Parco Sculture del Chianti

I absolutely ADORE sculpture gardens – the idea of very creative people making something none of the rest of us could ever imagine, and putting it in a setting that opens their idea to all that nature has to offer. So when Alan came across a past New York Times “36 Hours in Chianti” article that mentioned the Parco Sculture del Chianti near Siena, I immediately put it at the top of my “To Do” list for our short visit to that area.

I was not disappointed. It’s FABULOUS!!!! What is disappointing, though, is that no one we talked to knew much about the park…..including the people around Chianti….even though the National Geographic had it as one of “The 10 Best Sculpture Parks” in the world. I presume those in the art world are familiar with it, but since I think it deserves a MUCH wider audience….an audience I’ll call “everyone I know”….I now consider it my duty to tell you, as well as anyone I might meet, all about it. In fact, I was able to start spreading the word the night of my visit, describing it to strangers at the table next to ours during dinner, even though they were heading back to Scotland the following day. No one will escape my enthusiasm!!

First — all the background I know…..which, lucky for you, isn’t much. The park is on 17 heavily wooded acres – a parcel that was bought by contemporary art lovers Piero and Rosalba Giadrossi for the express purpose of turning it into a sculpture garden. The land was absolutely perfect because it had been a wild boar farm, and therefore was already completely fenced. Although not a large property, the 1 kilometer path meanders down a hill, over a bridge crossing a small ravine, and up the other side…..the perfect distance for even non modern art lovers to enjoy a nice walk with wonderful surprises tucked among the trees.

How were the pieces on display chosen, you might ask.  Well, the goal was to have works from artists in countries not usually associated with large sculptures, and who, though known in their country, were not particularly well-known outside. So while many came from the US and Europe, they also have artists who call Indonesia, Zimbabwe, Egypt, S. Korea, Turkey and Singapore home.

Another consideration to the decision process was that the materials be different, resulting in pieces made from rough stone

Keel -- a self-explanatory name

Keel — A self-explanatory name

and rust-coated metal

Chianti

Chianti — Think wine barrel without the barrel, and with wine making miscellany suspended inside

to highly polished stone

IMG_3071

I don’t know the name of this one, and I really can’t explain it except to say that I was in a narrow space where the outside is reflected in the stone.

and finished metal,

Off the Beaten Trail

Off the Beaten Trail

wood,

IMG_3080

Teak — This one had even me scratching my head. It’s pieces of teak tied to the indigenous oaks. Perhaps it’s meant to represent “2 diverse cultures tied together”.  Still….as a work of art, it’s certainly not going to have the same longevity as Keel….meaning at some point in the future, it will represent “2 diverse cultures disintegrated by time”.

glass,

Energy

Energy — This was by far my favorite, and there’s no way a photo can do it justice. Think of it as a glass cypress tree. It had to be constructed on the spot, with its central pole being buried over 6 feet in the ground. Its only problem: it’s impossible to clean.

plastic,

Rainbow Crash

Rainbow Crash — After all the pieces that blend into the woods, it was a pleasant surprise to come upon this.

and combinations of all of the above.

Balance

Balance

The Giadrossis live across the street from the park in a gorgeous home/museum/gallery built out of a former terra cotta factory. Each artist came to stay with them to visit the park, soak up the atmosphere for inspiration and decide exactly where they wanted their piece to go. I was lucky enough to speak with Dr. Giadrossi when I visited the museum/gallery and he said there were very few of the artists’ ideas he and his wife turned down. He also mentioned that while the artists were completely different from each other, the one common thread they had was that all 25 enjoyed drinking. He didn’t exactly say that it was a requirement, but I got the impression that he felt inspiration was considerably enhanced when sitting around the table enjoying a glass or 2 of Chianti Classico.

I asked how the pieces were installed. Some were built back in the artist’s own studio and shipped whole to the park, while others came in pieces with explicit directions for assembling. I picture this as bringing home a box for an Ikea cabinet, but with a vastly more interesting finished product. In several cases, the artist had to come back to supervise the installation, and in a few (like Energy), the pieces themselves had to be produced on the site.

