Friday, June 24, 2011

Reason for Riposo

I have spent all winter hating riposo, that afternoon rest time when all the businesses close. It can begin anytime between noon-2pm and ends anytime from 3:30-6pm. Riposo has driven me batty. Everything closes - the grocer, the vet, the salumeria, the shops. Visiting small towns has been a special challenge. There have been times when we've arrived somewhere about 11am, done a slow walk to a restaurant, enjoyed a leisurely lunch, then headed off to visit the town's shops...and they're closed. So now, visiting towns for only a daytrip is more of a marathon to see it all before riposo shuts everything down.

But now, at last, I am on board with riposo. And the reason is summer. Most homes do not have air condition, so getting anything done is like swimming underwater. It is not just hot here. It is oxygen-sucking hot. I do not "glisten" in my house, I flat out sweat. The one saving grace is our rooftop, which gets somewhat of a cooling breeze.  Mornings and evenings are a wonderful, balmy temperature that makes me understand the phrase of air caressing skin. But afternoons, the battle is lost and I must retreat to higher ground. We are some of the few, lucky ones with air conditioning in our home, but they are small, electric wall units (not the window units that are more common in America). Two of our bedrooms have one; they're perfect for the small spaces and allow us to pay lots of money to the electric company in order to sleep at night. I've mentioned before the high cost of electricity being the reason for many homes not having dryers. Ditto for a/c and large, American style refrigerators. We also have one a/c unit for our living room which is open to the whole house, and I found that in the heat of the day, it's useless. Possibly because it's located right next to one of our sliding windows that has a four inch gap at the top of it where the window is undersized for the frame around it. As soon as it's not too hot to go to our garage and carry our ladder upstairs, I'm plugging that gap with a towel. But for now, it's time to lay down my battle weapons and have a little riposo.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Something I Never Expected

Back in April, Nathan and I strolled down to our local roundabout for a gelato. Our roundabout is sort of like our village's piazza, only filled with traffic. Edging the roundabout are businesses which include a newsstand, coffee bar/gelateria, pizzeria, salumeria (very small grocer), butcher, tabacchi, hair salon, and restaurant. The coffee bar has a large patio with tables, and the sidewalk of the road is edged with benches, the better to watch the traffic go by. It's surprisingly entertaining to sit on these benches and people watch the drivers. When my aunt and I did so, we saw a lady drive by with three dogs in her car, the one in the front seat had his head hanging out the window while the two in the back were sitting up very properly, both with heads turned to watch the world go by out of their respective windows. It's also fun to count how many cars go by with young children riding either in laps or just bouncing around on the backseat playing - definitely a unique sight for these American eyes. Across the street is the Metro stop and a large parking lot, empty until this month, when I found out the parking lot is not for all the trash usually heaped there, but is instead  for all the summertime beachgoers.

So back to mine and Nathan's stroll...the fence edging the parking lot usually has a banner of some sort hanging from it. Sometimes it's the same banner for months - usually the soccer ones are around awhile. Then there are political ones every now and then, advertising some candidate or other. This particular evening, we were struck by a banner that I never, ever, in a million years thought I would see half a world away from the U.S.:

Best of all are the words that you can't make out with the blog photo resolution, but it says, "The South Will Rise Again." We stood across the street, staring at this banner in absolute awe. We looked up and down the street as if we'd see who raised it. We looked at the store owners standing in their doorways, as they often do, to gauge if this sort of banner was acceptable. There were no clues anywhere. But it was yet another reminder of Italy's youth as a country and as a democracy, and their culture wars as the country grows. I write so much of the ancient history and culture that surrounds me here, but even more so, the modern problems of a growing country are the backdrop of daily life.

