A Little Trip to Liguria

Although we’ve made many trips to Italy over the years, for whatever reason, we’d never spent much time in Liguria.  We decided to rectify that by spending a week there late last month.

Since Liguria is a long drive from here, we made a few stops along the way.

First was Gradara castle in the northern Marche.  In the 13th C, Francesca da Polenta of Ravenna was married to Gianciotto Malatesta, the lord of Rimini.  Francesca found herself attracted to her husband’s younger, and much better looking, brother Paolo.  As Dante imagined the scene, Paolo and Francesca were innocently reading the story of Lancelot and Guinevere, when suddenly, passion seized them; no more reading was done that day.  Her husband discovered the affair and killed both of them.  The tragic tale of Francesca da Rimini has inspired artists ever since — it is the subject of numerous paintings and several operas, and draws tourists like us to the castle to this day.

Next stop was the Abbey of Nonantola, outside Modena.  Originally founded in the 8th C, the current church dates to the 12th C.  It is one of the last and largest buildings in Romanesque style, and its brick barrel vaults are quite a contrast to the pointed stone arches of Notre Dame, which was built at around the same time.  The museum next door has the original charter for the abbey, dated 752 — a document which carries the sigil of Charlemagne.

For our base in Liguria, we stayed in Imperia, about one hour west of Genoa on the coast (practically all of Liguria is on the coast).  We had a spacious AirBnB apartment with wonderful views of the harbor, both from the rooms and from the outside dining table.  We were blessed with spectacular weather — in late September, most of the summer tourists are gone, but the days were still sunny and warm.  Despite its popularity with tourists, Imperia and nearby Porto Maurizio are real towns (Imperia is the county seat) which still has plenty of activity even in the off season.  We had fun just exploring the towns, although since the mountains come almost down to the sea here most of the walking isup and down.  There are several nice walks along the beach, as well as a stunning yacht harbor.

The food is quite good in Liguria, but also very simple.  Here is the real home of the traditional “Mediterranean” diet, based on fish, vegetables, and olive oil — enriched, at this time of year, by some white truffles from nearby Piedmont.

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We did a couple of touristy things when we could tear ourselves away from the town.  In Albissola Marina, we visited the Villa Faraggiana, an 18th C country estate which, unusually, still retains much of the original 18th C and early 19th C furnishings — paintings, statues, flying body art, even the wallpaper.  The ballroom had a 17th C mirror which predated the house, magnificent floors made of local tiles, and large wooden statues whose survival is especially miraculous given that they were originally used as candleholders.

We also visited the Hanbury Gardens, in Mortola, close to the French border.  In the late 19th C, a couple of English gentlemen created a garden full of “exotic” plants.  Although it was probably not the optimal time to visit — we were too late for the roses and too early for the citrus — but we enjoyed the vast collection of agave, aloe and cactus — very California-like.

On the way back, we visited Siena and spent several hours in its magnificent cathedral.  The cathedral floors are decorated with an unusual series of about 60 “paintings”in  inlaid marble, by various artists. Usually the floor paintings are hidden by brown paper covers, but for about 2 months a year the floors are uncovered.  Visitors are able to walk through the paintings on special paths which avoid wearing down the most delicate designs.

We then took a roof tour which allowed you to go up in the rafters and see the floors from above, which was pretty cool.

We also visited the “crypt,” which is not a cemetery but actually the remains of an older church.  The current church, built in the 13th C, was built right on top of the old one.  Some of the frescoes of the earlier cathedral were buried and not rediscovered until renovation work in the 1990s fortuitously uncovered them.  After years of seeing the faded colors of frescoes that have been open to the elements for hundreds of years, it was quite startling to see the bright original colors of these long-buried frescoes.

Reflections on One Year in Italy

We came to Italy one year ago this week.   A few things have not gone as planned — I broke my wrist less than a week after I arrived, and spent the first two months with my arm in a cast.  For the most part, though, things here have been even better than we imagined.

Our apartment is spacious and comfortable.  Our landlady, whose home this was for 35 years, has been especially gracious in helping us deal with the inevitable issues of living in a new country.

We have had an easier time than we expected making friends here.  There is a small English-speaking community — most are American, but there are some Canadian and Irish folks too.  But we have also found it possible to socialize with the people who have lived here most of their lives.   At first, people expressed surprise that we left California to move here — we were kind of a curiosity.  Now they seem to have gotten used to us.

Acquiring facility with the language has also been easier than we imagined.  I had a basic knowledge of Italian grammar based on studying it in high school many years ago.  And I could understand people who spoke to me slowly and clearly.  But I was terrified of speaking, particularly on the telephone, for fear I might make a mistake.  I had to get over that pretty quickly, though, because most people here don’t speak English.  If you want to get things done, particularly with the bureaucracy, you have to learn to communicate in Italian.  Fortunately, people are very accommodating with my fumbling attempts — I’m sure I sound like a second grader, but no one seems to mind.

Ted has made even more progress.  He knew only a few words of Italian when we arrived, but with the aid of private lessons he’s made enough progress that he recently passed the written test for a driver’s license in Italian — not an easy thing here, even for Italians.

The food is also better than we expected.  We seem to have stumbled into something of a food paradise here.   Although much of the terrain in the Marche and nearby Abruzzo is mountainous, a lot of fruits and vegetables are raised in the local valleys.  Green vegetables are available all winter — some winter vegetables, like spinach and chard, are well known to us, while others, like cicoria and agretti, are new.  Food is hyper-local here — you can buy locally raised chicken and lamb in the supermarket, as well as locally made bread, cheese and salumi (the generalized name for cold cuts). The porchetta truck (whole roast pig) rolls in once a week, and they sell roast chickens as well.  You can buy fresh pasta from several local stores.  The local fish market sells a wide variety of Adriatic seafood; San Benedetto del Tronto, about half an hour from here, is a major fish distribution center.  And all of the food, particularly the vegetables, costs much less here than we were paying in California.  The wine is very reasonably priced too although, as with the food, most of it is locally produced.

Ascoli is a city of about 50,000 — about the same size as Palo Alto.  But unlike Palo Alto or many other American suburbs, which are parts of major metropolitan areas, Ascoli is one of the largest towns in what is still a region of small villages and rural farms.  Most of the people who live here, work here, and vice versa.  That means you might run into your real estate agent outside the gommista (tire shop), your pharmacist in the square,  your fish vendor at the bank. And when you see them, you smile and nod and, if there’s time (as there often is) you strike up a small conversation.  That’s been one of the biggest and most unexpected differences between living here and living in the US.  In the US, no one has time to talk to you.  Here, almost every encounter is the opportunity for a small social interaction.  It’s nice.