Christmas in Rome

We are having an Italian Christmas. Not a Canadian Italian Christmas, but a real Roman Italian Christmas. Luigi has been eyeing up all the “only in Italy and only at Christmas” treats appearing in all the markets. Stuffed turkey is out, pasta fresca, Italian cheeses, Italian meats are in. Black Magic chocolates are out, Italian Torrone, and a mind boggling series of various sweets, chocolates, etc. are in. Oh, and I can’t forget the Panettone (it drives Luigi crazy when I call it “cake”). They started appearing in the stores in late November, mountains of boxed Panettone, from the traditional one to those filled with cream, chocolate, etc., on every store aisle.

Decorated salumeria

Here Christmas does not seem to be as commercialized as it is at home. We have not noticed Christmas “deals” ads on store windows, and the streets are not full of people carrying bags and bags of “presents” or scurrying to get last minute deals. Rather, it seems like people are carrying on their life as usual. As they walk along the brightly lit streets, they wonder at the City of Rome Christmas decor, they try to get pictures while dodging each other, parents show their kids various Nativity scenes, and everyone marvels at the beauty of it all …… “guarda, guarda … che bello!” (“look, look, how beautiful) echo everywhere.

Jewelry window Christmas decorations

Luigi says: “it is different, but still not much has changed over 37 years. Definitely more lights and more fancily designed decorations made possible by the digital world we live in, people wear different up-to-date clothing, and one can hear among the spoken Italian many other unknown languages. But the atmosphere is exactly the same.” Christmas day in Italy is still mostly a core family affair (not necessarily with relatives!) and the sharing of presents is not a big deal as it is at home (likely that is changing as well).

Christmas trees are not a big tradition, and never have been, at least not in homes. Who wants to haul a tree up 4 flights of stairs, taking up space where the precious stacks of various Panettoni sit? Piazza del popolo christmas Besides, it is more entertaining to walk down Via Condotti, or Via del Corso or head to the Colosseum or Piazza Venezia to get a Christmas tree fix.

Piazza Venezia

The Colosseum at Christmas

One can do that while enjoying the hustle and bustle of thousands and thousands of people out for a walk,Reindeer heading to the Colosseum looking in brightly lit and fully decorated store windows, from Gucci and Prada to the more mundane. The trees that decorate the streets of historic Rome are all brightly lit and are big enough for everyone.

But, one of the trees that gets the most attention, 82 ft. tall, came all the way from the Ukraine, a gift from the Ukraine community, and sits in the middle of St. Petter’s Square. I happened to wander there last Friday to witness what appeared to be a tree unveiling by the President of Ukraine and dignitaries of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

Christmas in St. Peters

Living in a small apartment on the 4th floor was not going to stop us from having a Christmas tree. There are a few real trees for sale in Rome, but they are mostly used outside shops and buildings. A few may make into homes. But most of the affordable “trees” we saw for sale were what appeared to be cast-offs from a decorating scheme gone bad. Purple trees, shiny foil trees, every colour tree. We settled on a small real tree in a pot. After we decorated our potted plant tree, placed it on the shelf next to the Panettone and the Torrone…. it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas (Italian style)…….

Christmas 'letter' tree at Termini

There are two more trees that I must tell you about located at the main train station Termini. Not because of their size, although they are huge (20 plus feet), it is the message(s) they exhibit. You see, they are “letter” trees, meaning, anyone can write a letter to Babbo Natale (Father Christmas) asking for, well, whatever they need. One heartfelt letter reads ” Caro Babbo Natale, A me non manca nula, se puoi porta una gamba nuova alla mia nonna ~ signed Michele (Dear Father Christmas, I don’t need anything. If you can, bring one new leg to my Grandma). Another sad letter written by a mother of a sick child asks for help in finding a diagnosis. Then, there are also the letters asking for a new boyfriend “this time a decent one”.

Piazza Navona Christmas market

Christmas markets (Mercatini di Natale) have sprouted up around here like mushrooms (Luigi’s comment). The large market in Piazza Navona started on November 26 and will continue until January 6th.

Piazza Navona Merry go round

It is the go-to market if you want to build your own Nativity scene (cresche), or a whole village for that matter. It’s all there. A few vendors have Christmas tree decorations. The rest cater mostly to kids that love toys, candies or to win stuffed toys at the games. There is even a merry-go-round in the centre of the Piazza. I had my first Ciambella there. Another “only in Rome and only at Christmas” treat, that can be covered by sugar or Nutella. It resembles a giant mini doughnut, warmed in a panini press (of course).

