Photography by Yuri Krasov

At Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio, Italy, a pleasant-mannered manager will let you know that some guests come back to vacation here for decades, and that some suites are booked for years ahead. What life! Even a short break by the serene Lake Como framed by palm trees and wisteria shrubs with snowy Alpine peaks on the background have a miraculous power to sooth and restore your sole. I’ve found myself in a constant state of quiet exaltation while basking in the calm and beauty of this magical part of the world at the beginning of this year’s spring-summer season. Bellagio – the real thing, not a Vegas casino resort – is a picturesque little town in Lombardy, with “beauty” (bella) imbedded in its very name. However, the historical sources attribute it to the Latin Bilacus (two lakes) since the “pearl of Lake Como” is located between the two long “legs” that comprise the lake’s shape of a “running man.” Ancient Romans, who gave this place its Latin name, came to appreciate this uniquely magnificent area, poetically described by the consul and writer Pliny the Younger who owned real estate here in the first century CE. In a letter to his friend, he described two of his villas – one “high up on the rocks” and another “at its feet… on the lake shore” as metaphors for Tragedy and Comedy. “Each has its attractions… This one embraces a single bay with a gentle curve, that one stands on a prominent outcrop dividing two bays. That one does not feel the waves, this one breaks them. From that one you can watch the fishermen, from this one you can fish yourself…” Since then, very little has changed in the charming appearance of the crystal-blue glacial lake. 6342341_orig Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni by the water edge was built as a summer home for the wife of Count Frizzoni, and inaugurated on her birthday in 1854. For some reason Contessa hated “the wide arches, the portico, the cornice with garlands and cherubs, all combined to give an air both sober and enchanting… the most classical of Italian gardens, laid out on different levels with a spectacular stairway linking the levels of the villa with those outside…” and many other breathtaking features admired by her contemporaries. The villa was immediately sold, changed hands a couple of times, and eventually accepted its new successful destiny as a grand hotel. At the end of the WWI in 1918 it was acquired by a Swiss hotelier Arturo Bucher. Thanks to his many innovations and improvements (like in-room bathrooms), extreme attention to the quality of service, and his diligent preservation of the original décor and furnishings, the hotel became highly popular with British lords, Spanish royals, Russian nobles, American presidents, and Hollywood movie stars. Today, the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni is owned and operated by the grandson of Arturo Bucher – Gianfranco Bucher and his wife, Dusia – a Polish woman who came to Switzerland in the 1990s to study hospitality and met her future husband there. The hotel director Giuseppe Spinelli and manager Antonio Calzolaro have been working here for several decades, overseeing the many levels of supreme hospitality and excellent customer service felt on every step in the luxurious rooms and lavishly decorated halls of Villa Serbelloni. On the night of our arrival I couldn’t tear myself off the wide open window of our room overlooking the lake. A full moon high above the outlines of palm trees was reflected in the pool in front of the hotel and filled it with its silvery calm. The night was quiet and profoundly blue. The gradually cooling night air was fragrant with spring blossoms. 3681717_orig In the morning, our delectable European breakfast was served at the opulent Salone Reale with frescoed ceiling, mirrored walls, and Murano glass chandeliers. Micheline-starred Executive Chef Ettore Bocchia reins at the hotel kitchen, supplemented daily with fresh produce from the neighboring villages and other regions of Italy. One of the hotel restaurants, La Goletta, serves fish from the lake, house-made pasta, and endless varieties of pizza. At the other – an upscale Ristorante Mistral, Chef Bocchia demonstrates his talent and skill in molecular cooking, being the first chef in Italy to appropriate it in his Mediterranean dishes. His method is based on scientific approach to the processes of heating and cooling with a goal of preserving the nutrients of fresh row ingredients. On the night we dined, chef’s tasting menu included Sicilian red prawns with guacamole ice cream, coconut cream, and cuttlefish ink waffles; tortellini with peacock breast meat and chanterelles; turbot fried in sugar; low-temp cooked veal with inuline sabayon, and baked pineapple with nitrogen-frozen ice cream. At the Villa Serbelloni Spa several types of heavenly massage await a weary traveler, as well as an indoor pool – a nice alternative to the beautiful outdoor one in inclement weather. At the hotel lobby, live music plays every night, way into the starry hours, and there is no reason to leave the premises of the enchanted villa ever… ever… but it would be unwise to miss all the other attractions of Lake Como that are so close to the central location of the grand hotel. 5188245_orig Next day, after a short shopping excursion to the Bellagio boutiques selling everything from marinated porcinis to Como silk shawls and Italian leather footwear, we sat for lunch at Ristorante Bilacus before taking a walking tour of Villa Melzi. Known for its gardens with century-old camellias, azaleas, and rhododendrons, the villa built by Francesco Melzi d’Eril (1742-1816) the former vice-president of the Italian Republic, contains his collection of ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman sculptures placed everywhere among the plants. 1868839_orig The stunningly majestic Villa del Balbianello in a town of Lenno on the opposite shore of the lake was built as a residence for Cardinal Angelo Maria Durini at the end of the 18th century. Lately it belonged to a world traveler, North Pole explorer, and the conqueror of Mt. Everest Guido Monzino, who left it in his will to Fondo Ambiente Italiano – a non-profit safeguarding Italy’s artistic and natural heritage. Due to its inimitable beauty and romantic atmosphere the Villa “starred” in Hollywood movies Casino Royale and Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones. In the middle of the lake there is one and only small island of Comacina, formerly a sacred site of Roman temples and consecutive churches. Back in 1169, the island fell victim to its siding with Milan against Como, and was burnt to the ground and cursed for centuries. Today, a very popular restaurant Locanda dell’Isola Comacina stands strong in defiance of the ancient curse, serving the same elaborate menu to crowds of tourists since 1949. 7141660_orig In the town of Varenna, which incidentally became a new home to Comacina’s exiled population, Villa Monastero presents another shining example of a wonderfully preserved historic dwelling. First, it was home to a monastery, and then was transformed into a temple of science by its 20th century owner, Marco de Marchi. A site of many international scientific conferences, the villa hosted Enrico Fermi in 1954 – an event, commemorated by a bronze plaque in a former chapel turned into a lecture hall. Every room at the villa is decorated in a different style and meticulously furnished with period antiques, like the gothic Sala Nera with exquisitely carved walnut, or rococo Sala Rosa with red silk upholstery and gilded wood. From the terrace of Villa Monastero you can see all three branches of the “running man” lake, and a 500-year-old magnolia tree still blossoming with heavy white flowers. There is a small botanic garden in front of the villa with Gian Battista Comolli’s sculptural group La clemenza di Tito “The Clemency of Titus” in white marble in a striking neoclassical style. It depicts the Roman Emperor Titus, his wife Vitellia and his friend Sextus, her accomplice in Titus’s failed assassination attempt. With Sextus and Vitellia repenting, the kind emperor pardons the conspirators with dramatic hand gestures. After a highly educational tour of the villa it feels good to relax at lunch time in a modernly designed dining room of Varenna Mon Amour restaurant with a glass of local white and a plate of frutti di mare supplemented with Lake Como fresh catch. More information and room reservations at: www.villaserbelloni.com 7637467_orig

Unfortunately, Venice is quite literally sinking into the sea.

