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Rome on $500 a Day

We left Umbria after 6 days of wonderful tours, meals, making new friends and never reaching for our wallet all courtesy of the Umbrian tourism authority and Travel Bloggers Unite. We took a nice train ride of about 2 hours into Rome’s central train station.

I got off the train and desperately needed to relive myself of that morning’s espresso shots. The men’s room was as far away as it could be which only added to the desperation in my hustle. I walked into the room to find a turnstile with a coin slot. In order to get into the men’s room you had to put in 1 Euro. Even I, in my agitated gotta go mood, could do THAT math. In real money, the fee for using the bathroom was US$1.60. Welcome to Rome bozo. It turned out to be the only bargain in the city.

We walked out of the station to find a few dozen eager cab drivers ready to accept inflated (although metered) fares into town. I just sat back and watched what they call the eternal city drift by the rear window of the Fiat, while the numbers on the meter spun around like Marty Feldman’s eyes.

I lost myself in my first impressions of Rome. Rome’s color is not that of any other city I have ever visited. Not the color of concrete or steel and glass. No trace of the dark red of brick, or faded tropical pastels. Instead it was a very earthy color, organic in origin, for the city is made of limestone and tufa. It is often covered with a faded, worn, low grade marble that has the texture of aged cheese.

Our driver was intent on getting us to our hotel, which was directly in front of what would become my favorite spot in Rome, the Pantheon.

Pantheon

There is a lot to say about the Pantheon, and I will do so in my next post. If you cannot wait, WIKI it. It is fascinating, It must be, 10,00 tourists cant’ be wrong at the same time!

He was not giving us a tour, but when in Rome… We passed many fountains. Not the grand Bernini works famous in film and literature just fountains. Rome has probably more fountains than any other major city per sq. mile. It sure seems that way. Our route took us up one small road and down another, some barely able to allow passage of the vehicle, and all of them crawling with tourists. The going was slow, but the sightseeing was already marvelous.

When we arrived at the hotel and I looked at the meter (which was now smoking after having to work so hard) I realized I have paid less for air flights than this taxi fare. I did not know if this was karma for all the freebies I got in Umbria or not, but I knew the next four days were going to put a serious dent in my wallet. I could not imagine why Italy has a financial crisis. The place is overrun with international tourists; all paying prices that would make Michelangelo ask the Pope for a raise.

Stay tuned for future posts as I cross two items of my bucket list and enjoy the rest of this great city.

Please share with your FB friends, and make a comment. Thanks.

An Electronic Librarian in a Medieval Library

My wife Mary Ann has a job in a very modern, well funded library in Sharjah UAE. Thanks to the benevolence of the ruler of Sharjah who I unashamedly give a nod to whenever I see his photo. He supports education and the arts at great expense. Shukran.

Her title is Electronic Resources Librarian. In Umbria we got to see the oldest library books either of us will likely ever see, as well as a medieval email!

medieval library

I caught Mary Ann in a moment of shock and awe as she made her way past the “recent” collection (1800’s) into the special collection.

medieval library

These are some of the books from the 1400’S!! I could make out some of the Latin titles enough to know that there were court proceeding records and land title records. Imagine being able to trace the ownership of a parcel of land back to 1450. Mary Ann was quick to pint out that these books were not categorized in either the Dewey Decimal OR  the Library of Congress system! I am no expert on the subject but I suspect these are cataloged  with a system developed by Callimachus, considered the first bibliographer and is the one that organized the library by authors and subjects. Variations on his system were used in libraries until the late 1800s.

medieval calligraphy

They just don’t make them like this anymore. Calligraphy in a 1400’s book.

medieval book

Page one. I beleive this is called a frontispiece. Hand drawn with real gold leafing. You just cannot get this off Amazon!

medieval book

We took one of the books out to examine it. It was a book published in Florence for use by the priests. It  told them how to dole out earthly punishment for sins. The librarian said most of the sins listed were, ahh, sexual in nature! The notes here were written by a priest 500 years ago, I wish I knew what they said, probably something like, “this book just does not cover this man’s sins, you would not believe what he confessed. His poor livestock…”

I am a book freak. I used to collect first editions until they weighed more than my furniture. But I never ever held a 600 year old book in my hands before. I treated it like nitroglycerin.

Now what about that medieval email?

constantantine communication

Well, maybe not email. Maybe snail mail? Maybe mule mail? This is a communication the emperor Constantine sent this town rewarding them with the privilege to stage a festival of games. It is the pride of their library. AND you can walk right up and touch it. It stands about 4 feet tall.

