What my dad knew about Italy

What my dad knew about Italy

would not fill a book.  However………..

When I first moved to Rome he began speaking to me in Italian …….

“Where’s the wheelbarrow?”, he would ask, when I phoned him.

“Is it in the elevator?”, and

“Hello, beautiful girl.”

These were the only three phrases he knew and it revealed his history of having worked with Italian labourers on building sites.  (He told me once that what Italians didn’t know about concrete wasn’t worth knowing.) As the Project Manager he needed to be able to ask them these questions  and many of them didn’t speak English.  He also heard them often trying to chat to women passing by.  I never knew my dad could speak Italian, or how much he liked it until I began living there, and he gleefully repeated all his known phrases to me every time we spoke.

My dad first encountered Italy as a young man on honeymoon in the early 1960’s.  He and my mother arrived by ship from Melbourne, Australia, along with hundreds of Italians returning home to look for brides and for family visits.  They docked at Naples.  Dad said he had never seen men cry until that moment.  He said the ship erupted with crying men, hours out of Naples, as soon as they could see land, and that the crying didn’t stop for hours until they docked and were met by crying mothers.  He was very impressed with how manly Italians could be and yet how much they could cry.

As an engineer my dad was very interested in buildings, art, furniture, design.  All the things Italy offered an abundance of.  He and my mother toured around the major cities, he documenting everything in slides – the Duomo in Milan, the Vatican in Rome, the canals of Venice and the Bay of Naples.  His love of design shows through in each of his photographs.

Several decades later when my dad and my step mother visited me once in Rome, we stopped in a piazza in front of the Pantheon, a beautiful, round Roman temple, right in the centre of the modern city of Rome.  We took a seat at an outdoor cafe.  The waiter arrived and my dad asked for a drink I had never heard of and couldn’t pronounce, even though I spoke fluent Italian and he didn’t.  The waiter responded in the affirmative and without a glance backwards took off and brought back what ended up being an alcoholic, cherry liquor in a tall glass with soda water, and a blob of vanilla ice-cream floating in it.   Something he’d remembered that he had drunk last time he was in Rome, in 1960.

He told me that one of the saddest days of his life was after that first trip when he and my mother arrived back in Australia, after spending over six years travelling and working in Europe and Asia  (during which time my brother and I were born in Malaysia).  He loved the influences of Europe and Italy, and felt Australia was very quiet and very far away when he first came back.  He was completely understanding of my need and desire to stay and live in Italy and encouraged me to stay as long as I liked.  He told me that he could walk around a piazza every day and not get bored but that once he had seen somewhere in Australia once it was enough for him.  It never entranced him the way a European city could.  I felt the same.

Growing up I remember Dad was very popular with his Italian employees, so much so that they gave him gifts of live birds, home-made salami’s and other incredibly smelly foodstuffs, cakes, eggs and tomatoes.  Once I came home from school to find mum in a bad mood and a strange Italian bloke in our back yard hammering together a cage for the doves he had brought over for my father.

“What are we going to do with those?”, she asked my father.  “We don’t know anything about birds!”

“It’s a sign of respect, darling.  He wants to give them to me.  I have to accept them.”

Dad provided a huge party for his builder’s labourers at Christmas with as much beer and food as they could eat.  He also gave them money from his own pocket when they needed it.  Once it was to pay the funeral costs of a labourer who had died at a work site he also worked at.  He loved the exuberant hugging and kissing and emotional displays he got included in as one of them.  He never lost his fascination for Italian men and their camaraderie from the moment he had that first experience on the ship with them.

He loved that my Italian husband Alfredo, called him Giovanni (Italian for John), and taught him even more words in Italian.

“How are you?  I’m good thanks, how are you? I speak Italian.  Do you speak Italian?”  He would repeat over and over, every time he saw my husband.  He plied Alfredo with dozens of questions every time he got the opportunity.

“What’s the name of the football team based in Turin?  Where is the city with the round, white houses?  What dialect do you speak?  How far is it from Bari to Brindisi? Do Italians eat much meat?”

He never lost his interest in or passion for history, geography and all things Italian, and treated Alfredo as though he was a living specimen of a culture he found endlessly entertaining and inspiring.  His daughter (me) who was actually a Social Anthropologist he never asked anything of.  I wondered if he knew anything about the depth of my knowledge and association with Italy, the country I had lived and worked in for 17 years.  I sent him postcards and wrote him emails with photos of everywhere I travelled, long before I met Alfredo.  One day he got out a huge Atlas to confirm a conversation we were having, just the two of us, about a certain part of Italy.  It fell open naturally at those pages and I saw inked in lines drawn all over Italy and other places I had visited.  He had traced my journeys and plotted them all on the maps in the Atlas, using the postcards and emails I had sent him.

He understood my need and desire to live there but when I was back in Melbourne, towards the end of his life, he often expressed anxiety at the thought of me returning.  Last year we were shopping for some dinning furniture and took him with us.  We were in an Italian furniture design shop whose headquarters was in the south of Italy, the region Alfredo is from.  As I touched the furniture I sighed and indicated how much I missed it.  He turned to Alfredo and said in a menacing but joking way “No, she is not allowed to go back now.”  My blood ran cold as the thought of disappointing him hit me.  Returning was always an option for me.

My dad passed away 1 month ago.  In those last days of palliative care, I sat and held his hand and looked in his eyes and told him I loved him and heard him say it back.  Whenever Alfredo spoke to him and called him Giovanni, he responded with a smile and tried to speak in Italian back.  I am glad I don’t have to disappoint my dad by returning to a country I love.  I am glad I am now free to go.  And I am glad I returned to Melbourne, to spend these last years with him.

