Saturday, July 26, 2014

Living in a Castle in Italy: Proceno


Castello di Proceno  from the town hall
When  the sun burns down and the humidity levels rise,  the  naturally cool, dark interiors of a medieval castle offer  a welcome solace; thus July is  the perfect time to  visit friends who own castles and historic homes here in central Italy.


town hall entrance 

Last week after a stop to see the Archives in Acquapendente (more in a future post), we drove further along the Via Cassia  connecting  Rome to Siena and Florence to the  hilltop town of  Proceno which straddles  the border separating  Lazio  and the former Papal States from  Tuscany.


Nearby is the old  customs house  of Centeno (cento=100  miles from Rome ) where travelers including Galileo (in 1648) and  Nathaniel Hawthorne  (in 1845) underwent quarantine  and  had their bags  searched for anti-Papal literature.


At the hour of our arrival, Proceno was deserted except for  a butcher’s cat but the town hall -Palazzo Sforza - was open to the breezes and offered sweeping views over the  town’s cotto tile rooftops, the Paglia river  valley below  and the neighboring hilltowns of   Radicofani  (in Tuscany)  and Torre Alfina, famous  for  artiginal  gelato.  
the  formidable Town Hall,  Palazzo Sforza 

There was a distinct difference of temperature inside the Castello  thanks to the brick floors and thick walls. 

 We were welcomed by owners Giovanni and Cecilia Cecchini Bisoni,  and their two dogs. 

with Cecilia and Giovanni

the castle dogs are named after Roman gods



The entrance hall houses  an  antique  printing press  (torchio)  and many other interesting implements once  used in the Cecchini family’s printing business in Siena. 


Giovanni and Cecilia  open their castle to visitors who  stay in  comfortable self catered apartments,  take cooking classes and enjoy the area’s fine wines at the  castle’s Enoteca. 

The castle is also a resort,  for in the lower gardens  guests may  enjoy the  marvelous swimming pool and  restaurant serving top level cuisine and wines. 
cooking in the castle kitchen

Spring and summer bring visitors from around the world  who come to  enjoy the pleasures of living in a castle  plus  local people who come to enjoy the  well known  concert series. 

You can find out more about the area of Proceno, Onano and Centeno and it's remarkable Irish connections in my books about the area, which are available also at the Castello di Proceno. 

These wonderful places in central Italy are too special to keep secret, so share  your knowledge with friends  using the  Facebook and Twitter icons below. 
 Please leave a comment  below and let me know if you would like to join me in visiting other historic homes, castles and palazzi in central Italy. 
Other castles  we visit often are : this one in Mugnano, near Bomarzo and that of Vignanello.  

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Italy's Antique Doors




Old Italian  doors  are often featured  on  calendars and  postcards  for they are  icons of “picturesque Italy”.


There is more than meets the eye, for original, antique doors, many dating back 300 to  500 years,  give us a glimpse into the past, a look at the lifestyle  and hint at what was important to  people  in days gone by. 
Sant'Egidio chapel

The  linguist will find a whole new set of words used for describing doors, doorways, locks and  keys .

flowered plant overwhelms this tiny doorway 


 The  story of an old palazzo   in my latest book  tells how  the  crumbling wooden  entrance way leading down into the cantina  where local farmers once stored their products (oil, hazelnuts,etc.)  had to be replaced in order to become a dignified entrance way. 

how my door used to look
The new door was created by one of the local  carpenters following our own design. It made  a statement, telling all who passed by that the once abandoned building now had  a new owner, one who had  undertaken a huge, costly  restoration project.  


Since then many others (mostly foreign born),  have followed suit,  buying up and restoring  other  historic  properties and bringing  new life to the town.
new door

Walk along the street  and you will see all types of doors from ugly metal ones  added in recent years to this gem recently restored to its original glory  by falegname Pino after  several generations of neglect.
Pino restored this 16th century door 


Note the nailheads  and the tiny door/window  which allowed light in to the dark entrance stairway.  The building dates from  1581 and Pino guesses that the wooden doorway also  dates from about that time.


 Cantina level doorways can be small and derelict . Most have a sliding bar and system of closure with a giant iron key and lock. 

The holes allow for  air circulation for   the wine.   


cantina entrance near  Madonna del Riscatto church


 Instead of doorbells, gorgeously detailed  bronze batocchi decorate most  doors in Italian towns. 
Palazzo Vinci  1595


Baroque  doorway 


 Besides the practical use of resounding a hearty knock , batocchi  reflected  contemporary  fashion  and family status.

