Category Archives: Travel

Riolo Terme in Romagna

Hotel Golfo delle Terme

Hotel Golfo delle Terme

Riolo Terme is a lovely little village in the Province of Ravenna, in Romagna. Its main attractions are the tranquillity and beauty of the town itself and of the surrounding Valle del Senio, its Castello Sforzesco, built by Caterina Sforza towards the end of the 15th century, and of course its thermal baths, le terme.

To stroll the cobbled streets of Riolo is to enter a different reality. Cars and motorini are very much in evidence, but they are mostly parked. There is none of the obsessive and overwhelming traffic of the major Italian cities; people go about their business mostly on foot, serenely and urbanely. Surrounding the town, everywhere, there are the rolling vistas of the Valle del Senio. Here you can select your favorite cafe’ or gelateria, stroll there every day, get to know your host, and ritually have your cornetto e caffe’.

One of the best hotels in the city is the Hotel Golf delle Terme, periodically restructured and modernised since ancient times, with spacious common rooms for group activities, beautiful decor, and understated old-world elegance. Double rooms can be had in two flavors: more spacious but lacking the view of the valley, or somewhat smaller with spectacular valley views. Service is first class, as is the hotel restaurant. The hotel managers, Sig. Marco Gamberucci and Signora Gamberucci, are degustatori professionisti, and have kindly offered a brief degustazione of local wines, oils, and cheeses.

Napoli sotterranea

Napoli sotterranea

Napoli sotterranea

Naples wears its urban dysfunctions as a disguise, a perverse diversion from the underlying substance, a challenge to anyone who wishes to know her. Like some women who are defined “high maintenance”, she requires infinite care and understanding, and forgiveness for a multitude of caprices and unreasonable demands. Willfully and maliciously, she flaunts her impossible congestion, her periodic sanitary crises, the hauteur of her people, the casual haphazardness of her services, her refusal to yield to the demands of modernity, as a gauntlet to filter out the faint of heart. Only the strong need apply, but the rewards for those who possess the necessary patience and fortitude are great.

The treasures of Naples are endless. I know the city, and yet in the course of three days there we found things new and undreamed of. One of these is Napoli Sotterranea, the subterranean city above which the modern city is built. This consists of an extensive network of underground passages, caverns and cisterns, whose deepest recesses date back to pre-Christian Greek times. Above the Greek layer one finds structures dating from Roman times, and above these one finds medieval walls and artifacts. The underground city exists for several reasons: first of all, in constructing their buildings, Neapolitans simply used the surrounding tufa, the volcanic rock ubiquitous in the region. So, as a palace or a church went up, a hole was created by the quarrying of the building material. A key use for this growing network of underground passages, then, since ancient times, was the storage of water for the city. The water came from springs in the Apennine mountains, according to the ancient techniques of the Romans, who were able to build long aqueducts without pumps. Amazingly, this water collection and delivery system persisted into the 19th century, when, because of contamination from seeping sewage, it was abandoned in favor of the current hydraulic system.

Palinuro

Palinuro

No hesitations this time, no halfway measures, no roundabout routes. Straight to Naples, Capodichino airport, from Spokane, Washington. Late morning arrival, zero problems, caffé and sfogliatella first order of business. Hot, but it’s the humidity that gets to you, 80 degrees in Naples is not at all like 80 degrees in San Francisco. It is a Friday.

Message from my cousin Mimmo. We’re vacationing in Palinuro (which I already knew), come join us for the weekend, we have reserved a bungalow for you right next to our villa. We have no plans, no appointments, no internet, no house, no car. It’s a rare state of Nirvana. We have our telefonini and some dollars. Change some of those right away, switch to the vertiginously expensive euro. TIP: it’s always better to change to a currency in that currency’s home country.

So, what can I tell you about Palinuro, the ancient mariner? Well, let’s don’t talk about the ancient mariner, go to Wikipedia if you are interested, there IS a story. Let’s instead talk about the little town which is named after him. First of all, you can travel from Naples to Palinuro for free. Or maybe it just happens on Fridays. Be that as it may, we did honestly try to buy train tickets, but time was short and the lines were long and the ticket machines didn’t work. So we got on the train ticketless, resigned to paying the fine when the conductor came. But lo!, no conductor in sight for the entire 2-plus-hour trip, hence the proverbial free ride. And did I mention the free entertainment? Opposite us there sat a gentleman who would not stop obsessing about the train’s punctuality. On a little piece of paper he noted the arrival and departure times at each station, kept a tally of the number of seconds we were early or late, and a running (mono/dia)logue on the train’s performance. After the fourth stop it was all I could do to keep from ripping pen and paper from his fingers and tossing both out of the window!

