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Report 567: Boleskine Fall 2004 Trip to Rome and Surrounding Area

By Boleskine from NJ, Fall 2004

Trip Description: Boleskine Fall Trip - 5 October 2004-14 october 2004 A stay at a farm, Casale Sonnino outside of Rome with daily trips to Rome, neighboring towns, etc.

Destinations: Countries - Italy; Regions/Cities - Lazio, Rome, Umbria

Categories: Vacation Rentals; Art Trip; Foodie Trip; Garden Visits; Sightseeing; Package Tour; Large Group: 10 or More

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Page 1 of 6: 5,6,7 October - Departure from US, Arrival in Italy and first two days at Casale

5 and 6 October 2004

All 11 of the Rome bound Senior citizens are at the parking lot promptly. We pile our luggage and ourselves into the hired van and head for the Philadelphia airport. It is a gorgeous day - sunny, breezy and delightfully cool - the sort of day that make you wonder why on earth you are going anywhere but your own back yard. We have absolutely no traffic and make the trip to the Philadelphia airport in record time. There are also almost no lines at the check ins so we are checked in, pass through security and reach our gate with more than two hours to spare.

Our group consists of Paola and her husband Andrew, who are the group leaders and who have organized the tour; Lucy and Ed, Ron and Gloria, Elissa, Ruth, Jeanne and Martin and me.

When we board we learn that we are scattered throughout the airbus in pairs with an aisle and a center seat. Martin gallantly lets me have the aisle; between my bad knees and my claustrophobia he knows the center of a four seats is torture for me. The flight takes off reasonably close to the EDT; dinner, which is more inedible than usual is served almost at once, and then we settle in for the long night flight. We each have mini TV screens and can choose, music, TV reruns, films or language programs for our entertainment. We do have to pay for our headphones, but we also get to keep them. We all wonder if they will work on any other flights on any other airlines.

I settle on music, followed by Delovely, which I have already seen. I love the Cole Porter songs, and I figure if I fall asleep for a while, I won't have any trouble following the story especially since I just finished reading a 500 page biography of Cole Porter.

Martin needs to go to the bathroom and since I am on the aisle and have to get up anyway, I go too. Just as we return to our seats, and are settling in, the plane encounters a violent patch of weather. The turbulence is fierce! The plane is really being slammed around. As it drops and bucks. Some people are screaming. I cannot help but wonder if prior to 9/11 there would have been such an extreme reaction, but I also have to admit I have never encountered any turbulence this severe. The two women across the aisle, one of whom is really close to hysteria are holding hands. My hand sort of sneaks over onto Martin's leg entirely of its own volition.

The flight attendants are not even bothering with the intercom, they are just yelling in English and Italian for every one to sit down NOW - ADESSO! and to buckle up their seat belts. No one seems to be objecting. Eventually everything calms down, and the pilot explains we have descended to a different altitude, and the flying should be smoother now. Happily, it is. The rest of the flight is uneventful, and we land more or less on schedule

The lines at Fiumincino are nowhere near as long or slow as people have said they were just a few weeks ago. We all get through immigration fairly quickly; collect our luggage, and then sit down and wait for Andrew, Paola and the man who will be driving us in the van to go and pick up the rental car and van. This process winds up taking over an hour and a half, so we are tired and edging towards grumpiness when we finally leave the airport for the casale.

There are seven towns on seven hills outside of Rome that are known as the Castelli Romana. Frascati is the best known of these and Monte Porzio Catone is another. We are staying near these two towns.

It is a hazy, humid and warm day warm though not really hot. The drive is not terribly exciting; we pass vineyards and olive groves, and surprisingly soon turn into a long drive which leads to the Casale Sonino.

The casale is a long two story building made from stone the color of dusty rose. There are grapes growing all around it, as well as some olive trees and even fig trees. We are all enchanted. Which people will be in which room is decided more or less randomly. Martin procures a good room for us near the bathroom to the front of the house.