A 1966 project utilizing a series of moveable dams is just not quite enough to protect the city from floods, nor are its rotting pylons. When I arrived in the Piazza San Marco, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The famous square had been completely taken over by dirty evil pigeons. Walking through a moving gray carpet of cooing, I found a pigeon perching on my foot—before I booted it into the wild blue yonder like a black-and-white soccer ball.

According to humorist Mark Twain, the Basilica of San Marco (with details ranging from 13th-century Byzantine to 16th-century Rennaissance) was like “a vast and warty bug taking a meditative walk.” Venice is indeed a dream, an illusion, a marvel.
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I dug the Doge’s Palace, with its 15th-century carving of a seasick Noah, as well as its wall-size interior of Tintoretto’s “Coronation of the Virgin.” In Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities,” the genius Italian fabulist describes how Marco Polo entertains Kublai Khan with tales of impossible cities he has seen throughout his travels through the Mongolian Empire—hidden cities, trading cities, cities in the sky, cities of the dead—which are attempts to mimic one place: Venice.

“If I tell you that the city toward which my journey tends is discontinuous in space and time,” Polo says, “now scattered, now more condensed, you must not believe the search for it can stop.” I too stand upon unstable grounds. Now everyone loves the Grand Canal, even Mary McCarthy, who says (no: gushes) in “Venice Observed,” “Venice is the world’s unconscious: a miser’s glittering hoard, guarded by a beast whose eyes are made of white agate and by a saint who is really a prince who has just slain a dragon.”

Verily, this capital of the vast Venetian Empire was built by greed and commerce, as well as a mean-eyed commercial milieux who lived solely for gain, the ultimate caricature being The Merchant of Venice, the not-very-well-liked “Shylock” who demanded a pound of flesh to repay his rapacious usury. Much like Bela Lugosi skinning Boris Karloff alive in the film classic parable The Black Cat.
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The Crusades were solely a business venture for the Venetians, including such masters as Tintoretto and Tiepolo who plucked painting from plunder. The defiant columns of St. Mark and St. Theodore are like two solitary middle fingers warning against all attackers, including paranormal paparazzo like me.
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D.H. Lawrence however did not like it, calling it “An abhorrent, green, slippery city,” while Thomas Mann used it as a setting for his horrifying fable “Death in Venice.” Exploring the canals via gondola, with striped-shirted grinning gondoliers romancing anything that moved, I fancied, wait a triple-sec, I really want a Sambuca!

Built on 118 pieces of islet-like land crisscrossed by narrow streets and bridges, and linked of course by canals graced not only by gondolas but by vaporetti, Venice is a Paid Advertisement for young lovers locking tongues on floating coffins in a tomb-like museum of the mind.
With commedia della arte in check, I stared at the Ca’ d’ Oro (House of Gold), the Santa Maria della Salute, and the glittering glint of ghostly towers and crowns wavering off the phlegmatic flowing waters, beckoning lovesick sightseers and suicides.
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The origin of the word Chianti can be attributed to the Etruscan term clante, a common name given to a person in that language or to the Latin verb clangor, referring to the noise of the battle. During the Middle Ages there were fierce battles between Florence and Siena over control of that part of Tuscany. The warring parties built castles and fortresses, which in peacetime were converted to the present day villas and stately homes.

The Black Rooster is the symbol of the whole Chianti region. Florence wanted to fix the boundary line with Siena through the Chianti region and Siena asked to settle the affair by arbitration. A horseman would set out at cock’s crow from their respective communities and gallop down the highway. Where they met would be the frontier. The Sienese selected a fine, much-pampered white rooster. The Florentines chose a black rooster and gave it so little to eat that on the appointed day it began to crow long before dawn. As a result, the Florentine rider set out early and met the other horseman at Croce Fiorentina – only 12 miles away from Siena. The boundaries of Chianti Classico are Florence in the north, mountains on the east, Siena in the south and Pisa in the west encompassing an area of about 100 square miles.
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In 1716 the Grand Duke of Tuscany Cosimo the 3rd established with an edict the boundaries of the Chianti wine’s production zone. That proclamation is the first legal document in history delimiting a winemaking area. It was a forbear of the DOC (Controlled Denomination of Origin). As the phylloxera epidemic swept over Europe there was a new interest in Chianti. In May 1924 a group of 33 vintners in Chianti assembled at Radda in Chianti to establish a voluntary association to defend and promote their wine. They adopted the name Consorzio per la difesa del vino tipico del Chianti (Consortium for the defense of the typical wine of Chianti and its brand name of origin) and now it’s known as the Consorzio Vino Chianti Classico.

In 1932 the Chianti region was delimitated to its current 173,000 acres. Of the 25,000 acres of vineyards about 17,500 are destined for Chianti Classico DOCG. There are also 20,000 acres of olive plantations. Oak and chestnut forests cover 2/3 of the area. The soil is galestro, layered limestone and sandstone with much clay and chalk. It has a continental climate with 23-25F degrees the low temperature and 86-95F the high, receiving 27 to 31 inches of rain annually. The altitude ranges from 820 to over 2,000 feet. The wine produced there was given the suffix Classico to distinguish the original from the other Chianti wines made outside the historical production zone.
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By order of the ministerial decree of 1932, the territory for the production of generic Chianti wines was divided into six new zones, Classico among them. Only after decades of its tutelary consortium’s endeavors to get exclusive recognition for Chianti Classico was official approval given in 1996 for separate production rules for the Chianti Classico appellation, transforming Chianti Classico from a sub zone in the “Chianti” denomination to an independent denomination.

The decade of the 1950’s was not a good time for Chianti. The wines that were being produced at that time were of such poor quality that the consensus among the residents was to turn the vineyards into grasslands. At that time there were only 4 famous vintners that produced Chianti Classico Wines – Antinori, Brolio, Frescobaldi, and Ruffino. Almost all of the other wine makers sold their product in bulk.

