Visit to Italy
James C. Mancuso
This essay gives my account of a visit to three regions of Italy -- Tuscany, Umbria, and Calabria. Many hyperlinks have been built into the text. By clicking on the links a reader may move to a more extensive account of the event or place mentioned in the text.
Misdirected Pre-trip Anticipations
On the nights preceding our leaving our homes in Albany, New York, to travel to Italy, I frequently awoke and began to think of the things that could go wrong with our trip. I was to travel with a friend, Bill, who had traveled in Italy while in the U. S. Navy in the early part of the 1950s, during which time he had visited Naples, La Spezia, and Genoa. While in La Spezia he did penetrate Tuscany to make a brief visit to Firenze. Otherwise, this would be his first extensive trip through Italy.
We had planned the trip together, as much as possible; but Bill did rely on my greater familiarity with travel in Italy. I had wanted to be sure that my advice would result in our making maximum advantage of our opportunity to spend 16 days in Italy
During those wakeful pre-trip hours, I thought of many things that could go wrong. I had in my possession a series of vouchers and receipts for deposits on various services - a voucher for the auto we were to pick up at Leonardo da Vinci airport when we arrived in Italy, a deposit on our hotel in Siena, a voucher for our hotel and cooking school in Todi, my airline tickets for my side trip to Calabria, and a voucher for the auto I planned to rent when I would arrive at the Lamezia Terme in Calabria. I would worry that we could run into a situation in which one of the documents would not be honored.
A car would not be available when we wanted to have it, there would be confusion about our dates for the hotels, - etc., etc.
After leaving Albany, and each phase
of the trip unfolded, we found not only that any anticipation of problems
had been unfounded, but also that I might better have lulled myself to
sleep by blissfully anticipating only the most positive outcomes of each
action. Good fortune continually accompanied our every turn. We would find
a parking spot when we needed one. We generally followed the correct roads,
despite constant trepidation that we had made a wrong turn . We regularly
arrived at museums, etc., just at the times when our schedules fitted to
those of the places we were visiting.. We hit fine solutions for our dining
pleasures, and did not once select a restaurant that disappointed out expectations.
Leaving Albany, Arriving at Rome's Aeroporto Leonardo da Vinci, and on to Siena
Our experiences with the flight from Albany to Rome, via New York City's Kennedy Airport left me with the conviction that there is a great advantage in being able fly to Europe by availing one's self of a single airline. The Albany airport recently has undergone a major renovation; and having gained the status of an international airport, the improved facilities have served to attract new services. As a result, Delta Airlines, which operates flights from Kennedy Airport to Rome's Leonardo da Vinci Aeroporto, now also operates flights from Albany to Kennedy. A traveler can feel much more comfortable when he/she can anticipate that his/her baggage will be handled by one airline's baggage handlers, that the connecting airlines have a greater stake in assuring that connecting flights are on schedule, that tickets are being handled by the employees of one airline, etc. Our positive expectations were affirmed. Delta Airlines provided us with the most comfortable and efficient services that one can expect when taking advantage of modern, relatively inexpensive, fast air travel.
When we arrived at Leonardo da Vinci Aeroporto we followed the appropriate signs directing us through the labyrinth of corridors, stairs, elevators, and waiting rooms to the auto rental area where we would present our voucher and complete contracts, etc. that would give us access to the auto which we would use during our trip. Aside from the possibility that we would encounter some kind of difficulty in negotiating the auto rental, we knew that we would present the rental agency with a problem. When we had first negotiated for the auto, we had expected that we would want to use the auto for 16 days. Our reservation arrangements stated that we would use the auto for that length of time. Marshaling my best Italian [which was unnecessary, since the agent for the rental firm spoke English far better than I speak Italian] I explained that we would want to alter the terms of the reservation so that we could return the auto in 11 days. With an engaging smile, the agent simply announced, "Non problema," and cheerily revised our contract.
Though pushing toward 24 hours since having left our beds, we stacked our luggage into our rented auto and made our way to the superstrada that would take us toward Siena.
As soon as we had successfully exited from the outer ring of superhighway circling Rome - Il Grande Raccordo Anulare - on to Italy's A1 superstrada, we stopped at one of the highway's service areas. There we engaged in the pleasant task of choosing a quick luncheon item from the large selection of items available at the tavola calda, Italy's ancient predecessor to the uniflavor selections that are available in what are known as "fast food" emporia. Even the totally uninitiated cannot go wrong by choosing a sandwich made up of a crusty roll, filled with prosciutto and one of the many pungent cheeses which are available in Italy.
Bill expressed the same reaction which I had when I first explored the racks of merchandise and food items which were available for sale at the rest stop. Surrounded by mounds of cheese of countless variety, salami, prosciutti, soprassata, biscotti, a broad selection of chocolates and other dolce, etc. - all displayed to appeal to the potential buyer - one wonders if this can be a standard service area. We can only conclude that the Italian celebration of gustatory pleasures invades even the rest areas of their superhighways. Indeed, while on one trip Susan (my wife) and I stopped at a service area north of Milan. There we were awed at the size of huge mounds of cheeses and cured meats. Susan and I surmised that travelers returning north, out of Italy, would stop there to purchase a stock of these delectables to take back to their homes.
After enjoying our quick luncheon and our tour of the displays of food, Bill began his first stint of driving in Italy. He would need to become accustomed to the experience of getting into the passing lane of the highway, attempting to pass a slower moving vehicle, and then hearing the blare of the horn of another auto pressing down on the tail of our auto at the rate of 80 or 90 miles an hour. Italian drivers who have purchased expensive, fast-moving autos will not submit themselves to the degradation of being slowed by a Fiat Punto traveling at the rate of 70 miles an hour!
As we traveled the highway from the superstrada to Siena, we had our first glimpse of a problem that is plaguing many of the smaller cities of Italy. One or two gaudily-dressed black women occupied posts at each of the many emergency turn-offs located along the highway. A long newspaper article, which we later scanned while we took coffee in a bar in Perugia, confirmed our immediate hypothesis. These women were plying the sex trade. As we also surmised, many of these women are illegal immigrants from African countries who serve under purveyors who transport them to their posts and offer the usual protections and services offered by procurers. The ubiquity of these small-city sex merchants has been multiplied because many of Italy's larger cities, responding to the spread of sexually transmitted disease, have initiated strong anti-prostitution measures; including the arrest and fining of patrons. If nothing else, the presence of these roadside women attests to the ingenuity which people can employ to solve problems!
We found our way north on the superstrada,
northwest to Siena on the connecting autostrada, and through the labyrinth
of streets skirting Siena's northern perimeter to our hotel. Driving through
sections of Siena definitively convinces a visitor that Siena was built
as a hilltop city long before anyone conceived of automobiles. The experience
makes it clear that one can comfortably drive through Italian cities only
after becoming somewhat acquainted with the irregular patterns of streets
The first evening in Italy. Having registered at our hotel in midafternoon, we made some attempt to deal with the problems of "jet lag." Everyone has his/her choice solution to this troublesome accompaniment to rapid air travel. I find that I can make a reasonable adjustment, after arriving in Italy some 28-30 hours after having left my bed at home, by taking a long nap - about 2 plus hours.
