Part of the impetus behind starting this blog was to have an outlet to preserve travel photos and stories, and our Italy trip two years ago had enough stories to keep me going for quite some time. As our travels are more limited currently by the stage of life we are at — college visits, college costs looming and the typical juggling of life a family experiences with teenagers — I enjoy periodically dipping back into the digital photo archive to resurrect past travel experiences. Today, let’s return to Tuscany, the Chianti region to be precise, where a gem of a pottery shop turned into a favorite travel memory.
Rampini Ceramics was a one-line mention in a travel guide or article I came across while researching what to see and do while in Tuscany. The classic painted pottery can be found in shops throughout Tuscany, but something about the family-owned studio in a restored farmhouse in the Chianti countryside appealed to me, and one of the only items I intentionally sought out as a memento from our special trip was a set of pasta bowls.
As we pulled into the picturesque parking area next to the studio and shop, a friendly German Shepherd greeted us, which kept my youngest teen entertained while I pored over the artistry inside. We were fortunate to have the shop to ourselves for much of the time we were there, allowing for extended conversation with Tiziana, who told us about the history of many of the patterns we admired, helped me narrow down my pasta bowl selection, and shared her infectious passion for the art of the pottery that surrounded us. My oldest teen enjoyed practicing his newly-learned Italian skills while talking with her, and she fueled his growing interest in global study by discussing the many opportunities for study abroad in Italy. She was generous with her time and conversation.
The incredible artistry and craftsmanship of Rampini Ceramics are highlighted in this brief video that also includes classic images of the Chianti countryside:
The results are magnificent. I am reminded daily of that memorable family time in Italy when I see the platter hanging in our kitchen, or when we enjoy pasta out of a painted masterpiece.
Rampini Ceramics sells their pieces at the original shop in the Chianti region of Italy, as well as in a store in the city of Florence. Stateside, you can find their work in Denver, Colorado. Links to their retail outlets, as well as instructions for ordering online, can be found on the Rampini Ceramics website, http://www.rampiniceramics.com/.
One hundred posts! How can it be?! Thank you for reading, for visiting, for commenting, for following! One of the motivations for starting the blog was to provide an outlet for reminiscing about and preserving some of my favorite memories of a special trip we had to Italy the previous summer. To celebrate the 100th post, I am sharing one of my favorite lesser-known sites of Tuscany — the ruins of the Abbey of San Galgano.
The Abbey of San Galgano was founded by Cistercian monks and constructed in the 1200’s, in dedication to St. Galganus (whose story is told later in this post). During the 16th century, the abbey declined and the monastery was abandoned. Given its age, the ruins are remarkably intact and it remains a stunning piece of architecture nestled among the Tuscan sunflower fields.
Click on any of the photos in the gallery to view the full-sized slide show.
San Galgano’s exterior
Montesiepi Chapel from San Galgano
San Galgano’s Romanesque arches
Archways framing the abbey
Plants take root in the old walls
Sala Capitolare community room
Plants grow in the old window opening
Wonderful layers of detail
Exiting the community room
Walls still intact
Can you imagine attending an opera or concert in this beautiful open-air setting with stars twinkling above you on a warm summer night? Some day I hope to return and enjoy one of the many such events these ruins host during the summer. But, first, continue on the path to learn more about San Galgano and the sword in the stone.
On the hill a short walk away from the abbey ruins is an interesting chapel.
Contained in the chapel is a sword in a stone, which reportedly was tested to verify its age from the 12th century.
Frescos by the Sienese painter Ambrogio Lorenzetti
Frescos by the Sienese painter Ambrogio Lorenzetti
San Galgano’s sword in the stone
View from the Montesiepi Chapel
The story of the sword in the stone is relayed on San Galgano’s website:
It’s towards the end of 1100 A.D.. The story that we are about to tell centers around a round chapel, a knight and a sword in the stone. But instead of the mythical kingdom of Camelot, we are in Montesiepi, in the heart of Tuscany.
The sword in the stone is not Excalibur and the knight is not King Arthur.
Its mystery is kept in a book that has been sealed for more than 800 years. A book that could reveal many of the secrets that surround the search for the Holy Grail.
Galgano Guidotti was born in Chiusdino in 1148, the only son of Guido and Dionisia. From his youth, Galgano leads rather a dissolute life, until, at the age of 32, the Archangel Gabriel appears to him in a dream and tells him to follow him. In the dream, Galgano receives an order from the 12 apostles to build a round chapel at Montesiepi and to retire there to live. His mother and friends try to convince him to desist, but his horse takes fright and takes him to Montesiepi.
