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'I Vincitori' Learn to Get Lost in the Hills and Valleys of Italy

#1
By Marian from New Jersey, Spring 2006
5-20 May A two-week trip to two very different places. First, a week spent just outside the village of Perdifumo, a tiny town in the Cilento, south of Salerno. Next a week in an apartment within the walled town of San Quirico d'Orcia. We stay in two gorgeous residences, drive on some incredible roads, see amazing scenery, drink a lot of wine, have delightful dining experiences, and most of all lots of fun, fun, fun.

This trip report was originally posted on SlowTrav.

The Adventure Begins. Montclair to Naples to Perdifumo (4-6 May)

First, some background to this long awaited trip: In July 2004, I became the "grand prize" winner in the Slow Trav contest. This fortunate event was a result partly of merit (my delightful Trip Report describing my stay in Florence), but mostly of luck (Steve [of Pauline and Steve] picks my name out of the hat first).

So I get to spend a week of my choice in the beautiful Villa Trotta, located just outside the tiny village of Perdifumo, Salerno Province, Campania region. Perdifumo is right above the beautiful Cilento coast, which runs from south of Salerno down into northern Basilicata. The villa is described as sleeping 10, with four bedrooms and two bathrooms. Plus gorgeous kitchen, living room, dining room and terraces galore. (It turns out to be even better than described!)

I go back and forth about how to organize this trip, and the final group consists of Ellen (ellens of Slow Trav) my brother Marc (now MarcS of Slow Trav) and my sister-in-law Cheryl. Following this week in the south, Marc, Cheryl and I will spend a second week in San Quirico d’Orcia (SI); Ellen will return home via Rome.

After frantic last-minute preparations (are there any other kind?) I leave Montclair on Thursday and arrive in Italy on Friday. Marc and Cheryl cannot leave until the following day. So I meet Ellen at our Naples hotel; she has come a day earlier to do some research on her great grandparents. We have a lovely pizza lunch at Da Ettore on the Via Santa Lucia (recommended, natch, by someone on Slow Trav). Then it's all I can do to stay awake long enough to fall into bed. The next day, our real trip is to begin.

Saturday morning, after a lovely breakfast on the roof of our hotel, we head for the Europcar rental office, which we've already scouted out. When we get there, Marc and Cheryl are arriving from the airport as well. I get my nifty little Mercedes A180, Marc & Cheryl get their car, and we head out of Naples. Ellen has done this before, so she is my navigator. Not too much traffic, not too much trouble, and soon we are on the A3 heading south, exiting at Battipaglia to SS 18 and Agropoli, the closest big town to Perdifumo. (Did I mention that this is my first time driving in Italy? I am so proud.)

Ellen and I discuss stopping for lunch, and decide we will aim for Il Ceppo, a restaurant in Agropoli recommended in Osterie d’Italia as well as by Carla Capalbo. We call ahead to Marc and Cheryl, who have stopped for a snack but will meet us. And then Ellen and I have our first experience getting lost. We are not exactly sure where the restaurant is, and end up driving all the way around Agropoli (including my first experience at misreading Italian road signs). Somehow, we are back on the highway.
So we head back into Agropoli and ecco! There is the sign for the restaurant. How did we miss it the first time? By the time we walk into the restaurant, it is nearly 2:30, but they say no problem, we can come in for lunch.

The restaurant is so pretty, although right on the road in Agropoli. I ask for a bottle of aglianico, the local southern Italian red, and this seems to please the waiter. He brings us a bottle of De Conciliis Donnaluna, and we are very happy; this is the famous winery that we plan to visit. We are a bit slow about ordering, as it’s our first meal together in Italy. The waiter hurries us in a friendly way, and once we have ordered, he is very happy.

And so are we; the food is absolutely wonderful. We have salads; Ellen, Cheryl and I have pasta (fusilli with ciambotta di carciofi e asperigi for Ellen and for me, penne con zucca for Cheryl), Marc has a veal chop. The wine is great; total bill is € 52. After lunch, I call Gioconda Trotta on her cell phone and tell her we are on the way.
Now comes the real challenge; driving up the incredibly and increasingly steep and curvy roads to the Villa Trotta! Several times we say “surely, this can’t be the road!” but, in fact it always is. Finally, after a wrong turn into Mercato, a frazione of Perdifumo, we manage to reverse and head toward Perdifumo centro città. I take a turn into what is actually a paved pedestrian terrace (!) and call Gioconda again. Her husband Franco comes to rescue us (as we were expecting her, we at first thought he was simply a good soul trying to help the clearly clueless) and leads us through the town and straight to the villa.

Wow! This place is so, so gorgeous! We chat with the Trottas for a while; they are clearly so proud of their lovely home. The house is built into a steep hill (big surprise!) so the entrance and bedrooms are upstairs; the other rooms down a flight. We discuss restaurants; when we mention one that we are planning to visit, Franco says he has walked out because they served an already opened bottle of water. But Gioconda says it’s fine for us to go.

They tell us about the shops in town, particularly a nice alimentari. We take pictures, the Trottas leave, and we are on our own. But not before I have a delightful interchange with Franco, in which I am about to give him the security deposit for the villa. He says "money, no, you are vincitori". So this word for prize-winner, which makes me feel like Julius Caesar after a successful campaign, becomes the buzzword for our feelings about the Trottas and their beautiful villa.

