Italy in Books - 2011 Review

Well, I almost made it. I almost read one book about Italy per month, for a year. Almost. But not quite. I haven't done a December book review. By the way, if you want to check out the December reviews on the Book after Book website, from those clever folk who have better time-management skills than me, click here.

I've enjoyed the challenge, although sometimes it's been tough reading one Italy-related book a month. It's left me feeling a little one-dimensional at times. However, I will continue to post new book reviews. I hope you'll still come and visit to read the reviews and leave comments.

So this year, I read 11 books, ranging from historical fiction to modern day Mafia, from Italian football to crime. Here's the full list (with links to my full reviews) not in chronological order, but in my order of preference.

1. A Season with Verona by Tim Parks
Maybe I'm a little biased. I like football. I like Italy. This book is tailor-made for me. Even if you don't care for soccer though, it's written well enough to take you along for the ride.

2. Rubicon by Tom Holland
Rubicon is a narrative history book that covers the rise and fall of the Roman Republic. It's ambitious certainly, but also quite bewitching. It covers the entire history of the republic, but is written in a style which is anything but dry and academic. This style means that even those with little previous knowledge of Roman history (such as me) can soon find themselves totally engrossed in the story of the Republic's rise and fall.

3. Naples '44 by Norman Lewis
Naples '44 is an autobiographical account of a British army intelligence officers experience in Naples in 1944. It's a beautifully written even-handed portrayal of the craziness of war, told with affection and intelligence. I enjoyed it immensely.
4. Christ stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi
Christ stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi was first published in 1945 and is a first-hand account of the author's exile in the towns of Basilicata during 1935-1936. The book doesn't really go anywhere, there isn't really a plot, a murder mystery to solve, or anything like that, but it's none the poorer for it.

5. The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli 
Il Principe is a political treatise from the 16th Century, and is considered to be the Bible of realpolitik. This is a fascinating book, even if you're not into politics.

6. Gomorrah by Roberto Saviano
I have to recommend Gomorrah by Roberto Saviano as an excellent book for those with an interest in the murkier side of Italy. Saviano writes beautifully, from the heart. He writes with passion, and his frustration at the stranglehold il sistema holds on his city is evident throughout the book. It's a must read.

7. Etruscan Places by D.H. Lawrence
Etruscan Places follows D.H. Lawrence as he travels around the maremma with his companion Brewster, staying in cheap hotels as he visits Etruscan ruins in Cerverteri, Tarquinia, Vulci and Volterra. An interesting read, both for the Etruscans and also as an insight into Italy as it was in the time of D.H. Lawrence.

8. See Naples and Die by Penelope Green
Set in Naples, See Naples and Die is the story of Australian journalist Penelope Green's adventures as she moves from Rome to her new home, in search of a new life and the one thing missing - gainful employment. This was a pleasant holiday read while in Naples, so I enjoyed it. Had I never been to Naples however, I would have been less bothered.

9. The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano 
The Solitude of Prime Numbers follows the lives of two people, Mattia and Alice, recounting character-building (and destroying) episodes during their formative years, and their subsequent search for that missing something as they get older. I found the book intriguing, but it did seem to fizzle out after half way through.

10. A Death in Tuscany by Michele Giuttari 
A Death in Tuscany is a relatively fast-paced crime thriller that follows the head of Florence's elite Squadra Mobile as he tackles an ever-evolving case that starts with the discovery of a young girl's body and leads to him fearing for his career, friends, and his own life. It's a pleasant read, but nothing special.

11. A Time in Rome by Elizabeth Bowen
Despite coming last in my list (it was a tough year, there were lots of strong candidates etc., etc.) I still enjoyed this book. Unfortunately, the writing style didn't quite work for me, and I found it hard-going in some sections.

If you fancy reading any of the books above, they can be found in the special 'Italy in Books' section of the LazioExplorer amazon store.
I'd like to thank all those kind, generous bloggers who have not only commented on my book review posts but also everyone else who has taken part in the Italy in Books challenge. Finally, of course, I have to thank Brighton Blogger herself, who came up with the idea. I hope to hear from you all again, both on your blogs and from your comments on my new book reviews in the new year!

Think I've got the order wrong? Leave a comment below.

Italy in Books - A Death in Tuscany by Michele Giuttari

One of the most rewarding aspects of writing a blog is forming relationships with fellow bloggers and tweeters with similar interests. Thanks to one of these relationships, with LindyLouMac, I have the pleasure of reviewing a book I wouldn't normally choose to read, a crime thriller. This review is my November entry for the 'Italy in Books' challenge. Click this link for the other November reviews.

A Death in Tuscany, by Michele Giuttari, is a relatively fast-paced crime thriller that follows the head of Florence's elite Squadra Mobile as he tackles an ever-evolving case that starts with the discovery of a young girl's body and leads to him fearing for his career, friends, and his own life. The young girl is suspected of dying of a drug overdose, of being a 'druggie' and the case is quickly filed away, both at the police station and the local hospital. However, Michele Ferrara, the police chief, feels that something isn't right. Partly the speed with which the doctors are quick to judge the girl, compounded by their ideas that she could be an immigrant and therefore even less trouble to deal with, and partly the fact that the girl is "little more than a child", leads Michele to start to investigate further, drawing unwanted attention from various nefarious powers and dragging him deeper into a world far beyond his powers. It sounds a little far-fetched when I write it like that, but the story moves along at a good pace and is sadly quite believable. I found the book easy to read and interesting enough to pick-up every night. The story itself isn't too complex, but there were enough twists and turns to keep this admittedly novice crime thriller reader happy.

The author is a former head of the Florence police force, and this certainly helps give some authenticity and weight to the story. However, at times the plot seemed to be a bit too convoluted and formulaic. One could guarantee that at some point, some mafia or secret society would be involved (yes), that his peers and superiors would disown him (infatti), but that, through it all, his natural superiority and intellect ensures he prevails against all adversity (predictably). In short, while I enjoyed the start of the book, as it wore on, and layer upon layer of cliched Hollywood movie-style faux-complexity is heaped upon the reader's sagging shoulders, I found myself having to suspend belief and simply roll with it as it turned from a detailed crime thriller into a crime joyride. Having said that, there's nothing wrong with a crime thriller taking liberties with the plot and plausibility (just ask Dan Brown) and I still enjoyed the ride.

