Essays about life in Italy, traveling in Italy, and more
Summer 1999 - Italy
Panicale Week 1
Here we are in Italy, at last. We have been talking about it for so long that it seems strange to actually be here.
The flight over was a nightmare - except that we got to sit in first class which has a decadent amount of room. But some things are the same as coach: you don't sleep much, you are on a plane for 12 hours, you arrive with a time change of 8 hours so when you arrive in the morning, it is really the middle of the night. We flew into Brussels, then caught a connecting flight to Florence, figuring arriving in Florence (a relatively small city) would be easier than flying into Rome. Possibly a wrong assumption. The Brussels airport is horrible in the early morning and they stuff you onto a small plane for the 2 hour trip to Florence and they didn't manage to stuff all the luggage on as well, so our entry into Florence started with waiting in line for an hour to fill out a luggage claim form. In the end, they just delivered our luggage to the hotel that night.
We were all bright and perky at first saying "this is great - I am wide awake" and "this time change is no problem", then we stopped moving for one second and collapsed into bed for the afternoon. We did manage to get up in time for dinner, but it took about 4 or 5 days for us to really adjust to the time change (to stop waking up at 5 in the morning and then sleeping for hours in the afternoon). We are such wimps!
We spent 3 nights in Florence at a great hotel just a few blocks from the center of town (from the Duomo). It was a palazzo from the 1400's that was turned into a small hotel. Our room was a little odd, but it looked out onto a lovely garden and was quiet. Things are often a little odd in Italy. We walked all over Florence, saw a few churches and some art and some gardens, found a few great neighborhood restaurants (from Faith Willinger's book), loaded up on hiking maps and hiking books for the rest of the trip. Florence is very crowded with tourists (and Italians), but is just packed with the most amazing buildings. We didn't even bother to line up for the Uffizi because we spent an afternoon there on the last trip.
On Saturday morning we picked up our rental car (a small Lancia - like a VW Golf), shifted into first (had to rent a manual even though Steve hasn't driven one in over 10 years), and plunged into the Florence traffic. It went well until we stalled out in the middle of a traffic circle; lots of beeping and yelling, but we got it going again and zoomed off into the Chianti countryside. We I say "we", I mean Steve. Steve does all the driving when we are not in the US. Neither of us trust my ability to judge small spaces, which is all there are when driving here. But we did pay extra to let me drive the rental car, so sometime soon I may give it a try. He let me drive a mile or so on the last trip. And, after all, we did get the full coverage.
The weather had been perfect those few days in Florence; sunny and hot, but not too hot (maybe in the low 80's). But Saturday was overcast. We drove south from Florence, through the middle of Chianti to a great restaurant we knew from the last visit. Had a fabulous lunch and then drove across Chianti to the Autostrada. The Autostrada is always exciting. Steve had our little car up to 140 kph (kilometers, not miles, per hour), passing everyone - he really is getting used to driving here. By the time we got to Panicale, it was pouring rain.
Panicale is on the top of a hill in the broad agricultural valley south of Lago Trasimeno. It is in Umbria, just a few miles from the Tuscany border. You leave the Autostrada, drive through Chiusi, and then follow country roads for about 20 minutes. To reach Panicale, you drive up a series of tight switchbacks to the top of the hill. It is a very old, walled town with a population of only about 400. On the day that we arrived there were 4 weddings going on and not a parking spot anywhere. Also a big traffic jam. And pouring rain. We had to meet Gun Cesarini, who we rented the apartment from. We found out about it on a web page that her son keeps and did all the arrangements by email. The family owns several tourist rentals in town and outside of town.
Gun is Swedish and came to Italy in the 50's, married an Italian, raised her 3 children in Rome, then they retired to Panicale, to her husband's family home. I think he died a few years ago. They both wrote historical articles about the area. I saw their names on an article in a footnote in a book that I have about the history of Umbria. One of her son's has written a book on the history of Panicale. All her children and grandchildren have ended up in Sweden (they all went to university there and then stayed) - she is by herself here (just her, several houses and 200 olive trees). It is nice to have someone nearby who speaks English. Usually we rent these places through an agency that has a local person to look after the place and they never speak any English.
