Reluctantly we leave beautiful Monte Amiata with its copper coloured forest and middle aged foragers gathering porcini mushrooms and chestnuts. It will stay with us as one of the most beautiful places we’ve seen.
We head north and rounding a corner just manage to avoid hitting a huge Polish lorry. Fortunately we’re both travelling very slowly. As we drive though olive groves, dry eroded farmland and mine tailings we realise that we’ve been on the same page of the road atlas for several days. We’re finding it impossible to travel any distance without stopping to admire the patch worked countryside which is like a colour chart for shades of brown, with green spiky cypresses providing a sharp contrast.
The town of Montepulciano is a glorious 16th/17th century creation with charming houses, churches and squares, all sealed inside high stone city wall.
We climb the town hall tower for a 360 degree view of vineyards and olive groves. After centuries of cultivation these European landscapes give the illusion of a grand design, as if they have been shaped by someone with a bird’s eye view.
We discover a dead scorpion, its shape familiar from horoscopes, and meet a lovely German woman who urges us to visit the Abbey of St Antimo. She says it’s so wonderful she’d like to die there. Wow, what a recommendation!
Pienza, a few miles to the east, got its current name in the middle of the 15th century, when Pope Pius II had it redesigned and named after himself. Our trip to Italy has turned out to be an education in the self aggrandising activities of powerful men over many centuries.
We park for the night in Pienza and I make pumpkin and asparagus risotto. Here’s the recipe:
Our next Tuscan hilltop town is Montalcino where the view from the ramparts is green, with rolling forested hills. I see some birds darting about very high up and I decide to ask someone what they are. Italian dictionary in hand I approach a friendly looking woman sitting on a park bench, asking “What bird is that?” in bad Italian. She turns out to be a Welsh singer who lives in Brittany and travels to Italy to sing Wagnerian opera.
She tells me that they’re starlings going crazy over the grapes and olives. The annual Sagra del Tordo, Festival of the Thrush, is on in a couple of days time, with Medieval archery competitions and feasting. We’re shocked to hear that thousands of thrushes are roasted for the occasion.
We drive to the Abbey of St Antimo which is in a large basin with a little village on a steep hill on one side, and rolling hills on the other sides. There is forest, and vineyards with yellow and red leaves.
The abbey is at the bottom of the basin, a huge pink stone building of pleasing proportions which was begun in 1118. The site had housed a Benedictine monastery since the 8th century, a popular stopping off point on the main route for pilgrims between northern Europe and Rome. After being abandoned for several centuries, it has now been restored, and it’s the home of some French Cistercian monks. They sing Gregorian chants on Sundays.
A perfect old cypress nearly reaches the height of the bell tower, and ancient olives with trunks three feet thick are all around.
In front of the abbey is a large ploughed field with a dozen very old olive trees spread around it. A man is working the soil with disc harrows behind a tractor and as he turns over the pale soil it changes to a deep reddish brown. First he circles each tree, driving right onto the trunk, then he does the long straight lines. We watch as he colours in the last few pale strips of soil before finishing for the day.
We park in a car park where the local bus driver parks his Landrover, in the sun with a great view of the abbey. As the last tour buses leave it’s close to 30 degrees. We pour a glass of red wine and make some ham and cheese sandwiches.
No-one else is around apart from a few old people from the village trekking to the cemetery next door. The sun goes down.
I tip cold water over my head, a good substitute for shampoo with my new short haircut. As we’re running out of gas we have a salad of sardines, cannelloni beans, peas and red pepper for dinner.
A new moon rises in the west. Then the stars come out and it’s perfectly still, with the abbey lit up below us.
We’ve had an ongoing problem where it’s difficult to unlock the passenger’s door from the inside. We have to lean over into the front from the back, and reach across all the gear we pile up on the seat when we go to bed. A strong stick with a little twig going off at a good angle has done the trick, so at last it’s possible to reach over and open the door without walking round to the driver’s side.
But next morning I find the perfect tool in the long grass at the back of the car park, an example of how an answer to a problem will often appear if you keep your eyes open.
It’s a long thick piece of steel with a loop at one end and a hook at the other. It does the job brilliantly, the solution to a problem which is tiny in comparison to those of Saint Anthimus of Rome. He was thrown into the Tiber with a stone around his neck for converting people to Christianity.
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