Wandering Italy - Guide to Traveling and Experiencing Italy
Wander the Italian countryside to discovered the food of the poor, the great art, monasteries, and the festivals that make Italy a top destination. Exploring the culture of the hidden Italy, Italian places where tourists don't go but should, usually rural but not always, a travel guide to the other Italy.
Sarzana is a quietly spectacular town. It lies in Liguria on the border with Tuscany. The Marga river passes to the east. The sea is a short distance away.
Tourists don’t go there much. Italian tourists might peek into some of the antique shops in the historic center, once a major draw in Sarzana but now a sideline ever since giant antique fairs started to play out in the bigger cities. Today it’s a quiet city.
Here’s the major piazza, Piazza Matteotti, on a recent Wednesday. A storm approaches, but the light is always good in Sarzana. It’s hard to take a bad picture of this city.
Sarzana: Piazza Matteotti
There are many restaurants in Sarzana, and all of them are good. It’s like the town is waiting for tourists who seldom come. We go there quite a lot, sometimes for the Thursday market, but mostly just to join the evening passeggiata and do a little shopping.
And, of course, Sarzana has a nice castle. Two in Fact. La Cittadella Fortezza Firmafede is right on the northeast border of the old town and the Fortezza di Sarzanello is just north of town. but you can see it off on the top of the hill as you gaze at the Fortezza Firmafede in front of you and squint a bit.
Sarzana's two castles, one in town, one on the hill behind.
It also has a fine Romanesque/Gothic cathedral, Basilica Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta. The cathedral was built as the seat of the Bishop of Luni, a nearby town from which marble was shipped and for which the Lunigiana was named. The current building took from 1204 to 1474 build, and in 1735 three statues of popes were added to the top of the façade.
Sarzana Cathedral: Basilica Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta
Nice, but that’s not all. Inside you’ll find the Cross of Maestro Guglielmo, dated 1138.
The Cross of Maestro Guglielmoin the Cathedral of Sarzana (1138) serves as the oldest extant example of a monumental painted panel (dipintura) cross. This crucifix portrays Jesus as the Christus Triumphans. In this format of depicting the crucifixion, Jesus appears immune to suffering and death. He stands against the cross fully alive (despite the spear wound); his eyes are open and his face devoid of emotion. ~ The Painted Panel Crucifixes of the Early Franciscans as a Response to the Cathar Heresy
The Cross of Maestro Guglielmo in the Cathedral of Sarzana (1138)
Where to Eat in Sarzana
Among the plethora of fine restaurants in Sarzana we find ourselves returning to L’Osteria dei Sani. Our latest meal was quite spectacular, including a pasta with fresh anchovies, a crunchy fritto misto di mare and perfectly seared tuna, as shown below.
Fritto Misto Mare and Tuna from Osteria dei Sani, Sarzana.
Where is Sarzana?
Sarzana is 15 minutes east of La Spezia, the “gateway to the Cinque Terre”, on the train, and a little over 2 hours from Florence on the train passing through the marble country of Massa and Carrara.
The uniguely Sarzana festival called Atri Fioriti, flowered atriums, is held around the May 1st holiday every year. Each year the city opens the doors of it’s stately palazzi to visitors, where they’ll find atriums decorated with a different them every year. Last year celebrated the historic cars of the Mille Miglia.
My descriptions of the historical territory of La Lunigiana in northern Tuscany tend to drift toward the tranquil beauty of mountains and valleys, the idyllic countryside that brings us a variety of good things to eat.
But there is adventure here, too, in the place I make my Italian home. Places where the earth cracks and exposes a colorful center. A river runs through it. Call it a fluvial gorge. Take a guided trip. Learn things you never knew before from a hidden corner of Tuscany.
Stretti di Giaredo
Stretti di Giaredo: A cavern in the Lunigiana. Associazione di Turismo Responsabile Farfalle in Cammino [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]
Stretti di Giaredo is located between Pontremoli and Zeri.
Pontremoli is a beautiful medieval village wedged between Magra and Verde rivers. It’s a major stop along the Via Francigena in the northern part of the Lunigiana in Northern Tuscany and is one of the larger towns of the Lunigiana. It’s famous for its Stele Statue Museum housed in the Castello del Piagnaro, a great attraction with fine views of the valley formed by the two rivers.
