Thursday, August 31, 2023

BFT23 - From Rome to Irsina via Ruoti

On our last morning in Rome we woke up early, made sure the apartment was clean, and headed off by bus and subway toward the central train station to pick up our rental car for the next leg of our trip.

Every major city in Europe has a central train station. American cities used to have them, and sometimes you can still find one that hasn’t been converted into loft space, brew pubs, kitschy shopping, and/or parking lots, but for the most part train service in the US has been forcibly limited to freight and daily commuters. Unless you live in the Northeast Corridor the idea of intercity passenger rail has largely receded into the past and the US is poorer for it. Railroads are still the most cost-effective way to move people and goods over land, after all.

We were at the central train station in both Rome and Prague – both times to rent a car – and both times the place was packed with travelers. Both times the place was also completely impenetrable, utterly unnavigable, and a fountain of chaos that not even GPS could figure out, so maybe a certain cosmic balance was achieved after all.

We found the train station easily enough – it’s the big crowded building with all the people and train tracks, oddly enough – and headed in to find the rental car counter. You have to do that more or less at the time allotted or you run the risk of them giving away your car, so we were on deadline.

After touring much of the station and a good part of the surrounding neighborhood, trailing our luggage behind us the whole way, we finally found the area where the rental car agencies were located. The polite gentleman at the Hertz counter helpfully pointed us to the agency where we actually were renting the car, and a few moments later we were in the little alcove where we needed to be. The car was in Kim’s name and she took care of the actual rental process, after which we were told to go out that door, turn left, go down the block until, well, just keep going, you’ll get there, and when we got there we were to enter the parking garage on the right. Or something like that. The details were a bit hazy, and in the end the garage was a good ten minute walk away but we found it eventually, presented our paperwork, and were directed to the World’s Smallest Fiat – a black Fiat Speck, or something like that.

That is actually a later picture of it, parked in an olive grove in Alberobello, but it is here presented for scale. There were four of us on this trip, each with a backpack and a carry-on-sized piece of luggage, and no amount of four-dimensional Tetris would get that luggage into the unnecessarily sloped rear hatch area so we ended up with a couple of things on our laps. Kim was the driver the whole time as she is the only one of us who can drive a manual transmission car. Oliver and Lauren are more susceptible to motion sickness than I am so they alternated in the passenger seat. I was in the back the whole time, often navigating and sometimes just staring out the window as Italy rolled by. Getting in and out of the back seat of the Speck was enough of a trick that I still, a month later, have a scar on my left knee from the process.

On the other hand, though, it was reliable, incredibly fuel efficient, had enough power to get the four of us up the steep hairpin curves of southern Italy, and was small enough to fit on the roads, many of which were approximately the size of the average American dinner table. There’s a reason that folding side mirrors are standard equipment on Italian cars.

We packed ourselves into the Speck. Kim spent a few minutes reacquainting herself with the mysteries of the standard transmission. We worked our way around the guy who had parked at the top of the driveway leading out of the parking garage. And then – we were off toward our destination of Irsina.

I’m not really sure why we picked Irsina. It’s a lovely mountain town in Basilicata in the southern part of Italy, home to a surprisingly large expat community from across the western world, and conveniently located to any number of places we’d hoped to visit, so there are many reasons to choose from I suppose. Any or all would do. It worked out well, at any rate. It’s about a four or five hour drive from Rome.

We dodged and weaved our way out of Rome and then found ourselves on the highway heading south toward Naples.

One of the things that was on our To Do list was to get Italian road food, so as it got toward lunchtime we stopped at an Autogrille – the Italian equivalent of an American highway rest stop. Except that Italians do not seem to tolerate the low quality of food that rest stops have in the US. The Autogrille had fresh sandwiches with salamis and cheeses on crusty rolls, hot pastas and other foods, and a wide assortment of desserts, snacks, and drinks. It was surprisingly tasty.

