Chapter five

Day21 Sunday 21st December.

Did I mention the temperature? Just checked my new thermometer, which I placed outside the balcony doors last night. It’s 8am and the day has already warmed up to minus 1.

Breakfast is forgettable, but the sky is blue, we have new gloves, scarves, 3 layers of clothing, beanies and coats. Couldn’t do without any one of them. Today we drive to the mountains to the South and by midday we are climbing to a mountain pass that seems only 100 metres short on the peaks on either side.

The view over L’Aquila and the attached towns that stretch up the valley is simply stunning. The road is surprisingly good, quite wide for here, with two cars, maybe even two trucks to pass without too much concern. Mostly.

At 4,000 or 5,000 feet, the air is cold obviously, but the sunshine is warm and the clear sky and snow combine to make the perfect picture. As a bonus, there is almost no traffic.

We take dozens of photos, but cameras can’t capture the panorama, the crisp mountain air, or the stillness. We will just have to remember the important bits.

This is a great day out already. I love this place.

There are a few lakes in the area and we found this one in time to break out the sandwiches.

It seems very strange to us (but normal to the locals) to be driving along a reasonable two lane country road that leads through a village only to have the road virtually disappear as it squeezes between two houses that have been there for 500 years and they are not going to move them now.

You will just have to wait until the other car has gone through the gap.

Back at the hotel, we have decided to move tomorrow to the North of Abruzzo or we will not get to see that part without some backtracking.

It will be a pity to go, as the room is very good and the city is quite livable.

Our bedroom has a brick domed ceiling that would make any wood-fired pizza-oven proud.

Day22 Monday 22nd December.

We certainly got our money’s worth from the bed, 11 hours last night and late for breakfast again. Not that it matters, as with every hotel so far, there are good points and some not so good. Breakfast in this one is not so good but everything else is good.

It is another brilliant clear blue sky and by 10.30 we are well out into the countryside following the valleys north to Rieti and then on to Terni.

(This is a deceptively difficult word to pronounce for an Inglese, and it sounds something like TerrrrrennnKnee. I remember the lady who sold us a train ticket last year refusing to hand it over until I got the pronunciation correct.)

As we left L’Aquila, it hit home the importance of facing South. As a Queenslander, especially a North Queenslander, the sun shines on everything for at least part of the day, but this far south, the sun rises much lower on the horizon.

On a beautiful sunny day, if you are facing South, its green fields and bright sunshine. But, if  you are facing North, you’re in the shade and that’s a problem.

Anything behind a mountain, a hill or even a building, everything is covered with a white thick frost at 1 o’clock in the afternoon. It just doesn’t get any direct sunlight to warm it sufficiently to defrost.

It is a beautiful drive, with the mountains closing in until they are very close to the road and long swathes of narrow fields and stream edges covered in white frost.

We bypass both cities as we maintain our heading for today’s destination, Norcia, in Umbria not far from where the Abruzzo region finishes.

Norcia is famous in Italy for wild boar salami called cinghali which has a strong distinctive taste, but the town hosts many other types of preserved meats and cheeses. It is also well known as one of the few towns that still has its wall intact. The town is roughly bell-shaped with a length of about 1 kilometre. Outside the walls there is at least that much again surrounding it made up of modern buildings and businesses.

Julie took a nice shot from the car on the way into town.

We entered through the first gate, got shunted around in a circle and spat out another gate around the corner. On our second d attempt, we entered through a third gate on foot and asked around for a hotel in the historical centre.

The young receptionist was happy to mix Italian and English and showed us both a standard room and a luxury suite. The standard room was very acceptable, but the suite was offered for an extra $10.

At $75, it was still cheaper than many other before this and was quite large with two bathrooms.

The sign on the cheese says “Viagra”. I’m not sure about the wild boar guarding the door.

After our (by now habitual) passeggiata, we had dinner in the hotel restaurant which has operated as such by the same family for nearly 160 years.

The members of staff were all men, mid to late career professionals, impeccably dressed, who paid respect to the men, flattered the women and extracted an order with such swiftness and skill that it would pass unnoticed except for my admiration of their artistry.

Naturally the service and meals were excellent and priced normally, two course wine and coffee $45. While there was a commercial kitchen operating in the background, much of the cooking was done on an open fire in the main dining area, just as it always has been done.

This is a 2 bathroom suite with a lounge, a desk and lots of space.

All hotels have a down side (so far) and this one annoyed me with a petty charge by the hour for access to the internet. After 3 days of free uninterrupted connection in L’Aquila, this put me off a bit. For 4 euro, they gave me the access code for one hour.

As it was early I left it until 10pm to try to connect. For reasons unknown, I managed to get connected without using the code. The next morning I connected again and as I had not used the code, there was no charge. As a bonus, the breakfast was very good. In theory, therefore, this hotel had no downside, but it was unintended, so no perfect mark.

Day23 Tuesday 23rd December.

Today we are due in Todi for the Christmas break. It is a relatively short drive, some hundred kilometres or so, I think, anyway before 1pm we had arrived.

The second half of the drive was done in fog and on our arrival, Todi too, was completely covered. We stopped opposite the Cathedral partly because we knew there was a tourist information centre there. I had left the contact phone number for the person we rented the apartment from, at home.

The helpful young woman at the tourist info shop found it on the internet for me and the lady who answered the phone for the apartment said she would come down and meet us there.

I also knew it was very close to where our friends lived and therefore close to the location of the apartment.

The “lady” who answered the phone turned up, but it turned out to be the owner Carlo who is a lovely chap.

He was surprised we had a vehicle, and that we knew our way around.

The fog was still very close, but with Carlo’s directions, enthusiastically issued from his perch in the front passenger seat, we arrived at the apartment.

