Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Into the Heart of Tuscany (Part II)

Into the Heart of Tuscany (Part II)
This is a continuation of last month’s story, “Into the Heart of Tuscany (Part I)”.  I pick-up from where I left off, exploring our villa, Villa Chiusa, in the Five Star Tuscan resort, Castiglion del Bosco (CdB). 
      Our villa (I love the “our” sounding part of that) came stocked with a high-tech, highly functional kitchen made to compliment the villa’s
decor.  A central island separated the country sink from the cooking space where a personalized card of welcome from the manager, who hadn’t been on the property to greet Chris on our arrival, was prominently displayed.  The cucina featured an Italian stove with a central griddle, on the order of a Viking model, though of heavier construction.  A backsplash of colorful tiles reminded us we were in Italy.  No Chinese imports here.  It, along with everything else in the villa, was Italian made and ultra-stylish.  The kitchen came complete with everything we might need, though I doubted we’d make use of it anytime during our stay. 

The upper floor contained three bedrooms, each with its own dedicated bath.  Maria Elena and I occupied an expansive master suite, as large as a small home.  Down a hallway, beyond a smart
walk-in closet, was the master bathroom.  Bordering on a suite itself, it was spectacular.  There was a separate room for the toilet/bidet with its own artwork, and another enclosing a marble-tiled shower with a sunflower water-head that could generate a range of warm raindrops from springtime sprinkle to savage downpour.  Slippers and two, fluffy, white terrycloth bathrobes with monkish hoods hung awaiting our use.  While our bathroom in Calitri had just enough room to turn around in, this lavish room had the extra space to host a dressing bench beneath the window opposite a mirrored wall just above an expansive two-sink counter.  It didn’t take Maria Elena long before she was soaking in its rose-colored marble tub, while an
awaiting bath-towel was being warmed on a wall rack coursing with hot water.  They’d thought of everything.  Even an electronic bathroom scale was provided, though I suspect only to remind all who dared to seek its truth to restrain from the vanity of over indulgence, something easy to succumb to at CdB. 
And there were buttons, many, many buttons.  In fact, too many buttons.  Without any training beyond the handover of keys, much like our car had been, it was a trial and error learning process for me.  My inept knowledge of how things worked was brought to the fore early the next morning around 6 am.  While rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I pushed a button in the dark hoping for a “let there be light” moment in the bathroom.  Instead, seconds later, the phone in our room rang.  I’d managed to hit the SOS button by accident and the call was to confirm our status.  Having avoided my “I’ve fallen and can’t get up” debut (hopefully well into the future), I apologized for the false alarm but nevertheless was amazed by their degree of vigilance, especially considering the early hour.  Clearly the service, even the distress service I’d not intended to use, was impeccable.
There were services we noted and apparently many others, evident from my errant button pushing episode that occurred behind the scenes.  Each night saw staff members arrive to turn down our king-size bed, close the shutters, draw the drapes, and provide water and a tumbler on each of the bedside tables.  They weren’t run-of-the-mill plastic water bottles either.  Instead, evident of the resort’s high standards, stylish clear glass decanters were supplied along with heavy crystal tumblers.  In keeping with the genre of famous butlers and maids, they were the likes of Chives, Batman’s Alfred Pennyworth, Mister B’s Hazel, and The Birdcage’s Agador Spartacus (well on second thought, maybe not so much in Agador’s case) all rolled into one.  Holding to the rules of civility, a
generous overdose of good manners, and I’m sure the Italian equivalent of Emily Post, the staff was a cut above and beyond reproach.   They were the real thing, not fictional characters providing pretend services.  They spoke multiple languages in keeping with a client list no doubt spanning the world.  They also appeared to be well informed, as for instance, that we were staying in one of the exclusive villas.  How did they know?  Could the Castiglion del Bosco’s commitment to hospitality have gone so far as to include daily updates on new arrivals?  We never knew for sure although we suspected as much.  In any case, we enjoyed their pampering service, sometimes to a surprising conclusion.  An example of their service-centric attention to fine detail occurred each morning at breakfast.  When asked if I’d like more coffee, I expected our server to simply top-off my cup.  Au contraire, not at CdB.  Instead, he removed my cup and saucer and returned with what he announced was “fresh service” and proceeded to fill my cup.  A little much but so easy to get used to.

