Editor travels beyond the vale discovers sweet life in Italy
Part I – Covering the Vatican
(September, 2003: I was fortunate to spend nearly three weeks in Italy nearly a decade ago. I wrote a series of columns about that adventure, and when I revisit them in our archives, I want to return.)
Because I grew up in Sonoma in a neighborhood of first generation Italian Americans, Italy does not seem that foreign to me – a little crazy perhaps, but not foreign. The sound of spoken Italian, the heavenly aromas wafting from kitchens, and the hearty “vino rosso locale” were both stimulating and comforting.
While I was not successful at becoming “ imbedded” as the Sonoma Valley correspondent to the Swiss Guards, I was fortunate enough to be in Rome for the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II, the beatification of Mother Teresa, and the confirmation of 30 new cardinals.
Of these three significant events, “Mother Teresa’s” next to last step on the way to sainthood attracted the biggest crowds at the Vatican (an estimated half million), which is why my wife Dottie and I chose to observe the event from our hotel via CNN’s international channel.
The pope’s anniversary celebration, two days prior to Mother Teresa’s beatification, was attended by several hundred thousand.
The international media in Rome was only outnumbered by the number of nuns who were there for Mother Teresa. Figuring the main events were well covered, I decided to focus my attention on the state of Italian cooking, quality of local wines and the comparison of Roman cappuccinos to those made here in America.
We did sneak into the Vatican in between the two big events. It was the day that the cardinals were having lunch with the pope. We were not invited, but I can tell you that the menu included salmon moose, lemon ravioli, and duck in an orange sauce. I’m told it was delicious.
If you haven’t ever been to Vatican, it is really hard to imagine how impressive it is. Visualize a four-story granite structure that is as wide as Broadway and runs from Sonoma high school to the Plaza. That would be the Vatican Museum. Then imagine that museum connected to an even bigger structure the size of the entire Sonoma Plaza, but 15 stories high, built of granite, marble and God knows what else, into which architecture, sculpture, frescoes and paintings by Michangelo and a half dozen other Renaissance artists are incorporated. That would be St. Peter’s Cathedral, the largest in the world.
In front of the cathedral is a gloriously beautiful plaza many times the size of Sonoma’s plaza framed in marble, Romanesque columns, renaissance art and sculpture. That is St. Peter’s Square. My description does not do it justice. The weekend we were there it appeared to accommodate all of the European Union and nearly every nun in the world.
Unfortunately, it only has one restroom, which is why we decided to observe the more popular events from a less crowded location.
I didn’t see the pope, but while I was poking around the nooks and crannies of St. Peter’s looking for a bathroom I think I saw a cardinal . He was wearing a red hat and red sash over a black vestment and had a large set of keys in his hands. I spotted him attempting to unlock a very large gilded gate that apparently led to the interior chambers of the basilica. I was going to ask him directions to the nearest “gabineto,” but he got through the gate and retreated into the cavernous depths of St. Peter’s before I could complete my question.
I eventually found a “WC” in another part of the building, where you can pay five “Euros”(European Union currency) to view case after case of religious articles (vestments, chalices, crosses, etc.) encrusted in gold, diamonds and other precious stones.
The Catholic friends with whom we traveled speculated that if Mother Teresa was still alive she would have told John Paul II to keep the sainthood stuff and sell some of those jewels to feed and heal the poor that she spent her entire life serving.
The next step in her path to sainthood is a second posthumous miracle (her first was the spontaneous cure of a young woman with terminal cancer). She is already a saint in my book, but our friends said it would truly would be a miracle if the church sold off some of its vast wealth to take care of those who live in the gutters of Calcutta and other locations in which Mother Teresa’s order, The Sisters of Mercy, do incredible good with incredibly little.
Part II - Billius Maximus vs. the gladiators
The expression “as old as dirt” applies to Rome. For more than 2500 years it has been the center of some kind of civilization. Guidebooks apply the word “ancient” to the Roman ruins in and about the Foro Romano (Roman Forum), but artifacts found there, beneath those ruins, precede the legendary Romulus and Remus, who some say founded the republic in 753 BC.
Dig just about anywhere in Rome and you are likely to find several different layers of civilization below. And speaking of what is underground, Dottie and I started our visit to ancient Rome by taking the Metro (subway) from our hotel near the Spanish Steps. Although not as extensive as either the London or Paris subway network, the Roman underground transport system will take you to most of the popular tourist sites, thereby avoiding expensive taxi fares or the hazards of walking along narrow streets, down which crazed Romans drive at 200 mph, only to be passed, on the right and left by crazier scooter pilots.
Driving in Rome is a daredevil sport, with extra points given for using one hand to hold a cell phone and talk to friends, while using the other to hold a cigarette. Steering is apparently done with the knees and elbows and only at the very last second when absolutely necessary. No braking is allowed, but horns are encouraged, as is waving one’s arms and shouting.
Rome is home to the most gorgeous women in the world, many of whom wear mini skirts and tight sweaters, have legs almost up to their armpits, and break the sound barrier on their motor scooters as they zig and zag around the four-wheeled vehicles that stop for pedestrians, sometimes.
Watching one of these beauties pull up to the curb, dismount her scooter, pull off her helmet and shake out her long, dark tresses, while flashing you a heart-stopping smile is enough to make you forget that she almost ran you over a moment earlier.
We walked a lot, but whenever possible we choose the smaller, narrower side streets where the traffic was lighter, and you could hear the high-pitched buzzing of the scooters coming at you in time to leap into the relative safety of a nearby doorway.
For the first several nights I had reoccurring dreams that I was being chased by giant mosquitoes, only to awaken and realized that it was the sound of scooters zooming up and down nearby boulevards.
The Romans not only drive wildly, they party until all hours of the night and early morning. Their stamina alone would amaze you, until you realize that every day the stores and businesses close at 1 p.m. and don’t open until late afternoon. In that period they will have long lunches, and probably sneak in a nap, before returning to work and planning the rest of their day (and evening). In most cases, their nights were just beginning as Dottie and I were headed back to our hotel room exhausted and ready for sleep.
We avoided these crazy, sleep-deprived Roman drivers by using the subway to get across town whenever possible.
Arriving at the “Collosseo” station, we had only a short walk to the most spectacular of ancient Rome’s buildings. It is the granddaddy of all sports arenas, built for 50,000 spectators by emperor Vespasian in AD 72. As we approached the massive structure we were greeted by some locals dressed as extras from the movie “Gladiator.” Unlike the panhandlers in a typical U.S. city, these guys carried swords, so we were inclined to listen to their pitch. They wanted us to pay them to have our photo taken with them.
“OK,” I said in my very best Italian. Two snapshots and 5 Euros later, we were free to continue our tour of the coliseum, which, it turns out, was closed that day because the coliseum guards had called a wildcat strike.
We walked around the stadium, peeking in through breaks in the stone whenever possible, and then walked toward the forum, pausing on the way, to watch a crew of workers and archaeologists exploring a site along the “Via Sacra,” which is the ancient road that loops through the forum and is lined with ruins of temples and shrines.
