Sunday, September 4, 2016

Day 3 - Of Medieval village & Italian wine

Day 3 - Italian countryside, here we come!
4th September 2016

The old medieval village of Montepulciano

    Table of Content:
      I was sure the whole lot of us knocked out flat last night after that 25,000 steps day.  But apparently not the ladies and gentlemen who were avid shoppers.  They literally took the metro to Rome termini to do some last minute shopping before leaving the hotel.  And we managed to grab the Nike NMD (Nomad) limited edition shoes before returning to San Giusto for the departure.

      I took a shot of the three ladies with their shopping bag as we reached Bologna station, and the handsome soldiers stopped me from taking photos.  It seemed that they are pretty strict about securities with respect to possible terrorism here in the stations of Italy.

      No photos allowed at the metro station turnstiles

      Ciao ciao, San Giusto

      9am.  With all our luggage lugged down the carpeted stairs, we were ready at the lobby.
      "Today will be a much more relaxed day.  As I've told you guys earlier, only our first day will be the most siong one.  But still, expect yourselves to walk a bit today because all the places we are visiting, we need to walk," reassured Adrian.  Sounded good to me.
      The (un)forgettable San Giusto.
      Both Serene and I had developed an instant love for the Italian cherry tomatoes that we bought from the supermarket next door to San Giusto.  And we just kept popping them through the night and even on the coach this morning.

      So a 168km journey brought us from Rome to Montepulciano...
      Our coach trip from Rome to Montepulciano
      Ciao, the medieval town of Montepulciano
      Province of Siena
      Click on the above image for an enlarged view of Montepulciano

      Montepulciano, sitting atop a 600m hill, was a medieval town that was founded by an Etruscan King way back in the 4th century. It used to be a garrison during the Roman Empire time.  After the fall of the Empire, it went from hands to hands, and was once also part of Florence.
      This small little town whose main street stretched only 1.5km end to end, was an agricultural and food producer, famous for pork, cheese, lentil pasta, honey.... and of course, wine.
      As we walked up...

      On the 24th August 2016, about 10 days before our trip, a magnitude 6.2 earthquake hit central Italy and decimated a similar medieval town like this in Amatrice, somewhere east of Montepulciano. Understandably aftershocks still occurred in the back of my mind.  I remembered myself asking Kai Sing, Alex and Lai Peng the CE's would a similar earthquake destroy a town like Montepulciano like the way it did Amtrice?  The answer was a definite yes, because old buildings like these were not made for the impact of an earthquake.
      Walking up to Montepulciano

      "Ok, from this point up, we will need to walk all the way into the town.  This Montepulciano town is very small.  You all can just wander around its alleys and its streets and we will designate a place to meet for lunch," confidently instructed Adrian.

      Very small is an understatement.   I didn't know whether to call it a town.  To me, Montepulciano felt more like a village than a town. Calling it a village would be more apt, emphasizing its cosiness.  Once on its pavement, I felt like I was transformed into a real medieval age of the Roman or post-Roman Empire era.  I could imagine myself as a farmer walking along these street, leading my mules with its cartload of vegetables.  Or I was a wealthy Roman landlord with my chain-load of slaves from the northern Barbarian tribes, trudging up the slightly sloping street to the public square.

      Whatever it was, being immersed in this authentic village of old, was an experience I had never expected myself to be in, when I signed up for the trip.  To me, this was really really one great highlight. As the Yik family,  Eddy and Michelle, the Kaans the Ngs and ourselves started our way up, the unmistakable red brick walled buildings and the low walls showed the way towards the heart of the village.
      Michelle strutting the medieval model runway

      "Ok guys, we will meet back here at door number 58 and number 27 later," Adrian giving some last instruction before the photographers disseminated.

      So on this day in the height of summer somewhere in central Italy Tuscany region, we strolled along on the pedestal pavements of this village.  Despite the summer sun, the air remained crisp.  A light breeze lifted our hats and our hearts, and lightened our footsteps.
      A lovely panoramic on his iPhone. Photo: Eddy Chung.

      Adrian led us up, past the Palazzo Comunale to one of the piazzas, most porbably Piazza Grande, and we peered over the low walls to the huge expanse of meadows below the hill.  The vineyards stretched as far as our eyes could see. This part of Italy was really relatively flat with no tall mountains,  Climate and terrain, coupled with natural spring water, was perfect for the primary products.

