Wednesday, August 31

Tante Belle Cose - Summer in Italy

Anyone who travels to Italy, knows one thing for sure:  It's hot out and generally, hot inside as well. It's what leads people and dogs alike straight into the glorious fountains that abound in every city.  For those brave enough to get off the beaten track of the Venice-Florence-Rome itinerary, Italy in the summer is nothing short of spectacular.  In August, every city, town, hamlet - heck even strip mall joint across the boot offers a stunning smorgasbord of cultural & gastronomic delights for everyone.
If you're traveling to Italy, it's great to check out blogs & sites that tell you what events are going on in any part of the town or just outside of it.  We spent the summer traveling from sagra to sagra, which are gastronomic fairs in which you are served heaps of pasta with local sauces like cinghiale (wild boar), tartufi (truffles), fettuccine all'amatriciana (in Amatrice), and every other sort of tasty treat.
Other towns host medieval festivals, jousting competitions, or parades like the one we saw in Massa Marittima, with a crossbow competition of archers hitting the bullseye right on the mark.  At night, there are concerts with local Italian talent, rock, jazz or pop or even ballroom dancing. We enjoyed them all.
Spending a week in Massa Marittima, with its hilltop sunsets, travertine cathedrals and wonderful people, has just knocked my favorite town in Italy, Ascoli Piceno off the map.  But that's not quite fair to Ascoli.  I visited in cold and gloomy March, when we had nothing else to do but pop delicious Olive Ascolane (yummy stuffed & deep-fried olives) in our mouths.  
So, here's to summertime in Italy, when the living is not only easy, but can actually be exhausting! 

Friday, August 26

Take me out to the Ballgame

At long last…I have been waiting some 30 years to go to the stadium to see a proper soccer game (or football game, as the case may be).  I have been in Italy during three World Cups and still never stepped inside (although one can make the case that the excitement, smoke bombs and general chaos out on the streets make for a much more thrilling spectator sport).  And so it was, heart racing and eyes filled with wonder that I filed into Rome’s Foro Italico Stadium along with 50000 others.  Surrounded by stunning oversized fascist scupltures of athletes and a series of monuments to Mussolini, and I knew this was the real deal.

Although the Italians complained about the lines for security (only because they were forced into them), filing into the few open doors was extraordinarily efficient.  You are not allowed to bring in bottles or even fruit juice packs, and upon purchasing your water, they even remove the bottle tops so you can’t launch it onto the field.  Too bad they forgot to give that last note to the wandering food&beverage guys - coming round with buckets of popcorn even – who would handily serve you a bottle, cap and all. 
picture from
The crowd was overjoyed when the new American owner of the Roma team, Thomas DiBenedetto showed up and said a few words.  Owner of the Boston Red Sox, he is seen as a saviour of the bankrupt Roma team, much in the same way as Marcus Aurelius who in days of yore had thrown himself into a wide crevass in order to save the city from certain demise (it seemed to have worked).  It is the first club in Italy’s history to have a foreign owner.  Everyone applauded his few words, but personally, you’d think someone would have written out the words Grazie, Roma! on a 3x5” notecard for him to read.  I was dismayed to discover that he actually addressed the throngs in English – and with his strong Boston accent, I couldn’t make out what he was going on about, not to mention the 49.999 others in attendance.

The crowd was amazing.  After being regaled these 30+ years with stories of hooliganism and destruction, it felt more like a night at the opera -- except for all the tiny children in attendance.  The crowd routinely applauded nice plays, and even applauded to keep up the team morale when something went amiss.  Time and again they broke into incredibly melodic “fight songs”.  Coming from a country whose national anthem lauds the beauty of warfare, I enjoyed seeing tattooed bruisers break into mini-arias saluting Roma, il Capitano, and the players themselves.
Who needs bimbette cheerleaders bouncing around when the crowd can break into gorgeous overtures and applause – in unison and on key, no less?  In fact, it is somewhat surprising what with their penchant for underclothed women surrounded by overclothed men that cheerleading hasn’t become a part of the national culture.  Regardless, I enjoyed the reprieve.  I loved it particularly when they didn’t like a call, and everyone screamed in unison, “Buffone, buffone!” (Baffoon!) to the team trainers or the refs.

And although we lost the game, Mr. DiBenedetto is still looking forward to turning around his latest venture.  He will be applying some capitalist practices to his team, starting with limiting the hundreds of prime free VIP spots, playing young and nimble players, and adding in merchandising outlets indoors.  As for me, I just hope someone has told DiBenedetto about the cat calls and whistles in Italian sporting and cultural events:  they signify a resounding “Boooooooooo!!!”, just the opposite from the USA.  Moving forward in this exciting enterprse, I only hope he and Bella Roma still garner the applause.

