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Posts Tagged ‘carnevale’

1. Ski the slopes of Monte Santo di Lussari

Among the towering, snow-capped peaks of Italy’s Giulian Alps, Monte Santo di Lussari stands out like a precious gem. Near the 5,870-foot summit, a pristine 14th-century sanctuary looks out over the forested valleys below. Legend says that in 1360 a shepherd knelt to pray atop this mountain and discovered hidden in the brush a wooden statue of the Madonna and Child. The patriarch of Aquileia soon ordered a small chapel built on that very spot. For centuries, vast numbers of pilgrims from neighboring countries have journeyed to this religious site. Today, the telecabina, or “ski lift,” carries passengers from the village of Camporosso at its base to Borgo Lussari at the summit.

2. Enjoy a plate of hot, steaming goulasch at Albergo Ristorante Rododendro

During ski season, the few taverns and restaurants on Monte Santo di Lussari are always teeming with guests. Even if you’re not a skier, take the telecabina to the top, where you can tuck into a warm meal at one of the village’s rustic taverns or simply admire the snowy panoramic views across the Valcanale and Tarvisio basin. If you can get a table in the rustic dining room of Albergo Ristorante Rododendro, you’ll have a wide selection of traditional Friulian dishes, including orzo e fagioli (bean and barley soup), gnocchi di pane (bread dumplings), frico con polenta (cheese and potato pancake with polenta), cervo in salmì (venison stew), and goulasch (Hungarian-style beef stew). Dessert offerings include strudel di mele (apple strudel), torta ai frutti di bosco (wild berry cake), and sachertorte (chocolate cake with apricot jam and ganache).

3. Attend the Krampus festivities in Tarvisio

In Central European folklore, the Krampus is a half-goat, half-demon character that is something of an anti-Santa Claus, in that he punishes children who have misbehaved rather than giving them presents. Many regions, including the Alpine towns of northern Italy, hold festivities dedicated to both Krampus and St. Nicholas.

Tarvisio is the site of one of these events. Every year on December 5, people dress up as Krampus—a costume consisting of goat or sheep fur and a wooden devil mask with horns—and roam the streets carrying torches, ringing cowbells, and searching for “bad” children. They are accompanied by St. Nicholas, who rides in a cart pulled by several Krampus. The parade concludes with St. Nicholas subduing the Krampus (representing the triumph of good over evil) and handing out small gifts and candies to the children.

4. Browse the stalls at Udine’s Mercatino di Natale

Every December, Udine’s Piazza della Libertà gets decked out for the holidays, as the Torre dell’Orologio (clock tower), Tempietto di San Giovanni, and arches of the Porticato are all strung with glistening lights. Underneath the pink- and white-striped Loggia del Lionello, a brass band plays Christmas carols, the festive notes luring shoppers to the city’s annual Christmas market.

In the center of the raised piazza towers a giant Christmas tree surrounded by several dozen market stands. These red, white-roofed stalls sit in rows along a grid of green carpet and display a variety of trinkets and edible treats. Here, you may browse homemade jams and honey, as well as handcrafted items such as candles, tree ornaments, and soaps. Local bakeries showcase regional desserts alongside stalls featuring foods imported from other regions. As the sun sets, shoppers can nibble on roasted chestnuts or samples of crostini with prosciutto di San Daniele, accompanied by a warm cup of vin brulé (mulled wine).

5. While in Udine, enjoy a traditional Friulian meal at Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo

It was at Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo that I fell in love with the cuisine of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. One of the Udine’s oldest, the restaurant is housed in a 17th-century building that once served as a stable and rest stop for deliverymen. Amid the atmosphere of an old-world tavern—wood-beamed ceilings, hardwood floors, red-checked tablecloths, and walls cluttered with colorful paintings, newspaper clippings, period photographs of Udine, and memorabilia of all sorts—chef Mario serves up hearty portions of local dishes such as cjalsòns (herb-filled pasta topped with cinnamon and smoked ricotta), gnocchi di susine (potato dumplings stuffed with plums), baccalà (salt cod stew), sarde in saor (marinated sardines), cevapcici (Slavic grilled sausages), salame all’aceto (salami cooked in vinegar), and brovada (pickled turnips). In true Friulian style, most second courses are served with polenta. For dessert, order the gubana—a spiral cake filled with dried fruit, nuts, and spices.

