wildflowers of a Tuscan winter

Each time I go out into my garden (which, apart from a few rose bushes, irises and cacti, is pretty much a wild field), take a walk down a country lane, or a little hike in the woods, I can’t stop myself from picking wildflowers. It may very well be an illness. And I wonder if it might even be illegal…But that’s not the point. I simply get overwhelmed by the stunning beauty and complexity of the flora here.
Now if I had ever really taken the time to stop and look (and yes, smell) the flowers back home in Washington D.C., I am sure I would have been in awe even there. But there is something about living year-round in Tuscany that makes it very hard to not start to synch with the natural world around you, to live by its rhythm, and marvel at the details of its creations.
Yesterday on a brief stroll down the hill from my house I picked this little bunch:

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viburnum tinus what locals call leccio peloso which translates as “hairy oak” and has these incredible little dark-blue berries that can be iridescent, and also produces tiny little white and dusty-pink flowers in clusters
rosemary with its delicate little purple flowers, symbolizing remembrance and steadfast love
sage symbolizing wisdom
arugula  with its delicate little clusters of white flowers (it grows wild in the fields here and used to be called erba puzza or “stinky grass” because if you fed it to animals even their meat would smell)
olive branches of course a symbol of peace, but also of bounty and purity – in fact ancient Greek brides carried olive branches as we today have a bouquet

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the magnificent Palazzo dei Priori

Built between 1208 and 1257, it is the oldest Town Hall building in Tuscany, the first of its kind in that revolutionary Age of City-States. The mayor’s office is still inside, it is where town council meetings are held and spectacular weddings are celebrated. A steadfast presence in Volterra’s vibrant civic life.

Volterra's Town Hall

Volterra’s Town Hall
after a spring shower

Historic, but also beautiful. Every hour, everyday, with each new cloud drifting in or each dip in the sun’s arc over our heads, this magnificent palace presents itself in a different way, expressing a different mood, almost as if it were a mercurial being.

scorched earth overlooking the village of Mazzolla

this year it has been dry. that’s an understatement for ya’.
ARPAT (the Region of Tuscany’s Environmental Agency) said that Western Tuscany has had less rainfall than Northern Africa over the past two years.

in fact it never rained a drop from the first week of June until the first week of September. centuries-old trees are dying, and even the deep-rooted olive trees, if they are still alive, won’t be producing many olives this year. crops of all kind have suffered, and it seems to be a terrible year for truffles as well. beware, truffle-lovers, the little white truffle that may be found this fall will probably cost double the usual market price.

may it rain and the earth drink!

what a drought will do – fields that look like shaggy dogs

a beautiful spring wedding

last week holly and lou were married in the town hall of Volterra, serenaded by the magnificent voice of the mezzo-soprano elisa bartolini. it was a magical moment, a beautiful setting for two people so very much in love.

after all the spring rain, our garden is bursting with flowers, and the roses are particularly beautiful this year. i put together a garden bouquet with our antique pink & magenta roses, sage blossoms, pink lupines, rosemary and wild sweetpeas.

spring skyline of Volterra

Spring is flying by. The empty winter streets of Volterra are a thing of the past. Every year it takes some getting used to being around people again, when visitors descend on the town and we locals end our winter hibernation. Every now and again, on totally random days, the town is packed full of tourists. Usually the next day the town is half-empty again. I’ve never been able to figure out how to predict this seemingly random phenomenon. There must be some law of tourism nature, like poor old Murphy’s law… maybe we can call it “Rick’s law”.

After the initial adjustment period, having Volterra filled with people is wonderful. It really does feel like coming out of hibernation. Life resumes. For us, but also for the town, as if it were an animate being.

does it snow in tuscany? … yes indeed.

aftermath of the february blizzard

while spring seemed ready to bear her head, winter decided to be more assertive. on february 1st we got a massive snow storm combined with gale-force winds originating in Siberia that created tree-covering snow drifts. a week later everything is still covered with snow – the olive trees, the artichoke patches, the narcissus, the tiled roofs, the tilled fields. everything except the roads. with amazing efficiency and diligence, the snow plows plowed and the salt trucks salted until the roads were clear. that’s a shock to a girl who grew up in washington d.c.!

it’s actually sort of a shame to not be stuck at home, to have an excuse to do nothing but sled down the hill slaloming between olive trees, build snowmen and make polenta on the wood stove. yes, i love the snow….

though the roads are transitable, we spend most time indoors anyway because the temperature has been stuck at around -5° C (20° F) for the past week, and the winds are still so strong they’ve blown the outdoor wooden chairs and tables down the hill. the windchill is Chicago-worthy: -15° C (5° F) and we’re told we have another week to go.

while it does snow in Tuscany each year, this is a bit extreme for us. anyone who was alive remembers The Great Cold and Snow of 1985 and 1956, years when most of tuscany’s olive trees died, and this is apparently a repeat of that phenomenon. i’m told you could hear a cracking sound as the trunks literally split open from the freeze. many trees sprouted up again from the roots, and many were replanted. but that’s one reason you don’t find many enormous olive trees here, like you do in the south of italy. anyone who has an olive grove (and we have 140 trees) has their fingers crossed that the trees will be spared this time around.

spring’s around the corner…

the tuscan "giglio"“giglio fiorentino”

present on all things Tuscan, from stationary to printed Florentine paper, to the soccer jerseys of the Fiorentina team, the “giglio” (bearded iris) is also used to make perfumed powder, soaps, eau de toilette etc. It was a historic, traditional source of perfume, and places like the famous pharmacy of Santa Maria Novella still use it today.

back in the time of “mezzadria”, or sharecropping, one of the few plants that Tuscan farmers could grow on their own rocky land and not have to share with the landowners, was this iris. Combined with the fact that it is quite hardy and easy to propagate, it was – and is – a beloved plant that is seen all over Tuscany, usually in the month of April.

Some Tuscans still remember helping their grandmothers (perfume and nasty work are always the woman’s realm) harvest, peel, dry and pound into a powder the roots or rhizomes of these flowers. i’ve been told it left fingers sore and bleeding…. i’ll sign off on that lovely note!