Monday, August 22

Life's a Beach

Spending the week in the verdant rolling hills of the Maremma with my American relatives is always a nice opportunity for more cross-cultural comparisons in conversations.  The younger the kids, the more astute the observations (but only because the older ones have their noses plugged directly into usb ports of one contraption or another rather than see the sights...).
This week it was the beach observations that particularly tickled my fancy:

  • Why is it that the older the man and the rotunder the paunch the greater the predilection for white speedo bathing suits?
  • If you want to go the beach, head out around 12pm when everyone leaves for the lunch hour.
  • If you take out a pedal boat, you sometimes have to come into shore so the guy can leave in time to enjoy his pranzo & siesta.
  • Are we going to get in trouble for having too many people on our pedal boat?  [This refers to the “security-punchy & lawsuit-proof Americans” sending the Sheriff out after us on a Michigan lake for supposedly swimming off our boats – we were all completely dry but the asshole still forced us to go back and turn in the boats as we had supposedly ‘risked our lives’ for eating pringles and looking too fondly at the lake bottom—and we were all wearing life jackets]  Answer:  No.  Italy, unlike the USA, still allows people to actually enjoy the sports they set out to enjoy in the first place.  Thus you can actually ride a horse when sitting upon one, swim in an ocean after renting a boat entirely designed for that purpose, paraglide and so on, without also first signing away your first born child.
  • The lifeguard spent the entire time giving CPR to a young hottie perched up in his little covered love shack – Shouldn’t he get fired for that? 

Sunday, August 14

Barbarians at the Gate - Rules for student travel in Europe

As the beautiful expression goes, The world is a book, and those who have not traveled haven't turned a page...

And so it is, that I get the privilege of turning quite a few pages with my American nieces & nephews and hear their thoughts and views on 'Life in Italy'.  If you are within earshot of their observations, you can gain a totally different perspective than that what the teachers will read about in their 'My Summer Vacation' essays upon their return.  As they've grown older, there are the obvious observations like "What is that bowl used for in the bathroom?" (what they charmingly call the "butt cleaner" but use mostly for dirty feet), or their marveling at "old people's alley", a stunning panoramic terrace over the Maremma lined with park benches where the old men & women sit all day long (except lunchtime, when they're indoors for the meal & subsequent siesta).  
And after years of coming to Italy, they look forward to imbibing in fruits galore which actually taste like they should, perfect summer weather, and a nightly dose of excellent gelato.

Sadly, they've had little opportunity to mix with the locals, other than from afar, but, every once in awhile they do, leading to our personalized list of WHAT NOT TO DO WHEN TRAVELING TO ITALY (and probably any foreign country for that matter).  According to my niece, "Every day in Italy I discover something new I do that offends someone." 

So, for anyone traveling with kids, here's our primer of rules & regulations so as not to be a total Houseguest Fail:

  • Whenever you walk into a store or even a pizza joint (for the daily fix of pizza-by-the-slice) always say hello -- not saying "Ciao" but rather a more formal, Buon giorno (if it's before say 3pm) and Buona sera in the evenings. 
  • I confess, when not in mixed company, we all go totally footloose & fancy free, barefootin' it is not something that one does in Europe (and Asia as well).  Despite the hospital-level sterilization of Italian homes (especially their floors), going barefoot in the house is seen as a marked characteristic of primitive peoples living in 32000 BC.  Ditto for outdoors.
  • Lying sprawled out on a couch (even with shoes off) will also be sure to provoke nervous grins across the faces of your host, and jealousy in the hearts of their children.
  • Grabbing food (except bread) with your hands, even the pizza if eaten in a ristorante, will generally confirm to your hosts that you are in fact the missing link between the neanderthals & homo sapiens.
  • Drinking huge glasses of milk (or even a demitasse cup of it) after breakfast is seen as something so fowl that you might as well have puked directly on the Signora's plate.  The same goes for that post-dinner cappuccino order.
  • And finally, there's the mini-roster of incredible audacious behavior running the gamut of: laughing or talking loudly, going bare-chested off the beach, or leaving the house with wet hair which will always instill scorn in the hearts of Italian men & women alike.

Friday, August 12

The Definitive Cruise Survey

My family has just come to Italy (via Venice) after a fabulous trip through the Greek isles on their first Norwegian Cruise Lines cruise. Having taken other cruise lines from the USA around the Caribbean, and traveling with children (starting with the oldest aged 12 at the time, youngest 5 - we didn't count his votes in our professional survey), the kids threw together a quick & dirty comparative survey tallying their experiences.