6. Warm up with an Illy espresso or hot chocolate in one of Trieste’s Viennese-style coffee houses

While they truly love wine and beer, Triestini are even more notorious as coffee drinkers. Claimed by many to be the world’s best coffee, Illycaffè got its start in Trieste in the early 1900s. Of the 6 million cups of Illy espresso or cappuccino that are enjoyed daily around the globe, a good number are imbibed at home in Trieste’s old-time cafés. The legendary ones—Caffè San Marco, Caffè Tommaseo, Caffè degli Specchi, and Caffè Tergesteo—date from the 19th to the early 20th century. Authors James Joyce, Sigmund Freud, Italo Svevo, and Umberto Saba were known to be regulars.

7. Indulge in a putizza from one of Trieste’s historic bakeries

Photo courtesy of Pasticceria Penso

One of several desserts considered native to Trieste, putizza is a rich spiral cake filled with dried fruit, chocolate, nuts, and spices. Like Friulian gubana, a similar spiral pastry, it was originally baked only for the Christmas and Easter holidays but is now available year round. For a taste of the city’s best putizza, I recommend visiting one of the century-old bakeries such as Pasticceria Penso or Pasticceria Bomboniera. Both prepare an excellent putizza, though there is one slight difference I noticed in sampling the two. Penso melts the chocolate for their filling, while Bomboniera leaves the chocolate in large chunks. Taste them both to decide your favorite!

8. Take advantage of the off-season with a crowd-free stroll in the seaside town of Grado

Located on an island and adjacent peninsula in the marshy lagoon off Friuli, Grado was once a fishing village but is now a popular destination for beachgoers. Though lacking the pristine, white sand of nearby Lignano Sabbiadoro, crowds still flock to Grado’s beaches and spas during the summer season. In winter, however, the town takes on an entirely different character, with the winding alleys of the medieval centro storico largely devoid of tourists. An expansive seaside promenade that curves around the town center makes for a relaxing afternoon stroll, as do the boat-lined canals that run through the harbor.

9. While in Grado, sample the town’s signature dish, boreto alla Gradese

When dining in Grado, don’t miss the town’s best known dish, boreto all Gradese. Also called boreto alla graesana in local dialect (and not to be confused with the soup called brodeto), boreto alla Gradese is a selection of small fish steaks cooked with garlic and vinegar and served with white polenta. Many restaurants in Grado offer the dish on their menu, but one of the more elegant is Tavernetta All’Androna, run by the brothers Attias and Allan Tarlao.

10. Attend the quirky Carnevale Muggesano

Photo courtesy of Associazione delle Compagnie del Carnevale Muggesano

In contrast to the elegant, baroque images evoked by the nearby Carnevale di Venezia, Muggia celebrates the absurd and bizarre with townspeople dressed in quirky garb such as cartoon characters, farm animals, and platters of food. Among the whimsical costumes, however, you will rarely see a masked face. Contrary to the practice of other Carnevale celebrations where anonymity is sacred, the people of Muggia have elected to keep their identities exposed.

Carnevale Muggesano began after World War II, when a group of friends dressed up as gauchos and marched 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.

The week of festivities opens with the “Dance of the Vegetables,” when representatives of each group perform for the public. This is followed by the “megafrittata,” a culinary ritual that begins with townspeople traipsing door to door begging for eggs. The eggs are then used to make what is possibly the world’s largest frittata, cooked in a giant 13-foot-wide frying pan. On Ash Wednesday, to mark the final day of the celebration, the groups perform a tragicomedy ritual: following a solemn funeral procession, townspeople throw a lifelike “corpse” of the Carnevale king into the sea.