Ciambella calda

One day we decided to venture further and explore the Christmas mercatino at San Giovanni. Thank goodness that market is not too close to us… it’s full of the best of Italian cheeses which we couldn’t resist.

Trees may be hard to find, but Nativity scenes, creches, are in almost Nativity scene in every church (now, that’s a lot of creches!). We found one in the hallway of a church near the Pantheon, St. Eustachio Basilica. It was a remake of the life in the church square in the 1700’s, accurately recreated based on old prints and drawings. It was complete with the neighbouring Tabacchi shop, the forno (bakery), and other life images of the time.

Nativity - St Eustachio church

If we weren’t yet in the Christmas spirit (Italian style), last night put us there. Music was filtering through our apartment shutters so we decided to put on our coats, grab the camera and investigate. Wow! Just around the corner, in Piazza Trilussa, in the heart of Trastevere, in a very busy Rome, there was a live re-enactment of the Nativity, complete with live sheep and even a donkey! We arrived in the square just in time to witness the wise men (in very professional looking costumes) arriving with their gifts.

Piazza Trilussa Nativity play

While Luigi ran around snapping pictures, I enjoyed the Christmas songs sang by a choir of children and adults. As I stood in the cobblestone square and looked around the crowd, I could see many lit candles swaying to the music. What a beautiful evening in Trastevere.

We would like to end our Christmas post with this song, Chestnuts roasting on an open fire. The warm, freshly roasted chestnut vendors are everywhere in Rome.

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire in Rome

Who can resist warm, roasted chestnuts while strolling down centuries old, cobblestone streets, lit by 21st century digital Christmas lights! And with this we wish you all a Buon Natale e un Felice Anno Nuovo!

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Rome “Love Locks”

I love to experience a city by just wandering with no checklist of places to visit. We have had the luxury of many “wandering” days while living in Rome. With Luigi in the lead, we have been expanding our wanderings to new (for me) areas of the historic centre.

A few days ago, Luigi read in the Italian newspaper that the Rome authorities are threatening to “unlock” the “love locks.” Now that Silvio is out of power, I guess the authorities do not believe in “love”, at least not when it messes up one of the oldest bridges in Rome. And the City of Rome politicians have nothing more important to worry about than “love locks!”

Love Locks on Ponte Milvio

The Ponte Milvio was first build in 206 BC. Apparently, padlocks started appearing on the bridge in 2006 after a movie based on the book  “Ho voglia di te” (“I desire you“), in which the lovers wrapped a chain around a lamp post on the Ponte Milvio, padlocked it and sent the key into the Tiber river, ensuring eternal love. If only this were true, divorce lawyers would have to become padlock manufacturers instead.

View from Ponte Milvio

We decided that we needed to make the trip to see the “lovers bridge” before the bolt cutters destroyed its ambience. Since the bridge was not far from where Luigi lived during his pre-teens, I followed him as he found our way from 50 year old memories. As we walked, Luigi would point out restaurants or businesses that he had been to as a kid. Most of the buildings, other than a coat of paint and possibly new owners, remain the same.

After our long trek to find the bridge, we were happy to discover that we had gotten there before the bolt cutters. It is definitely a bridge of eternal love (well, at least for now). There are hundreds of rusting padlocks with the couples initials “engraved” thanks to indelible pen. One small lock caught our attention. It read “Il tuo respiro sara’ X sempre il mio, io e te X sempre” which is loosely translated as “Your breath will be forever mine, you and I forever.”

Il Tuo Respiro lock

There are even “unlicensed” padlock sellers, just waiting for the next eternal lovers to part with some euros for a padlock and indelible pen.  Did we perform the ritual? Nope. But we took pictures. Does that count?

From the Ponte Milvio we explored more of Luigi’s childhood “backyard”. As we wandered into the courtyard of a large villa, our conversation went like this.

Luigi “This is where I used to live”
Me “Where was your apartment?”
Luigi “No. We lived in this villa”
Me “But…which apartment?”
Luigi “The whole villa”

Luigi's "backyard"

At first I thought he was joking, but then realized he was serious. I tried to picture him as a boy in this backyard. Unfortunately, just as I lifted the camera to take photos, a lady emerged from within telling us “no photos”. It appears that the villa has been commercialized and is home to a few different businesses. I did manage to sneak one photo from outside the courtyard.

By the time we reached the Ponte Milvio to return home, it was evening so we stopped for a few more photos.

