Cows Come Home… Again!

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fair poster

Those who are faithful readers of this blog know there are few things that give us more pleasure than a day spent with the cows (read about last years outing here). Last weekend we enjoyed just such a day, made even better by being with dear friends.

The Santuario di Oropa sits high in the pre-Alps of Piemonte (region of Biella) at an altitude of some 1,100 meters (3,610 + feet). Its long history dates back in lore to the 4th century AD. In fact the first mention of simple churches in Oropa, dedicated to the Saints Mary and Bartholomew, occurred in the 13th century. (San Bartrame’ is Piemontese dialect for St. Bartholmew.) The present series of buildings were begun in the first years of the 17th century, with work continuing to this day. The most recent basilica was consecrated in 1960.  Our friends told us there is a saying in Piemonte to describe something that is never finished – ‘it’s another Oropa.’ There is a good, brief history of the Sanctuary, which is an important pilgrim destination here (in English).

However, it was not as pilgrims that we visited the sacred site – it was as cow fanciers, in particular to get to know the Pezzata Rossa di Oropa, one of sixteen minor cattle breeds recognized by the Italian Ministry of Agriculture. The standard for the breed calls for a ‘red’ coat with white spots. In fact, there have been breeding changes over the years and, in addition to the standard, there are now all white Pezzate and black and white Pezzate.

During the summer months the cows live with their herders on the high fields of the pre-Alps; it is too cold for them to remain there through the winter, and the Festa we attended was held to celebrate their return to civilization. The herds are brought down a very narrow road and driven into a large field where they are tied by chains to a flimsy wire fence.

pretty cowherd

That’s not a cane in the young woman’s hand, that’s the rather delicate shepherd’s crook that all the herders carry. Every now and then when a cow goes in the wrong direction she receives a little whack on the fanny with the crook along with a shout telling her what to do. Getting the cows to approach the fences in the field sometimes took a bit of effort. The crook was freely employed, as was simple strength.

pezzata rossa di oropa chaining them up-003There was a delightful amount of confusion while the herds were being organized – some of the cows simply did not want to stand still in a row and would try to wander off.

watchful dog and young cowherd

As in Scotland, dogs are central to controlling the herds, though the dogs at Oropa were very different than the border collies we have seen demonstrating herding techniques (sheep! geese!!). We asked one of the herders what the breed is and the succinct answer was, ‘bastardi.’ They certainly were bright and attentive to their work, though sometimes they looked a little goofy.

brindle dog with tongue out

brindle cow dog-001Each herd wears its own identifying collar for the occasion. The old collars are made of wood, new ones of leather, and many are ornately decorated.

pezzata rossa di oropa leather collar pezzata rossa di oropa old wooden collar-001pezzata rossa di oropaMost of the cows were cows, but there was the occasional bull. This one was pretty randy, but he was wearing a home-made prophylactic device. Inelegant, perhaps, but effective

pezzata rossa di oropa finding shade

Cows weren’t the only beasts being brought down from the hills. There was a fine collection of sheep, interspersed with goats, that were put in a field across the road from the cows. I should mention that almost every single animal was wearing a bell – what with the shouting of the herders, the clanging of the bells and the bellowing and bleating of the animals there was a fine cacophony.

corraling the sheep and goats sheep and babygoatHaving been to Egypt in the last post here I couldn’t help but think that this pair was from that ancient land – such fine profiles.

sheep egyptian profileYou may be wondering why the cows were all tied up in that big field. The reason is that each herd was judged, and a prize awarded to the herd deemed to be in the best condition after a summer spent up on the mountain. I’m ashamed to say I was thinking about lunch and missed the prize presentation, but I did get to the stand in time to catch a glimpse of the winners. It seemed to be a rather low-key part of the event.

prize winners

There was ample opportunity for the many photographers present to take pictures of cows – and you can’t tell me the cows weren’t posing.

pezzata rossa di oropa posing for photographer

Did someone mention lunch?? It wouldn’t be an Italian festa without a good meal. The featured specialty was polenta cuncia, one of the world’s great comfort foods (you can find a recipe for it here). Basically it is a fairly finely ground corn meal cooked with either water or stock with the local cheese, toma, stirred in at the end. It is rich, hearty and extremely satisfying. The Oropa iteration was dressed with a couple of tablespoons of melted butter, a fine improvement. It took three ladies to serve the polenta – one to glop it in a bowl, one to add the butter, and one to stick in a spoon and hand it to the hungry pilgrim, along with a napkin.

serving polenta-007polenta cuncia with black butter-001It was fabulous, and after a morning of chasing cows and sheep it was most welcome, especially washed down with the earthy local red wine.