After our nap, we boarded the bus at a stop located a short distance from our hotel, and rode into the center of historic Siena. We arrived there in the late afternoon and found the passegiata in progress. Siena's passegiata offers a stranger a comprehensive example of this ancient Italian practice. Restrictions limit automobile traffic in the historic center of Siena, so that during the hours from about 4:00 P. M. and 8:00 P. M. pedestrians swarm through the streets and the shops that line those streets. These are the hours when the residents of the area and the throngs of tourists socialize in the streets and in the bars (the Italian term for an all-purpose coffee shop/snack bar/ice cream parlor/wine and spirits social center) , shop in the hundreds of small businesses, stroll with one's parents or lover or business associate or chums and buddies. Bill expressed his unanticipated pleasure at finding that a city of ancient streets and architecture would fill with lively crowds.
We made our way though the streets, heading toward one of the most dramatic spaces ever created by human activity - Siena's Piazza del Campo. One experiences the special drama of the piazza by its sudden, almost unexpected appearance at the end of one of the narrow streets that connects The Campo to an encircling corso. Once in the piazza a visitor can ruminate through the many associations evoked by the ambiance - the fabled, annual, historic horse race which takes place on The Campo; the centuries of historic events that have soaked into the bricks and chambers of The Palazzo Pubblico which majestically dominates the Rinascimento architecture surrounding the piazza, the vivace of Italian life that is aptly embodied in the actions of the small children who excitedly chase the pigeons, the special light of the Italian sun that surrounds the people sipping cappucini at the outdoor tables , and so on.
After strolling around The Campo, we walked to the imposing Fortezza Medicea., the fortress built during the 16th Century Fiorentine domination of Siena. The Fortezza now houses and serves as the venue of a large variety of public functions. We knew that in The Fortezza we would have the opportunity to sample some of the 800 varieties of Italian wines featured at the Enoteca Italiana. Comfortably seated on one of the pleasing outdoor terraces, we began our "wine tour" of Tuscany and Umbria by sampling four of Tuscany's exquisite wines.
Our consultations with the employees of The Enoteca led us to one of Siena's many fine restaurants. There we sampled two of the classic Sienese dishes. Bill ordered the ribollita, an imaginative dish which has crumbled dried bread as one of its main ingredients. This hearty stew builds on the flavors that emerge when the dried bread is added to the bean and cabbage base to thicken the mixture. I chose another traditional dish that is made by braising a mixture of pork, chicken and rabbit meats in a zesty sauce. Our expectations for fully enjoying our first pranzo in Italy were fully confirmed. The highlight of the meal, however, came through the success of my having prompted our taking of a risk. In my recounting of my trips to Italy, I often made the claim that one often can order the restaurant's house wine, which frequently costs 2 to 3 dollars per liter, to enjoy a wine that matches the quality of the wine one will buy for 10-15 dollar per bottle in our home area of eastern New York. To demonstrate the validity of that claim, we ordered our restaurant's house wine - a chianti. If the wine we drank that evening were available in our home area for the price that we paid for our liter, we would invest in the storage equipment and we would buy every drop we could find!!! I will refrain from making a feeble attempt to convey the experience of drinking that wine with our exceptionally fine meal.
When we later checked the list of recommended restaurants that Bill had compiled before we had departed, we found that we had managed inadvertently to find our way to one of the restaurants on his list. Our benevolent fates had guided us well.
The fabulous cultural achievements to be visited in Siena. I had been motivated to make this trip to Italy at this time by having been informed of a professional conference which was held in Siena during the period September 1-5, 1998. The VIth International Conference on Constructivism in Psychotherapy would allow me to find another expression of my 40 plus years of interest in constructivist approaches to psychology. Bill, a professional colleague, also would have an interest in meeting some of the participants, though his involvement with constructivism has not been as intense as mine has been. [As the reader will see, Bill and I shared other motives for arranging this joint venture.]
In that I did concentrate considerable attention to the presentations made by other attendees to The Conference and to my own presentation, I decided to forego the stimulation of visiting museums and other sites which provide evidence of the high level of creativity of the people who have lived and worked in Siena. This city, ever the principal rival to Florence, teems with evidence of its citizens' achievements in graphic arts, literature, architecture, music, gastronomy, and science. Like so many of the Italy's Rinascimento cities, Siena offers a visitor many years worth of stimulation - if one has the time and the resources to partake of that stimulation. Susan and I had spent five days in Siena during a previous visit, so that I could convince myself that I would not have been totally deprived of that stimulation if I concentrated on other activity.
The pleasures of Tuscany's vineyards - south of Siena (Click this line to see an excellent map). Any conversation about the great wines of the world will include mention of Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montalcino. And, despite the variegated history of the quality of the wine of the Chianti region, the modern Chianti wines deserve the world-wide positive reputation they now enjoy. Bill and I were intent on paying homage to the wine enthusiasts who produce these marvelous wines.
Early on a day that any Italian would regard as una giornata [the superlative for the term un giorno] we headed south from Siena toward Montalcino. As we traveled we spotted a sign directing us toward a pieve that now functions as a site for "agritourists." The pieve were religious centers that once also served as the centers for civic functions - maintaining birth records, marriage records, etc. Many of Tuscany's pieve still function as churches. Others have been converted into resort centers, as was the pieve to which we found our way on that beautiful morning. As a center for agriturismo, the Pieve Sprenna takes guests, who can settle into this ultra-idyllic location, from which one can easily travel to many of the attractive sites in southern Tuscany. The Pieve Sprenna occupies a particularly ideal location for surveying a vast expanse of southern Tuscany. From this hilltop location, one can understand why one writer would make the claim that "The contadini of Tuscany have created one of the most beautiful landscapes on The Earth."On that morning we could overlook the soft tans of the recently cultivated fields and the dark green lines of vines, which we knew to be loaded with large clusters of the purple grapes that would soon be harvested and then carefully transformed into palate-brightening wines. All of our brief tour was enhanced by the commentary provided by Anna Marie Redi, The Pieve's manager, who took time from her busy schedule to take us on a brief tour of the this infatuating hilltop.
Proceeding down the road, we then stopped at the Rinascimento town of Buonconvento, where we enjoyed the early morning ambiance of the bar on the town's main piazza and the usual cordial reception and attention one receives from the employees of the tourist information centers of Italy's towns and cities. We were particularly grateful for information about the great Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore. Again, our protecting fates had guided us well. With the help of the young women who informed us, we calculated that we could drive to The Abbey and yet have one hour to tour the site before it would close for the afternoon pranzo e riposo.
L'Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore [founded in the early 1300s] is another of the great Benedictine monasteries which dot Italy. Though it cannot rival Monte Cassino in historic or architectural significance, by visiting this site one can grasp the important influence that the Benedictine Order has had on the culture of Italy. Every aspect of the monastery conveys, very often in written text, the watchwords of The Order - Pray and Work! The work element is apparent in the high quality of the construction and maintenance of The Abbey's building and grounds. The pray element gains enhancement by the tranquility that emanates from every corner of the buildings and grounds. A visitor can appreciate one very special feature of The Abbey. Under the arcade surrounding the inner courtyard, Giovanni AntonioBazzi [called Sodoma] and Luca Signorelli have painted, in fresco, 31 scenes which represent events in the life of The Order's founder, the eminent Benedict of Nursia (480-543??).
Returning to the main highway after our visit to The Abbey, we proceeded directly to La Fortezza di Montalcino, with the intention of making our way to the enoteca that is housed in this 14th Century castle. Once again, our fates guided us to a parking spot on the lot at the foot of La Fortezza, whose available spaces are rapidly occupied by the many visitors to Montalcino. Judging that it was time to savor again the flavors of Tuscany, we ordered a plate of the bread, cheeses and cured meats of the region to accompany the wines which we intended to sample.
