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The REAL Rules You Need to Know – Driving in Italy

17 Jan

I am very fortunate that I don’t actually need to drive in Italy since I have my own dashing Italian chauffeur boyfriend. However, being a passenger has provided me with a front seat view of what drivers in Italy really need to know.  Sure, maybe that international driver’s permit will give you a sheen of legality — but these are the true moves you need to know to get you from point A to B.

1) The Wedge* – Trying to make a left hand turn onto a busy road?  Forget waiting until there is space for you to enter. What you need to do is slowly wedge your car in front of the oncoming lane on traffic.  Yield to super aggressive drivers, but otherwise keep on creeping  your nose out until you’ve essentially blocked both lanes of traffic and  have clearance to go.  People might give you “stinkeye,” but don’t feel bad – everyone does it all the time, and it’s probably the only way you’ll ever leave a driveway.

*Can also be done in reverse!

2) The Straddle – This move finds you driving for long periods of time, straddling the middle line between 2 lanes.  The purpose of this move is unclear to me, but it must be super important since everyone does it, all the time.

3) The Strategic Double Park – Why bother looking for a parking place when you can just park wherever? This move requires nerves of steel and the ability to analyze a parked car’s owner’s motives.  Are they there for the long haul or could they reappear in a moment?  This also requires an appropriately contrite or righteously indignant response depending on the demeanor and/or hotness of the person whom you’ve blocked in.

4) The Highway Reverse – Take the wrong entrance onto the highway?  No problem.  Just reverse on the shoulder and back out of it.  Italians must have learned this from Minneapolis drivers.

5) The Hands Free – How else are you going to talk on your phone and smoke at the same time?  Or convey your heartfelt feelings to your fellow drivers? Better learn to drive with your hands in the air.

6) The Robert Langdon (aka Symbologist) – So you can figure out where this:

Italian road signs

…and this:

Italy Road sign 1

Courtesy FIA Europe Bureau

…will take you.

7) The Sheep Dodge – Just because you are 15 minutes from a city boundary doesn’t mean you won’t encounter local fauna.  My advice?  Relax and take pictures!

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Organic, Solar-Powered Wines & Prosecco from Northern Italy – with Savian Wines

5 Sep

It’s always inspiring to meet someone who is doing good while they are doing well.  Such is the case of William Savian in the Veneto region of northern Italy – and his organic, solar powered – and delicious – wines!

Traditional “azienda vinicola” – except for the solar panels on the roof!

The Savian vineyard dates back to 1925, when William’s grandfather’s small plot of land produced wine for friends & Family.  Flash forward to 1990 when William’s father Arnaldo decided to expand and commercialize the vineyard.  Using conventional farming techniques he did indeed expand the production but over time became disturbed.  After 3 years he realized that he could no longer hear the hum of crickets and the chirps of frogs at night – the pesticides and herbicides had killed them all off.  Whatever they were doing to the land, was destroying the local wildlife.  And how could an agricultural business survive the destruction of its environment?

So in 1993 Arnaldo became a pioneer in transforming his wine production to be completely organic (certified by ICEA, Delinat and NOP).  And instead of the business suffering as a result, today it thrives – in Italy and around the world.

William, his mother Madame Savian, his father Arnaldo & Alessandro from Dialuce Wines

Actually, in Italy most consumers really only care that his wines (including standards like Merlot & Chardonnay,  sulfite-free wines, as well as wonderful regional specialties like Lison Classico and Refosco da Peduncolo Rosso) are of the highest quality.  But in other countries, starting from Germany, buyers took a second look at Savian’s wines in a saturated market because they are organic.

One of Savian’s outstanding organic proseccos made in the Charmat method.

And over time, William and his father decided to go a step further than organic and make the vineyard solar-powered.  With the amount of sun shining in Italy, this was a great choice for Savian wines, and the savings in their consumption of ever more expensive power makes this also a savvy business  move too.

This central console shows the solar power production and usage of the vineyard.

Today’s Savian’s wines are sold all around the world, including Germany, Canada and Brazil and have won awards and fans in a multitude of categories. But one of the greatest indicators of success was for William seeing his kids be able to play around the vineyard, and to not worry about the health hazards of pesticides and chemicals.  We even saw a snake in a ditch on the property while we were there.

In Ontario, Savian’s extraordinary wines can be ordered through Le Caviste or you can contact Alessando Dialuce for worldwide availability.

