Saturday, October 14, 2017

Celebrating the Madonna di Fátima and some heavenly chocolate

Two important but very different events are taking place this weekend in Montecarlo. The first started Friday night with the arrival of the famous traveling statue of La Madonna di Fátima, or Our Lady of Fátima, in Piazza Garibaldi. The statue was escorted by the parish priest, Don Mario Avella, along with the Filarmonica Puccini di Montecarlo and a large group of city officials and residents, from the piazza to the church. It will be at the center of several church and community events this weekend.
The Montecarlo Filarmonica plays for the Madonna and the crowd.

At the same time, Montecarlo is hosting its 15th annual Festa del Cioccolato, with booths set up along via Roma to display multiple varieties of fine chocolate. It’s great to see that officials here are taking so much care to look after our spiritual, physical and emotional well being!

Deanna and Kori admire the chocolate.
Meanwhile, Lucy and I enjoyed the companionship of some fellow members of the Sons of Italy from Tacoma who are staying in the Albergo Natucci in nearby Montecatini Terme. We consumed a sumptuous pranzo at the Osteria alla Fortezza, right in the midst of the activities. We were in view of the imposing Fortezza di Montecarlo to the north and the chocolate festa to the south while we dined with Gina Natucci and her sister Kori and cousin Deanna, as well as Diana Folino Stewart and her granddaughter Hailey and Deanna’s husband Travis.

After lunch, we strolled through the displays of chocolate and enjoyed some free assaggini, little tastes. Which, of course, led to some purchases and bigger tastes, but not many, because we were still full from the long and delicious lunch. After our guests left, Lucy and I wandered into the park, where we found that for 5 euros, we could get a plate of five pieces of chocolate accompanied by two glasses of wine.

The statue of the Madonna is known as the International Pilgrim of Fátima because it travels around the world to Catholic audiences. It is the Madonna’s second visit to Montecarlo. She also came 50 years ago, and she is scheduled to return in another 50 years. She has special significance to Catholics because her appearance in Fátima, Portugal, to three shepherd children in 1917 was declared by the church a miracle worthy of belief in 1930—incidentally on Oct. 13, the same day the statue arrived in Montecarlo.
Chiesa di San Andrea, Montecarlo.

The statue has been placed in a prominent place in the Chiesa di San Andrea and a number of activities have been planned, including special masses, meetings of prayer, meditation and instruction, and another procession. Earlier this week, a lady from the church visited all the homes in town and gave us rectangular sheets of light blue cloth to hang in our windows to make the town more festive and to ‟help us prepare psychologically” for the event.

Lúcia Santos, Jacinta and Francisco Marto
The three children who witnessed the apparition of Mary were nine-year-old Lúcia Santos and her cousins Jacinta and Francisco Marto. They were herding sheep at the Cova da Iria near their home village of Aljustrel in the parish of Fátima. They said they were visited three times by an apparition of an angel. In the spring and summer of 1916, they said the angel, who identified himself as the ‟Angel of Peace” and ‟Angel of Portugal,” taught them prayers, to make sacrifices and to spend time in adoration of the Lord. Beginning in May of 1917, they witnessed apparitions of the Virgin Mary and described her as ‟the Lady more brilliant than the sun, shedding rays of light clearer and stronger than a crystal goblet filled with the most sparkling water and pierced by the burning rays of the sun.” The woman wore a white mantle edged with gold and held a rosary in her hand.

Blue sheets on a foggy morning to welcome
the Madonna
Lúcia, who became a nun and lived to age 97, said that the angel taught them to bow with their heads to the ground and to say, ‟My God, I believe, I adore, I hope and I love you. I ask pardon for those who do not believe, do not adore, do not hope and do not love you.” Lúcia later set this prayer to music and a recording exists of her singing it.

We’re looking forward to seeing and maybe participating in that most Italian of events Sunday night, a procession through all the streets of Montecarlo with the statue. It will pass by our house at 49 via Roma, so if we’re too tuckered out by then to participate, at least we’ll have good view.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Italians good at following rules when they are discreto, valido . . . and attainable

I just read that Italians are the best in Europe when it comes to recycling waste, which was a surprise to me. I still see a lot of litter along country roads and the occasional discarded mattress. But that just might mean that there aren’t people who patrol to pick up litter. Italy is also home to the infamous ‘triangle of death,’ an area around Naples where the Mafia has reportedly dumped 10 million tons of toxic and household waste over the past two decades.

Lucy with blue bags for multi-
materiale and the white box ready
to take our carta down to the street.
But the numbers come from a valid source: Eurostat. It is the official statistical office of the European Union, located in Luxembourg, and its purpose is ‟to provide high quality statistics for Europe . . . to enable comparisons between countries and regions.” And Eurostat says Italy is far and away the best, recycling 76.9% of its industrial, urban and other waste. This compares to a European Union average of 37%. By comparison, France is 54%, the UK 44% and Germany 43%.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised, though. It took us months to figure out the complicated system of disposing of waste here in Montecarlo (see I feel weirdly happy . . .). I’m glad to know that the time I take to separate my garbage into multiple categories is helping Italy and its international reputation.

