Trip to Italy getting real

It’s been more than 15 months since the first email from Mike Ryherd arrived in my in-box at home, asking us to help sponsor three free concerts by the Olympia Symphony string quartet in – I’m not making this up –Umbria, Italy in June 2014. More than 30 emails, and much dreaming and planning later, it’s time to leave with about 20 other Olympians on an adventure of a lifetime.

Sometime Saturday night we will arrive in the walled village of Piegaro in the wine vineyard and olive tree grove country of central Italy. The village, which dates back to 800 AD, is so small – population about 500 – that it’s hard to find in tour guides and on maps. For the ensuing week our home will be a 13th century glass-blowing factory converted into a villa by former Seattle residents Colleen Simpson and Tom Webb. It’s called Antica Vetreria, which means “old glass works.” Our room is in the tower and I’ve been told it features slit windows once handy for slinging arrows at invaders.

The itinerary the first week features lots of day trips to destinations both on and off the beaten tourist track: Assisi, Tavernelle, Siena, Orvieto and Lake Transimeno, the largest lake in central Italy, and the scene of Hannibal’s defeat of the Romans in 217 B.C.

But the true highlight of the first week could very well be the three concerts by the Olympia string quartet, featuring cellist Holly Reeves and violinists Aaron Inglin, Karen Inglin and Jon Hanson. Consider where they will be performing: June 15 on the veranda at the Monte Vibiano Winery in Mercatello, featuring vineyards that date back to 217 BC; June 17 at the Chapel of the Brotherhood of Glass Workers in Piegaro and June 19 at the small hill town of Panicale overlooking Lake Transimeno. The Panicale concert will take place in the miniature “Theatro Caporali.” The quartet’s performance will cap off the town’s spring concert festival.

Taking the string quartet to Italy to perform is the brainchild of Ryherd, a retired state legislative lobbyist who serves as president of the Olympia Symphony board of directors. He and his wife, Ann Ryherd, visited Piegro in the summer of 2012 and fell in love with the town, the villa and the other concert venues. Ryherd was also familiar with the string quartet play from performances at fund raising events and parties in Olympia.

“I was impressed with how good they were and thought it would be nice to take them to the birthplace of the violin,” he recalled. With much assistance from Simpson in Italy and private sponsors in Olympia, the dream of Olympia musicians playing for Italian villagers became a reality.

I can’t wait to hear the music in these unique, intimate settings, and watch the reaction of the concert-goers. It should make for a great story when I get back home.

The large Olympia contingent breaks up into smaller groups for the second week in Italy. Our home base for the rest of the trip will be Villa Gattaiola, a 17th century farmhouse on the outskirts of the walled city of Lucca, Tuscany. From there we will venture out on day trips that will include at least two days in Florence and at least one day hiking the trail that links the five villages of Cinque Terra on the Mediterranean coastline.

I haven’t mentioned yet the food and wine that will fuel us and please us along the way. Here’s just one example of what awaits us: After the June 15 concert at the winery, we will drive about 15 minutes to ValVerde Ristorante, a converted farmhouse overlooking a small pond. Our hosts and chefs will be twin brothers Francesco and Alessandro and, thanks to Ryherd, I have an inkling of the menu: antipasti of crostini with toppings and mixed meats and cheeses, wine, tagliatelle with meat sauce, mixed salad and dessert.

The Ryherds also know where to find the best gelato in just about every town we’re set to visit.

This is my first trip to Italy – to Europe for that matter. We’ve met with our fellow travelers three times to get acquainted and prepare for what should be an extraordinary journey. Consider this my public shout-out to Mike Ryherd for putting so much effort into planning an Italian experience that is bound to create memories that last a lifetime. I look forward to sharing the trip in words, picture and sound when we return.