Tour Day 7
The ride out of Florence takes us through the Tuscan countryside into Umbria. This is the romantic Italian landscape of the imagination: cypress trees, olive groves, rustic farmhouses. We pass the walled mountaintop town of Orvieto, beckoning to be explored another time. We leave the highway, and head deeper into the Italian countryside. Our bus driver expertly negotiates hairpin turns on the edge of the mountain as we climb higher toward the Agriturismo Poggio della Volara in Montecchio.
Poggio della Volara is a fine example of the agritourism movement in Italy. Marco greets us when we arrive at the vineyard. He and his wife Gaiva invite visitors to stay in their guest apartments, and sample life on a working vineyard in the Italian countryside. We have come for lunch and a winetasting.
The mountaintop view is spectacular. We are surrounded by fifty acres of grape vines, olive trees, and pastures. A feeling of tranquility descends over the group as we explore the site. Two long tables are set for lunch on the terrace outside the large, rustic farmhouse. Beautiful still-life arrangements of wine jugs, pots, and cacti accent the setting.
Marco’s passion for winemaking comes through as he explains the cultivation of grapes. He educates the group on the process of pressing olives for oil. We learn to carefully read the labels on grocery store olive oils, and not waste money on low end products that have little nutritional value.
We have worked up a thirst, and it is time to taste wine. Gaiva has created a most amazing spread of food to complement the wine, laying the feast out on a huge table: four types of pizza, several cheeses, delicious squash fritters, egg salad wrapped in lettuce and served on a giant aloe vera leaf, a selection of meats that includes wild boar, and grilled bread, all prepared with their superior olive oil. Now this is the best day yet!
We sample a crisp white wine, and a fruity red. The region is known for Orvieto Classico wine, and Marco’s is outstanding. For dessert, we have jam crostata, espresso, and biscotti with a tasty dessert wine. Yum, yum. We purchase several bottles of wine to drink in Rome, but we regret not being able to take any olive oil home in our carry-on bags. We board the bus to resume our trip to Rome with full stomachs. We drink in our last look at Umbria.
“Now this is the best day yet!”
Our first glimpse of Rome is of apartment buildings lining the outskirts of the city, and then of the Tiber River. The Tiber! Where Rome was founded, where the twins Romulus and Remus were abandoned, then found and raised by a she-wolf. Our bus drops us off near the busy Via del Corso. My traveling companion and I slip on our backpacks, and we walk the rest of the way to the Hotel San Carlo. Like the other hotels on our tour, this one is charming and well maintained. Our room is connected to a small patio that overlooks the Via delle Carrozze, with its many cafes and shops.
Patricia leads us on la passeggiata, the traditional evening stroll, to orient ourselves to the area. The next street over is the fashionable Via dei Condotti, lined with luxury shops Bulgari, Gucci, Armani, Ferragamo, Prada, and others. The window displays are captivating, the clothing, accessories, and jewelry, high style and expensive. Rome is crowded with school groups on spring tours, more little darlings. “Don’t break the chain,” is our mantra as we dodge traffic to cross the street as a group. Our hotel is very near several must-see sites. Spanish Steps, check. Trevi Fountain, check. Piazza Navona, check. Bernini Fountains, check. Pantheon, check.
“Don’t break the chain.”
The Pantheon, a building that is both ancient and more recent, pagan and Christian, is a fitting start to our tour of Rome. Built by the Emperor Hadrian as a Roman temple on the site of an even earlier temple of Emperor Augustus, the Pantheon became a Christian church in the 7th century that is still in use today. Layer upon layer upon layer is a good way to describe the Pantheon, and indeed, the city of Rome.
The ancient monument is beautifully preserved, the interior grand. We walk on original marble floors. We are surprised to discover that the artist Raphael is buried here, along with other artists, and several kings of Italy.
The round building is covered with a half-sphere in precise geometric proportions: the height of the cylinder is equal to the radius of the sphere; the distance from the floor to the top of the dome is equal to its diameter. At 142 feet in diameter, it is the largest unsupported dome in the world. The oculus in the center of the dome is open to the sky. This amazing structure inspired numerous domes around the world, including the Duomo in Florence, Michelangelo’s Dome for St. Peter’s Basilica, and even the dome at the United States Capitol.
Our group gathers by an Egyptian Obelisk set in the Fontana del Pantheon, a massive fountain with dolphins, that graces the Piazza della Rotonda in front of the Pantheon. From here we get a good view of the sixteen massive columns supporting the portico in front of the temple. These too were brought from Egypt. Looted works have art have always been the spoils of war, brought back by conquerors to show their power over the vanquished. The juxtaposition of cultures is striking.
Patricia leads us to a delicious Roman dinner of Gnocchi al Gorgonzola, Eggplant Parmigiana, and Tiramisu. Wine flows. My traveling companion and I are still full from lunch, but we manage to make a dent in each course.
The evening is warm, and we take our time strolling back to the hotel. We visit the dramatically lit fountains at the Piazza Navona. We are mesmerized by Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers. Nearby, the Trevi Fountain is a bit less crowded; the fountain’s grand scale and theatricality are pure magic at night. Everywhere, people are walking, the city is alive with 21st century Romans amidst ancient, classical, and Baroque splendor. A perfect evening in Rome.
“City of a million moonlit places, City of a million warm embraces.”