Independence Day is one of my favorite holidays. Probably ranks second, behind only Thanksgiving. I love the Fourth of July. We have a neighborhood parade in the morning, we usually have a family gathering in the evening and fireworks of some kind emerge after dusk.
But I’ve never spent a Fourth of July like I did Friday. In the Italian city of Arezzo, the very heart of Tuscany.
Arezzo is our base for the rest of this Italian adventure and is home to OU’s satellite campus, where hundreds of students come every year for a study abroad program. Rome was awesome and Venice was stunning. But I get the feeling that when I walk the streets of Arezzo, I’m in Italy.
This is what I saw on a red-white-and-green Fourth of July.
Arezzo is a city of some 100,000, 50 miles southeast of Florence, with a history that goes back thousands of years.
Arezzo was conquered by the Romans in 311 BC, the Roman city eventually was demolished and rebuilt, Napoleon took over the city and even during World War II, the city was heavily damaged before the English liberated Arezzo from German rule in 1944.
I won’t bore you with the details, just know this. A massive wall was built around the city; I can’t really ascertain if the wall stems from the Roman times or back to the 11th century. Either way, impressive.
And inside those walls was built a city in the 1200s and 1300s. Those buildings and streets not only still stand, they thrive.
A modern Arezzo — charming, active, quaint — surrounds Historic Arezzo. Strikes me as something similar to an Americana city of years past. Think Ponca City 1968, or Bartlesville 1972. There’s a Singer sewing store right across the street from our hotel.
But Historic Arezzo is not a museum, unless you call it a living museum. Within Historic Arezzo are narrow stone streets, maybe 20 feet wide from building to building, built on the side of a hill, filled with commerce and residences. Banks, churches, restaurants, hair salons, what we would call convenience stores, retail shops, medical offices and massive old doors that lead up to apartment buildings.
Within Historic Arezzo are some plazas — including the Piazza Grande, which dates to the 1200s and includes an ancient church, Santa Maria della Pieve, and the Palace of the Lay Fraternity, which has been the seat of Arezzo government for centuries.
You can walk to the top of part of the wall, which allows you to overlook the Tuscany countryside. It’s impossible to describe Arezzo’s charm. You can see why OU president David Boren had the vision of a campus here. OU-Arezzo currently leases space inside Historic Arezzo; it hopes to move within a couple of years to a monastery the university purchased several years ago.
This is going to be quite the place to experience in the next few days.
Kirk and Charlotte Duclaux are the on-site directors of OU-Arezzo and traditionally host a Fourth of July party for all the students and staff. They also invite the city.
Friday night, the party was staged in a park hard by the University of Siena’s Arezzo campus. Perhaps 80 or so OU students currently are in Arezzo, plus several instructors and staff.
The event was catered — burgers and hot dogs. Live music was provided, with a couple of local bands playing hard rock, followed by a beautiful performance by Oberlin College’s summer opera program. Oberlin, located in Oberlin, Ohio, sends opera students to Arezzo every year.
OU’s students played volleyball and football and soccer.
It was a great setting. We got to meet some of the OU-Arezzo staff and experience a picnic, Italian style.
Hot dogs were served by taking a full chunk of bread, not split open, and hulling out a middle. Then the hot dog is pushed down into the opening. It looked interesting but was awfully labor intensive. I settled for a grilled sausage that was quite tasty, though I sort of commandeered the condiments. The server was putting all the condiments on for each guest; he would load up a burger or hot dog, didn’t matter, with mayo, tons of it, followed by ketchup. Uh, sorry. I applied my own sauce, and it was strictly brown mustard.
Quite a few Arezzo citizens joined us at the party, and when the Oberlin choir finished its performance with no patriotic songs, the Engineering group decided “The Star-Spangled Banner” had to be sung. So a group of Engineering students and staff took the stage and sang the national anthem. I photographed and videotaped.
We told the Fine Arts group, which had joined us in Rome, that Engineering trumped them again, this time at their own game.
As we walked back to the hotel, we went under the train station, to get across the tracks, and on the wall at the end of the tunnel is an Italian version of the OU brand, complete with the OU Seal. Boomerissimo, Soonerissimo was written next to it.
MY GREEN LEATHER SHOES
I never shop for myself. Never really buy anything for myself, except a new pickup every 15 years or so. But one thing I’ve always tried to make sure I own are good shoes. I take care of my feet.
I haven’t bought new shoes in, I don’t know, five years or so. So I’m getting due.
And Friday in Historic Arezzo, we stumbled upon a leather shop at which a cobbler makes his own goods. Purses, shoes, all kinds of things.
And I spied a pair of green leather shoes. They’re expensive, something like 190 Euro. But I tried them on. Couldn’t really decide whether I needed a size 42 or 43 (they don’t subscribe to the American foot-measuring system). So I told the guy I’d be back with some real socks. We’ll see.
My man Johnny Damon, our videographer, wears some spiffy shoes. Maybe I can hang with him if I swallow hard and purchase the green leather shoes, which would make quite the keepsake of our trip to Italy.
* Lunch was at an Italian deli, Bergo S. Piero. Small, quaint and pure Italian. The man behind the counter spoke no English. The woman spoke very little.
But Jim and Julie Sluss, who have spent a lot of time in Arezzo, had recommended the place. So we tried it. We finally were able to communicate that we each wanted a half sandwich; the Dish had prosciutto, I had salami and mortadella, which struck me as a sort of ham. We also got a bowl of olives, a piece of lemon custard and two drinks. I didn’t know if the price would 22 Euro or 42 Euro. Turns out it was 12.60. Quite a deal.
Seven of our engineering students came in while we were eating. We helped them order, and the Dish decided to buy their lunch. The total for all seven was 40 Euro. You can eat cheap and well in Italy if you go to the right place.
* We took a two-hour nap in the afternoon. Traveling Italy, or anywhere else in Europe, I suppose, will wear you out.
* We toured a famous church in Historic Arezzo, the Basilica of San Francesco, which was built in the late 1200s and has some very famous frescos. Italy is an Art History major’s dream. These churches are more museum than they are places of worship.
* Our hotel, the Continentale, is the best we’ve stayed in. Except for the bed. The bed’s a killer. I definitely miss my Courtyards by Marriott.
* The Dish wore the Thunder cap most of the day and it finally paid off. Not that an Italian recognized the logo, but some OU microbiology students saw it and said, “Thunder up.” So we had a nice conversation.