Saturday, May 24, 2008

Italian Flashback

As promised, details of some mysteriously undocumented trips from the middle of our sojourn.

One day Robin and I, leaving wee ones at home with their books, ventured across the hills and dales to Monte Santa Maria Tiberina, a really miniscule settlement that apparently was an important Etruscan trading station some millennia past and now is reduced to a bar, some residences, and a church all clustered high atop a mountain; amazingly we can see the spire all the way from our road. There was a stirring reciprocal view from there and we were further excited by the prospect of running out of gas in the middle of nowhere.

We engaged the kids the next day on a hike, starting at the Montecasale sanctuary nearby and heading off for an hour through the woods to the top of a windy ridge. En route we came across a real Wuthering Heights ruin of a stone house, timbers fallen in and an alarming well. Lots of tracks and droppings on the trail - dispute over whether they were goat, deer, or wild boar! We all were properly tuckered out after that one. Mystery of the day was the two bathtubs that had been gotten up there somehow and rigged up to catch the running spring water (for horses?); about as far off the beaten track as one would have thought, though we were surprised by a couple of intrepid (and aged) motorists lurching over the stones and through the mud.

The next day (Weds. 21st) we recovered from the walk by spending about eight hours in the car, driving to Rome to pick up our friend T. who would be staying with us for two weeks. On the way back we stopped randomly for a picnic lunch in Stimigliano, a hill village we'd never heard of but which looked enticing from the highway. And a simple gem it proved. All the usual hilltown charms, but the high point occurred as we sat on the worn, moss-covered steps of the old church breaking out our comestibles: an old woman emerged from a door and said something to us involving "vino" - we weren't sure of the content but surmised it might be along the lines of "don't drink wine on the church steps." However, it turned out what she meant was "hang on a sec, I have some wine to go along with your lunch." It was a homebrew that tasted a bit like a cross between Retsina, cider, and airplane glue. She was very talkative, I wish we were better at Italian. We did gather that she was 82 and had relatives (?) in America - we asked where and she said, as I recall, Argentina! This would have been more suspicious if there had not been a plaque in the village proudly commemorating the battle and "reduction" of Nazi forces in a certain street in 1943. We returned home by way of Arezzo, making for a rather large triangle in all, but this was ameliorated by our passing the tempting and funky roadside truffle/fungi shop (which we'd never found to be open) in a rare period of activity! We screeched to a halt and bought some small white truffles (white once you brush off the dirt) for a very reasonable 7 euros and the necessary tempered steel truffle-shaver (15 euros!) as well as some home-made salami. I shaved my first truffle and Robin made a fantastic dinner.

We took T. to the weekly market in Citta di Castello, where amongst the copious tables of inexpensive clothing and bric-a-brac we discovered an arched passageway we'd never seen before, where the produce vendors were sequestered; here we purchased a lot of, well, produce. Robin learned that a tenth of a kilogram = 100 grams = one "etto." We devoured the goods at the Belvedere sanctuary, as sunny and lizardy as it had been the last time we'd been there. Speaking of markets, the San Giustino market this week featured a stubbled fellow with a truckload of rabbits, geese, chickens, and (oddly) guinea fowl, who let off the most godawful squawks. This noise was probably a Darwinian effect used in steering customers to the chickens instead, and several biddies went off upside down in plastic bags with their feet tied. ...Hmm, however I write that sentence I feel I must emphasize it was the birds, not the customers, who in honesty were also "old biddies," in the bags.

Big trip of the week was our rain-dodging return to Assisi, where we five spent the night; we walked the length of the town a couple of times (including of necessity ascending and descending major parts of the hill), and featuring excursions into the churches of San Rufino and Santa Chiara (St. Clare, who was born in Assisi right after St. Francis). At San Rufino I was hit up by a persistent gypsy granny with, apparently, children (dead and/or ailing?) from 2 to 20 for whom she needed money; we later saw her all over town, quite the entrepreneur (she came up to me twice afterward and I had to remind her I'd already donated). Santa Chiara we snuck into on Sunday morning (woken early by the rather Stravinskyesque chiming of church bells outside our 4th-floor hotel window - no convent, oddly) - the nave was filled with the haunting sound of nuns singing in an adjacent chapel - and we crept into the crypt for a look at the preserved St. Clare and relics of hers (including a camice (chemise) she made that looked like it would fit at least two circus fat ladies) as well of more of Francis's - including another robe, slippers, and breviary. The other highlight was driving further up the hill to the "Ermitage," a very secluded (though popular with Francesco fans) monastery in the misty national forest. The pilgrims had left little crosses everywhere along the trail, made from tied sticks or piled rocks, carved in trees and rocks, etc. If you didn't know the context you'd think it as spooky as the Blair Witch. To find Francis's chapel you had to crouch through several low narrow doorways carved in the frescoed rock, twist around and go down a few narrow stairs, scrunch down a bit more, etc., until finally you clambered out of the little subterranean cell onto a walkway high along the cliff edge. Pretty amazing.