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From 41 to 14 celsius in one kilometer

August 12, 2013


Rome in August used to be like Cape Cod in February.  Where there were usually traffic jams, now there was peace and quiet, and hours of battling crowds turned to minutes of blissfully unhindered flow. While the contrast is not as totalizing as it once was–few can afford the long vacations and many have discovered the joys of August in Rome–there is still a refreshing seasonal shift.  Yes, it is hot, and the plethora of air-conditioning units everywhere make the streets feel hotter, but stone monuments, dark medieval churches and the shade of rock pines still absorb and block the summer heat.  A trip to the coast or to the mountains or both can still be made in a day.

In summer I start my days early, opening up all the windows to let the cool night air penetrate my home or studio.  The alibi of August means any writing or drawing I do gets extra credit, what might normally seem stressful because of deadlines becomes satisfying in summer.  It’s okay to take stay up late and sleep in the next morning.  Gelato in the morning, why not?  Sure, take a siesta. Everything is more relaxed in Italy, and still more so in August.

stone monuments, dark medieval churches and the shade of rock pines still absorb and block the summer heat

Cruising Napoli.  Last week I spent two non-consecutive days in Naples scouting for a fall program, visiting Posillipo, Pozzuoli and Cuma one day, Herculaneum, Oplontis and (cringe) Pompeii another.  The city emptied of its chaos felt strangely like going back in time,  to an era of few autos zipping through grand spaces and along winding roads between craggy rocks and shimmering sea.  Compared to Rome I found in Naples something I would never have expected, a respect for civic order.  Even the gypsy parking attendants showed a certain conscientious attention to public space, directing us to park where the car wouldn’t be an obstacle.  But I am probably just projecting.

Rolling Rome.  In Rome, little more than an hour away by fast train, I spent a day with a couple from Washington, D.C., she a retired English teachier, he a retired architect confined to a wheelchair and interested in seeing modern and contemporary architecture. It wasn’t the first time I had faced this challenge–I had consulted with Howard Chabner  on an evaluation of Rome from an accessibility standpoint in 2005 and again in 2012–but it hadn’t become any easier.  A sweltering hot day, and a Monday to boot, when most museums were closed, the challenge of finding a shady, naturally cool or air-conditioned respite was made nearly impossible by small barriers that able-bodied travellers wouldn’t notice.  Often there are curb cuts at one intersection but not  at the other end, or when they are there are cars blocking them.  Luckily my foodie friend Katie  was along to facilitate, scouting ahead to find possible routes and potential obstacles.  When slow-going meant finding a lunch spot earlier than expected she tracked down some options and we settled on Perilli al Flaminio which wasn’t bad, although a bit pricy for what we had. We were able to overcome the small step at the entrance (thanks to some scrap lumber and some helping hands from the construction site next door) and coax the owner into turning on the air-conditioning.  In Rome people are always willing to help out, as long as it’s not really their job to do so.  Sadly both Renzo Piano’s Auditorium and Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI were inaccessible, not by design but by management, the public spaces closed for construction and the Monday closing hours applied absurdly not just to the museum but to its piazza.  A long day ended getting  (good!) gelato at Neve di Latte while waiting for the (great!) accessible and air-conditioned taxi to arrive.

The next day, after a short and fast ride on the Freccia Rossa,  I am baking on a terrace overlooking the Bay of Naples.

Hiking Abruzzo. And the following day, I am baking in a campground in Abruzzo on the other coast,  30 km. from the Adriatic Sea, at the base of the highest mountain I have ever climbed.  La Majella (prounounced “my-yella”) is the second highest peak of the Appenines after Gran Sasso.  From the fantastic campground we happened upon, Kokopelli, run by a delightful English couple Kevin and Jackie (sp?), it was a half-hour drive to the end of the road but the temperature dropped from 41 to 14 centigrade (105 to 57) as the elevation rose by a kilometer.  We encountered two Tibetan monks (!) descending from the trails;  I bowed instinctively and was greeted with a smiling, accented “buon giorno”.

The next day, we left camp at 7:00 am, were at the bakery preparing sandwiches at 7;30 and packed and walking away from the car at 8:00. For the next 3 hours we climbed and climbed, through cool pine forests (Pino Mugo) and up rocky inclines.  At a certain point we paused in a crevice which was cool and shady and I took off my sweat-drenched t-shirt to dry it in the sun and put on a warm sweatshirt and ate dried fruit and drank cool water.  We still had a ways to climb to reach the “bivacco Fusco”.  There we saw a herd of chamois running across the snow and up the steep slopes of Monte Focalone. When we finally got to Monte Focalone, the chamois were nowhere to be seen and the landscape was hot and dry, shards of flaky grey stone like slate crunching under our feet. By day’s end we had been hiking for close to eight hours straight, covering almost a vertical kilometer!

Finally, to complete the picture of extreme contrasts, the week ended in ice. Not the glacier visible in the north-face of La Maiella but the aftermath of a sudden hailstorm that struck Caramanico Terme and left the ground thick with white ice and the rooftops of the village looking like ski season. Glad we weren’t on the mountain at the time, or at the beach, or anywhere but under cover. I’ve come to expect weird weather, and seen snow, flooding, earthquakes and drought within the same region and  almost the same season, but this week drove home the magnificent, spectacular power of nature.

Negotiating accessibility-challenged streets of Rome

Negotiating accessibility-challenged streets of Rome
Posillipo, Naples

Posillipo, Naples

Camping Kokopelli, Abruzzo

Camping Kokopelli, Abruzzo

Caramanico post-hail storm

Caramanico post-hail storm


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