or . . .


at the lancia grill, panicale, umbriaPANICALE, Umbria, Italy – It’s a Saturday. And a civilized, but somewhat early departure. We’re spending the day with Paul and Betty. He’s an Italian wine importer back in the States. They had just blown in from Rome for two intense weeks of wining and dining their way across Italy. And on this particular day we had our tourist plates heaping full. So, chop, chop, let’s go.

We jumped in and fired up the renta-Lancia and . . . WHAT’S THAT NOISE? Better yet, what’s that eerie silence? Key goes in here, turns to the right. Still. Way too quiet. Especially in Lancia Central. No door lights, no seat belt warning ding, ding dings, no radio hum. No, nothing.

Maybe it’s jet lag but Paul’s as baffled as I am. And he has two Prima Donna Lancias he drives daily in Maine. But yet, he throws up his hands at the utter lack of logic here. Did I mention that this car is literally brand new? Exactly zero miles on it when he picked it up in Rome. Zero. Picked it up, turned it on, drove it here non-stop and parked it.

So. There we were. Standing in the shadow of the tower of the contessa’s palazzo, kicking pieces of gravel around the parking lot. And recalculating our finely tuned plans for the day. And thinking of the tone of voice we hope Paul can take with the rental company when he gets them on the phone. About that time, our neighbor Bruno drives by in his 30-year-old, used-to-be red, Fiat Panda. I wave my hi-how’s-it-going, garden-variety wave. I really couldn’t do the omg-save-us! wave. He fixed our howling mad, guest potty two days ago. Gratis. And well, I just couldn’t seem this needy, this soon. Which worked out fine. He waved and kept going, anyway.

There is a God. And he’s got his avenging angel Bruno backing up the one-way street toward us. “Che succede ragazzi?” What’s happening? Where are we off to? Since you ask: We’re headed nowhere, Bruno. Not with this rig. “Open the hood” he says. Ok, I guess we could have gone that far, maybe. He points at the battery, gives us a “What on earth did you do THAT for?” look, rolls his eyes and said “AntiFurto.” Which becomes our new fun Word of the Day and means anti-theft device. And it is what Bruno is calling that iPad sized thing hanging off to one side of the battery, just bristling with important-looking wires. Yes, I was gently nudged out of Iowa State’s Mechanical Engineering program at a young age. It is clear even to me that the idea spot for this AntiFurto to be would on the top of the battery.

gmb pensive Midge castiglione del LagoSo, why was it laying down there in the first place? How did that happen? Which is exactly what Bruno still wants to know as he picks it up, mounts it back on the battery, and cranks its big lever, locking it back in place. He makes that international hand motion sign for “Uh, turn the key?” We do that and it is all systems go. Thanks, Bruno. He shook his head, gave us a sympathetic “good luck” wave over one shoulder and he was gone. Before we can think of some other trouble for him.

And we were left thinking: surely we could have been so much more manly and guy-like if we’d just had coffee first? Yeah, that’s it. So off we go to GMB (in the zona industriale, Castiglione del Lago) to solve that problem. Which, if you haven’t been there, trust me, GMB is sufficient grounds for getting on a plane and curling up with that inflight magazine for a few hours. For me, it is the sweet, pastry-filled center of the known coffee-drinking world.

Happily our truculent Lancia actually got us there. Coffee’d up, there remained the one true test, can it get us back? As it turns out, no, actually. To be fair, it did start when we asked it to. And we were soon barreling up, up the twist-y turn-y hill road past Villa Le Mura when Paul swears he heard a little mechanical “THOCK.” Motivation ceased, our theater went dark. Which was an awkward moment since, as I implied, we going UP hill. Did our AntiFurto fall off again? Is there some sort of fighter jet ejection seat devise that blows this big honking device physically off the top of the battery at road speed?

antifurto italian for anti theftHmm. Did you know they have dayglow roadworker vests in the side pockets of these cars for just this kind of event? We figured that out well after I’d guided Paul backwards down a hill, into a farm driveway totally commando, sans light up vest. Next time, we will use the vest, I think pessimistically.

