Archive for the ‘Italy’ Category

Small town north of Rome is worlds away

October 27, 2010
 This was first published Feb. 21, 2010, in my Boston Globe column “Where they Went.” Hmmm, I wonder if they returned this year?

Karen Lynch and her sons Owen (left) and Henry on the road to Civita di Bagnoregio

WHO: Karen, 46, and Fred Lynch, 48, and their sons Henry, 14, and Owen, 12, of Winchester, Mass.

WHERE: Viterbo, Italy.

WHEN: Month of July.

WHY: For Fred Lynch, a professor of illustration at Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, Mass., to teach in the school’s study-abroad program.

THAT ‘IN’ FEELING: Last summer was the third the family has spent July in Viterbo, a small city about 80 miles north of Rome, and they hope to keep returning. “The first two times we were in an apartment just outside the city, but this time we were inside the walls,’’ Karen Lynch said of the historic center, which is surrounded by medieval walls. “It was louder, but very fun.’’

Karen and Fred Lynch in Sorano, Italy

IT’S UNDERSTANDABLE: “It’s a big adventure for all of us,’’ she said. Everyone in the family speaks some Italian. “Henry is like a dictionary. He’s not that talkative. I am, but my vocabulary isn’t great, so with the two of us together, we do pretty well. Owen loves to go to classes with Fred, so usually Henry and I go off exploring during the day.’’

TOOK ITS TOLL: “I always rent a car,’’ said Lynch, mentioning she had recently received a $50 ticket through the rental company, several months after the trip. “I think it was when the toll booth ate my card to pay. The gates went down in the front and back of the car. I pushed a button and someone spoke back to me, but I don’t know what they said.’’ They let her go, but apparently not without consequences.

Henry and Owen at the Door of Hell in the Park of the Monsters in Bomarzo

FAMILY FEAST: Each summer they accept an invitation to visit several generations of a local family at their summer house in Tarquinia, a coastal town to the west. “We get there at noon and first spend time at the beach. It’s hotel after hotel, with a sea of umbrellas. Then it’s time to eat: salad, pasta, pork, chicken, vegetables, then fruit. All with wine, of course. We eat for like five hours, a little at a time.’’ In Italy, Lynch continues her usual exercise regime. “I look terribly American when I’m running because no one there runs.’’

LAUNDRY LESSONS: Mastering the Italian washing machine has been challenging. “It’s so complicated that you’re glad there’s no dryer. Once the cycle went for 17 hours. The one we had this last time took maybe two or three hours.’’

Owen (left), Fred, Karen and Henry at a Viterbo restaurant on Owen's 12th birthday

BROUGHT TO HEEL: The evening stroll, or “passeggiata,’’ is her favorite part of the day. “Everyone goes out for a walk, to look in shop windows, have an ice cream. If you’re a woman, you wear your most uncomfortable shoes. I do wear heels, but I can only manage the chunky ones on the cobblestone. All the Italian women are in high-heel strappy sandals. How do they do it?’’

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Olives, Italy, bicycling … bellissimo!

April 8, 2010

Ciclismo Classico takes riders through the olive harvest process in Italy

I love olives. I love bicycling. I love Italy. I love this bicycle vacation! My cycling acquaintance Lauren Hefferon, a dynamo who runs Ciclismo Classico, has partnered with Colavita USA (“marketers of the #1 brand of Italian extra virgin olive oil“) to create a tour that coincides with Italy’s October olive harvest. Oh that sounds so awesome. The company is based in the Molise region, three hours southeast of Rome.

The sad truth is I won’t be joining them for the standard reasons: time and money. But you should consider it! Here’s info from the press release. As you can see, the tour includes other food fun, history, charming towns (unavoidable in Italy), and, oh yeah, cycling: 

The countryside around Molise

The journey starts with a  ride to the tiny village of Pastena by way of Guasto and Paduli. On day two, early risers can search for Molise’s famed truffles with a local guide before pedaling to Pietrabbondante to explore ancient theater ruins and the Marinelli family’s renowned bell foundry, which has been producing church bells for over a thousand years. 

