I intended to write about my trip to Italy while I was in Italy, but technology (in the form of a sulky Bluetooth keyboard, and the inability to access Facebook's more blog-like Notes feature on my tablet) made me throw my hands up in the air.
So here we are, with memories transcribed some days or weeks after they happened, which means I’ll lose some of the immediacy of the moment. I hope that loss is small.
There’s zero chance I would have gone to Italy this summer had my mother not died two years ago this November. For that matter, there’s zero chance I would have gone to Italy in the summer at all had my sister-in-law, Lauren, not been an elementary school teacher with scant time off except in the summer. Given that constraint, we booked our trip at my friend Karen Smith’s Rocca di Benano for July, 2017, shortly after our mother’s memorial service in 2016.
Our flight to Rome took off about an hour late from Detroit, and with a medical emergency in our row and people rushing to catch a connection for a Greek cruise, we deplaned in Rome more than an hour later than scheduled.
Then there was the drama with the rental car. I got a great deal through Autoclick-- less than $300/week. Unlike all the other car rental companies with familiar names, though, they were not conveniently located on the grounds of the airport. We had explicit instructions for where to await our bus, and after overcoming our confusion over where the first floor exit was (in Europe, Floor 1 is actually what we would call Floor 2), we thought we found the right spot. There was no sign marking the rental van stop, though, so I experienced the first of many mildly anxious moments that go along with international travel. Eventually, an Autoclick van stopped in exactly the spot we were standing.
Lesson 1: In Rome, your car rental experience will go more smoothly if you stick with the familiar names. They’re all located in one spot in the parking garage across the sky bridge from the airport. But if cost matters, Autoclick worked just fine for us, and its location outside the busy roadways within the airport made it less hectic getting in and out.
My brother John and his wife were expected about 2 hours after us, but with our various delays, we ended up getting our rental cars at approximately the same time. We arranged to meet at the first gas station along the road and from there, traveled in tandem to our first night’s AirBnB rental outside a small town called Tuscania.
I actually tried to book us an overnight place in Tarquinia, one of the places Karen highly recommended as a day trip or stopover on the way to or from Benano. I wasn’t able to find a suitable rental there, and eventually located the olive farm where we’d be staying outside Tuscania. To get there, we took the more scenic, coastal route, passing Tarquinia along the way:
After the usual GPS glitches and subsequent wrong turns, we finally located the olive farm and got settled in. While John went for a swim in Lake Bolsena and Richard took a nap, Lauren and I went into Tuscania to scare up some snacks and wine to tide us over until dinnertime. While there, we walked around town to get a feel for the place.
Tuscania is not one of the places tourists flock to. It’s a quiet town with a rich history, and tourists like us were an exception. We mostly saw locals going about their daily life. That included multi-generational families enjoying Torre di Lavello park, which overlooked Colle San Pietro on one side and the walls of Tuscania on the other.
Our one purchase in the old part of town was at a wine shop. There, vats of local wine were available for tasting and purchase. After selecting two -- one red, one white -- we settled on 3 litre containers for a grand total of € 14, or about $15.50. As a side note, every wine I had in Italy was delicious -- and cheap! If I lived there full-time, I’d be a wino.
We got back to our guest house, where we sipped wine, ate cheese and bread and chatted with our host, Lorenzo. Not only was he a great host, he was a really interesting man. His parents bought the property where we were staying in the early ‘90’s, not to farm but to have a country home, away from the city. Later, he and his brother taught themselves to farm. He now travels regularly to the U.S. to talk about olive oil production, sustainable farming (including livestock), and cooking.
Lorenzo had chores to finish and we needed a dinner recommendation. We explained that one of our party’s dietary restrictions required a place that was vegetarian-friendly (fish OK). He thought for a moment, then told us about Dieci Sede -- Ten Seats, for the total number of people the restaurant can seat. The speciality? Fish, served as a prix fixe menu. Lorenzo offered to call and get us a reservation at 7:30 -- the earliest Italian restaurants open for dinner. And with that, our dinner plans were set.
