Like the number of paintings on the ceiling of the Vatican, the culinary delights of Italy have been presented to us so abundantly and so often that we are overwhelmed. They just keep coming, one piled on top of the other until my senses are no longer reacting properly to the opportunities before them. Food in Tuscany was just not like food in America. To put things in perspective, our original itinerary called for a stop in Orvieto to eat on the way from Rome to Cortona. Schedule constraints apparently didn’t allow for the four course meal referenced in our trip planner, and we pulled off to take a quick break at AutoGrill, an Italian roadside rest area. Since by this time we had grown pretty accustomed to four course meals, we were pretty disappointed that we weren’t getting into Orvieto for lunch. So we trooped into the Gas Station to see what we could find. Rather than the Subway or McDonald’s or day-old sandwiches one might find in the US, Autogrill had an espresso bar, a panini station with fresh-made sandwiches pressed to perfection, a salad bar with fresh fruits and vegetables, a pasta bar with several types of homemade pasta, and a grill to serve up beef or veal, cooked on the spot however you like it…there are grilled patatas and carrots, and all manner of other items to complete our lunch. The fragrance of light garlic, sweet grilled onions, and coffee waft over the racks of chips and gum and candy, beckoning us to try one food station or another. We make our selections, with members of our group getting everything from wine and cheese to prime rib to fresh pasta and ravioli. The grilled carrots and the potatoes are excellent. As we eat, our disappointment over not stopping in Orvieto dissipates, and as we compare our menu selections, sampling from others’ plates, it’s official: food at a truck stop in Italy is better than a lot of Italian restaurants in America. In Rome, we fell in love with gelato and began adjusting to the Italian tempo for eating, getting acquainted with not peas, but with the “p’s” of culinary Italy: Prosciutto, peccorino, paninis, pasta, parmesan, pairings, panna cotta, and patience. Meals are savored, not in the wham-bam American way, but more like a time spent lingering over your lover with sweet kisses and conversation. Our time in Rome, more restaurant oriented, less familial than our stay in Tuscany, only prepared us for our time in the country. Although we didn’t realize it, we needed some transition time to prepare us for Tuscan food, much the way divers need to decompress on their way to the surface. Had we jumped right into the food at our villa, there might have been some sensory overload that would have actually limited what we could eat there. As it was, we were able to ease towards gastronomic excess like finely tuned Olympians coming to the games. The Villa Laura schedule and meals have not only surpassed my expectations but have pushed back the boundaries of my food fantasies. I have been on cruises where I could order 3 appetizers and 3 entrees if I wished, but I have never eaten this quality of food, this much, this often before. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, never before in the field of cooking have so many cooked so much that was eaten by so few. The Villa Laura brought in two sets of chefs to prepare our meals, probably because of the sheer impossibility of one set being able to perform the pure physical labor of cooking for our group alone. There is Francesco and Christiano, two young Italian chefs who learned to cook from their grandmothers. They don’t look like chefs in the sense that they are buff and seem very young to have so much experience in their profession. But man, can they cook! Francesco has most of the English, and he tells us on request about how they watched their grandmothers and mothers cook, then worked in the family olive business (so of course they grow and press their own olive oil, which they claim is absolutely the best in the world), and who learned their craft in restaurants before starting their own business, catering and cooking. I’d say they are no less than world-class Tuscan chefs. Then there is Terracina, who we all call Mama, a pleasant, happy woman who has brought her daughter and her daughter’s friend to staff our kitchen. Mama is, if possible, probably an even better cook than Francesco and Christiano. She doesn’t speak much English, but we all fall in love with her instantly, enjoying her sunny disposition, her hard work, and her luscious culinary delights. Her bread salad and panna cotta were some of the best things I have ever