Last weekend the Domus Aurea, also known as Nero’s Golden Palace, became the latest attraction to offer visitors the chance to wear virtual reality headsets while touring the site. Continue reading Ancient Ruins, Virtual Reality: Archaeological Sites Embrace VR For Enhanced Experiences
Reflection is part of the prescription for moving from one year into the next. So while I wanted to write a year-end round-up a month ago, I realized that such an article would not fully capture the joys, sorrows, and idiosyncrasies of being an expat resident and traveler in Italy.
Five is an arbitrary number, of course. I’ve learned far more than five lessons learned while living in Rome and traveling throughout Italy. But here are a few of the important ones:
There won’t be a next time.
Amatrice has been on my “next time” list for the past two years. We have talked about visiting the town for a Sunday lunch because of its famed amatriciana. But at a distance of approximately two hours from Rome, it was just beyond the range of our driving limits for a day trip. Continue reading Amatrice As It Was Before
During the wee hours of the morning, an earthquake with a 6.2 magnitude struck central Italy. Italian news reports say the epicenter was near Rieti, about 1.5 hours north of Rome. Continue reading Amatrice and the Earthquake in Central Italy
Italy’s bigger cities, especially Rome, have plenty of churches to please those with morbid fascinations for skulls, skeletons, and saintly relics. Taken together, these churches and their contents provide a sort-of museum feel — creepy but not altogether isolating.
Living in a new place, especially for an extended period of time, fills me with a sense of duty that I have to write everything down, commit every moment to memory, take a photo every day if not every hour. But eventually, that initial motivation turns to dread and an overwhelming feeling that I should be more mindful of my surroundings rather than living behind a lens or a computer screen.
The latter reason is why I have not written as much as I should have over this past year in Italy. Plus, I’ve just done so much in these 12 months! I’ve traveled all over Rome and its region Lazio, from the beaches to the lakes to hill towns in between, and have visited six other regions (with a goal of getting to all 20 before my time here comes to and end). Over the past year, I have also taken more than 7,000 photos — so much for not living behind a lens!
Despite that photo stat, I have been paying attention with my other senses: smelling the roasting chestnuts in winter, the jasmine bushes in spring, and the cool, damp aroma of underground spaces; listening to the rumble of trams, the clinking of cups and saucers, the fleeting bits of Italian conversations overheard in the markets and shops; and tasting the foods of each season. Touch has been more elusive, as Italy is full of things you want to touch but cannot — smooth marbles and mosaics and frescoes, tufts of moss growing out of crevices high on a Roman wall.
Of course, readers visit this blog to see Italy as much as learn about it. So, I wanted to share 12 photos over this past year, one for each month, to mark my transition from year one to year two. These are simple photos — most taken with an iPhone 5 — but they are special reminders for me. Read below for details.
About an hour and a half south of Rome lies Montecassino, an enormous Benedictine monastery whose environs witnessed a very costly battle of World War II. The Battle of Montecassino, which was actually a series of four battles, took place from January to May of 1944, and saw the loss of 55,000 Allied soldiers, which includes Americans and Commonwealth (British, New Zealand, Canadian, Indian, Gurkha and South African) troops, and and 20,000 German troops. The monastery was also bombed to ruins by the Allied forces, who were convinced that the Germans were using the elevated outpost as a lookout station. Following the war, Montecassino was restored and reconsecrated by Pope Paul VI in 1964.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Farley in Manhattan to discuss his book, which has the tag line “In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town.” What is the church’s strangest relic? I’ll tell you: it’s the Holy Foreskin of Jesus, also known as the “Santissimo Prepuzio” (Holy Prepuce) or the “Carne Vera Sacra” (Real Holy Flesh). Indeed, there is – or was – a relic that came from the body of Jesus Christ; the foreskin was the only possible piece of flesh that the Messiah could have left behind. How the church came to rediscover then later lose this most holy of relics – and how Farley came to live in the small, medieval hill town (now eclectic artist enclave) of Calcata to search for it – is the subject of his highly entertaining book which is out in paperback today from Amazon.com.
Italofile: How Did You First Learn About Calcata?
David Farley: Back when my wife Jessie and I were living in Rome for a few months, we would follow the suggestions of Time Out Roma (magazine) which had a small English language section at the time. One weekend, there was a small article about a day trip to Calcata, a town that sounded just strange enough that we wanted to visit.
Italofile: Did You Know About the Holy Foreskin Before You Visited?
David Farley: The Holy Foreskin was mentioned as a side note in the article. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that [this unusual relic] would make for an interesting book topic.
