No Bones About The Wonders Of Vézelay

Once upon a time, in the days of gluttonous yore – the 1980s – the celebrated Burgundian hill town of Vézelay, crowned by the Basilica of Mary Magdalene, was known as “a site of gastronomic pilgrimage.” Rarely did anyone evoke Magdalene’s relics or her UNESCO World Heritage Site shrine. Rarely did gastronomes notice the strangely attired pilgrims trudging up the looping, lichen-frosted lanes to venerate the longhaired, wild-woman saint.

In the 1980s, pilgrimage wasn’t in fashion. Hedonism seemed the thing. The Michelin-starred hotel-restaurant in crusty Saint-Père-sous-Vézelay at the saint’s feet was the shrine. Thousands offered up wallets on the altar of haute cuisine. Only zealots spoke of the moldering bones inside the basilica’s gilt reliquary.

Now nearly 2 million visitors climb the cobbled streets of upper Vézelay. This medieval aerie hovers above vineyards and those emerald-green pastures where romantic writers writhe in ecstasy. Legions of the pious brandish staffs, scallop shells and other tokens of religiosity. They besiege the ramparts, starting at Easter, the kick-off date for pilgrimages in France. Culture vultures, busloads of package tourists and brightly attired trekkers join the scrum.

Saint Bernard preached the Second Crusade at Vézelay on Easter day, 1146. It happened on March 31, like this year, a reason for numerological pilgrims to rejoice. It might also explain the numbers of visitors in Vézelay when I was there a few days ago.

Confession time: I’m not religious and am only partly reformed. I admit Vézelay was where my wife Alison and I started our trek: it lasted nearly three months and took us across France and over the Pyrenees. Vézelay surprised me then for the changes that have transformed it. This time around the upper part of town looked like a cross between Mont Saint Michel-France’s most visited site – and Montmartre. The formula is familiar: elephant trains, souvenirs, iffy food and parking lots packed with garishly painted buses.

What to do? Montmartre is wondrous at dawn. At Mont Saint Michel and Vézelay the trick is to spend the night. When the buses roll away, the magic steals back. It lasts until mid-morning.

We did not stay up all night. Arriving at dusk, we checked into an old favorite: the Hotel de la Poste et du Lion d’Or. Then we strolled up the storied streets. The crowds were headed out.

Spit-polished for the trade, the village still has a “real” side. We followed locals to a street paralleling the main drag, Grande Rue. The last day-trippers filled the wine bars, cafés and crêperies sampling the Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, the cappuccinos and Burgundy treats.

The residents roosted in the PMU-tobacco shop, knocking back an 80-proof distillate called marc de Bourgogne. They also wagered on pari-mutuel horse races, and watched with puzzlement as the neo-pilgrims vanished into the night.

Vézelay’s tourist office calls the basilica of Mary Magdalene “an extraordinary book of stone and light.” Beyond the troubled translation, the Romanesque shrine does seem to have been rewritten by ten centuries of heavy weather, lightning and strife. The façade definitely looks better when spotlit at night.

Over the doors three tympanums crawled with figures. The almond-shaped center one showed Christ surrounded by Apostles and strange beings ready for induction into the Universal Church. Giants and pygmies, dog-headed men and others with huge ears: the message was clear. All are welcome-sinners, miscreants like me, pagans, heathens and creatures only part human. This is Mary Magdalene’s basilica. She had been a prostitute.

It dawned on me why Vézelay’s central tympanum should resemble an almond or vulva. Hadn’t Mary’s first profession depended on the forbidden fruit? The cult of the Virgin, virginity, chastity and abstinence had come late to the church, ditto the rule against married priests, and women in the clergy. The reformed party boy Saint Francis of Assisi had come to Vézelay in its heyday. Maybe it was time for jocular Pope Francis to make a pilgrimage into the future by rediscovering the past?

Miracles happen, we’re assured.

The nave, daubed with dusky light, stretched a football field long. Having walked 750 miles, seeing a thousand churches en route, I now thought the nave looked vaguely Moorish. Its vaults and arches are rimmed by alternating pale and reddish stone, as in better mosques in Spain. Blasphemy?

