It was six months since I met my little great nephew and niece in Germany for the first time. Marly Jane at 8 months is already walking and Haydn is talking a blue streak but he does have his calm and quite moments! Departure to Tuscany: What was projected to be a short hop from Frankfurt, turned out to be a day and night-long adventure due to a ground workers strike in Florence. We were rerouted to Bologna where a bus was supposed to take us to Florence but no one at the airport knew anything about any bus. There were 20 of us in the same predicament and by the time we got to Florence the airport was closed and our car rental Sixt didn’t wait for us. Digging deep into my high school Italian, opera, art history (as in pieta) and phrases from the God Father part 1, 2 and 3, I managed to persuade the police to call a nearby hotel and find us a reservation. When he told me there would be collazione I thought this meant that the hotel would ‘collect’ us by taxi ma non, it means breakfast is included! (see what I mean about my Italian.) But nowhere more than Italy will people sympathize with a stranger who is struggling to communicate in tormented fragmented phrases. Next morning we collected our car and managed to wind up almost in Rome due to a combination of construction and Elliott’s disbelief in my navigation. (We now own a GPS!)
Finally finally, after three hours (of beautiful scenery and me trying not to laugh/cry hysterically when Elliott pronounced Poggibonsi as Pellegrino—I get into this state whenever we have car problems) we bumped up the windy dirt road to Montecastelli to be greeted by a relieved and smiling Jens. I had been e-mailing him from my Treo not realizing that AT&T charges huge fees for e-mail when abroad. Each time Jens gave me a new instruction we had already passed the possibility of the reroute so we ended up coming all the way back to Florence and starting da cappo! Jens is a fantastic cook (among his multiplicity of talents—he also is an architect, linguist, and wine expert and each time I see him I find out he wears yet another hat!) He had a lovely lunch ready for us and the following day we made pasta together, sauced with tomato and garnished with herbs and the last of the season eggplant from the garden. He cut it into little cubes, salted it, let it sit for 30 minutes, rinsed it and dried it, and then sautéed it slowly in his Primo Olio (extra virgin olive oil which had been pressed from his own olives just the day before--utterly divine) until crispy. Elliott pronounced it the best eggplant he had ever tasted. It was sheer bliss dining with Jens and dear wife Ruth in the renovated monastery’s splendid dining room with huge wooden table and panoramic view of the rolling Tuscan hills and vineyards. The weather was rainy for most of the week but the ‘silver lining’ was the incredible mist and clouds that nestled into the hills, creating the illusion of islands in a misty sea. This photo was taken from the window at Arnolfo just as a magnificent storm was brewing. Each day another member of our group arrived until the weekend when everyone got together along with some delightful guests who were staying at Montecastelli. I could stay there for weeks and enjoy the endless array of fascinating friends (and clients who become friends) of the Schmits who come to visit. Elliott and I took several side trips to the nearby Colle Val d’Elsa, St. Gimignano, and Sienna, managing to get seriously lost on several occasions. The first time I didn’t have the Schmidt’s Italian phone number or address and night was falling. We stopped at the nearby town of Monteriggioni and asked the tourist office (that was closed but thankfully opened when they heard me knocking desperately on the door) to look up Montecastelli on the internet and they printed out directions. We might have missed Beef Steak a la Fiorentino that Jens was preparing in the fireplace grill that night along with fantastic roasted radicchio and potatoes! Colle Val dÉlsa Alto Colle Val dÉlsa Alto Elevator--The New and the Old Colle Val dÉlsa Alto View from the Top We also got lost on foot trying to find the parking lot at St. Gimignano, walking around the outside wall through fields of mud, stopping to remove three inches of mud that had stationed itself around our shoes (I wish I had a photo of that!) Our final solo side trip was to Sienna where we arranged to meet two members of the group who now live in Germany—Mitchell and Frederica—at a lovely restaurant, Osteria Le Loggia. Jens gave us directions to visit the Museu dei Fisiocritic where we saw the extraordinary wild mushroom exhibit pictured below. We stopped first at the restaurant to make sure we would find it in time for our rendezvous and in the window I noticed squab (piggeone) stuffed with chestnuts on the menu. Unfortunately, when we returned for lunch, the waiter informed me it was the menu from the day before but Frederica, sympathetic to my enthusiasm for the dish, asked the waiter if they had any leftover and he said “si!” (Lesson learned!) And it was one of the best things I ate all week. After lunch we visited the gallery Pinacoteca to see paintings of Becafumi at the recommendation of Ruth. The last day of the visit, Jens arranged a trip to his friend Marko Mantengoli’s beautiful vineyard La Resina, in Montalcino. We had a light but delicious salumi lunch and loved every one of the wines served. Afterwards we visited the nearby Monastery Sant’Antimo with the most exquisite setting amidst ancient olive trees pictured below. We came ‘home’ only to set out again to the lovely Colle Val d’Elsa Alto to visit the chestnut and new wine festival. Roasting Chestnuts Porcetta at the Festival And then we returned to Montecastelli to a suckling pig roasted on a spit by the Schmidt’s delightful friend Lazzaro Cimadoro, chef of the nearby restaurant Casalta in Strove where we had enjoyed a lovely dinner the first night of our arrival. In addition to the suckling pig there were 4 other fantastic courses including a molto memorable porcini soup, and fresh taglionlini with the most aromatic white truffles I’ve ever experienced. I’m sure anyone would agree that Tuscany is a glorious place to visit on every level but I have to say that nothing beats experiencing it basking in the warmth and hospitality of dear long-time friends. Epilogue (aka ever in search and appreciation of silver linings): I caught a cold on the return plane and in two weeks lost the 5 pounds gained in Tuscany!