■ Oct 27, 07:45 AM by James Martin
I am sorry about the title. I should have saved it for Halloween.
And the picture? It’s pretty much the reason we spent two hours motionless on the autostrada tarmac between Monzuno and Florence. Yes, we skidded to a halt behind a whole bunch of stopped vehicles about ten minutes after the mayhem had occurred.
Let’s back up a bit. It was one of those fine, sunny mornings that makes you smile when you hit the road. Blue skies, sun, warmth, and when you look down from the side window of your leased car upon the lower valleys, thick fog like puffy lamb fleece fills them. It looks like you could just jump out the window of the speedy little diesel and the fluffiness of all that fog would wrap you up and let you down on the valley floor soft as a snowflake upon a mitten. Little fantasy islands pop up in the fog now and again, so as you ride along and you see a compelling one you tell the driver, “Stop! I gotta take a picture!”
And she does, finally finding a pull-off point in front of yapping dogs threatening to tear our necks to shreds if they were to escape the flimsy fence that separates our aortas from their menacing incisors.
The problem is that the fog is not near the pull-off point. So as not to waste any more time and to save face, I point the camera toward some trees and click. Done. Hackle-raising yaps, signs of doggy blood lust, fade softly into the distance as we drive away. We’ve allowed maybe 15 glorious minutes to flutter by.
Which, if you’ve been paying attention, is about 5 minutes too long.
In any case, because of stupid light interaction with trees and fog, we are now survivors of one of those long, long waits after one of those humongous truck crashes on the Italian autostrade you might come across when you’re looking for the weather on the television but they break in to tell you of the big truck crash while you wait intently for the temperature in Rimini to appear on the screen.
But this is not the end of the story. In America we might break out the sandwiches while waiting for the emergency vehicles. Some people would lay on their horns and annoy everyone.
So what do Italians do? Well, they get out, scramble up the hill adjacent to the autostrada, and discover things. When one of them hollers down, “hey there’s a beautiful chestnut grove up here!” then Italians rush to action. Bags come out of parked cars. People scramble up the hill like the tsunami is chasing them down. Old men poke the ground with sticks. It’s bedlam in Chestnut land.
Soon an entire busload of Japanese tourists join in the fun. I’m thinking, “what the devil are people sleeping in hotels going to do with endless bags of chestnuts?”
As I’m thinking this, an Italian mumbles that someone ought to remind the fer’ners that you need to cook the darn things.
But hey, free chestnuts. You don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
Folks uninterested in chestnuts head off in search of coffee and return with tales of the truck. Animal carcases are spread over two lanes. A smashed hubcap suggests the presence of another car which might have scraped the side of the tunnel and bounced into the truck lane.
Then, of course, there’s the delicate matter of the undersized human bladder.
So shifts are set up. I don’t mean people organize everything. No. Heck no. This is Italy. Women gather in a gaggle and yell at the peeing men to get the hell off the hill so the women can have a go. The men wrap things up and totter down the hill. Italian men know which side the tortellini are buttered and saged on. Soon there’s a sort of clockwork thing going. Men, women grasping tissue. Men…
Then the police remove the barrier between lanes and we all get to drive our cars backwards about 150 meters down the autostrada. It’s like a race run in reverse. We are a double row of cars trying desperately to escape our fate, reversing and lunging toward our opening in a rather serpentine manner while trying not to hit each other. They should set this kinda thing up and charge for it, so much fun was had.
Eventually we wiggle out the hole onto the fast lane that’s been taken away from people going in the opposite direction. Forward is not as fun as backwards, but is faster and straighter.
Once we’re out of trouble, we start to wonder if dinner will have to be vegetarian.
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
■ Oct 20, 01:08 AM by James Martin
It was a foggy day in October. As the Peugeot chugged up hills and around sharp bends, we wondered if our little excursion to the notable hill town of San Leo in Reggio Emilia would end up a bust.
Then, as we crested the final rise: sun.
By the time we slowed for our arrival it was the late morning. The crag upon which the fortress was built was just peeking out from the valley fog. I hollered for Martha to stop and scrambled up the hill and into the muddy furrows of a plowed field to catch a snap of it while Martha waited in the car snuggled into the verge, watching the mirror apprehensively.
Sun, of course, is seldom a good thing to the serious photographer. But a medieval castle rising from the mist was a decent morning surprise.
