Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Into the Heart of Tuscany (Part I)

Into the Heart of Tuscany (Part I)

To the wayfarer, Italy can present many faces.  We awoke in Florence that October morning to a brooding faccia di italia, tearful eyed, her mood embodied in an altogether gloomy day, gray with overcast.  Fortunately, it would be a travel day, not a touring day, as we probed deeper into Tuscany.  This time we were headed into wine country, to a resort about two hours away.  Following another wonderful breakfast at Hotel Grand Minerva, our first order of business was to pick-up the rental vehicle we’d reserved at the Europcar office only steps from Hotel St. Regis alongside the Arno River.  We were familiar with this area by then.  A short walk later and we arrived to join the line along with other waiting customers.  It being in busy downtown, cars had to be brought in, one at a
time.  Our turn eventually came and soon-after so did our diesel-powered Jeep Renegade and we were off.  With Margaret’s timely help in deciphering the one-way, senso unico streets, it wasn’t long before we were back at the Grand Minerva to load our luggage and head off on the next leg of our Cinque Stelle (Five Star) tour.  We made a quick job of it and before long everything was aboard, we were in our seats, ready to go.  The surprise turn of events came when I rotated the key in the ignition to the deafening sound of silence.

It simply wouldn’t start, repeated attempt after repeated attempt.  Other than for my expletives, to the tempo of my recurring pounding of the wheel, silence dominated.  Where was all that Jeep advertising bravado now?  We gave it the old college try, however, going so far as to recruit help from the hotel desk manager and then a passing vacationer, who happened to be a mechanic and thought the problem lay with the battery.  Whatever the cause, we were grounded, stuck, stranded, marooned, take your pick.  What to do?  With help from the Minerva front desk, a call was made to the Europcar office, the one we’d only just departed.  They assured us a new car would soon be on the way.  I had my doubts.  From experience, I knew nothing ever happened quickly in Italy.  They proved me wrong though, for about 15 minutes later a new vehicle did indeed arrive.  Saints be praised, miracles still happen in Italy. 
Like magic, we soon found ourselves nosing south driving a Renault Espace, something that bordered on a van but with the trappings of a spacecraft.  I sat in a veritable cockpit, facing a front and side console that had the look of a modern aircraft’s glass cockpit.  Gone were the old-fashioned analog needle displays.  It also had an automatic transmission, which for Italy is far from the norm.  All round, it was a superior, more spacious vehicle than the Jeep had been, and certainly, at least to that point, more reliable.  To top it off, it had been provided for the same fee, which improved its appeal even more.  Although we had been delayed about an hour, things had worked out for the better.  The Espace proved to be a strange beast, however. 
To begin with, it didn’t have a key, at least of the type I was used to.  Instead, a device about the size as a cigarette lighter, along with the push of a button on the dashboard, was all that was needed to start the car.  On the order of a key fob, it simply needed to be close, in your pocket for instance.  A large screen, with the look of a Mac tablet, mounted vertically, sat forward of the center