I am glad I inherited his love and passion for travel, for history, for geography and for learning about new languages and cultures and I will always take him with me where ever I go.

Vale, Giovanni, Vale.

 

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Roman Daze – From notes to first draft

http://www.the-art-of-writing.com/2016/01/from-notes-to-first-draft-with-bronte-jackson/

How does a writer go from an idea/passion about Italy to writing a book about it?

Lisa Clifford is an internationally acclaimed author of many novels and non-fiction/historical books on Italy, her adopted country. Here she interviews me about how/why I came to write ‘Roman Daze – La Dolce Vita for all Seasons.

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Top ten reasons to be Italian! (and live in Italy)

1.  You get to savour lunch!

I have noticed the lunch hour, and even the concept of lunch, is dying out in many post industrial countries.  Not so in Italy, the inventor of the Slow Food movement.   In Italy lunch begins at 1.00pm.  Not 12.30 or 1.10 but 1.00pm.  No one questions you or where you are going at that hour.  Everyone knows.  It’s lunch time.  Lunch occurs mostly sitting down, mostly with company but not looked on strangely if it is taken alone.  It involves at least two courses, is followed by a coffee (cafe/short black) and a gentle walk.  It never occurs while walking or working.  If a good, nuturing and sustaining lunch is what you desire then pretend to be Italian for a day and take it!

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2.  You can eat pasta every day.

Not just for special occasions or only after you have laboured by making it fresh yourself, pasta is a staple and comes in a myriad of forms.  Pasta is eaten ‘al dente‘ (chewy) so that the flavour and texture can be truly appreciated, and is paired with seasonal produce and is therefore constantly changing.  It is part of every Italians’ diet and now even gluten free pasta is offered at most restaurants (by asking for it as it won’t appear on the menu).  Pasta is not only matched with seasonal ingredients (herbs, vegetables, fish and meat), the shapes, sizes and texture (ribbed or non ribbed) of the pasta are matched with particular sauces and ingredients to bring out the taste and texture of ingredients e.g. ribbed pasta with tomato based sauces  The thickness of spaghetti is also chosen depending on what it is served with.  Tip: never serve size no. 3 with seafood!

20130917_202754Rigatoni cacio e pepe –  one of my favourite typical Roman pasta dishes.  Sheeps cheese and pepper.  Sounds simple, is delicious.  Note it is served with ribbed pasta so that the cheese coats the pasta as you eat it – yum!

25122004(001)My mother-in-law Francesca’s Timbalo (baked pasta dish – every mother does one).  Francesca’s has fried pork meatballs in it and is sealed with fried eggplant.  The pasta inside this dish is usually penne, unribbed because the mixture is already dense and doesn’t need to stick to it.

 

3.  You get to experience four complete seasons, consecutively and well spaced (but don’t forget to follow the seasonal ‘rules’).

Each season is quite distinct in its weather, food, activities and lifestyle.  As everyone is impacted by the seasons at the same time it creates a sense of community – everyone is eating, doing and talking about the same things at the same time.  Where you will be going for your summer holidays, when the seasons last vegetables are available, how you will be celebrating this seasons’ saints days, what you will be eating for lunch that day are all acceptable conversations with complete strangers at the bus stop or with neighbours in your apartment block.  The first sunny day is not a reason to go to the beach unless it is after June 21st (the official beginning of summer) and if the heat continues into September it is still not a reason to wear your summer clothes as I recently experienced.  While walking in my local neighbourhood wearing my summer clothes (as it was 27 degrees), I overheard a person commenting to her companion how ridiculous I looked wearing them when it was now September and therefore clearly Autumn!

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If you’re not sure what to do in each season or how to behave, head to the Trevi fountain and look up.  The four statues at the top represent each of the four seasons in Italy and how they are personalised!

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Next week: more reasons to be Italian.

If you love this blog don’t forget to check out my book Roman Daze – La Dolce Vita for all seasons on http://www.amazon.com/Roman-Daze-Bronte-Dee-Jackson/dp/192212933X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1389659611&sr=8-1&keywords=roman+daze

or at your local bookstore.  A synthesis and first chapter is available on this blog by clicking on the ‘My book’ page.  If you have already read it please ‘like’ my FaceBook page, subscribe to this blog, write a review on Amazon, and tell your friends!

The best things in Rome………..are free!

The title of this blog was supposed to be ‘ Top Three Spas in Rome‘ (watch this space for a later blog), but while doing research for that blog post I became outraged about the amount of ‘best things to do in Rome‘ articles requiring the spending of zillions of $$$. They included things like breakfasting on hotel rooftops and banqueting with 250 of your closest friends inside the Vatican palace ‘so you can experience the splendour that only Popes and royalty do/did’, while casually mentioning ‘you might like to also take in a few piazzas, the Trevi fountain and the Pantheon if you have time’. So I decided to change the topic of my blog.  I am passionate about my adopted city  because it is one of the most visually beautiful cities in the world, full of art and colour and life, it also is one of the most historically and culturally interesting.  And most of all I love the fact that nearly all of this can be experienced for free!  Yes folks it’s true, the best things in Rome are free!

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It is therefore a backpackers and budget travellers delight.  However probably because a lot of it is free, it seems that the Eternal city sometimes thinks its needs to embellish itself and add costly delights for travellers who don’t feel they are special if they don’t have to pay lots of money for something.  One of the things I love the most about Rome is that I can be minding my own business sitting around at the Trevi Fountain when right before my eyes Isabella Rossellini hops out of a taxi.  Or that I can be waiting for a table (not queuing, there is a big difference) at a well-known restaurant in Campo dei Fiori and ahead of me in the not-queue is Harvey Keitel.  Or that I can walk into Prada or Dolce & Gabbana or Versace on the Via dei Condotti and be treated like I, in my wildest dreams (and theirs), would be able to afford anything.  You could also find yourself out for drinks with any one of Italy’s international movie stars or politicians who frequent the vibrant aperitivo (pre-dinner drinks that often substitute dinner) scene in Rome’s tiny back streets.

