Monday, August 10, 2009

Adventures and misadventures in Italy

On Wednesday, we left Canada behind and flew to Italy to meet Travis' family for a wonderful get-together in Tuscany and Umbria. Our flight was not the best - not only were we not able to get a wink of sleep but the people behind us kept hitting our seat. And to top it off, our flight had been delayed, which meant that we spent our flight worrying about making our connection in Rome to Florence. As it turned out, we easily made our connection (thankfully, perhaps, to having no one in the customs and immigration line and having the customs officer not even say hello) but our luggage did not. As we headed to the luggage carousel, we watched helplessly as our luggage did not make it out... and joined the line of other unfortunate travellers at the lost baggage counter.

We were at least 10 in line, and this all seemed to be very routine for them. There was really no point to make a fuss about it, especially when the lady in front of us was now without medication and a Russian lady behind us was making a scene big enough for everyone. From being short with the ladies at the counter, to then asking them if there wasn't a way that this could go faster, and then yelling on the phone - she just made the whole ordeal even more surreal and helped us have a good laugh at the whole situation.

We handed-in our information, and were told that our luggage would be delivered in two days (as we were staying outside of Florence). While we were left to wonder where in the world our luggage was (was it still in Rome as we were assured that it was? Or did they get to travel somewhere else?), we were really hoping that they would keep their word.

Having travelled so much before, you would think that 1) I would know better and that 2) this had happened to me before, but alas this was a first and all that I had with me was not going to get me through the next few days. Our only choice was to head into Florence and purchase a few essentials before the flight of Travis' parents landed and we had to head to Todi, our final destination.

Now, most people would be very excited at the prospect of going shopping in Italy. But not us - we had less than 2 hours, our shopping list was very eclectic and we were on a budget. Toothbrushes and toothpaste, deodorant, a razor, a bikini and a dress or skirt for me and swim shorts, flips flops and sunglasses for Travis. As we arrived at the Duommo (words cannot explain the grandeur and beauty of this church - my eyes filled with tears when I saw it), we took in the sight for a generous 20 seconds and ran down the street trying to find shops. We managed to be successful, but it was not an easy task considering the streets were littered with designer names and that we were grumpy and hungry. After a quick bite to eat, we returned to the airport just in time for the arrival of Terry and Ginger's flight.

The drive to Todi was stunning, but was mostly spent sleeping. As we arrived into town, we stopped at the grocery store first and I was ecstatic. Burrata cheese! At the grocery store! Heaven. And the villa! Villa Le Mandorelle is far better than I could have ever imagined. The house is a restored farm house on an olive grove and vineyard, with views of the surrounding valley and the walled city of Todi. It is simply perfect (the only downfall I have found is the insanely large amount of bees) - the kind of place where the amazement does not fade.

The first few days were spent at the villa, relaxing by the pool and enjoying the property. But with our limited belongings, I was started to get a bit frustrated. Only having two things to wear, and having to do laundry every night is not ideal. But mostly, I was feeling worried and did not dare want to leave the villa. What if they tried to call us? What if the delivery person just left our luggage on the road? Worries ran so deep that even a midnight jaunt was made to the gate of the property to leave a note to the delivery man. We learned that lost luggage is nearly a standard practice of Alitalia - and I cursed myself for booking the connection with them. Why did we not take a different flight? Why did we not take a train?

When Travis' sister and her husband arrived and our luggage still had not, worry really started to run deep. And frustration - unable to get answers from the people we filed our claim with, unable to reach our travel insurance company, etc. And then, we finally contacted the courier who was to deliver our bags. We were told that they would be delivered "tomorrow, 11 am". We were relieved. But of course, this being Italy, it wasn't going to be so easy.

At 11:30, we called the courier and were reassured that he would arrive "in a few minutes". One hour later, he called, speaking very quickly in Italian, and then asked if we would still be there in 1.5 hours. At his mercy, we said yes. And 2 hours later, another call - the driver could not find our address on his GPS, and so we had to drive into town to meet him and retrieve our belongings.

I never thought that I'd be so excited about going through my own luggage, but when our luggage was finally delivered to us, I was ridiculously overjoyed. I felt like throwing myself at my luggage, crying in a mix of happiness, relief and desperation like a mother would do after being reunited with a lost child. As I unpacked, every articled was treated as a discovery and received a cry of joy. Underwear! Pyjamas! Hair brush! A toothbrush that doesn't feel as though it will rip my gums apart! I have to say that the option to choose what to wear has never felt so sweet - and not having to hand wash everything we own every night is quite a relief.

Having had received our bags, I now also have a huge weight lifted up my back and feel free again. Free to finally go and explore this country and the quaint area without the fear of missing the delivery man.

We celebrated this new found freedom today with a road trip to Norcia, a little gem of a town located at the very eastern edge of Umbria. Located in the Parco Nazionale Monti Sibillini (useless trivia: that's where San Pellegrino comes from), Nocia is the mecca for all things tartufo (truffle) and chingale (wild boar). The walled city, mostly flat, has a few quaint piazzas and churches (it is, after all, the birthplace of St. Benedict) but by large the real estate is used-up by little shops selling the specialties of the region. Wild boar heads are mounted on the outside walls of shops, or even full stuffed pigs try to catch the attention of passerby. Links upon links of boar salumi, whole Norcia prosciutto, pecorino and ricotta cheeses also draw the eyes in... and inside, awaits shelves, or even entire walls, covered in little to ridiculously large jars of whole, sliced and puréed truffles. Black, fragrant, pungent, earthy, heavenly Nocia truffles. A food heaven!

To give us strength and prepare ourselves for the winding narrow streets, enticing shops and churches that date back to the Roman empire, we had lunch on the patio of the Granaro del Monte restaurant. Our "light" lunch started with a shared platter of wild boar prosciutto - thick slices of strong, cured meat - and a half pitcher of vino rosso. Our aim was really for truffles, so Travis ordered a creamy gnocchi dish covered in cheese and chopped black truffles while I ordered slender pasta with mushroom and shaved white truffles. Needless to say that it was delicious, and that it required a whole lot of effort to make the meal last as long as it could.

After a walk around town and a purchase of salumi and truffles, we headed back on the road for a drive around the edge of the mountain range. Picture this - stunning, smooth mountains with passing green valleys and farmland, peppered with walled and fortified stone towns, either hanging precariously off the mountain side or nestled in tiny valleys. (I say "picture this" because taking pictures while driving can be challenging, and because this computer refuses to recognize SD memory cards.)

After our jaw-dropping tour, we made our way back to our villa, making sure to get lost a few times on the way there amidst rolling hills of olive groves, sunflowers, alfalfa blooms and vineyards. We drove by castles and into walled cities, found a town with my name, and while it was raining elsewhere, and we were treated to a few lightning strikes in the distance, our villa was still dry as it can be.

Reunited with everyone, we sat down for a dinner of creamy pasta with bocconcini and truffles, fried eggplant from the garden and zucchini pizza. And of course, a lovely local red. And for desert? A cream tart with frutti di bosco and freshly picked blackberries, served with purrs and cuddles from the local cat which Travis' parents have appropriately called Todi.

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