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Down South in Campania: A Cave Adventure

■ 24 October 2014 by James Martin

pertosa caves pictureGrotte di Pertosa - Pertosa Caves

You ever take a boat ride through a cave? You can at the Pertosa Caves or the Grotte di Pertosa as the Italians call them. Here in the Salerno district of Campania a trip to the caves (“a work in progress for 35,000 years” says the lit) can be combined with a trip to the nearby Certosa di Padula, making it a day you’ll never forget, especially if you happen to encounter a guy named Carmine—but more on that encounter later.

After you buy your tickets you walk up to the cave entrance. Way up. Then you enter the cave. It’s not one of those deals where there are a few big rooms where you stand in the middle and gawk at the maze of stalactites and stalagmites, wet and glistening under carefully aimed spotlights. It’s a long cave you walk and boat through. There’s a lake inside. Your guide will load you in a boat. The boat has seats but they’re always wet so nobody really sits in them. You could bring a small towel and outsmart the environment, of course, but nobody did.

Your guide will then launch you into the still waters, dragging the boat by means of a carefully strung wire above your head. It’s anchored to the walls, strung not unlike the wires that power the electric buses of a city like San Francisco, except that the wires aren’t electrified, or at least the guide didn’t do that macabre dance you see people do when they grab a wet, live electric wire.

The way is lit by colored lights your modern camera won’t take a liking to. No matter, the new lighting system, which is turned off when a group leaves the area, represents a savings of 80% in electrical power compared to a previous system which probably provided enough light for a decent photo.

The cave takes a good 2 hours to walk through. Time passes in a flash though. You’ll be amazed and entranced—and cold if you didn’t bring a jacket, because the temperature hovers around 60 degrees F and it’s damp—very damp.

After you’re done and get back to the parking lot, leave your car and continue walking down the street until you see the hand-painted sign for the Bar Ristorante Venoso. Have a meal. Learn what southern Italian cuisine is all about. Order the restaurant’s special pasta with eggplant. It will tell you all you need to know about the flavor intensity of southern food. The pasta has been kicked up notches unknown. Don’t worry about the bill. It won’t be much. The pasta runs 5 euro. Have something grilled for a second plate.

Introducing Carmine from Naples

We ate right beside the table of this man, Carmine, and his wife:

carmine from naples pictureCarmine from Naples Shows You His Lunch

Carmine, having noticed me taking pictures of our trout and rabbit, wanted to show off his lunch too. Except that he had eaten about half of it.

When I struggled to cut the excellent grilled rabbit with the butter knife I’d been given for the task, I happened to glance at Carmine and he, too, had picked up his lamb in his hands.

So, I took that as a cue and ate the rabbit clean off the bone with my hands.

Carmine loved it. “Aha! Yes, the knives are useless! He uses his hands! Bravo!”

He said this in a voice that could have woken the dead, or amused a packed opera house.

So we’re swiping bits of wadded-up bread through the juices and excellent olive oil, a process the Italians call “fare la scarpetta” or “making the little shoe.” Years ago you wouldn’t do this, especially at a formal meal. Now it tells the waiter you really liked the food. Even sopping evolves.

So Carmine says, “In Naples, when we don’t have bread…” and he makes a swipe with his index finger as if he’s dragging it over a plate and pretends to lick it.

I like Carmine. Especially when they asked him if he wanted coffee. He bellowed, “I’m from Naples (where they are reported to have the very best coffee), I don’t drink coffee anywhere else.”

You gotta love Carmine. It’s this insistence on not accepting crap food that keeps Italian food honest. There’s not enough of it, methinks.

Down South in Campania: A Cave Adventure originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Oct 24, 2014, © James Martin.

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Lari, a Castle Town in Tuscany, Revisited

■ 24 May 2014 by James Martin

lari law courts torture

Lari has all you can ask for in a small, Tuscan hill town. Good pasta is manufactured right in the town center. A short walk away is a great restaurant. Climb a little hill and you’re in the courtyard of Lari Castle. It’s a pretty little place. People are friendly and generally happy.