Zeri is a loose conglomeration of tiny hamlets to the west of Pontremoli, known for its Zeri Lamb, a product whose artisan production methods haven’t changed in a great long while.
You can find out about how to reach and enjoy Stretti di Giaredo from the great website that’s been recently uploaded. The English side of the site is fine, and you can find out what natural things you can do while hiking and swimming the straits.
…thanks to a growing attention caused by social networks and by the spread of beautiful pictures, over recent years they have been visited by an increasingly large number of tourists, especially during the warmer months of the year.
Yes, there seem to be way more tourists these days and they’re bent on taking bits of things they’ll probably never look at again, like pieces of rock wall, ancient pot sherds, and other things that can land you in jail if you get caught.
I like the idea of telling folks how they should behave. The experience is the thing. Take all the photos you like. Leave everything for the next person to gawk at. On the other hand, what can it hurt to take a little something home as a memento?
Here’s something that’s astounding. Folks take sand in Sardinia home in plastic bottles. How much sand could be missing?
In three summer months in 2015 alone, as much as five tonnes of sand was seized at Elmas airport, local reports say. Sand was also seized at the island’s other airports in Alghero and Olbia. Steal Sardinia’s Sand and Face a Fine
And that’s just what they found!
The nice thing about the behavior page is that it isn’t just a boring list of rules you look at and forget. It’s all explained to you.
It can happen, if you are a careful observer, to see particular white formations which slide along the wall imitating the stalactites: they are calcareous concretions which grow very slowly and their structures are extremely fragile. Observe the secular work of the water dripping, but without influence it: do not lean, do not touch and do not remove these formations.
If you wish to do this tour right, then I highly recommend the guided tour, because there’s so much you’ll want to know about the unique aspects of this site. The guides, according to a variety of online sources, are fabulous.
2019 marks the 40th anniversary of the rock art valley’s inclusion on the Unesco World Heritage List. It was Italy’s first, and there are some special events and ceremonies planned.
Valcamonica warrior petroglyph, Naquane
This is one of our favorite “unknown” corners of Italy, a mountain valley in the Lombardy region near lake Iseo packed with history and biodiversity, webbed with interesting hiking trails, and fueled by some fine mountain food.
Under the banner of the 40 years of UNESCO site, widespread events and cultural festivals, demonstrations and thematic conferences will be promoted, and accessibility interventions will be completed with the inauguration of the works promoted in the Seradina Park and in the Naquane National Park. the great rock n. 1. Twinnings are already planned with the UNESCO sites of Matera and Naples, with which an agreement for the joint promotion of educational activities has recently been signed. — 2019: a year of anniversaries and major events
If you are planning a vacation for 2019 and want to include the Valle Camonica, the site referenced above has a fine, downloadable brochure in English you can download and print.
Foodies will enjoy the work now being undertaken to link all the mountain foodways with a nomination of Alpine Food Heritage to the Unesco Representative list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Food heritage is a strong source of identity for Alpine populations. It goes beyond products to include productive landscapes and traditional knowledge on production techniques, consumption customs and rituals, and the transmission of ancient wisdom. AlpFoodway will create a sustainable development model for peripheral mountain areas based on the preservation and valorization of Alpine Space cultural food heritage and on the adoption of innovative marketing and governance tools. It will also foster the emerging of a transnational Alpine identity based on the common cultural values expressed in food heritage. — AlpFoodway
Highlights of the Region
One of the most interesting strolls you might take is through the Parco Nazionale delle Incisioni Rupestri – Naquane where the picture above was taken. The ancient folks who pecked the glacier-scubbed rocks knew where to live, the mountain scenery is spectacular.
Nearby there are 7 other parks with rock engravings.
Trails in the Valcamonica
If you enjoy a longer stroll in the fresh mountain air, start at Pescarzo, a village steeped in mountain history and the start of many trails into the mountains. A good time to visit is August for the “ImmaginArti exposition“http://www.immaginarti.it/immaginarti.htm, where there are master craftsmen exhibiting their wares and traditional food.
Thanks to the traditional hospitality of the inhabitants, courtyards and cellars are transformed into as many laboratories and workshops that become exhibitions open to the many visitors.