Italofile: The Holy Foreskin is the main subject of your book and a fascinating topic. But the hill town of Calcata, population 100 (!), is the other star of “An Irreverent Curiosity.” What Made You Decide to Relocate to Calcata?
David Farley: It was actually my wife’s idea. When we had visited a few years before on a day trip from Rome, we had enjoyed the weird Bohemian vibe of Calcata. Here was this medieval hill town full of artists from all over Italy and the world, with some people walking around in saris and Indian headdress. So it seemed like a bizarre place to spend more time in. Then, my wife reminded me of the relic, how it had been stolen. The book idea just fell into place.
Italofile: The Holy Foreskin is such a weird relic. Doesn’t it seem weird that this part of Christ was saved? And, in doing your research, did you come across other relics that were equally odd?
David Farley: The Holy Prepuce [another word for foreskin] had come up in relic research before. Saint Catherine [of Siena], the self-proclaimed “bride of Christ,” was known to have worn the foreskin around her ring finger. Other weird relics mentioned in the book include the Holy Umbilical Cord, Holy Bib (a “two-for-one relic…complete with breast milk stains from the Virgin”) and the Virgin Mary’s breast milk.
Italofile: How Did You Come Up With the Title “An Irreverent Curiosity?” I’ve heard there were some more irreverent working titles of the book before you settled on the current one.
David Farley: My editor at Penguin/Gotham Books came up with a title that he was quite enthusiastic about, but I couldn’t exactly share in his excitement. I had wanted to call it “Holy Foreskin” because a title like that would most certainly get someone’s attention. But he convinced me that no one wants to be reading a book on an airplane or the subway with the word “foreskin” scrawled across the cover. So I gave him three other titles: “An Irreverent Curiosity,” because when someone asked why the pope had banned the speaking of or writing about the Holy Foreskin in the year 1900, a Church spokesman said they feared such a relic could cause “an irreverent curiosity.” The other titles were Godforsaken, which I feared sounded too much like a D&D/fantasy book, but I liked that both the relic and the village of Calcata had become godforsaken (and when you think about it, it kind of sounded like “god’s foreskin”). And the last suggested title was “The Messiah Flap,” which no one seemed to fully appreciate except for me.
Italofile: Forgetting the book and its success, would you move back to Calcata again if you had the chance? Why or why not?
David Farley: Yes and no. For me, ideal was a few months when I was living during the week in the apartment of my friend Paul Steffen, around the corner from the Trevi Fountain and then spending the weekends in an apartment I was renting in Calcata. It was the best of both worlds.
Italofile: What advice would you give travelers who wish to visit Calcata?
David Farley: Go on the weekend, when the village is at its liveliest. The artists who live in Calcata have admirably managed to inverse the work week: They work two days a week—during the weekend—and then have five days to do what they want.
Italofile: Are you working on any other Italy- or relic-related books?
David Farley: It’s not easy topping the Holy Foreskin, so I’ll probably let someone else conquer, say, the breast milk of the Virgin Mary.
Thanks, David! It was a pleasure getting to know more about you and your book.
Golfing has grown increasingly popular over the past decade, thanks in no small part to one Tiger Woods, who has proven to be a diligent, exacting, and exciting player both on and off the green. Woods’ celebrity has meant a ton of new golf watchers and enthusiasts, who jump at the chance to work on their handicap, especially while on vacation.
Italy may not be the first place one thinks of for a golfing vacation, but it does have some terrific courses set in stunning locations, many of which are near the tourist routes of Rome, Florence, and Milan. So if you’re a golfer interested in hitting the links in Italy, you’re in luck!
Golf in Italy is still very much a wealthy (wo)man’s sport in Italy, but there are a number of public courses in Italy, too. As this is a travel site, this post is going to focus on some of the most beautiful golf courses in Italy, rather than the most challenging. Bear in mind that it can be difficult to obtain access to many of the private courses in Italy unless you are traveling with a golf vacation agency or are staying in the golf resort’s respective hotel. Ready to tee off? Continue reading Four Great Golf Courses in Italy
No matter if you’re a devout Catholic or a curious non-believer, you should make a point to check out a few of Italy’s many religious relics.
More than 2,000 years of Christianity has produced numerous fascinating, if not gruesome, stories. And it seems that for every Biblical tale, there is a relic housed in Rome, the Vatican, or in one of Italy’s thousands of churches.
Here are a few unusual relics that you can put on your next Italy itinerary.
The Shroud of Turin
The Shroud of Turin is one of Italy’s most famous relics, housed in the Cathedral of Turin (Duomo di Torino) in the Piemonte region. The Shroud is a linen cloth that bears “the image of a man who appears to have been physically hurt in a manner consistent with crucifixion.” In short, the image on the Shroud bears a striking resemblance to the collectively agreed upon image of Jesus Christ and is thought to be Christ’s burial shroud – thus, the relic’s significance among Christians.