Ron and Gloria have the room across the hall. They have a magnificent painted wardrobe which takes up most of two walls and is a huge linen closet; they also have an elaborate chandelier, and a good view but it includes the highway and hence there may be some traffic noises. We all want to unpack and explore a little before lunch. Paola and Andrew have a small room that is made out of passageway from one side of the house to the other. It contains a stairway that leads to a lovely rooftop terrace. Elissa and Ruth are on the other side of our wall and share a closet with us. Jeanne is downstairs, and Lucy and Ed are somewhere on our floor but on the other side of Paola and Andrew's room.

Once we are unpacked, we go outside and Martin and I walk down a long path which is covered with vines and hanging bunches of grapes. There are both green and red grapes growing on the same trellis. There are little ceramic signs posted along the way with proverbs or naughty sayings in Italian. I can read some of all of them but not all of all of them. I will have to come out one day with a dictionary. It is very pleasant sitting at the bench at the end of this pathway. There are great clumps of pale lavender flowers, bittersweet, some rose and daises and also some tomato plants laden with fruit, and on both sides, as well as overhead, grapes.

Lunch is served on the outdoor terrace; we are shaded from the now strong sun by grape vines and are served a cold collation - smoked salmon, bresaeola, prosciutto, some sort of salami and wild boar; there is also a plate of cold roast pork, a huge mixed green salad with fresh tomatoes, and a wonderful assortment of chewy breads. There are also marinated mushrooms, tiny little purple onions that are succulent and unexpectedly sweet and bowls of olives. Large carafes of wine and water are quickly emptied as we all are feeling dehydrated. On a side table there is a large platter with an assortment of cheeses including a buffalo milk mozzarella - YAY! That is one I can eat. We are also offered some sliced gala apples marinated in a little sugar and a lot of lemon juice; the apple come with a big platter of biscotti. Unfortunately, the wasps are fierce, and I wind up taking my apples inside as the tapers they are burning seem to be encouraging rather than chasing the critters.

At 3:30, we leave for an afternoon of sight seeing in the local towns. Our first stop is Santa Maria of Grotto Ferrata. The story is that in 1004 a holy man came with a group of monks to the Tuscolo Hills. He had already founded monasteries in Calabria, where he had been born into a transplanted Greek family. This same man had founded monasteries in Campania and towards the end of his life, he moved near Rome to found one more monastery in which he could live out his days in peace. This monk was San Nilo. Tradition says that in the ruins of a Roman villa, the Virgin Mary appeared to San Bartolomeo and San Nilo, and asked them to build a church dedicated to her. Although San Nilo did not live to see its completion, San Bartolomeo did. He worked for 20 years until in 1024, the church was finally completed. On 17 December of 1024, the church was consecrated in a ceremony highlighted by hymns composed by San Bartolomeo himself.

The Roman style exterior of the church was restored in 1910. There is a Roman style campanile and in the front, from a later period, we see a liturgical fountain in the shape of a Gothic Temple; it is still used in special ceremonies on 6 January - Epifania. Towering engraved cedar doors make a majestic and dramatic entrance to the church. Above these doors, there is a Byzantine mosaic from the XI century.

The inside is very different from the Byzantine style of the vestibule with 18th century frescoes decorating the walls. The main altar was designed by Bernini in 1665. An icon known as the Icon of the Mother of God rests on the main altar. It was stolen from the church in 1140 by Tolomeo II, the count of Tuscolo, and returned to it in 1230 by Pope Gregory XI. On one side of the sanctuary is the Farnesian Chapel. Originally dedicated to Saints Adriano and Natalia, it was later enlarged, and dedicated to San Nilo and San Bartolomeo. The walls are decorated with frescoes depicting the life and miracles of the saints.

