Happy Independence Day

independence day in italy, umbria

PANICALE, Italy, Umbria–They celebrate their Fourth of July on April 25th. It is much more recent history here as this is their Liberation from the big war. Hard to imagine this languid, pastoral countryside covered in rack and ruin and everyone scared and hungry. Try not to think about it but there are monuments in every town, so the liberation from those dark times is something to celebrate.

When we pulled our Rent-a-Fiat into a parking spot under the countessa’s palazzo yesterday, this poster was under our car’s nose. I’d been describing to our friends at our design and marketing company how Italian sometimes use the exaggerated photo dot as a graphic element so this got my attention first. But the words worked very well too. We used the same big dots devise in the art for Paul’s delivery Ape. Photos just arrived!
Due Fratelli Ape Art
This festa today is a good example of the feared multi-tasking that we sometimes get ourselves into, it’s a festival three ways that we know of. First, Independence Day and supposedly everyone is off work. But there was Linda and family in front of their store as usual. Yolanda too. “What the heck?” was how I believe I phrased it to them. Oh well, there were 30 camper trailers washed up on Panicale’s hilltop, full of happy campers. Until they found out they were about to starve because it was a holiday. So, Linda implied they HAD to open for that opportunity. I do confuse easily, may have this right or may not. All I know is everything is supposed to be closed and it is all open.

Second, Happy Easter again. Sort of. Remember this time last year when we talked about Pasquetta, the day after Easter, when the magic of Cheese Rolling happens? It is called Ruzzolone. Big Wheel. Wheel of cheese tossed merrily down a course at the edge of the town. I guess Easter this year was a three day storm of biblical proportion. People’s eyes go wide with respect as they describe mighty rain, wind, snow, lightning. Basic end of the world sort of unrelenting storm to celebrate the coming of spring. That was over a month ago. They put it way off in hopes, eventually, of finding a peaceful spring day. And I think they have found it.

Still quiet in town. The happy couple Simone and Lorena are back from their wedding in Sicily where people were swimming in the balmy mid 80’s temps. Everyone came back sunburnt and full of seafood. The renewal of their vows is tomorrow and that is all anyone can talk about. There will be dinner in a club out in the country. For the entire town. Dinner on the house. As Simone’s father, the legend that is Aldo, as he says, “from six till . . .” and then he just makes that horizontal slow drift off of his hand. Can’t wait.

But lets talk about today. The Ruzzolone is an afternoon event and that leaves the whole evening free and we might go catch the beginning of the third leg of this festaday. The two day Santa Margherita festival begins tonight in nearby Cortona. Midge’s middle name is Margherita, the nearby piazza where we park is Piazza Regina Margherita. Our house is more or less officially Casa Margherita. Midge’s favorite flower is her name sake the Margherita (daisy). We have bought a ton of flowers from the also nearby Daisy Brothers nursery. Filli Margheritti. So, we’re fired up to do a bit of celebration in Cortona as well. Gosh we haven’t seen our friends Nando and Pia in Cortona for, what, two or three days (have written that trip up but not put it up. Forgive sequence aberration) so it would be fun to get up there and get in the middle of that festival too. We’ll see how that goes.
lavender buying trip to angela's greenhouse
I’ve got a bunch of gardening to do in between events as well. Planting beds of lavender which we love. Yesterday, we skipped Margheritti Bros and went to lovely Angela for our lavender. Do you believe the view from her green house? That is Lago di Chiusi past the petunias.

Happy Festivaling

See you in Italy,

Stew Vreeland

The Bunny Came Early

easter eggs of Italy. chocolate holiday fun
PANICALE, Umbria to GRAY, Maine —
This year the rabbit hopped a Continental flight from Rome. And came bearing gifts from Italy. Cheese, oil and bright, foil-wrapped chocolate Easter eggs. Our Panicale neighbor Elida was planning to be passing right overhead on her way to visit relatives in sunny Arizona. She let us talk her into swooping down in snowy Maine for the weekend.

PANICALE, PECORINO, PROSECCO

Lucky us. This whirlwind visit all by itself was something to be thankful for. Elida’s great, but did you see that big old hunk of Pecorino, stagionato she had under her arm? The good, hard stuff that you shave off the wheel and grab with one hand – while raising a glass of Prosecco with the other. The oil gift was a tin of their own olive oil. Maybe even from olives we’d picked with them. Maybe not. Maybe we picked with them a year ago.

