Procida: Beauty and love in the Bay of Naples

Ten miles north of Capri, Procida is only 1.6 square miles with 12,000 people. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Ten miles north of Capri, Procida is only 1.6 square miles with 12,000 people. Photo by Marina Pascucci

(Director’s note: I’m traveling. Below is a re-posting of a blog from two years ago.)

PROCIDA, Italy — Italy has an innocence that can be forgotten when spending too much time in a city. Italy’s magic is in its sounds, colors and tastes. It’s not in its wealth or innovation, technology or military. It’s not the United States. It’s better, at least the lifestyle is.

Peel away the first layer of culture and see. Look past Rome and its monuments, Venice and its canals, Florence and its museums. You’ll see an Italy you dream about when you grind through your 10th straight day at the office or daydream after an old Italian romantic movie. It’s an Italy where villagers sit at sun-splashed outdoor cafes and talk about nothing, where fishermen mend nets on a quiet harbor, where boys play soccer in narrow, cobblestone alleys, where the smell of grilled fish and garlic permeate the air and where men have nothing better to do but fall in love.

It’s where I am right now.

The island of Procida doesn’t get much play outside Europe. The way it’s overshadowed by Capri 10 miles to the south, Capri might as well be Australia. But Procida (pronounced PRO-chee-duh) holds its own with Italians who see Capri as I do: an Italian theme park with better wine. Procida doesn’t have Capri’s vistas — and Capri’s do meet the hype — but it does have an Italian soul.

It’s why I took my girlfriend, the lovely and talented Marina Pascucci, to Procida for our two-year anniversary. She’s a Roman for Romans, a street-smart, third-generation Roman whom I can read like a Dante novel just by watching her hand gestures. But in Procida she softens. We both melted into the island culture like provolone on a pizza. Whether it was sitting on a marina sipping cold drinks or strolling the sandy beach or dining on ravioli so sensual we nearly forgot the gorgeous view of the harbor lights below us, Procida turned us into bit players in a romance novel.

Marina had never been to Procida. She’d only heard of it. She heard it was the anti-Capri, the place you go to get into Italy’s beauty without the crowds and remind yourself why you live in this gorgeous country.

There's not a lot to do on Procida. So? Photo by Marina Pascucci

There’s not a lot to do on Procida. So? Photo by Marina Pascucci


It’s shocking, really, that she was also on her maiden visit. Procida is so easy to reach from Rome. We took a 70-minute train ride to Naples, a short cab ride to the ferry dock and a 30-minute hydroplane to the island. Another taxi through the windy streets up Procida’s hill took us to a hotel right out of Italian Dreams magazine, if there was such a thing.

The four-star Albergo La Vigna is a combination spa, vineyard, garden and lookout over the beautiful Gulf of Naples. Our room opened up to a big courtyard with a little cocktail table and two chairs looking out over the sea. The courtyard abutted a big garden where paths lead under grape vineyards and past flowers of orange, yellow, pink and white. A short stroll leads to a fence with a spectacular sea view, made even more comfortable by the small table and two chairs, perfect for a bottle of wine at sunset.

Breakfast at La Vigna. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Breakfast at La Vigna. Photo by Marina Pascucci


However, La Vigna’s big selling point is its spa. Twice we went to the front desk and blocked off an hour for ourselves to enjoy a private Jacuzzi and a Turkish steambath, topped with lounging on wicker lanais chairs and a cup of tea.

But we don’t travel to sit in hotels. It’s just that there isn’t a lot to do on Procida. That’s the point. The island is 1.6 square miles and has 12,000 people. You take in Procida from a seat on the sea. You drink it in as a chaser behind the Campania region’s delicious wines. After checking in and catching a breath after seeing the view from above, we descended the steep staircase from our village to Marina Corricella.

Couples can reserve La Vigna's spa for themselves. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Couples can reserve La Vigna’s spa for themselves. Photo by Marina Pascucci


For an idea of how idyllic Italian is this marina, they filmed “Il Postino” here. If you don’t know it, you should if you dream of Italy. It’s the 1994 film about a mailman (“postino” in Italian) named Mario who falls in love with a beautiful woman but doesn’t know how to get her to notice him. During his daily deliveries to the famed, exiled Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, he asks him for the right words to say. The movie won the 1995 Oscar for Best Music and was nominated for Best Actor, Best Director and Best Picture. Not Best Foreign Film. Best Picture.

The film is set in 1950 but today Procida looks pretty much the same. The pink building where Mario sits contemplating life without love is still there. Marina and I walked past it as we made our first stroll down the marina. It’s now a restaurant, christened La Locanda del Postino. It’s decorated inside with photos from the movie and star Massimo Troisi, who put off heart surgery to make the movie and after the last day of filming died of a heart attack. The building is one of a cascade of pastel buildings colored turquoise, green, yellow, white and orange. It’s like walking past a rainbow.

"Il Postino," starring Massimo Troisi and Maria Grazia Cucinotta, was filmed in Procida and nominated for Best Picture in 1995. Photo by Marina Pascucci

“Il Postino,” starring Massimo Troisi and Maria Grazia Cucinotta, was filmed in Procida and nominated for Best Picture in 1995. Photo by Marina Pascucci


We took a seat at one of the many seaside restaurants with views of small boats bobbing up and down on the water. Fuego has red tablecloths and a touch of elegance but it’s definitely unpretentious, with pizzas priced at 4-8 euros. And it’s all Neapolitan-style pizza with the thicker crust featuring slightly burned edges from the wood-fire ovens that cook mankind’s favorite food to perfection. I had a lovely pizza of sausage, provolone cheese, cherry tomatoes, chili pepper and — and a first for me — a sprinkling of cream.

Next to us commandeering a long table were 26 Brits. They’ve worked for NATO in Naples for the last three years. Procida is their company getaway.

If food is big in Italy, it’s even bigger on the islands where seafood reigns supreme at cheap prices the cities can’t approach. In Procida, mussels fill entire soup bowls as appetizers. Calamari comes as thick as lobster tails. Shrimp pepper everything from salads to pasta. They’re on nearly every menu with interesting twists throughout the island, such as Crescenzo on the beach where I had the mezzo paccheri polpo and pecorino: thick, halved macaroni with octopus and pecorino cheese.

A night out in Procida.

A night out in Procida.


We had our first dinner at La Lampara, so romantic the tables should have blankets instead of napkins. It’s on the limestone cliff connecting the marina to the piazza above. Every table on the covered patio has a gorgeous view of the gently curving marina. The marina lights danced off the water, bathing the boats in soft gold.

La Lampara defies my theory that the better the view, the worse the food. My ravioli al sapore di mare (seafood ravioli) was ravioli stuffed with a ground mix of shrimp and ricotta cheese. It tasted like a tangy shrimp cocktail. It was simply the best ravioli I’ve had in a country that treats ravioli as works of art. Chased with a tiramisu sprinkled with lemon and a half carafe of local Falanghina Benevento red wine, La Lampara moved into my top five favorite restaurants in Italy.

Mussels and tiramisu with lemon at La Lampara.

Mussels and tiramisu with lemon at La Lampara.


After one day, I could see how Mario fell in love here. Procida drowns the senses with flavors and sights but also sounds. At one point in “Il Postino,” Mario records the sea lapping against the beach as part of a tape he makes of the sounds of Procida. I heard similar sounds the next day when we took a bus from the port to the long beach on the north end of the island. The bus took us through the heart of Procida few stop and experience. Little villages with names like L’Olmo and San Antonio and Centane had the same pastel colors lining the streets. Flowers were everywhere: on corners, on balconies, in windows.

