SO MAYBE I’M NOT THE IDEAL CANDIDATE TO STAY ALONE IN A CASTLE AFTER ALL…

October 25th, 2013

I’m sorry I stopped blogging — after leaving Tuscany my internet was pretty unreliable, so I fell off the wagon. I’ll try to do a round-up now that I’m back home since a lot of folks wanted to hear about the rest of my trip!

I drove to Procena castle from Castiglione D’Orcia, wondering as I went if I ought to have stayed longer or if it was indeed time to move on. As much as I loved Tuscany, it felt lonely being all alone there. In a city you can be on your own and not feel so void of companionship, but Tuscany felt much more a place to share with others. I was my own fifth wheel, go figure. That said, there is something so magical about the mystical light of Tuscany — it renders even unglamorous concrete-like chunks of upturned dessicated earth into beautiful pastoral scenes. Field after field in Tuscany had been tilled for the season, and the muted earthtones on their own were unremarkable in color, but with the low-cast peach-colored late-day sun painting the fields of beige, tan and brown into a masterpiece of breathtaking beauty, well, it was hard to part with that. It didn’t help that the Sunday I left was overcast and threatening rain all day. Still, in Tuscany, angry storm clouds lurked with such stark beauty…It’s a rare landscape that can be highlighted with inclement weather.

The view from Procena Castle

The view from Procena Castle

As I left the Tuscan region and entered Lazio, I was less impressed with the natural beauty of the area. Roads were practically bombed out with potholes — having grown up in Pitsburgh, I’ve known my share of potholes over the years, and I was afraid a few of those were going to swallow up my little Panda Smartcar whole, or at least snap an axel. As the car crawled up the final hill toward Procena, I was still a bit apprehensive about what I’d gotten myself into.

I parked my car in the outside-the-town-wall car park and lugged my backpack up the road, following signs for Castello di Proceno. I knocked on the locked door and was eventually greeted by a man who was a dead ringer for Alfred Hitchcock. Given the sort of spooky nature of an imposing and very old castle, that might not have been the best first thing for me to encounter, particularly as it was an overcast and rainy day that never seemed to garner enough light to feel like daytime. Nevertheless Giovanni was a kind and lovely host and soon brought out his wife, Cecilia (aka Pucci, a childhood nickname that stuck). Now while Pucci was delightful and sweet, she reallllly fit the whole ancient castle décor, kind of dark, hollow eyes (but honestly she was SO sweet) and very petite and I mean I do have a vivid imagination, you guys know that. I think they had a certain chiarascuro thing going, that dark-in-the-shadows thing that gave me pause. Maybe it’s just so little windows in those old buildings means more shadows on people’s face…Whatever it was, I just kept imagining they were a family of vampires and at the stroke of midnight, well…

Being alone in a castle isn’t necessarily a great thing for me, I now realize. My room wasn’t in the castle proper, but in the ramparts, the buildings at the base of the castle tower surrounding and protecting the five-story castle. I had a bit of a hike uphill and through a winding alley to then climb several flights of steps, through a lovely garden. I was greeted by collection of mismatched cats who clearly ran the place — replete with missing legs, snipped ears, I think one had an absent eye (I later learned Pucci’s son brings home the injured critters).

All around the courtyard of the garden there were doors that hid things I felt a need to check out because, well, I was alone in a room in a potentially haunted castle. I was pleasantly surprised each one ended up being some sort of supply area, potting shed, etc, all in impeccable condition, void of clusters of spider webs, no squeaking mice, no bats flying out to attack me. Put my own grimy garage to shame. And my hosts were not spring chicks. While I couldn’t’ exactly put a finger on their ages it could have been early 70′s but could easily have been mid-80′s. And they had a LOT to maintain in this place. I was so impressed. Though when my WiFi kept failing and I trekked down the street to the office with Giovanni to figure out how to make it work, I was reminded of my fathers hoarder home, with piles of stuff surrounding his antique computer (and what other kind of computer would we expect in a castle?!) along with a dusty copy of Microsoft Office 97 for Dummies. Seriously. Big props for me, figuring if we unplugged that little black plug attached to the little flat thingy by the computer, maybe the wifi would start working in five minutes (yeah, my technological know-how was no better than Alfred Hitchcock’s!). Unfortunately what this meant is if I’d slept in the dusty decrepit office, my wifi would’ve worked reliably as I’d have kept on unplugging/replugging that thing, but since I was 3 stories up (and up the street), that wasn’t gonna happen. Oh well. My only problem is night time was my research time, figuring out directions, where I was going to go, etc. And Scott and I were wrapping up last-minute plans for me to meet up with him in Rome in just two days, so being in contact was fairly important. Oh well, so I just hung out and tried not to feel like the very old collection of things on display were never used to bludgeon to death people from another century. Yeah, that imagination can run wild.

And then, as a dark, wet, dusk settled in, so did an intimidating blanket of fog that made me feel right at home (as in scared to death) being alone at a castle. You can imagine my glee when I learned that an American couple, Jeannine and Lennie, who’d cooked with Pucci that day (one of the many services she does, this spunky wunderkind, is teach cooking classes) had offered for me to sit down to dinner with them to enjoy the bounties of their lesson. I was happy to take them up on that, as I’d been alone for so long anyhow, and feeling especially alone in the big scary castle in the fog and dark. Add to it I hadn’t spoken much English in a while, well, I’d have dined with pretty much anyone at that point. Dinnertime couldn’t come fast enough. And thank goodness they’d included me as there was no one else staying in the whole place, so it was just us.

Pucci invited us up to her kitchen as they finished off the food they’d prepared earlier in the day. I was grateful because this was not going to be a meal I’d order, but rather what I was served, and I knew one of the two pasta dishes was laden with anchovies, a deal-breaker for me. Luckily Jeannine and I realized in time that they’d forgotten to douse the dish with anchovies and so we begged them to hold back some untainted pasta for the two of us. Say what you will about “mouth feel” and “umami” and all those certain je ne sais pas ingredients, anchovies taste fishy, so I was glad I had something I’d eat that night.

We retreated to their enoteca, literally a cavernous grotto that had Etruscan caves in it. It was a combination of very cozy and a little creepy. I think if it had been full of conviviality, people lauging and drinking and eating, it would have felt more cozy, less creepy, but instead it was just us, and the rest of the place empty. Their lovely chef Luccia brought down food as it was finished off and I don’t know, I’m sure this sounds so rotten of me, but there was this thing in my head that kept harkening back to Bugs Bunny episode with that Jekyl/Hyde character who she reminded me of, so I guess I kept sort of putting all of these characters in the role of Elmer Fudd as the evil Mr. Hyde. I swear I was hoping for about ten deadbolts on my door that night to protect me from things that might go bump in the night. I’m such a weenie.

This is the view of the Castle Tower from  my porch

This is the view of the Castle Tower from my porch

At any rate, dinner was delightful. Pucci was the consummate hostess and regaled us with lovely stories from her past and the castle’s past.

I had a fireplace in my room but hadn’t thought about actually using it, but Jeannine and Lennie said they’d fired up theirs so I decided when I returned to my room to do so and was glad I did. It provided a certain level of psychological comfort to me as I fell asleep, like leaving the TV on while nodding off. Warding off the juju. Besides which it was awfully cozy. I forgot to mention my room was nice (though the décor was a bit weary)–very spacious, a large room with a bed (well, it was actually a cot but we’ll pretend we didn’t notice that), a few chairs, then another full kitchen then a whole patio overlooking the valley below, very pretty. When the entire area was swallowed up by fog until after 10 a.m.the next morning, I waited to see the view after the fog parted, and it was exceptional.

I then wandered the property, which was sprawling, and I wondered how this older couple could maintain it all. I assume they have help but I didn’t see anyone else working the place. They had a whole ‘nother restaurant down by the pool, where I sat down and wrote for a few hours, relishing the beautiful clear early autumn day. I even dozed off, very peaceful. Later in the afternoon, Pucci gave me a promised tour of the actual castle. Very cool. We entered through her home (all part of the ramparts), and first she showed me her living room, which featured a harpsichord that had been in the family since the mid-1700′s, as well as a harp and a mandolin from the era. And then I looked upward to see the walls near the ceiling lined with Etruscan pottery, all harvested from beneath the castle when it was first built, and remaining with the castle proper since then (construction started in the 9th century, and there are records in the Vatican of the bell tower operating in the 11th century). I asked if she dusted them and she said she was terrified she’d break one. Mine would be coated in dust, for sure (and only in part for fear of breakage, but sheesh, who wants to be tasked with dusting ancient pottery anyhow?!).

Just your average 2500 year old pottery decorating a home

Just your average 2500 year old pottery decorating a home

We then started climbing the castle, which was actually a very tall, narrow tower, which had tapered and very steep ladder-steps, some of which were practically a 90-degree angle (how did she do this? I was afraid I’d kill myself and I probably had 30 years on her! I swear Italian women are the spunkiest; those ladies have the most stamina ever). Each floor brought new surprises. The castle had been in her family’s hands since the mid-1600′s (can you imagine?!) and they had vestments from the church in display cases from that far back, clothes from the Napoleonic era, also in glass cases. And a framed note from some long-ago Pope (a distant relative). There were your run-of-the-mill castle things: the torch holders the you pull from the sconce in the wall and use to run out the Beast (oh, wait, that was in Beauty and the Beast), there were all sorts of weapons, it was just amazing, that this was all from her family over hundreds and hundreds of years. I think my family heirlooms date back to about 1975.

On the top floor of the castle

On the top floor of the castle


We finally got to the top, I got to cross the drawbridge (it was small and verrrrrryyyyy high up! I subsequently learned they’d been looking for a drawbridge repairman, but that was good I was unaware of that!). Atop the castle, leaning into the crenelated walls, I could see how that King would feel good surveying his terrain, smugly protected. I saw slits along a floorway and asked if that was where they poured the boiling oil. I was joking, but it turns out it was indeed for that purpose! And Pucci showed me the pockmarks in the walls from catapult ball attacks (remaining catapult balls can be found decorating the garden and even using almost as finials on garden walls. Funny).
Insert boiling oil here

Insert boiling oil here


Pucci talked about growing up in a castle — you can imagine what a cool place that would be to be a child. Her boy cousins of course picked up weapons to play with while she got to be the princess (no doubt with some historical accuracy from her family tree). I asked her how they were able to preserve their treasures during World War II, and she said that when it became apparent the war was ending badly for the Italians, her father buried their treasures behind a wall that got cemented in, so that it wasn’t pillaged. It was quite a treat to be able to tour this fabulous historical relic — so hard to imagine growing up in your run-of-the-mill suburbia the sense of history that so many Europeans maintain. (even that kids in Italy get to go on field trips to things like Pompeii, like how cool is that?). Also cool, her husband Giovanni’s family had the first printing press in Lazio, and they are on display in the entryway to their home.
Note catapult ball imprints

Note catapult ball imprints


the drawbridge

the drawbridge


markings on walls from 1500's

markings on walls from 1500′s


peering into castle from above

peering into castle from above


the keys to the castle, literally

the keys to the castle, literally


catapult balls decorate the garden

catapult balls decorate the garden


Surveying the territory below

Surveying the territory below


Castle bell from around the 10th century

Castle bell from around the 10th century


drawbridge chain--looks pretty rickety

drawbridge chain–looks pretty rickety


printing press from I think the 1600's

printing press from I think the 1600′s


what every castle needs--an ancient boar mounted on the wall

what every castle needs–an ancient boar mounted on the wall


peering into castle from above

peering into castle from above


I left well before dawn the next morning in order to get to Fiumichino airport in Rome to meet Scott. I didn’t get my quaint basket with homemade breads and jams as I did the first morning, pity. I did manage to get myself lost, which was probably because I was still spooked wandering the empty streets of Procena, a very dying village that once housed some 11,000 residents and has since whittled down to about 300. At 5 a.m. it was, yeah, the common theme here, foggy and spooky. One of the many village cats must’ve gotten into mischief ,as someone’s flower pots had been knocked over and dirt was strewn about the cobblestone road.

I got myself lost in the dark by forgetting to take a hard-to-forget sharp right turn while leaving the hilltop town, ten miles later got back on the right road, but my directions, loosely translated from Italian, weren’t quite enough to get me to my destination without wondering if I was making wrong turns. I stopped once on the highway to ask directions and the sweetest man who was driving a truck for a glass repair business, escorted me for about 50 KM to ensure I was on the right route. How nice was that? I met so many kind people on this trip who have helped me along the way. There are a lot of good people in the world.

Scott’s flight arrived on time, as did I, so we were able to hop a train to Salerno right away and get going. The plan was to take a ferry from Salerno to Positano, then take a bus up to our B&B in Nocelle, at the top of the ridge, about 30 minutes from Positano. We’d been warned that the ferries didn’t run in bad weather, so when we arrived to brilliant sunshine in Salerno, only to be told the ferries weren’t running (I asked the woman why and she pointed to the clear blue sky and shrugged), we had to figure quickly what to do, which turned out to be to quickly purchase tickets for the bus, set to arrive in a few minutes.