All Roads lead to Rome

Spokane

Spokane


So, here’s a question: how does one get to Italy by the fastest and most economical route? Answer, one drives from one’s home on the Peninsula to San Diego on a Friday, drives back to the Peninsula the following Monday, pauses three days, then drives to Spokane, Washington. After five days in Spokane he boards a flight from Spokane to Seattle, a second flight from Seattle to New York, and a third from New York to Naples (not Florida, Italy!) Then he rides a train or a car from Naples to Rome, and voila, e’ arrivato!

I kid you not, friends, Romans and countrymen, this is the odyssey, or calvary, depending on your point of view. And I will spare you the details of the trasloco from hell. For there’s beauty, justice and righteousness in this chain of events, as I will explain below.

One goes to visit foreign cultures in part to experience and savor the differences relative to one’s own. In a sense, the starker the differences the more rewarding the visit to foreign parts. But what is the culture we have in the Bay Area? Multiethnic, multilingual, admixtures of Asian elements, European, South American, etc. etc. Everything is diffuse, boundaries are fuzzy, hybrid customs proliferate, cultural transitions become matter-of-fact and ordinary. Transitioning from such an environment to a foreign milieu is inevitably a gentle and gradual process for a traveler already cushioned against cultural shock by years of exposure to foreign customs and practices.

Italian Tours

Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy

Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy


Starting in the spring of 2012, the Istituto Educazione Italiana will begin offering guided tours to Italy of approximately two-weeks duration. The tours will concentrate on history, art and culture, as well as gastronomy and leisure. 

The tours are organized by Mario Fusco and Angelica di Chiara, both natives of Italy and knowledgeable of the language and culture of the country. By using their extensive network of contacts in Italy Mario and Angelica are able to offer uniquely customized tours not available from commercial organizations. Mario and Angelica accompany each tour and provide value added in the form of language instruction, historical narrative, insights in the art and culture, and personalized interactions with “real” Italians in Italy. And of course they will deal with any unforeseen circumstances that might arise while traveling. The personal approach makes it also possible to contain costs and to offer significant value for the traveler’s money.

The first tour if offered in May-June 2012. Please go to the Italian Tours page for details.

Italian Travel Tips

1. DO fly a European carrier if possible. You will have many more choices of final destinations if the second leg of your trip originates in Europe.

2. DO get some euro’s at the airport, as soon as you arrive. Their exchange rates are competitive.

3. DON’T deal with banks if you can avoid it. Generally you have to have an account at a bank to have them do anything for you at all.

4. DON’T take much cash with you, and DO use the ATM’s. They are plentiful and the fees you incur are well worth the peace of mind.

5. In restaurants, forget the 15-to-20% tipping rule. Ten percent is plenty, and then only if you think you have received good service.

6. DO tip your porter after he has taken your bags to your hotel room. Figure one euro per bag.

7. DON’T, if you are over eight years old, order a glass of milk or a cappuccino with dinner.

8. Remember that in Italy the midday meal (‘pranzo’) is the main meal of the day. For an inexpensive but still good ‘pranzo’ DO try a tavola calda on occasion.

Little Known Italy – BOLOGNA

Le Torri di Bologna

Le Due Torri

Bologna is without a doubt one of the most underrated cities in Italy. The capital of Emilia-Romagna, it is a city of about 1/3 million people, with ancient roots in pre-Roman Etruscan culture, a rich artistic heritage, a well-preserved historical center, and a coherent integration of the best that Italy has to offer in art, cuisine, architecture, and lifestyle. With a long tradition as a university city, probably the first in Europe, it is enlivened by the cultural and social contributions of young people who come from all over the world to study there. It is famous for its towers, its portici, and its centro storico, among the best-kept in Italy following a careful policy of preservation and restauration. Bologna has long enjoyed one of the most efficient and dedicated city administrations in all of Italy, and this is reflected in the efficiency of its services, the care with which the physical environment is maintained, and the smooth functioning of its civic institutions.

The relative obscurity of the city (compared to Florence and Venice, say), is perhaps due to the lack of an overarching artistic or architectural masterpiece to serve as a magnet for the attention of tourists and art aficionados, such as the David in Florence or the Sistine Chapel in Rome. And in fact the artistic importance of Bologna is due primarily to an homogeneous aggregation of first-class architectural and artistic masterpieces out of which it would be difficult to single out a distinct work for special recognition.

