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Sistine Sardines

■ 16 days ago by James Martin

sistine chapel pictureCan a place ever be too popular? Let’s take the Sistine Chapel. It’s part of the Vatican, which is part of Vatican City. But we’ll get to all that in a moment.

I’ve been to the Sistine Chapel when it was packed. It’s likely that if you’ve visited the Vatican museums, so have you. I’ve also been there with but 11 people or so. That is unlikely to occur again, but perhaps you can get close.

But however many people you’ve rubbed bodies with in the Sistine Chapel, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.

You see, they’ve revved up the air conditioning. They’ve made it purr like a Formula One car, with just about as much horsepower—while hardly using any energy. So guess what? Now they can squish in three times the tourists! Yes, their breath will be eaten up by the machines and the frescoes will remain fresh and everyone will walk out genuinely moved by the experience.

So don’t worry about not getting into the Sistine chapel on your vacation. Worry about claustrophobia, smashing the air out of your lungs, pickpockets, and the guy in the gaberdine with the baseball cap who just finds it a kick to yell “fire” in a room full of people.

Now, as a city, Vatican City is used to packing ‘em in. If you look on a map that compares the number of tourists to locals around the world, Vatican City wins hands down. Tourists make up 650,655.54% of the population in a given year. Imagine. Yes, about 5 and a half million tourists visited in 2012. The population of Vatican City was 839.

But I have another map for you to look at. It’s a heat map of Rome. It shows the number of pictures taken and uploaded to Panoramio. Vatican city is lit up like a firecracker on the fourth of July.

The map is interesting because you can use it to find places that you didn’t know about where there are lots of pictures taken, like the interesting Ponte Nomentano. There’s a couple of Sardinian restaurants close by. I might visit some day. Just look for the far-out light blips on the map and click them to get info.

Have a happy time in Rome. Here’s a transportation map for you. Good luck. Perhaps you should consider the purchase of armor.

Resources

Sistine Chapel to get even more crowded

Map: Revealed: where tourists outnumber locals

Sistine Sardines originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Jul 16, 2014, © James Martin.

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Mapping the Tourists

■ 19 days ago by James Martin

italy tourism by region infographicI like maps. Slap me with a heritage pig chop if I’m wrong, but I think modern technology has made maps more useful and interesting. (It gives you a good feeling to think that modern thought and technology isn’t all about crowd sourcing and driving down the incomes of trained and adept authors and artists.)

Take the map in the thumbnail. It’s a map of where tourists went in Italy in 2012. What they’ve done is taken the number of tourists who went to each region and map that region to the size it would be if geographical size was proportional to the number of tourists. So Tuscany is huge. Lazio is big but I’m thinking it’s only because throngs of people go to or land in Rome and then skedaddle, same with the enormous Veneto and Venice I suppose. And….the Abruzzo remains a dot the size of a pimple on a giraffe.

From this map you can discern where you should go if you fall into one of the two prevailing tourist categories. The trophy tourists who demand to see the “best” will want to go to the regions that are big, especially to those whose regions have been bloated by the algorithm the most, like Tuscany, so they can relate with pride that they’ve done the things the guidebooks and the crowd tell them to do. I don’t mean to be totally negative about this; these are the places with the highest density of easily accessed things to do for tourists who don’t know the Italian language. The folks who say, “I wanna get way off the beaten tourist track” can, and should, pick the miniscule regions. Those are the ones in odd colors you can barely see, like ticks on your arm after a hike in the woods. Take the Marche for instance. It’s the pink tick.

It is in current vogue to label Le Marche as “the new Tuscany.” Both the New York Times and Wall Street International have fallen over each other to put out the word. Thank God the mantle has been lifted from Puglia. Puglia, like Le Marche, has its own charms. They might not be the charms of Renaissance-rich Tuscany, but who cares? “The New Tuscany” is a label used by lazy writers. Ignore them. They make a one-week trek to a place, consult a few enthusiastic guides, and then that place becomes the cat’s meow. Instantly.

That said, there is enough in the Metauro Valley to keep you busy for weeks. Real food. Cheese made by folks out in real barns. Stunning landscapes, unchanged since the times Piero della Francesca brought his easels and brushes into the countryside to paint them. It’s home to waterfalls you can swim near and picnic by—bring a hearty bread with cheese made by a real cheesemaker. The Cascata de Sasso is one of Italy’s ten largest waterfalls and you didn’t have a clue, did you? (Ok, I didn’t either and I’ve been to this area many times).

