Finding Italy in Tuscany

Travelling a lot with work over the past couple of years has sucked a little of the fun out of travel. It’s hard to get excited about airports and security and packing and passports and blah blah blah when you do it frequently – and for non-pleasure purposes. So, I was pretty happy when a spontaneous invitation to Tuscany earlier this summer finally – FINALLY – sparked a flame of wanderlust.

– For fear of sounding like a spoiled little princess, yes, the work travel was pretty awesome most of the time, too. But, you know… it’s still work.

My opinion of Italy has fluctuated since my first visit in 2011, from absolutely raving to bitterly mediocre. Arriving in Milan as my first port-of-call, I was devastated by the lack of… Italianness. I had craved the Italy from romantic Roman legend. Milan: big, industrial and with an ungodly amount of mosquitoes. My first taste of Italy delivered zero per cent of my romantic – albeit idealistic – expectations.  

I meandered my way south through the tourist hotspots, attracting disaster after disaster. But as soon as I emerged from Rome’s roaring central station, I suddenly felt it. ROME! ITALY! HURRAH! Glorious, complex, beautiful, ugly – a big, modern city paradoxically saturated with bone-achingly significant history at every turn. Hopping from shaded sidewalks to aircon cafes, I absolutely contentedly roamed around, loving every step and consuming a more-than-average amount of pizza and gelato.

Milan has called me back a few times since 2011, where I’m happy to say that I discovered a sparkly side to the capital of Lombardy. I’ve also been lucky enough to travel around the rest of Italy looking at big, big shipyards… which is more exciting than some people might think. Regardless, there was never anywhere that came as close to Rome did in capturing the essence of my Italian dream.

Cue: Metato. This tiny – and I mean tiny – village sits on top of a sloping mountainside in the Lucca province of Tuscany. And Metato26, the passionately renovated rustic retreat where my invitation beckoned, sits on the very top.

Driving from a meeting in Viareggio – the unassuming capital of Italy’s yacht-building scene – we wound up and down (and back up… and back down) the Tuscan hills in an indulgently cliche Mini. Time travelling back to a world without Google Maps, we attempted to follow printed, written directions to a car park where our host would pick us up and give us a ride to our new home for the weekend.

The sun was dancing on the edge of the horizon when we finally figured out the route. Stepping out of the car we waited in the car park as per our instructions. Taking in the incredible views and starting to feel a bit shifty, we heard the sputtering of a tractor nearby. Sure enough, a bright red hunk of metal soon trundled around the corner, beaming host, Brian, in the front, a trailer in the back. Surprisingly quick and easy pleasantries aside, I glanced a bit uncertainly at the trailer in front of me… then unceremoniously clambered into the back.

Chugging up seemingly impossibly vertical stone and dirt paths, Brian cut the motor a couple of times. Not only could we hear ourselves think again, but soak in the ma-gi-cal views being afforded to us as the crumbling houses and trees parted ways. We stopped and picked wild strawberries, pulling up fresh herbs by the handful and breathing in their heavy perfume while Brian heartily greeted his happy Italian neighbours.

After this pretty bizarre but dreamy 10-minute slog up the hill, we arrived at our destination. Brian told us the story and the history of the place, formerly used as a metato (a kind of smoking shed for chestnuts and where the village gets its name), and delivered story after story of his arduous restoration of the place into two houses – even hacking away over for a year or two at the rock of the mountainside in one of the bedrooms.

It was every bit the sickening cliche. Sitting easily on the terrace, overlooking the mountains and out to sea, sipping on tiny glasses of delicious wine (why do Europeans insist upon not using real wine glasses?!), nibbling on juicy cherry tomatoes and Italian cheeses. It was one of those rare moments where you breathe all that cliche in and you’re just like: “THIS. IS. PERFECT. AGHH!” And finally! 6 years after my first disappointing trip to Italy, Metato was delivering leaps and bounds beyond the demands of my Italian fantasy.

That night we trampled through the fields and olive groves to the only restaurant in the village, winding down a couple of narrow stony alleyways laced with vibrant flowers. A big Italian welcome to the tiniest restaurant I’ve ever visited awaited at the last turn. This inconspicuous restaurant tucked away in tiny Metato was one of the most beautiful meals of my life. From the unpretentious food to the broken-Italian-English conversations across a gaggle of six or so tables. It’s something that I love that about Italy. People are so warm and open, and do nothing better than making people feel absolutely welcome and filling them up with incredible food.

We skipped (tripped) back down the grassy lanes all the way home, and fell to sleep with the windows wide open, breathing in the soft Tuscan air.

The next 24 hours consisted of delicious cliche after delicious cliche. We woke up and brewed fresh coffee, ate more bread and cheese and delicious little tomatoes while reading and listening to music. We attempted a hike, gave up after 10 minutes and drove around the mountains until we found a cosy place for long, lazy Italian lunch. Drove back, napped, and headed out to a restaurant in a converted mill that dreams are made of. Seriously, if you are ever around this area, Osteria Candalla is 1000% worth the visit. The night was rounded off with an surreal midnight tour around the quinquennial sawdust festival in the nearby village. Just… the strangest.

Taking a late afternoon flight back to Amsterdam from Pisa, we spent our last sunny day in the mountains with our hosts and their friends. And just to make sure we had enough authentic Italy, a real Italian mountain-man made pizza from scratch, cooked in a wood fire stove, packaged it up and sent us – back on our tractor – on our merry way. Bellisimo.

I guess I had been looking for the realisation of my Italian dream in all the wrong places… was I really going to find it on a solo trip to Milan, Pisa, Elba and Rome? Well, Rome, maybe, and Elba maybe, too, if I hadn’t been so hapless, but it took years later for me to fully appreciate Italy. It took for someone to extend an invitation to experience life as they taste it. Or maybe I’m just getting old now and this all-kinds-of-serene getaway from the daily grind is more and more appealing… Regardless – appetite quenched, fantasy turned into reality. I got my Italian dream – hurrah!


All the good photos are by Charl van Rooy



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