Saturday, April 23, 2011

A week in Castelvecchio

Castelvecchio: A week in rural Tuscany

It’s early on a Monday morning. I’m looking across a valley at the small village of Castelvecchio on the opposite hillside, about 500m as the crow flies. The sun has just cleared the Appenines foothills and is warming up the ten villages of the Deici Castelli. Dogs are setting each other off in the village, the chooks in the garden next door are complaining to be let out. There’s a big fat bumblebee buzzing around the rosemary bushes and the sound of the spring below the villa cascading down to join the creek in the valley. We arrived late yesterday afternoon passing through the town of Pescia on Palm Sunday afternoon to the sight of hunbdreds of town folk taking a Sunday stroll along the river, eating gelati, drinking espresso, pushing babies in strollers. The road winding up to La Spinosa was hair-raisingly narrow, the track to it passing literally between the district church and its belltower. We are looking forward to a great Tuscan week. Disappointingly there are few local markets to shop for food or tabbachi to give us the fix of espresso and cornetto we developed a taste for in Rome. However shopping at Essalunga in Pescia yesterday was tantalising: whole sides of pancetta, looking mouldy in their black spice rub; the bakery selling foccacia and pizza by the kilo. Buffalo mozzarella for less than $1 a ball. Last night I made a porcini risotto and a plate of antipasto, and we’re planning a final night meal in the Italian style, with 4 courses of local dishes. In between there are local restaurants to try (serving wild boar), and a farmhouse we can see at the top of the farthest hill which puts on traditional meals by request. We’re going to Florence for a day and touring the area around Castiglione where my father fought during WWII.

Today was a designated rest day, so everyone slept in. We took a stroll to Castelvecchio for the first time, discovering a small collection of stone houses, hanging cheek by jowl off the steep slopes of the foothills , joined by interconnecting cobblestone alleyways and narrow roadways. Services in these villages is rudimentary at best, but the bar in Castelvecchio serves dual purpose as a general store and tabacchi (phew). The post office is open once a week on a Wednesday, and just as we were wondering what locals did for staples like bread we came upon a small delivery van which would hurtle up to a house, the driver would leap out grab a loaf or several loaves of bread of various kinds out the back and put them in the plastic bag or basket hanging from the front door of a house. Jumping back into the van he would toot loudly and then scream off to the next. A bus does the circuit of the Deici Castelli twice a day and presumably locals who don’t drive can take this to the nearest town of Pescia.

We stopped at the bar for an espresso, an incredible view of some of the other villages from its terrace and then walked back to the house to hop in the car for the 38km round trip of the ten villages. We stopped in Pontito, which was creepily quiet and deserted, and made nervous jokes about the locals watching us from behind the shutters. Pontito is an immaculately maintained village, but we wondered whether its residents are part-time or work during the day in Pescia, or perhaps because it is early in the season those who move out of town for the winter have not yet returned. Later Paul the manager of La Spinosa explained that in many cases residents have moved into larger towns, and rather than sell the traditional family home they shut them up and return only occasionally. As he said this means that sadly many of these villages are ghost towns, a real pity because they are so beautiful and must have been very vital and busy places a few decades ago. We made another stop in Pescia for supplies for dinner at the Essalunga supermarket (more buffalo mozzarella, a kilo of mussels and passata for a pasta sauce) before returning for the ‘rest’ part of our designated rest day. Mum and Dad had stayed behind and spent a lovely day in the sun reading their books and playing cards. Ryan made dinner ( including an interesting version of panforte) and we spent the evening watching ‘Rebecca’. Boy it’s tiring being on holiday!

Day 3:

One of the main reasons for being in this beautiful area was to go back with my father to the area in which he was stationed as a young soldier with the 6th South African Armored Division. Today we headed off early to Prato, where we revisited the square Dad remembered being full of tanks when he was there, in the months after Italy had signed an armistice and the Allies were driving the Germans back out of Italy. Dad lost many of his fellow soldiers and the other destination for the day was the cemetery in Castigilione de Pepoli where 500 men (the majority of them South African) were buried. After a few false turns we were eventually guided to the site by a handyman at the local cemetery. It was heartening to see how well the cemetery was maintained, in a really beautiful spot overlooking the hills and valleys. A walk around looking for names Dad remembered was quite emotional – particularly seeing the youth of some of those who died. We had a sandwich lunch at a hotel overlooking a lake behind Castiglione. It was very quiet, although apparently can be very busy in summer, and very peaceful to sit there before tackling the long winding road home. The weather so far during our stay could not have been more perfect. Although La Spinosa’s manager Paul tells us it can snow at this time of the year, every day has been calm and clear. Temperatures hover around 21 with light breezes occasionally reminding us with their chill that it is still early spring.

Day 4: Another designated rest day, so today David, Hayley, Ryan and I headed off to Pistoia to check out the weekly market and buy food for a meal tonight. Pistoia is a beautiful town. Like many around here it has a very original historical centre, with lots of tiny cobblestoned alleyways leading off the main piazzas. The market is mostly a flea market style with lots of cheap clothing, leather and electronic goods. However at its heart is a small square of food shops in the centre of which produce growers sell fresh fruit and vegetables. We checked out the many butchers (including one dedicated entirely to horse-meat) and bought some Salsiccia. It’s quite hard to buy meat when the names and cuts are so unfamiliar, so sausages were a safe bet. We also bought some great asparagus, zucchini flowers, strawberries, fennel and peppers and some sardines for the veg/pescatarians. We noticed that all the produce was very seasonal, and found it almost impossible to buy potatoes because of course it’s the wrong season. After buying some pannini (2 Euros each) from a roadside stall we headed back for a restful afternoon and an evening cooking up a storm. Although there were grand plans of playing games, yet again most of us headed off to bed early. Tomorrow Florence.

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