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Thursday 21 September 2000

[image ALT: missingALT. It is zzz, in Serravalle, Umbria (central Italy).]
the Nera river and the church.

Actually (of course) I didn't find anything new, but I did find it, and the exact information doesn't seem to be anywhere easy, so it certainly felt like a discovery. I got Piandoli in my head from a couple of lines in the TCI Umbria, that some scholars think the Vespasii's villa was at "Vespia, behind Piandoli".​a So why not? Franco I think doubtful, but game: we were rewarded. Franco's map, the standard DeAgostini map (fairly recent, too) put the road to Piandoli off the main drag between Biselli and Serravalle; my own memory of the TCI map, which I didn't have with me, put no road there at all, rather on the road S from Serravalle. Score 2 for the TCI; we checked with an old man at the bridge there: DeAgostini's road is a mule track — this although the TCI dates back to 1978.

Piandoli itself, 12 km from the road, and mostly up, is a group of about 5 modern houses with a stupendous view; conveniently all the inhabitants were gathered in the common area chatting: up come the two furriners, city slickers, nosing about, inquiring about the Roman ruins. We were told that lots of people constantly come here to inquire; that we shouldn't come at night or at least not get out of our car, since we'll be torn apart by dogs; and that Vespia was up there, but all planted and you couldn't see anything. (At an earlier stop on the way up — the isolated house was attractive and may have included Roman stone — the man and wife told us their dogs were ferocious, the two that were hopping up on the man with their tails all awag, and the third, who was happily looking at us and also wagging his tail about eight feet from me; but they instantly recognized "Vespia" and sent us in the right direction.)

[image ALT: A wide plowed field, about a hectare (2 to 3 acres) in extent, sloping evenly down at roughly five degrees away from the camera, until it comes to a sharp drop; on the other side of the drop, in the background, a vista of high mountains. It is an area known as Vespia, near Piandoli, Umbria (central Italy).]
The area still now known as Vespia, at about 1000 m;
looking NE over the hills around Norcia.

Franco's IGM maps were a bit more accurate than the wave of the hand we got at Piandoli, and we found an OK track up in the right direction. We intuitively stopped and 'parked' the car at the right place, walked in the right direction, towards a large flattish basin which must have been the Forca Vespia on the IGM; Franco found the first few sparse pieces of very rough thick ceramic, clearly bits of dolia — then rather suddenly we hit an area with lots of them; later on we found a second area thick with fragments. Here and there bits of lip or handle, occasionally a different kind of pottery (a whitish piece of amphora, a couple of pieces of what seemed to be brick, and one large piece which seemed to be a roof tile); and I spotted one small piece of travertine. We collected some of this in my camera bag: I later kept one small piece and left all the rest, after a few photographs, with Franco in Trevi.

More importantly, by my lights — Franco stayed politely noncommittal — there was a whole area where the vetch was growing yellower in linear shapes; I'm almost positive I saw two buildings: we had rather good light, and maybe I'll have good pictures, although they were hard to take and I wouldn't bet on it.

[image ALT: A field sown in some crop about five centimeters high, that covers the ground well. Differences in the texture of the crop, however, form pronounced straight lines looking much like the plan of one or more small buildings. These appear to be vestiges of a Roman farm at Vespia near Piandoli, Umbria (central Italy).]
Walls of at least 2 destroyed buildings show as straight lines, in slightly lighter green, on the crops grown on them. Not the perfect photo, but at least it's not my imagination. Call it part of Vespasian's villa . . .

Finally on the way back down, before paying our courtesy call on our friends at Piándoli, we stopped at a couple of houses: reuse of quite a bit of travertine, if cut into smaller blocks. Put it all together, and it's fairly convincing: we saw the remains of a large Roman farm. The name Vespia goes back to at least 1128, when it appears in a cartulary from Sassovivo, of which Franco has the full set recently published.

From there, although the plan was to go on to Leonessa with brief stops at Poggiodomo and Monte­leone di Spoleto, as part of my caccia ai comuni, Franco got the idea (very likely by association) to go instead to the Monte Torre Maggiore; I thought this was a terrific idea — the place was on my list — but I actually had to persuade him I really did: but we did drop the rather procrustean Leonessa plan, and off we went to S. Erasmo di Cesi on the M. Torre Maggiore; with a very quick bite somewhere on the road.

Cesi was about the last place I expected to be Tuesday, and in fact, once again, I was only there marginally — this seems to be the fate of Booby and Cesi: I believe this was my fourth time there (or not, depending on how you look at it). . . .​b Anyhow, the curious, unreadable and incomprehensible megalithic remains of whatever that is up there, are, well, there, the structures are much degraded, and were never the great Cyclopean works of Amelia, for example. In the Middle Ages, the site was baptized by the erection, in what appears to be the central site of three (inside what looks like once a walled compound), of an attractive church, S. Erasmo. Franco says the rose is worth noting, since only two other "retroflex" examples in Umbria — Todi and Spello I believe he said; you'd think I'd remember which churches, but I don't and will have to check this back in Chicago.​c At any rate the view is again fantastic, and the weather, always threatening rain, coöperated very nicely thruout, clearing up to blue for the ten minutes we were up there, while on the way down already it actually splatted four big drops on us, to then think otherwise —

I'd managed to forget Agnes's gift on Monday, distracted first by Suitcase, then by Rome itself and S. Sabina and so on; also I had no cash: Franco took me into Terni, where we were in and out quickly, and by great good fortune I found a book for Agnes of almost the exact type I'd been hoping to find, with, not stamps, but a proof set of Vatican coins. I've really had the most consistently good luck on this trip.

