Meaningful Travel

In these fraught times, it seems to me that the best thing to do is to travel, and to immerse yourself in what is most meaningful to you.

For me, meaningful is walking high above the sea.  On a spectacular path selected in part because tourists are not on it.

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Or in the mountains.

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Meaningful is walking in Tuscany, when the light is best, and the path is all your’s.

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Meaningful is a long lunch at a restaurant run by two passionate fishermen..

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who cook only what they fish.

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Meaningful is spending unhurried time in the presence of the majesty of Greek temples. The more the world moves toward acceleration and data, the more meaning there is in silence, stillness and spaciousness.

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Meaningful is reading in a beautiful location.

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Meaningful is taking cooking classes in someone’s home..

Family cooking class : making gnocchi (with Cristina's own celebrated potatoes)

Making gnocchi (with Cristina’s own celebrated potatoes)

and having one of the best dinners of your life with them.

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Meaningful is being with someone you love, dining by a river for three hours, drinking prosecco and eating superb stuffed tortelli.

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Meaningful is a destination when it is not exploited by over tourism, and when you can enjoy it crowd-fee without draining local resources.

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Meaningful is sitting in an olive tree that is 1600 years old.

Playing in an olive tree that is over 1000 years old.

Meaningful is preparing well to see something very beautiful, and then enjoying it without jostling crowds.  We book special guides and docents and make arrangements for out-of-hours visits.

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Meaningful is visiting a garden that could only be Italian, and could never be more beautiful than it is the day you are there.

Stopping to marvel after a long walk in one of our favorite gardens

Meaningful is renting a villa of your own that is historic and lovely, and with a garden that is a wonder, and having a full week there to appreciate every detail.

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Meaningful is admiring beautiful handmade things…

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and learning how they are made.
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Meaningful is not being in a rush, and prioritizing the quality of the experience over the quantity.

The trips we plan are never, never, never rushed.

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When I began Insider’s Italy in 1998, we were the first travel planning company for Italy. We are the only travel planners for Italy where three generations of a family are involved : my mother, whose memories of Italy pre-war still add so much to the history segments of our destination guides; me, born in Rome, the founder, with as co-principal my wonderful husband Robert (photographer, business manager, villa expert and historian) and now our children, 11 and 13, Italophiles, experienced and passionate travelers, always eager to find destinations and experiences that kids will love.

Don’t wait any longer.

A dear client wrote me yesterday : “We enjoyed the trip you planned for us in 1993 intensely for four years even though the trip was only 14 days as I recall.  I still consider the money we paid you to be one of the best investments I ever made and we all talk about that trip to this day.  In many ways, I used you as my measuring stick when I interview the agents for any  trip to a non Italy destination.”  

Please tell us what meaningful means for you.  Complete our survey at http://www.insidersitaly.com/travel-planning-survey/  And just as we have for 28 years, we shall plan a trip for you that we are quite sure will exceed your expectations.

Tanti cari saluti

Marjorie

www.insidersitaly.com

 

Letter from Rome

All over Italy, the swifts, swallows and martins fill the morning and evening skies with their melodious cries. It is spring in Italy and how absolutely magnificent it is.



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I wish you were here, to enjoy the strong dollar.

And here.

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I wish you were here to try wines from producers you may not know, because Italian wines have never been so good.  I would love, in the introductions to vineyards I will give you and in the bookings I will make for you in Slow Food osterie and exceptional classic ristoranti to have you see why Italian wines still largely resist the temptation towards homogenization of taste and standardization of sensory characteristics.

Italian wines taste.. Italian, and exceptionally diverse.  Thank heavens — and maybe not by chance, since can there exist anywhere a population of people (and of winemakers) temperamentally as varied as the Italians ?

Finding these wines outside of Italy can be very difficult. My philosophy of Slow travel, and a preference for unsuperficial travel, and for developing real relationships as I myself adventure, means that I will help you to really understand the land, the vineyards and the people that combine to form the Italian terroir.

I wish you were here to take personalized wine classes with special friends in many Italian cities – as suited to those new to Italian wines as those who wish to expand on their knowledge.  And try wines with our friends who own vineyard estates, like this one.

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It is gratifying to enjoy wines on the actual property where they are produced, and to talk to the winemakers directly about their own wines.

Not long ago I explored an ancient Roman city where sheep, rabbits, cows and one horse were wandering.

I was two hours southeast of Rome.  There was no fence, though there were four beautiful Roman gates. I had for lunch a pasta shape — sciappette — that in 37 years of living in Italy I had never heard of before.

The waiter brought out his mother, the cook. She took me into the kitchen and showed how she made them, out of durum wheat and water, pronging the shape with a iron fork.  She showed me too how she made a pasta sauce I had never seen before, of her own garden’s fava beans, wild fennel greens, pomodori appesi (that she air dries in her larder), ricotta salata, garlic and olive oil.

A friend in New York told me once : “what I can’t stand is to think that Italy is existing without me”.

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Don’t let Italy exist without you. Come.