For me one of the best parts of an event like this is looking at the people. The cowherds were extremely kind in letting me take their pictures. These are men whose families have probably lived in Piemonte for centuries.

cowherd-001

cowherds cowherdThere was a lot more going on during the festa – a large array of vendors had local (and some not so local) crafts for sale; there was an excellent exhibit of tractors, old and new; there was a photo exhibit in a tram car that for decades carried sick people from Biella to Oropa for blessings and cures; in the church there was a display of preseppe (creche scenes) from all around the world (my favorite: the one from a nearby village made from marzipan); there was music. If you would like to see some pictures of these things, in addition to more pictures of the animals, please click here (for a slide show click the icon in the upper right that looks like a couple of small rectangles).

The weather was glorious, one of the few sunny days Oropa enjoys each year; it was warm, the crowd was happy, and the animals seemed to be too. It was just so much fun – and exhausting – for everyone.

pezzata rossa di oropa tired

THE END

cow backsides

A Trip to Egypt

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head of seated figure

No, Speedy and I didn’t hop on an airplane and go to Egypt. Instead we hopped on a train, got off in Torino, and went with friends to the Museo Egizio. Even under restoration, as it has been for a couple of years and will be for another half year or so, it is a sensational institution.

In terms of collection size it is second only to the museum in Cairo . These two are the only museums in the world that are dedicated solely to Egyptian art and culture. It is the oldest museum of Egyptian art in the world.

The first ‘Egyptian’ artifact, an altar called Mensa Isiaca, arrived in Italy way back in 1630.

Photo courtesy of Minerva Magazine, June, 2012.

This elaborate bronze tablet turns out actually to have been of Roman origin, simply mimicking the Egyptian style (Egypt had become a province of the Roman Empire in 30 BCE). Funnily, a man named Athanasius Kircher used the tablet as his primary source for translating hieroglyphics in the 17th century. Turns out Kircher was a fraud and the hieroglyphics on the tablet are meaningless. No matter, King Charles Emmanual II was quite taken with the tablet, and wanted more treasures from Egypt. To that end he commissioned Vitaliano Donati, a botany professor at the University in Torino, to travel to Egypt and bring some back. Donati went in 1753, and brought back 300 items from Karnak and Coptos. These formed the foundation of the Museum’s collection.

Fast forward about 50 years to meet the sly gentleman above, Bernardino Drovetti.  Napoleon sent Drovetti to Egypt in 1803 as a diplomat. But in his spare time he collected and sold antiquities, removing thousands of treasures from newly opened tombs and excavations. Although he collected in the name of France, he dealt privately on the side, famously breaking some treasures to increase the value of those remaining, and cheerfully breaking other artifacts into pieces to make them easier to ship. He kind of looks like he might do that sort of thing, doesn’t he?  In 1824 King Charles Philip of Sardinia acquired Drovetti’s private collection, some 5,268 pieces; these also went to the Museum, which was formally established in that same year.

The collection continued to grow under the stewardship of Ernest Schiaparelli, who was the director in the early 20th century. He led a dozen excavations between 1900 and 1920, and was responsible for many important discoveries, including the tomb of Nefertiti (unfortunately later pillaged by tomb raiders) as well as the tomb of Kha and Merit which he transported in its entirely to Torino. Other collections have been added over the years, including the Temple of Ellesiya, which was a gift of the Egyptian government to the Museum in the 1960’s. The Museum has always been in Torino, housed in a palace built especially for it. It became a private entity in 2004.

Here are a few of the photos I took during our visit. There are some more over here (the set includes a few shots of Torino as well). The light and reflections in the museum make it hard to take a good photo without a tripod; but the museum very generously allows us to take pictures as long as we don’t use flash. If you ever have the opportunity to visit Torino, I encourage you to set aside a day for the Museo Egizio; you won’t regret it.

large ram's head

Large ram’s head. The ram was a symbol of strength and fertility.

small sphinx

Small sphinx and her reflection

diorama of bakery

Tomb diorama of a bakery

cat mummies

Cat mummies

Kha and Merit

Merit and Kha

book of dead papyrus, weighing the spirit or heart

Weighing the spirit of the dead. (? not sure I’m remembering correctly)

Stele of Kadish Syrian goddess

Stele of the Syrian goddess Kadish

lion statue

Porchetta

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Festa at San Maurizio porchetto-002San Maurizio’s wonderful Comitato Fuochi put on a weekend-long shindig a couple of weeks ago, their Summer Festival. This doughty group of volunteers was first formed in 1903. In the early days the Committee divided our frazione into three districts.   In the 1940’s the three districts became two, and in the 1980’s the two became one; since 2006 the group has been particularly active. Working with the town of Rapallo they helped organize the construction of the soccer field where they now hold their events. In the intervening years they have added several permanent and temporary structures so events can be held in all weather.

The main purpose of the group is to have a Festa in honor of our frazione’s patron saint, San Maurizio each September. One of the highlights of the annual Festa Patronale is the fireworks display; this, of course, costs money, and part of the reason for the other four annual Festas (Carnivale, Spring, Summer, Chestnuts) is to raise money for the main event.

