Thursday, May 12 2011
location: Via del Governo Vecchio, Rome, Italy
Today was the day we'd be packing our things, moving out of our Roman apartment, and taking the train north to Montepulciano, a quaint Tuscan hilltown. First, though, we had to make up for our lapse yesterday and see the Caravaggios in the nearby basilica San Luigi dei Francesi. One is actually allowed to photograph paintings in this basilica, if one can get close enough. This morning the Contarelli Chapel (housing the Caravaggios) was so crowded that a tour group waited at some distance for those near the painting to get their fill. Many basilicas have vending machines that dispense illumination for the art, which seems a little off when the art in question is a Michelangelo or a Caravaggio. With Caravaggio, it's all about the light, and the illumination machine would only pause at its task for a few seconds before someone would feed it anew.
We walked from San Luigi dei Francesi to the train station, stopping at some point for coffee. I ordered a caffè freddo (an iced coffee) and what came out was a dark, severely-sweetened beverage that took a little getting used to. But once I had one, I kind of wanted another. Caffè freddo, I'd realized, is the preferable way to drink coffee in Italy.
Gretchen realized we'd probably be getting hungry on the two hour train ride up to Montepulciano, so she thought maybe we should get some fast food from a restaurant near the train station. We ducked into a few Indian cafeteria type places, but the food looked a unappetizing and there was enough grease in the air to leave us craving showers. Eventually we gave up and entered the train station through a side door, where we ended up waiting at a ticket counter that doubled as an information kiosk (and provided other functions of the sort that cause wide-bottomed elderly German women to take 20 minutes to transact their business). Once we had our tickets, we ran to the platform, saw that a grocery store was actually inside the station, and went on a quick shopping spree for things that could be eaten without elaborate preparation. But we'd had the wrong information about the track number of our train and so had to run to another platform, the stairs to which were closed, causing us to run an elaborate route to get to the right place. But somehow we made it and were on our train and heading north.
Especially when contrasted with the occassionally-frantic run to cath them, trains are inherently civilized and relaxing (in a way that modern American culture has completely forgotten). In Europe, the trains also run on time, with a minimum of fuss about borders or other poorly-considered Homeland Security paranoia, all of which are huge things in their favor. The woman in the seat across the aisle from us had brought her Eleanor-sized dog with her, something that would never be permitted on a train in the Land of the Free.
We soon busted out our food: pickled vegetables and artichokes (which we ate with injera) as well as a bag of mixed nuts and tomato-sauce-filled Italian flatbread. Unfortunately, there was no free WiFi on the train, but all I really wanted to do was look out the window anyway to see the beautiful countryside scroll past. Interestingly, every time we entered a tunnel, the pressure in the train changed enormously, sometimes cause middle ear discomfort. I'd never experienced this on a train before. I suspected this was due to the speed of our train (probably faster than Amtrak), the small size of the tunnel (no room around the train for compressed air to quickly escape), or a combination of the two.`
The train ride went quickly, mostly (it seems) because of how lovely it was. We were disgorged in a dusty little trainside town called
Chiusi, where (after Gretchen asked a the right questions), we found the bus terminal and bought bus tickets (though bus tickets aren't usually necessary, since the drivers never actually look at them). We loaded up in the bus to Montepulciano, but, since Gretchen thought the bus wouldn't be leaving for another twenty minutes, she went off without me to get a postage stamp so as to send Deborah a post card. Soon thereafter, the unthinkable happened: the bus driver closed the door and started driving to Montepulciano! I ran to the front of the bus and told the driver (in English; I don't know much Italian) that my wife had gotten off the bus to buy a stamp and that we either needed to wait for her or I needed to get off. The bus driver didn't understand (I could tell because the Italian he said to me included the word "capisce"). Luckily, there was a teenager on board who knew English and translated for the driver. I ran back to the back of the bus to get all of our bags (both Gretchen's and mine), and the bus driver grudgingly stopped to let me out about three blocks from the station. (I'd neglected to grab the half-eaten bag of train food, which, for some reason, had been on a seat in front of the row in which we'd been sitting.)
I walked back and found a very perplexed Gretchen, and she quickly decided she must have misheard the Italian said by whomever had told her when the next bus to Montepulciano would leave. In any case, there we were in crummy Chiusi, waiting for another bus. I was demoralized and disgusted, having been taken so quickly from the mild euphoria of the train ride to the absurd humiliation of begging a bus driver in a language he didn't understand to let me off his bus. So I just sat with the bags in the shade while Gretchen went off on her own to explore the town. I was a little mad at her too, though there really wasn't any justification. I kept thinking, "Why did she have to get that stamp precisely then?"
