March 4th, 2006

Florence, Part 4

Saturday brought us a beautiful sunny morning and we were out and about early. We went for a walk around the relatively quiet streets and stopped in the middle of the Ponte Vecchio to soak up the sunshine and admire the river. Here there is a bust of Benvenuto Cellini, the great sculptor and goldsmith, protected by a wrought metal fence. The fence is bristling with dozens of padlocks, the result of a romantic tradition whereby lovers will attach a padlock then throw the key into the Arno.

Around 8:30am we met up with our guide for the day and our itsy bitsy tour group which consisted of me and V., two female nurses from the Canadian military, and Miss L. from Singapore. Miss L. had slept late and hadn’t yet arrived so the five of us went to a cafe bar to wait for her. The guide did explain why we ought to wait for the tardy Miss L. although I would have been perfectly happy to leave her behind. She didn’t hold us up for too long however, and we were soon on a bus to the ancient town of Fiesole to begin our exploration of Tuscany.

Apart from the bus ride up to Fiesole we spent the day on foot, and we began by learning about the Etruscans, the ancient inhabitants of the country, and their settlement in Fiesole long before the arrival of the Romans and the establishment of the Roman colony Florentia (now Florence) in 59 B.C.

Our walk took us way into the hills of Tuscany, amongst the olive groves, with magnificent views of Florence down below in the distance, and through the beautiful woods of Monte Ceceri. This is a great forest, dominated by cypress, with rocks and cliffs and walking trails. Michelangelo spent time in these hills, and it is generally believed that Leonardo tried out his flying machine here.

Coming down out of the forest but still in the hills, we walked along some back roads to the Fattoria di Maiano (Maiano Farm) and more great views. On the way we passed olive trees right by the road that were hundreds of years old and still producing, planted on tiers cut into the slopes like the ones we had seen while hiking along the Cinque Terre. The Maiano Farm is around 330 hectares with a third of its land area devoted to growing completely organic olives. There are 18,000 trees producing the olives which are picked by hand in November and December and then pressed on the farm a few hours after being harvested to make high quality extra virgin olive oil.

We left our backpacks at the farm’s shop and, accompanied by a black and white dog from the farm, walked to the Villa di Maiano (owner’s residence). The diminutive Miss L. held us up again while she dithered about whether or not to take her gloves or some such nonsense, and I’m afraid I had a little growl at her. We went through the gates of the old villa and the black and white dog started a fight with a yellow dog, then a peasant came and belted the yellow dog before dragging it off somewhere. We had the place to ourselves and went on an interesting tour of the house and wandered around the garden, from which we had good views of Florence a few kilometres distant.

Back at the restaurant behind the shop, which is basically an upmarket delicatessen showcasing the farm’s products such as olive oil, wine, and meat (plus other foods like fruit, vegetables, and honey), we sat down to a delicious lunch that included meats, oils, breads, and olives. It was washed down with the local Chianti, and our guide took us through a proper wine-tasting lesson.

(More later…)