Sunday, May 07, 2006

Day 4: Pavia-Reggio nell'Emilia

Leaving Pavia, we decide to make a stop enroute to Reggio nell'Emila in the town of Soncino as part of our research into Jewish Italy. Soncino--one of the towns controlled by the Sforza family in the Middle Ages--was the site of the first Hebrew printing shop in Italy in the late 15th century. There is now a museum--the Casa dei Stampatori--with some of the old equipment and exhibits about the history of the printing industry in Soncino. We drive across the Lombardia countryside past Lodi and Crema....the terrain is very flat and there are many rice fields along our route. Arriving in Soncino, we have to maneuver through the back streets since the main drag is pedestrian only--at least on Sunday morning. At the far end of town, we turn a corner and miraculously there is a sign directing us to the Casa dei Stampatori....just two blocks further.

The museum is open and when we walk in, we are immediately directed up the stairs. We have arrived at the same time as the opening of an art exhibition in the first floor gallery. After realizing the misunderstanding, we go back downstairs and tell the man in charge that we are interested in seeing the museum. He begins a rapid-fire explanation (in Italian) about the history of the shop, the town and how it all got started. At least that's what we think because we only understand about 50% of what he is saying. He then pulls out a sheet of paper, inks up the plate in the replica of the 15th century press and prints out for us in Hebrew the first page of the bible that Israel Nathan Soncino printed in 1483 (just 28 years after Gutenberg's invention.) We wander around the shop--apparently it has been in use recently and is also a center for studying printing. Conferences on the art of printing are held regularly in Soncino. There are other old presses, a collection of books with Jewish themes and records of other work done in the shop. Before leaving, we walk around the art exhibit being held in the gallery and head out for a stroll around the town.

We later learn that the print shop was started by a family who had been invited to Soncino by the Sforzas as moneylenders and expanded into the printing industry. They were only active in Soncino for ten years (they printed about 30 books)--Jews fell out of favor in Soncino then--and the Hebrew printing industry moved to various towns around Italy before the family moved abroad.

The town is pleasantly quiet on this Sunday morning....there are men in the cafes and children playing ball in the main piazza. We drive down to the large rocca (fort) and walk around the outside. There are several old waterwheels under the castle and a pretty fast flowing canal.

Before leaving Soncino, I look at the map and realize that we are only an hour away from the Emilia-Romagna town of Zibello where there is a well known restaurant called La Buca. Bill Buford had written an article in 2004 for the New Yorker about the woman who runs it--Miriam--and how she taught him all about making pasta. His lead was something like - "I had the best pasta of my life recently in a little town in the Po valley". We call and are able to get a reservation for lunch. The drive takes us past Cremona and then across the Po River and from there, it is a short drive into Zibello.

It is a beautiful day--sunny and warm--and we are seated on the restaurant's large outdoor covered terrace. The meal is wonderful....for starters, we have a plate of the local cured meat specialty--culatello--and a plate of local salami. Both are terrific. For our pasta course, Diana orders the tortelli filled with spinach and cheese and I have tagliatelle with strips of culatello. Both are wonderful--Diana says that the tagliatelle is the best pasta dish she has ever eaten. I had also ordered some string beans but they are out of them, so we choose a plate of roast potatoes instead, even though we are not having "secondi". It seemed a little weird to have the potatoes after the pasta but it turns out that they are fantastic also. Diana has an almond cake (which she loves) for dessert and I have some strawberries. Between the weather, the terrace and the food, it is a most memorable lunch and we are reluctant to leave and break the spell.

We arrive in Reggio around 4 pm and immediately find that the center of this fairly large city (population of 130,000) is closed to traffic. We begin to drive around the perimeter of the town, looking for signs directing us to our city center hotel. The signs finally appear and the route takes us right across the main street and we have to contend with lots of strolling Reggians out for their Sunday passeggiata before reaching the hotel's parking lot.

Once in the hotel and settled in our room, I set out for a quick look at Reggio nell'Emila......the front door of the hotel is right on one of the main piazzas and every piazza seems to flow naturally into the next one. The streets are crowded with young people and families enjoying the nice weather. I pass the town theater which is right in the middle of town and next to the extensive and attractive public gardens. I see that there is a chamber music concert scheduled for Tuesday that looks interesting. The big square next to the theater---the Piazza Vittoria---is also crowded with people. Diana points out later that most of the people in this square are not is the meeting place for Reggio's foreign population.

I come back to the hotel with a very good feeling about Reggio nell' seems to be very attractive and inviting. When Diana comes out with me later, she has the same feeling. There doesn't seem to be much specifically "touristic" about it but it is nonetheless very appealing. We sit in the main square for a while watching children playing ball and families hanging out until it starts to get cool.

Since we had such a big lunch, dinner tonight will be pizza--a light Sunday night meal for us and seemingly for most of the Italians in town. We walk over to one of the hotel-recommended pizza restaurants--the Condor--and find a line out the door. But we are told that it will only be a 15 minute wait, so we decide to stay. The operation is very efficient and the staff is very charming...the only drawback is that we don't really like the pizza in Italy all that much and this seems to be about average. But it is acceptable, the price is right and the service is quick....and we really didn't want another full meal.

The walk back to our hotel--which is housed in a medieval palazzo--the moon shining, the streets looking like a stage set--is very romantic. Tomorrow our friend Swedish friend Ulf is coming to visit us from Faenza and we will try to make contact with the Reggio school system so that Diana can have a chance to visit their world-famous, innovative early childood programs.


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