Autumn in Calabria, Food, Culture and Wine

AUTUMN IN CALABRIA
AUTUMN IN CALABRIA
Autumn in Santa Domenica Talao

There is something uniquely magic about Autumn in Calabria.

Gone is the white hot afternoon where La Pausa, our afternoon siesta, rescues us from the brutal sun of the Mezzogiorno creating a womb of dark, relative cool where no one expects you until evening.

In its place is the honey colored light that slants in sideways and bathes everything in a golden glow which gives our hilltop village an air of peace and magic around every corner.

Our village, Santa Domenica Talao goes from the quasi frenetic July/August tourist/service pace to instantly more relaxed as though life moved from Allegro to Andante the minute the calendar page turned over.

Santa Domenica Flower Shop
Santa Domenica Talao Flower Shop

The village is turned back over to its residents while the evenings remain warm and long, and the magic light turns its houses gold.

After a long flight from San Francisco then a direct jump onto the train and a stop in Praia Mare to pick up my rental car, I finally alighted in Santa Domenica Talao.

Normally I stop off in Rome for a night to catch my breath but just prior to booking I had received an email from our architect, Antonello advising me that there was a grand festa happening which included several days of discussion about how to spread the beauty and flavors of Calabrian cooking far and wide. This news propelled me to Santa Domenica in record time as I am never one to miss a spectacular meal.

Santa Domenica in Autumn
Santa Domenica in Autumn

 

Calabria has really been moving forward in its quest to become an actual destination rather than a foot note in a guidebook which skips Southern Italy with barely a mention and takes up again in Sicily as though almost half of Italy, with all its culture, cuisine, wine and Produtti Tipici don’t even exist.

And one of the speakers last night brought up the fact that the fault of this has been lack of PR and marketing. He was right, How could you have all this wealth of amazing products including the freshest and most amazing seafood, the cedro, that misshapen citrus fruit which only grows here, and the Calabrian black truffles, and still go unnoticed.

In any case, the region has made a decision that the world needs to know about Calabria and her treasures and they have set out with a vengeance to ensure that the world is brought to our door.

Rinaldi
Ristorante Rinaldi Da Vittorio

Calabria has 380 unique products typical to the region. And its cuisine is second to none in terms of creativity and sheer deliciousness. Cucina Povera (Poor cuisine) originated here and celebrates the creativity needed to create the nourishing and delicious dishes with only a handful of the ingredients that they had available at the time.

You see, Calabria, despite her wealth of typical products, has not been considered a wealthy region for a very long time. Long ago Calabria was part of the Magna Grecia or Great Greece. It was a region of learning and culture before the days of the Roman Empire.

Somewhere between then and now, her grand Greek heritage had become somewhat lost and poverty took over.

Many Americans don’t realize it but the majority of Italian dishes that we consider “Italian food” originated here in Calabria. It was the Southern Italians who fled their homelands back in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s to find a life where survival was easier and where one did not have to battle the environmental extremes in order to eke out a living. And they brought their recipes with them.

Lunch!
Lunch!

The first night before I arrived in Santa Domenica Talao, there was a cooking competition. The judge was a local chef, Vincenzo Grisolia who has made a name for himself with his restaurant, Vigri, down in Scalea.

Scalea is right on the coast and perfectly perched to pull the freshest of fish from the sea and serve it to you immediately. Vncenzo’s restaurant, Vigri. is well known for local seafood and it is the place that I first tasted the most perfectly prepared, fat, sweet shrimp that I have ever experienced.

Chef Vincenzo Grisolia has spent his career presenting Calabrian cuisine to the world and had come to our beautiful village to work with others to spread the word.

During the forum held last night on our communal terrace that overlooks the Lao plain and the Mediterranean, we were treated to discussion about all the cuisine of Calabria and exhortations to not only preserve these amazing dishes, many of which are unique to each tiny hill town that grace the mountain crest of the region, but to disseminate them.

Calabria is a rich cornucopia of natural resources. Wild fennel grows everywhere, Cedros are plentiful and ONLY grow here, and the aforementioned black truffles fetch a fierce price in the markets all across Europe.

Antipasti
Antipasti

There was much discussion among the panel about the famous Pepperoncini festival in Diamante where you can buy peppers that are said to cure anxiety, cancer and even impotence.

The pepperoncino festival is one of the most widely attended in Europe and is a local success story that could be duplicated with other products and in other areas.

When Pete and I first started looking at property here in 2010, things were very different. There were relatively few public works that ever got started much less completed. Some of the areas around our village had an air of seediness to it that try as they might, the locals could not overcome.

Most recently the Italian government has seen the potential of this and other Southern Italian regions as a tourist destinations and has decided to handle the barriers that stood in the way. As a result, our mayor has been able to secure funding for projects that will create a demand for everything Calabria has to offer and it is all starting.

And Pete and I are so lucky to be in on the ground floor and see it all roll out before our eyes.

Our BNB
Our BNB

Last Winter we purchased a grand old building in our village just up from the piazza.  We are working with the architect and builder here to turn it into a spectacular and luxurious BNB. From the moment we arrived here the first time we looked at Calabria and our village and decided it was a no-brainer to invest time and treasure to help push this vision forward.

This afternoon, I met my friend Bonnie for lunch at the Bella Vista restaurant. I ordered my favorite, Antipasti di Stagione (Antipasti of the season) which means you never know what treats will show up on your table.

Plate after plate arrived with fresh vegetable dishes, Patate e Pippi (potatoes and peppers), Fritatta, and lots of little stuffed and baked or fried things that I cannot name but are delicious little surprises that explode in your mouth with a flood of flavors.

For 12 Euros, we ate our fill and we both took the rest home for dinner.

It was a tiny microcosm, an analogy of our beautiful region and all that it has to offer.

Watch this site for culinary, wine and  photography tours of the Riviera Dei Cedri, our beautiful area of Calabria. Pete and I can’t wait to take you round to all the best restaurants and wineries and for you to sit out on the roof terrace with your glass of Ciro watching while the village goes from gold to the pink of sunset and back to gold as the lights come up illuminating this amazing little place that is somehow stopped in time.