One of the workers (apparently an archaeology student), whose only tool was a small brush, had discovered something. All work suddenly stopped as people gathered around to see what she’d found.
It looked like an old piece of carved rock to me, pretty much like all of the other pieces they were uncovering, but clearly it was one more important part of an ages-old puzzle that is being put back together after being buried for two and a half millennia.
I noted that here in Sonoma we think something 100 years old is unusual. Rome has cats older than that.
Part III- Rome b.c. – before coffee
Wandering over the irregular stones of ancient roads rutted by thousands of chariots and millions of Birkenstocks, a tourist can get mighty tired and thirsty. When that happened we followed the nearest Roman to a watering hole (i.e. coffee bar.)
I don’t know what Italians did with their hands before the invention of cigarettes and the cell phone, but it is certain Romulus and Remus were not really raised by a wolf. Their parents were probably Rome’s first coffee merchants – and the rest is history. It is the secret of Rome’s enduring life.
One cannot walk fifty feet in any direction without spotting a bar or stand selling espresso and cappuccinos. That is where we often found ourselves, learning to savor the delicious local “black gold” while waiting for the jolt to kick in.
The locals usually take their brew standing up. A really hip Roman will saunter into a coffee bar like Gary Cooper walking into a western saloon. Even if he is not wearing designer label clothes, he will act like he is. In his own mind he’s wearing a pair of Versace jeans, shoes by Prada, custom shirt by Ermenegildo Zegna and a Salvatore Ferragamo leather jacket. Even though the bar’s interior is as dark as a closet, his reflective Armani sunglasses stay put. His unshaven chin sports a two-day growth , and a cigarette will be dangling from his lower lip.
He places his order with a single word and finger(s) raised to indicate how many shots. The barkeep will deliver it in a plain white demitasse cup and saucer.
If he spots a friend, a conversation that begins and ends with “Ciao” will follow. If he takes a phone call, it will be from either his mother or his mistress. He will knock back the espresso in a few sips, then saunter out, presumably back to his job, which could be anything from tuning Vespas to performing brain surgery .
We quickly learned that our order for a “nonfat, decaf, vanilla latte with two Equals” was really un-cool. Soon, we were throwing down straight shots of espresso with the best of ‘em – and getting by on a lot less sleep.
Not all espresso bars are created equal, even in Rome. The best we found was a place near the Pantheon called “Tazza de Oro” (cup of gold). There, the brew was rich and smooth, while the cappuccinos were creamy and just the right mix of foam and coffee. If a Sonoma coffee bar really wanted to get a leg up on the competition, they’d send some staffers to Tazza de Oro for a few weeks training.
Fortified by several shots of espresso, Dottie and I, strolled wide-eyed through the ruins of a civilization that is almost 3,000 years old, wondering how they managed to build such incredible structures without an architectural review commission. Instead, the ancient Romans used Etruscan soothsayers to read the entrails of chickens. They created beautiful buildings.
Perhaps the City of Sonoma might consider such an option. It could eliminate the feral chicken problem once and for all.
The down side is not all entrail-readers are created equal. Each Roman emperor hired a new one, and usually tore down what the previous guy built, using the pieces to build his own monuments.
Next to the coliseum in the first century stood the “Collossus of Nero,” a giant statue of gilt bronze 100 feet high. When he died, it was modified to depict the sun god, and eventually melted down to become the dome of a church.
Everything standing in Rome has as its foundation the rubble and remnants of what was built before it. As a consequence, most of the restored ruins appear to be subterranean. They were not built underground, it is just that over the centuries, as the empire rose and fell, and as various invaders sacked and burned it, each reincarnation of the city was built on (and with) the remains of the one preceding, steadily raising the level of the “ground.”
One of the best preserved ancient Roman structures is the Pantheon first built between 27 and 25 AD by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, son-in-law of Emperor Augustus, then destroyed by fire, and rebuilt by Hadrian in 118 AD as a temple to all of the Olympian gods. It stands today because Pope Boniface IV turned it from a pagan temple to a church in 608 AD.
The Catholic church played a huge role in both the destruction, recycling and preservation of things Roman. In fact, there are almost as many churches in Rome as there are coffee bars. During our visit, every one of them (bars and churches) were overflowing because of the action at the Vatican.
That much caffeine and celebration mixed with the natural craziness of the city made for some amazing moments. One in particular comes to mind.
We were about to cross a main street that runs from the Vatican across town to where the Italian parliament meets. The unmistakable sound of sirens growing louder caused us to pause before stepping off the curb. We looked up to see a procession of limousines preceded by several policemen on motorcycles heading toward us at a gazillion miles per hour. As they approached, the lead policeman took his feet off the pedals, climbed up on the seat of his motorcycle, blew his whistle, and began waving both of his arms at the traffic in front of him, like Moses parting the Red Sea, all the while his machine continued to speed down the street.
How it kept going with him standing on the seat, and how he managed to stay fully erect waving his arms and directing traffic on top of a bouncing, speeding bike, I’ll never know.
We concluded that both he and we had too many espressos that day.
Part IV- Pasta from heaven
Pasta, or a least something like pasta, has been a part of the diet of people who lived near Rome since the time of the Etruscans, who mixed water and flour to form primitive noodles known as laganum. In those days the noodles were baked like lasagna
The preparation of pasta by boiling it in water was allegedly introduced to southern Italy by the Arabs sometime around 1000 AD. Others suggest that one of the barbarian invaders who overran Italy after the fall of Rome was boiling a laganum maker for fun and the unfortunate Italian happen to have some laganum dough in his pocket. Food was scarce in those days – and the rest is history.
The theory that Marco Polo brought noodles to Italy from China isn’t popular anymore, but Marco can still take credit for the popular children’s swimming pool game.
Ancient Romans may or may not have invented this ubiquitous staple, but Italy without pasta would be like Japan without rice, like Mexico without tortillas, like ballparks without hotdogs. When you’re there, whether pasta is part of your regular diet or not, pasta is what you eat.
The other Italian food courses are described in reference to pasta and its position on a typical menu. Antipasti (before pasta) precedes the “primi” dish which is pasta and is followed by the “secondi,” second course which follows the pasta, followed after several days on this diet by the “expandi” – pants with an adjustable waistband.
The great thing about pasta is you can mix it with just about anything – beef, pork, chicken, vegetables, olive oil, truffles, garlic, basil, fish, cheese, eggs, road-kill, insects, mice, rats, cats, dogs, and spices of all sorts and, of course, tomato sauce, introduced to Italy after its native son, Chris, discovered America and brought back some tomatoes that the rough crossing had reduced to mush.
In Rome you don’t have to find pasta, its everywhere.
It was a little before 1 p.m. on our first day in the city, and we had been walking and poking in and out of ruins, old churches and shops all morning. We found ourselves on Via Veneto, along which are numerous sidewalk cafes. It was a warm day, and we chose one with lots of shade, a formally dressed waiter and white linens on the tables.
