Sunday, June 16, 2013

Eating Like an Italian - in Vetralla

vintage  chairs at  my front door   
A large US chain of restaurants (best not to reveal which)  recently discovered  Vetralla’s  Cene in Cantine festival  and  chose  our town  to film their newest  commercial. 
The previous locations featured were  Rome and Amalfi … so  not too bad  for  our  small town  outside Rome.  Until now Vetralla's  only claims to fame were  its excellent olive oil and the fact that since 1512  it has been  under the  protection of  the English crown .

country style seating 
 After  several pre-shoot visits by  the location finder and chief of the Italian film team, the  entire troupe of about  50  people arrived in  Vetralla   yesterday  aboard    sleek rented  vans with tinted windows.

Vicolo del Sole 
There were  executives of the advertising company in  Boston,  others from the main  Florida  office who checked  the daily  film rushes. They  were flanked  by an Italian crew  which included  location men, camera men, scenographers, actresses in high, high heels (dangerous on our cobblestones)  and drivers of the huge  vans  that  invaded  the flower decked  historic center.

meeting  the US  team
Throughout the day they shot scenes of the town’s  food and lifestyle; the grill scene in Piazza  Francosone,  the  lunch  served in  the vaulted halls  of the  Pro loco’s cantina  which included  grilled chicken and  hand made pasta-but not  served on the same plate  as  they do in these chain restaurants !  

coordinating  the film   shoot, 
The whole town will be anxiously awaiting  to see the outcome of the day’s film shoot.  Hopefully the  cameras were able to capture  the  atmosphere of the medieval streets  and  ancient  cantinas. The   local  people, including some  photogenic  young men, participated as extras  adding authenticity  to the scenes.

Sitting pretty  in Pza. S. Egidio
 For them it was also a way to  see their town  in a new light,  through  foreign eyes, and to appreciate its  humble, authentic  beauty.  

As night fell, the last scenes were filmed between the city hall and the Duomo with the actresses strolling across the piazza,  enjoying gelato and sitting on the picturesque dolphin fountains.

the film troupe  in the main piazza 
When  the long day of filming was over, about  10:30 pm , a hurrah  went up from the troupe  and hugs and  embraces  were shared with  new found Vetralla friends  before they  loaded up the trucks and vans for the  drive back to  Roman hotels and long flights back to the States.
locals served the meals and judged the best decorations 

 The   commercial they were  shooting in Vetralla   was  to  show the  Italian passion for  food, family and celebration of life, thus enticing   customers  to eat  at  their    200+ Italian themed   restaurants  located   in 33 different  US states.  

eating in the cantina of Emergency 

Pro Loco's cantina 

Wouldn’t it be nice  if  Vetralla’s  delicious extra virgin olive oil  would, one day,  be  included among the genuine  Italian foods   served  in these restaurants?
display of antique copper 
I recently ate at one of these places in New Hampshire but was disappointed with their food and customer service. The place was busy around 6 p.m. as customers did "take away" and completely empty by 8 p.m.  
For more on the Cene in Cantine festival,  use the search bar at the top of the page. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

A Whirlwind Tour of the Maremma Tuscany

             Guest Blog  by Elisa  Scarton Detti 

So much has been written about the beauty of Tuscany that it’s easy to fall into cliché when you describe the rolling hills and sunflower dappled fields. Luckily, the Maremma is nothing like the rest of the region.

On the border of Southern Tuscany and Lazio, the Maremma was never one for Renaissance art and the courts of kings. Once part of the Etruscan empire, the Maremma has spent the better part of a thousand years as farm lands, and even today the Maremmani remain lovers of the simpler side of life – good food, good wine and good company.
For the modern tourist, the area is a refreshing return to the traditions, character and provincial charm of Italy of old. A visit here is a visit to Tuscany off the beaten tourist track and a glimpse into life in one of the most honest and naturally beautiful corners of the country.
I have lived in the Tuscan Maremma for more than half a decade. While I have only scratched the surface of the area’s incredible beauty, I have been fortunate enough to see some of its most splendid sights. It’s these that I’d like to share with you.