Safely off the road and parked in the tall grass, we now know enough to pop the hood and sure enough, the rascally Anti-Fur Toe has jumped ship, again. We do what Bruno did, again. It starts, again, and we were soon on the phone telling the rental company to park this one where the sun don’t – oh just get us another one. Please.

havinga-gas-with-lanciaThey were happy to trade us it turns out. But only if we would take life and limb in hand and drag this bad dog to Arezzo. Arezzo?! I’ve been as lost as I ever want to be in Arezzo. It’s an actual town. It may even be a city. I remember well trying to worm my way thru Arezzo to their monthly antique fair a year ago. So, I was tepid about adding this side jaunt to a program that had already taken on shades of Amazing Race reality TV show.

We got there. But only due to Paul being able to drive and coordinate with his smartphone’s nav system at the same time. The system worked. We arrived at the car rental office. We had just talked to them and now the office was securely locked? When we found the operator, and did the key swap, he said, pointing, that our car was “down by the city park.” And yes, yes it was. Right under the Circus Coming to Town billboard was the twin of the Lancia we rode in on. Same color, same model. But yet. We have ignition! The key turns AND the motor turned on.

But, so did the annoying Danger Orange light on the dash shaped like Aladdin’s Lamp. We realized this about half way back across Arezzo, headed out of town. Something new to not relax about. OK, page 22 of the manual, something about that being the Must-Change-Oil-Right-Now light. Oh, good, pop the hood. Well, it’s got oil. Full as a tick, in fact. And you know what? We are so not stopping to change the oil on this back-up rental beater.

Later that same day, by then more closely approximating midnight, we were coming back from a seven course feast at a friend’s osteria in Siena, when Paul said, “Huh, look at that. No more warning light!” To which I was able to proudly reply, “I know. I fixed it” “Where was I?” Paul said unbelieving. “How’d you do that?”

“I fixed it with my billfold,” I replied. He gives me a look. Then looks back at the dash where he notices my billfold propped up in front of the light.”

Another travel problem solved. You’re welcome.

See you in Italy!

Stew Vreeland
PS: As you can see we did stop to smell the poppies in the midst of all these adventures. Worth whatever it takes to get to that sweet spot, isn’t it?

A day in Cortona. Cappuccino, Cioccolato and TANGO?

When we left our house that morning all we knew was that we were going to see some houses with Giancarlo. And that we might see one in Cortona. Turns out we went there first and that was the start of an interesting day in that hilltop town.
In the first place, we were thunderstruck at how much we liked the house. Terrace AND balcony AND lakeview AND garage. In Cortona? Are you kidding me? Usually perfectly lovely places in Cortona have none of the above. It will make someone a nice home. Right in town.

After seeing that we treated ourselves to a few minutes of town life. We peeked into Teatro Signorelli to see what was on offer for that night. Tango? You know we like Tango. And there’s at least two of us. Hmm. Then we went across the piazza for coffee at with our friends Nando and Pia’s at Bar Sport. And luckily I remembered I was a man with more than one mission. Multi-tasking will be the end of us, I swear. But a top mission was to find a place in Cortona for a friend to pop “the Question.” Shhh. Top Secret. So, I took it to the top dog in Cortona. Laying it right at Nando’s feet. He thought about it, scratched his chin, raised his eyebrows at Pia a couple times and nodded and told me to follow him to Loconda nel Loggiato not far from Bar Sport. We’d eaten with Nando and Pia there al fresco on the loggiato but we’d never actually been inside and even in Sunny Italy this was still March and still a bit brisk to be eating and proposing outside. We did that recon and send the name on to our friend with best wishes. Thanks Nando!

