Saturday, July 16, 2005

Secret Dreams

I'm not sure when it started; her love affair that is. Little things that I began to notice in conversation. Hints that her mind was somewhere else. Then little tell-tale signs, insignificant at first, that grew more apparent with the passing days. I was beginning to pick up on some of the hints that all was not ideal in paradise. At first I brushed it off as a passing fancy and perhaps something I was just imagining. I would find her looking pensively out the window humming unusual and melodic, romantic tunes. She seemed preoccupied and remote at times as if her mind was somewhere else. Her normal routine was changing. She spent more time reading and thumbing through magazines as if she were imagining herself far removed from our normal realm. Then there were the telephone conversations. A pattern had clearly developed and one that seemed to be non-inclusive as far as I was concerned.

"So what's going on?" I blurted as she hung up from the latest in a long hushed telephone exchange punctuated by little giggles and laughter. "It's hard not to notice that there's something going on that you don't want me to know about."

"Oh, Honey," she said. "I just didn't want to bother you with my silly dreams."

"Hey, if they are dreams, they aren't silly. I think we need to talk. You have been acting strangely of late and it's time to get it out in the open."

"OK, I'll fess up. It's Frances Mayes."

"Who the hell is Francis Mayes? I blubbered. "Is he what this is all about?"

"He?" she said, a smile beginning to broaden across her face, lighting up the entire room. "It's Frances, with an e. You know e ,like in fe..male? She's a writer and she's written a wonderful book about Tuscany. It's called "Under the Tuscan Sun." I've read it twice and I'm just dying to read it again. Oh, she is such a wonderful writer and her book just makes me want to do something similar. Can't we go to Tuscany and find an old farmhouse and renovate it and live like she does? I know you don't particularly like Italy but I just picture it in my mind and it's like a dream. I'm attracted to everything about Italy and everything Italian. I was just talking to Kimberly about it and she promised to get the book and read it too so she will know better what I'm talking about."

"Well," I said as only an out of tune guy could muster, "that's a surprise. All these long talks with your daughter about Tuscany? I can't believe there's so much to talk about when it comes to Italy. All I remember about Italy is that it was full of a lot of people trying to rip me off. First in a train station when I was a kid, once when someone picked up my suitcase from the overhead rack on a train and departed with it before I was even aware he was doing it. He even put on my coat and took it too. Then he had the gall to wave at me as I peered at him out of the window as the train was departing."

"Oh, Dear, that was years ago. Times have changed. Where have you been? Don't you ever read about anything but the stock market? Here, take a little time off and read something entertaining. Frances Mayes is living out a dream and I think Tuscany is a place I have to visit at least once to see for myself, first hand."

"But we don't even speak Italian," I offered lamely. "I can't even say hello in Italian and frankly I'm not sure I want to learn at this late date. Now, how about England? They have wonderful countryside and delightful pubs. Germany is great and I can even sputter a few comprehensible words ala Deutsche. In fact, my German can get me by in Austria and Switzerland. But Italy, no way. All I remember is everyone trying to steal from me down there."

Long ago I learned that men only think they are in charge. Their women let them feel this way but only to the extent that it serves their purposes. When push comes to shove, a man would rather go with the flow than to constantly swim upstream against a determined woman. So I agreed to read Frances Mayes book. It was a first step in a campaign to win my heart and mind. A wise one at that.

By the time I had finished the book, I was beginning to see what all the attraction was about. I had always liked the challenge of fixing up old houses. But these old Italian houses were ancient. Rock piles and not much more. You had to love the sizzle, and not the steak, to even envision putting one of these structures back together. Not to mention the vast amount of money those wily Italians were garnering from their sales of rubble to dream-swept Americans intent on a second Italian invasion in little over 50 years. This time the invasion was with checkbooks in hand. The unsuspecting were paying out enormous sums for wretched old remains of dwellings that had served their time in centuries past. All over Tuscany, Umbria and other lesser-known provinces, these venerable structures still litter the pastel mottled hillsides and villages. Maybe it’s the sense of time stood still, maybe it's the mystery of living in a foreign culture, Maybe it is truly magic that has captured the imagination of so many, maybe I had shut out the good things from my very limited exposure to things Italian.

