Saturday, April 07, 2007

Final Italy Dispatch

Ciao all,

Well, we are due back in Bellevue in only a week, so this is probably the last update from the field, you will be relieved to know!

Last week we undertook another little expedition away from the home valley, this time as far as the seaward side of Tuscany. Highlights included:

Monte San Savino

Monte San Savino

Yet another Tuscan hilltown, this is a waypoint towards Siena that we'd heard much about. Having gotten a late start, we found it pretty much shuttered by the time we arrived hungry for lunch, and were treated to a nice one at a cafe on an old square. There was a bust of poet Giulio Salvadori, who I have not heard of. Apart from an impressive arched loggia across from a massive stone palazzo and a few cow skulls ala Death Valley Days carved into a lintel, there was not much to hold our attention, so we proceeded over the hills and through the woods, through the lovely but somewhat golf-course-like hills outside Siena to:

San Gimignano

We were delayed a bit in reaching this goal by getting mired in the goofy road "system" around Siena, but eventually wound through the countryside and up to San G., which despite the off-season weekday was packed with international tourists due to its reputation as an untouched medieval hilltown. The main street, lined with touristy shops, led to a double piazza with one of the town's ancient wells as well as most of its famous towers. Robin headed for the tourist info office and within minutes had amazingly secured the sole tenancy of a palazzo (Casa di Potenti, house of the potent) placed primely on the square, with the caveat that it was directly underneath the giant bells of the cathedral.

San Gimignano

San Gimignano is essentially pedestrian-only except for residents, and the streets are not only extremely narrow and twisting but often dead-end or designated as one-way. Thus to unload our bags from the car meant walking back through town, circumnavigating it, and then taking a maze-like route that would have challenged Theseus, culminating in having to cross the double pizza through a herd of tourists, and then back out again to park. Anyway we spent the day exploring the various churches of course (such as San Agostino), and at dusk circumambulated the ancient fortress, on its olive-tree-covered hill-on-a-hill, for a great view of town and a magenta (!) sunset.

Dined at a restaurant (La Vecchia Mura, the old wall) pretty far off the tourist track, which was patronized by many locals, including a table of about 20 men of varying age who were having a whale of time; it was pure Italy. The old walrus-mustached owner was very nice to the point of being telepathic of our desires. We then spent an interesting night being awoken frequently by the bonging of not the one but two sets of deep church bells about 100 feet away. The first part of the following day was spent breakfasting and walking, as well as climbing up the Large Tower for a panorama of San Gimignano. Sadly we opted to forgo the Museum of Torture.


A few miles on, past an enormous penitentiary placed weirdly in the gorgeous Tuscan hill country (to say nothing of pricey real-estate), we came here on Rick Steves' advice primarily for its Etruscan heritage. Again our first priority was to find lodging, given that it was already mid-afternoon, and, since we'd splurged a bit the previous night, decided to cut costs by sampling the local seminary's offering (also highly recommended by Steves). This was an enormous old building a 15-minute walk out of town; its long, wide, nearly unlit hallways were lined with doors over which old frescoes of the popes peered down. Our door was labeled "Spirituale"; the suite had a peaceful view of a fallow garden and despite being rather decrepit was utterly quiet and provided comfortable haven from the frigid wind which had sprung up. The wardrobe turned out to be full of ledgers dating back to 1702, noting the debits and credits of the staff of the seminary, as well as drafts of letters from the abbot and such -- a wonderful find!


We of course explored the town despite the wind, focusing on the many shops selling handcrafted alabaster items from gewgaws to furniture, sculpture, jewelry, and tableware. (Oddly this town also had a prominent Museum of Torture. And the old Medici fort is used for yet another prison, for maximum-security miscreants.) Dined in an excellent restaurant named Ombre della Sera (Shadow of the Evening) after a mysterious Etruscan sculpture of an elongated figure, and the next day visited the Etruscan Museum, which had three floors of pre-Christian items dug from the local area -- dozens of oblong carved funerary urns (many depicting tales from Homer) as well as the items they contained -- buttons, jewelry, coins, bones, oil lamps, pottery, helmets, weapons, figurines (Ombre della Sera included), etc. On the way out of town we stopped by the Roman amphitheater ruin for some photos.


We promised the kids more beach time so on we went to the Mediterranean, to Puccini's home town (he also shot wildfowl at the local wetland), and where Percy Shelley drowned in the sea and got a piazza named after him. After a bit of searching we found a splendid hotel, La Pace (Peace), on the busy promenade across from the wide, sandy, and syringe-free beach, to which Nick and Piper immediately headed and remained until dinner time. The weather had turned warm again, fortunately. Dined at an unavoidably tourist-filled spot on the promenade, and ordered (and almost finished) far too much food (the frenchfries were the last straw), but met a nice English couple.


The next morning we went for a walk along the promenade, which is lined with colorful art deco and art nouveau buildings from the heyday of Viareggio's infamous Carnevale mania; we admired the snowy mountains in the distance and discovered a canal along which the local small fishing boats pull up to sell their catch -- baskets full of disturbingly fresh eels, several types of shrimp and prawns, squid, rays, octopus, and shellfish, twitching beside numerous small and colorful fish I didn't recognize. Nearby we discovered an outdoor marketplace with wriggly-tin booths set up under a squad of old and drastically pollarded sycamores, where you could buy everything from clothes to food, trinkets to magazines, housewares -- well, you get the picture. We decided to stay on another night and so passed the afternoon at the beach once again -- watching brave souls wade into the surf to dredge for clams and an old B1 bomber mysteriously drone around and around -- and then after Piper and I walked to a nearby park and watched the geezers playing bocce, treated ourselves to an actual sushi dinner for the first time in three months (trying not to think about the victims at the fish market). Discovered a bookstore that actually had a GOOD selection of books in English, apart from the usual mass-market fodder and olde classics we have typically found. Next morning I took a rainy dawn walk to shoot the shut-up marketplace.