And this is just a third or less of Le Marche. Imagine. Not only can you get a taste of unspoiled Italy, you can expand the rich “pinkness” of the little region and pretty soon the trophy travelers can become interested in it. Perhaps if enough of you get entranced by the siren song of Le Marche, you can contribute to numbers that might sway the money-hungry powers that be to reconsider the paving of the balconies of Piero della Francesca —or making a hydroelectric plant at La Cascata del Sasso.

The Abruzzo isn’t a bad place to spend a couple of weeks either. The Abruzzese need you, too. Tourists might stay in a castle and eat more than their share of food and thus leave some money in the territory so the people can finally recover from that big trembler from years ago. And you can visit Le Grotte di Stiffe. C’mon, you’ve always wanted to do that, didn’t you?

Here’s the Link to a very big map like the thumbnail above from the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera: L’Italia vista dagli stranieri

Looking for more tips for a trouble-free experience on your Italy Vacation? Download the mobile app for iPad or iPhone: Italy Travel Tips & Hints - Sutro Media | Android

Mapping the Tourists originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Jul 13, 2014, © James Martin.

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Oh Sarzana! The Acoustic Guitar Meeting

■ 60 days ago by James Martin

sarzanello-castle

Sunday afternoon, a free day in the schedule of the Sarzana Acoustic Guitar Meeting, couldn’t have been a better day to wander the towers and turrets of Sarzanello Castle, listening to Guitar and Mandolin experts tickle those strings.

And the music trumped the weather.

I don’t know why I’ve put off going. It’s one of the best festivals I’ve attended. In every nook and corner folks played. They didn’t interfere with each other and the sound quality in the castle was fabulous.

We’d just grabbed some free seats to see the end of Elsa Martin set. I knew I had to get some video. (She often sings in Fruilian dialect; that’s why you can’t understand it.) We are now proud owners of her latest CD: vERsO.

Then we came upon a stage set up in one of the castle towers, and were lucky enough to snag two front row seats in the tight little corner. There were four to a row, 6 rows deep. That’s it. Then, as if mom nature thought we wanted some privacy, a pigeon let loose and covered the poor folks in the adjacent seats—leaving enough of its multicolored offings to give us sole survivor access to the first two rows. How lucky.

Roberto Bettelli

Then came the touchy Roberto Battelli and his solo guitar (what fingers!), shown working above, and finally, guitar-less, Mauro Manicardi featuring “Gli Scariolanti”. Enjoy the video, it seems to have worked out well, considering it was done with my handheld Sony NEX-7.

Oh Sarzana! The Acoustic Guitar Meeting originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Jun 01, 2014, © James Martin.

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What Are All These Herbs Doing on My Trout?

■ 64 days ago by James Martin

trout picture

Getting to the Antica Trattoria dell’Eremita is not easy. From the town of Gallicano in the Garfagnana you follow a freakishly twisty, narrow little road uphill towards the Eremo di Calomini. It is the Italian custom to beep your little horn before you brave each blind hairpin, but here you might as well lean on the thing the whole darn way.

We eventually reached the parking lot at the Eremo and strolled over to Antica Trattoria dell’Eremita. It’s just down a little strada bianca, a white road of more or less one lane. Our friends parked below, and walked up the steep stairs.

We meet at the top. “Dori and I were thinking that this looks just lake someplace in Hawaii,” Robert said upon greeting us.

Yes, lush, green and fragrant in a drizzle, the place had that Shangri-La thing going on.

But let’s talk about that roasted trout up there, shall we? It didn’t seem very Italian, covered with all those herbs. You wouldn’t be surprised to see such a thing in Provence, but this is a tiny corner of unknown Tuscany, not Provence.

The more you learn about “Italian” food, the more things on a plate rise up and slap you in the face, demanding further research.

Monastic outposts relied on herbs for medicinal purposes. There was a reason the Eremo was placed where it was, including the abundance of water that gushed from the rocks all around. This water has, they say, curative powers as well.

So, on with research. More herbs:

Today I went to the Sagra della Minestrella di Gallicano. Minestrella is a soup of wild herbs and beans made only in Gallicano, a town of fewer than 4,000 people. Today it is the southernmost town in the Garfagnana. ~ Why the Garfagnana?