I had a lot of great food after our first night in Italy, but our introductory dinner became the standard against which we measured all future meals. Over the course of 3 hours, our waiter brought out dish after beautifully prepared and presented dish, each more tasty than the last. With each new masterpiece, we kept upping our bets on the final price. After seven courses (Eight? I lost count) -- and dessert, and three bottles of wine -- the final tally was...€160, or €40 per person. That’s about $45.
Lesson #2: Food and wine in Italy is both delicious and cheap by U.S. standards. Even at finer dining establishments.
By the end of our meal, not only was I so full I was close to bursting, my brain had turned to mush and all I wanted to do was go back to our cottage and sleep. We paid our waiter, whom we learned was also the owner and chef, and let him know in no uncertain terms that the meal he’d prepared for us was magnifico.
We wound our way home and went straight to bed. Now, remember - I told you this was a farm, right? And here’s what our little cottage with no screens on the windows looked out upon:
Flies that bit us all night long. Both Lauren and I spent days itching after our night at the olive farm. It was the only down side to our stay there. I would go back to Lorenzo’s in a heartbeat, but I’d opt for staying at his inn a little further down the road from the cottage, where we walked for breakfast the next morning.
After breakfast and further conversation with Lorenzo, we accepted his daughter Matilda’s invitation to show us the Etruscan ruins on their property. Check in time at Rocca di Benano wasn’t until 4 pm, so we had plenty of time to dawdle.
I can’t leave Tuscania without sharing one of my favorite pictures of the entire trip, taken at that time of day when everything is golden. It’s even more golden in Italy.
After our tour of the ruins, the four of us split up to explore Italy on our own before meeting up with my sister, Susan and her husband Eric later that day at Rocca di Benano. After exploring the church and other historical buildings around Tuscania, Richard and I happened upon our first hill town, Montefiascone.
After climbing to the very top of Citta di Montefiascone, we had a light lunch at a small wine bar/restaurant overlooking the valley and Lake Bolsena below.
On to Benano!
Karen Smith and her husband, Paul DeMarco, have done a wonderful job of transforming a 1000-year old Italian villa into a lovely home away from home for people who want to experience Italy on a more personal level. That experience begins with a welcome dinner cooked by Simona Fabrizio, a private chef, and her staff. This frees up jet-lagged new arrivals to relax and sip wine bought in bulk from a local winery and bottled by the caretakers for guests’ consumption. After the amount we drank during our week there, Karen and Paul may seriously question their generosity.
We didn’t deplete their stock, but we made several trips to their cantina (wine cellar) for more. It’s at the bottom of 36 steps dug out of tufa rock that’s at least as old as the 1,000 year old house. We arrived in Italy during an extreme heat wave and drought, making the temperature drop as you descend particularly noticeable.
On Saturday, my sister, Susan and her husband, Eric joined me on a walk to get better acquainted with our neighborhood. A short climb up a steep hill just outside the town’s entrance and we were on a gravel road with farm fields on both sides.
We spent most of our time over the weekend in nearby Orvieto, one of Italy’s most famed hilltop towns. Like most of these ancient cities, driving the narrow streets filled with pedestrians is hair-raising. I far preferred parking the car and taking the funicular that’s located across from the train station in Lower Orvieto. It deposits you on the hilltop, just a few short blocks from Orvieto’s major attraction, the Duomo.
On our second visit, we went on an hour-long Orvieto Underground tour. I was most fascinated with the ancient Etruscan well, down which our tour guide said many pairs of eye glasses and other tourist paraphenalia had fallen over the years. This and other wells were one of the reasons why Orvieto was able to withstand so many sieges throughout its history. The caves served many purposes through their long history, but not until World War II were they used as shelters.
We had our only unexceptional meal out that night at a hotel in the nearby town of Viceno. On the way home, just outside the dirt road leading to Benano, we saw a lot of activity and live music outside a new pizza place. We wished our friend and fellow accordian player, Chuck Wiggins, could have been with us.
This brings us to Monday and the purpose of our visit. We boarded a train that morning for a two-hour trip to Florence, where we planned to scatter our mother’s ashes. We had no set plan other than finding her beloved Hotel Principe, where she spent many trips to Italy enjoying the view from her balcony of the River Arno, which flows through the city.
At this point, I’ll stop talking and just let the pictures speak for me.