Overall then, I enjoyed it. While not being my usual type of book, and while I'm sure there are far better examples of Italian crime novels, for example the Montalbano series by Andrea Camilleri or Romanzo Criminale by Giancarlo de Cataldo, I can recommend A Death in Tuscany as a quick read for someone who's happy to suspend belief a few times and go with the flow. It's enjoyable, if a little too 'Hollywood' at times.

A Death in Tuscany by Michele Giuttari is published by Abacus and is available in all good bookshops or can be bought from Amazon (through the LazioExplorer store).

Incidentally, if you'd like a different perspective, check out this review from LindyLouMac.

Finally, to continue in the spirit of Bookcrossing, started by Lindyloumac, I'm happy to post this book to someone if they would like to read it, just let me know, first come first served :-)

Beaches around Rome

Rome is famed for its history, drama, food and culture. But what if it's too much? What if you're all "historyed" out, you've done the Pantheon, the Colosseum, the foro romano, the Vatican...? What if you need a break from all the scooters, noise and dirt? Maybe it's time to head to the beach.

Chestnuts, wine, and Palazzo Farnese... a great day out this Saturday

Regular readers will already know, I love Caprarola, the small comune near Viterbo, in northern Lazio. I don't need any excuse to go there. To see beautiful Palazzo Farnese, combined with a trip to lago di Vico, or simply to walk the streets and go to my favorite agriturismo.

Italy in Books - A season with Verona, by Tim Parks

I couldn't manage it - The Italy in Books 2011 Reading Challenge that is, without a Tim Parks book. For many Italophilic readers, he will have been the entry point to Italy. But which book to choose? An Italian Education? Europa? Well, given this reader is a 'he' and interested in calcio, there can be only one. A Season with Verona - Travels around Italy in search of Illusion, National Character and Goals. The one where he follows Hellas Verona, a small team from the north-east of Italy, all over Italy. He indulges in a necessary evil, following the team to every match, home and away, over the course of a season. Why? To understand the Italian football fan, to understand Italian football, and ultimately, to understand Italy.

So, in order to like this book you'll have to like football/soccer, right? Or at least have a passing interest? Well, I wouldn't say that you do actually. Sure, there's some talk of the game, and it would help if you've been to a match or at least had a passing interest, but the main focus are the people, not the game. He joins the brigate on the away games, observing the way they interact, both between themselves, urging each other on in a strange imaginary battle with society. With amazing access, he follows the football team itself - the players, manager and chairman, how they cope with the pressure of the big game, the fans braying for a good performance, and the hate mail and chants when it all seems to be going wrong.

"Facci sognare"

The book is set out chronologically, almost like a diary, which, as long as you don't cheat and go online to check out the results that season, can make it quite exciting. Each chapter is a story in its own right, detailing a particular episode. For example, in the very first chapter, Tim Parks travels all the way down to Bari (right on the heel of Italy) with the brigate and experiences a real baptism of fire as he deals with their idiosyncrasies and bizarre coping mechanisms. He details the experience of the 'real football fan', following the team through anything, even an all night bus filled with drink and drugs. Later in the book, the author meets the chairman of the club (who is hated by the fans, but, as far as I could tell, for no good reason), and the players, accompanying them on flights to away games (rather than the old rickety buses with the 'real fans'). It's hard to know which part of the book I enjoyed the most.

The passion of the fans, players, and all the people associated with the club is conveyed very well, along with the very 'italian-ness' of it all. As a football fan, who has gone to many stadia around the world, I understand the reasons for the chants, the tribalism of it all, the headlessness of being lost in a sea of emotion. The book covers all this, and is a great introduction into calcio for the uninitiated among us. What this book does well though is show all this through an Italian lens. Why do Italian fans seem to want to go to war with each other, while actually helping each other to enjoy the game? There is a section in the book (chapter 7), which goes into this. Of course, Italian football fans are like football fans anywhere around the world. They want their team to win. What makes it interesting is that they mix this desire with local and national stereotypes and politics. On a crowd level, they direct this at the masses, while on an individual level, many actually have no prejudice or malice against people from other parts of Italy or across the political spectrum. It's a performance. Indeed, in a charming passage in the book, the author describes how, after a gust of wind blows the Gialloblu cap off the head of a supporter, the fans stop chanting their very insulting abuse and in fact ask very politely for the opposing fans to give the cap back. What do the opposing fans do? They give back the cap. They all clap. Then they resume hostilities.

"Forza Hellas! Forza gialloblu`!"

Overall then, I like this book. I can recommend it for the football fan, regardless of their interest in Italy, and for the Italophile with a passing interest in a sport so perfectly matched to the Italian predilection for drama and performance.

A Season with Verona by Tim Parks should be available in all good book shops (or can be bought from our Amazon store here) and is published by Random House books.

Also, if you want to hear from the author himself about his experiences while writing the book, click here.

This book review is my October entry for the Italy in Books reading Challenge. The other entries can be found here.

Caprarola - Festa della Castagna

As I mentioned in a previous post, now is the time for chestnuts in Italy. Earlier this month, there was a Sagra della Castagna in Soriano nel cimino, and now, until the end of October, there is another in the beautiful comune of Caprarola, around 73k (45 miles) north of Rome.
The festival in Caprarola started last Saturday, and continues till the 6th November. The full schedule (in Italian), is available on the Pro Loco site. In brief, over the next two weekends, there will be various processions, tours and of course, meals associated with chestnuts in and around Caprarola. If you like chestnuts, it's well worth a visit.
Caprarola, on a less than sunny day
It's a long way to go (from Rome) just for Chestnuts. Is there anything else to do in Caprarola while you're there? Well, luckily for you, there's quite a bit! It's a beautiful town, perched on top of a hill (it's name means 'hill of the goat'). Everywhere you look there are stunning views over the surrounding countryside (including to Monte Soratte - check out the last photo on my post here), plus, there's a fantastic Palazzo, Palazzo Farnese, which I need to write about sometime.

