Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Return to Italy

In the late 1970s, Carlo, a young Italian scientist, came to Vancouver to spend a sabbatical year with my husband, a physical chemist at the university. He came from Bologna where he worked for the Consiglio Nazionale di Ricerca, the National Research Council of Italy. His wife, Grazia, accompanied him and we all became great friends. In addition, he and my husband began to collaborate in their research and this continued after he returned home. So, in 1979, I returned to Italy again, with A, to Bologna.

Located in the north of Italy, in the valley of the Po, Bologna is often bypassed by tourists. The city closes down between noon and 4 pm daily and this leaves the visitor at a bit of a loose end for a large part of the day. We were staying in a hotel near the University and while my husband went every day to CNR, I was left to my own devices and when everything closed down, I returned to the hotel for siesta time. My memory of this trip is reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Márquez, every afternoon in the hot, darkened hotel room. Of course Italians dine late, usually at 8 pm, so the everything opens again from 4 to 8.

While there I visited all the sites, mostly churches, including the one above which is the Sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin of San Luca, with its famous 13th century Byzantine painting, the Black Madonna. This church is on a hill and you can see it from almost any part of Bologna. The wonderful covered walkway, with 666 arches running for 3.6 km, starts in the town and goes all the way to the Sanctuary. Supposedly the devout pilgrims ascended on their knees, stopping to pray at each of the Stations of the Cross depicted on the walls of the walkway. However, I decided to walk it instead.

Bologna is well known for many things but probably the unique thing about the city is the porticoes (or portici), which run for 36 km and make it possible to walk about the city sheltered from rain or sun or snow. It is recognized as having the the oldest university in Europe and for that it is called la Dotta, the Learned. In academic processions, the faculty always walk in order of the foundation of the university from where they graduated, so Bologna graduates always walk ahead of Paris, Oxford or Cambridge graduates, although they are relegated to second place by any Cairo graduates. For its renowned cuisine it is called La Grassa, the Fat, which I cannot attest to, since we always ate dinner with our friends and are not allowed to go to restaurants, because they think they are too expensive. Because of its left wing, actually communist, government it is sometimes called La Rossa, the Red and our friend Carlo was a member of the Communist Party of Italy, which many Italians were, but he has moved more to the centre over the years.

Carlo may live in Bologna but he is from Siena and still considers himself Sienese, even after so many years in Bologna. So we went with them to Siena to meet his parents and to attend the Palio. Siena is divided into 17 contrade or districts and a famous horse race, competing for the Palio banner, has been run in the square, the Piazza del Campo, once on July 2nd and once on August 16th, since 1656. Each contrada is represented by a horse ridden bareback, although there is only enough room for 10 horses to race safely so there is a draw for a place. The horse can win even if he completes the race without a jockey and it is a very rough and ready race with a lot of injuries to horses and jockies. Each horse is taken to the church in the contrada to be blessed before the race and if the horse drops manure in the church, it is a very lucky sign.

Carlo and his father belong to the contrada represented by Istrice, the Porcupine, while his mother is a Montone or Ram. Carlo had arranged for us to watch the race from a balcony over the square. Although we went to the blessing in the church the day before, unfortunately it rained on race day and with the danger being too great in the rain, the race was postponed. We had arranged to go to Pisa to stay with friends on sabbatical there, so we had to leave and did not see the Palio race run a day later. However we have attended the race since then, but only with the huge crowds in the square.

There is a spectacular parade before the race with the participants in colourful medieval dress and special flag waving displays. Carlo's father played the chiarina, a special long trumpet with a flag hanging down, and dressed in costume he accompanied the Palio, which is the painted banner, on it's special wagon in the parade. He participated in every Palio for more than 50 years, well into his late seventies, and received a citation from the city for his efforts.

Mario and Caterina, Carlo's parents, always showed us great hospitality when we went to Siena, as we did on other occasions as well. He would always run to his cellar to get special wine which he bought in big flagons directly from the vintner and rebottled himself. On one occasion I took a photo of the table. There were eleven different bottles of wine which he had opened and not for me, because I am astemia, teetotal, but my husband enjoyed the special wines. Sadly, now in his nineties, he suffers from Alzheimer's disease and Caterina, his delightful wife, passed away in her late eighties, after a fall, just before last Christmas.

So once again, I had returned to Italy. Before I took this trip, I had taken a three-month intensive Italian course. So this time I could communicate a little, with what I called my "hotel-shopping" Italian. Italians appreciate it when you speak Italian, no matter how badly.

Next time, a little vignette of a scientific trip to Bologna and my first visit to Florence.


Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Another lovely post about Italy, jmb. Thank you. You bring Bologna to life and you are right - it is beautiful and so often forgotten by tourists. You also bring your dear Italian friends to life and I can picture the gentleman decanting his wine into bottles for you. It is wonderful to "meet" through blogging, someone who loves Italy as much as I do! Looking forward to your next post. Love, as always, from Sicily.

jmb said...

Thanks WCLC,
I'm pleased that I can interest you, since you know so much about Italy.
We still visit these friends in Bologna every time we go there and we last saw the sienesi in 2002.

Dr Michelle Tempest said...

This is unrelated to your post, but I found a way of calculating how much blogs are worth in cyber money and yours comes out at $17,500.74..... not bad! You must be getting plenty of hits, which is not suprising as it's a great blog. Michelle

jmb said...

Thanks Michelle,
I saw this on your site and I can't believe you're only worth twice what I am. Ten times IMHO, so how about $350,000 for you. Just like Monopoly money.

Lee said...

Loved your post, jmb. I almost got to go to the Emilia Romagna area once...I was in an eighteen-month relationship with a rather spunky Italian from Lugo and Bagnacavallo at the time. He would come to Aus and stay for six months, head back home for a short period and then return again, during this time. Unfortunately, our relationship ended and I never did get to go to Italy! I doubt that I ever will unless I win the very elusive Lotto! ;)

I'll just have to keep reading about it and cooking its wonderful foods.

jmb said...

Hi Lee,
Too bad you didn't get at least one trip out of it.
Good luck with Lotto, don't we all wish. Ours was $25 million tonight and I got one number out of 6!