Sorano's Festa delle Cantine. Will you walk down dark dank throats to reach the wine in the cellars deep beneath this stunning ancient city? And a candlelit dinner of home cooked Tuscany dishes. The recipes of which have been handed down from mother to daughter, to granddaughter, for generations. No pen and paper involved. Taught from when they were knee-high in the family kitchen.
The festival of the cellars in Sorano is about wonderful wine and real, slow, food. In great company. And. A rare opportunity. To visit an underground world in a truly magical Tuscan town. Only visible the other three hundred and sixty-one days of the year to the owners of the buildings above them.
But it is even more than that. Because these underground cellars drill deep. Tens of metres deep. Into the tufa cliffs of a gorge. Dug-out by pick axe by families to create rooms to press their grapes and olives after the harvests. And cool storage cellars. Some incorporate excavations by the hands of pre-historic and Etruscan man.
When you walk down into their depths, you are, literally, walking back in time. Thirty centuries of time. And more. Much more.
You won't see the entrance to the "cake" cantina from the street. First you have to go through double doors into a room where the cakes and biscuits and tables and chairs are laid out. A room that runs the whole length of the palazzo building above it. To the very back. And out into the open again, into a tiny internal courtyard.
Then you will see these doors.
The guys in charge of the opening of this cellar told me that their cantina isn't the most beautiful of those to be found in Sorano. The palazzo next door that has belonged to a noble family from Siena for generation after generation, apparently has a cellar to be admired. But it stays closed.
Nonetheless, I thought the "dolce" cantina was something to write home about.
Each of Sorano's cellars has a ground-floor room called the "tinaio".
A tunnel, hand-carved out of the tufa rock on which Sorano sits. Sometimes tens of metres long. Called the, "gola". The throat.
That connects it to the deepest room. The "bottaio".
The thermal insulation properties of the tufa rock maintains the side "rooms" along each gola and the bottaio at constant temperatures and humidity throughout the year.
It was here that each family brought the grapes from their land. Pressed them by hand. And then watched over the fermentation. Before storing the wine for the family's table for the forthcoming year.
Thanks for the sneak peek before opening time guys!
And for the cakes! The guys made most of them. The "hole" in the apple and sultana cake is, partly, due to me! My excuse is that I couldn't stay for dinner and needed sustenance for the long drive home ;)
The second Sorano cellar. The cantina in Via del Ghetto, the old Jewish quarter of the city. You can't miss it. Just follow your nose to the chestnuts roasting in the open fire in front of it's door.
NB. You don't have to eat with the hosts for the night to take a look down those steps. The cellars are open to all. But best not to wait until the rooms at their depths are filled with diners later in the evening, as there won't be room to turn around!
Looking back up to the way out.
The third "cantina: I visited. The ladies at this one were getting ready to serve dinner. And at 18:30 the food was on it's way.
In an Ape. Slowly, ever so slowly. Inch by inch. Creeping it's way down steep Via Roma. It's open back packed with a cargo of colossal saucepans. Each filled to the brim with home-cooked food.
With men behind and to each side guiding the driver. Eyes peeled on the saucepan lids, not the road! I suspect that, after all the hard work put into preparing their precious contents, their lives were at risk if the Ape arrived with a morsel less than it had started out!
All mingled with locals passing by telling the ensemble that they would be eating with them and checking which one of the ladies waiting on the food to arrive down in the cellar was the one to book a table with. As they didn't want to miss out.
So my tip is, if you haven't already guessed, get there early and speak to one of the women with aprons on to book if you want to "mangia bene" (dine really well) in one of Sorano's cellars. Tables are very limited.
Dining out in Tuscany doesn't get much more memorable than this.
Custom-built wine racks. The perfect design and conditions for wine bottle storage. I have lightened the photo I took so that you can see the bottles in the wall. It is much darker down there!
This is what the light is actually like! Looking back up from the dining room for the night.
Sorano's cellars are open over three/four days at the end of October each year - including Halloween, which I have to say is the perfect day to go - into November.
The 2016 dates were From Saturday the 29th October to Tuesday 2nd November. (The 2nd of November is always a national holiday day.)
Just a little note.
I didn't realise until I got to Sorano on the Saturday morning to see the cellars, that they don't open on the first day until the evening. At around 18:30. On the subsequent two days they are open all day.
The cellar opening hours are:
Saturday from 18:00 to 24:00
Sunday and Monday from 11:00 to 24:00
Monday from 11:00 to 15:00.
Apart from lunch and dinner, you can also try a glass or two of "vino novello" - the just pressed new wine of the year in the cellars. Or listen to a concert. The musical line-up in the "cantine" changes each night, encompassing something for everyone. From dance, to funk, rock and roll, pop and soul.
Does your partner like to be up and about early in the morning for a dose of exercise? Then the organisers of the Festa delle Cantine have you covered.
And in a rather special way.
With mountain bike and trekking tours of the Vie Cave. The bike tour starts at 08:00 in the morning. And the trekking an hour and a half later, at 09:30.
And when all that is done and a ramble up and down the very up and down streets of Sorano is just the thing that is called for. There is shopping. Artisan shopping. All day, in a tiny market in the town's main square, Piazza Busatti.
Now, it's not the Oltrano streets of Firenze artisan shopping by a long stretch. But local, rural, handmade crafts. Where you will find one-off hats and hand-made toys.
Whilst along the streets, behind doors normally closed that open onto arched-roof spaces. Knitwear made with love by clicking-clacking needles in front of a fire during the winter. Or in a Tuscany doorway catching the sun. Clever hands that produce one of a kind garments from a one of it's kind town.
And olive wood walking sticks that look like snakes or geese. Hardwood prunings chosen for their form and burnt with poker irons to bring to life what keen eyes saw when they picked it up in the field.
But. If you can't be in Sorano at the end of October, you won't miss out on atmosphere by visiting at another time. Just stay for night fall.
This is one of Sorano's streets at night. In tact medieval. With well-worn smooth stone steps just calling you to trace them down. To add to its living memory of the feet of countless medieval men, women, and children in smocks and surcoats. And Knights and nobility in custom-made stockings and gloves.
The insediamento rupestre di San Rocco: an ancient rock settlement of early humans, Etruscans and medieval man. That will give you the spooks.
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