Italy in the Country

“Where you are is who you are. The further inside you the place moves, the more your identity is intertwined with it. Never casual, the choice of place is the choice of something you crave.” F. Mayes

It was night when we finally arrived in Tuscany and we rolled down the windows to smell the fields of wildflowers as we navigated the winding hills in search of our destination. We originally chose Tuscany so we’d have peace and quiet with a slower pace compared to some of our previous destinations.

Everything in Tuscany looked like it was placed there for a painting, from the rolling vineyards, to the rows of figs and lemon trees, to the lit up farmhouses with large families sitting down for dinner. We kept the large windows open all day and night and our host instructed us to never lock the front door because the wind would blow it shut, locking us out. 

The wildlife in Tuscany was loud and bountiful, at night we’d be awoken by the growl of wolves outside our window, or a boar sharpening its tusks on a tree. Our city kids couldn’t handle the wolves coming out at dusk and would dash home from the pool every day at sunset like clockwork. Even though we had a large house with separate rooms for each of them, the animal noises emanating from the open windows convinced them that a slumber party sounded like a good idea. After they fell asleep, my wife and I sat outside watching the fields dance in the wind, choreographed to the howls of coyotes in the distance. 

We expected a spa weekend sampling wines in Tuscany, but what we got was an ancient house surrounded by predators in the middle of a pitch black vineyard. It reminded me of camping; we had limited supplies, we were sharing our space with insects and wildlife, we made coffee over an open flame, and we spent our time together, telling ghost stories and playing charades. Tuscany wasn't the relaxing escape my wife and I were looking for, but it opened our eyes to a more traditional lifestyle less isolated from the natural world.

We departed for the Casalvento winery since it was listed on the Travelchannel site as the top rated winery in the world. Our expectations were high after discovering that the winery was first inhabited by the Etruscans in 500BC and it served as a fortified border post during the interminable wars. However, upon arrival we learned a valuable lesson about Tuscany, if you want to taste wine you should go to a sommelier, not a winery.

We pulled up to the Casalvento Winery after driving down a dusty white stone road and found an empty parking lot. After taking in the panoramic view of the countryside we ventured inside to explore further. A vintner greeted us and we requested a tour and tasting, but she was more concerned that we brought children to her secluded vineyard. 

She agreed to allow us to taste a few wines, but explained that the tours need to be reserved ahead of time. When I said we’d be there all week and asked for the available times, she persisted that nothing was available and I didn’t push it further. I asked to see a tasting menu, but she explained that there wasn’t one and asked again which wines we wanted to taste. I replied that we’d like to taste all of them, but she was less than amused and my wife took over the conversation from there. 

Our kids took up residence at a nearby table to quietly entertain themselves with the art supplies we brought. I think that my patient children, wives Southern charm, and willingness to purchase several bottles of wine convinced our previously cold-natured host that maybe her preconceptions about cheap-obnoxious American families were unfounded. She offered to give us a free tour of the wine cellar and bottling floor and we enjoyed listening to her explain the winemaking process. 

We asked for a glass of wine to consume outside and relax, but were told that wineries in Tuscany don’t have a liquor license. Therefore, they can allow patrons to sample wines, but can’t open a bottle or allow them to drink a glass on the property. However, our host at the winery was now completely enamored with our kids so she graciously called the affiliated Livernano resort and set us up with a private reservation. The vintner told us they had a private restaurant where we could enjoy a few glasses of wine, and she even said the kids could swim in their pool. We left excited and made the half hour drive through the secluded hillside to her sister location.

We arrived to a closed gate at Livernano, and due to the language barrier, proving we called ahead and had permission to be on the property was difficult. Eventually they allowed us to stay for a couple glasses of wine, but we received the same cold shoulder the Casalvento Winery initially showed us from both the guests and employees. It was that same “How did they find us?” look that we received previously in the French countryside.

After spending an entire day jumping from one winery to another we found out that the best way to experience a wine tasting is to visit a nearby commune like Radda in Chianti and find a Sommelier at a wine shop, this way you can taste a variety of wines from the region catered to your specific tastes without having to go on a long quest to find each vineyard. There is a great sense of community in these small communes and they welcome tourists like a large family inviting guests over for dinner.

On our way to Siena, after passing dozens of RV parks and campgrounds, we stopped in the small hillside town of Radda for lunch and some playground time. The view was amazing so my wife and I took a lap around the stone enclosed park, sipping wine while the kids played on the pirate ship themed jungle gym. We ate at a local cafe and purchased an assortment of pastries while my daughter posted a picture she drew on the Book Crossing bulletin board. We saw several of these boards in various places throughout Italy and they’re used by passing children to trade reading materials.