Ponte Milvio at night

On our walk home, I noticed a poster advertising an art exhibit so we took a small detour.  The famous Via Margutta near the Spanish Steps was lined with exhibits of 100 very talented artists. We strolled along, stopping at canvases that caught our attention (mostly those of water scenes or tuscan landscapes), and peering into shop windows displaying “out of our budget” objects.

From Via Margutta, we took our favourite Christmas lights walk along Via Condotti and Via del Corso, of course stopping to take photos of the lights.

Christmas lights in Rome

Our final stop of the evening was our neighbourhood grocery “supermarket” (it has two aisles) to pick up some fresh pasta for supper. A perfect end to our day.

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Living in Trastevere

We have been “residents” of the Trastevere area of Rome for over a month now and love the “feel” of life here. Yes, we miss Canada, we miss our home and friends and family, but we know we may never have a chance like this to live like a local in Rome.

Trastevere’s narrow, winding streets are full of small boutiques, artisans and outdoor trattorias. I have read that it is compared to New York’s SoHo or Greenwich Village. The shops are small, some barely the size of a large closet, but they are filled with “treasures”.  There is one store that we recently discovered which is stocked floor to ceiling.  It reminds me of the old corner stores in Edmonton when I was growing up.  Except this one also has a great selection of Limoncello.

We have also discovered the local produce market in nearby Piazza San Cosimato. We walk there with our backpack and stock up on our produce for supper for much less than what we pay in Canada. Not far from that market is another discovery. The grocery store that the locals were trying to hide from us tourists. We found it by chance and it has become “our store” for all the real “necessities” such as cheese and wine. By buying our vegetables at the market, and fresh pasta (and wine) at the grocery store, some of our suppers cost about the same as two Starbucks lattes.


San Cosimato Market in Trastevere

Zucchini at San Cosimato Market in Trastevere

Rome is one of the greenest cities in Europe.  One of our favourite “discoveries” in our “neighbourhood” is Villa Doria Pamphili. It’s not what it sounds. “Villa” in Italy means large gardens or a park which in centuries past also happened to have a huge summer “villa/house” for the upper crust.   Villa Doria Pamphili is an amazing 455 acres of green space in the middle of Rome.  It was sold to the State in the 1960’s thanks to a slight tax problem by the then owner. It’s now a joggers/walkers paradise.  One day, seeing all the runners doing their thing made us feel a bit guilty and lazy so we decided to ….. Luigi power walked while I did a slow jog/crawl. It was a pitiful attempt at jogging, but we felt less guilty and besides, where can you jog beside centuries old sculptures.

Statue in Villa Doria Pamphili

There is a huge beautiful building smack in the middle.  If that was their “summer home”, I do wonder what their “winter home” looked like. The villa’s “summer house” was built in the 1600’s.  As if the 455 acres of greenery where not enough for them, they also have a manicured Italian garden as their backyard along with a small pond. A large pond, or lake is a little further back and has swans, ducks and other feathered creatures (I think they are a more recent addition than the statues). Besides joggers and dog walkers in the park, we have seen a boxer in training, a soccer match, cyclists and even a kung fu-ist doing his thing. Oh yeah, on our last trip we saw two police officers on horseback. We took numerous photos of them… you would think we never saw police on horses before.  After our huge, long, strenuous walk/jog in the villa, we sit down on a bench to rest and snack on some juicy clementine oranges we had bought at the market.  At 5pm, we were once serenaded by vespers echoing from the nearby Basilica San Pancrazio.  We then walked down the Janiculum hill to our apartment to reward ourselves with a healthy glass of ….. wine.

Villa Doria Pamphili

Porta Portese shoe shopping

Sunday morning in Trastevere is reserved for a trip to the Porta Portese market. It is a huge street market, part garage sale, part antique market and a whole lot of new clothing and shoe vendors. You can buy everything there… you can probably even buy back something that was previously stolen from you. There arevendors selling every kind of small electronic gadget ever invented. That’s Luigi’s favourite part of the market. I always have to drag him away so that we can get to the porchetta (pork roast stuffed with garlic, herbs) panini seller for lunch.  Recently, I was searching for a pair of boots, but when I tried them on, they felt like walking on cement. Nix the boots. I also attempted to search through the “Tutto one euro” table of sweaters. First you push your way to the table, then start digging. I never found anything I would even pay one euro for, but it made me feel like a local.  I did find what I thought was a bargain…a travel size hair flat iron. I asked, in my best Italian “Quanto costa?”, her reply “Otto” (eight euros) I replied “Cinque” (five)… my first attempt at bargaining, Italian style.  I got it for five. Feeling pretty smug I then tried the same tactic on the kitchen supply seller. I wanted the set of three wine glasses as I was tired of drinking wine out of our tiny juice glasses. “Quanto Costa?” He wanted 4.5 euro. I offered 4. He looked at me like I was hard of hearing. They were worth 4.5 to me anyway. What did Luigi buy, besides the porchetta panini for lunch? A multi plug-in thingy for all our electronics. Did he bargain? Nope. And it didn’t even work.  But he did buy LED lights for the boat to replace the old, energy inefficient lights, and the cost was 10 % of what we would pay in Canada…. not sure why.