There was more to our temporary estate.  Right behind our dream home, filling the backyard, beyond a relaxing patio complete with lounge chairs,
a table and umbrella, lay an infinity pool that saw its overflow dribble into the stone filled basin along its perimeter.  Appropriately named, the view was seemingly one endless vista stretched to a horizon bordering on the infinite.  The expansive panorama of rolling hills and valleys changed color and shading as puffy clouds, playing tricks with the light, dappled the countryside.  Only a matter of hours following our arrival found us bobbing in the pool that I must report displaced a tsunami of water over the edge upon our entry.  In single file, like a covey of monks, we’d used our hooded robes to trek from villa to poolside.  We hadn’t yet noticed the separate bathhouse, which would have met our every poolside need if only we hadn’t been fixated on the pool.  A close inspection of us would have blown our monkish cover, however, for I’d made

vodka tonics to add to our anticipated pleasure.  When Chris asked how I’d come by the vodka, I explained that I’d used a bottle sitting on a shelf in the kitchen.  Until he explained, it hadn’t dawned on me what I’d done, but surely would have when we departed.  I’d not noticed the pamphlet he had that explained that while most things were complimentary, their private label wine and vodka were not.  Priest, monk, whatever, I took a vow right then to be far more vigilant in the future if I was to avoid added costs, in this case a sobering 90.  I will only say it was damned fine vodka.  From then on, we referred to my timely though unintentional purchase as “holy water”!  Today it is enshrined in our home in Calitri.
We might have enjoyed Tuscany from right where we were.  We could have filled our time simply by lounging around the infinity pool, for instance, enjoying the scenery beyond its waterfall rim.  This being Chris’ first of hopefully many visits to Italy, however, there was much to see.  The pool could wait, for the beckoning call of Tuscany began that first evening on our patio when the twinkling lights of Montalcino, off on an adjacent ridge, called to us.  That was all it took.  Following breakfast the next morning we traced the crest of that mountain ridge along a twisting gravel road.  A magpie flew across the road while a tumbling fallen
leaf flew close escort.  As both moved past, neither was capable of fathoming the miles of serpentine roads that lay ahead.  We weaved through those ruddy forest mountains followed by fields of plump Brunello grapes that eventually deposited us in Montalcino, flanked on one end by the practically intact Il Castello di Montalcino, dating from 1361, and on the other end by the Duomo di Montalcino.  It was early and still quiet when we walked into town.  It wasn’t long before we recognized Palazzina Cesira, a wonderful B&B we’d stayed in years before on our first Tuscan visit.  Willing to give that villa kitchen of ours a try, we soon succumbed to the offerings in the many storefront windows and bought fresh pasta, prosciutto, wine, and the ingredients for spaghetti sauce.  Toward lunchtime, we definitely had food on our minds after having passed so many windows bursting with every Tuscan treat imaginable.  Being apparently the first customers of the day, we entered a small, one room osteria to enjoy luncheon specials of wine and trenchers of salami and cheese, while Maria Elena peeled her way through a heaping plate of deep fried shrimp.  I think we would have won the door-prize, if only there had been one.

