I kind of lucked out this month, as fellow roundtable member Jessica discovered that I had already tackled the theme of myths in…wait for it…2003! Yes, I was already writing posts more than a decade ago for the beloved Slow Travel site, and it came in handy a mere 13 years later when I was too busy to come up with a new post so served up this warmed over classic from the back corners of my fridge. Enjoy!
Now, I’m the last person to criticize guidebooks – any author deserves some credit for taking a stab at a task so momentous – but certainly they all have their strengths and weaknesses. Some seem to be museum-opening-time-challenged, others couldn’t recognize a decent hotel if they stubbed their toe on its doorstep.
But I think the Achilles heel of the vast majority of guidebooks is to be found in that small chapter somewhere near the front entitled, “Insights into Italian Culture”. This section, usually stuck in between “How to Purchase Train Tickets” and “Where to Change Money”, dedicated to the admirable task of helping the English speaking traveler navigate the rocky stream of acceptable behavior in Italy, is usually peppered with grave pronouncements I imagine made in that booming, self-important male voice which narrated every social studies and biology film I viewed between the third and ninth grade. Sometimes these are quite accurate and helpful, but I have certainly read some over the years which have made me sputter my cappuccino all over myself and exclaim “WHAT?!?” to no one in particular.
The problem is that most of these authors have never lived in Italy and barely have a working grasp of the language. They dedicate most of their time here to inaccurately recording museum opening hours and overlooking decent hotels, and their cultural knowledge is incidental at best. I would like to share a couple of my favorite doozies, and, I hope, set the record straight for those Slow Travelers out there who may be about to make their first trip to the Bel Paese.
1. Small Town Italians are Very Friendly. They commonly greet Everyone They Pass, and it is considered Rude not to do so.
This is my favorite example of what happens when an outside observer interprets a situation completely out of context, with comic results. (Another example: Many comment on how endearing our two dogs are – how they so obviously care deeply for one another, always out walking together and napping side by side on the lawn and whatnot. Our two dogs hate each other with a jealous passion and live for the day the other is sucked into the combine harvester and gone forever. They are mortally fearful that the other will somehow manage to get more than his share of chow, and for that reason only stick to each other like white on rice.)
This is how I imagine the scene: Our fearless guidebook author sips his espresso at an outdoor café in a small town in Italy, all the while observing an Italian gentleman meandering down the Corso, greeting with regularity those he passes. “Aha!” says our author to himself (in a booming, self-important voice), taking feverish notes, “Why, Small Town Italians are Very Friendly. They greet Everyone They Pass. It must be Rude not to do so.” What is really happening is this: The Italian in question is not greeting Everyone he Passes, he is greeting Everyone he Knows, which, in most small towns in Italy, is about 99% of folks in town.
Now, I am not saying that Small Town Italians are not Very Friendly – they generally are. But you are certainly not expected to greet every single one of them as you pass them on the street, though you can if you feel up to the task. Their reaction will probably be:
1) in faux small town Italy (i.e. places like Assisi with a small population but huge tourist influx) a friendly, polite greeting in return. These folks have met thousands like you who have read that same guidebook chapter and taken it to heart;
2) in real small town Italy, a infinitesimal pause, during which the Italian quickly tries to place you, followed by a friendly, polite greeting in return. Small Town Italians are, after all, Very Friendly;
3) a shocked silence, followed by a loud, indignant “Who are you and why are you greeting me?!?” I can’t actually imagine this happening but feel I must make allowances for those few Small Town Italians who are, in fact, not Very Friendly.
In fact, as measured by greeting perfect strangers and superficial small talk, most English speakers I know are far more “friendly” than Italians who, as a whole, combine gregariousness and reserve with great skill. I have known Italians for years before finding out what they do for a living, what their university degree was in, how much they are paying in child support, and when they had their last surgery, which are all subjects generally covered within the first five minutes of sitting next to any average American on an overseas flight.
2. You are expected to order an antipasto, a primo, and a secondo at an Italian restaurant, and will be in ill favor with your server if you do not do so.
I suspect that some Italian restaurant consortium actually paid the author to put that in the guide, because I have never read such complete bunk in my entire life. I can honestly say that in 25 years of traveling to, and living in, Italy I have never ordered three courses in a restaurant (mostly because I’m vegetarian) and have never been treated any differently because of it. If you are, you should immediately get up and leave. Your server is either being inexcusably rude or is part of the consortium which paid the guidebook, and either way doesn’t deserve your business.
The truth is this: very few Italians eat a traditional three to four course meal anymore. Modern sedentary life just can’t justify the calories. I eat out quite often, usually with groups of friends, and it is a rare occasion when one of us orders more than a main dish and salad. The only time I have seen our waiter get hot under the collar is while trying to coordinate the order of the dishes to be served, as in a group of eight there are inevitably two who want an antipasto and primo, two who want an antipasto and secondo served with the others’ primi, one who wants a pizza served with the antipasti, one who wants a primo and contorno but the contorno as an antipasto, one who wants a secondo and contorno, but the contorno as a primo, and the poor guy at the end of the table who caught a bit of a chill on the back of his neck two evenings ago and hasn’t digested since and can he just have a bit of riso in bianco with perhaps a little lemon? It would drive a saint to drink.
I have given a lot of thought as to how this misconception of what you must order in an Italian restaurant came about, and I think I may have an explanation. Whereas in the States, your server comes to your table, introduces himself by name, pulls up a chair and launches into a 20 minute discourse on his family history, latest car purchase, and the fact that this is just a day job, what he really would like to do is direct, followed by a deep, heartfelt look into your eyes and a beseeching, “Now, is there any chance that I could possibly interest you in one of our appetizers today?”, the Italian server marches up to your table and with great economy of words barks, “Per Antipasto? Per Primo? Per Secondo? Vino?” Now, neither server really cares all that much about what you end up ordering (in fact, the stakes are probably higher for the American server, as it is not common in Italy to tip as a percentage of the total bill), but to those not used to the Italian way of taking an order, it may seem that you are expected to choose one thing in every offered category. Regardless, feel free to order exactly what you feel like eating without pressure. Doggie bags are, however, taboo.
