Lesser known regions of Italy

ROMAN THERMAL SPA REVISITED: SALICE TERME, LOMBARDY

Salice Terme, once the seat on an ancient Roman thermal spring and spa, is now a small town in the hilly region of Oltrepo Pavese, at the foot of the Apennine Mountains.

Intersection of Lombardy, Piedmont, Liguria, Emiglia Romagna

Just about a 90 minute drive south of Milan, the Oltrepo is an area South the Po River, at the crossroad of three regions: Piedmont, Lombardy, Emilia Romagna and Liguria.

Influences from these four regions are reflected in the local dialects but above all in the cuisine, where one can find recipes featuring fish from the Mediterranean Sea (i.e. bagna cauda, a warm olive oil-based sauce with anchovies), and Piedmont inspired meat-stuffed pasta (i.e. ravioli di brasato, stuffed with slow cooked beef filling), beside great wines, cheeses and salami.

The Oltrepo is famous for its vineyards and delicious wines, such as Bonarda, Gavi di Gavi, Prosecco and the sparkling whites of Santa Maria La Versa.

A thermal location known since Roman time for its spring water (there are still the ruins of an ancient Roman spring), Salice Terme and the nearby village of Rivanazzano boast spa pools feed by natural thermal spring water containing selenium, bromide and iodine, ideal for relaxing massages, mud wraps / scrubs, other healing and wellness body treatments.

As witnessed by surviving local local villas and palaces, Salice Terme was until a few decades ago the sought after destination for long summer vacations and wellness retreats of the upper class, who stayed at several prestigious local hotels to enjoy daily trips to the baths and the spa and relax in the natural beauty of the surrounding hills.

Vineyards around Salice Terme, Lombardy

While the ancient luxury of the ‘thirties and ‘forties belongs to the past, nowadays Salice Terme enjoys a renewed popularity for its closeness to large cities such as Milan and Turin, to art and historical destinations such as Pavia and Volpedo, and to the Mediterrannean Coast, as well as for its great food and wines.

In the summertime visitors can play golf in the local 18 hole golf course, splash in the large outdoor swimming pools, hike on the nearby Appennine Mountains trails, bike on the footsteps of famous biking champions such as Bartali and Coppi, taste wine in the local cellars, savor local cheeses, ravioli or salami, or simply relax in nature.

Proximity to the Salt Path Trails and the Apennine Mountain paths, make Salice Terme ideal for nature lovers, hikers, bikers, “foodies” as well as off-road motorcycling aficionados.

Shoppers will not want to miss a trip to the nearby large shopping Oulet of Serravalle Scrivia, where they can enjoy major discounts on Italian and international fashion brands such as Hugo Boss, Prada, Versace, Gucci and many, many others. At the Serravalle Scrivia outlet shopper will not only find famous clothing and fashion brands but also shoes, home accessories, watches and jewelry, cosmetics and perfumes, fine food, coffee shops and restaurants.

Delicious, homemade food along the Italian Apennine Mountains trails.

Last Summer we hosted hiking tours on the Italian Apennine Mountains. We ate great food!

Italy - Area of the Salt Paths

Italy – Area of the Salt Paths

The Italian Apennine Mountain trails food was a sort of “reward” for our somehow challenging daily 4 to 8 hour hikes from the Italian region of Piedmont to the quaint villages of Cinque Terre and Portofino, on the Mediterranean Coast.

One of the highlights of our trips, besides the breathtaking views and enchanting natural vistas of the Appennine Mountains, was the delectable Italian food we consumed during the hikes and at night, when we stopped at quaint B&Bs along our route.Salth Path 5 - Copy

For lunch we ate delicious picnic lunches: artisanal bread, local cheeses, mouthwatering mozzarella cheese, sun kissed vine tomatoes, grapes, figs and other ripe local fruits.

Delicious dinners at the end of our days

Every night we stopped at an “agriturismo” – the Italian version of country B&Bs – which also provided our amazing and overly abundant evening dinners.

As a matter of fact once arrived at our destinations at the end of our hiking day, delectable dinners were waiting for us featuring local, homemade delicious foods and ingredients: roasted wild boar, flavorful stews and roasts, hams, Italian cheeses and salami, mushroom dishes, home prepared jams and preserves, herb liqueurs and other delicacies.

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Our hosts, B&Bs owners, made sure all the hikers were well fed to face the next day’s hikes. They often prepared dinner by gathering fresh fruits and vegetable directly from their vegetable gardens or using their own made cheeses or cured meats.Dine al fresco

Despite we traveled over 60 miles in total from Piedmont to the Italian Riviera, which we reached at Portofino, (around 8-10 miles per day average), the local food could not have been more different from one location to the next.