It is a place whose time has come.

And you will want to be the first to experience it.

Paestum; The Magic and Magnificence of the Magna Grecia.

Temple of Neptune
Guide book at the ready! We bought these fab hats at the gift shop! Photo credit: Pete Sobolev

 

You have been to Rome and seen the ruins and remnants of ancient Roman civilizations piled bit by bit on top of each other until they sometimes seem to blur into a vague category in your consciousness entitled “Ancient Roman History”.

As you whiz through Rome amongst the crazy traffic and high speed buzzing scooters, you can get lost in a world dating back to before Christ when gladiators were rock stars and Roman emperors and their courts were living, breathing reality shows.

You love history but it gets a bit crazed and overwhelming at times doesn’t it?

Chris at the Temple of Athena
Chris at the Temple of Athena. Photo credit: Pete Sobolev

This is why you need to visit Paestum.

Nestled along the coast among farmlands sprouting olives, artichokes and the famous buffalo (mothers of the creamy delightful mozzarella da bufala that gracefully crowns the best pizzas on the planet) you will find an ancient archeological treasure containing the best preserved Greek ruins in the world.

Paestum not only features miraculously preserved Greek temples (The temples of Hera, Athena and Neptune) but is an entire ancient Greek city laid out exactly as it was 500 years before Christ.

Ancient Road
Ancient Road in Paestum. Photo credit: Pete Sobolev

As you wander this ancient city looking at the temples, the marketplace, the gymnasium with its grand pool, and the houses still containing the mosaic tiled floors, you can blink and suddenly find yourself back in that time period.

You can see the columns and loggia (columned walkways) bordering the government buildings and marketplace. You can hear the voices of the vendors in the market selling wine, fruits and vegetables cultivated nearby, and fish just pulled from the sea. You can smell the food being cooked to purchase and take away and the bread baked in the early morning hours in time to be sold fresh at the market later in the day.

Ancient loggia
Ancient columns. Photo credit: Pete Sobolev

It is a perfect snapshot of history still fresh although it existed almost 2,500 years ago.

Bonnie Chris and Barbara
A perfect morning walk through Paestum. Photo credit: Pete Sobolev

Paestum was founded at the mouth of the Sele River by the Achaeans (from Achaea in the area of the Peloponnese in Greece) who had originally landed in Sybaris  (across the Italian boot on the coast of the Ionian Sea) but fled from there in about 600 B.C and found their way here. *

Before the Roman Empire took over the vast majority of Europe and ultimately parts of Africa and Egypt, the Magna Grecia was in full flower.

The Magna Grecia started in the 8th and 7th centuries BC and covered much of the southern areas of Italy’s famous boot including areas in Campania, Baslilcata, Calabria, Apulia and Sicily.

Wild flowers
Spring flowers and Greek temples. Photo credit: Pete Sobolev

Settlers from Greece began arriving on these coasts bringing with them the Hellenic culture, philosophies, agriculture and the basics of Greek civilization.

And Paestum was one of the beautiful Magna Grecian cities that was born at that time nestled within its defensive stone walls running along the banks of the Sele River and the crystal blue Tyrrhenian Sea.

A visit to Paestum today is a short and beautiful train ride south from Naples or north from Reggio Calabria.

Swimming pool
The community swimming pool at Paestum. Photo credit: Pete Sobolev

From our village of Santa Domenica Talao, it is an hour and a half of gorgeous scenery as you wind your way along the glorious coast to the shady avenue that leads you directly from the Paestum train station into the archeological park.

Trip hazards
Watch for falling Chrises! Beware trip hazards! Photo credit: Pete Sobolev

As soon as you arrive within the walls that protected this ancient Greek city, you can see outlines of walkways and buildings and in one glorious sweep you take in the magnificent temple of Neptune (or Poseidon if you are an ancient Roman) rising up and glowing pinkish gold in the Tyrrhenian sunshine.

Temple of Neptune
Interior of the magnificent Temple of Neptune. Photo credit: Pete Sobolev

How to Best Explore Paestum

Most visitors see Paestum in Spring, Summer or Fall. At any of these times the weather can be quite hot and humid making it challenging to see all of the park and the museum.

Paestum museum
Paestum museum with Bonnie, Chris and Barbara. Photo credit: Pete Sobolev

The best way to see Paestum is to arrive as early in the morning as you can and explore the city before the heat of the afternoon sun chases you inside.

Delle Rose
Ristorante Delle Rose. Photo credit: Pete Sobolev

Take a break at lunch and have a fantastic meal at the Ristorante Pizzeria Delle Rose which is on the corner of the tree lined street filled with gift shops that runs the length of the park.

Normally I do not recommend eating anywhere near monuments and attractions but Ristorante Pizzeria Delle Rose seems to be an exception to that rule. We had an amazing meal with fresh pasta and fish dishes at a great price. The service despite the busy lunch crowd, was warm and efficient.

artifact lion bowl
Lion miniature Paestum Museum. Photo credit: Pete Sobolev

After your refreshing lunch, head over to the air conditioned museum to see the myriad of artifacts that have been unearthed and put on display.

It is amazing that these every day items are so perfectly preserved giving us a glimpse of a long ago civilization as though we were looking in the shop windows alongside the people who lived there at that time.

rain gutter Paestum
Ancient Greek rain gutter. Photo credit: Pete Sobolev

Beyond the miraculously preserved Greek temples and the historical snapshot of a bustling city, Paestum is a place that has a very special feel. It is a place of unrivaled aesthetic and spiritual expansion that mortal words cannot really describe.

In short, Paestum has to be experienced to fully understand the inherent beauty, not only of the remnants of a magnificent civilization but of the very civilization that sired it.

