Coast and Country - November 2007

A Home Away From Home
By Rita Erlich

On a late autumn afternoon, the Rocca di Castiglioni looked forbidding: lots of stone buildings high on a hill, a solid and enclosed complex, brooding into the fading light. Not a soul on the streets. Welcome to Tuscany.

We had an address, and found it. The lights were on , but the door was locked. We thumped at the door until someone from a nearby building heard us and called the person we needed. Smiles and greetings, and we were shown along cobbled pathways through the stone buildings to a door. Behind the door was an apartment, our home for ten days.

The apartment contained a large bedroom with a wardrobe, a small sitting area with television, a kitchen-cum-dining area with a small refrigerator, a three-burner stove-top, and a lovely old cupboard with crockery, near the little table. The bathroom was quite big. It was all rather magic: it had been arranged via websites and e-mail, and it had worked wonderfully. There is always a fear that it won’t – we’d felt that lurking fear on our drive up the darkening hill to the Rocca – but this was a triumph.

The Rocca was built as a fortified estate way back in the twelfth century. The tiny village of Castiglione is only about 25 kilometres from Siena, and it’s seven kilometers from a town called Gaiole-in-Chianti. Gaiole was one of the towns in the Chianti league, a military alliance formed in the thirteenth century to protect Florence from Siena (the other two were Radda and Castellina). The alliance lost its purpose in the sixteenth century, but the towns are still there, flourishing now as tourist attractions.

Tuscany must have been populated by litigious stonemasons in the twelfth century and onwards. Or perhaps it was just a great time to be a stonemason, employed by territorial noblemen. So much work, so many buildings! And such good workmen they were.

Every hilltop in Tuscany seems to have a stone fortified castle that was built in the twelfth century or thereabouts. Some are of considerable proportions, some relatively modest, and all of them solid, all of them in a commanding location. They were much more than castles, of course. The old buildings were on large estates that housed wealthy and acquisitive families, their servants and their farm workers. The estates included olive groves, forests (important for game), and vineyards. In many estates, each stone building marked the dwelling of a family who worked the vineyards, and gave much of the crop to the landowners. The buildings have survived the centuries, through wars, plague, global warming (back in the fifteenth century), savage frosts, and the vicissitudes of Italian life and history. Much to the benefit of modern travelers many of them have been converted into apartments.
It’s a clever way to maintain ancient buildings and to give ancient estates a modern purpose. Rocca di Castiglione produces oil and wine, as it always has. It also houses travelers, some in apartments, others in a large bed-and-breakfast building.

For my money, renting an apartment is the best way to get to know an area. Italy’s agriturismo – agricultural tourism – is relatively new, but very lively, with a considerable choice of B&Bs, apartments and villas for rent. (For sale, too, of course, as the English speaking real estate offices in Castellina made so clear). There are other advantages too – and cost is among them. Hotels in Tuscany are quite expensive, so an apartment for a week is often good value.

Last year I stayed in two apartments in Tuscany. One was in Castiglione, the other closer to Florence in Mercatile, on an estate called Castello di Gabbiano, which is owned, rather improbably by Fosters. (It’s a long story, but basically the castello was owned by the US wine company Berenger, acquired by Fosters when it bought Berenger-Blass).

Some years ago, long before websites, we rented an apartment in Santa Margherita in Liguria, on the north-west coast of Italy. It was long before agriturismo has established itself: the apartment belonged to a friend of a friend, and we had to pretend we weren’t renting it in ase the neighbors complained. There were four apartments in the block, owned by a man of uncertain temper who had posted a sign which showed a dog in a non-aggressive pose and a man with a gun. The message was plain: the dog’s fine, but beward of the owner. He wasn’t so bad: by the third day we were on smiling nodding and buon giorno terms.

The apartment gave me a taste for rental holiday life. During the day, we would walk down the 300 or so steps that took us to the centre and the railway station, and we would usually take a train somewhere. Some days it was to nearby Genoa, where we would visit museums and markets. Other days, we took the train to one of the Cinque Terre, the five Ligurian coastal towns that were inaccessible except by sea until the railway arrived.

Late in the afternoon, I often joined the other women in town shopping for dinner. Italian kitchens generally have small refrigerators since there is no need for anything large. The habit is to shop daily and even twice daily. In small towns, and even in some of the larger cities, food stores stay open for a little later than offices in the morning, to enable people to buy supplies for lunch. Then everything closes for lunch (including, as I’ve heard tourists complain, galleries, museums and churches). Offices, shops and banks reopen first, usually somewhere between 3 and 4pm, and food stores often stay closed until 5pm but open until after 7.

That was certainly true of Mercatale and of Gaiole. In season, some of the shops may keep extended hours, but we couldn’t be sure. We were there off-season, in early November (the Gaiole tourist office had snapped shut on 1 November and would no reopen until March) and on the afternoon we arrived, Gaiole was so quiet it looked as if it had been evacuated. But late in the day, around 5pm or so, the lights came on, the shutters opened, and suddenly there were alimentary food stores, bakers, a butcher, a greengrocer, a grocer and lots of people on the streets.

For me, that was one of the real treats. Staying in hotels can be extrememly pleasant, eating in restaurants if often very good in Italy. But having a kitchen where food can be prepared, joining the locals for the evening shopping trip – that makes me feel at home. We bought some good wine from Rocca di Castiglioni. For a week or more, I could pretend to be a local or at least a recognized part of the scene. The visits to the greengrocer and the bar for coffee became little lessons in practical Italian. A trip to a cooperative that sold oil and wine (bulk wine was available from bowsers, like petrol) became an extended exchange of Italian and English, with a small group repeating phrases after me in English, as I repeated sentences in Italian. That doesn’t happen in a big tourist city.

Supermarkets and alimentary sell a remarkable range of foods, including cooked vegetables, so I was able to make a version of ribolita, the Tuscany vegetable soup that includes beans and bread. And cavolo nero, the dark slender-leafed cabbage that grows in everyone’s garden. The local markets through Tuscany are so full of tempting produce that it’s part of the pleasure to buy things and take them “home”.

There’s the ease of a place of one’s own, with the freedom to come and go at any time, to prepare breakfast at any time, to do the washing. And because so much agriturismo accommodation is of the beaten track, driving is much simpler than it would be in the city. It’s also simple to park at a railway station and catch a train or bus into the nearest big city.

We started with and took it from there. The principals are Australian, and the agency has villas and apartments to rent as well as B&B’s in a number of Italian areas and Paris as well.