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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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Muggia's Piazza MarconiThere was to be no respite from the weather—it was still pouring rain on this final Sunday of Carnevale. My plans were to watch the famous mask parade in Muggia, so I set out, braving the elements once again. I took the train to Trieste, then a bus to the town of Muggia. When I finally arrived, several hours later, I was perplexed to find no crowds milling around waiting for the parade to begin. Did I have the right date? Yes, large banners advertising the celebration lined the streets along my route to the city center. I reached Piazza Marconi where, on an unassuming, white memo posted outside the orange and yellow municipal building, I read the words: the parade was cancelled, rained out, postponed until the following Sunday. My spirits sank. The very next day I had to return to Milano for my flight home, so I would miss the Carnevale Muggesano.

Carnevale MuggesanoAs I wandered around in disbelief, struggling to come to terms with this latest setback, I stumbled into Muggia’s tourist office. It was filled with memorabilia from past parades; tables were covered with boxes of snapshots and postcards for sale. I rummaged through, trying to imagine myself in the midst of the action. Instead of the typical Carnevale images of masked figures in elegant Baroque attire, Muggia’s parade seemed to be characterized by bizarre and quirky themes—townspeople were costumed as cartoon figures, farm animals, and platters of food. The other thing that stood out was the absence of masks. I learned that Muggia has forbidden the use of masks in its parade, except when absolutely necessary.

My disappointment was slightly mitigated when one of the representatives offered me a free CD of official photos from the previous year’s parade. Feeling slightly more cheerful but not in the mood to scope out a new restaurant in the rain, I headed back to the unfortunately named Lilibontempo Trattoria Ex-Hitler for lunch. When I had dined here on my first trip to Muggia, I received a warm welcome from the owner, who had spoken in length about the region’s cuisine and described in full detail the preparations of two recipes. This time, the restaurant was packed, and Lili was preoccupied—too much so to remember me, it seemed. I ordered the same dish as before, the Gran Piatto Istria, a lackluster assortment of local seafood specialties. Then, after an hour’s effort, I finally grabbed Lili’s attention long enough to get my check and pay my bill.

Osteria Al Vecchio StalloAfter a return bus to Trieste and train to Udine, it was nearly time for dinner. Once again, I walked through the door into Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo precisely at 7:00pm. Instead of being seated at what was becoming my table, I was seated in the bar area. It was still the weekend, and they were booked with 8:00 reservations. I started with an order of gnocchi di susine (plum-filled dumplings). As I cut my way into the first of three giant balls of potato dough, my fork finally found a small prune in the center. The dough was thick and bland, and I longed for more fruit. Melted butter and cinnamon added some sweetness but did little to enhance the overall flavor. My sarde in saor that followed were much tastier. The sardines were huge, marinated in vinegar and onions and served with polenta. Anti-smoking laws had not been passed yet (that happened the following year in 2005), so I was anxious to finish my meal as quickly as possible. I was, in fact, out the door by the time the 8:00 dinner rush arrived.

My mood was somber on my walk back to my hotel. Not only did I miss out on what had promised to be a fantastic Carnevale celebration, but my trip was coming to a close. The next day I would endure the five-hour journey back to Milano, where I would make my usual rounds of visiting the Duomo and getting an order of melanzane alla parmigiana from Rosticceria Fontana. After an early bedtime and restless night sleep, I would wheel my single piece of luggage across a dark, deserted Piazza del Duomo to catch the first airport shuttle to Linate. Although I was anxious to return to the comforts of home, I was already looking forward to my next trip three months later.

