Tuesday, May 12, 2009

My New Favorite Hill Town!

OK, I have at least ten favorites. But I was quite impressed with my first visit to Certaldo. The typical way to arrive at the top is by taking the funicular from the main town square. But instead, we drove up along the steep, narrow road which followed the crest of the hills and ended up just outside the ancient walls. The parking lot was so steep that our Fiat Multipla could not even hold its place. Thank goodness my friend Giuseppe was driving at this point!

We found a more stable location (still quite steep) and headed further up into town. As we entered through the old gate, I was immediately transported back into time, first by the unchanged structures and alleys but also by the people in costume everywhere! There were jesters and friars, monks and more. A festival for the high school students (a sort of treasure hunt) was taking place. The music was playing from its hiding place under the burlap sack. The old palace with its many coats of arms was the meeting point. We strolled around and enjoyed the festiveness.

At one point, we followed what at first appeared to be a quiet side street but happened upon this open window from where beautiful piano music was spilling out into the street. Absolutely the best thing about exploring these special places are all the wonderful surprises that happen along the way.

We finished the day with an amazing dinner at La Stelletta in the square of the modern town below. The recipes on their menu date back to medieval times. The owner's mother was the cook. Of course!

Monday, May 11, 2009

La Foce

The soul of La Foce blossomed under the caring guidance of Iris and Antonio Origo. Iris Cutting Origo (an accomplished author) was born in 1902 from an American-Irish father and Italian mother and raised in Florence. In 1923, she became engaged to Antonio Origo from Florence and they set out to find their future home in the hills of Tuscany.

The now famous garden grew gradually, between 1925 and 1939. The house is surrounded by a formal Italian garden, which is divided into geometrical ‘rooms’ by box hedges with lemon trees in terracotta pots. Travertine stairs lead to the rose garden and a winding wisteria-covered pergola bordered by lavender hedge. Gentle informal terraces climb up the hill, where cherry trees, pines and cypresses grow among wild broom, thyme and rosemary, and a long cypress avenue leads to a 17th-century stone statue. Through the woods, a path joins the garden and the family cemetery, where Iris's son Gianni who died at the age of 7 was buried. The cemetery is considered one of architect Cecil Pinsent's best creations.

The inscription on Iris Origo's headstone comes from St Catherine of Siena. "Chi piu' conosce piu' ama, piu' amando piu' giusta"
The more your know, the more you love, and by loving more, the more you enjoy.

During the Nazi occupation of Italy, at considerable personal risk, the Origos turned their farm and villa into a safe haven for children from Genoa and Turin who had lost their homes and families in the bombings. They also helped escaped Allied war prisoners. In "War in Val d'Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943 - 1944, Origo chronicles the crises and confusion of anti-fascist resistance at a time when Tuscany was crawling with Nazis.
(taken from "Desiring Italy" edited by Susan Cahill, Fawcett, 1997)

La Foce: Intersection - a place where paths intervene.

Every Wednesday, Benedetta Isadori conducts walking tours of the lovely La Foce Gardens. Although Benedetta is not a blood relation to Iris Origo, her mother lived on la Foce as a child and Benedetta was named after one of Iris's daughters - truly a life being lived from the heart.


Friday, May 8, 2009

Rolling in the Hay

This morning we roamed the valley to take in the marvelous views surrounding us. I found the hay bales particularly interesting - and so did our students!

Then we headed to the cellars! These are very cool (literally and figuratively) cantinas.

Then we headed to the "Farm" for a treat of organically grown vegetables and cheeses. It is always one of our best meals. No extra seat needed for this little guy!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Prada, Gucci, and Fendi - OH MY!

Ok - this was not on the original itinerary however, for me it was a long over due trip. So I was quite happy when a few in our group asked about visiting the designer outlet stores outside of Florence. Plus, I soon realized I was in the company of professional outlet shoppers! Our first stop was "The Mall" near Leccio with such stores as Gucci, Fendi, Giorgio Armani, Ferragamo and many more. It was a delightful layout and the shoppers were few. I could see them plotting and planning their attack with great intent and such finesse so as not to miss a thing.

We did a bit of research prior and learned that January and July are the best months to visit as the designers change over their inventory in the major city stores. In addition, it is best to stay away on the weekends as this is when most Italians are searching for their own bargains.

So with a good deal of elbow room on this Tuesday in May, bright sunshine, and eager pocketbooks, the ladies set out to explore. In a few hours time, they returned with big bags and bigger smiles - not only because of their new-found treasures, but because we still had time to go to the Prada Outlet!

We refueled at the wonderful cafe before leaving. No food court here. We are in Italy so of course we had great salads, pastries, pizza, paninis and more at the bar, and a full service restaurant upstairs for those with more time.

We ate quite quickly and hit the road to find Prada near Montevarchi. From what I read, it was going to be a bit of a challenge as there are virtually no signs. I was lucky to have an able co pilot in the right seat to read the four pages of directions to me from my blackberry. The traffic was brutal but we were determined. The outlet closed at 7:30pm and it was just after 6. Where there is a will, there is a way. And we had three strong wills in the van!

