■ May 16, 04:28 AM by James Martin
Sometimes great ideas for an article spring from a photo—like the one on the right.
We were wandering through everyone’s favorite mountain village in the Abruzzo, Santo Stefano di Sessanio, on a fine, spring day with all the fruit trees in full flower when I snapped this picture. I thought it was an interesting view, and the “diffused hotel” idea appeals to me and might appeal to other folks. As I looked at the picture upon returning home, I though I’d post it on our newly-born Tumblr page, for found stuff that didn’t warrant many words of comment.
“Sextantio,” I thought, looking at the phallic tower springing up over the words on the sign, “that’s interesting…”
So I was drawn into some research.
It turns out that the albergo really doesn’t have a name. Sextantio is the name of a company the takes village houses and turns them into compelling places to stay. It turns out that the owner of the company, Daniele Kihlgren, has some interesting ways to look at tourism in Italy—especially the parts of Italy tourists overlook.
In Italy, a country of Story, should be preserved a history too often disqualified as “minor”- such as dotted villages among the Abruzzi mountains and historical heritage so far from the canons of classicism.
Ok, so it’s a bad translation but an interesting observation. Italy is a country of history (the word for “history and “story” are pretty much the same word in Italian), but we come for but two little slices of this history, the classics and the Renaissance, which limits our travel and experience considerably.
Our interest in these narrow bits of history protects their resting places. That’s where we leave our money, after all. Meanwhile, the rest of Italy, and I’m taking about a huge swath of Italy, from unfortunate L’Aquila to the southern tip of the boot, there is a grand exodus of art and interesting people. Many of the village centers of the Abruzzo are abandoned from earthquakes and other natural disasters, as we found from our last excursion. There is no great Renaissance art to save them.
So Sextantio is set to save some of these villages. It’s an admirable plan, although you might be a little turned off by the idea that “at the Sextantio Albergo Diffuso in S. Stefano di Sessanio, the Reception is inside a cave used to grow the pig.” On the other hand, some of you, like I, will find this re-use a favorable thing which will increase our resolve to stay there some day. Think of the lost culinary traditions! And I long for the day when the pigs return and we’ll all be able to dine very well on a tasty and humanely treated animal.
The whole idea of saving a whole village from extinction by re-using what’s already there is something I’m really excited about. Yes, there’s always been re-use through the centuries, some of it robbing us of interesting antiquities to gawk at, but the methods used here are uniquely gentle on the past. As these alberghi diffusi are built, property management services for folks who want to finance the restoration of other buildings will follow (in fact, property management for outside properties is built into the mission statement of Sextantio).
And who knows, when the world dissolves into endless war and the soil is depleted by the tons of chemicals we increasingly “need” to produce our genetically engineered crap food, you might be glad you bought a little place in the mountains of the Abruzzo, with a restaurant that serves the food the locals cook and relish.
Are we looking too nostalgically on the past? Should we always be facing forward? Is Janus dead? I hope not. I want some of that pig, dammit.
Read the Mission Statement of Sextantio.
Heck, why not rent a room
Also, there’s The Heart of Memoir Writing Workshop being held soon in the albergo diffuso.
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
■ May 10, 01:33 AM by James Martin
I like the word “pap”. I always relished the word most when Samuel Becket wrote it. There was something elemental in it. Pap. The glop the world is made from, the elemental slurry. It’s for when you have no teeth. Beginning or end. Amen.
So here we are, “bloggers” (a word I almost hate as much as I like the word “pap”) continuing a great journalistic tradition by descending like starving vultures upon the buffet table on the roof of the Grand Hotel Principe di Piemonte in Viareggio, a hotel overlooking the long stretch of beach promenade. The buffet was provided us, just so you know, and served elegantly as befits such a grand hotel, even to those in muddy jeans.
I can’t help but notice the neatly arranged martini glasses that bookend the groaning table. Inside them is our elemental, blood red substance, the elemental slurry from which cucina povera derives, pappa al pomodoro.
We are not all up to speed. “What is it?” a blogger asks.
“Ah, the chef has made for you some pappa al pomodoro” the man in the suit answers, except without the italics.
Which raises the question: why do we love this elemental food so much? I mean, we’re in an elegant setting in a hotel a huge number of the world’s people could not afford and we’re being served something largely made from stale bread! And we’re loving it!
This is so wrong, isn’t it?
I have my theories, of course. Can the bandits of the food contamination industry—monolithic flavor marauders like Monsanto I’m talking about—suck enough flavors out of food and bankroll the banning of heirloom seeds so that we’ll lose the God-given vitality of a world full of good things to eat, God’s gift to us, (or Mom Nature’s gift, depending)? And now, on our last journey as the earth crumbles beneath us, we’re gobbling up the last vestige of the natural goodness that the oil squeezed properly from an olive combined with a ripe red tomato and our old, stale bread can give us.