San Leo offered countless surprises. The old Romanesque church in the town’s main piazza, Santa Maria Assunta, was a gem as they repeat endlessly in the travel biz, and it would close its doors to host a wedding that morning—but the kind priest let us in for a look anyway.
On a little rise next to the parish church sat the Cathedral. Liturgical music wafted down the hill. We took a look around inside, then approached the modern organ in the front, expecting it to be played by a monkish-looking old coot. But no, the keys were professional caressed by a young man in a tee shirt printed with one of those odd renderings Italians recklessly print on shirts: “Dreaming Aloha Beach Club Surfing 1953”.
Then, feeling a little peckish, we walked the town’s main street, reading menus and looking into stores with compelling little displays in front. You could sense a little play for the tourists, but then when you entered you discovered locals quietly shopping. A bit of paper with cubes of cheese tempted me, and I couldn’t resist trying a bit of the local “fossa” cave-aged cheese. The flavor was astounding, with none of the funkiness of other versions I had tasted elsewhere. The restaurants were affordable, filled with local specialties, and each of them enticing.
More wandering the little village would be needed before we could decide on a place to eat. We were just in time to see stone carver Georgio Moretti step from the shadows of his little shop, the outside walls festooned with his carvings which remained unsold on a Saturday, even the nudes.
By the time we chose to chow down at the Ristorante Osteria Belvedere, at the edge of town on Via Pietro Toselli, 19 (promising a fine view of the castello) the fog had begun to rise, and the Cathedral’s bell tower was turned into a ghostly vision. Snap snap, then on to lunch.
We chose the Belvedere because they offered the first white truffles of the season generously shaved over potato ravioli. My kind of place: waiter with a nervous tick, rotund owner, pair of local characters discussing cheese and archaeology over heaping plates of pasta, roasts and prepared vegetables stacked up by the pizza oven waiting to be baked the old fashioned way (the gallo —a tasty rooster—cooked in the wood oven was fabulous!) The three course meal with a very tasty local wine and coffee set us back a bit over 50 euros, a bargain in my book. Don’t miss the ravioli with fossa.
After lunch the town was quiet. The fog had won; puffs of it wandered the empty streets. It was time to go.
San Leo is worth at least a day of your time. It offers the perfect combination of tourist services without completely breaking down into a fake Disneyland experience. The locals are friendly, the food is good and if you choose right, local. Go in late October into November for truffles and an almost tourist-free environment. It’s a very nice place off the beaten tourist track; not a single word of English was heard all day.
Click any picture to see it larger.
■ Sep 28, 06:00 AM by James Martin
The “Riviera del Brenta” stretches from Venice to Padua, its fame hanging squarely upon the reputation of one of the favored architects of his time, Andrea Palladio. In the 16th century rich merchants of Venice started having Villas made on the mainland to expand their empires through agriculture, supplying Venice with the food it needed while living in luxury and partying hearty.
The Riviera del Brenta is a popular place to visit via boat or van tour. It’s best to do it in a car, for reasons I’ll explain later.
If you were traveling down the Grand Canal of Venice in a Gondola and crossed the lagoon to the mouth of the Brenta river, the first notable Palladian villa you’d come to is the Villa Foscari, also called “La Malcontenta.”
We’d learned of this villa from our B&B owner, who told us we just had to see it on our way out of the town of Mira, because it was “just like the White House.” (Although, I must note, the usual suspect in the Palladian Villa to White House continuum is the Villa La Rotonda )
In any case, it didn’t take us long to spot the villa hidden behind the willows along a bend in the Brenta.
Why is it called “La Malcontenta”? Well, it depends upon what you read. There might have been a place, a town or an estate close to the villa called “Malcontenta.” On the other hand, there’s a fresco inside the villa featuring a woman who doesn’t look exactly content. Then there are two similar explanations that concern a wife and either her infidelity or her reluctance to perform her “conjugal duties” for which she was locked up in the house.
Take your pick. I’ll stay with the messy one.
You should see Villa Foscari—but plan your trip well. It’s got some great frescoes inside, but its only open for visitors two days a week, so check the website. Scenes from the 1970s flick Casanova 70 were filmed inside.
Descendents of the original Foscari now own the villa and are restoring it. As you can see from the picture, Palladio worked with ordinary materials, cheap and easily procured. So rather then marble columns, what you get is brick columns covered in a marble-like plaster. No doubt this contributed to his fame.
