|Oh, the Places You’ll Go
I was scheduled to leave Alessandra’s on Friday, so we packed as much in as we could during my stay. The day after our marathon walk to San Lucas, we started our driving tours. Our first daytrip was to Ferrara, then Comacchio and Pomposa, both on the coast.
Ferrara was a wonderful exhibition of Alessandra’s quest for information from strangers. This was where she stopped the truck driver, and about eight other people in the two hours we were there, to ask them whatever popped into her head. It was fascinating to watch as they warmed to her immediately, for the most part. We saw the Castel Estense, my favorite parts being the moat and the dungeons, then walked through the main part of the small older section of town.
We were going to Pomposa next, famous for Pomposa Abbey, a Benedictine Monastery that was very powerful in northern Italy for a time. As we walked back to our car in Ferrara, we stopped at a tiny market to ask directions to Pomposa. While the non-English speaking sales girl, Sandra and I tried to figure it all out, a very dapper older gentleman sitting in the corner sipping expresso, interrupted us and said, “I speak English, perhaps I can help you?” We got out a small map and he explained the route out of town and we had the whole thing worked out in about five minutes. It was obvious he wanted to spend more time with us, well, with Alessandra, he could hardly take his eyes off her, and offered to buy us a coffee before we hit the road but we politely declined and went on our way. Turns out Mr. Dapper, who in full discretion, had confessed to us that he doesn’t drive a car, but takes the bus everywhere, did NOT know the way to Pomposa, and Alessandra and I ended up taking the most circuitous and out of the way route we possibly could have. It was very peaceful and quiet though, through the flat farmlands, tiny roads and seaside villages, so I didn’t mind, and we laughed quite a lot at Mr. Dapper’s expense. I did appreciate the Ferrarese, which is what the natives called themselves, and Mr. Dapper was a perfect example of their willingness to help, whether they were able to or not.
When we finally found the Monastery, we could see the A14, like an interstate, about 1 km away and realized that the 45 minute drive should have taken us about 15 minutes. While we were there, an older gentleman bought his ticket the same time as us, noticed that I spoke English and offered to walk through with us to translate. He glommed right onto Alessandra immediately and spoke minimal English to me, but they had a great old time wandering about the Abbey Museum, as I tagged along behind. He was retired, lived in Sicily, and was now a magician for parties and shows. He gave her his card when he left. She was like a man magnet, and she wasn’t putting out that vibe at all, it was incredible and it happened over and over.
Next was Comacchio, affectionately known as Piccolo Venice, having been built on a lagoon, with 15 islets connected by bridges. We arrived and had lunch at a lovely little restaurant on the main square of town. This region is famous for its eels, (Anguilla) and this apparently was one of Alessandra’s most favorite things. She ordered an eel primi dish, then an eel secondi dish. I told her I would taste some of hers, then decide if I liked it and order some. When her first dish came, she put a big fat thumb sized section on my plate. She was gobbling it up, so I cut off a piece and put it in my mouth and immediately had eel spine with little bones connected to it, crunching in my mouth. I was supposed to filet it before I ate it but didn’t know that, and Alessandra didn’t seem to be doing that.
I stopped chewing immediately and tried to discreetly spit the entire mouthful onto my plate. I was so thoroughly grossed out that I couldn’t even watch Alessandra as she polished off the first course and dug into the second. It wasn’t the taste, the meat tasted like fish, but I couldn’t get past seeing slimy eels in my head and then the feeling of crunching on the nasty bones. Ugh, shudder, bleck.
I ordered a safe dish, seared scallops, totally bone free and delicious. Such an un-adventurous American.
After lunch we wandered all over the small town, crossing bridges, admiring the architecture and churches, it was a quaint little place that I would never have visited without Alessandra’s guidance.
The next morning, we went to the family company, so she could handle some business that had come up the day before. Alessandra’s husband Arturo, had a trucking company, which she and her sons took over after he died. Lisa told me that Alessandra was the one that really held it together, since she had all the client relationships, but her son Nicola slowly started to learn the business and take it over and at present I think they have built it up to forty-five trucks. She is semi-retired now, but as with most retirees I’ve met, is busy all the time every day. When we arrived at the office, I met her son Nicola, who was on the phone working nearly the entire hour we were there, and Cristina, his right hand woman, who spoke English and chatted with me while we waited for Nicola to finish. After they had their meeting and we left, Alessandra told me that Nicola was coming for lunch, I think it’s something he does once or twice a week.
When Nicola came in, he said, “Ciao” but spoke less English than Alessandra did. I had pre-translated some sentences to try to have a conversation with him, like, “Your trucks look lovely,” and “You work very hard.” Stupid stuff, but I wanted him to know I was trying. He just looked at me like I was an idiot and kept eating.
After lunch, he went into the living room to watch the Bold and the Beautiful, a US soap opera that here is just called “The Beautiful” (La Bella) and is extremely popular among both men and women, in fact Italy is its #1 market world-wide. I could hear Alessandra talking to him and eventually she called me in to the room and said “Mappa,” which is map. I pulled out my map and explained to them what I wanted to do after I left Bologna, and Nicola lit up. He became a completely different person, and we highlighted on the map all the places I should see on my way south, especially in Sicily, which he loves. He was quite charming and wonderful, and after he left, Alessandra told me he said I was very brave.
Alessandra lives about 5 km from the old town of Bologna, what she considers walking distance, not worth taking a bus, so that afternoon, I left her to do some work around the apartment while I walked into town to see it in the daylight and try to find some internet access. That was the only thing missing in an otherwise perfect home, and if I weren’t trying to post a blog and stay in touch with friends and family, I wouldn’t have cared, but as it was, having wifi meant being able to talk on the phone with my sister, other family and friends, and do research and room booking for the weeks of travel ahead of me.
The next day we went to Mantova, (Mantua) with Anna, it was where she grew up and she wanted to show it to me. It was such an incredibly beautiful old, authentic small town and we wandered the streets admiring the architecture, churches and piazza’s. Under the power and influence of the ruling Gonzaga family, it became the artistic, cultural and musical hub of Northern Italy, and the feel of that creativity and beauty still exists. Shakespeare’s Romeo was exiled to Mantua after he killed Tybalt, and Verdi’s opera Rigoletto was set here. We went through the Palazzo Ducale, with amazing ceiling paintings and meticulously restored rooms, then the Palazzo Te, which was a bit more run down but still lovely. At one point Anna asked me if I liked the “midi-evil bull-dings” (the medieval buildings) the pronunciation of which looks perfectly reasonable when you see the words spelled out, and Giovanna had pronounced it the exact same way.
We had lunch in a boutique hotel in a small village outside of Mantova, then went to visit Anna’s son on our way back to Bologna. Anna’s family owned a farm outside of Mantova, and it had been left to her son. He and his wife were slowly building it into an agri-turismo B&B, planning to eventually live in the old family home which had fallen into disrepair, while running the brand new hotel section which had just been completed the previous Fall. For now, they lived in a small apartment nearby and ran the B&B from there, while the old home was being re-furbished inside. It was an enormous undertaking, but the rooms of the B&B were beautiful and the old stone farmhouse would one day be a great place to live.
I had been with Alessandra for four days now, and was exhausted every night, falling into my bed and snoring instantly. She really kept me on the go. I don’t know how she did it, she was the Italian equivalent of the Energizer Bunny.