It reminds me of an important lesson I learned about Italians from Tim Parks, the author of several books about living in Italy. Parks, British born, lives in Verona, and his early experiences in Italy are instructive when it comes to adapting to the Italian mentality.

In Italian Neighbors, Parks tells about a friend named Giampaolo, who enjoyed discussing politics and ultimately used the words discreto, valido and relativo to describe almost every Italian law and regulation. Discreto is similar but not exactly the same as discreet in English. Discreto means ‟to comport oneself in a mode appropriate to the situation, not lacking in regard.” Giampaolo tells Parks the new law on drunk driving ‟has been drawn up discretamente (i.e. with intelligence, if not flair) and is in fact for the most part valido (sound, functional), but all of this is relativo (of only secondary importance), since the instruments for enforcing the law are not available, or if they are nobody has any intention of using them.”

Giampaolo could apply those words to almost any area of life. Parks writes: ‟The Italian system of autostrade . . . is definitely discreto, road surfaces and markings are always valido, but all of this tend to be relativo, since with the exorbitant price of gasoline and the very high tolls, one would need to be rich indeed before one could use the roads with regularity.”

Parks continues: ‟And so, if you encourage him, he will go on all evening: the constitution, the electoral system, the TV networks: discreto, valido, relativo. It is a curious and, I believe, curiously Italian stalemate, in which ineradicable Italian pride (and why not?) exists side by side with a sense of cynicism (equally justifiable) and, at the end of the day, resignation. The judicial system has been ‘conceived discretamente bene,’ and the constitution in this regard is undoubtedly valido, in that it establishes the total independence of the judiciary. But whatever the institutional makeup, it is inevitably only relativo given the endemic corruption that always allows the mafiosi to get of scott-free.”

This explains why Italians often double park or even stop in the middle of the street and run into a store to conduct their business. If there is no other way, even the police will understand and won’t write a ticket, and the people who are blocked in by the double-parker realize that on another day, they may need to be the ones blocking someone else for a few minutes.

However, in the case of recycling, the system is discreto and valido without being relativo—because the little trucks come by daily to pick up the designated waste. It turns out that in fact, Italians are actually very good at following rules, if there is a valid system of regulation in place. They’ve spent centuries living in close quarters with their families and neighbors, and they’ve learned to be patient with each other and their country’s slow bureaucratic system.

For some examples, Italian cars have more strict pollution control regulations that do vehicles in the United States. Some large cities are banning motor vehicles on certain days of the week to improve air quality. Limited traffic zones (streets open only to those with ZTL permits) are common all over Italy. All of these rules seem to be followed with little complaining on the part of citizens—because they are discreto, valido and, more or less, enforced evenly.

Automatic cameras catch speeders or people driving without ZTL permits. Tickets are sent by mail, and there is no policeman to argue with or try to bribe (this may not be the best argument about Italians following rules, though, since the locals all know where the speed cameras are and still drive like maniacs between them).

Of course, there still is much waste in Italy, not of the type put in bins but in governmental excesses. That may be why Italy still retains a general reputation for corruption and dishonesty. However, as one can see by the success of Italian recycling programs, a majority of Italians prefer to be discreto when following laws that are valido—as long as it is easily attainable and everyone else is doing it too.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

A roof with a view . . .

Lucy and I watched the sunrise this morning for the first time ever FROM THE ATTIC in our Montecarlo home. Yes, our leaky roof has been repaired and two skylights were installed on the east side, so now we can get a view of the hills above Montecatini Alto, Pescia and Buggiano for the first time from our house. We bought three stools from a second-hand store, the Mercato Usato near Pescia, and now we can open the skylights, sit on the stools and watch the glow of the rising sun in the morning or the city lights blinking on in the evening.
Sunrise seen from Montecarlo.

The attic is also much brighter and more inviting, especially since it’s no longer cluttered with some 30 buckets and pans formerly needed to catch intruding drops of rain. We’re also pleased with other work that we authorized our neighbor, Juri, to contract on our behalf. We have two new persiani doors on our terrazza, each overhung by a little awning. These were needed to keep the water out as well, because during a hard rain combined with a driving windstorm, the rain would beat against the side of the house and enter under the doors of the kitchen and bedroom. We’re on top of a hill with a western exposure, and that’s the side where the storms roll in.

Lucy enjoying the view from one of our new skylights.
We also had improvements added downstairs, in our large closet just inside the entry door. Juri disposed of some musty old cabinets for us, and we had the walls cleaned and painted and tiles installed on the floor. In addition, we shared costs with Juri and Silvia to repair and paint the crumbling walls of the entry hallways and replace the old floor tiles.

