Monteleone d’Orvietto~ A Little Village with a Lot of Pride

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One of the attributes of the many medieval hamlets of Umbria and Tuscany that I especially love are the old traditions that have been passionately maintained over the centuries. On a visit to Monteleone d’Orvieto, nestled on a hilltop in the heartland of the Umbrian countryside, I was extremely impressed by historically clad villagers who welcomed us at the main gate. They embody a fierce pride in their heritage, one that you cannot help but deeply respect.

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Located only 34 minutes from Orvieto, Monteleone d’Orvieto is one of the tidiest little villages I have yet had the pleasure of walking. Founded in 1052 by the commune of Orvieto as a castle to guard the northern boundaries, there is still evidence of the ancient fortified walls and gateways that surrounded the village.
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These young ladies were more than happy to pose for a photo. Those who live here are very sweet and a pleasure to converse with. These young girls knew some English, so it was a bit easier than attempting to communicate with the older residents.
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We walked many a winding street just like this one. Evidence of the local village pride was everywhere as all was freshly swept and clean.
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Late afternoon is the time to stroll about and visit with the villagers. Although this man spoke no English, he was easy to communicate with using some of my very limited Italian and of course hand gestures.
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Potted plants around wooden doorways with neatly maintained thresholds are common in Monteleone d’Orvieto.
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Little Fiats like this one are the only way to go if you intend to drive through the winding narrow streets. Even so, there are moments when you may have only a couple of inches on each side of the car to pass on through. Many that I have seen include an opening at the top to expand upward since outward is very limited.

Behind is part of the panoramic view of the Umbrian, Tuscan and Lazio countryside which encompasses the great expanse beyond the village walls.
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On Piazza Pietro Bilancini stands La Torre dell’Orologio, the clock tower. It was designed and built in 1800 with bricks manufactured in local furnaces. A bas-relief designed with brick, representing the emblem of Monteleone, is just below the clock face.
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The ladies of Monteleone d’Orvieto are charming. Neatly dressed, these three enjoy a late afternoon break from cooking and housecleaning. They present themselves just as they keep their tidy little village…well maintained.
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This is the south gate of the village that is part of the original castle. Although the north gate is the main entrance, some traffic comes through this one as well. Above the gate you can see a small shrine of the virgin Mary.
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I spent only an afternoon in Monteleone d’Orvieto, but it has remained with me as a very special experience. This village, although small and not touristy, is a delight to visit. My heart was touched by the dignity, honor and self-regard that these villagers hold and exemplify for their home and tradition.

My Italian Christmas Dream List

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Wish #1. Aperitivo every day with my wonderful friends

When I was a child, I created my Christmas wish list by circling all my wished for items in a Sears catalog. The ones I really wanted had more circles around them, lined by huge stars. Well, some things never change, and I have mentally been dreaming about my Italian wish list for the last few weeks. Although I don’t have a catalog, I do have my photos that bring back amazing memories and put a smile on my face every time I look at them.

If Santa granted me my Italian wish list, this is what it would be…

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2. The assurance that every year I could make my mask in Venice and attend Carnevale. My mask would have gigantic, attention-getting plumes and jewels…

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3. Heaping plates of pasta with a good local wine…
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4. Drinks and lively chatter overlooking a gorgeous ocean view…
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5. Stunning sunsets that leave me spellbound…
Venice Maritime Power in Europe
5. My own gondola with personable gondolier who sings old Italian love songs while paddling me around the canals of Venice…

Trulli in Alberobello, Puglia

7. Who says Vespas are only for the young and daring? I might not be so young, but I can’t resist the daring. Santa, please, my own little Vespa to putt through the little white villages of Puglia, manhandling those winding alleyways with expertise…

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8. The Archangel Michael to stay by my side and slay all opponents

Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta

9. A week of walking the beaches of Camogli on the Riviera followed by peaceful meditation inside the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta, bedecked with numerous tinkling chandeliers.

Surrounded by the Squinzano piazza men's club

10. Occasional moments of good times and laughter with the guys groups in the piazzi.

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11. Warm evening strolls through golden hued streets of Italian villages with a loved one.

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12. My own little Fiat 500! I am so in love with these snazzy little cars…and, I’ve discovered you can get an unbelievable number of people inside of them. But it helps to have the sunroof open…

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13. Is my own private boat too much to ask? Imagine carting friends and family back and forth between the mainland and islands to experience another day in paradise…

Our young waiter introduced a bottle of locally produced limoncello

14. I know it’s a frill, definitely, but my own wine steward to introduce and pour my daily glass of wine. Especially if he is cute like this one :)

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15. This spot outside the Le Sirenuse Restaurant in Positano to enjoy my wine while taking in the astounding view…

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16. Dinner in a cozy little piazza with my friends every night after passeggiata…

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17. Surrounded by walls with creeping vines of luscious flowers…

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18. Picnics and dancing in the olive groves of Puglia…

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19. Plates of delicious grilled Mediterranean vegetables…

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20. Baby goats sleeping in the shade by old pots…there’s just something about this that delights me.

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21. Endless opportunities to meander all these little medieval villages with plenty of money and some to spare…

Very tall dancer walking the medieval streets at night

22. Ever since I ran into this tall lady in Terracina, I’ve dreamed of learning to be a stilt walker dressed in colorful array. This way, my bright colors won’t scare people when I come around the corner!

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23. A luxurious rooftop table with a view….of Rome. I would love to entertain here…

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24. Lunch down on the farm in the Umbrian countryside with locals and an intoxicating view of fields and lakes…

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25. Hiking in the countryside with a guide who knows all the folklore of the area…

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26. Exploring old olive mills…those still in use, not abandoned with spiders…

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27. Volunteer in the Cat Sanctuary at Torre Argentina in Rome…

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28. Chatting with the locals, especially ladies like these. They are so proud of their adorable little houses.

Well, there you have it. I made myself stop here. My list is endless…and with each trip I make, it grows again. But if Santa would grant me this wish list, it would be the closest thing to heaven on earth that I could ever imagine.

Buon Natale…may all your Italian dreams come true!

A Christmas Eve of Love, Joy and Tears

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Greccio monastery on the spot St. Francis built a living creche

The beautiful monastery at Greccio where St. Francis created the first live Christmas nativity. Photo credit unknown

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The man of God (Francis) stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy.”  St. Bonaventure (contemporary of St. Francis and biographer)

His face was wet with his own tears as Francis of Assisi stood before the people of the little town of Greccio one Christmas Eve long ago. With great tenderness and humility, he told them the story of the first Christmas. Behind him was a cave with two of the village people dressed as Mary and Joseph, and a wax baby representing Jesus. An Ox and donkey stood beside them. Mary was bending over the baby lying on a bed of straw. Francis turned to behold the love of his life, the Babe of Bethlehem, and he fell down in weeping adoration.

“The brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many with brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise.”

Greccio, a little town in Umbria, had experienced the extraordinary that Christmas eve in 1226. St. Francis of Assisi had assembled a live nativity scene in a cave on the outskirts of town to show the humble birth of Christ. The townspeople gathered around, full of wonder and expectation.

St. Francis kneeling before Baby Jesus...fresco by Giotto

St. Francis kneeling before Baby Jesus…fresco by Giotto

Prior to this, mass on Christmas eve was spoken in Latin, which the people could not understand.

“the Holy Gospel was chanted by Francis…. Then he preached to the people around the nativity of the poor king; and being unable to utter His name for the tenderness of His love, He called Him the Babe of Bethlehem.”  

His Heart and Soul

His Heart and Soul

As the hay was gathered up later and fed to the animals, a miracle occurred. The cattle were cured of their diseases. The people believed that God had honored his servant Francis.

Francis encouraged the people to reject hatred and embrace love, with the help of God.Whether you remain a sceptic or not, the message of St. Francis resounds with hope for our individual worlds as well as the one we all share.

May his words echo down through the centuries once more and minister to our hurting hearts the true meaning of the love that entered our dark world two thousand years ago.

Merry Christmas!

Nativity Scene

Portovenere’s Cliffside Treasures

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San Pietro’s church withstands the ravages of time.

My road trip along the Ligurian coastline  brought me to Portovenere, where I explored its remarkable landmarks overlooking the sea. Panoramic vistas bordered by turquoise waters gave an exotic backdrop to this cliff-side paradise. Portovenere was a place where I longed to linger.

An old archway into the village began my walk through the medieval streets lined with several shops and cafes (see my post Illustrious Portovenere, from Pirates to Rainstorms). After passing through, I came upon the piazza L. Spallanzani. From there I could see the church of San Pietro, the remains of a castle fortress, and the surrounding Bay of La Spezia. I followed the winding pathway up to the top of a cliff that overlooked the Mediterranean Sea, spread out majestically to the far distant horizon.

High up on a rocky spur stands the small but exquisite church of San Pietro. Built upon the ruins of a temple to the goddess Venus, San Pietro became a Christian church in the sixth century. Modified by the Genoese in the thirteenth century, the Romanesque church grew into Gothic dimensions.

Interior of San Pietro church.

Interior of San Pietro church.

As I stepped inside the old church through a single doorway, I was taken by its small but ornate interior. It consists of three naves, the largest in the center with a white marble altar. The gray and white Gothic stripes can be seen on the inside as well as out. It reminded me of the duomo in Siena. This striping effect was a popular Gothic addition to churches at the time.

San Pietro is a popular place for weddings. Any wonder?

San Pietro is a popular place for weddings. Any wonder? Piazza L. Spallanzani in the forefront

Historically, San Pietro survived a major fire from the Aragone bombardment in 1494, was ordered to be the battery for Gulf defense by Napoleon, sacked several times, and was occupied by Austrian-Russian troops. Yet there it remains, steadfast and unshakable. I felt captivated by its beauty.

Elegant Arches overlooking the Ocean

Elegant Arches overlooking the Ocean

This long row of arches is located right next to the church, adding a touch of elegance to the unique setting.

Rugged coastline

Rugged coastline just below 

Eugenio Montale, in his poem Portovenere, gives thought to its beginnings… “there comes Triton, from the waves that lap the threshold of a Christian temple, and every near hour is ancient…here, you are at the origins.” I kept looking for mermaids playing in the water, or Neptune with his trident! But, unfortunately, they must have been hiding on this cloudy day.

Lord Byron's Cave in the rock wall.

Lord Byron’s Cave in the rock wall at ocean level, where he spent time contemplating. Doria Castle rests above

Have you ever heard of the Bay of Poets? I had, many years ago, and thought it sounded so romantic. I was sure I would visit it one day. Well, here I am. It is just as beautiful as I envisioned.

Lord Byron and his good friend Shelley are responsible for the name. The Bay of Poets is actually the Gulf of La Spezia. Lord Byron lived in Portovenere for a time (see my previous post, “Swim with Lord Byron in the Bay of Poets” for more details). There is a plaque on the church that commemorates Lord Byron’s courage and strength.

Doria Castle

Doria Castle, a nice hike up from the church of San Pietro

The Doria Castle fortress above the town was built by the Genoese in 1161 and has been the area’s defense for centuries. The extremely wealthy Doria family were very involved in the political, military and economic life of the Genoese from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries.

The massive walls come outward toward the base, making the castle appear much larger than it actually is. Today the castle is available for special events, offering an amphitheater and a terrace overlooking the sea.

Castle Interior

Castle Interior-Hypostyle Hall built in 1458 with vaulted ceilings supported by 8 pillars

Long Covered Stairs leading up to the Castle Doria

 Arched Stairs leading up to the Castle

Panoramic View from Castle Doria parapet

Panoramic View from on top of the Castle  

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Below the castle on a cliff is the town cemetery. I passed by the beautiful graves so well-groomed and scattered with flowers.

Town of Portovenere below taken from Doria Castle

Town of Portovenere below taken from Doria Castle

Portovenere is a sensational experience. Lord Byron’s words from a poem of his brings visions of this lovely village to my mind. “Be thou the rainbow in the storms of life. The evening beam that smiles the clouds away, and tints tomorrow with prophetic ray.”

Autumn Twilight in the Umbrian Hills

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Splashes of red and gold streak across the evening sky like a watercolor painting. The sun has made its last debut and slides behind a wooded hilltop. Sleepy hamlets surrounded by fields of olive trees and flocks of sheep become silhouettes against the fading light. An Umbrian evening is quickly approaching.