We move on and drive into Frascati. Martin and I are hot and tired and so we pass on a short walking tour of the town to go to a bar for an espresso and some water. Fortified with a nocciola gelato for him and a limone sorbetto for me, we rejoin the group for a quick drive through the little town of Monte Porzio Catone. It is amazing to watch the large van we have rented safely negotiate the narrow winding streets.

Back at the villa we relax until dinner which is served in the great salotto. Broth with tortellini is followed by delicious rosemary roasted chicken, fried potatoes, peperone in balsamico and an incredible dish that seems to be stacks of zucchini and eggplant. I must see if I can get the recipe. We finish with two crostadas - one is lemon cream and the other cherry. A fabulous meal highlighted by the local Frascati wine and tales of the history of the Casale. Clo, the owner, tells us that in 2,000 years only 4 families including hers have owned this casale.

7 October 2004 Giovedi

By 8:30 we are all assembled at the long table for breakfast. There are several different kinds of cereal, yogurt, toasted breads, croissants, and some of the crostada from last night. There is regular coffee - not espresso - and Clo has thoughtfully provided rice milk for me. We eat an alarming amount, the phrase to carb up comes to mind.

Shortly after each and every one of us has declared we can't eat another bite, we pile into the van and car and go off to Frascati and Monte Porzio Catone. In Frascati, Clo buys the tickets that will admit us to the villa we are going to visit. Then we stop off to see the church and wander a bit through some of the streets.

The Church of Sant Antonio has a main altar made dramatic by the generous use of red fabrics and gold, all lit by dozens of chandeliers. We have enough time to inspect two glass caskets bearing the plaster images and a bony relic or two of San Antonio and a female saint. Then we must hurry back to the cars because it is time to go see our first villa. These are the local princely villas, built in the late 16 and 17th centuries. Only one, the Villa Aldobrandini is still owned by the original family. The other villas have been converted into hotels or government buildings.

The first villa is one that is now a hotel. We are not permitted to go into the hotel, but it probably does not matter since the inside has been redone recently and no longer looks like a Roman Villa. We are here to see the gardens, which have remained the same over the centuries. Olive trees are the main plantings in these gardens. It is extremely warm, and Martin, Jeanne and I opt to sit quietly in the shade and watch lizards run about in the sun, while our companions explore the gardens. We've seen plenty of olive trees in our day, and I am unhappy about the way it is becoming warmer and more humid by the minute.

Our second villa of the day is the Villa Graziola. This is another villa we cannot enter, but we can walk through the grounds, which are magnificent. As we walk up the drive, we pass one huge tree after another, each with a dramatically gnarled trunk. At the top of the long drive we find ourselves on a large terrace with a dramatic vista of the countryside. We are told that on a clear day you can see all the way to Rome. We continue up another slope, and walk around to the back of the villa.

Facing the back of the house, is an enormous nymphaeneum surrounded by and filled with figures from mythology. We see Pan playing his pipes, Atlas holding the world on his shoulders and nymphs, satyrs and other mythological figures. Even drained of all water, it is spectacular. Beyond this, a gate leads to a shady garden filled with giant trees. Almost all of them have large portions of their trunks split open by age, weight, weather or maybe insects, and yet they appear to be thriving. They look quite strange but fascinate all of us because of their apparent good health despite the damaged trunks. A lot of film is used up photographing these trees.

A bridal couple appears from the depths of the garden. There are no attendants and about six photographers which makes me think it is a photo shoot. While we explore the garden the couple is posing some more, first by the nymphaeneum, and later in the front of the villa. In the garden we find an area flowerless hydrangea and clematis bushes have had blue and pink paper flowers attached to make them pretty for the photographs.

We walk slowly back to the car park, admiring the views. It will take too long to return to the Casale so we go to a bar in Frascati for lunch. While I am in line for the bathroom, Martin gets us two Aperol spritzes, sheer heaven on a heavy humid day! I go to choose our sandwiches; ham and cheese for Martin at his request, and prosciutto and spinach for me since I cannot eat the cheese. There is a certain amount of serving confusion but sooner or later everyone winds up with the right sandwich, the right drink and a check to give to Clo who is treating us.

