If you plan to be heading anywhere close to Tuscany for more than, oh let’s say 72 hours, I’m going to give you a heads up. You can thank me later. You should prepare yourself for people to, and I am only exagerating slightly when i say ‘bombard’ you, with much ‘oohing’ and ‘ahhhhing’ and a whole lot of ‘I always dreamed of living for a month in an Italian villa / Tuscan farm house / Florentine apartment’ and ‘Under the Tuscan Sun is my all time favorite movie’ before they grill you on exactly which cities you intend to absorb your Italian culture in. This extended stay in Italy thing seems to float a LOT of boats. Every second woman and her dog, it transpires, is out to do a Diane Lane or Elizabeth Gilbert, and dreaming of Tuscan suns, falling down farm houses, spunky Italian men hanging out in vineyards (really who isn’t), lively conversations in fluent Italian after, oh you know, four days in Rome.
I have to admit it does feel rather nice to do something a lot of other people seem to want to do, though it does come with its draw backs. The down side of providing an opportunity for others to live a vicarious grand tour through you, is you are immediately at the mercy of a lot of unrequited travel dreams. Unlike somewhere obscure like, well let’s say, Sweden, everyone seems to know everything there is to know about Italy. Even if they’ve never been there and what they know was gleaned from bad cinema. Everyone has an opinion about where you should be absorbing your Italian culture; Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan….. And well after a while that can become just a little bit annoying. Especially if your dream is just a little bit different to the stuff of chick flicks.
After smiling and nodding and then telling people we were actually going to Italy to work on farms, nobody seemed to be all that excited about the Italian dream anymore. Well not our Italian dream anyway! Which I don’t really get, what’s not to love about gelato and panforte and pancetta and limoncello and espressos that make your eyeballs pop out and it being totally kosher to serve your children pasta with butter every single meal of the day.** Every day of the week and getting bits of olive branch in your bra and dirt under your finger nails. You’re right! There is absolutely nothing not to love about that!
Our Tuscan experience officially kicked off in Pisa. After finishing our first farm job at Monte Pelpi we had a few days to fill in before we started our next farm job near Siena. We ummed and ahhed about which city would be best to visit and in the end decided to go with the most convenient option. Because we’re kind of lazy like that.
Granted the city of the Leaning Tower is hardly Rome or Milan or Venice or Florence but it suited our purpose perfectly. There was enough of the Italian classics; piazzas, churches, twisting lanes, Renissance architecture, city walls, cafes on the street, leather shops, Pinocchio puppets and other tourist ticka-tacka to make us feel like we were experiencing the real deal and of course if being surrounded by 40,000 other tourists is part of that experience then the Torre Pendente doesn’t fail to deliver.
After The Day with The Plan in Berlin we played it safe in Pisa, we stretched our original two days to four so we could take things easy. Good thing really because it took us literally a half a day to find our caravan park. I mean if we’d stuck to the actual roads and avoided the alley ways in the middle of town we’d probably have been there in half the time, but that isn’t what we did. All roads may lead to Rome but in my experience every single road in Pisa leads to a dead end. In four months this is the first (and so far only) time we have had to get out and manually turn the van around, do a 49 point turn in the car, before reattaching van and car and making our get away. And no there are no photos.
Despite our navigational challenges, we seemed to happen upon a fairly successful sightseeing formula in Pisa; I like to refer to it as the eat and walk principle. It goes something like this; wander around for a few hours, have gelato, wander back to the caravan park, have lunch, sleep, wander back into town, eat pizza, wander home. Among all this eating and wandering we managed the wrangle everyone into the obligatory ‘finger holding up the tower’ photographs, someone bashed out a few inappropriate handstands in front of a religious icon, we had great pizza in a little lane way, we rustled up enough Italian to buy fruit at the market, we purchased shoes for Pea (who is notoriously bad for shoe purchasing) in one sided hand waving Italian / English in seven minutes flat (which included time for the credit card payment to process), the obligatory Italian handbag purchase (i believe in starting them young), we had ‘the moment’ when after all these months they kids finally seemed to realise they were in a different place seeing different things than they would ever experience back home and listened to classical music in cobbled streets. All this was topped off on our last night, when as if by magic we got lost and happened to find ourselves turning a corner into the grounds of the Piazza del Duomo to find the Tower and surrounding buildings eerily deserted and beautifully lit from below.
