■ 13 days ago by James Martin
Within a patchwork of agricultural fields in the Lecce province of Puglia lies one of my favorite Romanesque abbeys, the Abbey of Santa Maria di Cerrate. The complex of buildings sprouted in the 12th century represents one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture you’ll find in Puglia today.
On a bright morning, the sun gleams from the limestone facade of the church and the camera renders the sky an impossibly deep blue. You can feel the calm. The church is typically simple, like the food of Puglia. It’s open—not cluttered with all those spiritual market-stall chapels that surround the nave as in modern churches.
Although the church is stunning—and contains 13th century frescoes you can see below—there is more:
The Church is complemented not only by an arcade but also by the Monks’ House, the Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions, and a building erected in the 16th century, which probably originally served as a cowshed and is now an exhibition space. The Abbey was not only a religious centre but also a productive hub: out of the close links between the Abbey and the surrounding countryside so rich in olive groves, fruit trees and crops, there arose a great deal of agricultural activity, and today we can see the remains of two ancient underground olive oil mills and wells for collecting the oil. ~ Abbey of Santa Maria di Cerrate
The fountain has already been restored, thanks to a donation from Prada. While the architecture and frescoes await their turn at restoration.
To Plan a Visit
The site is currently open on weekends.
According to the FIA site linked above, “The Abbey is on restoration. Please call (0039) 02 467615325 or write to firstname.lastname@example.org to verify the opening hours and/or to reserve a guided tour. The Abbey is closed on December,25th and 26th, January 1st.”
We just drove in and had a look around. It’s a pretty amazing place to wander in.
Staying: we recommend Masseria Provenzani near the Abbey, a very fine and very affordable Masseria reworked into rooms and suites, highly recommended. Cooking schools are offered.
Italy Travel Toolbox
- All About Italy Rail Passes
- How to Ride Italian Trains (video)
- Italy Maps
- Italy Cities Climate and Weather
- Italy Autostrada Map
- Cinque Terre Hiking Map
■ 14 days ago by James Martin
Florence is all about Renaissance art and architecture, right? The happy tourist wallows in it gleefully. But Florence is also home to artisans like Sileno Cheloni, the Master Perfumer at Aquaflor Firenze. When you wander into his lair, you get to feast your eyes on a bit of fine architecture and an inner courtyard of great beauty—all while your other senses are lightly jack-hammered with swirling and ever-changing exotic scents.
You may have heard of Ambergris in grade school. You snickered at the very thought of it. Who wouldn’t laugh nervously at the idea of whale vomit at truffle prices?
Ambergris, you see, forms the basis of Aquaflor’s most expensive perfume. It’s in that case to the right. It’s called Duende. If you happen to have €1,800 burning a hole in your pocket as a result of spending your entire vacation eating shared portions of pizza by the slice and drinking water from Italian fountains like the guidebooks recommend for cheapskate tourists, you can purchase a 100ml bottle of it.
(I’ve smelled it. You can too. Ask. It probably costs them €6 in evaporation every time they open the bottle.)
Besides smelling exotic things at Aquaflor, can also take classes on perfumery or have them make you up a scent tailored to who you are and how you smell normally.
Below is a picture of the Parlor of Essences taken from the courtyard. Those bottles are of every scent they have in stock, ready to be mixed into a custom scent.
Remember this is not a chain. You want this stuff you come to the store. There is more than expensive perfumes in the store. You can buy soaps and Christmas scents, for example.
(Thanks to Luisa Donati of Montestigliano for introducing me to Aquaflor.)
■ 19 days ago by James Martin
Florence. It’s about art. It’s everywhere. Even where you don’t expect it.
It was this beguiling Liberty style entrance to the venerable Cassa Centrale di Risparmio di Depositi di Firenze that invited us to explore. We found a whole floor of art exhibits behind the mask.
And history. The savings bank was formed to help the poor save. This one started in 1829, when 100 citizens formed the “Company of the Savings Bank” in order to encourage the formation of savings and pensions in the lower classes at a time when the percentage of poor was around 90.
