I’ve been to Italy three times now. The first was all about cars, an Italian motorsport tour that included visits to the Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Maserati factories, along with attending the Italian Grand Prix. Yeah, it’s hard to top that if you’re a die-hard car enthusiast.
But there’s more to Italy than legendary cars, as I’ve come to realize over the years. The second time was about art and a bit about cars as I accompanied my artist wife Sheree Cogan to an art workshop in Tuscany. The car part involved road trips to ancient walled Tuscan villages with two husbands who also accompanied their artist wives on the trip. One had wheels and a map, all we needed for impromptu adventures and explorations during workshop hours when our artist wives were busy at their craft. Along the way, we visited must-see places like Gimignano, Monteriggioni, and Volterra, plus smaller villages.
The workshop was held at the Verrocchio Art Centre in the walled medieval village of Casole d’Elsa and taught by California artist Tricia Reichert. Reichert is an art instructor who teaches at her studio in Arroyo Grande, California and at nearby California State Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo. Sheree enjoyed the workshop. We both loved the village. And so, we returned for an art workshop sequel with Reichert this year, two years after our first visit to this charming hilltop village of just under a thousand people.
A short drive from more well-known destinations in Tuscany like Florence, Pisa, and Siena, Casole d’Elsa is an experience to be treasured. Tuscany is not like chaotic, car-choked Rome, where we arrived on a 12 hour nonstop Alitalia flight from LAX. It’s what you would imagine an Italian village to be like: life is calm, relaxed, and friendly.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Rome. The Coliseum, the Pantheon, the fountains, the art, the ancient ruins…the pervasive sense of history and culture that surrounds you. You can soak this up for weeks at a time, I imagine, but that’s not me. I prefer small doses of Roman immersion balanced with diverse Italian experiences, as I suspect is the case with many who visit this captivating land of food, wine, and art.
That brings us back to Casole d’Elsa, which comprised ten days of our latest Italian itinerary. Those ten days were glorious. Art students soaked up the beauty of their Tuscan environs while honing their art skills under the tutelage of Reichert. They benefitted from the welcoming embrace of the Verrocchio Art Centre, housed in a centuries-old complex that had once stored grapes and olives from the region and produced wine and olive oil. Acquired and rebuilt from a state of disrepair in the 1980s by noted English sculptor Nigel Konstam, the historical complex was repurposed into an art center and has become a Casole d’Elsa centerpiece. Konstam’s efforts have had an influence on the village over the years since art installations, sculptures, paintings, mosaics, and art tiles adorning ancient stone walls are now found virtually everywhere.
Some art students attending Reichert’s workshop stayed on-site in nine of the Verrocchio Art Centre’s available rooms. Others stayed at the nearby Torre dei Serviti hotel, a bed-and-breakfast partially built into the village’s protective wall and one of its turrets. There were also Airbnb properties along one of the two main brick-and-stone streets in the village. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay at Torre dei Serviti the first time we were in Casole d’Elsa. This time we took a more modern approach in the medieval village with a stay at Poppy’s Place, an Airbnb about a four-minute walk from the art center and an ancient stone’s throw from the village’s bakery, gelato shop, historic fort, church, and general hub of village activity.
There are a half-dozen or so eateries here including small restaurants, bars, pizzerias, and La Bottega di Casole, a wine/deli/sandwich shop run by friendly proprietors Mauro and Francesca. This shop was our go-to place for takeaway panini sandwiches, chips, spring water, beer, and Coke. There’s also a small wine shop with wine tasting and food to eat that is open during the evening. Expect real, traditional Italian cuisine in this village that’s hearty and tasty, but not particularly fancy. If you want something more elaborate, then there’s Tosca, a Michelin Star restaurant about a 10-minute drive away.
Art students enjoy fine dining every evening except for the one workshop night the kitchen staff has off, which means a night on the town. The evening meals prepared by Verrocchio Art Centre’s kitchen are truly fabulous, made all the better by being served on the outside patio amid superb Tuscan views and free-flowing wine. Nigel, the art center’s founder, dines with art students every night making the rounds between tables to share the history of Verrocchio Art Centre and information about the village.
The daily experience in Casole d’Elsa is relaxed and slow-paced. I found a perfect afternoon to sit at a trattoria’s outside table sipping an Aperol Spritz or a glass of wine while watching village life unfold. There are regular activities to experience here, as well. During my time in the village, there was a film festival, an opera, a weekly farmer’s market, a monthly environment-focused market, and more.
A stroll is a sensory adventure as you take in the sounds of the ancient village, the colors and textures, and the nuances that set it apart from the average everyday experience. There is always laundry hanging on lines outside windows since clothes washers are prevalent but not dryers. Colorful potted plants are everywhere – outside windows, on streets and steps, in doorways, on tables, and affixed to walls. Walk the village very early, and you might see an older gentleman in a white lab coat carefully sweeping in front of his shop, or the village street sweeper – man, not machine – dressed in reflective yellow work pants sweeping the streets with an interesting Italian take on a large broom. Casole d’Elsa is the kind of place that makes you smile.
There was a sense of sadness in leaving this medieval hilltop village at the end though further adventures are awaiting in larger and more well-known Italian locales. Casole d’Elsa can have that effect on you. It’s a sign that we will be back.
Photos: Sheree and Ron Cogan