The whole point of a sculpture garden is that the setting itself is an integral part of the artist’s work. So while I have shown you photos of a few pieces, a photo can never represent more than about 1/8 of the actual experience. Imagine walking up the drive to the museum/gallery and coming upon this:

The Milk Factory

The Milk Factory

or this in the back yard of the house:

IMG_3109

Of course, it’s nice to have a “back yard” that’s big enough for these giant peppers….

The Chianti region of Italy, between Florence and Siena, is one of the most iconic and most visited, and since you need a car in order to enjoy its lovely small towns and drop-dead gorgeous countryside, plug Parco Sculture del Chianti into your GPS. I’m betting that night at dinner even those of you who normally hate regular museums willl be pestering the people at the next table….telling them that they simply MUST go.

 

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On The Road Again

I went to Munich for the weekend, and after my last trip-from-hell train ride, I chose to fly.  The downside of flying is that I have to get to the Rome airport, and while it can theoretically be done by train, in practice their schedule will seldom fit yours.  This leaves driving.

I have a like-hate relationship with driving.  I seldom love it.  So the morning that I left for the airport, I felt that kind of dread you feel when you have to do something that you really wish you didn’t have to do….similar to when you have to go to the dentist and you know he’ll be drilling.  I had the same feeling on my return flight thinking about my drive back to Orvieto.  I was so relieved to finally pull into my parking lot.

A few days later I had to go to a town I’d never been to, and when I checked Google Maps for directions, the fastest way was via the Autostrada.  I wasn’t in a hurry, so I took the alternate route.  As soon as I started out, I felt a sense of calm, and that’s when the obvious finally hit me:  it’s not the driving I hate, it’s the road; I HATE the Autostrada.  I had time to dwell on this during my drive….when I wasn’t ohhhing and ahhhhing over the gorgeous countryside along this back road.  I thought about all the highways in the US that I really hate and that make me wish I were visiting my dentist instead of driving:  I-95, the Blue Route, the New Jersey Turnpike, NJ 295, PA 202, the Schuylkill Expressway, ALL roads around New York City.  People in my area of the East Coast are no doubt right now shaking their heads in agreement.  But people everywhere have the same kind of hellish roads.  And what do they have in common with the Autostrada?  They all have trucks going very, very fast.…lots and lots of barreling-down-the-road trucks.  I know we need those trucks and depend on those trucks, but I just don’t want to drive with those trucks.

So there I was on an absolutely beautiful, truckless winding country road with incredible vistas around every corner.  When you travel from Rome to Orvieto at night, you see the twinkling lights of hilltop towns scattered off in the distance to the right.  This road was the one that connected those towns, and as I was meandering along, I would occasionally catch a glimpse below me of the Autostrada and it’s omnipresent trucks.  You know how I hate to feel smug, however…….

I don’t usually put 2 days of driving back to back, but the next day I went to Monticchiello in the Val d’Orcia to have lunch with my friend Daria at her wonderful restaurant.  Google Maps says the back way is 15 minutes longer than the Autostrada way.  That extra 15 minutes gives me 90% LESS stress.

This ride, which I know well, is one of my favorites in the world.  I tell everyone who will listen (almost nobody does, by the way) that for absolute beauty, they should see the Val d’Orcia in the Spring and the Chianti Classico area in the Fall.  This is the Fall, but I have to say that the Val d’Orcia still managed to take my breath away.  Unfortunately, the day wasn’t good for taking pictures.  I tried, but my iPhone camera just couldn’t capture what the Autumn light did to the gently rounded hills.

THIS was the kind of driving that made me feel lucky to be behind the wheel instead of cursed because I’m sharing the road with gazillion-ton trucks whose main desire is, I’m pretty sure, to crush me.

It also reminded me once more of what I told you back when I started this blog:  I’m a rolling green hills person.  Italy has delightful people, wonderful food and wine, gorgeous towns and an embarrassing amount of art treasures.  But put me on one of its back roads with incredible views around each bend, and it defines the words “Italian Dream” for me.

As I said, during these 2 days of Driving Heaven my iPhone camera could never adequately capture the beauty my real eye was seeing.  But here are a few photos from the past:

View from Torre del Moro of the Duomo and Orvieto's surrounding hills.

View from Torre del Moro of the Duomo and Orvieto’s surrounding hills.  You can be in the countryside within minutes.