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Rome is a great leveller.  Its streets and piazzas are open to everyone, always. It’s accessible a lot only by foot and so this makes it hard to create VIP experiences as opposed to public experiences. Rome is unequivocal, it can’t be cordoned off because Brangelina are visiting. Movie stars, models, zillionaires, dictators, mafia bosses, Prime Ministers mingle with the unknown, every-day tourist, back packer and refugee.

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Every year on my birthday (since I stopped being a backpacker and could afford to eat properly), I used to choose one of the fancy restaurants advertised in tourist magazines as being ‘the best restaurants’ to eat in.  The kind where you spend your weekly and sometimes monthly wage on dinner.  Year after year, hoping for an amazing experience, I was disappointed.  The food was always average, the service pompous (one year my husband and I had to sit near the toilets because he wasn’t wearing a tie – just a suit) and we mostly ended up stopping on the way home at one of our usuals to calm ourselves down with a real bowl of pasta and some local wine.  My point being that in Rome the best restaurants are always frequented by average Romans, even the very wealthy ones.

So when in Rome don’t spend your money on rooftop breakfasts in hotels or dinning in the Vatican museum with 250 0f your closest friends or in a fake Roman spa being pampered by Eastern Europeans or on ‘private’ tours (where in the end you will have to queue up and approach things on foot with everyone else anyway).  Here’s my tip for a fabulous Roman Day out and, apart from the inexpensive meals, it is all FREE!!!

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Begin at the nearest bar (cafe) to your hotel.  There should be one within 100 metres.  Order a cappuccino or a ‘cafe’ and a cornetto, possibly with an orange juice if you want to be healthy.  You will find the coffee is the best you have ever had, the cornetto (Italian croissant) will be light, and made that morning, the juice will be juiced in front of you and you will pay about the same amount altogether as the cost of one cup of coffee on a rooftop.

Then take your free map (get them at the airport, McDonalds or from your hotel).  Hopefully you have done some slight research (free on the internet) or have a cheap guide book.  Otherwise scroll through this blog to get to the ‘Top ten things to do in Rome‘, ‘Top ten places to eat in Rome’ etc. articles. If you are staying anywhere in the city of Rome (centro) everything will be in walking distance with plenty of opportunities to sit down, grab more coffee or juice, fill up your water bottle free at a fountain or just rest.  Start at one end of town and make your way down and then left and right as you please.  Take one to five days depending on your itinerary and energy levels and repeat in the evenings for a different view.  You can start anywhere but I have you starting at Piazza del Popolo.

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Marvel at the huge space in such a crowded city, cast your eyes up to the lush green gardens of the Villa Borghese on one side, and put it aside for another day.  Feast your eyes on the fountain in the centre of the Piazza, the churches all around it (one of which contains a Caravaggio) and the Egyptian obelisk (stolen by the Romans from Egypt).  Walk out of the Piazza and down the Via del Babuino and admire the antique shops (stop at Hotel de Russie if you want a spa – next blog).  Be entranced by your next view at the end of Via del Babuino which will be Piazza di Spagna.  Sit awhile on the staircase and admire the beautiful people and the view of Via dei Condotti, Rome‘s premium shopping strip.  Don’t forget to look in the window at Dolce & Gabbana half way down the Via Condotti, one of the best visual feasts outside a museum that you will see.

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At the end of Via Condotti you will arrive at the Via del Corso. Turn left and head towards the ‘wedding cake’ Victor Emmanuel Monument at the end of the street.  Admire the palaces and beautiful baroque buildings that line either side of this main street of Rome.  Shortly after you pass the houses of Parliament on your right, turn down a pedestrian side street on your left full of market stalls.  Follow it on to the end.  Gasp.  Get pushed in the back by other tourists behind you who don’t know why you have stopped.  Yes folks this is the Trevi Fountain, at the cross roads of three streets or ‘tre vie’.  All the more beautiful because it is contained in such a small space, wangle your way to the front and admire it sitting down for as long as you can.

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Walk back the way you came and cross back over Via del Corso to another pedestrian street full of restaurants.  Meander along the path following everyone else until you get to the Pantheon, another breathtaking moment but within a larger piazza.  Sit on the steps of the fountain in the piazza and take it all in before you head inside (for free) and view the perfectly round, 2000 year old temple, with a hole cut out in the middle of the roof that lets the sun in to highlight different sculptures around the room as the sun moves overhead.  How’s that for antique engineering??  Using your map move your way left (with the Pantheon to your back) towards Piazza Navona.

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Now at this stage if you really have had enough of Roman culture and need to recover, you could eat at the McDonalds which faces the Pantheon (and serves beer), therefore having a drink/burger with one of the world’s best views at about 100th of the cost of sitting at any of the other cafes that also surround the Pantheon.  I am only recommending this on the grounds of it being cheap and acknowledging that sometimes people need a break from antiquity (based on the experience of some of guests over the years).  Otherwise I would suggest pushing on and eating a slice of pizza, also for the same price as a burger, at one of the places around Campo dei Fiori, a bit further along in our walk.

