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Sunday, January 25, 2015

IN THE HEART OF ETRUSCAN COUNTRY






One of my favorite day trips from Rome is heading north into the dreamy scenery of Etruscan country, that area of northern Lazio and bits of Tuscany and Umbria where the Etruscans once roamed.



Our first stop one summer day was Vitorchiano a tiny town, set on a cliff between two ravines. It was originally a Roman fort and the inhabitants haven’t forgotten their history – they still regard themselves as Roman. We paused at a local market set up near a fountain to browse the irresistible selection of fruit. 



But our pleasure was tempered by an angel casting its shadow on the names of the dead from World War I, a typical melancholy reminder of Italy’s troubled past found in every town.



After passing through the ancient city walls we poked around in churches and shops, enjoying a gelato before heading down the steep and winding road toward Vetralla, our destination.




An odd sight confronted us by the side of the road as we zipped by: a statue in the style of those from Easter Island. If anyone can explain this mystery please let me know.

My friend in Vetralla, Mary Jane Cryan, is a long-time resident of the small city, and writer of the popular blog, Fifty Years in Italy (50yearsinitaly.blogspot.com). Vetralla has a curious history. Part of the Etruscan triangle of Tarquinia and Tuscania, some inhabitants still have Etruscan DNA, but it is also the only place in the world outside the UK that was under the “protection” of the English crown as proclaimed by Henry VIII in 1512, followed by a long association with the exiled Stuart monarchy in the 1770s. It is interesting to contemplate what would happen if Italy and the UK went to war. Would Margaret Thatcher have sent in the troops?



Ms. Cryan lives in an enormous apartment in one of the Renaissance palazzi fronting the ancient Roman road, the Via Cassia that runs down the middle of town. Vetralla is also set high on a cliff like Vitorchiano and most other towns in the area, and as typical, the back sides of most of the buildings loom over the rich farmland below. Her splendid apartment is filled with books and memorabilia, but it is the terrace, with its sweeping views, that makes the home a place of enchantment. 










While we sat in the sun the talk naturally turned to food. (Is there any conversation in Italy that doesn’t include food?) Mary Jane mentioned that a friend, Fulvio Ferri, had recently published a cookbook filled with family recipes. Unable to resist an addition to my Italian collection we came home with Olio e Ricordi in Cucina – loosely translated as Grandmother’s Recipes, along with a copy of Mary Jane’s latest book, Etruria, Travel, History and Itineraries in Central Italy. If you are interested in either book you can go to www.elegantetruria.com.

Although we don’t have olive oil from Vetralla in Seattle we tried out some of the recipes. We particularly liked the one for roast potatoes, Patate al Forno con Rosmarino o Finocchio, often found on Italian menus but not so often in cookbooks:

Here’s our take on the recipe which serves 4 - 6:

10 medium-size thin-skinned boiling potatoes
Sprigs of fresh rosemary (we didn't use fennel)
2-3 cloves of garlic
Salt & pepper to taste
Extra virgin olive oil

Pre-heat oven to 360 F or 180 C.
Peel potatoes and put in cold water so they don’t darken.
Place the mixture of oil, salt, pepper, finely-chopped rosemary and garlic in a bowl large enough to toss the potatoes.
Dry potatoes, cut into wedges one inch thick, coat with the mixture, and arrange in a single layer on non-stick baking pan.
Bake until just tender (varies from 30 minutes to an hour).
Crisp the potatoes for a few minutes by turning on the oven fan.

Serve hot. And plan another trip to Italy!

Copyrite Judith Works. All photos by author except for view of Vetralla by Mary Jane Cryan
  


Sunday, December 28, 2014

MILAN - CAPITAL OF STYLE



I’m one of those people who love Milan. It doesn’t have ancient ruins or hordes of tourists but it is the Italian capital of design, especially fashion. The last time we arrived at the central train station evidence of the creative zest was everywhere from the 1930-era mosaics near the tracks to the fashion stores filling the main concourse and upper levels.





