Two Weeks in Italy

Como and Tuscany, October 2019

I’ve been to Italy more than a half dozen times with family and friends, and it’s always been great.  It’s just a happy place.  How can it not be with the vast trove of art, excellent food, amazing views, great people and astounding architecture.  The last time I was in Tuscany was 2014.  There is a write up about that trip buried about 10 postings back, so I won’t repeat myself with any of the background information.  I will include highlights of the trip chronologically with some favorite photos in between.  I got an iPhone 11 Pro just before I left for the trip and I took thousands of amazing photos.  I cut them down to about a hundred of the ones I felt were either unusual, culturally interesting or just plain beautiful.

I will try to include names of the places we visited in case anyone wants to put a similar trip together.  We did the whole trip by car.  Yes, it takes a bit of getting used to . . . the tolls, narrow roads, and those crazy drivers that pass you going over 150 km/hr.  But it gave us the ability to change our plans on a daily basis if we wanted to spend more or less time in a specific town.  Thank you Google maps and GPS.

This time, including my wife and family members and friends, there were 6 of us on the excursion.  We flew into Milan and drove to the Lake Como area.   After flying all night, it was a bit of a white-knuckle drive into the mountains on VERY narrow streets, many with stone walls on both sides.   We stayed in Bellagio at the hotel Fioroni.  It was a good location just about a mile away from the town center, where the ferries stopped.  About all we could handle the first evening was a stroll and a great meal at an open-air, waterside restaurant.  Now that I think of it more than 75% of our meals were Al Fresco.  We went the second half of October so the crowds were gone, the weather was pleasantly cool and we lucked out with very little rain.

The Como area is at the foothills of the alps which provide an amazing backdrop for the views.  The area has been a favorite vacation spot and retreat since Roman times.   Lake Como is glacial and shaped like an inverted “V”.  It is about 30 miles long, very deep >1300 feet and quite clear with the bottom of the lake >600 feet below sea level.  The deep valley and lake make the climate more temperate than the surrounding area.  Ferries zig-zag across the lake between a number of interesting towns.  We got hop-on hop-off all-day ferry passes, a very convenient way to visit all the towns.  Day two we were able to visit all the towns on the upper half of the lake:  Varenna, Menaggio, Lenno, and Tremezzo where there is a nice museum and gardens at the Villa Carolotta.   Yes, that is a lot of towns for one day, but our day didn’t seem rushed, the ferries are frequent, and the towns are small.

The next day was a travel day with rain all day so we didn’t waste any good weather.   We stayed the next five days in Tuscany at The Villa de Fabbiolle, 34, in Impurneta.  It is on about 50 acres back a one lane road, quiet and restful. Restoration was performed from about 2000 to 2015 by the family who has owned it for a number of generations.  There is a full kitchen, inside/outside sitting rooms, five bedrooms, washer/drier, etc.  The three-foot-wide foundations go back to the 1200’s and the old section of the building dates to the 14th century.  The fireplace, roof, timbers and patio were added in the 1600’s.  The first evening the owners treated us to a great five course dinner.

Of course, Tuscany is known for the tall, cypress trees that come in two types, skinny and not so skinny.  Another symbol of Tuscany is the wild boar.  You can see boar’s heads as decorations in many of the small souvenir and food stores.  We were told that there are more than a million boars in Tuscany.  They hunt them in the winter trying to keep them under control as they are a scourge for the wineries since they like to eat the grapes.

Impurneta is central to some very important hill towns in Tuscany.  That’s why we used it as our base for 5-6 days.  On one side of the central square is the Basilica de Santa Maria, the Sanctuary of Santa Maria. The Basilica dates from 1060.  It was bombed out by the Allies in 1944 during WWII but is nicely restored and worth a visit.

The next morning, we were off early to Siena.  I had visited Siena on my previous trip but it’s a city one doesn’t tire of.  We parked near the sports stadium and took an endless set of escalators up to the old town where there are a number of very nice museums and churches.  I enjoyed eating again at the huge Piazza del Campo Pubblico.  I even spent some time people watching from a second story bistro.   The most impressive Duomo is the Romanesque-Gothic Siena Cathedral di Santa Maria, something not to miss.

We hired a driver for our next day of wine tastings.  Our first stop was the nicely restored hill town of San Gimignano.  The impressive Cathedral, Collegiate Church of Santa Maria Assunta, has the Santa Fina Chapel to the right side with frescoes entirely lining the walls.  They depict stories of the old and new testaments and were painted by illustrious artists of the Sienese School of the 14th century, notably Domenico Ghirlandaio.  The chapel also houses a number of relics of Saint (Sera) Fina.  I was amazed all week by the meticulous detailed restorations everywhere you look in every town. 

Our next stop was the family owned and operated Castello Monterinaldi winery.  We had a very nice lunch and tasting followed by a very interesting tour.  The grape harvest was only a week or two before so they were in the fermentation step.  This winery first just de-stems the grapes and puts them into cement fermentation tanks.  The grapes are gently crushed as the must is pumped out and back into the tanks every few days.  They were also experimenting with ceramic fermentation tanks, they called it old school.  Aging is of course in Oak.  

We then stopped at another family owned winery, the Casa Emma Vineyard.  The vineyard was bought in the 70’ss by Fiorella Lepri and named in honor of the previous owner, Emma Bizzarri.  Their methods were similar to what I have seen in California with large stainless-steel equipment for crushing and fermentation.  They were in the process of replanting some of their grape vines.  They remove the vines after about 50 years when the yields fall and then it takes about 5-6 years for the new vines to produce.  They were replanting some fields with Merlot and Cabernet.  As with most wineries they have olive trees and make olive oil as well as wine.

