Friday in Spello, Paola and I took the morning off and took a “passaggiata,” a long walk on a trail between Spello and Colepino, the “antico percorso pedonale,” or “ancient walking trail. Her choice of this walk was purposeful: the trail along the “Acquedotto Romano” was a project of Stefano, her brother, and the uncovering and reconstruction of the aqueduct was begun only two years ago, but just opened to the public on April 19.
Since Roman times, when Spello was called “Hispellum,’ this aqueduct sloped gradually from Colepino up higher on Mount Subasio, bringing water to Hispellum below. Unused over the centuries, trees had overgrown the aqueduct, and much of its length was buried in earth. It runs though olive groves on the side of Mount Subasio, and crosses the road to Colepino, but was totally hidden from view for centuries.
With Stefano (who is an architect) supervising the project, the trail along the aqueduct is now over 4 kilometers long, with signs along the trail pointing out special features of the aqueduct in both Italian and English, and a small museum building which is not yet completed where the story of the aqueduct and it’s restoration will be told for the trekkers walking the trail.
On a previous trip to Spello, I had gotten up early and walked the road to Colepino, photographing the red poppies and trying to get my heart rate monitor up to some respectable zone and record some exercise for myself. Knowing that I would probably be disappearing early in the morning to go do something similar, Paola planned our morning together walking the acquedotto. Because of the gradual slope needed by the water coming down from Colepino, the slope of the trail is minor, running along the long sidewall with frequent openings into the waterway, where we could see inside to what had been the course of the water.
The exterior wall we were seeing near us was medieval, constructed much later to preserve the deteriorating Roman wall, but the interior of the aqueduct is the Roman original, with the flat capstones forming the top and the Roman wall on the far side of the flume.
Some of the openings had small fountains (three holes in a rock on the side of the aqueduct, where three streams of water would have come out for passersby), or small troughs to divert water into larger watering fountains.
At the intersection of the road to Colepino, workers on the project uncovered the watering troughs (once totally covered in soil) for the “asino,” the asses that carried people and goods back and forth between Hispellum and Colepino. Until the project uncovering the aqueduct began, the trough was unknown—a small treasure uncovered, literally.
In several areas, arches were built up in small depressions in the terrain to keep the slow descent of the aqueduct continuous, but carrying the water up above the ground level. With Leonardo (Paola’s husband) and Stefano (her brother) both involved in the labor of the project, Paola was very familiar with the features, including three arches together and a small bridge that had no side railings until Stefano added them recently.
We met several hikers along the trail, and I also found more of the bricks embedded in the walls where wall reconstruction had been done, with quotes impressed into the bricks.
Later, talking to Stefano, I found out that those bricks were his idea, and his favorite quotes. Gandhi, Demosthenes, Chaplin, Einstein—all quotes that Stefano could speak from memory, and added to the trail for hikers to read and contemplate. I had photographed one or two of the bricks with quotations on my walk to Colepino in May, never knowing that it was Stefano behind the idea, or that I was walking only yards from the ancient Roman acquedotto.
The “Acquedotto Romano” project was Stefano’s proposal, intended to create a trail for trekkers and to make visible the construction and function of the aqueduct, costing 600,000 Euro for labor and materials, and financed by the European Union under their antiquities restoration funding. Over 480,000 Euros were collected through fundraising in Umbria, and the European Union and Province of Umbria paid the balance.
Some of the labor was by volunteers, like Paola’s husband. Leonardo carried the trail signs in stone bases to the locations on the trail indicated by the wording on each sign, and some of the rocks I saw would have been quite a load for one person to carry unaided. Paola said none were moved by wagon or other means—Leonardo carried each one up the mountain in his arms. (Bravo!)
I was surprised to recognize the heads of opium poppies along the trail, and more than a few poppy plants (a few dozen), but only one still in bloom. Paola explained that there had been men living in a small shack nearby in the olive groves who had cultivated them for the opium, but seeds had escaped and were still germinating nearby each growing season. I had imagined the poppies would be red, but the white and lavender blossom I saw set me straight. The plants are at least knee-high, with the poppies held high above on long stalks. No chance I’ll be bringing any of these home with me, though U.S. Customs. None at all.
Paola and I walked 3 km. of the 4 km. trail, and returned to Spello. I took a short walk through the streets looking for any squadras working on the Infiorata preparations, but only found a poster advertising the holy mass of Corpus Domini on Sunday, and a woman cleaning her windows for the thousands of visitors about to arrive for the Infiorata.
One sight I have seen since the first time I arrived in Spello is the hindquarter of a “cinghiale,” the wild boars that inhabit the mountain and much of Tuscany, too. I have yet to see a living one, but they can be very large and aggressive, and their meat is prized for salami and proscuitto, and for braised meat sauces and pasta dishes.