At Montesiepi, Galgano thrusts the Sword forcefully into the ground to make a cross and miraculously the Sword gets stuck in the stone. This situation causes quite a sensation and Montesiepi becomes filled with many pilgrims asking Galgano to outperform Miracles. Before his canonization in 1185, 19 such miracles occur.
When Galgano died in 1181, a round chapel was built — the Montesiepi Chapel. Additional history surrounding the sword in the stone and San Galgano’s speculative link to King Arthur and the search for the Holy Grail can be found here. A charming herbalist’s shop is located near the entrance of the chapel.
We had planned to spend the remainder of the afternoon exploring Siena, but needed some sustenance before then (particularly with two teen-aged boys in tow). As we drove along the winding Tuscan roads from San Galgano toward Siena, we saw a sign directing us up a hill to a restaurant in the little village of Chiusdino. We still talk about the Ristorante Vecchio Frantoio as one of our favorite restaurant experiences during our week in Tuscany. While we had not planned on a full menu for our quick lunch, once viewing it, we could not resist. My husband spent months trying to reinvent the wonderful cinghiale (boar) ragu over noodles he enjoyed there, and my butter-sage sauce was the perfect accompaniment to perfectly prepared gnocchi. As the rain came down, we enjoyed our leisurely lunch, eventually meandering on to Siena.
Antiques and ambiance
Character-filled dining room
Classic antipasti platter
Gnocchi with butter-sage sauce
Map to the Abbey of San Galgano:
Map to the Ristorante Vecchio Frantoio in Chiusdino:
The San Galgano website was the helpful resource for planning our day visit to this interesting sight, as well as the source of much of the history and interesting facts I shared with you in this post. The website is in Italian, with translations available in English, German, Dutch and French. The Sacred Destinations website has useful information on San Galgano, also, some of which I shared with you in this post.
Our family has been blessed with some wonderful travel memories over the years. Travel will be transitioning to college visit trips, with much of our travel budget over the next 6-8 years hanging on the hopes of good scholarship money! As the primary trip planner and organizer, not to mention chief photographer (let’s face it, often the only photographer, resulting in my handing the camera to some stranger at least once every trip and asking, “would you take a photo so that when I am gone they remember that mom was on the trip, too?”), I have learned a life lesson or two along the way, which I find are best expressed through some of the photos from our travels:
1. Hearkening to Mary Oliver’s sage advice, be amazed and allow yourself to experience the wonder of things.
Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming is known for the classic images of buffalo walking down or across a highway, blocking traffic. We would come across these scenes as we visited the Park one summer. The scene we were met with one evening, though, really left an impression. We were stopped in our tracks along the roadway, cars backed up as far as the eye could see, as the sky turned pink and purple with the sunset. The buffalo were not just meandering down or across the road, but instead were making their way to their evening grounds, crossing the river as they snorted, stomped, and called to each other, young bison in tow and swimming alongside their mothers. Buffalo after buffalo after buffalo, until the sky was dark. A wondrous sight, I can still hear one of my sons saying with pure astonishment in his voice, “this is a once in a lifetime experience.” Yes, yes, it was.
“Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it.”
― Mary Oliver
2. Don’t give up; while the journey may be long and hard, the goal is often worth the effort.
We traveled to Yellowstone National Park when my youngest son had just turned nine. He was not always our most willing and enthusiastic participant when it came to hiking, but we figured the views from the top of Mt. Washburn were worth the 3-mile uphill climb from the Dunraven Pass trailhead. The hike was noted by the National Park Service to be “strenuous” with a 1,400 feet (425 m) vertical rise to the summit at 10,243 feet (3,122 m) above sea level, and we knew he was more than capable of handling the demands of the hike itself.
What do my husband and I remember about that hike? We recall the three solid, often seemingly endless, uphill miles of complaining from my younger son. Times like this try a parent’s patience. But, perseverance paid off, and we were rewarded with some of the most awe-inspiring, 360-degree views of Yellowstone National Park from the summit. At the top, I had another traveler take our family’s photo — three of us are grinning with the beautiful vista in the background, and the fourth member of this family is glowering at the camera. The woman who took the photo for me asked if I wanted her to take another with my youngest son smiling, and I told her neither of us had that much time . . .
