A full month in Tuscany. What would we discover?”
The road that led downhill from the town of Capoliveri, was a village street, narrow and steep, but it soon became a gravel road and then a narrow track leading to a pathway even steeper and more ancient. We were relieved when our host directed us to turn right into a wide, flat parking space, then led us on foot down stone steps to the house we would rent for the coming week.
It was our second week in Italy, and we needed to relax. After the intensity of Firenze and Venezia we were looking forward to sunny afternoons on the terrace, gazing out over the broad expanse of the Mediterranean toward Corsica.
We had not expected to have an entire house to ourselves, but our host explained that the German woman who had been here had left early. After the tall green shutters were flung open we found ourselves in a most commodious and beautiful house, with a wonderful kitchen, full of food and supplies, and a living room graced by a fireplace with tall windows facing south and west.
By our second week we knew: this would be the trip of our dreams. A full month in Tuscany. What would we discover? Certainly we were seeking history and culture, art and architecture, food and wine. We didn’t know that we would also find poetry and friendship.
All travelers are seekers. We travel to find and lose ourselves at the same time. Never really able to leave ourselves behind, we still hope for a glimmer, a crack, through which we can touch another essence. And that is what we found on Elbe.
Others have come to the Island of Elbe for its Mediterranean climate, its beaches, a history that includes being the first island of exile for the Emperor Napoleon. We arrived with humbler aspirations: we simply wanted to sit in the sun, drink in the view and feel the pulse of the place.
The road down which we had driven our little black Fiat was really a road only as far as our parking spot. Below that it was an ancient thoroughfare, cobbled with beach stones dating back to Roman or even Etruscan times. Certainly the Etruscans were here many centuries ago, fishing, mining and creating their own works of art.
Immediately across from our house was a tiny chapel, no longer in use, and below us was a small church, La Madonna della Grazia. We awakened on our first morning to bells ringing the hours. During the entire week, our daylight hours were marked out in bells. When noon arrived, bells that tolled the hours were followed by a lovely melody played in chimes that rang out over the sea, and washed up the hillside toward the town.
All travelers are seekers. We travel to find and lose ourselves at the same time.”
And each day we walked the cobbled road past olive trees, following stone walls, down to the little beach, with its café and dive school, where our eight year old son would spend hours tempting the waves with sandcastles built at the ocean’s edge.
It was on our third day walking back from the beach, that we met Paolo. Sitting beside the open door of the church was a solid looking man with a grizzle of beard on his honest face. He was sketching, but he stopped, looked up and waved to us.
He was the caretaker, he explained. He came every Tuesday to open the church, so that visitors could see it.
We walked into the cool interior to take in the beautiful fresco of the Virgin Mary, the glorious arches of the main vault, and a little balcony at the rear where a cluster of organ pipes clung to the wall.
“There is an organ,” I commented to the caretaker, after we had filled our hearts with the beauty of the interior and wandered back outside.
“Why, yes,” he said, looking up quizzically, “Do you play?”
I admitted that I was a musician, and that I had once played the organ in university. Would I actually be permitted to play?
“Why of course,” he said, getting up and dusting off his hands. “I will turn the organ on for you.”
I felt that I was about to be transported to another realm. To be allowed to fill that church with sound and melody would be a highlight of our trip and an honour for me.
But the organ would not start. After several minutes of tracing wires between electrical outlet and pump and flipping various switches, we were both stumped.
“Someone must have turned something off, after the wedding this weekend,” admitted the caretaker.
“I am Paolo,” he said, and we shook hands. “I’m sorry.”
But the building was still calling out to me. I knew I must make music in this sweet space, so I headed back to the house, and returned with my violin, the one instrument I always carry with me when I travel.
Again I asked whether I really could enter and play.
“Why of course,” said Paolo. “It would be wonderful.”
Inside the little church, I took out my violin and bow, and after asking Mary’s permission, I began to play. Bach suites, a bit of Vivaldi, old melodies, blues, Celtic tunes. Then something new, something that came to me right out of the walls. It seemed to please her. The smile never left her face.
Outside, after I was finished, I found Paolo talking with a visitor, an Italian woman. They were discussing poetry. Even with my limited knowledge of the language, I knew this was an interesting discussion. Even better, it was punctuated by poems Paolo himself had written, that he read from a small notebook. As they talked I looked through the sheaf of drawings he had done. They were lovely: landscapes, picture of churches, cafes and hillside houses, all done in a mixture of black ink and sepia wash.
My favourite one seemed to be a piece of great imagination, a vision of a place that would welcome all the artists: La Taverna dei Poeti. Yes, I thought, if only there were such a place.
I felt that I was about to be transported to another realm.”
Here in Italy there actually is a place for the poets.”
To have met not only the caretaker of La Madonna della Grazie, but a true artist and poet was definitely an honour for me. I excused myself and headed back to the house, where I retrieved a copy of one of my recordings, the one with the sepia cover, and walked back down.
“Here,” I told Paolo, “This is for you. It’s some music I recorded with friends.”
“For me?” he said, and to my pleasure added, “Then I will give you one of my paintings. Do you know what they are made with?”
“Ink, I suppose?”
“Yes, but the brown colour, what do you think that is?
“I don’t know,” I admitted.
“It is coffee,” he told me. “I paint with coffee.”
“Well then,” I said, “I can tell you just which one I want.”
I knew immediately that this would be the finest thing I would bring back from our trip, Paolo’s painting of La Taverna dei Poeti. It hangs now in the hallway outside our bedroom, in our house beside the sea, in Newfoundland.The inscription which Paolo added is wistful and poetic as the man himself. It reads:
Ci è lieto, nei nostri silenzi, la luce del cuore.
It was only on our very last day in Capoliveri, when we walked up the hill to sit in the piazza and watch the dancers crush the grapes during la festa di uva, that we came upon a small café, tucked away in a little side street, just off the town square.
La Taverna dei Poeti reads the sign over the door.
Here in Italy there actually is a place for the poets. And we had been lucky enough to find it.