It’s sad, isn’t it? Soon (very soon!) we’ll be forced into gussying this recipe up, and the simple goodness of the elemental tomato and stale bread “soup” will be lost. You know, like the food channel makes it. 17 ingredients including (gasp!) pancetta. Yes, it needs flavor when you take the flavor out of the main ingredients.
Yes, the quest for “cheap food” is a scam. Don’t fall for it. Oh, wait, you already have, most of you I mean.
And, yes, our stay at the hotel was wonderful, and the pappa al pomodoro was exactly as promised. Rooms these days might not cost as much as you think. Check them out by comparing prices: Grand Hotel Principe di Piemonte, Viareggio, Italy
Find out more about the Versilia Blog Tour 2013 on the official Facebook page.
■ Apr 27, 02:48 AM by James Martin
As one of the world’s freakiest deviants I have trouble understanding the norm.
For example, I was thinking about chicken this morning. We eat a lot of it in Italy. It’s good here. Even Italian industrial chickens are far and away better than the best American crap chicken. You season them, throw them in the oven, and the skin comes out devoid of fat and crackly like a dry parchment. The inside is juicy, even if you overcook them. They are delicious.
In any case, this morning Martha sent me this news: at a time when Americans are getting sicker than ever from eating things like industrial crap chicken (1 in 6!), the US chooses this time to relax the regulation on inspecting the breast-bloated little buggers. This must make sense to someone, just not me. The argument, as I understand it, is that proper inspection would add a couple cents to the price of a pound of these “eggs on legs” as food writer Gareth Jones calls them. Air chilling chicken is another answer, and the key to great chicken, but that takes too much time (!).
In any case, what I’m really baffled about is the lack of outrage at this act. We chose to benefit from two cents of cheapness while risking our body’s health. I mean, it’s almost not a risk, it’s darned near a certainty.
Izzat nuts? I mean, consider the attitude we have with cars. These things cost tens of thousands of dollars. So we bitch and moan about saving a few hundred dollars when it comes to cars? No, we don’t.
On the surface, what we want in our cars looks a whole lot like our chicken’s breast: we desire them to be big, heavy, and bloated. But really, we want to not have to pay attention during driving so that when we hit the occasional guard rail or other car we will be protected by lots of armor. Screw the price of gas! We will live to drive badly another day!
So I’m thinking: what if there was a new car on the market from a company conglomerate called, say Tyson-Monsanto. It’s the Tyson-Monsanto XT-936. It’s made from all the rubber bands they used to put around rolled newspapers, plus some tin foil from the conspiracy theorists and a little, tiny, motor made by political prisoners in North Korea. It costs $1,237.87 out the door. There is no fuel filling apparatus, the children’s balloon full of gasoline (included!) will last a lifetime.
Would you see automotive pundits jumping up and down, frothing at the mouth when describing such an advance in car technology? Would everybody want one? Not on your life. Because we look at cars different than we look upon our food, don’t we?
There is no comment section on this blog, so I shall comment for you. —> Because it’s a car you moron. Cheap food is a must! Cheap cars, not so much! I mean, it’s our lives you diabolical scumbag! We’re not going to risk dying in such a deathtrap! Health is one thing, death another!
See what I mean? Why are we like this? When did we lose the connection between health and life?
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■ Apr 21, 08:21 AM by James Martin
We had seen the village stretched out under the mountains, the sun playing on its rooftops. Idyllic, you might think to say.
So, we decided to take a detour from the tourist “must sees” in the Abruzzo’s Gran Sasso to visit this little stretched-out village in the Province of L’Aquila. Tired from the zig-zag drive, we parked the car in the shade of the little trees that lined the town square, across from an old man taking in the sun from his doorway.
“Not many come anymore.” he said, his Italian words heavily influenced by the local dialect. Our eyes met. I nodded but I said nothing.
We found a sign pointed to the centro storico and headed through the gate. Eeriness was everywhere. Each arch was propped by what we’d come to see everywhere in the province, wooden skeletons designed to keep it all from falling down manufactured by the Vigili del Fuoco. VVF. The fire watchers. “VVF Roma”, “VVF Bergamo”. They came from all over to prop up the villages of the Abruzzo.
From the earthquake. Four years past.
Rocks from house walls studded the little walkways. Stairs led nowhere. There was an eerie silence. We were glad when we had a chance to exit the dead city.
“Oh, you can’t go there.” he said, staring into my eyes for a few seconds. “Oh, then you’ve seen it,” he said, realizing we’d breached the forbidden boundary.
