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This piece was originally published in the April 2014 issue of Dream of Italy.

Legend says that when the goddess Venus emerged from the waves of the Tyrrhenian Sea, she dropped her necklace, and those gemstones became the seven islands of the Tuscan Archipelago. Many visitors would declare Capraia to be the most stunning of these islands, with its dramatic cliffs, pristine waters, and wild, uninhabited interior.

While the island is a popular summertime destination for Italians, it still has much to offer during all but perhaps the coldest winter months. I traveled to Capraia in mid-June, when the crowds had not yet peaked, but the weather was still warm enough to enjoy a refreshing dip in the sea.

I arrived by ferry, a three-hour journey from Livorno, accompanied partway by a pod of dolphins riding the bow wave. As we disembarked, an orange bus was waiting to shuttle many passengers to lodgings across the bay in Capraia’s only village, perched on a hilly promontory dominated by the imposing Forte San Giorgio. Others, including myself, were staying at Albergo Da Beppone, a modestly priced hotel located just footsteps from the quay.

Aside from these two areas, porto (port) and paese (village), the rest of the seven-square-mile island is uninhabited, a nature reserve split down the middle by a crest of mountains, the highest peak rising 1,460 feet above sea level. With a landscape swathed in Mediterranean macchia shrubs, Capraia’s backcountry offers a true escape from civilization. Its hiking trails traverse the island, leading to ancient watchtowers, panoramic vistas, and rocky coves at the water’s edge.

On my first day on Capraia, I embarked on a hike to the island’s only lake, a pool formed in the crater of an extinct volcano and referred to alternately as il laghetto (small lake) and lo stagnone (large pond). Beginning in the village’s Piazza Milano, to the left of the yellow Chiesa di San Nicola, the stone path initially ascended on a gentle incline but soon became steeper, narrower, and increasingly more strenuous. The low brush on either side rose every now and then, creating a tunnel-like canopy of branches overhead. Underfoot, the rocks were pointy and sharp, not having weathered enough traffic to smooth down their surfaces. Occasionally, I caught a glimpse of a lizard sunning itself on one of these stones, slithering into the shade to disappear upon my approach.

Coming to a crossroads, I turned onto a dirt path that wound up and down hills, climbing higher into the island’s desolate hinterland. Having encountered only a couple of other hikers along the way, the feeling here was of complete isolation—silent except for the sweet chirping of birds and faint rustle of hidden reptiles.

Eventually, the path flattened out, coarse macchia giving way to soft grass and wildflowers. At last, I reached the laghetto, which was camouflaged by a swampy carpet of rushes. This, as I later learned, was merely one of its many veils: in spring, the shallow lake may become blanketed with white aquatic buttercups, while other times, its limpid water reflects the ever-changing blues of the sky.

Already over two hours into my hike, I contemplated turning back, but the hill ahead promised views of a sapphire horizon. I climbed to the next vantage point, where a tiny triangle of sea appeared through the craggy ravine. In the distance, I could clearly see the outline of Corsica—Capraia, in fact, lies closer to this French island than to Italy’s mainland.

If I had had the stamina to continue north a little further, I would have found even more breathtaking views from the jagged summit of Monte Le Penne. To the south, the trail climbed another peak, Monte Arpagna—home to the Semaforo, a rusty iron structure that was once used as a lookout point by the Italian Navy—before coming to an end at the watchtower Torre dello Zenobito on Capraia’s southernmost promontory.

On my return hike from the lake, as the distant village came into view, I espied Forte San Giorgio directly ahead atop its massive fortification walls. Like three of the island’s four towers, the castle was built in the 16th century by the Genovese to defend against Saracen pirate raids.

A relic of somewhat more recent history was nestled in the hills northwest of the port: the Colonia Penale Agricola, closed since 1986. Reachable via a trail starting behind the Chiesa di Santa Maria Assunta, the former penal colony’s cells and other abandoned buildings stood in a haunting state of disrepair.

Having now explored Capraia by land, the following day I set out on a giro dell’isola to survey the island by sea. An absolute requisite for all visitors, this boat excursion lasted around two hours, circumnavigating the island for a spectacular view of its coastline.