We asked our waiter, Antonio, what he would recommend. He responded without hesitation, “carbonara,” which features noodles and pancetta (Italian style bacon), parmigiano and romano cheese, eggs, chopped onion pepper and salt.
The Romans make it with fresh noodles and go very lightly on the other ingredients, so the taste of the pasta is not overwhelmed. While savoring our carbonara along with a bottle of “rosso locale,” local red wine, we relaxed, and did some people-watching.
The tourists looked like they just got off a five-day bus ride from Miami Beach.
Romans dress like they are going to a photo-shoot for G.Q. or Vogue. Even their casual attire, like jeans, have a designer look. No Roman would be caught dead in tennis shoes, shorts, aloha shirts, or ball caps.
Dottie was especially fascinated with the women’s shoes. They appeared to me to consist of a few thin leather straps, spiked heels 20 inches high, and very narrow toes extended like the tips of old-fashioned wooden skis. There was nothing old-fashioned about the price however. We saw some in Valentino’s window that were over $600 Euros.
The men’s suits all looked tailored, and their shirts custom made. Their shoes were not the cushion-soled, clunky, comfortable ones (like I wear) but rather the sleek and narrow, dress styles that look great and fit only if you have long, skinny feet like a kangaroo rat. They were invented during the inquisition to force confessions of heresy out of the most saintly and stubborn men. “I’ll swear to anything. Just take them off, please!”
The women would have looked good in burlap sacks. But with perfect hair, flawless makeup, and dressed like fashion models, they projected a “I’m-beautiful-and-sexy-and-I-know-it,” message that was hard to miss.
There was something in their style, posture, and attitude that was aloof and self assured, in spite of the fact that their shoes were four sizes too narrow and there was no blood left in their toes. They owned the moment.
Considering the price of everything we saw and how well-dressed Italians appeared, we concluded that they not only owned the moment, but a bank as well, or they really knew how to shop the season-end bargain racks.
Not only are they great dressers, but world-class “multi-taskers.”
Romans can talk on their cell phones, eat lunch, drink and smoke, all the while conversing with their table companions. And they manage to look cool doing it.
Waiters never rush you in Italy. In fact, you practically have to mug them to get the check. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Antonio allowed us to relax, savor our food and sip our wine, leaving us free to observe and marvel at energy, style and lust for life that clearly dwelt in the hearts of our Roman hosts, some of whom sat in adjoining tables, while hundreds of others strolled by our sidewalk table.
While sitting there we crossed over from observers to participants, thinking, “we could get used to this.” But then thoughts of the Federico Fellini movie, “La Dolce Vida,” came to mind. If anyone knows how to live the sweet life it surely is the Romans, but even they have their limits. Or do they?
Part V- La Dolce Vida ‘Lite’
Rome is a great place to eat, drink wine and party all night – La Dolce Vida (the sweet life). But, if Anita Ekberg were still swimming in the Trevi fountain it wouldn’t be a pretty sight. Leaving the partying to the under 30 crowd, we settled for two out of three – food and wine.
Number three on our list is a good hotel with comfortable beds where the air conditioning works and it is possible to sleep though the night.
Our second (and final) three nights in Rome (after a stay in Umbria), we chose a highly recommended hotel “close to the Spanish Steps,” a mistake. It was like choosing a room in the middle of a Grand Central Station.
The Spanish Steps, which rise from Piazza di Spagna to the French church of Trinita dei Monti, are a hangout for every teenager and under-30 backpacker in Europe, plus thousands of sightseeing groups per hour.
A few steps from the Steps, our “boutique hotel”(French for tiny rooms that cost a lot) was on Via Condotti between Cartier and Prada, and across from Bvlgari. The street was home to every expensive designer in Europe. One afternoon, we saw Imelda Marcos and her large entourage of shoe porters loading up her limo, parked virtually outside our doorway.
Getting out of our hotel entrance and moving along the street was like leaving PacBell Park after a Giant game, while another crowd is headed in for a Madonna concert. If you have problems with claustrophobia, I would not recommend the inn’s location or our room. It was, however, one of the most nicely furnished closets I have ever slept in.
We stayed at Hotel La Residenza our first three nights in Rome, a much better choice. Located on a small side street off of Via Veneto near Villa Borghese, this little 29-room converted townhouse offered us affordable, first-class, spacious (for Europe) accommodations, a friendly, helpful staff, and breakfast every morning. It was in a quiet, relatively uncrowded neighborhood, and near some very nice, out-of-the-way sidewalk cafes.
One of those, the Piccolo Mundo (small world), was recommended by Ken and Pat McTaggart of Sonoma, with whom we were able to share several days in Rome.
It was located around the corner from our hotel on a one-block, side street. Few cars or scooters passed by our sidewalk table as we sat down for an early (by Roman standards) dinner at 8 p.m. The night was warm. We chose to begin with some Prosecco, an Italian sparkling white wine, melon and proscuitto and an order of bruschetta (sliced and toasted Italian bread topped with olive oil, garlic, and sliced tomatoes).
For my “primi” course I chose the “Tortellini Piccolo Mundo” a rich, creamy blend of fresh pasta and sauce with fresh vegetables.. Dottie had an equally flavorful ravioli in meat sauce. The servings sizes were just right, leaving us enough room for the secundi course.
The waiter recommended a local tuna for me, while Dottie decided on salmon. Cooked just enough, with perfect seasoning, they were both excellent choices. During each of our courses, our waiter gave us lots of time to relax. By the time we had finished off the fish, it was nearly 10:30 and the joint was jumping.
A little Tiramisu, and some grappa topped off a perfect dining experience that also included a serenade by some strolling sidewalk musicians.
At 11:30, more than three hours after having sat down, we strolled back to La Residenza, feeling that we had sampled about as much of the sweet life as we could handle for one day.
Across the street, Cica Cica Boom was just opening its doors, and next door to it was another late night club I hadn’t noticed when we checked in. It was appropriately named, “La Dolce Vida.” Our sleepy little neighborhood was about to wake up.
I’d like to say that I did some research into whatever these clubs had to offer, but the truth is fatigue and sleep overcame my curiosity. The street was still quiet and we left the windows in our fourth-floor room open to let in the cool night air.
Sometime later, I was awakened by voices that sounded like they were right outside our room. The conversation, in Italian, was actually taking place across the street from our hotel in front of La Dolce Vida. A man, whose back was to me, was speaking to a young woman dressed like the lead in “Victoria’s Secret Meets Batwoman.” It was 2:15 a.m. My Italian isn’t that good, but I think they were discussing Rome’s minimum wage laws and the value of the Euro. As fascinating as that subject was, I closed the window, cranked up the air conditioner and went back to bed. For me, enjoying la dolce vida means getting a good night’s sleep.
