Although it was nearly 3 o'clock, several diners still lingered on the inviting porch of Bottega del Moro, a trattoria in the tiny Tuscan town of Greve. Kevin and I poked our heads in the doorway and caught sight of the chef, who between shuffling pans nodded us into the next room. There a pleasant woman bade us buon giorno, and in our amateur Italian, we asked for a 9 o'clock dinner reservation. In perfect English she replied that 9 seemed a trifle late, how about 8? Our stomachs usually start to rumble by then, so we were more than happy to learn that Greve, unlike its bigger, more cosmopolitan neighbors, operates on an early schedule, offering dinner at what we Americans call dinnertime.
And why not? There's not much to do here after the sun goes down except consume fresh food and good wine and perhaps take an evening stroll along the stream that runs through town. After bustling around Rome for a week, and with a few days in Florence ahead of us, we felt ready to settle down for a few days.
Bottega del Moro, with its marble-topped tables adorned with live basil plants and a generous Chianti selection, became our ideal evening entertainment for the nights we spent in Greve. One meal we ate on the wooden porch, the other inside, listening to the low conversational buzz around us. The trattoria used to be a blacksmith shop, where parts for the oak barrels of the region's Chianti were forged. The blacksmith got the nickname "moor" because soot covered him head to toe, and the trattoria's name literally translates into "the workshop of the moor." Several outdoor diners brought their dogs, who patiently waited for a morsel of mozzarella to drop. It's the kind of place you wished you owned, because the staff's apparent ease and grace leaves you blissfully ignorant of how much work it takes to run the place.
If Greve goes quiet at night, during the day there's plenty to do, especially if, like most visitors to the Tuscan hills, you have come to walk. In order to earn our first meal at Bottega del Moro, we climbed a hill outside town to Castello di Uzzano, a rambling estate commissioned by the Bishop of Florence some 500 years ago, where the current owners still produce their own wines. Before tasting the local vintages, we paid about $7 to roam around parts of the grounds (the estate claims 700 acres, most of them vineyards). The trail led down a lane shaded by an arc of trees, then past a working chicken coop, vegetable garden and olive grove. We ended our tour in a labyrinth of clipped hedges with stone statues representing the four seasons; we couldn't tell spring from summer, but it didn't matter. Flowers, ponds and fountains with goldfish seemed to pop up everywhere. The place seemed both wild and well-kept, an elegant secret buried in the ancient landscape.
Not a single car passed us on the clay-colored road back to Greve, where we explored the few shops in the triangle-shaped Piazza Matteotti, the town's only square. We spent about an hour in the extensive wine shop, trying to decide which Chianti vintage to buy as a reminder of our trip. Most of the stores seemed functional except for two postcard places, which prompted us to gloat about our wisdom for straying from the tour-bus Tuscan towns of Siena and San Gimignano and choosing Greve instead. What Greve lacks in romantic history (although it is the birthplace of the explorer Giovanni da Verrazano) or stunning architecture (okay, the Santa Croce church is kind of nice) it makes up for in peace. The quiet countryside setting was Greve's main attraction and we were happy to be part of it, even for a few days.
We selected Greve as a break between the destination overloads of Rome and Florence, the first and last stops on our June honeymoon. Greve, an easy hour bus ride from Florence and a central spot from which to explore the countryside on foot, permitted us to avoid renting a car. We could have visited many more estates and vineyards with a car or death-defying scooter, but then we might not have discovered Montefioralle.
A moderately steep one-mile climb from Greve, the hamlet of Montefioralle is a web of narrow houses shoehorned into stone walls, whose arched windows and doors have survived the stories of many inhabitants. No hint of modern civilization exists in this medieval village except for the street lamps. Although about 300 people are said to make their home there, we saw only one person during our Saturday visit--an elderly woman watering her garden. The carefully tended geraniums sprouting from pots and window boxes provided the only clue of continuing life here.
