(Wish you were here?)
I’d planned this brief January trip to meet with Sergio, the property manager, to go over work to be done this year— namely, reinforcement of the foundation prior to kitchen extension — and then just to hang at the house and do some work that’s backing up on me. But when my sister Rosie decided at the last minute to come along, I was only too happy to change my program. We’d spend four nights at the house and four nights jaunting around other cities.
For me, traveling with my much younger sis means I'm in for some yuks.
Years ago, when we toured Assisi and its environs together, we learned of a crucifix that was purported to have told St. Francis to rebuild a particular church. The talking cross issuing orders to the earnest young Francis tickled us, and Rosie dubbed it The Bossy Cross. The Bossy Cross starred in all kinds of ensuing hilarity. It was blamed for poor restaurant recommendations, lousy directions, bad romance advice. When a phone buzzed, we’d wave our hands and cry, “If it’s the Cross, I’m not here!” Oh, we laughed and laughed. Our hearts were young and gay.
Rosie is not only great company but an easy companion, and she seemed genuinely content to spend a few days getting a sense of daily life and local color in Fossacesia. So that’s what we did.
There’s a terrific new coffee and pastry shop in town where we met up with a little local color in the form of “Bambino,” the toddler son of my friend Anna.
Back at their apartment, Bambino pressed Rosie into service as his lab assistant for experiments with toy cars that changed color in hot and cold water. “Hot water!” “Si, Dottore Bambino.” “Ice!” “Ice, Dottore.”
The child of one native Italian speaker and one English, the Bambino prefers English, particularly when he's working. Especially charming was his insistence on holding Rosie’s hand for the parting shot.
Back at my own home, the mandarin tree was in full blossom so we filled some bags for Sergio, who’s a big fan. I’m not very keen on fruits of the orange family, but Rosie attested to their tastiness. It seemed odd to be picking citrus in January, but what do I know?
Brit expats and kicky couple Angela and Charlie picked us up for dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Lanciano. Every now and again, a person does want a cuisine other than Italian. Even the natives, who are pretty impressed with their national kitchen, will occasionally betray it — usually for Eastern food of some sort. Please do note my stick-straight blowout from a salon in town. Loved it.
Among the pantry staples Rosie took a shine to was the white wine varietal called Pecorino that’s peculiar to Abruzzo, together with crema di pistacchio, which she accurately called a brighter take on peanut butter. She toted four jars home. She might have done the same with the Coppa del Nonno from the supermarket, a creamy frozen coffee treat, but did not for obvious reasons.
Dinner at Il Bucco, a restaurant walking distance from the house that’s clearly a favorite for families, proved quite good if a bit chaotic. I was glad to add it to my list of places to go on foot, notwithstanding the packeted parmigiano.
A Sunday Outing to Ortona: Dubious Choice?
The nearby port city of Ortona was a ghost town on Sunday. We searched in vain for a place to have a late lunch. I was ready to forsake the whole enterprise, but Rosie pressed to try just one more door.
We tugged on that of La Piccola Canadese, and what to our wondering eyes did appear? Behold: people dining!
So this was where families having an octogenarian birthday party or just wanting a Sunday meal out had hidden themselves. It was one of those places that served you what was on offer that day (almost always a good sign in Italy), in this case asking only if you preferred meat or fish. When I answered neither, I was brought a vegan dish of sautéed chicory with caramelized hot peppers and some secret ingredient that made it exquisite, followed by a very tasty mezze maniche in tomato and basil sauce. Rosie had a seafood salad and pasta with some kind of shrimp sauce, both of which she declared outstanding. Two thumbs up.
We moved on to the quite beautiful Basilica Cathedral of San Tommaso Apostolo, more commonly known as Doubting Thomas. The Church claims to have the remains of the famous skeptic, just as many churches in this corner of the world claim to have bits and pieces of other early Christians. The remains of Thomas reportedly were pilfered from an island in Greece.
Ancestors in these parts did love a body snatching. It seems never to have occurred to them that doing a grab-and-go with the body or finger or whathaveyou of revered martyrs by cover of night and dragging it hither and yon might be a lick short of reverent.
So Sunday’s theme was doubters -- I doubting that we’d ever find a place to eat lunch, Thomas doubting, well, you’ve probably heard the story.
We left Monday morning for Ravenna, the famous mosaic city long on my bucket list. That visit will get its own post. Let me just say that among our stops there was the tomb of Dante. I knew he had died in exile, but I didn't realize his remains had never come home to Florence. Where were the grave robbers when you needed them?
We arrived in Florence with Dante on the brain, which is a damned good place for Dante to be.
I bought an appropriately austere mask of "The Supreme Poet" to watch over the library section of my new apartment (one fine day when the reno is finished).
One advantage to visiting a popular destination like Florence in January and in the rain is the lack of crowds. When do you ever see so much open space at the Duomo?
And here's another question: What on earth am I up to in all that open space at the Duomo?
We stopped into the lovely, jewel box-sized Procacci, a Florence fixture famous for truffle sandwiches. As Rosie took dainty bites, I was busy making a spectacle of myself trying to hoist my carcass onto the very high stool without elbowing my stylish Florentine neighbors’ champagne flutes into their eyes.
