Village Italy Tour

Day 9 Sunday May 22, 2005
Orvieto, Chianciano Terme, Castiglione Del Lago, Castello di Modanello

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The actual digital photos have much better resolution than the enlarged photos.
The plaque on the wall across the street from the hotel indicates that we are in Stella, one of the two contradas that made up the Pistrella team.

A view up the corso from our hotel´s balcony patio. The Duomo is just barely visible in the background.

It was difficult to find news or weather, which is what I was really interested in, on Italian television on Sunday. I searched from channel to channel, but the best that I could come up with was “Father Dowling´s Mysteries.” I have long been noted for notoriously low standards in this regard, but not quite that low. In passing I also viewed a commercial in which Richard Geer spoke passable, if halting, Italian. Saturday night they had shown a drama (not a movie, a TV show) in which they clearly showed a woman’s boobs. In short, Italian TV in 2005 bore little resemblance to American TV.

I skipped the hotel’s breakfast in favor of the leftover lunch that I had brought home from the picnic by the lake. I had to settle for water to drink, but I could not see going down two flights of stairs just to get an orange juice.

On the bus Nina told us that Italians greet each other on Sunday with “buona domenica” instead of “buon giorno.” They never make this kind of adjustment for any other day of the week.

The balcony patio.

Our first stop scheduled for this day was Chianciano Terme, a spa town. I have nurtured the suspicion that Italians are even more likely than Americans to spend their money on something that has even a minuscule chance of enhancing their appearance or of deferring the process of aging. They certainly seemed to be at least as obsessed about personal appearance as Americans.

Close-up of the Stella plaque.

As the bus entered the town we were held up for a minute or two by a bike race. Some people in the group speculated that we may have crossed paths with the Giro D'Italia, but, alas, Nina told us that it was just an amateur event.

Our objectives for coming to Chianciano Terme were different from those of native Italians and most of the tourists. We were in town to visit the Museo Civico Archeologico Delle Acque. It featured archeological finds of the Etruscan and Roman eras, all of which were discovered by a club in which our guide for the day, Roberto, was an active member. The club has been digging in Umbria and Tuscany since the mid-1980’s.

Roberto made sure that the women were as close to him as possible.

Here is a short synopsis of what I learned from Roberto. The Etruscans flourished in Italy beginning in the 8th century BC. The peninsula at that time was considered inhospitable to human civilization. The Etruscans, however, were able to establish 12 rather independent centers in Italy. They apparently learned math and geometry from the Greeks on the island of Lemno. They drained the swamps in Italy and replaced them with sustainable port towns. They dominated the entire coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea, including Rome and Pompeii. They established a diet based on carbohydrates. They introduced iron, tiled roofs, and the vaulted form. Their language used the Greek alphabet but bore no other resemblance to Greek; no one can read it to this day. They were the first to use high chairs for babies. They were the first to use the handshake for greeting purposes. They had fantastic jewelry in which gems were inlaid into gold that had been heated to 600° Celsius. Some of their sculpture was fantastically realistic, much better than what the Romans produced.

For the most part they cremated their dead and kept the ashes in clay urns with lids that were designed to resemble the head of the deceased. They sometimes employed burial mounds. 560 tombs were discovered by the club in 2004 alone. There seemed to be no difference in the size or elaborateness of the tombs based on rank or sex.

We saw the remains of tools and furniture from a farm. One of these objects was a wine press, and not, Roberto insisted, a bath tub as the published opinion of an unidentified academic described it. The Etruscans definitely used slaves for mining and for personal servants, but they did not use slaves for agriculture. The Romans invented the concept of the plantation complete with slaves.

Roberto was quite good at making the history and even his theories of the history quite vivid. He said that the people whom we now know as the Romans defeated the Etruscans, not so much because of the strength of their military but because of a few critical ideas that were foreign to the Etruscans but were very similar to the ones on which the U.S. itself is based. The concept of democracy was anathema to the Etruscans, but it was central to the Roman culture and very attractive to the other residents of Italy. The Romans gave away land, which was also a popular policy. They built an infrastructure of roads and viaducts that connected their centers. The 12 Etruscan cities, in contrast, did not communicate much with one another. The Romans had a professional army; the Etruscans had none. The Roman economy was based on salt, which allowed them to preserve meat. They analyzed problems and came up with scientific solutions. The Etruscans were much more spiritual.

