So, once we settle on a price for the property we must hire a “notaio”, a sort of para-legal professional, who handles the creation and filing of contracts between the buyer and seller. Bruno was a handsome, shy Italian man in his late thirties with an office in the center of Bagnoregio. He spoke about as much English as I spoke Italian which meant we needed my friend Carlo to interpret for us. That worked well up until the day I was to meet with the farmer and his wife, to sign documents for the first of the two contracts needed for completing the deal. Carlo had his own business to conduct that day and was not available so I joined Bruno and the sellers at Bruno’s office.
This couple who looked quite ancient to me, were probably not much more than 65 years old. But they had not lived an easy life. In fact, the husband had come from a family noted to be the last “cave dwellers” of this little town because during the second world war they were so poor they had lived in one of the numerous Etruscan caves in the valley. Had he not married up, so to speak, he would not have had any land for sale to begin with. Neither the farmer or his wife spoke any English and they were a bit indignant that my Italian was so poor, saying (through Bruno’s struggling English interpretation and many hand gestures) that it was imperative for me to learn their language if I was to be a landowner in Bagnoregio. I smiled, nodded and promised to do just that, but for the moment I wanted to get through this torturous meeting, sign documents and hand over the enormous stack of lire I had stashed in my bag.
When Bruno brought out the city plans that showed the property and its boundaries we discovered that there was also another detached piece of the sale in a different part of town that went with the package (it took half an hour with much hand and arm waving to convey all this to me), which to this day I’ve not seen. However, I do know that it has quite a few very old chestnut trees on it and it’s not much bigger than a good sized RV. Oh well, finding that is on my bucket list as I’m sure it’s just another small adventure.
After about an hour of me listening to the Italians speak Italian and catching maybe 1% of what was being said, my paranoia set in. What the hell was I doing here, trying to buy property so far from home? In a language I couldn’t really speak or understand? And what if I had missed some important details or what if they were all just conspiring to rip me off? No, no, no, I told myself, that is not the case and I have $6000 in Lire in my bag so just do it, as Nike prompts. When it came time to hand over the loot, I counted out pile after pile of tiny lire. Do you know how many lire it takes to make $6000? And then, the farmer, his wife and I sign documents and he proceeds to pack all the money into his vintage sport jacket, circa 1952. Yes, the couple had come dressed to the nines in their very best Sunday clothes, clean, perfectly pressed and from another era altogether. I failed to mention that I felt as though I had stepped into a Fellini film, which continued to be fun for another year or so.
The next step in the process of signing the “first” as the contract was referred to and after handing over the money, was to walk over to the farmer’s town home and have a celebratory drink, though it was only 11:30 in the morning. Hey, what the heck, I’m in Italy and I just bought property. And yes, the farmer’s jacket was bulging with my lire but he didn’t seem the least bit concerned as we walked through the little village to their home for a little mid-day apertivo and toast to ourselves. Little did I realize that this was only the beginning of a story that is unfinished today, eight years later! Stay tuned for another chapter in June.
It occurs to me that this tale may not be finished before the end of the year! In fact, even if I choose to end it on this blog, there are still ongoing subtexts that I am working on. But then, since this is all taking place in Italy, it’s no surprise that the story will have a beginning, middle and possibly no ending in the near future. And, as I have adopted the Italian attitude about such things, I’ll just continue to practice my patience.
late afternoon in Bagnoregio, ItalyNow, where were we? Oh yes, back home in Bagnoregio, dropping off the family I purchased the property from after signing the final contract and handing over the last payment. To be honest, I’m a little vague on the rest of that day as the morning was quite taxing. I know I finally got some lunch and later that evening there was a celebratory dinner with friends. There is a foggy image of me shaking my head, telling the story from the previous chapter about how the day went and then sleep!
I made phone calls home to family and a friend about the conclusion of the sale. Then, before returning home later in the week, I started asking around about contractor’s who might help me construct a small house. The little stone barn that stood there, at least one hundred years old, was simple, strong and built in the style of the valley. It’s red tile roof, new in the last few years, was a stark contrast to the stones it was built of, which were all taken from the surrounding land. About 200 square feet, it was the size of a small bedroom so I would need to add another bedroom, bath, and great-room/kitchen. That was as much of a house as the spot it stood on could take. I wanted to leave the fifty olive trees intact and not change the landscape much, so it would maintain its rustic aura, which I had fallen in love with almost two years earlier.
