Alas, it’s been another dry spell in my blogging. I can’t think of a particularly good excuse other than I’ve been really busy with running, work, and in particular, travel. That is why I am focusing on travel in today’s blog.
My wife and I just returned from ten days in Tuscany, Italy. Most of it was Ecstasy, but there were times of Agony as well. The pain started immediately after leaving the car rental lot. I had gotten Google directions from the Florence Airport to the Villa Le Barone in Panzano and turned right, looking for Via L. Gori. When got to the first intersection, we could not find it. I turned around and retraced our steps, facing one lane of oncoming traffic. Then suddenly I saw one, then two, then three oncoming cars, so I pulled off to the side right away. I finally realized the exit road from the car rental lot is one way! We knew we had to find the A1 towards Rome which we eventually found after a few more false starts.
We were able to follow the Google directions along the A1, then onto the Raccordo Autostradale Firenze-Siena with no difficulty, but when we took the Cassia exit, our Agony returned. The problem was simply there were very few street signs. By that time, my wife had been able to connect her GPS, so when I made one wrong turn, she was able to see we were going off course. We finally found Route 118, which was also pretty hard to follow, because there were many forks in the road and Route 118 wasn’t always signposted. Anyway, I won’t bore you any more with the rest of the details because we ultimately made it to Villa Le Barone. If you do this trip, be sure to specify in your trip search engine that you are leaving from the car rental facility, not the Florence Airport. Also be sure to choose both the maps and large map options if you go to the print screen at Google Maps. The maps option will show you all the turns. Hopefully this will reduce the Agony.
We got our first taste of Ecstasy as we caught a glimpse of the Villa, driving past the gated entrance, up on the hill to our right. We could see the Villa through the open arched gateway, a serene, stately edifice against the rich blue Tuscan sky. Once inside the Villa we checked in, climbed the stone stairway to the European first floor, and then we found our way to our spacious room, with great views of the orchards and vineyards in the serene valley below. Later, as we toured the ground floor of the Villa, we found a sitting room, complete with a fireplace, a library, game room and lounge. Immediately we felt at home.
Our West Coast internal clocks were nine hours behind Tuscany time, but we were able to rise and get dressed before the dining room stopped serving breakfast at 9:30 a.m. We were glad we did because the breakfast buffet was mostly organic and mostly healthy, with lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. The tomatoes were the best I’ve ever had, and after the first day, I had sliced tomatoes instead of juice every morning thereafter. Villa Le Barone room rates include either just breakfast, or breakfast and dinner. I would strongly urge you to opt for breakfast and dinner. You can check out all the details on their web site, www.villalebarone.com, and for today’s menu, you can find it on www.villalebarone.wordpress.com.
We had asked the Lady at Reception for driving tours of the area, and she provided a printed packet which included four itineraries. We chose the second one because it was one of the shortest, and I was a bit “gun shy” about getting lost. I needn’t have worried; the directions were clear, and the roads were pretty well sign-posted. Actually, now that I think about that decision, the real reason we made it was the phrase in the first sentence of the itinerary description, “turn sharp right at the first cross road, on the dust road.” I wanted to know what a “dust road” was. It turned out to be a dirt road, well maintained, along vineyards, forests, a boar hunting dog kennel, and olive orchards.
After about 10 kilometers, we arrived at the medieval village of Volpaia. We found a parking lot just past the village center, next to the Trattoria La Bottega, where we ultimately enjoyed an excellent lunch. We wandered around the narrow, winding streets until we stumbled upon a conveyor belt protruding from a building, dumping grape skins into a waiting Lamborghini tractor. We stood and watched for a bit, and then we saw another Lamborghini tractor race up an adjacent street, piled high with bunches of grapes. The driver stopped at the building across from where the conveyor belt was and dumped his load into a hopper that looked like the grape crusher. We looked into that building and saw stainless steel grape juice tanks. Finally we went around the far left hand corner of that second building and came upon a pile of grape stems at the base of it, apparently being generated as the grapes were being crushed. A very interesting process to watch!
