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Exploring the Italian Countryside with Author Chelsea Hodson

Her debut collection of essays “Tonight I’m Someone Else” has topped “best book” lists from Elle to the AV Club. Now, she guides DEPARTURES through her most memorable moments in the Italian countryside.


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At Rome’s busy Fiumicino Airport, people rushed in and out while I sat in a cafe that was part espresso bar, part convenience store. I’d ordered a sandwich by pointing at something that looked like it had brie in it, and made the horrible mistake of bringing my espresso to my seat with me. I knew it was Italian tradition to stand at the bar to drink my coffee, but my mind was elsewhere. And besides, I am hopelessly American. This was only my second time in Italy, where I had come to teach a writing workshop for English-speaking students from the U.S.

My teaching partner and co-workshop founder, Giancarlo DiTrapano, was outside waiting. I met Giancarlo, publisher and editor of Tyrant Books, when he lived in New York, but in 2016, he moved to Rome for love. In 2017, we founded the Mors Tua Vita Mea writing workshop at his family’s villa in Sezze Romano, a scenic 90-minute drive from Rome. Giancarlo, who grew up in West Virginia, spent childhood summers at the villa, which is now available as a luxury rental year-round. This April, we hosted our second cohort of students for a week at Villa DiTrapano, which was purchased by his Italian grandfather in 1932.

Outside the airport, it doesn’t take long to see the vibrant green landscape of the Italian countryside hugging the open freeway. As we neared Sezze on Via Campania SR-156, we saw the town sitting atop the mountains ahead. My favorite part of traveling has always been the anticipation of the destination. With a population just shy of 25,000, the town has a small and sleepy atmosphere, with a few cafes and bars as hangout spots for locals. As the legend goes, Sezze was founded by Hercules after defeating a population of giant cannibals.

As we drove up the winding path to the top of the 16-acre property, the students oohed and ahhed at the olive orchard with lemon, orange, and fig trees. But the real crown jewel is the 17th-century castelletto, regal in its old age. This structure, essentially a small castle, was originally owned and built by Signor Rappini, the man responsible for bringing water buffalo north from the ancient Greek city of Paestum. Sezze is one of only two areas in Italy where water buffalo aid in the production of mozzarella, meaning mozzarella bought in local cheese shops are some of the freshest and most authentically made in the world.

In between the castelleto and the villa is a gorgeous saltwater pool, and, above that, on a bright day, a view of the Mediterranean. While cafes and shops are just a short walk past the villa’s gated entrance, the property itself peaceful and serene; the lawn near the pool so soft it feels like carpet. The town’s church bells consistently ring a few minutes after the hour—something Giancarlo said was “so Italian.”

At Mors Tua Vita Mea, we spend mornings workshopping essays and short stories—discussing what works, what doesn’t, where the piece might go next. A foreign place seems like the ideal location to have this conversation—I find a little disruption in routine can be helpful for unlocking new creative potential. Giancarlo and I often lead a discussion on craft elements of writing—what makes a good first sentence, or how writing about the body can pull a reader into a piece. Afterward, we go on a field trip.

Recently we went on a 40-minute scenic drive from the rolling fields of Sezze to the rocky, coastal city of Terracina, once favored as a port by the Romans, stopping along the way to visit the Mediterranean waters often viewable from the villa’s windows. After visiting the Pacific and Atlantic oceans several times throughout my life, it was strange to think I’d never touched this particular body of water. Even in April, it was warm enough for some braver students to dive all the way in. The rest of us were content to stay onshore, getting our feet wet and looking at the seashells that had washed up. Above us, on the rocky cliffs, stood the ancient ruins of the Temple of Jupiter Anxur, built in the Fourth Century BC to worship the sky god Jupiter. Other sources argue it was actually built for Venus, which only adds to the site’s romantic mystique.

Once we learned the pillars were merely the foundation for the temple, we tried to imagine the grandiosity of what it must have looked like 2,000 years ago. Down the mountain is another arch, under which is a stretch of the Appian Way, one of the oldest and most important roads of the ancient republic.

We also visit Fossanova Abbey, one of the most famous Cistercian Gothic monasteries in Italy, and where Saint Thomas Aquinas died in 1274. The twelfth-century Gothic architecture paired with the natural light that shone in from the windows was beautiful and serene. An American, I’m used to the beauty of a destination being obscured by other tourists. But here we are often the only people, allowing us to linger and appreciate the site.

It wouldn’t be Italy without a day centered around a meal, so we often schedule lunch at All’eremo Di Sant’erasmo Ristorante—a restaurant located near the top of a mountain in the neighboring sleepy town of Roccagorga. It’s so remote that the first time I visited last fall we encountered a bull sauntering its way across the road, unworried about the occasional car.

When we visited this month, we immediately felt invigorated by the crisp, high-altitude air. The sky a bit overcast, the sun bright enough to highlight the vibrant shades of green of the Italian countryside and the hazy blue horizon. Seated in the covered outdoor area, peaceful and quiet, we joked about needing to unbutton our pants, which became less of a joke as course after course arrived at the table: fresh bread, prosciutto from Bassiano, pecorino con tartufo (sheep’s milk cheese with truffle), onion marmalade, the reddest tomatoes I’d ever seen, grilled zucchini and eggplant, and three full servings of fresh homemade pasta. We were the only customers, making us feel like millionaires who’d reserved the entire restaurant.

At the Garden of Ninfa, widely regarded as one of the most important and romantic gardens in the world, we drove into the valley where it’s located in Cisterna di Latina, observing the tall castle ruins before seeing the garden itself. As we walked inside, I understood why Giancarlo described it as feeling like “a Disney movie”—the pollen swirling in the air giving the atmosphere a dreamy soft focus. Purple wisteria bloomed atop the 12th-century ruins of Ninfa’s Basilica of Santa Maria Maggore, where Pope Alexander III was crowned in 1159. We traced a babbling brook and admired the variety of the garden, so lush it has the ability to grow plants from all over the globe—an area of blooming white rose bushes sat not too far from a bamboo forest.

Surrounded by Italian tourists, I appreciated how alone we’d been allowed to remain on our other trips—an increasing rarity. Visiting urban areas like Rome and Venice has its allure, but this view of rural Italy felt so singular it had spoiled me. There is a magic involved in reaching a place that feels undiscovered; it allows time to slow, or to imagine oneself in another time. Even though all of these places we visited are clearly designated on maps, they felt like secrets that we ourselves could unravel on our own time.

Tonight I'm Someone Else by Chelsea Hodson is now available from Holt Paperpacks.


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