Travel Tales from Tuscany

Back in the days of my restaurant, Giulio’s on Broadbeach, we had a good looking Italian kitchen-hand called Fabio who doubled as a teacher of the Italian language. Naturally, my female customers were more than delighted to come along to our weekly ‘Dinners for Eight’ The table was set with name tags attached to all the items on the table. The pepper and salt became sale e pepe, the plates were piatti, the glasses were bicchieri, the knives and forks became coltelli e forchette and the menu was in both English and Italian, so the next step was to order their meal and glass of preferred wine. Naturally, after the first glass of wine, “Posso avere un bicchieri vino rosso perfavore?” (May I have a glass of red wine please”) Fabio noted their language skills magically began to improve out of sight amidst much giggling around the table..So it was here in the year of 2000 that a gorgeous woman called Catherine booked a spot for Italian lessons at Giulio’s….and that is how we met.

Later, In 2002 she called me one bright and sunny morning. It was at a time when and I was desperately in need of a holiday. We had often spoken about taking a trip to Tuscany. We were dreaming as many tend to do, of spending splendid days meandering under the Tuscan sun.

In her well-spoken and friendly voice she asked, “Can you get away Robbie?  Let’s go to Tuscany!”

It took less than two minutes for me to make a decision. A trip away with Cath would be divine. We are so like-minded, and have similar tastes in most things, from food to fashion, and all things in between pertaining to fun times, meeting interesting people, and exploring new and exciting places. Our villa was absolutely delightful, richly furnished in warm Tuscan tones and loaded with charm, authentic and stunning. We were in seventh heaven!

We arrived in late Spring, the time of year when blue irises are blooming in every garden and the red roses are rambling around fences and doorways. The perfumes were heady and magical. My every expectation had been filled, here we were in the Tuscany I had dreamed about for so long.

A young man called Stefano with the most amazing green eyes called in to check on us on behalf of the owners, making sure we were familiar with the workings of the property. He was delightful, and within days we were introduced to his father Salvatore, a friendly Tuscan who managed the very famous Villa Branca in Mercatale Val di Pesa in Chianti.

We were promptly invited to visit Villa Branca, a wine and olive oil producing estate, located high in the hills above the valley of the Pesa River, with spectacular 180 degree views. It was a beautiful afternoon spent in Salvatore’s company, tasting the Villa Branca Chianti Classico wines, and a range of Villa Branca liqueurs, the famous Fernet Branca, and Menta Branca digestives. Their late harvest  Vin Santo was a winner, dipping delicious biscotti into our glasses, and soaking up the alcoholic taste sensation became a definite highlight.

Villa Branca, home of Chianti Classico Wines and Superb Olive Oil, in the mists of the Val de Pesa near San Casciano, a 30 minute drive from Florence in the Chianti region.

The estate boasts a number of farmhouses, beautifully restored and available for guests from all parts of the world who come to explore the hills of Chianti in Tuscany.

On this day, an unexpected encounter took us by surprise!

The owner of the estate is Contessa Gloria Branca and her family.  Her late husband the Count passed away quite a number of years ago. It is well known by many elderly locals, that in her youth, Contessa Gloria was considered a natural beauty beyond compare. Her crowning glory, a head of lustrous blond hair, and exquisite Italian facial features combining with the figure of Marilyn Munroe were her most noteworthy attributes.

She became a patron to many charities and also to the Florentine Arts Society. The name Branca in Italy is synonymous with elegance, wealth, class, and style.

As Catherine and I slowly wandered along a pathway towards the villa, a well dressed elderly woman walked towards us, elegantly dressed in a tailored suit, and Prada handbag on her arm. We stopped to chat and discovered it was Contessa Gloria herself!

 In excellent English she asked us a number of questions, wanting to know where we came from, were we enjoying our stay in Italy? Was this our first visit;? Would we come and visit Villa Branca another day? She was delightful, and on a number of occasions in the following year, we returned with friends to stay at the estate.

Finally, I was invited to represent Villa Branca in Australia, and for a number of years between 2003 until 2008, I happily promoted the estate, combining the accommodation with daily tours of Chianti including the enchanting cities of Florence, Siena, San Gimignano, Lucca and all the little hilltowns in between.

My apartment on the Villa Branca Estate and our cooking class in full swing!

My very first group were due at the prestigious estate in May 2003 and I was advised by Salvatore, that I was being given an apartment at Villa Branca free of charge for my 3-month stay.  I was delighted! It was a two bedroomed apartment on the first level in one of the farmhouses, and he explained, “a nice woman, a teacher at the local school, called Anna, about your age, lives in the apartment below.”