Where to Stay and Why a Car is a Good Idea
I’ve mentioned our B&B above. We spent a couple of wonderful nights at Barchessa Levi Morenos B&B in Mira along the Villa trail. For the price of a dinky hotel room we got a small apartment with kitchen and a terrace with free wifi that worked very well, inside and out. Each morning breakfast was brought to our door, and the owners provided excellent information on the area and its attractions. The B&B is also adjacent to a villa in decline, the Villa Levi Morenos, which is worth exploring on an evening before your fish dinner (Mira is noted for two things, we were told: artisan shoes and seafood).
And thus I come to the part where I tell you that an independent tour in your rental or lease car is the best way to go. I find the aging ruins quite compelling—and I rather like overgrown gardens. So the chance to root around an old structure is as interesting to me as seeing the “best” villas. To the right is a study of the colors of decay in the Villa Levi Morenos.
Ok, maybe it’s just me. Carry on.
Popular These Days
■ Jun 26, 05:12 PM by James Martin
You ever think of smoking wine? The Romans did. I mean, they didn’t wrap it in paper and try to light it, they had a room built for smoking wine called a fumarium. The fumarium from the Roman town of Glanum outside of St. Remy de Provence in France is shown below.
They thought that putting amphorae of wine in a smoky chamber preserved the wine by acceleration the aging of it. It did add smokiness to a wine’s flavor, they say.
There’s not much written about smoked wine that I can tell. Hugh Johnson, Vintage: The Story of Wine is referenced in the Wikipedia article on the Fumarium.
2008 in California was a year of wildfires during the growing time, and winemakers battled to make wines without the smokiness that would have occurred naturally. Funny how tastes change.
Tonight I will leave my glass near the barbeque and pretend I am Roman.
■ Jun 25, 09:41 AM by James Martin
San Francisco’s Museo Italo Americano recently hosted some of the Bay Area’s finest Italy travel experts. They are all women I know, but before this many I knew only via online interactions. Now that I’ve met and talked to them (and learned how they handle a packed-house audience), I can recommend each of them to you—because if you’re big on Italy travel, you might need one or more of them to help you through the rough spots on your next Italian vacation.
Let’s start in the left.
Melissa Muldoon, Italian Language Guru
Melissa is the crazy linguist over at Diario di una studentessa matta. She also takes small groups to interesting Italian cities where they can pick up some Italian language skills. You should learn Italian if you’re a returning visitor; I guarantee you you’ll have a better experience and even get better food in an Italian restaurant by being able to talk to people like your waiter, for example. You don’t get the true Italian experience without knowing at least a bit of the lingo.
Madeline Jhawar, Travel Planning
Sometimes strangers with a website write me and ask if I can recommend them as travel planners or consultants. How could I, without actually knowing them? I mean, anyone can hang out a sign and start recommending Venice, Florence and Rome and hand out 6 day itineraries—but what you need is a detail-oriented travel planner who probes you for you innermost desires so that they can be met during your limited time in Italy. Madeline asks the kind of questions I would ask, but she’s way more detail oriented than I am (I’m a wanderer, remember—I don’t plan much for myself, prefering to just bump into the wondrous things hidden all over the boot—but I probably have more time to burn then you do). After meeting Madeline, I can highly recommend her services. The name of her web site is brilliant…and absolutely perfect for the services she offers: Italy Beyond the Obvious.
Susan Van Allen, Writer and Baci Hander-Outer (front)
Certainly you know the author of 100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go. Her latest book is Letters From Italy: Confessions, Adventures, and Advice. But Susan doesn’t just write and distribute Baci. She will take you on a tour in Italy. Unfortunately, you will have to be a woman—but you’ll have the run of a villa south of Florence and the toilet seats will always be left down if you spend a Golden Week in Tuscany with Susan.
Angela K. Nickerson, Writer and Expert on Rome
If you like Rome and art, you’ll want to see the Eternal City from Michelangelo’s perspective, and for that you need a book that has garnered great reviews on Amazon: A Journey into Michelangelo’s Rome (ArtPlace series). Angela blogs at The Gypsy’s Guide and has recently penned Angels & Demons’ Rome: The Insider’s Guide, as I understand it correcting many of Dan Browns more egregious errors.
Martha Bakerjian, Italy App Writer and Italy Travel Author and Editor
I know Martha quite well because she hangs around the house and bangs on the keyboard behind me. She writes and edits Italy Travel on About.com. She’s written two Italy Travel Apps, the Puglia Travel Guide for iOS and Android, and her latest: Italy Travel Tips, a guide to navigating Italy, which will appear soon.