We'd promised/threatened to show the kids the Leaning Tower and so braved the Pisa traffic and absolutely thronging tourists to do so. A good place if you're yearning to hear American accents. Or German. Alas it was raining, and although the tower has now been opened to the public it costs 15 euros a head (!) to climb it, and so all things considered we opted to limit the view to a ground perspective, and concentrated on eating lunch and then moving on. We were serenaded at lunch by a toothless fellow with a guitar and booming baritone -- restaurants seem to have no qualms about letting various types of out-and-out beggars and other entrepreneurs (flower sellers etc.) into their establishments.


Last time we were at this town (as with Pisa) was 1991; Robin had forgotten her camera at a restaurant and miraculously was able to retrieve it via a series of friends, but only after two years! Once more we were directed by tourist info to a nice hotel, the Stipino, slightly outside the ancient wall, and once again we soon found that one night was not enough time to enjoy the town. Lucca is a wonderful place to wander, its lanes deep and shadowy but opening onto many bright piazzas accompanying ornate churches, and a goodly number of parks and even a canal running through it. The centerpiece is a Roman amphitheater which, after serving many later purposes (a prison, for example), was turned in the 19th century into Piazza Mercato, surrounded by towering green-shuttered apartments with cafes and shops at ground level. We dined at a restaurant (Burali) recommended by our hotelier , and as we sat there it dawned on me that it was the same place where the camera had been left! Great waiter, great music (the waiter's compilation) and great food.


The following day started beautifully: we rented bikes and thrice circumnavigated the town atop its wall, enjoying gelato in the Piazza Mercato and lunch before the mosaic facade of Chiesa San Frediano (wherein lies the mummified Santa Zita who fortunately we did not see before we ate). We also climbed the medieval Giungi Tower, with its tiny "garden" at the top, consisting of a couple of ibex trees that are visible for miles around) for a good view of the town in its hill/mountain-surrounded valley. That evening Robin rested while the kids and I walked back into town for a pizza dinner, returning in the rain.

The next morning, storm abated, Robin and I went out while the kids slept, tit for tat, discovering still another church and several squares -- Lucca always seemed to surprise us; I had the best cornetto (croissant) yet. It was now Palm Sunday and folks were out selling palm and olive fronds, and there was a street market by the church where the "foreigners" sold knickknacks. Before we could check out of the hotel, we were captured in our lobby by a guy (from Spokane!) who spent about an hour detailing his past 30 years of teaching biology in Germany and the US, with lengthy detours into his theories of race relations. Yike. Maurizio, the hotelier, nicely gave us a bottle of home-made wine; we sampled it a couple of nights later -- it would have been better to wait about 20 years I think.


We headed home to the Molino but zipped into this hillside village briefly to check out the home of Pinocchio's author. There is a highly recommended theme park -- in fact the whole town is rather like a theme park -- but it was expensive and gewgaw-filled enough for us to say phooey and move on. It did have some appealing artwork in the public spaces.



This area is the garden center of Italy, which is to say there are acres (or hectares, whatever those are) of nurseries along the road, featuring everything from flowers, cactus, and shrubbery (all in bloom early, given global warming) to dinosaur topiary, squat little palms, and pointy cypresses. In Pistoia itself we located the Duomo, which compared to Lucca's massive monument seemed pretty modest although it has a really manly campanile, and we had lunch outside in the hot sun beside a church reputed to have "more stripes than any other in Christendom." I did not count. Nearby a local metal band was warming up for a concert in a piazza, with homeless guys looking on. By this time we were getting eager to relax at home so onward we pressed past the traffic horror of Prato, bypassing Firenze, and were in San Giustino by dinner time, where we enjoyed a home-cooked meal for a change, thanks to Robin!

We then had one day to clean house before the arrival of our friend Maggie (our landlady!) from York along with her 11-year-old son Jai, and we are now plotting our last week of adventures.

See you soon,


Sunday, March 18, 2007

Belated Italy Dispatch

 Ciao all,

Internet connectivity has been in short supply for the last couple of weeks, as we have been on the road. I hope y'all continue to be well stateside. Here's a summary of our multifarious activities recently:


We (including our co-traveller T.) tackled the town of Urbino in The Marches across the mountains, via the potentially nauseating if spectacular Bocca Trabaria road that rises virtually from our back yard to 1200 meters or so (spectacular at least for those who can spare a second lifting their eyes from the hairpin turns once in a while). You pass through several isolated hamlets of an almost Swiss nature and then come down gratefully onto the straighter coastal plain road only to shoot upward again to Urbino. The town's main feature is the Palazzo Ducale, housing many rooms of art from the 14th-16th century (including Signorelli, a name from which Marx Bros. fans may get a whiff of familiarity, and Barocci, a local painter I've never heard of who seems to foreshadow the impressionists by several hundred years). Taciturn guides slogged after us making sure we did not spraypaint the masterpieces. Urbino is a college town and several students were wearing laurel wreaths denoting (I assume) their matriculation. We did the usual wandering, lunch, and gelato sampling.

Not content with one eastward journey we ventured to ancient Ravenna, like Urbino spitting distance from the Adriatic, though we did not actually sight the sea this time either, though you could definitely sense it in the air. Now, when I say ancient, I mean it -- so far we've been lolling around in mere 11th century territory, but here we were delving into the 6th century -- mosaics dating to the Byzantine (rumor has them perhaps stolen from the Hagia Sophia) and looking amazingly fresh since they don't age as frescoes do. We lunched in a very crowded cafeteria upstairs in an indoor market reminiscent of Granville Island in Vancouver. Pi and I split off from the group to bike around town while they looked as mosaics in a number of churches. Alas Pi was "too young" to ride the free bikes, insurance-wise at least, so we walked for 2 hours instead, taking photos of such things as the palazzo of Lord Byron(!) and a Roman baptistery, and yes, sampling the gelato.