“What a terrible thing. Four years! A ghost town!”
He shakes his head, then turns the conversation to Boston. “Crazy, bombing like that! They found a man! Crazy doing things like that!”
It was as if he was looking for a way to neutralize the event by sharing another. It was a crazy thing the earth was doing. It was a crazy thing we were doing to the earth; to each other.
There was nothing more to say.
This is the view that brought us to Castelvecchio Calvisio. Scenes from “The American” were set there. The historic center is almost oval, like a teaspoon. There is no one there now.
■ Apr 12, 12:23 PM by James Martin
I like showing people around. It’s all about that symbiotic relationship. You know, like the cute little ladybug who hangs around the rose plant being buddies, eating the occasional aphid so the beautiful rose can blossom and flourish. I take people around, they notice things I don’t, or engage people in ways I wouldn’t think of. We both benefit. Well, mostly I benefit. It’s not that hard to take people around. The things I find to write about are priceless.
So, anyway, we waited for Susan and Louisa at the Bar Costituzionale in piazza Matteotti, the big one. We go there a lot, for coffee, or for Lorenzo’s gelato. Lorenzo, they tell me is Sicilian. So the gelato is predestined to be good. This time I had a cafe macchiato. It was good, too.
Then Susan and Louisa arrived. Susan had a cappuccino. It was nicely finished with a rather swell design on top. We took pictures.
Then, upon returning from one of those feminine reconnaissance missions that included a bathroom stop, Susan came over and said, “did you see the poster of all the designs the guy at the bar can put on top of a cappuccino?”
In all my visits I had never noticed it. It was in Lorenzo’s gelato room, high on the wall. Here:
So, we asked about them. The designs are doled out seasonally. Obviously it wasn’t time for the sun design—we hadn’t seen the glowing orb in weeks. If you are here full time, you can collect them all. Even the sun.
We found enough shops that Susan seemed relatively happy. In one, Susan talked to the owner. He took us into what appeared to be a whole other shop. There, hidden from the kind of riff-raff that peers in through windows but never buys anything was the most interesting collections of walking sticks ever.
There were walking sticks whose handles could be removed to reveal a corkscrew or other interesting tools for the soon-to-be-inebriated, there were some with handles carved from ivory in such a way that a voluptuous woman’s breasts indented the flesh of your hand as you clopped along with it, a far-off gaze of happiness plastered to your happy face (presumably). The last was the best, the one that you peered into a tiny hole at the base of the handle and if you aligned the hole to your eye just right a picture of a naked babe appeared. Really. Not a modern babe but a historic babe—naked, hairy, and a bit chunky.
You see what I do? I show them doorways to shops they might fancy, they lead me to treasures I can write about. What a life. When I think about it, I do not fit the properties of the fine, cute and perky ladybug nobly chowing down on the ugly, swollen abdomen of the aphid so the beautiful rose can benefit. No, I am the aphid. Food for the Ladybug so that she can live to protect the rose.
We all have a purpose. You don’t have to be cute and perky. You just have to hang around roses and look like food.
■ Mar 25, 01:05 PM by James Martin
I’m off to Italy. Just in time. I mean, I’ve just done the search for a coffee drink in San Francisco and I don’t think I have the energy to do it again. I’m happy I’m going to Italy, where just about any bar can produce a fine morning cappuccino that tastes good and is just the right size.
Here’s how to get one in San Francisco:
Stop in at the first place. Inquire if they serve their drinks in real cups or do they foist hot, wet, paper on your precious lips? When they say, “we only got paper cups” you commence searching once more.
For every ten coffee houses, you’ll find one that can come up with a cup. Then you have to deal with big Americans who like big things. You’ll have to get used to the fact that most Italian house painters could use an American coffee cup to hold nearly all the paint they use on a 16th century building. Yes, a “small” cappuccino in America is a double that weighs in at 16 ounces, mostly, of course, water.
But even if you accept this enormous, watered down cappuccino, you still have to wade through a menu with pictures of all the crap they can think of to float on a “cappuccino”, like caramel syrup or bits of sugary glop that looks like a pile of shaved crayons. I went through a whole menu, then had to ask if they had just a regular cappuccino.
I got a yes. Zounds. 16 ounces, but that was the best offer of the morning so I took it.
I can’t wait to get to Italy.
■ Mar 15, 12:57 PM by James Martin
The web is full of advice for the traveler.
Do this! Go here! Don’t miss this! Don’t ever, ever do that!
It’s all rather like coming across a tub full of advertising dwarfs with too many exclamation points on their hands. They’re all speaking at once. “40% less fat in the Val d’Orchia! Guaranteed!”
