Throughout the month of August you can experience the majestic ruins of Paestum in a whole new light. After dark, actually. The archaeological park opens the gates every evening and becomes an open-air amphitheatre for music, dance or theatre in the shadow of the temples.
The annual Paestum Festival allows visitors to see the flood-lit outlines of the most important Greek ruins outside of Greece – and the best preserved in Italy – which had once been part of Magna Grecia. The impressive temples are striking at any time of day, but are especially dramatic at night when the soft light plays on them and casts eerie shadows.
We highly recommend planning a nocturnal visit to partake in the party. While the archaeological ruins are fully Greek, the festival will be Italian-style…no toga necessary. Noted dance troupes, nationally-known bands, and theater dramas are highlighted each night’s events.
Paestum is located south of Salerno near Agropoli in the beautiful area known as the Cilento Coast.
If you’re looking for lodgings in the area, visit our friends at Summer in Italy. They have a wonderful selection of vacation homes throughout the Cilento and Amalfi Coast areas.
The Last Mule of Anzi
A friend told me the story of her father-in-law’s emigration from Italy. He left Lucca at age 17 for California, like so many others, in search of opportunity and riches in the New World. He had long shunned the idea of returning to Italy, despite his kids’ pleadings. Finally, after much insistence that Italy had changed in the forty years of his absence, he agreed to travel there to show them his birthplace and introduce them to his long-lost family members. It was the early 1980s.
As they drove through the countryside to reach Lucca they passed an old man along the country lane accompanied by his donkey, laden with wood. “That does it!” yelled the father. “Turn around and take me back to Roma! The last thing I saw when I left Lucca forty years ago was a man with a donkey; today I return and the first thing I see is a man with a donkey! Nothing has changed here. Take me home to America.”
To him, the old traditions symbolized backwardness. He was sure everything was as it always had been, including the poverty he had grown up with, and he didn’t want to relive any of it. He was unconvinced that Italy had become a modern nation with an active economy during his absence.
The old traditions are what we find so appealing about Italy. Things have changed, that is certain, but many of the long-held customs and crafts are – at least for the moment – still alive.
Like my friend’s father-in-law, the first thing we saw when we visited my ancestral village for the first time was a man with a mule. Rather than see it as a symbol of poverty or backwardness like he did, we found it sweetly reassuring that, in a world where technology blitzes forward at a mind-boggling rate, some things are better left to tradition.
Through our many visits to Anzi we would see this man, striding along his clip-clopping mule, which was usually bundled with firewood. We would wave as we passed him, and exchanged buongiornos and polite chit-chat as he delivered wood to an old signora’s doorstep. In an ancient hamlet with leg-numbingly steep and narrow streets, the mule makes sense. How else are you going to get a load of heavy wood home?
All around town there are stone circles affixed to many buildings, placed there to tie up a mule. At one time, my cousin Michele told me, there were probably thirty working mules in Anzi. They would be utilized to haul tools and implements to the fields, tote grain sacks to the flour mill, and transport olives or grapes to be pressed. Now there is just one.
“La Panda e` ucciso il mulo,” Michele’s wife Melina stated flatly. The Panda killed the mule? What?
The New Mule
“The Panda, the car by Fiat,” she said. It became the workhorse of rural towns like this because it was narrow enough to fit through many of the streets, had enough power to accelerate uphill to reach them, and came in a four-wheel drive version that could be taken to the fields. It was also economical, didn’t require feed, a stall, or pooper-scooper clean-up.
Completely logical. It was only then that we took notice of just how many older model Pandas were still in use in Basilicata, and now understood why. The new Panda is much larger and less desirable in towns like this; old ones are greatly in demand.
Yet the mule guy continues unfazed. His customers are mostly anziani, elderly folks, but he can be seen around town every day guiding the mule up the stepped, inclined alleyways with bundles of wood to fuel their stoves and fireplaces. It is an old-world tradition that will likely die when he does, but for now he and his mule carry on.
Many visitors to Italy during the summer months comment on the lack of ice that is served with beverages. This especially noticeable to Americans who are used to large glasses of cold tea or soda filled to the top with ice cubes. In Italy you will be hard pressed to find this, if you want some ice in your drink you will need to ask for it, “un po di ghiaccio, perfavore”. You will also be hard pressed to find an ice machine or especially bags of ice to buy. Italians just don’t like ice in their drinks, unless…
In the hottest part of the summer you may be offered ice, without asking, when you order a digestivo. This is a strong drink taken in small quantities that is made of herbs and is known as a “bitter”, a national favorite being Amaro Lucano from Basilicata.