Chris Paestum
Chris on the road to ruins. Photo credit: Pete Sobolev

Southern Italy, the home of the Magna Grecia is a treasure chest of Ancient Greek, Roman and Etruscan civilizations and artifacts. It is also home to some of the most magnificent beaches and glorious stretches of coastline on the planet.

Super Savvy Travelers are Southern Italy experts. We have a home here and spend our waking hours exploring and learning about all aspects of this spectacular region that has been completely ignored by travel guidebooks and is only now being discovered by Savvy Travelers and culinary experts.

The diver
Paestum The Diver. Photo credit: Pete Sobolev

Call us if you want to visit this dazzling region. We will set up a trip that you will never forget.

* Historical data gleaned from Guide Arte”m Paestum The archaeological park, the museum/temple of Hera Argiva” and Wikipedia

 

 

 

 

Love and Renovation Italian Style!

Our lady's generous back side

 

Our grand old lady
Our grand old lady

Ciao Everyone!

Who hasn’t wanted to rescue an ancient house that was once filled with families, honor, fine food and love?

Millions of us have watched “Under the Tuscan Sun”, some of us many times (that would be me!) and as we did so we dreamed of perhaps one day, finding a house that speaks to us and begs us to give it a second chance at glory.

As you may know, my husband and I purchased a house in the Calabrian hill town of Santa Domenica Talao, Italy.  Our village, like so many others in the area, has a lot of abandoned ruins.

Ruined grand house
Ruined grand house

Back in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s many Italians fled Italy to America looking for a better life. Most of them were from Calabria and, although they have made great contributions to us in America in terms of food, family and culture, they left holes in their villages.  As a result the abandoned homes have been left to degenerate into a sad state of disrepair.

As you wander through our village you see these empty old beauties and you can’t help but think about how they might look all done up like new. But many of them have been salvaged and brought back to life, once again filled with love and family.

Houses lining the street leading to the piazza
Houses lining the street leading to the piazza

The street leading to the piazza is lined with beautifully renovated houses, all except for the ancient beauty that rises up over the street like a grand old lady, the only house on the block that needs a redo.

And, ever since my husband and I looked at her when we were in the market for our current house, we have never gotten free of her mysterious pull and finally after 9 years, we decided to purchase her and turn her into a BNB.

This lovely lady standing at Via XXIV Maggio, is ours at last.

Not the new one, the pink building next to it
Not the new one, the pink one next to it.

This was not a simple Italian property transaction. My husband and I decided to use some retirement money to set up a self directed IRA and purchase, renovate and run the BNB through this company. This means that we had to set up a separate company and deal with all of the tax and bureaucratic infrastructure that goes along with it.

Add to that the trouble we ran into getting the tax ID number and some other assorted bits of trouble and, well it took a bit to get it done.

View from the roof terrace
View from the roof terrace

Happily we had some big hitters and “get it done” people on our side. I want to take the opportunity to send out massive kudos to Antonello Lucchesi, our architect and Ivan De Luca, our estate agent and all around get it done guy. These two ran into so many obstacles and found ways around them all. It was really epic!

OMG! Where do we start?
OMG! Where do we start?

I also have to thank our seller Anne for being to gosh darned patient with our bits of trouble and hanging in with it all.

At Last it is Time to Renovate!

Ok, lots to do
OK, lots to do.

While Pete and I were in Santa Domenica last time, we had the opportunity to sit down with Antonello and his staff and go over the layout of all the rooms.

From the front, the house looks a lot smaller than it is. She has a ground floor and another floor above it however her generous backside rolls down the hill giving two more good sized floors that can be turned into accommodations.

Our lady's generous back side
Our lady’s generous back side

In the end we will have four “studiette” apartments with ensuite bath and coffee and fridge facilities and a full sized, one bedroom apartment.

Most of the apartments will have views of the mountains and the sea and one will have a balcony overlooking the street. We also have a large roof terrace where residents can enjoy sweeping views of the mountains and the sea from high above the village.

Balcony view
Balcony View of the mountains and sea

We have decided that we wanted a communal kitchen and eating area where breakfast will be served daily and where we can have events and classes.

And the best news we received while we were there? The cooking school that our mayor has been wooing is finally going to arrive!

As our renovations progress we plan to be in conversations with the cooking school to see about putting together vacation packages for those who want to learn real Calabrian cooking from the masters. In addition we will have ladies from our village teaching classes on everything from pasta making to meats to all of the seemingly millions of appetizers that one finds here.

We will have morning field trips down to the world famous Pasticceria Arrone for coffee and to die for cakes, beach trips, photography tours and whatever else we can think of.

So with the final signatures on all the documents and the money having changed hands, we are ready to start phase 2, renovations!

And a one bedroom apartment
And a one bedroom apartment

Stay with us along the way and watch as this beauty regains her past glory and takes her rightful place as one of Santa Domenica’s leading ladies of the piazza.

The Piazza
Our Piazza

 

 

 

 

 

Pasticceria Arrone, Calabrian Pastries to Die For.

Perfect coffee and cakes
Pasticceria Arrone
Chris and Bonnie at Pasticceria Arrone

Ciao,

Ok so you have arrived in Italy and by some great good fortune you have found your way south.

You wake up hungry and decide that nothing would be quite so perfect as light, crispy, sweet Italian pastry and a perfect cappuccino as you soak in the bright Calabrian sun just as the day is warming up around you.

Down the Mediterranean coast, halfway to Reggio from Naples you come to where we live.

Just south of the Gulf of Policastro and a short hop from the border from Basilicata you enter Calabria and her gorgeous stretches of azure coastline, magnificent beaches, dramatic jutting mountains and a culture deep and rich as the Magne Grecia from which it was born.

Maratea and the Gulf of Policastro
Maratea and the Gulf of Policastro

Little train stops dot the coastline, Maratea, Praia a Mare/Aieta, Scalea/Santa Domenica Talao, And Santa Maria Del Cedro. And here is where you will get off.

Pasticceria Arrone is located in Santa Maria del Cedro just along the train line heading down to Reggio Calabria. It is perfectly located to provide you with the perfect coffee and treat before or after your journey. But we have found that Pasticceria Arrone is a destination unto itself.

