Some people feel an innate pull toward Tuscany. I must admit, before my trip, I was not one of those people.
I’ve always thought Tuscany was beautiful. But maybe, if I’m honest, a little too familiar to excite me. Hadn’t I read the books? Seen the movies? Sipped a glass or two of good Chianti?
Nonetheless, when a friend invites you to her villa, you go to her villa.
In the first several days I remained, quite literally, speechless. I caught myself repeating “so pretty” at each unfolding vista, and “so good” with each bite, all the while feeling strangely self conscious at how often I was repeating myself, and with such weak twigs of words at that.
With time, the words began to come.
In Tuscany, mountains rise and roll beneath unruly verdant brush, interrupted here and there by terra cotta rooftops, tidy vineyards, castle ruins, open pastures flecked with grazing sheep and silver olive trees arranged in rows.
Where hot springs pierce the ground, a precious white-blue water carves along the forest floor, transforming at will from trickling streams to rushing falls to shallow, soothing pools. From these places, steam drifts skyward as the water, long trapped underground, at last rejoins the air — leaving behind magnificent mineral formations as it sheds its heavy load.
At night, the Milky Way bends wide across a sky I thought I knew, made unrecognizable by a sparkling swarm of burning dust — a geode cracked open, each point of light flickering wildly as if shouting to the others, a visual cacophony so beautiful it hurts.
Windows are flung open to the sounds of village life. Mornings arrive with the tinkling chorus of sheep’s bells as farmers move their bleating herds out to the pasture. During the day, the distant bark of a sheepdog echoes through the valley. The rooster crows not just at morning but at any time he pleases. Church bells announce the hour from atop an ancient tower with a simple, restrained chime, but on Sundays work themselves into a resonant, holy frenzy, their warm tones bounding up the mountain walls. Otherwise, it’s quiet. Insects buzz toward nectar. Wind moves like breath through flapping leaves. It puffs through the chimney, slips around the villa walls and flies along the hillside.
At mealtimes, a shocking jolt of flavor could explode from any leaf — of basil, rosemary, arugula or spinach; from each tomato, be it fresh-picked or sun-dried; an olive, and its precious oil. Crisp pears, sweet figs. A mushroom is a bite of golden earth. Pasta is yellow and plump and formed by hand. The pecorino, perfection. As is the prosciutto. Gelato. Espresso. Wine.
These foods are not unfamiliar to me. Many are old favorites. But now I know, to taste them outside Tuscany is to taste a shadow of their intended flavor. To taste any one of them in Tuscany is to taste, at all, for the first time. I am, most gratefully, ruined.
A walk down the street is a walk through the ages. The sheer history of these towns, these villages, confounds my Western sense of time. Stern watchtowers, grand cathedrals and tangled webs of cobblestone streets witness an unending parade of markets, merchants, cooks, musicians, grandmothers, craftsmen, painters, roving teenagers, new parents and affectionate couples. As I walk alongside them, I am overcome with a fluctuating sense of awe, an aching humility, and the beautiful comfort that some things — many, good things — do not rise and fall with empires.
by Jessica Hilton