The roads got smaller and more twisty as we headed south and then east across Italy. You see a great many towns perched precariously on top of steep and easily defensible hills, and you go across a lot of bridges that span valleys where the ground can be 400 meters (a quarter mile) below you. It’s scenic, but not for the faint of heart.

And then we took what turned out to be a longer detour than we’d thought it would be.

When we were planning this trip, we looked at the route from Rome to Irsina and saw that just a short jog from the way that Google Maps was taking us – maybe 20 minutes out of our way – was the village of Ruoti. For most people this probably would not be a notable fact, but for me it was an opportunity. My great-grandparents were born in Ruoti and came from there to the US in the early 20th century. I don’t know when my great-grandfather emigrated, but I do know he was in the US in December 1907 when my great-grandmother and their eldest surviving daughter arrived. My grandfather was born in Philadelphia four and a half years later. So this was a place I wanted to see.

It was even more attractive because my friend Anita had done some research and found my great-grandmother’s birth record, which not only said that she was born in 1870 but also gave the address. Anita also sent me a Google Map screenshot of the house and where it was located, and this was one of the things that I wanted to see.

Ruoti is an Italian hilltop town of about 3500 people, a long way from pretty much anything else. I figured we’d get there, wander around a bit, see the house, perhaps eat dinner if the timing worked out, and be on our way. An hour, maybe ninety minutes tops, if we didn't stay for dinner. In the end it turned out to be much more than that, and for me one of the highlights of the trip.

We came into town from the north after a long climb up a small and twisty road, parked at the first legal spot we saw, and headed off to explore the place. We started at the modern end of things.

You get some gorgeous views as well from the top of that hill.

And then we explored some of the older parts of town, the places that would have been there when my great-grandparents were there.

At some point we found a small store and went in. It turned out that the guy working there had the same last name as my great-grandfather – about a third of the town does, apparently – so we had a lovely time talking with him. We bought some cookies and drinks and a giant loaf of crusty bread, maybe 50cm (20 inches) across and a handspan high, and went on our way.

Eventually we found my great-grandmother’s house. It’s not actually on the main street that you see here.

It’s on an alleyway that comes off the main street. You have to climb down a set of stairs to get there, and there is only the one house that fronts onto it. According to the little plaque on the wall it was originally built in the late Roman period, though it has been upgraded since then. It looks pretty modern now, in fact.

It is a strange thing to stand there in front of a house like that, knowing the significance of it for your family.

But after a while you realize that the house isn’t going to change, so you continue wandering around and taking pictures. Eventually we found ourselves back at the starting point of the street, where we discovered that Ruoti has a self-guided walking tour that you can take. It led up to my great-grandmother’s house (which was the second stop on the tour, and the reason for the plaque) and from there throughout the old town. We’ll do that, we thought, and then head off.

But before we got to the house we met these two ladies, whose names we never did get unfortunately. I’d manage to memorize the Italian for “My great-grandparents came from Ruoti” and pointed down the street to the house, and suddenly we found ourselves deep in conversation! They spoke no English. I had Google Translate. Kim had two years of DuoLingo Italian. And it more or less worked. Eventually two more women from across the way joined in, and then they sent down Sara and Rosario, who actually did speak English.

Rosario and Sara ended up giving us a ninety-minute tour of the old part of Ruoti, including churches, key sites, and even Rosario’s house. They also took us to the local B&B, where the proprietor welcomed us in.

We saw some of the artwork that they’ve put up to celebrate the town’s history – the first one is Michele Carlucci, “an illustrious oenologist and winemaker at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries … mainly associated with the Asprinio vine, known as the Ruoti nectar,” according to the plaque nearby, and the second one is Angela Acquavia, who brought Lucanian red peppers to America in 1887.

They also introduced us to Felice, who it turns out is doing a research project on the descendants of people who emigrated from Ruoti so we had a lot to talk about. He invited us to come back the next day which unfortunately did not work out but we’ve been emailing back and forth ever since and I’ve enjoyed the conversation immensely.