When we made our first selections of wine, we witnessed the care which the attendants of The Enoteca give to the wine being featured for that day's sampling. The attendant uncorked a bottle, and then poured it vigorously into a large decanter. She then swirled the wine so that sheets of the liquid were raised on the sides of the decanter. After this oxygenating process, she gingerly decanted the wine back into the original bottle. When Bill and I discussed the necessity of this last step, we concluded that it was necessary to return the wine to its original bottle so that those who would buy a sample would have available the precise information about the wine that was printed on the bottle's label. By having observed this process we also gained some insight into why the sampling of wine in these prestigious enotecas, where one pays for samples, regularly proves to be more satisfying than is the sampling in establishments which offer free samplings.
At any rate, the four wines which we sampled at La Fortezza, provided us with considerable satisfaction, while yet notably expressing their individuality. The three different cured meats (one a kind of soprasatta spiced generously with the crushed seeds of wild fennel, a second spiced lightly with piccante peppers, and a third a finely cured prosciutto) and the two different cheeses (one a mild, smooth variety, and the second having the sharper taste of a sheep cheese) eaten between bites of crusty bread and sips of the superb Brunello wines, similarly, gave evidence of the ways in which the Tuscans prepare these delicacies as expressions of unique flavors.
Before resuming our journey toward Tuscany's southeast corner, where our destination would be Montepulciano, we climbed to the turrets and encircling outer walls of La Fortezza. From there, we were able to analyze the defensive architecture of the fortress; and, once again, to enjoy the mesmerizing landscapes of Tuscany.
We limited ourselves to visiting only one of the fattorie that produce the superlative Brunello wine. A fattoria is something more than a vineyard. A fattoria can better be described as a general agricultural enterprise - a place for the production of cheeses, sausages, cured meats, fresh meats, and so on. We visited the famed Fattoria dei Barbi. There we were led through a tour of their impressive cellars. Our lively guide (1) warned s not to touch any of the bottles (too many fingers on bottles would cause variations in the steady temperature at which the bottles are stored), (2) encouraged us to show respect for the huge oak barrels (one of the barrels would cost as much as a small apartment in the town of Montalcino), (3) stimulated our awe by showing us the securely sealed off portion of the cellars which contained bottles of wine as old as one hundred years (these well-aged bottles are used only for extra-special celebrations arranged by the family of the proprietors). In another section of the fattoria, a very cordial worker explained the process of producing fine pecorino cheese. The cheese sold by the fattoria represents three levels of aging. Fresh pecorino is sold after about three weeks. Another variety is sold after three months of aging, after being rubbed with olive oil and salt.. A third variety must be aged for at least six months of aging. In the long-term storage room, one sees rack on rack of cheeses with a dark brown rind, each cheese being crowned with a large, drying leaf of a walnut tree. The leaf imparts a special flavor to the cheese.
We left the fattoria with four bottles of their premium wine (Bill's purchase) and a chunk of the medium-aged pecorino, which would serve as a special snack whenever I would imagine that I needed food. We also took away an enhanced appreciation of why connoisseurs of wine will generally agree that Brunello di Montalcino deserves its ranking as one of the finest wines in the world. With that enhanced appreciation, we were willing to believe a current claim that the 1998 vintage will be the finest ever produced, that all of the vintage has been already sold as futures, and that the price of the futures are rising at an unprecedented rate.
When we arrived at Montepulciano we parked our auto in a space at the foot of the hill which is crowned by the city. We took our exercise for the day by walking up the steep streets to the crest of the city, the site of the city's central Piazza Grande. Montepulciano's layout and architecture readily reveals that the city has enjoyed a long history of prosperity. Consistently allied with Firenze during the days of intense intercity conflict in Tuscany, the "Poliziani" flaunt their pride in the city's connections to the great Rinascimento traditions. The nickname for a native of the city, "Poliziano," readily evokes that pride, for it is the name by which the city's most famous son is known throughout the world. Angelo Ambrogini, known as Poliziano (Politian, 1454-1494), flourished while under the patronage of Giuliano and Lorenzo dei Medici; and earned a lasting reputation as a premier humanist poet. (After the completion of the celebration of the 500th anniversary of Poliziano's birth, a group of Poliziani founded The Agnolo Ambrogini Institute, which has as its objective the promotion of scholarship on the humanist tradition which was revived by the scholars of the Rinascimento.)
While sitting in Piazza Grande, refreshing ourselves with a grande birra, we could review the descriptions of the surrounding buildings contained in the pamphlets we had acquired in the tourist information office. As I do so, I constantly experience admiration for the ways in which the brochure reflects the pride in the intellectual history of the city as it recounts the significance of these Rinascimento buildings. Those Poliziani must know that the surest route to the heart of an old academic is through his/her frontal cortex!!!
Leaving Piazza Grande one can traverse part of the route toward the lower part of the city by going through the labyrinthine caverns of wine tunnels that have been carved through the soft stone underlying the city. We were surprised that we had easy access to and were allowed to roam freely through these caves. One exits the lower end of the caves through the tasting room of one of the regions premier vintners. We by-passed the opportunity to taste their products. We had grander plans. Indeed, our plans had prompted us to take beer as our late afternoon refreshment, rather than taking the opportunity to sample some of the varieties of Nobile di Montepulciano.
Bill had compiled a list of restaurants and sites which had been specially recommended, and a friend had given an especially high recommendation to the restaurant, La Chiusa. On the way into Montepulciano we had seen advertisements for La Chiusa, but had not read them very closely. We were led to assume that La Chiusa was located in Montepulciano. After some inquiry and further exploration, we found La Chiusa on the outskirts of Montefallonico, another very picturesque town located north of Montepulciano. We found, further, that the restaurant is a part of a resort hotel which has been created from a large farmstead..
The name, La Chiusa (the enclosure), appears to have derived from the location of the farmstead. The northern side is ringed with a low hill. From every other side, however, one has vistas which carry enhance the picturesque setting. A short distance too the east, a small hill rises, crowned by the town of Montefallonico, from which rise the characteristic hill town towers. To the south rises the mountain which wears Montepulciano on its crest. To the west, one once again sees the magical colors of the Tuscan agricultural landscape.
As we drove into the parking lot of La Chiusa the colors and the architecture of the buildings - pure Tuscan - immediately gave promise of the delights that we had come to seek. As we approached the main entrance of the establishment, we first encountered one of the waiters. I asked, in my steadily improving Italian, "Will we be able to have a fine dinner here this evening?" The response was a half jocular, half astonished, "And why not?" We had launched a superlative evening - una serata!!!
We introduced ourselves and presented our cards. The waiter explained that he was on his way home, having been at work for over ten hours. He cordially led us to an outdoor table at which were seated La Chiusa's proprietor, Umberto Lucherini, and the architect who is guiding the renovation and enlargement of La Chiusa. Our conversation rambled over topics from the preservation of antique Tuscan buildings to the fact that a low grade of coal had once been mined in the area.
The topic of mining coal came about as a result of my being questioned about my ability to speak Italian, the Italian origins of my family, and what work my father did when he immigrated to The United States of America. I told of my father having been a coal miner in Pennsylvania. It happens that Bill grew up in a coal mining town in Southern Illinois, so that the topic of coal mining pertained to all of us.