Evidently we weren’t the only ones needing a Plan B, as by the time the bus arrived, a throng of humans pushed their way to get onto the bus. Luckily Scott was trying to load our luggage into the belly of the vehicle, and luckily the driver had suddenly opened the back door of the bus, so he got on, and I was turned away, as the bus was belching out people. But I shouted out in Italian that my husband was on the bus and I simply had to get on, so he let me on (along with a few others) despite there being nowhere for us to be. At one point I thought I would ride the entire way with my face pressed up to the windshield, but then a really sweet Englishman traveling with his wife gave up his seat for me (she was fine sitting on the steps, apparently), so I was able to get a seat next to a very friendly Italian pastry chef on his way home from work. I feel sorry for the locals who must rely on the buses for their daily commute (this includes school kids) — our bus was filled with students trying to get home, plus all tourists who’d started the day traveling by ferry to another Amalfi Coast town but had to get back to their starting point via the lone remaining transportation option, the bus. The trip was about an hour, with poor Scott fighting off carsickness standing, jammed, way back in the back while I chatted pastries with my little Italian buddy up front. I’d never have been able to offer him my seat through the pressed flesh regardless, or I would have. He was a little green around the gills by the time we got to Amalfi, where we had to catch another bus, which we foolishly thought would be substantially more calm.

Alas, the bus that was leaving shortly after we arrived there was mobbed by throngs of tourists, so we had no chance. It was to be a 30 minute wait for another bus, but the problem was there was no system as to where to meet the next bus, nor where to line up. There was a cluster of bus drivers taking a classic Italian smoke break, but were unable or unwilling to provide a hint of information about transportation clues: imploring questions were met with ambivalent shrugs, a tight suck on a cigarette, and a return to important conversation with their stylishly dressed coworkers (sweaters tied around their necks, very chi-chi for bus drivers).

Finally we realized we had to divide and conquer if we were to get on a bus any time soon, so I served as scout searching for the next bus that might be arriving while Scott waited in line, hoping something would materialize on that end. After a while one of the bus drivers who’d not given up information about which bus might be Positano-bound then climbed aboard a nearby idle bus and several of us accosted him, demanding to know if it would become the Positano bus. He shrugged in a positive-ish way, leading us to guess that perhaps we would be on the right bus if we got on. So I rushed on with others in the front of the quasi line while Scott tried to load our bags onto the bus. But the driver wasn’t opening the baggage storage section, so finally we ended up with our pile of bags jammed on yet another bus for another 45 minutes on windy cliffside roads with hairpin turns and absolutely breathtaking views of the Mediterranean Sea, and about twice as many humans as should safely be on the thing.

When we arrived in Positano we had about ten minutes to spare before catching the next bus to Nocelle. We grabbed a gelato so I could use the restaurant’s bathroom (which I’d needed since Salerno, natch!) and smugly gloated that at least this time we could have comfortable seats on the bus. Ha! When the bus arrived, it was packed to the gills, only smaller than the previous buses. But our driver was nothing if not an optimist, and he just kept piling more riders on (our bags stacked up inside the bus yet again. I laughed at the small child who was perched atop a locked safe that was behind and above the drivers seat. He was like a bird in a nest peering down at the crowd. Lordie, another thirty minutes hoping we didn’t end up through the windshield. The bus drivers are amazingly gifted at avoiding collisions (I couldn’t help but wonder how often buses go over the cliffs, simply because of my macabre imagination), and at one point the entire overpacked bus applauded as our driver passed another vehicle with about 1-1/2 millimeter’s space before a huge sideswipe would’ve happened. Patience is quite an Italian virtue, and the locals must have it in spades, so it was a good lesson to remind us that this wasn’t a pain-in-the-ass-transportation-nightmare, but rather an exhilarating adventure that we’d laugh at for years to come.

When we reached the end of the line, and there were no more buses as options (the last few miles involved the bus waiting at the foot of a hairpin turn for 10 minutes while a truck made its way down the steep hill; no room for two vehicles on the road), though we knew we had more to go. Mind you, I’d been traveling with my backpack and nothing else for three weeks, and was quite used to it. But when I found out that Scott was going to meet me for the last week, I wisely suggested we FaceTime in my closet so I could give him a nice long list of things I sure wouldn’t mind finally having. Like clothes. Underwear. Perfume. I had packed three outfits for four weeks and I can’t tell you how sick I was of them. So Scott ended up with enough this and that I’d requested that he brought a whole extra suitcase for me (also with enough room to bring home some wine and olive oil and balsamic vinegar, necessities). Otherwise it would have been him with a small suitcase, and me with my easily manageable backpack. But hey, I wasy dying for some perfume and make-up by then…

my clothes for a month

my clothes for a month


So we were met at the bus stop by our B&B host, Nino, a genial, cheerful and surprisingly fit man I’d guess was in his late 60′s or early 70′s, who hoisted my (oversized) suitcase on his shoulders while Scott lugged his bag and I wore my pack for the next ten minutes of walking up and down many steps (an Amalfi Coast thing), dodging lots of dog poo (and what looked distinctly like horse dung but I couldn’t figure out how that got there!) until we finally reached our destination.

(That horse poo? Well, Two days later I would see a man escorting two horses down a very steep flight of steps en route toward the village parking area, by the bus stop. I had no idea horses were so fleet of foot! They were far more graceful than I was on those steep steps! And the dog poo? While I cursed the locals for not curbing their dogs, I soon realized there wasn’t anywhere else for dogs to go anyhow, with the treacherously steep and untamed terrain, and mostly they weren’t anyone’s dogs, but rather many stray dogs that make the circuit, mooching and living off the land, living the good life. Our Bridget would love it.

The view from our B&B in Nocelle

The view from our B&B in Nocelle


Okay, back to Nocelle. It’s a beautiful tiny village with the most breathtaking views imaginable. You can see for miles, the dramatic and rugged cliffs of the Amalfi and purest blue Mediterranean waters and you just cannot get enough of it. Sunsets? Forget it, they’re too beautiful to describe. You just feel so blessed to have an opportunity to partake in it.

We had a lovely dinner at a nearby restaurant that first night, and started off early the next morning with no particular plans but to wander around Positano. We hopped a (crowded) bus and headed down toward the town, and decided to get off midway down, knowing we could find stairs to continue our walk if need be. We wandered into a ceramics shop (the pottery in the Amalfi coast is very pretty) and happened upon a woman presenting a lecture of some sort about authentic Amalfi pottery to a rapt group of people. We soon realized this woman was Christine, an Aussie transplant about whom we’d read in Rick Steves’ guidebook, a lawyer who’d married a local and had become the unofficial town historian and gave great tours. We asked if we could tag along, and spent the next few hours touring Positano and getting great insight into the are. Along the way she regaled us with fun tales of life in Italy: how the first day of school had been the day before, and the mothers were up in arms because classes had been consolidated Montessori-style because there weren’t enough students to fill up a grade. The mothers were all clucking their displeasure and her husband decided he wasn’t going to stick around with that going on, so he bailed and left them behind. And so in true Italian fashion the moms decided they were going to go on strike, and on day two of school, there was no school because there were no students for the school.

Christine took us to her husband Vicenzo’s showroom — his family owns the butcher shop in town, and he’d become a sommelier in addition to being an expert on local charcuterie and cheeses, so we did a great tasting in his shop and she urged us to attend his wine tasting class that evening as well. Christine’s tour was delightful and turned what could feel simply like a large, albeit scenic tourist trap into a really interesting place to spend some time. Even the animals we encountered had stories. Apparently the local shops adopt the stray cats and dogs as their own and when open feed and house them by day, and various animals go by different names depending upon which shop they happen into at that time. One dog, I think he was named Arturo, actually hopped a bus from Praiano, a town about 20 minutes away by bus, each morning, even though dogs aren’t allowed on the bus. We saw him sunning himself in the piazza near the duomo, a very contented stray indeed.

Arturo, the bus-hopping dog

Arturo, the bus-hopping dog


Christine told us how she’d met her husband while taking time off as a lawyer in Sydney and backpacking through Europe. She arrived in Positano and unbeknownst to her, the boys in the town had a longstanding system of “tagging” pretty girls they wanted to end up with during the tourist season, and Vincenzo had tagged her with his buddies. The boys are known as “squallows” and are also called sharks, and they serve as wingmen for each other to facilitate their goals. Each spring the boys ditch their local girlfriends in favor of the new blood coming in to visit. So Christine was tagged by Vincenzo, and as she told him of her plans, that she was taking the bus in the morning to catch a boat to Capri, well, he told her the time to catch the bus, but he gave her the wrong time, so that when he showed up a few minutes later with his motor scooter and offered her a ride, how perfect that she had a way to get there. And when no boat materialized (he’d told his friend she’d hired not to show up), then he borrowed someone else’s boat so that he could take her on his own. She said this system is known enough now that girls show up in Positano with no place to stay, knowing that they’ll find housing and food one way or another. Though she said when they were dancing at the only nightclub in town, on the beach, on that first night, and he started getting a little too familiar, she slapped him across the face, and he knew then that he wasn’t dealing with the run-of-the-mill female he was used to dealing with. She finished her travels and his missed her so much he visited her in Australia, and the next thing they knew, they were married. I could only imagine how much the local girls must have hated her, as she was taking away one of the few locals from their options. And in this part of Italy, you don’t want to get on someone’s bad side, or you’ll end up with the malocchio, the evil eye, and they sell cornutos everywhere–those horn necklaces, to ward off the bad juju.
Love the teens making out on the beach below--very Italian...

Love the teens making out on the beach below–very Italian…


I’m going to stop writing now and post this, and will finish the rest of our trip in the next posting,which I hope to get up on my blog in the next day or so!!
Beautiful Positano

Beautiful Positano

Catching Up!

September 15th, 2013

We’ll start first with a quiz. Anyone who can define from your memory the follow terms gets an A:

Polyspaston
Archimedean screw
Large armed lodestone
Astrolabe
Jovolabe
Thermometry
Condensation hygrometer

Yep, if you’re like me, you haven’t a clue. And still don’t. But that’s okay; I had fun trying to figure it out nevertheless.

Last week I decided for my first museum in Florence I’d go somewhere a little more off-the-beaten-path: I decided to get my science on (yes! those who know me will think I’ve lost my marbles!) and visit Il Museo Galileo, which was a most fascinating little museum that very few people go to. But for, uh, engineering types, I gathered. Because besides me the place had mostly engineering-type looking middle-aged guys there, most of them shaking their heads in marvel at the genius behind so much Renaissance science.

It is the largest collection of all things scientific in Italy, thanks to I think Lorenzo the Magnificent (or was it his son?) — one of those Medicis who wanted to preserve and consolidate scientific discoveries in one place.

I found the artistry of many of the designs to be the most interesting (maybe because I hadn’t a clue what the hell the things did!) and I loved the ancient globes and maps, of which there were a few. My morbid curiosity piqued, though, with the preserved remains of Galileo’s finger and tooth (of course I took a picture). And I was most amused as I go around with a pedometer attached that my friend Birgit gave me, and they had a very old-timey pedometer that was about the size of a bicycle — not very practical for every day useage.

I’ve lost track of my days but I think that was last Sunday. That evening I went to a restaurant in Piazza San Spirito which is a sort of funky area across the Arno (in the Oltrarno). We’d been there last year, I knew to order the half portions because their servings are so immense. So I ordered a half portion of homemade gnocchi in tomato sauce and as I awaited its arrival I was amused by a nearby accordian player who chose to play Hava Nagila, not exactly the most Italian of songs. Must be hired for a lot of Jewish weddings in town.

When my gnocchi arrived, I was surprised to see this scalding bubbling vat of gnocchi drenched in some horrid truffle cheese sauce which smelled so vile it churned my stomach. When I finally got the waitress’ attention, I asked her where my order was, reminded her this was not what I had asked for. She told me the gnocchi with tomato sauce wasn’t available in a half order so I got this instead. Uh, right. We call that the African “yes”, as when we traveled in Africa this often happened. Odd, though, in the heart of Florence. I think I could safely presume that my subsequent plate of spaghetti al pomodoro probably had some spit in it from the waitress’ ire…

I finally got to enjoy using a real live washer and dryer at the hostel. Was overpriced and exceedingly long: an hour for the washer, which I’d put in cold so as to not have all colors bleed together (they did anyhow), and the dryer TWO HOURS even though the temperature, I am convinced, was set to Scalding Pot of Boiling Oil setting. Even after two hours, my meager 8 things in the washer still hadn’t dried. Very strange. Makes me appreciate my aged 15-year old washer and dryer that make a lot of noise but get the job done (knock wood). But it was interesting that the washing machine automatically put soap in. Handy.

I’ve noticed a lot of people out there in the world are void of spatial awareness. Either that or they don’t give a care that you are walking right where they’ve decided they want to go. Which means you have two choices: divert on your path, or crash into them. Well, I’ve chosen choice three: I stand my ground and let them get out of the way. This is especially necessary when carrying a large backpack on your back, but I’ve taken to doing it on principal. I guess it is a pedestrian survival of the fittest thing. But it works: it doesn’t annoy anyone, but it keeps me from having to zig and zag all over the place while getting from one place to another.

On Monday since many things in Florence are closed, I took a bus up to Fiesole, a lovely hillside village overlooking Florence. I wandered around, climbed to the scenic top and wandered around a lovely monastery (it was St. Bernard’s, yet again he shows up on my trip — I’ve found so many times, in Siena, in Switzerland of course, St. Bernard had gotten around. This monastery had the cell in which he resided (creature comforts were definitely not his gig). I then sat in on I forget what it was called, not vespers, but it was noontime and five monks were in the small church chanting prayers. It was a little DaVinci Code-esque, these guys cloaked in brown robes, ropes knotted around their waists, hoods draping over their heads. Also a bit mesmerizing to listen to.

