In the dewy twilight of an early Roman morning, my family and I arrive at Piazza del Popolo to join our day-trip tour group to the lush, Italian countryside. As we await our full number to arrive, I admire the cotton candy fog that savors its last moments of residence in the square. The exchange of night and day unfolds as the sun's rays pierce through the dusk one by one with laser-bright glory. I catch the eyes of a watching female statue whose blackened stone and softened features reveal that she's weathered many a transition like this. Robed in stone fabric, her expression seems poised and thoughtful as she silently conveys to me the centuries of history she's witnessed from this very spot.
En route, at last, I curl up in an oversized charter bus seat and peer out the window for the two-hour duration. Concrete blurs into greenery and the sky opens up wide as I think back to my first awareness of Tuscany. I was a freshman in college when a new friend introduced me to the film, Under The Tuscan Sun. Even from a small laptop propped up on my lumpy dorm mattress, the vast, expressive beauty of this part of the world swept me up and invited me in. It struck such a chord in my wide-eyed eighteen-year-old heart that I asked to watch it over again on the spot.
Eight years later, I realize I've stepped through the screen into a similar traveling scene as the one that would change the protagonist's life forever. Our eager Italian guide entertains us with national folklore while the emerald hills roll majestically around us like great, rounded waves. We pass by centuries-old vineyards, monasteries, and gorgeous country homes bursting with character. I understand more fully now Diane Lane's character's sudden urge to shout, “Stop the bus!” and spontaneously purchase a fixer-upper villa called Bramasole—to yearn for the sun.
We make our stop in Montepulciano, and a pillowy quietness soothes my city-worn ears. Instead of car exhaust and rogue industrial odors—fresh pine, olive oil, and grapevines harmonize into a purely delightful essence that permeates all of my senses. Any tendency to hurry relaxes into a deep satisfaction to simply be, enjoy, discover.
Settled in the Medieval era and further developed during the Renaissance, this quaint hilltop town leaps with charm. We are led by foot up a steep, curving cobblestone street through the arched village entryway. Once firmly gated and guarded against intruders in ages past, it remains wide open now and welcome to solace-seekers. A breezy, sunlit square greets us amicably at the top, proudly sheltered from aesthetic change since its construction. As a former nucleus for creative thinking, it's not hard to imagine a robed philosopher emerging from the clock tower reading boisterously from a scroll of poetry or a bearded painter carefully crafting a portrait of a posing subject.
And yet, glimpses of a more 21st-century life begin to reveal themselves as we exit the square through narrow bends and enchanting alleyways. Lace curtains adorn windows of homes above vino shops, clothing boutiques, and artisan studios. Laundry is hung out to dry from lines overhead. A group of white-haired men erupts in laughter over an oft-played game of cards on the back patio of a restaurant. Their postcard view of the miles-wide farming landscape below beckons me to stop and admire its patchwork quilt of sage, pear, and pistachio greens woven into hearty plots of volcanic soil.
The sun dances throughout this place with its richest colors. Even the photos I take seem to encapsulate the magical glow of a village that has been long-cast into a happy spell. Its warmth radiates from the golden buildings painted lavishly by a giant brush stroke of light that loosens my deepest fibers and strikes me dumb. Is this place even real?!
A sudden breeze carries with it the stench of a fantastic cheese shop that bulldozes my train of thought. If odors could be seen, this block of Montepulciano would be thick with orange-yellow fog and dustings of greenish blues. Italian tradition fascinates me. For thousands and thousands of years, cheesemakers have been wielding fresh milk into smooth wheels of curd and aging them in just the right combination of elements to create such decadent results. I consider holding my nose and dashing in for a fresh hunk of parmigiana. "Bella e grande, grazie!" Then, I’d track down the nearest bottle of locally-made wine and enjoy its brilliant coupling on a hillside until the circle of cheese in the sky melted into the horizon line like a watercolor painting.
You get the sense here that such moments are frequent and long-enjoyed. Togetherness, rest, and passion seem to be the driving forces of society, while individualistic success, chronic busy-ness, and a decided focus on pragmatism over beauty are foreign, senseless concepts. It's an artist's dreamland. Impromptu Closed signs appear in shop windows where owners have simply decided to take a break, unconcerned with potentially lost income. Despite the language barrier, my shared value of Italian ideals leaves me feeling more known and accepted here than most places back home.
Towards the end of our visit, my family and I stop for a gelato that rounds out the day's experience tastefully. Each time I have one, I am stunned by its perfectly creamy texture and full-bodied expression of whatever flavor you choose. Today, a fresh, zinging raspberry. Lampone! The key signs that characterize an excellent gelato shop are all present: ten flavors or less, colors that accurately represent each flavor, and covered metal containers that protect the icy goodness from outside elements.
After a long drink of the slower pace, familiar cravings for a bustling city boulevard or an off-the-wall arts festival re-emerge. The acres of grapevines fade back into brightly-colored buildings on our return journey, and I pull out the postcard I purchased from a kind, untroubled shop owner. Its vibrant field of sunflowers reminds me of a scene from Under The Tuscan Sun. I smile back at the girl in the dorm room watching the film for the first time, longing for such an adventure. She urges me to go out and explore more places, immerse myself in new cultures, and collect wilder treasures to store away in the colorful crevices of my soul.