As a young man, our guide, Mario Acciai, was born and raised just outside of Florence. His farming family chastised Mario, youngest of seven, for being a daydreamer, singing, and disappearing to play on the banks of the Arno River or to explore the surrounding hills. His wanderlust led him to love and to his life’s calling.
My husband and I traveled to Tuscany, to join a small group on a walking tour. If you picture the Italian peninsula as a long leg, Tuscany is located just about knee-high, auspicious I thought, for a walking tour. During a week in May we’d spend the days walking, learning, and exploring off the beaten track. We’d carry just a simple daypack, camera, notebook, for we would be shadowed by Bruno, always at the ready driving the van that would transport our luggage, supplies, and us to the night’s hotel and the next day’s trek. Our itinerary mentioned the villages of Trequanda, Piercorto, Montifiorelle, none of which I had even heard, despite several earlier visits to Tuscany. But we knew we were in excellent hands, for traveling with the Acciai family is a sine qua non for experiencing the hidden wonders of Italy.
Our guide, Mario Acciai, is a true Tuscan. As a young man, born and raised just outside of Florence, his farming family chastised Mario, youngest of seven, for being a daydreamer, singing, and disappearing to play on the banks of the Arno River or explore the surrounding hills. He apprenticed as a young teenager first to a goldsmith, and then worked as an artisan in a historic silver atelier. His wanderlust and love of languages led him first to London for several years where he worked in a woolens shop, and then back to his beloved Tuscany. He continued to foray and pick up languages and experiences: harvesting grapes in France, fishing on boats in Mexico, traveling overland to India, always returning to family and friends in Italy.
My daughter Sienna’s godmother, Lise Apatoff and I were art students together at UCSB’s College of Creative Studies. In 1973 she won a grant to study art in Florence. While there she visited a local silver factory. Mario still remembers being enchanted as he saw her walking into the workshop. They fell in love and homesteaded in the hills of the Mugello, with neither electricity, nor running water, bucketing it from a spring, and revitalizing the 13th c. stone farmhouse and the neglected farmland. Their home, although only a trek and a bus ride to downtown Florence, was centuries back in time. Here they raised their son Lorenzo, and for over 40 years have made a fine life for themselves. “For years Lise and I worked so hard, rebuilding our house, farming the land, raising goats, rabbits, chickens, pigs, and cows, but it didn’t allow me the time to do what I love the most,” said Mario. “But now, can you believe it! Instead of being chided for wandering around the hills, I’m earning money by taking people on walks all over my beloved country, which is what I love to do most of all!”
We spend the first day in Florence with Lise, who earned the coveted license of Certified Cultural Art and History Guide for the City of Florence. She specializes in individually customized tours and authors books about Italy. Above all, Lise is an artist, so she knows that a child’s easel painting or a Renaissance masterpiece begins with the stroke of a human hand. She connects the stories in a way that keeps us listening and looking. “Florence, like flowering or fiore,” explains Lise, “is the name the Romans gave to their settlement here because of the wild iris that bloomed spontaneously along the riverbanks. She points out that the fleur-de-lis motif popping up everywhere in the city, on ironwork, on flags, carved in stone facades, even on pastries, is the symbol of the city. “And,” Lise notes, “a spectacular garden of hundreds of varieties of iris is carefully tended adjacent to the Piazzale Michelangelo.” This large plaza is popular for locals and visitors alike, teaming with vendors, and offering a striking panoramic view of the city. Florence’s incomparable collection of paintings, sculptures, and architecture are visually astonishing, but untold mysteries lie within. They say that half of the great art of the world is in Italy, and half of the great art of Italy is in Florence. Through her recounting Lise unravels the complex weave of Florentine culture and history adding threads of wonder, and depth to our understanding of what we see.