bruschettaartistiThis was maybe one day before the weather went totally wonderfully spring on us so it was not cold but cool and walking down Via Nazionale we saw a Caffe with a sign out extolling Zuppa! A cup of that and we’d be on our way. Or so we thought. The happy folks at Caffe degli Artisti decided we needed to be stuffed like Christmas Geese. Baskets of hot breads came un bidden and some of the most beautiful (they really ARE artisti here) and tasty bruschetta I could imagine. Also unbidden. By the time our soups came the waiters had pulled another table next to ours to stack our extra dishes on. Two of us ordered Ribollita and two ordered Zuppa and those two were asked if they wanted their zuppa with bread in it. Our friends shrugged and said ok. Which, in effect, made us all have the same huge bowls of breaded vegetable soup. And when we tried to wave away dessert, they brought a plate of pastries, anyway. Always liked Cortona.

We were having so much fun at this point we decided to sign up for the Tango show at the Signorelli. Getting tickets in the daytime was fun, the man behind the desk got his seating chart out and we walked around the theater and saw up close and personal exactly what seats were available and picked a third level box for five of us. Even though it would hold more, he assured us it would be “our” box. We watched them setting up for the show, bought our tickets and went back to Panicale for a few hours of R&R on home court.

We even bought a tango ticket for a friend who had no idea what we were up to on her behalf. We’d sort of said we’d get dinner together that night but we could not find each other by phone. Surprise! I was sure she’d be fine with it and she was.

When evening fell we gathered our squadra and wound our way back up Cortona’s hill in the big, black Delta Lancia one of our friend had inadvertently rented. What a sled that is. About the size of a Dodge Magnum, he’d had it locked solid in the tiny streets of Paciano and had to have kibitzing Italian bystanders spring it loose. So, we were all a bit leery of its mass, relative to our fine motor controls, but it was fine.

And so was just roaming the streets of Cortona off season looking for dinner right at dinner time. I’m seriously not working for the Chamber of Commerce here but I will say, I’ve never had anything but great food everywhere in Cortona. So, I was not even concerned. But I’d never eaten at the Osteria del Teatro Midge pointed out. What the heck, it is Italy, we’re going to the Teatro next door right after, how bad could it be?
Not bad at all. LOVED it. our bacala with chick peas was to die for. We didn’t want to ruin our main courses by having too many appetizers so we just got one antipasti plate “per la tavola” which was more than plenty because the plate they brought was huge. The “rosa della casa per favore” was a knockout bottle of Chianti. And when we again tried to wave away dessert for the second time in that city that day, here came a hysterical waitress with a chocolate board over flowing with chunks and slabs of every color of chocolate. And with a cleaver she started whacking and laughing. We first heard her earlier in the evening across the room and we were all wide-eyed certain there was a barking puppy in the room. Up close it was hard not to want to join in with her happy barking. There must be some law in Cortona about sending customers out into the cold, cruel world without dessert. Best chocolate ever, magnificent. Were there raspberries in it? Had my total undivided attention. And like with the antipasta plate, the waiters wanted to see those plates cleaned. “You’re Not leaving that piece of prosciutto/crumb of chocolate are you!?!”
And try to put a price on this dinner: Antipasta in profusion, pastas, main courses, contornis, wine, gorgeous decanters of sparkling waters, dessert. 98 euros. For FIVE adults. We left full and happy.
And stepped across the piazza to watch the swirl of people coming in to see the show. Going to a show in a place like this is worth the price of admission itself. 12 euros per ticket with swell views of the stage from a box just off center on the third level up. And the music was remarkable and the dancing lovely too. We seem to be on a strange tango binge. We saw the Napoletango show in Rome in October. Highly recommended. Saw tango in theaters and on the streets with hats being passed in Buenos Aires in February and now here we are in Cortona! Is this related to watching too much DWTS?

Here’s a video clip of the show shot with our brava new Sony.

Strolling down the cobblestones to the car afterwards we were all saying what a fine thing it was to be open to the moment and living the life spontaneous in Cortona. Even if it was just for the moment.

And, the Locanda nel Loggiato? It delivered later that week. When our friend asked the big question there over dinner, he got the answer he was hoping for. She said Yes!

