■ May 15, 06:26 AM by James Martin
The magic corner of Tuscany they call Versilia isn’t just endless beach with geometric arrangements of vividly colored umbrellas standing staunchly against the ever-blasting rays of sun; tourist posters don’t reveal all. Not even as much as a thong reveals, really. Not for those of us who get all tingly over rural villages anyway.
All you have to do, even if you’re a beach person, is to put on some decent clothing and point your little Fiat towards the hills and you’ll find little towns like Corsanico, houses peeking out from verdant vineyards and scraggy olive trees, the bell tower recalling the endlessly repeating hours in a somber tone.
The town you’ve never heard of has a pedigree, like many of the others. The built-up town starts with the Romans in 150 AD with the construction of the Via Aurelia, then the passes thought he Longobards on the way to its “timeless” present. Corsanico’s church is called S. Michele Arcangelo, the dragon slayer who took from Hercules the task of protecting the shepherds in early Christian times.
The church is famous. You are probably unaware of its fame. But let’s say you push open the door, step inside, let your eyes adjust to the dimness, then stare for a while at the rococò excess of it all.
You will wonder why there is fame in this large church tucked into a little piazza in this Tuscan backwater of a town. You will shrug your shoulders. Perhaps they ache from driving the curvy little road you had to take to get to Corsanico.
But turn around. Yes, there appears to be the facade of a small building emerging from the organ loft! It is painted with a fine hand.
Well, that, at least, is quite nice.
There, in front of you in all its glory, would appear the pipes Of Vincenzo Colonna’s “Monumental” organ, which he built between 1602 and 1606.
But…what’s it doing in a church that succumbed to fire and was rebuilt and enlarged in 1848? Don’t organs burn?
Well, that’s where the story gets interesting. After a period of religious and monastic suppression, the organ, once the property of the church of San Francesco of Lucca, was auctioned off. Annibale Ceregioli of Corsanico, representing a local committee, bought the thing for a whopping sum of 1015.10 lire. (If you remember the lira in 1980 or so, Ms Ceregioli’s purchase would have come to just over $0.50. Inflation is grand, isn’t it?)
In any case, they wedged it into the organ loft, tuned it up, and everyone loved the “new” organ. Even Giacomo Puccini played it.
Let’s have a look:
She’s a beaut, no?
The Organo Monumentale, as they call it, is the only surviving example of Colonna’s work, so it’s historically quite important. For you organ lovers, here are some specs: The organ has one manual and an octave of pedals including a 16ft Bombarde. All manual stops split near middle C to allow for ‘solo and accompaniment’ playing.
As you can see from the picture on the right, the bloggers of the Versilia Blog Tour were taken to the loft to get a good feel for how the organ is played. It’s easy. There’s a keyboard, a plaque with all the “voices” so you can control how the organ sounds, and there’s a special little switch to the left of the keyboard to make the organ sound like a bird twittering. Don’t laugh, everyone twitters these days.
So, how do you get to hear the organ if you’re not on a blog tour? In July and August there’s a music festival. The Associazione Amici della Musica d’Organo Vincenzo Colonna has a website still announcing the Christmas music festival, but also has info on the yearly summer festival.
Or, you could just go to church on Sunday.
Endnote: There are also some fine hiking opportunities around Corsanico.
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, 06:53 AM by James Martin
If you have landed upon this page, you are unlikely to be one of those people who is a first time visitor to Italy looking for everyone’s “best places to go in Italy” post. You won’t find one here. We are degenerates; we believe everyone can have their own best place; our purpose is to help people find it. In any case, we’re now going to assume you’ve been to Rome, Venice and Florence and have eaten in enough of those dismal tourist restaurants that you’re wondering what all the hype is about. You are looking to do your thing, and eat decently. Well, we’d suggest you get out into the countryside. Even Michelangelo did it.
If you are like me, you shun Mediterranean beaches. You like to do things. You like exploring art and culture. You like the (real) food of Tuscany, the food grandmothers make.