Experiencing Rome through the eyes of an Artist (me!) on a Sketching Tour

7 Jun

You know when you visit a place that is so vivid – so wonderful – that merely being there isn’t enough?  You want to drink it up, breathe it in, become a part of its fabric, internalize it somehow into the core of your DNA…Rome is certainly one of those places.  And no matter how much time you spend here, it’s hard not to feel constantly amazed at the sheer fabulousness of the city.

One sunny morning I found a wonderful new way to immerse myself deeper into the Rome experience; joining painter Kelly Medford on an intimate sketching tour of Rome.  Right from the beginning it was more than I expected.

Now, when I heard the term “sketching tour,” and she told me that she would provide all materials, I though – cool, she’ll bring a paper an pencil for me.   And then Kelly hands me this amazing little kit that literally fits in my purse.   Now, just the other day I was thinking…”when I get a bigger place, I’d really like to get an easel and paint, but our place right now is too small, so I can’t do it now, blah blah blah.”  No more excuses to not create!

It had a water color palette!  A watercolour pen/brush! A sketchbook with different textures of paper for various effect! The woman even MADE the sketchbook herself.  In Kelly’s words, “you need to feel inspired by your materials,” and I was.  Just in case you weren’t sufficiently inspired by the environment.

Over the course of the tour we made our way from Parco Pincio in Villa Borghese, to the top of the Spanish Steps.  The process of sketching makes you pay attention to details that you never would have noticed before.

It could have been easy to feel intimidated on a sketching tour of Rome. First, you are walking in the footsteps some of the greatest masters – and every where you look you are surrounded by stunning design – architecture, gardens, sculpture – even Italian clothes and shoes. Additionally there were some people on the tour who were actual artists.  But for a novice like me it was perfect. Kelly showed me how to work with various techniques, pushing my beyond my “art”  borders in a very gentle and supportive way – using different mediums and styles to different effect, like these:

Little tiny ink sketches

Ink and watercolor

This was a fabulous way to experience Rome through new eyes – and the best thing about it was that with everything I learned from Kelly and my new art studio in a purse, I can keep drawing wherever I am.  Grazie Kelly!  I would definitely recommend her tours to anyone who wants to experience Rome in a new way, get off the beaten track, or nurture a budding creative spark. You can join one of her “Rome Sketch Tours” here: http://kellymedford.com/workshops.

Kelly in action

Enrico and Michel want to know why you aren’t drinking wines from Orvieto

5 Jun

Enrico is a man with a mission. Years ago he purchased 22 acres of prime vineyard, just outside the ancient city of Orvieto, Umbria; overlooking Lake Corbara (about an hour north of Rome). With Freddano‘s elevation, softly sloping incline, fertile earth and sunny exposure, it was the ideal place for producing not just wine, but magnificent wine.

But he had a problem.

In the somewhat limited perspective of wine drinkers around the world, Orvieto doesn’t signify magnificent wines. Sure, everyone knows Tuscany = great wines, a mere 30 kilometers away. The fame of the Tuscan region means even that its less stellar wines command the highest demand and good wines can draw impressive prices. However, if a wine drinker in America or Canada or The UK deigns to try an Orvietan wine, they usually expect it to just be cheap.

So Enrico and and his oeneologist Michel had an important decision to make. They could take their lovely vineyard, cut corners, crowd the grapes, spray the land with chemicals and create cheap, non descript plonk; or, truly honor the potential of the land and create a magnificent wine to convince the world that Orvieto wines are contenders.

Fortunately for us, and for the earth; these winemakers chose not only to make gorgeous wines, but  upped the ante and committed to make them organic too (certified by Accredia)

Starting our visit standing in the vineyard, Enrico explained that it’s simply not possible for all vineyards to be organic. If the terrain lacks wind, is situated at a low altitude, or otherwise has damp conditions, it’s difficult to avoid mold and rot with anything but chemicals. But here at Freddano, the conditions are perfect for sustaining organic growth.

Freddano

What can possibly taste better than wine sipped while standing in the soil of origin poured by its creators?

We sipped glasses of VIgna del Sole (“vine of the sun”) standing between rows of grapes; admiring the wildflowers growing at the base of the vines. All maintenance of the vineyard is done by hand, from the pruning of the vines to the cutting of the grass. We could imagine the wildflowers imparting a delicate hint to this delightful white.