The demons and monsters torturing sinners on the basilica’s carved capitals seemed to me to prove that progress is possible after all. In some places, notably France, the grin has overwhelmed the grim.

We were overdue for hedonistic relief. A girl in the hotel’s dining room was dressed like an Easter egg, lost in her Louis XV-style chair. She rose up and announced that the snails were “good and garlicky.” This prodigy then consumed a large pork jowl and several potatoes – as did I – savored ripe, smelly Epoisse cheese and gobbled a giant chocolate dessert. The child was a French paradox in the making. Healthy hedonism was alive and well in Vézelay. There was hope. Maybe miracles happen after all.

Author and private tour guide David Downie’s latest critically acclaimed books are Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James and Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light, soon to be an audiobook. His Paris Time Line app will be published in April: www.davidddownie.com and www.parisparistours.com. Photos © 2013 Alison Harris

Notre Dame De Paris: 850 Years?

Gargoyles glare down from the towers of Notre Dame as a motorcycle speeds up a ramp and tears into the air, arcing like a flying buttress, its spinning wheels dropping inches from terrified tourists and the sculpture-encrusted façade of the world’s most famous, most beloved, most reinvented and most mobbed cathedral.

The fantasy flashed through my irreverent mind as I clambered among joyous crowds seated on the temporary wooden bleachers and ramp that will face the cathedral until the end of this year. Worshippers wept and sang as cameras clicked, buzzed and whirred. Bliss and bafflement filled me.

We’d watched the carpenters build the ungainly platform, a here-today-gone-tomorrow structure so at odds with the solid pile of stone 100 feet in front of it. We’d hoped, vainly, that it would recreate the medieval maze of narrow streets that stood here until Emperor Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann wiped the slate in the mid-1800s to make the cathedral’s wide, modern square.

Script large enough for a par-blind skeptic like me to read declared that Notre Dame Cathedral was 850 years old this year, 2013. I wrestled the numbers back to 1163 and smiled a Gioconda smile. You had to wonder how many of today’s hallowed stones, sculpted or squared, had actually been part of this ecclesiastical flagship as it rose from 1163 to 1345, the date of its putative completion.Perhaps the foundation stone was authentic? It would be the now-invisible one laid, we’re told, by Bishop Maurice de Sully. He was the gleeful visionary who demolished the Romanesque church that had stood here for about 800 years when he took over. Added to the tally, that brought us back to the fourth century AD, which seemed about right. The first Christian church on this site would have been built after Paris’ masters in Rome switched from a Pagan pantheon to the great bearded patriarch and his virgin in the sky.

But what might a mole find underneath the 1,650-year-old Romanesque church? Why, a modest little Roman temple, perhaps, and maybe an ancient Gallic one underneath it for good measure.
Everyone knew that Notre Dame Cathedral, that paragon of the Gothic, was merely the spire-studded icing on a layer cake of architecture, history, and myth. All you had to do was clamber down into the archeological crypt facing the cathedral to see its profane underside: ancient Roman or Romanesque foundations, a third-century city wall, medieval hovels, roads and even sewers.

Everyone also knew that the current incarnation of Notre Dame was reconstituted from a ruin in the 19th-century (and restored again and again in decades to follow). The sculptures were fakes — copies or replacements of sculptures looted in the French Revolution or destroyed by weathering and acid rain. The main spire was an extravagant falsehood, put there by architect Viollet-le-Duc. He was the genial fellow who “restored” the cathedral not to any historic reality, but to capture what he considered the quintessence of the medieval.

In fact nearly everything inside and outside Notre Dame is a copy or a replacement or the result of Romantic 19th-century fantasies lifted from the pages of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. It was this wild, violent, irreligious novel published in 1831 that saved the cathedral from the wrecker’s ball. Hugo’s lusty tale was pure invention, like other inspiring tales, and buildings full of wonder, and it’s a story that plays well to this day.

The real miracle is, despite its fakeness, despite the fables, lacunae and inaccuracies, despite the crowds and souvenirs and flashing cameras, Notre Dame still has magic.

