Last night we went to one of our favorite places – the lovely Tuscany country inn – “Il Pozzo” for a pizza-making party – hosted by our awesome friend and the coolest inn-keeper in all of Italy – probably the world – Carla Veneri!
Of course, Italy is synonymous with pizza, but with Carla, you get more; it’s a real hands-on experience!
Olivia, Mateo, Matilde, Eduardo, Ludovica and of course, Lulu were all provided wooden boards, flour, yeast, water and salt. They dug in, pouring, stirring and rolling – as I marveled how those few simple ingredients combine to make such a tasty crust.
As the children marched outside – carrying their rolled-out crusts over to Il Pozzo’s stone oven, (manned by their indomitable chief handy-man and chef, Carlo) I realized that maybe it’s more than the ingredients; it is also the smoky flavor and crisp texture the oven’s wood-sparked flames provide that make the “That’s Italian” difference.
The final result, as you can see but unfortunately cannot taste, was perfect. Topped with tangy tomato sauce, cheese and whatever-other-delectables-you-can-imagine, we happily munched away!
And, as with every gathering over which Carla presides, laughter and fun are always served up alongside.
This was our last visit to this glorious, breath-taking 500-year-old farmhouse set among Tuscany’s rollling hills. For this time around. I know it won’t be our last.
This morning on our walk through Arezzo’s stunning Piazza Grande, Lulu noticed that the buildings overlooking the square “are wearing their costumes for the Joust!” This means that the city has hung a colorful array of noble crests on the 500-year-old stone towers – signalling the beginning of festivities for this year’s exciting “Giostra del Saracino.”
There are two medieval joust tournaments every summer, and the first one is set for June 21. Lulu, Scotty and I will not be here; it will sadly and notably be the first Giostra we will miss during the nearly three years we lived here.
As Kay Thompson’s Eloise might would’ve said if she had ever left the Plaza to witness Arezzo’s thrilling Giostra, “I love, love, LOVE the Joust!”
With gorgeous photos from our friend Massimo Di Gorga, and my article I submitted last year to The New York Times for a postcard on Arezzo, I now present to you one of the most dramatic spectacles in Italy – (which, to me, whoops a** on Siena’s careening free-for-all Palio horse race in terms of pageantry and skill – any day!)
AREZZO’S GIOSTRA DEL SARACINO
AN INSIDER’S VISIT TO A LITTLE-KNOWN FESTIVAL IN TUSCANY
As summer flares, so too, do the resonant strains of Italy’s many Medieval festivals. The powerful music played by a procession of men wearing vibrant tights, short black boots, and long colorful tunics is perhaps loudest heard in Arezzo, a town 50 miles southeast of Florence, in the heart of Tuscany, heralding the annual arrival of the La Giostra del Saracino.
Since 1931, the competition has become a regular event in this ancient walled town celebrating the time when knights of the Crusades dashed off to vanquish the Saracini , otherwise known asinfidels or Saracens.
As an American now living here in Arezzo, I’ve been fortunate to attend the joust four times as Piazza Grande, or the Grand Plaza, is transformed into a spectator-filled joust field. Each of the city’s four neighborhoods enters two knights who take one turn riding a horse at full gallop with their lance pointed toward an enormous wooden mannequin named “Buratto, King of the Indies.”
Buratto is mounted on a post that swivels. He’s wound up tight as a top and holds three leather balls hanging from chains in his outstretched right hand and the score shield in his left. For each run, hulky guards insert into the score shield a target sheet that’s divided by a red cross with a bull’s eye in the center. Each quadrant of the sheet, including the cross lines, is worth varying numbers of points. At five, the red bull’s eye is worth the most.
The knights charge toward the bull’s eye in a dramatic and dangerous contest of accuracy and dexterity. They must hit the center while at the same time avoid being walloped by Buratto’s menacing weapons when he forcefully spins on impact.
When the final run is complete and the winning quartiere is announced, a cacophony erupts as a series of cannon blasts combines with cheers and jeers from fans.
Boisterous celebrations spread out of the Piazza and up to the town’s duomo or cathedral where people congregate to congratulate the arriving victorious team and horses. It’s quite something to be inside an ancient Gothic cathedral where, with brightly lit with electric lights and smiling and screaming sports fans, it feels more like rock concert than a prayerful service.
Arezzo’s Giostra del Saracino is one of the lesser known festivals in Tuscany, but so filled with pomp and circumstance, it suspends time and bridges eras.