Treviwards at last, to dinner with Mariella and one of their daughters; with a pleasant pit stop at Mariella's parents: I found Mr Zenobi a little slower and more uncertain, but not really much; and when we mentioned where we'd been, off he went to his library and within a minute was back with the exact book needed. The sundial on his patio was not the one I remember online, and sure enough it isn't: it had started to lose track over the years, slowly, and he replaced it by a better one, which I took a picture of if by flash in the twilight. Motto, which, predictably, I like a lot: Et Vmbra lvcis filia.

Dinner at home with the Spellani's simple and good: mostly a salade russe, and an opportunity to try some more of Mariella's cordials, including "alloro" = laurel, but surely bay leaf; I expressed the opinion that maybe it was poisonous, then drank some: quite good. Mariella had also prepared me a little envelope containing the (simple) recipe for la cedrina, and a bunch of leaves of the plant to take home; I very regret­fully had to tell her about the horrible US Customs confiscating any and all plant material, so left the leaves but kept the recipe; I'd recognized the leaves instantly, and the recipe confirmed it: Verbena citriodora, i.e., my good friend lemon verbena of which a plant in my own bedroom in Chicago, whose leaves I occasionally use with pork chops. . . I could have been drinking homemade cedrina all along! What's puzzling is that I didn't recognize the flavor at once, characteristic as it is: but the cordial process seems to change it a bit, just enough. Also Tuesday night, a mysteriously familiar taste to the cordial called Ponziano, after the patron saint of Spoleto and traditional there: tea . . .

And our by now traditional also drive in the dark up the Flaminia to Fossato, to my door: they really couldn't have been nicer, gosh what a day (thank you Franco e Mariella). Just past midnite; slept like a log, of course.

(This now already being written somewhere over the Atlantic, a couple of hours after takeoff from Rome)

Yesterday the usual wrap-up, with a coupla twists. The suitcase pack for some reason was easy this time, maybe only 3 hours at it, and — despite appearances — I had room for maybe 2 more large books than I actually had; anyway, it was easy and everything fit.

About halfway thru the procedure, knock-knock: Mario at the door, how about the morning coffee with us? thoughtfully remembering that I could no longer boil water or make coffee. . . Why I'd be delighted, thank you: Assunta made me a special little pot of coffee, warm milk; biscuits on the side — and also they'd all gone out and come up with the ideal gift for me, taking me completely by surprise: small, lightweight, useful, attractive; a little pen from Cartier, bought in Fabriano by Carlo, who made a special trip in to Fossato to get it to me — and a little card with a Dalmatian, created by Marta on the computer. It's a felt pen, the family obviously saw that I use nothing but; and Cartier means that the refills are available in Chicago. The only flaw is that it's not Italian, but it was really one of the most nearly perfect gifts that I've ever been made.

Back to my packing and housecleaning, and would I come have lunch at 1215 before Paolo drove me to the station? Just around 1145 Mrs. Guerrieri and Santino and a big tall young man their son Francesco — not quite idiotically, my instant reaction: "Mi scommetto che vi siete messi a due per farlo" — who also wanted to lunch me; I stayed out of this conflict, resolved in favor of Mrs. Rossi's 87 years, I think —

[image ALT: missingALT]
Francesco's photo, mailed to me later by Mrs Guerrieri.
From left to right, Mr and Mrs Guerrieri, me, Mrs Rossi, her two sons Mario and Paolo:
These good neighbors were maybe the best part of my 3 months in Fossato.

Lunch thus at the Rossi's (after my second shower of the day already, but despite my nervousness, I didn't panic the way I often do, so that was good): tagliatelle al sugo, very good; a steak, with a touch of rosemary; a bit of ciambellone, coffee, a very small glass of Grand Marnier: I needed to keep a very clear head in the rather complicated day.

Group photos on the Rossi's steps; goodbyes; Paolo and me to the station, where he insisted on staying with me to help me coax, push, coerce Suitcase onto the train: and exactly on time at 2:15 P.M., I left Fossato.

Like Tuesday, yesterday Umbria threatened rain but didn't; even, when I left Fossato, clearing up rather nicely. Train ride thru all of Umbria — Trevi on its hill, the rocca of Spoleto, the sprawl of Terni, the Roman bridge of Narni — and I arrived in Orte only about 5 minutes late; that cut into my quick turnaround — in 40 minutes I had to get Suitcase (which weighs 57 kg, so at least in that department I'm not losing my touch) into the hotel,​d check in, pay, shower (wrestling with the stairs down then up in the under­ground passage at the station, and I was drenched in sweat), change shirt, get back to the station — but I managed it all with ten minutes to spare. The hotel manager or possibly owner recognized me, or rather the suitcase, instantly: "Ah, you're the" (very slight pause, he thought better than to say "idiot", I think!) "guy with the books" and I too by now know the ropes: the exit, the key, the path to the station.