We have rented an apartment in a farmhouse about 5 minutes by car outside of Panicale. The farmhouse was renovated a couple of years ago and made into 2 apartments. Ours is on the top floor. Gun lives below. The place is wonderful! Some of the places we have rented the last 2 trips have been horrible. Rotting furniture, hardly any windows, no nice area to sit outside. This place is great. Nice furniture, spacious rooms, comfortable bed, good kitchen, big deck off the kitchen with nice outdoor furniture. The house is built into a hillside - you drive up a very steep lane to get to it - and is surrounded by olive trees. The views are out into the valley and you can see Panicale off to one side. You can hear church bells from surrounding towns. At night you can see lights from houses scattered through the valley. In the early morning the valley is covered by fog. It is probably the nicest place we have rented.
Okay - now the downside - you would not believe the shower in the bathroom. The bathroom is maybe 4 feet square with a nice large sink, a toilet and a shower. But the shower is just a shower head on the wall and a drain in the middle of the floor with maybe a foot of space between the wall with the showerhead and the toilet. I think the only way to use it will be to sit or stand on the toilet while showering. I don't think there will be any way to avoid flooding the bedroom. But, there is a really nice outdoor shower to use instead, and that is what I will use unless it is snowing! Really a small downside when you consider all the upsides. This place was pretty reasonable to rent too - $525 per week.
The location of this place is also good. We can walk by a footpath to Panicale in 20 minutes. Panicale has 3 restaurants, a cafe, a post office, a few small stores. There are several other small, charming towns around. Perugia is 30 minutes away - we haven't been there yet. We went to Assisi yesterday and it took less than an hour to get there. We are also very close to the southern Tuscany towns of Montepulciano, Pienza, Montalcino.
The countryside is very peaceful and quiet and beautiful here. Figs are in season and there are several trees along the path to town. Fennel grows wild along the road and smells great. The grapes are just about to be harvested. We found a scorpion beside the bed last night (that was exciting). And Gun tells us not to walk in the fields without boots - vipers! But in Santa Fe we have tarantulas and rattlesnakes and bubonic plague. Vipers can't even kill you!
So far we have had 2 sunny days and 1 rainy day (today). Yesterday we spent the day in Assisi. We hadn't been there since the earthquake (fall 1997) and wanted to see how it was surviving. They are fixing damaged buildings all over town. The 3 main churches are closed or partially closed. The upper basilica in the main church, which has the heavily damaged Giotto frescoes of the life of St. Francis is closed. But the equally incredible frescoes in the lower basilica are fine and it was open. All will be reopened in time for the year 2000 Jubilee. All of Italy is celebrating 2000 years of Catholicism - what a thought! - they are planning for a huge influx of tourists.
Here is the big deception about Italy. Everyone says how wonderful the local markets are. They are NOT wonderful. They are like a Walmart on wheels. Most towns have a market one day a week. The larger town near us, Tavernelle, had its market on Monday. We went and it was just as bad as all the others we have been to. I will admit that I got a great flyswatter for only 1000 lira (60 cents), but I saw the same model in the local grocery. We have been to many markets all over Tuscany and Umbria. We have never found an interesting one. Rows and rows of trucks selling junky shoes, jeans, t-shirts, underwear (oh yeah, I want to buy my underwear outside, in public, from a guy standing there smoking and watching all the women), drug store stuff, the ubiquitous porchetta truck (a whole cooked pig on display that they cut up for sandwiches - yuk), one mildly interesting cheese stand, a few boring vegetable stands (not local vegetable farmers - just boxes of vegetables and fruit like a store). In the afternoon they load the stuff back onto the trucks and drive off to the next town.