3. Italians will bargain for anything.
This is, in fact, true. I have seen Italians offer up a conspiratorial grin and wink to the teenage girl at the Osco Drug check out counter in Northwest Suburban Chicago, plunk down a toothbrush, and say (in English which sounds like a mix between Ricky Ricardo and Tarzan), “You give me good prize for dis, no?” to which the girl flatly responded, without pausing either in paging through Vogue or snapping her gum, “Prices are as marked”, which might explain why her photo was conspicuously missing from the Employees of the Month plaque on the wall behind her.
My word of warning here is that this sort of unqualified statement skims over the subtleties of Italian bargaining. Italy is not a Moroccan bazaar; Italians generally do not haggle. Bargaining in Italy calls for finesse and good humor and, above all, time. It is, in short, an art.
I offer here an example of how not to go about it: A few years ago I was conversing with a friend of mine inside her upscale ceramic shop in Assisi. Suddenly, an English speaking man barged in and interrupted us by abruptly demanding of my friend, “How much for the clock in the window?”. My friend, taken aback, smiled politely and replied in her perfect English that the price was 150 euros, as marked. The man, apparently mistaking my friend for a patient of Oliver Sacks, repeated his question veerrryyy slllowwwlllyy, “N—o, h—-o—-w m—-u——-c—-h i—–s t—h—e c—l—o—c—-k i—-n t—-h—e w—-i—n—d—o—w???” My friend matched his speed, “I—-t’s 1—5—0 e——u—-r–o—-s, a—–s m—–a—r—k—e—d.” The man had had enough of his precious time wasted, and, raising his voice, barked, “No! I mean, how much do you really want for the clock in the window!?!” My friend looked at him, slowly and sweetly smiled, and answered, “200 euros.” The man huffed out to join a very harried and dogged looking wife, and they stomped away together (surely prepared to regale their bus-mates with stories of the rude shopkeepers in Assisi all the way back to Rome).
Let us now juxtapose this scene with my fantasy version of how it could have gone: Man enters shop, compliments woman on beautiful wares. Woman thanks, asks if there is something he likes in particular. Man indicates clock. Both wax poetic about clock’s beauty for several minutes. Man asks price, woman answers. Man sadly shakes head, comments that he is now poverty stricken after wife’s shoe shopping spree yesterday (indicates relaxed, happy looking woman waiting outside). Woman makes slightly flirtatious comment regarding what trouble women can be. Man laughs and settles himself against counter. Half hour conversation ensues (He just spent two weeks in Tuscany and Venice. Yes, Venice is beautiful. He and wife hail from Philadelphia. What a coincidence, her grandfather’s second cousin emigrated to Philadelphia in 1903, have they met?). Talk returns to the clock. Some good natured figures are bounced back and forth, interspersed with observations about the weather and recommendations for where to dine. A deal is struck, she packs up the clock and throws in a small ashtray for good measure. His wife comes back the next day for the lamp she spied the afternoon before. All is done with a light touch and friendly tone. Finesse.
Yes, you say, but what if there is a language barrier? Never fear, some of the best bargaining I have ever witnessed has been done almost exclusively with hand gestures, pen, and pad of paper. Some good stock gestures in any bargaining repertoire may include on one side:
clutch object to heart = I cannot live another moment on this earth without possessing this pair of boots/antique vase/plastic gladiator cruet set;
pull out empty trouser pocket lining = I have been burned in the bear market, so have pity;
down on hand and knee = international sign of supplication.
On the other side one might see:
palm hitting forehead = disbelief at the mere thought of parting with such a valuable and rare object as this pair of boots/antique vase/plastic gladiator cruet set for such a paltry figure;
sympathetic head shaking = yes, I too put my money in Olivetti in the 80’s;
resigned shrug = international sign of giving in.
A final note: Many guide books point out that a number of stores post signs informing you that their prices are fixed. I have found that it never hurts to ask if there is a possibility of a small discount. The worst that can happen is that you are politely told no, and the best is that you find yourself with extra gelato money at the end of the day.
4. Italian men are predatory.
Consider this scene: you (you’re female in this scene, and not unattractive) are sitting in the main square of your hometown…Des Moines, let’s say….at about 3 p.m. on a Tuesday, enjoying the sunlight and the view of the world-famous Baroque fountain (go with it). A man saunters up and starts making conversation. It soon becomes apparent that you are being hit on. Now, I don’t know about you, but I am pretty pragmatic about these sorts of things, so my first reaction would be to ask myself, “Why doesn’t this loser have a job, or isn’t at very least busy working on his Ph.D. thesis or serving hot meals to the hungry or otherwise productively occupying his time at 3 p.m. on a Tuesday rather than trying to pick up women at the famed Des Moines Baroque fountain?” (The same could be said for you, of course, but we are talking about predatory men, not ne’er-do-well women here.)