You may also find Italians in the afternoon putting ice in their vino bianco. First they fill their glass with ice to cool the glass then pour the vino over the ice. With the summer heat at its highest in August many want their vino cold.
A popular type of café in the summer is café freddo, simply coffee that has been made and then kept cold in the refrigerator. You just make a pot of moka and once it cools pour it into a container to keep in the frigo to enjoy on a hot afternoon. It is not uncommon to see bars making café in the morning and the pouring it into an old wine bottle to store in the frigo.
So the stories you hear about Italians never using ice are a myth, at least partially.
Loreto is located just south of Ancona off the A14 autostrada and has a large basilica that is visible for many kilometers. Tradition tells the story that in the thirteenth century angels transported Mary’s stone house from the Holy Land to this hilltop overlooking the Adriatic Sea. Literature supports that the building materials and building style used in this small stone house match those of the area around Nazareth, however the timing of this house appearing in Loreto also corresponds to a period when many of the early Crusaders where returning to Europe, mainly to this part of the Adriatic.
Nonetheless, the Basilica surrounding Santa Casa is very ornate and on the inside the house has been encased in elegantly carved marble. The adjoining Palazzo Apostolico houses artifacts donated to this Basilica while the fronting Piazza Santuario and neighboring streets hold various shops and booths selling religious articles to the many pilgrims that come to this town every year.
Loretta is definitely a pilgrimage town and has the tourist shops, hotels and restaurants to support the throngs of faithful. That said it is also a livable town with services both in and in close proximity to the centro and with its tourist business this is a very clean and charming town. The panoramas of the surrounding countryside are a definite plus to this hilltop town.
While Italy’s history stretches back a few millennia, the peninsula as a nation is rather young, having only been unified in 1861. The recent celebration of the 150th anniversary of unification was rather lackluster, but something the whole nation can get behind is the 100th anniversary of Artusi, the man whose cookbook brought the country together more surely than politics or paper-signings every could.
The concept of a national cuisine is even younger than the Republic. Regionalism still abounds, providing the peninsula with loads of variety as you travel around. The specialties of Bologna are quite different from those of Napoli, for instance, and until relatively recently residents of those areas would have been quite unfamiliar with each others’ recipes.
Nowadays, Milanese-style risotto or a meat-rich Bolognese sauce can be found in kitchens and trattorias nationwide, thanks in no small part to Pellegrino Artusi, who did for Italian cooking in Italy what Julia Child did sixty years later for French cooking in America.
If you’re not familiar with Artusi, let me introduce you. He’s so famous only one name is necessary. Every Italian regardless of age knows immediately who you’re referring to. In the butcher shop, it is enough for me to tell him that I am making Artusi’s Filetto alla Marsala for him to give me the right cut, and pound it for me, as well.
That is because Pellegrino Artusi wrote the book on Italian cooking, literally. His cookbook, La scienza nella cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene (Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well) was the first to be made available to the masses, and the first to unite regional specialties of the peninsula into one tome. It was also the first one to be written in Italian. Up until Artusi, cookbooks tended to be written in French and distributed among the upper classes, or they were penned as booklets in regional dialects, focusing on the local dishes of a small, provincial area. Cooks from Lombardia couldn’t read a booklet from Sicilia, and vice versa. His book was considered to be an excellent example of the usage of modern Italian language.
Artusi was a 71-year retired silk merchant when his book was first published in 1891, and has been in continual circulation ever since. He couldn’t find a publisher for it, so he financed the printing himself. After a couple of years, word spread and he was printing more and more runs. Artusi expanded the book through the years, adding recipes that were sent to him by readers. By the time he died in 1911, he had published its 14th edition and it had grown to a whopping 790 recipes.
Today there is hardly a household without L’Artusi; the most prized copies, with treasured hand-scrawled notes and splatters, are passed down from mother to daughter.
Pellegrino Artusi was born in the central region of Emilia-Romagna, then moved to Florence at the age of 32. His book is very heavy on recipes from those two areas, but he did take care to include the dishes from other regions, such as ossobuco from Lombardia, riso from Veneto, maccheroni from Napoli, and sorbetto from Sicilia. This was completely unique, and in doing so, he cracked the kitchen window to the aromas and flavors of the diverse regions of the country.
But it’s so much more than a mere collection of recipes. Artusi gives advice on hygiene, on proper digestion, and practical wisdom. “Excessive salt is the enemy of good cooking,” for example. And, “Those who don’t do physical labor should eat more sparingly than those who do.”
