Tortora – A Hidden Jewel High Above the Tyrrhenian Sea

Tortora

Italy is studded with many small towns and villages that are like hidden jewels, waiting to be discovered by the intrepid traveler. One of those gems is the village of Tortora, the north-westernmost village in Calabria.

The village is divided into two main sections: The Marina, and the much more interesting Centro Storico (historic center), nestled in the mountains above the  Marina, about a 15 km drive from the sea.

It was the Centro Storico that our friend Giacomo, whom we met in the neighboring village of Aieta, introduced us to when he invited us for lunch with his wonderful family at the Ristorante Al Caminetto.

Ristorante Al Caminetto
At the Ristorante Al Caminetto

Al Caminetto serves delicious local Calabrian dishes, authentically prepared by Roseangela. We enjoyed our experience there so much that we end up returning to Al Caminetto with Giacomo and his family every time we visit Calabria. During one of our visits, Roseangela showed us how she prepares her superb ravioli and fusilli:

Tortora has a very rich history,  having been occupied since prehistoric times. Excavations that took place nearby revealed stone tools dating back to 35,000 years ago.

Since then, the area has been occupied by the Enotri (the early people of Italy) up through the 6th century BC, as well as by the Greeks, Romans, Lombards, and Burbons thereafter.

You can view a collection of local Enotri and Greek artifacts at the Museum of Blanda. The English-speaking guide did a wonderful job of revealing the history of the Tortora region to us:

In the Museum of Blanda
Greek pottery

Wander the narrow, winding streets and you’ll encounter a number of small shops and galleries. We met Giuseppe, a local ceramics artist, at a small art gallery, and he then took us to his ceramics shop a short distance away.

Chris and Giuseppe at a local art gallery
Giuseppe at his ceramics shop

Although a bit off the beaten path, the short drive up to the Tortora Centro Storico will reward you with beautiful mountain views, excellent restaurants, interesting shops, and a superb museum. Be sure to make it your first stop on your trip down to Southern Italy!

Beautiful Tortora
Beautiful Tortora

A History of Calabria, The Original Land of the Italians

During our first trip to Calabria, Chris and I stayed at the Casa Cielo Scalea B&B in Scalea. This fabulous B&B is owned and operated by Clive and Kathryn Bayton.

Clive and Kathryn
Clive and Kathryn on the lungomare in Reggio Calabria

Along with being a gourmet cook, accomplished artist, and photographer, Clive is a historian of the region and has gleaned much knowledge of the origins of Calabria. He has graciously provided us with his account of the history of Calabria:

A Brief Ancient History of the Original Land of the Italians

Before the recorded civilisation of the mainland of North and West Europe, the Greeks had established an empire of culture and learning around the coastlines and islands of the Mediterranean Sea.
From their established bases in Sicily they gradually moved to the mainland into what is known today as Calabria, the first tribe they encountered were the Itali and they named the land ‘Italia’. So it is always with a smirk while defending my adopted people that I proudly tell the modern day inhabitants of places such as Milan, Rome and Venice who tend to look down their noses a little at the poor people of the south, that no matter how they view the Calabrese, they are the original Italians.

While the hills on which Rome would one day be built were frequented by no more than wildlife, sheep and the occasional shepherd, Calabria already had great towns built by the Greeks. As the Greeks established themselves, cities such as Sybaris (founded 720BC) were built. So rich was this city that the inhabitants’ opulent lifestyle would put the word ‘sybaritic’ into the English language to describe a person of luxurious living and outrageous pleasure seeking.

Many famous Greeks walked or established themselves in this land, Pythagoras set up home and a school here, while ancient Olympic heroes such as Philippus of Croton were born here, their taste for the local wine ‘Ciro’ which is still made here today was so great that it was sent back to Greece as a reward for other victorious Olympic athletes.

