Lake Bolsena, a beautiful and surprisingly large volcanic lake, is a lovely 30-minute drive from Benano. On one of my first outings this week, I went to the largest town on the lake, conveniently – if not creatively – named Bolsena.
Jeff & Robin already had the GPS programmed to go to Bolsena, so I turned it on and let her guide me there. (Yes, Signora GPS speaks English.) She took me on a beautiful drive on country roads that provided occasional glimpses of the lake. I was taken aback, though, when Signora GPS directed me down what looked like a little driveway. I said, “oh, really?” and made the turn. I went down and down a small and windy road with the occasional home or church along the way. It was fascinating – a drive through Italy as is has been through the ages. I’m glad I didn’t miss it.
Pretty soon I was in a town, and when Signora GPS told me to make a particularly unlikely right turn, I said, “c’mon … no … REALLLY!?” As I paused to consider the turn, two other cars zipped onto the “road” in question from the other direction. So I did it and just kind of held my breath. It really wasn’t that bad, but it was a little exciting.
I found a good parking lot easily (and even remembered to buy my ticket and leave it on the dashboard), and headed into town.
This street boasts a fresh pasta store, two cheese and salami stores, and a stationery supply store that also sells the maps I wanted. There are also two butchers. But all these pale in comparison to the main event (for me) — the bakery that sells a delicious whole-wheat bread. May I be forgiven for complaining about any food in Italy, but the bread really doesn’t do much for me. So when our friend Jude turned us on to this bakery, I committed it to memory.
It was a very satisfying outing. I negotiated several transactions, and learned (for future reference) that my favorite bread is called “internale.” The best part of the morning was wandering that little street and absorbing the differences between life in Bolsena and what is so familiar to me.
Sugar Apple, one of my favorite blogs, has a terrific post about her trip to Bolsena: http://abigailblake.com/sugarapple/?p=1289. Don’t miss her photos of how the town comes alive as a resort in warmer weather. Very different from my morning there.
On the way home, I accidentally went a different way out of town, and the GPS accommodated my mistake. My return route, which took me through the very picturesque town of San Lorenzo Nuovo, was an even easier drive. It may have been just a tad longer, and it wasn’t nearly as exciting, but I never talked back to the GPS.
I love my routine, so I’m incorporating the greatest hits from my home routine into its Italian counterpart. Today I went for a morning run. My fellow gym-rats at home may be surprised to know that I got off the treadmill and into the glorious fresh air.
My “running” route starts with a hill that is is too steep to even jog. I’ll revisit that after my 6 weeks here, but I think it will always be too steep. At least it’s short and provides a nice view. My favorite photo of Benano is taken from a switchback about mid-way up the hill. I walk up that hill and call it my warm-up.
The reward at the summit is a long stretch of open and gently rolling road. It’s a near-ideal walking, jogging, or running route. In different seasons, I have seen people working the fields, but the sheep are my most consistent companions up there.
I ran to the end of the road and back to Benano, where some of my neighbors were gathered outside. Had I stopped there, I probably would have gone about 2.5 miles. My neighbors, who I assume were waiting for one of the merchants to drive up in a truck with produce, bread, cheese, and/or meat, waved to me. I waved back and signaled “UP!” as I ran by and away from Benano in the other direction. They laughed. Were they laughing with me, knowing I was in for a workout, or at me, because I didn’t look capable of running up that hill? Discuss amongst yourselves.
My neighbors were still out as I came back in, and I remembered an important Italian word in time to make conversation with them. I started with, “basta.” (enough.)
This morning’s routine certainly didn’t feel very routine.
As Jeff and I walked through Orvieto on our way to lunch yesterday, he noticed that several shop owners he knew – and who knew him – avoided eye contact. They know him to be married to Robin, yet here we were, strolling contentedly down the street. Awkward!
While it’s too late for those polite and discreet gentlemen, it’s time to introduce our friends, partners, and the co-owners of the house in Benano.
