■ 13 July 2014 by James Martin
I like maps. Slap me with a heritage pig chop if I’m wrong, but I think modern technology has made maps more useful and interesting. (It gives you a good feeling to think that modern thought and technology isn’t all about crowd sourcing and driving down the incomes of trained and adept authors and artists.)
Take the map in the thumbnail. It’s a map of where tourists went in Italy in 2012. What they’ve done is taken the number of tourists who went to each region and map that region to the size it would be if geographical size was proportional to the number of tourists. So Tuscany is huge. Lazio is big but I’m thinking it’s only because throngs of people go to or land in Rome and then skedaddle, same with the enormous Veneto and Venice I suppose. And….the Abruzzo remains a dot the size of a pimple on a giraffe.
From this map you can discern where you should go if you fall into one of the two prevailing tourist categories. The trophy tourists who demand to see the “best” will want to go to the regions that are big, especially to those whose regions have been bloated by the algorithm the most, like Tuscany, so they can relate with pride that they’ve done the things the guidebooks and the crowd tell them to do. I don’t mean to be totally negative about this; these are the places with the highest density of easily accessed things to do for tourists who don’t know the Italian language. The folks who say, “I wanna get way off the beaten tourist track” can, and should, pick the miniscule regions. Those are the ones in odd colors you can barely see, like ticks on your arm after a hike in the woods. Take the Marche for instance. It’s the pink tick.
It is in current vogue to label Le Marche as “the new Tuscany.” Both the New York Times and Wall Street International have fallen over each other to put out the word. Thank God the mantle has been lifted from Puglia. Puglia, like Le Marche, has its own charms. They might not be the charms of Renaissance-rich Tuscany, but who cares? “The New Tuscany” is a label used by lazy writers. Ignore them. They make a one-week trek to a place, consult a few enthusiastic guides, and then that place becomes the cat’s meow. Instantly.
That said, there is enough in the Metauro Valley to keep you busy for weeks. Real food. Cheese made by folks out in real barns. Stunning landscapes, unchanged since the times Piero della Francesca brought his easels and brushes into the countryside to paint them. It’s home to waterfalls you can swim near and picnic by—bring a hearty bread with cheese made by a real cheesemaker. The Cascata de Sasso is one of Italy’s ten largest waterfalls and you didn’t have a clue, did you? (Ok, I didn’t either and I’ve been to this area many times).
And this is just a third or less of Le Marche. Imagine. Not only can you get a taste of unspoiled Italy, you can expand the rich “pinkness” of the little region and pretty soon the trophy travelers can become interested in it. Perhaps if enough of you get entranced by the siren song of Le Marche, you can contribute to numbers that might sway the money-hungry powers that be to reconsider the paving of the balconies of Piero della Francesca —or making a hydroelectric plant at La Cascata del Sasso.
The Abruzzo isn’t a bad place to spend a couple of weeks either. The Abruzzese need you, too. Tourists might stay in a castle and eat more than their share of food and thus leave some money in the territory so the people can finally recover from that big trembler from years ago. And you can visit Le Grotte di Stiffe. C’mon, you’ve always wanted to do that, didn’t you?
Here’s the Link to a very big map like the thumbnail above from the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera: L’Italia vista dagli stranieri
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
■ 9 May 2014 by James Martin
I’ve had the privilege of tasting some of Chianti’s “best” wines. Some of them cost more than 8 worker’s lunches here in the Lunigiana, just for a single bottle. People whose job it is to “present” this wine to the public usually extol their handling of the grapes and speak glowingly of the care they take with their little babies, all moist and ripe as they slide slowly down the chute on their way to becoming expensive libation. When their juices age a very long time these grapes become a wine that will undoubtedly be called “refined.”
But when it comes time to taste, your pourer may flick an imaginary piece of dust from an impeccably tailored sleeve, allow a precious dribble to fall into a glass, then stand back, smile and say something like, “good, eh?” when you touch the glass to your lips.
Yes, good. But not 7 times better than a decent bottle, I usually think.
But I’m not a wine writer, really. I look to other people to extol whatever virtues justify the cost. They say the same thing. “Good,” or “Mmmm,” then nod knowingly. I am thinking they are thinking the same thing I am thinking, something like “somebody please say something intelligent about this wine.”
But maybe not. Maybe we are just letting the wine speak for itself. It is refined. It speaks softly.
Walter De Battè is serious about the wines he makes out of vineyards that cling to the slopes above the five little villages given the name Le Cinque Terre. These wines are not “refined.” They speak boldly of things refined people don’t speak of in public. We tasted Walter’s wine with foods prepared by Cappun Magru restaurant in little Groppo, a bump on the winding road to the top of a ridge from which you get excellent views of the five little villages and the terraced hillsides the rain keeps washing away. Food expert, guide, B&B owner (Poggio Etrusco) and cookbook author (Cucina Povera) Pamela Sheldon Johns has invited us, and man, are we glad she did.
The first wine we taste is brilliantly colored, a deep gold with signs of murkiness. Walter thrusts his nose deep into the glass and describes the smell of rocks drying on the beach in the noonday sun. He talks of lichens and moss. It is the opposite of refined; we are shrouded heavily in the nature we desire to be engulfed in, at least in our dreams.
The wine he’s named Carlaz is unfiltered and unfined. Hence the murkiness and, above all, the intense flavors of the sea and earth, the terroir, as the French say, from which the grapes have developed their unique character.
It paired nicely with the dish the restaurant was named after, the Cappun Magru, a fisherman’s dish of fish, shellfish, a mariner’s biscuit, green sauce and earthy vegetables.
We had three other courses—and three other wines. I’m not going to wax poetic over them. Each was significantly different, like a novel which comes alive when you realize that each personality is different and distinct and equally compelling.
Why is Schiacchetrà wine so expense? Easy: It takes 45 pounds of fresh grapes to make 15 pounds of dried ones, from which the winemaker extracts a single bottle of Sciacchetrà. The wine should age for at least 6 years. Good vintages can age 10, 20, even 30 years. ~ David Downy – Wines of the Cinque Terre
I’ve put a picture of it over there to the right. Look at the color! This is no wall flower wine!
The perfect afternoon? A room that opens onto the vineyards of the Cinque Terre, letting in the light. A small group of good people unafraid of life, a man in jeans who knows wine. Good food. Wine that speaks volumes: of the air and the sea and the rocks and the hanging moss, earthy as all get out…
It’s almost pornographic, eh?
■ 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
Popular These Days
■ 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
■ 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.