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Friday 1 September 2000

(Part 1 of 2)

(On an early train to Rome — falling behind again!)

Tuesday the 29th was my day with Franco to discover Vespasian's family villa: of course we had no such luck, but we sure went to some out‑of-the‑way places.

Franco insisted on picking me up at home — it would have been easy for me to meet him in Trevi — and we rode to Biselli, which certainly seemed, to me at least, the most logical place to start: on the top of a hill, six miles from Nursia towards Spoletium.​a Biselli is on the flank rather than the top of its hill, but distancewise and direction-wise is the most likely candidate; and although the toponym surely derives from "two passes", it just conceivably might have something to do with a bisellium. (Sez he.)

Biselli is not it, however. The village, almost completely abandoned since a recent earthquake (I don't think the 1997 quake),​b has two summer inhabitants, man and wife: we spoke to both of them, mostly the man, about 60 years old, who was working on a house — clearing rubble or cutting stone maybe. He knew of nothing Roman in the immediate neighborhood, and no folk tales, large stones, or likely toponyms; and in all of Biselli Franco and I saw only one dubious Roman stone, only because it was travertine, cut into an arch to make a doorway. Click-click but rather pro forma: no Vespasian here.

A look at the IGM, of which Franco had brought a hard-bound slightly reduced collection put out by a group of Comunità Montane, convinced us (well. . .) that the next likeliest spot was Agriano, which would surely not have been on any road from Norcia to Spoleto, but wasn't out of line distancewise from Norcia and was more or less on top of a hill.

Agriano though is on the S side of the valley, and access to it is via Cascia; it was about 12:30: we had lunch there, at La Tavernetta — which was fine, no stars, and of course neither one of us were out for gastronomy. Cascia itself, where I'd never been (and thus my 61st-I-think comune), is nothing much, and is spoiled by the shrine of S. Rita (trinket shops and stuff) although there are at least 2 pleasant churches, one Renaissance, one medieval. I took no serious photos, else I'da had to do the town right and this wasn't the day for it: we left to discover Vespasian's villa.

This eventually meant stops in 5 villages on the Agriano circuit, so to speak; then down to Norcia (where we had a quick ice-cream — actually I had 2 double iced teas) and back out, up to a place called Cortigno at 1160 m, and back down around sunset by the same single road.

Avendita: a small church with a very old name (S. Procolo) where the priest had, as Franco remarked, very intelligently arranged all the pieces of Roman stone he found in a sort of lapidary garden; young boy roaming around on a bicycle, otherwise the place seemed deserted.

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Colle d'Avendita: we headed straight for the church as usual, parked the car; I looked at the unpromising modern building and said, "Doesn't look like there's anything here." Franco was a few steps ahead of me on the other side of the church and shot back, "Would you believe a nice inscription?" Which indeed it was; although that was it.

Aliena (I thought that the combination, 2 km apart, of Agriano and Aliena was toponymically promising) was the least Roman place of the lot; bits and pieces of medieval stone here and there, and a picture-postcard sort of place though.

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A view westward on the road from Colle d'Avendita: the village of Aliena.

Agriano was the biggest town on its circuit; two churches, one outside, with a 1703 inscription on the apse relating to earthquake and tower and restoration: the gist of it seemed to be that at 2 A.M. on a certain day the tower collapsed, so they rebuilt it. On a wall across from this church, hidden by ivy, an inscription alright, very difficult to read; nothing else, despite a second church in the center of town. We even walked up to what might qualify as the top of the nearest hill, a coupla hundred meters, but this yielded nothing but chickens and cows.

The road to Norcia took us to Ospedaletto; it's on the top of a hill, and the distance isn't bad, but the name is clearly medieval. We found an attractive and pleasantly cool village, and Franco pointed out that there were a lot of Roman . . . license plates: vacation homes. Still, just that, low-key, nothing touristy.

The other circuit, Franco chose to go straight to Cortigno, because we think we'd seen it from very far below — I forgot to mention that after Biselli, we tried to go to the top of a hill, which involved a terrible road, not so much a road as a mule track with loads of gravel dumped on it: we advanced at a snail's pace and at all kinds of angles to the horizontal, to stop at what for a mountain goat would have been a nice starting point but for a car was a definite dead end; and up, way up, on the top of a hill (mountain is better, actually) at least three houses; Franco thought to walk it, but I thought this unreasonable, being at least 5‑6 km and 500 m altitude rise, under hot sun. Anyway, we thought it was Cortigno; and now that I've been to Cortigno, I don't think so.

[image ALT: A small tile-roofed stone building, not quite the size of a garage, consisting of a tiny room closed off my a grillwork gate and preceded by a somewhat larger arched porch. The peak of the roof is surmounted by a plain metal cross. It is a Marian shrine in Cortigno, Umbria (central Italy).]

