Me at nine months with the presepio
Everyone who celebrates Christmas has Christmas memories. Mine go back more than 40 years and are nearly all memories in Rome. And most of them involve the presepio.
Unwrapping the presepio returns me to being little, with the presepio world before me.
A few year ago, Nathan and the work-in-progress presepio
Our family has been collecting the presepio
, or Christmas creche, since the 1920s. Almost all of our figures are from Rome’s Piazza Navona, where at Christmas time, presepio figures have been on sale since at least the 19th century. Our family bought presepio figures from the same family for thirty years.
Buying presepio figures with my family in 1967 at Rome’s Piazza Navona
Our presepio has around 100 figures, all around four inches tall and handmade in Naples or around Rome. The oldest figures are about 90 years old, the most recent are my acquisitions of two yeas ago made by an artisan in the Naples superb of Barra. Biblical protagonists are here…
but are not the main focus : mostly we have market vendors, trades people, musicians..
peasants and members of high society all going about their daily business. Card players.
Fishermen and washerwomen and fishmongers.
Since Naples was in the 18th century — when the presepio concept first developed — a thriving international port, the manger scene also includes an exotic mix of visitors – Africans, Arabs and Orientals – as found in the teaming streets of Naples itself. Also many animals and accessories including musical instruments, farm and household implements, fruit and vegetables, dishes and pottery, and baskets.
A whole presepio world. That same world that drew me in as a small child.
When I open the presepio boxes some time every December, first I must build mountains out of encyclopedias and paperback books, and rivers from tinkling foil. I must make hills for camels and sheep to wander down.
I must shake out the ancient damask that is the floor (much patched, much stained from fountains that dribbled onto it over the decades.) I must hang the eight angels (made by four different hands, and from 1926 to 2001.)
I check to ensure that the tiny aquarium pumps are still working well on the two-spouted fountain, that the wine-makers cask’s (where the “wine” runs red as it is cranberry juice) and that the bulbs are still operative in the trattoria.
I must think about presepi of years past — look at some of the illustrations tucked into one box, made by my mother: ”particularly effective this year” penciled on a rough drawing of a presepio set-up she made and especially approved of one year.
Our presepio survived, as did many of those of my mother’s childhood, because someone wrapped each figure, mummy style, in soft paper, swaddling delicate fingers and tiny toes, wings and hoofs, cabbages and fish, in protection, and then wrapped that little bundle in paper towels or newspapers.
Out come yellowing newspapers of the 1950s and all the way through the present day. Reading headlines and advertising from these years is a wonderful diversion.
Out come a few silver fish. Out come a few fingers too. Presepio figures always loose a few appendages during the stress of wrapping and unwrapping.This year we have a new puppy who would love to join my presepio landscapes.
And also I set up the presepio far too late, anyway, to be ambitious : rather than sprawling the scene across various pieces of furniture I arrange this year’s presepio on just one long table (the market, the creche scene, the osteria and the puppet theater) while the water scenes and the musicians and shepherd are on a high, ancient dresser.
My son asserts that he will build a little rope ladder to connect the two arenas. Which is a charming idea, but the presepio figures, I explain, have a fear of heights and would not like to undertake the three feet walk from one table to other. (Actually, many are already lacking limbs or have had arms, legs, feet or heads glued on once or more : these four inch tall terra cotta figures are delicate.)
Nathan arranges the manger scene
When my daughter was four she made for Jesus a teddy bear like her own and that was the size of a sheep. We have that too, but at nine, she will not allow it to come out (‘it is embarrassing” she says to me this evening, as she stacks more mozzarella nearly into a minute basket,)
Some years when I put the figures out I recreate scenarios I have been designing since I was first old enough to help to organize the presepio. The favorite woman with the green blouse and blue skirt carrying the ricotta always talks to the lady with the polca-dotted head scarf.
As I put the two down together, they recommence the conversation they have carried on for decades, and surely not as if a year has past. They talk about food, and they complain about how heavy the ricotta is that they have to carry.
The puppet theater always presents the same show, the same Pulcinella (Punch and Judy) I first saw on the Rome’s Janiciulum Hill when I was three, and which plays in a happy continuous rerun in our presepio year after year after year.