Over and over, the sizzle was on the front burner. The ancient olive groves, the vineyards overloaded with grapes and the promise of the new wine to come, the undulating hills blushing in the late afternoon sun with that special Tuscan glow. The cobble-stoned byways leading to walled towns still fortified as if to defend against barbaric invaders. History at every turn and very little modernization in the small towns and villages. The special clunking of the fruit vendors cart as he pushes it into the village square for market day. The groups of men standing around the square talking about whatever Italian men talk about. Obviously their hand movements a vital part of their vocabulary. Their demonstrable admiration and concern for the children playing on the green. The wives off filling their nets and handbags with produce, bread, wine and cheese , going from shop to shop to pick only enough for a fresh meal. Perhaps it is the mystique of imagining the Mafioso moving in the background with an unseen hand in controlling the lives of people, or of the Catholic Church, omnipotent in the upbringing and education of the children for hundreds of years. The ingrained customs that continue unbroken through the centuries adding to the mystique and the atmosphere.

I was hooked,so we three then collaborated on planning a trip to Tuscany. Knowing how much Robbie was looking forward to this trip, Kimberly and I conspired to make it as interesting as possible for her. We thought that the crowning achievement of any such trip would be to visit Bramasole, Frances Mayes home that she had lovingly refurbished and for which much of her book describes in detail. The problem we encountered is that the book does not describe the location of the house. All we knew was that it was located somewhere around Cortona . The more we tried to determine it's location the more we realized that Frances had apparently hidden it's location from readers purposefully so that she wouldn't be inundated with curiosity seekers. However, Kimberly is a close reader and attentive to details and she was sure she would be able to find it - if not by questioning the locals by following clues in the descriptions throughout the book. Our goal would be to find the house and treat Robbie to actually seeing it in person. We didn't say much about this but it was to be a hip-pocket surprise.

Having been elected to plan the trip I sat up many nights surfing the web. I searched for reasonably priced flights, good lodgings, and a rental car. I wanted to create an itinerary that would encompass not only Tuscany but also a bit larger view of the European landscape - one that would include some of my more familiar turf which was centered in Germany. We had a three-week time frame allotted for the journey so I thought it would be best to frame it around a solid week for exploring in Tuscany and then build around that with other locales before or afterwards. I examined and ruled out the numerous guided tours as being too stereotyped to suit our goals. We wanted to experience life and living amongst the people and we wanted to see it on our own, unfettered by the constraints and monotony of traveling in a group of our own countrymen. I finally found a web site that offered a pleasing array of weekly rentals. I settled for one old farmhouse. Somewhat picturesque, the description reinforced in my mind what I thought Robbie would find pleasing. I'm not sure if I also picked it so that after a week in it she might have a more realistic view of what living in Tuscany might really be like. I also picked it because it was centrally located not far from Sienna and within a couple of hour's drive of Cortona, the site of Frances Mayes home.

So now it remained to fill in the other two weeks and I felt that a little before and after might be appropriate so I planned to fly into Dusseldorf, a city in Germany through which flows the river Rhine. My plan was to trace a route south through the fabled towns along the Rhine, stopping for sightseeing in small picturesque villages with overnights in small guesthouses and B&Bs. We would try to spend a day or two in Tyrol as well before driving on across the Alps and into northern Italy and our Tuscany destination. I'd save a few days after Tuscany for the trip back to Dusseldorf and our flight home. This all came together with the help of a road map and distance calculator so we would have convenient overnights coming and going.

Needless to say but the variations in our itinerary proved to be quite interesting. Our overnight direct flight from Orlando to Dusseldorf via LTU, an offshoot of Lufthansa, was as pleasant as it was economical. Our luck in getting a rental car with only two digits on the odometer was attributed by Robbie and Kim to my fabulous preplanning. I didn't do anything to dissuade them from believing that I had meticulously specified that we must have a brand new car. I figured I might need some goodwill before the trip was over,especially if my reservations for overnights, all made in advance directly with the establishments I'd picked on the internet, didn't pan out as advertised. I need not have worried. In every case we were quite pleased. Nothing ran afoul. Our reservations were pretty much as specified. Other than the first night in an old apartment building on the banks of the Rhine in a little town called St. Goar. It was a four-story walk up and the complaints are still ringing in my ears. "Wow, 72 steps up, 72 down. You must have worked extra hard to find this one." But the view below and the newness of the remodeled apartment almost made up for the panting and complaining at the top of the stairs. I was also pretty pleased at the price, which came out to be the equivalent of sixty bucks with breakfast for three. It wasn't the first time I would take a ribbing for having a nose for value. Especially from two gals whose main experience in Europe had been reading pricey magazine articles in Conde Nast.