But everything else they say about Italy is true. We have had some incredible meals. The coffee is great. The wine is great. Even the water is great. One thing we have been noticing on this trip is how friendly everyone is to us. Only in Florence did most people speak English. Around here no one speaks any English. Steve is getting very good with his Italian and we are getting by. He even went into a hardware store and bought a plug adapter for the computer (all in Italian) because I left ours behind at the hotel.
So, that is our first week. It turns out we can do email from here - Gun lets us use her phone. Sorry about how long this email is - we all know I am long winded.
Panicale Week 2
We have been in Italy for two weeks today and are finally settling in. The weather has been incredible. Sunny and hot - in the low 80s. Apparently there has been a heat wave going on all across Europe. Today is the first overcast and rainy day since last Tuesday - and that is why I am taking time out to do email! We were in this same part of Italy at the same time of year in 1996 and it rained about half the time. On that trip we were renting some grotty little cottages, so it made it even worse. Now on a rainy day, we have this lovely farmhouse apartment to hang about in.
Laundry: Did you know that no one has a dryer in Italy? Well, maybe someone, but we haven't met them. These tourist rental apartments have a washer and one of those hanging racks and an iron and ironing board. You do the wash, pray for sun, hang everything on the rack, move it outside to dry, and then iron everything after - even the t-shirts because they dry stiff and full of creases no matter what I do. So here I am on vacation, ironing t-shirts! In some places we have found places that will do your laundry, but the one near here was closed for vacation. And when you ask about laundries, everyone looks at you like you are lazy!
We have been slowly doing some touring in the area. We usually accomplish much less than we plan. For example, we planned a full day out to visit 3 historic towns about an hour from here: Spello, Bevagna, Montefalco. All are very old and have some good art. We made it to Spello in time for lunch, had a great lunch (grilled porcini mushrooms are in season), walked all over town (beautiful), saw an incredible fresco in the church (by Pinturicchio from the 1500's), found a store selling organic olive oil (bought 5 liters) and truffle pastes (bought several), looked at the Roman gate, had a coffee with all the teenagers just getting out of school and glued to the video games, and were ready to head on to the next town when we realized the day was over. So we drove back home. Still a wonderful day. And sometimes it is better to see less and see it slowly, because if you rush about all these wonderful hill towns can start to look the same.
Another day we drove across southern Tuscany to Montalcino, a wonderful town we visited 2 years ago. It has a fabulous restaurant that we wanted to go back to. Most restaurants are closed one day a week. The day they are closed is posted and is sometimes listed in guide books. But, we have just as often gone when it was supposed to be open to find it closed as we have gone knowing it was closed only to find it open. This time it was closed. But the bakery that we had read about and was supposed to close at 1:00, was still open when we got there after 1:00. So, we got some bread (made in a fire oven) and cookies (called "Dead Man's Bones" - tasting faintly like the "host" (you Catholics know that taste) with almonds inside). Note to Dee (my lapsed-Catholic friend in Santa Fe): I am bringing you some of these cookies! Then we walked down the street, found another restaurant and had a wonderful lunch. I had bruschetta drenched in olive oil and pasta with fresh tomatoes and many whole cloves of garlic. Steve had thick vegetable soup and noodles with black truffles and porcini mushrooms. Then we had a coffee in the main piazza in a cafe from the 1800's. Then we drove out into the countryside to an abbey built in the 1100's (Sant'Antimo) where the monks still chant every day (we missed them though). Went for a long walk in the woods around the abbey, then drove back home, stopping in Pienza (another wonderful small town) for home made gelato and coffee.
An idyllic day - except for the driving. You know that expression "All roads lead to Rome"? And you always think, huh? Well in Italy you understand the literalness of this expression. All the main roads lead to Rome. That is, all the main roads run north and south. It is very hard to get across the country. In Italy the only roads that are relatively straight and have 2 lanes in each direction are the Autostrada. You pay a toll, but it is worth it because you can actually get places fast. But, the only Autostrada in Tuscany runs from Florence to Rome and really isn't useful for getting around Tuscany.