See you in Italy,

Stew Vreeland


CALLING ALL LANCIAS or . . . figaro, figaro, figaro! (part two of a series)

Vigaro is an opera but then again it is an Italian sounding car. Lancia on the other hand just IS an Italian car. we saw both. Bought one.

Canada O. Canada

RICHMOND, Onatario–Who knew. Canada is a hot bed of all things Italian. Look, Enzo’s No Frills market, the Palazzo Hotel, and most importantly, Eric’s House of Strange but Good and very Foreign Cars. Like opening King Tut’s Tomb for us. Several very sharp, very hot, very Italian Lancias and Paul is sorely tempted. We’ll see. He’s in at the Coffee Bistro here on Yonge in this Toronto suburb discussing road clearance and four wheel drive valves or whatever. He wants that hot rod. We’ll see how badly he wants it.
lancias in canada
And yes, I know, the Figaro is Japanese. You caught me out on that. But see? It’s a natural fact. Everyone WANTS to be Italian or appear to have that Italian flair. Hence the operatic name for this eccentric buggy. Oh, no. I want it too. Devil get thee behind me. Hold out for true Italians. Sorry to insert this but you may never see another one of these. I saw one, once in a snooty part of London. This guy has one in every color ever made! My idol. Eric of Canada.

So, this is diversion one. But not too bad. If there is anything I have learned in Italy it is to be open to the moment. And at this moment we’d be driving right by this Lancia to get to the Ape, so let’s go. Oh, here’s Paul and it is YES. There goes my co-pilot for the ten hours from Buffalo, NY to Gray, Maine. Don’t think we can tow the Lancia behind the trailer full of Ape. An Italian car caravan across Northeastern North America. Where is PBS or BBC when you want to film a documentary?
nissan figaro in canada
We’ve coffee’d three times so far this morning with various degrees of success. But if you get near a Bob Evans wow. Have what I had. Country something. Biscuit cut open and layered with hash brown, real crispy, white sausage gravy, crumbled sausage, an egg, grated cheese. You gotta love that.

Ok, Paul is in paying his down payment and its about 1 pm. We’re still on the east side of Ontario where we started the day at the aforementioned Bob Evans. Come on Paul. We’’ve got an Ape waiting for us on the west side of this province on the sunny shores of Lake Huron. Who’s been there? Lets see a show of hands. I’ve never been and can’t wait to see this part of the world.

to be continued, so stay tuned . . .

See you in Italy,

Stew Vreeland

Adopting a little Italian. (part one of a series)

We can’t be in Italy right now so we’re doing an Italian themed looooong weekend trip to the far side of Ontario on Lake Huron. To get a baby ape. Lifelong dream come true.

LIVE FROM THE ROAD, ALBANY, NY–Cruising down the highway headed to Ontario not a care in the world. AAAACK. Where is the envelope with the money to pay for this baby? Oh, no. Cell phone, call Midge, get her to talk me down off the ledge. It’s in an envelope in a box of tech gear in the back. Whew. Better now. Maybe more coffee?
We can’t be in Italy right now so we’re doing an Italian themed looooong weekend trip to the far side of Ontario on Lake Huron. To get a baby ape. Lifelong dream come true. Friend Paul Turina found it on the internet while looking for parts for his ape. This kind of quest takes a village and we found a village of like minded friends supporting this kind of craziness. A friend of Paul’s offered his trailer. Peter Brown our favorite mechanic serviced that trailer to within an inch of its life. Our insurance buddy Bill Goddard insisted we take his Tahoe as tow vehicle. OK! Several buddies offered to be wing men. Big fun.

So, the Italian part? Paul’s Italian, and we’re looking at an Italian Lancia for him in Niagara Falls and our Italian Ape on the other side of Ontario. Wish us luck. We’ve got to get it through import customs and the works. But officer, it is just a tiny baby scooter toy pickup, let us in please. More news as it becomes available. We’re writing from the road, just outside Albany, New York.


See you in Italy,

Stew Vreeland