So there is a cultural reason for so many herbs, even though it seems to break the cucina povera tradition of simple preparations with few ingredients.

Antica Trattoria dell’Eremita is your chance to see what this whole thing is all about. You can eat the special bread of Gallicano called focaccia leva, a thick flat bread cooked between two iron plates to be eaten with cold cuts and the restaurant’s smoked trout (they raise their own trout here!). They also raise farro, which appears in the farro soup. You can taste or buy eggs from their free range chickens. You can buy packets of the dried herbs they collect from along the little white road. Then, when you’re totally stuffed, you can go visit the Eremo. When you do, note the chapel carved out of the hillside.

Then you hit the road. Don’t forget the horn. Blow for all it’s worth.

chapel carved from rock picture

Map

What Are All These Herbs Doing on My Trout? originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com May 29, 2014, © James Martin.

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On the Lowly Onion

■ 66 days ago by James Martin

On Sunday, Italy’s National Day of Stuffing Yourself with Friends and Family, we ate at one of those restaurants tourists always say they seek out but never find, the unlabeled eatery full of Italians.

I didn’t find it. That honor goes to Mike of A Path to Lunch. He had the good sense to know that if a place has one of those old signs announcing a public telephone (remember them?) that there was a story there somewhere. And thus he found his path to lunch and was the first American they’d ever seen sticking a fork in their spaghetti. Bravo.

But another thing I like about Italy other than unlabeled and unsigned restaurants is the variety of things to eat that are common, even lowly, like the onion mentioned in the title. We Americans think, “an onion is white, brown, or red and they all taste pretty much the same” as if the color was merely painted on. But in Italy, we have so many different kinds of onions with different flavors, I’m wondering if anyone has ever cataloged them all. Sometimes you go to a food festival (a sagra) and it’s an entire weekend celebration of a particular kind of onion and you don’t even know it because the name of the onion is disguised by being written in dialect, like our experience in the village of Moncigoli at the Sagra di Cigola.

So six of us are eating our antipasti and my friend Roberto leans over after tasting this amazing onion tart-like thing and says, “this is rich, like French onion soup. Do you think they make it like that?”

It would be a stretch to think of a country Italian trying to mimic something French. Anything French. So I answered in the negative. There was no evidence of having been cooked in beef broth, no thyme, No stringy cheese—nothing like that.

So time passes. Then this:

paglia e fieno pasta picture

It’s a simple pasta, paglia e fieno, straw and hay, spinach and normal pasta. It’s sauced with…sausage. Tiny bits of sausage. You can hardly see them. It looks like the dish isn’t sauced at all.

But then you taste. The onions you can’t see rise to make the dish triumph, the sausage playing a decent second fiddle.

Man it was good. And onions made it that way.

So I take my hat off to the onions of Il Borgo di Canossa. I should say the secret onions of Canossa. You see, I asked our waitress about them. Were they special? “Yes.” Where do I get some, where do they come from?

“Just ask if we have them when you make your next reservation.”

I guess if you don’t put labels on your restaurant you don’t put them on your ingredients either. Fair enough.

So, I’m going to do something I am inclined not to do. I am going to come clean with all I know about this restaurant. There is parking in front, but it is on a road that will require you to back your car all the way to the main road if someone decides to come down off the hill (experience speaking). I am going to show you a map of this secret place and tell you the name, which will do no good because not many people will know it. I will trust you not to tell anyone else. Ok?

Ristorante Bar Capetta di Luciani Maria Paola. TEL: 0187.850.063

And whatever you do, ask about the onions. Eat anything that has them as an ingredient.

On the Lowly Onion originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com May 27, 2014, © James Martin.

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Lari, a Castle Town in Tuscany, Revisited

■ 69 days ago by James Martin

lari law courts torture

Lari has all you can ask for in a small, Tuscan hill town. Good pasta is manufactured right in the town center. A short walk away is a great restaurant. Climb a little hill and you’re in the courtyard of Lari Castle. It’s a pretty little place. People are friendly and generally happy.

Then there’s the past. The 16th century past. You can see it in the photo above—a picture only Dick Cheney could love. I know, I know, tourists like torture, and will pay big bucks to see how the medieval folks did it and I will exploit that fact to bring this weirdness to you. Yes, what you see it is a bit of Tuscan torture. But, according to the recording, it was quite a “humane” torture. You see, when you strung someone up like this, the alleged miscreant didn’t often die. The worse that could happen would be something small, a little shoulder separation perhaps.