tasted. So it is a Tuscan tag-team of chefs gone wild, each presenting us with dishes made from local produce and ingredients in “typical” Tuscan fashion. For breakfast, there is always coffee, homemade bread, various kinds of cheese, eaten with homemade jam or preserves, yogurt, fresh granola, fruit, juice, and breakfast pastries. At dinner we feast on bruschetta, artichokes blessed with parmesan, zucchini soup, fava beans made several ways, several kinds of cheese, and all sorts of delicious, melt-in-your-mouth homemade pasta and ravioli. There is bread salad, balsamic glaze, roast and grilled meat (beef, chicken, pork medallions–rumored to be perfect for late night snacks, 28 seconds in the microwave–and one night even a little rabbit!). We had wood-oven pizza, spelt, stuffed zucchini, and a souffle or two. There is creamy, delicious panna cotta, and a couple of kinds of tiramisu. We had the reknowned Chianina beef, which is presented with a certificate detailing the cow’s birth date and date of death. I really didn’t want to know that my cow’s name had been Matilda, but she still tasted very good. The famed bistecca alla Fiorentina, a big T-bone cooked rare, was delicious, although I’d have to be honest and say that Texas beef is pretty dang good by comparison. Buddy might say that the pork medallions in Italy are superior to ours, but the beef–while good– did not just blow our doors off. There is a bit of wine partaken with every meal, usually a local vintage in red AND white(and of course, I am only describing our average LUNCH here). We had biscotti dipped in Vin Santo. We tried grappa. We drank prosecco(ha! another “p”!). Sadly, I was not a wine connoisseur before going to Italy, but I can honestly say that I now know far more about how wine can complement a meal than I did before. I can also honestly say I probably drank more wine over the last two weeks than the rest of my life put together. I did NOT, however, drink enough to diminish the memory of the amazing tastes of our Tuscan vacation. I wish that my words could do justice to the cuisine of Tuscany, because the local, natural culinary delights we experienced there were a huge part of our immersion into the culture and flavor of the region. I can only describe the pure impact of Villa Laura’s gourmet meals by reverting to a final “p”, which succinctly provides a summary of the fact that Italy has stayed with us, how we have brought home delicious memories of Tuscany, how we are reminded daily of all the wonderful things we got to eat there. That “p” word: pants. I can’t get in ’em anymore.
As you drive to Tuscany from Rome, you pass through lush green hillsides and rich farmland. The hills vary from gently rolling to steep-cliffed formations that hearken back to volcanic activity, visible in the abrupt formations of rock that later submitted to the almost tropical growth that flourishes in the temperate climes. As you look either west or east as you take A1 northward, there are scenic hillside retreats dotted with Olive trees and vineyards, and fields of grain or grass… These fields are almost all surveyed by a villa or some larger dwelling placed at the top of a hill, looking down upon them protectively. In the Battle of Gettysburg, the Union held “good ground”, or defensive positions that were elevated above the infantry that would try to dislodge them. Historically, having such a position, above would-be attackers, provides tactical advantages and makes defenders stronger and less vulnerable. Everywhere you look in rural Italy, villas, churches, monasteries, and forts are built on ‘good ground’, providing a haven for those who worked the farms and vineyards surrounding them. As we toured Tuscany, we often remarked on the cities on the hills, the beautiful scenic villas overlooking their domains, and the old towers that dotted the volcanic landscape. Their presence spoke of protection and defensive strength.
In Rome, there is an ancient city Wall that rises majestically around its antique center, protecting the ruins of the Forum, the Colisseum, and the parthenon. It is a marvel of engineering and construction, using techniques that would be considered brilliant by today’s standards, much less those in use 2000 years ago. The wall seems to be about 5 stories high (actually 8-10 meters) and is 4-5 meters thick. There are several different sections of the wall, some dating back to 378 b.c., some built well into the Christian era. Walls were built to defend the city from hordes of marauders who roamed Europe in those days, pillaging and plundering all who lay in their voracious path.