Dinner is ready. I walk around the old restored farmhouse of the agritorismo, Nido del Falcone, to meet my friends. Inside the ancient stone dining room, a rustic table is laden with fresh local delicacies on creamy white plates. Wicker baskets with fragrant apples, brown-skinned onions and peppers sit on a low brick shelf. A single lamp reflects light off the walls. Shadows line the stairwell leading down to an old Etruscan tomb now a storage cellar. I find myself surrounded by a wholesome fall ambiance that is magical.

The aroma of simmering boar sauce with basil fills the room. Inviting, warm, friendly, enchanting, nurturing, romantic….all of these words come to mind.

Unforgettable…a special moment in time.

Piazzale Michelangelo ~ Florence’s Renaissance Cityscape from Above

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Fiery Firenze Sunset

Fiery Firenze Sunset

“Tonight the sun has died like an Emperor…great scarlet arcs of silk…saffron…green…crimson…and the blaze of Venus to remind one of the absolute and the infinite…and along the lower rim of beauty lay the hard harsh line of the hills.”  John Coldstream

I couldn’t wait to watch the sun set over Florence. After a delicious dinner in the Piazza Vecchio, I crossed the Arno River and its shops of precious jewels on to the left bank and followed the road upwards. After about 20 minutes on the Viale dei Colli, which runs through the hills that surround the central area of Oltrarno, I arrived at Piazzale Michelangelo. Extremely popular with tourists and locals alike, it has the best panoramic views of the heart of historic Florence.

Arno River with Three Bridges

The terrace lookout gives an open cityscape that is a beloved postcard photo of the city. The Palazzo Vecchio, Duomo, Baptistry and Bell Tower loom in the background.

In 1869, designer and architect Giuseppe Poggi built the Piazzale Michelangelo while Florence was the capital of Italy. As a result, it was decided the entire city needed a risanamento, a rebirth, which involved heady urban renewal of elegant proportions. Poggi’s most outstanding accomplishment, however, was the Viale dei Colli on the left bank. At eight kilometers long, the tree-lined street winds up the hill of San Miniato, ending at the Piazzale Michelangelo.

Michelangelo-Bronze Copy of the Original at his Piazzale Michelangelo

A bronze copy of Michelangelo’s David stands in the round-about, accompanied by the Four Allegories of the Medici Chapels of S. Lorenzo. The originals are in white marble. It took 9 pairs of oxen to transport the monument up from the city in June of 1873.

Old City Wall as seen from Piazzale Michelangelo

Remains of ancient city walls still surround parts of Florence in a protective embrace. From the Piazzale Michelangelo, this wall with towers runs up the side of a long hill. Begun in 1284 and completed in 1333, it is believed that it was built under the direction of Arnolfo di Cambio. The gates, no longer in existence, were embellished with religious scenes of the Madonna and Saints, standing 35 meters tall.

Most all of Florence’s history is laid out before us on the skyline. As twilight descends on this vibrant renaissance town, golden lights illuminate the stone facades of foremost landmarks. People begin to gather with iPhones and cameras ready to capture the beauty of shifting colors that begin to streak across the evening sky. All grows a bit quiet as the sun, like a golden orb, sinks slowly into the west.

Santa Croce-Gothic Style Franciscan Church with 14th C. Frescoes by Giotto and the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavellli

Santa Croce-Gothic Style Franciscan Church with 14th C. Frescoes by Giotto and the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavellli

Palazzo Vecchio-Heart of Florence's Social and Political Life for Centuries. It was here that girolami Savanarola was Burned at the Stake as a Heretic.

Palazzo Vecchio-heart of Florence’s social and political life for centuries.

My day in Florence drew to a close in the most dreamlike manner. Despite lengthy strolls through museums and dinner on the Piazza Vecchio with delicious wine, my most vivid memory is of Firenze’s dazzling rays of amber sunlight stretched out over the city in waves of crystal beauty. Breathtaking beauty….the kind that travels straight to the heart and soul, and leaves you longing for more.

Hilltop Villa

The Twilight Shift

Good Night , Florence....Buona Notte Firenze!

Good Night , Florence….Buonanotte Firenze!

A Surprise Masquerade Ball in Venice

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The Bird-Man of Venice

Who would know that our day in Venice would become ripe with intrigue? Imagine, if you will, four mild-mannered women with a love for Italian culture and lifestyle who have just met in Venice for the first time. Immediately engaged in delightful chatter over a lovely breakfast in a most intimate little hotel, it never occurred to us that our day was about to take on such a playful and adventurous turn.

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Although our table is just a bit disheveled, we engage in lively conversation while discussing plans for the day. L to R is Orna O’Reilly, myself, Margie Miklas and Victoria DeMaio, great friends as well as talented fellow bloggers (click on names to see their sites).

After breakfast, we embark upon a short and winding walk along the stony streets of Venice to Ca’Macana, one of the oldest and finest mask-making workshops. We have decided to choose and decorate our own masks in the old Venetian way.

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Just inside the shop we are greeted with floor to ceiling masks of all shapes and colors. Feathers, plumes and jewels embellish them with a great respect to tradition. I’m instantly captivated by this enormous display of colorful and creative art. A chest lies open lined with little masks of various sizes and patterns. Animal masks are everywhere and seem to be a favorite.

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These authentic masks are crafted just as they were 800 years ago by Venetian artisans. There is no end to the creative possibilities involved in mask decor. Patterned cloth wound and curled about the top and sides brings on a whole new persona.

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The walls are filled with a menagerie of bells, snouts, plumes and curlicues. I’m especially intrigued by the bird-man with his flat top hat and dark shroud covering. Very mysterious. I wouldn’t want to run into him on a dark and rainy night.

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The workshop where we chose our masks and painted them with the assistance of Fiorella, our most engaging and knowledgable instructor

My own little mask is small and elegant. After I choose my paint colors and apply them, it is time to use a hair dryer to finish up the drying process. Afterwards I pick my embellishments of jewels and feathers.

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Just need a few plumes and jewels, and I’m ready to party

Our masks are finished and we couldn’t be more delighted. We had a ball of our own right inside the little shop among the spooky phantoms and funny animal snouts. All eyes were on us, and we could have danced the day away. Had the sky not decided to let down a pour of rain the moment we stepped outside the shop after saying our goodbyes, we would have donned our masks and continued our party right down through the streets of Venice.

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Our finished masks are ready to wear

For more information about Ca’Macana mask shop in Venice, click here ~

Step Inside a Trullo in Puglia

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Trulli in Alberobello, Puglia

Trulli in Alberobello, Puglia with a matching motorbike. Designs painted on the conical roof are common.

 

I felt like I had just stepped into the Hobbit’s Shire when I arrived in the small whitewashed village of Alberobello. Little people scampering in and out of the tiny cone-roofed houses with hairy feet didn’t appear, however. Instead, the village streets were packed with big people like myself, exploring the rows of cone-roofed trulli that proved to be anything from gift shops to restaurants. Bizarre and quirky? By all means, yes.

Surrounded by ancient vineyards, medieval castles and white-sand beaches, Alberobello sits at the top of the heel that makes the boot of Italy. Not far from the Adriatic coast, it is understandably a magnetic tourist attraction.

Quiet steet of trulli in Alberobello

Let’s take a side street away from the maddening crowds.

These trulli are actually limestone dwellings that are mortarless, using prehistoric building techniques. The pyramidal, domed or conical roofs are built up of corbelled (stone slabs that progressively overlap each other) limestone slabs. Specific to the Itria Valley in Puglia, they have appeared here since the mid 14th century.

But why the unique construction? One big reason was the need for a dwelling that could be easily dismantled before inspectors arrived to enforce paying higher taxes on the property. However, the golden age for the trulli began in the 19th century due to wine production. Today, fewer are used as a permanent dwelling and many are being converted into Bed & Breakfasts and shops.

Let’s take a peak inside of one…

Trullo in Alberobello, Puglia

Most of the traditional trulli include one room under the conical roof with added living space in arched alcoves with curtains hung in front. However, many of the trulli converted into B&B’s are embellished and more expansive. They usually have an open fireplace with a chimney stack, but they are difficult to heat because of the conical roof. The thick walls keep them cold in the winter. The lack of windows and tall conical roof give it a cave-like feel.

Inside the main room of the trullo

Inside the main room of the trullo~ this particular one has been remodeled so you won’t quite get the rustic simplicity of the original.

As I walked through this trullo, which didn’t take but 30 seconds, I was charmed. The light-colored brickwork helped to brighten a room that otherwise would have been much more like a cave. Although it was small, I could definitely cozy up here for a short stay. Everything I need is literally at my fingertips, and when I step outside the doorway, i’m greeted by bright sunshine that reminds me of Dorothy’s Oz.

Kitchen

The kitchen with a kitty napping in the sunlight.

 

Bathroom

Curtains strung across the bathroom

 

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Bed partially nestled into an alcove

 

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Storage room created above by adding a ceiling.

 

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If you would like more information regarding a trullo stay, I suggest you check out Trulli é Puglia. To be clear, I have not personally had any experience with them as I went on a group tour and did not spend the night in one, but I feel that this is authentic as it is locally operated.

Guy Time in Italy

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Surrounded by the Squinzano piazza men's club

Hangin’ with the Boys in Squinzano, Puglia

When I spend time in Italy, one of my favorite things to do is people watch. I love to observe the locals in action. They are similar and yet different from my culture here in the states. Although I remain almost always an observer, there have been times where I got pulled into the action.

On a recent visit to Puglia, the southern region down in the “heel of the boot” which is Italy, I found a piazza with large groups of men sitting and visiting with each other. There was no woman in sight, only the men. As we stood back to watch them, I noticed a couple of “young buckaroos” waving me over with big smiles. Shocked at first, I just smiled back with a brief wave. But as you can see, I gave in to their wishes and joined them for a moment. They sat me down in a chair and posed for photos. I don’t recall the last time I laughed so hard with these charming, fun-loving gentlemen. Each one of them was neatly dressed and groomed. I admire this special emphasis on dress and cleanliness among the Italians.

Enjoy the photos below of this entertaining evening in the piazza…
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The green door in the background is the entrance to the Puglia Wine School, where I spent the evening tasting some of Puglia’s delicious wines.

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Later that evening, I looked out the window from the upper floor of the wine school. All was quiet on the piazza. The men had folded up their chairs and vanished into the night.
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The evening gave me an interesting and unforgettable window into the lives and culture of the people of southern Italy. Not only do they highly value community, they know how to relax and enjoy themselves with each other. In a world of people who often seclude themselves, I found this to be refreshing. The Italian people truly know the importance of camaraderie. Bella cosa far nienta~Idleness is a beautiful thing.
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To Market, To Market in Lecce, Puglia

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Market in Lecce packed with much more than fruits and vegetables

Market in Lecce packed with much more than fruits and vegetables inside. 

Market day in Lecce is a feast for the eyes, and often the tummy. Locally grown and freshly picked produce, colorful and aromatic, fill boxes to overflowing. Vendors offer samples while engaging in conversation with customers. I love to walk slowly and observe the active energy of this ‘farmers market.’ Afterward, I feel like I’ve had my weekly dose of vitamins. Enjoy some photos I took during my recent visit.

Boxes and bins everywhere full of fresh picked produce

Artichokes with purple accents

Rows of striped cucumbers

Plump sun-ripened tomatoes

Earthy brown potatoes

Shiny purple eggplant

Even cleaning products

Even cleaning products can be found

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Containers and jars of olives, capers and artichokes

Olives~every kind you can imagine

various seasonings and containers of capers

various seasonings and containers of capers

Tender small zucchini...the flowers are perfect for dipping in batter and frying

Tender small zucchini…the flowers are perfect for dipping in a light batter and frying

The seafood market

Shrimp

A special catch of the day

A special catch of the day

Cheese....my favorite!

The formaggio counter with some of the best locally made cheese I’ve ever tasted. 

Don’t you wish you had your shopping bag with you? If only we could step inside a photo…. Maybe this inspired you to go to your nearest farmers market for some fresh produce. I’m glad you came along.

The Ancient Cave Churches of Matera

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Matera, cave dwellings piled one on top of the other

Matera, cave dwellings piled one on top of the other

During the filming of The Passion of the Christ in Matera, everyone around Jim Caviezel, the actor who played Christ, said they saw fire coming out of the right and left side of his head. A glow surrounded his entire body. To Jim, being struck by lightening felt like a giant clap on his ears while he was doing The Sermon on the Mount scene. Director Mel Gibson stood speechless before asking Jim what happened to his hair.

Matera, the rock city of Basilicata sought after by filmmakers searching for a biblical landscape, looks surprisingly like the Holy lands. It proved to be the perfect setting for Mel Gobson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ.

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Poster outside of the cave church of Madonna delle Virtu. Inside,’The Last Supper’ was filmed in one of the rooms.