He spins stories, tells anecdotes, has rather humorous notes, and gives such basic instructions for the dishes that you can’t help but feel confident that anyone can prepare them successfully. “With my book, if you can hold a wooden spoon in your hand, you’ll be able to make something,” he wrote.
So as the country celebrates the 100th anniversary of his death with food and festas, we all say together, Viva Artusi!
What is an agriturismo?
If rolling hills, silent nights, and starry skies are your idea of the perfect vacation location, then an agriturismo is the place for you. While “agriturismo” means farm-stay, it doesn’t mean you have to work the fields or slave for your supper. It means you get to stay in bed-and-breakfast accommodations on a working farm, where you’ll get to relax, interact with the family, and enjoy the idyllic atmosphere of Italy’s countryside.
Many agriturismo establishments have gone upscale, offering swimming pools, suites with fireplaces, or apartments with kitchens and space to spread out. Some have horses for riding, while others offer cooking classes, wine tasting, or special theme evenings. Most remain B&Bs, with farm-fresh breakfasts and dinners prepared with produce from the farm. They almost always offer excellent value for the accommodations, costing less than a hotel while providing a more unique and intimate atmosphere.
While agriturismi are found in every region of Italy, let’s look at one in my region of Basilicata, in southern Italy, as an example of what you can expect to find at an agriturismo. La Foresteria di San Leo was once a hermitage for an order of monks who built a chapel and rooming quarters as a prayer retreat. The stone-built structure has been restored and turned into lovely lodgings and a romantic restaurant.
View of the Dolomite Lucane
Views sweep over the orchards and hills to the rugged, spire-like peaks of the nearby mountains, known as the Dolomiti Lucane. Warm smiles and coffee or a glass of wine from the owners, Maria Giovanna and Peppino, welcome guests in familial fashion.
The farm is extensive and includes hills of wheat, stands of fruit trees, and woods where truffles and mushrooms can be found. They raise sheep for meat and wool, and make decadent cheeses from the milk, including a soft pecorino encased in walnuts and the creamiest ricotta I’ve ever eaten. They have a huge garden which they fully utilize in the kitchen to serve up local dishes bursting with the fresh flavors of the just-picked produce. Only regional recipes are prepared and the presentation of the dishes is beautiful.
Rooms are warm and cozy with wood and stone accents, maintaining a country-rustic feel while providing desired modern comforts like ensuite bathrooms, climate control, and televisions. They are quiet, as you would expect in the countryside, so sleep comes easily. In the morning, fresh-made crostata and pastries, along with home-made jams and cheeses await, served with your preferred caffé beverage and juice.
So what can you do out in the boondocks? There is a swimming pool for summer splash-downs, bicycles for the many back-roads, hiking trails, and woods for foraging funghi. Stargazing is at its best in this country locale where there is no light pollution to obstruct the brilliance of the heavenly skies. Since a car is necessary when visiting an agriturismo, you’re in a position to employ the Slow Travel credo of “concentric circles” to explore the surrounding hill towns and archeological sites. Or you can just stay put and observe nature while sipping a cappuccino or a glass of local Aglianico. Breathing the fresh, pure air and enjoying silence is part of the appeal of staying in the country.
We seek out agriturismi wherever we travel in Italy as they present a good lodging value, give us an authentic experience, and allow us to interact with the owners (who direct us to the best places to eat, the local attractions and seasonal events). If you’ve never tried one, you should! You’ll not want to stay in a large, impersonal hotel again!
Find an Agriturismo:
Rocco Gallicchio is a soft-spoken man. His eyes flit embarrassedly when paid a compliment and his hands seem to have permanently taken on the dusty-white hue of the clay that they are immersed in daily.
Rocco is the remaining artisan of ceramics in a town once brimming with them. He ardently carries on, hoping to revive the fires of the dormant kilns and renew Calvello’s once-glorious reputation as a center of southern Italy’s ceramic trade.
Calvello lies in a high valley in the middle of Basilicata, a mountainous, overlooked region wedged between Puglia and Calabria. The town is crowned by a castle and skirted with alpine peaks. Since the Middle Ages, ceramics constituted a mainstay of Calvello’s economy, the craft purportedly transported here by Benedictine monks who established a kiln. The Calvello artisans developed their own unique style that is still employed by the purist Rocco.
