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.
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.
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.
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:
By virtue of its position in the center of the Mediterranean and its fine climate and fertile soil, Sicily has been a magnet for travelers, invaders and conquerors over the years. It is said to be the most conquered island in the world.
All of this coming and going has left a vibrant culture in cities like Palermo, as witnessed in the sprawling street markets, the immense variety of good things to eat, and in the architectural treasures that dot a map of the city. Palermo is beautiful and alive, and a week is not nearly long enough to explore all its treasures.
There was a particular slice of time that left a rather large footprint in Palermo. It begins with the Arabs, who invaded the island in the 9th century and by the 10th they owned it.
Arab domination upon the island began to falter in 1060 when Robert Guiscard and Roger Altavilla (then of Sicily) initiated its conquest, with the support and protection of the Catholic Church: they were Normans and faithful to the Pope, and their military action was – so they said – lead by their profound faith. Faithful or not, they succeeded in their intent and, 31 years later, in 1091, Sicily was a Norman land. ~ The Arab-Norman Itinerary of Palermo
Of these, there is a favorite of mine I want to show you. It is San Giovanni degli Eremiti or the Monastery of St. John of the Hermits, a mosque turned into a monastery.
In 1132, the Norman King Roger II, son of the Great Count, reconsecrated the mosque as a church. The king charged the monastery to the famous Sicilian hermit-monk Saint William of Montervergine, founder of an obscure Benedictine order known as the Williamites. William was known for keeping a domesticated wolf, who the hermit had miraculously tamed after the wolf had killed one of his donkeys. ~ San Giovanni degli Eremiti
San Giovanni degli Eremiti
Once you pay the entrance fee, you’re free to meander along a path through lush gardens inside the walls of the monastery, first arriving inside the empty, domed church. Look up to see the geometry of the dome.
The geometry of the domes: San Giovanni degli Eremiti
By the time you have reached the cloister, you’ll realize something’s different. It’s the garden that brings it all to life. Other cloisters seem barren by comparison.
Cloisters: San Giovanni degli Eremiti
And you might look up to see the characteristic red domes that indicate a stylistic preference that becomes a time marker for the city’s Arab-Norman treasures. Don’t be misled by the red color of the domes, they might not have been as widespread as we think. An architect who found pieces of red plaster on some of the domes decided to paint all the domes in red.
Domes: San Giovanni degli Eremiti
After your visit, you may wish to head over to the Norman Palace. You can see it visible in the top of this picture.
Crenelations atop the Norman Palace visible above the walls of the Cloister
The main attraction inside the Norman Palace is the Cappella Palatina or Palatine Chapel, the royal chapel of the Norman kings of Kingdom of Sicily. It’s quite impressive.
Entrance Fees and Opening Times
At the time of writing, San Giovanni degli Eremiti on Via dei Benedetti 16, Palermo is open Monday, Sunday and Holidays 9.00-13.30 (last ticket sold 13.00)/ Tuesday to Saturday 9.00 to 19.00 (last ticket sold 18.30). Entry is 6 euro for adults, 3 euro for children. Check the latest times and fees.
There is a small bar across from the monastery that serves a wide variety of sandwiches in case you get a bit hungry.
More on Palermo & Sicily
We stayed at a wonderful apartment called Downtown House that was fully equipped and provisioned with coffee, fruit, pasta, and artisan bottled pasta sauces so that we could eat the first night without shopping. It was near the train station and the Ballarò market. There was a vegetable stand just outside the apartment. The owner, Dario, was very attentive to our needs. It was inexpensive and makes a 5 star stay in the fascinating city of Palermo. Find Out More About Downtown House
I often wonder what food travelers mean when they seek “authentic food”. A great majority of folks who write about Italy obsess over what makes the “best” food. The best I can figure is that people like the food the commoners eat but want it given validation by “chefs” in a place where they can pay a lot for it.
Nevertheless, we persist. My “authentic” is animated by common folks enjoying real food. Yes, I’m nuts.
Palermo is known for its street markets and street foods. It’s all good. If you wind through the Ballarò market starting on the train station side and work your way toward the Norman palace, you’ll come across all manner of raw materials for a fine meal. As the market winds down, the stalls are gradually replaced by restaurants. Touts call to you, “Meester, come eat now! Look menu!” a far cry from the abbanniate’, that wild Sicilian call meant to draw a shopper’s attention to the gleaming melanzane or the octopus crawling off the table.
In any case, if you continue, tying yourself to the mast to successfully avoid the traditional siren song of mediocrity, you will certainly come across Il Bersagliere Trattoria. It’s in a hole off to the left as you go up the hill.
Il Bersagliere Trattoria in Palermo near the Ballarò market
If you can’t stand real authentic, please do not cross this sacred portal. Here the beer is cold and the cartilage chewy.
And in Palermo, you must give up the idea that food pictures on the outside of a restaurant are a sign that it isn’t at all a fine place to eat. It may work other places, but just not here, where it seems to be a tradition.
Il Bersagliere is the kind of place where tired workmen come, first giving a single peck on the cheek to the waiter, then congregating at communal tables. Couples wearing motorcycle helmets head for the back tables. Here, written menus are for tourists. Wine is for tourists. It’s beer and dialect; we can’t understand a word.
