Sunday, April 29, 2012

Words of Wisdom

Pincio Park, Rome
Il futuro appartiene a chi 
crede nella bellezza dei propri sogni.

The future belongs to those 
who believe in the beauty of their dreams. 
 - Eleanor Roosevelt.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Matera, Basilicata and Carlo Levi

Continuing stories of travel in Puglia and Basilicata
Daybreak in the Sasso Barisano, Matera, Basilicata,
Matera was easily the most fascinating stop on my travels this year. Another UNESCO World Heritage site, this old village is famous for its sassi. According to Wikipedia:

"Matera has gained international fame for its ancient town, the "Sassi di Matera" (meaning "stones of Matera"). The Sassi originate from a prehistoric (troglodyte) settlement, and are suspected to be some of the first human settlements in Italy. The Sassi are houses dug into the rock itself. Many of these "houses" are really only caverns, and the streets in some parts of the Sassi often are located on the rooftops of other houses. In the 1950s, the government of Italy forcefully relocated most of the population of the Sassi to areas of the developing modern city. However, people continued to live in the Sassi, and according to the English Fodor's guide: 'Matera is the only place in the world where people can boast to be still living in the same houses of their ancestors of 9,000 years ago.'"

the landscape around Matera
The plight of people living in the Sassi caves was recorded by Carlo Levi, who was a writer, painter and physician. Because of his anti-fascist activism, he was exiled to live in a remote area of Basilicata in 1935-36. In 1941, he wrote Cristo si è fermato a Eboli (Christ Stopped at Eboli),  a memoir of his experiences living among the poor in Basilicata. Levi's writing brought attention to the living conditions in Matera, often referred to as la vergogna d’Italia (the shame of Italy), leading to sweeping changes in the 50's. The book was then made into a movie, which I have seen several times, and it inspired me to travel to Matera.

An idealized version of life inside a Sassi home, where ten people might live. Beds were made in and on top of cupboards.
recreation of life inside a Sassi home
Getting to Matera was somewhat complicated, as I had to travel north from Alberobello to Bari on one train, then transfer to another train system in Bari, going south and west. There are four different train stations in Bari: they are near each other but not well designated, so I spent time inquiring about the location of the Ferrovie Appulo Lucane after arriving from Alberobello on the Ferrovie Sud-Est. I also learned that it was important to sit in a specific section of the train to get to Matera, as one section of the train would turn off to reach Gravina from the town of Altamura. A woman had warned me about this, but failed to let me know which section would be the one going to Matera. Just before we got to Altamura, I asked if the train was going to Matera, and learned that I would need to get off at the next stop and hop on the coach ahead of the one I was on. 

a view of the Sasso Caveoso and several churches.
Okay, so I arrived in Matera and walked to the centro storico, about 10 minutes from the train station. My hotel was located in the heart of the sassi, and I had an incredible view of  the area from a balcony in my room. But it was a steep winding walk down an ancient cobblestone path to reach the hotel, and I had to carry my suitcase part of the way, due to the uneven cobblestones. I would hate to walk these streets in icy weather!

Path down to the hotel
I spent several days walking up and down, over and through the streets of the Sassi. During March, it was quiet in the Sassi, and it often seemed as if I had the place to myself.

In contrast: a view of the modern piazza
Besides the Sassi, I was also interested in learning more about Carlo Levi, via the exhibits on display in the local museum about his life, writings and art. While viewing an exhibit of his paintings, and discussing them with a museum guide, it was obvious how his emotional state changed after living in exile in Basilicata. Levi had come from a privileged, well-educated family in Torino, and was profoundly moved by the poverty and hardship he encountered. As a young man, his paintings showed clear skill, but they were bland in comparison to the intensity and power of the paintings crafted while in exile. While I was in Matera, I bought an English translation of his book and am savoring it in small doses, as I find his writing not only eloquent but deeply moving.