We left the harbor heading south, the morning sun casting a warm glow along Capraia’s eastern coast, where rolling green and brown slopes tumbled down toward rugged sea cliffs. Directly below Forte San Giorgio, at the stone watchtower Torretta del Bagno, a group of sunbathers had already gathered on the flat rocks. Nearby, we passed some swimmers in Cala dello Zurletto, a cove marked by a tower-like outcropping of rock. (Each of these spots is accessible down a steep, narrow path from the village.)

As we cruised along, our captain pointed out numerous local and migratory marine birds, including ospreys, European shags, and several species of seagulls. Colonies of those gulls had made their nests on the small islets off the coast, as well as along the sheer cliffs pockmarked by erosion.

Along the southeastern coast, the landscape hinted at an impending change of hue—evidence of the volcanic eruptions that gave birth to Capraia nine million years ago. Here, the cliff face revealed striations of dark gray and rust red, with patches of green shrubbery and golden wildflowers dotting the stone ridges like Impressionist brush strokes.

Then, just after the Torre dello Zenobito came into view, we turned the corner into Capraia’s most magnificent natural landmark, the Cala Rossa. Cliffs of white granite and fire red rock joined along a starkly defined diagonal, plunging dramatically into the clear, turquoise waters below. Amid divers, kayakers, and a handful of other boats in the cove, we lingered awhile in awed silence.

Heading north along Capraia’s west coast, we passed several caves, including the dark, dank Grotta della Foca. After rounding the island’s northernmost point by the tiny islets called Le Formiche, we reached the ephemeral Cala della Mortola. Capraia’s only sandy beach, La Mortola typically emerges in June or July, cloaked in sand or pebbles, depending on the whim of the tide, only to vanish by summer’s end. No trails lead to this beach, though many people still come by boat. Ours anchored offshore, so that we could slip into the clear, buoyant water for a swim.

During the excursion, we spotted several Capraia Diving boats, whose recreational scuba diving trips cater to all levels of experience. As part of the Parco Nazionale Arcipelago Toscano, Europe’s largest marine sanctuary, the sea around Capraia is protected by environmental laws, which serve to preserve its rich, abundant marine life. Divers will encounter a variety of fish, including barracudas, scorpionfish, and John Dory. The reefs offshore provide shelter for moray eels and spiny spider crabs, and are home to plenty of colorful corals, sponges, and sea urchins.

As I toured the island’s perimeter, it became clear that land access to the sea is fairly limited. Some coves require a long trek down to sea level; others, like La Mortola, can be reached only by rented boat or barca taxi (both available in the port). Only one beach is easily accessible from the village: La Grotta. Located across from the harbor below the resort La Mandola, this rocky bathing area sits atop a wooden platform and is fully equipped with umbrellas, lounge chairs, and snack bar, its shallows protected by a short breakwater.

Of course, a day by the sea must conclude with a meal of freshly caught seafood, and there is no better place than Ristorante Al Vecchio Scorfano. Overlooking the harbor, this restaurant has been run by the same family for three generations. On my first evening, I ordered their signature dish, zuppa di pesce (fish soup). In a style unique to Capraia, it was served in two dishes: a bowl of savory tomato broth with toasted garlic bread and a platter containing mussels, clams, calamari, octopus, langoustines, and an assortment of fish that naturally included scorfano (scorpionfish). Other house specialties were bocconi di rana pescatrice (monkfish rolled in speck), risotto al nero di seppia (cuttlefish ink risotto), spaghetti con scampi e limone (spaghetti with langoustines and lemon), and garganelli al ragù di polpo rosso (pasta with octopus ragù).

My final day arrived with that sense of poignancy that often accompanies the end of a journey, the realization that no amount of time is ever adequate. From the wild inland terrain to the sea’s crystal depths, there was still plenty more to be discovered. As my ferry pulled out of port, on its way back to the mainland, I gazed longingly at Capraia’s retreating silhouette—and kept my eyes peeled for those dolphins.

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For my Recipe of the Month, I have chosen Risotto con gli Asparagi (Risotto with Asparagus), in honor of Tavagnacco’s Festa degli Asparagi. Held over a span of three weekends from late April into early May, this festival celebrates the town’s locally grown white asparagus. Visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com for the recipe.