After that I got back down to Florence, tried Gelateria Caroze, supposedly the best in Firenze but didn’t hold a candle to my favorite one (my gelato tasted like cilantro, a deal-breaker for me), and decided to invest in a Firenze Card (all-you-can-tour pass, kind of like at Disney, and gets you to the front of the line everywhere) and started out at Palazzo Medici, a palace where the Medicis lived when they weren’t at one of their other palaces all over the place.

I spent the afternoon at the Palazzo Vecchio, yet another Medici art-fest. I climbed the campanile (the bell tower) for sunset and it was a spectacular one, with tufts of melon-colored clouds painting the landscape. I love that in Florence many people have terra cotta-colored satellite dishes, so that they blend in with the terrain and aren’t so obstrusive when people are looking down on the city. And I had divine tortelli rossa at Vini et Vecchi Sapori again. Yummm…

Tuesday I spent the morning with David at the Academia. It is really such a beautiful work to behold. I enjoyed just sitting with it for a while, and eavesdropping on tour guides. I was interested to hear one, who was an art history teacher with students, pointing out that David isn’t circumcized, even though he should have been — he said this was one of many subversive designs Michaelangelo included to stick it to the man (artists I guess have done that throughout history). He also mentioned that back in the day most statues were lacking that piece of male anatomy, as people stole them all the time. So dismembered statues were the norm. Go figure — people had a sense of humor back then even. I can see putting THAT on my mantle back home…

Another conversation I overheard at the Academia between to very expensively-dressed American women, one of who lamented that after all of her travels, she’s seen more artwork than she can care to mention. Her friend then said to her with a straight face, “So, are these the kinds Of things you put in your house now?” And I wanted to ask her, “You mean statues by Michelangelo?” Weird…

After David I checked out the Cappelle Medicee, I surmise several of the Medicis were entombed there but regardless upon their deaths they were enshrined there. It’s a humble little shack. I was amazed at the amount of reliquaries housed there (and elsewhere) — all sorts of gewgaws from saints throughout the ages, whether it was a body part (there was some martyr’s head at the Duomo museum in Siena, the whole gorgeous skull in a beautifully ornate silver box) to fingers to teeth to just things I guess they owned. I suppose the modern day version of this is having an autograph from Michael Jackson that you’d frame, now that he’s dead?!

I then wandered the San Lorenzo market, feeling not a need to buy a thing (and noticing the prices for similar things I’d seen in San Gimignano totally jacked up here), and inside at the large indoor food market. It would have been nice to buy things to cook but wow! I haven’t cooked in weeks! Not exactly the kitchen in which to prepare anything but ramen noodles at the hostel…

I saw a dog that was the spitting image of our dog Bridget, snapping away at a fly. I swear it must be in their DNA, those dingos…

I spent the afternoon at the Palazzo Pitti, which is an exhausting tour. Just gobs and gobs of priceless artwork, room after room of splendor and wretched excess, just fascinating to see and sort of sad you ultimately say “Meh, another fourteenth century masterpiece. Whatev!” I’m convinced that were the Medicis alive now, they’d star in their own Hoarders type reality show. Or have a documentary made about their greed and gluttony and desire to Have It All, Dammit. After a while I was just wondering when the palace would run out of rooms so I could go pass out from sheer exhaustion. Tuesday I ate at Trattoria (or Osteria?) Casalingha in the Oltrarno — was good food, mostly locals, which is always a good sign. But it poured rained starting around sunset Tuesday. I went out with a rain jacket in my backpack but should’ve packed an Arc. I’m lucky though as it’s mostly been the only rain I’ve had to contend with but for Switzerland on that first day.

Wednesday I toured the Museo dell’Opera dell Duomo (the museum in which the statues, famed doors of the Baptistery, etc are held in safekeeping and restored). Unfortunately much of it was closed off due to rennovations, but I’d seen some of the most famous statues last year when we went with Kendall’s art history class, so it was okay. I also toured the Baptistery and climbed the campanile and read a book at the top, waiting until the bell tolled (it wasn’t as loud as I’d expected).
I then returned to the Galleria Uffizi, again, lots of beautiful artwork. By then I was beat and hung out at the Piazza della Signoria and ran into a nice Aussie guy I’d slept with (haha! gotcha!) in one of my many hostel rooms (I had to change rooms almost every night because of the last-minute nature of my booking; I was lucky to get any room at all, and I am most grateful for Dennis, one of the managers, who took good care of me). I was in a 6-bed room with one bathroom in the hall, then a four bed room with one bathroom, then a deluxe four bed room in a more separate and private area (with a nice young couple from the UK) and private bathroom. The hallways here were weird as they had this eerie light that vibed from purple to pink to green all night long. And the passkey was magnetic, which was kinda cool. I then got bumped to a six-bed room for three nights with a two bathrooms shared by I’m pretty sure half of Florence. THAT was less than perfect, especially as invariably someone had an alarm (the classic iPhone ring) blaring at 5:15 a.m. so they could catch their train or flight. That got old fast.

Very young Wednesday night I ate at Trattoria Nella again, then wandered the streets. Saw a bride in a very frou-frou meringue dress greedily licking a cone of gelato as she promenaded by — she looked like a girl playing dress-up. When the sun goes down in Florence, the African immigrants show up with knock off purses galore, spreading sheets out on the Via dei Calzaiuoli. Funny, this whole subculture of immigrants selling schlock in Italy — lots of southeast asians selling little wooden linkable trains to spell children’s names, or gooey ooze that they’d continually slam against a wooden block on the ground, all day long, tempting someone to purchase it. And faux paintings of all sorts of scenes. It’s a gauntly of “non, grazie” to every vendor wherever you walk.

I then happened upon that Charlie Chaplin-esque street performer again — the one who drew the huge crowd. I was able to finagle my way in when people thought he was done and was passing a hat but then he chastised people for walking on his stage (!!! it’s the street!!) when he wasn’t done with his performance. While he passed the hat he’d kept his three “victims” (three people he pulled from the audience, one a now-shirtless Asian man with a beer gut who had had doing all sorts of embarrassing things). One was a little boy of about six, with that sweet as can be face that little boys have that just tug away at your heartstrings. Well, this performer sort of had the boy park it for a while while he brought others from the audience in, did a few kind of raunchy skits, and he’d put the music on and off occasionally, and the music was a bit sad sounding. I don’t know what prompted it but I looked over to the little boy and could see he was figting back tears, yet no one did anything about it. I assumed his family was nearby, but nothing, Finally the guy came back and sat next to him and that poor little boy couldn’t fight his tears anymore and just started crying, it was so heartbreaking. Meanwhile the performer ignored him! And FINALLY the kids parents came over and he ran off, so ashamed. But people rushed him, snapping away as he sobbed outright — it was so weird. Poor little thing. I’d regretted giving the guy any more for his performance after that. He was kind of aggressive and had an attitude (and said he’d been doing it for 27 years — maybe time to retire?!).

In florence I’ve had to constantly dodge people’s pictures, which can be futile as everywhere you turn someone is being photographed. I’ve also taken so many pictures of couples, families, you name it, together, I should hang up my shingle. I also turned into a total gelato snob and won’t eat it unless it’s amazing artisanal gelato. Probably not such a bad thing to cut back on…

A few references in various pieces of art I noticed, that made me laugh. In a famous Statue of Apollo somewhere, it referred to the “ecstatic look in his eyes”, which reinforced what an art oaf I am, because all I saw was a cold marble stare! (though in my defense I think the look in David’s eyes is so compelling: it’s sort of like “Yeah, okay, took care of that. Come on world, give it to me!”)

Another one said the artist Ghirlandaio was “in the grip of restless spirituality.” I’m picturing the guy speaking in tongues, taunting snakes at a backwoods revival meeting in Appalachia…

At the Uffizi & Palazzo Pitti — every surface, every nook & cranny is greedy for your undivided attention — I would forget to gaze up, where you’d be treated to even more extraordinary artwork. And every piece of art has so much going on in it, it’s impossible to give each piece the attention it deserves. The Italians are fortunate to have such an embarrassment of riches at their fingertips.

It made me think about the sort of legacy that will be left behind from our generation and it will likely be nothing more compelling than cat videos that we will bequeath to future generations of humanity. Only they won’t be able to play it because there will be some newer technology that took the place of whatever one we are using now…Ahhh…our lasting heritage…

I tried to find the original Dwarf Morgante statue (he’s the Bacchus-like figure astride a tortoise) but couldn’t figure out where it was. I think it was at the Museo de Bargello but never made it there. Oh well, I saw the fake one…

Oh, in restaurants one thing that sort of bugs me is they never come give you the bill, and it’s impossible to get anyone’s attention to ask for it. Especially when alone, after a while you just want to get going, but you wait and you wait and you try hard to catch someone’s eye…Meals go on for HOURS simply because the check hasn’t been delivered. At least my Italian has improved somewhat. Though I am lazy if someone speaks English, I defer to it for ease. I do get a little charge when I execute an Italian phrase properly (or at least without failing miserably). And I understand much more of it (and know if someone is saying something they don’t realize I can understand!).

Thursday I left Firenze, boo hoo. It was time to move on. On the way out I stopped at this fabulous sandwich shop, a little carryout called i Frattelini — the BEST sandwiches in town. I was catching a bus to the airport where I was renting a Radio Flyer with an engine (a Panda Smart Car).

Getting out of town was interesting. First off I had NO idea how to drive this car. It’s sort of a training bra for driving a stick shift — who knew? So it expected me to change gears and I was like, damn, this little thing sure does lack pick-up. I was like the Little Engine That Could just trying to get out of the parking lot. I finally figured out that, which helped. And finally figured out how to get onto the A1, which was interesting and only a few flubs to do that. Once on there I was fine, and found my way relatively easily to Poggio Istiano, a lovely farmhouse in Florence we’d stayed at before. On the road before arriving here, I happened upon two pilgrims who’d been walking the Via Francigena since leaving their home in France 2-1/2 months ago (!). A husband and wife. I gave them my power bars. It had been raining on them, and yes, they were slogging along the very busy Cassia (SS2), a two-lane road that is the road to Rome from here, the cars drive very fast and there is no allowance for errors. Absolutely no shoulders on the road, either. While some of the Via Francigena is off-road here. I’d say 50% of it is on the roads, which made me glad I’d abandoned my walk. I just wasn’t comfortable walking on roads like that all the time. It was funny that the VF quite literally goes through the farmland here where I’m staying, I think on the far side of their property line.

The farmhouse is gorgeous, the property spectacular, the views, amazing. The color of light here is so beautiful. There is only another couple staying here and they speak no English, so it’s a little quiet to be here alone. I laugh because the woman goes around tending to the flowers — dead-heading geraniums, pulling weeds. Such a paying guest!

Thursday night I went to “grab” a quick bite. I was told of a “nearby” restaurant, which turned out to be like 30 minutes away, me in the mini-mobile on very dark roads, no lights, windy hairpin turns up mountains and down. Needless to say I was mildly stressed. I kept going back and forth, certain I’d missed the place I was told to go to, as she’d said it was nearby! But I finally found a human being in a town and asked directions and it turns out had I gone 1 KM more than I had after having turned around, I’d have found it…Oh well. Was a tiny Osteria, all locals. The guy kept insisting I order more than the pasta I’d ordered (which they were out of, so I ordered another one, which they were out of, so I ordered yet another one). It was good but I was so beat by then, I would’ve been happy with cheese and crackers.

I spent a delightful day Friday in Montepulciano, such a lovely Tuscan hilltown. I followed Rick Steves’ directions and went to a Cantine (they have the cellars in the basement of the palazzo) at the top of the hill, owned by the same family for 1000 years (!) and this older gentleman named Adamo took a hankering to me (I think it’s the hair color) so I got preferential treatment over all the others who were touring. This guy was a hoot — a total schmoozer, and his daughter (I think she was his daughter) Antonietta, was delightful. I tried to find a vineyard (cantina) as I left town. Some Americans from California, for whom I took a picture (!) said they knew wine and it was the best around. They showed me from afar where it was, said you just go down this road and go left. Oy! Turns out the vineyard shares a name with a town, and when I failed to find the vineyard and asked directions, I got sent by THREE people to a town 30 minutes away. I was so damned determined to find it. So I googled mapped it that night and yesterday set out to find it. Stopped in Monticchiello (like home!) for lunch, then headed there, though directions from Google had me going on a “white road”, which is basically a non-road, from gravel to good-luck-hope-you-can-make-it. Google said it was for about 250 meters. It went on for 10 KM. I was four-wheeling in this damned Smart car, but by then I’d been lost enough I realized that eventually in Tuscany you end up at a crossroads and there just aren’t that many roads around, so you can’t get *too* list (she says, laughing).

Had a lovely dinner at Rocca D’Orcia last night — a fortified castle town atop a hill. The place was in front of an ancient cistern, and the restaurant was quaint, the food amazing, and the tiramisu the best I’ve ever had…Delish…

Yesterday evening the owners hosted a birthday party for 5-year old Matteo, grandson of the owners of the farm. His festa buon compleano
;-) .

And this morning I laughed as an older German man who was staying here this weekend took out a hose and washed his car before departing. An odd thing to do on holiday, but such a good idea I hosed down the Panda, as it was covered in dust from my four-wheeling episode….

