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Sights, Sounds and Tastes of Puglia

14 May

Fourth and Final post of trip south…

When you find yourself not quite a stones throw from the Adriatic, seeking wonderful seafood is a given. Our B&B host suggested we lunch in Savelleti.

The drive there took us through incredibly colorful fields

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and past some of the oldest olive trees – i.e., immense trunks – I have ever seen.

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When we arrived in Savelleti, it reminded me of sights I had seen along the shores of Trapani in Sicily.

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We decided a walk along the shore was the best way to choose our restaurant. The first place we came to was the fish monger who proudly displayed the morning’s fresh catch. We knew we were in for a treat.

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There were several places choose from, on and near the water, but we were determined to choose a restaurant right on the water. And then we found Ristorante Da Maddalena.

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Sometimes a setting just takes you in, and this was that kind of place. The windows provided panoramic vistas of the sea,

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and you could hear the crystal-clear water gently lapping over the rocks.

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It was a bit early for lunch, but Lucrezia warmly welcomed us and gave us a front row seat to splendor.

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She explained the menu, took our order, then headed to the kitchen to perform her magic. The aromas were amazing.

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And then it was time to eat.

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©blogginginitaly.com (this photo taken after eating had begun!)

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Even more than seeing the trulli, or the caves, I think this was why Len really wanted to head south. We video chatted with him, but we could never quite find the words to describe our meal. Guess we’ll have to head back south to Da Maddalena some other time!

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Ciao,
Judy

 

Lecce

8 May

Lecce, our last of the three-city trip south, is a town of over 95,000 people located in Puglia. It is well-known for its Baroque architecture, a style that began in the late 16th century and is often characterized by large proportions, twisting columns, theatrical effects, bronze and gilding, and extensive use of tromp-l’oeil. 

We entered the historical center via Porta San Biagio (St. Blaise Gate).

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and were immediately met with visions of baroque architecture.

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The Chiesa di Santa Croce, (the Basilica), was begun in 1353 and eventually completed by 1695.

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The church has a richly decorated façade with animals, statues, grotesque figures and vegetables, and a large rose window.

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Side altars are adorned with an abundance of Baroque columns and theatrical effects,

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while the chapel of St. Antonio is a great example of gilding.

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Lecce is a city where old meets “new”:

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The Roman 2nd century amphitheater was able to seat more than 25,000 people. It is now half-buried because other monuments were built above it over the centuries. The theatre is currently used for different religious and arts events.

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The biggest surprise came when we found out our hotel, Torre del Parco, is one of the medieval symbols of Lecce. It was erected in 1419 by the then-18 year old prince of Lecce, Giovanni Antonio Del Balzo Orsini.

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The tower, standing more than 75 feet, is surrounded by a ditch in which bears (the heraldic symbol of the Orsini del Balzo) were reared.

The whole complex was the seat of Orsini’s tribunal and of a mint, and after Giovanni Antonio’s death, it became a residence for the Spanish viceroys. Over the intervening years, and with the addition of acreage, it functioned as many historical places, including a grand tribunal, a palazzo, and even a prison.

From 1992 – 2006, the current restoration took place and it was reopened as a small private hotel, banquet facility, spa, meeting center, and just wonderful place to relax.

We visited the tower and were surprised by what we found…

a chapel,

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modern meeting space,

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small banquet rooms,

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and an interesting antique carriage. (Thanks, Susan, for posing.)

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The bridge from the tower to the hotel facilities crosses one of the main roads in town,

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and provides several spaces for relaxing and wine sipping.

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The hotel grounds, complete with palms and flowers everywhere, were a total surprise.

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After sight-seeing all day, and since it was our last night, we decided to “eat in” and enjoy the surroundings.

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Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to visit the spa, but the made-to-order breakfast and freshly squeezed blood orange juice were perfect for our last morning.

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Alberobello Trulli, Matera Caves, and the loveliness of Lecce, three amazing locations in southern Italy offering thousands of years of history, beauty and intrigue – so very worth a visit.

Ciao,
Judy

 

2018 Orto (Garden) Planted!

30 Apr

In a very unanticipated move, we planted the garden yesterday. The original plan was for this Thursday, but the weather outlook was not encouraging with a week of rain and thunderstorms in the forecast.

With Fernanda’s approval (she was at work), Len, Carlo and I headed to the nursery at 3PM to purchase tomato plants.

In late April/early May, hail producing storms can play havoc with small plants in Tuscany, but we were ready and determined to get the garden in before the storms.  After all, we did the same two years ago with great success.

©Blogginginitaly.com              August 2016, 1st Orto

With two years experience under their belts, Len and Carlo were up to the task.