While Calabria and Greece were living in relative peace with class, civilisation and culture, a new force was growing in the north apparently with its origins in two human baby boys suckled by a she wolf (c.753BC)! Guess those shepherds didn’t do their job that well, but all the same Rome grew.

The first republic was established in 509BC and thus started the road to an Empire. But before the republic could conquer the rest of the known world, first it had to conquer or unite the tribes of Italy. Calabria was then as is now, almost an island from the rest of the Italian peninsula with sea on three sides and a range of mountains blocking easy passage from or to the North. It is said of those days that some of the fiercest opposition to Rome was here, as the different tribes battled for their lands, the Greeks on the other hand made an organized withdrawal…. and as we know, Rome eventually became the master.

Throughout Rome’s history as an empire it has had its fair share of enemies on its homelands. When first trying to establish itself around the Mediterranean,  Carthage of North Africa was ahead of the game with Sicily, parts of Spain and other lands already under its laws.

We have all heard of Hannibal (Born 247BC) the Carthaginian and his epic journey over the Alps with his army and war elephants but few know that he kept Rome in fear for eight years by stationing himself and his army in Italy. His base was in Calabria close enough to Sicily for passage to Africa if his country should recall him, and on Rome’s doorstep keeping them busy at home and their ideas off of a march on Carthage.

So strong were Hannibal and his army that even the politicians of his homelands feared that if he returned he may take power and so they decided to keep him in Calabria. It was only when Rome was knocking on the city gates that he was recalled, but with Rome already having a firm foothold on the continent it was all too late. Carthage and its empire were torn down to its very roots and Europe started to be taken into Roman occupation.

A thought for the modern world is that these were two great nations of equal strength struggling for power, the victor would one day influence the known world with its rules, laws and religion. That victor was Rome which many years later would convert to Christianity and spread its beliefs to all. The vanquished, or the lands in which they once lived turned to Islam, one wonders what the prominent religion of the world would have been today if Hannibal had been victorious.

And so it came to pass that the Roman Empire became rich, powerful and looking at the facts, a little stupid. Slaves from all its conquered territories were shipped to Italy to entertain and do all the work. So many slaves were brought in that they outnumbered Roman citizens and so the story of Spartacus (born c. 109BC) and the slave uprising can now be told (which is not necessary as we have all seen the movie when all the captured slaves after the final battle claim to be Kirk Douglas!)

But again one of the Empire’s enemies and general pain in the butt travelled to Calabria with his army and settled in what is now the area around the city of Reggio Calabria. When Rome finally caught up with him they built a huge containing defensive wall around him from coast to coast, and with the sea to his back Spartacus and his troops were surrounded. A great battle took place and miraculously the slave army broke free and headed north and out of Calabria. However, weakened and in disarray, once the Roman army again caught up with them in which is now the region of Campania, the revolt was finally quashed.

The final enemy of Rome to visit us here in Calabria was Alaric the king of the Visigoths (born 370AD). Alaric and his armies were the first to sack the city of Rome. By this time the empire had been split into two, the western empire with Rome its capital, and the eastern empire ruled from Constantinople, so I suppose we can say he only defeated one half of the Romans, but he did give the city a bashing and emptied it of all its gold and treasures.

With this little bundle well wrapped up, instead of heading north towards home he came South and camped outside what is now the city of Cosenza in Calabria. Here he died of a fever and was buried with all the treasures he had taken from Rome. It has never been found as the slaves that buried him were all put to the sword in order to keep the location secret. It is out there somewhere, but before you all buy a metal detector and jump in a car or jump on a plane, you should be told of the method of the burial. It took place at a point where two rivers met, both were diverted while the grave was dug and the burial could take place, and when done the rivers were again put on their natural course, so unless you can walk on water…forget it!

So there it is a little bit of Italian history that many know of but few associate with Calabria … Calabria the birthplace of Italian civilisation, the very first Italy that hardly gets a mention in modern travel guides.

