Friday, February 17, 2006

Day 9 - Civitella del Tronto-San Benedetto del Tronto-Urbino

How is it that an advanced civilization, one that designed architectural and engineering wonders such as the Coliseum, the magnificent dome over the church of Santa Maria dei Fiori in Florence and tunnels that carry multiple lanes of traffic under the Alps, does not understand that if you stand in a shower with no curtain or door, water will inevitably get all over the floor? I stand in the shower this morning pondering this question, as I place the telephone type showerhead in the hook protruding a few feet above my head against the long end of the tub. Predictably water splashes off me an onto the opposite wall, which at least is covered with tile, puddling up on the floor and slowly, slowly attempting to escape the tiled confines of the bathroom floor by sneaking underneath the door and onto the wooden floor of the bedroom. Later I apprehend the fugitive puddle, soaking it up with a pile of towels and tossing them back into the bathroom. Another escape foiled.

As I brush my teeth I notice the obligatory alarm pull next to the shower, a small cord protruding from a hole in the wall with a black handle hanging from one end, like the end of a jump rope. I have never had occasion to pull the alarm cord and am not quite sure what constitutes an emergency serious enough to warrant a pull – scalded by hot water when your mate flushes the toilet? Soap in your eyes? In desperate need of a cheeseburger from room service? The only thing that I am certain of is that if I were to fall and truly need help so badly that I wouldn’t mind the front desk attendant finding me completely naked, I probably would not be able to reach the cord anyway.

And so we pack up and check out of the Hotel Zunica, nearly ready to say goodbye to Civitella del Tronto which we have met only hours before. But before departing we must visit the famous fortezza, one of the strongest fortresses in Italy, which is balanced on top of this already vertical town. The night before, taking a stroll before dinner we wander from the main square where the Zunica is located and head up in the direction of the fortress. The walkways (for there are no streets for traffic in this town) are so steep and so disorienting in their turns and twists that it is difficult to determine if you are walking up or down, making you feel as though you are trapped in a bizarre M.C. Escher drawing.

But today we are taking the luxury tourist route to the fortress, a set of escalators that have been carved through the foundation of the town to make this site accessible, even to overweight American tourists. The ride takes only a couple of minutes and we find ourselves outside a massive, and I mean massive, stone fortress. The views from the base of the fortification, looking out over the top of Civitella del Tronto and across deep valleys and on to snow covered mountain peaks, is beautiful, and the weather has cooperated today, even at this altitude, allowing us to shed our coats as we explore the fortress.

We pay our admission and enter the fort. There is much climbing to do, but in the fortress walking is done on wide brick walkways that slope at gentle angles, presumably so soldiers could scramble up and down them laden with weapons and transporting artillery. Remains of barracks, stockades, mess halls and latrines are accessible, most in pretty good shape, but we are reminded that after the fortress fell to the forces of a unified Italy at the end of the 1800s, the last such stronghold to surrender, we are told, it was destroyed by the victors. Only recently has it been rebuilt and many of the structures are ruins, looking like 19th century versions of the forum in Rome.

This is a pleasant, secluded place and one that would be a good visit for families with small children, who have not developed the patience or sophistication to be dragged through endless rooms of paintings or churches. There are great views of the mountains, an occasional cannon, visions of enemies obliterating one another and lots of wide open space in which to run and play.
We exit just as the ticket attendant, who warned us to be out by 1:00 is locking the gates as he leaves for his lunch break, making us wonder what we would have done had we been locked inside. It is a fortress after all. We probably couldn’t have escaped until he returned from his siesta.

The drive from Civitella del Tronto to the autostrada at Ascoli Piceno is windy and slow but soon we are heading east, toward the beach resort of San Benedetto del Tronto, which we have decided to stop in for lunch. A few days earlier Angelo has recommended a stop here, opining that it is one of the most beautiful beach towns along the Abruzzo coast.

We drive up the lungomare, the beachside road that runs the length of San Benedetto and, although the town is mostly closed for the season, are captured by its hidden beauty. While San Benedetto looks a lot like other Italian beach towns – building after building, mostly restaurants and bars, between the beach and the road, uninspired apartment buildings and an occasional attractive hotel on the other side – the beach is wide and we can imagine rows of colorful beach chairs as far as the eye can see. Because it is off season, it appears that all of the restaurants are closed and we make a u-turn to head to town center where we hope to find a restaurant when Suzy spies the lights on in one beachside restaurant. We circle back and confirm that it is open, a fact we should have noticed by the large number of cars parked out front. Oddly, parking is in the middle lane of the street, rather than on the side and Bill’s door is nearly ripped off as he opens it into traffic.

We enter the well lit "ristornatino" La Croisette (Lungomare Trieste 37, 63039 San Benedetto del Tronto, tel. 0735/81842), which buzzes with energy. Waiters glide by and framed against huge windows looking onto the beach diners are engaged in animated conversation and consumption of mass quantities of seafood and wine. This is the jackpot.

We are shown to a table with a good view of the beach, a wide sandy strip that is protected by a jetty and what appears to be an artificial reef a hundred or so feet from shore. The man who seats us seems to be the proprietor, a powerful looking man in an untucked white dress shirt, unshaven and dark with an unruly thick mass of hair in black, peppered with grey. He exchanges words with a couple of men dining at the table next to us, what appears to be an Italian version of ragging and it becomes clear that these men are regulars when one of them jumps up and gives the proprietor a bear hug. He sits back down and continues to eat and drink from one of three or four wine glasses in front of him.