The lower valleys of Piedmont and Lombardy provided corn and wheat for our lovely polenta and homemade pasta, mixed with chestnut flour, root vegetables, sauces, meats and delectable mushrooms.

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The not to far away Mediterranean sea provided plenty of seafood; in Liguria we ate pasta dressed by the local famous pesto, a sauce made of fresh basil, pine nuts and olive oil, all locally sourced ingredients.

Italian food ingredients

 

In the morning, we consumed healthy breakfasts of artisanal breads, jams, cheese and cold cuts. We also had fruit, two or three types of pie, strong piping hot espresso coffee, cooked by the B&Bs owners & hosts.

 

Home kitchen. Italian cooks.

After breakfast we descended from the top of mountains to trails among forests of beeches and chestnuts or hiked to peaks allowing a glimpse of the Mediterranean Sea.

When we reached the coast, after eight days of hiking in the mountains, we celebrated the end of our hiking tour in the Apennine Mountains by savoring a scrumptious gelato!

Ancient trails in the Italian Apennine Mountains: the Salt Paths

This is a repost of my last year’s blog on the Salt Paths, a network of hiking trails in Italy. Stretching for hundreds of miles along the Italian Apennine Mountains  from the inland planes and cities of Piedmont and Lombardy they connect to the Ligurian Coast, jutting on the Mediterranean Sea.

Used since prehistory, and later by Roman troops, these trails had been trekked by salt merchants during the Middle Ages until the 18th century, transporting salt from the coast.

After a short resurgence during World War II, they went forgotten for decades. These trails are now enjoying a sort of rebirth, gaining new popularity among Italian and international hikers.

The Salt Path itinerary from Piedmont to the Coast

The climate of the coastal region of Liguria is mild and the nearby sea a good source of food.

To supplement their diet the   inhabitants of this region, the Ligurian people, also extracted salt from the sea and bartered it inland for meat and grains.

Salt was, then and for a long time, a very important commodity, so vital that legionnaires during the Roman Empire were partially paid with it. The word “salary” comes from “salt.”

The most common mean of transportation for salt was backpacking, eventually supported by mules, thus carving an intricate network of paths along the Apennine Mountains sloping to she sea.

The Apennine Mountains

Churches and inns were built along paths and local rulers began to impose duties and taxes in exchange for security and the right to  cross their lands.

Many dynasties were founded on the commerce of salt and the control over its routes.

Posting stations were built and soldiers were posted on the trails to protect merchants.

From small posting stations soon entire villages and then prosperous small town towns were established such as Bobbio and Uscio.

The use of this web of trails for commerce purposes ended around the 18th century, but gained a new popularity during World War II.   Groups of Italian Partisans fighting German troops used these abandoned and overgrown paths to reach their hideouts on the Apennine Mountains, smuggling supplies and weapons to launch their attacks.

Today the Salt Path trails are experiencing a sort of renaissance thanks to a dedicated group of volunteers i.e. Club Alpino Italiano (CAI – Italian Alpine Club.

Such organization, in the recent past, has restored and marked this web of mountain paths nicknamed “the Salt Paths”,  making an area of Italy still virtually unknown until a short while ago accessible to international hikers.

Wild horses on the Italian Salt Paths

Despite still relatively unknown many hikers, from Italy and around the world, now hike these trails year round and are rewarded by lovely scenery, possibly a glimpse of wild life such as wildboars, wolves and horses having escaped from domestication and become wild. One can also admire quaint villages, breathtaking views, awesome food, and lastly, the Mediterranean Sea.

Arriving to the Mediterranean Coast, after hikes that can be long or short, depending on your choice, can be a huge reward!

Portofino, Italy - End of the hike

Portofino, Italy

 

On ancient merchants’ footprints: the Italian Apennine Mountains

This is a repost of my last year’s blog on the Salt Paths: Hiking ancient merchant trails connecting inland cities of Northern Italy to the Mediterranean Coast across the Apennine Mountains.

I hosted hiking tours on the footprints of ancient salt merchants in late Summer month with local guides & co-hosts Lorenza and Gianni. More hikes are scheduled for Spring and Summer of 2017.

Our group of hikers on our first day on the Salt Paths in Piedmont

In 8 days we hiked on separate path stretches, not following one single specific trail, starting from the quaint village of Pontecurone in Piedmont, Italy, eventually reaching the Mediterranean Sea at Portofino, on the Italian Riviera.

