I – Il Principio
Lo duca e io per quel cammino ascoso intrammo a ritornar nel chiaro mondo; e sanza cura aver d'alcun riposo,
salimmo su`, el primo e io secondo, tanto ch'i' vidi de le cose belle che porta 'l ciel, per un pertugio tondo.
E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle.
(Dante Alighieri, Inferno XXXIV)
II – Il Caffè Corretto
The trains had delayed our journey, and a taxi took us on the final, nocturnal leg of the voyage that had borne us along besides avian portholes above clouds, then through arborous Rome, and finally northwards. As the taxi rolled upwards, impregnability and height threw the occupants of the car rearwards – all five of us. But how unlike a Sisyphean barrel did we make it to the top and hurtle through those softly bending, gauntleted streets; streets in full stony armour against time.
There is a density to the air this night, and a warmth unexpected of April.
The stop is inconspicuous: somewhere mid-way along one of these streets that splay like scimitars along the breadth of the town. As if under curfew we move the few inches from car to interior, to a bar that seemed the necessary product of its casing; a hollow spontaneously found within the stone building; an afterthought of a womb.
Outside, Montepulciano is silent; it suffers a kind of tranquil duvet to cover it. Inside, luminous permeations seep indoors from lanterned streets. The town is like some great sleeping beast, perhaps large, perhaps small; only the morning and its rosy-fingered horizon can tell. In the meantime, a terracotta interior, a sense of soothed fragility, an accepted ignorance, and that sapore forte of grappa.
III – I Fagioli
The car - the four of us – transferred two paper bags containing a selection of paste to the back seat. An American mother and an Italian baby occupied the front; a British and Dutch assortment, the rear. South-facing, and huddled onto a steep slope with tenacity, a small plot of land grafted itself onto the Tuscan soil, and on this near vertical, roots underground were mirrored by vines shooting East across the land, towards dawn. The three adults, teeth of a comb, with precision and a ponderous gravity, teased out the knots of the plants and birthed the fagioli. The three harvesters barely knew each other, but October is a month of welcome and conversation: amity and delectable patience thrive in her reign.
The harvest had arrived without pomp or ceremony, and two walkers had been picked up and conveyed to a morning’s labour with the silent passing of two paper bags, and the promise of a pranzo abbondante afterwards.
IV – At Trattoria Alberto: Act One
A graphite-wall sparkled back at the wined faces. Each side gazed at the other through the interposing window. Two stages and a kind of social osmosis between them.
Dinner was reaching its close, but the fresh-dead corpses of wine bottles still remained, strewn upright across the table. It was the moment when limoncello might traditionally steal the limelight. The gastronomic feast of Act One had ended, but in that moment the solar limoncello took over the Apollonian departure, and in a Bacchic half-light ushered in the Second Act.
V – At Trattoria Alberto: Act Two
The final night pulled to a stop, and there we were frozen in the large window that gave entry into the trattoria. Course after course interrupted our painted silence. The five of us, in that same cavern the car had left us a week earlier, toasted, cajoled and set the terms of future reminiscences over dinner. From outside, we were a picture of happy dejection and of fulfilled sorrow.
But over the next hour, by the luck and intimacy found only in places like Montepulciano, like a monochrome portrait, passing friends and school colleagues observed us and joined us. One at a time they passed; they observed; a chair was pulled up; a glass of wine poured; and with each addition, a fleck of vibrant colour impressed itself onto our memories.
VI – …E lucevan le stelle
The young man approached our table with eager welcome. Who was he? Probably one of the new, bright generation. At the head of a cultural revolution that busied itself with the modernisation of the old. A reimagined vintage.
And here, on this crop of rock; here, overlooking la strada bianca and a distant Montefollonico; here, in this glassy chamber; here, in this jazz-flung bar; and there, backgrounded by a wall of wines, stacked in resplendent individuality, he stood, a Sternean spine attentively forwards, holding a romantic smile of bienvenuto on his dark, sharp face, singing, ‘Rosso o biano?’
VII – La Mattina
In the morning, with the stars still bright in the sky, two intent Englishmen mount and demount Montepulciano to a square, Greek Church – la chiesa di San Biagio. A great dog, guarding the morning as its own, does not suffer such boys. These boys, two feline shapes in a matin quarter-light re-course their four legs, adventuring once more. Cave canem, no one says. And again, on second attempt, the canine local represents itself. Dissuaded but not dismayed, and third time lucky, rosy-fingered dawn met the much-enduring friends. And now, angling once more from Hellenistic East, the town still slumbering, still put out its watchman against this foreign ascent.
VIII – "Hai capito?" - Una Conversazione Imbarazzante Con Una Famiglia Ospitante
J: “Buongiorno Anna”
A: “Ciao Jacob, hai dormito bene?”
J: “Si, si, molto bene, grazie.”
A: “E hai fame?”
J: "Si! In Inglaterra, la prima colazione è… che… preferisco."
A: “Ah, la colazione è il tuo pasto preferito della giornata, si?”
J: “Si, esatto, è la piu importante!”
Caffè, latte, pane – simplemente perfecto, ho pensato.
A: “Bevi il tuo caffè, ah, e... aspetta... aspetta... leggi questo.”
<<Comincia a scuola la rivoluzione delle abitudini alimentari: servire nelle mense la verdura come <<antipasto>> per favorirne il consumo tra gli alunni, che tendono a saziarsi con la pasta per poi lasciare nel piatto secondo e contorno...>>
A: “Hai capito?”
J: “Si, è molto... interessante...”
A: ‘E che pensi?’
IX – Reflections
In the hours that strode on after the week I spent in Montepulciano, April 2013, I wrote these words to a future self:
“What reflections are to be entertained after such a week? After experiencing this quality of food, learning, conversation and company, how can one return to the quotidian, to that uneducated routine which feels so newly absurd and trivial? I’ve heard many words of wisdom over the past week, but one conversation I will particularly value concerned the importance of finding the speciality and happiness in every action. Each deed we must entertain not execute. We must look forward to the routine and find the simple pleasures there, whilst still searching for the doors and windows which open onto different cultures, languages and places.
In conversation with an esteemed friend and teacher, I was once told that one of the greatest skills, which takes a lifetime to acquire and many more to fulfil, is to know when and how hard to push these doors. For my own part, these trips and opportunities are ineffably invaluable, not necessarily in the pursuit of opening doors to somewhere else, but in showing me the doors to knock on and push in later life. Perhaps what I’ve come to realise about myself is that, as a British citizen, I so often find myself afraid of applying pressure to these doors, reluctant to face denial, incomprehension or loss of composure. If in any way the Italian culture can help, it is in its ability to diminish this quintessentially English disposition, and thus to render possible so much more.”
X – Una vista da Montefollonico
What great surmounting ridge do we behold,
that runs a spinal course on Nature’s back?
His whom we read, Poliziano’s home,
my guide explained and smiled upon this scene.
Below, across the vale, in puppetry
The clouds did dance upon this fruitful land,
And from the valley shone back in bright array
The verdent hues of man’s well-tilled display.
And, there! – upright, a line of cypress trees
does hug the curve of that white-chastened path
That upwards seeks a gateway to the sky
In Montepulciano’s stony streets.
All this and more, onlooking, did I retain:
This naked female back, twelve centuries lain.