There’s a very likely chance you haven’t heard of Campiglia Marittima. It’s in Tuscany. It’s not as famous as Florence, but once stood head and shoulders with the great Tuscan cities.

If you were to intelligently veer off the beaten tourist track and decide to visit the Etruscan Coast to see not only the ancient and intricately planned tombs and quarries but to learn of early metallurgy going on here centuries before Christ—in between your visits hedonistic visits to pristine beaches of course—you might, near the end of your trip, develop a hankering for a medieval hill town with castle ruins, flowers, narrow lanes, and very good food.

Welcome to Campiglia Marittima. The “Marittima” added to the old town name reminds you of its Maremma pedigree.

Let’s say you end up in the Piazza della Repubblica. You might think. “Oh, how nice” at seeing this view:

campiglia marittima view
Clock Tower from Piazza Republica

When you take this picture, on the left of you will be a bar with gelato. They have a gelato for dogs. Honest. I don’t think you can get your dog a cone though. On the right side of you is another bar and a very good restaurant, La Tavernetta. If it’s a hot day, have the warm calamari over a citrus salad with shaved fennel. Fantastic, as are the pastas. In front of you is the 13th century Palazzo Pretorio, festooned with coats of arms of the city’s 15th and 16th century Podest├ás.

campiglia marittima palazzo pretorio
Palazzo Pretorio

Inside the Palazzo Pretorio is the Archaeology Museum and the Mineral Museum.

Then snake your way up the hill. Eventually you’ll end up at the castle ruins. It’s a window upon the world, and a Romanesque window at that.

campiglia marittima castle
The castle ruins

Take a good look around while you’re up there. There’s a lot of interesting landscape to look out upon. Then snake your way back down. There are lots of arches, overhangs, odd doors painted in even odder colors, and there are flowers aplenty. People take pride in this town.

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Flowers are Everywhere in Campiglia Marittima

Ain’t it just about the prettiest little village you can imagine? It holds just over 13,000 people at the moment. The plague reduced the population of the city to a mere 316.

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Medieval Campiglia Marittima

And the outside of the tourist office is quite nice.

campiglia marittima tourist information
Tourist Information in the Old Cinema

But eventually you’ll want to go learn something. Just north of Campiglia Marittima is the Parco Archeominerario (the Archaeological Mines Park) and the Rocca di San Silvestro. The Rocca is a 10th century fortified castle. The mine tour is something else:

“An evocative kilometre long mine train ride through the mountain along the Lanzi-Temperino Tunnel, with an explanation along the way of what life inside it was like for the miners. The presentation is in Italian, but you can collect an English information sheet at the ticket office that will tell you everything that the guide says during the trip.” ~ Campiglia Marittima Tuscany Italy from the Marrema Guide.

For more, see The Archaelogical Mines Park of San Silvestro Mining minerals here started in the 7th century BC and continued through modern times.

Campiglia Marittima originally appeared on Jun 11, 2016, © James Martin.

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The Travel Curmudgeon distills the common definition of Bellagio [Italy] into a bristly nub

Bellagio, Italy, they tell me, is a very romantic place—the kind of place you go to kindle the flames of passion with your sweet honey while looking over the still waters and seeing, despite the tiny ripples, the reflection of a clear and perfect sky before you turn and your lips meet those of your honey as if by magic, as if they were two puffy clouds merging into one.

My wife Martha, who has other ideas and runs Martha’s Italy, describes Bellagio as “Set in an ideal position where the two legs of Lake Como come together.”

So, if you see Lake Como as a man running joyously with his head thrown back as the wind rumples his sweats, yes, then Bellagio is right there, in The Crotch as it were.

bellagio location map
Bellagio Location Map

If you are romantic you take the boat to the crotch of Como Romanticism, trying to ignore the redhead taking a picture.

Bellagio from the boat

The Milanese flock to Lake Come and Bellagio in Summer because nights tend to cool down impressively, compared to the humid darkness that descends in summer evenings upon the urban jungle where they work. Italians seem to need quite a bit less sleep then Americans, so they’ll be up most of the night slurping gelato, drinking spritzes, and perhaps waltzing the Ferrari up a side road.

