An Accidental Visit to Basilica di S. Ambrogio

The sun was shining, the air was clear and we were energized to take the Metropolitana to the Duomo. Every time we come to Milano, like tourist lemmings we head for the Piazza Duomo, gawk at the Gothic marvel constructed of pink veined white marble and enjoy the energy of the crowd.

The outside is amazing. The facade features more than 3,200 statues. We have stared and created narratives to go with some of them. Today, we were determined to see the inside of this incredible house of worship.

Have I ever mentioned that I run from hordes of tourists? That backpacks attack me? That lines that go on forever are not enticing? Now, we knew it might be crowded. It was after all a glorious December day but we had no idea…

First clue – the armed guards at every door. Second clue – long lines waiting to get into the church. I asked when the next mass was and if you had to stand in line for that. The guard put his hand on his gun and looked at me. We went to the back of the line and discovered that to go inside the Duomo you had to buy a ticket. Ok. Ok. We can do that. Where the hell is the ticket booth? We wandered around the gigantic exterior and across a side street finally saw the ticket and Duomo souvenirs store. Upon entering I was handed a number – 40. I was number 40 in the longissimo queue to buy a ticket to stand in a two hour line to wander with a pazillion people in the duomo. NOT!

I remembered reading about the quality of art and architecture of Basilica di Sant’ Ambrogio, pulled out my map and dragged Jack in that direction. Boy, am I glad I did! It wasn’t a short walk but it got us out of the tourist crunch and into a neighborhood. The amount of graffiti I see in Milano confounds me. We were in, what appeared to be, an upper middle class neighborhood and there were graffiti tags everywhere. Tired of walking and ready for wine and sustenance, we happened upon Caffe’ Della Pusterla (Via De Amicis, 22). Yummy, friendly and full of local folks who were happy to help us on our journey to Sant’Ambrogio. We both had Stinco e Patate – pork shin, think ham hock braised to perfection and served with lemon roasted potatoes. I flashed back to my grandmother’s Sunday dinners. Ahhhh. After a great meal, wine and the local digestivo – Fernet – we set off to the Basilica.

Coming upon the complex, I felt like I was stepping back centuries. Saint Ambrose (Sant’ Ambrogio) is the patron saint of Milan and was the driving force behind getting the building done. The church, originally built between 379-386 A.D., is a great example of Romanesque Style.

For great pictures – CLICK HERE. The Basilica’s website has a super surround view gallery.

Today, the Basilica of Saint Ambrose’s crypt is the final resting place of the patron saint. It is below the main church, in an area called the “Tesoro di Sant’Ambrogio”. Numerous martyrs from Roman times have also been buried there. For €2 you can head down to the Tesoro see the Basilica’s artifacts. We walked through the iron gate, paid our €2 and slowly walked through the exhibit of gold and silver artifacts and other objects of high artistic and religious value from the 13th to 19th centuries. The works of art that had the greatest impact on me, were not made of gold, silver, silk or jewels but of found objects, scraps of cloth and stolen pieces of wood.

In 1944, Italian soldiers who were held at Wietzendorf, a German Concentration Camp, created this nativity scene. Determined not to compromise on their religion, these brave men created something special with a Boy Scout knife, small pair of scissors and door hinge as a hammer. We joined another couple staring at the installation, soon tears were sliding down all our cheeks.

Leave Piazza Duomo behind and visit the Basilica di S. Ambrogio located at Piazza S. Ambrogio 15. You don’t need a ticket and there aren’t any lines. All you will find is a pleasant opportunity to explore a historic venue in a great neighborhood.

Ci Vediamo!

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Baci, Baci! Irregular Regulars

Baci, baci! Grand abbraccio! Kiss, kiss, big hugs. Within half an hour after landing at Malpensa in Milano, Jack and I were embraced by Milanese warmth and passion. Right off the plane we were welcomed back with gusto. For us, the hugs started at the Taxi queue. Since we were traveling with four – count them 4 – giant bags, we wanted the next mini van in line. Bentornati, welcome back, echoed from the cache of drivers waiting for fares. Three helped our driver put the hernia inducing bags in his van. One stole his keys, which – after a bit of kibitzing about why does he always get the bella gente, nice people – were returned. Bentornati? Who did they think we were? How could they know us? My kind husband smirked and noted that I chat up everyone, how could they not remember us? The standard fare from Malpensa to the city center is €95. After the driver belly lugged our bags to the door of the hotel, I handed him €100. He thanked me profusely and gave me a big hug. Bentornati!