In the 1960’s the Chianti Classico Wine industry was in a state of transition. Numerous tenant farmers in the area were walking away from their land to find jobs in town while the larger land owners were selling off their farms to new residents that relocated to the area. Some of these new landowners re-planted the vineyards using the coltura promiscua, which means that rows of grain and olive trees were alternated between rows of grapes. Most Chianti was shipped in squat bottles enclosed in a straw basket, known as a fiasco. Now, most Chianti is bottled in the traditionally shaped wine bottles.
To match Reuters Life! WINE-ITALY/FRESCOBALDI
In 1984, DOCG status (highest rank for premium Italian wines) was awarded to the Chianti Classico Wine region. Basically, this required that the wines had to be approved by a tasting panel. A Chianti Classico may be made from a minimum of 80% Sangiovese grapes (up to 100%). The other 20% can be native red grapes such as Canaiolo and colorino or international varieties such as Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon. Beginning with the 2006 grape harvest it was no longer permitted to use white grapes such as Trebbiano or Malvasia, as formerly they were allowed to a maximum of 6%.
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In 2005 the Black Rooster trademark (previously the symbol of the Consortium members) became the emblem of the Chianti Classico appellation and was made compulsory on all bottles of Chianti Classico. To be labeled Riserva the wine has to have alcohol of 12.5% and matured for a minimum of 24 months, at least 3 of which in bottle. There are 570 Chianti Classico Consortium members, and the US at 27% is the number one market, followed by Italy at 24% and Germany at 12%. In 2010 production of Chianti Classico was over 7 million US gallons. In 2005 the black rooster (previously the symbol of the Consortium members) became the emblem of Chianti Classico. In early June the Chianti Classico Black Rooster Festival includes music, art, history, food and of course wine tastings.

Super Tuscan is a marketing term used to describe wines that don’t follow the official DOC/DOCG rules for the particular region. These rules specify where the grapes must come from, which grapes must be used and occasionally how long they must be aged in order to be called Chianti or Chianti Classico. In the 1970s some producers (notably Antinori) started making wines which didn’t follow these rules because they were using other grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah instead of Sangiovese). As a result they could only be designated as vino de tavola (table wine), the lowest designation in the Italian system. A Super Tuscan can contain anything and indeed can have no Sangiovese. Now they have a new designation IGT, Indicazione Geografica Tipica, to indicate a higher level of quality wine than vino da tavola but which doesn’t follow the DOC/DOCG rules. Super Tuscan labels can have information as to region (i.e. the label on Sassicaia will say Bolgheri) but they cannot carry the official DOC/DOCG designations of Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, etc.
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Ornellaia is mainly Cabernet Sauvignon with some Merlot, Cabernet Franc and a touch of Petit Verdot. (Tenuta dell’Ornellaia)
Sassicaia is 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25%Cabernet Franc. (Tenuta San Guido)
Solaia is 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Sangiovese. (Antinori)
Tignanello is 80% Sangiovese, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. (Antinori)
Super Tuscans can cost $40 to well over $100 per bottle. I have enjoyed many Chianti Classico Riservas that are the equal of their Super Tuscan cousins.

Pat Savoie and yours truly were the only Americans invited by the Italian Trade Commission and the Chianti Classico Consortium to spend five days in the region. There were journalists from 15 other countries present. We stayed at the My One Hotel in Radda and every morning we tasted wines from up to 20 producers. In three days we visited 10 producers including: Rocca delle Macie, Fontodi, Castello di Volpaia and Castello di Brolio.

For More Information-
www.myonehotel.it/ita/radda
www.italtrade.com
www.chianticlassico.com
www.classico-e.it

Ron Kapon
The Peripatetic Oenophile www.ronkapon.com

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Have you always wanted to do more than just see the Alps from a distance? Ready to experience them? Well, now there’s a new way to discover this legendary region. The Via Alpina consists of five hiking trails stretching more than 5,000 kilometers from Trieste, Italy, to Monte Carlo. They combine Alpine beauty, culture, nature, history and cuisine with some of the world’s most demanding trails and celebrated mountains across eight countries.

Where to start? That’s the beauty of this design. What speaks to you? The majestic Mt. Blanc circuit? The grueling Eiger? The tranquil lakes of the Julian Alps? Panoramic vistas from rustic Austrian huts? Or maybe a bit of them all? Set off in whatever country you like—Italy, Slovenia, Austria, Germany, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, France or Monaco—and hike as long as you dare through areas that interest you. Think of it like one of those chocolate samplers. Whether it’s nuts or chews, dark or white chocolate, it offers a surprise every day.
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How well I know. Recently, I coaxed my wife into escaping with me to be among the first to thru-hike its eight-country length from the Adriatic to the Mediterranean Sea. As seasoned long-distance hikers, we imagined it as a European Appalachian Trail—only with better food and wine. We’d forgo the chili, chips, and beer to search for regional treats like polenta, alpenkäse and wine.
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Unlike our historic 1,000-kilometer hike across Tibet, we wouldn’t dodge bullets and blizzards, but we’d face every other challenge. Right away, spotting trail markers became a contest as we navigated ice fields (11 on one June day) over narrow Slovenian scree paths. It’s a long way to the bottom, as Cheryl discovered. One misstep left her precariously dangling over a 500-foot chasm, anchored to an ice flow by only her Nordic pole. Although a badly swollen knee threatened to end her trekking then and there, she gritted her teeth and insisted we continue.

Then there’s Alpine weather, as unpredictable as love. At 6-9,000 feet (1800-2700 meters), it can be sunny, showery, snowing and foggy—all on the same day. As luck would have it, we faced the most rainfall the Alps have experienced in more than 40 years—40 days worth—followed by relentless squalls. Föhn winds are said to make even the locals crazy; with us, we were already halfway there.

We pride ourselves at being light-hikers, carrying just fifteen-pound (71/2 kilo) packs on the Via Alpina. Still, it wasn’t long before we found ourselves wondering what we could leave behind. Only our sense of humor was indispensable. Have no doubt, this terrain is demanding, both physically and mentally. Although we tried to hike at least 20 kilometers a day, a virtual marathon, in the back of our minds we knew another mountain awaited tomorrow…and tomorrow…and tomorrow. Over 31/2 months, I guesstimate we scaled and slid down 700,000 feet (211,000 meters)—12 Mt. Everests as measured from sea level. But who’s counting?

However, each day brought unique rewards. We shared company with celebrated goliaths like Mt. Blanc and the Eiger. Foggy days were brightened by a calliope of wildflowers. Statuesque steinbok, chamois and marmots always provided a pleasant surprise when we rounded a bend. Nothing beat finally arriving at a rustic mountaintop hut to enjoy a steamy shower, cold beer, and jaw-dropping sunset. As darkness fell, we enjoyed hearing all the local legends, such as the tale of Mt. Jolly and the far-too-sensitive shepherd whose tears froze to form Mt. Blanc glacier.
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Then how could we forget the eccentrics, such as the fellow hiker who taught us “seductive duck walking” as he waddled side-to-side down the mountainside? Or the dairyman who helped us escape a hailstorm to sleep in his barn above 80-bell clanging cows for a cacophonous serenade. But usually, we bunked in cozy mountain huts run by mountaineering clubs or in pensions with local families. My mouth still waters as I remember Austrian breakfast spreads that included sliced meats, cheese, bread or pastries, müesli, fruit, coffee, juice and milk. Although our daily budget averaged about $40 each, as always, you could easily spend more.

