Tag Archives: summer

Summer nights

23 Aug
When it is hot, Italy comes alive at night. The number of people dining at 10:00PM or later even on a week night is amazing. People take their lives out-of-doors once the sun goes down.
Fountains and pools of Villa d’Este, beautiful during the day, take on added drama at night.

Fountains and pools of Villa d’Este, beautiful during the day, take on added drama at night.

Although this summer has not been as miserably hot as the past two (2012 was one for the record books), it’s still humid and hard to move around in full sun. The nights are soft and pleasant, and there is a tradition of special events and the opening of venues that normally close at 6:00PM.   Notte d’Estate a Castel Sant’Angelo, Lungo Il Tevere Roma  (a festival along the Tiber), and various other events dot the calendar in Rome.
Last summer we tried to go to Tivoli to see the magnificent Villa d’Este lighted at night. It was a bust because we were driving, directional signs were poor, and we didn’t know what we were looking for. We did find on that first visit that Tivoli is very lively on summer evenings. So during the past year we made two daytrips to Villa d’Este via train to get our bearings. Finding it remarkable,  we decided to spend a night at a B&B and see the gardens by night.  Every Friday and Saturday through September 13 (weather permitting), Villa D’Este opens its gates after dark allowing one to enjoy its magnificent fountains illuminated. The transformation at night is stunning.
We boarded a regionale train from Station Tiburtina on the holiday of Ferragosto (August 15), and checked into the charming B&B al Palazzetto, a recently restored 15th century building.  The proprietor is an architect and his professionalism showed in the fine design. We were warmly welcomed and shown to a comfortable room with one of the most modern bathrooms we have had in Italy.
Delightful, serene dining on a soft summer night

Delightful, serene dining on a soft summer night

The town of Tivoli offers many fine restaurants, and it seems they are open very late to serve those who choose to tour Villa d’Este before dining. We chose one with a fine location on a piazza, Taverna Quintilia, only a few minutes’ walk from the entrance to Villa d’Este.  Taverna Quintilia is a rarity: a true Neapolitan seafood restaurant in Lazio, featuring succulent octopus, fresh marinated alici (anchovies), grilled spigola (sea bass), and more. This was some of the best seafood we have eaten outside of the Cinque Terre and Sicilia.
After dinner we headed over to Villa d’Este, arriving about 9:30PM to find a fast-moving line. The estate is huge so it swallowed the crowd easily and we enjoyed an uncrowded tour. The estate is transformed by the play of light on fountains. It occurred to us that in the U.S. this place would not be allowed to be open at night: it would be too dangerous with the low lighting, uneven walkways, and dark Renaissance staircases. We firmly held hands and thoroughly enjoyed wandering the grounds, watching the families and couples alike enjoying a soft evening – almost cool for August.

 

The Renaissance-era villa, Cardinal Ippolito II d'Este, son of Alfonso I d'Este and Lucrezia Borgia and grandson of Pope Alexander VI.

The Renaissance-era villa, commissioned by Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este, son of Alfonso I d’Este and Lucrezia Borgia and grandson of Pope Alexander VI.

Beautifully lighted fountains – Renaissance era faces carved into a long wall light a romantic walkway.

Beautifully lighted fountains – Renaissance era faces carved into a long wall light a romantic walkway.

An unidentified church seem s to float in the darkness, just beyond Villa d'Este.

An unidentified church seem s to float in the darkness, just beyond Villa d’Este.

Dramatic lighting of architectural features at Villa d'Este.

Dramatic lighting of architectural features at Villa d’Este.