I miniature myself.
I am one of the several priests with the red umbrellas or red bible and I am speaking to another two priests with a red umbrella about the weather.
I am the old lady carrying the pigeons, and the tiny mussels in the blue platter are just the right size for me to purchase. I might take them to Jesus or I might not. I might spend the day just speaking to my so-familiar friends in the market and keep away from the butcher, whom i have never liked (he cheated me once in 1971.)
I arrange a tiny carcass of beef among the pile up of presents at Jesus’ feet.
This gives me the same enjoyable shiver of disgust I suspect I felt when I first was allowed to help with the presepio, and arrange the tiny gifts. There is a mound of presents strewn round the baby’s crib — pizza, oranges, fish, garlic, tomatoes, and everything else a Neapolitan would think to bring as a heartfelt gift.
An aunt I loved died this autumn. Her adored presepio figures, collected in Rome by my uncle when I was a little girl, bring 16 new people to this year’s presepio. It is very good to have two egg sellers, one in a yellow frock and another in a blue one, both with delicate fingers holding up a small perfect egg that they hope a presepio passerby will purchase.
At last there is a dog, a new arrival, a wooly rustic one, whom the children have placed up among the hams and salamis.
It adds to the conviviality of the osteria to have four more merry-makers playing cards and helping themselves to the tiny carafe of red wine.
Some of the cardinal figures — Jesus, Mary and Joseph — are allowed out only every second year as they have doubles — those from my mother’s childhood, in the 1920s and 30s, and from my own, in the ’60s, This year we decided to put in four kings — two old ones, two from the 1960s.
The camels are a mix of old and new.
My other aunt visited last week. She has been setting up presepi — including some of the same figures that were here — for more than 80 years.
It filled my heart with the sweet, comforting warmth of continuity to watch her with my children puttering away among the market figures, intent on arranging a scene that she too has been playing in her head for decades (she has her own similar Neapolitan presepio too.)
Aunty Chrissy, who has been setting up presepi for more than 80 years
“You really need to enter into it and think what would be realistic”, she reminds me, as she unwraps from an ageless tissue paper a tiny hammer and places it in the hands of the coppersmith.
She moves him a bit away from the cobbler.
“Too much noise to have them working so closely together”.
When the presepio is put away — tradition says on February 2 though we sometime put it away sooner or later — a little piece of me disappears into the presepio boxes.
There is not much I love more than the presepio, which in its high level of artisanship, its celebration of markets and family and food and socialization — encompasses most of the Italian features I hold most dear. I will think about it for the rest of the year, considering modifications (or not) for the scene on the following Christmas, and keep an eye out for the odd tiny object — one never know where things may pop up — that might make a good addition. Like two bunches of Puglia wild oregano which this year are perfect umbrella pines.
What will next year bring to the ongoing and quite magic world of presepio ?
Thanksgiving fills my heart with thanks.
I give thanks for the possibility to travel all year long in a country which affords me my profession, daily renews my spirit, and, though only as large as New Mexico…. offers a world’s worth of variety.
I give thanks for its artisans.
And its farmers.
And their artichokes.
And its gardens.
And its cats.
And its timeless faces that could be Roman, medieval, Renaissance.
And for traditional costumes.
And for the thousands of Italian olive trees that have been carbon dated and are close to 2000 years old. And still produce olives.
For Stefania, at our luxury Alto Adige hotel favorite, who loves children, makes them so very happy and feel so very welcome, and has that superb Italian ability to transmit genuine interest in guests younger and older. And for Ugo and Evelyn and such remarkable owners and staff in every hotel and inn and villa where we book.
And for continuity. The possibility to participate in the Transumanza
— we’ve now done five — walking with sheep in a 2000 year old tradition, taking them from their winter to summer pastures and summer to winter pastures.
I give thanks for superb bread.
And for the most beautiful Roman bridges — and still in use.
Medieval walls and gates.
And stone walled villages where everything is in balance.
And for continuity. With a rock, Isabel cracks open succulent pine nuts on the exact wall where 35 years ago I used to do the same.
