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Exploding wine, a real Italian Spaghetti Western and our own Fellini film: that's what made our trip to Italy unforgettable.
That and the people, of course. A vacation to Italy is more than the number of ruins and monuments you cram into your itinerary, more than the meals, number of lines you wait in to see the great art, more than the stamp in your passport. To me, travel -- real travel -- is about connecting with the people as well as the landscape. My wife Donatella and I were fortunate enough to do both during our honeymoon in Italy a few years ago.
It was Donatella's cousin Feruccio who introduced us to the exploding wine. Feruccio had a marble factory in Azzida, an ancient village in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, the triangle of territory northeast of Venice, wedged between the Slovenian border and the Alps. Ferrucio himself was like an elf -- short, weathered and lined like one of his monuments. His knees were bad from years of kneeling to chisel the slabs, his knuckles swollen with arthritis. Thinning, white hair and big ears. But his eyes gleamed with a mischievous sparkle, mirthful, full of the joy of life. Without a word, he hugged and kissed Donatella. After I had been properly introduced, Ferrucio solemnly produced a bottle of wine and three glasses. It was only 10:00 am.
But Feruccio explained that this was a very special wine: Schiopettino, a chilled, sparkling red. The wine’s bouquet was like nothing I had ever smelled before. The first taste exploded on my tongue in a thousand tiny bursts of flavour. Ferruccio smiled. That’s what Schiopettino means: “to burst.” It's made in very small batches – only 100 cases a year, and sold to the finest restaurants in Milan. We felt incredibly honoured.
I said there was nothing like it in North America. Feruccio was quite certain that there could not be: “How could it be the same?” he shrugged, hands waving. “The soil, the sun – the air! None of it is the same.”
"Not the same" was a watch-word in Italy. Even when they imitate North American customs, the Italians do it with their own flare and gusto. Take the rodeo we attended in nearby Guarzo. We men drank real cowboy drinks like red wine and Cinzano at "El Corral," a cowboy bar beside the grounds, while the women waited on the patio. We ate spaghetti, followed by a mountain of polenta, the cornmeal a bright golden hue. A huge fritatta was accompanied by what I at first mistook for a pizza but was a slab of baked cheese—a frica. As we waddled down to the corral, we could have been used as four of the barrels for the races.
I doubt any of the dozen cowboys would have noticed the difference. They were a mixed band with riding gear of every type: English, western, European. Some had cowboy boots, others high English-style boots. One rode barefoot. The crowd favourite was riding bareback, experimenting at what speed his long, flowing blond hair looked best. Confusion over the rules was rampant. A semblance of order was maintained by an announcer via a tinny P.A. system. While the crowd drank, argued over horses, placed bets, and occasionally paid attention to the antics in the corral below, the riders cavorted madly about. They urged their mounts around barrels in the wrong direction or ignored them completely, flying to the far end of the field between two rows of oil drums and racing straight back. It was wonderful.
We tore ourselves from the embrace of Donatella's famaglia long enough to visit Rome. Before our trip to the Eternal City, I had considered Federico Fellini an incomprehensible, avante garde filmmaker. After a few days, I realized he was in fact a documentarian and had simply recorded life the way it is in Rome. Our dinner at the Spanish Steps was a perfect Fellini vignette. The waiter, who resembled Bluto from the Popeye cartoons, refused to look at us while taking our order, preferring instead to mug to the table of elderly women from Britain next to us.
Bluto wasn't alone: the guitar-player, nicknamed "Napoleon," shamelessly played tunes that earned him a healthy tip, and we were heartily sick of "Bazarre me mucho" by the end of the evening. Meanwhile, a very shabby cat was patrolling the tables. It refused our offerings of bread, which confused us -- until Bluto attempted to fillet a whole sole meant for the table of enraptured Brits. In his eagerness to debone the fish, he sent one entire half of it flying onto the cobblestones at his feet. The cat instantly grabbed it and fled under our table, where it devoured the fish hastily. Undeterred, Bluto placed the remaining half on a platter and served it to the ladies, who had been so enchanted by Napoleon's crooning that they never noticed what had happened.
We worked our way back to Azzida by way of Florence and Venice, two of the most beautiful cities in the world, and paid one last visit to Feruccio. He took us up nearby Monte Matajur in his Deux Cheveaux. He had planned his route carefully so that we stopped at the Café Oballa. Feruccio insisted we have the Tiramisu. The name of this dessert of mascarpone cheese, egg yolks, meringue, espresso and brandy literally means “pick me up.” It’s not clear whether that’s before or after. We were pleasantly full by the time we wedged ourselves back into the Deux Cheveaux for the return journey.
On the way home, we made one last stop to see another of Ferucio's monuments – his favourite, I think. It was a beautiful piece of marble, set at the edge of the sheer slope, mirroring the exact angle of the mountainside. Dedicated to the Alpiniari who had died during the war, it was like a piece of the mountain itself, jutting out. There were a series of lines that had been cut along the edges. They looked incongruous. I asked Feruccio why he had made them. His elfish eyes twinkled with delight.
“To add a bit of mystery,” he said.
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