They have left us a bottle of their own wonderful olive oil, a well stocked kitchen (all the staples are there, we find) and some freshly cut flowers. And of course the house is surrounded by lovely flowers. We have promised to water them when they need it. We pick rooms, and I choose the beautiful bedroom with the terrace (it was my prize, after all). Then, as it is late, we head immediately for the little alimentari in town. We buy the makings of our light dinner: Cheese, bread, green beans, incredible tomatoes,… Ah! The pleasure of eating in Italy in the spring!

We sit outside on the main terrace off the living room, and look at the beautiful hills, all the way to the sea, which we can see just barely as it’s a bit cloudy. The weather turns chilly, we all head inside and gradually drift upstairs to sleep. Our first day in the Villa Trotta is ended.

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View from terrace of Villa Trotta
 
#2
A Day at the Beach (Sunday, 7 May)

This is our first full day at the Villa Trotta. We get up, individually and gradually and sit on the porch, nibbling on the bread, yogurt and other goodies we bought yesterday. I make coffee in the caffetière. (We are learning to deal with the ants that are so much a part of rural kitchen life here.) Although we have an American style electric drip coffee pot, we have not yet found any filters. Sitting on the terrace is such fun, but we finally get ourselves together and head out for Santa Maria di Castellabate to have lunch at the Taverna del Pescatore, which is recommended in several of the food guidebooks.

We head down and around the mountains, Marc driving, and along the shore to Santa Maria di Castellabate. But getting to the town is not the same as getting to the restaurant. We have not yet mastered the entrance and exit to these little shore towns, and finally get to where we can park close to the water. I ask several people where the restaurant is, and they all know it, but their directions are still too vague for us. One particularly helpful, well dressed woman engaged us in a conversation about New Jersey. She had been there to visit relatives, and we all seemed to enjoy the conversation with each other. (I do love speaking Italian, even when I know I am getting my verbs wrong.)

Finally we find the restaurant, which is quite pretty. I have a wonderful anchovy stuffed appetizer, and some sort of tuna in an agro dolce sauce. We sit for hours, watching a family with an adorable baby. Another big family is at a second table, their somewhat older children are playing outside, we realize, while the adults finish eating, drinking and enjoying themselves. We catch the baby’s eye, and she becomes our friend. So, so cute.

After lunch we slowly walk back along the shore to our car. The water is beautifully clear, and the distant scenery is, well, breathtaking. People are in the water, but mostly kids as the weather is not yet really warm. Santa Maria di Castellabate appears to be a family beach resort and we see many signs for “rooms to rent” (camere da affitare). We decide to take a different road home, through Castellabate, a hill town with an imposing medieval castle and bell tower, with the vague goal of finding an internet caffè, or a gelateria, as well as more sightseeing. The views from Castellabate are beautiful (big surprise!) and we wander up and down the area for a bit, then head back to Perdifumo.

As we approach the town, we decide to stop for coffee at the little bar in town. We do so, and take our various drinks outside. But I have the distinct impression that I have taken the seat of one of the elderly men who are the bar's regulars. No one says anything, or asks us to move; just a feeling I get.

On the way from the town to Villa Trotta, we again stop at the alimentari for provisions. We have a little scare as we hear from my nephew that our mother (Marc’s and mine) has been taken to the hospital with a leg swelling. (She has been in a nursing home for several years, and has been in a very bad way for over a year as the result of a stroke which left her with a host of physical impairments.) But this turns to be simply a wise precaution on the part of the nursing-home staff, and she is returned “home” without being admitted. So we are relieved, to say the least.

As we settle in for what will become an evening pattern, we head for the kitchen. It’s really too cold to sit out on the terrace, but we graze on the wonderful food we've bought. Then we sit in the large and comfortable living room, watching Italian TV (especially quiz shows), reading, knitting, and mostly drinking wine. Such a hard life!

Tomorrow, maybe Paestum, the Greek excavations north of Agropoli. And I will telephone the De Conciliis winery about making an appointment to visit.

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Santa Maria di Castellabate, relaxing after lunch at La Taverna del Pescatore
 
#3
Ellen and Marian's Excellent Adventure (Monday, 8 May)

Ellen and I both rise early, but Marc and Cheryl are still asleep. So we walk into town to get some bread in the local bakery, and some dolci for breakfast. It’s really too late to head off to Paestum, I think, and Marc and Cheryl decide to aim for the Amalfi coast; Ellen and I want to stay more "local." So we head out in the general direction of the coast further south, with Sapri as a goal (it’s a large sea town near the border with Basilicata). But of course this involves going up and down a few “hills”, which I think we can safely call mountains here, without fear of ridicule. Okay, we are not talking Alps or Rockies, but we are talking narrow roads at elevations of several thousand feet. (This is not the Watchung “mountains” of our beloved New Jersey.)

Ellen is driving and, my goodness, the roads! We pass through Ogliastro di Cilento, Omignani, and, among others, a little town called Acquavella di Casal Velino which has an impressive new war memorial. The inscription on the “pillar” is very moving, being dedicated to those fighters from different countries who were united in brotherhood by their deaths in the war. I hadn’t realized, being a naïve American, that there was so much fighting in the hill towns this far south; I had pictured the allies landing on the beaches in Sicily and Salerno and moving up along the coast. Once you see the topography, you understand better. (Anyone ever hear that travel is broadening?)

Sapri is clearly too far away, we soon realize. So we head for Pisciotta and, finally, Palinuro. We have an adventure on a road that, while it’s not exactly closed, is not exactly open either. A new word is added to my vocabulary during this particular adventure: frana, which means “rock fall.”

