Planning for (not just dreaming of) a visit to Italy. Please help!

DFRINLPLUAEUKpassportstampsI’m one of those travelers who likes to imagine traveling footloose, but really wants the security of reservations and an itinerary. Hubby is happy to let me make the plans without too much of his opinion, and fortunately our likes are alike enough for that. But I’m a bit overwhelmed with planning this trip–we have a lot going on the home front, soooo…

My readers, can you help me? We will be spending two weeks in Italy this August, with the first six days committed to Venice and surroundings. We will then fly to Rome or Naples, and rent a car. Any suggestions about car rental? We are hoping my brother will join us about this point, so need a car that will suit three adults with light to moderate luggage. And I’m not familiar with the European car types being offered for rent. Lancia? Fiat? Would it be easy to find diesel if we rented a Mercedes?

We will drive to Caserta to spend that night, and plan to visit the palace the next morning. Any recommendations for hotel or palace visit?Calabria-Gonfalone

After seeing the palace (is three hours enough time to allow?) we will drive to Cosenza for a night or two. The next morning we’ll look around Cosenza and the area. Is there a good hotel with car parking? And what sightseeing do you recommend in the area? Maybe we should just go to the beach! (But more of that later.)

We’re planning to spend August 13-16 in my ancestral village, Scigliano, so will celebrate Ferragosto there–hopefully with my Italian cugini. What kind of celebration might we expect for Ferragosto?

Map_of_region_of_Calabria,_Italy,_with_provinces-it.svgFor the next three days we will be “touring the toe”. If you had three days there, how would you spend it? I’d love to hear about your favorite beach, favorite museum, favorite castle–and not just tourist experiences. Is there a great place to hear  Calabrian music? Farm visits? Hiking? I doubt we will stay in a beachfront hotel–but who knows? We’d like to have a look at both coasts of the toe.

On August 19 we’ll turn in our car and fly out of Lamezia Terme to London, so will want to spend the night of the 18th close to there. Recommendations?

I am so looking forward to your suggestions. And hope you are looking forward to coming along via the blog later in the year.

*All images on this post are from Wikimedia Commons.

BOOK REVIEW: Stolen Figs

Have you ever wanted to visit the ‘old country’, wherever that may be for you–the land where your parents, or grandparents, or great-grandparents, spent their childhood?

So did author Mark Rotella. After years of listening to his family’s stories of life in Calabria, he convinced his reluctant father to accompany him to the village of Gimigliano, for just a day. When they unexpectedly connect with distant relatives, Rotella becomes immersed in the life he previously only heard about, returning to Calabria again and again.

A memoir and travel story combined, Stolen Figs lets us share Rotella’s discoveries in clear, inviting language. He shares the flavor of his experiences–the aroma of homemade soprasetta, the taste of fresh artichokes on pizza, the tingling fear of driving unfamiliar backroads that seem hostile.

Rotella had the advantage of speaking Italian as he ventured through Calabria, but still ran into communication issues with the Calabrian dialect. He also describes a visit to a Greek-speaking village, an area mentioned in last week’s post.

I enjoyed his adventures, and recommend his book–a mini-escape to Calabra.

Katoitaliotika, Italy’s Greek dialect

Greeks began to settle the Italian south almost 3,000 years ago, and were the prominant culture there for almost 2,000 years. I tend to think of the culture of the “Magna Graecia” as something buried deep in history, like the Riace bronzes I posted about last week.

But now I find out about the Griko–a surviving culture speaking a Greek dialect, which Greek speakers call Katoitaliotika, or Southern Italian!

This very interesting video (thanks to Agora Productions) provides a lot of history and many great photos reflecting the Greek history of the Italian south.

Travels in Calabria: My top picks

History figures large in my travels, so you won’t be surprised that my top tourist picks are mostly historical–and pretty famous!

#1: The Riace Bronzes: Two 2,500 year old classical Greek statues, found by a scuba diver off the coast near Riace in 1972, and now housed in the Museo Nazionale della Magna Grecia in Reggo Calabria. The full collection on the Magna Grecia occupies two floors of the museum.

#2: The Roman bridge at Scigliano: Part of the ancient Via Popilia, the Roman road from Capua to Reggio Calabria, during the Punic Wars Hannibal is said to have crossed this bridge with his armies. Not sure if that included the elephants, which Hannibal brought up through Iberia and across the Alps. The bridge is a wonderful Roman era structure. Bed and Breakfast Calabria in Scigliano is a great place to stay nearby, and I found this photo on their website.

#3: The Cattolica di Stilo: Built in the 9th century, this church is considered one of the most important Byzantine structures, and is a national monument. I love to visit churches. Along with the frescoes and Christian interior, there are Arabic inscriptions in the church–the thought of it sends my mind spinning into all kinds of historical speculations!

#4: Le Castella: I couldn’t go to Italy without visiting a castle, and the history of this one is fascinating. And the Ionian beaches couldn’t be closer! I found this interior cutaway describing life in the castle–in Italian, but it gives some good additional detail.

#5: Down time at some hot springs! There are several thermal bath options, and after visiting one in Tuscany a few years ago, I am eager to try one in Calabria. This or this should do–and then a couple of days at the beach in Tropea!

Bergamot oranges from Calabria

“This precious product delights the senses and often inebriates the brain with iridescent images which make life beautiful and dreamlike and floods the soul with romantic sweetness.” Sound like a recreational drug, something you can take to help you leave your troubles behind?

No. Giuseppe Sergi, an Italian anthropologist, wrote this statement in his 1925 monograph on the bergamot oranges grown around the southern coastline of Calabria.