Don’t go then.

Go in fall. That’s when the Milanese get tired of making the trek to Como and the lake goes all gooey on you. You know, when the mists hang over the wine-dark waters and you see a little boat bobbing in the distance and suddenly you feel your neck hairs bristling from your brain feeling that sublime combination of fear and excitement as if something’s really, really, going to happen, going to draw you in, going to explode on you so that your life is changed forever…

It’s time for another picture, isn’t it?

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Lake Como Misty Sunset

Of course, you might be disappointed in the Autumn sunsets you see from romantic Bellagio. They need photoshopping to turn them into the brilliant, “Look at me, I’m Unnatural!” cloak of the night-walker late for her stint as second-rate pole dancer. No. The sunsets are muted, mysterious, entrancing. Black silk teddy, pink slipper hanging off a barely painted toe, snifter of limpid, golden cognac held carelessly between twin forked fingers on that oddly familiar hand…

bellagio sunset
Bellagio Sunset

Ok, so you want a list of things to do. It’s the “industry standard” of pole-dancing editors.

Obligatory List!

  • Villa Melzi, 1808, reached by a walk along the lakeside promenade, has a park with sculptures and garden known for its beautiful azaleas and rhododendrons. It’s open from the end of March through beginning of November and admission includes the museum and neo-classical chapel.
  • San Giacomo Church, built between 1075 and 1125, is at the pinnacle of the historic center. The church is Lombard Romanesque style and offers mosaics, a 12th century cross, and a 15th century triptych.
  • Villa Serbelloni Park, above the historic center, has an 18th century garden and great views of the lake. It’s open April through November 2. A combination ticket includes admission to the Museum of Navigational Instruments, just in case you’ve lost your way.
  • Drink, Eat, and Be Merry on Lake Como is a 1-hour wine tasting with samples of cheese, cold cuts, and fresh fish, held in an Enoteca in Bellagio.
  • The Museum of Navigational Instruments in the hamlet of San Giovanni can be reached on foot in about 25 minutes, public boat, or in summer on the tourist train. It’s open daily, mornings only.
  • Walking paths aplenty wind along the lake and over the hills to small hamlets and picturesque parts of the lake where romantic stunts can be pulled off effortlessly.
  • Boat tours, water sports, and a touristic train tour are available during the summer season. During summer there are many musical events and festivals held in Bellagio, too.

Certainly with such a lavish list you will wish to share a room at this classic hotel on the water.

bellagio hotel
Albergo Genazzini & Metropole

If you go in fall, the Hotel Metropole is, of course, less expensive. Check the special offers. It also has a fine restaurant.

There is also the Suisse Hotel and Restaurant in Bellagio. I mean, imagine eating outside on a fine fall day. Would it get any better than this?

Suisse Hotel and Restaurant
Suisse Hotel and Restaurant in Bellagio

Bellagio Romantico originally appeared on Jun 06, 2016, © James Martin.

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“She will be fast,” warned Colleen. “Four course lunch for 13 people, less than an hour. The woman cooks fast.”

For this, you envision a stout woman wielding a knife sharp enough to split atoms. A woman who runs a kitchen with military precision. A woman who is…pretty much like a man. Gordon Ramsey in pink chiffon perhaps.

Then you meet Isa.

chef isa
Chef Isa of Relais La Costa

The women of our group tower over Isa.

Yes, we (tall) Americans come from a cooking tradition that began with the French (and Thomas Jefferson’s love for the food and wine) and which continues seamlessly with Julia Child, who snuck onto the scene before Marchella Hazan and managed to stay well past her time on earth.

In any case, Isa doesn’t do French. While we spread around her kitchen work surface like sheep around a shade tree, she hands out the knives. They seem to have been taken off the tables. They are steak knives of questionable provenience.

A couple of us are to cut carrots. She demonstrates the size of cut she wants by slicing the carrot against her thumb with one of these abominations.

Mon Dieu!

When she asks an assistant for a larger pan there is not the usual, “Yes, Chef!” you expect to hear echoing through the familiarly militant kitchen of the type they insist upon showing you on television.