Some of our very favorite villas have openings for the summer and autumn, including in May and June. Has there ever been a better time to come to Italy, and enjoy a special house with family and friends ?

Every single one of our villas is managed by its owners or by friends of the owners. There will be a warm, thoughtful person to greet you on arrival, and who will always be available for questions small and large. Without exception you will arrive as a friend, and will leave as a close friend.

Every one of the villas in our portfolio is historic, converted with sensitivity and sophistication into a restoration that balances the integrity of traditional elements, such as oak-beamed ceilings and vaulted terracotta ceilings, with modern comforts, including outstanding bathrooms and kitchen.

Gardens are always a highlight, with flowering plants, fruit trees and/or vegetable and herb gardens.

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Pool are always set on their own terrace, with pergola or umbrellas for relaxing and dining.

And everything is so charming (including the owners’ homemade crostata) and enjoyable that you may find it hard to go sightseeing.

Do you like festivals and fairs ? In a few weeks I will watch with joy tens of thousands of rose petals falling through the oculus of the Pantheon.

Come with us in late June to Bevagna, an undiscovered location that provides a real feeling for daily life and interests in an historic Umbrian town.

You are unlikely to see any non-locals here at any time of year except during the last ten days of June when the town puts on, primarily for its own benefit, a re-enactment of the occupations and street life of the medieval period.

Most of the town’s citizens don historic costumes or good reproductions of them, and, split into their four historic districts, or gaite (each dedicated to a saint), undertake a realistic representation, in the vernacular language of the period, of buying/selling and other day-to-day town occupations.

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Three leading medievalists judge the four districts’ efforts and present one gaita with a much-prized award for the most realistic representation of Bevagna’s existence six hundred years ago.

Padova ?

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Spello ?

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Towns of exceptionally quality of life !  Would you not love to explore them now ?

Walks ?  Do you like to walk ?  Our clients walk up and down all of Italy, enjoying guided and self-guided longer and shorter hikes, often with children, sometimes more challenging, but always at a pace that allows full appreciation of extraordinary scenery, wild flowers and, most of all, the place.

Walking on the Path of the Gods on the Amalfi Coast

Walking on the Path of the Gods on the Amalfi Coast

Central to our planning is leisurely enjoyment of where you are at that moment.

In early July bring the family to see a vast plateau of wild flowers (growing among them, with a silvery flower, are the country’s best lentils, from Castelluccio) and to dance among them (the only real response to such Italian beauty.)


Two weeks later come to Abruzzo and join a tradition that is fast disappearing (your presence, and mine, and that of our collective friends and family will keep it from happening) : the Transumanza, or seasonal movement of sheep from winter barn to lush summer pasture and then back again.

I will walk through some of Europe’s most dramatic scenery, ending at 4100 feet.

Travel and Leisure contacted me, and asked what I loved most about Italy. I said “regional difference” and that when Italy was unified in 1861, it was likely that two Italians living 200 miles apart would be unable to understand much of what the other said.

To take the train from Bolzano to Sicily (an extraordinary 14-18 hour train trip through ten regions) means hearing a dizzying number of Italian dialects as passengers get on and off — but more amazing still (and without leaving your train window) experiencing an ever-changing tableau of architecture, station styles, trees, agriculture, vineyard trellising techniques, colors of shutters, ways of hanging laundry… Consider in the alternate, the contrast between Italy’s tiniest comune, coastal Atrani, and Alto Adige’s Rovereto (here its lovely 17th century Piazza delle Ocche.)  One trip to Italy is like a visit to many different countries. 

Italy is slightly smaller than New Mexico.  Can any other country bring you the diversity represented by these two next pictures (Modica and Venice) ?

Please let us help you to mix your regions, and bring as much diversity into your trip as you can. This is a principal joy of travel in Italy.

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Come and sleep in a beautiful mountain chalet at 3800 feet, take a few steps from your doorstep, open your eyes fully and take in this view.

Come and sleep in a Sicilian family farmhouse and awaken this view.

Two sides of Italy. Italy has thousands of sides. If you were to return twice a year for all your life I could continue to show you new worlds and new ways of looking at places you think you may know…

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Up and down the peninsula, I have friends whom I would love to have you meet, and whose special offerings I think you would greatly enjoy : Rome market/culinary walks and food artisans, private biking excursions in Tuscany’s’ glorious Valle d’Orcia, visits to special artistic and archeological sites that are closed to the public.

Come and learn about olive oils from a charming man in Puglia who makes them, with trees that are in some cases close to 2000 years old.

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Come and learn from Giuseppe, in Sicily, why his olive oil is the best in Italy.

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I have personal shopping docents for only-artisan ware for the wardrobe, house and kitchen, and you will always meet and buy directly from the artisan.

Consider visits to the Vatican museum after hours (when it is closed to the public). Consider exploring the Venetian lagoon on an historic flat bottomed boat, swimming in crystal waters of the Lagoon and feasting on a succulent traditional menu prepared on board.

What fun !