In fact, if you are (still) reading this particular post, perhaps you’d like to wade into the stream below Italy’s famous marble quarries—a stream loaded with water-washed white river cobbles of the precious stone—and dip your big hands into the stream in order to wrestle the perfect one out of the flowing waters and heft it onto he grassy shore. Is it your stone, the one that calls out to you? Does it say in a gravelly voice, “deep within me is the stuff of greatness, the expression of your oneness with me, all you have to do is remove all the crap that isn’t that stuff?”
Then, under the watchful eye of your teacher, you’d begin to skin your stone. Yes, that’s what she’s doing up there with the fashionable eye protection and the big hammer thingy.
Soon your stone is ready for you. You may sculpt.
Yes, you can do this on your vacation! You can do it on the grounds of a little house on the edge of a steep ravine with a view overlooking the mountains. Below you, way below, is that little stream from which your modest cobble was plucked.
Now, as a special treat for marble workers, you can eat the quarry-man’s favorite, lardo, without giving a thought to the fat content. You are working hard. Your stone is turning into your vision. You can pig out.
Isn’t that better than laying around on a beach? After all, you can do that in El Lay if you want. Sand is sand.
But marble is a different thing.
The picture on the left shows Peter Rosenzweig, the Director of Campo dell’ Altissimo tucked away in the small village of Azzano. If you take sculpting or painting courses at Campo dell’Altissimo, you can live near this place for cheap, donning your work clothes every morning and tromping off to work your hand-picked stone, chopping away at all the stuff that is not to your stone’s liking.
The picture shows Peter with a student’s work. I don’t know what it is either.
Does this sound good to you? Well, hop on it! The school was happening in May, and classes continue through summer, some as short as one week (just to see if it’s for you). The school can arrange local lodging. You don’t have to eat lardo if you don’t want to.
Check them out: Campo dell’Altissimo
If you are a wimp, and cannot lift a stone, you can still tour the quarries: Carrara Marble Tour Map and Guide
(Discovered thanks to the Versilia Blog Tour)
■ Mar 11, 11:01 AM by James Martin
Certainly if you’re a fan of what Italy does really, really well you’ve heard of the new Ferrari, the most powerful ever, dubbed LaFerrari. Yes, Italian cars are feminine—as in, “she’s really, really fast.”
She’s also a hybrid. Hybrids are all the rage. I doubt Ferrari is worried about the gas mileage of a car that accelerates at the rate of 0-62 mph in less than 3 seconds, but I wonder if its as horrible as one might think.
The car will cost over a million euros, something that only the 1% might afford, which is sad. Disgusting, actually, that the only people who can afford such a piece of handmade perfection are CEOs of corporations such as those riding high on making animals in Petri dishes and putting them in Styrofoam at the Safeway without disclosing what’s under the plastic, the modern pig in a poke.
But I know what you’re thinking. It’s not difficult to see the wheels turning. You’re aghast at such monumental excess.
That’s because you think the demand for cars that use hybrid technology will force car manufacturers to buckle down and work something out so that our transportation gets something like 1000 miles to the gallon of gas.
Dream on. I didn’t mean to interrupt. You see, racing cars and high performance vehicles are the only hope for real trickle-down technology. People paying a couple million for a car that’s going to get a door ding the minute they park it in front of the Walmart are going to fund the real technology breakthroughs. Hybrids are going to have to become sexy through racing, street and otherwise, before things start trickling. Only then will we have access to cheap pocket-rockets that get 200 mpg.
Of course, that only makes the gas problem worse. In such a case, the oil companies get a reprieve against the devastating effects of the world being on the downside of the peak oil slope. They get to prolong the pain. They’ll get to sneak (sneak? that’s so 60s—so let’s use the words “openly cram”) money from their rapidly rising $200 a gallon gas price into the pockets of congressmen so that the endless wars for oil and rare earth minerals can go on, well, endlessly.
