Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Puglia with the Tampone family

Saturday morning we had an early breakfast – Gianni and Lucia saw to that and also saw us off at about 8 am as we headed back to the mainland. We zipped right through Palermo this time – no stop and start with traffic snarls around the city like when we first arrived - and were also pleasantly surprised that we did not have to get off the A20 near Cefalu. Apparently only the westbound lanes are closed and we sped along, tunnel to bridge to tunnel to bridge. This is truly a remarkable feat of engineering the A20, perched hundreds of feet in the air. We got to Messina, crossed the straits on a ferry (Bluvia line this time) and we were on the A3 in Calabria by noon.

The autostrada in southern Italy, particularly in Calabria is in sore need of repair and while there is some effort in that direction one must be fully aware that there are large stretches where it’s only two lane.

In any case, after about 850 kms we got to Cerignola around 6 pm and had arranged by phone to meet Luisa and her father at the exit off the autostrada. We followed them to their home inside the city and were soon sitting at their dining room table having a delicious bowl of soup. We sat up with them for a bit but we eventually had to get some sleep and were unable to stay up for their dinner meal (around 10 pm).

After a great night’s rest the next day Susan, I, Luisa and her sister Angela (who we finally got to meet she having been away at school last year when we visited) headed to Stornara to see Vito who was working in his garden at the old WW2 airfield. It was a beautiful day as the four of us drove out into the countryside – and it was certainly a much nicer day than the first time Vito showed us around his garden (March of 2004). Trees were blooming, wildflowers were everywhere – indeed wildflowers seemed to be everywhere in Italy generally.

We spent the morning with Vito and after lunch back at the Tampone house in Cerignola we took a well-earned nap. Later in the evening Susan, Angela, Luisa and I drove to nearby San Ferdinando to pickup up Elio, Luisa’s fiancé and the five of us drove to Trani for our evening passegiata. The small coastal city of Trani is a must-see for anyone visiting Puglia. It has history in spades, including a marvelous Spanish castle and gorgeous Norman church right at the water’s edge, plus it is a lively town with plenty of small shops, and cool eateries right at the water’s edge.

After gelato we finished our stroll and headed back to Cerignola for supper.

Monday, the 25th of April is one of Italy’s national holidays, their day of liberation at the end of the Second World War – it happened to coincide with my birthday which was convenient and well-planned on somebody’s part. We had a great meal in the afternoon and the Tampone’s gave each one of us a gift. They couldn’t have known of course that it was their generosity and hospitality that was the best gift we could have been given. But their kindness continued on through the day and we had a grand time with Vito coming into town for dinner and for the afternoon nap as well.

That evening we said goodbye to Vito and Cinzia – they were heading back out to Stornara and since we would be leaving early in the morning for northern Italy we wouldn’t get a chance to see them before we left. Like Rosa and Peppino and their children, Luisa, Angela and Antonio, Vito has shown us kindness and generosity (two words that seem to be a recurring theme in the Tampone household). We hope to see them again soon.

We said our goodbyes to everyone else Tuesday morning and loaded the car up with all the great food Rosa had sent with us (Vito’s olives, homemade olive oil, tons of pasta, sun-dried tomatoes) and by 8 am were on the autostrada. The day was beautiful and traffic light. We seemed to zip right along until we got near Bologna when snarls held us up for a bit but we were back up to speed (Mach 2) and at last we reached our exit at Sirmione, on the southern shore of Lake Garda and just a few kms from our next stop, a week at the agriturismo Le Sorgive in Solferino.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Sicily adventures

MONDAY. After breakfast, Gianni, our host, took us in his car and gave a tour first of Scopello, which was once just a small fortified farm overlooking one of the now numerous defunct “tonnaras” (tuna processing plants) and is now a resort community catering to local Palmeritanians getting away for the weekend to northern Europeans on self-catering holidays. He then took us into Castellammare del Golfo, where he was born and raised and worked for many years as a banker. He showed us not only the highlights of this beautiful seaside community but also those places, which figured so prominently in his youth. He also showed where his mother had been born and the building, which had at one time housed his father’s furniture factory before he left for the US. We spent the rest of the day relaxing from our trip and that evening at a local agriturismo.