It was a long journey, but we finally completed the only last request our mother ever made of us. That journey didn’t happen without some fair share of family drama along the way, but as my dear friend Jani says, our family remains in relationship; we work through things rather than throw up our hands and walk away.
I’m not sure I can put into words what this week with my siblings and our dearest life companions meant to me, nor how I felt standing on the banks of the Arno with them as we watched our mother float down that river to become part of the place she loved so much. This week together was for her and from her. We now carry that Italian piece of her heart with us, always.
As we walked back across the river, we saw a young couple sitting under the tree where we had so recently created a small memorial to our mother -- a poignant reminder that life goes on, and so must we.
We now set our sights on meeting up with an old family friend -- Carla Lanzarini, who lives in the Umbrian city of Cento. There’s a great background story to how we met Carla. Many years ago, my sister-in-law, Lauren, starred in a soap opera called Loving. It became a hit TV show in Italy, and Lauren and her TV husband in the series were major stars there. That prompted the network to send them to Italy on a promotional tour. Carla was Lauren’s #1 fan, and later traveled to New York to visit her. Over the years, she became a friend to the entire family, including our mother.
After lunch, we wandered the city for a little while longer, but the heat of the day was getting to all of us. We said our goodbyes and boarded the train back to Orvieto around 4 pm.
My brother-in-law, Eric, had been suffering from an increasingly painful toothache, and when we arrived in Orvieto, he decided to go back to Benano. The rest of us headed back up the hill for one of the most delightful meals of our time together.
With Lauren being a vegetarian and Susan a vegan, finding restaurants could be a challenge at times. We were all hungry, and finally selected a place that appeared as if it could provide Susan with something acceptable. From the outset, though, the proprietor made it clear he wasn’t thrilled that we’d chosen his restaurant. Whether it was our group’s size or the fact that we were Americans -- we didn’t know. Susan was feeling especially grumpy that night about her food choices. Her mood was not improved by the owner’s constant “no, we can’t” to every request.
But then to our delight, our waiter, Antonio, would flit in after every annoying encounter with the owner, smoothing things over -- hand to the side of his mouth, sotto voce -- complaining that the owner was new and didn’t know how to properly treat customers, and that he, Antonio, would be more than happy to make up for the owner’s failings. Which he did at every turn.
It may have all been a well-rehearsed schtick, but it was a delightful one!
On Tuesday, we carpooled to another Umbrian hill town, Montepulciano. As anyone who spends a concentrated amount of time with extended family knows, you eventually reach a point where the constant togetherness begins to wear a little thin. That happened to us in Montepulciano.
But before the breaking point, we parked our cars at the foot of this hill town, and walked up the steep road to the city center of yet another of the lovely hill towns with lovely views that dot this area of Italy.
A few of us stopped off in the Museum of Torture -- a graphic reminder that our species’ history of doing horrible things to one another stretches way back. I’m surprised I haven’t had nightmares about some of the things I saw (and worse, the things I read about how the contraptions were used).
We’d arrived late morning, and by the time we’d finished looking at the museum, we began to talk about finding a place to eat. At this point, though, the Dawdling Didrichsen tendency set in. We’re like the dog from the movie “Up,” except substitute “Wine Bar!” for “SQUIRREL!” And it was a cool wine bar, with clear floors revealing ancient Etruscan ruins below.
But by the time we finished our wine, and stopped off in a couple of more gift shops, we hit the magic hour when the restaurants all over Italy close and don’t reopen again until 7:30. It made for a grumpy walk back down the hill and a long ride home.
Lesson #3: As Kahlil Gibran says, “Let there be space in your togetherness.” And when you’re traveling in Italy, pack a sandwich, just in case.
Nothing that a good dinner and wine won’t fix, though. We had both in abundance that evening!
On Wednesday, Lauren and I spent the morning learning how to cook, Italian style, with chef Simona. What an experience, from picking the herbs and vegetables we used to craft the meal to learning how to make a full-course Italian meal -- and then sitting on her lovely terrace and enjoying it, along with glasses of wine. Determined not to lose what I’d learned, I went to Artichoke, my favorite kitchen store in downtown Cincinnati, on my first day back to buy a pasta machine, and Richard and I made home made pasta and sauce our first Saturday back home.
