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Saturday, June 24, 2006

Abandoned Houses

Last weekend I went to Siena and the Chianti region of Italy for the first time.

I had gone to the area in large part to see what the fuss was all about. With the publication of Under the Tuscan Sun (which I read and enjoyed) and then the movie of the same name which was completely different, the U.S. has entered into a rather odd love affair with the Tuscany region of Italy. Not wanting to fall prey to the trap of following the masses, I have avoided Tuscany for my last two visits to Italy… a silly reason, maybe, but valid in my eyes at the time.

Then I read Too Much Tuscan Sun and was enchanted, not just with the region but with the author’s way of speaking about it. Unlike outsiders, Dario Castagno grew up in those hills. He spent his childhood exploring the creeks and the forests, the vineyards and the olive groves, and the abandoned buildings he and his friends discovered. I felt that this book gave me a new window into the area, some glimpse into the reality of it, not into the dreams of what foreigners hope to see. And while much of the book is made up of wonderful stories about the tourists that frequent the region, what stood out most was the author’s love for the hills he knows intimately.

He seemed to relate to the Chianti area as though to a loved one, a woman perhaps. Every hill, every field of poppies or Spanish broom, the cemeteries and the winding roads, the vineyards and stands of olive trees, and the wine and olive oil that come from them… he spoke of them all in words that seemed molded softly around the very subjects he spoke about, as a caress might touch lightly the hair or the face of someone whose heart one knows – with gentle possession.

I wondered what brushing up against those hills might feel like, and I wondered if I would be able to see it separately from the preconceptions I inevitably had about it.

And so, I boarded a train last Friday afternoon and headed north. Siena was the last stop and from the station I took a taxi to my hotel. I began to notice the beauty of the area within moments of leaving the train station, and as we climbed farther away from Siena and the roads got narrower and more twisted, I felt my heart lighten. After the rush that is Rome, Chianti was a more then welcome respite.

The hotel was gorgeous by any standards – built of stone, much of it from the original borgo (sort of a neighborhood/fiefdom) that once stood there – and I settled into my room, had an exquisite dinner at the hotel dining room, and went to bed to the sounds of tinkling glasses, muted conversation and a soft wind through the trees outside my second story window. That window, by the way, revealed a view all the way to the walls of Siena in the morning.

Morning brought with it as well… Dario, the author of the very book I had enjoyed so much. He spent three hours showing me the area, and that will be the subject of an actual interview (to be published on the Lifeinitaly website). I learned why he was such a successful tour guide. He spoke knowledgeably about the history of the area and of the age-old tensions between Florence and Siena. He told me of the Palio, the horse race run every year in Siena’s main square, and recounted stories of buildings and hills as we passed them. We walked through his small town and I met locals both alive and passed on, and I spent a bit of time in his office – the view is spectacular.

In many ways, Chianti is unlike other places I’ve been. Cypress trees tower over the narrow roads, shading them at all hours of the day, leaving shafts of sunlight to slice their way through to the ground. Vineyards recede up hills, and large stone houses sit high, surrounded by mulberry trees and terraced olive groves. And Spanish Broom – bright yellow and moving slightly in a breeze too gentle for me to feel – does indeed grow in bright patches, as do poppies and other flowers I don’t know the names of.

But more than any of that, what struck me was the walk we took to an abandoned house. Set off the road and reachable only by walking through rough fields of a crop I don’t remember, the house is part of an entire abandoned village. It is made of stone, as old houses in Tuscany are, and has attached stables and a hay barn, also made of stone. The ceilings in those buildings are low, and the feeding troughs still stand where countless animals have worn slight indentations in the floors.

The house itself is two-storied with tall narrow windows every few feet. The roof was once red tile – it has fallen prey to both time and theft, and broken tiles are scattered through the ground cover, and litter the top of the house itself.

Outside stairs, narrower than those of today and made of stone, and covered with ivy and prickly green leaves, led us up to a locked door through which could be seen a floor that would not support the weight of a man in many places. The wooden door, though old, was sturdy enough to keep us out.

We descended and stood in the courtyard between the house and the stable area. I turned in a circle, trying to imagine what the house must have looked like, and what it could be again. For a moment, I saw it… lovely walls of red and beige and brown stone… the courtyard without the ground cover of ivy, paved with wide stones that felt soft against bare feet… the red roof visible for miles… flowers climbing the walls outside, roses of pink and yellow and red and white, and purple hollyhocks and brilliant orange and yellow blooms for which I have no names… and the windows with brightly colored shutters, open to the air.

I turned and it was gone, and we stood once more in the courtyard of an abandoned, crumbling stone house. As we walked around one last time, and ate juicy mulberries from trees that seem to protect the house from view, I realized I had been given a gift.

This house represented all that this man has been saying in his books about Chianti, and all he had shown me that day. The area he loves is multi-layered. For casual visitors it is pretty, with softly receding hills and towers, and picturesque vineyards in neat rows. A day or two spent here can make the heart feel good, and after leaving one can talk about the lovely hills of Tuscany and how great they are, just like everyone says.

But in that abandoned house I caught a glimpse of what lies beneath the surface of these hills. Chianti is all those things, yes. But it is also ancient, with the scars of its long history showing. The reality of it is covered in ivy and not easily reached by outsiders… and it is like the taste of a ripe berry on the tongue. Tangy and sweet with a touch of something wild, and it slides into your heart in a moment.

The taste of that moment will stay with me for a very long time.

(And for those of you who have already asked, and those who might, the answer is... no, but I'm still thinking about it.)


Blogger kronleo said...

sounds rather lovely.

11:49 AM  
Blogger kronleo said...

seems like you had loads of fun. awesome.

11:49 AM  

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