Posts Tagged ‘Italy’

Puccini — the land, the lore, the music

September 5, 2012


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



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.



November 2, 2010


 SPQR is the immortal cipher appearing all over Rome, even on sewer lids. It stands for the Latin Senatus Populusque Romanus: the Senate and People of Rome, and sometimes it means Sono poco questi Romani: they are pigs, these Romans.

 Most of the pigs I’ve met in Rome are German, which is why the Roman poco I encountered stands out like SPQR on a new sewer cap. He was a waiter at a restaurant (the one by the old well) on Borgo Pio, a street lined with outdoor tables and overflowing with tourists. Any restaurant on Borgo Pio looks popular for it is the most convenient street for refueling after visiting the Sistine Chapel. The poco waiter ignored me relentlessly. Water took 15 minutes, a menu took 30. He deigned to take my order about a week later and served the pasta carbonara after curing the bacon. He dawdled so long over the check, I left a 20 Euro bill and no tip on the table. His squeals of outrage followed me to Piazza Navona.

There, annoyance evaporated. Where in the world is an expanse like Piazza Navona? Three fountains, an obelisk, benches and artists, Romans and tourists, all surrounded by Renaissance palazzos, the white napery of outdoor restaurants, a toy store, and an ATM. Piazza Navona invites one to stroll, maybe several times around, while pondering the weight of history and the lightness of being – of being in Rome. Two thousand years of history at my feet and a freshly made gelato in hand.

 Well now, how could I be annoyed by one Roman poco? Particularly when Pasquino, just a few steps from the piazza, was standing by to display my protest. The weathered torso may be more than two thousand years old, but he still takes complaints. My post-it note about the poco on Borgo Pio may have lasted no longer than the next breeze, but as Marcus Tullius Cicero said in the 1st Century B.C. “History is the witness that testifies to the passage of time. It illuminates reality, vitalizes memory, provides guidance in daily life, and brings us tidings of antiquity.”

And my tiny bite of history provides guidance to SPQR and its visitors to stay clear of the poco on Borgo Pio and eat at La Vittoria’s instead.


August 19, 2010

In EAT PRAY LOVE the scenery in Italy is almost satisfying, in India – well, India is not an ashram, but in Bali a would-be lover’s butt is Oscar-worthy. That guy has the best butt I have seen since The David in Florence. Aside from the butt, I believe both the movie and book fail because of two things: angst, I’m tired of it; and forcing three themes to fit separately into three countries. If one can’t eat pray love in Italy AND in India AND in Indonesia, all in the same day if not same trip, one seems kinda like a Barbie. Let’s see, today I’m gonna make my Barbie eat lots of pasta in Rome and then have an agonizing time buying bigger jeans in Naples. Yes, that was gut wrenching. Then, you can make your Barbie sit in the corner and oooommmm until school starts.  Meanwhile, our big sister is saying “no” to the butt and putting on her sailor suit for her ride into the sunset with Mr. (It’s About Time) Right.  

Cathy fell asleep before India, and I cheered when the lovers sailed, because I knew, this not being the Titanic, we could go home.

I have been thinking for hours to find something nice to say about EAT PRAY LOVE. Anyone who can get a book published and then sell the movie rights is to be admired. Maybe the editor is to blame. Maybe the editor thought “the audience” can focus on only one concept at a time and can focus on it anywhere but New York. Maybe the film spent so much time in New York so the audience would be pathetically grateful to see bridges spanning the Tiber on one of Rome’s golden days.

I really wish this was a book and movie I could love, for I dearly love Italy and India. I think I would love Bali, too, with or without the butt.

If you go, time your popcorn and bathroom breaks carefully so you don’t miss the butt. It’s about halfway through Bali.  But remember, there is a better butt in Florence – and maybe in your own neighborhood.


August 17, 2010

Eat Popcorn, Pray you don’t snore, and rent Casablanca

ALIVIA UPDATE: Our little one is stable with medical support, and they are doing tests to determine cause and treatment options. We are so grateful for your prayers.


I am glad I bought the book EAT PRAY LOVE — because of the scenery. I will wander around Italy with anyone, even the author. I was annoyed that it took her three weeks and the urging of a friend to find her way into a church or museum to see the incredible art. While watching  Italian men strut around Piazza Navona can be a religious experience, one needs some balance such as being awestruck by a Caravaggio or falling in love with a marble bust of a long-dead Roman senator.

The shallowness of her experience did not deter me until she got to India. That’s where I left her, there on page whatever. She does not get India. Not at all. Of course I have to see the movie because part of it was filmed in Italy. And, for an out-of-novel experience, the villa where Julia Roberts stayed during the filming can be rented through Doorways (, an agency owned and operated by a friend who has the only such agency I would recommend. She would never represent a property like you-know-who does as being “just steps from the sea.” It was 900 steps, downhill sharply. No bus, no gondola, no hunky Italian to lean on. Uphill was a horror that by the grace of God did not turn into a cerebral hemorrhage.