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gondolasSomehow or other, I always seemed to wind up in Italy during Carnevale season. The first time was coincidental, when I went to Friuli to visit the Ledragomma GymnastikBall factory. I had stayed in Udine for several nights, which gave me plenty of time for some day trips—one of which was to my favorite city, Venezia. It must have been a weekday, for the crowds were virtually non-existent, and I had been able to drift along the calli in pure bliss.

The second time was with Mike; we had planned a few days in Venezia before heading on to Udine and then Firenze. Since we had found a quaint hotel on a quiet canal in the Dorsoduro, we were able to avoid much of the Carnevale chaos. With the exception of one weekend, when we found ourselves in human gridlock trying to cross the Rialto Bridge, things weren’t too bad. Or possibly the wonderful moments—like meandering back to our hotel after dinner, hand in hand, alone in the dark mist, with ghostly images of masked figures and strains of Vivaldi echoing through my mind—pushed all the bad ones to the recesses of my memory, because I had the crazy idea on yet another February trip to spend a day in Venezia.

This time, it happened to be a Saturday—a rainy Saturday. Venezia during Carnevale on a rainy weekend—it sounds like a recipe for disaster, but it was the only free day in my schedule, and I just couldn’t bear being in this part of Italy without seeing La Serenissima at least once.

From Udine, Venezia is a leisurely 2-hour train ride. I had no plans for the day, except to wander around the labyrinth of narrow alleys and lose myself in the magic of the city. This was not to be. As soon as I stepped off the train, I did become lost—lost in the throngs of tourists pushing their way to San Marco. The rain was gushing down, and we were packed like anchovies in alleyways barely wide enough for one umbrella. It was impossible to see anything but the tourist in front of you; if your focus strayed for one second to look in a shop window, you risked being shoved and knocked to the ground. A ceiling of umbrellas masked the skyward view but didn’t seem to block the downpour. My pants were soaked up to my knees. My umbrella broke as I struggled to wrestle it free from the gusts of wind that whipped around corners and threatened to carry me aloft.

When the tight passageway finally opened up into Piazza San Marco, I could breathe a little easier, although the masses were still too close for comfort. The line to enter the Basilica stretched halfway across the square! I continued walking westward in the direction of the Dorsoduro, where I hoped the crowds would be somewhat thinner. I was also craving a bite to eat in my favorite cicchetti bar.

Cantinone Gia SchiaviThe Dorsoduro sestiere lies across the Accademia Bridge, and while it is home to many of the city’s tourist sites—including Santa Maria della Salute and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection—it doesn’t typically see the same crowds as San Marco or the Rialto. So when I reached my destination, Cantinone Già Schiavi, situated on a small canal across from Campo San Trovaso, there was room for me to squeeze my way up to the bar and enjoy a plate of bite-size treats. There were chunks of salami, mortadella, and cheese; anchovies, pearl onions, and peperoncini; and freshly prepared crostoni (mini open-faced sandwiches)—each serving speared on a toothpick. The crostoni came with countless irresistible toppings such as baccalà (both mantecato and alla cappucina); tomato, brie, and anchovy; fluffy herb-flecked ricotta with sun-dried tomato; and tuna salad with a sprinkle of cocoa. All of this I enjoyed with a glass of prosecco.

Heading back to the train station, I took a roundabout path along the outskirts of the Dorsoduro and avoided much of the madness. Even though I appreciated being able to pause occasionally to gaze around in awe, I still found myself continually dodging hordes of people as they streamed by. There was no chance of getting myself lost on this trip—literally or figuratively.

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This month I have an article featured in the Dream of Italy newsletter: “Muggia Carnevale Unmasked.” If your idea of the Italian carnevale revolves around elegantly dressed courtesans waltzing to Vivaldi at a masked ball or mysterious caped figures drifting past the shadows of Venice’s Grand Canal, then you’re in for a surprise. In Muggia, not only are masks taboo, but you are more likely to see participants dressed as snowflakes, sewer rats, or platters of pasta.

The Dec 2011/Jan 2012 issue is now available to subscribers at DreamofItaly.com.

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