■ 24 October 2014 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.
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
■ 17 October 2014 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
■ 7 October 2014 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.
Popular These Days
■ 27 September 2014 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;
■ 7 September 2014 by James Martin
Travel clogs your brain with all sorts of pernicious poppycock. You work it in there with all the truths and half truths you discover on your journey through life, and out comes a crusty deposit full of holes. Like bread.
On our last trip to Rome we stayed northwest of the Vatican, in the neighborhood called Aurelio. This happens to be the place where the current king of bread, a guy named Bonci, has a pizza joint. As a journalist, I had to try the pizza. After all, it was all the rage. The man was a saint, according to the lit. This fact, of course, made me want to ignore him. I am a contrarian. I immediately think of other things, hidden things, when confronted with anyone made godly by a ballooning cadre of sycophants. (After all, at the height of his power, Mussolini received about 1,500 letters a day from Italian men and women of all social classes praising his political prowess. Think on that!)
In any case, I also visited a bakery in Puglia, a region which I consider the best for bread. There I met Lorenzo Accarino in a store called Chichino Pane in Monte Sant’Angelo. He was throwing big, wobbly hunks of bread to be baked.
And he didn’t knead it. Not a bit.
So, then I listened to a talk about bread at La bottega di Stigliano, a food cooperative in Siena province. The talk turned to modern folks inability to digest bread, and one of the threads being studied was the turn away from ancient methods to “quick rise” methods of making bread faster. We all took a swerve and started to make bread like factories, a quick rise, kneading to align the gluten in the flour, a short rise and then bang, into an oven.
So then I started hearing all the new talk of “no knead” bread—because that’s the way Mr. Bonci does bread—creating a wet dough you can’t even think of kneading.
Why don’t you need to knead? Because a long rise, overnight or longer, aligns the gluten when the big holes expand with the slow rise. The bread works for you.
So what’s the big deal, then, about health? Well, well-fermented, slow rise bread is very low in phytic acid.
Phytic acid not only grabs on to or chelates important minerals, but also inhibits enzymes that we need to digest our food, including pepsin,1 needed for the breakdown of proteins in the stomach, and amylase,2 needed for the breakdown of starch into sugar. Trypsin, needed for protein digestion in the small intestine, is also inhibited by phytates.
Through observation I have witnessed the powerful anti-nutritional effects of a diet high in phytate-rich grains on my family members, with many health problems as a result, including tooth decay, nutrient deficiencies, lack of appetite and digestive problems. ~ Living With Phytic Acid
To be fair, there are some who would argue that the benefits of Phytates outweigh the disadvantages. But still, I can create a free-form loaf of bread with a crunchy crust and those un-uniform holes that pane pugliese has with a minimum of effort while the rising dough does all the work. And the long fermentation makes it tastier.
So, when you slow travel, think of slow bread, too. Let’s hope this swerve back to the past has legs.
And, um, thanks Mr. Bonci!
■ 16 July 2014 by James Martin
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.
■ 13 July 2014 by James Martin
I 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
■ 1 June 2014 by James Martin
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.
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.