Deep in the Heart of Italy

Isabella Dusi  author and Italy expert, guides a small group of New Zealanders through places far from the tourist hordes. (Jim Eagles – Published in New Zealand Herald)

Weary passengers weave laden trolleys towards Arrivals at Rome airport. Watching strangers gather speed for a last charge through automatic sliding doors, slowly a group of a dozen forms around me, exhilarated to be in Italy. My thoughts are a blend of emotion and reflection: how to leave a group like this with fabulous memories, wiser understanding and provocative thoughts of Italy, past and present.

We sit under the chestnut trees as Elena brings trays of purple figs and rose coloured prosciutto to the tables while 14 year old Flavio, wrapped in a floral apron, grills egg-plant and zucchini, basting it with rosemary and olive oil. Basilio, Elena’s husband, whose family have owned Casa Mara farm for hundreds of years, begins his dissertation about olive oil. Basilio is to olive oil what a sommelier is to wine.

Elena appears with a saucepan and Flavio fills our bowls with hand made tagliatelle through which a flavoursome tomato and basil sauce is mingled. A dozen of us are on a discovery tour seeking not just to enjoy the artistic treasures for which Italy is famous but to discover the country which produces them.

We wander around the farm which sits on the site of a first-century BC Roman villa and Basilio explains, while leaning on a slab of rock, that the slab was once a stone altar for sacrifices to the deity of the harvest.

Someone asks why a helmet hangs in the cellar and Basilio unfolds a World War II story. Around this farmhouse raged a bitter battle when American and New Zealand infantry sought to dislodge a German unit from the town of Frascati, where we are staying. Eyes fix on Basilio as he tells of the ferocity of the battle and we examine a bullet hole in a helmet.

Our focus is soon back on Elena and roast pork, which she slices onto our plates as Flavio carries char grilled vegetables to the table. The Frascati wine goes down a treat while we talk about our visit to the Pope’s summer residence at Castelgandolfo and the Basilian Abbey at Grottaferrata.

Flavio’s 85-year-old grandmother baked the ciambelle biscuits we dunk into the sweet Cannellino wine. Nonna waves to us from an upstairs window.

This part of Lazio region is punctuated by gleaming lakes hidden in volcanic craters. At the bottom of the crater-lakes the pleasure galleys of Emperor Caligula were discovered. The hillsides around us are thickly wooded with chestnut trees and leafy oaks. Elevated Frascati, 25 kilometres south east of Rome, was a popular weekend retreat for Empress Agrippina, mother of Nero, who built a sumptuous villa among these hills. For those who, like the Empress, prefer to bed down away from the noise and frenzy of Rome, Frascati is appealing. Hotel Colonna at Frascati, where we stay, is in the historic heart and it’s Italian-ness becomes evident in the unwritten rules as we fall into step on the evening passeggiata, observing the social ritual.

Hundreds of smartly dressed city Romans swell our numbers but as darkness falls the chattering mass drifts towards the cliff overlooking Rome. For hundreds of years Romans have come here at sunset, ordering a flask of Frascati wine and stuffed roast pork; a ritual known as the Frasca.

At the Villa Giulia, a museum stuffed with treasures – Isabella guides us through the magnificent gold jewellery, glorious sculptures, ancient paintings – we had the place to ourselves and her story telling us about the Etruscan civilisation is awesome. Twelve of us wander equally undisturbed at the tombs of Tarquinia in the Tuscan Maremma.  Windswept and unforgiving at the time of Etruscan habitation, this landscape has changed little in 2,500 years. Yellow stubble left behind after the grain harvest, dun earth now fallow, paddocks blackened by fire, it is a patchwork overlooked by cypress pine and Mediterranean scrub. But beneath this earth archaeologists uncover unbelievable riches which fill Italy’s museums.

Many questions about Etruscan origins have not been answered, and many answers are inconclusive, resulting in animated discussion as we gather on the stone steps to the tombs in Cerveteri. Why do archaeological and historical theories disprove each other? Perplexed faces question and re-evaluate as Isabella leads the discussion.

Then its on to Montefiascone, a cluster of piperino stone dwellings perched above Lake Bolsena, where we spend three nights in the Hotel Urbano, a restored Renaissance palace. So un-touched by tourism is Montefiascone that we are questioned as much about our country as about the reason for our visit. Picnicking on the shore of Lake Bolsena, we savour black olives, crusty bread, anchovies in pesto, and salami; all delicious and as soporific as the sun and wine.