Red tile roofAnd rather quickly I got a message from someone who claimed to be a contractor in the area and he wanted to have a lunch meeting. After doing a little homework I found out that he indeed was a local contractor who had moved to the area recently from Rome. We arranged to have lunch and I brought along another friend, Carlo, who could translate if need be. It turned out that Carlo and the contractor, Angelo knew one another as they had done some business together previously. We talked about what I wanted, what it might cost and how long it would take to build after getting permits. The part about permits brought on a huge fit of laughter from the two men. Apparently, that particular agricultural valley was not easy to build in, though not impossible. There would be some negotiations with the commune (city) that had to happen. But I was assured it would be no problem and all I had to do was hand over a pile of money, just a deposit to start, so Angelo could get started grading, etc.
I told him I would be back in a few months and would take care of the deposit once I saw the plans. We agreed to meet when I returned. Stay tuned for the building of the house in the next chapter!!!
Let’s travel “slowly” in Italy!
by Cheryl Alexander
Owner, Italian Excursion
Italy and I have been fast friends for over fifteen years. My first trip there was a whirlwind for three weeks, stopping in all the major cities for a day, a week, a few days, having the most delicious time of my life. Three friends of mine, all artists with wonderful backgrounds in European history, art and culture were my companions and guides on the trip. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven! On the plane ride home I realized I was smitten and couldn’t live without all things Italian from then on. So, I started planning my next trip there, just six months away. In fact, I’ve been going to Italy two or three times a year since then and I still haven’t had my fill.
After finding a relatively unknown region, where Tuscany, Umbria and Lazio meet (these are all separate region-states of Italy), and making some wonderful new friends, I eventually bought a small property on a hill overlooking a lush farm valley in a small village called Bagnoregio, near Orvieto. That’s another story in itself, for another time! But it became apparent at some point that traveling to Italy that often is expensive , and I had to get creative about such a love affair. Fortunately, around the time I had my epiphany, people started asking me to take them to some of the places I had been raving about. I didn’t know it at the time but this was the birth of my company for small group tour travelers, Italian Excursion (www.italianexcursion.com).
My first few “tours” were with friends and I naturally developed a style of touring that was friendly, slow, fun and comfortable, as one would if hanging out with friends. In 2000 I happened upon a small website (www.slowtravel.com) that catered to Italy and a few other countries for folks who wanted to share the experience of traveling independently. It was to become a great resource for me and validated my own preference for seeing Italy which is to mimic the Italians and pace everything slowly. And it facilitated the formation of another resource that was formed out of friendship. A few of the travelers I “met” on this website created a consortium of small group tour operators in Europe that emulates the slow travel style, www.slowtraveltours.com. So, my experience of travel was once again expanded!
Now, what does “slow travel” actually look like? Well, first, the group must be small enough to allow for everyone’s voices to be heard. Even though I prepare itineraries, they are not set in stone and we might change our minds about a planned event if we feel like forgoing a museum for a picnic in the country that day. Maybe someone in the group would rather not take the cooking class or see the hidden archeological dig on the agenda for that day, so they go into the village to shop or stay at the house to read, sit by the pool or take a hike in the area.
One rule for slow travel as Italian Excursion sees it, is to stay put in one place for at least a week at a time. Renting a small villa, casita or apartment is easy in Italy as there are thousands of them in all shapes and sizes, with all sorts of amenities. It’s possible, going by Italian time, to have two day trips or events in a day, but rushing around is not the point of slow travel, so some days there may be just one day trip.
Meals in Italy are almost a sacred ritual for Italians, except for breakfast, since they enjoy sleeping a little later and grabbing a roll and espresso on their way to work. Lunch and dinner are long, drawn out events that last two or three hours, include wine to pair with the food and as many friends and family members as are available. In fact the mid-day meal is so important that all of the shops and businesses shut down for several hours during the afternoon, opening again at 4:30 or 5:00, just in time for the pasagiata which is late day stroll around town. You will find Italians out en masse this time of day, to catch up with friends, make plans for the evenings, show off the bambini or whet their appetites for the next meal with a gelato!