Soon eggplant is being sliced impossibly thin, the carrots have been whacked, potatoes and bread diced—and fingers, miraculously, remain intact.

pork loin

Then comes the part where your confidence in any language spoken in Isa’s kitchen is shattered. After she has tied the pork loin, she tells the assembled magnitudes that she will add, “un po di olio” which the interpreter correctly translates into “a little olive oil.” We wait a bit while the upturned bottle speaks to us. “Glug, glug, glug, glug,” and so forth. The loin is well lubed; the bones she has removed from the roast swim in it meekly while the tied-up loin glistens in its regal coat. Then she will add a little salt…

Let it be pointed out that diminutive Isa does not disparage her adoring minions. The single time a task isn’t being done fast enough for Isa, she rests an elbow on the stainless steel table, cups her chin in her palm and issues a wistful “Oggi”—meaning it would be quite nice to have the task completed before the day is out.

Finally, Isa shoos us out of the kitchen and we filter into a dining room with an enormous table and a view of everywhere. Soon we eat. The best Eggplant Parmigiana I’ve ever had. Creamy Ribolitta. Pork loin with pan drippings. Bones! Glorious, roasted bones: slivers of meat from the god of piglets. Sformata of potato and Parmigiano Reggiano. And then a blistering white panna cotta with berries and a spoon of warm chocolate on top. I see your Facebook inspired, “yum” and raise you a glass of Vin Santo.

And with our hindrance help, she did all this in less than an hour.

Mon Dieu.

la costa dining room
La Costa Dining Room


You don’t have to live this little episode vicariously through my fractured prose. You can easily participate in a full week of getting to know how Tuscan women cook, experiencing some of Tuscany’s finest and most traditional dishes and meeting new friends to make pasta with all at the same time. It’s an orgy of cooking, eating, and learning the Tuscan ways of women who cook up a storm. And…let me tell you of a little secret: you can do it even if you have different plumbing. Yes, men are free to join in, just like I did, and even if, like me, you mostly diddled around with a camera instead of cutting carrots against the thumb, there’s no penalty. Except for some cutting remarks I mean.

Check out: Tuscan Women Cook and see some of my pictures on their facebook page.

You can also choose to stay at Relais La Costa in Montefollonico and avoid the carrots altogether, but you’ll be missing some fun.

We stayed at Hotel La Ciusa during the program and had an excellent meal there as well.

Disclaimer: I was a guest of the Tuscan Women Cook program.

Tuscan Women Cook originally appeared on May 20, 2016, © James Martin.

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Voices from the Internet have informed me of the passing of artist and sculptor Pinuccio Sciola. We have lost another great voice in the world.

It was a playful voice. When Paula Loi took me to meet Mr. Sciola, he directed us to a pile of rough sculptures. Hands. A great mountain of hands. Not any hands but the enormous hands of Sardinian shepherds, with their plump fingers widely spaced.

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Pinuccio Sciola's hands

He compared them to his own and giggled. He had obviously skipped the class in “developing pretentiousness” in art school.

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Pinuccio Sciola and the Shepherd's Hand

If you’ve ever extended a hand to a shepherd you know that the artist is right. The hand that will reach out to you is enormous. What passes for that complicated tether to your fingers will get lost in the grip of a Sardinian shepherd. Shepherds hands are strong hands.

Funny thing, though. They are as soft as the basalt hands are porous.

Mr. Sciola was always interested in exploring the properties of elasticity, texture, vibrations and spirit—which lesser artists do with more obvious materials. He explored those properties in rocks.

A while later he placed his hands together. “What am I doing?” he demanded. After a period of silence he relented, “I am praying.”

The way to access spirit is through prayer—and Mr. Sciola began to run his fingers across the surface of the scarred rock.

At which time it sang.

I hope some day you will have the opportunity to shake hands with a Sardinian shepherd. I hope you feel the softness and the power, for then you will have felt the essence and the spirit of Pinuccio Sciola.


See the rocks sing

Pinuccio Sciola: Hands of Joy originally appeared on May 14, 2016, © James Martin.

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