■ 15 April 2014 by James Martin
You’ve all heard: Italy is in financial distress. There are no jobs, especially for young people. Italy provides Italian citizens with excellent educations, but these days the educated vanish, heading for where the jobs are. The situation is hopeless.
I’d like you to meet a very interesting man. His name is Luciano Bandinelli. When he stands in front of his shop on the edge of the little town with the strange name you wish you have visited in Tuscany, Colle Val d’Elsa, he nearly bangs his head on the sign.
Yes, Luciano in a way joined the exodus, forsaking the family business in favor of working for a technology company that sent him all over the world. His father wasn’t so pleased. Then one fateful day, on an airplane coming home from a trip to smog-shrouded China, he thought, “What am I doing in this smoggy hell? I live in a place everyone wants to live in. It’s one of the most beautiful places on earth.”
And so he came home again. He joined his father in the business of making glass all it can be. He is a Crystal Master Craftsman. His motto is “passion, tradition, emotion.” Neither he nor I found those attributes in modern technology.
He applies each of those qualities in the crystal he produces, however. I know cut crystal has gone out of fashion. Wine glasses are factory molded and cheap. You make a toast with friends and you “clink” your glasses together, but they no longer ring happy tidings, they don’t even clink—they clunk. You know why?
Because they’re not leaded crystal, that’s why. Touch two crystal glasses together and they ring like a bell—and almost forever (or at least until you give up and take a drink).
What about the lead in the crystal? You’ve heard bad things about it. Let’s tackle that. Italy has a limit to how much lead can be put in the crystal. While lead can leach into acidic liquids that have remained in containers for an extended period of time, the use of crystal wine glasses is quite safe:
For everyday use, no liquid stays in the glass long enough during any meal to leak lead that exceeds EPA standards. This is good news for consumers who can safely use lovely crystal stemware to serve wine, water, and other beverages. ~ Is It Safe to Use Crystal Glasses?
Of course, Luciano makes more than crystal wine glasses. The shop is full of plates, light fixtures, ornaments and other shimmering, hand-crafted and cut crystal items:
La Grotta del Cristallo is a unique Atelier creating original crystal pieces; gifts for special occasions; table decorations; customized engravings made to order.
If you go to the grotta, you can see how all this is done. Luciano has a video that shows the hand cutting of the glass, and he’ll show you how the glass is polished and cut. It’s an amazing thing to see.
I want to tell you to buy things. Lots of things. I want to tell you to support this exodus back to what Italy does best: handmade things that last nearly forever and are well worth a premium price. Why support minimum wage slave production of cheap crap? But I won’t. Just see for yourself. And, you know, I am directing you to a very interesting town.
Find out more on Luciano’s web site: La Grotta dei Cristallo
Colle di Val d’Elsa, literally the hill of the valley of the Elsa river, is spread out on three geographical levels. The top level, the castle, is the oldest. Tourists don’t plan to come here, they see the massive gate and towers and they stop because they are surprised by the sight. There is plenty of parking outside the walls.
If you’re coming to San Gimignano or Volterra by car, Colle di Val d’Elsa makes a fine day or half-day trip. The town lies along the ancient Via Francigena pilgrimage route, which gave it an early market boost. There are only two long roads, a compelling little passageway/tunnel, fine restaurants, a great hotel and apartments, and some interesting little museums, including, in the lower town, one dedicated to crystal. Why? Because 15% of the world’s crystal and 95 percent of Italy’s crystal is produced here, in little Colle di Val d’Elsa! Glass production was introduced in the 17th century by the nobel Usimbardi family. Before that, Colle was known for paper production.
Where to Eat? Cooking Guru Divina Cucina recommends Officina Della Cucina Popolare, just inside the gate you see below called “Porta Nova”. Michelin (and Luciano) recommends Arnolfo, definitely a splurge, also popular (and more affordable) is Il Cardinale inside the Relais Della Rovere.