Immersion is the natural outcome of staying in one place for an extended time and with that focus comes a sense of really belonging in that place. And, naturally, too, with that feeling of connection comes the realization of “presence” or slowing down to notice where we are in that moment. These are the times in our lives that are integrated into our minds and hearts, making an experience memorable, a snapshot of the feeling tone for that place and time. Italian Excursion strives to create that for every guest on every trip to enhance how they remember their time spent in this magical country.
Slow travel should be a way of nourishing one’s being which is what traveling to Europe used to be all about. The “Grand Tour” that people took in the last century was a way to educate the mind and the senses in a time when leisure was beginning to become the norm for people after the industrial revolution. When the pace of life began to pick up and get more frantic we forgot how joy and creativity support and nurture our well-being. Travel should be a “time out” of our busy lives, not an extension of that fast pace. Let’s get back to basics, find time to enjoy and have fun traveling. We invite you to travel with us to Italy, s-l-o-w-l-y!
Italy in April!!!
April is such a lovely time in Italy. It is a bit unpredictable weatherwise but as long as one brings clothing that can be layered or an umbrella then it is not a problem. Springtime may manifest itself with showers or just budding beauty. But the verdant freshness is evident everywhere one looks. Little buds are popping out of the grape vines fig trees as winter is pushed aside to reveal the next lush season.
Our tour this trip was very relaxed and slow, just the way I like it. First, we stayed outside of Rome in Castel Sant’ Elia at Villa Adrianna run by an Italian man and his Australian wife. Our ensuite rooms at Zia Cathy’s as it is also called, were enormous, clean and had incredible views of the countryside. The grounds were expansive and there were little sitting vignettes in different areas for spending some quiet time. Breakfast was served on the large portico that faced into farmlands to the south. An incredible repast of pastries, fruit, eggs, etc.
There are several good reasons for staying in that area: Villa Lante is easily accessible as is Civita Castellana, only a short drive away. Villa Lante was serene and quiet when we got there in mid morning. There were just a few other visitors besides our small group. The gardens there are as they were hundreds of years before when the palazzo was first built. It is pristine and manicured to perfection. A wonderful diversion especially if you are a fan of garden settings. Very few flowers but lush evergreens pruned and sculpted into many images.
Civita Castellana is very special in that it is one of those little villages that has a long history in ancient times and has left hidden traces of those times. The town is no longer on a main thoroughfare so has fallen into some disrepair and ruin, except, of course, for the main church. It has beautiful, quite unique, mosaics from a bygone era that recall Turkish influence. There is also a fascinating castle (thus the name) from medieval times that serves as a small museum. It too, is rarely visited and the town has not the resources to display the thousands of relics stored in its unopened rooms.
We were very fortunate to have a guide who took us to a few places that no one visits. A wonderful, secret archeology dig just outside of town that was a place the Romans forced a small culture to migrate to. This was probably the last place that this culture survived and then disappeared forever. We saw where the city center was built, the forum, market place, etc. as well as the vestiges of its burial grounds. We were literally the only visitors there.
After our three days in this area we drove up to my favorite spot in Northern Lazio to stay at The Mottura’s small, elegant hotel in Civitella d’ Agliano. I’ve mentioned this boutique organic winery and hotel before as I love staying there. The hospitality, food and wine are unsurpassed, in my estimation, so I never miss an opportunity to bring my guests to experience it, too.
We visited many of the places I love to share with guests in this area, so I won’t be redundant. I have found a few new gardens and secret spots that I will elaborate on in the next newsletter. Look for that to appear the end of October, after my Fall trip. Also, look for upcoming tour information for 2009 as there will be some new and different things offered.
One of the best reasons to travel to Italy repeatedly is that there are always new places to visit. It’s doubtful anyone could see every nook and cranny of this unbearably beautiful country. Two or three times a year I get the privilege of visiting there as well as sharing with a small group of travelers some of the gems I’ve discovered over the years in northern Lazio and the surrounds.
The last trip, in September, was again not as I expected. Of course I love to share some of my favorite spots in Bagnoregio, Orvieto, Castel Giorgio and Bolsena, but this trip we also found some places I hadn’t yet explored.