Today Italy’s tourist trade is enticed over by the images of wonderful places like Venice, Pisa, Florence and Rome. Its history is shown through museums and historical sites such as the ruined cities of ancient Rome and Pompeii, while the very roots of its existence are ignored, yet still await discovery under the fields of my adopted homeland … can someone lend me a shovel?”

Clive J. Bayton

Be sure to visit Casa Cielo Scalea B&B’s Facebook page!

Casa Cielo
Casa Cielo

The Viking Ultimate World Cruise

Viking_Sun

Imagine embarking on a 245-day long cruise that takes you to 59 countries and includes tours of 113 of the world’s greatest cities – more than most of us will visit in a lifetime! Well, Viking Ocean Cruises can now make this a reality for you on the Viking Sun, taking you on the world’s longest ocean cruise. The 2019-2020 Viking Ultimate World Cruise starts and ends in London and essentially takes you on a tour of the entire Western Hemisphere:

2019-2020 Viking Ultimate World Cruise Map
2019-2020 Viking Ultimate World Cruise Map

Prices start at $92,990 per person BUT this is a first-class cruise that includes:

  • Business Class air
  • Ground transfers to/from the ship; private car transfers for all guests on the 245-day Viking Ultimate World Cruise
  • All onboard gratuities and service fees
  • The Silver Spirits beverage package, including virtually all drinks on board
  • Complimentary VISA Service2
  • Free luggage shipping services for embarkation & disembarkation for all guests on 245-day Viking Ultimate World Cruise

Also, if you book by Dec. 31, 2018, you will receive:

  • $4,000 per person shore excursions credit, which can be used toward optional shore excursions or overland tours
  • $2,000 per person shipboard credit, which can be used toward spa services, onboard shops & beverages

Here’s a video overview of the Viking ocean cruise experience:

Contact us for more information on this unique experience!

Zampogna: The Soul of Southern Italy

Here’s an excellent full-length documentary by David Marker about Southern Italian culture told through its indigenous folk music. This film focuses on how these traditions have been affected by the rapid changes in the local economy and by the homogenizing effects of globalization.

Filmed by an Italian-American rediscovering his family’s roots, the film takes the viewer through remote regions in Sicily, Calabria, Campania and Molise, introducing the people who carry on ancient traditions.

The Zampogna – the Italian bagpipe – is the physical manifestation of these traditions, its music representing the spirit and vitality of Southern Italy.

Pasta-Making Demonstration at Al Caminetto

Watch Roseangela at Ristorante Al Caminetto in Tortora, Calabria demonstrate her pasta-making skills to us!

Please be sure to visit Al Caminetto when you’re in the area to enjoy the best Calabrian dishes that we’ve had anywhere! You can find them on TripAdvisor.

Here is Chris at Al Caminetto with our friend Giacomo Oliveri and his wonderful family, along with the proprietors of Al Caminetto:

Al Caminetto

Pienza – A Jewel Among Tuscan Hill Towns

Pienza

Last summer, while on the way back from Florence to our apartment in Southern Italy, Chris and I stayed with some friends of ours in a villa in Montepulciano for a few days. While having dinner at a restaurant in the area, I noticed a nearby hill town silhouetted against the beautiful Tuscan sunset.

Pienza

The following morning, the village looked even more interesting from our villa, and we decided to visit it.

Pienza

Pienza is just a few miles away from its better-known sister village of Montepulciano (which we had visited the previous day) and turned out to be a short 20-min. drive away from our villa.

Pienza_area_map

The history of Pienza is fascinating. The village is in the beautiful Val d’Orcia area and was originally settled in the 8th century as Corsignano. The noble Piccolimini family from Siena had vast estates in the neighboring areas; Enea Silvio Piccolomini was born into that family in Corsignano in 1405.

