■ 4 November 2014 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.
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
■ 28 October 2014 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.
■ 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.
Popular These Days
■ 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.
■ 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.