       "Would you like to live in a village like this?" I asked Serene.
      "NO!" was her immediate response.  I couldn't understand why.  Maybe there wasn't enough Pokemons up in the village.
      David, Kai Sing and Joanne soaking in the atmosphere.

      Now that I did not own a top of the line Sony A7 series, I had become just a mere record shooter.  And I'd gladly leave the technical photographs to the real photographers.  Here Alex was intensely focussed on hitting that perfect shot.

      Me, I just went around with my ND6.  I didn't care lah.  Just make everything pop.  I couldn't do anything else.

      Naturally Serene became my model, with the church in the midground and with the vineyards in the background.
      At Palazzo Comunale
      It was difficulty to make a decision which direction to head towards as every street looked interesting. So while everyone else was exploring the nooks and crannies, Kai Sing, Serene and I went a little downwards to the further end of the village.  Nothing much. Just more old buildings of bricks and stones.  And small tiny cars parked at the side of the road with parking meters.  It was serene and peaceful on this morning.  There was no car horns, no buzz of crowds, no noises of traffic, nothing.  All there were between us and the old buildings were fresh country air, blue sky and a feeling of medieval-ness. Not being an Italian, that was the best way I could describe it.

      Lunch at Osteria del Borgo restaurant

      A delicious lunch at Ah Gong's expense welcomed us at this quaint little restaurant called Steria del Borgo, pronounced in such a Italian accent by that cute little waitress when I asked her the name of this establishment.  The cheesy pasta was lovely and I dare say everything was mouth-watering.

      What was captivating was, half way through lunch suddenly a procession came trumpeting down from the Piazza Grande.  A line of young men and women, dressed in their old costumes and waving their Montepulciano flags, paraded through the street.  We all scrambled for our handphone, cameras, video cam, whatever we could grab.
      The Montepulciano procession. Photo: Ng Kai Sing.
      Sadly, my 90mm wasn't equipped for the moment.  And all my shots turned out bad.  But Serene's video on the handphone captured that moment very nicely, I felt.


      What a special live performance for the diners at lunch!  I bet even Adrian himself didn't expect the little village (town) to put up such a performance.  Apparently this was something that took place once so very regularly along the main street of Montepulciano.
      The small little alley of medieval Montepulciano.
      [Photo: Serene on her iPhone]

      Lunch metamorphosized into ice cream sticks.. and I could not remember how Serene laid hands on these ice cream but I suspected either Kai Sing or Alex might have bought them.

      Walking down the lanes cliffed by old brick walls of Gothic arches on either side, breathing in the medieval air, we slowly walked down to the row of small shops, where Kai Sing was looking for matching leather belts, leather wallets, shoes and key chain holder.  Too bad, none of them caught his fancy.

      But what caught Kai Sing's fancy was this little... beetle?  Anyway everybody snapped a shot of this little vehicle, on our way down.

      Click on HERE to see who was taking the shot. [A picture by Serene]

      Podere Boscarelli Winery
      The Podere Boscarelli wineyard. [Collage & Photo: Eddy Chung]

      Awaiting us was another fascinating segment of our venture into Tuscany.  Italian wine conjured up an image of fine cuisine and candlelight dinner.  Who would ever though Adrian was such a romantic.  I was unfortunately never a wine person, but quite a few in our group were passionate wine connoisseur.  Thus this was really up their alley.  This Podere Boscarelli winery had 18 hectares of land, out of which 13.5 hectares were vineyard.
      A panorama of the Boscarelli estate's vineyard by Serene.
      We were met by a striking Italian man named Alessandro, who warmly welcomed us into his estate and started sharing with us all about his passion - wine.  So overwhelmed with enthusiasm was this personable man that we were all caught up in his Italian-accented account.   Don't ask me what he was saying - firstly I knew nothing about wine; secondly I knew hardly a word of Italian although I was sure he was speaking English all the while.