Italy - Area of the Salt Paths

Italy – Area of the Salt Paths

We “immersed” ourselves in more than 2000 years of history as these ancient routes had been used by prehistoric populations inhabiting these regions, later by the Romans and throughout the Middle Ages by salt merchants and their mules to transport salt from the coast to Italian inland cities.

Mount Antola

Mount Antola, Piedmont

One  of the most ancient paths, trailing high on the crest of Mount Antola (about 500 ft) on the Ligurian Apennines, offers hikers the opportunity to admire a majestic landscape in the Italian regions of Piedmont, Lombardy, Emilia Romagna, Liguria: unobstructed mountains’ views, deep valleys dotted with small hamlets, distant creeks, the Mediterranean Sea peeking among the summits at some point.

As a matter of fact, after a few days of hiking in the remote distance all members of our group could catch a glimpse of the far away Mediterranean Sea and the Ligurian Coastal villages of Rapallo, Portofino, Cinque Terre, our final destination.

We spent the night at lovely B&Bs in small villages, in the past centuries thriving posts along the Salt Paths.

Due to the huge value of salt throughout history, praised as preserving agent, essential human and animal diet component and as flavor enhancer, simple rest stations along these Apennine Mountains’ trails evolved into villages and later in larger towns with their own economies, such as  the ancient small town of Bobbio, which thrived in the Middle Ages.

Originally a convent during Roman times, the city of Bobbio became a central and favorite stopover for merchants and pilgrims during their journeys.

Enriched by the taxes imposed to merchants,  it provided rest and protection to caravans, also a spiritual haven to thousands of pilgrims en route to Rome. A Roman bridge (the Humpback Bridge built, according to a legend, by the devil), medieval churches, an ancient abbey (the Abbey of St. Columbanus) and a mosaic of byzantine origin stand as witnesses of thousands years of history.

 

The Humpback Bridge in Bobbio

We spent our nights at “agriturismos” – the Italian version of country B&Bs – which also provided our amazing and overly abundant evening dinners.

In the morning, after healthy breakfasts we slowly descended from the top of mountains to more gentle trails among forests of beeches and chestnuts.

Along the way, we passed small alpine huts, distant castle ruins, towers and farms. Eventually the sea got closer, and we could feel the salty breeze in our nostrils.

Before reaching the coast we still had time to experience another village, with its own traditions and legends. At Uscio, we visited a church built 1000 years ago, spared from destruction by the locals’ struggle against the bishop’s plans to demolish it to build a bigger one.

Close-by, we were led through a 200 year old factory Trebino Roberto featuring a private museum of the company’s main manufacturing product: church tower bells. The factory still produces tower clocks for churches all over the world. Some of their tower bells are at the Vatican, others in other main Italian churches.

Through a splendid forest our last section of trail took us to the beach town of Portofino, on the Ligurian Coast. Portofino, Italy - End of the hike

Portofino is a picturesque, half-moon shaped seaside village with pastel houses lining the shore of the harbor, shops, restaurants, cafes, and luxury hotels.

The green waters reveal abundant aquatic life. A castle sits atop the hill overlooking the village.

The vegetation had changed and the salty aroma blended with the perfume of maritime pines, colorful houses lined the harbor.

After a 8 day hike along ever changing trails, crossing wooded area, bare peaks, quaint village, we reached our destination, the Ligurian Coast, not too far from the famous Cinque Terre, the place where everything started, the origin of the Salt Paths.

We celebrated the end of our hike with a scrumptious Italian gelato!

For other incredible hiking trails in the world, check out the top 50 long distance hiking trails in the USA at: Bootbomb.com – http://bootbomb.com/info/hiking-trails/top-50-long-distance-hiking-trails-usa/

Italian Apennine Mountains: rediscovering ancient trails.

The Salt Paths are a network of hiking trails in Italy, stretching for hundreds of miles along the Italian Apennine Mountains  from the inland planes and cities of Piedmont and Lombardy to the Ligurian Coast, jutting on the Mediterranean Sea.

Italy - Area of the Salt Paths

Italy – Area of the Salt Paths

In the past these trails were never considered a playground or a hiker’s paradise. Used since prehistory, and later by Roman troops, they were trekked by salt merchants during the Middle Ages until the 18th century, transporting salt from the coast.

After a short resurgence during World War II, they went forgotten for decades. These trails are now enjoying a sort of rebirth, gaining new popularity among Italian and international hikers.

The Salt Path itinerary from Piedmont to the Coast

The Ligurian region, on the North Western Coast of Italy was in the past arid and stony, with very little arable soil and sharp cliffs.

But the climate was mild and the nearby sea a good source of food.