In addition to the Piccolo Mundo, the most entertaining bistro in Rome, Da Meo Patacca, was also introduced to us by Ken and Pat. Decorated like a wharf-side tavern in an old fashioned swashbuckler movie, with waiters dressed in “knickers,” sashes and peasant shirts, it offered an extensive menu catering to both Roman and tourist palates, and an atmosphere that was wild, boisterous, and highlighted by the nonstop performance of a quartet of versatile and talented singer/musicians who strolled from table to table playing classic Italian songs and requests. The food was excellent and we had a lot of fun. If you are in Rome, make Da Meo Patacca, in the Trastevere neighborhood, one of your evening’s choices, and before you do, buy an old Dean Martin record and learn the words to a few Italian songs. You’ll have a ball.
Part VI- White knuckles on the Via Flamina
Anybody with the eyes of an eagle, the reflexes of a cat, the courage of a lion, nerves of steel, and a right foot of solid lead can drive in Rome, which is why I let Dottie drive when it was time for us to head out on our sojourn in the Italian countryside.
Being an old Navy man, I was assigned the job of navigator, while our friends Tony and Carolyn Marchetti strapped themselves into the back seat and began reciting the rosary.
The Avis representative offered us disaster insurance, flame retardant suits and crash helmets for an extra charge, but Dotti said we didn’t need them. The attendant handed her the keys, and me the map with a cheerful, “arrevederci,” which is Italian for “so long you clueless bumpkin,” and we were off.
One would think that Via Flamina, a road more than 2000 years old, rutted and worn by Caesar’s legions, millions of Ferraris, buses, motorcycles and scooters, would be well marked. Marked? Yes. Well? No. Each block had 40 or 50 little signs with a point on one end and the names of streets printed so small that they could only be read with 100x magnification binoculars.
At most intersections among the many dozens of signs were always two or three imprinted with the same street name pointing in opposing directions. When this happened I tried consulting the map, but my salty old navigator skills were honed 35 years ago on Vietnamese Rivers in a boat that could barely do 10 knots. My ability to read an Italian map might have worked if we were sailing down the Roman streets at that speed, but
to avoid getting run over, Dotti had to drive our little four-seater diesel at 80 mph over rough cobblestones. This, plus the fact that the nice lady at Avis had taken a bright orange highlighter and marked our route on the map blotting out the names of the streets, rendered it virtually useless, except as a pointer.
“Go that way, I think,” was my first direction. It was followed by a series of precise commands like, “Turn right here, left.” and “Not there, there.” If someone had been tracking our progress it would look like a pattern made by a panicky rat in a maze.
It is a well-kept secret that Einstein invented the roundabout to prove his theories about time and space. Roundabouts are the “black holes” of Europe. Americans in rental cars have gone into them and never be heard from again. Others have entered one in Rome and emerged from another in Buenos Aries 20 years later.
Our solution was to enter at light speed and exit at the first opportunity. The last thing we wanted was to start circling. When that happens you either keep going round and round until you warp to another time dimension or end up going back in the direction from which you came. Our goal was to have a margin of error less than 180 degrees.
About seven miles from the city center is “Grande Raccordo Anulare,” a freeway that completely circles it. From there, like spokes radiating out in many directions, the major freeways lead to different parts of Italy. It is one of those things that is impossible to miss as long as you don’t get turned around and head back toward the middle of Rome.
Thus, our strategy of avoiding 180 degree direction changes eventually worked. Two tanks of diesel, 14 gallons of espresso and three days later, we managed to navigate the seven miles from the car rental office to the Roman “ring road,” and from there it was a piece of cake.
Through it all Dottie remained amazingly calm, and I only heard occasional gasps and whimpers from the back seat, followed by more Hail Marys.
Generally, Italian freeways are like American freeways, except that the fast lane is reserved for maniacs driving jet-powered racecars that appear out of nowhere anytime you have the temerity to pull out to pass the few vehicles on the road (usually other terrified tourists) who are going slower than you. No matter how fast we pushed our little gray Citroen, and Dottie had the pedal all the way to the floor, the guys who roared up behind us would have rammed us had we not swerved to the right in the nick of time.
Pushed thusly, we made up all the time we had lost exiting Rome, and got to our destination 75 miles north of the city in the small, hilltop village of San Gemini, in a little over an hour and a half.
Our time reversal was so complete that it was 12th century when we arrived.
Part VII - Welcome to the Middle Ages
Time travel is a curious thing. One second you are driving through countryside that looks like home, and the next thing you know you’re at a castle gate and a guy dressed in a suit of armor is challenging you to a joust.
Our destination, San Gemini, a small hilltop village in southern Umbria, was in the midst of “Giostra dell’Arme,” the annual festival honoring its patron saint. Built by the Romans in 225 B.C. on top of Etruscan ruins, it is located on the old route of Via Flaminia, which leads from Rome northeast to the Adriatic Sea.
Sacked, burned and plundered over many centuries, it eventually achieved some independence and relative prosperity around the 12th century. It is in the spirit of this period of its history that the town folk spend two weeks every fall celebrating – with sword fights, jousts, witch burnings, beheadings and other family entertainment.
Surrounded on all sides by stone walls with narrow entrances framed in classic Roman arches, little has changed since men wore tights, trolls guarded bridges and virgins were kept in locked towers.
Colorful banners and flags flew from the ramparts, windows and balconies of the palazzos built on the highest points inside the city walls. It was an Italian version of Camelot.
There are medieval walled cities built on hilltops all over Umbria, and we visited many during our stay, but few were as authentic or as charming as the place we were to call home for two weeks.
Nevertheless, at that particular moment the “knight” who barred our way, wasn’t going to let us enter. Not that it would have been that easy anyway. The streets inside the walls, one goat cart wide, may have been virtual boulevards in medieval times, but offered little room for 21st Century gas-powered chariots.
Prior to our escape from Rome, we were warned that this might happen, and had instructions to meet someone outside the gate who would direct us to our lodging.
He turned out to be the manager of a local restaurant and an associate of the owner of “Villa Santiterzi,” our destination inside the walls so ably guarded at that moment.
His English was better than my Italian. As near as I could tell, there was some kind of event scheduled within the hour, and to make sure we were not in the path of any arrows, stones or burning oil, he would take us to lunch at one of his two restaurants outside the walls. There, we would be well-fed (or roasted over hot coals) until it was safe to enter the city and proceed to our lodging.
Our group consisted of six couples, including one from England and another from a truly foreign country – southern California. Through the efforts of Carolyn Marchetti, a Lake County resident and marketing director of Mike and Mary Ann Cleary’s Food and Travel Radio show, arrangements had been made for us to rent the villa.
We followed our guide to his restaurant which was actually closed so that the staff could prepare for a wedding feast scheduled for later that afternoon. Our appearance was apparently not expected. Nevertheless, the staff began hustling about to make us feel at home.
Over numerous bottles of vino locale, and a classic Umbrian dish of pasta with black truffles, followed by a roasted lamb purloined from the wedding party menu, our host told us a little about our lodging, which locals sometimes called “Palazzo Canova, ” because it was once the home of 18th Century Italian artist Antonio Canova.