The only other guests of note shared a wall with my room last night. I’m guessing they were young. And yes, the very thick walls are oddly quite thin…

Today I head to Castello di Procena — a castle! I’m staying the night in a castle! I”ll be there till Tuesday morning when I have to figure out my way to the Rome airport and I pick up Scott! We then take the train (finally!) to the Amalfi Coast. Can’t wait! Will post more when I’ve got more to post!

Ciao!

Hanging in Firenze

September 8th, 2013

Yes, when the Italians kept questioning my sanity when I was headed to Fidenza instead of Firenze, it was because they knew anyone would be pazzo to go to the former rather than the latter.

Florence is my kind of city. Vibrant, gorgeous, and very user-friendly. Easy to get around (though a bit easy to get lost while navigating the many tiny streets), and you can choose to go the museum route, the church route, or just wander aimlessly and absorb the vibe. Since I’ve been here before, I’ve been doing just that: taking it all in and meandering the streets.

I’ve been staying at a hostel which is actually pretty nice, all things considered. The location is unbeatable, just steps from the Duomo, which I find to be such a breathtaking masterpiece of architecture. Walking down my street, I’m taken aback by it’s imposing presence just 50 meters away — it fills the panorama. Of course when you get to the piazza del Duomo, it’s overrun with throngs of tourists and vendors selling amazingly useless tchotchkes that somebody must buy. There’s such a buzz of activity, it’s very infectious. But also makes you want to get far away from the influx of tourists ;-) . I also love the Piazza della Signoria, just a few blocks away. It’s where the gorgeous Palazzo Vecchio and the Uffizi Gallery are located. The Piazza is filled with statues (including the fake David that some people actually think is the real one!). My favorite is Perseus holding the head of Medusa.

On Thursday night I headed over to Trattoria Nella, one of my daughters favorite restaurants in Florence where we ate last fall when we visited her. A terrific little local place, reminded me of Cheers, where everybody knows your name. There was a couple from California there, and we all got to talking with the owner, who is a professional french horn player and was performing in Rigoletto on Friday night. I’d hoped to make it to it but timing just didn’t work out. Just as well as it turns out it wasn’t where I thought it was so might have been lost, as it turns out the California couple was and never found it. There were a handful of the owners friends just hanging around the place, and one, who reminded me of the opera signer Andrea Bocelli, was a self-appointed DJ with a fondness for the BeeGees, alas. But what was funny is with every song he joined in, like his own personal karaoke, wailing with the falsettos and all. It was quite hilarious.

On Friday I just meandered about the city, worked my way across to the Oltrarno, across the River Arno. When we were last hear last November, the Arno was raging with flood waters after record heavy rains. Now it seems a bit stagnant, still with the heat of summer lingering. It’s still a lovely view from the Ponte Santa Trinita, looking across to the tourist-overrun Ponte Vecchio. At the other end of the Ponte Santa Trinita is the best gelato at Gelateria Santa Trinita, so it’s a daily destination ;-) . I also made it to my daughters (and my) favorite pizzeria, Gusta Pizza, down the Via Maggio a few blocks and over toward the Piazza San Spirito. I sat in the shade on the church steps and wrote for a few hours, very peaceful (albeit with a little pigeon-shooing a necessity). Speaking of pigeons, I saw another dead one — this is getting ridiculous!

Friday night I was lucky enough to get a reservation at a tiny osteria we’d been to last year — had heard good things about it, but then it was booked for ever, yet they had one time slot available Friday night, fortunately. I was shocked that Tomasso, whose parents own the restaurant and who oversees it himself, remembered me from when we were there last November. He even remembered what we’d ordered! So surprising. He was delightful and treated me like a friend, and even offered to let me return Monday for dinner, despite there being no reservations. Apparently in the past year their restaurant, which has been around for 27 years, got ranked as one of the top restaurants in Florence. It’s fabulous, homemade pastas, just delightful, simple yet awesome food.

After dinner I wandered into the Piazza della Signoria again, and caught some of the Italy/Bulgaria World Cup qualifying match that was on a large screen on a nearby restaurant patio. Then I heard what sounded like a marching band, and saw around the corner in front of the Palazzo Vecchio was a large municipal band, and a host of performers. It was so sweet — there were baton twirlers, then ballet dancers, and folk dancers, and some noted conductor. I managed to get a seat on the ground in front and hung out there for a while.

On my way back to the hotel I heard a loud crowd a few blocks away, and a street performer who’d held the audience in his thrall the night before was at it again. Amazing, he had at least 100 people gathered around, and while he engaged his audience with his schtick, I think the biggest draw was that he played his music very loud, and it was sort of patriotic marching music that drew people in. I’m sure he was making lots of money.

I saw a girl of about 12 standing atop the back rack of her fathers bicycle — quite a balancing act on both of their parts. I can’t imagine tooling through the streets (and wending through hoards of tourists) that way! I also saw a dog planted not so securely on the floorboard of his owners motorcycle!

I’ve seen a lot of tshirts with references to moustaches on them. Not gonna ask.

And I laugh at the many women who force their boyfriends and husbands to take countless glamor shouts of them in front of famous works. They’ll be walking along and then the woman jams her cell phone or camera into the guy’s hand, no questions asked, then she strikes her pose, to the side, jutting out her ample breasts or behind, and he snaps away. It’s like a silent “Yes, dear.”

I’m amazed at how many Russians are here — wherever I go hear I hear Russian being spoken.

Yesterday I wandered again, working my way to the Giardini di Boboli. The Boboli Gardens are part of the Palazzo Pitti, a massive Renaissance Palace in the Oltranaro. I’ve never toured inside, only been in the gardens, which are a sight to behold. I think I’ll try to get to the palace either today or Tuesday. I was intent on finding one of my favorite statues, it’s actually quite bizarre, it’s of Bacchus astride a turtle, looks like he’s had quite a night of partying. I bought a deck of cards with that picture on the back for Kyle years ago because I thought it was so funny, then I became intent on finding the thing. It was a little underwhelming in person, though I know it wasn’t the original — in Florence, as in probably most cities filled with antiquities, the originals are often put away for safekeeping and protection from the elements in museums, and copies (often still old) are the ones remaining in their place (like the fake David in the Piazza della Signoria, where the original David once stood).

So after finding Bacchus, I walked around the gardens for a while, sat down in the shade to read, and promptly fell asleep for a few hours. A very relaxing/lazy Saturday afternoon. Last night I ended up back at Trattoria Nella, as did the California couple. It turns out they closed the place on Thursday and there was quite the drunken debauched time that I’m glad I missed. They were all laughing about it, the french horn player was strumming a broken guitar he keeps up above the bar, while all swilling grappa and Campari in abundance. Definitely glad I missed that. But they were well on their way to repeating the performance last night. I kept waiting to just get my bill, passed on the grappa and the Limoncella and instead the french horn-playing owner kept filling my glass with more chianti. So my “meal” ended up taking about three hours until I finally got the bill and left.

It’s really quite a gift to be able to not have to be somewhere, and to be able to just be in the moment and not worry about what to do in a few hours, or days. Which is not to say I don’t think about it — especially since my plans have evolved quite a bit from my original intent, I need to figure out where I can go and do it on the relative cheap. Not like I can hang out in Florence in a 150 Euro a night hotel. So I have been pondering my next move, which could be to a farmhouse we love in Tuscany, but might be to the Amalfi coast, if I can get a room at the hostel down there (otherwise too expensive). Scott comes in in a week, at which point we will probably hike the Via Francigena for a few days or perhaps we’ll make the trek to the Amalfi Coast to Positano (so beautiful there), and end up in Rome for a few days.

Today I think I’ll go to the Galileo Museum, which I hear is interesting and not overrun with tourists. A nice cool retreat in from the heat. The weather has been spectacular but hot, and I saw large storm clouds rolling in yesterday afternoon, and today is overcast, so I expect rain might be on the horizon. All the more reason to find a museum. Tomorrow most of them are closed, unfortunately, so if open I will probably go to the interior courtyard at the Palazzo Strozzi, an art museum. The courtyard looked like a nice place to beat the heat and write for a while.

once again i’ve tried to add pictures but the app is crashing, so none to add right now! sorry!

La Dolce Vita

September 4th, 2013

howdy!
****I FIXED SOME ERRORS FROM LAST NIGHTS POST–the WordPress app crashed so glitched things…here goes again!

Sorry a few days passed, just no chance to catch up here. Will try to do it justice now.

So enjoyed my day in Lucca and went off to the Cinque Terre for a day, by train yet again. You’d think by now I’d have gotten the groove of ticketing, etc here. Ha!

I’m an uptight traveler — I get totally anxious having to figure out unfamiliar modes of transportation & I’m sure I come across as a complete half-wit to the locals as I frantically try to make connections. Trenitalia does a good job of enhancing my neuroses by offering incomplete directions, inoperable signage, and providing little in the form of human interaction if one needs to figure out why the ticket says to lucca but nowhere is there a train to lucca on any sign board. Obviously I need to know the end destination, but there are so many small tracts of rail connection so many areas here that it takes a while to figure out if I’m boarding a train at La Spezia and need to stop at Lucca, on *that* line then my train is for Firenze. Of course there are other nearby lines also stopping in Lucca, local trains, but that’s a whole nother story. So basically when the ticket fails to provide basic information like train numbers, well, I sorta freak out with 30 seconds to make my connection, having no clue what track I need to race to. I am hoping I will better acclimate but instead I seem to plod along, just maniacally seeking my next train, not wanting to be stuck in a small, unfamiliar town at 10 pm knowing not what to do. I told you, I’d make a lousy vagrant.

To a certain degree this can get to me while walking, too, with many legs of the journey now 30+ km/day, which I know with my massive pack us too much distance to successfully cover. I have no clue if there will be a town at which I can stop midway, which also arouses that damned anxiety. I know before I left I told myself if I got stuck having to sleep outside somewhere I could deal with it but in truth, I have NO desire to do that, especially in unfamiliar territory.

And I am for certain a transportation weenie…I’m sure my girls remember the time several years ago when we arrived in Paris in advance of Scott & kyle, who’d remained in Germany for another World Cup match. We were staying in some stratospherically-removed exurb of the city (it said it was in Paris but was about as much Paris as Gainesville is Washington, DC, and I was tasked with getting me & my two fairly young girls into the city central. I was paralyzed with inadequacy, and if I recall correctly my 9-year old figured out the damned trains while I stammered and fought panic during rush hour. Sadly, I could no sooner interpret the Parisian subway system then I could have read a dissertation in Slovakian. I choose to attribute this to my discalculia (I swear I have this, it’s sort of the dyslexia of math, and I assume by extension it includes failure to figure out maps etc. I’m sticking with that story…).

At any rate, as I tried to get my tickets for the Cinque Terre at the stazione, I had maybe 15 minutes but the queue for the ticket person was 15 deep. The self-service machines were broken (all but one) and I kept vacillating between the line and the remaining ticket machine. I saw a Dutch woman with whom I’d eaten the night before — I was trying to get a table outside at a restaurant but they were full and she offered for me to join her. Really sweet woman, so interesting, travels everywhere by herself, about 28 yrs old, and very venturesome. So I watched her do her ticket on the machine, however she was doing the most expensive route to the Cinque Terre. I knew because I’d researched online the night before that I could get to the CT for about 8 euro, but that it could cost as much as 50+ euro if I took other trains. So I wanted to be sure I didn’t do that. I decided to get on the machine after her, and naturally you click for it to be in English but all of the warnings that pop up as you try to get your ticket are in Italian. So every train I try to include in my route is rejected with a confusing explanation in Italian. Meanwhile I have a posse of pissed off commuters and tourists piling up behind me, wanting to get their tickets in time, and I am trying to save myself 40+ euro by doing it myself. Argh. Finally I played idiot tourist and went to the front of the line I had been in for a while for the ticket person and begged to have someone let me in, at which point I was able to get my ticket for the price I’d hoped for. With probably 15 people wanting to kill me.

Meanwhile Danielle, the Dutch girl, was on some of my trains and I was sorely tempted to just get the transfer with her onto the luxurious train rather than the non air-conditioned local, but I didn’t want to get busted and fined fine is steep). Stupid of me, as I learned eventually that there is a network of illegal immigrants here in Italy now who travel with a stockpile of crap they sell on the beaches of the Mediterranean — carvings from Africa, useless nonsense from SE Asia, that, weirdly , apparently, Italians will buy on the beach (I asked a local woman and she shrugged — I couldn’t imagine why a tourist would go to Italy to buy a carved wooden african man on a motorcycle or giant wooden carved hand — but she said the Italians scoop it up b/c it’s cheap). So anyhow, these illegals ride the trains for free, basically staying one step ahead of the ticket man on the train, they are constantly on the watch and on the move as he enters a car, they move to another one. As he goes down the aisle, they take the steps to the 2nd floor if there is one. It’s fascinating to watch. Of course the woman complaining to me about this also warned me how unsafe I was in Italy alone…Sigh…She was definitely a doomsdayer.

