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Postcard - My Italian Community

Cheryl Alexander

It's been more than twelve years since I first started vacationing in Italy. What was once an adventure in travel for me has become so much more. The little village of Bagnoregio, outside Orvieto in the tri-corner of Tuscany, Umbria and Lazio, has become a second home for me. I now make time to go there three times a year for a variety of reasons.

I used to say it was just a lovely respite from my hectic life in southern California. As a social worker, with an intense work life, respite is important to my sanity. But this little country destination, a farmer's paradise, has become another whole community for me that's as important to me as the one I reside in for most of the year. I've written a little about some of the interesting places I've found there but what makes it most interesting, because it involves my heart, are the people I've come to call friends there.

On my first foray into independent travel I "accidentally" happened upon Bagnoregio, near Orvieto, looking for an inexpensive house to rent for a couple of weeks. The owner seemed very friendly during our emails and wouldn't even take a deposit for the rental before I arrived. "You will pay when you are here, at the end" he said. And when I finally found the village of Bagnoregio, over a two hour drive from the Rome airport, after dark, he was at the gas station to meet me and take me "home". It's a good thing, too because if you didn't know where it was you'd never find the place. We drove into the valley, an agriculturally protected area where generations of farmers have made modest livings. His little vacation rental sat high up on a hill, the driveway at a 45 degree angle. Carlo had built the little tuffa stone structure by himself, with cotto flooring, a large great room/kitchen, big bathroom and good sized bedroom. The view, all 360 degrees of it, came with the property!

My Italian Community

Carlo, as it turned out, migrated to Italy with his wife Utah, when they were just a young couple. They found an Italian program that allowed them to become farmers for a very small price. They consequently raised their three children on the farm, which has acres of woods, several hundred olive trees and produces honey. This family was very kind and generous with me, inviting me to their evening meals and events with their extended family and friends. Carlo became a good friend to me, introducing me around town to other locals who might also befriend me. He introduced me to an old farmer who wanted to sell his two acres of land in the valley for a ridiculously small price. I couldn't resist and then Carlo helped walk me through the process of purchasing the property. Without his help I couldn't have navigated the sale. (Of course, he also thinks this gives him license to criticize my pathetic Italian language skills)!

If I needed to be picked up from the train station or needed help translating something Carlo was always available. He introduced me to some of the ex-pats and foreign property owners, too, so my circle of friends widened.

A big, curly haired, round faced man, Carlo puts on a good macho front. But he is much more than a farmer, having created a business renting vacation homes, restoring and managing properties for folks, as well as doing landscape architecture. He's loud, he eats too much, enjoys his grappa and likes to argue with the men of the town. He won't do business with anyone who has betrayed his trust or that of a friend's. And he knows every bit of gossip in town. As soon as I arrive in town we go have lunch and he lets me know who has died, who has married, who is sleeping with whom, what happened to this piece of property or that business. It's just like going to visit my sister in our home town.

I've made another friend in Bagnoregio who is quite special and always happy to see me. Marcella is a small, pretty woman with more energy than any three people I know. She and her husband own the local Despar, which is a franchise super market. They also have two vacation rentals they built themselves and two grown sons who help in the business.

Marcella works in the supermercado six days a week and on Sundays she cooks a large meal for her family and neighbors. This is in addition to keeping up on the rentals as she is the only English speaker in the family so she has to manage that aspect of the business. She is always ready with a smile and if I go into the market and see her, she will immediately stop her work to come and have a chat with me. She talks to me in Italian to help me learn and is very patient with me. Her kindness extends to others, as I've seen her with her neighbors, customers, employees.

Once when I needed a place to stay Marcella let me rent her lovely apartment in the historic center of Bagnoregio for just a few days at a modest cost. Most owners won't rent for less than a week and when I asked if just the few days would be OK, she said "of course, you are my friend. Whatever you need, always you must just ask me." And if she is having a festa while I am in town, I am included.

My Italian Community

Mauro, the owner the best bar in town, which is one of the central meeting places of Bagnoregio, is a wonderful, interesting man. I learned only a few years ago what an interesting and talented person he really is. I thought he was just the owner of the best bar for a long time, a man with a sweet wife and seven children, all who worked in the family businesses. Then, I learned he was also a sommelier when he invited me and some friends to a wine tasting. His passion for wine was evident in the presentation of the wines. And it was so much fun for me because it was all done in Italian so I had to use my sense of smell and taste along with my poor language skills. Of course, the more wine I drank the better I understood what he was saying!

That night I also learned that he was a classically trained musician as were all of his children and that they had an afro-cuban band that played local gigs. I was given one of their CDs and was pleasantly surprised to find out how well they actually played.

So now, almost every trip I make there, if I have a small group tour I'm leading, I will take the group to Mauro's "back room" at the bar for an evening of wine pairing with a dinner his lovely wife, Cesarena has prepared. Some of the best food in all of Italy, always fresh and seasonally correct. If fava beans are in season then we have those or some dish including them and it's always fantastic. If it's the season for asparagus then that is one of the dishes. It's one of the things I love most about Italian cooking; eating fresh, local food that is only eaten when it is harvested.

I mustn't forget Alessandra and her family, while I am talking about food and friends. One of the most wonderful sites in this area is the "dying city", Civita d'Bagnoregio, which is the mother of the town of just plain, Bagnoregio. The former is close to 4,000 years old, from Etruscan and maybe it is thought, earlier people. The latter is just around 1,000 years old.

The name for this city indicates that the tuffa or type of dirt is built on, is porous and crumbling and the city is eroding at a rapid rate. Just two winters ago there was a landslide that caused the town government to debate restoring the hilltop town or not. Because the only way to reach it is by a concrete footbridge, which was only erected a few decades ago, there are just about a dozen people living there, with a few recently restored homes for vacation rentals.

Alessandra's family is one of the few that are still there and they run one of two small cantina's there for the few tourists that visit. (The city voted to restore the crumbling earth to encourage more tourism). I met Alessandra years ago when I first started visiting Civita. She was just engaged to the son at that time and a student of architecture. She worked in the cantina with the family on weekends and studied in Rome during the week.

My Italian Community

The cantina is located in the old olive mill that was part of the village some 600 years ago, in a cave, and little has been changed about it. The mill where the donkey walked round and round to grind the olives is still intact. Many of the tools used to process the oil are still on display. The bruschetta and homemade sausage that is served with the local wine is cooked over a wood fire in the ancient fireplace. It's an experience like no other.

Now, year after year, when I visit them, I watch how her little family has grown. She married, her husband gave up his job as a policeman in Rome to work full time in the cantina, then she was pregnant with the first son and I got to play with him after he was born as she brought him to work at the cantina. Then there was a second pregnancy, with a second son, when I returned a couple of years later. Each time I walk through the door Alessandra rushes over to greet me with a big hug and a kiss on each cheek, all the while talking a mile a minute, with lots of questions about me and stories about her family.

We sit, we talk and catch up. I have my wine and bruschetta. If it's a Sunday and the weather permits, I am treated to a bowl of the best wheat berry soup I've come across.

So, these are just a few of the reasons, a few of the friends that make my little Italian community so special. Why I keep returning to this beautiful, serene spot. I'm always somewhat ambivalent to share this place with others as I don't want to see it become another "hot" spot for tourism. But then, it's just so special, I can't keep quiet about, either. What would you do?


Cheryl is a frequent traveler to Italy. She runs Italian Excursion, small group tours and excursions in northern Lazio.

© Cheryl Alexander, 2007

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