Italy

My Room with a View

The Christmas tree in front of Santa Maria del Fiore

In those winter nights next to the Duomo, life came back to me.

Brunelleschi's Dome through one of the apartment windows

Brunelleschi’s Dome through one of the apartment windows

It’s an 88 step climb to a week I now carry with me always.

Paolo opened the door of my taxi. “Ciao, Anna. Your trip was good?”

He took one of my two small bags, and we mountain-goated it up the seemingly endless flights, Paolo chatting to me the whole way. Where was his oxygen coming from? I had no breath for talking. I worked just to make it look like the stairs and the suitcase were not too tough. Then we were there. The terrace and sitting room so close to the Duomo — it seemed I could reach out and touch it.

Mid-December was cold, and dark came early. The lights for the cathedral popped to life. I sat in the upstairs room with a glass of Chianti hardly able to take my eyes off of the beautiful giant. I put on my coat and went out and watched the people and looked down towards the Christmas tree in the piazza.

On this trip, I fell in love with Florence so deeply that it only takes an image of one of its streets to make my heart skip and beat more vigorously.

Il Duomo next to me at night

Il Duomo next to me at night.

My husband, Drew, died in July of 2013 after a long fight with cancer. That November, I began to think about Christmas; the idea of putting up a tree was overwhelming. I had an extra week of vacation that year, while my daughter Catherine was still in school. She would be with her Dad then and I began thinking about taking a week long trip by myself. No one would give me a hard time if there wasn’t much Christmas.

I considered New York . . . San Francisco. I even thought about taking the train across the Rocky Mountains. Nothing was compelling. Europe? Drew and I had visited London and Paris the previous year, his final Christmas, and I had no interest in returning to those cities anytime soon.

ITALY.

I had not been since 1997. And suddenly, that was it. I wanted to go to Florence.

Save up to $500 when you book your flight +hotel!

Time-Life book on Michelangelo from my childhood

Time-Life book on Michelangelo from my childhood

When I was seven, my mother began getting a series of Time-Life books on the great artists of western civilization. Each month, when a new book arrived, we would sit together and look at it. The images of the Duomo have been with me — deep inside of me, almost since I can remember anything. I went on to get a degree in Art History and I have always had a particular love of the Italian Renaissance. So when visiting Florence occurred to me, my heart leapt up.

I looked at hotels, but then I thought, Drew and I had talked about trying apartments abroad. After looking at several apartment websites, I saw this one place — I was transfixed.

The apartment interior was lovely, and it was next to the Duomo — the terrace right there — the cathedral seemed to touch it. It is owned by Ron Blitch, a well-known architect from New Orleans. What a small world, since I had grown up there.

Cheap — oh, no. The cost of a very nice hotel. And it was an 88 step climb to get there. Okay, not a problem for me really; besides, it’s a built in pasta burner. And the view! With no hesitation, I booked it.  I spent the remainder of Thanksgiving reading about Tuscany and starting Rosetta Stone for Italian.

I exchanged several emails with Paolo and his wife Sonia, who manage the apartment, to make arrangements for my arrival. They  offered additional services for a fee, of course. Would I like to have some wine and cheese at the apartment when I arrived? Would I like to hire a driver? What about cooking lessons? Yes!

Where would I like to go the day I had the driver? Hmm. I had been to Siena, San Gimignano, Pienza, Montepulciano . . . I looked at a map of Tuscany and found Montalcino. When I googled it, up popped the small Abbey of Sant’Antimo. What an exquisite Romanesque church! Paolo’s next email said, “well, if you’re going to Montalcino, you must do a Brunello wine tasting.” I had a reasonably good knowledge of California wines. Italian? Past Chianti and Pinot Grigio . . . I’d had Barolo, but  I didn’t really know much about Italian wines.

The weather was sunny and cold for the trip to Montalcino. I had a wonderful driver, Ewan — a Scot who had moved to Florence a dozen years earlier. Many people have the reaction to Florence that I have. We just — we just don’t want to leave.

Brunello region of Tuscany

Headed to the Caparzo Winery in the Brunello region of Tuscany

Brunello. May I just say, had nothing else happened all day, it would have been a perfect experience. I discovered Brunello, and I love it — it is now one of my favorite wines. The wine that day ignited a new passion, and I have been reading about Italian wines, tasting, and making vineyard visits ever since.

At the Caparzo Winery, waiting for my first taste of Brunello.

At the Caparzo Winery, waiting for my first taste of Brunello.

Caparzo did a nice job with the tasting. The three reds that I particularly liked were their Brunello Riserva — wow, what an amazing wine. (I’ve found it fairly easy to get in the U.S. — here is a link to reviews). I also really, really liked La Casa, their single vineyard Brunello. La Caduta is their single vineyard Rosso de Montalcino — I liked it very much, particularly for the price. Their regular Rosso di Montalcino — no, not for the price. Their regular Brunello, very nice, I enjoyed it, but particularly since that point, there are just others I like much more. I have not been able to find La Casa here in Houston; I would consider shipping some back the next time I visit.

