Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Italy Trip - 6th Installment

Pictures for this installment are at:

Sunday, July 10th
Our room at the hotel in Acquasanta was plain, but more than adequate (1-2). The views out the window in the morning of the mountainside and the rest of the town were probably the best we'd had since we got to Italy (3-7). Breakfast in the hotel restaurant was simple, which we had come to expect in Italy. Nutella was served liberally. The building seemed to be pretty old and the stonework was beautiful (8-11). So was the furniture (13). We found more pictures of Acquasanta near the turn of the century hanging on the walls (14-15).

After breakfast things got weird, or amazing. Alison told Francesca, the hotel owner, why we were in Acquasanta. In what seemed like a completely natural reaction, Francesca pulled out her phonebook to begin cold calling Sestili's and Clerici's (16-18), the surnames of Alison's great grandparents. We couldn't understand what she was telling them of course, but it was a very nice gesture that didn't seem to be getting us anywhere. Still, we had no expectations when we arrived so any help at all was a welcome blessing.

Then another lady walked in and seemed to be waiting to speak with Francesca. She was speaking Italian at first but as she realized we were American she introduced herself in English as Linda, a Canadian by birth who had married an Italian and lived there for 30 years. For some reason she instantly took a liking to us and offered to take us around town to talk with some of the seniors about the family names. We had discussed trying to hire a translator for a few hours and here we had someone volunteering! So off we went into town with Linda to do some genealogical sleuthing.

Being a Sunday morning in a small town, there was no shortage of gray hairs outside the several caffes near the hotel (19). Linda began introducing us and asking about possible descendents. We were also learning about Linda at the same time (20). She was an opera singer, a soprano, and had married an Italian opera singer, apparently fairly well known, though I don't travel in opera circles. He had passed away several years before and it was clear she deeply missed him. But she was looking forward to returning to Canada soon to be near her sister. She had some bad blood with some of the people in the town because of how they had treated her husband. One of the men she introduced us to she hadn't spoken to in years, and had never forgiven him for whatever it was he had done. Perhaps not surprisingly he made some snide comment about Ali not being able to speak Italian, which Linda refused to translate (21). After probably 45 minutes of strolling around we learned that there were many Sestili's in Ascoli, where we had come from on the taxi, and possibly some Sestili's and Clerici's still in Acquasanta. But we needed to come back to the Comune, the local municipal office, on Monday morning to have them pull records. So Linda agreed to meet us again the next morning to help. We couldn't have hired a better guide!

Already having learned more than we hoped for, we returned to the hotel to pick up our bags. Our reservation for Sunday night was at the medieval Castel di Luco, only a couple miles up the road. We cinched up our backpacks, got crude directions from Francesca, and set off back up the main highway towards Ascoli. Our hike to the castle turned out to be my favorite adventure of the trip.

Acquasanta Terme is actually a collection of small towns connected by common government and mountain roads. So while the castle was in Acquasanta Terme, it was actually a couple towns over from Acquasanta proper. We turned off the main highway just outside of the main drag in Acquasanta and immediately began heading up (22-24). So far we seemed to be following our napkin map okay. We reached the next town, Santa Maria I think (25-26), and any doubts about us being outside the tourist routes were dispelled. We could feel the stares, if not see them, but I think it was more curiosity than anything. In Santa Maria, we looked up to an open window where some ladies were chatting and asked in a questioning tone "Castel di Luco?" They pointed us towards an alley where we saw some stairs that Francesca had described.

We climbed some more as we exited Santa Maria until we saw Paggese (27), the next town over. We knew the castle was just outside Paggese but the road divided so we had to make a choice. Taking the steeper route we approached a man walking his dog. Again, we gave the questioning "Castel di Luco?" He was very friendly and motioned in a couple directions but eventually managed to communicate that if we went left it was 1 km, and if we went right it was 2 km. Tough choice. As we left Paggese, still climbing, we saw the sign for Castel di Luco (28). Our casual walk had turned into a moderately strenuous hour and half hike. Good thing we brought backpacks!

The access road to the castle was another half mile long but it gave a very nice view as we approached (29-36). It wasn't very large, at least not by my hollywoodized idea of what a castle is, and there wasn't a soul in sight (37). We wandered around some of the outer buildings for a few minutes, unsure about whether to go up to the main part of the castle since there was a clear private property sign. Eventually we decided we had no choice, walked up the stairs (38) to the front door, and literally rang the door bell (39). A lady not much older than us answered the door and we showed her our reservation confirmation. She spoke a little English and walked us back down to the building where our room was.

Our room was in a remodeled building that had once been a barn or stable or something. They had used the original walls but redone the interior (40-48). It was easily the nicest room we had stayed in and it seemed that we were the only guests there. It was on the second floor of the building and the roof of the room below us made a small terrace outside our door (49). The castle itself was privately owned and had been in the same family for several generations. The family lived on the premises and probably used the bed and breakfast revenue as a small supplement to maintain the castle. We were informed that lunch would be served in the main castle if we wanted to eat. Although we were pretty sweaty from our hike we didn't linger in the room long since it was already 12:30.

The main castle was circular, with a courtyard in the middle (50-52). About half the rooms on the bottom floor had been converted into a dining room. They had seating for maybe 75 people but we were the only ones there (53). The husband of the lady who had shown us to our room was named Francesco and would be waiting on us for lunch. He spoke no English but offered to give us a brief tour of the lower floor of the castle. We followed along and he did his best arm waving and charades to explain what each of the rooms was. In the room next to where we were eating there was an old loom (54) and small mouse trap (55). We saw the sun dial (59), a cistern for holding water (60-61), a former winery (62-63), and the dungeon (65-67).

Two plates of food were delivered to our table a few minutes after we finished our impromptu tour. We had some cured meats, like proscuitto, and canteloupe. We polished that off quickly and sat patiently. We had learned that Italians seem to think it's rude for the waiter to bring the check of his own accord, so typically you must ask for it. We were still hungry but after several minutes of waiting we thought maybe they just served a light lunch and we needed to ask for the check. But as we debated, Francesco brought out two more plates with veggies, spinach cheese bread, and fried zucchini. Dish #2 was delicious. Glad that we had gotten a little more to eat it was a bonus when he brought out the polenta next, dish #3. Then came the pasta with meat sauce, dish #4 (68-69).

By now we were wondering just what kind of lunch this was. We knew a traditional italian meal included an antipasti, a first plate, a second plate, and I suppose a dessert. We had never ordered all those things because from our experience each one was as big as a normal American entree. He brought out a salad next, dish #5, and as we counted the dishes we figured this must be it. Nope. Dish #6 was a pork plate (70) and by this time we had been at lunch for over 2 hours and were completely stuffed. When the Bible talks about feasts in heaven I think I have a better understanding of what it means now. Dish #7 (71) was lamb with truffles (mushrooms). Mercifully, dessert was next. The dessert was a selection of biscotti like cakes and a dessert wine for dipping (72-73). Also a panna cotta with a strawberry topping. Ali liked the panna cotta so much Francesco offered her another one, which to my shock, she accepted. I don't know where she put it. The final count was 8 courses in a total of almost 3.5 hours. It was worth every penny of the $100 we paid.

Wasn't much to do after that. We wandered the grounds a little more (74-82) and then went back to the room for a nap. Later that evening we went out for a night stroll. There really wasn't anywhere to go but the night views of the castle were spectacular (83). Then I stepped on a slug (84).

Next up: Family history at the Comune, bus ride to Rome, the Beehive

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