The weekend festa is comprised of food and entertainment. Being old farts we didn’t make it down to the soccer field to enjoy the entertainment.

Festa at San Maurizio the talent

In fact, sadly the Friday night show was rained out. We did, however, stop in for lunch on Sunday, not knowing what we would find on the menu. To our delight we found trofie al pesto (a traditional Ligurian pasta), totani (small fried squid) and porchetta, seen above, amongst other things.

Wikipedia describes porchetta as “a savoury, fatty, and moist boneless pork roast of Italian culinary tradition. The body of the pig is gutted, deboned, arranged carefully with layers of stuffing, meat, fat, and skin, then rolled, spitted, and roasted, traditionally over wood. Porchetta is usually heavily salted in addition to being stuffed with garlic, rosemary, fennel, or other herbs, often wild. Porchetta has been selected by the Italian Ministero delle Politiche Agricole, Alimentari e Forestali as a prodotto agroalimentare tradizionale (“traditional agricultural-alimentary product”, one of a list of traditional Italian foods held to have cultural relevance).” The dish originated in central Italy, but is now popular throughout the country. You can frequently find it at weekly markets at a special truck, and it turns up often at festas like ours as well. This particular porchetta came from Tuscany, from Montepulciano to be exact. And it was delicious, according to Speedy (I ate the totani, which was also really, really good).

Festa at San Maurizio where pork was fromI asked Speedy to write down the story of his introduction to porchetta to share with you. This is what he said, “I first learned about Porchetta and its charms back in the 1970’s when I was flying cargo from New York to Rome.  Without flight attendants and the access to First Class fare which was available to crews on passenger flights, the guys and I would arrive in Rome famished–and with the usual thirst that follows long flights.  One day I asked one of the agents meeting the flight where was the best place to stop to take care of this problem on the way to the crew hotel in central Rome.  He suggested telling the taxi driver to take the Via del Mare where we would find one of those open-sided trucks that are, in fact, full kitchens that serve the food out on paper from a high counter that runs the length of the vehicle–this is the Italian version of a Truck Stop.  And, the ground in front would, in fact, be crawling with huffing trucks.  Anyway, we would get slabs of steaming porchetta on thick slices of crusty, chewy bread and a small glass of frascati for about a dollar.  For a couple more glasses of frascati one had to put out another quarter or so.” It is a very happy memory for him!

Image courtesy of Charcouterie Ltd.

A porchetta-like dish is not hard to make at home. You can find many recipes on the internet, for example this one from Epicurious or this one from Bon Appetit. My own favorite, natch, is Speedy’s own recipe for rolled, stuffed pork roast, which is very porchetta-like. But for the true porchetta experience you have to come to Italy and visit one of the many stands or festas where it is served. I recommend the ones at San Maurizio. You won’t find a harder-working group of volunteers any where and the food is always great. Here are a few more photos of our visit to the tent and there are more over here if you are interested.

One of my favorite poems from the book Unleashed: Poems by Writers’ Dogs (1999) is this one by a yellow lab, whose writer companion I don’t remember. The poem goes something like this:

Ya gonna eat that?
Ya gonna eat that?
Ya gonna eat that?
I’ll eat that!

Festa at San Maurizio

I love how they keep the porchetta swaddled up in a sheet – keeps the flies off.

Festa at San Maurizio the gang

These girls are run off their feet when things get busy, but they never mess up an order.Festa at San Maurizio the waitresses

A Walk Back in Time

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I got cabin fever last week and decided to take myself off for a short walk. The short walk soon became a rather long walk as I took a path I’d never taken before, going cross-country to La Crocetta. Why it is called La Crocetta (the cross) I am not sure. It’s probably called that because it’s where we cross over into the next valley. Or it might be that long ago it lay on an important crossroad. Or perhaps it is called that for the small chapel that is built just where the rising road turns a sharp curve and begins its descent into the valley on the other side.

Topo map of sentieros sentierii sentieri with my path cropped

Doesn’t that look impressive?  Actually, the walk was shy of two miles each way, but since there was a 919 foot change in elevation I felt extremely virtuous. The first part of the walk was along the road that leads both over the mountain pass (La Crocetta) to the Val Fontanbuona on the other side (take the left fork) and to Montallegro (take the right fork). It was near this very crossroad that I noticed a sign I hadn’t seen before:

road sign

Via alla Crocetta – road to La Crocetta – but the road went down and La Crocetta is clearly up. Across the road is a bit of paved walk that runs along the boundary of a recently built home for retired nuns.

the start of the path

We always assumed it was part of the nuns’ property, but it is directly across the road from the sign and leads away exactly as if it were a continuation of the signed street. This required investigation.  The worst that would happen is that my theory that this walking path led to La Crocetta would be mistaken, and I’d have to turn around.

