From our plane window at 30,000 feet, the Matterhorn looked just like the one at Disneyland only bigger. Early autumn snows lay on the Swiss and Italian Alps as we flew into Italy. The apple orchards of the northern Italian hills were ripening, grapes in the fertile river valleys had been harvested, and nights in the craggy Dolomites were brisk. My husband and I were ready for a month-long trip of slow travel. Celebrating 26 years of marriage and as many years of traveling together, we looked forward to losing ourselves on the back roads of Italy.
In our home state of Florida, autumn meant college football and Major League baseball fever. As avid Tampa Bay Rays fans we left with a twinge of regret to miss the last weeks of the baseball season. We had weathered a roller coaster of a 2011 season with moments of hope and dreams of glory followed by frustrating losses and setbacks. As we flew over Lake Como into Milan’s Malpensa airport, the Rays were an unlikely candidate for making the playoffs. They needed to win almost all remaining nine games and the on-fire Boston Red Sox would have to lose most of theirs, a doubtful prospect.
We drove a drowsy, jetlagged two hours to Lake Garda. We ate dinner sitting under an olive tree at Osteria Saporedi Vino snugged along a cobblestone lane in small lakeside resort village of Desenzano del Garda. The evening was mild and the sky was clear. We sat watching stars appear in the early evening sky while enjoying a delicate veal and mushroom stew, tortelli de zucca con burro e salvia (pumpkin tortellini with a butter and sage sauce), and perfectly grilled vegetables.
Battling fatigue and sipping the house red wine, I checked Twitter on my blackberry to find the Rays had lost the first game of a double header to the New York Yankees and were well on their way to losing the second. I sighed into a second glass of wine and turned my attention to watching happy Italians enjoy their passaggiata (evening stroll) through the narrow cobblestone streets and intimate piazzas of the picturesque town. We joined them in search of gelati, leaving behind thoughts of baseball for the night.
The next morning we headed north into the Italian Dolomites. Under a robin’s egg blue sky, we sped along the western edge of Lake Garda through well-engineered tunnels and winding two-lane roads clinging to the side of the mountains. We entered a broad river valley dotted with ripening apple orchards, terraced groves of lemon trees, and pastures going green to golden. Gray-mantled black Jackdaws and sturdy, shaggy horses kept us company as we ate a lunch of cheese, salami and fresh bread along the side of the road.
As we climbed into the limestone tipped Dolomites, we stopped to watch hundreds of hang-gliders circle like multi-colored buzzards on thermals above the forested Val de Fassa. Milky glacial rivers streamed down through dense forest from the craggy mountain peaks. As we headed up into those craggy peaks, we maneuvered a seemingly endless series of switchbacks leading up to Pordoi Pass. After fifty turns, I stopped counting. This was our first lesson in the questionable reliability of Italian road maps, what looked to be ten hairpin turns turned out to be nearly countless.
At 7,346 feet, Pordoi Pass is the highest surfaced road in the Dolomites. There were piles of snow on the ground from an early season snow storm a few days earlier. From the parking lot a gondola took sightseers and Para gliders up to further heights. We opted for a late lunch in the cafeteria and a quick visit to the bathroom which had one of most spectacular views in Italy from the water closet. Feeling a little weary and facing yet more winding roads we pushed on to our destination for the night, the little hamlet of Lateis in Sauris.
We were headed to Sauris for our anniversary night. We had read about the village famed for its Prosciutto di Sauris, a savory smoked ham and about Auberge Pa’Khraizar, a romantic chalet-styled inn located in the hills above Lake Sauris. What we had not counted on was just how remote the village was and just how unreliable our GPS system would be in finding our way through a labyrinth of switchbacks, tunnels , and roads that sometimes turned out to be gravel. Our cell phone service was sporadic at best. Even if we got a phone signal, I knew from emails that the owner of Pa’Khraizar knew no English and we knew virtually no Italian. We had no choice but to continue on in the direction we believed to be Sauris and hope that we would reach the village before complete darkness. Much like the Rays in their battles with the New York Yankees we were struggling with unexpected setbacks and unfulfilled expectations. We thought our day’s journey would be scenic, leisurely and short. It was scenic. It did not end up leisurely or short.
Just after the sun set over the western Dolomites we had traversed earlier in the day, we came upon a highway sign with an arrow pointing to “Sauris”. More accurately, it pointed to yet another set of switchbacks leading steeply up a rocky mountainside. With dusk falling rapidly, we turned left into the first of several hairpin turns, tired but now confident we would be eating our anniversary dinner at Pa’kraizar and not out of a picnic basket in the dark on the side of the road. We arrive 20 minutes later at the front door of the chalet with stone walls and dark honey wood clapboard on the second floor. Blue and white mountain wild flowers decorated wrought-iron wall sconces. The night air was crisp and cold. The village was silent. Auberge owner and chef Lucia met us at the door followed quickly by CiCi, an inquisitive and yappy Yorkshire terrier. We were home for the night.