Umberto's daughter, Francesca, joined our conversation. It happened that Francesca and her friend, Valeria Guidotti, had spent 8 months working and studying English in London. She spoke English very well, so that Bill could freely engage in our exchange. Our conversation with Francesca and Valeria continued to range over topics, such as their reactions to English cuisine, the ideas which we expound as psychologists, and the history of their area of Tuscany. These two young women, exuding a charm and enthusiasm that two older gentlemen found most appealing, then led us on a tour of the grounds of La Chiusa, and then to a peaceful outside table to which they sent La Chiusa's sommelier, Massimo Romagnoli. Our goal was to select a bottle of Nobile di Montepulciano that would convince us that these wines were worthy competitors to Brunello di Montalcino. I am sure that we could not have found a better advisor. The first bottle which we selected convinced us! Later, our enjoyment of the second bottle should have removed any possible doubts about the claims that connoisseurs make about these wines.
Perhaps, however, our enjoyment of our dinner and the attention we continued to receive that evening spilled over into our enjoyment of that bottle. We had decided that we would have the chef prepare for us that famous item, bistecca alla fiorentina. During none of my previous visits had I ordered this speciality. Though I knew that bistecca alla fiorentina originated from a very special breed of steer, the Chianina breed which takes its name from the Valdichiana which surrounds La Chiusa, I allowed myself to believe that "a beefsteak is a beefsteak," and I expected that I would never find a beefsteak that would surpass one which I had eaten in Lincoln, Nebraska. Since I was in the midst of Chianina country, I agreed to challenge my assumption. When our waiter brought the uncooked steak (for two) to our table to show us what was about to be cooked, we decided to exercise some caution in ordering the accompanying meal. We ordered a local pasta, pici, which is hand made simply by rolling a piece of fresh pasta into a long shape having the diameter of a standard knitting needle. The menu indicated that the pasta would be simply dressed with olive oil, garlic, and piquant peppers. The dish was given the name pici arrabiati - angry pici!! We ordered servings of herbed, roasted onions as an accompaniment for our steak.
The grilled steak appeared after after the pasta plates were cleared from the table. The steak inspired awe!! At least 16 inches long, 10 inches across, and two inches thick. We were forced to begin to think of ourselves as lascivious epicureans. Were we two capable of devouring that grandiose piece of beef? The accompanying sauce was very simple - a bowl of herbed olive oil in which floated a generous helping of halved cherry tomatoes. Over the course of the next hour, refreshing our palates with frequent sips of that very special Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, delightful conversation with Francesca and Valeria, and varying the taste sensations with bits of roast onion, we managed to demonstrate our conviction that Lincoln's steak had been bested.
Having finished our meal we were invited into the kitchen and seated at a table from which Umberto directed operations. Small glasses and a bottle of grappa were set before us. We again engaged in lively conversation, some of it about the elegant cookbook which Francesca's mother had written and had had published. I waited impatiently to sample the grappa. Finally, I asked, "Are we going to taste that grappa." Umberto replied, "When that bottle was set before you, it became your bottle. You do with it what you wish." We had our digestivo, and returned to our tables in the dining room to end our meal with a double spresso. We had before us a drive to Siena, over a dark road with which we were not familiar.
We left La Chiusa with a full understanding of what Umberto had meant when he said, in our early evening conversation, "When two travelers, like yourselves, arrive here, we are obligated to treat them as our uncles."
The pleasures of Tuscany's vineyards - north of Siena (Click on this line to see an excellent map). On another day, whose air had been washed by a thunderstorm the previous night we started toward The Chianti hills. East of Siena, we turned north to Castelnuovo Berardegna, beginning our travel over the secondary roads that course through the Chianti Hills. We had made plans to wander through the countryside, stopping at whatever sites we might find open and interesting. On our way to San Regolo, the little town nearest the Ricasoli/Brolio wine empire, we stopped at two borghi (tiny villages, once controlled by the owner of the surrounding land) that had become vineyard/tourist hotels. Unfortunately, these particular establishments could not arrange guided tours on the day which we visited. Nevertheless, wandering about these modernized borghi offered me the opportunity to think about their history.
My strongest associations led my thoughts to the ambiance created in Ermanno Olmi's film, The Tree of the Wooden Clogs. The action in the movie takes place in a borgo in northern Italy. As a work of socialist realism, the movie portrays the repressive control which the landowners maintained on the agricultural workers who depended on them for opportunities to work. As the narrative in the film proceeds, the viewer is reminded that less than a century ago, the controlling powers locked the agricultural workers into a secure conceptual trap. The anointed interpreters of theology controlled one spring of the trap. They threatened the wrath of a deity to those who refused to accept that deity's "gift" of progeny. The landowners controlled the other spring. They formulated the conditions under which the workers could earn the wherewithal to feed that progeny. No wonder that in 1913 a family like that of Angelo Pelligrini elected to take the extremely harrowing, 7,000 mile, five week journey from a Tuscan agricultural hill town to the lumber town of McCleary, Washington, THE USA.
As we wandered through the very attractive grounds of one borgo-turned-upscale-tourist-resort, admiring the gardens and the architecture and frescoes of the little church on the central piazza, we stopped to read a plaque which had been erected to commemorate the men of the borgo who had been killed in World War I. The inscription on the plaque, phrased in the poetic Italian usually used in such inscriptions, expressed profound gratitude to these young men who had selflessly given their lives for la patria. Thinking of the movie, Tree of the Wooden Clogs, I wondered if those men would have lived differently if the Emperors of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had succeeded in prescribing who should gain the ultimate benefits of their hard labor. I also wondered, as well, about the utter madness of the leaders of that empire who believed that they could take over the Italian peninsula and then establish the mechanisms by which to control the flow of income and taxes. Apparently they, like the leaders of pre-World War II Germany, could not understand that modern armaments and modern communications would make it impossible to control movements like the Spanish guerillas and the southern Italian semi-bandits who thwarted Napoleon's confused efforts to introduce republicanism into territories whose people espoused far different ideologies. Lacking that understanding, the Germanic imperialists of World War I and their adversaries created the conditions under which hundreds of thousands of Italian agricultural workers, men who rarely had traveled out of the sight of the church tower of their borghi, were hauled to the frozen Dolomite mountains to die in the see-saw exchanges of muddy, bloodied territory on the borderlands of Italy and Austria. I wondered if the souls of those victims could somehow experience the gratitude so profusely expressed on that plaque. I wondered also if the guests who could afford to take lodgings in those comfortably modernized buildings would have occasion to feel gratitude toward the workers who created the excess capital that allowed the landowners to build the original edifices and dwellings out of which the luxury resort had been created.
As we proceeded on our tour we turned off the more developed road on to a road which led a short distance to the town of San Regolo, near Gaiole. We were trying to firmly fix the directions to Castello di Brolio. As we entered the town we saw a sign indicating that a trattoria was located in the tiny town. We had been watching the approach of a storm, and decided that we could sit out the storm in the trattoria. Again, our positive fates guided us. We found the trattoria, located on a steep hillside, overlooking the valley in which we had been traveling. There was no doubt that this was a family run operation - Papa and the son doing the serving, with Mama in the kitchen. And, there was no doubt that the locals patronized the trattoria. The officer of the Carabinieri, sitting at the table near ours, provided sound endorsement that the trattoria had a favorable reputation in the little community!
The custom of charging a reasonable, fixed price for pane e coperta gives a client in an Italian restaurant great flexibility. If guests want to sit and enjoy a half liter of wine and some crusty bread, they are welcome to do so. They pay for the tablecloth and the bread as well as the wine, and may partake at their leisure. In the trattoria in San Regolo we ordered an antipasto of local delicacies - prosciutto, cheese, grilled vegetables, etc. - a plate of pasta, and a liter of the house chianti. We observed the storm making its way across the valley, enjoyed watching the tot who accompanied his extended family at a nearby table, and - of course - savored our food and wine.
