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Italy’s Hidden Gems

Find out what's happening at L&B and stay up-to-date with the latest outings of our well-traveled Italy experts.

Amatrice and the Politics of the Big One

One of Italy's prettiest villages isn't there any more, according to the Mayor. People have come together to save what they could.

A recent earthquake has been a tragedy of monumental proportions for residents of Amatrice and smaller villages that surround it. An idylic corner of Lazio was reclaimed by the earth from which it sprouted. A city you are sorry you missed has been leveled.

Yet, even as the Travel Curmudgeon, I have seen amazing things grow from this tradgedy. Sudden, natural disasters bring people together in an amazing way. African immigrants volunteer to don hard hats and dig into the rubble. People and pets presumed dead rise from the ash and rockfall to live again.

But here's the thing, pessimist as I am, I still think the mayor of Amatrice is wrong. There is always something there. Foundations are there. Rocks can be re-stacked just like they were stacked to make the huddled-together lodgings in the first place. Whole towns can be rebuilt--and have been rebuilt in the past. There is no shortage of labor in the world. There is a shortage of desire and the inexcapable tyrany of I ricchi, the rich we worship and to whom we tithe. Balance has left the building.

Ever hear of a little burg called Munich? Bombed. 71 air raids over a period of five years. The historic buildings rebuilt. The recipe: desire, stones, plaster, artisan craftsmanship for the details. Now there is wealth, happiness, and beer.

One of the most amazing statements about this tragedy came from a facebook post by an American who posted a lamentation on the destruction of beautiful old cities like Amatrice. I often wonder--if we trully love these cities with compelling architecture and people-friendly public spaces in which citizens enjoy the warmth of congregation--why we don't demand from our "leaders" these same characteristics in our modern world? Because our "leaders" no longer feel it neccessary do the people's work? Because we just don't care enough? Because we're all too busy looking for a job?

Amatrice could be rebuilt better than it was. A big part of the tradgedy has recently been linked to Mafia seismic updates that were never performed. We the people demand cheap and get even cheaper. Stop it. Grab a rock. Stack it. It's a start.

There is a symbol of Amatrice that is really quite spectacular when you think of it.. It's called pasta all'Amatriciana. It's big in Rome, where they make it with bucatini. The sauce is traditionally simple: cured hog jowl (guanciale), tomatoes, some hot pepper to taste and a dusting of pecorino cheese. The thing is, you see it all the time outside of the region of Lazio. But people react differently to it than they do to other out-of-the-region concoctions. Say you see "Tagilatelli Bolognese" on a menu in Venice. If you are "in-the-know" you'll snigger at the notion and move on gingerly. Nothing Bolognese should be eaten outside of Bologna unless you're a tourist uninterested in local food and custom. But Amatriciana, in my experience, is universal. Its existance on a menu doesn't mean that the restaurant has caved to tourist "taste". After all, Americans would shy away from hog jowl anyway. (Here's a page that gives you more info and shows you how to make a deviant Amaticiana)

So if you see a restaurant willing to feed you this fantastic pasta dish and contribute a portion of the cost to earthquake relief in Amatrice, eat hearty. Have a couple bowls. Think of the little villages that surround Amatrice. Some of them were crammed with second homes of city dwellers who wanted their children to know the safety of living and playing in a small village in the countryside. Italians are known for having acquired second homes as the population ages and parents pass away; a stone house lasts a very long time if you keep the roof in good shape. Usually.

Ironic, isn't it?

Enter Renzo Piano

According to a recent story in the Guardian, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is consulting Architect Renzo Piano for help with the reconstruction, a "national recovery plan" that seems like a fantastic one.

It's brilliant. For details, let's head on over to the Transparent Language Blog where you can read in English or Italian. Here's a juicy bit:

“Non si deve allontanare la gente da dove ha vissuto. Amatrice, Pescara del Tronto, Arcuata, Accumoli, Grisciano: bisogna ricostruire tutto com’era e dov’era. Sradicare le persone dai loro luoghi è un atto crudele. Vuol dire aggiungere sofferenza alla sofferenza”.
“You mustn’t take people away from where they have lived. Amatrice, Pescara del Tronto, Arcuata, Accumoli, Grisciano: we need to rebuild everything as it was and where it was. Uprooting people from their homes is an act of cruelty. It would mean adding suffering to suffering”.

Yep; stack the rocks. Only better this time.

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Italy's Best Smaller Lakes

I like lakes. I also like fresh water. I live on the water in California. Small lakes are better than oceans or seas because the water is calmer. When the lake gets glassy and reflective there's no limits to the romantic notions the calm can spur.

That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

What's good about Italian lakes? Italian lakes can have medieval hamlets and castles built right up to the water. You can't say that about a lake in Iowa, can you?

While Italy's big lakes--Como, Garda, Maggiore--make fine destinations, there is a problem of scale. Like the Great Lakes, they overwhelm. Better to slide your kayak or canoe into Lago di Iseo and paddle gently.

Lago di Iseo? What?

If you hadn't heard of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's Floating Piers project, in which "100,000 square meters of shimmering yellow fabric, carried by a modular dock system of 220,000 high-density polyethylene cubes floating on the surface of the water" were installed at Iseo by the artists, you might be in the dark as to the location of this gem of a lake tucked between lakes Como and Garda. It happens to be my favorite of the Italian Lakes. It is, as the official site says, "The Romantic Choice".

The little lake contains Montisola, the largest lake island in all of Europe. You might see one or two of the island's three cars, owned by the priest, the doctor and the mayor.

Lago di Iseo is in the Franciacorta wine region. Romantic? Franciacorta sparkling wine is Italy's best sparkler, rivaling the most expensive of Champagne.

But that's not all. Drive north through the Oglio river valley into the Valcamonica and you'll come upon Italy's very first UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the largest collection of prehistoric petroglyphs in the world. Not only that, but you'll be in an area of alpine walks peppered with villages that seem to have escaped modern times.

Lake Trasimeno

Ok, Lake Trasimeno is not tiny. Trasimeno happens to be Italy's largest non-Alpine lake but is fairly shallow. In 217 BC Hannibal brought his elephants and fought the Romans on the north shore of the lake in the second Punic War. Hannibal won. It's in Umbria, but close to the western boundary of Tuscany, near the wine region of Montepulciano, so the wines from the western side of the lake are very good (try Madrevite and see the Etruscan tomb).

Stay in the town of Castiglione del Lago if you wish to stand at the castle and look out onto the shimmering, shallow waters of the lake as you see above. Take the little passageway between the Palazzo della Corgna (see the frescos first!) and the 13th century Castello Del Leone if you don't mind narrow spaces. Castiglione was once on a small island linked to the mainland by a Roman dam, but is now on a penninsula that juts into the lake.

Lake Massaciuccoli

massaciuccoli oasiOk, it's a pretty sure bet that you can't even pronouce this one unless you're fluent in the Italian Language. But any way you say it, the lake is famous. Yes, none other than composer Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini considered the lake a "paradise" and had a villa right on its shores, which you can visit today. You can also attend the Puccini festival in the outdoor theater on the lake, called the "Gran Teatro All'Aperto Giacomo Puccini."

Oh, but that's not all! You can head to the other side of the lake in a boat (or something) and come upon the Oasi LIPU Massaciuccoli. It's a bird watching sanctuary. You walk in the marshes on raised walkways to experience nature close up. If you're there early enough in the morning while the birds are feasting, there are blinds set up for you to watch or photograph from.

But even that's not all! There is a Roman villa complete with baths overlooking the lake just uphill from the marshes. Below the ruins of the villa are new excavations of Roman Massaciuccoli--and a small museum.

Find out more about Lake Massaciuccoli.

Talk to Me

So these are a trio of my favorite lakes. Tell me yours in the comments if you are so inclined.

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Massimo Bottura: The Skinny Chef You Might Trust as President

Certainly you have heard of Chef Massimo Bottura and his restaurant Osteria Francescana in Modena. Mr. Bottura has been climbing the charts of restaurant fame. He is climbing no longer. He has made it to the top. His is the current best restaurant out of the World's 50 Best Restaurants.

So what is chef Bottura doing right now, as I sling words from a poor comunity devistated by fire? Perhaps you think the chef would be hobnobbing with the rich and famous--but no, he is in Rio. While it's true that cooking has become a sport, the chef is having none of it. He is dishing up Olympic leftovers for the poor. 5000 people will be fed great food that was on the way to the garbage pail. Not-so-perfect fruit and vegetables, the modern biblical loaves and fishes, multiply the food available to the masses if you let it. Cooking and serving it will train cooks, bakers, and servers. How many economic wins can you get in a paragraph?

Massimo Bottura became my hero one night as I was streaming a program called Chef's Table. It was all about the chef and his restaurant. All standard stuff, until the torta.

Here's the scene, reenacted. The last two pieces of lemon tart have been ordered at the end of a long night. The pastry chef removes a piece from the pan and places it on the plate. As he is removing the next piece, it falls on the edge of the plate, the crust cracking like an egg shell on hot concrete. The pastry chef is devistated. Chef Bottura looks on, thoughtfully.