We are thankful to have a savvy neighbor who oversaw all these projects, and Juri is probably thankful to have someone to share the costs of improving the house. Our apartment had been empty for several years, and before that, it was occupied by Silvia’s grandmother, who probably didn’t have the resources or interest for such things as painting the outside or improving the hallways.

I do have some trouble fully enjoying our view from the skylights, however. That’s because there were supposed to be four of them instead of three, they weren’t all installed in the correct locations, and they are not the sizes and models that we wanted. We don’t understand fully how this happened, and we haven’t asked Juri to explain it yet. We are waiting for a chance to speak with him with an interpreter present, because we don’t want there to be further misunderstandings, and we don’t want him to think we are ungrateful for all his supervisory work.

But the fact is, I gave Juri a detailed drawing before I left last spring, showing the location and size of each of the four skylights. It also included model numbers. We had agreed that we would pay for the three east-facing skylights and share the cost for the western one, since one was needed by code to access the roof. Apparently, Juri thought these were just suggestions and didn’t share the drawing with the contractor.

That large beam at the top is the center of the attic.
Just below that is where two skylights should have
been. Instead, there is one, installed much lower.
The two skylights on the east side were installed much lower on the roof than we requested. We had hoped to have them near the peak, so that we could lift them open and gain more standing room. As it is now, we can only stand up straight right next to the center beam. It’s true that we can stand up inside the new skylights, but we have to hunker down and practically double over to reach them. Also, if they were in higher locations on the roof, we could stand on platforms and get an even better view over the tops of the houses on the west side.

The skylight facing west is right next to the center beam--just what we
wanted for the ones facing east. Oh, well. Life goes on. And it's a good life.
We could just contact the builder and say we’ll pay to put in two more skylights in the right places—but we’re on a limited budget, and making all these improvements has already stretched our capabilities. We had previously decided that the next project would be to install a decent staircase to the attic. Now we have a creaky set of metal stairs that we pull down from the attic using a long hooked rod. When the stairs are down, it blocks the hallway to the bathroom, so we can’t keep them down. They also come up under a low roof timber, so one has to go on all fours for a couple of feet after reaching the attic.
Our retractable staircase, which blocks
the hallway.

We’ve decided to stick with the plan and live with the existing skylights. If we get a good stairway installed next year, it will be easier to add another skylight or two and also make other improvements in the attic. All of this is complicated by the fact that I really want to sell our road maintenance business and retire fully. Living only on Social Security and my pension from teaching will limit our income. Is being able to stand up in the attic and having a better view really worth another summer of hard labor?
Sunset on the same day, taken from our terrazza. These are the hills between Lucca and Pisa.

We’ll have until next summer to ponder. For now, we’re going to enjoy this month in Montecarlo and be thankful for what we have. We know that our lives have been blessed. My ancestors who grew up scratching the soil here to eke out a living would probably be ashamed of me if I grew preoccupied over something so trivial. But I hope my grandparents would also be pleased and proud to know that because of the sacrifices they made 100 years ago, one of their own is able to enjoy and appreciate the stunning beauty of Tuscany and this amazing house.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Order up a bowl of that delicious Spadoni ice cream!

This Spadoni--err, spumoni--ice cream from the Buon Gusto
Restaurant in South San Francisco looks way better than
the normal fare.
Finally our family has received the recognition it deserves for inventing one of the best types of ice cream ever. The young man who waited on our family recently at Spiro’s Restaurant in Gig Harbor, when asking if we wanted dessert, told us he could serve us Spadoni ice cream. We all broke out laughing at the poor guy, who probably wondered what was so hilarious.

I told him that we were all named Spadoni, and that our ancestors invented this ice cream, but the packaging people accidentally misspelled the name and called it Spumoni. I congratulated him and told him he was the first one to ever get the name right!

Of course that’s hogwash, but it’s what I’ve been telling friends for years to get a smile. And besides, most people with the surname Spadoni have probably been called Spumoni at some time by wise-cracking friends—so it’s only fair that we should claim some credit. In defense of the waiter, it was his first day on the job, and he had gone to school in the Harbor with Amanda Spadoni, one of our cousins, so he was more familiar with the name Spadoni than Spumoni.

Anyway, about spumoni ice cream, typically, it is of three flavors, sometimes with a fruit/nut layer between them. The ice cream layers are also occasionally mixed with whipped cream. Cherry, pistachio and either chocolate or vanilla are the typical flavors of the ice cream layers. The fruit/nut layer often contains cherry bits—causing the traditional red/pink, green and brown color combination. It has become more of an Italian-American thing than Italian. In fact, I’ve never actually seen it in my Italian travels, but I’ve read that it exists in Southern Italy and is rarely found north of Napoli. Speaking of Napoli, Neapolitan ice cream, with three flavors, is said to be a descendant of spumoni.

