Tag Archives: italian vacation

The Founding of Mantova

Sant'Andrea

Sant'Andrea, Mantova

The myth of the founding of Mantova is part of the rich tapestry of Graeco-Roman mythology. It begins with the story of the prophetess Manto, daughter of the Theban seer Tiresias. Greek sources tell that Manto, escaping from Thebes, arrived, after many wanderings, in the territory of today’s city, which was then a swamp. In this place she created a lake with her tears; according to legend these waters had the magical property of conferring prophetic powers to anyone who drank of them. Eventually Manto met and married the river god Tybris (Tiber), king of the Tuscans, and their offspring Ocno eventually founded a city on the shores of the Mincio river, naming it Mantova in honor of his mother.

This version of the founding myth is reported in Virgil’s Aeneid. A competing version tells that the city of Mantova gets its name from Manth, the Etruscan god of the dead in the Thyrrenian pantheon. Virgil’s version of the myth is also found in the Divine Comedy, in Canto XX of the Inferno, in which Dante himself and his Mantuan guide, Virgil, encounter the seers. Pointing out one of these souls Virgil describes the Mantuan countryside, the Lake of Garda, and the course of the Mincio, which flows into the Po at Governolo, and then asserts, with reference to the legend of Manto:

“Fer la citta’ sovra quell’ossa morte;
e per colei che ‘l loco prima elesse,
Mantua l’appellar senz’altra sorte”


“The city was built over those dead bones;
and for she who first chose the place,
Mantua it was named with no other choice”

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.

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.

Il Teatro San Carlo a Napoli

Teatro San Carlo in Naples, across the street from Galleria Umberto and around the corner from the Royal Palace

Teatro San Carlo

Naples’ San Carlo Theater is the oldest operating theater in Europe.  Built in 1737, it has never missed an operatic season except in the period from May 1874 to December 1876, when, because of a severe economic crisis, financial support disappeared.  The San Carlo was built by King Charles of Bourbon, son of Philip of Spain and Elisabetta Farnese of Parma.  Charles gave rise to a dynasty which quickly shed all vestiges of Spanish influence and became, to all effects, an indigenous dynasty which endured through the turbulent Napoleonic period and came to an end only with the unification of Italy in 1861.  Naples, as the capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (so-called for historical reasons), was, during the early Bourbon period, one of the most populous, beautiful, and cultured cities in Europe.

The construction of the Teatro San Carlo was only one aspect of a general urban renovation whose purpose was to give Naples a physical appearance in line with the dignity and the prestige of the capital of a great kingdom.  Within the scope of this general plan, the San Carlo was conceived as a fitting symbol of the royal power and of the dynasty’s support of the musical arts, a passion long inbred in the depths of the Neapolitan psyche.  The San Carlo replaced the old (1621) and small Teatro San Bartolomeo, which was eventually made into a church.

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.

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!

Little Known Italy

The Italian Flag

Bandiera Italiana

The canonical destinations for tourists traveling to Italy are well known: Florence, Venice, Rome, the Cinqueterre, Umbria. The slightly more experienced may have found the Amalfitan Coast, Sicily, the Lago di Como, the Italian Riviera. But there is much, much more to Italy than these well-known destinations. I would argue, in fact, that the true Italy, unspoiled by the tourist presence, is more readily found in little-known middle-sized cities and out-of-the-way places that have maintained their cultural and historic identity aloof from the tourist tide.

Examples abound. The Byzantine treasures of Ravenna, the Renaissance gems of Ferrara and Mantova, the liveliness of Padova, the casual gayety of Rimini, the transcendent serenity of Montecassino, the majesty of the Monastery of Padula, the timeless ruins of Paestum, the eclectic beauty of Monreale… the list is truly endless. Charming resort towns like Nettuno, Maratea, Gallipoli in the South, alpine beauties such as Cortina in the eastern Alps. And more and more. And everywhere you find art and history and the Italian lifestyle!

In the next few posts we will explore some of these little-known treasures. Perhaps on future trips, once Florence and Venice have begun to pall, you will want to venture further afield and get a taste of a more pristine Italy.

Some DO’s and DON’Ts of Italian travel

Map of Italy

Italy

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.