I had the opportunity to visit Matera recently, also known as “the second Bethlehem.” These peculiar cave churches and settlements carved into rock became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993. It truly is a city of rocks in the midst of a desolate land.

The Rupestrian Complex of Matera includes the Church of Madonna delle Virtu, a twelfth century church completely carved out of the tufa rock. It is considered the best church architecturally decorated in Matera. The central apse contains a large fresco of the crucifixion with the Virgin Mary and St. John the Evangelist dating from the sixteenth century (pictured below). Across from this one is another crucifixion fresco from the fourteenth century (not shown).

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The rock city of Matera in Basilicata possesses over 150 Rupestrian (meaning art done on cave walls) churches dug into the soft tufa walls, housing frescoes spanning nearly 1,000 years. The Park of Rupestrian Churches of Matera covers 19,768 acres and contains the best surviving rock-cut settlements in the Mediterranean region. These cave churches, dating from antiquity through the medieval period, were often places of pagan worship before they became established by Christian monks. The entire area of caves have been continuously inhabited since paleolithic times.

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Close-up of the 16th c. Crucifixion just inside the entrance

The tall front doors to The Madonna of the Virtu is just off the street. We stepped immediately into the church which was tall and cavernous.

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There is another section to the complex which was a monastery during the ninth century and expanded over time. It was inhabited by a small community of nuns from Accon in Palestine. Much later, after being abandoned, the monastery became a storeroom for hay and the production of wine.

“The Passion of the Christ” was filmed in Matera by Mel Gibson in 2004, giving it the name of ‘the Jerusalem of Basilicata.’ In the movie, the ancient monastery’s central room was chosen as the scene for “The Last Supper,” and for “The Washing of the Feet.”

The monastery began as a small crypt which was enlarged with time.

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Throughout the monastery are pieces of modern art placed perfectly within wall niches and on pedestals. An international sculpture exhibit is hosted in the monastery each year.

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Monastery

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Beyond the monastery within the same complex is the Church of San Nicola, a 10th century monastic settlement.

Within this archway is a fresco of, right to left, St. Barbara – with auburn hair and dressed in rich imperial robes, St. Nicholas the Greek, and St. Pantaleone, holding a box symbolizing his medical practice. A burial pit lies below.

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St. Barbara, St. Nicholas and St. Pantaleone

Close-up (R to L) St. Barbara, St. Nicholas and St. Pantaleone

Below is a 14th century fresco of the Crucifixion with the Madonna on the left and St. John the Evangelist on the right, holding a Gospel roll in his hand. Daffodils, which are commonly found in the area, are pictured on either side of the cross at the bottom.

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You can almost see the Crucifixion fresco through the rock hole in the center of the photo below.

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Outside of the complex, old cave dwellings can be seen along the ridge of the hillside. In the early part of the 1900’s, the poor lived within Matera’s caves, many large families who made them into homes where they cohabited with their animals. Conditions grew worse until, in 1952, the government evacuated 15,000 inhabitants and resettled them due to extreme poverty and poor hygienic circumstances.

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Across the ravine from the door of Madonna delle Virtu – Paleolithic caves line the top of the hill

Today, Matera is experiencing a rebirth as many of the cave churches, some previously used as stables or filled with garbage, have been cleaned up and restored. The extremely delicate frescoes are slowly disappearing as tourists continue to touch them. But they remain fascinating although a bit eerie. The passing of time has had no bearing inside these rupestrian churches. It is only the whisper of monks in silent prayer that still remain.

Puglia’s Winery Castello Monaci ~ Drawn by the Sun

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Have you ever been to a winery that is somewhere between heaven and bliss? I’m not sure that spot exists, but I would say this describes the popular Castello Monaci winery in Puglia. The sun-drenched vineyards lie between the Ionian and Adriatic seas in Puglia’s Salento region. Nestled in the “heel of the boot” that is Italy, Castello Monaci is a point of reference winery that cultivates the unique characters of native grapes Negroamaro, Primitivo and Malvasia Nera di Lecce. The intense sunlight on the land is softened by the cooling effects of the ocean breezes, contributing to a special kind of wine, those infused with an ancient minerality.

I had the opportunity to visit the Castello Monaci recently with a small group of friends. Founded by monks in 1492, it has maintained a long winemaking tradition ever since. It is a vision from a fairytale. Embellished by statues sculpted in soft, ivory colored stone, the crenelated walls encase a courtyard garden infused with loveliness. A popular place for weddings and celebrations, the large and stately interior rooms could accommodate any event with finesse. Lina Memmo, whose family has owned the estate since the 19th century, currently owns the property along with her husband Vitantonio Seracca.

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As you enter the estate, a long tree-lined road leads up to the castle and cellar. Over 350 acres of grapevines fan out broadly on either side, the fruit still small but ripening in clusters under the warmth of the sun. Each section of vineyard is cultivated, collected and vinified in small tanks. The vintner would say that these particular wines are disegnati dal sole, or ‘crafted by the sun.’

The winery is expansive. Less than 20 years ago Castello Monaci produced 20,000 bottles but today production has increased to nearly 2 million bottles due to the growth of the estate. Gruppo Italiano Vino (GIV), Italy’s largest wine company, manages the estates wine-making activities.
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Claudio, our tour guide, took us through the wine production area, a refrigerated crushing system with temperature controlled steel tanks that allow limited quantities of grapes to be vinified separately.
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The cellar holds over 1,000 barrels of wine.
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The land is thick with tufa, volcanic rock that is present in the soil. Claudio explained that as it travels to the surface, its white color reflects the light and increases the benefits to the grapevines. In the cellar, a wall of tufa acts as an effective source of insulation to keep the temperature cool. IMG_2376
After the wine tour of the cellar came the product tasting.

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Photo courtesy of Castello Monaci

wine kreosDuring the wine tasting, I learned that most of the Castello Monaci wines are named after mythical Greek characters – Medos, Kreos, Aiace, Acante, Artas, and Piluna – as a tribute to Apulia’s early Greek origins. The Primitivo, Negramaro and Malvasia nera di Lecce grapes are cultivated right in the vineyard on the estate.

Kreos, a delicate rosato of 90% Negroamaro and 10% Malvasia nera di Lecce, was one of my favorites. Its name comes from Eos, goddess of the sun whom Homer called goddess with the rosy finger. It is a perfect warm weather wine which is fermented in special steel vats with a short contact between the skins and juice. Bright pink in intensity, it brings to mind sea corals of the Mediterranean.

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We had the pleasure of having a wine tasting with Marco, a very friendly and knowledgable young man

IMG_2377Another excellent wine is the Piluna Primitivo. Piluna means “tufa pot” in Greek and is produced by a well-known grape around the world, the Zinfandel. Some of the wine matures in French barrels for 6 months while the rest remains in steel. The color is dark crimson with a robust yet velvety feel to the mouth. It carries an essence of ripe red fruits with hints of vanilla and pepper.

Liante “Wind of the Levant” Salice Salentino is named after the “icy wind of winter and the hot wind of summer which blows strongly over Puglia.” This deep, ruby-red wine is obtained from Negroamaro and Malvasia nera di Lecce grapes. They are separately vinified because of their different times of ripening. Hints of wild cherry, chocolate and vanilla combine with a warm and balanced flavor.

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Enjoying a glass of Petraluce, a delicate yet intense yellow wine

Interesting to note is the icon that represents Castello Monaci. It is a large M with a horizontal line down the middle. Let me explain the meaning of the icon with the words of Castello Monaci ~

“A name embracing several facets. A meridian, a line which divides part of the earth. A big M. Castello Monaci. A symbol, a brand, which stands for the union of the work of man and of the sun. Creating a unique whole.”

Map showing the location of Castello Monaci

Map showing the location of Castello Monaci ~ Contrada Monaci, via Case Sparse – 73015 Salice Salentino – Lecce 

The following photos are of the Castello Monaci, ending with the lovely palm-lined courtyard.

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Do you have a favorite Italian wine or winery?  I would love to hear from you so don’t hesitate to share your thoughts.

Positano’s L’arte della Ceramica ~ An Art Lovers Dream

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Lisa stands in front of her shop at L'arte della ceramica in Positano

Lisa stands in front of her shop at L’arte della Ceramica in Positano

While just recently in Positano on the Amalfi Coast, I completely fell in love with the art of ceramica that I noticed displayed so decoratively all about the village. Plates and bowls painted with pastel houses, vibrant lemons, soft village scenes and active sea life reflected the warm feeling of being in a Mediterranean environment. I wanted to bring them home with me and decorate my entire house. I resolved to begin the process by finding four dinner plates that were special to me.

I met Lisa Cinque toward the upper part of the village of Positano. Her little shop, L’arte della Ceramica, looked out toward the sparkling blue Mediterranean. Attractive from the outside, I decided to see what she had for sale. After scoping out several ceramic shops prior, Lisa’s shop stood out to me as a bit different. Her art was unique. Not only did she have the typical designs of classic Amalfi Coast ceramics, but there were original contemporary pieces with limited compositions as well.

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Photo courtesy of L’arte della Ceramica

Lisa welcomed me immediately with a big smile and soft manners. Her artwork is her pride and joy, and she spoke fondly of each piece. As she took me around, I learned that she fashions and paints each one. These were all her creations. Her deep love for art was evident in the different styles and variety of colors. She uses materials that are unusual and different, such as engobe (white or colored slip), glass and mother of pearl.

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Photo courtesy of L’arte della Ceramica

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Photo courtesy of L’arte della Ceramica

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Photo courtesy of L’arte della Ceramica

Lisa graduated with a degree in Applied Arts at the Art Institute of Sorrento. She went on to further her training in art and is recognized by the European Union at the Centro Studi Arti Vietri (Center for Art Studies in Vietri) as well as studying with master potter Alfonso Cassetta and Erika Rossi. From them she learned “the techniques of shaping and decorating as well as deepening my knowledge of the historical and cultural implications of the antique tradition of ceramics.”

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Lisa is a true artist and shares her heart freely. “I am continuing my creative journey in my pottery workshop, a place where I find the perfect concentration to give life to my works. Works that draw their greatest inspiration from the essential elements of life: fire, earth air and water.”

An artist in her own right, Lisa is a seeker of mood and emotion from the past as well as the present and future. Not one to follow the crowd, she has created and fashioned her own world of artistic designs that fascinate. Each one is original and unique.

IMG_3980 I did find my four plates in Lisa’s shop and I now have them hanging on my dining room wall. They are a joy to me and each time I stand back to look at them, i’m reminded of Lisa and her beautiful shop, of the Amalfi Coast and enduring Mediterranean environment. It’s my own little bit of paradise.  

My 4 lovely plates created and hand painted by Lisa

My plates are the subject of conversation with dinner guests.

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Positano water’s edge….endearing beauty

Please do visit Lisa in her shop if you find yourself in Positano. You can find her at L’arte della Ceramica, 147 Cristoforo Colombo, which is the main street in Positano, just 100 meters from the main square.

Ten Days in Puglia That I’ll Never Forget

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Italy, I know you well. Pretty well, that is. In all of my visits from across the pond, there was only one region that I had not yet discovered. Puglia, situated on the south-eastern tip of the Italian peninsula, right into the heel of the boot. I knew I would go one day and explore these ancient lands of olive groves and vineyards, a land steeped in history. I had developed a deep appreciation for southern Italy and I wanted to experience more of it. Puglia, in a sense, was the final frontier for me.

My opportunity came this last May when I finally made the decision, after backing out once, to fly to Venice and meet some blogger friends whom I had come to know through Twitter. Among them were Margie Miklas from Florida, and Ishita Sood who came all the way from India. Also accompanying us was Victoria DeMaio who leads 10 day group experiences in Puglia at an extremely reasonable price that is all-inclusive. I checked out her tour, Let’s Kick Up Our Heelz in Puglia! and signed on. From Venice, although Ishita would have to fly home, Margie and I would follow Victoria to Puglia.

With a firm resolve, I packed my bags and embarked on an unforgettable experience in Italy, one that I had least expected.

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Puglia is stunning. I never imagined it to be like this. The truth is, I encountered warm and authentic people, delicious yet simple food, exotic weather, and ancient history with every turn. Victoria knew several of the local residents so we were introduced and immediately pulled into a circle of friends.
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Although we stayed just outside of Lecce in Masseria Provenzani, we took day trips to beautiful white villages with charming walkways that meandered between tall buildings. A stop in Alberobello to see the trulli houses was a unique experience. We even had the opportunity to take a tour through one.
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Masseria Provenzani, (southern term for agriturismo) our lodging for ten days, was lush with climbing Jasmine and blooming Bougainvillea that covered the long pergolas, providing a soothing retreat from the sun. I loved the ease of staying in one place instead of packing my bags and moving to another place like I usually do.