So I say, buy them darned fast Ferraris. Keep a heavy foot on the gas pedal, Bunky. Ignite the search for new technologies that only our fear of being static upon this sweltering, flu suffering, fracking-induced crumbling earth might bring about. And it might save the lives of countless soldiers fighting for oil, you never know.
And then, when the dust clears on the peaks, go to Tuscany, settle in a hill town, make your own food, eat the prosciutto (fat and all) and live life like it’s supposed to be lived. Don’t worry about gas, you’ll get enough from the beans.
(Just in case you’re thinking of that Ferrari, read about it here.)
Popular These Days
■ Feb 10, 09:51 AM by James Martin
Pistoia is a stunningly beautiful Tuscan city. It has a market square still populated by the little stalls that unfold into stores with marble counters, much like motorized vans are turned into market stalls today. Clever. For medieval people I mean. If you’re planning a Tuscan vacation, you should see Pistoia.
You might look at the title of this post and wonder what the hell has gotten into me that I’m talking about Pistoia. Well, I’m going to tell you, and you must promise to keep this secret, but Pistoia, for all its religious monuments, frescoes, and other artifacts of an age when immense beauty was part of building a city, has a butcher shop entirely devoted to selling you horse meat to eat. Imagine.
I am bringing this to your attention because of the current horse meat controversy. You’ve read about it I’m sure. Horse meat has turned up in EU hamburgers. People are outraged. They are seeing red over being deceived into eating poor Trigger, or whatever former Triple crown winner thus consumed turns their collective stomachs.
(Another tenuous connection: We [the people] are not nearly as concerned over eating scientist-rendered genetically modified frankenmeat as we are over eating horse, which even true blue Americans ate gleefully before the 1950s. Humongous corporations have spent millions to convince us that telling us what’s in our burgers is absolutely wrong, and the world economy will collapse from overly-expensive food if they were to be forced to honestly label their “food” and we didn’t buy the crap because of it.)
Ok, so here’s what we know of the controversy. Romanians, embarrassed about their medieval appearances, pass a law disallowing horse-drawn buggies on the highways. Horses become fairly useless to farmers and other people who use them for draft animals to transport their goods to the market, so the market value of a horse falls like a rock.
Romanians butcher and eat horses. With an oversupply of horse flesh, they willingly sell it to anyone who shows an interest. The French company who supplies the meat to other companies to make it into whatever ready-to-eat crap food the people in the UK will tolerate, happily supplies cheap meat, which happens to contain horse because horse meat makes it real cheap. They claim not to know how it got in there.
Ah, the realities of global food marketing! Provenience is nothing! Just eat it, you mangy piece-of-crap consumer!
You see, there is a connection here. When you rely on humongous corporations whose main concern is to make ever more money to satisfy their shareholders and pay their CEO millions and millions, you have to know that they will stop at nothing to sell you something cheap (because, ahem, you love cheap, admit it!). GMO modified to their (secret) specifications, horse standing in place for beef, it’s all part of the same thing. Those corporations are annoyed as hell that you want to know what you’re putting in your mouth, because it’s damn sure to cut into their profits. They’ll spend billions to increase your food ignorance, because that’s a drop in the enormous bucket labeled “profit” to them.
Now, I have to report that I have a horse in this race, so to speak. I like horse meat. I like asino too. I’ve even had puledro, colt. I bought it from a real butcher in Aulla. He knew the rancher. He described the chop like a horny man describes the leg of an outrageously sexy dancer. I ate it. It was good.
Go ahead and hate me. But with small butchers you have a choice. With Monsanto you’re gonna get it crammed down your throat. Perhaps it’s time to downsize. Perhaps it’s time to care for others around us, and care what we put in our mouths. And perhaps it’s time to consider a smaller but exquisite piece of perfect meat from a butcher who cares over paying the same price for an enormous slab of cheap mystery “meat”. Just sayin’.
■ Nov 9, 08:38 AM by James Martin
I never do that. It sounds hard.
I suppose my way is the credo of the wanderer, which probably bleeds into the credo of the lazy bum. Find something. Find out it’s big. Research it. Or not.
It’s backwards. You may have noticed that.
