It has been over ten years since I have been here.  It was one of my favorite places in my travels coming here many times, usually in the autumn.  The place is the Chianti part of Tuscany.  It lies directly south of Florence and is just a little less than half way to Siena.  It is high fills and valleys with vineyards, old villas, hilltowns, and cypress trees.  No trains come through it and since this isn't July or August, there are relatively few tourists.  It is colder than I expected with a rainstorm that refused to leave during our entire visit.  Usually it only rained at night and we we awoke in the mornings a fine fog hovered in the valleys.

I had some concerns in coming here.  Would its beauty be less than I remembered?  What if the food wasn't the earthy mix of wild boar, porcini mushrooms, black truffles, and pasta that has remained in my taste bud memory so loved for so long?  I was taking people I love to this place so special to me.  What if they didn't like it after all?

My sister, Judy, and her husband Mike had arrived a day earlier coming from their cruise through the Greek Islands.  They were sleeping when John and I got there.  Soon the rest of the group Kay & Tony, Steve & Mary drove up the drive.  We are staying at Monti Poni which consists of a large farmhouse with multiple lodgings (in three apartments) and also the owner's home in a separate building.  There is a beautiful swimming pool, although sadly we never did use it as it was just too cold even for me.   It is a beautiful spot and the accommodations were lovely although we never were quite warm enough due to the unseasonably cold weather we had.  The fireplace was huge and did provide good heat but the chimney didn't draw well so we our clothing always smelled of the log fire and each morning I felt like I had smoked a pack of cigarettes (yuk).

Still it was a lovely place and we had such a wonderful time.  So good to be with the people you love in a place you love.
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Morning clouds nestling in the valley by Monte Poni.
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Monte Poni
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The pool at Monte Poni
That first evening we drove up the nearby winding road to the top of the mountain above the town of Greve to Restaraunt Lamole.  I remembered the first time I came here over 20 years ago.  The place is unchanged except that everyone is 20 years older - me, the owners, the owner's son (who was a our waiter).  I remembered him as a 6 year old running around the restaurant.  Now he is a very charming, well educated, entertaining fellow who has a degree in geology and spent several years at Yosemite National Park.  

Being Monday night the restaurant was almost deserted, except for us.  We had the attentive service of three wait persons and they provided such a memorable evening.  To begin prossecco (Italian champagne) and then starters that can hardly be described - an egg slow cooked in the oven at a very low temperature yielding a silken shimmering white an yellow oval, a vegetable flan covered with shaved truffles, oh my oh my I can't remember the rest.  For mains there was truffle pasta, boar stew, sliced rare beef (covered with truffles), oh my oh my I can't remember the rest.  Cheese course was shaved romano which may sound boring but was just lovely.  Oh did I mention the wine?  Lamole Chianti Classica Reserva - yum.  And then of course dessert........   With all of this there was charming conversation, laughter, and photos.
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Then back to the Villa on a cold evening. We got some matches at the restaurant so we could have a fire.
The next day Judy, Michael and I walked to the next village, Panzano.  A beautiful cool morning.  We saw them picking grapes by hand in a local vineyard.

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Picking grapes by hand. Seen during our walk to Panzano across the countryside.
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Panzano Church
The closest town is Greve.  It has a large square for the Saturday market.  There are a number of good restaurants and shops.  One of the most interesting is a cheese and meat shop.  
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Tuscan pig - domestic and wild is highly prized.
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I particularly liked this one.
We did lots of short drives through the countryside.  The roads are windy and mountainous - not for the faint of heart or those prone to motion sickness.  The beauty of this area is intoxicating.  We saw a huge stag fallow deer run across the road in front of us and then along the roadside.  Unfortunately no one had a camera ready.  One day we saw boar hunters at work on a moutain road in their orange vests.  One group was standing above a ravine blowing horns and banging pans while another group further down the road was entering the ravine with shotguns in hand.  We also saw men hiking through the mountains with baskets I suspect for truffles and porcinis.
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Statute in Greve square, more well endowed than Michelangelo's David.
A highlight was our cooking class.  Two lovely Tuscan women came to Monte Poni to give us a Tuscan cooking lesson.  Gaila and Maria Victoria arrived with all the ingredients, printed recipes, and aprons for each of us.  The menu:
La Bruschetta (tomato)
Fresh Pasta (with vegetable sauce)
Pepperonata
Pollo Al Tegame
Apple Cake