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Cooking classes, taught by Mamma Giulia, were held at the masseria. We learned the art of Puglia bread making and dolci (sweet desserts). Of course, the delicious wine from the region flowed freely. We all knew that a chef is at her best accompanied by a glass of vino rosso or bianco.

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We all kicked up a lot of flour and dropped bits of dough everywhere, but we laughed hard and enjoyed the tasty outcome of our efforts.

The Puglia Wine School, operated by Michele Pasero, was a lot of fun. Showcasing the wines of the region, we enjoyed tasting the delicious varietals.

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The Puglia Wine School with Michele Pesaro, operator/owner and Yle from YLTOURS who put together the 10 day program with Victoria

We had the pleasure of spending the days with Daniela, our lovely young tour guide who shared Puglia’s history in a fascinating way. She had the ability to conjure up images of the past that kept me entranced the entire time.

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Lovely Daniela, our knowledgable tour guide

Wineries were on the agenda, much to my delight. The ambience and tasting were unforgettable.

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We toured a local olive farm and had a picnic in the orchard consisting of delicious traditional dishes of Puglia, prepared by local residents.

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There was a delectable spread of dishes that ended with a large platter of dolci, or sweets. The difficulty was choosing one or two when I wanted to taste them all.

I had never met a cartapesta (paper mache) maestro until we made a visit to Carlos shop in Lecce.

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Carlos, our cartapaesta maestro, invites us warmly into his shop

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Shops, stores, outdoor produce and fish markets, it’s all here in Puglia.

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If not for Victoria and the encouragement from my friends, I would not have discovered Puglia’s exciting and unique attributes. I am so glad the I made the decision to go to Puglia with Victoria. There is no possible way I could have become so well acquainted with this region of southern Italy on my own. To think that I almost missed going makes me literally cringe. I truly had a fabulous time, and made many new friends.

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Victoria DeMaio graciously serves a delicious lunch for the group at the masseria*IMG_1630

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Our last evening together at a pizzeria in Lecce

Will I return to Puglia? I’m sure I will one day. I love the south of Italy more with each new visit. It is here that I have found the heart and soul of Italy. It is warm, unique, beautiful, tasty, and the kind of place that makes me want to linger.

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3 Reasons That Keep Me Returning to Italy

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An chance meeting at a grad party we happened to stumble upon. We were pulled into the celebration, given wine and dolci, and warm embraces.

A chance meeting in Naples at a grad party we happened to stumble upon. We were pulled into the celebration, given wine and dolci, and many warm embraces.

I thought long and hard about this one, because there are so many things I find charming about Italy. However, I do have my top three reasons that always have the same effect on me each time I return. After making over ten trips to bella Italia, it never changes.

So what are these reasons I find so hard to resist? I’m happy to share them with you because as I write, I find myself falling in love with Italy all over again.

#1. Wine. I love wine. Simply put. It is one pleasure in life I look forward to. Not only do I appreciate the variety of tastes, but also because it symbolizes the end of a busy day and the beginning of a relaxing evening. It can be enjoyed with friends or with just a beautiful view. Italy produces the ultimate in wine experiences. At almost every aperitivo, I drink the “vino rosso,” or “vino bianco” depending on the weather. I can be assured of a delicious, locally produced wine that sets the mood for the evening nicely. Maybe it is the minerality from the soil that makes Italian wine so appealing to me, or the way it is produced. Whatever it is, at aperitivo hour you can be assured I’m enjoying one somewhere.

#2. Warmth. I’m not talking weather here, although that is a definite perk in Italy. When I think of warmth, I think of the people. The Italians hold a lot of pride in their family, traditions, and work. I admire that. It touches me when I visit a pizzeria in Naples and converse with the owner who points out a tall building across the street that his father helped build. He then shows me some old photos on the wall of his family hard at work in the restaurant that has remained in the family for generations. He is open and welcoming. Or the young man Andrea who drove my around in a little cart throughout Matera in Basilicata. He shared his heart of sorrow for his hometown which is quickly becoming overrun with tourists. It is difficult for them to see change happen where family and tradition are so important. But he accepts it with open arms, stopping for me to take photos and suggesting a good place to eat. I am constantly introduced to locals who embrace with a kiss on each cheek and a warm smile. They are not reserved. They are affectionate, emotional and loving. I feel like I’m a part of their family, and I love that.

#3. Layers of History. I’m stunned each time I put my foot on Italian soil. No matter where I stand, something of historical significance has taken place. Naples and Rome rest on top of entire civilizations from the far past. Tunnels, rooms, shops, markets, churches, banquet halls….it’s all right there, under my feet. It is everywhere, and that just gives me the shivers. How often have the subway systems given way to some new discovery, an ancient room or courtyard, that causes all work to stop. Archaeologists are called in. A man digs below his house in a small town in southern Italy to improve the sewer for his taverna only to find that there is an entire settlement right under him. Now it is a museum open to the public. Time and again, new discoveries. I don’t know about you, but my jaw drops and I stand amazed. It fascinates me.

So there you have it. Italy never ceases to surprise, inspire and entertain me. Of course the list is endless. I am addicted to the affogato, my daily gelato fix with espresso poured over the top. And Caprese salads with fresh basil leaves. Neapolitan Margherita pizza. Fresh seafood pasta with mussels in the shell. Small toy-sized fiats driven by little old ladies. Balconies bursting with red bougainvillea. But let’s be real. Italy has its aspects of irritation as well. People will cut in front of you in line, drive like lunatics, appear to be arguing loudly only to slap each other on the back minutes later, and take their time (never a rush when it comes to public relations.) I look at it all as a compromise, a kind of paradox. The good overwhelms the not so good. And that is quite enough for me. I have grown to depend on Italy for many things, from developing an appreciation and celebration of food to living my life a bit more passionately. I love my family and friends more. My choice in dress has come up a notch. And I’ve learned to slow down a bit and enjoy the conceivably smaller things in life.

What are your favorite things about Italy? If you have been to Italy, what is it that draws you back? I would love to hear from you.

I Met a Craftsman of Olive Wood in Ostuni, Puglia

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The alleyways of Ostuni, the “white city” of Puglia

The winding shady alleyways provided a much appreciated escape from the afternoon heat as I explored the pearly white city of Ostuni in Puglia. Only 8 km from the Adriatic coast, it sits on three hills near the top of the heel of the boot which is Italy. It is surrounded by vibrant olive and grape agribusinesses.

Very few people are about as I passed doors, windows and balconies. Soon I noticed an elderly man standing in his shop doorway. I smiled and observed that he wanted to talk. On the door the translated message read, “The Cucchiara Crafts in Olive Wood.”

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He walked back inside and returned with a wooden spoon. Upon closer inspection I recognized the quality of craftmanship used in creating it. He was very proud of his handiwork and invited me in.

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Giuseppe spoke no English while he explained his work of creating cooking utensils out of olive wood. His tools were lined up on the wall above a box of wooden spoons he brought out to show me.

IMG_2061His room was simple and clean. An empty birdcage is all that decorated this small window.

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Although I never got his name, I left with a warm appreciation for this man who obviously put all he had into making these sturdy kitchen utensils. He shows such pride and joy in his creations. He has every reason to be.

Giuseppe’s shop is on Via Catterdale and is called “La Cucchiara Artigianali”. Please do stop for a visit if you find yourself in Ostuni.

My Latest Italian Adventure ~ A Sneak Peak of Upcoming Articles

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4 bella donne....my travel companions in Venice where we began our exciting adventures. With me are Margie Miklas, Ishita Shood and Victoria DiMaio, all fellow Italy bloggers.

4 Bella Donne….my travel companions in Venice where we began our exciting adventures. With me are Margie Miklas, Ishita Sood and Victoria DiMaio, all fellow Italy bloggers.

My Italian adventure was so much more than I ever imagined. After being home four days, I am still reeling from 3 1/2 weeks of experiences with new friends that will remain with me for a lifetime. What began as acquaintances that developed over a period of time on twitter, became solid friendships as we took the plunge and decided to meet in person and have an Italian adventure together. I couldn’t have had a more satisfying, bonding time. I love these ladies, and they will always hold a special place in my heart.

Through them I had the opportunity to meet many of the local people. I found each one to be warm and welcoming, willing to pull me right into their own daily lives without hesitation. We laughed, learned and enjoyed many delicious meals together.

I am so excited to share the many adventures I’ve had, but it would take a book. So I have included a few photos to give you an idea of some upcoming articles I am preparing for you.

You’ve heard of the Venice Carnevale? Well, wait until you read about our own little celebration while making masks.

Mask-making in Venice. Incredibly cool!

Mask-making in Venice. Incredibly cool!

Next we travel down to the heel of the boot. Warm, lovely and surprising. You will walk under those arches and see …..well, I won’t spoil it for you.

Masseria Provenzani in Puglia where I spent 10 days

Masseria Provenzani in Puglia where I spent 10 days

This is us in the mild. At our cooking class we found dough and pepper chunks in the most unusual places, but we always turned out a mean dish.

Cooking Classes! Never knew I could do it and have so much fun!

Cooking Classes! Never knew I could do it and have so much fun!

I could walk this town of Lecce forever. So much to see but easily miss. Don’t let that happen to you….

The baroque town of Lecce ~ incredibly moving architecture

The baroque town of Lecce ~ incredibly moving architecture

As a wine lover, I was head over heels for the local Negroamaro and Primitivo wines of Puglia. Read about a couple of local wineries that are as uniquely different from each other as possible, yet produce equally delicious wines.

Enjoying local wines at the Puglia Wine School.

Enjoying local wines at the Puglia Wine School.

Italian Cuisine that will leave you craving more

Italian Cuisine that will leave you craving more…

Yes, I’m afraid it will. And the key ingredient is the aromatic and tasty olive oil produced in Puglia. We enjoyed our visit to one of the best and had a deliciously prepared picnic in the orchard.

Exotic Polignano a Mare on the Adriatic Coast

Exotic Polignano a Mare on the Adriatic Coast

Exotic is the word. These transparent waters, tall white cliffs and hidden beaches are just the beginning.

If you have seen “The Passion of the Christ” produced by Mel Gibson, you have seen a part of Matera in the Basilicata region. We stayed in a cistern converted into a living space that was, well, unique to say the least. Cave churches, ancient frescos and winding alleys with a very old past.

Moving Matera, city of stones and caves

Moving Matera, city of stones and caves

Of course, there is always more food. This is one of the greatest joys in life and we had the pleasure to enjoy plenty of Italian cuisine.

More food......

More food……

Positano on the Amalfi Coast. My friends and I lived for 5 days in Italian heaven. Sailboats, a visit to the isle of Capri, shopping and breathtaking Mediterranean views while lunching on terraces. It’s all here….

Positano ~ Paradise Italian Style!

Positano ~ Paradise Italian Style!

As the old saying goes, “life is more fun when you share it with a friend.” Not only was the entire experience much more meaningful with my new friends, but I can’t wait to share it all with you. So stay tuned….there is so much more to come.

An Artsy Night In Medieval Terracina

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Sometimes photos say it all and very few words are needed. One warm evening last September, my friends and I experienced a surprise meeting with a tall dancer on the winding medieval streets of this ancient seaport town just SW of Rome. She graciously waved us toward a tiny art gallery hosting an open house and party afterward. We decided to indulge….and very glad we did.

Very tall dancer walking the medieval streets at night

Very tall dancer from My Life Animation was walking the medieval streets at night ~ she welcomed us to the art gallery with graceful moves and waves of her fan.

Two women who own the art gallery and display their paintings

Exhibition by local artist Alessandra Romagna

Some of the colorful paintings

Some of the colorful paintings

We have a party outside the gallery

We have a party outside the gallery ~ the perfect way to celebrate a most interesting day with new friends, good wine and nibbles.

A Mystery Behind the Mosaic of Rome’s Pilgrim Church

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Inside the Church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme can be seen the fresco cycles of Stories of the Cross set in Jerusalem, with Christ Blessing above (not seen in photo)

While in Rome, I usually set some time aside to visit a few of the 900+ churches in the eternal city. Each one is packed with historical events, intrigue, mystery or various holy relics that are interesting to check out. I’ve seen St. Catherine’s head in Siena’s Church of San Domenico, and the tongue, jaw and larynx of St. Anthony in his basilica in Padova. The saints relics, typically body parts, were highly prized during the middle ages and considered a protection for the town where they were housed.