This piece was originally published in the May 2011 issue of Dream of Italy.

Stunning beaches and glowing sunsets attract countless vacationing Italians to the island of Elba, located off the coast of southern Tuscany. While July and August are the busiest months—and perhaps the ones to avoid—there are plenty of spots to escape the crowds (and heat) during the less sweltering months of May and June. In fact, all the major sights are open from April to October, so consider an off-season trip for maximum tranquility. Feel free to spend your vacation in exile, enjoying il dolce far niente—but if you begin to yearn for a bit more exploration, here are ten terrific things for you to discover.

1. Mountain High

From the hill town of Marciana, take a cabinovia to the 3343-foot summit of Monte Capanne. Any fear of heights will be seriously challenged during the twenty-minute ride over steep granite cliffs. The yellow, open-air baskets are barely large enough for two people and sway precariously in the breeze. Once at the summit landing, climb the steps to the rocky peak for a panoramic view that will take your breath away. On a clear day, look for the isle of Corsica on the western horizon.

2. Tale of Two Villas

An exiled Napoleon called Elba home for a brief ten months before escaping back to France. His two villas are open to the public: Villa dei Mulini, perched between Forte Stella and Forte Falcone on Portoferraio’s hilly promontory, and Villa di San Martino, his slightly larger summer home in the nearby mountains. Faded trompe l’oeil rooms offer a glimpse into the ruler’s life, his ego (the letter “N” appears everywhere), and his solitude. If you prefer more solitude yourself, escape the tour-bus crowds and explore the ruins of the indomitable Fortezze Medicee, just steps from Villa dei Mulini. Built by Cosimo I de’ Medici in the 16th century, these bastions offer a bird’s-eye view of the harbor below.

3. Fish Food

Cacciucco, the fish soup made famous in the Tuscan province of Livorno, is a must for dinner. Some restaurants will require the dish to be pre-ordered when making reservations so that they can stock up on the requisite five types of seafood (one for each “c” in its name). Trattoria La Barca, in the old town of Portoferraio and one of the island’s best seafood restaurants, offers cacciucco daily on their regular menu. Bring a dining companion, or at least a hearty appetite, for the portions are plentiful.

4. Medicinal Mud

Nestled in a vast eucalyptus wood just outside busy Portoferraio, Terme San Giovanni is an oasis of relaxation, specializing in mud treatments and thermal baths. The rich mineral composition of the island provides a unique therapy said to cure many ailments, including rheumatoid arthritis, eczema, and bronchitis. Even if you don’t suffer from such maladies, the spa is a great place to pamper yourself with an algae facial mask or underwater massage.

5. Pebble Beach

Marina di Campo’s long crescent of white sand is perhaps the island’s best beach, but it can be overrun with hordes of vacationers during the summer months. While access to the beach is free, it will cost to rent an umbrella and lounge chair. Pebble beaches such as Le Ghiaie (in Portoferraio), Cavo, and Chiessi are often less crowded, and there is no need to reserve a spot. Better still, rent a boat or kayak to seek out a secluded cove of your own—the coastline is dotted with hidden slivers of paradise.

6. Underwater World

Though not on the world-class scale of such aquariums as Monterey Bay and the Great Barrier Reef, the Acquario dell’Elba is Italy’s second largest (Genoa is number one). Housed in a former discotheque in the hills outside Marina di Campo, the aquarium boasts a collection of 150 species of fish and crustaceans. The main draw is a walk-around, octagonal shark tank, below which lies a display of shark jaws, swordfish swords, and a stuffed blowfish. In another tank, moray eels play hide-and-seek in giant urns.

7. Mine for Iron

The island is famous for being one of the world’s richest sources of minerals—particularly iron—and several towns in eastern Elba offer activities for the gem enthusiast. In Porto Azzurro, ex-miner Emilio Giacomelli runs La Piccola Miniera, a Disneyland-style train ride through underground caverns that offer a glimpse into the authentic mining experience. For a less staged tour, visit the Parco Minerario. Small groups hike to nearby quarries to explore and learn about local minerals. If your passion for gemstones is still not sated, there are notable rock and mineral collections in the towns Rio Marina, Rio nell’Elba, Porto Azzurro, and Capoliveri.

