Firenze, Tuscany, Chianti, Siena


After a relatively short train ride to Florence from Venice, I made my way to the Firenze airport to meet up with the Minerva Education group. The owners, Piero and Casja Baldini, both teach (in Piero’s case, taught, as he recently retired) at Arizona State University in Phoenix. Piero grew up in Florence, and he and Casja, Swedish by birth, spend their summers in Italy. For the last couple of years they have also hosted writing retreats in Chianti.

Altogether, there were six writers, all American, and from all over the country: me from Ohio; Teresa from Florida; Kathy from Washington, DC; Bobbi from Michigan; Cheryl from California; and Stephanie from Tennessee. The writer in residence, Rhys Bowen, lives part of the time near Phoenix, and part of the time in California. She was accompanied by her husband John Quin-Harkin. Both British ex-pats, they are also world travelers, multi-linguistic, and just flat-out interesting people.

We stayed in the beautiful Hotel Salivolpi in Castellina in Chianti, in the Tuscan countryside. The photos below were taken on the porch of the house four of us stayed in. We each had our own rooms with en suite baths, including bidets. We would meet several times a day: breakfast in the hotel’s breakfast room, then a morning session with Rhys. She would give us an hour or so on a specific topic, then after a brief discussion she gave us an assignment to work on during the day. We’d each go our separate (sometimes together) ways, then meet again at lunch in the breakfast room, which we had to ourselves. After our always-delicious lunch we would again separate, usually each of us to work on the day’s task, which we would discuss in late afternoon with Rhys.

We took turns reading what we’d written, hearing thoughtful comments from Rhys, and each sharing our own thoughts or ideas about one another’s projects. Then it was time to freshen up and take a short walk together to a nearby restaurant, Il Fondaccio dai Dottori, for a long, leisurely dinner.

The town of Castellina in Chianti was a slightly longer walk from the hotel, a bit over a half mile, along a one-way roadway. Most days, we strolled into town for a wine tasting, or shopping, or to have laundry done.Castellina in Chianti is midway between Siena and Firenze (Florence, y’all), which explains the strange sculpture pictured at the top of this post. One of the women faces each of the two towns, which engaged in bitter rivalry for centuries.

One Sunday we all trooped into town for Mass at the church of San Salvatore. It happened to be the Feast of the Corpus Christi, and Rhys, who speaks Italian, noticed there would be a procession that evening. We all decided to go back into town for the procession. When we got there, we found that a wedding was just ending. The bride and groom, we later found, were both of East Indian descent, both Londoners, and they had driven to Italy for the wedding, along with many guests, many wearing exquisite saris.


The procession took place after all the wedding party and guests vacated the tiny area in front of the church, and after the baldachin was lofted over the village priest (the same one who’d said Mass that morning), holding the Eucharist in a golden monstrance before him. Lined up in the procession were the band, playing a slow, sorrowful march, then the baldachin, or canopy (Corpus Christi is the only holy day which uses this), then the women of the church, then the children who made their First Holy Communion that morning, and then the men of the town. The procession made its way down the street about three blocks, turned around, and came back.

Castellina in Chianti is famous for its wine, and for its olive oils. We tasted several types of each, and several in our group had wines and some of the wonderful balsamic vinegars sent home to the US. It’s also a region rich in history, dating back to the 6th and 7th century BC, with evidence of Etruscan habitation. We visited the mysterious Montecalvario Mound, high on a hillside, with fascinating tombs. A curious feature of the town is the underground tunnel, in the bottom right photo below. Shops and restaurants line this area on one side; the other side offers views of the hills below. The black rooster is the symbol of the Chianti Classico, the most famous wine of this region.

One day we all piled into a bus for a daylong tour of Siena. Except for Rhys, who took the opportunity for some much-needed downtime, a little laundry, and some sketching of the area. The rest of us enjoyed a day of touring the beautiful San Domenico, which contains the Cappella di Santa Caterina, where the incorrupted head of St. Catherine of Siena, Italy’s patron saint, rests in splendor. (Yes, creepy, but sacred to millions of Catholics.) We also toured the exquisitely beautiful Siena Duomo, which I’d seen before. However, the guide we had this time was a million times better, and we also were able to see inside the jewelbox that is the Libreria Piccolomini, a library that was commissioned by Cardinal Piccolomini in honor of his uncle who would become Pope Pius II. The Cardinal himself would eventually become Pope Pius III. The cathedral is worth the trip to Siena, all by itself, even though the city is so amazing. Because it’s one of the many Tuscan “hill towns”, very much of the city is vertical. Streets are steep, and usually narrow. I got a big kick out of the tables outside many of the restaurants, with legs shortened on one side to accommodate the steepness of the street.