One early morning, my husband and I gathered our friends around us and made a  pilgrimage.

Heaven
Heaven! (Chris, Carolyn Oliver, Barbara Oliver and Bonnie Gale Oliver)

Happily our friends Bonnie and Carolyn Oliver had their other sister, Barbara visiting for Summer so we all headed down licking our lips along the way.

Those little red ones, tiny cakes covered with the lightest crispy sugar coating. Give me a moment.
Those little red ones, tiny cakes covered with the lightest crispy sugar coating. Give me a moment.

Pasticceria Arrone is the labor of love of two master confectioners, Adolfo Arrone and Luigi Barone. Together with a team which they consider more of a family, they are dedicated to creating master confections mostly with the local citrus, the cedro (which is like a Bergamo or a very delicately flavored lime.)

Treats Arrone
A selection of deliciousness at Arrone, pistachio creams, cedro creams, little tiramisu rectangles, each one a word of art.

Their dedication to quality transcends any wish to save money by using inferior ingredients and when you see, smell and taste the magnificent creations, you can tell that they have found their calling.

The best way to enjoy the creations is to go in the morning with friends, order a perfect cafe and a selection of cakes. Share them all so you get a variety of different flavors, fragrances and textures.

More treats at Arrone
Cakes and more treats, each one a bite of heaven.

Although everything you try there is amazing, my favorite was the light crunchy phyllo type pastry filled with pistachio cream. It is knee weakeningly delicious and you have to close your eyes and “have a moment” with every bite.

Perfect coffee and cakes
Perfect coffee and delicate cakes

Pasticceria Arrone makes cakes to order and every dinner that ends with a Pasticceria Arrone package coming out, suddenly becomes epic.

Pasticceria Arrone can be found at Via Orso Marso 3, Santa Maria Del Cedro. +39 0985 42577

 

 

 

 

Port of Call: Civitavecchia – A Home Away from Rome!

Civitavecchia Port

Civitavecchia is Rome’s main cruise ship and ferry port, and was one of the stops on a Royal Caribbean cruise last month that Chris and I took from Barcelona.  I had first imagined Civitavecchia to be just another busy, grimy port that would just be stopover for other places to visit.  But after noticing a medieval fort right at the end of the port, we thought the city might be interesting enough to see on its own. Instead of joining the busloads of cruise ship passengers bound for Rome on their day-excursions, Chris and I decided to spend the day at Civitavecchia to check it out.

The city has quite an interesting history. The present city sits atop an ancient Etruscan settlement. After the Romans occupied the city around 100A.D., Emperor Trajan built the port, and it has  remained Rome’s main port for the last 2000 years.

The city runs a very well-organized system of free shuttle buses that connect between the cruise ships and a small bus terminal just outside of the city center.  It’s easy to connect from the bus terminal to trains to take you directly to Rome or to other destinations.

Signage at the bus terminal

The bus terminal is to the left of city center on the map. We made our way to the historical city center toward the center of the map.

Civitavecchia Map

Along the way, we noticed lots of signage throughout the city making it easy for us to find our way around. We didn’t need any guides and didn’t have to contend with large crowds of tourists crowding the sidewalks!

Sign to historical center

Soon we ran into one of the largest local traditional markets that I’ve seen in any Italian city.  The market occupies the entire Piazza Regina Margherita. Vendors were selling everything from vegetables, household goods, clothing, and meats.

Along one side of the market we walked into a building that was a dedicated fish market. We both noticed the market didn’t smell “fishy” at all, a testament to the freshness of the fish that’s sold there!

Just a block away from the bustling market, we noticed how peaceful the residential areas of the historical center were, with no crowded tourist shops or expensive handbag stores to be seen anywhere!

Civitavecchia Residential Area

We had a tasty seafood lunch at an L’Acqua Salata and enjoyed sitting outside along a quiet pedestrian-only street.

Continuing our walk toward the other end of the historical center, we found ourselves on a terrace overlooking the Forte Michelangelo and the adjoining harbor.  Our Oasis of the Seas ship on the right looks close, but it’s about a 20-minute walk away from the fortress.

This fortress was commissioned by Pope Giulio II early in the 16th century, and was completed in 1535 when Michelangelo finished its construction after designing and building its central tower.

The fortress is surrounded by lots of grassy areas and walkways, and is now used mostly for exhibitions and cultural events.

Walking back to the bus terminal along the port, we noticed some remnants of the original ancient Roman port, including what is left of “Il Lazzaretto”, a contagious-diseases hospital.

Right behind this building, we saw a reconstruction of the bow portion of a second-century Roman warship.

We made our way back to the bus terminal and had no wait at all to get on a bus to take us directly back to our cruise ship.

Chris sums up our visit in this video:

Next time you’re in Civitavecchia, either to begin a cruise or on a cruise stopover, consider taking some time to enjoy the peaceful, traditional Italian town. We found it to be a great “home away from Rome”!

How to Make Your Trip to Italy Surpass All Expectations

Pieta
The Colosseum In Rome

Ciao!

So you are heading off to Italy! You researched flights online and got the best deal or you went with a travel agent. You have your hotels, your trains, your cars all figured out. It is going to be GREAT! 

And it will be. You almost cannot go to Italy and have it be anything other than great.

But Italy, with all its beautiful cities, amazing structures and fabulous art can be a bit overwhelming. Everywhere you look there is something spectacular to see. Italy is a giant art bath and it literally takes your breath away. 

So how do you somehow get everything in order in your mind so that you don’t see it all in a giant blur and then not remember any of it? 

My husband and I are avid Italophiles. We have a place in Calabria and get over there whenever we can. We always stop over in Rome and many times Florence before taking the train down south and every time we go we see new and exciting things. 

Florence is a very special city and the birth place of the Renaissance. 

Medieval Italian Home
Medieval Italian Home

But Rome and Florence can also be a giant blur unless you know the history and at least have an idea of the chronology of the events and the personalities that have shaped these cities and made them bright stars in Italy’s crown. 

