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Wednesday 1 January 1997

0820h, same table after a short but pleasant hot shower, the first one in Italy where no water wound up on the floor; facing the french windows: I've been out on the balcony in my bathrobe and bare feet and all the snow has melted — it was well on its way last night — and it's maybe 48° out there, choppy seas muddy brown and a bit of wind, mostly overcast.

Resuming Monday evening at the restaurant: a good meal of gnocchi followed by wild boar in a sauce that was not at all as salty as in Umbria; Avvoltore a red wine from the Maremma area, 1993, rather good and with a bit of an edge and some tannin to it: served in the exaggerated balloon glasses that Italian restaurants like to use when the wine is good; I cradled the glass for a minute and inhaled quietly as I in turn do when the wine is good. . . The grappa di Moscato was a Jacopo Poli, a premium commercial brand in trade terms (I saw it in a window in Saturnia yesterday) and quite good.

Anyway, that was December 30.

Yesterday morning December 31: I woke up late around 9:30, and since I'd had the whole bottle of red the night before by myself, with a bit of a headache — which by the time we left Grosseto was gone without even a memory.

Breakfast actually in the hotel, downstairs in a very curiously shaped space, a corridor thrown between the lobby area, a service area, and at least 2 diningrooms, everything at some diagonal angle; some tropical birds imbedded in an aquariumlike glass cage poor things in a wall, it was quite dark in their space. Some bread and butter, packets of apricot jam, caffé latte: Stefano said the hotel was brutto and wanted to leave; brutto I dunno but close and so did I. Packed at 10:30, but Stefano had come down to breakfast without shaving or showering, so he did that while I went to visit the Duomo, the deal being to meet around 11 or so, when he'd finished his shower of course, either at the Duomo or back at the hotel, whoever was thru first.

I stepped out, found a tabacchi for some stamps to mail my card to Gus at the Body Shop, and also discovered that thereº were 2 other churches worth visiting, neither one far, so decided to see them first so that Stefano would find me in the Duomo rather than nowhere and wonder where I was.

A short walk away, a little complex of 3 churches S. Francesco and S. Pietro that I was looking for, and kittycorner from each of them, a small attractive in its simplicity oratory — brick — closed and I think deconsecrated and part of some kind of educational institute. San Francesco had a number of beauti­ful frescoes remaining in various parts of the building, esp. one of a bearded old saint, quite power­ful, in the S side of the nave near the main door.

[image ALT: missingALT]

Grosseto, the church of S. Francesco: a 14c fresco of Saint Anthony.

San Pietro had a few very old sculpted plaques in its front wall — "façade" is a bit too much and indoors was of no antiquarian interest, altho' quite lovely: whitewashed walls, heavy with incense and a few people praying so I was unable to photograph the inside of the front door (from the center of the nave with my back to the altar of c. I would have had to do it), of wood painted blue and red and a bit of gold. Near it was a confessional in the same style, somewhat less ornate, that I did get —

Quickly back to the Duomo down the busy Corso, passing again in front of a pair of street performers, a young man juggling and a I think young woman playing the guitar and the ocarina, both in whiteface; I'd stopped and watched them on the way out to S. Francesco.

The Duomo itself is mostly outside: the inside is much like Orvieto, a dark banded space with no frescoes but neither any of the truly horrible Baroque stucco etc. that spoils so many Italian churches; a nice baptismal font —

The outside of it, although how much of it is restoration or even outright new, is in spots wonder­ful: four symbols of the evangelists on the façade, several gargoyles, some rather nice sculpture in the S door (although the tympanum is an 1897 Madonna — not bad, but not good either).

On the square (p.zza Dante I believe, the same I referred to as the P.zza del Duomo earlier) there fronts a palazzo built in the 13c but much restored, looking very 19c movie set so to speak altho' not at all unpleasant, same banded red and cream stone, lots of crenellations, escutcheons etc. I went inside and asked the age of the building, and I was more or less right; a young woman opened the very modern conference room and turned on the lights so I could see the original wall that remains along one side: a warm but quite rough expanse of brick with a couple low blocked-up arches.

[image ALT: missingALT]

Grosseto: Palazzo della Provincia (19c),
headquarters of the provincial government.

The square itself was being decorated with balloons and a stage for the New Year's Eve hoopla. The balloons attached to the palazzo were blue and yellow and spelled Anno nuovo 1997 — the "7" was being affixed as I was there; the pillars of the arcades round the 2 other sides of the square were wound 'round with red and white balloons.