I enjoyed the Cinque Terre but it was rushed. Plus parts of it felt frightening overrun with tourists, which puts me off even though I am one. After not being around many people, it’s overwhelming to be around loud Americans (even though I can be one too) being embarrassingly loud Americans…And all of the shops selling so much junk. Too much. By the time I found one of the villages that was more laid back, it was time to depart. But I put my feet in the Mediterranean for a minute, and I got to take ferries from village to village, enjoying the exquisite weather. Kendall told me of the perfect dessert place to go to away from the crowds in one of the towns, so I made a point of going there and it was a great choice, had a fabulous mid-day meal of panna cotte and fresh fruit. Awesome…And he insisted I try his iced coffee which was scary good — a coffee milkshake basically, made with fresh cream. SO good. As I was racing (quite literally) to catch my train, out of breath, with about 12 seconds before the train was to depart, I’d sort of regretted not staying the night up there, but only so many things you can squeeze in. It’s a very beautiful place and would be gorgeous to hike (because the hiking is ALL views, unlike the VF). I was cockily glad my trains had all been on time when my last train was late. It was hard to hear the announcement (and to understand it) b/c all of the Italians were talking above it, so that’s when I asked the Italian woman nearby what was going on. She was the complainer — perfectly nice but just ragging on everything. So that last train was delayed a while, so we sat by the track inhaling 2nd-hand smoke (still so many smokers in Europe! I thought that had gotten better! Now it seems many roll their own).

One thing that is sort of ironic is how hard it is to plan to do the hiking without internet. My hotel in Lucca had lame internet that worked impulsively. It’s hard to go online and figure out where to stay the next night and to book it. So that was making me nuts. That said, the night manager was very kind and offered to drive me one town over to pick up the VF again — I didn’t want to start at Lucca because apparently that leg was mostly on roads, leaving city areas tend to be industrial and busy roads. So I thought leaving from Altopascio would be better, and my buddy said he’d drop me there on his way home in the morning. I decided because these legs of the walk were substantially longer, I’d need to unload some of my stuff I’d brought for the colder weather in Switzerland, so I ambitiously stopped at the post office. Ha!

Don’t ever be fooled by the cool, contemporary look of Postitaliane: they are a model of bureaucratic inefficiency. You take a ticket, and depending on the service you desire, you wait in line and wait til your number comes up. Much like DMV, and we all know how that works. So while I was one back in line, 30 minutes later and probably 10 people called before me later, I finally drummed up the courage to question this to one of the women at the desk. I think she realized what a messed up system it is, so finally she shrugged and decided to help me, rolling her eyes frequently (I’m pretty sure not even at me). The only other line that was designated for packages had a woman who I presume was having a lifetime of documents somehow processed, as it took an eternity as I waited for her.

The paperwork was staggering. She was displeased that I put the “sender” address as my previous hotel — normally I’d have put myself and my home address, but I wrongfully assumed that would be wrong. So she then had to remove that stick and replace it, which took another 10 minutes. No scratching anything out! I had to sign in I think quintuplicate. My post office lady clearly enjoyed power-stamping each document with her fist-sized stamp.

So then I was finally on my way, some 45 essential minutes later (essential because the later start meant the heat of the day was on me already).

As I stopped at the library to ask how to get to the VF, there were two young French women asking directions to the VF. They were wisely sharing backpack duties — one carried a heavy one, the other one a daypack. I didn’t even bother to ask to join them, as I knew they’d be there before I was even halfway there.

Leaving Altopascio was precisely what I expected leaving Lucca would be: just ugly, industrial, dreary. I assumed it wouldn’t last long. Meanwhile, I was at a busy traffic circle not 15 minutes into my walk when I rolled ankle on some crumbled pavement and nearly face-planted as the weight of my backpack threw me my forward. It really terrified me as had there been a car there at that very minute I’d likely have been hit by it. Sheesh. Not confidence-instilling. And I must have looked like a sight, hurtling toward the ground with cars zooming by everywhere.
So, the walk was I think about 24 km long. I’m going to mix my km and miles because my pedometer is set to miles so it’s how I quantify my distance. Easily the first 5 miles of the walk was on stinking hot miserable pavement with cars flying by. Even though it became less populated, it was just ugly. Broken glass strewed the roadside, litter, etc. It was entirely unpleasant. For those who live in Charlottesville, it was akin to walking along Route 250 from Boars Head in Ivy to Keswick. Just mile upon mile of nothing great to look at and cars and exhaust and trucks and no shoulder on the road and HEAT. Suffice it to say I was getting bitchy. Thank goodness there was no one with whom to get bitchy with. But yeah, the f-bomb was being muttered sporadically by my evil bitchy alter ego.

Meanwhile the directions were frustrating, trying to discern when we’d get off of that road. There was some turn onto an “unmade” road — define, please! — and FINALLY I see what appears to be a damned unmade road, complete with a sign for the Via Francigena! Hurray! So I take it. This is ostensibly on the original VF, from 1000 years ago, an old Roman road. So what do I know of old Roman roads? I followed the sign. So I’m walking and walking and walking. It’s definitely not a road, it seems pretty unmade to me. And then all of a sudden, it just stops. Not only that, but there is a vague VF sign pointing kind of the way I came but almost off to another direction.
So I’m wondering where the hell I am to go. So I follow the way it could be going, which seems counterintuitive, directionally. But who knew? Maybe it took a path way into the woods? But as I walked and the paths became more and more small and diverging in different directions, I had NO idea what I was to do. I was already a good 40 minutes into this route when I finally took some path headed toward a farm (a not very scenic one with mean barking dogs) and finally found a little old woman with few teeth and less English in her repertoire, who conveyed to me I should’ve just stayed on the road. Stupido me!

Alas, when I was up north I had this fabulous app called Pocket Earth, on which we thought we’d loaded the entire VF (thanks to Scott for that as I was failing miserably in that attempt). But for some reason it didn’t load some parts of it, so while I was up north I could track immediately if I’d gone off-piste, now I’m on my own. Technology does exist to help those like me not get lost, but the other part of that was the GPS tracking that we had access to turned out to be not for Macs, so by the time we finally got the right waypoints to download, it wasn’t working and I had to get to the airport, so that was that! I do have a guidebook but it has some terminology with which I’m simply not familiary (“turn off on white road” — um, WTH is a white road? It is DEFINITELY not white, by the way). So it can throw me off. Plus I truly suck at reading maps and directions.

As I navigated the ugly road, I realized the fragrant Swiss cow dung aroma had given way to the stench of Italian dog shit, which was everywhere. Trekking along the lovely glass-strewn road. Yeah i was not digging that LOL. Still not seeing animals but seeing more dead birds. I think now they’re too slow to escape the path of oncoming fast drivers. I was definitely not feeling the love for that walk.

After my wrong turn, my meltdown ensued, so it would take an act of god to rectify my attitude. I truly wanted to make limoncella out of lemonade (sorry, stupid pun while in Italy). I finally found the ancient roman road, which sounded far more charming than it was. it paralleled an easy-to-walk white gravel road, but that was marked with a big slash sign, do not use. So on the cobblestones I walked, but they were very hard to navigate without wrenching an ankle, so it was slow-going. It still wasn’t scenic, but at least off-road. For the next many miles it simply alternated between roads to off-road but not pretty — more like fire roads, and washed-out stream beds, or where you’d take your four-wheeler if you wanted to go get muddy and trash the place. Absolutely no view, nothing. Mostly no shade, so blazing hot (my thermometer on my compass said 95 degrees but it could be broken at that temperature as there is somehow a crack in it). The flora that was roadside was just nothing beautiful — mostly scrubby, weedy. I’m sure my naturalist friends would find a host of wonderful finds there, but to me it all looked like weeds.

After a few hours, voila, I encountered the French girls, who still had no interest in talking to me (in the morning the same). They’d discovered wild blackberries along the side of a very busy road and were picking away. I think they resented I did so as well — they wouldn’t talk to me even when I addressed them in french! They then just started walking again. As I picked berries all happy for the berries till I looked to my left and there, nestled in the brambles, a dirty diaper. Ahhhh, wilderness.

I did laugh at myself thinking about those French girls: they just looked like they were “la la la la la” out for a stroll, hadn’t broken a sweat, and I was in slog mode, with that song, what’s it from, with the laborers chanting “Oh, eee, oh, oh eee oh.” Lugging all that stuff and schvitzing my arse off and feeling immensely cranky, that was indeed my theme song…I was almost hoping a wild boar would jump out of the woods & put me out of my misery (boar eats me versus the other way around, as I’ve been yearning for a Tuscan specialty, pappardelle a la cianghale, a wild boar dish). Meanwhile I fear there are permanent divots in shoulders from hauling my pack at this point. I’m stooped, I swear it! Stooped over like Strega Nona from that Tommy DiPaoli children’s book LOL (she was a creepy old witch with a wart on her nose).

Sometimes the path goes through a town or village. Some towns are cheerful, vibrant, welcoming, while others seem deeply downtrodden (as if I’d chosen to walk through Scranton, Pennsylvania).

I finally reached a point after 10 miles that I’d hit my limit. I still had like 6-7 miles to go at least, not including a huge climb to the top of the hilltop town of San Miniato once I got that, which at that point would’ve been in 2014. So I made the executive decision to find a taxi at the next town. Doesn’t it figure, as I’m approaching the next town it finally looks pretty, there are hints of scenery and vistas etc. I cross a busy road, see I have a huge climb uphill, so then look to my right and see this industrial park that has a contemporary pizzeria at the front of it. I decide to wend my way the 100 yards or so over there, and see on the other side of the building a group of tourists with bright green shirts on and I’d hoped to go beg a ride off of them, but they disappeared before I got there. So I try to enter the pizzeria but it’s closed. Sigh…So I have to climb this steep hill, intent on calling a cab in the next village (which at least was a sweet little village, not one of the grim ones). FINALLY I get an overpriced cab, and the drive alone was 25 minutes, so thank you Jesus I didn’t walk it (it would have taken HOURS), and he takes me to my overpriced hotel (I was unable to reach anyone by phone at the convent after trying for two days), but wow, that hotel was a drink of water in the dessert. Meanwhile, who do I encounter but the greenshirted folks, who turned out to be a group of Brazilian women who’d walked the Camino in Spain and now were walking Lucca to Rome. They, too, lamented the route was miserable, and far too long (apparently different with the Camino), and they’d been trying to get a cab at the pizzeria as well! They ended up going into some industrial place and calling from some office. Now they have the smart plan — they have a travel company transporting their bags from place to place, so they are just walking. I could totally do 30 km a day without lugging 16 pounds of stuff on my back. Plus their travel company has them booked into really nice hotels each night, also not a bad thing when you’re hot, sweaty, and needing comfort.

San Miniano is a delightful hilltop village, just beautiful, palazzos everywhere, very majestic with amazing views. I unfortunately wasted too much time there trying to plan logistics for the next several days, which I had to do with internet (calling to reserve overnight stays, places I was seeking on the internet, so I’m sort of a slave to when I can find WiFi. What did they do 1000 years ago without it?! LOL).

Last night I went to a small restaurant down the hill and was tacked onto a table with a middle aged couple on date. E-harmonia, perhaps? (sorry, trying for bad Italian word play). They were yakking away, laughing at each others jokes, heavy flirtation occurring right under my nose. He (his name is Giovanni) was multo expressivo, with very gravelly voice that got very high when giggly. She was totally Italiana hot, though her eyes might have used a little tuck ;-) . As if I can talk… They were leaning into each other big time, their hand gestures very receptive. Ahhh, amore, the international language. I love being a snoop, in any language.

I’m in tartuffo (truffle) country, and the smell assaults your nostrils the minute you step into a restaurant (I’m dining at Osteria L’Upapa–love that word, I think maybe it means woodpecker?). So it took getting used to that aroma as I’m not a truffle fan. To think thus town hosts a weeks-long white truffle festival — blech! Ah, but I got my cinghiale al pappardelle, was multo buono.

So after my yesterday fiasco I decided to reevaulate my mission here. So much of the VF seems to be on roads, and I’m not loving that from a safety perspective and also from a hot pavement ratcheting the temperature up another ten degrees perspective. I’d hoped for a lot of beautiful views like in Switzerland but much of the walking offers nothing of the sort, at least yet. I know I run the risk of missing some beautiful legs of the walk right now, but I decided instead to divert, getting over to San Gimignano and then to Siena, and then spend a few days in Florence.
Alas, what I didn’t realize is that once I got myself this far into Tuscany, mass transit is non-existent. Which means my ONLY way out was by taxi. Argh. So I took a very very expensive taxi to San Gimignano, which was a very good decision.

Along the road I could see that a lot of the VF continued on roads, attesting to my decision being right for me, as I just wasn’t loving that part of it. I was amused to see a sign before some town boasting their Festival di cacciatore (bunny stew festival) — sorry Kendall! The bunny in the sign looked so happy! He clearly didn’t know his fate…

My taxi driver’s ringtone was Tom Jones singing “Its Not Unusual”, which is sorta retro, I kept hearing it each time he got a call.

When I arrived in San Gimignano, I was at first dismayed by the onslaught of tourists, galore. But once I started wandering and going up side streets, I had a great day. This is a lovely town, very beautiful, and if you look you can find this awesome park that takes you to the top of the walled village and it’s a fabulous view of Chianti, the region I’m now. So I’m totally happy with my choice. I just have zero interest in dodging speeding cars in busy roads for eight hours a day. So after a few days in Florence to recharge my battery, I’ll aim to try to rejoin the the VF somewhere here in Tuscany. And I’m so happy that Scott’s going to meet me for the last week, and we’ll walk a few days on it and then go to Rome. So while I’m not adhering to my original plan per se, I’m totally comfortable with this choice. Perhaps since I’m a writer, I realize that when the story’s not going in the direction you’d hoped, sometimes you have to change the narrative. I have enjoyed many parts of the walk so far, and hope to enjoy many more over the next few weeks, but have to be realistic about my goals and about how best to achieve them. I realize there is no way I’ll make 30 km/day, which means it would be double the time I’d have to take on the VF, with no mid-way stopping points. And my 3 liters of water runs out at about 8 miles. So I’m just making this up as I go along. In florence I hope to just tuck into quiet places and find time to write, also revisit some places I love there as well. I’ll be staying at a hostel so that should be interesting. It promises to be a quiet hostel and not aimed at 18-year olds (please!), so hopefully it’ll be ok. But me and 3 strangers in co-ed room. Honestly. How old am I? ;-)

I found this tiny restaurant when I first got into town — totally off the beaten path, which often bodes well. The woman at my b&b then suggested it when I asked for a good local place. It’s as big as a sneeze, rather cozy, but smells divine, plus more like local prices, so looking forward to it!