Somehow, inexplicably, our host knows that we are not Italian, but treats us well anyway and speaks in rapid fire Italian. He warns us that they serve only fish here and recommends that we start with antipasti, which we think he tells us they will keep bringing us until we stop them. We agree and a few moments later the first little plate arrives, polenta with small chopped pieces of shrimp. As we are working on this two more plates arrive, whole scampi and an arugula salad with shrimp and parmigiano. A slight problem arises as a huge plate of foccaccia and a smaller plate of what appears to be marinated octopus arrives. We are still working on our polenta and the table has become completely covered with plates. We pick up our pace, finishing off the polenta and salad, putting the scampi on our plates and piling up some of the empties when a plate of mussels stuffed with olive oil soaked bread crumbs, shrimp and vegetable tempura and lightly fried eggplant topped with shrimp and cheese arrive. We begin to panic that we don’t know how to stop this onslaught, feeling like Lucy and Ethel unable to keep pace with the conveyor belt of cakes in the famous I Love Lucy episode or Mickey Mouse trying to rid himself of the infernal brooms and buckets in Fantasia. A plate of enormous flattened octopuses, lightly battered and fried arrives as we start to sweat, images of death by seafood racing through our head.

Then it comes to a stop. Perhaps sensing that we don’t know the Italian word for stop, the waiters have mercy on us and allow us to catch our breath and savor what has already piled up on our table. And savor we do, each plate featuring one or two simple, pure flavors, highlighting the freshness of the ingredients. It is yet another magical food moment in our Italian adventure.
But we are not through. We decline to order a pasta, opting to skip ahead to the secondi or main course. We ask for a plate of mixed grilled seafood and one mixed fried seafood but a few minutes later we are presented two small plates of pasta anyway, with complimenti from the restaurant. The plate contains a half dozen giant penne that have been tossed in oil and butter and sprinkled with parsley and a single clam. A delicious intermezzo for the carnage that is about to ensue.

Two large plates, one covered in heavy brown paper, are brought forth. They contain an assortment of fried and grilled fishes, including the mangled carcass of something called a frog fish, a local delicacy that is split in two and splayed in a contorted pose on the plate. Tiny fried squids, shrimp and bait fish are heaped in piles and a whole scampi, an oversized shrimp with a hard shell and a couple of long, thin claws round, out the aquatic who’s who. An orgy of eating begins (or rather continues), the effect enhanced by a crisp white wine from nearby Loretto.
Several hours after we arrived our meal is at an end. We order coffees and prepare to leave. The waiter, in addition to our coffee, brings us a small painted coffee pot and two shot glasses, explaining that it is filled with a special caffe marinaio, sailors’ coffee. We enjoy the warm, sweet coffee, flavored with chocolate and a touch of some aromatic liquor. Bill gets up to pay, exchanges some words with the proprietor and returns with a partially empty bottle of Punch Creola, the secret ingredient in the caffe marinaio, which the proprietor insists we take with us. We take a brief walk along the beach, digesting our meal and recounting the magic of the afternoon, already fantasizing about a return visit to this beach town in season, one motivating factor being the opportunity to return to la Croisette.

We arrive in Urbino, one of the great renaissance towns of central Italy. Located in La Marche region, along the coast and adjacent to Umbria, this is a region, like Puglia and Abruzzo which we have just visited, that is not much visited by American tourists. But Urbino, an important university town does get its fair share of American visitors, in part because of its renaissance treasures and its iconographic patron, Federico di Montefeltro, the Duke of Urbino in the 15th century, whose striking profile with his misshapen hook nose and fascinating red outfit is known to every Art History 101 student in the world.

We had booked a room at the Hotel Bonconte but received an email the day before that we had been moved into a nice room at a sister hotel, the Albergo San Domenico (Piazza Rinasciamento, 3, 61029 Urbino, tel. 0722 2626). We follow the signs to the perimeter wall of this walled town, finding signs directing us to the San Domenico through the city gates. We are hesitant to enter by car for a couple of reasons. First, the streets inside the walls are marked as a zona limitata, limited to use by authorized vehicles, which to our knowledge we are not. Even more so, however, are memories of entering the town of Assisi decades earlier in a minivan driven by Bill’s father, the vehicle practically wider than the streets, which were themselves clogged with pilgrims who did not interpret a bus full of Americans as a particularly positive sign from above. But we decide to chance it anyway and, fortunately, we arrive in front of the San Domenico about a minute later. And what a fortunate turn of events it has been for management to have moved us here. The albergo is located just across the square from the Ducal Palace and the facility, in a renovated convent and church is luxurious, our room the biggest of the trip and nicely furnished including a teapot and a shiatsu massage chair.

As we unload our bags from the car a parade of 20 or so people march by, playing flutes or lutes or some other strange instruments, skipping and dancing and chatting with one another. We are embarrassed that the hotel has arranged this welcome for us but learn a few moments later, as we check in, that it is a private celebration for the students of the medical university, who have finished their final exams today and are now about to go out into the world and do no harm.
We head to dinner a bit late after having strolled through the lively city, which has a definite college feel to it but which is also crowded with responsible adults. Although a walled city, it seems to have been built on an enormous hill, because all of the streets tilt upward and downward at incredibly steep angles.

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