It was November. The morning light was leaking in around the edge of the shutters when I came down the stairs, so I threw them wide and let the scene below take my breath away. Rome, at dawn. The street was already busy, and I eased the window open to catch the occasional raised voice, the musical lilt of Italian thrilling me. A streetcar squealed as it eased around the corner. Across the street, I watched as the bakery set out tables and chairs under the awnings, putting placemats and napkins and pots of flowers on each table. A few steps away, the newsstand was opening the windows, setting out racks of magazines, under a tree decked out in autumn leaves. A van stopped to unload bins of fresh produce at a little restaurant. Cars and buses whizzed by in both directions, in apparent chaos, but in all the years I’ve been coming to Italy, I still haven’t seen an accident. Bicycles were everywhere. Women with empty shopping bags turned the corner toward the fresh market, which would be opening soon. The balconies across from me all still had the drapes drawn, or shutters closed, no sign of the occupants, yet. It was early. Susan stirred on the sofa bed, the light and sound waking her.
I couldn’t believe my good fortune, finding this wonderful apartment, in the heart of the city, exactly where I wanted to be. It’s walking distance to the things I love: the market at Campo di Fiori, Bernini’s fountain at Piazza Navone, the Jewish Quarter, the Pantheon, the entire Trastevere neighborhood and my favorite restaurant (ok my favorite waiters) at Napoletano in the Piazza della Rotunda. The apartment’s high, beamed ceilings, tall windows, perfectly compact kitchen, and loft bedroom all appealed to me, and the bonus of a sofa bed and bath-and-a-half meant I could have company. I’d been looking forward to Susan’s visit since my arrival a week earlier.
It had been a busy week! I’d visited several places I had only read about, including one tiny trattoria with a great history, wonderful reviews, and a local Roman following –when I learned it was only two blocks from the apartment, it moved right to the top of my list. There were a number of historic buildings and churches on that list, plus an overnight trip to Sorrento, all in that first week.
In Sorrento, I made my pilgrimage to the shop we found on my very first girlfriend trip to Italy, four cities in four weeks. We each chose a city. Jan chose Sorrento, and she found the tiny ceramics shop, and the delightful owners, Vincenza and Salvatore. I had spent a bit of time in that shop, visiting with Salvatore while his wife took care of the customers. As is the habit of the Italians I’ve met, old men meet up throughout the day to sit and drink espresso and talk about everything from the weather to politics. I never see the women do this. But as an American, and a visitor, a guest in their country, I am invited to sit. And sit I did, with Salvatore, and his friends, Angelo and another Salvatore. They brought me espresso. They made me practice my Italian. They taught me to say things in the Neapolitan way, because, “You are returning to Rome next week, yes? Speak this way, as we do in Napoli. The Romans, they will fear you.” They told me over and over, that I was seated with an angel and two saviors, their little joke. Vincenza laughed every time, and joined us now and then, as time permitted. This trip, years later, was made with a little trepidation, because I didn’t know if the elderly couple had weathered covid, didn’t know if they had retired, if the shop had survived, if they were still alive. All my searching online and reaching out to anyone I could find had yielded no results. So, I went on faith. Much to my delight, Vincenza and Salvatore were right where I’d left them! It was a lovely reunion, only marred by news that their friend Salvatore -the second savior- had passed the year after my first trip, and Angelo only a week earlier. They were grieving. I watched them wilt as they told me of their latest loss. I quickly scanned my cell phone and thank goodness I never bother to delete pictures because in moments, I had found the one Jan took of me sitting with an angel and two saviors, having coffee together, all those years ago. They were so happy to see the picture. Vincenza ran her fingers over the little screen and cried. Salvatore asked for a copy and we figured out how to get it on his phone. We had another coffee together, the three of us. I did a little shopping there, and made my way back to my hotel. It was lovely to see them, but such a sad reunion, and I realized I would not likely see them again.
The Hotel Antiche Mura is the same hotel we stayed at the first trip. We were three, with three different rooms, and we stayed for a week, so I was in their books as having taken 21 room nights, off season. In the lodging industry, that’s a wonderful thing. So they’d made a bit of a fuss at my return, even though it was one night in an inexpensive room. Although I took the train from Rome to Naples, I had learned to avoid the local train between Naples and Sorrento, as it is rife with crime. So instead, had opted for a shared shuttle between the two cities. The shuttle driver had met me at the Napoli station, holding a sign with my name on it, and as luck would have it, I was his only passenger that day – nice for me! The following day, another driver would meet me at the my hotel to return me to the train station.
