• James Eric Fristad


Money exchange is the activity at hand, usually, when this term pops up. The underlying concept is placing a relatively unneeded thing into the hands of an accommodating broker, and receiving a wished-for thing (of similar value, one hopes) in its place. I'm applying the concept to two now-surplus weeks, in yonder adventure of ours, whose planned contents, it appears, we now need to reimagine.

Fact: France is going to be difficult for non-EU folks to enjoy, anytime soon. We have two weeks in our March/April lineup, therefore, that have suddenly become negotiable: Bordeaux where the exquisite wine and endless bike paths through/around vineyards are, and Avignon where those inconvenient 14th century Popes were, over the course of several decades. It appears we will be making substitutions for both places.

Because of Avignon's relative nearness to the northwest edge of Italy, its location (this second of those no-longer-available cities) encouraged us to formulate and then examine what really turned out to be a quite short listing of attractive Italian options. Siena was a major one, Florence was another. And then there was Orvieto. Which latter place, once I recalled the fascination it held for us, completely overshadowed all more famous others. So the clock tower photo of one of Orvieto's skyline features, above (tempus fugit and all that), seemed a natural illustration for these present thoughts.

You can climb up into it, you know, that tower. Up, up, up some more. And see from the inside a slice of that grand, round, semi-transparent surface with Roman numerals affixed to it. And obviously then from its rooftop enjoy a splendid view of this ancient little hilltop town and its surrounding countryside. Incredibly idyllic.

The burg perches on a tufa tabletop, or mesa, nearly 300 feet above the surrounding farmland. You can drive up there if you're impatient and don't mind that almost certainly there will be no place available to park; or you can hike if you are energetic and crave the aerobics-with-a-view. Or you can ride the funicular railway for several minutes at a rigid 20 degree grade from the rail station (gare) at the bottom. [You surely remember "Funiculi Funicula" which as it happens was composed to celebrate the first-ever such device built to cart people up the side of Mt Vesuvius in 1880? As sung lustily over the years by Pavarotti ... ha, and then re-worded to teenage heartthrob images as I recall by Mouseketeer Annette, when I was in junior high. Sigh.] I used the noun tufa in too casual a way, just now, simply to skip along, unchecked, to other topics. TUFA is a species of rock, reminiscent of pumice in appearance, that is fairly easy to burrow into, once you get started. Which then hardens on its newly defined surface, resulting in a dandy cave in exchange for your toil. Laced randomly and in layers deep underneath Orvieto's buildings are something in excess of 1200 such caves, many dating back several millennia.

Several local happenings wrap the area in a magical aura. Sieges: the refuge of one 16th century Pope who fled from Roman hazards (he directed an incredible well to be dug there, with spiraling water-carting donkey ramps, 174 ft from the town's ground level down to the water's surface. Siege insurance.) Bolsena nearby, where Roman Catholics insist that one priest's celebrating of the Mass (1263) resulted in the outpouring of unexplained blood on the altar -- verifying the doctrine of transsubstantiation it is said.

Then there is Orvieto's legendary food, which I hope to begin on another time.

And that other loose week is out there, waiting to be redefined. In Spain.

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