Bergamot oil gives Earl Grey tea its distinctive flavor–the tea that reportedly became a sensation in London when Lady Grey (wife of Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey, who was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1830 to 1834) served it. There are many stories about the origin of the tea, but the Grey family claim that a Chinese mandarin (a bureaucrat in imperial China) formulated the tea for them to offset lime in the water at their estate in Northumberland.

A more common use of bergamot oil is in perfumes. The Consortium of Bergamot in Reggio Calabria has a website (available in English) packed with information about the oranges. They claim health benefits and a wide variety of uses for the oil, and provide a recipe for cologne. Bergamot is also used in pastries and confections.

The Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail published an article in 2010 about bergamots, the “green gold” of Calabria.

Now, I have finished my cup of Earl Grey tea, which I enjoy for the flavor of bergamot and the reminder of southern Italy.

Food festivals: Enjoy the feast!

My mother can’t stop talking about it! She visited Calabria five years ago, and when friends took her out to dinner in one of the villages near Scigliano, she ordered a mushroom dish. I still haven’t heard the end of it.

Sadly for all of us, we do not have the recipe. But the season for mushrooms is approaching, and they will be celebrated in the Italian south.

In the Sila, the mountains of Calabria, the village of Camigliatello Silano celebrates a wild mushroom festival each year. In Diamante, the chili pepper takes center stage. Chestnut festivals are common throughout Italy, but the village of Zafferana Etnea in Sicily goes one better, celebrating a Chestnut and Wine Festival. Eggplant, pasta, sausage, chocolate–it seems like most any food in the cupboard has a festival in its honor.

But we were talking about mushrooms. In Marcella Hazan’s “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking” I found this recipe that pays homage to the mushroom.

Fresh Mushrooms with Porcini, Rosemary, and Tomatoes

1 lb. fresh, firm white button OR cremini mushrooms

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon chopped garlic

1 teaspoon fresh chopped rosemary leaves

About 1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms

Filtered water from soaking the mushrooms (see instructions)

Salt, Fresh ground black pepper

1/2 cup canned imported Italian plum tomatoes, with their juice

To prepare the dried porcini mushrooms, soak in two cups of barely warm water for at least 30 minutes. Lift the mushrooms by hand, squeezing out as much water as possible, and let the water flow back into the container in which it has been soaking. Retain the water, and rinse the mushrooms in fresh water, scraping any spots where soil is embedded. Pat dry with paper towels , and chop.

Filter the soaking water through a paper towel or coffee filter, and retain until called for.

Trim, wash, and towel dry the fresh mushrooms and cut in half  or quarters lengthwise, keeping the caps attached to stems.

Choose a saute pan that will contain all the ingredients loosely. Start with oil and garlic heated to medium high until the garlic becomes pale gold. Add rosemary and the reconstituted porcini. Stir once or twice to coat well, then add the filtered water from soaking the mushrooms. Turn up the heat and cook at a lively pace until all the water has simmered away.

Add the cut up fresh mushrooms to the pan, together with salt and pepper, turn the heat to high, and cook, stirring frequently, until the liquid shed by the fresh mushrooms has simmered away.

Add the tomatoes with their juice, toss thoroughly to coat well, cover the pan, and turn the heat to low. Cook about ten minutes. If needed to prevent sticking, add one or two tablespoons of water to the pan. When done, serve immediately.

Salute!

5th Friday Surprise: Blog tour of the Italian south!

Like the light at the end of this street in Salerno, the Italian south draws me to explore.

Join me today on a tour that will leave your hungry for more. I’m sharing some of the other blogs about southern Italy that have inspired me.

Michelle Fabio’s www.bleedingespresso.com is a favorite–she moved from Pennsylvania to her family’s ancestral village in Calabria, and stayed!

At www.napoliunplugged.com, Bonnie shares all things Naples, from transportation strikes to church services, in the city she describes as “beautiful, chaotic, unbending, romantic, confusing”. Get to know this vibrant, gritty city better!

If Sicily tugs at your heart, visit http://lostinsicilia.blogspot.com/ for a smorgasbord of Sicilian topics, like kid-friendly sightseeing, festivals and holidays, natural wonders, and lots more.

Mary at www.flavorsofabruzzo.com shares a lot about food, as the blog name suggests, but there are plenty of other topics sprinkling flavor throughout her posts.

Little Italy in America

San Diego's Little Italy

Wikipedia lists approximately 50 American neighborhoods that are known, officially or unofficially, as “Little Italy”. A couple of weeks ago I walked around the Italian neighborhood in San Diego, and delighted in hearing Italian conversation around me!

Where did all these Italian immigrants come from? Between 1880 and 1920, more than 4,000,000 Italians immigrated to the USA, and most of them came from southern Italy. Like immigrants from other countries, they often formed neighborhoods of like ethnicity.

Among them were my great-grandparents, Francesco Arcuri, who came from Calabria in 1887 and found work as a lace-maker in New York, and Josephine Gualtieri, daughter of a shoemaker in the Calabrian village of Scigliano. Francesco lived in America for about ten years before returning to Italy to find a wife. He was about 50 when he married the 21-year-old ‘spinster’. They came to America in 1900, and lived in Patchogue, Suffolk County, New York on Long Island.

In his book Long Island Italians, author Salvatore John LaGumina says, “Patchogue was Suffolk’s most thriving [Italian] community in the early 20th century.” LaGumina mentions a large lace-making mill there which employed hundreds of Italian-Americans.

Poverty in the Italian south fueled the mass exodus of residents, and opportunity in America gave them direction.

Is there a “Little Italy” near you, or one you have enjoyed visiting? Please comment!