Agriturismo in Italy

Italian Landscape

Italian Landscape

Agriturismo, the countryside kind of tourism that has been growing in Italy in recent years, is a sort of rural retreat, generally for the whole family, during which the vacationeer can relax and reconnect with nature in its various manifestations, including getting to know your friendly horse and cow and other farm animals.  A treat for the city slicker who thinks that eggs are made in a laboratory and milk comes from the interior of coconuts.   This being Italy, agriturismo is also closely related to the regional types of cuisine that can be sampled while enjoying your stay in the rustic surroundings of the fattoria or casale of your choice.  In fact, as shown by several polls in Italy, the culinary element is key, for most people, when choosing an eventual destination.  This was explicitly recognized by Agrietour, International Salon for Agriturismo in Arezzo, in recently organizing a contest to choose the best peasant dish from 20 entries submitted by preselected agriturismi from all parts of Italy,

The prizewinner was the casata, a dish from Latium, which is a kind of pie based on an ancient recipe and made of two different dough mixes which should layer and not intermix, a result that can be verified only when the pie is cooked and eventually cut.  As agriturismo continues to grow in Italy we can look forward to more such contests and sagre that will showcase the local culinary specialties connected to each agriturismo.  All good for the vacationing public, which stands to benefit from the increased competition and the resulting improvement in the quality of agriturismo fare.

If your intent is to relax and unwind,  an agriturismo vacation is hard to beat: the Italian countryside, magically timeless, the Mediterranean climate and its glorious vegetation, excursions to solemn pinete as spiritual as any church, the rediscovery of ancient unhurried rhythms and practices, top-notch food, group activities in a convivial setting ideal for bonding with your family and making new friends … what more could you ask?

Enjoy!

Il Maschio Angioino

Maschio Angioino

Castel Nuovo

With this we get back to the mother lode, back to our roots, full circle, Naples, beautiful and forlorn, deceptively gay and mysteriously complex, vibrant as a tarantella and subtle as a stiletto.  The core, the essence, inseparable from the sea and the volcano, smoldering in its millennial languor, prostrated by the sweetness of the summer air, seduced and seductive in the grip of its eternal dream.  And we present here for your consideration the Castel Nuovo (distinct from the Castel Vecchio and Castel Capuano), also known as the Maschio Angioino in honor of its builder, Charles I of Anjou in the 13th century, following the expulsion of the Hohenstaufen.

Famous names are associated with the castle.  Pope Celestine V (the only pope to ever abdicate the Pontificate, and consigned to hell by Dante in his Inferno), sojourned here.  So did Petrarch and Boccaccio and Giotto, who produced frescoes which have unfortunately been lost.  The castle was almost entirely rebuilt during the tenure of the Aragonese, and further modified during the 18th century.

The Renaissance facade inserted between the medieval towers gives a startling contrast.  This exceptional work is actually a triumphal arch, executed in marble, and was commissioned by King Alfonso of Aragon following his conquest of the Kingdom from the Angevins.  It consists actually of two arches stacked vertically; the intermediate facade is where Alfonso’s triumph is actually represented.  The rest of the structure is abundantly decorated with mythological and allegorical symbols, as was the practice in those times.  Many artists from Naples, France and Spain worked on this remarkable arch, and it is difficult to accurately attribute every feature to the proper author.

Little-known Italy – RAVENNA

Coat of Arms of the City of Ravenna

Coat of Arms of Ravenna

A few miles south of Venice, in Emilia Romagna, the enterprising traveler will find the city of Ravenna. This city is easily bypassed, it is not on most tourist itineraries nor does it generally host internationally advertised events such La Biennale di Venezia or La Fiera di Milano. It is nevertheless a city of capital importance both artistically and historically. And it offers a glimpse of that urbanely unhurried Italian lifestyle that most people seek when they visit the country.

The beginnings of Ravenna are uncertain, though scholarly opinion inclines towards an Etruscan origin. The city was never conquered by the Romans, rather, it was accepted into the Republic as a federated town. Ravenna was an important outpost during the period of ascendancy of the Western Empire, becoming its capital in its twilight, just before the Empire’s fall to the German foederati chieftain, Odoacer. It was then the capital of the first Kingdom of Italy, and continued in this role after Theodoric slew Odoacer and took over his kingdom. Retaken eventually by the Byzantines, Ravenna became the seat of Byzantine power in Italy (the Exarchate of Ravenna), until the Byzantines’ final expulsion by the Longobards. Ravenna’s distinguished history continued under the popes, until its unification with the newly-minted Kingdom of Italy in 1861.