By building stonewalls and carrying fertile soil from Etruria, modern Tuscany the Liguri, a local pre-Roman population, transformed this area into a livable land, with abundant fruit and vegetables.

To supplement their diet the Liguri also extracted salt from the sea and bartered it inland for meat and grains.

Salt was, then and for a long time, a scarce commodity, so important that legionnaires during the Roman Empire were partially paid with it. The word “salary” comes from “salt.”

The most common mean of transportation for salt was backpacking, eventually supported by mules, thus carving an intricate network of paths along the Apennine Mountains sloping to she sea.

The Apennine Mountains

Over the course of centuries, transportation got relatively safe when traffic and commerce were thriving; other times outlaws and bandits made the journeys extremely dangerous.

Churches and inns were built along paths and local rulers began to impose duties and taxes in exchange for security and the right to  cross their lands. Many dynasties were founded on the commerce of salt and the control over its routes. Posting stations were built and soldiers were posted on the trails to protect merchants.

From small posting stations soon entire villages and then prosperous small town towns were established such as Bobbio and Uscio.

The use of this web of trails for commerce purposes ended around the 18th century, but gained a new popularity during World War II.   Groups of Italian Partisans fighting German troops used these abandoned and overgrown paths to reach their hideouts on the Apennine Mountains, smuggling supplies and weapons to launch their attacks.

Today the Salt Path trails are experiencing a sort of renaissance thanks to a dedicated group of volunteers i.e. Club Alpino Italiano (CAI – Italian Alpine Club) which, in the past years, has restored and marked this web of mountain paths in an area of Italy still virtually unknown by international tourists until a short while ago.

Wild horses on the Italian Salt Paths

Despite still relatively unknown many hikers, from Italy and around the world, now hike these trails year round and are rewarded by lovely scenery, possibly a glimpse of wild life such as boar, wolf and horses having escaped from domestication and become wild, quaint villages, breathtaking views, awesome food, and lastly, the Mediterranean Sea.

Arriving to the Mediterranean Coast, after hikes that can be long or short, depending on your choice, can be a huge reward in itself alone.

Portofino, Italy - End of the hike

Portofino, Italy

By L. Gallia and Cinzia Gallia Schlicksup

 

 

 

Hiking Italy: ancient Salt Paths from Cinque Terre to Piedmont.

Walking Italy’s centuries old Salt Paths, (Via del Sale), across the Italian Apennines from the Piedmont Region to coastal Liguria is a unique experience. Ancient trails – established since pre-Roman times until before the Second World War – were used by salt merchants and their laden mules to transport salt from the area of Genoa, on the coast of the Italian Riviera, to the interior, rich cities of Piedmont and Italy.

The Ligurian Coast

The Ligurian Coast

The Italian Appennines

The Italian Appennines

Hannibal and his elephants used this route in 218BC, recruiting Ligurian soldiers to fight the Roman Empire. Just 2,112 years later, a 16-year-old Albert Einstein walked it with a friend on his way to visit an uncle.

For hundreds of years from the Middle Ages onward, mule trains loaded with sea salt would labor up to these heights from the coast, crossing range after range of the Ligurian Apennines, which separate the Gulf of Genoa from the Po Valley in north-west Italy.

The network of paths this  precious cargo traveled on became known as the Via del Sale, the Salt Path(s).

The route takes travelers along grassy paths through the Piedmont vineyards, before heading into the Apennine foothills where vast forests of sweet chestnuts replace the vines.

Quaint Bed and Breakfast inns (Agriturismo) dot the path.

Local architecture

Local architecture

As must have been the case in the early days of the Salt Paths, much of the food that will be consumed at the comfortable local lodgings along the path is foraged or sourced nearby. Chestnuts, acacia flowers, alpine herbs, nettles and salvia leaves all find their way on to delicious recepies of pasta, risotto and frittata omelettes.  A wild funghi and pasta dish called maltagliati del frantoio can be tasted at the small village of Uscio, along the path.

Italian pasta

Italian pasta

 

The path crosses ancient forests and winds through villages forgotten in time, such as Varzi, Uscio and Bobbio.

At  the ancient market town of Varzi the trails hit the  mountains, dotted with alpine flowers – royal blue gentians, mauve pansies, ivory asphodels, orchids in their thousands and mushrooms (funghi). On a clear day, from the summit of Monte Chiappo, in the Appennines, you might see all the way to Venice.

The path starts in Piedmont and ends in Camogli, a quaint village and a port town on the Ligurian Sea, clinging onto a precipitous hillside. Gone are the alpine flowers and in their place you can find groves of oranges, lemons and olives, while the air is scented by vast arrays of jasmine, wisteria and bougainvillea.

