Thursday, November 29, 2012

Castle of the Little Men

We were freelancing – on the road with no particular destination in mind, simply steadily heading south through Tuscany and beyond. Sometimes not knowing what lies ahead adds mystery if not excitement to our everyday lives. After our short stay in Vernazza we had taken the train to La Spèzia to retrieve our car parked in the underground garage just outside the station. Always anxious about leaving our rental anywhere, especially for an extended period, we were relieved to find everything in order … nothing like that time in Montreal when we were short four hubcaps. Thankfully the tires were still there! After all these years, knock on wood, we have yet to have any car problems and here in a country known for car thefts, if not chaotic driving habits. This we can attest to.

From La Spèzia, with Margaret, our GPS, set for Liverno, it wasn’t long before we passed the splintered marble quarries of Carrara, visible off in the distance to the side of the A12 Autostrada. Renowned in history as the place Michelangelo personally visited to select the blue-grey marble block to sculpt his Renaissance masterpiece, The David (1501-04), it would remain for us, at least for a while longer, a place to someday visit. We sped by with all the power our 1.2 liter engine could afford us, slowing only when Margaret sounded an alarm to signal an approaching speed checkpoint, an ever growing threat to drivers in Italy.

Short of Liverno we broke off toward Certaldo, a place we had visited years before. These course corrections kept Margaret under tighter control. Close to Certaldo we made another course adjustment, this time with Siena as our elusive destination. We’d also been to Siena years earlier and had enjoyed our adventure in this famous city especially in the Piazza del Campo, home to the twice-yearly Palio, where we visited the Museo Civico inside the Palazzo Pubblico located there in the square. It was here that we had seen the 1338 fresco by Ambrogio Lorenzetti of "Good Government" beside its negative counterpart entitled "Bad Government". In an adjacent room non la destate (not to be awakened) lay a lifelike sleeping child on a dimpled mattress carved by the master hand of Giovanni Dupré; both the child and his bed carved in timeless marble. We were fascinated by how realistic it was, expecting the child, asleep now for centuries, to awaken at any moment. Beautiful as it is, it too would not be our destination this night. Exactly where that might be, however, we were not certain. To help us find a place to rest our heads, hopefully as comfortably as this 'not to be awakened' child, we entered Margaret’s 'menu' section and highlighted 'points of interest/lodging'. Poof, like magic this miracle of modern technology popped up a list of nearby area hotels, B&Bs and agriturismi (holiday farms) and their distances from us at the moment. I do the driving in Italy while Maria Elena is the navigator. As navigator, she is also the minder of Margaret. So it was in this capacity that as she scanned the display she struck upon THE CASTLE, a true-to-life, lived-in Tuscan castle. The thought of a night in a castle had her mesmerized as her childhood visions of damsels and knights in armor rushed in to fill her fantasies. I was helpless to object, no matter the cost!

Passing Siena, we departed Strada Statale 326 (SS326) at the Serra di Rapolano exit and after making the rounds of a rotary (twice actually to read all the signs) and passing through the environs of an industrial zone, we joined an unpaved 'white road'. We were pretty confident we had it right, especially with Margaret encouraging each turn we made, but the gravel road had us soon questioning even though before leaving on this adventure I'd given Margaret an electronic lobotomy followed by an injection of updated maps. Blazing a trail of dust behind us we followed Margaret's directions well after the signs for the castle petered-out. It wasn't long afterwards that Margaret also abandoned us there on a dirt road in the middle of the Tuscan equivalent of nowhere after solemnly announcing we had "arrived at our destination on the right". Problem was there was nothing there other than an empty field. In fact, we were surrounded by empty fields. We certainly needed a knight in shining armor to arrive about then! After a brief stop and assuming we were close, we kept going. Over a rise and around a turn or two we could make out the outline of a complex of buildings ahead. A little closer yet and the crenellated battlements of a castle came into view. From the battlements our little Lancia Ipsilon rental, now covered in white dust, could have been mistaken as the resolute charge of a white knight! We had arrived at Castello di Modanella.

