Archive | August, 2011

Off the beaten track Etruscan adventure, in the home of ancient Roman Kings

27 Aug

Inside the courtyard of the National Museum of Tarquinia

I love it when friends come to town.  I always have.  Whether I’ve been calling Toronto, Honolulu, Shanghai or Rome home; when a friend comes to visit, it’s a great chance to raise the bar on finding new and interesting things to do.  Such was the case on Wednesday, when 2 dear friends docked in Civitavecchia, Rome’s port of call for Mediterranean cruise ships.  Avid travelers, they had already experienced much of what Rome has to offer, so I took a gamble on a day trip visit to Tarquinia, a town 25 minutes north of Civitavecchia.

We could have taken a train or bus from the port, but found that the trains left rather more infrequently that we would have liked.  After a fruitless wait for a taxi at the train station (don’t know if this is normal, or just a result of the August holidays), we ended up hiring a mini van for 110 Euros, return (after bargaining down from 100 Euros, one way)

Tarquinia is truly an ancient city; pre-dating the founding of Rome, and birthplace of the 5th and 7th legendary kings of Rome. The latter king was so despised by Romans that in 509 BC a group of aristocrats overthrew him and created the Roman Republic, swearing never to let so much power reside in the hands of one man (an event that in 2,200 years would inspire the founding of a little place called the USA).  Incidentally, the aristocrat who led the revolt against the 7th king of Rome, Lucius Junius Brutus, was the great, great, great, great ancestor of a more famous Brutus. In 44 BC, Marcus Junius Brutus was compelled by responsibility to his ancestor’s defense of the Republic to murder his dear friend and father figure, Julius Caesar; considered by the Roman aristocracy to be consolidating too much power.

Sorry…is everyone as enthralled by Ancient Roman history as I am?  Maybe not….(but if you are I cannot recommend the excellent podcast, A History of Rome, enough!).  Anyway, back to Tarquinia….

After a somewhat frustrating time trying to get a ride to Tarquinia, we were pleasantly surprised to arrive and find out how well-served the city was for tourism, especially considering that 99% of international visitors to Rome will never visit this delightful town.  What a shame!

Right inside the gate to the city (Tarquinia has a wonderful medieval feel to it, including a hilltop location surrounded by defensive walls), there was an open, air-conditioned, and well-staffed tourist centre, with not only maps, but posters of points of interest with scannable bar codes.  Wow!  LOVED the combination of high tech info in a characteristic old town – it made Tarquinia a very easy destination for a short visit.

While the National Museum can’t boast the iconic works of many other museums in Italy, it was a lovely way to spend the hottest hours of the August afternoon.  Housed in a Renaissance Palazzo, the architecture was a perfect backdrop for the mysterious Etruscan ruins and artifacts.  Deciding that, due to the ship schedule and heat of the day, we would not venture to Tarquinia’s most famous sight – the ancient Etruscan necropolises (but I’m definitely coming back when its cooler!).  But we saw many relics and sarcophagi that were from these cities of the dead.  The third floor was my favourite, showing an ancient fresco of Olympic sports and the winged horse relief that has become an icon of the museum.

After the museum, we wandered around the old town looking for a ristorante that was not closed for the August heat. Finally we found Le Due Orfanelle, and sat on their garden patio.  After our very hot search, it was a perfect little oasis, even though it seemed that there was only one person working the floor.  Seafood appetizers were wonderful, as was my spaghetti con vongole (with clams); although the risotto was made from converted rice.  Meh.

Finally, I took the train back to Rome and bade farewell to my friends. It was a wonderful day to spend with friends.  When I was researching this trip, I saw a lot of chatter on message boards asking if a trip to Tarquinia was worth it while in port at Civitavecchia.  Let me put it this way: if you’ve not seen Rome, that should be your priority (and it’s an easy & frequent train trip).  But if you’ve experienced Rome, Tarquinia is a delightful and easy day trip.


Ancient inspiration for a modern day environmental scourge

19 Aug

For the last week, temperatures in Rome have felt like a withering 40 C and above every day (that’s 104 F to my American friends).  In this kind of relentless heat, one has less appreciation for such celebrated fountains such as the Trevi and Four Rivers, and becomes endless grateful for the little, unnamed, under-appreciated fontanellas that dot the city. According to fellow expat-blogger Lazio Explorer, there are over 2,000 of these in Rome alone, and there’s a map to show you where they all are!

Papal water refreshment near the Vatican

Water fountain model Trent with a basic drinking fountain near the Roman Forum

Actually, although some fontanellas are purely utilitarian, many are fantastically unique and creative.  And all flow clear, cool drinking water for refreshment at any time of day.

And people – residents and visitors alike – use them; to refill water bottles, to wash fruit, to splash their faces and to give water to their dogs.  These fountains act as communal water coolers, where children play and adults interact and talk.  I have no idea how old Rome’s fountains are, but the source of their flow is its ancient aqueducts dating back over 2000 years, and many have deep depressions worn into the stone by the water flow over the centuries.