The day was made unconscionably long because rather than retrace our steps through a long stretch of "badlands"-like mountains (more potential car-sickness) we made the decision to go home via the A1 autostrada. Unfortunately getting to the A1 meant making a large triangle, first west to the vastness of Bologna (where we were considerably slowed by rush hour) and thence to Florence (no, seriously) before dropping down to Arezzo and zipping back along the San Sepolcro road. Florence was also in a crush made up primarily by a literally endless stream of trucks taking up a lane or two while everyone else squoze past. Anyway we finally stopped for dinner in San Giovanni Valdarno where we feasted on Tuscan dishes at a hole in the wall place off the main square. Didn't get home till about midnight, having stretched a potential two-hour drive to about six.

San Giovanni

In between staking out new territory we introduced T. to the local pleasures such as Citta di Castello, San Sepolcro, San Giustino of course, the Arezzo antiques market, and further afield Cortona.
CiternaWhile she and Robin shopped for shoes in Anghiari I tore through the fields to took a peek into the nearby hill village of Citerna, whose main feature is a covered medieval walkway looking out over the plain. We also had dinner one night in a hotel restaurant in Anghiari -- apparently there were no guests at the hotel since we had the place to ourselves -- us and the giant TV. The favorite Italian shows at present are a sort of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" but the pacing is infuriatingly slow, with loooooong pauses and cutaways between the contestants looking pained and the emcees looking sly.


San Sepolcro

I treated the kids (Piper twice!) to a traveling (gypsy?) fun-fair in San Sepolcro where she was sadly unable to win a live bunny (or chipmunk, gerbil, or other critter) by a "game of skill and chance" but did manage to win a couple of stuffed toys and a ball. She also partook of a bungee ride, and she and Nick did bumper boats and a huge slide. Nick took a turn with a go-kart, making a spectacular re-entry upon realizing there was no brake. The fair was very cool at night all lit up.

T. unfortunately had to return to the U.S. after a mere two weeks of treating us to her humor and cooking, so we drove her to the Rome airport via Orvieto, where we stayed in our Palazzo Cardinale again. In addition to window shopping and dining in the fab La Palomba (Nick adventurously actually ordered the roast dove dish this time) we toured of a few of the 1200 caves beneath the town, which were used by the Etruscans to store food and make olive oil in (natural refrigeration!) and were later used by the Romans, and as bomb shelters during WWII


After dropping off T. (she made the flight despite massive traffic backups on the Rome ring road) we headed south with no plan other than wanting to return to Sorrento (to paraphrase the song), which Nick and I had only passed through on our school trip of 2004, and Mondragone (see below). Sorrento being a fur piece down the road, we decided to look for a place to stay en route. We were taking the coast road rather than the autostrada for obvious reasons, and the first place we hit was Ostia, an ancient Roman port area now reduced to an interminable strip of beach resorts in varying states of winter hibernation bordering on disrepair. The beach, which looked nice from a distance, remained at a distance since it was all fenced off, the closure of the hotels who "own" the strips of beach in front of them having no impact on any public desire to get their feet sandy.


As we commenced southward the towns got poorer and poorer (or more and more closed, let's say) until it began to look like a bad stretch of the Tijuana strip -- at length we arrived in Anzio, which you'll remember was a crucial WWI Allied beach-head in the rout of Nazis from Italy. We parked on the quay by some fishing boats and Robin and I treated ourselves to a fantastic seafood lunch at Ristorante Alceste (a stunning 10-dish antipasto as well as linguine con vongole) as we watched the kids play amongst the medical waste on the beach below. Well, we weren't aware of this little detail till after lunch. Spent the siesta mooching around town and scoping out hotels, turning down a quite dreary one right in town for a very nice one, L'Approdo, out of town a mile or so, where we got adjoining seaview rooms for a good price. I took the kids to that beach down the cliffside (ramshackle staircase to say the least) and then we dined in a nearby restaurant -- Nick ordered frutti di mare fritti which turned out not to be, say, fish and chips, but whole fish ( with heads) and prawns and octopus and squid, all battered and deep fried. Actually quite good but the legs and antenna and eyeballs were a little intimidating. Next morning I walked into town and failed to find any other beach access despite some prime parklike real estate; Anzio and environs continue to have a heavy military presence and some of the best land is given over to naval hospitals and the like. It started to rain and I negotiated a hat from a vendor for the return trip. We finished our stay with a trip to the museum, situated in a 17th-century villa and dedicated half to the Roman finds from the area (mosaics, statuary, coins, pottery) and half to WWII memorabilia (Allied and Axis uniforms, weapons, propaganda, even an old Nazi motorcycle, some of which has been dredged from the harbor where the troop carriers beached amid shelling and has been encrusted with shellfish residue.

Made a quick stop for fruit in Nettuno (i.e., Neptune) just down the road. It was not a WWII beach-head and so was not bombed into rubble by all concerned, so still has some medieval lanes intact, though spectacularly graffitied.

Southward we continued. The kids having tasted blood, so to speak, on the beach, they wanted more ASAP and we stuck to the coastal road. On my impulse for a photo-op I stopped at a pullout beside a field filled with large picturesque cattle on the shores of a lake, across the road from a sandy strand. As we munched on our fruit, bread and cheese, a car pulled alongside and a fellow let his two English setters out of the back. He'd forgotten to set the brake and the car began to roll back into him -- he pushed it back, shouting, "Stop, car! STOP, car! Stop, dogs!" -- as the leashed dogs were tangling in his legs. At any rate, he got to talking to us and was in fact English and very entertaining, circumlocutiously recommending routes for us to take. He was there to birdwatch. As we finally departed he gave us his number in case we headed back that way. And we were to, in a week's time (stay tuned).