But we are on a mission, the objective being Tuscany. So we are off the next day but I meander and they find the scenery exhilarating. We take a ferry across the Rhine and just in time for lunch in the interesting town of Rudesheim.

From there we meander on down the Rhine through Mainz and on into Edenkoben and a surprise overnight at the Hotel Ziegelhutte in rooms that looked more like something reserved for royalty than a trio of fun seeking tourists, all at the equivalent cost of a night at Motel 6.

The next day, refreshed and feeling like royalty after our royal slumber and a breakfast sufficient to last until evening, we depart for our next overnight destination…the unusual town of Ursburg in Bavaria. This quaint town has a huge nunnery and one of the best breweries in Bavaria. The brewery is run by the nuns. I had booked rooms at the Klosterbrauhaus Ursburg, which is also a part of the Kloister and is operated by the nuns. We hardly had appetite enough to do the great evening meal justice but we gave it our best shot and washed it all down with perhaps one too many Kloster Braus before turning in for the night with the vespers and church bells sounding out their enchanting tunes.

The next day we stop in Munich to visit with Reinhard and Hannelore. I had the good fortune of helping raise Hannelore for a couple of years back in the '60s. She lived in our home as a teenager and went to school when I was stationed in Germany. Her father had died quite suddenly and we helped her over a hard time until her Mom was able to get on her feet and manage for herself and the other two younger sisters. We have always stayed in touch. We had a delightful overnight visit with them. Hannelore, to my delight, served the very classic and typical Munich fare for our farewell lunch; weisswurstle & pretzlen. Translated that's white wurst and pretzels. The wursts are filled with a very mildly flavored veal and the pretzels are as large as Frisbees and served hot. To this you add lots of good German senf - mustard but a sweeter spicier sort than we are used to. After one bite of one of those giant pretzels, you never want any other kind. After numerous second helpings and holding our sides, we bid our farewells and then it was off to Tyrol in the Italian Alps. But not before Reinhard had given us reams of advice on how to find the best way out of Munich. He finally decided he would lead us in his car. He wove through the city with us right on his tail and we were on our way without a hitch.

The scenery changes dramatically as you leave the high plains of southern Germany and ascend into the alpine terrain. It's a land of striking beauty and cleanliness that sparkles with the fresh cool air. You can hear the tinkle of cowbells way up on the mountainsides even though you might not be able to see cows. When you look over the sides of the mountains at the various convenient turnouts you can easily imagine you hear bells because of the crispness of the air.

It’s a lovely habit of the locals and one we tried to copy as often as possible, a rest stop for a bite to eat at a roadside table. Fresh baked bread from a local bakery, a block of cheese, some fruit and wine were the entrees'. Yes, and I remembered to obtain a cheap knife and corkscrew as my first acquisition on the continent. I've surrendered enough pocketknives, and the accessory corkscrew, to the airline security folks to remember to leave mine at home this time. Pretty dumb, because you can carry such as long as you check them through in your checked luggage. Oh well, I can always use another knife.

We pull into Klausen in South Tyrol just in time for dinner at our hotel, the Sylvanerhof. We are in the general vicinity of the sites of the Olympic winter games. They have been held twice here in this area. The summer scenery is delightful and our itinerary allowed us to spend several days of exploring. There was time for a few side trips to take in the full glory of the mountains and the little hamlets stuck away between the peaks. The most fun turned out to be just taking off on an uncharted course, following the small back roads. There was something of interest in every little town we came to and by the end of the day, completely lost, we would consult our map to find our way home. As we were on the hotel's plan called Halbpension, our breakfast and dinner was included. This allowed us to go out for the entire day, have lunch wherever we wished and not worry about returning and having to ferret out a place for dinner. The hotel's fare was always satisfying and welcomed after a full day of touring.