No, there was no peanut butter on this trek. One of our fondest memories is of a feast in a cabin by firelight. First, the shepherd fixed socca, a traditional fried chickpea meal crepe, similar to what you’ll find on the French Riviera. Then came a wild nettle and potato soup, roast lamb with herbed onions, and four kinds of handmade cheese. As always, there was schnapps, unfiltered hefeweisen wheat beers and great local wines, especially welcome at the end of a tough day.
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Although hiking the Via Alpina is demanding, it’s a tasty feast. Although you can, you don’t have to devour the entire 1200 miles in one bite. As I said, it’s like a chocolate sampler. Choose one area, matching your interests and physical condition. Today, you’ll be among the first to bite into this tasty nugget. Think of it as an uncrowded holiday, providing much more than postcards and a few souvenirs. Besides, there’s no better weight-loss program.
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Each night I chronicled our adventure while our muscles still ached and lungs still wheezed. My new book, Over the Top & Back Again: Hiking X the Alps, sweeps you along for a gritty, sometimes funny, tell-it-like-it-is look at the Alps—and at a slightly crazed couple who dare to follow their gonzo dream. Join us. Whether you’re a fellow hiker, or never walk farther than your couch, it’s a journey to remember.

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Montespertoli’s annual Chianti Wine Festival (Mostra Del Chianti) features some of Tuscany’s premium wines. But the festival includes a touch of Tuscan culture as well.
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In addition to tasting first-class wines such as a dry and well-balanced Tenuta Il Monte Chianti, my family and I sampled the town’s home grown Olio Extra Vergine di Oliva (olive oil), crunchy sweets, and mouth-watering gelato. Some festival goers grabbed a bargain shopping for handbags, tablecloths, belts, and shoes. Others danced to the rhythm of the local bands and accordion players, or enjoyed the sidewalk circus, including a unicycle riding juggler.

My family arrived in Montespertoli, Italy, two days before the start of their Chianti Wine Festival. Our first Italian meal consisted of thinly sliced pizza and red wine from the local vineyards at the Pizzeria Ristorante in the center of Montespertoli.
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From a sidewalk table we watched as the circular plaza in the middle of town was transformed from a quiet park with wooden benches, winding paths, and decorative flowers and plants to a festive ring of shops and wine tasting booths. Vendors set up their stands and workers put the final touches on two tremendous 18 foot tall replicas of wine bottles on either side of the entrance to the park.

Party with the Locals…Montespertoli celebrates its annual Chianti Wine Festival beginning on the last Sunday in May to the first Sunday in June. Both locals and tourists flock into town to enjoy the festivities. The streets leading into Montespertoli are blocked off during the festival. Parking is free on the outer edge of the village, only a short walk to the center of town.

We visited Mostra Del Chianti on a Sunday afternoon and wandered from booth to booth as merchants peddled their merchandise. One seller demonstrated the durability of his superior hand-embroidered linens by spilling red wine on the linen and simply brushing off the bubbly liquid with a sponge.
Sandels at a bargain price.  Photo by Maureen Bruschi
My sister stopped at one of the stands that sold trendy sneakers and fashionable sandals. With help from a salesman, she purchased a pair of comfortable sandals for under $20.
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If you’re looking for a snack before dinner, (Tuscany restaurants generally don’t serve dinner before 7:30 PM), you’ll find food stands decorate the festival. Vendors sell an assortment of locally grown fruits, meats, cheeses and jellies, not to mention irresistible al cioccolato torrone (soft chocolate nougats).

We saved room for dinner at Montespertoli’s Ristorante La Terrazza. Home cooking with genuine Tuscan ingredients, including bread and olive oil (the olives are grown in the Chianti hills) dominated the menu. La Terrazza offers everything from pastas topped with home-made tomato sauces and meat ragùs to contorni – side dishes including marinated olives, string bean salad, grilled zucchini and eggplant, white bean salad and sliced Italian cheeses and meats.
Gelato and Wine – Perfect Together
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After dinner, we returned to the festival for dessert and devoured gelatos at the Gelateria Fiorentina. Make sure you indulge in Italy’s creamy frozen ice cream, a specialty not to be missed during your visit. In central Tuscany, gelato is made from a milk and egg custard and is denser than American ice cream.

We saved the best for last. After dessert, we headed for the wine tasting booths. As you sample Tuscany’s quality wines at the festival, you’ll enjoy listening to merchants discuss the history behind the wine. For 5 Euros each (about $7.00), you can purchase a festival wine glass, a glass holder (a small red sack with a strap that goes around your neck to hold your glass while you taste Tuscany’s breads, cheeses and olive oils) and coupons for four glasses of wine. Stroll from booth to booth savoring sips of Tuscany’s best red wines produced locally, including Florence and Siena’s Chianti Classico wines.

There’s Plenty to Do in Tuscany…While you’re visiting Montespertoli’s wine festival; keep in mind that the town is close to key historic cities in Tuscany. Time permitting, you may want to tour the towers of San Gimignano (www.sangimignano.com/sghomei.htm) , study the Renaissance paintings, sculptures and architecture of Florence (www.aboutflorence.com/), and explore Siena’s (www.aboutsiena.com/) Piazza del Campo’s ring of medieval palaces.

If you can’t make it to Montespertoli in the May-June timeframe for their Chianti Wine Festival, don’t despair. The town hosts a number of festivals throughout the year including a home-made pasta festival in August, a beer festival in September, a new wine festival in early November, and a olive oil festival in mid-November.

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In late winter I was invited to spend 6 days at the 3rd International Wine Convention in Puglia, Italy (Apulia in English). There were 65 guests including members of the press (14), tour operators (8) and buyers (43) present. Each group had their own program and schedule while we got together for many meals and several meetings. I will concentrate on my group of journalists from Denmark, Netherlands, Czeck Republic, Australia, Italy, Great Britain, Norway, China and the USA.

My home for 5 nights was Masseria Torre Coccaro, which with its neighboring Masserie Torre Maizza (same ownership) was fully booked by the Wine Convention. Torre Coccaro is a masseria (Apulian farm) a few steps from the sea, dating back to the 16th century and surrounded by olive, almond and carob trees. This tower, once a place of defense, is now a luxury 5-star resort with a spa carved in stone and outdoor pool and nine-hole golf course (Torre Maizza). My room, one of 37 in the tower, had a huge bathroom with the shower/tub carved into the rock wall. I had a small living room and a very large bedroom.
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I have only mentioned those wineries that have importers in the US. Our group of journalists spent one long day in the Terre di Federico region to the northwest corner of Apulia. We visited Agrinatura, imported by Martin Scott and Tormaresca, co-owned by the Antinori family and imported by Chateau Ste. Michelle Importers. I have written about the wines of Botromagno, imported by Winebow. Day two was shorter since we had to be back for the dinner “Festa Pugliese” with producers and government officials. We spent it in the Valle d’Itria and Alto Salento. Here there was a second Tormaresca winery, which, with their other winery, produces 2.5 million bottles. The third day was another long day, this time heading south to Salento. L’Astore Masseria is imported by USA Imports. We had dinner at the private family residence in Lecce of the owners of Vigneti Reale imported by Bacchanal Wine Imports. The last day was a blind tasting of 38 wines selected from all the participating wineries. It was then spa time with a swim in the small indoor pool, Jacuzzi and sauna, then relaxing before dinner with the remaining writers.
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Apuglia is located between the Adriatic Sea, the Apennines, and the Gulf of Taranto. It makes up the “heel and spur” associated with lower Italy’s boot shape. Apulia’s southernmost tip, the Salento peninsula, juts out into the Adriatic like a spur on the boot of Italy. Apulia is bordered on the northwest by Molise and its western border is with Campania and Basilicata. Albania is 50 miles across the Adriatic. Most of its foreign visitors come in the summer for the beaches. It was ruled in the early Middle Ages by Goths, Lombards, and Byzantines and achieved its greatest glory under the Hohenstaufen emperors, especially the 13th-century Holy Roman emperor Frederick II. In 1861 it became part of the Italian kingdom.

