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.

L'Arte Della Ceramica

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.”

Positano is the perfect place to find inspiration. There is beauty from every angle. IMG_3816

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

Tuscany’s Villa Vignamaggio ~Much Ado About Mona Lisa

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Villa Vignamaggio in Greve in Chianti

Mona Lisa was born here…..or was she?

Considered to be one of the oldest and most enchanting wine estates in Tuscany, the vast 14th century Renaissance Villa Vignamaggio contains all of 85 rooms on a 400 acre wine estate in the Chianti region. Hills, vineyards, castles and cypress trees create a mythical landscape appropriate to the mysterious shroud that surrounds the villa.

Much debate exists concerning Mona Lisa’s place of birth. A noblewoman by the name of Lisa Gherardini and wife of rich silk merchant Francisco Giocondo, she is famous for her portrait by Renaissance painter Leonardo di Vinci. It was her husband who commissioned Leonardo to paint his wife, yet Leonardo refused to part with the painting. He took it into France and kept it with him until his death when it became part of the French royal collection.

Those of the Villa Vignamaggio claim that she was born within its walls in 1479. It has been noted by some that if one looks closely at the background of the painting, they will see the same view as that from the Villa terrace, suggesting that the picture was painted from there.

Leonardo scholar Giuseppe Palanti, after studying the city of Florence’s archives for decades, is convinced that Mona Lisa was born in a house on the side street of Via Maggio in Florence. Later, Mona Lisa lived very close to Leonardo in San Lorenzo as a young married woman.
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Much Ado About Nothing, a 1993 adaption of William Shakespeare’s romantic comedy, was filmed at Villa Vignamaggio in Chianti. In the movie, Kate Beckinsale and Keanu Reeves duke it out as the one accuses the other of infidelity just prior to her wedding day. However, merriment and love eventually find their way into the elegant Italian gardens surrounding the estate with much singing and dancing.

It is interesting to note that both Leonardo and Shakespeare came from insignificant backgrounds but rose to universal acclaim.

Enter through the door

Enter through the door

Passing through the entrance gate on a visit last September was like walking into a pristine medieval realm. Tall stately trees lined the side of the stairs, reminding me of attentive soldiers. At the top a vast garden spread out before the long and palatial villa. I ran my hand over the prickly forest green hedges trimmed with care. Bright red geraniums and pink impatients brought splashes of color against the variegated foliage. A young couple conversing softly in a corner nook is all I could hear in the surrounding silence.

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Fine gravel walkways crunched under my feet and rambled all throughout the grounds, accentuated with occasional terracotta pots of flowering geraniums.

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Copy of the Mona Lisa ~ Vasari, art historian of the Renaissance, notes that Leonardo hired jesters and singers to keep a smile on her face while he painted her.

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Rolling vineyards at the estate

Vineyards of the Vignamaggio estate

The winery at the Villa is a major supplier to the Quirinal, or Presidential Palace in Rome as well as to the Senate of the Italian Republic. Vignamaggio produces 230,000 bottles of wine each year. After over 500 years of winemaking, the winery has gained prominent standing. The harvested grapes are processed through a strict regiment of fermentation which afterwards leaves the wine in oak barrels for 4 years. It is then divided between Chianti Classico, Chianti Classico Riserva I.G.T., and Vinsanto del Chianti Classico DOC. Roughly two-thirds of the bottles are exported, while the remaining third are sold within Italy and at the estate.

A host of amenities include swimming pools, horseback riding, bicycling, cooking classes, a spa center, and meandering walks among vineyards and olive groves.

Castello Verrazzano, another Renaissance wine estate and the birthplace of seafaring explorer Captain Verrazzano, can be seen on the neighboring hilltop.

Castello Verrazzano in Chianti

Castello Verrazzano in Chianti

My previous posts, “Captain Verrazzano’s Castle Wine Tour,” and “Tuscany’s Castle Winery Leaves a Dashing Legacy” will reveal some exciting aspects that many are not aware of. Take a look, and understand the deeper spirit of Chianti.

*Villa Vignamaggio Accomodations 

 

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.

Monastery on Pelopennese

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

Positano’s Classy Ristorante La Sponda

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A touch of elegance at the Ristorante La Sponda in Positano

A touch of class at the Ristorante La Sponda in Positano

Perched midway up the hillside amidst Positano’s tumbling pastel villas and shops, the spacious Hotel Le Sirenuse stands out in the crowd. A deep ruby-red color edged in white, it presents an elegant facade. Originally a summer home for the Neapolitan Sersale family, they converted it into a luxury hotel in 1951. The hotel contains 58 rooms.

My two friends and I, fellow Italy travel writers, arrived for lunch and were met with a warm and generous welcome by the staff. The classy furnishings and elegant design of the hotel caught my attention instantly.Well ordered and extravagant, it was a pleasure to enjoy the decor.