The streets, lit by the fire of a thousand candles, every evening are populated by guests, musicians and acrobats in a big party that lasts until late at night.
For a serine experience, a night or two on Lake Iseo, lago di Iseo is a must. We stayed in the lakeside village of Marone, at Villa Serioli, and recommend it.
An island in Lago Iseo
You might consider starting your exploration of the area in Brescia, and if you like bubbly, you might want to visit the nearby Franciacorta region, where Italy’s best sparkling wine comes from.
Chances are you’ve never heard of a Strawberry Tree. When ripe, its strawberry-colored fruits are spiky and usually quite round. You wouldn’t mistake them for a real strawberry. You wouldn’t eat them, probably, because they don’t have much of a taste.
Scientifically the tree is called arbutus unedo, a shrub in the family of Ericaceae. This Mediterranean native is highly widespread in Sardinia.
Fruit of the Strawberry Tree by NzfaunaNzfauna [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
Sardinia is where you’ll find the famous arbutus honey called “miele amaro”, bitter honey in italian, and sometimes labeled as miele di corbezzolo, or corbezzolo honey. It’s a fantastic honey, balancing its sweetness with the long-lasting bitterness derived from the arbutus. It’s expensive, but worth it. When I’m in Italy, I try to keep some on hand all the time.
But the miracles?
Yes, ok, the Sardinian honey is like medicine, more so than other honeys.
The arbutus honey has a large number of therapeutic properties. It is very effective in the treatment of the flu, especially in the suppression of the cough. It is also of a great help in asthmatics states and, in general, for respiratory diseases. The high concentration of glucose and the acidic PH provide this honey with a strong antibacterial effect. It has anti inflammatory and cleansing properties, is a great antiseptic of the urinary tract, and also has diuretic and anti-diarrhea properties. In the Sardinian tradition, it has for long been used to facilitate sleep: eating a teaspoon of this honey before going to bed will help you to rest better.
Arbutus honey is great with fresh cheese, ricotta, pecorino cheese (Italian sheep cheese), but also with walnuts and the Sardinian carasau bread. It is often used in desserts such as ice cream and sebadas (a Sardinian dessert). Last but not least, arbutus honey is used to make alcoholic drinks such as honey brandy (acquavite al miele), a typical grappa of Sardinia. — Arbutus Honey
Sardinian sebadas or Seadas with bitter honey.
And Now for Something Completely Different: On to Madrid, Spain
So lets head west until we come to Madrid in the center of Spain, where the strawberry tree is special for a totally different reason. Namely booze.
Madrid’s unique liquor uses what they call madroño berries that grow in the strawberry trees in the city. And here’s another miracle that contributes: these berries ferment naturally while they are still on the plant!.
God provides for those who cannot afford ferment tanks.
Folk medicine from the 16th century included boiling the leaves of the madroño tree toward creating an elixir that was effective in reducing fevers. Like the Portuguese ginginha, a sour cherry liquor that Spain’s neighbors claim makes one healthy, young, and beautiful, madroño liqueur also purports health benefits, if enjoyed in moderation, of course.— El Madroño – Madrid’s Strawberry Tree
And finally, according to Wikipedia: “In Portugal, the fruit is sometimes distilled (legally or not) into a potent brandy known as medronho”.
The winter holiday season is the time you’re inbox will be inundated with lists of books designed to make you swoon over the immense beauty you might discover on the Italian peninsula. You will not be expected to notice that the landscapes are all made more compelling by human intervention. A picture of the Grand Canyon at sunset devoid of God’s favorite mammals might make you swoon, but a picture of rural Italy will likely be infected with the spirit of humans, even if they aren’t actually depicted, as in this picture of the Abruzzo:
The Abruzzo in Springtime
Likewise, we might be faced with a book about Italian food, in which the dish of pasta shown on the cover is suitably adorned with edible flowers or some such frippery, and we are likely to be told that this dish has been dragged out of the murky culinary catchall called “cucina povera” because that’s what we want to hear.
Italians figure in everything. You can’t separate them from the land, or the beauty of the land or from the good eats they’ve created from humble ingredients. But we sure like to ignore their influence. Perhaps it is embarrassing to folks who get their food from vast corporations and who can’t eat Romaine lettuce because the provenience of the poisoned lettuce is hidden or unknown.
