“The struggle of literature is in fact a struggle to escape from the confines of language; it stretches out from the utmost limits of what can be said; what stirs literature is the call and attraction of what is not in the dictionary.”
~ Italo Calvino
We went to Italy and woe unto me — I now have to write about Italy. On the one hand, easy. There’s the art, the pesto, the pasta. The focaccia, the farinata, the anchovies, the truffles, the wine. The cities, the countryside. The olive groves, the olive oil, the olives. The cheese, the sea, the pizza. The ruins, the love, the literature. The language, the people, the history. The music, the poetry, the hill towns. The chaos. Also: What is there to say that hasn’t been said more beautifully by someone else? Like a 37 year old Johann von Wolfgang Goethe who spent two years traveling there and kept a journal? Or Calvino himself? And who am I to say it? One more besotted traveller.
If we’re going to talk about Italy, of course we have to talk about beauty. This isn’t the beauty of Paris, which manages to be charming, epic, intimate, relentless and insistent all at once. This is different. This is the madness of the human spirit flung across a land of time, hand made by the hand of god. Who, it turns out, is an artist.
This is a beauty so deep and fulfilling, so magical and dreamlike, so varied and surprising and magnificent and fun, it manages to redeem the entire species. Okay, fine, we’ve made an unholy mess of everything, but have you seen Italy?
What Italy does to you isn’t in any dictionary. Well maybe it is because what Italy does to you is poetry. It didn’t seem like poetry the night we landed deep in the caruggi just in from Lyon high as a kite on life with too much baggage and unable to find our way. (On second thought it was poetry.) Genoa the first time was a kaleidoscope of shops buried deep inside long, serpentine alleyways (caruggi) with vast numbers of men hanging out, smoking, drinking, talking, cursing under sallow lighting. When you are deep in the caruggi it’s impossible to find your way. The footing is brutal. Google maps barely works. Plus you are tired from the day, tired from getting lost on your way to your flat. And soon you will be more tired from the many, many stairs up to the flat. With the luggage. And you are hungry.
But soon there is grilled calamari, ravioli al pesto and pasta al pesto and wine. This is Liguria. The people who are eating all around you are laughing. The baby at the next table is screeching. This is Italy. The bread is terrible.
In a few blinks, it’s tomorrow. In the distance, out the car window is a blue expanse that runs out to the horizon and nearly stops everything. The Mediterranean is just over there and you are desperate to go, now. But it will have to wait because Genoa is a quick stopover on the way to someplace else, to Orvieto, a place I travelled to a lifetime ago.
After four and a half hours on the autostrada we snaked our six-speed Lancia through the cold, dark and narrow cobblestone streets of Orvieto. Memory is blinking on and off. I believe we drove around the city two or three times before we identified our destination. We parked in Piazza del Popolo. One of us rang the bell at the SS Salvatore Institute, a congregation of Dominican missionary sisters who run a B&B in heart of Orvieto. Moments away from the Duomo, it was spare, comfortable, utterly quiet and spotless. We became nun like. In the hallways we tip toed and spoke in whispers. We kept our room extra neat. That first night we dropped off our bags and walked the streets. We found the Duomo and it was lit up from head to heel. It stopped us cold.
Back in our room we ditched our (bonkers) plan to drive to Puglia. Instead, day after day we walked all over that epic hill town gawking, taking pictures, exploring, and eating. It snowed one day. The nun at the front desk (born in Columbia) came out into the street to watch the snowflakes coming down, her eyes big as the moon.
“Orvieto,” said none other than Rick Steeves, “is one of the most striking, memorable, and enjoyable hill towns in central Italy.” Agreed. All that and more. But have you seen Civita di Bagnoregio? Only eighteen miles away? Yes, but wait. For now, Orvieto, which only seems like another Italian hill town. There’s something else at work here. You can feel it if you pay attention. It’s tranquil, self-contained, studious. The food is exceptionally good. The wine, Orvieto Classico, is clean, crisp and dry. Students from all over come to Orvieto to study Italian, and the Renaissance, of which there will be more to say later. For now, the local Pecorino Toscano we bought was sublime and revelatory, as was the Salsa Tartufata.
A bit of history. “The Etruscans inhabited Orvieto until the 3rd Century BC, when the Romans invaded “Velzna”. It took the Romans two years to conquer Orvieto, which is a natural fortress, with its cliffs on all sides. (See the pic below.) The Etruscans had dug an intricate web of caves and numerous wells, so they were able to defend Orvieto for a long time.”
The road to Civita di Bagnoregio, about forty minutes away, wound its way through the hills and olive groves of Umbria. Do I have to say how poetic, how soul stirring, how ridiculously beautiful these landscapes were? The sun was shining. There were no cars on the road. It’s always hard to leave Orvieto, but here are a few more photographs before we arrive in Civita di Bagnoregio.
Back in 1990 I’d come to Italy on a bit of lark. By a stroke of good luck I’d landed in Civita di Bagnoreggio. A friend was studying architecture there. Three memories: Sipping cappuccino under the chestnut trees listening to opera, with the Tiber River Valley spread out below me. Having dinner outside one night with my friend Brian. On another night, dinner with 30 people from Seattle. They were on a Rick Steeves tour. And now I am back here again, 33 years later. With Linda.
The words are piling up and I see I haven’t gotten close to giving you the feel and taste and texture of being in Italy. What’s it like? Imagine being in an absolutely mad, life-changing musical performance. Maybe it’s a mad theater experience. Better yet, imagine finding the theater, and the musical experience, inside of you. There’s a live orchestra in there, and just behind the theatre that is inside you, are artist’s studios, and there’s pizza, too, and they are serving chilled white wine and fried artichokes. When you look out the window, endless olive groves stretch miles and miles out to the bluest, bluest sea.
The app tells me that our visit to Civita di Bagnoregio was quite the day: 19,293 steps, 55 floors, nine miles. No app could tell you what that day did to our hearts. We walked and walked. We had hot chocolate, bought some gifts, chatted up a shop owner, took pictures, and headed back as the sun went down.
Now north to Paciano and in part two, (coming soon!) Florence and Genoa.
Paciano, population 974, is a little bity hilltop town in Umbria. Our one bedroom stone house sat in the middle of an olive grove. We’d booked seven days and stayed five. It was absolutely perfect and it was absolutely freezing. We very nearly met up with Anna, a local writer who blogs about Italy, and Paciano, and the ex pat life, in case you want to move there.
Paciano was pure unadulterated charm; it was a roaring wood stove, it was espressos in the morning, hot baths at night, it was a respite from the busy world, and it was reading. Me: Invisible Cities, by Calvino, and for Linda, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Tokarczruk. (Both highly recommended.) Our house had a lovely library. And it had organic olive oil, made from the trees that surrounded our house. Paciano is also the place where your correspondent beheld, and then ate, a pizza that was (tragically) festooned with hot dog slices and French fries. True story.
~ “Also in Raissa, city of sadness, there runs an invisible thread that binds one living being to another for a moment, then unravels, then is stretched again between moving points as it draws new and rapid patterns so that at every second the unhappy city contains a happy city unaware of its own existence.”
Invisible cities, Italo Calvino
~ “Newspapers rely on keeping us in a constant state of anxiety, on diverting our emotions away from the things that really matter to us. Why should I yield to their power and let them tell me what to think?”
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, Olga Tokarczuk