We usually treat our guests to a small tour of Bomarzo, sometimes called the Monster Park. It was created over 500 years ago by a local nobleman as a tribute to his wife, whom he adored. Artisans were brought to the site to sculpt large figures out of the enormous boulders in the area. The result is a sculpture park or estate that is utterly fascinating. Most of the pieces represent ancient mythological figures that are easily recognizable but seem so out of place for the time they were created. The Pagan atmosphere is such an odd juxtaposition of the papal art that was produced in the period. Nonetheless, it is a lovely place to enjoy quiet, woods, walking and sprawling lawns.
This trip, we decided to explore the village of Bomarzo that stands high up over the park itself. It’s a small, sleepy hilltop village and the climb to the historic center is a bit of a challenge. Driving is not encouraged except for the residents at the top. We discovered that we were the only folks there to enjoy the phenomenal views that swept away on all fronts, as far as we could see. The wind whipped at us and all around us forcing us to walk into the center.
Walking into the center there is a small piazza with a lovely church, also empty. But the most exciting surprise was the palazzo that sits at the top, empty. The city had just begun work on restoring it and the workers were kind enough to show us an unlocked door so we could wander in. There were faded fresci on the walls, carved ceilings, views from the recently windowed terraces that one can only imagine. The floors had some of the original stonework as did some of the giant fireplaces. Wide stone staircases led to other floors. These are some of the hidden treasures we seek out on our small group tours.
Another day, we drove west to the three towns on the ancient Etruscan trail, Sorano, Sovana and Pittliagno. These lovely little towns are connected by a 3000 year old trail hidden in the valleys below them. Both Sovana and Pittliagno sit high on their somewhat crumbling hilltops, reminding us of their need for protection.
Not so for Sorano which was once a fortess, on a flat small property, no longer protected by its fallen walls. The length of it is not more than 6 or 8 blocks but it has an elegant old cathedral, very plain and unadorned as well as a small church with an exquisite alter piece unlike any other I’ve seen. This alter is plain and rustic and simple which sets it apart from most of the carved, polished alters we find throughout Italy.
Pittliagno is a charming little place with much to offer. We were surprised by some of its wide, tree lined streets, being a hill town where space is usually more preserved. One of the special features here is the old Jewish Ghetto which has been restored for tourism. There are only three Jews left in this town which once made room for its Jews in an underground setting given to them by a member of the Medici family. The cave shops underground are amazing to see along with the pictures of workers baking bread, slaughtering meats and generally going about their business in one of the few towns willing to share their culture with this group. The city voted not long ago to completely restore the synagogue at their own expense. Preserving the ghetto by making it into a museum lends a special note to this period in history.
Along the way, with new additions to our excursions we managed to also find a few wonderful eateries to experience as well. One of our favorites is near Bomarzo and is called Nona Y Papa. The setting itself was very, hmm, shall I say strange, unattractive, but the food was FANTASTIC. We’ll be going back there again. It’s not far from the town of Soriano, which is another place we’d like to add to our list of “off the beaten path” favorites. Since we plan to continue our small group tours to Italy for as long as we have breath, we’ll save that town for a future trip. And let’s save Civita Castellana for a later report as well. We don’t want to give all the undiscovered gems away at one time!
Cheryl and friends
This year I spent most of May in my favorite spot in Italy, the northern Lazio area that just touches Tuscany and Umbria. I can visit all three regions in a matter of minutes during my stay, which makes for a bit of diversity and assures that I won’t tire of the area.
Spring was much in evidence when I arrived. A little rain, a chill in the evening air and then a few days later, heat, sun and bright, blooming red poppies everywhere. Not quite swimming weather until the end of the trip, but certainly poolside was a good place to hang out.
This year I had tour guests who were interested in hiking. We found a great moderate level hike at Civita di Bagnoregio. It seems the first Etruscan settlers had dug a tunnel under the city, which was later expanded, that leads to a trail down the hillside into the valley below and ends at the river stream. It’s quite an incline, so even though going down one must watch one’s step on the narrow trail, that’s not the difficult part. Hiking back up is where endurance comes in handy!
