Many years ago, just after the birth of Christ, I worked for a heliskiing company which saw me spending Australian summers and the months that followed, high up in the Indian Himalaya in a little town called Manali. This was a job that I absolutely relished in, and with it came an immeasurable love for India, seeing a long awaited and much anticipated return in February this year.
In my mid twenties, this Indian dream had to come to an end with my studies complete and long university holidays fast becoming a thing of the past, replaced with the much dreaded but invevitable reality of 'reality.' At the end of my final season in Manali, rather than returning directly to Melbourne, I packed my bags, bidding farewell to my beloved Himalayan life and headed for London. Many of my closest friends had made a life in London and I had delusional dreams of setting up a life there and making my first fortune (in what, I still ask myself?). Days went by at a pace challenged only by the way in which double decker buses whooshed past, filling my sandals with water splashed rudely out of puddles, and I felt nothing short of confused. One evening, as I tried to make head or tail of my existence, a very dear friend of mine (who to this day is still one of my most favourite people), sidled up to me over an orange cocktail and gave me the sage advice that I probably needed to go to Potentino. Having no idea what this actually meant, I was interested nonetheless and excited the following morning when an invitation arrived by email to attend the launch of a much anticipated wine produced in Italy, set to make its London debut that night.
I put on my best silk pyjama suit, made by Mr Gulati (my favourite Manali tailor and whose son had earnestly, not once but twice, told me his father was up the backside praying when I asked of his whereabouts) only weeks earlier as a farewell gift as I left Manali. I filled my arms with bangles, wrapped my hair high up on my head before making a pretentious exit out the front door. This sounded like quite a bit of fun.
It was a Sangiovese kind of night and where I first met Charlotte Horton, maker of the aforementioned wine who was sporting not only an Ikat to rival all Ikats, but a black eye gifted to her by her beloved chocolate Labrador Coco, as she left Italy the day before.
The following week I met Charlotte again, this time in less glamorous surrounds on the edge of the luggage belt at Pisa airport, before we made the journey by car back to Castello di Potentino. I still recall very fondly, the first evening spent around a rustic table in a modest kitchen, filled with much laughter in the company of Charlotte, her beautiful and incredibly talented mother Sally and a rather odd American man named Ken. We feasted on farro teamed with nettles carefully foraged from the edges of the castle grounds, and drank beautiful Sangiovese made by Charlotte and her right hand man Uran- a completely charming Albanian who, with his wife Evalina and their daughter Roberta, formed an important part of the Potentino family. To this day, that meal remains a very happy memory and it marks the beginning of a wonderful friendship with Charlotte and her family.
The following morning saw an early start in the vineyard as Charlotte showed me how to tame the vines over their wires and explained that the history of the castle dated back to the Etruscans, adding that everything that they ate, grew and produced, was in tune with the earth that formed the beautiful valley within which the castle was built. I found myself possessed by vistas from a thousand aspects; from the tiny bathroom windows to the huge archways that flanked the castle courtyard – everything was framed to perfection and became completely different with the ever changing and varying light seen throughout the day. This was no scene from 'Under the Tuscan Sun,' rather a thoroughly hardworking group of people with a vision towards creating a sustainable way of living that relied upon and married with, the resources available to them in both nature and their workforce. The castle had been brought back to life only years earlier by a dedicated army of volunteers led by Charlotte and Uran, after sitting destitute for a long period time. When first purchased by the Greene family, brambles had taken over and the grounds were in disarray, but the physical structure remained and the life that had been breathed back into this medieval building on an Etruscan site, was careful and with an ever present nod to its ancient history- I found it absolutely amazing.
We would work until mid morning before breaking with the heat of the day, commencing work again in the cool of the late afternoon. I found myself beginning to come alive again with swims in the river that rushed with freezing cold water below the castle grounds complimented with beautiful, simple food prepared with ingredients sourced from the earth around me.