The Ligurian Coast

The Ligurian Coast

Casa Italia will host an 8 day walking tour on the Salth Paths this Fall from Sept. 29th to Oct 6th. 2015.

This small- group guided  8 day walking tour offers a unique travel experience, immersing travelers deep into nature, silence, and history.

You will enjoy expert bilingual Italian – English guides, delicious meals, quaint country inns, seamless ground transportation, spectacular landscapes, nature, friendship, and much more.

 

Ferrara, a hidden gem.

The town of Ferrara is situated 50 kilometers (31 miles) north-northeast of Bologna, on the Po River. It has streets and numerous palaces dating from the 14th and 15th centuries, when it hosted the court of the House of Este. For its beauty and cultural importance it was qualified by UNESCO as World Heritage Site. (from Wikipedia).

Very few American travelers know it, but it’s worth a detour.

The Cathedral of Ferrara (Liboni@flickr)

The Cathedral of Ferrara (Liboni@flickr)

This travel diary, by Lorenza G., is all in Italian.

Abbiamo passato il nostro primo fine settimana nella città di Ferrara, praticamente gli unici abitanti… tutti gli altri sono andati al mare…..

Venerdi sono arrivati degli amici che passava sulla via di ritorno a casa e abbiamo fatto una cena a base di cappellacci di zucca, vera prelibatezza locale. Ieri siamo andati al vedere una battaglia in uno scenario  rinascimentale, con cavalieri e fanti e alabarde e se le davano davvero di santa ragione.

Ferrara, the Este Casle (Liboni@Flickr)

Ferrara, the Este Castle (Liboni@Flickr)

 

Alla fiera c’erano  i banchettti del villaggio medioevale, molto ben fatti, con persino l’appestato, i maniscalchi, i lavoratori della lana, del legno e vari artigiani. Interessante.

Abbiamo finito la serata nel giardino e cortile di un bellissimo palazzo con un poeta che declamava poesie di Gioachino Belli, con finale di pecorino, spumante e porchetta.

Tutta la ferrara bene, e noi… non tanto eleganti, ma almeno esotici. Ci aveva inviato il padrone di casa qualche giorno fa, ma non ci aspettavamo una cosa del genere, sfarzosa quasi, con candele da tutte le parti, tavolini e tovaglie.

Oggi dopo, la visita al mercato, stiamo in casa al freschino, che fuori ci si scioglie dal caldo.

Ferrara, shopping (Munch@Flickr)

Ferrara, shopping (Munch@Flickr)

Abbiamo due vecchissime biciclette con cui giriamo in lungo e largo… veramente non tanto perché la città è piccolissima, ma cominciamo a girare anche fuori mura.

Ferrara, bicycles in the old town (Sofia@Flickr)

Ferrara, bicycles in the old town (Sofia@Flickr)

 Abbiamo fatto qualche conoscenza, ma siamo qui da solo una settimana e non abbiamo ancora molti amici. Ma stiamo bene e ci godiamo la città, che è veramente graziosa.

Things to do if you travel to Sardinia, an enchanting island off the coast of Italy. Wind, sea and sun.

 

Sailing in Sardinia (photo by Flickr)

Sailing in Sardinia (Flickr)

Located south of the French island of Corsica and closer to the North African coast than the Italian mainland, Sardinia (Italian: Sardegna) is an autonomous region of Italy and the second largest island in the Mediterranean Sea (after Sicily).   Although being characterized by natural treasures and possessing an extraordinary cultural, artistic, historical and archaeological heritage, Sardinia is not particularly well known to most American who travel to Italy, but is certainly an Italian destination with much to offer.

Climate and Geography

With an area of 9,197 square miles and coasts covering 1,149 miles, Sardinia has an interior mainly composed of mountains and hills and a varied coastal landscape of high cliffs, long stretches of coastline, many remarkable headlands and inlets, and various smaller islands off the coast.  The island also has an ancient geoformation and is not earthquake prone, unlike Sicily and mainland Italy.

Sardinia is temperate year-round and has an average temperature between 52 to 63 °F; however, the weather is not uniform here, partly due to the island being relatively large and hilly.  Sardinia enjoys a Mediterranean climate along the coasts and plains with mild winters and hot summers, while a continental climate is found on the interior plateaus, valleys and mountain ranges with cold winters and cool summers.  The highest temperatures are felt in July and August, which is peak season for the island. Sardinian beaches can get crowded during this time as ferries bring large numbers of sun-worshippers from mainland Italy, or what the locals call il continente (the continent).

