I first set foot in Montalcino in 2006 by pure happenstance. Our family had finally pulled off that family reunion we had been talking about for years – the one that was always discussed after too much wine at holiday dinners. Mutual promises to finally visit the relatives in Florence and stay in that villa in Tuscany. In 2006, we managed to pull it off and one afternoon, our little ragtag group of 13 headed our cars to the little hilltown of Montalcino. We spent a leisurely afternoon strolling its peaceful cobblestone streets; lunching for hours at a restaurant; listening to the bell tower chime at every hour and half hour (albeit a bit late).
I felt the magic that afternoon.
After that, the poor Montalcinese couldn’t get rid of me. I kept going back each year – for a week or for a few days as time permitted. Now years later, the 3 hour drive from Rome to Montalcino has become rather routine. My foot no longer shakes on the gas pedal as I drive at dizzying speeds up the autostrada. (Although I must admit that I still find my shoulders tightening whenever I have to pass a big ass truck or when I have to figure out how to get my manual-drive car out of park heading straight up a hill.) I have learned to wear flat shoes so I don’t trip so much on the cobblestones. At the local market, I now know that I have to weigh my vegetables before I get to the check out. And I still feel the magic. Yes, one could certainly argue that it is through either rose-colored glasses or copious amounts of Brunello that I view life in a town I barely know but frankly, with the pace of our lives today, it is a view I cherish.
When I visit, I find myself quickly slowing to the rhythm of life in Montalcino. If my friends back home could see me lingering over my cappuccino for hours at the caffe, they would wonder if the real Michele had been kidnapped. But it is the heart of this town with which I have so fallen in love. It is the big smiles I see when those folks I know welcome me back. It is the occasional ‘Ciao Michela!’ as I walk for my morning cappuccino. It is the fresh torta that I find waiting for me in my rented apartment, baked by the owner’s mother.
Last Wednesday in Montalcino I was reminded once again why those of us that love to travel do. How the magic of spending time in a foreign country opens our hearts, our minds, our worlds and how golden moments come to pass that return you to the essence of what matters most.
The village was celebrating their patron saint’s day with a dinner to be held in the piazza (the entire village was invited). It also coincided with tombola (Bingo) night for the locals. I watched as the piazza first filled with folks of all ages. Most of the elderly were dressed to the nines – many having come from the surrounding countryside to play; each clutching their Tombola card. A band soon marched up the main street to usher in the start – a band
comprised of young and old, each clearly enjoying their role. Tombola soon began and the locals enthusiastically played until the finish. The band departed the way it had come and preparations turned to the festa about to begin. The tables had been laid out under the loggia during the day. Montalcino is a huge archery village and divided into four quartiere (or ‘quarters’) normally fierce rivals but this evening, each quartiere prepared food for the meal with everyone pitching in to help. After we took our food, we found a spot at a table, happily chatting with our neighbors while munching on fresh fava beans and spring pecorino. Old and young mingled.
Following the meal, together we all walked up to the top of the hill. Traffic was halted along the road. The streetlights were turned off. (Try that one in America!) The band returned. Fireworks began above the fortress.
It was during the fireworks when the band played the Montalcino anthem and everyone sang along that I realized how special this evening was for me. One little village coming together to celebrate not only life but their way of life. Long held traditions that still mattered. I was humbled and grateful to be part of this evening, even in the smallest way. And now I find myself tucked back at home with a smile still on my face, reminding myself to slow down, to celebrate the little things in life, and to hold close what matters most. And that, for me, is the beauty of travel.