Saturday, May 31, 2014

Ricordare con la mente (v.): to summon up, remember, call to mind

In the darkest months of winter, back home in Vermont, it’s easy to slip into reverie. Long after my Italian tan fades and my skin returns to its seasonal gray pallor, I find myself daydreaming of gondoliers and Roman rooftops and the kinds of summer sunsets you see only in Florence, which in my mind play like a Martin Scorsese movie reel, seamlessly scored to the sounds of some street musician on the Ponte Vecchio.

It can be hard to recapture that particular brand of magic we feel while on vacation, especially when living in a place so far removed from where we’ve been. To borrow from C.S. Lewis, it’s as if we’ve stumbled into Narnia, sampled its wonders, and then retraced our steps all the way back to the lamppost in the woods, back through the fur coats in the wardrobe, only to emerge in sad confusion. We may have the smell of mothballs in our nostrils, but a hint of Turkish delight lingers on our tongues.

This is more than mere metaphor. Taste and smell are intertwined in the primitive parts of our brains, and together they produce what scientists call “autobiographical memory.” For Proust, lowering a dainty madeleine into a tea cup brought back powerful emotions from his childhood. For me, making an English cottage pie reminds me of a cold, rainy day in the Cotswolds. A savory crêpe with ham and cheese transports me to a park bench near the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. And a warm plate of tiny pancakes—called poffertjes—smothered in butter and powdered sugar, takes me immediately to Amsterdam and to a lazy day I spent there once, immersed in the paintings of Vermeer and Van Gogh.

But then there is coffee.

Coffee has failed me. Resoundingly.

At home, I ache for a proper cappuccino—the aroma of ground beans, the sound of milk frothing, the wet and silky appearance of the foam—all a delight for the senses, even before I’ve raised the cup to my lips. My three trips to Italy have turned me into a coffee snob, and I am not ashamed to admit it. In fact, I’ve been known to launch into mild diatribes about how American baristas fail to understand the cappuccino. The espresso is too weak, the foam is too dry, and the two are inevitably poured into a disposable paper cup, which always makes me cringe.

This morning, on my way to the train station, I sidle up to the bar at the venerable Caffè Rivoire in Piazza della Signoria and for a mere €1.50, savor a truly divine cappuccino. It’s so good, I almost cry. And it’s all so easy—the product of a few spoken words and an exchange of coins. But as I stand there, surrounded by carved wood and polished marble, alongside businessmen in tailored suits, it occurs to me that coffee is the least of it. What I really want is to take Italy, fold her up, and place her in my pocket, so that on some snowy day in February, when the wind chill is well below zero, I can take her out again, wrap my fingers around her warm china cup, and breathe in deeply.

But really, the best I can do is take a picture.

I’ve lingered so long that it’s late morning by the time I arrive at Santa Maria Novella. I’m here to catch a train to Arezzo for the city’s monthly antiques fair, La Fiera Antiquaria. I’ve been here once before, in 2010, and so the walk I take an hour later down Via Roma and past Piazza Guido Monaco, is a familiar one. It’s a beautiful day under a clear blue sky, and the streets are crowded with shoppers and dealers peddling their wares. I see books and buttons and piles of old skeleton keys, a collection of brass corkscrews, and a box of vintage eyeglasses.

I’ve come mainly to browse, but almost immediately, I spy something I desperately want. It’s a painting of Florence, and of the Ponte Vecchio in particular, and it’s almost precisely the view I see when I leave my apartment in the morning. I dither for a bit, wandering away and then circling back again. I wonder how I’ll get it home, for it’s too large and likely too fragile to fit in my suitcase. It looks old, but I’m wise enough to know that it’s not. It seems to be artificially aged, but beautifully painted by hand, a reproduction of the way the Arno would have looked a century or more ago, and it’s the kind of thing someone on “The Grand Tour” would have taken home as a prized souvenir. I do my best to negotiate with the dealer and then hand over some bills. It’s expensive, perhaps, but I’ve been in a nostalgic mood all morning and something tells me that this painting will bring a smile to my face months from now when the snow is knee deep outside my bedroom window.

I slip the painting into my nylon bag and then make my way through the crowd to Piazza Grande, one of Italy’s loveliest squares. Here, there are more booths to explore, and I take a moment to snap a “selfie” in a pair of antique gilt mirrors before turning my attention to food. Back in 2010, I had a memorable dinner under the loggia at Ristorante La Lancia d’Oro and I’m eager to try it again, although I’m also a bit nervous that it won’t measure up to my memories.

It does.