So here’s the gate that compels passing tourists to enter:
Map of Colle Val d’Elsa and Location of La Grotta del Cristallo
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
■ 31 March 2014 by James Martin
It’s also got lots of historic cities, the best food in Italy (many claim)—and it’s got bike hotels.
Not only that, but it’s got CyclE-R, a site where you can plan your route and get pre-planned itineraries already mapped for you.
But we’re not done yet! The tourism people have started to offer contests like the current Instagram contest take a picture of scenic spots with your bike in it and you can win prizes. There’s one contest each month.
And all the info is in English! Imagine!
So heck, why not head over to the Emilia Romagna, rent a bike, and have a blast? It’s got some fine cities you’ve probably never heard of like Brisighella and seaside Cesenatico you will want to explore, as well as big boys like Parma and Italy’s Motor City Modena.
This little post was the result of a twitter conversation with someone who actually asked me a question that didn’t fall into the category I call, “How long is a piece of string?” These include, “Is Europe reasonable?” and “How much does an Italian train ticket cost?” Believe it or not, about 85% of questions I receive are unanswerable due to extreme vagueness; I have no idea what’s “reasonable” to you, nor can I guess where the train in your mind goes. I’m extremely grateful to get questions like asking for specific information a person can provide without hyperbole (don’t ever ask for the “best” town in Italy; I won’t answer). Try things like: where can I take my bike out for a spin in Italy where it’s flat? (Puglia). Where can I see a town whose economy was once based on Gypsum? (Brisighella). Where in Italy did Leonardo da Vinci design a canal? (Cesenatico). I might not be able to answer your question, but I like looking things up if the question is reasonable. Usually a question that involves food is reasonable—and there’s a good chance I can come up with an answer.
■ 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
Popular These Days
■ 8 March 2014 by James Martin
Funny what you find out rummaging around in your old record collection.
Let me start again. I’m recording many of my old LPs onto CDs so I can bring them to Europe with me. A suitcase bulging with vinyl might be suspicious, if not a bad idea in general.
But while perusing my jazz discs, I came across a recording by Ettore de Carolis called Ciociaria, a Land of Ancient Silences. It is traditional festival music of a region in Central Italy—and it’s quite compelling.
After reading the liner notes, a bit of enthusiasm to discover where this Italian country folk music was coming started to seep in, leading me to discover other interesting stuff about this shadowy region. Ain’t it always the way?
I found that the name “Ciociaria” refers to an area around Frosinone with indistinct boundaries. It’s a territory in Lazio, south of Rome. It’s also a hotbed of traditional festivals.
“Part of the Ciociarian folklore are the songs, both sacred and profane, dances such as the saltarello, accompanied by music and cheered by the dishes of local cuisine,” Wikipedia tells us.
The word also has ties to a shoe worn by shepherds—a very interesting shoe. the Ciocia, sometimes called zampitto.
In the traditional form, ciocie were made of large soles in leather and straps (strènghe or curiòle) with which the leg was tied from the ankle to the knee. Feet were covered by a large napkin (pèzza).
But who cares about shoes, right? Even when combined with napkins, which seems like a good idea in a culture that eats outside all the time. In any case, Ciociaria also happens to be near Montecassino, which caused another problem.
Before the Allies recaptured Montecassino, the Goums Marocains —Moroccan colonial troops of the French Expeditionary Corps commanded by General Augustin Guillaume—were fighting Germans against some long odds in difficult mountain territory. To spur them on they were evidently promised, “For fifty hours you will be the absolute masters of what you will find beyond the enemy. Nobody will punish you for what you will do, nobody will ask you about what you will get up to.”
When the Allies moved in and took Montecassino, the Goums Marocains took advantage of the promise.