Gladiator

The only word I recognized on the entire message just jumped out at me. I showed it to Mary Ann and I could see visions of Russel Crowe in her eyes.

This was another wonderful experience granted the delegates of the travel bloggers conference. We actually took it a step further by introducing Mary Ann as a professional librarian, so they opened the doors to the collection. Magnificent!

I will share this idea with any of you who can write grants. There is definitely an opportunity for a grant from someone like the world Heritage Foundation of Unesco to find a way to digitize these volumes so that scholars can use them without danger to the books themselves.  Of course you would have to speak Latin…

Please share this with your FB friends, and tell any of your bookie friends about it.

Thanks for reading, stay tuned for more from Italy.

Streets and Doors in Umbria

This is a simple photo essay. The photos were all taken in medieval towns in Umbria. ImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImage

St George’s Day at Lungarotti Vinyards

The last winery I took you to was new and experimental. See that post at http://theothersideofthecoconut.com/2012/05/04/beyond-assisi-winery-tour-stop-1/

Lungarotti is well established and traditional. Lungarotti wines can be found around the world. If your wine shop does not have any, educate them and have them buy a case or two. You will end up buying all they stock!

Lungarotti is the creation of Giorgio Lungarotti over fifty years ago, He had a vision back then that was very forward thinking. He had a great love of the land and a respect for the people of Umbria  and the community of Torgiano. His commitment to the environment and the dignity of  people shows up wherever you look at Lungarotti.

He combined family land holdings and worked with other land owners to create a winery with a spectacular range of varietals.  In a brochure I was given, I count 27 different labels, some blends and some sparkling.

We were treated to a magnificent lunch of Umbrian specialties. During this feast they treated us to a lot of wine. At one point, I got up, left the table, stumbled my way to the reception area where they sold the wines and purchased a bottle of the nectar I was drinking. It is called San Giorgio. It is a blend of 50% Cabernet, 40% Sangiovese and 10% Canaiolo. I bought an 8 year old vintage because I was told it is best drunk aged for 10 to 15 years , and I did not want to wait more than 2! It is carefully stored where I will forget about it

I have a ream of very interesting promotional materials. but If I shared half of it with you, this post would be too long. I Suggest you go to http://www.lungarotti.it/en  and see for yourself what a first class organization this is. It is not only a winery. They have a restuarant and a charming resort with a wellness center that specializes in vinotherapy! I would love to give THAT a try!

Now we were extremely lucky to arrive on St. George’s day.  In  Torgiano this day in early spring marks the start of the new growth on the vines. They have a special celebration where they burn the cuttings of the old growth in giant bonfires all around the region.

Lungarorotti

This is out blogger group 1 at the bonfire. Everyone looks so happy, because they are!

I’ll get back to that, but first let me introduce our most graceful hosts.

Francesco Zaganelli

This is the grandson of Giorgio. He is the PR and Communication Manager for Lungarotti. He graduated from law school and went off to make his own life before the proud family history lured him back. Although overqualified, he gives a great winery tour. I know just enough about wine to sound ignorant about it, so I tried to stump him with a couple questions, could not do it! Francesco was born in Assisi on St Francis day, hence the name.

Teresa Severini and Maria Grazia

This is  Francesco’s mother and grandmother, Teresa and Maria Grazia. He referred to his grandmother as “the big boss” . Teresa has degrees in Enology from Italy and France. She is one of the first women admitted to the prestigious International Wine Academy in Geneva, among a long list of CV items. Maria Grazia started both a wine museum and an Olive oil museum in the local town. I will explain the gold medals later on.

Lungarotti wines

Now back to our tour. Lungarotti is both modern and traditional. These casks are french oak and help give the wine a great flavor during aging. This is just one photo of one area. Folks, this is a big winery. However, they have not sacrificed the hands-on full of  love approach to wine  making for commercial expediency in the least.

Lungarotti winery

The bottling facility has been in use for twenty years and it still bottles hundreds of thousands of bottles every year.

Lungarotti Winery

I wish I could afford some of these vintage Lungarotti wines!

OK, now to St. George’s day. This special day in Torgiano is celebrated with Bonfires of the old vines. Us bloggers from TBU were invited by wonderful Teresa to a celebration held by her family and community on a hill overlooking the valley. The aforementioned gold medals are badges of honor for those folks who contribute their time to organizing this event.

This is the community that came out for the celebration. I felt very welcomed by all of them.

I made some new pals!

You can see the bonfire behind three scions of the family. From L to R, Teresa’s daughter who had me laughing while explaining the wonderful life in Umbria and the rivalry with Tuscany. Teresa who was our host of extraordinary skill, and Teresa’s older brother who is the Consigliere to the Minister of Defense in Rome.