Not far along the path began to narrow.

beginning of the path up

Walking along the path gave a good view of the Nuns’ home, and I was startled and delighted to see that they, too, have gone solar. That’s quite an array of panels, and as there are fewer than 20 women living there I have to think that they are generating a lot more power than they need. They live rather simply.

fotovoltaici at the nunsSoon I was walking through the woods with nothing but birdsong to accompany me. Although the road had narrowed considerably, there was no longer any doubt that it was going somewhere, probably La Crocetta. It was built in the same style as all the old roads here, with slim stones set into the earth on their sides, giving a ridged surface. Every now and then a few long stones are laid in for drainage.

the old road(This is probably as good a time as any to tell you that Crocs are not appropriate foodwear for a walk like this. I must have stopped over a hundred times to hike my socks up.) I have asked many people why the stones are set in this fashion, and no one has ever been able to tell me for sure. My theory, and I’m sure it’s right, is that if the stones were laid flat they could be easily dislodged, and they would also be rather slippery when wet.  In addition, the ridges, while uncomfortable for light-soled shoes, would be very effective to help mules and heavily-shod people keep their footing.

I was struck again, as I have been whenever I find myself on these ancient roads, with two thoughts: one, that I was walking on the same route that people had used for hundreds of years, a route whose frequent use was probably abandoned only within the last sixty or seventy years. Over the last decade I have spoken to two elderly people who have recounted walking from the Val Fontanabuona over the mountain to Rapallo, Santa and Portofino to sell vegetables and eggs. They arose in the dark, made the long walk, sold the little they had carried, and then walked back, arriving home after dark. They were little children. The second thought was that there is probably not a square inch of land around here that hasn’t been walked on or explored.

I climbed through the forest for quite a while and finally came upon signs of civilization.

signs of civilization-001

aha!And before much longer I came to some houses. What a view they have of Rapallo and the Gulf!

rapallo-001It’s a poor picture – there were a lot of clouds and moisture in the air – but you get the idea. You can see forever from up there.  A neighbor passed me in a small ‘furgone’ (one of the narrow pick-up trucks that are prevalent on and suited to our narrow roads) pinned down under a huge, swaying load of hay. I crossed the main road, and took off again in the woods, arriving in another twenty minutes at my objective, La Crocetta.

La CrocettaThis is a sweet shrine, quite small, always well maintained. From here the road plunges down into the valley on the other side. A well-used hiking trail connects La Crocetta to Montallegro in one direction, and to a well-maintained refuge for hikers on the adjacent peak in the other direction. And of course it also connects to Rapallo on the seldom used path I had just arrived on.

It took longer than I anticipated to make this little trek (all that climbing!) so without lingering I retraced my steps. Isn’t it odd how different everything looks when you’re walking in the opposite direction? On the way down I noticed some wildflowers I hadn’t seen on the way up.

purple flower

other purple flowersAs evening fell a section of tall new-growth trees felt downright spooky – they were creaking and groaning in the wind. I speeded my pace, hoping a tree wouldn’t fall on me.

creaking treesIn another spot a little farther on there were a lot of vines, waiting to trip up an inattentive walker.

branches waiting to grabIt’s hard to imagine what life was like for people who used these roads as their main highways, who walked by foot or rode on a mule to get where they were going, and did so frequently. The road would have been more open then; a lot of this land was under cultivation until not very long ago. How different their pace of life was! After a walk like this, when one feels cast back in time, it seems more than a little disorienting to return suddenly to modern life. Everything moves so fast, and it’s so noisy. What feels just right, however, is to climb into a hot tub for a good long soak. So that is what I did.

 

 

Ships Not at Sea

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Franco TassaraMeet Franco Tassara, Master Shipbuilder, of Cogorno (a small town on the far side of the Valle Fontanabuona, on the other side of the mountain from Rapallo). Studying his photo there are two things I wish I noticed when we were chatting, and that I asked him about them. First, the hat? How did he come to have it and why? Second, why does he wear a small metal pacifier on his necklace, or is that something else, perhaps a microphone? He clearly has a sense of humor as his calling card gives him the honorific Conte Decaduto (Count Decrepit).

In any event, calling Sig. Tassara a Shipbuilder is an exaggeration, if only of scale. He does not build the ships that sail the ocean blue, rather he builds quite lovely model ships, some of which he is willing to sell and which he displays, idiosyncratically, on the roof of his auto.

model ships on car roof-001This whimsical display caught Speedy’s eye as we motored through town a while ago, and we came back to investigate. That is when we met Sig. Tassara and chatted with him about his models. He was most eager that I pose holding them. Perhaps he thought that, like puppies, once you’ve held one you simply can’t live without it. Alas for him, it didn’t work in our case, but we did enjoy getting a close-up look at his meticulous work. He makes models of all different kinds of boats.

Foolishly I forgot to ask what the names of the boats are. Fortunately our friend T. is a nautical wizard, Dinghy Class champion, meticulous sailing judge and general mistress of the wind and seas. She told me the ship below is called a Runabout, and may be a model of the Riva Aquarama, a famous luxury wooden Runabout made by the shipbuilders Riva.

