Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Nearby Hill Towns: Carraia, c. del Lago, Panicale, Paciano, Citta Della Pieve

02/26, Sunday
What a glorious way to start the day! Sergio had told us about a bakery in Carraia near Sanfatucchio, and what a bakery. We just sat there and got complete sugar highs and enjoyed the shop that held hundreds of delectable pastries. The decor seemed more French than Italian, and elegant.

Right next door is where Michele works at the Fioroni cashmere outlet. She gave us a very interesting tour, and we could appreciate how labor intensive their product is when viewing the various processes. Their cashmere comes from Mongolia, it is colored and spun into thread in Urbino, Italy; then created into parts (sleeves, back, front, etc) by computer-aided machines at their shop; washed at least three times to soften and shrink; pieced together by hand; details (buttons and backing) by hand; machine pressed.

The third time is a charm! When we returned to Castiglione del Lago this 3rd time, the palace and castle were open. We think this is our favorite spot in this area with a quaint town, beautiful lake and a castle. The castle was really walking the ramparts and a long enclosed rampart took you from the palace to the walls of the castle. The views of the lake were wonderful.

Taking Michele's suggestion we visited three more hill towns, Panicale, Paciano and Citta Della Pieve. We sat outside soaking up the sun in Panicale, having a bite of lunch and reading free books. There is only one local-yokel also enjoying the sun was in the square, and a bicycler relaxing after pedaling up the hill. Biking seems to be popular and taken seriously here. We see teams drafting along the roads.

Of course each town has a wonderful church and I have been partaking in holy water in each one. Not many Masses, but lots of holy water!

Wandered the roads by car around our town before heading back to our apartment. A bit easier by car! The beautiful yellow, red and browns of the countryside are almost mesmerizing; small villages and homes are grouped on the back roads.

On the Road Again: Pienza and Montisi

02/25, Saturday
On the road, again, with two destinations: Pienza and Montisi. Both are within an hour drive and near each other.

Beautiful ride to Pienza. It is the 550th anniversary of the Cathedral of Pienza. In 1458 Pope Pius II returned to his hometown and decided to transform the poor native village into a modern, ideal Renaissance city starting with demolishing the old Romanesque church and building the luminous cathedral and the exquisite city. And we got to experience it all including a palace tour and lunch overlooking the entire Val d' Orcia ! The palace was the summer residence of the Pope and quite opulent with a decorated courtyard, formal gardens and fascinating halls and rooms. The weapon room was a bit stern !

Then a very winding road took us up to Montisi where my cousin had rented a home for a year. Pretty buttoned up but enjoyed roaming the side streets and the wonderful views. I can see why he loved it here. This whole area is known as the Val d' Orcia and seems to have the perfect landscape with hills,ravines and cypress trees. Very serene like our area around Sanfatuccio.


02/24, Friday
Have we mentioned that the weather improved? It has been glorious for the last week! Sunny and temps in the 60s and snow has melted except for on the mountains and some large drifts. Sergio promises us this is the way it normally is this time of year, but February is commonly a rainy month.

Today we rented a Renault Clio from Sergio for three days to drive to towns we would have difficulty reaching by train or bus. Sergio's suggestion is Assisi. His recommendations have been right on so far and off we go.

Sandy names our car Grey Goose (guess what color she is), and I named our GPS Sergio (for obvious reasons). Sandy is in the driver's seat as we pass through beautiful hills on winding roads. We pass through Montepulciano on the way.

Assisi sits atop a high hill as do most of the Hill Towns (Is that why ther're called hill towns?). Rather than start at the Basilica which is at the bottom and outside the city walls, we make our first stop at San Rufino church near the top of the hill. Both St. Francis (and St. Clare, who was a contemporary of St Francis and adhered to his belief in simplicity and care for all things) were baptized here.

After the 1997 earthquake, San Rufino church needed to be inspected and graves and Roman ruins were found along with a cistern that was used for the towns emergency water supply. They have made seeing these sites accessible, which is interesting. Shows some very exact engineering. This church also had an exhibit of frescoes showing Pope John Paul II that were very well done.

