On Cloud Nine – Picking olives

As Tuscany slid rapidly from a ‘Yellow’ low risk Covid 19 region to ‘Orange’ and then ‘Red high risk’ within in a week I was lucky to be able to still pick olives. It’s time for the new Olive Oil – strictly Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Sieve valley under cloud

Sieve valley under cloud

In fact am on Cloud Nine‘ as you can see in the photo. The Sieve valley area completely encased in cloud while we were lucky happily above it all and ready to start by 9.30am. If the property was down in the valley pickers would be unable to start till very late morning as the olives are still damp from the fog and low clouds.The riding school next door amongst the clouds

This year I was picking in an area above Rufina  about 35kms East  from Florence.

Being now in a Red region lockdown travel is only allowed outside of our Council area for work, health or necessity reasons and with a permit. Fortunately Tuscany decreed that only families (not friends) could continue to pick olives on private farms. So it was just as well I could still be included as family even as an ‘ex-wife‘ and continue the tradition of picking which I love so much. Olive pickers in action

In two days of picking, 4 hand pickers and one with a machine we managed to pick  27 crates.  Each crate holds around 24kgs of Olives and on average you need 5-6kg of olives for a litre of extra virgin olive oil. Some trees can produce up to 2 crates, sometimes more, depending on the season and the variety of olives. This year the trees are beautifully healthy, no nasty bugs like last year and laden with wholesome olives. A delight to feel between the fingers.

Temperatures have dropped to cold mornings, around 3-4°C but we have been lucky to have sunshine, and dragging out olive nets, shifting ladders and picking, warms you up pretty quickly. By lunchtime we were soaking up a warm 14-15°C as we ate sausages, oops they ate sausages from the BBQ and I feasted on my veggie pie and of course Fettunta toasted bread with the new oil drizzled on.

At the end of the day we tally up the crates and congratulate ourselves on a good day’s Tow days picking 27 olive crateswork.

On the rainy days we don’t pick so the picking has spread over 3 weeks. We have been to the mill three times already and the last time was last Sunday.

Covid 19 has put pressure on the normal mill activities as many panicked thinking lockdown may limit the possibility of picking so started earlier than usual. And many inundated the mill with more olives than what they had booked in so the mills were often running behind schedule. Our last picking in fact had to be slowed down to accommodate a late booking at the mill, unable to accommodate us earlier. Still it was worth it as the local mill – La Corte uses upmarket equipment in slicer/crushers, temperature control  thus producing a healthier extra virgin olive oil which tastes fantastic….especially if you have picked and crushed immediately after two or three days of picking.

The old wheel grinders of the past are still used in some Mills but the contamination between each producers olives is a high risk as the paste spreads out onto mats to be pressed. You can see that process here.

The information printed on my tin of oil describes its fabulous Nutritional characteristics, and together with its gorgeous green colour and just a touch spicy in flavour when its freshly pressed is why Extra Virgin Olive Oil remains such a part of our daily diet. And love it!

My gloves

 

My new gloves show the signs of the picking and now it’s back into Covid 19 lockdown….who knows for how long? With a possibility of relaxing restrictions 4 December to allow Christmas shopping!Sunset at the end of a day's work

 

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Beauty beyond Limits, Forte Belvedere, Florence

Iron Ore Hills Siena provinceBack to one of my favourite places in Florence, Forte Belvedere to see what will be the last of outdoor exhibitions this year. The ‘Beauty beyond Limits‘ photographic exhibition by photo reporter Massimo Sestini. Twenty monumental photographic works reproduced in a 5 x 3 metre format, capturing glimpses of Tuscany portrayed from an aerial perspective. Fantastic images full of colour and texture, idealizing our love of geometric order. All part of various initiatives around the concept of ‘Tuscany, Renaissance without End’, promoted  by The Tuscan Tourism Board.