I was taken aback by a comment made by guidebook author Rick Steves : “Sorry, but Rome is not a great place for little kids. Parks are rare. Kid-friendly parks are more rare. Most of the museums are low-tech and lack hands-on fun. The good news for kids?  Pizza and gelato.”

Pizza and gelato ?

Yes, pizza (bianca and rossa) and gelato in Italy are very good.

Insider’s Italy kids are rarely bored in Rome; and never bored are those whose parents have requested our fullest service, Ultimo, which offers our most comprehensive degree of travel planning (you need only buy air tickets, and tell us all about your interests).

I returned from a major Sicily research trip — many of you have commented on our photos on Facebook (check Marjorie Shaw’s Insider’s Italy) — and I am eager to help you plan an Insider’s itinerary (give yourselves 10 – 14 days) for this most incredible of islands, a world completely unto itself.

Sicilian hospitality is exceptionally warm, archeology is in no region more interesting, and cuisine (including some of the best olive oils I have ever tried, and the most varied seafood) are among myriad reasons to come here.

In fact two clients will soon be taking cooking classes on an olive oil estate which is a charming four-star agriturismo — and in the afternoon exploring ancient Greek city and temple sites and swimming on small, undiscovered beaches where turtles lay their eggs and sometimes dolphins visit.

Shall I give more reasons still to come to Italy this year ?  Contact me and I shall. Or better still, complete the no obligation survey, tell us a bit about yourself and travel dates, and I will write you a proposal.

David, a multiple time client whom like many has become a dear friend, wrote me : “This past trip reminded me how foolish I was to take so long to revisit Italy.”

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Please don’t wait yourselves.

To visit or to revisit.

Just come.

Cari saluti

Marjorie

www.insidersitaly.com

Celebrating Differences

Today I was pondering the imminent opening in Milan of Starbucks, Italy’s first of that American chain. That Starbucks has arrived here, in a country with such a worthy tradition of superb coffee, makes me sad, and leads me back to our List of Insider’s Favorite Cafes in Milan, many of them historic and each offering not only extraordinary coffee in the Italian style but a traditional, cordial welcome from owners and staff.  We share this List with every client traveling to Milan. 

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Starbucks will not be on our list of Milan Insider’s Favorites.

Travel offers profound exposure to places and experiences different from those at home. With the globalization of the world, travel, if mindlessly planned, denies you that sublime pleasure of the constant difference. When traveling with children, especially, or if on a first-time trip, please be vigilant and ensure that every day is one that celebrates the difference and keeps you far from the familiar sameness. 

We are lucky that in Italy, with 20 different regions, the variety is endless — but still there are soul-less chain hotels (including luxury ones) and spiritless restaurants that could be nearly anywhere.

Start by choosing hotels that could be nowhere but in Italy.  Our collection of well over one hundred special establishments offers location, history, style and spirit that could only be Italian.  These range from a lovely suite in the largest organic fig orchard in Europe; to a tree house suite suspended over lavender fields; to calming, boutique accommodation in prehistoric caves that are part of a Unesco World Heritage site.  You can sleep in the home of the Mona Lisa (and enjoy some of Tuscany’s best wines from vineyards you see outside your Renaissance window.)

We love finding accommodations for you, and it is very rare that we have not stayed at least once in any hotel or inn where we will book for you.

Here we further highlight four favorites, where we hand pick your rooms and book directly with owners and managers.  Your welcome is warm and sincere — and you could be no place on earth but in Italy. 

This is the dining room in one of our Abruzzi favorites, 100 minutes east of Rome.  By staying here, with accommodations scattered across what was a ghost town, you are supporting conservation and local development projects.  Accommodation is charming, staff (all from the village) kind, and attention to detailing remarkable. Here is the dining room with lovely local linens — and sublime local cuisine.  You could be nowhere but in Italy. 

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This is a bench where our guests like to spend lazy hours gazing across the Valle d’Orcia of southern Tuscany.

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This could only be Italy.  Accommodation here, in a fully renovated historic farmhouse, is stylish, with furnishings that are wonderful examples of contemporary cutting edge Italian design; owners are warm and solicitous, and the only sound you will hear is of sheep bells in the neighboring fields.

Two hours away your world changes again.  Here we are in Umbria, in another elegant hotel that could only be Italy.  What you see (view from the inn’s windows) are their organic vineyards that produce wines that Slow Food, reputable critics and we consider the best in the region. Accommodation is in a 13th century pilgrim’s inn, is contemporary, and terribly comfortable; lavender and iceberg roses fill the garden spaces and circle the pool. 

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And finally, one of the hotels our clients love most, family owned, family run, historic and immensely charming.

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Service is at highest level, and nothing is ever too much trouble.  From the sfusato amalfitano lemons that occupy nearly all of the terraced garden space, to the Italian warmth radiated by every member of staff, to the all-traditional dining at their seaside Al Mare restaurant.. you could be nowhere but Italy.

Shall we begin our planning ?

