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A refreshing look at religious symbolism – in Otranto, Italy’s heel

9 Jul

It’s a sad but common ailment when visiting the world’s most beautiful places – burnout.  Whether museum burnout in Paris, temple overload in Angkor Wat or Cathedral overdose in Italy – it’s bound to happen sooner or later.  Yes, although we have a literal embarrassment of riches in the masterpieces in Italy’s churches and piazzas, sometimes you get a bit weary of variations of Madonna and Babe.

If you are in Italy and have reached this point, may I recommend a (lengthy) detour to Otranto, in the heel of Italy’s boot, for a change of pace? The Otranto Cathedral has the most fantastic floor mosaic I’ve ever seen decorate a church, from entrance to altar (the largest in Europe). Built in 1163 (the church itself dates back to 1068), the floor depicts a dizzying blend of catholic, gnostic and pagan imagery – from Adam, Eve & Noah; to mythical beasts consuming each other, to King Arthur, to Greek Goddess Diana – all suspended within a vast Tree of Life.

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The trunk of the tree of life

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Animals with animals snouts on their feet, devouring other animals

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Your standard catholic centaur

These are the just kind of pagan images that eventually would earn their designer a fiery exile from the catholic church (and the early plane) – and in fact scholars are still trying to unravel the meaning and messages behind this remarkable floor.

In fact, that the mosaic has survived at all is a bit of a miracle.  On August 14, 1480, the city was sacked in an Ottoman invasion, and the cathedral was used as a stable for the invaders’ horses.  Oh and by the way, the inhabitants of Otranto were slaughtered in the attack, or sold into slavery or beheaded in a grim religious standoff for  800 martyrs who refused to convert to Islam. This event (“800 martyrs of Otranto) is also memorialized in the church. Go to the back right chapel and as you get closer you start to sense something strange about the the framed images behind the Madonna…

The chapel in Otranto's Cathedral

The chapel in Otranto’s Cathedral

…until you look closer and see….Gah!

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…the actual 800 martyrs

Having endured a lot of interminable Sunday school classes growing up in Canada, I have to say that I would have been pretty keen on attending this church as a kid.

If you get tired of pondering myths and mortality in Otranto, you are only 2 minutes away from a gorgeous beach.  Which is straight where most foreign invaders head these days.

For those not living in Italy what’s at stake in the coming election

23 Feb

For my friends not living in Italy, this weekend marks another national election. With the country mired in a seemly hopeless financial crisis, it’s an important one. And believe me, the day to day effects of the crisis in the USA and Canada pale in comparison to what people experience here. Italians are hurting.

And although it seems inconceivable to anyone outside of Italy, Berlusconi’s party is running a convincing campaign, promising to alleviate the austerity measures – like the much resented property tax increases implemented by Monte – that have in fact caused recent suffering & dissent here.

However, while the charismatic and successful entrepreneur Berlusconi was in power in the 2000s, the only countries that had worse economic growth during that period were Zimbabwe and Haiti (The Man Who Screwed an Entire Country) And of course it’s hard to believe that your prime minister has his focus on the well being of the country when his attention is captivated by “bunga bunga” parties and boasts of sleeping with 8 women in one night.

Beppe Grillo is one of the intriguing upstarts of Italian politics – a comedian who started out making jokes about politicians that increasingly started to look more like reality. Initially blocked by the mainstream media – much of it controlled by Berlusconi, Grillo has become a formidable contender in Italy by virtue of the Internet and town hall style rallies.

“You can’t ask an Italian, an entrepreneur, a family to make sacrifices when the presidency costs about 240 million euros a year. Our president earns three times as much as (U.S. President Barack Obama). An Italian ambassador earns 20,000 euros per month. Merkel earns 9,000 a month. You cannot expect sacrifices right now, because we should all make sacrifices right now or no one will.”

Full article

Sadly, there is a sense that no matter what happens in the elections, nothing will change. “Berlusconi is just another actor in the same play,” says my partner Alessandro. And I understand. What Italy desperately needs is not just new leadership but a new, innovative and creative way to look at solving its significant problems.

It’s true that Italian politicians are vast in their ranks. There are inconceivable layers of government and bureaucracy here, all of them making far more than their counterparts in the rest of the world, while salaries in other all areas – research, teaching, finance, business, etc. are a fraction of what the rest of the western world earns.

But when I comment that Italy would be healthier if it pruned away much of this over bloated government corp that seems to spend most of their time figuring out ways to entrench their power, Italians fret about the fate of the army of support staff…drivers, secretaries, etc. What would happen to the little people if the admittedly useless ranks of government were thinned out?

Many countries have restructured and reinvested funds saved from stagnant industries into development that will benefit the entire country. Italy has promising potential for solar power generation, for instance. What if former support staff of redundant government officials were retrained and deployed in a nascent solar power sector, developing Italy’s clout in alternative energy, while decreasing its energy dependence.

It’s my hope that italians will use their legendary creative genius to look toward the future instead of lamenting the lost glories of the past.

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!

The most evocative Italian words, according to me

14 Jan

Personally, I have no doubt that Italian is the most beautiful & affectionate language in the world.  I’ve heard, and actually maybe just read this in “Eat, Pray, Love” (which may or may not be a definitive source), that the evolution of Italian into the national language was no accident.  While many countries had competing regional dialects, the “lingua franca” of most countries was naturally shaped by the language of the primary financial center. So, “Paris-ian” overtook all regional dialects to become the language of France, “London-ian” became the language of England, and so on.

Invecce (instead), Italian was the dialect chosen by a panel from a region of Tuscany to be the official language of Italy, because it was the most beautiful dialect.

Actually this whimsical story makes sense. I am continually surprised at how vitally important “beauty” is to Italians.  It’s part of the fabric of society – you can see how the aesthetic of style is infused into even children (I am still not as style conscious as the average 8 year old here). A speech is not referred to as good or bad, but bella (beautiful) or brutta (ugly). It’s part of what makes Italy as charming as it is, although sometimes you wish less emphasis were put on superficial beauty and more on actual substance.  If you live here you know what I mean, yes? 😉

Anyway, on to a few of my favourite Italian words:

“La Zanzara” – it sounds like it would be an exotic beauty treatment involving spices and asses milk that Cleopatra would indulge in before greeting Mark Anthony.  Instead, it means “mosquito”!

“Lamentare” – this to me is the perfect word to sum up the Italian cultural identity.  In English it just means “to complain”.  But to simply complain is tedious, unimaginative, uninspired.  Not Lamentare! We are talking about a tragedy of epic proportions.  There is love, passion, angst and fire all wrapped up in how you can express your opposition even to, say, someone choosing the wrong combination of gelato flavours or using an inappropriate shape of pasta with any given sauce.

“Fastidioso” – In English this means someone who is slavishly particular to standards, or having a meticulous attitude.  In Italian, it means to bother the hell out of someone, i.e. “David, stop fastidioso-ing your sister while I am driving!” It implies the kind of action when you pinch someone’s triceps repeatedly until they punch you in the face. Which is kind of what fastidiousness makes me want to do. 🙂

“Il Culetto” – What do we call the end of a loaf of bread in English?  The “heel.”  Ho-hum.  In Italian, it’s the “little bum,” proving once and for all that everything in Italy is just so damn sexy.

“Fango” – It’s not a dance, or new style of stilettos. It’s “mud.” What else do I need to say?

So. What are your favorite Italian words, and why?

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.

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!