You can feel the tension. The camera zooms into the tart. The forlorn, cracked torta.

"Let's think about this a minute," says chef Bottura.

He is not angry. He does not raise his voice. He doesn't not threaten eternal damnation on the pastry wonk or the poor guy who designed to spatula. He leads angelically.

"What if we..."

And he's off, arranging the torta as if, cracked, it might reveal its story. He grabs a squeeze bottle of lemon zabaione, lush yellow. He swirls, twirls, smashes and adds color via bits of candied ginger and wild apple mostarda until the narrative thinkens. You can't tell if the torta is fresh out of the primordial ooze on its way to becoming whole, reborn as it were--or if it is descending into the underworld where it will become part of an adventure we all crave.

You see, we are fools. We lust for the static state of pristine beauty when it is the concept of not-so-perfect that inspires the artist, begins the fine narrative, and feeds those not deemed suitable for wealth. Marilyn is not Marilyn without that little birthmark.

For Bottura, "breaking" is a beginning and not an end, as "breaking bread" is the begining of a meal and yet it signifies more than just a meal, doesn't it?

In any case, the saga of the lemon tart everyone desires all began with finding a solution to a problem. Don't you wish there was a politician as savvy as Bottura? I certainly do. There are no shortage of problems on this earth.

You can order this lemon tart at Osteria Francescana if you went tomorrow because it's still on the menu. Just ask for "oops! I've dropped the lemon tart!"

You can't beat that for honesty. Don't you wish politicians.....

Oh, never mind. You catch the drift. Here's the recipe and a picture. It might be easier to go to Modena to have it though. That's what I'd do.

Osteria Francescana
Via Stella 22
Phone: +39 059 223912

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Who Cares if the Italian Truffle Tour You've Chosen is a Little Bit Faked? Take One Anyway.

First, let's get the bona fides out of the way. I am a veteran of countless truffle wars. I have seen lowly mutts paw the tender soils under trees with the exagerated vigor of army privates fearing the brig, a young man with a carved stick giving orders and encouraging them. When the dogs yap, and they will, the truffle man responds, raising an eyebrow before wrenching the troops back from the trenches with fearless arms, guaranteed him by his constitution. He bends, he plucks, he beams; an ugly, warted, dusty mass rolling between his fingers like a beguiling cats-eye weilded by a nemesis tempting you to risk everything in your marble bag.

The audience that has funded this exhibition is generally wowed by the action and applauds lightly so as not to startle the gods of good favor. The dogs release their pent-up anxiety by bounding thorugh the soft grass, yapping for some heavy petting. The young man will give the truffle to the cutest young woman so that pictures can be taken. All is well in the truffle world.

If you were paying attention you might notice that I have used the word "exhibition" in the previous sentence. The man with the big stick is likely to have planted the truffle you have observed close up. He is quite clever. He cannot reveal his most productive soils or he would be out of work. The other truffle hunters watch him like hawks. He watches back. Oh, the fun, the intrique, the need to deceive...

Let's get down to it: he is likely to have planted that truffle to teach a brash, young dog the ropes of finding it.

Now you feel I am saving you from being ripped off, don't you? After all, we vacationing humans value "real". We come to the silly boot to have experiences that aren't fake. (We also value gritty, although quite a bit less than we value "real" if it involves walking in hot sun with ticks.)

So now you know. But let me surprise you: go anyway. I mean, you get some fresh air, some excercise, a bit of sun-- you get to pet the dogs, remember. People like that.

And you get to eat truffles. Yes, near the end of the tour you generally end up at a place where you will consume this rare tuber over something steaming hot and fairly neutral in taste.

In fact you might be surprised when the waiter comes up behind you, leans over your plate and begins shredding the carefully re-cleaned truffle "we've found" over your steaming ravioli. Soon everything will be smelling like sex. Good sex. Dirty sex. The hot sex of your dreams.

Or maybe not:

Researchers in West Germany have found that truffles contain large quantities of a substance also synthesized in the testes of boars. In the boars it is secreted into their saliva when they court females. The Germans report that the substance's musklike scent, "emanating from the saliva foam, is smelled by the sow and prompts her standing reflex."

The chemical is twice as abundant in truffles as in the blood plasma of boars. Furthermore, it and related steroids are produced in the testes of human males and secreted by their armpit sweat glands. It can also be detected in the urine of women. ~ TRUFFLES: WHY PIGS CAN SNIFF THEM OUT

I do not always wax poetic over boar testes or saliva foam, even if they sound like the exotic ingredients in the amuse buche they might serve in that restuarant none of us can afford. But still, the point of the whole excercise is to let these oders waft over your vacationing body. The sub plot is that your neighbors back in Cabbot Cove aren't having the dish you're having and you're bound to become absolutely giddy over the one-upmanship thing. I mean you've had a glorious experience that started with a little amusement, a little uglyness wrenched by obedient dogs from the forest soil that will become the focus of an expensive gourmet lunch, which you've taken with a bit of wine in the company of other folks quivering in anticipation of sexy tuber delights.

Thus I cut to the chase. Go. Just go. Don't be put off by the exhibition, the saliva foam, or the dirt on your shoes. You will discover the Italian countryside. You will eat like you've never eaten before. You'll have done something so weird it's wonderful. You have a story. Go with it.

Here's a start: Seven Delicious Days of Truffles and Wine in Piedmont




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Fabriano: It's All About That Paper

Can you name a business that's been able to sustain itself since the year 1264 without changing directions, without corporate buyouts, without bankruptcy? I can. Even better yet, it's a business we've written off after making hapless stabs at going "paperless". Yes, I'm talking Cariere Milani Fabriano, the oldest continuously operated paper mill in Europe. It's still going...and you can visit.

The declaration on Fabriano's About page may tickle your intellectual fancy. Once upon a time, in lands far away...:

The invention of paper is traditionally attributed to the Chinese, but it was actually the Arabs who, after having learned the rudiments of manufacture and made a few improvements, spread the new product throughout the west. It was a long, arduous process that was completed in the second half of the 13th century in Fabriano, a little town of the Marche inland. The reason for this location, which made Fabriano the most important paper production centre of Europe, is very probably linked to the vicinity of Ancona, a port that was particularly open to trade with the Arab world.

So Fabriano eventually got a chance to improve upon the Chinese/Arab process--and they didn't stumble:

Cartiere Miliani Fabriano claims to have innovated three techniques which are still a part of papermaking today: the identification of papers using watermarks, the hydraulic hammer pile for pulverizing the rags, and gelatin sizing to strengthen paper and render it more receptive to ink and paint. ~ Fabriano

What does this have to do with tourism? Well, you can visit the Paper and Watermark Museum of Fabriano and see how how paper and watermarks have evolved over the years into high-tech security mechanisms embedded in paper checks and banknotes. It's all quite fascinating--and the town itself is a rather interesting bit of medieval architecture and town planning. You can spend a whole day discovering the religious version of history in the many churches. There's an old pharmacy where you'll be welcomed by a carved wooden statue of a bare-breasted warrior woman carrying a big stick. There is one of those little baroque theaters, cute as a pin. If you were looking for an off the beaten track destination in which to stay for a week and explore, this might be the place.

But let's start with the watermark. When watermarked paper is in front of you, resting on a table for example, it appears as a rectangle of pure, unadulterated whiteness. But then, hold it up to the light.

How do they perform this trick? First you take a bit of wire and shape it into filigree designs, then attach it to the mesh of the paper molds:

Then you dip your mold into the vat of vegetable fibers, the "liquid paper" you will press and dry

Here it is wet:

And thus, after pressing and drying your sheet, you have made an artisinal paper with a wire watermark, the wire making the paper almost imperceptably thinner where it pressed into the wet pulp.

There isn't a consensus on what the earliest watermarks were for. They could have been to identify particular paper, or the manufacturer, or, in the service of kings, to convey a secret message or, more likely, to prove the provenience of the message. Watermarks eventually became used to mark different types of paper--or different batches. Remember that the 13th century was a time of Religious pilgrimage, and Romanesque churches of the times were full of carved symbols because few of the faithful could read. In that context, a symbol rather than a written message would be much more useful to the common worker shuffling paper around the known world.

mussolini watermark

In any case, if you were to make a more three-dimensional mesh and attach it to the paper mold, you could get some delicate shading in the image. By the 18th century, Fabriano was noted for a sort of watermark art with amazing image quality, like the one you see to the right of Italy's most popular politician.

Fabriano Paper Mills makes a variety of art papers, including some with artichoke fibers (an experiment--yes, you can smell the paper). They also print currency, banknotes. They sponsor events and workshops.

Visit. See how far the simple watermark has come. See how a 750 year old company can thrive.

[To read more about how these simple watermarks evolved into security devices to make banknotes and checks difficult to counterfeit, see Watermarks.

To see a map of Le Marche showing the location of Fabriano, see: Le Marche Map and Guide.]