Rocco does everything by hand. He collects the clay from a nearby source, which he keeps secret. He throws the clay entirely by hand, molding and twisting and braiding it into lovely, rustic objects. Everything is created according to traditional methods and styles. He gathers minerals, roots, and berries to make the paints he uses. He mixes up his own glaze.
The bird is a recurring theme, just as it has been for centuries in Calvello. Rocco refuses mass production methods, preferring that each piece have the natural, slight variations that are inevitable in handmade products. His pitchers, plates, espresso demitasse cups, lamps and tiles speak of Old World quality, artisan pride, and rustic charm.
He is the lone craftsman but he labors on, hoping to interest some of Calvello’s youth into the trade, a hard sell when they’re being lured to factories and tech jobs in the northern part of the peninsula. Finding markets for his wares is a constant struggle as well; marketing efforts for a small, artisan workshop are difficult and costly.
Yet he carries on, collecting his clay, mixing his paints, and hand-forming his designs, ensuring that, at least for now, Calvello’s history of ceramic-making remains alive.
A unique store found in many Italian towns is the cantina for vino sfuso. Literally translated as “loose wine,” they sell you their vintages by the liter, siphoned directly from the barrel into the bottle that you provide. Many Italians keep five liter jugs –one for red and one for white wine – to be refilled weekly.
The stores are normally small, and often they do not have signs. You may need to ask someone where to find a vino sfuso shop, but once you’ve located the place you can buy decent (and sometimes, fantastic), locally-produced wine at rock-bottom prices. Some offer the premium regional varietals; others have a rather generic homemade “red” or “white,” known as vino da tavola. Normally you are allowed to taste before buying.
Is that sfuso or petro?
If you cannot locate a sfuso shop in town, many full-fledged wineries also offer the option to buy wine from the barrels, but don’t forget that this is strictly a BYOB operation. Keeping a one-liter water bottle or two in the car while you’re out touring is a good idea, so when you happen upon a winery you can get your fruit of the vine directly from the source.
If there is anything hotter than Calabria in July and August … it is Diamante in September. Every September the Accademia Italiana del Peperoncino holds its annual Festa del Peperoncino, a five-day event featuring, you guessed it, chili peppers.
This year’s event is scheduled for September 8-12, 2010 and as always will center on art, culture and recipes featuring Calabria’s famous chili pepper. Highlights of the event include medical conferences, exhibitions, short films, cabaret, street entertainment-such as jugglers, fire-eaters, stilt-walkers and clowns-music and of course, the menu.
In addition to straight shots of chili pepper, festival-goers can visit more than 200 booths that sell everything from classic ‘nduja to chili pepper shrimp on a stick and even the sinfully delicious, Baci di Casanova a dark chocolate candy stuffed with chili-pepper cream. Specialty liquors include a cedar and spicy chocolate mixture and spicy schnapps, while your spicy-sweet tooth can be satisfied with baked spiced figs. This year, the festival will see a new edition-a Moroccan restaurant section, injecting a bit of international flair into this world-famous event.
Specially-priced tickets are available through Trenitalia and start at just €19 each way (to Paola, with advanced booking,) and free transfers are offered between Paola and Diamante.
As is usually the case in Calabria, the event begins around 8:00 PM each night and lasts well into the early morning hours. The festival is held on the lungomare in “The Pearl of the Tyrrhenian,” Diamante.
Palio delle Botti
While the famous Palio race of Siena pits neighborhoods against each other on horses, the Palio delle Botti in Corropoli (Abruzzo) gives a whole new meaning to the phrase, “roll out the barrel”.
A village tradition since the 1450s, the ten contrade (neighborhoods) roll out their strongest competitors to push a 150-pound barrel through the streets in an annual rite that gives thanks for the fruits of their labors and the fruit of the vine. The barrels, barren of the previous year’s vintage, were rolled into town to be cleaned and readied for the upcoming harvest, and then evolved into a competition.
The participants, amusingly called “pushers,” build strength and work on their techniques all year in hopes of garnering the coveted Palio.
Contrade San Donato
The spingitori work as a team of four. Each gets two runs, which start by circling the main piazza, then they hit the open strada and shove the barrel as fast as they can through two sections of town to complete a loop towards the finish line. One wrong push from any of the team members could result in the barrel wobbling –or worse – going astray into the crowd.
Beforehand, the barrels are publicly assessed to ensure they weigh the required 150 pounds and are carefully examined to make sure they have not been tampered with. Once approved, they are branded on each end.
The winners are awarded a hand-painted Palio on the balcony of the Palazzo Civico, a public honor that will give them bragging rights until next year.