As with all religious relics, the Shroud’s authenticity has been doubted. Even the Catholic Church has yet to formally endorse the Shroud. And a recent scientific study confirms the shroud as a relic of the Middle Ages (i.e., NOT 2,000 years old). Nevertheless, this sacred relic (called Santa Sindone in Italian) is well-protected by the Brotherhood of the Holy Shroud.
Because of the Shroud’s delicate nature, it is not always on display. Check the Torino Tourism website for updated information.
The Blood of San Gennaro
It’s hardly surprising that a hot-blooded place like Naples would have a relic made of blood (see main photo above). Each year, the city of Naples awaits the liquefaction of the blood of Saint Januarius (San Gennaro), which is stored in an ampoule in a reliquary in the Naples Cathedral. An early saint of the church, having been beheaded during Emperor Diocletian’s anti-Christian raids in the 4th century, San Gennaro is the patron saint of Naples. The liquefying of his blood, which can happen up to 18 times per year, is thought to signify a miracle and helps protect Naples from calamities, such as the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
The Holy Foreskin
David Farley’s book An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town was one of the inspirations for this post.
In his book, Farley writes about the town of Calcata, located in the region of Lazio (Rome’s region), where the Holy Foreskin – yes, the skin from Jesus Christ’s circumcised penis – was kept for centuries until its disappearance in 1983.
Farley has devoted himself to this subject, so you’d do well to read his book to learn about the relic and Calcata, which is known as a “village of freaks.” But here’s an interesting tidbit: apparently Saint Catherine of Siena wore the Holy Foreskin as a ring. Now that’s some devotion.
Mary’s Holy Belt
The Virgin Mary didn’t leave behind a piece of her body for future Christians to revere. But she did leave behind a belt.
The story goes that Mary gave this sacred accessory to Apostle Thomas as she ascended to heaven. The Prato Cathedral acquired the relic in the 14C and has kept it in a precious silver reliquary ever since. In fact, a special chapel was built to house the relic and the church also commissioned artists Michelozzo and Donatello to build an exterior pulpit, from which the relic is ceremoniously displayed to crowds below.
Unlike the Shroud of Turin, the Sacra Cintola is made of a more durable material – green wool – so the church readily displays it five times a year: Christmas, Easter, May 1, August 15, and September 8.
Prato is located in Tuscany, just north of Florence, so it is hardly off the beaten track should you wish to visit.
Relics in Rome
Being the center of the Christian universe, Rome has, perhaps, the most holy relics per square mile of any other city in Italy. And here you will find some wonderfully odd ones, including:
- Saint John’s severed head in the church of San Silvestro in Capite (also the National Church of Great Britain in Rome)
- Saint Valentine’s head in the Santa Maria in Cosmedin (the rest of the body is in Terni, Umbria)
- The head of Saint Agnes, located in a side chapel of Sant’Agnese in Agone (the huge church that fronts Piazza Navona)
- The “doubting finger” of Saint Thomas (in Santa Croce in Gerusalemme)
- Papal innards in the church of SS. Vincenzo e Anastasio near the Trevi Fountain
- Saint Francis Xavier’s forearm in the church of the Gesù (the rest of the body is in Goa, India)
- The Santo Bambino in Santa Maria Aracoeli
- And “evidence” of souls trapped in purgatory at the Museo delle Anime del Purgatorio (nicely explained by Jessica at WhyGo Italy).
I’ve barely even scratched the surface of all of the unusual relics one can find in Italy. So, what’s your favorite? Please leave your comment below!
How could I possibly let this headline from the New York Times pass me by? Apparently, the global recession has led Italians to rediscover their local trattoria. And where better than Rome to start the debate?
The problem with trattorie is that there are so many, so I hardly remember the name of my favorites. I do recall loving one local in the San Giovanni area around the corner from my flat. The best part is that my 7 year old charge (I was an au pair at the time) ordered a mezzo porzione of the spaghetti con vongole (yep..Italian kids eat clams!). I can’t remember what I ate (amatriciana, maybe?), but I do remember finding it charming that the trattoria was so accommodating to the little girl. Can’t find too many places like that anymore.
So, what’s your favorite tratt in Rome? Or, do you have a favorite in another city? I’m sure you do, so comment away!