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Horses and a Cart: Recipes for a Good Year in Italy

While we usually recommend the off season for travel to Italy, there are some great reasons to go in Summer--and it's not just the weather. July happens to be the month my favorite two festivals in Italy are celebrated.

L'Ardia di San Costantino

L'Ardia di San Costantino (in Sardo "Sa'Ardia) is held at the Sanctuary of Contantine just outside the little town of Sedilo in the province of Oristano. The dangerous horse race recalls Constantine's victory over Maxentious at the Mulvian Bridge in 312, during which Constantine is reported to have seen a flaming cross inscribed with the words "in this sign thou shall conquer".

Each year a person who has received some special dispensation from God is chosen by the local priest to play Constantine. He chooses his generals and arms them with flags; they are allowed to do just about anything with the flags they can think of, including bashing persuing riders so they can't pass Constantine in the race.

Constantine is a saint in Sardinia, but not in Italy.

Sardinians are top horsemen; many of the best are chosen to run in the much better known Palio di Siena. Many of them show up to see if they can outrace Constantine's stand-on.

They start on top of the hill and race downhill on a dirt and gravel path, with a great deal of luck passing through the narrow entrance gate shown below.

The race continues to the Sanctuary of Constantine, where the horses are blessed by the priest. Men shooting rifles keep the horses and the surging crowd separated. The pack circles the church seven times, then gallop off in a cloud of dust toward the fountain.

If "Constantine" wins by reaching the fountain first, it means a good year will be had by the residents of Sedilo.

But we're not done yet. After the July 6th evening race there will be food and drink. At some point the crowd will disperse. The riders will stay. And drink. The next morning, early, the race will be run again on a track strewn with beer cans and oily eel cones, this time for the locals.

L'Ardia di San Costantino
Festival: July 5-7
Race: Evening of July 6, repeated the morning of July 7

Festa della Madonna Bruna

On the second of July in Matera in Basilicata, "la la Città Sotterranea" or the underground city celebrates the Brown Madonna, protector of the city, in a rather spectacular way, as they have been doing for over 600 years. The 2016 festival will be the 627th.

There are several stories on how all this came about, but here's the official one:

"has its origins in a legend which tells of a beautiful, impoverished woman who asked a peasant, travelling by horse cart, for a lift into town. The peasant agreed, and at the entrance to the village the woman revealed herself to be the Madonna (Holy Virgin) and asked the peasant to deliver a message to the bishop of the city. The bishop, accompanied by a band of believers, then set out to greet the Madonna. Once they reached the place where she had been, they found only a statue on a Triumphal Carriage. The bishop ordered that the carriage should be taken to the cathedral, but the soldiers of the city, in the meantime, had been told to sequester it. The citizens then decided to destroy it in order for each of them to remain in possession of a part of it. The celebration of this legend begins at dawn with a procession of shepherds. After the procession of the Triumphal Carriage, escorted by knights, the festival culminates when the people destroys the Carriage itself at night. The destruction of the Carriage represents the citizens' hope for a prosperous harvest. Anyone who is able to take a piece of the Carriage away with him is considered to be lucky in the coming year." ~ July 2: The festival

The festival also tells of destruction and renewal, and the triumph of the young over the established order.

Like many "brown" or "black" Madonnas, the Madonna Bruna image in the Cathedral with brown until the restorers showed up and found that the brown color was entirely due to the build-up of candle smoke.

In any case, July 2nd starts with the procession of the shepherds, but the part most folks come to see is the cart, the "triumphal Chariot" that has taken an entire year to design and build. It will circle the Cathedral square three times. You will wonder what is going on. Then, surrounded by the local constabulary, young bucks burst out of the crowd to fight their way to the Chariot, where they rip it to shreds. Don't worry, it will be redesigned and rebuilt next year. Rebirth.

It is part of a continuous story, like sand paintings and flower carpets of the Italian Infiorate, the beauty is meant to be destroyed so that you don't cling to worldly things.

Unprepared, you will shake your head and make your way to your hotel, baffled by the scene of the beautiful cart being trashed. If a television is on in your hotel lobby, it might be tuned to the festival.

Don't make the effort to sleep, however. The late night pyrotecnics will likely make it impossible.

Festa della Madonna Bruna, Matera
July 2


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Should You Go to Italian Language School?

If you're excited to place yourself inside a very different culture for a while (and you consider this a prime part of "vacationing") you'll want to learn a few words of Italian before you embark on your Italian adventure.

"So, Mr. Smartypants, what benefits will derive from this imposition on my life of leisure?" I hear you mumble.

Ok, lots of people consider learning the equivalent of hard labor, like turning big rocks into gravel with a little hammer. I hope you're not one of these. It's easy, really.

Learning to say, "Buon Giorno" when you enter a shop before lunch will make you seem like a very cultured American to the shopkeeper. You see, in America we're used to dealing with minimum wage workers who don't have a stake in the store's reputation or its merchandise. You could say, "get outta my face, you dingbat" to one and you'd still get a good deal on 12 dozen rolls of toilet paper.

Many of the stores in Italy are privately owned. The store is like an extension of the owner's house. The storekeeper or the offspring of the storekeeper is the one who greets you. They can like you and offer you extensive help--and even a discount--because there's no fat cat in Rome who runs 1300 stores who is proud to take the "no discounts!" stand with his underlings.

Or you can ignore the Italian shopkeeper and snake your way through the shop.

Your choice. But it only takes a few words. Buon Giorno in the morning. Buona Sera after lunch. They're reusable words. You can use them with waiters and ticket takers, too.

Learn some polite words and the world opens up to you.

I also learn some food words. Yes, you can choose restaurants in Italy that offer pictures of food so you can choose without a smidgen of language skill. But the fact that you, the tourist, are being targeted should be clue enough that you're in a place made for people who don't know or care about the quality of food.

A basic one-semester course will get you started. It will teach you the pronunciation rules. the basic verbs, and the polite words at least. You can expand this on your own when you get to Italy. For example, you can go to an open air market and look at how the food is tagged. If you want lamb you can learn all the words for the cuts of it just by gawking. Then you can use those words in a restaurant that doesn't have pictures of the food.

Incorporating Your Language Learning into Your Vacation

But here's a thought. Why not do what we did, and take a language class in Italy? Why not immerse yourself into several cultures at once?

We studied at the University per Stranieri in Perugia. No, it's not the University for Strange people, but the University for Foreigners. Classes were held in a historic palazzo just outside the Etruscan walls. A few blocks away was a restaurant serving very traditional food from the past. The owner would come around with a big loaf of bread just out of the oven and implore his customers to smell it. Then he'd break you off a piece. In just a few weeks we found ourselves deep inside the living museum that is Italy. You can't beat that.

Folks came from all over to take classes. One guy cam all the way from China on the train. So our common language had to be Italian. So we spoke it all the time. And we learned from it even when we weren't in class.

We signed up well in advance of our class, and they found us a great apartment in Perugia. For one month we lived like Italians. We had classmates over for dinner parties. We made use of the enormous stack of comic books other students had left in the apartment. Comic books are great when you're starting to learn a language.

If learning makes you happy, then a learning vacation like this might make you absolutely giddy with joy.

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2000 Year old Italian Venues for Opera, Theater and Music

Have you seen a performance in a Roman Theater? Yes, there are many Roman theaters in Europe and Africa, and many are being put back into service. What better thing to do with them but to stuff them with people and charge them for seeing a performance?

Many moons ago Bill, Martha and I took a break from our archaeological survey of Sardinian Nuraghi to relax in a bed and breakfast in the town of Pula. Pula is the modern city; the nearby ancient city of Nora sits pretty at the foot of the promontory of the Cape of Pula, where you couldn't screw up a landing no matter how ancient or battered your boat. Nora lies on the coast south of Cagliari. It's the ideal place to spend a few days. You have a white sand beach, shallow for the kids, an ancient city founded by the Phoenicians between the 9th and 89th centuries BC, the medieval Church of Sant'Efisio, and a modern town to explore, all in a small area surrounded by clean, sparkling blue waters.

And, we found out, you could see a play in the ancient Roman Theater on the waterfront. Our Italian was shaky, sure, but the play? Our Town by Thornton Wilder. Surely we would have an inkling of what was going on.

So we decided to go early for tickets, crowding around the forlorn little window like beggars awaiting a cup of gruel. We edged forward as one on the theory that three (dunder) heads were better than one to decifer what the ticket guy would tell us in the Italian language. Tickets were offered. Money changed hands. So far so good. Then, with much urging, Bill asked the man if people might bring a bottle of wine and sip it while enjoying the sunset and the sea and the old-fashioned Americans speaking Italian on the stage. He said something like, "Oh, sure, everyone does it!"

Heartened by the joy that comes when you discover a local custom you might not only be able to practice but to excell in, we rushed out to a little store we saw on our drive in, returning with a bottle of hearty Sardinian red and bag stuffed with a few nibbles. We clambered over the crumbling stairs and found some "seats." Peering around at the babbling crowd, we can report with some certainty that nobody else brings a drop of wine to these things. They didn't seem to mind, however, so off came the cork. What they did bring was seat cushions. I have never admitted this when I had a glass of wine in my hand and other people were likely to go without, but they were the smart ones.

