14 October 2012


When anyone boards the funny little train that trundles along the single track from Grosseto through the Maremma and along to Siena, a conductor marches along the carriages demanding to know where you’re getting off. Checking tickets doesn’t seem to be considered necessary. But it’s most important that he (or she in the case of my trip today) organises people into the correct carriage, because there are stations along the way where the platform is little longer than one carriage in length.

I boarded at Montepescali, after lunch with Tommaso Guicciardini of Residenza Le Versegge. The train was most unexpected, there being a strike today. The train on from Siena to Chiusi was firmly up on the board, sure to depart, amid a long list of services which had been soppressi. I boarded, sat, waited. The driver boarded, sat, revved up (can you rev a train? it sounded like that’s what he was doing). But the conductor never showed. So the train never left. After three hours of watching little white clouds scud over the horrid civic landscaping between Siena station and a tacky shopping mall, another funny little train finally turned up and took me home. It could have been worse. And the journey across-country in these rural services is quaintly lovely.

Autumn always flashes by in a miasma of rushing about the place. I guess we make up for our sedentary summers that way.

Last week it was Ferrara. Ferrara is a beautiful city, elegant and spacious. Even the centro storico – so often a tangle of narrow medieval streets in Italy – is gloriously open and the Addizione eculea is magnificent: a unique example of superb Renaissance town planning. Most incredible of all, there’s a botanical garden which, despite being run by the university, is well kept, well labelled, beautifully landscaped and free to boot. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

We were there for Internazionale’s international journalism festival where L was speaking about the way that social media have changed (or not) journalism. He is a sceptic. But Twitter looks different when you’re a MidEast blogger, rubbing repressive regimes up the wrong way. If you can tweet an SOS as the police hammer down your front door, it can mean the difference between a wave of global protests to make sure you are treated humanely and decades in a fetid black hole. Or worse. So says superblogger Sultan al Qassemi (@SultanAlQassemi) who was on L’s round table discussion. Ones scepticism falters when someone puts it like that.

There were several of those blogging/tweeting types about, plus big names of European and US journalism. And crowds and crowds of people of all ages but mainly young queuing up to crowd into packed venues to follow three days of debate. It was all very heart-warming.

We were in the Maremma, on the other hand, because L is writing about it. I love the Maremma. The moment you crest a certain line of hills – on the route we took, at Sant’Angelo in Colle – the air changes and you start feeling the sea. Technically speaking that may still be more Montalcino than Maremma, but to me it feels like the Tuscan coast is just round the corner. The air feels different, the vegetation looks different. There’s a dash of macchia which grows more and more evident as you move coast-wards.

The Maremma is such a perfect blend of beach and sea – some of it developed and chi-chi, other parts very wild indeed – and nature, including that kind of worked-by-humans nature where you get a real feel of production being important, and not just for frivolity as it can feel in, say, Chianti. The Maremma feels grounded somehow, but welcoming. Plus there’s that great combination of sea food and land food – exquisite fish and incredible mushrooms.

At San Vincenzo we had lunch at Il Bucaniere, a super-mod beach hut designed by Massimiliano Fuksas with its feet in the sand of what was, on Saturday, a very stormy beach. The food was excellent; the atmosphere – the place had opened up just for us – a little surreal. Fulvietto Pierangelini arrived with a huge basket of mushrooms, freshly picked. And proceeded to tell us about the temptation of opening up in London, and the pitfalls of having a restaurant on restaurant on public land. With Fuksas’ help he has taken no chances this time. When his let ends and the spot is up for grabs in 2015, he won’t be completely lost if he loses the concession: the building can be unscrewed and floated away. What a fine documentary that would make: a Fitzcarraldo in reverse. Floating your restaurant to to its next location. You could turn it into a party and wine and dine passengers along the route.

And we stayed in the rather lovely Poggio ai Santi. Of course, when you meet the owners – Francesca and Dominque – and find them to be utterly charming, it’s difficult to tease out the hotel from its proprietors. In this case, though, I don’t think it’s necessary. Tripadvisor can be so misleading in so many ways but for confirming your own hunches, it’s mighty useful.

15 October: We were warned to brace for a cyclone today. If it’s coming, it’s taking its time. Having said that, the olive tree outside the window is being buffetted about now. It has been gloriously mild between short rainy outbursts – hence Fulvietto’s mushrooms. I presume our woods down here are full of them too, though all our past attempts at finding luscious porcini have ended in meagre collections in the bottom of baskets of things which might possibly bring on instant, total liver collapse and are therefore rejected. I wish I knew more. I wonder if our very active Libera Università (free university, formerly Old-People’s University: you can see why they decided to change the name) up in town runs micology courses.

The other thing the heat-plus-damp is bringing up is weeds. Masses and masses of them. There are areas of this garden that are disappearing into jungle.


About Gardens, Food & Umbria

I am a garden designer, working throughout central Italy. I have lived in Italy for over 30 years – for many years in Rome but now in the wilds of Umbria where I have fixed up one wreck of a house, am working on another, and tinker endlessly with two and a half hectares of land, some of which is my garden.
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