VENI, VIDI, VENCHI

And then there were the chocolate Easter eggs she laid on the kitchen table. “Straight from the airport!” Elida chirped brightly. “What! You didn’t make and wrap them yourself?” They came in a pretty forest green bag that I’ve since misplaced, distracted as I was by the shiny objects of gold and green and blue. What chocolate! “No, I’m not sharing!” Hope this love isn’t heresy since our Italian home is just outside Perugia, epicenter of the land of Perugina and we love all their Bacci. And I’ve never heard of the Venchi brand. The blue wrapped Bigusto Fondente are my favorite and what a good dark look and their taste is even darker than their look. Big wow. Can not believe a person could ever willingly put a Hersey in their mouth after one of these.

big italian easter eggsSPEAKING OF CHOCOLATE

Obviously Easter is a huge, multi-faceted holiday in Italy. And chocolate eggs like the ones The Elida Bunny brought us are omni-present in Italy just as they are in the states. “Just better chocolate” he said in his opinionated-who’s-going-to-stop-him on-his-own-blog sort of way. And then there are the big, hollow eggs. You’ve seen them outside of Italy in the occasional specialty stores. You know, the big and bigger ones dressed up in extravagant foils. We’ve seen them waist high and higher in Italy. Almost big enough for kids to play in. “There you go, eat your way out of that!” In a strange combo of church and state, these theoretically church-based holiday eggs can come with state-sponsored lottery tickets attached. The brightest and best are hand made by artisans hired by professional-strength gift givers who put anything from new car keys to engagement rings inside.

During the run up to Pasqua, it seems every one in Italy with access to a cash register or a credit card scanner has their shelves filled to over-flowing with these eggs. Even the unsold ones have the potential to keep spreading the spirit of the season. Last year at our friend Aldo’s cafe, the unsold ones were broken up and doled out for nibbles for days afterwards. Coool, cappuccino AND chocolate. So, we’re all Happy Easter. And happy well beyond, too, thank you Elida for bringing all these new memories.

See you in Italy,

Stew Vreeland

Fall for a parade.It’s grape harvest time in Italy

PANICALE, Umbria, Italy – Ah, yes, it is that time of year. La Vendemmia. Grape harvest time in Umbria. Most fruits, nuts, etc are gathered and you use the Raccogliere verb in Italian when you are gathering. La raccolta di . . . Not grapes. They have their own word: Vendemmia. And in Panicale, surrounded by vineyards they also get a parade. And a week of festivities. There is music in the air, and garlands of grapes and vines hung all through the town. Surprise bodegas of arts, crafts, olive oil and of course, wine, open up all over town in cantinas that seemingly exist only for this once a year purpose. This celebration goes back to time immemorial. And the parade sometimes surprises us with its pagan-ness. Which is a fun surprise – that here in modern Italy, that ancient rascal Baccus is very much alive and well.
wine harvest festival in Umbria in Italy
Katia, our friend at See You in Italy, is a broker, but first and foremost at this time of year, she is a proud, flag-waving citizen of her hometown of Panicale. She took these pictures of this year’s parade last week. Thank you for sharing, Katia! Looks like a good time was had by all, as usual. How far wrong can you go when parade floats are required, yes required, to dispense vino? It’s a wonderful life, isn’t it? The floats are fun and full of wine and puns. My favorite combination. They say “word jokes” – Giocchi di Paroli. A play on words.

A couple shown here include vinquisisismo, versus inquisisismo, a Vino Power Fiat 500 and my favorite concept this year: a VinoMat. Which, unlike a typical bancomat (ATM) that merely dispenses filthy lucre, this one dispenses healing quantities of primo vino. Life is good. Midge says she wants one in our house.

ROUND AND ROUND WE GO

The parade is so good and the town is so small. What to do, what to do? The solution is classic. They go around the town walls once. Usually very decorous and PG. But what goes around, the first time, isn’t always what comes around the second time. If it is going to go ribald Act Two is when that will happen. Keeps the crowd on its toes. Sometimes it is obvious visually but often its just that the play on words changes for the worst sort of a one, two punch and it makes you want to have all your vocabulary at hand. And stand near your Italian friends who will ‘splain it to you. I’ve had Italian friends almost gasping for air at the audacity of some of the puns that were going right over my foreign head. But if you go, and you see someone doubled over laughing at a parade float, just ask.

Harvest festivals are just another reason to fall for fall in Italy. It is such a delicious season all around, weather is usually stupendous, summer’s frenzied crush is over, people are bubbly and effusive in the bounty of the harvest. And it’s not yet time to dig into the heavy lifting of the olive harvest that always seems to be racing the coming winter’s clock. All in all, the best of times.

See you in Italy,

Stew Vreeland

Hello, Spello. I see your streets are paved with gold.

spello during corpus domini. spello, Umbria
SPELLO, Umbria, Italy–Midge knows a short cut. There is, evidently, some shopping that has taken place near here. Ceramic-related shopping she thinks. Its early and we take back road after scenic back road through one sleepy town after another. Us and the occasional spandex and logo covered bike rider/professional racer wannabe. Is there any other kind of biker these days? No matter, we’re happy to share the Sunday morning with these few brightly colored fellow travelers.

