{Italy – Part I}

2 days into our Italian leg, and I am falling in love with my second home.

But let me be specific. Arriving in Ancona from the ferry, we headed straight for our first cultural assignment. As the kids have studied St. Francis of Assisi at school, it was lovely for them to actually visit the town and his tomb. Timon could in fact even recite some of the stories of St. Francis. They were a bit hazy on the century, but we made it a bit of a reconnaissance trip for them and they came back with the necessary facts and figures. History, tick.

The picturesque town on the hill, dominated by the most beautiful church is well worth the visit. The streets are lined with souvenir shops, all selling exactly the same…variations of the cross, statues of saints and commemorative plaques. We spent the night on a Camperstop at the bottom of town and left early the next morning to do our big stock up shop. I am only mentioning that because  the other reason why I am loving being in Italy is the food shopping. I have discovered that some countries provide a more rewarding shopping experience…loving Italian food obviously helps. Rows of different types of prosciutto ‘crudo’ and ‘cotto’ (prosciutto and ham), Mozarella in all its variations (fio di latte, buffala and burrata), Stacchino, trays of freshly baked focaccia and pizza, divine pastries, beautiful fruit an veg and of course cheap Campari. So yes, we did stock up and I am newly inspired to cook in the van….

From Assisi we have made our way towards Morlupo, 30k out of Rome. We are meeting our dear friend Giulia, who lives in Sydney, but happens to be back at her mums for 3 weeks.

Her mum is a wonderful cook and as we were talking about the dishes the kids enjoy, I mentioned Gian’s Gnocchi infatuation. At that she told us that, in a trattoria, you only order Gnocchi on a Thursday?!? Which brought on a conversation about food traditions, customs and history (it seems every conversation in Italy somehow ends with history and food). And so here is the explanation….which refers to what people used to cook at home and now what one would typically find on Restaurant specials…which is of course region specific…

  • Monday : A simple broth after a weekend of festive eating.
  • Tuesday : Fish
  • Wednesday: Pasta e Fagioli/boiled meat/liver
  • Thursday: Gnocchi
  • Friday: Fish
  • Saturday: Tripe
  • Sunday: Roast

There is a long history behind these traditions and it is lovely to discover these things in a country so rich in history. And particularly when they are food related. This would also make menu planning so much easier…

 

 

With Morlupo as our base, we headed into Rome. The Colosseum was on Timon’s bucket list, but no visit to Europe or Italy would be complete without a visit to the capital and epicentre of the Roman Empire. One can only scratch at the surface of this incredible city and it would probably take a lifetime to grasp the magnitude and depth of history present in todays Rome. Layer upon layer of history, memories stored in every cobblestone, wall or monument, above and underground. Cesar, Nero and Domitian (not necessarily in that order…) walked these streets along with peoples from all the reaches of the Empire. I imagine Africans, Egyptians, Spaniards….all in Rome as traders, slaves and merchants. Ruins, temples under churches, statues and monuments all hold the stories while we wander the streets in awe, barely comprehending. The Colosseum was imposing, the Forum magnificent and the streets of Rome, with its people, shops and restaurants so alive and vibrant. We love Italian street food so much, we could spend the day hopping from bar to bakery eating ‘ciambelle, pizzette, focaccia and suppli’. Then there is the apperitivi (hello spritz campari), the primi, secondi and contorni…..Italy, it seems is food first, history second. We are not complaining…

Anyway, while we were waiting for our friend Dougal to arrive from Australia, to accompany a Stefano Di Pieri tour, we headed to Napoli. While I was adamant that I would not go further south than Rome, it somehow seemed absurd to not go to a city with such a reputation…We were told it was a most beautiful city, simply ‘bellissima’. So we headed down south.  As the saying goes, Italy stops at Rome (or wherever you happen to be) and the people south of the divide have a reputation and are mocked… There is an invisible divide that separates Italy between north and south.

Approaching Naples we found a freeway littered with piles of rubbish, overgrown hedges that cover the street signs, rundown buildings. Driving through the suburbs towards our Camperstop, we did feel a bit nervous…what were we thinking, driving a Campervan to Naples?!?! Piers was regretting the decision and hatching elaborate plans to hide all our valuables…Hitting peak hour traffic did not help…

But alas, the Camperstop looked reasonably save though nestled in a shabby, rundown, backstreet…. Everything seems to be rundown in Naples….kind of reminiscent of SE Asia with crumbling houses, piles of rubbish bags piled in corners, pre-wartime workshops. But amongst all of that chaos, there is a rough gem. Undeniably, a city full of streetwise spunk, charisma and again, layers of history. Napoli or Neapolis (Greek for new city) was first a Greek city, then Roman. And again, we are witness to this history in every corner of the city, above and underground. While some admire cathedrals and imposing monuments (there are plenty of those in Napoli), we loved the ‘centro storico’ with its narrow alleys and washing hanging form the windows, cafes and street food stalls and a crazy mix of tourists and locals mingling in the noisy streets.

Naples is heaven for street food. Obviously home to the best pizza in the world, along with fried pizza, sweet treats like Cannoli and sfogliatelle were on our list of must-try.We only got a little glimpse of Naples, enough to make me wish we could venture further south still. But we had to head back to Rome for our own little Roman tour with our Art Historian friend Dougal.

We met with Dougal also in Orvieto, a couple of hours north of Rome for a tour of the Duomo. Dougal did his PhD on the frescoes in the Cathedral of Orvieto and lived in this gorgeous little town for several years, so it was great to look at those 14th century frescoes and actually understand the story behind the pictures.

After Orvieto, we slowly drove around the most stunning landscape and town I have ever seen. Tuscany in autumn is magical, with the golden yellow hues of the towns and grey-green of the olive trees and vineyards. We visited Montepulciano, Montalcino, Greve in Chianti and Volterra….

In Florence we met up with our friend Edoardo who stayed with us in Melbourne over 10 years ago. And while Piers chased yet more motor heads, the kids and I did a quick tour of Florence. By that time the kids were a bit over cities and culture, well and truly ready for some chill out time in the bush as they say.

So via Pisa, we are heading toward the beach and Cinqueterre…

 

Until then,

Alex

 

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