Saturday, July 30, 2011


Orvieto is a well known stop on the tourist tour of Italian hill towns. However it is different from most as it it's on a level piece of ground making the old city flat and easy to walk compared to most.

The big rectangle is the Duomo, cathedral, which is the landmark in most of these cities. The approach road starts at the bottom of the hill in the industrial suburb below the old town and curls up the hill to the old streets at the top.

The city is built of tufa, or tuff, a porous dark brown rock easily cut into bricks.

Orvieto is known for it's white wine which old timers say has lost a lot of it's flavor since health laws prohibited the cellaring of of wine in the tufa caves under the city. Locals make a living as they can anyway.

This may be a historic city but laundry still needs to be done.

Historic cities, just like Key West have their drawbacks.

And their odd beauty even if scribbled upon.

And their obvious beauty.

Orvieto's name is derived from the Latin Urbs Vetus or 'ancient city' because it was old when the Romans showed up and it's strategic position on top of the vertical cliffs made it an important town in the Tiber Valley.

When Popes were forced to flee from Rome as they were from time to time, they might easily show up here to take refuge.

The cathedral when seen close up is made of an extraordinary collection of black and white stone. Pope Urban had it built to commemorate a miracle when a host, consecrated by a priest filled with doubt, started bleeding to prove it really was transformed per Catholic doctrine, into the body of Christ.

For those that know, not I, the cathedral is an exquisite work of art and is much admired. Orvieto is a well lived in city, full of life.

They sell all sorts of dust catchers, and I wanted to bring some of these home for gifts but I figured US Customs probably wouldn't be as amused as I was.

I stuck with the traditional sort of stuff I like to bring home, no meats because they are banned, but cheese will pass Customs inspection.

Emilio has been preserved meats and cheeses for years on the main drag of Orvieto. It is a stop we make every time we visit the city.

I of course lust after the meats I cannot take home.

Tipico really means traditional.

Emilio sells good stuff, not cheap, but he will vacuum pack any purchase for easy transport home.

Orvieto is stuck in my memory for the most curious of reasons. I remember coming to town one night with a group of friends to see a movie, any movie. That we happened upon la Cage Aux Folles dubbed into Italian as all foreign movies are, was pure happenstance. It is hard to stress the effect of that movie, known in English as the Bird Cage, on a group of homophobic young country lads. I still remember leaving the theater in a state of highly amused shock.

Tufa rock looks it's best at sunset I believe. The tower is a city landmark called La Torre Del Moro, the Moor's Tower, at the intersection of the two main streets.

While everyone was busy walking up and down the main street the lovely piazza in front of the astonishing cathedral was just about empty.

We skipped the main tourist spots, St Patrick's well and the like but we didn't miss the sunset.

The end of another glorious day in Umbria.

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July Thirtieth #3

Photo by GarytheTourist.

We Are Childs

The beauty of being a child is that whatever is your reality it is that which you accept as normal. As adults we learn to question and challenge and seek change and demand reform but as children we look out of our bedroom windows and see Todi in the distance sitting as it has for a millennium or more in the Tiber valley and we accept the sight as normal.

Seeing it all through my wife's marveling eyes has helped me to appreciate the physical beauty of my childhood home and environs. Giovanni and I spent our summers in this village, and I took it as normal to live in a rather large home with a rather imposing roofline.

We spent our ample free summer time riding mopeds, wandering the fields and farms, getting lost in the woods and gathering in the evening to play hide and seek while our elders and betters stood around talking of this and that.
Much as they as still do, though there were many more of us then before depopulation of rural areas took people to the cities in search of proper salaries and modern comforts.

Our tastes have changed a bit but engines still come up when we are together. This summer we spent a happy afternoon watching the German Grand Prix together hoping that Ferrari might win and make the day much better.

Giovanni has been married nearly three decades, the time I have been gone since I ran away to make a new life in the New World. But even today we remember our carefree childhood and riding together is a way for us to reminisce. He looked so young on his wedding day.

And even younger when we were riding mopeds together 40 years ago:Giovanni's English is sometimes a bit wobbly as he has little opportunity to practice it, but when he finds himself entertaining my wife he has to meet her halfway as her Italian is weaker than his English. In explaining our shared passion for taking rides together he summed it up rather simply as "We are childs." So we are and we take advantage of the incredible variety of mountain roads to practice our childishness. "I am going to call you the architect," he said. "I've been watching you and you've been drawing perfect lines with the bike," he explained. An explanation I took as high praise indeed from one who rides 15,000 miles a year in all weathers on these roads.