The Antiche Mura is a resort hotel, a bit posh, with all the touches that take it a bit over the top. The lobby is lovely, and since it was a rainy day, I was content to check out at the regular time, and wait the next hour and a half in the lobby for my shuttle to arrive. I had a book and my cell phone to occupy me, and a big comfortable chair in the wide, marble lobby, with its Murano glass chandeliers and sculpture. Just as I’d gotten settled, two chatty American women sat in the chairs grouped nearby, and it wasn’t five minutes before we were all three talking like old friends. They had asked if this was my first time to Italy, my first time to Sorrento, and when I told them I’d been coming for ten years and liked to stay a month each time, it hit me omigod I really do that. They were amazed I like traveling solo. I added that Susan would be joining me the following day. They told me it was their seventh year, and there were five of them, “Plus Francis.” And they went on about Francis. Francis drives. Francis knows all the best places. Francis arranges everything. You must meet Francis. You’ll love Francis. I was a little weary of Francis, to tell the truth, when he arrived on the scene.
Francis definitely makes an entrance. I was instantly charmed. This young (compared to me) handsome man, with a big smile, walked through the door and up the wide steps into the lobby with both hands full of shopping bags. “There you are!” he sang out to the ladies, as he juggled all those shopping bags, getting them set safely on a table, as he explained to my new girlfriends that the rest of their party was at a restaurant nearby drinking wine and would like to meet there. (Wine. In the afternoon. These are my people.) We were introduced and the ladies told him about my annual Italian trips, and Francis gave me his card and told me a little about his concierge service, before adding their shopping bags to his collection, and said, “I’ll just put these in the room and then take you to your friends.”
“Isn’t he wonderful?” they grinned, and I had to agree. We talked a little more about the villa they stayed in, Francis’ villa, before he took them all for a week long tour of Southern Italy. They effused about the villa the way they’d done about Francis, and I just sat back and enjoyed their bubbly enthusiasm. They showed me the link for the villa and I found it, and Francis, and the ladies, on facebook and ‘liked’ them all. The villa did indeed look spectacular, and spectacularly out of my reach.
Francis returned and sat with us to visit a bit more, as the ladies were chatting and not ready to leave yet. We were all visiting when a limousine pulled in front of the lobby, and a man in jacket and tie came in and asked for Signora Wright -oh hey that’s me! I said oh my ride is here, bid farewell to the ladies and to Francis, and the staff at the desk each called out a goodbye and thank you for coming back and it was so nice to see you again, and I walked outside where the driver opened the door for me, and then drove me away.
I asked him if I would be the only passenger again and he said oh no, he was picking up four more in the next town, who had been down the Amalfi coast. I settled in, thinking nothing of all this, but I did put it together later. (On the surface, I would appear to Francis, and to the ladies, as an ideal candidate for Francis’ concierge service. I come to Italy every year. I stay a whole month. I’m staying at a posh hotel, where I appear to be a regular, and I travel by limousine. Good grief.)
The other passengers were uninteresting and had their noses buried in their phones, silent for the entire trip. I followed suit. The return trip on the train, and taxi to the apartment, were uneventful, and I enjoyed the scenery and the occasional short conversation in Italian.
Dinner was at my favorite restaurant, Napoletano, and I’ll tell you why you would love it, too: as I cross the Pantheon square, one of the waiters at Napoletano will look up and recognize me, throw his arms wide, and call out, “Sandra!” as if he’s been waiting all day for me to show up. There will be a flurry of activity as they discuss which is the best table for me (eventually saying, “Anywhere! Where would you like to sit?”) and then much pageantry about getting me seated, bringing water and a menu and a little glass of something, Just Because.
I walked home afterward to the apartment to get everything ready for Susan’s impending arrival. The next morning, I opened those shutters and determined that my morning coffee would be at the little bakery I saw below, and I practiced everything I was going to say there, in Italian, all the way down the elevator and across the street. The encounter in the hotel lobby in Sorrento was all but forgotten. Susan arrived!
Sometime in the course of the next day, I received an unexpected messenger notice from Francis. He and his wife have an apartment in Rome, and he wonders if Susan and I would like to meet for lunch tomorrow. Sure! Why not? Except in the morning there was an earthquake to the north, and Francis had to cancel lunch so he could go check on the Villa property, and then he and his wife were rushing off to Washington the following day. No lunch, but perhaps we would be interested in staying at the villa? He made us an attractive offer, and Susan and I were quick to accept.