Cooling off in the Alpe di Siusi

28 Jul
While Rome weather has been moderate this month (the warmest day so far in July was 30C/86F), it’s still nice to leave the humidity and the noise of the city for our annual trek to the Dolomites.
We seldom get photos of us together. Here we enjoy 14C/57F sun a Bullaccia - great hiking weather!
We seldom get photos of us together. Here we enjoy 14C/57F sun at Bullaccia – great hiking weather!
This is the first full week of annual leave we have taken all year. As you know, we have made several trips, but they have all been long weekends. The last time we took a full week off was September of last year when Derek visited. It’s about time we disconnected from work and Rome!
Nephew and niece John and Susan arrived Saturday from Seattle with William and Elizabeth. We have been planning for their visit — and Susan has been planning this European trek — for almost a year. We barely gave them time to get off the plane because Sunday we set off for one of our favorite spots in Italy, the Alpe di Siusi.
I’ve written extensively about travels here in the past (See Feeling German in Italy and Familiar Yet Foreign), so this time I will leave you with a few pictures from our first full day here. Think of them as little postcards sent to you. “Wish you were here!”
The Sciliar and Punta Santner in early morning light.
The Sciliar and Punta Santner in early morning light.
Elizabeth and William enjoy the hotel playground with a fabulous backdrop.
Elizabeth and William enjoy the hotel playground with a fabulous backdrop.
View from the Panorama Chair Lift, Alpe di Siusi.
View from the Panorama Chair Lift, Alpe di Siusi.
J & S at Bullaccia
J & S at Bullaccia
Ric, William and John along the trail to the Panche dell streghe (Witches' benches).
Ric, William and John along the trail to the Panche delle streghe (Witches’ benches).
Susan and Elizabeth share a moment on the trail. The background is the far side of the Val Gardena as seen from Bullaccia.
Susan and Elizabeth share a moment on the trail. The background is the far side of the Val Gardena as seen from Bullaccia.
E & W take in the view from the Cabinovia, our gondola ride to the Alpe.
E & W take in the view from the Cabinovia, our gondola ride to the Alpe.
 

Buy Italian

15 Sep

Three months ago I wrote about our experiment in weaning ourselves from the habit of buying online from the U.S. You can read about it here, but in summary, we decided to try to confine our consumerism to Italy and not use the U.S. Diplomatic Post Office to ship in goods from Nordstrom, Amazon, Zappos, etc. So how did it go? It was a mixed success.

On the plus side

Always beautifully displayed merchandise. I think there's an Italian gene related to beautiful displays and wrapping packages.

Always beautifully displayed merchandise. I think there’s an Italian gene related to beautiful displays and wrapping packages.

We learned we can live in Italy, as Italians do, without buying a special brand from the U.S. We Americans can be addicted to our own brands of toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo, lotion, etc., but Italians need that stuff too and the stores carry many fine international and European brands. We gave up 8 ½” x 11” paper for the common A4 size sold in Europe. It’s a setting on the printer so no big deal.

Some products are better than the U.S. equivalent. I found an amazing olive-oil based lotion, for example, and Janie, our senior cat who is picky about her treats has come to crave a treat we found as a sample inside a carton of her packaged food.

We found new stores and sources. We went on

A few of the brands I switched to as a result of our experiment.

A few of the brands I switched to as a result of our experiment.

forays into stores we’d not entered prior, neighborhoods we’d passed through but not really shopped in. We discovered you can go looking and not find, but you have to be ready to buy when you pass a shop with promising merchandise. One Saturday we spent 4 hours looking for a dress for me. I tried on 8 or 10 at various stores. Niente! But the next day, walking to a museum, I spied a dress in the window of a tiny little boutique, walked in and 5 minutes later walked out with the dress.  You have to be opportunistic.

We bought less because it took more time to go looking the old-fashioned way, in stores. Oh Zappos, how easy it is to find black heels, size 7.5 with a 1” heel and ship three pair overnight! But try to find a pair going shop to shop. It takes hours! Days, even!

In July and August "i saldi" are everywhere. And prices get lower as the weeks go by....

In July and August “i saldi” are everywhere. And prices get lower as the weeks go by….

The July/August saldi (sales) offer some good buys and even the opportunity to bargain, something I’d not done before. One day on the way home from work we popped into a boutique because I saw a lovely dress in the window. I slipped it on and it fit like a dream, but I nearly fainted when they told me the price! “But signora, it is on sale,” and she quoted me a price about 30% less. Still high, so I started to walk out shaking my head. “Signora,” she called, “Wait. It’s specially tailored… but I can sell it for €XXX,” and she knocked another 15% off. Score!

I practiced my Italian. Always a vocabulary builder and an opportunity to tune my ear. I can talk about the features of our new food processor and of our new Italian iron, purchased to replace the one clogged up with calcium after a year of ironing with this hard water.

On the other hand…

EurosThings cost un’occhio della testa (an “eye of the head,” or as we’d say “an arm and a leg”). VAT (a tax) is 21%, driving already high prices up significantly. And the exchange rate makes everything 30-35% higher in dollars. So a €100 item is $132.00 plus-or-minus U.S. The amount we spent on shorts and hiking shoes we bought up in the mountains in July could have clothed a small child for the school year if you shopped at Walmart.  