They roasted a pig, and we ate it with gusto. Of course there was wine! Altogether it was a wonderful night.

Thank you Lungarotti! Thank you Teresa, I have not been so welcomed by anyone in ages.

To my faithful readers, please share this with your FB friends so that more people can learn about this fantastic family and their fantastic wine!

Medieval Arts and Crafts

Between winery stops I am going to tell you about a visit to another medieval town. Umbria has these beautiful little towns on hilltops wherever you go. They are just far enough apart that one can imagine a person living in the 15th century in Assisi or Bevagna for their entire life and never traveling to the other. I would need to bone up on the local history to know who they had to fortify the villages against, but each one is surrounded by formidable walls with solid gates.

This post will center on Bevagna.

Bevagna

Info sheet at the gates to Bevagna. I could only imagine what it said.

bevagna

Once you get inside the gate (no passport needed) you start to climb toward the center of town. That is just the way it is in these medieval cities. It seems that you must climb going in or out!

bevagna

Once you have reached the center of the city,things level out. The 15th century is alive and well. One guide we had told us that these walls inside the city were once covered with plaster and painted pastel colors. Indeed if you look at old paintings you see that. She told us that in the 18th century this was somehow a cause for concern and that the plaster was removed. I don’t buy that. I think the artists were using artistic license.

This church supposedly contains the rock from which St. Francis preached when he had to ask the birds to be quiet. It is a major legend, you can look it up.

Every year in June the town has a celebration, reminiscent to me at least, of a renaissance faire.  The entire town dresses in medieval costumes. This celebration is not intended to be a tourist attraction, they do it for themselves to celebrate their heritage. That being said, I think it would be a wonderful time to visit Bevagna for a day during a longer stay in Umbria. Included in Bevagna’s celebration is a contest for the best recreation of medieval crafts. We visited two past prize winners. A papermaker and a candlemaker.

Paper making in Bevagna

This guy was really cool. He has won the town’s competition for preserving the art of paper making. He demonstrated it to us. It is a long, time consuming process, but he seems to love his work.

paper making in Bevagna

The first step is the mulching of a combination of cast off clothing and hemp into a sloppy paste which then gets pressed onto a screen type of thing (hey, I am not a techie). The paper receives a watermark, and is then dried. Altogether from rags to paper the process can take three months. I pruoudly own a sheet of his paper. It is anything but modern. I’ll never use it because you need a quill to write on it and forget about a laser printer!

paper make bevagna

This is Mary Ann leaving the paper makers abode, asking me, “what the heck are you going to do with the paper you bought?”

Lapis lazuli

We stopped at an artist compound that does mostly religious art. Beautiful stuff. They use the medieval methods, including creating their own colors from natural elements. The blue stone in the box is Lapis Lazuli. This stone is the original blue. Michelangelo and Raphael used in in their frescoes. It was and is still is an expensive way to make the color blue. I asked how much this stone cost. I realized I could finance a trip to Italy if I filled my suitcase withe Lapis I can buy here in the UAE for a lot less money!

candle maker Bevagna

We then went to a candle maker. He uses pure bees wax to make some wonderful candles. I got a chance to make my own. I can now say I made the world’s ugliest candle!

We also went to a Olive oil producer. I will cover that in a future post, so stay tuned.

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Beyond Assisi, Winery Tour Stop 1

The bloggers conference was over. I did not mention meeting Steve McCurry, maybe the best travel photog on the planet.

Steve McCurry

This is the Steve McCurry photo everyone knows. He gave a speech, answered questions and had dinner with us. A kind and talented man.

Now the Umbria Tourist board treated us to one of six 2 ½ day tours around Umbria. We choose the wine and crafts tour. Others chose the chocolate tour or the adventure tour with white water rafting. Umbria has many attractions and if you are ever in Italy, be sure to visit this wonderful region.

Our first stop was at a very new (in Italian ages) winery. It is called Terra Margaratelli. Our guide works for the Umbria wine promotion board, so the wineries all know him. They knew a bunch of travel bloggers were coming and they really put out the spread.

This winery like I said is almost brand new. They are trying new varietals and blends. They also have resurrected some old endemic varietals mostly grown only by private local farmers and are bottling them commercial for the first time. I really liked the guy in charge. He loves his work and is passionate about it as only love can make you.

We were treated to as much wine as we could handle and still be able to climb back into the bus. My favorite was perhaps the best white wine I have ever had. They call it Greco di Renabianca, it is 100% Grechetto. It is a very full bodied white, with a complexity that makes you think and taste more than once. Because this is still a small winery, I do not know if you can get this nectar in the USA, but ask your wine shop to get some, well worth it!

terra margaratelli

A view of the vineyards through the wine glasses.