Since we first realized that we needed proper context in order to really enjoy these cities on a deeper level, my husband and I started purchasing courses through The Great Courses. 

In addition we found  a great series on YouTube that anyone can view for free. There is so much available that it is difficult to pick out a few favorites. 

Roma
Roma

1) “The Rise of Rome” by Professor Gregory S. Aldrete Ph.D. (The Great Courses Plus)

In his course The Rise of Rome, Dr. Aldrete explains in entertaining detail how from the 8th century BC, Rome rose to a massive civilization that controlled the entire Mediterranean basin and beyond. 

Dr. Aldrete not only goes over the chronology of the rise of Rome but puts in perspective all of the main events and characters that shaped Rome as she rose and then started her demise. 

Dr Aldrete is as entertaining as he is brilliant sometimes giving his lecture in a Roman toga and inserting anecdotes that enlighten and add color. 

Many of the Great Courses lectures are offered in DVD format or you can stream them. They come with an accompanying text with pictures and important information but even if you simply watch the lectures you will gather tons of great data that will put the entire city in perspective for you. 

Ostia Antica
Ostia Antica, Roma

2) “Meet the Romans” series by Dame Mary Beard  (YouTube)

Dame Mary Beard is a professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge as well a a fellow of Newnham College and the Royal Academy of Arts. Honestly she has so many achievements that it would take pages to list them all, however despite her amazing depth of knowledge of all things Roman, Dame Mary Beard has managed to create a series that is intimate and understandable. 

The most fascinating part of her series is that she follows the steps of the Roman Empire and on the way, translates various monuments and grave stones from Latin to English and gives historical context to each one. 

Apparently back in ancient Rome, when someone died, a lot of information about them was written on their grave markers. Since these are in Latin, we pass them by in the streets, in alleyways and lining the Via Appia, and never know what secret treasures they contain. 

Dame Mary opens up this treasure trove of intimate information so we see how the inhabitants of Ancient Rome lived, from the emperors to the men and women in the streets. 

Happy Travels
Goofy Tourists in the Piazza Navona

3) “The Prince” by Professor William Landon (The Great Courses Plus) 

The Prince is a lecture series that follows the life and downfall of Niccolo Machiavelli and the impact his book “The Prince” has had on society up to and including present day. 

Machiavelli lived in Florence during the Renaissance and is a contemporary of Michelangelo, Lorenzo De’ Medici, Rafael, Leonardo Da Vinci and the insane Franciscan monk, Savonarola. 

Political situations were volatile back then and one could be in a cushy government job one minute and hanging upside down in a bonfire in the piazza the next. 

This lecture series gives a close up look not only at the political situation and surrounding events during that incredibly active time, but also how the crucible of political upheaval helped create Machiavelli’s brilliant work and how his ideas have permeated our culture today. 

Walking the streets of Florence, you can’t help but understand better everything around you and to see the city in its ancient context bringing the Renaissance to life. 

Roman ruins
Roman ruins

4)  “The Genius of Michelangelo” by Professor William E. Wallace.  (The Great Courses Plus) 

Of all the courses my husband and I have studied, this is my favorite because I have a deep love and respect for the genius that is Michelangelo. 

Professor Wallace shares that love and respect and takes you through the journey of Michelangelo’s life from his relatively ignoble birth to his rise in Florence and to the associations with various popes who commissioned him to create some of the most beautiful art works ever created anywhere. 

Florence is a treasure trove of Michelangelo’s works and one of the homes he owned is now a museum dedicated to him where you can see up close and personal his early works like “The Madonna of the Stairs” and “The Battle of the Centaurs”. 

Walk in Michelangelo’s footsteps in both Florence and Rome and see where they cross those of Machiavelli and Leonard Da Vinci. Glimpse of the personality of the artist and understand the barriers he had to overcome to create everything he created in one short life time. 

This lecture series more than any other take both Rome and Florence from one dimensional tourist destinations to multi dimensional story tellers with every street, palace or museum contributing to the tale. 

5) “Pompeii: Daily Life in an Ancient Roman City” by Professor Steven L. Tuck (The Great Courses Plus)

In the days of the Roman Empire, Pompeii was a thriving port city and a playground for the rich. That all changed in 79 AD when an explosion blew the entire top off the mountain of Vesuvius and created a pyroclastic flow that killed everything in its path and enshrouded the entire city and all its inhabitant in volcanic ash where they lay for centuries.

It was not until the 1700’s that Pompeii was properly discovered and excavations began uncovering a city almost perfectly preserved as if in amber right down to a loaf of bread that was cooking in a bakery as the eruption began. 

Walk with professor Tuck through the ancient city and get a taste of life on the Mediterranean in ancient times. 

6) The Life and Operas of Verdi” by Dr. Robert Greenberg (The Great Courses Plus) 

In addition to being an Italophile and Renaissance addict I am also a musician. I have purchased and studied many of Dr. Greenberg’s lectures and find him uniquely understandable and highly entertaining. 

Travel with him through the life and the operas of Italy’s favorite musical son up through the Italian Risorgimento. 

Verdi’s operas are beautifully constructed and anyone who loves opera has seen one or more of them. 

Dr. Greenberg gives us a glimpse of Verdi’s character, his trials and tribulations as well as his resounding successes. This is all presented within a rich historical context giving us a unique slice of life in Verdi’s beloved Italy. 

If you love music, you will love this set of lectures. On another topic, Dr. Greenberg has similar lectures exploring the life and works of Beethoven and an all around favorite “How to Listen to and Understand great Music”

These lectures and other similar studies have deepened our understanding of these unique beautiful Italian cities and of Italy itself. 

Italy has the deepest and richest history of any European country. It boasts of the Roman Empire, the Renaissance, and gave birth to the most compelling and greatest artists, architects and statesmen the world has ever seen.

If you study even one on the above lecture series, you will have a depth of understanding that will allow you to remember your trip long after you return home and will also you to reignite your memories when you rewatch them. 