I order a plate of homemade spaghetti with asparagus, Cortona saffron cream, and bacon, and just as before, my meal is punctuated by other small plates that come unbidden—a small taste of tomato soup, and a quartet of miniature pastries for dessert. Some things never change, and for this I am grateful.

Afterwards, I wander further through streets of antique dealers, up to the park of the Medici Fortress, where the view overlooks a valley of country houses and olive groves, and poppies cling to the city’s 16th century walls. It’s a peaceful place to sit, but suddenly I notice how tired I’ve grown and I know that it’s time to head back to Florence.

There’s a twenty minute walk from the train station back to my apartment on the banks of the Arno, and along the way I think again about the cappuccino I had this morning at Caffè Rivoire, and about the pasta I enjoyed at my favorite restaurant in Arezzo, which was just as sublime as I remembered. As I turn the key to open the heavy wooden door of the palazzo, I turn around once more towards the river, and I think about the painting I have snugly tucked under my arm, and about the powerful hold that memories have over our hearts.

It’s been a good day.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

It’s early and my bags are packed. Over breakfast, I pull out my iPod and use its Kindle reader to flip through an essay the novelist Henry James once published in the Atlantic Monthly titled “A Chain of Italian Cities,” in which he recounts his journey through the hill towns of Assisi, Perugia, Cortona, and Arezzo. I am loath to leave Rome so soon, but I have spent time here before, and for now I am excited to retrace James’ steps, more than a century later, to some of the lesser known sites in Tuscany and Umbria.

It’s a gray morning in Rome as I head by taxi to Termini station to catch the 10:36 AM train to Arezzo, my home base for the next four days. It’s an easy ride, but by early afternoon the dreary sky has opened into a steady rain and I’m relieved that the walk to Piazza Guido Monaco and the Hotel Continentale is short.

At just 75 Euros a night, the hotel is a bargain, even if my room does resemble a 1980s college dorm room with its white furniture and floral bedspread. I open the doors to the balcony and look down the street to the right, towards the train station, which serves as a major railway hub, and then left past the piazza towards the historic center of town. Arezzo is a real city, with real Italians passing by on the sidewalks below. For the first time, I have wandered outside of the tourist corridor that connects the venerable triumvirate of Rome, Florence, and Venice. To be fair, Arezzo is hardly undiscovered—it was featured in the 1997 movie “Life is Beautiful,” which won an Academy Award for best foreign language film—but the city isn’t even mentioned in Rick Steves’ guidebook and that fact alone confers a certain air of adventure. I am striking out on my own, and as usual my stomach leads the way.

Just as I arrive at Piazza San Francesco I stumble into Gastronomia Il Cervo and walk through the door to the delight of a jovial man behind the counter. His English is poor and my Italian is worse, but the essentials of communication are achieved with a smile. He recommends a spicy pasta made from stale bread, a warm and hearty choice on a chilly day, and I enjoy a bowl of it immensely in the dining room upstairs, ending the meal with a cappuccino.

Feeling fortified, with umbrella in hand I venture back out onto the quiet streets and spend the afternoon lazily wandering from church to church. My first stop, resting on the edge of a lush green park near the ruins of a Medici fortress, is the city’s cathedral, or duomo. There is a beautiful vaulted ceiling lined with frescoes, some stunning medieval stained glass by the famed Frenchman, Guglielmo de Marcillat, and a charming, if unassuming, portrait of Mary Magdalene by Piero della Francesca.

I make my way back down the hill to the Romanesque church of Santa Maria della Pieve to see its Lorenzetti altarpiece, a luminous polyptych of the “Madonna and Child with Saints” painted in 1320. I pop a coin into the light box and stand back to appreciate the effect, watching the figures glow on a ground of gold paint high over the crypt at the end of a long spare nave, under a ceiling of thick wooden beams.

At 4:00 PM, I arrive back at Piazza San Francesco and enter the basilica there to see the Bacci chapel, famous for Piero della Francesca’s cycle of frescoes known as the “Legend of the True Cross.” The reservation I made online weeks ago hardly seems necessary, for as in the other churches in town, I am quite alone, save for a pair of young women taking tickets by the door. They direct me past a velvet rope and I savor the space, turning round and round to follow the visual story of the wood that was ultimately used to create the cross on which Christ was crucified.

My eyes search for a place to begin. By now, after several summers spent tramping across Europe, I am familiar with the form. Frescoes like this are made up of distinct scenes that can be read much like a medieval comic strip. With some help from a small book I bought in the gift shop, I follow along: In the beginning, seeds given by Michael the Archangel are planted in Adam’s mouth at the moment of his death, becoming a tree that grows upon his grave. It is later felled by King Solomon and its wood used to bridge a stream. When the Queen of Sheba attempts to traverse the bridge, she has a vision in which she sees Christ killed on a cross made from its beams. The wood is buried, but later found and it fulfills its fate. Centuries later, on orders from the Emperor Constantine, the relic is discovered among the three crosses of Cavalry and its identity restored.