On tonights menu (but not for me): ox tongue. That’s on a lot of menus. I must clearly be missing out, but choose to remain in that state…I loved the owner of tonight’s restaurant, had that classically Italian way of speaking English: Today’s-ah-specials-ah-beef-grillata-ah-with-ah-vegetables-ah-no tomate-ah.

After dinner I walked back up to the piazza — San Gimignano has gorgeous architecture, with fortress-like palazzos at every turn and beautiful and imposing towering arches and crenallated walls–you feel as if you are protected within the castle walls. Just missing a moat!

I hung out on the steps reading while a very annoying flautist played music, accompanied by a karaoke version of We Are the Champions. Someone should arrest him for disturbing the peace. He’s definitely reached point of diminishing returns, audience-wise, and should call it a night & spare those of ya seeking quietude on the piazza. Ha! My bad. People actually clapped when he finished. Go figure. He reminds me of when those people pull out the Peruvian pan pipes in public venues to try to draw some cash.

Allora, I am off to bed. Had a lovely day in San Gimignano and go by bus (not foot as it would be 3 long days at great distance) to Siena before heading to Florence for the weekend. Will try to pick up the VF next week again…Ciao ciao!

***update: spent nice day in Siena but when I realized my hotel room smelled like urine I decided to hop thesis to Florence this evening so here I am in another great city! Staying at a hostel (I’m no doubt the granny of the group) but its actually quite nice. Though sharing room with six others…tomorrow through mondsy coed even. Should be interesting…

chianti region at sunset

On the Move

September 1st, 2013

Ciao belli!

A few days have passed since I last blogged. I’ve been molto busy, some of it just trying to get places, be it by foot or by train.

When I last posted, I was in Aosta, I believe. Aosta was a cute-ish town, nestled in a valley at the base of the Italian Alps. It’s an Old Roman city with Roman arches intact surrounding parts of the town. Staying power, those Romans had. By the time I got to a hotel and got to dinner that night, many people were out and about for their passegiata — an evening stroll for window shopping and chatting. So I saw lots of people milling about. It’s a lovely Italian tradition, and great people-watching.

The next morning I was off to the stazione for a day-long journey to get to Fidenza, where I planned to pick up the Via Francigena again. I learned yesterday I’ve been grossly mispronouncing this word. Of course depending on what country you’re in it’s said differently anyhow. But now it’s pronounced Frahn-SHAY-jayna. I still struggle to get that right!

Anyhow, I spent the day swapping trains (four in all), and got to see the terrain I was intentionally bypassing, and was glad I chose to — very flat, very boring, mile upon mile of mostly rice paddies, interspersed with corn fields. I finally arrived in Fidenza, located not far from Parma, in early evening. I can’t say I was bowled over with the place. Just sort of overall “meh” impression. Buildings seemed a combination of rundown old and just ugly 1960s architecture. There is probably a good reason that every Italian gave me a resigned shrug when I said I wanted to get to Fidenza. Without fail, they’d all say “Firenze?” (meaning Florence), to which of course I really want to go, but not that day, and then they’d look at me like I was nuts to opt for Fidenza instead. Clearly they were onto something.

The accommodations for the night were at Albergo Ugolini, above a pizza restaurant. Think upscale prison. Actually, mercifully Italians are super super clean, so even a dismal hotel room is impeccably spotless, which does my heart good. Though to see some of the riffraff who showed up later in search of a room, it gave me pause to think what I was resting my head on that some of these dudes also might have shared. My standards have diminished substantially — amazing when you’re tired enough what looks downright cozy. Ish. The pillow did have a bit of a sour smell, though honestly I think it was a vinegar-based cleaner as the towels smelled the same the next day. Though all were starched and as white as snow. My hosts were lovely and friendly, so that helped me feel right at home in the relatively grim environs. My room was what you’d expect a “hotel ” room to look like if you raided your basement or scoured yard sales in the barrio to decorate an attic space above your pizza restaurant. Sparse & weathered. And the locale, well, naturally with the incumbent noise you’d expect on Friday night after a bunch of hairy guido-types watched football in the bar below. Shouting outside til wee hours.

I asked around for the piazza where the church was where I needed to get my “credenziale” stamped (each town you walk to/from you get a stamp in a sort of passport to show you’ve done the walk, this enables you to get official dispensation at St. Peter’s in Rome). Oddly NO ONE in this town knew where the piazza was (though it wasn’t far from the central piazza. Go figure.

It was friday night so I went into the centrale, the main part of town, the piazza, and a band was set up to play, so I was going to sit down at an outdoor bar and have a drink and enjoy the evening, but once the band started to play (they seemed to be in a perpetual state of warming up, I’d noticed, as I wandered around), they were painfully loud, playing headbanger music. Perfect for a Friday sunset…

I’d asked a group of folks earlier at a wine bar near my hotel for a restaurant recommendation, and they gave me a place actually quite near the church I needed to find (but I didn’t realize it till the next day!), and I scouted it out and it was totally empty. So I decided not to go there at first, returning to the piazza with the too-loud music and tons of cigarette smokers. It was enough to drive me back to the empty restaurant, thank goodness. I knew it was still early enough that only outsiders like me would feign to show up for dinner (was about 8 pm), but the chef was so enthusiastic when I got there, I knew it would be good, and he didn’t fail. I felt peer-pressured into his warm capon salad for an appetizer. My mom used to make capons when I was young but I hadn’t seen one in 35 years. It was fabulous, braised on top of mixed greens with balsamic vinegar (the good kind) and sultanas. Yummm. Followed by amazing homemade gnocchi (sorry Kendall!) and another delicious semifreddo, this time with some nougat thing going on. Italians sure do know how to cook (as long as you avoid the touristy places).

After dinner I wandered amidst the weak passegiatta (much less interesting than in Aosta), interested that many people were on bicycle. Definitely a biking town at least. I then headed back to the Ritz, where there were shouting matches going on outside beneath my window, perhaps from the pool hall across the street, till probably 2 a.m. Reminded me of long ago when Scott and I attended a wedding in San Francisco and the affianced couple had found for all of the guests a newly renovated yet affordable hotel, outside of which was a hangout for hookers all night long. While our room was clean enough, albeit spartan, we listened to prostitutes and pimps hollering at each other all night long. Ahhhh, memories.

So Saturday I loaded up my stuff (which takes SO long, considering I have that one backpack). It’s a daily struggle to put the pieces of the puzzle back together with that thing — my own little Humpty Dumpty.

It took me I swear an hour to find that darned church that should have been obvious to anyone who’d lived in Fidenza for more than a day, and then follow the route out of town. On the edge of town was a Saturday market, so I stopped for fresh fruit, which turned out to be the high point of the day…I figure I waste an hour a day packing up my backpack and an hour a day getting lost. Weird how boiling things down to simplicity make things more complicated sometimes. At least in my car I’d have that nice woman on my GPS telling me where to go. And at least at home I can just leave things in one place and not lug them again and again. I’d not make a good vagrant, of this I can be sure. I keep thinking my load will lighten, but it seems 1/8 ounce of shampoo and conditioner I use a day doesn’t cut into that much. I’ve been coveting my slight stockpile of power bars and chocolate, knowing there will be legs of the walk in which there is no food/drink for 28 km, but damn, yesterday, the chocolate all melted in my pack! It was that hot! I wonder if there’s some metaphor for life in lugging so much stuff: you weigh yourself down with so much unnecessary crap (not just physical but mental: worries, fears, anger, etc). Much easier to keep it light and easy…

I am a huge Asker of Directions. Makes most people nuts, but reassures me. Of course that means you get too many answers, one of which almost sent me on the wrong path. God forbid I trust my overlapping and confusing and sometimes failing maps (or my gut, for that matter). When you make the wrong turn while walking, you pay for it with backtracking, which honestly sucks when you’re hot and running out of water and there’s nowhere to get more. And then you realize you have to walk two more miles.
The path was well-enough marked, but I stupidly didn’t realize I’d misplaced a page of my directions, so they made no sense after the first two miles, and I was baffled as to where the hell I was going for a while until I figured that out. That was totally my bad. I was climbing through the foothills of the Italian Appenines, and had expected gorgeous panoramas, but while parts of it were certainly pretty, it wasn’t anything that took my breath away by any stretch of the imagination. Much of the route was on pavement, and while technically country roads, still each car that passed did so at terrifying rates of speed and without obvious consideration for 50-year old women lugging too much shit in a backpack. There was no shoulder whatsoever, so no room for error. It was about 95 degrees on the pavement, which didn’t help matters. My one bright moment was walking down a hill and encountering a woman with a cute puppy she’d taken out to her back patio to pee. The sign on her fence showed a menacing German Shepherd and warned to beware of the ferocious dog, however her dog was all of 8 pounds of puppy and was happy to nibble at my fingers through the fence. I think the woman thought I was truly pazzo for loving on her dog like I did. Oh, my other high point yesterday was I walked by a massive field filled with San Marzano-type tomatoes and I lifted one from the vine. It was delicious: meaty and flavorful. Way better than when they end up in a can at the grocery store.
Sometimes as I’m walking I realize I am as slow as an old granny (make that great granny) with a walker. But I’m so paranoid about not losing my footing, I try to be ultra careful. But it makes for slower going, which means there are places I have to pick and choose where to curtail on this walk. But all good, as I knew there would be a lot of unknowns along the way.

Fortunately I knew that Tuscany was far prettier, so when I arrived in Costamezzana, I made a quickie executive decision. The town was dead, the hostel at which I was to stay wasn’t to open till 6 pm, which meant that I had to kill about four hours with no where in which to kill it. Instead I tucked into a bar, asked if there was a way to get a taxi to a train station, and a lovely waitress offered to drive me back (!) to Fidenza, which seemed counterintuitive, but was so smart for me to do. I was able to hop on yet more trains (this after walking for 8 hours all day) and with a number of potential glitches with train changes, managed to land in Lucca late last night. Thank goodness!

The trains I rode went through the areas I would have been walking for some 7-8 days, and honestly after having walked through the Alps, it paled by comparison. Sort of reminded me of the mountains in Pennsylvania, which never once motivated me to trek them for a week while growing up, with good reason. Even as we coursed through the mountains, the bodies of water were still, no rushing torrents cascading to the bottom. Only lazy streams. More tall hills than stark mountains. In Pontremoli, a sleepy town in which I didn’t want to sleep, I raced to change trains only to find out there was no train to change to (despite the directions of the ticket man in Fidenza). At least I wasn’t the only one running stupidly — several others did as well, and they were locals. Almost got stuck there, which would have bummed me out. I had to laugh because at that stop, it seems that everyone on the sparsely-populated train deboarded for a smoke, including the conductors. My next confusing stop was at a station in a suburb of Pisa. Completely empty, dark settling in, and no train to Lucca on the schedule. With a minute to spare I ran across two sets of tracks (I know, bad idea) and boarded the small local train which, thank goodness, also went to Lucca. I was hollering to the conductor “aiuto!” (Help!”) and he kindly reassured me I could still get to Lucca.

Upon my arrival,ca delightful Italian woman who lives in Pisa but spends her weekends with her boyfriend in Lucca helped me to find my impossible to find hotel, for which I was immensely grateful. Lucca is an exquisite historical walled city, just large enough to be interesting but small enough to navigate readily. Had a so-so late meal at a tourist trap near my hotel.After spending the morning figuring out my new agenda, with the help of Paolo, the awesome owner of the hotel, I wandered into the Piazza MIchele, found my way to bike rentals (they’re plentiful) and rode a bike around the city all day. You can ride up on the wall (I’m assuming yet another Roman one though haven’t read about that yet) and really get a chance to see it from on high. I even met a fellow pelligrina — someone making the pilgrimage — a young Irishwoman named Mary who was beginning her walk tomorrow from Lucca.

On my bike I stumbled upon an American woman who lives in Lucca and got a recommendation for what she said was the best restaurant in Lucca, named Osteria Leo. she told me to tell them Lulu sent me. Lulu from Lucca to Leo…It was wonderful and non-touristy, which was perfect. I can’t help but people watch as I’m all alone and I was transfixed by this slack-breasted, aged Luccese (sp?) woman with but one tooth jutting from her lower jaw like volcanic rock in the middle of a dark ocean, busy holding court at a nearby table. She was very loud and evidently very opinionated. It was funny to watch her go on and on to a number of people at different tables. I was so surprised as she was getting up to go and the man with whom she’d apparently shared a table said “piacere conosco” which meant “pleased to know you” — evidently she’d just plunked herself down at his table and started yapping. Turns out he was from Barcelona and on a motorcycle tour of Tuscany, didn’t even know the woman. Also interesting to watch the pregnant woman at a nearby table smoking away…

Tomorrow I divert to the Cinque Terre for the day, then Tuesday resume walking, bypassing the first leg from Lucca as it’s on busy roads. I learned from Lulu that it is common for pedestrians and bikers to be hit and killed in Italy and usually no one ever even gets in trouble for it. She said there is callous disregard for those along roads who aren’t in cars, so that was warning enough for me to be wary. Plus after having walked most of 8 miles on hot pavement, I’m learning what to avoid. Still looking for those meadows perhaps?

