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Our Montalbano Tour

18 Dec

Although many people visit Taormina to get close to Mount Etna, Len and I had a different plan. Our goal was to visit many of the shooting locations of one of our favorite Italian detective stories, Il Commissario Montalbano. The episodes are based on novels by author Andrea Camilleri. They are set in the imaginary town of Vigàta but many shooting locations are in the province of Ragusa. Montalbano is played by the Italian actor Luca Zingaretti.

We got hooked on watching Italian shows many years ago as part of our never-ending quest to speak and understand Italian better, and also to learn about parts of Italy we had yet to visit.

Taormina is certainly not the best base to begin this excursion as the sites are hours away, but that didn’t deter us. I found an excellent driver, Alessio Patanè, (info@sicilygrandtour.com), who met us at 8 AM in Taormina.

Our first stop, and the opening shots of the episodes, are overlooking Modica. We were stumped on the significance of this view – the open center being the shooting location for Livia’s bus stop.

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We did, however, recognize the Cathedral of San Giorgio, aka the Church of Vigàta.

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Next stop, (not Montalbano related), the oldest chocolate factory in Sicily. Need you ask if I bought some?

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From there on to Scicli, aka Vigàta.

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The show’s police headquarters and commissioner’s office are both housed in the local town hall.

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Filming for the episodes happens on location during many months of the year, but the office set ups are often broken down and moved to Cinecittà, a large film studio in Rome. We were fortunate as they had recently been shooting scenes, so the offices were completely in tact when we visited.

Stepping inside, one immediately recognizes the staircase Montalbano climbs to visit his boss, the commissioner,

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as well as the commissioner’s office.

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After hearing about the some of the artifacts in the office, we headed downstairs to Montalbano’s office.

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Immediately on the right is Catarella’s office.

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then Fazio’s office leading to Montalbano’s.

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Enrico, our wonderful tour guide, was so knowledgeable and entertaining.

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He was also eager to show us a filming stunt. Below is the familiar door to Mimi’s office, which is actually not an office at all but a wall. Mimi’s only office exists in the studios in Rome.

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One highlight not visible in the series is the incredible ceilings in the eighteenth century building.

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After thanking Enrico, we walked the familiar streets of Vigàta before heading to lunch.

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Then time for Len’s one request – to eat along the sea at the place Montalbano frequents, and so we did. Picture perfect.

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After lunch, we walked along the beach in Punta Secca (aka Marinella)

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until we came upon this sign…

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and then the very familiar home of Montalbano.

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It was easy to see why this house was selected as Montalbano’s home and equally funny to see a pizzeria a few doors away – oh what fame can due to a town!

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In reality, it doesn’t appear that fame has spoiled this quiet beach town at all. No one was even home when I knocked.

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From here, on to our final stop, the incredible vistas of Ragusa and Ragusa Ibla, which we learned about from episodes. As Camilleri once said:

….there is a literary Vigàta, which is based on my hometown, and then a Vigàta used as the set for the TV series, which is based on beautiful places such as Scicli, Modica and so on. Now that happens to me when I’m writing a new Montalbano story: I’m influenced not so much by the Montalbano TV character but the scenery seen on television..   Andrea Camilleri

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Whether or not you are a fan of the Montalbano books/tv series, these sights in many remote parts of Sicily are enticing and beautiful. At first we had wondered why so many widely dispersed and remote filming locations were used, but seeing them made it all so clear. Camilleri truly wanted to share lesser known parts of Sicily with his audience, and indeed he did. Clearly, his intention is what brought us to areas we might never have known, and given us another great adventure on a road less travelled.

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Ciao,
Judy

 

 

 

How Does our Orto (Garden) Grow?

17 Aug

With warm sunny days, sufficient rainfall, and tender loving care, “our” garden grew from this at the end of April…

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to this in August!

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After giving a thumbs up to the garden’s success, Len decided to take in some sun and enjoy a Toscano, a small Italian cigar (that actually doesn’t smell bad),

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while Fernanda and I were ready to pick, baskets in hand.

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We filled our baskets with three of the four varieties we had planted…

Ciliegino (Cherry)

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San Marzano

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Camone

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and the not quite ready, Cuore di Bue (Beef Steak)

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We also picked susine (plums) from the brimming trees that not only keep the orto from scorching in the summer sun,

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but also provide fruit for delicious marmellata.

