Roman Road Rules - Dead Whale - Locals - Support the Lake
Via Cassia carries us out of the Tuscan Provence towards Rome. I´m assured it´s the oldest Roman byway in Italy. Pass Etruscan (civilization before the Romans) ruins, the cypress trees we´ve grown used to are replaced by hardwoods, there are fewer vineyards and more commercial buildings as we float closer to the capital city. In Sutri, 40km from the city center, we decide to stretch out and fuel up, figure within the hour we´ll be standing in the middle of it all. The Italian attendant speaks English with an Irish accent, a result of a college stint on the island. He kills our enthusiasm. Traffic, roadwork, we should arrive in the city center no earlier than two and a half hours. Step outside and two young attendants from Bangladesh are looking Bonnie up and down from a comfortable distance, I say simply "New York" and they open up. When a small pick-up truck with an airbrushed American flag on the side pulls in, they go crazy...pointing and shouting, "USA, USA."
We arrive in Rome in two hours but that´s only because of Bonnie´s slim figure. We learned in Rome that if you want to get along safely on the streets you have to go with the flow. This method involves breaking all the rules. On the highway belt loop there were three lanes for cars, and three unmarked lanes for two wheelers, the shoulder is the forth and acts like the motorcycle fast lane. We skirt the traffic without a single honk, we blend in just fine.
Roman Ruins in the center of town
At 9am the next morning I took a guided tour of the Vatican. We were an All-American group, two couples from Texas whose town North of Austen is recovering from a violent windstorm, two men (a couple?) from New York who spent the tour critiquing our guide instead of the art, and a pleasant couple from Sayville, Long Island NY, small world. Maria, our Italian leader, brought up some interesting points. I never realized Michelangelo was a sculptor at heart and in 1508 only agreed to paint the Sistine Chapel because Pope Julius II himself demanded it. St. Peters Basilica was a museum itself...can´t describe it in words. Walked down to the Coliseum, traffic whizzes 30 feet away from its ancient walls. I think about the gallons of adrenaline that have flowed through the bodies of the men that fought there. To see a man fight a lion... Last "hunt" was in 523 AD, "arena" means "sand" in Latin - fighting surface was sand to cover the blood. One year in the Coliseum’s heyday a whale washed up on the shore of Italy near Rome - the occurrence was the talk of the town. According to the audio guide, a wealthy family erected a fake whale in the middle of the arena and out of its mouth came 50 bears, that day's challengers to the gladiators...
Bonnie and I waiting for a challenger
Leaving Rome, I realized I lost my compass which is usually slipped on top of my tank bag next to the map for that day's travels. It's a great double-checking device and it always gets use when navigating out of the city - usually just pick a bearing out of the center towards the loop highways that circle most big towns in Europe. I was in a little pickle but decided just to start driving - I would follow my gut - It let me down though, Rome's filled with old ruins and monuments that make a practical road layout impossible - I tell myself this is the only reason why I couldn't do it. So Bonnie and I are waiting at a light (and everyone else is too for a change). I turn around to a biker behind me and yell out "Autostrada?" (Italian highway) - The guy is in business attire. He looks confused, the light turns green and I forget him and just drive. Seconds later he's rolling along side me riding the yellow line...he says "follow me" or something like that. I broke more traffic laws in those 20 minutes out of the city than I have in my whole driving life...for the sake of my mother I'll leave it at that. Before the Autostrada he pulled over and talked for a while about his old job in Pisa and how old the road, "Via Aurelia," is the best route along the coast from Rome to Pisa. Bonnie and I leave Rome driving into the sunset towards the coast. That night we sleep under the stars on the fridge of a rolling field of freshly harvested hay...classic.
Off Aurelia we dip back into Tuscany to see if we can suck anymore out of its rich countryside. Settle in at Colle di Val d'Elsa, hoping it's small enough to be foreigner-friendly (I've learned that the small towns that don't see tourists are much more interested in foreigners). The town footprint would fit inside a running track - It's perched on a hill (typical) overlooking barren valleys (typical). I meet the owners of the bar/cafe that's got a surprisingly hip inside. We talk about the corrupt Mafia in Naples, everyone's "labore" - job. The old guy in the chair is on pension but does sculpture for money on the side, one kid they joke is the brains of the town - he's a bank lawyer, Emiliano is the chef at the hotel I'm staying in at the bottom of town - gives me a ride home - the next morning I visit his kitchen to see him. He's in the middle of adding ingredients to a huge pot of sauce - I see the same passion I saw at the restaurant in Florence. Emiliano has been a chef at the restaurant for 8 years but he's 23...cooking is his life.
Emiliano takes a minute away from his sauce
Driving rain, long stops in Italy's gourmet autostrada rest stops, push to Milan, a stay in a run-down hippy hostel, we make it to Lake Como, my stopover before our push over the Alps. At least 10 small towns line the west coast of the lake. Green cliffs plunge into the lake, mist is looming left and right, you can make Bellagio, the ritzy town where the casino in Vegas got its name, on the peninsula across the lake. I stumble upon Cernobbio mid-set-up for a weekend festival. Explore the Villa del Balbianello, an estate on the most prominent peninsula on Como, a famous movie set (Star Wars Episode II and James Bond Casino Royale). At night I return to Cernobbio's special event called "Missoltino Days," a sign in front of the big white tent in the park beside the lake reads "Sapori di Terra, Sapori Di Lago." I'm moved to spend almost 20 Euros on food...there's a line stretching out of the tent, not ordering enough was too risky, plus the lake needed my support. While on the line I gave in and rudely interrupted some locals to ask what the creamy spinach pasta dish they were eating was called. The "Pizzoccherri" is ordered along with Polenta (sticky grainy grain) and a sausage patty.
typical town on Lake Como
Plop down at a long table move some old plates (the event organizer forgot about garbage cans but no one thought it was a big deal) and began my attack on my two dishes, tables are packed, with a combination of locals and ritzy out-of-town Italians. The family to my right keeps looking over at me, curious I guess. The teenage girl breaks the ice, pointing out that my leather jacket was laying on the ground, fine with me but I picked it up to humor her - guess it was a little strange anyway. We got talking in an Italian/English/Sign language dialect - what brought me to Como?, why I was traveling alone?, my brother is a lefty baseball pitcher, my sister is a teacher in the Bronx, where is the Bronx? The father just spoke straight up Italian almost hoping I'd magically learn the language. Elisa, the teenage daughter, wants to travel the world learning languages. A comedy skit got the crowd up from the feast, a rock concert with bagpipes and accordions kept them on their feet. I got a kick out of standing there surrounded by locals, my adopted family on my side, everyone laughing at the comedian's impressions of soccer announcers and Italian politicians.