Finding an open restaurant in this area a is not so easy, as it is well before the season. But we find a very pleasant restaurant, “La Taverna del Porto” right on the water in Capo di Palinuro, a spectacular setting. We eat on the outdoor terrace, with a busload of German tourists on the other side of the restaurant and a family from Belfast right next to us. They have two adorable children (of course!) and are staying in Santa Maria di Castellabate.

Ellen and I have a very pleasant lunch for about €25 total (salads, and a pasta), and I realize that our very charming and amusing waiter has forgotten to charge for my draft beer. When I tell him about this, he thanks us and, in a little ceremony, brings us some nice thick licorice liquor and two little glasses. Sweet, but delicious. And what fun!

Again, we rethink our plans for the day and decide that even Marina di Camerota is too far, and we head back in the general direction of Perdifumo. This time, we find a new road (Karinka has written about this) that goes through the large town of Vallo di Lucania. The road seems to start and stop at will, but where it exists, it makes for relatively easy driving.

We arrive “home” in time for wine and another relaxing evening of grazing. The weather has turned much colder, particularly as high up as we are, but we turn on the electric heaters and get cozy after dinner. Tomorrow we will head for Paestum, and I have made an appointment for us to visit the De Conciliis winery on Wednesday. More wine, more TV, then bed.

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Palinuro coastline
 
#4
Paestum and Pasta (Tuesday, 9 May)

This is to be our first "culture" day so we head out toward Paestum, in the town of Capaccio Scalo, north of Agropoli. Without too much trouble, we find the excavations (we are getting good at this now) and head first for the museum. I had read here on Slow Trav that the museum is open only in the morning, and I imagine us spending maybe half an hour there. But it is large and chock full of interesting exhibits, so we spend much longer.

The weather has turned warmer, the sun is out, and the excavations, while not crowded, have more people than we’ve seen anywhere so far. It’s May, so there are several school tour groups. These buildings are fantastic; even though I’ve seen more ancient reconstructions (as when I volunteered at Megiddo), these are in very good shape, and beautifully proportioned. Three structures are at the site, dedicated to Athena, Hera, and, probably, Apollo (although this last was first described as a related to Neptune). I am filled with awe to be in the presence of these ancient structures.

We are now becoming hot and tired, so we think about a place for lunch. An attractive restaurant adjoins the site, “Il Nettuno”, so we stop for lunch there as the easiest alternative. The food is quite good, the service rather unfriendly. It is, after all, a tourist place. As Cheryl points out, this is the only restaurant we've been in where the waiter simply puts our wine on the table, without bothering to pour it.

Now we are no longer hungry and thirsty, so we go back to looking for an internet caffè. Aha! We see a promising business on the main street, near the parking lot. Someone is just coming by to open it, after the riposo. It is some sort of computer business, but the man there does not seem to understand what we want. So he telephones someone else (his son?), I speak to that person, and it turns out that this business will have internet access dopo domani (“after tomorrow”). And so it goes.

We stop off in Agropoli, and do in fact find an internet caffè (Hi, Slow Trav friends!). Then we head back toward Perdifumo, searching fruitlessly for a supermarket that would carry filters for the American coffee pot. As we approach home, we pass the pasticceria across from the Pizzeria La Ruota, and find they have wonderful dolci. We plan to eat at La Ruota this evening, so ask the woman who runs the place (she is British, as it turns out), but she tells us that it is open only weekend evenings. Ah well. We will plan to dine there Friday evening.

So, should we head out for dinner tonight? The weather is turning horribly rainy so we decide to stay in and cook in the wonderful kitchen. We have fresh red peppers, green beans, onions, garlic, a jar of eggplant in some sort of sauce. We make our own sauce from these ingredients, stir in some local wine, and pour it over the giant penne we have bought. A salad, a grating of grana padana, ecco!

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Paestum, Temple of Athena
 
#5
A Police Escort, Some Wine and Another Day at the Beach (Wednesday, 10 May)

I am driving as we head out of Perdifumo for our 10am appointment at the De Conciliis winery in nearby Prignano Cilento. Paola De Conciliis has given me directions over the telephone, and the village is not too far away (but of course up and down a mountain or two). However, we drive through the Prignano Cilento twice and still cannot find any sign of the winery. I call again and get more precise directions, but still it’s impossible to find. So we stop on a very narrow street in centro città and I get the attention of a policeman driving in the other direction. Yes, he knows the place (of course) and he will take us there! Everyone in the town (about a half-dozen people) watch as I execute the turn; they all smile and wave as our car follows the police car out of town.

Our guide is to be Giovanni, Paola’s husband, who meets us just inside the gate. (The policeman is well known to him, he says, and congratulates us on finding him still sober; he is apparently rather fond of their wine.) Giovanni is the produttore, and he shows us how the various sorts of wines are made, nearly all from the local aglianico grape. This is a small winery, where the wines, especially the wonderful Naima, are hand coaxed to maturity. At one stage in the process, someone must spend weekends and nights near the vats, adjusting the temperature every few hours.

Giovanni himself is Sardinian, and describes his love for that island. People from islands, he says, remain attached to them always. He has us taste several of the wines, including the Naima, and a couple of the stronger spirits.

We buy Naima, some of the cheaper but delicious Donnaluna (which we had drunk at Il Ceppo in Agropoli that first day), and some of the other spirits. The winery is apparently at a critical stage, in need of money for growth. Giovanni decries the fact that people drink his wine much too young; “it’s like killing a child”, he says. Apparently, at this point the winery cannot afford to keep the bottled wine long enough to age it properly. We promise to keep the Naima a few years before drinking it.

Our next goal is the fishing village of Acciaroli, almost too lovely to be real with its blue waters, colorful boats and distant hills. We walk along the jetty, which is in wonderful shape; its reconstruction is some sort of international project. Then we find an open restaurant (not easy in early May!), "Ristorante Pizzeria Porto di Mezzo" and have a very tasty pizza lunch (€53 inclusive for the four of us).

Time to go back, and I am still driving. Of course, we always must choose at various forks in the road, and my beloved brother assuredly directs us down a poorly maintained, narrow and endless mountain-hugging road. Will the road end? Will we ever get home?

We survive, as does the car. As we approach home, we stop for coffee and dolci at the pasticceria near La Ruota. That night we graze again for dinner, and watch the sunset. Giovanni has told us that, at this time of year, one can see the sun setting over distant Capri, and sure enough, we can watch this from our terrace. So, so beautiful.

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Giovanni at De Conciliis
 
#6
Ellen and Marian's Really Excellent Adventure (Thursday, 11 May)

This morning, Marc and Cheryl want to make a second stab at visiting the Amalfi coast. Ellen and I set out on another Cilento journey, planning to head toward Novi Velia. But before that I want to visit Tenuta Vannulo, where the best mozzarella di bufala is made.

On our way out, we stop at the pasticceria bar La Ruota for breakfast. The usual cast of characters is there: Barbara, the British woman who seems to be the baker and counter help; the blonde woman who always has a cigarette hanging out of her mouth and a mop in her hands; the older woman whose role is not clear to me. Barbara takes our order from the counter located behind the pasticceria and the blonde woman tells us to sit outside, she will bring it to us (we are always the only patrons). The coffee and pastry are both sooooo good. I go back for more coffee but the older woman shakes her head in a “no” to my request. Not “we have no more coffee” or “ask someone else”, or “just a minute and I will get someone to help you” but “no”. I find Barbara, and she happily gets me some more coffee (and another pastry, perhaps). Whoever this older woman is, she must be related to someone of major importance.

Next, the drive to Vannulo. But first I execute my famous “let’s get this car turned around” maneuver, never an easy task in the Cilento. It’s accomplished and we are heading in the correct direction, on our way. Now we know that Vannulo is in Capaccio Scalo and yet I cannot find it. I drive through the town, and back and forth on SS 18, despite excellent directions from a postman. I telephone the people at Vannulo, who give us the kilometer post number on SS 18, and we are there. How could we have missed it?

The tenuta itself is quite interesting, and we get to see the water buffalo lolling in their meadow. We wander over to the museum; it’s closed but we can see in through the glass walls. At the retail shop, sure enough, there is a line of customers; some of them must be from local restaurants as they are buying huge amounts of cheese. I get some mozzarella and some ricotta, which they pack for me in a Styrofoam container. I decide to skip the yogurteria, as even for me it is too early in the day for a gelato-type experience.

We take off again, aiming for a particular restaurant in the small village of Novi Velia. The roads are the same kind of narrow climbing ones we have come to expect. But as we approach Novi Velia, we are amazed to find the restaurant quite easily, right there, at the entrance to the town. This is the first place that we have found without first getting lost for a bit!

“La Chiocciola” turns out to be a wonderful restaurant. There is no menu, and when we arrive there are just a couple of tables with men and one woman (all apparently locals) eating. The proprietor starts to tell us what he is serving for lunch, and that’s when we have to tell him that we are vegetarians. This is no problem. (Avid readers of this report are probably thinking "How can she be a vegetarian when she ate fish just the other day?" Truth is, I observe kashruth rather than vegetarianism, but it's usually much easier to say "sono vegetariana" when there's no menu.)

The proprietor thinks for a bit and then offers us a wonderful fettuccini al verdure and plates of gorgeous grilled vegetables. These vegetables are as delicious to taste as they are beautiful to see: artichokes, zucchini, eggplant and so on. (I take a photo, but apparently neglect to depress the shutter fully, so no picture.) We accompany this with a local white wine that is just a bit frizzante; I have no idea what it is called.

Next comes the scary part. We decide to head up to the mountain sanctuary in Novi Velia. The weather is cloudy, but it’s been cloudy most of our trip and this has not been a problem. But we soon find ourselves climbing a tortuous, fogged in road. Ellen is driving (she is a really good driver) and I am getting quite --- well, if not scared, then at least anxious. Partly, this is because I have been looking at the map, and have become just a wee bit nauseous. I decide not to tell Ellen about the nauseous part.

We wonder: Is this a real road? (This question is always valid in the Cilento.) Yes, it is, because we see signs directing us onward. Ellen cannot see ahead of her. Up and up, around and around we go, hitting a few rock slides on the way. Finally, we come to the top and can head down! Somehow winding down is not as scary; we know the distance is finite. (We later find that we have climbed about 1700 meters, well over a mile!)

This experience does not dissuade us from continuing on to beautiful Scario, a largely undeveloped beach area to the south of Palinuro. The beach is truly breathtaking, and there is some lovely modern sculpture on the lungomare. I find a place for gelato (you may notice that I've not had much gelato on this vacation), and we begin to head back on the twisty narrow roads, then again find the interchange with SS 18 variante, the wide new road.

The car doesn't feel right, so Ellen gets out to check and, sure enough, a flat tire. The rocks we hit on our way up to the sanctuary have done some damage. I call Europcar, but it becomes clear while we are waiting for them to call back that they are unlikely to be of any help. So Ellen (yay, Ellen!) changes the tire. It's a doughnut tire, of course, but it will be good enough to get us home.

