Stories of Italian plagues

The DecameronWith not a lot to do during lockdown but read, I have been reading about Italian plagues over the centuries. A new book – ‘Florence under Siege’ and re reading an old time favourite – ‘The Decameron’, of when the plague hit Florence in the 13th century. Interesting to discover many similarities with our current crisis, in preparing for the plague, the use of quarantine and isolation, the need to sanitize the poor housing areas and the dilemma over which will be worse, the plague or the economic hardship from lack of work.

Imposing restrictions on the population which were obeyed to varying degrees. After all, it has always been difficult to control Italians, who forever question a regulation before complying to it, assessing the pros and cons, and needing to make it a little more flexible with creative and innovative interpretations.

This time round Italians have been surprisingly compliant, recognizing the seriousness of the situation even if it took some time for that to sink in.

‘The Decameron’  for those who toured with me will remember well, as I read some of the stories while on our coach to pass the time, to entertain, and to help foreign visitors understand Italian life as it describes hunting, artisan trades, religious practises and more. It shows a lot about Italian character, their flexibility in dealing with reality, and their great sense of humour.

For those unfamiliar with the book – ‘The Decameron‘ was written in the time of the plague of 1300’s by Giovanni Boccaccio (a Tuscan). He outlines the options in dealing with the plague – 1) by leading a sober and abstemious mode of living   2) or the opposite; drinking heavily, enjoying life to the full, gratifying all of one’s cravings and  shrugging the whole thing off as one enormous joke   3) or by steering a middle course between the two  4) or a safer alternative, was to run away from it. He tells of the 10 young people from a wealthy background in Florence who take the fourth option and distance themselves to one of their Villas in the nearby countryside. Villa CetinaleTo entertain themselves they tell stories, based on a theme of the day – 10 stories for 10 days. One hundred intriguing, cheeky, bawdy and even tragic stories. My favorite theme day was how to get out of a difficult situation with a witty response – like Chichibio explaining whether a crane has one or two legs, or how Madonna Filippa avoids death for adultery with a shrewd manoeuvre that even leads to the changing of the law.

While I cannot recount the stories here, I highly recommend the book, a classic of Italian literature, very entertaining and particularly forward thinking for its time.

Florence under SiegeThe second book is a recently published one by John Henderson ‘Florence under Siege‘ which I only discovered via an article published in ‘The Age‘. A vivid recreation of the plague in Florence in 1630’s amongst the poorer class and how they were treated. It describes the dreaded ‘Lazzaretti‘ the hospitals created for those infected, of dubious quality with dire conditions while recognizing the need to isolate those infected. San Miniato church used as a lazarettoThe understanding that the plague travelled through the air and possibly on cloth to the detriment of the silk workers and the risky practice of stealing used clothing. The idea ‘that God was angry with mankind and sought to punish its sins’, therefore the need to continue services with appropriate restrictions as ‘by conquering fear, religion protected a person medically from the plague’.

It contains descriptions of the creativeness of Italians, breaking isolation regulations by visiting family and friends across rooftops, pleading innocence at imposed fines with inventive excuses and the governing bodies being compassionate enough to alleviate the fines or prison internamente since this would only lead to future hardship for the families involved. All in all it makes a fascinating read about Italian plague time in Florence.

Italian storytelling continues profusely today, particularly on social networks, keeping spirits up and offering a good laugh. A current example – as lockdown restrictions eased Congiunto sospesoand we are allowed to visit family, relatives and loved ones ‘congiunti stabile‘, Neapolitans offered ‘congiunti sospesi‘ following their tradition of offering a ‘caffé sospeso’ –meaning buy a coffee and leave one paid for. There has been a rush on demand for these congiunti sospesi for the singles in need of an excuse to get out of the house!

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Lockdown Italian style

Ponte Vecchio

Foto credit: Francesco Spighi www.francescospighi.com

Military take bodies out of the city

Foto credit: L’Adige.it

Almost two weeks into Lockdown in Italy for the terrible corona virus  and more weeks to go. At the moment lockdown was due to end on the 3rd April but the situation is still critical, numbers continue to rise and it is likely for weeks more.  Deaths are now more than China and the military have been called in to set up temporary hospitals at Milan Fair and here in Florence, and control the streets in some areas. A grim scene of military trucks taking away bodies as there was no more room in the cemetery at Bergamo for them to be cremated has shocked us all.

So what else can I write about? For those of you living in a country fortunate enough not to have critical numbers may never experience a lockdown so I thought I could explain what it means…at least for us in Italy.