Back to the hotel at 11:15 and Stefano was sitting in the lobby, looking only very slightly put out. Of course he'd gone to the Duomo and not found me — Anyway we hopped in the car and left; Stefano having decided to take me to Roselle, a few km NE of town, because I'd seen it in the Blue Guide and had thought it would be convenient: but that'd been before we'd driven into Grosseto on difficult snowy roads; I told him it hardly mattered and it wasn't probably very reasonable in view of road conditions, but he wouldn't hear anything of it, so that's where we went.

The parco archeologico is several km from the little town of Roselle proper, but clearly if infrequently signposted. Stefano wasn't too sure we weren't lost, but I kept on reassuring him — I'm used to this kind of place! — and we weren't.

The Etruscan but mostly Roman town is tucked away in some low hills; you park your car and walk up a longish slope: fine in summer, but in the snow, something else, Stefano quite dubious thruout, altho' it was I who slipped and fell once; the snow cover was about 5 inches.

The town is compact and, except for a cute little amphitheatre (the best-preserved remains) on top of the N hill, is pretty much visible in one sweep of the eye. It must have been a beauti­ful place in ancient times when it was an island; even now, when there is a rather sudden falling off to the plain — once the sea — right along the forum, and thus a rather splendid view, it's attractive.

[image ALT: missingALT]

The Roman amphitheater of Rusellae near Roselle Terme (Tuscany)

In the way of ruins nothing much; a few grey and white mosaics — I cleared the ice off the best one, a little hippocamp I think, with my hands (Stefano was shocked that I should be dirtying my hands. . .) — a few column bases, some traces of marble wall revetments, an orange and black marble floor, the pavement of the forum incl. a well-formed gutter (some water-carrying structures next to the forum, currently being excavated under one of those large green corrugated covers), an irregularly paved cardo and a decumanus not straight and rulerlike alla romana, but reasonably twisting down the slope we'd walked up: a tomb has been found on it —

Stefano wandered around in the first few ruins with me but left me to my own devices returning to his warm car with a cigarette and the radio on; most of Roselle — I don't know the ancient name, but in my suitcase I have some books — I saw on my own, incl. the aforesaid amphitheatre, with opus reticulatum about man-height all the way round, the 4 entrances pretty much intact, incl. the main one on the major axis, a long corridor leading up from a road, and with the stone threshold of a door on the road, too. Four oval niches at the four corners of the amphitheatre, the posted descriptions suggest maybe for scene requirements. The amphitheatre must've seated 400 people, something like that? The seating has gone, the top of the remains being mounded over and grassed: reminding me a lot of Saintes, except much smaller but also in much better shape.

Back to the car and off again, with brief, very brief pitstops within the archaeological area for an isolated Etruscan tomb, then a little group of two — dignified with the title "Necropoli" by the same sign informing us of a 7c‑6c B.C. date. I went into each of the grouped two: tiny, big enough for two laid-out bodies if that; one of them still has its ceiling: a rough false vault — stone of course — obviously very hard to photograph without a wide-angle lens and regulatable lighting: it'll be interesting to see how my pictures come out.

(0930 — the weather in fact seems to be getting colder, not warmer — my bare feet on the terrazzo floor are now rather cold.)

So we wandered slowly up into the hills of the Maremma, with a pitstop for a panino — mine of Tuscan prosciutto, his of mortadella, in addition to what I had milk and some dates — bought at a little grocery shop in Istia d'Ombrone where a book I'd found in Grosseto, Guida agli Edifici Sacri . . . della Provincia di Grosseto, had alerted me to a church. Not much of a place; indeed, a church, closed; a medieval gate; a war monument with a little Christmas tree by it — but I rather liked it, at least to visit. In the little store a young man came in and wanted to be sure that as a local he has his bread: our panini were cutting into the storekeeper's supply, only half the usual because the snow had curtailed deliveries, but she assured him his bread was set aside —

Up winding hill roads in occasionally difficult snow to Scansano, an uninteresting largish town at 493 m altitude, yet quite beauti­ful from the 322 SE towards Saturnia. I would have wanted to stop 15 seconds to take a picture but didn't dare ask — the road was narrow and all you needed was one very slow timorous driver (no safer, by the way: Stefano drives well and not particularly fast) to get you stuck for half an hour without being able to pass — still, it could have been done, but Stefano is not very sensible to that type of thing and I'm a guest so I'm just fixing in my mind's eye the long fingerlike crest, white in the snow with needlelike bare black tree trunks and a compact mass of white, cream and occasional pink houses, almost all of them three stories — very homogeneous in height and appearance at any rate — with a square-belfried church at the end of the finger, really quite attractive. The center of the town as we crept thru, a fork in two major directions, kind of blocked up with snowplows pushing large piles of snow — where? — and policemen directing traffic and keeping the valve open as it were.

