Under the Tuscan sun: July 07 issue

Take it slow: Do nothing and savour it, writes Lisa Hotchkiss
For the record, we decided to go to Tuscany months before “Under the Tuscan Sun” opened in movie theaters. Why not go to a small Italian town and hang out for two weeks – no itineraries, no museum must-sees, no plans? Nicholas and I had both already done the manic “if it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium” kind of European vacation. But was two weeks of nothing except reading, eating, walking and writing, with a man who had just become my roommate, a recipe for romance or disaster?

On a whim I checked out a website for house rentals, and sent an e-mail asking for availability of small homes or apartments in the autumn. We got a reply that, indeed, Benincasa, a two-person apartment in Montepulciano, was available and would we like to reserve it?
Six months later we were standing in front of a 16th century palazzo, its door adorned with a bust of the original owner, Gian Gastone de Medici, last male heir of the Medici family.
Our apartment was at the top of the three-story palazzo. The heavy wooden door welcomed us with a loud slam as we headed up a massive well-worn stone staircase to the third floor.
There were windows everywhere, views from every angle. Large wooden beams framed the main living area. Our landlord, Piergorgio, had restored the apartment a few years earlier, so we were treated to the comforts of a dishwasher, washing machine, DVD and CD player in our 400-year-old home.
The kitchen was small, but soon Nicholas was making me very happy to be traveling with a former chef and newspaper food editor. Fresh mozzarella with olive oil and salt, espresso, duck, polenta, gnocchi – soul food by anyone’s definition.
Our bedroom was sponge-painted an ocean blue. The view looked down the hill to San Biagio, a 16th century cathedral. Bells from the various village churches rang often.
We had arrived at our Tuscan palazzo, and now we stared at 14 days of no plans. Spending two weeks in a foreign country with a relatively new love sounds terribly romantic, and it was.
However, though we’d been living together at home for three months, there’s a huge difference between sharing a house and being together all day, every day, and being one another’s main conversation buddy for 14 days straight.
And there was a potential conflict. Nicholas’ natural state is horizontal, usually on a couch, either reading or sleeping. I confess that I’m generally not good at relaxing for long periods and like to be active. An interesting contrast of styles that needed some careful blending if we were to enjoy two weeks of intense togetherness.
So we agreed to have “Nicholas time,” defined as eating, reading, playing Scrabble or cards, and napping, and “Lisa time,” which included long walks and exploring, plus a little shopping.
Every day we tried to get a balance of both. Lucky for me, Montepulciano is a hilly town, and Benincasa is at the top of the hill, so anytime we set out, we had to trek back up the steep hill to our welcoming wooden door.
One of our favorite routines was to spend mornings at Caffe Poliziano, an almost Parisian-looking cafe with the best cappuccino and pastries in town. While Nicholas ordered, I would make a visit to the nearby shop to purchase an International Herald Tribune.
We’d settle at a round cafe table near the window, sip our espresso and tackle the day’s crossword puzzle, as we checked out the locals and tourists passing through.
Any trip to Italy is certain to focus on eating, and traveling with a chef tilts the scale in more ways than one. With his fearless enthusiasm, Nicholas shopped at small neighborhood grocery stores and butcher shops, using an odd combination of Italian, French, Spanish and sign language to communicate.
But food is a universal language, and Nicholas filled our apartment with sumptuous smells day after day – making “Lisa hiking time” all the more necessary.
One day we walked along the busy main road to the Terme di Montepulciano Spa, about three miles outside of town. The area around Montepulciano is known for its thermal springs, the main draw being Chinchiano, a resort town that draws thousands to the healing waters and ancient Roman and Estruscan bath sites.
But the Terme di Montepulciano Spa is more convalescent hospital than resort – the guests were decades older than us. As a recent graduate of massage school, I wanted see what an Italian rub was like. Antonio, my masseur, led me down a hospital wing and into a sterile massage room. Lesson one: Italians are much less modest about covering themselves during a massage. None of those elaborate draping exercises we had practiced in massage school applied. Italians utilize a very small towel that barely covers one’s torso. But when in Rome…
We took two walks to distant hill towns we could see from our apartment. Montefollonico was a six-mile hike on a mostly unpaved road through olive orchards, vineyards and terra-cotta farmhouses.
Along the way, we sampled leftover wine grapes on the vine, selected an abandoned farmhouse as our new home-to-be and very often stopped to gaze at our surroundings, laughing giddily that we were really here.
Serendipity landed us that day at the door of La Chiusa, a famed restaurant that critics either loved or loved to hate. It was 2:30 p.m., and we were in dusty jeans and sneakers, but soon were in an almost empty dining room feasting on stuffed zucchini flowers, duck with wild fennel, rabbit and sinful desserts.
We waddled from the table up to the village proper – a near-Disney rendition of a Tuscan town – geraniums in every window box, laundry hanging outside windows, miniature Italian nonas dressed in black conversing across balconies. The sun was starting to drop, so we headed back to our little home, across rolling hills lighted by amber sunlight.
Clouds threatened another long hike, but we managed the 12-plus miles to Montechiello without a drip. We once again found our reward as we entered the village at Osteria La Porta, a cozy eatery owned by a charming woman who offered us a ride home if we chose not to walk. A dumbwaiter delivered plates of porcini mushroom carpaccio, Burratta mozzarella, rabbit and wonderful grilled lamb chops. Nicholas’ Panna Cotta was terrific, but my dessert, a twist on Tiramisu, was spectacular. After that meal, I insisted we skip the car ride and walk off lunch.
Over the days, we walked every alleyway and staircase of Montepulciano, meeting residents and getting nods of recognition. The town had developed a warm familiarity for us – something one misses when passing quickly through to the next tourist destination.
Because the weather turned wintry during the second week, we were forced to spend less “Lisa time” outdoors and more “Nicholas time” reading and eating. I devoured too many wonderful calories and every book I’d brought. Fortunately, previous visitors to Benincasa had left a few books, and I soon found myself savouring Frances Mayes’ “Bella Tuscany.” In it, she not only describes the area we were visiting, but the Italian approach to life – dolce far niente, the sweet to-do-nothing.
It was a perfect theme for our trip – for me, learning to appreciate doing nothing – savoring a nap and not feeling like I was missing out on something, spending hours reading and playing cards, and feeling satiated.
We spent our last night in Rome and experienced a jolt as we exited the train station. Vespas whizzed by, angry drivers honked, crowds of pedestrians poured across busy intersections. In two weeks at Montepulciano, we’d been shielded from cars and ambient noise.
We found respite in a swanky sidewalk bar/cafe at the Hotel Exedra. As we sipped our pricey water cocktails (mineral water, herbs and fruit) from martini glasses, we talked about what we had learned from this trip, about each other and ourselves. Would we do another unplanned vacation? Definitely, but next time bring more books.
I brought home a clearer appreciation of “Nicholas time” – enjoying the sweetness of doing nothing – and have since spent many a Sunday afternoon napping on the couch at home with a smile on my face and my Daytimer well-hidden in my briefcase.
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