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Blogissimo di Nancy

Nancy Lytle

My March Trip Obsession

Saturday, October 30, 2004

I write in the mornings in my little house on the prairie. My desk is in a room with big windows facing an open space of grasses rimmed by a skyline of mountains. Around noon, the sun swings over to this side of the house and begins to flow inside. It's all most pleasant. And quiet. Today it's sunny and windy.

A good friend is going to have an important birthday next March. She has invited some of her Italy-lover friends to join her in Taormina for what promises to be a very sweet seven days. A villa with a sunny terrace overlooking the Ionian sea, good food and wine, plus Mt. Etna. I'm deeply thrilled to be included. Hoping for decent weather in Sicily.

With my usual grandiosity, I've already expanded my March trip to Italy to four weeks, extending into April. In addition to Taormina, which I love, I'm going to spend time in the two places I've missed most since my return --- Sorrento and Rome. I lived in Sorrento for over two years. And I've wandered and stayed in Rome many times. (Note: The trip changed to trade Paris for Sorrento.)

The March trip is shaping up well. I'm flying into Rome where I'll stay for three days before heading to Taormina. For old time's sake, I've reserved the La Torre suite at the Hotel Portoghesi. This is my favorite room in my favorite hotel. I like the hotel partly because of the location near Piazza Navona and the Pantheon. It's no longer cheap, the rooms aren't fabulous, guest services pretty nonexistant, but I love the roof terrace and have had actual parties up there with friends, food and wine. Once we even projected images onto a medieval tower across the street, stopping traffic. They blocked off half the terrace when they made the suite, so now you get your own private outdoor area, which is very cute. If you lean over the parapet and look up Via d'Orso, you can see the dome of San Pietro.

Anyway, I can relax at the Portoghesi for three nights and welcome myself back to Rome at my own pace. Maybe see a few friends. I can taste the fiori di zucca at La Carbonara already; the best I've ever had.

The following Saturday, I'm flying Air-One from FCO to Catania, picking up a car and whoever else shows up mid-afternoon, and driving to the villa in Taormina. Actually the villa is a couple of kilometers outside of town, on a hill above the beachy resort area. Looking forward to wandering the town more fully than last time, which was only a couple of days. But must revisit the amphitheater, the Wonder Bar and the restaurant Bella Blu---where, after dinner, they serve you glasses of mandorle (almond wine) suffused with crushed ice.

After the Birthday Girl Bash, I'll head up the Calabrian coast and the Amalfi Drive to Sorrento. Take two or three days. In Sorrento, I'm hoping to see some of my old friends, especially the little group I called LaCreme. They are Brits who married handsome Sorrento men a couple of decades ago, now have teenagers and a lot of savvy stories, especially about Italian in-laws. They are hilarious women. After they got over my living in Sorrento without a husband ('Why on earth, my dear, would you do it?"), I was included in many pizza-nights-out at their favorite joints. God, we had fun.

I also look forward once again to the annual Easter festivities, which includes a big town-to-town parade of Romans (some on horseback), Israelites carrying the torah, fruit-laden pagan maidens and god knows who else, all escorting a live, near-naked Jesus who is dragging his cross and who winds up getting installed on it in one of Sorrento's finest piazzas. The same piazza, in fact, where my Italian kitty, Cosima, was abandoned as a kitten and rescued by my friend Barbara Palumbo.

After the week in Sorrento, I'll drive up the coast toward Rome, stopping off at Sperlonga, perhaps, for a night. Some years back, I rented an adorable apartment there for ten days; it had a balcony overlooking a mile of golden beach with the grotto of Tiberius at the end. I painted and wandered the moorish alleys of the old town, ate the fresh-daily mozzarella di bufala.

Once I drop my rental car at FCO, I'll have a van pick-up to take me to Trastevere, where I've rented an apartment. After spending days on the internet, looking for the perfect place, I wound up 'finding' the one known as Dean's Apartment; it's mentioned and reviewed numerous times on SlowTrav. Duh. Well, I have it for the last week of my Italy visit. Again, I look forward to hanging with friends, maybe meeting some Slow Travelers.

Staying in Trastevere again --- I've had rentals there before --- will give me a chance to see how I feel about living there. Perhaps even look for a place with a six-month/one year lease. When I decided to leave Sorrento, I thought about living in Trastevere, and did a house exchange with friends to see how it might be. I loved the neighborhood, but had a nagging idea that I would wind up just staying across the river and rarely going into the center again --- sort of like Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Later on that year, I stopped off again in Florence and thought, 'right size, nice pace, art everywhere' and found an apartment around the corner from Santa Croce. Life was good there, until 9/11 and afterward. It was fun during the winter months to go to the supermarket and drop by the Accademia afterward, cradling grocery bags while communing with David. A friend and I had season opera tickets, my cats had, in my second Florence apartment, a walled garden with a willow tree in it. (See the SlowTrav Cat's Pages.) More of Florence later --- remind me to write about the stroller and its many uses.