We’ll have to go back someday and spend more time there. It’s a welcoming place.

But we had to get to Irsina to meet our hosts by a certain time, so we left Ruoti and continued on our way. An hour or so later we found our way up the steep road into Irsina and – after a few missed attempts, as it is tucked rather out of the usual line of sight from the road as you’re driving by – located our apartment for the next few days.

It was an immense place, big enough to swallow the apartment we had in Rome and the one in Prague combined, with room left over, and a comfortable one. It was late when we got in, though, even by Italian standards, and we didn’t manage to figure out a place to eat dinner. Fortunately we were able to wander up to the corner and find Rocco and his grocery.

Rocco was closing up by then – it was nearly 10pm – but he sold us a dozen eggs for a pittance and we took them back up to the apartment. We lit candles and sat out on the porch and ate the bread from Ruoti with butter and jam we’d carried from Rome, along with cherries and fresh scrambled eggs, and we talked about life plans and linguistics and Johnny Cash and whether Lauryn Hill’s version of Killing Me Softly was the definitive version or whether that was Roberta Flack’s version, and we admired the view of the medieval part of Irsina across the gorge from where we sat, and there are quiet evenings after busy days that will stay in your memory for a long time, and this was one of them.

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

BFT23 - Living Briefly in Rome

One of the things that is most enjoyable about traveling is getting to know a place, which is something that takes time. That can be interpreted two ways, both of which are essential to the process.

First, there is the basic fact that you have to spend a certain quantity of time somewhere to get to know it. You can’t just parachute in, visit a scenic spot or two, and then hightail it off to somewhere else later that afternoon. You need to be there long enough to get a feel for some of the rhythms of a place – how it gets through a day, what a neighborhood looks and sounds like, and so on, the things you learn just by the sheer fact of existing in a single place for long enough to notice.

And second, you need to have the time to notice. This means unstructured time. If every minute of your trip is accounted for, you’re probably not going to get to know anything other than your itinerary. There should be open spaces in the day for you to wander aimlessly through a place, seeing what is around the next corner or up the block a bit without the feeling that you needed to be somewhere else fifteen minutes ago. This is probably the harder of the two senses of time to achieve, though in some ways it is the more important one. Quantity time is mostly a matter of spending the money and making the plans to be gone that long, but unstructured time – time not spent rushing off to the next big thing – requires a sense that such time is important in itself and not simply wasted. Most Americans have difficulty wrapping their head around that idea even at home.

We did a lot of things on this trip and saw a lot of sights. There was a lot of planning that went into it and we had a grand time doing it all. But we also tried to allow for the unstructured, the open, the exploratory. We tried to get to know Rome and all of the places we visited in some ways, just by letting them wash over us a bit – as much as we could in the time we had.

In Rome some of that was spending time in Testaccio, the neighborhood where we stayed and which Kim and I had gotten to know a bit last year. We actually timed this trip in part to match the availability of the apartment we’d had for our first trip to Rome and it was just as lovely the second time. It had room for the four of us to sleep, plus a good sized bathroom and a kitchen, plus it had air conditioning which made the nights much more comfortable. You entered from a courtyard that was full of greenery, and across the street was a movie theater that was never open but promised us that it was playing Oppenheimer the whole time, plus a playground attached to what was probably a church school that was rarely ever empty. One night there was what sounded like a dance.

I did a bit of exploring on my own one day, just walking around Testaccio while Oliver rested in the apartment and Kim and Lauren explored the Basilica in the Vatican, and it was a great little neighborhood. There were shops all around us – normal things that catered to people living their lives rather than visitors – and all sorts of art (some of which was graffiti and some of which were murals, though the dividing line between those things could get pretty thin at times), and the Tiber ran along one edge of the place. There were parks and newsstands (yes, actual newsstands), and there were always people about. Italians live outside in a way that Americans really don’t anymore, so the sidewalks and benches were never empty. It was hot the whole time we were there so I stayed in the shade as much as I could.