And for Rome at sunset.
For surely the best cannolo in the world.
Travel’s purpose is to celebrate differentness.
And landscapes unlike any that are in your at-home daily life.
And not only new foods, but familiar ones, prepared superbly.
And new environments.
And hotels unlike anything you have seen before
I give thanks for the long long travel seasons. For swimming in Sicily in April.
And on the Amalfi coast in November.
I give thanks for our so many gifted docents — like Nadia Garlatti in Matera (foreground, with clients). With passion and considerable sensitivity, she shares what it is to live in the single longest continuously inhabited placed on earth — and in a region that we love (but where few tourists ever venture.)
I give thanks for Italy’s mountains. Forty percent of Italy is mountainous, with the Alps as the northern boundary and the Apennine Mountains forming the backbone of the peninsula.
And rivers (and my favorite restaurant on its banks.)
I give thanks for the extraordinary variety of wild flowers.
And for Italy’s plains.
And I give thanks for my wonderful travel companion and husband Robert.
And two children who love Italy at least as much as I do.
And for all of you. Happy Thanksgiving.
With much affection
Perhaps it is easiest to explain by introducing you to one that has all of the criteria.
It is smaller rather than larger.
It is owner managed.
Though it is modern — we do not have many modern hotels in our collection – it is beautifully built. Much care went into the choice of materials. Walls are thick, doors solid, wood floors and carpets well cared for.
It has an unbeatable location — in this case a few minutes walk from the station, and a few minutes on foot into the pedestrian center.
It has warm, personable, professional staff who are exceptionally well trained and also simply lovely people.
The manger is involved, works the desk, and offers a personal welcome.
Rooms are perfectly kept, warm in cool weather and appropriately cooled in hot weather.
Bathrooms are not only perfect, but full of thoughtful details including lovely artisanal soaps and perfect towels.
Rooms are quiet.
Beds are a dream. Pillows very comfortable. Linens are Italian – and lovely.
And breakfasts not only delicious but with a strong focus on local products, Italian seasonal fruits, with organic offerings. And perfect coffee.
The price is right.
And there you have it. The Hotel Card in Rimini is an Insider’s Italy favorite.
Via Dante Alighieri, 50.
Tel. +39 0541 26412
That Rimini is a charming, not-touristed jewel of a small city — quite unconnected with the sprawling beaches most people associate with Rimini – is also in its favor. It is a walking and biking town with interesting Roman and Renaissance roots and art works. And it has one special osteria
, owner-managed by fishermen who serve only their own seafood (and close when there is no catch), easy to walk to from the Hotel Card :
Il Pescato del Canevone. Open Tuesday through Sunday lunch and dinner daily except Saturday, when dinner only. Closes when fishing impossible because of bad weather.
Via Luigi Tonini, 34.
Tel. +39 366 35 41 510
Last weekend in Amalfi reminded me how the Italian summer goes on and on.
Early November on the Amalfi coast means tintore and pedirosso grapes plucked from the vines in Tramonti.
We found them when we ventured inland, a few kilometers from the sea, where rounded hills, terraced slopes and gentle valleys host intensely fertile lemon orchards, vineyards, chestnut groves and olives.
Leaves are just beginning to turn in these early days of November. The olives have been gathered and so have most of the grapes, but there are still quite a few bunches that their friend the organic winemaker offers to the children.
The children reach up to pluck grapes of their own.
We pick and sample succulent late season figs.
On the Amalfi coast in early November, tourists have nearly all gone away. Hotel rates are 50-70% less than in August.
The light is golden, the water inviting.
The air warm and dry.
Our favorite hotel — where I have myself been staying for 20 years, and where owners and staff will greet you as friends — is barely full. Staff are very relaxed but as delighted as ever to focus on making you especially comfortable. (For similar conditions, consider March, April and early May too.)
By the sea a duck called Caterina stays and keeps the children company in their fishing.
They fish the way local children here have fished forever.
using a simple line and hook wound round a piece of cork.
As bait, they use shrimp from the sea and mussels. A dear friend plucks mussels, below, from the rocks…
Easily the children fish up several ombrina… and a rockfish.