Hannibal slept here.

Roberto also told a lot of jokes. Some were funny; some were just OK. My favorite one was his opinion that if Tuscans were a little more modest, they would be perfect. I concluded that the ladies liked his approach more than the guys did. He certainly made plain his own preference for the ladies, especially the short ones, over the men.

Lunch in Vinolento.

Mario then drove us to a town named Castiglione Del Lago, which is on Lake Trasimeno. This was a peculiar stop. We made a beeline through the town to reach an eating and drinking establishment called Vinolento (slow wine – its logo was a turtle). Sue and I sat with Tom and Barbara Doggett. The staff served us a scrumptious meal consisting of crostino with tomatoes, cheese, salami, and prosciutto. Then we had the primo, which was the highlight of the meal – pasta with oil and asparagus. The secondo was pork, onions, and zucchini. It was good, too. The only problem with the meal was that, despite what Nina had told us, they did not bring us more wine when we asked for it. The dessert was the traditional Tuscan favorite of biscotti with a sweet dessert wine.

La tartaruga di Vinolento.

Hot wheels in Castiglione Del Lago.

We then boarded the bus for our trip to the agriturismo, the Castello di Modanello. En route we were supposed to interview our buddies so that we could introduce them at a short get-together before dinner. I had to introduce two people, Tom and Barbara Doggett. I learned that Barbara and Tom had met at the University of Oregon. Barbara was a theater student, and Tom studied broadcasting. After graduating he had landed a job at a station in Corvallis, and he has been in public broadcasting for 39 years. Barbara taught dance to small children for 15 years. She told me that they had two adult sons. They have lived – on research grants – in Germany, Japan, and New York City.

Shots in Castiglione Del Lago: the walls.

Claudia, Bob, Blaine, Nina, and Dorothy.

I also talked with Tom. He told me that he was the person who first approved putting Rick Steves on the air. His program was first broadcast on Oregon Public TV. He also told me that a writer at The New York Times had coined the term “Ricknik,” which is used to describe a slightly obsessive follower of the dictates of Rick Steves. Tom, however, claimed credit for inventing the “You might be a Ricknik if ...” joke. To him the defining accoutrement of the Ricknik was the money belt. I decided to try to think up one or two of this kind of joke for my introductions.

For some reason Mario was not able or willing to drive up to the building in which our group was staying. So a dozen or so people piled into cars supplied by the Castello to traverse the last few hundred yards. A few of us decided to walk rather than wait for the cars to return for the second load. The staff of the Castello brought our luggage up from the bus.

The site of the breakfasts and the do-it-yourself feast.

The entire estate was truly stunning. The grounds were exquisite, and the buildings were sumptuous. The unit assigned to Sue and me had a very large bedroom with two sitting chairs; a kitchen with a refrigerator, an electric range, a pantry, an eating table, and a fireplace; and a bathroom that was the largest we had encountered to date. And our room was the slum! Several people got to stay in much more ornate rooms. Oh, well, we would just have to suffer through it.

The view from our building toward the castle.

The great thing was that all of us were situated in the same building, which was perhaps a kilometer or so from the Castello itself. On all sides of our domicile was a nicely kept lawn. A few white plastic tables and chairs were conveniently scattered around. Sixty or seventy meters to the back of the house the ground rose and became much more unkempt and rough. A pond stood between the house and the Costello. In front of the house ran a yard of at least forty or fifty meters. It contained a swimming pool that was only about half-filled with water. The weather was nice enough for swimming, but prior to our arrival the weather had been in no way suitable. Beyond the yard was a beautiful vista of a long valley with fields of crops and poppies. You could even see the industrial park at the far end of the valley, and it was, according to Mario, five kilometers away.

The view from our building away from the castle.

Our hostess at the Castello, who was wearing some portion of a warm-up suit that defied Newtonian physics, was named Maria. A few of the guys may have noticed her and her outfit. The women, on the other hand, seemed to think that, like I Dream of Jeannie, she was born without a belly button.

The living room/kitchen in the “slum” apartment.

