An Affordable Tuscany for the Meat-and-Potatoes Man

Filed in Uncategorized by on March 21, 2007 0 Comments

Leafing through travel magazines, it’s easy to get the impression that Central Italy is all about tip-toeing through herb gardens in floral sundresses, picking poppies in the fields, and shopping for hand bags in Florence.


Not my Tuscany. My Tuscany is a contact-sport-watching populace of men who cook with fire and drink red wine without looking at the labels; where the epitome of haute cuisine is an aged T-bone steak covered in salt, and an ideal weekend is one spent driving at ridiculous speeds to a place where you can see knights joust or fire flaming arrows from crossbows, then play in a pool of hot mud and cap it all off with a torture museum and a rodeo.


At least, that’s my Tuscany when I have the place to myself. If you fly to Italy in the spring and avoid the crowds, you also can cash in on other advantages awarded only to the early birds. First of all, the flights are much cheaper. For example, because I will be flying there soon but need to return on Aug. 1, not only can I not use my frequent flyer miles — which as we all know are utterly useless for flights to and from Europe in the summer — but I’m also paying about $1,000 instead of about $400 for an earlier return.


Secondly, there are a number of masculine festivals that take place only in May and June, and other springtime activities that are manlier in nature than anything else you’ve read about Under the Tuscan sun. Here are a few of them to shoehorn into your plans with the Missus:


Feats of Strength: May is the month for crossbow competitions all across Central Italy. In Cortona (incidentally, the land of “Under the Tuscan Sun” author Frances Mayes) there is the Giostro dell’Archiado on May 18, where not only do marksmen compete in 14th century costume, but the little ones can try their hand at smashing walnuts with mallets at the same time. Two days later, in Massa Maritima, archers try to launch their flaming arrows into tiny targets. The last Sunday of May, in Gubbio, the locals match their crossbow skills against those of a rival Umbrian city, Sansepolcro.


Florence hosts two testosterone-fueled and very entertaining events in June: One is a regatta on June 23 where local oarsmen try to out-row the competition from Pisa and Livorno. The next day, you can see the toughest game in town, the Gioco di Calcio Storico, or old-school soccer game, where men play soccer the way it was meant to be played: a rugby-like, no-holds-barred melee of fists and body-checks, all duked out on a dirt-covered square. Ouch.


Finally, Pisa probably has the most Neanderthal competition of all, on the last Sunday in June, when large men on either end of the city’s oldest bridge try to shove a seven-ton cart onto the opponent’s side. I think that says it all, right there.


Mud Baths: I’m not talking about cucumber slices on eyelids here, I’m talking about splashing around in hot, white mud in a natural volcanic spring in Saturnia, southern Tuscany. Your significant other may prefer to do the spa thing in the nearby thermal baths, while you soak up the dirt along with a few Romans listening to the soccer game on transistor radio.


Meat: Tuscany means meat. Wild boar is my favorite – “cinghiale” on menus. My most memorable experience with the stuff was enjoying a wild-boar sandwich on the summit of Monte Amiata during a lunch break from skiing, and looking over next to me to see a stuffed boar, tusks and all, watching me chew my way through his progeny. The legendary Tuscan meat, though, is from the nearby Valdichiana, the land of the Fiorentina steak: an aged T-bone sizzled on the grill and served with sea salt and a few drops of olive oil. Order one at any good restaurant and thank me later.


Cowboy stuff: You’ve heard of ‘Spaghetti Westerns’. Those were filmed mostly in Corsica and Sardinia to mimic the landscapes of the American West.  But there is a real Wild West in Italy, with cowboys called butteri, centered in the part of southern Tuscany known as the Maremma. Go horseback riding through the rolling hills, courtesy of any local cattle ranch, and be sure to ask them about the rodeos that spring up from time to time down there, or just south of the border in the region of Lazio.


Torture Museums: As a brief caveat, I should mention here that Tuscany was the first place in the world to outlaw the death penalty, and the left-leaning region now frowns on torture in any of its forms around the world. That said, the land of Macchiavelli did sort of perfect both processes back in the Middle Ages, and their macabre methods are on display in more than one Tuscan town.


The most gripping of all is the one in San Gimignano, with all kinds of gruesome instruments on display, and detailed instructions on how to use them. Now that I think of it, I said this would be fun for both men and women, and considering the chastity belts and even more unpleasant devices there, it might be best to meet her back at the flower store after splurging on a few gruesome hours for yourself.

John Moretti is a freelance travel writer who divides his time between Europe, Florida and Vermont. He is the author of “Living Abroad in Italy” (Avalon, 2004) as well as a number of guidebooks. He writes about European sports and culture for the New York Sun.  

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