Ancient wonders of Italy are jaw-dropping

Staff writerJuly 16, 2014 

We’re speeding down the Autostrada north of Rome on a cloudy Saturday afternoon when I have my first Italian moment. On a not-too-distant hillside, a walled medieval village comes into view at the same time a Frecciarossa (red arrow) high speed train connecting the major cities of Italy blasts by at more than 200 mph. Ancient Italy juxtaposed with modern Italy was an experience repeated throughout our two-week June stay in Umbria and Tuscany.

When you’ve lived most of your 65 years in the Pacific Northwest, the definition of what constitutes an old building or wall or vineyard is a little skewed. Our ancestors pioneered this place less than 200 years ago. Italians reach back thousands of years with their churches, villages, artwork and cuisine.

We slept seven nights in the walled village of Piegaro, Umbria, ensconced in the tower of a 13th century glass blowing factory that was converted into a villa by the passion, dreams and hard work of former Seattleites Tom Webb and Colleen Simpson.

We wandered through the regional Monday market in Tavarnelle beneath flowering chestnut trees, their sweet, pungent blossoms blending in with the smell of fresh roasted pork wafting from the market’s three porchetta trucks. I forked over three euros for a hard-roll sandwich filled with pork sliced off the rosemary-stuffed carcass of a whole pig. The severed pig’s head, also for sale, sat nearby.

We toured the underground caves, tunnels and wells of Orvieto, many dating back to the Etruscan times (centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ), others from medieval times. The remains of an old olive press serve as a reminder of an ancient liquid just as prized as wine. Pigeon coops carved out of stone walls sit empty today, but once hosted homing pigeons that were a major food source for Orvieto’s medieval residents.

Our tour of Assisi focused more on the simple, solitary life of St. Francis and less on the lavish Basilica of St. Francis where the 13th century saint is entombed. We visited his hermitage on the heavily wooded slopes of Mount Subasio and saw the small, dank cave where he would retreat for private prayer.

And after every day of touring, we feasted like there would be no tomorrow — ravioli stuffed with bits of asparagus and peas, beef on a bed of arugula drenched in olive oil, pork tenderloin, octopus, calamari, antipasta, sea bass swimming in lemon sauce and wine, always wine.

Our second week found us in a villa on the outskirts of Lucca, a city that dates back to Etruscan times, and a self-governing city for much of its history, including prosperous times in the 12th century when the silk trade flourished. Ancient Lucca has a wall around it like few others. It took 100 years to build in the 16th and 17th centuries, and required a third of the city’s income to complete. The kind of commitment it took to finish these projects, including churches 300 years in construction, is hard to fathom in the modern era of Western culture instant gratification.

The top of the imposing ramparts around Lucca include a popular walking and biking trail, a four-kilometer path encircling the old city. We rented bicycles and rode about 200 yards before stopping for gelato.

We rode the second class train from Lucca to Firenze (Florence), stopping at several villages along the way. We rumbled past nurseries filled with yellow-tipped conifers, palm trees and cypress, corn fields aplenty and yellow stucco homes with dark green window shutters. The Arno River looks shallow and listless.

The press of tourism in Florence is overwhelming. We spent the extra money for a Firenze Pass to circumvent the long lines at the Uffizi Gallery. The Galileo Science Museum is a fascinating collection of inventions — artistic, scientific breakthroughs that unlocked the mysteries of time, space, weather, navigation and medicine. Plus three of Galileo’s fingers are on display.

We entered the Accademia and turned the corner into a long hallway. Michelangelo’s sculpture of David stood at the far end — powerful, graceful and anatomically correct, except for the oversized right hand of God. We viewed him from all angles through eyes misty with tears of joy. He looks so close to perfect, still benefiting from the last restoration work in September 2004, which marked the anniversary of his creation. In the adjoining gallery, a painting of Leonardo da Vinci on his death bed, the work of 19th century artist Cesare Mussini, captured my undivided attention.

We made a pilgrimage of sorts to Cinque Terra, the five colorful villages clinging to cliffside ravines on a remote section of the Italian Rivera. The narrow trail that connects the villages is closed in places due to washouts, but we navigated the section from Vernazza to the northernmost village, Monterosso. Our reward for tackling this rugged, steep trek is a refreshing dip in the Ligurian Sea at the free, public beach in Monterosso.

We crammed a lot into 15 days. Like trip organizer Mike Ryherd of Olympia said: “You take your first trip to Italy so you can start planning your second one.” That’s sound advice.

 

John Dodge: 360-754-5444 jdodge@theolympian.com

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