By the time that we had worked our way leisurely through our meal, the storm had passed, and we made our way to the top of the high mountain on which was located Castello Brolio, the power-exuding emblem of nobility that is still the private property of the baronial Ricasoli family. I note simply that when one explores this structure, thinks about its location between Florence and Siena, and contemplates the immense labor that was needed to build a brick fortress of that size at the top of that mountain he/she will understand the historic importance of this piece of geography and of the families who extracted from the people of the surrounding territory the resources to build such a symbol of power.
The vast Ricasoli/Brolio winery at the base of the mountain attests to the resources which the current management of the establishment has available to make their wines famous throughout the world.
It is difficult to analyze and to explain the experience of pleasure that I have when I wander through hill cities like Radda, Castellina, and San Gimignano. Perhaps I find it comforting to meander about in a city that was built to accommodate life at a walking pace. Perhaps it is comforting to know that one is surrounded by ancient examples of human creativity, some of which have lasted for over ten centuries. Perhaps I sense that the rarity of vehicular traffic forces everyone around me to slow down, encouraging them to take time to relax. The walking pace is nicely exemplified by an unusual architectural feature in the town of Castellina. A wide arcade, over which is built rooms of houses that face the upper street, runs along a long stretch of the lower side of the town. A pedestrian making errands in the town can walk under this arcade, protected from scorching sun or pouring rain, and then reach the upper shop lined streets by taking one of the connecting narrow streets. While we made our brief exploration of the town, we found that on the following Saturday, a major yearly festivity was to be held under the wide arcade. A number of the local restaurants would collaborate to carry off a grand feast to be served to those fortunate enough to book reservations for the limited number of seats.
Poggibonsi differs markedly from other cities in the Chianti region. The guidebooks describing the wine routes give scant attention to this highly industrialized city. We decided that we would take our evening meal in one of the restaurants in Poggibonsi. As we expected, in the restaurant which we found, we were surrounded by local folk - tables of several couples enjoying their Saturday evening outing, a large group of women who appeared to be celebrating an event of significance to their association, another party which appeared to be celebrating a wedding anniversary, an extended family celebrating a birthday. In that ambiance I enjoyed a filet of pork which had been braised in a zesty tomato sauce - pizzaiola style. We again followed our practice of exploring the quality of house wines. The bottle of chianti, bearing the restaurant's label, had a less than pleasant astringency when first opened. With some exposure to air, the wine became an excellent accompaniment to another excellent Tuscan meal.
The Conference. As indicated above, our plans for our Italy trip had been set, partially, by the fact that The VIth International Conference on Constructivism in Psychotherapy was held in Siena in the early part of September, 1998. My professional perspective on The Conference appears in another place. Those who organize conferences, we know, do attempt to attract participants by extolling the nonprofessional aspects of the conference venue. Aside from the conference being set in a thriving city which has a long intellectual and artistic history and the modern facilities in which to conduct a professional conference, the extra amenities extended to the attendees will, I am sure, allow the participants to return to their homes to recommend Siena as an ideal conference city. The city arranged an especially festive reception which was held in the courtyard of The Palazzo Pubblico. The setting surely enhanced our enjoyment of flavors of the foods and wines which were lavishly served to the city's guests. A similar dramatic setting surrounded the guests who attended the gala banquet which crowned the social events associated with the conference. Food, drinks, and music for dancing were served to the guests, who were seated at tables under the arcade surrounding the main courtyard of The Carthusian Monastery of Pontignanon (now part of the Mario Bracci University Colelge). I wondered if the Carthusian monks who initiated the building of the monastery in 1343 would have imagined that such a gathering would take ace 655 years after they initiated the construction of their abbey!
When we planned our trip we decided that we would elect to attend cooking instructions somewhere in Umbria. (Click on this line to see maps.) In that way we would have an opportunity to explore Assisi and Perugia, following our exploration of the Tuscany region.
We searched for a school that would fit our schedule, and then set out to explore the availability of those to which we had narrowed our choice. Once again, our protecting fates guided us to an excellent choice: The Hotel Bramante in Todi; where we would receive cooking instruction while working directly with The Hotel's chef, Aldo Mosca.
Every source of information gave us assurance that Todi's ambiance rivaled that of Montepulciano. The city's attractions were also affirmed by an article which appeared on the front page of The New York Times shortly after we had made our decision. The article reported that a problem has arisen in Todi. The USAns who had discovered and had purchased properties during the 1950 decade were experiencing some discomfort about the recent influx of other affluent USAns. Todi, alas, is now in danger of becoming an extension of The Hamptons!!! After reading the article, I decided that I should extend my most sincere sympathies to the Todians, and hoped that when we arrived there I would be able to avoid whatever Hampton-like epidemic had infested the region.
Siena to Todi. We left Siena on another of those giornate with which our fates had graced us. On our way to Perugia, we passed Lake Trasimeno and were reminded that Hannibal had delivered a major defeat to his opposing Roman army on the shores of that lake. Bill, an afficianado of historic and current mystery stories, told me of his having recently read a mystery novel which had as its setting the area around Lake Trasimeno.
Having had an early start on this part of our trip, we anticipated enjoying a visit to Perugia. Immediately after parking one's auto on one of the parking lots in the lower part of the city, one can enjoy one of the world's most unique urban facilities. The citizens of the city have financed the building of a system of escalators which move pedestrians to the upper part of the city. The escalators traverse a veritable museum, for they are built through tunnels that have been excavated through the mass of rubble that remained behind when the nephew of Farnese Pope Paolo lII pulled down the palaces, in the early 1500s, of the proud The Baglioni family.
When a pedestrian arrives at the top of the escalator system, he conveniently exits in proximity to the Palazzo della Provincia which adjoins a splendid park located on the edge of the mountain on which the city has been built. When we arrived there we again experienced the benevolence of our fates. We followed the sounds of very competently performed band music. In the interior courtyard of the Palazzo della Provincia we found the members of La Società Filarmonica di Pila playing a Sunday morning concert. A large crowd surrounded the performers, listening to a very varied program. One of the audience told me that these performers were gathered from the citizens of Pila, a small town of about 1500 inhabitants. I experienced considerable pleasure in reading the brochure which was being distributed. These performers were taking part in a series of concerts which had been arranged with the clearly stated purpose of preserving appreciation for "our traditional music." My experience of pleasure was particularly heightened by observing that the band members clearly represented an age range from mid-teens to mid-70s.
I also experienced pleasure on discovering that the great Galleria Nazionale del'Umbria had departed from tradition, and had scheduled its opening times from 9:00 A. M. to 10:00 P. M. on Sundays and public holidays. Furthermore, on many of the days of summer weekends, the gallery would add the hours from 8:30 P. M. to 11:30 P. M. to its standard opening hours. From my perspective, the directors of The Gallery deserve high approval for extending opportunities for visitors who will observe the torrent of human creativity that flowed through the works produced by Piero della Francesca (1415-1492), Andrea Verrocchio (1435-1488), Perugino (Piero di Cristofano Vannucio, 1446-1524), Bernardino Pinturicchio (1454-1513), and Raphael Sanzio (1483-1520).
After meandering through Perugia,
being sure to walk through the monumental Roman gate,(part of which was
built by the Etruscans), one discovers that the city can compete with the
Tuscan cities not only in the areas of art, architecture, and music; but
also in providing gustatory delights. We followed a simple course, we stopped
at a tavolo calda located on a corner of the piazza on which is
built the gorgeous
fountain that is discussed in every guide book written to edify travelers
to Italy. Unfortunately, in this instance our protecting fates abandoned
care of our well-being. During our visit, the fountain was encased in a
plastic bubble, to protect the workers who are assiduously restoring every
minute detail of the precious relief carving which adorn the sides of the
fountain. Our fates must have been concentrating on directing us to the
calda. We partook of an excellent selection of varied and inexpensive
food - the main feature of my choice having been a slice of crust-encased
meat mixture known as polpetone ("huge meatball"). It turned out,
as had happened on previous occasions, that our chosen tavola calda
was highly recommended in the guide book which Bill carried on our trip.
