La Dolce Vita

THE BALTIMORE SUN

I press my back flat against a 900-year-old stone wall in Orvieto, Italy, and suck in my stomach, but it's not enough. The side mirror of a car brushes me as it creeps down a street built for medieval pedestrians and donkeys, not Fiats and Mercedes Benzes.

It's been like this all morning. No matter where I walk or stand in these narrow, cobbled lanes, I seem to be impeding the progress of a motor vehicle. Every so often the streets open onto a sunlit piazza, and my heart soars at the prospect of umbrella-shaded cafes. But no: Most of Orvieto's piazzas are now parking lots.

Stefano Cimicchi, the town's mayor, is no happier about this than I am. Returning the streets to the pedestrians and the piazzas to the cafes is one of Orvieto's biggest challenges as a founding member of Italy's burgeoning "Slow Cities" movement.

A spinoff of the "Slow Food" movement, which began 14 years ago and has spread throughout the world, the Slow Cities campaign is a rear-guard fight against the worst effects of globalization. It's an attempt to take the Slow Food philosophy -- with its emphasis on organically grown and traditionally prepared local dishes, and long, sensual meals -- out of the kitchen and apply it to all aspects of municipal life.

Slow Cities, which must have a population below 50,000, pledge to restore their medieval centers -- which many take to mean ridding them of traffic -- and to silence noisy car alarms, expand and improve parks, shift to less-polluting forms of energy and maintain and promote traditional foods and handicrafts.

Individual towns are banishing fast-food restaurants to distant suburbs, banning genetically modified food and tearing down neon signs and cell-phone towers.

At its essence, it's an effort to formalize the unwritten code of la dolce vita -- the sweet life -- and to protect it from the dizzying pace and homogenizing effects of global culture. It's about shielding the traditional two-hour lunch from the temptations of the drive-through window and year-round 24 / 7 work culture, of saving the perfectly drawn schiuma -- foam -- on a cappuccino at a local cafe from the inexorable spread of Starbucks, of defending the passeggiata -- the traditional evening stroll around town -- from the distractions of prime-time television.

Since the movement began four years ago, 33 Italian cities have signed on and another 16 are awaiting approval. Cities outside Italy want in, too. The movement's leaders are considering applications from towns in Brazil, Germany, Great Britain, Greece and Switzerland.

One of the great ironies of the movement, of course -- and perhaps one reason so many cities are so keen to join -- is that it's likely to make the members irresistible to the guidebook-toting hordes.

To see how it's playing out, I recently visited three Slow Cities -- Bra, in the Piedmont region; Orvieto, in Umbria; and Zibello, in Emilia-Romagna. I found that la dolce vita is indeed under siege throughout the country, and that each of the towns is fighting back in its own way.

Fighting globalization

Hemmed in by the plump, vineyard-lined hills that produce Italy's "killer B" wines -- Barbera, Barbaresco and Barolo -- Bra has been renowned for its viticulture since Roman days. Pliny the Elder and Julius Caesar are on record praising it, as just about everyone in town will tell you. Yet, a few doors down from the worldwide headquarters of the Slow Food movement, a window display in a wine shop featured bottles from Australia and California.

"Globalization is taking over Italy -- the idea of fast life, fast food, fast culture," said Silvio Barbero, national secretary for Slow Food and one of the founders of the Slow Cities movement. "We have to start to defend our cultural heritage."

The idea, he said, "is to transmit the basic quality-of-life philosophy of the Slow Food movement into a way of managing a town."

Not far from Barbero's office is a tower with a clock that runs a consistent 17 minutes late, but he stressed that in this case "slow" doesn't necessarily mean sluggish or dawdling. It's a label that connotes conviviality and gracious living. Anglo-Saxon visitors, he said, sometimes have trouble grasping this.

"Concrete is fast," Barbero explained. "Green places are slow. Suburbs are fast; piazzas are slow. Noise is fast; silence is slow."

Strolling the streets of Bra with my evening gelato in hand and listening to the lively conversations bubbling out of the cafes, it seemed to me that la dolce vita was doing just fine. But just about everyone I talked to feared it is taking a battering.

Giorgio Chiara Boschis, who runs a winery in Barolo, told me: "The old patriarchal family is no more in Italy. The women are obliged to work now, so they can't prepare traditional meals, and the children are in front of the TV many hours and perhaps know more about other cultures than their own."

Italians have been saying the same thing for decades. Growing out of the outrage over the opening of a McDonald's next to the Spanish Steps in Rome in the mid-1980s, the Slow Food movement issued a manifesto that read in part: "We are enslaved by speed and have all succumbed to the same insidious virus: Fast Life, which disrupts our habits [and] pervades the privacy of our homes. ... A firm defense of quiet material pleasure is the only way to oppose the universal folly of Fast Life."

