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Staggia Senese Castle

■ 31 December 2014 by James Martin

staggia senese castle pictureCastello di Staggia Senese

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.

falconry pictureFalconry at Staggia Senese

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!

owl pictureHere's Lookin' at You, Kid: Owl at Staggia Senese Castle

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.

With towns like San Gimignano nearby, this is an area where one could spend a week or three and not get bored at tall. Staggia has a number of highly-rated places to stay.

Staggia Senese Castle originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Dec 31, 2014, © James Martin.

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Florence: Exotic Scents for Discerning Tourists

■ 9 November 2014 by James Martin

aqua flor signAqua Flor, the Sign Above the Door

Florence is all about Renaissance art and architecture, right? The happy tourist wallows in it gleefully. But Florence is also home to artisans like Sileno Cheloni, the Master Perfumer at Aquaflor Firenze. When you wander into his lair, you get to feast your eyes on a bit of fine architecture and an inner courtyard of great beauty—all while your other senses are lightly jack-hammered with swirling and ever-changing exotic scents.

perfumes pictureSileno is the guy who made these scents, the guy who travels the world to fill his carry-on with things like unique rose petals and Ambergris.

You may have heard of Ambergris in grade school. You snickered at the very thought of it. Who wouldn’t laugh nervously at the idea of whale vomit at truffle prices?

Ambergris, you see, forms the basis of Aquaflor’s most expensive perfume. It’s in that case to the right. It’s called Duende. If you happen to have €1,800 burning a hole in your pocket as a result of spending your entire vacation eating shared portions of pizza by the slice and drinking water from Italian fountains like the guidebooks recommend for cheapskate tourists, you can purchase a 100ml bottle of it.

(I’ve smelled it. You can too. Ask. It probably costs them €6 in evaporation every time they open the bottle.)

Besides smelling exotic things at Aquaflor, can also take classes on perfumery or have them make you up a scent tailored to who you are and how you smell normally.

Below is a picture of the Parlor of Essences taken from the courtyard. Those bottles are of every scent they have in stock, ready to be mixed into a custom scent.

View of Aquaflor Parlor of Essences from the courtyard

Remember this is not a chain. You want this stuff you come to the store. There is more than expensive perfumes in the store. You can buy soaps and Christmas scents, for example.

Map and Contact Information

(Thanks to Luisa Donati of Montestigliano for introducing me to Aquaflor.)

Looking for more tips for a trouble-free experience on your Italy Vacation? Download the mobile app for iPad or iPhone: Italy Travel Tips & Hints - Sutro Media | Android

Florence: Exotic Scents for Discerning Tourists originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Nov 09, 2014, © James Martin.

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Florence and the Selfie Generation

■ 28 October 2014 by James Martin

selfie helper pictureSelfie Helpers in Florence, Italy

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.

Florence and the Selfie Generation originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Oct 28, 2014, © James Martin.

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What Are All These Herbs Doing on My Trout?

■ 29 May 2014 by James Martin

trout picture

Getting to the Antica Trattoria dell’Eremita is not easy. From the town of Gallicano in the Garfagnana you follow a freakishly twisty, narrow little road uphill towards the Eremo di Calomini. It is the Italian custom to beep your little horn before you brave each blind hairpin, but here you might as well lean on the thing the whole darn way.

We eventually reached the parking lot at the Eremo and strolled over to Antica Trattoria dell’Eremita. It’s just down a little strada bianca, a white road of more or less one lane. Our friends parked below, and walked up the steep stairs.

We meet at the top. “Dori and I were thinking that this looks just lake someplace in Hawaii,” Robert said upon greeting us.

Yes, lush, green and fragrant in a drizzle, the place had that Shangri-La thing going on.

But let’s talk about that roasted trout up there, shall we? It didn’t seem very Italian, covered with all those herbs. You wouldn’t be surprised to see such a thing in Provence, but this is a tiny corner of unknown Tuscany, not Provence.