Home again, home again, with lots of tales to tell. We enjoy our delicious mozzarella, and find the fresh ricotta is indescribably good too. More wine to drink, more sunsets over Capri to watch. Another boring day in the Cilento is ending.

It's time to comment here on the joys of travelling with companions versus the joys of travelling alone . A travel-loving widow, I've lately been on several solo trips to Italy. But we are all having such a very good time together. We get lost, we find our way, we do things together, we do things separately. Each of us is blessed with a sense of humor and a sense of perspective. And then again, this is Italy, and we love it!

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Scario, view from the lungomare
 
#7
From the Gommista to the Pizza (Friday, 12 May)

So now we must see about getting the flat tire repaired. We ask at the pasticceria, and it turns out that there is a gommista in Mercato, the adjoining frazione of Perdifumo that we got lost in our first day. We find him, and he tells us that the tire cannot be repaired; we need a new one. I call Europcar for some guidance here, but they are useless. So I decide to buy a used tire; the alternative being to drive to Salerno, find the Europcar place, etc. The gommista quickly puts on the replacement tire, but he is not so happy when I ask for a receipt, and for him to put the old tire in the trunk.

Marc and Cheryl have gone off to Capaccio to get some bufala at Vannulo. Ellen and I head for a light lunch at Santa Maria di Castellabate, but not before I sideswipe a parked truck and manage to disconnect my right-hand mirror. (I seem to be overdoing the "keeping to the right" bit.)

Once we get to Santa Maria di Castellabate, and park the wounded car, we find a little place on the main piazza for a light lunch. (Oh, should I mention that I drive us into an impossibly narrow street and get us to some point where I can neither go forward nor turn around?) We want to save our appetites for the "last night" pizza dinner in Perdifumo. We walk around the town a bit, and I wade into the lovely water.

We then head "home" but we CANNOT find a road that will get us there. We take wrong turn after wrong turn. Then finally "PERDIFUMO". There we are. As we pull in, Marc and Cheryl pull in as well, and Marc quickly fixes my mirror. (There, there, little wounded car.)

This is to be our last evening in the Cilento, and tomorrow Ellen will begin to head home. We all sit quietly on the terrace ---- reading, drinking wine, chatting a bit. Then we head off to La Ruota for our dinner.

Although we arrive at about 8:30, hardly anyone is there. But they are setting up some karaoke equipment. We order our pizzas, and some vino rosso della casa. The pizzas are quite good, but the wine is another story. What shall we do? It is actually undrinkable. But the waiter comes back and asks us if the wine is good. I am tactfully truthful, and the wine he then brings is quite good.

We head home, and to bed. We are to leave at 10 the next morning.

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Santa Maria di Castellabate, Piazza and Caffe
 
#8
From the Villa to the Palazzo (Saturday,13 May)

We are ready to leave when Gioconda and Franco Trotta arrive, and we say farewell like old friends. Even with the tire in the trunk(!) Ellen and I manage to fit all our luggage in the car, and we are off. We had thought about stopping on the way in Capaccio, for more mozzarella, but it is a long trip and we want to get going. Not too much traffic. Ellen LOVES the autostrada; she is going 150 km per hour without even trying, and people are passing us as if we are taking a leisurely drive.

I learn how to use the Touring Club Italiano atlas, and we arrive at Colleferro (LAZ) to drop Ellen at the train station. As Jim Zurer has told us, it's a very quick exit off the autostrada to the station. A train is pulling in, Ellen buys her ticket and hops on it...

Bye, Ellen!

So now I drive on to San Quirico d'Orcia, which should be another couple of hours. I've decided before the trip that I should keep the car for the time in Tuscany, so that I will be able to take off on my own if I wish. And so that Marc and Cheryl (or one of them) can take off for a bit without leaving me feeling stranded.

I manage to find San Quirico, and even to get inside the walls and find the Palazzo Costanti. On the way, a possible problem has arisen and been disposed of: When I call the owner's agent Michele, he has no idea that the apartment is rented for the week. But it is ready, and Michele calls Enza, who lives in the palazzo. She graciously lets us in, shows us the apartment, and gives us the key. (We never did see the owner or his agent, but all worked out fine anyway.)

The apartment is truly beautiful, wonderful beyond my expectations. I know that "palazzo" is more or less just the Italian word for apartment house, but this apartment is, well, palatial. The building is, as promised, well located on the main street (also the only street) of San Quirico, right across from the beautiful Collegiata church. The rooms are enormous, high-ceilinged and elegantly furnished. Nice beds, lots of couches, arm chairs, lamps. Even a piano. I can’t believe my luck in getting this apartment. We unpack, shower, and are at home for a week.

Jim Zurer calls; he has made a dinner reservation at the restaurant adjoining our palazzo. Maureen Fant and her husband Franco are visiting with Jim and Diana and will be joining us; she is a food writer whose name I recognize. Shall we have a drink first? Jim asks. Sure, I say; come up to our apartment. If ever a place was made for entertaining, this place is. We open some wine, get some glasses, put out the cheese we have brought from down south: A party!

It's so great to meet Jim, after several years of discovering on ST that we are on the same wavelength about so many books, movies, and so on. (Except that his wavelength also includes travel expertise!) It turns out that Jim, Diana and Marc have a lot in common too. They all went to the same college, Marc having been in Diana's younger sister's class. And, it turns out, he also went to high-school with Diana's sister. Diana and I, in turn, share a Bronx childhood.