Its current owners are members of the Grandjacquet family. Although the name is French, the family has had Roman roots since the 17th Century when the first Grandjacquet came from France to the city and helped plan the original villa for Cardinal Scipione Borghese, a nephew of Pope Paul V.
The present-day Grandjacquet's great grandfather, on their mother’s side, whose last name was Violati, first came to San Gemini in the early 1900s to enjoy the legendary curative powers of its mineral springs. Violati persuaded the Italian government to license him to bottle and market the mineral water and eventually became Italy’s largest producer of bottled mineral water, and a very wealthy man.
With this wealth he took on the task of restoring much of the old walled city of San Gemini, including several of its larger buildings which had fallen into sad disrepair after centuries of neglect. He spent his lifetime in this task, and when he died, his children carried it on.
The “palazzo” (which means palace) we were about to move into, was restored by Violati’s great grandchildren.
Part VIII - It really is a palace
“Caveat Emptor,” is an expression invented by the first Romans, who in their attempts to escape the oppressive heat and humidity of the city, often found that the roadside rental ads for vacation properties weren’t worth the boulders they were carved on.
With that in mind, we didn’t have high expectations that “Villa Santiterzi,” our destination in the village of San Gemini, Umbria, would really be a villa in the “peel-me-a-grape” sense of the word. We hoped for something better than a shack in Wingo, but not necessarily luxurious, considering the price worked out to only $100 per night per couple (for six couples).
When we were told upon our arrival at San Gemini that our villa was referred to locally as the “palazzo” (the palace), we were skeptical, but conceded, that the Camelot-like appearance of the village, decked out in celebration of its 12th Century glory, was also unexpected.
I don’t think we impressed the locals with our grand entrance into the city – twelve people with baggage for 50, crammed into three compact cars, looking more like a caravan of refugees than royalty headed for their summer palace.
Our host, Michele Grandjaquet, met us outside the city walls and led us through a narrow stone archway. He walked, as we followed slowly in our cars, the mirrors nearly scraping the ancient stone and mortar buildings along the dark, ancient, cobblestone streets. We wound our way up to the “top” of the village, parking in a small arched portico that was part of a large stone and stucco structure at least five stories high.
Along the way, we passed a small central plaza being prepared for some kind of authentic entertainment reminiscent of the middle ages – the torture and execution of a heretic perhaps. The setting was medieval, but the sound and lighting equipment was all 21st Century.
Once parked, we were allowed to unload our bags. Later, our cars would have to be driven outside the city walls and parked. The reason was obvious. If we didn’t move them, nobody else could move along the street.
The portico was the entrance to Villa Santiterzi, and palatial though it may be, it didn’t come with any servants. Fortunately, several members of Michele’s family graciously offered to help us with our bags, clearly not realizing that we had brought enough for an army.
The villa, built in multiple levels near the top of the hill, includes several different wings and apartments, at least two of which had more floor space and rooms than any three of our homes combined. There are also several gardens, a swimming pool and sundeck, outdoor dining and barbecue deck, all of which are available to guests.
The Grandjacquet family maintains part of the villa for its own use. The building extended as far as we could see in many different directions. One thing was clear, it occupied the highest point in the village, and went up from there.
We kept climbing, suitcases and bottoms dragging, until we came to a large landing in front of two large antique wooden doors. By this time, it was hard to hear Michele’s commentary over all the heavy breathing. It was with great relief that we realized he was opening the doors to our part of the “palazzo.”
The description fit. We were led from one spacious, beautifully decorated room to another, all with ceilings at least 12 feet high, tiled floors, antique furnishings and large windows that opened onto glorious views of the valley below and hills in the distance.
Each of us were assigned a large bedroom (larger than our living rooms at home), with a private bath. In addition, there were two large living rooms with fireplaces, two kitchens, a dining room, a library, other rooms for quiet reading, and assorted foyers and spaces. It also had a three-story tower. I inquired if this was were the virgins were kept, but Michele didn’t seem to understand the question.
Dottie and I settled into a huge bedroom with a fireplace, a queen-sized four-poster bed and a large window that had seats for two and a 180-degree unobstructed view. We could see for miles.
Villa Santiterzi fit my definition of a palace.
For this I would gladly walk up and down a few stories of stone staircases every day. God knows I needed the exercise, considering for the next two weeks my diet would consist mostly of pasta and wine.
Part IX - A scream in the night
Safely ensconced in our palazzo, we spent the rest of our move-in afternoon getting familiar with the village of San Gemini.
Its actual origins are the basis of some speculation, but there is evidence that even the Villa Santiterzi, our home for two weeks, was once the site of an Etruscan structure that pre-dated Roman buildings.
It is located along the original route of the old Via Flaminia, built by the Romans in 222 B.C. to link Rome to north-central Italy. Nearby are the ruins of Carsulae, an ancient Roman municipium that, unlike some Roman settlements, was apparently abandoned rather than rebuilt upon century after century.
The reason Carsulae was abandoned and the walled city of San Gemini arose lies in the fact that the latter occupies more easily defended real estate. Carsulae is situated along an exposed pass, while San Gemini is perched on a steep hilltop.
Over the centuries as one hoard of barbarians after another pillaged and burned their way through the country, cities like San Gemini had a better chance of surviving inside heavily fortified walls with steep cliffs on as many sides as possible.
The village inside the walls is very small and retains the look and atmosphere of its medieval past that included the bloody struggles between the Guelphs (loyal to the Papal states) and Ghibellines (loyal to the Holy Roman Empire).
Strolling the streets during its annual two-week celebration in honor of its patron saint took a little longer that it normally would due to the number of people in town. The total area inside the walls would be a about the size of downtown Sonoma, including the Plaza, but imagine that area built less around the top of Schocken Hill, densely packed, with wall-to-wall three and four story medieval buildings facing narrow, alley-like cobblestone streets that followed the contour of the steep hillside. What little flat, open space there is includes two small plazas fronting two of the several churches in town.
We arrived on the sixth day of a 14-day festival that literally transformed the community from a sleepy little village to a noisy, bustling medieval faire. The ground floors of most of the buildings that centuries ago may have been home to small merchants or tradesmen were transformed into “tavernas,” each selling a particular item, or offering “authentic” food on which the knights and ladies of yore might have dined.
The townspeople were in costume and fully into their roles. The visitors strolling along the streets were mostly residents of nearby towns. We saw no other Americans.
Weary from our hair-raising, time-traveling trip from Rome, we tried to wait around for the evening’s entertainment to start, but by 9:30 p.m. we simply couldn’t keep our eyes open. Our stroll back to the villa took us right past the piazza in which the performance was supposed to take place. Several hundred people milled about. Musicians were already taking their seats, the sound engineer was setting up his microphones on the stage, and the Klieg lights were turned on. The preparations looked very professional, and we regretted that our fatigue would keep us from enjoying the show.
Our heads had no sooner hit the pillow when a horrible sound shattered the still night air.
“Incoming!” I shouted as I rolled over on top of Dottie, pulling us both to the floor.
