Sunday evening we went to the I Giorni di Bacco Sagra in Castiglion Fiorentino with Michelangelo and Rossella. This means The Days of Wine Festival. Wine is actually vino in Italian, so Bacco refers to Bacchus, the Roman god of wine. Castiglion Fiorentino is about 30 minutes from here, near Cortona. We’ve visited it before, but we realized as we wandered through town searching for the sagra that we hadn’t scratched the surface. This is so true of so many small towns and villages here.
The drive there is on a tiny road that climbs over a mountain and back down the other side. When I say tiny, I mean minuscule. When we passed another car, it was tricky. I was so glad Michelangelo was driving and Rossella was the one giving advice and counsel. Made a much more pleasant trip for me.
We passed a sign for a church, the Chiesa di Caldresi, and Michelangelo thought it would be cool to drive up to see it. After all, why would they have a sign for a church off this tiny, little road unless it was something special? So up we went to see this special church. Finally we reach a sign pointing up a goat path with a chain across the road. We park and get out and walk the last little bit because now we knew it was really special because you couldn’t even drive to it. Rossella was the only one not convinced that there was anything special to be seen. And guess what? She was right. There was a small church there – looked like it was built in maybe 1960. It was closed up, but very unimpressive from the outside. We had a good laugh and Rossella did this this gesture with her hand that I’ve seen so many times. It means “I told you so”, “you’re crazy”, “don’t believe a word of what he’s saying”, and many other things. That coupled with a shake of her head said all she needed to say without one word being uttered. In this culture where language is so expansive and evocative, there exists a parallel language of gestures meant to enhance, supplement, or take the place of the spoken word. Expression is celebrated and valued here and they have devised countless ways to capture it. We did, however, marvel at the view that we saw from the Chiesa Caldresi and decided it was worth the detour after all.
Once we arrived at Castiglion Fiorentino we asked some people where the sagra was. We were given directions and apparently we took a wrong turn. We ended up in the main piazza, Piazza Communale, with a huge loggia on one side overlooking the Val di Chio. The view is incredible from here and the piazza itself is one of the great ones. Huge and impressive, it’s what you think of when you think of a piazza.
From the piazza, we climbed up to a smaller piazza and struck up a conversation with a young man. Well, Michelangelo and Rossella struck up the conversation. Steve and I tried to follow along and I gave up and took in the scenery. We were in front of the archeological museum which housed an impressive collection of Etruscan artifacts and ruins. Two things about this museum impressed me right off the bat. It was free and it had a big sign on the door welcoming pets. We left Millie at the apartment, but good to know for future reference.
Castiglion Fiorentino was the site of a 5th century BC Etruscan settlement. Underneath the museum they have excavated the remains of that civilization. It is one of the best preserved Etruscan sites I’ve seen. The museum also has a great collection of pottery and lots of fascinating information about the history of the area. The town we see today dates back to the 10th century. Like so many towns here, it was ruled by a litany of powers – Arezzo, Florence, Arezzo again, Perugia, Siena, the Papal States, the Medicis, Napoleon. The area is in a floodplain and as a result there were multiple outbreaks of the plague until they got the flooding under control. This rich history is so typical of these small villages. We see the beauty in the landscape and the architecture and assume life was always easy. Not so. In fact, when you think about all the wars, natural disasters, man-made disasters and adversity that these places faced, it’s a true wonder they survived at all, much less still have traces of their storied past for us to marvel at.
After our detour to the archeological museum, we found our way to the sagra. We were there early – about 7:30 – so it was just getting cranked up. They have a great set-up for sagras. There is a wooded park just outside the old city walls overlooking the valley. It’s the perfect place for the stalls and tables and tents that make up the festival. There were various food options, including the most Italian of all – the hamburger stand. Italians love hamburgers for some reason. They always do a brisk business and it always makes me and Steve laugh. We had polenta – mine with ragu and Michelangelo’s with mushrooms – and tagliatelle – Steve and Rosella both had it with ragu. It was really good. I’m not sure how they manage to cook like this for so many people and manage to make it taste so good, but they do. We had a bottle of local wine and had a great time laughing, eating, drinking and taking in this marvelous town.
So we celebrated Bacchus and honored the Etruscans with our trip to Castiglion Fiorentino. We also vowed to return and spend more time exploring the history of this beautiful town. Our paper place mats had an instructive message for us on this feast of Bacchus: Morirai, ma non per sete. You will die, but not from thirst. Not on that night, anyway.