Cooking instructions in Todi. We arrived in Todi after a short, late afternoon drive. There we were greeted by The Hotel Bramante's affable concierge, Andre Montori. As he gave us our room assignment he discovered a glitch in the arrangements. Someone had notified them to expect Mr. and Mrs. Mancuso. The room which had been reserved was furnished with un letto matrimonio. Bill and I had not anticipated that arrangement!!! Again, non problema. We were helped to settle into a pleasant room with twin beds, from which we could step out on a terrace to overlook the hotel swimming pool. The guests and central couple of a wedding party were strolling around the grounds surrounding the pool. We judged that they would not take offense at two well aged tourists taking a plunge.
After our plunge, we made our way to the bus stop near the hotel where we were to board the bus to the center of the town. On arriving at the center of the town we discovered that (1) everything about Todi matched the high expectations which we had developed through having read and listened to enthusiastic descriptions of the town, and (2) we had arrived on the last day of Todi Festival 98. One would have difficulty avoiding an empathy with the vivacity of the crowds preparing to attend the last performance of The Festival - Ragazzi Selvaggi (Savage Youth); "A ballet inspired by the authors of The Beat Generation." One also would have difficulty avoiding a fantasy of returning to Todi for the next festival, where one might have had the opportunity to choose to attend programs ranging through Hasta Siempre: A recital for Che (Guevera); Leopardi: A Letter to a Youth of the 20th Century: Readings based on the works of Giacomo Leopardi, Italy's famed 19th Century poet; and an Italian version of Alan Bennet's drama, A Bed among the Lentils, a play which first appeared in London, featuring Maggie Smith.
As the night came upon us, we ambled downward in the direction of the hotel. We were sure that we would come upon a place where we could find something that would satisfy our replenished desire to savor the flavors of central Italy. Again, our expectations were satisfied in the form of a small family-operated trattoria. On hearing us attempt to express our wishes to Daughter, Mama emerged from the kitchen. "Please speak! Tell me what you would like, then take a seat at one of the outdoor tables; and your order will be brought to you." We once again ordered an antipasto plate of varied prepared meats and different cheeses to accompany our liter of house wine. Our food was brought to us by Papa, who proudly explained the quality of the items on the antipasto plate; pointing with special pride to a cheese which had precisely suited my palate. I made the mistake of trying to observe that tourists from a culture which did not prize tangy cheeses might find that cheese excessively zesty. He decisively assured me that no one had ever judged that cheese to be unacceptable!!!
Cooking instruction at The Hotel Bramante. The Hotel Bramante was once a convent which bore the name of Santa Marguerite. It was founded in the 12th Century and was certified as a monastery by a bull issued in 1204, by Pope Paul !V. The architectural lines of The Hotel readily evoke the atmosphere of a convent. Of course, The Hotel's appointments - except for a carefully preserved section of a portion of a frescoed wall - no longer suggest the austerity of a convent.
The Hotel was given its name in honor of the esteemed architect, Donate Bramante (1444-1514). Bramante's work can be found in every part of Rome. Most notably, he is credited with having designed large sections of the Vatican City, on a commission from Pope Julius II. The people of Todi have clung to the unauthenticated belief that Bramante designed The Tempi di Santa Maria della Consolazione. This striking church stands on a rise just above Hotel Bramante.
The Hotel's chef, Aldo Mosca, provided the cooking instruction. One must use only superlatives to describe Aldo's skills in conducting his relationships with his students and associates, in managing his kitchen, and in preparing one after another of the sumptuous dishes which his guests order for their dinners.
Italian cooking has become the prime cuisine in restaurants because its preparation allows fast preparation of individually created dishes. Additionally, the dishes are sequentially ordered, so that the cooks have time to prepare the following course while guest enjoy the previously served course. That is, a guest can nibble on his/her antipasti while the chef is preparing the primo piatto, usually a pasta dish or a hearty soup. If the waiter has taken guest's order for the secondo piatto the cook can begin preparing that course of the meal at the same time that he/she begins to prepare the primo piatto. Traditionally, Italian meals ended with cheese, fruit, and a dessert wine, and finally spresso, none of which demand the attention of the cook. The serving of desserts has become more commonplace. These are easily added to Italian meals, since the cooks can prepare them before the dinner hours.
The success of a kitchen, however, depends fully on the ability of the cooks to move from one preparation to another at an appropriately rapid pace. Aldo Mosca's kitchen, during the four days we were under his tutelage, was moderately busy. Yet, the huge pot of boiling water into which fitted a half dozen specially shaped strainers, might contain five or six orders of pasta at various stages of doneness. Aldo needed to keep track of them while preparing four or five different sauces in pans into which the pasta would be added when it was properly cooked. In the meanwhile he would be starting a variety of secondi piatto to serve when the guests had completed their primi piatti. He was ably assisted by Ivana Rosati, who anticipated Aldo's requirements so effectively that one rarely heard him giving her instructions. And, all the while that he was preparing meals for the guests, Aldo was instructing us on what he was doing, as well as continuing to prepare one or two special dishes which he chose to demonstrate for us; and which we would later consume.
Bill and I attempted to keep faithful notes of all of Aldo's instructions; and we later transferred the notes to files on our laptop computer. We left Hotel Bramante with a treasure store of 16 pages of recipes.
Consuming the dishes which were prepared specially for the instruction extended our "Lessons in Flavor." There is no way to appropriately communicate the flavor of potato gnocchi drenched in a gorgonzola cheese sauce, or a red wine risotto, or chicken breast in a champagne sauce laced with green olives. At best, I can extend my strongest hope that every reader will have many opportunities to experience directly these taste sensations!
Throughout the course of our lessons Aldo and The Director of the dining room, Luca Rosati, laced our conversations with information about wines and olive oil. On one morning Luca seated us at a pleasant table in the dining room. The table was lined with about 20 glasses of varied shape and dimension. Luca then proceeded to inform us of the appropriate use of each glass. In several cases he demonstrated the ways to use the glass with the appropriate beverage for that particular glass.
Our instruction also included a visit to an olive press, at which the proprietress informed us of the use of the many pieces of very modern equipment used for the efficient extraction of olive oil. The operations have changed beyond recognition since the last time that I visited a frantoio. To account for this progress one needs only to think of the vast expanses of terrain which have been planted in olive trees in order to meet the world wide demands for olive oil. Italian-Americans whose childhood spanned he decades of the 1930-1940 period can also assess the change in attitude toward the use of olive oil: From that smelly stuff that "those greasers" used in their cooking to a prized, low cholesterol condiment gracing the kitchens of anyone aspiring to achieve gourmet status.
We also visited Cantina Tudernum, a cooperative winery which produces wines of denominazione di origine controllata quality. A part of the operation aroused our sharp envy. One finds there, located on a conveniently accessible loading dock, two pumps that have all the appearance of gasoline pumps - complete with dials telling the amount which has been pumped and the price of the amount that has been pumped. A customer maneuvers his vehicle, loaded with appropriately sized containers, to a position adjacent to the dock. Then the customer extends the nozzle of hose from either the red wine or the white wine pump to the mouth of his container and pumps out the desired amount of wine. The attendant then collects the amount owed, and the customer drives off with his supply of table wine.