The website WiseGeek says: ‟Spumoni is a special Italian dessert made of layers of ice cream, whipped cream, candied fruit, and nuts. In Italy, it’s spelled spumone, but pronounced exactly as it is pronounced in English, with an accent on the last vowel. Each layer of the dessert contains different flavors and ingredients.”

The name is derived from spuma, which means foam. Spumoni is popular in places with large Italian immigrant populations such as the United States, Canada and Argentina. The Spaghetti Factory serves it free with its dinners, which has done a lot to make it well known. August 21 is National Spumoni Day in the United States. November 13 is National Spumoni Day in Canada. I’m still not sure when they are going to name a National Spadoni Day, but it is long overdue!

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Dad knows everything . . . or nothing

My uncles Rudy and Claude at Mount Rainier.
My uncle Rudy liked to quote some folk wisdom—today’s Internet users would call it a meme—that he had heard repeated about how people view their fathers at various ages. One day he told it to my cousin Annette, and she not only wrote it down but had it set into calligraphy and framed.

She didn’t know where Rudy first heard it. Maybe his dad—our grandfather—told him, though it is also very likely he heard it later in life. The message is ageless; it probably could have been coined by any of Adam and Eve’s children. Mark Twain said something much like it, though he personalized it and made it more concise. He could have heard the concept in Italy, as he traveled there four times in four different decades. Twain worded it thusly: When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

Annette's framed version
The meme as Annette captured it from Rudy reads like this, with my translations added:
Cosa Pensano i Figli (What the sons and daughters think)
A 3 anni: Papá sa tutto (at age 3: Dad knows everything)
A 8 anni: Papá sa quasi tutto (Dad knows almost everything)
A 12 anni: Ci sono molte cose che Papá non sa (There are many things that Dad doesn’t know)
A 15 anni: Papá non sa niente (Dad doesn’t know anything)
A 20 anni: Domanderó consiglio a Papá (I’ll ask Dad’s advice)
A 40 anni: Se avvesí ancora Papá (If only Dad were still here)

Now I find that this Italian folk wisdom is being painted onto ceramics, printed on scrolls and made into placques for sale in tourist shops. It is rarely written the same way, as people adapt it to their own levels of maturity and cognition through their childhood, adolescence and then adulthood. Twain realized his dad’s wisdom at age 21; some people take longer.
A version found in a tourist shop

In some versions, the 15-year-old still hasn’t realized that Dad doesn’t know everything. He doesn’t come to that realization until age 20, and then at age 30 he is only able to acknowledge that ‟Mio padre qualche volta ha ragione” (sometimes my dad is right). And then at 40, he says, ‟Ahh, se avvesí dato retta a mio padre” (if only I had listened to my dad).

Alternate version
I have to say, my own dad was exceptionally wise, so my own age of ignorance about him was short—though that didn’t stop me from doing stupid stuff as a teenager, things that I knew dad wouldn’t approve of. I never actually thought he was off base, but I wanted to do the stupid things anyway, so I just chose to ignore his wisdom. That’s a typical adolescent trait, and I think that deep inside, most adolescents who rage in frustration that their parents don’t know anything are aware that Dad and Mom have been around the block a few times.

Having raised four children of my own through their teen years, I’ve seen enough rolled eyes and exasperated expressions to be well able to relate to this cleverly worded folk wisdom. In the Italy of my grandparents, the father had nearly absolute authority, so it is somewhat ironic that this meme should have originated there. The Italian Dad was in charge, but it doesn’t mean his wisdom wasn’t called into question. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see many different expressions of this phenomenon expressed in many different languages, perhaps even starting in whatever language the children of Adam and Eve spoke.

Monday, June 19, 2017

My book, An American Family in Italy, will launch in less than one month

A long journey is about to end, and an exciting new one to begin. My first memoir about our explorations in Italy will be launched July 13, which is also Lucy and my wedding anniversary. It seemed like an easy date to remember!

It will be available as both an ebook and a print book on Amazon. I had hoped that by now my asphalt maintenance business would have been sold so I’d have more time to promote the book. I’ve had some conversations with prospective business buyers, but no sale yet. I thought about delaying the book launch, but it’s nearly complete and I’m getting impatient.

I could really use help from my friends and readers, though. I need about 30 people to join my book launch team. You won’t need to attend any meetings, and you’ll have a chance to get a nice discount on the book, plus get a second book completely free—all for just a few minutes of help.

You can contact me or sign up to help on this page, which also has more information about the book:

Monday, May 8, 2017

Special members of the Spadoni family discovered in both Italia and U.S.

Off and on for the past six years, I’ve been looking for some Spadoni third and fourth cousins in Italy, with little success. We have met many second cousins who are descendants of Enrico Spadoni, the brother of my nonno Michele. Some of them have even come to visit us in Gig Harbor. But we also know, because of the church records, that the father of Michele and Enrico—Pietro—had brothers and sisters who survived until adulthood: Angelo, Francesco, Abigaille and Gioconda. Most likely their descendants should be living near Montecarlo.
Tanti (so many) Spadoni: Susan, Sauro, Suzye, Paul, Annette, Sharon.

