Living La Dolce Vita at Borgo Pignano, Volterra, Italy

Ever wish you could live as if the Downton Abbey lifestyle were transplanted to a Tuscan estate for the warmth of the Italian soul and sun and delicious, home grown food and wine? Well I got to experience this and more, if “only” staying in the farmhouse — not the five star villa —  with a band of merry yogis on a week-long retreat.

Riding from Florence to our lodgings in the back of a VW van, suitcases piled high in the way back and beside me in the third row, careening along narrow, winding, hilly roads with our ebullient hostess Camille (also known as Pushpa from her days as a child in India) was, shall we say, unforgettable. The landscape was breathtaking.

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The farmhouse where our group was staying had a beautiful common room dominated by a huge dining table and french doors looking out across a pond.  The kitchen was ours to use as well, which we took advantage of when our chef Lennie was not around:

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We rose each morning at 7 in time to make our own cappucino, gnosh on baked goods left for us in the cupboard, and walk to the yoga studio about a quarter of a mile away near the main house:IMG_0557

After morning yoga we trundled down the hill to a feast of a breakfast provided by Lennie.  What a challenge he had! Some guests had gluten intolerance, the week was vegetarian even for those who were normally carnivores, and some of us had random food allergies such as mine regarding pine nuts, unfortunately often a staple of pesto genovese — boo 😦 . Everyone agreed that our meals were outstanding.  There was plenty of variety in the unbelievably fresh produce, the bread and cakes and cookies were to die for and the presentation was always a combination of down home and carefully plated:

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Our afternoons were never the same twice. We had a tour of the estate with Pushpa, who delighted in telling us about the history of the place, built on Etruscan ruins and added on to throughout the centuries,most notably in the nineteenth century by two feuding family members who literally divided the home in half:

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Pushpa is deservedly proud of the green way in which the estate is currently being managed. Solar panels provide hot water, heirloom varieties and authentic milling and processing practices contribute to the sense one has of really experiencing what this soil and climate have to offer. All animals range free, the honey used is from the villa’s own hives, herbs and aromatics are made into salves, potpourri, and soaps:

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We did get a peek at the accommodations in the main house, with my favorites being this bathroom and Pushpa’s domain — the bakery:

IMG_0685IMG_0674We were also treated to a pizza night at the outdoor area adjacent to the ancient Etruscan walls:

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Afternoon trips to Siena, Volterra and a hot springs spa, as well as the grape harvesting described in the previous post helped to whet our appetites for the delicious dinners Lennie prepared, sometimes with tutorials for those interested, and always with organic, private reserve red wine from the neighboring vineyard.  We began dinner preparations and socializing at sunset, dined for several hours as the moon rose, and went to bed, grateful to have been alive and together in this beautiful place. Namaste!

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Stay tuned for capsule summaries of the rest of our trip in the days ahead.

Grape Harvesting in Tuscany

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Next to Borgo Pignano, the estate where we are staying, is a limited production “boutique” winery owned by relatives of our yoga teacher. We had a once in a lifetime experience yesterday, harvesting grapes and learning about the production process at MonteRosola Winery.

The weather was beautiful, with a crisp Volterra sky, just enough heat and sun to warm the bones. I could not just understand but feel how important the quality of this sunlight is to the vines and the grapes they bear. Row upon row of specific clones graced a hillside, dripping with clusters of deep purple fruit ready to be harvested.

A family operation, two tow-headed preschoolers skedaddled about, clippers in hand, at one with the Tuscan earth and ready to participate in the harvest. Two enormous labradors padded about, pausing to nuzzle each other or sniff out ripe olives to lap up from the chalky soil. A robotic lawn mower meandered about the lawn in front of the residence while our host explained to us our task and the process of turning grapes into award winning red wines.

I am no oenophile. In fact, I cannot drink red wine due to its tannins and oak barrel aging. But picking and then eating three varieties of organic grapes — cabernet, shiraz, and the local Italian specialty, sangiovese — even I could discern a clear difference in taste and even feel in the mouth depending upon the variety.

We were tasked with cutting and then perusing sangiovese grapes, looking especially for mold, but also being attentive to overripe, already fermenting grapes. These were to be selected out, tossed on the ground and allowed to return to the soil from whence they came. Several hours later the baskets of grapes we had selected would be put through a destemmer, sorted on a small conveyor belt to select out any remaining imperfect specimens, and then crushed, flowing into gigantic oak barrels where they would be tended like delicate hothouse flowers, with minute temperature adjustments and coddling, but with no additives or artificial acceleration of fermentation permitted.

