■ 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.
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
■ 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
Popular These Days
■ 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.
■ 10 May 2013 by James Martin
If you have landed upon this page, you are unlikely to be one of those people who is a first time visitor to Italy looking for everyone’s “best places to go in Italy” post. You won’t find one here. We are degenerates; we believe everyone can have their own best place; our purpose is to help people find it. In any case, we’re now going to assume you’ve been to Rome, Venice and Florence and have eaten in enough of those dismal tourist restaurants that you’re wondering what all the hype is about. You are looking to do your thing, and eat decently. Well, we’d suggest you get out into the countryside. Even Michelangelo did it.
If you are like me, you shun Mediterranean beaches. You like to do things. You like exploring art and culture. You like the (real) food of Tuscany, the food grandmothers make.
In fact, if you are (still) reading this particular post, perhaps you’d like to wade into the stream below Italy’s famous marble quarries—a stream loaded with water-washed white river cobbles of the precious stone—and dip your big hands into the stream in order to wrestle the perfect one out of the flowing waters and heft it onto he grassy shore. Is it your stone, the one that calls out to you? Does it say in a gravelly voice, “deep within me is the stuff of greatness, the expression of your oneness with me, all you have to do is remove all the crap that isn’t that stuff?”
Then, under the watchful eye of your teacher, you’d begin to skin your stone. Yes, that’s what she’s doing up there with the fashionable eye protection and the big hammer thingy.
Soon your stone is ready for you. You may sculpt.
Yes, you can do this on your vacation! You can do it on the grounds of a little house on the edge of a steep ravine with a view overlooking the mountains. Below you, way below, is that little stream from which your modest cobble was plucked.
Now, as a special treat for marble workers, you can eat the quarry-man’s favorite, lardo, without giving a thought to the fat content. You are working hard. Your stone is turning into your vision. You can pig out.
Isn’t that better than laying around on a beach? After all, you can do that in El Lay if you want. Sand is sand.
But marble is a different thing.
The picture on the left shows Peter Rosenzweig, the Director of Campo dell’ Altissimo tucked away in the small village of Azzano. If you take sculpting or painting courses at Campo dell’Altissimo, you can live near this place for cheap, donning your work clothes every morning and tromping off to work your hand-picked stone, chopping away at all the stuff that is not to your stone’s liking.
The picture shows Peter with a student’s work. I don’t know what it is either.
Does this sound good to you? Well, hop on it! The school was happening in May, and classes continue through summer, some as short as one week (just to see if it’s for you). The school can arrange local lodging. You don’t have to eat lardo if you don’t want to.
Check them out: Campo dell’Altissimo
If you are a wimp, and cannot lift a stone, you can still tour the quarries: Carrara Marble Tour Map and Guide
(Discovered thanks to the Versilia Blog Tour)
■ 24 April 2013 by James Martin
We recently spent a few nights at Monastero Fortezza di Santo Spirito, a fortified monastery south of L’Aguila. It was a quiet retreat, living inside this castle; our room had a great view of the snow-covered Gran Sasso rising from the verdant plain below us. There was plenty to do in the area: treks, castles, archaeological sites, museums, and a fantastic grotto that follows an underground river kept us busy for a few days and made us wish we were staying longer.
Besides, most folks don’t know that instead of paying 100 euros for the cheapest and dirtiest hovel in Rome they could be staying in luxury inside a castle with such views, but that’s why Wandering Italy is here, to inform you of such inexpensive rural extravagances.
On the first night of our stay, our hosts provided us with a dinner which was meant to show off not only the ability of the kitchen to provide a fine repast, but to show off the local food of this corner of the Abruzzo. It accomplished both goals admirably.
The many-course meal left me with another wish entirely. Oh, if only I were 20 years old again and could finish off such quantities of food!
So, while Frank Sinatra crooned in the background and the candle flickered, the meal commenced.
First, of course, came the antipasti, a selection of local cured meats along with local cheeses and grilled vegetables. In these rural and lightly touristed parts of Italy they don’t just unwrap a block of mystery cheese from the local supermarket and plop it on a plate. They know exactly where it comes from and how it’s made. You might hear, as we did, that “the mozzarella was made this morning.” You might also hear something like, “the pecorino was made by Mario and aged in his secret cave for several years…”
In any case, the plate might look familiar, but the prosciutto is much darker and ruddier than the pinkish stuff from Parma. Stay a while in the rural parts of Italy and you’ll immediately notice this kind of thing. You can eat the same leg of pig from Parma, the Abruzzo, or the mountains of Sardinia and they’re all different experiences.
Then we moved on to the “fried pizza” and bruschetta. Now things were beginning to take on the hue of our local Lunigiana (Tuscan) cuisine, whose fried bread, called sgabei, is served with salumi or cured meats. Instead, this fried bread was formed into a round shape and enhanced with two strips of lardo, which is also the food of the Lunigiana, but very frequently found in the dishes of the Abruzzo.
The cuisine of the Lunigiana frequently uses chestnuts as do the Abruzzi. Next up was a soup I liked very much, a chickpea and chestnut soup (with a secret ingredient the server wouldn’t reveal) garnished with rosemary and drizzled with olive oil. Peasant food can really wow you some times.
And it must have been a good year for truffles, because the next course was a type of gnocchi with truffles. We were beginning to feel truffle overload. We were beginning to feel food overload, too, by this point. (By the way, both soup and pasta (or, in this case gnocchi) are both “primi piatti”—you’ll seldom get both.)
So, let’s summarize, two antipasti, two primi, scrambled eggs and now what?
By this time, if there was going to be a huge dessert course, we would have had to throw in the towel for sure. But, after a short pausa, there came flutes of the most delicious strawberries anyone could imagine. Perfect.
You might think that we had consumed everything that the Abruzzo could offer. It sure seemed like it. But there is much more in the way of food to be discovered here. For the next night’s dinner, a lighter one we’d hoped, we scoured the local markets for local specialty salumi and cheese and just nibbled these things in the room. We’d found a great local salami made with liver and peperoncino, for example. A little spice is also found in my favorite salami from the Abruzzo called ventricina, which we didn’t see here.
You might also know that the Abruzzo, like Tuscany and Sardinia, was once a large producer of saffron. While today’s production on the plains of Navelli has fallen from 430 hectares to a mere 8, it’s still going on. Many of the castles you see frequently in these parts were built in part to protect the trade in this commodity, which by weight is worth more than gold.
Travel Tips for a Stay at the Monastero Fortezza di Santo Spirito
The Monastero di Santo Spirito doesn’t have a restaurant all year. They hire a chef during the season and meals can be arranged (in advance) at most times of the year (expect a less extensive meal than the one we’ve described!). If you are traveling in the off season or are going to be depending on meals served in the hotel, check to make sure you can be accommodated before you make reservations. The Web Site is: Monastero Fortezza di Santo Spirito
There are still many roads closed in the area due to the earthquake the area suffered 4 years ago. A GPS isn’t reliable in the area, we’ve found. There are signs to the monastery, but it’s a bit of an adventure getting there these days. It’s best if you can phone them if you get lost.