Thursday, October 25, 2012

"You can see the entire history of Sicily right here in Cefalù."

The owner of Hotel La Giara in Cefalù led me up to the roof terrace for a low-level panorama across the city. He made a sweeping gesture encompassing the rooftops and said proudly:

"You can see the entire history of Sicily right here in Cefalù."

"Up on the rocca," he jabs his finger toward the sheer headland that locals call "the fortress" and which shelters Cefalù's perfect little harbor. "You find prehistoric caves and an ancient Greek temple."

"Down here," his hand sweeps to present the narrow streets directly below us. "You can see the courtyards of old Saracen homes, and how the Arabs built the streets narrow as one man, so that if enemies tried to attack, they'd have to enter Cefalù in single file." He paused to grin devilishly. "That way it was easy for just a few men up here with arrows and some more down there with swords to dispatch them."

Sunday, October 3, 2010


Sciopero. It’s the most dreaded word to any traveler in Italy. If you hear or see the word sciopero (show-pair-oh), perk up your ears ‘cause there’s a labor strike a-coming, and it’ll probably affect your means of transportation.

Train workers, especially, tend to strike at the drop of a hat, although city transit systems are pretty prone to it as well.

The funny thing is, these aren’t unplanned affairs, and the strikes are announced days or even a month ahead of time. Strikes have a set hour at which they will begin, and a precise time when they’ll end.

This isn’t the American-style “walk out until management agrees with you” strike; in Italy they do it merely to make a point.

On occasion the sciopero is over contracts or work-related issues, but more often it’s used as a form of vague, general protest, and—although this isn’t journalistically verifiable—it’s hard not to suspect that sometimes, someone just want a day off.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A meal at Podere Terreno in the Chianti

“The best compliment I ever got,” said Roberto Melosi, passing around the homemade lasagne and Chianina steaks from his seat at the head of the communal dinner table. “Was when I asked some American guests whether it was a bother to keep driving back and forth to Florence every day.”

He paused to top off the glasses around him with more of his farm’s peppery but light Chianti Classico

“The Americans said ‘No, because when we drive back at the end of the day, it’s not like we’re taking an hour to reach our hotel. It’s like we’re driving home.’” Roberto chuckled. “And then they asked if they could stay two weeks next year.”

An elderly German gentleman, sitting at the other end of the table near Roberto’s Paris-born wife, Marie-Sylvie Haniez, nodded gravely. He had been returning to the agriturismo Podere Terreno every summer for twenty years and was in the midst of a record-setting stay: 35 days straight.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Chasing Lorenzo around Rome

Palazzo Venezia, Julian Schanbel, and the effects of karma

The Northwest Airlines employee at the gate assured me, yet again, in a syrup voice that our 4:15pm flight would leave on time. This despite the fact that (a) Frances had just told me the web site was showing a 20-minute delay and, (b) it was already 4:05pm and there was, as yet, no actual plane at the gate.

I don't know about you, but I've never seen a flight land, taxi, offload, get cleaned, switch out crews, load up again, taxi, and take off in ten minutes.

Right after the woman lied to me about my flight, I noticed a man hurrying down the terminal drop a plastic toploader folder out of his bag without noticing. I picked it up, caught him up, and returned his folder. This will become significant, in some small way, later on in the story of my day spent chasing Lorenzo de' Medici around Rome.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Sicily in the Saddle

A horseback ride in the heartland of Sicily

Antonio and Pepe against a backdrop of the Sicilian countrysideAntonio Carlotta and his horse, Pepe, against a backdrop of the Sicilian countryside. My mount danced up to the crumbling lip of a 1,000-foot drop. She didn't seem inclined to stop.

I yanked repeatedly on the reins, yelling "Whoa!" in what I meant to be a stern, controlled voice but came out high-pitched and panicky. My brain, often of little help in these situations, suggested that perhaps "whoa" wasn't how you made a horse stop in Italian.

Antonio Carlotta, my guide, gave a short, low whistle, and my chestnut mare immediately put on the brakes, kicking loose dirt and pebbles over the cliff as my heart pounded away merrily in its new home halfway up my throat.

"Got a little closer than I expected there," I said suavely, adding, "Ha, ha" to show Antonio I wasn't fazed and, in fact, quiet enjoyed the bitter taste of adrenaline on the back of my tongue. I tried to convince Katy to back up a bit, but the dark chestnut mare seemed content to perch on the edge of doom and just enjoy the view.

"Don't worry," said Antonio, a big grin evident in his voice but not, out of politeness, on his face. "A horse wouldn't go over a cliff." Relaxing a bit, I took a moment to focus on the breathtaking panorama below and not my fear of becoming a part of it.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Entirely the Wrong Witch

La Befana, Babbo Natale, and the shifting focus of Christmas traditions in Italy

It is around 9pm on the last day of October, All Hallow's Eve. Back home, in America, it is Halloween, and everywhere kids are looking forward to the end of the school day when they can dress up and hit the streets to fill pillowcases with candy begged from the neighbors.

Here in Venice, it is simply October 31, the day before the Feast of All Saints. In Italy, the time to play dress-up isn't for another four months and the moveable feast of Carnevale, that Fat Tuesday of partying before Ash Wednesday ushers in the 40 austere days of Lent.

So why is it that the pizzeria I just left is packed with babbling kids, their faces smeared with makeup, pointy hats on their heads and gauzy or silky capes tied at their necks? Why did the marble fountainhead on Campo Santa Maria Formosa have a gaggle of costumed youths sitting upon it, laughing and eating candy?

