My Bologna, the Learned, the Fat, and the Red

Bologna Street  scene from 1972
When I arrived in Bologna this April, I was struck by how many things I have not seen or done in Bologna. I lived on via D’Azeglio from September 1971 through June of 1972, and I like to think of Bologna as a second home. I soon realized that there are several things that I have missed. Bologna is a stupendous city, among the most beautiful and singular in all of Italy, and offers an endless supply of architectural gems, world class restaurants, and artistic masterpieces. (more…)

Pick a Wine from Puglia

One of Wine Spectator’s top ten picks for this year’s hottest wine destinations is Puglia, the heel and spur of the Italian boot, the rocky Eastern part of the peninsula bordered by the Adriatic and Ionian seas.

Often called “magical,” Puglia is a narrow region packed tight with the same attributes that drew me to Italy several decades ago. It’s a charming, varied landscape with an enviable quality of life, amazing architecture, and best of all, first-rate wine. Puglia is rapidly becoming one of Italy’s popular tourist destinations, as the region draws visitors due to it sunny climate, coastal resorts, delicious food, as well as its unique architecture and history. (more…)

A tour of the Vatican Library

Through the auspices of a good friend, we were given a guided tour of the Vatican Library. What an amazing highlight for a book lover! Not only was our guide a knowledgeable resource, but Sister Gabriella Pettirossi (Secretary to Assistant Vice Prefect Dr. Ambrogio Piazzoni) had a delightful sense of humor.

We started by viewing the library vestibule, which had been the second home of the Vatican Library, its first location being what is the former papal apartments. Today one of the noteworthy plaques in the vestibule indicates that Pope Sixtus V excommunicated anyone who steals a book out of the Vatican Library. Now that is a tough but fair way to deal with book thieves. (more…)

The Five P’S of Parma

Prosciutto, Parmigiano, Parmigianino, Pilotta, e Pizza
We have loved visiting Parma for many years and have often wondered why it is not more frequented by tourists. We enjoy eating as much prosciutto and parmigiano as is humanly possible, but this trip we have to mention that we ate the best pizza of our three months in Italy in an upscale pizzeria in the center of Parma, Al Corsaro, www.ristorantealcorsaro.com.

My other P is for the Palazzo della Pilotta, often simply called the Pilotta. It took me a few years to figure out that “pilotta” does not mean “pilot” but rather comes from the word for an ancient Basque game called pelota or pilotta in Italian. The game was played by Spanish soldiers in the courtyard of the palace. Today the palace and surrounding buildings are a museum complex which include the amazing Teatro Farnese, plus he Galleria Nazionale di Parma as well as several other museums. The Galleria Nazionale typically houses Parmigianino’s “Schiava Turca,” a painting of an unidentified woman with bewitching hazel eyes and a mischievous semi-smile, currently on loan to the Frick in NYC. My daughters’ favorite paintings in the collection is of a young maiden by Leonardo di Vinci called “La Scapigliata.” Time to add Parma to your list of cities to visit in Italy!
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Urban and Arboreal Trekking in Spoleto

We chose to stay in Spoleto for six days because of its location in southern Umbria. We were not disappointed.
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The town offered beautiful walks, an eight-tier escalator in case you are tired after a day of descending and ascending, an incredibly beautiful 13th century bridge, a fortress, a first-rate duomo with an exterior mosaic, which is chocked-full on the inside with frescoes and paintings by Filippo Lippi and Pinturicchio, and fronted by a lovely stone piazza. In addition, there are great shops and restaurants, a Roman amphitheater as well as Roman stone arches scattered throughout the town.
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One of our favorite walks started on the Ponte delle Torri. The bridge may have been built on the remains of a Roman aqueduct. If you take the northern path, you are rewarded with amazing views of a forested gorge. There are arboreal walks that lead to sites previously frequented by monks. You stroll in the shade of centuries-old holm oaks and retrace the steps of Syrian, Benedictine, and Franciscan monks. I like to think that San Francesco himself was here. I bet he was. Another option is the Giro dei Condotti which offers a charming tree-lined promenade that starts at the base of the Rocca Albornoziano, and reveals a beautiful panorama of Spoleto.

We ate several times in wonderful restaurants, Al Bacco Felice, la Torretta, and La Locanda della Signoria. Our hotel concierge was right, there are many good restaurants here and the town is easy to navigate. As it is only an hour and a half train ride from Rome, it is a good way to leave the cares, traffic, and smog of a busy city behind and find delightful urban and arboreal trekking.