 The sphinx-like heads from this door in Viterbo’s center dates around  the Napoleonic  invasion of Egypt, 1798-1801.

flowered doorway for a neighborhood chat

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Rome's Best Cappuccino and Cooking School

As you know I have lived in Italy for 50 years and authored many   guidebooks about the Eternal City but  last week  I made a discovery that proves  the old adage is ever so true......"  ROMA-non basta una vita " -Rome - a lifetime is not enough". 



"Caffe Greco" oil painting by Valerio Cugia 



Yes, after all these years I finally discovered  Rome's  very best cappuccino! And to think I lived   close by for 7 years but was unaware of the  existence of this tiny caffe that serves coffee, only coffee, and makes the absolutely best cappuccino in the city. 

Forget about Tazza d'Oro and San Eustachio, the   haughty  barmen and overpriced  table service.  
price list at Sciascia  (click to enlarge and read) 

Back in the 70s there was no internet, Facebook or  apps that  spread the word or made comparisons about value for money. Every Roman street corner   had a bar or  cafe and residents did not explore  the  city searching for  the perfect caffe , rather when they  felt a longing for a mid morning caffe, they just popped in to the closest  bar. 

It seems that Roman  lawyers and judges  were in the know all along, but weren't  telling anyone,   for more  than 2,000 satisfied customers, mostly   lawyers working at the nearby legal offices and courts,  make their daily  coffee break at the  historic  Sciascia Caffe 1919  in the Prati neighborhood.


It is a Roman institution, but because it is  not in the touristy center of Rome, nor does it serve food or have sidewalk tables,  it is rarely mentioned  on  lists of  “musts”  for  visitors
One could pass by without noticing  the  entrance at  Via Fabio Massimo 80a.


Only  the sign in the  window  declaring it  a negozio storico (historic shop)  gives away  its status.

The  refined interior  still has some of the original  velvet chairs and a vintage leather sofa, wooden ceilings and  tiny tables  that make  a statement of elegance from  bygone days. 

 Rome’s best cappuccino  is served in  delicate Richard Ginori porcelain  cups with silver spoons.




with Valeria  at Cuochepercaso 
It is located on Via Fabio Massimo, 80a, inbetween  the metro stops of  Lepanto and Ottaviano, a short walk from the Vatican Museums and directly across the street from the cooking school Cuochepercaso  where we were invited to present Fulvio's cookbook "Olio e Ricordi in Cucina"  last week. 

The barista at Sciascia1919  is friendly and proud of his coffee making skills. He is backed up by Giulia who speaks  some English. There is no service charge,  you order and  pick up  your drink from the bancone and then if there is space,  relax at one of the tiny tables.  There is free wifi and a clean  toliette. 

Sciascia is open from 7:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. because that is when the clientele  is in the area and because the law offices and courts take holidays in August, they are also closed most of that month.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Lavender Fields near Rome,Viterbo and Civitavecchia



Wide expanses of purple flowers, a heady perfume, bees buzzing…no, we are not in Provence, nor in faraway Tasmania, but  just a short drive from the  cruise ships docked in Civitavecchia and about an hour from Rome.

Here is a short video  of the lavender fields  I took yesterday. There was a soft breeze and lots of bees gathering  pollen. 

lavender sachets 

at the lavender shop  in Viterbo 

a window full of lavender products 

Finding the lavender  fields  is  also an exciting  experience for the  road  leading  to them is  actually  an Etruscan  “tagliata “, a narrow  passage carved out of the tufa rock  by the Etruscans.  

Here is a short video clip   of the drive along  Strada  Signorino,  leading to  the lavender fields. 




Please share this with friends who love lavender, for  the flowering  continues  until mid or end of July.  
If you are coming to see the lavender fields in the Viterbo area, I will be speaking at the Caffeina festival in Viterbo (Piazza S. Maria Nuova )  on July  2nd, at 8 p.m.  
Your comments are welcome. Just  click in the comments box  at the end of this article. You can sign in as "anonymous", but then leave your name. 

Monday, June 2, 2014

Romantic Hideaways near Rome


loggia of Palazzo Orsini  
A hilltop cottage or  a candle-lit   cantina,  a tree house surrounded by lavender or  a seaside villa with mature  gardens, a castle overlooking the Tiber river  valley or  a  tower suite  in   medieval  Viterbo: whatever your idea of a romantic hideaway, you can probably find it in Etruria/Tuscia, just an hour north of Rome. 


