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 “cafĂ©;” 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.