Lately, I’ve been reading many new books (and a few older ones) that give the sense of the 20th century disruptions that influenced Italians. Here are the ones I think deserve the attention of thinking folks with a desire to read books about Italy.
We have likely romanticized “the cooking of the poor” to such an extent that we’re willing to believe that every heaping platter of food we pay dearly for at something called an “Osteria” comes straight from a time when most of Italy was mired in poverty—a time few of us know much about. But why not just find some of these folks while they still live and breath and ask them about what it really was like _back then? Surviving the 20 years of Fascism required a great deal of intestinal fortitude; the degree of poverty and lack of access to food during the era remains largely unimaginable.
…it was during the fascist reign that the behemoth that would become “Italian cuisine” was conceived and insisted upon as a foundation of national pride. The Oppression, dearth and want that characterized the fascist era were the mother of invention and the springboard that moved the population to vow, like Scarlet O’Hara, that they wouldn’t never be hungry again. It was through the determination of this generation to forge onwards and explore the potential of the bounty the country had to offer that Italian cooking spread its wings to become the most loved cuisine in the world. ~ Chewing the Fat: An Oral History of Italian Foodways from Fascism to Dolce Vita
Besides the author’s notes, the book is composed of eighteen remarkable oral narratives with recipes for the real cucina povera. It’s likely you’ll not want to make them. The information gleaned from these remarkable women makes the book a treasure.
While we’re on the subject of the 20 years of Fascism, you might be surprised to know that Mussolini got his share of laudatory letters as dictator of Italy, 1500 a day on average. Why not trace them down and set them up against a real timeline?
In fact, why not abandon, even for a second, the simple idea that Mussolini was a hated dictator who magically appears on the Italian historic timeline to reek havoc on life and liberty without so much as a how do you do?
Throughout the 1930s, Mussolini received about 1,500 letters a day from Italian men and women of all social classes writing words of congratulation, commiseration, thanks, encouragement, or entreaty on a wide variety of occasions: his birthday and saint’s day, after he had delivered an important speech, on a major fascist anniversary, when a husband or son had been killed in action.
Author Christopher Duggan presents us with selected letters written to Mussolini by Italian citizens. They’re arranged chronologically so that we can see the how sentiments changed over time. You might be surprised how those writing in the 1920s and 1930s were encouraging for Il Duce, and many seemed to consider him the man who would make Italy great again. Mussolini even sent small amounts of money to those who seemed to be in dire straights until Il Duce could get some traction. As the war changed course in the 1940s, letters arrive attacking the government but, oddly enough, continuing to be in praise of Mussolini.
Fascist Voices: An Intimate History of Mussolini’s Italy provides a revealing glimpse into the workings and appeal of a Fascist government.
It wasn’t so many years ago that you could walk into an Italian bar, order a hot tea, and you’d get the default black tea: Earl Grey. Why was this so? How did this guy from somewhere else manage to spook Italians into drinking this specialty tea over all else?
If you’ve already guessed the answer would have something to do with Karen Haid’s Calabria you’d be right. Earl Grey tea reeks of bergamot oil, and bergamot comes from a narrow stretch of land in Calabria…and that’s it.
The exceedingly curious thing about the unusual citrus, however, is that Calabria is the only place where the plant really flourishes. Stranger still is that the area is limited to a narrow stretch of land less than one hundred miles long from Villa San Giovanni to Monasterace in the province of Reggio Calabria. The main area of cultivation is half the size…While the plant can grow in other areas, it cannot grow fruit.
Where else is bergamot oil used? Perfume. It was one of the main components of the original Eau de Cologne, created by Italians living in Germany in 1709 and you can find it today in that bottle of Chanel No. 5 you have lurking on top of your dresser.
And we won’t get into the medicinal uses of this interesting and little known citrus, which are many. Suffice it to say that I find these little stories fascinating and a book full of them quite enlightening. You won’t find much “Go here. Turn Left. Follow the street bordered with palms until you come to the famous art museum where you’ll pay a 12 euro entrance fee to see art that will make you quiver in medieval delight. Calabria, the Other Italy is a guide to the unique stories that make it a compelling place to visit. You can go to the tourist office in 15 minutes and find all the museums you might wish to experience.