We walked on the beach’s fine brown sand and I repelled Italian convention by walking into the dark blue sea in early May. Then I quickly walked out. It’s too cold to swim. Locals told me it’s swimmable from June through September. But the brilliant weather made it perfect for a completely suitable way to spend an afternoon in Italy: sitting on a beach towel and watching seagulls hunt for fish.

Me and Marina at Chalet Vicidomini.

Me and Marina at Chalet Vicidomini.


We walked along the boardwalk to the enclosed Marina Chiaiolella where we settled in at Chalet Vicidomini, a simple but romantic snack bar right on the marina. I had a cold beer and Marina had a bitter as we sat in the sun and stared out at the modest boats bobbing up and down in the water. This is the shoulder season, meaning the local joints are populated by Neapolitans, boat people and one couple from Rome: us.
Nowhere in Italy are lemons better than in Procida's Campania region. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Nowhere in Italy are lemons better than in Procida’s Campania region. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Locals say that Italy’s biggest recession since World War II hasn’t had an effect here. Advanced technology drove away its once-thriving shipbuilding industry in the 18th century and tourism has taken over what was once their biggest business: law enforcement. Hanging like a dead dragon nearly 300 feet up the cliff from Marina Corricella is an abandoned prison. Palazzo d’Avalos was built in 1500 for Cardinal Innico d’Avalos, but in 1830 it was converted into a prison and stayed active for more than 150 years. It finally closed in 1988 for the occasional guided tour but not before incarcerating tens of thousands of criminals and hundreds of guards.
This prison upon the cliff operated from 1830-1988. Photo by Marina Pascucci

This prison upon the cliff operated from 1830-1988. Photo by Marina Pascucci


The prison never appeared in “Il Postino” but looking at the boarded up prison windows, at least the prisoners had good views. You can’t miss its omnipresence as you climb the steep road to get the great views of the marina. But like the rest of the island, the prison is now at peace.

If you do come to Procida, here’s a tip: Return to Naples with enough time to eat at Da Michele. If you come to Italy merely to try authentic Italian pizza, Da Michele is a must. Started in 1870, it’s considered Italy’s first pizzeria. It’s also considered the best. Think about that. Think about how many pizzerias there are in Italy. That’s like being the best pub in Ireland.

The crowd waiting to get in at Da Michele.

The crowd waiting to get in at Da Michele.


I’d been there twice and wrote in my old traveling food column at The Denver Post that it was my favorite pizzeria in Italy. It still is. Just don’t expect ambiance or variety. Those left town generations ago. We arrived with our luggage after about a 15-minute walk from Naples’ ferry dock. As usual, a mob waited outside to get in. I took a number that had about 30 people ahead of us.
Me and my margherita. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Me and my margherita. Photo by Marina Pascucci


But the beauty of Da Michele is its simplicity. It only makes two pizzas: margherita (marinara sauce, provolone cheese and a sprig of basil) and marinara (marinara tomato sauce). That’s it. They’re 4-5 euros, depending on the size. Thus, it’s not like in the U.S. where they spend 15 minutes topping pizzas with everything from Sarawak pepper to a ‘67 Chevy. Our number was called in only 30 minutes.

We took a seat at the same table as another Italian couple. The waiters don’t even bother with menus. One came over and just said, “Margherita?” They came out in five minutes. While I love the healthy aspects of Italian pizza, with the thinner crusts, more natural ingredients, fewer toppings, I’m an American and I do like my meat. Sausage. Guanciale. Prosciutto. I like protein pizzas.

Da Michele opened in Naples in 1870. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Da Michele opened in Naples in 1870. Photo by Marina Pascucci


But at Da Michele, less isn’t just more. It’s the most. The marinara sauce tasted like biting into garden tomatoes. The provolone cheese was so fresh I could’ve dipped bread in it. The best part? The bill for two giant pizzas and two beers in arguably the best pizzeria in Italy and, thus, the world?

Fourteen euros.

Da Michele is also only a 10-minute walk from Naples’ train station. Like Da Michele’s pizzas, life in Italy can be oh, so simple. And Procida is simply the best.

Cycling in Tuscany: Salute! to winery hopping on two wheels

(Director’s note: I’m currently traveling in Central Asia and am running a couple of old armchair travel blogs. This one is from May 2016.)

Few things go better with Tuscany than wine and cycling.

Few things go better with Tuscany than wine and cycling.


MONTERIGGIONI, Italy — I covered pro cycling for 10 years for The Denver Post and one question I asked pro cyclists when I first started was how much do they enjoy the scenery? Every cycling shot I see is of the cyclists cruising past fields filled with sunflowers or along an ocean beach or crisscrossing up a snowcapped mountain range. This is arguably the most beautiful sport in the world. Yet I usually got the same response.

“What scenery?”

Pro cyclists are too occupied jetting down mountains at 65 mph to gaze at green meadows. They’re too stressed trying to manage their final breakaway to ponder a sidewalk cafe in a French village.

We weekend hackers don’t have to worry about that. On my bike ride in Tuscany Tuesday, my biggest stress was which Chianti to buy.

Living in Rome is a cycler’s paradox. Rome is to cycling what Tehran is to nightclubs. It’s one of the least cycling friendly cities in the world. There are no bike paths. The cobblestones are brutal. The drivers are worse. I once wrote a blog about trying to cycle along the Tiber River to Ostia on the sea and wound up in a gypsy camp. Cycling in Phnom Penh is better. However, I’m only a short ride from some of the most beautiful cycling terrain in the world. It’s where grape vines flicker in the sun under emerald green hills. It’s where wildflowers of red, purple and orange line forest roads and lead to quaint villages where wine flows like water and the air smells of cheese and prosciutto.

The Giro d'Italia comes through Castellina in Chianti today.

The Giro d’Italia comes through Castellina in Chianti today.


Cycling in Tuscany is such a remarkable experience it’s almost a cliche. But like all overused terms, the core is truth. On Tuesday I took my first Tuscany bike ride. In Tuscany, cycling takes on a different quality. Wineries dot Tuscany like snowflakes on a ski slope. You can’t ride more than 30 minutes without seeing neat rows of grapevines behind an 18th century house teasing you with outdoor tables and a view of a meadow.

I went with a company called Bike Florence & Tuscany (www.bikeinflorence.com, info@bikeinflorence.com). Piero Didona and his wife, Elena Boscherini, started the company three years ago after Piero ran a bike shop for 20 years. They both have those lean, tanned bodies that are the committed cyclist’s calling cards. This isn’t just a business to them. Cycling is their passion. Piero told me when he’s not leading tours, he’s riding, sometimes up to 100 miles in a day. Riding in Tuscany always appealed to me. But one thought haunted me as I took the dawn train ride 90 minutes from Rome to Florence.

I haven’t even sat on a bike in three years.

This was my first time on a bike in three years.

This was my first time on a bike in three years.


I wrote about cycling but I’m not a cyclist. I always thought cycling is how you go to a 7-Eleven when your car breaks down. Part of my problem stems from riding the same bike I received as my high school graduation present in 1974: a 10-speed Raleigh Grand Prix that weighed just slightly less than my Honda Accord. The bike lock alone could shackle most minimum-security prisons.