“Andiamo, raggazzi!” shouts Lise, mimicking the way the voices of American actors such as John Wayne or Gary Cooper in familiar Westerns were dubbed in a rather piercing, high-pitched Italian. She explained, “It meant ride ‘em cowboys, or let’s go, boys!” Later, Sergio Leone, Ennio Morricone and others embraced and Italianized the Western genre. “Andiamo!” we holler back, as we follow Lise down a sidewinding alley. Then, suddenly the Cathedral, or Duomo looms before us, colorfully faced with bands of green, rose, and pure white Carrara marble, larger and more impressive than anything we have seen in Italy! Filippo Brunelleschi was a goldsmith and clockmaker, but as many Renaissance men, also a sculptor, an engineer, and an architect. His conception in 1420 of a 375 foot-tall and 148-foot-wide Duomo (that translates Domus Dei or House of God) to shelter the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral, at the time the largest masonry dome ever built, was hard to fathom, but his design won the competition over better-known architects that couldn’t solve the problem. Although the entire church took 142 years to build, Brunelleschi completed the dome in only 16 years! “A structure so great, it is large enough to cover all of Tuscany in its shadow.” wrote 15th c. polymath and author Leon Battista Alberti.
Nearby, on the facade of the 14th century Orsanmichele—originally built as a grain market then converted into a church due to a miraculous painting of a Madonna housed inside—Lise points to a niche with Donatello’s sculpture of St. George, the patron saint of the armor and sword makers guild. “People couldn’t believe it when they saw how emotive and human Donatello’s St. George was. Girls swooned, and all the sculptors took notice. …Look at the sculpted symbols above the statues that stand for each of the guilds. Doctors, spice merchants, writers such as Dante, and painters such as Giotto were all in the same guild, for they were the “grinders” – of pigments, ink, medicines, and precious spices.” I love that painters and healers were in the same guild, in a time before paints came in a tube and pills came in bottles.
The buildings and towns take on layers of historic meaning as Lise explains that Florence gave birth to the Guelph party, wealthy merchants that banded together in support of the Pope, in opposition to the Ghibelline noblemen of most of the rest of north-central Italy, who felt their blue blood gave them the hereditary right to rule the masses, and supported the Holy Roman Emperor, who lived in Germany. When the Florentine Guelphs, after stabilizing themselves in their hometown started to expand their power in Tuscany, their staunchest rivals remained the Ghibelline Sienese and for over two hundred years, these rival parties engaged in brutal territorial wars—a bitter legacy handed down from father to son. People lived under constant threat of border disputes, invasion from their neighbors, and were under the thumb of a punishing feudal system. The lovely, hill towns that we would visit were once heavily fortified and sited at strategic points. Florentines dredged stones from the fields to build their towers. Sienese fired the clay of their brick-red earth to erect theirs. Towers, churches, and walls were destroyed and rebuilt with such alacrity that one wonders how much the building guilds had invested in the belligerence.
“When the Plague of 1348 decimated Italy’s population the fighting and just about everything came to a halt.” Lise explained, “As life
“Ciao, Maria!” Mario greets me, early the next morning. When the group sees this smiling man with silver-streaked tousled curls, they are enchanted. It’s a Sunday in Spring with shimmering light on the distant fields, a pearly grey sky overhead, and it’s warm enough for shorts and a t-shirt, hiking shoes, and a daypack. Walking has always helped me to get my bearings, to internalize the map. It is the most intimate way of knowing a place. As we walk, my husband Macduff lingers to take photographs in the marvelous Tuscan light, which poets have lauded for centuries, and I shuttle between him and others in our small group, talking with Mario who is eager to share his knowledge about the natural and cultural history of the area, then circling back to Macduff—so I manage to see our route both coming and going.
We walk by small piles of stones, at intersections of roads and fields, that Mario calls “tabernacles.” These harken back to Roman times, hand-placed stones in tribute to religious figures so that a traveler on a dark and winding road would feel safer, protected by the divine guidance, but also often illuminated by a candle or small oil lamp. The Christians continued the custom with their own saints.
When walking past a pink walled cemetery lined with cypress Mario relays a folk belief that parents must plant a cypress when they have a baby girl so that when she is 18, they’d have wood for her hope chest.