Thank you, Arezzo, for filling our lives with the excitement and splendor of your Giostra for the past three years. This summer we will remember it in our hearts. As Lulu would say, “Aaii Colcitrone~!!!”
With love and admiration for Arezzo’s Giostra del Saracino forever,
For those of you who read Italian, here’s the full-page of coverage the wonderful folks at La Nazione newspaper gave to me on Sunday. And for those of you who don’t, below are my thoughts as a mother and a veteran journalist on our experience of living in the heart of Tuscany, Arezzo.
After nearly three years living in Arezzo, American Emmy-award winning veteran CNN correspondent and international communications trainer, Gina London, is preparing to leave her adopted hometown, for Ireland.
She took a minute to look back and ahead with La Nazione.
“Con Molti Ringraziamenti”
An American Journalist Reflects Upon Her Time in Arezzo
Here’s what brought us here in the first place:
My husband, Scotty Walsh, was enrolled in a two-and-one-half-year Masters in Fine Arts program at the Accademia dell’Arte, which is an American-affiliated school located here in Arezzo. (We arrived in July 2011.)
What surprised me about Arezzo?
Everything! The travel and guide books I consulted when I was still in the United States trying to research Arezzo, had very little to say about this town. I was delighted to learn how important Arezzo had been during Etruscan and Roman times, and especially during the Renaissance. From Vasari, to Piero della Francesca, there are many masterful works still here to enjoy. I was also excited to learn about Arezzo’s incredible Joust of the Saracen festival – which we attended four times! To me, it provides much more skills and thrills than Siena’s Palio, but unfortunately is less well-known.
Why do I think that is?
I don’t think Arezzo is actively engaged in reaching out to English speaking tourists. For example, when I arrived, the English version of the Joust brochure was unintelligible. I offered to re-write it – not only in proper English, but in an appealing marketing and conversational style – for free. Then I volunteered to rewrite the English version for Benvenuti ad Arezzo’s updated website – also for free. Unfortunately, for last year’s debut Icastica event, I learned its PR company based in Rome wasn’t planning to have any materials in English. That is a pity. Limited outreach, results in limited results. I believe I wrote the only article about Icastica printed in an American travel magazine. Arezzo is missing opportunities to reach out to a large group of tourists who already love Tuscany. If these people discovered Arezzo, they would fall in love with it too. To me, Arezzo is more authentic than many of Tuscany’s more-traveled spots.
What can be done?
Tap known resources! As a communications consultant who managed multi-million dollar issue campaigns in the US, I would suggest Arezzo form a marketing-task-force that first identifies influential stakeholders and then targets them for their ideas and support. I have had dinner with Mayor Fanfani and coffee with the Press Officer for Arezzo Confcommercio, but unfortunately I was never been able to provide workshops or training sessions to provide strategies to key decision-makers. I wish I could have.
What else did we discover about Arezzo?
In spite of what some of them told me, I happily discovered that the Aretini are a warm and welcoming people. While my daughter Lulu and I explored centro storico, we were surrounded by shop and restaurant owners who first, I think, were curious about the “crazy American woman who asked a lot of questions” (as a journalist, I am naturally curious about everything) and then, over time, have become friends and like family. It would take too much time to name every person who positively impacted our lives, but needless to say, it is the Aretini spirit that prompted me to write the book published last year about our lovely adventures here, Because I’m Small Now and You Love Me.
After three years, six-year-old Lulu is now fluent in the language but I am not. However, I believe I became fluent in the Aretini soul. I truly loved our time in Arezzo and I look forward to many happy returns!
Last night, Lulu and I hosted a little aperitivo, or happy hour, to hug many of the friends we made here in Arezzo. And I am happy to share some of the photos with you!
Two weeks from today, Lulu, Scotty and I will board an airplane for a direct flight from Pisa, Italy to Cork, Ireland.
The trip will last only a little over an hour. In that short amount of time we will move to a new country, a new culture and a new life.
Fortunately – along with clothing, toys and a few keepsakes, we will be carrying a treasure of memories of our three years in Arezzo.
Lulu had to give away some of her larger play-things like a scooter, a wooden easel/chalkboard and this giant cardboard rocket-ship that was featured in a short Italian film (click below to see it!) – but she’s exchanging these replaceable things for the irreplaceable experiences and adventures that come from travel.
We will make new friends, of course, but we will never forget the incredibly warm, caring and loving people we met in Arezzo.
Thank you all for coming last night – and for everything else over our three years as neighbors and friends!
