I Saw A Unicorn In Poppi Today
Today at a zoo in a town named Poppi, in the province of Arezzo nestled in the Casentino valley of Italy’s region of Tuscany, I saw a unicorn.
Typically, this unicorn would be used in the zoo’s marketing materials to attract a maximum number of visitors. But neither this zoo nor this place are typical, and so a beautiful but comparatively more common bobcat is used on the zoo’s billboards across the region. To be fair, I can’t argue with this marketing strategy as I found myself visiting the Poppi zoo and I am not one to visit zoos very often.
It should be said upfront that Poppi is, in a word, peculiar. On one hand, it is fairy-tale come to life and on the other a seemingly ordinary small town often overlooked by tourists and seasoned travelers alike.
For the eight of us, my wife and son along with our friends and their three children, Poppi is our adopted home base for a month-long Italian vacation. When originally planned, the phrase “live like the Italians live in the hills of Tuscany” was uttered more than once. This, of course, assumes most Italians live in mountain-side villas with million dollar views, a pool, a gardener and with no requirement for work or school.
It also assumes you are in the Tuscan hills at all. As it turns out, Poppi is not— it’s in the Casentino valley surround by towering mountains, which came as quite a surprise to us. Poppi, as it turns out, has very little in common with its more famous Tuscan neighbors. It is not so much a tourist destination as a town that occasionally welcomes tourists, mostly Germans and other Italians it seems. We counted ourselves as the only Americans in the area — and apparently, based on local reaction, some of the very few Americans who come at all.
Poppi may not be the Tuscan hill country as we imagined it, but it is unquestionably beautiful and far more peaceful if you ask me. Placed strategically atop a steep hill overlooking the lush green valley, Poppi is surrounded by soaring mountains and bisected by the Arno river. The jewel of Poppi, of the entire Casentino valley for that matter, is a hill-top castle that has dutifully guarded the valley since the 12th century. It is in nearly perfect form to this day, having been lived in or fully utilized since its inception. The castle is visible for miles around and is today a remarkable museum. (One travel tip — be patient when making a purchase from the gift shop as the lady who sells tickets at the front gate is also the gift shop attendant. As such, it takes a few minutes for her to run from one post to the other as needed.)
The old town in the shadow of the castle on the hill is picture perfect with narrow cobblestone streets, spectacular views, historic cathedrals and old men drinking Campari spritz watching the day go by. There are great little ristorantes and gift shops, old cafes and a posh hill-top hotel next to the castle. Anywhere else in Italy and the town would be packed with tourists. As it stands, it is impossibly charming and buzzing with ordinary activity and normal daily life. We keep reminding ourselves people actually live and work here — they are not props as they sometimes seem to be elsewhere.
Overlooking the town isolated in a tiny hamlet and perched on the side of a mountain is our rented summer home. It is not extravagant, but is the kind of place that has a name, in this case “Casa Ferale.” Though the owner tells us it means “Wild House,” a thorough Google search suggests the name may mean something closer to “funeral home” in Latin, which helps explain the confused if not horrified reactions we receive when telling people where we are staying. The owner is a lovely English lady, an artist, whose delightful driving directions include such helpful tips as “turn right where the birds are drinking.” It is worth taking the time, however, to decipher both the name and the directions. If you close your eyes and imagine a simple but ideal Italian country villa complete with old stone walls, ivy covered verandas and surrounded by terraced farm lands with a castle view, you have Casa Ferale.
Life here is decidedly simple (admittedly no work and school helps that sensation). There’s a farm across the hay field and through the goat pasture where our children walk in the mornings to buy eggs from Seniora Carla and fresh produce from her husband and farmer Giorno — neither of whom speak a lick of English and yet with whom we have all had long and meaningful conversations.
The pool, with the best view of Poppi castle, is the epicenter of activity for the four kids while the shade of the ivy terrace is home for us parents. Breakfast and lunch are simple affairs, with a large dinner enjoyed outside under the ivy usually consisting of a couple bottles of wine, pasta and fresh produce from the farm served family style and by candle light. Like any good Italian meal, whether enjoyed at home or in one of the area ristorantes, dinners are full of stories, laughter and tears, lasting two hours or more on average.
On Sunday mornings, we attend mass at the six pew thousand-plus year old church a short walk up the steep gravel driveway. The priest is a young Nigerian named Andrea who volunteered to shepherd this underserved rural parish. He devotedly presides at multiple churches in the area each Sunday morning, catching rides with parishioners from one to the next. And though hearing scripture read in a foreign tongue has a particularly impressive power all its own, he’s been generous enough to provide English summations of his sermons for the American visitors who neither speak much Italian nor are Catholic — realities no one here seems to care about. In fact, the smiles and nods of approval would suggest it has been some time since young children have found their way into that beautiful place of worship and all are pleased to see it.
Back at Casa Ferale, there is no television allowed (our rule, not a house rule), limited water supply, no phone line, no air conditioning and no reason to miss any of those things. We wake up in the morning to the sound of our children playing outside, and go to sleep under the cool mountain air providing welcome relief to warm summer days.