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The Joy of Preparing for Italy

When I first begin working with our Ultimo service travelers, I give them what I require first when I plan my own trips : wonderful Maps... maps to lose yourself in.  I send Touring Club maps, atlases for each North, Center and South, big maps of regions, and ultra detailed city maps that are sturdy and easy to fold or hand to taxi drivers. Every single one of these maps is made of soft paper that be annotated, so as you read our materials you can highlight locations. As you learn independently about something, you can mark that down.   I like to send these out immediately, as soon as a trip plan is conceived, because nothing makes a trip as real or as exciting as maps.

Our family adores maps.  Even our lagotto romagnolo Teddy.  Most of all, maps of Italy.

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Even our busiest clients find time for the maps we provide. In this electronic age, maps are comforting and easier to read, offer scale and a sense of wonder that digital maps on mobile devices cannot offer.

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I also send you Reading Lists for every location and region you are visiting.

Since discovering Pinocchio when I was seven, I have,all my life, been reading novels and stories about Italy. I love biographies about people who have lived in Italy, poetry written in Italy, and history about this remarkable country. I try to choose books that are readable, complementary to other suggestions on my list, and illuminating. And I tell you about each book and why I like it. I also have an abridged list and one of books on tape, for those with little time for reading or who plan a trip on short notice.  Of course I include my father’s charming Roman caper The Crime of Giovanni Venturi, written in 1959.

What I am reading now

What I am reading now

On your Reading List you will find categories including Background, General History, Ancient and Medieval History, Modern History, archeology, regional literature, contemporary fiction, people, biography, art and architecture, and very importantly, cooking and culinary culture.

Travel is not about acquiring but about understanding, and food in Italy is a window into understanding.

Why are the lentils in north Lazio or in Ustica so superb ? It is because the soil is volcanic. That those areas were within the spread of a major volcano is an exceptionally important geologic and historical and archeological realization. Why has for centuries bread been saltless in Tuscany?  There too an answer that illuminates the history of the region.

Common Italian foods like bread or lentils are a window into history – and in Italy a joy of eating is learning.

Central to our reading lists are culinary histories, like Mary Taylor Simeti’s Pomp and Sustenance: 25 Centuries of Sicilian Food, and books like Rachel Roddy’s magical Five Quarters  that wins my heart for the author’s photography, her warm, appealing voice, and nuanced understanding of the tradition of Roman eating.

It is a book to read from start to finish before you visit, as valuable as many guidebooks, as the food culture she documents is a mirror of the history and culture of Rome.

Prada Milan, steamship

Prada, Galleria, Milano

And poetry ! I include wonderful Poetry in translation. Italy has not just produced great novelists, but five Italians have won the Nobel Prize for literature. Two of them were Sicilian and three were poets, Salvatore Quasimodo, my favorite, being both.

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And I have a special Children’s Reading List, put together by my own kids, now aged 11 and 13, from their own favorites. These are broken down to picture books and read aloud; ages 6 to 8; 9 to 12, and teen, and I often send a favorite children’s book to my clients with children. Among favorites are Rome Antics, where we follow a pigeon on an imaginative and informative journey through this wondrous city, and Thief Lord, translation of an entertaining German novel with a Venetian setting that is ripe for mystery, with the city’s alleys and canals creating great atmosphere.

Movies ! I share my personal, extensive list with you. Italian films are legendary, especially those glorious films produced in the 1940s through the 1960s. You cannot come to Rome without seeing Roberto Rossellini’s “Rome, Open City” (1946), a perfect example of Italian neorealist filming, where, as the Cinecitta’ studios were bombed, filming was on location in Roman squares and streets.

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Some films on our list are sentimental, others are revolutionary, others celebrate Italian individuality, and some are poignant or wonderfully funny or controversial. I have seen them all, many of them many times, and have both a general list and one that is specific to the destinations you are visiting. Addictive to me are Commissario Montalbano films, based on the Andrea Camilleri novels, with all episodes set in southeastern Sicily, nearly all in and around Marina di Ragusa, where our guests stay in a lovely small inn.  Luca Zingaretti in the lead role of Inspector Montalbano is one of the best detectives you’ll find on the big (or little) screen today.

Prada, Galleria, Milano

Prada, Galleria, Milano

Finally, I provide a personalized Calendar of Special Events/Exhibitions/Festivals occurring in all locations you will be visiting. This could include a festival of new season olive oil; a significant show on Caravaggio (I will obtain your timed entry tickets); a blessing of the horses in a neighborhood chapel before the Palio in Siena; a special opening of the top floor of a house museum so that you can see the amazing medieval kitchens. This could be a festival of camellias; a one-day chocolate fair (do you know Italy’s sublime artisanal chocolate?); a realistic medieval reenactment of town life in an Umbrian village (below); a blanketing of village streets with flower petals made into elaborate designs for Corpus Domini.

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Reading, dreaming over maps, watching movies, opening cookbooks: oh, that all preparations should be so arduous !

Let’s the planning begin !

Cari saluti

Marjorie

www.insidersitaly.com

 

Intensity of Flavors

When I have been away from Italy for more than a week or so, I am all the more struck by the differences on my return. It makes me think of all of you, and your own first impressions during that first day in Italy.