The next night, thousands of Goumiers and other colonial troops scoured the slopes of the hills surrounding the town and the villages of Ciociaria (in South Latium). Over 60,000 women, ranging in age from 11 to 86, suffered from violence, when village after village came under control of the Goumiers. Civilian men who tried to protect their wives and daughters were murdered. The number of men killed has been estimated at 800. ~ Marocchinate
While the shivers work their way out of your system, let me tell you that Italian writer Alberto Moravia wrote the novel La Ciociara based on the mass rape and Vittorio de Sica made a movie of it starring Sophia Loren called Two Women.
In the little town of Castro dei Volsci you’ll find a monument called the “Mamma Ciociara” which serves as a reminder to us of the women who tried to defend themselves and their daughters.
Castro dei Volsci is also the setting of a fine B&B and cooking school called Casa Gregorio Bed and Breakfast and Cooking School
Yes, it’s amazing what an old record with an interesting name and premise can bring up 40 years after it was issued. As we reflect upon Italy’s current economic and political situation and wonder why they can’t be more like America, wouldn’t it be wise to also consider how Italians in the recent past have lived with things we Americans haven’t?
In any case, there’s one more thing. Ettore de Carolis has a web site. It hasn’t been updated since about 2008, but there’s some darned interesting music he plays there. It’s not like today’s background music, intentionally recorded to offer the part-time listener a complete lack of compelling sound so that workers and dreamers don’t take to actually paying attention to it. No, it brings me back to that exploratory wonder of my youth.
That’s a good thing, I think. Or a time suck. You decide.
Play Gocce in un sogno de Chetro by Ettore de Carolis. (Chetro is evidently the nickname of Ettore de Carolis, who founded a folk group called Chetro & Co.)
■ 3 March 2014 by James Martin
Why do we always do it? Why do we come up with a weird recipe and then attribute it to people who wouldn’t cook such a thing in a million years even if you bribed them with fist-loads of almost worthless US dollars? Italian salad dressing always comes to mind. After you read all the chemical crap and odd seasonings listed on the side of the bottle it’s darn easy to say, “no Italian would ever put this crap into his or her mouth.”
But then, how about “Catfish Tuscany?” Doesn’t the thought stick in the side of your noggin like a stone thrown by an idiot? Here it is in pixels: Catfish Tuscany Recipe
It’s like a bunch of Cajun Tuscans went down to the “pond” where the catfish lie in the shadows reading Dante and the good ol’ ragazzi reach in and grab a pesce gatto or two. Then they cook them up. In a “Parmesan crust.”
“It looks and tastes like heaven and takes just 20 minutes to prepare.”
You tasted heaven lately? “Tastes like catfish,” said nobody ever.
It turns out that many people slather that Italian dressing crap I was speaking of earlier on their farmed bottom feeders and call it something clever like “Catfish Italian Style.” That’s precious. Italy is turning over in its economic grave, I’m sure.
I mean, why not just make up a dish and call it something like “Anne Marie Sweden’s Catfish” or the like? Then we don’t have to make fun of you inventing a dish with fish and cheese and calling it after people who are loath to combine fish and cheese. Yes, occasionally, in a Chianti-induced haze, Italians will combine the two, but you have to know the culinary arts to deviate from the norm with any chance of success—and while a really rank catfish may stand up to a Parmesan crust, I’d not bet money on Tuscans liking it one bit.
But go ahead and have your fun deceiving people by tagging everything Tuscan. Soon we will recognize when we see the word “Tuscany” we are being deceived. I realized it 20 years ago. Go to a Tuscan restaurant in the US? Not a chance.
■ 11 January 2014 by James Martin
What I was really trying to get at, of course, was the fundamental question: “Why in heaven’s name do we think of Medieval towns as romantic?
I thought, “It has to do with that picture, somehow.”
I think I was right. What you see is, in every sense, romantic. When you are in the street it is enclosed. It embraces you. There is still light, of course. Not harsh, “you look like a ghoul” kind of light, but light that is gently filtered and plays itself out in gentle gradients with the curvature of the buildings.