Next, it’s pasta day! The group will ride to the Colavita pasta factory in Trivento for a tour – complete with samples of freshly made pasta. Yum. From there, it’s on to the medieval city of Campobasso

Olive trees as far as the eye can see

Days four and five are all about olive oil – from harvest to production to tasting. Guests will experience Italy’s “green gold” as the tour makes its way through vast groves of olive trees. On day five, Enrico Colavita, the company’s president, will welcome the group to his family’s stone frantoio (olive crushing mill) where Colavita continues to produce extra virgin olive oil using traditional methods that date back thousands of years. Next, a tasting of the novello oil, freshly-pressed from the new harvest. That is too exciting! 

On the last day of cycling, it’s on to the rolling landscape known as Italy’s “bread basket.” The group will pedal along fields of wheat, sunflowers, and olive trees before arriving at Cantine Cipressi, one of Molise’s most acclaimed wineries in the town of San Felice Del Molise. Departure is from Rome, another place to visit. 

Departure dates are Oct. 8 and 18. Price? $3,700. And, no, it doesn’t include airfare, sillies. But I will tell you that Ciclismo Classico is a first-rate bike touring group. It specializes in but isn’t limited to Italy. In fact, this year the company is leading a Lofoten Island tour in Norway, which Wessel and I did on our own in 2008

Ciclismo Classic owner Lauren Hefferon

A few other words about founder/owner Lauren, who lives near Boston. Every year she and her elves put on the Jingle Ride, where cyclists donning holiday garb ride the streets of Boston. I did it when I lived there and had a blast. But my most memorable image of Lauren is when I passed her one day on the Minuteman Bikeway. I can’t remember if she was cycling or skating, but she was like nine months pregnant. Cracked me up. That’s Lauren. The woman does not stop, and she has worked so, so hard to keep her company going. 

Please, readers, take this trip, write to me about it, and send me some olive oil! 

The roads traveled are two-way streets

April 27, 2009

I wrote the essay below for a special travel section in the April issue of Ode MagazineIt’s on their website as well.  If you don’t know Ode, I suggest you check it out. It’s at a magazine stand near you. (Borders, Whole Foods, Barnes & Noble, etc. Or better yet, buy a subscription and keep Ode alive.  Its tagline is: For Intelligent Optimists. Hey, that’s me! And I’m guessing you, too.

This farmer in Lombok, Indonesia plows with an ox-plow

Farmer on Lombok Island, Indonesia, plows his fields the traditional way

The Eiffel Tower. Big Ben. The Taj Mahal. Only 20 years ago, these were the notches on the traveler’s money belt, which, incidentally, was stuffed with travelers’ cheques. Today we’ve been there, done that. Affordable airfare and Western wealth (yes, we’re still comparatively wealthy even now, in the midst of the credit crunch) have brought travelers to every corner of the globe. We hop on transcontinental flights armed with our debit cards, functional in cash-dispensing machines from Dubai to Denali.

But simply seeing the sights is no longer enough. We want to stray from those beaten paths, dig deeper, get a read on how the locals live, work and play. This can include eating at a restaurant favored by residents instead of Westerners, participating in an outdoor adventure or visiting sites not found in most guidebooks. In industry jargon, it’s called “experiential travel”-travel we live through instead of look at-and it’s never been more popular. It’s popular because it’s typically cheaper than traditional travel; money is tight but we still want to go on vacation, some of us to faraway places. And it’s popular because we want to tread more lightly during our trips, in terms of our impact on the environment and on the people we visit. We want to give something back.

The desire to experience a different culture through activities and people goes deeper than adding another notch to the money belt, though that plays a role, too. It’s as basic as life. It’s our fellow human beings who transcend us. At the end of the day, we recall the burka-clad woman on the train reciting prayers as much as we do the centuries-old treasures in the museum.