About a year ago, I posted some information about going to Pompeii from Rome on a day trip. Just a few days ago, I was alerted of a new way to get there. When in Rome Tours has private and semi-private minibus tours to Pompeii. They’ll pick you up in Rome, drive to Pompeii via Cassino (site of the Montecassino Abbey) and Naples, take you to lunch, provide you with a Pompeii guide, and get you back to the Eternal City all within the same day (about 13 hours). They also provide walking tours of Rome and smallish bus tours of the Rome environs (no giant motorcoaches here!). So if you’re trying to put together a little jaunt down to Pompeii while visiting Rome, consider checking out When in Rome Tours. Thanks for the tip, Marie!
Photo by Paul Vlaar
News outlets are reporting that the Italian government has appointed Guido Bertolaso, of Naples garbage crisis fame, to head a new effort to address the poor state of Rome’s archeological treasures. According to the International Herald Tribune, Bertolaso will be in charge of whipping into shape some of Rome’s most famous – but crumbling – buildings, particularly those on the Palatine Hill (including Nero’s Golden House) and in Ostia Antica. The czar will only have until December 31 to set a plan into action, so it’s not sure how much will get done. On the other hand, after he was appointed to handle the trash problem in May 2008 the emergency was over by July. Good luck, Mr. Bertolaso!
Thinking about popping the question in Rome this Valentine’s Day (or any other day)? Rome is certainly the place to do it; indeed, you couldn’t have “romance” without Roma. So, I thought I would share some of my favorite spots for lovers in the Eternal City. Of course, this is a highly subjective and non-exhaustive list. I chose 9 for 2009, and they are in no particular order. There are surely hundreds of others…
9. The Spanish Steps. An obvious engagement locale for tourists for sure, as it’s at the heart of the city and abuzz with people from all walks of life (providing a bit of a din for you nervous proposers). The Steps are lovely in the springtime when they are decorated with giant pots of flowers whose pinkish hue echoes the colors of the buildings around them. I also like the Steps in the early morning, when fewer are there to disturb a romantic moment.
8. The Pincio Hill. This area is only a few steps away from the Spanish Steps, but has one of the most evocative views of St. Peter’s and other churches’ domes that make up the Roman cityscape. The Pincio is a balcony for the Villa Borghese park and also looks over Piazza del Popolo. The Pincio is popular with lovers, but for a very good reason: the view from there is Rome in a nutshell.
I was hoping that with my first post of the new year I would look forward. Instead, with the passing of Christopher Hibbert, I thought it would be worth it to look back.
Until I read Hibbert’s obituary, I didn’t know too much about him, only that he was the author of one of the most prominent Italian history books on my shelf – Rome: Biography of a City. This book, along with The House of the Medici: Its Rise and Fall, established Hibbert as one of the English-speaking world’s foremost authority on Italy’s history.
Hibbert, 84, was working up until the end. His most recent book – The Borgias and Their Enemies – was published in October of last year. Like Hibbert’s other history books, The Borgias is set to be a definitive guide to the controversial Italian clan. In fact, the New Yorker included it in its list of notable books in the December 22, 2008, issue.
So, if you’re looking to learn more about Italian history in 2009, mark down Christopher Hibbert’s works on your reading list.
I am still trying to figure out how to manage a toddler and a newborn and find time to keep this blog up-to-date. But I have been keeping track of the numerous articles about Italy that have come out in the past couple of months. So, enjoy the following links and have a Felice Anno Nuovo!!
Eating Up Miles, Drinking Up Scenery, Motoring From Nice to Tuscany (road tripping between France and Italy)
American Military Cemeteries in Europe Honor Heroes in Both World Wars (profiles Sicily-Rome Cemetery)
The Independent (U.K.)
Madama Butterfly, Floria Tosca – They All Came From Lucca
Puglia Is a Food Lover’s Paradise
The Guardian (U.K.)
Flying Visit to Florence
Flood-Hit Hoteliers Offer Packages With Free Wellies (Venice)
Go With the Flow (Skiing on Mt. Etna)
A Taste of Italy at Harvest Time (Le Marche)
Turin On A Plate
On the Trail of the Leopard (Sicily)
The Telegraph (U.K.)
Mesmerizing Relics of Byzantine Brilliance (Ravenna)
Wall Street Journal
Starling Stalkers Try to Scare the Birds out of Rome
Talks of Italy and flooding usually make one think of Venice. While Venice has suffered – and flooded – because of the latest bout of heavy rain, it’s Rome and its Tiber River that weather watchers are concerned about now.
The New York Times has put together an interesting slide show of the flooding throughout Italy, with most pictures of Rome and Venice. And, going beyond the newsy reports of the flooding is Canada’s Globe and Mail report Eric Reguly with a personal dispatch from the Eternal City.