Until 1861, Italy was ruled by city-states and/or foreign countries. So 100 years after America became a democratic country, Italy's disparate parts joined together, ruled by a monarchy, then the Facist dictatorship, and finally, almost 90 years after unification, Italy became a republic in 1946. Prior to unification, southern Italy was powerful. The people were rich, cultured, smart, and basically, they were the cool kids. The northerners were considered the peasants and the laborers. Then, unification occurred, and the decades have brought us to today, where the north is considered the land of the educated, the people who know what's best, the rich and the powerful, while the southerners are the farmers, the hillbillies, and are considered to be very lazy. Any of this sounding at all familiar to anyone? Anyone? Now I don't pay close attention to the details of the Italian political culture, but I do know there is a group who wants a divided Italy, who essentially, wants the south to rise again. But what I really found interesting is thinking about the North/South divide in many countries and on a global scale. In considering many of the European countries, they have a similar culture war. Even more interesting, I put North vs. South into Wikipedia and found a great article on the global ramifications - across the globe, the developed, First World nations are in the north while the poorer, struggling nations are in the south (with Australia and New Zealand as exceptions). And so it seems the Weepies are correct...the world really does just spin madly on.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Living La Dolce Vita

You knew that phrase would have to come up sometime. I've resisted for months now, but today, it's time. This week has been my first truly "free" week in months. Nathan has even been gone (but will be home by the time this posts), so I had only to worry about myself and Crazy Dog - I could eat whatever I wanted (turns out, a person can live on bagels and wine), watch whatever I wanted on TV, spend as much time on the computer as I felt like, read in bed with the light on, all sorts of crazy things. I thought I would enjoy some time to really relax with no obligations. Turns out, not so much. I've spent all week reading Facebook posts by Nathan in Germany and my family back home on "our" annual vacation to the Florida Gulf Coast - they go every year, while Nathan and I just try to make it as often as possible. Quite frankly, I'm jealous. Flat out green with envy. Of all of them. Nathan is calling me with tales of his love for Germany and how we should move there in his post-Navy career. My aunt and cousins keep posting pictures of themselves at the beach, and I'm not in the pictures, while my aunt consoles me on the phone with possibly true tales of thunderstorms. But today, as I was organizing, editing, and labeling the photos my mom took while she was here visiting, I came across one she took of me. Then I remembered, life in Italy can be pretty good indeed:
Tuscany, A lounge chair, Wine, and a Kindle - what more does a girl need?

Finding More in Centro

Way back when, in my “wander around downtown Naples” early days, I blogged here about going into a church and finding that underneath it were some pretty spectacular Roman ruins. With our friends in town last week, I’d planned my normal “Tour of Centro,” to include Capella Sansevero for my favorite sculpture in the entire world, pizza at Sorbillo, then a little walk to catch a few churches. They were interested in churches and ruins, and I remembered this place, located only a couple of blocks from the pizzeria. Entering, we dutifully paid our 9euro entry fee (7euro with the ArteCard or for over 65), and once inside, I found a huge part of the Chiesa di San Lorenzo Maggiore complex that I’d missed on my prior stealth visit. There are two chapels with the most amazing frescoed ceilings. One lights up with motion sensors when you enter, and the lights start out dim as you walk forward, gazing raptly at the ceiling. By the time you reach the altar, the lights are full strength, and you can then turn to see the majesty of the ceiling.

So in answer to a question I’m constantly asking myself, “Nope, not tired of frescoes yet.” I admit to being a little jaded to the churches. They’re all just so beautiful that they sort of run together. But frescoes never wear me down. I love all of them, from the intricate ceilings to the cutest, little bird in a corner.
At Villa Ariana, Castellammare di Stabia
The second chapel has vaulted ceilings and yet another frescoed ceiling in a completely different style. We spent quite awhile in both chapels just in awe. Then, heading below ground to the ruins, I was reminded of just how amazing they are and how these sorts of things most likely exist underneath every structure in centro. There are several hallways that visitors can wander at will, up a few stairs here to yet another section, down this dead end tunnel, ending at a large floor mosaic to enjoy, and down another hallway with barrel arches still in place, until finally, we climbed more stairs through the ruins and up to modern day street level. The actual church was closed for the afternoon, which just leaves for something else wonderful to see on my next visit.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Berry Bounty