The inside of Palazzo Farnese is faded somewhat, but still contains beautiful paintings
The gardens are worth a visit in their own right

In the meantime, you can check out my post about Palazzo Farnese, Caprarola and nearby Ronciglione for @arttrav on her wonderful blog. Enjoy the festival!

Photo credits:

The rest are copyright

Italy in Books - Christ stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi

Christ stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi was first published in 1945 and is a first-hand account of the author's exile in the towns of Basilicata during 1935-1936. I'm not sure why I chose it really. I guess one reason is curiosity. I've never been further south than Sorrento in Italy, and from speaking to my Nonna-in-law, I know Italy in 1935 was a very different place. I guess then, I wanted to see a different Italy, separated in space and time, to that which I see today, just to get some perspective. Anyway, enough about me, what about the book?

Due to his anti-fascist beliefs and activism, Carlo Levi was banished to essentially the middle of nowhere by Benito Mussolini. A native of Turin, the medical doctor initially struggles to adapt to his new surroundings, feeling like a fish out of water. He entered a world centuries away from his own, cut off from the state, with it's own cycles of sorrow and hardship, where the people seem to be from a completely different country, relying on ancient folklore and witchcraft, rather than religion and imperial order. Slowly, perhaps predictably, he begins to see past the outward differences in clothing and mannerisms to understand the people. From the ambitious local 'gentlemen', trapped in generational pretty squabbles over local disputes, to the commoners, working long hours under the unrelenting sun. While the premise may sound a little formulaic, the book is so well written, both in terms of prose and in terms of historical documentation, that I found it hard to put down. Dr Levi observes the locals, befriends them, and very quickly loses his prejudice and outsider tag. He spent little over a year in Lucania (now, roughly, Basilicata), staying in two towns, Gagliano, and Grassano, spending his time talking to the locals and indulging in writing and painting both the people and the barren landscape they inhabit.

The title of the book comes from the fact that Christianity (read civilisation) appears to have stopped in a small town, about half-way between Naples and the town of Gagliano, called Eboli. The locals of Gagliano don't consider themselves part of Italian society, nor Christians, and indeed, use the two terms synonymously. That's it. This is all the book is about. Doesn't sound much does it? The book doesn't really go anywhere, there isn't really a plot, a murder mystery to solve, or anything like that, but it's none the poorer for it. Dr Levi details the local culture, from the casual approach to sex to the coming of the pig doctor, with local rivalries, mystical townsfolk, witches, crestfallen priests and rampant malaria all added to the palette of personalities that grace the page.

In the end, the book is all about the journey, rather than the destination, and despite my initial annoyance that it was a bit slow and not going anywhere, I was sad when I finished it, as I was completely submerged into the strange, anachronistic world in which Levi found himself. For this, and for the richness of the language and the pleasure I had through being immersed in 1935 Lucania, I can heartily recommend this book.

Christ stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi should be available in all good book shops (or can be bought from Amazon here) and is published by Penguin books.

The other September reviews in the Italy in Books challenge can be found here.

Chestnut festivals in Lazio - Sagre delle Castagne

Updated 25/09/2012.

It's harvest time in Lazio. That means only one thing in the province of Viterbo... Sagre delle Castagne! These festivals feature everything chestnut-y (Castanea sativa) and are thrown all over Northern Lazio.

One of the largest is in Soriano nel Cimino, about 11km east of Viterbo, north of Lago di Vico. As with most sagre, it features a medieval parade and open air restaurants. What sets it aside from others, apart from its size, are two unique events. The first is a Palio, where the four quarters of Soriano nel Cimino compete against each other in medieval sports such as jousting and archery. The second, a reenactment of an ancient battle with neighboring Vignanello, where the sorianesi successfully defeated and indeed killed the Count of Vignanello, who tried to take Soriano, coveting it for himself.

The festival starts on the 28th September and finishes on the 14th October. Check out their promo video below, it's amazing (especially considering it's about chestnuts!). Click through to their website for more information.

For a full list of sagre in the provincia di Viterbo, not just for chestnuts but also mushrooms (e.g. the Sagra del Fungo Ferlenga in Tarquinia) and sausages (e.g. the Sagra della Salsiccia in Morlupo on the 27-28th October) click on this link to the folclore website (in italian).

If you have a glut of chestnuts yourself (what would that be called, a cacophony, a catastrophe?), check out this blog post from Pane, amore e Creatività, which gives 100 cooking recipes using chestnuts, which should keep you going for a while ;)

Fabulous Fondi

Everyone knows that the best explorers don't do everything alone. They ask for help and advice along the way, not just from fellow travelers but also from the locals. An area I don't know so well is just south of Rome, the province of Latina. Here, guest blogger Rick Sotis gives us a personal tour of Fondi, a small town in the province of Latina, where he and his wife have a small holiday home.

Fondi is a magical little town located midway between Rome and Naples about 8 miles from the Mediterranean Sea. My life became entwined with this beautiful city many years ago because it is the place where my grandparents were born. My wife, Mia, my father, Giacomino and myself have visited Fondi twice in the last year and a half. There are a few things to boast about to you in and around Fondi. So as your tour guide, get ready for a written and pictorial holiday. Here we go!

Sagra della Porchetta!

Every so often, something comes along that makes you thankful you're in Italy. Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls, if you like pork, that something may involve the town of Ariccia, just south of Rome, right about now.

For four days in September (predicted to be from Tuesday 3rd in 2013), Ariccia is home to a Sagra della Porchetta (festival of porchetta). The town of Ariccia, about 27km south-east of Rome, is one of the castelli romano towns, perched in the Albani hills. 
This year is the first year they hold the festival after the porchetta from Ariccia received an IGP mark, conferring protected geographical status for porchetta from Ariccia. Porchetta is a savory, fatty, and moist boneless pork roast. The body of the pig is gutted, deboned, arranged carefully with layers of stuffing, meat, fat, and skin, then rolled, spitted, and roasted, traditionally over wood. It's often heavily salted, in addition to being stuffed with garlic, rosemary, or fennel. Although popular across Italy, it is believed to have originated in central Italy, from Ariccia. Porchetta is one of two iconic culinary products of the Lazio region, the other being the sheep cheese pecorino romano, and you know what they say, 'when in Rome...'

