Calabria from a bicycle

Today I’m sharing a video I found on YouTube, the bicycle tour of a British guy named Pete, through Calabria. I encourage you to take a look for more of his videos–a nice combination of video footage, his own commentary, and some stills edited in. If you’ve considered cycling through Calabria, Pete’s experience may help you prepare. And if you celebrated Thanksgiving yesterday, you may be inspired to bicycle your way through some of those calories!

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Where are you from?

Italians have a long and strong memory of place. My family’s ancestral village is Scigliano, but my great-grandmother left there about 115 years ago. Only a handful of her hundreds of descendants have ever been there, and to my knowledge she never returned.

Malito, with the Sila rising in the background.

Malito, with the Sila rising in the background.

When we visited in August 2013, we found a vacation rental house in another small town about 30 minutes away, the town of Malito, across the Savuto valley, and across the A3 motorway. In Malito we wandered around the town, shopped in the local market, and had some beers in the bar to cool off.

The people were very friendly, always wondering why strangers have chosen to stay in their town, and we told them our ancestors came from Scigliano. Since we couldn’t find a place to stay in Scigliano, we stayed in Malito, and we would go to Scigliano to see our distant cousins there.

Several times, after explaining this, I heard the same comments among them in Italian: “Oh, they aren’t from Malito. They are from Scigliano.” Still friendly, but I could almost see their interest wane as they nodded knowingly to one another. They’re strangers, not our own people.

I translated for my husband and brother, and we thought it was funny that they considered us to be “from” Scigliano–a description I would apply to someone who had at some time actually lived there, but not someone three generations removed from that experience.

John, a native born man from Malito who moved to Canada with his family at 14, heard us speaking English as we walked around Malito and invited us in for a drink. John spends a few months every year, now that he’s retired, in a house inherited from his parents. His wife doesn’t come with him. She’s from Marzi, he explained. She doesn’t like to come and stay in Malito. Marzi is another small town across the motorway–about 25 minutes by car from Malito.

On our visits to Scigliano, when we explain our local heritage, we have been welcomed warmly by pretty much everyone, whether related to us or not. They also think of us as being “from” Scigliano. Their bright-eyed curiosity kindles, and they have more questions. It’s a very warm and embracing experience, the kind I wish for every visitor to an ancestral place.

A night in Agrifoglio

When we drove south to Calabria in August, we were hoping to get a room at the B & B we stayed in nine years ago in Scigliano–B & B Calabria.

What were we thinking? It was Ferragosto week, and our friend Raffaele could not accommodate us. He recommended another B & B, in a different part of Scigliano, the frazione of Agrifoglio. I didn’t know there was such a thing.

Valentino (left) and Mario de Rose welcomed us to the B & B Agrifoglio.

Valentino (left) and Mario de Rose welcomed us to the B & B Agrifoglio.

Agrifoglio is a tiny hamlet a little higher in the Sila foothills than Scigliano, and closer to the town of Colosimi. We took the road to Colosimi, and after a couple of phone calls to get directions from the Bed and Breakfast Agrifoglio, Valentino arrived at the old, now closed, Coraci railroad station, to meet us. From there we wound our way along the hillsides for the few miles to Agrifoglio.

The B & B was renovated in the last couple of years, and has two rooms for rent. Both are large, comfortable second-floor rooms (that is the first floor in Italy, because they don’t number the ground floor, but second floor in American), and have private bathrooms. There is also a lounge for guests. Downstairs in the breakfast room the wall is adorned with Mario’s certificate as a “Cavaliere” (champion) of “Sua Maesta” (his majesty) the pepperoncino, issued by the Italian Academy of the Pepperoncino.Agrifoglio-certificate

Valentino speaks English pretty well–his dad, Mario, doesn’t. Both are very hospitable, and we were happy to have a comfortable bed (with memory foam pad), and windows that opened as the evening cooled off. The bathroom had a toilet, sink, and tub/shower, but the hand-held shower head did not have a secure holder, so really had to be hand-held.

Grapes ripening in the B & B's garden.

Grapes ripening in the B & B’s garden.

Agrifoglio is very small–there’s no restaurant or even a coffee shop, so we drove back to Colosimi for dinner at the Blue Moon Ristorante Pizzeria, and were glad we did. No one there spoke English, but we got by, and enjoyed the pizza we shared. In fact we liked it enough to go back a few nights later! They were doing a booming business that night, and everyone in the place seemed to know each other–gotta love small town life.

Agrifoglio-breakfastAfter a terrific breakfast the next morning (check out the photo!) at the B & B, Mario and Valentino showed us around their garden–grapevines, dahlias, sunflowers, and a couple of holly bushes. When I commented on them, Valentino told me that’s what “agrifoglio” means–holly. And when we prepared to pack up, they packed up too–a bunch of the breakfast food went into a take-home bag for us to have for lunch.Agrifoglio-garden

I recommend this place for anyone needing a stop on the way up to the Sila, and it is roomy enough to be comfortable for a few nights if you’re exploring the area. We hadn’t planned to stay there, but I’m glad we did.