Now fully awake, I realized that the noises were those made by tortured sound equipment, turned up to the max and in the throes of heavy feedback. Perched as we were, on the top of the villa at the top of the hill, immediately above the piazza on which the equipment sat, we were fully exposed to the intense, glass-shattering sound waves fired toward us at nine million decibels.
Looking down toward the Piazza from our large window, the view partially obstructed by trees, we could tell that between the shrieks and growls of the over-modulated equipment itself, a tone-deaf Italian teenager was caterwauling the opening number of the evening’s musical pageant.
It reminded us of the years we spent enduring our children’s grade-school Christmas concerts, except that they would have never been handed something as dangerous as a microphone.
I looked at my watch, thankfully noting that the crystal had not been cracked. It was 10:00 p.m. and the performance was just beginning. We tried closing all the doors and windows and pulling pillows over our heads, but nothing stopped the awful screeching from getting through.
Then, a miracle happened. As we were sitting on the bed wadding up pieces of toilet paper and sticking them in our ears, I saw a bright flash of light in the window, followed by a low rumble barely audible above the cacophony of discordant notes wafting up from below. It was followed by another flash and rumble, and then another and another, until suddenly the sky opened up and rain began pouring down in solid sheets.
A high-pitched, off-key voice was cutoff in mid-wail, and then the only sound we heard was rain hitting the roof, and the occasional crash of thunder. As spectacularly loud as it was, we felt instant relief – like when the dentist stops drilling.
Saved by the storm, we drifted off to sleep, with only a tiny bit of sympathy to those valiant tone-deaf kids, and their parents, friends and relatives who had come from miles around for an evening of fine entertainment.
Part X - Medieval street gangs with swords
The morning after the deluge that drowned out the medieval musical pageant performed by local youngsters, San Gemini was very quiet. Our arrival the afternoon before, in the middle of the Giostra dell’arme festival, had not afforded us time to get any groceries.
We strolled down the hill from our villa to the central piazza off which ran the main “business” district, a one-block street on which there were perhaps a dozen different small shops that served local residents.
One of these was a tightly-packed little cubby hole of a grocery store owned by Luigi Pantalone, next to which is an even smaller meat market owned by Luigi’s cousin Paolo. This was just a few doors down from a fruit and vegetable store owned by another cousin, next to which is a hole-in-the-wall fresh pasta shop operated by a another cousin. There was also a small bakery where we obtained fresh bread and pastries every day, a little coffee shop, and a bar where all the men hung out – many of whom were probably cousins of Luigi.
The affable grocer didn’t speak a word of English, but he greeted us every day with a smile and always seemed to figure out what we needed. We were the only tourists staying in the village and received red-carpet treatment.
Virtually all of the festival activities were planned for late afternoon and evening, so during the day, we had the streets to ourselves and spent time poking around the little stores trying out our minimal Italian on the shopkeepers.
That afternoon, at about the same time that school buses were dropping off kids in the central piazza, the town began its daily time warp back to the 12th Century. The "tavernas” opened and began offering their wares, street performers appeared, and residents from the surrounding area started arriving for an evening of medieval hijinks.
We watched grizzled blacksmiths wielding giant hammers beat small pieces of metal out of larger pieces. We saw unknown critters big and small being roasted over open flames, and pasta being made from scratch by gangs of elderly women whose faces and hair turned ghostly white as the flour dust filled the air.
Snacking on a favorite fast food of the middle ages, “rat on a stick,” we strolled from vendor to vendor, while the music of strolling minstrels, the smoke of wood fired stoves, and the candle-lit street lanterns wove a hypnotic spell. We passed through a portal and found ourselves trapped between two bands of sword-carrying men in full armor.
They were headed toward us from opposite directions, each preceded by guys in tights carrying banners and beating drums. One group wore the colors of the Rione Piazza (green and gold), while the other, the colors and shield of Rione Rocca (red and blue).
We were standing in a small courtyard at the intersection two streets, and moved to a doorway to let the marchers pass. Instead, they stopped at opposite sides of the courtyard and glared at each other through the slits in their helmets.
Then one of the “knights” of Rocca stepped forward and hurled forth a challenge, to which a knight from Piazza responded with apparent contempt. The dialogue might be described as “really bad Shakespearean Italian.” Here follows my rough translation:
Rocca: “What ragged lot is this that dares to tread without proper tribute upon that which is ours?”
Piazza: “Be gone knave! Were not courage, brains and talent as rare as virgins in Rione Rocca, we might deign to pay you heed. Remove this rabble from our path, lest its temerity be the herald of thy demise.”
Rocca: “Tis this a man that speaks, or the village ass? If our swords must be bloodied on such a pathetic foe, you best choose soft ground, for many in thy ranks will be deposited thereon in bloody repose before the cock crows."
Piazza: “Thy mother wears army boots.”
And with that final insult swords started clashing and the sparks started flashing. More than once a metal helmet flew through the air landing with clang on the cobblestone streets. We were relieved that no one’s head was in it.
Some of the unhelmeted knights looked familiar. We realized they were Luigi’s cousins in medieval drag.
With all of the drama of a World Wrestling Federation performance they hacked, whacked, grimaced and growled for several minutes until, according to the script, the vanquished took a dive, and the victors raised their swords, howling in celebration.
The “dead” then arose and the performers took their bows before a mildly appreciative crowd that had gathered in hopes of seeing real blood, and at least a limb or two lobbed off.
Just another night among the knights of yore in beautiful downtown San Gemini.
Part XI - The joust gets serious
When we first arrived in San Gemini, the Umbrian village that was our home for two weeks in October, it was in the middle of “La Giosta Dell’Arme,” a celebration of its colorful medieval heritage – colorful as in bloody.
Ian Campbell Ross, in his book “Umbria – A Cultural History,” describes the history of the region from its pre-Etruscan days through the Romans to modern times, and with the exception of the post W.W.II era, it was hardly ever free from fighting, whether with barbarian invaders, Roman Empire versus the Popes, city against city or family against family. In between those many conflicts were visits of the “Black Plague.”
On several nights of the festival, we witnessed long, solemn, candlelit parades of villagers in beautiful hand-crafted, authentic medieval costume. Led by a priest and bearers carrying a statue of the town’s patron saint, the procession would include a corps of drummers followed by groups of “knights” and “ladies,” and other characters, all in 12th Century attire. These ceremonial walks were nothing like Sonoma’s Old Fashioned Fourth of July parade. In fact, they were so dark that we expected them to stop at each house along the streets and shout “Bring out your dead!”
The processions, pageants and sword-fighting demonstrations were all just the warm-up for the main event, held on the festival’s final Sunday. On that day, the residents of the region arrived early and staked out their seats at the jousting grounds (a mini-soccer field just outside the city walls).
The field, about a third the size of a normal soccer field, was encircled by a 10-foot-wide dirt track. There were tiers for seating built into the hillside as well as some bleachers, reserved for festival “royalty.”