Then there’s the past. The 16th century past. You can see it in the photo above—a picture only Dick Cheney could love. I know, I know, tourists like torture, and will pay big bucks to see how the medieval folks did it and I will exploit that fact to bring this weirdness to you. Yes, what you see it is a bit of Tuscan torture. But, according to the recording, it was quite a “humane” torture. You see, when you strung someone up like this, the alleged miscreant didn’t often die. The worse that could happen would be something small, a little shoulder separation perhaps.

And this is not, the little voice out of the yellow plastic box told us, a torture session. The miscreant was merely being interrogated. If he confessed while his shoulder was being wrenched from its moorings, it didn’t matter—as long as he didn’t confess in court, which was across the hall. At least this is how I understand it. It’s not like waterboarding, when they get what they want out of you and then they’re done with you. No, you got a second chance in the actual courtroom. Bully for justice—or something.

The little prison in Lari castle was used until well after the Nazi era. The more things change, the more they stay the same, evidently.

But on a brighter note, we went back to Lari’s little gem of a restaurant, Antica Osteria al Castello and had lunch outside in the piazza. Lari is called “the cherry city.” Signs pointing the way into town inform you of this fact, except, of course, in Italian rather than English. I know, it confuses me, too.

The town hosts a cherry festival the first week of June.

It’s almost June, so one of us was bound to order the duck with cherries and Marsala. It was quite good. Here’s the food porn part:

lari cherry duck

This, some pasta, a couple of new friends to pranzare with and air clean as a bell really made a special day. If you’ve never heard of Lari, well look at the map and it will show you how the little hill is configured and show you where the restaurant is.

And whatever you do, don’t get in trouble with the law or you won’t get to see this view from your cell in Lari Castle. They’ve cleverly put the windows very high up on the wall.

lari view picture

Lari, a Castle Town in Tuscany, Revisited originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com May 24, 2014, © James Martin.

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Giro 2014: Deconstructing Stage 4

■ 14 April 2014 by James Martin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Italy Cultural Heritage News: Pompeii and Paestum

■ 9 December 2013 by James Martin

 Il Comando Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio CulturaleDid you know there was a special Carabinieri force that deals with lost and stolen art and archaeological artifacts in Rome? Il Comando Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale can be found in Piazza Sant’Ignazio, 152. I mention the address because you might want to visit around Christmas, because they have a fine presepe on display at Christmas time.

When they were looking for someone to head up “an ambitious project to restore and redevelop the ancient Roman ruins of Pompeii” they chose Giovanni Nistri, a general in the paramilitary Carabinieri police who led Italy’s cultural asset-protection division from 2007 to 2010. (Ex art cop named head of Pompeii project)

The management of Pompeii’s treasures have come under fire lately, as building after building slouches toward the pavement. The Carabinieri Art Squad is highly respected and regarded, and have found many lost and stolen artifacts over the years. I’m hopeful that he’ll come through. After all, there’s plenty of money for preservation at the moment.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the site of Paestum is becoming unmanageable. You see, it’s on private land. You can’t really manage and develop a site like that on private land.

But here’s where you can help. You see, they need money to buy the site. Very little money, actually, and you can help by contributing a tiny share of very little money to the project.

Paestumanità is an enviromental shareholding project by Legambiente, aimed to acquire private lands of Paestum archaeological area and return to humanity

Interested? See the Indigogo page: SavePaestum

Italy Cultural Heritage News: Pompeii and Paestum originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Dec 09, 2013, © James Martin.

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Carcasses on the Autostrada!

■ 27 October 2013 by James Martin

emilia romagna landscape picture

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.

Carcasses on the Autostrada! originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Oct 27, 2013, © James Martin.

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San Leo: Doing Tourism Right

■ 20 October 2013 by James Martin

san leo priest fortress

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.

san leo organ playerOn 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.

san leo belltower fogBy 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 picture

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.

San Leo: Doing Tourism Right originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Oct 20, 2013, © James Martin.

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Villa Foscari - La Malcontenta

■ 28 September 2013 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.

La Malcontenta

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.

villa foscani, la malcontenta

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.

brenta willowsYou 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).

villa levi morenosAnd 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.

Villa Foscari - La Malcontenta originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Sep 28, 2013, © James Martin.

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Fumarium: Roman Wine Smoking in Glanum

■ 26 June 2013 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.

fumarium roman wine smoking room picture

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.

Fumarium: Roman Wine Smoking in Glanum originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Jun 26, 2013, © James Martin.

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