One evening, in the company of Charlotte, her stepfather Graham (the Greene part of the equation), her mother Sally and truly sweet man named Raleigh who was visiting from London and with whom I was completely fascinated, the conversation shifted to Josephine. 'Who is Josephine?' I asked before being given a complete history of a woman named Josephine Powell, photographer, who had kept a room at Hotel Kabul in Afghanistan's capital for many years as she travelled between Rome and Kabul in a Landrover with a Belgian sheepdog, before settling in Istanbul towards the end of her life. Throughout her travels, Josephine had garnered a true understanding of, and a deep respect within Anatolian nomadic communities. This saw her become a much loved and highly respected Anthropologist with an incredible collection of photography, tools and weavings as well as a highly regarded knowledge and understanding of Anatolian history.
A week after I arrived at Potentino, and after a phone call made that night over dinner as the conversation turned to Josephine, I landed at the airport in Istanbul where I was met by a woman who stood no higher than my waist, hunched over a sign bearing my name and with a hand rolled cigarette hanging out of her mouth under a 'no smoking' sign.
I spent almost three months with Josephine, sifting through photographs and endless drawers of tools and piles of weavings as we brought a type of order to her most incredible collection. We laughed until we cried as she recalled memories of her past- it was an experience I will never forget. Josephine was as unpredictable as she was funny and I'll always fondly recall her shouting 'shut up' from underneath an aeroplane mask, cigarette hanging from her mouth, as the Tellytubbies danced across her television screen. I was so sad when I read of her death only a short few years later- she lived a life like no other and I feel more than privileged to have spent time with her where I learnt so much, and where we shared a mutual love for lives lived in a world far away from the one that was becoming increasingly global, aggressive and self importantly plastered over the evening news.
After leaving Josephine, I returned to Potentino where the table was gradually filling with a fascinatingly diverse blend of people who were either volunteering in the vineyard or visiting Charlotte, Sally and Graham. We worked tirelessly in the vines and I took away a new found perspective from conversations had at the dinner table, where I never quite knew who I was sitting beside and to this day, the mystery of the unknown dinner companion remains common place at Potentino. The preparation of meals was a shared responsibility, as was the clearing of the table and all the duties that were required to maintain an order around the most important part of the day- a meal shared with those who had a genuine interest in Potentino.
Throughout the years I have to returned to Potentino for regular visits, always leaving feeling newly revived and increasingly inspired as I watch the castle go from strength to strength but with an edge that keeps it seemingly the same. There is no shortage of music, laughter, conversations to inspire and individuals unique to the Potentino table. More recently Charlotte has been joined permanently by her brother Alexander, and between the two of them they have managed to maintain a familiar speed and the habits that are characteristically 'Potentino' and its rich history, while running a thoroughly industrious 21st century castle.
When I spent New Year's Eve at Potentino in January this year, I spoke of my plans to move to Paris in the middle of this year which was met with dares of returning, followed by taunts of 'do you know the castle is fortified.' I returned last weekend and left yesterday, feeling newly buoyant and ready for the next steps in this adventure that is the complete unknown.
Throughout my recent visit, the courtyard was flooded with the sounds of classical music as the immensely talented Pietro Bonfilio staged four hour piano rehearsals in preparation for his concert at Potentino tonight. Whilst I'm sad to miss it, as he is talented as he is a joy to be around, I type this blog to the sound of his new album (Kabalevsky- Piano Sonata No. 3- 24 Preludes, available on iTunes- shameless plug), this is just another example of the way in which Charlotte and Alexander have managed to bring people together as they continue to farm and produce in a way that is not only enormously sustainable, but through diverse workshops and the ability to volunteer, is also incredibly inclusive.
While the mention of visits to a castle in Tuscany is often met with raised brows, this is a place unlike any other and over the years has taught me so much, across so many facets of life.
Pictured: Castello di Potentino flanked in winter light, January 2017.