Let me take a moment here to note that there’s nothing like Europeans, specifically Italians, more specifically Florentines, to make me feel ungainly and disheveled. The more time I spend here, the more I’m aware of it. First of all, Europeans, specifically Italians, more specifically Florentines are always so tailored and natty. Every zipper and button and scarf is secured and smartly arranged. Moreover, they seem to have an innate sense of their position in space as they move through it. They never trip or fall, never bump into people or things. It's uncanny.
Then you have me. Some readers might remember the morning I checked into a posh hotel in Rome with my pants on inside out. The truth is I've long been a little like Oscar Madison, baggy coat forever open, shirt buttoned askew, coins and tickets and wrappers spilling from my overstuffed pockets. But in Italy, I feel like Oscar Madison in an oversized parka, baseball mitts for gloves, ricocheting from surface to surface and trailing bits of things I've blundered into like toilet paper from a shoe, only instead of (or in addition to) the tp there's a table napkin or somebody's hair stuck in my urban sombrero.
Ah, the obligatory selfie against the shimmering, bilious Arno. (Don't get me wrong. I love Florence. But let's be honest. Nobody's writing songs about the color of the Arno.)
I love this picture of Rosie. But what weird effect is Florence having on me now? When did I turn into Jay Leno?
Rome before home
We ventured into a couple of new places in Rome this go 'round. The first was Hotel Indigo on Via Giulia, a great location in the historical center but away from the hurly-burly. The "executive" room we sprang for was like a small Roman apartment with a spacious balcony. For my money, the Caravaggio-themed decor was well executed. The hotel restaurant, I Sofa’, served both familiar and fanciful dishes. I had a vegetable fry-up in that Italian batter that looks like tempura followed by paccheri with creamed, turmeric-scented chickpeas and rosemary crumbs, hold the octopus. I forget what Rosie had, but it was all quite good. We’re looking forward to eating there in summer, when the restaurant returns to its more lovely home on the roof.
The second spot new to us was the Church of Saints Vincenzo and Anastasio, right at the Trevi Fountain.
Inside was what Rosie called “Catholicism’s greatest hits.” The place was lined with little vignettes devoted to familiar Catholic characters and themes. Mother Teresa. Padre Pio. Pope John Paul II. And, in the tradition of statues with children who look unsettlingly aged, St. Francis (or is it St. Anthony?) holding in his arms what appears to be the housekeeper from Upstairs, Downstairs.
A Nativity scene had its own space. That was something else we’d noticed: Cities and homes were still in full Christmas regalia almost everywhere we went. I would have expected that through January 6th, the feast of the Epiphany when the Befana makes her nighttime journey aboard a broom to leave treats for children, but this was already January 19th.
And then there was the special shrine to the perpetual virginity of Mary. I cringe a little at the fixation on the BVM’s eternal virginity, finding it bittyish. I think I associate it with repressed Irishmen of my parents’ generation who kind of gave me the creeps.
I realize I can be flippant about the Church. The truth is I'm not a believer; nor am I quite a non-believer.
In what I assume was a plot to expose my irreverence as a sham, Ro caught me on camera lighting candles for deceased loved ones. I include it as proof that I'm not wall-to-wall snarky.
When I say (as I often do) that I stumble around Rome, I mean it literally. Upon exiting the church, I was nearly done in by the marble steps. I went back up to demonstrate how perilous the pitch was. I think it's safe to say I failed in that enterprise. The point is that you have to be careful descending because the steps want to send you careening to the left at an alarming speed. I include the video here less for its efficacy than because it amuses me.
We made a pilgrimage to The Grapes, aka Otello alla Concordia, a restaurant near the Spanish Steps that Rosie had long sought, having fond memories from traveling with our parents when she was a kid. Dad called it “The Grapes” because in summer the courtyard is festooned with grapevines. For that reason, the real name didn’t stick in anybody's mind. Our cousins came up with it a few months ago. The place may have been memorable but the food really wasn't --with the exception of the fried zucchini blossoms, which Rosie declared among the best she's ever had.
Back outside, the quality of the winter sunlight made the Spanish Steps look like a watercolor...or a movie set...or a mirage.
Rosie and I are both big Fantheons. This video is courtesy of my sis. I think it drives its point home in a way mine did not.
I can’t close without featuring some of the jewelry we bought or almost bought. After all, we'd hit the January sales in Italy, when you can get some pretty darned good deals.
Clockwise from top left: earrings from Glocal in Rome; Rosie's spider bracelet from a shop with a silly name near the Campo de' Fiori (because she has a thing for spiders, snakes, and dangerously pointy things); the stunning Venetian bracelet from Glocal we just couldn't spring for but really wanted to; the Anticoa pendant we strong-armed our sister Sheila into springing for by phone; my peacock blue faux feather earrings from that Campo store; chandelier earrings from Ravenna; and geometric helix-y earrings from Anticoa in Rome.
A parting note on packing: Can you wear the exact same outfit every day for a week when you’re traveling? Yes, you can, especially under a winter coat. And especially when you're picking up a lot of jewelry along the way. Here I am in what came to be known as the stewnic, the tunic I’d bought in Rome last spring that I wore day and night. It held up beautifully and taught me a lesson worth learning about packing well.
Next post: Ravenna