Piero told me not to worry. It isn’t difficult. He did offer a pseudo warning.

“You have to be fit,” he said. “Tuscany isn’t flat. Some people think they’re fit because they bike 150 miles per week but they’re riding in Florida. It’s very flat. After the first hill they about die: ‘We don’t have this at home.’”

I wasn’t concerned. After all, if we’re cycling to Tuscan wineries, I’ll find that extra gear.

Florence in the morning mist with the Duomo on the right and the tower in the Palazzo di Vecchio on the left.

Florence in the morning mist with the Duomo on the right and the tower in the Palazzo di Vecchio on the left.


Elena met me at the train station and immediately took me to a spot in Florence I’ve never seen. Piazzale Michelangelo offers a spectacular view of one of the world’s prettiest cities. Florence’s famed brick-domed Duomo stood out through the morning haze over a quilt of red-tiled roofs.To the left was the tower of Palazzo di Vecchio and running below was the Arno River, looking as fresh as a mountain brook in Colorado compared to the filthy Tiber. Florence is so overrun with tourists all year it’s hard to find a quiet spot in the city.

This is one of them.

A young couple from New York met us and we drove up the winding hills to the town of San Donato where we met Piero and a family of five from Chicago. This is where we would start our adventure. As it turns out, I had nothing to worry about. The trip is basically a wine tasting with cycling thrown in. We covered only 13 miles, mostly downhill. We started at 1,800 feet and ended at 600. You do the math.

The view from San Donato.

The view from San Donato.


I didn’t feel bad dressed like I, indeed, was going to the 7-Eleven because my car broke down: baggy beach shorts, red T-shirt and Nikes. Not one of us eight riders had a stitch of Lycra. If you’re into wine and need an excuse to ride a bike again, this is the trip to take.

The entire trip is done in the famed Chianti region which spreads like a wine stain over nearly half of Tuscany. One of the major things I took away from this trip — along with two terrific bottles of wine — is the difference in Chiantis. The Chianti region covers several overlapping areas designated as Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) and Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG). To be labeled a Chianti, a wine must consist of at least 80 percent Sangiovese grapes. And the grapes must come from these regions to guarantee this important DOC or DOCG label on the bottle. If you buy a Chianti without one of those on the label, save it for cooking or your cat.
IMG_4945
Chianti is the pride of Tuscany and one of the prides of Italy. And it is massively popular around the world. Every year this small region produces 8 million cases of wine. Not all are the same. Pay attention and impress your friends at your next dinner party:

Chianti: A simple Chianti is a blend or consists of some grapes found outside the designated regions.

Chianti Classico: The grapes come only from a Chianti sub-region in Chianti’s heartland. Only Chianti from this area can use the black rooster seal (the gallo nero) on the neck of the bottle.

Chianti Reserva: Is aged at least 38 months instead of the usual four to seven. At least one year must be stored in wood.

Chianti Gran Selezione: Made with the very best grapes from the same vineyard as a reserva and stored at least 18 months.

San Donato

San Donato


San Donato is a good place to start. At 1,800 feet, it felt cool despite the beaming sunshine. I strolled through the village which was about 100 meters long. I heard roosters crowing. I saw old men chat in front of a cafe. I looked down from the height over an array of purple wildflowers and saw vineyards and meadows and forests. All I needed was a glass of wine.

The bikes loaned to us were high-end Specialized, the American bike company that’s the top selling bike in Italy. Mine was a 27-gear hybrid that felt like a Maserati after 40 years on my Raleigh. We wheeled down the hill, going just slow enough to take in the incredible green panorama below us. With so few hills, it was like riding through Tuscany in a convertible and at the end of a 20-minute ride one of the best glasses of wine in the world waited for us, not to mention Simone, their assistant, handing out wet towelettes.

The departure from San Donato.

The departure from San Donato.


We came into the town of Castellina in Chianti. Its one main drag is lined with Italian specialty shops ranging from espresso makers to dried risotto to leather belts. A souvenir shop sold Lycra cycling jerseys labeled Chianti Classico in Chianti’s purple color in honor of the Giro d’Italia bike race that’s coming through town today. An underground street has a cozy enoteca and the back entrance to our first wine tasting. I looked at my watch. It was 11 a.m.

“You can’t drink all day if you don’t drink in the morning,” deadpanned one of the riders.

Aleandro , owner of Enoteca Le Volte in Castellina in Chianti.

Aleandro , owner of Enoteca Le Volte in Castellina in Chianti.


Aleandro opened Le Volte Enoteca in 1960 and is still running around the store in his wine apron to this day. The brick, arched store smelled of cheese and cinghiale, the wild boar that are as plentiful in Chianti as corkscrews. Le Volte is such a fine store, it serves a bottle of balsamic vinegar from Modena on a gold pillow in a wooden case for 145 euros.

Aleandro’s burly French assistant, Gilles Kehren, started us off with a Vernaccia, the famed white wine from San Gimignano, the Tuscan town known worldwide for its massive towers. It’s as good a white wine produced in Tuscany and one overlooked by those drowning themselves in Chiantis and Montepulcianos.

Gilles Kehren and the Vernaccia.

Gilles Kehren and the Vernaccia.


I fell for a wine I’d never heard of: the Bolgheri. The Bolgheri Superiore is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. It’s deep, rich and full bodied and well worth the 31.50 euro retail. Giles plied us with slivers of cinghiale and pork sausage on bread and we were ready to head back down the hill.

We wound down the hill over some lovely long stretches of flat road where each turn offered new villages in the distance to see. We could even see San Donato high above us but just below us around the next turn was our destination.

The road to Monteriggioni.

The road to Monteriggioni.


Lornano is a winery/agriturismo outside the town of Monteriggioni. An agriturismo is like a villa but in a farmhouse. I took one look after walking down the gravel path and immediately wanted a reservation for June. A sparkling turquoise swimming pool overlooked the rolling green Tuscan countryside. A small cast iron table and two chairs stood on a patio lined with vines, shrubs and white flowers. The stone buildings housing the rooms looked like something Leonardo Da Vinci may have stayed in while resting from painting Madonnas.

And inside the main quarters were barrels upon barrels of some of the best wine in the world.

The pool at Lornano argriturismo and winery.

The pool at Lornano argriturismo and winery.


Angioletta took us into the crispy cool storage areas where she explained the fermentation process. She showed us a glass designed by Michelangelo that takes the excess gas from the wine barrels. We had tastings of a whole array of Chiantis which became extraordinarily educational for someone like me who has made wine one of my four major food groups. Living in Rome, Chianti has become the table wine I get when I don’t want to spend money on something better.
Chianti Classico at Lornano.

Chianti Classico at Lornano.


But in Tuscany, especially at Lornano, I re-fell in love with Chianti. The first Chianti Classico I had, a 2012, was 100 percent Sangiovese and absolutely terrific. Rich enough to serve with spicy Italian sausage but light enough to drink with crackers and cheese. It was an absolute steal at 19 euros.

I tried the Chianti Gran Selezione. Its classy gold label well represented its 62-euro price tag but I’m not discriminatory enough — or rich enough — to tell much of a difference. All I could think of was sipping that bottle of Chianti Classico in June, poolside with my girlfriend, Marina, looking down at rural Tuscany.