As  the curator Sergio Risaliti says “Sestini wants to show us how photography transforms the landscape into a picture, in pictorial language, with its contents returned to the gaze in terms of structures and figurative terms. The landscape as a work of art is born from the union between the artist, the photographer , the technological tool, the performing gesture decided upstream “,

Aerial view on Florence

Florence, aerial view and the real thing

And he has taken shots of some beloved places, that I never get tired of seeing no matter from what perspective – Florence, Cathedral, the Palio of Siena,  the countryside of Val d’Orcia,….

Landscape of Val d'Orcia, Siena

Val d’Orcia

 

Bike race, dirt roads, Siena

Bike race, dirt roads, Siena

The incredible texture of the landscape shots from 600m or so above is powerful.

 

 

 

 

Sestini also managed to include in the exhibition one of his personal passions whichRolling Stone concert, Lucca started his career in photography, taking photos at rock concerts before he moved onto newspaper reporting. Rolling Stones concert in Lucca 2017.

And of course in the setting of Forte Belvedere it’s a pleasure to wander amongst the photos as well as savour the fantastic view over Florence.View of Florence

While the view and exhibition would normally attract thousands of visitors, this year Covid 19 has sadly left the bar empty and only a few wander the grounds. Still I am sure they are already planning next year’s exhibition at  Forte Belvedere as it has hosted many stunning ones over the years – Gormley ‘Humans’, ‘Sounding of the Gong’, Zhang Huan ‘Soul and Matter‘, Folon and more…

Massimo Sestini continues with an exhibition indoors in Santa Maria Novella church complex that will continue into 2021 with photos related to Dante Alighieri as  it will be 700years since his death. Dante 700.I hope to get to see that, since lockdown is still permitting Museums to remain open….so far.

Florence will have its Renaissance after Covid 19 leaves us!                                          For those coming out of lockdown – Be careful, for those slipping into lockdown – Be patient and everybody Stay Safe!

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Tuscan coastline – Castiglione della Pescaia

Tuscany mapAs the blazing heat continues it’s time to explore another favourite beach area along the Tuscan coastline at Castiglione della Pescaia. Roughly a 2 hour drive from Florence down south, Castiglione della Pescaia is beautifully placed in an area known as the Maremma offering long sandy beaches, a medieval historic centre, woodlands for hiking, and even Etruscan tombs nearby at Vetulonia. You always know when you have arrived in the Maremma by lines of umbrella pine trees separating agricultural land or lining the driveway entrance to a property.Castiglione della Pescaia pine trees

View from Buriano castle ruinsWe are staying in a little hilltop village, Buriano, 20kms before Castiglione della Pescaia immersed in woodlands for good morning hikes and where the views are endless and the evenings catch a fresh breeze.

Afternoons spent on the long sandy beaches stretching either side of Castiglione dellla Pescaia. While there are a choice of exotic bathing complexes with Caribbean style umbrellas, business looks bad as many opt, like we do, for the ample free beach areas where there is no problem about social distancing.

Beach traders are back

It’s encouraging to see the boys are back trading along the beach, although I think business is pretty dismal for them as well, as it’s financially a tough time for everyone these days. Still it’s something of a return to ‘normal‘ which is reassuring. The water is warm and enticing and its a delight to laze away the afternoon till sunset.

While Castiglione is well known to Italians and some Europeans it is a little off the beaten track for most tourists visiting Florence. Certainly at the moment it is full of Italian tourists enjoying a Summer break

View of Castiglione della Pescaia fortress

View of fortress Photo Credit: Stefano Ferrari

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The historic medieval town was well guarded by its fortress which sits above the main town of today, offering the best views and some delightful bars and restaurants.

From Castiglione view to Elba islandWithin view from Castiglione is the Island of Elba, another favourite Summer spot for Tuscans, and only one of many in the Tuscan Archipelago. Private boat trips leave from Castiglione to explore the more secluded, while the public ferry for Elba has to be taken from Piombino.Castiglione della Pescaia sunset from the fortress

For us there is more than enough to keep us entertained and to while away the week than take a boat ride. A late evening stroll along the waterfront past the bathing complexes closed for the day and no crazy nightime discos, as in the past due to Covid 19 restrictions, is the perfect end to a great holiday.Castiglione della Pescaia end of the day

For a more bird’s eye of Castiglione della Pescaia see the video here

 

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Stories of Italian plagues

The DecameronWith not a lot to do during lockdown but read, I have been reading about Italian plagues over the centuries. A new book – ‘Florence under Siege’ and re reading an old time favourite – ‘The Decameron’, of when the plague hit Florence in the 13th century. Interesting to discover many similarities with our current crisis, in preparing for the plague, the use of quarantine and isolation, the need to sanitize the poor housing areas and the dilemma over which will be worse, the plague or the economic hardship from lack of work.

