Little Stars in the City of Light

December 16, 2013

 

cancan pix

“Paris is always a good idea” — Audrey Hepburn

In the midst of our heated debate between Switzerland and Italy, my sister offered “Paris” like a peace treaty, and that ended the controversy. We made of a list of things to do besides buy scarves and visit the Mona Lisa and booked a boutique hotel in the Latin Quarter. We learned to decipher a Metro map (with a magnifying glass) along with the rewards and the limits of lists.

Parapluies Simon (Umbrellas Simon), 56 Boulevard St. Michel, was not on our list. We happened upon the shop on arrival day during our jet-lagged stumble to Luxembourg Gardens, which was on the list. This boutique with its ceiling vaulted like an open umbrella has been keeping Parisians chic and dry since 1897. Devoted to keeping the umbrella a fashion statement instead of a boring necessity, Parapluies Simon offers approximately 3,000 umbrellas for every mood and fashion. From frilly parasols to stately gray umbrellas with ivory handles that could take on a monsoon, the shop gave us even more respect for the capitol city of style. The shop also offers umbrella repair services. “Only in Paris,” we sighed, “would one own an umbrella worth repairing.”

Luxembourg Gardens
We eventually wilted into chairs in Luxembourg Gardens and watched children sail rented toy boats in the central fountain. The Gardens were created by Marie de Medicis in the 1600s to surround the Palais du Luxembourg she had constructed to replicate her childhood home: Florence’s Palazzo Pitti. The Palais now houses the French Senate, but the gardens are open to the public and free. On Sundays an orchestra plays in the bandstand, children ride ponies, and even adults sail toy boats. The park has many strolling paths and hundreds of moveable chairs. We read for awhile beside the fountain before exploring. Two delightful finds were a miniature bronze Statue of Liberty and the Medici fountain tucked into a shady glade. Although it was early fall, flowers bloomed in formal gardens validating writer Henry van Dyke’s observation: “Paris is a woman’s town with flowers in her hair.”

Moulin Rouge and more
The Moulin Rouge was not on our list, but a friend from Geneva who met us in Paris wanted to go. He wanted to go so badly he bought new glasses for the occasion and asked wistfully if we could go twice. No. Like the gondola ride in Venice, the Moulin Rouge is something to do. Once. It is a melting pot of tour groups, and the dress code is “whatever.” The meal was three ho-hum courses, the champagne was high quality, and the show was a tasteful, topless, two-hour extravaganza. The only disturbing act was an underwater swim by a topless woman and several bored-looking boa constrictors. In addition to dancers in sparkling costumes gyrating in flashing, blinking lights, acrobats defied gravity and a ventriloquist defied physics. The Moulin Rouge has been drawing crowds since 1889 when the cancan was decidedly naughty.

The best thing about the Moulin Rouge was that it inspired a keen interest in the bohemian Montmartre district. Here is where the cancan was born and the first cabaret, Le Chat Noir (The Black Cat), opened in 1881. The cabaret is now a boutique hotel, but the district retains much of its bohemian ambience.

Posters and paintings of the Black Cat abound at the Museum of Montmartre, 12 rue Cortot. This charming 300-year-old house contains paintings, photographs, and posters that illustrate the bohemian history of the neighborhood. “Le Moulin Rouge” by Toulouse-Lautrec and the “Theatre d’Ombres” by Henri Riviere are two of its most important works. Renoir’s studio was here, and the gardens were recreated using his paintings as a guide. You can sit on a swing swaying in the exact location of his painting “Girl on a Swing” now hanging in Paris’ Orsay Museum. The painting was ill-received when he completed it in 1876 and probably never will be put up for auction. Two of Renoir’s paintings have sold for more than US$70 million, and the Orsay knows how to hang on to its treasures.

From the garden, you can see a vineyard that has existed since the Middle Ages and was replanted in 1933. According to the New York Times, the vineyard is reputed to make the most expensive bad wine in Paris. We decided not to sample the wine, but the view is stunning.

Le Petit Prince
We saved the most poignant attraction on our list for our last day. The official Le Petit Prince store, 57, Boulevard Arago, is in a quiet Parisian neighborhood. No grand marquee announces its location, and we walked by it once expecting bright lights and helium balloons. But the shop is as modest as the Little Prince and, like his asteroid, has just what we needed: silk scarves made in France, baby clothes, note cards and post cards, little cups and plates, mugs, fuzzy foxes and sheep, and the Prince’s proud rose with four thorns.

We wondered, perhaps for the first time since we were children, if the sheep ate the Prince’s cherished rose. After all these decades it remains an important question — as important as sunsets are to the Little Prince. What do we tell the grandchildren after we read them the book and give them each a fuzzy sheep? We will tell them that the sheep did not eat the rose, because children who read the book draw what the pilot forgot to draw: a strap for the sheep’s muzzle. If you missed the book by Saint-Exupery, it was published in 1943 and is the most read and most translated book in the French language. Our mother was reading it to us before we could toddle.

