Easter In Italy
April 2011©Nigel Spiers

Rome - It’s spring and the week before Easter. Rome is as busy and bustling as always with throngs of school groups being frog marched from monument to monument by harassed teachers holding up follow me signs in all languages. The city is an odd mixture of border town rough and tough with some of the world’s great art, religious and architectural marvels. The streets are dirty and crowded and yet the Borghese Gardens, just a short stroll up the hill behind the Piazza Popolo, are amongst the most tranquil and beautiful imaginable.

St Peters Cathedral – still in my top 5 buildings in the world and still able to stun me. It’s the double hit – first as you enter the vast St Peter’s Square through the magnificent Bernini colonnade then again when you enter the great church itself.

Cops & Corruption – when you have fallen off the bottom rung of life you are ready for a job in the Roman Carabinieri – a most useless looking collection of dweebs. In two days I have had a couple of encounters with these brave lads - the most interesting in the Termini railway station resulting in the forced deletion of all the photos in my camera.

Later we are on a very pleasant two hour train journey from Rome north to Montefalco when the conductor asks to see our ticket. On examination he then tries to tell us that there is something wrong with it. We shrug and tell him we no parla italiano. He writes 30 Euro on the ticket holds out his hand and demands we pay him. We refuse point blank and he asks for our passports which we also refuse to give him. He then threatens us with the Polizi at the next station. We tell him to bring them on. At the next station he returns with a guy wearing a striped tee-shirt and tells us he is Polizi and pay up or else.

He’s obviously lying so we refuse to talk to them and they shrug and finally walk away down the carriages looking for an easier mark.

Montefalco – just two hours north of Rome and the cutest little hill top town you can imagine. It is also called the roof of Umbria because the town is set on the tallest hill in the area. At the very top is the town square with narrow streets running down the hill like spokes in a wheel. The views over the valleys of Umbria in every direction are stunning. We arrive in the main square on a very warm spring afternoon. It is well after siesta and yet it is so quiet, there’s nobody around and the few shops and restaurants appear to be closed. You could not get a greater contrast from Rome and we are looking forward to a week of relaxation and exploring the surrounding countryside and villages in our rental car.

The problem with salt & pepper - its day two in the village and we select a little basement restaurant in the town square for lunch. The proprietress is most helpful and we sit back with a glass of Prosecco eagerly awaiting our first rural Italian cuisine. I’m not sure exactly what I’m eating but it is rather tasteless so I ask the young waiter for pepper and salt and he immediately obliges. As I’m shaking a decent dose over my mystery dish the proprietress rushes up shaking her finger and saying

“No no no - you notta user the salta. Theese is for the chefa only. He leaver the buildinga – he no longa beinga my chefa”.

I’m bored rigid by this time and give her a shrug but she carries on and says

“Anda we notta user the pepper for Italiano”

I’m starting to lose the will to live and consider asking her who won the war when luckily she goes away.

It’s sad - over the last two thousand years the Italians have invented and created so many brilliant things such as perspective, Ferraris, chiaroscuro and even double entry bookkeeping and now they are reduced to talking about the relative merits of spaghetti, pepper and salt.

Lorenzo The Magnificent to Michelangelo:

“Hey Mikey baby stop fannying around already with thata blocka marble and maker me somma your pasta. You know the oner witha the juicy leetle pomodoro and the sweeta anchovy I lova so mucha – ha?”

San Franceso Church & Museum – this is the cultural highlight of Montefalco. A beautifully restored medieval church attached to a very attractive modern museum. The Frescoes on the walls and ceilings are wonderfully restored and vibrant. You are not meant to take photos but they are so fantastic you can’t help a quick snap or two. The museum showcases historic local artists including many gruesome pictures and carvings of Christ on the cross. It also has a superb collection of the priests’ original wooden wine making presses, equipment and tools.

Wild Foods Gastronomical Adventure - Nathan is from Christchurch and has married Francesca the daughter of a Montefalco farmer. Their income is not only from the high quality olive oil this area is famous for but also unusually from sheep milk and wild food adventures. They have a flock of around 50 sheep that are hand milked every day to make Pecorino cheese. Their Pecorino is not the usual dry texture and strong taste from the south of Italy – it is mild and quite moist. They also grow Spelt – an old fashioned crop similar in texture and taste to wheat. They sell these products locally and also export to a specialist UK retailer of European foods.

We start the day with a delightful stroll around the farm with Nathan, Francesca, their friends and sheep. On the way we collect seasonal wild asparagus for lunch. Prosecco and Pecorino are served regularly in case we are a bit dry around the gills from the night before.
Our grip on the Italian language is tenuous at best so this is a great opportunity to bombard poor old Nathan in English with all our questions about Italy.

Then it’s back to the farm house where the extended family are on hand to show us how to prepare a real rural Umbrian lunch:

First course - Spelt, Rocket & Mozarella Salad.

Second course - Hand made Tagliatella Pasta.

Third course - Pork Ribs and Sausages.

Fourth course - Wild asparagus omelette.

Fifth course - Egg custard on Easter cake.