IMG_3457This large one, so intricately detailed, is a “Galeon” with a double deck of guns:

model shipJust thinking about trying to sort out all the rigging was enough to give me a headache. It’s not terribly dissimilar from the Galleone Neptune at the port in Genoa, a ship that was built in 1985 for Roman Polanski’s film “Pirates.”  Sig. Tassara’s version is a lot tidier though, to tell the truth, and not covered with all that ridiculous froufrou:

Photo from Daniele Martino’s Flickr Photostream. Thank you Daniele.

Sig. Tassara was a tug-boat captain, so the sea is honestly in his veins. He has made models since retiring and spends many an hour at it. A ship like the Galeon may take him three or four months to complete.  One like the Runabout may take only three or four weeks.

Sig. Tassara, along with others with the same hobby, exhibits his boats at the Mare Nostrum show which is held annually in November in the Rapallo Castello (you can read about an earlier iteration of the show here).  Living up on the hill as we do we sometimes forget how very central the sea is and has always been to life in Rapallo. This annual exhibition is an always fascinating glimpse of the many facets of the ongoing relationship between the two.

The dates for the 2014 show have not been posted on the Mare Nostrum website yet, but it is most always held in the latter half of November. If you find yourself in Rapallo then, do pay a visit to the show and seek out Sig. Franco Tassara, who will probably be happy to let you hold one of his puppies.

Kumquat and Cherry Upside Down Cake

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kumquat and cherry upside down cake-002A friend recently asked if I was ever going to put up another recipe, and I realized that it has been quite some time since I’ve done that. For once this is something that I whipped up, not one of Speedy’s incredible dishes.  This year I have become the Queen of the Upside Down Cake, mostly by default because it is such an easy thing to make and people just love it. Especially here in Italy it is a treat because it is not a normal sort of Italian dessert.

kumquat treeThat shrubby thing in the middle of the photo is our kumquat ‘tree.’ Why it is becoming a bush instead of a tree I’m not sure, but no matter. The important thing is that it has given us zillions of little kumquats this year (you can see them hiding in the leaves). For those of you unfamiliar with this fruit, it is a wee orange in reverse; that is, the skin is sweet and the inside is very, very tart. Kumquats are good to eat right from the tree if you enjoy a tart treat, which we do; it’s not to everyone’s taste.

But kumquat upside-down cake IS to everyone’s taste. Even a friend who usually declines dessert took a very thin sliver just to be polite, and then came back for a full serving (which I found enormously satisfying). I have made three of these so far this year, and each one has disappeared with gratifying speed. In the iteration pictured above I added our sour cherry crop. The great thing about an upside-down cake is you can use pretty much any fruit you have on hand – I have made plain kumquat, kumquat with cherry, the ubiquitous pineapple (from fresh pineapple please, otherwise it is too cloyingly sweet), and nectarine. All have been completely successful.

The next time you’re entertaining and want to have a dessert you can depend on that won’t take you all day to make, try an upside-down cake. You can find the recipe I used for the cake above here. It was shamelessly adapted from one found at Love and Duck Fat, a very beautifully presented web site about food (I recommend you visit them). Have some fun with your fruit and your design, there are no rules.

Il Giro

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richard and his bike-002Meet Richard, a friend from the U.S. who is passionate about bike riding – to the point that he brought his bike to Italy from the States to ride some of the routes the professionals would be riding only days later in the Giro d’Italia. The Giro is a staged bike race that takes place over, usually, 21 days, across plains and over Alps. It is a part of the Grand Tour of Bicycle Racing, along with the Tour de France and the Vuelta a’ Espana. The race has a long and interesting history; the first race was run in 1909, and was started by the Gazzatta dello Sport, a newspaper printed on pink paper, which accounts for pink being the official color of the race. There are various classifications within the race: General, Mountain (for climbing experts, blue jersey), Points (for sprinters, red jersey), Young Rider (under 25 years, white jersey) and Team (covered with logos jerseys).  Points are awarded each day in each classification. The cyclist who wins the General classification each day (that is, with the lowest aggregate time) gets to wear the famous Pink Jersey the next day. The overall winner of the race is the person who wins the total General classification.

As luck would have it, the 14th day of the Giro passed through the town where our friend Leo lives in Piemonte (frequent readers of this blog will have met Leo through his recipe for Bagna Cauda and his mother’s stuffed eggs. He was also instrumental in procuring the materials for Speedy’s tandoor.)  Anyway… Leo knows people, and he was able to get a pass that allowed us to drive up one of the steep mountain roads to the little town of Caprile whence we could watch the Giro pass by at speeds where you can actually see the athletes. On the flats, as in Rapallo several years ago, they tend to be a blur. Here’s the route of day 14:

giro 14th day

Rated amongst the most difficult stages of the race this year, it’s a grinding 164 Kilometers (102 miles), beginning at an altitude of 315 meters (1,033 feet) in Aglie, climbing to Alpe Noveis at 1110 meters (3,642 feet), descending back down to Biella at 420 meters (1,378 feet) and finishing at Oropa, a large Catholic devotional complex, at 1110 meters (3,937 feet). Alpe Noveis has figured prominently in the outcomes of several Giri as it presents riders with some very difficult climbing challenges. Richard rode up there from Leo’s house in Sostegno (!) – we drove and parked in Caprile, then walked about 2 km up the road to a good vantage point.

