Skinniest Road in the World

heading into the first 90 degree turn

heading into the first 90 degree turn

Heading home from a morning outing, we decided to take the back way, the short cut through the country roads. One particular road is especially curious. Who thought this up? Not only is it the skinniest of all roads, but it makes two 90 degree turns at the narrowest stretch, which happens to be at the top of a very steep hill paved with old stones worn smooth over the centuries. Oh yeah . . . and there are 10 foot high stone walls on both sides to make driving it even more absurd. The good news—it’s only one way!

plenty of room after passing the pinch point

plenty of room after passing the pinch point

We enjoy the challenge of it—picking up speed on the downhill slope to make it up the steep incline; jockeying around the first turn in just the right way to set the perfect angle of entry into the great squeeze; and of course, the grand finale of inching through the stone opening with only a finger’s clearance on each side of the car. It takes two people to successfully negotiate the final curve, with lots of assurances called out at each millimeter. “Okay?? Okay??” “Yes, slowly. Ah, perfect!!” It’s a real Tuscan double dare!

you can see the white truck on the hillside under the words

you can see the white truck on the hillside under the words

So as usual, we went charging down the approach road, but rather than pick up speed in anticipation of the steep climb, we quickly saw that something was different. Very different! To our surprise, there was a line of cars stopped at the bottom of the incline with engines off. Falling into place behind the last car, we got out to ask about the problem. We both suspected what had happened—someone panicked as they got to that final squeeze, somehow stuck in the last turn. There are numerous scrapes and gouges in the stone walls memorializing unfortunate past encounters. Sure enough, we were right—there was an impasse at the top. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a panicked driver. It wasn’t even an oversize car. It was worse. Through trees and brush we saw the unimaginable: a truck. Not a van. A truck—and a rather large one at that!

slowly backing down

slowly backing down

Our small European-size car barely makes it through, so what on earth would cause someone to think they could take a grande camion, big truck, past the pinch. Crazy! There was nothing to do. Cars had collected in the little valley like a bunch of grapes that had rolled together in a bowl. Someone suggested that we begin backing out. But more cars were arriving by the minute. It became a spectacle. We all watched and waited as the truck began its arduous journey backward down the steep hill. Slowly, slowly he retraced his ill-conceived attempt leading up to the big surprise.

the humiliation of it all

the humiliation of it all

Some of the cars stacked up behind us began backing out of the trap, thinking it was faster, easier and safer than to watch the precarious happenings ahead. Also, they seriously doubted the driver’s ability to pull off quite a stunt. But, after about 20 minutes, he finally made it down to a slightly wider spot in the road. Then, he had to suffer the humiliation of the taunting onlookers as we filed by to get a closer look at the doofus who did such a stupid thing. Caught being a bad driver in the land of race cars is about the worst fate imaginable.

inside corner of the squeeze—imagine the horrible noises

inside corner of the squeeze—imagine the horrible noises

We threaded our way through the needle at the crest of the road scrape-free, even without our customary running start. With great pride and a feeling of deep satisfaction, we motored home as if nothing unusual had happened. It was just another day on the Tuscan byways where challenge and surprise lurk around every turn. The ancient roads continue to serve as major thoroughfares, even though they are often ridiculously dangerous and really quite uncivilized by most modern  standards. But, that’s just one of the quirky things about our beloved Tuscany that makes it so memorable and charming.

 

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Change—Tuscan Style

To say that things move slowly in Tuscany would be a colossal understatement. However, thanks to that nearly imperceivable plodding pace, Toscana remains true to her simple beauty—year after year after year. However, beneath the timeless and serenely rolling landscape, change does in fact arrive in its own way—piano, piano (slowly, slowly)—Tuscan style.

hillside meadows

hillside meadows

For years, we have enjoyed the meadows around our little Italian hideaway. In fact, we’ve celebrated their soothing, healing qualities through daily walks, a heartfelt documentary, and even an annual hay rolling ceremony, called Bocce Bale. But good things often come to an end—even in the “land of slow change.” Heavy machinery has forced its way onto the once-gentle, quiet fields. They fire their blustery diesel engines, signaling a close to our peaceful meadow-walk days. We feel sad and strangely “rushed.” How many walks can we get in before the meadow grasses are no longer ours to wade through?