On our last full day together we visited Assisi, the loveliest of all the towns we’d seen. The Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi was stunningly beautiful; I spent a good 15 minutes sitting down in a portion of the chancel, absorbing the beautiful colors of the ceiling and walls. It was also the only place we visited where we saw significant numbers of Catholic nuns and priests.
That night -- our last together -- we finally went into the nearby town of Torre Alfina to dine at the restaurant Karen and Paul call their favorite local place. Good food, good wine, and delicious gelato afterwards. We all wished we hadn’t waited until the last minute to explore this lovely little town.
Friday, we went our separate ways: John and Lauren had a flight home; Susan and Eric were going to Bologna and Venice before returning home the following Tuesday; and Richard and I were headed for Rome.
Arrivederci, famiglia -- ciao, Roma!
We dropped our car off at the car rental agency, hopped the van to the airport and bought our train tickets for Rome’s Civitavecchia train station, a short tram ride away from our AirBnB home for the weekend. Because we weren’t entirely sure what we were doing, we bought our tickets from a gate agent rather than a kiosk, and in the process, we’re pretty sure we got scammed. He sold us two 2nd class fares and told us to take the train on Track 1. After we got onboard, we learned we were on the 1st class express train to Rome’s central Termini station. “That will be € 28 more,” said our conductor.
That’s how you learn. Besides, we ended up having a pleasant 20 minute conversation with a Russian tourist and his American companion, which made the time go faster. And rather than spend lots of time figuring out how to get from A to B, we just called Uber from Termini and let our driver do it for us.
Our place in Rome was perfect -- right above a wine shop and close to many restaurants and shopping. We were within two miles of nearly all the major sights.
I’d been to Rome for a single day on my only previous trip to Italy many years ago, so I looked forward to spending more time exploring the city. My friend, Aileen, had highly recommended the Colosseum and Imperial Rome tour, and we had scheduled one for 8:30 Saturday morning.
It was well worth the cost. There were only 4 of us at the beginning of the tour. The other two dropped off about halfway through, so we essentially had a private tour. While the Colosseum made up the brunt of our time together, we also walked around the area that included the Roman Forum, with our guide explaining the history and timeline of the various buildings that lie within this historic district. I had a much stronger sense of Imperial Rome afterwards.
Saturday was exhausting. My Fitbit registered 10 miles before the day was done. We went back to the apartment to rest up before dinner, and even then only had the energy to walk around the corner from the flat before walking into the first restaurant we saw. We opted for that evening’s special -- sea bass. The waiter brought it out and set it aflame, to applause and “Bravos!” all around.
Sunday -- our last day. We lacked the energy to explore that we’d had in abundance a week earlier, but eventually we pushed ourselves to get out one last time so we didn’t miss any “must sees” on our list -- the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain and St. Peter’s Square. Our hearts weren’t really in it, though. Several years ago, at a similar point of sightseeing exhaustion, we’d paraphrased Caesar’s famous quote, mixing languages into the bargain: Vene, Vidi, Vamos!
We walked to the Trevi Fountain and the Steps, then took a “Hop On, Hop Off” bus to St. Peter’s Square. Richard took a few perfunctory pictures at each place and then we went on our way. As he said, “I’m out of awe.”
After a very long nap, we made plans for our last dinner in Rome. I was determined to have good lasagna before we came home. After some Googling, Richard found a place touted as having the best, and only a few blocks from our apartment. I can’t tell you whether it was the best, but it met my expectations and that’s all that mattered. We also enjoyed watching the vibrant nightlife along the piazza while we ate.
And so, our wonderful Italian adventure came to a close, and as we left the city Monday morning -- I was ready to come home.
As I was coming to the end of this travelogue, I realized my cat -- the one who was originally my mom’s but became mine within the first 3 months my mother took her on -- was very sick. This morning, two weeks after we scattered our mother’s ashes, Chainsaw Kitty (so christened by Richard for her rumbling purr) died after a brief illness.
I had a complicated relationship with this cat. She was prickly, needed tons of attention, did things that annoyed the hell out of me, and was constantly getting into fights with the other three cats, whom it was clear she never liked despite having spent most of her life among them. There is more than one parallel with my mother.
And I loved and will miss her, too.