■ 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
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
■ 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.
■ 13 July 2014 by James Martin
I like maps. Slap me with a heritage pig chop if I’m wrong, but I think modern technology has made maps more useful and interesting. (It gives you a good feeling to think that modern thought and technology isn’t all about crowd sourcing and driving down the incomes of trained and adept authors and artists.)
Take the map in the thumbnail. It’s a map of where tourists went in Italy in 2012. What they’ve done is taken the number of tourists who went to each region and map that region to the size it would be if geographical size was proportional to the number of tourists. So Tuscany is huge. Lazio is big but I’m thinking it’s only because throngs of people go to or land in Rome and then skedaddle, same with the enormous Veneto and Venice I suppose. And….the Abruzzo remains a dot the size of a pimple on a giraffe.
From this map you can discern where you should go if you fall into one of the two prevailing tourist categories. The trophy tourists who demand to see the “best” will want to go to the regions that are big, especially to those whose regions have been bloated by the algorithm the most, like Tuscany, so they can relate with pride that they’ve done the things the guidebooks and the crowd tell them to do. I don’t mean to be totally negative about this; these are the places with the highest density of easily accessed things to do for tourists who don’t know the Italian language. The folks who say, “I wanna get way off the beaten tourist track” can, and should, pick the miniscule regions. Those are the ones in odd colors you can barely see, like ticks on your arm after a hike in the woods. Take the Marche for instance. It’s the pink tick.
It is in current vogue to label Le Marche as “the new Tuscany.” Both the New York Times and Wall Street International have fallen over each other to put out the word. Thank God the mantle has been lifted from Puglia. Puglia, like Le Marche, has its own charms. They might not be the charms of Renaissance-rich Tuscany, but who cares? “The New Tuscany” is a label used by lazy writers. Ignore them. They make a one-week trek to a place, consult a few enthusiastic guides, and then that place becomes the cat’s meow. Instantly.
That said, there is enough in the Metauro Valley to keep you busy for weeks. Real food. Cheese made by folks out in real barns. Stunning landscapes, unchanged since the times Piero della Francesca brought his easels and brushes into the countryside to paint them. It’s home to waterfalls you can swim near and picnic by—bring a hearty bread with cheese made by a real cheesemaker. The Cascata de Sasso is one of Italy’s ten largest waterfalls and you didn’t have a clue, did you? (Ok, I didn’t either and I’ve been to this area many times).
And this is just a third or less of Le Marche. Imagine. Not only can you get a taste of unspoiled Italy, you can expand the rich “pinkness” of the little region and pretty soon the trophy travelers can become interested in it. Perhaps if enough of you get entranced by the siren song of Le Marche, you can contribute to numbers that might sway the money-hungry powers that be to reconsider the paving of the balconies of Piero della Francesca —or making a hydroelectric plant at La Cascata del Sasso.
The Abruzzo isn’t a bad place to spend a couple of weeks either. The Abruzzese need you, too. Tourists might stay in a castle and eat more than their share of food and thus leave some money in the territory so the people can finally recover from that big trembler from years ago. And you can visit Le Grotte di Stiffe. C’mon, you’ve always wanted to do that, didn’t you?
Here’s the Link to a very big map like the thumbnail above from the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera: L’Italia vista dagli stranieri
Popular These Days
■ 25 April 2014 by James Martin
For the last three days I’ve been rooting around in catacombs, I’ve eaten the best food in Trastevere, I’ve been driven over the cobbled streets of Rome in a golf cart—and I’ve stood virtually alone in the Sistine Chapel, with only the hum of the air conditioning to remind me I was in a building with some of the world’s greatest art.
These aren’t those same old tours you used to get 30-40 years ago. You see, after I studied archaeology I wanted to see some of Europe’s great ancient wonders, so I went to Rome and Athens like most people interested in the Classics. I paid for tours and listened to people who had no clue as to what was under their feet. I spent most of every tour rolling my eyes at the fantasies they tried to make me believe. In the end I could have flung a good sized elephant across the room using the ocular musculature I had built from this extreme exercise.
But that was then and this is now. By law, folks wanting to be a guide in Rome today have to be sharp as a tack on every aspect of the culture and civilization since Romulus and Remus. Even Nina, who led our Trastevere food tour, had a Ph.D. in Post Classical Archeology from La Sapienza and showed an abundance of energy that lit up our evening in Rome.
