Luoma

I had a quiet week in an Italian convent, immersed in work and oblivious to any news—I slept in a monk’s cell that contained three extremely hard single beds, no soap, and no TV. For all I know, Brexit took the world by storm and Trump applied for asylum in Mexico—political or insane, possibly both.

On Thursday afternoon I saw my first Chinese tourists in the wonderful town of Orvieto, and on Friday I hit Rome.

Maybe it’s because the Middle Kingdom struggles to pronounce ‘R’, but the fact is they call the city Luoma. I had to come into Rome for two reasons: the first was the aereo, and the second was more prosaic—wine.

My quest was for a nectar made from the oldest grape in Europe—the Greeks brought it over to Southern Italy a mere four thousand years ago. Now that I’m sitting in the aereo, and the damn thing is traveling west at thirty-seven thousand feet, I’m relaxed—but I remain surrounded by Chinese.

People in the West are incredibly arrogant about their own culture, so they find it bizarre that Asians have their own names for our countries and our cities. New York, for instance, is nyu yue, and the U.S. is mei guo—the beautiful nation.

Before I went to Orvieto, I never realized it was a town, only the name of a wine—but the cathedral is astounding. En route, I drove to Caprarola, a much smaller town in the region of Viterbo, to visit Villa Farnese.

The Farnese family built the palace somewhere during the period of Clear Eyes and The India Road—Giulia Farnese, lover of the Borgia Pope in the final part of his life, was a family member. The Farnese fortune was made by popes and cardinals, and Giulia’s relationship helped promote her brother, who later became Pope Paul III.

The highlight of the villa is the map room, which boasts the work of Giovanni da Varese, Il Vanosino—he painted the entire room in 1573-1574: seven huge maps, portraits of Magellan, Marco Polo, Vespucci, and Columbus, and astronomical constellations on the ceiling.

The high point is the mappamundi, which shows how much better we knew the world by then, less than one hundred years after the Cape of Good Hope was conquered. Of all the continents, Africa is by far the most accurately painted, and there are all the Portuguese names chosen by Cão, Dias, and Gama.

South America is a little bizarre in shape, but the umbilical cord that stretches from Panama to Guatemala is well drawn. The eastern seaboard of North America ends up a little too close to Europe, courtesy of Columbus.

The world in the last quarter of the XVIth century, painted by Fanosino on an Italian wall.

The world in the last quarter of the XVIth century, painted by Vanosino on an Italian wall.

My maquina, as the Italians call cars, hit the Rome city limits, and all hell broke loose. The traffic is permanent chaos—a school of fish darting in all directions to escape an apocryphal killer whale.

My destination was an enoteca in the center of town, to meet the guy who first turned me on to the sacred grape about three years ago. The center of Luoma has no parking of any description—no underground car parks, no elevated parking, zero! I made a couple of feeble attempts to circle my prey, like a pathetic shark, and finally gave up and headed past the city walls to a parcheggio.

The cabbie adeptly navigated the Roman chaos as we reviewed our options for the Italy-Sweden match—simultaneously he maintained a brisk cellphone conversation with a third party and dodged Chinese tourists on the purely decorative crosswalks.

He even knew the wine store, and I greeted my guru with joy as we began to review his stock of Aglianico del Vulture. I don’t usually share my wine secrets, but you deserve it: Aglianico is to the south of Italy what Barolo is to the north—however a good bottle of Barolo goes for over a hundred and fifty bucks and an Aglianico costs you thirty.

Italian cities have implemented a video traffic system—I almost wrote control, but it’s technically impossible to use the two words in the same sentence where Rome is concerned. Cabbies are exempt, but ordinary mortals are slowly steered into the trap, like groundfish collected in the codend of a trawl net.

I’ve been fined fifty euros after being trawled in Bologna, but this week I heard the tale of an unfortunate driver who received three successive fines at one-hour intervals—by the time the cumulative costs caught up with him, a factoring company from the Netherlands was chasing the one thousand euro debt at his address in Zeeland.

The next cabbie transported my precious cargo, winding his way into the car cave so I could stash my prey in safety, before driving me to a lunch appointment on the other side of town. I retrieved the wine-mobile after pranzo, courtesy of a third taxi who opted to take me through the city, terrorizing a fresh batch of Chinese.

By then my flight time was imminent, and it was my turn to drive Roman-style to Fiumicino—there are no signs for the airport, and the route is littered with red lights—I took very few prisoners, and my GPS constantly suggested in clipped Oxford English that one might like to consider the astonishing number of mobile safety cameras. One didn’t.

Fiumicino, or Leonardo da Vinci airport, as it’s now called, was the very picture of chaos—Uncle Leonard, a man of symmetry and vision, would turn in his grave. Ordinarily, it’s highly likely I’d have missed the flight, since I was going nowhere without my Aglianico.

But the bag went snaking off into the bowels of the airport, Italy narrowly beat the Swedes at the very end of the game, and my flight was delayed two hours.

The wine’s in the hold, the plane’s on the final approach, Lisbon traffic will be the pinnacle of civility compared to Rome, and I discovered why I made the flight—the Italian air traffic controllers were on strike, god bless ‘em.

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