Near San Felice

We were torn between wanting to make headway and stop at a nice place. First stopping for an hour at the beach to let the kids get drenched and gritty, we passed by a national park area named for Circe, and I managed to head the wrong way down a one-way street (fortunately it was a small town, San Felice) in my haste to get gelato for the kids. Robin had two. Anyway we wound up driving through some absolutely beautiful scenery, the Mediterranean on one side and subtropical hills on the other, studded with ruins of one era or another. Terracina looked nice but wasn't far enough along and frankly seemed a bit too Californian. We turned down a 5-star hotel in Formia due to expense (it was one of the few hotels we could find that were open) -- plus Formia was a claustrophobic madhouse of cars and scooters and pedestrians. Gaeta looked promising but turned out to be very industrial (fishing and shipping).


As darkness fell we lucked out in the humble resort town of Scauri at a little hotel right on the beach, called Villa Eleanora, where we got adjoining rooms -- Robin's and mine with a view of the seafront. We set the kids' wet sandy clothes to dry on the windowsill and had a nice dinner in a restaurant on the main drag, again seated right by a TV with Jim Belushi in Italian... The next morning I walked up the beach and took some shots of a derelict factory, after which we stoked up on Nutella in the hotel dining room and moved on. We almost immediately swerved off the road to visit a large Roman ruin at Minturno, with an amphitheater, baths, a market, the capitolium, etc. and a museum with statuary and other relics.

The day's goal was Mondragone, where some of Robin's forebears either lived or at least embarked for America from. Unfortunately we were not able to spend much time enjoying the town because it didn't seem to have much to enjoy. Like Formia there was far too much traffic for its tiny streets, there was no viable place to park and walk around, the seafront was inaccessible, etc etc. Quite a disappointment. We were growing desperate for lunch: first we tried the next beach village along but it was really desolate, like an African shanty town (mostly populated by blacks, it seemed); we tried an appealing "cafeteria" on the highway but it was very weird -- the owner(?) was sitting on the porch. He said there was no menu. The cafeteria had no food in the display cases. The gigantic dining room was empty. He asked us what we wanted to eat, that he could make anything for us (though he seemed stymied by the concept of panini). We said grazie, non and left.

Near Castel Volturno

At length we found a cafe bar in a slightly less bleak little town called Castel Volturno where we picked up some panini. As for good picnicking beaches the folks were not terribly helpful but pointed out that there were beaches all along the coast (duh), so we just kept going and turned in to a place called Pineta di Mare or something, which on one end had a huge Holiday Inn golf complex (!) and on the other a lot of small-scale resorts much like those we'd been seeing all along, i.e. very run down and closed anyway; we managed to locate some public access sand and had our picnic amongst the flotsam on a breakwater that had impressive breakers -- odd for the Mediterranean, which generally is pretty calm. Amusement provided by a gaggle of teenage boys, one of whom took his pants off for a nippy dip.

Decided to go for the gusto and reach Sorrento for the night. This necessitated passing by the madness that is Naples, and somewhere we missed the turnoff for the Sorrento coast and drove nearly all the way to Salerno before huffily whisking onto the Amalfi coast road at Vietri sul Mare, which is a gorgeous village scrambling along the cliff edge high above the sea. We knew it would be way past dark by the time we got to Sorrento so after a couple of false starts in towns along the way we landed at the San Francesco Hotel in the town of Maiori.


We were not hopeful since it was a 4-star place with porters in tuxes etc., but the owner showed us a lovely room for four with a view and balcony for a surprisingly low price, which we jumped on. The kids were also overjoyed to see a sandy beach. I'd never heard of Maiori but regular tourist buses came and went from the hotel and there were some nice shops and a lot of restaurants, one of which, funnily named Dedalo (like in San Giustino), we ate at that evening. The town apparently had a flood in the 1950s and now the stream that runs through the town is contained in a deep covered canal down the main street. The next morning we strolled around and enjoyed the now tropical foliage (palms, cactus) and very warm weather. We stayed on a second night because both the town and hotel seemed like a good base for the various towns on that coast, including:

  • Amalfi, about 10 klicks along the road -- and what a road, super narrow and twisty, with a sheer drop on one side and sheer wall on the other, blind corners everywhere with cars roaring around straddling the lines, not to mention buses and trucks! All along it impossible treacherous mossy stairways and the occasional nearly vertical driveway have been hacked into the rock up to houses somehow attached to the cliff side. We spent 2 hours in Amalfi prowling the picturesque alleyways that were stuffed with tourists from all over the world. We had pizza (and beer!) on the impressive steps on the church in the main square. The church domes in this neck of the woods are tiled in brilliant yellow and green. Dunno why.

  • Positano, another great hodgepodge of houses all down the hillside to the sea. Lots of shops with overpriced lacey clothes, but a lovely place for all that. Trudged along the beach in a gusty wind.

  • Ravello, billed as the aristocratic Amalfi coast town, because it has been home to E.M. Forster and Andre Gide, as well as being Wagner's inspiration for "Parsifal." It doesn't have the charm of the other villages, sitting far up on the top of the seaside hills, but then again it wasn't swamped by tourists. Of course it was dusk, and a windy cold dusk at that, when we arrived. The road up to Ravello is even sillier than the "main" road, narrower, twistier, and seemingly more full of deranged local drivers not expecting any fool in a giant Renault to be negotiating the curves.