■ Jun 13, 07:53 AM by James Martin
When I first came to Italy I was loath to go into churches. Yes, there was art inside. It was murky art, dissolving into the shadows. There were the odd smells. Then there was the fact that every tour book told me to go to churches (push-back, you know).
Grazie, you see, is not only a thing you say when someone sets a plate of pasta in front of you at a restaurant or does you a favor. It’s a town just a few kilometers from Mantua. It’s so small they have to call it Grazie di Curtatone. Grazie is a frazione of Curtatone, meaning a “fraction” or a little slice of suburb administrated by the larger place, Curtatone.
But you want to know what the heck a crocodile is doing hanging from the rafters, don’t you? Well, I’ve heard several theories. Yes, there is water behind the Santuario and perhaps some poor fisherman pulled out a crock, wrestled it, had it stuffed, and convinced the priest to hang it overhead.
It could have been put there as a warning. The cheery Book of Revelations mentions dragons being a sort of devil in disguise, and perhaps the crocodile is there to remind you just how close the devil is, even when you’re in a Sanctuary. Here’s a more serious treatment of the issue: The crocodile of Santuario of Saint Mary of Grazie
But it’s the kind of curiosity that you like to see, no? Well, you should.
But that’s not all! It’s not just about the crocodile!
You see, another thing is going on in the church. People over the years have owed God for miracles received. The nave is lined with life-size mannequins “representing episodes of danger averted by divine intercession.” Every available space between the niches they occupy is taken up by ex-votos: hearts, hands, eyes, breasts, and pestilential buboes recalled from the age of the plague. Francesco Gonzaga, you see, built the first temple here dedicated to the Virgin Mary after the end to an epidemic of The Plague and it was completed in August of 1406, hence the plague connection.
Today the Sanctuary brings tens of tourists because it’s one of the most interesting churches you’ll see. Ok, maybe there are more, but really, this is off the beaten track deluxe. Go, just go. It’s quite amazing, see:
But even that is not all!
Central to the history and life of the Sanctuary is the Solemnity of the Assumption, August 15th. From the early morning the streets of the village are invaded by a multitude of pilgrims, and later by the visitors of a traditional trade fair, which has reached an international fame for over thirty years thanks to the presence of the “madonnari” who with their coloured crayons change the asphalt into a phantasmagorical carpet, reproducting famous paintings of sacred subject. ~ Santuario della Beata Vergine Maria delle Grazie
Yes, there is a huge area in front of the church dedicated entirely to these sacred chalk drawings. International artists arrive with their chalks (each stick costs around $10, and many, many sticks of chalk are used in a drawing, especially if the surface isn’t smooth—and this asphalt isn’t, I can tell you).
American Jenny McCracken has “competed” in this competition (there’s no prize money) and it’s interesting to read: Chalk artist Jenny McCracken competes in Italy’s Grazie di Curtatone Madonnari
And finally, behind the church is a wildlife sanctuary where you can romp and play on the waterfront and even catch a boat along the Mincio river, which is connected to Mantua’s Lago Superiore. See Navi Andes
Getting to Grazie di Curtatone
Grazie di Curtatone is a ten minute bus ride or car trip down the SP10, Via Cremona, from Mantua. Or, take the boat from Mantova.
(Information gathered for this article came via the Rediscover Italy project, which is promoting the regions that make up the UNESCO Quadrilateral of Northern Italy – Emilia Romagna, Lombardy and Veneto.)
■ Jun 12, 01:39 AM by James Martin
I like Mantua quite a lot. I want you to go there, since then you will be indebted to me forever for my fine advice. Since Mantua, or Mantova, is not popular with American tourists, I could try to lure you in. I could say things that seem to ring bells for you, for example, “Mantua is the best small city in which to view art in Italy!” or simply and concisely “Best city in Italy! Mantova!”
But that’s been done—so I shall take the easy way out.
Sex, of course.
Really, the period we’re in, web-wise, is like the transition from Late Renaissance art to Mannerism. The Renaissance exploded. It was a popular movement like Florence is a city popular with tourists. But… dopo un po’ everything had been done already. Artists were a dime a dozen. So the paradigm changes. Mannerism bursts on the scene. Muscular, well-endowed men and women of exaggerated beauty and curvaceousness are suddenly seen flitting about lasciviously in ravishing two-dimensional hyper-reality over the walls of the palaces of the few who are monetarily unchallenged in the 16th century.
