Our Italian Year – January

By January 22, 2012 no comments Permalink

Melancholy arrived with the New Year. The novelty of our living in Italy had diminished somewhat. We’d fallen into a routine, and we also happened to be three months into a heavy rainy season. The sound of steady sheets on our terracotta roof had grown increasingly intolerable. Also, we were sick. Sophia had started at a nursery school down the hill in Florence proper. The Italians call this type of schooling asilo nido, which roughly translates to “nursery nest”, and this sounded pretty cute: Sophia spending half-a-day with adorable Italian children in a safe and loving nest. It was cute, except for the fact that every kid in the nest had a runny nose that no one seemed all that interested in wiping. So, soon enough, Sophia had a runny nose, too; Pam had a cough, and I had something sinister going on in my sinuses. Paolo gave me an iodine-like substance to drop in my nose a few times a day. “Brutta ma buona,” he called the medicine, “Ugly but good.” He had the ugly part right, and it did help, somewhat, but all three of us needed to get out of the soggy surroundings of Bagno a Ripoli, if, at least, to hear rain fall on a different roof for awhile. So we decided to pursue a little therapy and some great bottles of wine in one of our favorite places in all of Italy to visit.

Warm sulfur springs are common throughout Tuscany. Entire villages are devoted to the supposedly therapeutic “baths” which Italians have taken to for centuries as a cure-all. I was somewhat skeptical, but a particularly nice resort was recommended in an area of southern Tuscany that we adored. The Val d’Orcia is a spectacular stretch of rolling fields and ancient hilltop towns running horizontally across the blessed land south of Siena. The ample sun and open hills lend themselves to terroir that creates some of Italy’s most spectacular views and famous wines available in and between the towns of Monetpulciano, Pienza and Montalcino. If the sulfur baths couldn’t cure us, then the wines and countryside of the Val d’Orcia certainly could.

In the village of Bagno A Vignoni, we checked into a resort – a well-heeled hotel off the town square that wasn’t a public square at all but a steaming pool of hot sulfur water (pictured below). The vaporous water was piped into private pools, indoor and out, within the resort’s confines. Nice. Sort of. There was a stiff feel to the place. The medicinal odor permeated every open area and properly affected the disposition of the guests. People taking to the baths was apparently serious business. And Italians know their serious. Probably not the best environment for a two-year old, but Sophia managed fairly well at our first sit-down dinner, amongst the stilted conversations and curious inquiries about what brought an American family to this Italian hideaway. As usual, the Italians we met were surprised, and delighted, by the idea of our Italian year. Afterward, we took our first indoor dip in the glowing green pools. The emerald water soothed. Sophia floated. We frolicked for a while, and somewhere along the way, the density of our various ailments dissipated.

In the morning, Sophia wanted more swimming. So we took to the outside pools, which were particularly comforting in contrast to the chill, damp air. We were in the belly of a valley lined with olive groves and grape vines. Pewter clouds kept a lid on the surrounding hillsides, though no rain had fallen. The territory below Siena has distinct weather conditions, notably warmer and less rainy than the areas to the north. It wasn’t Spring Break, but more warmth and a lack of rain felt like a getaway, especially when submerged in steaming green water fortified with healing power. We swam all morning and then hit the road for a tour of the Val d’Orcia and our three favorite wine towns.

Montepulciano is a walled-in city high above eastern Tuscany. It’s reached after a long and winding drive, through various resorts and rustic hamlets, up and over and down and around the grape-lined hillsides. Within the walls is a charming city replete with narrow streets and more wine shops than you could visit in a year. The prize offering is the town’s namesake: Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, a hearty and sophisticated red which is an under-appreciated rival of its Tuscan neighbor from Montalcino. In January, there were very few tourists, so we wandered around town in near solitude, Sophia’s stroller clacking the cobblestone streets.

A Cypress-lined road leads dead west out of Montepulciano towards Pienza. The Val d’Orcia begins in swooning landscapes of low hills of yellow hay and verdant fields bordered by mighty Cypress trees. Even in winter, over undulating land, the breadth of sky and light seems endless. In the distance, ancient monasteries and farmhouses are framed in shadows. The lofted, tiny village of Pienza has one main corridor of enotecas (wine bars), churches, gifts shops and purveyors of the local specialty: Pecorino cheese. This is not the salty, grated step-sister of Parmesan, but fresh sheep’s cheese that is soft and sweet but still packing a punch. At an enoteca at the end of town, we enjoyed a Pecorino studded with black truffles, washed down with Vino Nobile. As Sophia slept, we took our time wandering along a walkway behind town that opens to the Val d’Orcia in dazzling splendor. High above the hills, we saw streaks of blue sky that felt like a blessing.

The steep drive up into Montalcino is spectacular and a little scary. It feels, in some ways, like you’re visiting God. Driving towards the sky provides a real sense of the elevation, the slant of the hills and the abundance of light which helps this area create such special grapes. Brunello di Montalcino is the granddaddy of Italian wines. It’s straight Sangiovese from these remarkable hills and climate, aged four years in oak barrels. It’s a hard wine to find and even harder to enjoy at the perfect time. Within the walled city, they offer premium vintages by the glass. In the old fortress converted into an enoteca, we dug into a couple goblets of Brunello along with a plate of salumi misto. We walked the serpentine streets, getting glimpses of endless countryside down the open alleys; we sat in candle-lit churches until the bells called out for a late lunch.

Outside the city walls, amongst the hills and hollows, small villages are immersed in the production of Brunello di Montalcino and its less-expensive little brother, Rosso di Montalcino (same grapes / less time in oak / half the price). San Angelo in Colle is the home of Il Poggione, our favorite Brunello and Rosso producer. After a late lunch in a sleepy trattoria off the town square, as Sophia chased pigeons under Pam’s care, I walked over to the office of Il Poggione, knocked on the door, shook a couple of hands, talked a little wine-smack, and bought a bottle of 99’ Brunello and a case of Rosso that I threw in the trunk of the car. It was time to head home to the baths and one more good swim in the therapeutic waters before returning in the morning to Bagno a Ripoli, with our bodies healed, our heads clear, some prized wine in the trunk and the memory of streaks of blue sky and a golden valley to get us through the rest of winter.


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