When my wife and I set out from Paris to the Pyrenees on foot, a pair of skeptic pilgrims, we began nearby at the Saint-Jacques Tower on Paris’s ancient Roman road. But our first stop was Notre Dame. How now? Can freethinkers be moved by a rebuilt pile atop layers of unbelievable fiction?

Absolutely: You would have to be a brute, or an imaginary stuntman on a tricked-out motorcycle, to not be moved by Notre Dame.

The ramp and bleachers and viewing platform, and the Catholic propaganda, may be ridiculous, useless or offensive to some. But as we stood in line like thousands of others, and finally entered the forest of limestone columns illuminated by ethereal, glass-filtered light, we were glad to be mere skeptics, not cynics. We were delighted to revere this draughty old barn full of windy words precisely because everything about it is a peerless, perennial fake.

Author and private tour guide David Downie’s latest critically acclaimed books are Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light, soon to be an audiobook, and Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James. His Paris Time Line app will be published in March: www.davidddownie.com and www.parisparistours.com.

[Photo credit: Alison Harris]

A Winter Wonderland In Paris? Mais Oui!

The first fat flakes clustered along my sleeve as I stood facing the Luxembourg Garden on the icy Left Bank. A grumpy street sweeper from the south side of the Sahara scattered salt and scowled. Then he looked up and batted his clotted eyelashes. Snow! In Paris? What a forgotten thrill!I hadn’t seen the white stuff since a brief dusting last year. Winters aren’t very wintry these days in the City of Climatically Changed Light.

When I first moved here in the 1980s it snowed like frigid clockwork. And that seemed absolutely normal and desirable. Way back in the 1800s when Henri Murger wrote what was to become Puccini’s famous La Bohème, snow fell constantly. Ice formed stalagmites and poets shivered burning their manuscripts to stay warm. That was the Paris of romantic memory, the Paris of dreams, the Paris I loved before knowing Paris.

Yet it was real, too. A bust of Murger lurked across the street in the Luxembourg. As I’d hoped, its bronze beard and many-buttoned coat were dusted purest white. Che gelida la manina, the famous aria from La Bohème, played in my mind’s ear, an earworm of the most resistant kind.

Tunefully accompanying it, something besides the snow began to fall on the city: a mantle of enchanted silence. Then suddenly the strange and unexpected sprouted on the faces of Parisian passersby: smiles!

The subtle transformation of Paris from gritty, grimacing sun-less sump into winter wonderland was complete by the time I’d walked around the park a couple of times. The short-lived silence was split by yelps and laughter. Grownups frolicked.

Kids threw off their heavy school satchels and built snowmen.

A girl broke away from her boyfriend and cartwheeled.

“Do you ever throw pepper?” I asked the street sweeper with his coarse salt as I exited the park. He stared, uncomprehending. Then the euro-penny dropped.

“Pepper! Oui, and we could toss in some mustard too,” he laughed, now scattering his salt with gusto, chuckling and nodding.

It was downright disconcerting. Parisians seemed drunk with joy. Instead of heading home I spent the rest of the day wandering the streets, parks and riverbanks with my wife, Alison, the photographer. My first years in the city came back to me with a pleasant frisson, mixed into remembrances of things past, things read, music heard, and movies seen.

It dawned on me that while everyone sings paeans to spring, and many even praise summer and fall in Paris, no one loves winter. Are winter and Paris not a match?

How wrong: Paris, it was clear, is a winter wonderland. How could I have forgotten? When else can you ice skate in front of City Hall, counting the spires and sculptures, glancing across to the snowy spine of Notre Dame Cathedral?

When else can you watch the cars slow then disappear under piles of snow? Gone are the maddening motorcycles, buried the mountains of lethal dog dirt. This old whore of a city, usually best seen by lamplight, looks powdered and fresh, smells clean, feels authentic and real.

As happens at night with spot-lighting, the snow highlights, underscores, picks out the details. A carved face appears on a dirty plaster façade. Gargoyles wear ermine cloaks. Turrets look like confectionary and the bulbous Pantheon’s dome looms like a ghostly balloon.