We rang the bell at Il Girasole High Quality Inn’s portone (humongous door blocking the complex from the street) and announced ourselves. Midge, Jack Bentornati! The words rang out before the door was fully open. Nicola Negruzzi, one of the vivacious owners of our favorite little hotel, pulled open the door and wrapped me in a cocoon like embrace. Next, Jack’s turn for a huge hug. Whenever we come to Milano – which is about once a year – we stay at Il Girasole. Co-owner, Matteo Negruzzi came in – saw us – and….. Bentornati! Baci, baci, grande abbraccio. Big hugs and kisses to both of us. Matteo reminded us that Il Girasole is our Milanese home away from home.

Jack and Matteo

We always truck over to Mail Boxes ETC and ship our suitcases to Pontelandolfo. If we are arriving from the states and off on other adventures, it makes sense to off load some of the baggage. Jack schlepped the bags over the threshold of the store and the owner joined the Bentornati chorus. He knew exactly why we were there, whipped out the right forms, asked where we were off too and guaranteed our luggage would make it home before we did.

Up the street and around the corner is Tony’s, an inexpensive restaurant that serves pretty good fish and just about anything else you could find in a higher end local place. We walked in, asked for a table for two, took off our coats and whomp – heard Bentornati! The waiter looked at us and said – New Jersey right? Glad you’re back – but you always come back!

I could give you two more examples – Vineria San Giovanni and the Restaurant Mamma Lina – but you get the drift.

Wow – I must look like someone famous! In high school I could pass for Sally Fields in her flying nun phase and once in an airport Jack was confused for Tom Wilkenson (British actor). Maybe we give off a famous person auro? Baaammm – then it hit me. We are irregular regulars! There is no schedule. No one knows when we will return to Quartiere Villa San Giovanni, this friendly Milanese neighborhood. We are absolutely irregular regulars!

Except to see the sites, listen to music and window shop, we avoid the tourist packed historic center of Milan. A few years ago, thanks to Nonna’s Mulberry Tree subscriber Lynn Y., we got turned on to Il Girasole. Located at Via Doberdò 19, close to Metro stop Villa San Giovanni, the hotel has all the bells and whistles of the big guys – free wi-fi, parking, more than continental breakfast and incredible staff. Every time we fly to Italy through Milan or venture north with our car, we stop and stay in this neighborhood populated by real people and featuring non tourist prices in restaurants and shops. At il Girasole, my favorite room is somehow always available for us. The afternoon registration ritual turns into aperitivo e spuntino and we like the local eateries. Bam – irregular regulars.

Becoming an irregular regular sort of comes naturally to me. I like things that are familiar and good. If the service, price and goods are great – why not go back?! Are you wondering how folks remember us? The former mayor of Princeton, Barbara Sigmund, taught me a great politicians trick – stick out your hand and say your name. Then make sure you get the waiters, store owners, etc. name and use it a few times while you are there. Of course, ten minutes later don’t ask me their names but I’m good while I’m in the place. Also, name badges and writing on uniforms help a lot. Why not joke, laugh and chat with folks where ever you are? It feels good, makes the time pass pleasantly and BONUS – you too can become an irregular regular and hear that pleasant bentornato – welcome back!

Ci Vediamo!

Russian Symphony in Sannio Hills

More than one person has asked me what Jack and I do in a teeny, tiny Southern Italian village.  The implication being that we must be bored to tears.  Usually, I give a snarky response like – the laundry or pick tomatoes.  The reality is, we are involved in more cultural activities here than we are in New Jersey.  Italians have a passion for and a commitment to the arts.  The arts are part of the fabric of who they are and their lives.  Yesterday, after doing the laundry – no – not really, I got a text from my friend Adele.  She alerted me to the free symphony orchestra concert in neighboring Morcone.  Jack and I were absolutely in!  We love classical music and until we got there didn’t know or care who we were hearing.

