A Walk In The Val d’Orcia II

In Pienza we had an extra day: time for a laundromat and a break from daily walking for the little travelers. Both Pienza (a “masterpiece of human creative genius”)and the Val d’Orcia (a “well-managed Renaissance agricultural landscape”) are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. You experience both while standing in Pienza’s perspective defying, trapezoidal 15th Century square and glimpsing, through openings past the cathedral, the valley landscape. We could view the sweep of the Val d’Orcia from Pienza’s “balcony,” a low-walled walkway running the length of town, and trace our route, from hilltop to hilltop.

We were often in awe of Lady Baby on this trip – neither adult nor easily carried baby, but unfailingly patient and loving with her cousin and brother, and much of the time, an engaged tourist. Through headphones, she listened intently during a tour of the Renaissance Papal palace, elaborate rooms and a courtyard with herb garden, and inquired of the guide, “Exactly where is the sarcophagus?” Standing in Pienza’s cathedral with head tilted back, camera ready, she studied the frescoed walls and decorated ceilings and pillars, asking questions and making comments. Happily for all, a recommendation from the palace guide led us to Buon Gusto – another best gelato ever.

Early the next morning – wearing our Francigena T-shirts printed by Mrs. Hughes – we posed for a photo on the balcony and set off on the final leg to Montepulciano via Monticchiello (a revised plan to shorten to six a hot 13 kilometers).

Hide-and-seek by the side of the road and lifts from parents helped us to Monticchiello. We ate our sandwiches in a shady playground below this tiny, fortified town (important in the long rivalry between Florence and Siena), then walked about. In a bar we paused for ice cream and coffees, and the proprietor called us a van for the rest of the dusty, steep road.

In Montepulciano we stayed in the beautiful 12th Century Palazzo Ricci in a high up room, overlooking the city and countryside. Montepulciano’s playground improbably included a box hedge maze, and the cousins ran until dinnertime. We ate outdoors at a windy restaurant tucked up into the walls of the city, where a canopy overhead flapped vigorously, sounding like a tent on a mountainside. Some had a last ribolitta, and finally, the carnivores shared a long-desired bistecca florentina.

The Sweet Bride, Sweet Baby, Lady Baby, and I retreated from the dinner table and sat on the cathedral steps on the austere Piazza Grande, empty at dusk, surrounded by venerable palazzos. I said, in the way of adults, “Oh isn’t this amazing! “Just a town,” replied Lady Baby. I said “Really? Like Anchorage?” She said, “Anchorage has trees and grass!” I came back, too quickly, with something flip, then begged her not to tell her parents what I said. Nothing is more ruthless than a five-year old with power over you! I’ve never seen her laugh so hard – “I’m gonna tell them!” she shrieked and giggled, as I tried to convince her she’d get me in trouble – more peals of laughter.

I like to think of her someday bringing a grandchild to that historic square – and laughing.

An Afternoon in Siena

Six big and three little travelers generate a pile of luggage: three car seats, two strollers, two baby backpacks, two hefty large suitcases, a couple of duffels, some smallish roller bags, and assorted carryons containing toys, snacks, and approved electronics. That pile and transport by train, bus, and van created complex logistics as we headed toward our walk in Tuscany.

In the Rome airport while we waited for the Alaskans (having endured a 20-hour journey, they landed an hour behind us), we purchased train tickets and food for lunch. After a warm reunion of the little cousins, we headed north to Florence, and then trekked across the Santa Maria Novella piazza from train station to hotel, our first encounter with heat that the Italians called unseasonable. Our late arrival left just enough time for dinner on the windy piazza, a walk around the Duomo in evening quiet, and first gelatos.

At breakfast the next day, Lady Baby inherited a camera of her own and Sweet Baby a child-size pair of binoculars. With carrying cases strapped around their necks, they looked like true explorers as we crossed the piazza again to catch the bus to Siena. (The Trail Boss rode in a taxi with the mountain of baggage.)

In Siena, we shuttled our belongings to a nearby hotel, and set off along Siena’s narrow streets to find lunch. While the others visited the Palazzo Pubblico to see Lorenzetti’s “The Allegory of Good Government and Bad Government,” I stood in the archway of the Palazzo in the cool and watched people on the Campo, Siena’s tilted arc of a piazza and site of the famous Palio horse race.

