Friday, April 24, 2015

Stuff Your Eyes With Wonder...

St. Peter's, Rome

“Stuff your eyes with wonder. 
Live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. 
See the world. It’s more fantastic 
than any dream made or paid for in factories.” 
– Ray Bradbury

A number of people have asked me about the itinerary for the two groups that are joining me in Italy this spring.  I'll share in case anyone else wants to know.  I'm taking both groups to the same places, although they'll go in different orders since one group starts in Rome and ends in Bologna, and the other does the reverse.


Everyone who visits Italy for the first time needs to go to Rome. We'll spend four days there seeing everything from the Colosseum (The apartments are a 5-10 minute walk from there) to the Pantheon.

Day 1-4
The first day is always the day to settle in and walk the neighborhood and acclimate ourselves to the area.

Since both groups arrive in Rome on a Saturday, we'll head to the Vatican on Sunday for those who want to see Pope Francis give his Sunday blessing.  We'll have three-day tickets for the hop-on/hop-off bus, so we'll take a quick trip around the city ending at the Colosseum where everyone will tour the ancient ruins.

I arranged for early access to the Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museums. While most people get in around 9, we're getting in at 7:45 with a special tour.  After that, we'll head to the Jewish Ghetto and Trastavere areas and enjoy the markets, cafes, bakeries, and sites.

One of the groups is doing the Angels & Demons tour.  I'll take the second one through Piazza Navonna, Spanish Steps, Triunfale, etc.

We travel by train to Sulmona, a city in the Abruzzo region (and about 10 km from my grandmother's village).  We'll settle in to the apartments, and then I'll walk them through the centro storico, and we'll enjoy the evening passegiatta.

We'll start at the Sulmona mercato (held in the piazza shown above) and then head to Pettorano, birthplace of my grandparents.  During WWII, the Nazis took up residence in Pettorano and forced the citizens to flee. Many hid in the Valley of Santa Margherita (patron saint of the town) during the harsh winter.

After we walk through the mountain town, we'll go to Scanno, a beautiful town high in the mountains and home to a wonderful, blue lake. There are a number of women in the town who still wear the town's "costume." Because of the style of the dress, many believe that Turks founded Scanno.
Henry Mancini's father, Quinto, was born in Scanno in 1893.

Cooking school!  After a tour of the Abbey of Santo Spirito al Morrone, we're going to head to Pacentro where everyone will participate in a cooking class at Caldora, George Clooney's favorite restaurant in the area.  After class, we'll tour Pacentro (birthplace, by the way, of Madonna's father) while the chef at Caldora cooks what they helped make. We'll eat lunch and head back down the mountain to Sulmona where we'll tour the Pelini Confetti Factory. (Confetti are sugar-covered almonds).

Rocca Calascio

We'll leave early for Rocca Calascio, a town at the highest point in the Apennine Mountains.  After a short walk to the fortress ruins (above), we'll head to Santo Steffano di Sessanio, where Clooney and most of the cast and crew of "The American" stayed during filming.  Mama Aida, a 91-year old resident of the town, will demonstrate how to make the town's signature dish with lenticchie (lentils). We'll enjoy a five-course meal before touring Santo Stefano and a cheese maker.

Days 9-14
We train to Bologna and settle in at our apartment.  After I do a short walking tour of the historic Santo Stefano area, we'll enjoy aperitifs at Bar Santo Stefano.

After we have breakfast, we'll have a private tour with a guide from CulturaItaliana, the school where I studied last year.  Later, we'll take the hop-on/hop-off bus tour and go to San Luca, a beautiful church at the highest point in the city.  Included will be a tour of The Archiginnasio, part of the university's first building.  The old anatomy room is still a popular site.

One of the days, we'll head to Modena where we'll take the Happy Circle bus around town with stops at the Ferrari Museum and a balsamic vinegar factory.  After dinner in Bologna, we'll do a gelato crawl.

We'll take an early train to Venice, catch the vaporetto, and see this wonderful city.  We'll start at Rialto Bridge and at the fish market there.  Afterwards, we'll head to St. Mark's Square and tour St. Mark's and the Doges' Palace.  Some want to take a gondola ride. I'll wave from the bridge!  :-)  If time allows, we'll head to Murano or Burano before heading home.

Florence is another early day trip. We have tickets for the duomo and the Accademia (Think Michelangelo's David), and I'll take them the Ponte Vecchio, Mercato San Lorenzo, Mecato Centrale, Mercato Nuovo, and Porcellino. At the Duomo, we'll have the opportunity to climb to the dome (400+ stairs) and Giotto's Tower (another 400+ stairs).  I'm taking bets on whether I can do both both times.  :-)

The second group is going to have the opportunity to go to Ravenna, too. 

And, we'll all have cappuccino a lot.... and wine.... and pasta.....

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Cravings, Part I

Skippy!  Jif! Peter Pan!

