Getting off the Beaten Path in Italy…

You might be surprised, but better yet, learn much about its people.

Such was our luck one day taking an off-highway excursion on the way to Todi to see a relation of a friend we were told to visit on our trip.

Juggling my cell phone, map and a handwritten page of instructions I was happy my husband Bruce could drive on these poorly maintained roads often recommended by well meaning inn keepers. “She still doesn’t answer,” I whined, referring to Roberta, the
relation we were to visit.

Then I saw it. “Stop!” I demanded. Bruce slowed down, stopped, and backed up. We were out in the middle of what seemed like nowhere, not a car or other building in sight. Off the shoulder of the road appeared an elaborate iron gate between two stalwart stone-stacked pillars. It looked like it must be a destination worth visiting, but no, it was a Dantes Palace1 residence.

Beyond the gate stretched an also elaborate steep stone driveway leading to a large home at the very top of the hill. “What?” Bruce demanded. “That,” I said pointing to the obviously handcrafted artistic stonework lining the driveway on both sides. He argued against stopping or getting out of the car, but I was already at the gate. There didn’t appear to be a bell or buzzer, so I headed back to the car just in time to hear someone call out from up the hill.

Dante Anderlini, a 77 year-old Italian-born retiree whose home was just off the road to Aquasparta, had built a work of art over the last 45 years. His weathered face and hands and worn, dusty work clothes verified this fact. What a find! He couldn’t wait to open the gate and show us in to “see something really beautiful.” Dante’s English was sparse and my Italian sloppy, but somehow we managed. As we huffed and puffed up the driveway, his handiwork on both sides took our breath away even further.

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His “something beautiful” turned out to be the living room he built, he told us, for his wife, whom we were not able to meet. It was truly an unbelievable work of art. Dante handcrafted the stone and marble walls, cabinets, counters and floors in both the living room and downstairs kitchen as well.

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Dante was especially proud of the fountain he created over a handmade marble bowl. His broad smile was a reminder of his constant heartfelt pride throughout our tour.

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Outside, the views of lush green rolling hills from atop his property were also something beautiful. We marveled from inside the stone patio at the well he had manufactured in the center. The marble pillars and intricately built stone and marble pergola surrounding it had a matching bell tower on its roof.

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Further to one side was an outdoor warehouse of enormous sheets of marble and stone.

He told us that his son, who worked in corporate Italy, would help him from time to time, and I imagined that perhaps finances were part of the “help”. Dante seemed reluctant for us to leave as we meandered back down the steep driveway. I asked him if a magazine photographer had ever visited here, and he shook his head “no”. I resolved to do something along those lines, thanked him in profuse broken Italian and we got back on the road.

Never did find Roberta.

 

Stolen By a Baker, My Heart Remembers

Antico Mulino della Torre was all the raves from our Italy Untours Guides before we even settled into our self-catering apartment near Spoleto. Everything they said about the bakery excited our senses – the sudden fragrance of fresh baked bread, the warmth reminiscent of grandma’s kitchen, and the mouth watering taste of a fresh pastry.

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But finding this little niche was not so quick and easy. The back roads behind our little home away from home were lined with ruts, no signposts and just the vague reference to the location of the bakery, “just behind us on that back road”. After a couple of morning expeditions along lush fields of fava beans and poppies, we spied the sign at the end of one of the roads advertising Homemade Bread in Italian.

The bakery was tucked further back into the driveway next to a residence and smaller than expected. The entry was barely large enough for a sparsely filled showcase of baked goods. But it was warm and cozy inside and the aroma of fresh bread and pastry more than fulfilled our expectant senses.

“Buon Giorno”, a voice called out as a woman appeared in in the doorway to a back room.Our broken Italian, taken by surprise, brought a smile to her face that I would treasure long after our visit. Maurizia apologized for the lack of selection, letting us know that by 8 or 9:00 a.m., not much was left to sell to the locals who stop in. Much of their production is trucked out of the yard much earlier in the day to stores and other bakeries. Maurizia pointed to the photo on the wall of the stone grinding machine built in 1092 (that’s not a typo); Maurizia wrote the date on a napkin and proudly explained, “we use still today.”

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Her English was timid, and my Italian was sloppy, but we could both make ourselves understood. She stole my heart, and enthused over my hidden agenda— to take action shots of the bread being baked in their stone ovens, the earmark of professional bread and the perfection for which an avid pizza lover would be looking. Happy that I asked, her hug reminded me of clothesline fresh laundry. It was during the next visit at 9:30 p.m. that I found telltale bags of “O” and “00” flour in the enormous back workroom and the chance to find out the secrets of their use from Maestro Leon himself who had been hard at work hours before starting the ovens and baking the loaves. By the time we got in, it was hot back there!

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“A legna” refers to the three giant stone ovens that burn rounds of grapevines and olive branches. Leon prepares the loaves of bread that sit in the warm kitchen on muslin wrapped canvas racks three hours before baking. The baking equipment almost touched the high ceiling as it emptied dough into another processor.

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Completely swathed in white, Leon matched the 200 or more white loaves dutifully rising side by side. They won’t hit the ovens until after midnight when the pastries and smaller Panini breads are made. Leon’s day ends about 5:00 a.m. Maurizia practically lived in the bakery with her home right next door. We became fast friends immediately, and had many a friendly chat during our stay in the community. Rarely, today, can I look at Italian bread without remembering by dear friend.

(593) Untours, an admirable B Corporation, offers a multitude of resources to customize your trip. http://www.untours.com