This is a day the gods have made. As long as I live, I will never have a better day than this one...as good, surely, but not likely better. This is the day I’m as happy as I’ve ever been. This is the day I go to Italy.
We dock at Civitavecchia, which is the port of Rome. Rome is about 2 hours away, but we are not headed there. As part of a day arranged by our group leaders, we are off to Vignanello, a little medieval town that rests in the V created where the Tuscan and Umbrian regions meet.
The day doesn’t start off so great...we load all 150 of us onto 2 busses and off we go. About an hour into the trip, we stop at a gas station for a restroom break. Only there’s only one each. And since it appears that my travel companions all are in possession of bladders the size of walnuts, this stop stretches into about a 45 minute ordeal. But all was not lost, for we discovered shrimp flavored potato chips! Apparently, Europeans cannot just enjoy the earthy goodness of the potato without giving it various embellishments like the aforementioned crustacean powder or chicken or beef. Yep, beef potato chips....
But off we go, to arrive like a marauding band of Visigoths into the tiny heart of this medieval village. This is not a tourist village, so we are the subject of much interest, causing the old men sitting in the square (just like you picture them doing) to stand up! and the old women to cut short their noontime Mass. Maybe because the herd of us entered the back of their lovely gothic church on tiptoes, ever so quietly, just like a sirocco bansheeing across the Sahara or a lithe and lilting jack-hammer.
Again, just like you would picture, the townswomen are leaning out their windows and explaining to their children that those loud people are AMERICANS! in much the same way as a mother would point out the MONKEYS! at the zoo.
What happens next begins this most amazing of days. Our Italian guide Alvaro announces that he will walk over the drawbridge of the castle fortress that makes up one side of the square and knock on the door to see if his friend is home.
So he knocks.
The heavy battering-ram proof door swings open...
Suddenly there are drums, and flags and villagers dressed in local traditional dress, drumming and flagging us into the castle keep lined with medieval weaponry and torches and over another drawbridge into to most beautiful 16th century garden, laid out in box hedges.
We are the guests of Princess Claudia Giada Ruspoli and we will be wined and dined and entertained for the next several hours in her castle home with its famous gardens overlooking the Umbrian countryside. Seriously. Seriously.
Drummed and fifed, we make our way into the garden. It is a cloudless day, with a light breeze...just exactly like you want it to be. To the right, under the arbor of trees lining that side of the garden are tables set for lunch. Somewhere in the distance, a harp is playing. We are given a glass of Prosecco and introduced to the princess, who tells us about her castle and gardens.
Then come the flag-throwers.
Sidebar: It is a particularly intriguing thing, this fondness for throwing flags in the air that the Italians have. Apparently, much honor and pride is invested in these troupes of flingers and villages stake their community pride and reputations on the skill of their local tossers. It seems, from what I can gather, that the flag flinging has something to do with communicating during medieval battles. But now, it’s a bunch of guys in puffy shirts and tights.. er, I mean, traditional Renaissance dress, throwing flags in the air and to each other for about an hour. In the hot sun. With no more wine in my glass.
But now it’s time for lunch! And what a feast it is! We walk over to the tables under the shady trees and grapevines as an Italian tenor starts to sing and what lays before us is epic...tables of pasta, locally made by the hands of the women in front of us making it, a small boar, roasted and crispy, a table filled with a variety of salads... Caprese, olive, green, pasta.. a table filled with cheeses and fruits and fresh Ciabatta breads and the most amazing thing of all...and entire table upon which is laid out, in single overlapping layers, about 10 pounds of wafer-thin prosciutto ... just laid out there, all over the table! It was so cool!
And the wines! Locally grown and vinted, we are privileged to drink their Santa Bruna Vignanello Rosso, a blend of 50% Sangiovese and 50% Ciliegiolo, a red grape variety whose origins are attributed to Spain. Legend has it that its presence in Italy is due to pilgrims who returned with it from their pilgriming in Spain. Currently, Ciliegiolo is cultivated almost exclusively in Umbria and is grown inland in a somewhat cool climate and drunk young, like Beaujolais.
According to the translated tasting notes, this wonderful wine “binds together to appetizers of earth and meats very well white women”. I swear I didn’t make that up and yes, as a white women, I can say it does meats well.
Alongside the Santa Bruna was Libentino Trebbiano of the Lazio, a 100% Trebbiano (also known as Ugni Blanc) from different growing regions, blended into a crisp white quaff that was perfect with the salad course of our meal and for the red wine scardy-cats.
But the piece de resistance was the wine the served for dessert. OMG.
Expecting tiramisu, we, instead, got a light and lovely mousse cake, made with dark chocolate, delicious on its own merits. But when paired with the unbelievably fantastic Banfi Rosa Regale Sparkling Brachetto, it all became one of the most amazingly fabulous food and wine pairings I have ever been privileged to experience. So much so that I made everyone at my table go get another dessert and a glass of this heavenly elixir and walk through the pairing of it with me.
I think they were afraid not to, since I was a little wild-eyed and stupefied over the whole thing.. better just to humor me...
But they were to a (wo)man glad they did. The Rosa Regale is an explosion of blood-red color, raspberries and roses, sparkly and fruity. When I googled it, the description said “...it is appreciated as one of the few wines in the world that truly marries well with chocolate, especially dark or bittersweet...” And then some. And then some more.
Sidebar: Go get some now. I mean it.. NOW! Because the gods have smiled upon us and it is available right here in America, for which I shall be eternally grateful. And it’s only 7% alcohol, so I...you.. can drink the whole bottle! And you will. Go.
Whew!.. all worked up again...
We were taken on a tour of the castle, which, as I said, is Princess Claudia’s actual home, as evidenced by the toiletries on the bathroom counters. Then, in one of the upstairs ballrooms, next to the room the Pope had stayed in long, long ago, we had a short concert of harpsichord and horn, featuring the music of Handel. It turns out that a majority of Handel’s cantatas were written during his 1706-1710 stay at Castello Ruspoli, this very castle, where he was under the patronage (aka cash umbrella) of the Marchese Ruspoli, ancestor to our own princess.
The rest of this perfect day was spent with music, sword-fighting with real medieval sabers, more drums and flags and young Italian men in tights.
We say good-bye to our new friends and load back onto the bus. As we drive west to Civitavecchia, the sun blazes down from the sky pulling a soft rose blanket behind it. It has been a perfect day and I will end it upon returning to the Queen, because I want nothing else but what I have had this day.
I spent one day in Italy. I cannot imagine in my vividest of imaginations how it could have been any better than it was.
Unless one of those yummy sword-fighters had come back to the ship with me....
Next: Pt. 5- Sardinia and Valencia