If you saw the movie The Passion of the Christ, this street might look familiar.
Coincidentally, when I returned to Zagarolo, Mel Gibson's movie, The Passion of the Christ, was on television over the Easter weekend. Since it was filmed in Matera, and I had just been there, I was curious to see if I could recognize the scenery. Sure enough, I was able to identify some of the same streets that I had trod down only a  few weeks previously!

Even though it was a challenge to get to Matera, it was well worth the effort to witness this unique and ancient village. Like the trulli of Alberobello, it was interesting to get a glimpse of what life might have been like living in these unusual structures that served as homes for many.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Strike: You're Out!

So there's a strike? Relax and have a cappuccino!
One of the most maddening aspects of Italian culture that can easily ruin one's travel plans is the ubiquitous and too frequent sciopero, or strike. Strikes can involve the running of trains, planes, buses, boats or trams, the delivery  of goods or baggage at the airport. Pharmacists and teachers have strikes, students have strikes. If something is not going right, it's time for another strike. I've often been able to take them in stride, making alternate plans when the trains or buses aren't running, but I've never been able to understand the logic of the strike system in Italy. For one thing, strikes are usually scheduled and advertised ahead of time. And they usually do not happen during the times that commuters need to travel. But sometimes they do. They usually don't happen on Sundays. But sometimes they do. Strikes are annoying, inconvenient, and confusing. But most of all, they seem absurd, as they rarely seem to accomplish anything at all, other than a chance to voice one's discontent and cause disagi (inconvience). But do they affect any real change? Not happening! So, what's the point?

Ad esempio: last Tuesday, as I approached the train station on my way to Rome, a woman handed me a flyer announcing a Cgil (trade union) strike that would occur on Friday: trains, buses and trams in Rome would be affected. Fair warning. I knew to avoid going to Rome that day. However, I did make plans to go to Rome on  Sunday, for the birthday festivities going on this weekend. Later, as I was reading an online Florence giornale (newspaper), I noticed that a national transport strike was planned for Sunday, affecting travel throughout Italy. However, there was no mention of it in any of Rome's online giornali. I did an online search, and found that, indeed, a strike was planned from 9pm on Saturday until 9 pm on Sunday. It was also publicized on the Trenitalia train system website. But no mention of it in Rome's newspapers. Why? Was Rome exempting itself from the strike plans? Since it's quite odd for a strike to be scheduled for a Sunday, I decided to take a chance and go ahead with my plans to take the train at 8 a.m. Sunday morning. But when I arrived at the train station, the train to Rome was sorpresso, that is, cancelled. Other trains were running, but no train to Rome! I chatted with some men about it, telling them that I'd read there would be a sciopero. They didn't seem surprised or even curious: if anything, they seemed resigned. For Italians, an unannounced strike is par for the course. They happen, and you're stuck where you are. Nothing to do but deal with it.

No going to Rome today. Instead, I got back in the car and headed over to Frascati, and had a wonderful time roaming the streets of this lovely village on a quiet Sunday morning. Plenty of time for caffè and a pastry. Maybe this is what strikes are really all about...messing up your plans so you can find something better to do! Ingenious!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Happy Birthday, Roma!

Today is Rome's birthday and Romans have a weekend of celebrations planned to celebrate the 2765th anniversary of the founding of Rome. (Hard to imagine!) Instead of candles, they will celebrate with plenty of fireworks!

Natale di Roma, or The Birth of Rome was established as a national holiday in 1924and was celebrated on April 21. The date was chosen because, according to legend, Romulus founded the city of Rome on 21 April, 753 B.C. The philosopher Varro stated that April 21 was chosen as an auspicious occasion according to astrological calculations. This story was passed down through the writings of some philosophers of antiquity, including Varro. 

Today also ends La Settimana della Cultura, the Week of Culture, when many museums have free admission. I went to Rome earlier this week to take advantage of the event, only to find out that the places I was most interested in seeing were not included on the list! (Baths of Caracalla, Palazzo Barberini's Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, and the Galleria Borghese, which had a reduced fee, but was sold out until April 26.) The Colosseum and Roman Forum were also not free. I did manage to visit Galleria Spada, where I went to see several paintings by my favorite female painter, Artemesia Gentileschi. It seems the economic crisis has caused the city to limit the free admissions this year. 