8. Dance the Night Away

Situated on Elba’s southeastern peninsula, Capoliveri could easily be mistaken for any hill town in Tuscany, save for the clear view of the sea on both sides. Of Elba’s many sedate hill towns, Capoliveri offers the most action. During the daytime, browse the numerous shops for jewelry made from the island’s gems and minerals; then, after sundown, visit one of the town’s popular nightclubs for some disco fun. In the summertime, Capoliveri hosts many outdoor musical events in the spacious, terraced Piazza Matteotti, where you can enjoy jazz, rock, or blues overlooking terracotta rooftops and the distant horizon.

9. Drunken Cake

Sample some of Elba’s typical pastries, the most famous being schiaccia briaca, or “drunken cake.” Made with raisins, pine nuts, hazelnuts, and candied fruit, then soaked in the local dessert wine Aleatico, this crumbly confection can be found in nearly every pastry shop on the island. To try a wide variety of Elban specialties, including torta corona, sbrisolana elbana, and sospiri di Napoleone, visit Pasticceria Lambardi Giorgio in Marina di Campo.

10. Island Gems

Legend says that when Venus emerged from the waves of the Tyrrhenian Sea, she dropped her necklace, and those gemstones became the seven islands of the Tuscan Archipelago. As part of the Parco Nazionale Arcipelago Toscano, the largest marine sanctuary in Europe, these islands enjoy unspoiled coastlines, pristine waters, and a remarkable wildlife habitat. While Pianosa—a former prison site—is the only island directly accessible from Elba, ferries run to the other islands from the nearby mainland. Capraia is particularly stunning—at its southernmost point, Cala Rossa, red and white cliffs plunge dramatically into the turquoise sea.

For my Recipe of the Month, I have chosen Gubana Cividalese (Cividale-Style Pastry Spiral), a pastry traditionally made for the Easter holiday. Visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com for the recipe.

This piece was originally published on BloggingAuthors.com.

For more than a decade of traveling throughout Italy, I had been captivated by the country’s many charms—its ancient art and architecture, breathtaking scenery, and irresistible cuisine. It may sound a bit cliché, given the overabundance of American Italophiles, but no place else in the world held the same allure in my eyes. It wasn’t, however, until my first trip to Friuli–Venezia Giulia—a tiny region in northeastern Italy—that my Italian affair truly began.

I had traveled to Udine, one of the region’s major cities, for a business meeting at the Ledragomma GymnastikBall factory. (I was, at the time, working as a Pilates instructor and writing a book of ball exercises, Balance on the Ball: Exercises Inspired by the Teachings of Joseph Pilates.) When the company’s owner, Steno Dondè, learned of my interest in cooking, he generously invited me to dinner. I was eager to try some of Friuli’s traditional cuisine, so he suggested Udine’s oldest restaurant, Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo. Converted from an old horse stable, the restaurant has been serving food for more than one hundred years. It was here that I was seduced—not by Steno, but by our meal.

First we ordered the cjalsòns, a type of filled pasta from the mountainous area in northern Friuli called Carnia. While there are countless recipes for cjalsòns, most are either sweet or a combination of sweet and savory. The version at Al Vecchio Stallo was on the savory side, filled with herbs and providing only a hint of sweetness from the cinnamon and butter. The pasta was topped with ricotta affumicata, a smoked cheese that is one of Friuli’s specialties.

This was followed by frico con patate, a potato and cheese pancake typically prepared with the local Montasio cheese. Served with a side of polenta, the wedge of frico was crispy on the outside and oozing with melted cheese and mashed potato goodness on the inside. That evening, I fell in love with both dishes—and the course of my life was forever altered.