We ate a quiet anniversary dinner of local specialties seated in a cozy honey-colored, pine-paneled dining room warmed by candles, red chair covers and table cloths decorated with images of ripe cherries. The menu included the famous boar sausage of Sauris, duck stew with parpadelle, bread gnocetti with speck in a cream sauce, potatoes (cubed and fried), and fresh local mushrooms. We were the only ones having dinner that evening as we were visiting mid-week at the end of the season. Sipping a grappa dulce made from local woodland raspberries, we relaxed back into the comfortable chairs and let go of the days anxious dashing across the Dolomites. We had survived a schizophrenic GPS system, hundreds of curlicue turns, and our less than stellar ability to judge time and distance. We had not killed each other in the process. Lessons learned. There was wine to be drunk and a down comforter calling our names.
As I turned back the rich red comforter and climbed into a blessedly comfortable bed, thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean, the Rays were getting ready to face the New York Yankees in the fourth of a four game series in which the Rays had lost the first three games. Like us they faced unexpected twists and turns of fate and doubts as to whether they would actually go the distance. As we lay down listening to the quiet through the open window with which let in the clean mountain air, the Rays were warming up, getting ready to face a roaring New York Yankee stadium for what would end up being a pivotal game.
We woke the next morning to a misty, stillness broken by the sound of the neighbor’s industrious rooster at five a.m. and the town bells at seven a.m. Soon, morning birds starting chirping in the pine outside the open window. Welcoming the new day, I sat at the open window watching the mist swirl obscuring views of the nearby lake. I turned on my cellphone to check Twitter and the outcome of the Rays game. Before a crowd of 47,000 New Yorkers, the Rays had decisively beaten the New York Yankees by a score of 15-8.
Warm morning sun poured through the pine-sashed windows in the dining room at Pa’Khraizar. Good Italian coffee, flaky raspberry jam turnovers, and the famed Prosciutto d’Sauris made up our breakfast. We lingered over coffee plotting the day’s route. Had the prosciutto and chalet been worth the previous day’s arduous trek through the Italian Alps? Yes, absolutely, especially when we considered the red down comforter, charming and talented Lucia, CiCi the pesky Yorkie, morning bells, and the peaceful, quiet of the village. We had also managed to battle the GPS and Italian road signage, get good and lost, and still arrive in Sauris happy to be celebrating over twenty-five years of marriage. We were ready for what Italy had in store.
The mist on Lake Sauris lifted and the sun came out as we drove back down the switchbacks leading down to the main road. The sun revealed a small, turquoise lake of glacial waters surrounded on all sides with dark, pine forests running to the lake edge. We turned east and headed downhill to the agriculturally rich valleys of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia Region of northeastern Italy. We traveled through tunnels and along narrow highways clinging to the sides of small, deep mountain valleys. One tunnel was over a mile long, snaking downhill in a series of turns. It was unlined with just bare rock walls and cobblestone for pavement. We half expected to see Snow White’s Seven Dwarfs whistling off to work.
We reached the wide, gentle terrain of the Friuli region and headed south on a much appreciated, well paved, straight autostrada. We stopped in Udine, the historic capital of Friuli. We visited the brick Duomo and sat in the sun at the Piazza della Liberta with its clock tower modeled on the one that stands watch over St Mark’s Plaza in Venice. We stopped at a store stuffed with Betty Boop, Laurel and Hardy, Donald Duck, and Popeye figures of all sizes. This was the first of many such stores we would see in Italy. The Italians have an inexplicable fascination with Betty Boop. Once we had worked up an appetite, we lunched at Al Vecchio Stallo, a restaurant located in a former post station stable serving traditional dishes of Friuli. We drank the first of many Friuli white wines and enjoyed a steaming bowl of bread dumpling soup with fresh Italian bread.
After lunch, our thoughts turned to napping. So we drove east to Cividale del Friuli where we had booked a room for three nights at La Cjase dai Toscans, a small B&B in the heart of the ancient walled town located on the banks of the Natisone River. But before we napped, we got lost and did battle once again with the flighty GPS system. We entered Cividale, a rabbit warren of narrow streets and bewildering street signs. Our GPS was as confused as we were. We soon found ourselves driving down a narrow stone street that was remarkably empty of cars. So empty that it slowly began to dawn on us that the street might not be meant for cars any longer. Fortunately it was lunch time when all Italians are either eating or napping and we were able to find our way to the front door of the 15th century house we would call home for three days. Our host was astonished to find us parked outside his front door on what turned out to be the main pedestrianized street in Cividale.