The festival starts with a wagon working it's way through town around 6pm on the Thursday night, throwing sandwiches filled with porchetta into the waiting crowd, followed by the town band and local folk groups. There is a festival atmosphere with music, workshops and the all important porchetta every night of the sagra.

Pork, music, a picturesque Castelli Romano town, all just outside Rome... what are you waiting for?

By car from Rome:
- take the GRA  ring road and take exit number 23 SS7 Appia
- head on the SS7  Appia in the direction of Ciampino- Albano Laziale
A 1  Roma Napoli motorway exit for Monteporzio Catone
By bus: Cotral lines departing from  Roma – Anagnina station
By train: Trains from Roma Termini go to Albano Laziale, approximately 2km from Ariccia.

Photo credit:

Italy in Books - A Time in Rome by Elizabeth Bowen

I'll be honest, I'd never heard of this book when I picked it up. I was in the local library, thinking about the Italy in Books reading challenge, looking for something different, when this book jumped out. I read it without any preconceptions or expectations. Was my impulsiveness rewarded or betrayed? Here's my review of A Time in Rome, by Elizabeth Bowen...
It's not a guide book, nor is it a love story, though in some ways you could say it's both. It's mainly a travelogue, written in 1960, following the authors ruminations over her four months stay in Rome. It's written in an interesting style, which is unfortunately rather dated. The book also has an unusual (for the present day) sentence structure, which can sometimes grate. This is my main gripe with the book, its grammatical style. For whatever reason (perhaps my own grammatical idiosyncrasies), I found it hard to read, not for the content, but for the strange, convoluted sentence structure. Another complaint comes from the over-embellishment and almost aloof superiority with which it appears to be written. Having said all that, once I'd trudged through the first 70 pages or so, either the style improved or I had adapted to it, as I found myself warming to the author and enjoying the book more.

There's no doubt that the author is well versed in the classics. The sections on ancient Rome, covering the foro romano and the palatino were fantastic, and would be a great accompaniment to a walking tour, as the author really brings the ruins to life. Indeed, I got the impression that, were she alive today, she would make a fascinating guide to the eternal city, and, one suspects, pretty much everything else as well. I've learned quite a bit of history from the book, not just of Roman times, but also of the changes to the city afterwards. I never felt like I was learning though, more as if I was listening to a knowledgeable friend. Rather refreshingly, I got the impression that the author wasn't in love with the city, but merely amused by it. This made for a more objective view. There weren't any charming lotharios or romantic swooning views, merely descriptions of feelings and moments. A Time in Rome is a personal portrait of the city. Occasionally it can be rambling, but overall, it transported me to the author's world and gave me a few enjoyable hours, which is all one can ask for in a book.

Overall then, despite my initial reservations, I liked A Time in Rome. The combination of seeing Rome in the 1950s, from a very different perspective, made for an interesting read. Would I recommend it? I would have to say probably not. However, if you find yourself with some time in Rome, I can think of worse books to indulge.

A Time in Rome by Elizabeth Bowen is published by Random House and is available on Amazon and in all good bookshops.

I read this book as my August entry for the Italy in Books reading challenge. The August reviews from the other participants can be found here.

La Macchina di Santa Rosa in Viterbo

Saint Rose, or Santa Rosa, born in the Northern Lazio city of Viterbo in 1235, didn't have a lot of luck. She died at the end of her teens, although not before having set in motion her canonization over 200 years later, due to her holiness and miraculous powers. Unfortunately, even the sands of time have been unkind to Santa Rosa, as many of the records of her acts have since been lost, although those that do remain detail her banishment from Viterbo due to being so successful as to be considered a serious threat to the holy Roman emperor. 

Thankfully though, Santa Rosa was allowed to return to the city of her birth in 1251, although it was just a year later that she succumbed to a heart condition called Cantrell's syndrome.

Santa Rosa is the patron saint of people in exile, people rejected by religious orders, and indeed, the city of Viterbo. To honor her, the Viterbese celebrate her feast day on the 4th September, with a large market and various festivities throughout the city. On the evening of the 3rd September, 100 men (the porters, or Facchini di Santa Rosa) transport a 28 meter high construction, the Macchina di Santa Rosa, through the streets of Viterbo, echoing the route her body took in 1258, from the former church of Santa Maria del Poggio to the church of Santa Maria delle Rose. The whole route is apparently a little bit more than 1km. If you want to see it, get there early as the surrounding streets fill up pretty quickly.
About an hour before the Macchina arrived, we were ready.  Apparently a few other people were as well.

The transport of the Macchina begins at the Porta Romana. Around 8pm (theoretically, although it seemed to start much later when we were there), the 800 candles of the Macchina are lit and the street lights along the route and nearby streets are switched off. At around 9pm, the porters begin the first leg of the route, usually signaled to the rest of the spectators along the route by raucous cheering. When we heard this, we knew we had another hour or so to wait before the Macchina would hopefully make an appearance. Just enough time to queue for another beer :-)

Always the shy one, La Macchina peaks out above a nearby building
Of course, the porters can't carry the Macchina all the way in one go. In fact, they stop at a number of places along the way. Most of the porters only carry the Macchina for some of the way, swapping with others for different legs of the journey. The porters take a break at:
  • Piazza Fontana Grande
  • Piazza del Plebiscito (in front of the guildhall)
  • Piazza delle Erbe
  • Corso Italia (in front of the church Santa Maria del Suffragio)
  • Piazza del Teatro.
Here, after waiting for about 2.5hrs, we get our view
As you can see from the photos, the Macchina is quite eye-catching. It's redesigned every 5 years. The construction's maximum height has to be 28 meters, with a maximum width of 4.3 meters, in order to allow it to pass through the narrow medieval streets. The last time we went was in 2009 (when these photos were taken), which was the first time the current Macchina, called 'Fiore del Cielo', or Flower of the Sky, was used. Designed by architects Artuto Vittori and Andreas Vogler, the design is characterized by three golden helices twisting skywards.
Yes I know this photo is so big it messes up the page but I wanted you to see Fiore del Cielo in all her glory

The last stretch up to the church of Santa Rosa is quite steep, so the Macchina stays there for quite some time. This is a good place to view if you can get there early enough to get a good position. If you can't get too close to La Macchina on the night itself, you'll get another chance in the following days as it is left in front of the church for viewings.