A polar-bear-shaped license plate from Northwest Territories

Diane's much-coveted gift from locals in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, Canada

When I think back to one of my life’s highlights-seeing the northern lights in the Northwest Territories, Canada, during 2002-I also relive the hospitality of the citizens of tiny Fort Smith, who cooked for me, took me dog sledding and gave me a polar-bear-shaped license plate that hangs in my house today. The most lasting impression of my 11-week backpacking trip to Europe in 1982 is my still-enduring friendship with Federico, who lives in Vicenza, Italy. In my home state of North Carolina, as I travel to research a farm-travel guidebook, the farmers stand out as much as their bounties or the sweeping rural landscapes.

Diane (left) met Federico Lauro in the mid 1980s

Diane and Federico Lauro in Vicenza, Italy, in 1986. And, yes, they're still in touch.

My reaction is hardly unique. While I’ve done a fair amount of traveling of my own, I’ve also interviewed hundreds of people over the past eight years for a column I write for The Boston Globe called “Where They Went,”  about other people’s trips. Without fail, these travelers will recount adventures, sights, tastes, but almost always add: “The people were the best part. They were so nice, so warm, so welcoming.” Those people’s stories are the ones they recount to me again and again, especially if they were allowed a look inside a community or a family.

These days, even the most mainstream tour operators include experiential travel on an otherwise-standard tour. For example, in the 2009 Grand Circle Travel land and cruise tour “China and the Yangtze River,” participants will not only visit the Great Wall, Beijing and Hong Kong; they’ll tour a kindergarten or senior center and have a home-hosted lunch. “You’ll see local customs enacted first-hand as your gracious hosts prepare and serve a typical Chinese meal,” the itinerary reads. For the traveler wanting a less-staged version of hospitality and sightseeing, many cities have forms of community-based or locally led tourism, which originates with citizens instead of national or international tour operators.

A local guide prepares a meal for a 2-day hiking trek on Lombok

One of our local guides prepares an Indonesian meal during a hiking trek up Mount Rinjani (12,224 ft.) on Lombok.

Digging deeper also requires that we set aside our demands for a money-back-guaranteed quality and “safe” experience. That can be instructive in itself. I recall a community-based “ecotourism” hiking trek my husband and I chose on the island of Lombok in Indonesia. The guides lit our campfires with the help of splashes of gasoline from the jugs they carried and they littered along the way. I later reported these issues to the organizer, who lived in the capital of Mataram, miles and worlds away. He was extremely apologetic, as he’d been trying to get the villagers to understand tourism basics. On the other hand, I saw the real way of life there. It was worth the trade-off. And I was much happier to donate money to people in the village than to an international travel outfitter.

These school children on Lombok are excited to see two cycling tourists

Schoolchildren in a tiny village on Lombok are excited to see two cycling tourists

After hearing me speak about the virtues of getting off the tour bus, one African safari tour operator told me proudly how at the end of his luxury lodge-hopping trip in Tanzania, he takes his clients into the city of Arusha to visit poor neighborhoods and give trinkets to the local children. “Everyone came away deeply moved,” he said. “The crazy thing was, after seeing all that big game, what I heard from them was it was the most memorable part of the trip.” I suggested he consider moving the outing to the beginning of the tour, so it would be on their minds as they met Tanzanian workers along the way. “Oh no, that would be too much for them,” he said.

Perhaps our challenge as citizens of the world is to decide how much is enough-and then go soak it in. Even if the recession has wiped out a quarter or more of our wealth, we’re still rich by global standards. Experiencing how other people live, whether in Appalachia or Addis Ababa, will make us even richer. And likely them, too.

Untours is unparalleled in the travel industry

February 24, 2009
Sampling Dutch street food is among the Untours travel experiences

You, too, can sample street food in Leiden (in this case, herring) on an Untours trip

Even before I knew much about Untours, the Pennsylvania-based (un)tour company, I loved their travel offerings and attitude. Untours supports longer-term travel with a home base, so visitors have a chance to dig deeper than the usual surface tourist activities.