While walking through the Lateran district of Rome, I stepped inside the ancient Church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. As one of the Seven Pilgrim Churches of Rome, its origins began in the early 4th century initiated by St. Helena, the mother of Constantine.

It was here as well that I learned about a dramatic discovery that was made in 1492.

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Approaching Santa Croce in Gerusalemme adorned above by saints holding crosses

Inside the church stands the colorful nave with a fresco of Christ Blessing, surrounded by cherubs. The mosaic floors are dazzling in design. Roman era columns support the side isles.

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Nave with Christ Blessing above the altar.

Below the nave and down a flight of stairs is the Chapel of St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine. The church stands on what originally was a Roman Imperial estate, with the chapel plus two adjoining rooms built into the Sessorian Palace at the time, owned by the empress St. Helena.

Interesting to note, the chapel lies close to 6 1/2 feet below the nave of the church which was the street level during the time of St. Helena and Constantine.

Entrance through the gate into St. Helena's Chapel

Entrance through the gate into St. Helena’s Chapel

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Chapel of St. Helena

Below the statue lies scattered soil from the Holy Land, brought here by St. Helena from her pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the 4th century. She claims to have discovered the true cross and other relics. She came back and set up a shrine here for pilgrims unable to make the pilgrimage.

Paper notes and prayers from the faithful scatter across and underneath a glass case. This is how the church got its name. Santa Croce (Holy Cross) of Gerusalemme (in Hierusalem, meaning Jerusalem. It is explained that the basilica is “in Jerusalem” because of soil brought back from the Holy lands to Rome to be placed at the foundation. But there was also a discovery that greatly impacted the name as well.

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Here is the glass case covering the soil from Jerusalem. You can see the reflection of the statue of St. Helena’s chapel that stands guard over it.

Here is the mystery. As I mentioned at the beginning, there was a dramatic discovery in 1492 made while workers were repairing mosaics inside the church. What they found was a brick inscribed with the words Titulus Crucis, meaning Title of the Cross. This refers to the wooden title nailed above the cross of Christ.

Sealed behind it was a fragment of wood with the inscription “Nazarene” written in Hebrew, Latin and Greek. All are written from right to left, suggesting it was done by a Hebrew. It is believed that it was placed here to hide from Visigoth invasions around 455 AD. Today, this wood relic can be viewed upstairs in the Chapel of the Relics enclosed in a glass case.

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Titulus

A quote by Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford may truly reflect the thoughts of many ~ “Almost everybody accepts that it is legend (the Titulus). I would put it on the level as seeing the face of Mohammed in a potato.”

We may never know the authenticity of this relic, but stranger things have happened. No one can say for sure…..and there we rest our case. But for the faithful, it is a step closer to God.

Why Rome, You Ask ~ Come See For Yourself

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Amazing Rome. There is no one like you….Sounds like the beginnings of a song. But Rome demands its place as the Eternal City with all of its multi dimensional aspects of life over thousands of years. She has an old yet elegant presence about her that is difficult to ignore. And for those who are willing to let her take them on a journey through the depths of her soul and afterward rise up again to meet Rome of today, you will be in for an unforgettable experience.

Follow along as I introduce you to some of my favorites…

Fine dining from the rooftop of the Hotel Raphael near the Pantheon is an intoxicating experience. The terrace is multi-level and the views of Rome from all around are magnificent. I love watching the sun set over the city as I drink a glass of wine and see how many monuments I can recognize.

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The Italians know how to make delicious food, which is not a surprise. I love pasta and the way it is served with a special touch. It is never smothered in sauce but instead embellished with a delicate herbed olive oil or light wine sauce. This pasta below had chunks of white sea bass that was tender, mild and disappeared in no time.

I must also give the Italians my hearty approval on good pours of wine in the glass. The house wines in Rome are always very good. Most are locally produced. Frascati, grown in vineyards around Rome, is a common white wine that is served in Roman restaurants.

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Desserts don’t take a backseat to the main dishes. This pistachio gelato was a work of art. As a city known for its outstanding architectural designs and centuries old famous fresco paintings, this should be no surprise.
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Sometimes it’s just fun to enjoy a simple gelato while walking the streets of Rome and taking in the sights. My quota is one, sometimes two gelati a day.DSC00297The old Jewish Ghetto is one of my favorite landmarks to explore. Outdoor cafes offer kosher food, some with recipes used centuries ago.
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Carciofi alla giudia (Jewish style artichokes) are a specialty in the Jewish Ghetto. Deep fried and served in a crispy layer, they are delicious. The outer leaves taste like potato chips. Battered and fried pumpkin flowers are also very popular and, unlike the Carciofi, they are tender and delicate.
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Markets at Campo dei Fiori are a lot of fun to shop. Produce is bright and freshly picked.
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Outdoor cafes are everywhere in Rome. It’s obvious that food and socializing are very important to the Italian lifestyle.
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Ask anyone where to find good coffee and they will direct you to Sant’Eustachio il caffe. There you will generally see a line of people waiting. Established in 1938, it is only steps away from the Pantheon. This is the only coffee in Rome roasted by wood and not fossil fuel. All of the coffee is roasted on the premise. I was fortunate and found an outdoor table to seat myself while I sipped my coffee.
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The Protestant Cemetery (Cimitero dei Protestanti) is in the Testaccio neighborhood. I found this place to be immensely interesting. It is very green and well-kept, with sculptures and statues over graves. Here is a famous one called the Angel of Grief, sculpted in 1894 by William Story to be the gravestone for the artist and his wife.
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Trastevere is Rome’s nightlife central. It comes alive with cafes and street music, vendors and whirligigs that light up the night sky. Delicious smells of food coming from eateries as I pass by mixed with the lively chatter of people enjoying time together brings a festive feel to it all. I love to linger here and experience the charming ambience of this ancient part of Rome.

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Fountains are everywhere, from the old famous ones in Piazza Navona to small expressions outside of buildings. This one caught my attention in passing. Water trickled down from underneath while turtles balance along the edge, encouraged by the men below.

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Walking the back streets of Rome can bring many delightful surprises. As I rounded a corner, this is what I saw. Someone had an amazing green thumb. I couldn’t begin to imaging the amount of work and attention that went into keeping it all so green and healthy.DSC01550
As I put these photos together, I began to feel that old familiar tug again. Of course, it is Rome demanding my presence once more. There is so much more to see, so much that you could never imagine, she whispers to me. Will I succumb? Probably….in time.

Italy Magazine Blog Awards 2014~ It’s Time to Vote!

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Today is a special day for me and I must share my good news with you. Timelessitaly has just been shortlisted on the 2014 Italy Magazine Blog Awards! I am thrilled beyond belief and so thankful. I have been nominated for two categories ~ Best Art & Culture Blog and Best Travel Blog. Please take a look by clicking on each one and check out the amazing blogs in the running. If you think my blog is the cat’s meow, please vote for me. I would so appreciate your support!

DSC00556My great love for Italy wouldn’t be the same without your encouraging feedback. Italy is a treasure trove of endless surprises. There is nothing I enjoy more than to bring you along with me to share in the adventure. I love your responses!

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The Italy Magazine Blog Awards voting will end February 27, 2015. Winners will be announced on March 3, 2015. You can find me, timelessitaly, under Best Art & Culture Blog and Best Travel Blog. Just click on these links.

Amore e apprezzamento a tutti voi!~ love and appreciation to all of you!

Lady of the house looking through her open window

 

Italy’s Ventotene Island ~ This Tiny Package Holds Big Surprises

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Ventotene harbor

One of Ventotene’s scenic harbors

If the best things in life come in small packages, then Ventotene is a perfect example. Just a tiny island in the Tyrrhenian sea off the west coast of Italy, Ventotene is all of two miles long and almost a half mile wide. It is one of six islands called the Pontine Islands, of which Ponza is the largest and most developed.

The Romans discovered Ventotene over 2,000 years ago and named it Pandataria. Emperor Augustus banished his promiscuous daughter Giulia here in 2 BC. The crumbled remains of her prison-palace, Villa Giulia, can still be seen today.

The early Romans heavily used and depended on this small piece of land for very good reasons. Off the beaten tourist track today, this easily missed island packs a big punch.

This Is Your Time Travel Blog Tour Team

This Is Your Time Travel Blog Team ~ Avary Sassaman, Amy Gulick, Susan Nelson, Helena Norrman and Linnea Malmberg

My blog team, This Is Your Time, arrived in Ventotene for two days in September. We took a boat from Formia on the mainland and arrived in the modern port before reaching the old Roman port on foot. Built into the side of the volcanic island, the Roman port is lined with fisherman’s boats and scuba shops.

Ventotene is very photogenic and reminded me a little of the Greek islands. Breathtaking 360-degree views of the Mediterranean sea can be seen from several spots.

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Ventotene shows some island charm ~ Borgo dei Cacciatori hotel

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Strolling through the village on narrow uncrowded streets

Ventotene is very walkable. The streets are undeveloped and narrow, allowing only one small car to pass at a time. But the traffic is seldom, making for perfect walking and hiking.

Dinner happens late in Italy, so with good appetites we arrived at Restaurant il Giardino (The Garden Restaurant). Authentic and tasty island cuisine is served consisting of fish and seafood freshly selected from the Port of Ventotene each morning. Chef Candida Sportiello transforms this seafood into magical dishes that dazzle the eye while her son, Luca, serves them with flair. Take a look!

Restaurant Il Giardino, Ventotene

Something exotic being prepared in the kitchen of Restaurant Il Giardino, our choice for dinner

Freshly caught fish from surrounding ocean waters topped with tender green beans and island herbs dressed to perfection. Superb!!

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Creativity happens in the kitchen

Several other dishes arrived just as gorgeously displayed. Each one was well worth mouth-watering praise.

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Semifreddo (different consistency than ice cream and half-frozen ) Pistachio Gelato with crisp wafer and berry sauce. Pistachios are from Bronte (Sicily).

After dinner, we strolled through the village streets to the central square, Piazza Castello. The Town Hall commands center stage in matching yellow with white trim. A line of flags on poles grace the front. The piazza has a few cafes, alimentari and restaurants. But this is not the place for nightlife. It is quiet and serene. A lovely place to be for a mellow evening experience.

Central piazza in Ventotene

After dinner walk through the central piazza

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A street corner in the village

The next day for lunch, we were greeted with big smiles by Pina (center) and her family at their restaurant, Un Mare di Sapori. It is inside a grotto on the old Roman port. A table was prepared for us with great care. Wine was poured and island cuisine began to arrive in various dishes. The lentil is cultivated on the island, and the resulting soup that Pina served was absolutely delicious….earthy and flavorful.

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Pina and her family at Un Mare di Sapori, their enoteca on the old Roman Port. I was touched by their gracious manners and welcoming smiles. 

Antipasti from the kitchen…four different kinds of cheese, olives, salami, artichoke, and eggplant rolls.

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Antipasti

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Fresh sliced bread with octopus in a savory olive sauce

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We were served a bottle of delicious Falerno wine, made from a grape varietal cultivated in first century Rome. It was the favorite drink of the emperors and was also a red wine. In fact, Pliny mentions in his writings that it was the only wine that would ignite when a match was put to it. Falerno was obviously much higher in alcohol then!

Pina’s restaurant is also a shop with shelves of local products for sale.

Grotto on the Old Roman Port which is the location of the enoteca

Grotto on the old Roman Port where freshly caught fish are sold

A lighthouse rises on the edge of the rock at the old Roman Port. Santo Stefano Island with its sprawling prison stands just off to the left. Mussolini detained his adversaries here during WWII. The prison is now abandoned.

Lighthouse on the Old Roman Port

Lighthouse on the old Roman Port

Below the surface of the waters of Ventotene, evidence was found of five ancient Roman ships with cargoes of wine, olive oil and garum (fish sauce) still intact in large clay amphora. Ventotene was perfectly located on the trade route between Rome and North Africa.

Time to walk off all this good Ventotene cuisine!

Time to walk off all this good Ventotene cuisine!

Ventotene is rich with history, beginning with the Phoenicians and Greeks and continuing into the present. It was used as a listening post by a German garrison before being captured by allies in 1943.

Le Terazze di Mimmo for lunch!

La Terazza di Mimi is situated on a cliff wall overlooking the main beach of the island, Cala Nave, and the sea

The next day after a full morning of sight-seeing, we dined at La Terazza di Mimi. The ocean view and exotic dishes combined with sea-scented gentle breezes created a memory that will linger for many years.