Lockdown means home isolation, a type of quarantine with permission to go out only for essentials, emergencies and/or work, for those still working.The only shops open are deli’s, supermarkets, pharmacies, parapharmacies, tobacco shops (also where bills are paid, mobiles recharged postal service and lottery tickets) and some hardware shops. Work environments can operate respecting the hygiene precautions – distance between employees, disinfectant, masks are not obligatory although not all firms have guaranteed the precautionary measures so far.

But this is not a blog about information which can be easily found on the news, as the situation is dramatic and journalists worldwide a covering stories and developments.

It’s a personal comment on what lockdown means at a local level:

– the radio is on immediately on the mornings to get an update on numbers as well as a quick look at  world numbers.

– the days are long, and there is no rush to do anyway. Time is on hold, everything is in slow motion

– I can sit and watch the frost melt in the garden over my morning coffee or read a book in the sunshine in the afternoon.Paint job on balcony railing

– there is no need to worry about what to wear each day. I have spent most days in my beloved overalls as have many of my neighbors. There has been a hive of activity going on here as we – garden, fix the shutters, paint railings, clean up the garden furniture, redo fencing and generally potter about. The  sounds of whippersnippers, sanding machines, clippers, saws and hammers are comforting. The advantage of living in the country where we can wave and chat across fences.

– it feels like we are all on holidays, days melt into days till it’s hard to remember what day it is.

– my young nextdoor neighbor is pleased he is still able to work, and laughs at himself as he never thought he’d say that! Otherwise he’d be bored to tears at home.

Riders working during Lockdown

Foto credit Francesco Spighi

– it’s all selfies now in the sense of self haircuts, home gym or yoga routines, home schooling, digital libraries, home deliveries and massive amounts of social networking. Sharing info, advice, resources ‘virtual’ and good and bad jokes.

– using the new technology of 3D printers to reproduce broken valves in the essential ventilators. Unfortunately the Company that has the patent is threatening to sue the young lads StartUp firm for doing so!

– being resourceful and making masks at home since they are largely unavailable andHome n=made masks more needed by hospital staff than us.

– a time of solidarity, volunteers caring for those who don’t have a home to be quarantined in. A reorganization of charity/church associations to still cater within the hygiene precautions

 

Supermarket queue

Foto credit: Andrea Contini

– standing in a queue in an eerie silence, with a shopping trolley and face mask, waiting to go into the supermarket. That was a bit distressing, somewhat surreal,  although inside both shoppers and cashiers had a kind word of encouragement to each other.

– the need to communicate is strong amongst Italians, so there are daily flash mobs from balconies mostly in the cities, singing, and playing music or just banging saucepan lids! Heart rendering stuff with old time favourites like – ‘Volare’, ‘Azzurro, or tear jerking renditions of the National Anthem! My little village managed the noon applause for all the health workers, a sign of appreciation and encouragement to keep battling for us. But we are a little too embarrassed to sing!

– an appreciation for the solidarity being shown from the rest of the worldChina sent medical teams and an enormous amount of ventilators, masks and important equipment on a private plane. Others let us know by lighting monuments in Italian colours from Sarajevo to Dubai.

– it will make or break families, and flatmates, as 24hr isolation together is a trial

– a high consumption of hand cream from the washing

– it’s a time of reflection, on how we lived up to now and how this will change us forever.

It may be lockdown now but we have not lost the key and will reopen, resurface and recharge as will you all when this corona virus nightmare is over.

Andra tutto bene’!

It's going to be alright

Foto credit Francesco Spighi www.francescosighi.com


 

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New Madonna at San Bernardino

San Bernardino churchHow does a small village like San Bernardino, in the Cinque Terre, with only 10 permanent residents, 3 dogs and about 5 stray cats manage to keep its community alive? It has certainly been an experience being a part of this village,  warmly welcomed each time I visit, and feeling the need to contribute whenever I can to this small community: helping with maintenance, lobbying the Mayor for better services and listening to the local grumbles. Volunteer labour is an essential part to keeping this village alive, which in the past rebuilt the entire church!

Best of all is helping out at any festivities which are now few and far between. Even our local bar has closed as the younger generation have found work elsewhere so the social meeting point is now sitting by the bus stop. Yet the locals have not lost their resilience and resist by having the world come to them, renting out their rooms and apartments to tourists during the season. When this generation disappear the village will only be for second home owners and tourists passing through unfortunately.

Yet San Bernardino is in the hearts of many, especially those from Corniglia as it is their Sanctuary dedicated to the Madonna. And at the festival to the Madonna early September a procession led by the local priest still hikes from Corniglia to celebrate. In fact it is the religious festivals which unite these communities (like many others throughout Italy) and bring back life and laughter to the hearts of all.

