Sunday, September 18, 2011

Third Tier Italy

For such a small country, Italy has way too much to see.  Everyone, regardless of who they are, where they come from or what their interests, starts with the "Big Three": Rome, Florence and Venice.  Those three cities are worthy of several visits in and of themselves, but unfortunately most travelers do two days in each place and then fly home.
Once the big three have been checked off the bucket list, folks generally go  to the second tier cities.  These usually include Naples, (or Pompeii and Capri to be exact), Milan, and some of the Tuscan hill towns such as Siena or San Gimignano.  All lovely spots and well worth visits, for sure.  I never tire of taking our little train into Naples to get a taste of its special chaos.  And as many times as we have gone into Tuscany and Umbria, there are still more medieval hill towns to view. 
Then there are the once off the beaten track towns that are now must-sees.  These include any in the Cinque Terre, Perugia (oh, the chocolate!), Verona, Bellagio on Lake Como and a host of others.  You can see why people keep coming back to Italy!  This year, we did some third tier towns and found them to be special gems as well.  Thanks to my sister Martha's impetus, we added some smaller destinations to our must-see list and were not disappointed in any of them. 
Our first stop was Padova (or Padua in English).  While most people know this town as the home of Sant'Antonio of Padova, there is so much more to see.  The most important moment for us was visiting the Cappella degli Scrovegni.  This chapel was built by the Scrovegni family after Dante put the father in Hell in his masterwork "The Inferno".  The Scrovegni's were usurers and Dante had a special place for loan sharks.  The Scrovegni children offered up this chapel in the hopes that dad (and the rest of the clan), wouldn't end up where Dante imagined them.  So, what is so special about this chapel?  It has the most amazing frescoes painted by Giotto, more beautiful and spectacular than we could have imagined.  Giotto formed a bridge between the medieval and the renaissance and these frescoes truly show the transition from the iconic painting of the 1100s to the realism of the 1300s.  Each scene in the life of Christ is full of action and emotion.  The panels are breathtaking and our 20 minutes that we were allotted to visit this small chapel were just not enough.  Once you have seen the Sistine Chapel and the Last Supper, your next stop must be the Scrovegni Chapel.  It is truly a sight to behold.
The next town that we visited was Vicenza, the home of architect Andrea Palladio.  This town doesn't need museums because every street is a work of art.  Palladio designed and built so many amazing palazzos that are still in use today.  It's unfortunate that so many are private homes because it makes it difficult to see the interiors of these buildings, but just seeing the facades is awe-inspiring.  The undiscovered treasure here was the Teatro Olimpico.  This was the last building designed by Palladio before his death, and it wasn't finished until several years after his passing.  It is an amazing theater and the visit there was inspirational.  As we were sitting on the wooden benches in the theater, the lights went out, music started and a traditional sound and light show came on.  One by one, details of the theater were illuminated, allowing the audience to focus in on each work of art and how it fit into the whole.  Truly a delight. 
Then of course there is "La Rotonda", Palladio's masterpiece that inspired Monticello.  It's outside the city center, in the middle of a field surrounded by more modern bourgeois houses.  It is only open on Wednesdays, so we were unable to get in to see the interior, but just seeing this home from a distance was a thrill.
After Padova and Vicenza, we spent a day up near Udine, but we didn't do any urban visits, preferring to drive through the mountains and on into Slovenia for a quick visit.  At this point my sister and her husband left us to go to Bled, and Mike and I wended our way east to Trieste.  This seaside town isn't nearly as charming as the previous two, but it did have some wonderful sights to see.  We went up to the nearby village of Duino to walk the Strada Rilke, and then down to Grignano to visit the gardens and the castle of Mirarmare, both with phenomenal views.  Downtown Trieste is an odd mixture of seaside resort and bustling metropolis, where work and leisure blend together to make for a satisfying lifestyle.
Our last stop on this road-trip through third tier Italy was to Lucca.  Dwarfed by Florence and outshone by Pisa, Lucca is not on most itineraries, and that is what makes it so charming.  Its immense walls have protected the city center from the incursions of modern society and once inside, it's easy to forget the noisy traffic and bustling crowds on the outside. 
Mike and I have two different ways of visiting new places.  He wants a checklist of sites to visit, with the shortest route possible between each locale.  I prefer to wander and get lost, believing that that is how we get lovely surprises.  On this trip, I was right!  We had gone to visit the church of San Martino (on the checklist) and were debating about where to go next when I just started heading in a random direction.  Mike was annoyed but I persisted.  The end result?  We found San Giovanni Cathedral, the oldest in Lucca, where there are nightly performances of opera dedicated to Giacomo Puccini, Lucca's native son.  We bought tickets, toured the church and its excavations and then went back at 7 pm for some fantastic music.  If we had kept to our checklist, we never would have found this church and would have missed out on a wonderful evening's entertainment.
So, if you have done the big three, and have done the Tuscany "villa" experience, consider going third tier to some of the lesser known but just as beautiful cities.  You will miss the crowds but you won't miss the culture.  You will get a much closer look at what Italy is like for those who live here rather than a hit and run bus stop for hoards of tourists.  And you will come away with memories that will stay with you forever. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The kindness of strangers

Southerners tend to think that we New Englanders are a cold sort, rather inhospitable and just plain unfriendly.  There is a similar prejudice in Italy.  Those living in the "mezzogiorno", south of Rome, are convinced that the northerners have just a bit too much of the Teutonic in them and that they are boring, cold, rule-abiders.  After spending the past ten days here in the Veneto region, I would like to take issue with this conception.
On more occasions than I can count, we have come to depend on the kindness of these strangers and they have never failed to impress us with their concern for our well-being and their genuine friendliness.  Some moments that stand out:
  • the gentleman who saw us studying our map of Padova, trying to find the Basilica di Sant'Antonio.  He directed us once and we went on our way.  When we got off the right track again, he happened across our path and pointed us in the right direction.  A third time....and once again he patiently turned us back around.  Grazie, to this kind bicyclist!
  • on the bus in Trieste, we didn't know at which stops to get off.  We asked one woman if this bus went to the tram stop in Opicina and she acknowledged that it did.  When we arrived at that stop, she walked to the back of the bus where we were sitting to remind us to get off then.  The bus driver on another route hollered out our stop to us, knowing that we were looking for Miramare, which wasn't easily visible from the road.  Not only did he remind us where to get out, he got off the bus and showed us where the entrance to the gardens were and where to wait for the returning bus.  Another woman, with a cute little black puppy, took us in hand to lead us to the Strada Rilke in Duino.
  • Hoteliers may be paid to be polite, but no one could fake the kindness and sincerity of the owners of the agriturismi where we have stayed.  Girolamo and Ruth spent part of every day explaining the workings of their farm, how they met and the best local restaurants to us.  Antonio was so kind when we had to delay our arrival one day....he wasn't concerned about losing two clients for a night but just about our safe travels.  Stella and Nicola never spoke without a smile on their faces and a willingness to share everything from their knowledge to their tour books and guides with every new arrival.
  • Most memorable of all was the kindness of the strangers who helped us after our serious car accident.  As we were returning from a lovely day of visiting Vicenza and Bassano del Grappa, driving through quiet farmland, we were struck by a speeding car on the front driver's side.  An immediate spinning around of the car, explosion of airbags, and a forceful jostling of our bodies ensued.  Glasses went flying.  Bumps and bruises.  And panic.  Immediately, people came running out of their homes.  One called for police.  Another helped us out of the car.  Someone brought out a chair for my sister to sit in and some water for us to drink.  She had a pretty bad bump on her head and felt faint.  As she laid on the ground, a pillow appeared for her head and a lovely gentleman held her hand and told her to breathe deeply and quietly.  The police arrived immediately and were so kind to us all.  They helped us handle all the paperwork and the stress of this accident while ensuring our safety and well-being.  After the ambulance took my sister and her husband to the hospital to be checked out, the family on the corner took Mike and me into their home.  They gave us something to drink and just chatted with us kindly, helping to take our minds off what had happened.  When it became clear that we would need a taxi to take us back to our hotel, they offered to drive us there themselves.  If the police had not already called for the cab, they would have been happy to have done so.  We talked about our children, about their little dog, about the small things that unite us all.  As we were leaving, the mamma kissed us and wished us well and told us to be sure to let them know that all was well.  Such kindness will never be forgotten.
So, when people complain about the coldness of the north, and they aren't talking about the weather, they will have to deal with me from now on!  I have been there and I have seen the warmth that really matters.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Feste, Sagre, and other entertainments

In my last post I wrote about the Festa dell'Immacolata, the festa that we celebrate in the Castello/Ioffredo section of Cervinara.  Last night we enjoyed an evening of music at the Festa dell'Addolorata, celebrated in the Ferrari section of town on the Piazza Elena.  Once again, a lovely evening with good music and nice company.  So what are all these festas about?  And just what is a "sagra"?
Every town, and every "frazione" or neighborhood has a patron saint.  Usually these saints are linked to the local churches, but not always.  For example, our church is San Nicola, but I've never seen anything dedicated to festas, no processions, nothing.  But inside our church is a statue of the Immacolata and another one of Saint Anthony of Padova, and for some reason those are the folks who are honored with processions and festas. Our Immacolata is a lovely statue, with the requisite blue mantel and a crown of stars. In the Santuario down in Ferrari, there is a statue of the Addolorata, or the grieving Madonna.  She is dressed all in black and is rather lugubrious in appearance.  It is in her honor that the first weekend in September, the Ferrari frazione holds its festa.  Of course because the Chapel of San Rocco is also in Ferrari, they get to organize a festa for Rocco too....that's the second weekend in August.

The processions are great money raisers.  As the statues go by, people come out and put money in a box or a basket and get a picture of the saint in return.  They are also ways for the town to provide free entertainment to the populace.  The town and local merchants work in concert with the churches to pull everything together, from the entertainment to the vendors to the fireworks to the lighting displays.

