■ Jan 11, 05:10 PM by James Martin
What I was really trying to get at, of course, was the fundamental question: “Why in heaven’s name do we think of Medieval towns as romantic?
I thought, “It has to do with that picture, somehow.”
I think I was right. What you see is, in every sense, romantic. When you are in the street it is enclosed. It embraces you. There is still light, of course. Not harsh, “you look like a ghoul” kind of light, but light that is gently filtered and plays itself out in gentle gradients with the curvature of the buildings.
Enclosure. Think about that word. The town embraces you. The pathways are organic; they come about as a response to the earth as it stands, not the earth as we can wrestle it into a preconceived form so we can feel safer or drive faster.
I believe that the informal, irregular street arrangements often arose when paths turned into streets as people began to erect buildings along them. In hilly country, paths that have been beaten by humans and animals usually hold the maximum grade to near its lowest practical value. In so doing, they follow the contours of the site. In flat terrain, drainage features and soft soils similarly constrain the location of paths and usually favor firmer soils and drier sites.
Beaten paths usually take interesting and pleasant shapes. The course of a beaten path is almost never straight but is by no means random. Many things come into play, and even among humans the mechanisms are mainly unconscious.
That’s J.H. Crawford’s riff on the subject in A Brief History of Urban Form: Street Layout Through the Ages
Crawford points out that the ancient and modern rigid grid system can’t possibly be romantic:
Straight streets and the grid often express the power of a ruler and his will to impose his chosen order.
So that explains it. Who wants to be skewered by the imposed will of a strong ruler, or taken for the ride on the hood of a car whose driver imposes his will at one of the many, many intersections one has to cross in a modern rigid-grid planned city?
We want to be embraced, coddled, lost in the soft, filtered light and gentle curves of the path made into a street. We want to explore the mystery of the tunnel without a glaring light at the end of it. We want, perhaps, for a place to move us.
I wonder what becomes of people who’ve never experienced a Medieval city? After all, grids (an ugly word, no?) have been imposed upon almost everyone since the Renaissance. Does one lose hope? Does one’s soul harden into hatefulness? Could it be enlightening to be surprised by the immensity and beauty of a Baroque church dome as you gently crest a rise in your beautifully enclosed street?
We all need to travel, don’t we? That and a little wine, I think.
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
■ Dec 11, 03:55 PM by James Martin
One of the advantages of volunteering on vacation is the wealth of knowledge you’ll acquire of the local population and their clever use of raw materials on hand to make food and useful objects out of.
In the early 1980s we joined a project devoted to excavating Nuraghe Santa Barbara just outside of the little town of Bauladu. The excavation lasted several summers, and we made friends we still visit in Bauladu to this day—which, of course, means we are always making new friends like the Mayor of Bauladu, Davide Corriga Sanna, who today posted an interesting picture on his facebook page, a poster which seeks to promote the development and production of sapa di fico d’india, the concentrate of prickly pear pulp which the local women have been boiling down and selling for years. Witness the picture on the upper left. It’s from 1989. We happened to be prowling the streets when we spotted the wheelbarrow full of prickly pears in front of a magazzino and popped in for a chat with the women, whose iron fingers were expertly ripping the skin off the prickly pears like they weren’t prickly at all.
What’s nice about all this is that you see the circles of wastelessness in country life that you don’t see in America. The shepherd plants the cactus tightly together as a fence to keep his sheep from straying on their way to pasture. The fruit of the cactus provides sustenance to humans. Nothing is wasted; you eat the fence.
Sapa di fico d’india was sometimes a substitute for sapa di mosto d’uva, that is, concentrated grape must, also used in cooking by the poor. Sugar wasn’t always dirt cheap, you know.
Prickly pear juice can be used as a dye as it contains the Betalain pigment as does a beet root. And the juice of the prickly pear is quite healthy, as a matter of fact. It contains a lot of Vitamin C and minerals. There’s also:
Some preliminary evidence shows that prickly pear cactus can decrease blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes. Research also suggests that prickly pear cactus extract may lessen the unpleasant effects of a hangover. ~ Mayo Clinic
So good luck to the good women of Balaudu. You’ve got a winner there.
■ 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 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.
■ Apr 21, 08:21 AM by James Martin
We had seen the village stretched out under the mountains, the sun playing on its rooftops. Idyllic, you might think to say.
So, we decided to take a detour from the tourist “must sees” in the Abruzzo’s Gran Sasso to visit this little stretched-out village in the Province of L’Aquila. Tired from the zig-zag drive, we parked the car in the shade of the little trees that lined the town square, across from an old man taking in the sun from his doorway.