The point I’m trying to make is that the vast majority of Italian men, like those all over the planet, are too busy working, studying, volunteering, parenting, and otherwise living full, happy, responsible lives to spend many weekday afternoons hanging around in piazzas, wolf-whistling. The small percentage who instead have nothing better to do than lurk at the Trevi Fountain trying to pick up foreign women are more noticeable, but certainly not indicative of the average Italian male. This is not to say, of course, that Italian men, like many of Mediterranean cultures, are not notably more appreciative of the well-turned-out female than the average stiff-upper-lipped, Puritan Anglo-Saxon (aside, of course, from those certain subgroups which seem to include predatory behavior as part of their professional qualification the world over, i.e. construction workers, truck drivers), and given the amount of time and effort many Italian women dedicate to their appearance, it seems only fair that it should be so. However, I have found that a token, subtle glance at a leg is one thing (quite buoying, in fact, on those days that I can’t quite get the zipper up on my skirt and my hair dried all funny and sticky-outy and I am surrounded by a nation of women just naturally more attractive than myself), asking you if you are traveling alone and shadowing you back to your hotel is quite another.
So, my word of caution is to steer clear of those same people you would be prone to steer clear of in Des Moines, and you should have no problem. You may, however, go back home convinced you have the best legs on earth, and, hey, there’s nothing wrong with that in my book.
So, as they say in Italy, “’Un pò fa,’ disse l’uomo mentre che faceva la pipi’ nel mare.” (Every little bit helps, said the man as he peed into the sea). I hope I have added my bit to the sea of knowledge and not to that of myth and misconception. I’m sure I’m not the only one out there who has spotted these hilarious off-mark cultural observations. Let’s hear others! Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!
Sometimes I feel like I have lived through the 1970’s twice.
I did my first turn around the block in the US, growing up in the Midwest. The 1970’s was a time when there were still small neighborhood shops and locally owned grocery and department stores. Our day-to-day shopping was broken down into a number of stops: the butcher’s downtown, the bakery on the corner (watching our loaf go though the bread slicer was the highlight of the trip), and even – if I plumb the depths of my toddler memory – the dairy. (Side note: the Weber Dairy building had a big cement milk bottle out front, which was huge when I was three years old. It towered at least 2 stories above my head. Two years ago, I happened to pass the building, now an office complex called The Dairy Center. The milk bottle is still there, but I had to laugh at how small it had become over 40 years.)
Even the larger stores were local chains. Our grocery store of choice was Honiotis Bros. because, you know, Greeks. (The Xoniotis family, who became the Honiotis family, was from Mykonos like our Theodosis and Vardoulakis – now Vardal – families, so we bought our carrots and toilet paper from Honiotis’ out of national pride.) But sometimes we would make a big trip to Dominick’s, which was a local chain. If we had to stock up on school clothes, it was off to to Wieboldt’s or Goldblatt’s (Wieboldt’s was better, because they gave out S&H Green Stamps), but a family wedding merited an excursion to Kline’s or The Boston Store. We loved The Boston Store, because the name conjured up that sophisticated and exotic city on the East Coast.
And then things started to change, and we all know how. First it was large supermarket chains that offered unbeatable prices during the recession, then it was newfangled malls that replaced the main streets for teenagers and adults alike. Not long after, the first big-box stores appeared, funneling business from the locally owned shops, and the vacant storefronts were replaced by national franchises.
None of the businesses I remember from my elementary school years are still around. Honiotis went first in 1985, then Dominick’s began to falter. Wieboldt’s, Goldblatt’s, Kline’s, and The Boston Store (not to be confused with Boston Store)…all gone. Now it’s chains as far as the eye can see, and everything from the suburbs to the downtowns look pretty much the same across great swathes of the US.
When I first came to Umbria in the mid-1980’s, in many ways it resembled the US a decade or two before. Franchises and big-box superstores were virtually unknown, and the retail sector was almost exclusively small, family-run businesses. Grocery shopping was divided between the local outdoor market for produce, the dry goods store, the butcher, and the bread shop. Buying a pair of black pants meant stopping in at one or two central emporiums, announcing that you needed black pants, and trying on whatever they brought you from the shelves. It was more time consuming and less efficient, but also more human and kept residents living in the otherwise inconvenient confines of the town centers.
Unfortunately, the same process that tore the fabric of American downtowns twenty years before began taking hold in Italy shortly after my first trip. The convenience and competitive pricing of supermarkets began to squeeze out the tiny markets and food shops, the novelty of the mall trumped the fustiness of historic clothing stores for younger customers, and the powerhouse marketing of national and international franchises crushed local shops. I have watched in dismay over the past two decades as more and more local businesses struggle while Foot Locker, H&M, and even the Italian chain Intimissimi seem to multiply overnight like mushrooms.
Though, in my heart of hearts, I long for an Ikea, I also have seen (twice!) the damage this modern franchise culture can do to communities and their local economies. I try to limit my excursions to the mall and the sprawling grocery stores along the highway to dire emergencies, and spend my time and money in the admittedly more expensive but also charmingly timeless shops in the center of Assisi.
This vintage photo is from the menu of Osteria Piazzetta dell’Erba in Assisi
Case in point: the Piazzetta delle Erbe. This tiny square just steps from Assisi’s main Piazza del Comune has been the local produce market for decades, if not centuries. Certainly long enough that the spot was officially dubbed “Greens Square” at some point and is now home to an excellent restaurant of the same name.
The home I stayed at on my second trip to Assisi in the late 1980’s had rooms overlooking this square, including my bedroom. I would wake to the friendly squawking of the local ladies bargaining for everything from potatoes and tulips each morning, mixed in with local gossip and good natured ribbing. The Piazzetta delle Erbe was both market and meeting place, and the small space was crammed with makeshift stands and tables, three-wheeled Apes, or simply stacked crates holding towers of seasonal fruit, vegetables, fresh eggs, ricotta, honey, and anything else these farmwives from the surrounding countryside had to sell that morning.
Today, just Novella remains. With enough energy and warmth to fill a piazza, but with just one lone stand of goodies she and her sweet husband Bruno bring in from their farm plot outside of town each morning, Novella holds court from dawn to lunchtime each day. She is almost never alone, as the local ladies take turns resting on her guest stool to swap news while she tirelessly rearranges buckets of fresh flowers, piles of greens, and crates of fruit. She holds the scales in her hand to weigh purchases, and then always throws in something extra after declaring an (often seemingly arbitrary) price.