A bit of a surprise here, as we did not expect 7 rooms consisting of kitchen, formal lounge with genuine antiques, a family room with fold out bed / settee, 3 bedrooms, a separate dining room, bathroom and  a second toilet.

Everything is here including condiments, a washing machine, and all manner of household goods.

And Carlo is a lovely, lovely chap and is a part time photographer.

We were also introduced to the neighbours.

It was after 2pm so we were pleasantly surprised to find the bar next to the tourist info shop still open. We were hungry by then and had a hearty lunch, then it was time to drop in to see our friends Elia and Defina.

Their daughter-in-law Eri, arrived soon after and after some chat disappeared to set about her instructions to help prepare lunch while Mumma went to pickup new boy, nearly one year old, Bjorn.

By 3.30pm we were back at the table facing up to second lunch, appetitizers, pasta (prima), grilled chicken main meal (seconda), dessert, wine etc

Fortunately dinner wasn’t until 8.30 so we had time to make a little room.

 Day24 Wednesday 24th December.

The fog of the entire previous day was still with us as we made our way to meet the family for a day out in Assisi, home to the famous Saint Francis. We followed Erion and Eri with baby Bjorn and took Elia and Defina in our car.

On the way we visited the unfortunately named Deruta, famous, more widely than just Italy, for ceramics. Our mission was to pickup a replacement piece purchased by Greta on our trip here last year.

After some asking around, we found the shop on top of another hill, inside the castle walls of the old town.

This is sort of the centre of the industry and the most expensive pieces are located up here. All of the main outlets are further down on the flat country on the highway. As this was Christmas Eve in the middle of the low season with almost zero tourists, all the retail shops were closed and only a few high end shops were open in the Deruta old town, probably because the owners live here.

It is amazing to see a town with ceramic shops side by side, dozens, more likely hundreds of them all selling original works of art. The price depends to a large extent on the reputation of the artist and your skill as a negotiator.

Elia was about to give me a lesson in negotiation.

I had picked up a couple of pieces to get a better look and so he casually asked which of the two pieces I had admired, I liked best.

Afraid he would buy one for me, I said I could not possibly choose between them. Given they were both over 40 euros, I hoped that it finished the matter.

He told the shop owner he would pay 30 euros but he wanted both. Eventually after a lot of jokes and other nonsense the owner started wrapping both.

At that point I intervened and told Elia that if he was going to buy something, I would rather have a more practical coffee mug and appreciate the art later.

No problem, he simply told the shop owner to wrap it up too, no increase in price though as he still only had the 30 euros out and that was all he was going to pay.

A few more laughs and promises and the shaking of hands all round and off we went, all three pieces gift wrapped.

Then it was time for a visit to Saint Francis.

Assisi is somehow different from other hill top towns, maybe a little wider in some of the streets and of course the concentration of religious artifacts in many shops selling what seemed to me to be rather cheap souvenirs alongside antiques, furniture, paintings, all manner of things with price tags in the tens of thousands of euros.

The only place where you could see blue sky and sunshine was right at the top of the old town, about 1500 feet up from the flat terrain. The rest of the town lower down and the rest of the surrounding country for at least 100 kilometres was enclosed in thick ground-hugging cloud.

The famous San Frances Basilica where he is buried was about half way down so it like everything else was shrouded in cloud. Difficult to photograph but very interesting and not crowded. One could not help but be impressed by the dedication of the people who created the magnificent Cathedral on several levels.

There were a number of people there for more than just admiring the place, pilgrims maybe, but definitely a fair bit of religious dedication by locals and visitors. I’d say a must-see for Catholics. I liked the place although the absence of tourists and the pervasive presence of the fog probably helped the atmospheric peace and quiet.

We got back to Todi just on dark, made our arrangements to meet again for dinner and about 5.30, walked up into town to find Red Coat, (his name is Mario) who is the owner of a bar we used to visit every afternoon.

While Julie went off to find some wrapping paper, I went in to jog his memory. It only took a moment for him to recognize me and offer his hand in a warm greeting. He quickly produced a photo of Ross Steve and I in the bar that I had sent him by email, for which he had a print made.

Mario was quite chuffed when I told him we called him Red Coat back in Australia and he gave me the correct translation “Jacopone Russo” (Jack a pone eh, roo so). We better start calling him that in the future, although that will get shortened to Jack if we do.

After Julie came in, two people from Sydney who had arranged to be there at 6.30 to see Mario turned up. They are annual visitors and in the process of building a house near Todi.

We promised to join them again on Boxing Day at the same time.

After dinner with the family, we went to Eri and Erion’s home to get on line as by then it was 8am Christmas morning. We couldn’t stay long as it was very late but managed a couple of face to face calls on Skype.

Looking forward to a long sleep in tomorrow morning.

Day25 Thursday 25th December.

Well it might be Christmas Day here, but it is already well and truly over in Australia. Might as well have a little extra sleep.

Eleven fifty five? Is that the time already? Forget breakfast, we have only an hour to get ready for lunch.

On the dot of 1pm we arrived at the family home for lunch.

It is 6 degrees and the fog is still with us.

The usual, an enormous meal (same the world over I guess) and giving of presents.

We had brought some Australian Iron Ore Jewellery for the girls, some opal for mumma a simple Townsville T-Shirt for Erion and an Australian jacket for dad. Of course we also had some Australiana for the little guy including ugg boots and a kangaroo jacket with ears attached.

We received some of the afore-mentioned Deruta ceramics, and for Julie, a fine beaded handmade lace doily set. Even I admired it, rather beautiful I think. It is a traditional Albanian gift and something neither of us has seen before.

I still managed a little nap after lunch followed later by a good night’s sleep.

I always enjoy Christmas Day

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