As I write this later in the garden, bees are buzzing, an orange butterfly lands on my knee. The hummingbird-like bug is putting his long needle nose in the sweet purple lavender, but Focus Stew, Focus. Get us to Spello, already. It is not that far from Panicale but we are such slugs that we’ve never been right there so we’re staying sharp looking for signs. We’re south of Perugia, south of Assisi, but it is before Foligno off 75. I see it! We’ve been driving on the flat agricultural plain around the lake when suddenly, there is Spello looking down on us from its cliff, the houses uniformly pale pink, the color of Bruno’s cactus blossoms. There’s the exit. Gulp. There’s the gridlock. This town is not asleep. It is wide awake and neck deep in cars. We bump up over a curb and onto an available sidewalk, lock up and step away from the Fiat Bravo. Someone right behind us does the same and suddenly those two blocks of sidewalk are filled too. To fortify us for the flowers we sit for a minute in a huge café under a resort hotel. Everything is better after a cappuccino and one of those fruit tarts. We follow crowds across the street and it begins. Just like that. Quiet coffee to full emersion in a festa in a matter of a few feet.

THE STREETS REALLY ARE PAVED IN GOLD. AND RED. AND GREEN. EVERY COLOR UNDER THE SUN.
AT LEAST DURING CORPUS DOMINI.

streets of Spello, Italy are paved with gold during corpus domini
Did I say what we are doing here? Meant to. Happily, it is spring, flowers are everywhere and it is Corpus Domini. Even the catholics among us are not solid on what that all entails. Sounds like Holy Body. But we think it is more in the body as in the host at communion and why not have a flower festival for it? Because, here in Spello they have covered the streets with major sized, highly detailed art made over night from flowers, seeds and petals. Like someone had steamrolled over a Rose Parade float. Its all biblical themed, huge, happy, bright and hard not to be knocked over by the scale. Several are 30 or 40 feet long? I didn’t measure them but they are big, trust me. The teams that did them are proud but not really standing tall, often sitting or laying down. tired flower arrangers of Spello, Italy during Corpus Domini celebrationWe think they’ve all been up all night doing this. I read one brochure that claimed 2,000 people would be up all night, including several hundred 3-14 year olds. Tradition! And it specifically said they would not be playing about. Flowers to gather, dissect and arrange artfully. During the show there are step ladders and metal viewing stands here and there and people go up, snap a photo, come down and someone else goes up. Some of the teams are spraying their art if they are in full sun to keep them fresh. There are flowers not only below us, but beside us in doorways and over hanging from balconies. And above that, bright blue skies. What a day we fell into here.

The festival is crowded but civilized. We walk wherever we want and see things along whatever path strikes our fancy. Until, suddenly, we’re swept up toward a church and in the distance we can hear a band forlornly playing as the host approaches. A tower full of bells begins to ring, priests trudge by carrying loudspeakers on a pole, someone is chanting, someone on a scratchy recording is singing and eventually the band is right in front of us. Tubas, trumpets, clarinets prevail. The priests wear white and gold robes, Caribinieri are in full dress and that means the Napoleonic hats with red plumes. Canopies, big, tall, old painted canopies sway by protecting the host and everyone shuffles, shuffles, shuffles through the flowers underfoot. One by one, foot by foot, the dirge plays on. The procession rocks from left foot to right in solemn obliteration of the flower designs. Strangely, it does mess them up but it doesn’t ruin them. And the designers, some more than others, rush to pat things back together. In the end it doesn’t matter too much, flower petals are ethereal and destined to dry up and blow away, anyway aren’t they? Luck was with these artists this year as it was perfect out all night, not a hint of breeze and for the first time in a week, no evening showers. (All this weather wonderfullness was reaching its high point after church at 11. By five that afternoon it was pouring buckets, so good timing all around.)

We followed the procession to the park where plant sellers of every stripe were tempting the crowd successfully with their wares. Shoppers were carrying people sized rose bushes to their cars all around us. We found a table of seriously exotic cactus and picked one for Bruno that looked like a pale green softball with long needles marching around its stitching and two big candle-shaped flower buds sticking straight up from the top. Wonder what that will be like when it grows up. We’ll see what Bruno thinks of that.
wonderful colors of spring flowers in Spello display, Spello, Italy
The medieval festival in Bevagna starts today and its just down the road. But, this has been such a star crossed, by the numbers, perfect kind of day that we think we should just go sit in the garden and think about all this. But you know that porchetta place in Corciano? We go right by there . . .

Next time: Andrea shares his Big Three in Gelati. We’ve only been to one so far but we’ll fix that and report back when we have compared at least two of them. They are going to have to do some hustling to beat the peach I just had at Aldo’s!

balcony street watcher in Spello, Italy during corpus domini celebration


See you in Italy,


Stew Vreeland

SECOND IN LINE AT THE BARBERSHOP. 7:45 A.M. DAY TWO.

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.

QUATTRO GATTI IN FATTI

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.

HOW MUCH DOES THAT BOUQUET WEIGH, ANYWAY?

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