Monday, July 31, 2006

A dog walks into a bar...

Woof! Who goes there? ... There are dogs, untethered and unaccompanied by humans (some might call "strays"), wandering many of the streets of southern Italy. This one opened a sidewalk cafe. The service is crap, I hear. Posted by Picasa
Is propoganda a form of "indirect propoganda"? Or, is it, as we were naively taught, democracy in action. Perhaps we should ask the proposition-giddy Californians. Posted by Picasa

Who's that under his arm?

Carrying our prized possession through the streets of Matera - a 5 liter cannister of olive oil. Posted by Picasa
Matera is truly an incredible place -- and not just because Mel Gibson says so. 15 movies (including a New Line flick this Xmas called "The Nativity") were shot here in this ancient, ancient city that for decades was abandoned. Walking through the streets is like stepping back 2,000 years. Much of the old city is still unpopulated, the perfect set for biblical-themed movies. Oh, and the restaurants are fantastic! Posted by Picasa
Italians swear by the medicinal value of the natural iodine content in the sea. It cures everything from an upset stomach to brain cancer, they say. In the summer Italians wade in the low end of the sea, lapping up the iodine, storing it for the long months ahead when they will live, cruelly, in an iodine-deficient environment. Here's Xtina at that nature riserve of Torre Guaceto. I liked it because of the incredible snorkeling in the reefs just off to the right. Posted by Picasa
Posted by Picasa
Kerplunk! Posted by Picasa
The Puglia coast is incredibly varied. One minute there are soft, sandy beaches, the next rocky promentories that jut out into a crystal clear sea. Here we are at a hidden spot off Costa Merlata. To the right is the deep and calm waters of the Adriatic. Along the coast though are grottos that form deep pools. Perfect for (as you saw above) cliff diving. Posted by Picasa

Truly trulli

Puglia is famous for, among other things, trulli -- little stone, cone-shaped houses. From the looks of it you would think that only little gnome-like people could live in such a building. Yep, that pretty much sums up your average Pugliese. They don't wear funny pointy hats though. Here's the capital of the Trulli, Alberobello. Posted by Picasa

The itinerary in an image

I've only been in Italia a little over a year now and I think I figured out the answer to that nagging question: where should one go when they visit Italy? Of course Rome, Florence, Venice are all worth seeing. But if you want a bit of adventure, fantastic food and doting treatment, go where only the truly knowledgable Italians go: the east coast along the Adriatic. I would recommend Puglia for fantastic beaches, wondrous Baroque architecture, cuisine, red wine (in the form of the Primitivo and Aglianico) and then further north, Le Marche for more of the same (and great white wines too). The difference here is that the locals are actually grateful to see you. Their enthusiasm is sincere, infectious even. This is is Google Maps rendition of where we went this weekend: a 4-day jaunt from Rome to Puglia, then Basilicata and back to Roma. Che bello!
The inner courtyard of Castel del Monte. Moments like this I wish I had a professional lens. Posted by Picasa

Puglia and the influence of Federico Secondo

Federico Secondo (1194-1250) was a remarkable man. King of Germany, Italy and Sicily, he also held the title of Holy Roman Emperor. He was excommunicated twice -- once for not embarking on a crusade, a second time for going to the Middle East to battle, but getting distracted by scholarly pursuits. A polyglot, math wiz, student of architecture and an unapologetic Islamophile, Frederick II quickly became public enemy number one of the 12th and 13th Century church. He was a Renaissance man 200 years before the birth of Leonardo. Oh, and he's a Marchigiano (born in Jesi). This - Castel del Monte -- is one of the many castles he had built in Puglia. It's more a math puzzle than a castle. It's designed in a octagonal shape with eight rooms up and eight rooms down. Federico probably had a good chuckle over its design. It's still in remarkable shape. It's been refurbished, but nonetheless much of the original structure is still standing. Posted by Picasa

The passion of the south

There's a handy phrase in Italian that all outsiders should know: Acchiappasvizzeri. Or, "catch the Swiss". It may sound cute, but it's actually creepy and predatory. It refers to that moment when a clueless straniero (with agitated partner in tow, no doubt) is stumbling around the streets of an Italian city, map in hand, perplexed look on face, and comes into contact with a savior in the form of a local. This local is usually quick with a reassuring grin and indispensible advice about how to find, no, not that restaurant/attraction/museum, this restaurant/attraction/museum is much better. Within moments, he is handing you his number. Anything, and he means anything, you want, he can source. Have a nice day. Warning: These encounters can be costly.

