A sharp contrast settles in around me as I walk at night with my luggage through the narrow cobble stone ally ways. My life of chop sticks and mega cities in China has changed in one day to a maze of medieval stone buildings erected over 1000 years ago. Tucked in the hills 1.5 hours north of Rome, Viterbo is surrounded by ancient city walls, complete with a Catholic church, plaza, and a sculpted stone fountain every few blocks.
After dropping off my luggage in my apartment, Marco, a USAC coordinator and professor, leads me around the corner to a family owned restaurant (they’re all family owned), where inside I meet Stefano, the USAC resident director. The charm of medieval Europe I assumed was lost in time, found now only in the fabrications of Hollywood movies and Vegas resorts. But while discussing the day’s travels over dinner, a realization settled in: the brick arches, stone walls, and rough cut lumber that surrounds us, this is real.
A sharply dressed waiter pulls up a chair, backwards, to the table and sits down to take our orders. Everyone knows pretty much everyone, and the waiter catches up on life with my USAC hosts. He recommends to me pasta that his mother made earlier that morning…did he really just say that? Let me get this straight, the other waiters are your brothers, and you mother actually makes pasta, daily? Awesome. I thought this stuff was just cooked up by The Olive Garden’s marketing department.
For us Americans, things in Italy are slow, time is more flexible, and relationships are priority over getting tasks done. Image is important in Viterbo; here it shows you take care of yourself. Everyone is dressed sharply; it’s like walking around in a designer clothing magazine advertisement. Cafes and restaurants are everywhere, each one with a touch of class: dark wood, shiny brass, marble. Just picture an upscale cafe that looks like they charge too much, that’s every cafe here. The language is perhaps my favorite I have ever heard. Maybe it’s just a novelty having only heard it in movies, but it sounds nice in real life too, like a song.
The food was great, although expensive. Italians want to be able to taste every spice and herb used to flavor the food, so they use few, but very selectively matching flavors together. One evening we ate at a restaurant only open on the weekends by reservation. The family operating it is wealthy and doesn’t rely on the restaurant for income, but simply enjoys cooking and entertaining. I could write a whole blog about the place. They cook medieval food, in a building which actually had medieval food cooked in it 1000 years ago. The combination of flavors and textures was unbelievable.
The filming schedule was intense; Stefano and Marco really wanted to show off their program and city. The “routine” video material is classes, language partners, the campus and city, interviews. But this week happened to be during the same week of two field trips.
The first one to a castle town (I can’t recall the name) on the Tuscan coast, and a beach. People still live in the castle town. It’s just like it sounds, a town, in a castle, like in Lord of the Rings, but not quite as epic, but still more epic than anything at Disneyland.
The second field trip was to the Coliseum and other Roman ruins. The Coliseum wasn’t your average tour. USAC found connections to the lead archeologist, the man with the keys to the Coliseum. Usually tourists have access to a limited area, but our tour took us everywhere, including underneath where the gladiators and wild beasts waited to be lifted into the arena. The latter part of the day was in rolling, tall grass covered hills, with the lonely ruins of a country vacation home once hosting kings and popes. USAC connected us, once again, to the lead archeologist of the area to guide the tour.
My last day I was blessed with sunshine, finally, and just in time for the flower festival. The usually predominately gray toned Viterbo comes alive with 100’s of truckloads of flowers, small potted trees, and grass sod. The town is packed, artist and craftsmen selling goods, outdoor medieval plays, and so forth. I spent 5 hours walking around shooting video. I could keep writing forever, but no one (including me) would read it. But I gave some highlights.
A big thanks to Stefano and Marco for the outstanding hospitality, students Chelsea and Tami for great company, and all the students I interacted with. It was really, genuinely a great week. I hope to return to Viterbo sooner than later.