Un Lieto Fine – Roma

In Rome, the Val d’Orcia heat persisted as we joined other tourists near famous sites: an impenetrable cluster around the Coliseum, mobs being shushed in the Pantheon, people packed around the Trevi Fountain. But the eternal sites are still rewarding.

One day we all rode the Hop-On Hop-Off sightseeing bus, and Lady Baby and her family pedaled around the Borghese Gardens in a “surrey” – a family bike. Another day they took a tour of the Coliseum geared to children, while Baby Brother sat happily on a comforter on our apartment’s tile floor. He played with his traveling toys, empty boxes, plastic bottles, and utensils scavenged from the kitchen. The day her parents toured the Borghese Gallery, Lady Baby learned the rudiments of chess from her Uncle Tu Tu and dissolved into private laughter with her cousin.

The Testaccio neighborhood might be the place to stay in Rome – quiet streets, few tourists, lots of interesting food, and a fine playground. On an early morning run, Mr. Carson discovered Testaccio’s Nuovo Mercato, and led us back later. Mrs. Hughes and I sifted through piles of riches in a stall selling vintage linens – white cotton tablecloths and pillowcases embroidered with images of teacups or countryside flowers, with and without lace – deciding who would like what.

Trips usually include the unexpected – but countless warnings predicted our first pickpocket experience: at the Barberini metro station, crazy busy on a Sunday evening, two girls oddly pressing close as we boarded the Metro, then Poppa Jim discovering an empty front pocket.

And that mishap led to another new experience – filing a police report in Rome (not in hopes of recovery, but perhaps insurance). We learned the appropriate agency was not the carabinieri but the polizia – where we were initially turned away from the station, told to sit on the curb and wait, and then finally admitted. A helpful officer took our information, covered a copy of her report with official stamps, and remarked: “You don’t expect us to do anything about this, do you?”

We retreated to Eataly, the enormous Italian food emporium where you can sit at one restaurant, gather food from any other, and eat together. Sweet Baby’s parents bought us dinner and groceries, and we called the credit card companies.

On our last day we set out early, stopped at a nearby “bio-café” for chocolate croissants, then followed the Trail Boss to the quiet neighborhood of Trastevere and the beautiful, 16th Century Villa Farnasina – few other visitors, windows open to the gardens, and walls covered with frescos by masters like Raphael.

The next morning we awakened at five a.m. to help the Alaskans depart for home. As the taxi waited in the early darkness, a sleepy Lady Baby stood still for a hug from each of us, then grabbed her mom and cried. So me too. The rest of us left Rome a few hours later.

It was such a privilege to be with all of these people I love for this long adventure – I am very grateful.

 

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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.

A Walk In The Val d’Orcia – Part I

Arriving in Montalcino, a small and walled hill town, famous for Brunello wine, we piled out of the van into midday heat and were led down a little street to our apartments in an old building (angled walls, wide wooden floorboards, and high ceilings). Later in the afternoon, we climbed to the ramparts of the fortezza for stunning views, walked part way around the town walls and up to the Duomo, and had a cheerful dinner on the edge of the town square. Under our windows that night, cars roared and accelerated up the narrow streets, noise amplified by stone buildings.

So the next morning a sleep-deprived group set off for our first day of walking – 11 kilometers to Castelnuovo del’Abate – up, along a ridge, and then down, often through forest on a rough track littered with stones slippery underfoot. The heat was a dehydrating bludgeon. (At some point on this journey, Mrs. Hughes allowed as how “choosing to be uncomfortable on a trip” was a Gilmore thing. Some truth to that.)

At first, kicking a soccer ball with the little travelers on the strade bianche and lots of snacks helped us along. But soon Mr. Carson loaded Baby Brother in the Ergo on his front, Lady Baby into the backpack, and then ferried his sleepy children the rest of the way! We carried so much water, but bottles nearly emptied by lunch where we stopped in the churchyard of a tiny hamlet. A passing resident led us to a spigot.

Exhausted, we arrived at the base of Castelnuovo del Abate at a guesthouse with kind owners. While the girls ran about the courtyard (using stored energy), dinner revived us, and we talked about the next day. An ominous warning in the route booklet: “please note this is probably the most demanding leg of your walk” – led Mr. Carson to offer to ride with the baggage and his children. Then we all decided to ride, except Mr. Carson who opted to run.