Madonna dei Tarsi statueSan Bernardino is entrenched in the heart of a local sculptor, Giuliano Carro, who having seen the public fountain moved to the opposite side of the church square thought something more spiritual should be placed on the space it left. So after months of study and work, and on finding a large sandstone boulder he took up his chisel and gave life to this statue: Madonna dei Tarsi
Described by the Mayor of Vernazza “as a work that is the result of the sweat of one of our artists who, out of pure passion, driven by boundless love for our places, without asking for anything, in all humility, and satisfied only by the ecstatic gaze of those who will linger and admire his finished work.”

Attendance at the inauguration was a must and with over a 100 people the air was charged with chit chat and laughter, like a huge family gathering. Young and old from Vernazza and Corniglia, and those who introduced themselves to me were invariably called ‘Basso‘ the family generated from this village.

Vernazza mayor with sculptor Giuliano CarroThe honor of unveiling the Madonna was given to the 3 oldest members of the community, looked on rather jealously by the two youngest members. And while Giuliano could hardly get the smile off his face, when asked by the Mayor to say a few words he responded  “I am a man of few words, and work with my hands.” He did however share one of his poems for the occasion (read by another local!)

 

Hands
the sun has not yet dawned
your footprints leave little trace
while you caress
the earth under the moon
step by step, like always,
every day until evening

Respecting it as you would a mother,View from San Bernardino
you love these plants like children
that cling to the rocks,

that challenge the absurd
but which without you
they wouldn’t last an instant

always thinking of your world
you are not afraid of it
for your life, when it ends
in every stone there is a memory
hands passed over a face
as a tear falls between the vines

to the moon, to the sun, to the stars
show your huge hands
hard hands, suffered yet true,
frank hands and outspoken words,
hands full of earth, yet never dirty,
huge hands, full of love

and his comment in the brochure- ‘Stop here for a moment and think about the difficulty and poverty but also the greatness and the dignity of the people that for centuries have shaped this earth. Think of their immense fatigue, their defeats, their will, their strength, their sweat. And then, if you want to, lay a flower, or say a Prayer.’

Mayor, Sculptor, Revered guests of honourThe crowd were almost moved to tears. My amateur video failed to capture the moment the drape fell as I had to join the grand applause and cheers that I am sure could be heard as far as the ferry boats chugging along down below!

It was time to party! You could not believe the amount of food and wine that was passed out to the tables, all volunteered from San B  and Corniglia locals . Generous helpings served by us with pride and affection to all the visitors who ate happily in front of the most panoramic view of the Cinque Terre.

The music blared old favourite songs and the partying and dancing continued on into the night. That’s what brings and keeps this community together.

The Madonna dei Tarsi now quietly sits and keeps an eye on us all and the rest of the Cinque Terre below.Cinque Terre, Madonna dei Tarsi statue

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Basta Pasta for a quick meal


Fresh pastaItalian pasta – thinking of what to cook for dinner, I had a craving for spaghetti! It crossed my mind how Italian I have become, as being an avid pasta eater my stomach was being selective about which pasta it was to be tonight.

Amazing how much there is to learn about such a simple fast food product, and I am certainly not an expert…..but love the stuff! I have my favorites and my special combo’s, trying to be faithful to the subtle rules about which pasta goes best with which sauce.  ie. short pasta with ridges holds the sauce better, smooth pasta is ideal for seafood sauces as the sauce wraps around it and concave, shell types hold nice chunkier sauces be it vegetable, meat or seafood.

Fresh, dry or filled pasta are a mainstay of an Italian diet, and please don’t blame the pasta if you are putting on weight, it’s more likely to be the sauce, if the volume of pasta is not overabundant. (The general principle suggests 80-100gm per person)

It was already in existence in Ancient Greek and Etruscan civilizations and first historical references to it are made by an Arab geographer in 1154 writing about “food of flour in the form of threads” he found in Sicily, well before Marco Polo returned from China (1294) with the Chinese version!

The Arabs initiated the treatment of drying the pasta, since their Nomad style of life did not allow for constant water supplies so they pierced the small dough cylinders in the middle to allow for rapid drying.

Later in Italy, the dry and windy climate of Liguria, Sicily and Campania favored the production of pasta, which for centuries was left to dry by simple exposure to air. And each region developed it’s own special pasta shapes best suited to the region’s food specialities, culture and traditions.Typical Tuscan pasta - Pici

Pici – large hand rolled spaghetti typical in Siena and Southern Tuscany. Commonly served ‘cacio e pepe’ – pecorino cheese and pepper  or ‘all’aglione’ – garlic tomato sauce.

Casarecce – short twisted rolls from Sicily that go well with Sicilian pesto, meat sauces or ‘alla Norma’ with eggplant, tomato and ricotta

Orecchiette PuglieseOrecchiette – concave little ears from Puglia and the Basilicata. Typically served with turnip tops ‘cime di rape’

Bucatini – big thick hollow spaghetti typical in the  Central regions of  Lazio, Umbria, and Le Marche. ‘All’ Amatriciana’ is tomato sauce with a touch of hot pepper, and made in abundance as the fund raising dish for the earthquake victims of 2016  in Amatrice, Norcia, Cascia and surrounding areas.

Strozzapreti  typical in Emilia Romagna or known as Strangozzi in Umbria translates as ‘choke or strangle priests’!? As legends go ‘strozzapreti’ were prepared by housewives mainly as a gift for the village priest. They did it for their husbands of anti-clerical beliefs, who hoped the priest would choke themselves! A sweeter legend  says the pasta owes its name to its form, so particular, that it could strangle even the clergy, notorious for their over indulgences at the table!

Artisan dry pastaThese are only some of the lesser known shapes as most of the pasta sold is either, spaghetti, penne, fusilli or rigatoni. Whatever the shape, (I hear they are customizing and producing designer shape pasta with 3D printers now!) it is the major product associated with Italy, together with pizza.

More than half of the production is exported and has grown significantly – 1914 70,000 tons were exported mostly to USA, and figures in 2018 show export reaching 1.9m tons. Bear in mind that not all of that pasta is produced with Italian flour and if you check the label you will find a mix of Australian, Canadian, USA and some EU wheat in most pastas. They say the quality of imported wheat is higher than the Italian one and for this reason costs more. But if you want to support the Italian economy you can choose labels like Agnese or Voiello as they are using 100% Italian flour.

For what I had intended as a light blog on pasta has highlighted more information than I can account for here as I haven’t even touched on the fresh pastas, and the regional differences of the filled pastas. Next time….

Just remember to boil the water well, before you drop in the pasta and cook it till it is ‘al dente’ as that makes it easier to digest, apart from tasting better! And please no spoon and fork to eat those spaghetti strands, cover yourself well with a napkin and eat it with a fork only. It takes practice and be reassured that even the best of us spaghetti eaters rarely gets away without a flick or two on that special tie or dress!Tourist pasta

And please try to avoid buying the multi colored tourist pastas!

Buon appetito!

 

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Tuscan Spring(s)

It’s that gorgeous time of year when Nature bursts back to life and everything begins to sprout, infinite green on greens as if every plant wants to show off its uniqueness. There is no chance of ever getting tired of the Tuscan landscape and traveling around in the past weeks has been a delight.Tuscany in Spring

Even on just a short walk from home the surroundings are enticing as the vines begin a new season and the iris, the symbol of Florence since 1252, start popping up all over the place.
At San Polo in Chianti there is the Associazione Toscana Gaggiolo of over 200 farmers who continue the tradition of cultivation of the iris as its delicate essence, derived from the root, is used in the production of perfumes, creams and herbal medicines. In fact it was of great economic importance in Tuscany between the 1800’s and the last century, exporting the major part of the production to France.

Iris Garden Florence

photo credit Iris Garden association, Florence

While in Florence publicity is already up, reminding people to visit the Iris garden just below Piazzale Michelangelo “where you can admire over 1,500 varieties of iris from all over the world in full bloom.” Free entrance and opening for only a month from 25th April – 20th May.

Hot Springs San Giovanni TermeSpringtime is also another favorite time for me to visit the Hot Springs, for a relaxing day of total indulgence for body, mind and soul. Just driving through the rolling velvet hills of Southern Tuscany intermittently broken by the grey of ‘Le Crete’ clay pits is so pleasing to the eye. I must have seen it a thousand times, but every year it has the same uplifting effect. We are on our way to the San Giovanni Hot Springs in Rapolano Terme. It’s a glorious day of sunshine and going to be a pleasant 19 degrees and by the time we get there I am thinking I should have packed the sun cream!
Bathing in any of these Hot Spring establishments feels like living in the lap of luxury.

The Romans knew how to spoil themselves bathing in natural hot springs or their sophisticated bath houses progressing from the warm to hot, steamy room and cleansing off with a massage in the cool room. We like to keep that tradition going!

We pass through the relaxation area, specially signposted with no mobile phones allowed, thank goodness, and slip into the coolest pool. While being invitingly quiet we are View of Internal Hot poolsoon dripping our way up the stairs to soak in the warm pool. Delicious squelchy white mud coats the bottom of the pool, the sulfurous sediments from the Natural Spring. As the blurb goes we are sitting in water “rich in sulphur and calcium bicarbonate…to combat ailments relating to muscular and skeletal system and respiratory disorders…in up to 39 degree water”. So you can see why we are here to soothe our muscles, wash away our aches and pains and simply relax. As the day is so warm the indoor ‘hot pool’ is less inviting and besides the surrounding landscape too good to miss!

San Giovanni Terme Some time out on the lounge chairs and then as the sun starts to set we need to make a move for home. Reluctantly we drag ourselves out of the pool, comforted by the knowledge that we will be back again….and again!

So whatever you may be doing over Easter, I hope you all have fun and a relaxing time somewhere special. Buona Pasqua!Easter


 

 

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The Giraffes of Florence

giraffe gift to MediciOn a visit to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, my first in some years and to be one of many during the course, I took time out to visit the temporary  Exhibition – Islam and Florence and bumped into my first giraffe – stuffed!

As I was about to take a photo, the staff leapt on me to say “No photos allowed” but to not leave you disappointed ‘this official video’ has captured the giraffe together with many of the fabulous objects on display.

The Mamluk Sultan of Egypt, probably not unaware that a “camelopard” had taken part in Julius Caesar’s triumph in Rome, sent a giraffe as a gift to Lorenzo the Magnificent, which made a spectacular entry into Piazza della Signoria on 18 November 1487. The exotic beast is reported to have been so greatly admired and to have caused such a sensation that even the cloistered nuns were eager to see it. As portrayed in the affresco of Giorgio Vasari in palazzo Vecchio. Unfortunately the giraffe did not last long, breaking its neck in an accident in the stable specially built for it on 2 January, the following year.
The second giraffe, also stuffed, came as a gift from Egypt in 1835, to Leopoldo II and lived in the Boboli gardens for about a year and a half.’ (Uffizi  brochure). The photo above of the affresco shows a mixed reaction amongst the locals and one can only imagine their astonishment at seeing a giraffe in the piazza…..even today! The giraffes sadly came to a sorry end.

Various generations of Medici‘s, from Lorenzo the Magnificent to the Islamic objectsGrand Duke Cosimo I were known to be lovers of the exotic and major collectors of precious items from the Orient together with other private collectors and  antiquarians. The exhibition was split between the Uffizi Gallery and the Bargello museum with a stunning range of exquisite carpets, gilded containers, magnificent jewelled ornaments and arms and delicately carved ivory chests. All beautifully displayed before a background of a thousand and one Oriental stars under soft lighting. ( This photo taken from the brochure does not do them justice).

In amongst the exhibits were also some paintings, indicating how much this exchange of culture influenced artists at the time. A period when Florence was powerful; economically, politically and culturally. A city of rich bankers and merchants ‘wheeling and dealing’ with the world and wanting to boast about their wealth and perhaps, book a place in paradise by commissioning works of art like this one.Gentile Fabriano Adoration of the Magi

Palla Strozzi,  the richest banker of Florence commissioned Gentile da Fabriano to do The Adoration of the Magi’  (1423) a theme often repeated, as many, including the Medici, identified themselves as ‘the Magi‘ of the time!  Heavily dosed with gold and sumptuous costumes in a luxurious ambience with some cheeky non religious details – the page kneeling to remove the spurs, monkeys playing and Palla Strozzi and his father prominently featured in the red hat and with a falcon!

Aureale Arabic Gentile da FabrianoTo show the Islamic influence you need to zoom in on the aureole to see Arabic scripts embossed in the gold.

In class we were told that the Roman elite delighted in eating exotic animals at their banquets, giraffes and zebras included….Possibly even the one in Julius Cesare’s triumphal return?

The ‘Adoration of the Magi’  by
Domenico Ghirlandaio (right 1482-90)) and ‘Procession of Three Kings‘ by Andrea del Sarto (left 1510-11) show in the background, yet  another giraffe as part of the procession. The fascination with these leopard style camels continues….!

As seen in the video, the exhibition had an eclectic mix, making a fascinating tour of past splendours and confirmation of the appreciation, consideration and integration of Islamic culture.

And to keep the kids interested the Uffizi provide a quiz and games of which I have stolen just a couple of examples which I thought you might like to tryCountries of the Orient: Fit the colour to the country and …….how could I go past this join the dots!Kid's stuff

 

 

 

 

 

So enjoy yourselves!


 

 

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From rags to riches – Matera

Matera cave dwellingWho would have believed that the squalid damp cave dwellings of the past would make Matera a major tourist attraction, a Unesco World Heritage site (1993) and even more than that, the European Capital of Culture in 2019.

Major restoration work is underway and as the EU indicates “the experience is an excellent opportunity to regenerate the city and breathe new life into the city’s culture and boost tourism.

Matera is tucked away in the corner of the little known region of Basilicata next to Puglia, so for us it was an easy 2hr drive across from our ‘trullo’ in Puglia. I had heard about these cave dwellings for years and the extraordinary beauty of the place through the Women’s Fiction Festival held for the past 12 years and from my artist friend Enrico Paolucci after his exhibition there in 2006.

Eager to understand more about the history of this amazing place I booked a Matera view of cave dwellingsfantastic local guide, Marta, who lead us through the Baroque Upper town to the panoramic site overlooking ‘i sassi’. The view was spectacular, an expanse of buildings crammed on top of each other in a maze of little alleyways and we were yet to appreciate that they were in fact built into the rocks.

Marta explained the ancient beginnings, from the 6th century BC through the middle ages when each civilisation, and monastic orders from Benedictine to Byzantine built on the past using the natural rock caves as early lodgings, stables, cellars later carving out churches, chapels and convents. By the 1800’s most of the cave areas were only used as stables or deposits and better accommodation was built above ground. In that period Matera held a certain prestige, being the Capital of the Province from the late 1600’s till 1806.

But with the removal of the Capital to Potenza  and recurrent agricultural crisis the city slid into a long period of decay. The degradation was so serious that the poorest of the population were forced to use the caves as dwellings, accommodating both families and their animals until 1952. On our tour with Marta we were taken into one of these dank dark cave houses, hardly able to imagine the sufferance these families had experienced in such cramped unhygienic conditions.

Life was hard and depended on communal living as testify the communal oven that baked the enormous weekly loaf that is still baked to this day.

It was not until the 1950’s that the Government decided to move the 15,000 families to new residential quarters, not an easy task and despite associated criticisms and delays over the new housing the families were relocated. The area of ‘i sassi’ remained abandoned until the 1980’s when new funds were made available for the recuperation of this ancient site. Now the properties can be leased for 99years and the city has seen a boom in tourism ever since. Some of the ancient cave dwellings are even available for rent on Airbnb with a decidedly improved look, although they still retain the physical aspects of the past, with  rarely more than one window and/or entrance so definitely not appropriate for anyone with claustrophobia!

Wandering the alleyways and hearing the history and developments of the place was fascinating, visiting the ancient Rupestrian church had me spellbound. The squalor of the past was now an inviting stone paved road to alleyways lined with creamy architecture cut into and over the rock. The Stone Age’ restaurant tempts us with “panzarotti fritti’ (typical half moon pasta fried and filled with delicious mozzarella) and fresh pomegranate juice but we continue the tour

The upper town is beautifully Baroque in style, reminiscent of our time in Lecce.

Concave churches, and as many cherubs and menacing skeletons decorating the Matera city cisternfacades, together with mega cisterns still visitable below street level. There was hardly time to explore it all, an absolutely fascinating city that will merit its title of European Capital of Culture.

How could we go past lunching in one of the cave dwellings – the ‘Soul Kitchen’,  highly entertained by the waiters, and delicious local dishes. The pistachio semifreddo was out of this world!Pisatchio semifreddo - Soul KitchenMatera cave restaurant

 

 

 

 

With tummies full and the threat of rain we headed back to our trullo, knowing full well that I will be back again, sooner or later, to explore in depth ‘i sassi’ of Matera, as well as the extensive list of places that Marta had suggested to visit next time in the Basilicata region.Matra Rupestrian church


 

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De-Tours in Tuscany and Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre, MonterossoAs the Garden tour in Southern Italy never ran this Spring, I was rather disappointed and thought there is nothing for it but to go out and find additional work to my day tours in the Cinque Terre. So after my wonderful trip in Cuba I revamped my CV, scouted the list of jobs and sent off various applications.

A whole new world opened up again: new trends, novel ideas, and varied responses, from “awesome….but over experienced, …. consider your application and contact you,” together with no reply and two interviews! Which in the end I thought was pretty good going, in a climate of heavy competition and economic pressures.

The new trends seem to be “Food guides” or anything to do with food. Day tours, in Florence, taking tourists for tastings at the market and local delicatessens, providing them with a real Tuscan insight on the local specialities. Maybe they found out I am vegetarian… as I didn’t get an interview even though I was sure I could win hands down talking about Tuscan food despite not eating all of it!

No interview either for the day tours in the fabulous 500 Fiat ‘bambino’ as the tour guide was required to have mechanical experience and to know how to double clutch. Double clutching I was sure I could manage but had to admit I wasn’t sure if the engine was in the back or the front, let alone fix it if we broke down on a country road!

A friend and long standing lover of Florence, Penny Howard, has been doing special tours/workshops and kindly offered to promote my day tours in the Cinque Terre so I now feature on her website: Beyond the Yalla dog. She does some very interesting workshops with local experts – on fresco painting, mask making as well as beautiful day trips to gardens and villas like La Foce. So check out her website and get in touch if you are interested in any of her activities. Thanks again Penny!

Tourist Eco cartI did get an interview for driving tourists around the centre of Florence in an electric golf buggy, but fortunately declined as the pay was a pittance and with the crowds in the city these days I thought I could be ‘dangerous’! Worse still they were keen to Florence rickshawsencourage the 6 of us to drive their newly acquired rickshaws – power assisted bicycles – where I thought I would be even ‘more dangerous’ and potential tourists would take one look at me and think ‘she won’t get us very far!” So no go.

Finally I fell across a new Aussie/Italian tour agency called Tuscany Untouched who are offering day tours, weekly tours and customized tours with the slogan “Live like a local, with a local” So here I am, their new ‘local’, taking day tours and potentially weekly tours when Matteo is not available. So spread the word as we are both looking forward to a busy season ahead and you know how much I like working with tourists.

My first tour was to the Natural hot Springs at Bagni San Filippo in the gorgeous area of Val d’Orcia, near Pienza. A truly relaxing day for all of us.

Contact me directly especially if you or friends are interested in a tour in the Cinque   Terre or fill out Tuscany Untouched booking form for anything that takes your fancy or you would like us to develop for you.


 

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Nothing beats a Moka pot

 

Moka coffee pot

My new Moka pot for one

In a moment of distraction, I burnt out my Moka coffee pot….Oh No!!!

The handle literally melted off the side and while the rest was still intact, it was definitely time to buy a new one. No replacement base would do as it would ruin the coffee flavour since it had gurgled out of water for far too long. So as I popped down to the shop to get my new one, I thought how Italian I have become!

My Moka pot has been my coffee maker at home ever since I arrived in Italy and it is definitely my favourite coffee machine. No new fangle dangle devices can compete, not even a flashy George Clooney Nespresso model….unless it comes with George!?!

While the rest of the world, and a large part of the Italian world, has embraced coffee machines so they can enjoy an espresso or cappuccino at home, quite a few of us have clung to our Moka. Why?

It makes a great espresso, or added to hot milk a wonderful breakfast caffé latte. Comes in various sizes from, just for one, for 3, 6, 9 and a mega 12 person Moka which I have only seen in the Bialetti shop. Takes 5 mins to make on a gas or electric stove, and for the most part the Moka is indestructible, with easy to find replacement parts like filters, and gaskets etc.

Moka Bialetti 1940's cartoon

Bialetti’s 1940’s cartoon on how to use a Moka

Bialetti would have to be biggest brand, and in fact is the inventor, which in the Italian post-war depression was a great convenience for all people who could no longer afford to go out. Renato Bialetti is the  moustached cartoon figure that appears on their logo.

 

There is still an Art in the Making’, as in everything Italians do.

Fill the base with water to just below the heat valve, heap the coffee in the funnel just a touch, squeeze tight and place on a low flame not bigger than the pot and turn it off just as it starts to gurgle. If sharing the larger pots it’s best to give a quick stir in the top so the coffee consistency is uniform for everyone. Use only warm water, NO SOAP, to clean it and it will serve you forever.

Florentine Moka pot

Just about everyone now has a modern coffee machine, which I found out the hard way when I went to my friends wedding in Finland. I took, what I thought to be, the perfect gift: a Florentine (Brunelleschi style dome top) Moka pot with trendy illy coffee cups. I was very happy with myself until I walked into their home and was offered a cappuccino from their coffee maker!

In fact at the Milan Expo on food in 2015 I discovered that the Finns are the highest consumers of coffee, followed by Germans, Brazilians with Italians only rating fourth! Although that should come as no surprise since I think Italians do most things in moderation and think they own the coffee legend.

And while I do love a cappuccino and a good espresso, I save that desire to when I am out at the bar or restaurant as something of a special treat. Now that’s Italian!

I have already seasoned my new little Moka pot, working it through 3 coffee rounds before taking a first sip. Ahhh, just lovely! I will treat it with due respect and continue to enjoy this fabulous Italian invention and great tradition.

My Moka pots

My Moka pots for 1, 3 and 6

And if Italy is in your next travel plans, check out my post on Italian Coffee etiquette so you too can feel like a local when you get here!


 

 

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50 years on – Florence flood

On the 4th Nov, Florence called for the Mud Angels of the tragic flood of 1966  to return to Florence to participate in the Anniversary commemorations. The most dramatic flood to hit Italy since 1557 with flood levels reaching 5m high. Level signs along many streets and above shop windows remind us of the drama.

A flood that no one had expected or could imagine. Santa Croce was the worst hit area and the wooden crucifix by Cimabue (c1265), while restored, still bears massive scars from the flood.

A symbol of the 50th anniversary was the restoration of another masterpiece – Last Supper by Giorgio Vasari ( 1546) only just finished in time for the local and overseas visitors to admire. Paula Deitz, now an Editor of an Arts Journal, and curiously in Florence at the time of the flood, gives details of her experience and the restoration process here.

35 people died, 17 in Florence, 18 in Province, 70 horses at the race course and a favoured dromedary from the local zoo. Around 5,000 people remained homeless and  6,000 business were damaged. Prisoners in the city prison were released and housed by locals in upper floors of buildings, most of whom returned on their own volition to local authorities after the flood subsided!

Florence was without electricity, telephones went down and the city remained isolated for 3 days. Florentines had to rely on each other for assistance and passed requests along by shouting from window to window  ” in via di Fico” all the way to the Town Hall for the Mayor to respond back, ” Received Palazzo Vecchio, Over ”  Emergency supplies and teams gathered in the Soccer stadium and with whatever means – rubber dinghies, fishing waders, shutters laced together with paddles, brought basic supplies to those afflicted. For months after the city was nothing but slime and sludge with a disgusting smell of naphtha and sewage.

It mobilized the biggest international volunteer movement to save the city and its artistic heritage. Mud Angels, poured in from everywhere, personalities, clergy, art lovers and thousands of young students from the rest of Europe came to clean up the sludge from books and documents, and move artworks to safer abodes. It became a catalyst for new techniques in restoration, of which Florence is now famous.

Theatre performance on Florence Flood

‘Sotto una Gran Piova d’Acqua” Theatre

I relived the experience of the flood at a performance by an Itinerant theatre group – Teatro delle Seggiole who read from 3 diaries of the period: the Mayor of Florence, Piero Bargellini; a 16yr old lad; and the Director of a national newspaper, Enrico Matteo. It was a gripping account of the reality faced by Florentines before the arrival of outside assistance.

An excerpt:

The Lad looks on from his window:  “4.30am a crash. The course of the Arno, shortly after is in Piazza Mentana , curves right and rushes under the Ponte Vecchio. The lights of the Old Bridge are low. The current and its overflow has dragged tree trunks and rubbish which transforms the bridge into a dam. The violent water finds vent on the right, causing the collapse of the parapet and the road. Now the furious Arno pours throughout our part of town.”

The Mayor announces to his city by radio. “At this time I have been informed of the sad news that the Arno water has arrived in Piazza del Duomo. In some areas the flood reaches the first floor. And it is that area that needs our most urgent help. I invite everyone to stay calm and minimize your circulation. Any owners of rubber boats and amphibious vehicles, even in plastic, please make your way to the Palazzo Vecchio, to assist with immediate sanitary, food and rescue relief ”. In the days following he continued to protest loudly to the TV and newspapers indicating the gravity of the situation seemingly underestimated, and to the political institutions with a special plea to the Prime Minister to understand the scale of the tragedy “the damage is immense”. 

The Journalist: “On arrival I found along with the Florentines who were not affected – that unforgettable night spent in mournful vigil on the edges of the another city, a city that water had separated from us, mysterious, inaccessible like a world inhabited on another planet, and that touched us with its breath, with  a dank breath – a scene of total despair ”  It was largely due to his reporting of the dramatic tragedy to Rome, together with the Mayor, that forced the mobilization of military and others to the aid of Florence.

Also completed just in time  for the 50th Anniversary was the road alongside the Arno which had collapsed in May due to a burst water pipe,  devouring a number of parked cars in the process!. The worksite was operative 24hrs a day and only asphalted in time for the President of the Republic to walk down it on 4 Nov 2016. The next day following days of rain, the Arno level rose to alarming levels again and equipment from the worksite had to be hurriedly craned up.

Which just goes to show we should never take it for granted, and keep an eye on the Arno and Mother Nature! Having been involved in the Vernazza  flood of 2011, the drama of Florence 1966 seemed even more credible.


 

 

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