Legendary sandwich
Lunch in the Marais District was a leap from fantasy fiction to fantastic food. Sacha Finkelstein’s, 27 rue des Rosiers, is a family-owned kosher deli and bakery serving the community since 1946. At some point it caught on with the international community. And no wonder. Its signature sandwich with pastrami, eggplant, pickles, and tomatoes is served on a poppy seed and onion bun. We were too full for dessert, but we could not leave the cheesecake for another day. We carried two servings back to our hotel. Don’t tell Mom, but we spoiled our dinner with satin-smooth, lemon cheesecake and were whimpering for more.

French fries in France
That night, instead of fine dining, we strolled around the Latin Quarter. Shakespeare and Company Book Store, 37 Rue de la Bûcherie, was a special treat with its maze of rooms and selection of books both current and rare. That first edition of Babar the fictional elephant was hard to pass up. Hunger struck with a surprising twist. “I want to eat French fries in France,” my sister said. We bought French fries at a gyros shop and carried our snacks to a park bench facing the Seine. Notre Dame gleamed under flood lights and the moon rose as we finished our fries and agreed with Hepburn that Paris is always a good idea.

Originally published in LuxuryWeb Magazine December 2013

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Beat the press

August 23, 2013

Carol  award cropped (757x800)I was pleased to accept the 2012 Jacqueline Jackson Award for Creative Non Fiction on July 14, 2013, in Springfield, Illinois. This annual award is presented by the University of Illinois/Springfield Alumni Writers Collective. I was unable to clearly hear what the award was really for, but today I received the hard copy:

“[This award] is a recognition of courage in the face of the blank page; the victory in filling it with words; the wisdom of crossing most of them out; the tenacity of refilling the page; the humor and madness that is writing; the luck that conjures and cajoles the story, the essay, the memoir, the poem, or something else; and the love that is sharing it with others.”

I also received a newspaper clipping about the award that stated I spent “twenty heartbreaking years in Haiti and a few in Italy.” Now, if a news story can get away with such fiction, why did I have to promise a gathering of my peers and my sister and grandson to “never let the facts get in the way of a good story”?

The facts are I spent twenty plus years writing about poverty; and as heartbreaking as trips to developing countries are, I wrote most of the stuff in a first world office while living right here in Chicagoland with “we deliver” restaurants on speed dial.

Facts aside, here’s a factoid: even a week in Haiti will break your heart for the next twenty years. The journalist who got it wrong, also got it right.

Punta Cana bait and switch

July 7, 2013

We selected Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, for our three-generation, all-inclusive beach week, because we thought the youngest generation should have a day of culture and history sandwiched between pool and beach. Santo Domingo is just a three hour drive from the resorts that define Punta Cana. Yes, Columbus slept in Santo Domingo and might be buried there, although Spain argues against that sacrilege.

Where we slept was an important consideration that needed to be balanced by budget. Our “garden view” room at NOW Larimar was in an unspecified location, but as the farthest building looked close enough on the map, we figured we could deal with any “garden view” room. As the van from the airport drove past an outlying hotel building and then on and on to the reception pavilion, my mind ceased its inner soothing tropical music and snarled “bait and switch.”

Yes, we were assigned to what we came to call “the projects.” Despite free golf cart rides to the beach, we knew we had to take the upgrade offer. Our “preferred” room was, literally, steps to the private pool with swim up bar for “preferred” guests, and our balcony had a fine view of the sea. We could enjoy the sea view in a Jacuzzi tub on our porch while other guests, “preferred” one would hope, sauntered by perhaps wondering why we were taking baths in bathing suits.

Rose petals scattered on the beds was an over the top romantic touch for a grandmother, mother, and grandson, but appreciated. Our maid tried to do something artistic with my nightgown, a leftover from Greece. It looked like a melted plastic peony and reminded me I was long overdue for a trip to Paris to buy fetching lingerie–to impress the maids, of course. At my age, the most divine lingerie would not look fetching off the hanger.

The pool, beach, room, and service were exquisite, making for a near perfect beach week that went way over budget. The food was lamentable, but dieting is a virtue and we managed to be virtuous in the buffet line and in the specialty restaurants. But, really, shouldn’t they advertise “food sucks here” so guests can plan for a weight loss week and feel virtuous in advance?

The day trip to Santo Domingo will be covered in a later post. All parents and grandparents should dutifully take the kids there — and warn them in advance so they won’t scream “bait and switch” when you drag them off the beach

In Chicago’s Greektown, skip the museum and go for the yogurt

June 29, 2013

 

National Hellenic Museum (495x640)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chicago’s National Hellenic Museum in Greektown is billed as “ the first and only major museum in the country dedicated to the Greek journey, from ancient times to the modern Greek American experience.”

So, of course, I had to take my grandson as he had just finished Rick Riordon’s novels and knows more about Greek mythology than I do. From Chicago’s Western ‘burgs, the best way to get to Greektown is to drive to the Forest Park el station, park for $3 a day, take the el to UIC/Halsted and walk one block north. We walked one block past the museum to fuel up on gyros. Good food, but the table was dirty, so I’m not mentioning the restaurant. After wiping off the table, we discussed Greek sculpture and Grecian urns over our authentic tasting gyros.

I should have saved my breath and simply booked a trip to Greece. The museum would have been funny if we had not wasted a half day on our Grecian Journey. After paying $10 for me and $8 for the 11-year-old, I was in that exciting discovery mode — and to share it with my grandson? My heart beat faster.