We had a glorious day in Siena, except for just a few moments while we were eating lunch outside under the grape arbor. A hard rain pelted down on us, forcing us to move under a tent, but that didn’t dim our enthusiasm for the food and wine. The local specialty is pici pasta (pronounced “peachy”), which several of us tried as pici cacio e pepe: Pici with pepper. It’s a very simple dish, with the hand-rolled pici pasta, olive oil, plenty of grated pecorino tuscano cheese, and tons of freshly ground pepper. Magnifico! The restaurant, All’ Orto de’ Pecci, is basically a garden, in a very beautiful spot just outside the center of town. They have peacocks strutting around, donkeys, and other animals, including a herd of enormously horned sheep. The big metal sculpture in the photo below, top right, is an empty head, entitled “Open Mind”. It was easily large enough to step inside and peer out.

On our last night at the workshop, the Baldinis took us into town (in a pouring, chilly rain, so it wasn’t quite comfortable to walk) to the Rosticceria Il Re Gallo, where we had another excellent meal. Most of the time we ate family style, and that evening was no exception. We all enjoyed trying little tastes of various new dishes, and discovered many favorites this way. We had such a lovely evening together, friends after being together for nearly a week and a half, and sharing so many experiences.

As for the writing part of the retreat, I learned many things, including that my style is uniquely mine. Each of us had such different “voices”; it was fascinating to hear the difference, as well as to see how each of us progressed every day. I saw many light bulbs switch on, and had some switched on for myself, as well. I look forward to reading the books that will no doubt come from this workshop.

However, I still had another nine days of traveling after I left this group, all of it on my own. I was about to embark on my biggest adventure, ever: solo travel in countries where I did not speak the language, and barely knew anyone who lived there. In fact, I knew a single person in one of the next three countries to which I’d travel. That was more than a little worrying.


First, though, I spent a night in Florence. Bobbi, one of the other workshop participants, was also spending some time there before she went back to the States, and we agreed to attend the opera together. Bobbi knew about the opera performances at St. Mark’s English Church, and she arranged tickets for us the night we were there. We decided to have a bite of dinner together first, so we stopped into a bistro not far from St. Mark’s. The waiter, who was used to people coming in before the opera, arranged to serve us quickly, beginning with a spritz for each of us. The people at the next table were also Americans, a couple who won a fabulous trip and were in Italy for the first time. They were adorable, and took this photo of Bobbi and me, toasting with our spritzes.


The opera was La Traviata, which I’d never heard before, and neither had Bobbi. The church is exquisite, and as an opera venue, very intimate, with great acoustics. Almost too good. We sat in the third row, mere yards from the actors, and when the soprano hit the high notes I actually had to plug my ears it reverberated so. I finally wadded up some tissue to muffle the sound to a manageable level, and then I could enjoy it. La Traviata is a comic opera, and very entertaining, especially so because of the emcee, who was hilarious.

Strange, but true: we had assigned seats at the opera, and our names were on placards placed on our seats. Next to Bobbi a woman sat down and they started chatting. She turned out to have been a London-based guest at the wedding we saw in Castellina in Chianti! Since the wedding she had been traveling in Italy.

Florence is always beautiful, but on this brief visit I didn’t have enough time to do more than wander the streets and get a little lost–one of my favorite things to do while traveling. Gypsy beggars were everywhere. I confess to being shocked by how many. The strangest sight was of the woman lying in the street with her head touching the sidewalk. I was to see her clone many times on this trip.

My travel agent had arranged for me to stay just a block from the train station, which was a blessing. It made getting there for my train to Bologna very easy. From Bologna I would switch trains to the Brennero, and travel through the Brenner Pass in the Alps, a longtime goal of mine. My maiden name is Brenner, and I’ve been curious about that area ever since I watched the movie “Heidi” as a child.

Next: Innsbruck


August 20, 2016. Uncategorized.

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