I had to wake from my daydreaming to get back on my bike for our last stretch. This one consisted of three little hills that wouldn’t rate a Category 5 on the Giro’s Cat 1-5 mountain chart (5 being the easiest) but did rate a warning from Piero that anyone not feeling up for it can ride in the chase car. One woman did. The rest plowed along. As I rested at the top of the rise after barely breathing hard — more from the ease of the three climbs on my two-wheeled Maserati than any fitness — two women were walking their bikes uphill.

Piazza in Monteriggioni.

Piazza in Monteriggioni.


They managed to make it to the village of Monteriggioni, a medieval walled town founded in 1215 and mentioned in Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” It’s still populated by only 42 people. Its piazza, inside 1,870 feet of walls, houses a gargantuan Romanesque church and Antico Travaglio, a cute trattoria where we sat in an enclosed courtyard. Over a bowl of papperdelle cinghiale, one of the trademark dishes of Tuscany, I asked Piero about the massive popularity of cycling in Tuscany. It is as romantic as it sounds.
Pappardelle cinghiale.

Pappardelle cinghiale.


“Now cycling is becoming more popular,” he said. “More people are looking for beautiful places to express themselves. More tourists are bikers.” His company runs bike tours 12 months a year and have all levels of routes, including some similar to the Giro stages for the serious masochists.

We went upstairs to our last wine tasting. Monte Chiaro Terre della Grigia is in the first building in town, built nearly 1,000 years ago. Seila Bruschi is a wildly enthusiastic blonde sales manager who gave us the rundown. “See that church?” she said pointing to the one across the street before pointing around the store. “This is my church.”

Seila Bruschi with the Malvesia Nera.

Seila Bruschi with the Malvesia Nera.


She had me try a Malvesia Nera. It’s 100 percent Pinot Noir, exactly the same as my native Oregon which boasts — and I agree — the best Pinot in the world. The Malvasia was damn close. Adding chunks of Chianti-induced pecorino, I knew what I’d have on my terrace the next time I got home.

Cycling in Tuscany. It was more fun exercise than a workout but the views were only surpassed by the wines. The biggest surprise wasn’t the ease of the cycling but the reasonable prices of the world-renowned wines. Next time I see a pro cyclist I know what I’m going to tell him.

You have no idea what you’ve been missing.

Nephew’s visit to Roma-Juventus adds perspective to U.S. soccer woes

Me and my nephew, Spencer Treffry, the Oregon High School Soccer Player of the Year in 2008, at Sunday’s Roma-Juventus match in Olympic Stadium.


My nephew from California and his girlfriend are staying at my place in Rome for a week, mixing in some wine, pasta and art with his passion for soccer. His first European soccer match was Barcelona’s 3-0 win over Liverpool in the Champions League semifinals May 1 and then the couple joined Marina and me for Roma’s 2-0 win over evil Juventus Sunday night. He has nearly worn out his cell video of Lionel Messi’s epic free kick goal. I think he may have slept Sunday night wearing his new AS Roma scarf.

We both quasi represent the world’s two biggest soccer disappointments. Neither the United States nor Italy qualified for last year’s World Cup, ending a string of 21 combined straight appearances. However, Italy has won four World Cups. Last year’s pratfall is considered a blip on its historical radar.

But the U.S. remains a sport-wide mystery. Despite 325 million people, a rich federation, a successful pro league and a sport that has exploded at the youth level since the 1970s, the U.S. has only gone as far as the World Cup quarterfinals once. Last year, it didn’t even qualify despite playing in CONCACAF, world soccer’s equivalent to a sunset stroll.

My nephew, Spencer Treffry, has qualified insight into the problem. At 28, he was a product of the U.S.’ elite Olympic Development Program and saw first hand the problems the U.S. has had and why it hasn’t caught up with Europe’s elite. He started playing in kindergarten, made traveling teams when he became old enough and developed into the Oregon State Player of the Year in 2008, leading Eugene’s Churchill High to the state title. Deemed too thin (he was a wispy 5-foot-10, 120 pounds) for a college scholarship, he continued playing club ball at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo and continues playing city league soccer today around their home in Pismo Beach, California.

As he grew up, I tweaked his interest in world soccer by sending him jerseys during my various travels, from the Brazil national team to Zenit of St. Petersburg, Russia. He even has one from Togo, bought in Munich when I covered the 2006 World Cup. His Palermo jersey was always one of his most popular, due to its pink color and his security in his own manhood.

The U.S.’ biggest problem, he says, isn’t at the national level where it is on its fourth coach in three years. It’s at the youth level where he saw first hand the differences between the American and European approaches.

“I was lucky to have some good coaches growing up, but most people don’t,” he said. “Most youth coaches in the U.S. are just dads. They played baseball, football, basketball and their second grader needs a soccer coach. So they’re out there running kids around and making sure everyone’s having fun, but they have no idea how to play the game.”

Growing up in Eugene, his first club coaches were English, he had another from Germany and one American who played professionally in Costa Rica. They knew what they were doing and did more than just roll out the balls. The American introduced them to futsal, soccer played on a miniature field, forcing you to develop skills in tighter spaces. It’s very popular in South America.

“He brought little goals out on the tennis court, brought speakers out and played samba music,” he said. “Bounce to the rhythm and go have fun. You see it in the way Barcelona plays, the way they ping the ball. It’s very natural, very flowy.”

I don’t agree that the problem is too much competition from other sports. The U.S. has the population. When I worked in suburban Seattle I wrote a story about how youth soccer numbers had passed baseball’s in the state of Washington. I quoted officials saying it shows the U.S. would someday be the world’s greatest soccer power.

I wrote that story in 1979.

Even today, 2.5 million boys play youth soccer in the U.S., almost as many as the 3 million who play youth baseball. Croatia made last year’s World Cup finals and its entire population is only 4.1 million. The problem is just because American youths like to play soccer, they don’t necessarily like to watch it.

Spencer didn’t start watching soccer until he reached college.

“I started watching it and my game immediately elevated, absolutely,” he said. “When we were in Florence we were talking to the guy who owned our B&B who’s an artist. He was talking about you immerse yourself in this art community that is Florence and go look at and watch what the masters did and then you go back and try to apply that in your apartment. I always draw these metaphors back to soccer. It’s the same thing. You watch somebody do something and get a spark of an idea and then you go back and apply it.”

The situation in the U.S. is changing. The MLS’ average attendance last year of 21,876 is nearly on a par with Serie A’s 24,767. It has expanded to 24 teams and each club must now have its own youth academy. Even the national team has gone 3 wins, 1 tie and no losses in friendlies under new coach Gregg Berhalter.

NBC has the English Premier League contract but even in Spencer’s soccer-crazed area of California’s Central Coast, he couldn’t find the Real Madrid-Barcelona game on TV at noon California time.

Unfortunately, he did find last year’s United States-Trinidad & Tobago match in which the U.S. only had to tie in a half-empty Caribbean stadium where a good portion of the fans were American. They lost, 2-1, and combined with Honduras’ win over Mexico, the U.S. was sent home as well as coach Bruce Arena.

“Totally uninspired, uncreative soccer,” Spencer said. “I am optimistic now that we’ve basically had a change of guard. This last World Cup with that result basically said bye-bye to the players entrenched for the last 10 years. We’re not going to see (Michael) Bradley in the starting lineup anymore. (Jozy) Altidore is probably out the door. (Tim) Howard. (Clint) Dempsey, all these guys who were good players when they were young.