Poppies in Canale

Poppies, grapes, olives — just outside of town.

Val d'Orcia in the Spring.  When the wind blows, the wheat fields look like the hills have been draped in velvet.

Val d’Orcia in the Spring. When the wind blows, the wheat fields look like the hills have been draped in velvet.

Chianti in the Spring.  On second thought, why only go there in the Fall?

Chianti in the Spring. And this is the less-attractive season?

Orvieto Classico vineyards in early Fall.

Orvieto Classico vineyards in early Fall.

Taken from Daria's restaurant, the haze lets you see the waves of hills.

Taken from Daria’s restaurant. The haze helps define the waves of hills.  It’s my Italian Dream.

Umbria vs Tuscany

As you know – I live in Umbria and I absolutely adore it.  However, I do consider us the simple country cousin to the more upscale Tuscany.  Think of us as Melanie Wilkes in Gone with the Wind — kind, but plain — compared to the show-stopping looks of Scarlett O’Hara.

It would be difficult to find fault with the beauty we have around us here in Orvieto.  For instance, when I get out of the elevator to go to the parking garage, this is my view:

Just one of the many gorgeous views as you look out from Orvieto. Let’s just say it ain’t Kansas.

However, Tuscany is the place people picture in their dreams when they think of Italy…. perhaps even before The Big 3:  Rome, Florence & Venice.  And even though I spend quite a bit of time in Italy, I’m still one of those people.  The Tuscan border is no more than 30 minutes from us, and I certainly know how beautiful it is.  I tell everyone how beautiful it is.  I have a gazillion photos of my favorite places in Tuscany that show how beautiful it is.  And yet – whenever I go there, it turns out to be MUCH more beautiful than I expected it to be.  This happens EVERY time, and I go there A LOT.  Surely by now, wouldn’t you think that my expectations would be more in line with my reality?

I must tell you right up front that when I say “Tuscany”, I’m not talking about the whole region, which is really quite large.  My “Dream Tuscany”, for those of you armed with Google Maps, goes roughly from the A1 Autostrada in the east to the Cassia (SS2) in the west, and from Florence in the north to San Casciano dei Bagni in the south.  (San Casciano dei Bagni is only about 22 miles from Orvieto, and should not be confused with San Casciano in Val di Pesa, which is just a few miles south of Florence, meaning it, too, falls into the “Dream Tuscany” area.  Italians don’t seem to have a problem with 2 San Cascianos less than 90 miles from each other.)

There are many wonderful Tuscan areas outside of these boundaries that I also love – Lucca, The Maremma and Cortona, for instance.  But just a few weeks ago after our great stay in Lucca, which is west of Florence, we decided to have an overnight in the Chianti region.  As soon as we got south of Florence, I was once again absolutely blown away by how gorgeous it was.  Worse yet for the people with me, I found it necessary to practically bludgeon them with my euphoria.  I’m like a teen girl whose friends must duct tape her mouth shut in order to keep her from mentioning her boyfriend One More Time.  Shouldn’t I be more jaded by now?

I first discovered the Chianti area (between Florence and Siena)

Chianti. Need I say more?

and the Val d’Orcia (south of Siena)

Val d’Orcia. Please do double click on this picture to blow it up so you can really see the terrain.

on bike trips.  I haven’t biked in either for almost 10 years, but that hasn’t stopped me from visiting them whenever I can.  While Chianti is a bit far to go for dinner, the Val d’Orcia is a lovely drive – AND we get to dine in our good friend Daria’s restaurant, which is one of our most favorite places to eat, and just happens to be in one of the valley’s loveliest little towns.  To sit on the terrace in the Spring, enjoying the company of friends, wonderful food and wine, and having a breeze stir the grain growing on the gently rolling hills that spread before you like green velvet waves is…….well……I DID warn you way back in my first blog that I was a “rolling green hills” person, so you shouldn’t be TOO surprised that I just can’t shut up about what a fabulous experience this is.

Lunch on the terrace.

