“Toward San Michele” (Vignette)

For days, I’ve been standing atop a hill looking down on Chianti, the central seat of Tuscany, with cypresses just as abundant below me as they are across the way. I rifle through the side pocket of my jeans for my bussola, my compass, pulling it out to verify what direction I’ve been looking toward all this time to take in terraces. Just as I had read in Matthew Spender’s account some days before, they were originally built to be running parallel to the horizon, set in place with the very stones upon which I’ve long been hiking and standing.

The air is redolent of soap, a smell that I know must be coming from scores of broom flowers. I can’t locate them. Still, here and there I see scattered bunches of poppies, some sages, chicory, and other weeds along the road.

The wild boars have been just as successful at eluding us as everyone said they would be. Plenty of tracks, deeper than all those that even our heavily-weighted boots have left, and some ample-sized streaks in the mud where the same boar must’ve been fumbling himself around.

“A tusk!” Salvatore breaks in. “Rare to stumble upon! You’d do well to take this one.”

He’s standing with one hand on his hip, trying to balance a slender body that’s been knocked slightly off-kilter by some protuberance of the ground. Like me, Sal is wearing muddy Docs and some layers, and he has a slate gray t-shirt underneath his characteristic sweatshirt cardigan, a pasticcio-colored fabric with buttons fastened down the front.

I pluck the tusk carefully from his hand, unfastening my knapsack and placing it inside an unrolled bundle of cotton underwear. It looks like a lion fang, somewhat eroded by summer rains or maybe just the trappings of time. I smirk, “Thanks for that, Sal.” He nods and adjusts his rectangular-rimmed glasses, running his hand onto the back of his long, disheveled hair, shady brown like star anise.

It’s been the walks with Salvatore that are still the most enjoyable. Rugged trails—not all too cumbersome, but made that much more fulfilling because Sal knows how to shape each hike into a gastronomical quest. In the deep country of Chianti, he still assures me, no restaurant does too spectacularly with fruits or vegetables; most are quite bland and skimpy, in fact. But there are still the beans—white cannellini—that are worth the trip, often cooked in the same glazed terrine that he raves about.

Prelibato!” Sal insists, telling me just how flavorful and delicious they can be. There are plenty of wine destinations as well, but Salvatore has a shelf or two of his own back at the estate house. His wife and my own are back there keeping it company. Keeping all of it safe, I’m sure.

Sal’s taking me back downhill now, to the valley where olive groves are most abundant. There’s little chance of getting lost if we start there, he explains, on account of a dirt road. And it’s a virginal dirt road at that, one that still appears all but untouched even after so many years of trampling.

At the square in Greve, we each walk with a slight crouch in order to compensate for a gingerly intensifying angle of elevation. Sal leads as we follow the trail maintained by the Club Alpino Italino, the building marked with the number 24. We advance forward past the CAI sign, the one colored with strips of white sandwiched between red. From the corner of my eye, I leave behind Verrazzano’s statue, but I can still glean the Monte Domini cross far ahead and up on the ridge. It’s high but still dark enough that we ought to be seeing it for a good, long while.

It takes both of us a little over an hour to step far enough outside of Greve, to finally stumble upon the tree that designates Canonica. Just a few paces further, and we’ve actually touched down on Monte Domini. Here, the same cross that had been flittering behind the trees is but an arm’s length away. We take the extra path around the side to climb up to it, to be able to look down on the whole region.

“We’re 27 kilometers from home,” mentions Sal.

I turn my head slightly, fumbling around for the compass again. I ask him, “What direction?”

He chuckles for a moment, then points forward, widening his eyes.

“Straight down,” Sal quips.

The view is wide and open, obstructed by nothing more than a few feet worth of a branch, extended out above us, covered with ample summer leaves. Cypress trees dance in the rhythm of midday, huddled around enormous groves that run across the city like bundled chenille stems, nature’s age-old craft project.

I turn to Sal. “Where do we go to now?” I prod him, smiling and scratching just above my left cheek. “Another fork in the road, or a fork in some bar where we can order some bruschetta?”

“It’s just another two kilometers to Villa San Michele,” he replies. “It’s the fork here, on the right. But there’s certainly gnocchi to be had there; better vegetables than the country restaurants; and tiramisu, yes, the very best tiramisu you’ll find in all of Tuscany.”

Another 7,000 feet later, I can tell we’ve stepped into San Michele when I see the gateway—white stone shaped like a pagoda. I look down the Phoenician Steps, with the villa’s gardens to the back of me. Then just a few short steps to enter the Loggia, more gardens situated around towering columns. They’re covered with rows of vine trellises, their grapes mantis green and looking down on us like thousands of clustered pairs of eyes.

At last, we follow the path down to reach Parco Naturale di San Michele, where the hostel San Michele sits with its own small-scale terraces, surrounded by brown, wrought-iron tables and gray-cushioned chairs.

“I wonder about the weekly rates of a hostel like this,” I ponder out loud, looking to Sal.

“Oh, I couldn’t say,” he mutters. “I don’t know of anyone who has ever stayed here just a week.”

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