Wednesday, July 09, 2008

A Spiritual Experience and Flashbacks to Catholic School (A Very Long Italian Story, Part Eight)

After a breakfast whose best part was the pastoral view outside the window, we hopped in the Punto and headed generally west to Montalcino, a tiny town famous as the center of a small region of Sienna Province that produces Brunello, perhaps one of the finest wines of Italy. Unfortunately for us, as one of Italy’s finest wines, Brunello is also really expensive. Like, arm and leg expensive. So, needless to say, Monkey and I did not sample any Brunello on our trip. We did enjoy a bottle or two of Brunello’s much more affordable cousin, Rosso di Montalcino. It is also excellent, at a quarter the price.

Arriving in Montalcino, we parked the car in a pay-as-you-go lot outside of the central district and prepared to hike up the slope to the main piazza. As we got out of the car, an older woman came over and pointed to a small lot just below the sparsely populated lot we had just pulled into.

“No pay,” she said, as she gestured.

“No pay? No biglietti?” I asked, using my ultra-limited Italian language skills, yet looking to be sure.

“Si,” she replied, “tutto il giorno.”

“Grazie,” we replied and pulled the car down into the lower lot.

First, we sought out the Tourism Office, where we secured a map of the regions wineries. This map was especially helpful: it helped us locate the restaurant where we had one of the best meals we’ve ever had, and it explained some of the differences between the regions wines. For instance, one of the greatest differences between Brunello and Rosso di Montalcino is that Brunello is not sold until six years after the grapes are harvested. It ages for a lot longer and is made from a very tiny percentage of the variety. The Rosso, on the other hand, is sold about a year after harvest, having aged for six months in a barrel and six months in the bottle. The cheapest of the Montalcino wines, Montalcino alla Box, is boiled for an hour and aged for one week in a plastic barrel before being packaged and served in quart containers that look like soy milk containers. (Okay, that’s not true.)

Anyhoo, we walked around Montalcino for a little while, hitting the cathedral and the Fortezza, home of a winery (imagine that). It’s a beautiful little town, but we had some more driving to do, so, after a spell on a town bench, watching the crowds go by, and a gander at the view from the parapets of the Fortezza, we headed a bit further south to visit Abbe Sant’Antimo.

Sant’Antimo is a 12th century church that is home to a small order of monks who have refurbished and maintained the church and the grounds. One of the most wondrous things about the abbey is that the monks, in the ancient tradition, pray six times a day (Lodi, Terza Messa, Sesta, Nona, Vespro, and Compieta). Their prayers are done in the (also ancient) manner of Gregorian chanting. We were fortunate enough to have timed our visit with a session of chanting. As I have mentioned before, I am not a religious person at all, but the experience of the chanting was the closest to a spiritual experience I may have ever had.

Inside this dark, cool church (in the middle of a June day), the first sense that is affected after the sight adjustment, is the olfactory, as the heavy sense of clove-like incense warms your nose. As you sit and listen to the chanting, it is next to impossible not to fall into a sort of meditative state. It is soothing, and, like meditation, centering, in a way. I did not see the cleansing flames of the Almighty in my mind’s eye, nor was I visited by the spirit of Saint Joan, but, for a short time, I was granted a sense of peace that I treasured. The analytic side of me later (not much later—more like ten seconds after I opened my eyes) considered how understandable it was that this Catholicism was so powerful in the Dark Ages. A world that was nothing if not brutal could be made sense of and kept at bay by the ceremony and dogma. If I spent all day gathering slop in the 800s, I’d have rushed to church six times a day, too. And we haven’t even begun to discuss the eight-foot crucifix or other devotional art in that context.

But, I digress, perhaps.

Of course, as my reverie was happening, Monkey was watching a scene of ignorant tourism unfold right in front of us. Apparently, despite the best efforts of multiple multilingual signs asking that there be no photography or video during prayer, a couple in front of us was doing just that. A very tall monk rose from his seat in the choir, approached the couple, snapped his fingers loudly (I heard it, but I had my head down), and, as the couple looked at him, sternly waved his finger. The couple ceased recording. Monkey said she had flashbacks to Catholic school.

We really enjoyed this abbey. The building was ancient and unique, the grounds were beautiful, and the experience of the chanting was one of those “living museum” type of experiences that was also meaningful in a way that I never expected it to be. Perhaps, had my religious experiences as a youth been more filled with the type of mystery and mysticism that I experienced in this church, I might have a different view of religion and cosmology.

After leaving the abbey, we stopped by the winery/restaurant Poggio Antico, to make reservations for a few days hence. Then, we stopped back at the casa, since we had to drive right by, anyway, for a short pause before heading further west to Montepulciano, another hill town, in a different region known for its top of the line wine, Vino Nobile. This also we did not sample, but, we did have the affordable relation of Vino Nobile, Rosso di Montepulciano. The winner, in our book, the Rosso di Montalcino!

Montepulciano was a hard spot to get into. We had to drive past it twice before we figured out how to get where we wanted to go, but, we did. Montepulciano is a bit bigger than Montalcino, and they have a few more churches and other views and sights, but, overall, each town is beautiful in its own right. We picked up some things in Montepulciano (some pici and a boar sauce, and some fresh pecorino di Pienza) and headed back to our HQ to employ the amenity of the tiny kitchen.

Dinner was a success, and we completed the evening by finishing our bottle of wine on the veranda, watching the sun set over the swimming pool and the amber hillsides outside our door.


Anonymous said...

Lovely! Bella! Sounds like you guys are having (had) a grand time so far. I can still picture the Val D'orcia and hill towns so well. Oh, FYI - Trader Joe's sells a Brunello at a pretty decent price. It's not the best of them, but it's gooood. Though, personally, I think the cheap Montepulciano rocks. Can't wait to hear more about your journey!

ATR said...

Thanks for the tip! The next time we get to a TJ's (i.e, the next time we go to St. Louis or Minneaplois), we'll check out the wine selection.

It was a wonderful trip. Glad you're enjoying the recap.

La Fashionista said...






I shouldn't be sitting here commenting because there is crazy packing and prep to be done. But how can I resist? Especially since there also will be






I imagine you greatly enjoying the cloves smell in the church - a la that certain Reda voice of enjoyment you use when you make your pumpkin pie: "Mmm, cloves."

How wonderful that you experienced a powerful moment of peace there.

I'm so glad those obnoxio tourists were corrected shamefully. This was one of the things that most irritated me (up there with the giganto mosquitoes fiasco) when we were in Italy.

I'll look forward to catching up on subsequent installments upon our return from our vacay.

Peace, my brotha.