Jeff and Paul first met at the College of Wooster, after which Jeff went off to Sierra Leone with the Peace Corps and met Robin, another Peace Corps volunteer. Jeff and Robin have lived and worked together around the world ever since. They’re now in Rome working for the UN. It was in Rome that Jeff and Paul renewed their friendship and Robin and I became friends in 2003.
Jeff and Robin’s love of the Italian countryside and desire to spend more time in it led them to buy a villa in Torre Alfina, a stunning little town near Benano that I’ll describe later. Biding their time until they can spend more time in it themselves, they began renting the villa to vacationers. They found this so gratifying that they began looking for a second house, which they were willing to share with lucky friends. They asked if we were interested, and Paul and I jumped at the chance.
And what about Paul, you ask? Words fail me when I swoon. So suffice to say that my dear husband is the grandson of Italian immigrants and an inveterate and enthusiastic traveler. The two of us came to Italy together for the first time almost 15 years ago. We chose Italy over Ireland (my grandmother’s country of heritage) for our big vacation because we figured the food would be better in Italy. I can’t confirm that because we haven’t been to Ireland yet. Instead, we’ve come to Italy once or twice a year.
Here’s Paul at his best in Italy. This was taken in the gardens of La Villa di Torre Alfina, Jeff and Robin’s villa near Benano.
I arrived in Benano this morning, and I felt my pace slow as I walked through the village gate and into such a profoundly different place. I entered the tranquillity of this walled fortress on foot because the gate and roads are much too small for cars. The village was built as a military garrison some 1,000 years ago by people focused on protecting Orvieto from the from the Sienese. They weren’t thinking about conveniences for vehicles. Fair enough – it’s important to have priorities!
The panoramic views once provided Benano protection from invaders. Now they just provide simple pleaure. The scenery — vineyards and olive groves in the foreground and Orvieto in the distance — is ancient and serene.
Benano is home to 10 Italian families and a few weekenders and vacation homeowners. English is practically never spoken, and there is no commerce in the village. The neighbors are quietly friendly, and quite curious. When the four of us who eventually bought the house were still looking it, the number townfolk hanging around oh-so-nonchalantly seemed to grow each time we came for another look. They have since welcomed us and are happy to have younger people and more life in the village.
This morning, a neighbor greeted us as we came through the gate. Jeff, our friend and partner (and my chauffeur for the morning) reminded her that I was back, as promised, to study Italian. As I got further into town and approached our front steps, I said hi to our closest neighbor. Our front doors share a small piazza with about 5 other neighbors, but she is out and about more than the others. She assured us she remembered me and welcomed me back. I hope to practice Italian with her and get to know her a bit.
Deep breath. I’m “home.” It will soon be home without the quotation marks.
When I was a business traveler, I hated to pack because it was part of being a business traveler, which I didn’t like being.
Packing for my trip to Umbria is different, in many ways harder. I don’t quite know what to expect of life in a tiny Italian village, so can’t anticipate precisely what I’ll want with me. That’s the fun of travel, right? OK, but what if I forget something indispensable?
Fortunately, I’ve found help:
- Weather Underground — I went here first to get an idea what the weather will be during my stay. I went to the “Travel & Activities” drop-down menu, selected “trip planner,” typed in “Orvieto” (the closest city) and the dates of my stay, and received a pageful of statistics about average temperatures and temperature ranges, chances of hot, warm, cold, rainy, and foggy days, and historic weather reports by day. So I now know not to take my snow boots. (One decision down.)
- Packing Pro (iPhone app) — I like Packing Pro a lot. It starts with an exhaustive list of anything anyone could EVER need, then lets me customize it for myself. Next, it allows me to develop packing lists for each upcoming trip. The Packing Pro website is here.
- My Bella Vita — This is one of my favorite Italy blogs. It has a feature called “Travel Tip Tuesday” that is great for trip planning. There are several posts that include helpful packing tips. Check this out.
- Onebag.com — This is another helpful list designed to make sure you don’t forget an essential. Go to the “What to Pack” tab for list heaven. The author also argues against taking too much or checking luggage.