And of course the ubiquitous rose bushes placed at the end of each row, the “canary in the mine.” roses are even more susceptible to diseases that affect the grapes. So by monitoring the health of the roses, a wine makers can monitor the health of their vines before a problem takes hold.

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Enrico, with fans.

We moved onto the bottling facility where Enrico explained how not only the their agricultural production is organic, but also their fermentation process. This means there are no additives, and most importantly no flavorings added to the wines at any point. Again, more spectacular wine was poured, this time right from the casks, as we tried a grand, unnamed white which will be released in only limited quantities in magnum bottles – this was a true celebration wine! We bandied about inspired names, our enthusiasm whetted by our liquid creativity.

Freddano’s wines blend familiar with new – blending grapes you know, with ones you’ve never heard of – like Trebbiano & Grechetto with Chardonnay & Sangiovese – and modernizing ancient growing and processing techniques to achieve organic status. And constantly there is strong appreciation for the sense of place.  We are proud to make and drink Orvietan wines!  Right down to the bottles – which designs feature tiles from the stunning duomo (cathedral) in nearby Orvieto.

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We wrapped up our “wine tasting and vineyard tour” with a 5-hour lunch in the stone farmhouse with 3 generations of family and friends. A perfect time to enjoy a “celebration wine” from Orvieto!  And we were convinced – Orvieto wines are magnificent (psssst…pass it on!)

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Freddano is represented by Dialuce Wines in Canada and internationally.  Please contact Alex Dialuce to order.

A farmer’s market, and more! discovered in Northern Rome

20 May

One of the most pleasurable ways to develop an intimate relationship with a place is to explore a farmer’s market and meet the people who grow our nourishment with their own hands. So imagine my joy when I stumbled across this hidden & unique gem in the northern outskirts of Rome as I was cycling in Parco Regionale Urbano di Aguzzano.

Actually in Rome

It had all the features of the most innovative farmer’s markets.  Indigenous wildflower garden, check.  Solar panels, check. Wonderful local produce and products. Dogs and bikes. Check, check and check. And something you don’t get to see at farmer’s markets in Canada – local, organic wine!

Wildflower garden

Organic wines

But there’s even more to this bucolic oasis on the outskirts of Rome, which to my surprise was mainly populated by students.

I stopped to talk with Lucia, a friendly vendor selling wonderful local honey and whimsical beeswax candles scented with, of course, 100% organic essential oils.

Lucia & her Mom

Originally from Romania, she now shares her talents and passion for natural health and wellness with the lucky residents of Rome. Lucia graciously told me the history of this unique place.

It used to be a farm over a hundred years ago, and the building that dominates the site still features the feeding troughs for cattle.  Over time, the farm was abandoned and became the haunt of rebellious teenagers and outcasts.  Bad things happened here, Lucia remarked darkly.

But eventually the mayor of Rome stepped in and injected new life, creating Il Centro di Cultura Ecologica (the Centre of Ecological Culture).  The mission?  To “achieve a high level cultural center dedicated to issues relevant to environment and ecological culture,” engaging the local community, educators, farmers, artists and environmentalists. The barn was transformed into a library filled with donated books.  Its restored, bright interior was full of students on this Saturday, dedicating their energy to the study of sustainability & ecology.

All these Italian students learning how to create a sustainable future. Cool.

It’s easy to get discouraged sometimes pondering the local attitude toward the environment in Rome.  That a place like this exists in Rome makes me happy and gives me hope; especially as I contemplate my little bounty of beeswax candles.

Lucia’s beeswax candles

The organic farmer’s market (il MercatoBIO di Aguzzano) runs every 3rd Saturday of the month. It’s probably a little out of your way, but bring your bike or picnic blanket and make a day of enjoy this gorgeous environment. Just follow this path between the pines! Or, bring your bike on the Metro B to the Rebibbia station and find Via Fermo Corni.

How to get to MercatoBIO di Aguzzano (the best way): turn left a the lotus pond, head up the hill and turn right at the umbrella pine.

Descending through layers of history at the Basilica of San Clemente

18 Dec

I realize that with my travel schedule its been a while since I actually wrote a post regarding, you know, Rome.  Today I braved the chilly temperatures and drizzle to visit the Basilica of San Clemente.  San Clemente was one of the earliest bishops of Rome, and a contemporary of Saint Peter (and some say, Christ) in the first century AD; when being an open follower of Christianity predicted a short life and unpleasant death.  Perhaps that was the inspiration for Christianity’s eventual persecution of pagans?

