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.