Sue took a little nap before dinner. When she woke up, she said that she did not feel very well. Her stomach was queasy. She even said that she was considering skipping the evening’s activities, which were scheduled to include an introduction of buddies, a cooking demonstration, and dinner. We were transported from our building over to the Castello in cars a few people at a time. I went in the penultimate car. Sue wanted to wait for the last car in order to postpone the decision as to whether to come at all. I delayed going into the garden in which we were meeting until the last car arrived. I was very happy to see Sue in it. It would have been a shame to miss this evening.

We even had a fireplace.

The introduction of the buddies was for me one of the true highlights of the entire tour. Before it began everyone had a flute of Prosecco to loosen up. Nina made me do my introductions first. My presentation of the Boggetts went pretty well. People laughed at my jokes, which is always a plus. I did not learn a whole lot about very many people in the other introductions. The biggest surprise for me was that Ed Mazur, who seemed to have no trouble at all getting around, had four or five great grandchildren. I also did not previously know that Dick Corley was a semi-retired orthodontist. I was taken aback by Bill’s introduction of Sue, which somehow morphed into a description about how good Sue and I were at making money. I felt as if I had slipped into an alternate universe.

The bedroom wasn’t shabby, either.

Patti introduced her buddy, Claudia Ebsworth. One of the things that she mentioned was that Claudia’s favorite color was periwinkle blue. Blaine McCoy, Claudia’s husband, remarked that he did not know that. Ten or fifteen minutes later Sandy Governanti introduced Blaine, who we found out was an IT guy from Shell Oil (formerly Texaco). In the course of this, Blaine happened to mention that Claudia said that he doesn’t listen.

Mario, l’autista di prima qualità.

Blaine then began his introduction of Sandy by remarking that he doesn’t socialize much. He got out his notes and made several statements about Sandy, most of which she denied. Everyone including Blaine ended up laughing as he made one erroneous statement after another about Sandy. At the end someone (maybe Sue?) playfully asked, “So, Blaine, what is Claudia’s favorite color?” Blaine answered without skipping a beat, “Oh. Bullwinkle.” I laughed so hard that I almost fell off of my chair. Sue came within a single giggle of going into one of her life-threatening laughing fits.

Cecile with one of the vans used to transport us to the castle.

After the introductions were completed, Nina herded us over to one of the nearby buildings in the complex to attend a cooking demonstration. Maria narrated, and a lady named Carmella did the preparation of the food. She got volunteers to help – Barbara Krause, Jan, Bob, and Ruth Abad. She made bruschetta with tomato (San Marzano), polpetta with corn (which turned out to be nothing more than a corn fritter), cannelloni with ham filling, saltimbocca romana (with prosciutto), and focaccia di Rapolano (which is what this area is called) for dessert. I can’t say that I paid much attention to the demonstration. The chances that I might be called on to prepare any of these dishes were pretty slim. Moreover, my camera was giving me problems again. This seemed to be happening consistently late in the day. Maybe the battery was getting weak.

One of the towers of the castle.

The temperatures in the handouts that contained the recipes were erroneous. That is, either the centigrade temperatures were wrong or the Fahrenheit temperatures were wrong. Whoever wrote it did not use the correct formula (F = 1.8 x C + 32) to translate them.

Cooking demo: Maria and Ruth Mazur.

Supper, which basically consisted of the same food shown in the cooking demonstration, was served in an adjoining room. There were also some thinly sliced vegetables – zucchini and fennel. The food was, as expected, extremely good. The best course, in my opinion, was the cannelloni.

I was not able to remember too much about the conversation at the supper table. Sue sat at the same table that I did, but the Corcorans were at another table. Someone at our table made the mistake of saying something that I interpreted as opening the door for me to tell my joke about Charlie Smith of Eureka Springs, KS. Here is how it went.

Cooking demo: Bob and Carmella.

A guy strolled into a tavern in New York City. He went up to the bar and took a stool next to a stranger. Being an outgoing sort, he extended his hand and said, “Hi, I’m Bill Johnson. Glad to meet you.“”

The other man was just as friendly. He replied, “I’m glad to know you, Bill. Of course you know who I am.”

Bill responded, “How would I know who you are?”

The answer was, “Well, everyone knows who I am; I’m Charlie Smith of Eureka Springs, KS.”

Bill said, “Well, what do you mean? Surely not everyone knows who you are?”

Charlie said, “Of course, they do. Just ask anyone.”

“All right,” Bill smirked. “I’ll bet you $10 that I can find someone who doesn’t know you.”