I should have saved my cardio workout for the gym.

Here’s what’s to see at the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago: colorful posters about the history of the Olympics; colorful posters about Greek food; and restored photographs from 1880 to 1950 of Greeks in America. I could have sworn I’d seen those Ellis Island photos before. Often. In every exhibit about immigrants and on History Channel.

As for actual artifacts, we viewed a wedding dress circa 1900 and wrestling shorts circa 1930. No Grecian urns. No ancient statues. I asked an attendant if there were any ancient Greek statues in Greektown. He thought the closest was at the Art Institute.

“Should we take a cab, Grandma,” asked my grandson.

I uttered an age-appropriate negative.

On our way back to the el stop, we visited a Greek bakery where I was pleased to find homemade yogurt and honey imported from Greece. Hardly worth a half day and the expense of getting there, but my mood lifted. The day would not be wasted. Forest Park is close to Oak Park, home to the best Greek restaurant I have found in Chicagoland.

In Oak Park, we drove up and down Lake Street looking for the restaurant and checking my iPhone to verify address. It was not only closed, it was abandoned. Not to worry. Petersen’s Ice Cream Parlor in Oak Park never disappoints. Two scoops in a waffle cone redeemed our day.

Finding Jesus in San Filipe, Italy

March 25, 2013

After an idyllic few days in SorrentoItaly, Bob, Joan, and I headed to the Adriatic and got lost somewhere in the middle of Italy trying to find San Filipe , a little hill town not on the map. The attraction was a personal tour of the town by Tony, an acquaintance of Bob’s who lives there part time. We were lost for only four hours, and the farmers and shop keepers we asked for directions were delighted to help out. They all said, “straight ahead.” The roads are curvy and fork frequently with no hint as to what “straight ahead” might mean.

Tony is a retired priest, which is a blessing for his parish. We took the free tour of San Filipe and enjoyed the homemade gelato, which his housekeeper made. I don’t think Tony has the humility to tie his own shoes.

Looking through a grated window beneath San Felipe’s only church, I saw a dusty glass coffin with someone in it, probably waxed, and dried flowers in the coffin. Of course I had to know the story, so Bob asked Tony, who didn’t know anything about it. Bob asked the church’s priest, who had been there six years, and he said, “Oh, we use that room for storage.” Bob asked an old-timer who, when Bob pointed to the grate, assumed he was pointing to the church, and said, “Jesus Christ is in there.”

“Straight ahead,” Joan said in Italian, a phrase we had all learned to speak flawlessly,

We dumped Tony, who wanted a free ride (and delivered home) to a restaurant only 40 miles away on dark, curvy roads. It was late, so we went to the restaurant without him. It was closed. We descended on the nearest sizable town, registered in a gloomy four-star hotel and were soon chasing our wine with pizza at the closest trattoria.

Hint: in Italy four-star hotel means ensuite bathroom and the manager had some gold paint.

to be continued…

Option for the Poor

March 18, 2013

When Pope Francis was elected, I remembered hearing about the church’s “preferential option for the poor” about 20 years ago and now have some hope that the church, and society, and maybe even me might give more thought to those in need.

The option for the poor asks everyone to realize the plight of those who struggle to survive and to put the needs of the most vulnerable members of society above selfish interests. But who are “the poor”? And are we really supposed to care about “the poor” when we are struggling to pay the bills and every paycheck buys less of what we need? And how do I draw the line between what I need and what I want?

Those are the questions I struggle with, and I have no answer. The following poem sent by a friend, who wishes to be anonymous, helps me put poverty into perspective but does not answer my questions. Perhaps it is a daily, even hourly decision. Do I “need” that $80 haircut when all I am doing for the next six weeks is teaching school? A $12 haircut won’t frighten children or violate the dress code. As for mirrors, I gave them up when I turned 60. Sixty-eight dollars would feed a Third World family for a month or more. OUCH.

I’m pasting my friend’s poem in my wallet. Maybe that will help.

  Similitude

I have never been in a sand storm

But I have had grit in my eyes

And was driven crazy by the discomfort

One must feel in the desert.  I have been

Out of work, taking whatever job

I could, selling door-to-door,

on the phone, selling lies to honest people,

and yes, I know what it’s like

Not to pay the bills and feel  

the crushing pain in my chest,

toss sleepless in the nights and feed

My three daughters mushroom soup

Mixed with cheap noodles for dinners

with peanut butter on day-old bread

for lunch.  I know this and much more, 

But I do not know what it’s like

Being poor all your life and feeling

The pain and humiliation every day

You’re alive knowing there’s no escape.

 

 

 

 

 

Puccini — the land, the lore, the music

September 5, 2012

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My B&B in Lucca, Italy, for the 58th annual Puccini Festival, should have reflected Puccini’s mastery of music and life, so why was I stumbling around, jet-lagged and disharmonic for coffee? Did the owners not understand the second B means breakfast? As I ambled along a cobblestone street,  I discovered that by missing breakfast I had stumbled upon the coffee bar of my Italian dreams. The 1846 Belle Epoch style Antico Caffé di Simo (Via Fillungo 47) not only serves great cappuccino and fresh pastries, it also served Puccini and literary luminaries such as Ezra Pound. I broke my fast staring at a piano replacing the piano Puccini played for friends and patrons. The caffe also serves lunch and is a popular wine bar in the evenings.  I had come to Lucca to meet Puccini, and already we were having breakfast together!