They provide accommodations for one or two weeks, mostly in Europe (they just added a couple North American locations). For a reasonable fee, you get lodging (with a kitchen), air travel (rare) and an English-speaking local host (unheard of). It’s similar to independent travel, but with someone to hold your hand if needed.

Rome is among the travel destions in Italy

Rome is among the destinations in Italy

Also terrific are Untours’ off-the-beaten path destinations. In Holland, untourists stay in the charming university town of Leiden instead of the big city of Amsterdam, in Greece it’s Nafplio instead of Athens, and in Switzerland Untours offers up Ticino, Oberland and villages between Interlaken and Lucerne. It doesn’t ignore big cities completely, especially in Italy and France, the top destinations. Italy choices include Rome, Florence, and Venice, but also Sicily and Amalfi. It’s similar for France. You can choose among Paris, Normandy, Alsace, and more.

I was surprised when Untours, now in its 34th year, recently added New York City and Quebec City to its offerings. Makes me wonder what’s next. Exciting!

Paris at night with its monuments bathed in illumination

"The Eiffel Tower at night is magical," reported one Untours traveler

While I haven’t traveled with Untours, I’ve interviewed several people who have, and they’ve all loved the experience of feeling like they were living in a community instead of merely passing through. For those of you who just have to be on the move, there are ways to combine destinations with Untours “Samplers.” Untours aren’t cheap, but from what travelers tell me, they’re a bargain when you factor in meals, airfare, etc. Check out the prices for yourself and let me know what you think.

Hal Taussig on his daily ride to work

Hal Taussig on his regular ride to work

Like I said, I’ve already loved Untours for years because I had a great feeling about them and their business practices. So I wasn’t surprised but I sure was impressed when last year I learned about Untours founder and president Hal Taussig, 84. Despite his very successful business, he and his wife live in a modest home. Since 1992 they’ve given $5 million in profits from the business to the Untours Foundation, which they founded to help enterprises around the world that create jobs that improve the lives of the poor. Untours has been engaging in “travel philanthropy” way before it became de rigueur. Hal has gotten some great press lately, but you can tell that he’s not in it for the publicity. Thank you, Hal, for inspiring us as travelers and as human beings!

High and dry in Venice

December 11, 2008
Gondolas moored nearby the Piazza San Marco

Covered gondolas moored near the Piazza San Marco

I was reading how Venice has once again flooded, and I feel so lucky that our visit there a year ago was relatively dry. We had rain and chilly weather, but no flooding. We saw the hip high rubber boots that people wear when it floods. I wonder if they rent them to tourists.

Heavy boat traffic in the Canal Grande

Boat traffic in the Canal Grande

Wessel had never been to Venice, and it was so exciting to see the astonishment on his face when we got off the train and started to explore. Nothing, but nothing, compares to Venezia. It was Thanksgiving day, and though the tourist count was low, the center was still crowded. I have no desire to be there in August.

Spaghetti and red sauce as Thanksgiving Dinner

Wessel relishes a traditional Italian Thanksgiving meal of spaghetti with tomato sauce in Venice

We had “Thanksgiving Dinner” at Osteria Kalia (5870A Castello, Calle del Dose. Tel. +39(0)41 528 5153), a reasonably priced restaurant just off the beaten path enough to appeal to locals. In fact, the menu didn’t have a lick of English on it. Wessel ordered spaghetti and red sauce with asparagus and I, already overloaded on starches, avoided pasta and had chicken and potatoes. Of course a little vino came with the meal, and we ordered a nice strong espresso to perk us up for more hours of walking. Even Wessel, with his keen sense of direction, kept getting turned around. That’s the pain and pleasure of Venice.

