Thursday, May 31, 2012

Earthquakes in northern Italy

A collapsed building is seen in Cavezzo, northern Italy, after another tremor hit the area. 
Picture: Gianfilippo Oggioni AP
MORE than 14,000 people in northern Italy were forced to abandon their quake-damaged homes, with many of them having to sleep outdoors, after the region's second fatal tremor in less than two weeks.  (
I was in Padova Tuesday when the 5.8 earthquake shuddered its way through the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, an area that includes Bologna, Modena and Parma, where my friends Massimo, Marco and Renata live. I had spent the night in an old villa south of Padova, and the windows of the villa shook just walking across the room. What would it be like in an earthquake? If I had stayed there two hours longer, I would know. Instead, I had taken an early bus back to Padova and I was standing in front of the Duomo at 9 a.m. that morning, writing in my journal, waiting for the Battistero to open so I could view its frescoes before leaving town.

Suddenly, people were rushing out of nearby city buildings with worried faces, chattering animatedly about le scosse (tremors), the latest in a series of earthquakes that have occurred over the past two weeks. Oddly, I felt nothing at all from the tremor, but in the old buildings of Padova, beds and bookcases were shaking and windows were rattling, striking fear in the hearts of one and all. As I walked around the centro storico, it seemed everyone had their cell phones in hand, checking on loved ones, sharing their fears. “L’hai sentito” (Did you feel it?)

I was on my way to pick up my suitcase at the home of a friend on the fourth floor of a nearby apartment building, and when I arrived, the family had many stories to share of their experiences that morning. Marisa’s chandeliers, made of Murano glass, swayed like a pendulum during the tremor, and eyes were still watching them, waiting for the next one to hit. Marisa’s son called from Milan with the news that trains were not running, which would compromise my return to Rome. I needed to get back that day, and my mind started spinning, wondering what alternative plans I might be able to make. Buses? A flight? We checked the Trenitalia (train) website, and discovered that all trains in Northern Italy had been suspended. Several suggestions were offered about what to do next, but I decided it would be best to get to the station to see what my options might be.

As expected, there was chaos at the train station. Trains would be delayed for at least three hours while the tracks were evaluated for their safety. I was in no real hurry, as long as I got to Rome before my friend had to leave for Sweden the next day. I settled in to wait, watching others who stood in long lines, trying to make alternate plans for their travels. In the end, I only had to wait two hours for my train, and by that time so many people had given up or made other plans that the Eurostar Frecciargento train, almost always full, was nearly empty. (I’d bought my ticket online several weeks in advance, which provided a 20% discount on the fare.) I arrived in Rome without incident after a relaxing three-hour ride.

Later that evening, I got a report from Massimo about their experience of the earthquake in Bologna. Schools were closed and workers were sent home. I had a chance to talk to Marco on Skype the next day: in Modena, the damages were much worse. His family had decided to send their daughter and barely 1-month old granddaughter to Rome for safety. Marco was working overtime in a nearby hospital to deal with casualties, and was distraught with concern for his family, as well as the damage to his beloved city. Churches, factories, apartment houses and barns had collapsed all over the region.

Though a 5.8  tremor should not cause a great deal of damage when cities are built to meet seismic-safety standards or retrofitted to make them resilient, Italy has several disadvantages: many of its buildings are centuries old and newer construction has been compromised by corrupt building contractors, using inferior materials. In addition, fatalism plagues the Italian mindset, which predisposes them to accept that all things and events are inevitable. With this frame of reference, progress is hampered, and things that could be changed or improved are left undone. In contrast, a 6.1 earthquake struck Japan last week, but there was no significant damage. Since Italy is one of the most-earthquake prone places in the world, will she learn from these tragedies, and plan for a more secure future? It remains to be seen.

As for damages to Italy's food production, the May 20 earthquake  has caused at least 500 million euros of damage to agriculture. One farmers' association estimated the cost by calculating the loss of one million wheels of the region's famous Parmigiano Reggiano (parmesan) and Grana Padano cheeses, along with damage to farm buildings, machinery and the loss of animals. In this week's earthquake, it's been estimated there will be 15 million euros damage to the carefully controlled production of Modena's aceto balsamico (balsamic vinegar), famous the world over. In a country already struggling with a profound economic crisis, these new blows to the economy will only add to Italy's efforts to recover from the crisis.

one of  the many thousands of damaged wheels of  cheese
To be honest, I was ready to leave northern Italy, as I felt helpless to counteract the panic and fear that was prevalent around me. And no wonder: last night another 32 tremors were felt in Modena. Mother Nature threw a temper tantrum here in Zagarolo last week as well, flattening the field of spelt down the street during a hailstorm. But all is calm here today, and my last week in Italy looks to be a tranquil one. In the meantime, I'm concerned for the safety and well-being of my friends up north.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Nemi, Rocca di Papa, Castel Gandolfo

flowers in Castel Gandolfo
On the last day of their visit (10 days ago), I went with Massimo and his family to see some of the Castelli Romani, villages in the Alban hills south of Rome: Nemi, Rocca di Papa, and Castel Gandolfo. Earlier that day, Massimo's brother had texted him at 5 a.m. with the news of a large earthquake near their home in Bologna, so that was on our minds the rest of the day.

Nemi, famous for its fragole di bosco (wild strawberries), is a popular weekend spot often frequented by Romans. 

wild strawberries, anyone?
One of my favorite villages, I first encountered Nemi last year.You can read more about that visit by clicking here: Nemi, 2011

cyclists on a Sunday ride through the Alban hills
Next, we drove to Rocca di Papa, where Massimo had read there was a panoramic view worth visiting.  We walked up steep winding streets barely wide enough for a Fiat Panda, asking people along the way how to find the "rocca." Everyone seemed surpised by the request, then pointed up. When we finally reached the top, there was a ruin of an old fortress, which seems to be frequented by local teenagers rather than tourists. The view? Not  much to write home about. On the way back down, we happened upon a Roman history re-enactment in a local park.

A Roman couple with an ancient machine used to grind grain into flour
Last of all, we drove to Castel Gandolfo, another popular weekend spot. Like Nemi, it is situated by a lake, Lake Albano, and is the summer residence of the Pope. During his absence, the town is often empty.

Castel Gandolfo and Lake Albano
There were few people in town that day, and we had a leisurely stroll down the well-tended centro storico.

Erika and Sofia walking towards Lake Albano
Once we got back to Zagarolo, it was time for my guests to leave, just as it started to rain. They had spent three full days visiting sites in Tivoli and Rome before our drive to the Alban hills, and were pretty wiped out from their excursions. They were also worried about the earthquake damage they might encounter back home. I enjoyed having them around, and I was happy to be able to reciprocate the hospitality they showed me when we spent time together in  Bologna and Vinci several years ago. Ciao, amici!

Erika, Massimo, and Sofia

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Polignano a Mare + Ostuni, Puglia

Continuing stories of travels in Puglia

The only beach area in Polignano
My last stop in Puglia was to visit the seaside village, Polignano a Mare, just south of Bari. After being disappointed by the beaches in Otranto, I was looking forward to walking along the beach in Polignano, only to discover there are no beaches, only craggy cliffs along the Adriatic coast. But it was a quaint, lovely village, and I enjoyed my two-day stay there.

Piazza San Benedetto,  in front of my room.
I stayed with a B&B service that had rooms scattered around the centro storico (historical center), a small and very quiet area during March. The centro storico is so small that there are only two piazzas, with a web of small alleys leading away from them. The area is well maintained to attract and accommodate the flood of tourists that arrive during the summer months. Unfortunately, the piazza outside my room was lit up all night, bright as day, and the curtains in my room did little to dim the brightness, so it interfered with getting a good night's sleep.

 Piazza Vittorio Emanuale
There was a mile-long lungomare (by the sea) walking path, well used by the locals, which I walked along to view the sunrise and again to enjoy an evening stroll. To be honest, there wasn't much else to do. But I enjoyed being by the sea and watching the fishermen gathered along the cliffs. One of them was listening to old Italian love songs on a boom box and singing along.

Another view of the old town.
Sunrise on the Adriatic coast
While in Polignano, I took a 30-minute train ride to visit Ostuni, commonly referred to as "La Città Bianca" (white city) for its white walls and its white-painted architecture. It's said to have been inhabited in the Stone Age, destroyed by Hannibal, then rebuilt by the Greeks. I'd been eagerly anticipating a visit to this "gem," but once there, was unsure what all the fuss is about. I took a pleasant stroll up a cobblestone street lined with souvenir stands to the cattedrale (cathedral), discovered a palm-lined city garden filled with chatting men, and was ready to leave after two hours. It seems the best view of the town is seen from a distance.

Back in Polignano, I had a good meal in a bustling trattoria, which included a primo of ravioloni (large ravioli) made with eggplant and a secondo of spigola (sea bass), baked with a vegetable crust. All in all, Polignano turned out to be one of my favorite places in Puglia, due to its size, proximity to the sea and quiet, laid back atmosphere. From Polignano, I headed north to Bari to catch the Eurostar to Rome, as my travels in Puglia had come to an end.

From the blog archives, you can read previously written stories about Lecce, Otranto, Alberobello and Matera.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Musical chairs

Here in Zagarolo, the weather is perfect, with temperatures in the 70's and a clear blue sky. The climbing jasmine is starting to bloom, the cherries are getting ripe, and there are a handful of green Roma tomatoes on the vine.
Gelsomino (jasmine) in bloom
 There's a field of farro (spelt) down the street that is almost ready for harvest. 

In another field, I've seen three mares with young foals, barely days or weeks old.

This little beauty, an appaloosa, was born a few hours before I saw her yesterday.
The cantina (vineyard) across the street just sent me an invitation to a degustazione next weekend, which will include local food specialties paired with their best wines. Unfortunately, I'll be in Padova!

After the recent visit of my American friends and a trip to Florence last weekend, I had a few days to recover before the next guests arrived from Bologna: Massimo and Sofia, with their daughter Erika. I'm a bit worn out from traipsing around Rome and Florence almost non-stop for 10 days, so my Italian friends are exploring Rome on their own for several days. Then we'll spend a day together in the car, exploring nearby villages.

Sofia brought enough homemade meals and treats to last a week, including fresh pesto, fatto a mano (handmade) to eat with trofie, a pasta I've never tried before. Like pesto, trofie originates in the region of Liguria. She also prepared cannelloni con asparagi (cannelloni with asparagus); several yummy tortes, along with various types of biscotti. Originally from Campania (near Naples), Sofia seems to have mastered both Southern and Northern Italian cooking specialties, and once worked at a pasticerria, so she also has a flair for all kinds of pastries. For their first night here, I made melanzane parmigiana (eggplant parmesan), but I wasn't able to get the buffalo mozzarella that I've used previously, and the cheese was too chewy and less flavorful than anticipated. Massimo and Sofia said it was good, but I beg to differ! Erika is spoiling the cats with ardent attention, and we're all enjoying their visit.

Erika and Massimo spoiling Cocca
In between guests visiting, I've had some work hassles to deal with and the unexpected, 1-month early return of  the woman I'm house-sitting for. Her return has added a lot of drama to my stay, in that basically we are playing "musical chairs" with the house: one of us stays in Zagarolo while the other travels elsewhere. I've been uprooted from the quiet month I anticipated in Zagarolo, but I've had the chance to host some friends here as well as visit others in northern Italy. Next week I'm planning trips to Parma and Padova, then will return to Zagarolo for 10 days while the house's owner goes to Sweden.

I have many stories to share, I just need to find the time and mental space to get to it!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Whirlwind Tour

scene in Rome
I've been busy hosting two guests from my hometown of Lawrence, KS, who were here for 6 days and left today for Florence, where I will join them for the weekend.

Dawn and Brenda: you're not in Kansas anymore, amiche!!!
We had a jam-packed flurry of activities, including three long days in Rome, an open bus tour of Rome, drives to Castel San Pietro, Frascati and Olevano Romano, and a day trip to Ostia Antica and the beaches at Ostia Lido. I hope to catch up on my posts once I return from Florence. A presto!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Tivoli - Villa d'Este

at the Villa d'Este gardens
Il Primo maggio (May first) is a national holiday in Italy, a day that celebrates i lavoratori (workers). To honor the occasion, the Italian government reduced the cost of entry to all state museums, parks and archeological sites to one euro. For the past several weeks, I've been working long hours on an online project, but I decided to take advantage of the holiday discount by driving to Tivoli to visit Villa d'Este, another UNESCO world heritage site. That makes three that I've seen in  the past month, which is not hard to do, since Italy has more World Heritage sites (47) than any other country in the world. So far, I've seen at least 16 of them.

Fontana dell'Ovato
The sun was shining and the temperature was balmy when I set out in the morning. Even the thirty-minute drive to Tivoli was lovely, with lush green growth on all sides, the air perfumed by blooming flowers and trees. Fields of  red poppies and yellow daisies were scattered along the countryside.

Le Cento Fontane One hundred fountains
One of the one hundred fountains
However, there's one thing I can't quite get used to: the prostitutes who sit by the side of the road, waiting for their next customer. It's a common sight on the road to Tivoli. Sometimes they have a car, sometimes they are just sitting on a plastic chair, waiting. There appeared to be some brisk business going on along one stretch of road today, where there was a small parking spot. Ohime!

Fontana di Nettuno
I'd been to Tivoli last year to visit Villa Adriana, but today I got a bit lost trying to find Villa d'Este, which is on the other side of the town. But once I located it, found a parking spot near the villa and paid the parking fee, I was good to go. Since the entry fee was only one euro, I decided to splurge on an audio guide, which turned out to be a waste of money, as I could never get the darn thing to work. Though the villa itself is a featured attraction, I wasn't in the mood to be indoors, so I headed outside immediately to view the vast gardens and fountains that the site is famous for. There are literally hundreds of fountains in the gardens, and most of them are in use.
View of la chiesa di San Pietro from Villa d'Este gardens
Italian families were out in full force, taking advantage of the holiday and the weather to enjoy the gardens together. One thing of note: when taking photos of each other, I  noticed that Italian men were usually the first ones to have their picture taken, rather than the women. The man would pose in front of a fountain and have his picture taken, and he was often the only one of the family to be photographed. I saw this happen over and over again,  with both young and older couples. No modesty here!

Wisteria pergola
Several times during the day, la Fontana dell'Organo (the Organ Fountain) provides a short concert of organ music. There's a pipe organ within a chamber that opens up for the concert. I stuck around to check it out, even though I'm not a big fan of organ music. It was a real crowd pleaser!

Fontana dell'Organo
detail of the art on Fontana dell'Organo
After spending several hours in the gardens, the sky clouded over and it was time for me to leave. I still had a long afternoon of work ahead of me. I spent another half hour walking down one of the quaint cobblestone streets in Tivoli, stopping for gelato and a caffè macchiato (espresso with a "stain" of milk).

Scala dei Bollori
Just as I arrived back at the house, it started to rain. Good timing! I feel very fortunate to be living near a multitude of beautiful settings, many within a thirty-minute drive. Now that Tivoli is more familiar, I'm sure to return there again and again.