In 2014, I did find Silvano‟Leino” Celli and his brother Emo, great grandsons of Gioconda Spadoni, both living in San Salvatore. It seemed like I should be able to find descendants of Angelo and Francesco, because some of them should still carry the Spadoni surname. My efforts to find them led me to a number of Spadonis, but the closest was fourth cousin Leonello Spadoni, owner of a pizzeria in Chiesina Uzzanese. He was the descendant of the brother of Pellegrino Spadoni (the father of Pietro, Angelo, Francesco, Abigaille and Gioconda).

Suzye getting styled by Sauro Spadoni of Magic Hair.
Over the course of the last six months, I finally hit pay dirt, finding the names of many of the descendants of Angelo. The breakthrough came from DNA testing through My brother and sister and I all came up as matches for some family members in Illinois, and in our subsequent contact, we discovered that we are third cousins. I have since enjoyed some interesting correspondence with Eileen Riccomi Lucietto, Alfred Riccomi and Robert Riccomi, all of whom are the great grandchildren of Angelo Spadoni. Their mom, Quarta Spadoni, married Eugenio Riccomi, and the family moved to America in the 1920s.

All of them speak some Italian and have visited their relatives who remain in the Valdinievole area, which encompasses Pescia, Montecarlo and Chiesina Uzzanese. Eileen provided me with many names and dates of birth for Italian family members, and through her information, I have become Facebook friends with several of them.

During our recent stay in Italy (which ended about ten days ago), we had a great experience with Sauro Spadoni, a hair stylist of some renown in Chiesina Uzzanese. Sauro is exceptionally friendly, lively and gracious, and he welcomed Lucy and me with a broad smile and open arms when we dropped in for a visit at his salon, called Magic Hair, in March. We promised to return in April for a longer visit when our daughter Suzye came for a week-long stay in Montecarlo. Suzye is also a hair stylist—she graduated as valedictorian in 2015 from the Gene Juarez Academy of Beauty and is a stylist at Rudy’s in Seattle.

When we went back to see Sauro again, we had not only Suzye with us but also three more visiting American cousins: Annette, Susan and Sharon. Suzye and I returned the next day so that Suzye could get a trim, but Sauro turned the appointment into a full styling that was the highlight of Suzye’s week.

Meeting Sauro was such a treat!” Suzye said. ‟I felt an instant connection from knowing that we are relatives who share the same love for hair styling. He greeted me warmly and treated me like family.”

Sauro's patented product.
While Suzye is still at the beginning of her career, Sauro has been styling hair since 1989. He is a consultant for a line of hair care products, Mr. Gio’, and he has developed a patented method and product for hair tinting called E-Form.
He’s created a foam square with a circle cut out so it fits on the top of the head,” Suzye said. ‟Along the edges there are notches where you can place hairs so that when you are coloring them they will stay separate.”

Showing Suzye how the E-Form works.
Sauro gives workshops in various cities in Italy to teach his technique to other stylists. Suzye felt honored to receive special attention from such an accomplished professional.
He is vastly more experienced than I, as he started his career when I was just 5 years old,” she said. ‟It was so nice to be treated to the full salon experience, as I’m so used to having another coworker quickly cut my hair when there is a lull between clients at our shop.

A thoroughly satisfied customer
He started by shampooing me himself, which he doesn’t usually do since he has interns and other employees who are expected to handle that. Then he gave me an edgy new cut topped off with a blowout and style, all the while showing me books of his work and explaining unique techniques that he’s developed. By the end I felt like a princess, and he wouldn’t even let us pay.”

We have yet to meet the other Italian cousins who are descended from Angelo, but that will be a treat for another time. And I still have hope that someday we’ll find some of the descendants of Francesco and Veronica Spadoni.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Add the Fortress of Verrucole as among recommended attractions in Northern Tuscany

I have a new item to put on my list of top things to see when visiting Montecarlo and the Lucca area: the Fortress of Verruccole of San Romano in Garfagnana. The reason it’s so special is that it’s not just an imposing restored medieval fortress on a hilltop in one of the most beautiful valleys in Italy. It’s greater appeal is the knowledge, passion and personality of the docents, who have a stated goal to inform people about the middle ages and to ‟captivate the attention and convey a documented knowledge without boring or numbing tourists with dates or pompous words.”

The siege machine.
We arrived late in the day and only had time for a half-hour tour with English-speaking guide Giulia Paltrinieri, but in that short time, we learned much and were swept up in her love of history. The fortress dates back to the 10th century and is impressive both in its imposing position and large size, but the most interesting aspect is that it’s an ‟archeopark” dedicated to teaching and demonstrating with interactive displays what life was like in the 12th century.

