San Gimignano

Twin towers
Two of the remaining fourteen towers of San Gimignano. There were originally seventy-two. On a clear day, we can see San Gimignano from our agriturismo. On the horizon, it looks like Manhattan transplanted to the Tuscan hills. Slender towers rising into the sky, proclaiming the power and influence of the individual families that erected each sky-pointing finger.

We pulled into the small parking area at the Porta San Giovanni before ten in the morning. I made a quick beeline up the main street, wasting no time viewing the celebrated frescoes at the Collegiata or climbing the town’s medieval towers, in my haste to reach the opposite Porta San Mateo, where I finally arrived at my destination: San Gimignano’s barbershop. Continue reading “San Gimignano”

Volterra

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I know we’re supposed to be in Volterra, but I couldn’t help looking back at Montegemoli and the lovely Gilda, who was so choked up at our departure that she couldn’t face the camera.

Since our arrival in Tuscany, we’ve been hoping to find Etruscan shards underfoot, but the place has been picked clean. No shards to speak of, especially of the highly valued Etruscan variety. But we’re here for another couple of weeks and will continue to look. Continue reading “Volterra”

Tuscany

After twenty-one hours of travel — enough time to jet to Australia — concluding with a harrowing drive on switchbacks with thundering trucks, only dimly registered under the blinding glare of the setting sun, we arrived at Montegemoli.

Like our recent travels in Anacortes, Washington and Hayley, Idaho, Montegemoli is the smallest dot on the map.

Our lovely hostess and her happily leaping dog, Gilda, greeted us and immediately hustled us off to a nearby restaurant — the only restaurant in town — just a five-minute walk away. We hadn’t planned on eating, but were too polite to say so. We were so exhausted that we were looking forward to a quick Spartan meal of a crust of bread and a square of chocolate, before toppling into bed and into the embrace of oblivion.

But we gamely trudged off to Osteria dell’ultimo carbonaio. The place was unassuming, with just a few customers sitting at rough wooden tables and chairs, surrounded by screaming children with plastic swords. We scanned the offerings on the vinyl-covered menu: vegetarians would starve to death. Boer, venison and duck featured prominently in just about every dish.

At a loss, we asked the waiter to recommend a few dishes. Something light, as we were tired and not particularly hungry. The “light” antipasto turned out to be a platter of carpaccio. Our hearts sank. But the carpaccio melted on the tongue. Next, two bowls of homemade pasta: One of sausages and porcini, the other with black truffles and cream. We’ve ordered truffled-up dishes in restaurants back home, and always dismissed them as hype, as it’s almost impossible to taste anything, given the microscopic shavings that, rumour has it, may have been sourced from truffles.

Here, the truffles, likely sliced on a mandolin, were generous, earthy and sharp. A mineral quality so different from anything else we’d tasted, they could have been mined on the moon.

So good it was enough to make you weep.

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Striped lady at a café.

After a long night’s sleep, Gilda joined us for breakfast on the patio, overlooking the Tuscan hills. The hills are different from those in Idaho: gentler, less abrupt, more cultivated. Geometric fields give the landscape the appearance of a lumpy bed covered with a patchwork quilt. Our hostess brought us figs from her garden, and we drank cup after cup of coffee as the shadows shortened under the rising sun.

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The view from breakfast. Note the rooster at lower left, whose tail is a whirligig. Much better than a real rooster, who would wake us up.

(Many years ago, on a deserted beach in Greece, an old man arrives every other morning, bringing us large figs in his straw hat: purple figs, so dark at to be nearly black, bursting with jammy meat. A glass of cold water, three figs on a yellow plate, distant applause from the morning sea.)

The rest of our first day in Tuscany, we spent at Colle di val d’Elsa: a walled city that is nearly invisible in the guidebooks we consulted. Cobbled streets and stone walls and small, tidy museums and palazzi with hanging laundry at their windows. The relative lack of tourists, such ourselves, was a pleasure. But we did see a number of Europeans on some kind of pilgrimage, each of them weighed down with bright nylon backpacks and their private sorrows.

