Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Weekend Away: Rieti and Castel di Tora

Read here about the first half of our weekend in Lazio.

It was morning already, and from our vantage point from window of our hotel room, we could see the day beginning. All of Rieti's valley was before us, not twinkling with nightlights anymore, but now a clear stretch of green and yellow hills, the sky blue above, the city below, and towns perched on the hills all around. I was ready to explore, even though we still didn't have any definite plans for the day. Going to Rieti, though, made sense--even if the guidebook HAD described the city as "dull," we wanted to give it a shot anyway, as it seemed to be right at our feet. We paid for our hotel room, caught one last look at the small town of Greccio, and settled into the car. We needed to get an early start on the day, even if we didn't know what we were after.

Rieti was a flat little town, or so it seemed as we drove into the neighborhoods that sprawled around it, on the lookout for the city centre. Finally, we crossed a river and then recrossed it again, following the maze of "centro" signs until we had almost given up hope. But a parking lot, some welcoming arches and narrow viccoli got us parked and started on our way. There was an old set of stairs leading up to a town above us, looking almost fairytale-like as we neared a set of vaulted arches and some cobblestone streets leading toward a sunlit main piazza. This was dull Rieti? We smiled at each other, aware of another happy mistake made by our guidebook (we seemed to always go to the "dull" or "boring" towns on purpose, nowadays, as our guidebook had a habit of being delightfully wrong about those very places), and we set on our way to explore. The duomo and the vaulted loggia of the Bishop's Palace welcomed us into the city center, while a morning market brought a glow to a normally quiet Italian Sunday. Rieti may not be the first pick on most people's wanderings in Italy, but we enjoyed it just the same, discovering pocketed little piazzas hidden behind regal palaces, fancy courtyards, and even a secret bookstore stowed away inside an old frescoed church. The simplest things were the most satisfying: discovering a set of medieval arches down a quiet street, a tiny square's perfect church and the row of houses that had the scene all to themselves, a sweet fading fresco painted neatly on the corner of an old palazzo. I imagined that the locals who passed us by didn't care what the guidebooks said about Rieti--the lack of tourists gave the town a very Italian feel, and it was like stumbling over a buried treasure.

It was somewhere after noon when we decided to drive on, not sure if it made sense to go straight home, or make one last stop-over. We chose the latter, looking over the map of the Rieti province (which our hotel had given us) and the little list of towns I had printed out from the Borghi Piu Belli d'Italia website. We had been paying attention to this grouping of tiny Italian towns ever since I had arrived years before, with the name San Ginesio on my list of places to see in Le Marche--a town I had randomly found online after having discovered what was, at the time, a new tourism initiative--the Borghi. Needless to say, we fell in love with San Ginesio then, and we continually try to seek out the towns that are given the "Borghi Piu Belli" title, knowing that we will find a tiny corner of Italy all bundled up into one small hamlet of a town.

And after locating one town--Castel di Tora--on the map, driving the neccessary curvy roads that seemed to wrap in endless bends around the mountains to get there (with me more carsick than I had been the day before), we finally got there, rounding one last turn and finding two lakeside towns before us. We drove through the first to get to Castel di Tora, crossing a frighteningly small bridge while we both held our breath. Signs warned not to cross the bridge two cars at a time, and, as we got safely to the other side, we wondered, uneasily, if this was really worth it.

Luckily, it was. Castel di Tora was an amazing cluster of a town, and I silently thanked the travel gods for leading us to Lazio this weekend. Even with how pleasantly surprised we had been in both Greccio and Rieti, this place took the cake. In fact, it looked kind of like a cake, bits and pieces stacked against itself, it reached up into a tier-like castle. The streets were beautiful, each little alleyway intricately designed with stone mosaics--some almost like little welcome mats in front of sets of houses. We wandered through the tiny town, getting lost on the roads that wound about, up and down, coming across panoramas almost by accident, and discovering tiny streets that climbed up to nothing but more of the most charming sets of stone houses, dead-ending just like that. We were the only ones out--it was lunchtime--and we were lost in this maze of a town all by ourselves. We looked at our watches--we had just enough time to stop for lunch before heading back to Macerata.

We ate at a typical osteria, which seemed to be the only restaurant in the whole arms-length of a town, its sign written in marker and tacked up nonchalantly above the door. While there was a set menu, we ended up making a bit of a fuss (tourists!) about getting something vegetarian. I don't normally have trouble with this in most restaurants, as there is usually something that the cook can throw together, even if the menu is set. But, as we sat down in the small space of a room, the voices of other patrons echoing in loud barks of laughter and friendly chatter, I had the itch of a feeling that this place might not be so accommodating. In fact, once the owner rounded the corner from the kitchen and we explained our ordeal, he seemed quite perplexed by the idea of a vegetarian in his restaurant. When he tried to hand me some meat appetizers and I refused them, he sent us a look like I might as well just go. So, after he complained to my husband about how annoying vegetarians can be ("vegetariani! che palle!"), he tried to force several plates of sauceless pasta on me (okay, so there was parmigiano and olive oil, but Antonello kept referring to that as a sick person's diet). After quietly mumbling five or six times that I really didn't wish for any pasta at all, thank-you-very-much-sir, the owner still decided that I should eat at least one plate, and thumped it down in front of me saying, "this okay, miss?" I gulped, nodded, and ate--finding that it wasn't as bad as I'd expected. After finishing the pasta and a set of side dishes that all involved only vegetables, plus the eggs that he claimed were from his own chickens out back, we finally said "Basta!" got a cup of coffee, and paid for our interesting lunch. Despite the misunderstanding about my vegetarian ways, I still went away happy and full, still humming over the delicious side dishes. The owner, I think, was just happy that we went away.

That was it. Our weekend away in Lazio, discovering what we could, taking it all in, or at least as much as you can take in when you have only two days to do it. I wish we traveled more often like this, and I hope to do so in the future. Antonello has always said it is the best way to travel--stopping as you go, not relying on the guidebook or the cities around for direction, just going. The bridge didn't collapse as we left Castel di Tora, and even if we didn't get to do everything, there would be more trips in the future. We drove back the way we came, winding through the Valnerina, passing small towns, and, this time, not nearly as car sick as before.

And...the sandwich shop in the Valnerina with the famously yummy truffle pecorino sandwiches was actually open when we drove home. Guess what we had for dinner?


At 10:40 AM, Blogger rowena said...

In response to Vegetariani! Che palle!, what? this guy has never heard of eating a balanced diet? What a prince charming eh? ;-)

What a lovely recap on your visit to Lazio, but I just gotta ask...at the sandwich shop in Valnerina, did you stop IN or just passed BY?

At 11:17 AM, Blogger Stelle in Italia said...

i know what you mean about the restaurant owner--and maybe he HASN'T ever heard of a balanced diet...not sure! :) anyway, it was definitely an interesting experience :).

about the sandwich shop: we stopped in! :) (honestly though, it wasn't as good as i remembered!)

At 3:15 PM, Blogger chris & erin said...

I so know what you mean about the looks about "vegetarians". Oh well, what can you do..but we normally end up finding something :)

At 6:22 AM, Blogger Proud Italian Cook said...

I love all your pictures!!!!


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