Returning to Rome this week after a 16 day absence, I was greeted by golden, limpid light, so different from the silver skies I left in Washington. 

What moved me most, though, as it always does, was the experience of profound, characterful flavors. For all the considered food shopping I did, and the restaurants I tried, I would have given up any Washington meal for just one of these. 

A cappuccino served in a thick ceramic cup, and, without my specifying anything, that arrives the right temperature, with a balance of coffee to milk to surface crema that makes you close your eyes to concentrate on the sweet balance. 

A thin-sliced orange that inside is red, orange, and raspberry, and with tangy, perfumed, long lasting aroma.

Spinach that tastes of the earth, rich, strong, with delicate leaf and sturdy stem. And eaten at room temperature. With a new season olive oil with bite and personality and elegance.

Gorgonzola that has been cared for : runny but not too much so, pungent and creamy, sweet milk integrated with earthy molds.

A chunk of bread where the crust is so bite-able and so crunchable, with a large poared, grayish interior tasting of sweet, perfumed wheats and fresh yeasts.

Water. My son says the thing the thing he missed most was Roman water. Cold, flavorful, with no off-flavors, a food in and of itself. 

All of these struck me within two hours of laying my suitcase down, because everything I mentioned was eaten for lunch on arrival. Four days home now, the experiences have begun to stack one upon the other and have settled into the normalcy of meals enjoyed during the Italian day. Each is simple, but each is a celebration.

We plan specialized trips for travelers who love to eat. Sometimes those travelers do not know until they come to Italy how much they love to eat. With our mindful guidance their taste buds awaken, and with each considered morsel they put into their mouths, they discover that the experience of eating here is central to the joy of travel in Italy. 

Please travel with us this year. Celebrate with every meal. Please visit us at www.insidersitaly.com

Sharing with you all of our discoveries — restaurants, trattorie, markets, food artisans, in-home cooking classes, food shops and much more — is our greatest joy. 

Agretti and Longing

Does it happen that eating certain foods creates a fully three-dimensional feeling inside of you ?  The feeling I have when I eat agretti is longing.  Salsola soda, more commonly known in English as opposite-leaved saltwort, have for more than 35 years been a central part of my Roman springtime.  This grassy, chive-like green, typical of Rome (I have not seen it anywhere else) is a market, restaurant and kitchen staple for weeks that span from late February into April.

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Agretti in the market

 

I like agretti steamed, al dente, with new season olive oil and a good squirt of lemon.  I also like them just-a-bit- above room temperature which is the way they are often served in restaurants. They go beautifully with mint-imbued, stewed artichokes or thin slices of boiled potatoes. Agretti have a real, green punch to them, that fills your mouth with a burst of chlorophyll and slightly acid pleasure. And a texture that is unlike anything else that I know.

Agretti washed and ready to be steamed

Agretti washed and ready to be steamed

Agretti fill me with longing.

Agretti come out when the days are lengthening.  And every time I eat them, at just past 50, I remember again the acute feeling of adolescent longing the springtime would always draw out in me. Was it the wistful cry of the just-returned swallows that filled the sky, and that tickled my young emotions ?  Was it the feeling of warm air and the promise of a summer ?  The promise of windows open and breezes to tease teenage thoughts ? Was it the flirty sensation of the short sleeved shirt and the sleeveless dress after months of long sleeves and wooly sweaters ?  What was it ?  Whatever it was, it all happened just as the agretti arrived.  And the agretti were there every day, appealing and curly on the plate, full of the promise of spring, and just as the season of longing began.  And I forked them into my mouth – and longed.

Agretti in the market

Spring time

Even today, as I trim off their earthy roots, rinse and pop them into the same pan that my mother used always to cook the agretti… I long. It is a wonder and a comfort to feel an emotion so familiar, a friend that has accompanied me, in certain seasons, for so much of my life.  That feeling is just the same, though I am no longer 13 or 15 or 17.  My lolling-tongued dog roams underfoot, and my two children noisily, cheerfully, help me take out the platter on which to put the agretti. They don’t like agretti at all — but then they are not yet at the age of youthful longing.

We will see what happens when that time comes.

And when it first comes, if it begins as the agretti make their spring time arrival at the Roman table.

Easter Egg Hunt in Rome

Easter is not Easter without an egg hunt.  In Rome we hid a red egg and it was our children’s task to find it.  A number of Insider’s Italy clients’ children — from little kids to older teenagers — were also looking.  But the eggs were not always easy to find, thogh we offered clues and maps.

Here are some of the best places to hide Easter eggs in Rome. 

"Nasone" fountain

Palm, Villa Sciarra

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Primavera !

Spring is here !

In Rome, we are celebrating with vignarola, which is spring in your bowl, a combination of artichokes, peas, fava beans, spring onion, canasta lettuce, garlic and olive oil—a wonder. Enjoyed on our terrace—because the al fresco dining season has begun here, at least for lunch, and very soon will extend to evenings too.