At Badia a Passignano, an abbey about 18 miles south of Florence, red poppies and sunflowers herald the long warm days of summer. Dark-fingered green cypress offset the tawny earth-colored walls of the Abbey. In the late morning warmth iris-bordered gardens let off their subtle powdery scent. The Badia was founded by Giovanni Gualberto in 1050, where to this day the Vallombrosian order of Benedictine monks devote themselves to prayer, cultivating grapes, forestry, and scientific research—the great Galileo Galilei once taught there.
The neighboring Antinori family has aged their wine for over six centuries in the abbey’s perfectly temperate underground cellars. Today we will taste the celebrated Badia a Passignano Chianti Classico Gran Selezione. After a cellar tour and tasting, Abel, a monk from Spain, leads us to visit the abbey’s refectory to view a glorious fresco of The Last Supper by Domenico Ghirlandaio, a teacher of Michelangelo. The fresco, with its warm colors of sienna, ochre, terra verde, and ivory, covers an entire wall.
A cascade of bells sounds as we descend into the valley. There are tangles of honeysuckle, wispy bridal veil, wild iris, and among the wisteria, bees so laden with pollen that look like little yellow knickers, that they can’t fly! We picnic in a small verdant clearing among the pines. No wonder a dreamer like Mario feels so at home in the countryside.
After a few hours’ walk, we reach Montefioralle, a medieval fortified village curled about a central church like a pastry snail. The town is empty. Most folks moved down to the larger village of Greve in Chianti generations ago, keeping the immaculate tiny town for summer retreats. The view from here is a crosshatch of cultivated fields radiating out and down the hillside.
The garrisoned high walls with fourteen fortified towers mark the 13th century hilltop town of Monteriggioni. As we taste the local wines, I reflect that the charm, the views, the beauty of each hilltop fortified town, now converted into fine hotels and restaurants, belies what we know from Lise’s history lessons, of brutal territorial incursions that held Tuscany in its grip over many generations.
We pass hillsides planted with olive and grape. The Etruscans were the first vintners and cultivars of olive trees for oil in Italy. The Etruscans, who Romans called Tuscii, inhabited Tuscany from around 600 to 100 BCE. The myth of Romulus and Remus nursed by the she-wolf was a story created by Etruscans in the 3rd century BCE, but Emperor Augustus during his reign claimed its origins as Roman. Other things the Romans credited as their inventions such as the arch, the aqueduct, city planning on a grid, portrait busts, and wine making, were all of Etruscan origin. They calculated five hundred meters as the highest altitude for successful grape and olive cultivation, so these rolling Tuscan hills worked well. Having settlements along the ridgetops was also advantageous for defense. Now the orchards and vineyards, in the heart of Chianti Classico, are pure gold—rolling in Euros.
For four days we base at the Relais Fattoria Vignale, a converted 18th century manor house in Radda, that sits atop an Etruscan site dating back to the 6th century BCE. It is here that in 1924 the Notary of Chianti created the Gallo Nero seal. The enmity between Siena and Florence even extends to the emblematic black rooster that is the trademark of D.O.C. Chianti Classico. Lise told me the story: “The crafty Florentines outfoxed the honest Sienese. They decided that in order to settle a border dispute, a rider from both Siena and Florence would gallop on horseback at the first crow of the rooster at dawn, and wherever they met would become the new boundary. At dawn on the appointed day, at the moment the cock crowed in Siena, the rider took off, only to be dumbfounded that the Florentine horseman had already arrived two-thirds of the way! It was later revealed that the unscrupulous Florentines had starved their black rooster for three days and the poor thing crowed while it was still dark out of sheer hunger, signaling their rider to take off towards Siena and therefore claim more territory.”
Although I am with a group there are private moments. In Poggio I open the door to an ancient parish church, San Donato, where a modest window curtained in white gauze lets in a numinous light behind the wooden crucifix. From two discreetly placed speakers a man’s voice chants a Byzantine hymn. It is cool inside, with a faint smell of beeswax and flowers. In a small chapel to my right is a creamy blue and white baptismal font by Della Robbia. The serenity of the simple church stays with me as I trod down the hill alone, filled with a lightness that lingers for hours.