The Embrace of Morpheus

Rome: Wednesday, March 9, 2005

I am in Rome, lounging in my suite at the Hotel Portoghesi. In some ways, I can't believe I pulled it off --- the concept, the funding, the planning, the lists, the coordination --- all to give me a month in Europe after a two year hiatis.

Proud of myself? I am.

View from rooftop room terrace at Hotel Portoghesi, watercolor by Nancy Lytle

View from rooftop room terrace at Hotel Portoghesi, watercolor by Nancy Lytle

The casualty of this adventure, so far, is me. I ache like never before. I'm tired, so tired, from endless walking through terminals, and three days and two nights without sleep. I have a nasty rash in a strange place, from sitting on airplanes for over twelve hours.

But my mind is singing the Italy song. The sun on ancient bricks, on ochre walls with shadows of trees and vines; the well-remembered Roman cobbles, intricate patterns, missing stones creating the need for attention when walking.

As soon as I arrived at the hotel, having greeted Amadeo, the desk-clerk who has been here forever ("Si, madame, I remember you." Heavy sigh.), I shot down the street for my first coffee back in Italy, sitting outside in the sun. (Yes, there is sun!) Then, a stop at Volpetti's on via Scrofa, followed by a wine purchase at Vinaio on via Portoghesi. Finally, up to the top floor of the hotel to the Torre suite that I love so much. The rooms are really nothing special, but the terrace has gotten even better.

Within five minutes, my friend Mauro phoned to say he would be right over with the loaner cell-phone --- oh yay! His buddy Paolo provides the ride, on a scooter; today there is a strike of buses and metro. We sit on the terrace, sipping tiny glasses of delicious and inexpensive white wine, catching up with our lives after two years.

Mauro and Paolo take their leave and I nibble on spinach and eggplant, a piece of frittata, a few morsels of roasted chicken from Volpetti's, followed by an easy two hour nap. Feeling pretty good, I decide to walk in the direction of Piazza Navona to find reading matter for my 'real' bedtime, soon to come. After three minutes, my body is screaming with aches and fatigue. Nevertheless, I manage to not become a traffic victim, to buy the IHT and sit in the enormous, important piazza for a few moments while the oncoming mist and drizzle usher in the dusk. Bernini's work still shines in the fountains there, surrounded by worshipers.

Now safely in my tower habitat, I feel the wave of Morpheus pulling me under, and I am ready to sleep for a long time and wake again to a very old place.

The Neighborhood Goddesses

Rome: Thursday, March 10, 2005

This was my first full day back in Rome --- another sunny giorno with a vivid sky and cream-puff clouds. In the shade, a serious coolness, a reminder that spring is still an infant. Today I slept until after noon, missing breakfast (nothing special at the Portoghesi) and housekeeping, which led to a later toilet paper crisis.

Walking around was hard; my spine was still in bed, trying to recover from airports and long flights. But it was good to reacquaint with some of the neighborhood goddesses---Navona, Rotunda, Pietra. These beauties still have the power to enchant and communicate.

Late in the day, I once again visited Volpetti's shop of magic food. This time was to create a roof-top spread for expected visitors. Two kinds of proscuitto, a wedge of middle-aged Pecorino, a runny and sweet lump of Gorgonzola, some bubbly-crusted bread, fresh green olives, three kinds of suppli and a big slice of veggie frittata. There, I thought, that should do it. Back on the terrace, I awaited company. The sun faded into a star show in the cold, clear air.

Wine and water showed up, carried by five enthusiastic women traveling slow in Rome and a few other choice destinations. We ate, we ran down to the hotel desk where the good cork-screw was, for several opening sessions. White wines of Frascati, the Veneto, Campania Greca, and other places. Reds from Toscana, Puglia, Umbria. My old friend Floriana was also in attendance, in fine Roman form, sharing her native's eye view of all things Italian. We saw Orion overhead in the heart of Rome. Images were captured on digital devices and everyone snuggled deep into their coats, scarves and hats, wanting to extend this time of gathering.

The evening ended as I knew it would, with my brain on overdrive from the good talk and ambience of the Roman night. Eventually, sleep came, my happy rescuer.