And hey, we’re only a short direct flight away, right?!
The Tuscan sun is not famous merely because author Frances Mayes featured it in the title of her best-selling book, Under the Tuscan you know what. (She happens to be my neighbor over in the tiny town of Cortono here in Arezzo county; we follow each other on Twitter and have exchanged a few tweeted pleasantries, but unfortunately never had the opportunity to meet in person.)
The Tuscan sun has earned its place in the er, you know, because there truly is something different about it when you are here. Perhaps it is because its light appears even richer when the amber, coral and peach colored buildings that surround you are absorbing it – making the colors even more remarkable if that’s possible.
Its tingling rays don’t simply touch your skin, they kiss you passionately and deeply – all the way through to your heart – even your soul.
I stand looking in one direction to the graceful, green hills spiked with cypress trees. They’re even more radiant with the gold that is sparkling down on them. I face the other direction and look up to Arezzo’s medieval stone wall which has encircled it for more than 500 years – successfully protecting it from ancient invaders (not the Florentines, but that’s another story) while it graciously welcomed the sun from above.
In fact, I think of Arezzo’s piazzas as sun-worship temples. Rooms without roofs to better celebrate the god.
I am no poet like Frances Mayes – who actually earned her living as a poetry and creative writing instructor in the US before she gloriously described her love affair with Italy – but I know something lyrical when I see it – and feel it.
And that’s why the sun is definitely something I will miss when I move to Ireland. That, and everybody keeps telling me in Ireland it does nothing but rain. So I better get ready.
My friend Susan wisely says, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing choices.” So, I’m determined to go buy a bright and cheery raincoat and matching umbrella. And for the next couple of weeks we have left – to soak up the rays of our beloved Tuscan sun.
I’ll leave you with Lulu – singing an homage to those golden rays – when she was just three years old.
May it be bright and sunny wherever you are. If not in the sky, then in your smile.
Ciao a tutti!
P.S. How’s the weather where you are? I have been seeing some freaky storms in the US?! Other places? Irish friends, tell me the truth!
“Madonna a cielo!” the two older Italian ladies near me gasped as they watched me jump down onto the tracks at the busy train station in Florence. It was autumn. I was just returning to Italy with Lulu after a week vacation in Paris. It had been brisk there, but now it was much warmer here in Tuscany and my arms were full with the sweaters and jackets we peeled off. I had just finished helping Lulu up the steps to the train when her coat tumbled down onto the tracks.
Yes, it is forbidden to go on those tracks. This is a hard-fast rule at every train station, I think. But I promise you, the train was not scheduled to depart for another ten minutes; there was plenty of room for me to hop down and really, it was her brand new winter coat I had purchased without asking.
I was down and back up again with said coat safely recovered before the loudest of the two ladies could finish up with, “Non posso credere ai miei occhi!” ( I can’t believe my eyes!) as her arms bent at the elbow moved back and forth in rapid succession with upturned hands flapping in disbelief, “Mamma mia!”
What I remember most about it all is how much I love Italians and their expressions and the passion with which they utter them.
When I prepared to move to Italy, I asked my foreign language tutor to switch from French (in honor of where we had lived) to Italian (in honor of where we were heading). He was European, so naturally he was fluent in several languages. I continue to be so jealous of that. Anyway, up until then, the rhythm, pitch and pacing of my teacher’s voice had been smooth, fluid and even – just like the sound, to me, of the French language. But then, once he began to speak Italian, his calm demeanor evaporated into a surprising din of staccato vigor! (For more on the expressiveness of Italian, please read Dianne Hale’s enchanting book, La Bella Lingua. I highly recommend it.)
If the music of the French language is classical, then the music of the Italian language, to me, is more like hip hop. Fun, loud, and aggressive.
Like this hilarious video of an Italian’s reaction to The Family Guy. “SEI PAZZZO!” “You’re crazy!” My Italian friends and I both love this.
For example, Tuscans often punch, “Ciao!”with a loud upward inflectioned “EH!” at the end. And each word can extend for as many syllables as the speaker cares to give it. So it can be a quick, “Ciao, eh!” Or a windy, “Ciii-aaaaoooo, AAAA-EEEEE-HHH!” I love it!
