PANICALE, Umbria, Italy– Competitive Saturday morning. Even though it is way early, we’re jockeying for position at Biano’s. Women have several choices in town but guys pretty much have Biano. And here he comes with the newspapers under his arm right now. He turns his head away from the even earlier bird and mutters “We’ll get our coffee in a minute. Or we can just go now?” I wave him off and tell him to get to work, we’ll do it another day. I was so glad to be here that even being number two couldn’t mess with my Zen attitude. And strangely it paid off because it gave me plenty of time with La Nazione. There in the Umbria section, the whole front page was covered with photos and news of the flower petal art display going on in Spello the next day. Never been to Spello. Its streets appear to be filled with elaborately detailed mosaics of religious subjects all done in flowers. Must do this. Right after the trim. Hey, I needed that haircut didn’t I? Ok, ciao, ciao. Time is predictably flying because even having a early morning haircut is fun. Tourists. So easily amused.

Kiki and Fabiola in Panicale's Piazza with some Italian cappucchino to goPASS ME DOWN THE LINE, PANICALE

Leaving Biano’s I head home (go left) even though like Moses, I can smell the coffee in The Promised Land, just across the wide piazza (to the right). I’ll go get the girls up and come back with them. I told you I was feeling Zen. Friends before coffee? Where did that come from? Bronzed goddess Daniela and I fall into step together and do the usual weather chat. What I really want to say is How DID you get that tan? She seems to be in Bar Gallo all the time and always fresh as a daisy and dressed like a perfect fashion model. When does she tan? When does she shop? She peels off at a store and Linda takes her places coming out of her storeroom on one side of the street aimed for her store on the other. Arms full of vegetables in a plastic crate, hair flying behind her, she keeps moving but laughs and says over her shoulder, “We are all running down the corridors of the castello, no?” Well, yes. The town is so small, the walls enclose the houses that all connect one to the other and the “streets” are narrower than most office hallways. It is like we are all in the same building bustling about.

At home, I find that Kiki has gone to the bar because she assumed I would go there. She’s doing that foreigner thing and getting coffee to bring back to the house. What will they think of us? So, I head back and find her coming up the street with coffee in a tray held waiter-like over her head striking a pose and interrupting her gossipy walk with the also amazingly tanned and fabulous Fabiola who works at Linda’s. Again, when is the tan happening? No matter, we’ve got coffee to drink.

Lucci is a favorite friend of ours in Panicale, Umbria, ItalyLuccia is our friend Nico’s cousin. He designed our garden and she brought us wild strawberries she picked in the forest to plant in the garden. She and her sister are walking Denise home when they stop to talk to the three of us. Denise is Danish and we are American but its all non stop Italian, multiple conversations flying about, bouncing off the old stone walls. I’m talking to Lucci and as is often the case, with her she holds someone’s hand while she talks to them. Clasps it, warmly, fondly in a way that you know she is focused on only you. We talk of many things but it always comes quickly back to gardening, flowers. We say we are thinking of seeing the Corpus Domini floral displays the l’infiorata in Spello. Is it worth seeing? In unison, three heads tilt back, all hands rise palm up and they all sigh “Ah, Spello”. Evidently its ok. Earlier, after pizza in Paciano, we saw friends of Kiki’s scrambling about getting teams busy drawing chalk designs on the sidewalks there but here in Panicale hours later we don’t see anything happening. Will there be floral displays here too? Well, maybe. Depends. It is nearly 11 pm here and they will have been working since 2 in the afternoon in Spello the paper said.

umbrian rain. yes even in sunny italy some rain must fall. “Yes”, Lucci agrees “It should be like that, but here we are just four cats.” Siamo solo quattro gatti. What is with the magic number four? Quattro parole means short conversation and as always quattro gatti paints a perfect picture of deserted town piazza. We decide we need to see the display the next day. And see it in Spello. And hope that it doesn’t rain tonight like it has almost every evening. Even if the sun is out when it rains like in the photo, it would still make mess of the displays in the streets. As we part, I agree to come see Lucci’s terra sometime. Her earth. I say “garden?” “No, it’s more than that” she says and her sister nods. “Come see”. I will, I will. Sogni d’oro. Golden dreams.