An early morning tramp around Lucca, a walled and walkable medieval city, revealed the importance of Puccini to the townsfolk. The expected bronze statue in a piazza was not a surprise, but the politically incorrect cigarette in his hand was. Where is the fig leaf that covers inconvenient parts of classical statues? I later learned that Puccini smoked eighty cigarettes and five cigars a day before dying of throat cancer at age 66. Another surprise was the 12th Century church of San Giovanni and Reparta where Puccini was baptized. It is built on the ruins of an early Christian church that was built on the ruins of a Roman bath. Here, Puccini concerts are held every day of the year at 7 p.m. (no smoking), but sometimes Verdi and other classical composers are honored instead. Even Puccini needs a break.

Puccini’s house, a lovingly restored mid-19th Century apartment, opened as a museum in 2011 and showcases a piano that Puccini played when he was a boy. On display is Turandot’s elaborate, original costume. Manuscripts, letters, opera scores, and other memorabilia are stored in archival drawers, and walls are covered with paintings of ancestors, photographs, and a Puccini family tree. The family dates back to the 1700s, and the Puccini’s were a musical family from the beginning. Echoing the finales of his tragic operas, the last Puccini leaves no progeny.

Ristorantes Puccini

After a day of Puccini sightings and the concert at San Giovanni and Reparta, dinner at the Ristorante Puccini in front of his house seemed obligatory. A friend suggested an outdoor table facing a piano, so I expected music. What I did not expect was the nature of “Buonasera Puccini” written on a chalkboard. I thought it was the house wine or a special entree. But while I was enjoying lavender-flavored panna cotta with candied gooseberries, a young woman in a turn-of-the-century gown sat at an outdoor table near the piano. She was joined by a dapper Puccini with the ubiquitous cigarette in hand. They performed a skit that strung together several of Puccini’s arias.

In the hush following the final aria, I recalled that Springfield, Illinois, has sites celebrating its native son, Abe Lincoln, but his presence is not as pervasive as Puccini in Lucca. Culturally, this is understandable. Lincoln only wrote the Gettsyburg Address, while Puccini wrote Tosca. On a gastronomic note, Springfield’s idea of haute cuisine is the horseshoe sandwich, while Lucca’s chefs turn fresh, local ingredients into culinary masterpieces such as turbot flan with a prawn center served with a sauce of cherry tomatoes, fresh basil, and locally grown olives.

The next day, I headed to the countryside expecting to find echoes of Puccini in the hamlet of Celle in Pescaglia so high in the hills you can smell the green. His ancestral home was already old when the Puccini progenitor, Jacopo, was born here in 1712. Original furnishings and artifacts are displayed, including Puccini’s crib and christening gown, the bed with a corn-husk mattress where he allegedly was conceived, and a gramophone from Thomas Edison. I heard more than an echo; I heard the only recording of Puccini’s voice, but whatever he said in 1907 is in Italian. Celle’s main street is two blocks long, but supports a small restaurant (another Ristorante Puccini) that serves rustic Tuscan food. Puccini’s house and the restaurant overlook a valley of such green beauty it could inspire the dullest to a majestic moment.

Theaters small and large

I drove on to a hamlet near Vetriano. An 1889 theater, affectionately called Teatrino, was  constructed in a barn and is the world’s smallest historic theater still in use. The entrance and tiny ticket window face a cobblestone lane. To reach the two tiers of balconies, one enters through the roof. The diminutive playhouse retains the character of the original in every detail including the seats, which are padded kitchen chairs. The townsfolk brought their own chairs to performances.  The theater seats 99. To accommodate one more, fire safety features would need to be installed, spoiling the meticulous reconstruction. Despite its size, performances include classical plays and concerts. The theater has a Puccini story, too. When he attended a performance, the townsfolk were so honored they sang to him. The maestro said, ‘If I had known you were going to sing, I would have brought my rifle.’

Puccini’s dream was to hear one of his operas performed outdoors at Torre del Lago on Lake Massaciucco, inspiration for much of his work.  In 1930, La Boheme was performed on a stage built on piles in the lake. My dream was to experience Madam Butterfly in the open-air theater seating 3,000, built on the site in 1966. It was an extraordinary experience to arrive by boat, imagining the composer’s ears tuned to the lap of water, the birdsong, and the rushing wind. The stage setting is minimalist with a large boulder suggestive of nearby quarries and a low, white Japanese-style table where Madam Butterfly erects her shrine to her faithless lover. The lake and hazy mountains that change to a starry sky make a perfect backdrop to the pathos of Madam Butterfly’s transformation from rapture to grief. The music was glorious and an unforgettable reminder of why Lucca so passionately honors its native genius.