Most of the crowd wore either the green and gold of the Rione Piazza or the red and blue of Rione Rocca, forming separate rooting sections.
A fanfare of trumpets heralded the arrival of the dignitaries all in costume, who marched in and were seated in the royal “boxes.” A burst of applause greeted the jousters mounted on the most incredibly muscular horses I’ve ever seen – the Arnold Schwarzeneggers of steeds.
There were three knights for each team. Their lances were long and sharply tipped. Perhaps we were in for some real medieval carnage after all.
With little further ceremony, the joust began, and I saw immediately that the only blood that would be shed would be between the two groups of rabid fans.
The joust was a contest of the skill, speed and accuracy that involved a high-speed gallop three quarters around the track to were a small metal ring (about the size of a hoop earring) hung on a ribbon from a track-side tower. The rider was supposed to snag that ring on the tip of his lance, ride another three-quarter lap and throw the spear into a shield bearing the opponent’s crest and colors. The speed around the track was timed for points. And points were earned for catching the ring and getting as close to the center of the shield as possible.
From the first round to the last it was a fascinating spectacle. The horses, bred for lightening-fast starts, short track speed and agility, were incredible. And how their riders managed to get the tip of their 10-foot long lances through that tiny hoop with their horses at a full gallop was beyond believing. I couldn’t have gotten the ring on the lance if I’d walked up to it and tried to thread it on.
But the skill didn’t end there. Continuing at a full gallop around a very tight turn, the rider shifted his grip on the lance and raced down the back stretch. Then, standing in the stirrups, he fired the lance into the shield with all of his strength.
Every time a rider got the ring, and every time he hit the shield a different section of the crowd roared (depending on whose rider did it). The contest involving two teams of three knights was three rounds long, with each knight getting one try per round. The demonstration of horsemanship, strength and skill was breathtaking.
The contest remained close all afternoon, and degenerated into a lengthy argument after one of the Rocca horses came up lame and missed the call for one of his turns, A half-hour of arm waving and finger pointing resolved little, and after one final round, Piazza was declared the winner by one point, which set off choruses of “We was robbed” on the blue and red side of the field.
The heroes of Rione Piazza and their steeds were mobbed by their fans and a huge procession followed them on a triumphant march into the gates and through the streets of the city. It was their World Cup, their Super Bowl, and the partying went well into the early hours of the morning.
Although we took no side in the contest, our villa was located in the Rocca part of town, so we felt bad for our neighbors who obviously took the contest very seriously. It was a remarkable finale, all the more delightful because we had not expected it to be so.
Part XII - Stopped by the cops
Thanks to the lessons I learned from my old Scoutmaster George Ford Dottie and I rarely got lost on our daily driving excursions from our villa in San Gemini to interesting cities and sites in Umbria.
“Find north and you’ll always know where you are,” George used to say.
Ever since then, the first thing I do every day is find north. In fact, when I had my house built, I made sure that the contractor located the bathroom north of my bedroom. That is always my first stop in the morning anyway, so I am set for the day.
When I travel this routine becomes a little more of a challenge. The reservations clerks do not always have an answer when you ask, “Is the bathroom located north of the bed?”
George also taught me how to find north by noting the direction of the rising sun. “Face the rising sun and north will be on your left,” he said.
That worked great when I was camping out. George had us up before the sun rose. We watched it come up. That method isn’t as reliable in a hotel at 9 a.m. on a cloudy day, which is why I sometimes get lost in cities.
From our large bedroom window in San Gemini I would watch the sunrise, mainly because the church bell in the tower 30 yards away rang before dawn. At least I knew where north was.
The names and numbers of the roads printed on the map provided by Avis were so small that they were impossible for me to read, but the city names were in larger print, and there was a compass printed on it. Armed with the map and my scouting skills, we set out in our little Citroen the first day, Dottie behind the wheel, our friends, Tony and Carolyn, in the back seat, and me sitting confidently in the navigator’s spot pointing north northwest saying, “Go that way.”
We were headed for Orvieto, a city perched on a dramatic hilltop about 40 miles north northwest of our villa.
Dottie, ever patient and tolerant of my unusual way of giving directions, tactfully pointed out that I was directing her to drive into an olive orchard.
“Ok, then follow this road until I tell you where to turn,” I responded.
With only a slight roll of her eyes, she put her solid lead foot on the gas and we were off. There are roads everywhere in the Umbrian hills, some probably built by the Romans. My method was simple, I knew the direction we needed to go, all I had to do was find roads going in that general direction and turn off them whenever they started going the wrong way.
With this technique you can find anything – eventually.
One does not dally on any roads in Italy, the winding country ones included. We zoomed along trying not to be run over by crazed motorists passing on curves and weaving in and out of traffic. We honestly thought that there were no traffic cops in the country, and if they were, none of them ever patrolled the roads and highways. Wrong!
We found the two cops in the country actually on traffic duty, and they were not a friendly pair, probably because they were the only two working .
My excellent navigation, after several hours of switchbacks, had taken us 20 miles west of San Gemini to where the main north-south toll road, A1, would take us directly to Orvieto.
“Oh ye of little faith,” I exclaimed to my wife and companions as we spotted the Orvieto exit 25 minutes after entering the high-speed “autostrada.”
My sense of triumph was quickly dampened however when two stern looking Italian policemen standing by a patrol car next to the toll booth, flagged us over.
Annoyed at it having taken us two and a half hours to go 40 miles, Dottie was not in the mood for any more delays.
“Why did you stop us?” she impatiently asked the cop, who clearly wanted to be one asking the questions. Unfortunately, he didn’t speak a work of English.
There ensued a battle of wills between two officious policemen and my wife, who was mad as hell at being pulled over. They asked for our registration, our passports, our home addresses, phone numbers. Then two other officers in a second car showed up, and they asked for the same information.
We figured we must have really done something wrong to warrant this much attention, because it was clear that they didn’t give tickets for speeding, or passing on blind curves or riding someone’s bumper at 90 mph.
Dottie kept asking in English why we pulled over. I tried to translate the question, and the cop would answer, but his response didn’t make sense.
“Something about lights,” I told her.
“What about lights?” she said glaring at the officer who was glaring back.
Finally one of the other guys came over and said in broken English, “Headlights need on.”
“Its daylight, the sun’s out.” Dottie fired back.
“Lights on all time. Is law.” the second officer said.
Apparently a new law had recently been passed in Italy that car headlights must be on at all times, day and night, a fact that Avis had neglected to tell us and other car renters in our party. We were, however, the only ones who got a ticket.
Cops in Italy have the power to levy fines and collect them on the spot. Ours was 35 euros, which we forked over.
With a final glare at the officious duo who had kept us by the road for 45 minutes, Dottie put her foot to the floor and we roared off, noting as we drove that about a third of the cars we saw on the road didn’t have their lights on.
Still, thanks to George, my navigation was semi-flawless and we actually made it to Orvieto and back to San Gemini before dark.
