People can be so virtuous when it comes to the appropriate amount of luggage to pack for an overseas trip. I was packing for a six-week wine journey through Italy when I was asked, quite seriously, if I was going to take hand luggage only. I was aghast at the suggestion. Just that morning I had considered sending a clothing package ahead of me, like an explorer planting supplies along my intended journey. I had to pack a lot because I didn’t know what I needed. I barely knew where I was going.
The problem with packing for another land is that you pack things you’ve acquired for who you are at home. But who you are at home is not always who you are. I welcome wine travel for its knack of tickling parts of me to life while scouring off the dullness accumulated through familiarity and routine, like barnacles off an idle hull.
Countries change us in ways we can’t know or predict, and take us to all manner of new places no matter how rigorously we plan. Joan Didion wrote in her essay Goodbye To All That “When I first saw New York I was twenty, and it was summertime, and I got off a DC-7 at the old Idlewild temporary terminal in a new dress which had seemed very smart in Sacramento but seemed less smart already.”
I packed for the Italy I thought I knew and the person I thought I would be within it but Italy changes you in big ways with small encounters that you can’t imagine, least of all plan for. As Henry James wrote in The Italian Hours, “The charm was, as always in Italy, in the tone and the air and the happy hazard of things.”
In Verona’s Piazza delle Erbe, while watching people saunter by on their evening passeggiata, I revelled in the pleasures of a refreshing glass of Soave, the white wine of the nearby Veneto region. I was delighted not just with the wine, or with the scene, but with the idea that that it was all I was supposed to do; sitting, watching and enjoying a glass of wine was the whole and sole point of the occasion and one I took to with alacrity and ease.
Piedmont’s landscape of tightly packed hills and craggy medieval towns made visiting a particularly charming experience. Despite viticulture being introduced by Etruscans, Piedmont’s success has been condensed into the last few decades, and even then, with highs and lows as dynamic as its landscape. For many, progress has meant “going backwards”; smaller yields, slower production, less intervention. The result is wine so profound and beautiful, complex and powerful, I have on occasion, had to recalibrate my capacity to taste. In the communes of Barolo and Barbaresco, I walked in vineyards that were so woolly with flowers and new spring growth they looked more like gardens. Wandering among those vineyards, I noted how old the region’s viticultural history was, but how recent its ascendance to beauty, and I was spirited with the knowledge that history allowed so much time for something to meet its potential.
Tuscany’s charms were more familiar. Pencil pines speared into rolling hills and walled towns sat like crowns on hilltops. In Montepulciano I become intimate with the pleasures of Sangiovese, Tuscany’s most beloved grape. One afternoon, after taking a stroll following a long and indulgent lunch that included more than one glass of Chianti Classico, I rested on the warm bricks of the medieval town’s walls to take in the view across Sienna. For no reason I can recall, I spontaneously turned on my heel and kissed the person next to me. To both his and my relief, and maybe even yours, he was already well known to me.
I savoured other Italian wines from regions I didn’t visit but that I one day hope to explore; the earthy beauty and wily complexity of Brunello di Montalcino, the dark and broody flavours of Sicily’s Nero d’Avola, and the saline freshness and citrus complexity of Sardinia’s Vermentino.
Near the end of my trip, travelling again on my own, replete with the sights and senses of Italy, I was once more taken by the “happy hazard of things” and reminded that no matter how well you plan, you can never quite prepare for the affect and place will have on you.
After taking in a meal and a bottle of Chianti in an Osteria in Florence, a city so beautiful it reorganised my view of the world, I strolled to the arc of the Ponte Santa Trinita to watch the sun set over the River Arno. It might have been the effect of the wine, the tinkling music in the distance, or what James described as “the luxury of loving Italy”, but I could never have imagined the dress I wanted to spin around in that night on my long walk home in Florence.
How could I ever have imagined, let alone packed for, a moment like that? It was a pleasant reminder for future travels, that planning for a journey can be challenging when you’re not sure where it will take you – unless you’re that unlucky traveller, who knows exactly who you are, and precisely where you’re going.
Photos © Tim Atkin