When a dear friend announced she would be celebrating a Big Birthday in Italy and wanted her nearest and dearest (including me) to join her, I hesitated. I am wary of group travel. I am a peculiar fish. I like my space. I find the idea of being constantly surrounded by travel companions daunting. It means I have to be permanently “on” to quote George Costanza, and just the thought of the energy required for continuous Jax is exhausting. But the lure of mouth-watering Tuscan cuisine and vats of Prosecco was hard to resist. This was how I came to be loitering in London’s Gatwick Airport on a wet August day while I waited for a connecting flight to Florence.
My six hours in Gatwick passed relatively quickly. By the time I made necessary fluid adjustments, played “guess the accent/language”, gawped at the outrageous fashions (Clinton Kelly and Stacy London would have had a field day), ate lunch, checked in, and spent a sizeable chunk of cash in duty free, it was time to board my flight. I was traveling alone because the Party Posse preceded me. They were already ensconced in a villa in Tuscany over-indulging in fermented grape juice.
I arrived in Florence as the sun was setting. First impressions – Italy was as I remembered it. The last time I visited Tuscany, I was 20. So little had changed in five years! The airport bustled with character; nuns in full habit, tourists, and Italian men with inexplicable sex appeal (even the fugly ones).
I was met by an excited little man who proudly displayed my name on his iPad screen. He led me through the car park, past an astonishing variety of Fiat cars to his waiting vehicle and then disappeared for 20 minutes.
Every conceivable horror movie flashed through my mind in his absence.
Driving from the airport I was struck by the darkness. A combination of starless night and sparse habitation covered the rolling Tuscan hills in inky blackness. We drove past seemingly deserted buildings. Every now and then a stark farmhouse punctuated the darkness with a lone light. The night was what my father would have referred to as “black like Mary’s backside”. I often wondered: Who was Mary? Why was her backside so black? How did my father know?
Familiar names on sign posts evoked memories of high school English Literature, Geography, and unfathomable feats of engineering – Pisa, Florence, Bologna. After forty-five minutes of driving we turned off the main road onto a steep mountain lane. I thought to myself – if this were a movie, this is the scene where the lone black character gets murdered. No street lights, no sound. I realised with a start that apart from other cars, I had not seen a single human since we left the airport. Fifteen minutes later we pulled into the courtyard of Villa Campiestri Resort. It was absolutely still. Not a sound emanated from the darkened buildings. My driver pointed at a door – “Signora, qui”.
Cautiously I stepped over the threshold and back in time. Located in the heart of the Tuscan valley, the Villa Campiestri Resort is a Renaissance villa built around a 13th century fort and surrounded by ancient olive groves. Guests are accommodated in the villa and converted out buildings, decorated to match the period.
The main lobby is a cosy sitting room stuffed with heavily brocaded armchairs, eclectic objets d’art, and mismatched tables. The walls are adorned with faded frescoes, rugs, and heavy wallpaper. The only thing missing is a fireplace. I imagine it is cold in winter. Curiously Ella Fitzgerald’s distinctive voice could be heard over the low conversational hum. Over the next few days I would learn Villa Campiestri has a permanent jazz playlist favouring Ella, Louis, Billie, Sarah and early Frank Sinatra.
My friends had already gone out to dinner leaving me to hold down Team Coloured until their return. After depositing my bags in the tiny bedroom (with en suite bathroom so small I couldn’t even change my mind in it) I ordered a glass of wine and sat outside alone in the dark and silence.
I didn’t have long to wait. The silence was soon broken by the unmistakable sound of approaching cars and distinctive Trini accents. They were in high spirits after a day spent sight seeing and wine tasting. Like The Avengers, we assembled from all over the world with a common purpose – enjoy a few days in Tuscany in the company of the birthday girl. Our superpower? Our link to Trinidad and Tobago.
We excitedly greeted each other and decamped to one of the bedrooms to empty a bottle (or two) of champagne. Three hours later an upstairs inhabitant was hammering on the door complaining about the noise. Apparently her husband had complained the night before…
Reluctantly we retreated to our respective rooms for much needed rest.
Our 13-man posse donned matching polo shirts and set off on a two hour drive through the beautiful province of Siena. Our destination was the hill town of Montalcino, famous for its Brunello di Montalcino wines. Sun soaked vineyards, olive groves, and sunflower fields slipped past us on winding country roads, punctuated infrequently by small farmhouses.
Fattoria dei Barbi Winery is owned by the Colombini family, who trace their presence in Montalcino back to 1352. The estate is laid out on 86 hectares and the winery has produced several award winning vintages. Here we toured immense cellars with barrels so vast I felt dwarfed by their size. We sampled their famous Brunello wines, all superb. As we sipped we nibbled a tasty selection of sliced meats, crackers and cheeses. The wafer thin prosciutto was easily the best I ever had. Emboldened – or perhaps intoxicated – by the flavourful wines, we purchased several bottles to fuel our late night drinking sessions.
A quick visit to the Renaissance hillside town of Montepulciano for brief retail therapy completed our day’s touring. I marveled at the tiny shops stocked with delectable cheeses, perfectly cured prosciutto, and gorgeous leather goods. One trader in particular profited handsomely from the Trini invasion. Between us we purchased at least ten handbags from her shop.
We ended our perfect Italian day back at the villa with a multi course meal so outstanding my taste buds have yet to stop applauding. Carpaccio of smoked swordfish, potato gnocchi with seafood and tomatoes, sea bass fillet with vegetables sautéed in Picual olive oil. A tiramisu so perfect in taste and texture, I had two helpings.
We should have been exhausted but the promise of juicy late night conversation led us to one of the larger bedrooms where we recounted bawdy escapades until yet another guest came to complain about the noise.
Sleep was definitely on my agenda today. I skipped breakfast and chose my bed over an excursion to the nearest outlet mall. Judging by the numerous bags my companions returned with, my credit card had a lucky escape. While my fellow Trinis were adding to the Italian GDP I slept late, had a leisurely lunch, and a lazy stroll through the olive groves and meandering trails.
That night we had supper at a club on the shore of Lake Bilancino, Tuscany’s largest man made lake. Pulsating EDM rhythms and flamboyant LGBT clientele competed for our attention. I thought of Spain and a highly entertaining evening I spent last year at Barcelona Pride. Post-supper we hit the dance floor and did our best to blend in with varying degrees of success. Like good Trinis, we came out to represent. Truthfully we were outclassed by the younger, fitter crowd.
Back at Villa Campiestri we chose bedtime rather than risk more complaints from the other guests. As it was, we had already ensured that no person of colour could stay there in the near future, and Trinis were probably permanently blacklisted.
My last day in Tuscany. I breakfasted with my companions then bade them farewell as they boarded minibuses bound for Pisa. I chose instead to return to London. One last walk through the olive groves, one last glass of Prosecco. Arrivederci, Italia. Until next time.