Thursday, April 5, 2012


Montepulciano – Day 5 – Tuesday 

I have been trying to get a handle on why I wake up every morning at 5AM and can’t get back to sleep.  Late yesterday, it dawned on me that it probably has something to do with my espresso consumption.  At least I am probably not actually having a heart attack.  I normally drink only decaf, but a cup of coffee here is MUCH more potent than the occasional cup of regular that I drink at home.  I’ve been having two or three a day and it’s a miracle I have slept at all.  I probably wouldn’t have except that this is also a fabulous place to drink wine.  I can get decaf easily at cafes, but I’m going to have to have a chat with my landlady.

Tuesday morning began with a coffee cake that was both a visual and gustatory feast.  The cake itself was a rich, buttery vanilla, which would have been a treat in itself had it not been topped with apricot preserves on one side and cherry preserves on the other, all decorated with a lattice pattern of pastry.  My landlady, Fiorella, had whipped it up while we were eating dinner the night before.  She is a veritable tornado in the kitchen.  I discovered, today, that Fiorella is famous for her cooking.  I had been concerned that I might get stuck boarding with the only bad cook in Tuscany, but I have hit the jackpot.  Each meal is more wonderful than the last.

I spent the first half of the day working on the past tense again and writing vacation advertisements in Italian.  A German woman named Gabrielle joined our class today, so there are now four of us.  Sometimes the intellectual stimulation of switching between several languages threatens to send me into overload.  Several times I have found myself so lost that I can’t even speak English, but I generally manage to recover.  Yesterday, after class, I talked for an hour or more with Lucy from Columbia in Spanish and Italian with a bit of English thrown in when we got lost. 

I skipped lunch and took a short walk around the city, although Fiorella did try to feed me when I stopped by home to drop off my bag.  She actually does say, “Mangia, mangia!”  She would make an excellent Jewish mother.  This place is like something out of a fantasy.  Montepulciano has been rebuilt three times as the city grew and the walls needed to be torn down and the circumference expanded.  The current incarnation dates to the renaissance.  This means that the house I am living in is at least 500 years old and possibly 600 years old. 
Montepulciano City Hall

The buildings here have been combined and divided so many times that it is impossible to tell where one ends and another begins.  Elegant renaissance facades often conceal older buildings behind.  The city hall, which appears to be a copy of the Medici castle in Florence, is actually two buildings with a courtyard between them.  In the courtyard is a cistern where a recent cleaning resulted in the discovery of a bust of Mussolini that someone had tipped in there after the end of Fascism in Italy.  During the renaissance, Florence and Sienna were rivals.  Montepulciano is located in the area dominated by Sienna, but was allied with Florence.  This made the town militarily important and the Medici pumped a lot of resources into developing the infrastructure.  One sees the Medici coat of arms in various locations in Montepulciano.

Theater in Montepulciano
The school had organized a guided walk through the city and wine tasting event for us in the late afternoon.  We wandered through the cathedral (I’m getting so blasé.  Oh, just another 17th century church.), the city hall and visited the Montepulciano theater, which was also constructed in the 17th century.  Like La Scala, although on a much smaller scale, it was originally built as a private club.  Today, it has been restored and is the center of a major youth music festival in the summers and hosts performances by several local orchestras and choirs, including an orchestra of six and seven year olds.  All children in Montepulciano schools are required to study music.  I’m impressed.  The thing I found most interesting about our visit to the theater was the experience of standing on the stage and looking out at the boxes.  Originally, there were no seats on the floor, although today it has been equipped with modern seating and those are now the expensive seats.  The stage actually sloped noticeably towards the audience, giving theatergoers a better view of the players to the rear of the stage.

In Italy, wineries are called “cantine.” We visited the Cantina Contucci, where they produce a Vino Nobile.  Vino Nobile was originally a wine produced for the local nobles and hence the name.  It is a wine of 80% Sangiovese grapes and 10% each of two other red varieties I did not recognize.  To be called “Vino Nobile” the wine must be produced to a very specific formula and the grapes grown in the administrative area of Montepulciano.  Vino Nobile is aged in large casks called “botte” rather than in a standard wine barrel.  I preferred another wine made at Cantina Contucci that contained 5% white grapes and had been aged in oak barrels.  It had a much more complex flavor lent to it by the oak in the barrel.  We tried a total of four wines and munched on some lovely pecorino while a young woman named Roberta filled us full of facts about Tuscan wines.

After the wine tasting, I returned home to a tantalizing scent.  Dinner was thinly sliced port loin in a mysteriously fabulous garlic sauce that made everything else I have ever eaten seem like fodder.  I may never cook again.  It was truly humbling.  I worship Fiorella’s cooking.  She also served a salad made with thinly sliced raw zucchini topped with parmesan cheese.  I don’t even like zucchini and it was delicious.  We also had a salad of cucumbers and ripe red tomatoes.  No one here would dream of serving the pathetic pink abominations that pass for tomatoes in American restaurants.

Montepulciano and Cortona – Day 6 – Wednesday

Our school day begins at 8:45 am and our first lesson runs until 10:15.  Then we get a half hour break.  This is a great excuse to duck across the street for a cappuccino.  Coffee is cheap here.  A cappuccino runs 1.15 Euros at the café across from the school.  It’s a tiny place and usually packed with people.  Having coffee there is a very Italian experience.  After the break, we have another lesson from 10:45 to 12:15, a quick break and our last lesson from 12:30 to 1:10.  Afternoon activities are optional.

Today, we put the passato prossimo tense behind us and forged on to direct object pronouns.  English has very boring pronouns.  In Italian, there are a bewildering number of options.  I really need to learn how to say, “My head is going to explode.”

After school, I had lunch and a bottle of wine in the Piazza Grande at the top of the hill with two classmates.  Knowing I would be eating pasta for dinner, I limited myself to a couple of pieces of bruschetta.  They were delicious and tasted of rich red tomatoes with lots of garlic and basil.  If the espresso kills me, at least I’ll die happy.

The school had organized an excursion to Cortona in the afternoon.  Our guide was Stefano, a handsome and amusing fellow who drove like a madman.  We descended from Montepulciano and passed into the Arezzo region.  Wines made from grapes grown in Arezzo cannot be called Vino Nobile, but Chianti is produced in the area.  We passed by numerous elegant estates, many of which now serve as bed and breakfasts for tourists.  Italian cypresses are plentiful, as are olive trees.  Today we saw one vineyard that had tulips blooming between the grapevines.

Monastery in Cortona
Crooked Chapel in the Monastery
Monastery from Above
Eventually, the road began to climb toward the city of Cortona.  We began our visit to Cortona outside the walls at a monastery where St. Francis spent some time in contemplation.  The monastery is built into the stone on the side of a ravine and has a waterfall running through it, or would if there weren’t a drought.  Today, it was more of a mossy trickle, but still picturesque.  We saw the cell where St. Francis had prayed and a charming little crooked chapel carved out of the hillside where no two lines appeared plumb.

View from Cortona
Stefano dropped us off at the top of the city with instructions to meet him in the Plaza Garibaldi at the bottom, while he brought the car around.  It was a steep walk through densely packed renaissance era houses.  From Cortona, one can see from Montepulciano to Umbria.  Many hillsides are terraced near Cortona.  Fruit trees, lilacs and wisteria are in bloom and all is quite colorful.  Stefano’s instructions were somewhat vague and we began to wonder if we would ever find Piazza Garibaldi.  We looked for someone to ask, but the street was deserted.  Finally, a white haired nonna opened a second floor window.  We breathed a sigh of relief and asked her where we could find Piazza Garibaldi.  Her answer?  “I can’t hear you.  I’m deaf.”  Figures!
Archway in Plaza della Republica in Cortona

Olive Orchard below Cortona
Eventually, we located the Piazza Garibaldi and Stefano and together we strolled along the main drag from Piazza Garibaldi, through the Piazza della Republica to the Piazza del Duomo.  We took our time and stopped for gelato.  The view from the Piazza del Duomo, at the edge of the wall, was impressive.  Cortona is a great place to watch people and there are some nice shops.  I bought a nice pair of green earrings for 5 Euros.  The walls of Cortona are interesting because they are the original Etruscan walls built 2500 years ago.  While Montepulciano was constructed with fine materials financed by the Medici, Cortona was built from cruder local material.  Instead of the white marble and travertine seen in Montepulciano, Cortona is built from darker stone.  The red tile roofs and pots of flowers make a pretty sight tumbling down the steep hillside.  Cortona is the setting of Frances Mayes’ book, Under the Tuscan Sun.

Shops in Cortona
We returned to Montepulciano in time for dinner.  Montepulciano was lively because the Easter holiday starts tomorrow.  Fiorella made pasta by hand and served it with a rich meat sauce and a salad accompanied by sautéed butterflied chicken breast.  I don’t know what she does to meat to make it so flavorful, but I suspect it involves olive oil and lots of salt.  After dinner, I sank into a food coma and retired to my room to do my homework and write.

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