I expected students from the music conservatory and was surprised to see the Grande Orchestra Sinfonica Russa della Repubblica di Udmurtia. ( I just googled Udmurtia to see what part of Russia it was – they breed great musicians!)  Their conductor, Leornardo Quadrini, is not only Italian but is committed to sharing the music of the world with the people in our Sannio Mountains.  I found out that some how he donated the concert to Morcone!  He has been recognized with a load of awards for his commitment to the Province of Benevento.  The maestro has conducted for places like La Scala and a variety of other opera houses.  Not too shabby!  Maestro Quadrini is also gorgeous and has a larger than life personality.  The orchestra entered in dress black, he bounded into the space on his cell phone giving directions to someone.  Folks in the audience were yelling out additions to the directions.  When they were finalized – all applauded!  He beamed and then looked down at his clothes – “it’s hot and I didn’t have time to change – do you mind?”  No one minded – including the musicians who obviously adore him.

Morcone is one of those towns that appear in guide books.  They seem to have been dropped onto the side of a mountain and by some magic of construction defy gravity and don’t slide down.  The historic center is at the very top of the town.  My friend Adele grew up in Morcone and can bound up the steep steps to the top like a gazelle.  “Are we there yet,” I would wine as we wended our way up another flight.  “How do people bring their furniture up here – or groceries?”  Jack poked me and said keep walking.  Suddenly, we were in this incredible piazza.  Piazza San Bernardino sits in front of the municipal theater.  There are stone buildings on three sides and than a view of the valley.  It was beautiful and incredibly well kept.  We walked a wee bit further to the bar – I thought someone picked up a 1970’s West Village NYC bar and dropped it here.  If there weren’t a million steps to get there, I’d become a regular.  The owner was as unique and charming as his space.  After a glass of wine, it was time to secure seats.

Not that many people still live in the historic center of the town, but lots of people came to the concert.  It was a NYC kind of crowd – well dressed people mingling with a younger set in jeans or bermuda shorts.  Aging hippy garb sitting next too a silk suit dress ensemble.  No matter who they were they became one with the music.  Some people even hummed along!  The concert started with a Russian composer – I thought he said Rimsky Korsakov but I could be wrong.  They then played Verdi, Rossini, Bizet and more.  Ending with a rousing tarantella that included the Maestro conducting claps in the audience.  Una Bella Serata!  No one wanted the night to end.  The applause and shouts of bravi insured an encore.

 

Next time someone asks me how we fill our time in a teeny tiny Italian village, I might just say – I put on my glamour rags and go to the symphony.

Ci vediamo.

Visit Galleria Civica Before September 17!

Woodsman Greeted Us

Being cultural junkies, Jack and I visit lots of art museums.  Somedays, we are impressed, enlightened and love the eye candy we find.  Other days, Jack walks slowly by grand masters and I stifle yawns. This June in Trento, Italy, I had my very first visceral experience in an art gallery.  Yes, dear readers, previously, art touched very few of the senses I was born with. Most works of art only got me sensually to first or second base – I was a gallery virgin .  Today, I know what it feels like to look at something, connect, and feel my entire body tingle. Legno|Lën |Holz, curated by Gabriele Lorenzoni, at Trento’s Galleria Civica was the most incredible exhibition I have ever experienced.  No I mean it – in MY LIFETIME – as an arts patron.

Each sculpture pulsed with life.  One grouping of two women made me pause and look even closer. Were these two real women in make-up?  I swore I heard a heart beat and know I felt their souls connecting with mine.  The photos that I took don’t do justice to the life altering experience of walking through rooms of life size work that literally pulled me into each of their stories.  I wanted to know who they were, why they were captured at this point in time and what they were thinking.

Trento, nestled in a valley of the Italian Dolomites, is home to Galleria Civica.  This museum is part of MART – Museo d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto.      We happened upon Galleria Civica, located at Via Belenzani, 44, noticed the poster for the show and went in.  The two euro entrance fee makes the museum accessible to everyone.