We got to work.  Gaila was "la maestra" and she ordered us to do her bidding.  Maria Victoria (her mother) was that "artist" with the pasta.  Everybody pitched in and it was great fun with a delicious result.
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Notice that Michael is the only cook sitting down.
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I love my Sis!!
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Mary looks pretty comfortable at the controls.
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"I am the teacher. This is how you do it."
Once the pasta was rolled out it was hung by the fire on chair backs.  Later it was cut.
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Now we eat!!!! Delicious!
On Thursday all of us piled in two cars and off for a day of culture in Firenze.  Both Mike and John did great driving into this busy city filled with Italian drivers.  After 5 days in the quiet countryside it was a bit of the other kind of culture shock.  We managed to meet up at the Academy and saw David (wow!!) and other old stuff (not so wow).  Then we had a really lovely lunch in front of the Duomo.  Walks after lunch and to the Uffize for really great old stuff (my favorite "Venus Rising").  It rained of course.  We had long walks back to our cars, were exhausted but a great day.  We remained in the countryside the rest of the trip - oh la la the tranquility of it all.
One rainy day John and I drove to Arezzo.  This is to the east and a little south.  Actually it is very close to Siena and resembles Siena in may ways.  However, tourists don't seem to have discovered it and it was just and a few Italians wandering about on a rainy day. 
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View from Arezzo
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They have a palio here in Arezzo just like Siena.
Saturday evening we had reserved a spot at the table of the famous butcher of Panzano, Dario Checchino (sp?).  He is a genuine person who grew up in Panzano from a long line of butchers.  He was going to be the first son not to follow the profession and was studying in college when his father died and he needed to save the family business.  To say he is a character is an understatement and he is the darling of many a media foodey/traveler e.g., Mario Butali, Tony Bourdain, and Rick Steeves.  His butcher shop is a big gathering spot for locals and for tourists.  You might say he put Panzano on the map.  When you visit his shop you are offered wine, little tastes of meaty snacks, etc.  He does look larger than life.

He has several restaurants - one a sit down one for steaks (huge Tuscan ones) and another that is six courses of meaty family fare (you have whatever they are serving).  This is the one we ate in.  He also has MacDarios - which is fast food - surely delicious but we didn't sample it.

The dinner was very good if a little wierd, meat broth, some sort of preserved beef cheek, stewed beef, Tuscan beans.  I know there was a lot more but I can't quite remember.  Anyway we had a great time.  Dario was in and out (mostly out).  After dinner everyone hangs out in the street and Dario serves grappa.  Amazing.
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Dario holding court in his shop
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After dinner grappa anyone?
Our last day, Sunday, we John, Mike, Judy and I drove to Brolio castle.  Of course is was another rainy day but no problem.  Brolio castle has been owned by the Ricasoli family since the 1100s and they still live there.  The castle was always associated with Firenze even though it is closer to Siena and many battles took place in the area.  The Baron in the mid 1800s was actually responsible for creating the Chianti wine "recipe".  Thank you Baron.  According to the leader of our museum tour he was also quite a guy - very important in the Italian government when they were making Italy all one country, a scientist, and an artist.

Anyway his castle is certainly beautiful and the view outstanding.
Of course our last evening we had to return to Lamole - the place we began our little Tuscan trip.  Again the food, ambiance, service, wine, EVERYTHING was great.  Filippo, one of the owners was there and it was great to see him.  He is just as charming as ever and is very proud of his restaurant's success.

The biggest hit of the evening was the Florentine steak for two that John and I ordered.  It was unforgettable - and we were able to share it with the rest of the group.  Kay particularly enjoyed it.   
On Monday the trip was over.  We had to leave this beautiful place.  I loved sharing my favorite place with people I love.  It will be fun remembering all our good times.  We are a special family.  I love you.
 