It ends up being about a two hour hike and when you reach the top you are ready for lunch and a long sit with wine and bruschetta in one of the two cantinas at the top. Both are located in cool cave like atmospheres. The one being the city’s old olive mill that was carved out hundreds of years ago to house the donkey that drove the mill that made the olive paste. (Sounds like a children’s song I used to know).
Another new event that we experienced on this trip was a visit to Bagnoregio’s local sommelier, Mauro di Laurenzo. Mauro is actually one of the main barista’s of the town but has always had a great interest in wine. I’ve known him for some years now and had no idea he had so many other talents, like playing in an Afro-Cuban band with his seven children!
He agreed to host wine tasting and dinner for each group in the dining room behind his bar. What a wonderful surprise. Our first group was treated to six wines from the Piemont area of Italy. The second group got to experience wines from several areas around Rome. Mauro’s English is not extensive and my Italian is about as good, so we had a terrific time miming and theatrically figuring out what we were tasting. We learned about what parts of the tongue are used for tasting different flavors and how the food affects the wines, as well as what different properties each wine held. And the food!!! Mauro’s wife, Cesarina, cooked some of the best dishes we had on the whole trip. She used seasonal foods, herbs and spices and surprised everyone. She selected cheeses from local producers that were distinct and paired perfectly with the wines. Fava beans happened to be in season when we were there, so we had them as the locals eat them, both raw and in a lovely soup. Fresh fruit compote for dessert and a bit of grappa for a few of the bolder guests, finished us off. Lucky me, I got to attend both evenings, each distinctly different from the other.
One afternoon, two of the local farmers roasted a fresh side of lamb and a bit of fresh pork for us on a spit in the yard. There was enough bar-b-que lamb to feed an army. Ferdinando, a farmer from Sardegna, who settled in this area two decades ago, raises organic sheep and a small herd of 100 cows for cheese making. It’s so comforting to drive down the valley road and see the beautiful cows walking along the road or grazing in one of the fields. And can you imagine milking 1500 sheep twice a day? That’s what this farmer and his family do to make a living. (Yes, they do use milking machines, but what a daunting job).
It’s such fun to go into town for supplies and see Ferdinando hailing us from his jeep on the other side of the street with a big wave and a “buona serra, Cheryl“. The folks who live in these little villages are so friendly, especially when they see me returning year after year. They are very patient while I try to converse with them in Italian, making suggestions for cheese or wine choices, as well as grammatical corrections.
This year we also visited with the Mottura family who run a beautiful hotel and organic winery in Civitella D’Agliano. And the high point of our evening with them was when Sergio took us down into the wine cellar of the eight hundred year old palazzo/hotel to see how they ferment the spumonti. It’s a ten year process and they had just begun a new one. I had no idea what was involved in making a sparkling wine. I won’t go into it here because you may decide to join us on one of our tours and I don’t want to spoil the experience for you. Besides, it so much more enchanting to hear Sergio tell all about it.
After the wine tasting and the cellar visit, we went upstairs to the intimate elegant dining room for an incredible six-course meal paired with the appropriate wines. Because we were staying in a villa near the hotel, we just walked to and from dinner that evening under the moonlight.
We had many other wonderful experiences in restaurants, villages, underground caves that were thousands of years old. Every trip has a different flavor and something new to discover. The seasons also play a part in changing the experience of the trips. There will be different foods, wines, color and light, as well as flora and fauna. When I visit in the Fall there won’t be brilliant red poppies or sunflowers, but the figs will be ripe and ready to pick off the trees for breakfast, as well as the grapes in many varieties and colors. Chestnuts will be falling all over the forests and if you’ve never seen a chestnut well you just haven’t lived! They are gorgeous and complex after they make their ripened fall from the tree, split open and offer the smooth brown nuts inside.
Once again the undiscovered treasures of Italy have enchanted me. I hope you will be intrigued enough by these scant renderings to think about joining us on one of our trips to a part of Italy that reflects and retains so much of what is special about this beautiful country. Or just “slow travel” there yourself!
March in Italy is always a surprise. It can’t always decide if it’s still winter or should be blooming into spring. This March trip for me was a lovely surprise of early spring, bringing warm weather, sunshine, flowers and trees in bloom. Didn’t wear my winter coat once!