TUESDAY was our big day for ruins. We headed to Segesta, which is in fact not far from where we are staying and explored this unique archeological site, which predates the Greeks (as do indeed most of the sites we were to see). We then headed over to the western coast, towards Trapani to climb the mountain to Eric, a spectacular little city in the clouds. Unfortunately that’s exactly where it was that morning so we backtracked a bit and then headed south to another of the more well-known archeological sites, Selinunte, on the southern coast.

WEDNESDAY. Our first objective was to see the ruined village of Gibillina (“ruderi gibilina”). In the horrible 1968 earthquake, which destroyed many of Sicily’s tiny villages and caused further ruin and havoc, one of the few villages not rebuilt on its original location was Gibillina. In fact the new village was constructed out of whole cloth as it were near the present autostrada, about 18 kms from the old site, and was the result of a collaboration of artists, engineers, architects, etc.; a most curious thing to see today. Anyway, we drove around somewhat aimlessly in the back mountains looking for the old village of Gibillina but we were finally confronted with one of the Sicilian realities: road closures for landslides, etc.

After failing to get to old Gibillina we then set off on back roads towards Marsala where we toured the huge Florio wine factory. As we pulled in and parked there was a tour just being put together and, seeing our car with French plates one of the tour guides came over and started speaking to us in French but then seeing we were perplexed asked if we spoke Italian and then English. In any case, we ended up joining a tour group from Louisiana so it was a lively time for sure.

From Marsala we headed north to search out the salt pans of Trapani – again which we failed to find since, as it turns out, they are covered to protect the salt from the rain. We wound our way along the base of Erice as we headed back to Scopello for the evening.

THURSDAY. After a leisurely morning we drove to the old tonnara at Scopello and walked around a bit before driving further on through Scopello to the south entrance to Lo Zingaro nature preserve. We parked and then walked in for about 3 kms – the path winds its way right along the sea shore but rather high up the side of the mountains but making for fantastic views – before turning back to the parking lot. We then headed towards Palermo but got off the autostrada at the Partinico exit and took the back roads through some of the most dramatic and rugged mountainous terrain we had yet come across on our way to the cathedral of Monreale. At Monreale we stepped inside the cathedral and were struck by the fantastic sight of thousands of mosaic images – in fact Monreale is noted for its mosaics, rivaled only by the Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna. Truly, as the saying goes, if you come to Sicily and don’t see Monreale, “you arrive as a donkey and leave as an ass.”

From Monreale we drove down into the outskirts of Palermo to pick up the bypass back to the autostrada. Once again we were faced with the stark reality that to drive in or even near Palermo requires one to be heavily medicated. It is crazy indeed and further confirmed for us that we will take the train into the city on Friday.

FRIDAY. We left our car at the train station in Castellammare and took the train into Palermo for the day.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Sicily Sicily

Saturday was a beautiful day and by 10 am we had turned our key in and loaded the car and headed south down the A1 for Paestum, just south of Salerno where we would spend the night before heading on to Sicily. We found a place online, and agriturismo called Azienda Seliano just two miles from the ancient temple complex at Paestum. We arrived in the middle of the afternoon, checked in and drove over to the temples where we strolled for a an hour or so after which we stopped at a nearby bar for a glass of wine and to enjoy not having to do homework for a change (or rather Susan not having to do homework).