Each course is served separately i.e. when the sausages are served you just have a sausage on your plate – no sauces, no vegetables or salads, nothing, just a sausage. The tastes and styles of the dishes are quite different to anything we have experienced.
Francesca says this is a typical midday meal here at the farm although you could of course expect a more significant lunch on Sundays - goodness!

At the end of the day we are each presented with a bottle of their Olive oil and it’s very good. Nathan tells us that Italy cannot produce enough olive oil to satisfy the local market so if you see a bottle of Italian Olive oil for sale near you then it may be made in Italy but almost certainly the olives will be excess production from Greece or Spain.
Highly recommended – for details of apartments and the Wild Foods Gastronomic Adventure see: http://www.

The surrounding villages – each day we visit a different village for lunch and a stroll. Highlights are:
Brevagne – just 15 minutes drive from Montefalco. We lunch at Le Delize del Borgo and Simone Proietti, the proprietor speaks very good English, is a great host and does a great job guiding us through the flavours and wines of Umbria - recommended.
Trevi – the picture perfect pinup boy hillside village of the region.

Florence – another two hours in the train and we arrive in Florence. Paris and New York in spring are delightful but this place is in a different league.
Day one - not a cloud in the sky, deliciously warm and the grass is so green it hurts your eyes. We walk from our apartment along the banks of the Arno River into the city.
All the guide books warn us to take it easy in Florence in order to avoid the common problems of culture overload and burn-out. However we just can’t help ourselves – we first dash into the Piazza della Signoria and blow me down here are three of me all time fav’s side by side: Rape of The Sabines, Bernini’s Perseus and the Medici Lions.

Strewth if the art history tutor at Canterbury University could see me now she would forgive me all my terrible essays.

Next we head to the Piazza del Duomo and are stopped dead in our tracks by our first view of the Duomo. Photos do not do justice to this cathedral – it is simply breathtaking in size and beauty. It gets even better when we climb the 416 steps of Giotto’s Campanile tower for a birds-eye view of Brunelleschi’s magnificent dome.
Day two – we walk over the Ponte Vecchio bridge to the Medici’s Pitti Palace. The palace contains several galleries and we choose the most popular – the Palatine. It is outrageously tasteless and vulgar with gold encrusted cherubs looking down from the ceilings and horrific gilt frames overpowering every painting.

However right behind the palace is what we’ve come to see – The Boboli Gardens. The climb to the top is steep and it’s a warm spring afternoon but it’s worth every step with stunning views over this beautiful city.

Our last day in Florence and we have booked for the Ufizzi gallery. The gallery itself is light and airy and quite austere compared with the garish gilt of the Pitti Palace. They only let a comparatively small number of people in at any one time so it’s not crowded.
However we are distinctly underwhelmed – maybe suffering a bit of art overload. Even the room of famous Botticelli’s seems tame – possibly because they are not bright paintings and for some reason they are using very subdued lighting in this room.

The Laocoon sculpture (copy) of Mr. Laocoon and his two sons fighting a huge snake however is worth the admission fee and the views down the Arno River from the top floor are a photographer’s dream.
Florence - A bucket list must do!

Fourteen marvellous days in Italy and now we are on our way home via Singapore where we stopover for a night at the Crowne Plaza Changi Airport. This modern and very stylish hotel is connected via a short walkway to the end of Terminal 3. An oasis for the weary and a sanctuary for the halt and lame. Five star luxury at 3 star prices! - highly recommended.

Singapore to Christchurch - one of my favourite flights. As soon as we leave Singapore I turn on the inflight entertainment system. I love all the exotic names on the flight map like Yogyakarta, Kota Kinabalu and Irian Jaya. I trace our flight-path in a huge southerly arc over Indonesia, the centre of Australia, Melbourne and across the Tasman to Christchurch.

Initially we dawdle in the thick moist air of the doldrums the 777 struggling to raise 890 Km/h over the impenetrable jungles of Java. Then as we cross the Indian Ocean a gentle zepher puts a slight lift under our tail. Tail wind 5 km/h, air speed 911 km/h. All the bumps are smoothed out – we are in the grip of the mighty trade winds that continuously circle both hemispheres west to east.

As we head for Australia the winds pick up - tail wind 22 km/h, air speed 935 km/h. We cross the coast at Derby and on a fine day the air is so clear you can almost see the coils of the Taipans locked in mortal combat with the razor sharp claws of the Goannas.

The swamps and deserts in the Western Territory of Australia glow every shade of purple, blue and orange as we head for the red centre. Tail wind 83 km/h, air speed 988 km/h – woah big boy!

Now we veer east towards Alice Springs and the Airbus responds immediately. Tail wind 135 km/h, air speed 1044 km/ - now we are talking turkey! This is the Formula 1 of commercial jet aircraft racing.

Meanwhile Henry Wilt, his wife Eva and their 4 daughters are in a bit of strife in Tom Sharpe’s latest novel “The Wilt Inheritance”. The author’s 83 by my reckoning and has lost none of his edge and wit. I particularly like the way Wilt’s wife wakes him up for sex:

“Eva had once consulted Mavis Mottram, who advised that the use of scrotal pressure was a sure way of waking him.”

I fall asleep dreaming of Wilt battling the enormous writhing snake of the Laocoon.

Buona Sera

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