Venice covered with snow in 1987

Venice covered with snow in 1987

Other than that day with Wessel, my fondest memory of Venice was in 1987. I was living in Vicenza, an hour west. The big news on this February day was “neve” — snow. I hopped on a train, and after several delays reached a completely snow-covered Venice, a rare sight I was told. I ran into a woman I knew who was an art student there and she took me around. She was as enchanted as I was with the snow, and we didn’t get lost once.

Celebrating Vicenza and pal Palladio

September 18, 2008
The Teatro Olimpico was designed by Andrea Palladio as his last work and inaugurated in 1585

The Teatro Olimpico was designed by Andrea Palladio as his last work and inaugurated in 1585

I was so happy to see this meaty travel story on Vicenza, Italy, by Canadian writer Paul French in conjunction with the 400th anniversary of its favorite son, architect Andrea Palladio (born Nov. 30, 1508), who designed many gorgeous municipal structures and country villas. Said article was even in the paper I usually write for, The Boston Globe. Not only was it interesting and helped spread the word on this relatively little-known architect and unknown area between Verona and Venice, in northern Italy, but its publication meant I could finally stop feeling guilty that I didn’t write anything myself!

Piazza in Vicenza (Click to ENLARGE)

Piazza in Vicenza on a dreary fall day (Click to ENLARGE)

Wessel and I went to Vicenza last Thanksgiving, and I swore it would be a vacation for me. As a writer, it’s difficult for me to go anywhere and not write about it. Part of that is that the opportunity is there and I’m spending the money anyway, and also I like making money from stories (though often my hourly rate ends up being ridiculously meager). But above all else, I truly feel a duty to spread the word about things I think are interesting, meaningful, helpful, or just plain fun. In a way I feel I do “social work” through my journalism, trying to help those in need. While Vicenza, a fairly wealthy city, will be fine without my assistance, I do want to point people there because it’s, as the cliché goes, a hidden jewel. (I’d never use that phrase in a story!)

Diane (left) visits Federico Lauro in the mid 1980s (Click to ENLARGE)

Here’s the story of my history with Vicenza. It was 1983 and I was on the last leg of a two-month backpack trip in Europe. I started out with a group of college friends, and then went solo. On the second day of my solo stretch, I was on an overnight train from Milan to Paris. Federico, who was in my cabin, was listening to a cassette of “Speaking in Tongues” by the Talking Heads. He was from Vicenza. We bonded over music, and ended up pitching our tents side by side in Paris and bopped around the city the next day. Then we became pen pals, writing each other a couple times a year.

Enrico, Mariella, mother Valenza, Eloisa and Federico (Click to ENLARGE)

Left to right: Enrico, Mariella, Mariella and Eloisa's mother, Eloisa and Federico, in 1986 (Click to ENLARGE)

In 1986, after staying in Greece for six months with my American friend Susan Pappas (who had also been on the backpack trip), I headed to Italy in hopes of finding work in one of the large cities. Of course a stop in Vicenza was on the agenda. When I arrived, I was quite under the weather, so not only did I stay with Federico and his family, they nursed me back to health. In the end, Federico and his father helped me find a place to live and a little work teaching English. I got to know his good friend Enrico, his girlfriend, Eloisa, and her sister Mariella.

I made a Vicenza stop during travels in 1988, but Federico and Eloisa were on holiday. Then, in 1990, Federico and Eloisa, now married, stayed with me near Boston for six months while they studied English and toured New England. After that, we wrote, and then emailed, infrequently.

Villa Rotunda designed by Andrea Palladio and built in 1566

The villa "La Rotonda," just outside Vicenza, was designed by Palladio and built in 1566

So when Wessel and I visited Vicenza, it had been 18 years since I’d seen Federico and Eloisa! They have two sweet, lovely children and live next door to Enrico and Mariella, now married and with children of their own. While Vicenza had grown (I couldn’t remember the outskirts all that well) the “centro” looked pretty much the same. It was very moving to revisit my past and also share my Italian city and friends with Wessel. Vicenza will always be near and dear to me, and now I don’t even have to feel guilty not writing a story about it!