The Basilica is a true work of art. It has three main parts, the upper Basilica, the lower Basilica and St. Francis's tomb. Frescos and beautiful paintings everywhere. The 1997 didn't damage the tomb area or the lower Basilica because they have nine feet wide walls but the upper part, because of windows and frescoes has finally been completely restored. Over 300,000 pieces of stained glass and frescoes of St. Francis's life had to be pieced together. His entire life is depicted in huge frescoes around the upper Basilica and good old Rick Steves did an excellent job at describing them . Two monks and two art scholars were killed while in the Basilica during an after shock examining the damage.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Return to Orvieto

02/22, Wednesday
Nina returned to Civita to prep breakfast for us, and offered to drive us back to Orvieto where she lives with her family, which we did, right to the Duomo (near her home). That saved us walking and busing, a total of at least 1-1/2 hours.

This is Ash Wednesday, so we hoped to attend a service at the Duomo. Not to be, but we revisited the nave and San Brizio Chapel and of course to stare at the Pieta once again.

Across the piazza, there is an interesting Etruscan Archeological Museum where we not only wandered among ancient pottery and coins (7-6 century BC), but took time to read a couple of articles/books about Etruscan history. Very fascinating information about which we know little since their language has been lost along with any written information. Some details can be gleaned from studying articles found in burial sites. They filled graves with daily used items and showed their family status and quality of life. Women had equal standing in society, which really changed when the Romans took over.

Lunch at another enoteca on the piazza. Sandy chose eggless noodles with veggies. Dick saw an item on the menu he had to have...piccione (pigeon) because the Etruscans survived on this morsel while besieged by the Romans. Not much meat on those bones, and they disguised the taste with a lot of sauce.

We strolled down the Corso, took the funicular down, and trained home to Chiusi. We were met by Massimo because Sergio has a bad case of flu which kept him home from work. With limited Italian on our part, and limited American for Massimo, the three of us had a limited conversation about our time in Orvieto and about American music (Massimo is a big fan).

Next, Onto Citiva di Bagnoregio

02/21, Tuesday, Dick's 71st Birthday
Sandy treats me to breakfast in bed...actually delivered from the B&B...coffee, cornflakes, croissant, and boxed juice. Still, a nice way to start my 71st year! Oh, and two dark chocolate Lindt candy bars from Sandy. Yum!

With only a few hours before busing to Civita, we embark on a stroll along the ramparts at the west end of Orvieto. It provides excellent views to the valley and hills beyond. The rolling hills of the countryside are beautiful. It's fun to imagine life here centuries ago.
Dick has a new best friend. He saw some ceramic liquor mugs that he liked, so since it was his birthday in the shop we went. The very nice ceramic artist just had his birthday so a bond was formed and we now have four cute little mugs.

The blue bus takes about an hour, traveling only 15 km, hairpin turns and country roads. Arriving in new Civita, we discovered the bus service to reach the bridge to Civita, the old town, is not operating, leaving us a walk of about 1.5km. The bridge to Civita crosses a valley, the final 500km of which is a 40 degree climb. The view of this "dead city" before walking the bridge is unbelievable. What an adventure ! This is the town that Rick Steves states is his favorite hill town. What a step into the past.

Civita is a curiosity and a history lesson, it is known as "The Dead City". Many of the building have crumbled off the edge of the pinnacle due to erosion. Most of the population left the city for new Civita. Today there are only 10-14 residents, and lots of stray cats. Looking through windows on some buildings reveal only the valley below. Interestingly, while many buildings are empty, there is reconstruction in progress. This is definitely the ultimate get away.

Our B&B is easy to find, right on the square catty-corner from the church. Franco and Nina are there to greet us with a half-liter of red wine, and stories about the town and Rick Steves. Franco met him 20+ years ago when Rick was backpacking through Italy, before he became a travel guru. Franco has spent over 20 years promoting Civita which has payed off. It is a popular tourist destination, and has been used as the backdrop for two recent movies, but tonight I think we are the only visitors.

In less than an hour, we take RS's self tour, including the sun setting over the valley which is breathtaking. The town is about 1/4-mile long by 1/8-mile wide, and shrinking.

Nima prepares and serves our dinner at the B&B. BIG surprise for me is a birthday "cake", a single candle in a big piece of tiramisu, and singing by Sandy and Gina. What a great way to bring in #71!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


02/20, Monday
Our three-day adventure this week is to the nearby hill towns of Orvieto followed by Citiva di Bagnoregio. We arrive in Orvieto by train at 9:00AM, take the funicular to the old town high on a tuff (tufo) of stone (not actually tough, but very porous hardened volcanic lava, ash).