Because the winery operates completely organically, rose bushes at the end of each row signal the presence of insect pests, which are treated with concentrated chamomile. Grape clusters often had spiders within, and the occasional yellow jacket buzzed drunkenly about, feasting on the fallen overripe  grapes.

It will be several years before the grapes we picked will end up in bottles in some lucky person’s wine cellar, but many more years than that before this unforgettable experience fades from my memory.

You can read more about MonteRosola here. 

What I’m Packing (carry on only) for Three Weeks in Italy

Mr. D and I are off to Milan, Bellagio, Venice, Bologna, Florence and finally a one week yoga retreat in a villa in Tuscany.  Having successfully navigated three weeks in Asia this past spring carry on only, we are committed to avoiding the baggage carousel.

Osprey 40L backpack

Using my trusty packing cubes and my Osprey 40L backpack I was able to fit in:

  • 4 elbow length Adea tops in black, grey, light and dark blue
  • 1 short sleeve Adea top in white
  • 1 cotton tee shirt for sleeping
  • 2 sleeveless Adea tops in pale peach and pale yellow
  • 1 dressy black button front blouse
  • 2 Prana camisoles for yoga and for under the dressy black blouse, black and  white
  • 1 J Crew pale peach lighweight merino pullover
  • 1 off white lightweight merino cardigan
  • 1 grey and black striped Merona pullover
  • My awesome grey travel pants from Lululemon (see my Asia post)
  • 1 pair dark blue skinnyjeans
  • 2 pair yoga capris
  • 6 pair ExOfficio undies
  • 1 bra
  • 1 reversible Athleta knee length dress in blue
  • 1 black Athleta below the knee skirt
  • 2 silk scarves from Cambodia
  • 2 necklaces from Cambodia
  • Patagonia black ballet flats
  • Black sandals
  • Black Naturalizer tennies
  • 4 pairs merino socks, really three are “sockettes”
  • 2 pairs tights, black and grey
  • Patagonia Nanopuff
  • Yoga towel
  • 1 quart bag of non-liquid junk like bandaids, soap, etc.

Cinched and ready to go! Travel yoga mat included.

Cinched and ready to go, travel yoga mat included. I know, right!  How the heck did I get all that stuff in?  I’m telling you, packing cubes and really smart brands like Adea, Athleta, ExOfficio, Patagonia, and Prana make it possible.

I’m also taking a black Longchamps large bag with a zipper that expands its size:

Longchamps large bag with zipper to expand.

I don’t need to open the zipper for the trip over, but who knows, perhaps on the way back after a bit of shopping. The bag is very lightweight, sturdy and can function as a carry all or a purse.  It will hold my Canon Rebel camera, my iPad, my packable black trench, charging gear, my 1 quart liquid bag, my deflated neck pillow and compression socks and, if need be to get past the airline regs, this:

Baggallini cross body bag

Most of the time toodling around, this Baggalini cross body bag will be all that I will need.  For the flight it holds my passport in its RFID case, boarding pass, iPhone, Canon s110 pocket camera, RFID wallet, small comb and brush and some wipes. Once through security it will also have some small makeup articles from the quart bag.

Its kind of amazing that I can take all of this in such a small space! In fact, I’m kind of thinking I have packed too much … but Italians are very fashionable and I don’t want to look like a frump or have to do much laundry. Everything can dry overnight that needs to be washed in a hotel sink. That’s key.

On the plane I’ll be wearing black leggings (not yoga pants but more stylish so I can wear them out to dinner), a black merino knee length cardigan, a merino shell, a scarf, and Sam Edelman black booties.

Some things are different tech wise this trip. (You can see what I did tech wise last time here). Mr. D and I have added Viber to our phone apps so that we don’t have to bother with an Italian sim card or a later model phone.  I’ve ditched the tripod and the telephoto, both of which I did not use and which took up valuable weight and real estate. I just don’t think my iPhone cuts it in low light situations like a dinner out and I hate that I can’t shoot raw with it or do much editing. So, I’ve gotten the tiny Canon s110 to carry in my Baggallini when we go out and I don’t want to lug the big Canon.

So that’s it!  Ciao! I’ll let you know how it goes!