      Ample sunlight, good water sources, and fertile soil on this lush landscape gave birth to many world class reds and whites.  And Italians drink wine like water.
      "In Italy, when you order food, and you order plain water with your food, we all look at you like this," said Allessandro with a horrified expression on his face. "When you dine in Italy, you always must order wine. We don't eat anything without wine."
      In my heart I was very sure that the Italian gene did not contain any genes for alcohol intolerance.  They must have fed their babies wine in their milk bottles.
      The stubbly Alessandro giving us a rundown on their wine making process.
      As Alessandro spoke, I ripped my attention from that Andrea Bocelli look-alike and examined the grapes on the vines. Small and dark the bunches of juicy berries from where the intoxicating beverage would originate, they looked so innocent when still left hanging on the branches.  But once processed, their values would skyrocket.  But, heng ah! I wasn't a wine person, and the quality of wine was totally lost on me.
      When the grapes turned this colour, they were ready for harvesting.  Not for eating, because they would be absolutely sour at this stage.
      At this stage, we were still reeling from the dreamy effects of Montepulciano town, and we wandered through the vineyard and had fun on the rusty old swing.  The drone of Alessandro's voice faded into the distant background as I let my senses loose on the compound. I was getting a little bored when Alessandro said:
      "Ok, come.  Let me show you our cellar."
      Lai Peng and Alex reliving their pak-tor lives all over again.

      Now that was interesting.  I'd never seen a real life cellar, less one right in the estate of a vineyard.  In my mind, the picture of old musky wooden-plank-lined cellar with warm bulbs lighting up the low-ceiling chamber was how I'd always perceived cellars.  And here it was not far from what I had imagined.  The wooden barrels with the metal strips were there as I expected, just that the light wasn't a warm tungsten light, but more a flourescent bulb.  I would have loved to have the whole set up a little more antique, for pure romantic reasons.  But understandably, the modern winery needed to function modernly.

      Upon Michelle's (and Eddy's) special request, Alessandro showed us a 2012 don't-know-what wine that was supposed to be very very rare and very very famous - the Nobile di Montepulciano 2012.  So tickled were the inflight wine experts that they clamoured to have their (her) shots taken with that specific barrel of pure gold.
      This Alessandro was the stereotypical humorous Italian man, especially around pretty girls.

      Wine tasting and wine testing...

      "Come, let me bring you for some wine manufacturing process," suggested Alessandro.
      We found ourselves staring into a destemming and pressing machine, and later seated in a chamber where fermentation tanks were sitting quietly in the basement.  With the table and benches laid out, we excitedly awaited Alessandro carrying a couple of cartons of wine bottles and glasses.

      Alessandro was so candid, as he matter-of-factly announced that why ladies are served before gentlemen.  Chatters arose from among us, discussing each other's preference for each bottle.  What struck my fancy was the dessert wine.  True wine connoisseur would laugh at my choice.  But I only knew how to drink beverages that were sweet.

      Tempio di San Biagio

      "Our last stop is this church called Tempio di San Biagio, where it is well known for people to come here for some needed solace," described Adrian.
      It was a delightfully quiet church.  And we did see an Ang Moh man sitting on the side wall outside legs crossed in meditation.  I guess he was one of the many here seeking solace.
      The Tempio di San Biagio.  [Photo: Serene iPhone]
      We walked inside this quiet little church and some of us whisper a silent prayer, while others dong a coin into the donation box, and lit a candle or two.
      The interior of Tempio di San Biagio [Photo: Ng Kai Sing]

      While a few Italian mothers were screaming at their Italian sons playing football outside the church...
      The Italian church and the Italian boys.

      ... and finally to retire at Il Garibaldi for the evening...

      Well, yes.  The highly-acclaimed Il Garibaldi cafe and hotel that lived its life just behind a petrol station for far reasons beyond the comprehension of us this bunch of safety-trained Singaporeans. Adrian explained this was the only accommodation thus far out, and he and Melvin had a swell time the last they were here.  But swell time was far from the minds of the owners and the workers in this evening as they scrambled to accommodate us for apparently they weren't used to working beyond certain hours and on certain days of the week.
      So we had our pre-ordered dinner and we made our way with our heavy luggage to the individuals air-condition-less rooms on the second floor.  To ensure we had some ventilation, most of us kept our windows opened that night, perhaps also in the hope that some cool air might filter in to chill the room while we slept.  What filtered in instead was some mosquitoes that had their share of Asian blood for supper.

      So how was this day?

      To me, apart from the highly-forgettable Il Garibaldi, Montepulciano was truly the highlight.  The lunch at Osteria del Borgo was really highly enjoyable.  And the tour of Podere Boscarelli was both educational and stimulating to the palate.
      The recovery day on this day from the previous gruelling 25,000-steps day was much-welcomed.  What a lovely introduction for us to the region of the ancient Etruscans - Tuscany.

      Click here to continue to Day 4 ~ The tour of Tuscany