The theater was said to have three vomitoriums. In my head I looked around. What if the wine was bad? Best to have a place to practice another ancient Roman custom out of the view of the general public. Just in case.

Of course, this isn't the function of a vomitorium at all, despite what your fifth grade teacher (Mr. Schmidt, I am referring to you!) might have told you about those hearty eat-and-purge Romans. Let's get the terminology right; a vomitorium is a passage situated below or behind a tier of seats in an amphitheatre or a stadium, through which big crowds can exit rapidly. That's right, it's a big tunnel that spews people out. It is an action, not a place.

So now you know. You are prepared to go to a Roman theater and see Opera, jazz, or Our Town. And you should. The sea breezes, the wine, the torrent of words or musical notes, the nagging ache in your backside...

Suggested Roman Performance Venues in Italy

Baths of Caracalla: Opera Theater of Rome. Rome's Teatro dell'Opera holds summer performances at the Baths of Caracalla, built between AD 212 and 217. Opera and other concerts are staged among the the central part of the bath complex ruins. Teatro dell'Opera di Roma has tickets; look for "Caracalla" for to find the concerts held in the baths.

Teatro di Marcello. Also in Rome, the theater started by Julius Caesar and finished by Augustus in 17 BC hosts summer classical music concerts.

Arena di Verona. A fabulous historic setting for opera is the Roman Arena of Verona, a theatrical venue well set up for a cultural evening. Bars and restaurants are just outside. See what's playing.

Taormina Greco-Roman amphitheater, Sicily. The Taormina Film Fest is held here; it's Italy's oldest.

Roman Theater, Fiesole. A short distance from Florence, the Roman Theater at Fiesole is home to Estate Fiesolana, Fiesole's Summer. The theater was the first ancient theater in Italy to present classical tragedy in April of 1911 with a performance of Oedipus Rex.

Spoleto, Teatro Romano. This Roman Theater built in the 1st century AD is used for concerts and dance performances during the annual Spoleto Festival.

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Sand and Sardinia

If you like beaches, it follows that you might like sand. If you like sand, where would I send you if you told me you wanted a beach vacation?


Why? People have gotten in the habit of stealing sand from Sardinian beaches. A non-beach enthusiast like me might take that as a sign that the beach people are so enamored with the sand on Sardinian beaches that they frequently run off with it, and thus I can't go wrong sending you to a choice Sardinian beach. So, later on in this article, I will.

If you haven't learned of Sardinia's sand thieves, perhaps you have failed to read the following loopy sentence from the lead in a recent article:

It became unwittingly notorious for Silvio Berlusconi's 'bunga bunga' sex parties, but the holiday island of Sardinia is now having to endure a fresh indignity - tourists are stealing silky white sand from its beaches as a souvenir. ~ Sand and deliver - Sardinians indignant over tourists stealing sand from beaches as souvenirs

How much sand?

Around five tonnes of sand was intercepted last summer at Cagliari airport alone and a similar quantity has been confiscated so far this year.

Five tons! That's just what they found. And it's not like summer is over right now.

Sand isn't the lightest substance you can lug around you know. Yet people fill liter and a half water bottles full of it and put it in their luggage! Yes, while non-beach people are busy before their vacation taking a file to their metal belt buckles to lighten them up a few grams, beach people are sneering at their "pack light" bretheren while planning on lugging all this wave-worn quartz around.

Why shouldn't I take the beach sand? It's worthless, right?

Given the apparent demand, I'm not sure you can say that the weathered pebbles are worthless. I will, however, issue a general warning in the form of a sad story.

One day some archaeologists were to visit our dig house in Sardinia. The professors arrived a bit long-faced. This was odd, because they were on this spectacular island and their students were in awe of their talents. What could go wrong?

It turns out the students were all in jail. Every day they were strip searched. Then they were mercifully let go, deported to America.

What had they done? They had visited a cave and thought their professors might like to examine the spectacular stalagmites rising from the floor. So they discretely broke a few off a few samples. An eagle-eyed resident spotted them and reported the theft of this accumulation of material deposited on the floor from ceiling drippings. End of story. They won't be back. In another 100,000 years the stalagmites might grow back. Time will tell.

Where Should I go for Good Italian Sand not to Take Home?

Is Arutas beach. The sand at this Sinis Peninsula beach  is made up of small and round grains of quartz, ranging in color from pink to light green, as you can see in the picture below. Given the right conditions, this sand sparkles in the light. Unfortunately we were there in early spring, so the light wasn't exactly strong and the beach had just a few people milling about, none of whom were about to take off their clothes. Head for one of the small bays for some glaringly white rice-grain sand.

Better yet, head for Trattoria Da Artilio to be restored. Let yourself be surrounded by happy folks anticipating a fine Sunday lunch. Get the antipasti misti di mare and watch as plate after plastic plate of the freshest seafood you'll ever let slide down your gullet arrives at your table. It should run you around 13 euro. Then have a fish (13 euro) or a pasta (11-13 euro). Don't forget some house white wine (or the island's beer: Ichnusa) and you're good to go.

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Getting High Over Tuscany

The rural landscape of Tuscany has captivated travelers for centuries. The Tuscan Apennines press through fertile soil and the human overlay, fields and vineyards and hill top villages, follow the eye-pleasing flow from the higher elevations.

This landscape is pleasant enough to see from the windows of your rental car as it weaves its way between villages and vineyards slowly. The pieces of the puzzle are compelling to run your eyes over, but how does the whole thing come together?

For that you have to get high. Not too high. A helicopter will take you up to the right alititude, the pilot will coax it to lean over so you can take a photo. It's a fine way to see a big chunk of this landscape quickly from above. Of course, while you're enjoying those views of Chianti Vineyards you will have a hankering for some wine tasting and a bit of lunch. Yes, we have a tour for you: Luxury In the Tuscan Sky: Helicopter, Wine tasting and lunch.

See the Tuscan Hill Country like never before, with a private helicopter tour with some of the best views of the soaring towers of San Gimignano, shining like a star in the surrounding landscape of Chianti. Enjoy the view of beautiful hills, covered with vineyards, olive groves, and admire a postcard landscape only found in Italy.

Imagine looking down on the Manhattan of Tuscany, San Gimigniano and its towers.

If you're convinced that Tuscany has been "done" to death, then you might want to take you flight over a no less compelling destination in the South, the Royal Palace of Casterta near Naples. It was constructed for the Bourbon kings of Naples and was one of the largest palaces in Europe druing the 18th century. Out back there are some monumental fountains you need to see.

Slow Travel in the Wicker Basket of a Balloon

If helicopter travel is too "modern" for you--fast, noisy, mechanical and so forth--you might just want to consider honkering down in the wicker basket of a hot air balloon for your tour of the Chianti hills. Even in modern times baloon flight is an adventure. Despite the radio and other modern appurtenances, for example, your flight path is determined by the winds, pure and simple. You as well as your pilot have no idea of the landing spot until it's time to float back to earth. A dedicated crew must keep radio and visual contact as the balloon floats to earth, the pilot searching for a safe landing at the exact place the crew will arrive with the prosecco.

What's a ballooning experience like? Well, you get to the launch site on time--the balloon can't be held forever when it's inflated. Once the balloon has some air in it you clamber into the basket. Once everyone is situated, the pilot tell you what is going to happen and by the time the balloon lurches, announcing its willingness to be airborne, the crew lets it go and your off. You glide silently across the Tuscan landscape, save for the hiss of air as the fire pumps heat into the balloon at the pilot's request for altitude.

As you gaze in wonderment at the rivers and hills, tthe morning's dire warnings (eat just a tiny breakfast, drink little!) are quickly forgotten and you wish you'd have eaten more. The ride we took was smoother than we could have imagined. The vista is beautiful. Well, mostly.

You see, from above you can gase down on things earthbound folks miss. Fenced garbage receptacles, tin-roofed storage sheds, dismantled tractors rusting in the verdant outback; it's Tuscany laid bare, and it's gotta be one of the most interesting things you can do with your clothes on.

Our trip was provided by Tuscany Ballooning. Fine people. Your flight starts near San Gimignano. Nobody on our flight felt the slightest bit of discomfort. Everyone participated in the Prosecco breakfast after landing.

Have fun doing unique things. Nurture the envy of your neighbors. Life is fun that way.

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Wine Tourism in Italy

Wine tourism. If you're not fond of quaffing the squeezings of the grape, you probably don't get why people would take time out of their busy museum schedule to visit small-scale factories devoted to making wine out of a God-given raw material, the grape. I'm going to help you out here.

Wine has a history. Wine likely helped the Romans conquer their known world. They made the effort to transport the stuff everywhere they went--meaning they didn't have to drink the retched water of their hygienically-challenged enemies. An army travels on its stomach you know.

Besides a long history, as Pope Francis recently pointed out, wine makes the feast, and thoughts of a feast are what many tourists travel for.

