Village Italy Tour

Day 5 Wednesday May 18, 2005
Montone, San Feliciano, Cortona

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I woke up at about 5, which gave me about an hour to myself. My back and hip felt a lot better. I felt so good that I went into the bathroom, sat down on the floor, propped my laptop up on the stool, and worked on my journal for an hour. When I got up about an hour later, my hip hurt so much that I could hardly stand it. I shaved, took a shower, and got dressed. All three activities were extremely difficult in my condition. Stretching did not help much. I began to despair of ever getting over this. I lay down for a few minutes before breakfast while Sue was getting dressed. When I got up, the sharp pain seemed to be gone, but the nagging part was still there.

Breakfast at the locanda was quite good – cereal, bread (soft but very crusty), two juices, coffee, and fruit. I had two helpings of cereal. Tom and Patti almost slept through breakfast.

Umbrian landscape.

Typical Umbrian hill town.

Plan A was to go on a truffle hunt in the morning and eat lunch together somewhere. It was still raining, so we had to shift to plan B, which was to visit a “frantoio” in a small town called San Feliciano, which was about an hour from Montone. Then we planned to visit the Tuscan hill town of Cortona. The change of plans was the source of a little grumbling from the folks from Washington and Oregon, the residents of which have long since discovered that they do not melt when subjected to a little rain.

San Feliciano was right on the shore of Lake Trasimeno, which Nina told us was the fourth-largest lake in Italy. The three larger ones were all north of Milan. Lake Trasimeno was quite shallow. The mysterious grass/weed that grows in this lake provided the vegetables in our first supper. No one seemed to know what it was called.

Nina explained the history of this area. In the second Punic War Hannibal had surprised the Romans here and killed tens of thousands of them. However, my recollection was that the Romans under someone called Cunctator managed to delay his advance, and eventually the Carthaginians had been forced to surrender. The third Punic War was the swan song for Carthage.

Wayne and Jan at the olive oil tasting. Graziella is on the other side of the table.

There wasn't much to see at the frantoio. The olive harvest would not begin until September or October. Mostly we listened to a verbal presentation by the employee Michele (whom I could hardly understand at all) and the owner Graziella (whom I could understand almost perfectly) and translated by Nina. They explained that the olives come in from the farmers of the area. They put them through their machines and get extra-virgin (very low acidity) olive oil. They produced 9-17 liters of oil from 100 kilos of olives. In other frantoios the scraps were also used to make olive oil “di Sanza.”

The people in the group had lots of questions for Graziella, who along with her brother was the proprietor of the place. I didn’t. My back and hip were really bothering me. There was no place to sit down. I just wanted to get back to the bus and stretch out. Frankly I would have preferred a brochure to this presentation. None of the equipment was ever demonstrated. I must admit that many people in the group thought that the olive oil, which we got to sample on pieces of bread, was outstanding.

The drive from San Feliciano to Cortona was pretty scenic. Sue filmed much of it. I was too busy trying to stretch my leg to alleviate the pain. It didn't work. By the time that we got to Cortona I was in agony. To make it worse, it was raining, and I had stupidly neglected to bring my poncho.

Looking down a steep walkway in Cortona slick with the freshly fallen rain.

The movie trucks parked in the piazza.

On the way to the central piazza of Cortona we had to walk through the shooting of a movie. According to Nina it was about a famous Italian cyclist of the 20’s or 30’s. The cast was dressed in period costumes. Fortunately there was a break in the shooting because of the drizzle, so we were able to get past them.

After the short orientation walk we were on our own. Patti and Sue went off on separate paths. Sue squirreled herself away somewhere to write postcards. I had no plans to worry about postcards. On the last trip I mailed postcards the first day we were in Italy. They arrived in the U.S. several weeks after we did.

A lazy cat and a brave pigeon.