It was Sunday and local youngsters demonstrated judo and gymnastics – huge pads softening the landings of their flips. The Campo resembled a beach, where families lounged on the bricks, heated from earlier sun, but shaded in the afternoon. We also sat, and I stretched my legs out (like sitting on a heating pad) and held Baby Brother in my lap. He grew sticky in the heat, and we stripped first shoes and socks and finally shirt. He’d grin and grin, catching the eye of any passerby (particularly the pretty girls), as he flirted with his Princess Diana, head-tucking smile. Jet-lagged, nap schedule in shambles, he remained cheerful and game (always).

In part, that’s because their moms anticipate and meet all the needs of these little travelers. Both masterful packers, they remember all the favorite possessions (Baby Boy, Baby, and a blanket known as “blank”), various drinking vessels, sleeping accompaniments, and clothes for every contingency from Irish mist to blistering Italian sun. Mrs. Hughes brought a miraculous stroller, weighing only nine pounds, collapsing to fit in a daypack, and holding a 50-pound little person in a pinch, and the Sweet Bride always pulls out, of a purse or pack, the exact thing to soothe a situation.

The time change caught up with the Alaskans, and they retreated to their little hotel balcony with pizza and beer, then early to bed. The rest of us found a favorite restaurant (from another visit) and ate bowls of ribollita.

In the morning, a van driver would pick us up for the ride to Montalcino and the start of a four-day walk in the Val d’Orcia.








December Red and Gold

It’s bleak this early December – Thanksgiving put away and Washington dark of evening and dark of morning. Winter is come.

But it’s the political landscape that chills. A good friend says when she wakes in the night and worries, she reminds herself that President Obama is still president, it’s OK to go back to sleep. And it is more important than ever to look for the cheer and light in this month, for us and for the children for whom we pictured a world with increasing compassion and decency.

On Instagram I’ve comforted myself by posting pictures of #goldreclaimed, because I loathe the recent associations of gold with intolerance, ugliness, and tastelessness. This political year did a number on red as well.

I began the Instagram posts after my eyes fell on a little tourist picture we bought – the reclining figure of Peace – a reproduction from “The Allegory of Good Government and Bad Government” (here) in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, Italy. Painted in the 14th Century by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, this huge three-paneled fresco remains painfully relevant.

On the “Effects of Good Government” panel, depictions are pastoral and bountiful as you might imagine. The panel on bad government is faded, but you can make out the captive figure of Justice, deserted derelict streets, and two armies advancing toward each other in the countryside. The “Effects of Bad Government” depicts “a devious looking figure adorned with horns and fangs…identified as Tyrammides (Tyranny). He sits enthroned, resting his feet upon a goat (symbolic of luxury), and in his hand he sinisterly holds a dagger.”

Ugh. So here’s to holding on to hope ‘til time to act, and in the meantime to red and gold in art and life. This little bit of research lifted my spirits not at all, but the red and gold in Lorenzetti’s Peace does.





Sweet Baby Travels – Italy

To reach the Tuscan hill town of Pitiglano, you turn off the highway from Rome onto a narrow twisting road. Around a final bend and across a deep ravine appear the tumbled together medieval stone buildings of Pitiglano.

When Sweet Baby arrived there this June (as part of a multi-country adventure), she brought her parents and paternal grandparents for a walk from Pitigliano in Tuscany to Orvieto in Umbria. (Route booklet and baggage transport provided by an Australian company called “Hidden Italy.”)

Deposited at our hotel just outside Pitigliano’s main gates, near the arches of an ancient aqueduct, we ate dinner in the café out front as the sky faded and swifts soared along the city’s steep walls. Sweet Baby tucked into her pasta.

After breakfast the next morning, she sat in her backpack carried by her dad, and we walked through Pitigliano, gathering foccacia, cheese, fruit, and chips from tiny shops.

This La Tuscia route reveals much about the predecessors of the Romans, the Etruscans, a civilization once dismissed and now (because of archeological discoveries) greatly admired for art and culture. For more than 2500 years, people have used the trail linking Pitigliano and our first destination, Sovana.

Tackling daily hikes from seven to 12 miles, we climbed up and down a series of tufaceous hills, wooded and wild. Via cava, distinctive narrow sunken roads (cut into the soft tufa rock by the Etruscans) lead down from or up into hill towns, providing paths for travelers then – and now.

Often slippery underfoot, two raised tracks allow purchase for cart wheels. Mules used to walk in the middle drainage channel – as did we. Within these tunnel-like canyons, time has softened the sides that towered over us – foliage and moss dripped and draped, enclosing us in a green and stony world.

Etruscan funeral chambers line the walls of the via cava. We passed a series of caves from prehistoric times, built upon and adapted by succeeding peoples – complicated communities of two-story caves with openings for smoke to escape, “windows” for light, niches and benches, and echoes of people long gone. Once in a clearing outside the square opening to a large cave, we stopped for lunch. As Sweet Baby picked up stones and little leaves, it was easy to picture earlier toddlers doing the same thing in the same spot.

We’d been warned about rain and the dangers of wet via cava. Most days we woke to blue-sky beginnings, but one afternoon during a badly timed cloudburst, we navigated a short but wild link on a narrow road with speeding drivers. Leaving the road, we cautiously descended (gripping our hiking poles) the spectacular Via Cava San Rocco – so beautiful and far less scary.

At the top of the via cavas we often encountered strade bianche and a mile or so of classic Tuscan countryside with gentle forests and meadows for stops in the sunshine. We saw farms with sheep, hedgerows and fields colored by red poppies, blue or yellow asters, and delicate Queen Anne’s lace. You understand the long appeal of this part of Italy – easy fortifications and nearby rivers and fields rich with food.

All the little towns share a hill town nature – but each has a distinct personality. Sovana, continually inhabited since Etruscan and Roman times, feels wide open with many restaurants and cheerful with flowers in window boxes and tiny gardens.

The next day, climbing hills so high we could see Pitiglano and Sovana far behind us, we reached Sorano – an Etruscan town built on a Bronze Age settlement, with a Medieval past and a Tuscan hill town present. Our hotel sat at the very top – a military fortress in the 11th century. After hot showers we sat with cold drinks in a courtyard bright with evening sun.

The next town, San Quirico, differs from the others. A German headquarters during WW II and destroyed by allied bombs in 1944, it’s a modern Italian small farm town. We arrived in the rain at the town’s only hotel, drank beer on the veranda, watched the downpour, and then ate dinner in a large and deserted dining room. The resident daughters alternately invited and teased Sweet Baby while they ate their dinner and drove a little bike between tables. She stared in fascination.

Fifteen months old in June and weighing 20 pounds, Sweet Baby was a good-natured and flexible traveler, as we suspected she would be. I hadn’t thought about the joy of seeing her each morning at the door to our room – flashing her big smile and saying, “Hi!,” or how much fun it would be to watch her exploring this new world and finding repeated entertainment in water bottle lids, various zippers, and roller bags (good for a quick ride in a hotel hall).

She adapted easily to naps in the pack, morning and afternoon, sleeping with her head on a down vest or leaned against the sunshade. Sometimes she toddled along strada bianca or climbed tufa rock steps, her little legs working hard.

The afternoon we arrived in Sorano, we paused at a dramatic lookout over the valley, ate a handful of nuts and watched Sweet Baby chase a metal water bottle she rolled down a slope. She’d traded her rain soaked pants for my wool socks pulled up over her knees – worn with her hiking shoes and a diaper. You smile a lot when she’s along.

Our last day we walked out of Tuscany, entering Lazio along a path now known as the Brigand’s Way. Up and up, then down, down – beginning to catch glimpses of the large and beautiful Lake Bolsena below.

We were to rendezvous at a trattoria on the shore for a ride around the lake to a modern resort hotel. We might have delayed a day here – exploring Bolsena’s ancient center, enjoying the pool and the sunshine, and walking on. But we’d elected to forgo this last day of very long mileage and accept a ride into Orvieto, gaining time to explore its renowned cathedral and museums full of Etruscan pottery and sculpture. Now we could picture these objects decorating the cavas, part of ancient, everyday life.

A night’s sleep, the train to Rome, and onward.

hiking boot







On to Siena

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.     