Here’s the pretty church in Caprile where we parked. The Municipal building, source of our all-important pass, is on the left.caprile church-001 caprile municipio-001

All along the race route there were pink balloons, pink signs, pink bows.

signs It wouldn’t be an event in Italy without a food stand. On our short walk we passed two, of which this was the smaller and better decorated.food stand A sign on the church roof?  Yes! There were two helicopters in constant attendance on the race providing real-time non-stop television coverage. They flew quite low, and I’m sure Caprile’s cheerful welcome was quite legible to those on board. The sign reads, Caprile greets (welcomes) The Giro.welcome banner for the helicopters

We got to our viewing spot about 11 a.m.; the race was due to pass at about 1:30. Somehow, with a picnic and lots of other race viewers, the time passed quickly. Bike riding is wildly popular in Italy. We frequently see cyclists pumping up the steep hill outside our house, all dressed in spandex so they look like bees, chatting away comfortably, as if a steep ascent were the easiest thing in the world to do.  Many cyclists, like our friend Richard, like to ride sections of the Giro before the actual race. Here are just a few of the literally hundreds that rode past us:

more bikersYou might notice they’re using the whole road. It’s not just because it’s race day and the road is closed to traffic. Here in Italy bicycle riders take whatever part of the road they need, and if it happens to be your whole lane, then you just have to trail behind them until there’s a place to pass. Can you imagine what would happen in the U.S. to bicyclists with habits like that? Honk!! Splat!!!

As the hour approached the excitement level grew. We could hear the blades of the helicopters thumping in the distance, and suddenly there were no more amateur riders, only official seeming cars and motorbikes.

At Last! The car that announced the beginning of the race!

Inizio gara ciclistica

But they were just kidding. In fact, they really did make an announcement over the loud-speaker to say the race would be along in 9 minutes. In the meantime we were entertained by a continuing parade of support vehicles, an ambulance, police in cars and on motorcycles and other officials on motorcycles.

police-001

And then, suddenly, there they were:

the first group of cyclists-002

Notice the guy standing up on the back of the last motorcycle?  He’s one of the cameramen from RAI, the state TV broadcaster. Now we understand how they get such amazing coverage of the riders.the first group of cyclists-006
the first group of cyclists-012

the first group of cyclists-016 the first group of cyclists-025

the first group of cyclists-021 the first group of cyclists-030 And then they were past, followed by a huge number of support vehicles, another ambulance, medical support, bikes, tires – what a lot of stuff and personnel it takes to keep the race going. Just the number of spare bikes is mind boggling.spare bikes between groups belgium spare bikes between groups a jungle of bikes

Turns out that wasn’t the end of the race by any means, though. That was just the first group of riders, the leaders. In all the hub-bub of support vehicles there was another car with a loud-speaker that announced the rest of the race would arrive in 4 minutes. Great excitement! More police cars, more officials on motorcycles, more cars carrying bikes and tires. Then here they came, a much larger group this time:

Second group arrives second group a lot of them-001 second group-006 second group-011 second group-016 second group-018 Here are two things that really struck me. One was how very close we could get to the race participants. We could have reached out and touched them; that gave an immediacy and a thrill to the undertaking that one would never experience from, say, the bleachers at a baseball game. The other thing that amazed me was that support cars, police and all manner of other traffic came along well before the last racer had passed. Those near the end of the race (and I won’t call them ‘stragglers’ because no one who can ride up those mountains is a straggler) really had to negotiate motorized traffic. Seems a bit hard on them. Or on most of them; this man looked like he was out for a Saturday afternoon pleasure ride.this guy looks pretty relaxed IMG_1049 Then, all at once, it really was the end of the race. The sound of the helicopters faded, the same people we had watched trudging up the hill began to reappear on their way down. At last - Fine gara ciclisticaAt dinner at Leo’s that evening we were all recounting the day’s adventures to Isa, who had a quiet day at home. She suddenly remembered something, a drawing hanging on the their wall-of-a-hundred drawings in the hall:

winner of the first giro d'italia

It is a portrait of Luigi Ganna, the winner of the first Giro d’Italia in 1909, drawn by an artist who lived in Sostegno. That year there were 127 cyclists in the race, and, I’m guessing, a lot fewer support vehicles, though this photo of Ganna suggests there was at least one:

Photo courtese of velovelovelo.com

Photo courtesy of velovelovelo.com                           -

This year there were 22 teams of 9 each, 198 racers and they all wore helmets instead of snap-brimmed hats. When I see photos like the one above I always wonder: in a hundred years will we all look as quaint and old-fashioned to our great-great-grandchildren as these people do to us today?

