Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Vacation with Volcanic Interruptions

My friends and neighbors, Rick and Emmy, have a little house in Tuscany they bought a few years ago and visit twice a year, renting it out as a vacation home at other times. After I dropped hints too heavy for them to ignore, they invited me to join them for April vacation (Emmy is a schoolteacher and has a week off then.)

The plan was to fly from Montreal to Florence, via Paris. With genius timing, we left the first day European airline traffic went into meltdown due to the eruption of an Icelandic volcano with an endless name. By the time we made it to the airport our Air France flight had been cancelled. Determined to get to Italy, we managed to buy the last three seats on a flight to Rome late that night. (Side note: this small airline also had a flight to Paris that wasn’t cancelled. When we asked why, the counter clerk, who must have skipped Airline Customer Relations 101, informed us with glorious frankness that Air France had really high safety standards and Air Transat was less fussy.) I’ll spare you the details of an endless journey that ended with a five-hour drive from Rome to northern Tuscany. What with the time change it’s hard to figure, but I believe the journey ended up taking about 36 hours.

As a result we were pretty exhausted, but rest was not in the cards. Rick and Emmy have many delightful Italian friends and a group had organized a visit to a Parmesan cheese factory. The only rub was that we had to leave at 7 am the very day after our journey. So, half dead, we piled into a minivan and crossed a mountain range in a snowstorm. This was Italy? Too bleary to notice the less than toasty weather, I had put on my brand new sandals.

In my imagination I had decided a Parmesan cheese factory would be something like a liqueur distillery, probably located in a medieval monastery where ancient recipes had been perfected by wise old monks. Wrong. The setting was rural, agricultural and thoroughly modern. Sadly for my sandals (black patent leather) it was raining. But I am extremely fond of Parmesan cheese (actually all cheese) so I was fascinated to see the process by which the stuff is made. This co-operative caseificio produces 40 giant cheeses a day (each with a “street value” or Whole Foods retail price of about $1500). Thousands of cheeses are stored awaiting aging, a rigorous inspection process, and sale.

At the end of the tour we were treated to a feast of samples: fresh ricotta, salami made from local pigs fed on leftover whey (We got to visit them too. My sandals!), and three different Parmesans – one, two and three years old. The oldest and most expensive is demonstrably superior. The flavor is intense, enhanced by an almost gritty texture. A chunk of it goes superbly with a glass of local wine which was, of course, served with the cheese, even at 11 am. We were pretty hungry and ate well, only to discover that lunch had been laid on at a local restaurant. Five courses and more wine were a harbinger of dietary disasters to follow.

The next day the skies cleared and I was finally able to take in my surroundings. During a few visits to Italy I’ve done the famous parts of Tuscany: Florence, Siena, Arezzo, Montepulciano, and so forth. I was unaware of the existence of the northernmost corner, above the city of Lucca. The Garfagnana region lies between two mountain ranges, the Apuan Alps and the Oracchiella. The area is best known for its quarries, in particular Carrara where Michelangelo got his marble. Tiny villages and ancient towns are perched on hillsides, reached by terrifying mountain roads twisted into hairpins. It’s a different landscape from the conventional Tuscan one, but nonetheless spectacular. My hosts’ house sits in the tiny village of Vibbiana, surrounded by snow-capped crags with a spectacular view of the medieval fortress at Verrucole, a kilometer or two below us.

As keen hikers, Rick and Emmy were initially attracted to the region by the number and variety of walking and climbing trails. Though not a major outdoorswoman myself, I knew what I was getting into: they’ve dragged me over Vermont mountains on foot and skis. I did quail when they pointed at an Alp visible from their house. That’s the Pania di Corfina, they said, a nice easy climb and a rite of passage for our guests. Did I say Alp? More like a Himalaya. Readers, I made it. And it was worth the slog. Marvelous views (too hazy to see the Mediterranean over the next range but I could believe it was there) and a delicious reward of chocolate and oranges. We descended the longer but gentler way, through alpine meadows with wild flowers and patches of snow, reminding me of scenes from Heidi. We’d just disturbed a herd of muffloni (wild sheep) when modern life rudely intruded in the form of Rick’s cell phone. His boss called from Vermont, asking him to find some replacement bolts for an Italian-made hay cutter. Searching for these bullone became a minor theme of the following week.

