Enjoying Late Fall in Tuscany
We are in the last week of our time in Italy. It’s difficult to believe that it is almost over. When I think back to what things were like in the first few weeks after we arrived, this seems like a completely different Tuscany.
I think there are 2 main reasons for this change. One is mother nature. We live in the countryside outside of Florence and have front row seats to the changing weather and environment. Being from California, I expected to be impressed by the change of seasons here, which I don’t see at home. And yet, I have been so surprised. You see, I’ve been to Tuscany in Fall before. My business partner Brandy and I were just here last October scouting new villas. But it was rainy, cold and grey on that early October trip. This year has been different. Everyone is talking about the strange weather. The summer was wet and cool. In fact it was so wet and cool that conditions did not permit for a proper olive crop, and apparently Tuscan olives went largely (or completely) unharvested. This is bad news for the olive oil producers. Things did not heat up until very late in August, and even then it did not get very hot. This was right when we arrived, just in time for the rain to stop and the lush green hills to emerge from behind grey skies. But wet weather creates the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes so we paid a price for the beautiful, long Indian summer that we enjoyed.
The weather did not get even remotely cool until late into October. Even now it’s just not that cold. The rain did finally arrive. But when the clouds part, the view is astounding. I simply wasn’t expecting such reds, oranges and yellows. I should have been, but I wasn’t. Here we are in mid-November and the Tuscan hills seem to be at their peak of beauty. I drove the local highway from Florence to Siena last week and could not stop gawking out the window. I say I’ve been to Tuscany in the Fall before, but early October has nothing on what I’m seeing now.
The other reason for this new Tuscany we are experiencing is that we have changed. The first weeks after arrival were a frenzy of activity, as I tried to fit in every possible day trip and then madly blog about it, before the weather changed. It was like this big deadline– It will be harder to do things when the weather changes. But slowly we began to settle down and start really doing things. We stopped driving out of town on the weekends, took up some hobbies and several houseguests.
The kids began taking an art class in Florence each Sunday from an old friend who taught me art when I lived here 5 years ago. Tim McGuire is an amazing artist, teacher and just an all-around cool person. The kids love his class and look forward to it each week. I now have the beginnings of a sculpture collection. Don’t ask me how I’m going to transport these home later this week, but I do think they’re pretty great.
I signed up for an art history class that meets every Thursday at a different location in Florence. Elaine Ruffolo is a local art historian (originally American) with a tremendous amount of knowledge and her class is fascinating. She approaches her course as a walk through Florence’s history, beginning with Florence as an ancient Roman city, then a medieval city ruled by wealthy families building towers all over town, then as a center of the early Renaissance, through the black death (plague) and into the high Renaissance. Last week we toured Santa Maria Novella, which is lovely from the outside but to me was always just “that church by the train station.” Stepping inside, my eyes were immediately drawn upward toward the gothic-inspired ceiling and I was awestruck (photo to the right).
The week before was my first time in the majestic Franciscan church of Santa Croce. I’ve always loved this church’s piazza and surrounding neighborhood. Little did I know that its location was chosen by 13th century monks in order to be closest to the most destitute of Florence. I loved learning about the life of St. Francis and visiting the tombs of Michelangelo, Machiavelli and others. Elaine tells us that one of Florence’s most important works of art lives in Santa Croce, a fresco by Giotto from the early 1300s. He captured true emotion in his narrative piece depicting St. Francis’ death, and was way ahead of his time (photo to the left). I also learned a very important lesson that day about frescoes. I knew they were hard to do and that there are some really well-maintained old ones in existence, but didn’t really know much more about them. To paint “al fresco” is to incorporate paint into wet plaster on the wall, which is very difficult to do without dripping everywhere and drying too fast with mistakes. The paint is sealed into the plaster and lasts as long as the plaster lasts. To paint on top of dry plaster is called “al secco,” is a lot easier, but is subject to chipping away. I’m glad these fresco artists were forward-thinking. This week we will meet at the Bargello, which I know is the old Florentine prison and now houses beautiful sculptures. I’m sure to hear some gruesome stories that will make the plague lesson seem like a walk in the park.
When Elaine announced she would not begin this class until late October, I wondered why. It might rain a lot while we’re walking around, it will be cold. I didn’t get it, until I got it. It’s quiet in Florence. We’re the only group walking around the major monuments and museums. Elaine has said several times that late Fall is her favorite time in Florence. As I walk out my front door past this ridiculously orange tree that looks like a maple and is shedding chocolate brown leaves on my car (photo to the right), past the persimmon tree with its gorgeous orange fruit (does anyone actually eat those?), with a rainbow lighting up the sky as I drive into town for her class, I think I get it now. It is awesome. Just don’t forget your umbrella.