The fabulous Simona of Walks of Italy didn’t just lead us into a crypt and say, “this is what you’re seeing” but described the alternative theories that are popular so that we could understand exactly the path modern research was taking. I’ve visited lots of catacombs in my time, but never have I come away with an understanding of the culture and politics that shaped their evolution as I did after three hours on the Crypts, Bones & Catacombs Underground Tour of Rome with Simona.
Brandon, one of the Roman Guys, gave a fantastic narrative of Rome and the Vatican. Not only that, but he carefully guided us through the streets to all the big Roman sites while at the wheel of an 8 person golf cart. Think your health isn’t good enough for a three hour Rome walking tour? Try the Rome ECO Golf Cart Tour. The “econess” of the golf cart means it can go pretty much anywhere in Rome you can walk, so you miss nothing. You couldn’t do that thirty years ago.
And when an Italian kid points at you and says, “Mama, a golf cart!” you know you’ve arrived.
If you really want to experience the Vatican, nothing can compare to being almost alone inside the museums at dusk, when the windows are flung open for some fantastic slanting light and you’re there with a small group, the cleaning women and a few guards.
Yes, you can almost replicate our experience with the “Vatican Under the Stars Evening Tour on Friday evenings.
Have fun in Rome. We certainly did.
(Disclosure: We were guests of the tour companies mentioned in this article)
■ 28 March 2014 by James Martin
We visit lots of wineries. We see lots of freshly-built wine storage and aging facilities. We see barrels and stainless steel tanks. After a while, it all begins looking the same. In fact, some times the wine all tastes the same. There are times I wish I wasn’t going to visit yet another winery.
But Madrevite, we were to find out, was quite different. There was always wine on the estate. But it wasn’t the kind you bottle and sell with the big boys. It was local wine, vino sfuso, fuel for the workers.
Nestled between two lakes, the Umbrian Lake Trasimeno and the Tuscan Lake Chiusi, Madrevite isn’t so easy to find. But we managed to show up on the doorstep just a little later than our appointment. We were met by Nicola, who led us outside to see the olive grove and vineyards that make up the estate.
The winter’s rains made it too muddy to wander amongst the vines, but Nicola pointed down the road, where yet another Etruscan tomb had been found just off the property. “We’ve made a visit to it a part of our tours,” Nicola told us.
But the best part of the tour was the winery itself. The old stables and the big, concrete, wine storage facilities had been transformed from “grandpa’s winery” to a modern operation. The total area was indeed small and it was easy to see that production was limited.
It was obvious that the winery’s past was not going to be forgotten any time soon. About 2/3 of the winery production, Nicola told us, was still slated to become vino sfuso for the locals. If you’re not familiar with this way of selling wine, a hose and spigot like you’d find on a gas pump is attached to a big vat of wine like you see in the picture on the left, and when the locals come to buy wine (at 1.90 Euro per liter!) Nicola just sticks the hose into the bottle and it’s “fill ‘er up” time.
“This way it keeps us in touch with our local friends” he said. It’s also a way to keep the fine wine at a very high quality. Every harvest the wine is broken into thirds by geography or vineyard. The best third goes into the bottles, the rest into vino sfuso. And believe me, we tasted it and it was by far the best sfuso we’ve ever tasted. And we purchase it this way a lot.
By the time we came to taste Madrevite’s bottled wine, we spotted other signs that this wasn’t a big, commercial winery just trying to sell us the latest vintages. There were bags of beans all around. These are Fagiolina del Trasimeno, ancient beans used by the Etruscans that were not so easy to grow, so when imports came from the new world, they almost entirely replaced the local stock. Today Madrevite grows these fagioline and sells packages of them at the winery. They don’t need to be soaked; they cook in about 45 minutes, Nicola told us.
While we tasted the three reds bottled at the winery, Nicola laid out some local cheeses and salume, explaining that the local production of pecorino cheese had Sardinian origins, since the territory wasn’t traditionally devoted to sheep. On the table were bottles of estate bottled olive oil as well.