“The U.S. wasn’t terrible on the world stage. They just didn’t turn over any new talent for 10 years. It’s always hard for me to watch the U.S. men’s soccer team and believe those are the 11 best players in the country.

Spencer is a growing romanista in California.


***

He was about to see the best player in the world and arguably in history. After seeing Messi light up Liverpool (before, of course, Barcelona folded like a lawn chair in the second leg), Spencer was going to see Juventus’ Cristiano Ronaldo. Every country in the world has sports bars debating whether Messi or Ronaldo deserve the crown and then they throw in Pele and Maradona in the GOAT argument.

Marina is a third-generation Roman who has plied me with AS Roma gifts for four years. She is a romanista but too much of a fashionista to wear anything with a logo depicting a nursing she-wolf. I bought her a generic AS Roma ballcap for the game.

“John,” she said as she reluctantly put it on for the walk to the stadium, “this is love.”

The game had plenty of drama. With three games left, sixth-place Roma stood four points behind Inter Milan, which won Saturday, for next season’s fourth and final Champions League spot and three behind AC Milan. After Sunday, two games remain in the season although Milan has three.

Considering the mess Roma has been in, it’s a remarkable achievement. It fired its coach after getting bounced from this season’s Champions League and the current one is caretaker and Rome’s native son Claudio Ranieri. The sporting director quit in protest of the firing, and the goalie got benched. The best player the last month has probably been new goalkeeper Antonio Mirante who’s about my age.

Olympic Stadium was packed with 50,000 people to watch Roma try and save its season against a Juventus team that clinched its unprecedented eighth straight Serie A title by about Easter. I was hoping Juventus showed up wearing little pointy party hats or Ronaldo hung over. Nope. He doesn’t drink.

Juventus played its top lineup and previewed its next season’s uniform, a sharp black-and-white checked number that Juve fans have destroyed on social media. Juve played loose and free and was gunning from all angles. Mirante made a brilliant save in the sixth minute on a one-on-one encounter and then stopped Ronaldo 10 minutes later.

I’ve watched enough soccer to know the biggest gap between the U.S. and the soccer powers is the creativity in shot making. U.S. players don’t play on the streets or beaches. You don’t see the shots you see in Europe, or even the first 16 minutes Sunday night.

Spencer agreed.

Before the game, from left, Marina Pascucci, me, Kelsey Weber, Spencer.


“It’s the touch before the shot,” he said. “Give yourself an opportunity to take a controlled shot, to curl a ball into the far post or put it inside the near post. You’re not reaching for it. You’re not stretching or off balance.

“(These guys) land on their feet after they take a shot. You watch a lot of American players and they’re just swinging for a ball and they fall over afterwards because they’re off balance.”

It’s 0-0 at halftime and the second half the Roma ultras in Curva Sud are in full throttle as they greet an injured Juventus player with, “DEVI MORIRE! DEVI MORIRE!” (YOU MUST DIE! YOU MUST DIE!).

Ronaldo piqued Spencer’s dream as he scored on a beautiful one on one breakaway but was called offsides. Both teams were pretty sloppy until Alessandro Florenzi, the Roma captain who grew up in the heart of Centro Storico, looped a ball over ex-Roma goalie Wojciech Szczesny for a 1-0 lead in the 80th minute. Edin Dzeko, Roma’s up-and-down star striker, scored on a 3-on-1 in stoppage time for a desperately needed 2-0 win.

Marina screamed like a season ticket holder. We all high fived. We stuck around to listen to the 50,000 fans sway together singing “Grazie, Roma.” After a long walk to the subway and post-game beer, I asked Spencer what he, an American soccer fanatic who knows the game, thought of the atmosphere in Europe.

“It’s awesome for me to get to watch professional soccer at this level,” he said. “To have a fan section that really knows the game, watching. Even the people in front of us: father, son, younger son, all leaning forward watching the game.

“We need that kind of passion and education.”

Life as a film extra in Italy: From a cardinal to a Carabinieri, my new part-time gig is not all “ACTION!”

I play a Carabinieri in “Blood & Treasure,” NBC’s new series premiering May 21.


What was your fantasy job?

We all had one. I certainly did. When I was younger, like any red-blooded American boy into sports, I wanted to be a famous pro athlete. When I realized my athletic ability would barely get me into my high school baseball team’s dugout, I wanted to win a Pulitzer Prize. As I traveled the world, I dreamed of ending a war or starvation or something that would put me on the cover of Time.

But of all the dreams I had, of all the fantasies that crossed my mind during long flights and nights of insomnia, I never dreamed of one famous profession.

Acting.

Never have I thought about an Oscar or Emmy, of dating starlets, of getting standing ovations from a packed theater. I didn’t even want to work in the film or TV industry. I wanted to watch movies and TV, not work in them. Give me popcorn, not parts.

So here I am, at 63 years old, after 45 years as a journalist, reinventing myself. Here in Rome I have found a new part-time gig, one that’s given me a new outlook on myself.

I’m a film extra.

Keep in mind this is not acting. Calling me an actor is like calling Sherwin-Williams painters. I am part of that background of humanity you see in every film and show. I am human furniture.

And anyone can do it. You, dear reader, can do it. Any member of your family can do it. Look outside. Everyone you see can do it. You are paid to stand there. Sometimes they make you walk. Occasionally they’ll have you express emotion. Many times you’ll mime conversations. And rarely, if you’re lucky, you’ll get a line or two.

You don’t even have to be attractive. In fact, it helps if you aren’t. Films want ordinary people filling scenes. They don’t want anyone so beautiful they become a distraction from the beautiful people making the big bucks.

I guess, that’s where I step in.

This past winter, I appeared in four shows that will be aired this year: I play an Italian cop in a CBS series called “Blood & Treasure,” a German banker in a Sky TV series called “Devils” starring Patrick Dempsey, an American cardinal in the HBO sequel series “The New Pope” starring John Malkovich and an American admiral in an indy Italian film entitled “In Buona Compagnia” (“In Good Company”).

As the productions approach their premieres — most don’t have a date — I’ll blog my experiences with them. What I’ve taken away is a completely different way of looking at film and myself. In the theater or on TV, you may concentrate on the stars. I’m now looking over their shoulders. I’m scanning the crowd, seeing who is really an insurance agent or a mechanic or an English teacher. Who’s overacting? Who’s walking as if on eggshells?

The extras, while having arguably the easiest job in world society, are an underrated component in filmmaking. It’s easy to be good; it’s also easy to be bad. Take the 1959 production of “Ben Hur.” It won 11 Oscars that year. Yet if you look in the background of the chariot race, an extra who blew the trumpet also blew the scene.

“Ben Hur” is a story from the 1st Century A.D., and the extra forgot to take off his watch.

Extras are important enough to have their own PC label. We are now called “supporting artists.” It sounds great, but here in Italy it sounds like some guy fetching Caravaggio’s paints. Here I am known as a comparsa. My girlfriend, Marina, scolded me when I told people I was a freelance writer and a comparsa. Apparently on the Italian occupation scale, it’s what immigrants do to get by.

Well, that’s exactly what I am.

No wonder immigrants apply for these roles. As I said, anyone can do it, it’s easy and knowledge of Italian is helpful but not necessary. And the money isn’t bad. Depending on the studio, I received 85-105 euros a day. More if I have some lines which I had — even some in Latin.