The next day saw us in the nearby walled medieval town of San Gimignano, the “town of towers”, where the past is never far away.  History records that it was the conflict between the Guelphs and Ghibellines, in addition to family rivalries that had fueled competing clans to build tower houses of ever increasing heights.  It seems that unlike today, there were no town ordinances to prevent these early attempts at high-rises, though I doubt anything simply written on paper could have prevented it.  Civic regard had no weight when it competed with family blood.  Rivalries were so strong that by the end of the medieval period, all-told, these towers numbered 72.  Today only 14 of these architectural specimens of classic medieval construction remain.  Here too we retraced earlier steps when we parked where we had years ago and entered the city, after a lengthy uphill climb, through a narrow opening in the back wall.  From there we intercepted Via XX Settembre, a principal street, and strolled its many shops and eateries until it joined Via San Matteo.  San Matteo led us to the Duomo and nearby Piazza della Cisterna, with its capped well, that I’d rank as the city’s main square.  Time for lunch saw us stop at a recent start-up, Le Sorelle (The Sisters), and practically sat in the window at a low hung table, so low that the best I could do was sit sideways.  Chris and I enjoyed Pici al ragù di Coniglio all'Ischitana con Pomodorini del Piennolo, a mouthful to say, let alone eat.  It was a thick spaghetti-like pasta layered with a coniglio (rabbit) sauce along with olives.  Mare, this time the meat eater, chose tagliata, a thinly sliced rare steak in a blend of cooking juices, garlic and lemon on a bed of arugula, while we all shared a bottle of the local Vernaccia al Gimignano.  Only the food and wine atoned for the confining situation and gave the place some stature unbeknownst to the stream of passing tourists looking in through the window at the oversized Alice in Wonderland caricatures.  Following lunch we toured the Duomo where we looked at the past with the assistance of audio headsets.  I must say they did an excellent job explaining the billboard size frescos that adorned the high flanking walls of the nave.  I took my time, attentive to the recorded narrative.  In my estimation, the commentary couldn’t have been much different from what medieval parishioners, who’d once gazed at these same walls, had heard.  The only difference, and I admit a big difference, being that in their day they were verbally instructed on the significance of these artful depictions, where one side presented events from the Old Testament, while the opposite wall depicted events in the life of Christ.
To this point, over the span of our weeks in Italy, we hadn’t scarfed-up very much gelato at all.  We decided to indulge in the billowy, frothy stuff at Gelateria Dondoli, close by the piazza’s capped wellhead.  From the length of the line of umbrellas, it was evident that this was a very popular ice
cream shop.  Telling from the long line of wannabe patrons, waiting patiently in a misty drizzle that should have discouraged even hard-core line sitters, the inconvenience was more than offset by the anticipated reward upon reaching the head of the line.  It was worth the wait.  Soon refreshed, we next set about finding the home of a famous local saint, Saint Fina (1238-1253), San Gimignano’s patron saint, the saint of the gillyflowers.  Her family may have earlier owned one of the superb stone towers of the time, but by the time of her birth, her family had fallen into poverty.  At the age of ten, she fell ill.  Her disease left her paralyzed and bedridden.  In devotion to God, she laid on a wooden plank for five years.  At the moment of her death, the bells of San Gimignano reportedly rang-out without any human hands on the ropes and the gillyflowers, still growing there to this day, burst into bloom.  In her brief but devote life, her immense devotion served as an example of patience to all the citizens of San Gimignano.  We found her home without difficulty.  A ceramic plaque by the door announced we’d arrived.  Houses were connected one to another in what I refer to as medieval condo style.  Ancient stones were mixed with more modern brick repairs.  An imbedded arched stone portal, a remnant of a long past doorway, may have seen Fina herself pass that way, though an adjacent modern intercom would certainly have been inconceivable. 

Our last stop was to view a miniature scale replica of the city as it had appeared in 1300.  Architects, historians, and a team of artists worked nearly three years to create this model with 800 meticulously handcrafted structures, those 72 towers, street scenes, and figurines in the most accurate way possible.  It was amazing in detail, very large, and brought meaning to the expression “if you build it, they will come”, as we stood there, shoulder to shoulder with other tourists. 
Sunset was closing in as we headed off to our next stop
Siena, Siena in the rain.  By then the playful mist had turned to serious rain.  We arrived around 6 pm and with umbrellas deployed headed directly to Piazza del Campo.  We took in the view of the famous plaza, home to the Palio horse race each July and August, while enjoying what else but adult beverages, a few of them, in a café bordering the square.  Our short stay concluded, we headed back to our car and returned to CdB.  The nasty weather kept us inside that evening.   We ended our busy day enjoying the pasta and wine we’d bought earlier that day, concocted in the Villa’s kitchen, the one I’d thought we’d never use.

