This week’s post has little do with becoming Franconian but it seems important to highlight one of the coolest benefits of living in Europe and that is: being able to drive to Italy — and France, Poland, Belgium, Spain…well a sundry of other countries. Because of the European Union, driving here is a bit like driving between states. Often I have to look really hard to find the sign when we are crossing the border. It’s similar to the states in that traffic laws change at the border and there are different rules concerning tolls depending on the country. But what makes it unbelievable is that the language on the signs changes at each border and suddenly you are in a new country and a totally different culture.
During the weeks following Christmas it’s very quiet in Germany. Most businesses are closed and people don’t have to work. So we decided to take a trip to Rome. Rome is about a ten hour drive, so we made a stop for one night at the Largo di Garda. The lake is nearly 143 square miles and on the southern side is an almost island called Sirmione. Because Sirmione is a summer tourist destination, we expected it to be very quiet and were worried that on January 1 we might not be able to find a place open for dinner. But it turned out that everyone was out and it wasn’t full of tourists or at least not international ones. Everyone was Italian. It’s really neat to be any place (especially an eating establishment) that is full of locals because most of the time it’s an indicator that it’s authentic and delicious.
I don’t have a photograph of our dinner from that night but I can tell you it was the most delectable pumpkin ravioli that I have ever ever eaten. The. Most. At the same time savory and sweet, the flavors melded perfectly and were so subtle that I had trouble identifying the spices they used. Sirmione is very mediterranian in its plant pallet and looking around I knew it must be unseasonably cold because everywhere I looked were succulents growing outside near palms and olive trees. Red and pink cyclamen cheerfully greeted us at every opportunity. Rosemary hedges were the norm and though it was really too cold to sit outside, the outdoor furniture beckoned.
The next day we spent about 5 hours driving to Rome. We arrived at our hotel around 4pm and took a cab into the Vatican to have a look at St. Peter’s Basilica at night. I was not prepared for the massive size of the Peter’s Platz or the church. Then we found a wonderful little pizzeria on a side street. We actually went back two days later because it was so cozy and delicious. One both January 1st and 2nd we were able to eat outside! Granted there were heaters but it was really a treat.
Rome is everything you’ve seen and everything you’ve heard. It’s every movie and every holiday and every piece of human history. In fact there is so much history that if you are not a scholar it’s difficult to tell which ruins belong to which stories. Eventually I had to give up figuring out who belonged to what and just marvel at the whole place. Rome really is the eternal city. The history of Rome is so long that surely some of it really is forgotten. Yet it shines on.
Italy is a plant lover’s paradise and Rome was no exception. The streets are lined with the recognizable Mediterranean Umbrella Pine (Pinus Pinea), Olive trees and London Plane trees. Magnolia trees abound. One evening it rained but most days the weather was sunny and clear with a breeze and a high between 50 and 58 F (14C).
January was a fantastic time to visit Rome because there were many less tourists and it meant that we weren’t sweating when we climbed the 551 steps to the very top of the dome at St. Peter’s and we didn’t have any run-ins with pick-pocketers. Everywhere you looked there were two things: people selling “selfie sticks,” (a mechanism designed to allow you to take photos of your self more easily) and Gelaterias. We did not indulge in the first but indulged often (almost like a daily vitamin) in the second.
Michaelango’s Pieta literally took my breath away and on Sunday we caught a glimpse of the Pope during his blessing. The Vatican Museum is massive and mysterious. They take you on a winding tour, up and down steps to finally arrive at the Sistine Chapel. (For a group of men who don’t indulge in sex, the build-up prior to arriving at the Sistine Chapel could be likened to some of the most strategic foreplay I can imagine.) It was stunning and unreal and I think the only reason anyone ever leaves the Sistine Chapel is because their neck starts to hurt from looking up. There is a hallway of ancient map paintings that took us a long time to get through just because it was so interesting to imagine being an explorer or a map maker in the early world. We snuck onto a tour in English for a while and heard all about Raphael and his paintings. His The School of Athens to me represented a kind of utopia where science and religion meet. Hidden in the painting are Raphael himself, Leonardo da Vinci, Plato and Michaelangelo.
We finished our Roman Holiday by driving up the east coast along the Adriatic Sea. We stopped at a friend’s winery near Venice. This is a winery that engages in Eco Tourism. You can stay at the winery and eat food at the restaurant that is produced by the farm and vegetable garden. They have some resident foxes and a pesky woodpecker who is under national protection, but who keeps pecking huge holes in the 17th century wooden shutters! They also have a garden/park that is maintained by a head gardener and they mentioned that they would be thrilled to take on two lucky horticulture interns next summer. (If you are interested in something like this, please leave me a comment with your contact information.)
In the small town of Oderzo we got to experience the last of the Christmas celebrations on January 6. In America we call it the Ephiphany and in Italy it’s La Befana. In this town, specifically, they set up a mountain of wood in the river and on it they cast all the bad things or bad memories from last year. At a certain hour, divers come with torches. They swim to the wood mountain in the river and light it. And once it’s burned every negative thing about last year is forgotten and the new year begins. Then there are fireworks!