Within minutes of my arrival, suitcase and bags in hand, Anna was there to welcome me. From that moment, I knew we would be friends. Anna is the epitome of simplicity; she lives her rural life alone, in the company of her beloved companion, Amelia, her rusty coloured, awkward-looking dog, with soulful eyes, bushy coat, and loving nature. They make a great pair, Anna with her head of henna coloured hair, her smiling eyes, her colourful almost eastern flowing style of dress, soft skin, and girlish voice.

Compared to many people I have known, there is no pretence with Anna,. She prefers the tranquil country life here in Tuscany, is vegetarian and tends her garden, leans heavily to the left politically, is a great believer in Women’s Rights, is a terrible cook, and finds housework dreary, much preferring to spend her time reading what ever book she can lay her hands on, and is probably one of the best and most passionate teachers in the Italian education system today. Her life revolves around her classes at the local school in San Casciano; she revels in the success of her students, and seeks to help those families who are less fortunate in the community.

Perhaps Anna’s only child, her 28 year old daughter Gaia, is her greatest source of happiness and deep satisfaction. Everyday Gaia calls her mother, even if it’s only a brief few words, it’s the communication that’s important to them both. Following 5 years of study at Florence University, Gaia successfully completed her degree in Architecture and has secured a position with a Florentine Group of Architects. She works long hours, but is thrilled to be associated with a company of great reputation providing her with a promising future. Many students remain highly educated yet find it difficult these days to secure a satisfactory position.

Her friendship is real, genuine and generous with no expectations, yet she is delighted to receive a little gift in appreciation of her continual acts of kindness. The delight shows in her eyes as they light up in unexpected surprise… “E` questo per ME” (Is this for ME?”)

Lazy Languid Days in Tuscany

Tuscany is a beautiful place to be at any time of year. It is a place that gives so much pleasure to so  many visitors from around the world. The feeling of being immersed in the pages of history is very special, particularly for those of us who come from the modern lands, such as Australia, New Zealand and the USA. It is a place we love to be…amongst  the ancient stone farmhouses and gracious Tuscan villas, furnished accordingly, with cellars stocked with Chianti Classico, Vin Santo, Brunello’s Nobile’s of Montepulciano; Super Tuscans from the Maremma, from San Gimignano, and so the list goes on.

We love to experience the simplicity of the Tuscan cuisine, delightful in it’s freshness, of produce in season, and prepared with much care and attention according to generations of traditional recipes.

A cooking class was arranged at Villa Branca and Contessa Gloria was intrigued by this group from Australia. Pictured below left to right are Salvatore Salvadori (manager) myself, Helen and David Ashton, Contessa Gloria, Our Tuscan Chef, Helen, Cathy D’almeida, and Stefano Salvadore.

Usually, my days in Tuscany have been spent in the spring and in autumn months, which are beyond a doubt the best months to visit this part of the world. Yet, this year I find myself experiencing the long hot lazy languid days of summer.

Florence is not a place to be during this period of warm winds, and excessive heat. Surrounded by hills, Florence sits and bakes in the heat of the summer sun. There is no respite, and the narrow streets are airless.

Out in the country, in the Val di Pesa, 20 kms south, one can however enjoy a morning or afternoon stroll through cool wooded pathways. Anna’s thick-walled stone farmhouse is without air conditioning (very few homes are air conditioned) and if windows and doors are kept closed from the heat of the day, the house remains cool and inviting.

Cathy decided we’d explore further south, so we buzzed down to San Gimignano for the day!

I am fortunate to be staying here with Anna, where our days are lazily filled with reading books, lolling about in a hammock under the pine trees with a cool breeze, preparing meals for occasional friends, snoozing in the afternoons, and at the same time we both make sure our fitness program is very much part of our daily routine.

While Anna prefers to have her morning coffee and biscuits then walk for half an hour, complete with Nike shoes, headband, shorts and singlet, striding up the laneway like a pro, between the olive groves and vineyards; my personal preference is to wake up and pull on my pants and stretchy camisole, hat on head, sunscreen plastered on my face, and off I go in the opposite direction down the narrow road which twists and turns, spiralling downhill past Contessa Gloria’s Villa, and hoping nobody sees me in this morning dash looking a total mess!  It takes about 20 minutes on the downward run, but coming back is another matter! Certainly not a pathway for the faint of heart! In an ever steep upward direction, it assures any contender of great use and exercise of the glutaeus maximus!