One of my strongest impressions from having toured Tuscany and Rome is that man has been a violent, brutish, greedy animal. The people who lived there in bygone eras really, really needed to defend themselves. They were invaded enough to know that they needed to live, sleep, and work on ‘good ground’. Violence could come upon them at any time, and it was worth the amazing amount of cost and labor it took to build protective walls, and to live within or around defensive positions that may have been hard to build, or inconvenient to get water to, or even to get to at night, but which might just save their lives if they were suddenly attacked. The beautiful Tuscan countryside, with old towers and ancient steeples dotting the tops of rocky aeries or balanced along the cliffs, is actually a fortress style testimony to the historic greed and violence of man. For much of our history, men have simply taken what they want by using violence or the abuse of power, without really caring who might be harmed in the taking. One might hope that today, in such an advanced age of social evolution, men are beyond such things, that we are not capable of this kind of evil anymore… but it is entirely possible that the human heart has not changed all that much in 2000 years. The holocaust was only 68 years ago. There may be different ways to try to take things today (such as picking pockets in Rome, or sending bogus emails trying to get suckers to fall for a scam, or stealing someone’s identity online), but men are still greedy, and there is still violence. While our modern weaponry has made good ground less effective, and has rendered large walls somewhat obsolete, the beautiful scenes of Tuscan villas and churches set upon the hills remind us of a long history of greedy violence. I know, it’s definitely a “glass half-empty” kind of observation, but seeing so many towers and villas and forts and churches occupying ‘good ground’ made it difficult for me to see the lovely pastoral landscape without acknowledging the grittier reality behind it. There were some mean people in the world back in the day; and although methods have changed, and those villas and churches are now safe from imminent attack by marauding hordes, there are still mean, greedy people in the world today. Evil is not limited to to the past, and protection will not come from position. Until we begin some kind of construction within the human heart, all the forts and walls in Tuscany will not protect what we value most.
The guy handing us our bikes at Topbike rentals in Rome looked at our group, calculating the odds, and he seemed to give an unconscious shake of the head… He was about 25 and looked like he could bike the Apenines without breaking a sweat. Our group was made up of fifty and sixty something retirees, empty nesters and grandparents who apparently did not appear to be regular cyclists. “Perhaps you would like the motorized bikes? Ha ha, I am only joking!” Others in the office laughed conspiriatorially, trying to appear like they knew he was teasing, but coming off as young and fit and somewhat concerned for our safety. The very people who stood to make money conducting our tour seemed to be trying to give us a way out! Maybe they were concerned that when several members of our group did not return, it would damage their reputation. I asked, “will you be our guide?” He paused, and then spoke rapidly in Italian to the girl in the office. They seemed to be disagreeing on something, and he seemed to be protesting; then I heard them say something about Simone, and he turned to me with a big smile on his face. “No, unfortunately I have another tour today. Simone will be your guide.” Reading between the lines, I sensed that Simone was late coming in, and had drawn the short straw. We were his penalty for being late. When Simone arrived, he too looked us up and down…. “You realize that this tour is over bumpy roads, yes?” we nodded. And you realize that you will be on the bike for 6 hours, over 40 kilometers, yes?” Our entire group put together had probably not been a bike six hours in the last 3 months combined, but we all said yes. Simone looked skeptical. “And you know the roads will be the cobblestone-ahs, yes?” as we nodded, he said, “we will go to the parking lot across the street and do the skills test, and learn the ways of the bicycle. Then we will go, ok?” Amazingly, we passed our skills test, emerged from our practice braking unbroken, and were able to proceed. Simone was possibly late thirties, maybe early forties, but he is a lean, tanned, good-looking man with attractive features and striking salt and pepper hair. Since he bikes 50 miles a day, his legs appear strong, tanned and muscular, unlike any other man’s legs displayed within the group he is guiding. Starting out, he seems thoughtful, but then I realize he seems to be doing more calculations