After studying in Siena and Florence,  Enea became a brilliant orator and scholar, and was elected Pope in 1458 as Pope Pius II.  He had a dream of transforming his native village into an ideal Renaissance town, much like a smaller Rome.  He enlisted the help of the architect Bernardo Rossellino to start work on the reconstruction of Corsignano in 1459.  Pius II  renamed the village as Pienza, after himself.  Most of the work on the village stopped with his death in 1464.

In 1996, UNESCO declared the town a World Heritage Site.

We found Pienza to be much less crowded than Moltepulciano and enjoyed walking through its narrow streets and visiting several shops.

Pienza

One of the highlights of our visit was seeing the Palazzo Piccolomino,  the main residence of Pope Pius II, with its beautiful courtyard, gardens, and views of the surrounding Val d’Orcia.

Palazzo_Piccolomini

Palazzo_Piccolomini_Garden

Pienza’s Cathedral is a masterpiece by Rossellino that combined Gothic style and new Renaissance ideas.

Pienza_cathedral

In Pienza, you can enjoy beautiful artistic and architectural beauty, in a peaceful setting away from the large crowds of the bigger Italian cities.

Pienza_Scooter

Contact us to help you plan a trip to Pienza!

Living Large on Symphony of the Seas

1,744 sq. ft. Royal Loft suite

Royal Caribbean’s new Symphony of the Seas features some of the biggest suites at sea, including the 1,744-square-foot Royal Loft Suite.  Check out this USA Today story about the mega-suites on Royal Caribbean’s largest cruise ship ever built!

How Flying Became the Safest Way to Travel

Flying

2017 was the safest year in aviation history, with zero deaths from commercial passenger jets.

This video has the somewhat pessimistic title of “Why Airplanes Crash”.

It is really a brief history of the technological, scientific and social breakthroughs that have made air travel the safest way to get anywhere today.

Now that you know you will be safe, contact us to book your next adventure!

10 Secret, Stunning Italian Destinations That Will Make You Skip the Big Cities

Pizzo

Most Italian tourist itineraries cover the cities of Venice, Florence, Rome, and maybe Naples.

There is certainly much to see in these places, making them the first stop for first-time Italian tourists.

In Florence, for example, summertime tourists vastly outnumber the local residents.

Florence

But if you look beyond the big cities, there are locations off the beaten path and not covered by most tourist guidebooks. There, you can enjoy a quieter, uncrowded, and much more authentic Italy.

You need to know about these 10 secret destinations, all along the Tyrrhenian (western) coast of Southern Italy:

1.  Aieta

Aieta

Aieta is nestled in the mountains 1,600 ft. above the sea. It is slightly inland from the coast and is only marked by a single sign along the main SS18 highway. The name of the village comes from “aetos“, the Greek name for eagle.

The territory of Aieta has been inhabited since prehistoric times, as proven by artifacts that have been uncovered there dating from the Paleolithic and Neolithic ages.

The village is dominated by the Palazzo Rinascimentale, considered to be the most beautiful example of Renaissance architecture surviving in Calabria. It has recently been converted into an art gallery and museum.

Aieta

2.  Belvedere Marittimo

Castello Aragonese di Belvedere Marittimo

Belvedere Marittimo is a beautiful village that’s separated into two distinct areas: the modern town which borders the beach and marina, and the Centro Storico (historical center).   The village features a Norman Castle originally built around 1000 AD and restored by King Ferdinand of Aragon in 1490.

Belvedere is a photographer’s dream with stunning architecture and sweeping views of the crystal-blue Mediterranean.

Belvedere Maritimo

3.  Diamante

Diamante

Diamante is known as the “City of Murals” and features over 150 works of art by artists from all over the world. These decorate the walls of the buildings in Diamate’s Centro Storico.

Diamante also features a wide promenade next to the sea, bordered with shops and restaurants.

Diamante is perhaps most famous for its annual Festa del Peperoncino, held early in September, celebrating the local hot chili pepper which is the foundation of Calabrian cuisine.