Forget about  expensive  Tuscany,  hard to reach Cinqueterre and touristy Venice  and focus on  Rome’s hinterland  now being discovered by some of the  2.5 million   cruisers  who pass through the  port city of Civitavecchia. 
In the past  20 years  dozens of romantic  places to stay have sprung up  offering a wide variety of romantic  and unique getaways. 

Yesterday we were invited to the inauguration of Mauro’s  restored  cantina  in the center of Capranica, 50 kms north of Rome. Furnished  with antiques collected over the years, this cozy apartment with a luxury bath is carved out of the ancient stone cantina where wine was  made until a few years ago. Today it has become a luxury apartment perfect for escaping the present century.  
Entrepreneur Renzo moved from Milan to set up  a country  B&B which includes a  romantic tree house   that is booked solid until  2015, proof that  city folk have an innate desire to return to nature. 

Cinthia’s  cottage suites  with an English flavor are perched atop Menica Marta   hill near Fabrica di Roma where her horses roam among the olive trees.

 The colorful suites include  private outdoor spaces, a BBQ and guest laundry plus the  fascination of being in nature.
breakfast at Menica Marta Country House 

 Celeste’s  magical villa in Tarquinia  overlooks  mature gardens which once belonged to a luxury loving cardinal.
 Nearby are black sand beaches, Etruscan sites  and   Civitavecchia’s port, making   Le Tre Portale  perfect for  pre or post cruise  vacations.
Villa Le Tre Portale near Tarquinia

Does your idea of a romantic hideaway mean staying in  a castle?   If so, sisters Elsa and Gabriella can grant your wish at their family castle  located in the tiny hamlet of Mugnano .


see previous blog post about our visit here
 It has only three suites and magnificent views  from the loggia over the Tiber  river valley. The adjacent church makes it perfect as a venue for wedding parties.
Palazzo Orsini, Mugnano in Teverina 



For those who prefer a city location,  Giulia’s  medieval Torre di Vico , a B&B in the center of  Viterbo fills the bill. 



 You will have all of Viterbo to explore  plus the thrill of climbing the tower to your suite at the end of the day.

Other unique  romantic  places to stay  abound in the area north of Rome. Let us know if you have a favorite.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Rome to Tuscany : rediscovering the Via Clodia


Sandro Vanucci leads the group past the Colosseum-

-and the Roman Forum 


Today hundreds of  horsemen, bikers and trekkers  left Rome  for a 230 km. voyage  of rediscovery: they  are traveling  along  the  ancient Roman road, Via Clodia, north from Rome, through the Lazio countryside. 
Via Clodia route  from Rome to Grosseto 


traffic under my windows on May 8th 

  
Cavalieri  del 8 Maggio celebrate Vetralla's  Wedding of the Trees   

lunch stop  at Lake Martignano 


Arrival in the Tuscan provincial town of  Grosseto  is expected on Sunday, May 18th, as the climax of   “Passione Maremma-Food and Wine Shire”  festival   where over 100 producers will celebrate the area’s fine food products, wine and handicrafts.  
Maremma cowboys, butteri,  herd wild horses 

For 2,000 years the Via Clodia  was a major road connecting  the towns of Etruria. Then,with the defeat of the Etruscans by the Romans it was abandoned in favor of the Via  Cassia and Via Aurelia.

1581 map of ancient Etruria 
Since  the Middle Ages  Lazio and Tuscan coastal areas were considered  uninhabitable , a land of punishment and exile. 





 Until  about  60 years ago the area between Montalto  di Castro and  Grosseto  were  under the shadow of  malaria  and the area was known  as  “Maremma Amara”.
wild boar thrive in Maremma

Things have certainly changed in the past half century, for now  the coast  and hinterland are sought after holiday destinations, blessed with  pristine beaches, nature reserves, hill towns and genuine food and wine. 

 bruschette  to  begin a feast in Maremma




Maremma wines 
Along their route the horsemen  will visit archeological  sites such as Norchia in  the town of Vetralla, Tuscania, Vulci  and  Pitigliano  and live as travelers did in the past centuries. 
Etruscan necropolis of Norchia, in Vetralla 

For a full schedule see the event's website   Passione Maremma.
For  expert  information  on  Maremma  in English,  I can highly  recommend  my colleagues  Elisa and Donna  who live there:
-guest blog  by Elisa Scarton Detti 
-  Donna Stiles  website
See also  this story about  the Wedding of the Trees.