where we hoped the pharmacy would be open. (We’ve been told by many shop owners that they are ALWAYS open, unless they’re not.)  I went in while Cheryl kept watch with the car, illegally parked on the sidewalk out front (that’s normal). To my dismay, Francesco wasn’t there, so I had to explain my condition to his associate/pharmacist I had never met before. I thought to myself, “My issue is rather simple and fairly common so it shouldn’t be a problem. With the season change, surely sinus issues are addressed daily.” With my confidence bolstered due to my self-reflection and recent language lesson brush-up, I approached the counter and stated my case. 

I’ll never forget that look!

I began my explanation in a pleading tone befitting someone not feeling well. I said, “Ho un’infezione nel mio seno, I have an infection in my sinus.” The look on the pharmacist’s face was one of both astonishment and confusion. Checking for possible errors, she cautiously asked me to repeat what I had just said, and so I did—loudly enough for everyone in line behind me to hear. Each customer was suddenly privy to the personal details of my condition. She then repeated it back to me in a questioning tone, with a look of slight repulsion, she began pointing to her breasts. What!?

My new best friends

Now, this really confused me. At first, as unbelievable as it may seem, I thought there was an outside chance she was hitting on me. Was I delirious? Surely, in my condition and in the pharmacy line, of all places, this could not be the case. Then, I instinctively pointed to my nose. Instantly, she was relieved about our seemingly imminent first date, and the issue was suddenly clear. There was an almost audible sigh of empathetic relief from all of my “new best friends” behind me. I turned and offered a polite but awkward smile. The pharmacist quickly prepared an appropriate remedy. I paid her in cash and gathered my gift-wrapped package (they sometimes do that in Italy and we have no idea why). I shuffled through the door, breathing a raspy sigh of relief, eager to begin administering my new healing regimen.

As I approached the car, I detected a look of embarrassed concern on Cheryl’s face. It seems that while I was inside the pharmacy, she was outside, practicing her reading skills. There was a large poster in the pharmacy window advertising a cream for breast enhancement. She had spotted the word seno and knew that I was inside at that very moment, asking for some help with my seno. Oooff. She knew before I did that, depending on the context, the word seno is unfortunately, the same for both sinus and breast (why oh why would they do that?) With 450,000 words in the Italian language, evidently, they couldn’t add one more? There was no pronunciation or even a grammar error this time. 

I’ll do better next time

To this day, I’m still troubled by the incident. Why, given the two choices between sinus or breast, did the pharmacist think that I meant breast, since I am obviously a man (I did though, at that very moment question my own masculinity). I was sure she could clearly hear the raspy nasal tone in my voice that indicated a sinus infection. Maybe I inadvertently placed my hand on my chest, giving her the wrong visual cue.

So from that day forward, I’m extremely careful to make sure my hand gestures are tightly synchronized with what I’m trying to say—just like any good Italian!

“Is there a more isolated house?” 

Climb aboard!

It seemed a simple question to pose to two Italian realtors. Without hesitation, we soon had our answer. Almost immediately, the more practical of the pair, feisty Inga, was at the wheel, maneuvering the old Jeep up the steep terrain. Her associate, Patrizia, stunning in her white knit pants, fitted shirt and lavender scarf tied stylishly around her neck, occupied the passenger seat. As Inga revved the engine, Patrizia turned and smiled to reassure us that everything was okay. Just after we turned off of the main road, Inga immediately threw her weight into the steering wheel for a hard left and we continued a steep climb. At one point, all we could see from the back seat was the dashboard because the road was completely obscured from view, due to the car’s jolting angle. Surely, this must be the top, we thought, as the grade leveled out a bit and we found ourselves passing between enormous old vacant barns and rusted grain silos. Inga paused only momentarily, grimacing as she engaged a stubborn gear, and then yanked the steering wheel hard to the right and away we went into the woods. 

Arriving at the top of the mountain

Surprised, we continued to climb up the rugged hillside, while brush and bushes slapped both sides of the Jeep. Rocks rolled down the hill while others crunched beneath the spinning tires as we bounced and jostled our way along. We felt a sudden lurch as Inga course-corrected after unintentionally dropping a tire into a huge pothole. Patrizia turned once again to offer another cautious, silent smile of reassurance. A few hundred feet further, Inga nearly stood on the brake pedal, bringing the Jeep to an abrupt halt. She then shifted into neutral, cut the engine and with a sharp tug, engaged the parking brake. Just for good measure, she kicked a large stone under the back tire. Then, as if nothing unusual had just happened, Patrizia smoothed her hair, adjusted her scarf and said with a gracious smile, “Andiamo, let’s go!” We emerged from the back seat to see—ruins. Not just something in need of minor repairs—serious ruins.