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They moved quickly and efficiently, re-using the cane from years past to make the trellises.

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My job was to cut the twine, make caffè, and hold things as needed.

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When not needed, I wandered the fields next door. Only this year have I learned that the tall green grassy fields that blow in the wind are actually grain/wheat fields. I had assumed, incorrectly, that wheat would be a tan color, not bright green. These happen to be orzo or barley.

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A close-up reveals the familiar spike at the top of the plant.

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But back to the garden…four zucchini plants and eighteen tomato plants, (four varieties),

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all covered in mesh to hopefully ward off any potential hail damage.

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By 7 PM, the job was done and the full moon showered her approval.

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All in a day’s wonderful work, truly from farm to table (eventually!),

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with, fingers-crossed, a bit of cooperation from Mother Nature!

Ciao,
Judy

The Caves of Matera

28 Apr

Many thanks to all who sent Len well wishes for a speedy recovery. While he got much better, his cold travelled far and found me in the caves of Matera, the next stop on our adventure.

Matera is in Basilicata and the drive there was filled with hills of lush green wheat fields and bright yellow flowers.

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But the view would soon change. I once read that nothing quite prepares you for your first sighting of the caves in ancient Matera,

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especially knowing these were human dwellings. Well, it literally took my breath away. My first thought was of Juda Ben Hur’s visit to the Valley of the Lepers searching for his mother and sister.

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The Sassi di Matera are divided into two districts, Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano, and are thought to be among the first human settlements in Italy. There is evidence that people were living there as early as 7000 BC.

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Sassi are houses dug into the calcarenitic rock itself, locally called tufo (not volcanic tufa) which is characteristic of the area.

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The ancient town grew up on one slope of the ravine created by a river that is now a small stream. The ravine is known locally as “la Gravina”.

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Below is an interesting description provided  “Courtesy of Guardian News & Media Ltd”. Photos are my own.

The Miracle of Matera:
from city of poverty and squalor to hip hub for cave-dwellers

One of Italy’s most deprived cities – so lacking hope that God was said to keep well away – is now an Airbnb hotspot and set to be European capital of culture.

There is a sense of shame as Luigi Plasmati, 89, recollects growing up amid chronic poverty in a crammed cave in Matera, an ancient, bruised city in Italy’s southern Basilicata region.

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“It was brutal,” he said. “There were families of maybe nine or 10 children, sleeping next to mules and pigs. We were dying of hunger.”

Less than 70 years ago some 15,000 people, mostly peasants and farmers, were still living in grottoes carved out of limestone that dated back to Matera’s prehistoric era: dank dwellings with no natural light, ventilation, running water or electricity. Disease, particularly malaria, cholera and typhoid, was rampant. Bed space was scarce, with children squeezed with their parents into bunks that were deliberately built with space beneath for chickens. Coveted animals were kept indoors in case they were stolen. Large families would gather around a small table once a day to share a simple meal of bread with pasta or pulses.

The child mortality rate was high and Plasmati lost one of his five siblings. Those who survived grew up illiterate.

“I was working from the age of six, going out early in the morning to cut grain in the fields,” he said. “You’d try to sell the odd cigarette here and there to make some money, but there was never any money to spend.”

In the most extraordinary way, that history of squalor and poverty is now proving to be the making of Matera in the 21st century. A report last week by the University of Siena said that more than 25% of Matera’s housing stock is available to rent on Airbnb, more than anywhere else in Italy.

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On top of enjoying a remarkable tourist boom, Matera will also be 2019’s European capital of culture. The impoverished cave dwellings of the Sassi – literally “the stones” – are providing the economic platform for a more prosperous future.

“Airbnbs, bars, restaurants … this is the natural evolution of the Sassi right now,” said Nicola Taddonio, a local tour guide. “These changes have helped connect people back to the Sassi. Even though we lost that connection for some time, our souls are back there.”

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The extent of the squalid conditions in the Sassi only came to international attention when writer Carlo Levi was exiled by Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime to a town close to Matera in 1935. 

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In his book, Christ Stopped at Eboli, published in 1945, Levi described the horror he witnessed – the paltry furniture, children either naked or in rags, bodies ravaged by disease – and concluded: “I have never seen in all my life such a picture of poverty.”  For more of this article, see link below*.

In the 1950s, the Italian government forcefully relocated most of the population of the Sassi to areas of the developing modern city. Riddled with malaria, the unhealthy living conditions were considered an affront to the new Italian Republic of Prime Minister De Gasperi.