My off-the-cuff advice has always been to go to the Val d’Orcia in the Spring when the hills are so green they almost hurt your eyes, and Chianti in the Fall when the grape vines have filled out to their fullest.  But in fact, both of them are wonderful ALL year.  And then when you get tired of all that unrelentingly gorgeous countryside – head over to Umbria. Alan’s favorite beauty right now is Charlize Theron.  Consider Umbria Charlize without make-up:  still beautiful, but just not quite so polished.

My House

One day on my first bike trip to Italy in 1990, I was riding with Lou just outside of Radda-in-Chianti (let’s not forget to pronounce those 2 d’s!!), when I saw what I considered THE perfect Italian villa.  It sat at the top of a beautifully symmetrical hill, with vineyards sloping down the front and sides.  It was a drab, gray day, but even with overcast skies as the background, I just had to stop and take a photo.  And I gave the place the incredibly clever name of “My House”.

My next trip to Chianti was in 1996 — also by bike.  While the organized route didn’t go by it, I talked some others into joining me for a short detour past “My House”, so I could get a few more photos.

Then came trips in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2003 where I would always plan at least 1 drive-by — even we weren’t staying in the area – just to get another picture or 2…..or perhaps 5.

While its location was absolutely perfect, I started noticing that the buildings themselves were looking a bit rundown.  There was the big “house”, but there were also smaller out-buildings, and all looked like they’d been abandoned.

On one of these trips, someone in the group suggested we go up the driveway and see what it really looked like.  I was quite reluctant, because I wasn’t sure I wanted the truth; I much preferred the romantic image from afar.  And it was a sad sight.  Rather than a grand house with attractive out-buildings, it was a little borgo — a hamlet — surrounding the dilapidated main house.  Some of the smaller buildings could have been homes for the workers, some shelter for animals, and some garages for farm equipment.  All had seen better days, and the only ones that looked like they were still in use were the ones for equipment storage.

So in my mind I made up the sad story of the land baron losing all his money (you can take your pick here of how he lost it:  1. through gambling, 2. the spoiled n’er do well son’s drug habit, or 3. the trophy wife’s penchant for diamonds), and having to abandon his ancestors’ patrimony and let all his loyal workers go….including the one who saved his father’s life when he was a boy by heroically stopping a herd of stampeding cattle.  There had recently been a lottery in the US where someone had taken home over $280 million, so I completed my fantasy by picturing myself winning it and using that money to fix up the place, thereby allowing the workers to come back to homes with modern kitchens and bathrooms. – 2 things that were missing from what I saw in the abandoned buildings.  (While my make-believe trophy wife might have a thing for jewelry, in real life I have a thing for kitchens and bathrooms.)

All of this took place during the cameras-with-film age.  Remember that time??  You didn’t know exactly what you had taken a picture of until you got the roll back from the camera store??  So while I probably have 50 “My House” photographs in albums in the US, the first one I can show you comes from 2004, when I finally moved into the digital camera age:

“My House” – 2004

You’ll notice that it looks like there’s activity around the place…..land cleared, equipment scattered, new grapevines planted.  Here’s 2005:

“My House” – 2005

Hmmmm…..something was afoot!  Vines had grown, ground looked less barren.  We were staying at the Relais Fattoria Vignale (one of our most favorite hotels) in Radda and saw on the reception counter a brochure with a familiar picture on the cover showing property for sale at “Castello di San Donato in Perano”.  The Vignale people had bought “My House” and were selling it off  – piece by piece!!!!

We went to look at it.  It was going to be irreparably gentrified, with the out-buildings being made into “vacation homes” starting at over 300,000 euros.  So much for my dream of the workers returning to modern kitchens and bathrooms….  They planned apartments for sale and rent in the “manor house”, and when we returned in 2006, they had the crane up for that round of construction, as you can almost see to the left of the building if you click on the photo below to enlarge it:

“My House” – 2006

There are 2 very good restaurants – one casual, the other more upscale — where we’ve eaten.  It has a nice website.  The grounds are lovely.  The workmanship looks excellent.  However, now that we live in Orvieto, we don’t get to Chianti very often, so I haven’t seen it in several years.  What started out as a romantic dream has now turned into a matter of mild interest.