console, within arm’s reach.  It had all the touch-screen, finger zoom, and who knows what else features of a computer.  It could do it all, from a GPS navigation function to controls to lower the back seats.  It even featured a whiz-bang lane departure warning system that imitated the rumble strips found on many highways.  Even without actual rumble strips cut into the road, it mimicked the sound and sensation felt when crossing a center-line or the line marking the edge of the breakdown lane.  That I liked.  While we did find out how to activate the driver seat massage rollers, thanks to trial and error, we never did learn how to operate other far more useful functions like the cruise control!  There was so much technology, you really needed a short course in systems management before heading off.  As for manuals, wouldn’t you know, what little there was in the glove compartment was, sacre bleu, in French (there I go cussing again).  I had my suspicions that the remaining mother-load of info on how to properly operate this spacecraft, cleverly masquerading as a car, was most likely imbedded somewhere in the ones and zeros hidden deep inside the computer-like console, never to be found
The shift-by-wire arrangement was also a bit confusing.  I was never comfortable with it because of its counterintuitive shift control.  To go forward, you pulled back on the console handle, while to go backwards, you pushed forward - just the opposite of what I instinctively was comfortable doing … forward to go forward and a pull backwards to move in reverse.  But then maybe spacecraft controls are different.  Renault engineers were also apparently concerned with saving fuel.  At about $1.60 a quart in these parts, I could appreciate why.  This was the first vehicle I’d ever driven with an engine that shut down whenever I stopped.  Only when I released the brake would the engine restart.  I was certainly surprised the first time I went through this stop-start cycle.  It was an odd feeling while stopped at an intersection, sitting there silently in traffic.  I was never comfortable with this feature, my discomfort only added to because of the hesitancy of the restart that was very similar to the delay experienced when pressing the start button.  Well, enough about cars.  Why complain, at least I got to drive on the right side of the road.  We were finally on our way toward Montalcino, and hopefully the not too difficult to find, Castiglion del Bosco (CdB) resort. 
All that behind us, it was raining by the time we reached Florence’s city limits.  It wasn’t a downpour, not yet at least, but the kind of steady rain that caused us to play with enough buttons and levers until we finally stumble upon just the one to get the windshield wipers moving.  Our GPS, Margaret, decided on taking a back route, away from the autostrada and contrary to what I’d expected.  She seemed to take delight in repeatedly informing us that we were “on the most direct route”.  It just may have been, for it wasn’t long afterward and we were passing through the country town of Buonconvento, on course.  The day before, I’d noticed the “Good Convent” on a map.  We found it set in the rolling hills near Siena, smack in the middle of Tuscany, near more famous place-names like Pienza, Montalcino, and Montepulciano.  It was thereabouts, however, that the paved road gave way to gravel.  After a while, and although Margaret’s colored route-map assured us we were on course, I thought for sure I’d gone wrong somewhere and we were bordering on being lost.  It didn’t make sense.  How could a famous resort like CdB lie at the end of miles and miles of dirt road?  My unease persisted until we stumbled upon a golf course in the midst of the pastoral terrain, with large wine bottles marking the tees.  The sight of those bottles quickly renewed my confidence, for we all interpreted them as a sign we were close, if not to the CdB reception center, then at least to the shelter of their 19th hole club house.  Here was our equivalent to that pre-history moment when Noah spotted birds flying above the ark, interpreted as a sure sign of land, though I admit, not entirely as momentous in our case.  Continuing to follow our muddy serpentine track along cypress-lined roads and past century old stone farmhouses, we were relieved to once again reach pavement, and shortly thereafter pulled into the Castiglion reception center.  Could Marg have taken a short cut?  To look at our vehicle, you can forget that image of an ark.  Instead, it had all the appearance of a Conestoga wagon emerging from a long trek through the Rockies.  I looked back at our vehicle as I headed inside.  Mud coated our spacecraft with a blur of beige and dripping barnyard brown gunk.  It mattered little, for the mission had been accomplished.  We’d arrived, or at least had landed safely, the pilot in me comforted in the thought that any landing you can walk away from is a good landing, the parking lot of CdB included.
The man behind the resort, its founder, is Massimo
Ferragamo.  I wasn’t familiar with him but Maria Elena recognized the name immediately as part of an Italian shoe dynasty.  As Chairman of Ferragamo USA, Inc., a subsidiary of Salvatore Ferragamo Italia created by his father, he is responsible for the brand throughout North America.  His empire includes luxury shoes, bags, eyewear, silk accessories, watches, perfumes, even a ready-to-wear clothing line.  No wonder Mare recognized the name!  Massimo is also considered the family visionary and applies the same successful business principles to his real estate ventures.  Castiglion del Bosco is his latest business-meets-pleasure departure from high fashion.  He apparently bought the property on a whim when friends remarked that it would be wonderful to have a get-away somewhere in Tuscany.  Count me in.  We’d done the same in Calitri, although nothing approaching the scale of his venture.  At CdB, Massimo along with his wife, Chiara, have created a world-class resort that is authentic, stylish, historic, and known for excellent stand-apart service.  It wasn’t long before we come to the same conclusion.

