Monday, July 31, 2017

Celebrating Summer

Summer in Umbria, and probably in all of Italy, means being outdoors in the evening, taking your evening stroll (passeggiata) to see and be seen, having a gelato on the piazza, or visiting the local sagra or festa. A festa is just a big party, but a sagra will usually feature food as a theme. The food might be something the town is famous for, something that's being harvested now, or simply an excuse to eat a favorite local dish.

Most of the feste around here run Thursday to Sunday, but some of the larger ones run every night for ten days, encompassing two weekends. Advertising for these events is limited – apparently enough locals know when they are, so if you're in Italy be sure to keep your eyes open for posters both large and small, advertising these local treasures.

 When we arrived in Italy in 2003 we mistakenly thought the feste and sagre were similar to church picnics, but we quickly found out how wrong we were. Instead of being held during the day and running into the evening, an Italian festa rarely starts before 7:30. There are of course, exceptions to this rule, but for the smaller, local feste, 7:30 is pretty standard.

The first order of business is food. Well, maybe the second, because after all, it's all about socializing, so a quick turn around the site to see who's there, as well as where you want to sit is always a good idea. If you're ordering your food at a central location, you'll definitely need to know your table number so that the locals (usually teens) know where to bring it. On rare occasions, like the other night when we were in Fontignano, near Lake Tresimeno, people came around to the tables to take our order, and menus were conveniently supplied on each table. In San Venanzo you read the large posted menu, which might vary slightly from night to night, then pick up an order form and pencil. After noting how many of each item you want and what you want to drink, you add your name and your table number then proceed to the cassa (cashier) where you pay. Drinks are usually available at a different stand, and the choices are as you might expect: water, both still and fizzy, red or white wine, usually very local and very reasonably priced, and for the kids, the standard assortment of sugary drinks. Coffee for after dinner is also available. There may also be beer, but since that's something I never think about, I honestly don't remember. I would guess it is, because in addition to the more famous national brands like Peroni and Moretti, artisanal beer is also very, very popular now.

Music and dancing is also a traditional part of every sagra or festa. The music doesn't start until 9:30 or so, and is usually a local group playing traditional music. The music is well-suited for two types of dancing: line dancing, which is extremely popular, and waltzes that have everyone swirling around and around the dance floor. Normally everything is over by midnight, but we do have to think about driving home on curvy, unlit two-lane country roads, so we usually leave before the final song. It was so easy when we lived in San Venanzo and could just walk up the street!

I was a little disappointed when I discovered that the Street Food Festival – definitely a break from tradition! - in Marsciano wouldn't have as many trucks as the one in Foligno a few weeks ago. There, the trucks had been not just from various regions of Italy, but also from Spain, Greece, Argentina, Venezuela, Mexico and one, while perhaps not from the U.S., featured American-style barbeque. Marsciano featured trucks from several regions of Italy – Sicily, Abruzzo, Piemonte, Calabria, Lazio, Umbria and Tuscany. There might have been other regions I'm forgetting, but there was a good selection of food (except for the truck offering horse meat! Neigh!!!). The only international truck there was one from Spain, so we knew we wouldn't be eating BBQ and/or Mexican.

I had a huge American-style hamburger and Art had a burger made from the pork of the Cinta Senese pigs, a particularly flavorful pork. Both were delicious, cooked fresh while we waited, and Art enjoyed sampling a few Sicilian beers with our friends to go along with his burger.

 And then, off in the distance I heard a very surprising, but very distinct sound: bagpipes! I turned my camera on and walked towards the sound. It was dark by this time, but eventually I saw them coming down the stairs from the hill above, and once in the parking lot where the festa was being held began walking through the crowd. I would later learn that this was a Palestinian group called Bagpipes For Peace.