Firenze

What would you do if you were returning to Firenze for the fifth time and had seen all the major sites and some minor ones several times? Of course, you would go to the places you missed the first four times and return to the places that you loved the most. So we visited spots that we had never seen but had heard about, like the Museo Davanzati, a museum that offers an excellent idea of what a palatial home was like in the 1400s. We revisited the restored Orsanmichele church, which was always my personal favorite, but has been closed for many years while it underwent substantial restoration. The statuary on the outside of the church is reason enough to visit. Famous sculptors of the day executed masterpieces for the outside niches. But the most arresting piece of all is the marble tabernacle constructed by Andrea Orcagna between 1349 and 1359 and houses “la Vergine col Bambino con Angeli” (“the Virgin and the Christ Child with Angels”), painted by Bernardo Daddi. This is a painting that no one should miss seeing. Orsanmichele just feels like a holy place, although amazingly enough, at one time it was a grain warehouse, which also helps to explain the unusual layout of the church.

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We went to Ognissanti, a church on the north side of the Arno, a bit away from everything else, but offers a Ghirlandaio and Botticelli and we revisited the renovated Santa Maria Novella, which has put the famous crucifix by Cimabue in its original place and has opened much more of the entire monastic complex including the chiostro.

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We stopped by the so-called Casa di Dante, a must for all Dante groupies. We also saw Santo Spirito, as we had somehow missed this capolavoro of Brunelleschi before. It is well worth a trip, especially if you have just been to the nearby Santa Maria della Carmine, which is famous for its fresco cycle in the Cappella Brancacci, painted by Masaccio and Masolino and completed by Filippino Lippi. The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden is reason enough to visit.

We revisited another personal favorite, the Bargello. There is just way too much to see at the Bargello, even after five trips. This time there was an excellent exhibit on Brandini, who was unknown to us before but has now become a favorite Renaissance painter and sculptor. We capped our whirlwind visit with a trek up to San Miniato al Monte, another favorite church, and stopped to enjoy the view of the old city from the Piazzale Michelangelo.
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Hiking in Liguria

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We hiked just north of the Cinque Terre for three days. We were exhausted every day after our adventure: one day due to steps, another due to the steep inclines and descents, and another due to rocks and at times due to all three conditions.

Our friends, Vittorio and Fabienne, are in much better shape than we are and were often far ahead of us. At times I wished that we were small goats as it would have been much easier. The views were outstanding and once each walk was completed, we were quite proud of ourselves, until we heard that the time that it took us was far longer than what was expected!

We hiked around the towns of Framura, Sestri Levante, and Bonassola, a great addition to hiking the Cinque Terre, as the paths are not as well travelled where we were but have equally amazing views of the sea and surrounding countryside.

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We stayed at a lovely agriturismo, Sostio a Levante, www.sostioalevante.com, in the high hills above Framura. The evening meals were outstanding as the owners were convivial and the wife is an incredible cook. We thoroughly enjoyed the wine, cheese and cold cuts on the terrace accompanied by beautiful mountain and garden views. My only regret was not having a swimming suit so that I could enjoy the sauna and swimming pool.

Siena at Sixty-Some

Overview of Siena

Overview of Siena

The Duomo

The Duomo

The she-wolf

The she-wolf

Siena is one of Italy’s most beautiful medieval cities, well worth a trip even if you are only in Tuscany for a few days. It is May and we are in Siena for a week, at times remembering an earlier trip we took here about thirty years ago. The place has changed on the outskirts of town. The train station has undergone a well-deserved upgrade to the 21st century, complete with escalator, elevator, and moving sidewalk. Although I must admit it is still a bit of a challenge to get into the heart of the old town. Pack light!

Of course the town is known for its Campo, that famous fan-shaped, steeply banked central piazza where the Palio horse race is run every July and August. The Campo is dominated by the red brick Palazzo Pubblico (Civic Palace) and its tower, Torre del Mangia (Tower of Eating), maybe because its architect, Giovanni di Duccio, who was also its first guardian, was widely known to have squandered his earnings by eating and drinking his way through many Sienese osterie (taverns).

The Palazzo Pubblico, like the city’s Duomo, was built at the end of the 1200’s and the beginning of the 1300’s, during the time when the Council of Nine ruled. It is the Sala del Mappamondo (the Room of the World Map) and the Sala della Pace (the Room of Peace) that are the palace’s highlights: Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s paintings “Allegories of Good and Bad Government,” often are considered the most important cycle of secular paintings in the Middle Ages.

