■ May 21, 08:00 AM by James Martin
“The most rain in 200 years,” he said, glancing up at the sky.
And then there was the water rushing past the bridge. Usually it’s barely a trickle this time of year. Now it’s got some serious whitewater to it at times.
Lots of water has consequences. Good and bad consequences I suppose. It makes your pictures look bad. Well, not really bad, but it looks like you put your picture in Photoshop and cranked up the green like an addict cranks up the crank.
But really, the view below is the view you get when you take the narrow little road from Fivizzano to Comano. You’re almost to Comano, the Castle tower at Castello is about to come into view. There’s a space to pull off, pretty much the first one you’d dare use. Then this:
See what I mean? Oh, yeah the lens had a smudge the size of Kansas on it, but what you see is pretty much the new growth green, scoured by constant rain until it’s polished like the silvery ball embedded in a pretty girl’s tongue.
We’re looking at the edge of the Tosco Emiliano National Park. It’s pretty country all around.
And if you noticed the picture way at the top, you’ll notice snow. It’s late May. What’s that doing there?
Odd year, innit?
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
■ May 20, 01:08 AM by James Martin
I was just going through my Verona pictures the other day. That got me to remembering how much I like Verona. It certainly has one of the most beautiful historic centers in Italy.
I was thinking, “it’s a shame people are induced to come to Verona on the premise that they must see a balcony very dubiously attributed to the family that gave life to a character in a play nobody has read since high school.
Yes, our emotional attachment to deep, yet forbidden love, is strong. But c’mon, is a glance at the platform upon which lovers were alleged to have wrung out their tormented souls together worth a couple of euros? That’s what the city of Verona is thinking of charging you to have a peek at said balcony. “Euro one, euro two, where art thou?” you might be asking soon.
Go to Verona. See a real play. Revive your spiritual self. And wander the city at night, too. The beauty doesn’t cease when the sun goes down. In fact, it get’s better!
Usually, I don’t post pictures with scaffolding in them. But look, it doesn’t matter. Here, everything works. Imagine being immersed in this beautiful and historic setting, perhaps imbibing one of the Veneto’s specialties, a glass of shockingly good vino.
Everyone knows that there are some great painted houses in Verona’s famous market square, piazza delle erbe, a market since Roman times. But at night you can see them with ominous shadows and without glare, and you can see the shutters open just a bit to let the cool night air in after a warm day.
And if you are taking in a play or musical event at the Roman arena, where will you go to eat, or maybe you’re early, where will you go for a drink—or a snack? Well, park yourself right in front of the arena’s Roman arches, it’s all right here:
Forget the balcony! Plan a trip to the real Verona. Don’t tell your friends and neighbors you didn’t shell out for the balcony. They’ll be heartbroken, but that’s what the play’s really about anyway.
■ May 16, 04:28 AM by James Martin
Sometimes great ideas for an article spring from a photo—like the one on the right.
We were wandering through everyone’s favorite mountain village in the Abruzzo, Santo Stefano di Sessanio, on a fine, spring day with all the fruit trees in full flower when I snapped this picture. I thought it was an interesting view, and the “diffused hotel” idea appeals to me and might appeal to other folks. As I looked at the picture upon returning home, I though I’d post it on our newly-born Tumblr page, for found stuff that didn’t warrant many words of comment.
“Sextantio,” I thought, looking at the phallic tower springing up over the words on the sign, “that’s interesting…”
So I was drawn into some research.
It turns out that the albergo really doesn’t have a name. Sextantio is the name of a company the takes village houses and turns them into compelling places to stay. It turns out that the owner of the company, Daniele Kihlgren, has some interesting ways to look at tourism in Italy—especially the parts of Italy tourists overlook.
In Italy, a country of Story, should be preserved a history too often disqualified as “minor”- such as dotted villages among the Abruzzi mountains and historical heritage so far from the canons of classicism.
Ok, so it’s a bad translation but an interesting observation. Italy is a country of history (the word for “history and “story” are pretty much the same word in Italian), but we come for but two little slices of this history, the classics and the Renaissance, which limits our travel and experience considerably.
Our interest in these narrow bits of history protects their resting places. That’s where we leave our money, after all. Meanwhile, the rest of Italy, and I’m taking about a huge swath of Italy, from unfortunate L’Aquila to the southern tip of the boot, there is a grand exodus of art and interesting people. Many of the village centers of the Abruzzo are abandoned from earthquakes and other natural disasters, as we found from our last excursion. There is no great Renaissance art to save them.