We knew there would be another musical act, presented in conjunction with the Musica Per i Borghi program, something that's been bringing diverse music to Umbria for many years now. The large stage was set near the road, with way more chairs than I expected to see. The first act, who I heard but did not see, was a woman who sang exclusively in English - “My Heart Will Go On”, and other similar songs. I think there must have a different woman, or women who sang after her, and we heard both “Imagine” and “Hey Jude” - another surprise! After that another act was introduced. I could hear the announcement but wasn't really paying attention, so when I heard a lot of drums I immediately jumped up. Bagpipes, Beatles AND percussion, all in one night?! The act was a drumline – eight boys, and a man playing a regular drum-kit.

We left shortly after that – we had ridden with a friend who needed to get up early the next morning, but I have to say the night turned out much better than I expected. I knew we'd have good food, and I knew we'd enjoy the company of our friends, but to have these musical surprises was really the cherry on top. You just never know what's going to happen in Italy!

Update: The following day, Saturday, we joined friends for a festa in tiny San Faustino, just outside of Mass Martana. Although the village is small, the festa, called the festa of good eating, no less, was amazing. On the menu was melon with prosciutto, goose (oca), pork shank (stinco), tagliatelle with tartufo, guanciale, torta al testo, and on and on and on. Everyone shared bites and we all groaned as we left the table. We walked down to the dance floor to watch and listen, and met more friends along the way. Another delicious evening!






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Sunday, July 23, 2017

Four Days In Rome Part 2

Rome_Italy_Vittorio Emanuele Monument_3754We slept late on Sunday morning and missed breakfast at The Beehive, but in Rome – or anywhere in Italy – a coffee and a croissant are as close as the nearest bar. We stopped at a bar near Termini for a quick breakfast then once again walked down the via Nazionale,
towards the Vittorio Emanuele Monument, nicknamed “the typewriter” or “the wedding cake”. The street in between the monument and the Coliseum is pedestrian-only on Sundays, which makes the area feel a little calmer, and certainly less dangerous when crossing the street!

 Although there were no cars there were lots and lots of people. Despite the heat, a beautiful summer day in Rome is not to be wasted, and the street, and the steps of the monument were crowded.

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We walked around the monument and up the broad stairs that lead to the Compodoglio, the piazza designed by Michelangelo at the top of the Capitoline hill. The two buildings that house the Capitoline Museums face each other across the piazza, and are connected by an underground passageway. Although the museum is quite large, and you might be tempted to see one building and skip the other – DON'T!

 I say this for several reasons, but first let me say that yes, I do understand that for most of you, your time in Rome is limited. You want to see the 'big' sites: The Forum, the Coliseum, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish steps, St Peter's and the Vatican Museum. Spending time in a museum, even a smaller one like the Borghese, might not be on your list, and I get it. However, if you've been to Rome more than once, try to expand your list, add something new. Additionally, sometimes it rains when you're on vacation. Sometimes it's miserably hot. For these times it's always nice to have an alternative, and a museum can save the day. Be sure to make note of the closing day (usually, but not always, Monday), and if you plan to visit a large museum like the Capitoline, pace yourself!

Rome_Italy_Capitoline Museum_View of St Peter's_3946 One of the nice things about the Capitoline Museum is their restaurant, which includes a terrace with a view of the dome of St Peter's. We reserved a table at the restaurant's covered, protected, outside area, but either things have changed dramatically, or, more likely, I'd just forgotten how outrageously expensive it was. Next time we'll grab our food from the cafeteria-style counter (inside) and eat our meal inside, then walk out to the terrace to enjoy the view and snap a few pics. To add insult to injury, the waiter we had in the outdoor section was arrogant and condescending, so, lesson learned. The nice thing for a larger museum like this is that you can easily break up your visit with a meal, or just a snack, then continue your visit refreshed.

Rome_Italy_Capitoline Museum_View of Forum_3954Another tip: when walking through the underground passage connecting the two buildings, don't miss the corridor (accessed up a small staircase) that will give you an incredible view of the Roman forum. It's easy to miss, but well worth the diversion!

Although not every piece is marked in English, most, if not all of the exhibits and explanations are in English, so you can read as much detail as you want – sometimes it's too much detail, but it's always nice to know some of the history of the pieces you're seeing. 