As a matter of last resort, I’ll remember the wise words of a dear friend’s father: “The funny thing about where you’re going? They have STORES there!” He was right.
Even so, I’m going to have to check my bag(s?), and I’m sure Mr. Onebag wouldn’t want me to take my yoga mat. In all fairness, though, there IS a yoga studio near the house. Come to think of it, maybe my business travel would have been more palatable if I had taken a yoga mat.
I’ve never been away for 6 weeks before, so I’m preparing for this trip more carefully than usual. My “to do” list includes items that I’ve meant to do for shorter trips but just never got around to doing:
International driver’s license – This may not be essential, but if – heaven forbid – anything bad were to happen with anything associated with my car, I would want to make sure I had dotted every “i” and crossed every “t”. I got my international drivers license at an AAA office. Quick and easy.
Health insurance – Years ago, my sister broke her ankle in Florence and wound up in a hospital at which patients’ families were expected supply the patients’ food and fresh linens. More recently, a friend of a friend was in an Italian hospital that had cats wandering through it. Yet our friends who live in Rome – those with good insurance – have had excellent health care in modern, top-notch hospitals. Based more on hope than analysis, I’m buying insurance to 1) ensure cat-free health care and 2) provide help getting home if that were required. I used http://www.squaremouth.com to find the insurance. I hope I won’t have occasion to report on its value.
Update — I have a better way to buy insurance: www.insuremytrip.com. I called 1-800-487-4722 and talked to a real person (Gail) who researched my needs and made a fact-based recommendation.
Credit card – Our credit card has always been reliable in Europe. Nevertheless, I called that 800 number on the back of the card anyway to reassure their sometimes overly vigilant fraud department. I got through to a real, live person who recorded my travel plans and gave me an 800 number for their international customer service. (Bonus!)
Cell phone – Doing this in person has given me peace of mind that was worth the extra time. I went to the AT&T store to order the necessary enhancement to my plan that will allow me to use the phone over there (it will be $1/minute, so I won’t be using it any more than necessary). More important, though, the AT&T guy helped me really, really understand how to make sure my phone won’t automatically pull in emails at great expense.
I’m going to the heart of Italy, a brand new early retiree from a career in corporate government relations. I enjoyed my career, had fun and felt fulfilled. So I’m not a refugee from corporate America. Nor am I a refugee from a bad break-up or some horrible tragedy. I have nothing to flee from – I enjoy a full, very satisfying life, spending most weekdays at home in a large, vibrant Midwestern city and most weekends in a quiet log cabin in the heart of an Amish community, where the daily life is as slow as you’d imagine, the neighbors are more engaging than you’d imagine, and seeing the Milky Way at night is the rule, not the exception.
I’m going to the heart of Italy not because there’s something missing from my life, but because I have a chance to add another place that feels like home to the canvas of my life. I’m going because I now have the freedom and time to explore more deeply and chronicle more carefully what life is like in a place I’ve known as a tourist and, in the last two years, as the absentee owner of a 1000-year old villa. Along with two American friends from Rome, my husband and I bought the manor house of Benano, a walled hamlet in western Umbria where only fifteen people live full time and no one speaks English except the guests who rent our house. Benano sits on a mountain looking down on Orvieto, a bejeweled Umbrian hill town. Driving less than 15 minutes in either direction, I can be in southern Tuscany, home to Siena and so many other famous hill towns like Montalcino, Pienza, and Montepulciano, or northern Lazio, where literally all roads lead to the region’s and the country’s dominant city, Rome. And by train, I can be in Rome or Florence in less than an hour and a half.
As I start this blog, I’m getting ready for a 6-week stay, which will include 4 weeks of Italian immersion at a language school in Orvieto. During my visit, work will begin on renovations that will transform our house from 4-bedrooms/2-baths to 5-bedrooms/4-baths. I don’t know what to expect from either experience, but promise to share with you whatever comes along, especially whomever comes along, for I always find that most of what I take home from an experience is about the people I’ve encountered, the life they lead, and how they’ve touched mine.