The next best roads are the red roads (they are red on the maps). These are only one lane in each direction, but are usually somewhat straight and sometimes even bypass the towns (but not usually - I think Italians do not like to bypass anything). But, the red roads only run north and south. Most of them actually follow the same route the original roman roads ran (the ones that lead to Rome).
The next level of roads are yellow roads and these are what you take through the countryside to go east and west. They are narrow, very curvy and go up and down big hills, always drive through the middle of the towns. There are no posted speed limits, except for the signs trying to get you to slow down for the towns (no one likes to slow down). Everyone drives very fast, passes wildly, even on blind curves. There are no shoulders on the roads, so you better make it back to your own lane when you pass. On our last couple of drives we have noticed that there are many big trucks on these roads and they slow down for the uphill and you get stuck behind them breathing horrible diesel fumes. Sometimes someone passes even on a blind curve, where you really can't see, just out of desperation. Steve himself once decided it would be better to chance death than continue breathing the diesel fumes.
These roads are so curvy and you have to drive so fast (the other cars sit on your bumper if you do not drive at top speed), that I get nauseous if I even look down at the map (which I have to do continually to try to keep us on course). The roads are numbered on the maps but not in reality. When you get to an intersection, there is a list of towns for each possible direction. You have to memorize which towns are along the route you are taking in order to figure out your turns. It makes for pretty exciting driving and it makes you not want to do long day trips. This is why we are renting one apartment for 2 weeks and then moving only a 1 1/2 hour drive away for the next 2 weeks. From each place we can explore places close by. (But, Steve says that time we went to Ireland was even worse - the roads more narrow and you are driving on the left. Steve is getting pretty good at driving here and is happy when zooming along in our little 4 cylinder at top speed. Because of the hills, he spends most of the day shifting between 2nd and 3rd.)
But, then we forget how much we hate the driving, because on Sunday it was very hot - maybe mid 80's - and we decided to drive out to the coast to spend a night and go swimming! So on Monday we drove for 3 hours from Panicale to Monte Argentario, had lunch in a restaurant we knew from our last trip, overlooking the Mediterranean (lunch is always the high point of the day), checked into a hotel we knew from the last trip (and from 1988 when we were there for a week), got into our bathing suits and spent the afternoon swimming. Swimming in the Med is the best swimming I have ever done. It is really cold (although warmer in September than in June, when we were there last), really salty (you can hardly dive under the water you are so buoyant), and really clear. It is not a sand beach; they just carve places to sit in the rocks and attach ladders to the rocks so you can get into the water. We were hoping we would get some hot days on this trip so we could do this!
We drove back to Panicale the next day (yesterday) and broke up the horrible drive by sightseeing. First we went for a morning swim (just to get full value from the hotel). Then we went to Saturnia, had a fabulous lunch at a restaurant that the books rave about but was supposed to be closed on Tuesdays. It was open for a wedding party (a Japanese woman marrying and Italian man - interesting!) and they had a few extra tables. The meal was amazing.
I have to point out that our friend Stef emailed asking for more food details - that is why I am always talking about food this time!
This was one of the best restaurants we have been to. Lunch took over 2 hours. We sat outside under umbrellas on the edge of the main piazza. We both started with bruschetta (bread with olive oil and fresh tomato), then had a soup called acquacotta (vegetable soup with a poached egg in it), then had grilled vegetables (zucchini, peppers, eggplant, a stalk of chard) and grilled porcini mushrooms and roasted potatoes. We were so stuffed, we could only have espresso for dessert. And for you meat-arians - the German couple next to us had a plate of thinly sliced meat for a starter and then big plates of cinghiale (wild boar) for the main course. Not a vegetable in sight for them!
Then we looked at the Roman gate - yes, yes another gate and road left over from the Romans over 2000 years ago. The country is littered with them.
