In October and November many towns throughout Tuscany have celebrations to introduce their new wine and olive oil. It is a great excuse for me to visit cities that have been on my wish list. The first one this season was the Tuscan town of Pitigliano. From the first moment I saw a photo of the town of Pitigliano that was it. As with most things in my life, I set out to find a way to make it happen. Enter the wine and olive oil premieres for the 2019 harvest.
The problem with Italy is this-there are too many incredible places to visit. Often when we talk to our friends (Italian or expat) they have never heard of places we are visiting. This is what happened with Pitigliano. Italians looked at me like I was confused when I told them where we were going. I checked my pronunciation, checked the spelling, and still the same looks of confusion. Then I started to think about it. The town of Pitigliano is 3 hours from Lucca, positioned on the Tuscany/Lazio border. The amount of incredible towns to visit, thermal baths to soak in, wineries to tour, curvy roads to get lost on and rolling hills to stand in awe of makes it likely one might not make it to Pitigliano.
All the more reason I needed to go. The town of Pitigliano is located within an hour of Saturnia, Grossetto, Lake Balsena and Orvieto. It is 2 hours to Rome and almost 3 hours from Florence. Pitigliano is positioned on top of a hill betwixt many other hill top towns. Pitigliano has something these towns don’t.
The City of Tufo
Pitigliano is the city of Tufo. If you aren’t fluent in Italian, it is a reference to the volcanic stone from which the city is carved. Volcanic stone is soft. When you look at the town and realize how old it is, evidence has been found dating back to the Etruscan time (8th century BC to 2nd century BC), it is even more impressive.
J. and I drove from Lucca through Livorno so we could see a bit of countryside. The rolling hills, jagged rocks, and hilltop villages rolled by as we made our way to Pitigliano. As we drove closer to the village the roads became more snake like, each turn offering a unique experience. So when we turned a corner and J. exclaimed “Stop the car, pull over!” I didn’t get too excited, he had said this numerous times throughout the drive.
As I pulled over, and I looked to my right I was in awe. There it was, this incredible town, standing in the distance, demanding appreciation. The jagged tofu stone city appeared to melt into the lush green valley below. A natural contrast in texture and color. The rugged tufo stone supports a brown stone village. Each building topped with terra-cotta tiled roofs, most covered with various species of moss.
Behind us stood an elegant white church and the first of the occupied caves. A quaint wine shop making use of an ancient cave, completely unpretentious, tells an immediate story of what the town has to offer.
Inside the Centro Storico
The town of Pitigliano is small, the centro storico (historic center) consists of two main streets. If each inch didn’t offer so much charm it wouldn’t take more than 30 minutes to make it from one end of the town and back. But, it does. In fact, as soon as we walked to the first view point before entering the arch into the first of two large piazzas, we were under Pitigliano’s spell.
The main piazza is Piazza della Republicca. Here there are two incredible look out points, the massive arches with fountains, several restaurants and bars. It is here we ate dinner our first night. The town was celebrating harvest by hosting an open dinner with grilled meats, roasted chestnuts, and first wines of the season. Under the large white tent we sat together at bright orange tables eating until we couldn’t possibly eat anymore. The festive, communal spirit was undeniable as people laughed, drank and celebrated.
J. was enraptured watching the method they used to cook the meat. In a trough they burned the wood, then as needed the ashes were pulled into the grill section over which the meat cooked. The slow cooking of the meat over the ash allowed a smoky flavor without any charring. For J. it was complete perfection. I laughed as I drank wine wondering how I, the vegetarian, got to spend so much of my evening watching meat cook. Truthfully though, aside from it being meat, it was amazing to watch the production, the skill and the synchronicity with which the men prepared so much food for the town. The fire added a warmth and charm to the cold and wet air surrounding us.
The Olive Oil
The next morning greeted us with a spectacular sunrise, highlighting the nights fog as it burned off the evergreens. The first sunny day in Tuscany in over a week greeted us and beckoned us to get outside. Grabbing the camera we set out to discover the town in the day light.
We found wine stores with ancient cellars, shops operating in the carved tunnels of the tufo rock, perfect little streets barely wide enough for two people, and views to stop you dead in your tracks.
We made our way to the opposite end of the city where there are remains of the original Etruscan walls, the ancient entrance to the city, and the ancient wash houses. On this side of town is the sweet church of San Rocco, rebuilt in the 1400’s with 700 year old frescoes, and hand painted crests behind the altar.
On Via Zuccarelli, is the Synagogue in the Jewish Ghetto. Jews in the 16th century were forced by state and local governments to move into ghettos. The government mandated they wear certain clothing to identify themselves as Jews. Looking for an easier way of life many Jews left Siena, Florence and other cities and came to Pitigliano. Here they established a community. During World War 2 the non-Jewish locals used the ancient caves to help protect the Jewish population from the Nazis. The non-Jewish citizens were steadfast in their determination to protect the Jewish population.
Okay, So Back To The Oil…
After walking around it was time for us to taste the new oil. We were pretty excited, especially J. as he has really been developing his palette. There were two rooms where the tasting was happening each beautifully decorated. They used things from nature to reflect the event-decorated simply and elegantly-like we so often see in Italy…
A man was there with the most amazing handmade cutting boards and beautiful olive wood products, so of course one had to come home with us. Seriously J. and I need to learn to control our affection for wood products. (might be a hopeless endeavor in Italy…)
Next the tasting. There were about 15 producers there, all small and local farms. We tasted only the biologic (organic) ones as I am a HUGE stickler for organic olive oil and honoring the tradition of olive production. It is amazing how much the flavors vary, some with strong pepper finish, some very earthy tasting and some quite simple with a light olive flavor.
I was so moved listening to the woman whose oil we loved the most talk about her dedication to the tradition, to the earth and to the health of people consuming her oil. (This could be why we took home four large bottles of hers…) Her mother was there supporting her, beaming with pride. It is people like this who will preserve what is special about Italy. (For my readers in Italy she does ship (email her) and her oil was seriously fantastic, with a light pepper finish.) We were also really happy with this one as well.
I can not recommend a trip to the town of Pitigliano enough. I think a weekend in just this town might be too long so I would recommend visiting many of the little towns around like we did. (Posts to follow soon) Pitigliano would make a good base if you wanted to stay one place for the evening.
We stayed at La Casa Degli Archi which is a group of several small apartments. It was very cute and characteristic of the area.
We weren’t able to visit the Orsini palace or Civic museum because they were closed. They both looked like they were worth the visit though. Also, don’t miss the Medici Aqueduct inbetween Piazza Repubblica and Piazza Garibaldi.
Next stop Sovana…