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The approach to Colle di val d’Elsa, after parking our six-speed, diesel-powered Fiat Tipo — a joy to drive on the twisty roads.

We read a lot about this walled city. Medieval seat of blah-blah, gateway to the duchy of this-and-that, cathedral to Saint-what’s-his-name, celebrated centre of industry. We stepped into a few shops and the tourist office. Famous for its armaments, and its finocchio. Or was it Pinocchio? I forget which; maybe it’s both.

Facts roll out, make a few orbits around the drain, and disappear. Many people collect them — facts, I mean. But I don’t retain a single one, which makes me a terrible travel companion and dinner guest.

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One of the many alleyways in the walled city.
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Part of the clocktower, attached to the cathedral, which is a magnet for pilgrims.
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Evidence of life in the deserted city. It’s easy to forget that only mad dogs and tourists stir between one and four o’clock in the afternoon.

Sun Valley, Idaho

Many years ago, at a period when I was cultivating my first moustache, I was persuaded to read a book that has stayed with me ever since. That is to say, the feeling of reading the book lingered long after I was done with it, but not a word did my memory retain, until I picked it up again last week.

Here is a passage:

Now for the Art of catching fish, that is to say, how to make a man that was none to be an Angler by a book; he that undertakes it, shall undertake a harder task than Mr. Hales, a most valiant and excellent fencer, who, in a printed book called A Private School of Defence, undertook to teach that art or science, and was laughed at for his labour. Not but many useful things might be learnt by that book, but he was laughed at because that art was not to be taught by words, but by practice; and so must Angling.

Some of you may recognize the style. The Compleat Angler is by Izaak Walton and it was published in 1653. Everyone should read it, and not just anglers, because the book is so much fun.

It came to mind because we were staying in Hailey, Idaho, which is close to world famous trout streams. Hailey is a ten-minute drive from the town of Ketchum, itself only a longish walk to Sun Valley resort. So close are all these burghs, that they’re generally lumped together as Sun Valley. So, yes, we were in Sun Valley.

But to the fishing. I did not get to fish, but we spent a magical late afternoon at Silver Creek, a place of shallow swift streams, hungry trout and darting mayflies. Ernest Hemingway came here often, as do wealthy anglers from all over the world, for the pleasures of catching and releasing the famous trout.

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The magnificent Silver Creek calls for another passage from Walton: “And after this manner you may catch a Trout in a hot evening: when, as you walk by a brook, and shall see or hear him leap at flies, then, if you get a grasshopper, put it on your hook, with your line about two yards long; standing behind a bush or tree where his hole is: and make your bait stir up and down on the top of the water. You may, if you stand close, be sure of a bite…after this manner you may fish for him with almost any kind of live fly, but especially with a grasshopper.”

On another day, we visited the town of Ketchum, whose ersatz village charm rivals the fakery of Mont-Tremblant. Throw a rock in any direction and you’ll break the window of a Gucci store. I’m sure that when Hemingway lived here, it was much less groomed. It probably retained more than a whiff of its mining origins, when mules hauled heavy ore wagons from the mines, to be offloaded onto train cars for refining in Salt Lake City, some three hundred miles away.

It was here, at his home in Ketchum, that Ernest Hemingway blew his brains out with a shotgun. A genetic disease ran in his family and made many of them crazy. Heavy drinking didn’t help, nor did the writer’s nagging paranoia. Hemingway’s father killed himself, as did his brother and sister. Also, more recently, did Margaux Hemingway. Seven suicides in all.

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The former assay office on Bullion Street, in Hailey, where miners brought their lumps of rock for analysis. It now houses a thrift shop for a nearby church. Incidentally, the “brick” is actually pressed tin.
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The first thing you notice at the Boise airport is a display of novelty items, roughly based on Star Wars, emblazoned with the words “Darth Tater.” Keychains, t-shirts, fridge magnets and more. Someone is deeply committed to the joke. Lots of farms, though, in Idaho, and we were sure to try their excellent potatoes. 

