Every once in a while I go through some old Italy pictures. Yearnings to hit the road follow soon after. A recent memorable trip to the Abruzzo brought back these yearnings.
The very name “Abruzzo” has the feelings of wildness to it. It is a place too remote to have fallen into the the magical and refined grace-pit of the Renaissance. Tourists are few. There wasn’t enough wealth in the churches for the Renaissance they crave. Instead, locals clung to the land, listening to the pulsations of life in the wild as if their lives depended upon it, because, well, it did.
Pagans. Pagans are the much-maligned people who rely on the profound depth of their understanding of the dirt, the animals, the skies and how they interact, crafting from this immense knowledge the closely-held traditions of isolated farmers and herders—and exposed in festivals, superstitions, lively song and dance. These are the celebrations you must come to see.
It’s not that pagans are “against” God. He just has better things to do, loftier things.
So, potential tourist, walk among the places you see in these pictures. Even on a bright, sunny, spring day you can feel the earth cracking and surging, surrounding the new birth that pushes away the rotting old; April is the cruelest month…
This is the area of the Abruzzo that these pictures were taken. Wander it. Explore it. You’ll come away changed. In a good way, of course.
Also to See in the Map Area
We stayed at a restored fortified monastery near the town of Ocre called Monastero Fortezza di Santo Spirito. A stay is highly recommended; all the pictures here (and hundreds of others) were taken on day trips from this place.
Perhaps the title has you miffed. Let me explain. There is a little place in the Roman rione of Trastevere that serves up books, chocolate and wine (and spirits). If you are old enough to remember a time when the population rose up and rejected the military-industrial complex and advocated “make love not war” (“gasp!”), well, you know the targeted era for the furnishings. They are eclectic, to say the least. Charmingly so, as if you were in a pawn shop and someone in a tie-dyed tee shirt came out from behind the enormous and ornate cash register and offered you a drink and told you to peruse the library and then someone came in a played the piano and suddenly you’re having the time of your life and it was all totally unexpected, a gift you’ll never forget.
Cheers! Brandon of The Roman Guy.Anyway, I’m trying to paint Rivendita Libri Cioccolata e Vino with the broad brush of a very interesting time, especially if you spent it in San Francisco and ate frequently at a place called “The Family Farmacy”.
In any case, the specialty drink at Rivendita is a chocolate cup filled with liquor and topped with whipped cream and other delights. I had the Absinthe cream topped with cinnamon and hot pepper flakes. I would have cost 3 euro, but Brandon was paying.
If you’re a tourist looking for an interesting experience in Trastevere, you might find yourself on a street lined with lively eateries, the vicolo del cinque, the most lively and colorful walking street in Trastevere. This is where you’ll find Rivendita Libri Cioccolata e Vino.
Nice, eh? Now if you get half way into the room and look off to your right, this is what you’ll see:
Yes, the books, the piano, a place to sit amongst it all. At this point you might have something in your hand, something that will relax you and make you go with the flow.
The night we stopped in the restaurants were humming with tourists, but the place was, as you can see, a little empty. I don’t know how many refuges of the 70s there are, but even if you like endless war and politicians bought by corporations you should go there and check the place out. After dinner, I suspect, is when folks start assembling for the odd little drinks in the chocolate cups.
They’re good. Dessert and digestivo all in one. Amongst books. What could be finer?
Rivendita Libri Cioccolata e Vino
Address: Vicolo del Cinque, 11/a – 00153 Roma
Phone: +39 06.58.30.1868
If you hang around folks that write about travel in Italy and mention Ascoli Piceno to them, the inevitable response, more often than not will be, “Is Caffè Meletti still there?”
They mean this:
It happens to be occupy the corner of a Piazza I find far more compelling than Campo San Marco in Venice: Piazza al Popolo. Sorry, Venice lovers. It’s really a square for regular people. You don’t pay 10 euro for an ounce of coffee in the Piazza del Popolo, and the popolo are very nice as well.
The Caffè Meletti is indeed a special place. It faces out upon a piazza floored with gleaming, foot-polished travertine tiles you could eat off of. People stroll. Kids play. The little tourist train winds through.
You can rush through the piazza like the little train, but you know you want to slow down and just take it all in. Piazza life is part of what Italian culture gives to each tourist. Lots of them refuse the gift. Pity.
If you’re alive to the vibe, your brain may be hopping with all the Romanesque and Renaissance architecture that surrounds you. Slow it down. Head for the caffe, built in Italian Liberty Style.
Have Silvio Meletti’s Anisetta. That’s the ticket. Have it as the sun goes down.
You can “correct” it by adding some coffee beans. Try three. An even number is bad luck. You don’t want to give yourself bad luck.
If you come earlier in the evening, you can try the Anisetta as aperitivo with the addition of some sparkling water. Any time of the day you can step up to the gelato window and get a scoop of anisetta ice cream. It’s good, really good.
You see, Silvio Meletti’s Anisetta is special. He studied French distillation techniques. He knew the most aromatic anise grew in the dense clay around Ascoli. He labored to produce the very best anisette he could. Production is still in the family.