Another hobby we’ve taken up is cooking. To the left is a photo of my Tuscan kitchen. I can’t say this is where the magic happens, because I’m not a great cook. But it has been a lovely little kitchen.
Luckily there is a funky little restaurant in our tiny suburb, where the kids love that every chair and glass is unique (no 2 are alike, at all), and where the waitress Francesca recognizes my voice on the phone. Here’s Osteria Staccia Buratta on the night we took our visitors Brandy and Brooke Stroh.
When my in-laws Ginny & Jack Kavanaugh came to town, we attended a cooking class at one of Tuscan Travel Group’s villas, Casa di Lusso. Brandy and I stayed at the property almost 2 years ago and we had not forgotten their beautiful Tuscan kitchen. I was really looking forward to taking a class there. Casa di Lusso’s head chef, Susanna, was amazing. She ran a hands on pasta-making class, where we also made a meat course and side dishes, including fresh ingredients that we picked from the garden. I wondered how well the class would appeal to our diverse group of ages and cooking experience. My father-in-law, whom I have never seen in a kitchen, rolled up his sleeves and enjoyed learning. He announced that it was the best meal he had on the trip. Kate and Eve were equally enthralled with the experience and the food. Susanna was a wonderful host and teacher. Can’t wait to do it again.
When my mom was in town at the same time as Brandy, I organized a girls’ cooking class at another of Tuscan Travel Group’s properties, Casa dell’Arte. My good friend Christina also joined, and we had an amazing day. This class (all adults) was a bit more advanced, with sauces, flans and other more complex dishes. The process was beautiful and the outcome delicious. The villa owner, Veronica, teaches the cooking lessons in her lovely on-site cooking studio. She truly puts all of her heart into her cooking, and her students are the beneficiaries.
One of the more intense experiences of this journey was a 4-day trip to Rome when my mom and sister Kathy were visiting a couple of weeks ago. The 5 of us (Mom, Kathy, Kate, Eve and I) set off for Rome by bullet train from Florence’s Santa Maria Novella train station, you know, “the one by the church.” One and a half hours later, we were in Rome. The trip could not have been easier, and it was pretty fun to see the countryside whip by at over 250 kilometers/hour. We got very lucky with the weather in Rome, but not with the kids’ health. They were both sick at different times during the trip, and that was tough. We didn’t do as much sightseeing as we might otherwise have done, but what we did see was amazing. For me, visiting such a big, important city in the blink of an eye after getting to know a different Italian city so well was interesting. All I can do is compare. Florence is tiny and Rome is enormous. The scale of everything is so different. The architecture is so much more different than I expected, though it makes sense that it should be different. Rome’s buildings are classical, with white, graceful, powerful columns and arches. Most evidence of Florence’s time spent as a Roman outpost is gone, so Florence’s buildings are either medieval or Renaissance, more angular, with jagged, darker stone.
Though we were rushed and dealing with sick kids, we did see some amazing things. The coliseum is astounding. I can’t believe they built something like that, just for entertainment, so long ago.
I really loved Vatican City, and we got to see a lot of it because everyone felt pretty well that day. Now that you know about frescoes, I’ll share with you a photo that I snapped illegally in the Sistine Chapel. I held my camera at my waist and pointed in the direction of the ceiling, no flash. This doesn’t begin to capture the movement and emotion depicted on the walls and ceiling of this room. And Michelangelo claimed he was a sculptor and not a painter.
Back to Florence. Here we are in our last week. Our visitors have come and gone in a blur of activity and fun. Now it’s quiet as I nurse myself through the fever that the kids finally passed along to me. (I don’t know how kids handle fevers so well!) The suitcases are back out. My friends here just gave me as a parting gift a book they made full of recipes and photos that I will always treasure. I continue to monitor the tree out front and feel sad that I won’t be here to see it when all the leaves have gone. The cypress trees, of course, are just as green as ever. They must look amazing in the snow, dark and jutting severely skyward. The olive trees are also stubbornly holding onto their silvery leaves. Are they evergreen? I don’t know. I’ll have to come back some winter and see for myself.
Arrivederci is commonly used for goodbye, but a closer translation is ‘until we meet again.’