More about Trastevere in future posts…

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A Haircut in Rome

When in Rome…get a “hair experience”. I have had two “Roman” hair cuts in the past two years.

Last year, my hair experience was at Jean Louis David’s Salon….
Just a few steps from Campo di Fiori in Rome I found THE place to get my hair cut. I had been searching…maybe more like eyeing up every hair salon (parruchieri) that we walked by.  Luigi’s comment was “Are you sure you’re brave enough to get a hair cut in Rome?”  Why not?  It will be another first, plus, I was going to do this alone… yeah right.

I walked through the doors of the Jean Louis David Salon and asked the cool looking male receptionist if he spoke English.  He said “Yezzzzzzzzzz”.  I asked if I could get my hair cut.  He said “Yezzzzzzzz”.  Perfect English.  I asked if I needed an appointment etc.  He said… well, he didn’t say anything.  He looked at me with a blank  “I don’t have a clue what you just said” look.  Luigi came to my rescue.

There was no backing out. I was in the hands of Ivan, the Stylist.  I don’t know what happened to Jean or Louis or David. I got Ivan. I had Luigi translating to both Ivan, the stylist and Raffaele, the cool receptionist, that I was a little nervous about my haircut.  The discussion went on for a good five minutes before I was finally whisked off to the shampoo chair.

Luigi was going to leave me there… in the hands of Ivan, the Stylist and Raffaele, the cool “yezzzzzzzz” man, but he decided to stay and bring out his camera to “shoot” the cut, at the same time acting as an interpreter.

This turned Ivan, the Stylist into Ivan, the Actor.

Ivan “performing”

  I think he missed his calling.  There I was, sitting there, letting Ivan “perform” and in the mirror I could see Luigi snapping photos, Raffaele, the cool “yezzzzzzzz” man standing beside Ivan, the Actor/Stylist, watching the performance, as well as another cool looking (but unnamed) stylist.  Oh yeah… I also spotted a lady obviously in the middle of having her hair dyed sneak over to see what the show was all about.  I have to admit Ivan was entertaining. My haircut? I have had better, but none as entertaining.

Things never change. This year, once again my hair was out of control. Not long after arriving in Rome, Luigi and I walked past the Jean Louis David Salon to check on Ivan, the Sylist. Ivan had moved on… maybe into acting? In fact, the salon name had changed too. But Mr. Cool Receptionist was still there.

That’s okay, I found José in Trastevere. I dragged Mr. Translator/Interpreter to “Taverna Di Bellezza” (who names a Hair Salon “Taverna”?) to get a “taglio capelli” appointment.  Done.  I was then in the Italian hands of Mara, the Stylist.  José was booked so Mara, the Stylist swooped me up.  It appeared that her English vocabulary was limited to “O-kay”.  When Luigi and I walked in for my appointment, half the staff rushed to greet me/us… none speaking English. I was reassured that one staff member spoke English…kind of.  She did nails, feet and moustaches – not hair. Great.

Taverna Di Bellezza in Trastevere

Luigi was not allowed to go home. I was put in the chair to wait while Luigi went from Italian to English to Italian trying to translate “foils”, “highlights” etc. He did amazingly well.  I was approached by the kind of English speaking Esthetician. “Do you want a manicure?” “No”. “Pedicure?” “No”…but I point to my overgrown eyebrows. She got it. In a few minutes, without leaving Mona, the Stylist’s chair, I had perfect eyebrows.

Mara, the Stylist

Mara, the Stylist took overhand Luigi was “off duty”. Two hours and still working on the “foils” Mara, the Stylist said “Tanti capelli!” (lots of hair!).  After almost four hours in the hands of Mara, I was highlighted, cut, dried and hair sprayed to a crisp. I liked my haircut and would recommend Mara but I would also like to try José. Next time.

Luigi had returned to the “Taverna” to pick me up so before we left the salon I suggested he make an appointment with José, the Stylist. He said “No way, José”


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Living in Rome

Waking up in our small one bedroom apartment in Rome, making coffee, breakfast of yogurt and muesli, it is as if we never left Canada.  Until… I opened the light blocking shutters on the 8 foot high windows and looked at our centuries old neighbourhood.

