The ferry from Patras got in to Ancona, Italy in the mid afternoon and the train station was a healthy hike away from the ferry dock. It always seems further, of course, when it’s the first time and there’s a difference of opinion regarding what’s walk-able versus cab-able. It always looks shorter on the map.
We were a family portrait of grim hope and mad dogs in the mid-day heat: 2 teenagers, granny, grandpa and the intra-generational filling of this sweaty sandwich: my husband, his brother and me. Dragging suitcases on squeaking wheels or shifting bulging urban backpacks, praying the station will somehow materialize just over this bridge; around that corner; dear Lord, please before we get to that hill.
Finally, much later, after the sun had set and we’d run from train to train, popping down this gopher hole and along the tunnel to come up at the track determined by the roulette wheel all European train companies consult for scheduling purposes, we stumbled out of another station to stand at the foot of Orvieto.
We looked up the butte to the ancient city at the top. From the time of the Etruscans these natural cliffs have protected the citizens of Orvietto from raiders and armies through the centuries. Magnificent, unassailable. In modern times there is a road winding up the sides of the tuffa column and there is a Funicular, built from the train station climbing directly up to the city. The road is always open. The Funicular stops running long before the last train from the coast arrives.
We took a cab.
It took another half hour to check in to our hotel, peel the packs off and change into something fresh before charging out on a late night forage along the historic stone streets. If it wasn’t for the hunger and exhaustion it would have felt like we’d entered a scene from a Zeffirelli movie. And it became clear there were about as many late night restaurants in Orvieto as Shakespeare’s Verona.
Perhaps it was the low blood sugar, perhaps the heat exhaustion and pressures of family travel but I was filled with a sense of purpose, with the conviction I could find, by sheer intuition, a decent, ‘real’ place for us to dine. I saw a few of our group drawn to a big plastic sign, bright white with blue letters and a giant cola company seal on the side. Whimpers of ‘but what about…’ faded into the distance as I charged on, looking down the side streets, pausing only to marvel at a clock tower and then cracking on, oblivious to the doubts sounding behind me.
Just about when even I was about to give in to that voice of reasonable doubt I saw them. Down a street, a group of people at a table in the courtyard. Overhead a sign hung that my incredibly bad but inspired understanding of Italian told me this was a place that would feed us. No, make that ‘the place that would feed us’: it was exactly (I hoped) what I was looking for.
I ran down the narrow lane and stopped for a moment. Perhaps this was a private family event. Probably they were closing for the night and this table was simply some friends waiting for the owners.
The woman in an apron looked at me. I could see her trying to find a polite way to tell this crazy tourist to take her business down the street. My heart began to sink. The rest of the gang came up behind me, lines of sweat and train dust a journal entry of today’s events across our faces. She pointed to the one empty table and smiled. I did my best not to cry.
I had Rabbit Tagliatelle. I had no idea what that was, aside from being Bugs Bunny, but my instincts said it would be good. Right again.
For dessert we decided to try another unknown. A traditional dessert throughout Umbria and Tuscany is small almond biscotti made especially for the purpose of dipping into a glass of the local Vin Santo.
Souvenirs take all sorts of forms. There are the usual trinkets sold by the thousands, cute and shiny, in the image or spoof of the image of whatever makes this place famous. No matter the location on terra firma, if there is a tourism marketing board and a drop of entrepreneurial spirit there will be tchotchke.
But all I need is a glass of wine, a few simple biscuits and I am wrapped in the velvet night of history.