Rosemary "Flintstone" makes sparks to get the fire going.
Often times, most of what passes as history is really the story of the changing fortunes of rich and powerful rulers. Around Lucca, we hear a lot about Matilda di Canossa, Castruccio Castracani, Paolo Guinigi, Uguccione della Faggiuola, Napoleone Bonaparte and Elisa Bacciocchi. But little is said about the everyday lives of the farmers, merchants, soldiers, traders and craftsmen. Giulia and the other docents turn that equation around, devoting their displays, demonstrations, workshops and lectures to showing how people really lived. For example, after detailing a short history of the fortress, she jumped right into showing us about 30 powders—made from plants, animals, chemicals and minerals—that were used for coloring art, clothing and other objects. We were impressed that she could explain from memory the origin, composition and use of each color. She did the same thing with a demonstration of medical tools and herbal and chemical potions, answering questions about the purpose and use of each implement or medicine.

Giulia shows us how to use an iron tool to cauterize a wound.
We were treated to explanations of sleeping conditions, food, clothing and weaponry. We watched a team load and catapult a projectile from a huge siege machine. Giulia dressed my brother in the uniform of an infantryman, explaining the use of each item and weapon. We had arrived late in the day and stayed until closing time, but we left wanting to return for more. I read that the laboratories and workshops offer activities in ancient building techniques, battles, archery, miniature art and writing using ink and quills, weaving and cooking. By request or on special occasions, visitors can also engage in a game of pallascudo, a medieval sport involving the use of a ball and shield.

That fierce looking infantryman with the
sword ready is Roger Spadoni
The panoramic views from the walls also deserve mention, as one can view the Alpi Apuane to the west, the Tosco-Emiliana Appennini to the east and the lush Garfagnana valley to the north and south. A tavern provides food and drinks that offer a glimpse of past diets combined with modern snacks and light meals.

Entrance admission is only 5 euro, with discounts for children, seniors and groups. Admission includes a tour of about an hour. Other educational activities and workshops can be organized upon request. A few words of caution: You should check the schedule online (, because the fortress is usually only open on weekends and special holidays, and its closed entirely in the winter. There is also only one English-speaking guide, so you may have to wait until she is available. Finally, the hike from the parking area to the fortress goes up a trail that takes 10 minutes to climb—or longer, if one has to stop and rest.
This cold-looking slab of rock was
once the captain's toilet. Waste went
over the outside wall.

If you’re part of an active family or group, I recommend making San Romano a full day adventure, because within only a few minutes from the fortezza, there is a popular ropes course with zip lines, the Parco Avventura Selva del Buffardello. I went through the course a few years ago and had a blast. It’s a fortunate coincidence that two of the best attractions in the valley are in the same small city. Plan two or three hours for each, with a relaxing lunch break between.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

We return to Tellaro on a normal day to find that it is far from a normal vacation destination

Shhh! Don’t tell Rick Steves. We went back to Tellaro on Thursday, after the crowds from Easter Monday departed, and it’s truly a paradise, everything that the Cinque Terre were before the world discovered them. We heard about it from my brother, Roger, who had done some research while making plans to visit us. Tellaro is less than an hour from Lucca, on the coast south of La Spezia—whereas the Cinque Terre are just a little farther north.

Tellaro has rocky hillside cliffs, with houses and patios overhanging them. It has hiking trails in the hills. Views of bays, islands, peninsulas, sailboats. Old stone buildings attached to each other in willy nilly patterns with flowers in the window boxes and laundry hanging out the windows. Stone streets slanting this way and that. Dark narrow alleys overhung with random arches. Rocky beaches and a lovers’ lane—though it is not named as such—that is not closed for construction.
Rosemary contemplates Sleeping Dragon Island (the name she gave it).

It does not have a train station, though, which might be deemed a negative aspect. It is only reachable by bus or car, and the road from La Spezia south to Tellaro is a dead end. However, this may be the best part of Tellaro, in my opinion, because it renders it off the beaten tourist track, making it truly very much like Vernazza and the other Cinque Terre cities were 30 years ago. No kidding, we had the beach and trails almost to ourselves on a mild, sunny spring day. I’m sure it is somewhat more crowded in the summer, but even then I’m sure the crowds are nothing like they are at the Cinque Terre.

We had no problem parking up above the main street at about 10:30 a.m. It took about 15 minutes to walk to the beach, and we went straight out to a rocky protuberance, where we enjoyed the sun and view of the peninsula of Portovenere, the island of Palmaria and the port of La Spezia. A narrow and rugged 1650-foot-long island rose out of the water only about 30 feet away, separated from the mainland by a deep channel. It made us think of a sleeping dragon, and we watched the waves lap against the shore while we took pictures of each other and the landscape. For the 20 minutes that we enjoyed this section of the shore, which was right in the heart of the town, we were the only ones present.