It makes be both sad and joyful to see Novella still out there every morning. “Bongiorno, core!” she calls out as I pass. She knows what each of my sons prefer, and will spend a good five minutes picking the radicchio leaves out of my mixed greens to please them. She will scoff at my selection of tomatoes, tossing them back into the pile and choosing others. “Those are for salad, cocca. You want the sugo ones,” she explains after placing what look like identical ones on the scales. She will pick out a melon with all the gravity of a Antwerp diamantaire, after inquiring about the exact time I plan on serving it.
I know it takes me twice as long to buy from Novella, but I love the familiarity of it. I love being grilled by a group of housewives about my menu for the day, and then standing back as they argue amongst themselves about recipes and ingredients. I nod and smile, often feigning exaggerated ignorance just to revel in their animated conversation. The vast Coop supermarket will be there for years into the future, but one morning soon Novella will be gone, and with her the Piazzetta delle Erbe market. And until that day comes, she’s my local go-to vegetable lady.
Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!
I have, of late, discovered the small nugget of joy that is birdwatching. To be honest, what I do can hardly be called by that name. I rarely correctly identify a species—indeed, I rarely see a bird if it’s not pointed out to me by a companion. I have a hard time maneuvering binoculars, and forget about photography. By the time I’ve chosen the right exposure and focus, the flock has long migrated to Africa.
Photo by Battitoriso via Wikimedia Commons
The Lake Alviano WWF Oasis
But the silence and pace are a welcome respite from my loud, fast life, so I find myself more and more frequently retreating for a few hours to one of the number of natural bird sanctuaries around Umbria. My favorite, the WWF Oasis of Alviano in the southern part of Umbria, was hit hard by a devastating flood two years ago and my heart broke when I heard about the incredible damage to the park and its infrastructure. So when they put out the call for volunteers to come and lend a hand rebuilding, I signed right up.
Photo by Il Cantore via Wikimedia Commons
The Alviano Oasis is one of the WWF’s largest, extending 900 hectares along the manmade Alviano Lake, formed with the 1960 damming of the Tiber River for a hydroelectric plant. The area had already been an established stop for thousands of migratory birds each year, but with the formation of the vast lake and surrounding wetland, the importance of the resulting ecosystem became such that in 1978 the area became a natural reserve and in 1990 was taken over by the WWF.
Photo by Ziegler175 via Wikimedia Commons
There are four kilometers of walkways and hiking paths circling the lake and marsh, broken up by bird blinds and towers. Here skilled (and, ahem, lucky) birders can spot over a hundred species, including brightly plumed kingfishers, great crested grebes, herons, cormorants, bitterns, and falcons. The area is also lush with aquatic plants and the amphibians that call them home.
Photo by Marco Ilari via Wikimedia Commons
Repairing the Damage
When I went to lend a hand on the first gorgeously sunny Sunday of spring last year, I was expecting scenes of destruction and despair. Instead, I found that though much of the park infrastructure had been badly damaged (the oasis also lost two of their three horses in the flood), reconstruction efforts were going well and spirits were high with both the staff there directing the work and the hearty group of volunteers.
We worked on clearing the paths, rebuilding walkways, cleaning out the blinds and towers, and repairing fencing. Ours was just one in months of volunteer weekends, and it was so heartening to see the mixed group of locals and lovers of the oasis from further afield working together to get this unique area in shape to be reopened for the 2013 season. Indeed, just a few weeks later the Alviano Oasis was able to open its gates to birding enthusiasts again (though there is still work to be done), just in time for the first spring migration.
Photo by Mediamenta via Wikimedia Commons
Visiting the Oasis
The Alviano Oasis is open to the public 10 am to sunset from September 1st to May 31st (best times for birding are October/November and April/May). The entrance to the Oasis is at Madonna del Porto (Guardea) along the Alviano Scalo-Baschi road. For more information, email email@example.com or call 333/7576283.
Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!
Semel in anno licet insanire! (Once a year you are allowed to go crazy!)
There are places in Italy where Carnevale is very much an adult affair. Venice, for example, with her elaborate Baroque costumes and gala balls. Viareggio, with her gargantuan paper mache floats (eye-popping for the little ones, but with satirical political and social themes that fly right over their heads). In Umbria, however, Carnevale is primarily for kids (with a few nostalgic adults thrown in here and there), focusing on costume parties, parades, and lots and lots of fried, sugary foods.
As I didn’t grow up with the tradition of Carnevale (in the US it is only celebrated with any real feeling in New Orleans), I have acquired a taste for it only over the past few years as a parent. Unfortunately, I’ve especially acquired a taste for the calorie-laden Carnevale fare, which takes the full forty days of penance before Easter (known as the Quaresima, which Carnevale ushers in) to work off.
For those who, like me, aren’t well-versed in the tradition, Carnevale is a month-ish long festival which culminates in the “Fat Days”–from the Thursday through the Tuesday preceding Ash Wednesday. The festival was, as were many in the Middle Ages, coopted from pagan tradition by the Christians, and in many parts of Italy evolved into a swan song of bacchanalian and carnal overindulgence before the period of penitance and purifying deprivation before Easter.
In many parts of Italy—primarily Bergamo and Naples–there are traditional maschere, translated as masks, but intended to mean both the costume and accompanying character—with a specific personality and personal history–which have been codified over the centuries. One of the few which may be familiar to those outside of Italy is Arlecchino (Harlequin), who wears a black mask covering his eyes and a suit of multi-colored diamonds stitched together, and sports a stick and pouch attached to his belt. He is an opportunist, perennially penniless (his pouch is empty), and ready to serve anyone who is willing to pay his debts and foot the bill for his gluttonous habits. He is extremely agile in his movements, and a well-played Arlecchino skips around nimbly on the balls of his feet. There are dozens of such stock maschere, immediately recognizable to Italians.