On Sunday, a parade with 48 historical groups participating will stroll through the streets of Rome in full Roman regalia, then be on display in the Circo Massimo area. I plan to be there!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Market day in Zagarolo

On the weekends, there are two large open markets in Zagarolo. I usually shop on Saturday, when several parking lots in the centro storico fill with vendors selling fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses, breads, honey,  jams, olives, and much more. There are also vendors selling clothes, shoes, kitchen ware, toiletries, jewelry, gadgets of all kinds, and even underwear and socks.

On Sundays, there's a smaller market, which only allows vendors selling food grown or made locally, which is often organic. This is where you find the fresh arugula and fava beans, the newly made ricotta, the bread fresh from the oven. Only food that is in season is sold, so the selection is limited. Right now, that means no fruit, tomatoes, zucchini or eggplant. So the Saturday market works better for me, as I can find all I need for the next week in one place. And the flavors! After often eating tasteless fruit and vegetables in Kansas all winter, the flavors of Italian produce are a feast in themselves!

Here's a sample of what you can get for 6 euros at the Zagarolo Saturday market (it would cost much more at home):

Fresh from the market
4 cipolle rosse red onions
1 peperone gigantic red pepper
1 zucchine
4 mandarini mandarin oranges
3 arancie blood oranges from Sicily
3 mele golden delicious apples from Trentino/Alto Adige
2 cestini di fragole  pints strawberries
1 grappolo di pomodori bunch of Roma tomatoes

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Rome in the rain

Porta del Popolo
I headed out early on another rainy day to meet some friends in Rome. Actually, they are friends of Deborah, the woman I'm house-sitting for, but they invited me to meet them for lunch that day. I arrived several hours early so I could explore the area between Piazza del Popolo and Piazza di Spagna, where we planned to meet.

Piazza del Popolo
First, I went to Santa Maria del Popolo to see two Caravaggio paintings in the Chigi chapel of the church. Then I made my way down Via del Corso to view the house where Goethe lived when he stayed in Rome. A few streets over I found the decrepit mausoleum of Emperor Augustus and his family (from 26 BC!), then the Ara Pacis (Altar of Peace), built about the same time, but still in pristine condition, as it is made of marble rather than the brick of the mausoleum.

A flower vendor stops on Via del Corso to make a sale
Titti and Luana had asked me to meet them at Babington's, a tea house near Piazza di Spagna. I was confused by this, as drinking tea in Rome is not something I am eager to do in Rome, and the prices at this particular spot are a bit high: at least 10 euros for a single cup of tea! I'd rather spend my money on Italian food. But situated as it is across from Gucci, Dior and Prada stores, and the Keats-Shelley museum, it seems they can get away with charging whatever they want.

Titti met me in front of Babington's, carrying a large umbrella with the American flag on it in my honor. Fortunately, tea was not on the agenda for the day: it turns out that the tea house is simply a convenient place to meet. Instead, we proceeded to the Antica Enoteca, where we met Luana, and settled in with glasses of wine and aperitivi (appetizers), served by the lovely sommelier, Silvia. For more info, here's a link:

Antica Enoteca Wine Bar/Restaurant

Titti and Luana at Antica Enoteca
Titti, Luana and Deborah had all worked as flight attendants for more than 20 years on the Alitalia airline, until they were laid off three years ago. Their layoff entitled them to cassa integrazione, a kind of monthly payment, until they are old enough to retire. However, with the current economic situation in Italy, the cassa integrazione is in danger of being eliminated, which would leave these three women and numerous other Italians with no income until they can retire. Since job options are few and far between in Italy, even for the young, they are worried about their future, and rightfully so. In fact, there was a protest in Rome at Piazza della Repubblica that day about the cassa integrazione situation.