The narrow street is cobblestone; barely two bedsheets width. On laundry day, Vicolo Moroni is “decorated” with laundry strung between between apartments.  All the buildings join, often the only separation being the colour of paint or type of window shutters. The exterior conditions vary from freshly painted in shades of yellow to, sadly, crumbling. The nicest house on our block belongs to the Sisters or, rather, the Vatican. Our “block” party should be interesting.

Our apartment is, let’s say, compact, at least for our North American standards. The dining room/living room is multifunctional, at times it is the “office” and when we have visitors, it becomes the “guest room”. The mini kitchen is… mini.  Without moving a foot, we can wash dishes, cook and clean the mini fridge at the same time.  Not that we do that!  The cupboard above our sink doubles as a dish drainer – how ingenious. The bathroom, well, it is also amazingly compact. You can brush your teeth at the same time as… never mind.

Today was the day I got the courage to explore on my own. It took me long enough!  Two weeks.  It’s a good thing we will be here for awhile.  I grabbed the camera and set out to capture the neighbourhood in the morning.

Mornings in Italy are for drinking cafe latte at the neighbourhood bar, and that is the only sign of life I saw until the stores began opening, very slowly, mid morning.  I also passed a Parruchiere (hair salon) which was still closed. I peered through the window to gain some insight as to what type of “cut” I would get there. What went through my mind?  “How do I say cut? Highlights? But not too many?” in Italian. Since I knew none of the answers, I carried on.

In the main town square “Santa Maria in Trastevere”, an older man was playing the accordion beside the central fountain. He greeted me, hoping I would put a coin in his box.  I wandered into a pharmacy (Farmacia) in the square that I am sure has been there since well before the discovery of antibiotics. The interior is beautiful, rich mahogany everywhere, nothing like our Shoppers Drug Mart.

Challenging myself to a game of “lets see if you can get lost”, I ventured into new territory (for me). Surprising even myself, I found my way home for lunch.

Desperate for a haircut, but still nervous about the language barrier I “Googled” the words “haircut in Italy.”  An old article in the New York Times spoke about Sandra in Trastevere. Sandra speaks English and is in my neighbourhood.  Perfect.  Despite a threatening rainstorm, I, in my rubber boots and umbrella, headed out to find Sandra.  Sadly, the storm drove me to seek shelter in the nearest grocery market instead.

This was another first for me.  Grocery shopping on my own. I wanted to surprise Luigi with  some of his favourite olives and fresh bread. That meant dealing with the guy in white behind the olive and bread counter. I walked past the counter a few times before I got up the nerve. I took a deep breath and asked for the “OLEEEVAA”… done.  Now to ask for the bread.  Hmmm… I struggled to remember the name of the fluffy white, hard crust bread Luigi loves so I just pointed. The guy in white held up a loaf… it looked good to me so I held out my hands to show how much to cut.  Was it the right bread? Nope. I added a new word to my Italian vocabulary. Pane casareccio.

Struggling with bags, an umbrella and the rain, I managed to find my way home… without getting lost.

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Learning Italian in Orvieto, Italy

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Luigi had just announced that he had booked our flights to Italy in the fall. That’s when I got the “good” idea of searching for language school in Italy. Yes, I know what you’re thinking… why can’t Luigi be my teacher. We tried. It was safer for our marriage to forget that idea.

We planned to return to one of my favourite towns in Italy, Orvieto, so I explored the internet for a language school. I found LinquaSi. Perfect. With just a few emails, I was registered for four days of language school.

Orvieto in the evening

Do you remember your first day of Kindergarten? You don’t know how to read or write, and it all feels so foreign that you just want to go home to your security blanket?

Luigi walked me to my first day of Italian Kindergarten, and as we walked down Corso Cavour towards my school, my insecurities kicked into fourth gear, maybe even in overdrive. Besides, WHY do I need to learn Italian? I have a translator! I reminded myself that it would be nice to, at the very least, understand some of the language.

At best, I could follow a conversation. Italians are verbose. So, even if Luigi asks for directions from a stranger, the conversation could last a good twenty minutes. After a few more minutes, the only two words I recognize are sinistra or destra (left or right) and my eyes begin to glaze over.

Back to my first day. Luigi leaves me as we enter the front gates and I am now on my own. It’s a new feeling for me in Italy. Luigi is my security blanket and I take him everywhere. My security blanket just walked away to enjoy an espresso and brioche. What? Whose idea was this anyway?