"Wine is necessary for the feast," Pope Francis said, and pointed to how Jesus, in turning the water into wine, makes “an eloquent sign,” because “he transforms the Law of Moses into the Gospel, bringer of joy."

Yes, let's not forget, where there's good wine there's also good food. Feasting spreads joy. We like joy. Not so many people mow down strangers with the noisy regurgitation of an AK-47 when they are feeling joy.

You can eat very, very well in Piemonte and in the Chianti Classico, Italy's top wine producing areas. The latest "hot" wine on the scene is Bogheri, the land of the "Super Tuscans". The medieval village of Bolgheri is today almost entirely crammed with fine food restaurants.

Wine is also political. In 1963 the Italian Parliament adopted the Denominazione di Origine Controllata law, followed in 1980 by the Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita law, establishing rules and regulations for fine wines in Italy. You might not get these wines in your state because, well, maybe your politicians are idiots and don't want you to have any. It happens.

Wine is much different than Coca-Cola. The Coca Cola company spends untold millions on making the beverage you drink in Managua, Nicaragua taste exactly the same as the one you consumed in Cleveland. The Barbera wine made from grapes planted in California is going to taste different than the the Barbera of Piemonte. Terroir is the word winemakers use to denote how a particular region's climate, soils and aspect affect the taste of wine. It's what makes wine interesting.

Want to be brought back to the Chianti region? Just sniff some. Scents are evocative to humans because they pass through one fewer synapse than our other senses.

Relativity is evident in wine. Tourists want to know "what is the best" so they can go right to it and never suffer a second-rate experience. I am a cultural relativist. There is no "best" to me. For example, if you have had a hard summer's day traipsing through Athens and you clean up and head to a taverna in the cool of the evening and have something small to nibble on with a cold glass of retsina you'll feel restored in a way you wouldn't if you chose a $50 glass of some fancy Super Tuscan. On the other hand you you won't be tempted to tweet to the world that you've "just tasted retsina and it's gotta be the world's best wine" either. Want to remember your adventure in Greece? At the end of a random hot day set out some nibbles and a glass of Retsina (if you can find the rare elixir). That's all it takes.

And finally, you can drink history! Some of the best wines that Romans consumed came from around Pompeii. Recently the same grapes were planted near the ruins and you can drink a modern version of the ancient wine called Villa dei Misteri. (Interesting note, the ancient wine would have fermented in open-topped terracotta pots, called dolia. In the Alentejo region of Portugal, you can find Roman style wines called "Vinho de Talha" which are fermented in open-topped terracotta pots. There's even a competition to see who can make the best.

Folks are also making ancient wines in a vineyard in Mascali, near Catania in Sicily, using technical know-how gleaned from the writings of the poet Virgil, according to Nick Squires in Do as the Romans do: ancient winemaking techniques revived.

Enjoy your wine. We have tours to get you acquainted with grape squeezings from around Italy. Here are some celebrations:


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How to Drive a Donkey on Your Vacation

The world is collapsing. Have you noticed? The common man and woman commands nothing but the buttons on the TV remote. Perhaps we are on our way toward a new set of dark ages. Or we are already there.

Do you feel the despair? Do you feel monastic walls closing in on you?

Then come to Italy and learn skills to get you through it.

When the roads collapse into sink holes it is a sign. When automobiles finally become useless burdens in a broken world, then what you need is a beast of burden, no? A beast to fall back on. A beast who doesn't mind a balanced load. A hairy animal with big ears to love.

Come to rural Italy. Learn to "drive" a donkey. It will prepare you for the upcoming apocalypse.

You may think I'm kidding, but your humble scribe has learned the basic psychological nuances of the noble animal called "asino" in Italian and "donkey" in proper English. I possess a donkey driver's licence, suitable for framing and, most importantly in this context, I had a fantastic time acquiring it.

The picture shows Giovanni Alessangdrini. He is a part of the brave, new world. He as disconnected from industrial "food" and the idea of working ever harder for ever fewer rewards. He now raises donkeys. He raises them so that you can experience them. You can take the ropes and let the donkey lead you around. You can occasionally request the beast to stop eating and move in a direction you want him to move. The donkey tells you his desires to move or not to move by the position of his ears. Yes, if you take Giovanni's donkeys for a spin, you will learn their ear-language.

The hee-haw thing is just a ruse. A song of songs.

If you make the trek to visit Giovanni, you will run into his bloodhound. You will also see the pit in which he ages his cheese. You will eat his aged cheese and drink his wine. His new life, and your temporary one, is kilometer zero all the way.

Perhaps you will come to think, "this dark ages isn't so bad after all."

Giovanni's donkey empire, called Il Pagliaio, is found in Romagna, the eastern half of the Italian region of Emilia Romagna. You reach it by a scenic drive. You will feel your big-city worries drain as you wrestle your rental car around the erotic curves of the territory. Then, purged of modern delusions, you are ready for the donkeys.

Go for it.

Il Pagliaio
Loc. Monte Finocchio
Strada Provinciale 128 Sarsina-Ranchio
47025 Mercato Saraceno (FC) – ITALY

Coordinate GPS: 12°07’59”E 43°56’51”N

Tel.: +39 335 5315580 (English spoken!)

Wait, There's a Tuscan Donkey Option, Too

If you were to head north from Renaissance Tuscany, you would come to a rural territory called La Lunigiana. It's where I spend nearly half a year. If you want to eat very, very well in a very small village and learn about donkeys, then the Agriturismo Luna di Quarazzana is just what the doctor ordered. It looks like this in springtime:

In case you're wondering, those jagged mountains you see, the Apuan Alps, mark the start of the marble mountains of Massa and Carrara.

Ilaria is your host. She speaks English perfectly. Her agriturismo is a historic building in a small village which seems deserted when you first trundle down the raggedy road to explore it. Then you notice the barn with a cow. Then dogs bark. Then you realize the town is not deserted at all.

Here the donkey trail isn't down paved roads as was the Il Pagliaio itinerary. It takes you over hill and dale. Once you have guided your donkey over the course, you will be hungry.

Lucky you. Ilaria will make you a fantastic dinner using the organically produced products from the farm and her grandmother's recipes. Then you can sign your Donkey license.

Your kids will love it. Really.

La Luna di Quarazzana
Tel: +39 - 331 - 3111202
Contact page

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Can Snobs Save Italy?

Have you ever had a limoncello? If you are a lover of all things Italian and you come to the boot often and haven't had a limoncello, then you haven't made the effort to eat to excess and be nice to your waiter afterwords. If you had, they would have made you feel like you were at the top of the world; with a flourish (after you have paid the bill) your waiter might ask if you desire un limoncello.

"A limoncello? A sweet, zippy, boozy drink that nobody hates? Free?! Good gosh, I am in heaven." your brain babels to you, seeking the dimness the alcohol promises.

"Yum," your Facebook persona repeats vacuously.

What a way to end a meal. We aren't in Kansas anymore!

But let me tell you, there is trouble in paradise. Limoncello is easily produced. Even corporations can do it. While once, years ago, you salivated for this Amalfi Coast specialty so much you felt compelled to go there and have one or two. Now you can get the stuff all over. And it is often served on the brink of freezing in hopes of landing upon a slushy, taste-deadened tongue.

The special aromas of the sfusato lemon, once used on the Amalfi Coast to produce this exclusive and seductive elixir, are no longer needed. Because you don't care. Because you are an equal opportunity quaffer of pale yellow liquids. Because the waiter has winked at you perhaps...

You see, the folks who nurture these special lemons planted in terraces along the Amalfi Coast are in big trouble economically, just like all of Italy Itself. The perfumed gardens, alive with zagare--the orange and lemon blossoms scent--were once part of a romantic Italian landscape. Alas--

"But the landscape – feted by the likes of DH Lawrence, John Steinbeck and Gore Vidal – is now under threat, with competition from cheaper, less aromatic lemons from abroad driving prices down and forcing Amalfi’s farmers to abandon terraces that their families have cultivated for generations." ~ 'Flying' lemon farmers face land erosion on Italy's Amalfi Coast

What Can a Poor Tourist Do?

Ok, here's the thing. There are millions of destination snobs. What's a destination snob? Someone who writes me, wanting me to spill the beans on the BEST DESTINATION IN ITALY because that's where they want to go.

Think about this. If there was one of these destinations, and if I wanted to get famous like Rick Steves, I would tell you about it. Ok, perhaps you'd have to give me money first--but we're being rhetorical for the moment.

Once the cat was out of the bag, you and the million or so other destination snobs would go to this secret location, probably all at once. There's no holding you back, is there? Of course you wouldn't be able to walk because the sidewalks would be clogged with people clueless as to why they have been sent to this frightened city. The natives, you see, would be hiding behind stone walls, afraid to mix with the hordes. Waiters, seeing the masses pour into their little dining rooms, would scurry into walk-ins, to spend the hereafter with frozen mammal carcasses and cases of Chinese limoncello.

You see, the best destination in Italy is also the worst. There is a kind of Zen to it.

