I drive up through a little town just outside Siena in Tuscany, off the highway, finally turning off the roads I've been driving North for over 11 hours. I pass onto the road that will take me to my friend Alain's family home where he grew up, now a beautiful BnB, Tenuta La Santissima, and the greenery envelopes the road, almost reaching down far enough to touch my windscreen.
Something about it reminds me of driving my scooter along the green roads of Ubud in Bali and funnily enough that's the place where Alain and I first met. Housemates in a villa in the rice paddies outside Ubud, he was the first friend I made living there, the person who urged me to rent a scooter and eventually learn to ride it, the person who showed me the best gelati shop in Ubud, conveniently located a short scooter ride from our villa, the person who shared his friends with me and made me go to the local workspace, Hubud, with him.
We stayed in touch since we went our seperate ways in Bali and now we were both miraculously going to be in the same country at the same time, his home country. 'Come visit!', he said, so I made plans to do it and there I found myself, in his little town outside Siena in early August, the height of summer in Italy.
I arrive late for dinner, greet Alain's mother, Marie-Thérèse, in French thankfully because my Italian isn't good and she grew up in France. I sit down to a meal they've casually thrown together to be eaten sitting on stools around the kitchen bench. It's a meal that's casually one of the best of my life – warm-out-of-the-oven mushroom quiche, green bean and fresh mint salad dripping in local olive oil, a sformata savoury zucchini tart and the best tasting tomatoes I've ever eaten, so good in fact that we take one each and carve and season them on our plates as you would a steak, savouring each piece slowly.
All the vegetables from this meal and every meal that follows come from the family's vegetable patch behind the house, tended to by a gardener who comes to visit every morning.
Marie-Thérèse in the garden with her tomatoes
The next few days continue with a similar level of culinary delight, with me throwing my dietary restrictions out the window in favour of eating everything and anything put in front of me. One morning I come down to the kitchen to find a still-warm fluffy pine nut cake with a layer of yellow Italian crèma running through it for breakfast with fresh peaches and yoghurt. Another day we're given a packed lunch to take on our beach trip, the softest, tastiest layer of omelette stuffed inside freshly baked focaccia, two sandwiches each. The next day we spend the morning roasting vegetables on an open fire we make in the garden. They then peel the skins off the charred vegetables, chop them finely, pass them through a sieve and mix them all together in a smoky ratatouille-like dish I can't get enough of.
This kind of care and attention for the food we're eating isn't something I'm really used to so I think I appreciate and admire it all the more, and not just because I'm the one on the receiving end of all this good, good food they're creating. This food worship feels very much like a connection to the earth and the present moment to me, an appreciation of the small, simple pleasures and nourishments so easily available to us all.
We sit down for family lunch on my first full day in the house. Two out of the four adult children live here at Tenuta La Santissima, the family home, managing the property and the guests while Mamma, Marie-Thérèse, is left to do what she does best, cook. Alain tells me that with the exception of himself, because he's usually busy travelling in far away places, the family all eat at home together for at least one meal on most days.
I'm in awe of this togetherness of the family unit and it's something I see more and more of as I travel in Italy and infiltrate my local friends' family lives – family remain close, they're in each others' lives, even as kids become adults and develop their own lives, they make a lot of time for one another, and that time usually revolves around sharing food and mealtimes.
This closeness sometimes escalates to heated discussion around the dining table or in the kitchen, Alain reassures me before lunch on my first full day at the house as the family gather around the kitchen, 'Don't worry they're not fighting, they're just yelling'. We sit down to lunch around the nicely set dining table as Marie-Thérèse brings out a huge pan of hot spaghetti in olive oil with anchovies and breadcrumbs – I've never wanted to eat anchovies before but somehow love this dish and ask for more. I struggle to eat the spaghetti strands elegantly while the family consume theirs with ease and finesse, I guess it takes practise and, well, they've practised.
This is the first of many mealtimes ahead of me in Italy where it's mostly Italian spoken, I understand almost nothing but I don't mind too much. While it can get a little awkward and boring sitting around a table where the discussion is basically a form of gibberish to you, it's kind of peaceful too. Instead of participating actively in what's going on, I sit back and just watch the scene before me.
When I ask Alain what's going on in the discussion he apologises for not translating and suggests kindly, 'just retreat inside your inner world', and I like this idea. I spend a lot of my time wanting to retreat into this inner world so to have a reason to do so and tune out is kind of nice. It strikes me that this is another reason why I'm perfectly suited to living my days in foreign countries, I don't feel the need to always be outwardly conversing anyway.