(If you want to see way too many more photographs of the racers and the general environs, click here.)

Learning Something New Every Day

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I suppose it’s like living in New York for ten years and suddenly learning the history of the Empire State Building. How many times have Speedy and I walked through or past this gate? More than we can count.

Rapallo Porto delle salineIt is the so-called Porto delle Saline, and is the only one of five original gates into the once-walled Rapallo that is still in existence.  Obviously it didn’t look much like this in the mid-1200’s when written reference to it was first made. It’s been tarted up quite a bit, as can be seen in the Baroque detail above the ornate arch. That is a reproduction of the painting of Our Lady of Montallegro, the important pilgrim church at the top of one of the hills behind Rapallo (you can read the fascinating history of the church and its ikon here).

porto delle saline detail

Back when Rapallo was walled and still had five gates, the Doria family from Genova held a monopoly on salt production in the area. The great pans in which they evaporated salt from the sea were just outside this gate – hence the name, which means Salt Port.

I finally learned this little bit of Rapallo’s history today during a delightful passagiata with visiting family. Although I felt foolish for not knowing the story before, I’m very glad to know it now. It was a splendid day in every way, and even had an appropriate moment of doggy cuteness. I was too slow to capture this little puppy eating the ice cream from his cup, but quick enough to catch him wondering if there was any way to get some more.

littlel pup and his ice cream cup

A Short Travelogue

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Last week we took a leisurely trip from Arizona back home to Italy – if any travel these days can be called ‘leisurely’ which, according to me, it cannot. In any event, with the help of good friends at both ends we were able to complete our travels in a mere four days.

But wait – before telling you about it, I want to give a shout out to Lufthansa Airlines.  While American Airlines is always our airline of choice (and those who know us understand why), we were given some exceptional service by Lufthansa, and not for the first time. After checking our two bags for a pair of flights from Frankfurt, Germany, to Pisa, Italy, via Munich, we discovered going through security that we would have to check one of our backpacks as well (it was the good German tinned meat and mustard that did us in). In our haste we forgot to mention to the agent that the backpack was also to go on from Munich to Pisa. Whether it was an agent or ‘the system’ we don’t really know, but the backpack arrived in Pisa with our other two bags – which I find completely amazing, as we had never mentioned it was to go beyond Munich. What a relief, as it contained many of my important items.

Anyway, after enjoying stellar company on the crossing from Dallas-Fort Worth to Frankfurt, we took a short train ride to nearby Russelsheim where we had booked a room at the Arona Hotel. Russelsheim is best known for being the home of Adam Opel auto manufacturing, founded in 1862, which, since the 1930’s, has been a part of General Motors.

Russelsheim Mr. Opel and his factory

There is a small showroom just down the street from this statue of Adam Opel where you can learn the history of the car-maker and see some cars, both old and new.

Russelsheim old opel

 

Russelsheim  new opel

Above is the Adam model, and it’s cute as a button. If you’re interested in a short video showing present-day Opel construction, you can see it here – I especially like the paint bath.

A less savory part of the town’s past is known as the “Russelsheim Massacre.” In August, 1944, townspeople mistook eight American prisoners, taken when their B24 Liberator was shot down near Hanover, for the Canadians who had carpet-bombed Russelsheim the night before. The Americans were being transported to a POW camp and had to walk through town to get from one train to another. Angry townspeople lined the streets as the Americans were marched through, and two women began to scream “Tear them to pieces! Beat them to death!” In spite of one of the airmen saying, in German, “It wasn’t us!” some citizens answered the angry call, attacking the airmen with sticks, shovels, hammers, stones and iron bars. Six of the airmen were executed by an armed air-raid warden who lined them up and shot them after they were beaten nearly to death. He had only six bullets; the last two men were able to drag themselves to the River Main when an air-raid siren sounded, sending the mob to shelters. They were recaptured in a few days and taken to the POW camp.

The perpetrators of the massacre were brought to trial in 1945 when the atrocity came to light. Eventually six townspeople were hanged; the two women who instigated the riot were given thirty-year prison terms. Interestingly, it was Leon Jaworski, of Watergate fame, who asserted individual responsibility be assigned for the crime.

The town has changed enormously in the intervening years, of course. There is a considerable middle-eastern influence, from clothing shops to kebap restaurants. In spite of being part of the German Miracle, the town looked rather tired and run-down. There was much more litter than we’re accustomed to seeing anywhere in Germany, empty shops, and signs that all is not well economically.

Russelsheim  sad Canadian Club

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. One thing that struck me is that the town clearly supports the arts. There are many fountains and statues to be found:

Russelsheim lion Russelsheim fountain cropppedI especially like this one as the bull snorts water out of his nostrils about every thirty seconds (look closely, he’s doing it now).

