July 05, 2012
We've now been in Italy 2 weeks and it has been superb. Everything that we've seen, experienced, eaten and drunk has exceeded my expectations. We have Italian phone numbers: mine is +39 366 501 7311, and Carolyne's +39 366 501 7310. We would always welcome a call (please remember that we are 8 hours behind, so call after 4pm Australian time). You can also try skype, but as we need to be at or near our computers, you'll need to be patient.
The travel from Canberra to Rome all went smoothly, though extremely tiring. We drove a hire car to Sydney and flew from there 2 weeks ago on Monday, via Bangkok and Dubai, to Rome. We collected our brand new, medium-sized Renault Scenic car, fitted with all gizmos you can imagine. It has a diesel motor that’s very efficient.
We drove straight out of Rome, north to a town called Rieti, that Carolyne had identified on the Internet. The town is not connected by train to Rome, and there are no freeways nearby. As a result there were only a few Italian tourists, and none from elsewhere. It is quite stunning, with the old town surrounded by 12th century walls. The hotel we stayed in was built on a Roman tower, with the original stonework still evident. There are several great museums, and the Roman streets and villas can be explored along an underground alleyway. The hotel was a good, and the food in restaurants superb and not expensive.
After we settled into the hotel we drove to a town nearby and picked up Carolyne's sister, Robin, who had been attending conferences in Roma and Milano. We had a pleasant 3 days together exploring all the town had to offer, although Carolyne and I didn't have a chance to recover from our tiredness. Robin flew out after 3 nights to Ireland for another conference (the life of an academic)!
The same day I cycled north to the town of Cascia, 71km through the Sibilline Mountains, in 37 degree heat. It was stunning countryside but hard work. Carolyne drove and we met up at our hotel. To our surprise the town had many tourists, nearly all Italian, visiting religious sites. The town was the birthplace (and burial place) of St Benedict, founder of Benedictine monks and patron saint of Europe.
My plan had been to compete in a duathlon nearby at Norcia on the Sunday (24 June), but after welcoming my entry when we were making our plans, the organisers advised me 48 hours before the race that it was for Italians only. I soon recovered from my disappointment when we visited Norcia on Saturday and Sunday. It is a small town, surrounded by mountains, enclosed by town walls still in perfect condition, and it was like entering a town from the middle ages, with many grand buildings. It is the truffle centre of Europe, and on the Saturday we had a great lunch of regional specialties for my birthday. We also bought some wonderful food to take to our apartment.
It was a 2 hour drive (76km) from Norcia through rugged mountains to our apartment here in Acquasparta, where we arrived on the Sunday evening, 24 June. The apartment is on the ground floor of a 19th century villa built into the medieval town walls. The walls are built of thick stone, the ceilings more than 3 metres high and there are tiled floors throughout. The rooms are large and there are 2 bathrooms but no air-conditioning (rare in Italy). The owner and his wife, an Irish couple in the early 30s, with 2 young children, live on the 2nd floor. The 1st floor is a B&B that the owners use when there are no guests (none so far).
As well as exploring the region I've been swimming, cycling and running. I've bought a summer pass to the swimming centre, an outdoor 25m pool with 2 other pools and much grass and sunbathing chairs! So far, after 5 visits, I haven't seen one other lap swimmer!
Umbria is a region of farms, rolling hills and ancient towns. We’ve already explored several of the hill towns that dot the area. The pre Romans selected the steepest hills they could find, then built their towns on top. They make for steep, narrow alleys, many steps and stunning vistas. I’ve attached a photo of one such town, Todi, that we explored last week and that I rode to this morning.
Last weekend we drove north east to the village of Fiastra, buried in a valley in the Monte Sibillini National Park, surrounded by thick forest and high mountains. We stayed in a small hotel near shore of the lake and on Sunday I competed in an Olympic distance triathlon. It was superb. The lake is a clear, light blue colour, and pleasant to swim in. The cycle course wound up the side of the mountain, then rocketed down a twisting, narrow road with no side barriers, to the lake. We repeated the course 3 times, for a total ascent of 750m: the toughest course of that distance I’ve ever ridden. I had a surprisingly good ride, passing many younger blokes on the climbs (not on the descents!). Despite a temperature of 39 degrees, I felt good, but the moment I tried to run my left calf gave up. My choice was to pull out or walk the entire 10km course: I decided to stick it out, even though I was passed by all those behind me. The second last person to finish caught me a km from the finish line.
The Italians whom we’ve encountered have been unfailingly friendly. The restaurant food has been even better than I’d expected, and Carolyne has enjoyed buying high quality, inexpensive local produce to cook at home. The coffee is also surprisingly good, as good as the better places in Canberra, and better than we’ remembered from previous trips to the country: it costs €0.80, about AUD$1!
I can’t finish without a brief report on “calcio”, or soccer as we know it. The Euro2012 competition – the second in significance only to the World Cup - concluded on Sunday night with Italy being thrashed 4-0 by Spain. Seeing it from the Italian perspective was enlightening for us. We watched the semi-final last week in a local bar: the locals went crazy. This small, quiet town had cars honking, horns blowing, kids roaming the streets with whistles. We were concerned what might happen on Sunday night, but as Italy went down 2-0, the town went deadly quiet. At the end of the match the Italian players were crying. At the café the next morning we could hardly raise a “buongiorno” from the friendliest people in the world. Everyone stayed at home to contemplate the meaning of life, and whether it was worth going on. Last night, Monday, the President had the team to the National Palace: we watched it live (it displaced all other programs), and a more sombre occasion you can’t imagine. More tears. The players presented the President with a football signed by the team, with everyone looking at their boots. The first 8 pages of today’s paper was devoted to the aftermath, recriminations etc (about 10 pages fewer than yesterday). What would Italians do about a serious matter?
There is more to tell, but I'll leave that to my next email. I look forward to hearing all your news.
Best wishes to all, Bob & Carolyne