Thursday, May 10, 2007

Castiglione del Lago

The Lago that Castiglione is on, is Lake Trasimene, a large lake in the center of the northern end of the "leg" of Italy. It is the place at which Hannibal duffed up the Romans in 217 BCE and, more recently, was fought over by the Germans and the Allies in WWII. Castiglione, yet another walled city on a rock, was originally built - destroyed and built several times in fact - on an island in the southwest corner of the lake. Over the centuries the lake level has been lowered, in part by several canals connecting it to the River Tiber, and the channel between the island and the mainland was gradually filled in. By this mechanism, the newer part of the city is quite separated from the original walled city, which has been hugely refurbished and is trying hard to be a tourist attraction.
In need of a little R&R, we hung out for a few days in a pretty informal campsite right on the lake. We also chanced upon a restaurant, the Cafe Noir, where we did Italian Dining 101 (several times) and began to understand the navigation of Italian cuisine. As in France, dogs are allowed into most restaurants in Italy and so it was one evening that our dinner was interrupted by a short lived, but ferocious dog fight that broke out a few tables away. Nobody took much notice but it did strike us as a little strange. Other "unwholesome" activities that gave us cosseted Americans quite a jolt was watching sandwiches being prepared with bare hands and raw foods in grocery stores being handled the same way - it must be a miracle that we made it through!
By and large, the Italians made the French look like workaholics. Lunch breaks anywhere from 1-1/2 to 4 hours and half days scattered all over the calender. When we first went to dinner, we thought all the restaurants were closed. Turned out that most of them do not open until 7:30 pm and are just getting warmed up by 10:00 pm. In fact, the Roman poet Ovid wrote a much quoted line extolling people to "celebrate their idleness as refreshment for the body and mind" - advice that seems deeply embedded in the culture of most Italians.
Although we saw little evidence of police in France they were more plentiful in Italy but, what a disgrace they were. Two or
three days of stubble, greasy pony tails hanging out from under caps, ill fitting fancy dress style uniforms, dull clodhopper boots, strutting around like Il Duce, their ugly white bandoliers and belts giving them the appearance of bad extras in a porno movie (so I am told). The bigger the city, the worse they got.
One standout group of workers that did impress us with their dedication however, were first encountered in the Pisa area and then observed periodically throughout Italy and a number of other countries. Who were these industrious exemplars? Hookers. Provocatively attired busty babes hanging it out for all to lust after. Tucked into farm lanes on the side of the highway, every mile or so another sensual siren, clopping around on impossible stiletto heels and exuding come hither looks would be swinging her purse to the delight of her prospective clientele. So much for culture.
Friday is market day in Castiglione and the entire old town is transformed into a bustling center for the sale of produce, dry goods, kids clothing and whatever takes your fancy. The transformation itself is interesting (at least to a nerd). The large panel vans used to haul the merchandise, are equipped with a faired extension on the roof about 1 foot high. Once on site the operator whips out a remote control and, like some Jules Verne fantasy creature, the contents of the roof extension unfold into a huge canopy providing welcome shade for vendors, merchandise and customers alike. Some of the canopies traverse the entire, albeit narrow, street. Pretty cool.
Castiglione was one of the three or four Internet connection opportunities encountered over the entire trip and the only no-cost option we ever found. Simply go to the town hall, walk in (no sign of security), pass through the library into the engineering area, hold up your computer while looking helpless. "You wanta the rope?" asks the IT guru hopefully. Nod, and a Cat. 5 cable is immediately provided as you are shown to a back room with four foot thick walls and nude figures sprawling all over the ceiling. Here you are connected to the municipal network without further ado and free to browse the Internet to your hearts content. No security concerns here, apparently.
Beyond the nicely restored ambiance of the walled city with its three gates and three squares, there are two buildings of some note. One of these, the "Castle", is somewhat run down while the church of Santa Maria Maddalena, at the other end of the main street, is in good repair and remarkably rich for a community of just 14,000.

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