A Day in Tuscany

It was a humid and sun-drenched August 29th, 2006 and as the time neared 3pm, my boyfriend and I boarded a large bus parked in a crowded depot on a busy street corner. As the bus pulled out of the station, I glanced out the window. I couldn’t help but smile. It may not sound like the makings of an earth-shattering afternoon; but the crowded city happened to be Florence, Italy, and the destination of the bus happened to be the hillsides of ancient Tuscany.  No more than a few hundred miles across, yet undoubtedly one of the most sought-after and dreamed about locations in the world. And I was to be there within the hour. Would the magic of this place really live up to pictures I had seen and the stories I had heard?

As we left the charming yet congested hustle and bustle of Florence, we found ourselves in the heart of the San Giovese vineyards, and the bus wound up the road, past signs marking winery after award-winning winery.

I was intrigued by wine. After all, I had sipped my first taste only three days prior – seated beneath Venice’s Rialto Bridge at an outdoor canal-side café. Wine remained a veiled mystery to me. That night, I was clueless whether my blindly-selected Pinot Grigio paired well with my lobster and cream sauce pasta or chocolate truffle dessert. Nonetheless, I found it strange and delicious.

Canal-side in Venice

Time for dessert!

Eric enjoyed his authentic Tiramisu.

Two nights later, we dined at the positively enchanting Café Michelangelo, looking out over the twinkling lights of Florence. It was there that I sampled my first red wine; a simple house wine from the Chianti vineyards served out of a small glass carafe with crusty bread and hearty pasta. Now, less than a full day later, I rested my forehead against the window of the bus as the hypnotic green, brown, green, brown, green of impeccably planted rows of grapes sunk me into a sigh of deep satisfaction at the current state of my life.

When the coach squealed to a stop in front of an auto repair business, the afternoon had grown gloriously golden. We stepped off, embraced by the smell of earth, and the sound of near silence. We had arrived in Toscana. Here there were no sweaty tourists, no obnoxious leather-clad young men shouting “Ciao, Bella!” at me. Only warm humid air and the occasional local going about his day-to-day business. Our hostel was nestled somewhere within the surrounding hills, and the only step left was to telephone the owner, Simone, who had told me in a previous phone call that he would pick us up in his car where the bus let off. I stepped inside a small phone booth and dialed. “Pronto?” Simone answered. “Ciao signore, sono Miriam Tavis, come va?” “Molto bene, grazie! Arriva?” “Si, arrivo en il stazione l’autobus.” “Va bene, Miriam, io arrivo adesso.” “Grazie, Simone! Ciao!”

During the two months I nannied for the Ardissino girls, I spent much of my down time repeating conversational Italian phrases to the children and their grandmother, then practicing them upon nearly every friendly-looking person I passed. This all paid off tremendously when it came time to navigate Italy away from fluent speakers of the language.

Simone looked precisely how he sounded on the phone: kind, small-statured and with a big smile stretched across his face. We crouched into his white compact car and sputtered down the narrow road toward Via Scopeti, where we’d be staying for the night. When we got out, my mouth fell slightly open at the thought that we were actually physically in Tuscany. We placed our bags in our respective rooms and met in the café at the front of the adorable home where we’d be staying.  The view from the outdoor patio was nothing short of miraculous, and the sun was generously shining on us. Simone suggested we walk up the hill to the “town” which boasted exactly one restaurant, as well as the homestead of Italian philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli during the Renaissance in the late 1400s. There was no way we were going to coop ourselves up in the hostel with such beauty surrounding us, so we set off in search of an adventure.

Surrounded on all sides by vineyards, we figured there had to be a wine-tasting room somewhere within walking-distance. So we sauntered all over the countryside, walking in between rows of Chianti grapes and casually plucking a few off the vine. We wound up a long driveway to a beautiful home with doors open. We got within 20 yards of the house, and decided to retreat, since there were no signs advertising a tasting room, and we didn’t want to be intruders in someone’s home.

After canvassing as much of the area as we could as pedestrians, we found ourselves without a tasting room in sight,  in the “town” center, which really was a crossing of two streets, with only one business as far as we could tell.  It was a small, decrepit stone building, with a vine-wrapped well and a sign reading “Machiavelli Albergaccio” out front. To our dismay, the door was locked and boarded up.  It was approaching 5pm, and this was the only restaurant within walking distance of our rural sleeping quarters. We scratched our heads at the dilemma before us. Strolling the short block one way, then the other, we encountered no other establishments, or humans. We began to get worried when, up the hill approached a sun-stained man with wispy un-kept white hair and simple dirt-smudged clothing, pushing a wheelbarrow. He looked to be about 80 years old, and the sight of him was almost surreal; like something straight out of “Under the Tuscan Sun”.  He looked startled to see two blonde young people standing before him, and we greeted him happily with a “Ciao, Signore!”

In my broken Italian, I explained that we were staying down the road, and had been looking around for a place to sample the wine of the area. I also mentioned that we had planned to eat dinner at the closed up restaurant before us. I asked if he knew when it is supposed to open. He responded, “Si, aspetta.” (Yes, wait.), set down his wheelbarrow and continued meandering down the street. Eric and I looked at one another in curiosity, then watched him as he inched up the road. Pausing beneath another stone building, he cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, “Salvatore!!!!” Silence ensued. “Salvatoreeee!!!” he wailed again. We heard a rustle, then the painted wood shutters of an upstairs window were unlatched and swung open. Salvatore popped his head out the window. “Che cosa????” he shouted back.

Our elderly friend gestured toward toward us and explained our situation. Salvatore glanced over, smiled and waved, then said, “Va bene.” (Okay). Within a moment, he emerged out of a door in front of his building and greeted us. We introduced ourselves and walked all of 40 feet to the doorstep of the restaurant. Salvatore explained to us that the restaurant would be open around 6pm, but if we were looking to have some wine he could help us out.

