One day during my early December visit to Downtown Abbey, Lady Baby and I sat at the kitchen table, slowly eating bowls of white bean soup and reading “Three Stories You Can Read To Your Cat” by Sara Swan Miller. In the first story, it rains and rains, and the kitty wishes for sun, so we started calling out to the gray Anchorage sky for “snow pease!” (badly needed).
Sure enough, when we finished the book, I looked up and pointed outside and asked Lady Baby what was happening? “Snowflake!” she said, and the “l” in snowflake or “mommy’s hair clip” is as amazing as the strong “s” at the end of “Yes!” which has replaced the everyday “yeah” – so precisely said. (I wish I could insert a sound bite here of how the word angel sounds in Lady Baby speak, it’s like her words for thank you, which melt my heart.)
She has some linguistic shortcuts for fact or emotion: “house” means just the living room, “happy happy!” loudly repeated in a pre-bath runabout, wearing just tennis shoes and nakedy body speaks for itself, as does performing a “happy happy” dance while holding the photos of her world’s important people.
You realize, or think you do, how related consciousness and language must be – or maybe it’s just like Mrs. Hughes said at Thanksgiving, Lady Baby’s been thinking all along, but now we understand better because of language.
And, in a difference even from Thanksgiving, something clicked with books this trip, and Lady Baby truly joined her family of readers. Revisiting so many books that had once seemed too long or complicated, we read and read.
“What Pete Ate” the delightful Maira Kalman book in which Pete the dog devours pretty much the whole alphabet became a huge favorite. (Lady Baby would request “Pete ate, Pete ate!”) Listening to Christmas music, we read Christmas books learning the iconography and vocabulary of rooftops and trimming and twinkling, of Dasher and Dancer, and covered the basics – the night before Christmas, the Poky Puppy’s skunk friend, and Clifford, the giant red dog’s first Christmas.
But we also learned a little about sad, the bittersweet part of loving to be with someone, loving someone. She takes me for granted during our weeks together, and then I disappear. The morning I headed to the airport was very hard for Granny Katy. I try to remember Virginia Woolf’s words to a very sad friend “Remember what you have had.” I’ve had joy.
And I wish you Christmas joy!
30 May 2013 Florence
This weather is so strange. Yesterday a fierce and very unpleasant wind.
Arrived Florence about 11 a.m. – Hotel Santa Maria Novella, easy to find and beautiful, walked here from Santa Maria Novella train station.
We are tired. Walked forever but not so productively as usually. Walked a route through Piazza della Signoria (Michealeangelo’s David and zillions of tourists), past the Uffizi, over Ponte Vecchio to Pitti Palace, and the Boboli Gardens.
& back. Battling wind around the Duomo. Overwhelming.
The overwhelm came from getting sick, admitting to being sick. A bug – Tuscan or Alaskan or who knows what nationality – took residence in my upper chest. I don’t think I’ve ever had a virus quite like that one. Nothing more boring than telling cold symptoms, but it hurt.
Yet what’s one to do? Florence is the best of the best. I knew this would be just a quick visit – a return for us, a taster for the young people who will be back – and I kept going, because of tea (and Italian pharmaceuticals).
Most often tea came in a white china teapot full of really hot water from an espresso machine. Tea bags, yes, but generous amounts of hot water, making such a difference to a tight chest!
It was also cold – really cold – making the tea even more welcome.
31 May/1 June 2013 Trastevere, Rome
A very different feel on this side of the Tibur, more a neighborhood, the routes and ways the trail boss finds are less touristed. In a hotel that used to be monastery, rooms were monk’s cells.
To the Borghese Gallery yesterday which we loved completely – a thrill. Bernini sculptures stop your heart.
So cold. The outdoor tables here are optimistically set with yellow cloths and flowers each morning and then dismantled when rain threatens.
Trying to ignore the throat and chest and soldier on. Still really fun. Don’t want to infect the others.
Grateful for this weekend without obligations, be late for breakfast.
Doing a bad job of writing about this.
Only one’s passport matters as much as footgear on a long trip with much walking. Sandals and hiking boots, of course, and at the last moment leaving home, I traded running shoes for little shoes made by Jambu. They have unnecessarily beautiful soles – an incised pattern one never sees.
My sandals spent the trip in the suitcase, but those Jambus pounded miles and miles of cobblestones without a complaint from my feet!
The trail boss and his sweet bride did a little shoe shopping in Rome – blue suede for the trail boss – and the latest fashion in Europe (maybe here also, I am not up-to-date) short, cute, leather boots for the sweet bride.
The best shoe purchase provides a transition to Istanbul next week – shoes from there for Lady Baby!