Achilles and the Count

While in Hailey, I took several runs along Wood River Trail, just seven hundred metres from the place we were renting. Built on an old rail line, the paved trail is twenty miles long and runs from the town of Bellevue to just past Ketchum. The railroad engineer must have determined the route by placing a ruler on a map of Sun Valley and running his pencil along the steel edge. It’s that straight.

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Looking straight down Wood River Trail. Twenty miles, no shade, luscious new asphalt.

As you run, the effects of high altitude, the arid desert climate and blistering mid-day heat accumulate. You note the many grasshoppers on the path. You’ve been warned about rattlers. But also about dehydration: the things it can do…

And so you begin talking to the Achilles tendon on your right heel, which you’ve been mollycoddling long enough — for months, in fact! You’ve caused me no end of frustration, you calmly explain, trying to not betray the bitterness in your heart. It’s always three steps forward, two steps back with you, isn’t it? I took you to run in Rockport, Massachusetts and then to Anacortes, Washington — clear across the continent. Now we’re in sun splashed, world-famous Sun Valley and still you persist in…

You see a small park, a father and two small children, a water fountain. You stop, take a drink and throw some water on your face. Nearby is a large plaque that tells the origin story of Sun Valley.

Early in the twentieth century, the grotesquely rich chairman of Union Pacific Railroad, Averell Harriman, was disturbed that so many American millionaires were spending their money in the Alps — money that could be his! And so he deputized Count Felix Schaffgotsch, an Austrian-Bohemian nobleman who knew a thing or two about skiing, to find the ideal spot for America’s first destination ski resort. The count had his instructions: The resort had to be well away from any large city, to ensure that the developer, who conveniently and not incidentally also owned railways — the only dependable way of getting into high country in winter — would be doubly rewarded.

The count visited dozens of places across the United States. None of them seemed exactly right, and so he gave up. But then, just as he was packing for home, a telegram summoned him to Idaho.

Fine, one last look.

The count toured up and down the area until he arrived where the resort now stands. He pronounced Sun Valley perfect. Soon after opening in December, 1936, Sun Valley became famous for its tycoons and Hollywood stars — Marilyn, Humphrey, Lucille, they all came.

You won’t find any ski hills named after the count. Inside the resort, you’ll search in vain for the oak-panelled Schaffgotsch Alcove, or even a Schaffgotsch baba au rhum on the dessert menu. Not a trace of the count survives by way of commemoration. Nor does the plaque mention why.

But later on, you discover the reason. The count — urbane, dashing, a champion talker — was also a fervent Nazi. He served in the Waffen SS with great distinction, and was killed in action in Belarus, in 1942.

As I pick up my pace, my heart lifts, emptied of bitterness. Fresh blacktop as far as the eye can see. The path littered with grey-green grasshoppers. Many of them lie dead, crushed by bikes. The live ones pivot as they sense my approach, prepare their jump.

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A last look at Silver Creek. 

Coffee culture in Anacortes

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On the west coast, the coffee culture is rich, full bodied and intense. They know their coffee, and they like it. Which calls into question why Starbucks remains in business in these here parts. Maybe they’re rooting for the home team that conquered the world.

On our first trip to Washington State, years ago, we toured the Olympic Peninsula, which remains one of the great experiences of my life. Gargantuan cedars and dripping rainforests and vast thundering beaches strewn with boulders and the bleached bones of dinosaurs.

At the tail end of that trip (or was it near the beginning?), in the middle of nowhere, we found ourselves driving through a Native reservation and were struck by the sight of a dilapidated roadside trailer parked on a patch of gravel. Espresso, declared a hand-painted sign. How could we resist?

In the shadowed interior, dreamcatchers hung from the plywood ceiling, posters of Native warriors were scotch taped to the corrugated tin walls. A Native girl, no more than fifteen, reluctantly rose from her stool. She was surly in the way of all fourteen-year-olds who know their time could be better spent at the mall with her pals.