La Cjase dai Toscans is a fifteenth century house that has been renovated for use as an inn. Our room had dark, parquet wood floors, high beamed ceilings, floor to ceiling French doors leading to skinny wrought-ironed balconies, a crystal chandelier that shed astonishingly little light, and large armoires in place of closets. We sank into the comfortable bed in search of a restful nap, only to find that the bells of the local Duomo, located a short distance away, chimed every half hour, all day long, all night long. Romantic? Yes. Restful? Not so much. But a full stomach and a bottle of wine have a way of turning down the volume and we quickly slept deeply.
The next few days were filled with long, slow rambles around the town visiting the well-known and much-loved weekend market that spills along Corso Giuseppi Mazzini through the Piazza del Duomo and across the Porte del Diavolo (Devil’s Gate Bridge). We ate well, sampling local dishes like Frico (a fried cheese), San Daniele Prosciutto, and gubano (a swirled cake). We took leisurely drives through vineyards famed for their pinot grigio and prosecco. We napped often and deeply. Every evening we joined the passaggiata and walked the streets of Cividale ending up at the Piazza Paolo Diacano where we would sit eating gelati or sipping a merry glass of Campari Orange.
During our three days in Cividale, the Tampa Bay Rays were finding their way through their own maze of dead ends and wrong turns. Each morning I would wake at seven a.m. with the tolling of the Duomo’s morning bells. I’d reach for my phone and click onto Twitter to find out from my “tweeps” the story of the previous night’s game. Just as we were figuring out the ins and outs of our Italian road map and the idiosyncrasies of our crazy GPS, the Rays were pulling it together, performing as a team, and finding their way. They were winning. They were winning big. They were aiming for the playoffs after all.
From Cividale del Friuli , we headed to the port city of Trieste to meet friends for a couple of nights. We stayed in the Savoia Excelsior Palace Hotel with an expansive view of the Adriatic Sea and the historic port of Trieste. We spent several days walking in the footsteps of James Joyce along the Grand Canal, we climbed the hill to the Castello de San Giusto and the Cathedral, and sat in fading sunlight enjoying drinks with friends in a canal-side café. We ate seafood in abundance and drank heavily of Trieste’s famous Illy espresso. Life was easy. Life was good. The Rays kept winning.
On September 28th, we woke to a sunny autumn day in Trieste. Sipping a coffee, I stood on our balcony leaning on the white balustrade and watched the sun rise over the Adriatic Sea. It was a bright and confident sun. We were headed south that day to stay on an agriculturismo in the Po River Valley. It was also the day of Game 162, the last game of the regular season.
Standing on the balcony admiring the sun over the sea, I realized that the tiny glimmer of hope we left with back on September 21st, the hope that the Rays would win and the Red Sox would lose, the hope that the Rays would unbelievably make the playoffs, that hope was now almost as bright as the sun that rose that morning over the Adriatic. The coming night would bring Game 162. That game would decide it all.
We drove south from Trieste on the autostrada through the developed Veneto region to the expansive agricultural Po River Valley. We passed the outskirts of Venice and entered the flat lands of the delta where agriculture, lagoons, and wildlife dominate.
Our destination for four days was Le Occare, a Bed & Breakfast on a sixty-eight acre farm, which has been in the same family for three generations. Once a hemp and tobacco farm it now boasts acres of nut trees tended as much for the truffles that grow within their roots as for the bounty of nuts that fall from their branches. The owners, Cris and Giovanni, also grow vegetables, herbs, and berries in a kitchen garden, apples, corn, and soybean, and make honey from their own bees. Le Occare provides charming and comfortable rooms for guests, deliciously prepared meals (breakfast and dinner), relaxing common areas, trails for strolling and birding, good advice on places to visit, and a warm welcome to all guests.
The two-story ancestral stone farmhouse at Le Occare is covered by vines and surrounded by pomegranate bushes, pine and nut trees. It is home to an adorable bunch of truffle hunting hounds that are more than happy to go for a walk with you or sit by your side enjoying a quiet afternoon in the garden. My favorite dog was insistent on ‘helping’ me write in my journal in exchange for ear rubs.