So Sextantio is set to save some of these villages. It’s an admirable plan, although you might be a little turned off by the idea that “at the Sextantio Albergo Diffuso in S. Stefano di Sessanio, the Reception is inside a cave used to grow the pig.” On the other hand, some of you, like I, will find this re-use a favorable thing which will increase our resolve to stay there some day. Think of the lost culinary traditions! And I long for the day when the pigs return and we’ll all be able to dine very well on a tasty and humanely treated animal.
The whole idea of saving a whole village from extinction by re-using what’s already there is something I’m really excited about. Yes, there’s always been re-use through the centuries, some of it robbing us of interesting antiquities to gawk at, but the methods used here are uniquely gentle on the past. As these alberghi diffusi are built, property management services for folks who want to finance the restoration of other buildings will follow (in fact, property management for outside properties is built into the mission statement of Sextantio).
And who knows, when the world dissolves into endless war and the soil is depleted by the tons of chemicals we increasingly “need” to produce our genetically engineered crap food, you might be glad you bought a little place in the mountains of the Abruzzo, with a restaurant that serves the food the locals cook and relish.
Are we looking too nostalgically on the past? Should we always be facing forward? Is Janus dead? I hope not. I want some of that pig, dammit.
Read the Mission Statement of Sextantio.
Heck, why not rent a room
Also, there’s The Heart of Memoir Writing Workshop being held soon in the albergo diffuso.
Popular These Days
■ May 15, 06:26 AM by James Martin
The magic corner of Tuscany they call Versilia isn’t just endless beach with geometric arrangements of vividly colored umbrellas standing staunchly against the ever-blasting rays of sun; tourist posters don’t reveal all. Not even as much as a thong reveals, really. Not for those of us who get all tingly over rural villages anyway.
All you have to do, even if you’re a beach person, is to put on some decent clothing and point your little Fiat towards the hills and you’ll find little towns like Corsanico, houses peeking out from verdant vineyards and scraggy olive trees, the bell tower recalling the endlessly repeating hours in a somber tone.
The town you’ve never heard of has a pedigree, like many of the others. The built-up town starts with the Romans in 150 AD with the construction of the Via Aurelia, then the passes thought he Longobards on the way to its “timeless” present. Corsanico’s church is called S. Michele Arcangelo, the dragon slayer who took from Hercules the task of protecting the shepherds in early Christian times.
The church is famous. You are probably unaware of its fame. But let’s say you push open the door, step inside, let your eyes adjust to the dimness, then stare for a while at the rococò excess of it all.
You will wonder why there is fame in this large church tucked into a little piazza in this Tuscan backwater of a town. You will shrug your shoulders. Perhaps they ache from driving the curvy little road you had to take to get to Corsanico.
But turn around. Yes, there appears to be the facade of a small building emerging from the organ loft! It is painted with a fine hand.
Well, that, at least, is quite nice.
There, in front of you in all its glory, would appear the pipes Of Vincenzo Colonna’s “Monumental” organ, which he built between 1602 and 1606.
But…what’s it doing in a church that succumbed to fire and was rebuilt and enlarged in 1848? Don’t organs burn?
Well, that’s where the story gets interesting. After a period of religious and monastic suppression, the organ, once the property of the church of San Francesco of Lucca, was auctioned off. Annibale Ceregioli of Corsanico, representing a local committee, bought the thing for a whopping sum of 1015.10 lire. (If you remember the lira in 1980 or so, Ms Ceregioli’s purchase would have come to just over $0.50. Inflation is grand, isn’t it?)
In any case, they wedged it into the organ loft, tuned it up, and everyone loved the “new” organ. Even Giacomo Puccini played it.
Let’s have a look:
She’s a beaut, no?
The Organo Monumentale, as they call it, is the only surviving example of Colonna’s work, so it’s historically quite important. For you organ lovers, here are some specs: The organ has one manual and an octave of pedals including a 16ft Bombarde. All manual stops split near middle C to allow for ‘solo and accompaniment’ playing.
As you can see from the picture on the right, the bloggers of the Versilia Blog Tour were taken to the loft to get a good feel for how the organ is played. It’s easy. There’s a keyboard, a plaque with all the “voices” so you can control how the organ sounds, and there’s a special little switch to the left of the keyboard to make the organ sound like a bird twittering. Don’t laugh, everyone twitters these days.
So, how do you get to hear the organ if you’re not on a blog tour? In July and August there’s a music festival. The Associazione Amici della Musica d’Organo Vincenzo Colonna has a website still announcing the Christmas music festival, but also has info on the yearly summer festival.
