■ 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
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
■ 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.
Popular These Days
■ 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.
■ 30 May 2013 by James Martin
Cesenatico is rather compelling village on the Adriatic coast in the Romagna Region. What tourists tired of the sandy beach crave (food let’s say) is found mostly along the canal that leads to the sea. A canal devised by no less a designer than Leonardo da Vinci himself. This town is about the sea and the boats built to conquer it.
Cesenatico has been developed for tourism, but not too much. What I mean is that there are monuments and museums, but you still feel the sting of diesel in your nostrils as the fishing boats chug out to sea. (You also feel the sting in your wallet if you eat in one of the restaurants along the canal, but that’s another thing entirely.)
One of the things that tourists crave is the nostalgic. We all want to find that long-disappeared fishing village with the rough characters who go out in little gaily painted boats and risk life and limb pulling creatures from the depths, then return to the village to get drunk and rowdy in the bars, pinching and cussing and telling lies for their liquor.
Well, ok, you’ll never find that. It’s gone.
But then, with a little diddling, you can take a picture, rough it up a bit and suddenly our common and embellished view of the past doesn’t look so distant.
Yes, you may cut it out and send it as a post card to your relatives and lie that you’ve found your dream place, a fishing village that hasn’t changed in a century—and hope they don’t see the satellite dish.
In any case Cesenatico’s fine Maritime museum tucked along the canal is grand, and you’ll not find fresher fish from the boats that still chug to sea along Leonardo’s canal.
And wait until you see the taxidermied Mola mola in the Antiquarium, a museum which has the distinction, in my mind, of giving you the basics of ancient Roman life along the coast in a clear and compelling manner better than any other museum I’ve ever visited.
(By the way, Martha took the picture of the trabucci you see above, I just made it look older than it is).
■ 15 May 2013 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.