Posted by: Brad Nixon | February 23, 2018

Italian Idyll … Catastrophe … Enlightenment

Every traveler understands the need for a bit of resilience — some willingness to roll with interruptions, delays or disappointments. I had a day in Italy that included some surprises, but concluded in a lesson about the value of taking things as they come.

To see a part of central Italy that fascinated both of us, we booked a week at an agriturismo — a working farm — in northern Umbria, on the border with Tuscany. Agriturismos offer the option of working on the farm to defray expenses, but we were simply guests staying on the property tucked into a forested valley east of the Tuscan hill town of Cortona.

Novole buildings Brad Nixon (437x640)

The Covento Novole was built as a convent in the 16th or 17th Century. The stone buildings possessed all the period charm one could desire.

20031003 Covento Novole buildings Brad Nixon (640x419)

Our quarters were in the former chapel, converted to provide a kitchen downstairs, with a sleeping loft above the small sacristy.

Novole chapel Brad Nixon (640x458)

We shopped in the market town of Camucia, at the foot of the hill beneath Cortona, and enjoyed the experience of cooking “local.” It helps to have a travel partner with some Italian roots and a fair bit of cooking skill, and The Counselor was in her element. We ate well. We had a car, and our plan was that every day we’d visit Umbrian towns: Assisi, Todi, Deruta, Bettona, Montefiore and others, each with its own distinctive history and character. That itinerary left little time for lounging around the property, which isn’t really our style, anyway. We did find time to make use of one of the farm’s amenities: a bocce court:

Novole bocce Brad Nixon (430x640)

That’s another skill The Counselor seems to have inherited from her Italian grandparents.

Day One Dawns Darkly

The plan for our first day was to visit Perugia, the provincial capital and largest city. Our goal was to visit the medieval city center with its piazza, cathedral, Palazzo dei Priori and notable fountain by Nicolo and Giovanni Pisano. We awoke at what we thought was a reasonable hour. The old chapel wasn’t a brightly lighted space at any time, but it was pitch black. There was no sign of light anywhere, and when I tried the small bedside lamp, it didn’t come on. Struggling to find my way downstairs, I determined that the power was out. Outside it was a dank, rainy early morning.

Fortunately, the kitchen had a gas stove, so we made coffee, then breakfast, getting accustomed to our first morning in the old stone building in the Italian countryside.

Italian kitchen Brad Nixon 001-2 (640x457)

Note the wood-burning stove, which was how we heated the place that chilly October. Soon we were on our way along the wet roads of Italy. It’s about an hour and a half to Perugia (red rectangle below) from the agriturismo (blue star), much of it on a major highway that skirts the northern and eastern sides of Lake Trasimeno.

Umbria map Google

I can’t recall when the realization took hold, but by the time we were threading our way through the busy city of Perugia, looking for the best approach to the centro storico, we realized that electric power was off everywhere: every town we passed, every building. No traffic lights were working. Shops were dark and closed.

Nationwide!

In fact, almost the entire country had lost power through some fault in transmission lines from hydroelectic sources in the Alps: Milan, Rome, Florence, Turin, and every village, town and house throughout Italy was without power.

The guidebook advised that parking in the historic area was problematic. Our best means to reach the old part of the city, elevated above the modern town, was to park at the city bus station and take a local bus. At the station, we found a rather chaotic scene. Buses were running, but no agents were at the windows, since there was no electricity, and none of the display boards showing routes and times were operating.

Let It Happen

Determined to find someone who might answer a question, I went into the station, while The Counselor studied some route maps posted outside. My search yielded nothing, and I went back out.

Friends, I learned a lesson.

I stepped out to find her standing on the step of a bus. “This is our bus,” she said. Always more capable in Italian than I, she’d done an exceptional job of communicating and had found someone who told her what she needed to know. I, for no reason I can explain, doubted her.

“Are you sure?” I asked. At that point, the bus started to pull away. On it was my travel partner, and if she disappeared into some unknown part of a city I didn’t know, in a time before we had cell phones, goodness knows how I’d find her.

“Are you coming?” she asked with impressive aplomb, wondering if this guy was really going to disagree with a woman who was about to disappear. The bus was moving. She wasn’t getting off.

I hurried to get on, regardless of where it was headed. It was, of course, exactly the bus we should take, as she knew perfectly well.

We saw the ancient buildings of Perugia, despite the chilly rain. With the rain and dim light, I took no photos, but I can assure you it’s worth a visit. Here’s a photo of nearby Todi’s main piazza, taken a few days later, which has something of the same character.

Todi piazza Brad Nixon 001-2(640x452)

Perugia’s 14th-Century cathedral of San Lorenzo looms above the square, massive and stolid. On that dark day, with only candles illuminating the interior, we saw it the way it would have appeared for hundreds of years before gas or electric light. It was an experience not to be missed … although I very nearly had missed it.

I received my own illumination that day. Stop worrying. Not every moment is idyllic. You’re a traveler, dude. Get on the bus. Time to roll.

How about your “lesson learned” travel story? Tell us in a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2018. Map © Google.


Responses

  1. I like all the greenery around the buildings.

    Like

    • Along with olives, one of the primary products of that farm was … firewood. Not everyone has a chance to spend time in long-settled and heavily developed Italy, living in the midst of a forest. A rare treat.

      Like

  2. Since you’ve written about Paris, I’ll tell you the story of how I missed Paris, but discovered the French countryside.

    Decades ago, I’d taken the ferry from Dover to Calais, and then boarded the train for Paris. In those pre-Eurostar days it was a bit of a trip. When I got to the Gare du Nord, I was tired, and not thinking of much beyond finding lodging. I stopped by the restroom, and after washing my hands, I gathered up my belongings and prepared to depart.

    The next thing I knew, a French woman was giving me the business in the fastest, most clipped French I’d ever heard, complete with waving hands and a decibel level that competed with the trains. Only later did I learn that she probably was the attendant. I’d ignored her towels, and even worse, I’d ignored her expectation of a gratuity.

    My French was no match for hers, so I did the only thing that seemed reasonable. I fled Paris for Chartres. Once I got to Chartres, and then to some smaller towns and villages, I discovered my French did perfectly well, and I enjoyed the rest of my time in the country.

    The lesson? When you’re in over your head and you know it, a strategic retreat isn’t the worst thing in the world, especially when re-engagement brings different but equally memorable experiences.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Probably good advice. I wonder if my experience is typical, having found the French more tolerant of those who aren’t good speakers than they were a few decades ago? (It may also reflect the difference between being a long-haired backpacker and an, um, more mature, better dressed tourist.)

      Liked by 1 person

      • The truth is that I may simply have encountered an over-worked, stressed-out French worker who wasn’t much worried about correcting cross-cultural misunderstandings. But the time, she was Paris for me.

        I’ll say this — living as I do in a world filled with tourists and travelers from around the world, I still remember her, and try not to be her in my encounters with people who are lost, confused, or clearly out of touch with what’s expected.

        Liked by 1 person


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