To that end, Bra is working to change the eating habits of its children by banning hamburgers and processed meals from school cafeterias and replacing them with locally grown, organic meat and produce prepared according to the town's traditional recipes. Same with the hospital. In fact, I heard from more than one person that Bra's medical facility serves the best food in town.

The town offers discount mortgages to building owners who renovate using Bra's traditional butter-colored stucco and red-tile roofs, and promotes music and theater events in the town's many courtyards.

Set amid undulating foothills that rise gradually toward the Alps, and just distant enough from industrial Turin to escape its smog and sprawl, Bra is a nice enough town, but hardly a head-turner by Italian standards. And that brings up an important point: The Slow Cities movement is for the benefit of residents, not tourists; being a Slow City doesn't automatically confer charm and beauty. The tourists who do make it to Bra usually come for its annual cheese festival or to sample the regional wines.

Back to medieval ways

By contrast, Orvieto, built atop a butte of tufa that rises 300 feet above the green Umbrian plains an hour north of Rome, gets all the tourists it can handle.

Sixteenth-century walls that thwarted raiders from rival cities now keep out the tour buses and rental cars that bring 2 million visitors each year. Drivers are directed to a parking garage hidden beneath a park and piazza below the medieval city center and ride up in elevators inside the town's stone walls. On the other side of Orvieto, visitors arriving by train get on a funicular to ride up to the old part of town. Small electric buses ferry visitors through town.

This meant that the Lancias and Opels that edged past me in the narrow streets belonged to locals, not tourists. It was obvious that not everybody wanted to make the compromises necessary to be a Slow City.

"It's a problem," conceded Massimo Borri, an aide to Mayor Stefano Cimicchi. "We want to shut the door to all cars, but the decision is very difficult, very political. We're waiting for some new political ideas."

As it turned out, the traffic thinned out somewhat after morning rush hour, when restaurants and shops get their deliveries, and strolling around town became tolerable. It was then that Orvieto's appeal shone.

Those slim cobbled lanes are lined with the shops of all manner of skilled, local craftsmen: dollmakers, sculptors, potters, painters and lacemakers. I stepped into one shop full of exquisitely carved wooden puppets and half-expected to find Gepetto behind the counter.

Tourists come mainly for the Gothic cathedral, begun in 1290 and made of striking bands of black and white marble. The gilded facade, full of mosaics and columns, is equally breathtaking -- but so different from the striped-marble sides that it might as well be on a different building.

At his villa on a vineyard-covered hilltop within sight of the old city, Cimicchi, the current president of the Slow Cities movement and self-described "former communist," filled my glass from a bottle of sweet white wine that he made himself. He explained that Orvieto, like other Slow Cities, is trying to reach back to its medieval roots.

"In the United States, you build up the highways leading into the towns and put all the businesses there," he said. "We're trying to get back to a medieval way of doing things -- to have central squares where people come by foot to speak, exchange ideas and share their love. We want our piazzas to be used in the way they were intended when they were built 500 years ago."

But the Slow City people aren't Luddites, he insisted. The movement welcomes technology like high-speed Internet connections that can improve life without polluting.

Cimicchi held up his cell phone. "This allows me to stay in touch with City Hall and to take care of business while I'm out in my vineyards. The small farmers around here all have their own Web sites. That's a Slow Cities approach."

Saving culatello

When all is said and done -- and it sometimes seems as if a lot more is being said than done -- the concept of Slow Cities can seem a little amorphous and abstract.

But one indisputable, tangible success is Zibello, on the banks of the River Po, 20 miles from Parma. There, Giorgio Quarantelli, the town's mayor, pushed open the beaded curtain at the entrance of an aromatic butcher shop and led me down the stairs to the musty cellar. Dangling from the brick ceiling like overfed bats were 200 small, pear-shaped hams in the process of curing and becoming culatello di Zibello.

Since becoming a Slow City, this town of 2,000 people has banned cars and motorbikes from its central piazza, removed pine trees from its parks and replaced them with native poplars, restored an old palace and theater, and is compiling a dictionary of the fast-vanishing local dialect. But its greatest success, by far, has been rescuing the town's signature culatello di Zibello from extinction.

Culatello is similar to the cured, paper-thin ham called prosciutto, but aficionados say that's like comparing foie gras to liverwurst. The renowned prosciutto of nearby Parma is made from the bone and thigh muscle of the pig, but culatello, made under strict guidelines dating to the 1400s, uses only the high, tender muscle from the rear legs.

