Bella Tuscany

A pilgrimage to Bagno Vignoni reveals the daily miracles of Italian life.

Published April 14, 1999 12:08PM (EDT)

Ed is limping from a stone bruise. He leapt when his hoe suddenly
disturbed a snake. His foot came down on a jagged rock. "What kind?" I

"A very snaky-looking snake. Scared hell out of me. We were eye-to-eye." He's rubbing his foot with lotion.

"Let's go take the cure. We can be there by four."

"Then we can go on to Pienza for dinner. I'd like to drive up to
Montechiello, too. We've never been there."

Bagno Vignoni, the tiny hilltop town near San Quirico d'Orcia, and within
sight of the castle on top of Rocca d'Orcia, is built around a large
thermal pool where the Medicis used to soak themselves. Where the central
piazza is located in most towns, the pool (no longer used) reflects
tumbling plumbago, tawny stone houses and stone arcades. Not much is going
on in Bagno Vignoni. Right behind the village, a hot stream runs downhill,
through a travertine ditch. On either side you can sit down and soak your
feet just as Lorenzo il Magnifico did in 1490.

When I first started spending summers here, I read in an Italian newspaper
a heated debate over whether or not health insurance should continue to
cover yearly sojourns to spas and thermal springs, a practice many Italians
take as a birthright. I had been to Chianciano Terme and had seen people
clutching their livers while sipping small glasses of water.They otherwise
looked tan and fit. I glimpsed tanks where various body parts or the whole
corpo could be immersed for the absorption of the healing properties of
local waters. I've heard workers at our house discuss the merits of
various waters as though they were discussing wine. Italians are great
connoisseurs of the plainest elixir of all. I see them at various roadside
springs filling demijohns. Water is not just water; it has properties.

My grandmother used to take the sulphur waters for a week
at White Springs, Florida, down near the Sewanee River. I was deeply bored
and considered her a holdover from Victorian times. I only accompanied her
so that I could swim in the cold black springs, emerging from the water
smelling something like an old Easter egg. She waved from the third
latticed balcony around the spring, a small paper cup of the odorous water
in her other hand.

I did not expect to be drawn into this passion. Then I went to Bagno
Vignoni. I converted. Ed's stone bruise takes us now but we must go at
least once a year.

"Her dogs are barking," my aunt would say when we saw a woman whose feet had
swollen over the edges of her pumps. After a few weeks of hauling stone,
erecting trellises, and navigating stony streets, my dogs, too, are
barking. We like to arrive very early, before anyone has revealed their
work-torn, ailing, sometimes frightening feet. We're late today. I take
off my sandals, and slowly lower my own miserable feet into the running
water. Ed plunges his to the bottom.Then we notice a man with a red, red
nose paring his yellow-talon toenails into the water. He must not have cut
them for months. We stare as his big toenail, like a curl of wax, falls
into the water. We move upstream from him.

At fifty-two degrees Celsius, the shock of hot water on a hot day is
intense. Ed's size twelves magnify through the water next to my long
rabbit feet. Sometimes the water feels merely warm. Rubbing my heels
against the smooth travertine streambed, I concentrate on the invisible
but potent minerals which are starting to soothe blisters, relax tendons,
muscles, even purify nails and skin. Ed says his purple bruise is fading,
fading. The water starts to feel as though it's swirling through my
feet. When I close my eyes, only my feet seem to exist.

After twenty minutes, I'm back in my sandals, toes glowing lobster-red. Ed
slides on his espadrilles under water and squashes out. Cured.

This is the strange part. Walking back into town for a strawberry gelato,
not only do I feel a surge of euphoria, my feet feel as if they could
levitate. Everyday Italian life continues to astound me. What is in these
Italian waters?

We reach Montecchiello by a white road that climbs through fields of purple
lupin scattered with the last poppies. The walled town is mysteriously
empty. Finally we figure this out: Everyone has simply closed shop and
gone home to watch the big soccer match, which we hear blaring from every
window. As we wander, we encounter a man peeing outside the closed public
W.C. on the edge of town. Much of the castle wall is intact. Inside, the
streets are so clean they're like swabbed decks.

"It's tarted up," a friend had warned us. "I've never seen so many
geraniums in my life." True, they're on every stoop, step, and sill. The
effect is stunning against the immaculate shuttered houses and the pencils
of sunlight falling into medieval lanes. It's one of hundreds of such
hilltowns but one we'd never visited. We'll have to come back to find the
fabric shop I read is here and, since the church is locked, to see the
Lorenzetti Madonna. Even the priest probably is riveted to a small ball
being kicked around a TV screen.

Down, down from Montecchiello, leaving it to its rioting geraniums, through
the wildflower meadows, vineyards, passing abandoned and forlorn farmhouses
on hills, through the mellow early evening and pig smells, toward Pienza,
the first Renaissance town.