The Maestro and Michelangelo

Pietrasanta, meaning “Sacred Stone,” was my last stop before entrusting my sanity to the airline industry. (Do not believe British Airways’ assurance that you can make the Gatwick to Heathrow transfer in 3.5 hours during the Olympics.) I would have been grateful for any level city, but Pietrasanta surpassed my expectations. This medieval city is dedicated to the arts, particularly sculpture. A decorous plaque on ancient brick explains that Michelangelo lived here while selecting marble from the nearby Carrara quarries, mined since ancient Rome. Today, the town exhibits the work of contemporary sculptors in its main square and in the Church of Sant’Agostino, built in the 14th Century and .deconsecrated during a Napoleonic invasion.

Instead of drifting into stony dreams of Renaissance sculpture, I was amused by the bronze absurdities of Botero. His squat, fat figures hold down the square like asteroids, and the display continues through Sant’Agostino whose ancient altars form a backdrop to the modern artistic vision. A supersized Leda is gleefully kissed by a portly swan in front of a religious painting in need of restoration and blindfolds for the saints. A lamp glows on the altar signifying the presence of God, perhaps Bacchus, the god of wine and mirth.

I imagine Michelangelo standing in the square, eyes on the bald Carrara Hills, soul full of images of the Pieta, oblivious to the bronze naked fat lady lounging on a rotund bull. Then Puccini strolls into the piazza, his arm around his latest mistress. He laughs and lights a cigarette, waiting until a small, admiring group forms. He exhales a cloud of smoke and proclaims, If I’d brought my rifle, I would shoot it.

Originally published by Epoch Times and LuxuryWeb Magazine

Echoes of Old Rome in Today’s Eternal City

June 3, 2012

On Rome’s 2765th birthday, I was pondering the source of my discontent. My azalea bush struggled to bloom, a poignant reminder of azaleas frothing down Rome’s Spanish Steps. I got my limoncello from the freezer, raised my glass to Roma, and fired up my computer. The cursor slid to my frequent flier program.

Two weeks later, I celebrated my return to Rome at an outdoor table with a view of the two-thousand-year-old Porta Octavia rising ghostly in the moonlight. This has been my favorite  restaurant for years, both for its ancient roots in the Jewish Ghetto and its cuisine. After soggy bruschetta and pasta carbonara with the consistency of boxed macaroni and cheese, I told the waiter, “No bene!” He looked concerned, but not surprised.

The next morning, I was heartened by Mark Twain’s, “History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” The decline of one restaurant indicated others had risen to take its place. A Roman friend met me for lunch at Taverna Romana, via Madonna dei Monti, 79, a cobblestone street near the Forum. Close to the restaurant, I stopped, sobered by twenty brass plaques, four-inches square, set into the cobblestones. Each plaque is inscribed with the name, birth and death dates, and place of execution of Holocaust victims who had lived in the house.* Lina, age 5, was assassinated in Auschwitz, two months after deportation from her home on this lovely ancient street.

Rome Plaque Lina di Consiglio

I was still thinking of Lina when I entered Taverna Romana. Its rustic décor is typical for an eatery that caters to neighbors, not tourists. For the past two-hundred years, it has been run by the same family. Produce is purchased from local farmers daily, and all dishes are prepared on-site. My friend and I enjoyed bruschetta on crispy toast (finally!) before moving on to gnocchi so light it nearly floated off my fork. The roast veal with mushrooms had a taste so fresh, I thought of spring meadows. When I looked at the desserts, I envisioned a little girl tugging on her mother’s arm as they passed Taverna Romana, begging for a sweet while her mother clutched coins for freshly baked bread.
Based on my friend’s recommendations, I discovered two restaurants rooted in history and worthy of the most discriminating diners. DivinPeccato (Piazza della Rovere 84), is close to Vatican City and overlooks the Tiber. The name, Divine Sin, is swiftly parsed on entering the restaurant. I saw a humble wine bar with a few tables on a linoleum floor. The wine selection and snacks elevated the small sin of enjoying a few glasses of wine to a delicious indulgence. The “divine” portion of the restaurant is upstairs. In the intimate dining room, spotless napery went ignored as I gloried in the view of the Tiber from two windows and the frescoes on the walls and beamed ceiling. In the restaurant’s last incarnation as a Chinese restaurant, the frescoes were boarded over and florescent lights were affixed to the lowered ceiling. The 18thCentury frescos, discovered during restoration, are from the building’s upscale apartment days.Divine Sin

Rome Cheese Plate

For an appetizer, my companion ordered a selection of local cheeses served with fruit jam, nuts, and honey. It looked so good I was sorry I had been tempted by “zucchini milfoil with buffalo bresola and very young cheese with mint pesto.” This delicious smelling stack of food would not make an attractive photograph. However, after one bite, I handed a forkful to my friend and smiled smugly. Young cheese, the waiter explained, is buffalo mozzarella before it forms into balls. A small dish of it was included on my friend’s cheese platter. We decided that buffalo mozzarella balls are a marketing convenience, because the young version is tastier if more problematic to plate.

For pasta, I opted for “rigatoni with Piceno sausage, tomatoes, milky cream and basil” while my companion ordered my appetizer. The sausage, from the Le Marche region of Italy, added a spicy note that enhanced without overpowering the welcome taste of fresh tomato and basil. The waiter recommended a bottle of Pinot Nero Meczan. This food-friendly wine was especially congenial with our selections. Satisfied, but not stuffed, we decided against dessert. We really should have ordered the “eulogy to hot chocolate,” for that is all we speculated about as we walked around Piazza Navona.