Titti and Luana headed for the Pantheon

After the aperitivi, we headed out to locate a restaurant that Silvia had recommended near the Pantheon, Osteria del Sostegno. By this time, it was raining pretty steadily, and the streets were filled with colorful umbrellas. At the Pantheon, we watched the rain coming through the oculus (opening) in the center of the dome, and stopped to view the tomb of Rafael. At the restaurant, we had a feast of antipasti that Silvia had recommended we try. Everything was exquisitely delicious. Then we each had a primo (first course), along with more wine, and an exceptional tiramisu for dessert. Another fabulous meal in Rome! I was happy to make the acquaintance of Titti and Luana, and we have plans to meet for lunch again in a few weeks.

For more info on the restaurant, here's a link:  Il Sostegno

Le ragazze all' Antica Enoteca

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Olevano Romano

Photo by Giorgio Clementi
lovely Julia on the terrace in Olevano
Between the rainy days this week, I drove to Olevano Romano to visit Elena and her family, who are here from Sweden. The drive east from Zagarolo takes about 40 minutes, on winding roads that travel up and down the hills of the Castelli Romani, passing through the hill towns of Palestrina and Cave along the way. Elena's family have a home at the very top of Olevano, with a majestic panoramic view from their terrace of the valley below, a view that extends 180 degrees.

A view from the terrace
I was invited for lunch, and was treated to a delicious feast of appetizers, grilled lamb and pork chops, salad, and roasted potatoes. For dessert, there were strawberries, red wine and ciambelle (cookies to dip in the wine), and caffè. We were lucky to have a few hours of sun before the clouds moved in and rain threatened again.

Ulf at the grill
 Torre della Rocca dei Colonna, built in the 700's

Medieval houses dating from the 13th century
A medieval street near the tower

After our lunch, we walked up to the tower, then down to the centro storico, where we had some gelato. One of the flavors I tried was walnut and fig, which was magnificent. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with these new friends, who already seem like old friends. The conversation, the food, the company, and the setting made a rich feast of my visit to Olevano.

Elena, Julia and Ulf

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Roaming in Rome

It turned colder this week, with several windy, rainy days to boot. But on one fine day, I spent the day in Rome, where it was sunny and much warmer than Zagarolo. I wandered through the Jewish ghetto, along via Julia and in Trastevere. Here's a few scenes from my walk:
Fontana del Mascherone (Fountain  of the Mask) on via Julia, behind Palazzo Farnese. It is said that the Farnese family filled the fountain with wine for their parties!
turn a corner, and find a lovely maiden
a trattoria in Trastevere
Vicolo della Torre, Trastevere
Statue of poet Giuseppe Gioachino Belli at the entrance to Trastevere. What a gent!
another lovely maiden on view inside a palazzo
in contrast, this holy maiden was on a wall along via Teatro di Marcello

Sunday, April 8, 2012


Continuing stories of travels in Puglia
Trulli in Alberobello
From Otranto, I traveled north again, to Alberobello, home of the trulli. First, I went back to Lecce, caught a train to Martina Franca, and then another to Alberobello. (However, if one is coming from Bari, it's a quick train ride to this tourist site.) Along the way,  I passed many fields covered with yellow and orange flowers, more seas of olive trees, and the ever present stones, which are handy for building fences and, well, all those trulli. I also caught a glimpse of Locorotondo, another hill town I hoped to visit.

Fields of flowers were a common sight in Puglia.
Once I arrived in the village, I had a short walk to Hotel Lanzilotta, located in the heart of the centro storico. From Martina Franca on, trulli dotted the landscape: small, circular stone buildings with conical roofs that were once a common living space in this area of Puglia, starting in the 18th century. Now most trulli are used for selling souvenirs or as tourist lodging. 