And if we had been through the exceptionally rough winter that so many of you still endure this year in the U.S., we would be hard pressed to chose among these springtime Italian treats. (Please complete our no obligation survey if you would like our special ideas for your own trip.)

1. The Valle D’Orcia, where the unworldly, near-fluorescent springtime green is unforgettable. Red poppies will soon add to the beauty. Hill-towns are varied, vineyards remarkable (ask us for our lists of mostly smaller, special vineyards of Brunello and Rosso di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.) Many of our vineyard favorites are organic or natural—and in each we will make direct connections for you to the owner or winemaker. Would you be interested in our favorite Valle D’Orcia (sheep) cheese makers, or a private seminar on local cheeses, possibly paired with local wines ?

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2. Gardens are at their seasonal peak.  Gardens are an Insider’s Italy specialty, and we are delighted to include as many as you wish in your itinerary, or to build a trip around our favorites that will be at their best during your travel dates. Some of these are closed to the public but we arrange for special visits.

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We also have garden experts who can accompany you — please ask us for details.

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Lavender is beautiful throughout the world but our lavender farm—included in many spring time Ultimo itineraries—is a remarkable inclusion; the lavender is backed by Assisi.  None of our Roman friends have ever heard about special discovery—but past clients in California, Texas and Georgia all know the spot !

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Our lavender farm in May

3. Spring time religious festivals are splendid in Italy with a degree of civic participation that may be unmatched by any other European  country.  Here (photo below) a whole town turns out to prepare for the Infiorata in which locally gathered flower petals (drying in great racks below) are made into city-wide street carpets portraying scenes that are sacred or floral.

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Ask us please for our list of region-by-region festivals (we have ourselves attended most we suggest).  We often select your bases because of the occurrence of a special celebration in that place on a particular day.

Other spring festivals include superb food sagre—to greet the arrival of spring-time foods (asparagus, strawberries, black celery, fava, flowering caper) and, worth the trip to Italy for alone, the May recreation of medieval life that overtakes the tiny Umbrian city of Bevagna.  It is not surprising that tourism here is nearly all Italian : after all, we are in spring, and the peak tourist season has still not begun.

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4. Artichokes. We did mention them, but must do so again : they are so much a part of Italian springtime eating, in so many regions, and we hope you will let us tell you about our many favorites up and down the peninsula where they make them so well — including restaurants that seasonally serve only artichokes in dozens of special ways.

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5. Swimming without the crowds. You will have many very special beaches to yourselves. The one below attracts tortoise and dolphins. We swim in Sicily in April.  And know many of the loveliest beaches.

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6. Poppies. I have seen them all over Europe, but the poppies of Italy seem even more beautiful. Poppies bloom from January through June in much of Italy.

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Mix them with at least ten varieties of wild flowers in a particular location in Umbria — and with flowering lentils — and you have surely one of the most beautiful springtime spectacles in all of Europe. Flowering starts in May.

7. Important, popular sights like Sicily’s temple of Juno in Agrigento are relatively tourist free in the spring.  Allowing you the space to enjoy as long as you wish, without crowds.

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According to the UN’s world tourism organization, there are a billion international tourists today, a figure that will double in a decade. Places available for them to visit will certainly not double. The historic buildings, towns and landscapes of Italy are vulnerable and irreplaceable—touring them out of the peak tourist period, for example in the spring and not in the summer, means that you are not contributing to the savagely concentrated over-visiting that occurs during standard June through September vacations months.

8. Some of the best opera and symphonic music of the year is in the spring—this in larger urban opera houses like Milan, Naples, Rome and Florence and less celebrated ones (like the smaller jewel-like theaters of Emilia Romagna, which have an unusually discriminating audience.)

Reggio Emilia Teatro Municipale Valli

Reggio Emilia Teatro Municipale Valli

Please ask for for listings, and have us hand-book seats for you. Classical music is one of our passions, and we keep up with contemporary Italian singers and houses.

Hotel costs at spring’s beginning are are still very low—rising up from low to mid to high season as the weeks go by. On the Amalfi coast for example you can be swimming and still enjoying lowest season rates.

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Low season rates-no crowds-dreamy weather

In the Dolomites, the loveliest wild flowers coincide with the lowest hotel rates. For reasons of both economics and to avoid severe and unsustainable overcrowding we visit Venice only in the winter and the spring. You might consider doing so too.

Padova (Padua) : over-run in the summer, arcadian in the spring

Padova (Padua) : over-run in the summer, arcadian in the spring

We’re here to assist you—families, couples, honeymooners, friends, multi-generational groups.  Let us share our favorite spring places with you.

 

 

 

The Truffle Dog Who Would Not Truffle

When we chose our lagotto romagnolo puppy, the last thing in our minds was the breed’s unsurpassed ability at sniffing out truffles. White and black truffles. Of which Italy has many.

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And when in early December we collected Teddy his mother and father, his brothers and sisters and various relations were all involved in a rambunctious truffle hunt under the olive trees.

