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Giro 2014: Deconstructing Stage 4

■ 14 April 2014 by James Martin

They’ve recently announced the stages in the Giro d’Italia for 2014, and I couldn’t help pick my faves for creamy tourist goodness. Stage 4 caught my eye. It starts in my favorite fishing village, Giovinazzo and ends in Bari. Maybe it’s because I’ve just finished an article on the food of Puglia, but this is the stage I’d pick if I could will myself down the Italian peninsula to watch.

From a tourist perspective, there’s a lot to see on this 121 km stage. Maybe you should grab a bike and do the route before the boys in spandex rip through.

Giovinazzo is a historic town on the sea, a fishing village most of the year that becomes a bloated excuse for party-all-night bedlam in the season. Don’t go in August. In the way-off season, if you’re up early and trundle on down to the shore, it’s likely you’ll hear the plaintive song of the Octopus slappers. Otherwise, the port is quite idyllic in the morning. Watching the fishers of Giovinazzo will lower your blood pressure enough to make you want coffee, which is found in any of the many bars around the little port.

From here you can watch the racers zip along the road to a town called Bitonto. Ever heard of it? It’s on the ancient Via Triana ending up in Bari, where the racers will also end up. Visiting the towns along the Via Triana makes for a very interesting historic itinerary.

Even though you’ve probably never heard of it, Bitonto makes a very nice destination for the day. Allow me to quote myself:

The Romanesque cathedral is built over a paleochristian church which you can visit. The ambo, or pulpit and lectern, is a masterpiece of stonecarving made in 1229 (shown on the right). A good virtual tour of the city of Bitonto is found here. Museums to visit include: Galleria Nazionale, Galleria di Arte Contemporanea, Teatro Traetta, and the Museo Archeologico.

After Bitonto, the boys go on to Bari, which used to be a mere stopover for ferries to Greece, but where the slow tourist will find abundant charm among the little streets and alleyways in the old city, where women still make pasta by hand to sell in front of their houses. The port is the site of a lively fish market across from the castle, and the Cathedral of Bari, consecrated in 1292, is a Romanesque marvel that gets exceedingly high marks from folks who review such things—but is overshadowed by the Basilica of St. Nicholas:

Built in 1087 to house the saint’s remains, the church features several different architectural styles and houses a number of art works. The crypt, where the saint’s tomb is kept, has good mosaics.

If Saint Nick isn’t enough for you, you can always go back to watching the Giro. The boys circle the city 8 times—and they haven’t climbed any significant hills so they should be flying. Getting to see them more than once doesn’t happen very often, so take advantage.

The Puglia stage in the Giro should be quite something to see. For a large route map, click here.

Giro 2014: Deconstructing Stage 4 originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Apr 14, 2014, © James Martin.

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Eating Weeds

■ 12 April 2014 by James Martin

stinging nettles fritata

It was a gloriously sunny morning when we walked into the olive grove on the edge of Montestigliano. Our eyes fell upon a the riot of color a bumper year for wildflowers brings to these parts.

tuscan wildflowers pictureWe the uninitiated were seeing yet another pleasant side of Tuscany. Marta, our guide, was seeing food.

Marta’s father, a “cowboy” from the Maremma they call a buttero, collected herbs and mushrooms while he worked, and her grandmother taught her how to cook them. But they get only minor billing, according to Marta.

“Mother Nature is the real teacher,” she admitted.

marta pictureWe strolled through the thick undergrowth behind Marta as she pointed out the edibles in the biomass that we hadn’t clumsily trampled over. Chickweed, poppy leaves, daisies, dandelions, chicory, crepis, wild onion, spring garlic, wild sage, ciccerbitta, and even malva jumped out at her. “Malva” means “bad, go away” in Italian, but fake-named plants can’t fool Marta, who encouraged us to eat the small, tender leaves and flowers.

There was also a good sized clump of stinging nettles. Ortica in Italian, which I like very much. To eat I mean. I’ve worked around nettles a lot, but Marta told me something I didn’t know about them—the sting only comes from the upper, or sun side, of the leaves. You can touch the back of the leaves with impunity—or even with your fingers—and you won’t feel the sting.

weed saladWhen it came time to prepare our haul for lunch, Marta combined the nettles with eggs from the chickens raised at home and made it into the delicious concoction you see on top of the page, a nettle frittata. Other “weed” leaves were sauteed and got stuffed inside simple pastry, and still others, along with flowers, became a salad.

