A Farewell to Christmas 2016

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Tuscans don’t seem to be keen on removing the Christmas decorations. Mid January 2017, the cheerful Christmas lights are still all around…

 

Anneliese Rabl x

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Discovering Tuscany:  The Abbey of San Galgano

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Today’s frantic lifestyle only rarely gives us free time; that is, a few hours or even an entire day without work, programs, or projects to do.  In effect, these occasions are so rare that, when we have them, we often do not know how to use them.  We like to see some nice places, but we do not want to drive too many kilometers.  And then we must keep an eye on the clock because our house pets do now like to be alone for too long.  And visiting a new region, instead of going back to places we have already seen, is an important point too.

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One fine day in this past January, none of this had value for us.  On the contrary, the day passed smoothly and the place was easily found:  the abbey of San Galgano in the town of Chiusdino, in the province of Siena.  We had heard about the majesty and sacredness of the ruins, and of the beauty of the area.  The weather was not great, but in the winter one must not expect a gentle climate and mild temperatures.

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We were not the only ones to have the idea of visiting this part of Tuscany; in fact, there were lines of cars parking along the road (where no parking was allowed), including our own, but close to the monastery there was also a parking lot for visitors.

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The first impression was quite unexpected:  a skeleton of rock, enormous, which rises from nowhere among fields and meadows and is so impressive that it commands respect and profound admiration.   To begin with, we wanted to understand what there was to know about the abbey.  The works were commissioned by the order of Cistercian monks, who had settled in the region at the end of the twelfth century.  Twenty years later construction began on the monastery, which continued for 50 years and ended with its consecration by the Bishop of Volterra in 1268.

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History tells us that one hundred years of splendor followed, and then came the slow and inevitable decline.  The lead roof was sold in 1550, probably together with works of art and precious treasures; many of the stones were either stolen or moved to different places.  There were some modest attempts to revive the convent, but finally in 1789 it was deconsecrated and left definitively in ruins.

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By now we were ready to visit the building, and so was our camera.  As soon as we entered, we realized that the monastery really was just as the previous visitors had described it:  impressive, stupendous, truly extraordinary.  It was not difficult to imagine the prodigious effect that must have caused the religious ceremonies inside the structure.  All at once, it seemed possible for us to feel, almost to touch, the mystery and the profound spirituality of these walls, the calmness of the soul and the peace inside the hearts of the monks who had chosen to live here.

The visitors had to satisfy themselves with taking photos and selfies in front of the ruins; taking photos without anybody around was a true feat.  Still, the people have been additionally fundamental to make others understand, by seeing their photos, how impressive the building is.

At a certain point, we found ourselves near a small group of foreigners who were talking quietly about the place as if it were one of the few spots in the world where it is possible to perceive cosmic forces which can bring out deep memories and ancient instincts, hidden away in humanity’s history.

It was not easy to leave such a charming place, but much enchantment and amazement (and hundreds of photos) we decided to continue on towards a small church not far from the abbey.  To tell the truth, we were not particularly convinced; but, since a passerby told us that it was a walk of only five or ten minutes, it seemed right to continue there.

The church turned out to be the Eremo (“Hermitage”) di Montesiepi, built in 1185 immediately after the death of San Salgano, above the small hut where the saint had lived the final months of his life.  Even the abbey of San Galgano was built in honor of the saint of whom, to be honest, we know little; and of the little that has been passed down to us, we do not know what is history and what is instead pure fantasy.

Inside the chapel there is a huge stone into which the knight Galgano Guidotti stuck a sword, as a sign that from then on his worldly life was to be transformed into that of a hermit.  A similarity to the story of Arthur and the sword in the stone?  Non quite:  one sword was pulled from the stone, while one has remained in the stone.

The time had come to return home; the dog and cat were surely waiting.  The day had turned out to be truly curious and interesting.  Seeing that Tuscany is also a land of abbeys, convents, and monasteries that are important enough to be discovered, it is very probable that our next (albeit hypothetical) days off will turn out to be fully occupied.

Anneliese Rabl (translation John McAuliffe) x

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In the olive groves of Tuscany

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In Tuscany everything seems to be beautiful.  We Northerners are constantly amazed by the mild climate; rarely is it necessary to turn on the heat before November, and usually by March the temperature allows one to warm in the sun’s rays instead of with GPL, methane, or wood.

It is pleasing to see perfumed citrus, colored orange and yellow and light red, for our palate unusual but exquisite, and also the pale roses, even though not as fragrant as they were during the flowering season.  Here and there a butterfly flutters and sometimes one can see a bumblebee, stiffened in flight through the cold air, but still searching from plant to plant for some nectar to take home.

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What intrigued us almost 10 years ago, when we first came to Tuscany in October, was the soft covering of endless meters of ground with fine nets, often beige colored but sometimes also orange, green, and black.  Assuming that they were for harvesting olives, since they were placed in olive groves under and around the trees, we still could not understand the layout system.  There was a whole world to discover:  sometimes there seemed to be the work of an architect, although the arrangement of the nets seemed to be quite approximate.  Sometimes one could even see nets attached with the help of bamboo sticks, so that the nets did not touch the ground.

We also have olive trees, so sooner or later we would certainly have taken into consideration to harvest the olives for our own oil.  Therefore it seemed logical for us to try to explain the mystery of how the nets were arranged.

In general, as we were told, the nets are placed in order to minimize olive losses.  In fact, in October the olives start to be ripe and even a small wind is enough to make them fall into the net; otherwise they fall on the ground and are lost.  The more carefully the nets are placed, the more likely it is that the owner of the olive grove sells his oil or uses it for a large family and consequently needs it as a basic material for Tuscan excellence.  Each olive counts!  Certainly, sometimes it is simply a result of an owner who is careful and scrupulous.  This category often cuts the grass at least two or three times per year:  in spring, in early summer, and again before the harvest, an impressive feat considering that the olive groves often exceed four or five hectares in size; four or five football fields, in other words……

Then we move to the “Sunday collectors”, which is to say those people who own an olive grove but are not so attached to it.  Those, in short, who put the nets down a bit carelessly, without particular attention to whether or not a few olives are lost.  The grass is usually cut only once.

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Finally there is the category of those who have opted for Bio oil, which means among other things that no herbicides or chemical fertilizer are used and that none of the olives have touched the ground.  For us it is always an enigma how many times the others cut their grass; to us, their grass seems to be a smooth carpet on which weeds dare not show themselves.

This year we decided to jump into this adventure and see if we could bring home our very own extra virgin olive oil.  It is true that we did not mow the grass three times; it is true that we did not lay the nets very artfully but as best we could, seeing as how our olive grove is not level but quite sloped; and we have not used chemical fertilizer or herbicides.

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Our olives did not touch the ground for more than half an hour because, tree after tree, we separated the olives from the leaves and loaded them into containers which, the very same day (not in two or three days as many do), we transported to the olive mill.

The oil seems fantastic to us (all owners say this about their own oil!).  Those who are curious about this world and its products can contact us on:  info@farfalladitoscana.it.

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Anneliese Rabl (translation John McAuliffe) x

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