I don’t know who the guy in the big mural was, though if you got closer and looked behind the tree you could see a Roma emblem so he might have been a soccer player of some kind.

We also wandered around the city the group of us, just seeing the sites of urban Rome. It’s a place people live.

And they live there at all hours. Rome is always hopping, as near as I could tell, and there are always people of all ages floating around. This is us waiting for a bus after a typically late dinner, and the place was packed.

Sometimes we did take some time to explore a specific place. There’s a bridge across the Tiber that takes you from Castel Sant’Angelo to the older part of Rome that is just lovely, and we took our time wandering across it. The sculptures on the sides are by Bernini and you have to spend some time admiring them, but there are also all sorts of street vendors trying to sell things, Instagrammers getting their angles just right, pedestrians just trying to get from A to B, views of the neighboring bridges to take in, and assorted other people going about their business. You find yourself slowing down when you cross it.

The graffiti artists on the town side of the bridge were also pretty clever, really.

But if there is any way to get to know a place for real, it is to eat there. And if there is a better way to spend time than sharing a meal with those you love, I haven’t found it. Combine those things and the world becomes a brighter place.

We tended to eat breakfast in the apartment, which meant a few trips to the local groceries. I love local groceries, since you get to find out what sort of things people consider normal. There were three or four little markets in our neighborhood and I hit them all at one point or another, bringing back bread, meats, cheeses, drinks (chinotto!), and assorted snacks.

Though we did stop by Pasticceria Linari for pastries a couple of times, because it was wonderful and that’s all the reason you need.

Lunches and dinners we went out into the city for, and as with the Bistro at the Vatican all of the places we went to were very accommodating of food allergies. We’d made some laminated cards in advance (in Italian, Czech, and German) that basically said “I am allergic to these things – can I eat here?” and every single server, cook, cashier, and manager we handed them to was gracious and thoughtful in figuring out the answer to that question. It was really very comforting that way, and we were deeply grateful to them.

Our first and last meals in Rome were at Testaccio Market, which is a collection of vendors not far from the apartment. We stopped there on the way to the apartment on our first day and found some lunch while Kim collected the keys from Pasticceria Linari where Stefano had left them for us, and we stopped there again on our way out to get the rental car for the next leg of our journey, though few of the vendors were open then.

The only other place we ate at twice was La Botticella a Testaccio, our favorite little restaurant just around the corner from the apartment and a place Kim and I had found on our last trip. The first night we were in Rome Kim, Oliver and I went while Lauren rested at the apartment, and the next night we all went. Like all restaurants in Rome that aren’t tourist-focused, it opens around 7pm for the early-bird diners, with most people arriving between 8 and 9 and staying for a couple of hours. Dinner is a leisurely affair in Italy.

La Botticella is a neighborhood place and there were never any other people there who spoke anything other than Italian, but the people who run it are very friendly and the food is wonderful. They found us a table outside when we really should have made a reservation, they parsed out our attempts at speaking Italian, and they gave us really great meals and wine. You can’t ask for more than that. If we ever do go back to Rome, we’ll go there again.

The other place we went to from our previous visit was Pizzeria Remo in Testaccio, where you can get phenomenal pizzas. This time around we didn’t have to wait for the one English-speaking waiter to come on duty, which was nice – we managed to order more or less in Italian on our own, and there were more people who could speak English this time anyway. Again, marvelous food.

We ate a lot of pizza while were there, and it never got old though it did get hot.

On our last night in Rome we went to La Campana, which is the oldest restaurant in Rome. Founded in 1518 and still in the same location – this was where we were headed as we crossed the bridge from Castel Sant’Angelo – it has both indoor and outdoor seating. It was Lauren’s choice to eat there, and it turned out very well indeed.

We sat in the piazza and ate good food and talked while the sun went down over the Eternal City, and I think I will leave us there, at that slowly darkening table on a warm night in Rome, sharing our time together.