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Then it was time for our “casual” county lunch ~

Our Al Fresco Menu included:
freshly cut prosciutto and sliced melon;
hand-picked tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and garden basil;
just cooked porchetta from the market;
cannelloni beans sautéed in fresh tomatoes;
Toscana Rosso di Montalcino

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Talk about farm to table –  and so much more rewarding since we are the planters, pickers and very fortunate eaters!

After lunch, it was time for some serious relaxation.

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Little did we know two years ago how incredibly rewarding this small garden would be. How does our garden grow? Well, we may not be experts, and the local farmers still offer much advice, but for us, everything about the orto is perfectly wonderful, perfectly delicious, and so proudly our own doing. We just can’t help but smile!

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Ciao,
Judy

 

 

Mille Miglia – 1000 Miles

16 May

For the first time ever, the famous Mille Miglia open-road endurance race is coming through Cortona. If you are a car lover, or just a fortunate spectator, this will be a spectacular treat.

The race took place in Italy 24 times from 1927 to 1957 (13 before the war, 11 after 1947). From 1953-57, the race was also a round of the World Sports Car Championship. Today’s local paper proclaimed that this is the first time the event will come through Cortona,

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and posters are all over town.

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The race was banned after two fatal crashes in 1957, killing both drivers and many spectators. From 1958 to 1961, the event resumed as a rally-like roundtrip at legal speeds with a few special stages driven at full speed, but this was discontinued also.

In 1977, the Mille Miglia was reborn as a “race” for classic vintage cars produced pre-1957. The round trip route is Brescia-Roma-Brescia, similar to that of the original race, and takes several days to complete. 

Here is the route, published by the Mille Miglia official site:

Below are some excerpts taken (and translated) from an email I received this morning detailing some of the logistics. I imagine the times are estimates based on weather conditions and traffic. What is significant, however, is the sheer number of cars, upward of 600, expected to move through the streets of Cortona tomorrow.

Cortona for the first time in its history will be a stop in this race. Everything is ready in the city to welcome this historic passage. About 600 cars will participate in the Mille Miglia 2018. 30 Super Car Mercedes, 100 Super Ferrari Cars and 450 historic cars. Among these, 70% are made up of foreign crews and many famous people. The passage will last for four hours.

In Cortona the reception will be special: the cars will start arriving in the city between 12.30 and 13. The approach path will … enter the city from Via Dardano, Piazza Signorelli, stop for stamping in Piazza della Repubblica and exit from Via Nazionale.

Among the well-known characters at the start, Coldplay bass player Guy Berryman, Oscar winner Adrien Brody, Dutch prince Van Oranje, Piero Pelù, Spanish singer Alvaro Soler and former Formula One driver Giancarlo Fisichella, actress and model Francesca Chillemi, the patron of Prada Patrizio Bertelli.

Per Mayor Francesca Basanieri, … The Mille Miglia is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most famous and celebrated car races in the world, and having brought it to Cortona, even if only as an intermediate stage, is a very important result.

If you would like more info, from the years of history to this year’s event, this site is well worth visiting: http://www.1000miglia.it/MilleMiglia/ 

As for me, tomorrow will be a photo-op dream.

Just hope the weather cooperates! Stay tuned.

Ciao,
Judy

2018 Orto (Garden) Planted!

30 Apr

In a very unanticipated move, we planted the garden yesterday. The original plan was for this Thursday, but the weather outlook was not encouraging with a week of rain and thunderstorms in the forecast.

With Fernanda’s approval (she was at work), Len, Carlo and I headed to the nursery at 3PM to purchase tomato plants.

In late April/early May, hail producing storms can play havoc with small plants in Tuscany, but we were ready and determined to get the garden in before the storms.  After all, we did the same two years ago with great success.

©Blogginginitaly.com              August 2016, 1st Orto

With two years experience under their belts, Len and Carlo were up to the task.

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They moved quickly and efficiently, re-using the cane from years past to make the trellises.

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My job was to cut the twine, make caffè, and hold things as needed.

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When not needed, I wandered the fields next door. Only this year have I learned that the tall green grassy fields that blow in the wind are actually grain/wheat fields. I had assumed, incorrectly, that wheat would be a tan color, not bright green. These happen to be orzo or barley.