So, I am going to the movie Wednesday with Cathy, an Irish woman engaged to my son. She has never been to Italy or India. Neither of us have been to Bali. We both love popcorn, pasta, and I assume she loves Casablanca. We will share our opinions on a subsequent blog. Many EPL movie reviews are emerging. Ours won’t be the best or the worst. Editors are not standing by … PR firms are not scissored up for the clipping.  The stock market will not fluctuate when our review wings into e-world. But, we will be honest. 900 steps will not be “just a few.”


May 5, 2010


Tiramisu was invented in the early 1970s in Treviso, Italy, a little Venice with canals and art. I ate it at the restaurant that invented it, Antico Ristorante Beccherie, and wanted to lick my plate. Getting the recipe was a googling chore, but I prevailed. I found it. I made it. I survived. Now, I am waiting for my family to taste it.

Tiramisu means pick-me-up – and I’ll have to pick my family off the floor when they realize I cooked instead of picking up a carry out. So here it is – European measurements translated into American.

Tiramisu Originale

12 servings

(for 6 servings, use one pie dish and half the ingredients)

12 egg yokes

2 ¼ cups granulated sugar

2 lbs mascarpone cheese

48 lady fingers

4 cups strong espresso

½ cup cocoa powder (unsweetened)

Brew espresso and pour in shallow bowl to cool

Whip egg yokes with sugar until stiff

Fold mascarpone cheese into beaten eggs and sugar to make the filling

Dip 24 lady fingers into the espresso, but do not soak them

Arrange lady fingers in two 8 or 9 inch pie dishes

Spread half the filling over the ladyfingers

Arrange another layer of lady fingers dipped in espresso on top of the filling

Spread the remaining filling over the lady fingers

Sprinkle with cocoa powder

Serve chilled


May 1, 2010



Word found in  a blog for people who love travel and art. Jane McIntosh produces audio guides to Europe’s art treasures that are as detailed as a postgraduate course, and her blog is peppered with fascinating information that does not make the guidebooks. She has a particular fondness for Italy and is preparing an audio guide to Rome’s fountains.

In restauro is Italian for “under restoration,” a disappointing notice when re-visiting old loves or making a pilgrimage to a work of art discovered in a book or recommended by a friend. Michelangelo’s Moses was in restauro so long, I thought the statue’s plastic drapes would outlive me. When I finally saw the blinding behemoth of polished marble I had to admit it was worth the wait.

Livia’s house on Palatine Hill has been in restauro for so long, I wouldn’t believe in it if not for my travel companion Joan who saw it twenty years ago and has been trying to get into it ever since. Every trip to Palatine Hill includes a snarly snapshot of the in restauro sign on Livia’s house. Rome news articles give conflicting reports on the availability of Livia’s house to the common tourist. Before my next trip to Rome, I’ll email Jane. If she doesn’t know, who would?

I’ve never met Jane, but I’ve liked her ever since a minutely detailed visit to the Vatican using her guide Yesterday, when I read about her visit to Fontana dei Tartarughe (Turtles Fountain) in Piazza Mattei (which was in lavoro – being cleaned) I knew my season of en restauro had passed. To hell wilth peeling off the layers of desire that distance me from being the grandmother of my expectations – the one who stays home and is always available.

I want more of the grit of travel and the grime of Rome. I want to enjoy a riso gelato beside the turtle fountain one more time, knowing it will not be my last splash in my favorite fountain.  (My ritual includes washing my gelato sticky hands and face in the fountain.) Jane did for me what I would allow only a trusted friend to do. Between the lines, she admonished, “It’s spring. You should be in Rome.”


April 25, 2010


 Asolare is passing time in a delightful but meaningless way. Not surprisingly, it is an Italian word.  When I read the word, my first thought was the Spanish Steps (in Rome) in May. Pots of pink and white azaleas are in glorious bloom all the way up the 138 steps. It is where I asolare best, so I go there every day I can until the flowers droop and the pots are removed. I go up and down the steps. I stand; I stare with absolutely no agenda but to fill my soul with azaleas. One day, a German choir was in full voice. Another day I noticed lovers who should have gotten a room. The day an elderly woman leaned on her cane and sighed, I cried all the way home.

Sorrento is a good place to asolare. A bench overlooks cliffs chugging into the sea and Naples shimmers on the horizon like Brigadoon. The air is tinged with salt and citrus. I asolared there so long, I missed my train. In Rome, I asolared on a brick wall overlooking the Tiber and in the courtyard of St. Cecelia’s where roses surround a Roman fountain. I asolared in a field of wild flowers and while holding a chilled limoncello in the shadow of Porta Octavia. A friend caught me in asolare and said, concerned, “You look bewildered.” “Bedazzeled,” I murmured.