The cruise ship categories

FOOD  This seems to be based on likes / dislikes but Carnival seemed to come out on top. One vote was for Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL) probably due to their amazing sushi restaurant and awesome chocolate buffet.  My vote tips the scales over to Royal Caribbean with their 24 hr. bakery and the best cookies ever and terrific pizza til 3am.  NCL lost a few points with our crowd for forcing Americans to actually act like adults and sit down for their food after 11pm - a sort of anti-grazing technique.
ENTERTAINMENT  NCL wins hands down by unanimous vote.  The cruise director was "inspirational" (and this out of the mouth of a 14 yr. old American boy) and the shows were  simply professional.
VARIETY OF ACTIVITIES ONBOARD [rock climbing, ice skating, etc.)  Royal Caribbean wins here, offering both of the aforementioned activities onboard.
MORE UPSCALE   RC by a landslide, due to cost considerations and therefore fewer rowdy college kids shaking up the place.
SMOKERS  I once took a non-smoking Carnival Cruise line - even the entire staff (mostly Italian) had to be non-smoking.  Sadly, this was discontinued (turns out we also party less and purchase fewer drinks as well), but there is talk of reinstating this exceptional service (alas, not in Europe).  On the Carnival line, my sister's neighbor sat out on his balcony smoking, with the smoke wafting into their downwind cabinet - they couldn't even sit outside as a result.  Regardless, lower cost Carnival also attracted the greatest number of smokers.
MOVIES   Carnival offered more movies by the pool on huge screens, with theater-style seating or the option of watching a movie while actually in the pool.
RESTAURANTS   NCL was the decided winner over choice of restaurants and quality of food.
COMMON AREAS (mall-like, which, for Americans is a positive thing)   Royal Caribbean 
TABLE SERVICE (in general)   Although the service is generally excellent on all sides, the boys (now 14 & 12) preferred NCL (they liked the quick plate clearing, which as one who lives in Europe, I find annoying). The parents preferred RC, as they didn't like the European-style restaurant service (read slow) on NCL.  I'll side with the parents.
GEN'L ATMOSPHERE (laid back)   Incredibly, it was the Europeans of NCL who once again won by a landslide.
According to the mom, the Cruise Director of NCL was the most professional on earth, who could make announcements and recount the wonders of the stopovers in 6 languages.  British by birth and appalled by the numbers of abandoned animals he would come across on his journeys, he opened his own animal sanctuary near the Port of Genova (Genoa) and has now penned a book about his experiences, Stars, State rooms & Stowaways - the proceeds all going to his sanctuary .
And while overall, the general consensus was that NCL provided the best cruise experience for all, that might be that they just disembarked.  The only downside was the arrival in Venice, in which the Venetians offered "free" luggage service for all the cruise passengers, but after standing in a very long line, it turns out it's €5 per bag.
And not on the survey was of course  - my favorites - revealing the tattoo per sq inch of skin covering (USA-Carnival Cruise Lines), and the speedo bathing suits per old man ratios (it's definitely a European thing so NCL gets the vote on that account).  

Monday, August 8

Traveling with Kids to Rome? A few (seriously) off-the-beaten-path sights

After you've seen the Colosseum and a few other choice spots in Rome (live links to most  colored words in post) what else do you do with the kids?  Of course, there are the usual suspects, like Explora or the Rome Zoo (Bioparco).  But, after a friend took her son all over northern Italy, between boat rides on Lake Como and rollercoaster rides at Gardaland, he called me to tell me that his absolute favorite part of Italy still remains Villa Borghese.  Villa Borghese?  The place you go for long walks with your fidanzati? Turns out Villa Borghese with its Segway rides, go-carts, golf carts, rowboats and little trains is a child's fantasy land. My sister's kids hide secret clues in tree trunks there for other kids to find (through the Letterboxing website).
A little farther afield at the EUR off the via Cristoforo Colombo you can find a larger lake with pedal boats to rent.  Nearby, just behind the ex-Fiera di Roma there is a Police vehicle museum.  Go past the cool catacombs off the via Ardeatina and up the road a few kilometers is a nursery - housing buggies & other vehicles of all kinds.