But there’s good news in this story of change and disruption. Rather than shopping malls and parking lots, which typically signify “progress,” we find those grassy meadows are being transformed into another beautiful Tuscan alternative—vineyards, glorious vineyards. The Florentine hills and the Chianti traditions remain stubbornly ensconsed.

Tenuta Monteloro

restored vineyard

The “developers?” None other than the Marchesi Antinori Srl—an Italian wine company that can trace its history back to 1385. They’re one of the largest wine producers in all of Italy, with significant innovations that were actually instrumental in the development of the “Super Tuscan” revolution of the 1970s. We can rest assured that they certainly know what they’re doing as the fields are plowed under for their latest expansion. 600+ years is a testament to their commitment in the region. They have already cultivated acres into restored vineyards around Villa Poggiolo just down the hill. The vineyards are definitely works of art. The company takes pride in what they do. In fact, they’ve been a major part of the revitalization of this entire area, bringing many hectares back from ruins—reclaiming and redefining the beauty and splendor of the eras past.

I love Lucy (Lucia)

I love Lucy (Lucia)

So, we watch with great interest and anticipation as they turn our precious meadow grass under, making way for a development of a different kind—something even better. We practice letting go of the past to embrace the future. Being in Tuscany, home of delicious Sangiovese wine, makes that practice much more palatable (pun intended). Still, we’re already starting to feel tugs of nostalgia for our beloved annual Bocce Bale competition. Perhaps we need to launch ourselves into a new era as well. Rather than rolling hay, maybe we’ll help the Antinori group out a bit. Who knows? It may very well be that grape stomping is in our future.

 

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Breadcrumbs

northwest from Florence

northwest from Florence

There’s nothing like a Tuscan scavenger hunt. Saturday’s goal was to unearth some of the relics of the ancient Florentine past, buried in the middle of the bustling 21st century life. We headed northwest from Florence into the challenging sea of modern development. Calenzano was our destination, and we were in search of her historic heart. We found it!

Prosperity and expansion have changed the look of Calenzano. The town spills down from the mountainous backdrop to blend seamlessly into the fabric of the surrounding cities: Sesto Fiorentino, Prato, Campi Bisenzio among others. Each town has its own fascinating story and historic center. We love to pick up clues about the past. Sometimes the story is hidden behind ancient stone walls, or marked by spires rising above the fray. Occasionally, a villa perched on the hillside begs to be explored. Those “nuggets” of history almost seem strangely out of place today. In centuries past, they commanded the very center of attention. Now, they are merely breadcrumbs scattered for us by distant generations, leading to some of their treasures left behind. We love following the trail.

Castello di Calenzano

Castello di Calenzano

Only 8 miles from the 0ld center of Florence, a lone hill rises from the Arno River valley to a height of 650 feet. Calenzano. That solitary knoll was destined to become an important promontory that would help keep Florentines safe for centuries. As part of a defense strategy, Florence acquired the area in the early 13th century. The historic knoll still rises with its lush vegetation, dense woods and glorious cypress trees, building to a crescendo where the stone walls and towers peer over the valley below.

south gate

south gate

The Castello di Calenzano is one of the best kept secrets in all of Tuscany. We spent a delightful morning strolling through the intimate village—quiet, authentic, beautiful and surprising in so many ways. Restored and maintained as if no time had passed, except for the rich patina that has made its claim on the stone, brick, wood and hand-crafted ironwork. Nearly 700 years later, after the fighting and defense strategies have lost their luster, it still stands guard—this time, however, over the fascinating history of the Florentine culture and the beautiful Arno valley.