And suddenly, out of the blue, we had a villa in Tuscany (ok ok in Alto Lazio, in the Acquapendente, where Tuscany, Umbria and Lazio meet – but like ‘smoky mountain cabin’ even if the cabin isn’t in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, one says villa in Tuscany, because you get the gist). And lo, what a villa. We had no idea. We spent the next couple of hours cancelling our upcoming plans, packing, getting train schedules for Orvieto, and arranging for a rental car. Next thing you know, we were on our way into the Italian countryside, like some dream come true.
The first manifestation of this was Orvieto, itself. I’ve ridden past this walled hilltop town a dozen times on the high speed train from Rome to Florence, vowing that one day… someday… I’m going to find a way to get there. That day, we took the local train (an adventure in itself) to Orvieto. Thanks to Google Street View, I knew to walk across the street from the station, around past the Funicular that takes you up into the town, and through the gas station and poof – there’s a Hertz car rental. Susan had rented a small automatic, and within moments, we were off, following GPS and Francis’ texted directions, wandering down one country lane after another until we found ourselves, at last, in Torre Alfina.
Torre Alfina is a hamlet of two hundred people, streets lined with stone houses, one piled against the other, beneath castle walls, and smack up against the Bosco del Sasseto (a national forest) on one side, and spectacular long views of the rolling countryside in the other direction. It boasts a wonderful gelateria, a bakery, a butcher, and a restaurant which was closed for a family vacation during our stay. But no matter – we located a grocery and planned to spend our days touring Tuscany, and cooking at the villa.
We were greeted at the Villa di Torre Alfina, by Igor and Emelia, a sweet young couple from Ukraine, who manage the property with expert attention. They showed us around and then discretely withdrew, leaving us agape at our surroundings. Entering through iron gates set into a tall privacy hedge, the grounds are close enough to the castle that it’s viewed from windows upstairs and down, and from the gardens. There’s an expansive lawn, dotted with Adirondack chairs and hammocks. A patio just outside the French doors leading from the kitchen has a pergola with long stone dining tables, and a wood fired barbecue. Behind the house is a kitchen garden, an herb garden, and a vine covered gazebo that has a little hidden table for four. At the rear, a laundry, storage building, a chicken coop, a woodshed, and a wine cave. With wine. Flowers are everywhere. The trees are the quintessential Tuscan cypress and flat-topped stone umbrella pine, and olives. Through the front door, we stepped inside a magazine. The library salon beckoned with beautiful leather seats, the castle showing through sheer lacy curtains over deep windowsills. The dining room table, seating ten, stood near a masonry fireplace, with a fire already laid and ready to light. The wide hallway led to a stone staircase, covered in beautiful carpet. Beyond the dining room, the perfect little kitchen, stocked with every tool you could want, was green and cool and inviting. Curved front cabinets had stained glass doors. An American style coffee pot was on the counter – what a treat! And the light through the French doors made you want to stay. We went to see the bedrooms, one on the ground floor with an unexpectedly large bathroom across the hall. Then up the stairs, three more generously sized bedrooms, two sharing another large hall bath, and one with an ensuite shower bathroom. All were decorated with fine upholstery, thick rugs, luxurious linens, lovely furniture. The entire villa was enchanting, and in excellent repair, and all the comforts were clearly recent additions because modern convenience was not overlooked. We were over the moon.
It didn’t take long to settle in with a bottle of wine and a charcuterie plate in the salon. We plotted breakfast to include a walk to the bakery and fresh eggs from the hens. Then a trip to Montalcino because, well, Brunello di Montalcino… it was only an hour away, and why would we buy Brunello anywhere else, after all? We had so many, many plans that we simply would not have time for. We had only four nights, so we visited Montalcino, Pienza, Capodimonte and Lake Bolsena, and got phenomenally and wonderfully lost in the hills of Tuscany. We turned off on little rutted dirt roads that we followed until we could go no further. We explored agriturismos and olive groves. We stopped to take pictures that only we would enjoy, we ate in a tiny rustic diner with families who spoke no English, and a Michelin starred restaurant with course after course so beautiful it was art. We delved into history and architecture and culture and quickly filled our four nights and three days with all things Italian. It was such a phenomenal adventure.
We left there and went to Florence for a couple of days, all very familiar and nostalgic for me. And then back to Orvieto where we turned in the car and then traipsed back through the gas station and past the funicular and the train depot to find the tiny pizza café (which did not appear to be a café, nor was any pizza in evidence, but rather appeared to be a small convenience store) where luggage is stored by the hour… in their closet haha! We didn’t mind. We stowed the luggage, got a receipt (on a sticky note) and made our way back to the funicular and up and up to the walled city. Off the funicular, you step onto a bus and ride the rest of the way.
