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.

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