Italian master turns stemware into sculpture

July 24, 2008

It took three trips to Venice over some 25 years before I finally ventured to the nearby island of Murano, known for its glassblowers and, of course, glass galleries.

It was one of those things that seemed like a hassle — finding the right boat to ride, getting tickets, etc. Wessel is much more adventurous in that department, so when we went there last November, I let him do all the work. Love that! Indeed it was a bit of an ordeal figuring out boat details. You’d think that with the hordes of tourists in Venice, they’d make it easy, but then perhaps it wouldn’t be such a charming place. Can you imagine not getting lost in the maze of streets and canals? How memorable would that be? 

Ferry from Venice to Murano on a grey fall day

Ferry from Venice to Murano on a gray fall day

The 10-minute boat-taxi ride there would have been incredibly scenic — if we could have seen  anything. Instead, it was raining, so we had to sit inside, and the windows were fogged up. Wessel, of course, ventured out to take photos, and it was indeed beautiful in its own way. When is Venice not beautiful?

Murano, a mile north of Venice proper, is very cute in its own right and sort of like a very miniature Venice. In the summer especially, tourists arrive by the boatload to visit the famed glassmaking studios and galleries. Though the shops vary from low-end to high, most of them quickly blend together.

Engraved glasses from Luigi Camozzo

Engraved glasses from Luigi Camozzo

After popping into several stores along the main street, I was getting a little bored. That is until I happened upon the studio and gallery of Luigi Camozzo. truly an island apart from the others. And, I have to warn you, so are the master engraver’s prices. But if you can’t afford his museum-quality work, ranging from $250 to $7,500 and up, don’t let that stop you from looking.

If you’re lucky, you’ll find Camozzo, 56, in his small workspace at the back of the shop doing what he’s famous for: using an assortment of diamond, copper, and stone-engraving wheels to transform handblown glass vessels into works of art.

Luigi Camozzo at work

Luigi Camozzo at work

Camozzo doesn’t blow the glass; he uses existing pieces. But by cutting, marking, and carving into the glass surface, he adds texture and depth to each piece, elevating them into something even more special. He works his magic on everything from modern sculpture to antique stemware, including paper-thin English and Bohemian crystal.

Amy West apprentice of Luigi Camozzo

Apprentice and artist Amy West

Camozzo doesn’t speak English, but his friendly apprentice, Amy West, who hails from Kansas City, Mo., and has lived around the world, will be happy to explain the fascinating history and techniques of glass engraving. She has her own glass and beadwork on sale there as well, and it’s of course more affordable. 

Here’s the address to the gallery, and good luck finding it! (Be glad it’s in Murano and not Venice, but really, it won’t be that difficult.)

Luigi Camozzo Studio Galleria, Fondamenta Venier Sebastiano 3, telephone (011) 39-041-736-875.

Italy’s hills, groves, and vineyards

March 10, 2008

“Where they Went” by Diane Daniel
(Published March 9, 2008, in the Boston Globe)

From Di’s eyes: As I told Janis, the daylong walk I took by myself along Via dell’Amore, or Lover’s Lane, a footpath that hugs the coastline of Cinque Terre, was a highlight of my three months in Italy. Heck, of my life! I still have vivid memories of it, some 22 years later.

WHO: Janis Owens, 58, and Caroline Roy, 56, both of Duxbury, Mass.

WHERE: Italy.

WHEN: 12 days in October.

WHY: “We’re in the same book group, and we always gravitate toward travel books,” Owens said. “Caroline said, ‘I’ve always wanted to go to Cinque Terre,’ then I saw an article on it. We decided to go with a small group because we’re two single women traveling together, and it’s a wonderful way to meet people.”

Caroline Roy and Janis Owens in Cinque TerreFEMALE BONDING: They signed up for a weeklong walking tour in Tuscany and Cinque Terre through Experience Plus, starting with three days in Lucca, near Pisa. The women met the seven other Americans in the group there. “The only man was part of a couple. I told him, ‘You’re getting a real window into women here,’ ” Owens said. Their tour guide was an Italian woman, who was joined by local guides in both locations.

