(photo courtesy of bergamo2000.blogspot.com)
No late sleeping in as Marty had a plane to catch and my friend Kathleen Hudson was due to arrive on the early side. We hurried to gather things up, and just as we were readying to head downstairs for breakfast, the phone rang…Kathleen was in the lobby! Instructions given to come on up, we all exchanged greetings and proceeded to throw back a little coffee and a bite or two.
I pensively waited outside the hotel with Marty for the arrival of the hotel shuttle. Hard to believe that two weeks had flown by so quickly and were now at the moment of closure. It was a bittersweet wait, knowing that it would be two weeks before we were reunited, and that Marty was returning to the "real life" of Kerrville alone. We exchanged endearments, and being gifted with a husband who values life’s experiences, I was given his blessing to continue this Tuscan journey – one week with a friend, one week on my own. I know this is a rare commodity in a man, in a husband, and I try to never, ever take a second of his extreme generosity and love for granted. Temporary goodbyes and hugs procured, Marty departed for the airport and his return to the work-a-day rhythms of our other life in Texas.
Kathleen and I spent a little time in the room, allowing her to clean up and rest a bit after the long journey that flings one 7 hours into the future. With a somewhat short drive ahead and friends awaiting us for lunch, we loaded up and steered south to Piacenza. This town is mid-size and claims the same title of antiquity as most all Italian towns. It was a very strategic location in the middle ages due to its location on tributaries of the Po River, it’s nearness to the Ligurian Sea, and it’s position on the north-south route traversing Italy. The land is flat, although portions on the outskirts quickly become rolling, and the large Dolomites are visible on the near horizon. Much of the land is farmed, and for the first time I noted dairy farms. There are also some horse operations about, purpose being for racing. One doesn’t see many horses in Italy: they are too expensive to care for and owning open land that is not cultivated is an issue.
We wound our way through the streets of Piacenza, following Ms. GPS’s directions somewhat skeptically, but once again the mission was accomplished as we pulled into the Park Hotel, a modern, efficient hotel kindly reserved for us by friend Ettore Sola. The room was so nice and the beds comfortable…ahhhh! Once situated, Ettore met us at the hotel and we headed off to collect our other Piacenzan friend, Francesco Paladino. Ettore and Francesco became friends on Texan soil when they accompanied our acclaimed blues musician friend, Fabrizio Poggi, and his band to Texas in late 2010 to film a documentary. Francesco is a filmmaker and boasts several American awards, and Ettore is a professional photographer/videographer. Both offered open invitations at that time, and I’ve been able to visit them twice now in my travels.
Francesco had arranged a lunch for us in the most authentic location possible…a rustic old farm house turned fattoria out in the countryside! What was perfectly awesome in its own right was made even better by the sight that greeted us when we entered: a huge table that spanned the length of the bottom floor eating area, enthusiastically filled with family members from young toddler to silver haired matriarch. The room was lively, loud, full of wonderful smells, and we were now a part of it all.
We began the meal with water and a bottle of the local well-known wine, Gutturno. It's a wonderful red, rich and full-bodied, but less complex than a Chianti. Francesco took care of all the ordering, assuring the most authentic experience for us. We dined on plates of antipasto containing local meats, a potato salad type dish, and something else cold that was delicious. The primi was the local tortellini type egg pasta filled with spinach and ricotta, along with a pot of what looked to be large cannelli beans and a smaller bean-shaped object made of bread crumbs. Needless to say, both were incredible! We had to top things off with some dessert, so I chose a chocolate type torta or cake made from lady fingers dipped in amaretto and ramped up to amazing heights with some kind of chocolate infusion. Oh, wow!
After as much grand food as we could stand and wonderful conversation, we were invited to Francesco’s for a “digestive”…code word for some sort of yummy liquor, this particular time a banana one (that was reeeally good). He lives on the top floor off what was once upon a time a grand villa looking more like it should be sitting somewhere in France. I believe he said it was built in the 1700’s. We enjoyed 30 minutes or so of viewing Francesco’s art collection, as well as his music collection, which is the largest I’ve ever seen. Exchanging thanks and hugs with Francesco who had work to attend to, we departed for an afternoon of castle viewing in the Piacenzan countryside.
I will have to fill in castle names later, but the first one made for a beautiful drive to reach its walls, and a quick impressive view of high walls and corner towers. (*Ah ha...the photo divulges the name: Rocca Anguissola Scotti! - doh!) However, despite the sign indicating it should be open, it was most certainly not. Ah well, one finds that open/close times are prone to the whims of those who hold the keys! The outside view was pleasant, but oh to have gone inside! We walked part of the perimeter, and viewing as much as possible it was apparent this would be a location to make a return visit to some day!
Taking our chances we headed a bit further north to Castello di Rezzanello, one of the most well-preserved in the region and claiming the largest grounds in Italy. Well, as fate would have it, no ingresso (entrance) today, y’all. I asked if this was normal, and Ettore said this castle was privately owned and used for occasions, so they were open at random times. We viewed from afar through the gate, but decided to drive around to another entrance. All appearances would indicate no chance, but about the time we decided to turn around, a car appeared and the gates opened to allow them access. Ettore asked if we might come in for a tour, an elderly gent appeared, and we were given the thumb’s up!
View of the castle from the first gate
Car parked inside the gate, we were shown the courtyard area and lower floor by the same gentleman, and also learned that this site was used as a prisoner of war camp during WWII, housing U.S. and other allied nationalities. The lady of the castle, the current owner herself, greeted us in the courtyard. She was a picture of flamboyance…wildly painted nails, fly-away bleached hair up in an unruly knot, rhinestone sandals, a brightly colored flowing pant suit, and plenty of jewelry. She was most welcoming and kind, talked a mile a minute (I could understand random words here and there), and bid us to follow her into a room to see a bag full of photos taken at events at the castle. I think she was inspired to do this when she learned Ettore was a photographer. What a fun little addition to this private tour!
Another employee took over and we followed her about as she led us from room to room. It was amazing and wonderful, this still elegant but aging structure. Like a grand dame slightly past her prime, the rooms still offered incredible views of painted ceilings, ornate carved furniture that every castle should contain, scrumptiously ripe window coverings, and even a grand collection in the lowest floor (ex-dungeon?) of all things knight – crossbows, lances, shields, swords, helmets, whole suits of armor, and other weaponry I am clueless on name of. It was really amazing, all these things hanging here and there on the walls.
After the tour, we viewed part of the grounds. It’s a beautiful expanse of partly manicured lawn, part natural forest growth living in the boundaries of tameness. A certain type of tree in northern Italy puts out a plethora of little “fairy” flying seeds…probably some form of cottonwood …and they danced like snow in the lower light of the afternoon. We’d seen many in Cremona, and named them summer snow. They also bring to mind an invasion of little Italian faeries, skittering about on the wind as they look for the just-right spot to land and let the magic begin. A castle yard is a most befitting place to do just that!
Back at the hotel, Kathleen and I cleaned up and prepared to head out to hear our Italian blues musician friends perform that night. I don’t recall the name of the town, but it was somewhere south of Piacenza and Pavia, and the venue was a little grill type place that just as easily could’ve been in Texas as Italy. Upon our arrival, excited greetings were exchanged with Stefano, Roberto, and “French”/Giancarlo, wonderful veteran blues musicians who are part of a newly formed band called Chemako, along with new friend and band member, Marcello Milanese. We also had the added pleasure of meeting French’s wife, Francesca, as well as Marcello’s bride, Lorena. Excited chatter was exchanged among all of us as we tried to catch up on life with the time available, but it wasn’t long before it was time for the music began. These guys were terrific, and what a joy to hear them on Italian soil once again. I dined on my first hamburger in Italy for a late dinner as the first set played, and even if it wasn’t a Kerrville “Classics” burger, it wasn’t half bad. The accompanying glass of nice Italian beer went down pretty good, as well!
The band played on until late, and the whole evening was a wonderful time in every way. And of course, once the music is over, talk commences and it wasn’t until something like 1:30am that Kathleen, Ettore, and I finally hit the road back to Piacenza. Un bella notte con i miei amici!
Paula A. Reynolds
Traveler or Tourist?
All photos used in this blog were taken by the author, the author's husband or friends, or found by way of images.google.com. Photo credit is given when possible.