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Awaiting our lunch with good appetites. We loved the ambience on the terrace with Mediterranean sparkle and gentle breeze. Santo Stefano in the distance.

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Squid ink pasta with crustaceans and vegetables. The ink is mixed into the pasta, creating a dark but tender noodle. I found this dish very tasty.

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Pasta with clams and mussels in a delicate wine sauce embellished with island herbs.

Pietro Penacchio owner of La Terazza di Mimmi restaurant in Ventotene

Pietro Penacchio chats with us at his restaurant, La Terazza di Mimi

Pietro owns the restaurant and has named it after his father Mimi. He shared his many exciting plans for the development of his properties on the island that is sure to increase tourism with a new, ecologically sound twist. He has a great love and respect for the natural environment of Ventotene.

Bright island flowers give sprightly accent to the shimmering Mediterranean.

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Ventotene has several terraced views that instill a strong sense of exotic ambience. My favorite location is the hotel Borgo dei Cacciatori. Owned by Pietro as well, it is in the process of a complete restoration. The new Borgo dei Cacciatori will be eco-friendly which includes the swimming pool. Earthy tones and colors of the island will be used to decorate the hotel, providing a peaceful and relaxing environment.

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Borgo dei Cacciatori

Imagine the large sweeping terrace on a warm evening. Long white tables are laden with sumptuous island cuisine and sparkling white wine. The Tyrrhenian ocean spreads out before you in a vast expanse reaching to the horizon. Surrounded by good friends, you watch the golden sun set as brilliant colors streak across the sky. Soft breezes caress warm faces and inspire a sense of well-being. Borgo dei Cacciatori is such a place.

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View of Santo Stefano from the terrace of Borgo dei Cacciatori

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Agave and Aloe grow in abundance on the island.

Barely touched by international tourism, Ventotene enjoys a natural existence. The subject of ancient Greek myth, Homer intended this to be the place where Ulysses confronted the sirens during his long journey home. Ventotene makes it easy to believe that they still exist today.

** More about Ventotene from a local website

Italy Inspires Art Behind the Glass Case

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When I’m in Italy, one of the sights that never fails to grab my attention are the many glass display cases well stocked with delicious food. I switch to cruise mode as I pass by and hungrily admire thick meaty paninis on focaccia bread, thin crust veggie pizzas, deep-fried potato balls, fresh-baked croissants, rainbow-colored salads and mouth-watering gelato. The Italians have a way of making food a constant festivity and these glass cased tidbits are no exception.

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A well-dressed display case puts everyone in a good mood. No matter how long the line is, people seem to be having a good time, including the sales staff behind the cases.

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These appealing focaccia paninis are layered with fresh tomatoes and mozzarella. They were delicious and didn’t last long. I admired the way they were so attractively arranged on my plate.

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The thick and the thin….just how hungry are you? The thin ones are heated with meat and/or cheese.

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On a typical hot summer day in Rome, bowls of fresh fruit sell quickly.

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Who doesn’t love a gelato? There are so many different flavors it’s difficult to choose, but cioccolato or nocciola (hazelnut) are my favorites. I especially enjoy a gelato cone as I stroll down the street on a warm summer evening.

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Everything is freshly baked, flavorful and tender

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Although Italians are not typically big on sweets (dolci) like we are, there are tempting treats to be had.
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Insalata displays entice me the most. All of the ingredients are fresh and tasty. Seafood, olives, eggs, cheese, the Italians can really dress up a salad. Combined with olive oil and vinegar, it is a complete meal in itself.

So the next time you are busy checking out the sights in bella Italia, stop to visit these glass cased works of art. In a culture notorious for its many famous masterpiece paintings, not all of the most sense inspiring are from the Renaissance.

 

 

Surprising Gaeta, Italy; You Haven’t Heard of It But You Should

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 “Whether it be hiking along the rugged coastal mountains or shopping in the busy downtown thoroughfare, Gaeta is truly one of Italy’s hidden treasures.”  Nicola Tarallo

 Nicola Tarallo is very passionate about his hometown of Gaeta.  Acting as the town ambassador, Nicola not only knows everyone but also little secrets that guide books don’t tell you.

Just south of Rome by 86 miles and 59 miles north of Naples, Gaeta is a stunning seaside village with golden sandy beaches. It is still a bit undiscovered, but if you find Nicola there it won’t remain a mystery for long. On his website, he has a long list of fans that have visited him in Gaeta.  His authentic friendship and helpfulness are highly regarded. His enthusiasm and warm-hearted friendliness will convince you that you have a solid friend that you can depend on.

Have you ever heard of tiella? I never had, until I “met” Nicola on Twitter. He was excited to discover not only my passion for Italy but that my hometown of Portland, Oregon is where he spent a year attending college.

Nicola has learned the secrets of traditional family meals handed down through many generations. His nonna, mother and aunts cooked over a wood fired oven, teaching him their recipes for traditional local cuisine. One popular specialty in particular is called the tiella. This is a pie shaped dish made of thin layers of dough crimped around the edges to enclose a seafood or vegetable filing. They have become so popular that Nicola has written an e-book, Mangia Tiella, complete with photos and instructional videos. Tiella can be found in almost every bakery and pizzeria in Gaeta. It can be eaten hot or cold and always eaten with one’s hands. Nicola teaches cooking classes on the fine art of making tiella in his home.

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Born in a family committed to high standards and a deep love for their hometown of Gaeta, it is no wonder Nicola fosters the same passion and talent for creative cooking and writing. His grandfather, Nicola Magliocca, wrote several books about the traditions of Gaeta and about the unique dialect of the “Gaetanos.” He received the gold medal from the President of the Republic for good service in the public school system.

Nicola's nonna makes a mean tiella!

Nicola’s nonna makes a mean tiella!

Enjoy the following interview I had just recently with Nicola Tarallo.

Were you born in Gaeta? If so, what was it like growing up in Gaeta? Do you have a particular memory about it?

I was born and raised in Gaeta. It is a safe place to grow up. Gaeta is a very small city with a population of 22,000. You can walk the streets and beaches freely. I finished school through high school. I have good memories of when Gaeta was less populated, and there was more space in the town and on the beaches.

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What inspired you to carry on your family’s tradition of writing books, teaching how to make tiella, and promoting Gaeta?

My lifelong passion for cooking has developed throughout my life while watching and helping my grandmother Maria and my mother Nives prepare delicious Italian dishes in the family’s kitchens. All of my books originate from my love of Gaeta and of my family: I helped my grandfather, Nicola Magliocca, draft and prepare several books about the traditions and history of Gaeta and on the unique dialect of the “Gaetanos.” I also published a book of my grandmother’s poems written about their beloved Gaeta.

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Nicola and a happy tiella class…now they get to taste them!

Your grandfather Nicola and grandmother played a big role in your life. What more do you remember about them?

While my Grandfather and Grandmother were writing their books they did not have a computer, everything was finished with a typewriter, after everything was written by hand.

What are the regional foods of Gaeta?

La Tiella is the most distinctive dish in the city of Gaeta –  kind of a double crusted deep pizza or pie. Traditionally is made with seafood (squid, anchovies or catch of the day) or vegetable. Any seasonal vegetable is suitable for la tiella: zucchini, escarole and spinach are popular favorites. Also Olives of Gaeta are very popular all over the world. Easter Cake (Tortano) and traditional Christmas Cookies (Mostaccioli, Roccocò, Susamieglie, Sciuscèlle)

When you aren’t busy teaching and promoting Gaeta, what other passions do you have?

I enjoy riding my beach bike, and walking on the beach, or up the Regional Park of Monte Orlando.

What is your definition of authentic Italian cuisine?

Using fresh products in every dish you make.

Do you teach tiella making in your home?

I teach Tiella making in my home, and I share my grandmother’s wonderful tiella making tips and techniques. I teach how to prepare the different fillings (zucchini, cheese, anchovy, onion etc.). how to knead the dough; how to roll out the dough; how to seal the two layers of dough in the shape of waves of the ocean.

What brought you to Portland for a year?

I was in Portland to attend College to study English and to practice at a Hospital for the Sleep Disorder Technician program.

What are the local wines and do they play a big part in the everyday life of the people?

Local wines do play a big part in the everyday life of the people. A small amount is usually served at the lunch and dinner hour every day.

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What is the dialect of Gaeta?

The dialect of Gaeta is similar to the dialect of Naples area.

Why should one visit Gaeta ~ what makes it stand out from other cities in Italy?

The weather is always nice all year round, it never gets too cold during the winter, and not to hot or humid during the summer. You are able to get fresh fish everyday from the local fish market. There is much history steeped between the narrow streets and churches to discover. One can be easily enticed into wanting to spend an extended amount of time basking on the golden, sunlit beaches and swimming in the warm summer waters. Whether it be hiking along the rugged coastal mountains or shopping in the busy downtown thoroughfare, Gaeta is truly one of Italy’s hidden treasures.

*Visit Nicola’s website for exciting articles and information about his beautiful Gaeta and family traditions at ladolcegaeta.com

*E-books by Nicola, including how to make tiella, sweets, touring Gaeta and the history at ladolcegaeta.com

Click on Nicola Tarallo to follow on Facebook

Verona’s ‘Faire Old Castle’ ~ Lords of Foul Play?

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Castelvecchio, 'old castle', was the most important military structure of the Scaliger empire that ruled the city during the Middle Ages

Castelvecchio, ‘old castle’, was the most important military structure of the Scaliger empire that ruled the city during the Middle Ages

Mystery surrounds Lord Cangrande I (1291 to 1329), early Lord of Verona, like a dark shadow. Historical documents claimed he expired suddenly from polluted drinking water but doubt remained among scholars. Shocking results from a recent exhumation revealed toxic levels of digitalis, a strong poison from the Foxglove family, discovered throughout his liver and colon. It appears that he was likely poisoned under the cloak of medical treatment in the midst of his astounding military victories. One of his physicians was hung afterwards by his successor, Mastino II. Foul play? One would think so.

Lord Cangrande I was the most celebrated of the Scaliger family, the Lords of Verona, who ruled from 1260 to 1387. A noble ruler who was a warrior, prince and patron of Giotto, Dante and Petrarch, he didn’t live to set foot inside Castelvecchio.

Lord Cangrande II della Scala had the castle and bridge built in 1355 for his protection and that of his ruling family. With a reputation opposite that of his predecessor, he was a cruel and tyrannical governor who needed a safe escape route from his abundance of enemies. Venice, the Sforza family and the Gonzaga were a constant threat. He had no lack of forceful neighbors who surrounded his keep in Verona. If needed, the bridge would allow him to escape northwards to relatives in Tyrol.

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William Shakespeare was smitten by the walls of Verona and immortalized them through the words of his Romeo ~

“There is no world without Verona walls, but purgatory, torture, hell itself. Hence “banished” is banished from the world. And world’s exile is death.”  Romeo and Juliette, Act 3, Scene 3

The Adige River in Verona passes gently beneath the red brick segmental arches of the Scaliger Bridge. Graceful in bearing, it was the world’s largest span at the time of its medieval construction. White marble lines the lower sections of the nearly 49 meter length, which connects to the powerful fortress of Castelvecchio.

The day I visited the Castle was grey and chilly, making this imposing Gothic structure all the more real. As I crossed the bridge toward the castle, I passed striking M-shaped merlons (see in photo above) that ran along the top of the walls.  The brickwork opened regularly to offer a view of the river and surrounding countryside. Peace and tranquility permeated the ambience of this visually romantic castle fortress.

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According to records, a tiny little church existed on this site prior to the castle’s construction. It’s name, San Martino in Acquaro, was adopted by the castle. It became known as Castello di San Martino in Acquaro. In 1404 it was renamed Castelvecchio, Old Castle, and became part of the Venetian Republic as their military compound.

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Seven towers in a pentagonal shape give a magnificent character to the castle, which is divided into four buildings. The super lofty castle keep has four main buildings inside. And, a castle is rarely without a moat that surrounds it.

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The castle moat is no longer flowing with water from the Adige River, but is full of lush greenery. Notice the equestrian statue of Cangrande I Della Scala at the top center.

 

Lord Cangrande I Equestrian Statue of Cangrande I della Scalla, sandstone sculpture from the early 14th century housed in the Castle museum. 

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The castle remained steeped in historical events. It was brutalized by French troops during the Napoleonic Wars of 1796 when the population reacted violently to the anti-French revolt. During WWII, the retreating Germans destroyed the bridge and tower (Ponte Pietra), which was rebuilt by dredging the river for the original mortar and bricks.

Carlos Scarpa, famous architect of his time, implemented a final restoration of the castle in 1958. Born in Venice, he was an artist very sensitive to historical times. As a result, the Castelvecchio was carefully repaired to its original design.

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Castelvecchio at night, photo credits by Google

 

 

A Village Stroll through Chianti

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Panzano in Chianti

Panzano in Chianti

The early Fall morning in Chianti is crisp and quiet. My first night at the Castello Verrazzano (yes, the bridge in New York is named after Captain Verrazzano) in Greve leaves me refreshed and eager to explore the new surroundings. I hike up the half mile to the castle from my farmhouse lodgings and eat an early breakfast of artisan cheese and rustic bread washed down with a rich brew of fresh coffee. My fellow lodgers and I share our plans for the day, from winery tours to B&B shopping. Gazing off the deck high above the valley, rows of vineyards swell gently over the landscape. Every row is straight and precise. Another castle sits like a crown jewel on the next tall hill a short distance away.

Back at my car, I head south through Greve on Via Chiantigana. This route cuts through the middle of the famously picturesque Chianti Classico wine zone. With no itinerary, I lean back and absorb the fresh green ambience.  No radio, just me and Chianti. Only 20 minutes down the winding road I come upon the town of Panzano. The brickwork framed with bright flowers and towering church on the main square entice me to stop and take a look around. Following are some of the highlights of my village stroll.

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Someone with an obviously incredible green thumb lives here. The clay pots on the steps and across the wall sprout colorful flowers which add a rich texture to a stately entryway. If only I could make my doorway at home look like this.

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Churches in Italy fascinate me. Santa Maria Assunta adorns the piazza with old world charm. However, unlike many churches in Italy, this one is not very old. It was constructed between 1890 and 1903.

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Door Panels on the church built in 1964 depict scenes from church history. At the top is Pope John XXIII.

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The village streets bring out the shopper in me. To the right are rows of shirts with a cartoon wild boar on the front. Of course, I have to buy one. Chianti has its share of wild boar, called cinghiale, and they are hunted for their tasty meat that often accompanies a pasta sauce or hearty stew.
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Intrigued by a green door outside an old medieval aristocratic residence, I enter into this wine cellar run by three entrepreneurs. Although I did not eat here, the food is traditional Tuscan with a modern twist. I was taken by the rustic atmosphere with a stone terrace that offers both indoor and outdoor dining.

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I stop here for a cappuccino at II Vinaio, an enoteca and bar. Covered completely overhead with a thick green canopy of leaves, the lively chatter of people below entice me to linger. Afterwards, I find some stairs straight ahead that lead down to the lower part of town.
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Most of the doorways are clean and tidy with lots of greenery. Today the village is very quiet except for some tourists roaming the streets.
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Poor old Mr. Boar has been reduced to only a head. Yet he symbolizes an important landmark for tourists. Inside, the famously winsome owner Stefano will let you try some of Chianti’s most remarkable wines. He also offers samples of local honey, balsamic vinegar and olive oil.

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Shallow doorways in rustic brickwork are around almost every corner. Small and pristine, village life in Chianti is the perfect week away for anyone seeking impeccable streets, medieval ambience, tasty authentic Tuscan cuisine and panoramic vistas.

Why I Love Southern Italy

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Baia, just north of Naples, combines antiquity with the modern

Baia, just north of Naples, combines antiquity with modern

When I dream of Italy, i’m wandering along the shimmering Bay of Naples. The mountainous backdrop rises up to meet a baby blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds. A faint smell of citrus drifts on the breeze and tugs at my hair as I watch several white boats skim the water’s surface, leaving a bubbling trail behind them. An old castle fortress stands high on a hilltop, its many levels adding dimension to the landscape.

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My life has been blessed with the good fortune to travel to Italy several times, and I am passionate about every region. Italy never ceases to fascinate me and each time I visit, I feel myself pulled deeper into its history, culture, exotic beauty and friendly people. A return visit is always on my mind.

Although the south of Italy is poorer than the north, to me it is the real Italy. It is true that transportation by train or bus is slower and sometimes undependable, but to really see Italy and experience the culture it is essential to leave oneself a bit vulnerable. Who knows what kind of adventures await you at a bus stop when the bus shows up late? A slow train provides the opportunity to meet the locals and strike up a conversation.

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It is the people who I have met along the way in the south that have put heart and soul into my experience in Italy. This young woman and her son run a tiny restaurant next to my hotel in Naples. The hotel manager personally walked me over to her and introduced us. She wined and dined us with delicious home-made food and charged only a couple of euros. Of course we couldn’t allow it, but she staunchly refused to take any more. After the meal, she took out a laptop and brought up her Facebook photos. We had a wonderful evening even though it wasn’t easy to communicate.

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This young lady is the educational director aboard the glass-bottom boat Cymba, which takes people out onto the shallow waters of the bay in Baia to see the underground ruins of the palatial palaces and statues of the rich and wealthy of the first centuries. When I arrived and found no excursion was leaving for the day due to murky water conditions, she brought me aboard and spent an hour educating me on the ancient luxury resort of Baia.

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After we spend a morning walking through the wonder and grandeur of Naples, we stop for pizza. This young couple, who are attorneys in Naples, sat next to us. They encouraged us to order Margherita with extra cheese which we did. I never imagined pizza could be so delicious. As you can see by our plates, not much was left. They were delightful to meet and spend time with. Now, when I order pizza, it must have extra cheese!

Surrounded by Giovanni and his two brothers

 

Three brothers who own a cameo shop in San Martino, a neighborhood just above Naples, welcome me like I’m the Queen of Sheba. Warm and talkative, they graciously let me observe them hard at work bent over lovely pieces of mother-of-pearl while they carve them into delicate cameo’s.

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I love the passeggiata on the waterfront in Naples during the early evening hours. Families, friends, lovers, kids, all kinds of people from every walk of life enjoy themselves as they intermingle with the crowd. It is warm, friendly and full of life. It signifies the beginning of a slower pace before mealtime, which is typically after 7:30pm.

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Where else can you join a Sunday crowd of locals and take part in rooting for the teams playing water polo? The splashing and fast action is thrilling, and I am welcomed into the group. We all pack together tightly and cheer on the players.

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The shops and street markets are abundant and colorful

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Crazy street markets sell everything you can imagine….at the most amazing bargain prices. I bring my bag and fill it up with fruits and vegetables. I love learning the ropes of bargaining.

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Morning street below my hotel balcony in Naples

This next Spring of 2015 I plan to return to southern Italy and the culture I have come to understand and love. But this time I’m excited to push further south and discover the ancient regions of Calabria, Basilicata, Puglia and forgotten Molise. They, too, have stories to tell, ones that go back to the early beginnings and developed a culture. Genuine, authentic travel among real people doing what they have done for centuries; simply live.

Our ‘Passed-Over’ Easter

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St. Peters Basilica in Rome

St. Peters Basilica rises majestically in Rome

How is it possible to miss the yearly Easter celebration, you may ask. Quite easily, we found, if one’s mind is preoccupied with other matters. Let me tell you just how we temporarily ‘fell off the grid.

Throwing caution to the wind and taking temporary retirements, my husband and I backpacked through western Europe for three months in the Spring of 2004. With only 25 pounds each, which allowed us two changes of clothing and our basics, we embarked upon the adventure of our lives. Flying out of Portland International Airport on March 9th, we found ourselves in Amsterdam the following day. From there we took a flight to Athens and spent the remainder of March exploring the wonderfully diverse landscape of southern Greece.

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Monastery clings to a mountainside on the Peloponnese

On March 27th, Easter Sunday for the western world, we were curiously investigating all the nooks, crannies and tiny chapels of a monastery, Eloni-Chynuria, north of Kosmas on the Peloponnese. Sitting on a mountainside shelf, it was nearly hidden from a distance. A winding road through desert country took us up to the monastery, where I donned a skirt over my jeans (requirement for modesty) and absorbed the Greek Orthodox ornate Byzantine decor. Panoramic vistas of low valleys and rugged mountains dominated the landscape from the rock walls above.Taverna in KosmosTaverna in Kosmas

Continuing our drive down the rocky Peloponnese, we had lunch in a lively, down-home taverna in Kosmas run by a local family. We enjoyed a simple but tasty dish of chicken and spaghetti, cooked spinach and rose wine. Next to us an elderly woman sat at a table in a traditional black Greek dress, quietly enjoying her own thoughts. The warm open friendliness of these local people transformed a simple lunch into fond memories.

Throughout the day we enjoyed the panoramic and visually stunning view of the Aegean Sea. Thoughts of Easter day back home were far from us. EUROPE04 152

A few weeks later we were at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome when it dawned on us that Easter had come and gone while we were in Greece. What a surprise! On May 5th, while dining on the glistening sun streaked water of Lake Como, it never occurred to us that Easter was happening in the East.

Easter had ‘passed over’ us unnoticed. Explorations of the multi-layered Peloponnese with its Byzantine fortresses, mystic monasteries and homey tavernas kept our thoughts far from home. Italy intoxicated us with the ruins of Pompeii, vineyards of Campania serving ancient wines of the Greeks and Romans, the Eternal City with its multiple layers of history, and the richness of the north. Although surprised and a bit saddened by it, we knew it was probably a once in a lifetime occurrence. At least we hope so. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Matera, A Rebirth Among the Rocks

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My first view of Matera appeared as an untidy heap of tan rock buildings and caves that seemed to rise from the earth. As I scanned the city, my eyes searched for a break of greenery and open expanse, but there was very little to be found. What I saw was layers upon layers of history, crowded and jumbled together in chaos. It was unbelievable and a bit discomforting at first.

I have never seen anything like Matera. Located in Basilicata in the most southern part of Italy, it is one of the few places that has been continually inhabited. Stark and bleak, there was little color to give it warmth. And yet, I was drawn to this antiquated city. Matera shows her face without shame. She has been through too much in her long life, dating back 7,000 years from paleolithic times.

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As part of the Sassi, a fascinating land of cave dwellings and rock churches and a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, Matera has recently been awarded the title of European Capital of Culture for 2019. The city will draw many from around the world to discover its diverse history and culture, with the hope of bringing about significant long term economic, cultural and social benefits.

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Matera began as a troglodyte society, cave dwellers. During the classical and medieval period, many artists and peasants found their home among these caves and rock buildings. Then in the 1950’s, Matera earned the reputation of being “the shame of Italy” due to the extreme poverty of the people. It was then that the entire population of an estimated 16,000 farmers and peasants were relocated to new government housing nearby, which left Matera an empty shell.

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But today Matera is experiencing a rebirth that is truly exciting to see. Extensive restorations are now housing cave hotels, private homes, and restaurants. During my stay here, I enjoyed dining in a charming cave restaurant and even spent a few nights in a cistern that had been refurbished.

Below are some photos of my time spent in Matera. I plan to be back in 2019, to see Matera beautifully adorned and enjoying the recognition she so much deserves.

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Church of San Giovanni Battista ~ consecrated in the year 1233

IMG_3481The 18th century Church of the Pergatory

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Rome’s Piazza di Pietra and the Temple of Hadrian

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A leisurely walk through Rome is one of my favorite things to do while spending time in the Eternal City. History has always fascinated me, and here there are endless traces of it.

While spending time exploring the Pantheon neighborhood, I found myself in Piazza di Pietra, Piazza of Rocks. The name is derived from the stones of the former temple that were used to create the piazza.

The Temple of Hadrian, built in 145 AD by Antonius Pius, Emperor Hadrian’s adopted son and successor, still partially remains as a conversion into a modern office building. Eleven Corinthian columns that tower to over 48 feet high still stand, supporting the original architrave, the beam that rests on the columns. A section of the cella, or original wall, can be seen as well.

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Below is a reconstruction of the original temple from Wikipedia.*

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What I found most fascinating is the depth of the original street level, which measures 16 feet. It has been dug out so that the foundation is exposed to demonstrate how much lower the city of Rome sat 2,000 years ago. All of the columns have been gently restored by UNESCO. The massive foundation is made of Proconnesian marble brought from Turkey. The Hagia Sophia temple was partially built by this marble as well.

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Today, the Temple of Hadrian houses the Borsa Valoridi Roma, Rome’s stock exchange.

If you happen to be near the Pantheon, I highly recommend a late afternoon cocktail in the Piazza di Pietra with a view of this stunning temple. As the sun lowers, an interesting play of light crosses the columns. It’s at this moment you may begin to feel present in a bygone time, one that lies well below the surface, teeming with life.

