Well, I’m on a roll. I just had another stay in Italy with family members. This time, I was joined by my nephew, John, and his wife, Stacey. They’re the designated legatees of my house and, though the whole thing might seem a bit ghoulish, I wanted them to get a sense of the place and let me know if I should make other arrangements. A house abroad can be a blessing, certainly, but it can also just be a big pain in the patoots if you don’t see yourself wanting to go there very often.
The “kids” arrived on Monday, a bit wrung out from the long flight and drive but game to power through. After a plate of arrabbiata at home, we headed out for an overview of Fossacesia.
We'd missed the Festival of the Grapes the prior weekend, which looks like it would’ve been a hoot (photos courtesy of my pal Anna), but hoped to reap some of the rewards of the new wine harvest. We drove the few minutes toward the vineyards and stopped at Venea, where you can buy really good wines right at the source for 6.99 euro per bottle. It was our intro to buying direct, Italian-style. More on that anon.
This year’s rose’ was crisp and delish, though we couldn’t decide whether we liked it better than last year’s. We bought both, together with some outstanding Pecorino, a white wine particular to the region, and a few bottles of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.
Next stop: the beach, where John showed off his eye for a good shot.
We had a tasty, no-frills dinner at Da Rocco down on the lido, where John had his first of what would be facefuls of pizza.
The next morning, we took a guided tour of the Abbazia di San Giovanni in Venere, a 13th-century monastery and basilica built on the ruins of a pagan temple to Venus. It’s just down the street from the house, but I’d never taken an actual tour there. Our guide, Tiziana, was a delight. I can give you her number should you ever be in the area.
I so love taking guided visits because you get such interesting tidbits you wouldn’t unless you’d pored over texts beforehand, which most of us don’t do. In the crypt, and thanks to Tiziana, we saw a bit of the genius of ancient artists —in this case, how one fresco built around an existing window used the light streaming in as a representation of Jesus Christ (“I am the light of the world.”). The bodies of Saint Peter (or was it John the Baptist?) and Saint Benedict, the founder of the order of monks who once populated the place, incline toward the light.
Now take a look at the face of Jesus in this fresco, a face I've never seen depicted with such a peculiar jocularity. It reminded me of someone…(scroll over)
Tiziana escorted us into the cloister, which is open to the public and a lovely place for meditation.
We moved on to the nearby medieval town of Lanciano, an important destination for pilgrims because it’s the site of the Eucharistic Miracle of the 11th century. Here’s the story of the miracle:
A monk was saying Mass and, at the moment of consecration of the bread and wine, had a flash of doubt about the Transubstantiation. (For those who were not raised Catholic, the doctrine of Transubstantiation holds that, at consecration, the bread and wine become (not just represent) the body and blood of Christ sacrificed for our sins, notwithstanding they maintain the appearance of bread and wine.) In that moment, the host (aka bread) became a piece of human flesh (later determined to be a fragment of human heart) and the wine became blood (later determined to be of the same blood type found in the remains of the heart). The remains —a bit frightful — are on display in a little chamber, and a diorama in another room recounts the whole story and shows the papal seal confirming the miracle to be verified by the Vatican.
A few centuries later, the city was visited by a second Eucharistic Miracle: A woman having marital problems went to a seer of some sort and was advised, somewhat inexplicably IMHO, to steal a sanctified host from the church. Again, the host turned to flesh.
I suppose you can take various lessons from these stories (though I for one am still puzzling over this second episode), but one lesson is clearly not to mess with the hosts in Lanciano!
The church next to the site of the second miracle has a legend of its own attached, but it’s a bit convoluted for me to relate here. I include this photo because I’m always a little unnerved when the face of the baby Jesus in Mary’s arms is the face of my 72-year-old dry cleaner. Thoughts?
We stopped for lunch at Ai Vecchi Sapori, a pretty little restaurant in the center of town that’s always recommended when you ask. Stacey’s pecorino and pear ravioli in a pear sauce was reportedly lovely, as were John’s gnocchi in gorgonzola. My vegan gnocchi dish was unmemorable.
We asked our host from whence came the flavorful, deep green olive oil she’d put on the table. From Frantoio Rapino, she said, just down the road a piece, so we headed straight there.
Turned out we were lucky enough to have hit not only the grape but also the olive harvests in some localities, so we scored a few tins of freshly pressed, unfiltered olive oil. Green gold, baby!
In the afternoon, we met Anna “in piazza” for an aperitivo. While I consider her a treasured friend, she’s actually closer in age to John and Stacey, so I figured she’d be a good person for them to know.