There is a little rain as we walk up the Corso to our B&B, Valentina's Rooms, recommended by Rick Steves. They are very friendly and we have a cute, comfortable room. Cookies out in the hall so Dick is happy.

The Piazza di Duomo is our first stop, wandering along cobble streets with homes and buildings constructed from tuff. Biglietti (tickets) are needed for entry into various sites including the Duomo and other museums. The Museo di Emilio Greco, our favorite new sculptor and artist, attracts us immediately. He is contemporary (died in 1995), and his art work concentrates on nudes in twisting positions. With just a few fluid pencil strokes, he can create evocative impressions. Most of the work is in bronze and left rather rough, which makes it intriguing.

The Duomo is next. The upper front facade is colorful ceramics, the lower four columns are bas relief history from the Bible: creation, New Testament, Old Testament, Jesus' life. This is a very impressive sight and very beautiful. We weren't expecting anything like this and the whole piazza is delightful.

The nave gives one the impression of being much larger and longer due to the narrowing at the altar end. The interior and exterior walls are made from tuff, horizontal stripes of grey and white. This church is really more impressive than St. Peter's, except for the size.

Dick was fascinated with San Brizio's Chapel, the walls painted by Luca Signorelli with scenes depicting The Sermon of the AntiChrist, the Resurrection of the Bodies, the Last Judgement: the Damned of Hell and the Elect of Heaven. All done with a lot of cynicism.

Near the altar is an unusual marble Pieta with four people, the two Marys, Jesus, and the man who has removed Christ from the cross, looking on with curiosity, but not sorrow. He holds the spikes, a pliers, a hammer, and the ladder. What was amazing is you could walk right up to it, not like the bullet proof glass at St. Peter's. It is a superb piece done from a single piece of marble by Ippolito Scalza in 1549, inspired by Michelangelo. Sandy did a lot of standing and staring at this sculpture.

The very ornate organ has 5000 pipes, but was quiet while we were there.

The windows were a mix of stained glass and lower half of alabaster, which made the sun shine in very softly.

Lunched at an Enotega (Greek for wine...Eno,...shelves...tega) across the Duomo. We had a glass of Orvieto Classico, asparagus soup, and a warm pork sandwich, which we shared and it hit the spot, knowing we would have a big dinner later.

We then roamed around two museums that housed many statues, paintings and frescos that were once in the church. Roamed is a good word since there was no one in sight except a couple workers carrying buckets of chipped cement.

Next, Underground Orvieto...the town is honeycombed with subterranean cellars ...some originating from Medieval times and before.These were all built by the Etruscans and are like a huge maze. Originally they were used as places to grind olives into oil (due to lack of surface land and constant temperature of 57F) It is known that olive oil and wine were being produced by the 5th century BC.

Because the tuff stone is porous, it is easy to carve out into caves. It also allows water to seep through to form underground lakes. The Etruscans dug wells, 200 meters deep, for water supply. This helped them survive long sieges with the Romans. How they did this seems unfathomable. The guide said the Etruscans were very inventive and that is an under statement.

These same cellars were used to house pigeons by cutting small indentations for roosting. These homing pigeons were not used for sending messages, but for food during Roman sieges. Pigeon is still on the menu here.

During WWII these caves were adapted to become bomb shelters. Now, residents who own homes above them use them for their private wine cellars.

Now it's raining pretty steadily. After drying out, we head to Valentina's recommended trattoria, Moro Arrone, only a block away, for more homemade pasta and local 14% white wine. Dick ordered another Rick Steves recommendation called nidi. This consists of folds of fresh pasta with gooey warm pecorino cheese. Wow ! We split this along with ravioli with truffles. I am addicted to truffles. A very good creme brule ended the feast.

A Weekend to Relax and Recover and Prepare for What's Next

02/18, Saturday
9:00am came too soon after two days of Rome walking. Housework today. Sandy washed two loads of clothes, I swept the floor and washed dishes having made the bed with fresh linen last night. We get fresh linen and towels weekly and have use of a washing machine right next door.