Eric outside of Machiavelli Albergaccio

He brought us inside the front room of the tiny restaurant, which sold Machiavelli wine grown in the vineyards surrounding the establishment. The label was Chianti Classico. Since he spoke a little English, Salvatore told us more about how this tiny town center was the preferred  country home of Niccolo Macchiavelli, and how that fact was the only thing that has placed this little village on the map. In fact, the renaissance home where Machiavelli stayed while writing his famed book Il Principe (The Prince), had been preserved with all the original décor and furniture, and happened to be directly across the street from us. We were amazed at the way this day was turning out.

Salvatore and his business partner Guido, who had opened up their restaurant solely for us American kids, began to take out every bottle of Machiavelli Chianti Classico and explain to us in their best English what each tasted like. Their restaurant did not offer tastings, so we listened intently to their explanations, and then chose one of their bottles to purchase. After buying it, we realized our hostel most likely did not have glasses, nor a bottle opener. When I told Guido our problem, his answer was to open the bottle for us on the spot, and LEND US two of his restaurant’s own glasses to borrow until dinner time. We were in awe of their kindness and hospitality!

We rambled back down the road to our hostel’s outdoor patio as twilight was setting in. The sky had grown more dramatic and cloudy. Eric pulled two Gispert maduro cigars from his travel humidor, and we poured ourselves a glass of Machiavelli Chianti Classico.  As I sat at that iron table across from the love of my life, looking out to grapevine-covered hills, I breathed more deeply in that moment than few others in my life.

When it grew chilly and dark, we put on our coats and climbed the hill once more, wine bottle and glasses in hand, to Machiavelli Albergaccio. Salvatore and Guido warmly greeted us as we entered the now bustling little restaurant. They showed us to a table along the margin of the rustic little room. It was covered in a warm-hued plaid table cloth and the menu, unlike so many in the larger cities, was in solely Italian. I enjoyed an appetizer of grilled eggplant drizzled with olive oil, while Eric tried a creamy ravioli dish. For our main course we split a gargantuan Fiorentina steak, which was well-seasoned and delicious, though incredibly rare. We enjoyed the same wine out of the same glasses with our dinner, and enjoyed conversing with Guido as he told us even more history of his small town and restaurant.

As we spoke more about Niccolo Machiavelli, Guido mentioned the restaurant actually had access to Machiavelli’s preserved living quarters, and also the wine casks located deep beneath the house. Then the remarkable happened. He asked if WE would like a tour. Eagerly, we said yes, thrilled to step into such deep history. We asked when we should be ready the next day, to which he responded, “Oh, you  should go tonight!” The time was nearing 10pm, so we asked, “What about the restaurant? Do you have time to step away from it for that long?” Guido essentially said, “Don’t be silly! I’m not going on the tour – you can go yourselves!” and he left to fetch the key. THE KEY to Niccolo Machiavelli’s renaissance home.

As we finished our dinner and bottle of wine, he handed us the key, cracked the door to the restaurant and pointed to the front door directly across the narrow street. We thanked him and headed out for our late-night self-guided tour. We unlocked the door and stepped inside. The furnishings were simple and clean. It gave me chills knowing where I was standing. We made our way through the house, pretending this place was our personal home. I fake-cooked a meal on the large hearth, then we fake-sat in the living room chairs and I fake-read a copy of Il Principe.

When we got to the far end of the house, the true adventure started, as we opened a door that led to a stairwell. The open door let in an aroma of earth and dust, and we looked at each other with wide eyes. Eric followed my lead down a steep stairwell and we emerged into a long dimly-lit hallway. The entire hall was rounded archway, made of impossibly old bricks that looked as if they might crumble at the slightest touch. The floor was simply rough clay. Where the hall ended were several gigantic barrels, probably each holding several hundred gallons of Machiavelli wine. This underground wine storage area was a veritable labyrinth of hallways. We turned corner after corner, in complete amazement of this underground world. It was creepy in the most thrilling of ways.

I buttoned my coat in the cool moist air, and walked down yet another hall. There was an opening in the wall on one side, and as I leaned through it to see what was below, I found myself peering down what seemed to be a bottomless well , and I shuttered. As incredible as this experience was, I was becoming terrified of these ancient, quiet, dark passages. Suddenly, my mind was enveloped with thoughts of the unsuspecting American tourists, walking into a death trap below ground where no one would hear their screams. I decided to rejoin Eric’s side since my imagination was getting a little too wild. I called his name, but heard no response. I called again, my voice bouncing through various passageways and again he didn’t reply. I quietly stepped toward where I had seen him last walking, and I emerged into a pitch black room. I stood still for a moment as a chill ran from the top of my head down to my toes. This time I whispered. “Eric??”

“BOOO!!!!!!!!” he shouted, about twelve inches from my face. I screamed in terror and took off in a sprint the opposite direction, back to the lit hallway behind me. I had very nearly wet myself from fright. Eric emerged from the room laughing hysterically and apologizing profusely. I angrily stomped back toward the wine cellar, unable to speak to him, and anxious to get out of these hallways of death.

Once back in the cellar he pulled me aside and, though I was ready to cry, as he held me in his arms, it suddenly began to sink in. All we had done on this day, who we had met, what we had seen…where we were standing. It really had turned out to be one of the most incredible and serendipitous days of our entire lives. Heart still pounding, I cracked a smile and let out a giggle as I was kissed by the man I got to share this spectacular experience with. Now I’m married to him, and sometimes when I step outside of our Southern California home to view an exquisite sunset, I’ll breathe in and close my eyes, and I’m taken back to one magical day in Tuscany.


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