I’m usually fidgety on plane rides of any length, and my previous overnight trips to Europe had been disasters of insomnia that left me bleary-eyed and displaced for the first few days on foreign soil. But I slept almost the entire flight from New York to Nice. The exhaustion from all the preparation of leaving the country for a year, mixed with all the anxiety of leaving the country for a year made a cocktail that left me in a deep sleep over the Atlantic (a couple of actual cocktails helped, too). The early September morning on the Cote d’Azur was spectacular, a pristine blue sky and clear, cool air. We had to stop in the south of France to pick up our rental car since the rate there halved what we would have paid in Italy (don’t ask me why). Our dark blue, brand new, 5-speed Volkswagen Passat was a rocket ship. After we packed in our belongings and strapped in Sophia, I jerked our new car out of the airport and followed signs to the motorway the bordered the Riviera. We joined the roadway in the direction of Italy.
The road wound through the cliffs above the sea. It felt like a Grand Prix race event, with cars jockeying and rushing and blasting through the tunnels carved through the steep mountains. I kept my enthusiasm under control as we twisted our way past famous French Riviera towns like Cannes and Antibes, as well as the fairyland of Monaco. Many of these locations were attractive to tourists, but I’d booked us a room for our first night at a very special resort on the Riviera’s Italian side, and I couldn’t wait to arrive.
Rapallo is an elegant seaside town of pastel buildings faded by the sea air. We exited the highway and rolled slowly through the quaint streets canopied by towering palm trees, following signs for the Excelsior Palace Hotel. Towards the cliffs beyond town was a tree-lined drive up a steep incline. I bumped the Passat up the hill and left it with a smiling, uniformed man in the high-hedged landing aside a brilliant-white palace. Sun slashed across the open sky and salty breezes accompanied us inside. Everything felt dreamlike. The interior was pristine and full of light. Enormous windows showed nothing but sea beyond. Even wind-blown and travel-worn, we rolled inside like royalty from across the sea and were greeted with the type of Italian graciousness we would enjoy throughout our year.
We checked into our lovely room with a balcony high above the large terrace and pool area and the cabanas on the cliff above the gulf in the Tyrrhenian Sea. We quickly changed into our swim gear. After settling into some lounge chairs beside the infinity pool (see: picture), I left Pam and Sophia in order to explore the access to the coast. A cobbled path led sharply down to the cove nestled beneath the rocky shoreline. Light bounced off everything. I dove off a rock into the hard, green sea. Emerald light slanted through the water as I swam through the churning depths. I surfaced and stroked for the wooden dock that floated 50 yards off the shore. Swimming in this strange sea felt like gliding on salty, buoyant water. I made the platform and sat facing the shore. The wind and sun began to dry the brackish water on my back as Pam and Sophia eased down the path to find me. From the rocks, they waived to me on my little island. I waived back, alive with a massive sense of accomplishment (and relief). The next morning we’d be off to our new home in the hills directly south of the city of Florence.
Our New Home – Welcome to Bagno a Ripoli
In preparation for the invasion of Florence during World War II, the Allied troops positioned themselves in the hills south of the city. From a strategic standpoint, it was an excellent choice: mere kilometers to the city center, undulating topography with plenty of cover, small villages of generous residents anxious for liberation. No wonder the invasion was a success.
The Comune di Bagno a Ripoli is a municipality of hamlets posited throughout the countryside directly south of Florence between the rivers Arno and Ema. The city proper fades as the roads rise and curve along stone walls, bordering fields of grape vines and olive groves amidst the explosion of green. It’s an escape, in a matter of few minutes, from the active city into the secluded Tuscan countryside.
As a central location, Antella is the most traditional and accessible of the comune’s villages. Nestled in a hollow, the horse-shoe shaped hamlet offers all the amenities of a small Italian town. The square has a statue of a local hero and a church with a tower of enormous bells. Charming shops line the square and dot the side streets: bar (cafe), pasticerria (pastries and gelato), alimentari (gourmet market), forno (bakery), and, of course, macalleria (butcher). The town’s butcher would later become one of our hosts, but our first ambassadors to Italy were our landlords and (soon to be) friends, Marta & Paolo.
We lived on their property in a renovated barn next to the villa (see: picture), separated by a dozen yards of terracotta terrace, a high-wooden fence and a very large dog named Cuto. Marta & Paolo were a lovely, retired couple of Florentine ancestry. She was a former school teacher who spoke perfect English, and Paolo, until recently, was a surgeon who had as much English as I did Italian, which made us compatriots. Even in retirement, they were tireless workers: Marta, immaculately dressed, tending to the amazing flora of their flowing property, while Paolo worked the olive grove beyond the barn, made repairs to the ancient buildings and chopped wood like a man half his age. They were the reason we chose to live in Bagno a Ripoli. There was comfort in their kindness and competence. The property also happened to be spectacular, high up a rocky road lined with cypress trees, bordered by a valley bursting with color and growth. The villa lay on a ridge, up a short & steep private drive accessed through a secure wooden gate. The nearest neighbors were perched in villas further up the road or across the valley. We were in good hands in a beautiful location. It was time to find our way…