The first building you visit, the Palazzo dei Conservatori, is filled with sculptures and artwork, while the second building, the Palazzo Nuovo, is a work of art unto itself.  The rooms!  The ceilings!  The chandeliers!  The frescoes! Much like the Borghese, the rooms in the Palazzo Nuovo were designed to impress, to dazzle and to amaze, and they do all that and more!
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Walking around on hard surfaces all day is tiring. The heat is tiring. Trying to absorb all the art, history and beauty is tiring. Pace yourself! We stopped in the mini Eataly in the Piazza della Republica.  Yes, it's a great place to find food items from all over Italy, but I didn't see anything I couldn't live without.  In retrospect we could have bought some snacks for dinner, but at the time we weren't sure what our plans were.  Later we walked up to the bar near Termini and bought two panini, some fruit and a small bottle of wine for an alfresco dinner on our tiny balcony.

Mondays can be tricky because many (but not all!) museums are closed on Mondays.  It was way too hot to go wandering around the Forum, Coliseum and Palatine Hill, so we decided to take the advice of a fellow traveler from the Slow Europe Forum and visit CineCitta, founded in 1937 by Mussolini (!), and made famous by Federico Fellini.  CineCitta is home to such blockbusters as Ben Hur and Cleopatra, and the spaghetti westerns of the '60's.  Martin Scorsese filmed "Gangs of New York" here, and more recently HBO's "Rome" ☺was shot here.  It's an easy Metro ride to the studios, which are located right next to the Metro stop, about 15 minutes from Termini.

Cinecitta_Rome_Italy_movies_3985We had a little over an hour to wander through the exhibits, housed in two buildings.  We saw costumes, posters and read about the many, many films that were made here.  Our guided tour in English through the lot was scheduled for 11:30.  The meeting point was the gift shop/cafe, where I found the souvenirs, like this clever fan, to be out of my price range.  (The fan, designed to look like strips of film, cost €23)



The lot tour took us to a large soundstage, then to various sets, all very realistic until you tapped them or took a look behind them to see the scaffolding that was holding them up. We saw sets for "Gangs of New York" and "Rome", as well as a production in progress.

At the end of the tour we took the Metro back to Termini, and walked down to the new Mercato Centrale, a huge, modern food court which has just recently opened.  There are many, many choices for food here.  We selected a table, chose a pasta restaurant, ordered our food and watched as it was being prepared.  The plates were handed over the counter to us to enjoy.  Servers came around, circulating from the large bar that's in the middle, taking drink orders.  We shared our table with a couple from Sicily who now live in Milan, so yes, all roads do lead to Rome!

After lunch we walked back to the Beehive to retrieve our bags, then walked back to Termini to catch our train back to Umbria.  Due to increased security, you must now show your ticket before being allowed to enter the boarding area for the trains.  Unfortunately our train was delayed 35 minutes, which affected our connection in Foligno.  We could have stayed longer in Rome and taken the direct train back to Ponte San Giovanni, but it's impossible to predict something like this.

We had a great time in Rome, and despite the heat I'm glad we went.  There is always something new to see in Rome, whether it's a newly discovered/opened site, or something we just haven't gotten around to seeing before, and of course there are old favorites like The Borghese, The Vatican, The Forum and Coliseum that can be visited again and again and again.  Rome is indeed the Eternal City.

Click on the link for all the photos from the Capitoline Museums: Capitoline Museum, Rome Italy 2017

Click on the link for all the photos from CineCitta: Cinecitta Rome Italy 2017

Friday, July 21, 2017

Four Days In Rome Part 1

I do NOT recommend visiting Rome in the middle of July, but a concert forced us to join the throngs of parched, sweaty tourists during not just a month that's traditionally hot, but also during a heatwave and a drought. Here's what we did, with some suggestions, and a few lessons learned.