As we approach Piercorto, Mario asks, “In English, what would you call a place that is smaller than a village, a little place?” The linguist in our group correctly answered, “a hamlet,” but my husband, who had once been a wrangler, quipped, “a one-dog town.” As if on cue, a spotted dog lazily crossed the road.
Walking by a grove of unfamiliar trees, I question Mario. “Castagna!” he exclaims. I remember my Italian grandmother roasting castagnae on a brazier at Christmas, in Philadelphia, and later my mother, working for RCA in Rockefeller Center, buying many a paper wrapped cache of roasted chestnuts “from a man on the corner” in winter. “This is pre-pasta Italy,” Mario says. “Peasants ate a polenta of ground acorn or chestnut. Tuscan and Sienese cooking for them was based on little meat, perhaps a ham hock in soups, as the saying goes: “bread of wood (chestnuts) and wine of the clouds (water). He added, “Did you know that 98% of the world’s production of chestnuts comes from Italy?”
Bruno drives us toward San Gimignano, following along the traditional wine route of Chiantigiana (SR 222). Winemakers have been living and working along this route for generations. Etruscans, then many others lived here before the 13th century walled town of San Gimignano was crowned with towers that thrust skyward. 14 of the original 72 towers remain. Beneath an ancient loggia, we snack on roasted peppers with anchovy, olive bread perfumed with basil, and wild boar salami. We of course must sample the light, local Vernaccia wine, that Michelangelo is purported to say, cleared his throat after a long day’s work in a cloud of marble dust. He wrote in a poem that the white wine from Vernaccia di San Gimignano grapes” kisses, licks, bites, slaps, and stings!”
With astonishing wines and hearty cuisine, our daily foray into the Chianti countryside always includes diabolically wonderful snacks and meals, dispelling any illusion that one can lose weight on walking tours.
Inside the walls of the town, close to Porta San Matteo, we enter the church Sant’Agostino in Piazza San Augustine, embellished with frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli, depicting the life of St. Augustine. In one panel the saint, with a golden halo framing his head wears a simple grey robe: another shows Augustine teaching in Rome. The frescoes are painted in soft pastel colors, and I’m not surprised to learn that this Renaissance painter was a pupil of Fra Beato Angelico. Angels with sweet faces and dainty hands fly over palm trees in a Crucifixion scene, and in another, a large Saint Gimignano cradles his namesake city in his arms.
In the afternoon we casually chat, sing, forge ahead alone, or straggle behind to photograph or simply smell the flowers. We usually have the trails, that Mario knows like the back of his hand, to ourselves, only twice dodging determined hikers who blast by at a Teutonic pace. We greet a weathered old man slowly tilling his garden. Perched on a stool by the front door, an ancient small-boned woman in a black cardigan, meticulously folds hand-stitched blue gingham aprons. The man is her son. Each year the mother greets Mario with, “You saw me this time, but I won’t be here next year!”
“She’s been saying that for five years, now,” smiled Mario, “she’s 97!”
Beneath towering, whipped cream clouds and an intermittent light sprinkle, we strike out from the hotel the next morning after breakfast, taking a verdant path in the hills of Chianti, skirting the elegant Villa Vistarenni with its private consecrated chapel built in 1584, and secluded by cypress trees. We arrive at the pocket-sized medieval hamlet of Vertine. The hill-top view is a spectacular reward after our morning’s trek. We stop for lunch at a little vineria where the waiter proclaims the best olive oil in the world comes from the trees the Romans planted between Vertine and nearby Spaltenna. Dipping warm bread into a golden pool of oil, I readily agree.