A park area in Piazza del Popolo, near my hotel. Note the way they trim the trees into a rectangle!
Though trulli are scattered throughout the Murge area of Puglia, most are concentrated in Alberobello, and it was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. Since that time, the cost of owning and repairing the trulli has sky-rocketed. There are over 1500 trulli in Alberobello and many stories exist as to why they are shaped as they are. Early trulli were made without mortar, and legend has it that they were easy to assemble and disassemble, to avoid the taxman. But after seeing them up close, it's clear that it would be no easy task to move a trullo. A more accurate explanation may be that the trulli were built to look like temporary buildings, with small doors and few windows, so that they would not be considered permanent structures that functioned as homes, thus avoiding the wary eyes of tax inspectors.
The town of Alberobello caters to tourism in a big way, and the Rione Monti, an area where there are nearly 1,000 trulli, seems a bit slick and commercial. Trulli are well-taken care of, and goods are sold in every trullo along the main streets. Since many of the same goods were available in each one, the owners were active in trying to attract people to their spot. Some offered free wine and liqueur tastings, or nibbles of various snacks. In particular, taralli, which are like small, thick pretzels without the salt, are a popular Pugliese snack food. I enjoyed trying the various liqueurs, and bought a small bottle shaped like trullo that contains an almond liqueur.
Shopping amidst the trulli
In one trullo, I chatted with the owner, who had lived in the building as a child, and he hopes to make it into a B&B when he retires in a few years. There were many Japanese tour groups in town while I was there, and several of them stayed at my hotel. Alberobello is popular with Japanese tourists, perhaps because it has a link to the UNESCO site in Shirakawa, Japan, home of another type of unusually built traditional house.

Souvenirs for sale
I made a point of going to several museums that explained the history of the Trulli, which I found of great interest. (Museo del Territorio, and the Trullo Sovrano, which is the only one with two stories.) I was surprised how spacious some of the trulli are inside, and how families of 6-8 people made good use of the space.  I also learned about the pinnacles on top of each trullo, and the meanings of the symbols painted on many of them. Some symbols date from pagan times, some are considered magical, and others are Christian pleas for protection.
Interior of a Trulli home (museum recreation)
The Rione Aia Piccola part of town has fewer trulli, but most of them are still lived in. I came across a newly constructed trullo that was not quite finished, made from lovely amber stones.

I'd love to see the inside!
While having dinner one night,  I met a woman from Reno, Nevada who is traveling by herself in Italy for three months. What's unusual is that she's 65, has never been abroad before, doesn't know anyone in Italy, and doesn't speak Italian. Gutsy! And she must have money to afford 3 months of hotels and eating out. I was impressed with her gumption. Brava!

An older, more authentic trullo.
I never made it to Locorotondo, which was only 10 minutes away, as there were no trains on Sunday to take me there. I could have taken a bus in the morning, and returned later that day, but there was still too much to see in Alberobello to risk spending the entire day in Locorotondo. Chissà, perhaps I'll go there on my next visit to Puglia. But I'm glad I had the chance to visit Alberobello and learn about the trulli in more detail. 

Friday, April 6, 2012


Getting to Otranto was a bit of an adventure, or hassle, as some might say. First, I had to locate the Ferrovaria Sud-Est, the regional train service that is used in southern Puglia. There were no signs indicating its location, which turned out to be in back of the more often used Trenitalia station in Lecce. As it turns out, the FSE ticket agent was much friendlier than the Trenitalia guy, and did his best to make sure I understood him. Then I had to find binario (track) 7, though only 1-5 were listed. Oh, I get it, they added two more binari, but forgot to include signs for them. Then there were two trains available, one behind another, and one had to ask to find out which train went where. While waiting for information, I talked a bit with a couple from Saskatchewan, who were headed west but speak no Italian, and I wished them well on their journey as we parted ways on the two trains.

The landscape south of Lecce is rocky and covered with a virtual sea of olivi (olive trees), which some claim  to have been around for thousands of years. Puglia produces most of the olive oil in Italy, as well as most of the wheat. Mussolini, in an attempt to make Italy more self-sufficient, instigated large scale farming of wheat, which continues to this day. In my travels so far, I’ve not seen the vast fields of wheat that are akin to those at home in Kansas. Instead, the landscape I’ve witnessed has been filled with rocks, cactus, olivi and/or the Adriatic Sea. I tried to take photos, but it was impossible from the train. I do have a few good videos of the passing landscape, but they're too long to upload for this post.
I had to change trains in Maglie, and as the only foreigner on board, was looked after by the train porter to make sure I knew when to get off. From Maglie, we headed east for another half hour, and once we arrived in Otranto, I could feel the chill in the air: it was a good ten degrees cooler than it had been in Lecce. While trying to make sense of the map to my hotel, a man approached me, asking if I spoke English. He offered to help me find my hotel. It wasn’t the first time that a Puglesi has offered to help me without being asked. Several times when I lost my way in the streets of Lecce, people eagerly came to my rescue. Some even accompanied me along the way, eager to chat about the reasons for my stay in their city.

