■ 31 December 2014 by James Martin
Staggia Senese castle is located near Poggibonsi. You’ve probably not been to either. If you need to fix your doorbell, Poggibonsi is the Tuscan town you should seek. If you need a castle fix with great tours and guides as well as the occasional falconry demonstration, then by all means point your car toward Staggia Senese castle.
The castle is on the Via Francigena pilgrimage route between Poggibonsi and Monteriggione, the walled city which gets more press, being along the autostrada and all. To the west is Colle di Val d’Elsa, a town known for the manufacture of leaded crystal.
The castle is found on the northeast corner of the town of Staggia Senese, nestled into the vegetation that borders the Staggia river. You can see it in the map below.
Why Go to Staggia Senese Castle?
It’s a pretty castle, but pretty castles are a lira a dozen in Italy. As in ancient times, what matters is how the castle is administrated. You can stare at ruins all day, trying to make sense of them out of the historic context that drove their construction. But this castle is involved in actively engaging the visitor. The tour is great. You’ll find out the castle’s secrets. You’ll even learn how the pilgrims got their water and meager rations without being allowed access into the inner sanctum. Then as now, minimalism in morality is in.
Then there’s the falconry. Your kids will love the big birds.
Falconry takes years of training. It’s not like you take a falcon out of your purse or “man bag” and plug somebody and your problems are over. There’s an art to it.
And then you get to glove up and feel the weight of the owl. Whoa baby! Look at those eyes!
You’ll want to visit the official web site to see all the events the castle people have planned for your enjoyment (in Italian). Every Sunday there’s a guided visit and an excursion on electric bicycle or food along the pilgrimage trail. You have to reserve by phone for this one: 366 4792092. The castle is open every day, with shorter hours during the winter months.
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
■ 4 November 2014 by James Martin
Florence. It’s about art. It’s everywhere. Even where you don’t expect it.
It was this beguiling Liberty style entrance to the venerable Cassa Centrale di Risparmio di Depositi di Firenze that invited us to explore. We found a whole floor of art exhibits behind the mask.
And history. The savings bank was formed to help the poor save. This one started in 1829, when 100 citizens formed the “Company of the Savings Bank” in order to encourage the formation of savings and pensions in the lower classes at a time when the percentage of poor was around 90.
The Cassa di Risparmio di Firenze was unique in that it combined the ancient tradition of Monte di Pietà of Florence, which was created in 1495 with the function of extending loans secured by pledges for the less affluent classes, investing the profits that accumulated in charitable works for the benefit of the poor. This cultural heritage was formally endorsed in 1935, when the Azienda dei Presti, which took over from the Monte di Pietà in 1782 with respect to issuing small loans secured by pledges – merged with the Cassa di Risparmio di Firenze. The spirit behind the activities of Monte di Pietà was very important for the bank’s development, and for many years it was to retain the spirit of patronage and philanthropy which had characterised the institution. ~ 9th European Symposium on Savings Banks History – EUROPEAN SAVINGS BANKS: FROM SOCIAL COMMITMENT TO CORPORATE SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY
While banks have become gigantic gambling houses in recent times, it’s interesting to note that for many years the system in Europe evolved such that “parallel activities would co-exist: the philanthropic business and actual banking business.”
In any case, throw upon those doors the next time you’re in Florence and check it out. The art exhibits are upstairs.
Not so far from the bank is Florence’s oldest active hospital. The Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova has been around since 1288. It started as a hospice for pilgrims and later for victims of the plague.
Over the years it amassed a great deal of art as well. Today, much of it is in museums, but you can still enter the hospital and see not only works like this:
But you can also see folks working on art. You don’t have to visit a castle or a monastery to see restoration, you can just have your gall bladder checked out.
The background of the painting shows the front of the hospital.
Even here, in a hospital, there’s a connection to banking. At one time there was an office inside where one could get mail and store money. According to Fodors, Michelangelo did his banking here.
In the middle of the complex is Sant’Egidio church that you can also visit.
So, after you’ve taken that Secret Passages Tour of the Palazzo Vecchio, just wander the streets and explore Florence and its art. Go where other tourists fear to tread. Have a real experience. Your gall bladder might thank you for it.
■ 28 October 2014 by James Martin
When I arrived in Florence a few days ago I immediately noticed people with their little cameras floating away from the photographer’s outstretched arm by means of a flimsy bit of kit. One of many sellers of this amazing re-use of the antiquated car antenna is captured above. (The device you see is being mis-used as a tripod that would send your camera crashing to the ground in the slightest wisp of wind, but it’s really designed to be a clever arm extension, trust me.)
You see, when God invented arms He made an obvious mistake. They were not long enough for a proper selfie. Women of questionable morals were often unable to compose a photo that would encompass all their charms. People in front of statues had to spend hours trying to cram their faces and a famous statue reproduction into the frame. Enter what I call the Selfie Helper. “You buy the smart phone, we make the camera and your arm work together correctly.”
It’s a lot like Hamburger Helper, isn’t it? “Thy (camera) rod, like thy onion powder, they comfort thee.”