From there, we walked past colorful rowboats waiting to be launched and enjoyed coffee and hot chocolate at the outdoor tables of the Bar La Marina. The tables were about half full, but we heard no English, German, Japanese or anything but Italian being spoken—and this was the liveliest part of the town. We walked south past the Chiesa di San Giorgio on a 10-foot wide trail overlooking the sea. We could have easily climbed over the railings and accessed the huge boulders that
made up the beach, but we were content to stay on the trail. Near the end, we sat on a ledge and munched on cheese, crackers, chocolate and apples that Lucy had packed. While the trail only extended about 360 feet before coming to a dead end, we later discovered the city streets above went much further and offered a higher vantage point. During our half hour stroll and snack, we did share the trail, viewpoints, benches and boulders with, oh, about a dozen other vacationers. While the coastline in Tellaro is not made for swimming, one can easily walk to the sandy beaches of nearby Fiascherino—or if sandy beaches are more of a priority, one can just stay in Fiascherino instead of Tellaro. They are only five minutes apart by foot.

When we walked up higher, we found some fascinating narrow alleys, hidden piazzas, breathtaking overlooks and more old churches, walls, doorways and ornate doorknobs. And once again, very few people. We could see trails on the hillsides that begged us to follow them.

‟It’s definitely worth a couple or three days, easily,” Roger said. ‟It reminds me of my first visit to Vernazza many years ago. It would be especially great for people who like hiking, because you could stroll without crowds of foreigners coming up behind you making impatient noises because they want to pass.”

We only explored the town for about two hours, but it was enough to convince us to book some rooms next time for more extensive exploration. One can easily take a bus from Tellaro to the more bustling resort town of Lerici (only two miles away), which has sandy beaches, castles to explore, a cinema and the Scuola di Mare Santa Teresa, where one can take lessons in surfing, sailing, windsurfing, kayaking, stand-up paddleboards and kite-surfing, as well as rent all the equipment. I also read online that in the summer there is boat service from Tellaro to Lerici.

The town is small, so any place inside the city limits is near the water, bus stops, restaurants and other services. We saw plenty of advertisements for rooms available to rent, so I’m sure that with some advance planning, one should have a good choice of places to stay. Just don’t take our room, because we’re coming back for a much longer stay next time!

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Our day trip starts poorly but ends with memorable encounters

Monday, April 17
Call it random serendipity if you want. Call it the hand of God working through indirect events. The end result was another fantastic experience in our Tuscan paradise, accompanied by my brother Roger and his wife Rosemary. Initial plans for a day trip to a ‟little-known” coastal resort were thwarted, and yet we ended up with a magical day, complete with spectacular views of high mountains and lush green valleys, a guided tour of a medieval fortress and even a chance encounter with a distant relative.
The Appennini of Tosco-Emiliana, taken from Verrucole.

Roger, Rosemary and the Alpi Apuane.
Roger and Rosemary are experienced Italy travelers, and they don’t feel the need to pack their one-week visit with excursions to must-see places. They only had a couple of items on their wish list, and those sites were not the typical American tourist places. One was the beach-side city of Tellaro, which is advertised in the tour books as more beautiful and yet less known than the five Cinque Terre towns. ‟You won’t be overrun by foreign tourists,” one web site said. ‟You’ll be all alone on the walks, and the beaches are far better than anything on the Cinque Terre.” Tellaro is about an hour from Montecarlo, so we set off mid-morning to see for ourselves.

But we made one mistake. We did it on the Monday after Easter, which in Italy is a national holiday called ‟Pasquetta.” And Pasquetta is a holiday specially designed for family activities such as having picnics or group dinners in the mountains and beaches and at little-known places. Like Tellaro.
More of the Alpi Apuane.

It’s true there were no foreign tourists, but there were so many Italian families that we couldn’t find a parking space. We cruised through the town along with another hundred cars looking for that last space. The only one we found was at a restaurant that offered full course meals for either 30, 40 or 50 euros each. I’m sure the meals would have been sumptuous, but we had come to walk on the trails and beaches. We had already planned to go out to a big dinner near Pescia in the evening, so we nixed that idea. We drove back out of town and had lunch at a small local trattoria in Arcola that offered normal-sized meals at reasonable prices.

We like to stop at little cemeteries along
the way. Even though this Alfredo
is probably not related to the one in
our family tree, it makes us feel more
connected to Italia.
We decided to move onto Roger’s second choice, the Fortress of Verrucole of San Romano in Garfagnana. To get there, we had to pass through Aulla, near the head of the Garfagnana valley. Driving through the valley provided breathtaking views of the Alpi Apuane mountains on the west side and the Appinini of Tosco-Emiliana on the east. We also caught views of ancient hillside villages, the peaceful Serchio River, and some special bridges, both old and new. This in itself would have made up for the time wasted trying to see Tellaro on the wrong day. But two events that occurred when we arrived in San Romano made our trip so fully worthwhile that I’d have to classify this as one of our best days here this year.