Like so many other things here, I have found the lack of at least some modern convenience has made way for a very human and often tactile beauty I had forgotten or never knew. I was previously unfamiliar with the warm flickering light that comes from a dwindling candle at an outdoor table hours after dinner is complete. I had forgotten how pleasing the aromas and sounds of an open kitchen can be or how pleasurable the night wind is through open windows as you sleep. I will forever remember the echoes of our children freely playing in the hills and count the vision of my wife draping laundry on a clothes line stretched between two cherry trees under the warm sun and crisp mountain breeze of the Casentino valley as the very height of beauty. Perhaps the Italians have a word worthy of the simple eloquence of this image — I do not.
Striking as it may be, life must go on and so each day we make a couple of trips down the mountain into town. Below the old town, Poppi’s surprisingly busy main street is lined with every day sorts of places like gas stations, discount grocery stores (with shockingly inexpensive groceries), and pizza joints. Caffe is always on the menu, as is the occasional stop for fresh meat and cheese, wine and even the latest in small-town Italian fashion. Invariably we visit our favorite stop in town, Edi’s, where our four children try each day to break their own record for most gelatos in a day while their parents enjoy an evening spritz.
There are eight of us in this extended Italian family of ours. Two families, to be exact. Myself and my wife Sarah along with our 8-year-old son. Our friends Steve, his wife Serah, and their two girls and 7-year-old son have joined us on this adventure. In addition to each husband sporting terrific beards and having wives with the same names, as a foursome we enjoy further confusing people by being married to remarkably similar people. Steve and my wife Sarah are two peas in a rule-following pod. While myself and Steve’s wife Serah (spelled inexplicably with an “e”) are known simply, and I believe lovingly, as “the crazy side of the table.” Each pair could very easily be mistaken for siblings both in personality and bond.
Our children too share a strong bond, my son being an only child and thoroughly enjoying the experience of having siblings around. The boys have curated their own little world in our time here and are quite possibly experiencing an entirely different, and likely more magical, Italy than the rest of us. The girls are model sisters, both remarkably beautiful and even more intelligent. Both are also far more mature than the adults in the room (well, at least the crazy side of the table). They keep us and the boys in line.
As if to emphasize our Americanness, in a land of impossibly tiny vehicles, we travel everywhere together in a behemoth of a van (even by American standards) nicknamed “The Big Boy” which loudly announces itself upon every arrival. “The Big Boy,” we imagine, must already be legendary in Poppi with each stop resulting in a circus-like exit of four usually exhausted parents and our four excitable children while local onlookers silently observe, mouths agape.
Despite our not-so-subtle arrival habits, the people here are lovely to us and seem markedly less occupied with themselves than we are in America — it is pleasant and particularly disarming. We have found the Italians in general are especially fond of children and are openly affectionate toward our own. The third-generation owner of the old cafe on the main drag, Claudio, is stoic and attentive at the bar until children come around — in which case he instantly melts and transforms into an adoring, doting grandfather handing out candy and kissing our children on the head. The young ladies at Edi’s hurriedly prepare as they see the children arrive each day. They greet us with impossibly fast Italian we have no chance of understanding and heartily sing along with American classic rock songs while simultaneously loading up waffle cones with heaping scoops of fragola, stracciatella and pistachio. Not surprisingly, our children have made great strides with their Italian as it relates, in particular, to ordering gelato.
In a short time, we have developed a real affection for the people of Poppi. There are warm and personable and patient with us. They also have a distinct accent we have grown to love, adopt for ourselves and genuinely miss when we are in Rome or Florence. It is an accent most noticeable to us in the word ciao. Unlike in Rome, where the word is but a singular syllable, in Poppi it is three extended syllables previewing its eventual end with a long “oww” followed by a deep, rounded and extended U — cheeowwuuuu. The effect is somehow very satisfying as it requires real effort to pull off, where as the one-syllable big-city ciao seems comparably dismissive.
As an extended family, we travel often from Poppi to nearby Tuscan towns, Florence or Rome. They are all beautiful, historic and, without question, worth visiting for as long as time will allow. But after each trip, we all look forward to returning to the town to which we now refer, without irony or effort, as “home.”
In reality of course, our time in Poppi bears little resemblance to our life at home and likely only a passing resemblance to those who actually live here. But in some ways, it feels like a taste of what could be, or maybe should be, but simply cannot be. At least not in this life. And so, for me at least, our time here has been overwhelmingly joyful and occasionally disheartening.
So it was on Father’s day, June 18th 2017, we found ourselves careening down a steep mountain road in the “The Big Boy” heading toward the Poppi zoo while listening to Italian radio remakes of Red Hot Chili Peppers songs. Steve was behind the wheel doing the careening while the children rode blissfully unaware of the inherent dangers of such free falls and our wives, as usual, white-knuckled the trip all the way down. Eventually we found ourselves safely down the mountain and at the gates of the infamous zoo where adults pay 8 euros and children 4 to enter a patch of land that frankly seems fantastically unreal from start to finish.