than a CAD computer executing a 3d design. He suddenly announces that he knows a shortcut that will not only give us an amazing view of the City wall, but is flatter and shorter than his usual route. (for all we know, he has redirected us from riding through DaVinci’s front yard and is now taking us via an alleyway instead, but then he did use the magic words flatter and shorter). Having said that, he doesn’t really have to sell us on this idea. We begin, pedaling along at a leisurely pace. Today is May 1, National Workers’ Day, and because it is a holiday, light traffic conditions give him some options. I think he figures he will need them all to help us complete this bike tour on the Appian Way. Simone stops often to show us details and give us lessons on history and background of what we are seeing. (I’m not sure if he is really explaining something important or just giving us multiple opportunities to rest.) We seem to pedal forever, leaving the massive City wall behind, and after what feels like an eternity and the beginnings of saddle sores, we see a street sign that clearly says “Appian Way”. We are cheered by this until Simone says, “Ok. Now, we can begin.” I was thinking we were hopefully about halfway through until this, and checking my watch I realize we have only been gone about 25 minutes. This group of grandparents is game, though, and on we pedal. We do get to make a pit stop at the Catacombs of San Sebastian, and it is amazing to see the care and effort taken by folks to deal with the remains of loved ones. Uncertainty about eternal life is a powerful motivator, and we see signs of that effort displayed poignantly in the tombs of babies and children, extravagantly in the eternal dwellings of the wealthy. If I have learned one thing in Rome, it’s that even as it relates to eternal life, money is still considered as a means to an end. Or THE end, in this case… People have been hoping to buy or work their way into heaven for centuries, when all they need to do is discover Grace…
Our intrepid group remounts the bicycles, sobered now by viewing all those burial plots, and even more sobered by the cobblestone-ahs and the off-road alternative. After bumping along for awhile, we ask Simone how far we are from our wine and cheese stop. “Is not far. Ten minutes.” onward we ride. We hop curbs into dirt paths along the Way, or we bump and stutter over the ancient Roman road. To think that Paul and perhaps Timothy may have once walked this road! If they did, they were certainly more comfortable than we are on these bicycle seats! This change of pace does not daunt our group, although poor Buddy is stricken so badly with hay fever that his primary means of transport has become sneezing down forcibly to propel himself along by the force of the sneezes alone. We have a couple of accidents while negotiating terrain, and there are several bumps and bruises among our riders. After a scrape with some rocks, Cindi’s leg looks like it has been put through a meat grinder, but she is one tough cookie. The ladies help to clean up the blood, and Simone breaks out the first aid kit, and onward we go… As the lean, attractive guide helps to bandage Cindi’s wounds, I swear that some of our other ladies are calculating the risk-reward factor in crashing just so that Simone would have to bandage THEIR legs! We keep riding. “Ten minutes” has stretched into an hour, and still we pedal. Our reward is to see the amazing Roman aqueducts, which run alongside the Appian way. (There is even one that is still in use today! ) Seeing how people lived 2000 years ago is interesting. What is fascinating, though, is seeing how people live TODAY. For the Holiday, it seems that every family in Rome has come out to this park to cook out, to gather with friends and family. They have beaten down little patches of grass, parked under sections of the aqueduct, and filled every conceivable space with family and fellowship. There are impromptu soccer games, parents doting over their bambinos, women talking animatedly in small groups, small children running and playing, and people gathered for fellowship everywhere, as far as the eye can see. They are flying kites, playing pickle ball and bocce ball, smoking cigarettes, playing foot-ah ball, and enjoying being together. If we had wanted to get a glimpse of life in Rome, this is a perfect place to start. Simone tells us that if he were here by himself, he could just ask anyone cooking out and they would give him a sausage from the grill, but since there are nine of us, it would be too much to expect. We totally understand, but that doesn’t keep us from eyeing every grill with a bit of longing as we head towards our wine and cheese… As we dodge happy children at play, and pedal through family reunions and barbecues, one thing is clear: in Italy, the family is still alive and well! The entire