The Royal Palace at Caserta

In the 1750s King Charles VII of Naples determined to build a royal palace that would outdo Versailles in beauty and grandeur. He chose the architect, Luigi Vanvitelli to make that goal a reality. The result is a 1200-room marvel of a palace, in fact the largest royal palace in the world, by volume. Each of the four inner courtyards is nearly an acre in size.

A waterfall along the long watercourse behind the palace.

A waterfall along the long watercourse behind the palace.

I had read reviews of visitors who complained that the interior which is available to tour was just empty rooms deteriorating in the heat. That was not my experience. Period furniture and artworks were in most of the rooms on our tour–though no interior photography was permitted. The tour covers a small fraction of the palace. Some areas are used for offices of government agencies. I believe most of the palace is unoccupied.

The exterior is perhaps even more of an attraction than the palace itself. A dramatic waterway forms the centerline for a series of parks and gardens.

For the rest, my photos will speak for me.

One of the four massive courtyards inside the royal palace.

One of the four massive courtyards inside the royal palace.

This spectacular staircase leads to the "piano nobile", the floor containing the royal apartments. In the film 'Angels and Demons' this staircase was used for a scene set at the Vatican.

This spectacular staircase leads to the “piano nobile”, the floor containing the royal apartments. In the film ‘Angels and Demons’ this staircase was used for a scene set at the Vatican.

A little more stairway detail.

A little more stairway detail.

One of the ponds along the watercourse in the palace's "back yard."

One of the ponds along the watercourse in the palace’s “back yard.”

 

Artistic detail is everywhere!

Artistic detail is everywhere!

Luigi Vanvitelli's statue stands in a park named for him, in the town of Caserta, a few blocks from the palace he designed.

Luigi Vanvitelli’s statue stands in a park named for him, in the town of Caserta, a few blocks from the palace he designed.

 

Gaeta and tiella!

Tiella!

Tiella!

Thanks to my Facebook friend Nicola Tarallo, Vern and I enjoyed a fun afternoon in Gaeta, Nico’s home town and home of the savory pie called tiella. Through his website and books, Nico is doing all he can to put Gaeta on the map and tiella in your kitchen.

After corresponding via Facebook off and on for a year or so, I was happy to stop in Gaeta and finally meet Nico in person. Vern and I visited Gaeta several years ago, but this time we had a one-man public relations firm showing us around. We strolled along the oldest street in the original townsite listening to his steady patter of details about the history and life of Gaeta. Nicola studied English in Washington state (where I now live).

Gaeta 3 (768x1024)Our first stop was a tiella bakery, Antico Forno Giordano–in business more than 120 years according to their sign. There was a line out the door when we arrived–always a good sign for any food place, right? Inside, Nico introduced us to the baker, explained the different kinds of tiella, and we had a photo op with the baker.

Nico, me, and the baker.

Nico, me, and the baker.

We bought four different types of tiella, 1/4 of a pie each, for Vern and I to have a late lunch. Octopus tiella? We thought we should try it, even though neither of us is big fans of octopus. Next, escarole tiella. That’s right, not just a fluffy addition to your salad, escarole is often cooked in Italian dishes, which reduces the slight bitterness. Next, zucchini and onion tiella. Yummy! The fourth, I think, was eggplant–more delicious flavors!

But before we tasted any of them, Nico asked what we’d like to drink with our lunch. Wine! (What else?) He led us down a side street (more like a little alley) to what looked like the back door of a shop, where a couple of men were busy working. In a blur of Italian he conveyed our request, and they invited us to step inside. On a waist-high shelf, four giant vats of wine awaited bottling as the need arose. We were offered tastes, and made our selection. Grabbing an empty (previously used) liter bottle, the younger man began filling it for us, but the older stopped him when he saw Vern taking a photo. He called me over, put the bottle in my hand and invited me to open the tap myself for the picture you see here. Oh, the price? About two bucks.

The wine shop.

The wine shop.

We’d parked near a park, and decided to head back there to eat, hoping to find a dry spot after a rain squall passed through. But along the way, Nico took us into his favorite pizzeria: Pizzeria Rustica. Another line out the door, even longer this time, but moving quickly. Inside, three or four men with cleavers hacking large square pizzas into pieces to sell. If I had a video, it would be a blur with the activity going on back there! Unfortunately, we had more than we could finish with the tiella, because I would love to have tried some of the great looking pizza too.

At Pizzeria Rustica, where hunks of pizza were flying out the door!

At Pizzeria Rustica, where hunks of pizza were flying out the door!

We did find a park bench, and continued to visit with Nico. He’s excited about a new Russian translation of his cookbook, Mangia Tiella! which is already available in English and Spanish. He has written a travel guide to Gaeta, and hopes to publish more books in that vein. You can also find him on Facebook.

Vern and I continued down the road to Caserta, still feeling the buzz of energy from Nico’s enthusiasm for his home town.

Favorite day in Venice: Brenta Canal

La Malcontenta, designed by Palladio.

La Malcontenta, designed by Palladio.

Not really in Venice. Not really a canal. But a really great day of relaxation and effortless sightseeing!

