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Return of the Romans

Piazza Grande Arezzo

One of the problems with having a long-running blog about my experiences in Italy is that I tend to repeat myself.  And I’ve found that the longer I live here, the more familiar and routine it becomes.  I still look at the outline of the mountains, covered in a hundred shades of green, and smile.  I still gasp a little each time I see a sweeping landscape that includes the ruins of a 14th century castle and a neat olive grove.  The sight of a medieval hill town still brings awe to my soul.  But I don’t admire the beautiful vista that greets me at the grocery store every time I go into it like I used to.  I don’t marvel at the tiny cemetery, ringed by the spikes of cypress trees, that I pass by on the way to the farm stand.  These things have become familiar, almost common, to me.  I still love them, I just don’t intentionally notice them like I once did.  That makes me a little sad, but it also makes me realize that this place has become part of me.

The same is true for the places we go.  How many times can I write about the spiritual awakening I feel each time I visit Santuario della Verna where St. Francis spent so much time?  Or the charm of walking through an ancient village and wondering how many feet have trod that same path or hands have touched those stone buildings?  Or the sublime sensation of tasting a Chianina steak with a sip of a wonderful Sagrantino?

The truth is our lives here are quite mundane.  We don’t live each day having wonderful Italian meals under a wisteria covered arbor or exploring what’s down an enchanting white road.  We run errands, clean the house, take out the garbage, do laundry, and weed the garden just like we did in the US.  So when we have guests, our lives take on a excitement that we don’t normally experience.

Such was the case recently when the Romans came to visit.  I call them the Romans because they are from Rome, Georgia.  Childhood friends of Steve, these people have a bond that fascinates me.  They’ve been here before and we had a wonderful time showing them around.  This time they wanted to stay a little longer and experience some of the slow living associated with village life.  Meet some locals and see a part of Italy that is not often discovered by Americans doing the “best of” tour.

Sunday Lunch

One of the defining traditions of Italian life is the Sunday lunch.  This day, set aside for family, friends,  and God, is a time to relax, feast, and be grateful.  The Romans arrived late Saturday afternoon and brought the perfect spring weather we have been craving.  We had a simple meal on the terrace their first night, letting them rest from their jam-packed days of visiting Milan.

But on Sunday, we thought we would show them what a real Sunday lunch was like.  We planned on taking them to Santuario della Verna Sunday afternoon, so on the way up we decided to stop for lunch at Il Cristallo in Caprese Michelangelo.  This is a place we’ve heard of and have been told by natives that it’s a great Sunday lunch place.  It was our first time going there – but it won’t be our last.

Often restaurants will have a fixed menu for Sunday lunch and special holidays.  I love this because I don’t have to labor over a menu trying to decided between the duck and the lamb.  It’s a thing of joy to me when I sit at a table and people start bringing me food.  This restaurant had such a menu and once they started bringing food, they didn’t stop.  Ever.  We had a lovely serving of prosciutto, salami, and cheese – the classic Tuscan appetizer.  Then they brought a selection of bruschetta and crostini.  Then they brought more.  And more.  It really become comical how many appetizer trays were presented to us.

Next was the pasta.  We were served about four different pasta dishes.  Honestly, I lost count.  Then a tagliata (my personal favorite dish of grilled sliced steak) with a salad and a tray of mixed grilled meat with roasted potatoes.  And two desserts.  And disgestivos (after dinner drinks to help with digestion, which we definitely needed after what we ate).  And bottles of wine on the table.  All this for 35 euros a person.  Reason enough to love Italy.

The Sanctuary

View from Santuario della VernaAfter our supreme pig out, we headed up the mountain to the Sanctuary of della Verna.  I’ve written about this many times and I never tire of visiting it.  It’s an important place for devotees of St. Francis.  St. Francis founded this monastery in 1213 after being given the mountain by the wealthy noble Count Orlando of Chiusi.  The Count thought it would be a nice retreat for those seeking spiritual enlightenment and I have to say he was right.  It’s a magical place where nature displays its finest accomplishments.  As we walked through the moss-covered rock outcropping that was a favorite of St. Francis, we saw many pilgrims sitting in quiet prayer or contemplation looking out over the pristine mountainscape.  Still a place for reflection over 800 years later.