Following a late lunch in Montalcino, Ewan took me to Sant’Antimo.

The Abbey church of Sant'Antimo

The Abbey church of Sant’Antimo

There are spaces — holy, quiet, and they fill us with a deep peace. Sant’Antimo is one of them. A small community of monks lives there, and they filed into the Abbey for None prayers — the mid afternoon, 3 p.m. service.

The interior of the Abbey of Sant'Antimo

The interior of the Abbey of Sant’Antimo

Ewan and I took seats midway down the nave. We were the lone visitors. Then the sound of monophonic, unaccompanied male voices, in stepwise progression through the phrases, resonated in the air. The thick stone walls held us all together; the monks, Ewan, myself, this space, the chant, we became something else for a time.

I did not, would not, take pictures during the service. The photograph of the interior is from before the monks filed into the Abbey. I’ve put a Gregorian chant below to help you imagine the sound.

Each night, I returned to sit next to the dome. With my massive companion, it was quiet. I had time to think, to begin putting some perspective to Drew’s trip through the final months, through hospice, into dementia and finally into death. Each morning, I came up for coffee and listened to the cathedral bells ringing from the campanile.

This is, well. I love this place, with all of my heart.

The Christmas tree in front of Santa Maria del Fiore

The Christmas tree in front of Santa Maria del Fiore

And when I returned home, I was so ready to make Christmas. Catherine came home from her father’s and we headed straight out for a tree. We took on a bit more tree than two short people can handle — it was quite a struggle, but we woman-handled it into place.

Wrestling the tree

Wrestling the tree

 

I returned from Florence ready to make Christmas

I returned from Florence ready to make Christmas

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Teaching Catherine to make pasta

Teaching Catherine to make pasta

I look forward to sharing more about this trip, along with the two other trips to Florence over the last year and a half. Ciao!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

If you interested in learning more about Brunello, this book by wine expert Kerin O’Keefe is an outstanding way to get to know the wine and the history of the region. In addition to a discussion of Brunello and the Montalcino region, she includes detailed profiles of 58 wineries. If you are planning a trip to Tuscany, this is a great help when choosing where you might like to visit. No Tuscany in your near future? Explore Brunello in your home country and enjoy!

The links below will take you to the book’s page on Amazon, or you can find it elsewhere on the web.
Brunello di Montalcino: Understanding and Appreciating One of Italy’s Greatest Wines
Interested in learning more about my room with a view?

You’ll find Ron Blitch’s apartment on VRBO – Home Away. It’s pricey, but amazing — I returned six months later to stay again, and brought my daughter and sister with me.

The terrace of my apartment with a view

I have become friends with Paolo and Sonia, and in the last year they have renovated an apartment a block from the Duomo. While it does not have a view, it is gorgeous and very reasonably priced. Since I have become addicted to frequent visits to Florence, I’ll be staying here on my next trip. Oh, and it’s on the first floor, a short set of steps. I’m not sure that’s a good thing with the amount of pasta I want to eat!

The Divina apartment in Florence, owned by Paolo and Sonia.

The Divina apartment in Florence, owned by Paolo and Sonia.

 


 

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38 replies »

  1. Beautiful. I discovered The Abbey of St. Antimo this year by way of another blogger and visited it in April. (Posted about it with many photographs but they say it’s a no-no to link to own post in a comment to another’s). What a place! Firenze I’ve merely brushed by so far, but there is time, or so they say. I’m glad I’ve found you and will stick close.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, St. Antimo is so special — and please! Post another comment and link it to your photographs :-). As far as I’m concerned, sharing about your travels to wonderful places is always something I love to see here. So link away!

      I’ve made a visit to your blog, and have to say the same back to you — great to have found you. I look forward to reading.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. How lovely and thanks for writing this. First let me say how sorry I am about your husband. Second I’m impressed you took such initiative to plan an exquisite vacation such as this one. Oh, Italia! I want to go back NOW!!!!

    P.S. Nice to “meet” you from Janice Wald’s blog Mostly Blogging.

    Like

    • Cathy, Thank you so much. Lovely to “meet” you, too . . . and I have to say that I regularly want to go back to Italia. I’ve just put my Christmas tree up, and I keep seeing the one in front of the cathedral :-).

      Like

    • Hi Ellen, Yes, the cooking lesson was great – and one of those experiences that I now use regularly. Jeanne taught me a lot in that one day, and I enjoyed it so much that I when my sister and my daughter were with me on the next trip, we all went back to cook with her again.

      I think we’ll be going to Spain in the summer — and I will look for cooking lessons there. It’s bringing part of the trip home in a way that is SO much more satisfying than the standard souvenir.

      Ann

      Like

  3. Oh! Ann, it’s wonderful…

    I’m sending this after a boring American Legion meeting, without my laptop, so it’ll be a while before I can read it again.

    Thanks for the chance to hear your verbal rough draft in person. More, more!

    Peter

    Sent from iME!

    >

    Like

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