Myra and the Charm of Italy
If we want to stay in Italy, we have to renew our permesso di soggiorno. This means we had to stop by the Questura (police department) in Arezzo for some information. That presented us with a wonderful lunch opportunity.
Arezzo is where most of the first half of the heartbreaking movie “Life is Beautiful” was filmed – the happy part. The Piazza Grande in Arezzo is one of the best around (I know, I say that about them all – but piazzas are such great and wonderful things and come in all shapes and sizes), lined on one side by a gorgeous Vasari loggia (Vasari was an Arezzo native). Also noteworthy around the piazza is the Church of Santa Maria della Pieve, a Romanesque structure which was originally started in 1000 AD. We took a peek inside this massive church and were treated to a wonderful impromptu organ concert that sent chill bumps rippling down our arms.
Time for lunch. Myra and I had lunch at La Torre di Gnicche on her first trip here back in 2015. It was worth repeating. This time, we sampled some of the many Fette Croccanti choices. These are “crunchy slices” and are slabs of Tuscan bread topped with all manner of deliciousness and then toasted to perfection. The result is crispy and gooey and wonderful. Then a bowl of farro soup. Steve had the Zuppa di cipolle infornata, which translates to baked onion soup, but it’s not. It’s an onion tart of sorts and is fantastic. Then he had the spezzatino con patate, which is beef stew with potatoes. Just like my mother used to make. I’m serious – there are so many similarities between Southern cooking and Tuscan cooking. A fine lunch and worth the walk through town to get to it.
We were planning to go to Bologna for a night. However, we misjudged the importance of planning ahead. Tourists are really picking up in Italy now (this is good thing – it means people are starting to feel comfortable traveling again) and by the time we tried to get a room in Bologna everything in our price range was booked. We quickly regrouped and decided to spend the night in the Montepulciano and Pienza area.
Villa Nottola is an agriturismo and is part of the Nottola winery. Steve and I stopped here for a wine tasting several years ago and thought it would be a great place to stay sometime. They had a couple of charming rooms available and we had a lovely time drinking wine on the terrace overlooking the vineyards. We were so relaxed that by dinnertime we decided to eat there instead of venturing out. We were all very glad we did.
Hotel food in Italy is not like hotel food in the US. We have had some memorable meals at hotels here and this was one of them. Remember how I told you Myra loves to cook? Well, watching her in the kitchen is second only to watching her pour over and menu and put her own dishes together. She takes it all in and then decides that this pasta would be better with that sauce. Most places are very accommodating, although maybe a little puzzled. I know that Italians pride themselves on serving the right pasta with the right sauce – some sauces lend themselves to long, thin fettuccine and others to short, tubular rigatoni. But she knows what she wants and usually convinces them to see it her way. I take what I get, but Myra determines what she wants. Maybe I could learn something here.
We had a great feast of pasta and grilled meats and a fantastic Montepulciano wine. We rolled back to our rooms for a deep sleep filled with dreams of pasta and grass-fed beef. Sweet dreams, indeed.
We got an early start the next morning and visited Montepulciano, a beautiful hill town in south-central Tuscany. We arrived before the throngs of tourists and had the town almost to ourselves. We walked to the main piazza (one of the best!) and poked around a little before heading back to the car. As we were almost to our car, the tourists were pouring in. Our timing had been perfect.
Pienza is one of the most charming villages in Tuscany. It has everything you can ask for in one neat, compact place. Set on a hill in the Val d’Orcia, the streets are lined with flower pots and window boxes and the views are tremendous. It has a walkway around the outside of town that takes in the expansive view. Each way you look is more beautiful than the one before.
It is also home to one of the most well-known cheeses in Tuscany – Pecorino di Pienza. Percorino is sheep’s milk cheese (percora means sheep) and some of the best come from Pienza. Myra wanted to take some cheese back, so we stopped in one of the many cheese shops there and got three wedges for her – a fresco (fresh), a semi-stagionata (semi-aged), and a stagionata (aged), all vacuum sealed and ready to go into her suitcase.
Pienza is a town that has capitalized on its charm and now caters to tourists. The shops there are unlike any you will see in other villages – more upscale and varied with lots of gauzy linen tops, jewelry, and do-das for your home. You can always tell when a place is touristy by the kind of shops they have. True Italian villages have the basics – butcher, fruit and vegetable shop, pharmacy, tobacco shop, several bars and restaurants, and maybe a clothing shop. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this and in my book, Pienza offers a great deal of charm along with American-style conveniences not found in some other places. Just know if you go there you’ll hear lots of English being spoken and will have to elbow your way through the quaint cobblestone alleys. Places are touristy for a reason and Pienza is no exception.
Steve and I have been to Pienza many times and have always wanted to eat at a restaurant called Latte di Luna. It was recommended to us years ago by a friend who lives nearby and every time we go it’s closed. Fate was smiling on us and we found it open for lunch. We ate on their beautiful flower-covered wedge of a patio and had a nice, long Italian lunch. We started with Bellinis (peach and prosecco cocktails) and it got better from there.
We got back home in the afternoon and all felt like we had been gone for several days. Sometimes that happens on an overnight trip – you take in so much that you feel like you must have been gone longer than one measly night. I think it’s because you are truly living in the moment and taking in all the expansiveness of the universe. We sat on our terrace watching the sun paint pictures on the Apennines and realizing that we were at the critical less-than-a-week left mark of Myra’s trip. When she arrived three weeks ago, we thought we had all the time in the world, but that time quickly seeped through our fingers.
None of us wanted to talk about the end of the trip, but we did want to make sure we maximized every remaining minute. For us, that meant making sure each meal was a memorable one. So we spent some quality time talking about our remaining food opportunities and planning out where and what we would eat.
And Myra was trying to memorize the view from our terrace – that captivating view that instantly lowers your blood pressure and erases your stress. It’s more than a view – it’s a feeling that you have when you’re looking at it. A connection to what has been and will always be – the beauty and tranquility of Italy.