This cinghiale leg has been hanging in the same place, at the same business, for at least 3 years, with hoof, hair and hide intact. I suppose charging tourists for photos of that sight would make the merchant a rich man!
Aside from the competition for the prizes in the Infiorata, there is also a well-advertised competition for the most pleasing balcony, doorway, or patio of flowers, and each of the entrants has a number to designate that their display is in the competition (hers is 73). Last year, Paola’s display at Fratello Sole B&B was the overall second place winner, and the trophy is in the kitchen at the B&B. From the looks of this year’s “garden,” I think she stands a good chance to repeat her honor.
Soon, we found the women of the squadra at work in Graziella’s garage, still pulling petals from fresh flowers. This new flower was the fiordalisi, a blue wildflower, and a lot of work only yields a small stack of petals. This is the primary flower used for the blue color in designs, a bright royal blue color even when dried, and people all over town can be found pulling the distinctive blue petals for other squadras. I think we may have this flower in the US, but I didn’t photograph one up close, before being pulled apart, to match one with California wild or cultivated flowers.
I have not seen the Italian red poppies in California in the wild, and the “love in a mist” blue wildflowers that grew along the acquedotto were common in my own grandmother’s garden in California—but most of the flowers I see here are the same as ours, only with different names—ones that are challenges for my memory (so I write them into my little travel book). The most common yellow flower is “ginestra,” which we call Scotch broom, and try to eradicate as a non-native invader in Sacramento’s river parkway. Our carnations are their “garafano,” and then there are the fiordalisi (no idea if we even have this flower).
Anna (Stefano’s wife) arrived with flats of huge orange marigolds, all from her garden, planted just for this purpose. Each flower was the size of a softball, and provided a large harvest of petals for a new color in the design. These were cut with scissors (“forbici”) into the flats, not pulled apart by hand, and the aroma of marigolds filled the garage for an hour or so, until we moved on to the next flower.
Dino and Anna were off to the side, still running dried flowers and leaves through the machine that chops them like a paper shredder does. Much of what is used is from leaves, removed from the branches and dried, and then shredded. We processed huge garbage sacks of wisteria leaves, and even more of a dark leaf with a silver back—another special color for the design. It is a wonder to me that the teams know how much of each flower to prepare for the design, and the proportions of each color. I cannot imagine putting down the design and then finding out some color was forgotten, or is in short supply. In the wee hours of the morning, THEN what do you do? Borrow from others? Find flowers, quickly, and process them? With all the experience in the squadra, I suppose this is never a problem.
Our next flower was the garafano, the carnation, and we had about 50 bunches of 20 fresh carnations each to process into petals for a red color in the design. The first step was to cut the flowers from the stems (my job, but I was faster just snapping them off by hand), then put them into the cardboard trays for the squadra women to cut the off petals with their scissors (“forbici”). Graziella tried to show me how to use the big scissors to cut off the stems of the whole batch, but I did two batches by hand to her one, and kept to my manual method.
Leonardo came up with another idea: he got a sharp knife, and Graziella and I took turns holding the bunches of garafano while he beheaded them with the knife. With two of us alternating holding the flowers for him, we were done with all of the flowers in only minutes.
The result was boxes of flowers to be “dismantled,” and the first step was clipping off the red petals with scissors into trays.
In about 90 minutes, the red petals were all collected, but the rest of the flower was still used. (These flowers are purchased by the squadra, not collected in the mountains.)
The bases of the petals inside the green “hub” of the carnation are also processed by cutting open the green base of the flower, and they yield a white and red slim petal—another color, of course. Nothing is wasted, and the white on the base of the petals does not “dilute” the intense red from the top of the petals.
Once again, my difficulty was keeping my shutter speed up high enough in the dark, cool garage to stop those women’s hands, moving like mad. I was often reminded of my childhood days in fruit packing sheds in Placer County, with the amazing speed of the older women who had been packing fruit for years–repeating the same motion over and over all day.
I have a lot of blurred shots, and include one just to show you one like dozens of others, all blurred with long exposures in the dark setting.
At 8 p.m., it was time to join Paola and Leonardo to drive to Stefano and Anna’s house in the valley, where we were having dinner together.
Arianna followed on her scooter, but was soon off for her first weekend night since the school term was over Wednesday, headed out to meet friends.
Franco, Daniela, Alice and Michelangelo (who played guitar softly all evening, in the background—about 14, I’d say, and a very good guitarist) joined us for dinner, bringing some of the courses, and of course, there was also Robespierre!