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However, some people continued to live in the Sassi, as it was the only life they had ever known. Until the late 1980s, this was still considered an area of poverty since many of these houses were, and in some cases still are, uninhabitable. The current local administration, however, has become more tourism-oriented and has promoted the regeneration of the Sassi with the aid of the EU, the government, and UNESCO.

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As you might expect, our dinner was in a cave – of course clean and totally repurposed .

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Of particular note is the Pane di Matera, bread that obtained the IGP (Protected ID) label in 2004 and is made exclusively from fine durum wheat semolina cultivated on the Matera hills and highlands.

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Although I had booked a cave room, I found it a bit too dark and damp, especially with a cold, so I opted for a more traditional room with windows, lots of light and interesting views.

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Visiting Matera provided me such an incredible look into the long ago past of a people, culture and area I knew little about. If some of these sites look familiar, or you want to see more of Matera, many movies have used Matera as a setting: Christ Stopped at Eboli (1978); Three Brothers (1981); I’m Not Scared (2002); and The Passion of the Christ (2004).

Whether viewing Matera’s ancient and “modern” areas from across the gorge,

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or from high above,

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it’s still so hard to get my head around the fact that people not only lived for generations in these caves, but that natives can still live in the same “houses” of their ancestors from 9,000 years ago.

Ciao,
Judy
Note: Click on any photo to enlarge

Trulli of Puglia

26 Apr

Len and I had long wanted to visit Puglia and Basilicata, beautiful southern regions of Italy located in/near the boot. We had made plans a few months ago with friends Susan and Ray, and were all set for departure last Tuesday when Len got a flu/cold. Since our flights and hotels were non changeable, and he assured me it was nothing serious, he insisted I go. Thanks to some online video apps, Len sort of came along anyway.

Our flight took us from Pisa, Tuscany, to Brindisi, Puglia, where we rented a car and headed to Locorotondo in Puglia for two nights. We stayed in a lovely three room B&B, Da Concavo e Convesso, and used this as a base to visit other locations.

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Our primary goal was to see the Trulli. And truly, they are everywhere!

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So what exactly are trulli? They are traditional dry stone huts with conical (cone-shaped) roofs.

Their style of construction is specific to the Itria Valley in the Puglia region. Trulli generally were constructed as temporary field shelters and storehouses or as permanent dwellings by small proprietors or agricultural labourers.  The golden age of trulli was the nineteenth century, especially its final decades. Our destination was Alberobello, famous for its unique trull0 (singular) construction, and a UNESCO site since 1996.

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According to history, peasants were sent to this land to build dry dwellings without mortar, ones that were unstable and could be easily demolished. This had to do with taxation, as dwellings deemed unstable and temporary would not be taxed, or could be dismantled quickly when tax collectors were in the area. Having to use only stones, the domes with overlapping stones proved simplest to build, but as it turned out, very solid as well.

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The vast majority of trulli have one room under each conical roof, with additional living spaces in arched alcoves. Children would sleep in alcoves made in the wall with curtains hung to separate them from the central room.

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A multi-room trullo house has many cones, each representing a separate room.

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Because of the very dense concentration of houses, trulli have few openings except for their doorway and a small aperture provided in the roof cone for ventilation. As a result, they could be very dark inside. You can see here three front doors and associated addresses 42, 44 and 46, all within feet of each other.

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The stone, however, did make them temperature efficient – cool in summer and warm from the fireplace in winter.

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The domed roofs are embellished with various decorative pinnacles representing the master builder, restorer, or various religious, political or other symbology.

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Urban trulli, which still exist in the area, date from the 18th-20th centuries. But some settlements began to be deserted during the second half of the twentieth century.

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Although trulli dotted the landscape as we drove through the valley,

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according to the UNESCO website:  their highest concentration and best preserved examples of this architectural form are in the town of Alberobello, where there are over 1500 structures in the quarters of Rione Monti and Aja Piccola.

While many are occupied by locals, others have been converted to holiday houses for tourists.

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I had always heard of these interesting structures, but seeing them and visiting the museum helped me better understand the life and culture of a hard-working people. It is easy to understand why the trulli of Alberobello have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. 

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Trulli – a truly interesting site to behold!

Ciao,
Judy

Note: More of the trip to follow.

Lunchtime in Italia

13 Apr

Lunch (Pranzo) in Italy is a great time to enjoy fresh homemade food and local wine with family and/or friends, and yesterday was no exception. Well, actually it was quite the exception due to the incredible seafood feast which was prepared for our return by dear friends. Feast your eyes on this.

First Course (left pot):
Cozze e Vongole (Mussels and Clams)

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Second Course:
Pasta con Cozze, Calamari, Gamberetti e Gamberi
(Pasta with Muscles, Calamari, Shrimp and Prawns)

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Third Course: Gamberi in Padella e Verdure
(Prawns in the Pan and Vegetables)

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The ingredients were simple, the smell and taste divine – fresh seafood, local olive oil, garlic, a splash of brandy, salt, pepper and parsley.