At nearby Orvieto ceramics and wooden toys are on the agenda for shoppers, followed by an exquisite lunch in a cave restaurant. But the highlight is 15 minutes alone with Isabella in the Chapel of San Brizio, dissecting and re-assembling the fresco story painted by the master Luca Signorelli.

Arezzo is our next stopping place. Here we will witness the Joust of the Saracen, celebrating a battle in 1327, with a jousting tournament between young men representing the town’s quarters. But tonight we are dinner guests in the contrada, or town quarter, called Porta del Foro – Gate to the Roman Forum, where flags, heraldic banners and flaming torches surround the emblem of Porta del Foro.

The President greets us, welcomes his loyal international supporters and introduces us to five hundred members seated at trestle tables beneath the soaring walls. Our visits have brought Porta del Foro fortune in past jousts and the President is certain tomorrow will bring another victory.

Bearing two metre wooden platforms with barrow handles at either end, groups of teenagers usher in antipasta of crostini with tomato, sausage and olive toppings.

Fifty young men encourage Enrico and Gabrielle, the quarter’s two jousters, to victory; the honour of all rests on their shoulders. Their lances will be rigid as they race across the piazza at break-neck speed in encumbering medieval pantaloons and doublets, to unseat the Saracen. We join in the dancing and singing, demolish plates of risotto with asparagus and rigatoni with meat ragù, and at the end of the night an approving air of understanding permeates.

Much more than a tightly knit group of neighbourhood citizens, these people reach into the historic past and carry with them a love for their jousters stretching back centuries.

The night ends as fifty young men surround the Jousters, who stand on the table and chant, “We are not afraid to fail, but we believe in Victory.” The supporters bellow out their response, “We are not afraid to fail, but we believe in you.”

The tournament is an extraordinary spectacle. Hundreds of citizens in glorious medieval costumes, soldiers at arms, musicians with drums and trumpets, flag wavers and jugglers and the breathtaking joust itself.

Fixed in our memories is the unmoveable belief, the tension and tears, on the faces of our friends at Porta del Foro. But we must continue our journey through rolling hills dotted with stone farmhouses and ancient castles to Montalcino and its splendid Brunello wine. Rows of spent vines are turning burnt orange and fig trees bend low over walls. We pick and savour purple figs and drink splendid Brunello wine.

We visit Medieval Siena, the artisans of San Gimignano and Florence in all her richness. Over a glass of Spumante Isabella  tackles the question, provoking us to think: Where did all this artistic genius spring from, and why here?

Art includes food in Italy. Padova market has us salivating over aromatic cheese rounds, curious cuts of meat, finger-size and elbow length shiny purple eggplant, the scent of ripe raspberries contrasting with eastern spices in hessian bags, some of which we cannot identify.

Our hotel is in the walled village of Montagnana. Rustic Tuscan is replaced by Venetian elegance in Hotel Aldo Moro. Two kilometre walls and twenty four towers make Montagnana one of the best preserved military defence works in Europe. Townspeople here live in medieval houses built into the walls no more than 3 metres wide and three stories high.

Dinner is a treat at Hosteria San Benedetto. Chef Giovanni Rugolotto began preparing a goose four months ago. Stripping the meat from the bones and separating the fat, he left the flesh under salt for a week. Then he stuffed the meat into a glass vessel, sealed it with the fat and left it in the cellar for four months for the meat to cure. The goose, served with purée of peas, is nothing short of divine. Giovanni explains that the race of birds he cooks have roots in the traditions of the Grand Court of Padova and his restaurant is part of a conservation movement to protect the original characteristics of many unusual types of fowl which graced the courtly plates of the aristocrats of Padova.

Our last highlight is Venice. Comments sail around. “Venice is too crowded, tacky with tourist stalls, prices are outrageous, glass is not made here now and the canals are filthy.” At Florians in Piazza San Marco, the drawing room of Europe, a white jacketed waiter swings a silver tray laden with caffè from his shoulder to our tables. Heads turn to listen to the final challenge from Isabella. “Is this the real Venice? or Is Venice Real?”

It is a taste of Italy that few get to enjoy.

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