Back in late fall/early winter, we found ourselves overwhelmed with oranges. Big oranges, little oranges, oranges dripping from trees, even wild oranges that are too sour to eat - that's right, this country has so many orange trees that many of them aren't even tended and have just been allowed to grow wild. Our landlady brought over bags and bags of clementines. We bought bags and bags of clementines. And this was my introduction to becoming a locavore. I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver a few years ago after hearing her give a reading in Floyd, Virgina. That book is one of those change your life books - I didn't change mine radically, but her words and her message resonate with me even now, half a decade later. I still talk about this book all the time. The upshot is that she, her husband, and their two daughters moved from the southwest to a farm in VA, where for one year, they ate food that was grown within a certain radius of their home (something like 60 miles). I loved the premise and how the family lived it out. Here in Italy, as long as we shop in town rather than on base, we can't help but become locavores. The produce stands are full of what is in season, not what is grown in hothouses countries away and shipped to our location. And the bounty is wonderful and cheap, cheap, cheap! While I seemed to pay more back in the U.S. for food with the locally grown label, here, prices really reflect supply and demand.
This was just a small orange purchase - it cost us 36 cents

In December, we ate oranges. I asked my friend, K., if she thought we'd be able to get oranges after the season was over. She said then that she imagined something just as wonderful would come along to make me forget about the oranges. And so it has been. We had artichokes in the spring. And this month, it's the strawberries. Big, juicy strawberries and itty, bitty sweet ones. They're so plentiful, that we buy them in cases, not little pint containers. Thankfully, I purchased a canning kit prior to moving to Italy, although I've yet to pull it out. But strawberry season is calling to my canning kit. Nathan and I have been having some Bubba from "Forrest Gump" moments where we just call out things we can do with the strawberries - strawberry jam, berry smoothies, strawberry martinis. I can't wait to see what sort of bounty comes next.
This huge case was only 3 euros

Monday, June 13, 2011

Something New

 The day I dropped Mom off at the airport, I picked up two friends for our last set of visitors until early fall. These friends were on a tour of the Amalfi Coast for seven days, but had added some days on the beginning and end, which gave us some time together. Their first couple of days, we stayed in our Campi Flegrei region, exploring all the ruins nearby. As it turned out, they'd recently read Robert Harris's excellent historical fiction book, Pompeii, which is set in Baia/Bacoli/Capo Miseno, right down the road from our house. Even better, the book centers on the head engineer for the aqueduct running through this area and ending at the Piscina Mirabile, that large cistern I blogged about back in March. Our friends shared some of the book's plotline with me, which prompted me to head straight home and grab it off the shelf. What a great, alternative look at the area's history rather than just walking around some ruins.

Their tour had a free day near the end, so we arranged to meet-up for a daytrip. At the suggestion of their tour leader, they suggested we visit the excavations of two villas, Villa Ariana and Villa San Marco, located in a town south of Pompeii called Castellammare di Stabia (known only as Stabiae in the ancient times). Interestingly, the book Pompeii has a large end scene set in Stabiae, and by the time of this trip, I'd read the book as well. All three of us were able to remember bits of the book and apply them to what we were seeing. We set off for Castellammare and only spent 30 minutes lost in the thick of town, complete with one lane streets full of parked cars on one side and pedestrians on the other and speeding vespas. After finally finding Villa San Marco, we saw that it was well worth the time spent lost in town.