Asolare is hard for me in Bolingbrook. I planted an azalea bush, now in full bloom, in my front yard. Every morning and every night the bush reminds me of the German choir, the young lovers, and the old lady—and the human spirit’s need to asolare.  

What comes easily in Italy should come naturally everywhere. But my default mantra is “I’m doing is this because it is necessary, and If I am not doing anything I am lazy person.”

The azalea is called the royalty of the garden. To not show my fealty is an insult to the realm. If you find me looking bewildered beside my princess — an azalea plant not as high as my knee — do not tell me my grass needs mowing, my garden needs weeding, and my car is 1,000 miles overdue for an oil change. She is a symbol of all that bedazzles me and encourages me to seek the places where I can asolare.


February 22, 2010


North of Naples, South of Rome…where myth meets octopus pizza

Between the frenzy of Rome and the chaos of Naples, Italy offers more than a high-speed rail line. On miles of beach, the surf whispers of Ulysses whom Homer braided into this sunny and sibilant scene. A short ride inland takes you to ancient Roman ruins, medieval villages, surprising gardens, and walled hill towns. To provision the seeker of sun and mystery, this region of Italy, Latina, offers the best buffalo mozzarella and ricotta in the world, calamari in paper cones, and octopus pizza listed in an everyday sort of way on chalkboards in ancient trattorias.

 Yes, I’m still in India, but I have a half page left in my passport, and it is absolutely going to Italy in May with or without a free press ticket, with or without Joan and Alice, with or without the discretionary funds to do it, with or without a good-enough reason.

It’s my life, damn it, and that is a good-enough reason. Besides, the only place that equals india’s coffee is Italy’s espresso. I can pack enough Indian coffee to last until May. And my hair, oh god my hair, it has never needed Aldo more, Aldo of the magic scissors, Aldo – a good-enough reason to go to Rome.

Ciao, ciao India. You have curried my favor to the point it oozes from every pore, repelling cows and mosquitoes, feral pigs and cobras. If I make it through Abu Dubai, they will disinfect me at O’Hare.


January 11, 2010

The Daily WORD is FOOD SEX

(In six days I’m flying into the land of curry and dal, so here is a memory of Italian food. Traveler’s Tales published the granita part, so here is the whole thing.)

Gelato drips down Joan’s arm and mine, spackling stones where Roman legions marched. We slip through shadows of two thousand year old walls, past fountains that ripple and splash and seem to talk, each marble form a work of art. Strolling down the twisting lanes, we praise gelato flavors. Even more divine with whipped cream lavished.

Gelato hour is sacred hour, our Nones, our Prime. The nuns we pass lose custody of their eyes to gelato. A papal dispensation permits the Holy Sisters to indulge their eyes when they do not have time to nudge their way into the marbled room with flavors posted like the stations of the cross. Every afternoon we must worship at the gelato altar. It is unRoman, unChristian, unUs not to have gelato with whipped cream between three and five .

And after that, espresso, one euro for the java jolt flung down by Zeus. Yes, we simply must have espresso, unless . . .

. . . we have granita at an outdoor cafe and watch Italian men strut by. Boldly we stare, wired into the afternoon with ice crystals of coffee shimmering darkly in a glass, layered with drifts of cream. We whisper that we are sirens, humming to the strutting men in tones that vibrate bone. They look at us as they pass and we all know what is going on and that it is good and simply what is done when one is having granita in Rome. At our age, we cannot do this every afternoon. If we were younger we would do it twice a day. We murmur about the possibility of multiple granitas, but we would miss the Vatican. Worse, we would miss dinner.

On granita days, we dine later, after the cold shower has stiffened our knees and drowned our sighs. Two women in Rome without a man! One man would be enough, a man who struts. Plodding, shuffling tourists are not attractive, not after granita has had its way with us.

 Dinner! Bruschetta with fresh-picked tomatoes oiled and lounging on a thick toast bed, haloed in the essence of garlic. Next the fried artichoke, each leaf arching to be plucked. Eating an artichoke takes patience to uncover its small soul that visits briefly and is forgotten when the waiter delivers the roasted lamb, dripping smoke and sizzle on our plates. The brazen meat, sprinkled with rosemary and herbs unnamed, unknown until this moment, that roasted lamb with its harem of tastes twirls into one orgasmic feast that leaves us mute. We would follow the waiter through the Catacombs, for he is the one who urged, “order the lamb.”

We shudder. How close we came to ordering pasta with clams.

%d bloggers like this: