Sunday 24 June 2012

Il Dolce Far Niente - Tuscan Countryside

It was our first night in Torino where I first noticed that at any time during the day, people would be sitting down at benches in parks and simply chilling. Chatting to a neighbour or people watching, nobody ever seemed hurried to be anywhere else, content instead to just fully appreciate the place they were in there and then. Il dolce far niente (the sweetness of doing nothing).

We were having a total ball of a time. Over just three weeks we had seen loads of sights, ate loads of food and done loads of things from Basque Country Spain, through Southern France to the European Alps and back south via the Italian Riviera to tourist heavyweights Florence and Siena. But our edges were starting to fray with the pace and we decided that we needed to find that real essence of a holiday in the most quintessential Italian way - il dolce far niente.

We felt a little deserving of a few days of rest, but this was not like taking a break in Vietnam. Taking a break in Italy, and most of Western Europe for that matter, is really expensive. Which was probably why we were rushing it to start with. But here we were, so to make the most of it we allowed ourselves another little splurge. Researching places to stay in Tuscany, I came across an agritourismo place called Cretaiole, a family farm and B&B highly recommended online. Usually places like these are booked out far in advance, but I sent off a cheeky enquiry anyway and it turned out that a major cancellation had vacated "Il Nido", a luxurious studio apartment in the beautiful medieval hamlet of Castelmuzio. That afternoon we picked up a car and headed to the gentle rolling hills, sun-kissed vineyards, slender green cypress rows and quaint villages of Tuscany.

We were to meet Isabella, our warmly welcoming host, in the town Pienza. We figured we'd discover the place a bit and wandered through the gourmet town and its various sights.

The Duomo's celling - Pienza
We settled for a little lunch at a popular looking trattoria, and I saw the word tartufi on the menu. Could it be? I had never had truffles before so of course I could not resist.

Christina and her first taste of Truffles - Pienza
It was a baking Tuscan summer day when we arrived at Castelmuzio, and Isabella settled us into our surprisingly cool, vaulted ceiling apartment with a gorgeous kitchen and private courtyard garden. Finishing touches saturated the place (there were even flower petals in the toilet for pete's sake!), and with an overflowing breakfast basket, a vintage from their own vineyard, a generous sample of their own fragrant extra virgin olive oil, and potted Italian herbs at the ready, I was overwhelmed by a desire to cook something. Isabella was only too happy to help, insisting that we raid her vegetable garden to clear out some of the crazy growing zucchini, by following her "Alora, it is stupid simple" recipe of pasta with zucchini.

Domestic life cravings satisfied for the time being, tiny Castelmuzio beckoned a wandering of her streets. Perched on a hilltop with commanding views of the countryside, it was easy to find that essence we were searching for. The key was to realise when have found yourself in a beautiful place, and then act on it by just stopping, so that you actually allow yourself the time to take in all that the beauty has to offer. Methinks we found something of il dolce far niente here.

The quiet streets - Castelmuzio
Appetizer - Castelmuzio
The view - Castelmuzio
Mere novices in the art, we exploited our newfound time to find more pleasures. While I rediscovered the notion of sleeping in, Ben rediscovered his talent for golden hour photography.

Clump of Cypress Trees - Tuscany
Hoping to find something unique in a often photographed stand of cypress trees, he found something else he had been on the lookout for - a beautiful lone cypress tree beside a dirt road, bathed in what one could truly call golden light. He is really looking forward to printing this one whenever we return home.

Truly bathed in Golden light, this lone Cypress tree stands by the road in the warm rolling hills of Tuscany.
While Ben rested on the terrace, I joined a watercolour painting class in Montisi conducted by British expat artist Elizabeth Cochrane, with two other Australians, Karen and Braham, from Perth. I had not touched a paintbrush since compulsory art classes at the beginning of high school, so I was naturally afraid of an embarrassingly kindergarten image crash-landing onto the paper. But with Elizabeth's easy guidance, we sketched, washed, sponged, salted and splattered our paint to the point where the final image was actually something to be mildly proud of.

Tia's Masterpiece - Tuscany in Watercolour
Ok, it's no candidate for the Uffizi Gallery collection, but at least Ben didn't laugh at it.

Our most enjoyable night would have to have been our pasta making night, where all the guests joined in to make the local pasta called pici. We learned the techniques of adding flour to eggs and water until the dough had "taken what it needed", kneading the dough cut-side up until it was "good enough", and hand rolling out each and every strand of pici, pulling at a speed and tension that "felt right". It was a fun novelty at first, but everyone was glad by the time the last pici noodles were rolled.

Pici Dough - Tuscany
A Product of Team Work. Our Handmade Pici Pasta with Beef Ragu - near Pienza, Tuscany
Our primo piatto done for the evening, we all settled down at the communal tables with glasses of red wine made from the surrounding vines. This was a natural ice-breaker and we met many Canadians that night. Meanwhile a massive secondo piatto of at least four different animals sizzled on the barbecue.

Sausages on the BBQ - Tuscany
Meat ready for the BBQ - Tuscany
But the meal was not yet complete. Many of the guests had prepared elaborate insalate to accompany the meats, and about seven large heaped bowls flooded the tables, each one begging to be tasted. I believe this was about the same time that the grappa and limoncello started flowing, followed by dessert cakes and the ubiquitous homemade gelato. We felt like we were going to explode, but we managed to happily stagger back in one piece. However, Ben still managed to get up a mere three hours later to capture another stunning set for the Tuscan sunrise collection.

Road lined with Cypress trees - Tuscany
Cypress trees stand alone in the Hills - Tuscany
Green and Gold rolling hills - Tuscany
Wheat fields - Tuscany
Wheat Fields - Tuscany
Old Stones in the fields - Tuscany

Our final attempt at doing nothing involved finding one of several thermal springs scattered throughout the area, their existence being a surprise that naturally enticed us on the road of discovery. The water soon had us purring at a pleasant 27°C (beautifully cooling in the heat of the day) and we wallowed in the silky smooth white mud like hippos.

We visited Abbazia di Sant'Antimo for Sunday Mass, a centuries old Romanesque style monastery nestled in a valley of vineyards and olive groves, where all services were performed in mesmerising Gregorian chant, thickened with the heavy scent of incense. I envied the life of the priests there, who appeared to have mastered il dolce far niente.

Our final evening was accommodated at the one establishment in Castelmuzio that acted as the town's hotel, restaurant, bar and village gossip centre (lots of old ladies gazing out of various windows across the square, all comings and goings sternly observed). Curious, we also snuck past a “DO NOT ENTER” sign, and discovered that it also had the highest rooftop in town, which gave Ben a great view for both sunset and the following sunrise.

Early morning light hits Montisi, seen from Castelmuzio - Tuscany
Vineyards and sunflower fields farewelled our road back to Siena.

Sunny Sunflowers - Tuscany
Sunny Sunflowers - Tuscany
Vineyard with a lone tree - Tuscany
There are few places that capture the heart in the way of the Tuscan countryside, and it saddened us to leave. I still do not think we had truly experienced il dolce far niente, but we were close to it here.

Il dolce far niente, the sweetness of doing nothing - Castelmuzio

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