Monday, January 23, 2012

Umbria Itinerary: with artist Patricia Glee Smith

Otricoli  at sunset 

Via Cassia &  Via Flaminia lead north from Rome
  In the past  few decades   many expats , including myself, have  abandoned the chaos and high prices of  Rome  to enjoy the quieter lifestyle  and larger spaces found  in small towns along the  original Roman roads such as the  Via  Cassia   and the Via Flaminia.

center of Otricoli 
Built  to connect the empire, these roads, separated by  the Tiber river valley, and now also  by the Autostrada  del Sole, led north into Etruscan territory. 

Roman  inserts surround a  medieval door, Otricoli

Artist  Patricia Glee Smith  found her Umbrian hideaway at  the 70th  kilometer of the Via Flaminia  in the ancient  hilltop  town of Otricoli, a  silent  medieval  village located  a stone’s throw from  the ruins of a rarely visited site of ancient Roman Otriculum.

entrance to Otricoli
Patricia  now prefers  her  quiet  Umbrian hill town  to the cacophony of  central Rome  where she was a longtime resident. 
painting by  Pat Smith,  cover  illustration for  "Etruria-travel,history  and itineraries"

  Her evocative paintings  can be  seen on her website. They include the misty hills and olive groves of her adopted  Umbria  and  still life paintings  of objects  from  her  vast collection.

The artist  in her studio 

arriving in Otricoli

Model and antiques dealer
When  she needs a human model  it is often a  neighbor or local friend, like Isabella who posed as  Sybil, the fortune teller, for a recent portrait.    
Syblil/Isabella  invited us in to browse  in  her Cose Vecchie shop on the outskirts of Otricoli . 
A jumble of  antique objects, furniture , vintage clothing , records, books and  decorative items, it is a picker’s  paradise with  prices  more than  reasonable.

For centuries   Otricoli  was  very   poor,  a fact that helped save its original  character.

 Where  there is  little wealth for renewing old buildings there  also are no  ugly additions or   aluminum shutters.

Even the original cobblestone lanes have been  restored  using  original techniques  and hand labor

view from  Patricia Glee Smith's  terrace, Otricoli
Home for the artist is a 12th  entury palazzetto  set on the ancient town walls  that she and husband Giangi have slowly brought back to life with a loving restoration.

work in progress 
 Because many of  Pat’s canvases  are of  large  format, she has set up her  studio in the modern part of town  where she has  ample light and work space for the creative process. 

Many thanks to  Patricia  Glee Smith for her photos of Otricoli.


Sunday, January 15, 2012

January Sales Italian Style

Shopping  for bargains  in January is a  tradition  the world over.  Roman families take advantage  of the 20% discounts on beautiful bed linens  and towels offered by the city's exclusive shops. 

Here in  Vetralla, 68 kms north of Rome, it takes on  a deeper significance  at  the mega market of January 17th  which has been held for centuries and  is dedicated  to  Sant’Antonio, St.Anthony Abbot,  protector  of animals.  

The celebration begins the evening of the 16th with a huge bonfire in nearby Bagnaia. Here are some photos of the event   by Gianfranco Pignatale. 

a family  of  grey cats waiting  for a blessing
The morning of the 17th sees the blessing of  pet dogs, cats and horses  in front of  the church.  Most offices  are closed and the  school kids play hookey as the whole town turns out to shop  all day long.

fresh berries  and dried fruit

 Hundreds of bancarelle (stalls) fill the centro storico,  selling everything from  dried fruit and sweets to fishing boots.  

The dried fruit vendors who come  from the  nearby hilltowns  of  Vallerano and Canepina  offer  dried figs, chestnuts, pepperoncino  as well as imported  banana, pineapple, and even cranberries  from  the bogs  of  Cape Cod.  They travel so far and wide that tradition says when Columbus arrived in the New World, there was one of these stalls waiting for him.
Selling dried cranberries from Cape Cod 

fluffy  dresses 

Penny Candy   and nuts
 You can find brightly  colored penny candy next to fluffy dresses,  tools and knives, artificial flowers and ceramic kitchen utensils  on successive  stalls.

Most of all  it’s a time  to  stroll  among the crowds, greet friends and family, show off   new family members  or a new fur coat….shopping is secondary.

What's  on your  January sales shopping list? What  bargains have you found? 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Top Ten Italian Beaches

 Everyone has a favorite beach along Italy’s 8,600 kms of coastline, but if you ask ten Italians where their country’s best beaches are, nine will give you the name of an island, usually Sardinia.
After  almost  50 years in Italy  I have visited  most of the islands and beaches but since   I am more of a  history  & museum person, I got a little help from my friends  to  put together this insider list of  Italy’s ten  best beaches.  