That said, there are stories here of places of great interest to tourists, like Reggio’s legendary optical illusion they call Fata Morgana or the Riace Bronzes. But there’s also that trip to the Doctor’s office and other glimpses into typical Italian life. The book is highly recommended if you’re planning a trip to Italy’s south, and especially Calabria, reading this will give you an appreciation of the finer points of culture and geography.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site called Palazzina di Caccia di Stupinigi is located a few kilometers south of Turin. It was designed by the architect Filippo Juvarra for Victor Amadeus II, King of Sardinia.
The word “stupendous” does not derive from Stupinigi, yet…I liked visiting Piemonte’s premier Baroque hunting lodge quite a bit. The borgo and the grounds surrounding Stupinigi (Parco Naturale di Stupinigi) offer more down to earth eye candy.
I also like the label, “palazzina” or “small” palace—or “lodge”. The joint is not what we think of as an exquisitely small country house or intimate lodge. You can walk quite a long time on the gray carpets and still not see everything. There are 137 rooms and 17 galleries and the building covers 31,050 square meters.
The bronze stag on top tells you it’s a hunting lodge.
Stupinigi Palazzina de Caccia
Built in the early 18th century, the little hunting lodge is located in Stupinigi, a suburb of the town of Nichelino, 10 km (6 mi) southwest of Turin. We stayed in Nichelino and drove to Stupinigi easily. You could also “do” Supinigi via car from Torino.
The centerpiece of the structure is the central salon with its massive chandelier. Four wings project from this main hall.
Stupinigi: The Grand Salon
As you file along on the tourist-herding carpet, you’ll come across many different rooms with totally different themes, fantastic furniture as “art” and even a room with a television showing clips of all the films made inside the place. You’ll recognize the same carpets in each of the movie clips.
Fancy a little Chinese?
Inside Stupinigi: Chinese Room
Or a game of chess in the game room?
Stupinigi: The Game Room
Project: Stupinigi Farina
The goal of the project Stupinigi Flour is is to produce quality sourdough bread with dough using special wheat flour grown in Stupinigi fields.
The bread will be like the artisan bread of old, before people had a problem digesting it, with a long rise allowing a fermented and not simply “inflated” product.
If You Visit: Tourist Essentials
You can download a printable PDF map of the the National Park that encompasses Stupinigi here.
There are several places to eat near the palazzina. In the borgo to the northeast, the highly touted Ristorante Sabaudia can handle your fine dining needs, while the Caffè Villa Reale Stupinigi across the street is great for a drink, sandwich or light meal. They also have special meals some evenings for a fixed price.
There are other opportunities to eat in the nearest town, Nichelino.
We stayed at the convenient and inexpensive Hotel Parisi in Nichelino, which has plenty of parking.
Fontana Pretoria, that gleaming monument bristling with nudes so soft and lifelike they offend the easily offended, is a symbol of Palermo and a datum point that marks the center of a grand corridor of Palermo attractions. And it wasn’t even designed for a city center—or even for Palermo. It was to go in a garden—in Florence.
The Magic of Music, Pretoria Fountain, Palermo, Sicily
Irreverently displaying their bodily perfection to the cloistered nuns of Santa Caterina monastery, the statuary, part of 644 pieces of fountain shipped from worldly Florence, came to entice the locals into calling the square upon which the fountain rests “Piazza della Vergogna” (Square of Shame).
But nakidity isn’t all the fountain has. Art has power. Art sucks you in.
Many tell us of the fountain’s amazing power. Viewers swear it seems to come to life throwing them into another dimension. As they walk past, the fountain manages to force passersby to make several turns around it, each time noticing new details, and more aspects that combined with the grace of each statue creates the distinct impression that they’re soft enough to make people want to reach out and touch them. ~ Palermo’s Pretoria Fountain — One of a Kind
I am happy to tell you it does just that. This unlikely Mélange of statuary seems to have no form. You need to enter the concentric circles to see all sides of it. There are not only nude violin players, there are animals spouting water and a fountain spiking the sky as well. It’s like a garden party in the heart of old Palermo.