Imposing restrictions on the population which were obeyed to varying degrees. After all, it has always been difficult to control Italians, who forever question a regulation before complying to it, assessing the pros and cons, and needing to make it a little more flexible with creative and innovative interpretations.

This time round Italians have been surprisingly compliant, recognizing the seriousness of the situation even if it took some time for that to sink in.

‘The Decameron’  for those who toured with me will remember well, as I read some of the stories while on our coach to pass the time, to entertain, and to help foreign visitors understand Italian life as it describes hunting, artisan trades, religious practises and more. It shows a lot about Italian character, their flexibility in dealing with reality, and their great sense of humour.

For those unfamiliar with the book – ‘The Decameron‘ was written in the time of the plague of 1300’s by Giovanni Boccaccio (a Tuscan). He outlines the options in dealing with the plague – 1) by leading a sober and abstemious mode of living   2) or the opposite; drinking heavily, enjoying life to the full, gratifying all of one’s cravings and  shrugging the whole thing off as one enormous joke   3) or by steering a middle course between the two  4) or a safer alternative, was to run away from it. He tells of the 10 young people from a wealthy background in Florence who take the fourth option and distance themselves to one of their Villas in the nearby countryside. Villa CetinaleTo entertain themselves they tell stories, based on a theme of the day – 10 stories for 10 days. One hundred intriguing, cheeky, bawdy and even tragic stories. My favorite theme day was how to get out of a difficult situation with a witty response – like Chichibio explaining whether a crane has one or two legs, or how Madonna Filippa avoids death for adultery with a shrewd manoeuvre that even leads to the changing of the law.

While I cannot recount the stories here, I highly recommend the book, a classic of Italian literature, very entertaining and particularly forward thinking for its time.

Florence under SiegeThe second book is a recently published one by John Henderson ‘Florence under Siege‘ which I only discovered via an article published in ‘The Age‘. A vivid recreation of the plague in Florence in 1630’s amongst the poorer class and how they were treated. It describes the dreaded ‘Lazzaretti‘ the hospitals created for those infected, of dubious quality with dire conditions while recognizing the need to isolate those infected. San Miniato church used as a lazarettoThe understanding that the plague travelled through the air and possibly on cloth to the detriment of the silk workers and the risky practice of stealing used clothing. The idea ‘that God was angry with mankind and sought to punish its sins’, therefore the need to continue services with appropriate restrictions as ‘by conquering fear, religion protected a person medically from the plague’.

It contains descriptions of the creativeness of Italians, breaking isolation regulations by visiting family and friends across rooftops, pleading innocence at imposed fines with inventive excuses and the governing bodies being compassionate enough to alleviate the fines or prison internamente since this would only lead to future hardship for the families involved. All in all it makes a fascinating read about Italian plague time in Florence.

Italian storytelling continues profusely today, particularly on social networks, keeping spirits up and offering a good laugh. A current example – as lockdown restrictions eased Congiunto sospesoand we are allowed to visit family, relatives and loved ones ‘congiunti stabile‘, Neapolitans offered ‘congiunti sospesi‘ following their tradition of offering a ‘caffé sospeso’ –meaning buy a coffee and leave one paid for. There has been a rush on demand for these congiunti sospesi for the singles in need of an excuse to get out of the house!

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A breath of Spring in Lockdown – Tuscany

Hiking trailAs Spring perfumes fill the air and a warm sun beckons, the temptation is too strong to resist. Surrounded by Nature is the biggest advantage of living in the country during 45 days of lockdown. Even more so when I am fortunate enough to live on the border of an enormous private property – Villa Bagnani. Villa BagnaniA noble Villa built  around a watchtower considered to be from the Lombard period (8thC). Originally property of the Bagnani family it was sold over the centuries to various wealthy noble families, extending its territory which are now a mix of vineyards, olive groves, agricultural fields, woods and streams. Its territory branches out to other farmhouses still property of the Villa and housing many of its farm workers, and I have explored them all which makes for a very pleasant couple of hours hike.

Like Alice in Wonderland I felt I had stepped through the looking glass leaving quarantine and Corona virus far behind. The sensation was exhilarating and still is!

Wild daisesA  mix or tractor trails, dirt roads, hiking paths, abundant wildflowers and no road blocks. I delicately tread my way through wild daisy patches thinking it a tragedy to have squashed even one. Wild boars had not treaded so lightly and left their imprints in their mud holes, one of which had dried up, while the other still had enough water to get a good slosh around.

Danger Ferocious BullWhile I have no real concern that I will see any boar at this time of day, I startle a ‘capriolo’ – bambi deer, with the white fluffy butt quietly grazing but which scampers quickly out of sight. Onto the dirt road I am more worried about the ‘Danger ferocious bull’  sign on a rickety fence with an enormous hole in it!  Later I discover from locals that the bull has long since gone, together with the rest of the cattle which explains the empty cattle sheds further The old cattle shedsalong.

Past the vineyards just starting to sprout, slowing winding my way to the chequered fields and the woods in the distance.

 

I continue up and down dale, trailing a quiet stream, enjoying the freshness of the woods and enticed by the side roads that branch to other farm houses, veggie patches and pig sties.

WildflowersNature at its best, wildflowers sprouting everywhere, lots of lichen on the trees a sign of clean air, and superb views back to my little village across recently toiled fields.

Lockdown isolation is a million miles away.  A cheery wave to the tractor driver and today things almost seem back to normal. A good 10kms hike and not a foot outside Villa Bagnani‘s property safely protected in Nature’s wonderland – Spring in Tuscany, it could not get better than this!View to Palazzolo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

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Lockdown Italian style -Part 2

A friend ready to go shoppingNow into our fourth week of lockdown in Italy due to the dreadful corona virus and just beginning to see some signs of a slow down, thank goodness! My local car park is full as we stay home ‘smart working’ or just pottering about filling in our time. Italy registered its lowest number in new cases (4050) in 13 days on Monday 30th and its highest number of recoveries (1590). However in the closed cases so far only 56% have recovered and 44% have died.

In Tuscany the numbers continue to rise with 4608 cases @ 31/3/2020, although unlikely to get out of control, as it has done in the Northern regions.

Yesterday at noon we commemorated the victims, offered condolences to their families and gave thanks to all those working to save us with a minute silence – medical staff, police, carabinieri, volunteers and those still working in essential services. A very sad silence for over 12,000 victims, including 66 doctors and medical staff.

After that dramatic introduction I would like to share some of the lighter moments of the past few weeks which may never hit International news –

It became clear we had to respect the lockdown and as stricter regulations were imposed, we were more informed about the scale and seriousness of the virus. Mayors were seen shouting at their local citizens, threatening flame throwers, drone surveillance and more….which we took as a sign of affection for their ‘brood‘!

Movement was further confined to only our local Council areas unless for an emergency reason and fines for disobedience increased from € 200 to €400 min/€3000max and possible confiscation of the car or scooter. The penal record imposed previously was retracted.

We went back to gardening, cleaning out the garage/storeroom, and generally driving the garbos to desperation for the never ending rubbish that was being thrown out in the clean up.

 

We now have a wealth of facts and figures to study and I think we are already looking to what happens ‘after’. Grave concerns for the future, doubts about the competence of our leaders, and lack of collaboration from the European Union. Emergency financial measures are being put into place, while discussion continues about the longer term measures to take.

ducks go to the pharmacy

Photo credit Florinda Noka

The quiet streets have enticed some wild animals to move in – In Milan hares were seen in the park. In a suburb of Florence a mother duck and her ducklings marched into the pharmacy from the nearby park and pond. Florinda Noka, the owner offered them food but they seemed uninterested and she spent the next hour catching them so they could be safely returned to their habitat.