 

 

Explore the Sea Grottos of Polignano a Mare

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Polignano a Mare, known as the Pearl of the Adriatic, is perched atop a slice of erosion scarred limestone above the Adriatic Sea in Puglia. At 25 meters tall, it is the perfect location for the International Red Bull Cliff Diving Competition, where the best divers from around the world gather to perform exotic stunts that are guaranteed to draw huge crowds. In September of 2015, Polignano a Mare hosted the World Series for the third time.

Bastione di Santo Stefano, the tan brick structure in the middle of the photo below, has been the cliff diving location for the competition.

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Rocky grottos (caves), some very deep and expansive, run along the jagged coastal cliff walls. There are nearly 40 of them in Polignano a Mare alone. We scheduled a tour by boat with Polignano Made in Love, located in town. At the waters edge our Captain, Dorino, met us on his boat for an excursion into some of the most exotic sea grottos.

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We left the shallow harbor and turned left around a rocky point into the endless expanse of crystalline waters that make up the Adriatic Sea. Warm salt water splashed lightly on us as we picked up some speed. Captain Dorino introduced himself and shared some of his fascinating knowledge of the grottos we would explore by boat.

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Just below the town is the Grotta Palazzese, the largest of the grottos and considered one of the most beautiful scenic wonders of the world. Now a restaurant, the cave expands clear back to the center of town in a vast semicircle. The restaurant is lit by the natural marine light from the Adriatic, with the help of candlelight by night. Access to the restaurant from the ground is possible by a staircase carved into the rock. Known as the “summer cave,” the elegant Ristorante Grotta Palazzese is open from May to October.

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Captain Dorino quickly engaged us all by sharing the natural history of the area combined with some colorful stories. The erosive action of wind and water has carved out numerous grottos which we observed from our boat. We were all ready to do some cave exploring. Here I am accompanied by my blogging friends, Victoria Di Maio, and Margie Miklas.

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The entrance to our first cave, Ardito Grotto, was fronted by water of a gorgeous shade of green. Limestone cliffs towered high above us as we entered the cave through the huge expansive opening.

 

 

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Small beams of sunlight found ways to penetrate the rock and illuminate the unique play of colors on the cave walls. Our voices echoed all around.

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The next grotto we explored nearly exploded with gorgeous marine colors as sunlight entered through a couple of holes in the cavern ceiling, casting a glow on cave walls and ocean waters. Purples, greens and blues came to life in muted layers.

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It was fairly shallow and I was tempted to jump overboard and wade in the warm Adriatic. Now I wish that I had.

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We were all amazed at the appearance of a heart of white light on the cave wall as the sun came through a hole in the ceiling.  It moved slowly along the rocky outgrowth.

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The island of St. Paul, better known as “Rock Hermit,” was a curiosity. It is about three hundred meters from the overhanging cliffs of Polignano. On the summit are the ruins of a chapel dedicated to St. Anthony Abbate (1612). It was used as hospital in 1837.

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Some of the caves of notable interest include the Cave of the Swallows, the Episcopina Cave with tunnels that joined the Mother Church to the sea, the Chiangella Cave where legend states that the cries of weeping mothers could be heard over their abducted daughters by the Saracens and pirates. There is also the Cave of Nuns, which was visited by the religious and offered the nuns a private place to swim.

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Captivating, imaginative and alluring, these sea grottos are a magnificent work of natural art. It left me with little wonder why they are the objects of mythical legends from thousands of years ago. Their mystic effects are fathomless.

 

 

 

 

Da Vinci Rules (14 Tips for a Healthy Life)

Dear Readers, I am so impressed by my friend Raeleen’s article about Leonardo Di Vinci’s idea of a healthy lifestyle that I had to reblog this article for you to read. Leonardo obviously knew a thing or two about living well! Enjoy…

The Italian Art of Living Well

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Centuries later, Leonardo da Vinci’s advice for living a healthy life still has relevance and has been confirmed by researchers. Take from the following 14 pearls of wisdom what applies to you—only YOU know what you must modify in order to give your body and mind the ultimate support as you go through each day. These notes were from Richter’s version of the Notebooks of Leonardo—italics represent my own commentary.

What changes will YOU make based on the da Vinci 14? Comment below and share your thoughts!

According to Leonardo, good health comes from the following practice*

  1. Eat only when you want (want meaning hungry) and sup light.
  2. Chew well, and let what you take be well cooked and simple (He was way ahead of his time in knowing certain foods need to be cooked well, and are more easily digestible when cooked).
  3. He who takes…

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The Gulf of Poets ~ An Artist’s Muse

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The Gulf of Poets as seen from Doria Castle in Portovenere. Below is the medieval street, the carugio, lined by pastel houses with tan roofs.

 

The Golfo dei Poeti, or the Gulf of Poets, is the literary nickname for the Gulf of La Spezia that lies on the Ligurian Riviera just south of the Cinque Terre. The area has long attracted artists and writers, many of them well-known such as Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, D.H. Lawrence, George Sands, Henry Miller and Virginia Woolf. Surrounded by a surreal landscape of dramatic cliffs and rock formations that inspires mood according to the lighting, the Gulf of Poets is truly a bewitching cove accented by crystalline waters.

Percy and Mary Shelley came to the area in 1819 and stayed in a white-washed villa named Casa Magni, which was situated on the promenade at the tiny village of San Terenzo. It proved to be a place of inspiration for the both of them. The nearby Lerici Castle was supposedly the setting for Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” novel, and it was here that Percy composed some of his most beautiful and famous lyrics and songs. Inscribed on the villa itself are his words, “A lovely house close by the soft and sublime scenes of the Bay of Lerici.” Another inscription reads, “I still inhabit this Divine Bay, reading dramas and sailing and listening to the most enchanting music.” They were often visited by Lord Byron, who resided across the bay in Portovenere. It is said that at least once he swam the 7.5 km across the bay to visit his good friends, the Shelley’s. This was a remarkable feat in itself as Lord Byron was known to have a club foot.

Tragically, in 1822, it was in this bay that Shelley lost his life in a drowning accident while sailing his boat, Ariel, from Livorno to San Terenzo. Although a good sailor, he and his two English companions encountered a storm that drove his boat to the bottom of the bay. Shelley’s body and those of his companions were found later washed up on shore. It is believed that his spirit still inhabits the inlets and promontories of the bay.

The villages of the Gulf of Poets include Lerici, Sarzana, Tellaro, San Terenzo, Montemarcello, Portovenere, and the city of La Spezia. There are three islands in the bay; Palmaria, Tino and Tinetto. The bay remains vitally active with water sports such as windsurfing, sailing and canoeing.

If you go:

The nearest airports are Pisa and Florence.

* Portovenere can be reached by ferry from La Spezia or Lerici. There is a bus from the train station in La Spezia.
* Lerici can be reached by ferry from La Spezia, Portovenere, and The Cinque Terre. Ferries run from the 1st of April. There’s a scenic drive from La Spezia, and there’s a large car park between San Terenzo and Lerici. A shuttle bus runs between the two, but it is a short walk to either village.
* The best time to visit is Spring or Autumn as the Gulf of Poets can get very crowded in high season.

For details on accommodation, restaurants and other travel information:
www.portovenere.it
www.rivieradellaliguria.com

 

Here’s to 2016 ~ Make Those Travel Plans a Reality

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“Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has courage to lose sight of the shore” ~ Andre Gide

I’ve heard it said that travel is the ruin of all happiness. In my experience, this bears some truth. When I first took that overseas flight to Italy, I could never have imagined the cultural wonders and exotic beauty that I encountered in this ancient foreign land. The entire two-week experience literally blew my mind. After I returned, it was only four months before I was back in Italy for another few weeks of exploration…this time solo. My self could not get over it, and my excitement and thirst to know more inspired me to return, again and again.

That has been 15 years ago and I haven’t slowed down much. A financial sacrifice is always inevitable, but I’ve never regretted it. At times, I’ve lived on the ragged edge just to squeeze the funds to make that trip again.

It is also true that happiness lies not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes to see the everyday mundane. Between my times of travel and being home in the familiar, I have found there is a valid place for both mindsets.

My wish for all of you is that you make travel a priority for 2016. It doesn’t need to be clear “over the pond,” but maybe a shorter distance away. Experience a life and culture that differs from yours. Keep an open mind and notice the childlike wonder begin to captivate you. It will stretch you and reward you simultaneously. The memories you make will last a lifetime that no one can take away.

Felice Anno Nuovo Amici Miei…. Happy New Year my friends!

Thank you for being a part of my life as I have traveled over those old cobbled streets and ancient fortresses. Your support, comments, and encouragement mean the world to me, and whether you know it or not, you all play a large part in this entire Italian experience. My hat is off to each one of you…..and my heart.

Salute!

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Italy in Our Hearts

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With every trip I make to Italy, I bring back more treasured memories of the warm and endearing hospitality of its people. In fact, not only do I keep a ‘diary’ of sorts by writing my articles for Timeless Italy, but I seek out ways at home to keep this Italian way of life vibrantly alive on a daily basis.

One activity I have recently taken up has been to join a book club of Italy lovers like myself. Between us all, we keep Italy alive and well in our hearts and minds as we enjoy a monthly Italian lunch of prosecco, salad, main dish and tiramisu while discussing our latest book choice.

At our last book luncheon, we were accompanied by a journalist for the Lake Oswego Review. Here he shares his observations of our lively group at Nicoletta’s Table. Although the group looks to me as the “Italy expert,” I can honestly say they are just as knowledgable and have shared their incredible Italian journeys as well. Enjoy….

Showing their love for Italy

Nicoletta’s Table Book Club is about food, friendship and fun

REVIEW, TIDINGS PHOTO: CLIFF NEWELL - The only bad thing about the Nicolettas Table Book Club is that their room isnt big enough. It can barely contain the members of the club and their high spirits.

REVIEW, TIDINGS PHOTO: CLIFF NEWELL –

The only bad thing about the Nicoletta’s Table Book Club is that their room isn’t big enough. It can barely contain the members of the club and their high spirits. For ladies who love Italy and can’t get enough of it, the Nicoletta’s Table Book Club is just the place to go.

That is if you can get a seat at the table…..

The club meets in a side room of the popular Lake Oswego restaurant on State Street, and a typical meeting recreates the Italian family dining experience because there are so many (too many?) people sitting around the large oval table. Everyone is animated, laughing and talking, wine flows, and the food is “magnifico.”

When good food and good company come together, the result is magic. Especially with Italian food.

“This club has taken on a life of its own,” club founder Lori Greer said. “This is a community built around a love of food, travel, love of Italy, meeting new people.”

“Love of Nicoletta’s is why we’re here,” Cheryl Dotten said. “It is so nice to have a place like this instead of going to downtown Portland and fighting the traffic.”

The club is also about the love of Nicoletta’s Table owner Shari Newman. Having a book club was her idea in the first place, and since so many people love Newman’s restaurant, Greer thought it was a great idea. Even though she had to shrug off some early discouragement.

“At the first meeting, I was the only one there,” Greer said. “But the setting was so beautiful and the food was so good, I knew this club would be a success.”

Of course, she was right. Greer is now surrounded by happy Italophiles, all of them ready to enrich their Italian experience.

They even discuss books about Italy. The tome reviewed at the most recent meeting was “An Italian Journey” by James Ernest Shaw. The discussion is loud, witty and the laughter rolls. Observations are pungent: “When you marry an Italian, you marry his mother.” What the women liked most about the book is its description of how close Italian families are, living in one city and one neighborhood for decades, maybe centuries. This remarkable strength of community is something they envy.

Almost all of the club members have traveled to Italy and could probably write a pretty good book about their adventures. But when it comes to knowledge of Italy, the club looks to “our expert” — Susan Nelson. Her great Italian experience started 13 years ago on a quick two-week vacation that covered three countries — France, Italy and Switzerland.

“I loved it all, but Italy captivated me,” Nelson said. “I think it was a combination of the medieval villages, monuments from the Roman Empire, food and wine, the gorgeous art, history, the people, and the beauty of the countryside. I felt like I was cast under an exotic spell.”

Once under the spell, Nelson kept going back. Now she travels to Italy once or twice a year and has written 200 blog articles about her experiences and discoveries. Her best discovery has been new friends.

“The first time you meet, you are friends,” Nelson said. “The second time you meet, you are family.”

Having a person like Susan Nelson around is a valuable asset for the book club, and the club, with its “wonderful group of ladies” helps Nelson ease her craving for all things Italian.

Certainly it will help to have Nelson’s expertise when the club has its dream come true: a trip to Italy by all of the members of the Nicoletta’s Table Book Club.

I hope you enjoyed this review and that you have thought of ways to keep Italy alive in you own world, wherever that may be.

 

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