Along the way I’ve learned three easy rules to follow as a comparsa:

1. Do NOT, ever, look at the camera. Have you ever seen an actor look at one? Think about it. Yet it’s harder than you think. In one solo scene I had in “The New Pope,” where we vote for the next pope, I had to walk toward a camera in a makeshift Sistine Chapel, then around it and drop a ballot in a box. Trying to not peek at the camera is like trying not to think of the word, well, “camera.”

2. Do not take photos. In this age of selfies and social media, where you can make yourself news with the click of a button, extras off the street are tempted to shoot everything from themselves in cardinal robes to John Malkovich adjusting his. It’s not just that the production companies don’t want to disturb the actors. They don’t want any sneak previews of the shows on social media. The studios are cracking down. Shortly after beginning production for the current season of “Game of Thrones,” a group was fired for taking photos of the set. Some people, who were mostly studio assistants, had been with the blockbuster series since the first season and were marched right off the grounds.

3. Don’t write about the plots on social media. Some of the contracts I’ve signed include confidentiality agreements. This is why I am not blogging until shortly before the shows appear and pre-airing buzz begins. It’s also why none of the directors, assistant directors or actors who’ve read the script share any details with us selfie-addicting drones. I was in four films and I barely have any earthly idea what any of them are about.

Take the first one. “Blood & Treasure,” which premiers May 21, is an action-adventure series about a terrorist who finances his terrorism by stealing art. An art historian and art dealer chase him around the world trying to stop him. That’s all I know. How do I even know this?

I read the description when I Googled the show title.

How I stumbled into this sidelight isn’t nearly as sexy as a starlet in a tight sweater getting discovered in a malt shop. I played an American cardinal in the 2016 production of “The Young Pope” with Jude Law and Diane Keaton. I wrote a number of blogs about the experience and how I landed the part. I’m 6-foot-3 and always said being tall only helps in parades.

Well, it also helps in film.

Because Jude Law played the first American pope, Oscar-winning director Paolo Sorrentino wanted American cardinals. One of his assistants at Wildside, a Rome-based production company, went to the International Meetup group, Internations, and asked if they had any tall Americans as members. They recommended me.

I appeared in Episode 1 Scene 1 when Jude Law walks past his cardinals on his way to addressing the masses for the first time — and I was never seen again. However, I stayed in Wildside’s extras pool and when roles become available and they need a tall, aging — ah, hell, old — American guy, they call me.

So on a cool October morning I’m told to be at Hotel Delle Nazioni near Trevi Fountain just before dawn to start shooting the Rome scenes for “Blood & Treasure.” (Teaser: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DxWOhuBSYIk) The Nazioni is a tony four-star, 200-euro-a-night hotel with glass-blown chandeliers in the lobby. I’m greeted with cornettos and coffee outside and taken into wardrobe, the start of every day for an extra or actor.

My initial role as a tourist is as simple as it sounds. Dress like you would walking around Rome. In other words, be myself. They see my blue jeans, casual sweater and Merrell shoes and send me straight to makeup. I see a row of women in front of mirrors with more lights than Wembley Stadium getting their hair and makeup done by a string of professionals. I meet two American expats from Texas and a Swedish fitness instructor, all of whom are veteran extras. They all worked together in “Come un Gatto sul Tangenziale” (“Like a Cat on a Ring Road”), a 2017 comedy about a father-daughter and mother-son from different social classes dating each other. I ask Amy, a part-time English teacher, what she likes most about being an extra.

“I like the part that extras being from all over the world,” she says. “You get to share your experiences and how long you’ve lived here. Because generally the extras are people who are not typical Italian.”

It’s before 7 a.m. and a group of about 20 of us walk the one block to Trevi Fountain. I’ve lived in Rome more than five years and have a new travel tip: When you go see this Baroque masterpiece from 1732, go before sunup, before the tourists arrive. The massive, foaming, 20-meter-wide, 26-meter-high fountain is remarkably peaceful. It’s backlit, making it look more like a giant statue than a mere fountain. And without the hordes pushing in around it, all you can hear is the splashing water. I was mesmerized in my own city. That happens a lot in Rome.

But as the sun came up, so did the tourists. Soon Trevi Fountain was surrounded by people three or four deep. Loud chatter in half a dozen languages drowned out the cascading water. It was time to shoot.

We are all paired up in couples. Attached to my arm is Cristina, a local lawyer and gym junkie. Our job: Walk toward the fountain, wave our arms in amazement and talk about the fountain.

Not exactly pretending to hang off a skyscraper in Dubai. Tom Cruise’s job is safe.

So Cristina and I spend the morning walking 10 steps to the fountain. Each time we point to Oceanus’ chariot, the giant seahorses. I say the word “Unbelievable” about 100 times, to where it has the same meaning as, say, “elephant.” We do 12 takes for a one-minute scene.

We have the easy part. Behind us, the two stars are actually working. Matt Barr, 35, is a Texas actor who appeared in “One Tree Hill” and with Kevin Costner in “Commander in Chief.” His co-star, Sofia Pernas, 29, is a Moroccan-Spanish actress raised in Orange County, California, who was in the soap opera “The Young and the Restless” and NBC’s short-lived “The Brave.”

Both are beautiful and beautifully dressed and interact beautifully with the mob around them. They pose for selfies. They chat with tourists. They smile and laugh. Assistants shoo away the tourists as they shoot the scene which has them walking by the fountain, Pernas turning and looking perturbed at Barr, her hair flying as if filming a shampoo commercial. He’s wearing a designer suit sans tie; she’s wearing skin-tight white pants and boots, both looking like they hopped off one of the fashion ads from the display windows near Trevi.

Meanwhile, I think the camera gets a great shot of my ass.

We later return to the hotel where an assistant tells me I have a new role. Go to wardrobe and get your new outfit.

Do I look like an Italian cop?


I’m a Carabinieri.

The Carabinieri are the national military police, and many Carabinieri are Sicilian. Unfortunately, I look about as much Sicilian as I do Hmong.

But who am I to complain that I’ve been horribly miscast?

Here is where a trip to wardrobe is fabulous. The Carabinieri are famous for having arguably the most beautiful police uniform in the world. Valentino designed it. It’s a dark blue turtleneck, blue jacket and blue pants with the trademark red stripe down the side. They give me the big pointy hat with the eagle on the front. I feel pretty elegant until I remember watching “On My Skin” the 2018 Italian film about the Roman youth whom the Carabinieri beat to death.

About a dozen of us go into a van and are taken to a Carabinieri station nearby. As we’re standing around outside the door, we’re told to take off our hats. Only actual Carabinieri allowed to wear them.

I am paired with a short, older Neapolitan man and we must walk down a small set of stairs, around the corner and continue past two supporting actors. We have to make conversation. About what? Anything. Just make sure it’s in Italian in case the camera catches our lips moving.

I ask him in Italian if he likes soccer. Yes. AS Roma fan? Yes. Good. Let’s talk about their win last night.

On the first take, we walk around the corner and I say, softly, “Hai visto la partita ieri sera?” (Did you see the game last night?)

“Si. Bella partita.” (Yes. Great game.)

As he says that, I nearly deck the two actors we walk by. The two assistants talk in some heated terms and they tell us to start our walk a couple steps higher. An actor asks me which side I’m walking on.

“Sinistra” (Left), I say, flattered a real actor is acknowledging my existence.