Monte­merano looked interesting — I read the road sign (speaking of 15c church, paintings etc.) as we passed — We went to Saturnia instead, quite interesting: in the valley between Monte­merano and Saturnia proper, up on a hill, there is a hot spring; and in the snow it was particularly striking: quite a few cars had stopped on the road and the occupants stripped to their shorts — saw only men — and were bathing in this steaming, sulfureous-smelling stream, their beachtowels slung over the little green rail of the road bridge. We stopped at the thermal spa hotel, a large efficiently organized establishment with facilities for both guests and passing visitors like us: a pricelist posted at the entry showed ₤23000 for entry on weekdays, ₤3000 to rent a robe, ₤1000 for a swimsuit. We considered briefly staying, but the resort is awfully posh and expensive and that would really have been most unreasonable. I did very much want to swim in the hot waters in the snow — an opportunity of a lifetime, and me such a seeker of experiences! Well, it turned out I will not have done it —

Anyway we drove up the hill to Saturnia, a nice little village of maybe 800 inhabitants but touristy because of the springs (there is an unenclosed hot waterfall open to anyone, by the way, that I never saw, although I saw postcards), with several agriturismi in the area, and rooms to let in town, and 2 hotels: the Saturnia, a modernish construction of pink concrete with dead fuchsias hanging from its balconies — the freeze had got them — and the hotel to stay in, charming, with a view and a swimming pool and rather elegantly furnished in an oldish house, the Villa Clodia; which unfortunately was full.

Stefano was afraid that we might wind up stranded if we stayed in or near Saturnia; so we wound up leaving. A pity: I never saw the Roman walls & inscriptions; and of course didn't bathe in the hot springs. Maybe some day I'll be back: the area is close enough to have signs for Orvieto on the roads — 69 km at one point. So — as they put the finishing touches to a pyramidal stack of wood in the piazza set to be set aflame at 2130h for New Year — we left, searching first for an agriturismo which we never found, down in the plain: another one was full. We went on back to Monte­merano since by then Stefano had got the idea to sleep in Talamone on the coast where there would be more hotels, also safer roads; and stopped there for me to visit the church. Tortuous steep streets around the no-car center, very steep with snow in spots: I too for once was a bit scared!

2230h, at Stefano's parents' — returning now to yesterday at Monte­merano:

Walked in at about two minutes past four: the priest walked in to the altar from the sacristy at the exact same time to say mass; there were four parishioners, and three Italian tourists who left immediately. I didn't: the priest intoned the introit hymn inviting the congregation to join him, and after a few notes I recognised the Latin verse of Adeste Fideles, so I sang with him — then left; if I ever come this way again, the little church of San Giorgio has some wonder­ful frescoes in the apse — which of course I could neither examine nor photograph nor even look at, just get an impression of — And we left.

The road to Talamone with no incidents, and arriving immediately before the town proper, a hundred yards before, found a modern pink concrete hotel, Hotel Baia di Talamone, with a nice room and presto, done for the day — and the year — thruout the evening and the day I couldn't avoid thinking of one year ago, what a vast and unpredictable difference: from 75,000 people in Trafalgar Square in one of the great cities of the world, in a totally northern atmosphere with a friend I've known for 15 years — to an extremely quiet evening in a remote fishing village on the Mediterranean basically by myself.

Stefano had arranged to have the hotel reserve a table for us, not for the cenone or réveillon, for which you need to dress up, but for a slightly latish regular dinner at 9:30, the reasoning being that we could probably stretch it past midnite, which is indeed what happened: he's really quite sharp —

A simple meal; I had oysters — a large triangular yellowish fleshy oyster deep in its shell — then as did Stefano a very good frittata mista di pesce, local fish catch of course. No wine, but a coupla small glasses of complimentary prosecco, not bad if unmemorable; finishing with a cream torte with bits of torrone (a praline of probably walnuts) and a tiramisu and three little glasses of grappa to stretch past midnite: a Frola that was basically acetone, and an amber-colored Monprà that was very soft for a grappa, pretty good, that's what I had seconds of.