He took his place at the head of the table, insisted I sit beside him, and I finally got the chance this year to meet Stefano (Robe’s son) and his wife, Anna (whom I met in Graziella’s garage earlier in the day). Dee, Barbara and I had met their son, Paride, in 2006, but never the parents. Finally, the architect whose imprint is all over Spello in reconstructions and restorations and who looks like a handsome, younger Robespierre, was at the table with me. When I met Stefano, I got to tell him about my walk along the acquedotto that morning with Paola, and I have also met several people in town who live in buildings restored by Stefano, or remodeled apartments designed by Stefano. I’m certain the design of the B&B is all his, too—it is modernized, with recent plumbing and plaster, and is a conversion of the home where he and Paola lived with their parents when they were children. Visiting his home was also interesting, seeing the design touches that an architect chooses for his own place, and I especially noticed the iron gates with corners curling back like an opened can, also his design. It was clear that his style was imprinted on his own house, too.
We had quite a meal, with Robespierre filling my wine glass EVEN if it was already full of water. (There is no option to say “NO!” to Robespierre!) We began with his spaghetti carbonara, followed by small squid stuffed with bread stuffing, and huge platters of stuffed red and yellow bell peppers, zucchini, and slices of eggplant. Franco and Daniela brought the squid, and Anna had prepared the vegetables. Next, proscuitto and slices of cantaloupe, served together, and a nice refreshment before Robespierre arrived with his borlotti beans and some foreign, fatty meat. He made sure I had nice, large chunks, which I managed to force down (they were almost entirely fat–really tough for me to actually swallow), and later I found out I was eating pig’s feet. Had I known what I was eating, I would have left the pieces in my bowl! (That’s two strikes, Robespierre: I have eaten tripe once for him, because he prepared it especially for my visit, and now pig’s feet. I would have sworn that NEVER in my life would either of these pass over my lips, but now I am twice experienced that I had better ask what I am eating. Next time, I’ll watch Paola—who left the chunks of pig’s feet on her plate and just ate the beans, and who will NOT eat trippa.)
We finished with a green salad, some gelato with flakes of chocolate, chocolate mousse (I passed on the mousse, not being a chocolate fan), and then espresso all around.
The highlights of the dinner gathering were two: I got to spend some time with beloved Robespierre again, since he was not at the B&B; and I finally got to see the design that we would be assembling the next evening and through the night. It was an elaborate “knot” of intertwining ribbons, each patterned on one side with a solid color on the back, with three open areas in the “knot” filled with the face of Jesus from a sculpture (the Pieta’ in the Vatican), the hands of Jesus holding a man’s hand, and the hands of Jesus holding a baby.
Anna and Paola would be assembling the flowers for these special areas, and the rest of the squadra would stick to the solid colors and patterns for the ribbons, in the many colors of petals and leaves all ready for the design.
We finished dinner at midnight, returned to Spello (parking for the last night permitted inside the city walls) and all went off to our rooms. The Swiss couple and the two couples from Treviso, who all met each other at the B&B years ago as fellow boarders during the Infiorata, now return to the festa every year to have their annual reunion. When they had arrived in the afternoon, Leonardo brought them to meet me in the garage, where I was working on flowers and taking photos, and they all insisted that I speak Italian for more practice. They were each very friendly to me, but I think we all shared our loss of not having Robespierre there, too. He is such a fun part of staying at Fratello Sole for us all, and I was not an adequate substitute, I’m certain. I hope Leonardo’s explanation that Robe was happier NOT being in town for the festa got me off the hook, since Robespierre had yielded his room as a place for me.
That was the story for day two, Friday. While the others were sleeping, I was still downloading photos, sorting the best ones for the “slide show” I was trying to get processed in time to show all the ladies of the squadra before I left, and plugging in battery chargers and my laptop wherever I could find an outlet. Paola followed me to the B&B, and took 30 minutes to set up the dining table (NOT the kitchen table) for the guests in the morning, with coffee cups and napkins, packaged rolls, flatware, butter and jams (“marmalata”). In the morning, she will bring pastries and croissants warm from the oven, at the appointed time of 8:30 a.m. This is a routine for these long-time guests, and they get the same special treatment that I receive, minus the lunches and dinners—and at a reduced (“friends”) price for their rooms.
I still have a difficult time getting Paola and Leonardo and Robespierre to take money for my room, but I always insist and finally get my way. In four nights in my room there, the amount I pay is the equivalent to half of Robespierre’s monthly pension from the Italian government—a very good reason to run a B&B in retirement! Not taken into account is that I enjoyed every meal for four days at the table of either Paola’s family or Stefano’s, making my stay not one at a B&B, but at a “B&C&P&C” (“bed & colazione & pranzo & cena”), or “B&B&L&D,” in English. I am still angling to get Arianna to the US for a visit, especially since she attends a liceo linguistico (a specialized secondary school for languages, studying English and French). Maybe they can use the room rent from me to get her airline ticket to come to California! I’m still working on the idea, pressuring her parents to give serious thought to sending her or BRINGING her with them some time in the future!