The Great Courses offers the courses we referenced above and much more through the Great Courses Plus video-on-demand service  offering over 8,000 engaging video courses taught by university professors from top schools. We have viewed many of their courses and recommend them without hesitation. The Great Courses Plus has a free 30-day trial that you can take advantage of by clicking on the banner link below. We do receive a commission from signups through this link, but it’s at no extra cost to you and helps us fund additional content for this site.

The Best Time to See Rome is After Dark!

With all of the art, architecture, and history to see in Rome, you could spend years looking at it 24-7 and still just scratch the surface of what’s there. But when to see Rome is just as important as what to see. Here are three reasons why after the best time to see Rome is after dark:

1. The Light

As the sun starts setting over Rome, ancient buildings and structures begin to glow, first from the orange rays of the setting sun, and then from artificial lighting.

Temple of Venus Genetrix and Church of Saints Luca and Martina
Temple of Venus Genetrix and Church of Saints Luca and Martina

Objects that might have appeared dull and lifeless during the day suddenly pop out in front of you under dramatic lighting.

Forum of Augustus
Forum of Augustus

The combination of white and warm yellow lighting in some areas of the Roman Forum creates some surreal views that you would never see during the day.

Forum of Trajan
Forum of Trajan
Forum of Trajan
Forum of Trajan

Small works of art that you may miss during the day reveal themselves to you under directed light.

A Mural at Piazza Farnese
A Mural at Piazza Farnese

After dark, most of Ancient Rome is bathed in the warm glow from sodium-vapor lights. This lighting has been designed to mimic the glow from torches that originally lit the ancient parts of the city.  You can really imagine yourself in ancient times walking through the narrow cobblestone streets!

Street in Ancient Rome
Street in Ancient Rome

Many of the large ancient structures such as the Colosseum and the Castel Sant’Angelo dramatically come to life at night.

The Colosseum
The Colosseum
The Castel Sant'Angelo
The Castel Sant’Angelo

2. The Cooler Temperatures

Many sights, especially with tour groups, can only be seen during the day, such as the Palatine Hill.  But being out in the hot sun, especially in the afternoon during the summer months, can be exhausting.

Palantine Hill Tour
Palantine Hill Tour

If you have a choice, why roast under the hot sun when you can experience most of Rome’s iconic sights under more comfortable conditions?

The Spanish Steps
The Spanish Steps

In general, the crowds will be smaller at night, so you can more intimately enjoy works of art like the Trevi Fountain or the Fountain of the Four Rivers in the Piazza Navona.

The Trevi Fountain
The Trevi Fountain
The Fountain of the Four Rivers
The Fountain of the Four Rivers

In fact, during the winter months, you can enjoy many of Rome’s most popular sights without the large throngs of tourists that you might encounter during the summer.

Piazza del Popolo
Piazza del Popolo

3 . The Life

Rome really comes to life after dark. Because the lighting is more intimate, and the crowds are smaller, and you don’t have to constantly shade yourself from the hot glare of the summer sun, life becomes more enjoyable. You can be around people in a more relaxed setting, and also relax al fresco over dinner with your friends and family.

Street Near Campo dei Fiorii
Street Near Campo dei Fiorii
The Jewish Ghetto
The Jewish Ghetto

Contact us for help and advice in planning your trip to Rome after dark!

Maratea – The Pearl of the Mediterranean

Maratea and the Gulf of Policastro

On the Tyrrhenian coast and overlooking the Gulf of Policastro in Southern Italy,  Maratea is known as “The Pearl of the Mediterranean” in some of the guidebooks I’ve read. It’s somewhat of a hidden gem;  well-covered in many tourist guidebooks as a holiday spot, it’s much less visited compared to the popular mass-tourist destinations along the Amalfi Coast just a couple of hours north. Chris and I were both intrigued to learn more about Maratea and decided to check it out.

On a beautiful warm September morning, we left our apartment in Santa Domenica Talao to take the short 40-minute drive up the SS18 to Maratea.

Map of our trip to Maratea
Map of our trip to Maratea

Close to Maratea, we noticed an exit sign to a beach area, so we proceeded down to a small parking lot and took a short walk to a beautiful secluded beach.

We virtually had the entire beach to ourselves, and loved the crystal-clear waters and the surrounding vista of the Gulf of Policastro.

Beach in Maratea
Beach in Maratea
Beach in Maratea
Beach in Maratea

The SS18 then took us right to the Porto Turistico Maratea, or Maratea tourist port. We enjoyed a delicious seafood lunch on an uncrowded outdoor deck overlooking the tranquil marina.

Porto Turistico Maratea
Porto Turistico Maratea

We couldn’t help noticing a large white statue, with outstretched robed arms, high on a hilltop overlooking the marina. This is the Statue del Cristo Redentore, or statue of Christ the Redeemer. It’s 21 meters high,  and was created by the Florentine sculptor Bruno Innocenti out of Carrera marble in 1965. It’s the fifth-tallest Christ statue in the world.

Statua del Cristo Redentore
Statua del Cristo Redentore

Gazing at the statue over lunch, we decided we needed to get a closer look. From the marina, we followed the signs that eventually took us to the top of Mt. St. Biagio along an elevated serpentine road high above the coastline.

Road to the top of Mt. St. Biagio
Road to the top of Mt. St. Biagio

As we approached the statue from the front, it seemed to welcome us with outstretched arms.

Statua del Cristo Redentore
Statua del Cristo Redentore

Once we got close to the statue, we could see what a majestic work of art it is.

Statua del Cristo Redentore
Statua del Cristo Redentore

Walking along the path leading up to and around the statue, we treated ourselves to some breathtaking views of Maratea and the Gulf of Policastro far below us.

Maratea and the Gulf of Policastro
Maratea and the Gulf of Policastro
The Gulf of Policastro, looking south

Level with the clouds, we felt as if we were soaring above the Tyrrhenian coast below us. Indeed, far below us we noticed a paraglider truly flying over that coast!

Soaring over the Tyrrhenian coast
Soaring over the Tyrrhenian coast

Directly in front of the statue is the Basilica di San Biagio, named after Maratea’s patron saint that it’s dedicated to. This church is thought to stand on the site of an ancient Greek or Roman pagan temple.

Basilica di San Biagio
Basilica di San Biagio

There was one more part of Maratea that we needed to see and that was the borgo, or old village.  It’s a beautiful, colorful village, nestled up in the hills just above the marina.  It felt very peaceful and quiet there in the late afternoon.

Maratea borgo
Maratea borgo

Driving back to Santa Domenica Talao along the SS18, we stopped to take one more look at the Gulf of Policastro in the setting sun.

Chris and the Gulf of Policastro at sunset
Chris and the Gulf of Policastro at sunset

With its beautiful beaches, marina, old town, and a giant marble Christ statue towering over it all, Maratea is an impressive village that truly deserves its title of Pearl of the Mediterranean!

Your Bags Were Snatched in Rome? Don’t Panic! Do This!

Super Comfy Police Chairs
Super Comfy Police Chairs

While traveling, it is amazing how often you learn something by making a mistake. One minute of error can cost you. But that is no reason to worry.

In travel, as in all of life, there are losses that will occur and they go with the territory. The key is to understand how they occur so you can minimize them and then to know what to do when they inevitably do occur.

And bag snatching is one of the main concerns of tourists to any big city.

My husband and I have firsthand knowledge of this because when we first arrived in Rome recently, we decided to save a few bucks and take the train to the hotel.  Having taken a night flight (not recommended unless you can sleep on a plane) we had been up all day and all night.  Add to that the sudden transition from English into Italian and train schedules that are printed so tiny that you can barely see them, we became confused.

Knowing as we do that there are “pickpockets” in Rome and many other big European cities (“pickpockets” is a misnomer as they do not limit themselves to the contents of your pockets.) we are normally pretty careful. In this instance, we were targeted.

The scam goes like this. A man comes up to you and sprays something on you then points out that you have shit on you. “Sheet! Sheet!” He yells while pointing. (It wasn’t shit but some substance) then he generously gives you a tissues to wipe it off. While you do so, another person steals your bags.

In this case, we never set our bags down at that point but they apparently followed us and when my husband put down his bags to put on his glasses to read the insanely small print on the train schedule, the thieves made off with his camera equipment and back pack containing his computer and his passport.

View from train
View from Train (Karen Murphy)

It was so fast that we hardly realized what had happened. These thieves obviously drill this and work in teams. They are pretty slick even though they are giant assholes.

In any case the question became, “What do I do when my passport gets lost or stolen in Rome?”

The answer is pretty simple. You have to go to the American Consulate if you are American. The consulate is on the Via Veneto in Rome and right next door to the embassy.

This is accessible on the metro if you take the red line and get off at the Piazza Barberini.  From there head uphill on the Via Veneto and you will see the embassy first and the consulate right next to it. If you are a citizen of another country, you have to go either to your embassy or your consulate. Normally your hotel can give you good advice on this because losing your passport is a surprisingly common occurrence in Rome.

Our consulate was extremely quick about getting my husband’s passport replaced. We were there probably an hour total. According to the folks there, people come in every day having lost their passports. Bring some coins and money because it cost 5 Euros to use the coin operated photo machine and I think it cost about 120 Euros to replace the passport.

My advice is this, when travelling, if you need a copy of your passport to prove that you are American in order to take advantage of discounts which occasionally occur, targeting certain groups of tourists, make several copies of each passport, and keep your passport either in a locked suitcase in your room or in the hotel safe. Take the copies with you out and about and if you lose them, no bigs.

Now, if you have had your bags taken, you probably need a police report for insurance purposes. There is no other reason really to go to the police about a bag theft because you really don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting your stuff back unless the thieves suddenly find Jesus and turn themselves in. I am still waiting for news that this has ever occurred. ( i.e. never gonna happen.)

The police station is very close to the consulate. You can ask the consulate folks where the nearest one is and they will point the way. We found the station and headed upstairs.

Roman Police Station
Roman Police Station

the police station we went to did not look like any of our police stations in the US. There were no cells, only about three guys making conversation in the office and helping people make out reports.  Well, one was helping people with reports, the other two were more or less there for moral support I guess.

There were two people ahead of us so I took the opportunity to catch a few Z’s with my mouth hanging open in the super comfy police chairs. The police office was in an old building. The windows were open catching the breeze. I could hear the sing song conversation of the person ahead of us explaining and acting out in detail exactly what occurred, accompanied by the shaking head and the tsk, tsk, tsk of the sympathetic officer.

When you combine that with jet lag, it lulls you into a soothing slumber where images of Italian trains and flight schedules run through your dreams accompanied by the smell of cafe and black tobacco.

When our turn arrived, I unfolded myself from the comfy police chair and went in. The officer loudly finished his conversation with his cohort about family matters that were on his mind and then turned his attention to us.

We related our unfortunate experience to him while he wagged his head from side to side expressing deepest disappointment in his fellow countrymen.

View from train
Bella Roma! (Karen Murphy)

This was followed by an educational rundown of all possible ways a thief can distract your attention and slip away with your bags while you are in the Eternal City.

“One could be having coffee” he says, while sipping an imaginary cafe and expressing surprise and disgust when an imaginary thief makes off with his imaginary briefcase.  “Or perhaps seeing a monument…” He opens his eyes in wide eyed amazement and sets down his imaginary bag to take a photo with his ghostly camera while the same phantom thief steals up and grabs it.

Once he completed our criminology course for the morning, he settled down to assist us in filling out the police report and allowed us to take photos of it to email to our insurance carrier.  He then shook our hands wishing us a nice stay while extracting promises from us that we will be more careful next time.

Our job complete, we made our way out to the Via Veneto and a sidewalk cafe where we split a magnificent plate of pasta and a giant gelato sundae while watching the impeccably dressed Italian business men and women hurry by.