And this is not, the little voice out of the yellow plastic box told us, a torture session. The miscreant was merely being interrogated. If he confessed while his shoulder was being wrenched from its moorings, it didn’t matter—as long as he didn’t confess in court, which was across the hall. At least this is how I understand it. It’s not like waterboarding, when they get what they want out of you and then they’re done with you. No, you got a second chance in the actual courtroom. Bully for justice—or something.

The little prison in Lari castle was used until well after the Nazi era. The more things change, the more they stay the same, evidently.

But on a brighter note, we went back to Lari’s little gem of a restaurant, Antica Osteria al Castello and had lunch outside in the piazza. Lari is called “the cherry city.” Signs pointing the way into town inform you of this fact, except, of course, in Italian rather than English. I know, it confuses me, too.

The town hosts a cherry festival the first week of June.

It’s almost June, so one of us was bound to order the duck with cherries and Marsala. It was quite good. Here’s the food porn part:

lari cherry duck

This, some pasta, a couple of new friends to pranzare with and air clean as a bell really made a special day. If you’ve never heard of Lari, well look at the map and it will show you how the little hill is configured and show you where the restaurant is.

And whatever you do, don’t get in trouble with the law or you won’t get to see this view from your cell in Lari Castle. They’ve cleverly put the windows very high up on the wall.

lari view picture

Lari, a Castle Town in Tuscany, Revisited originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com May 24, 2014, © James Martin.

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The Cinque Terre Wines of Walter De Battè

■ 84 days ago by James Martin

walter de batte picture

I’ve had the privilege of tasting some of Chianti’s “best” wines. Some of them cost more than 8 worker’s lunches here in the Lunigiana, just for a single bottle. People whose job it is to “present” this wine to the public usually extol their handling of the grapes and speak glowingly of the care they take with their little babies, all moist and ripe as they slide slowly down the chute on their way to becoming expensive libation. When their juices age a very long time these grapes become a wine that will undoubtedly be called “refined.”

But when it comes time to taste, your pourer may flick an imaginary piece of dust from an impeccably tailored sleeve, allow a precious dribble to fall into a glass, then stand back, smile and say something like, “good, eh?” when you touch the glass to your lips.

Yes, good. But not 7 times better than a decent bottle, I usually think.

But I’m not a wine writer, really. I look to other people to extol whatever virtues justify the cost. They say the same thing. “Good,” or “Mmmm,” then nod knowingly. I am thinking they are thinking the same thing I am thinking, something like “somebody please say something intelligent about this wine.”

But maybe not. Maybe we are just letting the wine speak for itself. It is refined. It speaks softly.

altrove wine pictureWalter De Battè is serious about the wines he makes out of vineyards that cling to the slopes above the five little villages given the name Le Cinque Terre. These wines are not “refined.” They speak boldly of things refined people don’t speak of in public. We tasted Walter’s wine with foods prepared by Cappun Magru restaurant in little Groppo, a bump on the winding road to the top of a ridge from which you get excellent views of the five little villages and the terraced hillsides the rain keeps washing away. Food expert, guide, B&B owner (Poggio Etrusco) and cookbook author (Cucina Povera) Pamela Sheldon Johns has invited us, and man, are we glad she did.

The first wine we taste is brilliantly colored, a deep gold with signs of murkiness. Walter thrusts his nose deep into the glass and describes the smell of rocks drying on the beach in the noonday sun. He talks of lichens and moss. It is the opposite of refined; we are shrouded heavily in the nature we desire to be engulfed in, at least in our dreams.

The wine he’s named Carlaz is unfiltered and unfined. Hence the murkiness and, above all, the intense flavors of the sea and earth, the terroir, as the French say, from which the grapes have developed their unique character.

It paired nicely with the dish the restaurant was named after, the Cappun Magru, a fisherman’s dish of fish, shellfish, a mariner’s biscuit, green sauce and earthy vegetables.

We had three other courses—and three other wines. I’m not going to wax poetic over them. Each was significantly different, like a novel which comes alive when you realize that each personality is different and distinct and equally compelling.

sciacchetra pictureBut we ended with one of the last bottles of Walter De Battè’s Schiacchetrà that are currently in circulation. Schiacchetrà is the Cinque Terre’s famed dessert wine.