As I write this, it looks as if the flood warnings have been called off for Rome, thankfully avoiding another Florence 1966. But it will be interesting to see what the rain has damaged. Hopefully, there weren’t too many masterpieces hiding in basements…
Leave it to Google to continue to make geography cool and engaging.
Yesterday, Google revealed the new Ancient Rome 3D layer, which allows viewers to “fly” over the city as it was during the heyday of the Forum and Colosseum. With this new layer, Google is also encouraging educators to use Ancient Rome 3D in their lesson plans and submit such curricula for a chance to win prizes such as a MacBook, digital camera, or $500 for school supplies from Target or Office Depot. According to the Google LatLong blog, this is the “first time” that Google has “incorporated an ancient city in Google Earth.” So, does that mean that fly-overs of Pompeii are not far on the horizon?
Further endearing Google to me more is the company’s recent release of Street Views for Italy. Again, the LatLong blog provides examples of Italian streetscapes, with many more in the works.
Ah, technology…what a wonderful thing.
While it’s true that the travel industry is taking a hit in light of the world financial crisis, there are still plenty of people making trips to Italy. And, with the dollar improving against the euro (at least for the time being), some Americans are looking to do Italy in style.
Luckily, thanks to USA Today/Forbes Traveler, there’s now a list of Italy’s 25 best hotels. Compiled by Forbes, this is a grouping of the most luxurious and elegant lodgings “ranging from urban grande dames to breathtaking coastal villas.” Forbes Traveler has also created a nifty little slide show to showcase each of the 25.
We’ve certainly mentioned some of these hotels in The Unofficial Guide to Central Italy and/or on this site. But here are the links if you want to check them out yourself:
Italy’s 25 Best Hotels According to Forbes Traveler
Grand Hotel a Villa Feltrinelli (Gargnano)
Hotel Splendido (Portofino)
Villa d’Este (Cernobbio)
Though I’ve always seen Rome as a city for lovers, I can’t deny that it has a certain morbid quality about it, what with all the church tombs, catacombs, and gladiator lore that are a part of its urban fabric. That’s what makes visiting Rome around Halloween a good bet – it’s like an instant haunted house!
Budget Travel pointed out so much in its article from a few years ago – The Eternal–Or Infernal?–City. Writer Barbie Nadeau lists some really great ideas for spooky places to visit in the city, including the Catacombs of San Callisto (though I prefer the Catacombs of St. Domitilla), the Protestant Cemetery (recently profiled here), and the excellent Crypt of the Capuchin Monks (in Santa Maria della Concezione, Via Veneto), which is a chapel built entirely of human bones.
Nadeau’s suggestions cover most of the bases, but I still have a few more scary sites to add to the list. So, if you find yourself in Rome over Halloween or just like visiting eerie places, add these to your list, too:
Mamertine Prison. This ancient prison at the Capitoline Hill-end of the Forum Romanum was built around the 4th C. BC and said to have been where Saints Peter and Paul were incarcerated before their executions. Because of this association, Mamertine has long been a Christian shrine. But other war criminal were also kept in the prison until they were publicly executed. There’s a tablet by the entrance that lists how some prisoners met their fate, quite a few of which were beheaded.
San Silvestro in Capite. Speaking of beheadings, this church is said to house the reliquary of the severed head of John the Baptist. The head – or perhaps the death mask – is on display in the church. It’s not particularly scary, but the thought of a 2,000 year-old-head in a glass box creeps me out.
Santa Maria del Popolo. An inconspicuous door off of the usually crowded Piazza del Popolo leads into the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, which houses a handful of some great free art, including works by Caravaggio and Pinturricchio. What’s spooky in this church is 17th C. tomb of Polish architect G.B. Gisleni. The tomb is topped with a life-like skeleton in a shroud. There are also various decorative skull and bones motifs throughout the church.
Museum of Purgatory. Located in the Chiesa del Sacra Cuore (Sacred Heart Church) on the left bank of the Tiber, the Museum of Purgatory contains “evidence” of souls that have been caught between earth and the afterlife. Jessica at Italylogue had a really good post on the Purgatory Museum a while back, so I’ll let her “lead the tour.”
Vatican Necropolis. I Scavi, or the excavations/necropolis under St. Peter’s Basilica, seem like an obvious scare-inducer to me. Though, I suppose Catholics would argue that this space is more sacred than spooky. Nevertheless, if you like cold, dark places filled with tombs, you may want to tack this on to your obligatory St. Peter’s and Vatican tour. Be aware, however, that you have to make a reservation to visit the necropolis.
The above are a few of my favorites, but there are certainly more. If you have any you’d like to add to this list, please drop me a line. Happy Halloween!
Photo by Nic Nac