The first event came at a cemetery on the outskirts of San Romano. We stopped to look at grave markers because we thought we might find the name Donati. Dad’s uncle Jim (Seghiero) Seghieri had married Leona Donati, whose family originally had come from San Romano. Leona’s sister Renata married Alfredo Spadoni, Dad’s first cousin. Surprisingly, we only found one grave, that of Tersilla Donati, but by an unbelievable coincidence, we also found Tersilla’s daughter, who lives near Genoa, visiting the grave. What are the odds that Milena, making a rare visit to her mother’s grave, would be there at the same minute that distant relatives from Gig Harbor, Washington, would wander by, probably for the first and last time in their lives? Astronomical!

Chance encounter with the daughter of Tersilla Donati.
We didn’t have nearly enough information to connect her family line to ours, but knowing there was a likely tie increased our feeling of belonging, and it seemed to mean something to her as well. She had moved away from the area many years ago and had not been in contact with relatives from her home town since. We exchanged information, and we will stay in touch, since now Milena and I are Facebook friends.

Fratelli in montagna
After our encounter with Milena, we drove higher in the hills to the Fortress of Verrucole. We hadn’t realized two things: The fortress is huge, spectacular and has exceptional tour guides and activities. Second, it is only open Friday through Sunday in May and October, with extended hours from June through September. It is closed the rest of the year, including this month, unless a special tour is booked in advance. However, this being Easter weekend, there was an exception. It was open Saturday, Sunday and Monday—today! We realized then how fortunate we had been that we hadn’t spent the day at Tellaro and then tried to visit the fortress later in the week—because it would have been closed.

The fortress visit deserves more mention, and I will surely have to add it to my top 10 list of places to see when visiting Montecarlo. Therefore, I will write a more complete account of our visit and post that in a few days.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Stopped by the Italian police, but I easily slip off the hook

Thursday, April 13
I’ve seen them many times—Italian police officers standing on the roadside with their little red-green paddles, stopping cars randomly for safety and document checks. Police rarely stop drivers for speeding—they leave that for the automatic cameras. By random good luck, I’ve never been chosen for one of these routine inspections. Until today.

And it couldn’t have happened at a better time. For two months prior, we had been using a little Fiat Panda rented at a good price from our friends Eberhard and Dorothea. We had to return it earlier this week and take out a standard rental from the airport in Pisa to get us around for the rest of the month. It might have been difficult to explain why we were driving a car that belongs to a German citizen. I recently asked Eberhard to send us a note explaining that we have permission to drive his car, but we had used his car for many months without this letter, and luckily were never stopped.

Now I am driving a rental car, which has all the proper documents provided by the agency to show that I am the legal driver. No problem.

But there could be a problem. I became a resident of Montecarlo in March of 2016. Italian law states that residents have one year to get a proper Italian license. The lady at the police station reminded me of this law a couple of weeks ago when I went in to apply for a parking permit. Unfortunately, one of the patrol officers had just walked into the office 30 seconds prior, so if he was listening, now he knows I don’t have a proper license.

One might ask why this is a problem for me. Can’t I just go to the Italian DMV, or whatever it’s called, show them my American license, and get one for Italy? Not a chance. The two countries don’t have an equivalency agreement. I’ll have to pass a written and driving test, all in Italian. Before that, I’ll have to go to a driving school, which will have to certify that I am ready to take the driving test. Then I’ll have to pay the school to use their car to take the test, because only schools have cars with dual controls, a requirement for the driving test. All of this is expensive and time-consuming for someone who is only here three or four months a year. Plus, I’m not sure I’m fluent enough in Italian to pass the tests.

So I have an alternate plan, and today it worked to perfection. The traffic stop occurred in Pescia. My carta 
d'identità was beside me on the seat, but I covered it up. I handed over my American license. ‟Hi, I’m from the United States,” I said. ‟This is my rental car.” I started to rummage in the glove box for the rental documents, but the officer smiled and said that wouldn’t be necessary.

Then he used his best English on me. While his colleague took my license back to the patrol car for a computer check, the first officer asked me about my stay in Italy. ‟Is this your first visit? Where are you staying? How do you like it here? Do you have relatives here?”

I did start to worry a tiny bit because the colleague took more than five minutes to check my license. Could there be some possibility that his database would show somebody with my name and birth date who just might be a resident of nearby Montecarlo? Odds of this were slight, and I kept my cool. In the end, it was probably just slow wifi, a common problem here. My license was returned with a friendly smile.

It looks like my alternate plan will work fine, so long as that officer from Montecarlo isn’t the one who stops me. And I’ve never actually seen a traffic stop in Montecarlo. Someday, I may spend more time in Italy. I may become fluent in the language. And I might even get my license. But for right now, I’m on vacation, and we’ll stick with plan A.