What’s the point? Well, you can look forever, you can peer at each element from various positions while tourists seek the perfect selfie background (“And here we are with a woman who, oddly enough, isn’t holding her violin”). It has a different story to tell to each passer by.
Just to prove that not all the statues are of alluring young nudes, notice the texture in this b&w rendition:
Pretoria Fountain Statue, Palermo, Sicily
The thing about the fountain is, you can spend some time here and visiting is absolutely free. The downside is that there isn’t a bar where one might sit and enjoy the tourists searching for their selfie op.
The Palermo Attractions Corridor
As we’ve mentioned, the fountain is the center of a pretty dense clot of attractions. To the north is the four corners, the quattro canti (a left turn here takes you to the cathedral and on to the Norman Palace). To the south are two fabulous Norman churches, our favorites in Palermo: Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio (fabulous 12th century mosaics executed by Byzantine craftsmen) and Chiesa di San Cataldo (1160), also with mosaics. As an added bonus, the Tourist Information is just below San Cataldo.
Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio Interior, Palermo, Sicily
Giacomo Bernard returned to his valley, the Val Chisone from Marseille in 1902 and became a beverage producer, making gazzosa, a lemon drink like Sprite only better. It came in what they called a Codd bottle, with a little marble inside that sealed the carbonated beverage tight so that the cork or stopper wouldn’t pop out. Kids loved it when the adults emptied the bottle into a like amount of beer to create what they called a “panaché” and what might be called a “shandy” by more northerly imbibers. The kids got the marble from the gazzosa bottle and all was well with the world.
Eventually Giacomo made his journeys to Turin very efficient. He loaded up his carriage with bottles of herb and mint liquors to sell at Turin bars and restaurants, then loaded up the now empty carriage with barrels of beer from the Bosio & Caratsch brewery that he could bottle and sell locally. He did this from the very same location you can go today on Via C. Alberto, 20 in Pomaretto.
And why would you go to a place called Bernard? To taste some of the most intriguing and beguiling liquors on the planet. If you love the mountains, you can indeed take back the perfume of the high mountain flowers in one of Enrico Bernard’s elixors and liquors.
You see, the industrial age went on to kill the local production of soft drinks and the bottles got cheaper. So what to do? Make mountain herb liquors the best way possible, in a way a factory couldn’t dream of coming close to the expensive techniques that make this (quite reasonably priced) liquor so close to the flavors and perfume of the original flowers and roots extracted from high in the alps.
No heat is used. The botanicals are dried on mats in the Alpine air, then infused in local wheat alcohol and spring water for up to a year. Everything is handcrafted except for the bottling and labeling. No industry is going to go that far.
The number of bottles open for your taste test seems to go on forever. You might need to pace yourself. Mountain roads aren’t straight you know!
The Tasting Table at Bernard
If you’re lucky, Enrico will pour his favorites for you and describe them—in Italian of course, but the beverages speak for themselves.
Tasting at Bernard: Enrico Bernard and Marla Gulley Roncaglia of Bella Baita B&B
Enrico makes a gin you won’t believe, in addition to the elixirs that range from slight to full-on bitterness. My favorite is the bitter Baratheir, which is said to have “restorative and digestive” properties.
Sërpoul is a wild thyme liquor using herbs grown at 8,500 feet.
The Val di Chisone
You may only know the Val di Chisone if you’re a skier or you spent a lot of time watching the 2006 Olympics from Torino. There are many things to see and do here. The crown jewel is the Fenestrelle Fortress built in 1728, the largest in Europe and home to the longest covered stairway in the world (3997 steps). The fort inspired Alexandre Dumas to write The Count of Monte Cristo.
Vucciria market. The name even sounds gritty, doesn’t it? Well, it is. And it’s one of the markets they send you to when you ask where you should go in Palermo. It’s a market in transition. It’s a place to go in the evenings, not only to have your pockets picked but to have some cheap and questionable libations and maybe dance the night away. The bombed-out buildings surrounding Piazza Garraffello make up the background. You never forget the war.
We discovered Vucciria market while waiting for our dinner reservation. The sun had set. We had no idea where we were strolling.