But now let's test the idea of taste snobbery. Let's say I can convince you and all other tourists to stare down the waiter who offers you a free drink and ask him if the lemons in the limoncello come from the Amalfi coast as everyone knows they should. If he hesitates, y'all beat a path out the door.

Then, in a perfect world, they start serving the rare and beautiful limoncello to their customers as requested.

The free market cranks. The lemon-runners put on their Nikes. The gardens regain their scents. Famous writers coax leggy muses to lie in the shade of these smelly trees so the inspiration to write great poetry might flow like a scented river.

Let's say we keep doing it. We go for the best buffala, the mozzarella so creamy and good you have to think it must be bad for you.

My Italian neighbor Angelo, from Naples, painted me a fine picture. He took his wife down to the best place to get a big bulging bag of the best mozzarella balls, little ones, he could find. Then he put the bag in a box and put the box in between the seats in his car and zoomed towards home.

"We ate them like people snack on potato chips," he said. At the end of the trip they were gone.

So instead of turning perfectly good destinations into cities overcrowded with tourists, tourist are disseminated throughout Italy to grease the economic skids by buying romantic, handmade goods, the stuff Italy is known for. They discover all sorts of things, all manner of cities and towns and villages, true artisans, blistered pizzas, bitter honey, wines made with love, lace and lacy things, zoomy scooters, hand painted pottery and always--ALWAYS--they would demand the very best, the very thing the machines can't produce.

Eventually we make a paradise of happy people making happy things and milking happy buffalo--a land where waiters offer you the most aromatic lemon drink served at exactly the right temperature so that you think you are floating in heaven with cherubs who read poetry grown from the tendrils of Nebbiolo and the sweet scent of lemon flowers wafting over your naked, perfect body...

Well, ok, let's start on the lemons first. Who's with me?


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Roman Splendor Outside the Walls

I like Rome. It's messy, but in a relatively good way, like shockingly erotic lovemaking--or trying to keep up with the melting of of your gelato on a hot summer day. The Romans made getting around difficult by stuffing their big, important buildings under metro tracks and other modern infrastructure just to demonstrate to future generations just who had the upper hand in the architectural achievement department.

Rome's summer temperatures make even standing still in the shadowy cleavage of the seven hills unbearable. You know that.

So you've got some time in Rome. If you're lucky, you've got lots of time in Rome. Of course, a great deal of Roman Rome is outside the walls.

Take Hadrian's Villa. The man was wealthy enough to know how to live the good life. When the temperatures rose, he just headed for Tibur--ancient Tivoli. In fact, he liked his villa so much that he pretty much moved the government there.

And why not? There was water in pools everywhere, and statuary in abundance.

Shouldn't you go and check this place out? After all, you can also see the renaissance era Villa d’Este with its Bernini fountains. It's a bonus.

You can spend an hour on the Roma-Pescara train in the direction of Stazione Tivoli to get there, and then look for the ruins. They're a bit far away, according to the map of Tivoli. But what would Hadrian have done if he was in your Nikes?

He'd have a private driver drive him from a comfortable place in Rome. You can too. The whole tour is just a click away: The Ancient Gardens of Tivoli.

What else is within a short trip out of Rome? Ostia Antica, Rome's ancient port before it silted up, is a worthy trip. It's not a pleasure palace for the rich, but a regular town. There were about 50,000 people living in Ostia during the Age of the aforementioned Hadrian, and you'll see everything from the public toilets to where they ground the flour and made bread. It's easily reachable on public transportation--a real bargain.

Near Ostia is the hexagonal port area of Portus, called "The Lost Port of Ancient Rome." You can take a class to learn "Learn how ancient artifacts, written evidence, excavation and digital technologies are transforming understanding of this harbour". Excavations are ongoing. There are new tours available of them.

"Portus was the maritime port of Imperial Rome between the mid-1st century AD and the 6th century AD. It was the focus of a network of ports and, together with the neighbouring river port at Ostia, it was the commercial hub that connected the city to the rest of the Mediterranean world. It played a key role in re-distributing imports from other Mediterranean ports to supply the city and, to a lesser extent, exporting products from the Tiber valley. It was established under the emperor Claudius, subsequently enlarged by Trajan and successive emperors into the 4th century AD, until its gradual decline in the later 5th and 6th centuries AD."

Women also sought refuge from central Rome. Along the Via Flaminia heading north, you'll come across Villa di Livia. Livia Drusilla, wife of the emperor Augustus, owned it with her family. It was a country residence from the Imperial age set on a promontory with a view down the tiber valley toward historic Rome. Underneath it all are the tunnels the help used to keep the villa going. You can see some of them due to American bombing during the War to End All Wars. A few rooms now found underground are very well frescoed:

The train out of Rome will also get you to the Castelli Romani, where you'll find special places like Ariccia, the home of Italy's best stuffed and wood-roasted little pig, Porchetta d'Ariccia as well as the spectacular Castel Gandolfo, the traditional summer residence of the Pope named after the castle built by Genoese Gandolfi family. While you're in Castel Gondolfi, Have a bite to eat at Arte e Vino on Corso della Repubblica 49, and be sure to check out the grottoes filled with old tools and artifacts linked by caves under the restaurant and street.

Or head for Nemi, famous for its strawberries and for Caligula, who built some enormous boats to sit upon Lake Nemi. So large, in fact, they just about took up the whole surface of the lake.

There are two rail lines out of Rome that will get you to the Castelli Romani: one goes to the wine town of Frascati while the other connects Rome with Marino, Castel Gandolfo and Albano. The area is also easy to get around in a car.

You can spend a lot of time in and around Rome. Don't be afraid to make your vacation Roma-centric.

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What to Eat in Sardinia

Hardly anyone considers the island of Sardinia a gourmet destination. That said, the food is generally hearty and wholesome, and if you ignore the gargantuan portions you'll likely encounter (generosity is a virtue in Sardinia), you'll come away with the feeling you've eaten extraordinarily well, despite the simplicity of the dishes.

Before the Meal: Antipasti

Sardinia has an antipasto tradition like Puglia and very similar to where I've put down roots in Italy, La Lunigiana. In any of these three places you might sit down and tell the waiter you'd like antipasto and he's off to the races. Platters start coming. They never seem to stop. "Small plates" don't exist. Let's take a look at what the four of us were served at a Agriturismo Casa Atza in the village of Bauladu.

I've counted ten platters. Could we finish? Nope. Yes, we felt guilty.

Which brings us to our fist aside. This is food of a type that people have eaten for a long time, especially for a splurge or a wedding. It's not chef food. It's close to the earth. Agriturismi (farm stays) in Sardinia are a little different than they are on the mainland. the family running Caza Atza raises cattle, they don't just noodle around with a few olive trees and call themselves a "farm". Every morning in the spring cheese is made. Every morning in spring cheese has to be made. This is kilometer zero food like you don't get in the US any more--and is even hard to find on the Italian mainland.

What I'm saying here is that you need to get yourself a bed in a Sardinian Agriturismo if you really want to get intimate with what you eat. There are many of them.

The First Course: Primo Piatto

Sardinia, like other Italian regions, has its unique pasta shapes, from the ubiquitous gnocchetti Sardi to the complicated twin braids of lorighittas. But the iconic pasta is fregola.

Fregola is made by combining semolina flour and a bit of water, which is worked until little pellets of pasta can be formed. It's then dried and toasted to add some complexity. It is often served with a light tomato sauce and clams as in the picture below.

The Second Course: Secondo Piatto

The one iconic Sardinia dish I can't wait to have placed in front of me is Maialino Sardo, sometimes called "maialetto". In Sardo it's "porceddu". In any case, the suckling pig used must weigh less than 6 kilos. It's best roasted slowly over a wood fire--the traditional way is to skewer the whole pig so it can rotate over the coals--but oven roasting doesn't diminish the flavor much. It is cooked and served with mirto branches. I haven't had a "bad" version yet.

Maialino Sardo is best with Sardinia's treatment of the grenache grape, Cannonau.

A Land of Bread and Honey

Bread is a particularly complex subject in Sardinia. A symbol of Sardinia is always found in the bread basket the waiter places on the table, thin shards of crisp bread lend the basket an artistic flare. This is Pane Carasau, sometimes called carta di musica, or music paper, because it looks like parchment. It starts like a flat bread like a large pita cooked in a wood oven. After it puffs up, the bread is removed and the two sides separated and returned to crisp in the oven.

With it you can make a traditional primo piatto called pane frattau in which pieces of broth-soaked pane carasau is layered and sauced like lasagna and an egg is cooked on top as in the picture below.

And no, the colors in the picture haven't been jacked up to make the egg look unrealistically orange. They come like that in Sardinia--and the flavor is as intense as the color.

We often snack on Pane Carasau warmed in the oven and drizzled with good olive oil and topped with a bit of salt.

You can also melt cheese on top. A spectacular dish having but three components is warmed casizolu cheese on pane carasau dribbled with Sardinia's vaunted bitter honey Amaro di Corbezzolo. From a mere three components you get textural crunch with the richness of raw milk cheese balanced by the bitter and sweet of the honey.