Towered Towns – San Gimignano to Siena
On this trip we traced our way from towered hilltown to towered hilltown. Twelve-mile days left little time for exploring our destination, but at day’s end once inside city walls, it seemed necessary (to the trail boss) to climb at least one tower and retrace our route through the patchwork of field and vineyard covering Tuscan hills.
San Gimignano’s towers were fortresses connected by wooden walkways in medieval times; now just 14 of the original 72 remain. From a distance tower silhouettes unmistakably identify San Gimignano.
The old, the high part of Colle Val d’Elsa at the top of a hill is narrow and walled, the lower and newer part is at the base of the hill. (On a freezing, rainy night we had a terrific dinner in Colle Alta and descended to Colle Basso for dessert in a swift elevator that operates all night.)
Monteriggioni, a 13th Century castle caught often in battles between Siena and Florence then, is now a walled village with 85 inhabitants. It’s the stuff of a castle lover’s imagination – and Dante’s. He wrote of “horrible giants” on the edge of hell resembling Monteriggioni, “crowned with towers.”
And Siena – the perfectly preserved walled city – pictured here on a panforte package.
At a tiny grocery store during morning provisioning we were offered panforte as “typico” of Siena and “good for walking.” The paper package contained a tinfoil-wrapped cake made of almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts and dried figs in a little paper cake pan. Also included was a packet of powdered sugar, which, at an afternoon break, the sweet bride carefully sprinkled on top of the cake before dividing it in four.
Like so many things in Italy – soap wrappers, paper placemats, museum and bus tickets, paper packaging on sandwiches – it’s not necessary that the enclosure be beautiful, but it is.
Fava Beans and Beer
Once long ago my husband and I tried to follow the directions in a book suggesting walks around a medium-sized town in Italy. But getting out of the suburbs tested good natures with confusing roundabouts and astoundingly fast Italian cars whizzing this way and that.
Because it is larger and a real city, I couldn’t imagine that the approach to Siena could be anything other than difficult. But the ATG route led us through farms and small houses on a ridge that looked across at Siena. While stopped for a break by the side of a small lane, we watched a woman working in her abundant garden. Finished, she closed her garden gate, smiled as she called buon giorno and offered us handfuls of fava beans, indicating with gesture that we needn’t to cook them – just peel and eat.
So we did, and walked down the ridge on a track to a road, crossed it at a crosswalk, walked a few hundred meters along a busy road on a sidewalk, and found ourselves at a gate to Siena. We also found a little bar with tables outside and, with beer and chips, toasted the end of the walk and Siena above us.
And a sign for escalators! We rode with great modern pleasure up into the ancient city, walking the narrow streets to the center to emerge on the tilted, clamshell-shaped Piazza del Campo (where the famous horserace, the Palio, is run) – filled with tourists, scattered at tables in cafes, and sitting cross-legged on the piazza bricks.
28/29 May 2013 Siena
The trail boss led us on a Siena walk after a big hotel breakfast, through neighborhoods to the Museo Civico at the foot of the campo and a stop for coffee and tea and pizza.
It’s crazy to just spend a little more than a day in this place – but wonderful. In the museum, Lorenzetti’s amazing frescoes (14th Century), the “Allegory of Good and Bad Government and Their Effects on the Town and Countryside.” Things haven’t changed much – while the scenery in “good government” is Tuscan countryside full of prosperity and bounty and a bearded old man surrounded by virtues (including a comfortably reclining Peace), the “bad government” panels (much decayed) show sad scenes – citizens robbed and fields without produce.
While the others climbed the 503 steps up the Torre del Mangia, I walked up fewer steps to an open-air loggia with views out and over the walls.
After another break for tea and food we visited the black and white Duomo, Siena’s cathedral, at a late afternoon, very mellow time. Enjoying puzzling out the mosaic flooring of inlaid marble panels, finding Bernini’s sculptures in a small chapel dedicated to Mary. In the crypt below saw newly uncovered frescoes in vivid colors.
We made good use of time. My favorite moment an unexpected climb to the top of a part of the Duomo that didn’t get finished, a long skinny parapet with incredible views in all directions – of Siena and countryside.
The trail boss been so much fun – as always – led us to Siena’s orto botanico – a teaching institution – and told me how much he loves plants – looking surprised.
Wonderful time at dinner in a little place recommended by hotel – talking and laughing in conversation ranging from Jesus to Facebook.
Cold wind dogged us in parts of this trip, that familiar-from-Washington feel of a damp, barely 50° day, and frequent rain squalls (a sideways downpour just as we left San Gimignano). Scarves brought along to cover our heads in mosques became everyday wear in Italy, and I was grateful for my down vest and wool socks.
