I was researching cooking classes in Tuscany, not steam-train experiences, but somehow I ran across a site describing a day-long treno a vapore excursion leaving from Siena. My husband is a huge railroad enthusiast, so I signed us up.
On the appointed day, it was worth the fare (29 euros each) to see the small satisfied grin on his face as we climbed the steep steps to our car, just behind the engine room.
At first we were crammed into facing seats with a couple and their two small children, but we soon decamped to an unoccupied four-seater and settled happily into our varnished wooden seats. The whistle blew and the train was soon at full throttle, moving south down a single track that was in use from the 1860s until 1994, when it was closed except for occasional tourist excursions.
We travelled to a gentle shushing sound, like a radiator cranking up, and a more forceful shuga-shuga sound on inclines when the engine had to work harder. At a small town called Amiata, we stopped and watched the switching action as the engine car moved to the other end of the train.
The first shall be last, says the Bible, and that was our fate. Now we were in the last car where, as my husband had predicted, our window captured more black smoke.
In some ways our treno a vapore ride was similar to one we once took on the Cumbres & Toltec Railroad, running between Antonito, Colorado, and Chima, New Mexico. Except this was Tuscany we were looking at through the windows, framed by gold-brown draperies remniscent of a brocade pattern.
We clickety-clacked past blooming wildflowers, olive groves, vineyards, sheep whose milk goes into the region’s famous pecorino cheeses. I caught a glimpse of a man in a pink jacket working in his garden before we moved on to the enormous stainless steel tanks of a Villa Banfi winery, followed by a view of a Cistercian monastery in the distance.
Except for the retired Australian schoolteacher we met, just about all of the several hundred passengers seemed to be Italian families, many of them eager to show their children a piece of history. A three-man band consisting of trombone, trumpet and drummer played at every stop (“Chattanooga Choo Choo” was their theme song) and moved from car to car when the train was in motion. In ours, they passed out cymbals, triangle and maracas. So it was that I got to play the triangle for the first time since elementary school.
By this time we had been on the train a couple of hours and I was getting hungry. Italians aren’t big on eating between meals and I was struck by the fact that, even on a car with half a dozen small children, no one was snacking or even sipping water.
Eventually we reached Torrenieri, a town that commands not an inch of space in any guidebook I’ve seen, but was the main stop on our trip. Many of its inhabitants had turned out to give us a good time. They were frying frittelle (fried dough, sprinkled heavily with salt) and had set up an art room and inflated slides for the children.
Eventually we were led by young guides–all dressed in fetching retro clothing their grandmothers might have worn–to long tables in a community hall. Wine and water bottles had been set out and soon an efficient battalion of servers delivered paper plates filled with prosciutto, salami and crostini (the latter with tuna, tomato and chicken liver spreads) Next came hearty servings of pici (Tuscany’s long round noodles) with a meat ragu, and then the secondo: thin slices of arista (pork roast) with roasted potatoes and salad. For dessert, there were bowls of stracciatella gelato, a mixture of white fior di latte and chocolate.
After our abundant pranzo, we strolled up the street to Cantina Abbadia Ardenga, a maker of Brunello di Montalcino. The elderly proprietor, dapper in a bespoke suit,, showed us the botte (large barrels) filled with Brunello-to-be. Their production is only 15,000 bottles, he said, made with grapes from nearby vineyards and water from a natural spring.
We were not the most respectful crowd. “When are you going to give us some wine?” one man said loudly. But before long the talk ended and the tasting began–Brunello 2008, Rosso di Montalcino and vin santo. Moods brightened.
And then it was time to board for the last stretch of our treno a vapore route, back to Siena.