Looking at it from another angle, what if everyone who declared they’d “died and gone to heaven” after gobbling down the “King of Pastry!” pasteis de belem actually did so? It’s obvious that the earth would be barren of travelers to Portugal. The internet would be 37% faster after being liberated from the weight of the pages devoted to gushing over simple monastic pastry, too.
Yes, after their demise you could wander Portugal unencumbered by tourists. Don’t try this in Heaven, of course, it’s packed with fat people.
In any case, the travel planning season is upon us and I’m already reeling from the questions I get. It’s always a minor variation of the same one: “Where should I go? I’m thinking Europe. Have any recommendations for me, a person you don’t know from Adam?”
I just found out that instead of rolling my tired eyes, I could just follow the lead of the Cheshire cat, grinning all the way. Yes, I stole the quote below from Chris Kimble’s Facebook page.
One day Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in a tree.
“Which road do I take?” she asked.
“Where do you want to go” was his response.
“I don’t know,” Alice answered.
“Then,” said the cat, “it doesn’t matter.”
It doesn’t matter! Yes, that’s what I’m trying to tell you!
You see, I will tirelessly tell you about places, draw you maps, help you navigate the paths you desire. It’s my chosen job. But if I wanted to tell you where, exactly, to go, I’d be your private dictator, and there’s very little call for those, even if public ones are in demand these days.
I’d surely be out of work the minute I told you the answer was Mango anyway. You’d fire me.
Then you’d call me lazy.
So it’s easy. Don’t travel for other people and don’t gush over the sweet pastries on the internet. (Soon they’ll start slipping Aspartame into your milk anyway…and your life will be sweeter than it ever was before and you won’t even know why.)
Pick a fork. Any fork. It doesn’t matter. Look at all the resources available to you on this site or other sites and just go your own way. Revelation is just around the next bend, I promise you. (Leviticus too, but don’t take that path. It’s way too crowded these days.)
(Oh, and apologies to Fleetwood Mac for the title.)
■ Feb 14, 02:47 PM by James Martin
After reading an article about those darned romantic dinosaurs that speculated on ways the big boys might have had sex many millenia before the olden days and realizing a bit late, as is the usual failing of many of my own sex, that it was Valentine’s day, I figured it was time to say something about sex and Romans before the calendar flopped over and the desire for the topic waned. Besides, sex is good for page views.
This desire to let it all hang out comes on the heels of the Penn Museum’s racy Valentine’s day event called Fifty Shades of Pompeii. Pompeii was a Roman resort town which has some pretty interesting graphic graphics on its walls.
Since its release in 2011, E. L. James’ erotic novel series “Fifty Shades of Grey” has sold more than 65 million copies worldwide. The books have enthralled readers with salacious tales of sexual bondage, sadism, and masochism.
But when it comes to risqué behavior, James ain’t got nothing on the art of the Ancient Roman Empire.
No sir! The bedrooms of well-to-do Romans were absolutely plastered with frescoes of folks doin’ the nasty. Cheap oil lamps were produced by the thousands in Ostia with every sexual position imaginable found in bas-relief on top right where the wick fits in. The Penn article hints at why we see all these things when everybody knows God will smite people who don’t use the missionary position only to make babies. According to C. Brian Rose (a name just fit for Valentines day and I didn’t make it up!), a professor of classical studies:
“One of the reasons that the Romans didn’t find the depiction of such a wide variety of sexual practices objectionable is that their gods were doing the same thing,” he says.
I think it’s about time we had a god or gods like that.
Imagine, in our time God has changed from the Christian God of forgiveness and light to a deity out for vengeance every time a gay couple tries to get married and who will smite us all if we don’t renounce the practice and make life miserable for others who do.
So, if God can be changed this easily and quickly, why can’t we change him back? What if the narrow minded people who speak for God suddenly changed God’s voice so that he says something like, “Well now, I created those ugly appendages dangling off Adam and his kind and golly gee whiz I’d be remiss if I were to tell these people not to use them and all. There is happiness to consider! Besides, they should be hidden away from sight!”
But really, “God’s” distaste for sex can be easily traced to the Romans. The folks who committed the blasphemy of speaking for God at that time were looking for a hook into people’s souls, a way to control them that the government wasn’t using. They found it in sex, which the Romans hadn’t gotten around to making laws against. So the early Christians ran with the idea and sex negativity has been the norm for a great long while.
So anyway, I’ve posted a couple of framed bedroom pictures from Rome for your immediate titillation. It’s good for you—on this day especially. Don’t let the folks who talk for God give you any guff.
Another inspiration for this article is this: Japan town demands underwear for Michelangelo’s David. Are people nuts?