  • Grotto di Smeralda -- a tourist trap, but amusing: you go down the cliff in an elevator and emerge at a large cavern (think Oregon's Sea Lion Caves without the sea lions). Here a fellow oars you around the interior, describing it in fractured English. The brilliant turquoise (not emerald) water is partly illuminated from an underwater tunnel to the open sea. The highlight, to some, is the submarine creche scene: "Looky looky Seattle, baby Gesu! Eetsa miracle! Looky looky!" Piper pointed out to us that the wavering illuminated figures below us were not in fact miraculous rock formations but pieces of sculpture fixed to the floor of the pool. Above the cave a man in a Piaggio Ape (pronounced ah-pay), the ubiquitous three-wheeled mini-truck with a top speed of 35 mph, was selling massive misshapen lemons out of the back.
    Grotto di Smeralda

  • Praiano, which is divided into a part along the road above the sea and the part we went to, which is a fistful of dwellings along a deep ravine opening out onto a pie-slice of beach between two headlands. Here the sea comes roaring in through the rocks and you can follow a catwalk along the cliff-edge to a couple of restaurants either perched on or actually carved into the walls.

We had a surprisingly good coffee and some freshly made sandwiches here before heading onward finally to: Sorrento! We swooped down from the hills like Assyrian wolves on the fold and again found ourselves at a remove from the desired seafront which lay at the foot of an enormous cliff and seemed to be available only as a landing stage for tourist buses coming and going from the boats to Naples or Capri. We had a typical Bentley picnic on a sunny bench in San Francesco park (oh give it a rest, there are other saints, you know) as the wind from the Mediterranean blasted us. Looking again for a swimmable beach we used tempting postcards to direct us to (a) Marina Grande to the south of the centro to (b) one of the towns (Sorrento comprises four) to the north. Of the former hotels, the most desirable seemed far too expensive so we tried the latter -- and promptly got lost in residential warrens but did take a look at Klein Wien (Little Vienna), which was fairly awful -- if indicative of Big Vienna, you can keep it, thanks. After much discussion we returned to the first hotel -- Hotel Bristol -- and bit the bullet, and here again for better or worse we opted later for a second night; it was a great room about 300 feet above Marina Grande (which is not grande at all but is picturesque nonetheless) with a sweeping view of the city and the sea, and if Vesuvius were to blow we would be among the first to notice. Dinner in the posh hotel dining room (no prices on the menu, eek). Next day the kids rested while R and I walked around town; I later took them down to the beach, which was alas unswimmable but we made up for it with, yes, GELATO. Dinner that night at L'Antica Trattoria was (Herb, take note) one of the three or four best I've had in my life, although also three times as expensive as our record so far. Highlights included my "Fantasy Vegetarian" menu (tartine of artichoke, chickpea soup, gnocchi with eggplant, salad, and local citrus sorbet), a gratis appetizer of battered zucchini flowers stuffed with cheese and anchovy, and Robin's local fish in a salt crust, which the owner warned us served two. He didn't mean it was a large fish, it meant that you buy one but PAY for two. Most of the football sized fish was the disposable salt crust, so we were a little huffy, but they gave us a bottle of apple liqueur to mollify us. Still -- 70 euros for a serving of fish!?? My Fantasy was half the price. Oh well, it was freaking delicious, all in all.


Having decimated the bank account we thought we'd better head for home. We did want to see some more ruins so we paid (accent on paid) a visit to Ercolano, known to Yanks as Herculaneum. It is essentially a suburb of Naples and features some truly insane drivers. Another picnic on the sidewalk and then a couple of hours exploring the cobbled pathways, peering into the ruined villas, taverns, baths, etc., with their wall paintings oddly architectural, the colors rust red and ochre, and pale blue. The site is nowhere as extensive as Pompeii but seems to be in better condition and has been added to, with plantings for example to make it seem friendlier. We gave a call to Nick Henson at this point and he hollered at us to come spend the night, so with some difficulty (schools of Vespas made the roundabouts particularly invigorating) we returned to the highway and traveled three hours north, cutting over the coastal range at Frosinone to the point where we'd met him a week earlier near Sabaudia.

Nick and his Australian/Italian wife Fauste and their 17-year-old daughter Flora welcomed us heartily. Flora aside, they have been living in Italy for 26 years, so we got quite a colorful history of the region and the Italian foibles regarding such things as property acquisition. Nick is perhaps the only person I've ever met who exemplifies the term "gnomic" -- in looks, humor, and temperament, as he is given to sudden loud outbursts of varying seriousness. A retired biology teacher, he is an avid birder and the following day took us to his favorite haunt where we spotted numerous waterbirds including (unbelievably) two varieties of flamingo. Flora took Piper horseback riding, and we took a short walk to the local canal and a long spell at the beach. We also had coffee at a local cafe run by "a left-wing atheist" whom they patronize for "solidarity" and here we met a certain Pasquale, who had spent 30 years living in Merseyside and returned after his childrens' deaths to the place of his birth. He loves the weather, he says, but hates the people. He also hates America but I think we made it clear that we too were not fond of the way things have been going. Pasquale had a beret like mine, and whereas I had been recently mistaken (by a Brit) for being French because of it, he said it really was a Sicilian style, and pointed his finger gun-like. This may explain some of the suspicious glances I have been getting.

Well, that pretty much brings us up to what's happenin', folks. We spent a long day in the car going overland to the A1 (lunch in a hilltown called Cori, and a stop at a gigantic PACIFICO grocery store nearby) and cutting across to our valley via Cortona, along a very mountainous road mostly in the dark. We are now taking it VERY easy for a bit before tackling any more daytripping! Still, in less than a month we will be back, it seems, so we will be filling the time with more expeditions.