Then it's finally time for our five hour drive to our planned destination of Tonni, the tiny Tuscan town where are farm house is located. Once in the vicinity, I had to ask directions twice. With only eleven houses and a church, not everyone even in the local area has heard of Tonni. We stopped to take a picture of the sign announcing our entrance to Tonni. We brushed away some vegetation to see it clearly. The adventure has clearly begun. Will there be someone here to greet us? If not, what do we do? We have no key. We're not even sure which house it is. All we know it's across from the church. We'll feel pretty silly with the printout of a confirmation in English trying to explain to someone what we are seeking. Ah, but worry is the interest you pay on trouble before it happens. And as it happens we didn't need to worry at all. The man with the key is sitting out in front and it's apparent who he is, and of course who we are. He speaks a few words of English and introduces himself as Mr. Petrini. He is the owner of the house. He has restored it. His mother lives in the upper level. The mother comes to the upstairs window to inspect the new arrivals and waves a warm greeting and words which are certainly akin to "Welcome to Tonni ." We all smile and wave and nod. Not much else we can do but feel pretty dumb about not speaking any Italian.

We are renting the ground level, which was originally the stalls for the animals. Now, of course, it is nicely remodeled into living quarters; a living room, two bedrooms & baths and a kitchen. Off the kitchen is a small fenced in yard with an umbrella table & chairs. There are clotheslines - but no dryer. There is likewise no washing machine. In the yard are a well pump and a stone trough which we assume is the clothes washer. It's too early to say the bloom of high anticipation is fading and Robbie manages to find words of delight to describe how we will have fun taking turns washing our clothes in the trough and hanging them on the line. She also allows that we won't have to take too many steps in the kitchen. I'm savoring all the complements I can gather about my house-picking prowess. The week is still young and I want to bank as many complements as possible, just in case. At any rate I make a mental note to start looking through the kitchen drawers for clothespins, if any, as we are into our second week and laundry will soon be on the agenda.

Once we have sized up the accommodations, we head back for the nearest town that has a food store to stock up on necessities. We are determined to make this as Italian as possible so olive oil, pasta, fruit, veggies, wine and the other necessary ingredients for a number of eat-in meals is assembled. We couldn't find any garlic so I decided to try to ask for it. Although several folks in the store understood a little English, none understood garlic. I used every means to communicate but couldn't manage to make anyone understand. We vowed to not venture out again without our little dictionary.

If you've ever heard of the term Pullman kitchen you'll visualize this one. It's long and very narrow. Two people pass without incident if they hold their breath and move sideways. It's very narrow. Certainly it was an afterthought.

The size of the living room makes up for the cramped kitchen. It's a great room concept with fireplace and dining area, a couch, TV, several miscellaneous pieces of furniture, bookcases with a variety of books, mostly in German, and windows, one of which looks out on the church across the street and the rear view which reveals on olive grove.

Life is good we concluded as we turned in early that first evening. Our first prepared meal of pasta and meat sauce, salad and a nice red wine had put us in the mood for an early slumber. The next day we would arise at a reasonable hour and make the most of our day. We planned to have an eat-in breakfast and a drive to visit the nearby town of Volterra.