The high tech ‘Makers’ discovered that the full face scuba mask, that has been popular over the past few years, could be successfully readapted as an oxygen mask and called on us all to get them out of the cupboard and donate them. With 3D printers and new technology they patented the concept ‘open source’ so it will remain free of charge as an idea and can never be a money spinner. Fantastic Makers!

Cuban Medical team

photo credit Fabrizio Casari – Altrenotizie.org 22/3/2020

Some Companies have managed to convert their production to masks and other medical equipment although we are still far short of what we need. Cuban, Russian, Chinese and Albanian medical teams arrived in the past week bringing supplies as well, a very welcome sight for the local medical teams. Many Doctors and medical staff have returned from retirement to assist as well as newly trained staff begin work. When the call went out from the North for 700 volunteer nurses and doctors over 7,000 people applied!

Airbnb asked all hosts in the area to offer their homes and apartments to those medical and volunteer teams free of charge and thousands came to the call, while Airbnb managed to connect the homes with the Civil Protection Base and Hospitals.

Major companies like – Mutti canned tomatoes, Rana pasta, Scotti rice have given a 25% pay rise to all workers continuing to work through the lockdown.

My WIFI went into lockdown as there has been an enormous increase in consumption, and urgent warnings and advice went out from the satellite company to avoid it happening again.

So the days pass, at a slow pace, and the radio continues to entertain me most of the time with the weird and wonderful stories to brighten the day:

– like the marathon runner continuing his training at home running 21kms in 3hrs 50mins doing 840 laps of his balcony!

-102yr old Nonna Lina ( Italica Grondona) nominated ‘La Highlander’ by medical staff as she recovered from corona virus, beating the previous record of 95yr Grandma Alma Corsini. Nonna Lina comes from Genoa and I can certainly vouch for the Ligurians as being a tough lot!

– many supermarkets are out of yeast now as people take on baking bread and delicious cakes at home.

Craggy peaks Reggello in snow

Photo credit – Giuseppe Taras

As we face reality, we have come to appreciate the little things, neighbourly gestures of help or just a friendly wave from afar. The swallows have returned to their nests in the corridor under my place. We had the first and only snow for the entire winter, the day after we were in T-shirts and shorts. snow next door

Lots of online meet ups and exercise classes, cooking lessons, hobby classes, so we all have an opportunity to try something new.

I did my first radio interview on Australian Radio Luke Grant show 2GB after they found my blog and for those who didn’t hear it on 22/3/20 you can have listen here to the podcast. After all it was 5am in Sydney! The interview begins at time 3.29.10

When the weather is nice I stick to gardening, wash the car inside and out which is a rarity, catch up on my reading and was reduced to cleaning the silver!

I think this will be my last post on the lockdown since we are all in the same boat and dealing in our various ways with the emergency created by the corona virus. Some ‘boats‘ are travelling a little more sluggishly than others but we will all come out of this in the end. Tentative suggestions are that Italy will come out of lockdown around the end of April.

Comments are welcome.                                                                                                             I wish you all well and Stay safe!


 

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The black and white of Pistoia

San Giovanni Fuoricivitas church, PistoiaWhat a great way to explore a rather lesser known beauty, Pistoia,  only half an hour or so from Florence and even better when the exploration is with a group of friends of which two are Art Historian guides. It’s a journey through time, from Romanesque to Renaissance, Baroque to Neoclassic to Contemporary Art.Detail of Church San Giovanni Fuoricivitas

We are bowled over first by the dual tone stripes of the 12th Century Romanesque Church – San Giovanni Fuoricivitas. It’s splendid facade and geometric pattern clearly Pisan style with a touch of Iberian Arabic since the town is on the pilgrims route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The portal is heavily decorated and a wealth of stories – a Last Supper adorns the architrave with Judas on the outer and John resting on Jesus’ shoulder, and lions protecting humans and fighting off monsters above.