Again, hope all is well with you, cats and dogs and boats.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

This Week in Italy

Ciao, amici,
An interesting week in our "soggiorno", crowned with an overnight trip to the scene of "Under the Tuscan Sun."  Frances Mayes has probably been singlehandedly responsible for the overheated prices in Italy at this point, but Cortona is indeed a pleasant and rewarding town, and one that we decided was worth spending two days in. The highlight for all of us was our decision to stay not in a hotel (which seemed nice but was to our minds pricey given the off season) and instead spend the night in, wait for it, a convent. The kids were at first dubious to say the least but Suora Maria was a kind host, 70-ish and all in white, and our rooms and adjacent bathrooms were surgically clean, though the beds to Robin's mind a bit hard (they haven't been slept in by a zillion tourists, I figger). And it was warm, which is more than I can say for the Molino at present, though it's no problem in summer. Actually Cortona overall seemed several degrees warmer than San Giustino. I have never felt more secure  -- even with no locks on the doors -- and it was quiet as, well, a convent. We had a lovely simple breakfast of toast, coffee, and Nutella (preferred food of the seraphim, I believe). We did our usual perambulations of steep (I say, STEEP) lanes and stairways, viewing paintings and frescoes dating back, oh, 500 or 600 years; Robin and I enjoyed a dawn hike up a olive-tree-lined path lined with mosaics of the stations of the cross up to the large church at the top of the city, with a view across the fogged-in valley like a white sea lapping the foothills.


Between journeys afar (albeit Cortona is only about 50 miles - map distances are deceptive) we tend to lie low for a day or so at the Molino. For example, we walked up our road and got to know a woman who was feeding her newborn lambs. A tiny woman about 65, I'd say, she was hefting a hay bale as large as herself up the hill. The kids have taken to beating the bushes in the fields beyond the house, and playing in the stream below us, even to the extent of sliding down the mossy rocks into the frigid pools. This is when they are not playing on the computer or (in Piper's case) translating an Italian encyclopedia of animals! Generally the nights are frosty and the days warm to t-shirt degree - the better to dry our clothes! Much time is spent working on the fire once the sun goes down. Nick had a scary incident when something especially flammable puffed up as he was blowing on the embers, resulting in some singed sideburns. We have also discovered a mall in San Sepolcro where one can shop for groceries, socks, and stamps, as well as eat pizza and have coffee. A breath of Bellevue in the wilds of Umbria - and its open during siesta!


We also spent some time in Umbertide, about 15 km down the road. Much of the town is new since it got badly bombed in WWII but the "centro storico" has some 15th-century buildings, castle, and so on. We met a nice English couple who have lived nearby since 1991; they rent out one of their houses here. Hmm!

Citta di Castello

From there we backtracked through Citta di Castello, with a stop at the very peaceful sanctuary of Belvedere high above it, where we lay in the grass, listened to birdsong, and watched lizards in the sun. The most interesting point in our uneventful siesta C. di C. stop was when R & I were sitting having a smoke and a prosecco at a table outside a bar, on the main square. A rather disreputable fellow roared right up to our table on a scooter, and stuck out his hand demanding a cigarette. I and Robin exchanged glances, I handed him one and lit it like the gentleman I am. :-)  He muttered some imprecation ending, for some reason, in "undici" (eleven) and roared off. The policeman at the next table didn't bat an eye. 


Last weekend commenced with a visit to Arezzo's monthly antiques fair, where hundreds of vendors set up their booths in and out of the town's streets and piazza. Everything you can imagine and some things you couldn't are for
sale. Everything from worthless knickknacks and old drawer pulls to real works of art new and old, as well as furniture, toys, clothes, etc. There are even Africans hawking tribal statuary. I love these fairs because the tables are all like weird still-lifes, random assortments of shapes, colors, and inherent associations.


From Arezzo we aimed toward the true goal, Siena, about an hour from there. Here we walked up and down its hills exploring the striped Duomo, the thronged campo (square), and museums, one of which included a library of illuminated 14th-century manuscripts of monks' plainsongs under a plethora of ornate and colorful frescoes. We spent the night at a "quasi-quasi hotel" (per Rick Steves) run by nuns -- since we'd been blooded, so to speak -- which afforded a fantastic view up and across to the tall campanile and the Duomo with its own square belltower, for even less money (90 euros) than the Cortona convent had wanted. Plus it was comfy, clean, and warm  -- and right next door to a restaurant where I had the best wild boar/tagliatelle ever, again with that fantastic view of the towers, now lit up in the night. Also I was thrilled to find a Templar relic - "il quaddro magico":


which reads the same up, down, and backwards. No one knows its significance...  I'd found it on a postcard in the museum which didn't mention its location (for example, they also sold postcards of Rome's Sistine Chapel) and the clerk said, "It's right here!" and opened a side door and pointed to the wall. Cool!  Well, cool if you're into Templar stuff.  The kids and I also climbed the tight enclosed stairway to the top of the campanile (384 steps, according to the kids) which, if one were so inclined (as is Robin), would satisfy the reqs for setting off both claustrophobia and acrophobia.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Week in Italy

Hello all,

We are happily back in the saddle after several days on tenterhooks: our bathroom contractor had the nerve to actually cash his check, thus depleting our bank account, which made things a bit tight until we could top off the tank, so to speak -- which we found is none too easy from abroad, especially if the SOS e-mail to your broker gets returned as spam!  Anyway we did manage to get as far afield as:

Assisi, auspiciously on Sunday:  En route we were distracted by the blessing of the animals (the feast of the “cult” of St. Anthony in the suburb Santa Maria degli Angeli.  Throngs of people in the piazza, most accompanied by dogs, plus rabbits, birds, turtles, horses, and even a couple of camels! Also for Nick’s edification there was a car show, consisting primarily of Fiat 500s, the beloved Italian equivalent of the Beetle.  Anyway once we wound up the hill to the top of Assisi we walked down the lane to the church of San Francesco (i.e., St. Francis). There were actually two churches atop each other – the upper was a proper cathedral with high ceilings (painted a deep blue with gold stars) and loads of frescoes by Giotto (well, there’s a bit of dispute over that, but Robin remains convinced). These depicted the life of Francis as wel as the traditional New Testament scenes. The lower church was similarly decorated though more grotto-like, and featured the crypt in which Francis’s remains lie along with several items from his life, including his robe, grey and white patched wool, a bloody handkerchief used to stanch his stigmata, and a reputed sample of the stigmata itself, a fairly unpleasant, yet fascinating, large swatch of skin with a hole in it. We then sauntered up the souvenir-lined street to the Piazza de Commune, where we admired the looming Roman Temple of Minerva, now of course a church, though the massive building also served as a prison at one time.

