Waking up early is a chore for this night owl, but the promise of picturesque Italian lakes and hilltop cities was enough to drag me out of bed on the second Serious Writer Retreat tour day. From an upscale winery overlooking Lake Chiusi to the serene Eremo “Le Celle” Hermitage, the day was full of pleasant surprises that activated our five senses.
Whether you’re on tour or traveling solo, a day in Italy cannot start without food — and wine — so it was no surprise when our first stop was a wine tasting. Perched atop the highest hill in Castilglione del Lago with a panoramic landscape, Poggio Santa Maria is a new winery that delights in its modern approach to winemaking and agriculture. Stepping through the automatic front doors, the contrast from our previous tasting experience at Talosa in Montepulciano was a noticeable but welcome change.
Once we’d gathered in the foyer and stopped gawking at the breathtaking views out the windows, we were introduced to the winery’s owner, Dr.Massimiliano Marchetti, a surgeon by profession, whose childhood and deep appreciation for agriculture led him to establish Poggio Santa Maria in 2020. Guiding us down a flight of stairs, Dr.Marchetti passionately shared the intricate winemaking process as we toured a room filled with stainless steel tanks used for precise temperature-controlled fermentation. Opening a large, heavy door, we were invited into the cellar, where small barrels lined the walls. As we stepped into the cool room, the heady aroma of wine enveloped us, filling our senses as we moved through the cellar until we were ready to return to the ground floor for some fresh air.
Our sense of taste was next in line to be awakened as we entered the bright tasting room, bathed in natural light through the conservatory-like windows. Seated at a long table, we were served three wines paired with an assortment of breads, cheeses, meats, and grains. Although Italy’s pizza is unmatched, I was surprised by how little I liked their bread. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the Sorana bean dish in the center of the plate, which Dr.Marchetti explained was one of Italy’s most expensive and precious beans.
With our moods lifted from the wine (the white wine was my favorite), we boarded the buses and set our sights on Lake Trasimeno, the largest lake in central Italy. While time constraints prevented us from exploring the lake on foot, its enchanting park with paved paths encircling the water left a lasting impression as I admired it through the window of Ristorante La Capannina.
Fish is an acquired taste, so the fish-based meal at La Capannina was not among my favorites during the Serious Writer Retreat, though I made an effort to try each item at least once. The appetizers (antipasti) included a plate of fish delicacies — trout salad, pate, fried fish (lattarini fritti), and fish eggs — followed by a main course of spaghetti with white fish sauce. Some of the group had a good idea of walking to the waterfront instead of finishing their food and looking back, I wish I’d joined them, but I didn’t want to miss what food might lie ahead. (#FOMO)
With full stomachs and revived energy, our adventure continued to Cortona, a city in the province of Arezzo with a history dating back to Etruscan times. Known as the setting for the film “Under the Tuscan Sun” (despite the city technically being located in Umbria, not Tuscany), I was thrilled to wander its streets, immersing myself in the settings of the scenes from the movie. However, most of the shops were closed for the afternoon siesta (a typical custom in Italy), so after visiting Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta, we returned to the bus and headed to Eremo “Le Celle” Hermitage.
Founded by Saint Francis of Assisi in the 13th century, the hermitage was a hidden wonder that transported us into another realm as we crossed its front gates. The outside world’s noise faded into oblivion, replaced by the soothing sounds of nature. Descending the stone slope, we were serenaded by an increasing sound of flowing water as we reached a bridge. The cascading water created a serene soundtrack as we immersed ourselves in the surrounding gardens, buildings, and forests. Being welcomed into this sacred place of peace and tranquility maintained by friars in brown robes was surreal. In a world consumed by artificial noise and constant movement, strolling through Eremo “Le Celle” offered a much-needed respite. If I return to Tuscany, I’d love to spend an entire day at the hermitage, savoring its serenity.
Ironically, despite Saint Francis is the patron saint of the environment and animals, animals were not allowed within Eremo “Le Celle.” However, two friendly and mischievous black labradors managed to find their way onto the grounds, joyfully greeting us as if to say, “Welcome to our oasis.” It was pretty amusing to watch a friar attempt to shoo them away, but it seemed the dogs believed they had every right to be at the hermitage as we did, and they wouldn’t budge.
As the day drew to a close, our senses and spirits satisfied, we began our journey back to the villa. However, before loading onto the buses, Cyle Young, the founder and organizer of the Serious Writer Retreat, informed us that only a select few would have the opportunity to see the villa from “Under the Tuscan Sun” since the larger bus was unable to navigate the road. I eagerly raised my hand, anticipation bubbling inside my chest as I secured my seat on the mini-bus. However, I think Cyle, the only male (besides the driver) among us, was the most excited when we arrived at Villa Bramasole. I couldn’t help but laugh as I watched him jump out of the bus to take a selfie and video at the front gate. Although Villa Bramasole’s exterior was used in the movie, most scenes were actually filmed at another villa ten minutes away called Villa Laura. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to see both places, but that didn’t make the moment less exciting.
The Serious Writer Retreat’s tour days were a fascinating blend of history, culture, and cinematic magic. Cyle Young went above and beyond to ensure each day was an exhilarating adventure. Though our time to explore the cities was limited, each destination left an indent in my mind that I will cherish.