“Buono,” he replies.

We do the scene without a hitch and I walk outside to a throng of tourists who start snapping my picture. They think I’m real. Sorry, folks. I’m not a real Carabinieri. I’m not a real actor.

I’m just a comparsa.

***

Day 2 starts with total chaos. Rome’s Metro subway breaks down near the Colosseum and I have to take a bus to another station, then another subway to the Termini train station and race the three blocks to the cheap Hotel Fenicia where we all meet. I’m 20 minutes late. As an extra, this isn’t a problem. One line best represents our lives, similar to my past life as a sportswriter seeking interviews.

Hurry up and wait.

As an extra, I probably averaged about three hours between the time I arrived and shot a scene. But this day is different. I’m getting attacked on all sides. A pretty assistant hands me a form and I ask what “capacita” means. Her mouth is agape.

“You did this yesterday,” she says in Italian.

“Um, no I didn’t. I just signed some sheets.” Apparently, I should’ve filled out the form yesterday. She looks toward the sky in exasperation, a permanent look for many overworked, frantic production assistants.

I go upstairs to costume and the wardrobe lady picks up where the assistant left off. She’s appalled. She’s shocked. She’s borderline furious. I made the cardinal sin of wearing the same dark green windbreaker I wore the day before.

“You’re supposed to bring a complete change of clothes!” she says.

“I did.” I open my little backpack to show two different shirts, both the apropos dark colors.

“No!” she says. “You wore that same jacket yesterday!”

“Antonio (assistant who communicated instructions to the extras) didn’t say anything about changing my jacket,” I say, unaware that tourists bring different jackets to Rome. “He sent the same message he sent the day before.”

The woman shakes her head and mutters something I fortunately don’t understand and tells me she must give me a different jacket.

“You’ll need it tonight,” she says.

“I never get cold,” I say.

Days like today are when filmmaking becomes as glamorous as reading a zip code directory. We’re herded onto a nearby street where we stand for four hours as a couple get out of a car and race toward the huge Termini Roma sign on the station wall. We’re being made available in case the director needs us. We’re like animals in a pen.

In the meantime, I start conversations with everyone around me. As Amy says, it’s like an Internations Meetup social. I meet a Nigerian student. A Brazilian raised in American schools with no Brazilian accent tells me he was an extra in “Everest” with Jake Gyllenhaal and Josh Brolin. He can now put on his resume that he walked out of a threadbare mountain outhouse holding some toilet paper. A veteran extra, he says some people in Rome make a living doing this. Some even have agents. They go to movies not for the plot or the stars. They go to see who hired their competition. That’s like going to a sports event and only watching the crowd.

After four hours, we get a lunch break. We extras often judge studios by how we’re fed. This one receives a unanimous thumbs up with a spread of mini pizzas, sandwiches, cut up cold vegetables, fudge brownies and big liter bottles of cold Coca-Cola.

It’s 4:30 p.m. and we haven’t done a thing. The two Texans, the Swede and I discuss everything from relationships in Rome (bad) to Donald Trump (worse) to restaurants in Rome (best). Soon it’s time to eat again: box lunches of rigatoni ragu and baked chicken with potatoes. I could get used to this: getting paid to stand around and then eat.

One of about 200 pretend photos I took of my pretend partner at the Trevi Fountain.


Finally, at 6 p.m., 10 hours after we arrived, we’re herded onto buses and head to Trevi Fountain. Now Trevi is cheek to jowl. The 20 of us can barely get to the fountain. A small area is cordoned off inside to fit a small gelato stand where Barr and Pernas do their scene. We do nothing for an hour as the directors try to organize among the chaos of snap-happy tourists getting in the way.

It’s like herding hungry cats.

At last we are lined up as if on a diving board and sent one by one, or two by two, walking in the background of their gelato scene. I later get paired with a Polish woman near the fountain and we spend about 10 takes taking selfies and photos of us, of us and the fountain, of the fountain. I now have 200 garbage photos in my cell waiting to get deleted. Meanwhile, Barr has eaten so much gelato I think he’s going to blow.

Life of an extra: Hurry up and wait. My fellow extras, from left, Holly Grabow, Jenna Volmerson and Amy Marie Coggins.


We finish at 9 p.m. and are told to wait. The director may need us again. Four of us go around the corner and find a closed souvenir stand to lean against and chat. We’re not needed. At 11 p.m. we’re told to leave.

We spent 13 ½ hours shooting three 60-second scenes. This life is not worth fantasizing about. It’s not even insight into one’s true self. However, it gets better.

Stay tuned.

Four-year anniversary in San Gimignano represents a towering achievement in Italian relationships

Marina and I celebrated our four-year “dating” anniversary in San Gimignano, one of the most weirdly romantic towns in Italy.


SAN GIMIGNANO, Italy — Relationships in Rome are as hard as the language. You can’t have one without the other. That’s why life in Rome often bounces between passionate kisses near back-lit fountains and sitting alone in a dive bar drinking bottled Peroni. Many women don’t trust the men; many men don’t respect the women. It’s a war of the sexes I’ve chronicled this phenomenon that has been going on since Romeo hit on Juliet on that balcony.

So a relationship lasting four years is worth celebrating. In Rome, it’s almost as rare as fluency for an old American. I’m not fluent yet but Marina and I did pass the four-year mark Monday. As we do every year around April 29, we took a trip, very symbolic since our relationship is built on mutual respect, a love of wildlife and travel.

We took a long weekend to San Gimignano, a quirky little town in Tuscany about 40 miles southwest of Florence. It’s the town of only 7,000 people where 15 stone towers remain from the Medieval Times. That’s back when this part of Tuscany was awash in wealth and locals showed off theirs by building the biggest towers they could. I couldn’t confirm this from the locals, who were quite taken aback by the question, but I believe this is where Americans get the term “penis envy.”

San Gimignano has 15 towers from five to 10 stories high left over from Medieval Times. Photo by Marina Pascucci.


Which brings me back to my original point about the difficult language. How baffling is Italian? Each noun is either feminine or masculine. How do you remember which is which when a word ends in the neutral “e”? You memorize or choose a word association. The Italian word for “tower” is “torre.” It’s feminine, not masculine. Look at the photo of San Gimignano’s skyline and tell me why “torre” isn’t masculine.

Think about it.

I’d been to San Gimignano before. I came five years ago shortly after I first moved to Rome when each new town I discovered was more interesting than the last. San Gimignano’s towers drew me in like a curious cat. The towers stand between five and 10 stories high and can be seen from down in the valley on the connecting bus ride from Siena. As I wrote before, it looks like a giant kid’s Erector set that didn’t quite get completed. These 15 stone sticks stand atop a hill of a tiny town that once was an Etruscan village. Now it looks like a Medieval Manhattan, an itty-bitty Dubai, Shanghai with better wine.

Marina, a third-generation Roman, had never been here before. Since I had, we took a different tact. San Gimignano is not easy to reach. It has no train station. You must take a train or bus 2 hours and 45 minutes to Siena or Florence and get a public bus for a 65-minute ride up the hill. Some buses require a change in Poggibonsi. From Rome to our AirBnB it took eight hours.

Us in front of Siena’s Piazza del Campo.