After returning home to San Francisco, I couldn’t get that meal out of my mind. Fast-forward several years, and I was traveling in Friuli once again—this time having decided to write a cookbook, Flavors of Friuli: A Culinary Journey through Northeastern Italy. My research consisted of eating my way through the region, savoring as many of Friuli’s traditional dishes as possible, including gnocchi di susine (plum-filled gnocchi), orzotto (barley cooked “risotto-style”), jota (bean and sauerkraut soup), goulasch (Hungarian-style beef stew), brovada (pickled turnips), and gubana (dried fruit- and nut-filled spiral cake). I never expected that one meal could change my life, but that dinner at Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo opened a door for me to thoroughly explore and experience a culture, one that I have found to be utterly and seductively delicious.

For my Recipe of the Month, I have chosen Rape Dolci (Sweet Turnips). Even the turnip hater will find it easy to like this dish—the sugar and butter offset the natural bitterness of the turnip. Visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com for the recipe.

This piece was originally published in the December 2011/January 2012 issue of Dream of Italy. Photos of the Carnevale parade and megafrittata courtesy of the Associazione delle Compagnie del Carnevale Muggesano. (These photos show costumes from the 2003 Carnevale Muggesano.)

Elegantly dressed courtesans waltzing to Vivaldi at a masked ball, mysterious caped figures drifting past the shadows of the Grand Canal—for many travelers these are the images that an Italian Carnevale evokes. But for those with a penchant for the quirky and bizarre, a trip to the town of Muggia affords an alternative Carnevale experience with a week chock-full of wackiness.

Across the bay from Trieste, the capital of Friuli–Venezia Giulia, Muggia is the last stop before reaching Slovenia—and the only town on the Istrian peninsula to remain within the Italian border. Surrounded by Slavic territory, the town exudes an old-world charm that blends the essence of Italy with a hint of foreign exoticism.

While Muggia is an easy half-hour bus ride from Trieste, the ferry service from Trieste’s port makes for a considerably more scenic approach. Pastel-colored houses line the mandracchio (harbor), while the medieval castello looms overhead. Originally a prehistoric castelliere (fortified settlement), the castle was transformed numerous times over the centuries—by the Romans, the Patriarch of Aquileia, and later the Venetians—but eventually it was abandoned and left to ruin. The tower, built in medieval times, is the main surviving feature. In the 1990s, the castle was bought and restored by a local sculptor and is open to the public for cultural and musical events throughout the year.

Continuing on further up the hill, more medieval ruins may be found in Muggia Vecchia (old Muggia). With a panoramic view of the Gulf of Trieste, Muggia Vecchia is home to the Romanesque church Santa Maria Assunta, as well as the Parco Archeologico, where the remains of medieval dwellings lie scattered on either side of the main road. Inhabited from the 8th to the 15th century, the hamlet was gradually abandoned in favor of a new settlement by the sea called Borgo Lauro—what is now Muggia’s centro storico. It is here that the narrow, winding alleys and Venetian Gothic architecture reveal the town’s ties with “La Serenissima.”

In 1420, Muggia—along with much of northeastern Italy—fell under the reign of the Venetian Republic, and so the distinguishing marks of Venice steadily wove their way into the fabric of the town. Tucked away in a back alley, not so unlike one of Venice’s enigmatic calle, is the Casa Veneta, home to Muggia’s Museo Archeologico. This 15th-century palazzo features the white-trimmed, tri-lobed windows that are characteristic of the Venetian Gothic style.

Just steps away from Casa Veneta is Piazza Marconi, a small square bordered by more pastel-colored palazzi. At one end is the Duomo dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo, which features a striking tri-lobed façade and Gothic rose window. Across the piazza sits the Palazzo dei Rettori, home to Muggia’s government offices. This orange and yellow building dates back to the 13th century but was renovated following the Venetian occupation, adding to the façade a stone relief of the winged lion of Saint Mark, symbol of Venice. Many have since speculated that the lion’s disgruntled expression perhaps reflected the town’s displeasure with its new—and unwelcome—Venetian government.

As Muggia’s central gathering spot, Piazza Marconi makes an appropriate site for the commencement of Carnevale Muggesano, known in local dialect as “Carneval de Muja.” The festivities begin with the presentation of the Re Carnevale (Carnival King), followed by the Ballo della Verdura (Dance of the Vegetables). This ritual dates back to ancient times when it was choreographed to represent the mythological victory dance after Theseus killed the Minotaur. Today the dance marks the official opening of Carnevale on giovedì grasso (Fat Thursday). Representatives from the various groups perform their routine while waving boughs of greenery and giving the public a sneak preview of their elaborate—and typically quite imaginative—costumes.