We cut through an olive grove onto a path that leads upwards to the 11th century hilltop castle and village of Volpaia. This Florentine family’s most famous son, Lorenzo della Volpaia, was compagni with Leonardo da Vinci. He built solar clocks and created the planetary clock for Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. One surprise in this medieval hill town is the Castello di Volpaia Fattoria, for within its ancient structures, the interior has been painstakingly converted into state-of-the-art wine making and olive pressing facilities in the early 1970s. The spaces gleam with stainless steel fixtures and sparkling blue and white tiles. Emilia, our guide, leads a tour which ends, of course, with an ebullient wine tasting. Our conversation echoes in the cellar, as we taste a white Torniello, a Chianti Classico, and their Balifico, aged in French oak, and accompanied by toasted Tuscan bread, salsa di pomodoro e aglio, and pungent olive oil. Our glasses emptied, we thank Emilia. Usually after a day’s walk, sleepy silence prevails, but tonight a jovial Bacchus smiles down on our bus en route to the hotel, burbling over with animated chatter, song, and laughter.
“La, la, la, amore misteerioooso …” croons Mario, putting us in such a fine mood, that we don’t mind that today’s walk will involve fording a river, mucking through reeds alive with chirruping frogs, and puffing up some hefty hills to reach Castel di Brolio. It is an immense Chianti Classico estate on the infamous border between Siena and Florence, and the oldest winery in Italy. Mario relays a bit of the history, and lore as we walk, of Baron Bettino Ricasoli, who conjured up the original formula of 70% Sangiovese, 15% Malvasia, 15% Canaiolo grapes to make the ambrosia known as Chianti wine. Purportedly the Baron’s interest in wine making came about because he wanted to watch over his much younger and quite beautiful wife, who he kept out here in his castle in the remote countryside, far from the mundane social life and glittering balls in Florence populated with many handsome, younger men. I can’t help but wonder if he shared some of the elixir with his entrapped wife!
It’s been a challenging day of walking, and when Mario says we will now be leaving Chianti area for the rolling hills of Siena, to sleep at a farmhouse, I only hope that this farmhouse has hot running water for a shower or a bath to assuage my aching feet.
Our destination is La Selva, which has been in the Pometti family for generations. The estate covers nearly two thousand acres across the municipalities of Trequanda, Asciano and Buonconvento in the Val d’Orcia. In 1979 they opened the first agriturismo in Tuscany. Our hosts greet us with hearty home-made wild boar sausage and refreshing Trebbiano wine from the family cellar, clear and crisp as morning light.
Afterwards they show us to our individual cottages, complete with living room, kitchenette, bedroom, and bath. Some farmhouse! Two nights of fragrance and feasting. Our windows overlook the gentle Sienese hills. Thyme, strawberries, and roses flourish outside our door. Dinner this evening I can only describe as pure sybaritic pleasure. You never knew food could be so good. Thirteen separate tastes, including tenderloin of Chianina beef rolled with spinach, a wild mushroom pate, sage raviolis, roasted wild boar, rough-cut young artichokes with tarragon, and strawberry tarts: all bounty from their land. Vin Santo and grappa follows, and it is well past midnight before we float off to our rooms.
Siena’s veneer of spring green belies an unyielding, erosion-fingered red clay soil, that nevertheless supports olives, sheep, and wheat. Many of the brick farmhouses lie abandoned while the counterpart fixer-uppers in Chianti are going for Santa Barbara prices, but this is changing fast. The seductive postcard images of Tuscany—the single flame of a black cypress against gently rolling hills smattered with wildflowers—come from this classic Sienese landscape here and in the Val d’Orcia.
Next morning, we foray toward Montisi, on our way to Pienza in the Val d’ Orcia, for an arranged tour of the city. Along our trail, at the foot of some wooden stairs Mario hollers, “Ciao Giovanni!” “Ciao, Mario!” shouts a swarthy Sardinian man from the top of his stairs. Giovanni gestures for Mario, fellow trekker Jody, and I to climb up and behold the snow-white orbs of pecorino, or sheep cheese, he’s just made. Steam rises from a cauldron of boiling whey as he scoops out the sweet curds of ricotta (re-cooked), the skim milk cheese that floats to the top of the cauldron after the perfectly formed rounds of pecorino are set to cure. Mario explains that many Sardinian shepherds came to Tuscany over fifty years ago for the lush grazing and they unerringly produce some of the best, most delicious cheeses. Our hunger by this time is palpable. Slowly the rest of the group trickles inside. Unfazed, Giovanni clears his long table of bottlecaps and ashtrays, shuffles a pile of paper plates, and invites all to taste the most comforting, heavenly flavor this side of mother’s milk. We scoop up the warm ricotta with vellum-thin Sardinian carta musica or “music paper” bread. This simple communion touches everyone. He shows us photos of his deceased sons set among a shrine of paper roses, and photos of the handsome racehorses that he had once raised. We share few common words, save the language of human warmth.