Rome Is Out There

Rome: Friday, March 11, 2005

I barely left my high perch today. Realizing that tomorrow is a travel day, I stayed in the hotel. After all, it is only two steps to the breakfast room from my door, so I managed that. And to hang on the terrace while Paola and her friend cleaned my rooms. Thank the Great Spirit, more toilet paper was installed. Things were down to napkins found in the bottom of my purse, and little packets of mercy tissue left by last night's guests as they filed out the door.

There was just the right amount of food left over in the mini-frigo to make a lunch and a dinner. Water and wine, great food, toilet paper, a clean room, a sunny terrace---who needs to go anywhere? All right, I know Rome is out there, but I'm coming back in two weeks for a long session. The day involved phone calls to friends in Italy, a nap, figuring out the connection to AOL, writing, confirming my shuttle pick-up in the morning---and finally, at sunset, a call from Shannon and Colleen.

While Cheryl was even then winging over the Atlantic, Colleen and Shannon told me about their day in Cefalu, and how at that moment they were sitting on a tiny balcony, sharing a bottle of very good wine, watching an interesting sunset over the sea. I took my cell phone out onto the terrace, where the light was still glowing on various ochre walls and my snippet of the dome of San Pietro was a purple silhouette against a pink sky.

Ultimately, I cancelled a dinner engagement for tonight, feeling the tug of a still-real jet-lag. I bow to the change of time zones, to my weary self. The body is tired, the mind is in a Bernini style ecstasy. And that's pretty impressive.

C is for Catania

Sicily: Saturday, March 12, 2005

My emotions were a whirling dervish as I prepared to leave the Portoghesi, especially when I signed for the bill, but also because a lot of memories had surfaced during the three days of my blissful re-entry into Italy. In the past decade, a number of major times were had at this particular hotel, including several spritely parties, an affair, an impromptu performance art event, and so on.

But now it was time to go to Taormina, by way of Catania. Cheryl and I found each other at the Catania airport without incident and quickly wound up gazing thoughtfully at our rental car, a small Citroen. I planned to drive since she had just arrived from California and looked a little spacy. Only thing. I couldn't figure out the three pedals on the floor---what was that middle one again? It's been several years since I drove a stick. Suddenly Cheryl was alert. She decided to drive us to Taormina, and, I'll testify here and now, she did a great job.

Colleen and Shannon were on the roadside, waving us into our parking area above the sea. Our rental home, directly on the busy road, looked a little rough-hewn, constructed out of the ubiquitous cinder-block that seems to be the signature material of modern Sicily. Up the stairs and inside, we found ourselves in a generously-roomy two story dwelling with five bedrooms, four baths, various sitting areas, a big kitchen and a glorious upper terrace overlooking the Ionian Sea and Isola Bella. Shall I say we were pleased?

Our goal was to keep Cheryl up until at least nine-thirty; to that purpose we headed up to Taormina town on the "Eggs On A String," a four-car cable system that zips straight up the mountain to a spot near the Messina gate. We had a satisfying dinner at Bella Blue, a combo ristorante, bar, disco and all-round meet-up spot. A complimentary round of mandorle (almond wine) served over ice chips was a refreshing finale.

We slept well.

Sunday in the Piazza with Tennessee

Taormina: March 13, 2005

While Colleen, Cheryl and Shannon wandered the town, I found the perfect seat at the Caffe Mocambo and made a little watercolor of the piazza XX Aprile in the satiny sunlight of Sunday afternoon. The local strolling families were relaxed, happy for the sun on their faces. So was I.

On such an afternoon, it was easy to see why Tennessee and the Others found this town, this piazza, to be so simpatico nearly fifty years ago. A wonderful place for an interlude, perhaps to hide out, perhaps to create, perhaps just to spend money.
Later, we gathered at a little wine bar on a winding lane that dipped below Corso Umberto. A Shannon find; ask her the name. Along with Etna vino, both white and red, we had a delightful plate of antipasti and enjoyed the visual details of a well-put-together establishment that seemed newly born. Eventually, we rode the Egg down to our spacious and eclectic haven to hang in the salone and have a speaker-phone call with our beloved Pauline, back in Santa Fe. The fifth member of our party, Lisa, will arrive domani.

Home Alone with The Landlady

Taormina: Monday, March 14, 2005

Today I stayed behind while my three villa-mates went off to Catania to explore the town (which, FYI, produces more annual trash per capita than any other city in Italy) and to eventually pick up Lisa at the airport. We agreed that we would go out to dinner together later in Giardino Naxos. It was sweet hanging around on my own; I had coffee, some bread with jam, ran some clothes through the washer, read my book.