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A close-up reveals the familiar spike at the top of the plant.

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But back to the garden…four zucchini plants and eighteen tomato plants, (four varieties),

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all covered in mesh to hopefully ward off any potential hail damage.

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By 7 PM, the job was done and the full moon showered her approval.

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All in a day’s wonderful work, truly from farm to table (eventually!),

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with, fingers-crossed, a bit of cooperation from Mother Nature!

Ciao,
Judy

The Caves of Matera

28 Apr

Many thanks to all who sent Len well wishes for a speedy recovery. While he got much better, his cold travelled far and found me in the caves of Matera, the next stop on our adventure.

Matera is in Basilicata and the drive there was filled with hills of lush green wheat fields and bright yellow flowers.

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But the view would soon change. I once read that nothing quite prepares you for your first sighting of the caves in ancient Matera,

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especially knowing these were human dwellings. Well, it literally took my breath away. My first thought was of Juda Ben Hur’s visit to the Valley of the Lepers searching for his mother and sister.

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The Sassi di Matera are divided into two districts, Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano, and are thought to be among the first human settlements in Italy. There is evidence that people were living there as early as 7000 BC.

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Sassi are houses dug into the calcarenitic rock itself, locally called tufo (not volcanic tufa) which is characteristic of the area.

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The ancient town grew up on one slope of the ravine created by a river that is now a small stream. The ravine is known locally as “la Gravina”.

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Below is an interesting description provided  “Courtesy of Guardian News & Media Ltd”. Photos are my own.

The Miracle of Matera:
from city of poverty and squalor to hip hub for cave-dwellers

One of Italy’s most deprived cities – so lacking hope that God was said to keep well away – is now an Airbnb hotspot and set to be European capital of culture.

There is a sense of shame as Luigi Plasmati, 89, recollects growing up amid chronic poverty in a crammed cave in Matera, an ancient, bruised city in Italy’s southern Basilicata region.

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“It was brutal,” he said. “There were families of maybe nine or 10 children, sleeping next to mules and pigs. We were dying of hunger.”

Less than 70 years ago some 15,000 people, mostly peasants and farmers, were still living in grottoes carved out of limestone that dated back to Matera’s prehistoric era: dank dwellings with no natural light, ventilation, running water or electricity. Disease, particularly malaria, cholera and typhoid, was rampant. Bed space was scarce, with children squeezed with their parents into bunks that were deliberately built with space beneath for chickens. Coveted animals were kept indoors in case they were stolen. Large families would gather around a small table once a day to share a simple meal of bread with pasta or pulses.

The child mortality rate was high and Plasmati lost one of his five siblings. Those who survived grew up illiterate.

“I was working from the age of six, going out early in the morning to cut grain in the fields,” he said. “You’d try to sell the odd cigarette here and there to make some money, but there was never any money to spend.”

In the most extraordinary way, that history of squalor and poverty is now proving to be the making of Matera in the 21st century. A report last week by the University of Siena said that more than 25% of Matera’s housing stock is available to rent on Airbnb, more than anywhere else in Italy.

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On top of enjoying a remarkable tourist boom, Matera will also be 2019’s European capital of culture. The impoverished cave dwellings of the Sassi – literally “the stones” – are providing the economic platform for a more prosperous future.

“Airbnbs, bars, restaurants … this is the natural evolution of the Sassi right now,” said Nicola Taddonio, a local tour guide. “These changes have helped connect people back to the Sassi. Even though we lost that connection for some time, our souls are back there.”

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The extent of the squalid conditions in the Sassi only came to international attention when writer Carlo Levi was exiled by Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime to a town close to Matera in 1935. 

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In his book, Christ Stopped at Eboli, published in 1945, Levi described the horror he witnessed – the paltry furniture, children either naked or in rags, bodies ravaged by disease – and concluded: “I have never seen in all my life such a picture of poverty.”  For more of this article, see link below*.

In the 1950s, the Italian government forcefully relocated most of the population of the Sassi to areas of the developing modern city. Riddled with malaria, the unhealthy living conditions were considered an affront to the new Italian Republic of Prime Minister De Gasperi.