Cortigno: 16c Marian shrine at the edge of the village.

Cortigno — Franco wants to derive the name from a Lombard word for a kind of farmhouse or villa; my Lombard is rusty. . . — is a nifty sort of place, or at least I like it. There's a partially ruined medieval tower on the upper part, and a bit of town sloping slightly down from it, and an almost flat area large enough to hold the main buildings of a farm — but not a stone in sight, and certainly nothing Roman.​c At least two churches — we didn't do a full explore of the town — the main church in town being a St. Michael Archangel (which was promising: in Umbria, often associated with Mercury; elsewhere with Hercules, and on top of a rather prominent mountain this looked pretty good; but —), with a nice porch and some remains of pretty good frescoes; closed, so we didn't see the inside.

From there back down to Norcia, with no choice at all as to the road; via Forsivo (church of S. Apollinare: a name connected with the exarchate of Ravenna rather than anything Lombard) and Legogne, nothing much, except! a really splendid small door, that to the church (in ruins inside: peek thru the keyhole); but this one door was worth the trip, some of the finest Renaissance sculpture I've seen on this stay in Italy.

Waning light, then outright night of course, and Franco insisting on driving me back to Fossato — which at a certain point became almost required, since the last train in Foligno would have been a very tight squeeze, or missed. We passed Trevi then turned around to go have dinner — I definitely and Franco somewhat, glutted from lunch — at the Spellani's, mostly so he could spend some time with his own wife (after I dragged him thru these peculiar places: as I put it to him, by way of thanx for S. Emiliano in Congiuntoli the other day). I wish we'd had Mariella's cooking for lunch instead; the best meal I'd had in some time, and me none too hungry: chicken with bell peppers; fagiolini.

And the clou of the evening I got my cedrina. (I've been saying cedrino with an "o" all this time, but that's wrong.) I'm pleased that the stuff is good: it would have been very sad had it been awful — in more ways than one, since Mariella makes it herself. But it was very good, and familiar in one of those irritating ways; possibly an ingredient of Chartreuse or Bénédictine. Made with leaves.​d

Mariella has made a hobby out of making cordials; I had — very small quantities of — a peach-leaf liquor, reminiscent of Cherry Heering; a curious drink with hot pepper and herbs, not bad; and a very good infusion of cayenne pepper: plain commercial cayenne (she showed me the box), but the cordial tastes somehow different, and is very good. Mariella gave me a small bottle of it — she's apparently only found one other person who likes it — which I accepted happily, and a larger bottle of cedrina, which I had to refuse, sadly, since I'm leaving in three weeks, will be gone from home at least half the time, and also have a bit too much booze to finish as is.

And with this, in the dark to Fossato the three of us, getting there at a quarter to midnite; to bed obviously and slept soundly.

Wednesday morning I got up on my own at 7 but felt listless and oddly tired — oddly, since I hadn't done anything the day before, Franco doing all the work — I did laundry, lolled around, did a bit of house-cleaning; and finally got to the station in time for — I keep on surprising myself — a series of trains to. . . Bologna. (James had put this idea in my head, as a scappatoia from all this Umbria and Flaminia and Rome stuff, which is something like work, finally.)

This part of my diary will be quick to write. Bologna is a God-awful dump. I got there in mid-afternoon (the trip is under 4h from Fossato) and left yesterday morning at 10:43, a stay of less than a day, it was that bad.

I walked lots of the town; it didn't help, surely, that it was overcast (no complaint here: a welcome relief from all the broiling weather) — but Bologna is a sorry mass of dirty brick, of almost no interest whatsoever.

It didn't help, either, that the hotel I found, the desk actually pressured me — strongly — to go elsewhere! Never bumped into this, but the man at the desk maligned his own hotel rooms in nearly every way imaginable: as noisy, hot, uncomfortable and expensive. . . I stuck to my guns — the Hotel dell' Accademia is in a quiet neighborhood in an older part of town near the center — and was rewarded: the room was 1960's YMCA, but I slept well.

Restaurants, on the other hand. . . My guide to Italian hotels and restaurants suggested as "suggestivo" or some such thing a place, which, when I found it, was a nasty room behind some filthy curtains in a 1980's concrete building, dirty in that special way that such a building can be; a disappointment: I didn't eat there. Instead, I ate — after walking around lots and lots of the city and seeing absolutely zilch I wanted to investigate further — at a place very very near my hotel, Anna Maria's, described in a guidebook to Bologna I'd bought at the station, as the epitome of Bolognese home cooking. (I'd wanted to eat at a Thai restaurant 'round the corner, but it was closed for building improvements.) I ate fairly well, but they managed to overcharge me 10ML by adding wrong; and I didn't look carefully because I wound up leaving at the same time as another man who'd been eating by himself also at the next table — a travelling computer technician, don't know how people can handle that kind of job —

We wound up at the main square, which looks much better by artificial light at night than by day; arriving in the middle of a sort of theatrical performance: a group of about 15 people carrying 20‑foot-tall flaming windows around the square, then hanging off the masts of a ship, then dancing with large bright red sails finally attaching them to the ship and riding off into the sunset — well, actually, to the Palazzo Comunale. At the end of this odd but attractive happening, we parted ways to our respective hotels.