We met one such Swiss catcher in Matera yesterday. His name is Franco and his mobile number is 33 - (erm, read on first). Xtina and I were not exactly lost (nor exhibiting much Swiss-ness from what I could tell) when Franco came into our lives. It's true. I had been repeating for a good 10 minutes "I swear. The restaurant, according to this map, is around the next corner", but we were nearly there. Nearly. While craning our necks to read a non-existent road name, Franco, in a blue poncho, glided up beside us on his motorino and asked where we were headed. In Rome, I would have had a curt "We're Ok, but thanks" dismissal, but we were on our third day in the south and we were feeling a bit disarmed by the locals. (Throughout Puglia, and now, Basilicata, we ran into the sweetest, most helpful people. I would love for the government to fund an exchange of Pugliesi for Romans, a dose of southern hospitality would be a nice image-cleanser for Rome, methinks). Uncharacteristically, Xtina and I, at that unnamed street corner, broke down and revealed all our hopes, dreams and priorities, as they were at the moment, to a complete stranger. We cannot find the restaurant, we began. We cannot seem to find a store open that will sell us the famous Matera olive oil, and, while we're at it, any gossip about Mel Gibson? Did I forget to mention Mel shot "The Passion of the Christ" here in this hauntingly beautiful town?

Franco nodded, escorting us across the street to the restaurant entrance. Yep, across the street. In the time it takes to check your watch, Franco had given us his phone number, offered us his mother's apartment the next time we're in town, promised to source some quality oil for us and gave me some dirt about the Warner Bros filming of the Nativity (according to Franco, due out in a cinema near you this Xmas). Franco didn't stop at the door. He followed us into the half-empty restaurant, stuck his head in the kitchen door demanding we be seated pronto and then hovered awkwardly before vanishing again. Impressed, we rang Franco after the antipasta and ordered from him 5 liters of olive oil. 10 minutes later he was standing at our table, olive oil in hand. (He rang the owner of one of the closed shops we had visited earlier that afternoon. Heartbroken, we read the words "Chiuso Domenica" and quietly set off looking for lunch to revive our spirits.) Sure, it was a bit awkward for somebody to deliver diners a giant cannister of oil mid-meal, but this was Franco. He probably does this all the time, we figured. We gave him a big tip, a tenner, and exulted in our Swiss-ness. Everybody wins.

(I will post photos of the trip in the next day or so. I'm waiting for a certain somebody to determine which of the 92 photos of random Poles, Finns, Germans and Italians taken at a series of dull-looking EU conferences can be expunged from the camera. No, that certain somebody is not Mario Monti.)

Saturday, July 29, 2006

The ponderous Puglia post

One of the biggest complaints I've been getting recently is the dearth of posts on Il Sette Bello. The truth is I've been on the road so much lately that I've had little time to fill everybody in on the latest dirt. I'll try to be more active. Promesso. A Saturday evening post, just before we head off for dinner in Martina Franca (yes, another Slow Food Guide recommendation), is a good start.

Where am I?

In Puglia, the stiletto heel tip of Italy. Putignano to be precise. I am posting from a country house on the outskirts of town. Nothing but bails of hay and ancient olive trees between here and the horizon. This post is a first for Il Sette Bello. I am posting on the road -- in the middle of nowhere, actually -- thanks to a wizzy piece of kit: a mobile broadband card. Il Sette Bello has a strict editorial policy of remaining ad-free, but just this once I am happy to plug this wondrous technology from 3 Italia. (I am trying it out for an article.) The coverage is much better than I expected. And, they tell me, growing. On the way here, Xtina was emailing work while I was driving on the Autostrada south towards Naples, prompting this honest assessment of my life choices:

Xtina: (Upon receiving confirmation her email had been sent as we sped south) You know, sometimes I really am happy you're a silly journalist.
Me: (A sharp look at my passenger)
Xtina: Sometimes. (kicks up feet on dash, turns up radio and bobs head to the music)

With this 3 Italia card, we have had a fast connection everywhere we tried it out. And, we're in Mezzogiorno country, the notoriously deprived south. I hope the same fantastic coverage is available in Amandola. Gulp! There goes my excuse that I cannot get online while at the house there.

What are we doing in Puglia? Good question. Xtina and I were invited to a "party" last night in Noci -- for those of you checking your Italian-to-English dictionary, yes the town is called "Nuts". (What do you call a person from Nuts, anyhow?) I digress. A friend of Xtina's from work, Walter, was having a big bash in a masseria, an old farm house on the outskirts of town. He and his girlfriend's favorite 150 people (and me) were to be there. That's about all the instructions we received. When we arrived we learned this was Walter's wedding reception. He hadn't told a soul he was getting married. He just wanted us to join him at the party, which started at 9 and they were still serving food at 3 a.m. The incredible thing about stumbling into a wedding reception blind is that everyone arrives under-dressed and confused, a bit embarrassed they hadn't thought to bring a present, hadn't known, actually. The first few minutes are awkward. But Xtina and are pros at this. This is the second time it's happened to us. In a week. Last Saturday evening we arrived at Ostia for a party organised by our friends Pietro and his Russian girlfriend, Masha. When we arrived, Erwan, a French pharmacist with an Italian boyfriend, was officiating a wedding on the beach around a circle of umbrellas. Pietro and Masha, in dripping swim trunks, were exchanging vows. Xtina and I were dumbstruck, nothing a few glasses of wine couldn't cure.

So, last night was not nearly as awkward for me and Cri as it was for the others. Firstly, I didn't know Walter, but was grateful for the invite and the chance to witness a Pugliese style wedding. (Imagine an endless parade of food and reception that goes til dawn). But it still leads to the nagging question that strikes at the national identity of the Italian male: why are they so uncomfortable about the topic of marriage? The women in their lives seem sweet, a good catch even. Why so reluctant then? And, when they finally take the plunge, they are in denial, so much so that they fail to tell us why we are there to celebrate with them. Oh, right, you're getting married. Congrats, amico. Sorry about my appearance. Had I known, I would never have shown up in shorts and sandals.

Xtina and I will be chewing over this at dinner tonight. (Next post will include photos...lots of sea and flesh.)

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

When a travel writer comes to town...

A friend of mine last week sent me this Travel & Leisure article about Le Marche. I was genuinely excited to see the link in my inbox as I truly believe the charms of Le Marche is a story worth telling. Half way into the first page I started to groan, then gesticulate wildly at my laptop screen, and then bellow incomprehensible grumblings in the general direction of my neighbor across the courtyard. The author might as well have been describing Mulberry Street. The same pedestrian observations are tossed out, like so many travel writers before her: Loreto, Leopardi and a strange place called Ascoli (presumably, the football club has taken over the provincial capital). Not a peep about Acqualagna's truffles nor Ancona's famous stoccafisso nor the ascendancy of Marchigiani wine. Nor does it cover adequately the natural wonders (the blue flag beaches, the trails that criss-cross Monti Sibillini National Park, the caves of Frassasi) that makes Le Marche such an incredible part of the world. Instead, we get observations like this: (warning, take a deep breath before reading)

A schizophrenic existence is possible in Le Marche, as one shuttles back and forth between the austere hill towns and the sybaritic resorts and bathing establishments along the Adriatic, where for four to five months of the year raked sands are ornamented by a forest of striped, polka-dotted, and bright-colored umbrellas, and neat rows of deck chairs and sun beds present a world dedicated to rest and recreation, set within a "real" one of small cities, traffic, shops, and bustling life.

Il Sette Bello
needs to go on the road and write the quintessential guide to the region, methinks.

Nero on the stand

I've been out of the country for (far) too long. Yes, this is the beginnings of a sheepish apology for failing to update Il Sette Bello. Where have I been? Loitering in a court house in south London.

But, as of last weekend, I'm back in Rome and looking forward to sampling as much of la dolce vita (while eking out a living) as I can. First stop? Back to court this evening. Well, sort of. The city of Rome has been putting on mock trials for its ancient founders. Last week, Julius Caesar. (Xtina voted him "thumbs downing," saying he was a marauding imperialist who nearly destroyed the Empire. The crowd, sentimental to a conquering hero, pardoned his sins.) Tonight, it's Nero. What possibly could one say in defense of Nero? Xtina has already been lobbying me. He was a disturbed, irrational boy, in over his head, she pleads. Sounds guilty to me.

Monday, July 10, 2006

An Italian's take on winning the World Cup

Where was I for the historic Italy World Cup victory? At a bar called Harlem on Westbourne Grove in London with Jim and Kate (pulling for the French) to my left and a table of yawning ragazze italiane to my right. Here's what was happing back home in Roma. This dispatch is an Il Sette Bello exclusive, the first (perhaps of many) celebrity contributions. This one from the inimitable Xtina, a mainstay of this here blog. Here's her unedited recap:

By the time we got to the penalties, the Italian males I was watching the match on TV with were absolutely exhausted (females were busy appreciating the referee's salt&pepper head of hair and wondering how it comes that football players in their 30-ies do not get bald like their boyfriends). They had been screaming and suffering the whole time and eventually almost unable to enjoy the final victory. Most important the Romans were very disappointed of Totti's performance and secretely frustrated that Del Piero, and not their belove "Pupone", scored the penalty. I also found out that Materazzi is not very much loved, my well informed friend Simone pointed out that his most relevant feature is a tatoo of his own birth day in Roman numbers....with this background what can you say from the top of the world? The most beloved ones are Gattuso with his thick Calabrian accent and his blue-collar background and the smiling hard-working captain Cannavaro.

By the time he raised the Cup, women were screaming and planning to take a bath in the Trevi Fountain. That was not an easy task for the crowd. We were in Pigneto, a popular neighboroud near Termini and we had to cross by motorbike or on foot the crazy Centre. In the streets of Pigneto africans and indians were playing drums and Italians started playing their favourite instrument: their cars' horn! Flags, bottles of wine, beer, flesh of semi-naked women: a jungle I had to cross riding my motorino. In front of me there were four cars in a row on a single lane, two with 8 people each, open trunks and people screaming not very polite words against Zidane's mother . When I tried to overcome the cars, a motorbike with 4 poeple on (the whole family I guess), cuts my way. My efforts to keep up with Luca and my other friends got irremediably frustrated.
At the Colosseum we got stuck, people running around and a bus laying across the street that eventually, pushed by ten volounteers, jumped over the wall between the lanes...I did the same, helped by two over-excited teenagers. I left the Colosseum in flames behind my back, heading to Circo Massimo were I expected to see hell...a couple of non Romans asked me to jump on my motorino to go to Testaccio and pick up their car..."uff, guys there's no way you can drive the car to the Centre, enJoy the passeggiata!" I replied. Being in Rome I decided to
end my WorlChampionship final night like a famous ancient Roman: like a little Nero I climbed the hill of Gianicolo and looked down, enjoying to see Rome in flame.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Germany v Italy...cue the insults!

It's t-minus a few hours to the big match: Italy v. Germany. I have tried to remain neutral, but I just received an email from a friend in Frankfurt. Attached, was a video entitled "Training der Italiener". The translation? German trash talk!

Here's a link.

This will be a truly strange soccer viewing experience. Typically, when playing Germany, the English fans' trash talking consists of WW2 movie theme songs, or the crowd-pleaser: "Stand up if you won the war". What taunts will the Italian fans concoct if they jump to an early lead? Perhaps "Stand up if you can make a proper Bolognese sauce"? Nah, doesn't have the same ring to it.

I'll report back here tomorrow and let you know.