What, in short, the Hell is Halloween doing in the very capital of Carnevale?

(Before you get confused: Yes, this story really is about Christmas; Halloween is just the setup.)

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Good Night, Sleep Tight...And That's All

I'm a confirmed one-star hotel man.

I get a quirky, self-satisfied thrill every time I snag a railroad narrow room with creaky wood floors, a wobbly chair and table rejected by a finer hotel back in 1963, a bare 20-watt bulb dangling on its wire from the ceiling, and a bathroom down the hall I have to share with the rest of the floor.

Good night

I downright revel in my thrift. I mentally lord it over people who can afford better hotels than this one-star in Ravenna. In fact, I picture the poor saps shelling out three or four times as much for a room with TV and minibar in the three-star joint around the corner, and I think: suckers!

Sure, they don’t have to put on pants and grab their keys every time they want to nip out to the bathroom, but I look at it this way: I could stay here for three or four nights at the price they're paying for one. (I say "could stay" because I can't; I've got to dash off to Modena tomorrow, Parma the day after that, then Milan... more than one night in a city is a luxury we working stiff travelers cannot afford.)

I stand here in my gloriously drab one-star hotel room, stripped to my undies, smugly washing my clothes in the sink (even rooms without baths in Europe usually have a sink).

As I round-robin my camera, Palm, laptop, and cellphone battery chargers though the single outlet available, I reflect on my wisdom for preferring one-star hotels—"wisdom" sounding so much better than the slightly more accurate term, "poverty." I am one who appreciates that a comfy bed is all one really needs from his lodgings; anything more is downright slothful. Or maybe avaricious. One of the Deadly Sins, at any rate.

Saturday, October 8, 2005

Bologna the Fat

A walk through the culinary side of Bologna—street markets, specialty food shops, pasta boutiques—plus cooking classes and a killer recipe for traditional tagliatelle al bolognese

Coils of tagliatelle, tagliolini, fettucine, and other freshly made pastaCoils of tagliatelle, tagliolini, fettucine, and other freshly made pasta Every Italian region is justifiably proud of its own cuisine—considers it in fact to be the best in the whole world. But ask any Italian to name just one region, one region in all of Italy, that's known above all for its culinary prowess and he'll admit: it's Emilia-Romagna.

In Modena they make the world's best balsamic vinegar; in Parma the best aged sheep's cheese (parmigiano) and cured ham (prosciutto di Parma). And the regional capital? Ah, you must mean Bologna the Fat.

Bologna is the birthplace of tortellini—little rings of pasta stuffed with savory meats and gooey cheeses. This is the land that invented the ragu sauce atop tagliatelle alla Bolognese. The local cured meat named mortadella remains so wildly popular the world over (particularly in school lunches) that most culture call it simply "bologna"—or, if you prefer, "baloney."

Saturday, October 1, 2005

Up the Blue Grotto without a paddle...or a boat

An ill-advised swim into the famed Blue Grotto of Capri

It's the seventh wave that'll get you.

Oceans and seas across the world all craft waves the same way. They come in a simple sequence: each wave is larger and more powerful than the last. This sequence builds in a set cycle: the number of waves in each cycle is seven.

And it's the seventh wave that'll get you.

Counting waves

I've been counting waves for a good ten minutes now, and my arms are aching from hanging off the precipice so long, peering into the darkness of the tunnel. Is it my imagination, or is the sea getting rougher? I know the sun is getting lower and lower, and I can't hang around forever—nor, for that matter, can I hang on all that much longer, physically.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Big Brother Berlusconi

Italy's new Internet laws take a turn for the Facist

Even at public internet terminals, you have to let it snap a photo of your passport before you can use it.
At public internet terminals in Italy, you have to hold up your passport and let it snap a photo of your vital info before you can log on.
You think Bush has got the U.S. press well tamed (Katrina outrage notwithstanding)? He's got nothing on Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's wily master of corporate greed-turned-Prime Minster.

Berlusconi: The one-man media empire (and thoroughly corrupt Prime Minister)

Back when he got his country's top job, Berlusconi refused calls to divest himself of some his businesses, claming to see no conflict of interest between his companies' holdings and the greater good of serving his country.

No conflict of interest? Before he was P.M., this media mogul was Italy's Ted Turner, Rupert Murdoch, and Disney Corp. all rolled into one.

Italy, you see, has seven main national television channels: the three state-run RAI networks—inventively named, in the great tradition of the BBC, RAI 1, RAI 2, and RAI 3—the three private channels owned by Mediaset—Italia 1, Rete 4, and Canale 5—and tiny little Telemontecarlo, which a few years ago, apparently feeling left out of the number club, re-branded itself as "La 7."

Two guesses as to who owns Mediaset. I'll give you a hint. It's the same man who now, as Prime Minster, has direct control over the three RAI stations as well.

Yep, Sivlio Berlusconi personally controls a whopping his 98% share of Italy's national television market.

Did I mention he also happens to own the nation's largest publishing house, and as a sideline publishes several of the country's most widely-circulated daily newspapers?

Well, apparently this near-lock on the flow of information in Italy wasn't enough for old Silvio. I can only imagine him sighing with envy over the kind of control exercised by Kim Jong-il in North Korea. Which is why, this fall, Silvio has set his sights on the last great bastion of information available in Italy: the Internet.