This isn’t the first time creation was found wanting. Ancient people found it necessary to extend their spear-tossing arms by use of the atlatyl. Look it up.
In any case, once I had noticed the Selfie Helper phenomenon, the rest of the excursion’s conversation seemed to gravitate towards tourist cameras.
A Florence guide sipping the thick chocolate drink Florence is famous for lamented, “The superintendent decided to allow photography in the museums. So now, nobody listens. They’re all clicking and beeping away while you talk into a vacuum.”
But later on, as we dipped our cantucci into tiny glasses of vin santo in an overpriced cafe bordering the Piazza Repubica while being mesmerized by the constant flow of drunken students trying to stay on the bucking horses of the carousel the municipality had plunked down in the middle of the piazza, Author Susan Van Allen brought the social effects of the Selfie Helper into sharp focus.
“Yet another thing to disconnect us from the social ritual of handing our valuable camera to a total stranger in order that we might have a single, thus valuable, memento of our experience.”
Yes, we are now complete. Free of the anxiety over the possibility that the stranger might run off with our prized possession—oh delicious terror!—we can pass the time of our vacation entirely isolated from the pasta-eaters and other tourists who surround us.
Good for us.
Popular These Days
■ 27 September 2014 by James Martin
Amble Ligurian shoreline; beaches full; Lerici to little San Terenzo; ghost of Percy Bysshe Shelley; Villa Magni aglow, full sun; search for granita; none; new restaurant appears; La Creuza de Mauri; waiter lounging in doorway; island dark; jowls rutted; black sard brows; eat; balls of fregula roll like pearls on partched toungues; clam shells clatter on white plates; octupus boiled and grilled; good both ways; bottle of Vermentino; i; happy happy; gelato a limon, gelato a limon; now to walk back; soon breasts; unleashed; yes; a singular pair; harken to days past; before breasts were turned to bullets; murduring moral values; a shot in the unwanted eye; a blackness; bronzing couple with plastic plates of little fish; bottle of olive oil; douse; turn away; then uphill; dog lies on sidewalk; left side; leashed woman concerned; man rubs chin; looks to find different angle at which to view dog; chooses behind; we pass; car found; then Tusc___; rather the territory of Lunigiana; home for a nap;
■ 7 September 2014 by James Martin
Travel clogs your brain with all sorts of pernicious poppycock. You work it in there with all the truths and half truths you discover on your journey through life, and out comes a crusty deposit full of holes. Like bread.
On our last trip to Rome we stayed northwest of the Vatican, in the neighborhood called Aurelio. This happens to be the place where the current king of bread, a guy named Bonci, has a pizza joint. As a journalist, I had to try the pizza. After all, it was all the rage. The man was a saint, according to the lit. This fact, of course, made me want to ignore him. I am a contrarian. I immediately think of other things, hidden things, when confronted with anyone made godly by a ballooning cadre of sycophants. (After all, at the height of his power, Mussolini received about 1,500 letters a day from Italian men and women of all social classes praising his political prowess. Think on that!)
In any case, I also visited a bakery in Puglia, a region which I consider the best for bread. There I met Lorenzo Accarino in a store called Chichino Pane in Monte Sant’Angelo. He was throwing big, wobbly hunks of bread to be baked.
And he didn’t knead it. Not a bit.
So, then I listened to a talk about bread at La bottega di Stigliano, a food cooperative in Siena province. The talk turned to modern folks inability to digest bread, and one of the threads being studied was the turn away from ancient methods to “quick rise” methods of making bread faster. We all took a swerve and started to make bread like factories, a quick rise, kneading to align the gluten in the flour, a short rise and then bang, into an oven.
So then I started hearing all the new talk of “no knead” bread—because that’s the way Mr. Bonci does bread—creating a wet dough you can’t even think of kneading.
Why don’t you need to knead? Because a long rise, overnight or longer, aligns the gluten when the big holes expand with the slow rise. The bread works for you.
So what’s the big deal, then, about health? Well, well-fermented, slow rise bread is very low in phytic acid.
Phytic acid not only grabs on to or chelates important minerals, but also inhibits enzymes that we need to digest our food, including pepsin,1 needed for the breakdown of proteins in the stomach, and amylase,2 needed for the breakdown of starch into sugar. Trypsin, needed for protein digestion in the small intestine, is also inhibited by phytates.
Through observation I have witnessed the powerful anti-nutritional effects of a diet high in phytate-rich grains on my family members, with many health problems as a result, including tooth decay, nutrient deficiencies, lack of appetite and digestive problems. ~ Living With Phytic Acid
To be fair, there are some who would argue that the benefits of Phytates outweigh the disadvantages. But still, I can create a free-form loaf of bread with a crunchy crust and those un-uniform holes that pane pugliese has with a minimum of effort while the rising dough does all the work. And the long fermentation makes it tastier.
So, when you slow travel, think of slow bread, too. Let’s hope this swerve back to the past has legs.
And, um, thanks Mr. Bonci!
■ 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
■ 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: