We just completed our one-week fall break. Yes, it's only Week 5 of a 12-week semester. But it's Italy, after all, and who are we to question the way of life here? Actually, we have come to respect and admire the Italian work ethic. Most of the shops in Orvieto open for about four hours in the morning and three hours in the evening, with a four-hour pause in the middle of the day. This gives everyone--including itinerant psychology lecturers--time for a leisurely lunch and a nap before "hurrying off" to complete their workday.
Just before the break, students and faculty had one last field trip to the town of Tivoli, which is about 10 miles outside of Rome. Tivoli is famous for two Villas, one of which was built for a Catholic cardinal (and member of the powerful Borge family) in the 16th Century. The villa's gardens are an absolute spectacle, filled with every imaginable type of water feature, including cascades, troughs, pools, water jets, and fountains galore. Above is a photograph of the "hundred fountains," a walking path that takes visitors past a seemingly endless array of water-spewing stone animal heads. But the centerpiece of the gardens is a multi-tiered waterful that culminates in a powerful fountain that is several stories high. As someone who loves water, this was like a trip to Disneyland for me. One of my most impressive discoveries of the day was that all the water features in the villa are gravity-fed.
Our first full day of vacation, Jhan and I took an afternoon excursion to the local town of Civita di Bagnoregio, accompanied by our friend and colleague, Russ Andaloro, and his cousin Laura, who was visiting from Florida. Civita is a public bus ride away from Orvieto, and it's famous for two reasons: as the birthplace of Saint Bonaventure and as the site of a major 17th Century earthquake that destroyed most of the town. Today, only 15 residents remain in this tiny place. Like Orvieto, Civita is a walled community that sits on top of a butte. You can walk from one side of the town to the other in less than a minute. My estimate is that the width of Civita is no more than one hundred feet.
Two days later, Jhan and I rented a car and drove north to Toscana (i.e. Tuscany) to explore the picturesque river valley of Val d'Orcia. This area, which includes oak forests, expansive farmland, abbeys, fortresses, and plenty of hill towns, is like a painting come to life. In 2004, the valley was added to UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites because of its influence in inspiring the landscape paintings of some of Italy's most renown Renaissance painters. But truthfully, no painting I have seen or description I have read has begun to do justice to its breathtaking beauty.
Our first stop was the hill town of Radicofani, which is famous for its castle dating back to to 978 AD. We arrived there in a downpour. The rain clouds began building when we stopped for lunch at the small town of Aquapendente. We were about to walk on the Via Francigena, an ancient pilgrim trail that extends from Northern Europe to Rome, when the heavy rainfall convinced us that it might be a better idea to run for cover. Jhan was our designated driver (our rental car had a manual transmission and I must confess that I only drove a stick shift once in my life and never really got a chance to master it) and she did a more than capable job of handling the weather conditions, winding roads, and not-always-courteous Italian drivers).
For two nights, we had the pleasure of staying in a small farmhouse about two miles outside the center of town. Surrounded by hundreds of acres of national park land, this was one of the quietest and most peaceful places I have ever stayed. At night, there were only insect sounds to be heard, a few lights from neighboring farms, and clear views of the Milky Way (when the clouds would let up, of course). When we went into town for supplies, we began to meet the local townspeople, who were among the kindest and most hospitable we have encountered in Italy or anywhere else. Perhaps the most memorable of all was Silvana (the woman on the right), who owns a shop that specializes in cheeses, wine, meats, olive oil, and other local agricultural products. Silvana was so welcoming that she made us feel like members of the family from the moment we walked in the door. When I asked to buy a small piece of aged pecorino, she gave me the cheese, along with numerous samples of other local cheeses. My Italian is still very much a work in progress, but speaking with Silvana was almost effortless. At one point, she excused herself, explaining that she had to close her shop early that night to tend to her ailing mother. We knew from the moment we met her that Silvana is one of those exceptional people who quietly walks her spiritual path and makes it look easy.
Our second day in Toscana, we drove a short distance to the town of Bagni San Fillipo, which is known for its sulfur hot springs. Although the indoor pools were closed for the season, we were able to hike to the natural springs shown here. The hot water, which is laden with calcium, flows out of the ground and over a rocky ledge that has turned bright white from all the calcium carbonate deposited there. After scoping out the many pools that have been carved into the ledge by erosion, we settled on our favorite and then luxuriated in the 105° water for about two hours. When we came out of the pool, our bodies and swimsuits were coated with calcium carbonate and other minerals. Many of our fellow bathers were rubbing these deposits on their bodies to take advantage of the natural healing properties. Although I cannot attest to these properties absolutely, I will say that the muscles in my neck and shoulders have never felt more relaxed than when I came out of the hot spring. Of course, a two-hour soak in hot water may have had something to do with that!
Day 3 of our adventure took us first to the Abbey of Sant' Antimo, a former Benedictine monastery that dates back to the 12th Century. The beauty of the abbey itself is only surpassed by the surrounding landscape, which has inspired many exceptional paintings and photographs. A small group of monks now resides there, and we had the privilege to enjoy their Gregorian chanting when we took part in a midday prayer service. Afterwards, we met a group of women from Cape Cod who were walking the Via Francigena. After talking with them, we knew we were destined to walk at least part of the trail ourselves, which we had the chance to do after arriving in the small town of Bagno Vignoni.
There, we found a small working farm that had a few guest rooms to rent. Named after a local oak tree that grows in that area, La Quinciole proved to be a very welcoming place. We were delighted to have a fully equipped kitchen, where we could make our own breakfast rather than search for food in the tiny tourist haven of Bagno Vignoni. The owner of the farm, a sturdy older woman named Rina, seemed a bit gruff at first but proved to be unimaginably generous and warm. She invited us into her home for wine and pound cake the first time we met her, gave us fresh eggs from her hens, and then brought us a bottle of wine for our supper the next day. Jhan and I formed a bond with Rina, her daughter-in-law Christine, and the various animals roaming the property--especially a watchdog named Lumpo whom we may have distracted from his work one night when we petted him while watching a majestic sunset give way to a star-filled sky. During our stay, both Jhan and I were reading books written by American expatriates who moved to Toscana. It wasn't hard to imagine how someone could reach the decision to relocate here.
On Day 4, we explored the town of Bagno Vignoni, which is known for the pool of warm spring water that sits in the middle of its main piazza. From there, we made it to the Via Francigena, where we set out to walk to the nearby town of Spedoleto. Following the banks of the river Orcia, we had the chance to see herons, egrets, and other birds, as well as much of the scenery for which Val d'Orcia is so famous. The United States has natural beauty that compares with what we saw there, but we have to remember that this valley has been inhabited and farmed for thousands of years. Somewhere along the way, the local people mastered the principles of sustainability to which so many of us aspire. They managed to preserve the natural beauty of the river valley while adding to the splendor with their fields, vineyards, and magnificently designed cities. Much of the credit for this goes to Pope Pius II, who had the vision to lay out cities that were architectural masterpieces and cultural meccas, surrounded by fertile farms, forests, grasslands. and rivers.
On Day 5, we honored the birthday of Saint Francis (Oct 4) by visiting the church named after him in the village of Pienza. This was the birthplace of Pius II, who had Pienza rebuilt using humanist urban planning principles. The end result was a community that, in spite of its size, produced great literature, art, and, of course, food. Today, Pienza is famous for its world-class pecorino cheese, made from local sheep's milk. I cannot say enough about the quality of this cheese, which has the power to entice even the most adament vegan. Pienza cheese makers are living proof that the present can coexist with the past--and the future.
For me, the cheese makers of Pienza embody an important spiritual principle. Those of us seeking to live in accordance with such principles know how important it is to live in the moment. We have been taught to Be Here Now and to embrace The Power of Now. Our visit to Val d'Orcia has made me aware of something else that many of us also accept as truth, which is the nonlinear nature of time. In Toscana, time is a spiral, with past, present, and future coexisting simultaneously. The Pienza cheesemakers are creating something new and innovative. They are putting their unique signature on the product they're crafting. At the same time, they are aligned with time-tested cheese-making principles that have been handed down for generations. And they are also trying to create their product as sustainably as possible, with future generations in mind. We are told that the past is just a memory, and the future just a dream, but the present may be equally illusory. As we journeyed through Val d'Orcia, we discovered an unmistakable sense of timelessness. Ironically, when we returned to Orvieto, we found that the city was hosting a cultural festival honoring the "slow food movement." This movement embraces the notion of timelessness in the cultivation, distribution, and enjoyment of food. In Italy, the national religion may be Catholicism, but a new type of spirituality is evolving that is centered around food. I am only just beginning to discover the nature and implications of this movement, but I am excited to learn more in the weeks ahead, and I look forward to sharing these insights with you.