- Almost five months might seem like a long time, but it is no time at all. Three months in Italy whizzed by, and there were major parts of the country we avoided all together. Still, we know how lucky we are to have had this amount of time.
- With time to reflect, most of all I wax lyrical about Jordan, and Puglia. Jordan for its unknown treasures as well as the rightly famous Petra, and for its friendly people. Puglia for the light, the most picturesque of seaside villages, and the seafood.
- We found it is possible to travel both comfortably and relatively cheaply.
- Renting apartments and houses gave us stability, space to relax between sightseeing excursions, and gave us an insight into real Italian life.
- Travelling off the beaten track – whether it’s to Qatar, in the hills of Molise in Italy, inland from the Dead Sea in Jordan, or in the lake district of Poland – brings unexpected rewards and is always worthwhile.
- Even supermarkets give insights into local culture, and provide both amusement and horror.
- There are a lot of myths about places and people that shouldn’t be believed.
- There is too much waste and litter in this world.
- When life gives you lemons, make limoncello. It really is delicious.
- Travelling abroad for an extended period allows you to see with new eyes when you come home. Things, people, places we take for granted, appeared new and fresh on our return, and we were reminded how beautiful our own country is, and what gifts we have here. Maybe that’s the best gift of all?
The waiter asked us where we were from.
“No,” we shook our heads.
“Germany,” said with certainty. (We’ve been mistaken for Germans a lot in the last week or so).
“No,” we shook our heads grinning.
I took pity on him. “Nuova Zelanda.”
“Really?” He was so excited. We were the first tourists he had met from New Zealand.
We ordered two beers, in his café by the sea on a hot afternoon at the end of the Italian summer. Work and school was scheduled to restart on Monday.
He brought our beers, and the customary snacks to go with them. We got talking. He had heard that in Australia and New Zealand, we don’t have “aperitivi” like this.
“No,” we said, sadly. “We’re lucky if we get a bowl of peanuts.”
“Not even olives?” he asked, horrified.
We shook our heads.
“If we want olives, or salami or mortadella, or anything hot, we have to order and pay for them.”
His expressive eyes widened, first in disgust, then in pity. Then, after some thought, they sparkled. “So if I opened a bar there, and offered aperitivi like this, it would be something different?”
We nodded, thinking how wonderful it would be, but doubting our cost structures would permit.
It has been one of the hidden highlights of our trip, and a reason perhaps there have been so many “beer /prosecco shots” on Facebook. A drink is not just a drink in Italy. An aperitivo is a drink, with complimentary snacks to accompany it. And we have had some wonderful food. Rarely have we been given just potato chips (crisps) – though that seems to be the minimum acceptable, and in fact seems compulsory no matter what else we are given. Usually there is a selection of two or three other hors d’oeuvres:
- Salumi plates (mixed meats/charcuterie – salami, prosciutto, sausage), cheese, and bite-sized pastries flavoured with pizza sauce or cheese with delicious Sardinian wines at my favourite enoteca in Santa Margherita. All for 6 euros a glass of wine.
- A little cracked wheat salad in tiny bowls with tiny spoons, olives, and wafer-thin crust pizzas at our afore-mentioned waiter’s café in Pesaro. The two large beers were 4.50 euros each.
- Raw carrots with mustard (and chips) and bite-sized pastries with prosecco in Vittorio Veneto. Best bargain, a glass of Prosecco (six different ones to choose from) for 2.50 euros.
- Pistachios and freshly made bruschetta (at our hotel in the hills of Molise) with a beer. 2.50 euros each.
It’s always a delight, because – even after two months – I never expect it. And the prices? Ridiculous. It would never work in NZ.
We decided to split our time in northern Italy. Two weeks in the tower (nervous as we were – rightly it seemed – about August heat), and two weeks over in the north-east. This was an area we drove through 22 years ago. Essentially, we went to Italy for a picnic, trying to avoid changing currency (impossibly, as it turned out, when we had to cross into Austria on a toll-way), and drove from Innsbruck to Villach, via the northern part of Italy. We had been enchanted by the views then, so when we knew there was an apartment available in the region, we decided to take it for the rest of August.
Our new home is at the base of the Dolomite foothills, in Vittorio Veneto. Driving into the town, down long leafy green avenues, we were encouraged. It was promising to find a lovely, spacious and modern apartment, with an efficient and helpful apartment owner, and everything we needed within easy walking distance, including parking next door at the back of the owner’s parents’ pasticceria (bakery). At last we were in an apartment without narrow staircases, low ceilings, dodgy internet, and which had sufficient air-conditioning. The view from our balcony – across the roof of a large building next to us – was one of hills, small farmhouses, the occasional vine, and trees. Lots and lots of green trees. A small church at the edge of the view made us smile.
