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Postcard: Off the Beaten Track in August, Northern Italy

Nella Nencini

As the produce in the fruit and vegetable market in Bolzano suggests, there is great bounty in Italy. Bolzano, a German-speaking city at the foot of the Alps, is one of the coldest cities in the winter and hottest in the summer (together with Florence). The Dolomite mountains shoot into the sky all around the city, creating natural boundaries - and yet, this market presents mostly local produce - with an imported avocado or two, of course.

The bounty of the produce market in Bolzano can be seen as a metaphor for the rest of the country. Italy is a rugged land, mostly mountains. The Apennine range running from north to south and the Alps running from east to west leave relatively little space for the some 57.7 million inhabitants. The 5000 miles of coastline are mostly reserved for vacationing, with the exception of some important cities, like Palermo, Naples and Genoa. Italy is so linguistically diverse that the more than 21 dialects spoken throughout the peninsula have fueled what is known as "regionalism" for centuries. Regions that historically feuded by sending invading foreigners to one another like malevolent gifts, now manifest their diversity in their language, their kitchens and their soccer stadiums.

But there is a healthy amount of homogeneity among Italians too. Stereotypes seem to prevail: Italians eat pasta for lunch; they do not drink cappuccino after lunch and, what interests us now: Italians take vacation in August, bringing the country to a screeching halt.

Slow Italian pace? Try no pace at all. By the middle of July, normal activity begins to wane and by the beginning of August, shops no longer close between 1 and 4pm, they close for two or three weeks. Dry cleaners close, mechanics close, factories close, wineries close, restaurants close, even some museums close. Cities like Florence and Venice would be abandoned if not for the tourists braving the heat to visit artistic treasures. I have always viewed August as a difficult month in Italy. A month when Italians escape to the seaside or the mountains and I go to California.

This year, however, my husband and I remained here and inadvertently made an important discovery about Italy in August: if one avoids the crowded beaches, it can be a wonderful time to explore.

We learned this on our anniversary weekend, which began with a wonderful hotel in Lombardy, situated amidst the vineyards of Franciacorta, the production area of some of Italy's best sparkling wines. The hotel houses one of Italy's most renowned restaurants, famous for a particularly golden saffron risotto. The experience is luxurious and of the most total tranquility.

Franciacorta is about a two and a half-hour drive from our home in Tuscany and we lengthened the journey by stopping for lunch just off the freeway near Parma.

Parma is one of the most renowned culinary regions of Italy. If not for the Prosciutto di Parma, a sweet and almost delicate version of the dry-cured ham, then for the Parmigiano Reggiano, the king of Parmesan cheese. Both of these epicurean treats adhere to strict regulations concerning processing and aging. If every prerequisite is not met then the producers may not use the terms "di Parma" and "Parmigiano reggiano". Although it is possible to find good Parmigiano and good Prosciutto di Parma all over Italy, the quality in a local restaurant specializing in these foods made a delectable difference. We had a light lunch of specialties from Parma accompanied by a Bella Vista sparkling wine (inaugurating in this way our nuptial commemoration) and recommenced our journey to Lombardy.

For most travelers, Lombardy is a land of two attractions: Milan and the "Lakes" (Como, Maggiore and Iseo). Although Milan engrosses and the lakes enchant, the hills at the foot of the Alps leave nothing to be desired (except maybe more stringent building codes in order to avoid the unseemly assemblage of architectural styles).  Just minutes from industrial districts lie gems like Brescia and Bergamo - wealthy business towns with old historic centers that create a perfect conflation of the ancient and the modern.

After an evening in Lombardy and another with friends on Lake Garda, we began our journey homeward early Monday morning. The freeway traffic heading south towards Tuscany became unbearable around Modena, so we decided to go into town and buy some of the prized balsamic vinegar.

Like the specialties of Parma, the real balsamic vinegar from Modena complies with specific regulations for its production. It is aged at least one year in a "battery". A battery is composed by a line of barrels - made of oak, chestnut, mulberry, juniper or cherry wood - and arranged so that they descend in size from largest to smallest. Cooked or concentrated must is added to specially selected wine vinegar in the largest barrel, where fermentation occurs. As the vinegar is moved down the line it matures and concentrates, producing by the last and smallest barrel, the dark luminous liquid that smells simultaneously of sweet and sour. Aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena is very expensive and is sold in small bottles of about 250 ml. All other Aceto balsamico is made without this involved process, as the price will indicate.

Unfortunately (but predictably), the two balsamic vinegar houses we wished to visit were closed for the August holiday. Instead, we were directed by some elderly Modenese to a traditional gastronomia, a kind of gourmet delicatessen, serving all kinds of cured meats, cheeses, the famous tortellini from Modena and, of course, selections of Aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena. (The accent is on the "o" of Modena, by the way, like MOH-deh-na as opposed to moh-DAY-na.) The owner of the store was a strong-jawed man who spoke loudly and invited us to taste absolutely everything. It was 11:30 in the morning and our stomachs did the buying. We walked out with our balsamic vinegar as well as two bags full of salami, prosciutto, parmigiano, and "ciccioli", a cured meat from Modena which is made from the "rest" of the pig, those parts unused for the other meats. Better not to ask and just taste, for it was very good. The food of poverty, once upon a time.

Our subsequent decision to take the road that leads from Modena up to Abetone and down into Lucca over the Apennine Mountains became yet another adventure that weekend. The mountain air and the shimmering green pastures, moistened with recent summer rains, refreshed us. We stopped for lunch at a simple but dignified restaurant serving specialties from the area, including fresh porcini mushrooms. The restaurant's use of the natural spring across the street for their acqua naturale was a special treat. Served in chilled ceramic carafes, the sweet and delicate water seemed a liquid materialization of the fresh mountain air.

Back on the road, we passed through the town of Abetone, a ski resort just about an hour and a half from Florence on one side of the Apennines and Bologna and Modena on the other. Alberto Tomba, the flamboyant Italian ski racer, learned to ski at Abetone, driving up the mountain from his native Bologna. It is not a bad resort, especially since they installed the large-capacity tram to replace the "ovovia" (an egg-shaped gondola for two (barely), built in the US in 1950  and used to visit the volcano on Hawaii). Still, the low altitude at Abetone makes the season very short and the crowds on weekends are worse than those at the beaches in August.

In the summer, people come to Abetone to escape the heat of the lowlands and to eat porcini and fresh berries. The delicious frutti di bosco or wild berries, include blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, cassis, and strawberries. Just outside of the town of Abetone is a cooperative that sells berries freshly picked or as preserves. We stopped there and bought a bag of blueberries as well as blueberry and raspberry jam sweetened with raw sugar and maraschino cherry jam sweetened with agave juice.

Finally, we traveled down the other side of the mountain, past Bagni di Lucca and into the town of Lucca, where we rented some DVDs at Blockbuster and went home. Our impromptu journey, and the whole weekend really, had proven that it is possible to enjoy Italy in August - despite the heat, despite the desolation of the cities, despite the foreign and Italian tourists - you just need to take get off the "beach 'n' trek".

Nella Nencini has now begun Africa with Nella. As a professional safari guide she offers personalised travel planning and private guiding in her home of Kenya and throughout East Africa. www.africawithnella.com

© Copyright Nella Nencini, 2002

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