1647 train to Terni to pick up my last photos, not counting the two rolls I took after I dropped the others off: everything in order (and the photo of Assunta Rossi did indeed turn out splendidly); also to the bookstore near the station, for my one volume (Spoleto) of the Manuali per il Territorio: where a rather long conversation with a customer from Porchiano del Monte singing the praises of that little neck of the woods that I've managed to see from nearly all sides over the years without actually ever going to; on the list for next time, of course —

Mr. Cervelli my photo man, when I asked, recommended only one restaurant in town — me thinking ahead to the evening meal, somewhere pleasant, good, and in Umbria (rather than just fill the stomach in Orte) — but in fact Lu Frigo is out of town, across the river towards the hospital, i.e., nervously far from the station and my last possible train back to my hotel; the two other places he mentioned, as OK if not great, I'd eaten at both, and agreed: so I took my bag of photos downstream to the only other stop on the line, cioè Narni Scalo, in the hopes I'd find something nice.

Well, one restaurant near the station; it wasn't anywhere near 8 yet, so I walked over towards the Roman bridge and squinted at the church of the Madonna del Ponte, one of those big neoclassical things; but learned to my surprise that inside there are "grottoes" with 13c frescoes, visitable: not really in the mood for tourism though, and a knot of people milling on the little parvis, maybe a service — Anyway, I walked most of the roads between the beginning of the long straight stretch of Flaminia and the bridge, to try to get a sense of where the Flaminia might have gone at the end of the bridge, where it bumps straight into a solid rock hill: I didn't, but it looks like the Flaminia must have curved around something like today's road.

Well, Back to the station, and sat for about 45 minutes at the bar just across from it: 2 Gatorades and a Campari-and‑soda, and I sorted photos, throwing away all the useless envelopes so I could cram it all in my on-board bag. Then changed seats as it were, a block away to the Hotel-Ristorante Novelli, and did more of the same there, also flirted with a 2‑year‑old girl Fabrizia and her Spanish-speaking mother.

I had my doubts about the restaurant, but never mind, I had to eat; it was quite good, though: a very pleasant home-type meal, yet another example of the good luck I've had thruout this trip. It would have been dismal and depressing to end my time in Umbria with a mediocre meal next to a railroad station: but although the station was just around the corner, a corner it was, and I had a nice little table outdoors on a sort of patio by perfect weather, and good food. One of those little paste I don't know the name of, all'amatriciana; often the pancetta has an odd rancid taste which I don't like much, but this amatriciana was very good. Unexpectedly, a dish of braised beef was strongly suggested; I had it, and it was very good, rather like my mother's boeuf en daube. No Sagrantino available, but a good rosso di Monte­falco (Forrachiara 1997, new to me). Both owners came out to talk to me, husband and wife — the latter the cook — which was nice; they actually sat down at my table, I felt like a guest. Dessert, a sort of coffeecake "brought back from the island of Elba"; instead of the limoncello I asked for, though they had it, my hostess suggested I try a "meloncello", a melon-flavored cream liqueur: sounds ghastly but it was quite good. The whole thing came to 39ML, which I told them was cheap —

Four minutes before my 9:11 P.M. train, I paid and walked over to the station; train on time, off at Orte the next stop at 9:26, in effect Orte-Narni-Terni form a small urban area with a kernel of a mass transit system, and from my restaurant to my hotel was much easier and faster than going downtown in Chicago from home.

Bed, slept fairly well: this time there was no noise in the hall, but I woke up twiceº

Later Notes:

a some scholars think the Vespasii's villa was at "Vespia, behind Piandoli": The ultimate source is Suetonius' Life of Vespasian; if you landed on this page out of the blue, I'd been tracking this for a while: see a false start, with its footnote, in the September 1 entry.

b The fifth time's the charm; I eventually saw the town, although at the price of a horrific flu: Apr. 8, 2004, with further link to several pages of a more formal site.

c On rereading this fifteen years later, very suddenly, without research, the retroflex rose in Spello came instantly to mind: the church is S. Severino. A photo of it can be seen on Key to Umbria (a remarkably rich site on the region by the way, well worth exploring), San Severino.

d I stayed in this convenient little hotel one other time before, in November 98. In large part because of the Hotel Calù, Orte Scalo is a very useful place to stay one's last night in Italy — rather than pay the prices of a hotel in Rome, plus the very expensive cab ride to the airport since the airport trains from Termini don't start until rather late in the morning.

For about a year and a half in 2003‑04, there was a note here stating that the hotel might be closed. I don't know where I'd got that idea from, but it wasn't true, and in the spring of 2004, checking, I found the Calù quite open. I also have a vague impression that there is another small hotel only a little farther from the train station.


Hotel Calù

Piazzale della Stazione, 13/14

01029 Orte Scalo (VT)

Tel./Fax: 0761‑40.01.47

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Page updated: 7 Dec 20