Monday, May 28, 2012

Italy - Charming By Design

Country home in Tuscany

In my travels, I often ask locals what has changed in the last ten or twenty years? Were I asked the same of Paris, the answer would include new restaurants and hotels, subdivisions in the county, expanded school campuses, closing of Merico and Phillips Lighting, and the rejuvenation of downtown.  Yet, on a recent trip to Italy, that inquiry generated quizzical looks and slow  responses.   “Nothing” or “Not much” were typical answers.

That reply is exactly why tourists continue to be drawn by the millions to Italy, especially the Tuscany and Umbria areas. Italians know visitors have a certain vision of their country that does not include skyscrapers, billboards, or endless suburbs.  The country also values its long history and has adopted strict rules for renovation of old and construction of new buildings to maintain the “Italian look.”  Red tile roofs (whether real or fake polymer) are required in much of Italy.  Home paint colors are limited to warm, earth pastels such as ocher gold or terra cotta and if you want something else,  permission must be sought from local councils.

Foreigners are so drawn to la dolce vita - the dream of sipping wine on the back porch while watching the sun set across the hills of Tuscany - that real estate signs in hilltop Cortona are in English as are many of the real estate magazines.  Web sites such as Italy Assists and Italymag have forums for those seeking advice on renovation costs and rules - also in English.  But ex-pats need patience.  At one site, businesses are advised to expect a minimum of 135 days before approval of a warehouse building permit.  In recognition of the inefficiencies of the Italian bureaucracy, a new “rule of silence” in larger cities allows construction to begin if you haven’t heard anything from the authority in 180 days.  For residential renovations or new construction, the wait can be just as long.  (And we complain about the 5 days  Paris requires!)

Historical renovation can be even more challenging.  At Montegualandro Castle, just inside the border of the Umbria state, Franca Marti described the journey to renovate their very own castle.  She lamented,  “If one stone has fallen off the castle wall, it must remain there.”  Just the permission to rebuild took two years.  In “Under the Tuscan Sun,”, Frances Mayes writes of the challenges working with master stone builders, wrought iron blacksmiths, and electricians who had never installed a rheostat.  Her home was finished in three years - a time lapse Americans would never put up with.

Restored Milan Duomo
Governments (national and local) pour millions into restoring  cathedrals, palaces, museums, and stone streets inside the walled towns.  This effort brings other benefits for the Italians who live with their history in the maintained areas. As Frances Mayes wrote, the Italians “have the good instinct to bring the past along with them.”   Despite the huge tourist presence, these communities are still active with families who live in the family home, buy in 200 year old stores, and worship in  centuries old churches.  Our guide in Sienna grew up in the porcupine district of that beautiful city, one of 17 such family neighborhoods.  Babies are baptized in the local church as an infant but at age one, they are dipped in the local fountain and wrapped in the scarf of the district indicating they will belong forever to that contrada.

It’s been 43 years since my first visit to Florence  in 1969.  Other than pedestrian streets, a single McDonalds, and changing fashions in the clothes stores,  little has changed around the cathedral.  Even the pictures hung at the Uffizzi Museum are in the same rooms.  It is a city and country that are well-worn from tourist traffic but purposely retain the studied ambiance.  As a hotel owner in Bellagio proudly told me, “nothing has changed” in the last ten years.  I have counseled other travelers of the need to see certain places in the world before old buildings are demolished or modernized.    Italy is not one of those.  This land will be forever charming, thanks to a populace that embraces that which it shares - its history.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Captain's Camp, a desert camp in Wadi Rum, provides taste of Bedoin world

Welcome Tent at Captain's Desert Camp

Lawrence of Arabia, that complicated Englishman who fought with Bedoin desert tribes for their independence after World War I,  endured days of travel by camel in the glare of the Wadi Rum desert of modern day Jordan but still fell in love with that silent valley surrounded by cliffs and towers approaching 3,000 feet.    He wrote “the crags are capped in nests of domes... They gave the finishing semblance of Byzantine architecture to this irresistible place, this processional way greater than imagination…vast, echoing and godlike.”   Today, Lawrence would be surprised to find his sandy, majestic world discovered by jeep safaris, hot air balloons, an international array of tourists, and a host of desert camps.

Our Jordanian travel agency wanted to book our last night in their country at a Dead Sea luxury resort but the chance to sleep in a traditional Bedoin tent of woven goat hair was far too tempting. Some modern Bedoin families still live in tents but transfer their camp and herds by pick-up rather than camel.  Others help provide a simulation of desert life, taking advantage of visitors’ curiosity.

Inside our tent
Courtyard of Captain's Camp
The Captain’s Camp is one of the original desert camps and obviously courts the international English speaking crowd.   Its tents circle round a sandy courtyard, using the rock outcrop as an additional barrier to prevailing winds.  A rug path led us to tent number 17.  We opened the heavy woven flap to find three single beds, one small table and chair, one mosquito net and a 30 watt bare light bulb.  More rugs covered our small space in the desert.  The surprisingly clean, communal bathrooms were down another rug path.  Only moonlight would give guidance if nature called in the middle of the night.

Our camel driver, Shaban
For our private camel ride, we joined Shaban, a seasoned, playful guide who loudly clicked and hissed at the animals if they acted up.  By leaning back and then forward, we moved with our awkward hosts as they stood, congratulating ourselves on our upper perch.   Within a few minutes we were away from the noise of the road, into the ancient sands and gently nodding with the camel’s gait.

Back at camp, Shaban invited us to sit with other drivers around a camp fire.   Traditional tea was shared while a new born baby camel and mother provided entertainment.  Modern life dropped in as Shaban visited with one of his small children on a cell phone, making noises that were funny in any language.  His dry-cleaned robes were also delivered then, solving my wonder at the whiteness of his vestment.

A traditional grilled lamb dinner, brightened by the wonderful middle eastern salad, was served on low tables with cushioned benches.  Young Jordanian school girls, visiting from Aqaba, insisted on teaching us local dances that required much jumping, belly movement, and laughter.   Lights were out for the whole camp at 9 p.m. but a nearby French family couldn’t stop laughing and some snoring persisted into the night.  Otherwise, all was quiet as only camps can be.

As with any discovered tourist destination, the Wadi Rum must be protected from overuse and Jordan intends to do that.  The Wadi Rum Protected Area is a UNESCO World Heritage Center in which rare wildlife is encouraged such as the wolf , ibix, and jackal.  Entrance to the protected area is limited.   Most of the desert camps and lodges are just outside the actual Wadi Rum but they are members of The Friends of Wadi Rum who are “ committed to the concept of Wadi Rum as a place for responsible, intentional individuals seeking meaningful, transformative experiences through time spent in our beautiful desert.”   That is a tall order to fill.  Hot air balloon rides and camel races are fun but probably not transformative.

Terry Clark, Jan Walker, and Mary Clark
Yet, a mere 24 hours near the grandeur of Wadi Rum connected us with an ancient desert life that is rapidly disappearing.  The wind blown silence of the camel ride,  tea around a jolly campfire, and the night protection of tightly woven tents gave  just a hint of that world - a world  Lawrence of Arabia would still recognize - and a far more meaningful experience than a night in a luxury resort.

Captain's Desert Camp

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