Barn In Ruins

There before us, was a small, dilapidated stucco, terra cotta and stone barn with a 3-inch wide diagonal crack running from its fallen roof all the way down past its dirt floor. Near the barn stood the delicately balanced pile of stones that once was a large house, as evidenced by a remaining 10-foot high stone corner. One wall jutted up far enough to hold the crumbling remnants of an old stone window opening. The adjacent partial wall was completely overgrown with vines that had surely gone unchecked for at least—umm, maybe 100 years?

Overtaken by nature

We couldn’t get too close to either the barn or the house, since brambles and weeds obstructed our way, completely covering the lower levels. We heard wild pheasants warbling in the nearby meadow. With nimble fingers, we lifted thorny branches and edged cautiously closer, remembering that in the undisturbed, abandoned parts of Tuscany there were undoubtedly many resident snakes—vipers among them—watching our every move.

The peaceful valley

We stood, staring from the ruins into the magnificent valley below. From that perch at the top of the hill we saw multiple layers of blue and gray mountains receding into the distance. Directly below us was an intimate valley in various shades of lush green vegetation. The landscape was broken with the occasional yellow stucco farmhouse, a castle tower and a couple of grand old villas. Silvery grey olive groves dotted the hillsides. Vineyards followed the contours, rolling like gentle green waves. On our far left, nestled within a distant pine grove stood a centuries-old monastery, Madonna del Sasso, with its own commanding view of the amazing valley. We were mesmerized, taking it all in, gazing into the distant past, smitten by the current breath-taking view—lovestruck.

Patrizia casually mentioned that Dante Alighieri, had a country home just down the hill in the late 1200s. She went on to say that he even penned his famous Divine Comedy while staying there. We were lost in thought. Then, after several minutes of silence, she said, “Allora, che pensate, so, what do you think?” 

Her question snapped us back to reality. With a quick glance and subtle nod to each other, we answered, curiously at the same time, “Perfetto, perfect!” Inga and Patrizia locked eyes and slightly raised their eyebrows. We’re sure we heard one of them utter to the other, “Pazzi Americani, crazy Americans!” Yet, we knew better. These RUINS would be the source of our inspiration. To rebuild the fallen stone walls was the perfect metaphor we needed to begin building our own dreams.

This story is a true “Italian Moment” that took place in the spring of 2000. 

Etruscan Wall – Fiesole

The farmers of Tuscany have faithfully tended this rocky Italian soil for many hundreds of years—even millennia. Perhaps that seems like an over-statement, but it’s true. The name Tuscany actually derives from the earliest settlers of the region in pre-Roman times, namely the Etruscans. They developed an advanced culture and were known for their peaceful nature. They created transportation systems, mining, art, and of course agriculture. Masters at working the land, their adept hands were the first to fell the trees and pull countless stones from the terra firma. That was 900 BC, which makes for nearly 3000 years of commitment to the land, as of this writing.

Tuscan Farmhouse

When we first came to Tuscany in the year 2000, we were captivated by the natural beauty. But, even more, we were mesmerized by the impeccable instinct to “design with nature.” Especially in the countryside, the villas, landscaping, colors, materials, the reflection of the sun, all worked together to create this seamless tapestry called Tuscany. We were fortunate enough to find our own piece of that landscape. From our simple hillside farmhouse, overlooking the valley, we’ve developed a deep appreciation as well as an obligation to maintain and preserve that which has come before us—for those who will come after.

Fiesole Today

The name of our farmhouse, which we share with two other Italian families, is Casale Pretena, which simply means, Pretena Farmhouse. But, there’s a twist. It turns out that the name isn’t exactly Italian, and that Pretena is most likely an Etruscan word that has been handed down through the generations. The local lore suggests that this land may very well have been part of an Etruscan settlement on the outskirts of the nearby famous Etruscan town of Fiesole, just three miles down the road. Many generations of farmers who tended this land over the centuries left their indelible mark and name. Just imagine: countless families were raised here; animals provided sustenance; healthy crops fed the young families and animals. Surely artists and artisans were among the early inhabitants, facing life’s many day-to-day challenges. Doubtless, tragedies occurred. but the hard-working people persevered. Because they did, we consider this a sacred site, where that collective soulful energy is still felt today.

