Autumn in Italy: Every Day a Slow Day

April in Paris, sure, I’ll go.  But autumn is the best time to see Italy.


No crowds, no sweltering heat, and no mosquitoes!  My sister Constance and I rented a little Fiat at Fiumicino in Rome…

…and drove straight to Orvieto, one of the ancient hilltop towns they call “Cittaslow,” or a ‘Slow City.’   Cittaslow status is open only to towns with a population under 50,ooo.  These towns are committed to restricting modernization.  They resist homogenization and globalization in Italy (and around the world), and promote cultural diversity and the uniqueness of individual cities.  The pace of every day urban life is slowed by restricting traffic flow and saving open space for local markets, not parking lots.

Slow Cities fiercely protect their environment.  They market local produce…

…and maintain their own traditions.

Orvieto is situated dramatically on a 300 foot high volcanic plateau.

Originally Etruscan, it was conquered by Rome in the 3rd century B.C.   (Fun fact: the word ‘Tuscany’ is a derivative of ‘Etruscan.’)  Like the ancient Egyptians, the Etruscans believed in a life after death, and were obsessed with death and burial.  Vast cemeteries–cities for the dead–were often carved into cliffs at the foot of Etruscan cities.  Orvieto looked down upon this one.

On top of the plateau, at the heart of Orvieto, stands a cathedral begun in the year 1290.  The facade is impressive.  It has all the extras…

…and even comes with black and white sidewalls.

In neighboring Todi, also a Slow City…

…they tell a story demonstrating the intense rivalry between Italian city-states.  In 1291, a year after Orvieto’s cathedral was begun, Todi broke ground for San Fortunato, a cathedral they claimed would be even more impressive than Orvieto’s.  Todi hired the same sculptor, Lorenzo Maitani, to create a new cathedral with as beautiful a facade as he had created for the cathedral in Orvieto.  Not to be bested by their rival, Orvieto authorities prevented this by having Lorenzo murdered.  Italy is a land of many stories, with such a colorful and passionate history!

My sister Constance is an artist, and was there to paint…

 

…but  I went to research a novel set in Italy.  Even for autumn, it was unseasonably cold…

and wet…

But we didn’t mind.

We made day trips to surrounding villages.  We drove past beautiful scenery, including Lake Bolsena.

…and were lucky enough to stumble upon Pitigliano, my favorite little village in Italy.

The surrounding landscape is dramatic, with a network of ancient ‘sunken roads’ carved by the Etruscans into the soft volcanic rock.

Some extend for half a mile, with walls as high as thirty meters on both sides.  Their purpose is a mystery.  Perhaps for defense, but more likely a pathway for funeral processions leading to the necropolis where tombs were carved into the tunnel walls.

What I loved about Pitigliano had nothing to do with funerals and death, and everything to do with survival.

We also visited Civita di Bagnoregio, built 2,500 years ago by the Etruscans.

Civita di Bagnoregio is accessible only by this narrow bridge–no motor traffic allowed.  In bygone days, goods were packed in by donkey, but now they are delivered by motorized vehicles small enough to cross the bridge.  If you go in autumn, beware of strong sidewinds!

Today, the population varies from 12 in winter to 100 in summer.  It was incredibly charming.  We passed a middle-aged man in knee britches and vest.  Con said, “Is he for real?”  I said, “Only if his name is Geppetto.”  We saw more quaintly dressed people, and wondered if we’d walked through a gateway into the past.  I asked a woman in an old-fashioned dress, who kindly told me, “Chee-nee-mah! Pee-noh-chee-o!”  They were filming Pinocchio, and we might really have seen Geppetto!  I pointed to her costume and said, “Bella!  May I photograph you?”  “Si!” she said.  After posing for a picture, she led me back to where the film crew and cast were preparing to film the next scene.  “It’s okay to be here?” I asked.  “Si, si!” she said, obviously proud of her role in the production.  When we parted, I said, “Molte grazie!”  She lifted my hand  and pressed it to her cheek, then released it to blow me a little kiss.  I found the gesture very moving, and I know exactly where in my novel I will use it.  It’s the sort of souvenir you don’t find in a tourist trap.   And it’s the kind of research you just can’t look up in a book.

All images and words copyright 2012 Naomi Baltuck

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Travel Theme: Italy.

One Village

In my travels I prefer a village setting to a big city, and will bypass London for thatched roof country, or head straight out of Rome to explore the ancient villages of Umbria , Tuscany or Ligurnia.  All over the world, they are so different.

On the little island of Aeroskobing in Denmark…

…or above the clouds high up in the mountains of Switzerland.

At sea level in Iceland…

….or at the foot of a Norman castle in Ireland.

In the shadow of Cesky Krumlov Castle in the Czech Republic…

…or on the shore of a fjiord in Norway.

Beneath an ancient Roman aquaduct in Spain…

…or on a little cobbled street in Dorset.

Each has its own unique story and history…

Tastes…

 

Traditions…

Colors

And characters…

All so different and yet so familiar.

Almost like family.

Copyright 2012 Naomi Baltuck

Survival Stories

 

While exploring Etruscan tombs in Tuscany, my sister Constance and I stumbled upon the ancient hilltop town of Pitigliano.

 

We saw many other lovely towns…

…and picturesque villages.

But I loved this place like nowhere else in Italy.  Its story was the key to my heart.  Pitigliano had provided a rare refuge for Jews driven from Spain during the Inquisition. After the Pope and the Medicis forced Pitigliano’s Jews into the ghetto in 1600, they still accounted for twenty percent of the population.  After the war and the Holocaust, a small handful returned to care for the synagogue and to tell the story.

How small?” I asked a local. She shrugged. “Maybe five.”

The Jewish bakery was closed for the Sabbath, and the synagogue was closed because there weren’t enough Jews for a minyan.

But a shop sold matzoh and a confection called Sfratto, the Italian word for eviction.  Sfratto has a filling of honey, walnuts, and oranges, baked into a smooth-crusted loaf shaped like a police baton.   It was invented by the Jews of Pitigliano to commemorate their eviction from their homes and into the ghetto by officers using sticks to beat on their doors.  Four hundred years later, they’re still telling the story, and we’re still eating it up.

In a narrow alley across from the synagogue, I shivered to hear the haunting strains of a lone Klezmer violin drifting down from a second story window.  At first I thought it was a recording, until the music trailed off.  It had to have been played by human, or perhaps ghostly hands.

 

 

Nearby was a doorstep decked with flowers as colorful as the town’s history.  Two cats curled up in a big flowerpot, one cat a black and white mix, the other all black, but I was an English major, and I saw them as symbols of the concrete world of black and white, living in harmony with the fluid world of shadow and story.  The scene was framed by dark medieval walls backlit by the sunny valley, while the valley was alive with vineyards and olive trees…

…yet riddled with ancient tombs.


The paradox seemed to capture the essence of Pitigliano, and of all Italy.  But before I could capture it on film, the cats bolted, and I lost the moment.  Or so I thought.  That night in our apartment in Orvieto, Constance painted…

…while I wrote about Pitigliano.  I loved it for its unique history, for providing refuge when so few others would, for its tiny but stalwart population of Jews determined to protect a precious legacy, for the stories and ghosts that linger in every back alley.

Then Constance showed me her painting.  Alive with color, it conjured the fragrance of honey and walnut, the haunting strains of a lone violin. And there were my cats, just as I remembered them, a perfect balance of black and white, and shadow.

It was reassuring.  In arts or in letters, by word of mouth, or in the guise of a Jewish confection, so long as there is someone left to tell it and someone willing to listen, the story will survive.

All words and images copyright Naomi Baltuck