Two weeks ago we were invited to go with our landlords Laura and Giorgio to the Po Delta. This area is now a nature reserve and they had told us about it and asked if we wanted to join them in going there, at the end of the summer, when we both returned from our travels (they went to Sardegna on their vacanza in August) and the weather cooled down a bit. We were definitely up for it so when Laura called a few days prior to ask if we were doing anything on Sunday we said of course we wanted to go!
They picked us up around 8 in the morning and we drove to Giorgio's sister's house near here and sorted out the driving arrangements. We rode with Giorgio and Laura and Laura's parents went with Giorgio's sister and their daughter since they had the larger vehicle.
It was fun talking with them in the car. Laura's English is better than our Italian and it was fun comparing words. Like when we passed a vegetable stand and there were pumpkins for sale. I asked her how you say that in Italian: "zucca." Ok, I get it, all the squashes are called "zucca (as in zucchini - a small squash)." It was hilarious to hear her pronounce the word "pump-kin" as the Italians like to put a vowel on the end of everything whether it is there or not and it came out sounding like "Pumpa-keena," very cute! - these types of words sound so silly when you try to explain them to an Italian and the Italian word always sounds so much prettier to me! She was telling us about a town near the river that is lower than the water level and often floods. She said there was a saying that the people in this town sleep with life preservers on in case of high water! And of course she asked me what these are called in English. All Bob and I could think of was the word "inner tube" and we tried to explain this word and where it came from. We always seem to make these explanations more complicated than they need to be but Laura got a big kick out of saying the name "inn-ner tooba" and when later we added that it was also called a life preserver, and she understood that it Italian it would be preserver di vita - but said she liked "inner tube" better!
Airone e Egrette (Herons and Egrets)
As we drove along they pointed out the sights, where Giorgio had grown up in the countryside near Verona, tobacco and cornfields, farms and small towns. Giorgio took a scenic route and we drove through the vast area of the nature reserve watching egrets and herons and trying to find the right words in English, after recognizing these birds that Laura had described as airone (heron) and egrette (egrets) and others neither of us could name, with more than 300 reported species of birds living here. The Veneto plain turned into Emilia-Romagna and the land became wetter and even flatter, with rows of cypress, eucalyptus or umbrella pine separating the vast pale green stretches of wetlands that are being reclaimed for farming and where they grow rice for risotto (among other things).
The Castle at Mesola and a visit to the museum
We stopped for a visit to a castle and its museum in the small town of Mesola that had been part of the Castello Estense di Mesola, in the 15th century where the d'Este family spent their holidays and originally had walls around the entire property. The museum was part history, part nature, and part art exhibitions and was mostly fascinating. I learned about how they used to grow hemp here and how vital that was to the local economy and saw photographs of production methods from the early part of the 20th century. I learned that the Po is the largest river of Italy. I saw dioramas of the local flora and fauna and explanations of the evolution of the Po Delta and how the waters of the rivers flow into the sea, about the coastal vegetation, the marshes and the wooded areas.
In the piazza outside the castle there was an "antiques" market - more of what we might call a flea market with all sorts of old used stuff and newly made craft items, like the hand-painted gourds and the poster-size black and white photos of movie stars. Laura is a Laurel and Hardy fan, while her niece prefers Orlando Bloom (of course!).
Nearby we stopped to admire the nearly mirror-like surface of the water below one of the towers and took some photos, re-grouped and headed on to our next destination: lunch!
A Seafood Extravaganza!
We were anticipating a wonderful seafood meal and we were not disappointed in the feast that followed. Jugs of wine, bottles of water and baskets of bread were immediately placed before us and we didn't look at a menu. As we have seen our other Italian friends do, they just had a conversation with the waiter. What did he have, what was good, what they wanted, what we wanted. Some orders were placed. We would all have the seafood antipasti, a few of us would have the risotto and the rest ordered the pesce fritta mista or grigliata - sometimes when they say "grigliata" I expect it to be grilled and it is fried, so I think these terms are interchangeable! At any rate, everyone ate everything, we shared all the way around and it was incredible. The antipasto consisted of carpaccio (very thin slices) of raw tuna and swordfish in a lemony-olive oil dressing that we absolutely loved, followed by fresh clams and mussels (vongole, in Italiano), some baked with breadcrumbs and oil, all tasty, finger-licking delicious. As a kid I would have turned my nose up at clams and mussels but here in Italy, it's a different thing entirely! The risotto, cooked in a light tomato-based sauce also had seafood in it and I tried not to notice the octopus pieces. We could not believe how much food came to our table! After the risotto, huge plates full of a mixture of fried clams, mussels, calamari, eel, shrimp and several other types of fish I do not know and cannot describe! Some of it I had never seen before but everything I tried was crispy and tasty and I found myself going back for just a little more and a just a little more until I couldn't eat another bite. A green salad followed. A lemon sorbetto drink after that and of course, espresso at the end. Giorgio, his friend Vino and his brother in law finished it all off with a shot of grappa. Of this we did not partake! You could have rolled us all back to the car!
A Boat Ride on the River Po
Next on our agenda was a short drive to the river where we were anticipating going out through its mouth, on the canals and into the open sea. We passed over a pontoon bridge with a rickety wooden surface that Giorgio carefully navigated and we wondered how much it would take for the bridge to fall into the water! Vino, Giorgio's friend is a Pescatore, a fisherman, who catches fish, and, maybe the right word should be "harvests" mussels and clams for a living and had agreed to take all 9 of us out for a tour of the river. Mariella, Giorgio's sister had come prepared with a towel large enough to cover the three of us facing the front and getting sprayed but it was wonderful to head into the water, the wind in my hair and the river all around. We saw all the little "houses" that are out in the lagoons with sticks set into the low levels of the water that the mussels and clams attach themselves to and grow and are then pulled up out of the water and sold. We stopped for Vino to pick up a large bag of shiny black mussels that were tossed into the boat. The river also is home to carp, eels, bass and catfish among many others I'm sure. It is a complex ecosystem and Giorgio tried to explain many things to us about what we were seeing, some of which we understood and some went right over our heads, vocabulary being difficult when words are so specific to a subject matter. Nevertheless, we knew we were witnessing something very special and very particular to this area of Italy that we now find ourselves living in and we were thrilled to experience it with these patient, knowledgeable people.
We passed through the locks of the canal, from the fresh water of the Po River, into the salt water of the Adriatic, sitting in the boat as one gate closed and the other opened, keeping the sweet from mixing with the salty, if I understood correctly. Gliding through the canals we saw more birds, some ordinary seagulls and other more exotic looking species we did not recognize, purple flowers along the shoreline and the nets they use for catching eels. These looked like abandoned American Indian tee-pees and Mariella explained how these traps allow the eels to swim in but they cannot swim out and are caught by the pescatore waiting at the other end.
On our return to the harbor, we said goodbye to Vino and thanked him.
When we were getting into the car, Vino gave the entire bag of "vongole" to Giorgio who seemed to be licking his lips in anticipation of eating them, and was smiling broadly.
All in all it was a fascinating, relaxing, completely entertaining day and we thank Giorgio and Laura and their families again for inviting us to join in and for showing us a part of Italy we would not have known about or been able to see in such an intimate and informative way. We feel very fortunate, once again.
(check back soon for my story about Maròstica and the Human Chess Game played in Medieval Costume!)