The singularly amazing black and white striped Duomo is full of treasures, including marble pavement incised with various scenes and the Piccolomini library frescoes. There is also a first-rate Pinacoteca (art museum), and the Duomo’s crypt and baptistry, which have some beautiful paintings and frescos, heck even the main tourist office sports some lovely frescos.

Still what I enjoy most is just walking around the city, seeing the medieval buildings that are so well preserved, and observing wealth in action. Siena, like many cities in Italy, is sustained by tourism. One senses that the Sienese citizens, known since the Middle Ages for their expertise in money lending and offering lodging and sustanance to pilgrims en route to Rome, continue to be experts in buying and selling goods profitably and caring for “modern-day” pilgrims. The true downside of this adventure is the large number of jostling tourists and way, way too many cars, vans, and trucks in what is supposed to be a pedestrian area. The civic fathers should be ashamed of not stepping up to this problem. A bookbinder and local artist asked me to write to the city rulers on Facebook and scold them about this problem.

Siena is said to have been founded by Senius, son of Remus, who together with his brother, Romulus, were the two legendary founders of Rome. Thus the she-wolf who suckled Remus and Romulus is found on many statues throughout the city; so far my count is up to seven, although I found someone on the Internet who had counted and photographed eleven.

We have enjoyed renting a somewhat high-end apartment right in the center of the old town less than a five minute walk from the Campo. We have cooked most of our meals in order to save a bit of money, assisted by excellent grocery stores. It is easy to buy fresh pasta or to make your own risotto adding local produce or porcini.
The most photographed store in town seems to be a small market, Antica Pizzicheria de Miccoli, that goes back several hundred years, saying that they are the fifth oldest in the world (how do they know?) specializing in porchetta panini (roast pork sandwiches). They have wisely branched out to make many other kinds of sandwiches selling first-rate local wine, offering to open the bottle and provide elegant wine glasses for your enjoyment.

Lake Como: Love at First Sight

I journeyed back to Lake Como for about the 10th time and thought once again of my very first trip. For years I thought that it was my Bolognese landlady who convinced me and my friends to take our first trip to Lake Como. “Dovete vederla,” she said. In English, that means, “You must see it.” Or it might have been Professor Ricci, who one morning took a break from talking about the early life of Giacomo Leopardi to explain the importance of the opening passage of I Promessi Sposi, (The Betrothed), the famous Italian novel by Alessandro Manzoni. Every Italian schoolchild knows the opening line by heart: “Quel ramo del lago di Como,” which translates to “That arm of Lake Como.” Ricci went on to captivate us with a detailed explanation of the geographic setting of the two unbroken mountain chains which cut the lake into “a series of bays and inlets as the hills advance into the water and retreat again.”

I saw Lake Como for the first time in the pouring rain. It was “un colpo di cuore,” or “love at first sight.” One can imagine spending a lifetime viewing these incredible, high, rolling hills dropping quickly into an idyllic deep blue basin. Beautiful, and quite capable of inducing a feeling of tranquility and contentment. Rain could not dampen the magical feeling, and I was convinced that I was always meant to be here.

This April the weather was perfect and our boat trip with friends in the ferry (traghetto) on the lake was both sunny and tranquil. We headed up the lake to the town of Bellagio. I never tire of taking the traghetto; it is always a highlight. The boat ride displays the breathtaking natural beauty of the lake and the surrounding Alps.

The views of the lake are also picturesque from the promenade that encircles the city of Como at the southern tip, as well as from the small towns that dot the western shore of Lake Como. There are plenty of palatial villas to view and to covet, nestled amid hillside gardens. The area is world-renowned for its incredible gardens, including the Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo, the Melzi Gardens in Bellagio and those at the exclusive resort, Villa D’Este.

Once again, we had a wonderful dinner, at Ristorante Sociale, Via Rodari 6; Tel 031 264042, closed Tuesdays, www.ristorantesociale.it. It is definitely the restaurant to visit in the heart of Como. It is located right behind the Duomo and quite close to the Ferrovia Nord train station. We started with an appetizer platter that had great cold cuts, local cheese, as well as smoked perch (persico) from the lake, and lardo (lard – yes, lard), an acquired taste. The first-course pasta and risotto dishes are outstanding. It is always good to go with your waiter’s suggestions regarding the daily specials.

We ate another night at Il Caicco, a restaurant on Piazza Volta, that offered both good pizzas as well as pasta dishes like freshly-made gnocchi con salvia and burro. Our third meal was at a place that specializes in Tuscan dishes, Rino di Lepri Riccardo. The hosts could not have been more pleasant, even offering suggestions for other places to eat when they were too busy to accept our initial reservation.

Some of the key places to visit in Como are the Duomo with its 16th century tapestries inside the main church and the façade that includes Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger in its stonework. Construction of the Duomo began in 1396 and ended in 1740 when the huge dome was completed. Next to it is the elegant 13th century Broletto, the old town hall.

If time permits see the Romanesque church of San Fedele, the Cistercian church of Sant’Agostino, the Romanesque Basilica of Sant’Abbondio, and the 11th century San Carpoforo. Also of note are the medieval city walls, including the Porta Praetoria that was once a majestic entrance to the Roman city and now hosts the weekend market.

Tour the small temple-like museum, which contains relics of the famous physicist who invented the battery, Alessandro Volta (born in Como), who gave his name to the unit of electricity, the “volt.” The building is impressive to see from a distance while you are enjoying a promenade of the lake, and the museum is well worth a visit. It contains equipment from Volta experiments as well as information about his correspondence with contemporaries like Benjamin Franklin, Voltaire and Napoleon.

If you have time, take the cable car (funicolare) up to Brunate, about 2,000 feet above the lake. You are rewarded on a clear day with postcard-perfect views of the lake, enchanting villas and superb gardens.

Trieste

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I knew Trieste had been important in the development of James Joyce as a writer, but I was also intrigued to visit this city that had been home to several famous Italian writers like Umberto Saba and Italo Svevo. How did one town situated on the Italian edge of the Austro Hungarian Empire give birth to so many twentieth century literary geniuses?

Trieste is an architecturally-beautiful city located in Italy between Slovenia and the Adriatic Sea. A mixture of Italian, Slavic, and Austro-Hungarian cultures make it a melting pot of languages and a port of cultural diversity.

Trieste was ruled by the Venetian Republic up until 1374. When the citizens of Trieste grew tired of paying steep taxes to their Venetian rulers, they petitioned the Duke of Austria to allow them to become part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, an interesting way to obtain some autonomy and become a city no longer shackled to La Serenissima.

On a recent walking tour of Trieste, I learned about the city’s history and culture as well as some interesting anecdotes about the literary giants who once inhabited this place. Joyce lived in Trieste from 1904 to 1920, writing The Dubliners as well as many of the key parts of Ulysses while living from hand-to-mouth as an English teacher working for Berlitz.

Our guide enjoyed telling us the story of Joyce’s arrival in Trieste with Nora, who was to become his wife. Allegedly, Joyce parked Nora on a bench near the train station and went alone to find the Berlitz School, where he was to teach. En route he became sidetracked by some English speaking sailors and ended up drunk and in jail. What a horror Nora’s life must have been living in Trieste, never really wanting to learn Italian or become part of the local cultural scene.

From the age of 22 until 36, Joyce and his family lived in eight apartments in the city. Many of them have plaques attesting to his residence within. He became a friend and English teacher to Italo Svevo, often meeting him in the Stella Polare, a bar that still exists at the edge of the former Jewish ghetto. Our tour guide also mentioned that Joyce was known to be a frequent visitor at a particular brothel in the red light district of the Old City.
What I had forgotten was that Umberto Saba, a famous Italian poet, had to leave Trieste because he was a Jew. He sold his bookstore to a longtime friend and associate leaving Trieste in 1938. Because of the Italian racial laws, he sought refuge first in Paris, then in Rome, hiding in Giuseppe Ungaretti’s home, and finally in Florence where he was cared for by Eugenio Montale, before leaving for Milan and eventually settling in Rome after the war ended. It was Saba’s love of Trieste that first awakened my interest in this area through his poems, “Ulisse” (Ulysses) and “Trieste.”

Trieste has many points of interest: the Cathedral of San Giusto, dedicated in 1320, has incredible mosaics and a beautiful wooden ceiling; the Arch of Riccardo built in 33, is a well-preserved Roman arch with a lovely story that connects it, in folklore at least, to Richard the Lionhearted, who may have stopped here on his way back from the Crusades; the Roman amphitheater is lovingly preserved, and then there is all the neoclassical, Art Nouveau, Liberty and Baroque-style architecture which immediately captivates the visitor. Certainly impressive is the Piazza Unita’ d’Italia, the central square, which captured my heart when we first arrived a few days ago. The magnificence of the buildings, that encircle the square on three sides with the Adriatic Sea making the final side of the square, makes this the most impressive piazza that I have ever seen.