At 12noon, we walked into Sanfatucchio to the alimentary (grocery, not the ailment store) to pick up a few items for tonight's dinner of Drunken Spaghetti. We hope to take a bus from here to some other hill towns, so we reviewed the bus schedule posted in town. It looks encouraging, but limited. The trattoria in town is closed on Saturday, but we happened on a ristorante pizzeria on the highway running on the edge of town where we split a spaghetti of fresh fruitti del mare. Delizoso e poco costoso! (Delicious and not expensive.) Another nice new find.

It's a good 1-1/2 miles walk home. The weather has improved, temp in the 50s, snow almost melted. At home, we start researching other hill towns to visit in the next 3 weeks. Orvieto, Cortona (Under the Tuscan Sun) and Assisi
are on our preliminary list. Using the iPad, we listened to "No, No, Don't Tell Me!" and WDCB (jazz radio from Glen Ellyn College of DuPage).

Now we're preparing Drunken Spaghetti and listening to "Prarie Home Companion" using the TuneIn Radio app. How great the Internet is and our IPad and Jam Box.

Mom called Sue on Skype, catching her in the car with Maddie coming back from Zach's last hockey game of the season. We tried to reach Molly and Matt, but missed them.

02/19, Sunday
We hoped to catch a bus into C. del Lago today, but they don't seem to run on Sunday. Anyway, we got in some fresh air and exercise, walking into town and back. the trattoria is aperto (open) for Sunday lunch, but they require reservations. We did have a big lunch at the same trattoria as yesterday, further down the hill...gnocchi and ravioli...can it be any more Italian than that? Oh, some local white wine, too.

We worked a long time planning our next two days on Ippy. Using Rick Steves' book, we will train to Orvieto and bus to Civitá del Bagnoregio. Both are less than an hour away (half way to Rome) and have quite a good history.

Tonight's entertainment is the first part of "Mildred Pierce", a series with Kate Winslow, that I watched on the plane from SG. It's about a family during the depression in Glendale, CA. You might like it, too. Ain't the Internet super?

Roma Holiday, Part II

02/17, Friday
It's a warm and sunny day in Rome. Aren't we lucky ?

Abd El Kalik Yhia, our Egyptian host, serves a simple breakfast in his kitchen. He is a retired artist (his eyes have failed him), but he still does some bas reliefs. Kalik won an international competition with 50 other artists to design a set of lire coins for the Italian republic of San Marino. His theme for the coins is Terre Mari Ciel (Earth Sea Sky).

Our first destination is St Peter's Basilica. But, at the Metro, we board the wrong train, getting off at Coleseo, the Coliseum, stop. Why not explore ancient Rome here, including the Forum and the Palatine Hill.

It is such a vast area, Palatine, but we invest a couple of very interesting hours using an audio guide. I listened to the audio twice to be sure I heard correctly: there is positive proof that humans lived here 100,000 years ago.

Its really quite a sensation walking through ruins and many very recognizable sites...Temple of Jupiter, house of the Vestal Virgins, Gate of Titus...places we recall from our visit in 1992. This time it is more understandable and fascinating. Just the utter vastness is mind boggling.

The Forum was really the center of life, including all political gatherings. There are more tourists in this area than we have seen in quite a while. Don't think we would like to be here in the summer. There were many well done illustrations in the Coliseum, which helped our understanding. So our metro mistake turned into a great find.

Then it was on to St. Peter's. Nothing could beat our first arrival here many years ago. We had been given tickets for the underground tour of the Basilica and at the end of the tour we exited a small door right at the base of the altar with the sun coming through the starburst window. Quite inspiring.

This time we encountered a long line outside in the piazza due to the addition of security scanners, but it did move quickly. It did seem sad that it was like an airport with all the security. Plus we didn't realize they were preparing for tomorrow's induction of 22 cardinals into the elite group (the Consistory) that picks the next Pope. It certainly is the most opulent and impressive church in the world.

Over 70,000 people can be inside and the atrium is larger than most churches. Just one marvelous sculpture, mosaic or niche after another. Lots of people but everyone was respectful. A beautiful choir was practicing, which added to the over all feeling. Seeing the Pieta, which Michaelangio crafted when he was only 24, is spectacular even if it is now behind bullet proof glass. What is happening to us ?

A walk to the Metro, the train back to Chiusi, a ride from Sergio back home, and our adventure in Rome was over. Don't believe it will be our last !