It’s already time for a coffee before we see the splendours inside and how could we go past the fabulous Caffe’ Valiani next door, in an ancient chapel transformed into a Caffe’ in  the 19th Century. Tempting cakes and pastries line the window and the aroma of coffee fills the air. It has been tastefully decorated, with a mix of contemporary artworks that do not detract from the frescoed walls and vaulted ceilings.

Luca della Robbia The VisitationBack inside San Giovanni Fuoricivitas the sight of Luca della Robbia‘s ‘Visitation‘ a milky white glazed terracotta has us in awe, seeing the delicate gaze of Mary to Elizabeth, and the touch of her hand to Elizabeth’s shoulder. An early Renaissance masterpiece, considered one of the greatest of its time and the earliest large freestanding statue group. And there is more – the Gothic style pulpit carved by Fra Gugliemo da Pisa, and the Holy water font probably made by Giovanni Pisano ( who carved the pulpit in the Cathedral of Pisa).

The black and white stripes continue in the impressive main square which houses the beautiful Cathedral and Baptistery, Town Hall and ancient Bishop’s Palace now the Court House. And while centuries separate the construction of each there is a stunning harmony between them.

Baptistery and Court houseThe black and white stripes are misleading as the black is really the ‘green‘ serpentine marble from Prato and the white from Carrara. Locals flock to the Piazza for the weekly market as well as attracting tourists to its famous Palio race – Joust of the Bear ( with no bears allowed!)  and Pistoia Blues Festival which has seen B B King, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Blues Brothers and many more perform over the years. Church of Saint Andrea                      The last but not least important of the black and white Pistoia is the pretty church of Sant’ Andrea, found along the pilgrims route to Rome and serving as a church for baptisms. Inside it has an important pulpit, considered a masterpiece of 1301 by Giovanni Pisano and restoration work was just being completed on it.

Daily market Piazza della SalaBut Pistoia is not just about historical monuments, it has a very cute medieval market square with lively fruit and veggie stands and intimate bars and restaurants surrounding it. The Medici coat of arms and lion, adorn the Leoncino Well, symbols of Florentine dominion over the city so locals do not forget. Fortunately today it contains clean water whereas in the mid 1400’s when slaughter of animals took place outdoors most of the scraps were thrown into the well.  And in the nearby street one of the most typical,  and delicious restaurants for lunch – Locanda del Capitano del Popolo. A menu full of local specialities and delicacies – ‘prisoner’s’ soup, polenta with truffles, black cabbage, Florentine beef steak and tripe, and loads more in an eclectic atmosphere with a very humorous owner – Checco Bugiani

And to top off the day after lunch we round the corner to a big surprise – the medieval Ospedale del Ceppo with its elegant Renaissance loggia with a magnificent  frieze by Giovanni della Robbia and Santi Buglioni in polychrome glazed terracotta. Each section depicting an Act of Mercy – attending the sick, clothing the naked, visiting prisoners, feeding the poor….Hospital del Ceppo, della Robbia Frieze

 

And Vasari‘s majestic dome on the Basilica of the Madonna dell’ Umilità the 3rd largest dome in Italy after Brunelleschi’s Dome in Florence and St Peter’s in Rome.

Pistoia is an absolute gem, and there were so many stories and legends attached to each place we visited. So much so that I am saving them for day tours which I am proposing on a new website to start soon GimmeGuides.net. So spread the word to anyone who may be thinking of coming over……after the virus has left us!

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Machiavelli – the Prince’s exile

Hiking around San CascianoOn a rare day without rain and in solidarity for the humanitarian Onlus Emergency my hike group explored the hills, vineyards and villas once belonging to ‘The Prince – Machiavelli’. It was by no means a tough hike, not our usual style, but for a worthy cause, and we were in for some real treats!