Prosciutto is cured in the relatively cool, dry air of the Apennine foothills, while culatello ages in humid lowland cellars along the River Po, giving it a distinctive, slightly fusty aroma. Most critically, Parma turns out 9 million prosciutto hams a year, while Zibello and neighboring villages produce only 12,000 culatello.

A few years ago, that number was down to just 300, and it looked as if this handcrafted delicacy would soon vanish. It has always been popular among royalty -- Prince Charles once complained when it wasn't included in a banquet he attended in Bologna -- but its high price and relative obscurity kept culatello di Zibello out of the mainstream.

"It was slowly dying out," Quarantelli said. "It was too expensive for the masses, and the people here in Zibello didn't eat it -- it was the part of the pig you traditionally sold to finance next year's operations."

A key tenet of the Slow Cities movement is preserving unique local foods, so Quarantelli and others created a publicity campaign, which included a self-guided driving tour of culatello producers -- called the Strada del Culatello -- and organized an annual Festival del Culatello, a four-day event that draws more than 10,000 people.

Workers were setting up tables in the central piazza for the festival as Quarantelli showed me around town. Like Bra, it's a pleasant enough place, but not particularly tourist-charming. Those who come here -- typically on a day trip from Parma -- tend to be following their taste buds.

Which is what we did, to the Trattoria La Buca, where the women of the Leonardi family have been serving local specialties for four generations. (The fifth generation is in training.)

"The Slow Cities movement isn't about stopping progress," Quarantelli said as we waited for the first course. "It's about growth in the quality of life."

Forty minutes into a lunch that would eventually stretch to more than two hours, Quarantelli's mobile phone beeped. He shut it off without answering and forked another few slices of culatello onto my empty plate.

"Eating is not simply a matter of nutrition," he said, refilling my glass with a sweet, fizzy, local red wine. "It's a matter of tradition, of culture. And that's what a Slow City is -- it's making sure our towns give us the opportunity to slow down and enjoy life. That's all there is to it, really."

At its essence, Slow Cities is an effort to formalize the unwritten code of 'la dolce vita' -- the sweet life -- and to protect it from the dizzying pace and homogenizing effects of global culture.

When you go

Getting there: A number of airlines offer connecting service from BWI to Rome and Milan.

For more information about travel in Italy, contact the New York office of the Italian Government Tourist Board: 212-245-5095; www.italiantourism.com.

BRA

In brief: Bra is in the Piedmont hills near Alba, about two hours from Milan and an hour from Turin. Train connections are possible but not frequent.

Lodging :

Albergo Badellino, Piazza XX September, 4, Bra, Italy 12042

011-39-0172-439050

www.turismodoc.it

* A mini-suite with kitchenette but no air conditioning costs 80 euros (about $92.50) a night, including breakfast.

Dining:

Ristorante Battaglino, Piazza Roma, 18 Bra, Italy

* Meal of local dishes, 30 euros ($34.25) per person, not including wine.

Festival: "Cheese," an international event "dedicated to milk in all its shapes and forms," Sept. 19-22.

ORVIETO

In brief: Orvieto is on a main rail line, an hour north of Rome, and is served by frequent high-speed trains. It's also on the A1 motorway.

Lodging:

Hotel Virgilio, Piazza Duomo 5-6, Orvieto, Italy 05018

011-39-0763-341882

www.hotelvirgilio.com

* Doubles, with bath, 85 euros ($98), including tax. Rooms are basic, but more than half the shutters open to a "Room With a View" look across the piazza to the breathtaking duomo, barely 75 yards away.

Dining:

Tipica Trattoria Etrusca, Via L. Maitani 10, Orvieto, Italy 05018

* Traditional specialties, such as rabbit cooked in local herbs. Dinner for two with wine, 65 euros ($75).

Festival: Orvieto con Gusto, Oct. 4-12. Celebrates local cuisine with a walking tour for foodies and "taste laboratories" dedicated to food and wine tasting.

ZIBELLO

In brief: This town is located about 20 miles northeast of Parma. It has a couple of small hotels, but most visitors prefer to base themselves in Parma and make Zibello a day trip.

Lodging:

Hotel Toscanini, V.Le Tosca-nini 4, Parma, Italy 43100

011-39-0521-289141

www.hoteltoscanini.com

* 120 euros ($139) a night, including a better-than-average breakfast. Modern, well-run, air-conditioned hotel three minutes' walk from the old part of town.

Dining:

Trattoria La Buca, 43010 Zibello, Parma, Italy

* Lunch or dinner, 45-50 euros ($52-$58) per person with an inexpensive wine.

Festivals: There are two involving Zibello and culatello. One, based on La Strada del Culatello, Nov. 15-16, involves wine, cheese and culatello. La Festival del Culatello is held the first weekend in June each year.

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