At about a few minutes to midnite — we were in a closed indoors diningroom, half the other tables tho' reserved being empty, people having cancelled due to difficulties getting there because of the snow although it had been warming up for a few hours — some outdoors firecrackers and small fireworks made a lot of noise; the last minute the waitstaff and a party of 8 did a sort of chaotic countdown in which a couple of corks popped, and it was 1997 (big deal) — We left after another twenty minutes, the kitchen staff (two of whom kissed at midnight, I had a straight line of sight. . .) offered us some lenticchie e zampone; the latter kinda nasty, a very fatty pork sausage — Stefano had a teaspoon of the lentils, I had the two slices of zampone and the remaining 3 Tbsp of lentils: after the grappa it was curious — We walked back to the hotel.

Stefano turned on the TV and we watched the hoopla in the Piazza del Popolo in Rome, jampacked, also Bologna — fireworks in falling snow, rather striking — and Catania, 22°C. Genoa had one too but the TV transmission was prevented by technical problems related to the snow there —

[. . .] there were several times in twenty minutes that the electricity went out (apparently the whole town); I went out briefly onto the balcony to see — snow melting [. . .]

And this is where I woke up at 8, getting up immediately and writing the first section of today's entry, for 1h55 until 1015 — then Stefano woke up, we went downstairs for a simple breakfast — petits pains au chocolat, fette biscottate, caffé latte — and back up; I packed slowly while he showered and shaved (I gave my chin a rest today, no shave).

[image ALT: A rocky coastline with several reefs and rocks. It is the coast of the Mediterranean at Talamone, Grosseto province (central Italy).]

Stormy Mediterranean coastline
at Talamone.

Checked out of the hotel, slow walk up one side of Talamone to the rocca, wonder­ful wild rocks with breaking spume far below, then round the back and down again via the rather sweet modern church, and out we drove a few minutes past the noon ringing of the bells.

To Orbetello to see the Duomo — this, as most of the trip, for me — 20 km away; thru Fonteblanda, where I've forgotten to mention last night around 7:30 we went chasing after a pair of socks because the custom in Italy is to wear some brand new article of clothing on New Year's Day (each a pair of size 11 black cotton knee-length socks 12,500₤, elastic not that good, had to hitch them once this afternoon).

Orbetello approached by a causeway; to the N side the lagoon is definitely filling in: in a few centuries it'll be dry land. A monumental gate of 1620 in the Spanish-built fortifications, and by light drizzle the piazza del Duomo: the church was closed but the thing to see is only the late 14c façade, of beauty and real interest; in particular several sculpted heads recessed deep inside some quatrefoils: I'd never seen anything like it. A new city hall building with an odd weathervaned tower, probably 16c also or early 17c like the fortifications, the only other sight in town. 2:20 P.M. and deserted; it might have been three in the morning except for the daylight. No more than fifteen minutes, then we turned back northwards past Talamone and Castiglione della Pescaia where we stopped only half a minute to give me my snapshot, of the tightly bunched town on its promontory with its church, olive trees in the foreground; then to Punta Ala.

Or Punta d'Ala, as Stefano calls it: an area of expensive and for the most part very unobtrusive seasonal houses in the pines fronting onto a posh and just very recently hyperdeveloping port de plaisance, a lot of small yachts in port, and a tiny island with two craggy reefs in front of it within ¾ of a mile offshore, a fairly strong sea beating up against them: Stefano has known and loved this area for years. Slightly up the coast from the port, a pitstop to look at the beach with the modern white concrete buildings of Follonica in the distance northwards.

After that, Stefano insisted on taking me to Vetulonia, which I'd mentioned as a possibility a coupla days ago because of the Etruscan ruins and some isolated tombs, but which I was less keen on today because of the weather, the approaching dark, and a suspicion it'd just be a pile of rocks. But he insisted — and he also insisted on one route despite our both having seen a sign in a different place. . . .