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As you spill out into Piazza Navona and take a stroll around its race track type shape (yes it was originally a chariot racing track), admire the artists who display their wares and the magnificent fountain of four rivers in the middle.  At one end (on the other side of the toy shop) you can see the original entrance to the race track in Roman times, below street level.  Exit the piazza at the other end and cross Corso Vittorio Emanuele into cobblestoned streets that sell great pizza by the slice, and where you can sit down and eat for around the same price as McDonalds.  Take the opportunity here to have an ice-cream in the same area.  Campo dei Fiori will open up in front of you.  Stroll around the square, take in the history of this being the last place that the Vatican burnt someone at the stake for daring to state that possibly the earth rotated around the sun rather than the other way around……

If you follow most of the traffic going out of the piazza in the opposite direction from where you came in, you will eventually hit a street going off to your right which becomes a foot bridge over the river.  If you follow it you will find yourself in Trastevere, the oldest neighbourhood of post medieval Rome and home to its vibrant restaurant and nightlife.  Have an aperitivo, at any of the little bars (cafes) that line its tiny cobbled streets, standing up of course which will cost you a fraction of what it costs to sit down, enjoy the free bar snacks and choose your inexpensive restaurant to eat at for dinner!

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After dinner take a stroll along the river, meander throughout the Trastevere neighbourhood or go back the way you came for a completely different view of Rome.  We haven’t even touched the free St. Peters or Roman Forum or the many parks and gardens that are just waiting to be explored!  During your walk, or the next day, lose yourself in any one of the streets off this main beat. Sit and watch the local Roman traffic go by from a street cafe. Admire the marble columns, statues and painted plaques that adorn most buildings. Freely feast on the art inside most churches, and regularly look up to enjoy the free natural beauty of the skyline with its domes, starlings and magnificent sun sets. Now that’s something for free that’s worth paying for!

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How to enjoy a Roman Autumn (Fall)

Autumn is a great season to visit Rome in because the city is fresh, crisp and relaxed.  The weather is a perfect and steady 24 degrees with sunny, blue skies.  The blistering heat has finished, the colder months have not yet started, and the rain of spring is far away.  Romans have returned from their summer holiday months and are tanned, cool and refreshed; ready for work, and if that includes the tourist trade then the service is much better than you would get in the baking hot and crowded summer months.  There are also fewer tourists as most of the Northern hemisphere has taken their holidays and have returned to work.  Airline tickets cost less; everything is open, and the city is back to business.

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Here are my top ten tips for how to enjoy a Roman Fall/Autumn.

1.  Plan to walk a lot.

Autumn is perfect for walking (as is the city of Rome).  It rarely rains, is not too hot, and the sunshine and blue skies set off the rich colours of the city and its monuments perfectly.

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2.  Visit a park (Villa Borghese, Villa Ada, Villa Pamphili)

Sunshine will filter in through the green foliage of the summer growth making any park seem cool, lush and shady.  But there will also be evidence of the season, with colours changing to yellows and browns and crunchy leaves underfoot. Tracks will be dry and easy to walk on, summer mosquitos will have gone and the air still warm and balmy.  A Park is the perfect accessory for autumn.

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3.  Visit the Municipal Rose Gardens of Rome.

Internationally acclaimed and featuring over 1,000 varieties of roses they are still blooming ferociously in autumn.  Although not publically listed as open in autumn (they are only open officially for a few weeks in May and June), I was walking past the other day and they were definitely open and being visited.

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4. Don’t go to the beach.

As tempting as it maybe for some of you from colder climes who don’t get much opportunity to go,  the beach will generally be shut in autumn in Rome.  Romans are seasonal creatures and will finish going to the beach at the end of summer (21st September), no matter what the temperature.  Most beaches are privately run and are fenced in and will be closed due to lack of clientele.

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5. Don’t look as though you are going to the beach.

Likewise if you are still wearing shorts and sandals in autumn it will be noticed.  My summer clothes were noted and commented on a few weeks ago in my neighbourhood in an unfavourable manner by a fellow customer at my local café.  There is a season for everything in respectable Roman society, and in September to December it is autumn, and the attire that represents that (closed shoes, longer trousers, jeans, layers, light cardigans, cotton scarves, etc.).

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6. Shop for last season’s cloths.

Many shops, though not in the trendiest parts of town, will still have remnants of their summer stock, from cloths to bags.  As no self-respecting Roman would be seen dead in the colours, fabrics, or shoes of summer, the prices are rock-bottom and on offer to the tourists who are the only people that will buy them.  Stock up!  Rome’s last seasons’ stuff is what the rest of the world will be wearing in a years’ time.

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7.  Eat seasonal delicacies – Funghi Porcini, Puntarelle, Carciofi alla Romana, Roasted Chestnuts.

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Funghi Porcini are large flat mushrooms that taste earthy, nutty and quite unique. They are one of my favourite things to eat, made all the more special by the fact they are available for only a few months of the year.  I recommend eating them grilled and as a stand-alone dish. They don’t require any other accompaniment than bread and the fresh green olive oil, parsley and garlic they will be cooked with.  Most people are hooked after one taste.  If you are a bit shy and need to dilute your first experience then I recommend ordering the Tagliatelle ai Funghi Porcini, a thick egg noodle/pasta delicately flavoured with fine slices of Funghi Porcini.

Puntarelle (little points) is a vegetable dish.  They look and taste a little like celery but come in the shape of a small squid or octopus (the ends are all curled up).  They are served with olive oil and flavoured with a few anchovies, vinegar and garlic.  They are fresh, tangy and divine to eat.  They are found only in Rome, in autumn, and are the ends of a vegetable that no one, not even a large amount of Romans I asked, knows the name of.  They are notoriously difficult to prepare and are therefore best eaten at a restaurant where someone else has had to chop, scrape, soak, slice, and marinate them.