Pienza doesn't look like other towns. A pope with the splendid name of
Enea Silvio Piccolomini built it in honor of his own birthplace. He must
have knocked down most of the medieval buildings to put up his ultramodern
Renaissance town because it's a harmonious whole.

There's a story about Rossellino, the architect, that stakes the heart of
anyone involved in restoration or building. The architect overspent
outrageously and concealed it from the Pope. When the excess finally was
revealed, the Pope told him he was right to have hidden the sums because
never would the pontiff have authorized such expenditures and never would
he have had as his monument such a glorious town. He rewarded the
architect with gold and a fancy cape. Perhaps our first builder had heard
that story!

The piazza, bordered by the cathedral and several palaces for bishops,
canons, and the Pope, is staggeringly, astonishingly beautiful. Pienza is
glorious in all its parts, from the felicitous residential street along the
ramparts, to the iron flagholders and cunning rings fashioned in animal
shapes, where horses used to be secured while their owners did their
business in town. Today no horses, and no cars either, which
contributes to the silent and unified feeling of the town.
We wander the vicoli, the narrow streets, with evocative names: Vicolo
Cieco (blind), Via della Fortuna, Via delle Serve Smarrite (the lost
servants), Via dell'Amore, Via del Balzello (the heavy tax or, in dialect,
the man who looks at women), Via del Bacio (the kiss),Via Buia (dark).

The back end of Rossellino's airy cathedral is sinking, the porous limestone
soil beneath it giving way a little every year. An ominous crack that
looks as if it has been repaired with a staple gun runs down the wall and
continues across the floor. I visit my favorite painting here, the
martyred virgin Agata, who refused the attentions of Quintino and paid by
having her breasts torn off. She comes down through history holding her
severed breasts on a platter, which I originally took for a serving of
fried eggs. Women who fear for their own breasts invoke her, and she is the
patron saint of bell makers, too. Perhaps in a painting somewhere, the
dome-shaped breasts were mistaken for little bells.

I once read in a book about the medieval pilgrimage routes
that all the towns along the way were crowded with souvenir shops. So,
Pienza's plethora of stores selling ceramics to us on our various
pilgrimages has a precedent. This area is famous for its pecorino. The
street leading into the centro is lined with so many tempting shops selling
the round cheeses wrapped in leaves or ashes that the pungent smell follows
us down the street. We buy an aged pecorino (stagionato) and taste a
semi-aged one (semi-stagionato). Honey and herbs also are specialties.
Some are homeopathic -- we see a honey for the liver and one for the
respiratory system. One shop has pots of ruta, rue, which I'll add to my
herb garden.

I'm drawn by all these food shops and also repelled. Pienza has rather too
many; I'd like to see the shoe repair and the grocery store back on the
main street.What remains of the ancient craft of ferro battuto, wrought
iron, is an upscale shop selling lamps and tables and a few antique gates
and andirons to the tourists down from Bologna or Milano for the weekend.
And to us, of course. We look at their hanging iron lanterns with glass
globes that end in a rounded teardrop, reproductions of old ones still on
some streets of Siena and Arezzo. We need a light outside by the limonaia
and one for overhead in a bedroom. They have them. I also buy an old iron
that opens up to hold hot coals.The worn wooden handle tells me somebody
pushed this five pounder over many a work shirt and apron.

Just outside the main gate we find a trattoria with a terrace. I'm
thrilled anytime to see fried zucchini blossoms.We fall onto pork
tenderloin grilled with rosemary, roasted potatoes with lots of pepper, and
a salad of young arugula barely touched with good oil.

Around the cathedral piazza, the dignified pale stone buildings have
travertine extensions around the bases. They serve as benches and over the
years have been polished smooth by the bottoms that rested there while
viewing the great well and the Pope's magnificent piazza. Over one is
inscribed "canton de'bravi," corner of the good. Do we qualify? We're feeling
dreamy after dinner, the travertine still warm from the sun. We
watch a small girl in a white sailor dress chasing a kitten. The full moon
is poised over Piccolomini's perfect piazza. "Amazing what a little
egomania and a lot of gold can do," Ed says.

"Perhaps he even ordered the full moon to drift overhead every night."

Another soccer match blares from the TV in the bar, so the women and babies
are outside, the men inside. In a piazza just off the main one, another TV
has been set up outdoors beside a Renaissance well and all the neighbors
have brought out their chairs into the early evening to cheer and shout for
Italy. The blue light of the screen reflects on the semicircle of rapt
faces. Arm-in-arm we walk the rampart road. For the second time today,
I'm astounded by everyday life in Italy. Ed holds out his foot and says he
feels no pain at all.

By Frances Mayes

Frances Mayes is the author of "Under the Tuscan Sun" and five collections of poetry, most recently "Ex Voto." She is a professor of creative writing at San Francisco State University.

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