Behind her stood a gleaming, brand new Italian monster at full pressure. We ordered a double espresso, a cappuccino and biscotti, all of them excellent.

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On our first trip to Anacortes, right outside this coffee kiosk, on a Sunday morning, the middle-aged and elderly exercised their right to free speech by pacing back and forth on opposite sides of the street and holding up signs. SUPPORT OUR TROOPS was the argument on one side, MAKE LOVE, NOT WAR on the other side.
This was in 2014, when the idea of a Trump presidency would have elicited laughter on both sides of the street. In Anacortes, the exercise in free speech continues every Sunday morning.
Plywood lookout
Anacortes Veneer, which donated this slice of Douglas Fir, went under generations ago, but the roadside lookout remains. I went behind some bushes for a much-needed pee, and to get a look at the view. I was promised Fidalgo Bay in the foreground, where millions of logs were once assembled for the devouring sawmills, and Mount Baker, in its snowy cap and shawl, in the distance. But there was nothing. Just an impenetrable screen of blackberry bushes and evergreens. Revenge of the trees.

Greek coffee in Park Ex

Coffee culture is equally strong among Greeks, where it’s an essential mid-afternoon social lubricant, usually accompanied with several packs of cigarettes.

I often watched my mother read people’s fortunes in their coffee cups. Among Greeks, this is quite common. You simply turn your empty demitasse upside down on its saucer for a few minutes, to allow the coffee grounds to slide down the sides. The soothsayer (i.e. my mother) picks up the cup, turns it slowly in her hand, and closes one eye in a manner freighted with meaning.

I watched her do it plenty of times, and I could never tell if she was conning the neighbours or herself. According to her, the coffee patterns revealed everything: financial windfalls, a death in the Old Country, a meddlesome in-law, a hat trick by Jean Beliveau. Once, in the delicate language employed by adults in the presence of children, she suggested that a baby had been taken before its time. The young woman whose fortune was being told burst into tears.

My mother showed me how. It’s easy, like lying on your back, having a smoke and staring at the clouds. There goes Goofy, followed by Dolly Parton, and, bringing up the rear, a roast turkey.

Tracks
Every hour or so, a freight train blasted out of a hole in the mountain and, after about a mile, enter an identical hole in the next mountain. Right in the middle, beside the railroad tracks, is Taylor’s. Mud flats as far as the eye can see and acres of oyster beds. People come from miles around for trays of oysters and buckets of beer. As they eat, their kids wander into the mud flats and sink up to their knees. Their dads, cursing with every step, come to the rescue, tugging skinny limbs from the sucking mud.
Koreans
The best spots at Taylor’s, equipped with barbecues and picnic tables, are commandeered by Asians with piles of children. They toast slices of bread and grill the oysters, picking up the meat with chopsticks and slurping from the shells.
Mini lighthouse
A short drive away lies a dot on the map called Edison. If you’re in the area in February, you can enjoy the Edison Chicken Parade. “People and poultry flock to Edison to participate in this annual parade,” declares the local guidebook. Alas, the date for this year’s Chicken Parade has “yet to be determined.”
Western marine
Efthemios Demopoulos emigrated to the United States in 1907 and soon founded Anacortes Junk Company, later rechristened Marine Supply and Hardware Company, the oldest continuously operating hardware store west of the Mississippi. He did such a roaring trade with commercial boats, that in 1956 he donated ten city blocks to Anacortes. On our first visit, I saw an attenuated descendant sitting behind a desk and surveying his vast emporium of useful and useless ware. The place had definitely come down. It also pandered to tourists such as myself. On this last visit, I asked about the founding family. The descendant sold up three years ago, I was told. But inside, in the older part of the store, glows a small glass shrine to Efthemios.
Deadsville
At dusk and especially on Sunday evenings, Anacortes is Nowheresville, U.S.A. We like places just like this — endlessly fascinating in their particularity and eccentricity. It’s our third trip to Anacortes. We’ll be back.