Russelsheim  statue-003In the 1500’s, upstream river traffic was managed by horses which pulled the boats. This statue is in homage to the horses and the rivermen who rode them backwards keeping a watchful eye on the traffic.

Russelsheim  statue-001

This is both a fountain and a very tall statue with lots of little faces and symbols of various industries. We couldn’t quite figure it out.

Because it was a factory town, Russelsheim suffered considerable bomb damage during World War II. While there are still a few old structures to be seen, most are modern. There is an appealing sense of whimsy to some of the modern buildings.

Russelsheim tudor house
Russelsheim fanciful exterior Russelsheim  fanciful building

In spite of evident economic woes, there are still many vibrant shops open, including two of our favorites: the meat market and the bakery:

Russelsheim  meat market

Russelsheim  bakery

Don’t they just make your mouth water??

And the things we love about Germany were available in abundance. We found a nice little bar/restaurant near the river where we enjoyed a bit of pre-dinner imbibing. The sun was out, and so were the locals, soaking it up.

Russelsheim Louis and his beer

 

Russelsheim  resident-001

And dinner!  What a treat. It is asparagus season in Germany – in fact, we arrived smack in the middle of the month-long Asparagus Festival. I’ve never eaten blanched asparagus before. While it has all the characteristics of its green self (!) it is milder in all respects (!!). Here is my first ever, blanketed in hollandaise and paired with crispy schnitzel:

Louise's dinnerIn the background you can see Speedy’s schnitzel buried under cheese.

It all gave us fortification for the next day when we took the aforementioned two Lufthansa flights, followed by a train trip back to Rapallo. We were quickly above the clouds, but before we left Germany she gave us a farewell treat, an aerial view of her fields in their springtime garb. Thus we made the transition from the brown spring of Arizona, punctuated as it is with vibrant cactus flowers, to the spring of northern Europe, where there are more shades of green than Crayola has words for.

Leaving Frankfurt

Full, tired and happy, we settle back into life in beautiful Rapallo:

Rapallo at sunset

 

Spring in the Desert

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This year Speedy and I stayed longer than usual in Arizona, which means we got to see late spring as we’ve never been able to before. Long-time readers may remember a couple of years ago when a mama quail laid a clutch of eggs in our flower pot and then neglected to come sit on them. That was an adventure which, happily, has not been repeated. We’ve always left before the quaillettes hatch – this is what we’ve missed:

freshly tatched quail

Apologies for the poor quality of the picture; the birds were quite a distance away, and they run faster than you can imagine (they look like a mass of commas chasing a close parenthesis) – which is a good thing because look who was out searching for them:

coyote-001

If he couldn’t snatch the baby quail I bet he would be satisfied with a meal of ducklings:

ducklings

This clutch started out numbering 13 fluffy yellow chicks, and is now down to 8.

If mammals are more to his liking, there are plenty of these adorable babies around. They have grown quickly in the last couple of weeks:

baby bunny

Why is it baby bunnies are so cute? We KNOW they would love to come in the garden and eat everything that’s there, but still they are irresistable.

Warm Spring weather brings out the snakes and lizards. I have yet to see a rattle snake, though a good month ago this gopher snake was in our neighborhood:

gopher snake
They are quite large but harmless, unless you happen to be a small rodent. We’re happy to see them as it means the population of chipmunks and pack rats will decline.

Gila monsters are not uncommon, but they are shy, so my hiking buddy and I were delighted to see this fine fellow last weekend.  In all the many hikes we’ve taken together this is only the second time we’ve seen a Gila.

gila monster

Chuckwallas live in the rock pile next to our house, so we see them on almost a daily basis. They can be quite fearless and let us get rather close; but somehow I don’t want to get too close! Their tails look like they were taken from some other lizards and glued on to the end of tailless chuckwallas, they just don’t look like they belong to that animal.

chuckwallas-002

A couple of days ago Speedy noticed a pair of smaller lizards on the rock wall out in front. I was not able to get very close to them, but I think one of them, at least, is a Mountain Spiney Lizard – and it’s the first time we’ve seen one.

mountain spiney lizard-002

The cactus have been blooming for some time, but this year we’ve had another first-time treat: we’ve been able to see the saguaro bloom. One thing that amuses us – frequently a very small cactus will put out a disproportionately large flower.

little cactus in bloom orange bedroom cactus flower

The saguaros, which are huge, put out disproportionately small flowers – from a distance they look like your grandmother 10 minutes after her departure from the beauty parlor, before the perm has relaxed. If their flowers were in proportion to those of the wee cactuses they would be about 3 feet across (I would like to see that). At any rate, I’m thrilled to have finally seen these flowers in person.

IMG_2849

cactus wren on saguaro flower

Spring is lovely no matter where you find yourself. But with the temperatures creeping up towards 100 F Speedy and I find it is time to head east… waaayyy east. Next stop: Rapallo, and a different kind of Spring. See you there!

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