Arezzo again 2013-10-08 001Arezzo, situated within striking distance of Firenze, Perugia, Siena, and numerous small hill towns like Cortona, is the provincial capitol of Toscana.  Arezzo is different from many towns in Toscana: no sweeping views, no fresco colored villas with red tile roofs as far as the eye can see. It’s not on a river, however both the Arno and the Tiber originate north of Arezzo in the hills and pass through the area. It sits on a low hill in the Clanis valley.  It’s not famous for leather goods, food, wine, famous museums and great restaurants but it has all of these things. I like it–a lot.

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The men and women of Arezzo are proud of their Etruscan roots. Their home town was one of twelve Etruscan cities. The statue pictured a above is Etruscan and can be viewed in the archeology museum. One of the great surviving pieces of Etruscan art was discovered in Arezzo in 1553 CE when the city walls were being rebuilt. This amazing bronze statue of the chimera dates to the beginning of the 4th BCE. It resides today in Firenze because Cosimo de Medici appropriated it for his collection in the Pitti Palace and never returned it. The chimera is a mythical beast with the head and body of a lion, a goat’s head coming out of its back, and a long tail that ends with a snake’s head! It is the mascot of Arezzo. I imagine if the Etruscans wanted to scare you into submission threatening an attacck from the chimera would do the trick!

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St. Mary Magdalene by della Francesca

Below: partial view of The Annunciation by della Francesca

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Arezzo today is home to hard working people who take great pride in their history and the artists and writers who lived and worked in Arezzo. Those artists include della Francesca, Signorelli, Cimabue, Angelico and others. Arezzo was the birthplace of Petrarch and Giorgio Vasari. Despite the difficulties of funding public works, the city is restoring the Teatro Petrarca. The Vasari home is now a beautiful museum with splendid painted walls and ceilings. They are also hard at work excavating the Roman amphitheater and renovating the adjacent Archaeology Museum.

Vasari home in Arezzo
Vasari home in Arezzo

Arezzo does not live for tourists; it welcomes them and you see groups wandering around the sites every day.  Arezzo does live for antiques.  It has a regional antique show once a month and a really big one once a year.  There are antique shops everywhere you look within the historic center.  The dealers are friendly and the goods they’re selling are interesting.

First day of Antique Fair--rain
First day of Antique Fair–rain

The post office will help with paperwork and information about how to prepare your box for shipping. The shipping cost for one very heavy box (4’x2’x2′) and a flat box (8″x3’x4′) cost about $350. There is an amazing Mail Box entrepreneur in new Arezzo who’ll take care of the more delicate or valuable items. It’s costly as they go by air but they will probably get home in one piece!

Next door to Corte de Re where we stayed, you’ll find the shops of two affable antiques dealers, Gianni and Marco. They were very helpful to us. Marco specializes in chandeliers. I was charmed by a wall painting of a pig, sheep, and bull in parade in his shop. He told me the shop was once a butcher’s. The animals are dressed for the main event–they are, or course, the main event!

Former butcher shop not antique shop
Former butcher shop now an antique shop

During our two week stay in Arezzo we lived in a building 500 years old surrounded by ruins and walls dating to the Etruscan period. It was built into the city wall over 500 years ago. Franca, the owner of Corte de Re is a delightful woman who delivers a terrific breakfast to your room and has information about anything you might want or need. Her home is one hill over from Arezzo. She lives there with her family and 400 olive trees. If you’re really nice, you might go home with a bottle of her oil.

After the Romans vanquished, or absorbed the Etruscans, Arezzo remained an important city. It was well situated to defend Rome against invaders from the north and east. Arezzo continued to flourish during the middle ages and into the Renaissance. There are many buildings in the city which date from medieval time.  Georgio Vasari was born in Arezzo down the street from our room at the Corte. The arcade that fronts the Piazza Grande was designed by Vasari.

 Vasara's Arcade

Vasari’s Arcade

The Medicis and other famous Florentine families vied for Arezzo and in fact did own and rule over it for a period of time.  You can walk around the fort the Medici family built and see the famous shield with balls that was the Medici family insignia on the walls of major buildings. Today’s cemetery is situated outside of and up against those fortress walls. It may well have been a cemetery for hundreds of years but we saw no trace of ancient grave sites when we walked around it.

Arezzo Cemetery
Arezzo Cemetery

We ate well and inexpensively in Arezzo. One of our favorites places is La Torre di Gnicche. It is well known for the typical toscana tomato and bread soup which is rich and thick. Always remember to drizzle olive oil on the top–for that matter olive oil goes on everything from soup to pizza.