Today Apulia is a mix of both natural and man made sights: beautiful beaches, flat plains of wheat or olive groves, nature preserves, large ports and small fishing villages, family run farms – many of which have become Agriturismos (agriculture” and “tourism” in Italian – is a style of vacationing in farm house resorts). Further south there are olives (Apuglia produces over half of all the olive oil in Italy), grapes, almonds, figs and vegetables.

Apulia abounds in castles, churches and ancient ruins – all of them still far away from the major tourist tracks. A must see is the traditional Apulian dwelling known as Trulli. These conical stone houses are built without mortar (see Alberobello). The capital of Apulia is Bari; the region has an area of 7,470 sq miles and a population of a little over 4 million. Visit in the summer for clear blue skies and beach-life (average July and August temperatures can get above 90 to 100 degrees. Since Apulia is less than 18 miles across, you will never find yourself far from the seaside. Spring and autumn are moderate, and therefore more climactically accommodating to Northern Europeans. Winter is cooler with temperatures usually around 40-50 degrees. It rained lightly most of the time I was there and the temperatures were about 45 degrees.

Mussels, oysters, octopus, red mullet and swordfish are all popular in Apulian cuisine. Vegetables include fava beans, artichokes and chicory. Eggplants, peppers, cauliflower, olives and olive oil are Apulian staples. The most famous Apulian pasta is Orecchiette, but Bucatini is also popular, both served with tomato sauce or with olive oil, garlic and cauliflower. Ricotta and Mozzarella play an important role in Apulian cooking. The meat of choice is lamb that can be roasted, baked or grilled on skewers. Breads and sweets include Focaccia and Pizza to fritters filled with sweetened Ricotta and sweet Ravioli.
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Major Cities Visited:

Bari- The port of Bari is separated into the winding streets of La Citta Vecchia (old city) and the more modern plan of the Citta Nuova (new city). The old city is home to the famous Basilica of San Nicola. The Basilica is the oldest surviving building in Bari, since King William the Bad razed the entire city in 1156. The Norman Castle, enlarged by Frederick II, is an excellent place to get a view of the old city and the Adriatic. The new city is a grid of broad streets and avenues lined with shops and grand hotels.

Lecce- The former Greek and Roman colony of Lecce is the home to some of the best Baroque stonework in Italy. There are over 70 historic buildings of the 17th and 18th century in Lecce. The facades of the church of Santa Croce and the Palazzo del Govorno are an entire block of ornate carving. Other Baroque masterpieces are the churches of Santa Chiara and the church of San Matteo. The Piazza San Oronzo is home to a Roman Amphitheater as well as a column once located in Brindisi to mark the end of the Via Appia.
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Alberobello- The city of Alberobello is home to over 1,000 of the traditional Apulian Trulli houses and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They are a beehive-shaped, whitewashed, mortarless structure made of stone. Some of the Trulli have been converted into shops but many are still private homes. There are other Trulli that have been restored to their original condition that you can visit and some Trulli can be rented.
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Brindisi- The capital of the province of Brindisi, off the coast of the Adriatic Sea. Historically, the city has played an important role in commerce and culture due to its position on the Italian peninsula and its natural port on the Adriatic Sea. The city is a major port for trade with Greece and the Middle East. The Cathedral is dedicated to St. John the Baptist and dates to the 12th century. The colonna Romana (Roman Column) is located at the entrance of the inner port and is the symbol of the city. In 1944 the city functioned as the temporary capital of Italy.
Castel Del Monte- A 13th-century castle situated in Andria. The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II built it some time between 1240 and 1250. All of its interior marbles and furnishings have been removed in subsequent centuries. Today, the site is a World Heritage Site.
Apulia was once known as “Europe’s wine cellar”, producing 10% of all the wine consumed in Europe. It vies for first place each year in wine production with the regions of Sicily and the Veneto. For a long time much of the wine made here was shipped north to Turin where it was used to make Vermouth, or to France where it gave structure to French wines. That is no longer true and it is the reason that I have been invited to see and taste their wine. Apulia is now producing wines of quality over quantity, yet they are still reasonably priced. Winemakers are reducing yields and increasing the use of new oak for their wines. Oenological consultants and flying winemakers are here in force, and there has been investment into the area from such well-known names as the Antonori family (Tuscany).

There are 26 DOC’s and soon there will be two DOCG’s, the highest level for wines in Italy. Castel del Monte (DOC) is well known for a full-bodied red wine and a pleasing rose. Primitvo di Manduria (DOC) is a strong, alcoholic red that has the same DNA as Zinfandel. Salice Salentino (DOC) is primarily made with the Negroamaro grape variety and is also used to make sweeter reds, dessert and even sparkling wines. I tasted many wines I enjoyed made with the Nero di Troia grape, the third of the big Puglia red wine varieties. There are pockets of Aglianico (much more popular in the neighboring Campania and Basilatica provinces) as well as Montepulciano and Malvasia Nero.

White wines of Apulia (Over 43% of production) are undergoing modernization and international grape varieties (Chardonnay) are being introduced. Bombino is the most planted variety, and is thought to be related to Trebbiano. There is some impressive Fiano beginning to emerge, this being the Fiano also found in nearby Avellino. Locorotondo (DOC) is straw yellow and a bit fruity. Martina Franca (DOC) is another dry white. Besides dessert wines and Grappa, Apulia also is home to a number of herbal and citrus infused spirits making use of local walnuts, carcade flowers, rhubarb, myrtle, anise, lemons and oranges.

But many in the Puglian wine industry have realized that contributing cheap wine for distillation or to help fill the European wine lake was a flawed strategy. There is a new emphasis on quality throughout Puglia’s regions, and both DOC and IGT appellations are attempting to compete with wines from other countries. I would like to return to Apulia in about three years to see their winemaking progress. They are on the right track.

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Wandering the hilly, narrow cobblestone streets in our home base of Montalcino, Italy, a Medieval city of interlocking passageways, steps and alleyways curving around and through and behind and beyond the main square, I reminded myself I was walking through history spanning eight hundred years.