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Roma Holiday Part I

02/16, Thursday
Our train to Rome departs at 11:00, not at 9:00 as we thought. That means we will have 2 hours less of getting our fill of art and history. Little did we know at that time that we would appreciate less time there! We didn't get on the siesta plan and went at such an exhausting pace another couple hours would have probably killed us. We will just have to go back ! We really did lots, had great sunny weather and of course enjoyed the wonderful, vibrant city.

Trenitalia provides good service. We arrived on time at 1:00pm at Termini. Thankfully, Sandy checked on our return because we didn't understand the schedule, and found we needed extra payment and reservations for the 4:36pm IC train (compartments). That could have caused us to be late in Chuisi on Friday evening.

Our B&B is only 15 minutes walk from Termini, for which I had done a Map app. It would have been tough to find otherwise. Our host, Talik, had not received notification from Booking.com, but he had a room available. We left our backpacks and started off immediately for the Borghese Galleria. Sergio had suggested this as one of his best places. We had not been there in our two previous Rome visits, so it seemed a good place to start. And, we were not disappointed. One usually needs a reservation days ahead but again being the low season we got right in and in many rooms we were the only two people.

Each visit is limited to two hours, and must be scheduled ahead of time which during peak season keeps visitors moving along. This is when we began to realize that our older feet and legs could only handle limited standing and walking, especially on the hard marble.

Borghese was a wealthy art collector in the 16th century. He had to build a large villa to contain all of his collection of sculpture, many of which were produced by Bernini. A large villa requires a large estate which today consists of 25 acres of park land. It's spectacular as is the art collection! Unfortunately, photos are not permitted so we can't show you any of the pieces. It is even more difficult to describe them.

Many of them equalled or surpassed Michaelangelo's Pieta at St Peter's Basilica. Each magnificent room held one main piece and then many more surrounding the room. The reclining naked Pauline Bonaparte looked like she could just stand up and walk away. Some of the marble pieces had a wax sheen on them.

Walking up to Bernini's David was quite something. The detail is spectacular.

A very large Apollo chasing Daphne took two years just to repair and clean. The fable is Daphne implores her father to save her from Apollo and she slowly turns into an olive tree. The statue showed the start of roots on the toes of her feet and bark on her body. How the slim leaves are chiseled is amazing.

A painting of the Last Supper done by Bassano in 1600 was really superb. It is very vibrant and action filled rather than formal. It showed the emotions of the apostles right after Jesus says someone would be a traitor. Peter is holding a knife. Judas is hiding a bag of gold under the table and wine is spilling on the table portending Jesus' death. Jesus' favorite John, pictured as quite young, is leaning on the table just in front of Jesus, looking down at the table in a pensive mood. Very touching.

After two hours, we were overloaded and foot weary. It's the kind of exhibit you need to visit numerous times.

Walking through the park, we headed toward the Spanish Steps asking directions of passersby. We emerged at Flaminio Piazza which, unknown to us, is across the street from the Piazza del Popolo. What good luck! This is Carnivale season during which Italians celebrate the coming of spring. Rome produces a major show in this Piazza, and it just began as we walked into the square.

This year's production features horses, entitled "Arrivano i Nostri - lo Spettacolo". Sounds a little boring, but not this show. There are numerous vignettes, some fancy horseback riding, prancing horses, dramatic horses, marching horses; all performed to recorded music, with actors and dancers interplaying with the horses, and projected images on the wall and gate. Even had a segment done to "Over the Rainbow" (two versions: Judy Garland and James Taylor) with Dorothy and the Straw man and a talented "work horse".

We continued to enjoy the show while sitting at an outdoor restaurant, Angelo, right on the Piazza del Popolo, watching images projected on screens with music. Really had good timing on all that.

The main street, Del Corso, was decorated with red, white and green (Italy's flag) draped small, lights from the Piazza all the way to the Vittorrio Emanuel, over a mile. We walked as far as the Trevi Fountain about 3/4s. Wow, they sure knew how to build fountains! I had a big gelato there and toasted my friend Sherri since we did Rome through the tastes of gelato years ago. Also threw in a coin, which means you will return. Heck, I'm only 72 !

Then, on to the Spanish Steps, which I climbed while Dick figured out how to get home. He is worn out and very quiet. We both need to rest feet and body. Take the Metro home and asleep in minutes. The end of a very good day.