However, that didn’t include the one change in my itinerary. We took a long lunch in Siena, Tuscany’s “second city” behind Florence and is the Gothic gem to Florence’s Renaissance. Siena is a city of wildly curving, hilly alleys seemingly all leading to Piazza del Campo, the massive piazza 333 meters in circumference that’s left barren for the hordes of tour groups and locals alike to congregate on warm sunny days.

We came for the lunch recommendation of my good friend, Alessandro Castellani, a Roman totally miscast as a sportswriter instead of an Italian food consultant. In five years, he hasn’t whiffed once and hit a home run out of Tuscany with his nod to La Taverna di San Giuseppe.

Located on a quiet, narrow, cobblestone road, it had a line formed before it opened at noon. The cave-lake restaurant with the vaulted brick ceiling and ham hooks hanging from the ceiling was packed by 12:30. I thought the restaurant, started in 1998, might be a tourist trap when I saw a fat American pass me with a T-shirt reading “WEAKNESSES ARE OVERRATED.”

Taverna di San Giuseppe in Siena. Photo by Marina Pascucci


It wasn’t a tourist trap. I had the short, twisty pasta called trofie, with bits of broccoli and covered in smoked scamorza cheese. It was simply one of the best pastas I’ve had in Italy.

Tuscany has plenty of places to get away from the tourists, but San Gimignano is not one of them. However, we scored a major coup with our AirBnB. Paolo Rubechini’s apartment is located above Piazza Sant’Agostino on the quiet north end of town and around the corner from one of the bus stops. Piazza Sant’Agostino is the quiet respite from the hordes congregating in the adjacent Piazza del Duomo and Piazza della Cisterna in the center of town. Anchored by Chiesa di Sant’Agostino, which depicts the revered saint’s life in 17 frescoes, the piazza is a sprawling space covered in brick.

Me walking through Piazza Sant’Agostino. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Our AirBnB, on the upstairs floor of a building adjacent to the piazza, was a 100-square-meter (1,100-square-foot) palace with a big kitchen, long dining room table, two-flat screen TVs (with an English movie channel) and a modern bathroom. It even had a 100-year-old wine press in the living room overlooking the piazza. We stocked the kitchen with fruit, coffee, milk and biscuits from the local supermarket and every morning went to the corner bar or bakery around the corner for fresh cornettos.

No, this was not CouchSurfing in the Third World.

While San Gimignano jars the intrepid traveler’s heightened senses with its choc-a-block souvenir stores, nothing can spoil its incredible views. We walked along the walls past the piazzas and stared out at the Tuscan countryside which is as beautiful as the libraries of literature depict. Rolling green hills, parceled farmland, little villages with brown and red-tiled roofs and small, family vineyards. This is the Tuscany you daydream about sitting at your humming computer.

At Torre Guelfa on Piazza della Cisterna, what passes for my office these days.


I even like the view from the crowded piazzas. No place else in Italy — not Rome, not Milan, certainly not Florence — can you sit in a piazza and look at towers. In Piazza della Cisterna, which features a well from 1287, we took seats at Torre Guelfa, one of the many outdoor cafes ringing the piazza. With a glass of San Gimignano’s signature Vernaccia white wine, we sat back and looked past the piazza to one of the towers, sticking up like a giant periscope. Dusk had settled in and most of the tourists and gone back to their rooms in Siena and Florence. A chilly breeze swept through. We were in total peace, the harmony of four years and 19 countries together.

He’s been making pottery in the same shop for 30 years. Photo by Marina Pascucci


But of all the places we’ve been — from Beirut to Vancouver — what a weird place to live this San Gimignano. The best real estate are 600-year-old towers with maintenance costs that nearly match the rent. Tourists are everywhere year round. You’re living inside a giant wall. I talked to the young waiter, who grew up here and knew as much about my beloved AS Roma as I did. We discussed the goings on of Serie A soccer before turning to life in Tuscany’s novelty of a town.

He said the winters are harsh. San Gimignano sits at 1,000 feet. Opportunities aren’t available for youths and during some winter lulls in tourism, making ends meet is difficult.

There’s usually a place in in the sun in San Gimignano. Photo by Marina Pascucci


“The biggest problem with the influx of many tourists becomes parking and roads,” Paolo wrote me in a message. “Now it seems they are trying to solve this problem with more parking and a ring road.”

Paolo also lives in Florence but was raised in San Gimignano and hasn’t gotten chased out by the tourists as so many Venetians have in Venice.

“My experience of living in the tourist city is very positive,” he wrote. “In addition to increasing the local economy, it also allows a great cultural exchange. The tranquility and safety of the place are the best things as well as the beauty of the places.”

Locanda di Sant’Agostino


He left out food. San Gimignano has as many good restaurant as any Italian town with 7,000 people. On the piazza is Locanda di Sant’Agostino, run by Paolo’s friend, Genziana, a hip, friendly woman with a packed place nearly every night. Her small restaurant with spacious outdoor seating is kitschy at its best. The walls are covered with framed photos of flowers with tufts of straw and red chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. Soft music fills the air.

I ordered a glass of chilled Vernaccia and a duck leg in orange sauce where the meat fell off the bone. For lunch I took Marina to a favorite haunt, Dal Bertelli, a small, simple sandwich shop where Brunello Bertelli’s family, in San Gimignano since 1779, has been cutting thick slabs of local pecorino cheese and salami on bread for years. The place is filled with old farm equipment on the walls, such as giant pinchers to cut grapes in vineyards.

Two problems with Tuscan cuisine: The bread, without question, is the worst in the world. In 1540 Tuscany began taxing salt, and bakers stopped putting salt into bread. Who knew salt kept bread from having a hint of flavor which is what bread tastes like in every restaurant in Tuscany.

The simple salami and pecorino cheese panino at Dal Bertelli. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Also, some restaurants get full of themselves. I wanted to take Marina back to Cum Quibus, which was wonderful five years ago. In fact, it was so wonderful it earned a Michelin star. Thus, ravioli I paid 9.50 euros for in 2014 has been replaced with pasta dishes ranging from 32-38 euros. We ditched our reservations and went to Bar Piazzetta on the corner where a bunch of locals gathered for a casual evening. No Michelin stars could be seen but my plate of tagliatelle with Tuscan ragu (wild boar sauce) for 9 euros earned one from me.

In San Gimignano I always develop a small dependency on Vernaccia wine. It has been around since the Renaissance and has been credited to bringing Tuscan wine to the forefront. People practically pour it on their Corn Flakes here. The area in and around the town has 63 wineries and each vineyard has its own distinct Vernaccia taste, ranging from tea to oleander to passion fruit and lychee. (At least, that’s what I read. I sure as hell can’t tell.)

But I did learn some when we spent our getaway day at La Rocca, a winery atop a hill on the edge of town featuring a tasting room with wines on tap and a veranda looking out over the gorgeous countryside. We sat drinking wine and watching Asian tourists shoot photos of the countryside without every looking away from their camera lens.

Giovanni Terreni spieling Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” Photo by Marina Pascucci


Suddenly we heard a rhythmic chanting from below. We walked over and a man in a medieval maroon and white costume was loudly reciting poetry to the passersby. Giovanni Terreni is a major fan of Dante Alighieri, Tuscany’s prize poet whose prose from his “Divine Comedy” Terreni blared out for all to hear.

One quote particularly caught our interest. It perfectly captures our lives, our travels, our time in this town of towers.

“Tonight we fly over the chimney tops, skylights and slates, looking into all your lives and wondering why happiness is so hard to find.”