When you see an excursion or tour advertised as “wine tasting” your first and only sensible reaction is to think: “ah, it is going to be a visit to a winery where some dude will stand in front of us, explain a number of wines and let us taste them and with a bit of luck there will be some cheese, nibbles and whatnot.” How can it be anything else?
So, on our recent cruise, when we docked in Civitaveccia near Rome, Royal Caribbean enticed us to join one of many tours in the Lazio Region for a few hours. The one that caught our eye and imagination was an “Olive Oil Tasting” visit to a farm in the Italian countryside. We paid $75 each and climbed the coach with excitement brought about partly by the anticipated olive oil experience in store and partly because it was a chance to step on terra firma instead of being on the huge and charmless Oasis of the Seas cruiser.
Our guide turned out to be a middle-aged woman with as much charm as the cruiser we just left. She explained to us that the journey to the Farm would take about 45 minutes and she would talk to us again on the way as and when we came across interesting landmark. She spoke once as we passed a very average village and she told us the name of the village, totally un-necessary since the name was clearly marked on the way into the village; I soon fell asleep by way of self-entertainment.
The entire drive was indescribably ordinary; I cannot even begin to describe it. We finally turned left into an ordinary drive that led on to a collection of ordinary buildings, with a scattering of ordinary trees and a couple of ordinary cars parked on either side of the ordinary drive.
We decanted from the coach, were ushered by our guide to follow her, which we duly did. She stopped and spoke briefly to an ordinary looking middle-aged woman and continued towards the middle of an ordinary yard outside the bigger of the farm buildings and stood under a large and heavily laden olive tree which had a canvas spread on the ground with an implement that resembled a back scratcher for a giant.
Guide: This is an olive tree, and this thing in my hand is what they used to use to harvest the olives from the tree in the olden days. These days, farmers use vibrating machines because it is not practical to harvest many trees by hand. As you can see, the olives on the tree are green and they are nearly ready to pick. If they are left on the tree for a few more weeks, they will turn black and that’s the difference between green and black olives. Any questions?
Of course there were questions! Whenever you have 50 or so people, statistically, you are going to have a moron who never saw an olive and finds everything fascinating. There will also be a show off who will ask highly technical questions that will challenge someone with PhD in olive trees. Finally, you will have someone who will express amazement and surprise just so we notice they are wearing a low cut dress or their well groomed moustache, or whatever they are pleased with about themselves. No one however asked the most obvious question:
Are you taking the piss?
We were finally herded in to the farmhouse where with anticipation I imagined a long table with a variety of olive oil jars and freshly baked farm bread to dip in to the various oils. I especially blew my nose before going in, ready to receive the heady aroma of the oils.
Inside, a table was readied with a large bowl of green salad, two or three types of dried and thinly sliced meats, some cheese, a plate of Margherita pizza cut in to small squares, another plate of pre-cut pieces of dry Ciabatta bread, slices of water melon, red and white wine bottles. Oh yes, and a bottle of olive oil to drizzle on your food. The whole ensemble would have embarrassed the caterers of an inner-city school canteen.
The relief we felt at getting back on the coach was similar to that you get when the dentist finally lets you close your mouth after a particularly painful and lengthy dental hygiene session with the words; rinse please!
The rest of the tour turned out to be even more ordinary than the farm visit; as though it was possible. We were taken to a town called Toscania which was 80% closed; my guess was the inhabitant had enough of boredom and decided to go to a library somewhere for excitement and danger.
We looked for a library without much success so, we went and sat in the coach until everyone returned to the coach to make our way back to the relative excitement of the cruise ship.
It is just as well we have visited Italy in the past and experienced amazing places like Rome, Venice, Lake Como etc. otherwise, we would swear Italy was a charmless, “Noioso” country where it would be preferable to spend a week following an ant crawl up a wall and down again several times.