The farmhouse had cool, stone floors, thick walls, heavy doors, warm colored walls, floor to ceiling book shelves topped with a collection of old stoneware pots, and a huge welcoming kitchen where all the magic happens. One of the reasons we chose Le Occare was for the food and Cristina did not disappoint. Cristina is a soft-spoken, petite woman with curly red hair. She has a very gentle manner but has a very firm hand in the kitchen. She is an excellent chef relying solely on products produced in the region or on their farm. We stayed 4 nights and ate every breakfast and dinner in the dining room of Le Occare.
When we arrived at Le Occare, we went for walk with the dogs in the forest of truffle trees, took a short nap, and then settled down to a spectacular dinner served on old family china and linens. We had Cristina’s risotto, fresh baked bread rolls traditional to the region, fresh late season vegetables from the garden and wine—lots of wine.
A big dinner with wine after a long days drive did not bode well for staying up to follow the Rays-Yankees game in the middle of the Italian night. But this was Game 162. This was either the final game of the season or the E-ticket ride into the playoffs. It didn’t matter that the game wouldn’t start until 1 a.m. in Italy. I would be there. I would watch it with my friends, via Twitter.
I hadn’t figured out Le Occare’s wi-fi connection, so I used my Blackberry and followed the game with my St Pete tweeps who as expected were lively, informative and passionate. The Rays struggled. David Price, one of their star pitchers was having a tough game. The Yankees were getting runs, the Rays were not. After three innings of “watching” David Price struggle and no score for the Rays, the need for sleep overwhelmed me and I reluctantly shut down twitter. I would catch the dismal postmortem in the morning…with coffee.
Just before 4 a.m. I woke up for a wander to the bathroom. I thought, “I should check the final score”. I figured the game and the Rays season was over. I got up and took a look at my twitter timeline. The game, surprisingly, was still on with a score of Yankees 7, Rays 3 in the 8th inning. Groggily, I figured the Rays were still on their way to losing. I headed off to the bathroom. A few minutes later on my way back to bed in the darkened room, my twitter stream literally exploded in my hand as my Blackberry practically screamed “HOME RUN”. The Rays talented third-baseman Evan Longoria had hit a 3-run homerun and the score was now 7-6. I stood in the middle of a dark room in my thin cotton nightgown with bare feet on a cold stone floor saying to myself, “well, I can’t go back to sleep now”.
I sat on the edge of the rocker in the corner of the room, shivering in my nightie, to see what would happen next. I clicked between the MLB.com mobile website and my Twitter friends. I held my breath. It was the ninth inning. The Rays were up to bat. Out 1, Out 2. They were still behind by one run. One more out and the season would be over.
I decide to get back in the warm bed for the last out. Twitter mumbled with disapproval as Manager Joe Maddon puts Dan Johnson up to bat. I felt the collective groan of resignation across the twitterverse. Dan was known for big hits but not many hits. Echoing the resigned sigh emanating from my blackberry, I climbed back into bed into the warmth of the blankets. WHAM BAM….my twitter stream exploded again as Dan Johnson unbelievably hit a homer that tied the game. TIED the game! TIED. THE. GAME.
My husband woke up, because I, well, yelped. He rolled over to look at me with that resigned look only twenty-five years of marriage could produce. As he saw me sitting straight up in bed staring fixedly at the glowing screen on my blackberry, he mumbled sleepily, “What’s up?” “We’re tied 7 -7 in the 9th”, I squeak whispered. “Ah…good…what time is it?” he mumbled as he rolled back over.
I took my blackberry that was glowing almost as bright as a hovering UFO and retreated back to the corner of the room. I snuggled back into the rocker, this time with socks on and a blanket wrapped around me. I knew I’d be up until the game was done and that might not be anytime soon.
Play by play, tweet by tweet, we (my Twitter friends and I) crawled through the 10th inning, then the 11th inning. I held my breath, rocked back and forth, I rocked a lot. It was the 12th inning and Evan Longoria was up again. The score was tied, the Rays had two outs. I found it hard to believe lightning would strike twice in one game. I sighed, thinking we would see yet another inning. Then in a flash and for the THIRD time that night, my Blackberry nearly jumped out of my hands with news of Evan Longoria’s walk off homerun. A squeal escaped my lips and Jerry once again rolled over with a “what happened now?” We won, we won, we won! He smiled, stretched, patted the mattress and said “come back to bed now”.
As I climbed back into bed, I realized that the sky was starting to lighten over the fields of the Po River Valley. Birds were rustling in the bushes outside my windows and I could hear the stirring of the truffle dogs. The Rays had won in a spectacular fashion and there would be more games to follow on Twitter from the back roads of Italy. I was snuggled up against a man who I have loved for nearly three decades. He didn’t care that his crazy wife woke him twice during an Italian night over baseball. Later we would share a celebratory espresso or two. Now, it was time for sleep.