Gelato sundae
Gratuitous photo of ridiculously delicious gelato sundae

By mid afternoon, our chores were complete, Police report filed, my husband had new passport in hand and I had tons of information for a new blog post of what to do when this happens to you.

My take away on this is threefold:

1) When you arrive from a long trip and you know you are tired, take a taxi to the hotel.

Yes, they can be a bit pricey but when you look at the fact that we lost about $1,500 worth of camera gear, computers and other important items (no cash, thankfully) $60, is very cheap insurance.

2) When you are in a big European city, if anyone tries to distract you for any reason, be suspicious, especially if they are adamantly trying to get your attention.

There are all manner of scams out there. Most of them involve distracting you.

In my experience, Italians normally won’t care if you have shit on you, or your fly is open or you have toilet paper on your shoe. If they do, they are too polite to mention it.

3) Carry your belongings for the day in a small cross the body handbag.

Take only what you need and use a small handbag with a long strap that you can put across your body. This makes it a lot harder to steal.

Also BTW, if you are at a train station and a man in a blue shirt comes up and guides you to your cabin and then tries to carry your bags, be aware, these people do not work for the station, They are scammers who then advise you that you owe them 25 Euros for carrying your bags.

There are as many scams as there are thieves. Don’t be intimidated if someone does something for you without asking you, then demands money. You do not have to pay them.

The same goes for the gladiators you see at the Coliseum or in the piazzas. They are not sanctioned guides and they charge you money to take their photo. I have heard of people being threatened or having their cameras forcibly taken by these guys because they have taken a photo with one of them in it. My advice? Stay away from them.

The tour guides in Rome who work for the tour companies, have to have a degree in Art History and must be licensed. They are well regulated to ensure that you have a great experience and get correct information.

If you are looking for a great tour guide in Rome, I recommend Through Eternity Tours. Their guides are wonderful and you get correct information about the wonders that you are seeing.

All in all Rome is a wonderful city, in fact it is one of my favorite cities on planet earth. Everywhere you look, there are treasures put there for your wonder and enjoyment.

Unfortunately, anything that draws people and attention also draws the underbelly of the population looking to rip off and make a quick buck. Be aware, take precautions and if something happens, don’t panic! There is a work around for everything.

(Photo credits Pete Sobolev and Karen Murphy)

 

Praia A Mare: The Gulf of Policastro’s Most Charming Seaside Town

Gulf of Policastro
Mediterranean Near Praia A Mare
Mediterranean Near Praia a Mare

Ciao Belli!

Last Winter my husband and I were lucky enough to run across the pond and spend a couple of weeks in our village, Santa Domenica Talao in Calabria.

It was a bit chilly and downright cold at night but we did have some glorious days of almost warm and sharp, bright sunshine to explore the towns and villages near us.

On a previous property scouting trip with a friend who was looking for a house, I had had an opportunity to explore Praia a Mare a little bit and discovered just how beautiful it was.

Cotoletta
Cotoletta

So one bright morning I dragged my husband out for lunch and a stroll through the town.

Lunch!
Lunch!

Praia a Mare is located on the southern end of the Gulf of Policastro which is one of the most stunning sweeps of Mediterranean coastline in the world.

Gulf of Policastro
Gulf of Policastro

The Gulf runs its fingers through three regions of Italy, Basilicata, Campagnia and Calabria.

The main downtown street in Praia a Mare features a beautiful tree lined promenade which runs the length of downtown. Both sides of the street are lined with shops and apartment buildings decorated with beautiful wrought iron railings.

Winter in Praia a Mare
Winter in Praia a Mare

Behind the town the Pollino Mountains jut up wildly creating a magnificent backdrop to the charming downtown area.

A couple of blocks from downtown lies the crystal blue Mediterranean, her beaches lined with row after row of brightly colored umbrellas and lidos featuring some pretty spectacular restaurants.

All across Southern Italy one stumbles across grottos or sacred caves. Praia a Mare boasts of their own. Il Santuario Santa Maria Della Grotta is featured in the photo below. One has to peek between the buildings to see it as you perform your giro (tour) of the town.

Madonna Della Grotta
Madonna Della Grotta

In addition to the sacred grotto, Praia also has the Grotta Azurra or the Blue Grotto much like the one in Capri on the Amalfi Coast. The Blue Grotto is on the side of Praia A Mare’s spectacular little island, the Isola di Dino facing out to sea. You can hire one of the local boats to take you out or you can rent a peddle boat and peddle there yourself.

You can visit both caves and swim in the bright blue water surrounded by fish.

After your boat tour you will be hungry. In Italy the restaurants don’t open until about 7:00 at night and even if you go then you will be the first ones there.

So in the meantime, stop and have a gelato at one of the shops that line the main drag in Praia.

Gelateria in Praia a Mare
Gelateria in Praia a Mare
Rinaldi
Ristorante Rinaldi Da Vittorio

The you are ready for dinner, stop for a fabulous pizza, or delicious pasta or seafood at Ristorante Pizzeria Rinaldi da Vittorio.

Happily Ristorante Rinaldi Da Vittorio offers gluten free options including some fo the best gluten free pizza I have ever had. In a side by side taste test, my husband could barely tell the difference.

To see Praia a Mare at her best, go in Spring or in Fall. The weather is gorgeous, the trees are filled with shady leaves and the people are all out and about. Shops spill their wares out into the street adding more color and fun and there is a happy buzz of activity going on until late at night.

Apt Praia
Apartment in Praia A Mare

Pete and I are managing an apartment just up the hill from the down town area in Praia a Mare. It is far enough away from the beaches so that you will not be kept awake by the late night beach partiers but close enough to get there in a short 5 minute ride.

The apartment has sweeping views of the Mediterranean from the wrap around balcony/terrace and a large private patio just below.

Stay tuned as we are still finalizing the purchase but we will be renting it out for the Summer and Fall months when Praia is at her prettiest.