That familiar Book of Numbers biblical phrase “What hath God wrought?" came to mind immediately when I entered the property.  In this case, appropriately amended, it might more aptly read, “What hath man wrought?”, for Castiglion del Bosco is an exquisite, one-of-a-kind, luxury

resort set within a 4,500-acre estate in the heart of Tuscany’s famous Val d’Orcia.  We sensed it right from the beginning when a doorman greeted us and we entered the reception center.  As we crossed the threshold into this large room, more like a parlor then an office, the prattle of small talk ceased as the staff stood to greet us.  We were shown to nearby facing couches and shortly thereafter , as though aboard an Alitalia flight in first class, were served steaming, lavender-scented hand towels and enjoying welcoming drinks.  As opposed to conditions outside, all was orderly, quiet and beautiful inside.  While they couldn’t control Mother Nature, everything they did manage was designed to please.  As that recognition dawned on me, so did the realization that relaxation was job-one here.  It was a wonderful feeling to be so warmly received and a smart beginning to the leisure yet to come.
The resort was resurrected from the remains of an 800-year-old village, rebuilt to the highest standards.  Today, in addition to the ruins of a castle, it consists of a medieval church, and a village, referred to as the “borgo”, that was once an
important area farming center.  For the uber-rich friends of Massimo and guests like us willing to pay in better weather, it also come with that breathtaking 18-hole golf course we’d passed in the rain.  Along with a cooking school, there was a store stocked with clothing and odds and ends that a guest may have forgotten to bring along.  An organic kitchen garden, a spa, a common use infinity pool, and a fitness center were also on hand.  Visitors also had the choice of two restaurants, both far removed from fast food establishments - the more rustic Osteria La Canonica or the stylish Ristorante Campo del Drago.  Together they offered classic Tuscan and Italian dining at a table that was ours the entire night. 

The borgo formed the heart of the resort with 23 luxury suites housed within an assortment of renovated buildings.  Also available were ten spacious villas, sprinkled here and there, created from restored farmhouses.  We learned that they featured antique furniture, and artisanal pieces along with every modern comfort.  We each held our suspicions of what to expect, but with every passing minute it became obvious that here the good life had entrenched itself.  Here was a place where gourmet chefs, maids, waiters, the concierge staff, pool boys, even a maintenance staff ready to tackle the slightest inconvenience, were at our beck and call.  We never did get to visit any of the suites, although we’d originally been scheduled to stay in one.  That had all changed before our arrival, for as we departed the reception center, all checked in, we were shown to a two story villa, previously the medieval village’s jail, now referred to as Villa Chiusa.  My first impression, just looking at it from the outside … lock me up and throw away the key! 
How do I describe something verging on paradise?  Villa Chiusa stood at one end of a wide lane topped with pebbles, something approaching a main street, resurrected from the remains of the ancient borgo that ran the considerable length of the property.  At one end, close to another villa, resided the towering remains of the castle, while the opposite end of the lane was taken up by two additional villas, one of which, our luxuriant abode, would be our home over three nights.  Situated a flight of stone stairs up from the pebbled lane, just beyond a chest-high metal gate, the villa struck an impressive pose.  Its dulled yellow fa├žade with a terracotta tiled roof greeted us. Three shuttered windows bridged the upper story, while at ground level, flanked either side by two matching windows, an arched doorway afforded entry. 
It was evident that fashion ran deep in the Ferragamo family.  Its stylish expression was evident throughout the rustic-chic interior of our villa, where culture present merged with heritage past. Following entry, we were greeted by a long, wide, tiled foyer.  A hat-rack sporting antlers was arranged with a variety of white, good-guy hats.  Later, when I tried on the largest fedora I could find, it looked small on me yet managed to earn me a comment, something to do with a mafia boss.  The foyer deposited us into a massive, tastefully appointed living room, capped with a coffered ceiling.  Every room felt fresh, its modern touches comfortable in old skin.  Authentic Tuscan antiques and 19th-century paintings along with cabinets, bookcases, couches, sofa-tables, and overstuffed chairs with red accents, in keeping with a striped carpet, took up the room.  High walls were hung with clusters of paintings.  Its mood was more than appealing, and shortly after our self-guided tour ended, we would be enjoying our next dose of relaxation right there.  To add to the elegance, off to one side in an adjoining space was a dining room with far more seats at the table than we could hope to fill.  In addition to two bathrooms, completing the ground floor was a television room that I soon discovered to be as beckoning and comfortable as the living room. 
To be Continued 

From That Rogue Tourist