 

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Piazza Puzzler

Tommaso the photographer

Tommaso the photographer

Veruska and Igor seem happy with their lives in Italy. We don’t really know where exactly in Russia they came from or IF they really are Russian. Why did they leave? Were there suspicious circumstances? It doesn’t really matter. We simply know that they are the sweet couple that we encountered just outside the Balducci Coffee Bar on the piazza in Caldine. Veruska‘s fairly robust, outweighing her husband by a fair amount. He seemed a little high-strung, almost nervous, barely able to sit still. Veruska looked toward him and then at us, probably wondering if we’d noticed Igor‘s quick, frantic motions. After a few minutes, we walked into the bar to talk with Tommaso about what we’d observed.

work of art

work of art

Tommaso looked up from pouring a foam cap on a cappuccino. By moving the small pitcher in swirling motions at just the right time, he created a beautiful stylized leaf in the foam. “Buon giorno!” he offered. “Come state? How are you?” We cheerfully answered, “Benissimo! Very well!” With pleasantries out of the way, we forged ahead. “Tell us about the interesting couple outside. Do you know them. What’s their story?”

“Well, they are Veruska and Igor,” he said. We commented about her generous size compared to his. He chuckled and said that Igor seemed more like Veruska‘s child than her husband. We agreed. We pressed a little further. “Why are they always here?” Tommaso explained that they live with him and he thought they’d enjoy spending some time on the piazza, with all the people coming and going—talking with them. We nodded in agreement. Probably a very good idea. We thought that perhaps the socialization would eventually calm Igor down to be more comfortable in crowds.

After cappuccini and pastries, we paid our bill and wished TommasoBuona giornata! Good day!” Then we walked through the door and over to Veruska and Igor to say good-bye to them. Veruska looked directly at us, while Igor peered off into some distant corner. When he turned his head back toward us, it was clear that our presence startled him. We passed a glance between us, as if to say, “Poor little guy!”

Russians

The “Russians”

As we climbed into the car, we remarked about how clever Tommaso is. What a great idea to bring Veruska and Igor to the coffee bar with him. That decision says a lot about his creativity and personality. What a nice guy! Tommaso became even more colorful, real and endearing. Who else would bring birds to work every day? Who else would find humor in a hand-crafted sign, with an arrow pointing somewhere to the “love room,” evidently for the Russian lovebirds.

 

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The Real Deal

worn out weber

worn out weber

We needed a replacement grill. The one we bought years ago rusted through, dropping fire out the bottom faster than we could sear our chicken breasts. That’s a dangerous scenario during the dry days of August. The trendy Big Green Egg is touted as the ultimate grilling experience, but they just don’t exist here. Perhaps something simple, like our classic Weber. But wait! Wouldn’t it be nice to replace our charcoal model with a spiffy propane powered grill? Regardless of the options, we decided that “buying local” was the thing to do. So, we went hunting.

Luigi's Place

Luigi’s Place

In Italy, buying local doesn’t mean patronizing a nearby multinational distributor (though they certainly exist). No, no! Buying local means getting in the car to make the 20 minute drive down the hill to the nearby ferramenta, local hardware store. At Fantechi’s, it’s a hodge-podge of strange offerings. Everything from screws to paint, to housewares, to . . .  a grill? Cross your fingers! Scour every corner in the place. Look around and under everything. And if they have one, then by all means buy it!

truly one-of-a-kind

the corner curiosity

We were cheerfully greeted by one of our favorite clerks as we walked through the door. But as soon as we uttered the words fornello gas (propane grill) he slowly shook his head accompanied by a slight smirk, as if to say—do you know where you are? We weren’t surprised with his response, but it never hurts to ask. Immediately, we shifted to the other more important question,”What DO you have?” He took us into an overcrowded corner of the second room. Many shops have this “nesting doll” configuration. You know: this room leads to the second room, which leads to a third room, etc. With some scrounging around, we literally uncovered a possibility—something that might be described as a “curiosity.”

truly one-of-a-kind

truly one-of-a-kind

Our little treasure was a slightly rusted steel box on angle-iron legs, complete with handles, a charcoal clean-out hatch, flat hinged lid, and appropriate scrapes and nicks to give charm and appeal. What more could we want? Well, upon closer inspection we realized that it included no cooking surface. What! This little honey was only the basis for a do-it-yourself grill “kit.” The actual cooking grate had to be purchased separately, allowing the patron the thrill of customization. And don’t you want little rubber caps for the feet so the metal doesn’t make that annoying sound as it rocks and scrapes on the stones. Well, of course we do! Who wouldn’t?

rubber feet after installation

rubber feet after installation

Those optional accessories weren’t anywhere near the basic grill. No, not a chance. The odd assortment of cooking grates were hanging from the ceiling in the first room—cast iron, stainless steel. One handle or 2? Hmmm. Once the decision was made, our chosen grate had to be retrieved from the ceiling by climbing a ladder (which had to be located). There. Done. And the rubber feet. Ah, those? They are safely kept behind the counter in tiny drawers. We suggested that we needed four—a little joke. We all laughed out loud.

Finally, after half an hour or so, we had assembled everything needed to make our sweet little grill work like a charm. We walked out of Fantechi’s Ferramenta, with what may well be our favorite grill of all times. Our purchase also meant that some unknown local craftsman finally got his payout for the masterpiece that he probably hand-crafted in his basement workshop

the party's over

the party’s over

Friday night, we had the inaugural cookout with our “fashion-grill,” and was cena (dinner), ever delicious!  In addition to our tasty chicken, we enjoyed that deep-down, heartfelt satisfaction that only comes from dealing with local people and local products—which is, by the way, the best deal in town. Always.

 

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Balloon Bracelet

Fiesole

Fiesole

What a delightful summer morning! Our sweet little “Sesame Street” town, Fiesole, is tucked into the hills just above Florence. Since it was the last day of July, the first question we usually ask is: when will the shop/bar owners close for the grand summer shutdown? Many shops close on the first of August and remain so, for 4-6 weeks. Some reduce their hours drastically, noted by posting a placard in the window. Others close only up to August 15th, Ferragosto, that holy celebration, marking Mary’s ascension into Heaven. Still other shops close from the 15th onward. You can actually begin seeing signs of the holidays approaching anywhere from July 15th, with some folks celebrating all the way until September 15th.

best bar in town

our favorite coffee bar

Well, that festive mood certainly was noticeable at Riccardo‘s coffee bar, our favorite location for a morning cappuccino and pastry. Wednesday morning, everyone was squeezing by one another, in the cozy space. Spirits were high, with lots of talking and laughing. An overwhelming good mood permeated the space. Izzi-B, our “dog in a shoulder bag,” was happily accepting bonus pinches of croissant from all sides. Then a  family of three walked through the door. The little girl was carrying a festive balloon flower that Riccardo had fashioned for her a week earlier.

Riccardo

Riccardo

It’s not unusual for children and babies to steal the show in Italy. Everyone loves the wee ones, and this day was no exception. Riccardo was running the place by himself, while his sister Maria took the morning off. Even with all that was going on, we watched him instinctively pause and reach under the counter to pull out some balloons and a plastic pump. He immediately began stretching, snapping and inflating red and pink balloons—a man on a mission, his focus squarely on amusing that sweet little girl.

balloon jewelry

balloon jewelry

Within minutes, he twisted, squeaked and poked the inflated forms into a special flower wristband for the little princess. Like an artist adding the final touches to a painting, he worked the last details of the balloon masterpiece. When it was finished, he rushed the rubber wrist-flower to the corner table where the guest of honor sat. He carried the balloon bracelet as if it was a jeweled heirloom. She was all smiles as he placed the  jewelry on her wrist. Eccolo! There you have it: un braccialetto, a bracelet.

everyday pleasures

everyday pleasures

Meanwhile, everyone eagerly watched and waited patiently to order, get their coffee, and pay. As Riccardo walked back behind the bar, it was as if everyone had just arrived—business as usual. Time seemed to pause, allow for some momentary magic, and then resume. It felt like watching Gene Kelly break into a fully-orchestrated dance routine and then just go back to walking down the street, as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. That’s just one of the many things we love about Italy. There’s always time for a coffee break, a significant summer shutdown, and some special attention to let the little ones know how much they are adored. Ahh, to be an Italian child or a small dog! Che fortunato, how lucky! And how fortunate we are to be part of it. Ahhhh, sweet Italia!