After enjoying the views, my husband and younger son returned to the trail for the three-mile descent first, while my oldest waited with me as I stood in line for the limited restroom facilities. We figured we would have no problem catching up with them, given the foot-dragging that occurred with the uphill journey. The Dunraven Pass trailhead consists of numerous switchbacks on the trail, and the only time we even caught a glimpse of my husband and younger son was one or more switchbacks below us, as my older son and I descended. Reaching the bottom, I was met with a big grin from my younger son, proud of his accomplishment (and I think even more happy with the fact it was over)!
“If you are going through hell, keep going.” ~ Winston S. Churchill
3. Teach your children that our natural world is more entertaining than any movie or video game.
Our world is full of screen-time pursuits, and certainly many of them have some value, if not pure entertainment. Computers are often necessary for our employment and day-to-day life activities. Technology is part of the fabric of our world now. Because of this, it is even more important than ever that we teach our children and the next generations of the essential, critical elements we receive from the natural world. No technology, no matter how advanced and sophisticated, can replace the simple joys of traipsing through the woods, smelling the pine needles, watching for wildlife, and appreciating the complexity and interconnectedness of nature without any meddling by man.
“If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder without any such gift from the fairies, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.” ~ Rachel Carson
4. Be kind to everyone and everything, wherever you are.
Arriving in Rome, what was one of the first stops of interest for my youngest son? The cat sanctuary. As we have traveled, he remembers the cats he has met along the way — the feral cat colony in San Juan, the cats outside Ostia Antica’s gates, the little cat who sat and listened to our tour guide at the Colosseum. Kindness and a gentle spirit can go a long way in solving the world’s ills. I recently saw this quote on Sriram Janak’s Facebook page (he has a wonderfully inspiring photo-blog here) and it seems a fitting start to the new year:
We have a whole new year
Ahead of us. . . Could we all be
A little more gentle with
Each other and a little more
Loving, have a little more
Empathy, and maybe – next …
Year at this time – we’d like
Each other a little more.
~ Judy Garland
5. Be adventurous and stretch the edges of your comfort zone.
Our camping trip to Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado was the result of one of our sons learning about Mesa Verde in his 3rd grade class. I admit it was not even on my radar screen for travel destinations at the time, several years ago. One of the most interesting aspects of a visit to the Park is touring the various cliff house dwellings of the Ancestral Puebloans. While in the Park, we toured both the Cliff Palace and Balcony House ruins.
The ranger-guided tour of the Balcony House is described as follows on the National Park website:
Balcony House Adventurous Cliff Dwelling Tour
This one-hour, ranger-guided tour involves climbing a 32 ft. ladder, crawling through a 12ft.-long tunnel, and climbing up a 60 ft (20m) open rock face with two 10 ft (3m) ladders to exit the site.
Mind you, we had one son who had shown some trepidation with heights. While the description of the ladders may not seem too intimidating, when you see their placement in the context of the larger cliff dwelling, you may understand why my husband and I exchanged looks of some concern as the ranger said at the start of the tour, “Now is not the time to ignore your fear of heights. There is no turning back once you start the tour.”
On we went, cautioning our son to not look down and keep moving forward whenever presented with one of the ladders. I think I showed more concern with heights as my legs trembled and I clung to the sides of the ladder while crawling up the open cliff face — glancing over one’s shoulder at the drop to the valley below left one amazed that today’s lawsuit-crazed society would still allow such a tour to proceed. Thankfully, these tours do still exist, because it gave us an appreciation of the demands of living in such isolated, precarious dwellings, and brought to life the history surrounding them. When we finished the tour, my son beamed, the interesting facts and surroundings overcoming any fear of heights that day.
“Make your choice, adventurous Stranger,
Strike the bell and bide the danger,
Or wonder, till it drives you mad,
What would have followed if you had.”
~C. S. Lewis
6. Appreciate the little things in life.
Ask this family what they remember about the Oahu Polynesian Cultural Center’s luau, and it’s not the dancing, the music, or the food — instead, it’s the loss of a first tooth in a bite of purple taro roll. The picture says it all.
“The simple things are also the most extraordinary things, and only the wise can see them.” ~ Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
7. Set your plans aside from time to time and just enjoy the present.
While spending time in New York City over Christmas, we had planned on extensively exploring the American Museum of Natural History, and I wanted to sing Christmas carols in Washington Square Park under the Arch on Christmas Eve. The list of potential sights and stops was infinite. However, as my oldest son and I left the hotel at about 9:00 a.m. on Christmas Eve Day, planning a short run through Central Park to see the Mall and a couple of its famous statues, before heading to the Reservoir for a lap, the morning unfolded in a more leisurely way, and we did not find our way back to the hotel for several hours. Stopping to look at a fascinating tree and other interesting flora, listening to the music at Bethesda Terrace, geocaching along the way and making time for my son to stretch his legs at his speed (rather than mine) around the famous Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir. . . I scrapped caroling and we shortened time at the Natural History Museum, but I cannot imagine time better spent than we did that day, leaving our itinerary behind.
