I literally dove head first into this Cafe Americano (American Coffee) and possibly threw in a couple back flips as well! I really enjoyed this extraordinary “cup of Joe”.
Apparently the term Cafe Americano has Italian origins, derived from World War II when coffee drinking American GI’s found the Italian espresso a tad too strong for their weaker palates. They diluted the strong espresso with additional acqua calda (hot water) and thus, a new drink was born Cafe Americano – an example of something positive, culinary, emerging from WWII.
The pictured Cafe Americano came with a glass of hot water and a small glass of latte scremato (steamed milk) on the side. This is the first time I had been served a Cafe Americano in this authentic manner. I must have looked like I was a little “too weak to handle the strong stuff”. The San Gusme cafe owner was right, I savoured and prolonged this cafe right to the bitter end.
After our breakfast interlude we set off for the Sant’ Antimo Abbey and I must admit the extra jolt from the cafe gave my lagging energy levels a boost.
The first time my husband and I had driven from the Casale (country home) on Villa Arceno to the Sant’ Antimo Abbey, I had hoped the 42 km drive would never end. So unlike my days as a child when I would yelp from the deep back seat of the family Buick “are we there yet?”, “are we there yet” with military precision.
There are so many beautiful areas in Tuscany but the countryside surrounding Sant’ Antimo is truly spectacular. The land is rich with Brunello producing wineries whose small and large vineyards weave and wind up and down the hills. The green, gold and brown swathes of pasture lands intersect as languid farm animals graze peacefully their days away. Mammoth cypress trees and theatrical looking umbrella pines punctuate the landscape with the ever-changing colour of the olive tree leaves moving from silver-grey through various spectrums of green. Simply breathtaking.
Our car slowed as we approached the gravel road leading to the Abbey as we tried to avoid raising the white dust and pitching any stones. I noted the small store Abbazia di Sant’ Antimo at the top of the entrance remained open selling prodotti monastici e local tipica (monastic and local typical products) such as olive soaps, olive wood, books etc. I had previously purchased a recipe book with local traditional Tuscan fare as I had wanted to make Panforte.
That following Christmas I parcelled out the rich, chewy, honey, nut and fruit laden 13th century Tuscan delicacy to friends and family. I simply enjoyed the memories the cake brought back of that years travels, however I believe a few recipients were somewhat perplexed by my impromptu change from steamed plum pudding to Panforte.
David pulled the vehicle gracefully onto to the side of the gravel road as the parking lot near the Abbey appeared full. Many other drivers had the same idea as the visitors moved about this incredibly positioned property. The Abbey sits in a large valley and appears to be cupped by the extended hands of the hills leading to Montalcino.
There is a particular sense of peace and solitude that accompanies Sant’ Antimo however, I felt disheartened to learn the resident Benedictine Monks (the White Friars of France) had departed back to their homeland at the end of 2015.
We laughed as I recalled our first visit to Sant’ Antimo in 2006. My friend Sydney was staying with us on Villa Arceno and as we had done today, we parked on the side of the gravel road. We were hastily gathering our things to depart the vehicle, our hands were on the door latches when the couple in the car in front of us opened their car trunk.
The couple proceeded to remove their walking sticks and I was thinking “what a wonderful day for a hike to Montalcino”, it was a lovely cool fall day.
The gentleman of unknown origin, proceeded to drop his pants with accompanying undergarments and bent over as he pulled on his walking regalia. I looked at Sydney and murmured, “ I had thought we would see some medieval sites but this was not exactly what I had in mind”. We laughed uncontrollably with tears rolling down our checks, accompanied by deep belly laughs. David gave us both a stern side glance, a slight smirk and said “Lets get going, I think you have seen enough”.
The Sant’ Antimo Abbey is a magnificent Romanesque 11th Century travertine structure believed to have some portions built by Charlemagne in the 9th Century. It is an interesting sensation when you realize you are standing where many civilizations have walked before, “What were they thinking?”, “How difficult were their lives?”
The exterior of the Abbey is as sleek as it is beautiful in its simplicity. With rounded curves your hands just ache to touch. A lone church bell tower sits to one side with one gigantic cyprus tree that oddly hovers at its hip, just seeming to want to snuggle in. The light hue of the travertine glows softly, beckoning you to visit. There are ancient olive trees whose trunks are wide, roots well cast and limbs gnarled in a haunting yet safe way. “I wonder if Charlemagne sat beneath an olive tree here while taking a break from the Tuscan sun?”
The grounds behind the Sant’ Antimo Abbey are covered in lavender plants. The scent in the air is fresh with the steady hum of bees enjoying their lavender buffet. Our feet touch the wooden threshold of the Abbey and the coolness of the inside draws us in. The entrance is guarded by two impressive lion statues who seem to just want to run outside. I am always struck by the plain interior of the Abbey, devoid of the famous and colourful paintings found in other Italian treasures. A different time, with simple animal and vegetable carvings providing decoration. The herringbone designed terra-cotta tiles echoes as visitors shuffled with their faces turned upward to the charming vaulted ceilings and incomplete interior. A dramatic 13th Century Crucifix stands behind the altar and is a natural focal point, while impressive columns of both travertine and alabaster seem to prop up the interior. Slivers of sun shine stream through the small windows reflecting off the beautiful alabaster. Such a soft and enthralling effect.
We sit near the centre of the Abbey on rustic wooden benches that are befitting the Abbey’s simplicity. My aching back seeks the simple wooden design that is found at the centre of the benches for support. We sit in sweet silence and listen to the piped in Gregorian chants.
During a visit in 2014, the Gregorian chants were commencing and seven Monks entered the Abbey from the right. Their white robes billowing as they took their seats at the front of the Abbey, each facing one another on the wooden pews, except for an odd man out. Three sat on one side and four sat on the other. With closed eyes the Monks began to chant, their ridged upper bodies moving slowly back and forth toward each other as their harmonies entwine. Looking around the Abbey, I saw those gathered beginning to move in synchronicity, it was a lovely moment. The sounds of the Monks voices were calming and it was a time for quiet reflection.
And then it happened… a blood hound that had obviously picked up a scent came meandering into the Abbey. His head bobbed as he moved up the centre aisle, weaving in and out of the pews, sniffing the tourists trying to shoo him away. Our long-eared canine then proceeded to wonder amongst the still chanting Monks. I internally cringed, bit my lip and squeezed my husbands knee as I waited for a reaction, but none came. Not one Monk missed a hmm or humma and as quickly as the hound dog came in, out he went. Now that was a perfect example of an Italian moment – Happenstance. No over reaction to a natural occurrence by a divine creature. “Had the Monks passed a test?”
As the piped in music finished, I thought how lovely this visit had been despite not having the Monks perform in person. However, there is no experience that can replace a moment with Monks and a blood hound!
With the vespers completed we continued to meander around the Abbey, going down to the crypt and finally purchasing a lavender sachet and a CD of Gregorian chants (just in case I needed some quiet reflective time).
We left the Abbey as we always do, content and laughing about our latest Tuscan adventure.
As I sat smelling my lavender sachet on the ride back to the Casale, a broad smile creeped across my face as I wondered, “What ever happened to that hound?”
Until another time.
Antimo.it (Sant’ Antimo)
Filicorblog.com (Cafe Americano)
Wikipedia (Cafe Americano and Sant’ Antimo)