Well, we eventually got there, passing by the attractive hill town of Scarlino, and only slightly less attractive probably because farther off so less visible, Gaverrano. Vetulonia town is a dump, the ruins are dismal — and locked behind green metal mesh fences enough to see that they're dismal — five courses of very rough cyclopean blocks, not even that large, and maybe 30 m long, is an "arx" at the rear of the town; then down an unpaved deeply and irregularly gullied rutted strada bianca for a couple of kilometers chasing after various Etruscan tumuli; all locked up and in restauro except for the last, and least interesting, the Tumulo della Fibula d'Oro: about 200 m off the road, Stefano stayed in the car, I went and photographed a waist-high rectangular stone enclosure the size of a bathroom, with a square pillar in the center, par acquit de conscience rather than real interest, and rather than admit defeat. . . .

Gathering gloom although the sky starting to clear northwards, we got to Massa Marittima — which despite being accurate in all respects the description in my Blue Guide had not prepared me for, and is inadequate — just in time for me I hope to catch on film the glorious effect of a particularly reddish-gold sunset on the Duomo; for several miles the dead-leaved trees, oaks often, and the reddish earth of the landscape had been marvelously highlighted too —

[image ALT: missingALT]

The Duomo of Massa Marittima at sunset.

Stefano was hungry — we'd had no lunch — all he could find was a pastry shop (he wanted a panino) but we made do and I accompanied him; only after our quiet caffés and little pastries did I visit the Duomo; some magnificent sculpture, very primitive Lombard stuff saved from the early cathedral reinset into the walls inside the church, including a gory Massacre of the Innocents including in turn a soldier laying out on the floor before King Herod a collection of hacked-off limbs of babies. . . . Some nice frescoes also and a gigantic square baptismal font where S. Bernardino di Siena was baptized — A Mass was in progress so I couldn't visit the whole church; there are wonder­ful things apparently up towards the choir and altar but I basically didn't even look — taking my flash pictures as much as I could hidden from the priest, preaching from the pulpit to maybe 150 people, by lining myself up behind the large pillars; yes my flash must've been visible, but not me: just like a dog who thinks that you won't see him if he doesn't see you, so closes his eyes. . . .

Anyway the Duomo and the piazza — several medieval buildings — on which it is sited at an angle atop a rather tall flight of stairs form a magnificent ensemble: a well-kept secret.

5:40 P.M. and dark, back to the autostrada to Livorno, long run in the dark; we were supposed to meet his old friend Roberto in Pisa, piazza della Borsa, at 7; we did. We were in and out of Pisa without me so much as seeing the Baptistry and Leaning Tower, for which I was very grateful:​a I'd explained to Stefano and he'd understood —

Roberto, a man of 46 with a little diamond earring in the left ear, grey hair in an oddish cut, and pleasant and very quiet, drove us all in his car to Calambrone on the coast, to a restaurant called La Terrazza, one of dozens like it — why we stopped here and not elsewhere is a mystery, they'd never been there either, but rejected a whole bunch of others — where we had an excellent meal: I had carpaccio di polpo — excellent cold marinated sliced octopus, a dish totally new to me; and a cacciuco alla livornese, a bouillabaisse-type fisherman's soup (no saffron, but tomato and garlic) with all kinds of good things in it and bread at the bottom: crawfish, calamar, shrimp, an eel, various tiny whole fish — very, very good indeed, the best thing I've eaten so far on this trip; a glass of beer; a glass of grappa to finish — back to Pisa in the dark, Roberto (who neither speaks nor likes English) playing American songs he's just wild about on his CD — had the lyrics translated for him by a friend; Stefano knew them too — I found it hilarious that of the three of us, I was the one not to understand them. . . .

Back into Stefano's car taking our leave of Roberto, and 20 minutes to Ponte a Egola and Stefano's home; his Mom watching TV, his Dad as is his daily custom at a bar playing cards — a very few minutes polite conversation and I retired here to catch up — more or less done so (nearly 12:30!) except for a description of the house here — also to leave mother and son to talk without me. . . . Now for some water and to sleep.

Later Note:

a This may sound strange to some, but dashing thru some 'sight' in fifteen minutes for the sole purpose of having seen it is abhorrent to every bone in my body. If something's worth seeing, it's worth seeing well, and slowly: anything else is just frustrating, and for the rest of your life all you'll have is a vague blur of a memory — if that — making the exercise pointless. Better to know a few places well and have a clear recall of them than to zoom thru life ultimately not knowing or loving any place at all.

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