It takes a lot of time to shop in stores, especially when you don’t know brands, you don’t know sizes, and boutiques are small with limited selection. I am a size 10 U.S., but a 42 or 44 Italian and a 3 French.  Everything has to be tried on.

Customer service is…different. Sometimes we are warmly greeted and professionally served. This is especially true upon return visits (regulars!) or once they realize we are not tourists. Sometimes we are totally ignored until we ask for help and then it is given begrudgingly. Also, this is not a culture in which returns are gladly accepted, so do not have buyer’s remorse unless you shopped at IKEA.Color coordinated

You have to run around to buy some items. For example, you cannot buy cardio (baby) aspirin at the grocery store. You have to go to a farmacia and ask the druggist for it.  Thread? Not in a fabric store, but only in a special sewing notions store.  Tell me, who would think it is not a good idea to sell thread where you buy fabric?

Some American things are better than Italian equivalents. American plastic bags, whether for lining your trashcan or wrapping up leftovers, are far better in size, durability and functionality. Give me my Ziplocs! There’s huge problem with calcium in Rome and everything gets clogged and spotted. But good old CLR declogs a shower head better than anything I’ve found in Rome.

 Will we continue to buy Italian? Absolutely, but not exclusively. Food is no-brainer. Other than peanut butter and white vinegar (Which is hard to find here. We are awash in fine balsamico, but plain white distilled? Not available at the supermercato.), we buy all of our food in Italian markets. But then most of our food is fresh. Ric has been buying Italian clothes since we arrived and has some go-to places, but even he turned to Lands’ End online for his fall shirts and to

Ric and I at Piazza Navona. Photo by Derek

Ric and I at Piazza Navona. Photo by Derek

Zappos for some walking shoes. It’s just easier to buy online at 3:00PM on a hot afternoon than to walk all over Rome looking for shoes. But if we didn’t have the Diplomatic Post Office, we’d not be able to buy this way.

I am still searching for go-to shops for myself. But I’ll return to shopping a piede (on foot) as the cooler weather hits for some Italian fall fashions. And when we are in Venice this week, I’ll stop in at my favorite glass-maker and pick up some new jewelry. 

Minnows for Lunch

5 Sep

I don’t miss having a car, but from time to time we succumb and rent one. For one thing, we need to keep up our skills, and we also find it handy for certain shopping trips. Plus it’s necessary to have a car to see some of the more rural sites not efficiently served by train or bus. So a few weeks ago we targeted the Labor Day weekend for some daytrips and shopping, planning to rent a car.

Because our little neighborhood Hertz franchise closes from 1:00PM Saturday until 8:30AM Monday, we need pick up the car on Saturday morning. So we planned a few adventures: a trip to Villa d’Este in Tivoli to see it at night, which is only possible a few nights each summer; a shopping trip to IKEA; a daytrip to the hill town of Cività di Bagnoreggio, which is hard to reach by bus. Then Ric got roped into working Saturday and Monday, so we curtailed the plan to go to Cività. Oh well.

Freshwater lake in Lazio, peaceful, uncrowded, great lakeside dining.

Freshwater lake in Lazio, peaceful, uncrowded, great lakeside dining.

Summer is waning so although Ric had worked a long day Saturday, in the evening we set off for Tivoli with a Google Map printout in hand, the name of a very good restaurant, and high expectations for Villa d’Este.  But thanks to the genius of Italian street signs and the inefficiency of the GPS on my phone, we never found Villa d’Este nor the restaurant.

The street signs have two points of failure: street names do not correspond to what Google Maps says they should be, and the “way-finding” signs are impossible to follow.  I would turn in the direction pointed to by a neat little Villa d’Este sign, then turn at another, and then see nothing. No further directional, no entrance signs, no parking lots, lots of dark streets. So I would come around and try again. Nothing. I asked locals and they pointed in what (to them) was an obvious direction. But nothing. Maybe we are idiots but with both of us searching high and low, we could not find this place. I resorted to the GPS on my phone which has gotten us out of jams in the past, but she insisted we drive down a limited access street into a Zona Traffico Limitato, which would carry a huge fine. By this time, we’d been in the car about 90 minutes, Ric was tired and cranky as a toddler, so finally we settled on a place to eat – I would rate it as OK – and once fortified tried again to find our star attraction. Still unable to find it, we headed back to Rome, where apparently we should have stayed for this evening. I seldom get lost walking.

