“There is no room at the Inn.” We walked endlessly, with three kids in tow, through winding cobbled streets as the wind blew past thousands of Italian tourists visiting Cortona for All Saints’ weekend. The sun was setting and we had no place to hang our hats. It was at that moment, the magic of this Tuscan town started to reveal itself.
A kind gentleman from Connecticut heard us asking a café owner if she knew of any rooms. He interrupted his evening to walk us to a hotel that was a bit off the beaten path. When we arrived, they were completely booked but the bellman there walked us down the hill to Villa Marsili. When we walked through the door, we knew we had found our resting place.
The hotel had one room available that was not quite right for our family. While they rearranged furniture and added beds to our room, they made the kids a snack and brought the adults espresso. In the 24 hours that followed, the people who worked at the hotel treated us like family, played with the kids, hung their artwork up behind the front desk and marveled at their paper airplane skills.
The hotel manager arranged for us to see an apartment that belonged to one of the owners of the hotel. The apartment was the perfect place for us to spend the fall, while we decided where to journey next. As the days passed, the landlords became friends and as the weeks rolled on, became more like family.
The night we spent with our new friends them at their Tuscan home was the highlight of our time in Cortona. As we drove through the snow flurries the sun was setting. The hills were draped in a coral light and the regal cyprus trees that lined their drive bowed to us in the welcoming wind. We were invited over for antipasti. It was the most indulgent, educational few hours of appetizers I have ever experienced.
- Although I have tried bruschetta hundreds of times, the only real bruschetta I have ever eaten was cooked over our hosts fire in Tuscany. After the bread was roasted, it was adorned with verdant green olive oil that had just been pressed using olives from their own orchard. Our host then rubbed it with a purple, sweet garlic that balanced the crunch of the fire roasted bread with ambrosial precision.
- The long-handled chestnut pan then made its appearance as our host sliced the chestnuts to prevent them from exploding over the fire. He even demonstrated how they explode if you don’t split them, much to the boys delight!
- We sipped Brunello di Montalcino wine, made exclusively from Sangiovese grapes grown on the slopes around Montalcino – a classic Tuscan hilltop village near Siena. If you have never tasted fire roasted chestnuts with a sip of rich red wine, it tastes like the perfect autumn evening.
- We were then treated with Torta al Testo which is eaten throughout Umbria and its name comes from: Torta, meaning bread or pizza and Testo, the heavy disc on which the bread is cooked. In ancient times the testo was made from clay and placed over coals in the fireplace. After the bread was cooked, it was split and filled with buttery, peppery prosciutto. It tasted fresh and new, and traditionally ancient and warm, all in one bite.
- After the kids devoured the Tuscan pizza made from scratch, we experienced Torta della Nonna or “Grandmother’s cake”. It is a traditional Tuscan dessert, though everyone’s Nonna makes it slightly differently. The torta had a combination of a delicate pastry crust with a silky cream filling. It had an earthy vanilla flavor and was capped with pine nuts, another regional staple.
Because we had the luxury of staying in Cortona for a month, we were given the opportunity to understand how and why the people of Tuscany are so connected to their land, their food, and most importantly, to each other.
It is something we felt the first night we arrived, and something we were beginning to understand by the time we left. We hope to forever give ourselves more time to understand. It adds a richness to experiences that we rarely allowed in our busy “before” lives.