Adventures in Italy

One woman's days in hill country

I just returned from a three-week sojourn in Italy with extended family: an aunt, two cousins, a second cousin and his fiance, and to my joy my daughter.
Point of reference is everything. The first time I went to Italy in the early 70s, it was part of a six-week, five-country trip when I was in my mid-twenties. I was a long-haired hippie, single, svelt, travelling alone by Eurail Pass and filled with romantic imaginings of the world of art, music, and the discoveries of adventure and love, all of which I found. In the photos from my latest trip you see a woman in her mid-'60s, no longer single, long haired or svelt but a long time married mother of two vacationing with her family in a Tuscan villa overlooking the Mediterranean.
My 90-year-old aunt, (my only living maternal aunt and the youngest child in an Italian family of nine whose parents, my grand-parents, had emigrated from Naples, Italy), rented a large expansive villa in the seaport town of Porto Santo de Stefano on the peninsula of Monte Argentario. The villa was up on the steep northeast hillside overlooking the town and the sea. Not unlike a scene from the movie, Enchanted April, when one of the heroines opens the shutters of her window the first morning of her enchanted April, I also awoke to the gold orb of the sun and its light glistening off of the aquamarine green of the Mediterranean Sea; both of us having left behind a wet, cold Spring, hers the rainy Spring of London in the 20th century and mine the wet cold 21st century of a July in Seattle.
For the next three weeks, we reveled in the sun drenched, albeit hot, Tuscan early summer. The patterns of our days were quickly set; up early to breakfast on fresh picked juice dripping fruit in season, peaches, melons, nectarines, cherries and figs; breads, pastry, a variety of local cheeses, salami, and coffee of choice, rich tasting, dark espresso. After breakfast and cleanup it was into our rented Mercedes van onto a curving, one lane road, down the hillside, through town and onto the coastal road out of town to one of the causeways connecting the peninsula to the mainland. Each day we headed north along cypress lined roads, past fields of sunflowers, and hillsides of olive groves and vineyards to visit the medieval, walled cities of Pitigliano, Magliano, and Siena. The days were filled with the sounds of our oohs and aahs at the beauty of the country side and the ancient, medieval walled cities. We walked, talked, laughed and visited with local merchants who shared with us their homemade regional, delicacies such as boarhead salamis, cheese with truffles, biscotti with nuts and fruit, warm, homemade bread with fresh olive oil and, of course, regional wines. At the end of our daily sight-seeing adventures, it was back to Porto Santo Stefano for dinner at a different restaurant every night then back to the villa out onto the deck for after dinner espresso, wine, and dessert. Often the day wouldn't end until after mid-night with pointed conversations about religion or current international politics.
Before the trip people, friends, family and acquaintances asked me if I was going to eat and drink my way across Tuscany. Well, that's exactly what I did. I ate pasta, fresh pasta that came in all shapes and sizes, and prepared with all types of sauces; red, white, green, or just plain olive oil with garlic and cheese. I ate freshly made pizzas with a variety of toppings; fresh tomatoes and basil, sausage and French fries, arugula and cheese, and homemade salamis and meats, but never ever pizza with pineapple and Canadian bacon. Risotto was also a staple usually flavored with lemon and almost always served with tiny shrimp. Insalata misto was the salad of choice with meals, consisting of fresh seasonal greens, olive oil, balsamic vinegar and pepperoncini. Then there were the wines, reds, whites, sweet, dry, sparkling, and all of them regional.
Because of the relentless sun and constant heat (unless you are in a modern hotel, there is no air-conditioning in Italy) the sea was one of my greatest pleasures on this trip, always crystal clear and a temperature that allowed you to dive right in. The shoreline in town offered a variety of beaches but they were cluttered with large rocks and covered in dangerously slippery algae. I found the perfect beach on the second day; out of town, across the causeway onto the mainland and north along the western coast. Little towns dotted the shoreline each with their own beaches, parking, outdoor cabanas and bars. This was where I found the sandy ocean beaches and sea that went on forever. So, every day after our sightseeing trips in Tuscany my daughter, second cousin and I took to the sea until dinner time, which in Italy doesn't begin until after 8 p.m.
Giglio, a small island northwest of Porto Santo Stefano and an hour ferry ride from the peninsula offered us a day of scuba diving and snorkeling. Most of the group had brought snorkeling and scuba gear and Rachel and I rented gear in town. I hadn't been snorkeling since the early 80's but it didn't take me long to get acclimated to this other world. We headed out past the beach lagoon into the open sea and along the coastline. Being part of the life of the water is surreal, disorienting and fantastic. The clearness of the water, the visible depths, especially around the rocks with the deep, underwater crevices, the snorkel breathing amid the soundlessness, and the variety of marine life that for me was unexpected. For the first time in my life I saw a live sea-horse in one of those deep crevices. I was so excited I almost gasped and gulped in a lung full of sea water.
The third week of our stay Rachel and I headed south by car to Florence, then Assisi, ending up in Perugia. After Perugia it was time for Rachel to return home and for me to head to Rome to meet up with the family again.
Because of its beauty, architecture, art and history, Florence will always be one of my beloved cities in Western Europe. Assisi will always have a certain spiritual pull for me because of the life of St. Francis and because of the frescos by Giotto. But of all of the cities on this trip I found my most pleasure in Rome.
On my first visit to Rome 30 some years ago, I didn't do much walking, but on this trip I wasn't harassed by men following me down streets and onto buses whistling and making those other strange mating noises. I was able to walk the length of the old city from with trips down side streets marveling at the antiquity, history architecture, and sculptures, especially at sites such as: the Pantheon, the Palaza Navonna, the Palatine Hills, and the Coliseum. At the Coliseum, now a lifeless, partial shell of earth and mortar, I recalled scenes from the movie, Gladiator, and the Coliseum of ancient Rome with the noise of people filling the stands anxiously awaiting the newest crowd pleasing spectacle and, of course, the slaughter of Christians which continued from the 1st through the 4th century under Roman rule .
Rome reminds me of New York City. There is the same feeling of excitement, motion, and life except during the afternoon quiet characteristic in all of Italy. There is entertainment in the Piazza's, browsing and buying in the expensive clothing stores, open air markets teeming with people, hordes of people weaving in and out of the narrow streets, outdoor bars and restaurants filled with people eating, laughing, drinking, talking, arguing and flirting. As with New York, Rome is awake and alive until the early morning hours. I would often stay outside well after 1 a.m. at one of the many bars that can be found along any street, and people-watch or visit with staff and customers as I drank espresso and sambuca.
Point of reference is everything. So, unlike my first trip to Italy in the early 70s, this trip was about being able to share the day to day joys and experiences with people whom I love in a beautiful country. A country with a culture arising from an ancient history, great art, music and food, and a people who are warm, welcoming, gracious, ready to talk, easy to laugh and a people who seem to possess the gift of La Dolce Vita.[[In-content Ad]]