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It Takes a Villa
Who has read or seen "Under the Tuscan Sun" and not yearned for a villa in the Tuscan countryside?
Scenery straight from a Renaissance painting: tall pointed cypresses, hilltop towns, and rolling green hills blanketed by vineyards and olive trees. Pure, simple flavors, washed down with lots of wine.
The "voluptuousness" of Italy -- in the words of author Frances Mayes -- that awakens all five senses, enriches the moment, and can make a trip home seem like leaving Technicolor for black and white.
So I sign up for a week of cooking classes, wine tastings, town tours and a stay in a former farmhouse in an unknown and less populated part of Tuscany, called La Maremma, which boasts many fortified towns, a seacoast and a town nicknamed "Little Jerusalem" for its ancient Jewish heritage.
My arrival at Villa Poggiarello, home for the week and one of eight properties used by tour operator Tuscan Way, seems promising. Cypresses standing like sentinels line the driveway.
When I lean from my windows in a stone house, I'm rewarded with a view right out of "Tuscan Sun": vineyards and silvery-green olive groves as far as the eye can see.
Dinner at the villa -- featuring wine produced by the owners' winery, Muralia -- intensifies my anticipation.
Montepulciano, a beautiful small town perched atop a ridge where many well-preserved palaces of brick or stone hail from the 14th and 15th centuries, is our first official tour. In Creazioni d'Arte, I spot ceramics portraying the exact landscapes we've just passed in the 11/2 hour drive from our villa.
Walking down to the brick-vaulted cellar, I spot tombs from the Etruscans, whose civilization flourished in central Italy starting about 2,700 years ago -- one of many jarring juxtapositions in Italy, like a traffic jam next to Rome's Colosseum.
Since Montepulciano is known for a full-bodied red wine called Vino Nobile, we taste a few at the aptly-named Enoteca La Dolce Vita. In the afternoon, we taste Brunello, a pricey garnet-colored red wine made in Montalcino, considered one of Italy's best, at a small family-owned winery, La Fornace.
Back at the villa, we cook dinner with our tour guide, Romeo Innocenti, and his wife, Federica, who resembles a Botticelli angel. "Throw out that butter!" seems to be the mantra of Italian cooking. "I would rather be in jail than eat French food!" exclaims Romeo, a bit prone to hyperbole.
We're in a part of the world where centuries-old contests, pageantry and traditions abound. In Siena, a magnificently preserved city of palaces, mansions, towers and gates in Italian Gothic style, we see the main square where a famous horse race is held each summer.
The race in the shell-shaped Piazza del Campo (the Palio) follows a spectacular parade of men in colorful medieval costumes. Each of Siena's 17 neighborhoods has its own flag, animal symbol, colors, museum.
Pitigliano, the small Maremma town called "Little Jerusalem," has a dramatic setting atop a sandstone outcrop at the edge of a gorge. A safe refuge for Jews who fled the Papal States and other parts of Tuscany in the 16th century after edicts confined them to ghettoes in Rome, Florence, Siena and Ancona, it was a feudal enclave in Tuscany's southeast corner ruled by the Counts Orsini, a wealthy Roman family.
In an 1841 census, Jews accounted for 12 percent of its population of 3,100. Italy's first Jewish newspaper was founded by the Servi brothers here.
Its mayor raised money in the 1990s to restore its synagogue, built in 1598 -- an inscription inside notes a visit from an 18th century duke who praised its beauty; a gilded wooden balustrade inlaid with leaf designs encloses the women's section.
Echoes of the area's Jewish heritage -- almost no Jews live in Pitigliano today -- survive in Italian Jewish sweets like sfratti (walnut honey cookies spiced with cinnamon and cloves), traditional for Rosh Hashanah; and a kosher version of its well-known white wine, Bianco di Pitigliano, sold in local shops.
A "La Piccola Gerusalemme" association was formed to cherish the long amity between Jews and Christians in Pitigliano. Yad Vashem has honored several local Christian families for rescuing their neighbors during World War II, and a 1999 commemoration was held here marking the time 200 years before when townspeople saved Jewish residents from riots.