We ate at the Azienda that evening and since they were having a special party of graduating college students and their families in the main dining building – this is a rather large complex which produces its own buffalo mozzarella among other things – we ended up eating with a group of equestrian specialists. The azienda also specializes in equestrian activities and had been sponsoring a horse-jumping show, part of the Italian national apparently, that day and so had invited everyone to dinner. We had a grand time and plunged headlong into working on our Italian. In fact the baroness – Ceclia Baratta who is also fairly well known in NYC food circles as well – made a point of having everyone speak Italian to us. They were all very patient with us both and for some time the conversation revolved around not us but in fact which was the best way to get to Sicily, with most saying the autostrade was terrible that we should take the ferry. I pointed out that the ferry was no longer an option – they were overnight affairs and we had to be in western Sicily by late the next afternoon – and moreover one needed advance reservations if they were bringing a car.

Most at our table of some half dozen or so had their share of warnings – such as the road being shut down to two lanes for 30 kms and which proved to be true – all of which were much appreciated and we enjoyed ourselves immensely. Not only because the mozzarella was fresh that morning and some of it grilled – in fact they do not eat any cheese over a day old preferring to use it in cooking etc. The food overall was outstanding and the wine, a red wine out of unlabelled bottles scattered across the tables just went down like nectar. Needless to say we went to bed not only satisfied in food but in spirit and quite pleased with how much Italian we could understand.

After a delicious homemade breakfast the next morning we were on A3 heading south by 10 am. Not long afterwards the road closed to just two lanes which lasted for more than 30 kms as we wended our way through the rugged hills of southern Campania and on into Basilicata. We were soon in Calabria and the wildness of the terrain was totally unexpected (but then Italy is that way). As we neared Tropea the highway climbed dramatically and was cantilevered out over the ocean and we were probably 1000 feet or more above the water. Incredible!

Soon after we swung back inland there was a sudden closure of the highway – for reasons which we never understood – and after a frantic 20 minutes finding our way through Vibo Valentia, high on a ridge overlooking the sea, we decided to follow the signage south out of town for Reggia di Calabria (we were planning on catching a ferry over to Sicily just north of Reggio). We drove for some 40 kms over slow, twisty, back roads, along with what appeared to be thousands of other tourists, buses, trucks, etc. and at last found our way back onto the A3.

At about 3 pm or so we arrived at Villa San Giovanni, just north of Reggio, and followed the (easy) signage to the embarcadero (“imbarco”) for the ferry across the straits of Messina to the city of the same name. We were just in time, paid our ticket and drove right on the next ferry, and after a 20-minute wait or so we were off across to Sicily.

We were soon out of Messina and on our way on the A20 heading west to Palermo. Our first reaction as we climbed into the mountains and then went drove along the coast at a fantastic altitude was how mountainous and rocky the island is and as we passed through tunnel after tunnel, bridge after bridge, marveling at both the human and natural engineering.

While most of our trip had been with the sun – indeed we had come to Sicily in expectation of just that one thing – OK maybe a couple of more things but certainly that one – we didn’t think much of the ocassional rainstorm as we zipped along. But soon after we passed through and around Palermo we started seeing the ominous dark sky off to the north and west and heading our way. By the time we got to our exit off the autostrada it was a light rain and we climbed around the gulf of Castellemmare it began to rain harder. We saw our turn to take us down to Scopello (and our apartment for a week) but just as we approached this small turnoff we were hit by a deluge and had to pull off just meters short of our turn and sit out the storm for a few moments.

We eventually found our way and our apartment and were met by a pair of the nicest people on the face of the earth: the Turanos, Gianni (a retired banker) and his wife Lucia. They took us right into their home and let us sit out the storm before we even unloaded the car. We chatted a bit and sipped some wine, and talked about our lives, etc. Gianni and Lucia were both from Castellemare del Golfo (a few kms away) and Gianni has a brother living in Brooklyn – he runs a furniture factory business which I believe their father had started in NYC – and speaks a bit of English. Once they found out we were struggling students of the Italian language it is pretty much all we speak now with them.

After the stormed let up a bit they showed us to our apartment in the lower level of the house – a most comfortable and welcoming space.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Our last day

School is over at last. Our final week gave us hope that we have learned something indeed. Steve was out sick the first day and a half of the week with an upper respiratory virus and Susan had to do all the homework. (OK she always did the homework.)