Rome Spirito di Vino Cellar

From Caesar To Rachael Ray

The next restaurant is Spirito di Vino (via dei Genovesi, 31), in Rome’s Trastevere.  Every building has a story to tell, and what better way to hear a good story than over dishes that have won the Slow Food medallion thanks to the efforts of Chef Eliana Catalani. According to her husband, a gregarious raconteur, this family-owned restaurant has been a synagogue, convent, foundry, residence, and warehouse over the past few centuries. The basement was excavated down to its two-thousand-year-old floor.  Several archeological treasures discovered here are on display in the Capitoline and Vatican Museums.  Now, the basement is a wine cellar with 5,000 to 7,000 bottles ranging from 6 to 800 euros. This is the domain of Francesco, the Catalani’s son, who waits on tables as well as recommends wines.

Rome Spirito di Vino Caesar's Dish

The menu includes a reincarnation of a dish enjoyed by Julius Caesar prepared from the original recipe. This pork shoulder is cooked with apples, onions, honey, vinegar, red wine, and spices. Instead of salt, Chef Eliana remains true to the ancient recipe by using an anchovy sauce.  I did not detect a hint of fish, just perfectly seasoned pork that has been pleasing imperial and other discriminating diners for two millennia. Prefaced by homemade chicken liver pate with wild apple jelly and ending with creamy ricotta with honey and cinnamon in a crisp, almond -flour crust, the meal was a timeless delight.

Rome creamy ricotta with honey and cinnamon

Francesco, who recommended a robust il Casolare Rossa from Italy’s San Lorenzo Winery, assured us that Eliana is the only cook allowed in the kitchen and that all dishes and sauces are made on the premises. Produce is organic and the meat free-range. Eliana never uses frozen or precooked ingredients. The secret to her delicious bread is a 250-year-old yeast starter. Unlike Caesar’s cook, she is not concerned about losing her head; however, she is dedicated to maintaining Spirito di Vino’s reputation. No wonder Rachael Ray tweeted that it is her favorite restaurant.

From Bites to Bytes

While Romans preserve ancient culinary traditions, travel guides have leapt into the electronic age.  According to TripAdviser, this year nearly half of U.S. travelers will use travel apps on their mobile and tablet devices.  I met with Flaminia Chapman who has created an app titled “Rome Insiders Guide” for Apple products (iPhone, iPad & iPod touch) available athttp://sutromedia.com/apps/Rome_Insiders_Guide. It also works with Android phones, www.sutromedia.com/android/Rome_Insiders_Guide. A resident of Central Rome, Flaminia keeps the app updated and is constantly adding new information and photos. She also offers personalized tours for individuals and small groups and can be contacted atflaminia@gmail.com.

For people with little patience for guided tours but crave in-depth information on art and historic sites, I highly recommend Jane’s Smart Art Guides, available for available for download to iPods and Smartphones (www.janessmartart.com). Her Rome guides include St. Peter’s Basilica, the Pantheon, Raphael’s Stanza della Segnatura, and Sta. Maria del Popolo, an extraordinary, but often over-looked church filled with artistic treasures. I previewed a draft copy of her nearly completed guide to Rome’s Fountains and was pleased that my favorite fountain is also the author’s, Le Tartarughe (Fountain of the Tortoises) in Piazza Mattei. The tortoises, added 70 years after the fountain was unveiled, add a whimsical touch to this playful fountain.  Behind the fountain is a story of love gone terribly wrong that Jane discovered in her research.

The whimsy of the Romans is often overlooked, but there is nothing whimsical about their food. When it is good, it is memorable; and when it is bad, it is time to find another restaurant.

*Created by Cologne artist Gunter Demnig, the Stolpersteine are set at homes of Nazi victims to trip the memories of passers-by. The memorial project commenced in the 1990s and now includes more than 20,000 stones in Europe. Rome’s first stumblestone was laid in 2010.

Links to Restaurants:
www.divinpeccato.com
www.spiritodivino.com

 

Greece — off the Grid

September 24, 2011

Vacation planning should be completed months before the journey. Thus, my friend Susan and I agreed that we would not complain when our last-minute plans to visit one or more Greek islands went awry. How bad could it be? The entire country is historic. Being in the euro-zone, our credit and ATM cards would open doors to all amenities.

We were locked into the last week of August, because Susan was extending a business trip. I told her it was not auspicious that my frequent flier program had many openings for Athens that week. As far as accommodations, anything remotely affordable was booked for every island we had ever heard of. Forget Santorini, Rhodes, Crete, and any island that merited at least a page in the guide book. Boldly, we selected an island glossed in one paragraph: Ikaria, site of Icarus’s burial. Was the Greek god’s flaming finale a metaphor for our tardy planning? Every hotel and guest house had ample room. Why didn’t anyone else want to go to Ikaria? “They booked early,” we groaned, “and are joining the beautiful people on Santorini.”