Last night at home we poured one of Madrevite’s three reds: Glanio, a dark and tasty DOC blend of 70% Sangiovese, 20% Gamay del Trasimeno and 10% Merlot.
I’m no wine writer, and Sangiovese has never been my favorite wine grape—but all I can say is “wow.” The nose was vanilla and spice, a bit peppery. It was an international style, meaning a bit more oak than traditional Italian reds, but it was powerful and delicious.
Why am I exited about this winery? It’s not just that they sell great wines, but it’s the community involvement, the “back to local food” education, and the tours and organized picnics in the vineyards designed to make an outing fun for the whole family and to show off the area and its history.
It is my belief that Italy will return from its economic doldrums through Janus, the two-faced god of transitions. By peering into Italy’s future with an eye to the past, it’s not hard to see that the way back to economic sanity from the industrial crap food “revolution” that spewed barely edibles while employing few will depend upon smart, connected folks re-building on the roots of an almost lost traditional culture.
Madrevite’s website is in English. Note the tours and special events. Then be sure to visit. There’s lots to see and do in the area if you have a car, as you can see from the map below.
We stayed at Fontanaro, where one can take cooking classes, find out about the organic farm and its products or just relax. The nearby towns of Panicale, Paciano, Castiglione del Lago, and Chiusi are all worth a visit.
■ 26 March 2014 by James Martin
It used to be difficult. You invested a great deal of time and energy getting a degree in the humanities. You learned a few languages. Then you took off for Italy, equipped by notes and hand-drawn maps from intrepid travelers. You meandered your way through dusty little towns and ramshackle sections of cities. You spoke to young boys playing in the street, who looked at you in your odd clothes as if you were from another planet but were polite enough to point you in the right direction. Finally, you managed to track down the old man who kept the keys and understood enough of your odd mangling of his language to know what you wanted to see.
And finally, following his hobbling gait, you came upon the church blackened by centuries of grime, the door was opened for you and the damp, moldy air enveloped you.
Then you shuffled into the darkness to stand before the priceless masterpiece of art you sought. The one that moved you. The one that spoke volumes to your soul. The one recorded by that first, solitary traveler who suffered more hardship than you did to come upon such a treasure.
Today, the very possibility of such discoveries is lessened by our haste. The chances of it haven’t changed, our willingness to learn and sacrifice for a greater reward have dissipated. We have iPads. Time has taken a warp.
But no matter, for you seekers of the good life there is hope. It comes in the form of a rural revival. Country farms that have become the new repositories of local knowledge, the post-modern monastery.
I give you as an example the diffused living units of Fontanaro, an organic, family farm that produces olive oil, wine and saffron and welcomes you to learn how to work with ingredients as they were before clever industrial crap food specialists learned to take the flavor out of them and mass distribute them to unwary and uncaring customers for massive profit.
But there is more to Fontanaro than good food. Even more than the huge wine cellar full of the best Italy has to offer. Even more than the small library of art books in each living area. Lucia wants us to see the fresco. It’s a 3 minute drive away, in the town of Paciano. Heard of Paciano? I didn’t think so.
So we see the little museum. Just to warm up. Then we exit the museum and round the corner on a chilly night while a young man scurries by to open a door for us. We climb up the stairs. It is a dramatic scene, an entire wall looming over us as we climb the last of the steep stairs. And there it is:
Painted in 1452 by Niccolo Francesco di Bonifazio of Castel della Pieve, the same city that Perugino hailed from, the Crocifissione is no small achievement.
But now you’ve seen it. Well, no, you haven’t. In this tiny internet view, you can’t see the devil exiting the mouth of the bad thief crucified on the right. The bad boy has just checked out the interior, the soul, to figure out what to do with it. And you might have missed this:
No, you must stand in front of this monumental work to see it all. That’s why it’s monumental.
But our evening wasn’t done.
Usually open only for Venerdi Santo, good Friday, the doors of the “black church” were opened for us to reveal the dark side and the veiled Christ that would be carried in procession on the shoulders of believers. You may not have seen a church like this:
And for that, you will want to visit Lucia Verdacchi and Alina Pinelli at Fontanaro. They have the keys to the slow, contemplative life, the life of the modern monk, seekers of truth (and good, honest food and wine).