Summer months of July and August are vacation months in this part of the world. Schools are closed, firms and many businesses close down, and public servants are on leave. Many Italians that reside in the cities, head for the open spaces of the cooler mountain resorts, and naturally to the seaside.. Roads become very busy, and public transport is at its premium, transporting holiday makers to their destinations.

Contessa Gloria’s villa is 200 metres from Anna’s farmhouse. Stately pines line the impressive entrance, guarded by a massive iron gate and often we see the Contessa passing by. The villa is surrounded by an olive grove, and a perfumed rose garden dominates the front of her home, with lemon trees growing in huge terracotta pots lining her private driveway.

Terracotta pots are always my passion and Shopping for gourmet delights in the Falorni Enoteca in Greve was always a gourmet lover’s delight!

An invitation arrives inviting me to a charity Garden Party at her villa and naturally I accepted with pleasure.

It was an afternoon spent in the gardens of Villa Branca, mixing and mingling with a number of very interesting florentine guests, and before long I was engrossed in deep conversation with ladies that were more than happy to chat. By far, the most important person I met by chance on that day was Jennifer, a beautiful woman in her mid-fifties, an Australian ex-pat who had left Australia in her youth, working as a fashion model in the UK and France. She was a Sydney girl, the same as myself, and so we had something in common, and notes to compare! Jennifer had a number of romances with very influential men during her earlier years and finally married a gentleman from Florence, an artist, and well-known character in Florentine society. Sadly he died due to complications following a road accident, and Jennifer and their son remained in Florence in the family villa in the hills overlooking the city.

Over the years our friendship has grown, and a visit to Italy without staying with Jen would be most unfortunate. She is the epitome of grace and style, warm and entertaining. I am very fortunate to have her friendship.

Palazzo di Ferragamo in Florence

Another invitation arrives from Contessa Gloria to accompany her to a Cocktail Evening at Palazzo di Ferragamo, to be hosted by Signora Wanda Ferragamo, widow of the late Salvatore.

Totally overwhelming, totally unexpected!

Reading the elegant handwritten invitation sent me into a spin. How generous of Contessa Gloria to invite me! How fortunate to be attending such a grand occasion. The big decision looms, ‘what does one wear on such an occasion spent mingling in such illustrious company?

An hour before the chauffeur arrives I’m still not sure but finally make an executive decision. My midnight blue Italian shot silk suit, fitting jacket, and slim evening pant with high heel feels ‘right’ for this special evening.

As we enter the Palazzo in Via Tourabourni, Contessa Gloria is welcomed by the doorman followed by many of her old friends from Florentine Society. I walked by her side, yet slightly behind her, smiling and being introduced, all the while feeling quite breathless, excited, yet apprehensive.  The ambiance was brilliant, the beauty of the Ferragamo home was awe- inspiring. Could this really be happening to me?

The icing on the cake came when all of a sudden, amongst flashing cameras, and a sea of beautiful faces, I came up close and personal with our hostess, Signora Wanda Ferragamo herself. She struck me as a typical Italian Mamma, so hospitable, so easy to converse with, and before I could regain my senses she was showing me through her home, and telling me about the Salvatore Ferragamo Story and how it all began.

Born in Bonito, Campania, in 1898, Salvatore came from a family of 14 children. He was the third son in line, and at the age of 9 years made his first pair of shoes for his sister’s confirmation. He had an early passion for shoe-making and at age 16 immigrated to Boston in the US, joining his older brothers. After owning a made-to-measure and shoe repair business, he soon began crafting handmade exquisite shoes, and became well –known in Hollywood as ‘shoe-maker to the stars. It was at this point, after 14 years in the US, Salvatore decided to return to Italy due to the difficulty of finding experienced staff and quality leather.

In 1927, he chose Florence, the home of  leather, where he would set up his Ferragamo factory and chosen city for his family to live and grow. Sadly Salvatore passed away in 1960, aged 62, but the family have carried on the high quality traditions, with Signora Wanda at the helm since Salvatore’s passing.

It was an evening of wonderful memories, of fine finger food, aperitifs, stunning frescos, objects d’arte, inspiring conversation, and all the while, memories of Ferragamo surrounding us, the shoes, the timeless fashion, the handbags, silk scarves, and at Palazzo di Ferragamo, the living legend of a young boy from a poor family called Salvatore Ferragamo, a boy with a passion for shoes.

Salvatote and Wanda Ferragamo and Family in Florence