We slept soundly, our bedroom being to the back of the house by the olive grove. It insulated us from the noise of an occasional passing car. Kimberly's room was to the front of the house just off the entrance foyer. I once awoke thinking I'd heard a peculiar noise but soon drifted back to sleep. So it wasn't until the next morning that Kimberly mentioned to me in private that she had heard someone tampering with the front door lock. It sounded like someone picking and trying to open the door. She was terrified and finally gathered enough courage to get up and flicker the porch light -after which the picking stopped. She heard a car drive away. Not wanting to alarm her Mother who had placed such great expectations on this trip, she went back to bed and dozed fitfully with one eye open until morning. We decided to be vigilant, say nothing to Mom, and be ready if it should happen again. I would, however, report the incident to the landlord who lived at the end of the street. So as I left I discovered on the outside of the door that someone had tried to disassemble the door lock from the outside. The screws and facing plate had been removed and left on the ground. This of course was insufficient to gain access - it seemed to be purely the work of amateurs. Nevertheless, it was unnerving and tended to put us in a wary state of mind. We didn't tell Robbie but for the rest of the week we each kept a fireplace tool under our respective beds - just in case. And to myself I said, "Yup, it's still Italy after all." I guess it could have just as easily have happened anywhere, but it didn't and it reinforced my old feelings about Italy. The landlord of course expressed disbelief, reassembled the lock and then said to me in his best English so far. "It could not have been Italians that did this. It's those guest workers from Romania that live in the next town." At any rate he was so apologetic that I was afraid he would have us spilling the beans to Robbie to explain his multiple apologies. So I told him not to worry, we would be ready if they came back and not to say anything to Robbie about it. It wasn't until we were on our way home that we told her about the incident.

Volterra was everything we had read. An interesting medieval town built at the top of very steep hills. Twisting and winding roads led up to it and it is honeycombed with little winding streets, some of which were pretty steep. The town is alive with shops, museums, churches restaurants and you guessed it, tourists. We made a day of it and decided that all things considered, we had done our day as tourists. The rest of the week would be devoted to exploring places less visited by tourists. This proved to be a larger task than anticipated.

Plainly Tuscany, and all it's little towns, has been discovered by the world. Large tour busses bring people to the little towns and they descend on the shops, churches and museums like a plague of locusts. We started stopping at little restaurants away from the towns where we thought we could feel more like locals. At one peaceful little spot way out in the middle of nowhere we spied a restaurant sign. It looked nice with few cars around so we stopped and asked if we could have dinner. The lady said yes we could have dinner and would we like it now? I said yes as it was going on 6 PM. She seated us in a garden setting. I mentioned that it was fortunate for us to have found this nice place and they should appreciate our dining there as they had set so many tables on the veranda and no one was eating there but us. Much to my surprise, by the time we had finished our desert, every table was occupied. Evidently the restaurant hours began at 6 PM for dinner. I can understand why this particular restaurant, so remote from the towns was frequented by the locals. It was excellent food.

After a few days of getting oriented to the way things worked in Tuscany and after enjoying our setting at the farmhouse and partaking of a few self prepared meals, it was time for our planned visit to Cortona to discover Bramasole, the house of Frances Mayes.

We are quickly learning that many of the old Italian towns were built on the top of hills. There are reasons for this. First off, it left the fields for cultivation and it afforded protection. Many of the towns were fortified with walls enclosing them. You still pass through the walls although the gates are non existent. So again, approaching Cortona, we drive up steep and winding hills and find a series of one-way streets. Even the one way streets are narrow and parking is almost impossible save for the city parking lots. We finally managed to find a vacant spot at …you guessed it… a city lot at he bottom of the hill where we would have to hoof it back up to the top to take in the city. No matter. We are determined to make a success of this venture and no little vertical hike is going to lessen our resolve. Three hours later, we descent from the heights, discouraged and doubtful that we will ever find Bramasole. No one seemed to know where it was or at least they weren't telling. The leads that Kimberly had so well recorded didn't work out when retracing directions in the crowded town. But as a last resort she told me to start driving and if she saw something familiar from the book she would instruct me where to turn. We drove back up into the town and after a few false starts found a road leading out around the town through a back road. Things started coming together and I could sense the excitement in her voice as she said, "Yes, turn here, there should be a hillside on the left and further on down the road should be Bramasole, provided that beyond it, there is a small park and tennis court. After confirming that there was indeed a park and tennis court, we turned around and as we were driving back up the road, there on the left it stood. There was no doubt. This was it. Up close the details as described in the book, from the shrine built into the wall to the terraces and multi-succession of stone retaining walls left no doubt. We had reached our goal. Unfortunately we were denied access to the property but we didn't really expect anything more. It was sufficient to say we had found it and documented it with photographs.