The more you learn about “Italian” food, the more things on a plate rise up and slap you in the face, demanding further research.

Monastic outposts relied on herbs for medicinal purposes. There was a reason the Eremo was placed where it was, including the abundance of water that gushed from the rocks all around. This water has, they say, curative powers as well.

So, on with research. More herbs:

Today I went to the Sagra della Minestrella di Gallicano. Minestrella is a soup of wild herbs and beans made only in Gallicano, a town of fewer than 4,000 people. Today it is the southernmost town in the Garfagnana. ~ Why the Garfagnana?

So there is a cultural reason for so many herbs, even though it seems to break the cucina povera tradition of simple preparations with few ingredients.

Antica Trattoria dell’Eremita is your chance to see what this whole thing is all about. You can eat the special bread of Gallicano called focaccia leva, a thick flat bread cooked between two iron plates to be eaten with cold cuts and the restaurant’s smoked trout (they raise their own trout here!). They also raise farro, which appears in the farro soup. You can taste or buy eggs from their free range chickens. You can buy packets of the dried herbs they collect from along the little white road. Then, when you’re totally stuffed, you can go visit the Eremo. When you do, note the chapel carved out of the hillside.

Then you hit the road. Don’t forget the horn. Blow for all it’s worth.

chapel carved from rock picture


What Are All These Herbs Doing on My Trout? originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com May 29, 2014, © James Martin.

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Where to Buy Crystal in Tuscany: Colle Val d'Elsa

■ 15 April 2014 by James Martin

luciano bandinelli picture

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.”

lead crystal pictureAnd 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.

colle val d'elsa pictureIf 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.

Where to Stay? In addition to the Relais above, we recommend the high city central location of the Palazzo San Lorenzo or, if you wish to enjoy a longer stay, the adjactent San Lorenzo Apartments

So here’s the gate that compels passing tourists to enter:

porta nova picture

Map of Colle Val d’Elsa and Location of La Grotta del Cristallo

Where to Buy Crystal in Tuscany: Colle Val d'Elsa originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Apr 15, 2014, © James Martin.

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The Big Cheese

■ 6 April 2014 by James Martin

cheese risotto picture

So, to begin: we’re a small group of “bloggers” on a little tour of the Val d’Elsa discussing blogging ethics in the restaurant of the Villa San Lucchese while waiting for our primi piatti.

There is a rumble. A big cheese on a little rolling table clatters across the ancient floor tiles, stopping at the head of table. A whole Grana Padana. It was like a new cheese except the top had appeared to be cut off of it and set back in place. Behind the big cheese stood a waiter, smiling broadly and probably sweating just a bit.

After a slight dramatic pause, he removed the top with a flourish. Steam poured out.

serving risotto pictureThat got our attention. The younger giornalisti jumped up with cameras. The clever among us remained cool, nailed to our chairs by a wine-fed lack of will as well as reflexes about as quick as a stick wallowing in mud.

Besides, the light in our little corner was bad. I figure this is because a bunch of people shooting pictures of food in elegant yet public surroundings must be made to pay their pound of flesh.

Thus the clatter of slow shutters filled the air along with the steam emitting from our risotto with zucchini and saffron.

Who needs cucina povera when you can be wowed by your food presentation?

Finally everyone sat down and we could taste it. Smooth, creamy, and dense, perfumed with saffron, a local ingredient. And there were those cheese scrapings the texture of which resembled the surface of a scoop of ice cream, er, gelato.

risotto picture
I rather liked it. Everyone should experience this kind of showmanship once or twice in a lifetime, an act that befits the romantic idea of staying in a real villa.

And the Hotel Villa San Lucchese is a very real villa, except it isn’t serviced by nameless wage slaves. The family behind this spectacular property makes you feel as if you were a guest in their home. Marco is the quintessential host, manning the front desk, holding the umbrella for folks heading to the breakfast room in the rain, telling us of the history of their restoration of the place. Check out: Hotel Villa San Lucchese in the beautiful Chianti landscape outside Poggibonsi.

