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   killing time in Montepulciano
Saturday, May 14 2011

location: Il Riccio, Montepulciano, Italy

We only had two nights at Il Riccio, but Gretchen had been loving Montepulciano so much that she found us another place for us to spend another night down the hill. We had one last morning up on the Il Riccio rooftop terrace, packed our things, and checked out. On the way to our new place, L'Agnolo Di Caroti Cinzia, we stopped at a grocery store so Gretchen could buy bags of pici, which (as far as we know) is impossible to get in the United States of America.
We had our pick between two rooms in L'Agnolo Di Caroti Cinzia, both of them grandly high-ceilinged. Gretchen had me make the decision, so I picked the slightly smaller room (it was technically more of a suite) that had genuine fresco on the ceiling. The fresco was old and had stymied attempts to repair cracks in the plaster, though it was surprisingly secular (or, perhaps, pagan) in what it depicted.
Part of the deal with staying at L'Agnolo Di Caroti Cinzia is that you can go to the café across the street and get coffee and snacks for free. We took advantage of that to get my morning espresso (which, at this point in the trip, had graduated to duples).
It wasn't long before we'd climbed the hill a ways in search of lunch. We were looking for an outdoor place that wasn't too sunny (it was still a bit cool in the shade, but as on the surface of the Moon, to be in the sun was uncomfortable in the opposite way). We found a place with a suitably zuppa-rich menu called Enoteca La Dolce Vita. The outside seating was totally exposed to the sun, but since our nearest star wouldn't remain for long centered over the narrow masonry canyon overhead, it seemed doable. (Indeed, we only were deprived of shade for about fifteen minutes.) We both ordered soups, and while Gretchen also ordered bruschetta (meh!), I ordered the first microbrewed beer I'd encountered on this vacation, made by Birrificio L'Olmaia. It cost 8.5 euros, came in a big champagne bottle, and was both complex and exotic enough for me, and malty and restrained enough for Gretchen.
Like many Tuscan masonry hilltowns, Montepulciano occupies the site of an ancient Etruscan town (the Etruscans being the non-Indo-European people who preceded the Romans in Italy). We'd hoped to see some Etruscan artifacts while we were here, though the fact of the matter is that little of modern Montepulciano dates from before the 16th Century. To see Etruscan stuff, we'd have to go underground. We'd heard that the way down was via a wine cellar (and we'd been able to look into some of these from the Montepulciano's lower streets). But our first try failed because we were at an Enoteca located too high on the hill. The place to go is Avignonesi low on the hill on its northeast end. At the top is a riot of wine tasting, but if one descends stairs one can access a labyrinth of gorgeous brick-vaulted tunnels filled with various sizes of wine kegs (some capable of storing hundreds of gallons). Occasionally even the lower tunnels lead to daylight (the access to the tunnels we'd seen on Montepulciano's lower streets). But once one gets low enough, the brick-lined tunnels end and are replaced with cruder tunnels carved directly into the bedrock, perhaps by the Etruscans. Making those tunnels hadn't required as much work as rock tunneling normally does; the bedrock in Montepulciano is soft and easily scratchable with a fingernail (both Gretchen and I successfully demonstrated this to ourselves. As for actual Etruscan artifacts, there were almost none. A few statues behind iron bars was, it was claimed, an "Etuscan temple." We emerged back into the Enoteca, sampled some wine and grappa (the latter tasted like isopropyl alcohol), and then went back to our luxurious hotel for some down time. Nobody had checked in except for us, so we had the whole enormous space to ourselves.
For dinner I was craving pizza, so we decided to go to Trattoria di Cagnano near A Gambe di Gatto. They have great outdoor seating and the place seemed popular. But somehow we'd made another miscalculation on the time it opened (again, 7:30 pm), so we found ourselves wandering the streets of Montepulciano as slowly as possible trying to kill the intervening time. We stopped to pet any stray cats we encountered and ducked into stores selling crappy stuff for tourists to buy (and us to mock; the only products that interested Gretchen in this town were bags of pici and dehydrated Tuscan zuppa). The problem with killing time in Montepulciano is that the town is too damn small; we walked to the farthest end of Montepulciano and slowly walked back and, even moving slowly, it was possible to traverse the length of the town in under ten minutes. We'd been up and down the main drag of Montepulciano (Via di Gracciano nel Corso and Via di Voltaia nel Corso) so many times that we could now anticipate landmarks along it before the came into view: the Italian language school, the place where the street is too steep for restaurants with outdoor seating, and the Dirty Bank (BancaEtruria, with its surprisingly grimy exterior).
Eventually we had our seat in Trattoria di Cagnano outdoor patio, where we placed an order for a half litre of wine, soup, pici in truffle sauce, and, for me, a pizza. Service was slow, but we were in no hurry. We saw Emanuel from A Gambe di Gatto talking on a cellphone out in the street and we hid our faces; we were a little embarrassed to be seen by him slumming so egregiously.
Meanwhile a German couple had taken the table to my left and they proceeded to order (in English, the lingua franca of Europe) a huge piece of meat, only a tiny fraction of which they proved capable of eating before complaining about being cold and asking to be relocated to another table indoors. They abandoned the carcass on their table.
Meanwhile Gretchen was so happy with her truffle pici that she didn't want it to end. At some point she was down to just some leftover sauce, though she continued to guard her plate to keep it from being taken by the waiter. She joked with him at one point (in broken Italian) that she was considering getting another order of truffle pici, which the waiter interpreted to mean she actually did want another order. When it came, Gretchen was surprised and delighted, as were the people at the table to my right, Italians who had been watching the drama of the pici as it played out.
There was another drama Trattoria di Cagnano tonight, and it involved the animal world. We saw an enthusiastic off-white collie mix come bounding up out of the secret ninja path across Via di Voltaia nel Corso, glance down the street to make sure there was no oncoming traffic, and then continue past us, up the stairs adjacent to our restaurant. We'd seen that dog running around off-leash yesterday. He's about 50 pounds and seems completely uninterested in people or other dogs. And then a calico cat showed up to patrol Trattoria di Cagnano's outdoor patio. Cats aren't big fans of vegan food, but Gretchen found the cat was willing to lick truffle oil off of bread. (And any cat that won't eat bread is a well-fed one.)
The enthusiastic dog came through many more times, patrolling up and down Via di Voltaia nel Corso and its various secret ninja paths. I wondered what would happen if he saw the calico cat, and I eventually got my answer: he strayed too near the patio at one point and the cat came running after him to attack, and he fled down the street.
On our walk back to our hotel, we encountered the enthusiastic dog on the steps of a secret ninja path. Gretchen went up to give him some love, but he wasn't having any; he started barking at her and wouldn't stop. Evidently she had violated Montepulciano protocol.


View from the rooftop patio at Il Riccio.


View from the rooftop patio at Il Riccio.


View from the rooftop patio at Il Riccio.


View from the rooftop patio at Il Riccio, featuring the Montepulciano's lovely masonry chimneys.


Me on the Il Riccio rooftop patio.


Swifts (or swallows) over Montepulciano. It's a great town for cliff-dwelling birds.


A fresco on the ceiling at our new place, L'Agnolo Di Caroti Cinzia.


Our new room at L'Agnolo Di Caroti Cinzia.


Me at lunch.


Gretchen explains the layout of a Roman synagogue: the men are arranged like the fork and the women like the knife and all they do is look at each other.


A wine cellar.


A tacky diorama within the Basilico of Saint S'Agostino (next door to our new hotel). We had to pay some money to get it illuminated.


The similarity of this word to "retard" was cause for a certain amount of politically-incorrect humor, including things said as though one's tongue is too big for one's mouth. Yes, we're going to differently-abled hell.


One of Montepulciano's many retaining walls near Piazza Grande.


A phallic bit of iron work near Piazza Grande on Via Ricci.


East of Montepulciano at dusk.


Via di Voltaia nel Corso.


"The Dirty Bank."


Trattoria di Cagnano: Gretchen is sad because the pici is almost done. But then she accidentally ordered some more.


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