The Lighter Side of Italy: Part II, Villa di Piazzano and the Walled Towns – Tuscany, Italy, Europe
Getting out of Arezzo was challenging. We drove through the countryside; the views of the valley were increasingly beautiful. We reached Corys, above Cortona, as it began to rain. We bought gelato and watched card players as the storm roared outside. There were two tables, six men at each. One man sat alone at a third table with a deck in front of him. Was he a stranger, an outcast, a lone wolf? A woman entered and bought him a drink, something like a Shirley Temple. She chatted with the owner while the thunder roared and the rain fell in sheets. The card players slapped their cards on the table, shouting. We were the only Americans. No one spoke English. We felt welcomed and ignored – like a scene from a Fellini movie.
When the rain let up, we searched for Pergo, a tiny hamlet. We found out it was "over there" – a notch in the hills. I followed my instincts until Bettie saw a sign for Villa di Piazzano. Before long, we drove down a long cypress-lined lane and entered the villa's gate. We had arrived; I was an "experienced" Tuscan driver.
A woman greeted us saying we were expected. Our room was ready. She showed us the reading room, the lounge/bar and the breakfast room. We reached our room, La Colombaia, by elevator and took in the spacious bathroom, narrow square stairs to our sitting room – a bright airy room with a large picture window view of the Tuscan hills. Bettie wasn't convinced we should stay: the sleeping room was gloomy, the villa was half a mile from its nearest neighbor, and it was old enough to be haunted by five centuries of ghosts.
The Villa originated in 1464 as the hunting manor for a cardinal. Later it became a convent, then a tobacco and vine growing estate. The first floor included the kitchen, reception hall, two common rooms and the dining room. Two curving staircases led to the upper floors; our sitting room was the only room on the fourth floor. There was a formal garden at the front and a spacious terrace beyond the dining room. Down the stairs from the terrace was a sparking swimming pool. To the side and back of the villa, the Tuscan hills rose green and inviting. We dined on the partially covered terrace with a grand view of the valley. I decided I could spend the rest of my days here, at least until my credit ran out.
For our day trip, we drove across the valley to Montepulciano and were awed as we stepped through the lower gate into our first walled Tuscan hill town; the view of the Valley of Chiana from the balcony of Caffè Poliziano was glorious. For dinner, we ate in Cortona, at the Pane e Vino. By the time we finished, the staff was setting the tables for the next day's lunch.
Our second breakfast at the villa was served on the terrace surrounded by a magnificent Tuscan morning. When we arrived, two mature American women were enjoying a cup of coffee. When a third lady joined them, the conversation became more animated. Shortly thereafter, a fourth woman came. She was wearing dark glasses, a panama hat, and a full length white terrycloth robe. "Anyone for the pool?" she said as she approached. A fifth woman then arrived. We found out they were traveling separately, spending a few days together at the villa. They talked of their exploits the night before, and agreed that it didn't matter where they went as long it involved alcohol. After a few somewhat negative comments about Italian cooking, one woman remarked, "I can handle the alcohol, it's the lard that's killing me." About that time a British couple arrived with their two small children. It was a very entertaining start to the day.
Mid-morning the following day, I went into Cortona, parked on a road below the town. I walked up the hill until I came to a pedestrian path leading into Giardini del Paterre; a cliff side park with a small outdoor cinema, a beautiful fountain and more great views of the valley. The park opened onto Piazza Garibaldi and Via Nazionale, the only level street in the town. I was in heaven. I had 90 minutes to take in as much of Cortona as my legs could endure. By the end, I had climbed up and down the city's 330-meter elevation change, seen all five of the Piazzi, several of the gates and the magnificent views on three sides of the city's ridge line.
I poked around the narrow lower streets above the western gates and followed the city wall up the northeastern gate. After descending to Piazza San Cristoforo, I climbed back across the ridge to enjoy a breathtaking sight of Lago Trasimeno, 17 kilometers away in the valley below. Finally, I descended more or less "straight" down to arrive back at Piazza della Repubblica – a perfect short visit.
Bettie and I selected Castiglione di Lago, a walled town atop a limestone promontory on Lago Trasimeno, for our afternoon outing. The city is of Etruscan origins; its fortress built in 1247. The promontory is a little above the valley floor, but water protected this town on three sides. Unlike Montepulciano, the street beyond the city gate led to a level piazza.
After lunch, we walked to the fortress, situated on the highest point of the promontory. It measures about 100 feet by 50 feet. Its walls are at least 30 feet high; its single tower rises another 20 feet. The fortress shows its 750 years of age, but the citizens of Castiglione di Lago were using its open interior as a summer theater.
That evening we dined on the villa's terrace and enjoyed our best dinner since arriving in Italy. Villa di Piazzano and the three walled towns fulfilled all our expectations.