Carciofi, artichokes are a Roman speciality in general but prepared alla Romana is even more typically Roman.  Again it is ordered as a vegetable dish and will come as a single, large artichoke soaking in its own cooking juices of lemon, mint, garlic, parsley and boiling water and garnished with olive oil.  It is magnificent!

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Roasted chestnuts will be available on every street corner in the centre of the city.  Roasted over a coal fire you can buy them in small paper scoopfuls.  They are warm, nutritious, richly filling and slightly sweet.  They make a perfect snack or an excellent (and very cheap) breakfast along with a coffee.

8. Sit in the sun.

It is one of the best recreational activities of the year.  Winter it is too cold to sit still outside, summer it is too hot to sit in the sun, spring is unpredictable.  Autumn has long, lovely, warm days full of a sunshine that caresses without burning, stimulates and sooths, tans and smooths, gently washing away negative and stressful thoughts.

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9. Watch the sun set.

The sunsets of autumn fill the sky with brilliant reds, oranges and yellows that blot out clouds and pollution and linger on for hours.  It is as though the sun needs to go out with a bang in its last season of dominance; that it needs to remind us all of its majesty so that we don’t forget its importance and power as we live through the winter months.

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10. Go to a Vineria.

If Parks are the perfect accessory for autumn and sun sitting the perfect recreational activity then the Vineria is the perfect resting place.  The evenings that darken early, and the slight chill in the air when they do, force you inside at a time usually too early to eat but perfect for the partaking of a little wine, cheese and salami – the trifecta of the Vineria.   Vinerie serve only that (although some can also entice you with dinner once you have settled in), and from around early evening (just before sunset).  They specialise in an exhaustive range of wines and usually have shelves of bottles that line the walls from floor to ceiling as part of their decor.  Cheeses and salamis will be offered that match the wine you choose, and the small, cosy and intimate nature of these establishments will make you glad that you chose your sojourn to Rome to correspond with the magnificent season of autumn!

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Top 10 restaurants in Rome (6 -10)

Hello all,

The rest of the list is a bit later than expected.  We have been through some trying times recently which I will blog about next.  In the meantime here is the rest of the list!   Although I did say they would be in order, upon reflection I can’t order them as they are all so different and depend on what kind of dinning experience you are seeking.  The caveats from the last blog still apply though.

 

6.  Ai Spaghettari – P.za di San Cosimato, Trastevere 57-58-59-60

A beautiful, succulent and rich experience of a typical, contemporary restaurant, that has nevertheless been around for half a century or more.   It is based in the most traditional part of Rome, Trastevere, a mostly pedestrian only precinct, which is now packed with restaurants and is an enchanting neighborhood to eat in.  Ai Spaghettari is always noisy, has the television blaring, and is always full.  A pizza oven greets you at the door and you can watch while your pizza is made, being flung up in the air and all. There are vast amounts of seating outside and in, and service and menu are both good, featuring lots of traditional Roman specials.  If you don’t book you may be waiting a while but you will get a seat eventually.

 

7.  Pizzeria Popi Popi – Via delle Fratte di Trastevere 45, 06-589-5167

I avoided going to this restaurant for years as it looks like the typical tourist trap often found in Trastevere.  Red checkered table cloths, tables set outside in front of a beautiful, white marble church, and filled with tourists.  Then my Italian husband and his mates took me there.  Now we know the waiters by name.  Frequented by both Italians and tourists alike, its cheap and cheerful outdoor atmosphere make it a superb summer Roman dinning experience (and indoors for Winter).  They have a large and traditional menu (including pizza) and the food always tastes surprisingly good for its quick production, volumes turned-over, and large variety.  Their Tiramisu is one of the main  reasons we keep going back.  By the way, once I asked the waiter what the significance of the name was.  He told me its the sound that Italian men make when they squeeze the breast of a woman “popi, popi”.   Booking is optional, just turn up and the waiters will look after you.

8. Ciak – Vicolo de’ Cinque, 21 ,Trastevere 06 5894774

Carnivores unite! The window is packed with hanging dead animals of the kind not often seen – boar, pheasant, deer and hare.  If you need an iron or blood fix this is the place to come.  Deep rich, red salamis of wild boar, pastas with venison ragu, stews of hare, Fred Flintstone steaks of beef, pork and veal are all on the menu here and nothing much else.  If meat is what you are after you will get any kind your heart desires (including heart…..).  It feels like you are eating in a Tuscan agroturismo with bare brick walls, lively noise and Chianti bottles everywhere.  The huge open grill is at the front and you can go and choose your type and cut of meat before cooking.  Best to book as it tends to be a restaurant that people go to specifically for this kind of food.

9.  Spaghetteria L’ Achetto – Via dell’Archetto, 26, Trevi Fountain 06 678 9064

This is the Frat Boy version of these top ten restaurants in that it has foregone all the add-ons of Italian cuisine and just focuses on the pasta.  Exactly 100 different pasta dishes can be ordered here and not much else.  But why would you bother coming here for anything else, their pasta dishes are fantastic?  Originally another restaurant I stayed away from as it seemed too gimicky to be good food to me, but I was dragged again along by my husband and his mates who had all eaten here for years.  Once I tasted my Fiume di Londra (London Fog) pasta dish I understood that no short cuts had been taken in delivering high quality, mouth watering food by focussing on just one type of dish.  This is a great place to go when you are sick of the same menus in all the other more traditional restaurants of Rome, although here you can get the traditional plates as well of course.  Try also the Pasta al Limone and the Penne alla Vodka a traditional dish that many restaurants disdain to put on their menus but is delicious and won’t make you drunk (although perhaps best not served to children).  Their vegetable dishes and Tiramisu are pretty good too.  Seating is outside partly and right on the cobblestoned street so cars will pass at your elbow.  Inside there is plenty available although it is a bit warren like, underground and airless at times.  If you book try to sit outside or ask for a table close to the entrance.  This restaurant is literally around the corner from the Trevi fountain.