After lunch we headed down the mountain, and the “dust road” became paved. At the bottom of the valley, we climbed the other side, passed Radda at the top, down into the next valley, then climbed again, even higher, to a former 11th century Benedictine Abbey, Badia a Coltibuono. It is now a 13 room hotel, and we arrived just in time for the 2 p.m. tour, which cost 5 euros each.
We did a quick walk-through of the gardens, which were muddy from the previous evening’s rain, and the skies threatened rain again. Then we toured the Abbey itself, and one of the most interesting sights was the “salt repository,” built into the wall of one of the main rooms. Salt was in extremely short supply in the Middle Ages because of on-going wars with between Tuscany and Pisa who supplied (or withheld) supply. At other times Tuscany boycotted salt and refused to buy from Pisa or any other coastal city. In fact, to this day, Tuscan bread is made without salt.
We then toured the “caves” under the Abbey where wine was being aged in blended Austrian and French oak casks. The altitude there is 2133 feet, and the temperature is too cold for good grape growing, so they have to truck their grapes up from the main Chianti Valley for processing at the Abbey. Their wines carry the name of the Abbey name, Badia a Coltibuono.
Just as we were leaving the Abbey, the grey, rain-laden clouds let go of their load, and torrents fell on us as we raced toward the parking lot. We noticed one of the couples on the tour hurried past the parking lot, down the road. We wondered if they had parked further down the mountain, but when we pulled out of the parking lot and rounded the first curve we saw them starting around the second curve. When we reached them, we offered them a ride. They gladly accepted, and they said we could drop the off at the bottom of the road, by the wine shop. After a bit more conversation we learned they were from Sicily and they had, in fact, parked in the next town of Gaiole. They had hiked on trails all the way from Gaiole, up to the Abbey, about 10 kilometers. It was still raining hard, so we took them the rest of the way to their car.
We decided we had had about enough touring for the day, but we were only about 5 kilometers from the next stop on the itinerary, Meleto Castle. The castle was impressive, with 2 large cylindrical towers at the eastern and southern corners. We were there between the times of the tours, so we visited the wine shop, used the facilities, and then left. It was essential a “drive-by” visit.
We then consulted our map, and plotted a return route. The roads were well marked, and we found our way back to Villa Le Barone without difficulty.
I did run a 27 minute tempo run out the “dust road” the next day. Because of the many steep climbs, this was actually closer to race pace based on my perceived effort. I was preparing for a 5k race after I returned, so I wanted to log this run before the face. I also did a sprint workout a few days later, which was also close to maximum speed. I did quite a bit of walking most days, but ran only 2 of the 10 days. I planned 1 more hard (fast intervals) when I returned home a few days before the race. I will tell you more about this in the next blog.
On the day following our trip to Volpaia my wife and I began a six-day course in watercolor painting at the Villa. Nancy has been doing watercolors for about 10 years, and she is quite good. I have not painted anything except for a house since 4th grade art. I’m left handed, and I was far down at the bottom of the class because of the messes I would make of my paintings. But, I decided to give it a try again anyway.
If nothing else, I learned to look at the scene I was painting with a much more discerning eye. I began to see all different kinds of shades of the same general color. I saw light and shadows in the scene that I had never paid attention to before. Gradually I learned to mix different colors into the primary colors to create the different hues of the same color. I also learned I did not have to draw a perfect circle to create wheels on a wagon; the imperfect circle is perhaps more interesting. The first day I painted a pear still-life. I took me the next five days to do the wagon. Nancy painted the San Leolino Church. Here are the results.
My stay at Villa Le Barone was one of the most enjoyable, relaxing, serene resort experiences of my life, probably second only to Kona Village. The Village may ultimately reopen, but probably in some unsatisfactory reincarnation. The Villa’s delicious, organic food, the warm, accommodating staff, the charming rooms, the vista views, and the graciousness of the owners, Count and Countess Corso and Jacquline Aloisi de Larderel all swirl together to create a unique memory. I’ve told you enough already! There’s much more for you to discover for yourself.
But all in all, the Ecstasy of these 10 days far outweighed the Agony. Please visit my web site, www.allanwchapman.com to take a long at my thriller, Slaves On Horseback and the 5 magical fantasies for children that I have written.
I will work on my next running blog and hope to have it posted shortly. Please be with me then.