We head for the restaurant, Il Tinaio, and have a wonderful meal. The Zurers have been there before, and the waiter is gracious and expert. Franco chooses the wine, and we all enjoy it. And enjoy it...We chat for hours like old friends (well, we are ST friends) then go off our separate ways. Tomorrow morning, we will go over to Jim and Diana's hotel to chat a bit more. But for now we are tired.

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Colleferro Train Station
 
#9
A Medieval Festival in the Metropolis of San Quirico d'Orcia (Sunday, 14 May)

We start the day with coffee and cornetti at the Bar Centrale on San Quirico d'Orcia's main piazza. After a week in Perdifumo, this town, with several bars and restaurants, a number of nice shops, a couple of markets and a large central piazza, does indeed seem like a metropolis to us. We decide this will be "our" bar. The coffee is good, the baristas expert and pleasant, the pastry delicious. And all of San Quirico seems to be out in the piazza. Young mothers with babies in strollers, nicely dressed middle-aged women, young fathers. It's Sunday, and most of the outdoor tables are taken by older men.

We walk over to see the Zurers. Their hotel is lovely, with a charming inner garden. This is their last day in San Quirico, and they are heading out for lunch. The Zurers will then be going on to Castellina, Maureen and Franco back home to Rome. We chat, and then head on for our planned day of doing as little as possible.

We realize that the people wandering around in medieval dress are doing so for a reason: There is to be some sort of festival in San Quirico today, although there is no notice of it anywhere else that we have seen. Various events are planned, including some tables set up just outside the walls for some sort of fixed-price meal. But we mostly scope out the town, exploring the Horti Leonini, a beautiful formal park with a small and peaceful rose garden. Ahh! These roses actually smell like....roses!

Marc takes off to find an internet caffè in Pienza; Cheryl and I eventually have lunch in the little trattoria between our apartment and the main piazza. We order cold plates that turn out to be big enough for three, as we find out when Marc returns. We go back to the church steps to wait for and watch the festivities, which turn out to involve a lot of flag tossing and a really good juggler.

We don't want to leave town, so decide to have dinner in the well recommended Osteria del Vecchio Forno. This dinner is not a pleasant experience, as we have the worst service I've ever experienced in Italy. 'Nough said here.

But the day has been wonderful, and we walk through the town before returning to our own private palace.

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What to Wear in Southern Tuscany
 
#10
A Day on the Road in the Val d'Orcia (Monday, 15 May)

Again, I have a lovely breakfast in the Bar Centrale. So nice when the barista smiles a greeting to me. I set the pattern of getting out first, buying La Repubblica at the tabacchi, then heading to the bar, ordering my cappuccino and cornetto, taking it outside. Marc and Cheryl join me shortly, and we plan to go to Pienza first, then Montepulciano.

We find Pienza without any trouble, and I head for the internet caffè (hello again, ST friends!). I've visited Pienza before, with Joanna last fall, but we mostly sat at the nice caffè facing the park. Now I walk in and out of some of the shops, and buy a nice apron for my granddaughter Karlie ("La Reina della Cucina" and her name embroidered on it).

I call Il Conte Matto in Trequanda and we make a lunch reservation. (I've also been there before, and had a memorable Sunday lunch with Joanna and with Zak of Tuscan House.) We find the restaurant, in its new location right at the edge of town, and Marc manages to park his car, but in a spot we are not too sure is legal.

The young manager directs us to a nice table on the terrace, with a gorgeous view. He helps us choose a local (Trequanda) wine (22 Euros). The wine is wonderful, and the food matches: Everything is delicious and beautiful. Inside, the local police are having some sort of luncheon honoring one of their own, and watching them all adds to our enjoyment.

Prosecco, food, wine --- altogether, a lovely lunch. Now, to make the rest of the day, we head for Montepulciano. We park just outside the walls, and start walking up into the famous town. The buildings are beautiful, and the views magnificent. So this is Montepulciano! Walking, walking and more walking.

We've put in a full day, time to go back home to San Quirico.

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Sfumato di Melanzane con Crema di Pomodoro
 
#11
Sant' Antimo, Montalcino, a Visit to Joanna, Bagno Vignoni (Tuesday , 16 May)

Sant'Antimo and Monte Oliveto Maggiore are the two abbeys in the "neighborhood"; I always confuse them in my mind. Today we head off to Sant'Antimo, which we see will be on our way to Montalcino.

After not too many wrong turns, we find the abbey, which is partly under reconstruction. But the inside is cool and lovely. Fields with grazing cattle surround the abbey. It's a peaceful location.

As we leave the abbey and drive in the direction of Montalcino, we pass sign after sign for wineries. Some of them are famous, some of them not. We stop off at the Ciacci Piccolomino winery, whose wine I "know" (well, sort of). Can we visit on the spur of the moment? The closed door says by appointment only, but I knock anyway: "Posso?" Yes, of course, they say. So a young woman takes us into the tasting room and we try a few wines; this is much more elegant (but not as much fun) as our visit to De Conciliis. I buy some everyday wine which will be drunk while in Italy, and a bottle of Brunello. This will give me three bottles to bring home --- Marian! don't buy anymore!

Next stop: The famous hilltown of Montalcino. We've not eaten yet, so we have a light lunch at a caffè, sitting out and enjoying the fine weather. There are a group of American tourists sitting next to us with very loud voices and accents that grate on our ears. We realize this is the first time on our vacation that we have run into our fellow countrymen. We are annoyed and disturbed by their loud and sometimes ignorant comments about their surroundings and the caffè's offerings. But we mustn't generalize.