I started taking pictures just to document the wonderful range of drinking fountains in Rome and throughout Italy. But along the way, they made me start thinking about plain, boring drinking water fountains in Toronto and other cities throughout North America.  Not only are they completely uninspiring; from my own personal experience, 80% of the time the fountains in Toronto don’t work.  In fact, here’s an article in the Star validating my experience.

Regal flow near Piazza Barberini

At the same time, we have a massive crisis of water bottle waste on our hands in North America.  According to Mother Nature Network, “bottled water produces up to 1.5 million tons of plastic waste per year…that plastic requires up to 47 million gallons of oil per year to produce. And while the plastic used to bottle beverages is of high quality and in demand by recyclers, over 80 percent of plastic bottles are simply thrown away.” What’s more, the water in these bottles is, more often than not, just tap water.

Compounding the situation, according to Edge Outreach, is that “plastic isn’t biodegradable, it’s photodegradable. That means it’s slooooowly broken apart by photons (from sunlight) into teeny tiny little pieces that can easily absorb toxins and pollute our soil and waterways and even animals when digested. Nasty.”

Roman Fountain near Hadrian's Mausoleum

I’m not suggesting the fact that the scarcity, dysfunction and sheer boring-ness of city drinking water fountains are linked to the appalling dependency on bottled water and the alarming waste it produces.  But here’s my proposal….

What if municipalities around North America commissioned local artists to create functional and beautiful water fountains throughout their cities’ public spaces, indoor and out?

These would provide drinking water for all and add a visual meeting point to our public spaces.  Funds could be diverted from the costs to deal with the waste created by water bottles – or a tax could be placed on the sale of water bottles to fund this.  A friend informed me that in cities like Calgary, new building development is required to include an art installation – what if art installations could be functional and environmentally progressive at the same time?  Americans and Canadians would never face the fear of being caught without a refreshing drink of water, and would be less likely to keep buying new bottles over and over again.  In the meantime, a public relations campaign could coincide with the launch, further raise awareness of the issue while even driving a competition amongst cities to see whose fountains can result in the greatest decrease of bottled water sales?

What would you rather have?


One-forth of Rome's intersection of the Quattro Fontane

Or this + this?

Dried up drinking fountain at Withrow Park...image courtesy of The Star

Water bottle waste...image courtesy of Edge Outreach

Think about it.  Suggest this to your local representative.  Tell a sculptor. Steal this idea and let it flow!

In the meantime, here is a selection of groovy Italian drinking water fountains for your own inspiration!

Rustic and Teutonic in Chienes

Avante Garde in Bressanone (yes, the fountain spouts were labeled for drinking)

Modern and Chic in Verona

Veteran water fountain model Trent demonstrates how to operate and share a tricky 3-pronged flow

A Holiday about Nothing – AKA Buon Ferragosto!

15 Aug

Much to my surprise, I found out that today was essentially Christmas in August in Italy.  Yes, it’s Ferragosto, a national Italian holiday that is so important that Alessandro’s mother was surprised that we didn’t celebrate it in Canada, and absolutely EVERYTHING grinds to a complete halt.  And yet when I asked what the holiday was for, no one appeared to know.  I did a little digging to find that this revered holiday was started in Ancient Roman times to honour the goddess Diana, and was named after Rome’s first emperor, Augustus.  Some centuries later, the church managed to place its own veneer on the holiday, but today, Italians take it as a day to go into even greater vacation mode than the rest of the month, and apparently eat, and eat, and eat.

Shocked that I didn’t have the day off (working for a Swedish company), I was recruited for a 5 hour lunch with Alessandro and his mother (which resulted in me working until 10:30 PM).  It took them the better part of an hour to find a restaurant that would take us – everything was either closed or booked up.  Eventually we had to drive 45 minutes out of Rome to the shores of Lake Bracciano for a set menu meal in the vein of New Year’s Eve or Valentine’s Day, but it was worth it!


3 Simple tricks for a perfect Italian pasta – and a fool-proof recipe too

7 Aug

Italy is a country, like France and China, where food and dining has achieved a sacred status. It’s cuisine is inextricable tied to geography, history, economics and culture. Perhaps it’s no wonder that when Italian cuisine is taken out of Italy, something vital is lost.

Pasta in America suffers from a more-is-more attitude. My stomach turns when I see pasta on the menu with an overdose of ingredients: chicken breast, broccoli, sun-dried tomatoes, artichokes, goat cheese, olives and cream…ew.

A truly delicious and authentic Italian pasta will have only a few well balanced ingredients, 20110807-113604.jpgand the process is as important as the ingredients. I’ve been fortunate to have learned over the past few years how delicious and simple authentic pasta recipes are, so now I share one with you.

Pasta al Tonno (pasta with tuna) is a super-fast, super delicious traditional Roman dish that can be ready in about 10 minutes, using ingredients you probably have in your kitchen. I’ll admit that when I tell people I’m cooking this for them, most initially find the thought of pasta with tomatoes and tuna rather unappetizing – until they try it (I thought it sound nasty too at first). What’s more, this classic dish literally only takes 10 minutes or less to prepare.

In learning to make this, I learned that not only the ingredients matter, but a few simple steps in the process make all the difference.