The Cassa di Risparmio di Firenze was unique in that it combined the ancient tradition of Monte di Pietà of Florence, which was created in 1495 with the function of extending loans secured by pledges for the less affluent classes, investing the profits that accumulated in charitable works for the benefit of the poor. This cultural heritage was formally endorsed in 1935, when the Azienda dei Presti, which took over from the Monte di Pietà in 1782 with respect to issuing small loans secured by pledges – merged with the Cassa di Risparmio di Firenze. The spirit behind the activities of Monte di Pietà was very important for the bank’s development, and for many years it was to retain the spirit of patronage and philanthropy which had characterised the institution. ~ 9th European Symposium on Savings Banks History – EUROPEAN SAVINGS BANKS: FROM SOCIAL COMMITMENT TO CORPORATE SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY
While banks have become gigantic gambling houses in recent times, it’s interesting to note that for many years the system in Europe evolved such that “parallel activities would co-exist: the philanthropic business and actual banking business.”
In any case, throw upon those doors the next time you’re in Florence and check it out. The art exhibits are upstairs.
Not so far from the bank is Florence’s oldest active hospital. The Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova has been around since 1288. It started as a hospice for pilgrims and later for victims of the plague.
Over the years it amassed a great deal of art as well. Today, much of it is in museums, but you can still enter the hospital and see not only works like this:
But you can also see folks working on art. You don’t have to visit a castle or a monastery to see restoration, you can just have your gall bladder checked out.
The background of the painting shows the front of the hospital.
Even here, in a hospital, there’s a connection to banking. At one time there was an office inside where one could get mail and store money. According to Fodors, Michelangelo did his banking here.
In the middle of the complex is Sant’Egidio church that you can also visit.
So, after you’ve taken that Secret Passages Tour of the Palazzo Vecchio, just wander the streets and explore Florence and its art. Go where other tourists fear to tread. Have a real experience. Your gall bladder might thank you for it.
Popular These Days
■ 27 days ago by James Martin
When I arrived in Florence a few days ago I immediately noticed people with their little cameras floating away from the photographer’s outstretched arm by means of a flimsy bit of kit. One of many sellers of this amazing re-use of the antiquated car antenna is captured above. (The device you see is being mis-used as a tripod that would send your camera crashing to the ground in the slightest wisp of wind, but it’s really designed to be a clever arm extension, trust me.)
You see, when God invented arms He made an obvious mistake. They were not long enough for a proper selfie. Women of questionable morals were often unable to compose a photo that would encompass all their charms. People in front of statues had to spend hours trying to cram their faces and a famous statue reproduction into the frame. Enter what I call the Selfie Helper. “You buy the smart phone, we make the camera and your arm work together correctly.”
It’s a lot like Hamburger Helper, isn’t it? “Thy (camera) rod, like thy onion powder, they comfort thee.”
This isn’t the first time creation was found wanting. Ancient people found it necessary to extend their spear-tossing arms by use of the atlatyl. Look it up.
In any case, once I had noticed the Selfie Helper phenomenon, the rest of the excursion’s conversation seemed to gravitate towards tourist cameras.
A Florence guide sipping the thick chocolate drink Florence is famous for lamented, “The superintendent decided to allow photography in the museums. So now, nobody listens. They’re all clicking and beeping away while you talk into a vacuum.”
But later on, as we dipped our cantucci into tiny glasses of vin santo in an overpriced cafe bordering the Piazza Repubica while being mesmerized by the constant flow of drunken students trying to stay on the bucking horses of the carousel the municipality had plunked down in the middle of the piazza, Author Susan Van Allen brought the social effects of the Selfie Helper into sharp focus.
“Yet another thing to disconnect us from the social ritual of handing our valuable camera to a total stranger in order that we might have a single, thus valuable, memento of our experience.”
Yes, we are now complete. Free of the anxiety over the possibility that the stranger might run off with our prized possession—oh delicious terror!—we can pass the time of our vacation entirely isolated from the pasta-eaters and other tourists who surround us.
Good for us.