Otranto, centro storico
As it turns out, P. would become a too-eager companion for the next few days: he seemed to have little to do and appointed himself as my tour guide, and it was tricky trying to dissuade him from this task. Having studied English and being trained as a tour guide for five years, he wanted to share his knowledge, but his assumption that I would want to spend all my time with him was annoying.

There are three main sights in Otranto: the sea, the basilica with its mosaic floor, and the castle. It is also the most eastern point of Italy, and some say that the coast of Albania across the Adriatic can be seen on a clear day. The seascape is wilder than other parts of the Adriatic coast that I’d seen previously, and the water is pristine, earning Otranto its reputation as The Pearl of the Sea.

A view of the wild beach near the hotel.
There is a dark side to its history, however. In 1480, during an invasion by Turkish Moors, all the citizens were beheaded, after refusing to denounce their Christian faith. The remains of these martyrs are kept in the basilica, with their skulls on view behind glass plated windows. Behind the altar, they have stored the stone on which everyone was decapitated. A bit macabre, to say the least. (And it begs the question, if everyone was martyred, who was around to collect their remains?)

Part of the mosaic that covers the entire floor of the basilica. 
 For more views of the mosaic in intricate detail, check out this link: Otranto Cattedrale mosaici

The chapel with the skulls behind glass.
The hotel I stayed in, Hotel La Punta, had only one guest: me! For a large hotel, it was odd to have the place to myself. The staff was not around most of the time that I was there, but were friendly and helpful when I was there, and I was provided with a telephone number to call any time of the day and night, should I need it. Though the hotel was located near the sea, it was a good 15- minute walk to the town center, which I enjoyed most of the time. The main problem is that I was unable use the internet connection at the hotel, so I had to go to an internet point in town to access it. It was the last week of my online course, so I needed to check in daily for email from my students.

la strada vuota (empty street during siesta)
I had an excellent meal during my stay in Otranto, at a seafood restaurant: it consisted of polpette di melanzane (eggplant fritters shaped like meatballs) and arrosto di mare (grilled fillets of calamaro, swordfish and two large prawns.) I’d actually ordered risotto di mare (seafood risotto), but the waiter misunderstood and brought me the grilled plate of fish instead. When I explained his error, he apologized, and took the plate back, saying he would order the risotto. Well, that would take at least 30 minutes to make, so I said I would eat the fish instead. In fact, I’d wanted to eat fish in the first place, but was put off by the cost. Since he made the error, and I saved them having to discard the fish, I hoped I’d at least get a discount on the fish plate. Wishful thinking: I was charged the usual price. But I decided not to haggle with him about it, as I was the only customer that day, and it really was worth it.

A monument to the heroes and martyrs of Otranto, with the castle in the background.
In the end, staying for three days in Otranto was one too many: in fact, one would have been sufficient. I was disappointed that I was unable to have long walks by the beach, as I had envisioned doing: there were simply no beaches where walking along the shore was easy to do. And the few spots I did find were often littered with trash.  In addition, as P. became more insistent, stating that he planned to accompany me back to Lecce, I became worried about how to get away from him. He barraged me with phone calls, voicemail and text messages, demanding my attention. When he refused to listen when I told him that I didn't want him to come, I realized I needed to put a stop to his plans.  In the end, I left town several hours earlier than expected, simply to escape from him. His response: SEI MALEDUCATA! (You are rude!) Hmmm, I thought the same about him!

I'm glad I had a chance to check the town out, and perhaps it would be more interesting when the weather gets warmer, but my time there was spoiled by the creepy guy who wouldn't leave me alone.