The Villa Mondragone has sculpted dragons all over it. Since our son's lighting design business is called Drago Illumination, I go into a frenzy of picture taking. For a while i looks as though we will not be allowed in to see this villa either, because there is a conference going on, but Clo persuades them that we can be very quiet so we are allowed inside.

There are more dragons to photograph, a small frescoed chapel with magnificent inlays of breathtakingly vivid colored marble, and a large plain room, which seems even plainer by comparison to the chapel we have just seen. The room, it turns out, is not without significance because it is here, in the 16th century that Pope Gregory developed the Gregorian calendar.

We pass through another beautifully frescoed room, and then step outside onto a terrace. We are treated to another spectacular view, which looks out over the hills. In one area there is a small raised gazebo. We sit in it to enjoy the many beautiful and unusual flowers and plants that surround us. In the far corner of the terrace, there's small chapel with a strong Byzantine accent.

Up here it is lovely and breezy and we hate to leave, but there is more to see. We exit by way of a formal garden, reminiscent of Versaille and find yet another building adorned with dragons, as well as the Imperial Roman Eagle. Tables are set up out here; they are covered with white cloths and piled with plates of cookies and sweets, cups and saucers, and large coffee urns. We would love to stay for tea, but no one invites us. Sigh!

As we are leaving, one of the guards or perhaps guides calls us. We stop and he brings us an armful of books from recent exhibition of painting that had been held at Mondragone. The books are written all in Italian which is not a problem for me, but even if it were, the many beautifully colored plates and old maps would make it a treasure worth keeping.

We have one more house to visit, but alas this one is also hosting a conference, and no amount of persuasion or coaxing can get us past the entry way of Il Falcone. The outside of this villa is almost Palladian in feel, and the cream on white decoration on the facade makes it look almost like a wedding cake. The stucco work is beautifully detailed, which is good because that is all we are going to see. There are also gardens to explore here, and, had we been allowed inside, some wonderful frescoes on the upper floors.

Part of our group wants to go back to Monte Porzio Catone to shop, but Paola, Clo, Martin and I stop to buy some things for dinner. We get a whole fresh bufalo mozzarella in one shop. Clo also buys an ice cream cake and some special butter cookies for tonight's dessert. The traffic is so heavy, Paola has to drive a long way around just to make the loop to go into town. It takes a long time to get back to the casale as we travel by inches because of all the cars.

We arrive just in time to catch the end of a splendid sunset; Andrew has brought the others back in the van, and at 7:30 we are all downstairs again for dinner. George, who is Clo's son, has printed out the text of the second debate and we start reading it passing the sheets around our circle until dinner is served.

We start with spaghetti with a simple pomodoro sauce; it is excellent and having had to pass on the tortellini last night, I feel free to have seconds of this. Then we have cold roast veal with a filling of prosciutto and spinach, mixed wild mushroom, and fennel baked with Parmigiano. There is water and both red and white wine, and finally the ice cream cake and cookies. George eats with us, leaving briefly to drive his mother to a party. When we are replete after eating almost every crumb from every platter of this delicious repast, we sit around the salotto grande and continue reading the transcript of the debate passing the pages in an ever widening circle.

Among things we have learned today is it can take months and even years to redo the finish on the outside of the house. First the walls must be sand blasted and scraped, and then washed and restucccoed. Only when it is dry - a process which takes time and cooperative weather - only then can it be freshly painted.

The casale no longer owns enough vineyards to pay for its existence which is why we and other guests are able to enjoy all this hospitality. As we have seen in the short time since our stay began, there is a lot of very hard work to be done, and Clo, with a small amount, of help manages to keep the place tidy and immaculate as well as serving us delicious meals. We are very lucky.

Tomorrow we take an early train into Rome for a visit to the Vatican Museum and Saint Peter's Basilica so we all head off to bed.

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