On October 5 the whole gang (me, John, Kay, Tony, Steve, and Mary) headed to Nice which is close to the Italian border.  It lies on Mediterranean coast of  Provence.  The topography along the coast is very different than Languedoc (our region) in that the beaches are steep and rocky (ours are long, flat, and sandy) and the countryside is quite mountainous as the Alps come right down to the sea.  Our region is more open vineyards.

Although the drive to Nice is all freeway, it is still a long drive.  We stayed there for two days before going on to Tuscany.  Nice feels very related to Italy and this area and northwestern Italy were one kingdom, Savoy, not so very long ago.  The Old Town, which many tourists miss altogether,  is a small area with tiny narrow twisted streets and churches on most blocks.  It reminds me of the old Jewish Ghetto in Barcelona.  The rest of central nice is fillede with large architecturally pleasing apartment buildings with orange roofs, some luxurious hotels, and palm trees.  The Promenade Anglais, a wide sidewalk along the beach, goes for miles.  Here the Mediterranean is deep blue and turquoise contrasting with the white stucco or pastel buildings and orange tiled roofs.  It looks very much like paintings by Matisse (maybe because this is mostly where he was when he was painting!).
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In the large square trying to figure out how and where to go to get a good view. We went on a little train with wheels to the top of the hill by the water to the old castle site.
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Looking east toward the Alps. The sky threatened rain all day but it stayed in the mountains.
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Looking toward new Nice and the Med.
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Large square with quite an impressive statute.
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We saw Steve and Mary strolling on the rocky shore.
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There was some sort of professional catamaran raise going on. Not the "America's Cup" but it seemed pretty exciting.
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John and I walked up to see the Russian Cathedral which is quite the same as the beautiful churches I saw in Russia. There has been a Russian community in Nice for over 100 years but a great many "White Russians" arrived to escape the Soviet Revolution in the early 1900s.
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One evening we went to a open air restaurant in Old Town recommended in a guide book. It was mobbed but we decided to wait it out. We were told to wait on the steps of the church next door which we did for over one hour. When a table finally came empty we almost got into a fist fight with some younger Americans who insisted it was "their table" until the maitre d' came to our rescue. The Americans glared at us all through dinner.
The next evening we went for cocktails at a famous and fancy old hotel on Promenade Anglais.  It is the Le Negresco - quite old worldly elegant with some modern twists.  The cocktails were VERY expensive but the experience as worth it.

After cocktails we returned to old town to a very nice restaurant where we had reservations - L'Esplanade - so no table grabbing competition.  The food was very good - especially the bowls of chickpeas.  Unbelievably yummy.
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Le Negresco Hotel
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A quirky piece set among medieval tapestries.
And Monday off to Tuscany!
 
A car pulled up in front of the house on September 30th, "We've arrived," and in came my "cousins" Kay, Tony, Steve, and Mary from the USA.  Was I ever happy to see them!  I was just starting to feel a bit homesick and missing friends and family so a visit from the Wernert/Pero gang was very welcome.  They were staying with us for 5 nights and then we were heading off together for Nice, France and then Tuscany.  I got lots of enjoyment showing them some special sights here in the south of France and introducing them to our friends here and to our life in this village.  Of course the weather didn't much cooperate so we had little sun and lots of rain.

On Tuesday we headed north to show off two beautiful small villages.  The first, Villanavette, was founded by Louis XIV with the purpose of making flags and tapestries.  It was a "factory town" with homes for the workers inside the town wall.  It continued to be a factory until 1953.  Now a few artists and other arty types live quietly in the tiny village.  Few tourists seem to know it and you can wander the grounds in silence except for the gentle breeze that always seems to blow.  However, on this day there was a commercial photo shoot with pretty models showing off very high trendy heels that seemed very out of place among the cobblestones.
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Breakfast of croissants in our garden.
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"Honor Work" marks the entrance.
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Steve, Mary, Kay and Tony but the center fountain.
Next we went further north to the Millau viaduct.  The bridge was built above a very wide and deep river canyon about 10 years ago.  It is famous for its engineering and its awesome architectural design.
My friend Linda had suggested that we visit La Couvertoirade, an old village not far from Millau.  Since her suggestions have always been outstanding we decided to check it out even though it was late afternoon by the time we got there.  Once again she was right!  I couldn't believe we'd never visited it before.  It is beautifully preserved, peaceful, and hardly a soul was there (except you could almost sense ghosts nearby).  We were sorry we didn't have more time to just sit quietly and absorb the quiet beauty of this place.
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Remains of the old castle at La Couvertoirade.
Wednesday was also beautiful (very lucky as rain was predicted).   Everyone must go to Carcassone at least once, in my case its been about eight times but I still enjoy it (more at off-peak season like now) than during the summer.  The "cite" was the center of "The Midi" in medieval times.  This region was very tolerant of other religions and the Cathar religion grew.  I told my cousins the tales of the Cathars, the Crusade launched by the Pope and the French king to rid The Midi of this pesky religion that was Christian but believed the hierarchy of the Catholic Church was not needed in order to communicated with God.  The crusade was successful and the crusaders slaughtered thousands (20,000 in Beziers alone).  