Disclaimer: I was a guest of the Villa San Lucchese as part of a blog tour of Val d’Elsa attractions and activities outlined in My Tusany Experience, a new idea and website.

The Big Cheese originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Apr 06, 2014, © James Martin.

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The Flip Side of Food Porn

■ 13 October 2013 by James Martin

“Make my food look pretty,” she said, excitedly grasping her pigtails and flinging them behind her back, her freckled cheeks pinking slightly.

“Close your eyes.”

“Mmmm. Arty baby gonna make surprise of my chops?”

“No. I mean close your eyes and eat.”


New research out of BYU finds that looking at too many pictures of food can actually make it less enjoyable to eat.

Let’s face it: the web is clogged with food that does not look like food. Food porn they call it. Underage veal lies pretty in garter belts of truffled cracklings, while mamma bangs pots in the kitchen.

You see, lazy researchers are recycling the old, tired, and generally untrue porn research and inserting food where the pulsing sex organs used to be. “Porn desensitizes you.” You get big bucks for this sorta thing.

So let me cure you.

Welcome to your 1 step anti food porn program, a free feature of Wandering Italy

Now close your eyes for real. Open them when I say open.

Think of long simmered pork. On the bone. Salty, but then think of the essence of sweet chestnuts. Together, a marriage made in heaven. A balance, salty/sweet. Try to keep from swooning.

Now open. Look:

polenta di neccio ossi di maiale picture

Ok, before you retch, I didn’t say this was gonna be easy.

What you’re looking at, if your head isn’t face down in a toilet bowl, is Polenta di Neccio and Ossi di Maiale. You can say Polenta con ossi and the good folks of the Garfagnana section of Tuscany will understand. Polenta with bones.

What you have is a polenta made from chestnut flower, plopped unceremoniously beside a heaping helping of long-simmered pork bones. True cucina povera, except for the heaping helping part.

And it’s one of the great things in the world to eat devised by people who valued flavor and nutrition over pretty.

Let me tell you about the bones.

When my neighbor Armando slaughters his pig in December, he uses a great deal of it to make various cured meats like his prize winning salami. Then the butcher cuts the prime cuts for the family to eat right away. Then the bones and feet go in a big barrel with lots of salt and are stored under the house with the vino he’s made. When they want something for a winter meal, they just go under the house and get out a foot or two and some bones, wash off the salt, and boil them up until you can suck the meat off the bone.

Ok, the whole dish is very primal. Under the house dirty. Ugly.

A bit like the best sex, no?

But not to worry, the chestnut trees in Tuscany are dying. Chestnut blight. Endothia parasitica, first seen in 1938, is ravaging the countryside.

And pork is going industrial. The odd bits will go in your wieners.

So, don’t worry, there will be pretty food that won’t challenge your sensibilities. It will be around for a long time. You will be happy. I will be sad. That’s the way the world spins (if you let it).

The Flip Side of Food Porn originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Oct 13, 2013, © James Martin.

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Corsanico and the Monumental Organ of Vincenzo Colonna

■ 15 May 2013 by James Martin

corsanico organ loft picture

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.

uncovering vincenzo colonna organ pictureNow you may head out the door—unless a man comes and opens the door to the little building in the organ loft, as he is doing in the picture on the right. (You can click the picture to see it bigger.)

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:

vincenzo colonna organ picture

She’s a beaut, no?

playing vinvenzo colonna organ pictureThe 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.

Looking for more tips for a trouble-free experience on your Italy Vacation? Download the mobile app for iPad or iPhone: Italy Travel Tips & Hints - Sutro Media | Android

Corsanico and the Monumental Organ of Vincenzo Colonna originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com May 15, 2013, © James Martin.

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