 

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The Eyes Have It

Legends are made of high drama. Some have a smattering of gruesome details. We find both in the story of Santa Lucia (Saint Lucy).

eyeball cookies in the window

eyeball cookies in the window

As the patron saint of Sicily’s ancient city of Syracuse, Santa Lucia’s image is scattered around the city. We didn’t think much of it until we spotted the strangest delicacy in a window of the local pasticceria, pastry shop: eyeball cookies. That’s right! Displayed on a tray right in the front window were oval shaped cookies, each with a dollop of fruit in the center. The sign boasted: Occhi di Santa Lucia, Eyes of Saint Lucy. Our curiosity kicked-in and we wanted to know more about that “Lady of the Light” (Lucia means light), and what that eyeball thing was really all about.

ancient Greek ruins at Ortigia

ancient Greek ruins at Ortigia

The legend goes something like this: She was born around 284 in Syracuse under Roman rule, which was originally founded in the 6th century BC on the Sicilian island of Ortigia—one of the wealthiest cities of the ancient Greek empire. As a young girl, she was visited by a vision of an angel as she prayed for her ill mother. That experience caused her to devote her life to Christ. Always independent, Lucia knew from that young age that she had a specific destiny to fulfill—which eventually created a few problems for her.

halo of candles

halo of candles

Unfortunately, around that same time, the Roman emperor, Diocletian, was losing control of his empire, and was getting really aggravated with the Christians. He was sick and tired of everybody talking about how wonderful Lucy was. He’d heard that she worked in the catacombs, wearing a “halo” of candles to light her way. Diocletian was probably just jealous. As a result, he had his mind set on destroying Lucia because she was just way too popular. But she resisted all of his schemes to tarnish her reputation. Of course, she had God on her side, and wasn’t afraid to call for a miracle or two to thwart the despicable plans of the emperor.

Rumor has it that when the Roman troops came to drag her off to a brothel to start work the next day as a prostitute, (her punishment for being so nice) she became “immovable.” That’s right, immovable. 1000 men couldn’t budge her, and finally brought in a team of 50 oxen to do the job. Even that didn’t work. Obviously, she was a real force to reckon with.

Lucia with eyes in a dish

Lucia with eyes in a dish

Now, back to the eyeball thing. According to a chapel dedicated to her in the main church of Ortigia, Lucia had beautiful eyes. In fact, they were so beautiful that men noticed them and pursued her. She was single-minded in her dedication, so plucked out her own eyes, so that she was free from distraction. Pretty dramatic, don’t you think??? The creepy part of the story is that she carried them around in a shallow dish. Another version of the story is that Diocletian, in a fit of rage, had them gouged out. Either way, she’s been depicted for the past 17 hundred years in paintings and statues, carrying her eyes in a dish.

Lucia procession

Lucia procession

The more we found out about Lucy, the more we liked her. She was such a powerful and threatening figure, that Diocletion eventually did have her killed on December 13th, 304, and the rest is history. Martyred for her convictions, she is celebrated each December with processionals. The parade is often led by a young girl wearing a crown of candles. She is followed by other girls, each holding a single candle. The candles symbolize the contrast between light and dark, as winter days become shorter. Santa Lucia is actually one of those few saintly saints who have changed the world far beyond her home town. What a strange but beautiful story. Of course, it has become legend, which means embellishment with every retelling, but that’s what good stories are made of. As for us, we loved it—well . . . except for the eyeball cookies.

P.S. There is a happy ending to this gruesome tale. All reports say that Santa Lucia‘s beautiful sparkling eyes were completely restored upon her death.

*Halo of candles, Lucia with eyes in a dish, and Lucia processional images are courtesy of the internet. Thanks.

 

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