Giglio Island
With summer upon us, there’s no better place to start a whirlwind tour of the Maremma Tuscany than on the Argentario Coast. A short ferry ride from Porto Santo Stefano will take you to Giglio Island, a paradise that blends pristine beaches with beautifully preserved medieval castle towns.
As you return to the Argentario Coast, keep an eye out for the Spanish fortresses that were built in the 16th century when this section of Tuscany was controlled by the Spanish. And because the history buff in me can’t resist, I must mention that the coastline was also ruled by Napoleon Bonaparte for a blink of the eye in the 19th century. Or at least it was long enough for him to gift it to his sister Elisa and to, I imagine, feel a sense of irony when he was later exiled to nearby Elba Island.

Saturnia Hot Springs
High in the hills of the Fiora Valley, the Roman City of Gold, Aurinia, draws thousands with its hot springs. Today the city is called Saturnia and its hot springs are some of Italy’s most magnificent. At the Cascate del Mulino, 36°C water flows from an underground source into naturally carved travertine pools. A dip in these pools surrounded by the bounty of the Tuscan countryside is absolutely free, but take my advice and visit in the early morning or straight after lunch when the crowds are smaller.

Parco Archeologico Città del Tufo, Sorano
From Saturnia, you can head to the forests between Sorano and Sovana where 3rd and 2nd century B.C Etruscan tombs make up the Parco Archeologico Città del Tufo. Sovana (then called Suana) was one of the artistic and cultural capitals of Etruria and its necropolises are elaborate as they come. Imagine spectacular stone statues of demons and mermaids and a rare Hellenic period temple tomb known as Tomba Ildebranda that still bears patches of vivid yellow and red paint. Remember to wear sturdy shoes when you visit as the necropolis is literally amongst the untamed forests of Tuscany.

Castel del Piano
Dante Alighieri had it in for the Maremma. In the Divine Comedy, he described the area as where " hideous Harpies make their nests". Not exactly a postcard picture, but he’s not entirely wrong. When Dante was alive, the Maremma was a wild place that would have been unseemly and backwards for an educated city dweller like Dante. Despite his scorn, Dante did immortalise much of the Maremma’s mysticism and allure in his prose. One of the most memorable mentions is Castel del Piano, described by Dante as the place where beautiful noblewoman Pia de’Tolomei was brutally murdered by her boorish husband Nello Pannocchieschi. At Castel del Piano, you’ll find the ruins of Pia’s castle as well as some earlier-dated human remains. While you’re in the area, head to Gavorrano to see its fantastic Parco Minerario Naturalistico and Teatro delle Rocce theatre.

Parco Naturale della Maremma
The locals refer to the Tuscan Maremma’s largest nature park as the Parco della Uccellina. It’s one of the few places where you can still see Butteri, the Italian cowboys who work with the Maremma’s very own breed of cow, the Vacca Maremmana. Here the heritage of the Maremma is alive and well, not only in the butteri who continue a centuries’ old tradition, but also in the incredible scenery around you. A series of different walking tracks cross the park. You can explore them on your own or with the free app (available on iTunes). Regardless of where you go though, don’t miss la Spiaggia di Collelungo. On a clear evening, you can see all the way to Elba Island from the shores of this idyllic beach.


End your whirlwind tour of the Maremma Tuscany in its capital Grosseto. A lot of Maremmani grumble that the capital should be in a bigger and more beautiful city, but I have always been enchanted by Grosseto. It has the grace of an Italian city without the chaos. The main strip is spectacular with its beautifully dressed stores and 13th century terracotta tiled palazzi. In Piazza Dante at the end of the strip, neogothic buildings with tall turrets compete for your attention with the majestic 13th century travertine Duomo. The statue at the centre of the piazza is Leopold II di Lorena, the last Grand Duke of Tuscany. Nicknamed ‘Il Canapone’ for his light hair and beard, Leopold is depicted saving the Maremma’s children from malaria. 

 Elisa is an Australian journalist who came to Tuscany for a year, fell in love (how cliché?) and decided to stick around. Not one to keep amazing holiday destinations to herself, she now writes a blog and travel guide about the infinitely beautiful Maremma Tuscany , so that others can get a taste of la dolce vita.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

UNESCO World Heritage site of Cerveteri

two colors of tufa for this  tomb  
Last week  we invited  young American archeologists  Tim and Erika  to describe their visit to  Tarquinia, one of the area’s  two UNESCO  World Heritage  sites. 
beehive shaped  funerary mounds 
The other is   Cerveteri, further south in the province of Rome,  which I visited  this week for the first time  in over  40 years, when it was  a favorite field trip for  my  international school students  back  in  the  60s and 70s . I hope  some of them who read this will  leave a comment, here below. 

entrance  drive to Banditaccia necropolis 

carved rings   decorate the tomb mounds 

my book on the area is available at the bookshop

cart ruts   dating from  300 BC

columns  with  carbon inclusions 

path among  the tombs 

Not much has changed  at the Banditaccia necropolis  since that time,  only the  majestic pines   which flank  the entrance drive  have grown and their roots have made  the  road  bumpier , but  visitors are even  more welcome thanks to the new   snack bar and  bookshop.
Isabella at the snack bar 
taking a break at the snack bar 

When  I visited  with student groups years ago  a packed lunch  was imperative and  we had to be sure to bring our own flashlights   in order  to see anything in the dark tombs.

Another change is that the Tomb  of the Reliefs , the most important,  is now  sealed off  with a glass door, like Tarquinia’s painted tombs, for protection. 
walking among  the tomb mounds 

dromos  entrance  to tombs
Tomb of the Reliefs 
below the tree, the Tomb of the Reliefs
The atmosphere felt in the necropolis  is still  awe inspiring,  mysterious and lush.  
This “City of the Dead” is a  peek into how the Etruscans  lived, what they found important and   how they perceived life after death.
closeup  of the  tufa stone blocks 

The   tombs, excavated in  tufa  stone, have   rooms  and funerary beds  to  recreate what the Etruscan homes looked like.

Outside the dromos  entrance way there are often  phallic symbols or cippi  for male occupants, or  house shaped   cippi  for female burials. 
Have you visited  either Tarquinia or Cerveteri ?  Which is your favorite Etruscan site? 

Sunday, June 2, 2013

A Visit to Etruria

Guest  Blog  
by Timothy Shea and Erika Weiberg

A week ago, while staying in Vetralla, Tim and I decided to visit some of the less-trafficked sites in Lazio and Umbria, regions of Italy once inhabited by the mysterious Etruscans. Like most tourists, we had come to central Italy to visit the eternal city of Rome. As graduate students of classical literature and archaeology, Tim and I spend a lot of our time studying ancient Rome, and Tim wanted to see the big city for the first time. While the Coliseum, the Forum Romanum, and the Pantheon are breathtaking, our two days visiting sites in outer Lazio and Umbria opened our eyes to the colorful burial rites of the Etruscans, an enchanting 16th century garden, a dying city on a cliff, and the beautiful medieval town of Orvieto.

Necropolis of Monterozzi, Tarquinia 
Day One

The first stop on our itinerary was Tarquinia, an ancient Etruscan site with a series of painted tombs dating from the mid-6th century to the 2nd century BC. Tim’s interest had been sparked by the Etruscans, who had inhabited parts of modern Lazio and Umbria since at least the 10th century BC, and he was scheduled to give a lecture on these tombs to Duke study abroad students later in our trip.

We descended into the damp interior of these wealthy
ancient Etruscans’ tombs, proceeding down long corridors to dead ends at which we pushed buttons to illuminate the inner chambers of the tombs, which are lined with vibrantly painted frescoes.

tomb of the jugglers, Tarquinia 
 The frescoes, which would have surrounded sarcophagi holding the tombs’ inhabitants, depict scenes of banqueting and dancing, scenes with demons and mysterious fake doors, scenes of hunting and fishing, and scenes of athletic games. 