There are seven known villas in that area covered by the Vesuvius ash. Only two have been excavated, and both are ongoing projects. The villas sit on a high hill, with a fully developed plain in front of them reaching down to the sea. Today, between the villas and the sea are acres upon acres of multi-story apartment buildings crammed together, a bustling carpet of thousands of lives. At the time of the eruption however, these villas were waterfront property, complete with entrances from the sea. We parked and begin walking a path toward private homes, turned a corner to a little office and picked up our mandatory guide provided by the site (free, but a little tip is appreciated), then walked through some people's yards to get to the entrance.
Down a few steps, and we entered ancient Roman life. This villa is phenomenal and seems more like a palace. Our guide assured us that the prevailing theory is still that the villa belonged to only one family, and even better, they were from Rome, meaning this was a vacation home. We walked along what would have been their seaside terrace, then through rooms upon rooms, many with large, intact frescoes, saw their kitchen and living rooms, their grand entrance for guests coming by land, the afternoon parlor for the ladies, and two swimming pools, one of which was rimmed with carbonized tree stumps and newer trees replanted by the sites of the old ones. What made this villa so remarkable to visit was it's up close look at how the Romans lived. With a personal guide to answer all our questions (Italian only...but it went surprisingly well) and no other visitors, we really got to see a place in depth, to imagine the ladies in their afternoon parlor, to picture the powerful and rich owner striding down the columned and frescoed loggia, and to think of the servants, who lived in the section with the horse stables. While I love Herculaneum and Pompeii, those places are both so full of things to see that the sites themselves can overwhelm and the data intake can just be too much. Villa San Marco was a hit will all of us. The second villa was very interesting, but the villa itself is much smaller and is laid out with a bunch of individual rooms opening off of one long terrace - so we walked by rooms as if we were walking down a museum corridor - interesting, not as much as Villa San Marco. I also had a terrible time understanding our guide at Villa Ariana, so that also detracted from our experience. We finished up at the villas and then had a great lunch at a tiny little place we happened upon - it was mid-afternoon, and all other restaurants and pizzerias were closed. The family who owned the restaurant was fascinated with us - the matron of the restaurant finally asked, as we were leaving, why we were there. We may have been some of the only American tourists they've ever had.

As a side note, Castellammare di Stabia is the town that tried, last year, to ban miniskirts, playing soccer in the piazzas, and cursing. I don't remember now if I ever blogged about that, but it was big news right after we arrived here. I'm still not sure if the town council actually passed the proposals, but I did not wear a miniskirt, just in case.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Mom Finale

We had a great visit with my mom, and while we'd planned to do a little more beach lounging, we still managed to have a good combination of relaxation and sightseeing. Here are a couple of my favorite Mom pics that didn't make the previous posts:
Dinner of meats, cheeses, olives, cherries and wine - yumm!

Movie Star Mom having lunch in Cortona

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Tuscany Wrap-Up

 We spent our final, full day in Tuscany in Siena, that gorgeous, rolly city, with streets that curve and turn back upon themselves, a campo famous throughout the world and considered one of the best piazzas in Italy, and a zebra striped Duomo with the most vibrant frescoes around. After finally working things out with our landlady regarding the dog, we intended to leave Scully behind. He was having none of that. For the only time in his entire life, he went into hysterics when we left, complete with high-pitched, loud barking that just would not stop. And so, Scully went to Siena, too. Since I'd seen the Duomo and Museum just a couple of months ago, Scully and I set up camp on the church steps, him with the adoration of every passerby and me with my Kindle. I don't know how Nathan and Mom's visit to the Duomo and Museum went, but Scully and I had a fantastic morning. We moved along the steps with the sun, always staying in the shadow. I continually cleared cigarette butts from each new location - Crazy Dog got his moniker by many of his personality traits, one of which is his severe nicotine addiction. He attracted kids and adults throughout the morning, so I had near continuous conversation. In addition, after the first hour went by, a nearby deli owner took Scully under his wing and began bringing out pieces of baguette and bottles of water. After the second hour, we'd moved up to cheese. Sadly, this nice man gave all of the food directly to the dog. After Mom and Nathan joined me for a picnic lunch on the Duomo steps and they'd finished up their visits to the church, museum, baptistry, and the panoramic viewpoint overlooking the city (in the museum), Nathan took over Scully duty and headed to the Campo, where the two of them took a little nap.
Mom and I shopped - or tried to, but many of the shops were closed. The biggie for me, the Pratesi shoe outlet, was open, and with Mom's birthday gift help, I got my first pair of Italian leather boots. So gorgeous!!! After all shopping was finished, we met up back at the Campo, where Scully again proved his nickname is justified by flipping the back of my skirt up with his head. Now, all of Siena and her tourists know exactly what color my underwear was that day. Crazy dog.