Always in Italy, comfort and delicious food can mitigate much self-inflicted hardship. In San Quirico d’Orcia, we found the Tuscan hotel you dream about – Palazzo del Capitano – with cool, spacious rooms and a beautiful garden fragrant with rosemary, lavender, and jasmine. Near the town square we ate the best chickpea soup ever, followed by vegan pistachio gelato! Soon enough Mr. Carson appeared, dusty but happy, confirming that the route would be brutal and relentless as a walk – all down, all up, and all hot.

The next day, nine kilometers to Pienza, followed stretches of the Via Francigena – for hundreds of years a major route from Rome to the north, and now small gravel and dirt lanes. The floor of the Val d’Orcia is a series of steep, short, ups and downs over clay hills, the roadsides ablaze with red poppies and yellow broom smelling like sweet peas and jasmine.

Every once in a while someone would exclaim, “ooh!,” – a reminder to look up at Monte Amiata in the distance, scattered cypress near farmhouses perched on hills, and wheat fields – all orderly, all beautiful. Occasional cars passed – stirring up clouds of white dust until they saw us (crazy Americans, the Italians must think). The topo map would indicate a little patch of trees near a stream, but we’d find a dry dent and scrub shrubs.

At lunchtime, we deviated off the road to an empty farmhouse and a tiny chapel “dedicated to the Madonna di Vitaleta – the suckling Madonna.” Because our group included one so honored, we excused our probable trespass, and gratefully ate in the shade of a lollypop-shaped tree.

And this leg Lady Baby walked almost the whole way, with only occasional lifts from one of her parents. She speculated about an abandoned farmhouse with an outer staircase intact but no wooden floors, an echoing empty well, and a stone outbuilding with a large oven. Toward the end of the day, water bottles reduced to hot dregs, we stopped at the 10th Century parish church of Corsignano, once the center of paths and roads on the Via Francigena, with a spooky crypt to explore and a fountain outside for thirsty pellegrinos.

Up a little road, walls looming on either side, to the square by the gate into Pienza. All the hilltop towns amaze, but Pienza is perfecto!

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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.

 

 

 

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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.

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The Neapolitan Novels of Elena Ferrante

One day, half listening to New Yorker “Out Loud” podcasts while doing something else, I heard Sasha Weiss, literary editor of newyorker.com, say that she adored “these books,” and always tried to tell people about them.

Speaking on the podcast with the translator Ann Goldstein and the writer, D.T. Max, Weiss referred to Italian writer Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novel cycle: “My Brilliant Friend,” “The Story of a New Name,” and “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay.” Utterly fascinated with the novels, these three on the podcast struggled to describe the books – sometimes disagreeing (speculation abounds about the reclusive Ferrante’s gender – neither Goldstein nor Weiss, nor I, think she could be a man), but always agreeing on the vividness and power of Ferrante’s writing.

The novels trace the lives of two girls, Elena the narrator, and her friend Lila. The first book begins with a prologue set in the present when Lila is 66 and gone missing, but quickly shifts to the beginnings of this lifelong friendship in a hardscrabble, colorful, angry, and loving Naples neighborhood.

And now I am in the same spot as the podcast people! Wanting to say – read these stunning books, full of so much detail and life, an infectious, propelling read, unputdownable. Not just a coming of age story, but a described world to live in as the decades go by. I hurtled through the books’ pages and years, through the political turbulence of the 1960s and 70s, the evolving relationships of men and women, and above all absorbing this singular yet universal friendship.

For some, the novels parallel one’s own experiences (though plenty of men and younger women adore these books as well). And maybe this is the part Weiss grappled with, how to describe the glimpses, moments, of yourself and your friends found in both Elena and Lila. You keep reading for more, another scene or description, life with small children, the violence of a sausage factory, and sustaining moments of creativity.

The sole man on the podcast thought the narrator was full of self-loathing, but both women (and this reader) strongly disagree. Ferrante captures that way we often think and talk to ourselves, sometimes with ruthless honesty, other times with ebullient hope. And anger – anger can be fierce here – and Ferrante wields a master storyteller’s use of suspense.

Preparing myself to bid farewell to Elena and Lila, I felt such relief at the end of book three to realize there is another volume forthcoming. It’s scary to think I might have missed these books. I read on my Kindle – unaware of length – and at the end, wanted to order the “real” books to read again.

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