Do I sound a bit melancholy?  Well – I’m not!  And this is one of the reasons I love being in Italy.  It’s been 22 YEARS since I first fell in love with “My House”.  In that time, I’ve seen it change VERY slowly, and it’s been done with great care.  In the US, this gorgeous piece of land would have immediately had the vines ripped out and replaced with at least 200 incredibly tacky homes – most of which would be starting to fall apart by now.  There’s a very good chance that Italy will become a bit more like the US in the future and the rate of change will increase.  But let’s look at the bright side:  I’m not sure I have enough years left in my life to see that….meaning I can live out my time here enjoying the beauty that brought me in the first place.  At least for now, I can be thankful that I haven’t heard of any plans to — in the sad words of Joni Mitchell — “pave paradise, and put up a parking lot”.

The Italian Language – Part I

Back when I was a Category 2 Dreamer, I was on a bike trip in Umbria when I realized that I loved Italy enough to revisit it many, many more times, and if that was the case, the very least I could do was learn some Italian. If you’re traveling with someone who knows the language of the country you’re visiting, or if you’re only in the large cities where you can usually find someone who speaks English, you really don’t need to know much more than their “hello”, “thank you” and “where is”.  But this particular day, we came across a shepherd with his flock of sheep in the middle of the road, and it would have been such fun to have been able to say a lot more than “where is”, and to understand a lot more than “thank you”.

There were many, many 2-week vacations after that day, and I’ve now been a 6-month part-timer for 4 years.  I’ve listened to countless Italian tapes and CD’s.  I have had private lessons as well as 3 stints of multiple-week courses in Siena and Orvieto.  I have Italian friends.  I deal with Italian shopkeepers and restaurant staff.   The outcome of all this is that I have learned that I will never ever master the Italian language unless I die and am reborn somewhere on the Italian peninsula.  However, this lack of aptitude on my part will in no way prevent me from passing on to you what I consider some truly valuable information.

Here’s your first lesson:  Unlike us, Italians pronounce each letter the exact same way every time.  So first, you must learn the difference between how Italians say a couple of their letters versus how we do — for instance their “i” sounds like our “e”.  This is so simple that even I could do it.  The good news is that once mastered, you probably can pronounce any word just by looking at it because they pronounce every letter, unlike the French who only pronounce half the letters, but you’re never sure which ones to leave out.

The bad news is that they pronounce every letter – including double letters. And they’re very sensitive about this. If you are saying anno meaning “year”, you must pronounce both “n’s”, or they will think you’re saying ano, meaning “anus”.  When my father died, people asked how old he was.  I was told that when they heard my answer, they believed I was telling them that he had 92 assholes.  The possibilities for embarrassing errors are endless. How about penne for pens (or the pasta dish), versus pene for a man’s private part?

Some letters, like “m” or “n” or “s” lend themselves to being held a bit longer to get anno instead of ano, but what about those of us who have trouble making “dd” sound different from “d”? I once asked a woman: “Is this the road to Radda?” But I didn’t pronounce the two “d’s” and she had a devil of a time figuring out what I was saying, although “rada” means a harbor, and we were at least 100 miles from a body of water that might have a harbor, while the town of Radda was about 3 miles away.

Radda -- 3 miles away.

The only exception to the “pronounce every letter” rule is “h”, which is never pronounced. And yet it has a vital role in the language because it lets you know how to pronounce the letters around it. The most familiar word to think of is Chianti. “Ch” is always a hard “k” sound, like king, and never our “ch”-as-in-church sound. If you also want to remember that “h” does the same thing to “g” – making it hard – as in spaghetti, that’s fine, but I think we should start with the “ch” – especially if you’re going to be in the Chianti region of Tuscany, or even more important, if you’re going to order a bottle of their wonderful Chianti Classico wine..…two things I highly recommend. By the way — let’s not forget to pronounce both of those “t’s” in spaghetti!!! After all…..you don’t want someone to think you ordered spagheti, do you???

Volpaia, one of the Chianti Classico wine towns in the distance. See why I recommend going there?

And please – no more mispronouncing bruschetta.  Didn’t we just go over the fact that “ch” is always a “k” sound?  If you get the “k” right, I promise I’ll let you slide a bit longer before insisting you also master the double “t”.

Tomato Bruschetta

Bruschetta -- remember: "k" and 2 "t's"