In early November, coastal meals are all outside.
As have so many Insider’s Italy clients, we enjoy a lunch that celebrates the seasons — pizzas with local mozzarella, local Furure tomatoes (which with its new potatoes, brought culinary fame to this tiny hillside village), greens from Cristina’s naturally organic gardens, homemade wines, grilled eggplant. Cristina must surely be among the single best cooks on the coast, and is remarkable in that she cooks nearly exclusively what she produces on her property — and only those dishes that are local, traditional and seasonal. These are her garden potatoes, with the church of Sant’Elia in the background.
Her husband Uberto fishes, and looks after her chickens and pig
Uberto maintain the single most interesting larder I have ever seen, at its most replete in November. Nathan is in wonder.
Uberto and Cristina offer our clients superb in-home cooking classes which for many of you have been the highlight of a trip.
Cristina flours the chldren’s four fish and fries them in her olive oil. The fish join the lunch.
Cristina’s tomatoes dry outside in a bunch, ready to be cut and used to enliven the next months’ cooking.
We walk and climb steps
taking paths we have enjoyed so many times before (like this one to Atrani.)
And walk to Conca dei Marini, a village I have been visiting since I was six weeks old. Here is the view looking east from that town. Note the neatly terraced vineyards, vegetable gardens and olive and lemon groves.
Capers spring from the walls.
We swim and lounge some more.
And eat some more.
And walk some more.
If we want, four major archeological sites are just an hour away. If we want, we can spend a day in Naples with our superb docent guide Sabrina — this for one of the world’s great archeological museums and one of Europe’s great cities. If we want we can spend the day sailing to Capri, stopping at bays and beaches along the way to swim, to lunch, to explore.If we want we can take one of Italy’s best walks, a four hour adventure
that offers a bird’s eye view over much of the entire coast.
We do not want.
Like so many of our travelers, despite our ambitions to undertake all sorts of plans, we do not move.
It is all too perfect.
Amalfi in November.
Marjorie: Hello hello, is this La Locandiera ?
Restaurant owner: Yes yes hello, good day.
Marjorie: This is Marjorie Shaw from Rome. I had a wonderful, unforgettable meal with you seven years ago. I would like to book for some clients.
Owner: Ottimo !
Marjorie: Are you the owner Pepe Frollo?
Owner: No, I bought the restaurant from him seven years ago.
Marjorie: Ah. Do you still eat as well at the restaurant as you did seven years ago ?
Owner: Better !
Marjorie: Better, why ? Do you have a new cook ?
Owner: No, we have the same cook but he is much happier.
Conclusion : I booked for two persons for Sunday at 1 PM.
And there you have it — Italy.
Spring at Landriana. We bring you here our photo essay of the 18th edition of Rome’s premier annual flower and garden show; our third review, in as many years. (See Primavera alla Landriana and the Gardening Event of the Year .)
What strikes us always is how the attendees and exhibitors alike are so visibly harmonious with the plants, the gardens and one another. There is rich variety and diversity; but, cacophony, which is so ever present in Rome itself, is here absent. Nearly everyone seems unselfconsciously well dressed, whether conservatively so or joyously eccentric. And not an automobile in sight ! Such civility, an oasis of calm and good will towards all — people, plants and dogs.
This year, we also include a photographic tour of the Landriana gardens, roughly begun in 1956 (reclaiming land laid waste by the Allied landing at Anzio and advance on Rome during World War II) but whose design as a formal garden was laid out in 1967 by the great British landscape architect, Russell Page. The gardens have evolved since to their present state — a destination for those who love gardens and, in any event, a worthy detour for all — if you are not already a serious garden lover, you may after a visit here well become one.
While open year around, except for the months of August and December, visits are only by guided tour and are not every day of the week, nor even weekly — so for those of you traveling with Insider’s Italy, let us know in advance of your interest so that we can work it into your itinerary. Finding Landriana may also prove difficult but our driver, Gustavo, will make make it very easy, indeed, for you. Gardens are near and dear to us at Insider’s Italy and planning itineraries with a garden emphasis is something we love doing for our clients.