Missing in Athens

Susan and I agreed to meet in theAthens’ airport boarding area for our 40-minute flight to Ikaria. With just one flight a day, we were fortunate to obtain the last two tickets. I decided to surprise her and meet her earlier. She must be dawdling, I thought, so I moved from the baggage claim area to a café where I would be sure to see her walking down the concourse. She must be shopping, I thought, so I moved to the departures gate. The plane took off without Susan, and I strained to recall how we were supposed to get from the airport to our hotel. She had said something about a bus.

The airport, open a few hours for the daily flight, is a barn with a luggage belt. I could have carried all the luggage from plane to belt in the time it took luggage to arrive for forty passengers. In that time, I ascertained there was no bus. As Susan had the phrase book, I searched for an English speaker. The car rental man found a taxi driver who was willing to take me to the village of Armenistis  for “just” 70 euros. “Sixty,” I sputtered feeling as fleeced as the sheep on the surrounding, barren hills. The setting was Biblical; my mood was not.

Wild ride to the Aegean Sea

After a hundred or so hairpin turns on gravel, mountain roads, I realized that 60 euros was a deal. Every village of four or more houses has a tire repair shop. Approaching Armenistis, the only clue I had to our hotel was a photo on the website. And there it was, Atschas Livadi Beach Hotel. Our room, clean and simple, was forty feet above crashing waves. We had read about the deadly surf, but we were there for wading. It was difficult to leave my balcony view of the turbulent ocean to stroll twenty feet to the restaurant.

The hotel’s terrace restaurant has a similar ocean view. John (pronounced I-o-an-nis) who grew up on the island is prepared to cook to order from 6 a.m. until midnight.  The moussaka was splendid, and I learned to pay 2 euros extra for tzatziki to slather on bread. This is the cucumber sauce used on gyros.  John’s recipes, handed down through the generations, take full advantage of Ikaria’s bounty. He uses produce from his farm, locally made cheese, locally baked bread, and locally slaughtered goat. For 10 euros, I feasted above the salty sea spray. Fortunately, I was too full for dessert, for John does not serve dessert. He offers melon for what he calls a “finish.”

Arrival of an adventuress

In bed, I had a passing thought about Susan, but was too quickly in the arms of Morphes to fret. I woke about 4 a.m. surfing on the sound of waves and feeling more relaxed than I had in years. I woke again at noon and ambled to the terrace for my morning coffee. Susan appeared looking refreshed and unencumbered. A delayed flight out of O’Hare put her in Athens 30 minutes after the plane to Ikaria departed. Being in an island mood, she flew to another obscure island,Samos, had a lovely fish dinner and no problems finding an inexpensive, clean room. She enjoyed a four-hour ferry ride from Samos and caught a bus to the hotel.

She ordered white beans with a spicy tomato and vegetable sauce and laughed about her luggage, somewhere between Chicago, Newark, Munich, Athens, and Ikaria. She had her bathing suit in her backpack and I loaned her a tee-shirt.

We were on the beach by 1 p.m., just a forty steps down from our room. For 5 euros a day, we could rent two beach chairs and a thatched umbrella. A beach bar offered cold drinks and snacks. The weather was perfect for swimming, or in our case, wading, and we did not see a cloud. We were happy that the beautiful people were on Santorini, whose beaches were undoubtedly more crowded and with bodies that would make us feel we should jog instead of eat, read, and yawn.

Back to basics

That evening our conversation drifted regrettably to finances. John told us that the closest town had two ATMs. One was broken and the other was out of money. Therefore, we should go when the bank was open. The hotel does not accept credit cards. For 40 euros a night for both of us, we were not inclined to complain. It was a 20 euro taxi ride to the bank. One way. Susan was short on euros, but I had enough for us both if we adhered to our main objectives: sunbathe, wade, read, eat. We had a little refrigerator in our room, so we decided to dine on the terrace only for morning coffee and our evening meal.

The next day, a kindly taxi driver delivered her suitcase for no charge. We hiked ten minutes to a micro-mini mart for crackers, cheese, olives, yogurt, Nutella, and peaches. Two days later we hiked twenty minutes in the opposite direction to the picturesque village of Armenistis for similar provisions and postcards. We learned that Nutella and yogurt make a fine breakfast, and that there is something delightfully Grecian about eating cheese, olives, and peaches on a beach Homer would have immortalized in verse.

We could have hired a car for 50 euros a day and seen Ikaria’s other attractions: ruins of ancient baths, radioactive mineral springs, a castle, an archeological museum, more idyllic beaches and flat tires. Another option would be to spend a few nights in a remote cottage owned by the hotel. It was just an hour and a half hike, John explained and required a guide. He looked us over. “Make that a three-hour hike.”

We settled for doing what we had come to Ikaria to do: relax. We agreed that we have never relaxed so completely. Perhaps the relaxation factor contributes to the Ikarian’s unusually long life-span. Ikaria is one of the world’s few “blue zones” according to New York Times best-selling author Dan Buettner. He discovered that Ikaria has the highest percentage of 90-year-olds on the planet – nearly 1 out of 3 Ikarians live to their 90s. They have 20 percent less cancer, 50 percent less heart disease, and almost no dementia.