So, if you're in or near Viterbo around the 3rd September, why not head down there to check out this ancient festival? It's one of the more unusual and emotional spectacles in Northern Lazio and is a really great occasion as the whole city comes out to celebrate and take part in the festivities.

More on La Macchina di Santa Rosa can be found on Wikipedia and on the excellent News from Italy blog.

The BIRG pass - your gateway to Lazio (and Rome)

Imagine it, you've landed in Lazio, and you've got a few days to explore. You don't want the hassle of hiring a car, and you want the benefit of fully immersing yourself in Roman culture, through taking public transport. Perhaps you're staying outside of Rome and fancy getting the train in.

Which ticket do I buy?

The BIRG, or Biglietto Integrato Regionale Giornaliero, is an 'Integrated Regional Daily Ticket' travelcard that gives an unlimited number of journeys until midnight on the day it is activated. This is the one you need if you're heading into Rome (and back again) from out of town and want unlimited travel while you're there. For example, we often get a BIRG from Stimigliano to Stazione Tiburtina in Rome for 7€. It's cheap, convenient, and allows us to avoid the stress of driving in the chaotic traffic and looking for a parking space somewhere in Rome.

Where can I use it?

On public transport within Rome:
- on buses, trams, trolleybuses and Cotral coaches
- on metro lines within Rome

Within Lazio:

- on Met.Ro regional trains, e.g those from Rome to Civitavecchia, Rome to Viterbo or Rome to Fiumicino (with a supplement), plus many more, obviously
- on Trenitalia regional trains (travelling second class only), e.g. Rome to Orte

Cost per zone:
to cover 1 zone 2,50€
for 2 zones 4,50€
for 3 zones 6,00€
for 4 zones 7,00€
for 5 zones 9,00€
for 6 zones 10,50€
for 7 zones 10,50€

(at time of writing - 21st August 2011)

You'll notice that there are only 6 zones on the map, yet there are price tariffs for 7 zones. Why? Well, the central red zone of Rome counts as two zones. Plus, as noted in the comments below, Fiumincino is in zona B, so you need a ticket for three zones if you want to go on a non-express train from Rome to Fiumicino (as oppose to the leonardo express, which goes from stazione Termini direct to Fiumicino airport and costs around 10€).

Where can I buy it?

Many things in Italy can seem a little more convoluted than normal to outsiders. Where would you buy a ticket for the bus? In a local bar, obviously. All tickets must be pre-purchased before getting on board and are available for sale at ATAC counters, tabacchi (anywhere with the T-sign outside - the bars nearby a train/bus stop are usually also tabacchis) newsagents, and at automatic ticket dispensers (often found on the platform at busier stations). Tickets should be validated at the beginning of the journey, either on the tram/bus itself, or in the train station before departure. Failure to do this can result in a hefty fine. Trust me, they do come and check.

Validate or face a very stern revenue protection officer

If you're just traveling in Rome, and you aren't sure how many journeys you might do in that day, you should get a cheaper Biglietto Integrato a Tempo, or 'BIT' which costs 1€ and is valid for up to 75 minutes of travel on ATAC buses, or for one trip on the metro or suburban train lines. Likewise, if you plan to be out all day and know you are going to make a number of journeys, you're better off buying a Biglietto Integrato Giornaliero (BIG), which costs 4€. Weekly tickets, such as the Carta Integrata Settimanale (CIS) and monthly passes are also available, not just for in Rome but also for travel around Lazio. Further information on these and many more can be found on the ATAC website, in both English and Italian. See BrowsingRome for a great post on public transport in Rome. Happy traveling!

Roman Holiday

No, not the film with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, but August in Rome. Romans, as with many Italians, escape the suffocating summer heat of the city and head for the hills, or more commonly, the beach. Ferragosto, the 15th August, a midsummer Roman holiday, originally the Feast of the Assumption, marks the height of this summer exodus.

The Catholic church celebrates this day as the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but before Catholicism, Ferragosto was celebrated in the Roman Empire to honor Diana (the Goddess of the hunt), and the cycle of fertility and ripening. This is where, purportedly, the present Italian name of Ferragosto comes from, the Latin Feriae Augusti, the festival of the Emperor Augustus, although I'm not completely sold on that one (sorry Wikipedia, you can't win them all).

In the past, almost the entire month of August was taken as a vacation by Italians. However, this appears to be changing, especially in the North, with most Italians only taking a short holiday around Ferragosto, or using it to mark the start of a two week, rather than four week holiday.

But what to do if you stay?

Well, Rome doesn't shut down completely. All the usual monuments and museums are still open and on top of this, there is the great Estate Romana, a collection of both indoor and outdoor activities across the city, from the centre to the suburbs. They host events in the more obvious places, such as museums and nightclubs, to the more obscure, such as nursing homes, hospitals and prisons. There's always something going on most nights, which is good as many theatres, cinemas and nightclubs close between June and September. Some move to outdoors venues, while others relocate to the busy seaside of Ostia, just outside Rome. If you're in Rome over Ferragosto itself, you could head to the Gran Ballo di Ferragosto, which happens across the whole of Rome, with a different dance style in each piazza.The advantage of the August exodus is that Rome is slightly quieter than usual. The metro is emptier and the streets a little less busy. One major problem in August (I find), is where to eat. Most restaurants close down for at least a few weeks and often only the very worst tourist joints remain. Thankfully, the New York Times has a great list of where one can eat in Rome in August. For a good list of what's still open in terms of shops, exhibitions and the like, check out Buzz in Rome. So while many Romans will be away, there's still plenty to do in Rome itself.

And in Lazio...
Many towns and villages in Lazio also celebrate Ferragosto with festivals and sagre. A good list of them can be found (in Italian) on the folclore website. Highlights include a Potato sagra in Grotte di Castro and a gnocchi sagra in San Lorenzo Nuovo, both in the province of Viterbo, and a day filled with theater, dance, art and music (among many other things) in Morlupo, just outside Rome on the via Flaminia (SS3). Of course, if you want to do as the Romans, head out to Ostia, on the Mediterranean coast, where there's not only a truly authentic Italian beach experience, but also a film festival in honor of Italian musical directors.