Dinner at the relatively new Ristorante Puro was a wonderful experience. Both food and ambience were fantastic. I’d spotted this place in July — radiantly white against the seaside sunset and throbbing with music — and was impressed that little Fossacesia had a spot with such a high “cool” factor. I thought it might give my simple, bucolic town some cachet in the minds of my 30-something relatives should they start thinking they’d landed on the set of Deliverance 2022, The Italian Remake.
On Wednesday, we made an excursion with Antonio to Palena. Our aim was to show the kids one of the ski towns nearby and also to stop at some of Antonio’s preferred sources for cheese and honey. Unfortunately, he hadn’t visited them in years and had lost track of names and locations. But not to worry. In these small towns, time moves slowly, people move almost never, and everybody knows everybody else. All you have to say is something like “I’m looking for that beekeeper with the streak of white in his beard who spoke with a kind of lisp and kept his honey products on colorful shelves” and you’re off. We began our inquiries at Da Lucia, where the eponymous cook and longtime acquaintance of Antonio and his family came out to help us track down our quarry. As you see, I have my phone at the ready to take notes.
Armed with Lucia’s vague directions, we headed out to find the homestead of the pastoral family who raised sheep and sold pecorino and sheep’s milk ricotta and the like. When we thought we were getting close, we stopped a man on the road to ask where we might find the place. He answered that we were right in front of it and proceeded to yell up to an elderly lady seated on an upstairs terrace. She yelled back that her daughter, the current boss, was taking a walk up the mountain a ways and we’d surely find her if we drove on. So we stalked the poor woman up the mountain and, sure enough, found and accosted her as she strolled with a friend. She was sorry to tell us that she’d already sold out of the season’s products. We thanked her and went on our way, disappointed but better-informed for next year.
(I realized only belatedly that the photo below was of cows.)
Next, we tried to hunt down the poor devil who raised bees and purveyed honey products from his home. We arrived at that home, but our beekeeper was nowhere in sight and couldn’t be found, notwithstanding the efforts of half the town. We listened to residents recount how they thought maybe he spent Wednesday afternoons with his daughter, or had moved permanently to a small place up the mountain opposite the former school building, or divided his time between this address and the other up the mountain opposite the former school building, and so on.
So our excursion proved fruitless in terms of securing any fruits of the earth, but it was a lesson in how things work in rural Italy, and one that wasn’t without its comedic aspect.
The kids are very outdoorsy, so I’d booked them a self-guided e-bike tour along the coast for Thursday. The tour was supposed to include the bikes, maps of trails and recommended stops, picnic lunch, and use of restrooms along the way. Well, when they got there, John and Stacey found the people at the designated pickup spot (oddly enough, a restaurant-cum-departure point) had no idea what they were talking about. (The feeling was mutual, since nobody spoke the same language.) The situation apparently became so comical that, at one point, the kids thought they were being told they had to eat a plate of mixed fish in order to get the trail map — which turned out their interlocutor had run out of, anyway.
All the confusion was good-natured on both sides, and John and Stacey ended up just renting bikes for a few hours. They lucked out, because that day the Adriatic was the rich teal color of Sardinian waters.
This short video makes me laugh because John looks like he ought to be followed by flying monkeys.
Meanwhile, while all this was going down, I was in the Medieval hill town of Penne, about an hour away, where my friend Jayna from back in the States was seeing her new condo for the first time. She’d bought it online, having taken a virtual tour. There are frescoes on her ceilings, for crying out loud! And she’s got a great view. I’m so jazzed to know she’ll be nearby from time to time.
That night, at Il Ritrovo in Paglieta, the three of us were feeling famished and therefore over-ordered to the point of turning heads. Here’s what wound up on the table: three kinds of bread, one antipasto sampler, one caprese salad, two balls of arancini, one soup of pasta and ceci, two orders of penne all’arrabbiata, one plate of spaghetti alla carbonara, and one order of chicory in garlic and oil.
When we sheepishly admitted later that perhaps we’d ordered too much, the waitress agreed with good-humored and slightly insulting alacrity.
Friday, John and Stacey headed back toward Rome for their flight to Zurich, but not before assuring me that they really did like the house and the town. I believed them, feeling like they’d really embraced it all and made it their own. Before they left Italian soil, they spent the night in a hotel in the National Park of Abruzzo and went for a hike there. They were good enough to send some photos.
Meanwhile, I got the house ready for my departure and, on Saturday evening, drove to the Fall Festival in Paglieta.
I stayed just long enough to buy a bottle of grappa al miele (honeyed grappa) and a sampler of four local honeys that included coriander, cherry, thistle, and the somewhat overexposed and therefore much less intriguing mille fiori, the Harry Styles of Italian honey.
Next up: Venice on the fly. Please stay tuned.