The Flower and Garden Show
photo courtesy of NTV
An announcement is made, while we’re en route, that the train will be delayed by 30 minutes to an hour. Alas, it hasn’t happened yet but hope springs eternal. Like children listening to the radio on an early snowy morning hoping to hear that school has been cancelled, we hope that our train, en route from Rome to Florence, will be delayed so that our delightful journey on the new Italo train will be drawn out indefinitely –– and this even though we’re travelling with two young children.
Our snug and very comfortable private compartment for four has large, clean windows to look out onto the passing Lazio, Umbria, Tuscany landscapes. The children are so content with books and drawing paper that they have only passing interest in the movies offered on their individual monitors, like those in business class on airplanes. And, since we mention airplanes, the food on Italo is much better than even that on most business-class flights –– not that we wish to damn by faint praise. In fact, Italo has partnered with Eataly (the same Eataly in New York City that has attracted such positive attention).
If one wants a substantial meal, served in the form of Japanese bento boxes, one orders it in advance, and it is succulent and fresh; otherwise, in the Club Car class, one is offered an assortment of delicious and innovative fresh snacks, both sweet and savoury.
Wireless internet is free. Bathrooms are impeccable. Would we like a newspaper? Architectural Digest? Our personal steward in the salotto (salon) car appears often to ensure that all is just as we wish.
However, perhaps the best and most important part of Italo is the staff. They are mostly young, vibrant and demonstrate the esprit de corps and bonhomie that only good management that treats all its employees well can sustain.
It starts when one enters the special office of Italo in whatever train station one happens to be in. From being in a big, ugly and impersonal station, one feels as if one has been transported to a small-town or country train station. One is greeted by a host of service personnel asking (in English for non-Italian speakers) if one needs assistance, which assistance is given immediately. Missed one’s train? Do not worry –– a new ticket is issued for the next train (a confession: we know, as this has happened to us twice). Confused about which track? There are Italo train personnel standing at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the proper train track and alongside the track, as well, to direct one to the proper carriage –– all seats are reserved by number of course, unlike American trains. Travelling with children and too much luggage? Train personnel helped us carry our bags from the Italo office to the track where we were met by other personnel who helped us onto the train.
Clearly, the parent company of Italo, Nuovo Trasporto Viaggiatori (NTV), views itself not just as a transport company but as an up-scale tourism venture. On our last trip, returning to Rome from Padua, we had a very pleasant chat with a member of the train staff –– a lovely young woman. She holds a BA degree in tourism. This is a company that takes seriously a commitment to customer service, employee welfare and social responsibility. It was she who explained to us the conscious management decision not to have music piped through the audio system and to instruct all employees not to wear perfume or cologne. The offered moistened towelettes are unscented.
The president of the company and an investor is Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, the chairman of Ferrari. One of the other investors is the head of a fashion shoe company, Tod’s. Thus, it should not be surprising that the trains are well engineered and beautifully designed. Interestingly, for a private railroad company, another investor is the French state rail agency S.N.C.F.
In anticipation of your first voyage with Italo, do take a virtual tour of this extraordinary train, courtesy of Italo.
Train travel in Italy is now a joy.
Last month, to further celebrate winter in Italy, we left our home in Rome to travel south to Puglia — an easy three-hour drive to our first destination, Ruvo.
Some essays are best said with images, and not with words. So we will say very little.
Except perhaps that Puglia is one of our single favorite regions in all of Italy, and when we are not there, we always wish that we were.
No other region of Italy holds so much interest for the historian and particularly for the architect : its Norman castles, cathedrals, trulli, masserie, dry walls.
No other region offers cuisine that is more succulent. This is principally an inland cuisine, solidly peasant-based, vegetarian-oriented, and where the profuseness of vegetables and high quality hard wheat yield Italy’s best bread and the most varied and interesting utilization of seasonal produce.
And the olives.
We dream of the olives. There are roughly 60 million olive trees in Puglia — approximately one tree for each Italian. This is the world’s oldest arboreal landscape. About six million of the trees are considered monumentali or monumental trees and just under half a million trees are known as ulivi secolari or trees older than one century. No one knows how many trees are between one and two thousand years old but there are many of them — certainly thousands and thousands — whose age has been established through carbon dating.