This is the essence of Sardinian food. It's about the ingredients, not fancy sauces or an abundance of foreign herbs.

I Dolci

I feel full just reading what I've written so far. Suffice it to say that you'll encounter many sweet things to have after a meal if you have room, but there are a couple of special ones you won't get anywhere else that I'd like to mention. One is the Torta di Sapa, a cake made from a big dose of sapa di Fico d'India, the concentrated juice of the prickly pear, a cactus you see all over the island, usually planted to form the boundaries of sheep paths. Near the village of Bauladu, sapa has been made for a long time, and is the principle ingredient in the cake you see below. The color is entirely from the sapa. In the background on the right are the cookies called papassini, flavored with star anice, a surprising ingredient that shows up in a number of Italian dolci.

And then you're done.

I hope you've enjoyed this little excursion into the foods of Sardinia. There are many ways to work off the calories in Sardinia.

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Why You Should Go to Sardinia

Today we set sail for Sardinia. The car will be stuffed into the bowels of the ferry at Livorno and at 6 am the next morning all hands will be on deck for our arrival at Golfo Arancia. We will have docked in coastal Sardinia, a world apart from mainland Italy.

We will point the car inland, a world apart from anywhere on earth. Graffiti written in English will set the tone: Tourists! Sardinia is not Italy!

Indeed it is not.

We will be immersed in a world that has one foot set in the modern age (the first talking cash register I'd ever experienced happened to be functioning inside a closet-sized fruit and vegetable store in the village of Sedilo in 1983) and the other in a memorable and unique  past. What's important though is that big toe scratching the pagan earth. One of the fascinating elements of life in Sardinia comes from a time long ago when people listened to the earth and did what it whispered to them. Today most of the world chooses to drown out that whisper with a chemical fog and a shout from men in suits immersed in the toasty hell of a Sisyphean task: making ever more money just because the "markets" demand it of them.

To the casual observer of its charms, this boot print called Sardinia might appear as a Disneyland of inconceivable facts. If a tourist should have the good fortune of stopping at a sacred well like the one at Santa Cristina, he or she would be forced into suspending the likely belief that the blocks used in its construction, formed with machine-like precision such that a piece of modern note paper couldn't be forced between the un-mortered blocks, must be modern. How could could possibly have been made by a people 1100 years before Christ--and without power tools?

If you come to this strange land with your sense of wonder set to a child-like sensitivity, you will come away amazed at what people could do as humans alone, humans without power tools and explosives that is.

As we continue on our journey, along the road we'll begin to see the ancient stone towers called nuraghi (the plural of nuraghe, possibly meaning "hollow heap"). There are 7000 of them in Sardinia. You are free to wonder about them; experts can't decide upon their use. Keep in mind that you are gawking at the most advanced architecture of their time; Nuraghi were being built of monumentally large boulders 18-15 centuries BCE, in the middle bronze age.

If we were to make a stop at Fordongianus we would come across another Sardinian wonder. Roman Baths. Ok, sure, there are lots of them. You could go to Rome, for example, as see mere shells of the Roman ideal...

But wait. These are thermal baths. The water is still hot and sulfuric, 54°C (129°F) according to my Sardinian friend Angela Corrias in Fordongianus: Roman Thermal Baths in the Heart of Sardinia.

The first time we visited the baths, more than 30 years ago, old women were washing clothes in the hot pools.

And yes, people have been known to frolic in the waters. Still.

We're heading for a village that has embraced the modern era without forgetting its ancient roots. It's called Bauladu. The mayor, Davide Corriga Sanna, was Italy's youngest when he was elected at age 25. During his mayoral stint he's managed to make the little town of 800 people into a major literary destination. He's worked at codifying the local traditions by applying for DOP status for traditional foods like Sapa, a syrup made from cactus pears and used in traditional pastries. He has rallied the unemployed youth into a force for community good. They are currently cleaning up and maintaining the archaeological site just out of town around the Nuraghe of Santa Barbara, which I helped excavate in the 1980s. I can't wait to see them and possibly join them. While you as a tourist may not see it, there is a thriving culture underneath these small Sardinian villages.

And then we will head out to document more of the Sinus Peninsula, an area of Sardinia with one of the richest and most diverse set of tourist attractions in the world, from the monumental stone warriors of Monte Prama to the spectacularly situated ancient site of Tharos, to a town used primarily for filming spaghetti westerns (yet hosting a church with  an underground hypogeum dated to 600 AD) to some of the most important wetlands in Europe. And of course there are fine beaches as well. All these things are separated by very short driving distances.

Perhaps you should start planning a trip to Sardinia--if you are brave enough. It's not for everyone. There are pagan rituals, drumming and mysterious people in carved masks. And horses? Yes, everywhere.

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The Best Stroll in Italy

We "normals" live in a well-defined alternative universe the corporate media has yet to acknowledge. According to the "standards" big media have set by the images they spew at potential consumers of the country, tourists are all extremely fit young people whose stout hearts are monitored by expensive wrist watches as they stand valiantly on just-conquered mountaintops, hair waving in oxygen-deprived gusts, the world below embraced by a fog of dim remembrance...

Doesn't anyone simply stroll any more?

I mean, according to an extensive survey I've done in my head, it's us old folks, refugees from better economic times, who've escaped the current corporate cash-grab with a few shekels we can spend on pure pleasure, having abandoned the whole idea of developing "six pack abs" during the Cretaceous Period.

We're the ones who dream of an absolutely dead-nuts flat castle-to-castle walk along the turquoise sea for a distance of slightly less than two miles. Just enough to stretch the legs and make our hearts deliriously happy. We see benches spaced reasonable along the way, tucked under shade trees. There shall be beaches. There shall be well-buttered bodies on the beaches.

Why not dream of starting here, at San Terenzo castle?

We refugees of lost youth would do well to start our stroll in the shadow of this castle and continue along the main drag of San Torenzo. You haven't heard of it but poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary Shelley, author of the famous novel "Frankenstein" knew it well. You'll pass their big, white house on the way towards another castle town called Lerici.

Once you pass the house of the Shelleys, you can stare out into the sea, which starts a shimmery turquoise as you look directly downwards at it and blends to a deeper blue as the sea depth increases.

It's time to do your eye exercises.

"Honey-Bunny, look at that! It's a perfect day, you can see out to Portovenere! It's so romantic!" your wife exclaims, chin up, toes curled slightly in the excitement of the moment, her eyes focused on the deep blue sea of the Gulf of Poets.

You glance at her ever so slightly to make sure your head has taken the same chin-up appearance pointing to Portovenere, a stately appearance, as if you see God on the horizon--just in case she looks.

Then, ever so slowly, you rotate your eyes to and fro, focusing eventually on something you enjoy, young, buttered, and not toast.

"Yes, honey, it's a fantastic view! It's as if the earth had thrown off it's covering, and appears naked for all to admire!" You exclaim with a bit too much enthusiasm and arm-waving.

Now, in the final movement of your eye exercises, you snap your eyes back toward you wife, because she's looking at you like you've just seen a topless young woman. Your eye exercises have ended. You may now continue your stroll.

The path meanders, hard working immigrants sell beach towels in case you yearn for an impromptu dip, benches beckon your tired legs, endless sun lights up your life.

And then as the path curves the harbor of Lerici comes into view. Like this:

If you pass this way in summer, you will see all the little ferries that take you to Portovenere and the Cinque Terre. In the off season the port is a color riot of little boats bobbing in the sea.

Hungry? The port is awash in restaurants. Want to eat right above the sea? Turn left and find the tunnel under the castle. Sometimes there is an art exhibit inside. When you pass through look up and to your right. There's a beach in front of you. Go up to the restaurant, Ristorante Ciccillo a Mare and eat well and inexpensively and stare out at the sea. Or wherever you like.

Celebrate your perfect stroll by starting your meal with a flute of Prosecco. You've earned some bubbly.

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Don't Go to the Abruzzo in Springtime

The Abruzzo. Even the word describing Italy's beleaguered region does not roll off your tongue correctly. It gets stuck. There's that harsh tzzz sound of the double zeds, as what drops jaggedly from out lips when we say "pizza".

The Abruzzo is a strange land. It is a dangerous land. Earthquakes have more than rattled it. Stones lie where they fell. Your GPS tells you to point your car where the going is impossible.

The Abruzzo in spring is particularly awful. The green is torrid. Too green, like the green of Liguria's Pesto that Olive Garden initiates say is way too green, thus unappetizing.

Who'd want to stand there and stare at a scene just green? Sure, there are the mountains. Bare. A few trees, far apart like they don't want to mingle. Also mostly bare. Where is the life?

And yes, there are the castles. Ruins! And you have to hike up a mountain to see them! They should be ashamed.

The towns huddle together in deep mountain pockets bitterly, like they are afraid, like they are crystallized Spackle filling in a void. Mountain houses--not the cheery, bright pastels of seaside houses--conform to the color of bones long laid to rest.

Trees flower over roofless houses in the Abruzzo. Abandonment is everywhere.

Spring skies are threatening. Saints and angels are all who cannot whither under a sky's nastiness.