Our day to return home was a long, but active day, per usual. We drove the Crete Senese, a road south of Siena that has the most gorgeous views of Tuscany I could have ever imagined! Sometimes, places don't look like the movies. Tuscany looks exactly like it does in the movies. Green and yellow hills, cypress trees dotting the sky, stone farmhouses placed so picturesquely that it seems a film producer had to be involved. Nathan and his uncle are biking through Tuscany this fall, so the drive gave us a great opportunity to scout out the region...except that Nathan kept saying, "This will have to be on our route," and said it so often that I think it all has to be on the planning route. There didn't seem to be a single place where I heard, "Well this is no good."

From the Crete Senese drive, we stopped in at Montalcino, first visiting a wine store outside of town which included a long visit with the friendly, knowledgeable owner (Francesca at Enoteca Fontepreci) and then a winery she recommended, Mozart Winery (aka Il Paradiso). Both were great stops for Nathan to get more information, tastes, and purchases of the local, hotshot wine, the Brunello. In Montalcino, we had a casual, delicious lunch at the wine cafe located in the town's old fort. This is the first cafe in a fort I've come across and what a great setting! A quick browse through town, all wine shop all the time, and then on to Montepulciano.

Montepulciano was another town I fell in love with, and not only because it's where Twilight's New Moon was filmed. The facade architecture of the cathedral was fascinating and unique, resembling a crumbling log cabin, yet made of stone. Montepulciano is all hills, and as Nathan commented on departure, it was uphill both ways to our car - I don't know how, but he's actually not wrong. We were anxious to get on the road to get home before it got too late, so Montepulciano only got a quick perusal from us, but it goes on our list of places to return for a longer look.

Living in a Beach Town

Today, you get two blog posts...
It's almost 11pm and some sort of rave seems to be going on in our village piazza. I don't know this for sure because I can't see it from my house. You'd think I would have noticed the music when it started, but only subconsciously. My real awareness came when the man speaking (shouting) over the microphone said the word, "tonight." That's right - 30 minutes of discotheque music didn't phase me, but one English word grabbed hold. I would love to go down to the party, mingle, eat gelato, have a drink, but did I mention it's 11pm? That's the old fogey in my talking. I'm probably going to head down there and check it out, if for no other reason than to lay eyes on an apparent outdoor discotheque going on in the middle of the week. I love living in a tourist town. No really, I do. Despite the fact that our weekends are now spent fighting traffic both in and out of our town - beachgoers on their way further out the peninsula, where the best beach clubs are. Despite the rumors that our coffee bar is soon to be completely overrun and packed at all times. Goodbye any chance I had at becoming a "local" by repetitious visits for morning coffee. We must have moved in at the perfect time, just as winter was settling into the region and families holed up at home for their long winter nights. But now, doors are thrown open, cafes have sprung up out of seemingly direlict buildings, days are filled with the nearby shouts of families at the beach, and this is the second rave of the week (and it's only Wednesday!). Our little piazza (read, traffic congested roundabout) has truly come to life, and I'm enjoying the vibrancy. Fireworks just ended (they're a nightly occurance now) and "I Gotta Feeling" by the Black-Eyed Peas is playing. And now, we dance...