“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” ~ J.R.R. Tolkien
8. Let music fill your soul and mark your memory.
While alternating running and geocaching (a/k/a walk breaks for mom) in Central Park that morning of Christmas Eve, my son and I stood on Bethesda Terrace looking down on the Fountain and heard almost ephemeral classical music wafting through the air. We jogged down the steps and came across this duo, setting the tone for our Christmas Eve as we listened to several beautifully-played tunes. I was reminded of the intertwined memory of music and Sainte-Chapelle as my son and I reluctantly continued on our leisurely run through the Park, and Vivaldi faded in the distance.
“Music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life.” ~ Ludwig van Beethoven
9. Don’t dwell on the past, but study and respect what we have learned from those who lived before us.
Standing on Little Round Top at Gettysburg National Military Park on a dreary December day, one could not help but reflect on the lessons learned from this nation’s bloody Civil War. Each chapter of history has something to tell us — sometimes we may not like the lessons we take away, but they are important to learn, nonetheless. Actually standing on the ground where these historical events unfolded helps to reinforce and bring some understanding to the stories, lessons, and tragedies that make this world what it is and the people in it who they are.
History balances the frustration of “how far we have to go” with the satisfaction of “how far we have come.” It teaches us tolerance for the human shortcomings and imperfections which are not uniquely of our generation, but of all time. ~ Lewis F. Powell, Jr.
10. La vita e breve — life is short.
We have no regrets that we made our trip to Italy a reality, even though it seemed a pipe dream when first mentioned late one night at dinner club over a glass (or perhaps there was more than one involved) of red wine. The memories are priceless. Don’t be afraid to say “I love you” and give hugs freely, savor and protect good health, take that dream trip earlier rather than later, if you can.
“Enjoy the good things in life ~ you can always clean tomorrow!” ~ Kat B., Travel. Garden. Eat. blog
This lone cypress tree compelled me to find a spot to stop the car and pull out the camera as we drove through the Val d’Orcia region of Tuscany last summer. A couple of other trees, just skeletal trunks and branches nearby, may have once kept it company, but now only the solitary cypress remains in this classic Tuscan landscape. There was something magically compelling about this scene, as if the tree had a story to tell. But, perhaps it is just another example of that magic of Tuscany itself.
The header photo on the home page of my blog is a scene of the Chianti countryside from the drive back to Siena from Panzano. To me, it embodies a classic Tuscan view — the rolling hills, the grapevines, the olive trees, the cluster of old buildings comprising a little hill town. It also reminds me of a wonderful tradition that a group of friends have managed to continue over the span of 20 years, culminating in a week together in Tuscany last summer at a villa just outside Siena. Throughout this post are just a few of the photos from that week. (Just as I opened my blog with a post on the Pecorino of Pienza, I suspect you may see other photos or future posts periodically reflecting back on that incredible trip.)
In the early 1990’s, we were three couples embarking on our new careers, six young adults, four of whom had graduated from the same post-graduate institution, and all of whom had relocated to a new community. While none of us could be called close friends during graduate school, we had overlapping circles of acquaintances, and we reconnected during that first year or so following graduation, as we became part of the young professional community in our new city. In December 1992, we invited the other two couples to our home for dinner. We recently had purchased a Greek cookbook, and decided to put together a Greek-themed menu for our informal gathering. When you are just starting out, and have been living the student lifestyle for so many years, planning such a dinner is a pretty big deal!
The menu consisted of Tzatziki (the Greek cucumber and yogurt dip) with pita bread and veggies, a Greek salad, Spanakopita (Greek spinach pie), and then one of our friends brought over red velvet cake they had baked. Rounding out the meal was retsina, a uniquely flavored Greek wine thanks to the addition of pine resin. The evening was a wonderful blur of conversation, and the hours flew by, ending with a plan for our next dinner gathering a few months later at one of the other couple’s homes. Before the night was done, I think we may have even brought out some of the Saba Spice (spiced 151 rum) we had purchased during our honeymoon on the little Caribbean island of Saba. Dinner club was born.