Another favorite place was Trattoria Mazzoni which we stumbled into returning from the Vasari house. It’s located away from the Piazza Grande where we were staying. The trattoria has been in the family since the father of the current owner (who must be 70 years old), started it. He minds the grocery next door. All the fruits and veggies for your dinner come directly from his grocery to the kitchen to your table. The hostess is Mrs. Mazzoni, the chef is their daughter and the waiters are their sons! (The younger son, Marco, has decided to try another profession at the moment.) We ate there about five times and on our last visit we told #1 son we were leaving for home. The entire family gathered to wish us goodbye. It was a lovely moment.

Mariano’s, was another favorite. It’s located off the Pza. Grande on via di Pescaja. Mariano, the chef, and his partner, Gianfranco, serve fabulous cuisine. The food is delicious especially the pizza. Both men are witty and charming. Mariano hales from Napoli; Gianfranco from Calabria. I believe the Neopolitano influence is very much present in the pizza. If you’re lucky and it’s not too busy, Gianfranco will sit down at your table and schmooze.

We indulged ourselve–too frequently for our respective waistlines–on terrific coffee and pastries at Stefano’s. After a hard day touring you can stop in for proseco and mini pizze and a bowl of big green olives. Massimo and Simone, the owners, work from 8:30 – 8:30 every day but Wednesday! Hard to believe!

Massimo at the till at Stefano's
Massimo at the till at Stefano’s

Our go-to place for panini, cheese, and wine was Bodega di Gnicche. The owner makes the best sandwiches. She has a hand-picked unusual selection of cheeses. You simply cannot get these cheeses in the U.S. They are regional and made in small amounts by locals. One of my favorites was a soft gorgonzola that was embedded with pistachio nuts. You can sit in her little place with a glass of wine; eat, talk, watch the people on the piazza. I have never seen anyone work as hard as she did on the weekend of the big antique fair. She must have made a hundred panini each one hand made to order on her fresh delicious bread.

If this isn’t enough, there is great shopping and great prices on via d’Italia and via Cavour! We each treated ourselves to a new something: Ken a dynamite sports jacket and brilliant scarf, and for moi, a dazzling sweater with lace down the back and peeking out around the bottom of the sweater. Arezzo really is a marvelous place to stay and experience authentic Italian life.

Great shoes!
Great shoes!

A Cautionary Tale or Two or Three

View of Firenze from Villa Barzini
View of Firenze from Villa Barzini

Most of my blogs have focused on the physical beauty of the cities and the land, or the art or the history of all the places we’ve seen, but before you all book your tickets. I want to give you a heads up.

The European Union has erased long-time state boundaries.  There is almost unlimited possibility to move from country to country with or without means of support or income.  Over the past several years, thousands of individuals have left the poor and less developed countries in eastern Europe and Africa and the middle east and moved to Italy, France, Belgium, Scandanavia and so on.

During our trip we have had serious and passionate conversations with native Europeans none of whom could be labeled “racist.” They are uniformly very unhappy about two things: taxes and the vast influx of people from the “east” and from Africa who have no skills and no job when they arrive.

Sadly, at least in Italy, we are told there is no social service structure which would ease the transition of the immigrant and assist with acculturation: no food banks, job training, language instruction, help with housing, and so on.  I don’t know if the foreigner is eligible for health care or public education for their children either. Like most immigrants, the newcomers rely upon friends, family and often unsavory lines of work to get them money for a place to sleep and something to eat.

Italians speak of three groups: those from Africa, the Albanians, and the Pakistanis. They identify the Africans as those who commit violent crime (muggings, break-ins, etc), they say the Albanians operate in trained, organized gangs to steal and pick pocket, and the Pakistanis sell roses at every restaurant, trattoria, and bodega all day every day, or peddle packets of tissues outside church doors, and then there are just the plain old fashioned panhandlers, usually with a dog, that can be found all over the world including Seattle.

Lesson 1.
So we take the train to Firenze from Arezzo. It costs about $15 for two round trip tickets. Takes about an hour. We step off the train both with backpacks. Nothing in mine but water, an umbrella, a coat and scarf. I do have a small handbag that goes over my head and straps across my chest with my credit cards, driver’s license, some money, and my Iphone. Ken has his Ipad, Iphone, his wallet, his change purse, and an umbrella in his backpack.

I suppose we look healthy and prosperous (possible elderly); we don’t look Italian. We don’t look Japanese or Chinese. Could be German? No, Ken has on sneakers and a Northface jacket. French? No, Northface jacket and Nikes. American? Sure. By appearances alone we have become targets but we’re not thinking about that at all. We sit on a bench and pour over the map.

