By Marsha Smelkinson
Every zig begat a zag. The arrow on the small battered sign (Casoli) had pointed me behind a stone building, across a stone bridge, onto a paved lane. Now I was into the forest. I drove beneath the cover of trees and under the coming of dusk, following the only clues I could find, toward Agrilago.
I had shown the barman at Bagna di Lucca the address, and he directed me back along the road that skirted the Lima, assuring me there’d be a sign at the road to Casoli. I had the email in hand, but none of my many maps showed Casoli. This was my first evening traveling alone, having dropped Steve at the train in Siena, a few hours after seeing the others off at Montevarchi. In central Tuscany intersection signs had been plentiful – sometimes stacked so high it took minutes to scan for your destination – and the trees were clustered in the distance. But there I’d had others to scan along with me, and the views from the driver’s seat matched the postcards I’d later send home to friends. I was unprepared for this narrow valley in the northwest, with its thick shadowy walls of trees on either side, just inches from my Renault’s side mirrors.
But the email, the barman and the sign all said “Casoli,” so on I drove.
And on and on. How far? Probably 5 kilometres. How high? I’d guess about half-a-mile above the valley. How long? Who knew? I’d turned off all the music, so I couldn’t measure by the songs. I’d had at least four or five pages worth of conversations with myself. Well, not conversations, really, just those admonitions meant to reassure: “The road is paved, so it must go somewhere.” “You haven’t seen any other signs or turnoffs, so you couldn’t have missed it.” “Just keep driving – you have plenty of fuel.” “So what if it’s spooky? You wanted an adventure.” “The website photos of Agrilago were gorgeous; any minute now you’ll see the sky again and recognize this place.”
Finally a car passed me going down the hill. Calming my joy at the confirmation that civilization awaited me somewhere up above this particular zig, I slowed and slid inward against the mountain. Apparently unfazed that two cars would have to share this slim corridor of paved path, the driver came out of his zag at full speed, skimming his wheels along the thin edge of a cliff, barely noticing the wide-eyed American tourista holding her breath just inches from his passenger’s face.
I don’t think it was much farther, though, maybe half a mile of driving beyond that, before I found Casoli. The lane widened and cars were parked along both sides, leading into a town square of sorts. I say “of sorts” because, again, this was nothing like the Tuscan towns I’d enjoyed in the days just passed. No grand Duomo or tower overlooking a picturesque piazza with smartly-dressed al frescoe diners. No colorful arrays of signs and artful shop windows. No statues extolling some native son who’d gone on to legendary feats or dramatic discoveries.
No, Casoli’s central square was more like a belly bulge in the road, an unexpected space about the width of a three-car garage. I did notice the now-familiar no parking here sign (a blue circle slashed by a red diagonal and bordered by a red circle), but didn’t notice any warnings about cars not traveling there. Unless, of course, you factored in the eight or ten older ladies sitting on benches and folding chairs in the middle of the lane. They were loosely circled, facing a bench against a stone wall (there is always a stone wall), just sitting there talking while a couple of boys kicked a ball around and an older man ambled by. They paid no apparent attention to my arrival.
Relieved to have found civilization at last, I parked among the cars that lined the lane facing this modest plaza, and set out to find directions to Agrilago. I saw a few posters above a sheltered bench at the end of the wall. But again, unlike so much of Chianti, I saw no kiosks, no signs, no little “i” circles to help a wandering tourist find the golden fleece of information to map my way through their world. So I turned up to the steps below a wooden sign (BAR PANINI), and went seeking directions.
The barman called his daughter down from the back room to help. A thin strand of a girl, maybe twenty, she spoke a few words of English to match my few of Italian. Dove? I asked, showing her the paper with the address. She took my elbow and guided me to a photo hanging high on the wall above the empty tables (it was the dark room’s only décor, though I could smell bread baking nearby). The old black and white photo showed the profile of stone buildings lining a ridge and rising on the side of a hill. Pointing to a spot on the lower right, she indicated we were here. I believed her, though nothing looked familiar. Then she pointed to the highest point on the far left of the photo, and indicated that here was Agrilago. How to get there? She gestured toward the road and the plaza of old folks just outside, then motioned through the center and to the left. Sinistra? Si, signora (the young ones always assume that age means marriage). Gracie. Va bene. Ciao.