According to the MART catalogue of 2017 exhibitions, Legno|Lën |Holz, is “the first Italian exhibition of the wood sculptures by the most important artists currently active in the Dolomite area.”  I sincerely hope there will not only be more exhibitions, but also, that this show is a catalyst for the work venturing out to the rest of the world.

If you are coming to Italy this summer and have the time – head over to Trento.  The exhibition is up until September 17.  My video doesn’t do it justice but it just might tease you into visiting Galleria Civica.

 

Writers Retreat Coming to Pontelandolfo!

HUZZAH!  YEAH!  WOOO!  WOOO!  Massachusetts based, Shape & Nature Press is organizing a June 2017 writers’ retreat for women in Pontelandolfo!  Why?  Why not!  Our green mountains, incredible history and welcoming residents could provide American writers with tons of inspiration.  Shape & Nature’s founder, Maria Williams, is a grad school buddy of mine.

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Maria explores Altilia – an archeological site nearby.

This past August, she came to hang out in the Sannio Hills with us and enjoy the village’s week long Festa.  Maria loved our medieval village.  One afternoon with pals George and Evert Ben from Holland, we had a four-hour lunch at my favorite agriturismo, Borgo di Cerquelle. I entertained the table with tales of the successful May 2016 “Cooking in the Kitchens of Pontelandolfo” event.   Maria had a weird look in her eye and I realized later, I had given her an eureka moment!

That night as we sipped our Campari Spritzes, Maria looked at me and said, “why don’t I do a writer’s retreat for women here – in Pontelandolfo.”  Why NOT!!!!! I screeched – lets get started.  That is how this was born –

Out of the Castle
Writing Conference & Retreat – June 3-10, 2017

The first decision was where – that was a no brainer.  The Agriturismo Borgo di Cerquelle is set in the mountain, has loving owners and is committed to farm-to-table cooking.  The views from the bedrooms will inspire a novel or force the harried writer to take a moment and appreciate the beauty one finds in the Province of Benevento.

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The next hurdle was finding an Italian female author to be the keynote speaker.  The universe always provides – thanks to my New Jersey pal – another Maria – who introduced me to her pals Salvatore and Rosanna – I was introduced to Anna Santaliquido.  I spent 3 days in Bari as the guests of Salvatore and Rosanna and had the opportunity to hang out with Anna, one of Italy’s most respected and greatly published poets.  She is also the founder of  the women’s poetry organization, Movimento Internazionale “Donne e Poesia”!  Perfect!  She is amazing and was excited to help.

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Anna and I in Bari

Anna was not only enthusiastic about the writers’ retreat for women, but gave me tons of suggestions on how to integrate the community into the project.  We will be organizing programs for middle school students and recent English speaking refugee immigrants.  Public readings will be held and open to all.

Women writers of fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry are invited to participate in Out of the Castle, a writing conference and retreat. The conference is named in honor of 16th century Italian poet, Isabella di Morro, who was locked in her family castle by her tyrannical brothers but still managed to create a canon of work. So get out of your castle and come write in Pontelandolfo.  For the details – here is the link to the Shape & Nature Conference Information.

Share the information with your literary pals!

Ci Vediamo

Paris in the Thirties – Guardia Sanframondi

Before the dinosaurs roamed the earth, I visited Montmartre, the old artist’s quarter of Paris. Noooo, the artists weren’t old the quarter was old. During the 2016 Vinalia in Guardia Sanframondi I felt like I was walking back in time. The purpose of the Vinalia Festa  is to reinforce the town’s position as a center for fabulous wines. What it also did was help me understand why American writers and artists were buying homes in the funky centro storico.  Clare Galloway, may have been the first artist pioneer.  She bought a house in 2011 for €10,000 and working alone transformed it into “Arthouse,” a B&B and artist studio.  Clare, has been an avid supporter of the arts in this hilltop village.


Borgo Artisti was the best part of Vinalia.  In the medieval quarter we found pop-up gallery after gallery of local art.  Every vacant street level space was professionally lit and showcased  individual pieces or groupings of art.