Italian wine in french barrels

Margaratelli has special French oakcasks made just for them, which give their wines a unique taste.

terre margaritelli

I am pretty sure I tasted them all!

They also served us a complete lunch, or we could have been in real trouble!

learning Bocci

After lunch, some of the workers taught me how to play Bocce! Great guys!

Next post..the next winery. Or is it the crafts in a medieval village. I forget, too much wine!

Assisi’s Best Hospitality

If you are ever lucky enough to get to Assisi, do yourself a favor and stay at San Crispino. In fact if you are ever in Italy, go to Assisi so you can stay at San Crispino. Take this all the way and just plan a trip to Italy specifically to stay at San Crispino. Honestly, I liked it that much.

It is more than a hotel. It is more than a hotel and a spa. It is a hotel, a spa and a wellness center all wrapped up in two beautiful facilities.

Deep into the medieval city of Assisi on quiet cobblestone streets San Crispino has a small hotel which is actually a historical mansion. It has theme rooms designed to add to the feeling of living in the 15th century, only as a noble. Each of the rooms has a private garden. I’m not talking a few plants on a balcony here,oh no. This hotel provides you with a big lush garden you could play sports in!   The rooms we saw were sumptuous.

San Crispino

The bedroom in one suite.

San Crispino

The dining area in the same suite with the door to a garden bigger than most of yours.

Lunch spread which included their own wines, yum yum.

Just outside of Assisi they have a large farm that has another set of nice rooms, The farm has been in the family for a few generations and is productive and beautiful. This facility has a big dining hall where you eat family style in front of a fireplace, a fully equipped spa and this pool. The view is of Assisi on the hill.This is where the wellness center is. The owner is a dermatologist that has a line of products to make your skin look younger. Too late for me!

Maybe one of the reasons I liked this place so much was the gorgeous daughter of the owner. She is a classic Italian beauty and as personable as she is pretty. Ciao Bella!

Thank you to San Crispino for a wonderful afternoon in Assisi!

Assisi Italy

Assisi is perhaps the most visited site in all of Umbria. This is deservedly so, even though Umbria is spotted with wonderful places for all kinds of travelers and tourists.

Assisi is the birthplace of St. Francis, born in 1182. Yup, that makes him older than me. I grew up knowing about St. Francis of Assisi and his love of animals and peace on earth, and I’m not even Catholic.

St. Francis of Assisi, street art

Just a piece of street art on a side street in Assisi, says it all.

When I signed up to go to Umbria, I started looking at the web, and I was thrilled to know that Assisi was a spears throw away from where we would be headquartered. TBU and the Umbria tourism people did a wonderful job of making a pre-conference tour to this medieval city available.

Assisi is strategically located on top of a small mountain, or high hill, depending on your perspective. In fact, throughout Umbria there are medieval cities, surrounded by walls, occupying defensive positions in elevated areas.

Assisi

My first view of this city on the hill, from a bus window. Not much of a photo, but somehow I hope it conveys my enthusiasm.

The towns, although constructed before anyone dreamed of the new world, are still vibrant homes to hundreds of people. Residents go about their days, walking streets laid out in the 12th century. The reason we were guests here is so that we would blog to the world and promote tourism. I hope we help a little but it would be a shame if thousands of google-eyed, awe struck people like me wandered the cobblestone streets which are actually someone’s proud home. So, only half of you go, OK?

assisi alley

This is what it is like in a medieval village in 2012. You can wander these streets at your own pace without any hurry, or hawkers. You can imagine people doing the same for hundreds of years . The effect is describable only as magical.

The centerpiece attraction in Assisi is the Basilica of St. Francis. There are two levels to this structure. They actually make up two churches. The upper was built in 1230 to 1253 on top of the lower that was finished in 1230. Both levels are wondrously decorated by the greatest artists of the 13th and 14th centuries and have fantastic stained glass windows.

The Basilica as it stands today. Partially damaged by an earthquake about 20 years ago, money flowed in from around the world to restore it.

St. Francis of Assisi frescoe denouncing his wealth

We were not allowed to take pictures inside the Basilica so I took this picture of a picture, sorry. The real frescoe is much nicer of course. This is a depiction of St. Francis denouncing his wealth to his father. His father was a wealthy cloth merchant. St. Francis wanted something different. He went off to do battle, but he found great fault with that lifestyle. He then lived as a beggar for a year, and then became a friar. He was never ordained as a preist, but his legacy is one of the greatest in Christiandom.

So what is a Basilica I hope you are asking?