When we tired of traipsing through the vineyard-dotted countryside, we returned to our centuries-old bed-and-breakfast, Albergo di Chianti. Each room was painted in a different color; we got blue. Our window overlooked the back yard, where on sunny days guests ate an extensive breakfast under a flowered trellis. One warm afternoon, we took a wine-and-cheese break by the glistening swimming pool, where I wrote in our journal and Kevin plotted our next excursion with maps we bought in town.
That excursion turned out to be our most ambitious, a 12-mile round-trip hike to Villa San Michele, a cluster of old stone buildings that have been transformed into a hostel and restaurant. Though the morning had started out rainy, the sun broke through the clouds at the first trail marker, the Melezzano vineyard (which wasn't open for visits, unfortunately), and we knew our rain gear would stay in the backpack. An imposing 15-foot iron cross marking Monte Domini dominated the view above us as we slowly approached. A small concrete deck surrounding the base of the cross affords 280-degree views of towns that look like groups of pebbles floating in an endless green sea. Kevin had brought his binoculars, and with the help of our map we identified the terra-cotta roofs of Florence in the distance.
After walking the last bit of paved road through a dark pine forest, we arrived at Villa San Michele . . . and found it packed with families relaxing over Sunday brunch. We hadn't thought to call ahead, but the host managed to interpret our pathetic crypto-Italian pleadings and sat us at a plastic deck table outside. The restaurant was sold out of meat dishes but it didn't matter. The gnocchi with pesto, and fusilli with pomodoro and mascarpone, a wonderful soft cheese, was hearty and good. We felt ready for the long descent.
Almost nothing stays open in Greve on Sunday except the restaurants, so we felt lucky to have arrived on one of the many weekends a festival takes over the main square. A craft fair was in swing by the time we returned. Local artisans and farmers showed leather, pottery, hunks of parmesan and huge containers of olive oil. Later in the evening, a rock band played on one edge of the square and a small crowd sat in folding chairs to listen.
By the time we had to leave the next morning, we almost wished we could stay the entire time in Greve and zip into Florence for day trips. But our itinerary beckoned. For all our foraging, we left Greve with only one bottle of table wine, which the hotel host had given us as a sweet apology for its disobedient credit card machine. We vowed to continue our Chianti quest in Florence, armed with suggestions and the memories of what we'd enjoyed in the country. The bus arrived on time and as we slid into our seats, we glanced up the hill to Montefioralle, hoping it would wait for us, unchanged, should we ever be lucky enough to return.
GETTING THERE: Greve is about an hour's bus ride from Florence. Buses run from Florence's main terminal almost every 90 minutes and cost about $3 one way. There are two routes: the scenic (via Grassina) or the slightly speedier highway (via Ferrone). Driving directions can be found on Greve's Web site (see below).
As for getting to Florence, we took a train from Rome (about 90 minutes on the nifty high-speed line), but it's possible, although more difficult and expensive, to fly from Washington to Florence. Delta is quoting a round-trip fare of $833 (through Paris).
WHERE TO STAY: Greve has a handful of small hotels. We stayed at Albergo di Chianti (Piazza G. Matteotti 86, telephone 011-39-055-85-37-63) right off the main square. The price was about $100 a night, including an extensive buffet breakfast.
WHERE TO EAT: All the food we ate in Greve was delicious. For a nice dinner, we recommend Bottega del Moro (Piazza Trieste, 14/R). For a slightly more casual meal, Gallo Nero (Via C. Battisti, 9) has great pizza.
INFORMATION: Greve's Web site, www.greve-in-chianti.com, contains maps, links to restaurants and other Tuscan Web sites, and various other tourist tidbits. The town's tourist office, just off the main square at Viale G. di Verrazzano 33 (telephone/fax 011-39-055-854-62-87), has valuable information on accommodations, hiking trails, transportation, cultural events and just about everything else. The young woman who helped us spoke English and German as well as Italian. For more information, contact the Italian Government Tourist Board, 212-245-5618, www.italiantourism.com.