The local folks in Bagnoregio, where I stayed, were busy getting ready for the annual Easter pageant that most towns and villages in Italy love to produce and participate in. It’s a special day, as is the day after, and they prepare for it weeks in advance. If you ever have a chance to be there over this holiday, it’s worth the trip just to see this lively celebration.
In Bangoregio the whole town turns out after families have an elaborate Easter dinner, then a late night procession re-enacts the Easter story. The Monday after Easter children are sent off on picnics with the grandparents, taking lunches made from Sunday’s dinner, while their parents go on picnics of their own.
This trip I made a wonderful discovery, in the town of Civita di ‘Aliagno. In the town’s Medieval square is a palazzo almost 800 years old, that was built by the Motturo family. Sergio Motturo and his wife Alessandra have turned the family home into a beautiful 12 room hotel. The family, it seems has always been in the business of winemaking. However, this last generation turned the winery to organic production. The story they tell is that when the fields started returning to their natural state, without all the toxicity, the porcupines came back to live on the land, as they once had. So, it seemed appropriate to Sergio and Alessandra to name their hotel La Tana Dell’istrice, which means the return of the porcupine!
The Motturo’s hold wine tastings in the hotel’s wine cellar and serve wonderful local fare in the dining room for guests or travelers who make advance reservations, from March thru October. I’ll certainly return when I’m there in October. Both the food and the wine were excellent, and the price was moderate.
And just down the road from that little gem is an authentic, enormous castle, complete with two ballrooms and a medieval chapel. It sits perched high on a hill overlooking the valley with beautiful, antique-filled rooms. The rates are quite reasonable. The owner, an elderly nobleman was on his tractor when I last saw him, tending to his olive trees.
Just wanted to give you a few things to think about while you are pondering YOUR next trip to Italy. There are so many undiscovered experiences “off the beaten track”.
Until next time, ciao, Cheryl
Just returned from the northern Lazio countryside, which borders the regions of Tuscany and Umbria. It is a lush green agricultural area that soothes the soul, being so richly colored. Everywhere one turns there are rolling green hills, deep brown earth, or dirt hillsides dotted with caves, sheep, wild boar, and sometimes small herds of cattle. There are silver-tipped olive trees in every direction, some planted randomly, others in the neat tidy rows of orchards.
The land is farmed in a variety of ways, but farmed it is. Plots of land in every size, from multiple hectares to tiny micro vegetable gardens. Of course grapes are grown in abundance in this area, as they are all over Italy. And the region recently took up kiwi growing, as a small experiment, since this fruit grows similarly to the vine of the grape. Lemon trees are planted portably, so that they may be brought inside during the winter frosts. They are less in evidence than places further south, as they require a bit too much care for the cooler climate.
Caves are much in abundance in here, too, because of the Etruscan influence. Many are natural to the landscape, which has a very porous element. Some are manmade by the Etruscan people who once populated the area, over 3000 years ago. Farmers are still finding artifacts on their properties, left from this fascinating group of people. There are several very good museums in the area, one in Orvieto, another in Tarquinia, that tell the Etruscan story quite well. Our tours always hit at least one per trip, and sometimes more, if the group is interested.
The Lazio countryside is also riddled with charming little villages, some nestled in valleys, others elevated on hilltops. And in these villages are some of the most amazing, family owned trattorias, pizzerias, ristorantes you will ever encounter. If you are a traveler who enjoys Italy’s love affair with food, you will delight in discovering some of these little gems.
One such place is located in Celleno, which is midway between Bagnoregio and Viterbo, called Mediterranea. Pizza is their specialty, but do try their seafood antipasti ……… mmmmm! Mussels or large shrimp piled high. Great prices, too. The ambience is created by the locals who dine there, and we noticed we were the only tourists, every time we ate there. (Yes, we went back several times!)
Il Poderetto is outside Castel Giorgio, on a small country road. If they forget to put out the sign and you haven’t been there before, it is easily missed. If you don’t mind walking through their backyard and in the kitchen door to get to the dining room, you will be very pleased by the offering of domestic and wild meats, roasted to perfection. Mama cooks and papa tends the fire and waits tables when he’s not on duty as a carabiniere.
These are some of the wonders of northern Lazio. Just wanted to whet your appetite.
Tanti Saluti, Cheryl