One thing Silvio Toccafondi is clear about: He is not a tour guide. Tour guides walk around holding up umbrellas so total strangers can follow them. What Silvio does is more like showing his home to friends who've been recommended by other friends.
Silvio's home is Chianti, in the heart of Tuscany and in the crosshairs of the world's tourists. We see it in calendars and Under the Tuscan Sun, and we want it. So we fly there and find ... a million other people looking for the same "it." Much of Tuscany -- Florence, Siena, Volterra, San Gimignano -- leaves memories of tour buses and packed streets lined with tourist shops.
The "it" we seek is natural beauty, historical charm, and a lifestyle shared among family and friends for hundreds of years; it's rooted in the land and blooms not only on the hillsides but also on and around the tables, in the squares, along the byways.
And to get to that Tuscany, you need either a lot of time to let yourself settle in, find the little nuances, let the soothing moments come to the surface, or you need a person who knows the way around. A guide, in the old-fashioned sense. A local. A Silvio.
"He's not cheap," my friends had said, "but he'll show you the real Tuscany."
He showed up at my hotel, a 50ish man with the perfectly Italian combination of relaxed charm, clothing style, and "okay, let's get going." He had hired a driver, and off we went, over rolling hills and through lush valleys, and he would say things like, "Here's a 14th-century castle," or "That river has trout in it," or "This monastery has only four monks now but used to have 35. They have a Last Supper fresco from the 15th century that they're restoring."
We stopped in San Donato in Poggio, and Silvio took us in to see the local butcher, who laid out some samples of prosciutto and salami and pancetta while Silvio told me that Italy makes 130 kinds of cheese and that "butchery is considered an art form here." Where else would people say such a thing?
Silvio grew up in Tuscany, worked in public administration and marketing, got a Ph.D. and joined a Tuscan historical society, and gradually become a ... whatever he is ... because he wanted to show people the countryside he fell in love with. He lives in a 16th-century villa, and he knows the place like you'd know a longtime lover's body.
One phrase that kept popping up was "it gives me chills." He talked, for example, about the year 1500, when Michelangelo was young, Da Vinci had just died, Donatello was in his prime, Machiavelli was writing, Brunelleschi was working on his dome in Florence -- all around here, at the same time. It gives him chills, Silvio said.
He showed us a home bought by Michelangelo in 1549, which he discovered just a month ago. I am sworn not to tell where it is (as if I could!), because Silvio said, "We don't want the buses coming here."
Ah, the buses -- bane of the Tuscan. Their existence produces a mixture of dread, repulsion, and acceptance. The agricultural industry can't support everyone anymore, so Tuscans have to share their homes to get by, yet sharing them might kill them -- already is, many say -- and the buses are a symbol for all of that. A place of family and tradition being overwhelmed by hurrying strangers.
Toward the end of the day -- after visiting a small winery that only sells its bottles from here and in the village across the way, after lunch with friends whose family has inhabited their home since the 15th century, after countless stories and pieces of advice and historical tidbits, after stopping to hug friends Silvio saw along the road -- we were in a 14th-century village on top of a hill near a monastery, a place some friends of Silvio took over and renovated. It's at the top of a hill and at the end of a winding dirt road. There's no commercial activity, and it's not even really a village, just a few families making their way. But there was one thing Silvio was obviously very excited to show us.
He opened a small wooden door in a stone courtyard and led us into a small chapel -- still consecrated, he said. Every first Sunday in November, a priest comes up and says mass. In the chapel is a fresco that was completed in 1490. It was done by students of the artist who did The Last Supper being restored in the monastery.
Standing in this centuries-old chapel, in a place filled with his friends, looking at a nearly forgotten 500-year-old fresco, on a perfect spring day in the Chianti countryside, Silvio looked at me and said, "Everywhere you look, you open a door and see things like this! To me, this is Italy. It gives me chills!"