The lights are ubiquitous in Southern Italy.  During the summer as you drive from one town to another, you pass under arcades of brightly colored lights.  They form an arch across the streets and, when illuminated, are quite lovely.  There are companies whose only source of income is to design, install and take down the many lighting displays in each of the towns.  We have watched them be put up and taken down and sometimes it is a hair-raising process.  Last year we happened to be in Aversa, a big city of over 70,000 people, when the lighting displays were being dismantled.'s obvious that OSHA doesn't exist over here!  Workers were climbing up the most unstable of ladders, unhooking the wires that were taped together and that had many exposed wires where the insulation had worn through.  They hung from posts and poles to undo connections and basically risked life and limb to do the job.  We were amazed that they came through unscathed!

Another source of local entertainment is the "sagra".  A sagra is not linked to any religious event but is always connected with the culinary gods.  Sagras celebrate a local food product or crop and tend to bring out massive crowds of hungry folks who want a good time and some good food.  Along any stretch of road now, there are posters up for one sagra or another.  From May when cherries are celebrated in Arpaia to the end of October when chestnuts are celebrated in Cervinara, every weekend could be devoted to some great culinary treat.  Oftentimes we don't even know what food is being offered, because it may be some local type of homemade pasta whose name is not known outside that particular village.  We saw a sign yesterday for the sagra of "Panuzzo e patate al forno".  I asked Mike what 'panuzzo' was....he had no idea, but it was being linked with baked potatoes.  Go figure.

In Dugenta, they spend every weekend of September and October celebrating the "cinghiale" or wild boar.  They set up stands in the piazza and every dish offered has some cinghiale in it.  There is also lots of music, dancing in the streets and strolling through the town.  Last October we went to the Castello sagra of the chestnuts.  Every street was decorated with murals, chestnut branches and local artifacts of the chestnut industry.  Busloads of people came in from Naples.  Local families turned their homes into restaurants where visitors could enjoy a chestnut based meal, or some other rustic specialty such as polenta or homemade tagliatelle.

Anyone on a diet has a tough time here, believe me!  There are temptations on every street corner in every town.  But it's a lovely tradition, that of sharing your local products and celebrating the fruits of local labor.  I wish there were more opportunities for public gatherings such as these in the States.  It brings a community together, adds to the local economy and gives folks something to look forward to.  It's a small town feel, even in the big cities.  Viva la festa!  Viva la sagra!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Festa della Immacolata

August 28 and 29 were the Festa della Immacolata in Cervinara.  This is the biggest festa of the season for the parish of San Nicola and it involved the whole Castello/Ioffredo frazione.  First, there were three days of special masses in preparation for the procession.  The Madonna was taken out of her niche and placed in front of the church.  Sunday morning, the marching band arrived and went around the neighborhood playing marches, most by John Philip Sousa, to announce the arrival of the feast day.  Masses were said as usual.  Then, at 6 pm the bells of the church went crazy, ringing for 10 minutes announcing that the procession was about to begin. 
This procession is the longest of the year and entails a cast of dozens.  First were the little children, dressed up as angels and cherubs.  Then came characters from the life of Mary; when she was a child, as a young woman, as a young mother, and then grieving after the loss of her Son.  There were people dressed as Jesus, the Wise Men, shepherds, Jesus carrying the cross, interspersed with children carrying banners with bible verses of what was being depicted.  Women in pale blue kerchiefs lined up to say the rosary.  The cantors and the priest began with prayers and hymns for everyone to repeat. 
The first stop on the procession was to Don Giorgio's house.  About six weeks ago, Don Giorgio Carbone fell in front of his house.  He has been bed-bound since then and he wasn't even able to go to the window to see the procession pass by.  But we stopped by, the visiting priest took the portable microphone in to his room and he, with voice cracking with emotion, blessed the entire enterprise.
The procession went through the entire town and lasted almost four hours!  By the time the parade returned back up the hill to the church, the excited faces of the children had become fatigued and the old ladies who insisted on carrying the statue were lame and limping.  I made it through about half of the procession before surrendering and taking a ride home from cousin Giovanni!
As the statue of the Madonna was returned to the church, fireworks exploded in a display that could rival anything we have seen at home.  There were 15 minutes of explosions and star bursts, a couple of more hymns sung, a final benediction and then everyone headed off to home.
The next day a stage was set up next to the church in preparation for that evening's concert.  Scheduled to begin at 9 pm, it finally started around 10.  There was a great group of Neapolitan singers, performing traditional songs and tarantellas, the latter accompanied by some very talented local dancers.  Booths were set up where customers bought mixed nuts, candies, "per e mus" (pickled pig snout and feet), and toys for the kiddos.  The Bar Rinascita brought out the grills and cooked up sausage sandwiches for many who decided to have supper outside with their friends.  The pizzeria up the street ran out of pizza dough, there were so many enjoying the cool night air out on the restaurant's terrace. 
All in all, the entire weekend provided a pleasant mix of religious and secular entertainments and there was something for just about everyone.  Sadly, this event marks the end of the summer and the arrival of cooler and rainy weather.  But that doesn't mean it's the end of the festas!  There will be sagras for chestnuts, for wild boar, for porcini mushrooms and for all the other products that will come into season in the fall.  While the mountains of the Samnites aren't cultural centers that attract lots of tourists, there are still many ways to enjoy oneself all year round.