Ancient Garden Spade

Indeed, this place has always been special to us, and we’re humbled by the opportunity to momentarily “tend the soil” in that long line of caretakers. We decided to use the beautiful garden as a canvas of sorts, to honor the memory of those families who came before. As a symbol of their labor, we have planted various ancient farming implements throughout the garden. These are tools that were essential to their lives—held in their hands. Each iron piece peeks out from the lush greenery to remind us that, ” This sacred place belongs to all of us. Take good care!”

Music

We wrote this song 20 years ago when we first found Pretena , conjuring the magic and mystery that surrounds this place. After all these years, this land continues to provide awe and inspiration for us! If you want to read the original story along with the lyrics, you can find them by clicking this link: “My Treasured Heart.”

Photos

Following is a photo gallery of the Pretena flower garden. We don’t tend crops and animals anymore like they did over the centuries, but we have done everything we can to create a special sense of the natural beauty of the place in honor of those who preceded us.

Etruscan Wall – Fiesole

Tenuta Monteloro—Antinori Vineyards

We are surrounded by vineyards of Antinori. Fortunately, they are one of the oldest wine-making families in the world and have learned quite a few things over the past 600 years. As a result, everything they do is precise, immaculate and beautiful. Perfect neighbors.

The vineyards are irresistible. They change constantly with each season, daily and even hourly.  The meticulous rows mesmerize us, forming the perfect backdrop for far-off-gazing, solitary contemplation or soulful conversation. But, beyond distant admiration, it’s even better to traipse silently into them. Walking through their alluring geometry has become an important morning ritual—with dawn’s crisp air, the natural cadence of muffled footsteps, the sight of an occasional leaping deer, darting rabbits, and the sun peeking over the distant mountain ridge. Nature’s wholesome aroma gently fills my lungs to the brim. Day after day I honor the beauty of the vineyards.

Purple Wildflower

This morning was even more delightful than usual. In summer, the paths surrounding the vineyards are dotted with purple wild flowers. They are hearty varietals indeed, because when I bent down to pick one for Cheryl, it was difficult to break the stem. They grow in the toughest conditions, so durability is required for survival. With persistence, I freed the tiny flower and held it close. It was even more beautiful than I expected—strong yet delicate. I carried it home as a present for my true love, like a naive schoolboy with my first girlfriend (nearly 50 years after our first encounter).

Then came the surprise. My focus on the purple flowers caused me to look closer still toward the ground-covering wildflowers. First, I saw the most colorful ones. Then, I started to see other less obvious flowers nearby. There was an obscure yellow bloom, then I noticed an unlikely tiny white-lace canopy that I had previously seen as a weed. Each blossom was now more interesting than before. I found myself standing in an abundant garden of everyday, unassuming flowers. Upon closer inspection, even the brown-red spiky thistle I always avoided became one of the most unique of the bunch. I plucked it from the dry earth, adding to my collection.

Wildflowers for my Love

What a wonderful metaphor for life! Incredible beauty is literally everywhere. We wander obliviously through a veritable garden, side-stepping that which we haven’t yet learned to appreciate. Value appears only when we have a shift of perspective. Certainly, everything is inherently valuable. Then suddenly, we simply decide to see it.

The tiny vase of wild flowers took its rightful place at the center of our table and our lives where we could be reminded daily of simple overlooked joys—those that await an aware gaze. Our eyes open, and a tiny new panorama is freshly taken in. Exhilarating!

 

Pratomagno View

The Pratomagno mountains near Florence are full of wonderful moderate hiking trails. Many of them are anelli (rings) that are relatively easy half-day treks, perfect for a cool early-morning start that finishes before the summer day heats-up. The trails wander through the dense wooded hills, crossing small villages with charming farm houses, ruins, villas, country churches and castles. Everything is picturesque so there are photo-ops at every turn.

Ferrano Castle Tower

One especially interesting circular hike is called the Borselli-Ferrano anello, where you will find the beautiful Castello di Ferrano and Chiesa di Santa Maria (1574), along with interesting country farmhouses and knock-your-socks-off panoramas that are sure to slow you down for a prolonged gander. Following are some photos we took that will give you a feel for the historic buildings, terrain and scenery.