The castle's estates are expansive, occupying approximately 700 hectares (1730 acres) of tranquil rolling Tuscan countryside. The oldest parts of the castle date from the XII century and were originally built by the noble Cacciaconti family. In 1450 the property came into the possession of the Piccolomeni family who then inhabited the castle for hundreds of years. I was taken by the name Piccolomeni for it so reminded me of piccoli uomini, meaning 'little men' in Italian. Though the door frames were rather low for my needs these were not 'little men' in either political or physical stature. The most famous member of the family at the time was the likeable though reportedly extremely fickle Enea Silvio Bartolomeo Piccolomini, better known to history as Pope Pius II (1458-1464). Vacillating to the point that at one time he was actually an opponent of the papacy in addition to being somewhat of a libertine from the novels he authored, then suddenly poof, surprise, he was crowned Pope! In our political world the pundits would call this flip-flopping, major flip-flopping! Remembered mostly for his unsuccessful attempt to finance and lead a crusade against the Turks, history records that over his lifetime he was an ardent traveler, an admired Latin poet, author, effective diplomat (during an especially volatile period of turmoil in Christendom) and meticulous autobiographer (his 13 volume 'Commentaries' are the only autobiography ever written by a reigning Pope). He even had time to try his hand at what we'd today call urban-planning, something unheard of in medieval times. He went so far as to have his native village of Corsignano, overlooking the picturesque Val d’Orcia valley, rebuilt and its name changed to Pienza (Pius). Enough of my dissembling - sufficient to say that these were a noble, powerful and clearly influential family and now we had arrived at their ancestral home.

Modanella is a set piece for a fantasy. Today it consists of a cluster of farm houses, a school and 16th century church, forming essentially a small village situated on high ground, which with the addition of its beautiful 12th century castle, dominates the surrounding landscape. Under a shading canopy of trees we pulled up beside the entry doors to the fortress. There was no moat or drawbridge just a towering stone facade with an arched timbered entry door big enough, if opened, for a truck to drive through. Since it was closed up tight, a buzzer beside the doors seemed our only recourse. Moments after pressing the button the sound of an electric servo indicated that a smaller door within the much larger entranceway had unlocked. Pushing it open we stepped inside the gatehouse but not before Maria Elena bumped her head on the low overhang of the door ... once again 'piccoli uomini' came to mind. In moments we were met by Fabrizio, 'armored' all in red clothing, seemingly his favorite color, who would be our host during our stay. Hearing of our vagabond, freelance circumstances and therefore the lack of any reservation, he was accommodating enough to offer us a room for the night. Along with the room came dinner in the castle that evening and breakfast in the morning. Because we would apparently be unable to enjoy spa services located somewhere nearby, the all-inclusive price was adjusted to 178E ($220). This immediately exceeded my hypothetical set limit so I left the decision to Mare, after all she had pressed the button that had brought us by circuitous route to Castello di Modanella. Let me tell you, she had no problem making it!

Our room was not in the castle but in an outbuilding apartment just behind the garden walls and shy of the swimming pool. Although there were but the two of us we could have hosted quite a crowd in the space we enjoyed, which on its multiple levels included a kitchen and two baths. It was not long after we'd settled-in that we were sampling Modanella's wine. Vineyards occupy 22 hectares of the estate where Canaiolo, Sangiovese, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes thrive in specially selected soil giving the wines a unique and expressive taste. The wine, like the food we would shortly enjoy, is crafted by people who clearly demonstrate a passion and skill for what they do. It was not long, therefore, before we had our gift bottle of 2008 DOCG Chianti 'breathing' as we relaxed to enjoy it amidst pleasant surroundings including several estate farm houses visible in the distance from our dominating position there on the patio beside our door.

The bottle well drained (yes we can do that easily after many visits to Italy) and it being only mid-afternoon by then, we still had several hours on our hands before dinner. Another couple staying nearby (they visit Castello di Modanella yearly) recommended we drop by the nearby hill-top ancient village of Lucignano. So off we roared trailing a geyser of white dust behind us across country back roads to medieval Lucignano. We found it without difficulty, parked outside its elliptical fortified walls and entered through the Porta Murata. The exterior walls of Lucignano surround the city like a racetrack while what would be the infield consists of multiple rings of connected homes separated by narrow cobbled streets that move in concentric circles. No matter the street you chose, you could circumnavigate the entire town on foot in about 15 minutes. It was relatively quiet especially for a Saturday afternoon as we made our laps of the town only stopping briefly for some refreshments at an outside café. Few people were out but by custom it was early yet for people to appear for the evening ritual of passagata where they’d walk the streets with the sole purpose of meeting friends. The layout of the streets was certainly amenable to this. In the ‘bulls-eye’ historic center of Lucignano we found the town's main structures: the 13th century Romanesque Church of San Francesco, the Torre delle Monache, and the late 16th century Collegiata Church of San Michele Arcangelo. Bordering San Michele Arcangelo we walk the Piazza del Tribunale Piazza to the historic Palazzo Comunale (thirteenth-fourteenth century). The adjacent Municipal Museum contained an elaborate reliquary known as the L’albero della Vita (the Tree of Life) - a gilded and jeweled tree surmounted by a crucified Christ. In many ways this extraordinary example of medieval urbanism reminded us of San Gimignano, Cortona or similar fortified Tuscan towns but absent their marked commercialism. We especially noticed how well maintained everything was. The stone buildings appearing as if they’d been completed yesterday, the streets void of discarded wrappings and cigarette butts, even the ever-present sprawl of graffiti was absent. Clearly a well-preserved sense of heritage and a dash of civic pride help account for its fascinating atmosphere and popularity with tourists from all over Europe.