Empowered with confidence and brimming with information, I smiled at the gathering in the piazza, but they ignored me again. So I just returned to the car and drove it up the lane toward the square. Though I might have been able to pass by them, the ladies in chairs stood and moved their chairs aside, continuing their chatter, barely nodding at me as I drove through their den. The kids stopped playing and watched me drive by as well. Just after the last bench along the wall, the bulge narrowed again and angled to the right. I could see that the wall lowered on the left just ahead, and surrounded a house (stone, of course). A big gray cat lounged atop the courtyard wall, watching me too, without moving a whisker.
Just past her perch was a lane, a stone lane between buildings. I could see that it rose up the hill – I could see sky in the distance, up ahead through this stone cavern. A sinistra, I thought: to the left. This was it, no doubt – the road to Agrilago. I turned left and started my drive. And that was about it – I started my drive. I got no more than 20 feet before the stone path angled to the right, at the doorway to another home, and narrowed the lane to barely breathing width. I tried to drive through it nonetheless, stopping to open windows and pull in both mirrors. And I think I got about, oh, 60 percent through, before hearing the fatal scrape (the right rear fender, as it happened). I could go no further without sandwiching my poor Renault between ancient stone walls.
So I put the car in reverse and started the slow slide back, turning to watch the walls on either side (how the hell did I get this far? I wondered).
An elderly man stood at the turn I’d come from, gesturing and bellowing. I suppose he was trying to help, but I understood nothing and felt claustrophobic between the cold walls and coming darkness. Finally he hopped out of the way as I reached the intersection and angled the car so I could return to the square. Unfortunately my disquiet led to carelessness, and I drove the front bumper right into the corner of the cat’s wall. She viewed it all with characteristic disinterest. The old man, in contrast, clapped his hands to his cheeks and finally shouted something I understood: “No. No. No.”
I dropped my hands from the wheel, exasperated and spent, opened the window and smiled, not knowing how to communicate that I’d paid for zero-deductible insurance, and that I was less concerned about the car’s dents than my own ability to breathe again. I actually did exhale at that point, at least reassuring myself.
It must have earned me some sympathy, because he smiled back, came over to the window and patted my arm. As if bonded now by unspoken agreement, we maneuvered the car back and forth in the tiny, stone-sharp-walled-edged space, until I faced the town square once again. Two things were different now: I faced it from the other direction, and everyone was watching me. Chagrined (what else could I do?), I drove slowly back through their den as they scrambled their chairs out of the way, this time chattering and smiling all the while. I parked again by the steps to the bar.
Back inside the dark parlor, the barman wordlessly turned to the back and summoned the daughter. Already surprised to see me, her eyes asked what was wrong. I pointed to the photo on the wall and indicated the (now infamous) little lane to the left (a sinistra, I kept saying, dropping an occasional Italian phrase into my pig-Latin mish-mash of words and gestures), explaining that it was too narrow for my car, that I had scraped the sides of my machina, trying to drive up the narrow lane between the stone walls.
I think it was the scraping sound I made (“crrrehhhsccchh”) that finally got through. First her smile rose, then her head bobbed, then the laughter spilled (even I relaxed in the company of their glee). Then she turned to her father who’d enjoyed all this while drying glasses behind the bar, and both of them laughed, looking back at me, at the photo, at one another. “No,” she said finally, smiling with some sympathy amidst her giggles. “No, no machina.” My guide then lifted one foot, hopped on the other, and pointed at her shoe: “A piedi. A piedi. A piedi.” Then to me in English: “Go with your foot, your foot, your foot.”
As it turned out, it was possible to drive a vehicle a sinistra up that path. Once I climbed all the way, about a kilometer, from the cat’s perch to Agrilago at the far end of Casoli, I relaxed at the relief of arrival. There, at the top of the hill overlooking the terraced slopes of olive trees and berry-laden vines, I found the stone tower that would be my home for a few days. I met Maria, my hostess, and her farm family (I never did know who was wed or otherwise related, and the pets wandered everywhere). Someone asked about my bags, and I gestured down the hill and said something about my machina. For the second time that day, someone gently took my elbow and guided me toward that very same footpath. This time we jumped into seats in a jerry-rigged golf cart, with half a roof (a full version would have been about as wide as my Renault) and no side mirrors at all. Slowly we drove along the stone path, down the ridge, past the stone houses and angles and plants and cats, through the square (the women smiled and nodded to me now), to the Renault I’d left on the side of the road near my Bar Panini. It was all so familiar now.