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That involved the breeder hiding a scrap of fragrant truffle in a perforated plastic egg. Then the lagotti — Teddy’s mother at the head of the ebullient pack —  were released and set off to find it. Dirt flew. Puppies yipped with lusty enthusiasm. The truffle was found !  And hidden again.

Back in Rome, we forgot about the associations between lagotti and truffles.

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Teddy made himself immediately at home here,

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fast developing, in our neighborhood parks, close friendships with local puppies and dogs.  Ragù’, Marlie, Elliot, Nemo, Alice and Black were all his truffles — the objects he sought out with gusto and fervor.

And as a parallel, we got to know an exceptionally simpatico group of owners, Roman neighbors with whom we would otherwise never have exchanged a word. Conversation came easily, as we loitered under Villa Sciarra’s palm trees, and watched our dogs scamper off under the ancient wisteria.

One morning, Black’s owner asked: “And Teddy — does he truffle hunt ?”

Truffle hunt ?

“Does he truffle hunt ?”

Well, no.

“Why don’t you teach him ?”

I mulled this over. Indeed, why not ? As every excuse to be in the countryside is welcome, it was the work of a moment, through my friend Heather Jarman and her Sapori e Saperi (guided artisan food and wine adventures) to organize a truffle tutorial not far from Lucca, in Tuscany.

A private truffle tutorial for Teddy. With three teachers. The first being Riccardo, a warm bear of a man with an acute understanding of the psychology of dogs.

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For 21 years he has been truffle hunting with dogs, including his own lagotti.  He would this day bring two lagotti ,Turbo and Dream, one of whom belonged to his friend Andrea from nearby Livornoi.  They too would be instructors for Teddy.

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Last Saturday we were off. It was a lovely spring day, with crocus, forsythia and buttercups bursting from the earth. Rich, brown earth, ideal for digging.

And for truffling.

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Riccardo began his campaign with Teddy. But this most affable of puppies would not draw too close. For all of Riccardo’s entreaties and tasty bread scraps, extended hand and cooing words — what to most dogs would surely be a convincing charisma — Teddy was wary.

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And then, from his vest pocket Riccardo produced three scraps of truffle — the marzuolo, a January to March truffle abundant in Tuscany, Piedmont and the Marche — concealed in a perforated plastic egg.

Teddy, like a cartoon character, leapt up in the air, and then issued a dark, deep growl.

Then turned on his heels and ran, very fast, away.

No entreaties — no food scraps placed in the perforated egg, together with the truffle — no cunning attempts to convince Teddy that the truffle smell was not pure evil — made even the remotest headway.

Riccardo changed tactics. Breeze and Turbo were set to work, to mentor Teddy, which Riccardo, when other strategies fail, uses as a technique to teach reluctant puppies the ropes.

For two hours, the dogs raced up and down the contoured hills, scampering under the maritime pines.

Riccardo watched for tell tale signs that the dogs were on to a truffle. So experienced is he, and so in tune with his dogs’ actions, that he can distinguish between a casual, playful pawing of earth and a real recognition of a tuber.  In Riccardo’s pocket soon was a booty of tiny marzuolo.  Found by Turbo and Breeze.

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And Teddy ? Teddy had his own agenda, which was pure extravagant pleasure in nosing leaves, scratching at the earth, leaping over the forget-me-nots and and burrowing up to his head in pungent mud in an abandoned ice house.

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He occasionally wagged a tail at the other two lagotti, but took only polite interest in what they were doing.

Back at Riccardo’s, we settled down to a four-course country lunch.

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Two hours later, Teddy, rested from a deep sleep, rose from under the table.  We found him a few  minutes later.  He had just polished off a plate of food intended for Riccardo’s cat and was licking his chops.  I apologized to Riccardo’s mother, who was cooking, and asked what he had eaten.

“What was left over from your lunch”, she said. “Fettuccine with truffles.”

I looked at Teddy who in the afternoon sun, was preparing for another nap.

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Riccardo’s present to us, as we prepared to drive off, back to Lucca  — “un souvenir”, he said — was the perforated plastic egg with the truffles inside. I reached out from the car to take it and as my arm came back in through the window, I heard a growl. Turning I found Teddy, sprawled on my son’s lap, preparing to show his teeth.

My husband and I enjoyed the “souvenir” on a lovely small frittata that we prepared once back in Rome.

We will never know what Teddy’s real relationship is with truffles — Riccardo says he has never seen anything like this — but we do know that if he is to eat any truffles in the future, he is not prepared to hunt for them.

Teddy is the lagotto who will not truffle.

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Italian Father’s Day

Italian Father’s Day falls today, in coincidence with the feast of Saint Joseph, an older dad whom it is nice to celebrate with various wonderful San Giuseppe pastries enjoyed today Italy-wide.

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Bigne di San Giuseppe for Father’s Day

Simply extraordinary pumpkin filled tortelli in Reggio Emilia

Simply extraordinary pumpkin filled tortelli in Reggio Emilia

Today three fathers with their children are traveling with us in Italy — and are well spread out over this remarkable country.

