By Steve Siciliano
Loro Ciuffenna is a small town tucked in the southern foothills of the Pratomagno, a range of medium-sized mountains located in the northeast region of Tuscany. The town was built up along the sides of a deep gorge and, if you’re brave enough, you can cautiously shuffle up to the waist-high railing of an ancient stone bridge just off the central piazza and gaze far down below at a tumbling mountain stream. Among the stone buildings that rise up along the steep cliffs is a water-powered mill dating from the 13th century, and just downstream from the mill is the small hotel called Casa Eugenia where Barb and I stayed during our six days in Tuscany.
Many Tuscan hill towns are surrounded by immense stone walls that were erected as protection from invasions during the middle ages. If you’re traveling in Tuscany by car, you park in lots outside those walls and walk up to the towns on steep, narrow, stone paved roads called vicolo (little streets). There are no walls surrounding Loro Ciuffenna—apparently it wasn’t strategic enough to be worth invading. But, as in most Tuscan towns, unless you live there or work there, you are not permitted to drive on the streets. After parking our rental car, Barb and I rolled our suitcases up and down the vicoli looking for Casa Eugenia.
Because we were a bit frazzled after getting lost on our drive up from Chiusi, and because we had such a hard time communicating our predicament, we were euphoric that we were able to find the hotel so easily. That euphoria quickly dissipated after discovering that the only entrance to the hotel—a glass door—was locked. After a few minutes of knocking and peering into the dark lobby, Barb noticed a hand written sign—suonare il campanello—and after consulting our Italian/English dictionary we were able to deduce what the words meant—ring the buzzer. We kept ringing that buzzer for five minutes. Finally I left Barb with our luggage and walked back up the vicolo where I saw an old lady walking slowly behind two little white terriers.
“Buongiorno,” I said.
“Buongiorno,” she answered.
“Inglese?” I asked hopefully.
She stared at me. I pointed down the vicolo towards the hotel. “Casa Eugenia,” I said. “We’re staying there. The door is locked.” I made a gesture that I’d hoped would convey an attempt at opening a door.
“Eh?” the lady said.
“Casa Eugenia.” I said again, pointing. I put my palms together and laid my head on my hands. “We’re sleeping there,” I said, pointing again. “We can’t get in.”
She walked a little ways down the vicolo until she spotted Barb standing at the door with our luggage. “Ah,” she said, followed by a lengthy stream of (to me) unintelligible Italian.
She began walking and not knowing what else to do I followed. After a few minutes we were in Loro Ciuffenna’s piazza. She stopped abruptly and pointed towards one of those little cafes with a few outdoor tables that in Italy are called bars.
“Andare,” she said.
“Si, si. Andare.”
I relunctantly left my new friend and walked into the bar. Two old men were standing at the counter drinking espressos and there was another old man standing behind the counter. All three eyed me suspiciously. “Inglese?” I asked the man behind the counter without much optimism.
“Yes, I speak English,” he replied in a British accent. I was so surprised to hear perfect English, let alone perfect English with a British accent, in a small hill town in Tuscany, and so relieved that I was actually able to explain my dilemma, that I had to restrain myself from hugging him. He happened to be the hotel owner’s father. He told me that his son Carlos was running errands and that his daughter-in-law Francesca was at the dentist. He made a phone call. “Carlos will be there in five minutes.” I found out later that Carlos’ Italian grandfather was stationed in England during World War II and that his father had been born there.
Carlos and Francesca turned out to be extremely charming hosts. They too spoke very good English, minus a British accent. Each morning they laid out wonderful breakfasts of sweets, fresh fruits, meats, cheeses, cold cereal, crusty Tuscan bread and huge, steaming cups of excellent coffee. They offered advice and printed out directions for our day trips in Tuscany. They gave us suggestions on where to eat, places to go and things to see.
One morning after an all-night rain they convinced us that it would be too dangerous that day to drive. When Barb and I were walking through Loro Ciuffenna’s narrow streets after breakfast we saw that the tumbling stream had transformed into a roaring, deep-plunging, mist-generating torrent. We hiked up a high hill on the outskirts of town, up through neat vineyards and stands of olive trees to an ancient stone church. While we rested we gazed out at the mist-draped valley and watched bolts of lighting flashing in the distance. The next day we heard that some tourists had died in Chianti when their car veered off a rain-slick road.
On our last evening in Loro Ciuffenna we were sitting outside the bar in the piazza when the old lady walked up with her two little dogs. Communicating with fragments of Italian and a good deal of hand gestures, we learned that her name was Deena, that the names of her dogs were Romeo and Juliet, that her husband had recently died and that she was suffering from a lung ailment. She went into the bar and came out with a pack of cigarettes.
“Buonasera,” she said and smiled as she walked past us.
“Buonasera,” we answered.