“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a much merrier world.” ~ J.R.R. Tolkien
Every quarter, without fail for 20 years, we have gathered. One couple moved to a city a couple hours away, we have added six children, and we have had three couples’ relationships stand the test of time between and among all of us. When our kids were very young, we would bring them along. During that delightfully busy toddler stage, we tended to hire a babysitter. But, as time went on, our kids became part of dinner club, and even as teens, they have continued to look forward to our quarterly gatherings. We parents find that as we get older, the nights end a little earlier, or some of us may be found sleeping in a chair as others talk into the wee hours. We bring to the table so much in common, yet so much interestingly different. In this age of polarizing political discourse, it is refreshing to have a group of friends with often divergent views who can have a civil, yet vigorous discussion, and still raise a glass in toast to friendship at the end of the evening, and then move on to a mean game of Trivial Pursuit. Some meals have been a great gourmet success, while other menus may have recipes we decide to “retire” from our kitchens. Some desserts have been festively flambéed, while others were just plainly burned. Good memories all around.
With this history, as we began our 19th year of dinner club, we discussed the idea of doing something special to celebrate this tradition. The hour approached midnight at one of our quarterly gatherings, and we finished up dessert (a bit later than usual, although 10:00 p.m. is not an unusual time for our dessert course, since our evening starts at 6:30 p.m. with appetizers, moving on to salad and the main course at a time that depends on how organized the hosts happen to be that day — as our kids have become older and more involved with activities, we find our organizational levels decreasing in equal proportion, although I admit to my husband and I being the ones who are routinely delinquent on the organizational front), the conversation again turned to marking this significant anniversary. There may have been a few bottles of wine involved throughout the evening. . .
“I cook with wine, sometimes I even add it to the food.” ~ W. C. Fields
As we discussed our options, the kids floated in to pick up a piece of dessert, and joined in the conversation. We adults first discussed Napa — a weekend of wine country for just the parents! Delightful, relaxing! Oh, but the kids have become part of the tradition, so perhaps a weekend in Chicago was more family-friendly, yet still had some appealing foodie aspects. What about a cruise? Alaska? The Caribbean? Nah . . . . what about . . . Italy? The kids all cheered — “Yes! Italy!” As we all laughed; yes, nice idea, but what a pipe dream, kids! But, hey . . . life is short, isn’t it?! And, what better destination for a group of food-loving friends than Italy, right?! So, amazingly, over the course of the next year, we made our dream a reality and committed to sharing a house for a week in Tuscany.
“La vita e breve” ~ “life is short”
Being the Type-A trip planner, I researched a variety of vacation rental and villa options, and emailed my findings to the other couples in our group. We ultimately decided on a lovely villa just outside of Siena, the Villa del Cielo with Caminetto. I was impressed with the communications I had with Rentvillas, inquiring about the rental, and the property satisfied (at least on paper) some element from each of our “wish list” items of what we had hoped to find when renting a house in Tuscany. For me, I did not want to be so far afield from neighboring towns that I spent the whole day driving for sight-seeing; for another, having a nice property where she could just sit and unwind without others around was important; for another, a beautiful view; for the kids, a pool to share; and for all of us, enough bedrooms and baths so we still liked each other at the end of the week! The villa exceeded our expectations, and as we walked onto the property and met the first family to arrive at the house, two of us found ourselves grasping hands and jumping up and down euphorically, looking and sounding like school girls, “I can’t believe it! It doesn’t seem real!” But, indeed it was real, and spending time at that house every evening, as we came back together after typically going in different directions to sightsee during the day, was probably everyone’s favorite memory of our week together.
We shared tips and experiences from our different travels to surrounding hill towns; my husband met the “Butcher of Panzano” (his — my husband’s, not Dario Cecchini’s — highlight of the week!) and ordered several steaks to pick up later in the week to grill at the house for everyone to share; we had a local chef come to the house one night and cook for all of us so we could enjoy a meal together seated around the table for 12; and other evenings we enjoyed taking turns cooking, using the fresh herbs available on the grounds of the villa. Best of all, almost every night, we sat outside with a glass of Italian wine (or limoncello!) in hand and enjoyed the incredible view of the Tuscan hillside, pinching ourselves for our good fortune to have this time together in such a beautiful setting.
“Dining with one’s friends and beloved family is certainly one of life’s primal and most innocent delights, one that is both soul-satisfying and eternal.” ~ Julia Child
Do you have a food tradition that has become an integral part of your life?