Anyway we had a great last day in class – four of us were leaving in fact – and it started to feel odd that we wouldn’t be coming back on Monday. Sue and I made our presentations, hers on ourhome in Vermont and I did a little thing on digital art, which concluded with a piece “Faces of Siena”.

Afterwards, we gave each of our insegnante a gift: for Eduardo we found a DVD copy of Charlie Chaplin’s “Gold Rush” (Eduardo is doing a stand-up comic shtick in a local club) and for Egina I gave her a copy of my Paintings of Italy which included my image “The Campo at Flood Tide” (she had told me some weeks before she really liked my one photo of the Campo flooded and even asked for a screensaver version). After class we just strolled a bit, had a last glass of prosecco at our favorite bar and said goodbye to the staff who had been so kind to us over the weeks (one of the waitresses even gave Susan a big hug and kiss) and eventually headed home after a stop at the Internet Train to tidy up some lose ends before hitting the road.

About 6:30 pm we headed into the city one last time, parking near the fortezza of course, and went to Naninni’s for one last Negroni Sbagliati, an aperitivo favorite made with equal parts Campari and dry vermouth and topped with a splash of prosecco. We then met our friends Kris and Floyd for dinner at Boccon del Prete, where, as it turned out, another former student and acquaintance of ours was working in the kitchen. (DA has a combined language/cooking program.) Maki is from Japan, and had been studying Italian as well as learning to cook when we first met at Dante Alighieri during one of the improvisational theatre sessions. A sweet person and although shy she was one of the most friendly people we met during our entire time there.

The food was wonderful (as always) and the conversation lively and we said our farewells to Kris and Floyd determined to visit them in Spain this October.

We had a great last evening in Siena and although we eagerly look forward to our next adventure – involving we hope more sun – we cannot help but feel no little regret at having to leave the one place in Italy where we feel the most comfortable and most at home.

Monday, April 11, 2005

The end is near

Our seventh week ended with a return to inclement weather. It began with high temps and sun but by Friday this had changed back to cold and clouds with rain predicted for Saturday.

We picked up two new students this week, a German woman married to an American soldier stationed in Germany and a Swiss woman, both of whom have a really good grasp of the language. Our group was also combined with another class (a Swedish couple and a Swiss girl) as the school continues to shift teachers and students around – probably a consequence of the larger number of students arriving every week as we move into the high season. Anyway, it’s a real pleasure meeting new people, exchanging ideas and experiences while all of us attempt to improve our Italian language skills.

Anyway, I’ll save any further comments about the program until our final observations at the end of next week.

By and large our week was a quiet one – we attended several extracurricular activities beginning with a session late Tuesday afternoon where we joined a lecture and sing-a-long of contemporary Italian pop music. (One of the two songs we heard and subsequently tried to sing as a group, was performed by a man whose voice was a dead ringer for Bob Dylan’s.) It was fun although the lecture seemed a bit long to us and we would have preferred more music, singing and song study.

On Thursday we stayed in town after school ate a pizza on the Campo, watched people for a while and then went to the Internet Train to do some emailing and web surfing. About 5 in the afternoon we headed back to school for another after school program; this time it was about the unique nature of the very distinct dialect found in Naples. The program, which was the first of two parts,, focused on a history of the local dialect and then a brief examination of how that dialect made it’s way into contemporary film and poetry.

Friday night we joined a large group of students for “Happy Wine” night at the Enoteca Italiana located in the fortezza in Siena. Most of the students were in attendance and of course scads of Italians – everyone had a great time and we finally got home about 11 pm.

Saturday proved rainy and cold but we grabbed the 9:23 bus into town for our coffee and morning dolce before meeting another group of students for a tour of the museum in the Palazzo Pubblico which is the administrative and historical center of the city (it is located at the “bottom” of the Piazza del Campo). There was quite a group (again) probably a consequence of not much else going on with the lousy weather. A couple of students, however, took the opportunity to head to Verona for the one day that Vinitaly is open to public. Vinitaly is THE wine and food product event of the year in Italy (and indeed for much of the rest of the world) and our hope someday is to also make the connection there as well. In the meantime we had to settle for being in Siena, hearing stories of ancient times and looking at paintings which have been in place for centuries working their magic. We had a great time.