We finally saw the gas station and flashing yellow light as described in the directions. Still no sign for Prada. Actually, the first time we even saw the name Prada was on the handbags once inside! The outlet is known as "Space". We parked the car along the giant dark gray and black building in the industrial zone and made our way quickly to the door after picking a number. Because it was late, we were able to walk right in... and walk right in we did. Our mouths dropped to the floor only a few feet past the door. There in front of us was the most beautiful display of handbags any of us had ever seen. Gorgeous soft leather in a subtle, sexy orange, crimson, and sage. We were surrounded by aisles of Prada clothes, jewelry, perfume, makeup, eyewear, belts, shoes, and did I mention the bags??? Lots and lots of beautiful bags!

We had only an hour to look around... and we were a bit overwhelmed by it all. But we could do this! The giant clock behind the cashier was ticking and the staff reminded us too often of the impending closing time. The ladies got to work helping each other to find the perfect treasure like loyal teammates playing together in a championship game. And in the end, victory! Sweet victory!

A Walk on the Wild Flower Side

It is no wonder May attracts the photographers and artists to the Val d'Orcia. Color is exploding all around us. You cannot look in any direction without seeing bursts of red, yellow, and several shades of purple.

This morning I took a walk around the outskirts of town and here are just some of my views:

Red Poppies, Yellow Aster, Wild Irises and several types of wild peas, wisteria and lilacs. Thank goodness we have our own botonist on staff. Joel's Wife Barbara can tell you the latin and generic name for just about every species we came across. All I know is that they are most beautiful!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Postcards Everywhere!

The first few days of the workshop have been amazing and FULL - first of course, with a fabulous dinner.

First - For you Foodies out there:

Day of Arrival: Our arrival dinner at our hotel was squisito! Our first course (antipasto) was a pecorino cheese souffle served in a celery and basil sauce. Wow. Our primo piatto was zucchini and local saffron risotto. Another wow. Our secondo (main course) was roast guinea fowl served with local wild mushrooms and rosemary potatoes and vegetables. Delicioso! The wine was a perfect Rosso di Montalcino by Fanti. All was topped off with home made coffee gelato served in a zabaione cream sauce... Ok! Not a bad start!

Day 2: The students rose at 5 am for a sunrise shoot their first full day! (no sunrise photos from me, sorry) Then class - Then a walking tour with our lovely guide Anna - Then a delicious lunch at a local osteria (tavern). Then a late afternoon and sunset tour - then another delicious dinner at another fine local ristorante. Mamma Mia!

Day3: The classes are in the field today. We head out to another charming hill town stopping along the way to take in a magnificent cluster of Cypress trees. I was surprised to see a street sweeper sweeping by hand the road and parking area here. Perhaps he enjoys the view as well and wishes to take his time here.

Instructor Joel assists Paula as she checks the settings on her camera at the Banfi Estate.

Of course the meals are always an important part of our day. We enjoyed a three course tasting menu at Castello Banfi paired with their marvelous wines. Castello Banfi is the only vineyard to have a Michelin star-rated restaurant in Italy.

And bella Pienza is turning out to be the ideal place for us to see it all!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Photo Workshop Eve

It is the evening before the students arrive. Photographer Joel Wolfson, his wife Barb and I head out for one last scout to a desired shooting area not far from our base in Pienza. The white roads with green highlights do not disappoint. (Unpaved roads are printed in white on most maps and the green highlights indicate a scenic route). These roads often lead to some very special places as it certainly did inour case!

I feel especially fortunate; first, because the weather has turned beautiful, and second, I have the teacher and his faithful assistance all to myself for private lessons! Barb assists Joel with the accuracy and urgency not unlike a surgical nurse to a doctor during an operation. Instead of "scalpel or gauze", we hear "polarized filter" and "tripod" quick before the light fades." Barb is on it!

It is about 6pm when we head out. We still have a good 2 hours left of shootable light. Jack rabbits and wild pheasants scurry in front of us as we make our way down the country roads. With each turn is another spectacular vista.

Once we arrived, we parked the car and headed out on foot to capture the many splendid shots surrounding us. One building where the light seemed "just right" turned out to be a casa vacanza (a vacation house for rent). We took many photos and then rang the bell to obtain permission to use the house in photos to possibly sell. Within seconds, a gracious Signora arrived with a warm greeting and invited us inside to take a further look. Then she directed us on a walk through a small park and up several flights of lichen-covered stairs, passing through an alley-way lined with pots of roses and geraniums and up a spiral staircase to finally arrive on the very top of the town where there was a grand pool bordered by rosemary bushes and a view that stretched for miles in each direction. Tuscans take their holidays very seriously. A treat for all senses. Bellissima!

Heading out of this lovely little gem town with its streets so narrow that even Smartcars must pull over to let the other pass, we slowly took in the white road that followed along the crests of rolling hills offering up a magnificent view of il tramonto (the sunset). There before us was the Tuscan Sun we have come to love, sinking slowly from the sky before our eyes. And the workshop has yet to begin!