“Not many come anymore.” he said, his Italian words heavily influenced by the local dialect. Our eyes met. I nodded but I said nothing.
We found a sign pointed to the centro storico and headed through the gate. Eeriness was everywhere. Each arch was propped by what we’d come to see everywhere in the province, wooden skeletons designed to keep it all from falling down manufactured by the Vigili del Fuoco. VVF. The fire watchers. “VVF Roma”, “VVF Bergamo”. They came from all over to prop up the villages of the Abruzzo.
From the earthquake. Four years past.
Rocks from house walls studded the little walkways. Stairs led nowhere. There was an eerie silence. We were glad when we had a chance to exit the dead city.
“Oh, you can’t go there.” he said, staring into my eyes for a few seconds. “Oh, then you’ve seen it,” he said, realizing we’d breached the forbidden boundary.
“What a terrible thing. Four years! A ghost town!”
He shakes his head, then turns the conversation to Boston. “Crazy, bombing like that! They found a man! Crazy doing things like that!”
It was as if he was looking for a way to neutralize the event by sharing another. It was a crazy thing the earth was doing. It was a crazy thing we were doing to the earth; to each other.
There was nothing more to say.
This is the view that brought us to Castelvecchio Calvisio. Scenes from “The American” were set there. The historic center is almost oval, like a teaspoon. There is no one there now.
■ Mar 20, 09:29 AM by James Martin
It is just days before we head back to the Lunigiana, which is right now in soggy Tuscany but may be a part of Liguria as the reformatting of a broken Italy gets going.
In any case, the moment I start getting ready to head over to the boot these lovely and quite tasty thought bubbles start appearing just over my denuded skull. This is prime time for thinking of all the good things about a life in Italy.
Then as if by cosmic convergence or something, someone asked me via twitter this week, “which do you like living in, Italy or California?”
Ten years ago the answer was a toss-up. Today, more than ever, I lean toward (perhaps fall for) Italy. And I’m not even Pisan.
This morning, after my brain’s coffee-rush, the word-torrent flowed with a white water vengeance: food, people, pancetta, romantic ruins, trout with lardo, fabulous walks, cave-aged cheese, the glories of Rome—and it goes on and on, rat-a-tat like a machine gun in a public school in the land of uninhibited fracking and religious freaking.
Yes, I know, Italian politics is a mess. But, unlike the US, it’s always been that way. Nobody need give a crap. It’s people that count in Italy. Your neighbors make your world. So, I’m different among expats. I don’t do politics. It’s nasty and getting worse all over. What more need be said? Or thought?
Basta! Here’s an orderly list of things I’ve though about. An odd list to be sure.
“Huh?” I hear you say. Well, listen up. the advantage of having 220 volts coming out of every wall socket is enormous. Let’s take your vacuum cleaner. In the US, a 1000 watt vacuum cleaner needs 110 volts at around 9 amps. In Italy, for the same motor, you need 220 volts at 4.5 amps. Thus the wires in the motor in your American device take twice the current and thus need to be twice the size (and weight!) as they would have to be in Italy. So, you can have a vacuum that really, really sucks in Italy and an 89 pound grandmother can carry it around like it’s a lost kitten.
In America, if you have something you know you get all the time and need medicine for, you first make an appointment with the doctor and wait the number of weeks until the doctor can see you. The doctor takes a glance at you and writes a prescription. You take the prescription to the pharmacist and they fill it. You pay through the nose. The pharmacist is a mere pill counter in the US, despite his education.
In Italy, I can just go to the pharmacy and get medicines for little things that need all this special treatment in the US. The education a pharmacist gets can actually be used! Imagine! And one in your area is always open, required by law.
The Rural Life is the Good Life
Don’t get me wrong, I love Italian cities, but the rural life in Italy is a whole different thing. For example, if you want really good food in the US, you go to the city. There a collection of fine chefs will prod farmers to actually produce food that is safe and tasty for their restaurants, unlike the rest of the country that’s stuck with corporate farms who produce our crap food. If you shop in the hinterlands of California, you’re toast. Every supermarket carries the same poison chickens, the same other white meat fatless pork that cooks up like the sole of a very old shoe.
It’s not that way in Italy. Everyone goes to the countryside for good food because that’s where it’s produced. Gourmets aren’t limited to living in a city full of influential chefs. You can be pretty sure there’s a guy who sells the best cave-aged cheese within a short drive. Your neighbors know of him. You need to ask. In fact, if you do they’ll think quite highly of you. It’s a win-win.
In America we are forced to cook our hamburgers extra well done or risk being poisoned. In little Palerone, I can go to the little supermarket with the (real) butcher shop and get any cut of meat I want ground as I watch in a machine used only for that type of meat. Then I can go down the road to the little shack next to the enormous garden and get some onions freshly dug out of the soil to go with it. Onions not from another state, or heaven forbid from another country, but from 6 feet away.
You can have good food if you demand it. It’s a fact. But the two countries are worlds apart on the subject of food. The majority of people in the US, ill informed by political groups bent on providing profit to industrial crap food producers, think it has to be like that. Boy, are they wrong.
As a journalists, folks take me around to places they like or think I’d like. I’m constantly amazed at the number of people who make hand-made goods. Violins, furniture, lace. And you know what? There are no signs on the doors. I mean, get hooked up and a whole new world opens up to you. It’s what makes Italy fascinating. Even the very best wine can come from behind an unmarked door.
Yes, Italy can be like a life-sized video game in which the adventurous can win big—in a smallish and very satisfying way of course. It’s the little things that count, but they add up.
I gotta go. There’s packing to be done.
■ Oct 27, 02:52 AM by James Martin
Bagni di Lucca, the baths of Lucca; I’ve spent the past couple of days there. I say there, but there’s really no there there. You see, Bagni di Lucca is a loose confederation of villages tied together by their proximity to curative waters gushing from the earth. So you can say you’re in Bagni di Lucca when you’re really in Ponte a Serraglio, which is where I really was—staying as I was in the corner of a villa called Talenti. You see, I could have also been in a town referred to as Villa, which is sometimes called Bagni di Lucca because it is bigger than the other villages and has some shops and a tourist office—but I wasn’t.
Now that we’ve cleared that up…
The area is quite interesting. The landscape is incredible. Artists flocked here. Brits came for the sun and the waters. Puccini composed here, in a hotel that flourishes still today.
Now things are more subdued than they once were. But worry not, artists are slowly making their way back. The Casino, Europe’s first licensed casino they tell me, has been restored.
But still, when people think about “the cure” they think of Montecatini Terme. That’s because it has been all gussied up for the nouveau riche. It has a certain elegance to it. Russians love leaving their newly minted money there.
But Bagni di Lucca has always been a place for artists, seekers, dreamers, and other people not particularly known for their economic prowess. You can’t have a conversation about the history of the place without hearing the phrase, “for the poor” or some such—a quaint reference to a time when religious people actually acknowledged the existence of a book called the New Testament and were so eager for entry into heaven that they gave up their wealth for the opportunity.
You see, in the early 1800s the Russian Prince Nicolaj Demidoff made the arduous trip to Bagni di Lucca to cure his gout. The waters, besides curing him, evidently made him quite crazy; he decided that the poor needed these cures as much as he did and built a hospital for them. Talk about being behind the curve.
This kinda largesse wasn’t just a one-time deal, it probably started with countess Matilde di Canossa in the 11th century and then continued:
In 1510 a certain “Bernabo da Pistoia”, a rich man but with a horrible skin disease, immersed himself in the spring where the villagers took to heal sick animals and came out cured. Bernabo built at his own expense this establishment that bears his name. ~ Bagni di Lucca
And get this: even the casino was built so that the profits could keep the spas in business treating the poor.
Perhaps if these guys had paid more attention to the more expensive dancing girls and the profits available in the derivatives market they could have built something modern, something luxurious, something off limits to the poor, as modern “religion” (and pop politics) dictates.
In any case, as a poor scribe, I can recommend one thing: Get thee to Demidoff’s hospital and slip into one of his original marble “vasche” (after they fill it with healing waters, that is):
Yes, this is where, for a mere 15 euros a person, you can relax in the healing waters in Nicolaj Demidoff’s hospital, now called Villaggio Globale, Global Village, a holistic healing center.
Of course, what you see in the picture is a rather naked view of the 19th century vasche. When you reserve a place, they come in and fill the tub with the healing spring water (or tubs, if there are enough people in your party), then dim the lights, place candles all around the outside of the tubs, and play some of that relaxing, new age music. You can pretend you’re a Roman emperor or the Queen of Sheba. Be as silly as you want—nobody can see in.
And that picture over there to the left? See the water gushing from the wall? Its the free healing water; the poor (or anyone, really) can use it as long as they’re not naked. (They check, I’m told.) It’s between the Villaggio Globale center and Demidoff’s crumbling temple on the other side of the stream.
So, get thee to Bagni di Lucca and get soaked. It’ll do you some good: Villaggio Globale
■ Aug 21, 02:14 PM by James Martin
I have a great idea I want to share with you. It will make me rich.
I’ve figured out that I’ve been approaching the idea of a guy who vacations for a living from the wrong perspective. You see, I thought I could wander around Italy, find little gems, tell you about them, and, with the addition of some advertisements on the site, get compensated for my work so I could do more of it. But this approach doesn’t function as well as you might think. You see, Google, who bestows you with its clicks, the only clicks in a quantity that matter on the web, doesn’t bestow so many clicks to places that not everyone goes to already. So if you don’t know Sassoferrato, you don’t search for it. I get no hits. Then, I starve. Or, I have to write 213 more articles that are lists of “the ten best free things to do in Rome”. Ick.
So here’s the new scheme. I vacation for you. I’ll be your surrogate slave. For a fee, of course. When you think about it, non-experiential travel is the way to go! Just think, no jet lag, no cover charges, no exchanging money, no expensive passports, no bidets…the list is almost endless.
You see, Americans don’t really have enough vacation days to do Europe right, much less Italy. Besides, they’re working harder than ever to support their new and improved gods, the rich. I don’t know where they signed up for this, but there you have it.
So, just pay me a little (less then you’d pay for a “real” vacation) and we’re set to go. I’ll send unique, custom picture postcards from anywhere you want, anywhere you told your loved ones and your enemies you’ll be traveling to. Since I’ll already be in Europe (and I have lots of pictures everywhere), you don’t have to pay those silly and exorbitant airfares. We both win. Your Aunt Dearybottom will rejoice that you’ve been on “the tour” and might inquire about your steamer trunk, but otherwise you’re covered.
So, I’ll hit you with some of the big benefits, the ones you’ve probably not thought about.
Make Them Think You Are Visiting Places you Never Wanted to See
Let’s say your mother, coworkers, and the check-out babe at the supermarket are always blathering on and on about how you should go to Florence and stand in front of Michelangelo’s Davide and be moved deeply, just like everyone they know. You know this hunk of marble is just another bit of salacious art done by someone who didn’t follow God’s carefully rendered sex advice, so you never, ever, want to see such a thing lest it turn your mind to mush. Still, you don’t want to hurt their feelings, expecially the check-out babe’s. Well, I have the answer for your: just pretend you are on vacation! I will send them all pictures of people weeping in front of statues of their choice as if taken by you as you weep for conformity’s sake, too! For a few extra bucks I’ll enlarge David’s “equipment” via PhotoShop for the check-out babe, just so she gets the hint.
Exactly match your preconceived ideas with “proof” of their existance in Europe
Say you’ve never been to Italy and have absolutely no experience whatsoever on Italian roads but you can’t help telling all your coworkers idiotic things like “them drivers in Italy are crazy!” It’s not like you need evidence when you say things about Italian drivers, everybody knows that! The problem is, maybe they believe you and maybe not. It’s hard to tell, isn’t it? Bump up their perception of your worldly charm and wit by having each of them receive a post card picturing a humongus autostrada crash! Everybody likes that kind of picture (as long as they’re not in it of course).
Or, if you just can’t stomach health care for all and happen to work in an office stuffed with slimy liberals, I’ll pose a picture of sick people stacked like cordwood in front of an Italian hospital and send it to each of your friends in a postcard! Even if the hand-chosen “sick” people demand money for posing in such a rediculous picture, I’ll stand with your preconceived ideas under (darned near all) circumstances! As in politics and television advertising, truth need not be a part of our contract! I promise not to mention that Italians live 2 years longer than Americans. It can be our little secret.
See Your Inability to Plan a Vacation Become an Asset!
Maybe you’ve tried planning a European vacation and have proudly put your itinerary on the web for comment. Perhaps people have laughed so hard their keyboards have shorted out because of the salty and mucusy outpourings, all because you think you can “do” 12 countries in 14 days. Well, I’m here to help! I will send them a postcard each day depicting a new country! Heck, send me more money and I’ll do it twice a day! That should shut them up! (Bad for the keyboard industry, but the chances of you working in that industry are pretty slim I figure.)
And Finally, You Don’t Have to Eat the Stupid Food!
If you love the idea of Italy but are afraid you’ll show up to a street festival in which some swarthy dude with his right index finger missing will stick a fork in a boiling pot and bring up something you taste and find marvelously flavorful and uber-delicious until he informs you that you’ve consumed the better part of a pig’s ear. No need to barf over the idea of food you arbitrarily hate; I can eat for you and send picture postcards of the food to your friends. I’ll only eat “normal” food. Promise.
My work is guaranteed to please, of course, how could it not?
So, Wadda ya think? Am I on the right track?