Le Sirenuse Hotel, Positano

Le Sirenuse Hotel, Positano

Dining terrace of La Sponda Ristorante inside the hotel

A terrace photo from Ristorante La Sponda in Positano

A terrace shot of us in front of our table just before dining~left to right are Victoria DeMaio, Myself, and Margie Miklas

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We were ushered into the dining area of the Ristorante La Sponda by our maitre ‘d Vincenzo and seated at a table with a stunning view of the vast blue Mediterranean. The scenery was rimmed with climbing vines and potted trees. I learned that at night-time, over 400 candles are lit on the dining terrace, creating a romantic atmosphere.

View of Positano and the Mediterranean from our seats at Ristorante La Sponda

View of Positano and the Mediterranean from our seats at Ristorante La Sponda

Our waiter, Saverio, served a bottle of sparkling cool prosecco followed by a delicious asparagus cream soup embellished with buffalo ricotta and a good splash of local olive oil. It was rich and velvety. The ingredients used by the chefs in the kitchen are fresh and locally grown to provide the diner with a variety of authentic Mediterranean flavors.

Asparagus soup at Ristorante La Sponda in Positano

We begin with a delicious asparagus soup 

The lovely hand-painted plates were locally made with traditional designs, making the various dishes appear even more colorful. A Caprese Salad made with succulent sun-ripened tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella balls sprinkled with basil soon appeared.

Succulent Capresse Salad at Ristorante La Sponda in Positano

Our sommelier brought a bottle of Costa D’Amalfi DOC Tenuta San Francesco white wine to the table. The Tenuta winery is located only 18 miles from the restaurant in Tramonti. Founded in 2004, the winery grows local and rare grape varieties. The per Eva is a blend of three grapes and has a strong aroma of fresh flowers and honey with a nut like finish.

Fine white wine grown locally to accompany our meal.

Fine white wine grown locally to accompany our meal.

My entrée was Paccheri pasta with a medley of seafood and small tomatoes tossed in a light wine sauce. Some was tucked inside each pasta, creating a seafood lovers heaven.

A Seafood Lover's Heaven ~ wide macaroni stuffed with shrimp, muscles and white fish tossed in a light sauce that embellished a hearty taste of the sea at Ristorante La Sponda in Positano

A Seafood Lover’s Heaven ~ wide macaroni stuffed with shrimp, muscles and white fish tossed in a light wine sauce.

Next, a plate of freshly caught white anchovies soaked in olive oil with a splash of lemon.

Local anchovies and olive oil at Ristorante La Sponda in Positano

A delicate white fish, flaky and moist, decorated with bits of calamari and seasoned just right.

Plate of freshly caught white fish at  Ristorante La Sponda in Positano

Freshly caught white fish

A Piece of Art! Italy reigns supreme in the art world, especially when it comes to food. This is a fresh ravioli dish with pesto and pomodoro sauces poured over the top, making the color of the Italian flag.

A Piece of Art! Italy reigns supreme in the art world, especially when it comes to  food. This is a ravioli dish with sauces on top the color of the Italian flag. At Ristorante La Sponda in Positano

The meal was followed up a steaming cup of fresh espresso and a small glass of locally made limoncello.

Our young waiter introduced a bottle of locally produced limoncello

Our young waiter introduced a bottle of locally produced limoncello

Cafe and dessert of chocolate cake with gelato and berries comes afterwards

Dessert consisted of a moist chocolate cake and a plate of cookies with biscotti. Every detail throughout the entire meal was attended to.
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Margie Miklas presents with her book. Victoria De Maio smiles brightly in the center

We were introduced to Giovanni Ciccone, the Director of Operations. Margie presented him with her new book of lovely photos of Italy while Victoria flashed a beautiful smile.

Ristorante La Sponda is more than a meal…it is an experience. I found the service to be outstanding with graciousness and finesse. Thank you Hotel Le Sirenuse and Ristorante La Sponda for a lovely dining experience.

+39 089 875066
I'm delightfully surrounded by our hosts!

I’m delightfully surrounded by our hosts!

The luxurious Hotel Le Sirunese

The luxurious Hotel Le Sirenuse

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View of Positano from the outdoor terrace ~

Outdoor pool and view of the Mediterranean ~
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Scenes from Lecce

Lecce is located in the heel of the boot that is Italy. It is a city of creamy yellow limestone buildings dressed in baroque architecture that in earlier years was a city of monasteries and bastions as protection against the Turks. Today Lecce is the easternmost provincial capital of Italy in the Salento region. I found it fascinating in several respects, most notably as a “city of elegance and refinement, of art and romanticism, of festivity and of poetry.” 

The past few days have found me walking the streets of Lecce while peeking into shops, churches and cafes along the way. I have had a small group of wonderful companions to accompany me and share in exciting new discoveries. Enjoy some random photos taken from the walk below.
               

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