Sound good? Go to Mantova. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage city. See the art. Spread the new joy.
Go specifically to the pleasure palace of Federico II Gonzaga called the Pallazo Te. He built his magnificent palace up from the family stables, away from the prying eyes of Mantova proper. It was a place where he could take his lover for a bit of dalliance. His mother didn’t like the affair or the women he was having it with, but the idea was brilliant. If you’re gonna horse around, what better place than the stables?
Federico got Giulio Romano and his boys to work on his pleasure palace. Romano is a genius. You’ll get that when you poke around a bit. Everywhere there is pleasure for the eye. Everywhere there are surprises; surprises in the architecture and the Mannerist art.
Take the picture to the right. It’s painted on a ceiling. You get a perspective you don’t get in much of the boring wall-art we see today. Yes, you’re looking up—right up the tunic of the chariot driver. Whoops! He’s not wearing underwear! Surprise!
And thus you are prepared for things to come.
In the picture at the upper right, you see the naked yumminess of the Olympian banquet in a room called the Sala di Psiche. You can click it to make it bigger. The picture I mean.
And then, in the same room, just over a glass door spewing toxic light into the room, there’s the graphically-depicted Jupiter Seducing Olympia. It looks like the seduction is just about over. If you look carefully, you’ll see the main act is about to take place.
Ah, the gods! Nasty but very attractive.
And then there’s the Sala dei Giganti. I mean, you have to see it. It’s not erotic, but your head will spin anyway. I will talk about this incredible room covered in fantastic art another time. Perhaps soon. Some of the most interesting art you’ll ever see. Trust me.
Because I have to tell you, as you leave these fine paintings, you are thrust into another reality. War takes up Federico’s thought process. The war room isn’t all that pretty. It’s the last thing you see. I forgot to take a picture.
And that’s the way the world goes, not with a bang but a whimper. You don’t even know it when the fat lady stops singing.
Really, go see Mantua before its treasures are lost.
(Information gathered for this article came via the Rediscover Italy project, which is promoting the regions that make up the UNESCO Quadrilateral of Northern Italy – Emilia Romagna, Lombardy and Veneto.)
■ Jun 4, 08:56 AM by James Martin
If you’re a beach person, this might not be a good year for you. Expect an infestation of Jellyfish. They seek warm water. And they sting. They like the warm, fishless seas we’ve been preparing for them for quite a few years. We deny our preparations, of course.
Scientists across the Mediterranean say a surge in the number of jellyfish this year threatens not just the biodiversity of one of the world’s most overfished seas but also the health of tens of thousands of summer tourists. ~ Jellyfish threaten Mediterranean beach tourism this summer
I’m going to give it to you straight. There is an answer—besides seeing jellyfish turning up in your brodetto — and it’s ugly.
The predator you’ve been waiting for to quell this surge of stinging sliminess is (may I have the envelope, please?): The ocean sunfish!
If you are like me, you think of those sunfish you caught on a bent pin tied to a piece of thread stolen from Grandma’s sewing basket just before Grampa took you for your first fishing lesson down to the lake. The pretty thing you caught on that cobbled-together gear sparkled in the sun, its little mouth gasping cutely. It glistened with color. It harmlessly struggled in your little palm, tickling just a bit.
Well, an Ocean Sunfish isn’t that fish. It’s big and ugly. It’s also stubby. It’s really called a Mola Mola, because it resembles an old grinding stone in color and texture. It gets huge. the average weight it reaches at adulthood is over 2000 pounds. It eats jellyfish. Jelly fish are low calorie, so it has to eat a lot of jellyfish. Imagine being tracked by the big eyes of a humongous fish like that. I shiver as I type.
I’m not going to sugar coat this description any more than I have already, so I’ll just put a picture up here, not the usual little thumbnail, because how’s that going to scare the bejezus outta you?
Here. Here is your answer:
I know about this fish because I recently visited its home in the Cesenatico Antiquarium. It’s a great museum. They have prettier stuff, of course, but I always search out the odd stuff. It’s a gift. Anyway, you should go. It’s a really good museum. (Before you go, you might want to read Notes on Cesenatico.)
After I took that picture I wondered if I would ever have a chance to weave it into a blog post without it being all gratuitous. It didn’t even take a week.