Going to Lingua Si in Orvieto

To my relief, the school is small enough to make it feel safe, and Chiara, the secretary is a friendly face. I am shown to my classroom. Oh no! I am the ONLY student. I want to be having that espresso and brioche with my security blanket. My teacher, Alessandra enters and life at LinguaSi begins.

Just my luck…one of the first lessons Alessandra stresses is the correct pronunciation of Italian words. Especially those with what I call the “drum roll” R’s. I have never been able to drum roll my R’s. She repeats the lesson a few more times. I try again. It starts to feel extremely warm in the room. Okay. Forget the drum roll R’s. Alessandra moves on to simple phrases and the room temperature returns to near normal. I almost enjoyed the rest of the class.

After my first day of class, I left my security blanket at home and walked to school by myself.  I left early so I could saunter and enjoy morning life in Orvieto. I walked by “our” pizzeria and saw pizzas already made for the mid morning snack. As I passed a barber shop, I observed locals loudly solving the political problems of the day (one was waving a newspaper). I walked behind an older lady dressed in heels returning home from the grocery store and thought, “If I have to wear heels to shop for groceries, I guess I will never look like a local”. Sigh.

My classes at LinguaSi were from 9:30 – 11:00. Alessandra conducted the class solely (almost) in Italian, with her perfect rolling R’s, only interjecting English when I looked lost. At the end of class, she would assign homework, which got stuffed into my bag until much later in the evening. Our afternoons and evenings were my “total Italian immersion” time: eating Italian food, drinking Italian wine, walking with the Italian locals of Orvieto, Assisi, Spoleto, Deruta. Homework? Did I have homework?

My Lingua Si teacher Alessandra

After four mornings of classes, with an exceptional teacher I wish that I could report that I can utter a few words in Italian. Well…I am working on it. Now, where did I put my security blanket?


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Orvieto, Italy

We survived!  We are now in Orvieto, Italy and we have internet!  Italian internet – it goes on strike every 10 minutes!

By now, you must realize that I have a height phobia.  Well, guess what city Luigi chose to visit on our drive to Orvieto from Pitigliano?  Civita di Bagnoreggio. You have to see our pics of this city to believe it. I thought Pitigliano was built “on the edge”…well, this city lost its edge(s).  Really.  It has literally been falling apart, shrinking as the tufa erodes over time.  We had to see it…at least what is left of one of the most beautiful “hamlets” in Italy (believe it or not, there are still residents living there).  To get there we had to cross a very long (HIGH) foot-bridge that connects the more stable ground to Civita di Bagnoreggio. I walked he distance WITHOUT looking down. I admit, the tense walk across the bridge was worth it. While there, we saw everything from an Etruscan underground home to an above ground internet cafe with wi-fi, all through beautifully kept streets and little alleys (vicoli).  Who woulda thought that we only had to come here for internet!

Civita di Bagnoreggio from the bridge

On to Orvieto, and our home for eight nights, Casa Vera Bed and Breakfast in the historic downtown.  Despite our directionally challenged GPS (and driver), with Sabrina’s help (the owner of the B&B), we managed to find our way here. I think the streets surrounding and within downtown were made for chariots, not 21st century cars. Obviously they are all ONE way!  I am not sure if we were following all the rules in our search for the B&B, but, hey, this is Italy. I know we were able to avoid the dreaded ZTL (areas where only locals are allowed to drive and where cameras are ready to snare unsuspecting tourists).

Orvieto in the evening

I love Orvieto.  It has all the requirements of my Italy – big enough to be very interesting and have some shopping plus some culture, but small enough that I can eventually find my way home.  Guess what, after visiting many little fashion shops, I was able to find boots. Not the ones I dreamed about…all leather and stylish but not at all appropriate for Vancouver Island weather or even Canada.  I wanted the boots that went up past my knees, but Luigi wondered where I would ever wear them!  So, I settled for Italian-style rain boots. Only in Italy. The rain boots have shiny black rubber bottoms and leather, with fancy zippers from the foot up.

Concert in the Orvieto Duomo

Last year we spent two nights here and were able to go to the 1800’s old  Teatro Mancinelli to watch an Italian opera, Verdi’s Rigoletto. This year, thanks to Sabrina, we were lucky enough to be here for a (free) classical music concert held in the Orvieto Duomo (a majestic 1200 century Cathedral).  The Moscow Symphonic Orchestra played Mozart’s “Piccola serenata notturna” and the famous “Requiem”.  It was amazing and a once in a lifetime experience. I think Mr. Paparazzi captured the moment (discretely) with our little camera.