Yes, like those two old ladies in Florence, the locals really use all sorts of forms of the Holy Virgin as exclamations. The simplest one is just her name – but it’s rapidly and roundly (‘round yon virgin? -nevermind) pronounced like this:, “Mah-DOH-nah!” There’s also a little diminutive version that I particularly like, “Mah-doh-nee-nah!” Then, you can take this staple and dress it up in a myriad of colorful ways like: “Mah-DOH-nah, mamma di Dio!” (or Gesu, take your pick). And there are plenty of ways to make this even angrier, like adding “pig” or porca at the end – but Lulu points out that saying “Madonna” at all as an exclamation is “actually very naughty.”
Other colorful expressions that I adore – and will mightily miss hearing every day once we depart dear Arezzo in only a couple short weeks – are “Che bellissima” (Lulu and every other little girl in Italy get this all the time) and really every form of bella. It really is not a cliché to say, “Ciao, bella!” after you have had a coffee with a female friend. Men say it to ladies. Ladies say it to ladies. Everyone says it to every little girl. And it’s the same with “Bello.”
“Bravo” with itsvariations depending on number and gender of the recipient (s), is another favorite. It’s an adjective that works with about everything. Great job at homework, Lulu – Brava! Nice painting on that old church by that Renaissance master – Bravo! All the children sang that song well – Bravi! And on and on. “Buono” and its variants are the culinary equivalent. Don’t forget to really sink yourself into the first syllables of these words, roll your r’s, and open your mouth to let the vowels explode. Did you try it? Bravo! (or Brava!)
The boisterous Italian language accompanied by the mandatory requisite hand gestures, have combined to make for one of the most expressive and vibrant communications experiences I have had the pleasure to enjoy. From some of the most expressive and vibrant people I have ever had the pleasure to enjoy as well!.
Baci a tutti!
P.S. I know I barely scratched the surface on lively Italian expressions. Do you have a favorite? A not so favorite? Please share!
It’s no baloney, mortadella is something we will definitely miss when we leave Arezzo.
It bears a resemblance to our American Oscar Mayer type variety, but make no mistake, the Italian version is much richer, tastier and, I think, purer. Lulu’s refined tastes go even further. She often says, as she gets a free sample of the Italian sausage from our favorite butcher in town, “It’s not mortadella, if it’s not Alfredo’s mortadella.”
You can find mortadella and its delicious piggy sausage cousins, like salami and finocchiona – and this eye-catching and full-bodied roasted and stuffed suckling-pig known as porchetta throughout Tuscany.
It took me a while to get used to being, er, face, to face – leg or snout – with so much meat. In fact, seeing the sequoia- sized logs of pork – like this photo I snapped yesterday at our supermarket –
So, the day we walked into our supermercato and saw the grand-daddy of all salumi on display, I’m not exactly sure if it might also have been from the subset, salami, but Lulu and I agreed, it was HUGE.
To better paint this image, let me explain that I like to call this store “the Disco,” because invariably there is some old dance party music thumping through its stereo system. And on this particular day, “Super Freak” greeted us as the automatic glass doors slid open.
“She’s a very kinky girl. The kind you don’t take home to mother”
Lulu was laughing as I began bopping and singing along with Rick James while I pushed our cart. We first arrived at the pasta and bread aisles.
“She will never let your spirits down. Once you get her off the street”
Then we turned the corner to the fresh produce area to select some veggies.
“She’s all right, she’s all right, That girl’s all right, with me, yeah”
And then. Then it happened. We rounded into our final stop. The pork section. And there it was.
A ginormous 12 foot by 2 foot long, brick-red shaft of cured pork was stretched out on a wooden table like a, er, telephone pole. Customers were all crowding around it while a grocery store associate wearing a blue and white striped apron and a little white paper hat delicately shaved off thin slices and handed them out.
It was massive. I had never seen anything like it before. Clearly neither had Lulu. She pointed to it and yelled at me, “Mama! Look! A giant meat rocket!”
That was it. Lulu’s innocent, yet illicit, innuendo, combined with Rick James’ freaky song blaring over the store’s speakers, was just too much for me.
“She’s a Super Freak, Super Freak. She’s super freaky. Yow”
Lulu wanted us to get a sample, but I had turned into a junior high school student. I was laughing so hard at the improbable combination of sights and sounds that I couldn’t bring myself to wait in line for a taste of the meat rocket, er telephone pole, er, straighten up, Gina – salami.
But after almost three years here in Tuscany, I am more than used to the popularity of pork. I am fond of it. And as we prepare to depart Italy for Ireland, I must prepare to have the pork make way for… er, potatoes?
With love of food everywhere,
P.S. What are your region’s specialties? Like ’em? Love ’em?