Or, you could just go to church on Sunday.
Endnote: There are also some fine hiking opportunities around Corsanico.
■ May 14, 12:48 PM by James Martin
La Spezia always surprises. It’s not that anybody goes there who isn’t just changing trains to go to the Cinque Terre. But it’s an awful nice town, with good restaurants and a nice daily covered (but not too much) market.
In any case, we spent the morning shopping. Then we decided to sit down and have a coffee. We found a bar with an old man playing clarinet in front of it. He played with grace and ease. He played songs like Benny Goodman might play.
I will not tell you the name of the bar because the coffee was horrible. That’s surprise numero uno. I mean, you can almost always get a good coffee in Italy. Sometimes you get a “just ok” coffee. But a tiny cup of bitter sludge you almost never come across. I wondered how the place could stay in business.
In any case, while this guy, whose name by the way is Stingaciu Alexandru, is like one of those Indian snake charmers with his clarinet. Soon a guy comes round the corner with dancing shoes on. No kidding, he dances. By himself. Then, along comes a big guy, a guy who dwarfs him. You can see the dwarfage in the bad picture up there I think. I took it with my iPod. It is not a Hasselblad.
Then He starts dancing. I mean, when have you seen such a thing in the US? Men do not do that. Women! Oh, my yes. But men? A pair of them? Not a chance. (I mean, you might see that in San Francisco, but they’d be dancing with each other. These guys were dancing with no one in particular. Ok, so the dancing is a sort of rhythmic if not spastic shuffling. But still.)
Then the big guy starts singing. He is less proud of his singing than his dancing. (Suprise!) He is crooning away but you can hardly tell. The guy next to him might have heard him better because he heads into the bar.
He orders a “cafe correto”. That’s (usually) a shot of espresso and a few drops of liquor. He asks for Sambuca. Ah, my fave. She pours. And pours. The cup is full. He drinks it. From afar and with the wind blowing in the opposite direction he smells like a fennel distillery.
And now you know the secret of getting a good coffee at a bad coffee bar.
But Stingaciu Alexandru is quite something with his clarinet. He interacts with babies in carriages without skipping a beat. Benny Goodman, eat your heart out; you could be on a street in Italy surrounded by a couple of old guys shuffling to and fro, one who is three sheets to the wind on account of the coffee and the other who thinks he is Dean Martin—if only you were alive.
But in the end there is sadness. No women throw themselves at this dynamic duo. No one claps when the music stops. Even the babies seem oblivious to the man with the horn.
So we buy his CD. It cost 10 Euros. We are listening to it now. Nice.
■ May 13, 08:07 AM by James Martin
San Severo in Puglia is an interesting place. It’s located in the province of Foggia on the flat part west of the mountainous spur bit called the Gargano. They make good wine there. A big influence on the local dialects was the Tratturo del Re, the ancient transhumance path you can see just out of town, linking Aquila in the Abruzzo to Foggia in Puglia.
It’s a baroque town, but the bits of the Romanesque you find are oddly out of whack, like in the church pictured on the right.
But that’s not all that is wacky. The procession of the Madonna del Soccorso, the Black Madonna worshiped in San Severo, is celebrated in May.
It’s one of those crazy festivals celebrated in the south, like Matera’s Madonna Bruna. It’s all about the daredevil youth. In this case, as in the famous running of the bulls in Pamplona, the youth risk life and limb (well, sorta) running down il tunnel della paura, the tunnel of fear.
What they do is line the route followed by the Black Madonna with a long “fuse” upon which has been tied bags of gunpowder and light it at just the right moment. Kids called “fujenti” run in the midst of all the explosions, trying to keep ahead of the next one, all to prove devotion to the Madonna Nera.
Crazy? Yup. But really, you gotta see it. So here:
Here’s the schedule for the 2013 festival (in Italian)
■ May 10, 06:53 AM by James Martin
If you have landed upon this page, you are unlikely to be one of those people who is a first time visitor to Italy looking for everyone’s “best places to go in Italy” post. You won’t find one here. We are degenerates; we believe everyone can have their own best place; our purpose is to help people find it. In any case, we’re now going to assume you’ve been to Rome, Venice and Florence and have eaten in enough of those dismal tourist restaurants that you’re wondering what all the hype is about. You are looking to do your thing, and eat decently. Well, we’d suggest you get out into the countryside. Even Michelangelo did it.
If you are like me, you shun Mediterranean beaches. You like to do things. You like exploring art and culture. You like the (real) food of Tuscany, the food grandmothers make.
In fact, if you are (still) reading this particular post, perhaps you’d like to wade into the stream below Italy’s famous marble quarries—a stream loaded with water-washed white river cobbles of the precious stone—and dip your big hands into the stream in order to wrestle the perfect one out of the flowing waters and heft it onto he grassy shore. Is it your stone, the one that calls out to you? Does it say in a gravelly voice, “deep within me is the stuff of greatness, the expression of your oneness with me, all you have to do is remove all the crap that isn’t that stuff?”
Then, under the watchful eye of your teacher, you’d begin to skin your stone. Yes, that’s what she’s doing up there with the fashionable eye protection and the big hammer thingy.
Soon your stone is ready for you. You may sculpt.
Yes, you can do this on your vacation! You can do it on the grounds of a little house on the edge of a steep ravine with a view overlooking the mountains. Below you, way below, is that little stream from which your modest cobble was plucked.
Now, as a special treat for marble workers, you can eat the quarry-man’s favorite, lardo, without giving a thought to the fat content. You are working hard. Your stone is turning into your vision. You can pig out.
Isn’t that better than laying around on a beach? After all, you can do that in El Lay if you want. Sand is sand.
But marble is a different thing.
The picture on the left shows Peter Rosenzweig, the Director of Campo dell’ Altissimo tucked away in the small village of Azzano. If you take sculpting or painting courses at Campo dell’Altissimo, you can live near this place for cheap, donning your work clothes every morning and tromping off to work your hand-picked stone, chopping away at all the stuff that is not to your stone’s liking.
The picture shows Peter with a student’s work. I don’t know what it is either.
Does this sound good to you? Well, hop on it! The school was happening in May, and classes continue through summer, some as short as one week (just to see if it’s for you). The school can arrange local lodging. You don’t have to eat lardo if you don’t want to.
Check them out: Campo dell’Altissimo
If you are a wimp, and cannot lift a stone, you can still tour the quarries: Carrara Marble Tour Map and Guide
(Discovered thanks to the Versilia Blog Tour)
■ May 10, 01:33 AM by James Martin
I like the word “pap”. I always relished the word most when Samuel Becket wrote it. There was something elemental in it. Pap. The glop the world is made from, the elemental slurry. It’s for when you have no teeth. Beginning or end. Amen.
So here we are, “bloggers” (a word I almost hate as much as I like the word “pap”) continuing a great journalistic tradition by descending like starving vultures upon the buffet table on the roof of the Grand Hotel Principe di Piemonte in Viareggio, a hotel overlooking the long stretch of beach promenade. The buffet was provided us, just so you know, and served elegantly as befits such a grand hotel, even to those in muddy jeans.
I can’t help but notice the neatly arranged martini glasses that bookend the groaning table. Inside them is our elemental, blood red substance, the elemental slurry from which cucina povera derives, pappa al pomodoro.
We are not all up to speed. “What is it?” a blogger asks.
“Ah, the chef has made for you some pappa al pomodoro” the man in the suit answers, except without the italics.
Which raises the question: why do we love this elemental food so much? I mean, we’re in an elegant setting in a hotel a huge number of the world’s people could not afford and we’re being served something largely made from stale bread! And we’re loving it!
This is so wrong, isn’t it?
I have my theories, of course. Can the bandits of the food contamination industry—monolithic flavor marauders like Monsanto I’m talking about—suck enough flavors out of food and bankroll the banning of heirloom seeds so that we’ll lose the God-given vitality of a world full of good things to eat, God’s gift to us, (or Mom Nature’s gift, depending)? And now, on our last journey as the earth crumbles beneath us, we’re gobbling up the last vestige of the natural goodness that the oil squeezed properly from an olive combined with a ripe red tomato and our old, stale bread can give us.
It’s sad, isn’t it? Soon (very soon!) we’ll be forced into gussying this recipe up, and the simple goodness of the elemental tomato and stale bread “soup” will be lost. You know, like the food channel makes it. 17 ingredients including (gasp!) pancetta. Yes, it needs flavor when you take the flavor out of the main ingredients.
Yes, the quest for “cheap food” is a scam. Don’t fall for it. Oh, wait, you already have, most of you I mean.
And, yes, our stay at the hotel was wonderful, and the pappa al pomodoro was exactly as promised. Rooms these days might not cost as much as you think. Check them out by comparing prices: Grand Hotel Principe di Piemonte, Viareggio, Italy
Find out more about the Versilia Blog Tour 2013 on the official Facebook page.