With out Tourism, Life in a Tuscan Village Slides Again in Time

CASTELLINA IN CHIANTI, Italy – For decades, the rolling hills of Chianti in Tuscany have been a vacation destination for tourists from all over the world. Almost all year round, visitors drive their rental cars on the winding roads of the region and admire the landscape painstakingly designed by farmers, where vineyards turn into olive groves and oak forests give way to cypress-lined drives.

For me this is home.

I remember strolling the streets as a young girl in summer surrounded by Northern European visitors. My first job was at a local tourist office helping travelers with their various accents Look for paper maps of the region. Hotels filled up quickly back then.

More than 114,000 tourists passed through my village in 2019, and the number has been even higher in recent years.

But the pandemic, which unsettled the world and killed more than 75,600 people in Italy alone, brought tourism to a standstill throughout the country and in my village of Castellina in Chianti, a hamlet with 2,800 inhabitants. This year, foreigners who usually drink espresso on the terrace of the local bar or shop in the farmers market are nowhere to be seen. And without it, the city seems to have been set back in time.

Decades ago, villagers who needed medical advice, healthcare paperwork, and even some routine procedures like blood tests, often turned to the local pharmacy, located on the ruins of the town’s late medieval gate, just across from the church on the cobblestone Main Street. However, over time, national policies required the city’s health department to expand its services so people went there instead.

However, local authorities closed the health office in March due to the coronavirus, and residents again relied on the pharmacy for basic health care and routine testing.

“People came to us like they did decades ago,” said Alessio Berti, 68, who has been running the pharmacy for 46 years.

In the first wave of the pandemic last spring, villagers lined up outside the pharmacy every day to look for vitamin supplements and face masks, he said. The four pharmacists – all members of the same family – worked long shifts and spent hours at the computer helping residents with paperwork. The store became a community clinic, access point to online health services, and an on-the-fly emergency room.

“They are well organized,” said Sonia Baldesi, a 67-year-old retiree, who joked that she was old enough to remember when Mr Berti started working as the city’s pharmacist. “They offer little services that allow us to skip a trip to Siena, and that’s no mean feat these days.”

It’s a personal touch that is characteristic of the city. Masked people greet each other on Castellinas Street, even if they are not sure who they are talking to.

“The residents all know each other and help each other when they can,” said Roberto Barbieri, 52, who runs the village’s co-op supermarket.

Castellina wasn’t badly hit by the coronavirus in the spring, but clusters formed in the city in the fall. The virus was the topic of conversation on the street or in the supermarket, as relatives of people who tested positive hoped their loved ones would be spared.

Updated

Jan. 4, 2021, 10:31 p.m. ET

So far, only one resident of Castellina has died from the corona virus in November.

“It’s near home this time,” said Claire Cappelletti, the 62-year-old co-owner of a leather goods store in town that has been in her husband’s family for more than a century.

Like other business owners who are dependent on the tourist season, the Cappellettis had a disastrous year. When the nationwide lockdown was imposed in March, they were preparing for the start of the tourism season. But until the restrictions were eased in June, they couldn’t sell a single item – from a handcrafted leather bag to brightly colored slippers.

They installed hand sanitizer and kept the wooden shop doors wide open for better ventilation, but the first Europeans to venture into Castellina didn’t arrive until late July. The usual crowd of Canadians, Americans, and Australians never showed up.

However, many tourists and some locals were pleasantly surprised to find the village deserted. The summer was reminiscent of the late nineties, before the tourist-laden buses arrived in Chianti.

“It was like before, like going back in time,” said Ms. Cappelletti.

However, nostalgia isn’t good for sales. Ms. Cappelletti said her business revenue has fallen 80 percent since the pandemic began, a number that was reflected across the village. By working around the clock and keeping costs down, the family has kept the business going.

They also opened an online shop. Their usual customers – some long-time Chianti visitors – ordered goods from across the ocean, some just to help the Cappellettis this year.

“We now have great-grandchildren of our first customers,” said Claire’s daughter Nicole Cappelletti (32) as she gently polished the handbag of a bright red woman. “Our customer base saved us.”

Castellina is particularly known for its olive groves and vineyards with Chianti Classico grapes – a popular attraction for foreign tourists. But this year, in August, these places were “full of Italians who traveled in their own cars and stayed a few days,” said Martina Viti, 34, the manager of Agriturismo Rocca, a small family-run farm overlooking the Castellina valley .

Foreigners tend to stay longer – and spend more.

“Italians are less interested in tasting wines and olive oil made by our small farm,” she said. “So this year we mostly rented our apartments with a pool.”

The year wasn’t so bad for others in the village.

“We were closed for much of the year, but when the restaurant opened, Italians and some foreigners who own property came in and didn’t skimp on food or wine,” said Giuseppe Stiaccini, co-owner of the city’s oldest restaurant. La Torre. It opened in 1922 and served as a cafeteria for Allied troops during World War II.

The local supermarket has also seen a boom in a year of busts.

Tommaso Marrocchesi Marzi, co-owner of Bibbiano winery and president of the local association of organic producers, said that while he expects sales to decline by 20 percent this year, he is hopeful for the future as Asian and United States markets are beginning to break to animate.

Mr Marrocchesi Marzi recalled that until the 1990s, people from Rome, Milan and other European cities competed to buy property in Chianti for its services, natural beauty and limitless space to think about.

“Like our wines, our landscape is not a commodity,” he said. “It’s a status symbol, a way of life. To shape the future, we need thinkers. “

But he admitted, “to attract thinkers, we need a fast internet connection.”

Some locals – upset with the city’s slow internet service when trying to work remotely – hope this is a good thing the pandemic will bring: faster internet.

Recently, workers dug a hole in the provincial road that crossed the city, where fiber optic cables will eventually be buried for faster connections. A crowd of residents gathered to watch – with hope.

“Maybe we’ll soon jump into the 20th century,” joked an 87-year-old resident.

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