We just got back from spending a few days in Tuscany with our friends and former neighbors from the Willo neighborhood in Phoenix, Arizona, Shawn and Stephen. Along with other couples at a fund raising dinner to benefit the West Valley Fine Arts Council, they were the winning bidders on a week at a villa in Cortona. And because they are kind and generous, they invited us to come and stay there for a few days as their guests. Because we love these guys and were happy to see them again (not to mention delighted they wanted to see us too!) we of course took them up on it and drove the four hours down to Tuscany from Verona on Tuesday morning.
Those of you with really good memories who have been reading since the beginning might remember that last year when we lived in Perugia we rented a car and drove there to check it out for them and reassured them that the Villa Sant'Andrea was not a "hell-hole" and that as far as we could tell, the charming stone farmhouse looked beautiful and was located in a fairly secluded spot in the countryside.
Catching up with old friends
It was so much fun to see them again and catch up on all the news of our old neighborhood. It was not fun to hear that the new owners of our little house had cut down the beautiful jacaranda tree that had graced the front yard for over 30 years because of the mess (what Bob and I used to call "purple rain" and enjoyed so much every spring for the 10 years we lived there!!) and had totally removed our wildflower garden and the lovely brick paths I had so carefully designed and painstakingly supervised. We could understand them wanting to simplify the work of tending to the garden but removing the tree seems absolutely criminal and totally unforgivable. I can't even think about the bricks being gone! I have to keep telling myself that it is no longer our house and that they are making it their own, hard as is to understand.
But enough of that. We enjoyed meeting their friends, Diane and Tom and Jim and Karen who made us feel welcome and the conversations around the dinner table were lively and interesting. And with the ingredients fresh-picked from the garden, delicious. Wine flowed freely.
A Guided Tour of Perugia
On Wednesday we gave them a guided tour of Perugia, which is not very far from Cortona and showed them many of our favorite places. The first stop had to be the Tempio di Michele Arcangelo, the little round church and nearby tower. To make it easy on everyone, we drove to this point, knowing that it was too much of a hike for them to walk to and still have time to see the rest of the city. Bob and I were delighted to find the little Enoteca "Il Tempio" open, that sells "Sapori e Colori dalla Terra" - the flavors and colors of the land (wines, cheeses and typical products from Umbria and other Italian specialties. See the May/June 2006 issue of National Geographic Traveler for a photo and short article about them.) Romigo and his daughter Claudia welcomed us so warmly, like dear old friends and offered everyone a complimentary cup of espresso and showed us the new skylight they are putting in the upstairs room that will afford their customers a view of the tower. I finally bought one of their embroidered aprons and our friends purchased a few things to take home as souvenirs. The church was open, which was a plus and we got back in the car, headed for the parking garage near the bus station.
We made a loop around the city, beginning with the underground remains of the Rocca Paolina and Via Baglioni, the part of the ancient city destroyed by a 16th century pope to built his fortress, taking the escalators up from Piazza Partigiani, up and up and up to the historic center of the city. We started by showing them the views across to the churches of San Domenico and San Pietro from the Giardini Carducci, around to Piazza Italia and the statue of Vittorio Emmanuel and up the Corso Vannucci. The many beautiful shops along this street caught their attention and we took a detour for Shawn to buy some adorable outfits for Rachel, their even more adorable five-year old daughter. We insisted on their taking a peek at the Perugino frescoes in the Collegio del Cambio, sat and enjoyed a cappuccino and brioche at Sandri's Pastry shop, a Perugia institution and just gorgeous to look at with its vaulted ceiling frescoes and taste tempting display cases filled with all sorts of pastries, cookies and candies.
From there we headed for the main square, Piazza IV November for a spin around the Fontanna Maggiore and into the Cattedrale di San Lorenzo. Just as we were walking towards Piazza Dante, we ran into a young American woman named Pam whom Bob and I had met when we lived in Perugia last year, a friend of a friend. She knew about our lovely apartment and asked us to put her in touch with our former landlords Sergio and Rita and I guess that all worked out well. Since I couldn't reach Rita by phone, Pam offered to take us up to the garden and our "view" so that we could show Shawn and Stephen where we had lived. That was a lot of fun and I would have to say they agreed that it was the closest thing to Paradise you can get and they wondered how we ever left this place!
From this highest point in the city, we walked back down Via Del Sole and around to Piazza Matteotti, being sure to stop and say hello to Rita who, it turned out, was working in her Eboristeria that morning, explaining why I couldn't reach her at home by telephone.
Right below Rita's shop is one of our favorite restaurants, the Antica Trattoria delle Volte and I think everyone enjoyed their meals, although mine seemed to be a favorite, Umbricelli (a kind of fat spaghetti) with basil pesto and fresh pomodorini (cherry tomatoes).
After our leisurely lunch we walked back across Piazza Matteotti, to yet another beautiful view from Perugia's heights, a stop in a little pastry shop for some local goodies and back down to the parking garage! Having lived in Perugia for eight months, we feel that we know the city well and it was really fun to show it off to our friends and also to have the opportunity to walk through its streets one more time.
Cortona and dinner in "Napoli"
The afternoon and evening were spent exploring Cortona and climbing to the highest point of the city, (what we laughingly referred to as "the death march"), hiking along a very steep path to get there. It was fun though, just spending time with our friends and we talked and laughed along the way and it didn't seem quite as formidable as when Bob and I made this trek several years ago.