Last night was Halloween in North America, so we thought.  Luigi insisted …. “There is no Halloween in Italy”.  Well… it has crossed the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean sea, and it is here in Italy (though the Vatican power may not approve it).  In the evening, we went for our nightly walk through the streets of historic Orvieto and guess what! The kids were dressed in costumes and obviously enjoying Halloween.  At first Luigi thought that they were just North American kids holidaying in Italy. Well. Unless they learned the Italian language in seconds, they did not sound North American to me. We saw a group of 12-14 year old boys trick and treating for some free pizza at a small shop (and also asking for vino rosso! – only in Italy).

Halloween in Orvieto

Tomorrow is a big day for me. I go to school. Italian language school.  LinguaSi at 9:30 am. Luigi and I walked through the rain today to find my school. I felt like a kid going to kindergarten. Tomorrow, he will walk me to the door, tear me away from my clutch on his pant legs and send me to my class. Wish me luck.

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From the Island of Elba to a Roman Hot Tub

The drive from the Island of Elba to the town of Pitigliano in southern Tuscany took only a few hours, but it felt like we traveled for centuries (back in time).

Pitigliano at sunset

In our travels through Tuscany we have seen many medieval towns and castles, or what remains of them.  But the site of Pitigliano…how do I describe it?  Mushrooms. Yeah.  Huge mushrooms sprouting from the mountain of tufa,  both the colour of light coffee. It is almost impossible to discern where the tufa ends and the house begins. Luigi stopped the car across the valley from Pitigliano so I could sit in awe.  Me, with my height phobia, questioning how they could build houses on the very edge of that strange tufa ground and whether they could sleep at night knowing their house is “on the edge” (even though they have been there for millennia).

Pitigliano by night

In the evening

The residents of the area before the “mushroom houses” were built in Pitigliano were Etruscans, a well developed civilization that preceded Rome, some 3000 years ago.  They were MY kind of people. They lived close to the ground, in fact IN the ground.  No height challenges there.

We toured the Etruscan open air museum and visited what felt like a whole city of tufa houses and tombs, dating back as far as the 12th century BC.  Besides digging houses out of the tufa, the Etruscans were also “digging” their way through southern Tuscany!  There are paths, called Vie Cave, cut out of the tufa, some 20 metres deep.  We walked through two of the 10 via cave still accessible.

Etruscan via cave

Not far from one of those paths we spotted a metal stairway leading up the side of the mountain to the site of two large caves dug out in the tufa wall.   Inside, there are dozens of small perfectly sized holes which may have housed Etruscan urns (burial site), but later, in the medieval times, were used for raising pigeons. You can see from our pictures that these caves were a long way from ground level. On the way down the metal stairs, Luigi kept saying “Don’t look down”!

Just when I started to wonder if all there is to this part of Tuscany were the mushroom towns sprouting from the tufa and the caves of the Etruscans, we discovered water! No, not the Mediterranean sea but at almost the same colour. And it was warm! 37 degrees warm, almost swimmable (for me). All this thermal water in the middle of nowhere!  “Terme di Saturnia”  was the hot tub of the Romans.  Where was my bathing suit when I needed it?

The thermal waters near Saturnia

Our “home” in southern Tuscany is an Agritourismo called “Casa Marta” which Luigi discovered while planning our trip.  We have the house to ourselves, in fact, the whole acreage, which is about 11 minutes from Pitigliano … if one does not get lost. Casa Marta is really in the country – the GPS does not even recognize the road. We don’t have cell phone coverage and no internet.  How will we survive?

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A New Paradise – The Island of Elba

We have fallen in love…with the Island of Elba.  OK,  a year ago I said I was in love with Ischia and that Ischia was paradise, and then that the Blue Grotto of Capri was my favourite.  Now those places pale to my new favourite… the Island of Elba.

I had first heard of “Elba” from our friends at the Agritourismo Poggio Asciutto as it is Massimo’s home territory.  To me, “Elba” did not sound too exciting.  Not like “Tuscany” or “Rome”.  It only seemed to be famous for a brief residency of Napoleon. For us, it turned out to be way more interesting than Napoleon’s backyard.

I think I mentioned in my earlier post that we could sit in our kitchen/living area of our apartment at the “Mini Hotel” and have a front row seat of the Mediterranean sea along with pine trees, palm trees and even cactus on the land below.  To me, the water lover, it felt like paradise.