Jack and my pal the poet, Maria Williams, venture down the steps to Clare’s Studio.

During our walk we met some of the WOMEN who are homesteading in Guardia.  What really resonated with me, was that they are doing this alone.   We met a playwright, massage therapist/ alternative practitioner, artist and —well just a table full of really interesting international women who were looking for a different lifestyle.  AND  a  place to do their art that cost less than it would in the USA and offered the beauty of this Italian hill town.

The sexy sounds of  a French chanteuse  was broadcast through the air. Cobblestone streets, free flowing wine and art. Lots of art. Paris. No – Italy!!  Southern Italy the Sannio hills.

That said, it is 1/2 an hour from Ponelandolfo and really, if you want to live in a beautiful village with wonderful people, consider my hometown.  The hook?   Why me. of course!

Ci Vediamo!

Arts Live in Pontelandolfo!

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Streets are being swept, sets are being built, venders are already setting up their stalls.  The jewelry stores in town have stocked Pontelandolfo-esq memorabilia and the back rooms of bars are filled with cases and cases.  As the energy of the arts infuses us all with good cheer, the whole town feels more alive. It is the arts that make this an incredible week for me.

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Kicking off the week is a production of  Dramma Sacro Di Santo Giocondina.  This community production, spearheaded by the multi talented Gabriele Palladino, will be live streamed!  The Pontelandolfo News has a great story – it is in Italian but even I can read it – and a link the live stream.  The play is only on for two nights – tickets are a scant €2 each.  I was impressed with the abilities of the local actors.  Their commitment and pride is contagious.  The saga of Santo Giocondino is performed every four years.  Now that I have seen the process, I can understand why!  This group has been working for over eight months. Yes, in the hills of Southern Italy – THEATRE LIVES!

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Comicron Film Festival is something that I am absolutely looking forward to. This year it is on August 4th and 5th. Initiated by the famous Italian Film/Theatre Director and Producer, Ugo Gregoretti, the festival is dedicated exclusively to comedy shorts. They are in all languages and range from the intellectual to the broad strokes of Commedia dell’ Arte.  My only hope this year is that the audience here learns to be quiet and watch the films – last year I found out more than I wanted to know about a middle aged woman’s love life.  Audience courtesy please.  Jack says he won’t sit with me if I keep turning around  ssssssssssshhhing.

Gregoretti spent his childhood summers in Pontelandolfo and wants to put an arts based spotlight on the village.  According to Gregoretti – (from the Comicron Website.)

“Io sono un crociato della comicità e quindi vorrei svolgere la mia crociata qui a Pontelandolfo facendo di questo paese la Gerusalemme del cortometraggio comico.” Tra le nuove idee e le diverse iniziative culturali programmate, è stato costituito il Centro Studi dedicato all’opera dell’autore romano Ugo Gregoretti, che raccoglierà e valorizzerà il suo immenso archivio, conservato presso l’ottocentesco palazzo Rinaldi, che si compone di scritti inediti del regista, lettere di esimie personalità (da Rossellini a Rodari, passando per Napolitano e Guttuso), articoli e manifesti, libri e riviste, premi e riconoscimenti. Si tratta di una grande raccolta, che ripercorre, attraverso la figura del grande Maestro, la storia del Novecento italiano. Una raccolta che Gregoretti ha donato al Comune di Pontelandolfo. Il progetto prevede anche la creazione della prima Accademia Nazionale d’Arte Comica e sarà, altresì, realizzato un progetto di più ampio respiro teso a rendere Pontelandolfo la “Capitale della risata”. Il “Centro Studi Ugo Gregoretti” è aperto a studiosi e appassionati che vogliono esplorare e indagare l’opera gregorettiana.