I can’t think of a much better way to spend an afternoon than with delicious food, wonderful wine, dear friends, lively conversation, and loads of love and laughter. And of course, all of this followed by a Torta della Colomba di Pasqua (Easter dove cake), sambuca and caffe.

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Perhaps Virginia Woolf said it best:

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well,
if one has not dined well.”

Many thanks and sincerest compliments to our hosts/friends/amazing chefs!

Ciao,
Judy

An Ode to Springtime in Cortona

6 Apr

When an 8 1/2 hour flight turns into a 40+ hour unexpected project, it is heartwarming to be embraced by the outstretched arms of Cortona – its historic buildings, incredible views, wonderful food and most of all, its warm and gracious people. It’s no wonder that, over Easter weekend, Cortona was ranked the number one preferred Italian destination by Airbnb.

Thus, our familiar walks have inspired my very simplistic verse:

Ode to Springtime in Cortona

With temperatures rising,
the buds are bursting and the sun is shining.

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Many are walking as others are riding.

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As the fog is lifting, it is quite revealing –
the dandelions are popping
and the hillsides are greening.

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All the while,
the bright shiny Vespas and motos keep careening.

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So many places for delicious dining;

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accompanied, of course, by Tuscan wine(ing).

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And no matter what age, Gelato always brings smiling.

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So if you are seeking a place which is lovely and inspiring,

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Cortona in Springtime is simply beguiling.

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Ciao,
Judy

Leopoldina

14 Jan

The first time I remember seeing a Leopoldina was in 2014. It was a warm summer morning and we were headed to Rome from Cortona for our flight home. The driver took a different route than we had been accustomed to – one that avoided the interstate as long as possible and instead wove past a beautiful field of sunflowers and a fascinating abandoned structure. I was intrigued by the structure, and at the time, knew neither its name nor its history. I soon learned that this farm-house is called a Leopoldina.

The following year, Len and I set out to find that same field of sunflowers (girasole) and that Leopoldina. With no place to be but there, we parked the car and took in the sights. Thousands of sunflowers, with faces open to the sun, spread out before us.

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And at the end of a curve in the road, still standing proudly albeit tired and worn, stood the enchanting Leopoldina.

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To me, the abandoned structure looked much more like a lovely watercolor subject needing to be loved and preserved than an abandoned structure needing to be forgotten and demolished.

In the weeks that followed, I discovered that Leopoldine (plural) could be found in many areas around  Cortona as well as in northern Umbria.

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As I photographed many of them, I wondered… Who had lived in these houses? How long ago? And why did they all look the same?

While learning the name of the structure was easy, finding the history not so much so. Although I spent hours searching the internet, I mostly came up empty-handed. So I turned to my friend Ray, a history buff, for assistance. Happy to have a history project, he provided most of the following explanation.

Some of the most iconic sites in Tuscany and northern Umbria are the rows of abandoned farmhouses, with their distinctive dovecotes, spread throughout the countryside.

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Called Leopoldine, they look ancient but they are of relatively recent origin, at least by Italian standards, dating from the late 1700’s until the middle 1800’s.

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Much of what we know as modern Tuscany, including the Valdichiana, Maremma, and lower Valdarno, was swamp for most of its history. The hill towns that we love were built there not only for defense but also for health reasons to avoid malaria (mal aria: bad air, marsh fever) from the mosquitoes.

 

Plans to drain the swamps (clearly no connection intended) had been proposed since Etruscan times. Probably the most famous map depicting the swamps was the map of the Valdichiana done by Leonardo da Vinci in 1502, (supposedly at the request of Cesare Borgia), which shows the water extending right up to the hills in the area of Montecchio Vesponi.

Valdichiana by Leonardo da Vinci [Public domain], Wikimedia Commons

Major efforts to drain the area began in the mid 1600’s and continued through the next century. A significant impetus came with the ascension of  Pietro Leopoldo as Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1765. A  younger son of the Austrian Empress Maria-Theresa, he started a series of public improvements designed to strengthen agriculture and improve the position of the peasantry.

 

The drainage projects produced huge amounts of rich reclaimed farmland (bonifica) which was distributed to peasant families under a share-cropping system (mezzadria) similar to that in the American South. On an inspection tour of these properties in 1769, he commented on the poor quality and condition of the peasant houses. He commissioned a study by an institute in Florence to design an ideal structure for the peasant families. The farmhouses, named after him, are the Leopoldine we see today.