10.  Est, Est, Est – Via Genova, 32, Nationale  06 488 1107

This is a gorgeous, out of the way, nourishing and cosy restaurant.  It is situated off the main shopping strip of Via Nazionale, close to Termini and right at the end of a dead end street.  It serves most things but I come here for the pizza which is slightly different from the pizza you will get in most of Rome.  Instead of the delicious light, thin-crust pizza that is typically Roman, these guys follow the Neapolitan tradition of thick crusted, doughy pizza bases.  Most Roman pizzas, like their pasta dishes, have two, maybe three toppings on them.  Don’t be tempted to do more, especially not in this restaurant, as you will be unable to finish it.  Toppings  are designed to enhance the pizza base not drown it out, similar to the toppings for pasta.  For example the best pizza is usually the Margarita (named after their last Queen) which consists of tomato paste, mozzarella cheese and basil (the three colors of the Italian flag) .  The wood panelled walls and old-world decor make it a relaxing and casual dinning experience, inexpensive and a nice place to eat as a couple or in a small group.  The menu is not large but has most traditional Roman food on it.  It is small, quieter than the other restaurants and has high quality food.

 
 
 

Shipwrecked in Italy

January is never a good month in Italy.  It is short thank goodnesss; but it is a cold, dark month full of the hangover from Christmas and New Year, and the necessary guilt-  based dieting that goes on to try and recover from how much you ate and drank.  There is absolutely no hope of a reprieve in the bleak, boring month and definitely no excuse for a party until Carnivale in February.  In short its a bit boring and a bit depressing.

This year even more so as we contemplate the sheer bizzareness of a captain who wanted to steer his huge ocean liner full of thousands of people onto a beach for fun, and the sadness and shock that it resulted in of lives lost.  In a world full of obvious dangers it seems particularly unfair that lives should be lost as a result of being shipwrecked on a cruise ship off the coast of Tuscany, 50 metres from shore.

As the stories come out about the lack of procedure, the captain not following basic maritime law and protocol, huge risks taken and responsibilities abdicated, none of it actually surprises me.  Bucking the rules for family and friends, bending the rules for personal comfort, and plain ignoring them at times are all fundatmental parts of Italian culture.  This leniency benefits just about every Italian in their lives, as well as most foreigners, at some stage or another.  It is part of the charm of Italy and something that makes it a special and magical place to live in.  It just sometimes all goes horribly wrong.

I am reminded of a hovercraft trip I took a few years ago from Sorrento to the island of Capri with my tall, blonde haired, blue-eyed, British girl friend.  There were more people wanting  to go to Capri than the boat could legally carry.  However in order not to disappoint travellers and their families they just kept letting  on as many people as needed to go (it is a short trip).  As all available space slowly filled up my friend and I found ourselves being pushed to the top of the hovercraft until we were at the Captains cockpit.

“Come in, come in”, he beckoned to the dozen or so of us standing around squashed up against the door.

“There’s plenty of room in here, stand up along the wall here.  You two (meaning my friend and I), come and sit up here on the Captain and First Mates chair.  We can stand.”

We found ourselves sitting in front of the “wheel” which is actually a stick which steers and drives the hovercraft.  It was difficult for the Captain to actually steer the hovercraft with my friend sitting in the seat directly in front of the wheel.

“Here, you do it”, he said after a while.  “It’s really easy, just hold it straight like this and head for that island, I’m going off to get a coffee”

Photographs curtesy of A.Lake

Berlusconi’s last bunga bunga

It is with great relief and so much joy that we say goodbye to Berlusconi as Italy’s Prime Minister for the better part of seventeen years.  Now I know a little how people feel when their countries are rid of dictators.  Berlusconi came to power shortly after I arrived in Rome and hailed himself as a progressive leader that would modernise Italy.  Instead he went about feathering his own nest and did nothing to revitalise or bring Italy forward.  He even went on national television (which he owned) and gave a monologue speech in which he contracted with the Italian people to do a number of things, and holding himself accountable to the population, for them.  At the time I am sure he believed himself.  I can’t remember if that was before or after he was charged with corruption and asked to step down as Prime Minister.  The first time.

Italians are an incredibly forgiving race and tolerant to the point of the ridiculous but I knew it was all over when I read in the paper last week that according to Berlusconi’s second in command, Berlusconi had to go as he had created a laughing stock out of Italy and that no other countries respected them anymore.  Four indictments of corruption, constantly accused for having broken the law in a number of other areas during his seventeen year reign, his lack of leadership, changing electoral laws so it was easier for him to win elections, owning most of the print and television media and using it as the communications arm of his political campaign, flagrant womanising, stacking his political party with gorgeous women he had seduced, and sex with an underage prostitute was never going to be enough.

Italians have an expression La Bella Figura which is fundamental to understanding part of their culture.  It means “to make a good impression” and is the basis for all social interaction and behaviour.  It is important at all costs to conduct yourself in a manner which creates a good impression (and this means treating others well as part of it).  I knew that the comment in the newspaper meant that Berlusconi had crossed this line and caused his country to not have a Bella Figura.  I was therefore pretty sure that unlike all the other times, this time he was doomed.