 

When I stopped for lunch, I ordered a glass of the house wine. A bottle arrived at the table. When I protested, I was told to drink what I wanted and I would be charged accordingly. Not a bad system, I thought. Later, sipping more wine – this is Italy, after all — on our apartment balcony overlooking the vineyards from whose grapes it was made, we debated whether to eat in or go out for another Florentine steak. The fact that our apartment was housed in a structure dating back to the 13th century on a farm boasting one of the best-known vineyards in Italy was a bonus.

 

Welcome to UNTOUR, a wonderful well-kept secret that may change your concept of travel forever. Idyll, Ltd.’s UNTOUR program offers tourists a unique opportunity to not be tourists. It flies participants to one or more cities in almost a dozen European countries, inundates them with information and puts them up in apartments for two-to-four weeks to live like the locals. It’s a way to get to know a destination in a manner that would never happen on a conventional tour. It’s ideal for those who have the time and interest to explore their surroundings at leisure and in depth. And they provide the wherewithal to do it: rental cars or bus and rail passes are part of the package.

 

Those who joined my husband, Victor, and me on the Southern Tuscany adventure were intrepid travelers who wanted to focus on the destination, not the details. Cathy Gerdes, a veteran Untourist from Durham, NC, explained: “We love the philosophy of Untours. They help you make all the arrangements, give you the inside scoop on what to do, and then leave you on your own to explore and discover.”
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We were learning about our neighborhood, but on our terms. Rise early or sleep in. Sightsee or stroll around town. Cook in or eat out. And whatever the choice, we returned to our apartment, a much roomier and warmer ambiance than any hotel would provide. The town of steps, turns and backalleys that initially seemed daunting to navigate soon became negotiable. We mastered shortcuts to the center of town; got to know local vendors, and began to feel secure enough to risk getting lost on purpose. The sense of pride I felt when giving some harried American tourists directions was bordering on smug.

 

Each day brought a new adventure, often beginning with a visit to any one of several nearby “hill towns,” which indeed come by their name honestly. One day, it was the Renaiassance city of Pienza, known for its harmony of ambience and structure, a town the word charming was invented for. Another day, San Gimignano, claimed more intact towers than any other hill town – 13, 14 or 15, depending upon the not-so-reliable source material. Or tiny Murlo was a town of 17, which more resembled a movie set of a 13th century village than the reality of it. And then there was historic Volterra, flaunting evidence of Etruscan, Roman, Medieval and Renaissance influences.

 

A visit to Abbadia San Salvatore introduced us to an 8th century Abbey whose write-up talks about it being newly renovated. When were those recent restorations? They took place in the 15th century. This sense of time warp is ever present. The present and past — long-ago past — coexist harmoniously as one can travel back and forth through multiple centuries within a couple of hours of doing day-to-day errands.

 

Whatever the village, be sure to walk off the main square to see where the people really live. Perusing 13th-century corridors an arms-length wide, flanked on both sides by two-to-three story stone apartments, we eavesdropped on venues teeming with life. The back streets appear even more historic and colorful than the already enthralling but more touristy central piazza. Admittedly, the local folks are probably not as impressed as I am at the origin of their lifestyles.

 

Every town has its church dating from the 1200s, a museum celebrating its art, its de rigueur duomo, a fortress and possibly an Etruscan tomb. I rarely went into any of them. I’m not proud of this, and I don’t recommend it. I’m a travel writer after all, and this is sacrilege, but for me, the wonder of traveling is to be found wandering the streets and stopping at every café for a Cappuccino or scoop of gelato, which is especially true for Tuscany.
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Check out the wide, heavy wooden apartment doors with their ornate designs and fanciful brass knockers — to me, almost as appealing as the many works of art within the cathedrals and museums. Look through ubiquitous archways overlooking the red tile roofs of the towns below for yet another photo op demanding to be taken.
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Driving through the Tuscan countryside, almost every bend produces another WOW moment — perhaps not the more dramatic views of, say, a New Zealand, but instead a more tranquil beauty. Picture this: an incredibly vast expanse of rolling hills, a patchwork quilt of vineyards, olive trees and wheat fields dipping into valleys and clinging to hillsides, with colors of green and brown and reddish gold depending upon the season and the crop, accentuated by stately, slender Cypress trees standing guard along long driveways leading up to stone villas.

 

Looking out across the valleys, you recognize there’s something different about the light – it seems richer, more intense. A young artist we met who was painting her way through Tuscany characterized it as “luminescent.” Ah yes, I thought, that’s it.

 

Grant & Patricia Wood from Mississauga, Canada, on their third Southern Tuscany trip reinforced the concept: “We fell in love with the simplicity, the community, the people, the views, the light. We left our hearts here so we had to come back. It feels like we’ve come home.”

 

Though Vic’s eyes were beginning to glaze over at the thought of another Medieval town, I was still entranced by the narrow streets, steep hills and back alleys. Yet we broke up our days with hiking in nearby national parks, meandering through local outdoor markets, checking out a Cock Festival that had been held in a close-by hamlet for over 700 years and doing errands such as laundry, e-mail and shopping for quiet dinners at home.

 

But mostly we dined on pasta, cheeses and pizzas at the many tavernas in our neighborhood, every table sporting the ubiquitous bottle of wine. Even at lunch! Not a usual practice back home. One of our favorite hangouts was Taverna dei Barbi, an old stone tavern on the grounds of the vineyard where we lived. Sitting among the eerie granite-covered archways and columns, I felt like I was in a very sophisticated, warm, welcoming……dungeon.

 

Offered a menu in English or Italian, I so wished I could have said “Italiano, per favore” and meant it. But I had only learned just enough Italian to get into trouble. I could ask some basic questions but didn’t have a prayer of understanding the answers. Still, it found us “il banyo” (bathroom) and “la stazione” (train station) and, of course, a multitude of gelato flavors.
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The Taverna’s sausages and salami come from their resident pigs; the cheeses from their sheep; the veggies from the garden and, of course, the wine from their vineyards. Most restaurants at home are not quite that self-sustaining. I was glad I hadn’t taken a tour earlier and gotten to know any of the local inhabitants by name.

 

Our days were filled with a meshing of hills and happenstance, vistas and vino, walled cities and watch towers; a chance meeting at a museum, church, fortress or, better yet, a wine tasting. After all, this is what Tuscany is famous for, and wine bars are as omnipresent on street corners here as Starbucks are in the States.

 

Perhaps, that’s the essence of the Untour experience. There’s something more special about discovering such treasures on your own than being herded there as part of a group, according to a pre-determined time schedule that dictates how long you can spend looking before it hurries you through because the bus is leaving to go to the next stop.