Afterwards we went out to lunch with our friends Kris and Floyd (they live in Coin, Spain); Kris is also in language school but Floyd wisely chose to keep his distance and appreciate being in Siena without the pressures of the classroom. Anyway we had lunch in what has become rather typical for us – and that is about three hours worth of food, wine and conversation. They dropped us off at home and we opted to stay in for the duration of the deluge or Sunday morning whichever comes first.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Week seven begins and so does Spring

Our seventh week began with absolutely gorgeous weather.

OK, so six weeks are over and we don’t feel much smarter than we did a week ago – or two weeks ago or . . . OK you get the picture. But the weather is absolutely gorgeous, sunny and a bit brisk this Saturday morning but gardens are coming in, trees are blooming everywhere and it would seem that Primavera is here at last.

This past weeks has been by and large a quiet one with the focus being largely on school and schoolwork.

Wednesday we did go to our second school-organized wine and food tasting at the enoteca “Cantina di Piazza” (a once-a-month activity) and had as much fun than the last one we attended. We clearly understood much more of the lecture that’s for sure. Also we’ve gotten to know some of the other students quite a bit better and that certainly has helped.

Speaking of other students this past Friday we started meeting in a small group (three of us so far) after school at a nearby bar to focus on our speaking skills.

Thursday Roberto Bechi called us right after school and asked if we would like to join his half-day tour (he had two open seats). We had been angling to join one of his very small group tours for some time and although the weather was leaning toward cold, wind and rain (all of which did in fact hit us later) we jumped at the chance.

We joined another couple, Vincent and Julie from NYC and headed off north of the city into the Chianti Classico zone. We stopped at an Etruscan tomb just outside of Castellina in Chianti – and while the weather was uncooperative it was a fascinating tour and short lecture by Roberto on the history and impact of Etruscans on western civilization.

From there headed to to a winery, Cappanelle, near Gaiole in Chianti where Roberto gave us another “underground” tour of the local winemaking process and afterwards we enjoyed a sampling of some of the wines, a chardonnay, a Chianti Classico and a “supertuscan” or IGT wine, “Solare”.

From Gairole Roberto drove us to the tiny village of Vertine, very quaint and picturesque yes, but it proved to be much than that. It was here that Roberto explained the rise of the middle ages and the complexities of the Renaissance, all within the context of this very tiny hamlet.

We ended the week with a delicious dinner with another student Kristina and her husband Floyd at “Il Capriccio”, a ristoranti operated by and located in the Hotel Palazzo Ravizza. (Kristina and Floyd live in southern Spain.) After dinner the four of us strolled about the garden, which had a wonderful eastern view from what seemed to be the top of the city walls; quite spectacular, even at night.

Saturday morning to be to be another gorgeous day and so naturally we headed into town. We had a coffee and dolce and then just strolled for a while, eventually settling on the Campo to have a glass of wine and bite of lunch. Our favorite street comedian (we first saw him do his shtick over five years ago) was performing for the tourists and as always it added to the sheer pleasure of soaking up the sun, sipping prosecco and watching people. Another student in our class, Catarina (from Switzerland of course) walked by and joined us for an hour or so – she’s very funny and although she speaks English very well she refuses to and will only speak in Italian. A great way to learn and we make the most of it (and so does she).

As the sun was setting we said ciao to Catarina and headed over to the nearby enoteca to pick out some wines for the week (the same place we had our gustazione at with the school for the past two months now). We sat down with Aimone, the owner and tasted several wines before making our selections. (he has quite a few wines open for tasting by the glass.)

Sunday we replayed Saturday’s “journey adrift” of spending the afternoon drinking prosecco and sitting on the Campo after doing competiti and going back to school on Monday.