Then came the rat-tat-tat of boxing gloves coming together. Musically. So we pushed forward, squirming between folks clutching drinks tightly. In front of the infamous Taverna Azzurra, where the cheap booze is, we discovered an older guy and a young guy boxing. No equipment besides the gloves. Rat-tat-tat-tat. Just the gloves. No blows to the head, no stomach punching, no ring. Nobody afraid to pass these concentrating pugilists closely with a couple of jiggling beers.
“Odd,” I thought. Then we went to eat.
Days later I got to thinking about this little slice of life, so I searched the web for “Sicilian boxing” thinking that maybe it was a strange kind of boxing that rewarded blows to the glove—or a game that depended upon building what percussive sounds you could conjure with boxing gloves while looking like Sylvester Stallone on a narrow street lined with vegetables.
Like a brain surgeon peering into a politician’s skull, I found nothing.
When I got home to our hovel in the Lunigiana, just happened to come across a short video that made everything crystal clear.
It turns out that of the boxers was Pino Leto. It’s unlikely you know him, but you’ll like his story. Pino was an eight-time Italian champion and winner of the European super-welterweight title in 1989.
As a child he lived with his family around the Vucciria market. He watched as his friends succumbed to the siren song of the Mafia and ended up broken or in prison. One day a friend turned him on to boxing. He was good at it.
Today, retired from professional boxing, he remains the “boy of Vucciria” as he tries to improve his neighborhood. His desire is to remove the youngsters from the mean streets, teaching them to follow a passion. He gives them a taste a performing in front of a crowd at the market. Bravo.
You may be surprised that Mr. Leto has written two books, Dalla strada al ring, From the Street to the Ring, and Amare Palermo amara, about the bitter love Palermo invokes. Not your typical boxer at all.
I understand, dear (potential) tourist, your fear of gritty Naples, or a bombed out corner of Palermo. There are many more beautiful places in Italy. But the uplifting stories exist in the cracks and the best wine still comes from stressed vines.
Where is the best place to go in Italy? Depends upon the time of day and which knight emerges from the darkness.
If you plan a stay in Palermo for a length of time, you’ll probably want to head out of town to visit Monreale Cathedral and Abbey. It’s one of the most important attractions of Sicily. It’s a fairly easy day trip that takes you through a fertile valley called the “Conca d’Oro.”
The Monreale complex contains a mix of Arab, Byzantine and Norman artistic styles packaged within traditional Romanesque architecture. The church is 102 meters long and 40 meters wide. The display of mosaic art is only surpassed by Istanbul’s Basilica of Saint Sofia, covering over six thousand square meters of the church’s interior. It is indeed an impressive site; you’ll be glad you visited.
Construction of the cathedral began in 1172. It took four years to build. Work on the mosaics and cloister was completed by 1189.
How Does the Monreale Cathedral compare with Palermo Cathedral?
The Monreale cathedral and cloister represents the largest concentration of Norman, Arab and Byzantine art in one place. While Monreale is rather basic on the outside, Palermo’s Cathedral is quite a stunning view outside, but can’t come close to matching the grandeur of Monreale inside. Some tours don’t even enter Palermo Cathedral.
Pictures of Monreale Cathedral: Santa Maria la Nuova
The mosaics tell familiar biblical stories. Below you see the overturning of the job creators money lenders table.
Mosiacs and columns
monreale exhibition (Belgian)
You can find a handy, printable key to the Monreale mosaic panels here.
How to Get to Monreale from Palermo
The recommended way to get to Monreale is to take the 389 bus departing from Piazza Indipendenza near the Norman Palace. There is a bus that departs from in front of the Palermo train station as well. It is the bus we took on our day trip to Monreale. Station personal don’t seen to know about it, so you’re on your own.
Much more expensive is a taxi, but be aware finding one on the way back to Palermo is likely to be difficult at peak times.
There isn’t a lot of parking available if you take your own car.
Besides the main church, you can visit the cloister, the only part of the monastery standing today. You can also go up on the roof for good views of the surrounding territory.
Where to Eat
There are plenty of bars and restaurants near the cathedral. We liked Piccolo Refugio da Vito on Piazza Vittorio Emanuele for very traditional local food served by people passionate about it.
There happen to be plenty of places to stay in and around Monreale if you plan to stay for more than a day trip: