Under the Tuscan Sun

VIJAYLAKSHMI BARUA revels in the pleasures of experiencing a wine tasting festival.

Florence wasn’t exactly how I had imagined it would be. Coming in from Rome, I found it quite different from the wonderfully exuberant and colorful capital. Florence has an austere kind of architecture, impressive certainly, but stern. It had little of the mellow colors of Rome that can feel so inviting. The central historic part of Florence was crowded with visitors clogging the narrow streets, and I found it claustrophobic. But by the end of our stay there, I realized that the place actually grows on you. In the early mornings and late evenings, without the day trippers, you feel a palpable change in the density of the crowds, and this is when Florence is at its best. This is how it must have been in the days of the Medici when this powerful Florentine banking dynasty ruled and prospered, even as they patronized the arts, architecture, and learning during the Renaissance. What had seemed forbidding at first turned out to be the kind of beauty that is less in-your-face, and more of the kind that you must discover for yourself. Don’t get me wrong – the Cattedrale di Santa Maria Del Fiore or more simply, Florence Cathedral and the nearby Baptistry are exquisite. In fact, they took my breath away with the workmanship and attention to the most minute details on the exterior. The white, green and pink marble makes an arresting combination, and it was worth traveling to Florence just to be able to marvel at them. And yet, Florence is only a part of Tuscany, and they do say that the Tuscan countryside is not to be missed when you are in Italy.

So it was fortuitous that during the time we were in Florence, we discovered that the town of Greve was holding its annual three-day Chianti Wine Festival. Tuscan wines are well known across Italy and the world, and Chianti wines make up a large part of it. Greve, in the middle of the Chianti wine-producing region, is a little over one hour from Florence by bus. We arrived too early for the wine festival, which starts around 11 a.m., so we hiked up the road to the medieval hilltop village of Montefioralle. It was hard work walking up the steep inclines, and hot, but we were compensated by the wonderful vista of lush vineyards, olive groves and wildflowers carpeting the hillsides.

Montefioralle is an authentic medieval village, with only around 100 permanent residents, and life continues the way it has for centuries. The economy is agrarian, with viticulture and seasonal tourism. It felt like a genuine experience walking its tiny crooked lanes with ancient stone houses and a church. Except for a couple of cyclists and a woman with her two toddler’s playing under the leafy shade of chestnut trees in the small piazza, all was quiet.

Back in Greve, in the town square, things were beginning to look interesting. Several stalls in neat rows had been put up, all numbered and displaying the names of the vineyards. This was a serious exhibition by the wine growers themselves, and not crowded with busloads of package tourists, so it was a pleasure to go from stall to stall, tasting their wines with complimentary crackers and little pieces of cheese and crusty crostini. We bought a coupon each at the visitors’ desk for ten Euros, which allows you to sample seven wines at any of the stalls. It was great fun sampling the various wines, mostly reds, though there were some white wines and a few ros, too. Actually, I preferred the roses, which were more delicate and lighter. The reds were full bodied and robust and after a few samplings I found that I needed to slow down and take a break. Strong stuff, the Chianti.

The late afternoon found us strolling the little artisanal shops where we stopped to watch an artist at work in her workshop, hand painting the most delicate designs on porcelain plates and vases, mostly floral motifs. She had studied fine arts in Bologna University, she told us, and sold her work from the shop here in Greve, as well as online. Truly, they were wonderfully detailed and lifelike Paul, my better half, shared some of the sketches he had done so far on our trip, and she was appreciative of his style, flipping through the sketch book and making the occasional encouraging comment. I think that was one of the highlights of the day for him, interacting with a local artist. Plus it didn’t hurt that she was as delicately beautiful as her paintings, like a Botticelli Madonna in jeans and a T-shirt!

A day in the Tuscan countryside puts you in the green heart of the province and gives you a feel of a way of life that has remained unchanged over the years, of locals passionate about their artisanal crafts and wine-making traditions, and their willingness to continue these traditions just like their forefathers.

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