So I’m walking through a hilltop town called Rosignano Marittimo with a view of the sea and a darn nice castle and I come across a statue of a man with a freshly placed red rose in little vase attached to the marble base. The sun hit it handsomely.
Click, click, click.
So that was that. Until I stopped into the Enoteca Chiarugi later that day for a bottle of the local wine. The owner Gabriele immediately struck up a conversation.
“I saw you taking pictures of that statue over there,” he said, pointing out the door of his shop to where the statue sat across the street. I though maybe it was forbidden to click, click, click.
“Pietro Gori is a very loved man, very loved. He was a very rich man and worked with the poor. There were very many poor people, very many, in his time. He had a big farm, and the poor could work on the farm and eat a big lunch. He was a very loved man,” Gabriele explained.
So, you know, I’m thinking this guy Gori had a soft spot in his heart for the wretched and downtrodden. Big deal. In the US they’d jail him for such vile and reprehensible thoughts. Yet someone here in Tuscany has put a rose on his statue. I was beginning to think it was Gabriele, “Really, he was a very, very loved man.”
So I’m thinking, “who is this Pietro Gori?”
I hardly expected him to be an anarchist. But yes, there it was in black and white. On the Internet, no less, which is always a true and moral source of information.
In 1887, Gori published his first pamphlet Rebel Thoughts, which resulted in his being tried and acquitted by the Pisa Assize Court.
When Sante Caserio assassinated the French president Sadi Carnot (24 May 1894), the conservative press accused Gori of having been implicated in the killing. The campaign against Gori was part and parcel of a swingeing anti-anarchist crackdown sponsored by the Italian prime minister Crispi. Gori was obliged to flee to Lugano in Switzerland where he resumed his law practice. There too, however, he attracted unwelcome attention from the Italian police who even orchestrated an attempt on his life; two persons unknown fired two revolver shots at him, but missed their target. Following pressure from the Italian government on the Swiss authorities, Gori was arrested along with 15 comrades and expelled from Switzerland. It was on this occasion that he penned his famous verses “Farewell to Lugano”. ~ Kate Sharpley Library: Pietro Gori
You should read the rest of the story through the link above. It’s fascinating, these lives of people who’ve labored outside the periphery of our knowledge.
Eventually, Gabriele and I turned to another of our common interests. Food and wine. I asked him for something local in a red wine and he came up with a very good 12 euro Bolgheri. That was the easy part.
Then I asked him where one could get a fine meal. He started to call around for me. While he was calling, I started taking pictures of the deli case, the prosciutto, the bottles of wine.
And here’s where I wish the world still had real phones. I would have said, “Gabriele hung up the phone and…” but in the modern age of the little flat communicator thingy that is practically a fixture on the ears of Italians, there can be no such literary transition. So, Gabriele finished his calling and darted over to the deli case.
“Wait!” he implored. He walked softly over to a cutting board and with an almost religious air about him gently removed a cloth covering…the sacred porchetta.
I felt the solemn occasion required a picture. I carefully focused and composed with Gabriele looking on, his hot breath on my left ear like a cell phone overheating, “ah, with the prosciutto behind! Very clever! Very good!”
I like Gabriele. He likes people. You should go to his little enoteca and buy lots of stuff from him. He hand slices his prosciutto. That’s how you tell someone cares for the food they sell.
And he’s part of a southern blues/rock band. “Gregg Allman, that’s my music.”
And the restaurant Gabriele found for us? Wow. Perfect. 7 tavoli bistrot. You should go there, too.
So study up on your anarchists, talk to the guy at the enoteca, eat where he tells you—and your vacation in Italy with go perfectly. Unless you mistake a carnation for a rose. That’s what I did and for that I’m truly sorry. Sort of.
■ Nov 5, 08:36 AM by James Martin
Siena is a difficult city to come to grips with. It’s known for a twice a year horse race called the Palio, a race that, for Americans, has elements in it that a reasonable person would ascribe to insanity. It’s what attracts us to the city, mostly.