Starting from San Casciano Val di Pesa, which is only a hop skip and jump from Florence (18kms) towards Siena, in the Chianti Classico wine area we were headed for Sant’ Andrea in Percussina, home to Machiavelli’s villas. A carpet of cloud covered the valley between the towns and the rolling hills blessed with vines now looking rather straggly as there autumn colours slowly fade. Still it was a relief to be out under sunshine and in good company.

A guided tour of Machiavelli’s villa was promised, and we were to delve into his tormented story. He had been considered the rising star of the new Florentine Republic, a brilliant civil servant and head of the Second Chancery, a post that placed him in charge of the Republic’s foreign affairs after the expulsion of the Medici in 1494. But when the Republic fell and the Medici returned to power he was arrested, tortured and expelled from the city. He retreated to his farmhouse ‘Albergaccio‘ ( meaning bad hotel) as it linked to the tavern across the road often filled with dubious characters.

The Albergaccio restaurant today and tour of the farmhouse:

 

Machiavelli wrote “Here, in Sant’Andrea in Percussina, where I tend to my vines and family matters, I, Niccolo’ Machiavelli, have found refuge from events in Florence, fatal for me. Hikers breakNext door there’s the Hosteria, a continual source of refreshment for me, for the labours borne in my long office, tasting that which the land has made into marvellous fruit.”

And we enjoyed tasting a refreshing prosecco from his land before the tour!

Inside we passed through the rather simple rooms of the farmhouse including his study where he wrote his famous book ‘The Prince’ , his notorious political tract advising dynasties, like the Medici, how Machiavelli's studyto combat the vicissitudes of fortune and stay in power. Considered a key intellectual figure of the Florentine Renaissance his isolation from Florence was under sufferance, especially since he had a clear view of Brunelleschi’s Dome from his garden daily. Most historians now emphasise the much greater importance of his later writings in Discourses on Livy and the History of Florence, where it becomes clear that his preferred political model was one based on freedom and democracy, a world without tyrannical kings and princes.

From the cellar we could see yet another of his villas – Villa Mangiacane thought to be designed by Michelangelo and where we had been promised our lunch break.

A brief stop at the Machiavelli store to peruse the gadgets and gift ideas and then back to hiking before we got too distracted by the alluring aromas coming from the restaurant kitchen, or tempted by another prosecco!

Down the valley, through the vineyards and with stomachs rumbling we trooped past the Villa Mangiacanefile of Tuscan cypress to the entrance of Villa Mangiacane to enjoy lunch on the garden steps. Fortunately for us the luxury resort was closed so no one to object. The villas remained in the Machiavelli family for centuries and only recently have been sold to an Italian Wine Cooperative.Machiavelli family tree

For us it had been a fun day out, a good fundraising day for Emergency and a very easy hike in the lovely area of Chianti Classico.Hikers trail home

 

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Hooves clicking on Black Marble

Hiking in the National ParkOut in the heat hiking not far from Siena we are exploring an area of Italian marbleblack marble or commonly known here as Serpentine marble. And while we are no longer able to see the quarries where the ‘marble‘ came from, we are conscious that every step we take is on this precious material. Officially it is not really ‘marble’ but a serpentinite, “a metamorphic rock derived from the rock of magmatic origin that formed about 200 million years ago on the bottom of the ancient Ocean Tetide, where it underwent a process of hydration by interaction with sea water.” The name originates from the similarity of the texture of the rock to that of the skin of a snake, easily seen here in the village wall. Serpentine marble in village wall

The territory of Murlo is rich in outcrops of this rock and it was used to create the black and white dichromy in the Sienese Cathedral. Not an easy feat considering we are hiking amongst tough Tuscan hills around 27kms from Siena.


We are also lucky to be hiking with a mix of experts                                                          – our faithful Environmental guide Grazia, to give us all the info on the local flora, fauna and terrain underfoot                                                                                                          – a geologist Andrea, eager to explain the difference in the formation of marble and serpentinite i.e.  “Marble being rocks that having undergone a process of metamorphism at high temperatures and pressures that has made the minerals recrystallize.”                                                                                                                      – and Grazia’s father Ivo, who was born in the area, now a National Park, and keen to recount old farming techniques and memories of times past.

