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Tuscany Made Easy

The Great Cloister contains one of the most vivid masterpieces in Tuscany—a fresco sequence depicting the adventures of St. Benedict, painted by Luca Signorelli and Il Sodoma (a name you need not translate for the little ones). You might, however, translate the captions of this great Renaissance cartoon: "How San Benedetto chased three devils from the clock tower," and so on. The Sodomite had a penchant not only for cheeky devils and pious youths but also for badgers, rumpy horses, and picturesque scenes of torture—all highly uplifting.

Summer is the season of pageants and sagre—communal feasts, some sponsored by the Church, some by the Communist Party, which still administers much of rural Tuscany. Whatever their trappings, the sagre are essentially pagan revels. At the Sagra della Bistecca in Cortona, huge slabs of Florentine beefsteak are grilled in the public gardens. At the Bravio delle Botti in Montepulciano, citizens in medieval garb compete to push enormous wine casks up the nearly vertical streets. You drop your load at your own peril.

The most famous of the horses are blessed in church; the jockeys ride bareback; the steeply banked course around the Campo is treacherous, and the race (they say) is still fixed. I warned my family we'd never find a parking space, much less a ticket.

Their hope triumphed over my experience. We arrived in late afternoon and left our car on the outskirts—actually, at a garbage dump. The city was resplendent with silken banners. Every neighborhood has its own colors, worn by phalanxes of boisterous youths who parade through the streets, hoarsely chanting their pep songs. We quickly bought our kids capes and flags. ("At least," said my friend Harriet, "it will be easier to identify their bodies.") A Palio is fabulous madness—but not for the agoraphobic, or the undersized.

A last-minute bid to buy scalped tickets failed, though even from behind the barricades, we could glimpse the thundering hooves churning up the dust. But our Palio victory was beating the crowds in the grandstands to a restaurant, where we dined on truffle pasta. And our consolation prize was to discover that on Palio nights, Siena's famous Gothic bell tower stays open late. Will and I climbed to the top, and made a wish on the first star.

Kids love scaling things in any direction (fish excluded). Not far from our home base, we explored the caves and grottoes of Cetona's Belvedere, used for burials during the Bronze Age. Only a little farther afield were the Etruscan tombs of the Lion and the Pilgrim, which one can visit, on appointment, with a guide from the archaeological museum in Chiusi. In Montepulciano, the boys descended into the catacombs beneath a wine shop to inspect a display of torture implements, while Mattie—too impressionable for such grisly thrills—waited patiently to see the mechanical Pierrot on the Torre del Pulcinella bang his cymbals on the hour.

The last few days of our idyll in Tuscany were poignant. There was so much left to do that we decided, all'italiana, to surrender in advance and not do much. Unfortunately, that included forgetting to check the fuel gauge on the rental car. This oversight left us searching desperately for a gas station on Ferragosto (August 15)—a holiday when every self-respecting Italian merchant has hung out the chiuso sign. We got lost, carsick, hungry, and cranky, each according to his temperament. I finally suggested, to my husband's horror ("what a brain-dead hippie idea"), that we should put the car in neutral to save fuel.

But fate ultimately steered us not only to some gas, but to some prime human fuel at Locanda Sant'Antimo, a family-run inn with exquisite home cooking and a ravishing view. Above us, a hill town garlanded with lights. Below us, the sublimest of Romanesque abbeys, floodlit by a full moon. Beside it, a cypress sentinel, as tall as the cupola. And then the waiter informed the boys that yes, they did serve pizza—"the best in Tuscany!" "To Virgil," cried Michael. "To paradise," said Harriet. "Welcome home," I replied.

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