And yet to ignore Siena outside the frenzy the Palio brings is to ignore a noble part of Tuscany and Tuscan tradition. Siena is a city to savor slowly. It is a “darker” city. Think scorched earth, “burnt Sienna”, Siena Brown, the deep rich brown of the panforte.
In fact, your first stop might be to sample the city’s iconic cake, the “strong bread” with a pedigree that goes back to the 12th century (although some say it’s older than that). There’s no better place to sample panforte than Il Magnifico bakery on Via Dei Pellegrini 27, the street of the pilgrims.
Of course, nothing is that easy. Il Magnifico produces two panforte. The regular one is done much like they did it in the 12th century, but there’s also the Panforte Margherita, developed in the late 1800s for Queen Margerita of Savoia, who came to see the Palio with King Umberto every year.
And then, let us talk about the bakery’s Ricciarelli. The little white almond cookies of il Magnifico are tantalizingly light, the foil to the heavy panforte. The secret of the Ricciarelli here is that only freshly ground almond flour is used. Many Ricciarelli are made with almond paste, which makes a heavier cookie. Avoid those.
And if you’re in Siena in November, don’t miss out on Pan Co’ Santi, a spiced “saint’s” bread (with a touch of pepper!) meant to be eaten with a bit of wine.
Il Magnifico has a site in Italian where one can buy their sweet offerings and see pictures of what they produce.
And by the way, the street name referring to pilgrims is interesting. Panforte was a staple on the long pilgrimages, it lasted a long, long time.
From Il Magnifico it’s a short walk downhill to the Piazza del Campo, a marketplace in the 13th century and now a hangout for Italian youth sprinkled with tourists who’ve had the sense not to make Siena a day trip. The curved side of “il Campo” as the locals call it is lined with restaurants, bars and souvenir shops.
You need to sit down. You need to participate in one of the great Italian customs glossed over in most guidebooks: aperitivo time.
Italians have traditionally looked down on drinking alcohol without eating. The purpose of wine is not to get you drunk but to easy you into the non working part of the day. The Osteria grew out of this need to put a space between work and play, the sacred and profane, and to offset the effects of alcohol with food. Liberamente Osteria is really a place that embraces the traditional definition. You can get wine, beer, or an Italian cocktail like a Negroni or the lighter Americano. A few things, olives, perhaps some potato chips will come to the table as usual, but if you’re hankering for some food, some great food that just hits the spot with a drink, the Osteria Liberamente will put something together artistically in a flash. The tuna was a hit, I mean a big hit—and they didn’t have to cook it.
So when the sun sets in Siena, and the moon rises over the Palazzo Pubblico, forget the tourist traps, get thee to Osteria Liberamente. And don’t just sit outside. Go in. It’s a tight squeeze, but the televisions embedded into the mosaic floor, the little box of a space the food preparer labors in, and the architecture in one of the world’s best-known public squares will make for an interesting visit.
And the place is great if you’ve had a big lunch and you’re just looking to nibble at dinner time. The food varies every night, depending upon what’s in the market and the caprice of the cooks.
Liberamente Osteria, Piazza del Compo 27
Siena Duomo, the Real Floors
You may not know it, but the inlaid marble floors of the Siena Duomo are covered most of the year to protect them from the effects of thousands of people a day stomping on them. Remember, artist and historian Giorgio Vasari called the floor “the most beautiful, big and magnificent that has ever been done.”
Before your trip to Siena, see when the opening dates are for the floor. In 2012 the real floor was visible from August 18 through October 24. There is a charge for seeing the uncovered floor.
The picture on the left is by Martha Bakerjian who prepared this gallery for Italy Travel on About.com
Siena Travel Planning Information
■ Oct 8, 07:21 AM by James Martin
The canons have stopped their timed booming that legend has it scare the wild bore out of the corn fields and the annoying sound has been replaced, on the very same day the canons stopped, with the sharp retort of hunting rifles. As we walk back home from the bar this morning, we noticed that the streets of our little village had suddenly become lined with the flint corn that will be made into polenta. It will dry in the sun, whole in a cassetta or stripped from the ear (it’s already been dried on the stalk for several weeks), waiting for its time at the mill. The lack of rain means they’ll have to wait; the mill is water driven.