Hotel Campo d'Fiori

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!

San Gimignano


En Route

AlItalia JFK to Rome 2

Sunset from plane 2Notebook 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.

A Tale of Istanbul and Italy

     At the end of May and beginning of June, we (my good-natured husband, our younger son, and his sweet bride) were lucky to do another ATG walk in Italy (from San Gimignano to Siena), spend a little time in Florence and Rome, and then four days in Istanbul.

As I began to write this post, I realized that just a week earlier I spent the morning at Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar and the afternoon at Topkapi Palace. Late that afternoon I sat on the hotel’s rooftop terrace reading news reports of ongoing protests and a year-old article by Dexter Filkins about Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan.

From the roof I could see – across the waterway where the Golden Horn, the Marmara Sea, and the Bosphurous all meet – the skyscrapers of modern Istanbul and the location of Taksim Square and Gazi Park, scenes of the demonstrations.

     The hotel was in the old part of Istanbul, the Constantinople of history and novels, for more than 2,000 years the center of trade and commerce, adventure and conquest. A short walk or quick tram ride from the hotel led to major sites: the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and the Basilica Cistern built by the Romans in the 6th Century and filled with eerie light, Medusa head sculptures, and 336 marble columns.

Fortified, developed, conquered, and embellished, Istanbul is so old – both exotic and modern, linking Asia and Europe. Women in burkas, women in tank tops, many in headscarves. Young people with Twitter accounts making themselves heard,

     My body is here in the Northwest again, but my mind is really unfocused. I’m trying so hard to figure a way to absorb – and share. I haven’t so many notes or drawings as I’d hoped. But I have desire to tell and energy is slowly returning.

Maybe a little chronology, but mostly I think about individual moments and objects – having to buy wool hats and plastic ponchos for walking through Tuscany, apples from many sources, the sweet bride’s pedometer showing 4 miles on a “rest day,” roadside shrines and astonishing mosques, and ibuprofen and cough drops from an Italian pharmacy.

So what follows here for a while will be not so much a tale as a medley of travel notes, realities of travel, spirit lifters of travel.

Map of Istanbul

Other Paths

The other morning my husband brought me a well-loved but worn paperback belonging to his friend Jeremiah. Filament tape held its spine and covers together, but the text block had come unglued from the spine. Though the pages were together in chunks, the book needed a paper bag or a rubber band to stay intact.

My husband had offered my services as a “bookbinder.” This overstatement is based on the various treasured, decrepit volumes of his I have repaired over the years (with duct tape in the old days, and now more carefully).

As I began to have a go at the job, I thought how I might have liked to be a bookbinder. In my fantasy, the job site is in a beautiful old library, well-lighted and smelling of books and glue. The worktables are large and the colleagues amiable. Our tools arranged conveniently, we wear white gloves and handle ancient books carefully. We are bent in concentration to our tasks.

In real life I used my jar of PVA (the magic adhesive real bookbinders do sometimes use) and added a piece of rice paper to the paperback spine. Then I glued the block of pages to the spine and covered the remnants of filament tape with a strip of binding cloth.

And while I was gluing, I had a whole series of thoughts about the careers and jobs we pick, jobs that pick us, about choices and changes.

My husband didn’t want to leave his career in Anchorage, I was the one lobbying long and hard for the move, but he has reinvented himself here, readjusting his job and making friends.

Jeremiah, his wife, and another hardworking young couple own the tiny Owl Sprit Café on the ground floor of my husband’s (two-story) office building just off Port Townsend’s main street. (The Owl Sprit is fairly new – job changes there!) The café is tiny and serves delicious local food thoughtfully prepared. It’s a comfort on a stormy winter eve and a cheerful spot for lunch.

Which is where my husband eats most days – he sits at the counter for a bowl of soup, huge salad, and conversation with the owners.

But back to the task at hand. I piled books around and on top of the little paperback, tipped on its edge so pages would adhere to spine, and I thought about my friend, the wordsmith. In the midst of a career shift herself, having already used her wordsmithing to be newspaper reporter and editor, and web site managing editor, she told me that when she was young, she didn’t realize how many more career iterations might be possible.

Gluing the book also made me think of my Port Townsend bookbinder friends – source of the PVA and binding cloth. I’m glad for their new enterprise – they sold the bindery and opened an enormously popular tavern and bottle shop, the Pourhouse, right on the water in town. People and chat all day long – the opposite of their bookbinding life.

Jeremiah’s book is repaired now – changed – different – I hope it works for him.

Fesols, Farro, and Friends

When I brought fesols de Santa Pau home from Spain, my friend who lives on the bluff took a handful and said she’d like to try and grow them. Not on the bluff, but in Mexico where she lives part of the time and tends a food garden. She planted the beans and – in the miraculous way of seeds – harvested five pounds late this summer, and brought a vacuum-packed stash home to Washington.

My friend and her husband invited us to dinner to celebrate their recent birthday trip to Tuscany, featuring bounty brought home in suitcases. (No matter our global import culture, something warms the heart about purchases from a faraway place, hand-carried to share.) On a dark October evening we walked by flashlight down our little road. In a house glowing with light and warmth, their three dogs dozed by the fire, each in its own round bed.

After bruschetta starters, our hosts served soup made with their well-travelled fesols and also farro – that ancient grain rediscovered in Italy (and here). In this Italian meal of proper courses, we next ate pasta with sauce savory with spices from Campo di Fiore Market in Rome. Then green salad (lovely and local). We drank wine from Tuscan grapes and heard stories of countryside biking and agriturismo farms. As a finale – contucci – the Tuscan name for biscotti, and vin santo.

My friend found Washington-grown farro (from Bluebird Grain Farms in Eastern Washington). It’s an ancient grain, looking a little like spelt and said to be the original grain from which all others derive. It retains a chewy texture even after soaking and cooking – a great taste to encounter in soup or salad.

Later, with the fesols my friend brought me, I made the soup like she did, using Bittman’s recipe for “Farro Soup” from “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.” In a quarter cup of olive oil, cook one large sliced onion, two chopped celery stalks, and two chopped carrots, until the onion softens. Add a tablespoon of minced garlic, a cup of farro soaked (between four and nine hours is recommended) and a cup of dried white beans soaked (I did the quick soak with boiling water). Also add a small can of undrained chopped tomatoes, and six cups of stock.

It will take at least an hour (mine took longer) for the farro and beans to be tender. Add additional stock or water if needed.

The soup is hearty – a small bowl was perfect before the pasta at the Tuscan feast, but on an ordinary winter night, a bigger bowl makes a whole meal. A little Italy in a bowl – along with fesols – this time fesols de Baja!

A Little Bit of Lucky

Renato is the owner of the villa where we stayed near Bettona, Umbria, and he also teaches at the University of Perugia in the Environmental Sciences department. I wrote to him after we returned to say than you, and asked about a painting at the villa (with signature initials the same as his). He emailed back that he did make the painting, but that he didn’t paint much lately because he was writing the text for a book of photographs about Bettona. Softening his email with a smiley face, he inquired whether I might “correct his English.”

I said sure – it was July and I was avoiding the undone book arts project. He offered to send a disc with the photo layout and a file with the Italian and English text. I didn’t know what to expect. It seems brave to write a book at all, and daunting to write in two languages. It intrigued me that he would tackle this labor of love (proceeds, if there are any, go to UNICEF).

Renato photographed Bettona from his terrace across a valley, over and over as the weather and the seasons changed. He shot at dawn and sunset, as the sky colored with lightening storms or festival fireworks. In some photos fog blankets Bettona unmooring it from its hilltop. In the text he introduces a little history and culture and, surprisingly to me, the science behind weather phenomena.

My task seemed like a really fascinating puzzle – a puzzle that mattered to somebody. Sometimes fixes were easy like making words consistent throughout – choosing British or American spellings of words like color. Other passages seemed at first impenetrable – complicated by my unfamiliarity with scientific terms and the difference between literally translated words and the way we really write and speak.

I enjoyed it when his text wandered away from science, and described the experience of making the book – “between an idea and its realization, between saying and doing, there is a distance that seems insurmountable ” or spoke of fog, “by hiding reality, fog plays the role of muse and leaves space for the imagination.”

And I loved learning more about Bettona – it was just a sleepy, shuttered walled town on the weekend we walked into it. Now I know it has preserved medieval walls on top of an ancient Etruscan foundation, a patron saint who settled there in the early days of Christianity, and a contemporary Goose Festival.

A favorite phrase came in an email when we’d finished most everything. Renato wrote that to get a photo of Bettona in snow, he needed to wait for winter because snow didn’t fall in Bettona last year. He said, this year “I need a little bit of lucky!”

That’s wrong for proper English – but a keeper!

Biscotti and a Break for the Blog

Biscotti used to seem just those rock-hard objects in big plastic containers at coffee stands until I made some. Now I think of them as packed full of almonds and eggs – and as part of hospitality.

Wanting to make anything in Jack Bishop’s “The Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook,” I tackled biscotti. Bishop says toast a cup of almonds at 350° till they are fragrant (about eight minutes). Let the almonds cool and then chop roughly. Leave the oven on.

In a large bowl and using a whisk, combine two cups of flour, one cup of sugar, one-half teaspoon baking powder, and a pinch of salt.

Beat with a fork two eggs, two egg yolks, and a teaspoon of vanilla.

Pour over the flour mixture and combine. Then knead the dough (Bishop says till smooth – mine was really sticky – so sticky that I had one of those moments of questioning whether I added two cups of flour?) Knead the chopped almonds into the dough.

Eventually I could turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and divide it in two – (it wants to stick to the counter – so the flour helps).

I shaped each piece into a long flat object – aiming for about three inches wide by 12 inches (mine was pretty rustic). Place on an oiled and floured, large baking sheet about four inches apart. Brush with the last egg – beaten.

Bake about 35 minutes, till “firm to the touch and lightly browned on top” – they looked beautiful.

Biscotti means “twice baked” in Italian – so after cutting one-inch wide diagonal pieces (do it while hot and hold on with a tea towel or oven mitt), put them back on the baking sheet. Then bake about ten more minutes. They’ll be crisp.

Frances Mayes tells tales of vin santo – each family’s special wine served to guests, often with biscotti (the crispness dunks perfectly). I like the idea of having biscotti sealed in an airtight container to offer with drinks of all kinds.

Italy was all inspiration for me – to paint, to cook, to live life most fully. And here is August. It’s our time to be warm, enjoy the garden and the woods and the mountains. Guests are coming, and there’s work to catch up in between. So a late-summer break is in order for “Her spirits rose…”

But I’ll be back – and I hope you will be, too! Arrivederci – buon divertimento!

St. Francis Joins the Creatures on the Bluff

In depictions of the Annunciation and the Madonna, artists make something their own – pictures distinguished by infants who look like old men, staring straight ahead sadly or like rounded cherubs with curls, angels who speak golden words or hover on high, and Marys in robes humble or regal.

Embellished with gold paint, “Our Lady of the Sunset” by Lorenzetti in the Assisi Basilica used to shine when the setting sun came in a narrow window. This Madonna and baby really engage, they look into one another’s eyes and Mary answers her child’s question with a thumb pointed toward St. Francis.

In Italy I thought I might find a likeness of St. Francis for our garden. Instead we found it in Port Townsend on Water Street! And now he stands between the cosmos that attracts big yellow swallowtail butterflies and the half barrel holding a quince (the chipmunk’s hiding spot). Here St. Francis is surrounded by the natural world he writes of in “The Canticle of the Creatures” – plenty of animals, “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon,” with “air and clouds, clear sky and every sort of weather” to sustain them.

My favorite Madonna scene in Italy was a startlingly white goat with her tiny kid in a grassy green pasture. Separated from the more unkempt flock – they lay bright in the sun so peacefully together.

Here I watch the new fawns with their mothers – snacking on clover, then stretching sidewise on the lawn in the shade looking at the house (remembering how good those petunias and geraniums tasted – eaten right off the front porch).

The other day a fawn bolted in that two-legs-together-leaping run away from the driveway toward the bluff side of the house, frightened by a car. The car drove on, and I heard a repeated mewling noise – like a gull or maybe a kitten – that plaintive sound of confusion and fear. Recovering, it reunited by retracing steps to where it had been following its mother when the car came around the drive.

I am surprised by the pleasure I take in these symbols like Madonna and St. Francis, but something Vernon Lee wrote about her visit to a humble church in Rome rings true. She finds the scene transformed by music and ritual and she speculates: “Is it possible that of religious things only the aesthetic side is vital, universal, is what gives or seems to give a meaning, deludes us into a belief in some spirituality? Sometimes one suspects as much: that the unifying element is not so much religion, as, after all, art.”

In Assisi artists interpret the canticle of St. Francis with drawings and paint tiles with the words pace e bene or pax et bonum. St. Francis and the pagan Green Man in the garden together – peace and good.

Verdure per la Signora

When we first moved here to Washington, I told my old friend that I wanted to learn to cook delicious vegetables (kale and chard I had in mind) without referring to a recipe (she certainly could). Italy inspired me more toward that goal.

At first I ordered pasta – and then noticed the meat-eaters with giant beefsteaks had sides of interesting vegetables. I discovered these sides to be perfect for me when combined with roasted potatoes – another menu staple – and an insalata mista of course.

Once I ordered a gratin – eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini, onions, maybe fennel (roasted fennel was often included). I think it was my favorite meal – but hard to say. Night after night I had beautiful plates of cooked vegetables, another favorite held roasted eggplant, red and yellow peppers, endive, green beans and a little pile of greens – maybe sorrel.

By the time I ordered faglioli al fiasco (beans cooked in a flask!) and verdure bolitte (boiled vegetables), my trust in and desire for Italian vegetables had grown so extreme that I didn’t care how the menu listed the preparation – grilled, baked, roasted, boiled – the vegetables were always flavorful and good (and faglioli an extra treat).

People in Tuscany (and Umbria – and most of my family) like meat when they dine out, so when the waiter brought my beans and boiled vegetables meal, he looked puzzled and glanced for guidance at the waiter who took our order. He rolled his eyes and indicated la signora with a shrug of his shoulders.

I loved the variety in those inspiring gatherings of vegetables. We have beautiful vegetables in Washington – and I’ve been trying to cook them without a lot of fuss or stalling. Turnip greens or chard, so fresh and huge, they won’t fit in the fridge? Grab an onion and the olive oil – and cook!

Summer – molte verdure – happy!

Poets Make Places

A vacation allows me to throw away all my usual rules about reading – no novels in the daytime being the most affected. On our long airplane flight to Italy, I began “Niccolò Rising” – the first novel in Dorothy Dunnett’s series “The House of Niccolò.” (Long ago I read Dunnett’s other big series – “The Lymond Chronicles” – delicious historical novels.)

Flying toward 21st century Europe, I walked the streets, adventured with characters from the 15th. When we arrived, the imaginary world in my head was in perfect step. I pictured tiny streets and squares filled with festivals and people of yore, and looked past tourists in tank tops standing by Roman gates to see Niccolò in velvet breeches. Dunnett’s tale is of a young man – a little rascal and a lot goodhearted – rising from poverty in Bruges as part of the new merchant class, and of women smart and brave.

Before I left home I read Frances Mayes’s, “Everyday in Tuscany,” and learned about Vernon Lee. I ended up reading only “Niccolò” at night, on trains, or one happy morning at the villa, but I took Lee’s book “The Spirit of Rome” on my iPad. These home weeks I’ve been loving her book (written in 1898, it’s available in reprinted editions and free on any electronic book).

Lee writes about the Italy of the century before last, in the throes of unification when much construction revealed historical underpinnings – buildings and ruins so accessible to Lee’s wanderings. Reading the book, I’m forever turning to Wikipedia to comprehend her references, but I understand when she says: “Poets really make places.”

Mayes must like that statement. In her first book she wrote about buying an abandoned Tuscan farmhouse, Bramasole. Mayes’s recent books are travel writing, love songs to Italy – about food and sights and her life in Cortona. (They would make great travel guides.)

Back home I read “Bella Tuscany” where Mayes asks rhetorically, what depletes and what replenishes. “What wrings you out and truly, what rinses you with happiness?” She answers: “What comes from my own labor and creativity, regardless of what anyone else thinks of it, stays close to the natural joy we all were born with and carry always.”

A reminder that energizes for all sorts of work – cooking, the garden – a poem.