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However, some people continued to live in the Sassi, as it was the only life they had ever known. Until the late 1980s, this was still considered an area of poverty since many of these houses were, and in some cases still are, uninhabitable. The current local administration, however, has become more tourism-oriented and has promoted the regeneration of the Sassi with the aid of the EU, the government, and UNESCO.

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As you might expect, our dinner was in a cave – of course clean and totally repurposed .

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Of particular note is the Pane di Matera, bread that obtained the IGP (Protected ID) label in 2004 and is made exclusively from fine durum wheat semolina cultivated on the Matera hills and highlands.

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Although I had booked a cave room, I found it a bit too dark and damp, especially with a cold, so I opted for a more traditional room with windows, lots of light and interesting views.

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Visiting Matera provided me such an incredible look into the long ago past of a people, culture and area I knew little about. If some of these sites look familiar, or you want to see more of Matera, many movies have used Matera as a setting: Christ Stopped at Eboli (1978); Three Brothers (1981); I’m Not Scared (2002); and The Passion of the Christ (2004).

Whether viewing Matera’s ancient and “modern” areas from across the gorge,

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or from high above,

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it’s still so hard to get my head around the fact that people not only lived for generations in these caves, but that natives can still live in the same “houses” of their ancestors from 9,000 years ago.

Ciao,
Judy
Note: Click on any photo to enlarge

Trulli of Puglia

26 Apr

Len and I had long wanted to visit Puglia and Basilicata, beautiful southern regions of Italy located in/near the boot. We had made plans a few months ago with friends Susan and Ray, and were all set for departure last Tuesday when Len got a flu/cold. Since our flights and hotels were non changeable, and he assured me it was nothing serious, he insisted I go. Thanks to some online video apps, Len sort of came along anyway.

Our flight took us from Pisa, Tuscany, to Brindisi, Puglia, where we rented a car and headed to Locorotondo in Puglia for two nights. We stayed in a lovely three room B&B, Da Concavo e Convesso, and used this as a base to visit other locations.

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Our primary goal was to see the Trulli. And truly, they are everywhere!

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So what exactly are trulli? They are traditional dry stone huts with conical (cone-shaped) roofs.

Their style of construction is specific to the Itria Valley in the Puglia region. Trulli generally were constructed as temporary field shelters and storehouses or as permanent dwellings by small proprietors or agricultural labourers.  The golden age of trulli was the nineteenth century, especially its final decades. Our destination was Alberobello, famous for its unique trull0 (singular) construction, and a UNESCO site since 1996.

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According to history, peasants were sent to this land to build dry dwellings without mortar, ones that were unstable and could be easily demolished. This had to do with taxation, as dwellings deemed unstable and temporary would not be taxed, or could be dismantled quickly when tax collectors were in the area. Having to use only stones, the domes with overlapping stones proved simplest to build, but as it turned out, very solid as well.

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The vast majority of trulli have one room under each conical roof, with additional living spaces in arched alcoves. Children would sleep in alcoves made in the wall with curtains hung to separate them from the central room.

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A multi-room trullo house has many cones, each representing a separate room.

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Because of the very dense concentration of houses, trulli have few openings except for their doorway and a small aperture provided in the roof cone for ventilation. As a result, they could be very dark inside. You can see here three front doors and associated addresses 42, 44 and 46, all within feet of each other.

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The stone, however, did make them temperature efficient – cool in summer and warm from the fireplace in winter.

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The domed roofs are embellished with various decorative pinnacles representing the master builder, restorer, or various religious, political or other symbology.

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Urban trulli, which still exist in the area, date from the 18th-20th centuries. But some settlements began to be deserted during the second half of the twentieth century.

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Although trulli dotted the landscape as we drove through the valley,

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according to the UNESCO website:  their highest concentration and best preserved examples of this architectural form are in the town of Alberobello, where there are over 1500 structures in the quarters of Rione Monti and Aja Piccola.

While many are occupied by locals, others have been converted to holiday houses for tourists.

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I had always heard of these interesting structures, but seeing them and visiting the museum helped me better understand the life and culture of a hard-working people. It is easy to understand why the trulli of Alberobello have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. 

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Trulli – a truly interesting site to behold!

Ciao,
Judy

Note: More of the trip to follow.