The day was sunny and hazy, not all that warm, but not windy, so I was happy. I watched the light change on Isola Bella and the blue and silky sea. At lunchtime, the usual delicious smells wafted up from the dark well in the kitchen, compliments of the landlady. Since I was simply noshing until dinner, I closed the doors to the kitchen and tried to ignore the aromas. Later, as I re-entered the kitchen, I jumped at the sound of a giant sneeze emanating from below. Right below. Oh, well, I thought, she can't help where she has to sneeze.

Mid-afternoon, I relaxed reading on my bed, ground-floor, my window on the "garden" open wide. The landlady suddenly appeared, right at the window, headed---where? I greeted her, she greeted me, through the bars. "Tutto bene?" "Si, va bene." She disappeared around a corner. I shut the window, drew the curtain and took a deep nap.

Late afternoon, rising refreshed, I headed upstairs with my book to hang on the big upper deck, where the view was wider and the traffic sounds a bit fainter. Eased into a set-up near one of the bedroom windows, where the sill acted as a shelf for my glass, I cracked open my book. There was a repetitive, soft whistling sound, at first kind of sweet, then a bit annoying; I decided it was a bird somewhere near-by, probably in a cage, a cockatoo.

The plot of my book thickened and I was deeply drawn in, although dimly I heard someone calling out faintly---something. Hmmm, the bird has a repertoire. Suddenly, the landlady burst out the door onto the terrace. I jumped big this time, and actually screamed a bit. She had entered the place and come up the stairs without my hearing her, or giving my permission. Dashing into Cheryl's front bedroom, she began rummaging around in a cupboard filled with papers, files, clutter---muttering to herself. I sat on the bed watching. Whatever she wanted wasn't there; she moved to the locked glass door that Cheryl and I had previously peeked through to see an enormous amount of crammed stuff. Opening it, the landlady poked around and poked around, finally finding "it," which looked like a remote control with a cord and plug. She started down the stairs to the first floor; I asked her to lock the outside door on her way out. "No, no," she said. She had come up the spiral staircase in the kitchen, from her dark well below. Comforting to know that, in addition to aromas, sneezes, conversations, the woman herself could blast up anytime from below.

The Greeters returned with Lisa, who was exceptionally perky. We all caught up in the kitchen, with the background whistling of the landlady's birdy. Lisa thanked Shannon for getting the gig together so that all she had to do was leave a contact phone number and get on an airplane. We all concurred, happily.

Later, we all (five) piled into the roomy Alfa and headed out for dinner. After weeks of research, recommendations and lists, we wound up dining at a seaside place in Giardino Naxos mainly because we found a parking spot out front. The food was great, fresh and reasonable; I made a fool of myself over a heaping plate of risotto di mare, which was the best I ever tasted, a phrase that has nearly become out mantra this week. Someone else may Out me about my personal take-away philosophy involving heavy-duty zip-locks. But I stand by my philosophy, 'til death or the return of the lira.

J'Accuse Siracusa

Siracusa: Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Things were going good today. We piled into the Alfa with a self-satisfied perkiness born of days of good eating, sleeping and dishing. Shannon stayed behind to find sausage.

Amazingly, we found parking close to the Archeological Museum in Siracusa, a city that turned out to be only and hour and a half away from our nest, at least with the expert and swift driving of Colleen. I spent a leisurely time in amazement at the vastness of the collection of artifacts on display; the Museo Archeologico Regionale "Paolo Orsi" seems a totally serious, world-class collection of the shards of humanity from 4,000 B.C. onward. Lingering to draw some of the designs that seemed to me to be an inspiration for baroque art (for instance, a Doric frieze with two volutes emerging from a palmetto, elegantly S-curved, from the Villa Minerva), I hung back while Cheryl, Lisa and Colleen headed for the neapolis and what remained of the outdoor glory of the distant past, namely two amphitheaters and a mysterious tall cave.

A bit later, cell-to-cell, I heard that Colleen had had a nasty stumble over at the ancient site and was now headed for the nearby hospital with a damaged left hand. Shortly after, we three non-damaged amice hung out in the waiting room while our friend's broken ring finger was being splinted. We were all feeling shaky, in sympathy with our wounded buddy, the most competent of us all, who was now amongst the panoply of the mighty fallen at Siracusa. Shannon was kept in the loop with cell-phone updates. We had a second surge of anxiety when she asked, "Well, should I still make dinner?" OH GOD YES, we blasted back. How could she even think of such a cruel scenerio?

On the ride home from Siracusa, with Colleen relaxing in the back, hand pillowed on folded jackets, we appreciated Cheryl's driving expertise, despite a couple of wrong turns that took us out into a major agricultural area, on minor roads lined with the legendary prostitutes awaiting after-work customers. A free-wheeling discussion ensued.