But wherever you are, take a day off, turn off the TV and relax. It's the middle of summer, ferragosto. It's there to be enjoyed...

Photo credits:
Roman holiday - Wikipedia
Beach - city-weekend breaks
Gnocchi - Travelpod
No copyright infringements intended.

Italy in Books - The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli

I've wanted to read this book for a long time. You know how it goes, when a book and an author transcend their medium and become part of the cultural fabric of not just one country, but many countries throughout the world, You want to see what all the fuss is about. Is it a good book? Is it worth it? Did it turn me into a cunning, scheming, and unscrupulous chancer? Read on to find out...

The Prince, or Il Principe in the original Italian, is a political treatise from the 16th Century, and is considered to be the Bible of realpolitik. Written by Niccolò Machiavelli as a gift to  Lorenzo di Piero de' Medici, grandson of "Lorenzo the Magnificent", it is well written, and quite easy to follow. The book is split into 25 short chapters and filled with great soundbites. The first part of the book covers the idea of the state, the different kinds of state there are and how they work, so that one may know how to succeed in them and how to take power. It's staggeringly prosaic in style and piercingly intelligent. The middle part of the book goes on to describe how to rule a state, how to add states together, to create new states and so on. It's so relentless in its pursuit of control and power that sometimes I found myself stopping to draw breath at the audacity and ambition with which the whole book is imbued. 

"Since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved."

The final section of the book details the different sides to a prince, and how he must use them all at different times, often with his subjects perceiving them in a different light. I found the whole book fascinating, but perhaps this final section was the most memorable for me. It's written in a conversational style and, while it was a little too dry and calculating in some parts (this is a guy who really wants power at any cost), I was still intrigued enough to continue. Sounds too much? My version was only 113 pages in length (it was a Penguin book from the UK). While being such a short book, as you can see from what it covers, it has a lot to say.

"One must be a fox in order to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten off wolves"

Overall, it seems to be the guide for how to seize power and hold onto it. I'm sure every politician has read it and simply through reading it myself, I've found myself watching people and how they interact in a slightly different way. It's obvious that Machiavelli was an extremely intelligent man, who understood how both a person and people work. Is it a good book? Is it worth it? Absolutely, even if you aren't into politics. Did it turn me into a cunning, scheming, and unscrupulous chancer? No, but I hope that after reading it I'll have a better chance of spotting one!

The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli should be available in all good book shops (or can be bought from Amazon here) and is from a variety of publishers (as it is essentially out of copyright).

The other July reviews in the Italy in Books challenge can be found here.

Monte Soratte - la montagna piu` bella dal mondo!

My parents-in-law live in a hilltop paradise. I've already written a bit about it. Perched on the shoulder of Monte Soratte, Sant'Oreste is a great place to visit, full of festas, sagres, medieval streets and hidden-away bars and pizzerias. However, I'm not here to write about that. I want to write about the mountain itself, a narrow, isolated limestone ridge, peaking at 691m high, with a length of 5.5 km and six peaks. What's spectacular about it, is that it's completely on its own. The Sabine mountain range to its East, the coast visible to the West, it stands proudly above a fertile plain where both high-speed Freccia Rossa trains and the Tiber flow, at different speeds, south to Rome.

Italy in Books - See Naples and Die by Penelope Green

Set in Naples, See Naples and Die is the story of Australian journalist Penelope Green's adventures as she moves from Rome to her new home, in search of a new life and the one thing missing - gainful employment.

What follows is a description of culture shock and true friendship as she adapts to living in the noisy heart of Naples. She befriends her landlord, tries (and fails) to impress the local men with her cooking, all while constantly looking over her shoulder for thieves and motorcycled muggers.

See Naples and Die is a combination of travel-writing and story-telling. Initially, I found it to be a little too much on the outside, constantly criticizing the locals and their supposed fatalistic attitude. However, as soon as I was beginning to find this really annoying (so much so that I almost stopped reading) she began to concentrate a little more on the smaller things in life, and her personal adventure in particular. I found this quite rewarding as she took me on her journey from being very much an outsider to understanding and assimilating somewhat into the local scene and culture.

I liked See Naples and Die, but only after I finished it. A large section of the book was devoted to a fascination with the camorra (the mafia), but didn't seem to go into any real detail and to my mind didn't really add anything to the book.  However, I did enjoy reading the book and I certainly don't think it's badly written, just perhaps a little dull (to my taste) in places. I'd be tempted to read some of her other books, but, while See Naples and Die was an okay read, I couldn't say that can I recommend it.

See Naples and Die is published by Hachette Australia and should be available in all good book shops (or can be bought from Amazon in the UK here).

The other May reviews in the Italy in Books challenge can be found here.

Flower displays/infiorate for corpus domini

Corpus Domini, also known as Corpus Christi, is a Catholic feast day. It honors the Eucharist, and as such it does not commemorate a particular event in Jesus's life. It often occurs on a Sunday but in 2013 it falls on the 30th May (with many processions still taking place on the following Sunday).

Infiorata in Casamari

Why is this of interest? Well... many places in Lazio celebrate the days around this festival with infiorata, or flower displays (many have festivals on the 1-8th June this year). At some places, this is simply a pleasant art festival with designs composed of flower petals displayed in front of the main church. Certain towns however, take it to a whole new level. As you can imagine, civic pride can really get into its zone on this one. Lazio is blessed with two big contenders. Starting with perhaps the biggest of them all...


Infiorata in Bolsena
Many towns in Northern Lazio put on grand displays of infiorata, such as in Ronciglione or Capranica, but the most famous is Bolsena, site of a miracle in 1263. A Bohemian priest, in doubt about the doctrine of Transubstantiation, reported bleeding from the host he had consecrated at Mass. Blood fell from the host onto the altar cloth and marble altar (the Cathedral in Orvieto was eventually built to commemorate the miracle and house the Corporal of Bolsena). This Eucharistic miracle led the Pope of the time, Pope Urbano IV, to institute the feast of Corpus Domini every year on the second Sunday after Whit Sunday. So Bolsena was the site of the miracle that gives the Catholic world Corpus Domini. A carpet of flowers is laid on the procession route for a distance of about 3 km using petals of flowers from gardens and from surrounding fields. The infiorata should be around from the 2nd June. Bolsena itself is perched on the shores of Lago di Bolsena, approximately 36km (22 miles) north-west of Viterbo.