While I was sitting there, I saw a bus pull out of the station with "Montepulciano" as its destination, and I was horrified, because of course Gretchen was out wandering around who knows where at the time, probably even humming a tune. When she finally returned, I beseeched her to please stay close in case another unexpected Montepulciano bus started loading up.
Eventually we caught a bus to Montepulciano and we'd only been delayed in Chiusi by an hour, but it was demoralizing enough to require something big spectacular to shock me out of my funk, which had been further deepened by the realization that I'd lost one of my flip flops (either on the train or in the bus fiasco). But then, there it was, Montepulciano, a fairy tale masonry village on a hill. We rolled into the bus station and then took a smaller bus ("the Picolo") to Montepulciano's Piazza Grande near the village's summit. What a ride that was, and it was surprising fast on those narrow, often pedestrian-clogged cobblestone streets, which occasionally pitched upward at a 1:10 angle.
Once we'd clambered out into the Piazza Grande, surrounded by ancient stone and brick buildings in desperate need of repointing, the funk lifted and the vacation was back. We checked into our hotel, the Meuble Il Riccio, where Gretchen jumped into the shower I started doing whatever it would take to get our internet working. I found that the Meuble Il Riccio's WiFi router wasn't connecting to the internet. But instead of asking for help, I logged onto its configuration pages (no password had been set!) and looked around for a "reboot router" option. There was none, but I did find something on one of the config pages about a watchdog timer, which I knew from recent Arduino work (Arduino being another Italian invention!) would cause a reboot if a fail condition could be triggered. In this case the fail condition was a failed ping to an IP address. So I added a 70 second watchdog timer for a ping to a made-up internet address, and this managed to reboot the router and get our internet working. (The internet had probably been down for days at Meuble Il Riccio; I think most people come to Montepulciano to get away from it.) At some point during this impromptu computer hacking, a huge swarm of honeybees flew by our window, and I was reminded that the docile domestic bee is referred to by apiarists as "the Italian Honeybee." A good fraction of the hard work of developing the core of traditional Western agriculture took place right here in Tuscany.
Once everything in our lives was functional and serene, we went up to the Meuble Il Riccio's rooftop patio, where we had a glorious view from one of the highest parts of the town. Spread out in the foreground were the hatched patterns of nearby terracotta roofs, and further out, the green Tuscan hills, looking (with their small scattered plots of grape and olive orchards) a little too much like a digital simulation within a Pixar film. At some point a couple other Il Riccio guests, two women, came up the steps and occupied one of the other patio tables, where they split a bottle of red wine and began talking. Americans, of course. Gretchen had been trying to read, but this was impossible now, so she went back down to the room. I had the laptop with me, and, though I could no longer get a reliable WiFi signal, I continued reading (or trying to read) articles I'd already downloaded. But I was too distracted by the women's conversation. One of them was telling the other about her son, how his medication was making him into a zombie, so the psychiatrist had it reduced. But now the kid was acting crazy again, and the psychiatrist was proving useless. What better excuse to fly to Tuscany and drink wine?
For dinner, we walked down the hill to a restaurant called A Gambe di Gatto, which had the coveted #1 rating for Montepulciano restaurants at TripAdvisor.com. It was still a bit early for dinner (Italians don't usually go out until 7:30 or later), and nobody was there except the man, Emanuel, and woman, Laura, who run the place (Emanuel works mostly in the front with the customers, Laura works mostly in the back as a cook). Though the menu didn't look especially vegetarian-friendly, Gretchen said that we are vegans and wondered if anything could be made for us. A Gambe di Gatto epitomizes, you see, the slow food movement. There's no hurry and food can be custom-tailored to the wishes of the customers. The menu is a first draft proposal for what might ultimately end up on your plate. Emanuel seemed enthusiastic about satisfying our vegan demands; he reacted as if it were some sort of delightful crossword puzzle to solve. Disappearing into the kitchen to confer with Laura, he'd pop out now and then to ask if we liked things like risotto, tofu, and seitan. It was encouraging just to know they had seitan in stock.
