Portraits from Tuscany: Discovering the Region Through its People

Can you really get to know a place without connecting to its people? In the last few years, I’ve noticed that I still had a few important lessons to learn about the true value of travel. Sure, it’s fun to see the famous landmarks and visit the established highlights. However, years after a trip, I always notice that the things I tend to remember aren’t iconic buildings. Rather, it’s the conversations with the friendly strangers I run into. After all, people are what makes a place come to life.

Earlier this year, I was given the opportunity to visit Tuscany for the very first time. The typical associations came to mind: historic architecture, cypress trees, and green rolling hills. Clearly, I had a picture in mind, but after a few days of exploring the region, my idea of Tuscany was already forever changed. Many different faces and voices fill my newly-made memories, and I want to share those encounters with you too. With these portraits from Tuscany, allow me to tell you how I discovered the region through its people.

Portraits from Tuscany

Bebe poses with his mural in Lajatico

Bebe

We started our journey in a quiet little town called Lajatico. The town isn’t a very popular tourist destination, but it is known for one thing in particular: Lajatico is Andrea Bocelli’s beloved hometown. Two older gentleman on the tiny town square were watching us as we stepped out of our car. We must have been quite the sight: a bunch of journalists with bulky cameras descending on their peaceful town. As we started walking around, an elderly man approached us with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes.

An elderly man approached us with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. He took my arm, walked me to a house down the road, and proudly showed me a garage door.

I couldn’t understand a word he was saying (mainly because I don’t speak any Italian), but it was more than clear that he had something to show me. He took my arm, walked me to a house down the road, and proudly showed me a garage door. I could hardly believe my eyes, was I seeing double? As it turns out out, this guy has his very own mural! If that isn’t #lifegoals, I don’t know what is. His nickname was Bebe, and I’m pretty certain I’ll never forget his smile.

Alabaster sculptors in Volterra

Alabaster studio in Volterra

Roberto and Giorgio

Our next stop in Tuscany was the lovely Volterra, a charming hilltop town with centuries of Etruscan, Roman and medieval history. Fascinatingly, there is more to Volterra’s geographic location than just panoramic vistas of the Tuscan countryside. The local alabaster stone, almost transparant white in colour, has been used for thousands of years to create sacred objects and artworks. Even the ancient Etruscans sourced the stone to create funeral urns. Unfortunately, the alabaster sculpting craft was almost completely forgotten in the Middle Ages.

The alabaster sculpting craft was almost completely forgotten in the Middle Ages, but ‘almost’ is the key word.

Yet, ‘almost’ is the key word in that sentence. Today, alabaster sculpting survives as an artisan craft. Giorgio Finazzo and Roberto Chiti are specialised master sculptors in Volterra, still working in their Alab’arte atelier. It was an honour to visit their studio and watch them transform slabs of stone into timeless masterpieces. Everything was covered in a layer of white dust, and it almost felt like stepping into an otherworldly space. Right before our eyes, Roberto created an elegant, translucent little dish within no more than 15 minutes.

Reka shows a giant piece of pasta

Reka

When in Italy, one has to eat pasta. A lot of really good pasta. I think we can all agree on that one, right? One evening in Volterra, we sat down at a table at Ristorante da Beppino. The ‘farm-to-table’ restaurant sources its products locally, and much of the meat even comes from their own animals. After enjoying a delicious dinner (that was definitely more than three courses), the clock was ticking close to midnight. We were ready to head back to our hotel, but the staff told us we just had to see their little pasta factory (pastificio). Little did we know that we were going to attend an impromptu pasta lesson in the middle of the night (only in Italy)!

Inside the pastificio, Reka Sumegh (@foodieintuscany) was waiting for us. She enthusiastically started explaining how they make their own pasta, gnocchi, and ravioli in their ‘labaratory’, where they also do regular cooking classes. She seemed to be a real expert, telling us the ins and outs about all types of pasta, including the biggest one they had: caccavella (pictured).

Imagine my surprise when she told us that she had only been part of the team for one measly year! Reka recently moved from Budapest to Tuscany and transformed her former career as a lawyer into a culinary queen. Moving certainly seems to have been the right decision for Reka! Pasta may just be a dish in the rest of the world, but in Italy, it’s a culture.

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Enzo Scuderi in his studio, a former church in rural Tuscany

Enzo shows his art works, painted roof tiles

Enzo

After a few days in Volterra, we headed south. We had been driving in the countryside for a few hours, across the hilly landscape, when we suddenly stopped next a tiny church near Pomarance. In full honesty, I would have almost described it as the middle of nowhere. We walked up to the little church and an older man with yellow frames and a blue painter’s coat welcomed us with a smile. We had arrived at Enzo Scuderi‘s home and atelier.

You see, there was a good reason for this rural location. About 25 years ago, in 1993, Enzo decided to turn his life around. He had been working as a telephone designer in Milan for quite some time when he went through a breakup. Enzo decided he needed to reinvent himself, and there was no better time to fully dedicate his life to his art. He found an abandoned church in the Tuscan countryside and decided to convert it into his personal studio.

About 25 years ago, Enzo Scuderi left everything behind. He was a telephone designer in Milan, but realised he wanted a different life.

Flowers are Born from Manure

It took Enzo a few years to find his own mode of expression, but when he did, he started creating masterpieces. Unlike most painters, Enzo’s canvas isn’t a typical white piece of cloth. Instead, he prefers to start his process with traditional roof tiles. As the patterns and growths on the tiles inspired his compositions, Enzo’s process turned into conversations between himself and his tiles. As a roof tile artist, he explained, he even works with bird poop. That has helped him understand that “flowers are born from manure”, quoting a lyric by Fabrizio de André.