In addition to every other marvel, Castiglion del Bosco is also home to a historic winery. We were surprised to learn that it was the fifth largest producer of the prestigious, world renowned “Brunello di Montalcino” where each bottle hosts a D.O.C.G. label, an elite honor currently bestowed on only 45 of the thousands of wines produced across Italy.  Its pedigree and method of production are what make the difference.  Among the many hurdles the wine must scale in order to receive this coveted designation, their impeccably crafted wine must spend two years in wood casks and cannot be released until the
fifth January after the harvest – so 2010’s harvest is on sale in 2015, 2011’s is available in 2016, and so forth.  Their 126 acres of vineyards helps to insure this happens year after year.  One afternoon, we had opportunity to explore the art of wine making with Paola, our private sommelier for two hours, who traced every step of the wine making process for us.  Our hostess took us by towering holding tanks, into cellars, and to a massive aging room that she referred to as the “Cathedral”.  All that was missing was a Michelangelo fresco.  The religious reference to a cathedral may have been due to the domed ceiling segments that rose above us, its many intersecting crescent-shaped lunettes and vaults casting a pious mood throughout the vast chamber.  My thoughts?  It just may be referred to as the “Cathedral” because of the number of prayers that daily ascend to heaven from this room for a good year’s production. 

Most interesting was an exclusive clubroom, where members, such as Justin Timberlake, could have their wine purchases stored.  It was beautiful and
beautifully appointed as it arced around us.  A call, message, email, probably even a tweet, would see your selection stored in a private, climate-controlled vault.  Such is the lifestyle of the rich and famous, all for the modest membership cost of €8000, not including of course, the cost of the wine.  Far more importantly, we soon had an opportunity to sample the finished product.  Showing an attention to detail, ever present at this affluent get-away resort, placemats had been prepared in advance of our arrival.  Our names and the date of our visit were printed beneath five circles where five long-stem wine glasses awaited their pour.  Paola then proceeded to explain the nuances of all five, as one at a time she would charge our glasses.  This sure beat picking grapes only weeks earlier during the vendemmia in Calitri!  We began at the bottom of the price ladder with a 2015 Chardonnay assessed at 25.  From there we sipped our way through their current release, a 2011 Brunello di Montalcino (the delay because of those five years it took to produce), followed by a full-bodied blend in typical French style, a 2012 Prima Pietra.  Getting toward the end, we next swished and breathed-in a spicy 2011 Campo del Drago Brunello di Montalcino, to finally arrive at their ultimate creation, a 2010 Millecentro Brunello di Montalcino Reserva, aged for six years and priced in the stratosphere at 160 a bottle.  By the time we’d concluded, having ingested all those luxurious wines and becoming, let us say “fragile”, I was more than pleased that we’d be driven back to our villa.

I doubt we will ever experience another place like Castilion del Basco in our lifetimes.  I’ve no idea how competitive Castiglion prices are, but I’m pretty confident that CdB, along with many other of these Tuscan resorts, will forever remain out of our league.  With the unfathomable hefty price-tag for Villa Chiusa of 5700 per night, yes, you read that correctly, five thousand seven hundred euros a night, I certainly doubt there will ever be a repeat performance.  Lucky for us, Chris had the business connections and had finessed an equally obscene discount.  Its celebration of the beauty, landscape, tranquility, and rich Tuscan gastronomic heritage combined to make an indelible impression, especially on Maria Elena.  In a sort of “after they’ve seen Paree” analogy, I fear that going forward, nothing in the future will ever completely satisfy her.  She was over the moon and totally smitten by the place to the degree that following this unforgettable stay, anywhere else we may stay will fall far short of the mark.  It became her “new norm”, however un-normal and unachievable, destined to remain wrapped in memory.
Samuel Johnson, that renowned 18th century man of letters, poet and essayist, once remarked, “A man who has not been to Italy is always conscious of an inferiority.”  Had Dr. Johnson the opportunity to stay at CdB, centuries later, he may have been heard to remark, “He who has overnighted at Castiglion del Basco is fated to relish the occasion and forever bemoan leaving”.  So, I guess I’ll voice the sentiment.  Much like living in a mansion, yet while surrounded with homey furnishings, here was a place deserving of more than Cinque Stelle (Five Stars). 
Thus was the chronology of our movements, told a click at a time, through yet another “star” hotel.  Our slothful whims addressed, our Cinque Stelle tour moved on.  Next stop, our home in Calitri and to its dubious star rating, if any.  I wondered, could there be such a thing as a negative star rating?  Something on the order of that newfangled bank term of art, “negative interest”?  If there was such a thing, might they pay us to stay?  But then, if you arrived with low expectations, could you still go away disappointed?  We’d know soon enough.  We’d get to observe Chris’ reaction to our humble Italian home (right click to open) less of course any doormen and with staff services limited to little more than his mother making him breakfast after a polite request. 
From That Rogue Tourist