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ITALY CALLING

Revisiting childhood sights and sounds was a lifelong dream

Published 04/20/2011 12:00 AM

Climbing along trails overhung with olive trees, through steeply terraced vineyards, we marveled at the blue Mediterranean sparkling far below us, and murmured "Buongiorno" (good day) politely to other hikers, thinking we were blending into our ancient surroundings. Suddenly we heard a raucous shout from behind us, "Hey Dog Watch! Are you from the U.S. of A.?"

And with that, the spell was broken. My T-shirt from Stonington's iconic eatery had given me away.

We were in Italy on a biking trip with VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations; the biking part had not yet begun and we were spending a few days in Cinque Terre, five picturesque fishing towns on the northwestern coast. We were enchanted. This trip had been a long time

coming.

At the end of World War II, my family had lived in Rome. My dad was a U.S. Army historian, tasked with writing the official history of the British-led battles. I was two years old, blond and freckled and pink-cheeked (causing quite a stir amongst the Italians), chattering in Italian learned from my nursemaid. For 60 years, I had wanted to return to Italy to feel the sun, see the colors, enjoy the happy banter of normal folks, recall the once familiar tastes. For 60 years, there was always a reason to stay at home. Childhood with no frills; adulthood filled with responsibilities. Children and parents to care for. Jobs and moves to juggle. And finally, retirement, time, resources and good health. Italy, here we come.

So we booked a trip that would keep us away from big cities and crowded tourist areas: the Po River Valley, breadbasket of Italy. This was in the spring of 2010. We dusted off our bikes, borrowed appropriate clothes, did training rides and ultimately arrived at JFK, carefully packed bags in tow, nervous and excited. And then the volcano smoke from Iceland spread across Europe and our trip was canceled.

Undeterred, we bought ourselves brand new bikes and trained harder. Bicycling, we discovered, was a wonderfully liberating sport. We could get anywhere within 30 miles without using a car; we rediscovered picnics and found something new we enjoyed.

Finally, in October, we arrived in Italy. The sun was shining, the weather was warm, wine and good food were everywhere, and we found we could almost understand and speak Italian. We really thought we were blending in. Actually, by the end of the trip, after countless

episodes of shopkeepers, hikers,

waiters and hotel staff immediately assuming we were American, one Italian mistook us for Germans. Elated, I asked our tour guide if this was a good thing. "You will never be mistaken for an Italian," he said, "but keep trying."

We started our biking adventure in Soragna, a small town a little northeast of Parma. Our hotel was an old lovingly restored mansion with rooms facing a courtyard. We tried out our bikes on a short ride to Fontanellato where we rode around an old castle and felt exhilarated at being able to ride and read a map at the same time. Everyone around us spoke Italian; our guides kept gently correcting our very English pronunciations of even a simple "Buongiorno," and we soaked up the atmosphere.

As we progressed through the Italian countryside, changing hotels every other day, stopping at historic and cultural points of interest, discovering new sights at every turn, we relaxed into the Italian tempo of life, which generally seemed to revolve around food: The mid-morning latte, the mid-afternoon gelato, and of course wine. Local wine. Which is always served with food.

Along with riding 25-40 miles each day through rolling farmlands and old villages, VBT treated us to tours of a parmigiano-reggiano cheese factory; a gorgeous old estate on the Po River where culatello ham hangs in underground caves while it ages; Verdi's church and the town that expelled him for improper sexual behavior; Sabbioneta, a utopian city where the guide kept referring with overflowing awe to its founder Gonzaga as "Our Duke"; and a palace in Mantua so ornate we couldn't wait to get outside again and away from its guide who kept recalling artworks stolen by the evil German troops. Later in our trip, as we rode our bikes along endless canals — some constructed above valleys and rivers — we caught glimpses of castles high in the hills beyond us, encountered two gypsies with their belongings packed onto a donkey, noticed fields of melons and kiwi, and finally arrived at Peschiera del Garda, an old walled and moated city. My first and only flat tire of the trip happened there, while still in sight of our roving van. Our guide joked that a competing bike tour group may have been responsible while we had been tasting donkey at lunch. Really.

We ultimately encountered hills when we pedaled down to Lake Garda, where we stayed in an ultra-modern, high-tech, brand new hotel, metallic and stark. Our bedroom patio looked out over expansive lawns, a pool, and then Lake Garda, sparkling in the setting sun. But what riveted our attention was the robotic lawnmower sitting innocuously at its charger, done with its work for the day! The romance of the setting was lost on us, at least until the next day, when we visited Verona. The setting for Romeo and Juliet — in particular Juliet's famous balcony — was thronged with tourists.

In perusing the photos of my childhood sojourn in Italy in preparation for our trip, one in particular caught my attention: I am in a dress playing in the snow, the Alps towering all around me. Seeing part of them was definitely on my to do list. Unfortunately, when, at the end of our bike adventure, we were bused to Bellagio on Lake Como, rain was all we saw. But the food was fabulous. We celebrated our athletic prowess with a bottle of Prosecco, ending our meal with ice cream which was served accompanied by a full bottle of whiskey! By now we could almost read menus and, much to my husband's chagrin, I understood enough Italian to make purchases in the high-end shops that competed for space along the narrow streets of Bellagio. Time to head for home.

About the author: Stonington resident Beverly Phillips serves on the Board of Trustees for the Salt Marsh Opera. Her interests include tennis, sailing, book clubs and hovering over her grandchildren.