Most magical of all, the color goes out of the cityscape: it reverts to the Paris of black-and-white photos and vintage films, engravings from centuries past. The pure, color-free essence returns.

Here was another revelation, an epiphany: winter was a magical night. It removed the superfluous. Flying buttresses reared up in all their naked stone beauty, their snowy manes framed by leafless, contorted black branches.

But the delights of winter went far beyond the visual, the aesthetic, the artistic or historic. Quite suddenly, with ice and snow on the ground as they rightly should be, my favorite cafés seemed even more inviting than usual. The terraces were miraculously empty and smoke-free. Bundled up and seated under an umbrella-shaped heater I had the sidewalk and oxygen to myself. A piping hot plat du jour of roast pork with sautéed potatoes tasted of strong mustard – the kind the street sweeper liked – and of yesteryear, my hunger seasoned by the season.

As the temperature fell farther, chilled inhabitants headed home, freeing up the sightlines. Even the last intrepid ultra-economy tourists from frozen Eastern Europe, Russia, Korea or China disappeared into the murky white dusk. Blissfully empty were the Jardin des Plantes, the Tuileries and, miracle of miracles, the loved-to-death Place des Vosges in the Marais. No lines at the Louvre. The Sainte-Chapelle glowed and echoed, free of its steamy human cargo. By trotting across town at breakneck speed I even managed to sneak unmolested into the Edward Hopper and Van Gogh exhibitions, which until then had been the incarnation of mobbed.

All good things come to an end – or do they? When the snow and ice eventually melted and turned Paris back into a slippery gray sea, the sense of wonderment lingered. For one thing, my eyes had been reopened to the forgotten advantages of serious weather. For another, the forecasters were already announcing a series of new winter storms. Joy! Wrapping up and sauntering back onto the mushy sidewalks, I felt paradoxically warm and cozy inside. Paris was mine and mine alone – with Alison – for another few months!

Author and private walking-tour guide David Downie’s latest book is the critically acclaimed “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light,” soon to be an audiobook. His next adventure-memoir, to be published in April 2013, is “Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James.” His Paris Time Line app will be published in February. His websites are www.davidddownie.com, www.parisparistours.com, http://wanderingfrance.com/blog/paris and http://wanderingliguria.com, dedicated to the Italian Riviera.

[Photos courtesy Alison Harris © 2012 Alison Harris or © David Downie]

In The Shadow Of Cinque Terre, Discovering The Treasures Of La Spezia

Will the loved-to-death, storm-martyred Cinque Terre ever see the light at the end of the tunnel?

Which tunnel? There are many, many tunnels between the wave-lashed coves and perched, pastel-painted villages of the over-subscribed, over-reported, and now brutally hobbled Cinque Terre.

Above all there’s a long, dark tunnel not of love but of disdain or disregard in the mind of the global public lying between the little-loved, unsung port city of La Spezia and the tourist mecca of the Cinque Terre 5 miles north.

The latest blow to the Riviera’s breathtakingly picturesque suspended villages came last September, with yet another flash flood and killer landslide.

While the world’s attention was focused on Sandy, smaller but similarly devastating storms hit the eastern Italian Riviera. Four people were seriously injured. Hillsides and hiking trails slid into the hungry Mediterranean’s waves. Since September, the authorities have closed not only the roller-coaster hiking trail #2 linking all five Cinque Terre villages, but also the celebrated Via dell’Amore seaside stroll between Riomaggiore and Manarola.Does this mean blissful silence and solitude as in the good old days? Sure, but there’s a price to pay.

The cafes, restaurants and hotels of Monterosso, Vernazza and the other three villages are empty for now. So too are the cash tills of the Cinque Terre National Park, where normally rangers sell tickets to mobs happy to pay to stride among the millions through the land of dreamy dreams.

Meanwhile, south in homely La Spezia, life doesn’t just go on – it’s positively hopping. After a morning of condolences in Monterosso and Vernazza, my wife and I de-trained famished at La Spezia Centrale and hoofed it down a long, wide, pedestrianized street of handsome buildings leading to the palm-lined port. Our nostrils twitched in the air. We were not being snobs: we were following the irresistible scent of fresh-baked farinata chickpea tart.