Find out all about them: Fontanaro
■ 18 September 2013 by James Martin
We had a great day yesterday exploring the Riviera town of Genova Nervi. The day climaxed, like it always does, with the great, wooly tourist herd stacked six deep at La Spezia Centrale, the transfer station to the Tourist Pilgrimage Spot You Must Not Miss, Le Cinque Terre.
See, It goes like this: you get on the early morning train sleepily. The car you choose is almost empty. It clacks along happily until La Spezia. Then Wham! It is suddenly packed with sandal-wearers.
I scan the crowd. Which ones have e-mailed me asking where they could go because they wanted to avoid touristy spots at all costs?
Nevermind. All of them are likely to have had tickets. Many even validated them.
Why are you talking about this validation thing, you old coot?
Ok, so we’re returning to Tuscany from our quiet and tourist-free visit to any of the other Italian Riviera cities and again, the train fills to the gills with tourists. We are surrounded by Germans with iPhones. Just before La Spezia, the conductor asks to see their tickets. He casually turns one over.
A frown creases his forehead. He begins to speak English, the default languages used in situations like this, as in when you’re going to read someone foreign the riot act or complain that their dog has peed on your shoe.
“You have not validated your ticket,” he says gravely. “There is a fine. It is 50 euro. You must pay now.”
“Can’t we just run in and validate it in the next station?” a young and beautiful blonde woman asks. You could almost hear the batting of eyelashes.
“Yes, I know the Renoir that has been stolen has been found inside my backpack. May I just return it and avoid the mess of being booked into your very nice (I’m sure) prison?”
“No, you must pay the fine. The next station, does, however, have a police station…”
Since the “I’ll just validate my ticket on my time” strategy was a bust, the woman who held the first ticket without a validation stamp tried strategy number two. It did not work either.
“She can cry as much as she wants, what do I care?” said the conductor to the few stranglers in our now almost empty car as it pulled out of the station.
Regional train tickets in Italy are good for a period of time. You can use them whenever you want within that time (currently a month). When you’re ready to ride, you run your ticket through a stamper that essentially says, “Look, I’m using up this ticket right now and I’m leaving a mark that will tell one and all who observe my ticket that it is no longer valid for another trip.”
Bitching and moaning—or crying—used to work on the small lines where it wasn’t obvious that making a spectacle of a tourist would do any good. Italy is in need of cash. It no longer works folks, save your tears.
If you don’t have a clue of what I’m talking about and are hot to take the train on your next trip to Italy and don’t want to spend 50 euro on a 5 euro train ride, see: How to Read and Validate Italian Train Tickets
■ 21 June 2013 by James Martin
Hardly anybody goes to Imola any more. It’s a shame, I suppose. It’s not like I’ve explored the city in any depth. I’ve seen the racetrack, the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari. There’s a lot of history there.
But I liked the castle. Rocca Sforzesca they call it. Here is how you get in, just take the bridge over the moat, now dry:
If you stare at this picture long enough your eyes will focus on the lower right, where there is a little sign on the short wall. See it? How can you not? It’s the thing that doesn’t fit in this picture because it’s got that modern edge to it.
Anyway, it’s a sign telling you that (presumably if you don’t pay attention) you will fall on your head, busting it up and probably on your shoulder too, making it a certainty that your hard-won pitching contract with the San Francisco Giants will probably go up in smoke.
Ok, I’ll show it bigger. Curious, isn’t it? It’s almost like it’s telling you, “for the maximum score, the force of your body when falling should be directed toward the intersection of your left shoulder and your head.” See the arrow? That’s the direction of the force, which is with you, presumably.
I’m thinking that’s not what they meant. But then again, who is going to look at that sign and say, “Geez, I was going to take a running leap into the dry moat down there with oh, something like 27.2 meters of acceleration potential or so, but this sign seems to be warning me that I will end up the wrong side down with a great force to be born by my neck and cranium. I better rethink my strategy at the ol’ rocca today.”
How many people have been saved by this sign do you think?
Here’s a tip: Have a coffee at the exceedingly pleasant Cafe Della Rocca, right on the grounds with shaded parking and all, and contemplate the latest craze in moat jumping. Perhaps you’ll need a caffè corretto. Booze and coffee. Don’t worry, I’ve never been one to judge.