It’s been a wonderful afternoon, but my mind is crammed to overflowing and I am eager to feel the cool air upon my face. As I open the door to leave the basilica, I reach for my umbrella expecting rain, but I am greeted instead by a bright blue sky. The storm has passed, and all of Arezzo is reflecting in the puddles it left behind.

When Henry James was here in the 1870s, he spent much of the day in an “uninvestigating fashion,” taking in the “general impression” of things. In walking down Corso Italia and its side streets, I now find myself doing much the same. Along the way, I stop at Cremi for a dish of artisanal gelato—a scoop of orange with lime and one of coconut. Its bright, refreshing taste suits both the change of weather and my buoyant mood. I walk further down to San Agostino in time to hear the church bells toll the top of the hour, and then I turn back to the hotel to rest before dinner.

When I head out again, I’ve already decided to end the day with a meal at La Lancia d’Oro, a restaurant that spills out under the Vasari loggia, facing Piazza Grande, Arezzo’s most famous public square. Come Saturday, the sloping pavement will be covered by rows of antiques stands for the monthly Fiera Antiquaria, but for now the view is peaceful and serene, a jigsaw of stone and stucco buildings, each decorated with colorful coats of arms.

Believing that the quality of restaurant food is usually in inverse proportion to its location, I truly don’t expect much from dinner, not here in such grand surroundings. I expect tourist fare, so I am stunned when a chain of delectable dishes make their way out of the kitchen, all delivered with warmth and grace by wait staff that treat me like family. I order a bowl of Ribollita to start. It is a Tuscan specialty I have longed to try, a soup made with bread and vegetables. But a small plate of appetizers arrives first, unbidden. For a moment, I worry that there has been some costly confusion, but the night is so warm and pleasant and my glass of the restaurant’s private label wine so enjoyable, that I throw caution to the wind and decide the experience is worth whatever the price. I order a fresh plate of asparagus ravioli, but later decline dessert, only to find a trio of pastries brought to my table anyway, followed by a cream pudding.

When the check arrives at last, I thank the waiter for what has been my best meal in Italy, ever. It is a prize hard won, given the fine lunch I had in Siena two years ago, and the beautiful plate of gnocchi I once ate in Rome. I peer at it cautiously and then wrinkle my brow. I have been charged for the Ribollita, the ravioli, and the wine, but for nothing more. The rest, it seems, was kindness.

I grab my tripod and snap a few pictures of Piazza Grande, floodlit beneath a cobalt sky, and on the walk back to the hotel, I think again about Henry James. He, too, had been seduced by “adorable Italy,” and by the charm of Tuscany in particular. By the end of his day in Arezzo, he had “seen Santa Maria della Pieve and its campanile of quaint colannades,” as well as “the stately, dusky cathedral” and a museum filled with “Etruscan vases and majolica platters.” It had been, he said, a day of “soft saturation,” spent among beautiful hills and cypresses that cast long, straight shadows in the sun. And when he travelled on, he took with him “[m]emories and images, anything and everything.”

In years to come, he would look back and write fondly of the things that populated his Italian Hours. Exhausted, I lean back into bed and close my eyes, knowing that someday I will, too.

Friday, June 4, 2010

This morning, I’ve made a mess of things. I’m having breakfast at the Hotel Continentale, in a lovely dining room decorated in vibrant shades of blue and gold. There is a fine selection of pastries, breads, cereals, and fruit laid out on long buffet tables, and for coffee there is an imposing automated machine. Ideally, I would like a cappuccino, but I am not sure how best to achieve this. I press a button and I am comforted by a whirring sound that spits espresso into my cup, but when the steamed milk is dispensed, it comes from an entirely different spout, far to the left. By the time I realize this and shift my position, much of the milk has drained away, and the rest has slopped over the side into the saucer below. Feeling embarrassed, I decide to make the best of it and carry it back to my table.

The waitress minding the buffet has noticed my plight and she takes pity on me. She’s a cheerful, middle aged woman and she says something comforting in Italian before trotting off. A moment later she emerges from the bar holding an absolutely perfect cup of cappuccino. As she watches me, I take long sip, allowing the aroma of the coffee to fill my nostrils. When at last I pronounce it “molto bene,” and with great enthusiasm, she seems genuinely pleased. The people in Arezzo are nice. There is no other way of saying it, although it hardly seems sufficient. They are nice, and I like it here. I like it very much.

