For many people who know me well, this story will sound all too familiar…
On the A1 Autostrada heading into Rome, we pulled the rental car off around 19:30 at an aree di servizio to wait for the nearly blinding downpour to let up. Two weeks into our delightful, stimulating, exhausting trip to Italy, we decided we’d had enough of wandering from hill town to lovely hill town and wanted a couple extra days to explore Roma.
The good news was, the parking lot had covered spots, and I pulled under one. The bad news was … just about to hit.
I jumped out of the car, pulled open the back door to grab my trusty GoreTex rain jacket out of … MY BACKPACK WASN’T THERE! It wasn’t anywhere in the car. I was crushed. I wanted to cry. OK, don’t panic, think.
Up to then, it had been a wonderful day.
Around noon we left Montalcino, Tuscany, a hill town famous for the coveted, and delectable, Brunello wines (the Whole Foods by our house in Chicago has a bottle for $65). But not before a shopping trip at the local alimentari (a lot like the old “corner grocery store,” only the food is so much better), where we stocked up on edibles for the road and, before we left Montalcino, a picnic lunch with a view of the Tuscan countryside. Then we rolled out, heading for Umbria and a tiny settlement, Pievelunga, just outside the small town of Parrano.
Sandi had been plotting this little side trip since well before we left Chicago. Pievelunga, population 26, is home to the retired farmer/outsider artist, Girolamo Ricci. My wife loves outsider art, and Signore Ricci’s version is more appealing than any I’ve seen – a work you can literally become immersed in – poignant, witty, creative, colorful, emotional.
When we knocked on his door, we found an open-arms welcome. He spoke not a word of English and we spoke only a few words of Italian, but we managed to communicate with each other. First, though, he wouldn’t even begin to talk about art until he’d served us a tasty lunch of salume, cheese, bread and wine. Only then did he begin to show us around. I took pictures with my ipad as we browsed his outdoor “art environment.” What a terrific and, I think, brilliant old guy!
We left before wearing out our welcome.
Next stop was the caffe’/bar in Parrano. Run by a husband and wife team, the little bar served the usual, though a bit stripped down. We settled for a cappuccino and a bottle of sparkling water and, most importantly, a trip to the rest room.
Then it was on to Orvieto, where we thought we might spend the night. But figuring out where to park and how to take the funicular into town seemed too daunting, so that didn’t work out. But on our way back to the highway, we stopped at another bar, for a snack and another pit stop. After making arrangements to return to Bibi and Romeo’s B & B in Rome where we spent our first three nights in Italy, we hit the Autostrada. Then the rain came.
Had I left my backpack at Signore Ricci’s in Pievelunga? Or in the Parrano bar? We figured that our host at the B & B could make phone calls to try and track the bag down, so we continued down the Autostrada towards the chaotic streets of Rome. We settled into the same room we’d had the first three nights and started looking for phone numbers. Romeo, our super-host, had promised to make the calls in the morning.
I was distraught. There were several things of significant value in the bag, though fortunately not my ipad, which often resides there. I didn’t sleep well. Tossing and turning I kept going over the past day, trying to visualize every move. Maybe my days of world travel were over. Maybe I’m too old, too absent minded. Maybe I should just stay home.
The fact that I had the ipad helped me think through my actions of the afternoon. My best guess was that I had taken the pad out of the bag in the Parrano bar and walked out to the car with the pad in hand. All we remembered about the place was a big sign in front advertising LaVazza coffee. I asked Google for bars in Parrano. There was only one. Google Maps confirmed that it was the one where we stopped and gave us the phone number.
Then again, I had taken pictures with the ipad at Signore Ricci’s, so maybe I took my trusty device out inside his house and left the bag in. We didn’t go back in after touring the outside art environment, so maybe it was there. Unfortunately, we found that the old guy doesn’t have a phone. I feared the three-hour drive back to his home might be imminent.
What about the bar in Orvieto, Sandi asked. No, I had gone back to the car to get the ipad when we were sitting in that bar. I got it off the passenger seat. The bag must have already been gone.
Morning came and Romeo called the Parrano bar. The owner was there and he didn’t exactly remember us, but no, there was no bag left there. However he said he’s friends with Girolamo Ricci and he would go out there later in the afternoon and see if the bag was there. That was all we could do for the moment, so it was off to explore Rome. It was what we had planned all along – walking in Rome, getting a feel for the city, seeing some of the sites we’d missed the week before.
On the agenda: The flower market, Campo de’Fiori ; the Jewish Ghetto, for fried artichokes and for a look at the spot where Nazis rounded up Jews for deportation to the camps; Trevi Fountain (dry and fenced off for repairs); Trajan’s Column (which tells the story of Rome’s Dacian wars with 2,662 figures in 155 scenes carved into the column). In the process we crossed the Ponte (bridge) Vittorio Emanuele II, passed by Marcus Aurelius’ column (patterned after Trajan’s) and the sunken ruins of Largo di Torre Argentina, where Julius Caesar met his assassins. We walked nearly 10 miles that day. It was fun, but would have been a lot more fun if I hadn’t been fretting about the bag.
In the meantime, the bartender got back to Romeo: No bag at Signore Ricci’s, but the artist said he’d look outside when the rain stopped. That’s when I thought, maybe I brought the bag into the bar in Orvieto, realized the ipad wasn’t in it, and went back to the car to get it. While I was running to the car, Sandi moved to a table on the patio, so maybe the bag got left inside.
Back to Google maps. We used the street view to try and find the bar. Sandi recognized the sign in front. We relayed the phone number to Romeo, but the bar was closed that day. He’d call in the morning. At least all the walking tired me out.
We woke up the next morning to the ringing of Sandi’s phone. It was Romeo. The bag was in Orvieto Scalo at Bar Pasticceria Nando! Paola had it and she would be there all day. We asked Romeo if we should give her money and he said no. Sandi bought a blank greeting card and designed a special thank you message.
Inside the Orvieto Duomo
So we headed back to Orvieto, about an hour and a half away and got the bag. As long as we were there, we went up to the old city and saw the spectacular Duomo. Then back to Rome for our last Italian dinner and packing our bags for the long flight home the next morning.
Romeo took unbelievably good care of us. Way above and beyond what’s expected of an innkeeper: From our first day in Rome, when he took his motorcycle out, found a parking space for us and blocked it with the cycle, walked back and hopped in the car and guided me to the spot, where I left the car for the three days we were there; to the long conversations we had about life in Rome; to the tips he offered on how to avoid the long lines at the main tourist sites; to the days when I had no idea how I’d ever find that bag. He said, “I’m there for you.” And he was.
That was two weeks ago. I was ready to get home, as I always am after a long trip. Now I’m wishing I was in Rome again – the food, the art, the history, the open markets, the fascinating city life, the mysteries of a new place. So much more to explore. And maybe next time, I won’t lose anything.