In the Roman Catholic Church, a basilica is a designation for an important church building. A basilica is designated by the Pope to buildings that carry special spiritual, historical, and architectural significance. Once a basilica — always a basilica. This is a Papal Basilica, and it has a Papal throne. Every Pope since 1230 has visited here, except John Paul I of course. The throne is there for viewing, but I was not allowed to go sit in it.

There is also a monestary attached to this Basilica where the Order of Franciscan Friars is based. They are a humble group and you see them walking the ancient streets to this day.

Monastery of Franciscan Friars

The monastery attached to the Basilica.

St. Francis’ tomb is in the lower level and many make a pilgrimage to pray for perhaps a miracle. I prayed that he give our cat a brain.

tomb of St. Francis

Many people make the pilgrimage here and pray. Besides a brain for my cat, I prayed for world peace.

PAX

The garden in front of the Basilica contains our wishes and a nice way to close this post. PAX

My next post will still be in Assisi at a wonderful hotel/spa/wellness facility called San Crispino that treated us to a spectacular afternoon. Stay Tuned!

Travel Bloggers Unite in Umbria!

I do not know where to start about my last ten days in Italy, so I guess I’ll start at the start.

Back in December ’11 I ran across a website called Travel Bloggers Unite. Dyslexic as I am I thought it said Travel Bloggers Untie, so I perused it. Oliver, the head honcho (maybe the sole honcho) at TBU was touting the third TBU conference. This one was to take place in Umbria, which is a region of Italy largely lost to the tourist trade.  It should not be. Umbria is one of the prettiest and hospitable places on the entire coconut.

Coat of arms of Assisi (Perugia), Italy França...

Coat of arms of Assisi

Travel Bloggers United Umbria contest

The Canadian tourism board was there to invite bloggers to Canada. They gave away these little "polar" bears and had a contest to go see polar bears in Canada. I soaked mine in wine

Umbria from Assisi

Although I like this foto of the Valle de Assisi from Assisi, for a real pro view check out another blogger ( a professional photographer) http://blog.kenkaminesky.com)
The weather was like this for the entire conference. For my wife and me fresh from the Arabian desert, it was wonderful. A very green valley, spotted with red poppies and grey olive trees.

The conference attendees were people I was very glad to meet. With a couple exceptions, I was the senior member of the circuit. I never meet these people travelling because they are mostly young enough to be my children. With that said, we have a huge thing in common; we all love to blog about traveling the world. With THAT said, I had one big difference with the majority of them. They support their travels by blogging, I do it for fun, and hopefully to entertain you my faithful readers. Maybe I am just too lazy to find sponsors, or maybe I do not want my blog to look like a NASCAR, whatever. I just do not “Monetize” (a blogger buzz word) my blog. I have nothing against those who do. In fact I admire people who can travel incessantly, and get paid by everyone from Ray Ban to American Express to support the wanderlust. It is just not my style or my need.

Amazingly the conversations did not center on war stories from different destinations. Oh there was the occasional “once upon a time in…” stories but they were more in passing than anything else. There were a lot of conversations about maintaining a blog, length of posts, how often you post and building readership. On the last point, it seems that Facebook and Twitter are the main avenues for finding new readers. I am late to both games, but since the conference I have managed to double my presence on the two of them.

Travel Boggers Unite, Umbria

This is me at what I called the speed dating session. Here we were able to meet potential sponsors, or for me better yet, people who represented locations that need more tourism. They look for people like me to go there and write about what we see and do. We were only allowed a few minutes at each table, hence my speed dating reference. I talked about a cross continental train ride in Canada and a trip to Oman to write about the new opera house. We'll see.

TBU arranged this conference, but it was the Umbria agencies for tourism and wine that hosted us in an incredible fashion.

Umbria

The Umbrians came out waving flags to welcome us at our first dinner together.

Travel Bloggers Unite, Umbria

There were about 250 of us and we ate quite well.

Perugia, chocolate

They even made us fresh chocolate goodies to promote their chocolate industry which is right behind the wine and olive oil businesses. Extremely good stuff.

After the conference Oliver arranged with The Umbrian Tourist people to take six groups off on amazing, beautiful, educational and fun trips. Ours was to wineries where we were treated like royalty. I’ll say more on that, much more, in upcoming posts. Let us just say, that when people treat me the way we got treated in Umbria, I am going to tell you about it. Hopefully it will plant the idea in your head that the region is an excellent destination for a vacation.

I want to Thank Oliver Gradwel, TBU and the region of Umbria for one of the best travel experiences of my life, AND the fact that I did not reach for my wallet once in 5 days. SWEET!

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