But today I came across a strange place, if you happen to have some time to kill at the airport.  In the cargo area, where the Fedex offices & National Car Rental are, we sighted a gigantic megaphone situated right in a field.  Coming closer, we found an entire graveyard of old county fair exhibits: a Trojan horse, the Columbia space shuttle (which looked like it had truly burned upon reentry), a bigger-than-life dirt bike, an abandoned ship.  It was magical, and if it'd been in the USA, they probably would have been totally revamped for kids to romp upon them, and ticket booths wouldn't have been far away.  It was a bizarre trip through the Land of the Giants.

But if you have a few extra hours and your rental car, a trip to Capalbio - just after Civitavecchia - is always a pleasure.  There, if it's your lucky day and you actually find it open, you can visit the Giardino dei Tarocchi - the Garden of Tarot cards growing from the imaginarium which is the creative mind of French artist Nicki de Saint Phalle.  For more strange figures, there are the creatures in stone of Bomarzo, also outside Rome. 
Still outside of Rome, there's also the new Cinecittà World amusement park - MagicLand & other parks & water parks.  I believe Cinecittà movie studios still runs tours there, as well.  
While looking into Underground Rome, you'll find some cool sights to see - but I was especially intrigued by the tours offered in Orvieto. And, finally, there's Ostia Antica - Rome's Pompeii.  If you're lucky, you might even find a boat ride there.

Thursday, August 4

Traveling to Italy? Men at Work.

Whoever said that the Italians don't work in August?  As humor columnist Dave Barry once quipped while writing from his Italian vacation, "Summer in Italy means even the statues are on vacation".   He was referring to the tendency however, come July, of the masking every building and statue worth seeing in tarps and scaffolding.  The problem is, at some point in August everyone goes on vacation, leaving tourists to ponder what incredible building to behold must be hiding underneath it all.  But this year, while you can only partially see one of my favorite sculptures in all of Italy - Bernini's elephant in Piazza Minerva right near the Pantheon - It's the entire country which seems to be under construction.  But just for the record, I for one am delighted about much of the road works in Rome.

In Rome, they've started their own sort of Big Dig:  Digging up the entire Piazza di San Silvestro (near Trevi Fountain & Spanish Steps) to turn it into a lovely park which will host events (and with the recent redesign to reduce the number of benches, hopefully host fewer homeless).

Try to catch a bus to go to Piazza Navona?  Think twice.  Via del Risorgimento (the street housing the Italian Senate) is totally closed to traffic while they dig up the entire street).

In Torino (Turin), the one place that gets mostly business travelers, but, with its awesome cultural offering could, indeed attract summer visitors, we found the entire airport closed for renovation.  

And, speaking of airports, a recent visit there brought a huge new improvement, the likes of which have never been seen:  All of Rome's airport entranceways were littered with policemen, ushering traffic through, so no more airport pickups & dropoffs (with their accompanying quadruple-parked cars) were allowed.  Instead, they've instituted a fabulous 30 min free parking system in the parking structures.  Pure Bliss.

Same thing was found (at long long last) at Rome's Stazione Termini train station.  No more quadruple-parked cars blocking all traffic in and around the station.  Let's hope this is not just a summer breezeway...

Keying into the RyanAir website (I know, I know, I later got ahold of myself and put my masochistic tendencies aside), I discovered that they cite a number of Italian cities no longer being served.  So, you might want to check your ticket to see what happens next.

And, anyone driving around Italy, should always keep in mind that in most every town, you cannot go into the historical city centre until after 6pm - even if you're staying in a hotel there and need to somehow have your luggage with you when you arrive.  Just don't do it.  It's a hefty form of 'tourist tax'  which will really dent your wallet upon your return home.

Monday, August 1

Tante Belle Cose - July in Italy

Aside from the absolutely beautiful weather, cool nights and wonderful summer evenings, and besides the budget machinations in order to save Italy's debt, there was lots to rejoice this month. Italy's sports teams were picking up awards, left right and center, but it did little to unite the country.

First, we had Federica Pellegrini swimming for the Azzurri won the Gold Medal for the 200 & the 400 freestyle.
What a shame she took the French ex-coach of her rival (along with her rival's boyfriend) to gain the kudos.

The Italian Waterpolo Team (called affectionately, i Settebello - after the 7 Gold card in the Italian decks of cards) won the Gold in the swimming World Championships.

And from the fabulous I was pleased to learn a few new things, which in and of themselves should garner gold medals:
  • A Tuscan vintner came up with an ingenious technique to allow places to serve and sip expensive wines by the glass - the Enomatic

[And on that note, I was recently informed that in the original text, Pinocchio is actually eaten by a Shark.  In the Disney version, it was turned into a less threatening and user-friendly whale]...

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