Another day we drove up to Campocatino, an abandoned high mountain village used in the past for summer livestock grazing. More fabulous views of the two Vagli villages in their picturesque setting on a lake formed by a hydroelectric dam – nature improved by art though not so fun for those whose houses were lost in the drowned valley. We walked a trail further up the mountain to a magical secret place. Built into a sheer cliff face overlooking a narrow gorge, the hermitage of San Viviano, a medieval ascetic, supposedly dates from the fourteenth century.

On a more earthly level, Emmy is a brilliant cook and she loves to shop. Even exploring the local supermarkets is fun, but the best time was weekly market day at Castelnuovo. While Rick went to a guy’s shop in search of the elusive bullone (what is it with men and machine parts?) Emmy and I examined every stall in a market that stretches all over the historic center of the town. We bought purple-tinted artichokes, blood oranges with green leaves still attached, tablecloths printed with designs of olives (only 5 euros each!), lace-trimmed petal-soft cotton scarves, and farro – a local product and the oldest cultivated grain in the world. (Not to be confused with spelt, whatever you do. No chance of that with me since I had no idea what spelt is either).

While Rick and Emmy came to the Garfagnana for the hiking, they stayed for the people. They possess a circle of Italian friends remarkable for their joy and generosity. Communication in a mixture of Italian and English somehow works, despite limited linguistic skills on either side. For my part, a year of Italian in college has been topped up over the decades with vocabulary gleaned from Italian restaurants and opera. I’m strong on food and drama (revenge, passion, curses, and death in all its forms) but not so much on everyday conversation. Somehow it doesn’t matter: as the week progressed I understood better and spoke more (something to do with quantity of red wine drunk) and had a marvelous time.

Sadly, our visit ended too soon. Once we knew our flight was taking off early on Sunday morning, we drove to Florence to spend a day and a night. Much of the day was spent wandering: the Boboli Gardens, the famous piazzas, the Duomo. The lines for the famous museums are endless and we decided to skip them. Even in April the city is chock-a-block with tourists. Yet it isn’t hard to get away and remember that Florence is a city where real people live and work. Not a foreign word was heard in the San Ambrogio market where we gazed on exquisite fresh produce and mouth watering prepared foods.

That evening we walked up to the church of San Miniato al Monte and the dazzling panorama of the city from the heights. Opting for a picnic dinner and early night, we found a small grocery run by Asians (a little touch of New York) and bought tiny spicy stuffed peppers, artichoke hearts in olive oil, and wine. The store owner uncorked our bottle and provided plastic cups. Sitting in front of the Palazzo Pitti we feasted on the last of our three-year-old Parmesan cheese, salami, and bread. Red wine and many toasts to Italy kept us warm despite a chilly wind. And it’s never too cold for a gelato.


  1. Wow, Miranda, that's a gorgeous post! And I'm green with envy - didn't you see some beautiful places? That hermitage gave me goosebumps (I don't think I'm made for a hermitage, you have to climb hills generally to get to them and I'm a horizontal girl - hmm, that didn't come out quite right!). So glad you made it. When the Iceland thing happened, I was worried you might miss out.

  2. Thanks for your post, Miranda. Sounds like you had fun. BTW, I'm a cheese freak too.

  3. Horizontal, Anna? That one deserves a snort.(I assume you didn't intend it in the French courtesan sense but I at once thought of "Les Grandes Horizontales.") The hermitage really is magic, if a little hard to access. It's a long hike to the grocery store and I doubt if Amazon delivers. Book Depository? Maybe.

    Mary Anne: Cheese rules.

  4. Wow, you really had a time. I love the picture of you in front of the Alps. I can't believe you hiked it. You ceertainly had plenty of excercise. Yes, I always think red wine in quantities help with communication and especially with good food. Awesome blog Miranda, thanks for sharing. The Biboli gardens are on my list to see. Sophia

  5. What a glorious vacation, Miranda. You were fairly lucky with avoiding some of the volcanic ash. It sounds a beautiful part of Italy. Any chance you could add a map? To be at the heart of parmigiano making - enviable. Are you going to use the experience in your next novel? Wonder if you thought of visiting Casa Guidi, home of the Brownings? Next time maybe. Cathy