Back to the train station, and off to the Arezzo Antiques Fair

The first Sunday (and preceding Saturday) of each month is the Fiera Antiquaria di Arezzo, one of the largest gatherings of dealers in all of Italy. I have spent a lot of time there, looking for the pieces of furniture and accessories to finish my house—specifically a madia, where Tuscan and Umbrian housewifes stored flour, made the dough for bread or pasta, and then stored the baked loaves of bread for the family in the drawers below the flour bin. Because of the history of the madia in this area, I have been looking for one since I arrived, so Arezzo is always a “target-rich environment” for me, and I never miss a chance to go and see what I can find there.

It was a drizzling day, with heavy cloud cover threatening a real downpour. Melba and I set out on the train, the very next day after returning for twelve hours on trains from Cuneo after visiting her cousins there. In early July, we were treated to great views of the blooming fields of sunflowers, a staple for oil production here, not sunflower seed snacks. I’ve never quite had good timing to see the vast fields of yellow, and never been in Spello so late in the summer, so we busied ourselves on the train with attempts to catch the fields flying by outside the train windows with our cameras. It seemed that one of Murphy’s Law was in full effect: “The speed of the train is inversely proportional to the distance between the field of yellow blooms and the train.” That is, if the sunflowers were right beside the train, we were going 60 miles an hour (nothing but blur). If we were slowing for a station (sharper shots), the fields were too far in the distance. Either way, we took shot after shot, and discarded almost all of them—too blurry, too distant, not worth keeping.

Melba at the train window, camera ready for sunflowers

Very difficult to freeze the blossoms from the speeding train

Sunflowers and farmhouses, an array of yellow blooms--oh, to have a car, not a train!

Nearing Cortona, with Lake Trasimeno in the distance

We arrived in Arezzo in an hour, and I took Melba to the fountain near the station to see the famous “Chimera” of Arezzo.  It is an animal that is a lion with a goat head coming from the shoulder, and a snake for a tail. The snake is biting the goat’s horn, as the lion rears back. I have been told this is a reproduction of a very small Etruscan bronze unearthed here many years ago, and now the Chimera is the symbol of Arezzo, on all the local coats of arms and the Arezzo city flag. (The word “chimera” had been adopted in science to describe extremely rare cases where one egg is fertilized by two or more sperm, creating a person or an animal with two or more cell populations that do not have identical DNA—like the Arezzo chimera with three animals in one.)

A reproduction of the famous Arezzo Chimera--three animals in one

Walking through the streets of vendors, many displays were under plastic sheeting, protecting the wares from the on and off light rain. Some stands had umbrellas, which were a source of secondary problems from the wind, but many vendors just didn’t show up. To take Melba so far and see fewer than the usual hundreds of vendors was disappointing, as was the weather. Still, it is a wonderful photo opportunity, since all types of antiques—furniture, dolls, jewelry, art, farm tools, books, silver, glassware, etc.—are available and on display.

Melba photographing a street musician--one I had seen years before in San Gimignano

We came upon this sign advertising a salumeria, and I had to take a shot. It says “The Heaven of Meat,” and later “Where the pigs are born, grow, grunt, get fat, go to heaven, and finish like this!” (The last photo is an array of sausages, prosciutto, and salumi, all for sale in the shop nearby.)

The history of pork--in a humorous sign outside a salumeria

I hadn’t bargained for bringing along such a good negotiator! Several times, Melba got involved and saved me money! In one instance, I had found a 16th century painting of the head of a saint, with the ribbon of text below the head explaining his martyrdom by beheading and who he had been. It was €200, but that was really more than I wanted to pay. The man would not bargain with me, so Melba took me aside. I told her €170 was my top price (I was looking for a painting to hang over my wall safe, and this was perfect!), and she told me to hand her exactly that amount. She went back to the dealer, showed interest in the painting herself, and offered €170, held forward in her hand. The dealer told her “No deal, borrow the rest from your friend.” Melba replied that this money was all from me, and I had no more—so the sale was made! Thanks, Melba! Same with a small mirror framed with chestnut wood (heavy hardwood), and carved by hand. She saved me 25% by her bargaining, and I had a mirror for the bathroom wall. (My list of things to find was getting shorter!)

I happened to come across one of the hardwood molds for hat makers, who steam the felt over the form to make various shapes of hats. This one was a large one, for fedoras. When I asked the price (€80), and quickly handed it over for the sale, Melba was about to take me out to the woodshed for a whipping (since I didn’t even TRY for a bargain). I told her later, after seeing these in antiques markets in Florence, Lucca and here, I had never seen even a very small form for less than €120, and this was one of the largest ones I’d ever seen. Before he realized he had made a mistake, I bought it quickly and disappeared into the crowd.

That left one major item on my list—the madia. We looked at several models, with prices and features all too diverse to make easy comparisons, and finally came across a dealer from Citta’ di Castello who had sold me the two painted tables I use in the bedroom on each side of the bed. He remembered me, and had a madia that was identical to one I had seen the month before in Arezzo, and adored, but that one had been completely out of my price range. In fact, Melba and I had found THAT other dealer again, and she still had the same madia, for the same price—no negotiating. The dealer whom I knew would not bargain, either—but his price was HALF of the other woman’s price, and we struck a deal. I finally had found my madia, and it opened with a hinged top, and also a hinged front. (Not such a good idea if the madia was filled with flour, I thought.) For me, using the madia as a storage unit, I could put a lamp, the phone, and the wi-fi router on top, and still open the madia to store things inside while not disturbing the things on top. I paid him a deposit, and he collected the balance when he delivered the madia the following Monday—the last piece of large furniture to finish my house!

Melba and I had a great day, despite the rain, and I found the last key piece to finishing my house, and filling the one space I had reserved for a madia. We pulled out a celebration dinner, and enjoyed one of the best days of our time together. We had fresh bufala mozzarella, plum tomatoes at their peak of flavor, fresh basil from Suzanna, dried Umbrian sausages from Norcia, Parmesan breadsticks that we had made earlier, aged pecorino (sheep’s milk) cheese, gorgonzola piccante, and asiago. We both came to love our ritual afternoon Menabrea (Italian) cold beer, with one bottle filling two wine glasses perfectly. Waiting for our dessert were huge fresh green figs from Paola’s cousin, Giuseppina, and sweet apricots and apples, all to accompany the cheeses. Now, for me, THAT was a perfect celebration meal!

What a meal--and not one thing to cook! A madia celebration!

Melba is a savvy shopper, and more bold with bargaining than I have ever dared to be. She saved me money, twice, and tried to get my madia for a better price—but I dared not lose it, and the vendor agreed to deliver it to Spello in the same price, remembering where my house was located from last fall. As much fun as I always have looking around and shopping at the Arezzo fair, this was absolutely the best day ever, for me—and I finally found my madia!

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