park is a testament to multi-generational love, and to the resilience of Italy’s families. When we reach the farm, we are charmed by the ancient, rustic surroundings (the large building there is being renovated, and the signs illustrating the project say it was to be finished in 2011. It looks barely started: Italy!), and we enjoy the hospitality there. Buddy is still suffering, but he’s a fighter, and coming back; Cindi is bandaged but chipper. I am so impressed with our group’s toughness and spirit. There at the farm, our hostess Anna shows us how they make cheese, and we drink our wine. We are given some fava beans to try, and Simone says that should help us on the way home by providing us with some gas-powered jet propulsion! A family group connected to the farm somehow is sitting nearby, having a private cookout as well. They are grilling lamb, and we are famished. As lovely as our wine, bread, and cheese are, that lamb smells GOOD! When we compliment the cook on the aroma, he says something to his party, and then brings our battered little band of bikers a few slices of freshly grilled lamb. It gives us true refreshment– not just from the protein in the meat, but from feasting on Italian generosity. We managed to complete our bike tour, and carry with us indelible images: The City wall, the sights along the way, the Catacombs, the aqueducts; for some, Simone’s tanned Italian good looks; and for all of us, the scene of thousands of Italian families living and loving, and the generous Italian spirit, and the satisfaction we got from spending seven hours bumping along the Appian way.
It takes about 2 1/2 hours by bus to get from Rome to the Amalfi coast. Our driver Gianncarlo does a masterful job negotiating the endless near-miss that is standard Italian traffic. We Americans marvel at Italian pedestrians who walk brazenly along streets and thoroughfares, never flinching or even noticing that they but are inches from being run down by not only our bus, but also the small cars that hurtle past us, and the motorcycles and scooters that zip along beside us. I mean, these people don’t turn sideways, don’t “make themselves small”, they DON’T NOTICE death crazily leering at them as they saunter along, daring some accident to occur… The road to Amalfi runs past the ruins of Roman aqueducts, marvels of engineering and construction, past centuries-old monasteries and farmhouses, alongside lovely green fields, farms, and groves of trees. It continues to progress, past super markets and IKEA, shopping malls and gas stations. Social wear and tear becomes more evident, and gang graffiti litters the walls along the highway here and there. Near Napoli it converges with commerce, and the byways get dirtier, more actively used. There are signs of dusty construction and industry. A plant alongside the road has goods made and stacked, pallets ready to be loaded onto trucks. Seemingly out of place to an American eye, a fairly large statue of Jesus overlooks the outdoor employee break areas, arms outstretched in encouragement and approval. Farther down the road, more of the bustle of business besmirches the countryside. Evidence of shipping activity abounds at a plant where there are stacks of big metal containers marked Yang Ming and Italia. The residences around this part of town are drab multi-story apartments, the kind with doors and windows open, trash on the porches, and laundry hung out to dry. They look dingy and lived in. As we pass a particularly dirty manufacturing plant, I see something right beside the freeway and overlooking the exit ramp. There is a bright splash of color, actually 3 bright splashes, that stand out from their gray and dusty surroundings like an opera singer at a hoe-down. They are 3 beautiful flower boxes on an immaculate front porch, an oasis of beauty in an otherwise drab and dirty world. The flowers are bursting with beauty, and everything about the residence looks, well, cared for. There is no indication of more money, no ostentation, nothing expensive on the front porch to say, “we outspent our neighbors”; but there is care and time and nurture leaping out of this home, at least what I can tell from my five second observation of this lovely porch as we drive by… Love leaps from this porch, and as I feel it, so do lessons and applications. Things I thought: wow, what a difference nurture makes! What or who am I nurturing? It’s amazing how just being cared for makes something more beautiful. Have I thanked someone lately for making me more beautiful? (uh, thanks Nancy, you are awesome!) and who am I making more beautiful? And lastly, I realized that beauty can jump out sometimes when you least expect it, unlooked-for, from otherwise drab and simple surroundings. If you assume it’s not there, you might miss it! So wherever you are, keep looking! It doesn’t have to be on the way to Amalfi.