San Sepolcro

We also ventured back to San Sepolcro for the street market, picking up some fruit and cheese and a pair of sneakers for Piper. Aside from the fact that the ones she brought were in a sorry state after having served as Stella toys, she had been advised to wear some…. Well, let me back up.  We had, in a precipitous experiment, gone to the local elementary school and through a series of broken Italian phrases, hand gestures, and other gyrations, gotten Pi admitted to what was essentially a 4th grade class, to see if she liked it. (It should be stated that she was very excited by this prospect.) If she did, we were prepared, or so we thought, to enroll her for the duration of the trip.  As it turned out, she was not thrilled, since of course it was rather stressful to be the only person in the room who spoke not a word of Italian. We also came to the decision that having her in class every day for at least a half day would curtail our activities too much. Anyway one of the kids urged Pi to wear sneakers upon her return. So now she has nice new shoes.

The rest of the time we spent close to home, prowling around San Giustino, sipping the odd cappuccino, buying newspapers to burn – whereby we learned of the oncoming winter storm in Umbria, which had in recent weeks roared through the rest of Europe with hurricane force and subzero temps.  We were somewhat of mixed emotions yesterday when it started snowing. Beautiful – but we had yet to purchase chains for the car and would definitely need them if the roads were snowed in.


In the interim since I wrote the above we paid a visit to Arezzo, another hilltown R & I have been to a couple of times before. The boys and girls split up for a hour: I can’t speak for them but I took Nick on a very Sean-like aimless wander through the maze of lanes, remarking on odd door knockers and medieval locks, statuary, gothic archways, and the like, in various states of erosion – always with the end goal of finding a restroom fit for human habitation. Some of them, you wonder why anyone bothers to require a key, they are in such a state of desuetude. One of Arezzo’s main attractions is the piazza, which unusually sits at about a 20-degree angle, flanked by an impressive loggia where we had lunch, and ringed by antique shops.  Another is an ancient church whose columns (in front) apparently all were pillaged from neighboring territories, hence are all different. The days was especially successful in that (a) the bank account was restored, (b) we bought some chains for the car, (and (c) we hunted down the elusive (seemingly illusive) “Punto Blu” and with an astonishing lack of bureaucracy got the tollbooth ticket annulled, which paid for the chains and then some.

To give the kids a break we are tending to spend roughly every other day in town, if not the Molino. The other day R & I braved the chill and walked down, passing a morning with coffee, Internet at the friendly Algerian’s place, and walkies in general. Today I broke away and drove to Pieve Santo Stefano, a riverside village that looked like it ought to be more interesting than it turned out to be; I drove another 20 klicks to Chiese de la Verna, up in the snowy mountains, which were bright with sun. The tourists were milling around La Verna itself, slightly beyond -- the retreat of S. Francesco -- so I didn’t stop, but it gave me the lay of the land.

Yesterday we spent the better part of the day in Perugia about a hour away, which is a great town for exercise up and down its hills, even given a number of escalators. Starting with the traditional snack and coffee (we’ve introduced Nick to those joys) we then prowled around, taking in stupendous views of the surrounding city and valley; then I forced everyone to find the Via Appia with me, which I at least found rewarding. It features a serpentine staircase that winds up joining up with a Roman acquadotto (aquaduct) that once was an Etruscan path and now has been turned back into an elevated walkway. From there we gradually made our way to the Temple of St. Mark, an unusual round church which, alas, was under reconstruction, so inaccessible. We returned to the city center via the famous Etruscan Arch, which was later added to by the Romans and then later generations, and I got a lesson in the history of “tipica” Italian matches, which are cutely tiny and made of some unknown waxy/plastic material due to the lack of expendable wood in Italy. They are also deucedly difficult to light. We stumbled on a street market selling the usual array of bizarre antiques as well as some bonafide crafts, such as hand-knitted ski hats, one of which Piper bought. Returning to the car we first discovered the amazing Rocca, a subterranean castle built by a vengeful pope and now housing some shops, a museum, and still more street vendors.  Extremely cool – dark and and labyrinthine.  We met both a very charming barista who was pleasantly correcting our Italian as we attempted to converse with him…he turned out to be a native Californian, bringing up his middleschooler in Perugia! – and then in a little bookshop -- Libreria Filosofi Bookshop -- that sold English books we found that the aged bookseller Graziela was amazingly fluent in English (having taught it) – she regaled us with her story and philosophy of life, and incidentally sold us some books for the kids, including Roethke’s Selected. 40 euros for a few remainders, but hey, we got a frequent buyer card from her.

Hope all is well with you – we all miss our friends and relations – wish you were here, as they say!



Sean / Robin/Nick/Piper

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Second Week

The rip-roaring adventures continue, the high(?) point so far being locking ourselves out of the house. Fortunately this was on the same day we were scheduled to meet up with Jim the caretaker who lives in town, so we were eventually saved from having to break a window.

So far we have walked our socks off, so to speak, in:

·         Neighboring San Sepolcro, where there is a useful and cheap (though somewhat seedily Spartan) Internet “café;” the town is the home and showplace of Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca, who draws perhaps the most tourists to this part of Umbria. We had the kids navigate us around town by map reading.

·         Gubbio, a medieval town in the mountains about 30 km away, which we visited during a kind of bleak siesta time (the problem continues of getting kids out of bed before 10:30 – too much Italian candy late at night). Many intriguing passageways, archways, and stairs interlace among the narrow cobbled streets, and Piper’s personal goal was to sprint up and down all of them.


·         Anghiari – our return yesterday on market day proved fruitful: we bought a sweater for Pi, some fish (not sure what kind, but they looked sort of like baby barracudas, some Italian candy for latenight sucking, grapes and cabbage and tomatoes and garlic; and CHEESE.