Then we went to a place just outside Saturnia that I have read about and always wanted to go to, but never thought we would get there (because it is in a remote corner of Tuscany). Saturnia is a thermal spring town. It used to have public hot water baths in the town, but they are closed down. Now there is a luxury resort outside of town where you can stay and soak in the natural hot sulfur water. Or, you can park at the side of the road and go into the hot water as it runs from the spring into a river. This is what we did. We were not alone - there were at least 50 other people doing the same thing. You park in a field, change into your bathing suit beside the car, walk down to the waterfall, and sit in the lukewarm, somewhat sulfury, shallow pools of water and let the waterfall cascade over you. It was great - and you get to smell somewhat sulfury for the rest of the day.
Then we drove to Pitigliano, an incredible old hill town built on a cliff above a river. There are caves built into the rock face under the town, where Jews used to hide hundreds of years ago, trying to escape persecution by the Catholics. So Steve and I both had religious links to the town!
As a side note, Steve is plenty pissed off that the Catholic Church has now announced a big Mea Culpa (I am sorry) for all the persecution they did to various groups (including the Jews) over the years and for siding with the Nazi's in WWII. This is big news in all the papers here. They are apologizing in time for the year 2000 Jubilee! Steve mumbles something about saying sorry doesn't mean it is all okay now - I don't understand his complaint. As I am Catholic, I know the meaning of a good confession (and then everything is okay)! It is part of our religion. Hey, I'm sorry!
We also spent a day in Perugia, which is only a half hour from here. Okay, a half hour to the outskirts, then you have to drive through the modern city, following the signs that say "centro" to get to the old Perugia. This took another half hour of hair-raising driving. People love to double park on main roads here! Then you park and ride about 5 different long escalators to go up through the rock to reach historic Perugia on top of a cliff. It is a great town with a great art gallery.
When you plan your day in Italy, first you figure out where to have lunch. Everything else falls into place after that. I always worry that we won't get enough exercise, so I pack all our hiking stuff and get maps and hiking books. But, we spend so much time walking up and down these hill towns that my legs are constantly aching!
I wanted to mention how nice everyone has been on this trip. Maybe it is this corner of Umbria - because I don't remember this from our last two trips.
Panicale is a great town. We frequently walk into town in the morning and have our coffee and pastry (this is Italian breakfast) sitting on chairs outside the one coffee shop. Just us, the other few tourists, and all the old men. Then we join the old woman to do our grocery shopping. The women shop here every morning and buy just what they need for the day: 3 slices of prosciutto, a small scoop of ricotta, half a loaf of bread, a few vegetables, etc. It can take a long while to get the day's groceries.
Again, this email is much too long! But we have had a busy week. Saturday we move on to our next tourist rental, just outside of Siena.
A Day Trip to Cortona
We went to Cortona yesterday and - thank you Frances Mayes - it is full of Americans! And I mean full!
We stayed on a farmhouse just outside Cortona 2 years ago, just after her first book came out, and it was a charming, somewhat sleepy town. There were Americans because there is some type of American school there. I liked the town, but I wasn't crazy about the area. Lake Trasimeno is not a good lake for swimming (it is more of a marsh) and the towns to the north of the lake (between the lake and Cortona) are very tacky and crowded. One of my guide books refers to Lake Trasimeno and the Umbrian Riviera (this is an insult). The valley that Cortona is on the edge of is very busy, with a major autostrada running down it and some industry in the valley. And the drivers are crazy in that area.
We went back yesterday and the town is beautiful and the terraced olive groves are beautiful and we walked out past the Mayes house and it is beautiful, but the area still feels too busy to me. Some parts of Tuscany and Umbria are very peaceful and quiet - that area is not.
And really, Americans everywhere! Usually in these towns you see a few Americans, some Brits and some Germans. A nice mix. But this was crowds of Americans (just like us!) wandering the streets. We couldn't even get a table at our favorite restaurant.
After Peter Mayle wrote his book about the south of France, it got so overrun by Brits seeking him out, that he moved to New York! But, he has just moved back (after several years).
Oh well ......
Panicale is on the south side of Lake Trasimeno, far away from Autostrada and any major roads. It is peaceful and quiet here. People are very friendly. They drive somewhat slower. The towns are beautiful. I am sad to be leaving tomorrow. But, being near Siena will compensate.
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