Friday, August 27, 2010

A Tuscan King Arthur

The other day, Enzo, my husband, and I had a meeting in Chianti. The day was hot and the meeting went on longer than planned. We came out feeling hot and dazed. This has been a summer of hard work and Enzo was determined to give us an evening treat and to fulfil a dream by going to San Galgano, where there is the church with a sword in the rock. We were near but in fact not that near, about an hour away. I felt slightly light headed and the thought of driving along the windy roads while Enzo acted as my TOM TOM didn’t seem like a holiday, especially as it was already nearly 6 pm and the likelihood of finding the church open seemed virtually nil. However I didn’t want to be a party pooper so I tried to look as positive as possible. Eventually we came to the brown signpost used to indicate places of interest and found rows and rows of empty parking places. This didn’t bode well. Digging around in the car we tried to find some change for the final 10 minutes required to park. Having failed to find even a centesimo under the seat we decided to drive up the hill to the church.

We arrived outside to find the resident cat guarding the open door. At this point even my excitement rose. We parked the car just outside and walked into the round church built of small red terracotta bricks. The magic began; our eyes were immediately drawn upwards towards the dome that was built with concentric circles of alternative terracotta and stone culminating in a brick plug.

The peace of the church, the fading light and the beauty of this extraordinary piece of engineering distracted us from the reason of our visit. There was a pause before we cast our eyes down to the centre of the circle and there was the sword thrust into the rock almost up to its hilt. The sword forms the shape of the cross and is protected by glass. It was almost surreal as it was so unbelievable and somehow beautiful that a weapon had been made useless as a symbol of peace. The legend goes: Galgano Guidotti, born in 1148 was a rather debauched knight until at the age of 32 receiving a vision from St Michael renounced battle and his loose ways for peace and prayer. As a symbol he plunged his sword into the rock, which parted and cut like butter before closing and sealing the sword forever.

For nearly 1000 years the sword lay in peace until some idiot tried to pull it out and snapped the hilt off. Restorers and experts from all over the world have tried to glue the sword together but all the technology of the modern world has been unable to identify the metal and stick the sword. It is therefore held together by a metal splint. The sunset was now nearly upon us but the treasures of the church were not finished as in a side chapel there are later but wonderful frescoes by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (1290-1348).

As we walked out of the chapel to watch the sun disappearing behind the hills surrounding Montesiepi, I decided to leave the speculation about the mystery of the sword and its Arthurian connection to the scholars: for me it has a spiritual magic that I have no wish to unveil by research or speculation.

At the bottom of the hill is the ruins of the later monastery built by the Cistercian monks who founded the original hermitage on the hill.  The monks deserted the monastery after a hundred years for the comforts of Siena and the church fell into disrepair. Now the ruins have been stabilised and the vast gothic structure, which acted as a model for Siena cathedral with its line of Cypresses trees, can be visited. Walking down the abandoned aisle with the simple stone altar, one could feel the life of this monastery.

The evening was already special and indeed an evening out alone with Enzo is a rare treat not to be wasted. Italians always have food on there minds even in spiritual and romantic moments. This is a habit I have been able to adopt easily. There, as we walked back through the cathedral of cypress trees we spotted an agriturismo.

We sat down to a wonderful Tuscan meal with the abbey in front of us just as the floodlights went on and ordered our prosecchino.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Tutti in Ferie / Ferragosto

August is the month when traditionally everyone goes on holiday. It is still considered a social stigma to be left at home in a city.  I remember a couple of years ago stopping off in Naples on our way home from Puglia over Ferragosto, the biggest holiday weekend of the summer, to find this normally bustling city deserted. It was indeed eerie to see Naples, where the streets usually resemble a chaotic medieval scene from a movie set completely abandoned. All the metal shutters on the shops were down with only the legally required number of food shops open to supply those of us left in the city heat.

Now a large part of the Tuscan economy relies on tourism, but it has taken years for the shopkeepers to overcome the stigma of being at home on 15th August, Ferragosto. Ten years ago Lucca was just beginning to be on the tourist map, the city would be deserted by its citizens for the entire month. The bemused tourists would arrive to find the shutters down on the shops and restaurants. The bars closed and even some of the museums. I recently sent some guests off to see a beautiful newly restored local castle and was shocked when they told me it was only open at weekends. Now if they want to raise money and its profile it would seem logical to open up when your punters are about.  However the Comune (local council of Lucca) are starting to realize the need to cater for our summer guests and we have had concerts in the piazza throughout August in the evenings.

I understand the sense of escaping from the summer heat of a city to the sea or the countryside, but it is also lovely to come down from the hills or in from the bustling resorts to Lucca or other Tuscan towns in the early evening and have a stroll around the elegant shops and piazzas and perhaps practice your Italian in the open air cinema. Listening to a concert under the stars in a beautiful piazza or simply enjoy dinner sitting out, watching life go by and indulging in a wonderful home made ice cream in these car free towns.

So enjoy Ferragosto, the Italian Christmas holiday of the Summer.
Buone Vacanze a tutti.

Friday, August 6, 2010


Un Prosecchino is really my musings of an Italian life over a glass of Prosecco at the end of the day.  I have lived here in Tuscany for the past ten years with my Italian husband and our daughter. Hanging out of my office window I can see a microcosm of Italian life in the piazza below, some elements of it have hardly changed for centuries such as the Gelateria, with 4 generations sitting around the table waiting for the after dinner customers.
Next door is the new trendy bar, whose owners have just returned after 23 years living in Paris and are trying to bring the elements of Parisian sophistication and culture to this little Tuscan city. I observe everyday life and even after ten years I’m always asking for explanations of how this beautiful but challenging country works. The shopkeepers talk of their frustrations, the  residents of the sacrifices they make for living in such a beautiful square and we all reflect on those who pass in and out of the piazza.
I have called my blog “Un Prosecchino” because like the Dutch, the Italians use diminutives to make the language more appealing, and when friends ring up and say would you like to join us for a “Prosecchino”, I always reply: “Si”.