Giovanni has spent his life in his home town becoming one of the leading cardiologists in this city of 120,000, even as I have spent my life wandering hither and yon. But now in middle age we come together as often as we can and compare notes. Always best done when riding. He is well known at the Terni BMW dealer where he changes cars and bikes regularly so it is a small matter for him to rent some exotica at an extraordinaryly low price for my annual visits. Giovanni is a wheeler and dealer and he loves to make a deal, a skill I have never developed. I pay sticker price much to my wife's disgust and Giovanni's amusement. "Noblesse oblige" he says ironically referring to my upbringing in a castle.

We stop now and then for an espresso, Giovanni smokes his abiding sin much to the fury of his unforgiving wife left out of sight at home, and answers a few of the many iPhone messages from his anxious patients. He works eight hours a day in the hospital, covering shifts day and night as he has done for twenty years, waiting to qualify for his state pension and then he works several hours a day in his private practice. Thats so he can afford the toys that make his life more fun. His is not the stereotypical dolce vita lifestyle so often attributed to modern Italians. He works very long and very hard for his vacations; for instance he has just left for two weeks in his RV in Croatia and before leaving he sent me an e-mail, "Just as well you left, it has never stopped raining all week..." even the Gods approved of my departure apparently.

We are old fashioned childs we two. We like serendipity to infuse our rides so we eschew the use of GPS, we read maps take chances and follow our luck. When luck runs out we stop to regroup with coffee and talk, and review the map. We usually ride alone in every day life, so when we are together on these rides we ride at our own pace and meet up at the next intersection if we get separated.

Making time for the inevitable caffe is critically important, coffee is often taken standing up, one adds a packet of sugar, stirs mightily till the granules are dissipated and then one tosses the caffeine down in a single quick gulp. 20 ounces of Starbucks finest would appall your average Italian. Giovanni likes Starbucks espresso but he calls American coffee "brodo" -soup- with deep contempt.

Giovanni is a take charge kind of guy and he takes my visits seriously,so he plans our outings with military precision. "I've been studying the maps..." he says and we throw in a historic sight, a well known eatery, a wine shop or just some excellent view and off we go corner carving and chasing the perfect line.

I tend to ignore my phone more than usual as I am away and unobtainable and my wife knows Giovanni's number.

A light lunch we promise ourselves when we stop but all too often that plan has a habit of getting away from us....

A large part of our daily rides is talking, discussing the news of the day, the meaning of life, our hopes for the future, our families, our fears. Put the goddamn camera away is a frequent order that I like to ignore. Just as Giovanni can't stop talking when we pause for a pee break so can I not stop recording my life. "America," he explains to his family, " is different. Just as they have no brakes on social mobility upwards when things are good, so they have no parachutes on social mobility downward when things are bad. A prince today and a peasant tomorrow," he says. He still sees America as Europe's Marshall Plan, supporter of last resort, and defender. I am not so sure, but he brushes my fears aside. "America will always be strong," and he waves his arm for emphasis.

"You remind me of a Japanese tourist, always taking pictures," he complains. "How many have you taken anyway?" but he plays along when he is in the mood, posing on the medieval bridge in Apecchio, in the Marche.

As I grow older the more I value our friendship which feels more like a blood relationship, as unbreakable as any family bond. People come and go from our lives, unfortunately as life intervenes in our choices. This year I didn't come away feeling as talked out as I do usually. I wanted more time, more talk, more debate, more thought provocation. We don't do goodbyes very well and his departure from the airport was hurried and sudden, a tearing asunder and it will be months till we meet again. With things the way they are I hope it isn't years. That would be tough to take and not just because I would miss riding mountain roads in three dimensions. Every now and then one needs to be a child once again.

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July Thirtieth #2

By GarytheTourist.


At a thousand feet above sea level and eight miles from the landlocked city of Terni there is a puddle of water nestled between the mountains.

I enjoy visiting Piediluco when I am in the area not least because I miss the open expanses of water I am used to at home, when I am in land locked Umbria.

The village is nothing special, just a collection of houses lining the main drag that runs along the lake shore. Of course in the context of Italian mountain towns "nothing special" includes a twelfth century castle and the news that Saint Francis of Assisi is reported to have passed this way around the same time.

At the turn of the century Piediluco looked like this. The town has taken to hanging assorted poster-sized reproductions of historical pictures in public places, a practice I found fascinating.

The reason to visit Piediluco is the waterfront walkway, a serene and peaceful place to reflect.

Unless you know to look for this path you'd hardly know it was there.

The lake is apparently fished out and winds don't blow regularly on this expanse so the main water sport is rowing.

There is a rowing club on the shore opposite the village. As far as I can recall it's as much a social club as a place to go rowing.

And like so many bodies of water it has it's requirement for human intervention to keep the waters palatable. This is the aquatic version of weed whacking.

Piediluco has classical music festivals and stuff to encourage tourism.

For my wife and I a serene cappuccino was all we needed to enjoy the lake.

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