An unexpected bonus to our cooking instructions. It happened that the third day of our stay at Hotel Bramante, on September 8, the town celebrates the festa of Santa Maria della Consolazione. The festivities celebrating this particular representation of the mother of Christ take place around the great tempi lying adjacent to Hotel Bramante. The festa, like other feste all over Italy, serves the special purpose of calling all those who have emigrated from Todi to return to their native city from their new homes all over the world. On the day we attended the festivities, which center around the large tract of open space around the temple, we found the area crowded with people preparing to take part in the mass which was to be held in the temple. We wandered around the booths trying to choose one from which we would buy one of the traditional sandwiches made of crusty rolls generously filled with slices taken from the boned, stuffed, roasted pig laid out on the plank counter of the booth. How could we pass up this once in a lifetime opportunity to share this traditional treat with the citizens of Todi??!
That evening The Hotel dining room could expect no guests until after the fireworks display had ended. Thus, we joined the hotel staff to watch the fireworks which were displayed immediately in front of our line of vision. They were set off from a location below the hotel and the temple, so that spectators did not need to crane their necks to get the full effect of the effusive pyrotechnical display.
Aldo and Luca instructed us in the traditional practice of offering warm best wishes for the approaching year to each of the members of our party. We then returned to the kitchen. On that evening Aldo's workload was considerably eased.. He knew that few of the guests would order a secondo other than the traditional pork chops that are served on the evening of the day of the festal.
Here is the recipe for that traditional
PORK CHOPS TODINO
8 very large, very premium pork
¼ pound of pork belly (Do not use smoked bacon).
2 ounces fresh sage
2 ounces fresh rosemary
3 cloves garlic
15 grams juniper berry
2 filets of anchovy
½ ounce of capers
½ cup olive oil
½ cup dry red wine
1. Put marinade ingredients through
food processor until finely ground.
2. Marinate pork chops over night.
3. Grill chops over very high heat until done (10-12 minutes).
Aldo had prepared the marinade and had filled a large bowl with pork chops and marinade when we were absent, but he instructed us in its preparation. As he had anticipated, only one or two of the guests ordered a different dish on that evening.
After the last guest had been served, we were led to a table which Luca and his staff had set; and we, too, dined on Pork Chops Todino. Luca and Aldo assured us that we were sharing a meal that was being served in every home in Todi on that evening.
Departing the pleasures of Hotel
Bramante. As we contemplated our departure from Hotel Bramante, I had
no difficulty understanding why a person who visits Umbria - "The Green
Heart of Italy" - would look into the possibility of spending extended
periods of time in the region. Our schedule had allowed us only brief exposure
to the rich stimulation that is available in the area. We managed to arrange
only a brief visit to the excellently appointed archeological and historical
museum, which is housed in the 13th Century Palazzo del Popolo
located on Todi's Piazza
Popolo. On one afternoon we made a brief foray to Assisi,
where we could only manage a walking tour of the city, punctuated by quick
entries into lower level of the great Basilica
of Saint Francis and the Basilica
dedicated to Saint Clare, located at the end of the town opposite
to Saint Francis' Basilica. Unhappily, we were constantly reminded of the
extent to which the ancient, attractive architecture of Assisi had been
damaged by the
recent earthquake. (As a consequence of the damage, visitors are not
allowed access to the interior of or any of the areas in front of the upper
levels of the Basilica of Saint Francis.) We had no opportunity to explore
other enticing sites in the area: Lake Trasimeno, the wine regions around
Torgiano, and the nearby city of Spoleto
To complete a description of our
experiences at Hotel Bramante, I would need some very special language
to describe the pleasure we experienced in every moment of our interactions
with the staff. To appreciate fully the ways in which the pleasure-producing
ambiance was maintained, one needs to keep in mind that much of our interaction
with the staff, particularly with Aldo, took place while they were under
the pressure of attending to the wants of the other guests.
When we had loaded our luggage into
our auto and maneuvered our way out of the driveway, I knew that I would
repeatedly nurture the desire to return to Todi and The Hotel Bramante.
Heading for Pleasures of the Deep South
Initially, Bill and I had discussed the possibility of driving to Calabria, (Click on this line to see maps.) where we would visit the family of my father. After carefully assessing the driving time, I came to the conclusion that driving over the Autostrade del Sole would not be a profitable way to use our time. When I came to this conclusion, Bill happened to be away; out of town. I went ahead with my plan. I made reservations on a flight that would take me from Rome to Calabria and return. My reasoning led me to believe that Bill would not be highly motivated to spend the money on the cost of the air tickets. I reasoned that he no doubt would want to stay in Rome while I went south to visit my relatives. While we were in Todi, Bill decided that he would want to go to Calabria with me.
Our change in plans presented no problems. With the help of the staff of the Hotel Bramante, a travel agency helped us to book a reservation on the same going and return flight on which I had booked.
When we left the Hotel Bramante, we followed a plan which took us to the very west coast of the Italian Peninsula, where we could take a superstrada going south, precisely to the Leonardo da Vinci Airport. By following this plan, we were able to drive along the seaside and to enjoy some of the scenic beauty of the Italian Tyrrhenian Coast. Additionally, we stopped at San Marinella to have a relaxing lunch, at an establishment right on the beach. We were able to continue to Leonardo da Vinci Airport, where we returned the auto we had rented; and found our way to the domestic flights area of the airport.
We had no difficulty in making the flight to Lamezia Terme Airport, where we rented another auto that we would use during our stay in Calabria. The drive from the airport to the location of my uncle's home, in Cropani Marina, takes about 1½ hours. We arrived at the home of my cousin, Antonio, just as it was getting dark. Cousin Antonio and his wife, Pasqualina, settled us into our quarters, and (of course) fed us an excellent meal.
Anyone who has not experienced the pleasure of returning to the remaining members of an Italian family that his/her father had left behind about 80 years ago, would have only a vague idea of the warmth and sincerity of the greeting which is extended to the returning person. The openly expressed joy which surrounds my return proves almost embarrassing. "I don't deserve this. I really have done nothing that is all that important, nor demanding of my resources, time, and energy. I take as much pleasure from this as do they, yet they act as though I am somehow giving them a great gift by my visiting them." On this occasion, my uncle showed particular pleasure, in that one of my professional colleagues accompanied me.
Uncle Salvatore was a young boy when my father, Vincenzo, left Calabria, in 1922. My father also left behind his parents, Uncle Giuseppe and his family, Uncle Francesco and his family, and several sisters. One sister, Francesca, still survives and is now 86 years old. When Susan and I first returned to Calabria, in 1973, we found Uncle Salvatore and his wife, Aunt Giuseppina. Aunt Francesca and her husband also were still living in Sersale, the town from which my father had left Italy. We also found 11 cousins, the offspring of Uncle Salvatore and the several aunts who remained behind after my father left.
Sersale is a typical Italian Hill town, located about 30 kilometers east of Catanzaro and about 22 Kilometers inland from Cropani Marina, which is located on the Ionian Sea.. According to the history which I have read, the town was founded in 1620, on the basis of the then Barone Francesco Sersale Ruffo di Calabria. having given permission to 11 families to leave the town of Serrastretta to found the town that was named after the Baron. One of the families was a Mancuso family. The town might have been a general replica of the characteristic Southern Italian hill towns, had it not been for the presence of excellent stands of lumber -- some of it actually being virgin stands -- which were yet to be found in the Sila Mountains which are located directly inland from Sersale. After Italy's unification, this valuable lumber was harvested, and Sersale was a principal center out of which this activity was conducted.
