Saturday, March 5, 2011


Day 3 of our loosey-goosey tour. Day 19 overall.

This is called foreshadowing.

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This morning's routine is rushed and a bit frenetic, answering emails, researching destinations, plotting routes, repacking bags. Gone is the leisurely half hour or so, poking around the breakfast buffet, trying to decide eggs? cereal? meats and cheeses? as the day unfolds according to plan. In the new loosey-goosey world, there is only time to react to plans you have made just moments ago, adjust and move forward. Today, actually just moments ago, we have decided to head inland from the off season resort of Senigallia to the mountainous portion of Le Marche bordering on our home region of Umbria.

It is a fairly ambitious itinerary and there are many moving parts. We decide to start by driving toward Le Grotte di Frasassi, some of the largest caves in Italy. There are a limited number of tours given during the day, but if we leave the hotel quickly enough we can get there for an afternoon tour after having squeezed in a visit to a collection of Roman bronzes in nearby Pergola, which also has a limited number of visits available. We hope to end up in the town of Fabriano with enough time to take a tour of the city's famous paper making museum, but along the way we need to call for appointments to everything and make a hotel reservation.
In this loosey-goosey world there is not a lot of margin for error.

So we close up our bags, check out of the off season mausoleum called the Excelsior Hotel (having been, we think, their only guest), get the car packed (with great difficulty) and start our journey inland. We have missed our mark by about 15 minutes, necessitating a slight change in plans, as we won't arrive in Pergola with enough time to visit the bronzes. And so we set into motion a series of changes that ripple through the entire day's itinerary. We make a new plan which in place of the bronzes of Pergola now includes a visit Jesi, a large town just inland from Ancona. There we decide to walk around the town center and possibly visit a wine shop or enoteca to learn about the Verdicchio wine that is made there. Our flexibility is paying dividends.
We arrive at Jesi's city walls and, surprisingly, find a parking space near one of the entrances. As we get out of the car I hide some of the valuables in the back seat, including my small camera bag where I keep the passports and other important documents. "You got the passports from the front desk when you checked out, didn't you?" I asked, innoculously.

And thus was set into motion the most violent of assault not only to our loosey-goosey itinerary, but to to the loosey-goosey approach and to a 25 year marriage.

It is day 3 of our loosey-goosey tour. Day 19 overall. Those two numbers, I believe, say it all.

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Those numbers will have to say it all because after driving back to Senigallia to pick up the forgotten passports and exactly retracing our steps to and beyond Jesi, an unscheduled detour that took perhaps an hour and a half, we have agreed to wipe that hour and a half from our joint memories, as though it is time that never existed at all. It is amazing what can be said (and how much should not be said) in an hour and a half. All I can say is that on the drive both back to and away from Senigallia, Suzy and I finally looked like Italians as we argued and shouted about things having absolutely nothing to do with passports, hands flying, fingers stabbing, face in face. Perhaps there's something in the water here.

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But as coaches have been telling players in Hollywood movies for the better part of a decade, it's not how hard you fall, its how fast you pick yourself up. And in true Italian fashion we made up, both with each other and time, and before long were on the road to Genga, the home of the Grotte di Frasassi.

The caves, which were discovered only in 1971 are among the largest in Italy, and while they are normally mobbed with tourists, on an absolutely freezing February day the parking area (you buy your admission ticket there and are shuttled to the entrance to the caves by bus) was nearly deserted, fewer than a dozen spelunkers lining up to go into the belly of the beast. One of those was Suzy, a woman who will climb eight flights of stairs rather than get in an elevator, who won't come close to a third floor window, who has a replaced hip, sciatica and a bum knee, who really doesn't like crowds.

Well at least the crowds weren't too big a problem.

We entered the caves through a series of automatic doors that closed behind us to maintain the pressure and temperature of below ground. As we proceeded forward, these large doors clanked shut, reminding us that we were locked in and heading to the bowels of the earth. Our small group of about a dozen enjoyed the next 70 minutes, hearing about the history of the discovery of the caves, the geological explanation of the formation of the stalagtites and stalagmites and columns, and the idenfitication of various features. We, unfortunately, were not as entertained, as the promised English language audioguides were never provided. The benefit of this oversight, however was that we had more time to be alone with our thoughts, imagining even more grotesque and horrible ways that we may end up dying in those lonely caves.

Many a year ago, I saw a movie entitled "1000 Ways to Die in L.A." I don't remember much about the movie, but the title has stuck with me. Yesterday it returned in a slightly diffent form -"1000 Ways to Die in the Caves of Frasassi." So to pass the time as we wandered from outcroppings shaped like Dante or a bear, to a pond of stagtite candelabras on stone lilly pads, to cascading waterfalls made of calcite, my mind began to create disaster scenarios with Suzy and me in starring roles. One thousand was definitely going to be a challenge, but we had nothing but time and we were locked in this subterranean deathtrap anway. Along the way, being a community minded guy, I tended to share these scenarios with Suzy as they popped into my mind.  Let's just say that was the second biggest mistake of the day.

In reality, the grotte were a spectacular sight, well worth a detour and even worth a little interfamily squabbling about passports. Even in Italian it was easy enought to follow the narrative, but words are not necessary to appreciate the majesty of the place, the sheer awesomeness of nature (which can easily kill you). The experience here is something elemental and that touches your very being. The image of those first spelunkers, not so removed in time from us today, stumbling upon a cavern, dropping stones into the abyss in order to time the echoes and estimate its depth, fashioning a 300 foot ladder to allow them to take their first steps into a void that no man had previously walked on. It is an adventure and an experience well worth any discomfort or phobias you might feel.

Unfortunately, no photos are allowed. You'll just have to go see it yourself.

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We arrived in Fabriano at the hotel we had booked only hours earlier. And before heading out to dinner, we collected our passports from reception.

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy


Anonymous said...

After all your years of travel........ you have to know that your passport never leaves your possession !

Hope the rest of the trip will be hiccup free...

Have been following and enjoying Italy vicariously, wishing I could actually see and taste all.


Anonymous said...

"1000 Ways to Die in the Caves of Frasassi." .... I'm still laughing!!