Yesterday I woke up, looked at the news, and left; a train out at 10:43, I took it. I tried to catch up on my diary but almost as soon as I put pen to paper (finishing the last paragraph of the Wednesday entry) my neighbor commented on my handwriting, and this degenerated into a free-for‑all in part because I have a loud voice — an Argentine woman who's lived 10 years in Italy, but recently went home for a month and on coming back here found it hard at first to get Italian to come out rather than Spanish: with me of course it's been the reverse a lot, so much so that speaking Spanish now requires acute concentration of me; considering that I learned to read and write in Spanish, that's terrible: I really should go to Spain for a coupla months soon. A couple of other young women, Italian, both quite beauti­ful: lots of women very handsome here, but few of the men [. . .]

The young man to my left (age 24) who started the conversation ball rolling was on his way to Croatia via hydrofoil from Ancona to meet his parents: his Dad's a sailboat man, and they were at port in a place called Buzhavasp?, that you can get to in just two hours. This was very tempting, and I had an extra day all slotted out for Bologna since I was expecting it to be a beauti­ful town: instead of getting off at Savignano to look at the bridge, why not go to Split? But at Ancona — walk under coolish cloudy skies from the station to the port — I found out that although yes there is a hydrofoil taking far less than the 9 hours or whatever that the big car ferries take (I'd investigated before, but not too well, obviously) it leaves at 11 in the morning: so although this now becomes an option even with my dwindling time here, it wasn't for yesterday, and I left Ancona for Fossato: large dinner of pasta with a sauce of about a tablespoon of black pepper cooked in butter with three cloves of garlic; the remaining Est! Est! Est!, about 1½ glasses, and to bed, by early, around 7:30 P.M. My trip to Bologna, other than as experience, I guess, was essentially a waste of time and money: can't win 'em all.

This morning (nearly caught up! right now I'm in a tunnel just south of Orte on my Umbriaward leg home at around 7:45 P.M.) I alarmed myself up at 5 to catch the 0611 to Rome, but in fact was up at four on my own; and my train was perfectly on time at a quarter to nine in Rome.

Later Notes:

a The exact ancient reference (which is also the only one) is Suetonius, Vesp. 1 which reads: Locus etiam ad sextum miliarium a Nursia Spoletium euntibus in monte summo appellatur Vespasiae, ubi Vespasiorum complura monumenta exstant, magnum indicium splendoris familiae et vetustatis. — "Indeed, there is a place in the area of the sixth milestone as you go from Nursia to Spoletium, on the top of a mountain, called Vespasiae, where there still remain very many monuments of the Vespasii: a very good gauge of the splendor of that family and its antiquity."

For my translation of ad by "in the area of", see, among very many other possible places, this passage of my diary.

Franco Spellani and I eventually found Vespasiae, I think: see September 21, 2000.

b An Italian correspondent, from this general area of Italy and involved in seismic studies, writes that this was a good guess. Biselli was abandoned after the earthquake of September 19, 1979.

c A very peculiar thing for me to have written, and so soon too! The bottom two steps of the church of S. Michele looked to me at the time, and still do, very much like tell-tale pieces of Roman travertine:

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d Hardly the most satisfactory recipe! Here's Mariella's, given me as a going-away gift; certainly simple enough:

¼ liter of 95° (190 proof) food-grade grain alcohol

30 leaves of cedrina (Verbena citriodora = lemon verbena)

Let the leaves steep 15 days in the alcohol. Then make a sugar syrup with 250 grams of sugar and ¼ liter of water; cool it to room temperature, and add to the alcohol and leaves. Let the mixture steep another 30 days, then filter: it is ready to drink.

In U. S. measurements, that works out to 90 leaves in a fifth of 190‑proof alcohol. In practice, at home in Chicago I've also been making very good cedrina with 70 leaves per fifth of 175‑proof; and I've modified and simplified the recipe with no harm: best to let the infusion sit for a minimum of three weeks rather than two (develops both the flavor and the gorgeous green color of the finished liqueur) or even up to two months, but on the other hand in the second step no need to cool the syrup down: it can be poured hot off the stove to no ill effect whatever.

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