First destination, Ruvo.
Romanesque arch, Ruvo Cathedral
Cathedral tabernacle, Ruvo
Pugliese pasta and taralli
En route to our second destination, Castel del Monte.
Castel del Monte
Overlooking the sea and the surrounding countryside, Castel del Monte was one of the most important castles built by Frederick II and was constructed in the 1240s. Frederick II’s hunting lodge — or possibly citadel – was a unique and innovative masterpiece of architecture and engineering.
Doorway, interior castle courtyard
Shadows and light
Our second destination, a favorite country inn near Ostuni.
A warm welcome.
Doorway from courtyard to garden
Winter in Puglia
Olive varieties, local production. Unlike Tuscan olives, Puglian olives are picked when red (and very ripe)
Drying the lavender and tomatoes
Old olive press, detail
Ancient olive press, less ancient mechanism for turning the wheels
Entrance to main house
Contentment on a cool winter’s night
Bottom of the stairs
Timeless comfort from another era
Left, wedding dress of owner’s mother. Right, festival dress from Ostuni
1949 Fiat, getting ready for a tour of the olive grove
To the ancient olives
May I have this dance?
How old are you?
1,000 to 2,000 years. What’s 1,000 years to a tree ?
And how old are you?
Centuries old dry wall
Playing in an olive tree that is over 1000 years old.
On the road to Trani…
Long abandoned trulli compound
Cabbage patch and ancient olive grove
Our final destination, the coastal city of Trani…
Trani Cathedral at dusk
Rome has not the elaborate and extraordinary costumes and masks of Venice (we’ll post photographs from a prior trip in another blog) but this year Rome was about the only place in Italy where foul weather didn’t obstruct the main celebratory events of Carnevale. So the Insiders were able to enjoy the wonders of Carnevale at home in Rome in the Piazza del Popolo. Let us know if you would like next year to celebrate Carnevale here too. Wondrous events will occur on Rome’s major squares and the historic Via del Corso, this between February 22 and March 4. We will have the entire schedule of events for you, and know the perfect hotel — as well as the best place for Carnevale costumes (for children and adults) and dancing, the best source for original Carnevale confetti — and certainly for Carnevale pastries !
Carabinieri officers in full dress
The Pines of Rome
The evening fireworks closing the Carnevale festival were preceded by a horse show of riding to music, known as freestyle-to-music dressage or kür.
Cavalry of the Carabinieri
Charge of the Light Cavalry
En route home, walking through the nearly deserted Piazza Navona…
Italy, how do I love thee ?
Let me count the ways.
Or tell of one experience yesterday when, after tripping on stairs, I found myself with a swollen knee that looked like a model of the Pantheon’s dome. By great good luck, that same evening one of my son’s friends came to play, and later came his mother, Anna, a homeopathic physician. “Ammazza” she said (loosely, “Holy Cow”.) She looked at my knee, prodded it, and took out a notebook. Here were my instructions :
I was to take clay, mix it with water, add 10 drops of very low potency arnica (made from flowers from the Valle d’Aosta) and create a thick paste that I should apply to my knee. Cover with baking paper and tie with butcher’s netting. Leave overnight.
All of which I did. It was charming playing with the mud. The children loved applying it to my knee with slaps of the spatula. All night long, I could feel it drying and cracking.
The next morning I removed the butcher’s netting and the baking paper and the fully dried clay : my knee looked again like my knee.
I telephoned Anna. She was not surprised at all. Excellent.
And then :
Did I know about cooking with mud ?
And as quickly as she diagnosed my initial problem, she prescribed a recipe of her mother’s which she said I would find just as satisfactory as the last night’s therapy. Roasted chicken with star anise, lemon rind and olive oil in a clay crust. Did I have pencil and paper ? Good. Here was how I was to make it.
Italy is a country where we create and recreate continuously — a Roman capital is incorporated into a Renaissance door frame, a medieval palazzo is the foundation for a baroque palace. And here — thanks once again to Italian creativity and resourcefulness — therapy for my knee becomes a superb lunch. With clay and star anise.
Italy, how I love thee.