■ 30 days ago by James Martin
You ever take a boat ride through a cave? You can at the Pertosa Caves or the Grotte di Pertosa as the Italians call them. Here in the Salerno district of Campania a trip to the caves (“a work in progress for 35,000 years” says the lit) can be combined with a trip to the nearby Certosa di Padula, making it a day you’ll never forget, especially if you happen to encounter a guy named Carmine—but more on that encounter later.
After you buy your tickets you walk up to the cave entrance. Way up. Then you enter the cave. It’s not one of those deals where there are a few big rooms where you stand in the middle and gawk at the maze of stalactites and stalagmites, wet and glistening under carefully aimed spotlights. It’s a long cave you walk and boat through. There’s a lake inside. Your guide will load you in a boat. The boat has seats but they’re always wet so nobody really sits in them. You could bring a small towel and outsmart the environment, of course, but nobody did.
Your guide will then launch you into the still waters, dragging the boat by means of a carefully strung wire above your head. It’s anchored to the walls, strung not unlike the wires that power the electric buses of a city like San Francisco, except that the wires aren’t electrified, or at least the guide didn’t do that macabre dance you see people do when they grab a wet, live electric wire.
The way is lit by colored lights your modern camera won’t take a liking to. No matter, the new lighting system, which is turned off when a group leaves the area, represents a savings of 80% in electrical power compared to a previous system which probably provided enough light for a decent photo.
The cave takes a good 2 hours to walk through. Time passes in a flash though. You’ll be amazed and entranced—and cold if you didn’t bring a jacket, because the temperature hovers around 60 degrees F and it’s damp—very damp.
After you’re done and get back to the parking lot, leave your car and continue walking down the street until you see the hand-painted sign for the Bar Ristorante Venoso. Have a meal. Learn what southern Italian cuisine is all about. Order the restaurant’s special pasta with eggplant. It will tell you all you need to know about the flavor intensity of southern food. The pasta has been kicked up notches unknown. Don’t worry about the bill. It won’t be much. The pasta runs 5 euro. Have something grilled for a second plate.
Introducing Carmine from Naples
We ate right beside the table of this man, Carmine, and his wife:
Carmine, having noticed me taking pictures of our trout and rabbit, wanted to show off his lunch too. Except that he had eaten about half of it.
When I struggled to cut the excellent grilled rabbit with the butter knife I’d been given for the task, I happened to glance at Carmine and he, too, had picked up his lamb in his hands.
So, I took that as a cue and ate the rabbit clean off the bone with my hands.
Carmine loved it. “Aha! Yes, the knives are useless! He uses his hands! Bravo!”
He said this in a voice that could have woken the dead, or amused a packed opera house.
So we’re swiping bits of wadded-up bread through the juices and excellent olive oil, a process the Italians call “fare la scarpetta” or “making the little shoe.” Years ago you wouldn’t do this, especially at a formal meal. Now it tells the waiter you really liked the food. Even sopping evolves.
So Carmine says, “In Naples, when we don’t have bread…” and he makes a swipe with his index finger as if he’s dragging it over a plate and pretends to lick it.
I like Carmine. Especially when they asked him if he wanted coffee. He bellowed, “I’m from Naples (where they are reported to have the very best coffee), I don’t drink coffee anywhere else.”
You gotta love Carmine. It’s this insistence on not accepting crap food that keeps Italian food honest. There’s not enough of it, methinks.
■ 38 days ago by James Martin
So we’re on the road to Gavoi in Sardinia for the Autunno in Barbagia festivities when the car screeches to a halt. I look over to Martha, thankfully in control of said car, who points up a hill to our right and says, “Do you want to see the church?”
I did. The church was of very dark Basalt. It stood at the crest of the hill ominously. A long staircase provided access.
We happened to be in the town of Ottana. The church of San Nicola we were now standing in front of was dedicated to St. Nicholas of Myra and consecrated in 1160. Archaeologists sent in during the restoration of the church discovered an earlier church from the high medieval, possibly monastic, tangled in the foundations.
You’ll notice something interesting on the facade if you click the picture above to see it bigger. It’s got some ceramic plates stuck in it at the top. This practice is typical in Sardinia, as well as in northern Italy and Tuscany. You see, the church is built in the Pisan style. Pisa has 669 bacini on 26 buildings, a bacino being a basin or hollow circular vessel—the ceramics in a church facade which came from far and wide; some in Pisa had Egyptian origins.