This  article  has  been read   by  thousands of people, it is the absolutely most popular  post in my blog. I would love to  know  who  you are, so why not leave  a quick comment below. 

Most of Italy's beaches  are covered  with stabilimenti, where one pays for entrance, beach chairs, changing rooms, etc.  
Considering  the current crisis  the country is going through,  yesterday's issue of Corriere della Sera (June 30, 2012)  published  an article  about  FREE BEACHES. 

Here is the list journalist Carlotta Lombardo  put together. You will need a detailed map and local knowledge  to find most of them. 

Sicily-Cala Mosche in the National Park dello Zingaro near San Vito lo Capo 
Sardegna-Cala Sisina near the Gulf of Orosei 
Tuscany-Cala Violina in Maremma
Calabria -Capo Bruzzano 30 kms from Locrì
Liguria-Monterosso and Vernazza 
Puglia -Dune of Campomarino
Campania-Buon Dormire near Capo Palinuro
Marche-Due Sorelle Beach near Conero 
Basilicata -Spiaggia Nera  at Cala Jannita near Maratea
Veneto-Cà Roman di Venezia on Pellestrina a 11km long  beach

1.     Italy has about 400 islands, some just uninhabited rocks, others organized as stunning  summer resorts. Crystal-clear water, unspoiled nature and unique folklore and culture can be found on the island of Sardinia.
a beach in Sardinia

 From the little peninsula of Stintino  to S. Teresa di Gallura in the north-eastern corner, lies a Riviera of emerald water and fine sandy beaches, some of them with pink sand and some only large enough for a couple of beach blankets.
the spiaggia rosa ,Sardinia
 Old towns, many dating from the 12th  century are dominated by castles and walls which once held pirate raiders at bay. Summer villages and hotels are modern, elegant and offer facilities for water sports, swinging nightlife and fine eating.
A relatively unknown part of Sardinia is the island of San Antioco in the south-western corner. Here gourmets can gorge themselves on local lobster and tuna and the wines of Calasetta.
Unless you are a  millionaire, avoid the expensive resorts on the Costa Smeralda and  stay clear of  beaches near large cities, like Cagliari's Poetto unless its low season.

2.     The 400 inhabitants of Stromboli island are not jittery even though they live on a still-active volcano in  the Aeolian archipelago north of Sicily. Famous for its black lava sand beaches, the comforts of civilization are assured although drinking water is brought in by cistern ship during the dry summers. Stromboli is memorable  for its natural  firework displays that awe   cruise  ship passengers  when they sail past in the night. 

 Closer to the Sicilian coast is the greener island of Vulcano, with lovely  beaches and mud baths. Both Stromboli and Vulcano can be reached by ferry from Milazzo in Sicily.

Stromboli island 

3.     The Tuscan island of  Elba, reachable  by ferry from the port of Piombino,  is  known for having once  housed the exiled French emperor Napoleon. Its green rolling hills, beaches like Biodola near Portoferraio, and laid-back lifestyle make it a perfect getaway. This is the only one of  the Tuscan  islands  I have yet to visit, but  this September  I'll be lecturing on a luxury cruise  that stops there.

4.     In northern Italy the Venetian lagoon holds several islands worth a visit. The Lido is a quick vaporetto ride from crowded St. Mark’s Square and is probably Italy’s most beautifully equipped beach with exclusive beach cabins, tents, white-jacketed waiters scurrying with ice buckets from the Excelsior’s bar and a famous gambling casino and annual cinema festival.

Chioggia, at the southern tip of the Venetian lagoon, is 40 miles from Venice by road or a two-hour cruise from Riva degli Schiavoni. An important fishing center, it boasts the lively Sottomarina beach, plenty of good hotels and nightlife.
Lido, Venezia

5.     Ligurian beaches include those of Diano Marina  and the picturesque  hilltown of  Cervo Ligure a few miles up the coast from San Remo of music and casino fame.

Diano Marina, Liguria 

6.The stretch of beaches near Rimini on  the Adriatic coast is a swinging summer spot with 15 kms of white sand, clean water and droves of Scandinavians, Russians and Anglo-Saxons from spring to autumn.  Each year the best beaches are awarded prizes signalled by a   “bandiere blu” flag.

7.Fregene and Ostia are Rome’s seaside resorts where a midday dip in the Med is possible before returning to the city. These beaches are fine during the week but are guaranteed to be very crowded on weekends. Ostia is connected to downtown Rome by a rapid train and has the added attraction of the archeological site similar to Pompeii, Ostia Antica.  