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Tales of Tuscany

Staying outside of Siena put us smack in the middle of gorgeous Tuscany, meaning the whole region was open to us. While I do want to visit some of the more out of the way towns, we decided that for this trip, we should see some of the biggies first. This led us to our first day's visit to Cortona, the town written about by Frances Mayes. Her fabulous books, best I can tell, put the town on the tour bus map (Under the Tuscan Sun, Bella Tuscany, and my personal favorite, Every Day in Tuscany). And lovely it is.
We approached from the flatlands and saw this beautiful city cutting into the hillside, complete with towers and the deep red rooftiles atop sandy colored buildings, colors so prolific in this region. I fell in love with Cortona, but that was probably due to the beautiful, blue skies that formed such a perfect backdrop for both the town views and the panoramic views of the countryside. Or it could have been because we visited on market day, always a fun treat, or that there was a medieval festival of sorts going on, filling the town with medieval costumed performers and making it so easy for us to cross the line of time between past and present. I even lucked into a shop with a clerk who wanted to Italian! I love it when that happens! After a delicious lunch on the main drag in town and another quick spin through town and to the Duomo (church), we headed back to our hotel to drop off our dog and on to San Gimignano for a visit and dinner.
San Gimignano's Towered Skyline
San Gimignano is a real favorite of mine. It's the only Tuscan town to retain so many of it's medieval towers, 14 still standing of it's original 60+. This makes for a fantastic skyline. Rick Steves writes that San Gimignano is given over wholly to tourism, and I suppose I found that to be true. But just walking those cobbled streets beneath the towers and climbing up to the fortress and the uneven, rock staircase to look out over those same towers...magical. With most of these little towns, activities are limited. They are small, filled with shops (some good, some typical tourist tchotch), have a church or two, maybe a civic museum, and several restaurants and cafes. We didn't visit every church and museum and shop, but we wandered, we enjoyed. Wild boar, cinghiale, is king here, and shops are filled with boar related items, advertised with boar heads hanging off their outer walls. Shops were for tourists, and I don't think we passed a single store dedicated to "real life," but still, San Gimignano is a wonderful visit.
Piazza of San Gimignano

Sunday, June 5, 2011

On the way to Tuscany

After nine months in Italy and about the same number of trips back and forth to Rome, we finally had the chance to take the little detour off the freeway to Subiaco Abbey. At least I thought it was a little detour. At the end of the day, it actually took about three hours, but it was three hours well worth it to see this amazing, 6th century monastery rising out of the cliff with an interior completely covered in frescoes. St. Benedict holed up in a cave here for a few years, founding the abbey, before moving down the mountains and founding the abbey at Montecassino (of WWII fame). We were headed up to Siena, only a four hour drive away, so we had some spare time for me to cross Subiaco off my list. Parking at the bottom of the hill, we walked up, up, up, then entered through a narrow, twisty staircase to a little piazza next to the abbey. The engineering of the building is fascinating as it's built on top of Benedict's cave and the walls seem to just grow out of the rock. Since we had Scully with us, we took turns going in. Mom and I visited first, and after passing the monk at the entrance, there were no other monks around, no arrows pointing the way, nothing. We visited the chapel next to the entrance, peered down a hall that seemed to be admin offices and rejoined Nathan to take over dog watch. Nathan disappeared for quite awhile, then came out with a confused look on his face, saying, "You know there's a whole lot more than that chapel, right? And was there ever! At the back of the chapel is a staircase down into Fresco Wonderland, complete with St. Benedict's cave, a tucked away staircase up to a small chapel, and more stairs down a Rose Garden and some exterior frescoes. In this land of frescoes, Subiaco is king. Sadly, no photos allowed - but I did take one of this warning, located outside the entrance door:
No Hussies Allowed
Continuing on to Siena and our hotel, we dropped off the dog at the hotel and headed into Siena for dinner. When I visited with my friend back in February, we'd lucked into this fabulous restaurant. Locals sitting next to us informed us that this restaurant was one of the two best in Siena...and gave us the name of the other one. We headed to this other one, Tre Cristi, for dinner, especially after reading rave reviews on Trip Advisor. It was very good, but none of us would classify it as our best meal. With one big "but"...absolutely the best grappa we've ever tasted. Grappa we've never even imagined existing. Grappa that tastes like butter. Grappa that we've now been completely unsuccessful in tracking down to pick up a few bottles ourselves, so if anyone knows where to buy 10 Year Reserve La Centenara by Aquileia, let me know! 

The best part of the evening was getting to the Campo right at dusk, that magic hour when the buildings glow.