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The design was for a structure of three levels. The ground floor had space for the animals as well as storage and the oven. The upper floor included a kitchen, living space and the bedrooms and the upper floor was the distinctive dovecote. Every part of the building was planned including the size and positioning of the windows. The external staircase and loggia were designed on the south side to protect the farmer from the tramontana (cold north wind) when he went to check on the animals.

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The bedrooms were designed to accommodate two beds each for the large families. Even the positioning of the different stalls for horses, pigs, sheep and mules was designed around the peculiarities of each animal. 

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While originally designed only for the grand-ducal properties, the obvious value of the structure led private landowners to copy the design. The project continued under Leopoldo’s successors and the last Leopoldine were probably built in the middle of the 19th century just before Italian unification.

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After the World War II, with the movement of Italians to the cities and the increased mechanization of agriculture, the Leopoldine gradually became abandoned and fell into the ruins that we see today. 

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Currently, there is a movement underway within the Regione Toscana and some of the communes to save the Leopoldine. Let’s hope.

And thanks to Ray, we now know both the name and the history of the intriguing Leopoldina.

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Ciao,
Judy

 

 

The 2017 Olive Harvest

23 Oct

Every year, around mid to late October, many Cortonese hope to begin harvesting their olives. I use the word hope because Mother Nature plays a huge role in the success of the harvest. While 2015 was a bountiful year, the complete opposite was true for 2016 due to the dreaded mosca (fly).  And this year, the 2017 harvest was severely limited by the drought…hence,  small quantity but good quality olives depending on the location of one’s olive grove.

Nonetheless, October begins the eagerly anticipated time “olio nuovo” (new oil) signs begin to appear in restaurants and stores. And it is also a time when locals invite friends to celebrate their production. Lucky for us, friends invited us to dinner last night, but didn’t tell us they had already been to the frantoio (mill) to begin processing their olives.

As soon as we entered the cantina, we knew we were in for a treat. The bright green color and the light peppery taste of freshly pressed olive oil is unlike that of any other oil.

 

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Lapo and Paola like to call this a peasant dinner – simple and fresh food picked from the garden or locally sourced, all designed to highlight the taste of the new oil.

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New oil is traditionally first tasted as a bruschetta  – toasted bread rubbed with fresh garlic and topped with the oil. We each made our own. Delicious.

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We also added the oil to a dash of salt in tiny bowls – a wonderful dip for fresh vegetables from the garden.

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Next came what Len calls an Italian version of hummus, this one made from ceci (chickpeas), drizzled with the oil and topped with a sprig of rosemary. Can’t wait to try this myself.

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The dish that followed was a type of bread soup, pappa al pomodoro, topped with a drizzle of oil. Simple, delicious and perfect for an autumn evening. 

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Now this is Italy, remember, so you know there is more to follow, and what followed was rosemary roasted chicken and potatoes, with a splash of oil of course!

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Now not all olives are turned into oil, as was the case with these tasty herb and orange marinated olives, served as a side dish.

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For dessert, we were treated to Paola’s delicious torta della nonna, (grandmother’s cake), a traditional Tuscan dessert with a light custard. (I forgot to ask if she added a drop of the new oil to it!) Not being much of a baker, I bought the others at a local pasticceria. 

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So that’s how we celebrate the olive harvest in Cortona, enjoying what Mother Nature provides, combined with the hard work of locals who pick by hand. 

From this…

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to this. Doesn’t get much better.

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Our thanks to Lapo and Paola for an always entertaining and delicious evening together. Complimenti to the cook and grazie for your friendship!

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Ciao,
Judy

Fighting a Cold (raffreddore)

9 Oct

In October, when the night air turns cooler but the days are still warm, Tuscan colds are a plenty. The locals blame it on the change in weather and I’m becoming a believer. But when the sky is bright blue and the weather is in the 70’s, it’s hard to nurse a cold in bed. 

Still, not wanting to spread my germs, we headed to Lago Trasimeno for a walk and lunch. We were also curious about the lake level due to both the summer drought and more recent rains.

What we found didn’t surprise us as Umbria and Tuscany sustained spring and summer months with virtually no rain and intense heat. The lake had not only receded, it actually uncovered sandy beach areas we had never seen before.

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After our walk, we stopped at a caffé for a light lunch, but more so to sit in the warm sun and be mesmerized by the clouds dancing on the ripples across the lake.

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Walking back to the car, I couldn’t help but stop at this structure for a few more photos.

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Tonight for dinner, we made a red and yellow pepper risotto that turned out quite well. 

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All in all, a perfect way to not have a cold ruin a beautiful day! 

Ciao,
Judy

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