The scent wafted from La Pia, a cult, century-old, pizzeria-style place in the heart of old La Spezia’s tangled alleyways. Chickpea tart is a local culinary obsession. It’s blistered, yellow, soft and, in La Spezia, also creamy in texture.

Farinata is a favorite of the merchant marine and Italian navy crews that fill La Spezia year round. There aren’t many tourists at La Pia or anywhere else, unless they’re catching trains or ferry boats to the Cinque Terre, or maybe heading to Portovenere and Lerici to see where Shelley drowned.

Much about La Spezia is rough-and-ready. Seated in the centuries-old, raucous maw of La Pia, we wolfed our succulent farinata, devouring it off plastic plates. It was nutty tasting, redolent of olive oil, and it was divine.

Outside towering cranes swung over docklands. Ferries came and went. Fishermen unloaded everything from La Spezia’s famed mussels to flipping-fresh bass and slippery squid. One of the region’s biggest markets is here. It was teeming with humanity.

We’ve been to La Spezia many times; some of its restaurants and specialty food shops are among the favorites listed in my book “Food Wine Italian Riviera & Genoa.”

But in all the times we’ve visited, we’d never climbed the hilly knob in the center of town. From below it seems to merge Genoa, San Francisco and Montmartre, pleated with staircases. A sign pointed to a castle and museum. We’d never heard of them.

Atop a lung-bursting rise we spotted stegosaur-crenellations and scary battlements of the kind seen on better castles. They led to a ramp and gaping gateway. Inside the castle was spot-lit, dust-free, high-tech and artfully filled with display cases. The cases were in turn filled with exquisite antiquities. The only thing that wasn’t filled was the castle itself. We had it to ourselves.

The lonely ticket-seller gave us brochures and told us how to navigate this vast pile built in part in the 1300s but added to again and again, then transformed in the early 2000s into the municipal museum. Our footsteps echoed on stone floors. Beckoning us were local archeological finds from nearby ancient Luni plus other Bronze Age or Iron Age sites.

A finely sculpted horse’s head 2,400 years old might have inspired an Art Deco artist. Delicate painted ceramics of equal antiquity showed wild boars and lions. A mosaic sea goddess rode a monstrous mosaic sea monster, its mouth agape.

Jewelry, weapons, tombstones, plates, jars and architectural motifs; the displays led from one cavernous room to another, up ramps and staircases, higher and higher. At each turn a more gorgeous view appeared through one of the castle’s cannon-hole windows.

My wife spotted a bronze spearhead from 1700 B.C. A bronze hammer next to it was even older.

The beauty of these objects haunted me. The thought that men and women had fashioned them in and around La Spezia and Luni – about 10 miles away – all those millennia ago made my head spin. But it was the half-moon-shaped tombstones that mesmerized me most. And they were 5,000 years old or more.

By the time we clambered onto the uppermost outdoor terrace we needed fresh air. Several things struck me. First, how could such a splendid museum be so utterly unknown? Second, how could neglect by the global mob have been the fate of such a seductive small city? It was homely only if you didn’t take time to look at it, walk through it and eat its divine foods.

The answer was clear. I gazed at the seafront, the huge port facilities, the heavy industry far off in the suburbs, the navy ships, the ungainly high-rise apartment towers. This was real and I liked it. Over the steep, olive-stippled hillsides due west of La Spezia, through that long, dark tunnel, lay the answer: the dreamy, unreal Cinque Terre villages were just 5 miles away. La Spezia was safe. Like Genoa it was a city for the intrepid, individual traveler. I sighed with satisfaction. Alone atop our castle, we wondered if we should tell anybody about our find.

Author and private walking-tour guide David Downie’s latest book is the critically acclaimed “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light,” soon to be an audiobook. His next adventure-memoir, to be published in April 2013, is “Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James.” His websites are www.davidddownie.com, www.parisparistours.com, http://wanderingfrance.com/blog/paris and http://wanderingliguria.com, dedicated to the
Italian Riviera.