Why is Schiacchetrà wine so expense? Easy: It takes 45 pounds of fresh grapes to make 15 pounds of dried ones, from which the winemaker extracts a single bottle of Sciacchetrà. The wine should age for at least 6 years. Good vintages can age 10, 20, even 30 years. ~ David Downy – Wines of the Cinque Terre

I’ve put a picture of it over there to the right. Look at the color! This is no wall flower wine!

The perfect afternoon? A room that opens onto the vineyards of the Cinque Terre, letting in the light. A small group of good people unafraid of life, a man in jeans who knows wine. Good food. Wine that speaks volumes: of the air and the sea and the rocks and the hanging moss, earthy as all get out…

It’s almost pornographic, eh?

The Cinque Terre Wines of Walter De Battè originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com May 09, 2014, © James Martin.

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Dr. Sukkar and the Mediterranean Diet

■ 90 days ago by James Martin

sukkar pictureI am giddy. I’ve just attended a lecture on nutrition conducted by a medical doctor in Italian and came away with an almost complete understanding about what the man was saying. This makes me quite happy. The man is a genius. This is not mere hyperbole; anyone who can make me understand anything is a genius. It doesn’t happen that often. He’s in the center in the picture, just so you know.

But really, Dr. Samir Guiseppe Sukkar has his own website chock full of credentials, just in case you think he’s one of those fly-by-night, paid-by-Monsanto crackpots who dominate the American nutritional scene. His talk in front of the museum in La Spezia was titled “Vivere piu a lungo e sani grazie al modello alimentare della Lunigiana” which pretty much means, “live longer and healthier with the Lunigiana dietary model.”

I emphasize the word “model” because Dr. Sukkar wisely pointed out that, while the “Mediterranean diet” is widely held to be some sort of holy grail for those who want to live to be 120 years old, the UNESCO prize isn’t for the diet, it’s for the model of the diet, which includes lifestyle. That is, hard physical work in the fields, discussion during meals, as well as the food itself.

To quote Dr. Sukkar in a general way only a person who struggles with the language daily might, “Our model of eating comes from the Greek, the concept of the Agora, where ideas come together with daily tasks like eating. You eat less when you are interested in the discussion.”

An enormous part of the success of this diet is attributed to components in fresh olive oil. The big word is polyphenols, an antioxidant that protects cells from damage and has anti-inflammatory properties. The fat in Olive oil is monounsaturated, which can help lower your cholesterol and control insulin levels in the body.

But here’s the thing. While we Americans fetishize the precious olive oil on our shelves, we are kidding ourselves that we are benefiting from consuming it. Remember, I said “…the components in fresh olive oil.” The crap you buy in an American supermarket isn’t fresh, and besides, “highly refined or “light” olive oils, which use heat or chemicals in the refining process, have significantly lower polyphenol levels.” That’d be the stuff on the Safeway shelf. Green olives from older trees that have been handled very, very gently in the field and at the processor have the highest polyphenol levels. That’s not the junk in the American Grocery, that’s my neighbor Enrico’s olive oil. It’s the (demanding) lifestyle, silly. He works. He makes olive oil. He toils in a humongous garden. He cycles long distances on “vacation”.

How did olive oil get to the Lunigiana? Think Romans. Think energy crisis. They brought olive trees to provide fuel for oil lamps, the high tech lighting of the time. What was left over was eaten. By the medieval other oils and other means of lighting started to be used, freeing olive oil for consumption.

And finally, let’s consider the lowly, besmirched egg. It’s not lowly because of what it is, but what we’ve made it. The fats in the eggs produced by a real free range chicken that gets to prance around the barnyard eating bugs are significantly healthier than those produced by caged, pellet-fed chickens. Insects are huge providers of select amino acids that are found in sparse quantities in vegetables.

So, technology has alleviated seasonal starvation; we can give it that. But then, like the Roman god Janus, shouldn’t we have an eye toward the past so that we might avoid the ever-crappier food of the future? The truth is, happy chickens produce healthy eggs that taste better.

Until they get that straightened out, I’m happy to eat in the Lunigiana. I only have to walk down the driveway to see chickens pecking in the dirt on the hillside.

Dr. Sukkar and the Mediterranean Diet originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com May 03, 2014, © James Martin.

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