Patti, of course, went shopping. I went with Tom. I told him that I did not care where we went, but I needed to get some ibuprofen at the “farmacia” first. I stopped at the tabacchi and asked directions. I found the green cross indicating the pharmacy and executed my purchase. I had done exactly this in Rome two years ago, but in that case the ibuprofen was on a shelf. Here I had to ask the pharmacist for it.

A cemetery outside of Cortona.

We looked around for a place to buy a water bottle, but we couldn’t find one, so I swallowed the pills dry. Tom wanted to hike around town. I wasn’t certain whether I could keep up. However, as we walked uphill I actually felt much better. Either the ibuprofen was strikingly effective, or the effect of the malocchio was wearing off.

Some vehicles used in the movie.

Tom left to find a restroom. Meanwhile I explored a piazza in which were parked some vintage cars and a motorcycle, evidently for the movie being shot there. I then took some photos of the surrounding countryside. Bob walked up and asked me if I knew what the area a few hundred yards in the distance was. I pleaded ignorance. By the time that Tom returned Bob had moved on. Tom immediately speculated that it could be a cemetery. After he said it, it seemed obvious to me. We saw Bob a few minutes later and let him know.

I tried to read the map to direct us to the Fortezza de’ Medici, but I got turned around and we ended up back where we started. We walked around town a little more. Tom searched for Patti and Sue, but he could not find them. Nina told us that the meeting place for the return to Montone had been changed from the bus by the gate to the centrally located Piazza Del Popolo.

The fortezza.

Built right into the bedrock.

We set out again for the fort. This time Tom navigated, and I consulted. This method worked much better. The rain had temporarily stopped, and it began to get hot. We passed a restroom. It was filthy, but I took a leak there anyway. I took off my nylon pants and deposited them in my backpack, and Tom unzipped his “transformer” pants to turn them into shorts. We saw Mario’s bus in the parking lot near the Santa Margherita church. Just uphill from there was the fort. We climbed up to it without much difficulty, but the two young people who evidently were running it said that it was closed but that they would be back in 10 or 15 minutes. We took some pictures. Tom got restless, so we went back down to the town. I found the walk back much more treacherous than the climb up. The cobblestones were slick with the rain, and it was difficult to descend such steep terrain.

The valley and the lake from the fortezza.

Mario’s bus parked in front of Santa Margherita.

Tom begins the long trek down.


Back in the center of town we stopped at a gelateria named La Posta. Tom got a coppa. From the cooler I selected a Diet Coke, which is for some reason called Coca Cola Light in Europe. Tom discovered Patti and Sue right after we finished eating and drinking. The three of them went off together. I am not sure what they did. I went exploring on my own. I was looking for place to buy a book. I couldn't find one. Instead I decided to eat a piadina, which is a typical food of Emilia Romagna. It was like a burrito, but not closed. Mine was stuffed with cooked prosciutto. It was pretty good. I ate it on the steps of the church bordering the piazza.

I met back up with the other three New Englanders. Tom showed great interest in the local pub, but it was not open.

Our first wine-tasting.

Patti, Nina, and Sue.

At the assembly in the piazza Nina made a surprise announcement. We were going to have a wine tasting at a place nearly adjacent to the pub that Tom had discovered. It was called Taverna Pane e Vino. Thank goodness that I had decided to get something to eat! There were three types of wine – Chianti Classico, Rosso di Montalcino, and Vino Nobile di Montone. The Chianti was supposed to be the cheap stuff, but I liked it a little better than the two richer wines. We also got as much cheese (pecorino of three different ages) as we wanted. It should be noted that this was not wine sipping. It was full-fledged wine drinking. At the end Nina was almost force-feeding the wine down our throats.

Everyone seemed to have a great time at the wine-tasting, and nearly everyone was at least a little tipsy.

A fortress from a rainy bus window.

Ominous Umbrian skies.