For one thing, there’s beer and wine immediately at the entrance as if to suggest you may need it. That’s the thing about Europe, there’s beer and wine everywhere all-day long. It’s glorious and helps explain those daily nap breaks and three-hour dinners. At first blush, the zoo feels almost exactly like the aging, unkempt and slightly dangerous summer camps of my youth — the kind of place with leaky wood cabins, creaky bunk beds and shallow ponds with old tire swings — that is to say real and magical.
It is also beautiful, strikingly settled in the mountains with views that would ordinarily be priceless in places where real estate values make any sense at all (as you may have deduced by now, Poppi is not that place). The large and well-groomed gravel walkways circling the property are lined with mature pine trees trimmed to near perfect umbrella form providing ample shade and banked by large open landscapes strewn with the occasional hand-built barn, pen or shed in which an animal may or may not live. These enclosures, it should be noted, would no more measure up to American building standards to store plywood much less house living, breathing and sometimes dangerous animals. But nobody seems to mind, and the animals seem perfectly content with the arrangement.
The very next thing you notice, particularly as an American, is the death trap known as the zoo playground which sits comfortably next to the ristorante that serves a three-course meal complete with wine and after-dinner caffé. This was the playground of my youth (minus the three –course meal and caffé) made of rusty metal, sharp edges and play areas that seem specifically designed to challenge the strength of modern American anxiety medication.
We all, however, survived — and to my surprise would soon enough see actual zoo animals. We first came across a large brown bear of impossibly advanced age asleep on a log. To my eye, he looked happy if not a bit overweight. Down the gravel road and across an open field, we spotted a monkey nursing her young from behind a rickety cyclone fence with no other obvious barrier between said nursing monkeys and the small children who view them from inches away (cue anxiety meds). We also saw an unnecessarily large enclosure (far more secure than the monkey habitat) housing dozens of small turtles. One turtle, nearly all of us noted, was impressively fast.
There are two exhibits which caught my eye in particular. The flightless bird habitat created great comic relief as old and apparently grumpy turkeys incessantly harassed beautiful peacocks trying desperately to display their fantastic feathers. They were thwarted each time to the clear joy of their less ornate, but more determined, counterparts. If the exhibit were not purpose built for this ongoing drama, it should have been as it was impossibly entertaining.
The wolf habitat was perhaps the most captivating. The entire enclosure is nearly hidden from view with tarps, warning signs, tall grass and planks of tree bark precariously placed against the fence. Only a small sign gives any indication of what is purportedly inside. From the outside, it looks like a barrier one might see hiding the contents of a junk yard. But, after climbing a rotting ladder onto what appears to be a makeshift tree house, you can see down into the habitat. It’s there that all comes into view — a half acre of tall grass, weeds and overgrown shrubs occasionally interrupted by a path that may have been made by wolves. I cannot verify this however, as none of us ever saw evidence of an animal of any kind. The effect was spine tingling and mesmerizing. I could not help but imagine a wolf hiding in that mess of greenery staring up at me with its steel gray eyes. If designed to produce intrigue rather than actual wolves, the exhibit was, to be sure, masterful.
There was also the famous bobcat — and he was indeed impressive sitting confidently on a limb atop a tall tree warming in the sun. Along the increasingly pleasurable walk we found windmills and tiny churches, beautiful birds of prey, imposing rams and white dotted baby deer prancing along quiet lakes and hidden paths.
It was only then, after such entertainment, beauty and intrigue and underneath the brilliant blue Casentino sky, that I saw it. It was in appearance a snow-white mule or donkey, I’m honestly not sure which. As this humble animal walked out of the shadow of its barn and directly toward me, the sun’s rays suddenly appeared illuminating this beautiful beast and its newly revealed white summer coat. It was in that instant that I saw a glimmer of light reflect, not off the animal per se, but off a long and tapered object about two feet long emanating from just above its eye line and in the center of its forehead pointing directly to the sky.
It gleamed in the Casentino sun and it was, I am sure, a horn.
Now, I am not one to believe in such fanciful things as unicorns. I cannot, however, deny what I saw and neither would you had you been at the Poppi zoo on that particular day staring face to snout with a white mule/donkey unicorn. It did not last long as the horn disappeared just seconds later. But for a moment, I got a glimpse and it was, to me, clear evidence of levitating wonder and overwhelming joy in the universe.
Predictably, there were no other witnesses. I was alone in this moment, forced now to forever defend the honor, and accuracy, of that memory. I will do so proudly.
And so, officially, let it be recorded that for a brief moment at a zoo in a town named Poppi, in the province of Arezzo nestled in the Casentino valley of Italy’s region of Tuscany I was, in fact, in the presence of a unicorn. I am certain I am not the first in this small town to have noticed. But like nearly everything else in this quirky, raw and impossibly beautiful place to which providence led us — nobody else seems to make much of it — a reaction which seems perfectly and appropriately Poppi to me.