Luckily for travelers who wish to avoid the crowds during the hottest time of year, the summer on the island tends to be long with weather (and sea) temperatures generally warm enough for swimming from May until October.

Cobalt blue beach in Sardina (Photo by Flickr)

Cobalt blue ocean water in Sardinia (Flickr)

Sardinia is also known as the” isola del vento” (the windy island), due to winds that can blow quite strongly and that cross the island from all directions.  Though most prevalent from September to April, the mistral wind that comes from the north-west is the dominant wind throughout the year and makes for a sailor’s paradise.

Natural Beauty
Sardinia’s dazzling coastline with crystal-clear turquoise sea waters andbeaches of white and pink sand may be the island’s main draw, but away from the coast the scenery can be similarly stunning.   With about 50% of the territory covered by forests, Sardinia has an enviable wooded property with many forests open to the public and accessible through different trails.  In addition to the Marine Reserve of Sardinia, the island also has three national parks and over 600,000 hectares that have been environmentally preserved.

Sardinia is populated by a variety of local animal and vegetal species, including rare amphibias that are found only on the island and uncommon species of mammals such as the Sardinian Deer, the Sarcidano Horse and the Mouflon (wild sheep).

 Things to do/ Activities

Endless possibilities for a leisurely vacation can be found along Sardinia’s startlingly beautiful coastlines.  Renowned for its magnificent beaches, breathtaking cliffs and rock formations, and outer reefs with an abundance of sea life, it is not surprising that Sardinia is said to have been designed by the gods for all kinds of water sports.

Windsurfing in Sardinia (photo by Flickr)

Windsurfing in Sardinia (Flickr)

  • Windsurfing: Sardinia’s strong winds, especially towards the north coast, make windsurfing very popular
  • Sailing and boating: a great way to appreciate the island’s coastal views, with many cruise companies offering sailing excursions
Sailing and boating in Sardinia  (Flickr)

Sailing and boating in Sardinia (Flickr)

  • Scuba diving: sunken ships, marine reserves and underwater caves make Sardinia a paradise for underwater adventures.  There are also over 80 scuba diving centers that can be found throughout the island
  • Fishing: fly fishing, shore fishing, boat fishing, and nighttime surf casting are all popular in Sardinia, which likely offers the best fishing in all of Italy.
Scuba diving in Sardinia (Photo by Flickr)

Scuba diving in Sardinia (Flickr)

 

But it’s not only about water sports that Sardinia is famous for. Other activities that you can perform when on the island include

  • Rock climbing (or arrampicata): popular on the steep cliffs by the sea
  • Horseback riding: Sardinians are very fond of horses and riding stables can be found near many coastal resorts

By Ryan Bane

 

Sardinian sheep cheese, paper-thin bread and other delicacies off the coast of Italy.

 

Sardinian and Italian cuisine, with their ancient culinary history rooted in both fertile land and sea, are some of the cornerstones of culture in Italy. Italian cuisine is widely considered to be among the best (if not the best) cuisine in the world.  Although ingredients and dishes vary by region due to factors such as climate, geography and history, Italian cuisine is characterized by its simplicity and emphasis on using quality ingredients rather than cooking techniques.

The importance of quality ingredients in Italian cuisine makes Sardinia an earthly paradise for those who love fine food, as the sunny island has ideal conditions for many natural products, from both the land and surrounding sea.  Endless choices of fresh fish and seafood dishes can be found on the island thanks to its rich and rugged coastlines.  Despite the popularity of seafood dishes on the island today, many of Sardinia’s cherished foods are land-based, partly due to invasions that prompted Sardinians to find refuge in the mountains and away from the coasts.  Fertile farmlands, vast forests, and a large population of shepherds have also allowed Sardinia to become Italy’s leading producer of organic produce.  With thousands of rare species of plants and animals and local food available virtually everywhere, Sardinia remains a largely agricultural area with an eccentric cuisine that is sure to satisfy any appetite.

Meat

Sardinia is well-known for its roasted meats (e.g. suckling pig, veal lamb, goat and sheep) and for producing exceptionally lean lamb (some of the best in Italy).  The island has many famed meat dishes which typically consist of veal, agnello (lamb), agnellino (younger lamb), suckling pig, goat or sheep.  Carne equina, or horse meat, is also a common dish in Sardinia that is usually served in the form of a thin steak (bistecca).  In addition to porcheddu (roast suckling pig), carne a carraxiu (buried meat) is an especially popular dish of the island which is made by placing a calf (or other meat) in a hole and covering it with myrtle leaves; firewood is later laid on top of the hole which cures the meat.