[Photos Credits: Alison Harris or David Downie]

Buffalo Rome: Mozzarella, Martians And Culinary Crusaders

I was staring, mesmerized, my mouth watering at a giant mozzarella. The elastic curd was submerged in a giant bowl of cold water in my favorite small, family-run specialty food store in Rome. The bowl was shaped like a huge puckered blossom. It sat atop a glinting counter at E. Volpetti & C. on Via Marmorata near the Pyramid of Cestius in the Testaccio neighborhood in southern-central Rome.

The archetypal Aladdin’s Cavern of gastronomy, Volpetti is a place of secular pilgrimage for savvy foodies but also for normal, food-loving, unpretentious Romans.

Dozens of hams were displayed in cubby-holes, the archives of porcine paradise waiting to be sliced to order by bona fide prosciutto experts. Jowl bacon and smoked pancetta dangled like headhunters’ trophies. Jars of artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, and slices of eggplant towered over the human scrum at the counter. Baskets brimmed with gnarled white truffles worth their weight in silver, truffles so nose-tickling that I nearly swooned of airborne gluttony.

Hundreds of fabulous, expensive cheeses beckoned: yellowish bitto or pecorino di fossa aged in limestone pits, pungent-smelling pear-shaped provolone with whole lemons buried inside, immense wheels of black-rimmed pecorino romano and flame-branded Parmigiano.
But it was the humble fresh mozzarella trucked in several times weekly afloat in that funny-looking bowl that held my gaze.

Ebullient Emilio and charismatic Claudio Volpetti saw me staring and smiling and they must have wondered what had gotten into me. Both are beyond retirement age. They still work 16 hours a day, 6 days a week, and are passionate. They have trained deeply knowledgeable staffers and groomed an heir, Alessandro. And they are still top of the heap in the world of old-fashioned gastronomy in this, arguably the greatest food city in Italy, a city with the freshest produce, the best meats fresh or cured, the greatest variety of wines from around the country and the world.

To be the best among the best is difficult in the best of times. It is almost impossible in hard times when big box stores take over, especially when Martians with a spaceship the size of the Coliseum land down the way and spend countless millions offering bread and circuses and razzle-dazzle morality lessons to the famished citizenry.

The reason I was obsessing about the mozzarella was simple yet multi-layered, like everything in Rome, where simplicity hides infinite complexity. I have been coming to the Volpetti brothers for decades and always assumed they would continue to thrive forever. But earlier that day I had faced a crisis and had wondered how much longer the place could remain in business.

Why? I had gone shopping. Then I’d performed a private, comparative tasting of Volpetti’s trucked-in mozzarella from the Naples area and the freshly-made mozzarella I’d bought at Rome’s new Martian food emporium.

The Martians are the creators of a chain of high-end foodie shopping malls and foodie food courts called Eataly. There are Eataly malls across Italy and Japan and in New York City. They are coming to a city near you if your city has money to spend and a holier-than-thou attitude among its consumers.

Rome’s Eataly, the chain’s latest conquest, is the biggest and the best, a true “americanata” as the Italians say, meaning in this case a glitzy Las Vegas Coliseum of gastronomy, a four-story showcase with canned music and moving sidewalks where the right-thinking, well-off, trendy consumer feels good about consuming both sanctimoniously and with orgiastic abandon in clean, modern, sanitized surroundings.

Eataly Rome occupies a disused air terminal at Ostiense train station. It’s a quarter-mile down grim, semi-industrial streets from E. Volpetti & C. and the caper-shagged Pyramid of Cestius.

The terminal building looks vaguely like a postmodern Gare d’Orsay, the famed museum in Paris. Instead of Impressionist masterpieces, it is stuffed with hundreds of millions of packages, bottles, barrels, bags and containers containing everything edible or potable produced in Italy by the anointed friends of Eataly who are, needless to say, the very best in the business.

The Eataly operation is unlike other commercial malls. It’s a for-profit business, but you get didactic displays, videos, cooking lessons, wine-tasting courses, seminars, and lots of cheerleader foodie propaganda in the bargain, including a paradoxical, not to say contradictory, spiel.