Enclosure. Think about that word. The town embraces you. The pathways are organic; they come about as a response to the earth as it stands, not the earth as we can wrestle it into a preconceived form so we can feel safer or drive faster.
I believe that the informal, irregular street arrangements often arose when paths turned into streets as people began to erect buildings along them. In hilly country, paths that have been beaten by humans and animals usually hold the maximum grade to near its lowest practical value. In so doing, they follow the contours of the site. In flat terrain, drainage features and soft soils similarly constrain the location of paths and usually favor firmer soils and drier sites.
Beaten paths usually take interesting and pleasant shapes. The course of a beaten path is almost never straight but is by no means random. Many things come into play, and even among humans the mechanisms are mainly unconscious.
That’s J.H. Crawford’s riff on the subject in A Brief History of Urban Form: Street Layout Through the Ages
Crawford points out that the ancient and modern rigid grid system can’t possibly be romantic:
Straight streets and the grid often express the power of a ruler and his will to impose his chosen order.
So that explains it. Who wants to be skewered by the imposed will of a strong ruler, or taken for the ride on the hood of a car whose driver imposes his will at one of the many, many intersections one has to cross in a modern rigid-grid planned city?
We want to be embraced, coddled, lost in the soft, filtered light and gentle curves of the path made into a street. We want to explore the mystery of the tunnel without a glaring light at the end of it. We want, perhaps, for a place to move us.
I wonder what becomes of people who’ve never experienced a Medieval city? After all, grids (an ugly word, no?) have been imposed upon almost everyone since the Renaissance. Does one lose hope? Does one’s soul harden into hatefulness? Could it be enlightening to be surprised by the immensity and beauty of a Baroque church dome as you gently crest a rise in your beautifully enclosed street?
We all need to travel, don’t we? That and a little wine, I think.
■ 5 January 2014 by James Martin
If you’ve ever traveled through the Metauro valley in Le Marche you would recognize it as one of the most beautiful valleys in the world. An artist no less than Piero della Francesa must have thought the same thing; look to the background of his paintings and you’ll see the same landscapes you see today. From the little village of Pieve del Colle for example, you can stand almost exactly where Piero stood while brushing his famous Diptych of the Duchess and Duke of Urbino.
The rural tourist can bump along the current road, the E78, and see the historic treasures spread out over the valley that gently cradles the Metauro river: the winter white truffle town of Sant’Angelo in Vado, the Roman Villas, the market town of Mercatello sul Metauro, where the butcher shop keeps a chalkboard of the meats and where they come from and who herds them.
On the verge of discovery by foreigners, the valley over the years has slowly transformed itself from a small manufacturing economy to tourism. The 19th century road house and carriage stop in Borgo Pace for example is now a fantastic restaurant called La Diligenza. You can still rent a room or apartment there if you decide to stay a while and play some croquet.
You access all this creamy, rural goodness via a road known as the E78 which runs from coast to coast, Grosseto to Fano. It’s not a fast road. In fact, it doesn’t come close to meeting the European motorway standards.
Now here’s the thing. They have plans to run a ripping wide autostrada through this idyllic land. 6 lanes. It wasn’t always this way. Thirty years ago the plans called for the road (superstrada) to be almost invisible, tucked into tunnels and skirting the edge of the valley where the cultural heritage of the land would have intersected with the traffic hell-bent on getting to the beaches.
The current proposal eliminates all of these costly plans. And because there is little money at all for the project these days, it is planned to be given to an Austrian company called Strabag, who will collect (meaning remove from Italy) all the autostrada tolls for 45 years, according to my sources.