One consequence of this lumbering activity had a very direct effect on the fortunes of our family. In order to carry out the lumbering operations, workers were brought to Sersale from the North. They brought with them their liberal political orientations and had a great influence on the thinking of the people of Sersale.
The liberal political orientation definitively influenced the life or our family.
During World War II, Uncle Salvatore was called into the Italian army. He left behind his wife and a young son. It happened that when Italy capitulated to the Allied forces in 1943, Uncle Salvatore was stationed in the Balkan peninsula. His first inclination, of course, was to return home. Unfortunately, the German armies controlled all the routes that he could have followed to get to "the sole of the boot." Thus, he was, essentially, a prisoner of the German army. He was given a choice of going to a concentration camp or becoming a member of the German army. He elected the concentration camp, and was sent to mine coal in Poland.
When the war ended he and his comrades decided that they would not await formal repatriation. They began to walk toward their homes. Later, when he was recounting the story to me, I asked, "How did you know where to go?" His reply was the essence of simplicity. "Well, you just go south. As long as you are heading south, you will end in Calabria." As they progressed, they would stop at a German farm; and they would work for several days to earn enough food to take them further along on their journey. They were forewarned that they would have difficulty crossing the border from Austria to Italy. The returnees came up with a plan. They massed on the Austrian side of the border: walking, propelling whatever vehicles they had commandeered, pushing wheelbarrows, etc. At a predetermined signal, they all rushed the border officials, and headed further south.
With those experiences behind him, and with the rudimentary socialist thinking that he had acquired earlier in his life, he found it easy to become active in the movements which asked for land for the contadini. He became an organizer in that political agitation in the area that eventually led to a governmental purchase of and a partitioning of one of the properties of one of the great landowners. As a result, Uncle Salvatore was able to set up a small, very productive farmstead. Thus, he and his family have prospered significantly, relative to the status that our family held prior to World War II.
It is now quite amusing to watch Uncle Salvatore imitate the ways in which the contadini were expected to show deference to the minor nobility who lived in Sersale. Knowing Uncle Salvatore today, I cannot possibly imagine him having shown that kind of obsequiousness. He is a deservedly proud person; and, I'm sure, he takes special pleasure in people recognizing his achievements by calling him Don Salvatore.
When we visit Calabria we are expected, of course, to pay a visit to every member of the family who would be peers of my father and those of the offspring of those peers who still live in the area. We recognized this as a special time in the lives of our relatives, and we do our best to make sure that we visit everyone. Doing this also entails our being willing to carry back with us the gifts which each of them offers to us. We are happy to do so, for those gifts represent the kinds of things that are important to our relatives -- dried figs, cheeses, olive oil, dried mushrooms, dried herbs, and so on. These are items which they consider to be important, and we are happy to bring such items back to our home where they are delicacies.
While we were in Calabria we used much of our time in such visits. We also took time to take long walks in the area around the beautiful beach on the Ionian Sea, which lies a short distance from Uncle Salvatore's farmstead. During those walks we often encountered people living in the area, all of whom know Uncle Salvatore and his family. When we encountered one of Uncle Salvatore's neighbors, we could expect that we would be informed of how that person fit into the genealogy of our family. Obviously, to the Southern Italians, family is a far more salient part of life than is family in our part of the world. Thus, we would meet people who would tell us that their great aunt was a sister to my grandmother, and therefore their father was a cousin to my father and, in this way, we were distant relatives.
A person is fortunate if he/she can visit Calabria in the middle of September. The air is balmy. The growing season is at its height. The grapes are at their peak of sweetness. The early figs are ripe, and have the taste of honey. The gardens are producing their best vegetables. And, there is always time to sit around the table sampling all the tasty food and sharing stories about family history, the current status of family members, and so on.
One is particularly fortunate if he/she is the guest of a cook as accomplished as is Cousin Pasqualina. With the greatest of ease she turned out dishes of exquisite taste and texture. At one point, she actually asked me if I would want her to prepare pasta e ceci (chick peas) for dinner. Preparing this dish is, in a way, a report on the history of our family. In the days when poverty reigned in the region, this simple, nutritious, one-dish meal provided an ideal item on the family menu. Often, today, a hostess is reluctant to serve this meal, fearing that to serve it would reflect negatively on the well-being of the family. Yet, as one can note by the fact that many fine Italian-American restaurants now have this dish on the menu, pasta e ceci or pasta e fagiole (beans) are tasty dishes that can be enjoyed whether in wealth or in poverty. When prepared by a cook as accomplished as is Cousin Pasqualina, I will happily encounter this dish on the table at which I am a guest.
A small incident capsulized the joys and pleasures of our visit. On one evening
Cousin Pasqualina decided that she would "send out" for pizza. (Yes, families of agricultural workers do now send out for pizza!!) Their son, Giuseppe, drove out to fetch the order. When he returned he gave change to his grandmother, Aunt Giuseppina. I, in half serious jest, said, "Did Aunt Giuseppina pay for that? We're supposed a pay for this."
Uncle Salvatore, who is a marvelous storyteller and who can deliver a statement with all the cadences of an accomplished poet reading his poetry, said, "No, it is our duty to pay. You come here out of affection, and we appreciate your coming."
What we left Cropani Marina to return
to the airport, I went through the rites of parting while experiencing
a very complex mixture of emotions. On the one hand, I could say that I
experienced joy at having had the opportunity, once again, to strengthen
my ties to my father's family. On the other hand, I needed to be realistic
about the probabilities of returning to Calabria to again find Uncle Salvatore
and Aunt Francesca -- the direct connections to my father who left Calabria
so many years ago. I can entertain one solace. My father's father lived
in good health to be 96 years old. If Aunt Francesca is match her father,
she will be there if I return within the next ten years. Uncle Salvatore
will live for another 12 years if he lives to be his old as was his father.
Thus, I have yet many years during which I can plan more trips to that
beautiful part of the world and yet find people who knew my father.
In Rome we stayed at a residence which is maintained and managed by a group of women belonging to one of the many Catholic religious orders who maintain such residences. The residence was very orderly, and the sisters were very friendly and very helpful.
Unfortunately, we only could arrange to be in Rome for one day. We had planned to accomplish as much as we could in that one day. To do this we booked an all day tour of the highlights of The Eternal City.
The tour provided what we have hoped it would provide. The bus driver deftly maneuvered through Rome traffic, while we sat comfortably observing the passing scene. The guides were very knowledgeable, and we were not subjected to the common ploy of being herded into an emporium where we were expected to spend our money.
Anyone who has traveled regularly in Italy over the last 20 years must observe that the quality of the guides has increased beyond expectation. The guides which we have encountered were very knowledgeable about the features and the history of the sites to which we were taken. I was pleased to find that they do not engage in the practice of embellishing their accounts with fables and colorful, but questionably authentic, tales about the places which we visited.
We spent our last evening in Italy in an appropriately Italian fashion. We arranged to meet some our friends and we took our dinner at a very fine restaurant.
While on our tour, we did go to The Trevi Fountain, but I did not toss in the requisite coin. I know that I will return to Rome; and I will do so often, so long as I continue to enjoy health and vitality. I will return, if for no other reason than to enjoy the kind of compliment given to me by my Roman friend as we were arranging dinner over the telephone; to wit, "Your Italian certainly has improved since the last time I spoke to you."
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|. The author, Jim Mancuso died on June 10th, 2005. We maintain this site in memory of all the things that he did for us.|