OLD AND OLDER: “Lucca is a walled medieval city on a Roman ruin,” Owens said. “You see parts of the wall from the coliseum and then it’s mostly medieval on top of that. We did a walking tour, and also went to Pisa to visit the leaning tower. We ate a lot, too. Our first meal was an eight-course meal at a local restaurant.”

FOLLOWING HIS FOOTSTEPS: One long walk they took started in the hills west of Lucca to Torre del Lago, where Puccini wrote many of his operas. “We hiked down to Lake Massaciuccoli, then down a Roman road and through a vineyard to have lunch in Torre del Lago, then we ended at the beach.”

Caroline Roy in VernazzaHILL TOWNS: A two-hour van drive took them north to Cinque Terre, five coastal villages. The first day they hiked from Levanto to their home base in Monterosso, while the van driver deposited their gear at the hotel. “After that we did day hikes from Monterosso. Marco was our local guide. His English was so broken, it was adorable. The hiking in Cinque Terre was totally different because the towns are clinging to the side of the hill, and they’re difficult to get in and out of. We were very excited to be there.” The group walked about 5 to 7 miles a day under sunny skies in the high 70s.

MEMORABLE MEAL: Their favorite meal was at Marina Piccola in Manarola. “We hiked to it in the morning, had lunch for two hours on the patio, and hiked back. It seemed to be the most authentic local place we ate at. We had a seafood pasta dish and squid ink pasta in a creamy tomato sauce. Everything had a seafood base, and the sauces were very light.”

Janis Owens in Cinque TerreHAPPY HIKING: The hikes to and from towns were pleasantly challenging. “You’re climbing up rocky steps that take you up out of the villages. The hills are terraced vineyards and olive groves. Then you reach wooded areas, with very steep paths through pinewoods. The sea was blue and clear, and the shore was rocky.”

ONE LAST LOOK: Owens and Roy spent a couple days on their own in Varenna on Lake Como. “It’s an adorable little town,” she said. They loved their stay at Hotel Eremo Gaudio. “It’s an old nunnery on the side of the hill. We had to take funiculars to go up to the room and back to the lobby.”

Sicily: one island, many cultures

February 18, 2008

“Where they Went” by Diane Daniel
(Published Feb. 17, 2008, in the Boston Globe)

From Di’s eyes: I loved how Lisa and Mary Ellen’s fellow students, mostly young Germans, hit the beach every day while the older Americans took in much of Sicily, seeing the sights and eating the most amazing dishes. I was glad I wasn’t hungry when I did the interview. The meal descriptions were mouth-watering. 

WHO: Lisa Bryant, 70, of Lexington, Mass., and Mary Ellen Kiddle, 68, of Arlington Mass.

WHERE: Sicily.

WHEN: Two weeks in September and October.

WHY: “I went to language school there last year and wanted to go back. I mentioned it at bridge group and Mary Ellen wanted to go,” Bryant said. “I was a Spanish professor at Boston College, and since I retired I’ve wanted to study Italian,” Kiddle said. “I figured with the location, I couldn’t go wrong.” The school, Solemar Sicilia, is in Cefalù, a historic resort town on the island’s northern coast and 30 miles east of Palermo.

Mary Ellen Kiddle & Lisa Bryant enjoying terrace life at Villa CaterinaBETWEEN A ROCK . . . : “The school offers students a wide range of accommodations,” Bryant said. “We stayed in Villa Caterina, in a spacious three-terrace, two-bedroom apartment.” From the front terrace they saw the Tyrrhenian Sea and from the back, the villa’s gardens and La Rocca, or the rock, an enormous limestone formation.