Sangiovese grapes can, of course, be grown anywhere but only Sangiovese grown in Tuscany can be called Chianti.  Chianti or Super Tuscany carries no specific rules. However Chianti Classico Appellation DOCG is covered by rules set up in 1714 and must be 80% Sangiovese grown in Tuscany.  The Classico always has a black rooster on the bottle neck which is the symbol of the whole Chianti area.

We noticed there were as many olive orchards as grape vineyards.  It turns out olives combines well with wine making.  Harvests and processing alternate and we saw them starting to pick olives while the wine was fermenting and aging.  Olives can be pressed immediately for oil but for eating the olives have to be soaked in water for 30-60 days, changing water weekly.  Then soaked in salt water for 30-60 days, changing salt water weekly.  I’m sure there is much more to it than that. 

The next day we drove to the tram that took us to the Frienze train station, within walking distance of the old town.  What can you (not) say about Frienze?….Cathedral de Santa Maria del Fiore, The David, Uffizi Gallery, Piazza della Repubblica….the cradle of the Renaissance, and of course, Ponte Vecchio, the medieval bridge over the Arno river, now home to jewelers, and art dealers.  There are so many churches and museums that a week couldn’t do it justice.  The Uffizi was overwhelming to me.  I took so many photos of amazing renaissance paintings and statues that it was numbing.  I started going through the galleries faster and faster just to make it out!!!!  The statues in the Plazzo Vecchio are a treat.   When we got back to the Duomo the sun was setting and the photos of the sunlight on the upper part of the structure were amazing.  The inside was equally remarkable.  We had dinner al fresco facing the front of the Cathedral.

We took a break from our hectic pace by next visiting a small hill town, Fiesole, several miles North of Frienze.  We had a beautiful view of the whole valley and the Domo in the distance.  There is a very nice restored church in the town but the real attraction for me was the Convento San Francesco, the San Francisco Monastery, founded in 1399.  The monastery is a long walk to the top of the hill.  For me the tiny semi-restored rooms that the monks lived and prayed in were most interesting.  The rooms had a small wooden plank bed on the one side and a desk or alter on the other side, and that’s it!  You could just imagine what it was like for them 600 years ago.

Next on our agenda was the town of Assisi, home to Saint Francis and Saint Clare.  It lies in the Umbria region of the province of Perugia.  My best overall description of Assisi is a hill town on steroids.  It’s huge and has seemingly countless Churches and Basilicas.  We drove right into the heart of the old part of the city and since it was off season at the last minute we were able to get rooms at the beautiful Hotel Giotto Assisi, Via Fontebella, built in 1899.  On our first day there we visited about 6 churches; mind boggling.  The most memorable was the 13th century Saint Clare, Basilica de Santa Chiara, with a beautiful pink and white façade.  The Basilica also contains the remains of Saint Clare.

The next day was simply amazing.  First was the Saint Francis Cathedral and Monastery consecrated in 1253.  Its 13th-century frescoes portray the life of St. Francis and are attributed to Giotto and Cimabue.  It’s actually two massive churches one built orthogonally on top of the other.  You don’t realize there is another church above you when you are in the bottom one, The public is not permitted in the massive Monastery.  Monks are everywhere.

We next drove to the nearby town of Santa Maria to see the Church of Devine Marie of the Angels, built in the 16th century.  It is famous for the “church within a church” or the Porziuncola which dates to the 9th century and is the church where St Francis founded the Franciscan movement.  It is actually a tiny church inside the huge Basilica and many priests were inside praying.

My final remembrance of Assisi was the massive Rocca Maggiore which is built at the very highest point of the town.  It is a partially restored, 14th century castle built atop the ruins of a Roman fort.  I can’t imagine building such a structure so long ago at such an inaccessible location.  Somehow, we found a one lane, harrowing road to the top.  You can look down at the many sights of Assisi through the actual narrow “windows” that were used to shoot arrows at anyone foolish enough to attack.

One of the most remarkable happenings was saved for the next to the last day.  My wife wanted to get the birth and marriage certificates of her great grandparents who immigrated to the USA around 1900.  They came from a small mountain town called Berceto which is in the Apennine Mountains in the Emilia-Romagna region.  I have to say I was skeptical of a positive outcome since little preparation had been made.  We arrived on the afternoon of October 31, in heavy, heavy fog earlier than planned.

We found out from the innkeeper where we were staying that the town records building would be closed the next day for All Saints Day.  We hurried over to the municipal building to find a small room surrounded by closets and shelves filled with very old hand-written journals and a man who really knew his job.  After pouring through these hundred-year-old records for about an hour he miraculously produced the birth and marriage records for her great grandparents!   He efficiently typed the information into his computer and produced official records, along with copies from the old records, with the town stamp for all three documents.  The next stop was the church and the actual alter where they were married.  Amazing!!!

On our last day we stopped in Parma and visited the Duomo with its amazing illusionistic fresco of the assumption by Antonio da Correggio.  It is believed to be built on the site of a Basilica from around 600.  The church construction started in 1059, but the structure received heavy damage caused by a powerful earthquake in 1117 and had to be rebuilt.

Back from our trip, we enjoyed the famous dried ham sausages, cheeses, wine and olive oil. It was a wonderful trip that we will always remember.

Well those are the highlights of our trip.  As I mentioned I could only include a small fraction of  the marvelous photos I took during the trip.  I have provided very short captions with the location or name.  It was very hard for me to pick out the most special part of the trip.  Perhaps the Roman ruin at the top of Assisi?  Or the Monk’s tiny living quarters of the Convento San Francesco in Fiesole?  Or obtaining the >100-year-old birth and marriage records?  Or one of the other amazing finds?   That is the mark of a special trip, many favorites. This was about my 8th trip to Italy and all have been great.  Italy is filled with amazing art and architecture, great food and as I always say, happy people.

Ralph Obenauf 4/2020

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