Last year for our 36th anniversary, mio marito (my husband) and I took White’s Ferry across the Potomac, visited a winery for a tasting, hit the Leesburg Prime Outlets, and had a so-so dinner at a restaurant in a converted bank.
This year, we rode a packed rush-hour bus to Stazione Centrale di Milano and 30 minutes later by train we were in Pavia, a town of 75,000 about 25 miles south of Milan.
Pavia has gone through multiple incarnations since its founding in pre-Roman times.
Like the Tuscan town of San Gimignano, Pavia is known for its towers. These towers are not attached to buildings but are freestanding and were built by individual families as assertions of power and wealth. At some point, more than a hundred existed; now, three dominate the campus of the University of Pavia. On March 17, 1989, the tower next to Pavia’s Duomo suddenly collapsed, killing four people and rendering the Duomo unsafe for habitation. It is now partially remodeled, but the tower will not be rebuilt.
Interspersed among the towers are several churches that we visited, each more fascinating than the next.
+ The Duomo, partially restored, is only half a church for now, wide and shallow with a temporary wall completely blocking 2/3 of the nave, the transept, and all the other parts of the building.
+ S. Maria Incoronata di Canepanova, built about 1500 on the site of a miraculous vision of Mary, contains oil paintings of eight heroines from the Hebrew bible.
+ Chiesa di San Francesco, a stark medieval church started in 1228, two years after the death of St. Francis of Assisi, with its interesting though faded frescoes everywhere, towers and brickwork.
+ The Basilica di San Teodoro, with its magnificent mural of the patron saint of Pavia on what is essentially a pictographic map of the city as it was about 1525 with the remaining towers still identifiable in 2010.
San Teodoro is near the River Ticino in the center of what was once the fishermen’s living area, and the Jewish ghetto backs on to the church. Rabbi Moses da Pavia lived there during the 11th Century, but the community was at its height at the end of the 15th Century. On several occasions, the Jews were ordered to leave the entire Milanese territory but always managed to delay their expulsion; in 1597, their time ran out.
According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, “The governor then gave the Jews two months in which to depart. He obliged the poor to leave first, giving them an escort of soldiers and 5,000 florins in gold for the expenses of the journey. The majority left the province of Milan after Easter, and the remainder after Pentecost. But two Jewish families were left in Cremona, Lodi, and Alessandria; in Pavia not one Jew remained.”
+ Finally, we visited San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro, a huge basilica named for the gold leaf that formerly covered its ceiling (a “sky of gold”). San Pietro houses the remains of St. Augustine in a magnificent intricately carved marble altarpiece that is the focal point of attention, and the remains of Boethius in a reliquary in the crypt below the altar.
Both of these early Christian philosophers preoccupied me as a graduate student some 40 years ago. Their writings were the centerpiece of a course I took in medieval literature at the University of Cincinnati with Elizabeth Armstrong, who made all these works alive and (most important in those days, “relevant”). In that crypt I thought about how far we were from the Leesburg outlets and how close I was to what moved me.
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“Tell us about the food,” my correspondents plead.
Our special meal that evening was back in Milan, about a mile from our apartment, at Alla Cucina Economica, a slow-food trattoria near the supermercato we visit every Friday. What we hadn’t noticed is that the theme of the restaurant is Barbie. On each table a Barbie doll sits in a soup bowl with a flower; there were various Barbie environments scattered about the dining room; the bathroom had a pile of bloody Barbies!
Like many small restaurants here, this one had only two choices for antipasti, primi (pasta course) and two for secondi (main course). Unfortunately, the two choices for secondi were pork and octopus; fortunately, the octopus had all been consumed by the lunch crowd and replaced by salmon.
Unfortunately, I am not a fish lover and will eat salmon only under conditions of great hunger and/or at a public dinner. Fred was thrilled with the salmon, which he preceded with a dish of barley in some incredibly rich cheese cream sauce; the chef left off the salami garnish.
I took the high-cholesterol vegetarian road, an extraordinary route. My antipasto was a small slice of onion and cheese quiche: surely the best I’ve ever eaten. My main course was risotto with parmesan and a drizzle of balsamic extract.
For dessert, we shared a white chocolate pane cotta. There are people who go from place to place comparing pane cotta; we had never tried it and were swept away by our first taste.