Growing closer, the phenomenal mass of Etna, snow-covered, radiating alpenglow from the setting sun. Smoke feathered upward from the peak. Home was minutes away. Safety.

Shannon fulfilled her earlier promise with a spread that occupied all of us for the rest of the evening: toasted rustic bread, a well-seasoned bowl of minced pomodorini, roasted heads of garlic, fresh baby mozzarella dressed with basil and olive oil, lots of vino. Later, more wine, pasta tossed with a sicilian pesto, a lovely salad AND the promised salsicci braised with onions in red wine. Then, unbelievably, cake and mandorla (the fortified almond wine that tastes sooo good when you are here.)
Colleen took her wounded wing upstairs to bed, thoroughly versed on the communal pain-killer possibilities for the morrow and beyond. She allowed as how she didn't need anything more for tonight. Who amongst us, did?

The Ides I'd Rather Have

Taormina and the Gorge: Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Today I recovered my stick-shift skills by driving from our haven on the sea inland to the Gola della'Alcantara, a gorge slicing through mountains west of Taormina. Milky blue water far below rushed through a rocky pass covered with green and wildflowers. And the ride over wasn't too shabby either, winding through valleys dusted with yellow, pink and orange blossoms, plus citrus hanging heavy on thousands of trees.
Later, we met for lunch at a recommended trattoria in Taormina --- again, another triumph of local, inexpensive cuisine. While the others stayed to wander the Teatro Greco, I returned to our villa and, blaziated, doing I now know not what. Had a lapse in Paradise, the Gods forgive me.

Merci for Le Difference

Paris: Sunday, March 20, 2005

Oh it was sweet waking up this morning not in Sicily. Even with my guarded little view of an interior Parisian courtyard, I could tell the day was sunny and clear. I shot into yesterday's clothes, loving my tasteful little double room at the Hotel du Levant all the while, and went down to breakfast. My, my, the coffee, the croissants, the Butter. How great to be back in a country where the people don't fear butter. And no silly rules about smoking, aside from the basic, civilized ones. Outside, the morning was perfect; a slowly waking city, bells ringing for Palm Sunday, the aroma of coffee, bread, and freshly washed streets from last night's showers. A scrubbed Notre Dame just up the street, towers shining; I found a nice fat used book to read at Shakespeare & Co for 5 Euros, wine for my mini-frigo, a box of smelly cheese, a small baguette. I spent an hour at the internet cafe across the street, answering emails; it was still before nine o'clock when I logged off.

After a nap and another wander around the Latin Quarter, I came back to my room, where I noticed a strange and somewhat bathroomy odor. Hmmm.I had removed the tablet of annoying air freshener in le bain, wrapped it in a double layer of Saran Wrap and stowed it in an empty cupboard, so what was it? Of course, it was the Camembert. Man, that is some aromatic foodstuff.

Now it's the end of my first full day in Paris, with a lovely week to go before I return to Rome. Looking forward to the Matisse exhibit at the Palais du Luxembourg, the arrival of my dear friend Martha King from Firenze, and more of the world's greatest croissants. Thanks to Pauline for phoning me the minute I got to Paris and the ensuing long, long conversation. Lovely. And to Cheryl for checking in this morning to say that her little apartment in Civita is delightful and she's having a peaceful time. And to Martha, who is going to bring me a new phone card for my borrowed cellular so that it will continue to think it's in Italy.

Catch up with you later.

Loving Paris

Paris: March 21 - 28, 2005

I'll have to expand on this part of my trip later on. But the nine days in Paris were nearly perfect. I learned how to ride the buses, saving my bad back from extra strain. I spent a lot of time around Rue Mouffetard, the neighborhood I would want to live in should I ever live in Paris. The Matisse exhibit was very good, inspiring as usual with HM, my favorite painter. Saint Chapelle --- once more, wow. The food, excellent, the wine, delicious, the people --- friendly and fun. I like the little parks everywhere, the clean(ish), even surfaced streets, the diagonals creating vistas everywhere, thank you Haussemann.

I'm going back, often. My friend Martha was a delightful companion for five of the Paris days; she too was happy just wandering and sampling cuisine ordinaire. Thanks, Martha, I miss you already... Thanks again to Pauline for phoning just before I left for Rome to hear about my Paris experience.

Read more in Nancy's Paris Travel Notes.

Nancy Lytle lived in Italy for five years, writing manuscripts for two novels and various travel essays.

© Nancy Lytle, 2005

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