Scusi, Do You Speak English?


Day 3: "Behold the Power of Cheese"

Our first full day in the castle was 1. a Sunday; 2. during Ferragosto, the big August secular holiday (everything closes and everybody goes to either the beach or the mountains); 3. the day before L'Assunta, the Feast of the Assumption. I gathered from Brian and Francesca that Italians in general are often not deeply religious these days. But still, in a culture steeped in Mary-worship, the BVM's most important feast day has to be a big deal.

The official view of Montalto's front entrance
The official view of Montalto's front entrance

For all these reasons, our choices for the day were somewhat limited. We didn't even try to look for a supermarket, expecting that they would all be closed. Instead we lunched quite well on the leftovers from dinner the night before: pasta, salad, fresh fennel bulb, and bread and cheeses. Then we piled into the vans and headed for our first tourist visit as a group: Pienza.

The town of Pienza was the birthplace of Pope Pius II, and to honor his hometown he commissioned a beautiful duomo (cathedral) and other construction which revitalized the town. I really admired a series of plaques on a wall across from the duomo. Every time someone famous came to Pienza, they put a plaque on the wall to commemorate the event. There were plaques from six hundred years ago, and a plaque from ten years ago. What an amazing sense of history that must provide to the residents of the town. As a native of a young country, this was marvelous to me.

Brian walked us around the duomo's interior, providing expert guidance on the art and architecture. I wish I could repeat every word for you all. I wish I had had a tape recorder! Of particular interest to me were the portraits of saints, who seemed to be generally painted in groups that had little to do with who the saints had actually known during life. In fact, it was very common to see pairs of saints flanking a portrait of "Maria con Bambino". Brian pointed out many icons with which the saints are depicted. For example, virgin saints of either gender often carried palm fronds. (Before Brian explained this, I thought they were quill pens!) Also, a martyr was often shown magically healed, but carrying the instrument of torture (or significant element of same) so people would recognize him/her. So for example, we saw St. Lucia looking lovely and serene, carrying a pair of eyeballs on a plate. St. Catherine had a broken wheel on the ground next to her. One saint whose name I forget carried a carding comb (used for carding wool) -- a particularly gruesome martyrdom. And we saw poor Saint Agatha with her breasts on a plate, like two little cakes.

The duomo in Pienza is structurally in a bad way. Pienza sits (like most of the towns we visited) high up on top of a hill. Unfortunately this particular hill is formed of tufo, soft volcanic rock, especially right under the cathedral. The rock simply cannot support the duomo, whose rear half sags alarmingly. If this building were in the US, people would not be allowed inside. There's a massive crack running down the wall and across the floor, beyond which the floor slopes sharply. The floor at the rear end must be 2 feet lower than at the entrance. You could even see fruitless attempts to halt the damage, like little metal brackets drilled into the walls and floor over the crack. Mike commented that this repair amounted to trying to staple together a collapsing building!

I gather that this is the same problem afflicting the Leaning Tower of Pisa. However, Pisa has money for expensive structural repairs, unlike Pienza. I hope they are able to stabilize this lovely cathedral before the back half of it falls off the cliffside.

After our tour of the duomo, we moved onto the important business of the day: shopping. Luckily Pienza is a tourist town, so most stores were open (though they were all pricey, touristy gourmet shops, at least they were open!) We wandered from shop to shop, buying bread, pasta, some breakfast pastry thing with albicocce (apricot) filling, and most importantly, cheese. The local cheese of Toscano is called pecorino toscano, which translates helpfully as "Tuscan sheep's milk cheese," and Pienza is apparently known as the place to buy it. I guess that pecorino toscano must be somewhat similar to pecorino romano, which I have seen in the US, "sheep's cheese from Rome"? Help me out someone! Anyway, the cheese could be bought in many varieties, so Georg and I picked up two little balls of soft, mild, fresh cheese, one studded with porcini mushrooms, one with black truffles, and a hefty chunk of hard, aged, salty cheese that came in a wheel coated with ash and chestnut leaves (!). We actually didn't mean to buy quite so much, but numbers were still beyond our rudimentary grasp of Italian vocabulary. Add to that our unfamiliarity with the metric system, and we ended up with a lot of cheese. Not that this was a bad thing!

Georg and I also couldn't resist stopping for gelato. Now, there's an Italian-style gelateria at home in Durham, so we thought we knew what to expect. Not by half! We found that the place back home was about as good as mass-marketed Italian gelato (in other words, very good). But the ice creams made in the shop were in an entirely different realm. Brian taught us to look for the phrase that meant "produced on the premises" but I'm afraid the expression has gone out of my head already. And Francesca also told us the expression artiginale (artisan-made). Georg had nocciola e cioccolata (hazelnut and chocolate, unbelievably rich), and I had melone e limone (melon and lemon, perfect for summer). At first I thought my two flavors were a little icy for gelato, then I realized that they were actually incredibly smooth sorbettos.

Georg and Sarah in front of the romanesque church
Georg and Sarah in front of the romanesque church

There were also some lovely souvenier shops in Pienza -- candles, ceramics, etc -- which we bypassed because, as I said, we didn't shop much on this trip (unless it was something we could eat). But I think that some members of the group did buy some nice things. Once everyone had "shopped out," it was back into the vans and down the hill to an ancient Romanesque church on the outskirts of town. Unfortunately, I can't tell you any specifics about this place, because I was in the "non-Brian van" that day, and I don't think I ever heard the name of the church. I'm also not sure of the date it was built: there were some puzzling Roman numerals carved on the building, which some argued should be read as some time in the 1800's. Since the church was clearly not built in the 19th century (maybe in the 9th!), we never were able to figure out how that date should be interpreted.

We were also not able to go inside, as there was some kind of small ceremony in progress. However, the outside was truly remarkable: austere, graceful, eloquent in its simplicity. High up above the door was a window with three columns, one of which was sculpted into the primitive but graceful shape of a woman. One would assume that a prominent female figure in an ancient Christian church must be Mary. But the carvings directly over the door were unequivocally pagan: a mermaid, mermen and other fantastic creatures. Why were the exterior decorations of a Christian church so pagan in nature? Who was the woman in the window? I wish I knew.

We tried to stop at another church, Santo Biagio outside Montepulciano. This church was large and elaborate, but there was a service in progress so we were not able to go inside (I did peek in the door long enough to notice that the church was full, and there was an African priest officiating). By this point, everyone was pretty tired, and the drive was long (especially since there were some understandable difficulties navigating all these winding Italian country roads). So we made our way back to Montalto for the evening.

A group of folks headed down to the nearby Monastero d'Ombrone for a dinner that, I heard, was quite a lavish experience. Georg and I went back to our little Scuola instead, and made ourselves dinner with the supplies we'd bought in Pienza. We had a quiet evening by ourselves -- writing postcards and such -- and then called it a night.

Next: the Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore, a Benedictine abbey with an incredible library. Plus: Georg sees the Palio on TV, I miss it because I'm busy gabbing!

Italy Travelogue:
Day 1: Turisti Americani

Day 2: Tutti gli Dei

Day 3: Behold the Power of Cheese

Day 4: Monk Mobile

Day 5: Scusi, do you speak English?

Day 6: Tutte le Direzione

Day 7: Gardens Sacred and Profane

Day 8: Ciao Ciao

il Palio: special report by Georg

Castello di Montalto official website



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