We continued on to Siena, but decided to return to Radda in Chianti the next day because we were so impressed by their little gem of a community that we wanted to really dedicate some additional time to exploring its other hidden treasures. Within it we found fantastic stores for authentic Italian cooking tools, along with knowledgeable sommeliers, custom dress designers, a local farmers market, great food, and talented leather smiths. We spent all day here, walking its stone paths, winding through parks, sampling their gelaterias, and petting the numerous kittens prowling the town. My daughter and wife purchased custom dresses tailored to them with screen printed silk, as the Italian shopkeepers cheered "Bella! Bella!" every time they emerged from the fitting rooms.

In other stores though, most owners absolutely hated when the children touched anything and they were loudly yelled at in Italian several times, scaring them into keeping their hands in their pockets. This was common in France as well and they were scolded there when they attempted to read books in a comic shop. I assumed this was a part of the liability culture in America where if someone’s child breaks something then their parents pay for it. That kind of disposable culture doesn’t exist in Italy because paying for an item after its broken still takes it away from someone in the local community that could have used it. 

We finished the night with another wonderful meal and extremely personable waitress who charged my phone for me and made me at least try everything on my plate before she would clear my setting for dessert. We again had to be patient with the local custom of eating dinner late and were held hostage by the restaurant from 6:30 PM until 10:00 PM, but we’d learned by this time to just accept it, so we chatted with our waitress and watched the sunset while enjoying numerous desserts and coffees. The kids went outside to kick a soccer ball in the alley, as there is always a soccer ball within reach in Italy if you need one, kind of like a fire extinguisher. 

Throughout our meal whenever a baby would enter the dining room, the entire staff would stop what they were doing and rush over to give the infant a swarm of attention while the parents would gladly relinquish the child to the staff for a much appreciated break. The true beauty of Italy is found in its people and their ability to make you feel at home in any situation.

As I mentioned before, our Tuscan farmhouse was isolated on a remote hillside and our time on the property led to some unforeseen challenges that ended providing us with some of the best memories of our trip. When we first arrived we were so accustomed to civilization that we figured we’d drop our bags off, retrieve the key, and then find somewhere to eat dinner. The kids were hungry after a long day at the beach in Pisa, and I was tired from getting lost while trying to navigate the dirt roads that could barely support a donkey pulling a cart.

We dropped off the kids at the farmhouse, and since it was now late, we knew we weren’t going to find a restaurant so we set off looking for a grocery store. After driving around for almost an hour we found a gas station and decided some candy bars would have to suffice until morning. 

We passed a couple Italian cowboys sitting out front playing cards and drinking wine as we went inside to search for soda and junk food. The shopkeeper was a young woman in her 30s who had just been married earlier in the day, which made sense considering the cans tied to the back of her convertible parked in the space next to our car.

She could tell we were buying too much food for just us and asked who it was for, after we explained the situation with our kids she told us to put the snacks away and said she’d be back in a moment as she disappeared into the back room. She returned with a variety of meats, cheeses, breads and even a panini press, then she proceeded to cook our three kids some homemade Italian sandwiches, free of charge. 

She wrapped them up nicely for us, I grabbed some drinks from the vending machine, and she carried them out to our car with us while telling us about her wedding earlier in the day. In America this kind of personal assistance would be almost suspicious, but in Italy there was no ulterior motive, they just treat every stranger like a member of their family.

The next day I decided to wake up early and find a grocery store to get some redemption for my previous paternal failures in feeding my family the night before. I found a COOP store about forty minutes away from our farmhouse, and this massive building resembled a Super Walmart on steroids. 

This castle of commerce was centrally located and shared by all the residents of the neighboring Tuscan villages. By limiting the development of competing corporations it may stifle convenience for the residents, but they prefer to preserve the inspirational countryside and historical significance of the land. Tuscan residents prefer a longer drive to the grocery store rather than looking at a memorial to corporate greed in their quaint communes on a daily basis.

Being in a new location makes even the most mundane chores exciting, and grocery shopping in Tuscany was no exception. The store itself used a Scan-as-you-go system where they give you a handheld scanner upon arrival and you itemize your groceries with it as you put them into your cart. The jams were jarred locally with ribbons tied to the lids and made for some fantastic PB&Js, but finding all the items on my list turned into quite the scavenger hunt. The employees were very helpful and graciously directed me after using the robot voice on my phone to translate my confusing accent.

Luckily, an elderly American migrant behind me in the checkout line translated the frustrated clerk after I tried to carry my items out in the cart and she scolded me. Apparently despite my insistence, I couldn’t take the cart into the parking lot and I’d have to purchase reusable bags. The people of Italy and France make the fight against climate change and waste a top priority, and I couldn’t help but feel guilty for expecting to be handed a dozen plastic bags with my grocery purchase. I purchased several bags from the irate teller and I brought them back home, along with a more climate-friendly shopping habit.

We celebrated our stocked refrigerator with a Tuscan lunch as we watched thunderstorms from our open kitchen window water the vineyards like a giant sponge squeezed from the sky.

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