Just a few blocks away from the Colosseum, the Basilica of San Clemente is a fascinating reminder of the uniqueness of Rome’s  layers of history and how many of its Christian traditions were layered upon Rome’s pagan roots. To explore this marvelous church is to walk back in time — and your starting point is 1100 AD.

If you are fortunate, you’ll enter through the square courtyard with its graceful fountain and covered walkways.  Its simplicity belies the richly decorated 12th century church that sits at ground level.  Entering from the courtyard, you are immediately enveloped by the intensity of the rich decor.

The upper level 12th Century interior (CC Rome-Roma)

Unfortunately, I don’t have any of my own photos as photography is forbidden, and only having been in Italy for a few months, I complied with the rules.  This basilica is in remarkable condition despite being a thousand years old and each surface, from floor to ceiling, is adorned in a different style – from inlaid marble floors, to gorgeous frescos depicting the lives of saints and martyrs, to the luminescent mosaics about the main altar.  I loved the frescos depicting the life and trials of Saint Catherine, who was persecuted by the Emperor Maxentius (who was a contemporary of, and defeated by Constantine – the first Christian Emperor of Rome).

Saint Catherine and an angel miraculously destroy the wheel of torture (CC Monkey Fur)

Like I said, layers and layers of history.

While wandering the 12th century basilica is fascinating enough, take a detour through the gift store, pay 5 euros for a ticket and descend through history.

The next level down brings you to the 4th century basilica.  During one of the many sacks that Rome endured in the latter first millennium, this 4th century basilica was filled in and the current ground-level church was built upon its ruins in the 12th century.  The 4th century Basilica is amazingly well displayed, full of lighting and descriptive plaques in English and Italian.  The NYTimes describes it as “completely relit with discreet bronze lamps that shed light on once-hidden angles and cast haunting shadows. It was kind of like participating in a contemporary art installation (except the art was better).” Well done, Irish Dominicans.

One level down in the 4th century basilica (CC newliturgicalmovement-org)

Wait, what?

According to Wikipedia:

Irish Dominicans have been the caretakers of San Clemente since 1667, when England outlawed the Irish Catholic Church and expelled the entire clergy. Pope Urban VIII gave them refuge at San Clemente, where they have remained, running a residence for priests studying and teaching in Rome. The Dominicans themselves conducted the excavations in the 1950s in collaboration with Italian archaeology students.

It gets better…descend one level more and you’ll realize that 2 stories under today’s surface you are now at the level of ancient, 1st Century Rome, before time and neglect covered its civilization in metres of mud.  Hiding in the labyrinth of an ancient Roman patrician’s private villa are the remains of a Mithriac temple.

Let’s get to the patrician’s home first…it was apparently the villa of one of the first Roman senators who converted to Christianity; secretly holding meetings of the faithful in his home.  As I mentioned, 1st century Rome was a dangerous time and place for Christians – the reign of the Emperor Nero who initiated imperially-sanctioned brutal persecutions of Christians and oversaw the crucifixion of St. Peter.  Eventually a catastrophic fire destroyed this area of ancient Rome (attributed by many to Nero so he could build a golden palace).  The 4th century basilica was build directly over the ruins of the villa, and by the way; nearby the Colesseum was built as a gift to the Roman people to help ease their loss off massive swathes of the city in the same fire.  One of the more striking elements in this subterranean villa today is the sound of running water – in and before the first century AD, this villa was served by fresh spring water.  It probably had radiant floor heating too; I regret to observe that Roman interior heating has not evolved much in the last 2,000 years.

2 levels down in the cave of the Mithraic mysteries (CC Cueni.ch)

The Mithraic temple itself is very much a mystery, and its rituals and beliefs even at the height of its influence in the first century BC were only shared with its initiates.  This temple was meant to resemble a ritual cave, and you can view the altar depicting the slaughter of a bull, and a tiny statue which seems to be Sol Invictus.  Some historians link the cult of Mithras to Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, whose birth was celebrated on December 25.  Merry Christmas!

The vast array of breathtaking churches in Rome can be overwhelming, but although it’s a few blocks off the main tourist circuit, San Clemente is truly unique in its enormous span of history, as well as the the quality of its displays.

You can find it by walking past the Colosseum for a few blocks and turning right.  Or you can follow this map.

Food Paradise in Northern Italy…oh yes, and there’s wine too…and single men!