As I sit outside of the main piazza writing this, a group of about 10 people has pulled up in a van, unloaded supplies, and set up shop with some sort of political protest. they are very intent, stringing up signs and preparing their musical selection for their presentation. So curious what they are protesting, it’s MoVimento beppegrillo.it . Must look that up. Frankly someone has been playing that Frito Bandito song on a harmonica for the past hour so this protest might be a refreshing change.

After being gone a week now, I know one thing that I already knew, but is only reaffirmed: I am a people person so it’s very foreign to me to be by myself. I’m frankly bored with me! I feel like a Labrador retriever let loose in a vast human-free forest. I may soon become a little too desperate to speak with people, despite a strong level of communication barriers thanks to my tepid Italian skills.

I have found it refreshing to not even consider “shopping” anywhere. No need to acquire needless tchotchkes and certainly nowhere to put them. As it is my pack is too full. (though, um, I am going to search the Piazza Barberini if I remember correctly in Rome for a little wine shop that sold good balsamic vinegar and olive oil, as by then I’ll happily lug it home!!). Rather I guess I am figuring out a new level of self-sufficiency at this late date, and simply experiencing the experience. And learning how to navigate public transportation when need be, in another language, which can be challenging. Part of my plan, learning how to get around fearlessly. Or should I say less fearfully?

Though I have a newfound empathy for turtles, lugging everything on their back. No wonder they lay eggs instead of carrying babies on top of all that!

I will say yesterday I had a few near-meltdowns. In my head I kept thinking: Dear Diary: The Amalfi coast is sounding sorely tempting right about now.” Though honestly I don’t know what I’d do there for 3 weeks! Plus the best part of the walk should be in Tuscany, so I just needed to ditch the part I wasn’t enjoying.

So far on my walks, once I’m out of a town, I see exactly no one, save for an occasional farmer. I can be contemplative but it can also get to be boring. I’ve listened to my Italian book on my iPod (trying to erase the rudimentary french that had resurfaced from the recesses of my memory while in Switzerland), and listened to hundreds of songs as well, as well as thousands of chirping crickets. Not so many birds, unfortunately. I’ve seen very few animals, and I’d expected to see far more. Instead I’ve seen dead bugs galore, dead butterflies, and a dead bird, unfortunately. And I’ve seen more grasshoppers and crickets than I need to know exist in the world. Yesterday plenty of fallow and tilled fields and many views blocked by walls, fences and tall trees erected by people who owned the nice villas outside of town.

We pause for this brief message: Please remember I’m attempting to raise money for the IRC with my walk. I’ve been remiss in promoting this much but I just got too busy as I was preparing to leave for my trip, just bit off more than I could chew. Link is .

Oh, by the way, les you think I’m brave or admirable for this quest, you should know this: I miss my rolling suitcase. I miss my down comforter and feather bed. I miss my reliable hot showers. And I miss my family desperately. I’m bored with me! I’m a people person with no people: I’m that lost Labrador, aimless in the woods. And I’m lugging too much crap!

I hear the UVA football game was delayed by thunderstorms yesterday — that seems so crazy! Never hear of such a thing!

I’m glad I’m in Tuscany, love it here, it’s so beautiful. And again tremendously grateful that my husband has enabled me to undertake this adventure! Grazie mille ;-)

Ciao for now!

I WAS TRYING TO UPLOAD PICTURES BUT THE INTERNET IS TOO SLOW SO I’LL JUST POST THIS AND TRY TO POST PICTURES LATER!

AND HERE I THOUGHT DOWNHILL WOULD BE EASIER….

August 29th, 2013

Catching up on a few days here. Will try to add pictures at the end. Many are on my phone but I’ve got some on my iPad I can post.

Two days ago I slept in after arriving very late to Bourg St.Pierre, was a good decision. I had originally planned too much walking for that day and it would have killed my plans to walk those cute St.Bernards…Luckily I didn’t do that b/c it would have been 4 tough hours uphill at high altitude only to get there and walk the very route back down for 75 minutes with the dogs and then back up again! I’d have killed myself!
Instead I boarded a bus, which was an experience in itself. Only a 20 minute ride but along precarious roads, with each turn the bus would overhang the escarpment, giving me near heart failure. Don’t know how the guy drives the bus! Crazier still, I looked up at one point and saw a man climbing out of his construction equipment onto an escarpment with 100 foot drop below, completely nonchalant and flicking his cigarette butt as he jumped out. Oy vey. I sure wondered how many buses plummet off cliffs up here!

As I said that walk with the dogs was along the Via Francigena. Only going down the mountain it was a very rocky path, with 175-pound dogs pulling at you, not so easy. Hard to keep your footing. The dogs were adorable: Bunti, Wenda (pronounced Venda), Justin and Ranna. Most adorable. If you can’t tell I have a thing for St. Bernards. My (grown) kids are lucky I haven’t a millimeter of space in my backpack or I’d have brought them back cute but useless St. Bernard stuffed animals. (yes, I know they just purged all those stuffed animals!). Two other families were on the walk, several kids, who made much better timing than did I. Oh well! I was savoring my St. Bernard time…

Was great fun w/ the dogs, they’re sweet as can be and precious, though the one boy (Justin, pronounced in the french way) kept going after the girl I was walking and sometimes he’d start barking a little too aggressively for my tastes — happened w/ one of the kids right there. Of course these dogs are well-trained so I don’t doubt they’d not do anything, but still…I think old Justin had love on the mind…

After that I just walked in the town for a few minutes (“town” is an exaggeration — it’s the hospice, which is a building housing a church and chapels and housing facilities, a hotel across the street with a bar, and a smaller bar down the street that sells tchotchkes. And the kennels. I went to the smaller bar in search of hot chocolate — it’s COLD up here! Especially at the top. When we walked I got warm and could have taken off my long-sleeved top but no chance with dogs on the go. But up top it’s very blustery.

The day was beautiful but chilly at the top but after sunset a shroud of fog descended on the place — was very haunting. Dinner was served promptly at 7:15, just me and about 25 strangers, none of whom spoke much English (or French or Italian for that matter). Met two young men from Czech Republic who are walking across Europe searching for work. Not, perhaps, the most efficient manner in which to search for jobs, but they seemed nice and I felt badly for them that no one will hire them. I dined with a Swiss doctor from Lausanne who was wearing a Jawbone bracelet (it quantifies everything you short of motive) and I pointed out my son has a Fitbit now and quantifies it all. He laughed and said, “Yes, I think it was Shakespeare who said ‘I think, therefore I am.’ But now it is I measure, therefore I am.” So true…The guy walks the steps (15 flights) at the hospital at which he works. A modern day esthete I suppose (who voluntarily goes off to Monasteries for holiday!). The food was what you’d expect in a religious hospice. The place was very clean, which was nice. I cannot begin to tell you how cold it was. I’d been avoiding taking my backpack out b/c it is so nicely packed and I knew it would be a struggle to get it back in this tiny sack. Finally I sucked it up and used it, and owe my daughter Kendall much gratitude for her lending it to me. I almost cried to be warm! The simple pleasures do become amplified when things get boiled down to more basics. It was quite the grudge match getting that sleeping bag put away though…

We were awoken by music — the monks’ way of telling us to leave? Had a quick breakfast of stale bread and was off.

So onto today’s walk. The walk. The walk!
Okay, first off. I have a newfound respect for the Family Von Trapp. How they trekked through the mountains of Austria to escape the Nazis with all of those children and no hiking gear is beyond me.
Let me tell you, they don’t call it the Alps for nothing (whatever that means!). I was operating under the delusion that I was on the downhill and thus it would be much easier. I was wrong. The weather was spectacular — could not have been better. Started out crisp and cool but a few minutes hiking took care of the cool. The path was steep and rocky so it took a great deal of concentration. I’m still wondering where all those meadows are that I’d expected. The scenery was stunning. I passed lots of cows with those musical bells — must make them insane, though, clanging away all day long. And deaf! But it is lovely to hear in the distance, before you even see the cattle. I laughed at the passivity of cows around here — the only thing that keeps them from straying to land not theirs is usually a small rope strung across a path. Perhaps they’re just so happy where they are.

Much of the way was steep and rocky with very little between me and certain death if I lost my footing. Humbling. I have bonded with my walking sticks (though lost the tip of one on my first day, darn it). The trail was well-marked at first, but after I stopped for lunch in St. Rhemy and returned to the trail with the intent of walking to Etroubles, I ended up on a nasty trail that got the better of me. Much of the time it was a barely discernible path through dense overgrowth. Loads of crickets leaping about. I saw a sign for St. Oyen, the next town, which claimed to be 50 minutes away, and I couldn’t help but wonder if that was in dog years. Speaking of dogs–where’s a St. Bernard when you need one? I’d have loved to have one rescue me by about 3 pm, when my trail led me to an enormous construction site where I had to climb over piles of rebar and cement blocks just to get out of the woods. Crazily I wasn’t lost but it sure felt like it. At that point I decided my best plan was to hop a bus to Aosta so that I could still catch a train to Fidenza tomorrow, my plan being to pick up the Via Francigena around there (near Parma) and climb through the Cisa Pass, part of the Italian Appenines, which is supposed to be beautiful. Debating whether to divert first to Florence or afterward. Will see how my legs are holding out in the morning as to whether I hope a series of trains to Fidenza or Firenza ;-) .

I met a lovely woman and her mother while waiting for a bus in St. Oyen. As she described her job and had a hard time translating it, I realized she is an urban planner, which is what Kyle’s in graduate school for, so that was a small world. She and her mother were delightful, fluent in english. Her mother was lovely and wanted to bring me home to Torino and feed me her specialty — spaghetti. I was sorely tempted, though Torino is nowhere near my planned itinerary. She also wanted to show me her duck cross-stitch — her daughter said she was terribly obsessed with it (as a quilter of past I can relate!)

I washed a bunch of clothes and hope they’re dried by the time I leave in the morning. Went out to a great meal of tagliatelle al sugo (duck confit and pasta, yummm) and semifreddo di fruitti di foret (I’m no doubt spelling that wrong). Was perfect. Now I’m going to head off to bed, but let me add some pictures!

Ciao!

20130830-002303.jpg

20130830-002333.jpg

20130830-002350.jpg

20130830-002414.jpg

HITTING THE TRAIL

August 28th, 2013

The weather started out perfect this morning, the clouds gentle tufts of lambs wool against a bluebird sky.

Too bad I chose the morning to get my collective merde together,which means I got a very late start, again trying to figure out my gps (dear garmin: you SUCK). Thank goodness for pocket earth, a fabulous app that has been helpful in keeping me on track so far.

Oh well, weather was great at first, but as I got further in elevation in the Alps it sure did rain. But it was almost like being in the tropics, minus the cloying heat — rain, stop, rain stop. I was most grateful I finally pulled the trigger and bought a large poncho, something the guy at REI said he never bothered with. I’d have been drenched without it. The poncho was great, albeit a bit stifling, heat-wise, at times. I did, however, look like a giant green Oompa Loompa. But that didn’t matter, as I saw exactly no one for most of my hike (nine miles, 99% uphill). Saw a few folks here and there at the beginning, and midway as the path crossed through villages, but that was it.

I did find I talked to myself after a while of no one with whom to converse. I am such a chatterbox, so it’s weird not having someone to talk to. At home I definitely talk to the pets all day long when no one is around. Hmmm…

But with my huge green Kermit the Frog poncho on, traveling through wooded forest all alone, I kept remembering my lines from a place we did in French class when I was in elementary school. Why I still remember that is beyond me. i just hoped no wolves were around the bend waiting to lurch at me… “Bonjour, je m’appelle le petit chaperon rouge!” Only I was the grand chaperon vert, this giant green blog (what with my very large pack on my back, to which is attached a sleeping bag and my down coat, stuffed into a small sack. Last night I was most grateful I packed the down coat, which was under great debate for a while. It was FREEZING and I used it as another layer of pajamas.

But back to walking, I mooched a few raspberries while passing through a small village–they were amazingly good. Wish I could’ve cleared the bush. I never ate my bread and fromage til about 6 pm — my walk took longer than I’d planned as I stopped a lot to take pictures and write things before I forgot them. will get around to posting pictures soon, just no time to do so now. Well, I might post one at the end…

I noticed a few hours into my hike I was beginning to smell like the german lesbian couple who are biking La Via Francigen & who I met in orsieres at lunchtime — at the time I backed away at their ripe aroma, assuming they’d been camping, thus not showering. Now I realize it doesn’t even matter if you showered — after a few miles uphill it gets a big much. Good thing I was alone! Before I left Charlottesville, I saw a vagrant toting a backpack (& a mean dog), with seriously matted hair, his skin a few shades darker from dirt. I joked to my family “lets hope that’s not me in a month” but now I think it could well be!

Kept pondering as I walked: To Advil or not to Advil: that is the question. Still trying to avoid it, though when I finally got to Bourg-Saint-Pierre last night I was sorely tempted to. I stretched a ton and mercifully the hotel at which I finally stayed had a clean (!) bathtub, so I soaked for a while — most therapeutic.