Diamante Peperoncino Festival

4.  Maiera

Maiera

Maiera is perched high atop a narrow ridge overlooking the sea. It was first established around 500 BC. The town derives its name from antiquated Spanish, meaning mountain.

The village has a very reverent and reserved feel to it as you walk along its narrow streets and paths.

Like in Diamante, there are many murals on the town’s walls, and ceramic art can be seen in windows along the narrow paths in the town.

Maiera

5.  Maratea

Beach Near Maratea

Maratea comprises two distinct areas:  a scenic harbor and a medieval village farther inland.

South of Maratea is a coastal road just as scenic as the famous Amalfi Coast road. This road dips and winds past cliffs and pocket-size beaches along the Golfo di Policastro.

Overlooking the entire region is the Cristo Redentore, or Christ the Redeemer, a 69-ft. high statue set on top of Monte San Biago, 2,100 ft. high. From there the views of the majestic Tyrhenhian coast stretch out to eternity.

Cristo Redentore, Maratea

6.  Orsomarso

Orsomarso

Orsomarso is locally known as “the soul of the mountains” and the village is indeed folded into the jutting landscape.

The Church of San Giovanni contains paintings from the 16th-century and houses hundreds of frescoes constructed by the ancient local master, Colimodio.

Towering above the oldest part of the town is the clock tower built into a cliff.

Orsomarso

7.  Pizzo

Pizzo

Pizzo has several main attractions: the Chiesetta di Piedigrotta, a cave-chapel on the shore, the Castello Murat, and the renowned Tartufo di Pizzo, a chocolate truffle ice cream.

Close to the town’s main Piazza (the Piazza della Republica) lies the Castello Murat. It was built in the fifteenth century. Napoleon’s brother-in-law, Joachim Murat, who was King of Naples for a short time, was imprisoned there and later executed.

The castle is open to the public, and also hosts special events.

Pizzo is most famous for itsTartufo di Pizzo . This is a delicious chocolate and hazelnut ice cream treat coated in cocoa powder and sugar, with a core of chocolate fudge sauce.

Its popularity spreads beyond Pizzo and you’ll find it on dessert menus all over Southern Italy. The cafes around the main square in Pizzo all serve this specialty, and delicious variations of it.

Tartuffo

8.  Santa Domenica Talao

Santa Domenica Talao

The hilltop village of Santa Domenica Talao was established in 1640 when the land originally belonged to Hector Maria Spinelli, Prince of Scalea.

Today, the character of the original town is still evident in the buildings of the village, and reflected in the relaxed and friendly lifestyle of its residents.

Santa Domenica Talao is only 4 mi. away from the beach at Scalea, and also borders the Pollino National Park, the largest natural park in Italy.

The village overlooks the Lao River valley, which is rich in history and offers hiking adventures as well as white-water rafting.

On a clear day you can also see Stromboli (80 mi. away), a volcano that’s been continuously erupting for the last 10,000 years.

Santa Domenica Talao

9.  Scalea

Scalea

Scalea is a major beach resort community just down the hill from Santa Domenica Talao. There are basically two towns: the Centro Storico, with buildings dating back to the 1600’s, and a shopping area surrounded by condominiums and apartments mostly occupied by tourists during the summer.

The shopping area is a charming area pedonale or walking area where no cars are allowed.  Some of the best restaurants and pastry shops are located there.

The area pedonale is a wonderful place for a leisurely lunch followed by a stroll and perhaps even a gelato.

There are several restaurants in the Centro Storico that serve authentic Calabrian cuisine during the summer.

Scalea_at_night

10.  Tortora

Tortora

Tortora (from the Latin turtur-uris, or turtle-dove), is the north-westernmost village in Calabria. The area has been occupied since prehistoric times.

Excavations that took place at the foot of the limestone cliffs of Torre Nave (an ancient watchtower) revealed stone tools dating back to 35,000 years ago.