1 Nov

It’s not that Italian women don’t care about food, but I never cease to be amazed by the passion and expertise that Italian men express regarding food.

A few weeks ago, we spent the weekend in one of the world’s elite wine regions, during the autumn wine crush.

Paradise? Yes, unless you are a vegetarian.

We were “helping” Aldo Marenco, a family-owned organic wine producer in la Langue of Piemonte Italy.  Having just hand-picked the harvest, it was urgent that the grapes be crushed before they started to ferment. I am sure they would have done just find without our complete lack of expertise, but they graciously allowed us to watch and participate in this ancient ritual first hand.

Claudio Marenco is the son who took over the wine production from his father, Aldo. Today they grow and make the classic wines of this region – the soft and easy drinking Dolcettos and Barberras,  as well as the region’s most prized vintage – Barolo.

The Bounty

It was Claudio’s idea when he took over the vineyard from his father to certify the wine production as organic.  As a small family-owned/operated vineyard, many of the processes were already done by hand with close attention to the natural and ancient methods of growth.  Grapes were hand-picked; not only because the uneven terrain demanded it, but also because machine-picking the grapes causes the delicate fruit to break prematurely, thus fermenting prematurely and not under the strict control of the vintner.

Me, working the farm, with Claudio’s help

As we “worked” alongside Claudio, Aldo and their neighbour, their hands coarse from working in the fields, the conversation more often than not turned to food.  We were in the process of shoveling the leftover grape skins (“must”) from the press to a truck (to be taken to a grappa production facility), when the neighbor started extolling the many culinary uses for the must.  First, he told us, you can wrap a local semi-soft cheese in the must – marrying the sharp tannins in the skin with the mellowness of the cheese.  Or you can layer the must, alternating with pepperoncino slices, for several layers, marinating in olive oil and salt.  I smiled as these men stopped their work in the field to exchange recipes and culinary tips.

The men, taking a break from their labors to chit chat about recipes

Forget a bowl of stale chips…this is what you get on the side when you order a glass of wine at an enoteca in Dogliani

Although the world knows Piemonte for its powerful wines, wine itself often seems like a backdrop to the extraordinary food here.  Interestingly enough, few Piemontese had ever heard of the Slow Food movement, even though it formally originated in the local town of Bra.  I think it’s because the slow food mentality is so ingrained in this region, that it’s simply taken for granted.

Our work on the press had to be completed by 2 PM, because that’s when lunch was served.  Claudio lives a kilometer away from the vineyard where his family’s home sits.  At 2 PM we were invited inside for a classic meal prepared by Claudio’s mother and joined by his 2 nieces.  It was one of those moments that you want to hold onto forever – after working outside in the sunshine surrounded by vineyards rippling away in every direction, to join 3 generations of a family to sit down for the midday meal – we stepped back to an idyllic place in time.

During the course of the weekend I developed a theory.  Although I know that Piemonte literally means the foot of the mountains, I think it must actually mean “carnivore” in Latin.  Each meal was layer upon layer of delicious meat.  And all the ways to prepare – and not prepare – meat!  Such as, I didn’t know that you’d want to eat raw pancetta, which is essentially bacon.  But in Piemonte, you do.

Claudio’s bread!

The multi-course lunch (even featuring bread baked by Claudio himself!) was delicious, although perhaps counter-productive?  We needed a nap afterwards.  In the meantime, Claudio went through his meticulous process of checking his wines, ensuring that the temperature in all vats and barriques would allow optimal fermentation.

It’s idyllic here.  I started fantasizing that living here was a branch of my life that I had not followed yet…and the mind started to fabricate plans. But for Claudio there’s a problem with this life Piemonte. His home and his livelihood are intertwined with this land, and you can imagine that growing up here it would be impossible to leave for anywhere else.  But according to him, for a single guy in his early forties there is no chance to meet single women.  Although Claudio’s a catch – he grows organic wine! He makes his own bread! I assumed he was exaggerating.  But a Saturday night in Dogliani was remarkable.  At a chic and atmospheric enoteca that would be bursting with single women in Toronto, the men here outnumbered the women at no less than 10 to 1.

Paradise, but you have to work for it

At the end of the weekend I was disappointed to fly to Paris, as I suspected I couldn’t possibly maintain this level of luscious indulgence in such an idyllic environment…I was right.  Next time I’m bringing some of my single girl friends!