A few subway stops away is the historic center dominated by the Gothic spires of the Duomo, or main cathedral. Begun in 1386, it was finally finished in 1809 on orders of Napoleon. 



We climbed up to the roof to take in the view of the distant Alps and marvel at the intricacies of design and construction of the building.




But when lunch time arrived our eyes moved from the statues topping the spires (and the sight of a woman helplessly watching her cell phone slide off the steep roof into the abyss) to what the people on the seventh-floor terrace of La Rinascente department store opposite were eating. Sacrificing ancient stones in favor of a caprese under a sun umbrella, we joined the other diners after passing by the chocolate shoes crafted in honor of upcoming Fashion Week. 




All the women looked like models or buyers for boutiques and all the men looked like stylists. Their talk was as animated as the swirls of smoke from elegantly held cigarettes wafting in the breeze.

We walked off lunch by strolling in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, a monument to the Milanese lifestyle built in 1877, They were filled with tempting fall outfits to wear when strolling along avenues lined with chestnut trees whose leaves were beginning to flaunt their own fall colors. The glass-domed mall with its intricate inlaid floors serves as Milan’s living room where sipping an espresso or Prosecco and watching the fashionistas gazing at the shop windows isn’t a bad way to while away an afternoon. 





But we wanted our afternoon coffee in the sun.We ventured onward to La Scala,the premier opera house in the world. The season would not begin until late fall but we enjoyed a coffee at the bar outside the entrance to the museum which celebrates the great Italian composers Verdi and Puccini and some of the divas (one from the 1800s with the delightful name of Giuditta Pasta even though Milan’s favorite starch is risotto). Actually, I love the name as it is Italian for Judith and what could be better than paired with my favorite food.

Next to us was a trio of well-tailored Milanese businessmen who seemed to have all the time in the world to drink their afternoon cappuccinos (normally considered a no-no in Italy) and gesture expressively in animated talk. While we watched them out of the corner of our eyes we reminisced about our night at the opera several years ago. The production of Rigoletto was superb – equal to the amount of the bribe we paid to get the tickets.

This time around we skipped the faded da Vinci fresco, The Last Supper, in favor of a tour of the The Museum of 1900s (Museo Del Novecento), and the Villa Necchi-Campiglio. Both buildings are in the Italian Modernist style of the 1930s - my favorite architectural style. 

The museum, a few steps from the Duomo, leads the visitor on a survey of Italian art from 1900 to the 1970s. The top floor contains a neon installation by Lucio Fontana that sets off a view to the Gothic Duomo, neatly putting a parenthesis around much of Milan’s history.








The Villa is set in the fashion district, a short distance away.



Built, built between 1932 and 1935, with its gardens, tennis court and swimming pool gives a taste of the rich life of a prominent industrialist. My favorite room is the Veranda with huge windows that slide open in the summer, inlaid marble floor, pale green S-shaped sofa, and a lapis-lazuli table set with blue Chinese vases. It was easy to visualize the former occupants reading or chatting with friends like the Kings of Italy and Spain who dropped by to visit.




  
But did I mention shopping? Did I mention shoes, chocolate or otherwise? Lest there be any doubt about Milan’s focus, our hotel room had maps and booklets stuffed with information about the hundreds of designers whose boutiques and showrooms line the area around Via Spiga and Via Montenapoleone, along with many other shopping districts. 





The section on expenses in my 1904 Baedeker’s Guide to Italy advises, “When ladies are of the party the expenses are generally greater.” One hundred ten years later nothing has changed.

All photos copyright Judith Works

Saturday, November 29, 2014

THE COLORS OF ROME



Rome is a city of pastel colors, mellowed by the ages.




The original brilliant white marble of the ancient Roman ruins is mostly weathered now.





Except for the monument to Vittorio Emmanuele II that shocks the eye with its dead white mass. So out of character with the rest of the city. It's often know as the wedding cake or typewriter.