All in all Pisa was a great start to a great month in Tuscany.
From Pisa we risked a few more 49 point turns and made our way along the back roads to Siena. All this taking of the road less traveled was very picturesque but potentially a foolhardy plan, considering we had to have the shock absorbers on the car replaced, at astronomical expense, a few weeks later. But you live and learn.
Our second Italian farm was considerably different to our first. We are very fortunate to have amazing friends (well I think they’re still our friends) who happen to have parents who happen to have a property that happens to be in the Chianti region of Tuscany. I know right. When we first started throwing around this crazy idea of spending time working on farms overseas we got in contact with them and they suggested we come and stay with them for the month of October to help with the grape and olive pick. Like we were going to say no to that!
So for a month our home was a glorious converted barn at Fangacci , which is about 20km from Siena (if you want an awesome place to stay, check it out, that’s it in the photo up the top). As well as growing olives on their property Vera and Gabriele also grow cherries and other stone fruit. During our time at Fangacci Wally picked grapes on a neighbouring farm, did some general maintenance and learned a great deal about pruning and tree crops. We spent many hours working through various holistic management matrixes and sharing ideas over good wine and great food. We worked on our (extremely poor) Italian and got our cook on. Wally and Gabriele fostered a lovely relationship during their time together and the girls and I felt like we were wrapped in a big blanket of Nonna Vera love!
Contrary to legend the sun didn’t stay out for much of our time at Fangacci, in fact it rained so much there was a palpable foreboding that it would continue to be wet the entire time and the olive picking premise of our stay may not eventuate. Whilst we waited for the rain to stop and the olives to ripen we fell in love with Siena; the weekly market, the history and beautiful architecture, the best gelato shop, the most expensive gelato shop, the bag shop, the pasta place the locals go to and the general hustle and bustle of town.
About a week before we were due to leave the sun stayed out, the olives did their thing and it was all systems go for a picking palooza. If all olive picking is always as great for the soul as our week picking at Fangacci, I’m signing up for annual olive picking; milking olives off the branches was like spending a week at a meditation retreat. Other than the odd conversation in broken French / Italian / English, a burst of hysterical laughter or translating French nursery rhymes, it was just us and the trees and the sun. And blessed silence. Oh the silence.
For our trouble three litres of the finest olive oil we have ever had the pleasure of tasting is packaged up and making its way home to Adelaide. It will be waiting for those days we need to be teleported back to Tuscany or want a bit of sun on our bread or Cathy and David come to visit and we need to pay them back big time for sharing their mum and dad with us!
Our seven weeks in Italy certainly didn’t turn us into locals and I’m pretty sure it didn’t tick too many boxes when it comes to other peoples dream of Italy. But it ticked a lot of boxes for us.
Unlike Elizabeth Gilbert we didn’t become Italian linguists simply by immersing ourselves in the language, but we could order espressos and gelato without completely embarrassing ourselves (a feat harder than you may imagine!). And whilst Diane Lanes, Frances might have felt a burning desire to cure her depression by dumping all her money into a tumble down stone farm house, we know it’s way easier to go stay in one for a while, drink wine, swim in the pool and let someone else deal with the Italian builders!
We didn’t become locals by any stretch of the imagination, but we did experience a country in a way and depth a mere stop over doesn’t allow. And when it came time to leave the van just wanted to stay where it was….. frighteningly close to a 2m drop off the side of the road. Which was totally the Universes way of saying ‘don’t leave, stay in Italy just a bit longer, the gelato is soooo good, I refuse to let you say arrivederci that easily….’. And as the tractor pulled her out, we kind of wished we were staying longer too.
** If you too have a child who is all ‘I’ll-only-consume-pasta-with-butter-and-salt-and-narry-shall-another-food-group-touch-my-lips’, take them to Italy. They will quite possibly decide they want to eat anything BUT pasta. Because they’re helpful like that. Children.