Unfortunately, Umbria—along with most of the modern Italian regions of Romagna, Marche, and Lazio–spent the Middle Ages under the severe and heavy-hand of the Papal State, so while neighboring regions were living it up and developing strong Carnival traditions, the Umbrians were busy wearing hair shirts and building monasteries. That said, though late to the game, modern Umbria has embraced the fun whole-heartedly and adopted both the traditions and the maschere of other Italian regions.
Most Carnevale dishes are found throughout Italy during the weeks of the festivities in more or less the same forms, but rarely are they called by the same name in different regions. Here’s what to sample in Umbria:
Brighelle (aka Castagnole): My drug of choice. These walnut-sized fried bignet-like puffs are filled with custard or, my personal favorite, crema chantilly (what Italians call custard cut with whipped cream). Perfect to pop in your mouth, by the time you realize you’ve overdosed it’s too late. Good brighelle are crisp on the outside (with a light dusting of sugar), extremely light, and have a fresh—not too eggy—filling.
Struffoli: Umbria’s answer to the doughnut hole, struffoli are essentially fried balls of dough dribbled with honey and/or a red-colored liquor known as Alchermes. These are a little more of a committment to eat, as they are usually too large to toss down the gullet in one go, and involve some intense finger-licking afterwards. Like doughtnut holes, good ones are light on the inside and surrounded by a crisp fried layer. Bad struffoli (which abound) are dry as sand on the inside and engorged with frying oil on the outside.
Cicerchiata: Imagine if you were to make about a thousand mini-struffoli the size of chickpeas (ceci, from which the sweet derives its name), soak them in honey, and form them into a rectangular or bundt cake shape. Then, just to make them sweeter, you sprinkled the whole thing with those little colored sprinkles or silver dragées. My kids live for these.
Chiacchiere (aka frappe or cenci): Fried again (do you notice a theme?), these are irregularly cut strips of thinly rolled dough fried to a crisp and dusted with sugar or dribbled with honey and/or Alchermes. The name they are known as in most of Umbria (chit-chat) gives a sense of how light and fragile a good plate of chiacchiere should be.
Again, Carnevale in Umbria is mostly about the young’uns (though many clubs and pubs have light-hearted costume parties the final weekend of the festivities). You’ll see the piazzas filled with mini-Zorros and Cinderellas and sundry mammals and ballerinas, most of whom are sporting cans of silly string and shaving cream (I suggest you not wear your best coat) and bags of confetti (called coriandoli in Italian. Confetti in Italian means jordan almonds. That took me a long time to wrap my head around.). Most of the merry-making centers around a parade with floats and various types of entertainment involving balloon animals, face painting, and sing-alongs. Big fun for the twelve-and-under crowd and anyone who loves to people-watch. The best ones in the region are:
Sant’Eraclio: an otherwise completely un-noteworthy suburb of Foligno. But they put on a great Carnivale parade. It costs €5 to get in unless you are wearing a costume. (Each Sunday during Carnival)
Acquasparta: smaller than Sant’Eraclio, but still fun. And free. (Each Sunday during Carnival)
Todi: a bit more highbrow, Todi puts on a medieval-themed Carnivale in historic center’s lovely piazza. A good choice for the 12-and-above contingency.
Gubbio: one of my favorite towns in Umbria, any excuse is a good one to visit. Their Carnevale fete is heavy on the marching bands, which is always fun. (The last two Sundays of Carnival)
San Sisto: a suburb of Perugia holds one of the biggest Carnevale parades in the city, complete with struffoli and chiacchiere (which they call frappe) bake-off. That’s why I’d go. (Final two Sundays of Carnival, plus Fat Saturday–the bake-off–and Fat Tuesday)
Our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable is talking about traditions this month! Take a look at posts by Jessica Spiegel, Gloria, and Alexandra Korey. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation.
I have to admit that I’m not completely sold on the whole Christmas market thing. An import from northern Italy—which, one presumes, imported it from the Alpine villages across its borders—these picturesque seasonal markets, composed of a number of small booths where artisans and artists hawk their wares, are starting to pop up more and more during the weeks leading up to the Christmas holidays in piazzas across Umbria.
Christmas market Perugia Umbria
Unfortunately, a number I’ve visited have been disappointments…just a handful of booths, or poorly organized, or largely forgettable items for sale: Umbria is obviously still in the embryonic phase of its holiday market tradition.
There are two exceptions to this largely insipid pool: Assisi’s pretty market the first weekend of December and Perugia’s large market which takes over the whole of the Rocca Paolina for the month of December.
The Rocca is a fascinating place to wander through anytime—the remains of the medieval cityscape perfectly conserved beneath the modern streets of Perugia above—but is particularly suited to a meandering market, with booths tucked away in the various alleyways and niches which make up the brick and stone underground warren. The booths ranged from ceramics and leather goods, to handmade toys and accessories. There were a number of vintage clothing and jewelry sellers and a great selection of fun items for kids.
The biggest selling point—aside from the dramatic setting and number of sellers—was the range of prices. You can easily find a number of unique stocking stuffers for under €20, up to more expensive leather bags and coats. I’m especially heartened each year by the number of local artisans with handmade crafts and food, always something I am happy to spend my (limited) Christmas budget on.
Unfortunately I’ve never snapped pictures when visiting the market, so a big thanks to Gigi Bettin from Via di Francesco for pinch hitting for me and loaning me some shots!