Cathedral SienaAt the time of the construction of the Cathedral, begun in 1215,  the ‘Opera del Duomo‘ responsable for the construction bought or rented land with quarries or rich in building stones,  vineyards and fields to obtain wine and bread for the workers, water for making mortar, and woods for work timber. Historical records show that the serpentine stones were partially worked in the quarry and each block of black marble weighed approx 80-100 kg and was carted by mules Siena Cathedralacross this rather rugged terrain. Unlike Florence there was no substantial river course to use as an easier alternative. In the end transport became so expensive and difficult that the black marble was used less and abandoned by the 14th Century.

We hike through typical Mediterranean vegetation dominated by holm oaks up and down hills, past some vineyards along trails that linked communities, ancient parish churches and monasteries. We are on our way to the Hermitage of Montespecchio, thinking of the poor mules that carted up to 20 tons of marble to Siena each 6 months and in this heat we are hard pressed to cart our small back packs laden only with bottles of water and lunch!

Now only the ruins of the church remain of the Hermitage, which was in its heyday a large complex and a wealthy one both from donations not only of money but also land and a healthy income to the Augustinian friars from the sale and transport of the black marble. The welcome shade renew our energy as we exlore the ruins from the 12th Century and despite the striped walls so typical of Romanesque architecture the place has an exotic almost Asian feel to it.

We are now close to Ivo’s birthplace and he delights in telling us that he was often here, looking for his pigs that sometimes went astray and enjoyed Old Tuscan schoolforaging in the woods. In the past there were large fields of grain and cereals cultivated on rotation, and each family depended on that and their livestock to survive. We pass the farmhouse, converted school, that he walked 3kms to each day with his 8 brothers and sisters, now a private residence used probably only on holidays.

Then next to the delapidated buildings where he’s was born he calls us onto the overgrown area which was once the paved ‘aia’ or piazza, where they would tie a horse in the centre and with his continuous circling thresh the grain with his hooves. They would gather the grain on enormous sieves and toss it into the area to separate the grain from the kernels. At the end of harvesting there would be a big dinner on long trestle tables in the piazza where all the families would meet and party.

Ivo's childhood home

 

The buildings and land were left to the Forestry department which has sadly left the buildings go to ruin and the local vegetation has taken over. There is a definite hint of nostalgia as Ivo reminisces, yet satisfied as we are appreciative of his stories of times gone by.                                                           So next time you are in Siena and enjoying its splendour you can appreciate even more the hard work that went into trasporting the black marble.

Farming tales

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Leonardo Da Vinci and the Battle of Anghiari

Since it is 500 years after the death of Leonardo Da Vinci, Italy is celebrating the anniversary with exhibitions, pageants, and local theatrical performances. The country is floooded with events and is encouraging all of us to explore new places and lesser known facts about Leonardo.Anghiari

Photo credit- Museo della Battaglia e di Anghiari.

 

I had taken up the opportunity to combine my love of hiking on an easy trail between Anghiari and Sansepolcro to follow the itinerary of the Florentine soldiers in the crucial Battle of Anghiari of 29 June, 1440. The Battle, played out on the plain between the two towns, was to be colorfully recounted by various local actors along the trail. Unfortunately the performance was cancelled due to stormy weather predictions.

However curiosity had got the better of me and I drove to Anghiari early morning well before the storm and spent a very pleasant few hours exploring the nooks and crannies of this beautiful medieval village. Along the way to set the mood I stopped at Ponte Buriano bridge to contemplate the scene with Da Vinci, since it is this bridge which features in the background of the Mona Lisa.

Garibaldi at AnghiariGaribaldi welcomed me into the historical centre of Anghiari, a popular statue in towns all over Italy. Shortly after I was to cross the moat, or where it was once, through the drawbridge gateway that protected it from foreign invaders.Anghiari Moat Gate

 

 

 

 

I had stepped back in time; winding alleyways, opened onto intimate piazzas, overlooked by medieval buildings now incorporated into Renaissance palaces. It was beautiful!

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