We’ve been In Volterra a week, just chilling out in our small, vaulted apartment within the 3000 year old fortified Etruscan hill town. We wander the narrow cobbled streets between old palaces, castles and towers, soaking up the medieval atmosphere while sipping the house wine in our favorite wine bar just up the alley. Our apartment is about 50 feet inside one of the original city gates.
Italians are social animals and there isn’t a wine bar or coffee shop which isn’t buzzing with loudly patrons. It’ fun and lively and the history on every corner is stimulating and brutal in it’s excesses of subsequent sackings, sieges and carnage at the hands of the Romans, Florentines, Lorenzo de Medici or the black death which wiped out an unprecedented 50% to 80% of the population around here.
Every Italian morning starts with coffee. Not just any watery, stale brew but the kind of coffee, known the world over as Espresso, the kind you can only drink from a shot glass standing up. Drinking an Espresso sitting down would only jolt you upright anyway. This ritual coffee drink is usually accompanied by loud and hearty greetings of the day, like: bonjorno or saluti, with a backslapping kind of optimism that arms one for the day ahead. Other coffee drinks like cappuchinos or lattes are strictly for the tourists. No self respecting Italian would be caught sipping one of those adulterated coffees.
Italy wouldn’t be Italy were it not for the espresso, the olive oil and the wine, right next to the ever present parmesano and of course pasta. Pasta in all it’s imaginary twisted, knotted, quilted, pulled, flattened, hollowed and elongated forms. They are called, tagliatelli, ravioli, pici, penne, vermicelli, orso, fettucini, linguini, tortellini and of course spaghetti and several more that I can’t remember. Mix anyone of those with a variety of sauces and mushrooms, always porcini or funghi, and you have your first course, right after the anti pasta or a plate of prosciutto and sheep cheese. This all goes down easy with plenty of olive oil and the local wine, never the imported from the region next door.
Eating, like most pleasurable things in Italy, is a ritual, not just fuel for the machine but a process that needs to be enjoyed, talked about, drawn out for the whole evening and savoured at every step and finished off with the same item that starts every morning – you got it: espresso, sometimes in the corrected form, diluted with grappa appropriately called: coffee correto.
The medieval Italy which is the heart of almost every town is always built on a hill and in stone to last the centuries of abuse, earthquakes, sieges and weather. Bathrooms are often an afterthought, added like appendages as closed in balconies, jutting out high up from the stone walls with recent plumbing snaking down the wall into the ground. The twisting, cobblestone alleys winding up and down these ancient hill towns are quaint today but witness a time when these narrow passages were used for access, sewers and donkey paths and not the touristy photo ops of today. The sun never finds it’s way into these rocky labyrinths which keeps them nice and cool in the hot Italian summers.
When asking directions one is often told to turn left or right at the church and then the question is: which church since churches in Italy are as numerous or even more so as pizzerias. There is a church or a chapel to be found at every corner and on every rise. These days they are mostly empty, except for the old, balding priest lighting the candles; the glaringly absent flock of pious churchgoers is more interested in the local soccer game or checking out their face book page. Yet the power of the church is everywhere, evident in the numerous papal palaces, or the opulent villas built by successive cardinals and bishops. The artwork is always the same theme: mother and babe, morbid scenes of crucifixion or groups of robed, bearded men and topless women standing around, some with halos, staring off into the middle distance, always with a look of painful constipation on their upturned faces. Fantastic marble statues of the same ilk adorn every niche and the artwork on the vaulted ceilings and marble altars is mindboggling in their intricacies and gilded abundance. Personally I have had my fill of temples of every denomination and am more interested in the old subterranean wine cellars and the simple architecture of a wood fired pizza oven.
Somebody once said that the most beautiful landscape devoid of water is the Tuscany. The undulating, gentle hills, topped with farms, towns and castles, lording over vineyards and fertile fields of sunflowers and pasture lands, interspersed with the grey-green ever-present olive trees is a landscape like no other. The winding roads lead off into the pastoral distance and church bells can be heard from a long way off. It’s a soothing landscape, stretching out in every direction, like an ancient quilt for a gentle giant.
Italians don’t like Italians. It’s a strange trait but Italians abhor the corrupt reputation of their politicians, their clergy and the notorious mafia or cosa nostra.
“The problem with Italy are the Italians,” my friend Romano pointed out, shaking his head in resignation as if it’s an incurable decease. It’s the original sin to be born Italian, a pain and guilt which can only be alleviated with wine, olive oil, pasta and espresso. Fortified in this manner, the Italians will then become the sunny, optimistic and excitable lovers of life expressed through their passionate music, the love for the Azuris (the soccer team) and acceptance and disdain of church and state, popes and mafiosos, benign and corrupt all at once. Viva Italia.