In the morning we three early risers slip into the piazza and there aren’t even four cats. It is just our footsteps we hear on the stones. Last night, after a wedding, the piazza was a happy riot of noise and action and friends dressed up in party clothes. Hardly recognized Nico in a black shirt and yellow tie. He is a retired professor and a hardworking artist and I didn’t know he had a tie. Molto chic. But that was last night. At Bar Gallo this morning it is just Aldo sorting sodas into the cooler and his wife Daniella serving coffee to the only customer: Biano the barber. Kiki and Midge cover him in compliments about my long, long overdue haircut. Maestro! Complimenti! Un Capolavoro! No, no he grins. I am merely a humble local artisan doing my work he says putting his hand near the marble floor to indicate his place in the haircutting world. And what is this? One more cat. Bruno with his Cheshire smile. Covered with paint. Aren’t you supposed to be on vacation today? Yes, but my wife is hardly speaking to me, he shrugs. Could be all the better vacation the men all reflect sagely. I show everyone the window on the back of my camera where I’ve got a photo of the plant Bruno brought by for Midge.


umbrian flower explosion

That cactus Bruno loaned us must be forty or fifty pounds of Stay-Away-From-Me-I’ll-Stick-You-I-MEAN-IT plant. Piante Grasse they say here when they mean succulents like this. Or maybe just this kind? Not totally clear on that. This particular one is a big green cactus with long, eight inch flower buds. We have a really good sized one Bruno gave us years ago and it is ready to bloom. But his, even bigger one, is ready to bloom a day earlier and since he’s going to Tuscany tomorrow and would be gone when it is blooming he wants it to be appreciated. We drove out to his house yesterday to pick it up. Driving back we were showing it to everyone along the way. And this morning it had bloomed and covered itself with pale pink stars as big as apples. So, here we are. Aldo, Daniella, Biano and Bruno. How lucky are we to know these one, two, three, four cats and have them all to ourselves this quiet Sunday morning?

umbrian flower explosion

We thank Bruno for the flowers and Biano for the coffee and strike out across the still deserted piazza with purpose in our step. We are going to see yet more flowers.

The coffee paying thing is a fine game, by the way. They play it endlessly here and always act like it was their very first time. Biano told Daniela he was paying for everything when he saw us come in, before he said hi or anything. Quick as a snake. And when he saw Bruno come in, he said And Bruno too. Later, when we and Bruno try to pay before leaving Daniela points at Biano and Bruno grumbles Ma, no. Si, si. Grazie! It is an endless battle to see who can be the quickest and the most generous. Show up anywhere near the bar and you will be offered coffee. No coffee? Are you sure? Prosecco perhaps? But not this morning, we’re off on a road trip.

See you in Italy,

Stew Vreeland

One way to spend a day

9 AM PANICALE— what is that ringing in my ears? Office on the phone, ok. Wait still ringing. Door bell too now. How often does it do that? But it is good fun, while I am still on the line, Midge comes up from the door waving a bottle of wine with a box of Bacci chocolates tied to it with festive gold bow. From the sweet, pretty lady who makes the house sparkle. Why did she do that?

She leaves and the door bell rings again. Hey. I haven’t even had coffee yet. It is Bruno. Cerco Stee—oou. Do we need wood? Heck yes, thank you. Cold spring this year, but we have a fine, fine, mighty fine woodstove. Thanks to Bruno for that, too.

We do not deserve friends in a foreign land that would think about us. And act on the thought, too. Five minutes later, Bruno is back, the rear of his red Fiat loaded with wood, split and laid out in neat, stackable wooden boxes. Kindling tied up with a piece of grapevine. And a bottle of his own white wine that had a fair chance of being grown on that very vine. Grayson says Look, Dad. No label. Well, sure. That is the good stuff. And the cherry on top? Bruno says The his ciliegi are ripe (actually, the say mature) in his yard, and we should come sometime this weekend. Might just do that. Hope I do. So much fun, so little time.


Later that night, reading quietly by the fire. A sharp BANG. Oh well. I look around. Nothing else transpires, so I continue reading my book, totally engrossed in the life of that quintessential bad boy of the Renaissance: Carravaggio. Ignoring the noise that night cost us our primo piatto the next day. The meat dish ran away. We’d been daily washing and rinsing and feeding herbs to our big garden snails. For several days, almost a week. Lumache on their way to becoming escargot in garlic butter.

Evidently, the big bang was a cat tipping over the heavy lid of the collandar of snails on the porch. By morning, all but half a dozen slugabeds had “run off”. So, it was like a week at the spa for all of them. Sorry to have missed out on doing the whole process, all the way through, with Wiley. We had people invited for lunch and everything. Peccato. The last batch was great that she had ready for us when we arrived. Who knew you could freeze escargot from your garden. Oh, we are living on the culinary edge now.


The next day: yawns, bright and early. Sunlight streams in the window (I left it unshuttered for that very reason) and it wakes me up and it pulls me out of bed, vacation or not. Must be first in line at Biano’s for my long, long overdue haircut. Quick, shave, grab Carravaggio and go off at a trot to the piazza. Whew. Non c’e nessuno. Found a sunny spot on the stone bench hard by the door to Biano’s. Not too much sign of pidgeon poop. OK, OK, I’ll sit here. The town is awake and from Google Earth probably appears to be a proper anthill. People pop out of one door and scoot into the next and back out again like a stop action film. One pair of frisky ants was Linda from the grocery store and the lady butcher from the across the street.