There are people in place who oppose this new plan. Here is a translation of a recent article published in La Repubblica:
The committee “No scempio” (no havoc) aims to raise public awareness on this issue. They are not against the construction of a Superstrada, but they insist on the original project (with tunnels) which would not disfigure the precious landscape. They point also out that when the Superstrada was projected the valley was full of small and medium size industries which boomed and created welfare. Most of them have closed now because of the [economic] crisis and therefore the commercial importance of the project is almost zero. While other activities (rural, tourist, cultural) have started and they have some success. But they need to preserve the original landscape, what tourists expect to see when they come to this part of Italy: hills, gentle slopes , ancient “Borghi” on top of the hills, balconies on the valley that look at the blue sea. The renowned “Montefeltro”, the perfect Duchy of the great Federicus Dux.
Many Italians, even some in the tourist industry, welcome the Autostrada and the ability to jet past the rural landscapes. I, however, have come to see this land as special, and oppose the current project. I can only hope that the most egregious of bureaucratic blunders that expats constantly rave about causes this thing to be pushed into the back burner until hell freezes over, but maybe that’s just me. (Take note ye naysayers: sometimes bureaucratic inefficiency is a very, very good thing).
So I’ll ask what you think. Is this an issue to fight over? Leave a message on our facebook page.
Need a guide to this timeless land? See Le Marche: Travel Guide to the Metauro Valley
■ 3 January 2014 by James Martin
It has always occurred to me that those of us in the US are quite likely to misinterpret the whole idea of the cooking of the poor—or at least the semi poor, and not just because writers tend to over-glorify the concept that basic food is better and only the poor had the time and the cleverness to deal with the offal and the tougher cuts.
After all, it’s not like marginally poor people of Italy always ate the cheapest and most icky food. There was a variety of foodstuffs that popped out of the rural countryside available for free. The most conniving, resourceful, and energetic of foraging family members were (are) often able to forage foodstuffs like truffles and porcini that aren’t considered cheap crap food at all. Sure, they likely sold some or all of their hauls in order to purchase a greater quantity of calories—survival food—but they had access to wonderful flavors that even the rural poor in the US can’t come close to procuring. The fifth quarter of the beast was cheap back then. Try buying tongue or tripe at Safeway these days. You might was well get filet mignon.
I had expected a recent article in Popular Archaeology to reinforce this idea that the marginal poor could fare decently—and it did. Sort of. After all, researches found that the “non-elites” were eating better than they expected, even eating exotic imported food like giraffe.
A drain from a central property revealed a richer variety of foods as well as imports from outside Italy, such as shellfish, sea urchin and even delicacies including the butchered leg joint of a giraffe.
“That the bone represents the height of exotic food is underscored by the fact that this is thought to be the only giraffe bone ever recorded from an archaeological excavation in Roman Italy,” says Ellis. “How part of the animal, butchered, came to be a kitchen scrap in a seemingly standard Pompeian restaurant not only speaks to long-distance trade in exotic and wild animals, but also something of the richness, variety and range of a non-elite diet.”
Of course, calling everyone who isn’t filthy rich “non-elites” paints the scene with an extraordinarily wide brush. Given the data as presented it’s not likely that the homeless poor were bellying up to the bar and gnawing on a roasted giraffe washed down with Barolo.
That’s the problem with popular archaeology (not the magazine, but archaeology that captures the public imagination); funded study usually reflects the concerns of… us.
As government produces bad policy aimed at creating an endless supply of cheap labor and the industrial crap food industry labors to supply it with cheap and inoffensive (read tasteless) fuel, we immediately focus our looking glasses on the past. When toilets came inside the house, we looked for toilets in places like Knossos on the island of Crete. And we found them, of course. You always find what you want to find. Even if they were embalming drains.
Then space travel became possible and suddenly we’re all intently reading the pseudo-archaeology spewing from von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods.
So, it’s always like that: è sempre così. So let’s just know that we’re grasping at straws here. The ancients ate quite well at times, maybe better than USians do today, and certainly, if bad governance continues, way better than we will be able to eat in the future.
Perhaps it is time to gather some knowledge of foraging. Then you can at least be useful when you join those preservers of knowledge that pop up in wanting times, that blast from the medieval past: the Monastery.