Ferry to Athens

After six cloudless days and more than ten books crossed off our reading list, our luck ran out on the ferry. Our only option for returning to Athens were deck seats on a six-hour evening sail. While Susan struggled with mal de mer on a cold and windy deck, I passed through the passenger lounge with longing. Carpeting, comfortable seats, a lovely lounge – all for people who planned ahead. Despite the gift shop and other amenities of a hotel, the ferry had no Dramamine. Susan turned greener. We arrived in Athens after midnight and, no, the hotel was not within walking distance as advertised. The taxi line was shorter than we had feared, and we were soon settled in the ancient city with a real tourist agenda.

“I want to see the Acropolis,” Susan said, “but I’d skip it for another day on Livadi Beach.”

Amused at first at her cultural blasphemy, I realized I agreed. After Ikaria,Greece will always be a beach surrounded by mythic cliffs and majestic waves.

POSITANO

June 4, 2011

Murder in Positano

or why I killed my inner accountant

 

South of Naples, Positano is one big cliff rising from the Bay of Salerno. The town’s one road winds, turns back on itself, loops around churches and villas and trees that have been here since donkeys determined where the road would go. The advent of the automobile gave Positano to the world. Yet, despite metallic din drowning whispery breezes, I have not found a corner of Positano that lacks an avian chorus. Perhaps natural selection increased the volume of birdsong to give visitors the music they did not know they missed until they arrive woozy and white-knuckled from the hairpin road fromNaples, vacation nerves jangling, inner accountant snapping, “You paid a lot for this, and you better get your money’s worth.”

Thanks to a friend of friend, I am not paying for this. The friend once removed rents guest rooms or apartments in his 17th Century villa that clings to the cliff. He had no paying guests scheduled for the time I was there. If I had considered paying for this, my inner accountant would admonish that I had regressed to that irresponsible child blowing her allowance on bubble gum.

The power failed after the housekeeper left for the night and after my host called to say he was delayed inSwitzerland. I was alone somewhere in time, but not in this century. And that’s when I killed my inner accountant without remorse.

Light was fading, radiators were cooling. I rounded up candles, a down comforter, and a bottle of limoncello from an assortment of other interesting liquors, including grappa. I’ve learned to stay away from grappa, but that’s another story, something about serenading a tollbooth on the autostrada. From the salon’s library of books in four languages, I selected a book I have been meaning to read for twenty years. I passed the grand piano with the first sorrow I have felt over giving up piano lessons for gymnastics. Imagine playing Mozart with keys illuminated by the antique candelabra. Imagine playing Mozart looking over an iron balcony at the lights of Positano winking on below. So much for double back flips and tarnished team medals.

Something was missing. Dinner. I could walk uphill to an osteria or downhill to a trattoria, but I was in the Renaissance and truculent about leaving. Using ingredients on hand and cooking by candlelight in an old kitchen modernized with appliances was a hazardous pleasure. I boiled pasta in unsalted water — not a culinary tip, I simply could not find the salt. I sliced garlic, onions, basil from a pot on the kitchen terrace, a tomato and my thumb. The pasta was tasty, although I could not tell if the red stuff I was eating was tomato or blood. However, the dish did not taste unsalted, and that’s where I jumped off that train of thought.

In a brass bed, under two down comforters, I read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own by the light of three candles. The limencello expanded my understanding of Woolfe’s premise, which evaporated by morning leaving me with a personal premise. A room of one’s own in a deserted villa is a decadent delight.

I woke to the hiss of radiator, redundant because my face was warm from sun shining through the terrace’s glass doors. I drifted into the fragrance of sea air and roses and looked down on the bay. Fishing boats and yachts looked like bathtub toys. The cliffs on both sides have mythical grandeur. Is this a scene Homer envisioned when he wrote Ulysses?  On the terrace, generously blooming potted plants and meandering vines thatched a privacy screen. I sat on a wicker chair and felt as if I were sitting in the lap of God. My spirituality is broader than Judeo-Christian, so I took off my nightgown, lay on a lounge chair, and gave my body to Apollo until sweat dripped on terracotta tiles.

A long soak in a deep tub was like one of those optional tour excursions that cost extra. I paid for the bath with an hour that could have been spent exploring Positano. Like the gondola ride inVenice, it was worth it. Green marble tiles, little chandlers flanking the vanity mirror, a warming rod. Toilet and bidet are up three stairs and through an archway. A round window provides a sky view for mundane duties. But in the tub, light was diffuse and so was birdsong and so were my thoughts except for one. Showers are for hotels; in a villa, one bathes. After replenishing hot water for the third time, I realized that it would be considerate to take my host to dinner to compensate for the gas bill.

And where was the mysterious host, caught in a Renaissance of his own? While waiting for pruny skin to smooth, and dithering about what to wear, I heard footsteps, whistling, and a short burst of celebratory piano music. The mystery man had survived the autostrada and was happy to be home. Now that my inner accountant was in rigor mortis, I felt no shame in calculating how many relatives I would have to fleece to make him an offer on his villa.

John Steinbeck wrote, “Positano bites deeply.” He used the wrong verb.  Positano burrows. It takes root in your soul and leafs out in memories too dear to have appraised.

(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN  SILVER KRIS AND VENTANA MONTHLY)


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