28 March 2017

Italy 2016, Day 2.4 - Cat Heaven Haven

Onward ... more churches. Then we arrived at the ancient Campus Martius. It includes several notable sites.

At one corner is the Torre del Papito (Little Pope's Tower) at 57 feet tall. It was built in the 14th century. Its connecting palace was torn down and the tower now stands alone as a notable Roman bus stop.
Next to the tower (would be located lower left on this map) is the famous Largo di Torre Argentina archaeological site. These are the oldest temples in Rome built as far back as 400 BC. The area is one level below the street surface.

In 1909, it was decided to demolish the palace connected to the tower and reconstruct the space for "modern" use. In the process, however, the colossal head and arms of a marble statue were discovered.

This lead to the excavation and restoration of this ancient and sacred area. The complex includes foundations of four temples (A, B, C, D above), a 100-column portico, the Baths of Agrippa, another taller tower, and more.

This is temple "A."
Behind "A" in the area of the white-ish building was the Theatre of Pompey. Part of this structure included gardens and displays of art.
Another part of the theatre was the curia, a complex for public meetings. The Roman Senate often used this building for government business. And ... this is the infamous spot where Julius Caesar was murdered by Cassius Longinus and the two Brutus cousins on the Ides of March in 44 BC.

Look at the above diagram again. That space is located within in the red circle on this map. The Theatre of Pompey is the big building with half round at left. All the space outside the red circle is below modern structures of today, but not excavated.


Today this "neighborhood" stands as a reminder of the most ancient of Rome, yet it serves a modern use. It is an official cat sanctuary. Rome has a no-kill law regarding cats. So cats freely roam the city, entertaining people while they earn a living as pest exterminators.

In these ruins live about 150 free-roaming and pampered cats. What a playground! Volunteers feed and care for them (including spaying and neutering), and clean the area daily. Anna Magnani, famous Italian actress, was a great supporter of this project. I caught this orange kitty dashing through the stone blocks.
Cat lovers read more or make a donation to the cause at: http://www.romancats.com/torreargentina/en/youcanhelp.php

22 March 2017

Italy 2016, Day 2.3 - Roman Ghetto-Jewish Quarter

Some call this the Jewish Ghetto, but the title above tells the real terms. The Roman-Jewish population can be traced back before 1 BC when merchants came to Rome to trade goods. This is the oldest Jewish community in Europe. It is in the heart of the Roma, yet is often an overlooked gem.

For some history...the papacy did not want the Jewish religion to assimilate with the Catholic population, so in 1555 the Romans built a wall around a four block (or .01 square mile) area near the Campo de' Fiori and along side the Tiber River. The cost of construction had to be paid by the Jewish community!! Each night 2,000+ Jews had to return to within the walled area and its gates were locked over night.


Laws governing Jews were very harsh. Professions were restricted (ragmen, second-hand dealers,  fish mongers, and pawnbrokers). Jews were required to attend Catholic religious services on the Jewish sabbath. It is said that they put rocks in their ears to block out the sounds of the Christian services and singing. There were many other atrocities.


Those within lived in squalor and agony due to the number of people crammed into the compact space and the Tiber River often flooding in winter. These days are quite different. The Jewish Quarter is considered a great place to live and hang out.

With few brief exceptions, depending on who was in power in Rome, the ghetto and its restrictions were controlled by the papacy and in force until 1870. At that time the Kingdom of Italy was established and the papacy states and the walled ghetto were dissolved.


This neighborhood has such a fascinating history that this commentary hardly scratches the surface. But you can find tons of info on the Internet under "Roman Jewish ghetto." Wikipedia is a good place to start at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_Ghetto. I will have to read more at home.


We criss-crossed this area a number of times while in Rome. And we would have lunch in a fabulous Jewish restaurant later. 


From the Campo de' Fiore we continued down the cobblestone streets made of squares of basalt. In the Roman ghetto district, we saw many bronze plates embedded in streets and walls listing names of those that had been murdered or missing during the German occupation. This seemed a touching gesture to assure those individuals would be remembered throughout time.


At the north end of the quarter is the Piazza Mattei where we found a whimsical sculpture. It is the Fontana delle Tartarughe (Fountain of the Turtles). It was designed in the 1580s by Giacomo della Porta. It too has gone through several iterations (dolphins changed to turtles, etc.)

Here is some interesting architecture and roof top gardens in the area.

We saw many, many churches, in many piazzas. Running together already, just on our first day. There are some 900+ churches in Rome alone, mostly Roman Catholic.

Mike, car buff that he is, loved this Fiat (nicknamed "Fix It Again Tony") 500. The first of this model was manufactured in 1957. This beat up convertible version had to be from around that time. We read that you can rent a restored vintage model for $290 a day!!
Continued ...

19 March 2017

Italy 2016, Day 2.2 - First Taste of Roma & Piazza Navona

We met up with the other folks in our group who had arrived earlier. After hugs and howdies, we enjoyed a light lunch. We were supposed to eat on the hotel rooftop terrace, but the weather was not cooperating. A few unpredictable, intermittent sprinkles.

The back-up plan was in the restaurant / bar in the hotel lobby. The facility was on the modern side, which fit the overall hotel decor. Lunch included the Roman specialty of pasta with pecorino and pepper. This version was a little too peppery for me, but my palette runs mild, not wild!
Apr├Ęs lunch we gathered in the lobby to meet Sabrina, our main tour guide while we were in Roma. She was born here and is an art historian. She gave us a brief history of Italy and Roma, and then we started our first three-hour walking tour.
Not too far away was the the Piazza Navona. Our hotel was named for this square. It was crowded with tourists, passersby, and lovers playing kissy-face in this romantic spot.
This wide and long piazza matches the footprint of a stadium built in the first century, where Roman games were played. It is skirted by apartments (what a view for residents!!), shops, restaurants, and an elaborate church. Cellars in these buildings still harbor remnants of the original foundation. 

Here we saw great examples of Baroque Roman architectural features. A perfect example is the Sant'Agnese of Agone church built around 1652. St. Agnes was an early Christian who was martyred in this stadium. Read her interesting story at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agnes_of_Rome.


We also saw three beautiful fountains--Fontana die Quattro Fiumi, the Fontana del Moro, and the Fontana del Nettuno. The first or "Four Rivers" is the main attraction and was designed by famous Italian sculpture Gian Lorenzo Bernini. He is considered the "father of Baroque." That style is decor on steroids. We would see much work by this artist throughout our tours.
The sculpture was commissioned by Pope Innocent X. It is topped with a towering Egyptian obelisk, a dove, and the Pope's summer palace crescent. The four corners represent the Nile (Africa), the Danube (Europe), the Ganges (Asia) and the Rio del la Plata (America) rivers. So the Pope was really saying, "I'm the master of the world!" A thousand years later it was thought to be the inspiration for the famous Trevi fountain.
At the south end of the piazza, is the Fountain of the Moor. It was originally designed by Giacomo della Porta with a dolphin and four titans, but a "Moor" was added later by Bernini. The original was eventually moved to the Galleria Borghese and this is a replica. A good thing, as in 2011 a man took a hammer to the fountain doing much damage. It has been repaired at this point, thankfully.
At the other end of the square was the Neptune Fountain. Here is Neptune fighting an octopus.

We continued on to the Campo de' Fiori (field of flowers). During the day this square is a flower and food market. As we wandered through, it was closing down, so not much action. In the center is a statue of the first king of Italy, Marco Minghetti.

As we wandered I noticed many building facades with interesting signs or markers. They displayed
names or directions or religious symbols or ancient advice ("no rubbish allowed"). Our guide said that Roma was considered a "dirty city." She felt there was enough money to fix this problem, but also lots of governmental corruption that got in the way. Personally I didn't find it was outrageously messy for a such a big city.






We passed by the tiny church of Santa Barbara dei Librai (means bookmakers or booksellers). It has been there since the 10-11th century.  
Around the corner was the restaurant Filetti di Baccala. It specializes in a salted, deep fried, battered cod fillets. Their recipe is said to be over 1,000 years old. The place looked so basic, but inside and out seating was packed even at this early hour.

Next we stopped at a little cheese shop for a cheese and wine tasting. It sold cheeses from around the world. We tried the traditional pecorino, parmigiana, and a smooth mild cheese, along with a glass of white wine. We also tasted a pear jelly that was umm-umm good. They sold other items as well. We noticed the tajarin noodles that we had drooled over on our first trip to Italy.


Continued ...

13 March 2017

Italy 2016 - A Little Roman History (Emperors, Kings, Presidents)

Much of this year's tour included visiting historical sites in Italy. Here is a little prospective on its history.

First off Rome is English and Roma is Italian for the same place. Roma was not considered just the City, but the City and all its 40 conquered territories. That territory included lands surrounding almost the entire rim of the Mediterranean Sea (in red). (Diagram is from Pinterest.) Roma was the first "global" city and its conquered peoples / slaves could eventually become legal citizens.
Roma's nickname is the Eternal City because its rulers felt that no matter how many other empires might develop and fade, Roma would last forever.

In reality the Roman Empire lasted about 1,000 years from 500BC to 500AD. The first 200 years it expanded, for 500 years it was at its prime, and the last 300 years found it in slow decline due in part to over expansion.

The first half was a republic ruled by elected senators. The last half was an empire ruled by unelected leaders. The turning point was during the time of Julius Caesar when he basically declared himself dictator.

Italy had emperors, kings, and now presidents as it rulers and they hailed from many lands. Here are some noted on our tour.
     - Augustus is considered the founder of Rome and the first emperor in 27 BC.
     - Claudius reigned from 41-54AD.
     - Hadrian reigned 117-138AD, as the 14th Emperor.
     - Romulus Augustus was the last emperor in 475.
     - Then there were eight kings (Norman, German, French, three Spanish, another Frenchman, and finally Victor Emanuel III). Victor was the first king of Italian descent and the first king of unified Italy (ruled 1900-1946).
    - Enrico De Nicola was the first President of Italy, elected in 1946.

Italy is known especially for its arts, architecture, and food. Art covers a multitude of media--paintings, statues, mosaics (some with such tiny pieces they look like paintings from afar), tapestries, literature, and more.
Architecture ranges from from ancient temples to 20th century marble buildings such as the Altare della Patria (Alter of the Fatherland) or National Monument of Victor Emanuel III completed in 1925. Nicknames for this monument are the "birthday cake" or the "typewriter." It is currently houses the Museum of Italian Unification.

In the center is the huge statue of Victor E III on horseback. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is beneath him in the larger squarish area. See tiny green wreath at top of stairs above grassy area.
We did not know this but one of the best 360 degree views of Roma is atop this building. A modern glassed in elevator sweeps you to the top outdoor patio for the view. John and Stacey discovered this and said it was a must-see for the next trip.

And food. There is no such thing as Italian food. It is really many regional foods, each microcosm having its unique flavor. Even a simple pasta dish has regional differences. In the Roma area you will find pasta carbonara (guanaciale / cured pork cheek, pecorino cheese , ground pepper on egg pasta), thin crust pizza margarita, and arancini / suppli (deep fried, stuffed rice balls). Here is a pix of our very first meal in Italy--the pasta with pecorino and pepper dish.

MORE FACTS
- Ancient Roma was founded in 753 BC https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Rome
- Roma is the capitol of Italy
- The Tiber River was part of its livelihood
- There are 11 aqueducts (or water supply structures) http://www.crystalinks.com/romeaqueducts.html
- At one time there were 144 public latrines
- In 1930, the population was 1 million; today it is 3 million
- In 1871 Italy's "houses" (such as House of Savoy) or districts became unified as the Kingdom of Italy https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italian_unification

10 March 2017

Italy 2016, Day 1 and 2.1 - Getting There

On September 15, eight folks met at the Radisson Hotel in Kalamazoo at 13:00 for a limo-van to O'Hare Airport in Chicago. We were happy to meet our new traveling buddies again. The others had gone a few days ahead and would meet us at the hotel in Rome.

The limo was clean and roomy with mood lighting. A little background opera music would have been nice to set the tone. But the chit-chat and anticipation keep the ride entertaining. All in all quite comfortable. The driver was another story. He was a speeding maniac who drove all over the road, much of the time straddling two lanes or median.

I don't know how Chef could handle sitting in the front seat without saying a word. We were all hoping to make it alive to the airport and thankfully we did. We certainly would be happy to see Guiseppe again, our tried and true driver from last year's Italy trip.

We had some time at O'Hare before the flight so we all stopped at the Tuscany Cafe near our gate. I had a Caprese sandwich and Mike had linguine Alfredo. A highlight here was the bread. So tasty. Of course, there was wine to wash down our meal.

We boarded our United flight at 17:25 for an on-time 18:10 departure. Our non-stop flight time was 8-½ hours. Mike read pretty much all the way. The book was appropriately a bio-history on Mussolini and Italy. I watched movies--London is Falling (so-so), Alice Through the Looking Glass with Johnny Depp (colorful, but not as good as the first one), and Nice Guys (recommended and funny).

Our route took us just south of Greenland and south of Paris. We flew near Cannes and Monaco and just north of the French island of Ajaccio. Top speed that I noticed was 645 ground miles per hour. Altitude was as high as 39,008 feet with temp at -73 at that height. Thunderstorms outside of Rome delayed out flight landing by about 20 minutes. We arrived on September 16 at 10:50. It was 69F degrees out, about the same as when we left Kalamazoo.

Customs was a breeze. Next we stopped to get euros at the ATM and then hopped on our two vans to the city. Our hotel was the Palazzo Navona, an excellent location for browsing central Roma.
It was quite modern and very posh. Not quite what I expected as far as traditional Italian, but an excellent choice. The room was large and with every amenity. We had a king bed, desk, fabulous bathroom, and lots of closet space with a safe.


Here's our view from the room. Some of the window shades went up in the evening and we saw families gathering for dinner. Every day Italian life right before our eyes.

Continued ...

01 March 2017

Catching Up - Italy 2016


Well, Chef John (formally head chef at Zazios Restaurant, currently Director of Culinary Education at Kalamazoo Valley Community College, and fabulous tour guide for our 2015 trip through northern Italy) set-up another Italian excursion. This one started in Rome and headed south along the Amalfi coast. I could pass on Rome as I have visited there before, but Amalfi was calling our name. "Killarneys get over here. Now!!!"

The trip for 2016 was in September. In July the seven couples got together at John's house for a meet-and-greet and to talk about the upcoming tour. John's wife Stacey was traveling with us this time, but showed up later to this evening. I had heard nice things about her as she worked with my sister. All true. She is a delight, and John and Stacey are the cutest couple ever.

Steve and Karen from our 2015 trip were not able to make it this time. Boo hoo! We will miss them as they were great traveling buddies. But our fab friends Lynn and Sandy would travel again with us on this trip. Yay! 
So we met four new couples. We had actually met Frank and Mary Lynn previously at a Zazios chef's table when Chef John was still cooking there. They had been on John's 2013 trip and encouraged us to go soon because it was so wonderful. That's how we got inspired to take this 2015 culinary tour. (I think John said he has been leading these excursions for 10 or 11 years now.)
Next were Tom and Jean. They had already been on four(!!) of John's tours. They are real foodies and have taken numerous cooking classes a Le Cordon Bleu in France and elsewhere.
Alison and Brian both work in the food manufacturing industry. She is a quality control rep. Later we would find it quite interesting to hear her comments about food processing and quality control in the Italian way compared to her experience in the USA. They had been on two previous trips with John.
The last couple was Paul and Pat. This was their third trip with Chef. Our connection here is that he worked with our upstairs neighbor before retiring. And she is a vegetarian, so I would not stand alone in "special treatment" at the table. I'm actually a pescatarian (fish and seafood are OK). I was not going to miss out on fruits of the sea along the Amalfi coast.
Chef John called this his "Pizza Tour." We would be sampling pizza throughout the journey, which included a day in Naples. Naples is said to be the origination of that culinary delight. Pizza is one of my very favorites in life, so I was quite excited.

Thus the menu at this event was homemade pizza which Chef prepared as we got to know each other. He made about five large pans worth and each had various toppings--cheeses, meats, veggies--to appeal to every taste. While he was baking, there was wine and nibbles--olives, almonds, fruits, and other Italian-ish delights.

By the end of the evening, we were all feeling comfortable with our travel mates. We knew L&S, of course, and some of the others had already traveled together on previous trips. All in all we really looked forward to making new friends in this latest journey. I took photos to send to everyone, so we could easily remember faces.

Sorry to say I can't find pizza photos of that evening, but if I do find them, I'll add them later.