Grilled meats, Sardinia (Photo by MCelluzza@Flickr)

Grilled meats, Sardinia (Photo by MCelluzza@Flickr)

Bread

Bread is a staple in Sardinia and the island is admired for the quality and variety of its bread.  Traditional breads may be made with white flour, semolina (hard wheat), bran or sprout.  Sardinia also has breads that are usually prepared for special occasions and can be found in certain shapes (e.g. nativity scenes).  The best-known bread on the island, and a base for many other Sardinian dishes, is the Pane Carasau, or carta di musica (music paper).  Made with hard wheat flower and kneaded with yeast, Pane Carasau is a dry handmade bread that consists of crispy, thinly sliced layers of dough.  Pane Carasau also has many variations, such as pane frattau which is made by combining tomato sauce and egg to the bread.

 

Pane Carasau, Sardinian bread (photo by Rowena@flickr)

Pane Carasau, Sardinian bread (photo by Rowena@flickr)

Cheese

With about half of Italy’s sheep milk produced in Sardinia, it’s no surprise that cheese is abundantly used in Sardinian cuisine and that the island is a major exporter of various types of cheese.  The quality of cheese on the island can be attributed to the proximity of the mountains.  An especially well-known cheese is the sharp and spicy Fiore Sardo, which is a smoked and aged over a long period.  Other traditional cheeses made in the region include pecorino sardo, ricotta, caprino, pecorino romano, and casu marzu (containing live insect larvae and now illegal in Italy).

 

Pecorino from Sardinia (photo by Anna@Flickr)

Pecorino from Sardinia (photo by Anna@Flickr)

Discovering the less known regions of Italy: Puglia

One of the less known regions of Italy, Puglia (Apulia) is located at the heel to Italy’s boot; with more than 500 miles of coast on two seas, the Adriatic and the Ionian, Puglia has all sorts of beautiful beaches. But Puglia not only has some of the brightest seas, it also boast the most diverse art and architecture and the most delicious local cuisine. Puglia, like most of southern Italy, has been conquered over and over by northern and Mediterranean armies since Greek colonizers established flourishing city-states on its coasts. More than 2,500 years later, their heirs still speak Griko, a dialect of archaic Greek, in the inland Grecia Salentina.

Trulli of Alberobello, Puglia (Apulia)

Trulli of Alberobello, Puglia (Apulia)

Art gems Roman, medieval and baroque masterpieces are everywhere. There is so much to see, but be sure not to miss, on the eastern coast, the inscrutable Castel del Monte, an octagonal castle built by the German Emperor Frederick II, one of the most powerful men in the Middle Ages, in the early 13th century. But nobody quite knows why. Isolated on a small hill, it lacks both the architecture and the location for a military fort, and it’s too imposing to be a pleasure palace. The most evocative hypothesis is that it was an intricate symbol, built around the magic intersection of astronomy, mathematics and the Christian faith.

Places to see in Puglia (Apulia):

Gargano is an area in the province of Foggia, consisting of a wide isolated mountain massif made of highland and several peaks and forming the backbone of the Gargano Promontory, projecting into the Adriatic Sea. The high point is Monte Calvo at 3,494 ft. Most of the area, about 460 sq mi, is part of the Gargano National park, founded in 1991. The Gargano peninsula is partly covered by the remains of an ancient forest, Foresta Umbra, the only remaining part in Italy of the ancient oak and beech forest that once covered much of Central Europe. The Latin poet Horace spoke of the oaks of Garganus. In the Foresta Umbra, there are many hiking trails and a small visitor center. In summer it’s a great place to escape the heat.

Gargano Promontory

In Spring, Gargano explodes in all its colorful beauty, enriched by festivals and popular local traditions. The town of Vieste, celebrates its Saint Patron, San Giorgio with a procession in the lanes of the old town center and a horse race on its beautiful beach. In the town of Mattinata, rare wild orchid flowers are collected while in Monte Sant’Angelo, in the Santa Maria di Pulsano Abbey, icons from Oriental Christian tradition are painted. The Castellana Caves (Italian: Grotte di Castellana) are a remarkable  cave system located in the municipality of Castellana Grotte, in the province of Bari, Apulia.  They are one of the most famous caves of Italy. They were discovered in 1938 by speleologists, are situated about 1 mile south of the city of Castellana and are reachable by public transportation. The entrance is represented by an enormous vertical tunnel 200 ft long. The main cave is named “La Grave” (as abyss), and others are named Black Cavern (Caverna Nera), White Cave (Grotta Bianca) and Precipice Cavern (Caverna del Precipizio). New routes found in 1982 are today used for scientific research.Gragano peninsula (2)

Adria and Castel del Monte

Castel del Monte, favorite residence of Emperor Frederick II, who built nearby the imposing 13th century castle, one of the most famous Italian castles that was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996.