I do however have a word of caution to the Anglo leaders (USA, UK, Australia) who have been calling for him to get his act together and start leading the country.  Like that was the piece of advice he had been missing.  If only it had come sooner.  There are several cultural, historical and social reasons that Italy is the way it is, and not the way any of the Anglo type countries are.  These circumstances, although they may lead to some disasters such as now, are also tied up in the many successes and wonders of Italy.   It is not as easy as it first seems.

  1.  Berlusconi has mostly had to govern with a minority government over his seventeen year reign.  Traditionally his government has had to include parties in it from the extreme left to the extreme right, in order for him to form a government.

At the moment Australia has had a minority government for just over a year and it has caused us paroxysms of anxiety, debating, stalemates, slowness and at times divided the country because we have had to get the OK of a few people not in the party of the current Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

The UK and USA systems have been constantly paralysed and brought almost to the brink of disaster over the past four years due to partisan politics.

Berlusconi’s government has had to run the country like this for seventeen years, trying to get agreement on everything they do across a wide spectrum of political parties, any of whom could dissolve the government if they didn’t agree.  Governing in Italy is a major act of facilitation, participatory practices and consultations to bring everyone along as a group.  It is something that not many other governments have to put up with, and even fewer display the aptitude and leadership skills for.

2.  Traditionally who you voted for in Italy depended on what your professional was or where you lived (your region).  In order to keep your job/get a job or have access to government services in your region you had to pledge support to the candidate who represented this as part of the election campaigning.  All journalists voted a certain way, so did university staff, doctors, bank employees etc.  It was only recently that a law was passed banning mobile phones in the polling booths so that people could not be pressured to prove who they voted for by taking a photo with their phone of their ballot.

This is a system of patronage that greatly hampers any individual politician leading or making any great changes once they get to Parliament.  Much like the system of big business and other factions in the Anglo countries that can afford to pour huge sums of money into candidates’ electoral campaigns.  In Italy the politicians go after the voters, in the Anglo countries it is the other way around.

3.  Italy is a country of 65 million people and one of the eighth most industrialised countries in the world.  It has huge wealth, high productivity, and a black market possibly as large as the one that is recorded on paper.  It is much harder to manage this kind of economy than one which has only 20 million people in it and only 1% of the world’s market.

The way Italy’s economy works is based on its social system which has been around for longer than the economy.  Unlike other countries whose culture can now be called Economic Rationalism, Italy has retained much of its pre-industrialised values and traditions.  This is what makes it such a wonderful place and is also part of the reason it is filled with world heritage treasures.

Sometimes the “Stock Market” is not able to list, define or appreciate all the world’s stocks.  Therefore let’s not make it the only measurement of value in the world.

Top 10 places to visit in Italy (6 – 10)

6.  Knock off Naples

This is a tricky one.  Naples is definitely a “must see” on your trip to Italy but in the past few years the number of street shootings have increased to the point where you can see them replayed on U-tube.   And they are not occuring in “out-of-the-way” places, but in average downtown and shopping areas that anyone is likely to be in (hence them being captured on mobile phone videos).  These days I wouldn’t actually go to Naples for safety reasons.

However Naples is still one of the top ten places to visit in Italy.  Nowhere else is like it.   It is the birthplace of pizza and the ones that you will taste here will leave you pining for the rest of your life.  The centre of the city is an ancient labyrinth of tiny streets, filled to the brim with humanity and all its trappings.  This is not a tourist city.  The rhythm of this city is more like an African than a European city.  The combination of art, history, food, overpopulation and danger means it feels like a city that is on the edge of a precipice.   And technically it is.   When Vesuvius, the volcano behind the city, blows up again in the not too distant future it will be bye bye Napoli!  Just in case you don’t get here I’ve included a few more photos than usual.

If you dare to go to Naples stay at the appropriately named: L’Albergo del Purgatorio, +39 081 299 579.

7. Idle to an island

Italy has many, and to truly experience the fullness of Italian life, you need to go to one.  Pick one, any one – Sardinia, Capri, Ischia, Ponza, Ventotene, Elba, Lippari, Procida, Lampedusa, Vulcano, Stromboli, just to name a few.  They are all on the left side of Italy running down from Tuscany to Sicily, and are all easy to get to, and within a few hours by boat from the mainland or Sicily.  They are the ultimate Italian holiday experience.  Although each has its own character, they all operate at a much slower pace than the mainland and it is nice to see that even Italians can wear flip flops and shorts at times.  Although in parts of Capri and Sardinia they maybe Valentino and Gucci.

Stay at: Casa Adolfo, +39081999443, Ischia

8.  Absolutely Amalfi

I know that many people visit, and love, the Cinque Terra.  However my theory is that only those who have not seen the Amalfi coast, love the Cinque Terra.  Along the Amalfi coast is the town of Amalfi, although I recommend Positano as the place to base yourself in.  I find it hard to describe the Amalfi coast as it takes my breath away every time I see it.  Imagine sheer, grey, craggy cliffs, covered in bright bougainvillea flowers and green cacti, plunging into an aqua blue sea.  Imagine driving along a road that hugs these cliffs and that winds in and out of them for hours, giving you enticing glimpses of the sea, flowers, the cliffs above you, and every now and then a set of dwellings that seem to hug in or tumble down from crevices in the cliffs.  The views are stunning and world class.  Add to this some deep crystal clear water to swim in, magnificent sea food, pizzas (you are still only an hour out of Naples),  and delicious desserts and liquor made from Amalfi’s famously huge lemons, and I am in paradise every time I go (which is annually).

