Italian Inspiration

We’ve had an unusually hot and dry summer, so it was welcome news when the weather gods smiled upon us this week and sent cooler temps and scattered rain.  It’s been absolutely glorious and has spurred us to venture out and do some exploring.

Pieve di Romena

We have a calendar with monthly pictures of the Arezzo province, which is where we live.  When we flipped over to August, it was photo that we weren’t familiar with.  Pieve di Romena, a lovely church not far from here.

It is believed that people have been worshiping here for about 1,000 years.  The church was built in 1152, but is on the site of a Roman pagan temple.  I can see why this spot was chosen as holy ground.  It’s on a hill overlooking the fertile Casentino valley, known throughout Italy for its superior food products.  The view is tremendous and even today it’s a peaceful and meditative place.  I can imagine what it was like 1,000 years ago when there were no cars, planes, power lines, or other neccesities of our modern world.

According to the inscription on one of the capitals, the church was built “tempore famis”, or in the time of famine.  The people, starving and desperate for relief, decided to build a church.  What was their motivation?  Was it a distraction from their pain, an offering to a greater power to end their suffering, a show of devotion? Whatever it was, it’s a magnificent structure that 1,000 years later still offers comfort and security.

In 1678 an earthquake partially destroyed the church, which caused the design we see today to be a bit smaller than the original.  As we walked into the intimate space, sunlight was streaming through the mullioned windows casting spotlights on the rough stone inside.  This church is not refined and ornate, it is rustic and simple, very plain compared to other churches.  But it offers an intimacy that is sometimes lacking in other churches.  It’s raw and as a result you somehow feel more spiritual than in a fancy cathedral.

Since the 1990s, the church has been used as a stop for pilgrims.  It still surprises me after a year of living here that there are pilgrims who traverse the many paths connecting various religious sites.  We see them often as we climb (in our car) up the mountain to della Verna.  Pieve di Romena is popular on the pilgrim route and they are made to feel welcome.

Stepping inside the cool interior of the church there is gentle music playing.  It’s part Gregorian chant and part yoga studio, but completely relaxing.  The founder of the fraternity that runs the program for pilgrims, Don Luigi Verdi, says “we do not need theories or ideologies, but silence, a pause, a time to reconnect with our authenticity. And this is what we are trying to offer in Romena”.  I like this sentiment and I think they have achieved just that.

The artwork is different from other churches, too.  Here it is not Renaissance style canvasses covering the walls, but small, simple, almost folk art pieces scattered about.  There are gardens surrounding the church planted with fruits and vegetables and a huge lavender hedge on the great, sloping expanse that leads down to the valley below.  Metal sculptures dot the grounds, made with recycled objects given new life.  The whole place feels a bit like a commune set amidst this ancient church erected to help ease human suffering.  It is truly a magical place.

Florence

One morning Steve suggested we go to Florence for dinner.  This is unusual for us for two reasons.  One, we really don’t go out to dinner very often, and when we do, it’s usually within walking distance or a very short drive.  Two, we are not night owls and are usually winding down at about 10:00, in bed by 10:30 or 11:00.  This outing would mean that we break our normal routine and shake things up a bit.  Sounded like fun.

An interesting thing about Italy is what happens in August.  This is traditionally vacation month, when cities empty out and beaches, lakes, and mountains fill up.  It’s the last summer fling before fall starts creeping in.  August 15 is Ferragosto, a national holiday when the entire country shuts down (except for restaurants) and celebrates.  It’s part religious and part secular.  The religious part is the Assumption, or the ascendance of Mary into heaven.  The secular part is the celebration of the end of a long, hard summer of work.  It’s a respite, a reward, for making it through summer.  Since Fessagosto is in the middle of the month, people take several weeks off around it, either before or after.  That meant Florence was empty of locals and only had a few tourists milling about.

We arrived late afternoon, just in time for an aperitivo.  There were some scattered showers and our timing was perfect.  We made it to the Caffe Cibreo and under their umbrella protected sidewalk seating just in time.  One thing I love about Italy is that with a drink you get snacks.  This can range from almost a meal to a bowl of potato chips.  We had some kind of chickpea-mayonnaise spread with tuscan bread slices, olives, and some crostini with tomatoes.  Just what we needed to replenish our energy.

We had dinner at Cipolla Rossa (Red Onion), a place I’ve been wanting to go for a while.  I read about it in Elizabeth Minchilli’s blog and she’s never steered me wrong.  It was great – a typical trattoria in the San Lorenzo area.  Perfect for us as it was on the way back to the train station.  We had a wonderful meal of cheeses, pasta, and a great bottle of Chianti.

As we were walking to the train station, the weather started to get really nasty.  The sky was dark, the wind was whipping, and there was quite a lightening display against the churning clouds.  Fortunately we made it to the station just as the rain came.  We snagged one of the fast trains back to Arezzo which only took us about 30 minutes.  We were back home and in bed before 11:00.

Eclectic Italy

These two experiences represent the best of Italy, in my opinion.  A lovely night out in Florence, a city rich in art and history, set on the Arno river.  A wonderful afternoon spent exploring a 1,000 year old church that is rural and rustic.  Florence is a destination for most tourists who come to Italy, but not many of them will make it to Pieve di Romena.  We’re only half an hour away and we didn’t know about it until we turned our calendar page.

There’s so much to experience here and every time I make a new discovery I wonder how many other things are hiding out there, waiting to be uncovered.  With time, I hope to find them all – or at least a healthy sample.


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