Lunchtime in Italia

13 Apr

Lunch (Pranzo) in Italy is a great time to enjoy fresh homemade food and local wine with family and/or friends, and yesterday was no exception. Well, actually it was quite the exception due to the incredible seafood feast which was prepared for our return by dear friends. Feast your eyes on this.

First Course (left pot):
Cozze e Vongole (Mussels and Clams)

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Second Course:
Pasta con Cozze, Calamari, Gamberetti e Gamberi
(Pasta with Muscles, Calamari, Shrimp and Prawns)

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Third Course: Gamberi in Padella e Verdure
(Prawns in the Pan and Vegetables)

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The ingredients were simple, the smell and taste divine – fresh seafood, local olive oil, garlic, a splash of brandy, salt, pepper and parsley.

I can’t think of a much better way to spend an afternoon than with delicious food, wonderful wine, dear friends, lively conversation, and loads of love and laughter. And of course, all of this followed by a Torta della Colomba di Pasqua (Easter dove cake), sambuca and caffe.

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Perhaps Virginia Woolf said it best:

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well,
if one has not dined well.”

Many thanks and sincerest compliments to our hosts/friends/amazing chefs!

Ciao,
Judy

Leopoldina

14 Jan

The first time I remember seeing a Leopoldina was in 2014. It was a warm summer morning and we were headed to Rome from Cortona for our flight home. The driver took a different route than we had been accustomed to – one that avoided the interstate as long as possible and instead wove past a beautiful field of sunflowers and a fascinating abandoned structure. I was intrigued by the structure, and at the time, knew neither its name nor its history. I soon learned that this farm-house is called a Leopoldina.

The following year, Len and I set out to find that same field of sunflowers (girasole) and that Leopoldina. With no place to be but there, we parked the car and took in the sights. Thousands of sunflowers, with faces open to the sun, spread out before us.

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And at the end of a curve in the road, still standing proudly albeit tired and worn, stood the enchanting Leopoldina.

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To me, the abandoned structure looked much more like a lovely watercolor subject needing to be loved and preserved than an abandoned structure needing to be forgotten and demolished.

In the weeks that followed, I discovered that Leopoldine (plural) could be found in many areas around  Cortona as well as in northern Umbria.

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As I photographed many of them, I wondered… Who had lived in these houses? How long ago? And why did they all look the same?

While learning the name of the structure was easy, finding the history not so much so. Although I spent hours searching the internet, I mostly came up empty-handed. So I turned to my friend Ray, a history buff, for assistance. Happy to have a history project, he provided most of the following explanation.

Some of the most iconic sites in Tuscany and northern Umbria are the rows of abandoned farmhouses, with their distinctive dovecotes, spread throughout the countryside.

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Called Leopoldine, they look ancient but they are of relatively recent origin, at least by Italian standards, dating from the late 1700’s until the middle 1800’s.

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Much of what we know as modern Tuscany, including the Valdichiana, Maremma, and lower Valdarno, was swamp for most of its history. The hill towns that we love were built there not only for defense but also for health reasons to avoid malaria (mal aria: bad air, marsh fever) from the mosquitoes.

 

Plans to drain the swamps (clearly no connection intended) had been proposed since Etruscan times. Probably the most famous map depicting the swamps was the map of the Valdichiana done by Leonardo da Vinci in 1502, (supposedly at the request of Cesare Borgia), which shows the water extending right up to the hills in the area of Montecchio Vesponi.

Valdichiana by Leonardo da Vinci [Public domain], Wikimedia Commons

Major efforts to drain the area began in the mid 1600’s and continued through the next century. A significant impetus came with the ascension of  Pietro Leopoldo as Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1765. A  younger son of the Austrian Empress Maria-Theresa, he started a series of public improvements designed to strengthen agriculture and improve the position of the peasantry.

 

The drainage projects produced huge amounts of rich reclaimed farmland (bonifica) which was distributed to peasant families under a share-cropping system (mezzadria) similar to that in the American South. On an inspection tour of these properties in 1769, he commented on the poor quality and condition of the peasant houses. He commissioned a study by an institute in Florence to design an ideal structure for the peasant families. The farmhouses, named after him, are the Leopoldine we see today.

