Tuesday, August 10, 2010

And Italy Makes Five ... Pounds

A light snack: ham and cheese calzone in Orvieto

And I don't mean pounds sterling. I mean five pasta-guzzling, wine-swilling, giant-cream-filled-breakfast-croissant-munching pounds added to my none-too-petite frame in one week. OK, OK, maybe all the beer and delicious meals in England during the previous two weeks also had something to do with it. But I'd like to blame Italy. Thank God the wine and food festival took place the week after I left.

I arrived in Rome on July 24, after a farcical struggle to reach my hotel near Heathrow by closing time (unsuccessful, but they graciously let me in anyway). I had left Oxford late, let three Tube trains pass before realizing that I had to catch the "wrong" one and change trains farther down the line, gotten off at the wrong bus stop (Cranford Lane instead of Cranford Lane/Redwood Estates), and hustled for 30 minutes along dark London streets to reach my bed. By then I was so tense I couldn't sleep anyway. And the saga continued once I reached Italy, where I had the added disadvantage of being illiterate. I missed my train connection through a misunderstanding with the ticket agent and had to wait for two hours on a remote platform for the next train to arrive. Halfway through that time, the electronic sign on the platform died, so I could no longer tell which train was due. Fortunately, you don't have to be terribly literate to read a train schedule, and through a combination of sign language and trusting to dumb luck, I managed to reach Viterbo Porto Fiorentino by 7 p.m. My teacher for the medieval pigments course, Cheryl Porter, generously picked me up from the train station in her car and chauffeured me to my residence for the next week: a historic house within the original city walls of the fortified hill town of Montefiascone.

And I do mean "within the original city walls." My bedroom, which I shared with two other students, was a long, vaulted space that was once part of the cellars, and its window opened in the city wall to look out over the fertile plains of Lazio. (I saw my first olive and kiwi trees on a drive to the Lago di Bolsena the next day.) A short walk down the hill brought us to the town square and its fountain, which is filled with wine during the festival I missed. A short walk up the hill took us past the cathedral to the disused seminary where we studied medieval pigments and toured the historic library.

Thunderstorm over Lake Bolsena

Every morning during the week, my fellow students and I met in the town square, usually over coffee and pastries. We then walked up the winding cobblestone streets to the seminary, where Cheryl taught us about the pigments used to produce medieval manuscripts. In the morning, we learned about their history, production, and use--with slides of examples from Cheryl's long career as a manuscript conservator. In the afternoon, we mixed the pigments with gum arabic or glair, ground them further if necessary, and painted them out onto sample sheets. We also experimented with laked (organic) colors, gold and silver leaf, and historic inks.

One afternoon, Cheryl and Claudia, my Italian classmate, drove us all to Bagnoregio and its dying sister city, Civita, which is slumping and eroding from its high spur of land into the deep valley surrounding it. It can only be reached by walking or riding across a long causeway connecting the two cities: something I desperately want to do if I return to Italy!

We also visited Orvieto, with its beautiful banded cathedral and the 53-meter deep Well of St. Patrick, which dates to 1537. Someday I hope to return and see more of its fortress and its caves!

Il Duomo di Orvieto
Looking down St. Patrick's Well
And, of course, we feasted. At lunch, I made myself salads of arugula, fresh tomatoes, cold cuts, and shaved parmigiano reggiano, accompanied by pesto and fresh rolls from the bakery with the killer croissants. Sometimes my classmates forced me to indulge in gelato, too. And at night, we ate bruschetta, suppli, pizza, pasta, veal saltimbocca, insalata mista, and, of course, a little something sweet. Panna cotta. Tartufo. Tiramisu. By the end of the trip, I couldn't fit into any of the clothes in the cute shops lining Montefiascone's main street. But I don't think they were designed for Americans of Viking descent anyway.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Bad Bean Takes Corolla ... and England

Derek made me do it.
So, you haven't heard from me for a while. My apologies. I even started drafting an "I'm about to go on vacation" blog post, but in true procrastinator style, I never finished it. So, here I sit at 9:00 a.m. on a Monday morning, feeling like it's 3:00 in the afternoon, and eking out bits of my travels for you.

In my original plans for this summer, I was to spend two weeks in England followed by a week in Italy at the Montefiascone Conservation Project, taking a class on medieval pigments. The first week in England was to have been in Cambridge, taking a hands-on Islamic binding workshop with John Mumford, since the one in Montefiascone was full. The second week was to have been spent visiting friends in Oxford and London before flying to Italy. We all know what happens to plans, however. When the Islamic binding workshop in Cambridge was suddenly canceled, I delayed my British Airways flight (ka-ching!) and spent four days on this side of the pond in a blissful road trip to Corolla with my husband, Derek.

We stopped in Assateague to see the wild horses, in Kill Devil Hills to see the Wright Brothers' Memorial, and in Corolla itself to climb the Currituck Light. In between, we swam and bodysurfed and lounged on the beach, sampled the local brews, and slept more than I would have believed possible. Jersey shore, eat your heart out. The Outer Banks are where it's at. The sand is fine and white, the water is bathtub warm, and the people are few and far between. By the time we got home, I had two new stamps in my National Parks passport, the beginnings of what passes for a tan on someone as white and pasty as myself, and t-shirts from Bad Bean Taqueria and Dogfish Head Brewing. Woo-hoo!

After our road trip home, Derek and I repacked for a shared week-long trip to London. Highlights included dinner in St. James's Park, a beer-appreciation class at Meantime Brewing's Old Brewery, the hours-long beer tasting with Carrie and friends that followed, a whirl in the London Eye, a river trip along the Thames, and A Comedy of Errors at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. Picking our way up Brick Lane on a Sunday evening was also an adventure, with frenzied runners from all the Indian restaurants trying to seduce us with promises of free drinks and the best curry in town.

Derek and I in the London Eye. I cut off the top of Big Ben, but those are the Houses of Parliament in the background.

We also took a bus ride to Oxford for a short stay with friends in Beckley. Cathy and Pierre were kind enough to drive us into the Cotswalds for a tour of the Hook Norton Brewery and a visit to the Rollright Stones, a Neolithic stone circle. With Lyn, they also treated us to an Indian feast of epic proportions. We were all shockingly full after the appetizer, but the food just kept coming. Delicious and amazing. The next day we helped in the garden and made fresh black currant jam. For a city girl, the delights of a country garden are spectacular: fresh potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, carrots, asparagus, broad and runner beans, and zucchini, although of course the Brits call it courgette.

After Derek returned to the States, I enjoyed more country rambles, a thorough soaking in an English thunderstorm, and a walk through the New College gardens at Oxford. I also visited the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, complete with an outdoor "ghost forest" exhibition of tree trunks from African rain forests, and the Pitt-Rivers Museum, England's equivalent of the jam-packed and eccentric Mercer Museum in Doylestown, PA. Unfortunately, conflicting schedules made a tour of the Bodleian Library conservation labs--something I've lusted after for years--impossible. Alas. At least it gives me a reason to return!

In my next installment: Italy! Caffe latte! Medieval manuscripts!