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Italy's Slow Cities

Still, I wondered. If the Slow mind-set is already deeply embedded in the Italian consciousness, is there really a need for a movement?Or is Slow Cities just a way to market an idealized slice of Italian life to the rest of the world?I asked Cinque that when I got back to my hotel. A slim, handsome man with a well-practiced domani demeanor, Cinque cracked a smile, and said he could show me an initiative that was anything but superficial.

So while all the Beautiful People were sipping their first Camparis of the day, we headed underground to see the sewage treatment plant. Crammed against the mountainside, Positano has few options for disposing of its wastewater. In the past, it was pumped out to sea with minimal impact. But then the village became a summer colony for the well-heeled. In 1994, before Slow Cities even began, it demonstrated forward thinking by installing an eco-friendly sewage system that filters out heavy products (such as cooking oil and the dyes from textile plants) from the water and sends them to Naples for disposal. It then flushes the remaining fluid through a series of tanks populated by chemical-munching microbes, resulting in phosphate-free, fat-free water that can be safely released into the sea. The system is viewed as a model for other Slow Cities to emulate.

The sleepy piazzas and rambling maze-like streets of Orvieto, about 240 miles northeast of Positano, belie its violent history. In the 14th century, the fortress town was a no-go zone, so bloody was the rivalry between its two leading families, the Monaldeschis and the Filippeschis. Even Dante cited their feud in Il Purgatorio, comparing them to the warring Montecchis and Capuletis of Verona (Shakespeare's inspiration for Romeo and Juliet).

The town's current mayor, the smartly dressed Stefano Cimicchi, presides over a far more placid citizenry. But as he implements his own Slow City agenda, there is a hint that some of Orvieto's old fight is still there. "Residents don't always work together for the greater good," he complained to me. The people who don't follow the strict recycling laws; the drivers who continue to honk their horns in the Old Town--"They enjoy the advantages of a Slow City," he lamented, "but they don't act in a Slow City way."

It struck me that Cimicchi was worrying a little too much. As far as I could tell, having walked Orvieto's neat and relaxed stone streets for two days, the town was a perfect place to live.

Orvieto, however, has high standards to keep. It is immensely popular with day-trippers from Rome and Florence, most of whom come to see the striking black-and-white cathedral. Begun in 1290, the duomo is regarded as one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in Italy, its faade a riot of mosaics and sculptures, its interior graced with Luca Signorelli's recently restored frescoes of the Last Judgment. Orvieto's Old Town, 300 feet above the plains on a volcanic mesa, still has the stone outer walls built in the 16th century to repel marauders. Today, they serve as a barrier to motor coaches and other vehicles, which are encouraged to park outside the city; visitors can ascend to the Old Town using elevators built into the walls.

To help tourists find their way around, Orvieto created three color-coded sightseeing walks. Most people visit the duomo, take one or more of the walks, and then leave, but I found that Orvieto's other charms--and its claim to Slow City status--are no less enticing. Each October, under the aegis of Slow Food, it holds a gastronomic festival that honors Umbria's reputation as the nation's most fertile region, with traditional foods such as truffles, pork, and olive oil. All the best restaurants and cafés take part, displaying ORVIETO CON GUSTO stickers in their windows.


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