Montalcino has so many shops, and of course we cannot pass them by! We get some wonderful little cookies at a pastry shop and, in a shoe store we've spotted earlier, I buy a pair of spiffy Geox sneakers, which I immediately start wearing.

We leave Montalcino and head home. On the way, I try one more time to reach Joanna (an ST friend who has recently moved to Castiglione d'Orcia). And she is in: Her house is on the way "home", and we are there in ten minutes. Last time I visited Joanna, this past September, construction had begun and now she's been living in her new home for a few months. It's lovely, with spectacular views. Joanna's friend Stephanie is visiting from Brooklyn; they are leaving the next day for Turkey to buy some rugs. We toast the new house, and friendship.

Now it's time to go and, at Joanna's suggestion, we stop off at Bagno Vignoni on the way. The main "bath" is right in the middle of the town; just at the edge of town is a running stream where we sit and let the water flow over our feet. Our feet dried, we head over to the charming "Il Barrino" (also recommended by Joanna) where we sit in the early evening light, drink prosecco and nibble on nuts. It doesn't get much better than this.

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Bagno Vignoni, Il Barrino: A Nice Place to Take a Break
 
#12
Marian's First Solo Spin in the Val d'Orcia (Wednesday, 17 May)

I get up first and have a nice breakfast at the bar. So far, since arriving in San Quirico d'Orcia, I've visited Pienza, Montepulciano, Sant' Antimo, Montalcino... Now I feel that if I take another trip to a larger town, I will get the "If this is Tuesday" syndrome. I know, I know, I am taking "Slow Travel" a bit literally, but I really have no desire to see anything else outside of this little area. Marc and Cheryl, however, want to go to Cortona, so they do. We are all happy that we have two cars.

I hang out in town in the morning, and go back to the Dedalo shop we visited on the first day. This is where I make up for all the shopping I have not yet done. Several sets of linen placemats in coordinating colors, complementary napkins, several small hand-painted ceramics with scenes of the area (including a dainty little bell!), a cheese grater that fits into an olivewood holder ---- pretty little things. I also buy some packaged seasonings at the nice little "Non Solo Latté" shop on the main square.

I have lunch at the Bar Osenna, up the street on the other side of the piazza, which has a garden in the back. Not bad, but not great. What shall I do now? I'll take a ride north into the Crete Senese, and stop off at Monte Oliveto Maggiore.

I drive up through San Giovanni d'Asso, continuing on to Asciano; I am surprised to see that this latter is a fairly large town, and somehow not appealing as a place to stop and walk. Then back down through Monteroni d'Arbia to Monte Oliveto Maggiore and the abbey. Having survived the roads of the Cilento hills, I am not intimidated even by the signs that promise twists, turns etc. And I am fine. The Crete Senese, with their oddly creased appearance, are beautiful in this season.

I arrive at Monte Oliveto rather late, and am a bit tired. So I am not happy to see that I must walk down a treacherously paved hill to get to the Abbey (my feet hurt!). Somehow, in my tiredness, I misread the signs and enter through an exit. This may have been a good thing, as I suspect that the closing time may have passed.

The structure is very large and very beautiful. Up and down, up and down to the various chapels and exhibits. But I've seen enough, and it's time to return home to San Quirico. We've made a dinner reservation next door at Il Tinaio, where we ate the first night with Jim, Diana, Maureen and Franco. So I want to get home in time to rest and shower. Driving home is, again, a piece of cake.

Dinner is lovely. Another bottle of wine, the same Rosso di Montalcino that we enjoyed the first night (but less of it!). The waiter is again gracious; he has been greeting us with a smile every time we pass him in the street. That's the thing about staying in a town the size of San Quirico d'Orcia; you feel that you know some of the people and that they recognize you. It makes, somehow, for a very pleasant feeling.

And so to bed. But not before our usual sitting-in-the-living-room time. We read, or write, or knit, or watch television in the smaller salotto. The "public rooms" in our apartment are so big, that one evening I sat down to read and it was a full fifteen minutes before I realized that Cheryl was sitting at the table at the other end of the room, knitting. Yes, I am often oblivious, but the room is that big.

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Monte Oliveto Maggiore; Tower
 
#13
Up, Up, Up to Radicofani (Thursday, 18 May)

Shock of shocks! The Bar Centrale is closed on Thursdays! I discover this as I stand in the piazza, a copy of today's La Repubblica in hand, wondering why they have not cleaned up the litter from last night's patrons. So I walk down the street, and find myself at the bakery, where I buy a pastry (or two). But where to have coffee? As I walk back toward our apartment, I see that the restaurant along the way, where I had lunch yesterday, also serves as a bar. I order a cappuccino, take it to a table and, on the sly, enjoy my pastry.

Marc and Cheryl are so smart! They go through the same process of shock and disappointment as I did when they see that the Bar Centrale closed, then find me in the other bar. They agree that this one is nowhere near as nice as "ours"; it becomes the bar we don't go to. But it's comfortable enough to sit in for a while. Again, we plan a day of leisure, which I am really expert at. But one can never have too much practice.

To break up the leisure, we have lunch at the nice caffè where we ate on Sunday; it's called "Caffè Italiano" and is just the other side of "Il Tinaio", so extremely near our apartment. This time we go to the back garden, and have lovely salads and panini. A couple from Liverpool are lunching there as well, so we have a pleasant time trading travel stories and general experiences. And we all watch the two tortoises that are resident in the garden.