The beautiful old library at Tenuta La Santissima with some very old books on the shelves.
We drive out to a river that Alain's brother has suggested we visit. I'm surprised to find clear blue-green water in a wild, undisturbed setting. The water's cold as we wade tentatively in, it flows from the mountains much higher up.
Alain has spent the last six month travelling in Peru, Colombia and Ecuador and he tells me stories from his trip. He decides as we're neck deep in the cool water that this is the ideal time to recount his adventures swimming in the jungles of Peru with flesh-eating piranhas and strange pink dolphins. He tells me about the jungle guide who took him crocodile spotting at midnight. He tells me of his days spent hiking in the mountains of Peru and stumbling upon ruins of ancient villages left relatively untouched by tourism or progress. He tells me all this and I can feel the familiar feeling of wanting to explore and be awed by my surroundings arise again in me. While Italy's doing a pretty good job of fulfilling this need in me for adventure for now, it's bubbling up for the near future this feeling, to visit somewhere very foreign and exotic.
Another day we drive west to the beach because it's August and it's summer and Tuscany does have a coastline after all. We don't want to go anywhere too busy so Alain's brother takes us to a quiet spot he knows, Punta Ala, not too far but far enough from the crowded Follonica beaches. We have to walk a while from our car, trudging in the sun over sizzling hot reddy brown boulders to get there, I'm trailing the group quite far behind. We find a spot to wedge the umbrella base between two rocks and spread out, alternating between eating our packed lunch, snorkelling in the clear water with a surprising amount of coral in the depths and laying on the rocks in the shade.
The next day we go for a drive out through the landscape of the Crete Sinesi to see the rolling hills and patchwork-coloured countryside Tuscany is so famous for. Every ten minutes or so Alain slows down or stops the car for me to take a picture of a particularly stunning scene. I can't help but feel disappointed though that the photos can't quite capture certain things about being there - the vastness of the hills rolling on forever, the openness of the sky 360° around you, the feeling of driving up and down along those winding roads like riding a rollercoaster, particularly with an Italian at the wheel. We drive all the way through this route to the other side and I feel as though I just got back from visiting the sky.
We take a tour of Siena town on the last morning of my stay and I stare in wonder at all of the very old buildings, the square, the old banks, the huge statues, the churches and the goings-on of daily life.
So much of both modern life in Siena and its history seems to be inextricably tied to the Siena Palio, a world-famous horse race dating back to the 6th century. Siena is made up of 17 contradas, subdivisions or districts of the town, and these form the teams for Siena's Palio race. The race is held twice per year, in June and August, events that consume the town for the summer and attract a huge number of visitors. Each contrada is randomly allocated a horse in the days before the race, only 10 contradas are then chosen by random draw to have their jockey compete to ride his horse first over the finish line in the central piazza.
One of Alain's friends is part of one of these contradas, the Bruco contrada, and takes us on a tour of their headquarters and museum one morning. We see the costumes, the victors' drapes the contrada has won over the centuries, the church specifically designed with a rather large door to bless the horses pre-event and we stumble upon the ladies sewing costumes by hand for the upcoming race in August.
The Sienese are fierce about their contradas and about the race - think Romeo and Juliet-type situations if you date someone from a rival contrada, parties that go on for weeks after your contrada wins, hysterical crying if your contrada loses, jockeys getting beat up if they mess up the race and even whispers of bribery and corruption.
Before I leave on that last morning in Siena town, Alain tells me about growing up here in Siena as we sit on the ground cross-legged in the town square. He tells me about how it was going to school here, being a kid and then a teenager here. Not coming from a long-line of Siena-born ancestors before him, not being born into a contrada made him feel like an outsider in a town based so much on tradition and history. I immediately think that it kind of works by design for him to have been born here though, the tension of not fitting in was maybe just the thing that propelled him out to see the world as he always dreamed of doing.
He talks too about how he always dreamed of leaving this bubble when he was younger and it strikes me as funny that one person's bubble could be another person's, i.e. mine, fertile ground to explore and discover new and interesting things. I guess that's just the way travel works though.
Stay at Tenuta La Santissima in San Rocco a Pilli outside Siena
Visit Crete Sinesi, Punta Ala Beach, Siena Palio