Today, Enzo is a respected artist. No, he hasn’t made millions by becoming an independent artist, but it has taught him to stop rushing. Allow things to grow slowly, at their own pace, and things will work themselves out. “Discover what feels right to find your own pace”, he explained, “then you can choose your own path and appreciate the value of an everyday rhythm”.

Mary and Nonna Anna preparing pasta and biscotti

Nonna Anna kneads the pasta dough

Mary and Nonna Anna

Another stop near Pomarance was only a few kilometers away from Enzo’s atelier. It was close to lunch time, and we were expected at Ristorante Ciriso for our pasta workshop. We ran through the rain and found refuge inside the kitchen, where chefs Mary Novelli and her mother Nonna Anna kindly welcomed us. There was no time to lose, so we got right down to business: making the pasta. Nonna Anna showed us how she makes the pasta from scratch. No fuss, just honest ingredients and a experienced pair of hands to knead the dough to perfection.

Recipes alla Nonna Anna

Nonna Anna divided the dough into flattened out portions and skillfully cut the dough into flat pieces of pappardelle pasta noodles. Not for long, though: after going through Nonna Anna’s recipe, this pasta turned into Nannardelle alla Nonna Anna. The freshly-made pasta wasn’t quite ready to be cooked for our lunch, but there was no reason to worry: the mother-daughter duo had already prepared plenty of dishes for us to try.

The pasta was covered in Nonna Anna’s signature sauce: fresh pieces of Tuscan sausage, Pachino tomatoes, and fried onions. We unanimously decided it was probably the best pasta dish we had ever tasted.

Our first pasta dish was named Chitarrina alla Nonna Anna, a thinner type of pasta noodles that look like guitar strings. The pasta was covered in Nonna Anna’s signature sauce: fresh pieces of Tuscan sausage, Pachino tomatoes, and fried onions. You have to believe me when I say this is not an exaggeration, but we unanimously decided it was probably the best pasta dish we had ever tasted.

Allesandro and Carlo Staccioli show their wares

Alessandro and Carlo

As we drove further and further away from Pomarance, we were getting closer to the Tuscan coast. We soon arrived in Monteverdi Marittimo, a small hilltop town that looks out over rivers, woods, and vineyards. But the views weren’t our only reason for driving up the hills. We were there to visit the deli store Mucci & Staccioli, which can trace its origins all the way back to 1850. From the outside, the store looks like any normal deli you would find in Italian villages. As soon as we entered the store, however, it became clear this wasn’t a regular deli.

Voices like Opera Singers

Brothers Alessandro and Carlo Staccioli were hard at work, helping customers, moving as fast as a whirlwind, and recommending their wares with voices as loud as trained opera singers. Alessandro was in charge of the cheese and he took us to a tiny basement. It was filled with cheese, as well as a stuffed sheep with a bell around its neck. He gave us one sample after another, and I couldn’t even chew fast enough to keep up with all the different cheeses. Before I knew it, we were led to the meat section, and now Carlo was showing us cuts and sausages while handing out samples like there was no tomorrow.

Rumor has it that once they take off their workwear, they have really calm and quiet personalities.

While my hands were covered in cheese and meat grease, I quickly tried to take some shots of these animated two brothers. It was hard to get a focused shot, since they were moving all over the place. It almost felt like I was attending some kind of theater play, that’s how much character they both had. Funnily enough, rumor has it that once they take off their workwear, they have really calm and quiet personalities.

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Flavio shows a piece of ancient pottery while smiling

Flavio

The most southern destination on our Tuscany itinerary was Populonia: an ancient city that flourished during the Etruscan and Roman eras. We cycled along the beaches of the Gulf of Baratti and reached the archaeological park, where museum guide Flavio Bacci was waiting for us. He first took us to the old acropolis, the central area of what used to be a regional hub with a population of 20 000 citizens and slaves in Roman times. For the time period, Populonia was a major city.

Flavio told us that, apart from his job as a museum guide, he is also a local archaeologist that actually works on-site. He explained that the amount of excavation work that still needs to be done is enormous. It will probably take another 300 years until they’ve found everything that lies hidden in the Populonian soil. Everywhere we walked, there were still little pieces of vases, roof tiles, mosaic floors, and even human bones. All of those remains are over 2500 years old, just laying around.

It will probably take another 300 years until they’ve found everything that lies hidden in the Populonian soil. Everywhere we walked, there were still little pieces of vases, roof tiles, mosaic floors, and even human bones. Just laying around.

The City of the Dead

Next, Flavio pointed the way to the ancient necropolis, the ‘city of the dead’ where the Etruscans and Romans buried their loved ones. We had to crouch to reach the chambers of some of the bigger burial mounds. Entire families were put to rest in these ancient structures. The atmosphere was still and quiet, and it felt almost unbelievable to stand where people must have said their goodbyes thousands of years ago.

Soon, it was also time for me to say goodbye to Tuscany. If I had to describe one feeling as I was packing my bag, it was the realization that there was so much left to discover. After only a few days, I had absorbed enough inspiration to write three weeks worth of articles. I was only able to talk to these people for a little while. Yet, I felt like I had already learned so much more from hearing them talk about their everyday lives. In the end, that’s always the most fascinating part to me: seeing what kind of paths people choose to take in life.

This article is based on a press trip that was organised by IDEM Servizitalia and Toscana Promozione.

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