After lunch, I decide I want to go to Radicofani; the Fortezza is calling me. And I do so love driving in my little Mercedes A180! I tool around a few villages and then start climbing up, up, up to Radicofani. The fortezza is way above the town, and I must park outside the grounds. But what views!

As I walk around, I see that there is a little snack bar, and a young woman selling tickets that allow you to enter the ruins. I do so, as the old stones exert some sort of fascination for me, and I have a good time. No one else there, so far as I can see; why am I not frightened? Who knows why, but I am quite at ease. Finally, time to return to the car, and wind my way back down to San Quirico.

We have made a dinner reservation at I Poggioli in Buonconvento, which is just a bit north of San Quirico. We've had great luck with the Tuscan House restaurant recommendations, and this is one of their favorites. After finding the restaurant with just a little bit of trouble (it's right near the train station, in an unappealing part of town, as described by Tuscan House), we are shown to an outside table.

The food is as wonderful as the restaurant is unprepossessing. We start with prosecco (I probably don't even have to tell you this by now.) I have a wonderful pici caciopepe, preceded by a delicious tuna salad (with beans). We find room to share a dessert, a very refreshing semifreddo. Another lovely day is ending.

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Fortezza ruins at Radicofani; side view of wall
 
#14
Isn't Pienza Wonderful (Friday, 19 May)

Today we can go back to the Bar Centrale. We are happy! However, this is to be our last full day in Italy, so I am also a bit sad. I try to organize my things for packing. Although I did not buy all that much, it's more than I thought. And those three bottles of wine have me worried.

We've made a lunch reservation at Latte di Luna, a highly-recommended trattoria in Pienza. (We had tried for dinner for last night, and were unable to get a reservation.) This is the place we were going to lunch at with Doru. So we will have a drink in his honor. Or two.

The restaurant is quite full, but we get a place outside on the nice terrace. Nearly everyone around us is speaking English, so we are a bit disconcerted. The waiter is helpful, but there is some confusion about the prosecco, then all is fine and we get our drinks. Suddenly, the waiter becomes our best friend. We are not sure why, but at one point he compliments my Italian-speaking abilities, and we get into a conversation. When he asks who has recommended the restaurant, I say "Zak and Gary", and he flashes a big pleased smile, "Ah, Zak and Gary", so maybe that's it.

He cannot do enough for us. I have a delightful conversation with him about the various parts of Italy I have visited. I tell him that I first visited Italy in July 1964; he tells me he was four months old then. He keeps on coming by, smiling at us, chatting with us. Marc, Cheryl and I each feel an incredible sense of well-being.

We are much too full to order dessert, but he surprises with a lovely semifreddo and three spoons. This is followed by a bottle of limoncello and three beautiful little glasses. We are so happy we could burst. The food, the setting, the waiter, the Italian --- all is perfect. Or "perfetto" would be more accurate. (For those of you who are curious, we did leave this waiter a tip, for which he seemed equally surprised and grateful.)

How can you top this? We walk around Pienza for a bit, and take some photos from along the walls. And then on home.

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Flowers On the Pienza Wall
 
#15
Boo Hoo! (Saturday, May 20)

As usual, it's a real chore to do the final packing and get the suitcases into the car. This is complicated by the fact that Marc's knee, which was bothering him a bit even before the trip, has by now become very painful, and is really incapacitating him. But Cheryl and I manage the suitcases (clunk, clunk, clunk down the broad marble steps from the "piano nobile" to the street and the cars).

We set off for the Florence (Peretola) airport, aka Amerigo Vespucci. It has only recently re-opened after being shut several months for renovations. The trip is fine until we are nearly there, then suddenly we are not sure of the turns as the signs are so confusing. Marc and I are phoning each other constantly from our cars, and eventually we find the airport entrance and even the rental-car return.

But returning the car turns out to be the most difficult part of the trip (well, if you don't count the time we got really lost in the Cilento....). We have Europcar cars, and there are no empty slots for Europcar. The return lot is full of people trying to rent cars, and people trying to drive out, and it's impossible to move. So we finally, and separately, decide to park our cars just anywhere and find a Europcar person to check us in. Done!

Then we have to get, with our luggage, to the gate. Across the unpaved construction areas, into the terminal. Across the terminal to the elevators, because it turns out that departures are from the arrival level, and so on. Then we must wait in a long and irregular line to be checked in.

The setup is confusing, Alitalia is short of agents, I am tired and anxious, and I lose my temper when a Japanese tourist seems to start a new line. He is apologetic, but a young man tells him, essentially, to stay there. I tell this young man to mind his own business (this is all in Italian) as he does not work for the airline. He tells me something, ending with the observation "And you are an American". So I reply that I have observed that not only Americans are stupid, some Italians are as well.

I cannot BELIEVE that I am actually doing this, screaming at someone in the airport. However, I am embarrassed to admit that I actually enjoy being able to trade insults in Italian. Do I argue differently in Italian that I would in English? Perhaps. Perhaps another personality takes over.

At any rate, we soon check in, and eventually we even get on our plane. First a little bus, then the plane, then another bus, then we are finally at Malpensa. While we await our plane (it's a layover of a few hours) I get some coffee, my first of the day, and a panino. Then onto the flight to Newark (I somehow get a comfortable bulkhead seat) and soon we arrive. My luggage is among the first off the plane! The car picks us up, and I am soon home.

Yes, I love my home, and my house, and have missed my daughter and granddaughter. But it's time to work on that next trip (already scheduled for October). If I stay in the US, I'm unlikely to get another opportunity to argue with someone in Italian.

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Bar Centrale, Piazza della Liberta, San Quirico
 
#16
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