Since then the area has been occupied by the Enotri (the early people of Italy)  up through the 6th century BC, as well as by the Romans, Lombards, and Burbons thereafter.

The village is divided into three sections: The Marina, the Centro Storico, and small mountain towns in the area.

The area hosts many summertime activities including concerts and theatrical performances.

The Museum of Blanda, in the Centro Storico, houses a large collection of local Etruscan artifacts.

Tortora

Now that you know the best kept Italian secrets, you can spend your vacation time exploring, taking amazing photos, and eating magnificent food instead of fighting the crowds.

A gorgeous train ride south from Rome is all it takes to get here.

Contact us! We will arrange your trip.

The Stadium of Domitian

Stairs at Stadium of Domitian

No trip to Rome is complete without a visit to the Piazza Navona, one of the largest public spaces in Rome and a favorite gathering-place for visitors and local Romans alike.

Piazza Navona
Piazza Navona

It is the home of several famous fountains including (my favorite) Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, or Fountain of the Four Rivers, built between 1647 and 1651. The fountain glorifies the four major rivers of the Old World – The Nile, Ganges, Danube, and Rio Plata.

Fontana Dei Quattro Fiumi
Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi

This particular fountain is featured in Dan Brown’s 2000 thriller Angels and Demons, where it is highlighted as the fourth Altar of Science.

But to me, the most fascinating part of Piazza Navona is what cannot be readily seen, unless you know exactly where to look. Hidden below the surface of the piazza are the remains of an enormous stadium having a seating capacity of 30,000 spectators. It was even larger in area than the Colosseum!

In 86 AD (right after Emperor Titus completed the Colosseum in 80 AD), Emperor Domitian built a new stadium to provide a venue for competitive athletics.  It was patterned after similar Greek stadiums and used brick and concrete for the first time in its construction.

The stadium was built in the area shown under the red circled “1” on this map of ancient Rome:

Map of Ancient Rome
Map of Ancient Rome

The ancient Romans went to the Stadium to watch the agones (games) when it was known as the Circus Agonalis (competition arena). This name was gradually corrupted into in avone, then to navone, and eventually to navona, the current name of the piazza.

The Stadium was eventually abandoned in the 4th century.  In 1477 Pope Sixtus IV relocated the city market to the stadium area and built over the seating area of the old stadium, keeping its original shape and transforming the arena into the present-day Piazza Navona.

Site of the Stadium of Domitian
Site of the Stadium of Domitian

You can still see the remains of one of the main entrances of the Stadium of Domitian at the northwestern end of Piazza Navona. Discreetly tucked away behind a building is an archway of the Stadium set back below street level:

Entrance to Domitian's Stadium (Google Street View)
Entrance to Domitian’s Stadium (Google Street View)

It turns out this is part of a newly-excavated area that you can now visit.  In 2014 the restoration of the archaeological area of the Stadium—now a Unesco World Heritage site— finally opened to the public. The entrance to the associated museum is just past this archway. Here you can descend below street level  and walk amongst the remains of the great Stadium built in 86 AD.

Stairs at Stadium of Domitian Stadium of Domitian Underground

You can even see stamps from the original builders on the masonry!

Masonry Stamp at Stadium of Domitian

The museum has much information on the history of the stadium and has some models of its original design.

Stadium of Domitian Placard

Stadium of Domitian Scale Model

You really get a sense of the layers of Rome as you look back up at the present street level from the Stadium:

Stadium of Domitian Entrance

You can also see a diagram of historical ground surface levels showing the surface of the stadium about 3.5 meters below the current level of the cobblestone pavement of Piazza Navona:

Strata at Stadium of Domitian

Be sure to visit the Stadio di Domiziano Museum the next time you’re in Rome!

Stadio Di Domiziao, Piazza Navona
Via di Tor Sanguigna, 3
06.45686100
stadiodomiziano.com

Tickets: 8 Euro, 6 Euro for ages 12-18, free for under 12 or over 65