From my hotel facing Piazza Guido Monaco, it’s just a short walk to the railway station, and after a brief detour to the ruins of a Roman amphitheatre in town, I catch the 9:14 AM train to Assisi. It’s a milk run train that makes countless stops along the way, but the scenery out the window is distractingly beautiful, and for a moment I catch a glimpse of a castle high on the hill, which I later learn is Montecchio Vesponi, near Castiglion Fiorentino. The hour and a half goes by in the blink of an eye.

At the station in Assisi, I buy a ticket for a bus that will take me to the old town at the top of the hill and ride it all the way up to Piazza Matteotti. From there it’s a pleasant walk through ancient streets and along sweeping vistas, past the cathedral of San Rufino to Piazza del Comune, under the soaring tower of the Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo, all the way down to the papal basilica of St. Francis.

The day is young and the town has a sleepy quality, with shopkeepers relaxing by open doorways crammed with religious souvenirs—laminated prayer cards, rosary beads, crucifixes, and rows upon rows of St. Francis statuettes dressed in identical brown tunics, cinched at the waist. Some are portly, others tall, but nearly all depict the saint’s famed attachment to animals—occasionally dogs, but more often than not birds, a menagerie of birds.

I approach the basilica from the east, along Via San Francesco, where it sits at the end of a long green lawn on which hedges form the letters PAX, the Latin word for peace. Outside the entrance to the upper church, I rent an audio guide and then walk into a bright space that is, through the conscientious efforts of the guards, surprisingly quiet, despite a steady stream of pilgrims. I can see an apse and transcept at the far end, but I am struck most by the frescoes that line the nave, long attributed to Giotto. The paintings reconstruct major events in the life of St. Francis (1181-1226)— a crucifix in the church of San Damiano speaks to Francis and summons him to God’s work, the future saint renounces his wordly goods, he preaches to the birds, and later on Mount La Verna he receives the stigmata. It is painful to recall how close all of this was to destruction after an earthquake struck in 1997, killing four people and sending chunks of the vaulted ceiling to the floor.

After circling the nave thoroughly, I make my way down to the cavernous lower church and to the tomb where St. Francis is buried. In “A Chain of Italian Cities,” Henry James wrote that “it would be hard to breathe anywhere an air more heavy with holiness,” for the basilica pushes the visitor “into the very heart of Catholicism.” As usual, I find his powers of observation to be uncanny.

After a quick sandwich at a nearby café, I spend the rest of the afternoon testing my stamina on the narrow and undulating streets of Assisi. I shop for ceramics, stop by an ancient Roman temple long ago converted to the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, and visit Santa Chiara, a basilica devoted to St. Clare (1194-1253), who like Francis, founded her own monastic religious order.

At 4:00 PM, I catch the bus in Piazza Matteotti and from the train station below walk across the tracks for one last stop at the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, which inside houses the tiny Porziuncola, the 9th century chapel that Francis believed he was commanded to repair. It is crowded with tourists, most snapping flash photos despite the admonition posted outside, and I have to breathe deep to remember Francis’ words: PAX ET BONUM. Peace and goodwill. It strikes me as a sentiment that is easier to maintain when preaching to the birds.

On the train on the way back to Arezzo, a friendly Australian named Serena takes the seat next to mine. She is a lawyer on a fourteen month break who has chosen to travel the world and we chat amiably until we reach her stop at Passignano. By now, I’ve grown used to travelling solo, but I look forward to such passing acquaintances.

Back in town, on a side street near Piazza Grande, I decide to grab dinner at Trattoria Il Portale where the owner, a balding man with a surly disposition, seems not to understand my request for a table. “Un tavolo per una, per favore,” I say, and then repeat the phrase. Exasperated, he turns and loudly calls “Ma-a-a-a-r-r-r-r-r-ia!”

Maria is a sweet young girl, and she recommends the bruschetta and a tubular pasta with cheese and fresh cracked pepper called Cacio e Pepe, both worthy of Arezzo’s growing reputation for culinary excellence, at least in my eyes. I sit for a while and read from a book on Giotto I bought in Assisi. Afterwards, I revisit Cremi for a cup of nutella mousse and yogurt gelato and savor it—and the day—all the way back to the hotel in the dark.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

It’s a bright and beautiful morning in Arezzo and I’m standing on the rooftop terrace of the Hotel Continentale surveying the city streets. Directly below me is Piazza Guido Monaco, a small octagonal park named for the Benedictine monk who invented musical notation. Beyond, an assortment of stone towers dot the landscape, including that of Santa Maria della Pieve, but the overall effect is a mixture old and new, owing to the fact that much of Arezzo was bombed heavily in the war, especially here near the railway station.

