The Mountain Town

This blog entry about the events of Saturday, June 23, 2007 was originally posted on July 09, 2007.

PART 6:  When I was on the island of Naxos in Greece, I was sent on a quest by my friend and former boss Tracy to find a nostalgic, almost mythical place from his past:  a tiny hamlet where he’d spent many fun-filled and memorable summers in the company of friends and an old jovial man named Vasillis.  Steph also knew of an old man, her jovial friend Franco from Vermont, who had grown up in a little Italian mountain town near the geographic center of the country, high up in the Apennine mountain range.  And so, like I had done before her, Steph began a quest to find her curious, mythical town, a mere speck on our road map.

Stephanie took to the driver’s seat of our rented Mercedes as we left the carsick-inducing roads of the Amalfi Coast and head out on the Autostrade to go north and west towards the Apennines.  The Autostrade was more or less like any interstate highway in America, like the New Jersey Turnpike, with ticketed tolls and rest areas — only the rest areas in Italy serve better coffee and even sell designer Emile Henry kitchenware on bargain bin shelves for next to nothing, much to Steph’s happiness.

After about an hour and a half on the Autostrade, we turned into the mountains.  “Franco said the landscape would be a lot different from the coast,” Steph told me.

“Looks like Colorado,” I said, pointing out the suburban gas stations backdropped by mountains just after the off ramp. 

“It does actually.”

It was the smaller, two-laned roads off the Autostrade that started getting me nervous with Steph behind the wheel, particularly when she swerved in and out of the oncoming traffic lane as a car approached head on; she mistook it for a turnoff lane into a roundabout.  “Sorry!” she apologized.  “But now I know.  I’m learning.”  She was really enjoying herself behind the steering wheel, much to my chagrin, as she started passing cars in the oncoming traffic lane — something not unheard of, but she was doing it with blind curves up ahead. 

“Whoa!” I exclaimed, my eyes bugged out, my hands clenching my seat as a car whizzed by in a seemingly close call.

“Come on, I just wanted to feel like an Italian,” she defended herself with a wide smile.  “Italia!!”  She sped on.  “Come on, you have to have more adventure in your life!  See, that guy did it!”

“But I’m not in that car.”  I pouted.

“Oh, my precious cargo!” she said, lovingly stroking the back of my neck as the car rolled on.

The landscape looked less like Colorado as we left the suburban towns like Venafro — center of mozarella di bufali shops — and the gas stations and “carabinieri” signs.  Soon we were surrounded by mountainous hills and bridges.  A castle whizzed by our side windows.  “Looks like a tire crossing,” Steph joked, pointing out a curious road sign with a graphic of tires on it.  We laughed when, not too far after, we saw a parking area where five abandoned tires stood in a row like a family.  “There they are!”

After a couple of misturns in the big junction town of Sulmona, we finally found ourselves on track, on the one small road leading to Steph’s final destination, Pacentro where her friend Franco had grown up.  “Franco says it’s the kind of small town that bus tour groups go to for an hour to show people a typical hill town,” she told me.  It was approaching dusk when we arrived and all the tourists had gone away, except for this one family we noticed.  The town was reverting to its post-tour bus state of normalcy; a good thing since the both of us admired watching real life go by.

PACENTRO, A LITTLE TOWN of only about 1,300 residents (picture above), was “cute” according to Steph, although many things were — “cute” was her favorite and often used adjective to describe many things.  The former medieval town, speculated to have been founded in the 9th or 10th century A.D., was a quietly magical kind of place that would inspire anyone to sing and re-enact the opening number to Disney’s Beauty And The Beast.  “Little town, such a quiet village… Everyday… like the one before…”  The streets of houses and other residential buildings were networked with little walking alleys, and everywhere was easily accessible on foot:  the town center to the church piazza.  Dominating the town was their iconic castle with two towers at the end of the pathway that went up the highest hill.

The town was small enough to find our way with Franco’s directions to the house he grew up in.  “Okay, so he said behind the main active church, which I believe is this right here,” Steph said, looking at her notes.  “On the bell tower side, which is there, walk around.”  We walked around.  “And in the back is a church garden.”