Infiorata in Genzano di Roma
Genzano di Roma

Genzano, in the Castelli Romani, approximately 30km south of Rome is also famous for its infiorata. The town has put on a real show since 1778, with a carpet of petals stretching almost the length of three football fields through the streets to the cathedral. Often, the petals are arranged to artistically recreate famous works of art. The infiorata here should be visible on the 16th-17th of June.
Infiorata in Valentano
Infiorata in Sutri

The flower displays last a few days, but are best on the first day, so make sure you get there early. Most towns make a festival out of the whole thing, with a party atmosphere over the weekend with street food and a procession thrown in. It's a great way to get a glimpse into the local life of a town and to witness local culture in action,. Just remember about the campanilismo, the infiorata you're at is obviously the best one you've ever seen! ;-)

If you want to mix seeing infiorate with a sagra or food festival, here is my post on sagre and feste in Lazio in June.

Photo credits: 
Casamari infiorata from Paradoxplace.
Bolsena infiorata by Gobbler on wikipedia
Genzano infiorata from their website.
Valentano and Sutri from

Italy in Books - Rubicon by Tom Holland

It's that time of the month again... I've left it late as usual and now, late in the evening on the 29th May, I'm finally squeezing in time to write the book review for my 'Italy in Books' May entry. I'm really happy to find the time to do this though, as my chosen book this month is really one to savor. This month, I've gone for something about the Romans. In fact, I've gone for a book that covers the entire history of the Roman Republic. As it was for the Romans, I don't seem to do things by halves...

Rubicon is a narrative history book that covers the rise and fall of the Roman Republic. It's ambitious certainly, but also quite bewitching. It covers the entire history of the republic, but is written in a style which is anything but dry and academic. This style means that even those with little previous knowledge of Roman history (such as me, rather embarrassingly) can soon find themselves totally engrossed in the story of the Republic's rise and fall.

Over eleven chapters, with additional maps, timelines and photos to help you along the way, the book details 750 years of the Roman Republic, from it's formation, the destruction of Carthage, the Gracchi brothers, the silver-tongued Cicero, the wars in the East, Caesar, Cleopatra and finally, the death of Augustus. This may sound like a lot, and, well, it is, but it's an engaging read and probably my favorite this year.

The book title is taken from that fateful decision by a young Julius Caesar to cross the Rubicon river into Italy, some 750 years B.C. The preface of the book covers this pivotal moment so well that simply, from that moment on, I was captivated. This is a stunning book, bringing what is admittedly a soap opera of characters to life in a way that I've never seen before. It reads like a film, covering great moments in history as if they're happening in real-time. I've learnt a bit of history from the book, but I've also enjoyed it immensely.

Rubicon comes in at around 400 pages, so isn't for the faint-hearted. However, it's very well written, and it can feel as if one is reading a thriller rather than a history book. Sometimes, I found it a little confusing, what with all the strange names and places, but at the same time it was fascinating and really made me want to learn more about the Roman empire (above the usual stuff about aquaducts that I've learnt at school). For that alone, I can heartily recommend this book.

Rubicon. The triumph and tragedy of the Roman Republic by Tom Holland is published by Abacus and should be available in all good book shops (or can be bought from Amazon here).

The other May reviews in the Italy in Books challenge can be found here

A weekend away - Sorrento

Over Easter, we took advantage of Trenitalia. I know, it sounds bad. The offers were too good to resist. We took an intercity notte down from Rome for only 10 euros each, and arrived, fresh faced in Napoli centrale station three hours later (while on the Frecciarossa it takes 1hr 10 mins). Missing an opportunity for one of those intense incredible espresso's one finds in Naples, we headed straight downstairs to the circumvesuviana for the 1 hour train journey out past Pompeii to Sorrento.

Aaah, beautiful Sorrento, I hear you saying... well, I won't lie to you, it's OK. I mean, sure there's beautiful views*, but only if you pay through the nose to stay in one of the cliff-top hotels (e.g. the Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria for 500EUR a night), and the views from the train passing through Meta and so on were fantastic. But Sorrento, you disappointed me.

It's over-touristy. It felt a bit fake. It, unlike many of the coiffured woman snootily walking round town, felt like lamb dressed as mutton. I don't want to go on holiday to find an English pub. I can see premiership football at home. I don't want to drink Strongbow (although that's just a life-rule) and I definitely don't want to try the pub's 'fish and chips'. So yeah, we came, we saw, and sadly, we got a little disappointed.

However, over the next three days Sorrento did grow on us. We stayed at the Hotel Ulysees, defined as a budget option on It's a 20-30 minute walk from the train station and a bit hard to find at first, partly as the roof doubles as a car park, partly as it's on a road underneath the main street. However, it was comfortable, the room quite spacious, and there was free Wi-Fi in the lobby (which led to the bizarre sight of around 30 people in complete silence checking Facebook every morning). The breakfast, baring the coffee, was excellent, with lots of local cakes, meats and fruit. We can heartily recommend it, but having said that there aren't really any views to be had and it didn't feel like a treat, so if you want a special weekend away, maybe you should look elsewhere.

Sorrento itself is pretty. It's quite well developed, with matching prices, but isn't without charm. It seems a strange cross between a quiet backwater fishing village and Cannes. The main street, Corso d'Italia, has both coffee bars frequented by locals and Gucci store. The view over the Bay of Naples, with the menacing presence of Vesuvius, is stunning. We didn't expect Sorrento to be perched on a clifftop, you can see the sea, but it's a long way down (and consequently, a long way back up again).

There are lots of tourist traps, both as bars and restaurants. We tried to avoid as many as we could. One place we can recommend though is Il leone rosso, which, along with friendly service, does a mean pasta dish. 