In a newspaper account published by The Times on July 16, 1944, it was said that the “main street through the town… was a melancholy line of battered shop fronts and doorways.” And yet, “at the end of this sombre route one came to the Piazza del Duomo and it was a refreshing sight. There stood Arezzo’s fine cathedral, serene on its height above the streets of the town and remote from the damage and havoc that war had wrought below.”

Today, the city has risen from the rubble and rebuilt itself around its surviving landmarks, and when I see the cathedral perched high on the hill in the distance, the miracle of its survival makes me smile.

It’s a Saturday morning and the streets are already teeming with people, and I can see a row of white canopy tents that have appeared overnight for the Fiera Antiquaria, Arezzo’s monthly antiques fair. I’ve been told that it’s the oldest and the largest of its kind in Italy, with over five hundred booths that wind up the hill past Piazza San Francesco to the duomo, then back by the Palazzo Comunale, and under the Vasari Loggia, before spilling out into Piazza Grande. Aside from the convenience of the city’s railway hub, this is the main reason for my visit, so I rush to the elevator, eager to descend and join the crowd.

In truth, there isn’t much I can afford, or for that matter, fit into my suitcase, but I thoroughly enjoy wandering the hilly streets nevertheless. There are chairs and tables and wrought iron beds, stacks of books and prints and gilded picture frames, porcelain figurines and ceramic bowls. I fall in love with a pair of 19th century paintings of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence and a beautiful landscape by Pier-Antonio Gariazzo, but in the end seize upon a small and far more affordable pair of modern paintings, each depicting people browsing an Italian antiques market, just as I have done all morning. Whether art imitates life, or life imitates art, I head back to the hotel thrilled with the purchase.

It’s nearly 1:00 PM and while I had originally thought I might head to Florence for the afternoon, I’m feeling as lazy as Henry James and want nothing more than a pretty place to explore in a thoroughly “uninvestigating fashion.” I decide to catch the bus to Cortona instead, a tiny hill town made famous by Frances Mayes in her memoir Under the Tuscan Sun, and when I arrive there at Piazza Garibaldi an hour later, and gaze out across the hills, lakes, and valleys of neighboring Umbria, I’m glad I came.

I begin to follow the narrow straight line that is Via Nazionale towards what my map tells me is the center of town—Piazza della Repubblica and the Palazzo Comunale—but I stop off along the way for a late lunch at Tuscher Caffé. I sit back and relax at a small table by the side of the street with a gorgeous plate of cured meats, bruschetta, and pecorino cheese before me, as well as a glass of chilled prosecco. Truly, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Half of the Palazzo Comunale is wrapped in scaffolding, which is a bit of a disappointment, but the town itself is not. It has a romantic, easy charm and the hours slip by gently on the mind, if not the body, for Cortona is a hill town indeed, and on either side of Via Nazionale, there are alleys and stairways that branch off into breath-robbing inclines. I shop for ceramics, eat some gelato, and peer down Etruscan wells, walk down to the church of Santa Maria Assunta, the town’s duomo, and stop into the adjacent Diocesan Museum to see works by Luca Signorelli and Fra Angelico. But mainly, I just walk, as far as my legs will take me, out along the walls for another sweeping view of Lake Trasimene and the Val di Chiana, all the way back to the shade of the Parterre gardens. Somewhere along the way, I fill the last space on the first of my camera’s 8 GB storage cards and reach into my bag for another, wondering if I will make it through the rest of my trip at this pace.

It’s just after 7:00 PM when I finally catch the bus back to Arezzo. I sink back into the seat and enjoy chatting with a young Korean student living in Florence, whose name is Yun-Mi, but who asks that I call her Stella, which she says is her English name. She is as amiable a traveling companion as I could hope for, and her facility with languages impresses me deeply, and not only because she is far more capable than I in confirming our route with the driver.

Back in Arezzo, a deep fatigue has started to set in. My legs are aching, and yet my stomach is growling like mad. From the bus stop in the piazza, I head up Via Guido Monaco to a kabob shop and order a sandwich and a can of Coca-Cola to go. I slump back to the hotel feeling guilty. After all, I should be dining on classic Tuscan fare—a steaming bowl of Acquacotta, or a juicy Chianina steak—but alas, what I crave most is sleep. Exhaustion is, perhaps, something Henry James would have understood when he wrote of “the familiar tax on the luxury of loving Italy.”