Orvieto is a wonder. Those long spectacular views from the top of the mountain startle you, when you’re walking down a tiny lane and poof, you’re at the wall and looking out over the edge at the rest of Italy, splayed out before you like a topographical rendering of a fantasy world. Standing there transfixed, I saw the miniature high speed train chugging past, on its way from Rome to Florence… My usual train… That was a moment. All the little shops are so inviting, filled with whatever the owner has made. None of that Chinese imported nonsense, the trinkets so ready to hand and so obvious, found all the way from Miami to Rome. It makes me wonder what sort of touristy nonsense is sold in Shanghai. Instead, the carpenter owns the furniture shop. The potter owns the ceramics shop. The jeweler owns the jewelry shop. The baker owns the bakery. If the artist is not behind the counter, it’s his wife, or her nephew, always family. And all willing to talk about the work, explain the creation or the function or the taste.
The village is dominated by the almost ridiculously decorated cathedral, the towers of which I’d been noting from the train all those years. When the bus first arrives, all you see is stripes. Because the building is enormous and standing alone in the central square, massive and imposing and the entire side is horizontal stripes of alternating green and white stone. As you walk around to the front, you’re struck by color. Lots and lots of color. So much color. Mosaics and stonework and gold and stained glass, and every inch of stone and bronze is sculpted. Figures of angels and saints and apostles and the depiction of creation and the life of Christ and old testament prophesies and judgement. Whole stories are displayed in stone. The rest of the stone is carved in intricate vines and detailed columns and pediments and spirals and medallions. Even the bronze doors are as deeply figured as all the stone. It’s overwhelming. Stepping inside is no relief. The stripes again. Rows of massive pillars -all striped- rise to more carvings, more paintings, more more of everything. The altar is a chaotic mass of more more plus gold plus angels plus more. The side chapels are painted walls, painted ceilings, everything is everywhere and there is no peace for me in this place. I stepped outside to exhale.
And across from this monster of a cathedral, around to one side, a little restaurant beckons. It has a lovely terrace overlooking the distant hills, but it was cold that afternoon and we opted to sit inside. It was so calm after all those stripes and carvings, and we enjoyed the gentler architecture and the mural was a modern day rendering of the last supper. The food was divine, wine outstanding, and we chatted with the other patrons as if they were long lost friends. The proprietor came out and joined us. I must return to this place.
Afterward, we took the bus and funicular back to the train, the train back to Rome, the taxi back to the apartment, and resumed our Roman life. It was marvelous and we wrung every moment from every day, thoroughly enjoying ourselves….
And I can hear that villa calling me. It calls out with a siren song, beckoning me to spend time there. To just savor the villa. To enjoy the village. And to see all the rest of those little towns I long for in Tuscany and Umbria. I still haven’t visited Montepulciano, Siena, and Cortona. I want to return to Pienza and Orvieto, for an entire day apiece. I want to know what other hill towns I may have missed, what agriturismos offer lunch or wine tastings or a chance to harvest olives or make cheese. I want to visit further with the baker in Torre Alfina who laughed at me when I asked her for English and told me – in Italian – that I would speak Italian before I left. And then helped me with pronunciation. And handed me croissants right out of the oven, so crisp and light that when you bit into one, all you got was the sparkling sensation of crisp and then poof it was gone, like pixie dust. I want to buy the perfect bread for supper, and then I want to spend an hour roaming around that little grocery store, trying to read labels and figure out what the heck that vegetable is and how to prepare it. I want to make lasagna and salad and warm the bread and serve it to all my friends gathered at the long tables under the pergola with the wine and conversation and laughter flowing freely. I want to curl up in the library salon with a journal and a good pen, with the fire softly crackling across from my chair. I want to start and end my day in Italian. And I have to figure out how to make all that happen.
I’ve spoken with Francis. He’s offered me a reasonable, if *cough cough* challenging price, for a month -longer- at the villa this fall. I’m determined to find a way to do it. I’ve figured out how much I’d need to share that expense and sent it off into the wind, to various friends- ones I can envision at those long tables, passing the bread and the wine. And now, I wait. I wait, and I hope there are a few others who share that same vision, that same longing, and would like to share that same villa for a few days, or a week.
Because after all, this is my dream. And like I keep telling folks -and it’s the truth- all my dreams come true. All of them.