While the Carnevale celebration thrived under Venetian rule, and even into the late 1800s, the event was interrupted during the turbulent era of World Wars I and II. After the final battles had ended, Muggia was reintroduced to the idea of a Carnevale masquerade by a group of friends who frequently convened in a trattoria to contemplate the joys of Carnevale season. They named themselves Brivido—meaning “shiver”—following a harrowing boating incident on a wet and windy day. One year they decided to dress up as gauchos and march through the streets playing music. As they repeated this annual affair, dressed next as gypsies and later as Apache Indians, the procession grew with more and more people joining in the merriment. Soon a few rival groups had formed, each costumed in its own fantastical theme. By 1954, the parade had blossomed into an official event.

Today, there are eight companies that participate in Carnevale Muggesano: Brivido, Ongia (dialect for “fingernail,” because the original members, who worked at the Trieste shipyard, often found themselves suffering from bashed fingernails), Lampo (“lightning,” the nickname of one of the founders), Bellezze Naturale (“natural beauty,” since the group’s initial mission was to bring awareness to Muggia’s unique charm), Bulli e Pupe (originally Muli e Pupe, dialect for “boys and girls”; the word muli eventually morphed into the word bulli, meaning “ruffians”), Trottola (“spinning top,” to convey a sense of fun and verve), Mandrioi (“beetle,” named after the Volkswagen model driven by one of the founders), and La Bora (the cold, northeast wind that blows through the province of Trieste each winter).

Every year, these groups choose a theme and design a tractor-pulled float with matching costumes. During the Sunday parade, performers dance, play music, and pantomime scenes. Themes have ranged from the contemporary (The Simpsons cartoon, Disneyland) to literary (The Wizard of Oz, Dante’s Divine Comedy), from geographical (Mexico, Africa, India) to culinary (coffee, chocolate, pasta).

A prize is awarded to the most lavish or comical—not surprisingly, the original group Brivido has won first place most often. In 2011, their winning theme was Water—firstly fresh water, featuring a giant sun float, followed by rainbows with a colorful array of balloons, rainclouds carrying umbrellas, and snowflakes joined by frolicking snowmen; next salt water, starring penguins and walruses, dancing ocean waves, and a colossal animatronic Triton riding a fish; and finally water “da Brivido,” with townspeople of all ages dressed as old folk partaking in the eternal water of youth.

Trottola was a close runner-up, with the broad theme of “El Se Trasforma!” (in essence, things that transform). Highlights included the Transformers, with cleverly designed costumes that transformed cars into walking robots; fairytale frogs hoping to be kissed by a princess; gigantic hatching eggs; and a huge popcorn popper complete with ears of corn. Other notable themes of 2011 were Bellezze Naturali exploring life underground (from the garden to the sewers), Mandrioi representing coffee in all its incarnations, and Lampo taking a voyage to the Caribbean.

Among the whimsical costumes, however, you will seldom see a masked face. In fact, the town has abolished the donning of masks except in rare cases when they are absolutely necessary for a specific costume. Contrary to the practice of traditional Carnevale celebrations where anonymity is sacred, the people of Muggia have chosen to expose their individual character. This comes, perhaps, as a natural response in a town that has struggled to assert its identity in the face of domination by so many foreign cultures.

The culinary ritual dubbed “A ovi” takes place on the Monday following the parade. This tradition, which dates back to the 1800s, begins with townspeople traipsing door to door begging for eggs. The eggs are then used to make the megafrittata—thousands of eggs and several hundred pounds of pancetta cooked in a giant thirteen-foot-wide frying pan. On Ash Wednesday, to mark the final day of the event, the groups perform a tragicomedy routine. Following a solemn funeral procession, townspeople then throw a lifelike “corpse” of Re Carnevale into the sea.

So if you think dancing espresso cups, slithering sewer rats, and human popcorn sound intriguing, cast aside your Venetian masks and head to Muggia for an unforgettable Carnevale celebration.

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