Positano is mostly a pedestrian town, fantastic shopping and eating, with views to die for from even the cheapest hotel windows.   Because it is mostly pedestrian, and the town opens up onto the sea, it makes for a wonderfully relaxed and escapist beach holiday, and a truly summer Italian experience.

Stay at: Hotel Conca d’Oro, Positano (See blog roll for link), Pensione Casa La Reginella, +39089875324, Positano

9.  Admire Albero Bello

There has to be one obscure gem on this list and this is it.  Nowhere else in the world will you see anything like this little town, right at the southern end of Italy, in Puglia.  It is a town made up entirely of Trulli, the name of the traditional rock and cave houses from this region.  It is the only one of its kind in Italy and in the world.  These houses were made entirely out of stones stacked on top of each other and consist of several round rooms joined together with a round roof.  They are whitewashed and each has a different symbol on the peak of their rooves which indicated families or landlords they belonged to.  It is a pedestrian town and you can eat, shop and visit all within these traditional dwellings.  It is like walking through a film set and is a cross between a Hobbit village and a village from the Star Wars trilogy.

10.  See Sicily

Sicily is a country in itself and unlike anywhere else in Italy.  But again to understand and have a true feel of Italy you must see and experience Sicily.  It is the wild west of Italy and extremely varied even within itself.  See Palermo and visit the islands other ancient Greek, Roman and Byzantine temples, palaces and churches.  See the most amazing beaches in the Mediterranean, picturesque countryside, incredible food found nowhere else in Italy, and an ancient way of life clung to with fierce pride.

Photographs by A. Verhagen and A. De Luca

Top ten places to visit in Italy

1.  Visit Venice

It may seem passé, a tourist trap, and a cliché but the truth is that Venice is still a lovely, lively and real city teeming with actual inhabitants.  It is also worth going because it so unique.  A city built on water with canals instead of streets not to mention some of the world’s most beautiful squares, palaces, hotels and art galleries.  Venice is timeless, an important part of Western and Eastern history, and yes full of tourists.  However it is a favourite destination because of the above, why would you want to miss out on that just because everyone else is there too?

And do take a Gondola ride.  Yes they are expensive but on your death bed will you be glad you had that extra hundred or so dollars in your pension fund or will you be glad that you took a romantic Gondola ride in Venice?  The Gondoliers are a respected and traditional trade that is passed down from father to son.  Only if you come from a family of Gondoliers can you become one, after many years of training.  They know the city intimately and will show you places you can’t see on foot, and yes they will probably sing for you as well.  All in all it’s an experience that you can’t get anywhere else.

Stay at: Le Guglie B & B, Cannaregio, Venice  (see blogroll for more details)

2.  Do the Dolomites

Part of the magic of Italy is that is so many countries in one.  To appreciate the dry, almost African feel of the South you must have experienced the mountainous cool region of the North, more like Germany than Italy in some parts.  The Dolomites are majestic and offer incredible skiing in the winter and beautiful walks in the summer with stunning views, authentic wooden chalets, beautiful towns, and magnificent food and wine of the region, not found anywhere else.

3. Miss Milan

I may get into trouble for suggesting this but as a long term resident of Italy I get a bit sick of the hype about Milan.  It’s a shopping centre, a big church and then an industrial city of the type you can find anywhere in Northern UK or Southern Germany, and usually cloaked in fog.  In a word, not unique.  If you want to use your holiday to boast to your friends you have been to Milan or if your idea of a holiday is shopping, then you will probably like Milan and fit in well with the “seen to be seen” set.  Otherwise you will be bored after a day.

4. Tour Tuscany

Siena, Volterra, San Gimignano, Cortona, Bagni di Lucca, Lucca, Pitigliano, Sovanna, Montepulciano, Pienza, Florence, Montalcino, Lucinangno, Pisa, San Severo… ……… so many medieval hill top towns all within an hour’s drive of each other.  Tuscany is a nonstop feast for the eyes and stomach.  Feast your eyes on the rolling hills topped with cypress trees, fields of sunflowers, stone farm houses and wild deer.  Tuscany is the poster child for Italy.  Then fill your stomachs on its rich, earthy Chianti’s, chewy salami, handmade bread and stews of wild boar, venison and hare.  Once again everyone goes to Tuscany because it is gorgeous, peaceful, and breathtakingly beautiful.  Nowhere else in the world looks or feels like Tuscany.

Stay at:  Agriturismo Selvoli, Pienza http://www.selvoli.com or Relais La Suvera, Pievescola, Siena http://www.lasuvera.it or Hotel Helvetica e Bristol, Florence (See Blogroll for links)

5. Revel in Rome

Of course if you don’t have Rome on your agenda when you visit Italy then you are a complete Philistine.  Even if you have no inkling or interest in history I guarantee you will be bowled over by it in Rome.  Where else can you go and stand in ancient chariot racing arenas, sit where tourists sat 2,000 years ago to watch someone mauled to death by a wild bear as part their Saturday afternoon entertainment, stand in the same spot where Mark Antony addressed the crowd after the death of Julius Caesar, visit the building where Roman Senators ruled the world for over 1,000 years or visit the illegal underground burial chambers of the first Christians?

If history and Roman buildings don’t grab you then how about the world’s biggest collection of art works and sculptures in just one city, ornate marble filled churches, squares full of fountains, tiny medieval streets and the Vatican.  No?  How about the chance just to chill in a café all afternoon sipping cold Belgian beers or Italian whites and watch some of the world’s most beautiful people go by, often two or three at a time on a moped,  not letting their driving interrupt  their smoking or ice cream eating?

Stay at:  Hotel Locarno or Hotel de Russie (See Blogroll for links)

Tips 6 – 10 next week.