Carcassonne decayed over time but some years ago it was fully restored and is a world heritage sight.  In the summer it is hard to appreciate due to the throngs of tourists and all the knick knack shops.  In October it is not crowded and you can really appreciate its beauty and history.  We even had a pleasant lunch inside the Cite.
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Entrance to Carcassone.
Still in a Cathar state of mind we continued north to the deserted village of Minerve.  It was one of the last hold outs for the Cathars who had escaped Beziers and Carcassone.  They were killed here instead.  Minerve stands at the confluence of two rivers and had the reputation of being easily defended - but not from thousands of blood thirsty Catholic Crusaders.

Today it seems a lonely monument to those tragic times.  In summer there are a number of small restaurants and craft shops.  Now only a few are open selling sodas and ice cream.  It feels deserted and lonely but with awesome stark beauty.

This was a good day.
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Minerve
The next day looked like rain was threatening but that wasn't going to stop "cousins" wanting to see all they could of our little corner of the world.  Off we went to the south.  First stop was Abbaye Valmange, one of many in the area where monks built beautiful buildings in which to pray, meditate, eat, drink, and ???   Most were destroyed by peasant protestant uprisings, in the case of Valmange the uprising was led by one of the monks. 

The abbaye eventually became a winery and has been owned for 100 years by the same family.  It is still a winery and you can rent it for a day or evening with 700 of your friends for a steep price I'm sure.
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Abbaye garden on a dark and rainy day.
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Abbaye garden fountain in the rainy gloom.
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Kay & Tony gazing at the Monk's garden.
After the abbey Tony insisted that we find the beach he visited last covered with shells and rocks.  That was the only description he could provide.  This was a bit baffling as ALL the beaches here are wide and sandy - not like the rocky craggy beaches along the Cote d'Azur to the east.  We tried to find it anyway, and drove to a lot of very sandy beaches in the rain.  We finally gave up and found a lovely restaurant in Bouziques where the oysters and mussells are farmed in the huge inlet from the Mediterranean just north of the town of Sete.

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Here we are before dinner in Bouziques.
Their last evening here we had another dinner party - yes and it rained of course.  It was so much fun to introduce the cousins to some of our friends here - lots of laughs and interesting French/American/English conversation.
We left the next day to head to Nice and to Tuscany with the "cousins".  It was fun to share our friends with them and vice versa.  A lot more than a tourist gets to experience.  Ooh la la Languedoc.
 
It seems every time we have a party it has rained.  This is strange because rain is relatively rare in the summer.  When it does rain though, it really does it (usually with lightning and thunder).  Our last two parties were no exception.

We rotate hosting Saturday evening appertifs here with good friends.  As our turn rolled around, it clouded up and then BOOM, BOOM and down came the rain.  We just went ahead and set up everything inside our small living room/dining room and everyone had a great time.  Here are a few pictures of the Saturday gang.  They are lots of fun and though our French is very limited, and their English the same, somehow we manage to communicate quite well.  I feel like I have as many good friends here as I do back home.
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At 10 pm the rain had stopped and we moved outside where everybody admired our "English Garden". We were proud. The crowd got a bit noisy late in the evening and the next day one neighbor complained. So sorry.
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John is a great host.