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 created by Santucci falegnameria, Vetralla 

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.