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There seem to be few things as polarizing as contemporary art, especially contemporary art inserted into unlikely places. Case in point: the new Tenuta Castelbuono winery building near Bevagna. This massive work, called “Il Carapace”, by contemporary Italian artist Arnaldo Pomodoro, was completed after six years of work in 2012 and straddles the fence between sculpture and architecture.
I’m going to immediately stick my neck out to say that I like “Il Carapace”. Or, to be even more polemic, I love it. Saturated with symbolism, this copper dome-shaped structure is modelled on a giant tortoise shell—representing “stability and longevity”—and the low, rounded shape blends seamlessly into the surrounding landscape of rolling vineyard-covered hills, an echo of the “union of earth and sky”.
Being from Chicago, I am no newcomer to Pomodoro; a number of his works are displayed in the city, including the campuses of both the University of Chicago and Northwestern University. I am also no newcomer to livable sculpture…from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House to Gehry’s Pritzker Pavilion, Chicago has a proud tradition of revolutionary buildings which blur the line between art and architecture. But contemporary architecture in a modern city is expected; contemporary architecture juxtaposed against the backdrop of this region so steeped in the Middle Ages that one would hardly blink an eye if Saint Francis himself were to come around the corner is riskier.
It was a risk well-taken, as Il Carapace has been met with much praise. Commissioned by the Lunelli family–which primarily produces spumante in Trento under the Ferrari label—to mark their foray into Umbria’s Sagrantino country, the winery building has been getting more press than the wines produced there. It’s easy to see why, as the tasting room inside Il Carapace’s dome is spectacularly distracting, with its soaring rib-like arches and plate-glass walls framing the dreamy vineyards outside, as is the cantina, with its spiral shape and disconsonant sky-blue walls, giving you a moment of vertigo as you try to remember if you’re above or below ground.
Photo courtesy of Umbriabeecoming
Both times I visited Il Carapace were for special events; lit up in the evening by flickering torches and soft lights and animated by live music and the clinking of hundreds of glasses, Pomodoro’s work becomes both more dramatic and more intimate—though hard to photograph.
Tenuta Castelbuono offers tours and tastings; for more information, visit their website. Pomodoro was so successful in blending his “living sculpture” into the scenery that it’s not easy to spot the winery from afar. Keep watch for the red, dart-shaped structure that stands at the entrance, towering above the hills like the shaft of an immense arrow shot into the earth, both a complement and an antithesis to the harmony of Il Carapace itself.
Assisi– with its iconic Basilica of Saint Francis, picturesque twisting stone alleyways, and breathtaking views over the surrounding olive grove-covered hills–is not known for its nightlife. The atmosphere of this beautiful and stately hilltown is staid and spiritual, lending itself more to contemplative walks and quiet cappuccinos than bacchanal excess and nocturnal partying.
That is, except for those three days (and nights) a year when Assisi really lets her hair down. For the past 50 plus years, Saint Francis’ hometown sheds its normal air of peace and brotherly love to spend the first Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of May locked in intense competition as the Parte de Sopra and the Parte de Sotto put on elaborate processions, scenes of medieval life, and concerts with period music as they compete for the Palio, judged by a panel of three experts, one specialized in history, one in theater and the arts, and one in music.
Virtually everyone who lives in Assisi – and many locals who have since moved away but make a yearly pilgrimage during the days leading up to Calendimaggio – participates in this community-run festival, from building sets and sewing costumes, to acting in the Medieval scenes, to singing in the choir, to going around town each evening to light the many torches illuminating the streets (yes, there is a special group of guys who are specialized in the torches). In a town in which only about 1,000 people currently live in the historic center, almost 2,000 routinely participate in some way in the festival, which brings the town together in both solidarity and rivalry like no other event.
The festival—currently shortlisted for UNESCO World Heritage recognition—is seen best from the bleacher seats in the main piazza (tickets available in the tourist information office); Thursday, Friday, and Saturday afternoons are filled with processions (Thursday is marked by the keys to the city being ceremoniously handed over by the Mayor to the Master of Ceremonies for the three days of festivities; Friday the two Parti compete in crossbow and Medieval games; Saturday afternoon is the theatrical procession. Perhaps the most spectacular of the three days of festivities is Saturday night when fire and pyrotechnics play a large part of the show.). On Thursday and Friday nights the scenes of Medieval life which each Parte organize in their respective areas of the town are open only to the judges, but can be seen by the public projected on screens in the main piazza.
These are magical days when flags and banners hang from each window, a taverna (temporary restaurant) is bustling to serve hungry festival-goers under the Piazza del Comune, costumed theatrical processions, crossbow tournaments, feats of physical strength, Medieval choirs with historic instrumental accompaniment, and dancing go far into the night…indeed, on Saturday the rowdiness flows to dawn, when the verdict from the three judges is announced and the winning Parte literally dances in the streets (And piazzas. And fountains.).
These photos of past editions of Calendimaggio are courtesy of Via di Francesco.
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I’m not sure how it came up. We may have been talking about childhood memories, or maybe some American movie, or maybe just our favorite foods from growing up. But for whatever reason, I started describing to my children -bicultural but 90% Italian in matters concerning the palate – that perennial favorite: Kraft Macaroni & Cheese.
I watched as their expressions shifted from mild interest to disbelief to outright disgust as I described the bright orange powder which, when mixed with milk, butter, and slightly overcooked elbow pasta, would transform through some sort of gastronomic alchemy into what was, in the 1970s, our hands-down favorite meal and one of the pillars of our household cuisine.
“Wait, what? It was dried, powdered chemical cheese?!? And you ate it?” my children cried in horror. And then, “So if you ate that and you’re fine, why can’t we have Coke?”
It seems odd, but I had never really thought about some of my favorite and, admittedly, slightly disgusting favorite dishes from growing up during what was probably the lowest moment for American cuisine. They had gradually faded from my memory over the distance decades and oceans, and it was only during what quickly become one of my children’s favorite topics of dinnertime conversation that I revisited these dishes.