That spiel boils down to the claim that Italy’s small, family-run shops like Volpetti are finished. They’re gone. Kaput. So Eataly is it. It’s no mere supermarket. It’s responsible and good, and you are good because you shop there.

For instant enjoyment and to make sure customers have fun while being converted to the Eataly creed, a choice of fancy or cafeteria-style restaurants offer open kitchens behind picture windows and views over parking lots, housing projects, and railway tracks. This is the quintessence of trendy, meaning the cult of the ugly and the edgy. There are two cafés, one of them also a coffee-roasting establishment. There’s parking out front for hundreds of cars. It’s a fine way to encourage Romans to use vehicles in a city not designed for cars and ruined by cars.

Everything at Eataly is certainly the best. Some of the eager, handsome or comely young employees at Eataly are probably also knowledgeable. The poultry they spit and roast before your eyes is not mere poultry. Those are coddled, range-raised birds of noble lineage and include guinea fowl among their caste. The fish are caught responsibly by fish-loving environmentally aware fishermen and are so fresh they’re flipping and sometimes die dramatically before your eyes.

The chocolates are sourced with the good of the cacao growers in mind. The wines on tap or in the bottle are made responsibly, some of them according to the phases of the moon, and sold with incantations like the True Drink dispensed by the Vatican across town.

Precious shade-grown coffee beans are roasted on site. Beer is brewed from pure, unadulterated grains raised with love instead of fertilizers. Bread is shaped by loving hands and baked before the eyes of beholders. All is transparent, performed by performance artists of food behind large plate-glass windows.

In fact everything at Eataly comes with a giant explanatory panel, a video, a song and a dance, a label, an appellation, an approbation of excellence and wholesomeness and deliciousness. The acolytes and high priests of the Eataly cult and perhaps even Pope Benedict XVI himself when he visits wear badges of the Slow Food movement, born in a manger in Piedmont.

After decades of quiet preparation by the politically left-leaning Christian zealots that many of its founders once were, the Slow Food movement has found its Emperor Constantine, the ruler who recognized the cult of Jesus as a religion worthy of the Roman state. The foodie cult from Piedmont has united with the cleverest of clever Italian merchants, a group who in a few paragraphs can proclaim all small family-run retail food businesses dead, and yet claim in the next breath that it is promoting and protecting small, family-run businesses that produce the products Eataly sells. The world of Italian gastronomy is now safe. Eataly has arrived in the Eternal City in the nick of time. Beware those who dare to question its infallibility!

On the morning I visited, the moving sidewalks linking Eataly to Ostiense station were broken. So with my roast chicken, mozzarella and coffee all made or roasted on site, and much else stuffed in eco-friendly bags, I lumbered underground for the quarter-mile of fluorescent-lit tunnels separating Eataly from the great marble-clad, caper-shagged Pyramid of Cestius and Via Marmorata. I headed home and, with a group of food-loving friends, set to work comparing products. We did blind tastings of many exquisite things from Eataly and Volpetti. The results were unsurprising.

Back at Volpetti & C. that evening I stared happily at the last ball of mozzarella floating in the funny-looking container. It hadn’t been made minutes ago on site by eager zealots behind plate-glass windows. Why was it more flavorful, firmer, more luscious and perfect than the lump I’d bought at Eataly? Ditto the other cheeses we’d taste-tested, the hams, even the fresh bread.

It’s not that the Eataly products weren’t excellent. They were. But the ones bought at Volpetti’s dinosaur emporium were even better. How now, things purchased at a small, quiet, family-run place, which, as everyone knows, should no longer exist? Perhaps the reason was as elusively simple as everything else in Rome. Here reigned spontaneity, joy, passion and straightforward business instead of canned music, moving sidewalks, picture windows, handsome young acolytes, preachy zealots, and vats of sour-smelling sanctimoniousness.

Author and private walking-tour guide David Downie’s latest book is the critically acclaimed “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light,” soon to be an audiobook. His next adventure-memoir, to be published in April 2013, is “Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James.” His websites are www.davidddownie.com, www.parisparistours.com, http://wanderingfrance.com/blog/paris and http://wanderingliguria.com, dedicated to the
Italian Riviera.

[Photo credits: David Downie]