“I am a crusader for comedy and  I would like to end my crusade here in Pontelandolfo making this town the Jerusalem of the comic short film.” Among the new ideas and different cultural activities planned, the Ugo Gregoretti Center has been created.  It is dedicated to the work of Ugo Gregoretti and will contain such things as the unpublished writings of the director, correspondence from esteemed personalities(from Rossellini to Rodari,  Napolitano and Guttuso), articles and posters, books and magazines, prizes and awards. This collection traces the professional life of the great master and the history of the 20th Century Italian films. Gregoretti donated the collection to the City of Pontelandolfo. It is housed in the recently restored Rinaldi Palace.  The project also includes the creation of the first National Academy of Comic Art and aims to make Pontelandolfo the “capital of laughter”. The “Ugo Gregoretti Studies Center” is open to scholars and enthusiasts who want to explore and investigate the work gregorettiana.

Pro Loco of Pontelandolfo, the local authority coordinates the annual Festa.  I couldn’t find a web-site, but their Facebook page is full of information.  The other events of the week include on August 3’rd traditional music and dance of Southern Italy and on August 7’th Francesco De Gregori in Concert. The mysogynistic Miss Mondo is an event I will happily miss. The host is – well  – a creep.

We will have a houseful of guests next week.  Two from Holland and one from Massachusetts.  Why are the visiting my home town?  Not to see Midge and Jack but to enjoy the rich culture that can be found in Southern Italy.  The FESTA is just another reason to visit Pontelandolfo.

Ci Vediamo!

Festa Della Trebbiatura 2016

This past Sunday, I had a perfect day.  Jack and I went to an event that I not only loved – but drew me back to my childhood.  Growing up in Somerset County, New Jersey when it was still pretty rural agrarian, I experienced lots of farm life.  4-H introduced me to kids who grew or raised just about anything America ate.  Sunday, I thought of my childhood, how much growing up in a farming community shaped me and the work my grandmother did on her subsistence farm.  Festa Della Trebbiatura in the Contrada Montagna in Morcone harkened back to farm days of old and celebrated the contadini – farmers – of the Matese Mountains.  The type of people my ancestors were.

Did I mention mountains?  Those of you that know me, know I clutch the death grip in our Fiat whenever the wicked Jack drives like an Italian around the S curves sans safety rails on mountain roads.  This trip around those curves was worth it.  The views were incredible.

I need to take a moment to praise my Jack a wee bit.  From the town center of Morcone – which is literally clinging to a mountain – we made a left at the Auto School and drove up.  We didn’t know which way to go when the road split.  We opted for the one that looked steeper on the left.  It was really su, su, up, up.  Shit, I screamed as Jack hit the breaks.  The cobblestone street narrow to begin with had cars parked on both sides and didn’t go anywhere.  Jack backed our large car down the hill and didn’t take the mirror off one single parked car. Hugs to him.

Back to the Festa.  We found out about it from Antonella Lombardi, owner of Bar Mix Fantasy, and a member of the Lombardi family that produced the event.  Thank you Antonella for making sure that I knew about what turned out to be a wonderful day.  When we got to the farm and I saw the rows of seats under the trees and the Priest ready to start mass, I smiled and sat down.  Hearing this great speaker do the mass surrounded by mountains, fields of grain, a clear blue sky and floating cotton clouds started the day beautifully.  After mass children went for “hay” rides on the farm wagon festooned with shafts of wheat.  We walked through the exhibition set up by the Museo del Contadino and I kept pointing at stuff that had been in my grandfather’s barn.  Since we sold the family property and all the relics two years ago, it got a little painful to see  the artifacts.

During the day, people could wander through the World Wildlife Federation Preserve in the mountain, watch demonstrations and eat country fare. One of the featured foods was pecora interrata.  Interrata means underground.  Of course that is what I had!  In the evening there was music and dancing.  Since the zanzare, mosquitoes, and I have a love/hate relationship, they love to eat me and I hate them.  We left before it got dark.

The word trebbiatura  means threshing the grain.  There were glorious fields of wheat in this part of the mountain.  We were celebrating the harvest and the people that make sure we have bread and pasta on the table – the farmers.  The first threshing methods involved beating grain by hand with a flail, or trampling it by animal hooves.  The demonstrations included women doing this.  Women were doing lots of the heavy work – this is still not unusual in our little village of subsistence farms.  What was even more fun to watch was the early threshing machine!

(Uggggg – Jack just told me I have a typo in a caption in the video.  Sorry.)

Ci vediamo!

Midge