Italy, though just the size of New Mexico, offers a near unimaginable variety of locations, experiences, foods, wines and landscapes.

One father, with two children, is celebrating spring break in one of the most progressive and dynamic places in Emilia Romagna — and with (in our minds) the best food of any of the Emilia towns.

This is the city of Reggio Emilia, which does not know tourism, and is one of the many places we — and the families we plan for — love most.  While we have a wonderful, superbly located hotel here, this father chose to stay with his family in an important 17th century palace in the heart of the city, replete with furniture that has been in the owner’s family for centuries and where the owner herself, a dear friend of Insider’s Italy, assured our clients a most interesting as well as comfortable stay.

Reggio Emilia

Reggio Emilia

With his teenage kids this father is also using Reggio Emilia as a base : first for Ferrara (his family all loved the Gardens of the Finzi Contini, filmed there in 1970) where today they are exploring the lesser-known and quite extraordinary late 15th century Palazzo del Te Museum, and later walking around the four mile cycle of unbroken late medieval to 17th century walls, offering a journey through the greenery of the surrounding esplanade.  Towers, gates and ramparts can be seen along the route — something his medieval-mad son will love.

Tomorrow they will spend watching Parmesan being made — rising early and carefully shadowing a Parmesan maker’s morning.  And sampling Parmesans from an unusually representative cheese maker — trying Parmesans made from various milks including our much loved Bianca Modenese, a Slow Food presidia that makes many other Parmesans pale in contrast.

Learning about Parmesan at the source 

On Friday they will, with the family that makes it, study balsamic vinegar production, and then take a private, hands-on cooking class in which they will roll out the thinnest and most delicate egg pasta that they will likely ever have had (pasta making was a special request of the father’s 14 year old daughter.)  And learn how they can recreate it just as well at home in California.

Bologna is half an hour away, and will be their destination on Saturday — a vibrant university city with one of the most interesting churches in Italy (our own kids’ favorite); wonderful children’s bookstores (this is the center of the Italian children’s book publishing industry); the grand 498-steps-up Asinelli tower (12th century) that dominates the Bolognese skyline; and mile after mile of wonderful arcades (lovely stores !) where light and shadow change all day long, creating a moving picture show that is worth a visit in and of itself.

Another father is in Lucca (where we just spent the weekend, truffle hunting with our lagotto romagnolo Teddy : keep your eyes on this space !)  This father and family elected to use Ultimo, our most requested and most personalized service. We have had the pleasure of planning all of the details of the daily schedule for this family, which also rented one of our glorious Lucca villas.  They awakened this morning to flowering fruit trees and a garden full of camellias (the Lucca specialty.)

Lucca family villa in the spring

Lucca family villa in the spring

This morning the father and family biked today atop the much-loved, tree-topped grassy city walls.
Family biking on the Walls of Lucca

Family biking on the Walls of Lucca

… and then took a one-of-its-kind children’s tour around the city with Paola, one of our most appreciated guides. Paola has a magic box of relevant and imaginative tools that she brings out during a family tour — special puzzles, cryptograms, hunts, mazes and other smart, creative interactive aids — that help children make sense of one of Italy’s single most charming cities.

The afternoon is spent visiting olive orchards (with the producers themselves, trying together some of the best extra virgin oils in Italy.)  Children’s questions are always very welcome, and having a producer show kids the step-by-step process of how oil is made — starting in the olive grove — is an unforgettable experience.

Olive groves north of Lucca

Olive groves north of Lucca

Tomorrow they will be in Carrara and will visit not only the marble mines where the Romans, Michelangelo and 21st century sculptors have sourced their stone, but also the studios of active sculptors whose work we especially like.  And they will wade at Forte dei Marmi in seawater fast warming in the early Tuscan spring, have a lovely seafood lunch on the beach (we’ve booked the table)…
The boys at lunch on the beach

The boys at lunch on the beach

and then join the town in biking on the arcadian waterfront bike paths.
Bike ready to go in Rimini

Bike ready to go in Forte dei Marmi

A third dad with a three year old and wife is today in Amalfi.   Today is a day of walking the Path of the Gods
Walking up from Amalfi

Walking up from Amalfi

and then a cooking class with the magic Cristina in her home kitchen this evening, learning to make melt-in-your-mouth gnocchi and a variety of fish and seafood dishes, plus ways to very simply prepare spring vegetables.
Family cooking class : making gnocchi (with Cristina's own celebrated potatoes)

Family cooking class : making gnocchi (with Cristina’s own celebrated potatoes)

We celebrate, with Insider’s Italy, the idea of doing less but doing it better. Memories are set down, and family experiences really relished when we travel mindfully with a focus
on the quality of our experiences, and not the quantity.

To end this Italian Father’s Day blog, here is me with my papa, in Rome, my birth-place, during one of the major winter snowstorms that Rome used once to have. This early spring blog is dedicated to him — and to fathers everywhere. Buona Festa del Papa !

Snow in Rome Winter 1960s

Snow in Rome Winter 1960s