Pasta al Tonno Recipe
Ingredients for 2 generous servings

Extra virgin olive oil
1 clove of garlic, minced
2 medium fresh ripe tomatoes
Standard size can of tuna, drained (btw canned tuna is perfect here, no need to use tuna sashimi!)
Splash of red wine
Penne pasta or spaghetti – do not use other shapes. I still don’t entirely understand the rules that govern the pairing of sauces with pasta shapes, I just know that that penne and spaghetti match with pasta al tonno and this is not up for debate. It doesn’t have to fancy or expensive pasta, but it should be at least made it Italy. Alessandro thinks Barilla is inexpensive, easy to find and good quality.
Salt and pepper

Boil salted water in a big pot for pasta
Heat about a tablespoon of the oil on medium low heat
Add the garlic

Secret tip #1: garlic matches with fish or seafood garlic sauces, onion matches with others. I used to think Italian food = lots of garlic in everything, but have now seen the error of my ways. If I were making this sauces without the tuna, I would substitute onion for garlic, as the garlic would overpower the delicate flavour of tomatoes by themselves.

20110807-113802.jpgSecret tip #2: tilt the pan so that the garlic is submerged in the oil. This prevents it from becoming bitter. The same trick should be used in recipes that call for onion.

Add the pasta to the water.

Add the tuna to the garlic and oil (untilt the pan before you do this) Let it sautée in the oil for 2 minutes. Splash a little red wine in there.

Add diced tomato to the tuna mixture. Let the tomatoes sautée until the are soft and blended with the tuna. This takes about 4-5 minutes. Add salt & pepper to taste.

Keep an eye on the pasta and make sure that you do not let it cook beyond al dente. But before you drain the pasta don’t forget…

Secret tip #3: reserve a cup or so of the pasta water, THEN drain the pasta. Place the pasta in the pan with the sauce once the tomatoes is soft, and mix it in together. Add a little of the pasta water to the mixture, this allows the sauce and pasta to blend together perfectly. If the sauce seems too dry to you, add a little more. Honestly I don’t know why this makes such a big difference, especially since we go to such great efforts to drain the pasta; but trust me, it does.

Ecco qua! Serve witha little drizzle of olive oil and garnish of Italian parsley, and enjoy immediately (with a glass of red on the side).

And whatever you do, don’t put parmesan cheese on top (repeat after me, no dairy with fish or seafood).



Stilettoes vs Rome’s cobblestone streets – the battle intensifies….

6 Aug

Over the past 2 months, 2 things got me thinking about Rome’s iconic cobblestone streets and high heel shoes.  The first was this: the result of a daylong walk around centro in my favourite pair of Cole Haan mules.  These were the comfiest -slash – most stylish shoes I’ve ever owned!  And in 1 day, they were destroyed.

Cobblestones: 1, Heels: 0

The second was the counter-balance to a blog that I have been mentally compiling for a while: fashions that Italian men can wear that no one else can pull off.  The topic of this proposed post, (and the photos of Italian men I am compiling), were causing no end of consternation with Alessandro, so I decided to balance coverage of both genders and develop a photo essay on the insanely high shoes that some women wear.

That they wear them to walk on cobblestone streets is just mind-boggling.   Cobblestone streets in Rome possess a very Italian character – like they’ve been thrown down in a carefree flourish, letting cracks and gaps exist as they will.  I long for some Swiss precision in these streets.

So quite honestly it wasn’t surprise to see this article recently: Rome Rethinks Cobblestones to Save High Heels.  I mean, Italy is synonymous with the finest foot fashion – but how could a fine shoe industry ever develop here?  I suppose that constant destruction of your shoes makes for a captive market….

So, for your viewing pleasure, are just a sample of brave women wearing insane shoes…I’ll continue to post pics as I see them….

I’m back in Rome, and here’s how I know….

2 Aug

Recently a study showed that you gain weight when you travel abroad, and you gain the most when you travel to the USA.  I can believe it – after 5 days of heavy, greasy and mega-portioned meals I am ready for a detox!  Believe it or not, eating in Rome just feels lighter and more natural.

Here’s a picture of my delicious lunch today: prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, fresh basil from the balconcini, fresh melon, and one of the 7 different kinds of local, fresh tomatoes from the local farmer’s stand; all drizzled with olive oil. Yummm…

Afterward, we treated ourselves the best coffee in Rome (OK, maybe coffee is not really a good way to detox) for .80 Euros apiece.  You may be under the impression that Sant’Eustachio in Rome’s centro has the best coffee, but in fact, a little extremely-out-of-the-way place in my little suburb of Rome has the best coffee. 

Opened in 1960, Bar Grammaria is awarded for the best coffee in Rome – and you can gauge the scrumptious-ness by the thick creme clinging to the side of the cup.  Rich, creamy, full of flavour but not of bitterness or overly intense caffeine – and it gets bonus points for being prepared by the proud Roman who opened the place in the name of his grandmother.  Don’t try to find this place unless you know Rome well, it’s a 30 minute drive from centro out Via Nomentana.