Cruising past an open bridge on the Brenta Canal.

Cruising past an open bridge on the Brenta Canal.

I found the website for Il Burchiello while searching for how we’d spend five days in Venice with another couple, longtime friends of ours. It looked so relaxing, motoring along in an air-conditioned modern boat, stopping along the way for three villa tours and a lunch, then back from Padua at the end of the day on the train or bus.  Il Burchiello lived up to its claims, and the tour guide and boat staff were accommodating and informative. In four languages!

Turtles and ducks along the river.

Turtles and ducks along the river.

The boat has a capacity for 110 passengers, but we had only about a dozen on board the day of our tour. This added to our comfort with a sense of “private” touring, and we were able to get acquainted with some of our fellow travelers. In addition to the air conditioned cabin with a mini-bar selling espresso, various drinks, and snacks, the upper open-air deck provided ideal viewing of the dozens of villas along the canal, most built in the 1500s to 1800s.

We boarded the boat along the waterfront not far from Piazza San Marco, and soon were motoring across the lagoon. The Brenta “Canal” is actually a natural river. We entered the river in an industrial area, but soon came to the first of five locks and several swinging bridges. These were interesting, but the main attraction for me was seeing so many villas, and being able to tour three of them. My love affair with castles and palaces began in childhood, and these villas, the summer homes of the wealthy Venetians, played to my heart. Brenta-Malcontenta2

Lunch along the way was not included in the cost of the tour, and the four of us opted for the “light” lunch, sandwiches, drinks, and a snack. A bit overpriced, but the restaurant was comfortable and clean. They offered a full seafood lunch, and the one passenger who ordered that seemed happy with it.

After touring the third villa, in the late afternoon, we were still 90 minutes from Padua. Our guide offered us the option of returning by Venice by bus from there, rather than going on to Padua and having a longer trip back. Several of us found our way to the bus, and rode back to Venice a little earlier than we had planned. We were very refreshed, and ready to hit the more active sightseeing circuit the following day–our last full day in Venice.

I’ll let the photos tell the rest of the story, and I encourage anyone who needs a day out of the crowds in the city to book a river cruise on Il Burchiello.

Villa Widmann, with gardens full of statuary.

Villa Widmann, with gardens full of statuary.

 

Statues in the pleasure garden at Villa Widmann.

Statues in the pleasure garden at Villa Widmann.

An original Murano glass chandelier at Villa Widmann.

An original Murano glass chandelier at Villa Widmann.

 

Not Villa Pisani--only the stables!!

Not Villa Pisani–only the stables

Villa Pisani. Hitler and Mussolini met here.

Villa Pisani. Hitler and Mussolini met here.

Gondola: An iconic image of Venice

Gondola: An iconic image of Venice

Gondolas at rest

Gondolas at rest

I read somewhere that in 1600 there were 10,000 gondolas in Venice. They made up the entire complement of private transportation, delivery wagon, garbage truck, and most other vehicles you think of as part of everyday travel within a city.

Today, there are a few hundred. They are a tourist business, no longer part of the ordinary life of Venetian citizens. Venice is like that, a city capitalizing on her history, her glorious past, for those of us who find it intriguing and romantic. Tourism with this intensity changes a place. Instead of neighborhood grocery stores, butcher shops, and stalls, the shops are filled with masks, Murano glass, and souvenir t-shirts, hats, shopping bags. One friend likened it to a theme park, a kind of Disneyland, where everything you see seems to be there for the benefit of paying tourists. And a theme park is not like a real city where people live, work, raise families.

Most telling to me was an early morning walk around the Piazza San Marco and then through the neighborhood to the south. We saw almost nobody hurrying to work, no corner bar where people scanned the paper with their morning espresso before starting the day. These were images we had seen over and over again in the non-tourist towns. Not here. We saw a couple of men sweeping the piazza–plastic and glass bottles, wrappers from ice cream and candy, the litter of thousands of tourists. Nobody walking the dog, nobody taking the children to school. In fact, we saw almost no children except occasionally the overheated, oversugared children of tourists.

But I was talking about gondolas. Along the canals there are gondola stands, like waterborne taxi stands, with gondoliers in their striped shirts. Some call out, “Gondola, gondola,” hoping to hustle up business. Others lean against a wall, smoking or reading the paper, but keeping one eye on passers-by for signs of interest. I didn’t hear any of them singing.

We had a conversation with a girl from a family of gondoliers, and when my husband sang the first few notes of “O Sole Mio” she cringed. “That’s a song from Naples. People always sing songs from Naples here,” she added with disgust. When I asked what would be a good Venetian song to sing, she just shrugged, leaving me to think that singing gondoliers were just a myth, another aspect of them park hype.

Though their numbers are shrinking, you just can’t see a gondola without thinking of Venice. Here are some images to bring Venice to mind today.

The Venetian taxi stand.

The Venetian taxi stand.

 

Waiting for a fare.

Waiting for a fare.

Gondolier with cell phone.

Gondolier with cell phone.

A gondola under the Bridge of Sighs

A gondola under the Bridge of Sighs