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On the Italian Riviera is the Cinque Terre. Isolated, feared, romantic, for centuries untouched by the world and held in awe by all who have traversed the ancient Sentiero Azzurro (narrow footpath) which links the five (cinque) remote villages of Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Rio Maggiore. With views that boggle the mind, lush foliage, a narrow path hundreds of feet above seas crashing onto the rocky shore, tiny plots of vineyards and olive trees clinging to the cliff face is where we began an unforseen adventure.
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Starting our journey north from the southern most town, Rio Maggiore, we found a wide path broad enough to allow two people to walk hand-in-hand. This is the only section of the seven-mile coastline path that offers a guard rail. We had read that this section was known as the Via dell’Amore (Lover’s Lane). There were many stone benches where lovers sit and do what lovers do. The viewer is literally overwhelmed by the multiple shades of the blue Ligurian Sea, a huge variety of different rock formations, exquisite flowers plus the extraordinary beauty of this isolated paradise.

We soon reached Manarola, the smallest of all of the Cinque Terre towns which has been a popular resort for more than 700 years. Stopping for coffee, Marianne stated her apprehension of what was ahead as she is afraid of heights. We went on. I was surprised at the level of difficulty on this second leg, more formidable than imagined. As the degree of difficulty became more intense, Marianne began to tremble with fear. Mustering all of her strength, she followed step, after arduous step.
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We continued to move slowly, carefully stepping over the rocky terrain. She was overcome with fear and too frightened to look down the face of the cliff walls to the seas crashing against the rocks hundreds of feet below. Horrified at the thought of falling, the hair on her arms was standing on end. She was stunned and trembling. There were no guard rails to protect her from tumbling down into oblivion. We continued on a twisting and turning path that, in places, was barely 24-inches wide. Marianne froze when she realized that I disappeared from her view. “Where are you?” she screamed out in awe-struck terror.

Though she could not see me, I said, “Honey, there is just a little turn here. I just wanted to see what was ahead.” I turned back to the three tiny path steps leading down in the middle of a 75 degree turn hugging the cliff face.

Seeing the blind turn she panicked. Quivering, paralyzed against the wall, soaked in perspiration, desperate, shuddering, totally petrified, “Why did you bring me to this place? We could fall off this cliff and die and no one would ever know it. Don’t leave me here! I cannot move. Please help me!”

Climbing up the very small, twisting rock steps to the sharp turn, I was aware from her panic-stricken voice she was only a few feet away. “I‘m right here. Stay facing the wall. Don’t look down. Don’t look anywhere except directly in front of you. I am going to reach around and place my hand on top of your wrist to get a hold on you. Follow my directions. Trust me. I don’t want to lose you. We will get you safely through this.”

Placing my hand firmly around her left wrist I said, “I’m just two steps away from you. Move your left leg out slowly, about six inches. Good. Hold onto to the wall with both hands. The next step is directly below your foot. Just a bit more and you will touch the step. Put all of your weight on your right leg. Don’t move your left leg. Bend your right knee. Easy. A little lower. Perfect. Bring both feet together. Now rest for a moment.”
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An eternity of two minutes elapsed. Marianne was drenched in perspiration. “You can feel the edge of the step by slowly moving your left foot a little more to your left. Now move it forward just a little and bend your right knee. Keep your left leg straight. OK, your foot is on the step so slowly start putting weight onto your left foot. Don’t look down. Good! Now slide your body along the rock moving slowly to your left. Put all or most of your weight onto the left foot as you move around to your left. Bring your right leg alongside the left leg. Stand straight leaning against the cliff without looking down. Good. We’re almost there.”

Marianne panting, dripping in sweat, shivering, shaking with fear, stopped for a moment to catch her breath. I moved my hand from her wrist and placed it around her hip as she was too far above me to do otherwise. “Hold it there for a moment. Take some deep breaths. I’ve got a good grip on you. Don’t worry. Only one more step to go.”

“Oh Honey, I’m not so scared now. I know I can make it.” Trembling, she took the final step as I slipped my arms around her waist and brought her into my arms. She slumped against me, completely exhausted, soaked through to her skin and started to cry once again, only this time the crying was from relief.

A few steps later we reached a wider section and sat down. Marianne sucked in a big breathe of air and slowly released it. More composed, she looked out over the sea and smiled. “I didn’t realize how beautiful this place is. I’m so sorry for being a scaredy cat. I have never been so completely terrified in all of my life. Thank you for helping me.” After a 15 minute rest she said, “Let’s move on to the next town and take the train back to our hotel. I’ve had enough.”

I took her hand and led slowly step-by-step. Fortunately they were not far from Corniglia . The narrow path swept downhill, widening. We could see the railroad tracks below. In a few more minutes we were on level ground that led to a stairway. All that was left of this journey was to go down about 20 steps with a handrail and on to the train platform and wait for the train. The Cinque Terre will never be forgotten.

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I’m at the Convent of San Giuseppe, devouring a sinfully delicious meal, candlelight flickering upon castle-like marble and stone and beams. This is Sardinia, Italy, and today is my 50th birthday. It’s a luminous starry night in late April, and smells of simmering seafood, fresh bread, wine, garlic, and juniper mingle as a woman outside the open convent door twists dough into traditional ceremonial ornaments before an open fire.

The Convent was constructed on the site of a Roman settlement, and the ghosts of those who’ve gone before seem to linger in the air. The meal is wickedly divine, and I’m thinking that it just doesn’t get any better than this, but then the waiter brings a surprise: tall candles sparkling on a fresh-from-the-oven pear cake. I make a wish (as if it hasn’t already come true!), and blow out all of the candles with one big puff. I eat every bite of the cake, and then polish off the meal with limoncello: a lemon liqueur made right here in Sardinia. Not a bad way to celebrate half a hundred years of life: in Italy, in Sardinia, in the ancient capital city of Cagliari.

One of Italy’s best secrets, the island of Sardinia has not yet been discovered by the hordes of tourists swarming Rome. A superb side trip or a delightful destination, this magical place is one of peace and purity. An easy flight (Meridiana is one of several budget airlines that can get you there) from Rome, travelers can choose to land either at the south’s Cagliari-Elmas Airport or the Olbia-Costa Smeralda Airport of the north. The most known part of Sardinia (Sardegna to the Italians) is Costa Smeralda: the Emerald Coast of the island’s northeast. Glittering with lavish luxury yachts and opulent private villas, Costa Smeralda is one of the most renowned high-end destinations of the world. This Mediterranean mystique has drawn international jet-setters and celebrities like Rob Lowe, Courtney Cox, and Bruce Willis. “Putin even has a house here,” a local cheese maker stated.

In Costa Smeralda, there is not only the enchantment of white sand and gleaming green sea, jagged rocks and cliffs and archaeological sites and pink flamingos, but there is also Pevero: considered to be one of the most beautiful golf courses in the world. Surrounded by rocks, lakes, and trees of juniper and myrtle, Pevero is not only a golf course; it’s an experience. And another wonderful experience to be had in Costa Smeralda is that of polo. And here, this prestigious sport isn’t just for rich people. Families and other travelers can enter the grandstands at the Costa Smeralda Polo Club and watch the match free-of-charge. I sat in the Sardinian sunshine, watching gorgeous horses gallop across the greenest of fields. “Is this Paradise?” asks a visitor sitting beside me.
It is.