No sooner has Bruno collected us near Montisi than we cry, “Stop!” as the bus speeds past the hundredth field of wildflowers. This little mutiny makes us late for the Pienza tour but in an instant half the group is forging a path through the field. “OK, follow me!” shouts Mario, holding a bunch of fiery red poppies up like a tour leader’s red flag. Below his raised arm he is enfolded within a floral cape of gold and ruby. We are in the most unforgettable field of wildflowers, forging a path through shoulder deep yellow mustard, golden sunflower, and crimson poppy. I will remember the beauty of this moment forever.
Credit: Mary Heebner
Bruno delivers us to Pienza. This jewel of a Renaissance village had its origins in the imagination of Enea Silvio Piccolomini, a local scholar and humanist. When in 1458, he became Pope Pius II, he carefully designed, transformed, and re-christened his small, modest hometown of Corsignano as Pienza, his realization of an architecturally ideal city. From this vantage point, the Val d’Orcia’s soft, undulating hills stretch as far as the eye can see. Along with Pienza, the entire Val d’Orcia is designated a World Heritage Site. Locations in Pienza appear in many films including Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet and in scenes from The English Patient. Our guide, Andrea, had his fifteen minutes of fame as an extra, “In the film, the statue that blew up in the middle of the piazza, killing several” he divulges, “was added as a prop.”
What is real in the piazza are the sandstone walls pock-marked with strafing of English bullets, as this was a German headquarters during World War II. During the tour, my hands are still sweet with the scent of ricotta and rosemary. I note a few of Pienza’s street names; Via della Fortuna, Via dell’Amore, Via del Bacio, Via Buia—streets of fortune, love, kisses, darkness.
Our final, beautiful walk takes us to the Abby of Monte Oliveto Maggiore which is perched on a hill overlooking sandy badlands. It is said it was the inspiration for Umberto Eco’s book, In the Name of the Rose. A drawbridge leads to a medieval entryway of red brick, which then opens up onto a rose garden and a long path of cypress leading down to the huge brick church and the cloister framing stunning frescoes that depict the life of St. Benedict by Renaissance painters Luca Signorelli and Il Sodoma. Mario narrates Benedict’s story from wealth to a monastic life of service and devotion. After lunch beneath the wisteria-laced trellis of the Abbey’s Ristorante La Torre we drive back to Florence and complete our journey. Weather is moving in. Motoring past the circular signs with a red slash naming the town we are leaving it is hard to believe this entire time we were only ninety minutes’ drive from bustling downtown Florence!
Aboard the bus, I traced our route, an area the size of the palm of my hand, on my map. My fingertip easily covered each day’s walk, but within the inch is the mile, and within this small area I sang, walked, ate, drank, and touched the heartbeat of Tuscany. I recalled Mario’s joyful remark, “can you believe it? —now instead of being chided for wandering around the hills, I’m taking people on walks all over my beloved country, which is what I love to do most of all!”
In memory of Mario Acciai August 21, 1947 – September 4, 2020
Mario and Lise’s son Lorenzo Acciai carries on his parent’s tradition of marvelous, personalized, off-the-beaten-track tours through his small company, Journey Through Italy. Lise Apatoff Acciai continues to give the most divinely inspired custom tours throughout Italy, by reservation. firstname.lastname@example.org
Italianissimo: The Quintessential Guide to What Italians Do Best – Louise Fili and Lise Apatoff