“That is a garden.”

“And, if you stand with your back to the garden, the house is slightly to the left, across the street, with the loge above the door.”  She pointed to Franco’s house and then posed for a picture to show her old friend.

“Tada!”

“Thanks for coming with me here,” she said to me.

“Oh, I think this is cool.  It’s like my mission in Greece.”

Another mission accomplished.  Steph called Franco on her cell phone to share her experience.  “It’s so cute,” she told him. 

FRANCO ALSO RECOMMENDED a restaurant that we should try, a “family-run restaurant” that we thought would be a small homy place, but the Taverna Caldora turned out to be one of fancier places in town, with Michelin Guide-rated stickers on the door.  The historic house-turned-eating establishment had no menu, but a lovely set five course meal that only ameliorated its already perfectly romantic setting with the view out the window, the sun setting down the mountains, and the fine local wine that our waiter Luigi recommended.

“To Franco!” Steph toasted.

“To Franco!”

“To a great trip so far,” she seconded.  “And Franco!”

“To an amazing trip with you.”

“And Franco!” she reiterated.  “Every toast we do has to include him.  We wouldn’t be here without him.”

And so, thanks to Franco, our fake honeymoon continued with another candlelit dinner that included hams and cheeses, more antipasti, roasted lamb, and fresh water from a spigot in the wall, tapped out straight from a mountain spring.  We felt sorry for the guy on the other side of the room eating alone.  “That used to be me,” I said.

“I don’t think I could have done it,” she said, impressed with my resilience of lonely solo travel for so long.  Contrasting the solo diner was the loud party in the other room where every fifteen minutes or so, the crowd of maybe thirty people started applauding for reasons we didn’t know.  “What do you suppose is going on in there?” I wondered aloud.

“Maybe they’re having a steak eating contest,” Steph joked.

The cheers were only outdone when, all of a sudden during our fourth course, the entire other room broke out into song — a familiar one.

“Holy shit!” I exclaimed, smiling.  “They’re singing ‘Lupanare!’”

Steph was amazed, only realizing just then that Dean Martin’s “Volare” (what they were actually singing) was a real song and not a tune I’d conjured up.  We sang at our table and improvised:  “Lupanare… whoa-oh… Lupanare… whoa-oh-oh-ohh…”

BY THE END OF THE EVENING it was close to eleven and neither of us were in the mood or condition to drive back down the dark mountain road to Sulmona where we knew hotels existed.  We asked our waiter Luigi for a suggestion on a place to stay, as best we could with the language barrier.  “Sorry, my English is not so good,” he apologized in his Italian accent.

“No, your English is very good,” Steph said.  “Our Italian is bad.”  Nonetheless, the message was conveyed and soon another man, also with little English vocabulary, came to us with a business card for Sonia’s Bed & Breakfast, apparently the only accomodation in town.  In a town small enough for everyone to know everyone, the man simply called for us and got us a room for the night.

With our bags and directions from a few locals outside enjoying the slight breeze, we found Sonia’s Bed & Breakfast, situated on the upper level of what we assumed was the house she and her husband Tony lived in.  Tony showed us to our room and the terrace overlooking the castle and the rest of mountain town at night

“I’m so happy that we’re here,” Steph said. 

It was an unexpected, but lovely way to end the night — and Steph’s little quest — and all thanks to Franco, a man I’ve never met, but whom I didn’t regret toasting many times that night.


FUN FACT:

“Lefou I’m afraid I’ve been thinking…” “A dangerous pastime” “I know… But that wacky old coot is Belle’s father… And his sanity’s only so-so…  Now the wheels in my head have been turning… Since I looked at that crazy old man… See I promised myself I’d be married to Belle, and right now I’m evolving a pla-an….!”





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This blog post is one of twelve travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: Two in The Boot and Beyond," which chronicled a romantic getaway through Italy, plus jaunts to Croatia, Switzerland, and London.

Next entry:
In Limbo

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No Particular Place To Go




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