We arrived in Rome at midday. We had taken the train from Umbria, but many people arrive directly from the airport after a long overnight flight. If Rome is your first point of entry, try to allow some time to adjust to the time difference, and don't over-book yourself. One of my top recommendations is to book a walking tour of some sort. These vary from inexpensive, basic sights of Rome to more expensive, comprehensive, and even customized, tours. Do some research and pick what suits your budget and your interests, but trust me when I say a guide will help not only save you time, but educate and entertain you in the process. You will come away with a greater appreciation for the sites you saw, and your time will have been spent efficiently.

We dropped our bags off at THE BEEHIVE, our go-to place in Rome. Like most places, they'll let you drop your luggage even if your room isn't ready, so we were able to grab some lunch and begin enjoying the city. We'd brought insulated water bottles to carry with us, because in the 90º heat and the intense sun, staying hydrated was a priority. We had lunch at the small mom-and-pop restaurant just around the corner from the Beehive. The Regina, just two blocks from Termini, the main train station, serves good food at reasonable prices and we were welcomed like family.

After lunch we headed back towards Termini, hung a right towards Piazza della Republica, then headed down via Nazionale. We walked in the shade – another simple tip – to avoid the blazing mid-day sun. Our plan was to visit the Domus Romane, a fairly new exhibit, housed in the Palazzo Valentini, directly in front of Trajan's column. The Palazzo was built during the Renaissance, directly over ancient Roman houses, and now thanks to plexiglass floors and projected lighting, we were able to see the ancient Roman houses (Domus Romane), and to get a better idea of how the rooms would have been decorated for the Imperial Romans who inhabited them. The tour lasted about an hour, and was well worth our time. If we'd arrived earlier we could have eaten at the restaurant next door, Terre e Domus, which boasts of traditional Roman dishes and wines. This restaurant is worth noting for its location – not much else nearby!

Our walk back up the via Nazionale wasn't difficult – the hill is very gradual – but the heat of the day was tiring. We stayed in the shade as much as possible, and once back at The Beehive (in The Sweets, just around the corner), we were happy to indulge in some air-conditioned air. We stretched out for a brief rest, but be warned – unless you're staying in a high-priced hotel, you probably won't have television. For most of us, as long as there's WiFi, we can stay connected via our phones, so this wasn't a problem. That evening we met a friend who lives in Rome for dinner at MEID IN NEPOLS, just a few blocks from our room, and all enjoyed a traditional Neapolitan pizza for dinner.

Day two began with breakfast at the Beehive's cafe. Yogurt, croissants and coffee got us going, and thanks to the shared kitchen at The Sweets, we had cold water (and even some ice!) for our scheduled visit to the Borghese Gallery. When planning your visit to any city, decide which museums you'd like to see, then check for opening days and times. Do some research to find out which ones require reservations, and which ones recommend reservations. I realize sometimes it's not easy to predict how your day will go, and when you'll be at a certain location, but sometimes a little extra planning will go a long way.
For the Borghese, reservations are required, and it's easy to book tickets online. The only other museum where I strongly recommend reservations is the Vatican. This is also one museum where I would strongly recommend a guided tour. Not only will you save time in line, you'll understand what you're seeing, and hear interesting stories about what your seeing, rather than just the dry, boring details.

 Okay, back to the Borghese. Entries are timed, so you know exactly when you need to be there. We'd taken the #910 bus from Termini, which dropped us off right at the entrance. I took my printed receipt downstairs to exchange for our tickets, checked my purse, and waited our 11 o'clock entry time. Technically you're only allowed 2 hours in the museum, but it's small, covering 2 floors, and two hours will be more than enough time. I recommend renting the audio guide – you can move at your own pace, and listen to as much or as little detail as you want. Knowing what you're looking at, knowing who created it and what makes it special enough to be in a museum is definitely a worthwhile investment.