Still only recently arrived in Italy, our bodies were not yet on Italian time and neither were our appetites. We arrived at the Castle's main dining room at 8 pm, having postponed our arrival long enough we thought given our growling stomachs. When we realized we’d be the only patrons, we retreated to the palm tree confines of the garden but not before obtaining tall gin and tonic cocktails from the small bar, which greeted us at the entrance. Under a full September moon we strolled through the courtyard with its charming loggia to the garden contoured every which way with well-maintained hedges. There we sat nursing our drinks until after 9 pm when others began to arrive, assuring we would not dine alone. Food lovers can enjoy their meals in formal Italian dining elegance and hospitality in one of the three high-ceilinged rooms situated on the castle's ground floor. We were escorted to a table for two in a corner commanding a view of the main dining room. The tables were elegantly arrayed in fine linens in stark contrast to black rimmed charger plates and stemware both wide and narrow mouthed to accommodate our selections. We were actually pleasantly surprised by the formalness of the affair - our smiling and attentive waiter even sporting a black bowtie and dark suit. The room itself was equally impressive starting with the ceiling where cedar beams divided its span into areas of small alternating red and blue squares. Intermingled in the blue squares were yellow crescent moons; the yellow complementing the saffron colored walls. It was Fabrizzio who explained that a member of the Piccolomini family had been successful in a number of battles in the Holy Land during the Crusades. As commander he'd won five battles. In fitting remembrance of that achievement five crescent moons in the shape of a cross commemorating those victories become the iconic symbol of the Piccolomini. Where walls met ceiling, wide borders of heraldic emblems, garlands, ribbons and cherubs surrounded us to complete the ornate etiquette of this elegant chamber. A huge fireplace seemingly unused these days occupied the center of one wall. Clearly depicted on its massive stone hood was a shield embossed with a blue cross containing five yellow crescents with stone ribbons extending from the shield on either side. We were amidst history here in the heart of Tuscany. Would that this room still retained the echoes of long ago voices recounting their glorious deeds in battle heard above the crackle of the fire and the yelping of dogs at their master's feet. Our discovery of Castello di Modanella was nothing like that time in Montichiari, Lombardy when only after our tour of the local Castello Bonoris did we realize it was a reproduction, albeit a fine replica of the real thing though not built until 1890. I should have caught on much earlier, the frescos looked too new, but then I knew less Italian at the time and must have missed what everyone else had apparently understood from our guide vis-à-vis its abridged history. Here in the great room of the castle, the sounds of the past long departed, it was now time to enjoy dinner amidst the hum of cheerful voices and the cin-cin of raised glasses.

We dined as King and Queen that evening, our dinners a gastronomic adventure. First off as we looked over our menus and without asking, our long-stem fluted glasses were charged with a sparkling wine followed soon afterwards with the arrival of a bottle of the estate's 2008 Chianti. The menu included multiple choices in every category from Gli Antipasti (The Appetizers) on through to I Nostri Dolci (Our Desserts). As we read over each offering and discussed them between ourselves, carefully considering each possible choice in each category, Fabrizzio informed us that we could enjoy anything we might fancy from the evening's menu. He had said earlier that dinner was included with our stay but we hadn't realized just how open ended it would be. Our attention back on the menus we made our selections and shortly afterwards shared them with our waiter. Not long after ordering, what appeared to be our appetizers arrived. On sampling the creations we soon realized something was amiss. At first I thought it a simple mistake, that Mare had received mine and I hers. However, both being the same, it was quickly obvious that what was before us was not what either of us had ordered. I called our waiter's attention to the obvious mistake. Perhaps it had been meant for another table, then again perhaps not. He explained that just as we had received the wine earlier we were now receiving a complementary small appetizer as a sign of welcome from the chef. I was familiar with the customary complementary serving of a plate of olives, some bread and dipping oil, possibly even a tapenade but had completely missed what was going on here. Clearly I'd not fully appreciated where I was, though with the arrival of what is properly called an amos-bouche (French for 'mouth amuser') I was beginning to understand. Our dinner selections, from among the many offerings follow (see photo album):

Gli Antipasti (The Appetizers)

Mare chose: “Terrina di Zucchini alla Parmigiana e fiore ripieno in Tempura” This appeared to be layered eggplant, cheese and tomato apparently done in a loaf pan then cut into squares each wrapped in thin zucchini slices and topped with a tempura fired mozzarella stuffed pumpkin flower. What a beginning! I chose: “Pate di Capriolo, al mosto cotte, con pan brioches all’uvetta” A grape must syrup flavored venison pate served with raison pan brioche. I just hated when it up and disappeared!

I Primi Piatti (First Plate)

Instead of gnocchi, soup or crepes both of us enjoyed “I Pici tirati a mano con Salsiccia croccante e Funghi di raccolta” ... otherwise a homemade 'pici' pasta (a hand-rolled, fat spaghetti pasta on the order of bucatini, less the hole running through its length) served with tiny cubed pieces of crispy sausage and mushrooms. Even Mare who is not overly excited about pasta (while I am) enjoyed this creation.

I Secondi Piatti (Second Plate)

Maria Elena chose “La Casseruola di Angello glassata al miele di lavanda con cuscous di miglio alle verdure”, a lamb casserole glazed with lavender flavored honey served with millet couscous and vegetables. All she needs is to see lamb on a menu and she's hooked. My choice was “Bocconcini di Capriolo profumati al Ginepro con Funghi porcini e Polenta fritta” which translated was a juniper flavored venison stew served with 'ceps' (strong flavored, meaty yellow mushrooms with a spongy underside rather than gills) and deep fried polenta. While Mare goes for the lamb dishes in a big way, I'm the same when it comes to venison. The polenta was an added treat.

I Nostro Dolci (Our Dessert)

For dessert we enjoyed “Cantucci artigianali e vino santo “ergo sun”. These were homemade miniature biscotti almond cookies served with Vin Santo dessert wine for dipping. We had never tasted the sweet sacred serum, Vin Santo del Chianti, which we understand is made from the concentrated juice of grapes first dried until they resemble raisins then aged for a minimum of five years in small cherry casks. Somehow I managed to run out of the dip before the cookies vanished. I just had to make due.

After all this, I feared there'd be no way I'd ever fit into my armor let alone my Under Armor on the morrow! I wouldn't attempt to speak for Maria Elena. And to think there was still breakfast to look forward to. It's tough being King and Queen!

The next morning following breakfast, which I won’t describe, fair only to say it too lived up to its billing (our neighbors had said not to miss it), the newly minted fair maiden and portly knight were off, headed once again down the, by then, familiar 'white road'. On the GPS, Maria Elena selected 'favorites' and then 'Calitri', as our destination, for god-willing this day would see us arrive at our home there beneath the shadow of our own 13 century Castello Gesualdos, though not before one brief stop. There to the side of this country road by a brook some children fished. Close by, with one of the estate's vineyards as its backdrop, rose a bricked shrine atop larger stones at its base. Though old it appeared well made with inlays of unglazed ceramic pieces forming columns, mantles, lintels, even the roofline. I stopped and got out for a closer look. At its center, in a canopied recess in the fashion of a tabernacle, rested the framed picture of a religious icon. Telling from the potted plants, flowers and the can-like electric candles in offering, it had not been forgotten, though strangely, the icon itself was missing from the frame. Faded to oblivion perhaps but obviously still remembered by those who still said a prayer there or otherwise honored this spot. It would be our last memory of Castello di Modanella and though we were alone I thought I felt the gentlest of breezes, heard the whinny of a horse and the rap of metal on metal. Could it have been a light wind carrying the neigh of some distant farm animal? Perhaps. Maybe sounds from some unseen farm implement? I'm not sure. I'd much rather believe it was some passing spirit knight of old who no-doubt traveled these same roads from Siena to Modanella, if not Lucignano, wishing we pellegrini (pilgrims) farewell and safe journey. My prayer there before the local equivalent of the Trevi Fountain was simply to someday, in another cloud of dust carried on another breeze, to return.

From That Rogue Tourist, Paolo

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Then look for and click on a photo album entitled “ Castle of the Little Men”.