Since we both were like the blind leading the blind on an unknown Island, we did not discover the beautiful beach of Cavoli until our last full day.  Our first reaction was… WOW! ….ok, I have used this word too much, but it is … WOW!  A long stretch of sand, granite rocks… water graduating from clear to aqua to Mediterranean blue could only be described as WOW!  I tentatively crept down to water level to test the temperature.  Oh my!… it was (almost) warm.  It was also deserted since, apparently, it is not warm to the native Islanders.

Luigi and I quickly changed into our swimming suits (before I changed my mind) and ventured in.  Amazing. The water was clear. I could see the small fish swarming around my feet and legs.  Eeew. It almost made me bolt for the beach, but I could never live that down.  To sum it up…we spent a wonderful day at Cavoli Beach on the Island of Elba, but don’t tell anyone cuz we want to keep it a secret.   Incidentally, the ancient Romans knew of the beach. That is where they got their granite columns for the Pantheon and other monuments in Rome!

Despite the “warm” swim, we did not last long in the water so, after Luigi took his required one hundred or so photos of the area, and rock scrambled around, we headed to unexplored territory. Marciana Marina. A small marina, similar to the others on the Island, but still with a unique personality of it’s own. We wandered through town and the marina which were almost deserted except for a few locals. One of the only shops in town was open and sold, guess what, gelato! What luck. It was almost better than the gelato “artisan” in Florence.

We are now on our way to southern Tuscany to truly unknown territory (with a history that goes back to the Neolithic, the fourth millenium BC, i.e. 6,000 year ago!).  We will spend four days near Pitigliano.  I think we will need to buy a few more camera memory cards 🙂

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A Typical Day in Tuscany

Caro Diario (Dear Diary)

I am sipping an espresso in our tiny cucina here in the middle of the Chianti region while trying to recapture some of our experiences over the last few days.

Poggio Asciutto "Our home in Tuscany"

During the last few days, we have not ventured too far from Poggio Asciutto since our mornings are so busy. First we have an espresso made on our little 3-burner stove in our apartment, then, maybe, some fresh pecorino cheese. Then as soon as Massimo sees us leaving the apartment, he offers us a cappuccino. OK. Time to get moving. It can’t be 11 a.m.! Already? So, we rush to the car with cameras and maps in hand and head to Greve for…another cappuccino and a chocolate filled brioche. Now it’s almost noon … the villages shut down from 1 p.m. to at least 3:30. Oh, well, that is the best time to wander through town.

Saturday was market day in Greve, so we carried on our tradition of visiting our favourite vendors. The purse vendor even remembered us! Hmmm… is that bad or good? I stayed away from the olive vendor. Sadly, my Italian has not improved any since my last visit so I would just end up with too many olives.

There seem to be festivals for everything here… wine, olives and even bovines! Yep. A festival for bovines in Chianti! We couldn’t miss it. Piazza Matteotti in Greve was set up with wine selling tents, and a “smokin'” large BBQ where the “chefs” waved the 2 inch thick Chianti beef over the grills long enough to brown the outside. Luigi took one look at the rare piece of bovine and said “uh-uh…I’m not eating that”. It was Thanksgiving anyway. We went to the grocery store and bought good ol’ Chianti turkey (breast) for supper.

The Bovine Festival in Greve in Chianti

Grocery shopping has been interesting. We have learned that, at least at the “Coop” grocery store, you don’t touch the fruit with a glove-less hand. I am so glad that I took the time to observe the locals before “digging” in so to speak. Not only do you need to use the glove, you also must remember to put your veggies on the scale, punch the correct number and voila, your sticky tag spits out of the machine. As I was buying our veggies (with my GLOVED) hand, weighing them, tagging them, etc. Luigi was in awe. I almost felt more Italian than him.

Grocery shopping in Greve

Olivia, Eva and Massimo’s seven year old daughter is my language teacher. She is, of course, fluent in Italian (and Swedish and is learning English), but when she talks to me she speaks slowly and with extra hand gestures. Though, sometimes we still have to call in help from my translator. One evening Luigi and I volunteered to pick up Olivia in Greve where she was visiting a friend. The friend’s mother told Olivia “Stranieri (foreingers) will be picking you up”, Olivia said “Those aren’t “stranieri”, they’re “Canadesi” (Canadians). Afterwards, Olivia took advantage of the 10 minute ride home to teach me how to count to 100, I mean cento.

Luigi has just returned “home” with a bowl in hand. Eva has sent him out on a fig “hunt”. I am not sure how many figs will make it past Luigi’s lips. I’d better go to supervise.

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