8.Campers love the sandy coastal beaches backed by pine groves  between Albinia and Talamone near Grosseto because of several inexpensive campgrounds .   Gastronomic delights of the area include wild boar stew in the inland medieval hill towns , like Capalbio . Try La Parrina estate for  cheeses made on site, farm produce, local wine  and oil.
deer in La Feniglia  nature reserve
Beaches  on  the Argentario peninsula are  renowned vacation spots: choose from La Feniglia where the topless ratio gets higher every summer, near  Porto Ercole and Porto Santo Stefano and La Giannella , a family beach.

9.In southern Italy folks dote on the Calabrian coast and the islands of Pantelleria and Lampedusa which are  invaded by water and scuba-diving enthusiasts each summer. The swimming is great here even in October since the latitude is the same as northern Africa.

 10. Since naturist  always  find the best, isolated  beaches,  I asked  Fulvio, who has been checking out Italy’s  beaches for  over  50 years, to give his vote. 
His number one beach is Cala Coticchio  ( the locals call it Tahiti)  on the  island of Caprera in Sardegna. I only knew Caprera as the  refuge of Italy’s national hero Garibaldi, so its best to ask the experts. 
Fulvio's second choice was  Cala Brigantina , a fiord like beach where a French  club even set up a resort.  Both of these are reachable only  by boat or after  a long, hot  walk .

 Remember that most Italian beaches  are at their best in July, September and on weekdays, rather than weekends.
  The peak season of mid-August and the  Ferragosto holiday will see you paying  up to 50% more for rental accommodations. In late spring and  other summer months  you can save and enjoy better  service.

Have you seen my newly redesigned website  yet? Pop over  for a look,  you will be surprised at how much  content, information  it holds. 
Thanks to Laura  who updated it after  12 years !

            This is one of the most popular posts on my blog ...if you found it  interesting, helpful, why not  leave a comment.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Sphinxes and Pyramids...of the Etruscans

History  tells us how the Etruscan  civilization  was  overcome by the Romans   as they expanded  north   from the  banks of the Tiber.  Here in Etruria or Tuscia,  80 kilometres north of Rome, we can draw  lines on the map connecting the towns of  Vetralla, Tarquinia and Tuscania  to make an “ Etruscan Triangle”.

Here  vestiges of the Etruscan civilization abound  and  new finds are coming to light as I write on this very  first day of the New Year, 2012.

Many of these new-found sites  are described in a small, compact guidebook “Monumenti Rupestri Etrusco-Romani tra I Monti Cimini e la Valle del Tevere“  by Stephan Steingraber (my neighbor here in Vetralla) and   Friedhelm Prayon.
Associazione Canino Info Onlus 2011
The 45  monuments have a wide variety of forms - but all of them  are excavated or sculpted, rather than  built.

 Often it is difficult to distinguish what is made by humans and what has been shaped by  nature and  the passing of time. 
There are platforms with and without steps,  steps  without platforms,  cubes , tubs, facades, niches, tombs and others  inscribed  with Etruscan lettering. 

The most impressive of these stone carved monuments uncovered  by researchers  near  Soriano, Bomarzo, Canepina and  Vitorchiano are the altars and pyramids. 

The pyramid near Bomarzo has sparked many discussions, some say it resembles closely the Aztec   pyramid structures with its 22 steps leading  up to a platform. 

Photo  by Luciano Proietti

Sphinx  at Villa San Michele, Capri 
Etruscan Sphinx of Cortona 
In Vulci  the  newest  find –just this week-is a one metre tall sphinx  that proves  the Etruscans of central Italy had much in common with  their  Egyptian neighbors. 

  Similar  sphinxes  have been discovered further north, in Cortona and Chiusi. 

Sphinx discovered  at Vulci 

The  sphinx never really faded from local artistic  memory and   during the Middle Ages this lovely one was sculpted as  a tomb decoration for  a member of the noble  DiVico family of Viterbo. 

Have  you  ever noticed  this sphinx ? 
 Visitors  to Viterbo’s Civic Museum,   can admire it  as well as another  monument  which  harks   back to  an invented/imagined  Egyptian origin of the city of Viterbo.
Isis and Osiris  plaque 

This  Renaissance  sculpture has  profiles of Egyptian gods  Isis and Osiris and an inscription mentioned in diaries of  early visitors to the city, including  Cardinal Henry Stuart, last of the royal Stuart  Kings of England.

Local writer Linda Lappin has incorporated  some of the Etruscan lore and mystery  into her Gothic novel  “The Etruscan”.

Winter  is the best time to explore  Etruscan sites  in central Italy for there are no problems with snakes and high grass. 

With  this little volume by Etruscologists Steingraber and Preyon as a companion to my latest book about the area  in your backpack,  you will be able to follow in the footsteps of George Dennis and other early explorers  of Etruria.
Your ideas and questions are welcome. Please share with friends . 

For  getting around to visit the Etruscan sites, rent a car and receive 5% discount.