Day One of our post Food & Wine Tour itinerary is under our belts. After two weeks of eating and drinking with our guests (I tell my father it’s work) it’s surprising there was any room left under there.
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In all the years we have been gorging our way through Italy, I have maintained that there is something special about this country that prevents one from gaining undue (read obscene) amounts of weight. As a result, we have never bought into the discussion of whether it is preferable to take one’s big meal at lunch or at dinner. When posed that question, for years our response has been, “yes.”
Over those dozens of trips and hundreds of kilocalorie meals we have posited a number of theories as to why weight gain here is not a serious problem, from the quality in the air here, to the effect of all the walking one does, to certain magical properties in the food (and definitely the grappa) or the amount of time spent at the table. All of these are possible silver bullets which reduce the fattening effect of eating here.
I’m here to tell you that it is all a load of bue.
If you eat two enormous, carbohydrate packed, protein bursting meals every day (with a generous breakfast thrown in for good measure) and drink the wine from a half dozen local producers daily, you will have to loosen your belt.
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So after two breakneck, button popping weeks, we left Umbria on Saturday bound for Sicily. Of course you will know this if you read yesterday’s post. Yesterday (Sunday), we woke up in our charming B&B, Tre Metri Sopra il Cielo, named after an Italian film which we have not seen but will definitely add to the schedule of our monthly Italian bookclub/movie night events at Bella Italia. The previous evening’s shroud of fog was replaced with sparkling sunshine.
Caltagirone, our overnight destination, is a beautiful spot built not so much on a hill as on Mount Everest. And Tre Metri is located near the summit, a base camp as it were for those who wish to scale the enormous ceramic clad stairway that climbs the entire slope that is Caltagirone. In fact, the name Caltagirone is derived from the Sicilian word caltu, meaning calf and gironte, meaning enormous. I could not say with complete certainty, but do have it on good authority that the town was settled in the 1960s by a band of hippie mountain climbers, the only genetic strain that could survive the constant schlepping up and down the main street/vertical face. This is not the sort of town where you want to get into your car and discover that you left your keys in the house.
After a nice breakfast and an extremely thorough verbal tour of the town by the owner Gaetano (love the name), which was made easier due to the fact that our aerial perspective in the hotel’s breakfast room above the town allowed him to point out all the highlights, we set out to do a bit of sightseeing. Our crafted itinerary dissolved into a simple Sunday stroll through this lovely town, however, as we immediately wandered off the appointed route, it being much more difficult to follow at eyelevel than birdseye level.
I shall not recount what we saw or spend too much time describing the town. I will say it is a most interesting, beautiful and worthwhile addition to an itinerary. But this was our second visit, the first one back in 2004 and which we have written about previously. Check out our archives for more detail.
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I have thought for some time about writing a book or at least a pamphlet about “Travel Rules” in Italy. Sort of like Bill Maher’s “New Rules.” Yesterday we invented a new Italy Travel Rule.
Rule: Do not attempt to drive your rental car through a street that is narrower than your rental car. The first sign that you are about to violate this very important rule is that your side mirrors will fold themselves into the side of the car. It’s like the car is grabbing its head and covering itself with its arms. The sideview mirrors are the electrical fuse of the car’s self defense system. They are the first thing to blow and much cheaper to replace than the car itself.
I suppose I should have seen it coming. As we proceeded down the narrowing road each revolution of the tires brought the walls of the flanking houses ever so slightly closer to the sides of the car. And then, pop, the mirrors told the story. And so I stopped, at that point at least having done no damage to the car. It was in the reversing out of our Chinese finger trap of a road that I could hear the telltale scape of metal on stucco. Sure I haven’t heard that sound before, but it’s like pornography and the Supreme Court. You know it when you hear it.
So just a small bit of paint scraped off the right fender. Not a problem, as I had wisely opted for the extra €3 per day full insurance coverage. It would be a simple mi dispiace to the Avis rep when turning the car in on Tuesday.
Except we violated Rule Two. When backing your car down a street that is too narrow to drive through do not back into the door of a parked car. This one actually seems too obvious to have to constitute an actual travel rule, but I’ll leave that decision for the editors of my book.
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I will give some fatherly advice about having a slight accident (un incidente) in Italy. Do not even consider fleeing the scene. After having heard the sickening sound of folding metal emanate from the little white parked Fiat’s passenger door, I had to drive a few yards to move out of the traffic. The streets of Caltagirone are so narrow, however, that I had to successively move forward again and again to find a place to stop and allow other cars to pass by. By the time I found a spot in front of a church, a hundred feet up the road, the angry mob had formed. If I had any inclination to make a dash for it, and I didn’t, they would have tracked me down and possibly stoned me. Instead, I walked back to the victimized Fiat with pen and paper, already writing my culpa mia note and scribbling down my Avis coordinates, the owner was summoned from her house just a few doors away. I considered tearing at my clothes – I think this is what they do in the Bible to show extreme emotion – but opted instead for a stream of sorries in as many languages as I could muster. And here is the third lesson.
Accidents in Italian driving are as natural as the sunrise. Far from being concerned, the woman practically invited me into her house for Sunday lunch. She took the Avis information and told me repeatedly non ti preoccupi, don’t worry a hair on that little head of yours that was too busy to turn around and see that my car was parked right where you were backing up to.
So after a few more pleasantries and Hail Marys we left Caltagirone in our rearview mirror, as our side mirrors were still folded into the body of the car, grateful for full insurance coverage and planning to arrive at the airport on Tuesday a little earlier than anticipated.
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If you ever have the chance to ride on the highway with a native Italian driver you may have experienced the curious sensation of flying while still being in contact with the road. This effect is heightened when the driver instantly and unexpectedly decelerates (we call this “slamming on the brakes” in English, I think they call it “driving” in Italian), followed by an equally sudden re-acceleration to cruising speed. This abrupt slowdown occurs universally on Italian autostradas and superstradas at the point on the highway where there is a sign showing the silhouette of a policeman and the words “Autovelox.” Autovelox is the traffic camera system used to catch speeders in Italy. The hitch in Italy is that the cameras must be marked by sign and everyone in Italy, except for the tourists, know where they are and when to expect them. It is a highly effective system for stopping speeding on 100 foot stretches of the nation’s highway system.
Last night, after fleeing Caltagirone, we arrived at our home for the next two nights, the estate of Gianfranco Becchina in Castelvetrano, near the other coast of Sicily. We’ll have much more to say about our visit here in the next days. Suffice it to say, though, our visit to Sicily is very much an Autovelox moment. After two weeks of hosting our Food and Wine tours, flying and barely touching the ground, the departure of our guests and our arrival in Sicily are like someone posted a big “Autovelox” sign over the island. We have slammed on the brakes and for a little while at least we plan to travel at the speed limit.
I can’t promise that we will slow down on the eating and drinking. There is, after all, research to be done.
Bill and Suzy