After the bus ride back to the hotel in Montone, we had an hour or two of free time. I took a shower and then walked to the Piazza Braccioforte, named after the mercenary who was the legendary town hero. The tiny newsstand there had a very large number of newspapers, magazines, and books, especially comic books and the illustrated books that are halfway between books and comic books. However, I did not find anything that I really wanted to read. I almost bought a magazine, Oggi, but I decided against it.

I determined in retrospect that I may have committed a breach of etiquette by entering the newsstand. You are supposed to greet the owner and maybe even ask permission to enter. No one was in the store when I arrived, but the door was open so I went inside. I think that the edicolante was next door talking to another shopkeeper.

I had to use the hair dryer in the bathroom to get a pair of socks suitable to wear to supper.

I got a big surprise at the dinner table. Nina and Mario were the last to enter, and the remaining two chairs were not together. Nina sat Mario down in the one next to me and told me that it was my job keep him entertained. Mario spoke practically no English. Having imbibed more than a few glasses of wine, I was a little anxious at my ability to perform this charge. It was sort of like dragging a grad student out of a bar and telling him it was time for his orals.

Almost immediately someone pulled out a review of the hotel and restaurant in Gourmet magazine and asked me to translate it for Mario. The vocabulary in the article was challenging, and I did not have my dictionary with me. For example I had to describe a banister as the thing on a staircase on which you put your hand. However, I managed to muddle through.

I also muddled through the dinner conversation. The rest of the diners at the table consisted of Claudia, Bob, Wayne and Pat, and Ed and Ruth Mazur. Claudia had quite a few questions for Mario. He told us that he was from Piemonte, which we call Piedmont in English. He said that the big cities of Piemonte were Cuneo (KOO nay oh), which was close to his home, and Turin. I told him that I knew that Camillo Benso di Cavour was from Piemonte. I also knew that Juventus was based in Turin. We talked a little about how different Italian politics was from American politics, since the U.S. has only two parties, but they have more than a dozen. At one point Bob told a story about a quote from an umpire in Major League Baseball. I did not even attempt to explain it to Mario.

I would definitely have enjoyed this opportunity to chat with Mario if it weren't for the wine-tasting blow-out a few hours earlier. I am sure that this preparation did not help my ability to recall vocabulary and tricky grammatical constructions.

The food was not served in the usual order. It consisted of sausages and beef ribs. There were also vegetables and what seemed to be fried potatoes. They may have all been barbecued, or, more accurately, grilled outdoors. At least I had heard that that was the plan before it rained all day. The waiter brought around seconds and thirds and maybe even fourths. Mario showed himself to be a confirmed carnivore.

The highlight of the evening was when Dorothy brought down her pope’s hat. They served a cake with vin santo (a very sweet wine considered precious in Umbria and Tuscany). Giancarlo, who is both the owner of the hotel and the chef, came out wearing the hat and blessed the wine. He was a real ham, and he lapped up all the attention.

Several other people not in our group were also eating at the restaurant. I asked Mario if they were natives or tourists. He said that he thought that they were tourists, but they were not staying at the locanda. I suspected that they were Italians, but they may not have been locals.

At supper Nina handed out two separate schedules for Tuesday morning. Plan A called for us to depart at 10 for the farm on which we would have a truffle hunt. Plan B involved a trip to some place above Assisi. Plan A started at 10; Plan B at 9. Plan A would be executed if the weather was good; the foul weather plan was Plan B. Everyone prayed for good weather. Both Giancarlo and Mario assured us that the weather would definitely be better.

The next day’s clothes.

Before going to bed I checked the rest of my clothes hanging in the bathroom. Still not nearly dry.

Patti and Sue had been having a lot of trouble with the very common Italian words for fish (pesce) and peach (pesca). It didn't help at all that the word for fishing in Italian is identical to the word for peach.

Note: Blain didn't come down to supper. I heard from Sue that he said that he had had enough socializing for one day. I had often felt that way with Sue’s relatives on her mother’s side, but I definitely relished all the socializing with this group.