Of course, Sorrento, and indeed, the whole of the Amalfi coast, is famous for it's lemons. Now, I'm no lemon expert, but if life gives you lemons, there's only one thing to make... Limoncello, and Sorrento is pretty good at it.

Here's a recipe for authentic Sorrentine Limoncello, as told to me by a friend of ours from Sorrento:
  • 7 lemons from Sorrento (or your local market)
  • 1 litre of pure alcohol (usually around 95%), or standard vodka
  • 325 grams of sugar
  • 500ml of water

  • Remove the zest of the lemons, taking care not to include any white pith.
  • Add the zest of the lemons to a bottle containing the alcohol but with enough space for the water.  I usually make two bottles, so I split the mixture between them.
  • The mixture should be left at room temperature in the dark for approximately one month. It will gradually turn yellow as it takes in the flavors from the lemon zest.
  • After a month, prepare a syrup by boiling the water with the sugar, and stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Let the syrup cool down before adding equally to both bottles.
  • Close the bottles and place them back at room temperature in the dark for another 6 weeks.
  • After 6 weeks to a month, you can filter the liquid to remove the zest, or keep it in to give that rustic feel.

    So was Sorrento worth it? You know, funnily enough, we enjoyed it and would quite happily go back. It's a bit touristy, but then most places are, and you can still find enough of what feels like authentic Sorrento to make it worthwhile. It's an interesting place in an absolutely stunning part of the world. I was desperate to go off to explore the peninsula further, or to take the boat across to Capri. Despite my initial misgivings, I actually like the place. The Limoncello isn't bad either :)

    *Oh, and for a view over the bay of Naples for free, just go to the Villa comunale (off Via San Francesco). It's practically the only place (without a car) to get a free view within walking distance of the main square.

    Giro d'Italia - coming to a village near you!

    Italy's version of the tour de France, the Giro d'Italia, started yesterday with a ~20km team time trial through Turin. It's impressive stuff. The full 3,524km route is composed of 21 stages, taking in 17 of the 20 regions of Italy. During the three weeks of racing there are 40 major mountain climbs and seven mountain finishes (such as on the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily) before a grand finale under the duomo in Milan. It's an incredible race, taking in some stunning scenery and breathtaking climbs.

    Click here for a bigger version on La Gazzetta dello Sport
    La Gazzetta dello Sport has a great Giro d'Italia section (in Italian), which details each of the stages, with maps, distances, altitude etc., plus all the latest news. If you're watching at home, you may want to accompany the cycling with a delicious Italian wine grown on the very slopes the cyclists are puffing up, you could even do your own Giro dei vini, if you like.

    Since I write a blog called Lazio Explorer, you won't be surprised to learn that I'm particularly interested in Stage 6 of the tour (on Thursday 12th May). This is a grueling 216km trek from the beautiful hill town of Orvieto in Umbria, through northern Lazio, to the spa town of Fiuggi Terme, located to the south-east of Rome.
    Click here for a PDF of the route (from Gazzetta dello sport)
    Going to watch the Giro d'Italia makes a nice day-trip out of Rome. Obviously, you'll need to choose where to watch it quite carefully, as you may want to do something else when the cyclists are not passing. In the following section I've highlighted with links some of the interesting places on the trek. The route takes you through some beautiful scenery and past or even through some lovely towns and cities. Soon after entering Lazio, the cyclists will pass the parco dei Mostri in Bomarzo, a very surreal non-Italian style garden filled with strange sculptures and bizarre images. They then pass nearby the papal city of Viterbo, and climb up the 450m Soriano nel cimino before cutting through the hill top city of Civita castellana, with it's stunning ravine and precipitous climbs (trust me, I did some of the route last month and it gets pretty hairy in places). Civita is a lovely city, about 71km (44 miles) north of Rome. There's a castle, Forte Sangallo, and nearby, there's Nepi, a charming little town also with a castle, and where my favorite bottled water, Acqua di Nepi, comes from. That area makes a nice day trip from Rome, and can be reached by train from Piazzale Flaminio.

    After a steep descent from Civita castellana, the cyclists then follow the SS3, also known as via flaminia, one of the roads that lead to Rome, past Sant'Oreste, perched high above the plains on the characteristically serrated Monte Soratte, with it's nature reserve, monastery and stunning views, before heading south via Fiano Romano and Monterotondo. Rather disappointingly, the route then continues a little futher to the finish line to the east of Rome, instead of through it. Can you imagine how cool it would be to cycle through the streets of Rome past the Colosseum? (with all the traffic stopped of course!)  Maybe next year...

    *All maps taken from

    Driving in Italy - an ode to my SatNav

    This short post is an ode to my SatNav, a Nuvi Garmin called Guido. Driving in Italy can be testing at the best of times, more often that not though, it's not the other drivers that are the problem but the road signs.

    Apparently, more than one road leads to Rome

    It sounds silly, but if you're planning to drive in Italy (and it is the best way to see the country outside of the main cities) do give serious consideration to buying or at least borrowing a SatNav. There are a number of reasons why:

    • Signage in those little mountaintop villages can be misleading. I've seen signs pointing to two roads, which one do you take?
    • A SatNav takes away some of the stress of driving in a strange place. It removes any uncertainty over which direction to take, leaving you to concentrate on the driving, rather than map reading.
    • Commercial properties, such as B&Bs, agriturismos etc., have to pay to put signs up, so often, many don't. We once spent 30 minutes trying to find a B&B only to knock on the door of a random house to find that, by chance, we were knocking on the door of the B&B! A SatNav can search for nearby accommodation or, if you have the address, direct you straight to the (right) door.

    Having a SatNav has really set us free. We've been more relaxed driving around Italy, going to new places etc., as we don't have to guess which way to go nor deal with guessing how far along a road we need to go!! We use a simple SatNav by Garmin, the Nuvi 275 (that link takes you to our new Lazio Explorer Amazon store). Of course, if you plan to do a lot of driving in Italy, you may want a more expensive model, but to be honest, ours does pretty much all we need, including telling us where the nearby petrol stations, restaurants or car parks are. Plus, it comes with maps for the whole of Europe (plus North America), so we don't need anything more.

    Trust me, if you plan on driving in Italy, take a SatNav. We don't leave home without it!