Unfortunately the bacini embedded in San Nicola are replicas. But interesting none the less.
But the real treasure (for me) was still to be discovered. Inside the church was this:
It’s something I’ve seen before. Hand carved. Hand painted. The pedals give it away. It is of course an organ. You have to open up the doors to see the pipes and keyboard, of course.
Which, of course, would be forbidden to heathens, pagans, and journalists.
And, yes, I spotted a note on the door clasp. I read it. It nearly threw me for a loop. Instead of forbidding my sausage fingers from prising the door open, the note merely asked me to please respect the object.
How absolutely civilized!
So I took great care at opening up the handmade organ. And here it is:
If you like these sorts of things, we discovered another fine example in Portugal, in the incredibly amazing town of Tentugal, a place which I must advise you to go. See: The Treasures of Tentugal
Ottana, it turns out, has one of the top carnival celebrations in Sardinia.
Have fun on your vacations, and please, you planners-the-the-nth-degree, leave time for discovery.
For more about sardinia, see Wandering Sardinia
■ 48 days ago by James Martin
Cremona is one of those cities in which everything is focused on a single square—and it’s not the typical “Piazza Duomo” either. It’s the Piazza Comune, with all the religious architecture on one side, so that the cathedral, baptistry, and Torrazzo (tower, the tallest in pre-modern Europe @ 112.7 meters, and you can climb it for some fantastic views) are all facing the administration center, the Comune. It’s all about the contrast between gleaming white marble and the red bricks.
Then you turn around and see this:
In the daytime there’s a Commune bar where you can sit and stare at the cathedral all day long if you wish. At night it closes. Unfortunately.
Osteria La Sosta
The street that continues to the left in the picture above is a street of political symbolism, violin makers, and restaurants. We ate in one that was fantastic, just down the street. It was called “La Sosta” and it delivered.
For starters there was the wordy “Tiepido di Lingua salmistrata e Testina di Vitello con Salsa verde e Olio del Garda,” a warm plate of tongue and a bit of calf head with green sauce and lentils with olive oil. It was quite good but the snails! Oh, the snails! Not those French snails that have been cooked down to eraserness so that you have to douse them in all manner of butter, parseley and garlic to add forgiveness to the poor garden destroyer. No, they were succulent and tasty with just a little complimentary sauce.
I had to order the “Gnocchi Vecchia Cremona (antica ricetta del 600)” which came as three giant gnocchi stuffed with sausage and baked with Poppy seeds, Sesame and Parmesan. Don’t think the dish comes from 600 Ad, that’s 1600 AD in American. But still, old enough to be very traditional.
Martha’s Bigoli with sardines and parmigiano reggiano bread crumbs was also tasty.
And the good news on the wine front is that you can get many wines by the half bottle.
For me, La Sosta gets five stars, and you’re not far from the piazza where you can be immersed in the Medieval—during the day. At night you’ll have to find an open bar/restaurant on the back side and be content with a view of the cathedral’s big apse.
■ 57 days ago by James Martin
Amble Ligurian shoreline; beaches full; Lerici to little San Terenzo; ghost of Percy Bysshe Shelley; Villa Magni aglow, full sun; search for granita; none; new restaurant appears; La Creuza de Mauri; waiter lounging in doorway; island dark; jowls rutted; black sard brows; eat; balls of fregula roll like pearls on partched toungues; clam shells clatter on white plates; octupus boiled and grilled; good both ways; bottle of Vermentino; i; happy happy; gelato a limon, gelato a limon; now to walk back; soon breasts; unleashed; yes; a singular pair; harken to days past; before breasts were turned to bullets; murduring moral values; a shot in the unwanted eye; a blackness; bronzing couple with plastic plates of little fish; bottle of olive oil; douse; turn away; then uphill; dog lies on sidewalk; left side; leashed woman concerned; man rubs chin; looks to find different angle at which to view dog; chooses behind; we pass; car found; then Tusc___; rather the territory of Lunigiana; home for a nap;