A Day in the Country

We only planned a few days of outings and the rest we decided to spend just hanging out.  Strolling around the village, going to the weekly market, lounging on the terrace watching the never-ending show the landscape puts on.  While our terrace has some killer views, we knew of a place nearby which offered even better vistas.  A quick call to our dear friend Giovanni and we were heading up to his country place called Il Fornello for a picnic.

Il Fornello is Giovanni’s passion.  He has an olive grove, a huge vegetable garden, fruit trees, a swimming pool, a soccer field (complete with lights for those night games), and two houses all nestled into the side of a mountain with views that will take your breath away.  He doesn’t live there, but spends most waking moments there with his dog.  Like any passion, he loves to share it with others.  Part of one of the houses dates back to 800 AD and served as a watchtower.  He pointed out the other watch towers that formed a first century security network.  One was occupied by Charlemagne.

We sat on the grape vine covered stone terrace and had our picnic, contemplating the universe and our place in it.  The old friends told stories of their childhood together and I listened to them and thought how lucky they were to have such strong bonds.  I also thought how lucky we all were to share these stories and celebrate these bonds in a place with such a storied history.  It was a perfect day in a perfect place.

Road Trip

After our wonderful day in the country, we planned an outing for the next day.  We wanted to complete our St. Francis pilgrimage with a visit to nearby Assisi.  On the way, we thought it would be interesting to stop by Deruta for a look at the world famous ceramics.

Deruta is majolica lovers paradise.  Shop after shop of gorgeous handmade ceramics lure you in with the bright colors and bold patterns.  A favorite of ours, Gialletti, was our stop for the day.  We used to buy from them when we had our Italian shop in Atlanta and they still treat us like valued customers.  They gave us a tour of the factory where they make the ceramics and the studio where they are painted to perfection.  When you see what goes into producing these pieces, you realize that each one is a true work of art.  The Romans were in awe of the process and grateful for the personal tour of the facility.  It was a good detour for us.

On the way to Assisi, we stopped for lunch at a little agriturismo that we’ve tried to eat at before.  I found out about it in my Slow Foods app and this time made a reservation to be sure we got in.  On this Tuesday in April, we were one of only two groups in the place, so it was not a problem.  Il Cerreto is a family run agriturismo where one of the sons was the waiter and the mama was the cook.  The papa showed up later, just in time to take our money at the end of the meal.  After we ate, the son showed us around the garden where they grow most of the produce they use and introduced us to the friends of the pig we just ate.  Slow Food indeed.

Assisi completed our day and after our wonderful lunch we were glad to call it a day.  Assisi is where St. Francis was born and died and his remains are in the huge, grand Basilica there.  There is also a wonderful church in the valley below Assisi called Santa Maria degli Angeli where St. Francis started his order.  I call it the church within a church because the original, small chapel where St. Francis began his spiritual journey, the Porziuncola, is completely enclosed by a huge, grand basilica.  I wonder what St. Francis, that man who renounced all material possessions in favor of a life of nature and simplicity, would think of that.  It’s also the site of the rose garden where St. Francis threw himself naked into the thorny bushes to feel the physical suffering of Christ and to try and overcome doubt and temptation.  When the thorns came into contact with his body they disappeared and to this day lovely roses grow there with no thorns.

A Wonderful Visit

I’m always amazed when we have guests at just how wonderful the people we know are.  When you are in a relaxed setting with people and they’re seeing great things and having fantastic food you relate on a level that you might not otherwise.  And, as I said before, our lives are quite mundane and any excuse we have to be “tourists” is welcome.  But beyond all that is the simple fact that by some miracle of the universe, we have befriended an outstanding array of people.  I’m heartened when I’m around these souls because I think my own old soul must not be so bad to have them as friends.

I hope the Romans had as good a time as we did.  To have our house full again was a wonderful blessing.  I suppose there are many ways to measure your life, but I think one of the best is the company you keep.  I’m new to this particular group and don’t share the experiences that go back to childhood.  But as we sat on the terrace together, sharing stories of friendship, death, divorce, birth, disease, and all the other things life visits upon us, I couldn’t help but think how privileged I was to be part of it.  And the memories that we made together on this visit will be woven into the fabric of our lives which we’ll take out and admire often, either alone or with dear friends.

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