Tim and Julie just finished up their three week tour of Italy and we met up with them for the final few days. They stayed with us a week, then they visited Florence and the Chianti country. On their way back to Rome, they stayed several days in one of their favorite cities – Orvieto. We went down and stayed one night with them in the beautiful apartment they rented right in the city center.
This is near Orvieto in an area of Tuscany called the Val d’Orcia. La Foce is the estate of the late Iris Origo. If you’re not familiar with her (and why should you be?), she’s actually quite a fascinating person. A wealthy socialite born in London in 1902 of a British mother and American father, she was raised near Florence by her mother as the dying wish of her father. She married a wealthy Italian and they bought La Foce in 1923. They began to transform both the landscape and the lives of the people who lived on the estate. They started a school for the children and instituted a new way of sharecropping that benefited the farmers. When WWII came, she became a champion of the resistance and harbored Jews and others who were fleeing the destruction of their society. She wrote a few books about her experiences and her daughters still live on the estate. Now the gardens are open to the public for guided tours.
The landscape in the Val d’Orcia is very different from the rest of Tuscany and Umbria. It has the hills and valleys, but instead of lush green, it’s rocky and gray. Iris said it reminded her of an elephant’s back and I think that’s a great description. It looks a little moon-like. Very dramatic, but a little stark. The gardens are a lush, green oasis in the midst of all this roughness.
We took the scenic route to Orvieto from La Foce and were rewarded with killer views. Unfortunately, we couldn’t pull over to take pictures of those vistas that made us all go “Ah”, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. If you ever go from La Foce to Orvieto, try to take the country road instead of the fast super strada, A1.
We had a plan to leave our car at the train station because we were going to Rome by train (you don’t want to be driving yourself around there) and then Steve, Millie, and I would take the train back from Rome to our car conveniently parked at the station. Great plan, except we had to get up to the center of Orvieto with our suitcase. We decided to call a cab to take us all up in one fell swoop, however, the cab driver could only take two people because of COVID rules. So Steve and Tim took the cab with the bags and Julie and I took the finicular part of the way up then walked the rest. It was a brisk walk up and we ended up getting there just after the cab dropped them off. We barely had enough time for happy hour before dinner. Julie, being the planner that she is, made reservations at two different restaurants. We ended up eating at a third! Orvieto is one of those towns that is beautiful in the daytime, but becomes magical at night. Many of tourists clear out at night and strolling around the streets and alleys is very pleasant.
Tim and Julie had one more night in Orvieto and Steve, Millie, and I took the train to Rome. When train travel works, there’s nothing better. When it doesn’t – well, more on that later. We got there in time to have a nice, relaxing few hours in the garden before dinner. We always stay on the Aventino hill at Villa San Pio. They have three properties tucked away in this beautiful residential area. It’s quiet and convenient to the Testaccio, which has some great restaurants.
The next day we walked around Rome. Just walked with no real purpose. We went by the Pantheon, one of the greatest buildings in the world, Piazza Navona, Campo Fiori, and some other landmark places that were crawling with tourists. We had a great lunch and made it back to the hotel in time to get ready for Tim and Julie’s arrival (and happy hour).
Here’s what I love about Rome. Everywhere you look there’s a ancient relic, a building or part of a building that’s just lying on the ground. Yet modern life has sprouted all around it and somehow these two seemingly incongruent things work together. Motor scooters and buses whiz past two thousand year old temples. Cats lounge around on archeological sites. I love it.
Villa d’Este is about 30 minutes outside of Rome and the four of us have always to visit there. We booked a driver to take us there and spent a delightful Saturday morning touring the Villa and the magnificent gardens. It was the home of Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este and he wanted to create a space that would be appropriate for his status as the new governor of Tivoli. Well, I would say he succeeded.
The gardens are considered to be a masterpiece of Italian Renaissance design and had a profound impact on future European gardens. I’m always a little surprised by Italian gardens. They don’t offer color and flowers and seasonal plants in bloom. They are more architectural in nature and very green – hedges and grasses and trees. This one was really a water garden. Water features everywhere, including the famous One Hundred Fountain, which, I assume, has one hundred fountains. I didn’t count them. There’s nothing like a Cardinal trying to impress the locals to give a wow factor that you’ll never forget. I not sure Cardinal Ippolito d’Este took a vow of poverty. I think he also a few kids – so much for that celibacy vow as well.
Back to Rome in time for a power nap before another round of eating. We visited a rooftop bar near the Pantheon for our happy hour and it made us quite happy indeed.
One of the other things I love about Rome is there are no tall buildings. Nothing can be higher than Saint Peter’s, so the views stretch out forever. After our happpiest of hours, we had a wonderful dinner at Perilli, just down the hill from our hotel. This is an old Roman restaurant that serves the standards with surly waiters and table side preparations. It is, like most Italian restaurants, brightly lit. I don’t understand why they insist on such bright lights. Maybe it’s because they’re so centered around food they want to see every last morsel. Whatever the reason, we had a wonderful evening for our last night together with Tim and Julie.
Back to Orvieto
Steve, Millie, and I left the next day for Orvieto to retrieve our car and drive back home. Our train was cancelled. Not delayed, not rerouted – cancelled. This is one of those times that we wish we had a better command of this language. What were we supposed to do? There wasn’t another train for several hours. We finally found someone who said we get on the next train on track 6 and get off at the first stop then take a bus to Orvieto. So we hopped on this train to wherever without a clue as to what we would do when we got off. I pulled out my phone and tracked our route and determined that at least we were going in the right direction. We got off as instructed, along with dozens of others who were trying to find the bus. Most of us were Americans and we were trading scraps of intell that we gathered from different sources. A bus arrived, but the driver wouldn’t say whether he was going to Orvieto. Why? Two other buses arrived about 20 minutes later and we all figured out that the first driver called for more buses when it became clear we were not all going to fit on one bus. We all piled onto the buses and they took the exact same route as the train and made every stop that the train would have made. Except they couldn’t take the train tracks and we went down every goat path between Orte and Orvieto to make these stops that no one got off on. We almost had a riot on our bus because all the passengers were saying to the driver not to stop at places no one was getting off at. But he had his orders and he dutifully followed them and we finally ended up at Orvieto to our waiting car. We were very glad to get home that evening.
We were very sad that night knowing that Tim and Julie were flying back to Atlanta in the morning. Even though they traveled around some on their own while here, we knew we were on the same soil and would see them again. I’m so very happy they came to visit and not just because they brought me ziplock bags and peanut butter. It’s because they are part of our souls and represent the best of who we are. I look at them and think I must be OK to have such fine people as my friends. We have friends here, of course, but not friends with the history we have with them. Having them with us in our new life and our new home reminded us of how lucky we are to be living this dream. Kind of like Rome – the ancient and the modern all living together. Tim and Julie aren’t ancient, but they share a long-lasting bond with us. We’ve laughed and cried together and we’ve discovered new things together. And we miss them so much it hurts. Please come back again – your apartment is very empty without you.