Part XIII -Found in the translation
Traveling where English is not the primary language can be wonderfully entertaining, if one takes just a little time to learn a few things in the mother tongue of one’s destination.
Those essential words and phrases include: Hello (good morning, good afternoon, good evening), Please, Thank you, Do you speak English? Where is the bathroom?
I also learned a few more phrases just to be safe, like: I’m lost. Which way is north? Where is the road home? Does this bus (or train) go to Sonoma? I need a really big glass of wine now. Do you sell gasoline here, or can I run my car on your grappa?
Thus equipped, I can travel just about anywhere and make myself understood. But as most travelers know, this is only half the battle. Inevitably when you ask a question in the language of the country, they will answer you in the same language, speaking so rapidly that you cannot possibly understand, even if you majored in that language in college.
In Italy, it was helpful that the residents used a lot of body language along with rapid-fire Italian. Often it was easy to figure out what they were saying just by watching their eyes hands and arms, and the way they bobbed their heads.
In a typical exchange of 25 words or so, I might understand five. That, plus the gestures, would be enough to get me by. Understanding the body language was the key.
For example, Dotti and I were in Terni one day trying to find the Avis car rental office. We knew the name of the street, Via XX Settembre, but couldn’t find it on a map. We had gotten directions from someone at a gas station who spoke a little English, but quickly got lost again because not every street is clearly marked.
After making several wrong turns we stopped at a small car-repair shop in front of which sat a man smoking a cigarette and reading the soccer scores in a newspaper. In my best broken Italian, I asked him the directions to Via XX Settembre.
Without looking up from his newspaper, he stuck out his right index finger, pointed toward the curb, bobbed his head, and exhaled a smoke-laden, two-word answer in Italian. I didn’t understand the words, but I knew that he was saying, “That’s it,” and sure enough it was.
On more than one occasion, the incredible kindness of Italians manifested itself with the wave of an arm in a “follow me” gesture. This happened when we’d stop somewhere, ask directions and it became clear that we could not understand their answer. The person would go to his car and indicate that we should follow him. He would then lead us to where we needed to go, sometimes clear across town, pointing to the address, and then waving with a smile when we said, “Grazie Senore.”
With the exception of our one encounter with the police, the Italians we met were always friendly and seemed most cooperative when we tried to use our limited abilities in their language. They may have even been amused by our choice of vocabulary, just as we were delighted with some of the English translations we read in restaurant menus.
A few miles from San Gemini was the tiny town of Cesi, built on the side of a steep cliff like a ancient southwestern Indian village. There, the Ristorante Locando, owned by Mauro Poggiani, serves up incredibly delicious authentic Umbrian dishes, while diners enjoy a breathtaking view of the valley below.
Mauro doesn’t speak any English, but his daughter, Valeria, a bright young women attending college in nearby Terni, does – a little. She apparently composed the English translations that were printed below the Italian dishes on her family restaurant’s menu. Here are some examples:
“La pappa col pomodoro – It eats up her with the tomato”
“Acqua pazza di pesce – Crazy water of fish”
“Rane fritte – Fried Frogs”
“Trota al cartoccio e tartufo nero – Trout to the bag and black truffle”
“Anguilla alla Francescana –Eel to the Franciscan one”
“Maltalgliati con lardo – Maltalgliati with lard”
“L’acqua cotta – The cooked water”
“Tagliatelle al sugo di lumache – Noodles to the juice of snails.”
“Fettucccine al ragout di lago – Fettuccine to the ragout of lake.”
“Coppa di crème gelato all’aceto Balsamico – Cups of cream frozen to the balmy vinegar.”
Working with an Italian/English dictionary, and a year or two of high school English, Valeria gallantly produced charming translations that found in us an appreciative audience. We also found that our fumbling attempts at Italian were equally appreciated.
Incidentally, I had the “Eats her up with the tomato,” and it was fabulous.
Part XIV - Time to say goodbye
There comes a time in any trip when you know it is time to go home. After almost three weeks on a diet of pasta, Italian bread and wine, that time came when I could no longer button my pants.
We almost decided to stay a couple of extra days so that we could attend the International Chocolate Festival in Perugia, but decided, after visiting in the city the day before the festival was set to open, it was far too dangerous.
On virtually every street corner, and in many of the cities beautiful piazzas, tents and booths were being assembled, and all would be offering chocolate in every form imaginable. Its signature hazelnut-filled nibbles we know as “Baci” are just the beginning.
For this festival, the city even changes the names of its streets. Corso Vannucci becomes Morso Vannucci and Piazza dell Republica becomes Piazza Della Tazza and Via Mazzini becomes Chocostreet.
You can find chocolate bars, drinks, spaghetti, and even chocolate shoes, socks and underwear. You can have busts of your loved ones created in chocolate. You can have chocolate for breakfast, lunch and dinner and in between.
For two chocolate lovers, it was too much temptation. We had visions of the headlines at home:
“Local couple found chocolatized in Perugia hotel room.
“Bill and Dottie Lynch of Sonoma, California, were discovered late yesterday in what local medical experts describe as a state of chocolate-induced suspended animation.
“Dr. Luigi Bitersuita, who heads the Chocolatogy Department at the University of Perugia said that he sees several such cases every year during the festival. It is apparently caused when the victims consume so much chocolate that every organ in their body becomes saturated and virtually turns to chocolate.”
So we decided to skip the festival and instead filled an extra suitcase with as much chocolate as we could carry home. It lasted less than a week.
Some people have asked for information about the villa we stayed in, and villas in Italy in general.
Our villa, Santi Terzi, in the village of San Gemini, in the region of Umbria, was booked through Tuscany Now, a business based in England that specializes in Italian villas. The website address is tuscanynow.com.
The company handles many villas all over Italy. Ours was quite large and would be expensive for just one or two couples. But smaller ones are available. Keep in mind that many of the villas are located out in the country and you must get in your car and drive whenever you need to go to the store.
We loved Santi Terzi because it was inside the village and we could walk to shop for groceries. We also got to know the local people better.
Tuscany Now handles Santi Terzi bookings for the spring through fall months, but it is also available at dramatically reduced rates during the winter, and you can book directly with the owners. For a winter booking contact Michele Grandjacquet, via email at email@example.com.
The villa can easily accommodate six to seven couples, each in a separate bedroom with its own bathroom. Obviously there was a lot of organization required to get six couples to agree on a the dates, etc. It takes one well-organized person to pull it all together, and you need to be able to make a commitment well in advance. Unless you are experienced at this, you might enlist the help of a local travel agent. Whatever fee there might be, it is well worth the professional guidance and help. One of the people organizing our group was a travel agent, and another was a very energetic person who kept the rest of us informed, and prompted us when we needed to send in our deposits, etc.
The benefit to the large group was that the cost per couple was very competitive, averaging just a little over $100 per night per couple for our two-week stay.
If you have never stayed anywhere in a foreign country but in a hotel, renting your own apartment or villa is an entirely new adventure, and Italy is a wonderful place to try it for the first time. I have no doubt that Dottie and I will do it again.