Plates overflowing with traditional foods start sliding out a window next to my left ear. Plates are as massive as the prices are reasonable. Pasta con le sarde, the traditional Sicilian pasta dish, comes with a twist. Tomato sauce, lots of it.
The dish behind is Martha’s choice. pasta with swordfish, eggplant and mint. And tomato, of course.
So I happen to glance at the next table. The guy on the end is dribbling olive oil over a huge stack of roughly sliced meat. The stream of oil goes on and on. I look at his buddy, with whom he’s sharing the plate. He’s rolling his eyes at the continuing gush of oil. I smile at him and he gives me that look that indicates his friend is out of his head. So I ask him in Italian what the dish is and he surprises me by replying that it’s a Sicilian bollito misto, the best in Italy.
I’m sorry that I’ve just had a trip to the big table out front that looks like a collision between a truck carrying random animal parts and a vegetable cart. My eyes had found something so strange I just had to have it. When I asked the waiter what the object of my gustatory lust was, he drew a gaunt hand over his face and replied that it was pretty much the face of a cow. A salad, believe it or not.
So I figured a salad was what you need to end a meal, and why eat all that lettuce when a cow face was waiting for you.
Insalata di musso e carcagnolo, muscle and cartilage salad.
Postprandial research identified the “salad” as Insalata di Musso e Mascella or Insalata di Musso e Carcagnolo, jaw muscle and cartilage salad. “How is this a salad?” one may ask. Ah, it’s cold (actually, temperatura ambiente or what we’d call room templerature) and there is that little slice of celery and the faint whiff of vinegar…
So I was full and there wasn’t room for the bollito misto. Dang.
But the place was absolutely packed to the gills. I’m saying more than one person had to move in order to access the bathroom door.
In case—if there is any question, this is my authentic. Yours may very well vary.
The money a society devotes to shared public resources was once a sign of its greatness. Reading—gaining sense through knowing the past through the writing from the humanity’s greatest minds—was a big deal long ago. We can gain a sense of what used to be considered greatness by visiting some of Rome’s historic libraries.
Biblioteca Angelica, Rome
In raucous Rome, libraries also represent a sanctuary from the happy disorder of the streets. The quiet wraps you like a blanket, the filtered light bathes you. The books and statues are carefully placed to look down upon you kindly.
In the center of Rome, the place where you’re likely to have planned your holiday’s boundaries, there are three libraries we think are well worth a look. They are historic, but they are still in use by scholars eager to chart the past to relate it to the present—so tread lightly. A visit by a gawking tourist is a privilege, not a right. There are times you won’t be able to see much, due to events and crowding. Shrug it off; visit another time.
Notice the opulence in these pictures. Notice the attention to the details of creating a scholarly environment with expensive materials. It all is there to remind us how knowledge, passed on by people who dedicated themselves to using their brains, was highly regarded during these times.
This was the first historic library of Rome we visited. We didn’t make guided tour arrangements in advance, so we were led into a single room that was accessible to outsiders. We could peruse the floor to ceiling books, take pictures, and admire the statues. A guided tour for groups opens more of the library to visitors, see the official site below for booking information.
The Biblioteca Angelica owes its name to the Augustinian Bishop Angelo Rocca (1546-1620), an erudite writer and a keen collector of rare editions. He was in charge of the Vatican Printing House during the pontificate of Pope Sixtus V.
Bishop Angelo Rocca entrusted his collection of some 20,000 volumes to the friars at the convent of St. Augustine in Rome at the end of the sixteenth century.
Over the previous centuries the Augustinian collection had acquired valuable manuscripts donated by Roman nobles, and codices transcribed by or belonging to the friars themselves who left them to the monastery when they died. Angelo Rocca provided the new library with a suitable building, an annuity and a set of regulations. He wished the library to be open to everyone irregardless of their income or social standing. The novelty of this institution gave rise to an ever-increasing interest by the general public and soon the library’s fame spread to scholars all over the world. — Biblioteca Angelica – Official Site
The Casanatense Library was founded by the Dominicans of the Monastery of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome and opened to the general public, according to the will of Cardinal Girolamo Casanate.
In order to contain the Library’s collection the Friars built a new architectural structure in the area of the monastery’s cloister. The Salone (hall) was probably designed by the well-known Roman architect Carlo Fontana, but it was finally realized by Antonio Maria Borioni. The Library was opened on November 3, 1701, only one year after cardinal Casanate’s death. The first nucleum of the Library was the Cardinal’s collection, which contained up to 25.000 volumes. — Biblioteca Casanatense History
The Library’s collection contains about 400.000 volumes, as well as a couple of historic globes from 1716 by Silvestro Amanzio Moroncelli, statues, and scientific instruments.
And they are provocative globes. How fun study must have been in the 1700s!
Not far from the Piaza Navona is the Biblioteca Vallicelliana near the church called Parrocchia Santa Maria in Vallicella. The church has lots of art to see inside, and you can walk up to the dome for an awesome view of Rome.
This hidden gem was designed by Borromini, and much of the furniture was designed by the artist.
Biblioteca Vallicelliana Book Case
There are more than 130.000 volumes to be found here, and the library has expanded its collection since Filippi Neri founded the library in 1565.
The library is open Monday to Friday and every other Saturday and is free to visit.