Add a little pasta to the mix flavored with our found herbs and we sat down to another abundant Italian meal.

Marta’s guidance in gathering herbs and cooking with them was part of an experiential travel tour developed by the collaboration of Sharon and Walter of Simple Italy and Luisa and friends at the Agriturismo Montestigliano.
While this spring’s tour is coming to a close, you can plan now for the fall harvest tour.

Eating Weeds originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Apr 12, 2014, © James Martin.

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Cycling the Emilia Romagna

■ 31 March 2014 by James Martin

ferrara italy, ferrara bikesMention the regions that might attract the most visitors, hardly anyone mentions Emilia Romagna. It’s big, it’s got lots of industrial farming, it’s got a long and straight autostrada called the A14.

It’s also got lots of historic cities, the best food in Italy (many claim)—and it’s got bike hotels.

I first came across bike hotels when I went to Riccione for a conference. Now I’ve noticed that not only are there Riccione Bike Hotels, but also Rimini Bike Hotels.

Not only that, but it’s got CyclE-R, a site where you can plan your route and get pre-planned itineraries already mapped for you.

But we’re not done yet! The tourism people have started to offer contests like the current Instagram contest take a picture of scenic spots with your bike in it and you can win prizes. There’s one contest each month.

And all the info is in English! Imagine!

So heck, why not head over to the Emilia Romagna, rent a bike, and have a blast? It’s got some fine cities you’ve probably never heard of like Brisighella and seaside Cesenatico you will want to explore, as well as big boys like Parma and Italy’s Motor City Modena.


This little post was the result of a twitter conversation with someone who actually asked me a question that didn’t fall into the category I call, “How long is a piece of string?” These include, “Is Europe reasonable?” and “How much does an Italian train ticket cost?” Believe it or not, about 85% of questions I receive are unanswerable due to extreme vagueness; I have no idea what’s “reasonable” to you, nor can I guess where the train in your mind goes. I’m extremely grateful to get questions like asking for specific information a person can provide without hyperbole (don’t ever ask for the “best” town in Italy; I won’t answer). Try things like: where can I take my bike out for a spin in Italy where it’s flat? (Puglia). Where can I see a town whose economy was once based on Gypsum? (Brisighella). Where in Italy did Leonardo da Vinci design a canal? (Cesenatico). I might not be able to answer your question, but I like looking things up if the question is reasonable. Usually a question that involves food is reasonable—and there’s a good chance I can come up with an answer.

Cycling the Emilia Romagna originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Mar 31, 2014, © James Martin.

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Twisted Streets

■ 11 January 2014 by James Martin

pistoia twisted streets map

langhe enclosed streetI have always wondered why I feel compelled to take pictures like you see on the right. Houses stuck together, a gentle curve, a bit of sky.

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.

enclosed street pistoiaConsider:

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.

ragusa enclosed streetSo 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.

Twisted Streets originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Jan 11, 2014, © James Martin.

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Prickly Pear Concentrate in Sardinia: Sapa di fico d’india

■ 11 December 2013 by James Martin

bauladu women pictureOne 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.

bauladu fico d'indiaAt the time, the women were selling the concentrate to bakeries that made traditional sweets from it. And what a place for gossip!

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.

Prickly Pear Concentrate in Sardinia: Sapa di fico d’india originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Dec 11, 2013, © James Martin.

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An Albergo Diffuso in the Abruzzo

■ 16 May 2013 by James Martin

albergo diffuso picture

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.

An Albergo Diffuso in the Abruzzo originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com May 16, 2013, © James Martin.

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La Spezia and the Clarinet Man

■ 14 May 2013 by James Martin

clarinet player la spezia picture

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.

La Spezia and the Clarinet Man originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com May 14, 2013, © James Martin.

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Castelvecchio Calvisio and the End of Time

■ 21 April 2013 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.

castelvecchio calvisio historic centerSo, 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.

castelvecchio calvisio stairsWhen we got back to the car, the same old man was there to greet us. This time I sought to engage him. “So, nobody lives in the center?” I asked.

“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.
castelvecchio calvisio picture

Castelvecchio Calvisio and the End of Time originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Apr 21, 2013, © James Martin.

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