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The design was for a structure of three levels. The ground floor had space for the animals as well as storage and the oven. The upper floor included a kitchen, living space and the bedrooms and the upper floor was the distinctive dovecote. Every part of the building was planned including the size and positioning of the windows. The external staircase and loggia were designed on the south side to protect the farmer from the tramontana (cold north wind) when he went to check on the animals.

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The bedrooms were designed to accommodate two beds each for the large families. Even the positioning of the different stalls for horses, pigs, sheep and mules was designed around the peculiarities of each animal. 

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While originally designed only for the grand-ducal properties, the obvious value of the structure led private landowners to copy the design. The project continued under Leopoldo’s successors and the last Leopoldine were probably built in the middle of the 19th century just before Italian unification.

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After the World War II, with the movement of Italians to the cities and the increased mechanization of agriculture, the Leopoldine gradually became abandoned and fell into the ruins that we see today. 

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Currently, there is a movement underway within the Regione Toscana and some of the communes to save the Leopoldine. Let’s hope.

And thanks to Ray, we now know both the name and the history of the intriguing Leopoldina.

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Ciao,
Judy

 

 

How Does My Orto (Garden) Grow?

26 Aug

Many have asked me that question, especially due to the unrelenting heat wave and lack of rain in Tuscany. In Italian, the saying goes, “non c’è male” or not bad, and that’s my answer. Not great, and not poorly, simply not bad, especially compared to what I’ve seen.

Usually in late summer, sunflowers look like this…

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This year, they look like this.

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As for the orto, since it is small, it has been watered and has some shade. While not nearly producing the quantity of last year,

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it’s not barren either.

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And although small, the tomatoes still taste delicious.

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So while I enjoy them,

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I’ll dream of sunflowers and hope they return healthier than ever next year.

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Ciao,
Judy

 

 

Reconnecting

23 Aug

Ever since we arrived in Cortona, lyrics of Andrew Lloyd Webber keep playing in my head:

Yes, everything’s as if we never said goodbye

When people ask how long we are on vacation, we reply that Cortona is truly our second home.

I know my way around here
The cardboard trees, the painted scenes, the sound here
Yes a world to rediscover
But I’m not in any hurry  (I know my way around here)

But first our trip.

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We departed Chicago on a new 777-200 at 5 p.m. The pilot said we’d make great time – less than 9 hours non-stop. But around two hours into the flight, he advised us that a light was on, our plane was unable to fly across the ocean, and we’d be landing in NY to change planes. It was 5 hours before we took off again. If there was any good news, it was that we were upgraded and actually slept a few hours before landing in Rome. 

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Three hours later we were home in Cortona.

Although the tourists change, the wonderful sights, sounds, and smells remain familiar and constant. And best of all, so do the people. We are quickly immersed in this wonderful town, greeted with genuine smiles, warm embraces and greetings of ben tornato  – welcome back!

With deference to Mr Weber, I’d like to modify a few of his words in parens:

The lively (whispered)  conversations in overcrowded piazzas (hallways)
The atmosphere as thrilling here as always
Feel the early morning happiness (madness)
Feel the magic in the making
Why everything’s as if we never said goodbye

It took just two nights to be back in a familiar Italian setting – a large dinner with some friends.

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And while most things remain the same, the weather has taken a toll. From a 0° freeze last April to scorching summer heat with no rain, all vegetation has been severely affected.

When we left in June, our views of the hills were lush and a deep verdant green.

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Today, sadly, they are scorched.

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How much this will affect the grapes is not clear, but the olive oil harvest will definitely suffer. Many people we know will not be picking olives this year.

But neither rain nor sun will deter the Cortonese, who pack much into the summer months.

Cortona on the Move International Photography Festival is in full swing, occupying 8 historic buildings, some rarely open, as well as a photo exhibit in the parterre (park). More on these as we visit the exhibits. 

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The Cortonantiquaria, a national antiques exhibition market, is in the lovely 18th century Palazzo Vagnotti.

Various food festivals, called sagra, are held weekends through the summer. The Porcini Sagra was last weekend in Cortona’s parterre.

So much more to come, but for me, Cortona is always about the people, both local and international friends, who make this wonderful town home. 

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With gratitude to Andrew Lloyd Weber for helping me share what’s in my heart:

Yes, everything’s as if we never said goodbye

Ciao,
Judy

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