With all this wlking I just hope I don’t end up with calves you could land a jumbo jet on…

About 1/3 of the way into my hike, the path got very narrow with unforgiving steep precipice on my left. I kept telling myself the trees would stop my fall (but maybe not in a good way). At one point I had to unload my pack to slip through the narrow confines of a few downed trees blocking the path — even without my pack I could barely make it through. The steep Alpine hills (and occasional meadows) were like something out of Heidi or The Sound of Music — so beautiful. I felt I should start yodeling.

My pop culture-polluted brain kept playing the song from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (or is it Santa Claus is Coming to Town?)–put one foot in front of the other…Yeah that played on an endless loop for too long.

I kept wondering how in the world did Seguric the Serious do this trek 1000 years ago with no one to mark the trails for 2600 km? I suspect his true path was like a drunk soldier–weaving & circling. He must’ve been serious–seriously crazy! Though I’m sure he had porters lugging his stuff for him. He should’ve been called Seguric the Effing Lucky since he got there in one piece — at one point on a very narrow path with a cliff to my left, I planted the tip of my walking stick in what I thought was solid earth but turned out to be like quicksand on steep step cliffside.
For hours cow dung aroma hunh in air but where were the cows? If they were smart, on terra more firma. I heard their bells, finally saw a few way up on a hill.

On the 2nd half of the hike the trail led through beautiful forests. I felt sorry for the towering pines: they grow & grow & grow then they snap. A metaphor for life perhaps? For a long time I could hear roar of rushing water but the river was completely obscured from my view by lush growth. Finally I could see it and respectfully kept my distance — it was beautiful but deadly if you slipped in.

At the start of the last climb yesterday I happened upon a lovely outdoor stone chapel, circular in shape with stone benches running along the inside of the rounded walls. It had a prayer in French, I think it was praying for the safekeeping of those climbing to the Great Saint Bernard Pass. As I continued uphill on a fairly steep incline, I totally understood why they had that chapel there. Though they could’ve installed one halfway up just to give a tired hiker a breather…

I arrived in the evening to the place at which I planned to stay and found out that Fondation Barry was encamped there with a group of older teens, I program, if I understood it correctly, that served the type of purpose that a ropes course would, team-building, confidence-building, etc. Fondation Barry is the charitable organization that maintains the presence of St. Bernards at the St. Bernard pass, made famous by the dogs with casks of brandy at their necks, sent out to rescue stranded wanderers.Theyre no longer used for rescue missions, but are used for publicity and such things as these outreach programs. At first i didn’t realize there were actual St. Bernards there, but then i saw several VERY large dog bowls outside, so I asked if I could see the dogs, and I got taken into a room (FAR nicer than the room in which I was supposed to stay!) and greeted by four gorgeous teddy bear-like ENORMOUS Saint Bernards. The cutest things you ever did see — was such a treat for a dog-lover like me. They were adorable, and Urs (aka Andrew), the kind man with the Barry Foundation, indulged me by allowing a good 20 minutes with the pooches. Great ending to an exhilarating but exhausting day.

Attention Kmart shoppers: this hike could kick my ass into the next century if I let it, but I won’t.

image

AND SO IT BEGINS

August 27th, 2013

I’m going to have to make this quick as I’m absolutely beat, but wanted to post the start of my journey.

Let’s just say packing was mildly amusing. I am the one who throws in the extra kitchen sink, after packing the main sink. Me and a pack ostensibly meant to hold 15 pounds is just a contrary concept. I tried, truly I did. But all those darned little things added up, not to mention the mere weight of the iPad I brought along, amongst other things.

Suffice it to say, when I start walking tomorrow, I expect tears. I will spew vulgarities about what a stupid git I am for having even fantasized about packing a blow dryer (yes, I admit, I pondered it in the far recesses of my mind, but no, I didn’t pack one. It was the first item on the “no way in hell” list).

It was hard to bid farewell to my family. Moms are conflicted about just bailing on the family, aren’t they? Even though the kids are off doing their own thing, there’s just this feeling that you need to be there just in case. And leaving Scott for a month — that’s a really long time and i will miss him! i must also say how grateful i am that he has enabled me to undertake this journey — his support has been invaluable. But everyone assured me I wasn’t being a self-indulgent self-indulger, so I’ll take it at face value.

So I headed off on my adventure relatively guilt-free but suddenly feeling quite anxious (no doubt mostly b/c of newly-anticipated need for a Sherpa). There’s just so much STUFF you need/want to pack for a month. Particularly when you figure you’ll be roughing it a bit, you want to toss in those little somethings that’ll make you feel mildly indulged (the foot lotion, the soothing arnica oil for muscle aches). Though in reality you should’ve tossed those in the “no” pile right behind that darned blow dryer!

Ah well, it is what it is. I expect I’m going to pull a Hansel and Gretel and leave a trail of divine-smelling toiletries with each kilometer trekked. I’ll keep you posted.

My flight was surprisingly quick and uneventful, though in the small world department, my daughters roommates father was my pilot! He did a fine job! I then met up with an e-friend I’ve “known” online for years, who I learned last week lives near Geneva. What a lovely day we had — we went to her beautiful home and I was able to make myself at home to reconnoiter (boy did I need that), shower (ditto) and enjoy a lovely lunch and great company. Topped off with a visit to her gorgeous horse. I navigated several trains from there to grt to Orsieres, wishing I’d had time to explore the area before departing — very picturesque villages along what I think was Lake Lausanne — stunningly beautiful. The town of Nyon (FIFA headquarters to you soccer fans) was exceptionally so. arrived around 5:30, settled into my hotel & went in search of food.

While wandering through the village trying to find an open restaurant, a man backing out of a parking space pulled over and started telling me in french about the local cheeses, unsolicited. I had years of french growing up but do you think I could converse in the language? Hell no. I hadn’t expected the first few days of my trip to be in french-speaking Switzerland, so I hadn’t brushed up on my french and instead have been blending French from the deepest regions of my brain with butchered Italian that I have been brushing up on — probably all the more confusing for the locals. Ah, well, merde…I was also corrected by a construction worker on my bonjours vs. bonsoirs — didn’t need it as I remembered it as I uttered the wrong word last evening. I think by the time I hit Italy I’ll then be speaking comprehendible French and then really trash my Italian. Thank goodness more Europeans speak English than Americans do foreign languages…Bonsoir mes amies!

(By the way I being my journey walking from Orsieres, Switzerland to Bourg-Saint-Pierre, Switzerland. Wish me bonne chance!)

To Roma with Love (and probably some creaky bones!)

August 3rd, 2013


Apologies for the lack of details; they’ll be forthcoming soon. I’ve been crazy busy preparing for a journey I’ll be undertaking at the end of August: I’m going to be walking from the Great Saint Bernard Pass in the Swiss Alps to Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Italy.

Details will follow, but I wanted to get this basic information posted for those who are interested in linking to the donation site I’ve set up. I am following an ancient Pilgrimage route known as the Via Francigena that extends from Canterbury, England to Rome. I’ll walk for a month, and hope to cover about 500 miles in that time period, hoping my legs will carry me about 16 miles a day. I’ll circumvent a bit of the Via Francigena along the Po River Valley in Italy, because it’s along busy roads with no safe shoulders on which to walk, and transects mile upon mile of rice paddies along with more unwanted mosquitoes than you can successfully swat at. Plus I had to cut out part of the journey to get to Rome in time, so this seemed to be the most logical section to avoid.


I decided to select a charity and try to raise money while I undertake this long walk, and loved the idea of helping out the Charlottesville site of the International Rescue Committee, which helps many people who have undertaken their own lengthy journeys to flee from war, famine, political persecution, natural disaster and the like. Having recently attended Monticello’s July Fourth Naturalization ceremony, I learned of the plight of several of those who earned their citizenship that day, and none were able to achieve it without the extensive help of the IRC, which helps people to find housing, work, language training, and provides a vital support network. I hope you’ll consider donating to this organization, and you can do so here.

If you’d like to learn more about the Via Francigena, this website that is full of information.

Thanks for your interest and please stop back as I post information. I leave on August 25 and plan to blog along the way!

Juice Schmuice

January 28th, 2013

I bailed.

Yep, I’m a weenie. Either that, or acutely wise to the ways of my body, which clearly does not tolerate vegetables, particularly in a most vile liquid form…

I couldn’t last a wimp-ish 12 hours. My gag reflex was failing me. With each 3-hour “meal” of yet more veggie juice it became worse. I knew when I was attempting to ingest what was euphemistically dubbed “gazpacho” juice, which tasted more like swamp mud, I was in trouble. After attempting to infuse more fruit in an earlier batch to mask the inevitable verdancy of my juice, only to realize it only made the concoction more visually murky (even less appetizing to observe), and completely failed to enhance the flavor, I was downright giddy when we stumbled upon the gazpacho recipe. I could handle cold vegetable soup! The main ingredient was tomatoes! My fruity friend of the veggie world!

But ugh, the end result of my tomato, carrot, parsley (2 cups!!!), celery, pepper, and red onion juice surprise was that the joke was on me. As I attempted my first sip, my son standing just two feet from me, I paused, juice settling in my mouth like an unwelcome houseguest that won’t leave. I proactively plugged my nose in an unsuccessful attempt to mask the rank odor. I knew then and there if I didn’t employ an Oscar-worthy effort of mind over matter, I would soon spew the intestinal-discharge-colored liquid all over my wonderful child.

I had to keep it together for the sake of dignity (not to mention common courtesy). But I also knew that I could no longer pretend I’d get used to this. Rather I found vindication in admitting it was getting worse. Instead of drinking veggie juice as part of this collaborative family juice fast, I’d simply not eat rather than attempt any more adventuresome juice combos. After trying five different variations, I felt like I gave it the old college try.

By dinnertime, I was certain a cement truck had rumbled down my gullet and set up a construction project in my stomach, every now and then launching that rolling barrel belly just to remind me of my digestive misery, as if the lump of death piling up in there wasn’t enough of a constant reminder. Constipation has nothing on complete arrestation of forward motility that seemed to plague me. I can only imagine an H-bomb of toxic gases was building up in my stomach, with no solid food to propel whatever I was ingesting through the digestive process. One would have thought liquid-in equalled liquid-out. Clearly it’s a more complex math computation when it comes to veggie juice.

To make matters worse, I fear I can never drink a Bloody Mary the rest of my life, what with it’s V8-like ingredient list being too comparable to the near-spewn gazpacho.

By nightfall, the mere smell of juicing was sending me to another room, the aroma so reminiscent of the flavor I couldn’t bear to inhale it. But with an open floor plan in my house, escape was impossible. Our enthusiastically-commenced compost pile — now a trash can probably weighing about 50 pounds with the spoils of juicing — wafts its putrid contents throughout the kitchen at all hours. About that weighty compost pile: it sure is staggering what fiber weighs! No wonder I’m so heavy! No doubt it’s all that fiber I usually ingest…heh…

I admit to almost being a bit jealous of our dogs’ excitement toward dinner on Saturday night: their meal was probably far more delectable than was mine. You know things suck when dog food sounds good.

And that headache I’d been nursing since midday in the fast? By Saturday night it felt as if The Massey Corporation was fracking for natural gas in my brain.

I admit a flood of relief washed over me when I awoke in the middle of the night and realized I wasn’t doomed to face a 24/7 veggie juice fast the next day (or the subsequent 8 that would have followed). Lame of me, I know. But I was elated. While on the juice fast, everything I was ingesting was earthen, and I discovered how much a fan of earthen flavoring I am not. Beets in juice taste like dirt (which admittedly is at least better than the vomitrocious flavor they impart intact). Greens tasted like, well, pastures. And not in a good way. A lot of veggies simply tasted of compost. Not like I’ve ever eaten compost, but I’ve smelled it, and believe me there is a direct correlation. Veggie juice tastes as if you are munching your way through Tarzan’s jungle. Minus the munching action.

Of course now I’m left with the guilt of failing my daughter. And the disappointment of my family for not hanging in, not to mention the shame of not being able to tough it out for even a full 24 hours.

In deference to those who can tough it out around here, I’m left to sneak around the kitchen at mealtimes like a junky slinking around dark alleys and crack houses in search of the next fix. I gingerly open and close the microwave door so as to not betray my food betrayal, willing the inevitable timer beep to shut the ever living fuck up. I prep food quietly and in solitude. Last night I ate in the butlers pantry (since I have no butler, at least I’m making use of the space). I hang my head in shame (while actually cloaked in a blanket of sheer relief) as I prepare my morning cappuccino.

Concessions? I really wanted to whip up a Sunday morning omelet, and I actually craved the aroma of frying bacon yesterday, but in deference to my family’s sacrifices and my sheer, unadulterated loser status, I couldn’t reward myself with that breakfast prize. Maybe I’ll work my way through the fruit stockpile assembled for juicing — I have a large share of responsibility to the farm’s worth of veggies sitting in my garage; after all it was my idea to undertake this solidarity juice fast in the first place.

The bummer is I’m now finding that fruits I once loved are completely repulsive, instead only harkening back to the flavor of them combined with juiced kale. Blech.

Yeah, I feel like I let everyone down, to a certain extent. But like a friend said to me, “Juicing’s not for everyone.” Indeed, I can attest to that.

I’m reminded of an old Lays potato chip commercial “I tried, but I couldn’t do it”…

Perhaps had it been a potato chip diet I’d have had a fighting chance (with french onion dip, natch).