We smiled some more when we ventured out. A bar, set in gardens overlooking the town’s main piazza and municipal buildings, served delicious prosecco and antipasto, as we watched families meet in the gardens, elderly men eat gelato and chat with friends, children play, and lovers love. This was our kind of town.
Elegant shops and banks and restaurants and gelaterias (lots of gelaterias) line the leafy streets. A walk later discovered a walking and cycle path along the river, past houses and apartments, a restaurant on an island in the river, sadly derelict factories, the local swimming pool, playgrounds; a busy, sunny, happy path filled with people on bicycles with places to go, or those strolling, walking off the prosecco from lunch (us), or walking their dogs. This town was getting better and better.
But all this was only a precursor to falling in love. We walked along the tree-lined street as directed by Arianna. Venetian mansions lined the street – who needs to go to Venice? (Even though it is only an hour away by train). And then we saw the entrance to the old part of town. A narrow cobbled street, with ancient houses and an open-sided walkway or loggia underneath. We arrived at Piazza Flaminio. Beautiful medieval buildings, a road through an archway, a gelateria with the best gelato so far in Italy, a trattoria (with mouthwatering roast pork in milk and an entertaining chef), a river/canal, a church and bell tower, and a retreat on the hill behind.
It’s official. I’m in love.Note: Photos to come.
Since we left Rome, we’ve been travelling so much that keeping up with the blog has essentially been a business of recording where we’ve been. And that was not the kind of blog I had anticipated keeping. The writing is easy. But the visuals – loudly clammered for in the first weeks – delay publication, and any thought of moving on to shorter, interest (frivolous?) pieces.
But this week, the weather has packed up, and we’ve caught up on sleeping, cooking, organising (and backing up) photographs. So that brings me to a very important topic. Food. More specifically, bread. More specifically, toasted bread. The Italians like bread. There is always bread on your table in a restaurant – usually charged for in a coperto (cover charge) – and this is of varying quality to be frank. And we’ve found some bread we like for sandwiches, and for toast. Except that there’s the problem. Italians don’t toast. They advertise “toast” in bars and cafes, but I think that is similar to our more familiar cheese on toast, or grilled sandwich. (We had a memorable cheese toast at the top of the Simplon Pass – the amount of cheese on the plate would have fed a family of four.) Our first apartment had a toaster, but finding the right bread was an issue. Anyway, we’re realising that that was probably the exception. The journalist in the tower clearly doesn’t eat toast. There was no toaster in sight. And the apartment we’re in now has a sandwich griller, which the owner called a “toaster.” (Poor innocent Italian that doesn’t understand Toast).
So the husband, who is addicted to toast and considers it a perfectly acceptable dinner, has had to resort to the ready-made toast we find in the supermarkets. Each piece is identical, crisp throughout, evenly tanned on both sides. And yes, it comes in a convenient, resealable pack. But it’s not the same. The texture is all wrong and crumbly, the spreads don’t melt on the toast, and most disappointing of all, we don’t get that delicious, toasted bread smell. It didn’t matter so much when the temperatures were raging outside, and the idea of hot food was often repugnant. But now, with colder, rainy days, we miss the comfort of toast.
The beginning of August in Italy. This is the height of summer. Flowers bloom profusely in gardens, on roads, in meadows, and of course, hanging from window boxes at almost every window. The heat never goes, building and building, often reaching its height at 7 pm, well into the 30s, and giving little evening respite. The garden at our rental accommodation, with trees, bushes and a hammock, lies unused. We are lucky that the temperature doesn’t soar to 40, as is possible in Italy in August, because our new accommodation has air-conditioning in only one room – at the top of the tower.
Yes, that’s what I said. Tower. We rented a stone tower that dates back almost a thousand years. Renovated about 12 years ago into a charming home, owned by a former travel journalist, it is now rented out periodically by the owner. How idyllic, I thought, sitting in our tree house in Wellington before we left. And in many ways it was. Stone walls three feet thick, an arrow slot in the bathroom, and a studio at the top floor, with views across the river to the forest, and villages beyond, their church bell towers stretching above the trees surrounding them. (The studio also proved to be a great location to watch a thunder/lightning storm from). But the heat in our third-floor bedroom, the smell from the owners’ dog in the living area (and by the end of the week, the fleas we found), and the constant concern that we were in someone’s house and had to keep it spotless, didn’t help me feel entirely relaxed.
The tower was in a small village, with a tiny shop just a few doors down, one bar/restaurant over the road, and a trattoria next to the shop, and a church. Sounds perfect. But the bar (in Italy, a bar is in fact a cafe) served the worst coffee I’ve had in Italy, so one visit was enough. The tiny shop was like a small expensive dairy, and the trattoria was only open a few days a week. So we didn’t frequent the local businesses as I would have liked. To add insult to injury, some local luminary – or perhaps the local priest – had decided that the church bells should ring multiple times a day, sounding services or simply the hour or half hour. Why they thought it was a good idea to ring the damn bells about 50 times at 7.30 on a Saturday morning, I don’t know!