The Castle has bastions of different ages. The most ancient part, called Torre dei Giganti (“Giants’ Tower”) is a pentagonal tower with thick walls. The first news on this castle dates back to 979; the castle was largely rebuilt in the late 15th century. According to a legend, the castle is currently home to the ghost of a long dead woman, Bianca Lancia (popularly known as “Biancalancia”), whose sighs can be heard especially in the winter time.

The Sanctuary of Monte St. Angelo is a Catholic sanctuary on Mount Gargano, Italy, the oldest shrine in Western Europe dedicated to the archangel Michael, an important pilgrimage site since the Middle Ages. The historic site and its surroundings are protected by the Parco Nazionale del Gargano and is a Unesco Site. The Sanctuary of the Archangel Michael, or San Michele, in the grotto dates from the 5th – 6th centuries and is the site where devotion to the Archangel Michael began. The original grotto of San Michele is said to have been consecrated by the archangel and is the only church not consecrated by human hands. The Shrine is on the ancient route, connecting important Longobard (tribes who settled in Italy in the Middle Ages) sites. It’s also a major stop on the Pilgrimage route for devotees of the Archangel Michael that connects Mont St Michel in France, the Michele Monastery in Piemonte and San Michele Sanctuary in Monte Sant’ Angelo. In the middle ages pilgrims often continued on to Jerusalem by boat.

Castel del Monte (2)

Lecce is a historic city of Puglia. It is the main city of Puglia, and is over 2,000 years old. Because of the rich Baroque architectural monuments found in the city, Lecce is commonly nicknamed “The Florence of the South”. The city also has a long traditional affinity with Greek culture going back to its foundation; the ancient populaiton of the Messapii, who founded the city are said to have been orginally from Crete, in Greece. To this day, a group of towns not far from Lecce, the griko language is still spoken, which is an ancient Greek dialect. Lecce’s monuments have been carved in the so called “Lecce stone” a very soft and malleable stone suitable for sculptures, it’s similar to limestone. Lecce is also an important agricultural center, chiefly for its olive oil and wine production.

The Lecce’s cathedral is one of the most significant cathedrals in Italy. It was originally built in 1144, and rebuilt in 1230.

Lecce’s Roman Amphitheatre, built in the 2nd century, was able to seat more than 25,000 people. It is now half-buried because other monuments were built above it over the centuries but the exposed portion is currently used for different religious and arts events.

Lecce (Puglia, Italy) The main square at evening (Baroque style)

Ostuni (Greek: Astynéon) is a city in the province of Brindisi (Puglia, Italy). Its main economic activities include tourism, attracted by its nearby sandy beaches, historical architecture, as well as an active olive and grape agribusiness. The so-called “Old Town” is Ostuni’s citadel built on top of a hill and still fortified by the ancient walls. The region around Ostuni has been inhabited since the Stone age. The town is said to have been originally established by the Messapii, a pre-classic tribe, and destroyed by Hannibal during the Punic Wars. It was then re-built by the Greeks, the name Ostuni deriving from the Greek Astu néon (“new town”). The medieval town developed around the summit of a hill, where a castle and city walls with gates were built. Ostuni is definitely worth a visit: because of its white washed walls and houses the city has been nicknamed: “The White City”.

Ostuni, the White City

Matera has gained international fame for its “Sassi” (Italian for stones).  Technically this is not in the region of Puglia, but in the nearby Region of Basilicata.The Sassi originated from a prehistoric (troglodyte) settlement, and are suspected to be some of the first human settlements in Italy. The Sassi are houses dug into the rock (locally called “tufo”) which is characteristic of Basilicata and Puglia. Many of these “houses” are really only caverns, and the streets in some parts of the Sassi often are located on the rooftops of other houses. In the 1950s, the government of Italy forcefully relocated most of the population of the Sassi to areas of the developing modern city. Infested with malaria, the unsanitary conditions were considered an affront to the new Italian Republic. However, people continued to live in the Sassi, and according to the English Fodor’s guide:  “Matera is the only place in the world where people can boast to be still living in the same houses of their ancestors of 9,000 years ago.”

When you are in Puglia, indulge in the delicious local food: the freshest seafood, the most mouth-watering cheeses, robust pasta, olive oil and wine (most famous: Primitivo).

Casa Italia will host a tour of Puglia (Apulia) in the Fall, where most of these locations can be visited.