We have written two other related stories about similar hikes, in the same area that you might want to check out: the ruins of Lavacchio and the Nippozzano castle. Both hikes, guarantee a delightful morning in nature, with significant Tuscan scenery in which to contemplate. We’re definitely not in Kansas anymore!

The ancient proverb “Seeing is believing” has been around since 1639, and means that only tangible evidence is truly convincing. However, living in Italy has shown us that just the opposite can also be true—”believing is seeing.” Thus begins a short tale about a window.

Our First Attempt

We live in an old Italian farmhouse in the hills north of Florence. The Italians take tradition and culture very seriously, so the look of the buildings and the landscape are guarded like gold. Construction formulas have been around seemingly forever, so details can rarely change—if ever. In a farmhouse, for example, there’s a formula for natural light-to-interior space. But there is also a formula limiting openings in exterior walls. It was not unusual to have a large blank wall, punctuated with only a single small window and a door. So if you want a second window, for more light or to balance the facade—well, that’s just too bad. There’s no way the formula can be altered. But in our case, the aesthetic sensibilities outweigh the formula. We are bothered by a large bleak, blank wall. Okay, we know that the formula was derived long ago when too many windows meant heat loss. But central heating is all the rage now, right? So what to do?

Inside Window

We decided that we could hang an old metal grille on the outside wall. Of course, we’d paint a soft gray border around it to suggest a typical Tuscan window, traditionally framed with pietra serena (stone). So that’s what we did. No wall was pierced in the placement of the “art” as we call it, and everything we’ve done is “temporary,” which means “removable” to the authorities. We could simply paint over our faux window one day, as if nothing ever changed. Our first try was to use wood shutters, but they didn’t weather well. So we moved on to an iron solution which would last a lifetime. Our eventual imaginary window solution was pretty doggone convincing, but we weren’t quite finished yet. No. We realized that we needed a corresponding window on the inside as well. So, we went to the nearby town of Sieci, to a Mercato di Usato (the market for old, used things), where we found a sweet little wood window with beveled glass. After cleaning and refinishing, up it went, behind the mosquito net over the bed in the guest room. Voilà!

The Old Iron Grille

As you can see, our collective imaginations took a slight detour when the real window was vietato (forbidden). Now, we have the window that we thought the blank wall yearned for, some 18 years later, with one little missing caveat—you can’t actually see through it. But that doesn’t really matter. We turned a “No!” into a definite “Yes!” and nobody got hurt or did anything too drastic in the process. Seeing the window is almost believing it. But for us, the notion of believing it first provided the possibility, which ultimately made artistic expression possible. We may not have an actual opening onto the nearby moody valley, but sometimes a vision is better than a view!

 

One might call an abandoned house a haunted ruins, but we like to think of it as a container, filled with stories just waiting to be told and retold—built and rebuilt—lived and relived.

Peaceful Setting

While walking the woods and back-roads of Tuscany, it is inevitabile that you’ll come across at least one unexpected hidden gem. The other day, while hiking the Borselli-Castelnuovo anello (circle or loop) in the early hours of the morning, we found one of those ancient places called the “Houses of Lavacchio.” Not every ruins is noteworthy, but this one made us pause longer than usual as we got wrapped-up in its story—his-story (or rather, her-story, since we all know that houses are female).

Lavacchio Ruins

Who lived there? When was it built? What were the people like and were there children playing? Why did they leave? Was it their dream to be perched up on that hillside at the top of the mountain called Pratomagno with an incredible panoramic view of the Tuscan hills beyond? Why hasn’t anyone bought it to breathe new life into those old stone walls? And so the questions and conversation continued as we walked the long and gentle road leading to the houses, imagining the past and the future of this forgotten place. It was easy to drift into fantasy amid the cool summer breezes and the tender sounds of the country—the birds, the buzzing of the bees and even a baby cinghiale (wild boar), scurrying from the underbrush along the side of the road, confused and running for cover.

Slowly Collapsing

The roofs of the ghostly houses were mostly long gone, now becoming great piles of splintered wood beams and clay tiles, randomly collapsed into the rooms below. Plants were growing everywhere in and around the decaying rubble, vying for their own claim on the future. Even the brick and stone walls were falling into the fray—water creeping into every vulnerable cracked mortar joint to expand with each consecutive freeze and thaw—slowly . . . oh so slowly—pushing and prying away at every weighty piece that was carefully and intentionally laid in place by strong  hands. The first people of Lavacchio surely meant for their labors to last longer than their lifetimes, in fact they anticipated the houses would be there for generations to come. Actually, as true Tuscans they would have set their sights on nothing short of “forever.”