We asked some locals sharing a bench with us in the main piazza for a recommendation for a restaurant that would not be "touristy" and they laughed and directed us to another town nearby, Camucia where, they said, we could get a meal that would be more authentic and not as expensive as Cortona. We had a bit of trouble interpreting the directions and after a few spins around the city eventually found "Canta Napoli" (not exactly Tuscan, but probably good we thought!). We were not disappointed. The meal was wonderful. The service was friendly and the food delicious and inexpensive. Shawn's pizza looked like the ones we at eaten in Napoli. Stephen declared his fish delicious and my risotto in a wine sauce was flavorful and filled with seafood.
Touring the Wine Country
Not wanting to overstay our welcome we had planned to leave on Thursday morning but they talked us into staying one more day and we couldn't refuse! So on Thursday we drove with them through the vineyards and wine country around Cortona, stopping to taste and buy wines of the region. The first one was a smallish operation, the "Azienda Agricola Baldetti Mario." The scary part was initially navigating our way around the big snarling German Shepard chained to the fence who clearly did not appreciate strangers dropping by. The highlight was being able to climb up the ladder and look into the huge container of crushed grapes. It was a kick holding onto the hose that recirculated the juices while our guide turned on the pump! We were glad we went along though because he spoke no English and we were able to translate somewhat. Since they know wine and have been to many wineries in California and France, they understood wine terminology and we did not, so it worked out well. The funniest moment was when this man explained that the original owner had passed on. Not that this fact alone was humorous, but "Caput" was the word he used!
They also enjoyed the big fancy winery “Avignonesi” (www.avignonesi.it), an enormous wine estate that sat magestically on a Tuscan hillside surrounded by its vineyards. We waited our turn while a group of Italian businessmen in serious suits and ties wrapped up their meeting and a bright red helicopter stood ready to whisk them away. Then a group of Texans - obvious with their with big booming drawls and expensive casual wear staggered out of the building loading boxes of wine into their chauffeured van, fulfilling every stereotype imaginable of residents from the Lone Star State. It was very entertaining! The coolest thing was the big warehouse where they had beautifully arranged luminous pale green grapes on bamboo shelves stacked from floor to ceiling with bunches dripping down at the end of each shelf. It was like nothing we had ever seen before and more like a work of art than a workspace.
We tasted what is billed as "the most expensive Vin Santo in the world" and several different varieties of this high-end winery's offerings. The woman who presented the tastings spoke perfect English so they asked lots of questions and learned more about their wines. Unfortunately they had sold the last bottle of their exceptional Vin Santo so they couldn't purchase it directly. I don't remember now the price of this, but everyone agreed it was better than the most expensive cognac they have ever tasted. What do we know? Our criterion for buying wine is not to spend more than 5 euros a bottle with less than 12% alcohol!
At sunset we were on our way back to their villa, stopping to pick up a few groceries along the way. The views were spectacular as we headed back and we were reminded why everyone loves Tuscany. Preparing dinner was a group effort and we ate in the big dining room. I wish I could say their experience with this villa was flawless but it was not. They had some electrical problems and weren't able to use the stove or dishwasher in the bigger kitchen (but since there was a smaller kitchen as well, they weren't totally out of luck); the electricity would go out if too many appliances were on and there seemed to be a short in one of the dishwashers. The people who maintained the place were actively trying to fix the problem but it made me think of the house my family rented in Sicily where if they had the stove, the coffee maker and the hair drying going it would blow the fuse and they would have to go down and trip the circuit breaker! So now we know that even in Tuscany these things can happen but I'm sure the cost to rent this villa was far greater than the house with the sea view in Marina di Ragusa!
In this region, at this time of year, they hunt wild boar and the occasional sound of gunshots was disconcerting but we were assured that the hunters did not come anywhere near the grounds of the villa. It was a lovely place and the grounds, the pool, the vineyards, the orchards with a variety of fruit trees, the vegetable garden where they were able to pick and eat fresh tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and more were a delight. Bob had no shortage of subject matter for his photographs and I even sketched the pomegranates bursting open on the trees. The interior was roomy with comfy furniture and was well stocked with pretty ceramica wear and enough dishes and glasses to serve an army. The views from all the windows were green and lush and pretty.
Saying Goodbye & Driving back to Verona
Friday morning we said our goodbyes and headed north towards Verona with a detour through the Casentino Valley north of Arezzo. This added more time to our trip that we anticipated and we found too much of the drive boring and unattractive after the rolling hillsides around Cortona. The scenery was beautiful though as we drove to the Santuario at the top of Monte Verne, where St. Francis was said to have received the stigmata. Neither of us remembers hearing that this happened outside of Assisi but we are aware too that, like George Washington, St. Francis slept everywhere. Throughout Umbria we saw little plaques in places where he had stopped to preach and stayed the night. He really got around. We enjoyed the views but we wished we had gone with our original idea of driving to San Marino instead and seeing the little independent country that sits within the borders of Italy. Oh well, maybe next time!
What could have been a four-hour drive home took more like 6 or 7 and we were tired by the time we reached our little apartment in Borgo Roma, outside Verona. Overall, we had a wonderful time and were so glad we had the opportunity to see our friends again and spend such good times together. We trust they felt the same and are now as I write, on their way back to Phoenix with lots of good memories.
Next: A festival of street games in Verona
This past weekend there was a festival in Verona called Tocati - a celebration of street games and everywhere in the city they had little playing fields roped off. The weather could not have been better. The sky was blue. There was music and dancing and food and I'll be writing and posting about that after we pull our photos for this story. So, stick around. There's more to come.
Thanks for coming along with us.
Rosemary e Roberto
(photos to come)