Ancient wood has weathered to gray and the original brick is exposed.



The bronze doors of the Roman Curia (Senate) in the Forum have turned to verdigris green as have statues and the original doors now at the Basilica San Giovanni.



The old Roman brick retains warmth from millennia of sun.



The stucco facades of burnt sienna and terra rossa radiate warmth.





My favorite color is red. The Roman designer, Valentino, has his own flaming red signature color. The luscious color signifies the allure of fashion and temptation. And of course, we can't forget Ferrari Red. Pompeiian Red – that rich color so beloved by the ancient Romans to express the richness of life. It was made of cinnabar which contained mercury; now it is made from iron oxide. Infrequently seen on buildings, the ancient Romans loved it on frescoes.



The sky is a brilliant blue and the umbrella pines are a deep and dark green.



Vegetables are always bright and tasty.



Some of the small colors flaunt their colors too.



Medieval floors of marble and glass glitter in the shifting light.



And above all, the vivid Italian flag of red, white and green flutters.


All photos by the author except for the fresco painting which is from the website Ancient Rome and the photo of the sidewalk cafe, courtesy Krista Bjorn.




  

Sunday, November 9, 2014

BLOWNBACK: Trying to see Quebec in a Nor'easter




Trying to see Quebec in a Nor’easter isn't easy, it turns out. My first try out the door resulted in being blown back inside. The wind sent people rushing either backwards or forwards or even off their feet, and the few remaining brightly-colored leaves whirling off the trees. It was freezing with the wind chill.

I had not been in the beautiful city of Quebec for many years and was looking forward to enjoying fall color while strolling in the sun through the upper town and the Plains of Abraham where in 1759 Generals Wolfe (British) and Montcalm (French) led their troops in the battle to control Canada.The British won but both generals died of mortal wounds. I wanted to stroll on the terrace in front of the Chateau Frontenac and visit the museum in the Ursuline monastery and show my husband General Montcalm’s skull (why I don’t know but the last time I saw it the relic was displayed by a 95-year old French nun who had the most beatific face I have ever seen.) It was not to be because the wind in the upper town was too strong to make headway. Instead we retreated to the lower town close to the river where we saw warnings about the coming winter and the dangers of ice falling off the buildings.



We wandered the cold streets to enjoy the street art while contemplating whether I should buy one of the fur coats in the show windows of the many furriers.





Discarding the idea, we warmed up in the lovely small church of Our Lady of the Victories, named after the French who resisted two British sieges, one in 1690 and the other in 1711. The ship model hanging in the nave is the Breze, a 17th century vessel that brought French troops to Quebec.



But when we passed a closed restaurant with a terrace decorated with dead branches and feathers from birds who long ago had departed for warmer climes, we gave up. Further touring of the UNESCO World Heritage Site would have to wait for another season.


A taxi driver ferried us up to the looming hotel Chateau Frontenac, a great pile of stone built by the Canadian Pacific Railroad, completed in 1893. One of its many claims to fame is the meeting with Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt 1943 to plan the Allied Invasion on D-day.



It’s now managed by the Fairmont, and is luxurious indeed. We whiled away the afternoon with lunch in the terrace restaurant, Bistro Le Sam, and at the bar called 1608, the two names memorializing the founding of the city by Samuel de Champlain in 1608. The focus on the selection of local cheese and charcuterie is highlighted on their website: http://www.fairmont.com/frontenac-quebec/pdf/lcf-1608-tasting-guide-sep-2014/.








Our lunch focused on a cheese plate from Quebec artisan cheesemakers: from top to bottom in the photo the cheeses are Kamouraska, Gaulois, and Reserve del la Perade. Delicious! As was the Chardonnay and the view over the river.

Unwilling to leave, we moved to the bar for another glass of wine before heading out into the cold.


The gorgeous d├ęcor features a globe with three Canada Geese winging their way. One appeared to be flying in a southerly direction. When we put our empty glasses down we followed its lead.