Sardinia, one of the most culturally diverse areas in Italy, as it is home to a unique music. Launeddas, a type of three-reed cane that has achieved international attention, originated and is still played in Sardinia. Here, too, can be found the art of polyphonic singing: a guttural form that dates back thousands of years. I don’t know how they do it, but I do know that it’s a sound that goes straight to the soul and stirs up the heart.
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Sitting in the bleachers at the Sant’Efisio parade, I watched a celebration that takes place each year on May 1st. For three and a half centuries, this Festival of Cagliari has been happening with great fanfare. Of religious and folklore origin, the festival’s highlight is a colorful parade. More than 5000 costumed villagers join the procession of ox-drawn wooden carts decorated with flowers, fruits, vegetables, and wheat. Bells ring and marchers play the three-reed launeddas as rose petals cover the streets. Bystanders munch on torrone, an Italian nougat candy concoction of honey, whipped egg whites, vanilla, and almonds or walnuts. I chew on the ancient sweet, wave at the paraders, inhale deeply of the rose petals. All is well with the world . . . Or at least, with Sardegna.

I had lunch at the Caffe degli Spiriti, a charming eatery located on the Bastione di Sam Remy with a panoramic view over the town. The meal begins with bread: the delicious bread of Sardegna.
The bread here is a bread not to be found elsewhere. Boasting of tradition and craftsmanship, the flat pane carasau bread is a crunchy variety made of durum wheat, seed corn, baking power, and water. Baked thin inside a brick oven, the warm bread is sometimes dressed with olive oil and salt.
Not only is the bread of Sardinia amazing, but so is the seafood. The seafood and the cheese and the bread and the wine. The tomatoes and the olives and the honey and the wild boar. Mama Mia! The food alone is worth the trip to Sardinia, not to mention all of the other wonders of this mystic island. Finishing this meal, I’m once again sustained for the day. Heading outside to the hammock swing, I kicked back and relaxed, closing my eyes and listening to the chirp of excited birds. These birds are happy. I know just how they feel.
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The mountains, the plains, the rivers, the coast, the sea. This place has it all. It also has numerous archaeological sites, including my favorite: Nora. Founded around 700 B.C., Nora is on the southwest part of the island. Evoking images of people long gone, the site is an incredible testament to hard work and craftsmanship that endures the ravages of time, weather, and civilization. Framed by the seascape, Nora includes the ruins of mosaic-floored buildings, thermal baths, the Forum, a temple, and a theatre, actually still used during summer months.

Nora’s story stretches back 3000 years, and this place was once inhabited by the Nuraghi culture. Nuraghi is a term used to describe not only the long-ago dwellers of these ruins, but it’s also the word used to describe the more than 7000 well-preserved stone towers dotting the landscape of Sardinia. The first settlers of Sardinia started piecing together their fortress homes – the nuraghi – around 1500 B.C. These stone buildings – mini castles of sorts – are centered around a main tower or fortress, and are testaments of preservation. Also found on the island are the intriguing “tombs of the giants:” monolithic burial chambers. Here, in Sardinia, a place where flowers grow from stone, it’s possible to connect with the past as in nowhere else.

I visited OmuAxiu, a farmhouse/museum located in Orroli. This house has been in the family – the same family – since the 1500s. OmuAxiu is the home of the family, and it’s also the home of a restaurant and museum. Upstairs is an embroidery museum, with delicate linens and other heirlooms. Downstairs is the museum of farming tools. The restaurant is located inside a spacious room once used for grinding cereals. The meal here is amazing, and the family dishes up dinner in traditional 19th century costumes. Everything served here has been grown here, on this land, by this family.

The day I visited is the birthday of the family matriarch, and she’s 79. She looks at least twenty years younger. Sardinia is known for the longevity of its residents, with more people over 100, proportionately, on this island than anywhere else in the world. Some attribute the longevity of Sardinian people to the no-stress lifestyle, the food, the air, the water, the wine, the exercise of living off the land. It’s all that and a mysterious something else, and I can see why these Sardinian centenarians smile.

Later, I visited the Argiolas wine cellar, surrounded by wooden barrels made of French oak: shelves and shelves – more than 1800 bottles – of the wine that’s made headlines not only in Italy but internationally. Started in 1918 by Francesco Argiolas, the family tradition continues with Francesco’s grandchildren now working in the business. Francesco, 101 years old, is a delight. Attributing his long life to having a glass of Argiolas wine every day, this wide-eyed gentleman in a jaunty cap squeezes my hand with a firm grip indicating years and years of hard work, passion, and persistence. He speaks in Italian, translated by his granddaughter Valentina. “My grandfather wants to know if you’ve heard of his wines in America,” she says. Using only indigenous grapes, Argiolas exports 10 wines to the United States. This family business also makes olive oil, pooling their skills into a single passion that unites them: to bring to the world the sun-kissed flavors and scents of Sardinia.

Traveling to spot high over the Lanaitto Valley, in the mountains, I had lunch with a goat-herder named Giovanni. He was 67 years old, and has lived here, alone, for over 50 years.
The dirt road up is snaking and narrow, navigable by four-wheel drive Jeeps owned by a company called Barbagia Insolita. It was one of the Jeeps that brought me here, to this place that feels as if it’s on top of the world. In the forest below, white fluff snows from the trees, showering visitors with a constant spring flower storm. Here, at the top, is Giovanni, roasting a suckling pig on a spit inside his hut.

Giovanni has given each of his 70 goats a name, and they run to him when called. He milks the goats, making cheese in animal bladders hanging from the hut’s ceiling. Giovanni also harvests honey, and makes olive oil. In his shepherd’s hut built of stone and branches, Giavanni makes sausage of wild boar, and the fresh mozzarella he serves with bread. Giovanni is not a gregarious man, but his crinkle-lined eyes are full of wisdom and peace. Here, on top of this mountain, he is at home. Giovanni serves lunch on chestnut plates, beneath a bamboo ceiling, with the smells of sizzling pig wafting through the air. His friend, another goat-herder from the other side of the mountain, has joined him today. The friend speaks English, and I ask him about the tiny T.V. in Giovanni’s solar-paneled hut. “What’s his favorite program?” I ask, and the friend translates the question to Giovanni. “He says that he doesn’t have much time to watch, but he does love to watch the news each night.”

I looked around the small mountain house in which Giovanni has made his life. There’s a small bed with a painting hung over it, a table with an oilcloth, a refrigerator, and two chairs: one for Giovanni and one for the rare visitor. “Is he happy here?” I asked, and Giovanni’s friend relays the question. No words are necessary, as the light in Giovanni’s eyes affirms what I already know: Giovanni is happy here, content and satisfied and perfectly at peace, at the top of this mountain, here for 50 years and hopefully for the next 50.
I know just how he feels.

For more information or for assistance in planning a trip to Sardinia, please see
www.italiantravelpromotioncouncil.org or www.italiantourism.com or www.sardegnaturismo.it