BACK IN TIME: Their classes, which met in the morning, were small and informal. “There were a lot of German students, and every day after class they’d go to the beach,” Kiddle said. “For us, the beach is not a big deal; it seemed counterproductive.” “We’re history buffs as well as language buffs,” Bryant said. “Sicily has a past of five or six different Lisa Bryant & Mary Ellen Kiddle at Greek theater in Taormina, Sicilycultures – Greeks, Romans, Normans, French, Arabs, Spaniards – that have influenced dialect, culture, geography.” After class they would either go to Cefalù’s medieval historic district or on short trips by train and bus. In town, “the duomo [cathedral] dominates the historic district,” Bryant said. “It has both Arab and Norman influences, then the Spaniards came in later and did a little Rococo. Medieval fishermen’s quarters line the ocean and turn ochre” at sunset.

DOWNHILL COURSES: One outing was to Castelbuono, a village in the hills above Cefalù, to have lunch at Nangalarruni, run by a star chef. “The first two courses were magnificent, but it trailed off after that,” Kiddle said. “The pasta dish was filled with too much sauce and meat.” Before leaving, they visited the town’s Norman castle, which had been used in the filming of “Cinema Paradiso.”

WATER WITH DINNER: Their favorite restaurant, in Cefalù, was Villa dei Melograni, named after the pomegranate trees around it. “We ate there three times, and the food was better than at the high falutin’ place,” Bryant said. “We always ate outdoors and looked down over the city. Sometimes we ate by the water. At one, such a big wave crashed that it drenched the people at the table next to us and they had to leave.”

Lisa Bryant & Mary Ellen Kiddle in Villa Comunale in Taormina, SicilyCHANGING TIMES: Another special meal at the home of a local family was organized by the school. “Almost everything the senora fixed us was picked by herself: fried eggplant, zucchini, bruschetta with ripe tomatoes, olives she had cured from her farm, sausage,” Kiddle said. “We learned that people from her generation – she was in her 50s – are lamenting a changing Sicily. The rural way of life is rapidly eroding. Because of the global economy, Sicily no longer produces oranges. They all come from Spain now.”

ANOTHER TIME: They are ready to go back. “The wonderful serenity, the cultural stimulation, the visual beauty, I don’t know when I’ve gone to another place that gives you all that,” Bryant said.

Can you say francobollo?

January 16, 2008

When traveling in another country, it’s often the everyday differences that stay with us. That’s why I love going into grocery stores, hardware stores, etc. Everything is a little (or a lot) different, from the signs on the walls, to the packaging, to the checkout lines. It can be humbling, too, when you have to ask for help while doing a basic task. That’s one of the reasons I feel compassion toward foreign travelers in the US.

In Italy a few months ago, I had a couple instances of “now what do I do?”

At the post office in Padova I couldn’t for the life of me remember the Italian word for stamp. (That would be francobollo.) My phrase book was useless and I didn’t have my postcards to wave about in universal sign language. I couldn’t just walk up to the counter because there were 15 of them, each with a flashing number. There had to be some system here, but what was it? I couldn’t find anyone who spoke English. Diane is puzzled by the number dispenserFinally, I went to the one clerk who wasn’t waiting on someone and kept saying, “stamps?, stamps?” and she knew what I meant. She took me back to the entrance and pointed to a bright yellow machine I’d totally overlooked, a complex multi-category “take-a-number” dispenser. She pushed the correct button, handed me my number, and led me to the correct line. I never would have figured out that one on my own.

Then, at the grocery store, also in friendly Padova, I was happy to find drinkable yogurt, olive crackers (yum!), and bananas. When I went to check out, the cashier held up my one lone banana, shaking her head, and said something to me. But what? “Scusi, non parlo Italiano,” I answered. Instead of chastising me and putting the banana aside, she said, “I show you. Come.” She led me back to the fruit section, placed the banana on the electronic scale and pushed the little banana picture to get a price label. “Grazie, grazie,“ I said with a wide smile. I was so grateful for her kindness, though I’m not sure the people behind me in line felt the same way.