The two of them are making a bee line past the fountain, towards Aldo’s cafe when they spot me and wave me to join them for coffee. Oh, no. Grazie mille, grazie mille. Can’t loose my place in line! Biano is an hour—plus process. Get out of line and there goes the day. So. Sorry. They duck into the bar without me and two seconds later, from the other corner of the piazza comes Linda’s husband, Bruno. Stew, vieni, vieni per un caffe. Ok. We’ve been through this. No way. Not deserting the post. Where IS Biano? It is 8:15 already. Giaccomo, sitting outside the cafe, says I’LL watch for you and hold your place in line. Dai (comeonalready), come get a coffee. But, don’t leave me too long, alright?

Zip in, order coffee, apologize to Linda for taking her husband’s offer and not hers. Thank you Bruno! Yike! Why is the coffee so HOT today Daniella. The one day I want to gulp and run. Seared throat and all, I’m back out in the piazza where Giaccomo sees me and points back over my shoulder at the late Biano. There he is, there he is! What’s this? Cunning Adelmo is between me and Biano’s? Crosses his arms and says I’m First. Oh, no. Oh, yes he says Got here at 7:30. Good grief. The rascal is teasing me. Chee. Biano has been wondering when I would give over my mop to his control. I’ve got a folded up photo of the decadent, and nearly deceased Lapo Elkman from a gossip magazine called “Oggi”. Fine role model, Stew I’m thinking. We study the bad boy of Fiat’s photo for a minute, Biano claps his hands, and says No Problem. We can do this. I am an architect, I can build the kind of structure you want. And he did.

Love being at Biano’s. We talk of many things, of shoes and ships and sealing wax. And cabbages and kings. And Vespas and Ferraris . Sitting in the other chair is a older guy, looking out the blinds at the piazza, just observing the scene or reading the pink sporting newspaper or chiming in every now and then, when a subject arouses him from his thoughts. He’s not here for a trim, just for the company. I’m in for both.

In the photo, that’s Biano on the left, some lost Americano, and then Bruno on the right, in the café. Why do I have a plastic bag tucked in my pocket? And yet still let people take my picture? Found a plant in the garden. Weed or not? So I tucked it into a bag, trucked it into the piazza and got opinions one way or the other from anyone I found wandering about. Yep. Weed.


Bruno is still unloading and organizing groceries into the storage room of his wife’s store with a hydraulic mini fork lift. Somehow, we get on the subject of my son, Zak, who is the Invisible Man as far as Panicale goes. People know of him and know he can’t come just yet, Fear of Flying etc. But he did get to visit a bit of Panicale when he met a Panicalesi friend’s daughter in New York, thanks to our meddling slash matchmaking. Now she is back here and we spoke in the piazza this morning. Bruno and I agree she is a complete angel, like lovely saint in a painting. Bruno theatrically wriggles his eyebrows like Groucho and says Her Momma’s not bad either. HEY! WHAT ARE YOU GUYS TALKING ABOUT DOWN THERE? We look around and then, we look up. So. That’s where Adelmo’s house is. He’s hanging out a window and hanging on our every word eves dropping on us. Oh, girls, we say. He says, oh well, I would never do that. Talk about girls. I have the most perfect, the most beautiful wife in the whooole world. She’s right there, isn’t she, Adelmo? (We had to ask) He nods vigorously, Bruno and I laugh and go on about our alleged business. I can’t really say why but these mini moments are, to me, worth the plane fare by themselves. Call me easily amused, call me crazy, just call me when its time to catch the next plane to Italy . . .

See you in Italy,


Matt and Truth Trip Across Italy

Technically, Matt is my sister’s husband’s sister’s husband. So. You can see why we refer to Matt and his wife Truth as “cousins”. They are fine, misplaced Iowa relatives who, like us, heard the cry of Go East, Young Iowans, Go East.

From top right Italy to bottom left Italy. They did it all. And did it their way.
Matt and Truth and their two sons, started in Venice then went to the opposite side of the peninsula to see the tower leaning in Pisa, siesta’ed in Siena (staying at the country estate of Spanocchia) and then drifted south checking off Panicale, Naples, Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast. Finally arriving somewhat in lower left Italy – at the Greek ruins of wonderful, evocative Paestum. All during school vacation. ONE school vacation. From the look of the pictures, and their great stories, they did it very well indeed.

I’m in trembling awe of all they saw and did. With kids in tow. Be very afraid. Warning lights would be going off all over for me. Too many things to do! Too little time! Too kids! But their guys Max and Oliver are calm, cool and collected. Our “cousins” way of doing this epic trip just made me realize that . . . I must just be The Lazy Traveler.

They were in “our neck of the woods” of Panicale for just one day. And they just dived in there too. By the time they left they had seen some sights, sampled two of our favorite restaurants, enjoyed Aldo’s fine coffee and his summertime gelatis.

AND both the boys got their haircut by “my” barber, Biano. Oh, Biano, Biano where are you when I need you? You do not want to know how long my hair is now. It is like it was when I was in college. Terrible bother and I’m just being silly and obsessive — but I’m holding firm in my resolution to wait for Biano to take a whack at the bramble I’e allowed to grow up since I was last there in Italy. (18 days to go, Biano. 18 days.) The boys said they had never had such a work-over. They got the full treatment: wash, rinse, head massage and consultation on esoteric subjects such as: the length of sideburns relative to facial bone structure. Whoa. We are so not at the Maine Mall anymore, guys. So long and thanks for all the photos!


Ok, NOW how many days? 54? Sigh. Trying not to check the calendar more than once a day. Because, I tell myself —in my most logical tone of voice— because Stew, that is just not really helping at all. But. A bright spot is daughter Wiley Vreeland. Living life vicariously through her, for a couple weeks. Her Countdown to Umbria Clock has ticked down to much smaller numbers than mine. She’s closer in number of days, and in geography. The Wiley Traveler should be landing in London in a couple days. So, technically she will at least be on the same continent as Italy. Checking maps again. Yes, same general continent. Anyway she’s seeing her artist/musician boyfriend Daniel in London for a few days and should arrive in Italy mid-April. Midge, baby Grayson and I follow along as soon as Grayson gets back from Costa Rica. She is saving the sea turtles of the rain forest or something equally noble. As I understand it from the brochure, she will be able to easily Save all the Sea Turtles In Just One Two Week Vacation! After all that turtle saving, we finally arrive in Italy late in May. Holding breath, turning blue, till then.

Give me down to there hair
Shoulder length or longer
Here baby, there mama
Everywhere daddy daddy

I’ve decided the mature way to handle waiting out the days till our departure would be to continue my Haircut Boycott. No more waiting for Godot. Oh no, no. We’re waiting for our barber buddy with the big silver bouffant, Biano da Panicale. He’s our stylish barber and chief news source. Like any good barber, he knows everything that is happening in his town. And, beyond barbering, he’s a darn good photog too. He took the Red Red Ferrari photos on the home page, as a matter of fact. But, like I said, his day job is being the town barber. And our barber. Our only barber since 1998. The gap between our last trip and this upcoming one is about twice as long as usual. Ergo. So is my hair. Vreeland’s head photographer Katherine snapped this hirsute photo while we were in the midst of hanging yet more Italian debris in our office this morning. Poster was an eccentric movie theater sized poster that arrived 20 years ago courtesy of our friend Massimo of Torino. Be honest. Haven’t you always wished you were named Massimo? What? That’s just me? Oh. Regardless, you have to love the promo line they used on that Frattelli Blues movie there in Italy. “The most explosive combination since nitro and glycerin”!

More soon, when we start getting Wiley Traveler reports direct from The Old Country.

Saluti a tutti,


Typical day in the Neighborhood? Only in Italy

PANICALE, UMBRIA—We are high up on a hill in Umbria, way off the chart or the map in most cases. But it is not even unusual to see car rallies roar into town and surprise us all with a quick half hour car show. We saw a gaggle of classic race cars from the 30’s one time. And we have seen this sort of Ferrari rally multiple times. So not in Kansas anymore, Dorthy. The routes of these rallies are always unannounced, always fun. They are timed and very precise rallies and so they do not let out the schedule till the last second. Die hards would cheat and practice the route ahead of time to get an edge.

I walked into the piazza and was happy to see this visual feast, but at the same time all panicked because, for once, Bad Stew, I did not have my camera with me. My friend Biano, the town barber said No Problem as he was shooting up a storm anyway. A few days later he handed me an envelope of huge 6 x 8 inch glossy prints. Is this a great country or what?! He wrote the details of the extra slick red coupe down for me. So, when you are trying to find the exact thing on eBay later, you will be bidding on the right model. He says it is the classic 1960 Ferrari 275GTB4. Guess-timated value? You know what they say, if you have to ask . . . but here it is anyway: 750,000. And friends that is EUROS.

Grazie Mille, Biano! Tu sei troppo gentile, come sempre!

See you in Italy!