Cut guy I had lunch with at Lago Bracciano.

Cute guy I had lunch with at Lago di Bracciano.

On the bright side, we got to IKEA before the crowds on Sunday, then headed north to a lake I’d read about, Lago di Bracciano.  Here we found a quiet freshwater beach scene with excellent lakeside dining. We did not get lost and had a fine lunch. I had a broiled freshwater fish called coregone, which is much like some of the types in lakes in the Midwest of the U.S., and Ric had a fritto misto that included a large number of what looked like whole fried minnows. We certainly used a lot of minnows as bait for fishing in Minnesota but can’t say I ever saw them in a Friday fish fry. These were very tasty, but we got the giggles to think of eating minnows.

Next summer our niece and nephew will visit with their two kids, followed by Ric’s son with wife and four children. Since they will be here during high heat, a trip out to Lago di Bracciano might be just the ticket for cooling off. But we’ll have to rent a car. <SIGH>

Rome – Closed for the Holidays

15 Aug
A simple hand-lettered sign on a boutique. When will they return? Who knows!

A simple hand-lettered sign on a boutique. When will they return? Who knows!

Rome is deserted. For the past three weeks, the city has become progressively quieter: less traffic, fewer stores open. Some of the city buses are on a special schedule in August with reduced runs. Even the seagulls that frequent our neighborhood and scream at 3:00AM seem to have taken off for parts unknown. There are fewer dogs in the park, and fewer runners, too. Some mornings I can walk through Villa Borghese and see almost no one except the omnipresent vendors setting up for the day’s business.

I cannot possibly imagine this happening in the United States, but store after store is closed per ferie, the period surrounding the mid-August holiday of ferragosto.  I won’t go into the ancient roots of this holiday, or the fact that it was co-opted by “The Church.” I will tell you what it is like this month.

  • People are at the beach, whether for the day, the week or the month. Those that are not at the beach are in the mountains, but most Italians are true sun-worshipers and so they flock to the beach where they lay on a chaise lounge under an umbrella, side-by-side-by-side.
  • Businesses are shuttered with little signs that say how long they will be chiuso. Could be a week, or even the entire month.
  • You can find a place to park on almost any street, in almost any piazza. This does not happen any other time of the year. Buses run almost empty.

    A more formal sign assures  customers of this cafe that they will only be closed a week.  Everyone to the beach!

    A more formal sign assures customers of this cafe that they will only be closed a week. Everyone to the beach!

Restaurants are closed or quasi-empty. Two weeks ago, on a Saturday night, we went to a highly recommended restaurant near the Embassy and at the peak dining hour of 21:00 we were the only customers! I’d even made a reservation. A very uncomfortable situation for us and for the restaurant owner.  Luckily the quality of the food did not suffer.

An Italian friend told me that when she was a child (35-40 years ago) it was even quieter in August. It was even difficult to get groceries as supermarkets and shopping centers did not exist.

Another tradition of ferragosto is to give your portiere (building superintendent-manager-doorman-handyman all rolled into one) a gift of €25-€50 (about $33-67) in recognition of what they do for us. This is also traditional at Christmas and Easter.  The portiere is also key to security, so he remains on duty in August when many apartments are vacant and is – hopefully – a deterrent to the break-ins that increase in frequency during the mass-exodus to the beach.

This children's shop in a posh neighborhood is closed from 8 Aug to 2 Sept.

This children’s shop in a posh neighborhood is closed from 8 Aug to 2 Sept.

Today, August 15, is the actual ferragosto. The Embassy is closed, as are most businesses not in the tourist-trade. Our neighborhood is Christmas-morning quiet. No dogs, no birds, no motorini, no traffic, just one suspicious helicopter circling occasionally (never a good thing). We were able to find a nice bar (cafe) open for a holiday cornetto e cappucino fix.

While it may not be the best economic decision to close your business during the current crisis, I have to respect the tradition. People spending time with their families, having lunch with grandma, and escaping the heat if possible. For an amusing look at the holiday, seek out the movie “Mid-August Lunch” (Italian with English subtitles, available to stream on Netflix).

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