In the impressive museum located in the modern city of Tarquinia, we saw the sarcophagi and grave goods that had been found in these tombs. On the lids of the sarcophagi, the Etruscans sculpted their dead family members in a reclining position, as if dining; scholars suspect that the arrangement of the tombs, the lids of the sarcophagi, and the paintings on the walls point to a conception of the afterlife as a continuous, eternal banquet, surrounded by friends and loved ones.

For our next stop, we jumped forward in time to a similarly ethereal site near the modern town of Bomarzo. 
Vicino Orsini, a noble prince of Bomarzo, had a “sacred forest” built for his wife, Giulia Francese, in the 16th century. 

 Tim  in Bomarzo 

The park is strewn with fantastic sculpted creatures and monsters, which startle and fascinate passers-by; as one inscription indicates, the layout and decorations of the park are intended to liberate the spirit and startle the mind with “lions, tigers, and bears, oh my!”
Fulvio and Erika in the slanted house, Bomarzo 
Terrifying giants lurk, beauties sleep in corners, elephants rage, monstrous faces spook, and houses lean, destroying any sense of equilibrium.

Day Two

The next day we set out on a road trip to the fossilized city of Civita di Bagnoregio. Civita was built on a plateau of volcanic tuff that has eroded drastically since the town was built so that now it can be reached only by a bridge that snakes its way from the modern town of Bagnoregio into the heart of the dying city.

We happened to go on a Sunday and a holiday, so the town, which contains a mere handful of actual inhabitants, was full of pilgrims from nearby towns and countries, who flock there to enjoy the surreal landscape. Most walked across the bridge into the town, but some rode motorbikes, and we even encountered a company of horses, who arrived just as the town’s bell tower chimed noon.

horses in Civita di Bagnoregio 

The town contains several restaurants and gift shops, but the real treat is to wander around the narrow streets and crumbling houses and imagine that you are the last inhabitant of a dying town in a magical, forgotten land.

After our hike to Civita, we drove along winding roads into the olive and wine country of Umbria to visit another city once founded by Etruscans, Orvieto.

The city is now a beautiful relic of its thriving Medieval and Renaissance past, with one of the most fantastic duomos we have ever seen. The facade of the cathedral dazzles with  14thcentury sculpture by Lorenzo Maitani and walls constructed of alternating layers of white travertine and greenish-black marble. 
Inside, we noticed a portrait of Vergil that often appears on Latin textbooks, painted inside the San Brizio chapel by Renaissance greats Fra Angelico and Luca Signorelli.  

  Coupled with the painters’ Last Judgment, the portraits of classical authors decorating the side walls of the chapel provided a reminder of the region’s complex interweaving of pagan and Christian identities.

We spent the remainder of our day wandering around Orvieto: we met a delightful young shoemaker and leatherworker named Federico , ate a delicious lunch in a restaurant near his shop, and visited two fantastic archaeological museums, il Museo Claudio Faina and il Museo Archaeologico Nazionale, which are brimming with Etruscan finds.

Etruscan Museum, Orvieto 
Duomo seen from the museum 

Our two days in the land of the Etruscans reminded us what a wealth of history, art and archaeology can be found in even the smallest towns in Italy, many of which contain mysteries preserved from the region’s rich past. 
If you have one more day in the region, we recommend visiting Cerveteri, another ancient Etruscan necropolis, and Viterbo, a medieval town with an interesting papal history.

Ciao, and thanks to Mary Jane for asking us to write this guest post and for providing a warm welcome in Vetralla. Thanks also to Fulvio, our special guide. What would you want to see if you had two days in Etruria?
Erika, Tim and  Kitty 

 To learn more about the area and find related blog posts about Bomarzo  and Civita di Bagnoregio, use the search bar  at the top of the page.

photographs by Timothy Shea