Looking at photos from our other trip to Italy, I realize how very different this walk was. Several photos show three of us, all in a row, sound asleep on a riverbank, hats over faces – the routine nap after lunch!
Not this time. The first rain day we ate standing up under a tree, sharing a straw-wrapped bottle of Chianti (not a great idea but really fun at the time) while it hailed. Even on sunny days, the grass was wet by the sides of the trail. But those days were perfect for walking – cool, with the afternoon sun at our backs – through forests, stepping on stones at creek crossings, past castles and churches, and fields red with clover.
26/27 May 2013 Colle Val d’Elsa, Monteriggioni
All day fair skies, big clouds, claps of thunder, but no downpours or even drops. We got, for us, an early start, felt good to walk in crisp air with sunshine. Farm tracks still have mud but strada bianca perfect. We spent a lot of the day following signs for Via Francigena – for hundreds of years the ancient pilgrim road from Canterbury to Rome – past Roman baths with still intact stones and clear water (must be really appealing to walkers on a hot day).
Oak trees of all sizes, many olive groves and vineyards. Red poppies, tall scabiosa, Queen Anne’s lace. Lost my pen or I might have made some notes yesterday. Beautiful pastoral vistas of fields and forest, much walking through shaded forest, then next to plowed fields. Plenty of water taps along the route. We have a little rhythm now, not so desperate feeling as the rain day.
Sweet little grocery store in Val Colle d’Elsa, bought apples, bread, chocolate, blue cheese, and nectarines. We ate Lara bars (thanks to Mrs. Hughes’s gift before the trip) at first morning breaks. Sandwich of Nutella and bread for me.
Dante (and Mud)
While reading Joan Acocella’s recent review of Dan Brown’s new book “Inferno,” I had a sudden vision of mud on the bottom of my boots so thick that it curled up and over the toes and broke off in big wads.
Because we were heading toward Siena and walking through the landscape of Dante, and because we asked, my good-natured husband told us stories from “The Divine Comedy.” During several straight and level patches of our route, he described Dante’s circles of hell, tales of betrayals and bad choices, actions and consequences – still so entertaining and instructive after 600 years. Clay-larded mud might make a good early hellish circle.
The rain and cold weather reduced the Tuscan farmers we met to lamenting, as tractors sat idle and fields stayed wet from days of rain. Small farm tracks, usually hard-packed and pleasant, became puddle-laced mud holes. We grew obsessed with the mud, trying to peel it off with poles, tired by walking on boots layered with heavy, spongy mud.
Acocella’s review is funny – she, like my husband, knows Dante – and in spite of herself makes the heavily plotted Brown “Inferno” sound a good junker read.
The image of a little pilgrim – with staff and bundle – marks the route along the Via Francigena. Sometimes the image appeared on paper decals or proper signposts, but most often it was stenciled on fence posts or rock walls, black on a white splash of paint with blazes of red to either side. I always smiled at the sight, and we’d call out VF! Or Via Fran-chi-gena! to each other. I walked the pilgrims’ path thinking how it would be fun to carve a stamp with the little pellegrino.
22 May 2013 Rome
Great room just off the Campo De’ Fiori in a hotel with terrace on top that we are not likely to use because so much rain! The guys who usually sell purses and gewgaws like flashlights with shattered laser beams now tout arms full of umbrellas and do a brisk business. Umbrellas and awnings that normally provide sun protection now shed rain. Tourists cover their heads with maps and look startled by this version of Rome as they splash along the cobbles. Nobody eats gelato.
The front desk here has keys on tassels in little boxes, but the charming Roman who brought us up in a tiny elevator handed us a key card. All is gilt – chandelier and mirror frame – high wood-beamed ceilings.
24 May 2013 San Gimignano
Train to here from Rome. A miracle we caught it. Rome buses and subway on strike so traffic a snarl, and cabs hard to get. We managed because of heroic driving by cab driver.
So cold! We met our ATG person who will transport our bags to the next town, and she warned of muddy trails. Walked around San Gimignano’s walls, including a tower climb with 360° view and freezing wind.
All my drawing notions going to pot as they often do on trips – becomes a matter of staying warm and hydrated and not footsore.
Such fun at dinner fueled by a liter of house red. We are good travelers together – I am glad to turn over the on-the-ground navigation to the young people!
Notebook or journal notes:
22 May 2013 Daylight brings a glimpse of the Alps as the plane skirts the east coast of Italy. Early Mediterranean blue in the north is turning to slate gray as we near Rome’s Fiumicino Airport.
I’ve been reading a Niccolo book all night, the 14th Century adventurer, thinking how different his Mediterranean from mine. Even from the air the sea looks vast – not limitless like crossing the Pacific or Atlantic – but big for a ship powered by wind or men.