He is not a modern man, this Silvio, or he would have made something half-decent and sold it to a humongous corporation so that they could take the flavor out of it and make billions from it.
In any case, I implore you to try this city, Ascoli Piceno, this piazza, Piazza del Popolo, this Anisetta: Silvio’s. You will be centered in the entire universe, right smack in a town known for stuffing fat olives and deep frying them.
Read the whole history of this liquor, then plan a trip to Ascoli Piceno.
Let’s say you come upon a crumbling Tuscan village surrounded by scraggly vines (because the village happens to be in Chianti). There’s a derelict tobacco factory on the edge of town. The homes are vacant with the exception of a few little-used vacation homes.
The tobacco factory closed years ago. There is no longer a reason for working people to live in Castelfalfi.
You’d say “awe, too bad!” right? A little voice inside your head advises, “They should fix it up, put in a restaurant and tourists would come in droves.”
Then, what if I told you a German company, TUI, came in and bought up the whole lot, village, factory, vineyards, decrepit plumbing, churches, streets…
Whoa! They are not the “they” we were thinking of when we used the ambiguous term, were they?
This “they” will certainly turn the whole deal into an absurd carnival, a hoity-toity mutt of a village cobbled together to reflect what the average person who hasn’t been to Italy thinks of deepest Tuscany. We’re talking fake ceiling beams, efficient bureaucracy, beer halls. It’s not just you and I—the locals were quite suspicious of the whole turn of affairs, too, according to the project’s Chief Executive Officer Stefan Neuhaus.
We spent a couple of nights as Stefan’s guest in the hotel, which used to be the tobacco factory. Most of the village has been restored—but there were still a few cranes. There isn’t a beer hall, but there is a wine shop and even a winery with tasting room. On the day we were leaving, a gelateria opened. We were the first outsiders to have an early morning gelato. The farro concoction, a specialty, was very, very good and Tuscan to the core.
You can visit, as we did, with a hotel stay and enjoy the three pools, the bikes, the food and wine, and maybe throw on the apron and experience a cooking class. Perhaps you are a golfer (see our views on the Castelfalfi golf courses). But then perhaps you might consider the renovated houses for sale, targeting the busy executive who just wants to relax and have everything taken care of; just call ahead and let the management arrange your activities. Homes start at 250,000 euro. You can be middle-management and still afford one.
Wine is just now beginning to be squeezed out of the rejuvenated vineyards. There are three reds currently. They aren’t expensive. Our favorite, the 2013 Cerchiaia Chianti costs 10 euros, 16 in the restaurant. In the US, it would cost at least $40 in a decent eatery. The super-Tuscan called Poggionero is a few euros more. Soon there will be a white.
Chef Francesco Ferretti There are two restaurants, a fancy one and a trattoria called Il Rosmarino. We were lucky enough to take a cooking class with the chef of Il Rosmarino, just a short stroll up the street from the hotel. Francesco Ferretti had us making puff pastry and rolling pici, a typical fat spaghetti made without eggs, all the while giving us tips on cooking and telling us of his work in this rejuvenated village.
When we were done, we took off our aprons and chef Ferretti escorted us to our table, precisely positioned to have a view of the Chianti landscape out the open window. Here was where he would force us to eat what we had made. Having your hand rolled pasta turned into a work of art and served to you by a window open to the Tuscan hills is an experience you’ll remember, trust me. That’s chef Ferretti to the upper right, opening our bottle of Cerchiaia.
There is a wildlife preserve bordering on the Castelfalfi golf course. A fence keeps the wild boar in check. A walk with the gamekeeper brought us past a derelict house used in the latest Pinocchio movie and then past the locked gates of the preserve, where we hacked through the undergrowth to see an Etruscan tomb. Along the way we learned of the purpose and history of just about every piece of vegetation that grew around us. We were immersed in a world that poor Italians would have known like the backs of their hands.
Perhaps you are getting the picture here. This is a special place, built and staffed with Italian workers.
Slowly the locals are returning, first out of curiosity, then to try the golf course and eat in the restaurants and finally to stroll the streets. I would say the Germans have almost worked a rejuvenating miracle, but then I’ve stayed for free and might be biased, right? Well, I encourage you to go and see it for yourself. Eat in Francesco’s trattoria. Have the simple Tuscan foods that Francesco has brought to life. I’m talking real basic here, like his fabulous papa al pomodoro. Yes, pap. You will be amazed. And then if it’s on the menu try his Tonno del Chianti. It’s not a fish dish, but pork that looks like canned tuna—and it takes a while to prepare. According to the chef: “marinate the pork for 4 days in a white wine marinade, then take it out and cook it with spices for 15 hours very, very slowly, then Cryovac it with the house olive oil and let it sit a while, like tuna.”
Oh yes, there are olive trees and estate olive oil. The trees are even incorporated into the golf course. It’s brilliant.
And Castelfalfi even has a castle, of course. You can’t think of living in a village without one, can you?