Over the next few weeks, a myriad of nostalgic favorites were discussed, to the growing incredulity of my children. What was served at home and school in the Chicago suburbs in the 1970s and 80s was as odd and gastronomically untranslatable to two Italian children growing up in the Umbrian countryside in the 21st century as molecular cuisine or whatever tube worms eat in the depths of the ocean.
What were the foods – and I use the word “food” loosely – that left them most awed and amazed?
Chili Mac. This was the logical segue after Kraft Mac & Cheese (with a slight, longing detour past Hamburger Helper), and my kids were slightly less scandalized by this, as they have had chili with more or less success. Of course, the chili that they have had is my homemade black bean chili with chipotle and fresh lime which simmers on the stove for the better part of a day. The chili my mother used was made by Hormel and simmered on the stove for exactly 30 seconds before being tossed with overdone macaroni (was there any other pasta shape in the Midwest in 1981?) and served up to much enthusiasm. Had I had the audacity to bring up canned chili, I could have also mentioned Spaghettios and Chef Boyardee Ravioli, but they can’t handle the truth.
The whole genre of orange processed cheeses. Velveeta, Cheez Whiz, Kraft Singles. America has invented many wonderful things, but I venture that our eponymous cheese is not one of them. I’ve never been a big fan of American cheese, so understood my sons’ perplexed looks while I described the disconcerting color, rubbery texture, and chemical aftertaste. Cheese is our family Esperanto, apparently. That said, one of my favorite childhood memories was going to the public library on Saturday and then afterwards stopping at the Peter Pan Diner for a grilled cheese sandwich…and you can bet your bottom dollar that it was made with Wonder Bread, American cheese, and fried up in margarine. Best lunch ever.
Jello. I have vague memories of opening up the kitchen cabinet and seeing a number of those small boxes neatly stacked in a variety of flavors. We were big jello fans at our house, and jiggly trays would be prepared and then cut into ice-cube sized squares to be popped into the mouth directly from the fridge all afternoon long. Try explaining to a 10 and 13 year old Italian kid that merenda was squares of acid-colored sweet gelatin flavored with artificial fruit flavors. Yeah, it doesn’t really translate that well. Throw in canned mandarin orange slices and marshmallows, and they were backing away from the table at just the thought. But boy did I love that when I was seven. (Also: Jello instant pudding in the similar little boxes. This did not gross the kids out as much, as there is instant budino here. Which they refuse to eat. But they’ve seen it.)
Sloppy Joes. I went into a long explanation of the singular delight that is the Sloppy Joe, and when I finished there was a long silence. Then, “So, what you’re saying is that it’s ragu served on a hamburger bun?” Yeah. Exactly. I’d never really thought of it like that, but yes. They were totally on board with the Sloppy Joe, and I have promised to make it for them some day. Because, you know, they’re two boys. And Sloppy Joes are, well, sloppy. Which is pretty much the attraction there, because otherwise it’s really nothing more than ragu sauce on a bun, you big dummy.
Corn dogs. No one is quibbling about the deliciousness that is the corn dog on a stick. Really, any food on a stick is pretty much the bomb, but the corn dog reigns supreme in pure State Fair joyousness. And yet. Try to explain the corn dog concept to anyone who hasn’t had a chance to actually taste one at an age too young to ask too many questions and you are bound to get Prince-at-the-2015-Grammys shade tossed your way. My kids are off and on about hot dogs (though hamburgers are always a win), and meh about cornbread. So the combination didn’t really sway them, though the concept of it being served on a stick gave them pause. Every once in awhile, just for laughs, they’ll randomly ask me to describe a corn dog again. And I have to admit, the more I talk about it the more I realize that it is kind of weird. But I hear that pretty much everything is battered and fried and served on a stick these days, so corn dogs have become the Atari of fair foods.
Tater tots. One bite of tater tots and they would burn their Italian passports. That is all. You think your favorite school lunch day was Sloppy Joe Day, but that’s because you forgot about Tater Tot Day. The day of the week we all lived for. I haven’t actually eaten a tater tot in probably 30 years, but I was able to perfectly describe the crunchy fried outer layer, lightly dusted in salt, which would be cracked open to reveal the steaming soft totness within. And, as a close cousin to the universally beloved french fry, (so deeply part of our cultural roots that when those rats in France had the audacity to justly question our invasion of Iraq after 9/11, we started calling them “freedom fries” because the alternative—boycotting french fries altogether—was unthinkable), my sons were easy converts.
Every so often, we open up the gastronomic Pandora’s Box and I’m able to exhume other more or less horrifying (to them)-slash-nostalgic (to me) examples (Tang.), much to our mutual enjoyment. Because at the end of the day, it’s not about highlighting the crazy differences that separate their experiences from mine, but about coming together and reveling in our shared life despite those crazy differences. Sure, food is sometimes lost in translation…but family is a something we all understand.
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I’ll admit it. I tend to wax lyrical about the Valnerina. The dramatic valley–where the crystalline Nera river runs under steep rocky slopes, upon which tiny creche-like stone villages perch precariously–lends itself to waxing. The scenery in this largely unsung regional park is wild and rugged, stunningly beautiful yet foreboding. The weather can go from sunny skies to black clouds in a matter of minutes, and the isolated villages and claustrophobia-inducing sheer rock walls remind you that millenia ago the inhabitants of these inpenetrable craggy peaks held out against conversion to Christianity long after the rest of the region.