·         Monterchi, a sleepy (siesta notwithstanding) hilltown featuring one of Piero’s most famous frescoes, rescued and restored – a rare picture of a pregnant Madonna. We hiked up the steep lanes to the town, the most exciting moment being when Nick aimed his camera at a watchdog atop (fortunately) a high wall, which resulted in a great action shot of snarling fury. 

·         Wednesday’s capper, an afternoon killing time in San Giustino waiting for Jim the caretaker. We window shopped (Nick is always looking for shoes – there are some gorgeous Italian ones of all persuasions but none are cool enough for him!) and connected with Monika and Marco, who own the corner pub and whom we met last summer. (Did I use whom correctly there?)

·         Thursday we returned to Orvieto to retrieve our final missing bag, wahoo! We also stopped by Todi, again placed atop a hill with a fantastic view of the fields and orchards below. An ice rink was set up in the main piazza below the Duomo.


·         Friday we spent at home and in San Giustino where it was market day (recognized some of the same vendors as in Anghiari), including scoping out the elementary school that we might place Piper in. We explored the road above the Molino, which eventually winds up in Urbino, but not before going through a spectacular series of hairpin turns up the side of a mountain. And finally we did the passegiata (evening stroll) through nearby Citta di Castello, where the kids discovered yet another playground (it’s cute that 14-year-old Nick still enjoys merry-go-rounds) and we dined well at a subterranean pizza ristorante.


Jim advocates not pampering the visiting kitten since at one time such a beast accidentally got locked in the house at season’s end. However, it is hard to resist the little raggazzo. We have beaten the challenge to get the hang of lighting the woodstove.  Assuming there is a newspaper on hand (big assumption) it took the whole thing to even get the wood smoking, let alone flaming – until I found the hatchet and cut proper kindling! Jim also showed us the knack of lighting the propane heater to briefly take a “chill” off the (for example) bathroom  -- warning however against the joys of monoxide poisoning. Common consent is that this is an unusually warm winter (we have at brief times been content in shirtsleeves) , but nights and mornings are particularly nippy and Jim suggests we buy some chains just in case since our remote little hillroad has steep and curvy bits. Hard to believe since yesterday was really warm and sunny.


Tuesday, January 16, 2007

First week in Umbria

(I know that’s annoying.)

Anyway you’ll be happy to know (I guess) that we are more or less safely ensconced in The Molino. To just hit the main points up till now, the flight was fine as flights go – long, of course, at least four run-throughs of “The Black Dahlia” -- except that everyone but me lost most or all of their checked-in luggage somewhere between London and Rome (bets are on the Romans). The bags began trickling in the day after arrival, starting with Nick’s viola, and at this point we are only short the last of our nine (!) bags, which alas contains Robin’s jewelry. But we remain hopeful!

Arriving Wednesday AM, we were flagged down by a fellow with our name on a placard (been waiting for that moment al my life) and driven to our Renault pick-up point near Rome, which looked like a Mafia dumping ground, and we spent night one in the nearby Ibis hotel, comfortable but overlooking a bit of a wasteland. Thursday we drove to Orvieto an hour or so north, and spent a fab two nights at the Palace of the Cardinal (1548), which has been remade over the centuries into a series of charming and fairly inexpensive B&B flats on the edge of the city walls, which are built into the native tufa (kind of like pumice) cliffs. Our hostess was great and helped us make several calls to the airport. We walked all around much of the city, poking into shops and churches, lanes and wall-walks, piazzas and parks (this sentence pretty much sums up the trip so far). Had a couple of good dinners, featuring for example bruschetta with local truffles and pasta with wild boar sauce (Orvieto is decorated with a good number of stuffed boar heads; apparently they are hunted not only because they’re dark tasty but because they tend to eat the grape harvest).

The drive to the Molino was a bit fraught. Long story short, the user interface was bad – i.e., disappointing road signage and small-scale maps conspired to make it unclear where the turnoff for Todi was (by which we aimed to north go via Perugia). This unnecessarily exposed us to the autostrada toll system and a comedy(?) or errors resulting in a 44-euro traffic ticket issued by the robotic tollbooth. (For those keeping score, the euro is now worth about $1.60 I think.) I still have to see if I can get this annulled. It did give me a chance to wrangle properly with the Italian language in trying to explain our idiotic problem and get pointed to the right road.

Anyway after several detours and hours we eventually arrived in San Giustino about 5 PM Friday, in the dark and a deep fog, bought supplies and settled in to our “villa.” Had a pizza dinner at our favorite spot from last summer, and were greeted warmly by the waitress, the owner’s wife, who offered us gratis glasses of prosecco with kiwi – making up for the day’s hassles a bit. I was really needing that kiwi. The main item of interest that night was the appearance of the neighbor’s loveable but ferocious tabby kitten, which made itself right at home. The second item was failure to get the woodstove lit. Mea culpa. Plenty of wood but little or nothing in the way of kindling, and few matches, for one thing, and again questionable documentation. This made for a somewhat chilly night (Orvieto was quite warm actually but S.G. is at least 10 degrees colder).

Yesterday (Sunday) we slept in (afraid to get out of the warm covers), made brunch, and then drove to the hilltown of Anghiari, where we led the kids through the silent old labyrinths, and came out on the square to find a jumble sale going on, everything from old drawer pulls and hardware to memorabilia and crafts, plus a bookfair at which we purchased an old print from a bestiary, illustrating several types of wild pig. Nearly everywhere was closed Sunday so we were unable to buy newspapers for kindling; instead we cannibalized a kids’ coloring book, properly cleaned out the grate, and thank goodness got a roaring fire going, which brought up the ambient temp to a sweltering 58 degrees.

Have not spotted any dormice yet. However two scorpions have made an appearance.