And then there are the fortresses, plain and strong against an enemy who never comes.

Of course, well, you can stay in this one. Yes, and the rooms are quite fine. Nothing to complain about. And the food! Oh, the food they prepared for us, eked from the well-shaken ground in this strange and unruly land! Breads like you've never had the pleasure of eating! Mountain lamb tended by grizzled shepherds and their junkyard dogs. The isolation of this mountain retreat has produced recipes like no other place on earth. And then there is the wine, from which one can smell the aromas of the land, to  the tongue the liquid feels rough and beguiling in equal measure. There is something to be said for lying back, hand on paunch, sated in a strange land. The folks of Monestero Fortezza di Santo Spirito certainly have it all together.

Still, don't go. I'm warning you now, there are challenges. You might be taken in by it all, as I was. Pure treachery, no doubt involving invisible witches. Perhaps it was just the wine. I'd return in a split-second, oddly enough. Certainly I am mad as a hatter.

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Secrets of Pitigliano

Pitigliano, a Tuscan town hill town that seems to grow out of a tufa ridge, is known as "Little Jeruselem" for its once-hopping Jewish quarter. The town's jumble of houses lies on the boundary with Lazio, once part of the Papal States; Jews from Rome fled here during the Vatican's Counterreformation persecution in the 16th century, and you can visit a large part of the quarter today--the synagogue was restored in 1995.

Surrounding this compelling tourist destination is a web of "roads" called the Vie Cave said to be carved from the soft tufa by Etruscans. You can walk them, although it's not as easy as it seems. In the center of the road there is a channel, perhaps for the flow of water, and the sides slope almost imperceptibly toward the center channel, so the walker feels constantly off-balance. Still, people find it fascinating to follow the sinuous meanderings of these ways and the town has equipped them well. Many have picnic areas so you can participate in the Italian sport of eating while you let the history soak in.

But Pitigliano isn't just about its ancient history. There are surprises here. Let me tell you of a couple.

Butterfly Man

We found Mackanzie Cooke lounging in a chair catching a bit of sun in front of his little museum. He perked up at our interest and ushered us into what I like to think of as his bug-infested lair. Each of the bugs was quite dead and pinned to a board, so we were safe from any fear of personal inundation.

"How it works is this. You can take all the pictures you like. You can interrupt me to ask as many questions as you like. You can spend as long as you like looking around. At the end you pay what you like," said the man who spoke the Queen's English in the midst of a room loaded with insects pinned in neat little rows inside exhibition cases. He started off teaching us a bit about our own California butterflies and how the same species looked different when snagged in a butterfly net in Europe. He spoke with great speed and accuracy, indicative of a man who knows his stuff. Suddenly he slowed for dramatic effect: "Have you ever come across one of these?" he asked while pointing to a display of beetles the size of a shepherd's fist.

"I hope not," I replied.

His speech slowed to the pace a teacher would use to drive home a very big point, "Why?...They're perfectly harmless!"

Point taken. Still, I wouldn't want to find one in my bed.

Mr. Cooke had been very many places. The insects didn't have a chance. They were big, small, colorful, leggy and he knew them like the back of his hand.

Having settled down in Italy, Butterfly Man took to good food as he took to giant butterflies. Later that day we were perusing a restaurant menu and when we turned away we spotted him and his friends at an outside table of a bar. "That one's very good. A bit pricy. Just around the corner is Trattoria La Chiave del Paradiso, similar quality but less expensive," he offered.

"Where would you go?"

"La Chiave del Paradiso. Frankly, that's the only one I eat at now," he advised us.

So, of course we went. We ate well. The house wine is fabulous, the olive oil is produced by the owner, and the food is very carefully prepared. It was a great meal that didn't cost much. So please: take it from the man who has spent a large part of his life pinning giant but harmless beetles to boards, eat at the Key to Paradise.

Bread with pork cracklings and Sugar

When I hear someone in the food biz using the phrase, "un po particulare" I am immediately attracted to eating the peculiar foodstuff in question. We were searching for a breakfast thing. We ended up at the Forno 3P on Via Roma. We saw a flat bread glistening with crystals. What could it be?

Un po particulare, of course.

So you make a sort of focaccia and you put in there some pork cracklings. You bake the whole deal and while its still hot sprinkle some sugar on it. Strange? Pork Fat Sugar Bread?

It was delicious. They called it something like pizza di ciccioli, ciccioli referring to the tiny pieces of crisply rendered pig fat floating in the dough.

You see, during the depths of the years of immense poverty between world wars, some peasants rose up enough to actually be able to raise a pig on scraps. After slaughtering it in winter, they made strutto, rendered pork fat that they used for everything (you can still purchase it today). It added taste to the bland food of the (real) cucina povera, much more taste than bad olive oil. You make strutto by cutting the fat of your pig into small cubes, putting it into a pot over a slow fire and rendering the fat. What's left is the fried structure of the fat, which is then pressed in a press to extract every drop of liquid. The rest you can eat with a little salt, put in bread, or use as a crunchy taste element in your cooking. You didn't waste anything in those days.

Nor would you want to. pizza di ciccioli is a very tasty snack. Trust me. Here's how to make it (in Italian). Here's a video showing how they make the ciccioli.

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Suggested Itinerary: Ferrara and the Eastern Emilia Romagna

Looking for something different on for your next Italian vacation? Certainly you've heard of Ferrara, a city that has at its center a fabulous Este Castle and a unique Cathedral displaying layered time periods like a proper cake or archaeological excavation; the older Romanesque on the bottom and Gothic above, all very orderly. A Renaissance city noted by the UNESCO folks for its forward looking planning, Ferrara's center hardly deviates from its original configuration, even in the age of the SUV parade as the shimmering snake of them waddles through the streets waiting for inattentive things to bounce off of.

If it wasn't for the occasional mosquito, Ferrara is so perfect that the orderly city might seem to lack that certain vibrancy that comes from the uncertainty of one's safety. Cyclists young and old seem to gather haphazardly in front of the Cathedral and yack a great while before dispersing to various cafes. You'll notice people kissing. They do that in Ferrara more than in any other Italian town I've been in. Yet nobody calls Ferrara a particularly romantic place to lock lips. They divert you to Venice for that. It's just to the north.

There are frequent festivals in Ferrara to liven things up. The Palio di Ferrara, held in May was first noted in 1259 and that makes it the oldest of its kind in Italy. There is also some very unique food, including a macaroni pie called pasticcio alla ferrarese and a sausage that you cook a long while in water until the thing breaks down and makes its own gravy so you can serve it over a big pile of mashed potatoes, which your neighbors will never agree sounds like Italian food to them. Salama al Sugo rocks--if you like that sorta thing.

I propose an interesting itinerary based on UNESCO world heritage sites that doesn't have a lot of distance between interesting places. Stay in Ferrara, and make a clockwise circle: Comacchio, Ravenna, Forli, Bologna. You can stop in Chioggia if you wish (I would) and you still will see a wildly diverse collection of sites without having to visit the gas pumps more than once.

Why Comacchio? Well, it's part of the same World Heritage inscription as Ferrara: Ferrara, City of the Renaissance, and its Po Delta. You head for the coast and in 50 kilometers you'll find a little Venice; Comacchio is formed of islands and has Venice-like canals.

Comacchio exploited its place in the delta, employing fishermen to corral and catch squirming eels, then marinating, cooking, and finally canning them. You can take a boat into the wetlands, loaded with birds, and learn all about the fishermen and their ways. It's quite an interesting trip. Then you can visit the Manifattura dei Marinati, the factory in town where it all took place.

But that's not all. A Roman boat was found in the Lagoon, and a museum was built in Comaccio so that you could gawk at it.

If you want to stay and take in the calm of this little delta town go ahead. But you're free also to head for Ravenna to see the famous paleochristian mosaics. Almost everyone with a web site has pictures of them, so I won't strain your computer shoving pixels at you that you've seen before. You can see most everything in Ravenna in a day or two.

Then, if you wish, the town of Forli is an interesting stop, especially if you're interested in the Routes of Modern Architecture in the Fascist era or as it's called in some circles Mussolini Deco. (If you're really into Mussolini, you can visit his birthplace and final resting place on a day trip from Forli to Predappio.

If you have a place in your heart for peace, tranquility, Romanesque architecture, great food and a local wine you probably haven't heard of, you can include a visit to the Abbey of Pomposa, just 50 km from Ferrara.

And then it's on to Bologna, where UNESCO celebrates the famous porticos. Don't worry if it rains, you don't ever have to go outside unless you're crossing a street. (There are 38  kilometres of porticoes build between the 11th and 20th centuries.) Climb a medieval tower briskly and you'll be able to eat even more of the famous cuisine of Italy's gastronomic capital.

Here's the stats for where you've been:

  • Ferrara to Comacchio: 50km
  • Comacchio to Ravenna: 39km
  • Ravenna to Forli: 29km
  • Forli to Bologna: 73.5 km

Easy, eh? Enjoy the Eastern Emilia Romagna.

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