"Is there any problem that a bottle of 
wine &  peanut butter can't solve?" 
~ Unknown

 "What American food," Mike asked me the other day, "do you miss most when you're in Italy?"  I didn't have to think long.

"Good hamburgers and peanut butter," I zipped back at him, "and KIND bars....but not together."

"Interesting," he replied. "You'll have to bring some with you."

I already planned on bringing peanut butter and KIND bars, to tell the truth. I always pack about 20-25 bars to get me through my long trips. When I started getting sick of eating the same cured meats and pasta all the time during my Bologna trip last year, I started craving hamburgers and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

The groceries do not stock much peanut butter, and the stuff they do have is both expensive and looks a little like powdered peanut butter to which someone has added a liquid (which reminds me that I actually saw powered PB in Target today. BLECH.). I saw a jar of Skippy (or maybe it was Jif) last year, and it cost 6.50 euro (At that time, about $9 for a small jar.  I knew that the peanut butter, regardless of the fact that it was an American brand, would not taste the same.

I can't explain it, but if you've traveled out of the country, you know what I mean. There's always something a little off about the taste of "American" food in Europe.  It could be the lack of all the preservatives and crap we put in food here, or it could be the water. Who knows?  All I can say is that I wasn't paying all that money to taste powdery peanut paste. I ended up eating butter and jelly or Nutella and jelly which are definitely not the same.

So, you may ask, why isn't burro d’arachidi (peanut butter) popular on the peninsula? It's not the consistency that turns miei paisani off, certainly. They down Nutella on toast with as much vigor as we do peanut butter on bread. I think it all comes down to the fact that peanuts never grew on the European continent, and peanut butter is an acquired taste. It brings to mind that popular Australian foodstuff, Vegemite,  which gags most Americans. (I doubt I'd ever be able to acquire a taste for that malty, salty, bitter, yeasty paste because, quite frankly, I'd never try it. If the name weren't enough to turn me off, the fact that it's made of leftover brewer's yeast would do it.  But, I digress.....)

At any rate, I 'm bringing some peanut butter with me this year.  The fact that I do only carry-on is a bit of a problem, but since one of the gals in the first tour is checking a suitcase, I've asked her to pack two or three things for me. Peanut butter is at top of the list, and I've already bought a jar ($2.34 for Skippy crunchy at Target today).

I'm going to have to work on the hamburger thing, though.....

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Italy Again?

Trevi Fountain, Rome

 “Nobody can discover the world for somebody else. 
 Only when we discover it for ourselves does it become 
common ground and a common bond and we cease to be alone.” 
~ Wendell Berry

"You're going to Italy again?" (emphasis on again) a friend recently asked me. I didn't answer immediately preferring to look at her for a second or two.  "I don't know how you do that," she continued. "Why keep going back?"

Why, indeed.

It's not something that I can really explain. It's not something that even I understand. I feel as though there is a huge chain yanking me back. (On second thought,  it's probably not a chain. Maybe it's a strand of maccheroni alla guitarra.  :-) )  The aching for the place never leaves me. I'm hoping I can someday figure out why.

This trip, though, will be different for several reasons.

Pettorano sul Gizio
 Last year, a number of people asked me to take them with me the next time I went back to Italy. I thought they were joking, but they weren't.  Not long after I returned to the States in October, I discovered that they were serious. The thought of being able to share what I know about that beautiful country thrilled me more than I could ever put in words. I was in.

Fast forward to April 2015.  I have two groups (five people plus moi in each group) who will each spend two weeks in Italy with me this year.  I'm taking them to Rome, Sulmona, and Bologna. From each of those bases, we'll hit a number of other cities like Florence, Venice, Modena, Rocca Calascio, Scanno, Pacentro, and Pettorano sul Gizio, birthplace of my maternal grandparents.

The first photo I took in Bologna after I woke up there last year.
If you know me—and only four of the 10 going with me do—you know they will have a trip nothing like one they'd get from Brennan or Globus or some other tour company.  They'll get to see a bunch of stuff that they would never see if they were stuck on tours that gave them 45 minutes to look around a location. Except for the four days we're in Rome, tourists won't be running over them. Our day trips to Florence and Venice will start early to give them the opportunity to see both before the tourists wake up. I have a lot planned, but they'll have a lot of free time.

 Here's my theory on this entire trip:  I will share everything I know about everywhere we go. I will give them the best experience I can give them. And, more importantly, I will give them time to get out and experience the life themselves. I won't herd them, and I won't hover.  They'll have fun. They'll have an adventure. They'll love it. (I hope.) And I'll tell you all about it.

Once the second group leaves, I'll be back in Bologna for about a month.  My friends and relatives in Abruzzo cannot understand my love of Bologna, and they shake their heads at my staying there.

After Mike joins me though, we'll head back down to Sulmona for a few days. My grandmother's village celebrates its patron saints with a two-day festival, and I need (yes, need) to experience it.

So, yes, I am going back to Italy again (emphasis on again), my dear concerned friend.  I will go back until I can't.