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Borghese_Rome_Italy_Ceiling_3824  We'd plan to grab a panino or a salad at the museum cafe, but unfortunately it's closed, so we walked to Viale San Paolo del Brasile, a main street with many buses. We asked the driver “Termini?” and when he nodded yes, we boarded. Bus and Metro tickets are easily purchased at various locations around town, and we'd bought four tickets that morning. Bus tickets, Metro tickets and trains tickets MUST be validated! For the Metro (Rome's subway) it's unavoidable, since you need to insert your ticket in order to go through the turnstile, for trains the machines are on the walls near the trains – not on the trains! - and for busses the machine are on the busses themselves. After the short ride back to Termini, we walked the two blocks to The Beehive, had lunch at The Regina once again, then returned to our room for a nap – the main purpose of our visit to Rome was the U2 concert, and we knew it would be a late night! Once again, the air conditioning was heavenly!

We'd originally planned to take the Metro, then transfer to a bus to get to the Olympic stadium, about 4 ½ miles away, but when friend offered to drive us, we gladly accepted. We arrived around six so that we could exchange our vouchers for proper tickets. Being Italy, there were no signs, but with a little luck and a few helpful directions we found the office, got our tickets and walked back to the stadium. We knew our tickets were in the next-to-the-top row, in the middle of the stadium, but really had no idea how good or bad our view of the stage would be. Knowing that most concerts now use large Jumbotrons, we weren't too concerned. Additionally we knew that the Olympic Stadium features a covering over the roof, much like the ancient Coliseum used, so we knew we'd be protected from the sun.

The stadium filled up quickly, as well as the open space in front of the stage. Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds took the stage at 7:30 and played for an hour. Although I'm not familiar with him or his new group, I was in the minority and his set was received with enthusiasm. The guy two rows in front of us was on his feet from the first note and knew every word to every song – he had a blast!

After Noel Gallagher left the stage it was a full hour before U2 took the stage – it seemed excessively long since all of U2's instruments were already set up – but I have no idea if this is normal for this tour. In any event, once U2 took the stage the crowd went wild! THIS was who we had all come to see! The complete set list AND all the videos are HERE.  

I hadn't looked at the set list prior to the concert, so it was a wonderful surprise to hear my favorite U2 song, “One”, during their encore. 'Encore' might not be the right word – I think it was really part 2, since it lasted nearly an hour!

I have a side note for anyone from Louisville who might be reading this: not ONE person left before the last note was played. NOT. ONE.

We had heard from friends that getting home from the concert might be challenging, and indeed it was. Although extra busses had been added, every one that passed us was jam-packed. We walked one stop closer, with no luck. We walked to the next stop, but still the busses were full. For us to get home we'd need to take a bus to a Metro stop, then take the Metro back to Termini. We'd heard the Metro was staying open one hour later than usual, until 1:30, but with all the busses full, and with no more busses arriving, we didn't know if we'd make it. It would take us a good hour and a half to walk home, through unfamiliar streets, and that just wasn't in our plans.

 As many of you know, in the states, after any large event, taxis would be lined up, waiting to whisk people away, but not in Rome. In Rome you need to make sure you're taking a legal taxi, because rogue taxis are a problem. Rogue taxis can be exhorbitantly expensive at best, and dangerous at worst, so you must get a cab at a hotel, at a taxi stand, or call for a cab. We tried to call the number but of course the line was constantly busy. I was getting more than a little concerned while I stood watching the horizon, hoping another bus would appear.

Art walked over to a local policeman and asked if it was always like this. “Yes” was the reply. Honestly, how do most people, who rely on public transportation in a city like Rome, get home after a concert or soccer match? Art explained our dilemma to the officer, and eventually he said, “Wait, I'll try to call a taxi for you. I'll call the dispatcher.” We weren't sure if he had a special, direct number for the dispatcher, but we thanked him and waited expectantly. After just a few minutes a taxi appeared out of nowhere – it didn't come from the street but seemed to come from the parking lot! Needless to say we didn't ask questions. We thanked the officer profusely and jumped into the cab. Whew! By this time traffic was pretty much cleared out, and the €17.50 for the cab ride – right to our door – was worth every penny and we tipped the driver generously. What a night! We turned on the AC, turned off the alarm clock and fell into bed with U2 songs still playing in our heads.

There are five albums with our pictures from this visit to Rome on our FLICKR PAGE