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.

peace

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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

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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.

Panforte

Panforte

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.     

Siena

 

 

Weather

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.