Charlie said, “Put your money away. That’s not a fair bet.”

Bill said, “So you agree that not everyone knows you?”

“No. Of course not. It’s just that everyone knows Charlie Smith of Eureka Springs, KS, and everybody knows that everyone knows me.”

Bill slammed the Hamilton on the bar and said, “Put up or shut up.”

Charlie grinned slightly, fished two fives out of his wallet, and gently lay them next to Bill’s ten-spot.

Bill went outside of the bar and walked a couple of blocks until he found a homeless person crouched on the street with a sign that asked for money for his kids. He told the poor guy that he would give him $5 if he would follow him back to the bar. The homeless man was more than willing. They walked back to the bar and went through the door together. No sooner had the homeless man’s eyes adjusted to the dim lighting than he rushed up and threw his arms around Charlie and shouted, “Charlie Smith of Eureka Springs, KS! What are you doing in these parts?” It turned out that the two had gone to high school together back in Kansas and hadn’t seen each other in over forty years.

Charlie retrieved his two fives but left Bill’s ten on the counter.

“OK,” Bill said, as exasperation and anger turned his complexion to beet red. “You won that one. But you said that everyone knows you. I bet you $100 that Mayor Michael Bloomberg has no idea who you are. Furthermore, I just happen to have his private cell phone number. I have talked to him many times, and he has never mentioned your name.” He took out five singles, a $5 bill, two 20’s, and a 50 and set them next to the ten.

“It doesn’t surprise me,” said Charlie. “That investigative work that I did for Mike back in the 80’s was highly confidential. But he knows me, all right. Put your money away.”

“Is it a bet, or are you a dirty rotten liar?”

Charlie could only come up with $32 in his wallet, but the bartender had no trouble getting the other $68 from some of the regulars.

Bill dialed the number on his own cell phone and after a few minutes he managed to get hizzoner on the line. “Mayor Mike, this is Bill Johnson. I hate to bother you, but it will just take a minute. I’ve got someone here who says that you know him.”

Bill positioned the phone so that both he and Charlie could talk and listen. All Charlie said was, “How’s it goin’?”

Immediately Bloomberg responded enthusiastically, “Charlie Smith of Eureka Springs, KS, is that you? We’ve been trying to get hold of your office for the last two weeks. Are you in town? Can we meet, at least for lunch?”

Bill hit the off button on the phone before Charlie could even answer. All of the regulars rushed up to collect their winnings off of the bar.

Bill was not finished. “All right, I’ve had enough.“” He took out his checkbook and wrote out a check to cash for $25,000. Then he said, “Here’s the deal. I am calling Alitalia. Two tickets to Rome on me. I’ve got $25,000 in my investment account that says that the pope doesn’t know Charlie Smith of Eureka Springs, KS, from Adam.”

At this point Charlie was starting to get annoyed. He said in a low tone of voice. “OK. It’s your funeral.”

They flew to Fiumicino. Charlie said that he would set it up with Pope Benedict, whom he claimed to know from his days in the Hitler Youth as Joey the Rat, to appear with him at the window of his apartment for his weekly Wednesday blessing. After making sure that the guarantee of the $25,000 was in place, Bill agreed to the terms. He took his place in St. Peter’s square (which is, of course, closer to round than square) the next Wednesday with the pilgrims and the pious ladies assembled there to receive the pope’s benediction.

Eventually the pope came out, and he was alone. However, the big grin on Bill’s face quickly disappeared when the pontiff reached behind him and pulled Charlie from behind the curtain to join him on the balcony. The two put their arms around one another and waved to the crowd with their free arms.

Bill, who knew only a smidgeon of Italian, turned to the little old lady next to him, and asked, “L’ha visto Lei?” That is, “Did you see that?”

Chi è questo tipo?

Sì. Era meraviglioso. Ma chi è il tipo che abbraccia Charlie?” (“But who is the guy with his arm around Charlie?”)

I stumbled in my delivery a few times, but at least it went over better than the impromptu duck joke two years ago.

The main thing that I learned this evening was that Tuscan bread is unsalted. Tom opined that this also made it tasteless.

Tom and Patti stayed around for coffee. I left with the first group of cars. Sue, who was right in back of me, somehow got left behind. I was nearly asleep when she came into the room.