Imagine It

We don’t know when it was built, but the years for Lavacchio could easily be counted in the hundreds since the crumbling of the roof and walls to this point in time surely would have taken the better part of a century. We imagined that some new, vibrant, young energetic pioneers will arrive some day and be overcome with vision and the spirit of adventure. They will claim this lost artifact as their own, and return that sacred space perched on the side of the mountain to its former glory. Falling in love with the remote life, they will likely create a vegetable garden, and will perhaps tend chickens, cows, pigs, rabbits and sheep—many of which will live in the restored stalls beneath the houses. Of course a few cats and dogs will complete the picture along with a horse or two for evening rides through the wooded hillside. Life will certainly be sweet.

Road to Lavacchio

Until then, we will continue to enjoy our hikes and allow ourselves to fall madly in love with the thousands of romantic Tuscan possibilities, as our vivid imaginings of exciting reclamations abound. Oh, those dreams and futures that lay waiting to be discovered and recovered from beneath the rubble! This tarnished gem just happened to be along trail number 25, on the “road to Lavacchio.”

We love hiking the Tuscan “anelli” (rings).

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The Destination

We typically drive to a trail head, hike the route and return to our starting point. Each anello is unique. The one to Nipozzano Castle was exceptional! If you like castles, wine, beautiful Tuscan scenery, we suggest you visit the site called Sentieri di Toscana (Tuscan Trails). The Nipozzano is nothing short of magic. It is a hilltop hike which took us about 4 hours, including miscues, intentional wandering and many photo stops along the way. Have a look at the photo gallery we’ve included and the details to get you into a hiking frame of mind.

Frescobaldi Vineyards

On a slightly overcast mid-November day, we set out in search of the castle. Summer would surely have found the small town buzzing with activity, but we prefer feeling like we’re the only ones to ever discover a place, so an off-season, unplanned visit is perfect for us. However, with a little planning during the high-season, you will likely find a few tours available, and possibly discover a wine tasting reward at the end of your trek. Nipozzano is home to the famous Frescobaldi brand, one of the ancient Italian names synonymous with fine wine. The vineyards completely surround the castle.

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1000 Year Old Castle

Here’s some background about the castle-town Nipozzano. The castle dates back to the year 1000, and is nestled in the heart of Tuscany just a bit north-east of Florence. Situated on a picturesque hilltop in the Appenine mountain range, it was originally built as a fortress for the protection of Florence, which is tucked into the Arno River valley below. Local lore has it that in centuries past, the word nipozzano, meant “without well.” Since the entire region can be somewhat arid and rocky, you can imagine how the location is considered perfect for vineyards. Early records indicate that during the Renaissance, famous artists/sculptors such as Donatello would visit the castle to buy wine. This was also the “neighborhood” where author/poet Dante Alighieri wandered the romantic hillsides in the 1300s. He surely would have been familiar with the famous castle, vineyards and olive groves.

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Albereta Beyond

The hike begins and ends in the small town of Albereta just outside the larger river-town of Pontassieve, which is situated east of Florence. A description of the trail and a Google-earth map are the only links you need to find your way up the quasi-gradual slopes toward the castle above. The marked trail meanders along the surrounding hillsides making the climb fairly moderate. So as not to fatigue trekkers, you’ll find yourselves zigzagging, always upward. As you circle higher toward the castle, you will enjoy the ever-changing, absolutely beautiful distant views. Soon, among the manicured olive groves and earthy stone walls, you will arrive at the destination. Wow! What vistas of the expansive vineyards, villas and farms below! After enjoying the magical panoramas from atop the castle, the return route descends more steeply down the hillside toward the Arno and Albereta.

We hope you enjoy the following photo gallery, and plan to visit Tuscany for a hike or two on the thousands of gorgeous trails—each one a picture-postcard photo at every turn.

High in the Appenine mountains of Tuscany, in the middle of a dense forest of fir and beech trees, rests the majestic  Benedictine Monastery of Vallombrosa, founded in 1038. It is a magical tribute to the power of spirit to move mankind. After many changes over the centuries, it remains to this day as a model of fifteenth century grandeur—for all to enjoy. The peaceful setting has been an inspiration to countless visitors over the years. (more…)