The location was brilliant though – so close to the lakes, and very close to the airport (though virtually no noise). But as soon as we ventured out from the village, and before we got to the local town or the lakes, we found ourselves in a kind of no-man’s land. We were in airport services land. Airport hotels were scattered around – in fact, the Crowne Plaza, usually an excellent brand, was tucked away in a back street in a nowhere collection of buildings. (Though nearby, there was a very good pizzeria we visited several times, on the recommendation of the Easyjet guys.) And then there were the carparks. Everywhere, on the main road into the nearby town, tucked behind the Crowne Plaza, the pizzeria, everywhere, there were long-term low-cost airport parking lots (basically just fields crammed with tiny Italian cars), with a constant stream of vans taking their customers to and from the airport. It was all very odd.
Yet in Castelnovate, our little village, set on the edge of a national park, with the Ticino river just at the end of the road (maybe a km away), with our tower, and church bells, with the charming cemetery at the end of the road, the sports field, and the children’s play ground, and friendly neighbours and lots of dogs, it seemed hard to believe that a major international airport was practically next door.
Rome can be a beautiful city. Walk through the streets around the Piazza Navona, or those in Trastevere, and it is picture-postcard perfect. Snap shots of ancient Roman ruins, medieval or renaissance buildings, and marvel that this is also a modern, 21st century city. Applaud the enthusiasm and vigour of the people, those who face the next few millennia whilst remembering the past few. Relish the markets, the small pastry shops and gelaterias, the ubiquitous pizzerias and bars (cafes), the motorcycles and tiny cars, and the bright summer flowers spilling from gardens and window boxes, and balconies.
Then pause. In disgust. We lived in a local neighbourhood. One where people knew each other, knew the shop and restaurant proprietors, met their friends and family when they stepped out the door. Yet in this, their local neighbourhood, there was no pride in the streets. Graffiti could be found everywhere – on all the metal roller-doors that closed over the stores, rustica pizza joints, hair-dressers and bars. On the walls of apartments and houses. In an area that could have been lovely, the graffiti gave it the look of a lost neighbourhood, of a community that didn’t care. (Though I will admit, the romantic graffiti from a lovelorn amour was rather endearing.)
And this was compounded by the rubbish. (To be fair, not just in our community but all over Rome). Litter, litter, everywhere. It was extraordinary. Not just the occasional cigarette butt, or spillover from the municipal rubbish collection bins, but bottles, plastics, paper, pretty much anything you could name. It marred the feel of the neighbourhood, and quite sadly, it marred our opinion of the people who lived there. Rubbish and graffiti – how frustrating for those who live there, how depressing for their pride and spirits, how sad for those who live there and do their best for their community.
The streets around us and the small local piazza are full of people. Women walk to and from the daily shopping, dragging their purchases behind them in little two-wheeled trollies. Listless teenagers are not sure what to do with themselves now that school is out, and hang around the piazza, flirting outrageously if any members of the other sex are about, or otherwise looking bored. Locals chat in the piazza, multiple generations stopping to talk, kiss on each cheek, and pass the time of day before moving on. 7 pm is a good time to catch them all there at once, or perhaps outside the gelateria just across the street. Later at night, the 20-something young men, with their cigarettes and beer, but not yet their cars, girlfriends, or own places to live, take over. Men at the bars engage in loud and vigorous conversation over a quick espresso in the morning, or later over a cigarette and maybe a beer or corretto (a “corrective” coffee – ie, one with some alcohol added).
Tiny cars whizz around the piazza, park two deep on corners, and stop in the middle of the road for a chat if they see someone they know. The one-way streets seem only to be one-way on the map. Certainly not in practice!
A couple of vegetable stalls – an Italian version perhaps of a mini-mart – are set up in our street, just beside the piazza, and locals stop for a chat with the vendors. A tourist (ie me) buys the occasional tomato, eggplant or incredibly sweet capsicum (pepper). I drool at the ripe peaches.
Over the road from the supermercato, where the local African guy tries to sell his fake handbags and cheap sunglasses, joggers, dogwalkers, mammas and babies, old folks, romantic couples, and the occasional tourist with a camera enjoy the local park and a rare wide open space in Rome. Its long dry grass and lack of facilities is made up for by the views across the city to the dome of St Peter’s Basilica.
The children play outside in the morning at the day-care/school across the road from our apartment, but are nowhere to be seen as the afternoon heat rises. A man wearing a t-shirt and his undies hangs out his washing on the balcony, and a toddler teeters out on her balcony, several flights up. And the old folks, later, lean out their windows or at their balconies, taking in the air and hoping for a breeze.