Along the way we stop to take pictures. We end up with a bag of polenta. Our neighbors had a small window of opportunity to get a tiny bit milled before the stream ran dry enough to put a kink the the process.
Enormous baskets of porcini are on display outside of restaurants. As I admired them, a man drew me aside and in a harsh whisper asked, “Beautiful, I wonder where they got them?” When I returned my famously befuddled look (which I hoped would pass for “I’m not telling” rather than “I’m an idiot tourist who wouldn’t have a clue where to look”) he told me he would be going out to get his funghi in five or six days. It was like he was telling me a secret I shouldn’t tell other people.
In fall, rural Tuscany is filled with intrigue as well as things good to eat.
■ Oct 6, 04:39 AM by James Martin
The real test of a place to stay in Italy called an “agriturismo” is in the quality of products the estate produces. Stay in an Italian agriturismo and you’ll soon realize that the local grub is somehow different from the stuff you’re used to shoveling in your mouth.
Hang around long enough and you’ll come to the conclusion that Italians are darn near batty about the quality of the things they eat. They’ll spare no amount of work making sure the flavors of the foods they produce are as brilliant as nature intended. Nowhere is this personal attention to detail more pronounced than in the contents of bottles marked “Extra Virgin Olive Oil” you find on your supermarket shelf. Well, maybe not on your shelf, especially if you’re from the US, where industrial crap oil abounds and you might not find a single example of real olive oil made by a person who cares.
It was with no small amount of trepidation that I approached the olive oil tasting at Montestigliano, where Massimo, the master of the estate’s olives, had spent the morning at the market perusing the oils in order to select two artisinal oils and an industrial one for our little tasting. The final lineup consisted of bottles from Lake Garda and Sardinia in addition to the industrial oil and the Montestigliano estate oil. We were to not only taste them, but to rank them on the same basis as the top level tasters entrusted with the delicate task of determining if a particular olive oil is good enough to get its DOP designation, which increases its market value. It was a blind tasting, meaning we’d have to rate the oils without knowing which was which. As Massimo explained the best way to experience the oils, it was evident that this wasn’t going to be easy.
What if the crap oil had won? That would be an embarrassment I could never live down.
Massimo finally poured the four oils into our little plastic cups. I breathed a sigh of relief. See:
If you’re paying attention you can pick up on the industrial crap oil just from the photo. If you sat where I was sitting, the differences were even more apparent. As the oils were poured you got your first sense of what they were all about. The scents were alluring as the oils trickled into their labeled cups.
Except for the industrial oil. I had nothing to worry about.
We warmed our little cups. We ate a slice of apple. We sniffed. We tasted. We gargled while breathing, a trick not for amateurs. One oil stood out. The aroma in itself was enough to sent you into a state of oil-induced bliss.
The winning product wasn’t the estate oil. Massimo didn’t try to tip the odds by selecting oils inferior to his. He was as intrigued by the winning oil as we were, and liked it as much as we did.
The winning oil came from the island of Sardinia.
And the crap oil? Not only was it a dirty straw color instead of the vibrant yellow tinged with green like the other oils, but there was absolutely no scent to it. There was no taste either, no matter how hard you sniffed, swirled or gargled. In other words, it didn’t have flaws. You could use it for frying or for lubricating your sewing machine.
But on a tomato? Yuck. The point is, yes, artisan-produced oils cost more. But who cares? It’s not about the arbitrary cost of a slippery thing called “oil”. It’s about value. An oil with infinitely more flavor doesn’t cost infinitely more money, and thus has to be a great value, at least if the arithmetic holds—and if you like olive oil, of course.
But really, come to Tuscany. Taste the oil. Only then will you realize what the fuss is all about.
Disclaimer: lodging was provided to journalists for the purposes of review.