A spring storm in the Valnerina near Meggiano, Umbria, Italy
I was waxing thus to an Umbrian friend awhile ago—a fellow passionate aficionado of the Valnerina–and telling him how I love the juxtaposition of the bucolic scenery with an unsettling underlying darkness (a David Lynch-esque feel, if you will), and he nodded knowingly and said, “And, of course, there’s that business about the dragon.” I nearly spit out my drink. What?!? What dragon?
It turns out–as so often happens–I am practically the last person in Umbria to find out about the dragon. Everyone knows the story of Mauro and his son Felice, two Syrian pilgrims who arrived in the Naarte region (from the ancient Nare or Naarco River, from which the modern Nera derives) roughly six centuries after Christ’s death to proselytize to the recalcitrant locals. As fate would have it, they were having a bit of trouble with a nearby dragon and, in what must have seemed like a serendipitous means of killing two birds with one stone, called on Mauro to prove his faith by taking care of business. No one knew precisely where the beast lived (his toxic breath kept them from getting too close), so Mauro set off at dawn with a reed walking stick and mason’s hammer to search the monster out. When he reached the general area where the locals had indicated the dragon might be found, the holy man stuck his stick in the ground for safe-keeping while he set about building a stone hut for shelter. The stick immediately sent out roots and shoots, and Mauro took it as a sign that God was covering his back in this dragon thing. He returned to his masonry work and after a short time caught the unmistakeable sulfuric odor of dragon-breath…if you’ve ever woken beside someone who dined on aglio, olio, peperoncino the night before, you know what I’m talking about.
San Mauro (and/or San Felice) slays the dragon from the facade of the church of San Felice di Narco
Though he feared his end was near, Mauro took his mason’s hammer and somehow managed to skirt the flames, avoid the sulfur, and overcome the height difference (accounts speak of a good 27 meters of dragon) to bonk the monster on the head. While the unconscious beast lay motionless on the ground, Mauro used his hammer to detach large pieces of rock from the cliff above, which continued falling on the dragon until it died (apparently of blood loss, as the river ran with dragon’s blood for three days and three nights). This begs the question as to why Mauro didn’t simply finish the job with the hammer rather than go to all the trouble to detach stones from the cliffside, but the ways of saints and screenwriters of horror movies are a mystery to mere mortals. Regardless, the locals needed no further proof of Mauro’s holiness and his God’s bad ass-edness, so they promptly converted. Mauro and Felice lived out their lives in prayer and service (Felice died in 535 AD and Mauro in 555 AD) in the Valnerina.
The lovely Romanesque San Felice di Narco
Some of the details of the story remain unclear. There may or may not have been an angel involved. The dragon may have actually been slain (dragons never seem to be killed, only slain) by Felice. There is a nurse who pops up now and then and seems to have died of fever with Felice. But the legend holds, and the area still bears testimony of it on the facade of the lovely Romansque Church of San Felice di Narco near Castel San Felice. If you look carefully at the freize under the intricately carved rose window, you will see a detail of depicting the slaying of the dragon (not to scale, please note) and inside the crypt the sarcophagus of the Saints Mauro and Felice. The nearby town of Sant’Anatolia and Church of Sant’Anatolia also pay homage to the two saints by adopting their surname.
Sant'Anatolia di Narco in the Valnerina
I was talking about this dragon story to another local friend in that cynical, sardonic tone that we hipsters use when discussing Self Help Gurus, the Easter Bunny, and Compassionate Conservativism, when he said, “Yes, and there’s that dragon bone in Città di Castello, of course.” More drink spitting ensued.
I discovered that the Valnerina wasn’t the only area in Umbria known for harboring fire-breathing winged reptiles. In the pretty upper Tiber Valley, a rolling countryside in the north of the region bordering on Tuscany, yet another dragon was slain (see?) by a travelling Christian missionary, Crescenziano (a Roman patrician known as Crescentino in Latin texts). Having given up his worldly goods to the poor, Crescenziano arrived in the area on horseback and was immediately put to task by the local pagans in dispatching their troublesome dragon. He killed the beast, converted the inhabitants, and was promptly martyred by the Romans for his trouble.
The iconography of San Crescenziano almost always depicts him on horseback in the act of killing the dragon.
Traces of this legend appear in a small bass-relief in the tiny country church of Pieve de’ Saddi, near Pietralunga (built on the spot where Crescenziano was martyred), and the coat of arms of Urbino’s cathedral—both of which depict Crescenziano on horseback impaling the dragon with a long spear. More convincing than this, however, is the 2.6 meter dragon rib bone, long conserved in the church of Pieve de’ Saddi until being moved to the cathedral in Città di Castello, where it is still stored, and a second rib bone, measuring 2.2 meters, kept in another tiny country church near Pieve de’ Saddi, San Pietro di Carpini. Scientists, skeptics, and spoilsports speak of the vast expanse of water which covered the area during the late Miocene and early Pliocene eras (That’s roughly 23-5 million years ago. I googled it.) which was home to vast numbers of water and land animals, some quite large, of which numerous remains have been found by paleontologists over the years.
The church at Pieve de' Saddi marking the spot where San Crescenziano was martyred.
Academics, historians, and spoilsports also speak of the symbolism and allegory attached to the role of the dragon in myths. Both Umbrian legends originate from areas where there is a waterway—once interspersed with standing pools of fetid water harboring disease– and the work of draining and reclaiming the land for agriculture and ridding the area of disease may be symbolized by the slaying of a toxic, deadly monster. Man’s triumph over the wildness of nature, so to speak. The dragon was also historically used to symbolize paganism, and the Christian slaying the beast protrays this innovative religion’s advance.
Leonardo da Vinci's famous rendering of a dragon battling a lion.
Whale bones. Malaria. Swamp reclamation. Religious wars. Sure, it all fits, but what fun is that? I’ll take the fairy tale version, and continue to wax lyrical about the Valnerina (and all of Umbria) and her dragon.