I think what really made our day was walking down the road from Bramasole to where Frances mentioned in her book that the Polish workers had dumped all the debris from the remodeling. There was the pile of rubble just as she had said and it took me less than a minute to find an old iron hinge which we extracted from the dusty pile and brought home as a souvenir of our sojourn. It requires so little to satisfy fanatics such as us. It represents victory over our small quest to discover and satisfy a dream.

As the week drew to a close and it was time again to load up the car, we had many memories of our week in Tuscany nicely packed away in our hearts and minds. We had found Bramasole, visited museums, churches and historical sites in a number of towns including Sienna, marveled at ancient arched bridges, walked through little out of the way hamlets, taken pictures of such mundane things as doors. Perhaps some of the most wonderful old doors are found throughout the area.

We saw ancient Roman ruins and gained an appreciation of things Italian, which move at a different beat and tempo than here is the USA. Last but not least we all had a turn at doing the hand laundry. Unfortunately, laundry day at Tonni turned out to be a rainy day and we had to set up a makeshift dryer in front of the fireplace and finish the drying indoors. We learned you can't always count on that Tuscan sun.

The time to leave came too soon. We could have spent longer and delved into more areas and seen more sights had time allowed. But we left with the hope that opportunity would allow us to return in the future. With the exception of the door lock tampering, we experienced genuinely good times, friendly people and interesting experiences. The whole Petrini family was out to bid us farewell as we loaded the car for the next leg of our journey, the return trip to Dusseldorf. Through all of our travels so far, Kimberly had kept a diary with daily notes on what we saw and did and her impressions. She wanted to present this to her Mother on our return as a memento of the trip. She was busy on her latest entries as we drove away, destination Switzerland.

The drive to Beckenried, Switzerland takes most of the day. We pull in after passing through some spectacular scenery along the way. Tunnels, waterfalls, swiftly flowing mountain streams, fields of wild flowers, it looks for all the world like a fairyland. Our Internet reservations at the Seehotel Sternen are nothing short of fantastic. The rooms adjoin and look out over the Vierwaldstattersee, a large lake and a favorite European destination for water sports and all types of boating from yachts to kayaks. Likewise a bicycle path encircles the lake and I would imagine it takes a full day of riding to complete. Across the late from Beckenried is Luzern, a drive of about 20 miles.

We saved a visit to Luzern for the next day. It's a beautiful city filled to the hilt with tourists and visitors from all over the world. We enjoyed sitting at an outdoor café and indulging in the age-old sport of people watching. The café made a good spot for me to sit and hold down the fort and catch up on writing the requisite post cards while the girls took in all the chic shops and souvenir stores. It was no accidental plan by any means and I maintained possession of the revered table by keeping the waiter busy bringing me refills of the local pilsner. I also figured the girls wouldn't tarry too long knowing all too well what I was up to.

With only two days to go we reluctantly check out and head for our next to last destination, Oberheimbach (near Bacharach) on the Rhine. We are booked into a Pension on the grounds of a Winery called the Sonnenhof. Our route takes us through the town of Bad Durkheim and it rekindles my memories of earlier times when I was stationed near there. I pull off to visit the town and try to locate the giant wine barrel, a building that looked like a wine barrel that used to be an oft- frequented watering hole of the military and local population as well. It didn't take long as indeed it was still there and doing a thriving business as well. When the girls saw it, they had to get out and go inside to see what it was all about. We had lunch in a booth made out of a real wine barrel.

By the time we reached our destination at the Sonnenhof winery, we were almost too tired to have more wine with dinner but the thought of leaving the next day made us forget about that and we celebrated one last time.

The next morning we completed our circuit back to Dusseldorf and to our waiting LTU flight to Orlando. The time had gone all too quickly but we were happy knowing that Kimberly had recorded it all in her diary and we could relive our experiences when she published her trip report. However, as fate would have it, as we were airborne over the Atlantic, Kimberly discovered she had lost her diary, probably left it laying on a seat in the waiting room at the airport. We never got it back, so I have tried to document the trip from memory and notes as best I can. It's been three years since we made the trip in the summer of 2002, so some details are foggy. But I can bet that each of us would be willing to retrace our route if ever the opportunity presented itself. We still enjoy reminiscing about the good times we had.

© 2005 David Agniel


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