Over a first-course of dark Casteluccio lentil soup, which had a length of flavour I normally associate with expensive wine, Liz couldn't stop saying the right things about her father's idea of a vacation -- and that in spite of the fact that all of Norcia's children were assembled in the well-scrubbed piazza next door singing the Italian version of A Spoonful of Sugar.
With the nannyish tones of Julie Andrews still spinning in our heads, we set out the next morning on a demanding 21-kilometre walk that would take us over a heavily wooded mountain that rises above Norcia and along a precipitous gorge to the home of Italy's patron saint, Santa Rita.
Rita also happens to be the saint of lost causes and she was clearly at our side, as we got lost within half an hour. ATG had supplied us with a remarkably detailed route book that told us, right down to the exact number of steps, when to turn at the shrine to the Virgin and how the overgrown soccer pitch was actually the place you wanted to head to if you were going to bypass the hamlet where local cholera sufferers used to be isolated. And yet somehow I managed to fail in my fatherly role of getting us up the mountain rather than around it. We staggered under the blazing sun for an hour, retracing our steps as I convinced myself that right turns were wrong turns, only to be put straight by farmers who must have wondered how a foreigner who's managed to learn conditional verb forms could get hopelessly lost in their dog-filled front yards.
We'd walked six kilometres by my calculations and we were basically back where we started. On my own, I would have soldiered on, and I think my sun-damaged daughter was prepared for this possibility -- in the same stoic way that I had accepted my lingerie endurance tests back in Tampa. But some Italian-inspired compassion made me blurt out those generous words that go against all I believe in: "Do you want to take the bus?"
We'd seen a local bus parked just outside one of Norcia's medieval gates on the way out of town. Hurrying back, we discovered it was still there and would take us halfway to our destination. I ran into the nearby bar to buy a ticket, found the bus was leaving within a minute, bought our tickets -- and then realized 30 seconds into our trip that I'd parked our route book on the counter of the bar.
Without the book, our vacation was ruined. Any right-thinking daughter would have gone shopping for a new father at this point. And yet the agonies that followed ultimately gave us as much pleasure as the first olive-grove glimpse of Spoleto's medieval aqueduct or the romantic ruined watchtowers that hugged the edge of the river Nera's deep valley.
When our driver stopped partway along the road to gab with a colleague heading the other way, I jumped up, broke into their conversation and explained in my basic Italian what had gone wrong. The other driver offered to go to the bar and have them hold onto the book. Our driver took us to the town of Cascia, a major pilgrimage centre thanks to the presence of Santa Rita's mummified remains, and told us he'd be back with the book on his next trip.
Dolce far niente, as the hard-working Italians like to say -- it's sweet to do nothing. And so we did nothing for three hours in Cascia. While the pilgrims took the handy escalators to the basilica at the top of the hill, my offspring sweetly rested her sunburned body on a shady park bench alongside heat-wearied stray dogs, and I bought phone cards, sorted out the Italian telephone system, made failed emergency calls to Lara, argued with the implacable guardian of a public pay toilet and sourly fretted away all the nervous energy that should have been used up in a 20-kilometre walk.
Right on time, the driver returned, opened his doors, held out the route book with a mission-accomplished look -- then closed the doors and pretended to drive off when I opened my wallet to pay him for his troubles.
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