Santa Maria Novella train station is very crowded. Firenze is a major hub for tourists and students visiting the art and the monuments; Dan Brown fans, and tour groups. The bench is a rare find and very crowded. Lot’s of jostling at our backs; I move my backpack to my lap. Ken remarks on how crowded it is and suggests we move on. We’re heading over the Arno and up the hill to an art show at Villa Barzini near the Boboli Garden. The streets are so crowded that we decide not to walk across the city but to take a taxi up the hill and spend our time and energy on the exhibit.

The taxi takes us to Barzini and when it stops Ken reaches for his wallet and can’t find it. I pay the taxi driver. We get out, Ken begins to pull everything out of his pack, checks all his pockets, finds his Iphone and his Ipad but no wallet or change purse having put them both in the outside small zipper pocket on the backpack. Gone! He is devastated.

He freaks out! Calls to the bank, the cards are blocked–already having been used up to the daily limit. How? We don’t know. Ken spends two hours in the police station at the train. I return to Arezzo. He returns to Arezzo later with a written police report. I don’t think it means a thing to anyone but Ken felt it worth doing. More hours on the phone. Business account must also be blocked. Yikes!

We’ve told this story to every Italian we know. They universally respond that organized gangs of eastern Europeans are responsible and that they are very skilled. Theft and pick pocketing is constant and the police cannot do anything about it. So DO keep your valuables strapped to your body and leave your passport in a safe place in your room.

Lesson 2.
Arriving at the Ravenna train station with all our luggage (two suitcases–one large and heavy–and a small roll-aboard with laptop–two packbacks and two handbags. We’re huffing and puffing and preparing to go down the stairs to take the “tunnel” to the correct Arezzo-bound binario. There are no lifts. (If there is one, it’s usually out of order.) Easy, kinda’, to bump the suitcases down the marble stairs. (By the way, Ken can’t lift or carry anything heavy.) In a flash, a young man steps up to us and says something in some language I cannot understand but by gesture indicates he’ll help us. He quickly takes all the suitcases. He’s about my height but obviously strong. He walks very quickly up two flights of stairs to the platform and then deciphers the schedule and goes to the correct binario. I’ve kept up with him–a little concerned about the small roll-aboard with the MacBook inside–and stand with him. I have three euros in my hand to give him. Ken arrives and the guy turns to Ken and holds out his hand and says 50 euros (that’s about $65)!! We both laugh; the guy’s not laughing at all. In fact, he looks quite threatening. Ken adds three more euros to mine and firmly says “This is it. Six euros.” The guy looks furious and continues to demand 50 euros. We remain adamant. He eventually walks away but looks very angry. Was it all an act? Who knows. We certainly planned to tip him and we did (about $13). So don’t enter into a contract without stating the terms before you allow anyone control over your possessions.

Lesson 3.
We’ve learned that there is no way to rely on “common sense.” By definition, customs common to your culture are just that “common in your culture.” That’s very tough to internalize because you think “Well, I’ll just use my common sense to (fill in the blank).

Very few apartments or B&B’s provide a washer, never mind a dryer. Electricity is VERY expensive. By the time we got to Arezzo we had so much dirty laundry the bidet could no longer handle the job of wash tub, so we asked where a laundry was. We were directed to a combination laundry and cleaners. We left a pile of laundry and a few pieces to be dry cleaned. Our land lady called the owners and asked them to expedite. Three days later, having worn the same clothes every day, I picked everything up, paid the 70E ($87)–after I got up off the floor–and staggered to our B&B.

When Ken got in he was delighted to see the cleaning and then opened up the laundry which was packaged in a tightly sealed plastic bag. He nearly fainted. Everything was perfumed. I don’t mean just a light whiff, I mean PERFUME1 The underwear, socks, jeans, shirts and so on reeked of cheap perfume! Our sinuses began to swell and Ken broke out in hives. Back it all went into the bag to be delivered to the laundry the next day for a redo. Did the perfume smell go away–not entirely.

Guess what, all laundries perfume everything, we’re told. “Why didn’t you say, no perfume?) “Gee,” we say, “common sense would indicate that many people have fragrance allergies so never perfume unless asked to do so.” Wrong! We can only assume that Italians have no allergies to fragrance.

So always clarify especially if you’re going to be paying for something. If you don’t speak the language, get a translation app or a native speaker!

All this said, we’ve had a great trip and almost everything has been wonderful!