What really sets A Gambe di Gatto apart is the wine tasting that precedes the meal. Emanuel asked us what sorts of wines we liked and then got seven or eight bottles down for us to try. By this point, several other couples had been seated at nearby tables Emanuel had to move frantically to give everyone the attention that this style of restauranteering demands. But Emanuel seemed to enjoy the multitasking and just-in-timing, sliding up to our table as if completing a home run just to give us another taste test, humming little airplane sound effects as he did so. In the end we settled on a bottle of blush, which might seem a bit off at a fine Tuscan restaurant, but it was genuinely Italian and both Gretchen and I liked it.
We were also present with a number of different olive oils throughout our meal, presumably because Emanuel knew which oils went with which food. As for the dishes themselves, they came out in a long series of small courses. The first of these was little appetizer involving small cubes of tofy. The second was a serving of pici, the native Tuscan pasta (it looks like a thick, rough-grained spaghetti). Then there was a risotto course, followed by delicious steaks made from seitan. For dessert we had strawberries lightly drizzled with a very high-grade traditional balsamic vinegar.
For some reason we were able to kill that bottle of blush in short order and it was time for another. This time Emanuel sold us on a 2009 bottle of limited-edition Garlider Gewürztraminer (after assuring us that it was from northern Italy, not Germany). We would later see on our bill that it cost 33 euro, which is a lot, but it could have been worse. But even before that bottle came, Gretchen was actually unusually intoxicated. At a certain point her speech started slurring and she began doing various impulsive things that she gigglingly claimed herself powerless to control. One of these was holding up her hand and pointing her finger some odd direction. Interestingly, though, whenever opportunities cropped up for Gretchen to engage with Emanuel or the other customers, she managed to put on the appearance of level-headed (if effusive) extrovertism.
We ended up dining at A Gambe di Gatto for a full four hours. The food and wine were good, but the main reason for eating at A Gambe di Gatto is the show: Emanuel's manic expertise coupled with Laurus shy industriousness. By the end we were drinking the La Pievuccia type of Vin Santo on the house (Gretchen and I and the couple at the adjacent table were celebrating 10 year anniversaries) and conversing happily with the couples at two other tables (the others hand left earlier). We were exchanging stories of how our various couples had formed and what we do for a living. The two older men at the far table had just married each other in Connecticut and worked in the publishing industry. The hetero couple nearer us hailed from West Virginia (but, being worldly enough to be in Tuscany, were unfazed by the lifestyle possibilities available to New Englanders). Somehow it came out that Gretchen is a poet, works at a prison, and had just completed the first draft of a book she is ghostwriting (well, technically the word in this case is co-writing). It also came out that I am something of a protoblogger, and I was forced to divulge (with a loud hyroop) the URL of my blaag. After dinner, the two older gentlemen invited us all back to their hotel to show us the frescoes on the ceiling. Having just come from Rome, they looked a little sketchy to my eye. But it was like nothing you'll ever see in an American hotel room. At some point I observed that A Gambe di Gatto actually treats you, when you're dining there, like you are part of the family, reminiscent of the trademarked claims of the American restaurant franchise known as the Olive Garden, but more obviously sincere and intimate. "The Olive Garden even says they're Tuscan," I added. It was an amusing thought that kept bubbling to the surface of my consciousness for the rest of my time in Tuscany.
Gretchen and I walked with our mostly-full bottle of Gewürztraminer back to our hotel at the top of the hill, using several shortcut staircases between the street tiers along the way. We referred to these shortcuts as "secret ninja trails," though there wasn't anything secret about them other than their absence from the official map. It wasn't long after we got home that Gretchen began complaining about her stomach; evidently she'd drunk too much and now she was paying the price.
Gretch our Roman apartment's kitchen before we left this morning.
That was our bed.
That was the sunless courtyard outside our door.
And this was one of three Caravaggios we saw on our way to the train.
The Obelisk of Montecitorio. When I saw this, the deep incision of the hieroglyphs and the obvious panelization of its granite exterior made me think it was a Roman knock-off built around a core of brick. But it turns out this is a real Egyptian obelisk and that the granite panels are actually repairs.
The Obelisk of Montecitorio, showing places where the hieroglyphs have been completely lost in subsequent repairs.
Gretchen buying tickets in the very slow train station ticket line. The guy behind her was quite frustrated by this point.
We were near the back of the train, so I could take this picture of a tunnel as we emerged from it.
The view from our train, one of many.
Montepulciano in the distance.
A beautiful government building on Montepulciano's Piazza Grande.
Gretchen looks at the magnificent (and weather-beaten) cathedral on Montepulciano's Piazza Grande.
Me dining at A Gambe di Gatto.
Laura and Emanuel just before they began hamming it up at A Gambe di Gatto.
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