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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Enchanting Tuscany, Part 2

Volterra, one of my favorite hill towns, and the surrounding vineyards and olive groves are a feast for the eyes. Here I'm doing some "serious" research in the environment in which my WIP takes place. My heroine spends some time in a town like Volterra and the nearby vineyard.

The walls surrounding Volterra are a mixture of Etruscan (about 700 BC) and medieval architecture. Situated on top of a hill and protected by thick walls, the towns were in a perfect position to fight off roving aggressors. A fiercely independent city-state, Volterra has tried to prevent the hegemony of Florence but had to eventually accept its dominance. Inside the city, the narrow cobble-stone streets are lined with a multitude of shops, coffee shops, small restaurants, and art and crafts galleries. Volterra has fewer tourists than the more famous hill towns such as Siena and Pisa. The majority of the people are locals and the town has a vibrant life of its own.

I love Volterra and wouldn't mind living here for a while.

Piazza dei Priori is the central plaza with city hall and other government buildings as well as a tourist office and a few coffee shops/bars typical of Tuscan towns.

Here we are on Piazza San Giovanni, the religious center of the town with its octagonal baptistery and the cathedral. Also in this square is a building that was a former hospital and there used to be a cemetery as well. These four buildings are present in most Tuscan or Italian towns and form the Christian idea of the cycle of life: the baptistery symbolizing birth, the cathedral where everyday life takes place, the hospital, where you end up when you are sick, and, last but not least, the cemetery, the last resting place.

The most interesting part for me was the symbol of on top of the building above. A skull flanked by two wings. It is the Christian symbol of what is left after you die: bones and the soul. Everything else, all your possessions and your achievements are gone. So the wings are arranged in the shape of a V for Vanitas or vanity to remind man to care for his soul rather than his vain ambitions.

I learned all this from a well-known American tour guide in Volterra. Annie Adair lives in Volterra with her Italian husband who is a sommelier. Here are a few links to some very interesting videos by Annie, where you can find out more about the history and present life in Volterra.

And here are a few more pictures of Volterra and the view of the surrounding landscape.


At the bottom of the hill are the ruins of a Roman theatre.

 Outside Volterra, about twenty minutes away, is a vineyard, called Podere Marcampo or the small farm of Marcampo. I was hoping to see the vendemmia or grape harvest in action but the grapes were already harvested and the place was closed. Well, perhaps next season. It was still great to see the small family farm and the vineyards.

What a fun idea to start a row of vines with a rose bush!

What about having breakfast on this nice patio?

The warm weather made the flowers bloom again in fall!

We were driving back to our villa, enjoying a beautiful sunset.

Next time a visit to the local market as well as some wine tasting. Yum!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Enchanting Tuscany - Part 1

We (my nephew and niece with family and friends) decided to visit Italy, Switzerland's southern neighbor, and spend a week in one of my favorite parts of the world: Toscana or Tuscany! It was a vacation for my family and friends and for me it was also an opportunity to do a little research for my WIP, a novel that takes place, in part, on a vineyard in Tuscany.

We started in the German part of Switzerland at 4 o'clock in the morning. Getting up that early was a little tough, especially because it was pouring rain. And it rained all the way to Tuscany. Rain storms in Tuscany are not unusual in October and they can be fierce. If you have seen the movie Under the Tuscan Sun with Diane Lane you know what I'm talking about. When we arrived in the villa on a hill outside of Cecina (near the Tuscan Mediterranean coast), it was still raining. Since we were a fairly large crowd (ten people), we rented one of those large Tuscan villas. We unpacked and went shopping for groceries and when we got back, the house was flooded and we had to move. That was only a minor wrinkle in our vacation because the agency, from which we rented the house, moved us to a more elegant villa for the same price. What a treat! And the next day, it was sunny again.

Here it is: Villa Bacio, a two-story house with a big yard and swimming pool.

A view from our house. All around us fields and hills stretched into the distance. The main vegetation aside from the cypress and Mediterranean stone pine forests: vineyards and olive groves as far as you can see.

Relaxing next to the swimming pool after the long drive--the water was a little on the cold side but we braved the waves anyway.

Here are some pictures of the inside of Villa Bacio. I love the Tuscan architecture with its vaulted ceilings, stone and mosaic floors, and the huge fire places.

Getting ready to cook! Swimming, hiking, or simply relaxing makes you hungry.

Cooking together with everybody pitching in was fun.
Dinner time! 
Relaxing after an action-packed (or lazy) day.
Brunch outside, surrounded by a lush and beautiful landscape. What more could one wish for?

No Swiss kid is ever far away from a hearty portion of chocolate. Our two youngsters, Severin (in the picture) and Megan decided it wasn't worth buying those small cans of Nutella. They got the real thing!

Pineapple bits topped with chocolate. Even Dad likes it!

The braver ones among us (my nephew and the two kids) went for a swim at night. Brrr!

I definitely preferred swimming during the day.
One of the many Tuscan hill towns nearby--Casale Marittimo.

A truly beautiful landscape--both charming and mysterious
On one of the days, my nephew and I took a trip to Volterra and a small vineyard nearby. This was part of the research for my novel with the working title The Italian Sister. More about that later.
Volterra, one of my favorite hill towns!